Corpus Christi, The Antidote to Relativism and Despair

Jesus was so in tune with the Father’s will, that he knew of his coming passion, and knew that he would suffer for a reason; for the salvation of the world.

Recently, I was watching a presentation that referenced Dr. Victor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist and holocaust survivor. The presenter was talking about how Dr. Frankl noticed that everyone in the concentration camp was subjected to the same dire situation, yet people responded to it differently. Some people despaired and committed suicide. Others found hope and endured.

Later, he defined despair as suffering without meaning. While we can mitigate some suffering, the truth is, we can never be completely rid of suffering in this life. So, the key to avoiding despair is to try to find meaning in our suffering. That’s why our parents use to tell us to offer our suffering up. It didn’t matter how big or small the suffering was, they told us to offer it up.

Learning to find meaning in our smaller everyday suffering makes it easier when we are faced with larger, more difficult suffering.

My wife, Jen, was talking about her own recent experience with this. She got roped into running a half marathon, by our oldest daughter. She’s not a natural distance runner, so when she got to the longer training runs, the monotony of the pain got to her. Finally, she got the idea to offer her suffering up, to join in solidarity with a friend who was going through a difficult time, and suddenly, she found she could endure it. It was still difficult, but it was possible.

It’s important that we try to find meaning in our suffering, as difficult as that may be at times. It’s also important to challenge those things that decrease our ability to perceive meaning.

It is important to challenge relativism in the culture and in our homes, wherever we see it taking hold. This idea that nothing we do really matters, that there is no objective truth, no right or wrong. We have to challenge this thinking. You might be thinking, “Deacon Mike sure seems obsessed with relativism, he’s always preaching about it.”

Let me remove any doubt, I am. Because I’ve seen the consequences of relativism play out. Relativism decreases our ability to perceive meaning in our suffering, which leads to despair. And despair is what underlies the epidemic of suicide we are facing.

We all know there are two kinds of voices in this world, those who tell us what we need to hear, and those who tell us what we want to hear. Often, it’s only when we are in big trouble that we finally listen to what we need to hear.

Our children are so tempted by the voices that tell them what they want to hear.

It seems so liberating at first to hear that what I do doesn’t matter, because it allows me to do whatever I want without having to pay heed to my conscience. It’s exciting.

Like a kid in the candy store, we go from one desire to the next. But quickly, we become like an addict who discovers that  the fulfillment of his biggest earthly desires, doesn’t last. So, the next experience has to be bigger. But all the while, he misses the fact that he is changing.

Archbishop Sheen used to say, “Behave as you believe, or you will end up believing as you have behaved.” No truer prophecy was ever made about the American Church than this one.

We have behaved as if what we do when no one is looking doesn’t really matter, and eventually we began to believe that what we do doesn’t really matter. That was an exciting belief to have while we were chasing our desires. It is a hellish belief to have when we are inevitably confronted by the cross.

Once we believe that what we do doesn’t matter, life itself begins to be a little less meaningful. And as hard as we try to escape our suffering, suffering in this life is unavoidable. And whether you are in a concentration camp or middle America, suffering without meaning leads to despair, and despair leads to self-annihilation.

I know that there are lots of other things that we also need to work on to combat the epidemic of suicide. But the poison of relativism can no longer be ignored.

I am obsessed. Because I’ve seen the results. I’ve experienced it in my own family.  And as a firefighter, I ran on a lot of suicides. I remember some calls, where I’d be standing in the victim’s house, and I’d see pictures on the walls of their family members and friends, captured memories of happier days, and I’d realize that the people in those pictures didn’t yet know what I knew; that their whole life was about to change.

The past we trust to the Lord, who revealed that there is nothing the Good Shepherd will not do to rescue the lost sheep. We entrust the loved one’s we have lost to suicide to the Good Shepherd, who leaves the ninety-nine in search of the one.

What I emphasize today, I emphasize for us moving forward, so that we can combat this terrible epidemic.

I know some Catholics who are hesitant to speak so directly about the negative effects of immorality. They don’t wish to offend young people. I understand that to an extent. Because, I have also known some Catholics who seem to rather enjoy being offensive. And that’s not good either.

But, I think there is something far worse than being offended. I think it’s worse to know that someone withheld the truth, when it could have prevented us from falling into harm. That’s worse than being offended.

I am obsessed, because I think our young people deserve to know that what they do matters. Telling them that today feels like trying to stop an avalanche with your hands. There are so many more voices out their telling them what they want to hear, and so few telling them what they need to hear.

