History, Hubris, and Hook Shots (part 0ne)

I stood on the 10th tee waiting to tee off. The group ahead of us was in the fairway so I couldn’t hit just yet. Tom, my playing partner, was an Evangelical Christian who didn’t like that I was thinking about entering the Catholic Church. As is often the case with Evangelicals, the reason for his dismay was Sola Scriptura.

We’d been speaking about the Church Fathers on the earlier holes. The Church Fathers were, to my way of thinking, integral to seeing what the early church believed. I argued that these were the men who passed on the faith exactly as they heard it from those who learned it at the feet of men who, in turn,had learned it from men who walked with the Apostles. My contention was that these men were presenting the gospel in a way that was closer to what Jesus taught, since so little time had gone by since the Resurrection.

I stepped up to the ball, ready to begin my backswing. “Think about this, Tom. Just before Jesus returned to the Father, Jesus advised the Disciples that the Holy Spirit would be coming. He said that the Holy Spirit would guide them into all truth. For Protestants to be right, the first thing the Holy Spirit would have done would have been to send the world into 1500 years of darkness.”

I made my backswing. Tom said, “I do think the Holy Spirit plunged us into 1500 years of darkness” and, in shock,I hooked my tee shot into a shallow stream running by. Tom smirked. “Maybe you better start tracking your strokes on those little beads they have at your church.”

The 1500 “missing” years became a problem for me as I wobbled to the end of my time in Protestantism. Now, I love my Protestant experience. Protestantism taught me to be able to find my way around the Bible. I learned a deep reverence for Scripture. I agree with pope Francis, that the only word that describes a Protestant is “brother.” But, I began to realize that Christianity didn’t start in the 16th century. I wondered about the Church Fathers, about why we, in the Protestant church, didn’t seem to care who they were and what they had to say. Taken a step further, I noticed that we didn’t seem to care what Luther had to say, either. Or Zwingli and Calvin. I began to see Protestantism as a religion that lived, not in the totality of history, but in the last twenty minutes.

I asked my friend, a youth pastor who was playing with us that day, why this was. Why didn’t we talk about the early church fathers? He told me that he’d come across them in seminary but that they were mentioned only briefly. He thought that most “modern” Christians wouldn’t be interested in what they had to say. In fact, he thought, with all the commentaries and development of theology over the last hundred years or so, he thought it might be more accurate to describe the Church Fathers as the Church Infants.

I left that golf game very disturbed and one step closer to my eventual conversion to Catholicism. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d seen the very definition of hubris.It was the crazy and common thought that someone reading about an event nearly two thousand years after it had happened would understand it more completely than someone who’d heard a first hand description. I thought that it just couldn’t be possible.

To discount what the Fathers had said so readily didn’t seem thoughtful to me. After all, Tertullian said it was the blood of the martyrs, not the blood of the scholars,that was the seed of the church.

Agendas, Terrorism, and Dignity

I’m so disappointed that people are using the recent San Bernardino shooting to launch into finger pointing about Islamic Extremist Terrorism. The shootings reinforced their desire to see tight restrictions put on Muslims, to justify their opinion that we should not take the Syrian refugees into this country, and pretty much proves them right for being suspicious of the Muslim community as a whole. I get it, I understand their point, but it is very discouraging to see.

I’m equally disappointed in those who, with every incident involving Muslims, rush to provide statistics to show that white Americans, particularly Christian white Americans, are a bigger cause of terrorism than Muslims. As with those who blame Muslims for all terror, let me say that I get it, I understand their point, but it is very discouraging to see.

When I was about to enter the Catholic Church, I went through a course called The Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA). When the course got to explaining the Sacrament of Reconciliation we spent a good amount of time learning about the importance of making a good confession. We learned to examine our conscience by pondering the ten commandments. How had our day stacked up?

The answer, of course, was “not very well.” The deeper we thought, the larger was the pile of our sinful shortcomings. One thing struck me, though. Many of the sinful thoughts and actions of any given day were related to a single category. Not respecting human dignity.

