Tuesday, October 17, 2017

In Politics, Opponents Must Be Destroyed

You’ve probably noticed in recent years that the political world is rather brutal. Mud-slinging and character assassination no longer happen just during election campaigns, but now occur every hour of every day.

Sometimes I envy the Amish folks, who aren’t inundated with media reports all day long. I believe the Amish just found out that Franklin Roosevelt won his third term as president.

Since politics is all-pervasive these days, I guess it’s fitting this week’s gospel reading is Jesus’ famous teaching about politics. In a confrontation with the Pharisees, Jesus declared, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.”

Jesus’ point is fairly simple: We have a duty as citizens to obey the laws of the land (yes, including the tax laws—rats!) and we have a duty as citizens of the kingdom of God to obey the laws of the Lord.

This “give to Caesar” episode was prompted by the Pharisees, those religious leaders in Jerusalem who absolutely hated Jesus. The reason they hated Him was simple: He threatened their political power.

As we’ve seen recently, when anyone threatens the political power of someone else, that person is immediately hated and targeted for destruction. (At first, I was going to put the word “destruction” in quotes, to indicate that I meant it figuratively. But the way things are going nowadays, with a Bernie Bro sniper shooting at congressmen and a neo-Nazi moron plowing his car into a crowd, I guess the literal meaning of the word applies. Scary.)

The Pharisees demonstrated a tactic that is very common nowadays. They pretended to care a great deal about the truth, saying to Jesus, “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.”

Just like politicians today, we know the Pharisees were a bunch of dishonest creeps because the reading says so. Well, it doesn’t actually use the words “dishonest creeps,” but the reading this week begins by saying, “The Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in his speech.”

When we observe the nastiness, dishonesty, and self-serving motivations in today’s political world, and then see that the motivations of the Pharisees 2,000 years ago were the same, it becomes clear that the more things change the more they stay the same.

The constant theme in both situations is the sinfulness of mankind. Scripture says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” People are sinful, and our fallen sinful nature makes it easy for us to embrace selfishness. The three things people so often crave are prestige, power, and pleasure. This is the inevitable result of the worst of all sins, Pride.

The Pharisees had plenty of prestige, power, and pleasure—things they enjoyed immensely and felt were being threatened by Jesus. So, in their minds, regardless of who Jesus was, there was only one course of action: destroy Him.

Politicians today (and to be fair, throughout history, too) also enjoy plenty of prestige, power, and pleasure. They too feel threatened by their opponents. In their minds, there is only one course of action: destroy them.

It’s easy to criticize politicians (and Lord knows I do it all the time!). And it’s easy to criticize the Pharisees. But we should keep in mind, even anonymous middle-class schleps like you and me are tempted by pride and the urge for prestige and power and pleasure. 

Sin is sin, whether it’s on display every night on the political talks shows, or whether it’s known only to God. If the Pharisees of old and the politicians of today need to get humble and repent, then surely we do, too.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Catholic Conference Tops Fenway Park

Today let’s talk about a difficult topic: religion. Yes, I’m aware of the old saying, “It’s not polite to talk about religion or politics.” However, nowadays everything has been politicized, so I figured we could spend a moment talking about religion, as long as we avoid the typical format of most political discussions these days: two or more people appear on a cable news show, and scream at each other for 20 minutes strait. That is the most headache-inducing TV programming I’ve ever witnessed, and I’m sure since the advent of CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, etc., the sale of Advil is off the charts.

Regarding religion, we all know most religious people are very devoted to their faith. And sometimes when other people don’t hold the same beliefs, it can be a bit awkward, especially if a particular religious person engages in loud and demonstrative acts of worship, and makes regular visits to a religious shrine. But enough about the Red Sox and Fenway Park.

I’d like to talk about a different religion, one which should be at the top of my personal list, but often is nowhere near the top when the Sox are battling in the playoffs. I’d like to talk about the Connecticut Catholic Men’s Conference being held next Saturday, October 21st.