It’s not that we need to take up a rigid moralism. Our young people need to hear us tell them that they’re going to make mistakes; probably lots of them. And that’s ok. God loves you so much. And there is nothing that you could ever do that would decrease God’s love for you. You need to remember that. Yet, you also need to know that what you do matters. Everything you do impacts the world, for better or worse. Everything you do, changes you, to be more like the person God destined you to be, or less.

Our young people need to hear us tell them that. They also need us to be good models for them. When we sin, we need to own it. No excuses. We need to stop rationalizing, and pretending like they aren’t sins. Own them, learn from them, confess them, and then move on. And if it’s a particularly nasty sin that seems to have its hooks in us, then we will need to be persistent. We will need to persevere. No matters how many times you fall down, you need to get back up. Don’t ever give up. God loves you too much for you to surrender.

We need to start behaving as we believe. Everything we do, whether anyone is watching or not, matters.

Today is the Feast of Corpus Christie where we commemorate the fact that Jesus gave us his body during the Feast of the Passover. Remember, the Passover was that time when the Jews drew a line of demarcation between them and the pagan Egyptians, by marking their doorposts with the blood of the lamb. And it was this demarcation that caused the angel of the Lord to pass over them.

Similarly, whatever sins I hold onto whether they stem from pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath or sloth, that sin, and the punishment it merits, will remain. On the other hand, the sins I give to Jesus and whatever merits those sins deserve will be crucified with him, bathed in the blood of the lamb.

We can’t overcome sin. Only Jesus can do that. But he will never take away our free will. He won’t destroy the sins we don’t give to him. So let’s not call our sins by any other name. Let’s stop rationalizing them. Let’s stop making excuses for them. Certainly, we don’t want to affirm each other in our sins. Let’s draw a line of demarcation between the pagan ways of the society we live in and our Christian way of life.

When we do that, when we return to the Truth, we will begin to see once again, that every second of our lives has meaning. That will help us endure our suffering. But even more than that, in Christ, it will begin to transform the culture. Hope will be restored once we remember that even the very smallest of acts, done with love, can change the whole world.

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2018 Legislative Session Review

The 2018 Budget session of the Wyoming Legislature saw significant battles over the state’s deficit. There were 340 proposed bills heard over the 20-day period. Following the session, several media outlets lamented the fact that “social issue” bills were included when there were so many “more important” things to consider.

Of course, framing bills as “social” is a political strategy often used to undermine the importance of legislation one doesn’t support. It would be unfair to suggest this was the intent of the authors of those articles. Nevertheless, the media should be careful how it portrays what is, or is not, important regarding the role of government. After all, what part of politics is not “social” in nature?

Obviously, during a budget session, the legislature should focus on the budget. However, even during a budget session, the government must have a clear understanding of who it is called to serve, or it will not be able to appropriate funds in a just manner. Our belief in the dignity of every human person is predicated on another belief; that all people are created in the image and likeness of God. For that reason, a just government merely enacts laws that recognize and protect human dignity. It does not have the power to grant dignity, nor can it take dignity away.

While the Diocese of Cheyenne followed a multitude of bills last session, I would like to highlight two particular bills concerning the dignity of human persons: SF 85 Certificate of non-viable birth, and HB 189 Death penalty repeal.

SF 85 Certificate of non-viable birth

SF 85 sought to allow parents who experience a miscarriage between 10 and 20 weeks of pregnancy to be notified by their healthcare provider that they could request a certificate of a non-viable birth from the vital records office. The certificate would indicate the age and sex of the child, if known, as well as a name of the child, if given.

The bill had bi-partisan sponsorship but immediately faced opposition by the abortion supporting group NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League).

Testimony at committee was given by several women who were against the bill. The most troubling testimony was given by a Cheyenne OB-GYN physician. She testified against pro-life bills last year, including the ultrasound bill and the bill prohibiting the sale of fetal body parts.

Regarding SF 85, she said that miscarriage is one of the most difficult experiences a woman can have and as that patient’s doctor, it is up to her to provide the needed compassion and care to help in the grieving process. She stated the legislature has no business interfering with the doctor-patient relationship.

Unfortunately, she went on to say that at 10 weeks in the womb, the fetus is “just tissue, like an appendix.” She asked the committee, “Do you think we should offer a certificate for people who have their appendix removed too?”