Was I angry with someone? It was because I failed to respect their God-given dignity. Did I have a sexual thought? It was because I’d not respected human dignity, either my own or the one I’d thought about. Did I look the other way when someone needed money for food? Human dignity. Did I dismiss someone because they were liberal, republican, democrat or conservative? Human dignity again.

So, that’s what troubles me about the categorizing of terrorism that’s so prevalent today. It’s a failure to respect the dignity of another human. Sometimes that human is the white American Christian. Sometimes it’s the dark-skinned Muslim. Sadly, though, it’s always the victims. In our rush to blame the one who fits our agenda, it often comes down to a failure to respect human dignity. We cling to our agenda because we really don’t respect the human dignity of the victims. We don’t respect the dignity due their families. We fail to see them as human. They are merely ammunition to wage a name calling war. But they are casualties of a real war.

Terrorism is real, of course. And the victims are as dead whether the attacker is male, female, dark skinned or light skinned. People die from bullets fired by Christians as easily as they do from those fired by Muslims. So, if we are to devote ourselves to an agenda on terrorism, let’s champion the agenda that is devoted to ending it, not in just assigning blame. Because, only when we respect the human dignity of all will we be able to take a significant step toward peace.

Sola Scriptura, Broken Chains

I follow a page on Facebook which regularly identifies the “Six Things that” bedevil and otherwise hamper Protestant Church leaders. Often those things are lack of giving, hurt feelings, and style of worship. Once, it covered the four comedic rules to becoming a better leader. Recently, one caught my eye. It was a list of things that the author thought people mistakenly credited as being in the Bible.

The piece starts with a blurb “I was surprised how many of these I’ve heard in my church” and then attempts to list several unbiblical statements Christians believe. They were a collection of folksy sayings that, fortunately,I’ve never actually heard attributed to the Bible in any church I’ve been to.

Before he gets into mocking those statements, he makes one of his own that made my jaw drop. He writes, “anything and everything that we know about God comes from these Holy Scriptures, and they contain the totality of what we need to know  about becoming a Christian and everything we need to know about living the Christian life.”

Where did he get that, I wondered. Certainly a statement so profound and succinct would be found in the Bible. But, of course, it isn’t. It comes from Protestant tradition, all of which is very recent.

I spent 37 years immersed in the Protestant culture. Obviously, it took me way too long but I eventually began to see things in Protestantism that were “man-made” doctrines which didn’t square with Scripture. And, when I could resist no longer, I began to wonder what was going on those first 1500 years where the Holy Spirit was guiding the Church without the help of Protestant doctrine? I went to the Catholic Church near me and signed up for RCIA.

It wasn’t a smooth ride, of course. I’d been indoctrinated over the course of four decades. A pastor friend of mine tried to halt my conversion by asking darkly, “Ross, are you saying that you no longer believe the Five Solas?” I took awhile and finally answered. Yes. I think that actually is what I’m saying.  So, the wrestling began in earnest.

In my RCIA classes I learned Catholic doctrine and heard the word “magesterium” for the very first time. I began to get a grasp of what the Church believed when it was founded and really began to see what it meant that the Church began in the first century and not the sixteenth. What I learned made it fairly obvious to me that the Church Fathers, a group that all my Protestant teachers had never mentioned, were the key to understanding the proper position of the Church in history. And, a week or two before my acceptance into the church, I heard my (now) friend Matthew S. Leonard say on a radio show that “the Bible came out of the Church, the Church did not come out of the Bible.”

That was the epiphany for me. After that, I saw the Sacred Tradition argument with stunning clarity. There was no canon at all for centuries after the Resurrection. People did not have access to printed Scripture at all until the advent of the printing press. There is absolutely not a single verse of Scripture that tells us that Scripture itself would be our sole guide. On the contrary. Jesus told us He would send us the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth. He never said there would be a book coming.

