Monday, February 29, 2016

The Gates of Hell Shall Not Prevail

As Catholics, we should rejoice that we are members of the only earthly institution that has been given a divine guarantee of success. In Matthew’s gospel, chapter 16, Jesus instituted the Church on the Rock of St. Peter, and then the Lord said about the Church, “The gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.”

That’s terrific news! The God of the Universe has promised that no matter how bad things get, not even the forces of the Evil One can defeat the Church. Whew, I feel better already. It’s pretty obvious sinister forces have been working overtime to destroy the Church, especially in recent years with all the scandals. Sometimes it seems the Church is about to fade into obscurity, or even collapse. So it’s good to know that Jesus Himself promised that the Church ultimately will survive and thrive.

Anyway, over the years, I’ve heard some priests and preachers explain Jesus’ words to mean that no matter how viciously Satan attacks the Church, the Church will have the power to withstand those attacks and avoid being conquered.

But wait a minute. That’s not what Jesus said. He specifically used the term “gates.” Gates are used to defend something, such as a house or city. Gates are used to keep invaders out. Gates are employed as a military tactic when you are on the defensive.

Jesus did not say the power of Hell shall not prevail against the Church’s gates. He said the gates of Hell shall not prevail against the Church.

To be fair, in the book of Revelation, St. John does talk about gates, when he described the future heavenly city with big walls and 12 gates made of pearl, the famous “pearly gates.” (Which prompted comedian Jim Gaffigan to observer, “Heaven has gates? You mean Heaven is a gated community? What are they trying to do, keep teenagers out who want to sneak in and use the pool?”) However, John’s symbolic writing was based on his apocalyptic vision and most Scripture scholars say we should not take it too literally. Besides, John was talking about future conditions in Heaven; Jesus was talking about the Church on earth, here and now.

So, here and now on earth, Jesus tells us that the gates of Hell shall not prevail against the Church. Do you know what that means? It means we are not supposed to be on defense, hiding behind our walls and gates, hoping the forces of evil are kept out. Instead, we are supposed to be on offense, on the attack, and trying to smash down the gates of Hell and destroy evil.

How exactly do we go on the offensive, on the attack, and destroy evil? Here’s an idea: every time we see someone doing something we don’t approve, let’s scream that he’s an evil sinner and beat him over the head with a Bible. That ought to work. Um, maybe not.

Yes, we should be on the offensive, on the attack, rather than defensively sitting back in our little parishes and hoping that evil doesn’t get inside. But for followers of Christ, we don’t “attack” using traditional weapons. We also don’t “attack” using emotional weapons, such as judgment, condemnation, screaming, and metaphorical (or literal) beatings over the head with Bibles. 

We must go on the offensive, on the attack, by using the spiritual weapons of the Lord: love and mercy and truth. We have to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, just as Jesus commanded. The weapons of love and mercy and truth can conquer evil. We have been commanded by the Lord to go on the offensive, go on the attack, and smash down the gates of Hell. He has assured us that we will be victorious.  

Friday, February 26, 2016

Jesus Says We Must Repent – Or Perish

A while back I was listening to a Christian radio station in my car, and a statement made by the preacher kind of jumped out at me. He said Satan knows more correct theology about God than even the brightest, most educated theologians in history. Satan, after all, is a supernatural being with an intellect far greater than mere mortals, and he is a powerful angel who was in the very presence of God until he rebelled because of pride and then was cast out of Heaven. Satan has seen God in action—from the inside—and he knows exactly what God is like.

However, the difference between Satan and a devout Christian, the radio preacher explained, is that Satan would never, ever consider repenting.

So it’s not enough merely to know about God or to believe in God. St. James wrote in his epistle in the Bible, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder” (James 2:19).

In addition to knowing facts about God, a true disciple must repent, ask for mercy, and dedicate him or herself to serving the Lord. This is the only way we can be in a true loving relationship with God.

In the gospel reading at Mass this weekend, Jesus repeated the exact same bold statement within a few paragraphs of each other. Twice he declared, “But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”

Repentance is so important. It was the primary message of countless Old Testament prophets. It was the message preached by John the Baptist as he called people back into a relationship with God. It is the message Jesus is proclaiming to us in this week’s gospel.

