Friday, October 15, 2021

Confession Gets It Off Your Chest

I never thought I’d need sunblock to go to Confession. But that’s what happens if Confession takes place in the middle of the third base grandstand at New Britain Stadium on a sunny Saturday at the end of September.

The Connecticut Catholic Men’s Conference was a rousing success this year. The camaraderie of 500 guys spending the day together was great. The four keynote speakers were dynamic. The concluding Mass celebrated by Archbishop Leonard Blair in front  of the pitcher’s mound was wonderful.

However, the best feature of the Conference, by far, was seeing at least 15 priests scattered throughout the grandstand hearing confessions. There was a steady line of dozens and dozens of men patiently waiting for a spot to open up. By the time the Conference was done, well over half of the 500 men present received the supernatural grace of this powerful Sacrament. 
It was a beautiful sight, and I also saw a couple of men walk away from the makeshift confessionals with tears of gratitude and relief in their eyes. There probably were more men like this, but I couldn’t see them clearly because of the tears of gratitude and relief in my eyes.

When it was my turn for Confession, the first sin I confessed was: “I spent the past 20 months using the pandemic as a poor excuse for avoiding Confession.” And if you’re waiting for me to list all the other sins I confessed, don’t hold your breath. That’s between God and me.

When I say my Confession was between God and me, you might reply, “But wait a minute. What about the priest? He heard your sins, so he’s involved, too.”

Well, that is true in one sense. But during the Sacrament of Confession, the priest is acting in persona christi, which is Latin for “In the person of Christ.” The priest, by virtue of his ordination, is the conduit through which the graces of God flow. 

Some people insist that an ordained priest and a formal ritual are not necessary to confess sins. A person can sincerely pray to God, express remorse for sinful thoughts and deeds, and ask for forgiveness. There’s no doubt God is so loving and compassionate that He hears these prayers and responds.
But the Church, in her wisdom, teaches that the Sacrament of Confession (also known as Reconciliation) is the optimal way to be forgiven, not for God’s sake or the priest’s sake, but for OUR sake.

You see, when we speak our failings and faults out loud to another person, rather than silently in our minds during private prayer, we really get it off our chest. There is no doubt in our mind whether God heard us or forgave us. When the priest audibly offers the prayer of absolution, we hear it; we know it’s true; and we know we’ve been forgiven. There is no doubt that God, working through His priest, has forgiven us.

That’s why there were tears of gratitude and relief in the eyes of so many men at the Conference. We knew God heard us and we knew we were forgiven. It’s a joyous feeling to have that weight finally lifted off your shoulders.

So, it was a great day, and the best part was the supernatural grace of forgiveness conferred through the Sacrament of Confession. And even though all the men present that day know this particular fact, I’m going to say it here anyway: Confession is available every weekend at your local parish, not just once a year at the Men’s Conference. Keep that in mind if you realize the weight of sin is dragging you down. Don’t delay until next year (or in my case, 20 long months). Go to Confession soon!
One other interesting thing happened at the Conference. I ran into Archbishop Blair just as he was arriving to say Mass. We chatted briefly, and then he saw my baseball hat, which I alway wear when at a ballpark, and he asked what the red “B” stood for. Now, I know the archbishop grew up in the Midwest and is a Detroit Tigers fan. But he’s been in New England long enough now that he should know these things. I said to him, in a somewhat shocked voice, “It stands for the Boston Red Sox, of course.”

No doubt the archbishop has a very busy and important job. But if you are located exactly halfway between New York and Boston, smack dab in the middle of the hottest rivalry in sports, there are certain things you just have to know. I’m pretty sure the Archbishop needs to go to Confession about that one. 

This Grandpa Is Out of Control

I slowly stand up in the middle of a crowded church basement. After clearing my throat, I say, “My name is Bill. And I’m a grandpa-holic.” Everyone in the room replies in unison, “Hi Bill.”


And so begins another meeting of the 12-step support group Grandparents Anonymous. 

I’m still a little shocked that I am here with all these other senior citizens struggling with compulsive behavior. For at least 30 years, I was the person who rolled his eyes whenever someone engaged in silly “grandparent antics.”

I remember the time my friend Dave, right in the middle of a Christmas party, got down on his hands and knees and started making funny faces with his 1-year-old grandson. “Aw, Dave,” I said. “That’s embarrassing. Plus, at your age, you’re gonna need help getting back up.” He completely ignored me and continued playing with the baby.
Then there was the time at a company picnic when a co-worker named Betty began acting foolishly. And she hadn’t even started drinking yet. When Betty’s son arrived at the picnic with a 3-month-old baby girl, Betty, usually a no-nonsense professional at the office, suddenly made weird cooing noises and began pinching the little girl’s cheek. I nonchalantly moved closer to Betty and whispered, “Betty, what are you doing? You’re acting ridiculous.” Just like Dave, she completely ignored me and continued cooing and pinching and saying over and over again in a high-pitched voice, “Isn’t my little granddaughter so precious?!”