Even in the very Scripture Protestants and Catholics alike love, we are told that “if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.” So, it is the Church that is the Pillar and Foundation of the truth rather than the Scripture. It is the Church, not the Bible, charged with delivering the deposit of faith unblemished to all future generations.

 

 

Seeing Jesus this Advent

The same came therefore to Philip, which was of Bethsaida of Galilee, and desired him, saying, Sir, we would see Jesus.  John 12:21.

Well, that’s what we all want, isn’t it? We want to see Jesus. It’s the Advent season. We are preparing ourselves to for the Nativity, for the coming of our Lord. We are taught to refocus our vision upon seeing Jesus anew. We are to consider that He is on His way, visiting us again.

It’s hard to imagine the overwhelming joy of the shepherds when they saw the baby in the manger. The Magi were to see the toddler Jesus later at a house and brought him spectacular presents. The rabbis were to be amazed at the young Jesus speaking in the Jerusalem temple. Many saw the great teacher on mountainsides, preaching the Good News that the Kingdom of God had come to earth. Crowds watched Him heal, saw Him do miracles and watched as He took the mantle of sin from humanity, cloaked Himself with it and made His way to the cross. Those who loved Him saw Him after that, on the Emmaus road and the Mount called Olivet.

What would it be like to see Jesus this Advent season? Would it be like seeing someone sick in a hospital, hooked to feeding tubes and waiting to breathe their last? It might be.

Would seeing Jesus be like seeing someone sitting in the cold, on a cardboard mat, hungry, desperate for something to eat or drink? It could be.

Would it be like taking care of a refugee fleeing a war-torn country who needs shelter and clothing? Possibly.

Could seeing Jesus be like seeing a person in prison, separated from society and family, needing human contact to bring him hope. I think it could.

That might be what it would be like to see Jesus this Advent season. It might be just like that.

Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You? The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.”

You did it to Me.

So, yes, that’s what it may look like to see Jesus this Advent season. We will see Him in the faces of the poor, the sick, the downtrodden, those without hope. And, as you help those who need it, they might just see Jesus when they look at you.

Scripture, Tradition, and The Printing Press

I follow a page on Facebook which regularly identifies the “Six Things that” bedevil and otherwise hamper Protestant Church leaders. Often those things are lack of giving, hurt feelings, and style of worship. Once, it covered the four comedic rules to becoming a better leader. Recently, one caught my eye. It was a list of things that the author thought people mistakenly credited as being in the Bible.

The piece starts with a blurb “I was surprised how many of these I’ve heard in my church” and then attempts to list several unbiblical statements Christians believe. They were a collection of folksy sayings that, fortunately, I’ve never actually heard attributed to the Bible in any church I’ve been to.

Before he gets into mocking those statements, he makes one of his own that made my jaw drop. He writes, “anything and everything that we know about God comes from these Holy Scriptures, and they contain the totality of what we need to know about becoming a Christian and everything we need to know about living the Christian life.”

Where did he get that, I wondered. Certainly a statement so profound and succinct would be found in the Bible. But, of course, it isn’t. It comes from Protestant tradition, all of which is very recent.

I spent 37 years immersed in the Protestant culture. Obviously, it took me way too long, but I eventuallybegan to see things in Protestantism that were “man-made” doctrines which didn’t square with Scripture. And, when I could resist no longer, I began to wonder what was going on those first 1500 years where the Holy Spirit was guiding the Church without the help of Protestant doctrine? I went to the Catholic Church near me and signed up for RCIA.

It wasn’t a smooth ride, of course. I’d been indoctrinated over the course of four decades. A pastor friend of mine tried to halt my conversion by asking darkly, “Ross, are you saying that you no longer believe the Five Solas?” I took awhile and finally answered. Yes. I think that actually is what I’m saying. So, the wrestling began in earnest.