If we don’t repent, we cannot be forgiven. If we’re not forgiven, then we’re still stuck with our sins. If we’re still stuck with our sins, then we can’t enter into Heaven. So as Jesus said (twice), if we do not repent, the end result is that we will perish. Repentance is that important.

Unfortunately, in our modern society it is very difficult to repent—and not because we don’t have anything to repent of. On the contrary, our society just might have more sins per hour per person than any other culture in human history. If you don’t think so, just consider the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, anger, lust, greed, envy, gluttony, and sloth. In bygone generations people were taught to avoid these seven attitudes that invariably lead to sin. In our modern generation, these seven attitudes are encouraged, celebrated, and even rewarded. The resultant sins are just exploding all over society.

So it’s certainly not a lack of sins that makes it hard for us to repent. The problem is that we frequently do not recognize these sins as sins. The problem is we have redefined sin to be nothing more than either personal preferences or the result of unfair circumstances or just plain bad luck. We have gone so overboard trying not to be judgmental or intolerant, we can no longer even bring ourselves to label any behavior—no matter how vile or harmful—as a sin. At best we call it a constitutionally-protected personal choice or an alternative lifestyle; and at worst we call it any one of a zillion illnesses.

“Oh, the poor fellow. He has an illness that compels him to kidnap children and rape them. He needs counseling to help him control his urges.”

“Oh, the poor dear. She has an illness that makes her embezzle money from her employer and then blow it all at the casino. She needs therapy to help improve her self-esteem.”

“Oh, the poor man. He is unable to work because he has an illness that forces him to sit on the couch all day and smoke pot, watch TV, and scarf down Hostess Fruit Pies by the case. He needs welfare checks and food stamps to pay his bills.”

Nope, nothing here to repent of. If it’s a personal choice or an unfair circumstance or bad luck or a pseudo-illness, then no one is personally responsible. No one is guilty. No one has committed a sin. And no one needs to repent. How wonderful.

Only one problem. Jesus says if we don’t repent we will perish. I suspect Jesus said the same thing to Satan way back when Satan was throwing his prideful hissy-fit in Heaven. At that moment, when Satan possibly still could have repented and been forgiven for his rebellious arrogance, he instead defiantly proclaimed that he had done nothing wrong except stand up for his right to make his own choices—or possibly he insisted that he had an illness that compelled him to demand that other creatures worship him as if he were God. Who knows?

Either way, Satan was cast from Heaven because of his sin and his lack of repentance. He now prowls the world in a seething rage of agony, looking for unsuspecting souls to deceive and devour. (See: 1 Peter 5:8.) He is having a bloody field day in our modern society.

What a crying shame that we find it so hard to repent. It is, as Jesus said (twice), absolutely necessary to keep from perishing.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Impatiently Waiting For Serenity

Recently I’ve noticed that I’m becoming less patient. For example, I’ve been driving on Interstate-84 on a daily basis for decades. I’ve probably spent more time on that highway than I’ve spent in my own bed. But in the last year or so, when the traffic slows down to a 10 mph crawl — as it does faithfully every day of the week — the needle on my frustration meter spikes into the red zone. That never used to happen. I used to accept that stop-and-go traffic was a fact of life and a 20 mile journey is simply going to take at least an hour. Now, I immediately grit my teeth and mutter all kinds of unpleasant comments about my fellow commuters. (I realize the Bible says “love your neighbor as yourself,” but I’m pretty sure none of those motorists live on my street, so they ain’t my neighbor.) 

Last month my wife and I were sitting in Bradley airport waiting for our flight to begin boarding. Then they made an announcement: “Attention passengers on flight 903 to Ft. Myers. We’re sorry, but two flight attendants called in sick. We’ve contacted replacements, who are now on their way to the airport. We will begin boarding as soon as they arrive, which will be in about 45 minutes. We cannot begin the boarding process without our full crew of flight attendants. Thank you.”

I jumped up and said, “Wait a minute. What did he say? We’re waiting for flight attendants? Not jet engine mechanics. Not the pilots. Not the guys who supply the tiny bags of stale peanuts. But flight attendants? We can’t board the plane without flight attendants?!”

I turned to my wife and said, “We can do that. It’s easy. You just stand inside the plane next to the cockpit door, smile a lot, and say, ‘Welcome aboard.’ Then you help people get their suitcases in the overhead bins, which I usually do anyway ‘cause I’m tall. If we load the plane now we’ll be all set to take off as soon as the real flight attendants get here. C’mon, hon, let’s go over there and volunteer to get this show on the road.”
My wife stared at me, then said, “What is your problem?”