In addition to those episodes when people very close to me temporarily lost their minds, there have been countless occasions when other acquaintances pulled out envelopes filled with snapshots, or more recently, their smartphones and began showing me photographs of their grandchildren. Being the polite person that I am, I usually forced a smile, nodded my head, and said, “Um, yeah, very cute.” But in the back of my mind I always thought, “C’mon, man. Babies are babies. They all look the same.”

So, for many years I was a no-nonsense rational human being. And then it happened. I became a grandfather and suddenly I was the one out of control. I pull out my phone and show photographs to anyone and everyone, at any time and every time. Even when someone gets fed up and says, “Bill, I’m not in the mood right now,” I reply, “Oh sure, I understand. But you gotta see this picture. He’s wearing the baseball hat I bought him. Isn’t he the cutest thing?!”
So, here I am, standing timidly in the basement of a church and describing my struggles. The folks in the crowd are listening attentively to my embarrassing personal stories. They nod periodically, empathizing with my difficulties. After about five minutes, I conclude and start to sit down. A lady nearby says, “That was terrific, Bill. Thanks for sharing. By the way, how is your grandson doing these days?”

Suddenly, I jump back up, filled with excitement. “Oh, he’s doing great! Let me show you!” I yell while reaching into my back pocket for my iPhone. “Here, look at this picture. Isn’t he so cute?!” 

In a matter of seconds, five dozen senior citizens leap to their feet (or what passes for leaping at our age), and start waving their phones frantically. A loud roar explodes in the room, as everyone talks loudly, excitedly, and simultaneously. “Look at little Johnny!” “This was Suzy at her birthday party last month!” “Here we are at a baseball game!” “These are the twins, who just turned four!”
Once again, a Grandparents Anonymous meeting concludes the way they always do, in total chaos. We all know that we’re behaving foolishly, and not a single one of us cares.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

To Be Great, We Must Be Servants

In the Gospel reading at Mass on Sunday, Oct. 17th, Jesus taught His disciples about the concept of power and authority. The discussion was prompted by James and John, who asked Jesus to give them the most prestigious and important positions in His kingdom. Jesus just laughed and said, “You do not know what you are asking.”

 
The rest of the disciples, however, were not so amused. We read, “When the [other] ten heard this, they became indignant at James and John.”
 
Jesus gathered them all around and pointed out something they already knew: people in authority often “lord it over” their subjects. In other words, they arrogantly exercise power over those below them. 

This is the way of the world. We understand this just as much as the disciples did. People in positions of high authority — politicians, business executives, cops, teachers, coaches — often wield power like tyrants, barking out orders left and right, and becoming angry when those orders aren’t immediately carried out.
 
Since this behavior is so common, we assume it is perfectly normal and natural. In one sense it is natural, if by natural we mean mankind’s sinful fallen state. But if by natural we mean this behavior is good and acceptable, we are sadly mistaken — just like the disciples.

“Lording it over” people in lower positions springs from pride, which Scripture teaches is the first and worst of all sins. C.S. Lewis wrote that pride is what made the Devil the Devil. It is the desire to be better than everyone else and, just as important, to make sure that everyone else knows it. Pride is the complete anti-God state of mind.
Lewis also explained that pride is competitive. As long as there is someone else in the world who is [fill in the blank: richer, cleverer, better looking, etc.], then the prideful person will not be satisfied. I suspect this is why the other ten disciples were indignant at James and John. They were not upset because the two brothers had the chutzpah to ask for important positions in Jesus’ kingdom; they were upset because they didn’t think of it first!

Jesus told the Twelve that whoever wishes to be great must be a servant, and whoever wishes to be first must be the slave of all. Then Jesus said that He “did not come to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.”

The Gospel reading does not tell us how the disciples reacted, but I bet they were thinking to themselves, “What in the world is this guy talking about?” To natural, sinful, prideful minds, Jesus’ words make no sense. It would be as if a corporate CEO said one of his main duties is to fetch coffee for the folks on the loading dock. Or if a college president said he wants to scrub toilets in the dorms. If either of these situations actually happened, we would say these people have a screw loose, since they’re neglecting their real duties. It makes no sense to our worldly minds.

