Life-giving Love and Humanae vitae

Ancient Israel had a problem: there were too many prophets. With so many competing voices, the Jewish people couldn’t tell a true prophet from a false prophet. They eventually found a solution, and they wrote that solution down in Deuteronomy 18:21-22. It’s very simple: wait a little while and see if the prophecies come true. If they don’t, the prophet does not speak words from God. If the prophecies do come true, then the prophet is from God, and we had better listen up and do what was said! This rule is intuitive and simple: everyone could follow it. Whether the people actually changed their lives and followed the prophet was a different issue, but at least they knew that the prophet was from God.

The spiritual gift of prophecy did not end in the Old Testament. Fifty years ago, on July 25, 1968, a document was released which closely followed the prophetic model: it reminded us that we must always follow God’s law. Then, it predicted what would happen if we didn’t:

  1. The way would “open wide” to marital infidelity.
  2. Because of human weakness, failing to follow this teaching in one way would make us accustomed to evil, and society’s moral standards would decrease.
  3. Men would forget the reverence due to women, and they would treat them as objects, not as humans with equal dignity in God’s eyes.
  4. Public authorities would use the evil practices which were condemned in the document to achieve their own goals.

That document was Humanae vitae, or in English: Of Human Life. The author was Blessed Pope Paul VI. He reminded us of the beauty of marriage, of how marriage is an image of God’s own love, of how marital love is a fully human kind of love, and of how, through the marital act, a man and a woman become, in cooperation with God, the creators a new human life. Because of the immense goodness of marriage and of the marital act, Blessed Paul VI also reminded us of God’s teaching that the use of artificial contraception is morally wrong, and that if we were to use it, those serious consequences I mentioned would be the result. People didn’t want to hear this, and so they didn’t listen. Sadly, every single one of Paul VI’s predictions came true:

  1. Marital infidelity is rampant in western society. We see alarming rates of adultery, divorce and remarriage without having the first marriage annulled, and epidemic-level misuse of the internet to find obscene images and videos. You get the idea.
  2. Moral standards haven’t just declined—they’ve nearly disappeared. Look at the recent scandals involving so-called leaders in sports, politics, and the media. Look at what passes for quality television and movies these days. Compare a movie from just 20 years ago and to a similarly rated movie now. We’ve changed, and not for the better.
  3. Our society has lost any sense of reverence due to women. Things weren’t perfect before, don’t get me wrong, but we at least tried to respect women.
  4. Public authorities have used society’s acceptance of contraception for their own ends. In China, it manifested in the brutal One Child policy. In our very own USA we’ve dealt with the HHS Mandate and public funding of organizations like Planned Parenthood.

Blessed Paul VI predicted that these things would happen. No one, not even Catholics, sadly, expected him to be right, but he was. Now, that we’ve seen his predictions, his prophecies, come true, we must look again at what Blessed Paul VI called us to do, and we must do it. Every time the Jewish people failed to follow God’s prophets, the results were terrible: they were conquered, enslaved, or worse. We may not be physically conquered or enslaved for not following God’s teaching on contraception, but we will certainly be conquered by evil and enslaved to sin. This is not where we want our society to go.

Brothers and sisters, today, 50 years after the release of Humanae vitae, we stand at a crossroads. Our culture is suffering. Our families are suffering. Something is wrong. But we are not helpless. We have the power to change this. We do not have to accept the status quo. We must not accept it. Change will take sacrifice. It will take all the courage and virtue we can muster. It will take prayer. It will take faith in God. I will be blunt here: it will take each of us here accepting Catholic teaching on contraception. That teaching is clear: “any action which either before, at the moment of, or after [marital relations], is specifically intended to prevent procreation” is wrong. (HV 14) Furthermore, the Church has repeatedly condemned “direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary.” (HV 14) This issue touches the very meaning of human life, and it is therefore incredibly important. It is sometimes difficult to tell people the truth, especially when it is about an issue that is so personal, but Jeremiah warns against misleading the flock in the first reading today, so I have a moral obligation to be absolutely clear. It is not simply a moral obligation, though. I am motivated out of love for all of you here and out of a desire to see every person here today go to Heaven, and so I must be absolutely clear about the truth on this issue. The use of any birth control pill, implant, mechanical device, or medical procedure that is designed to prevent conception or pregnancy is against Catholic teaching, against God’s teaching, and against what it means to be human. If I had any reservations at all, I would not be so adamant that we must rid ourselves of the evils of artificial contraception. We cannot do these things. Our eternal lives are at stake if we do.