I replied, “My problem is that I don’t want to waste the better part of the next hour sitting here waiting for a couple of airline employees to drive up I-91 from a hotel in Hartford.”

She smiled and said, “Please sit down and relax.”

That’s the problem. I can’t relax anymore. Whenever precious time is being so grossly wasted, I just can’t shrug my shoulders and say, “Oh well.”

Maybe my lack of patience is happening due to metaphysical and philosophical reasons. Maybe I’ve become aware that I am at an age where even if I live out my full life expectancy, there’s really not that many years left. This means, of course, that every wasted hour nowadays is not an insignificant percentage of my remaining time on this planet and it’s truly a cosmic injustice when an entire hour is not put to productive use. Or, on the other hand, maybe I’m just a grumpy geezer.

Our vacation in Florida was relaxing — not counting the waiting at the baggage carousel, the waiting in line at the rental car counter, and the waiting for a table at various restaurants each night. 

From now on I’m going to do my best to avoid becoming impatient, especially when I have to wait. And I’m going to begin my quest for serenity right now. Oops, better make it tomorrow; today I have to go to the Motor Vehicle Department.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Happy in Heaven If Loved Ones Not There?

The Bible is very clear that Heaven is wonderful. Scripture says that once people are in Heaven, the Lord “will wipe ever tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away” (Rev. 21:4).

The Bible also is very clear that not everyone will make it to Heaven. Jesus Himself said, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many” (Matt. 7:13).

This got me wondering: How can I truly be happy in Heaven if some of my loved ones are in Hell? OK, that is a bit optimistic on my part. Let me rephrase it to a more likely scenario: How can my loved ones be happy in Heaven if I’m in Hell?

There are some folks who playfully say, “Well, Hell sounds like a lot more fun than Heaven, anyway. And besides, that’s where all my friends will be!”

I’m usually the first one to make smart-aleck comments about serious topics, but in this case even I know that is simply not funny. There is nothing playful or fun about being in a situation where your very soul is aching with torment and loneliness and regret—for all eternity.

So, I ask the question again: If a person makes it to Heaven, can he or she really be happy and joyful if precious loved ones reject the Lord during their earthly lives and as a result spend all of eternity separated from the joy of God?

This is really not an academic exercise, since we all know that young adults are leaving the Church in droves nowadays. God is certainly a God of mercy and forgiveness, and regular church attendance is not absolutely mandatory for entrance into Heaven (although it truly helps a lot!), but you have to figure a sizeable percentage of those people who no longer attend church also have lost their faith in the Lord. They have either stopped believing altogether, or aren’t sure what to believe, and don’t really care anymore. And that is a scary thought, because the bottom line, according to Christ Himself, is faith and trust in the Lord.

I did a little research online. If you type this question in a Google search: “How can I be happy in Heaven if my family is in Hell?” you will get more than 5.4 million results. I’d say that indicates I’m not the only person concerned about this.

All the essays I read boil down to a few basic theories.

1. When we’re in Heaven, we will not have any memory of our loved ones, which will allow us to be perfectly happy and joyful. Hmm, I suspect Heaven’s joy will not be dependent on ignorance. That just doesn’t sound like God’s way of doing things.

2. In Heaven, we will be so keenly aware of God’s sense of Justice, that we will fully agree that our fallen-away loved ones deserve their fate, and we will be completely at peace with it. Whoa, I don’t think the guy who thought up this theory quite understands the love a parent has for a child. It doesn’t add up.

3. It’s a mystery that will not make sense to us until we’re in Heaven. It’s kind of like when Job demanded answers from God, and God finally spoke: “Who is this who obscures divine plans with words of ignorance?...I will question you, and you tell me the answers!” (Job 38:2-3). Basically, God said to Job: You’re on a need-to-know basis, pal, and right now you do not need to know!

Apparently, the faith that gets us into Heaven in the first place is the same faith we need to have regarding this question. God is in charge, and we must trust that His plans are perfect. 

But I have to tell you, this question still bothers me. 

A lot.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Getting Ready for the Transfiguration

(This weekend the Gospel reading at Mass is the Transfiguration. Here’s a little essay offering a different take on this momentous event.)