This is the tenth edition of this annual event. As someone who knows enough about the teachings of the faith to understand that my religious enthusiasm is prone to wane at times, the Conference is a much-needed booster shot. (Oh, isn’t that cute? “My religious enthusiasm is prone to wane at times.” I guess I couldn’t bring myself to type: “Most of the time I’m a lazy hypocrite.”)

 At the Conference, hundreds of Catholic men gather to do the things we often are uncomfortable doing in our usual settings: praying, singing, sharing our personal struggles, and reminding ourselves that God really cares.

This year the keynote speaker is Tim Staples, an internationally-known author, who has a remarkable story about his transformation from a Bible-thumpin’ fundamentalist Catholic hater, into a faithful member of the Catholic Church.

Other speakers include James Walberg, the brother of actor Mark Walberg and the director of the Mark Walberg Youth Foundation; Fr. Glenn Sudano, co-founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal; our very own Fr. Jim Sullivan, now pastor in Ansonia, who is also the official chaplain of the Conference.

The Master of Ceremonies for the event is singer/songwriter Marty Rotella, who is a very funny guy with an amazing singing voice. The day concludes with Vigil Mass offered by the Bishop of the Diocese of Bridgeport, Rev. Frank Caggiano (a good Irish boy).

The best part of the Conference is not the talented speakers, nor the music ministers, nor the opportunity for Confession and Eucharistic adoration, nor the wisdom of the Bishop and the other clergy. (Although don’t get me wrong, that stuff is really good.) The best part of the Conference is the fellowship and comradery that develop when hundreds of regular, everyday guys get together and let their hair down — well, at least for those who still have hair.

So, it would be awesome to see you there. The Conference is Saturday, October 21st, at St. Paul High School in Bristol. The doors open at 8 a.m., and the festivities end around 5 p.m. And here’s a bonus: lunch is included in the reasonable ticket price. Please visit ctcatholicmen.org for more information and to register online. 

The Conference is a really terrific event, and to be honest, it’s actually more spiritually fulfilling than a pilgrimage to Fenway Park. And for me, that is saying a lot!

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Accepting Hard Times Not Easy

This weekend at Mass the second reading is from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul addresses an issue that is either very appropriate for some people, or I suspect soon will be very appropriate for most of us. He talks about being spiritually content while being physically destitute and deprived.

Paul says, “I know how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance….I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need.” Then Paul offers the key sentence: “I can do all things in him (Jesus) who strengthens me.”

Paul did not fall for the seductive lie that his worth is based on his wealth. He knew his real worth as a person was based on his relationship with Christ. And whether his stomach was stuffed with food or grumbling with hunger, whether he was sleeping on a soft bed in mansion or on a rock under a bridge, he remained joyful and peaceful because he was rich in the things that really matter: faith, hope, and love.

Paul had learned the secret of acceptance. He was spiritually mature enough to know that bad thing inevitably happen during life, and he was able to accept it when these bad things happened to him.

Modern Americans, on the other hand, are often incapable of accepting even the slightest problem. How many times have you seen someone throw an absolute hissy fit over the most trivial matter? The well-dressed lady with the new BMW who I recently saw screaming at the befuddled Dunkin’ Donuts counter girl comes to mind. (On the other hand, maybe getting only three sugars in your coffee when you ordered four is indeed the end of the world.)

Let’s just take a step back for a moment and consider that a typical lower-middle-class American family today has far more luxury and conveniences than the greatest emperors of St. Paul’s day. You don’t think so? How many refrigerators and air conditioners did Caesar own? Did he have a Stop & Shop down the street from his palace with 8 gazillion selections of food? How did Caesar communicate with people on the other side of the continent? (Hint: it wasn’t email, text messages, or Facebook.) What did he do if he had an impacted wisdom tooth, an eye infection, or a ruptured appendix? He suffered and often died, that’s what he did. Man, we have it pretty darn good these days.

The reason I suspect Paul’s message soon will be very appropriate for most of us, is because I’ve been thinking lately that maybe we as a society have passed our prosperity peak and are beginning a subtle but definite downhill slide.

At some point our national debt of 20 Trillion dollars is going to come back to bite us. And it doesn’t take much to spook the financial markets and throw the world economy into a tailspin. I hope I’m wrong, but I’ve got a funny feeling the bubble just might be ready to burst.