In my RCIA classes I learned Catholic doctrine and heard the word “magisterium” for the very first time. I began to get a grasp of what the Church believed when it was founded and really began to see what it meant that the Church began in the first century and not the sixteenth. What I learned made it fairly obvious to me that the Church Fathers, a group that all my Protestant teachers had never mentioned, were the key to understanding the proper position of the Church in history. And, a week or two before my acceptance into the church, I heard my (now) friend Matthew S. Leonard say on a radio show that “the Bible came out of the Church, the Church did not come out of the Bible.”

That was the epiphany for me. After that, I saw the Sacred Tradition argument with stunning clarity. There was no canon at all for centuries after the Resurrection. People did not have access to printed Scripture at all until the advent of the printing press. There is absolutely not a single verse of Scripture that tells us that Scripture itself would be our sole guide. On the contrary. Jesus told us He would send us the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth. He never said there would be a book coming.

Even in the very Scripture Protestants and Catholics alike love, we are told that “if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.” So, it is the Church that is the Pillar and Foundation of the truth rather than the Scripture. It is the Church, not the Bible, charged with delivering the deposit of faith unblemished to all future generations.

via I stopped going to church and joined the Church.

Hips, Hospitals and Surgeons

Thanksgiving has come and gone. It always is a great opportunity to reflect upon our lives. The holiday teaches us to be mindfully grateful for all of our blessings. And it challenges us to keep those blessings in the forefront of our thoughts even as the holiday itself recedes.

For me, this Thanksgiving, the blessing is obvious. After years of dragging a painful right hip along with me everywhere I went, I finally summoned the courage and had a total hip replacement the first week of November. When this Thanksgiving arrived, I was without any restrictions, able to attempt any movement, and I was pain free for the first time in years. That’s a lot to be thankful for.

I put a lot of thought into having this surgery. I live in a borough of New York City, Staten Island, famous for horrible medical care. I’ve heard it said many times that, if you are visiting someone in a Staten Island hospital and get sick, call an ambulance to take you to a Manhattan hospital. I’d had reconstructive back surgery some years back and I had that procedure done in a Manhattan Hospital. It was a total success.

That surgery had a great surgeon and a great hospital behind it. This one, with different insurance options, would be different. I am retired now and, with government changes to healthcare, my insurance coverage was greatly changed. I also mishandled the open enrollment options, this being the first year I had to deal with that. My health insurance plan gave me two choices. The first was to choose a surgeon I trusted and do the surgery on Staten Island. The other was a surgeon, recommended by someone I trusted but not known by me, who would perform the surgery in a better, Manhattan hospital.

I opted for the surgeon I trusted in a hospital I didn’t. The results did not surprise. The Staten Island hospital was a dungeon. Paint peeled from the walls, the lighting was poor, the room was tiny. Medical personnel, while examining my roommate, actually repeatedly bumped into me through the privacy curtain. The floor in my room was never mopped during my entire stay. I saw a nurse spill urine onto the floor and “clean” it by placing a gown over it and swishing that gown around with her foot. Even that, did not prompt a wet mop. My bedclothes were never changed, even though I had fevers and soaking sweats each day. There was dried, caked urine on the floor of the restroom and we used a commode shared with several other rooms.

On the other hand, my surgeon also was what I expected. The surgery was a fantastic success. I was sitting up in a chair the same day. I walked the day after. Because he used a more innovative approach, I had absolutely no hip precautions. From the beginning I was allowed to do absolutely anything I thought I could. The surgeon visited me in my tiny room, answered all my questions and was as charming and attentive as anyone could reasonably expect. That type of care has continued now that I am in my post-op phase.

Now it’s the time of year for open enrollment. And, yes, I will be more diligent in choosing my coverage this year. I will choose a better policy this year. But, I will be very mindful that the most important choice is the doctor.  I chose the plan with the right doctor this year. And for that, I’m very thankful.