“Hey Elijah, are you ready yet?”

“Hang on, Moses, I’ll be ready in a minute.”

“You were probably late for your own funeral!”

“What funeral? No need for a funeral when God whisks you away in a chariot of fire.”

“Oh yeah, I forgot. Mr. Big Shot riding into Heaven like the grand marshal of the Rose Bowl Parade. Well, anyway, Elijah, we’re gonna to be late if you don’t hurry up! We’re scheduled to meet the Lord on a mountaintop in ten minutes. And we’ve got a really important assignment.”

“I know, Moses, I know. I was sitting next to you during the PowerPoint presentation, remember? I know exactly why we’re doing this. It’s time for our age, the age of the Law and the Prophets, to give way to the new age of grace through Jesus.”

“Exactly. So how’s it gonna look if we don’t show up on time because Mr. Big Shot took forever to get dressed?”

“Hey, lighten up, Mo. It’s been centuries since I’ve been on earth. I want to look my best.”

“Listen, E-man, when the Lord makes our appearance dazzling white, those frightened little bunnies won’t be looking at our clothes.”


“You know, Jesus’ disciples. He’s bringing Peter, John, and James. They’re gonna be so terrified they won’t notice any details. In fact, God told me that He’ll have to impress on their minds exactly who we are. Otherwise, they’d have no clue about our identities.”

“Yeah, I keep forgetting how stunning it is when mortals witness supernatural events. Like that time I called fire down from heaven. I just KNEW God was going to do it—He told me so—but still, when it happened, I almost fainted.”

“Yeah, me too. When I held my arms out and that Red Sea split right in half, I stood there for twenty minutes with my jaw hanging open drooling on myself.”

“So those three guys are in for quite a surprise, eh?”

“You’ve got that right, E-man. They will never forget this moment. That’s the whole point. Years from now, when Jesus’ new church on earth is being persecuted, these guys will have to convince people that it’s all true. And one of the main things they’ll be able to cite is this event.”

“Hey Mo, not to be a Monday morning quarterback or anything, but, uh, why did the Lord pick these guys, these bumbling fishermen? Couldn’t He have chosen a better class of disciple?”

“Oh, Elijah, I’m surprised at you. Jesus wasn’t looking for class and sophistication when He chose His disciples. He was looking for simple sincerity. Don’t forget, in a very short time these ‘bumbling fishermen’ will be responsible for spreading the Gospel all over the world. If Jesus had picked guys who were cunning and shrewd, no one would really trust them. With these simple men, people will instantly realize that they’re not clever enough to fabricate such an amazing story. Their innocence and naiveté will be their best asset.”

“Very nice speech, Mo, but what are you trying to do, make us late?”

“D’oh! I hate when you do that, Elijah! C’mon, hurry! We’re really late now!”

“Wait, wait! Moses, before we go, I want your honest opinion. How do I look? Is the gold sash a little too...MUCH?”

“Oh, E-man, of course you look great. You always go in style. But like I said before, those disciples won’t notice. And you know Jesus, He’s not into that kind of stuff at all.”

“Oh my! You’re absolutely right, Moses. I’m way overdressed! I’ve got to change my outfit. I’ll go with a light brown peasant frock. Yes, that’s it. Elegant, yet subdued.”

“No way! There’s no time. Hey! Where are you going?! Come back here!”

“I’ll be right back, Mo. Stall them for me. Tell some more Red Sea stories...” 

“Oh, that guy drives me nuts! Hey Lord, next time I have to visit earth, can I bring Adam instead? His entire wardrobe consists of a single fig leaf!”

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Verbal Tics Are Literally Everywhere

Besides discovering that I’m about as photogenic as a bulldog in a rain storm, making YouTube videos for work (see last week’s column) has taught me about a concept I’d never heard of before: the verbal tic.

A verbal tic is a speech habit that people repeatedly employ without even realizing it. The most common tic is “you know,” often tacked on at the end of every phrase as a contracted, “y’know.” Former Red Sox outfielder Shane Victorino might have the all-time record. A few years ago, during an interview after a game, he managed to say “y’know” 72 times in three minutes. (Yes, someone actually counted.)