In God’s spiritual reality, things are often the exact opposite compared to here on earth. Jesus’ lesson this week is a profound Christian paradox: whoever wishes to be great must be a servant. There are many others, by the way: you must die to live, the last shall be first, the meek shall inherit the earth, you must give to receive, etc. Each paradox makes no sense to the natural mind, but makes perfectly good sense from God’s point of view.
Jesus’ own life is proof that these Christian paradoxes are true. The incarnate Son of God, the Word through whom the entire universe was created, got down on His hands and knees and washed the feet of His disciples at the Last Supper. The next day He conquered sin by dying on the cross. And three days after that He conquered death once and for all by rising from the dead.

No doubt Jesus’ view on power and authority is very difficult to understand, especially as long as we’re on this side of eternity. But the more we strive each day to imitate the Master, the more our selfish pride will take a back seat, and the more we’ll be filled with peace and serenity.

Anti-clockwise Roundabouts and Bloody Twits

I’ve been thinking about roundabouts lately. No, I don’t mean the song “Roundabout” by the popular 1970s British band Yes. I’ve heard that song countless times, but when I looked up the lyrics online recently, I was surprised to realize I had no idea what they were saying in about two-thirds of the song. This is pretty common with a lot of rock songs, as they don’t teach a class titled Enunciation 101 at Rock ‘n Roll University. But they do offer an advanced course called Mumble & Mutter 304.
 
Nor was I thinking about these lyrics: “Behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout, a pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray,” which is from a song by another British rock band, whose name escapes me at the moment.
Anyway, in our part of the world, the more common term for roundabout is rotary or circle. These are the highway intersections without traffic lights. Cars enter the circle turning to the right. Turning to the left would be a British move, also known in the States as a fatal move. Once in the circle, you continue in a counter-clockwise direction (or anti-clockwise, if you’re British) until you reach the road on which you wish to continue. At this point you exit the rotary and carry on your merry way.

In theory, it’s simple, safe, and effective. However, I’ve been thinking about roundabouts recently because twice in the past few weeks I’ve approached a rotary and the car in front of me came to a complete stop, even though the circle was free of other cars. In each case, the driver apparently had never encountered a rotary before and was completely baffled by this mysterious circular section of highway. It seemed as if they were waiting for a light to turn green — which would be a long wait, since there are no lights at a rotary. Either that, or the drivers thought the Yield sign meant the same thing as a Stop sign. (To be fair, I usually treat Stop signs as Yield signs.)
In both cases, it was clear to me the drivers were a bit confused and apprehensive. So, I attempted to put them at ease by offering a cheery Connecticut greeting: I blasted my car horn with my right hand and stuck my left arm out the window and waved it frantically, communicating the friendly message, “Move your butt, ya bozo!!” (Or in Britain it would mean, “Move your bum, you bloody twit!!”)

Later I was surprised to discover the State of Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles website has an entire page, with multiple links, devoted to the history of roundabouts. They fell into disfavor in recent decades, mostly because of negative experiences with the ones built in the first half of the 20th century, especially the notorious “Cape Cod Rotaries.” This is because they were large-diameter circles with multiple lanes, and cars would enter and exit at high speeds. Accidents were common, and some drivers, once entering the rotary, would find it almost impossible to exit. Some would just continue around and around for hours until they ran out of gas, and then wait for a tow truck thankfully to drag them off the rotary.
However, rotaries have become popular again because the design has been drastically improved. I’ll bet you didn’t know there was any designing involved, beyond a DOT draftsman locating his protractor and making a circle on a highway drawing. The new and improved design makes the rotary diameter much smaller. Vehicles are forced to enter and exit at low speeds, which make the circles much less dangerous.

So, in my opinion, roundabouts are my cup of tea — as long as the bloody twit in front of me keeps his bum moving. 

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Was Jesus Really a Drunkard and Glutton?

During His earthly ministry, Jesus was accused by the religious authorities of being a drunkard and a glutton. Wow, that’s a pretty serious charge. Why do you think they called Him that? Well, there are a few possibilities. Maybe Jesus did eat and drink too much. Maybe he liked to book those Carnival Cruise vacations with the open bars and extravagant buffets. 

No, that’s probably not right since Jesus wasn’t a retiree from New York. 
Maybe there were many more occasions than those recorded in Scripture when Jesus changed water into wine and multiplied loaves and fishes. So, possibly whenever he showed up for dinner it turned into a rollicking good time, and Jesus became known as the “party dude.”

Hmm, that’s probably not correct either. 

Maybe the reason Jesus was accused of being a drunkard and a glutton was because He spent a lot of time ministering to the outcasts of society, the people who were regularly ridiculed by “decent” folks. You know who the decent folks are, right? They’re the ones who always play by the rules — and proudly let everyone know they do.