 

 

Text, Tone and Tension

I recently had a conversation with a Calvinist regarding the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. As most of you know, That’s the Catholic Doctrine of Transubstantiation, a doctrine held by the entire Christian world until the advent of Protestantism in 1517. Even then, one major Protestant figure, Martin Luther, was not content to jettison the doctrine. He created a variation of it in which the bread and wine still changed to the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Another major player in Protestantism, John Calvin, created an entirely new concept where the bread and wine were mere symbols of the body and blood of Christ.

The purpose of this blog is not to argue the merits of the three (or more) possibilities. I just wanted to relay how that conversation, between two guys who promised not to offend and to be civil, went straight down a rabbit hole.

Although the Church believes in Sacred Tradition, I find it fun to debate with Protestants using only Scripture. I spent thirty seven years as a devout Protestant so, although I’m no theologian, I can find my way around a Bible.

We were debating the sixth chapter of John, a chapter where Jesus clearly defines and introduces the doctrine of transubstantiation. My Calvinist friend, running from the clear Scriptural truth, insisted that it could not be. It didn’t make sense.

The beauty of the Gospel is that NOTHING makes sense. Would God become a human and be born of a virgin? Could a bit of bread and several fishes feed thousands? Could a man once dead be commanded to walk from a grave? Could the Son of God do the same? It’s all ludicrously true.

He then cited an early philosopher, honestly mistaking his work with that of Clement of Rome, to show that the influential Clement did not hold to the Real Presence. I gently pointed out the case of mistaken identity and he became angry, calling the conversation off, because I was too “emotionally invested” in Catholic doctrine to see the truth. We had a conversation that lasted over the course of several days that ultimately went down in flames because we failed to understand each other.

There’s a great example I like which points out how careful you need to be when putting your own inflection to someone else’s written word. I heard it, I think, from Charles Swindoll. It has always stuck with me. It’s the simple sentence, “I didn’t say you were stupid.”

There’s no inflection in writing except where the reader places it. Let’s conquer that by using capitals. Please trust that I am not shouting. Take “I” didn’t say you were stupid, with emphasis on the first word.  It’s possible that you are stupid. It’s possible people are talking about it. But, I haven’t said it.

I DIDN’T say you were stupid is a straight up denial. Sort of. It doesn’t rule out the possibility I may say it in the future.

I didn’t SAY you were stupid. I thought it. I’ve accepted it as common knowledge. I just didn’t verbalize it.

I didn’t say YOU were stupid. It’s your mother who is the real dummy.

I didn’t say you WERE stupid. It’s an oncoming thing. No way is your stupidity relegated to the past. It isn’t that you were stupid. It’s that you are stupid right at this very moment.

I didn’t say you were STUPID. But, let me tell you, being stupid would be the least of your problems. Your big problem is that you are ugly. Oh, and you smell really bad. But I didn’t say you were stupid.

Facebook is often hard for me because I frequently misread the intent of a post. I will admit that, for me, joy is fleeting and gloom is permanent. And, because of that, I often place a negative reading on an innocuous comment. I hope you don’t do that too.

It’s important for me to remember, for my Calvinist friend to realize and maybe for you to remember also, that only the reader and not the writer can control how a sentence is read.

Let’s read each others words with the best intent.

Beauty, Poetry, and Restless Hearts

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; Bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings. 

(Gerard Manley Hopkins)

Giampietrino-Last-Supper-ca-1520

by Ross Decker Sr

A few weeks ago, my priest began his homily by reading a poem aloud. As he read it, I realized I was having a personal epiphany regarding my reasons for converting to the Church after spending very nearly 40 years meandering in a Protestant desert. For the very first time I began to think that I may have been drawn to the Catholic Church because it was a religion of poetry. A religion of art. A religion of beauty.

When I first began to consider entering the Roman Catholic Church, I encountered Bishop (then Father) Robert Barron. My wife Liz and I had just seen Midnight in Paris and loved it. While googling about the film the next day, she came across  Father Barron’s review of the movie along with a series of other reviews he’d done. “Look, Honey. A priest who reviews movies!”