We shouldn’t get the wrong idea from this teaching, though. The Church is not demanding that we have as many children as biologically possible, nor is she saying that we don’t care about women’s health. God calls us to use reason to govern our lives, including family size. This is possible without violating Catholic teaching! The Church doesn’t just leave us hanging! Many ways exist that don’t violate Catholic teaching which can help postpone or achieve pregnancy. Together, we call them Natural Family Planning.

You may have heard people—especially doctors, sadly, even Catholic doctors—claim that NFP does not work or joke about it. They are, at best, wrong; at worst, they are being dishonest. The old rhythm methods were ineffective, but medicine and science have developed. Modern NFP, used correctly, has been scientifically proven to be more effective than artificial contraception at postponing pregnancy. Artificial contraceptives, as they are commonly used, are between 82% and 98% effective. NFP, as commonly used is 89.4% to 99.5% effective.1 One of the NFP studies was done here in Wichita at St. Francis hospital! If that’s not enough of a reason to stop using artificial contraceptives, consider this: NFP—unlike “the pill”—has not been declared a Group I carcinogen by the World Health Organization. Some other Group I carcinogens are asbestos, arsenic, mustard gas, plutonium, and engine exhaust. NFP has never been linked to severe health conditions, such as those which can arise from implants. NFP can strengthen marriages, because it requires both spouses to work together. NFP can even save lives, because the regular observations involved can give an early warning for certain cancers that would not be seen otherwise. NFP is not just for postponing pregnancy though, it can also be used to achieve pregnancy! NFP, together with new medicals treatments consistent with Catholic teaching (NaPro), is more effective than IVF.2 NFP requires sacrifice. It’s not always easy, but it is a good thing. It works better; it’s more flexible; and, it’s better able to help women with health issues than artificial methods. Finally, NFP is more respectful of women and their inherent dignity. Most artificial birth control methods work by harming the normal functioning of a woman’s body, this increases the chances of health problems for women, such as depression, blood clots, stroke, several types of cancer, and many others.3 Additionally, NFP is a shared responsibility, and yes, challenge, between a husband and wife, while using artificial contraception is a one-sided burden that largely falls on women. If you want to learn more about NFP, there are classes across Wichita all the time!

Our bodies are gift from God. They are meant to be used in a certain way if we want to be happy. We can’t continue to separate marriage, sex, and babies. Whether we want to admit it or not, at the deepest levels of our humanity we know they belong together. We must do better, because we deserve better than artificial contraception. We deserve to be loved, not used. In Humanae vitae, our holy Church stood up to society and, again, said “no more” to people who desire to use others for their own pleasure. The Church will never stop trying to help us understand ourselves, and today she reminds us that we are not made for pleasure, but for true, life-giving love. Thankfully, when we do make mistakes, the Church is always there to help us pick ourselves up and to set us on the right path again by providing the Sacraments for us. In the Sacrament of Confession, God forgives our sins. He wants to forgive our sins, especially those that touch us so deeply and personally as the use of artificial contraception does. After we have received forgiveness of our sins and have become clean in that most intimate encounter of God’s mercy, God then invites us to share in the most excellent of all the Sacraments, that heaven-on-earth encounter with God’s love: the Eucharist. The Eucharist reminds us of God’s love for us and teaches us that God made us for greatness: he made us to receive his life-giving love, and to share that life-giving love with others. For those who already are following this Church teaching, thank you for being witness to God’s love and for being witnesses to God’s amazing plan for us. For those who are not following Church teaching, I invite you to simply try it out, and I want you to know that the Church will be here for here each and every step of the way.