Maybe it was a case of “guilt by association.” Jesus spent a lot of time with the outcasts of society, and the snooty people assumed He was one of them, just another Skid Row bum.
Actually, Jesus WAS one of them. No, not in the sense that He really was a drunkard and a Skid Row bum, but in the sense that He was a fellow human being. That’s the whole point of the Incarnation.

When’s the last time you stopped and really thought about what we as Christians believe? We believe the eternal, supernatural, all-powerful, all-knowing God who created the entire universe out of nothing decided to become a human being. This is simply stunning. 

Imagine that the CEO of a major corporation decided to go down to the basement and help the cleaning crew scrub toilets. Imagine that a famous rock star decided to hang around after a concert and help the roadies load equipment onto the truck. And in both of these imaginary cases, the helpful actions are done in secret. There is no PR benefit here.

Well, when the Almighty Creator of the Universe decided to become a man, it was a zillion times more startling and demeaning than anything the corporate CEO or rock star ever could do. If a business titan or famous celebrity humbled himself to work with the minimum wage staff, that indeed would be going from the top to the bottom, but still within the parameters of human activity.
 
When God decided to take on human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, it was a complete transformation in essence. The eternal, supernatural God became a finite, weak human. The Incarnation was the most humble act in all of history. No, that doesn’t even begin to describe it. It was the most humiliating act in all of history.

As we know, people of other faiths do not believe that Jesus is divine. In most cases, it’s not that they can’t accept that Jesus performed miracles and rose from the dead. Instead, the main reason they don’t believe Jesus is God is because in their minds it’s the most embarrassing and degrading thing the Almighty Creator could do. The idea of God lowering Himself to become human is sacreligious; it’s the most insulting thing you could say about the Creator.

However, it really happened. And there’s only one explanation of why the eternal, supernatural Creator lowered Himself to become a man: love. The love God has for us, His precious children, far outweighs all the insults to His dignity. 
I’ve heard that some theologians speculate that the main reason Satan left Heaven, where he had been a powerful angel, was because he was thoroughly disgusted when he heard God’s plans for the Incarnation. “Become one of those lowly human worms?! That’s below your dignity!” Well, who knows if this story about Satan is correct? But it certainly is below God’s dignity.

So, Jesus was accused of being a drunkard and a glutton. He spent time ministering to people who committed sins of the flesh (substance abuse, gluttony) and He was criticized by people who committed sins of the spirit (pride, anger).

Thankfully, the triune God loves us so much, He did the unthinkable: He lowered Himself to become one of us, and He wallowed in the mud with us. He did it simply because He loves us and wants to save us from our sin. What great news!

By the way, Carnival Cruises are OK. Just be careful with the open bars and buffets. You don’t want people to start calling you a drunkard and a glutton. 

Living in a 1970s TV Ad

Every summer I write at least a few times about my favorite sport, baseball. Recently, I also wrote two columns about hot dogs, essays which were prompted by a study from the University of Michigan that claimed every time people eat a hot dog, it reduces their lifespan by 36 minutes. Obviously, I was compelled to defend a sacred culinary delight from such outlandish and slanderous accusations.
 
A friend said to me, “Hey Bill, if only you liked apple pie and Chevrolet, you could be a 1970s car commercial.” 

I immediately got the reference, as would anyone who was alive and paying attention in the early- to mid-1970s. Chevrolet came out with a series of TV ads with a catchy jingle: “Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet.” If you remember those ads, I guarantee that musical snippet will be stuck in your head for the next six hours.
If you’re too young to remember, go to YouTube and look up the commercials. The ads were simple, cute, folksy and incredibly effective. The clever tune forever linked those four items with Americana. Baseball certainly is an American invention, but based on a British game. Hot dogs were originally developed in Germany. Apple pie is from England. And Chevrolet is an auto manufacturing firm founded by a guy from Switzerland. So, yeah, there really is no good reason those four things should be synonymous with American culture, but they are, all because of some clever advertising executives.