SF 85 passed out of the Senate Labor/Health Committee but eventually failed 3rd reading in the Senate by a vote of 12-18.

The impact this particular bill might have had is debatable. While this was not necessarily considered a pro-life bill, the testimony given against it was a powerful reminder that even our healthcare providers are not immune to political ideologies that dehumanize the most vulnerable.

HB 189 Death Penalty Repeal

HB 189, the death penalty repeal bill, also had broad bi-partisan sponsorship.

First, it is important to acknowledge the immense pain suffered by the families of victims of violence. Our faith calls us to accompany them and offer them the comfort and healing found only in Christ Jesus. We empathize with their desire for justice.

Still, we have to acknowledge that our ability to implement justice is limited. We are incapable of restoring lives taken from us. One might even sympathize with the person who desires revenge. However, just as we expect more from our healthcare providers, so should we also hold our government to a higher standard.

I wrote a newspaper article supporting the bill and received one thoughtful (even polite) response. The main objection in the response letter was that extremely dangerous prisoners can remain a threat to the public even when they are in prison. This was true of Wyoming’s most recently executed prisoner who orchestrated (from prison) the murder of a witness who was set to testify against him. This is an important point. The safety of the citizens of Wyoming must remain a top priority.

However, this does not necessarily justify the death penalty; rather, it raises procedural questions about how to ensure that dangerous prisoners cannot harm the public after incarceration. Is it possible to enact reasonable policies that limit or even prohibit external communications from prisoners on a case by case basis? Can prison officials monitor communications from certain inmates?  Given that Wyoming has not executed anyone since 1992, how have our correctional facilities protected the public from those extremely dangerous inmates since then?

The answers to these considerations are important for any dangerous prisoner, not just those who would potentially qualify as capital cases.

Most people agree that all murder is wrong. However, the law reserves it severest condemnation for conspirators who plan to murder in advance. Yet, this is precisely the act that is rationalized by supporters of capital punishment.

Furthermore, it is peculiar that legislators who distrust government in the smallest of matters should so eagerly grant the state authority in such a large and irreversible matter as administering death.

As we seek to rebuild a culture of life, we must remember that the values enshrined in our laws have an instructive, moral element to them. We can go on preaching to our young people about the sacredness of life until the cows come home. However, if we rationalize the destruction of human persons in one situation, we leave the door open for others to do the same in other situations. The message our young people ultimately receive is this: The sacredness of any human life is in the eye of the beholder, and therefore relative.

During the first week of the session, our country suffered another horrific school shooting. Once again, people of good will wondered how this could happen. While the solution is not a simple one, I think the most important step Catholics on both sides of the political aisle can take is to stop rationalizing the destruction of human persons from conception to natural death.

HB 189 failed introduction in the House with a vote of 25-34 with one excused. I anticipate it will be brought again in the 2019 General Session, along with several other important pro-life bills.

For a review of all of the bills drafted last session and to see how your legislators voted, check out the Legislature’s new website at http://www.wyoleg.gov/Legislation/2018.  Also, remember to visit the Legislative Liaison webpage at legislative.dioceseofcheyenne.org and like us on Facebook and Twitter.

 

The Good Shepherd

Free Will: The Good Shepherd

When we were baptized we became members of the mystical body of Christ. In essence, we are to become miniature Christs in the world. That is an important reality to remember when we hear this Sunday’s reading from the Gospel, lest we imagine that we are only sheep. 

Of course, we are the sheep who the Good Shepherd lays down his life for. But we are called to be even more. As members of the Mystical Body of Christ, whenever we point to what is True, Good and Beautiful, in this world, we are giving voice to the Good Shepherd, and we are becoming more and more like the Good Shepherd. 

How does Jesus describe the Good Shepherd? Unlike a hired man who sees the wolf coming and runs away, the Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. Then, very importantly, he says, that no one takes the life of the Good Shepherd, he lays it down on his own. His life is given freely. In other words, the Good Shepherd’s sacrifice is not an instinctual reflex but an act of free will. Today I want to focus on what it means to be able to freely lay one’s life down. 

Jesus foreshadows what will happen in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he is gathered with the apostles. Suddenly, the wolves come, Judas and the soldiers. And what do the apostles do? Most of them run away. Peter draws his sword and fights.  

I use to think that, in spite of his faults, at least Peter remained with Jesus. At least, he seemed willing to die for him. But the question is, was this an act of free will?  