I met a guy through work who ends every statement with the one-word question, “right?” For example: “I woke up this morning, right? And then I drove to work, right? And then at noon I went to lunch, right?” If he hailed from Canada, he instead would say, “eh?” (That’s why we call our good neighbors to the north “The Eh Team.”)

The YouTube videos for work were recordings of presentations I’ve done for clients over the years. So I did not work from a script. I simply stood in front of the camera and started talking. While editing the videos, I discovered that I routinely use a number of verbal tics. One tic is “I mean.” I’d say something like, “The performance of this product is impressive. I MEAN, it tops anything else on the market!” Saying “I mean” every once in a while is tolerable, but it’s kind of annoying when used in every other sentence.

Another tic is “literally.” Such as: “This product has LITERALLY revolutionized the HVAC industry.” Besides being annoying, most of the time I didn’t even use the word correctly. Which reminds me of a conversation I once overheard. A guy said, “Oh, that was so scary I literally had a heart attack.” Concerned, his friend asked, “You mean an ambulance came and took you to the hospital?!” And the first guy replied, “No, I didn’t actually have a heart attack. I LITERALLY had a heart attack.” (Literal, figurative, what’s the diff?)

My most common verbal tic, by far, is, “and, umm.” I’m not sure if “and, umm” is technically a verbal tic, or if it’s merely a place holder while trying to think of what to say next. Instead of a couple of moments of silence as I formed the next sentence in my head, apparently I was compelled to fill that space with a drawn out, “annnd — ummmm —”

Having to snip out all those “and, umms” prolonged the video editing process immensely. I mean, it literally took forever.

Now that I’m kind of tuned in to notice verbal oddities, there is one word usage that is spoken all the time. It’s the use of the word “like” instead of the word “said.” And I’ve become aware that I’m a prime offender. Here’s an example, something I could see myself saying while talking to a coworker: “So I drove up to the guard shack, and I’m like, ‘I’m here to meet the mechanical contractor.’ And he’s like, ‘There’s no contractors onsite today.’ And I’m like, ‘But I have a meeting at 10 o’clock.’ And he’s like, ‘There’s no meetings listed on my schedule.’ And I’m like, ‘But I just talked to Dave on his cell phone five minutes ago.’ And he’s like, ‘Oh, you mean Dave? He’s at the power plant. Go down and take your first left.’ And I’m like whispering under my breath, ‘Dude, are you drunk?’” 

I think the best thing I can do at this point is never speak out loud again. I mean, literally, y’know?

Monday, February 15, 2016

Why Do We Fear ‘The Fear of the Lord’?

The Bible says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

Wait. What?! The Bible says FEAR is a good thing?! Hmm, something seems wrong here. As we all know in our sophisticated, scientific, therapeutic modern culture, fear is a terrible thing. It’s almost as bad as guilt or shame, or the worst thing of all, that hateful and intolerant concept foisted on us by patriarchal oppressors: sin.

How can we possibly say that fear is good? The very thought is making me quite uncomfortable. I need to flee to a “safe space.” Why didn’t someone issue a “trigger warning” before mentioning such an unpleasant idea? It’s time to make some posters, block rush-hour traffic, and issues demands to the university administration. Oh wait. For a minute there I thought I was a student at Yale. Never mind.

Anyway, it is a bit confusing that the Bible teaches the fear of the Lord is not only a good thing, but “the beginning of wisdom.”

As a different messiah once said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” (Messiah? Well, if I remember correctly from my youth, a lot of my aunts and uncles and other WWII-era folks pretty much worshipped the man.)

We have to dig a little deeper to uncover the true meaning of that biblical pronouncement. Nowadays the word “fear” usually means terrified, panic-stricken, or filled with anxiety. And certainly those emotions are not good, especially since they are the exact opposite of what the Lord promises to give us: peace and joy.

But there is another slightly different definition of the word fear: awe and reverence.

When the Bible says “the fear of the Lord,” it doesn’t mean we’re terrified, cowering in the corner like a frightened puppy that gets beaten regularly by an abusive owner. No, it simply means we are awestruck by the power and majesty of the Lord and are reverent toward Him.

On the other hand, as I once heard a radio preacher say: “If you’ve stood before the Lord God and not trembled, then you’ve really never stood before the Lord God.”