Today’s Readings:
16th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B
50th Anniversary of Humanae vitae on Wednesday, July 25.
July 22, 2018
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalms 23:1-3, 3-4, 5, 6; Ephesians 2:13-18; Mark 6:30-34

Amos Moments

Note: this homily was given July 15, 2018. I apologize for the late posting.

While I was reading through the first reading, it occurred to me that maybe Amos didn’t really want to be a prophet. He certainly didn’t ask to be a prophet. It sounds like he was perfectly happy being a shepherd and sycamore dresser… whatever that is. Anyway, that is all somewhat beside the point, because Amos gave it all up when he received a call from God. God called Amos to travel to north and prophesy to the people of Israel. I would hazard a guess that Amos was not a huge fan of this career change, but he trusted God and went along with it. The people of the north were not, it turns out, big fans of what Amos had to say, judging by their reaction. I’m pretty sure they wanted to kill him. Amos did not let this deter him, and he continued, undeterred, on his God-given mission.

The apostles had several of their very own “Amos moments.” They had all been called by Jesus to follow him. That was probably “Amos moment” number one. So, they start following Jesus around, learn from him, and watch him perform miracles. They probably are thinking that they’ve got a pretty sweet gig going on with this Jesus dude. Then Jesus told them that now it’s their turn. Talk about an “Amos moment.” He gives them authority to cast out unclean spirits, and he tells them that they are going to go preach repentance to the towns of Israel. Not only were they to go on this crazy mission journey, but they couldn’t bring any money or supplies with them. They were sent with the clothes on their back, a walking stick, and shoes. (Fun fact: When Jesus sent them out in Matthew and Luke, they didn’t have shoes!) Jesus didn’t sugarcoat the mission either. He told them that some towns would be unreceptive. Jesus challenged the apostles to get out of their comfort zones, and he demanded that they rely fully upon God. The apostles went out, and they did their mission. If we read ahead in Mark a little bit, (spoiler alert!) we see that when the apostles came back, they were excited! They could not wait to tell Jesus about their journeys.

I would venture to say that every one of us here has had our own “Amos moment.” We are living our lives, going about our business dressing sycamores or whatever, and then God calls us to something radically different. My biggest “Amos moment” was when I realized I was being called to go to seminary and “do the whole priest thing.” I was happy working at Learjet; I was on track to move up in the company; I was physically in better shape than I am now; and, I thought my life was going pretty well. But, one day, while I was at daily Mass before work, God sent me a little message: “you should be on the other side of that altar.” I initially resisted, but I can now confidently say that I am happier than I have ever been, even though this was not my plan. When I run into roadblocks or struggles with this vocation, I plan to follow Amos’s lead: to continue, undeterred, with following God’s plan.

God has a special and unique plan for each one of us, but that doesn’t mean that God has a different goal for each of us. He wants every single person here to be holy. He wants us to be holy because when we’re holy, not only are we allowed to enter into Heaven when we die, but also because when we are holy we change the world. How we live out holiness will vary from person to person, but that call to holiness never changes. I am called to be holy by being ordained a priest (in a little less than a year) and serving God’s people. Most of us are called to be holy by marrying and raising a holy family. Some are called to be holy by withdrawing from the world and entering into religious life. The variations of God’s plan don’t end there. Our individual jobs and volunteer activities, too, are ways in which we can be holy. Every one of us can affect the world in a different way, and if we do our best to make the world a more holy place, then we are fulfilling God’s plan.