And if it does, and if we suddenly go from screaming at coffee counter girls to scrounging for enough food to keep from starving, I wonder how we Americans, so unfamiliar with St. Paul’s concept of acceptance, will deal with it. I don’t think it’s going to be a very pretty sight.

The only advice I can offer is this: be prepared. Be prepared in a physical sense to deal with hard times, if and when they come. And more importantly, be prepared in a spiritual sense. Put Paul’s lessons into action. Put your faith in Christ and trust that He will take care of you no matter what. Open your heart and receive the serenity and joy the Lord truly wishes to give you.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Horoscope or ‘Horror Scope’?

Horoscopes are very popular. Virtually every newspaper publishes them on a daily basis, and even many radio stations announce the horoscope predictions each morning. Some people won’t even leave the house until they know what the “stars” say about their fortunes that day. And by “stars,” I don’t mean Hollywood celebrities. I mean, instead, those flaming balls of hot gas way out in the universe. (Oh wait, that kind of describes many Hollywood celebrities, doesn’t it?)

Anyway, I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone cares about the horoscopes. They never say anything specific. For instance, here is what a few recent horoscopes had to say:

Aries: “You might feel challenged by what is going on.” Oh, that’s really helpful. If you have a job or kids, this statement applies every single day of your life.

Taurus: “Sometimes you might not be sure of what is going on between you and a loved one.” (See the Aries reference about having kids.)

Virgo: “Bosses and those in charge push much harder than you would like.” (See the Aries reference about having a job.)

See what I mean? Those statements are so vague they are meaningless. The people who write the horoscopes must be afraid of making predictions which could turn out not to be true. So what? Politicians and economists and TV weathermen make predictions all the time that turn out not to be true. Do you ever see any of them losing their jobs?

I’d like to see the horoscope writers get a little bolder. Take a risk. Go out a limb. If you’re wrong, who cares? At least it might be interesting for a change. Here are a few suggestions:

Libra: “By noon today you will wish you had purchased more insurance yesterday. You also will discover your car’s airbag does not work properly.”

Cancer: “Today you will gain new insight and knowledge: the realization that everyone in your office hates you and has been talking about you behind your back for years.”

Leo: “A few years from now you will look back nostalgically on this day as the last day you were in good health.”

Scorpio: “An old college acquaintance will surprise you today — with a 13-year-old son and a paternity suit.”

Gemini: “An I.R.S. computer has flagged you for a complete audit. The notice will arrive in tomorrow’s mail. The good news, however, is that the I.R.S. audit will not begin until the secret F.B.I. investigation has been completed.”

Sagittarius: “Your current home improvement project has been a model of do-it-yourself, cost-saving efficiency in every way — except for the part where you electrocute yourself later this afternoon. But on the bright side (Get it? BRIGHT side?), the new addition you are constructing will be the perfect place for your post-funeral reception.”

Capricorn: “Your boss just discovered your little ‘accounting irregularities.’ Flee the country. And no, you do not have time to pack.”

Aquarius: “Good news and bad news: the good news is you are going on a long vacation. The bad news is your vacation is at the state penitentiary for seven to ten years. No, we’re sorry, the really bad news is your new roommate is a weight lifting-obsessed, convicted axe murderer.” 

Pisces: “Thirty years of donuts and Big Macs will finally catch up with your heart arteries at about 7:15 this evening. Try not to land on sharp-edged furniture or a hard tile floor, since the bleeding from your head could cause confusion in the Emergency Room as to exactly what is wrong with you. Other than that, the stars indicate the rest of your day will be exciting and special.”

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

God Offers Peace in Anxious Times

If you haven’t turned on your television during the past, oh, 40 years or so, you may not have heard that our world is a mess. There’s terrorism, hatred, fraud, dishonesty, violence, mass shootings, crumbling infrastructure, greed, unemployment, hurricanes, earthquakes, frayed nerves, crushing debt, fractured families, illness, substance abuse, loneliness, fear, and despair. (Did I leave any out?)

And now in recent months, the cheery topic of nuclear war has again entered the national conversation. Oh goodie.