It’s kind of like Aslan, the lion in C.S. Lewis’ children’s books, “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Lewis, who was a brilliant Christian author during the mid-1900s, infused much religious imagery in the Narnia books. Aslan the lion represents Christ. After hearing about Aslan, one of the children asks, “Is he safe?” And the reply is, “No. But he’s good.”

When we approach Jesus, we ask ourselves, “Is He safe?” The answer is no. He requires us to love our enemies and to renounce all we own for the sake of the kingdom of Heaven. But He is good. He loves us more than we can ever comprehend, and He desperately wants us to be with Him forever in Heaven.

Our proper response, the true “fear” of the Lord, is to draw near God with awe and wonder (and maybe a little trembling). He is, after all, the Creator of the Universe. He is all-powerful and all-knowing. He also is all-loving and all-merciful, which is the key that allows us to be filled with awe, rather than be terrified and cowering in the corner.

Knowledge is having an understanding of what is true. But many people with knowledge do a lot of dumb things. Wisdom is knowing what is true, and then making the right decisions based on that truth. 

Here is the truth: God is God, and we’re not. Making decisions based on that truth is wisdom. It all begins with being awestruck by the power and majesty of the Lord. And it is so wonderful, it does not require a trigger warning or a safe space.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Fasting First Makes Feasting Fun

Ash Wednesday occurred earlier this week, and it marks the official start of the season of Lent. (Guess which day of the week Ash Wednesday landed on this year? Oh, you're so smart.)

During Lent, Catholics are called to engage in fasting and abstinence. Whoa, I didn’t mean to startle you and make you drop your bacon double cheeseburger. Don’t worry, the fasting and abstinence isn’t for the entire 40 days of Lent; it’s just for specific days. We are called to avoid meat on Fridays during Lent (I can already hear people exclaim, “Thank goodness for baked stuffed shrimp and lobster!”). And we are called to engage in fasting on two days: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

No, that does not mean you have to go without food for the entire day—although based on the latest government report on how many bacon double cheeseburgers Americans eat every year, maybe that’s not a bad idea. The Catholic requirement for a fast day is this: only one full meal, and then two small half-meals. Also, snacking in between meals is not allowed.

So, the bottom line is, on these two days of fasting, American Catholics must reduce their consumption of food to a level that is GREATER than what is eaten each day by 90-percent of the world’s population.

From a global perspective, it’s almost embarrassing, since the requirements of our Lenten fasting and abstinence are not very difficult at all. But people don’t eat from a global perspective, we eat from a personal perspective. If we are typical Americans, this means our stomachs are accustomed to three or four very full meals each day, plus plenty of snacking while waiting for the next full meal. If we suddenly do the one-full plus two-halves with no-snacks exercise, it might feel a lot like starvation. At the very least our stomachs will be growling most of the day.

Of course, no one likes a growling stomach, and that’s why most American Catholics simply ignore the Church’s requirements about Lenten fasting. No, that’s not exactly true; the real reason so many American Catholics ignore Lenten fasting is because they have no clue WHY the Church calls us to fast in the first place.

According to Catholic author Scott Richert, “Fasting … is the voluntary avoidance of something that is good.” Now wait a minute, that doesn’t make sense. Why would we want to avoid something good?

Well, Richert continues, “[Fasting] is primarily a spiritual discipline designed to tame the body so that we can concentrate on higher things….By controlling the passions of the body, we free our souls for prayer.”

When we fast—when our stomachs growl and all we can think about is getting a couple of bacon double cheeseburgers ASAP—that is the time when we realize we are completely dependent on God. An empty stomach really heightens our ability to pray.

As the Bible says, “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the heavens.…A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” (Or if you’re a little rusty on the book of Ecclesiastes, think of the song “Turn, Turn, Turn” by The Byrds back in the 1960s.)

The problem with most Americans is that we want the good stuff all the time. But in the cycle of the Church calendar, sometimes we fast, other times we feast; sometimes we mourn, other times we rejoice. The joyous feast of Easter becomes much sweeter and more meaningful if we first fast during Lent.

So let’s really make a prayerful and determined fast during Lent this year. It will make the feasting of Easter much more enjoyable. And if we’re lucky, maybe the main course at Easter dinner will be bacon double cheeseburgers.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Lights! Camera! Umm!