What’s even better about this mission of holiness is that God never sends us alone. He didn’t send the apostles alone, he sent them two-by-two, and he similarly does not send us alone. We have our parishes, our families, and our friends to accompany us on our mission. Admittedly, some families and friends are not always particularly helpful—even the apostles had to deal with a Judas amongst them. That’s not the point, though. The point is that we aren’t ever alone in our mission. Even when every worldly institution fails us, God will always be with us.

On top of that, God will always give us the tools that we need to do his work. The apostles had already been learning from Jesus’s preaching, had watched him perform many healings, and had observed as he cast out many demons. Jesus gave the apostles authority over unclean spirits, and then he sent them out to preach repentance, cast out demons, and heal the sick. We, too, have been given gifts for our mission to make the world holy. Jesus teaches us through the readings, the Gospel, and the Mass itself every time we attend. (Hopefully, us preachers have helped a little with our homilies too!) I doubt any of us here has been given the specific authority to cast out demons, but we have received even greater gifts than that. God has given us the Sacraments, which are more powerful than any exorcism. Baptism and Confirmation mark us as children of God, under his protection. Marriage and Holy Orders give special graces which are necessary to follow those two vocations. The Anointing of the Sick uses oil, just as the apostles did in today’s Gospel, and heals our soul—and sometimes even heals our bodies!

I will single out the two remaining sacraments as extremely special and valuable in our mission to bring holiness to the world. The sacrament of Confession, Reconciliation, Penance, Getting in the Box with Father, whatever you want to call it, is vital for our personal holiness. In that sacrament, God takes away our sins. He forgives them. It is, possibly, the most intimate and personal encounter with God’s mercy that is possible on this side of Heaven. In Confession, God tells us that what we’ve done in the past is in the past. No matter how big or small our sin, He will forgive us. Sure, maybe we will have to say a couple extra “Hail Marys” or “Our Fathers,” but God will forgive us. What really matters is how we go forward: we must go forward and do our best to love God. Every time we go to Confession, we get the grace we need to pick ourselves up and try again to follow God. When God says, through the priest, “I absolve you of your sins,” we can be confident not only of God’s mercy, but also that our sins truly are forgiven.

We finally come to the Eucharist. The Eucharist feeds our souls: God enters us, and in doing so, he transforms us. The Eucharist is an incredibly powerful sacrament, and we cannot underestimate how much it can change us. St. John Vianney once said that, “if we really understood the Mass, we would die of joy.” St. Padre Pio of Pietrelcina said that, “It would be easier for the world to survive without the sun than to do without Holy Mass.” If Confession is the closest encounter with God’s mercy on this side of Heaven, then the Eucharist is the closest encounter with God’s love. God loves us so much that he is willing to enter into us as food, to nourish us in both body and soul. How wonderful is that!

When we run into one of those “Amos moments” in our lives, let us not be afraid to follow God’s will. Even though it may be challenging, God will never let us struggle alone. He will be with us every step of the way. Often, we will have even more help from the Church and those around us. On top of all that, we have the Sacraments, those beautiful moments of God’s grace which not even the Apostles had when they went on their first missionary journeys. May we all strive to become more holy every day of our lives, and by doing that, may we transform the world. The reward—Heaven—is worth it.

Today’s Readings:
July 15, 2018
15th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B
Amos 7:12-15; Psalm 85:9-10, 11-12, 13-14; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:7-13

Reflection for the Tenth Thursday of Ordinary Time

In the Gospel today, Jesus warns us that we must make peace with our opponents before we bring our gifts to the altar. He tells us that while we are on the journey, we must settle with our opponent. If we do not, we will be thrown into jail until the full debt is repaid.

Our lives are a journey, during which we grow in our ability to love. St. Paul tells us that there is neither faith nor hope in Heaven: we can see God, therefore we do not need either; however, love remains. If we do not always work to grow in our capacity to love during our time on Earth, then in Heaven we will not reach the heights God planned for us.