At Mass this weekend, in his first letter to the Philippians, St. Paul writes, “Have no anxiety at all.”

Um, sure, Paul. How exactly are we supposed to do that?

Paul explains, “In everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

When Paul says that the peace of God “surpasses all understanding,” he means it is incomprehensible to those who have a worldly mindset. For people who focus only on physical health, wealth, prosperity, and security, it is, by definition, impossible to be at peace if you are sick or poor or living in an uncertain, chaotic situation.

Yes, St. Paul did not have to worry about the national debt or opiod addiction or mushroom clouds suddenly rising from a nearby vaporized city. But if you think life was less dangerous and less uncertain 20 centuries ago, think again. A huge percentage of the population back then was born into slavery. If you were lucky enough not to be a slave, you still had to work from sun-up till sundown your whole life, beginning at about age 6, just to survive. If you were luckier still and did not die as a youth from disease, accident, famine, or war, you could expect to live into your late 40s or early 50s, when you would die of old age.

Life was no picnic back then, and Paul knew it very well. Yet he knew it was possible to be free from anxiety and filled with peace. The key was that Paul put his faith in God rather than men.

Our values are the exact opposite nowadays. We put our faith in men—science, technology, government—to provide the big things: our health, wealth, security, happiness, and peace. And we put our faith in God for the little things: “Oh Lord, I’m running late, please help me find my car keys!”

Also, many people today think it is possible, even expected, to go through life without any problems. That’s what happens when we fall for all the baloney being slung our way by politicians, along with a steady stream of unrealistic nonsense from Madison Avenue and Hollywood. (And “participation trophies” and the “Everyone is a winner!” approach being used by educators isn’t helping either, if you ask me.)

St. Paul knew that Jesus’ words were true: “In this world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33). It’s a fact: life is hard. The sooner we accept this truth, the sooner we can get our heads out of the clouds. (Ooh, I almost said out of, um, another place.) Paul also knew there were more important things than this world: the love of God and eternal life in Heaven.

When we Christians focus on God and Heaven, we are not ignoring the problems here on earth, we are simply putting them into the proper perspective.

When we follow Paul’s instructions and make our requests know to God by prayer and petition, with a thankful attitude, then God will fill our hearts and minds with peace. It is possible to be free of anxiety, even in anxious times. 

We just have to know Who loves us and Who is in charge. And I’ll give you a hint, it’s not those smooth-talking politicians who promise to take care of all our needs.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Mall Mutants and Other Travel Tales

Being on the road a lot for my job, I know pretty much where all the important spots in Connecticut are located. No matter where I am in the state, I know where the nearest Mobil station is if my car is low on gas, and where the nearest Dunkin Donuts is if I am low on glazed crullers.

I also know exactly where all the malls are located. This is not because I enjoy shopping, but rather because I’ve learned that malls have fairly clean restrooms. I used to stop at fast food restaurants if I needed to use the facilities, but it seems in some of these places they clean the restrooms about as often as Hillary Clinton says, “It was my fault.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel very comfortable when I walk into a men’s room and can’t tell what color the porcelain is because it’s covered in a quarter-inch layer of moss and mold. Besides, it’s very difficult to use the bathroom while wearing one of those full-body, Haz-Mat suits.

Whenever I stop at a mall, I accomplish two objectives. First, I answer the call of nature. My second accomplishment is the fact I get some exercise. This is because it’s a federal law that no two malls in the country can be constructed in the exact same configuration, which means all the stores and all the restrooms are located in different spots from mall to mall. OK, maybe it’s not a law, but there must be some kind of solemn pledge all mall owners take, promising to lay out their buildings in such a way that even experienced visitors have to wander around quite a bit to find what they want.

All this walking gives me a fairly good workout. And on those occasions when the nearest parking space is half-a-mile away from the mall entrance, I get a fantastic cardiovascular workout — not so much because of the long distance, but because by the time I reach the men’s room, I’m practically sprinting, fearful that I’m about to do something I haven’t done since age 8, when I dreamt about being at Niagara Falls and woke up rather damp.