Back in the early 1970s, international oil embargos caused gasoline prices to skyrocket, which made big ol’ gas-guzzling vehicles suddenly way less attractive. At the same time, smaller imported cars, primarily from Japan, were becoming very popular here in the U.S. The upper management at Chevrolet faced a dilemma. Should they start making high quality cars, or should they hire a slick ad agency to create a campaign that will forever wrap their brand name in the American flag? If you ever owned a Chevy Vega, and watched the entire undercarriage rust away within two years, you already know which choice the highly-paid suits made.
I suspect another reason they went with the patriotic-themed ad campaign is the fact that people who could most easily afford to buy a new car were middle-aged. In the 1970s, this meant these folks had been young adults during World War II. Many of them either fought in the Pacific theater or had a loved one who fought and/or died there. Maybe the original rough draft commercial campaign was considered a bit too blunt: “You’re not gonna buy a car from the same people who bombed Pearl Harbor, are you?!” 
Anyway, I do in fact love apple pie, and I currently drive a Chevy Equinox. (To give credit where it’s due, the Equinox is awesome. After 125,000 miles there’s not a speck of rust on. The Bow Tie Boys certainly have improved their product immensely since the ‘70s.) So, as my friend pointed out, I could be a 1970s car commercial.
 
If that commercial was made today, the jingle probably would be: “Football, pizza, nacho chips, and Subaru.” Or maybe a version for city-dwelling millennials: “Skateboard, take-out, M&Ms, and Uber rides.”

When you look up the old commercials on YouTube, read some of the comments by viewers. Those commercials still evoke a lot of nostalgia and bring back some very fond memories.   

My preferences in food, entertainment, and transportation certainly are not based on TV ads from a half-century ago. But it’s kind of cool that I do indeed enjoy baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet. Maybe in a tiny way, the good ol’ days are still with us. 

Friday, September 24, 2021

Harvard Names Atheist Head Chaplain

Did you hear the news a few weeks ago that Harvard University just named an atheist as the school’s head chaplain? Greg Epstein, who was raised Jewish, but now is an avowed atheist and identifies himself as a “humanist rabbi,” will be in charge of the more than 40 chaplains on campus.

Chaplain Epstein is the author of a book, “Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe.” Since 2005 he has been the “humanist chaplain” on campus. Regarding his new position at Harvard, Epstein explained, “There is a rising group of people who no longer identify with any religious tradition but still experience a real need for conversation and support around what it means to be a good human and live an ethical life.” 
Soon after Chaplain Epstein’s appointment was made, Catholic bishop Robert Barron wrote an opinion piece and pointed out that if an atheist can be appointed as a school chaplain, then the word “chaplain” has lost all meaning. If students have a need for “conversation and support” about being a good human, then they need a counselor, a faculty advisor, or someone with whom they can share a beer and talk. They don’t need an atheist chaplain, unless the word chaplain is now defined to mean “pal” or “buddy.” 

In his essay, Bishop Barron spelled out the core doctrines of Christianity, such as belief in the Creator God, the physical Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and the possibility of eternal life in Heaven. Then he  wrote, “Say what you want about all of that. Affirm it, deny it, argue about it. Tell me I’m crazy for believing any of it. But by God, it’s a religion.” 

This story about the new head chaplain at Harvard supports a claim I’ve been making for decades: Secular Humanism is a religion. Many people will say that Secular Humanism is not a religion because humanists do not believe in God. But I maintain that everyone has a religion. Everyone has a set of beliefs about the nature of existence that shape their attitudes and guide their actions. With or without God, this is a person’s religion.

Now, you may say that I’m doing exactly what Harvard just did: giving an historic word a new and overly broad definition. Well, maybe. But if you look at Secular Humanism more closely, you’ll find it has a set of creeds and doctrines, just like any other traditional religion. Here are five of the most fundamental of these creeds, as published in a document called “The Humanist Manifesto”:

“We begin with humans not God, nature not deity.”

“We can discover no divine purpose for the human species.”

“We regard the universe as self-existing and not created.”

“Humanists believe that traditional [religion], especially faith in the prayer-hearing God, is an unproved and outmoded faith.”

“No deity will save us; we must save ourselves.”
That’s not exactly the Nicene Creed, but they are credal declarations that get to the heart of the most important questions humans need to answer: Who are we? How did we get here? What is our ultimate destiny?

Anyway, how about turning the tables for a change? We should point out that Secular Humanism is a genuine religion, and therefore, it’s doctrines should not be promoted in public schools, per the “separation of church and state” interpretation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Science classes can no longer teach, “We regard the universe as self-existing and not created.” Social Studies classes can no longer teach, “We begin with humans not God, nature not deity.”

I’m just kidding. I know that would never happen, and personally, I don’t want that to happen. What would be nice, though, is for this story about the new Head Chaplain at Harvard to cause folks to realize that an absence of Judeo-Christian beliefs is not the same thing as an absence of organized religion. Instead, a different, modern, godless religion has assumed the prime position on campus.
We should do what Bishop Barron suggests: look at basic statements of faith about various religions — including Secular Humanism — and affirm them, deny them, or argue about them. The best way to seek the truth is honest and open debate. I suspect that’s an activity that is frowned upon these days at Harvard.