On this journey, we have a traveling companion: God. God is always with us. Sadly, through original sin and our own sins, we have turned God into our opponent. He always loves us, and he always desires to be with us; however, we have turned him into an enemy in our minds. God is the one with whom we must settle. If we do not, and we reach the end of our earthly existence seeing God as our opponent, we will be handed to the judge. This judge—Jesus told us that the Father has given him this authority—will separate those going to Heaven, and those going to “fiery Gahenna.”

The full debt, however, must be repaid if we have made God into our opponent. The Gospel says that we will be handed over to the guard until this occurs. For those going to hell, this can never be repaid, as those going to hell have made God into their enemy forever. Those going to Heaven, however, have only partially made God their enemy. They have struggled to reconcile with God, but have done so imperfectly. This passage may also refer to the time spent in purgatory, where the soul is cleansed before it enters into eternal bliss with God.

This passage, ultimately, reminds us of our need to receive the sacrament of confession regularly. God has given us an easy way to reconcile ourselves with him. Confession may not be fun, because we have to admit we were wrong and that is often painful, but it reconciles us with God. It is how we can be sure we’ve reconciled with God. Sadly, our human condition will cause us to need this sacrament over and over again, but God will give it to us with great joy. God desires to give us mercy. As the scriptures tell us, God and his Angels rejoice greatly in Heaven over one repentant sinner.

Today’s Readings: 2 Cor 3:15-4:1, 3-6; Ps 85:9ab & 10, 11-12, 13-14; Mt 5:20-26

Reflection for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper (Holy Thursday)

In Exodus, the Jewish people were to slaughter sheep with the “whole assembly present.” Why was this such a big deal?

The Ancient Egyptians worshipped sheep. Specifically, the god in charge of the rising and the falling of the Nile—and as the Nile rises and falls, so does Egypt—was depicted as a ram, an adult male sheep. God was commanding his people, through Moses, to kill the gods of Egypt and mark their doorposts with their blood. This most certainly made a statement, and it also explains why it made sense to be ready to go right after the Passover meal: your people had just killed thousands of another culture’s gods. You need to get out of town. Quick.

By spreading the blood on their doorposts, the Jewish people were telling everybody that they believed in the God of Abraham. It was a public sign of fidelity, of faithfulness. An angel, with a superior intellect to ours, can tell a Jew from a non-Jew. Angels wouldn’t need to see the sign on the doorpost. More important was the sign on the hearts of the people as a result of visibly proclaiming their faith. Again, the Jews were smearing the blood of the gods of Egypt on their doors. This is not an activity done lightly.

Because they listened to God, the Jewish people were spared the wrath the consumed the first-born children of Egypt. But I’d like to propose thinking of this in a little different way than we are often accustomed: it was not their Jewish heritage that saved them, but their public faith in the God of Abraham. We can even see it as a foreshadowing of the final judgment, where we are judged by our actions. Those willing to put aside the gods of Israel were judged worthy. Those who did not suffered greatly.

Like the Jews in Egypt, we too mark our doorposts with blood. The Blood of Christ that we receive in the Eucharist—whether we receive both species or not—marks the door posts of our souls. We wash ourselves in the Blood of the Lamb at every Mass. During the Last Supper, Jesus transformed the bread and wine into his Body and Blood, and he told us to “do this in remembrance of me.” He did not ask us to simply remember him: he asked us to do this—to transform bread and wine into his Body and Blood and share it amongst ourselves. We remember that it was Jesus who died in giving us this gift. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.”

The Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, was sacrificed in the New Passover, and we paint the door posts of our souls with Hid Precious Blood when we receive the Eucharist. How fitting is this imagery! The stakes of the New Passover are just as high. In the Old Passover, judgment was visited upon the Egyptians for their treatment of the Jewish people. In the New Passover, Christ—the Lamb of God—judges us for our treatment of every other person we encounter.