I’ll admit that I thought it was going to be silly. After all, what kind of out of touch reviews would a priest write? I imagined that they would all be stilted works, not really capable of grasping worldly art. But I was wrong. I learned that Father Barron had a fine grasp upon the real world. He reviewed movies from the point of view of someone who loved them, who appreciated them and who understood them. He wrote a fantastic piece using Dante’s Inferno to describe the Christian life. He spoke of Lennon and Dylan as though they were artists, not as though they were silly sinners creating nothing worthwhile. I had been taught that in my previous experience, but Robert Barron seemed to see no art as secular, all art as divine.

St. Augustine famously said that, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” So, of course it would have to be that all art is God’s art, all poetry and prose stems from God. Now, some of this may come from an anti-God position, but even that art exists to examine man’s struggle to make sense of God nonetheless. Whether in confrontation or communion, our restless hearts sing of God.

Over the last few hundred years there has been a movement which has attempted to separate artistic culture from religion. I grew up in that school of thought. It’s a movement that might hold that modern culture cannot speak to the Church, that modern culture should be shunned. Avoided. It’s also a movement that has sought to strip religious art, both old and new, from religion. A movement seeking almost to deny the yearning of man for God. It’s a movement that has turned beer halls and school auditoriums into churches and have turned churches into stark, soulless meeting halls. We’ve seen altars converted into stages and windows viewed things that must be covered with drawn shades. It was a movement that, for me, was lacking. I could no longer separate the two cultures. I wanted the art. I wanted the struggle. I wanted the poetry.

The history of the Church reads like the history of art itself. Through the ages the Church commissioned artistic works. The Church was a patron of the arts. Artists created canvas upon canvas of Biblical theme. They sought to explain, to glorify and to define God through their work. They left to us breathtaking art that glorified God. The Ghent Altarpiece is stunning, there was Caravaggio, who at the dawn of the 17th century was called the most famous painter in Rome. That’s certainly saying quite a bit. Last year at this time, I walked the streets of Rome to see church after church, each with amazingly beautiful artwork. The church architecture was breathtaking in itself. Walking through the Vatican Museum I was surrounded by so much beauty it made me want to just stand still and sob. And, of course, in the midst of all that is the Sistine Chapel. God reaches out there to touch mankind. Painted by Michelangelo, I see it as the pinnacle of religious art. I’m confident that I’m not alone in that opinion.

So, Robert Barron’s position that art is the language of the Church resonated with me. The vesting of the Priests, the sensory awakening of incense, the beautiful ringing of bells to signify the epiclesis, the windows, the statues, the altar, all illustrate to me a respect and deference to our God that just isn’t found elsewhere.

I was drawn to the Catholic Church by art. It wasn’t the reason I converted, of course. I converted because of the doctrine. But I never would have heard the doctrine if I hadn’t come for the poetry.

It reminds me that the world is charged with the grandeur of God.

The Pope, The Line, and Who’s Telling The Story?

by Ross Decker Sr

I was on a line with other ticket holders waiting to attend Pope Francis’ Papal Mass at Madison Square Garden. The line was astonishingly long. We walked 13 city blocks away from the start of the line at from Madison Square Garden itself to get to the back of the line. Then we waited for the line to start moving so we’d be able to retrace our steps along that 13 Block route back to Madison Square Garden.

The line was a happy one. There was no grumbling at all about the wait, a wait which was ultimately two and a half hours from where I joined the line. Everyone was talking about the Holy Father. They loved the news coverage. They thought the reporters were stunned by this Pope. They speculated about where he was along this day’s itinerary. Would he be late? would we be late? Would they start the Mass before we got inside? Oh, and yes, was that a rainbow?

Our Pope had charmed Washington and New york. He charms everyone everywhere. He brings the Gospel story in a fresh way, making that story present and relative to today. He reminds me of when I first heard Bishop Robert Barron say that the Catholic story was a beautiful story. It just hasn’t always had the right people telling it.