We know that when confronted with danger, even animals will react in one of two ways, they will either run away, or they will turn and fight. Neither is an act of free will; rather, they are instinctual acts necessary for survival. 

It reminds me of working with cattle, particularly, first-calf heifers. They were usually afraid and would run away from you. But because they often had problems calving the first time, we would put them in the corral. And after they had their calf they would turn around and look completely shocked to see this steaming, wet ball of fur on the ground behind them. And they would very cautiously go up and smell it like they were scared to death of it. But God help you if you stepped between her and that ball of fur. She wasn’t even sure what it was yet, but instinct told her to protect it, even if it meant running you over. Even if it meant charging something she was normally terrified of.  

I think Peter’s act in the garden was not a freely chosen act of love, but an instinctual act of survival. This seems to be confirmed by the fact that Jesus rebukes Peter for drawing his sword, and by the fact that in the very next verses of the Gospel, Peter denies even knowing Jesus. 

This is not the behavior of someone with self-control. Its seems erratic. Without self-control, we end up doing things we don’t want to do. Peter later wept because he did the very thing he said he would never do, he abandoned Jesus.   

Now, we know, St. Peter eventually gets there. His immense love for Jesus drives him. He develops self-control and the freedom to lay down his own life. He even asks his executioners to crucify him upside down, because he thought he was not worthy of dying like Jesus did.  

Most Christians aren’t called to red martyrdom. But every one of us is called to pick up our cross and follow Jesus. Every one of us is called to lay our lives down in one way or another. Because we all have a part to play in salvation history. 

The question is, “Are we free to play it?” Have we developed the self-control to make our “yes” mean “yes” and our “no” mean “no?” 

I think the moral law and the commandments get a bad rap. Today they are rarely even considered because the world has convinced us that true freedom means license to do whatever we want to do. 

The world says the moral law is an obstacle holding people back from being human. If you are tired, you should sleep. If you are hungry, you should eat. Whatever desire you have, freedom, according to the world, demands that you satisfy it.”  

But this is not a formula for becoming more human. Any dog can seek to satisfy his own desires. Being human means that sometimes we do things we don’t feel like doing, because we have the capacity to think about what we ought to do instead. Read the newspaper this week and ask yourself if the world’s view leads to an increase or a decrease of individual freedom. It is making us more or less human?    

Jesus shows us that being human means being free, even from our passions and our instincts. Sometimes, you hear people rationalizing their own passions when they point to how Jesus drove the money changers out of the temple. As if this is an excuse for being a slave to anger.  

Was Jesus angry? Of course. Did he lose control? Scripture says that before Jesus drove them out of the temple, he fashioned a whip out of cords. This is a tediously, deliberate act, not a spontaneous explosive one. Jesus controlled his anger, it didn’t control him. He used it deliberately. 

As for our instincts, it’s not that they are bad. God gave them to us for survival. But what separates us from the beasts is not our instinct, but precisely the ability to deny instinct when love requires it. 

Please understand, this is not me preaching to you. I need to be reminded of this as much as anyone else. I fail every single day. So, I take some solace in St. Paul’s own frustration when he says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” So, we are in good company when we fail, but by God’s grace, we need to get back up again, and again, and again. 

Finally, here is an imperfect image for your consideration. But only if it helps. If we think about the design and parts of a rifle cartridge. Obviously, the tip is the actual bullet. There is the primer, which, when struck by a firing pin ignites the gun powder. The powder burns and creates rapidly expanding gas within the confines of the case. And the case provides a boundary so that the energy can only escape in one direction, towards the bullet. 

This entire reaction is meant to happen within the chamber of a rifle so that all of that energy will push that bullet in the one intended direction, down the barrel. If that reaction were to take place outside of those intended confines, like in a fire, for instance, the release of the energy would push the bullet in one direction and the case in the other. It would be very unpredictable and dangerous. 

Indeed, a life without the moral law is unpredictable and dangerous.    

Now consider that the human soul was designed to end up in heaven. While we understand that the moral law is not sufficient in and of itself to bring the soul to heaven, it does keep the soul oriented toward heaven. Without God’s grace and the Holy Spirit, which act like the primer, providing the driving energy propelling the soul forward, the moral law can do nothing for us. But in accordance with God’s grace, it provides appropriate boundaries, guiding the soul and keeping it free, so that one day it will make it home, where all of its desires will be fulfilled. 

Until then, we are called to be like the Good Shepherd, who lays his life down. Freely.