Anyway, visiting malls has made me realize a new semi-human species has evolved in recent years. The technical name for humanity is Homo Sapiens. My guess is scientists have named this new species Victorius Secretiens. Most of the clothing stores in malls now display in their windows larger-than-life photos of this mutant breed. (At least I hope the photos are not actual-sized. Otherwise, these freak chicks are twelve feet tall!)

The distinguishing features of these bizarre creatures include large eyes, large lips, large breasts, and abdomens no bigger than my forearm. When I look at the shoppers in the mall, the normal humans, I also see a lot of large — but in different places.

The strangest sights in the mall, however, are the many normal humans who are wearing the exact same clothing worn by the semi-human creatures in the oversized photos. A skimpy, midriff-baring outfit looks odd enough on a body that is twelve feet tall, 105 pounds, with measurements of 48-18-34. But when that same skimpy outfit adorns a normal human body that is five-foot-two, 165 pounds, with measurements of 34-38-42, it’s a little scary.

The only thing I can figure is this new semi-human species possesses some kind of sinister mind control power, which causes normal humans to lose sight of what they really look like. Thankfully I still know exactly what I look like, and we’d all be a lot better off if everyone wore what I wear while out in public: a full-body, Haz-Mat suit.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

What Is the Father’s Will?

In this week’s gospel reading, Jesus told a fairly straightforward parable about a man with two sons. The man ordered both sons to work in the vineyard. The first son said, “I will not,” but afterwards changed his mind and went to work. The second son said, “Sure, Pop, whatever you say,” but never went into the vineyard to work.

Jesus asked, “Which of the two did his father’s will?” The answer was obvious: the first son.

Jesus’ message also was obvious: you have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

But there is a lot more to this lesson than simply that. Jesus addressed this parable to “the chief priests and elders of the people.” These were the guys who ruled Israel’s religious-industrial complex. The average citizen looked up to them as being closer to God and more holy and righteous than anyone else. (And if you weren’t sure, all you had to do was ask them. They’d be more than happy to tell you just how holy and wonderful they were.) These men were wealthy and powerful, and they could ruin the lives of anyone who displeased them.

After telling the simple parable, Jesus looked these guys straight in the eye and said, “I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.”

Whoa, that was an incredibly shocking and insulting statement. It’s no wonder the chief priests and elders were determined to kill Jesus. In their pompous self-righteousness, they were extremely offended by Jesus. And they were too blinded by their power and prestige to realize that His words were right on the money.

It would be like some common peasant telling King Henry the Eighth, “Hey, Chubby, why don’t you settle down with one woman for a change and stop being such a jerk?” Safe to say that particular peasant’s life expectancy would have been drastically reduced at that moment (down to exactly…one moment).

If there’s one thing pompous and powerful hypocrites hate, it’s when someone tells them the truth about their hypocrisy.

In this week’s second reading. St. Paul wrote, “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others.”

Wow, is Paul kidding? Selfishness is the cornerstone of our society these days. They don’t call us the “Me Generation” for nothing. Far too many people go through life these days focused solely on maximizing their personal possessions, pleasure, and power—and our culture applauds them for having their priorities straight.

Paul warns against doing anything “out of vainglory.” The word vainglory is kind of cool, and regrettably it is not used very often these days. But the dictionary definition of vainglory is clear: “Extreme self-pride and boastfulness; excessive and ostentatious vanity.”

Jesus’ parable and St. Paul’s instruction do not apply only to powerful rulers, like the chief priests and elders and King Henry the Eighth. Everyday, middle-class folks can also become hypocritical, selfish, self-righteous, and vainglorious. Present-day Christians can learn a lot from this week’s Scripture readings. Are we truly doing what the Lord commands us to do? Are we truly loving our neighbors as ourselves?

When we get to Heaven, we’re going to be very surprised by who is there: tax collectors, prostitutes, drunks, and punks covered in piercings and tattoos.

And we’re going to be very, VERY surprised by who is not there: pompous chief priests and elders, sourpuss grouches with perfect church attendance, and cold-hearted hypocrites who said to God, “Sure, Pop, whatever you say,” but then never did their heavenly Father’s will.