The Holy Father took DC by storm, telling Congress,  “Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation. You are the face of its people, their representatives. You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics. A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.”

A week before, I wasn’t planning on being here. I’d been to Rome and had seen him give the Wednesday Angelus blessing from his apartment window. The following Sunday was the better day, though. We had tickets to the General Audience in St. Peter’s Square and were seated right at the railing. The Holy Father came past us and we were only about three feet from his happily waving hand. So, I reasoned, what could top that?

I didn’t enter the drawing for the Central Park drive through. I reasoned that I may be far back in the crowd, without a good view, I might be uncomfortable, the weather might be poor. My parish had only 16 tickets for the Papal Mass at Madison Square Garden. They were to be given out in a lottery type drawing. I didn’t enter. I was quite happy to watch the Pope’s visit on television. I was. For awhile.

As the press began to amp up coverage of the impending visit, some desire to see the Holy Father began to stir. I heard a woman tell a reporter that she was hoping to see the procession through Central Park. It was, she said, a “once in a lifetime experience.” That made sense to me. I wanted to go, but it was too late.

So, when my daughter-in-law, Catherine, offered me the two passes she’d gotten to see the Central Park procession, I was delighted. I was going to see the Pope. To sweeten the pie, she’d gotten the handicap access I needed. Now, I had a whole new view of this Papal visit. I was in. I was a participant.

The only thing better now would be tickets to the Papal Mass. But there were none available. I told a few people that I was hoping to get a ticket should one become available. But none did. Then, after mass on Sunday morning, I was getting into my car. I saw someone I knew driving down the street and we waved to each other. He stopped for the traffic light and then, backed up and lowered his window to chat. We talked about the Papal visit and how energized we all were, how hectic the Holy Father’s schedule would be. As an afterthought he asked. “are you going to the Mass?” No, I said, I didn’t have a ticket. “How many do you need,” he asked. “I have extras.”

The line began to move quickly as we neared the entrance. There was NYPD security on top of the marquee. Police were assuring us that, as long as we had a ticket we’d get in. The line divided to those with and those without bags. I had no bag and slid off to the line on the right. There was one person in front of me. After a quick scan with the wand, I was inside.

I’d missed some of the performances. I got to my seat as Gloria Estefan was introducing Jennifer Hudson. Then came Harry Connick. There was time to buy souvenirs and get back to my seat a minute before His Holiness entered. I was caught up in the excitement. The Pope was in my city and I was seeing him.

“Knowing that Jesus still walks our streets,” he preached, “that he is part of the lives of his people, that he is involved with us in one vast history of salvation, fills us with hope. A hope which liberates us from the forces pushing us to isolation and lack of concern for the lives of others, for the life of our city. A hope which frees us from empty “connections”, from abstract analyses, or sensationalist routines. A hope which is unafraid of involvement, which acts as a leaven wherever we happen to live and work. A hope which makes us see, even in the midst of smog, the presence of God as he continues to walk the streets of our city.”

Capping his whirlwind visit was the trip to Philadelphia where he addressed the sexual abuse scandal.“God weeps for the sexual abuse of children. These cannot be maintained in secret, and I commit to a careful oversight to ensure that youth are protected and all responsible will be held accountable. Those who have survived this abuse have become true heralds of mercy – humbly, we owe each of them our gratitude for their great value as they have had to suffer this terrible abuse sexual abuse of minors.”

And then, it was over. He was on his way back to The Eternal City of Rome. But he didn’t leave before filling us with hope and love, reminding us of both our value and our neighbor’s. And not before humbly asking us to pray for him. He reminded us that the Catholic story is a beautiful story. And now the right person was telling it.

Syrians, Samaritans and Mustard Seeds

by Ross Decker Sr

He proposed another parable to them. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the ‘birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.”