Jesus washes the feet of the apostlesIf we were judged solely on our merits and actions, we would be in sad shape. God knows this. He knows that we struggle and strive, but we still can’t be perfect. We plead for help, and when we make mistakes we have to beg for forgiveness. Jesus washes the feet of his apostles, and the apostles were not comfortable with this. When you wear sandals every day and walk around on dusty roads, your feet get dirty. The apostles knew who they were, and they knew who Jesus was. God was washing their dirty, nasty, grimy feet. God was making his apostles clean again. All the apostles needed to do was allow Jesus to minister them, to love them. Their job was to receive Jesus into the hearts, and to trust Him even when his actions did not make much sense.

To me, this action of Jesus washing the feet of the apostles sounds a lot like what happens in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Jesus, through the priest, enters into the areas of our life that are dirty, those of which we are ashamed, and He cleans us. He doesn’t do it half-way either. He cleans us totally, making our souls spotless of sin. He loves us so much that he will forgive us all our sins. We only have to be receptive to God’s mercy, and humble enough to ask for God’s grace and His forgiveness. We have to let God love us.

When we tell the priest our sins in confession, this is what we are doing. We tell God, in sorrow, what we have done, and through this action we demonstrate our faith that God will heal us. We profess that we have made mistakes, but that we know God is stronger than any sin. Then we are given a penance, a task that we must do. This penance helps us to grow in charity. Without charity, we are not true children of God. We do not stand a chance of remaining clean. We cannot truly receive Christ in the Eucharist. We cannot fully paint the door posts of our souls with the Blood of Salvation.

The Gospel today ends with Jesus calling us to love others as he loves us.

Jesus loves us enough that he forgave us all and died for us. Then he gave us his own Body and Blood as food for eternal life. He gave us this food to nourish us spiritually, and so that he could remain with us forever. He gave us this food so that we could grow in love and charity for God and for our neighbor.

Jesus loved us totally, and he is calling us to love others totally. As Jesus forgives without desiring revenge, so must we forgive and put aside our desire for revenge. As Jesus lives with us through every part of our lives—especially the hard parts, we must not avoid people because they have difficult lives. As Jesus feeds us spiritually, we do our best to nourish not only the bodies of those less fortunate, but we should also feed the spirit and minds of others through worship, prayer and study of Scripture.

On Holy Thursday, the first day of the sacred liturgies of the Triduum, we remember the Last Supper and the Washing of the Feet. We remember the charity that Jesus showed to all of us through his ministry on the earth and through his Church. Let us strive to mirror that charity in how we treat God and one another.

Readings: Ex 12:1-8, 11-4; Ps 116: 12-13, 15-16bc, 17-18; 1 Cor 11:23-26; Jn 13:1-15

Reflection for the Second Saturday of Lent

Today we hear two readings about repentance and mercy. The prophet Micah wonders at God’s mercy, marveling that he casts into the sea all our sins. In the ancient world, the sea often stood in place for a place of terror and death. In effect, what Micah is stunned by is that God, in some way, kills our sins. Our sins are washed away, and God showers compassion upon us.

This is exactly what happens in the story of the Prodigal Son, which we hear in today’s Gospel passage. We all know this story. What I would like to draw your attention to is the fact that the son who abandoned his family and his father recognized that he had sinned, then was willing to make repentance for it. He returned to his father, begging to be forgiven. His father could not contain his joy at seeing the son return. This is what happens in Confession. God is delighted to see us come back to him; however, we must make the turn back to God. We cannot expect God to forgive us if we aren’t willing to ask for his forgiveness. He wants to forgive us. He desires that we come back to him, and He is ready to welcome us with open arms.

We do not know the day or the hour in which our lives will come to an end, so let us make the turn toward God now, before it is too late! Let us run to God with all our strength, so that when we come home he may great us with open arms to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb!

Today’s Readings: Micah 7:14-15, 18-20; Ps 103:1-2, 3-4, 9-10, 11-12; Lk 15:1-3, 11-32