As the middle east continues to be a troubled, unsafe place, thousands of Syrian immigrants pour into Europe daily. Estimates place the number of displaced people at nearly 400,000. We’ve seen the pictures and heard the stories. The photograph of the three year old who drowned on his way toward hope is burned into our minds. Although the wealthy Gulf States have displayed amazing lack of compassion for their Islamic brethren, Europe is responding to the crisis with kindness and care. Germany has set itself at the center of the gracious acceptance of these displaced people. At this point, though, the crisis shows no signs of abating.

The Pope has called for each Catholic parish in Europe to take as many refugees as possible. He has extended the compassionate arm of Jesus Christ toward these afflicted people and welcomed them. It is, he reminds us, our duty as Christians. More than that, it is our great calling. We are to love the world and to love our neighbor in Jesus’ name. It is an honor to do so, regardless of the personal costs. The disciple James advises us of our responsibility on this. He writes, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?  If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food,  and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what goo is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

Quite a few Christians, Catholic and Protestants alike, have questioned this call. Some think it isn’t safe to do this. They worry that terrorists will slip into our society, arriving as refugees. I have heard others say that, being the same nationality as our enemies, they should be left to suffer and to perish in this horrible predicament. This may even seem to be the sensible thing to do if we are afraid of those nations. Some say that they would prefer to protect what they have and let this poor mass of humans find it’s own way through. But this solution is political expediency, not religion.  But it isn’t a following of the calling given to us by our Lord. Our religion, if co-opted by fear and hatred, is no religion at all.  And, if we turn to our faith only when we’ve exhausted “reasonable” options, we’ve only a comforting philosophy. Not a faith. We pollute our faith when we fold politics into it. Combining those ingredients ruin the recipe. Religion plus politics equals politics.

Let’s look at the parable of the Good Samaritan. This is one of the most famous parables of Jesus. People with absolutely no connection to faith have all heard of it. A certain man went down the very dangerous Jericho Road. On the way, he was mugged. The muggers beat him very severely, robbed him and left him for dead by the side of the road. His own people, a priest and a Levite, passed him by. They were in a position to help. As religious people, you would reasonably expect that they would. But, they didn’t. It took a Samaritan, in this situation the enemy, who gave the comfort. This stranger, this enemy, went out of his way. He cleansed the wounds, he brought him to an inn, and covered all the expenses.

Well, it isn’t a very big stretch to apply this parable to the immigration crisis. The influx of immigrants is represented by the man beaten on the roadside. The priest and the Levite are the Persian Gulf nations who will not help. And we? We have the opportunity to be the Samaritan. We shouldn’t wish to play the role of the Levite.

It makes sense not to help. It’s safer. It feeds into our anger and revenge instincts. It’s the easy choice to make. But it isn’t what we are called to do.

The Scripture overflows with exhortation to be kind. To do good. To love our enemies. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our strength and with all our mind. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are to be kind to the stranger in our land. Do these people, so desperately in need of our help, possibly have ties to the terrorists who seek to kill us? Yes. But we are to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us. We are to bless those who curse us and pray for those who mistreat us. No, it doesn’t make sense. But we are supposed to do it.

Through the centuries the Church has handled difficult situations with supernatural bravery. Are we always delivered in the way that Daniel was delivered from the lion? No. We are not. But brave Christians have preserved and advanced the faith through the years. Tertullian wrote “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

Recent events in Paris have made this a harder choice. And, it has place a solemn burden on our government to thoroughly vet refugees.  Maybe there will be terrorists hidden within the masses who seek asylum. But, if something horrible happens, it will have happened while we were doing good. While we were serving the Lord. While we were loving our enemies and washing their feet.

The parable tells us that the mustard seed is one of the smallest of all seeds. And Jesus says it is an example of our faith. And to follow that illustration, it’s fair to say that our faith, when it is fully grown, should be expansive. It should be welcoming. The birds of the air and the people of all nations should find the mustard tree of our faith to be a safe harbor from the harsh reality of this world. They should find comfort in our branches and stability in our rooting. This is our calling.