My fulltime job is with a small company that sells commercial ventilation equipment. We finally decided that maybe this Internet thing is not a passing fad after all. To take advantage of “digital media,” our firm set up our own YouTube channel, on which we can post online instructional videos. For many years, we’ve done presentations in the offices of our clients, but usually only 10 or 15 people fit into the conference rooms. Now with YouTube videos, instead of having a small number of people ignore what we say, we can have HUNDREDS of people simultaneously ignore us.

After much debate, it was determined that I would be the main speaker on our videos. I assume I was chosen because of my vast theatrical resume: I do the readings at church occasionally, and I was in exactly one high school play 40 years ago. I think you’ll agree this pretty much puts me in the Laurence Olivier category.

We wanted the production quality of our videos to be as professional as possible, so we spared no expense. The backdrop is an old blanket I found in my basement; we record the videos with a co-worker’s iPhone; and we edit them using a software program we downloaded for free. From a dollar standpoint, we’ve yet to spend our first buck. But from a time and effort standpoint, this project is kind of like the Normandy Invasion, only with slightly more planning required. I suspect our biggest problem is the fact none of us had any experience making videos. (I take that back. I made dozens of videos in the 1990s on VHS tape, mostly of people singing “Happy Birthday” and my children opening Christmas presents. But unfortunately no one ever got a chance to watch those videos because I accidentally erased them when I used the tapes to record Red Sox games.)

Our first production was a 40-minute presentation, broken up into five separate short videos. So we knew it would take at least 40 minutes to record it, and I figured it might take another hour or so to edit the videos into an acceptable final form. Boy was I wrong. About 50 man-hours later, spread out over three weeks, we were still slogging through the editing process.

We finally finished the videos and uploaded them to our YouTube channel. Then we contacted all of our clients and asked them to watch. The feedback was whelming, but not overly.

We’re still waiting for someone, anyone, to tell us that they learned something useful from the videos. But that’s not to say we received no feedback. Dozens of our clients commented on the videos. Here are the three most frequent observations: 1. “Wow, you guys sure spent a lot of money producing those films!” (I’m guessing there’s a bit of sarcasm here); 2. “Is Bill Dunn able to talk WITHOUT using his hands?” (What can I say? I speak better while waving my hands around); and 3. “Is Bill Dunn’s favorite word ‘Umm’?” (Well, we certainly weren’t about to purchase a teleprompter, so I was kind of winging it from memory, and umm, umm, oh c’mon, gimme a break. My real favorite word appeared often in the outtakes whenever I blundered: “$#*&!!”).

We are in the process of producing additional training videos that will be uploaded to YouTube in whichever decade they’re finally completed. 

If you want to check out our efforts, go to But be forewarned: the subject matter — the technical aspects of commercial air distribution products — is so breathtakingly scintillating, you might find yourself waving your hands around and repeatedly saying “Umm.” At least that’s how it affected me.

Monday, February 8, 2016

A Simple Explanation for the Drop in Mass Attendance

Many people nowadays wonder why attendance at Sunday Mass has dropped so drastically. For example, here in the Hartford Archdiocese on any given weekend, the number of people at Mass is a full 65% less than during the 1960s.

If you want a simple explanation, I’ve got one. (You see, I’ve got a gift for simplicity. Or at least that’s what I think people mean when they complement me with the title “Professor Simpleton.”)

Back in the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council offered a new and fresh perspective on faith and the Church. If you take the time to read the Vatican II documents, they’re very profound and insightful.

Unfortunately, a lot of people didn’t bother to read the documents, because they were too busy declaring that “the spirit of Vatican II” now lets us practice Catholicism any which way we feel like it. (Emphasis on “feelings.”)

For example, for many centuries the Catholic Church was viewed as a stern organization that demanded people do certain things: go to Mass, say the Rosary, no meat on Fridays, go to Confession, etc. These were obligations that Catholics had to do. And a lot of Catholics truly thought if they forced themselves to do these things, it would put them in God’s good graces, regardless of whether they themselves had cold and bitter hearts completely devoid of love. This was an attitude, regrettably, straight out of the Pharisees’ playbook.

In an attempt to shift the focus away from the strict practice of religious rituals, the Church tried to emphasize God’s love and mercy and our need to be in a relationship with Him. Catholics shouldn’t go to Mass because we HAVE to, instead we should go because we WANT to, out of sheer gratitude toward the God who created us and loves us.

Well, somewhere along the line, this idea got muddled. It was interpreted to mean: “Yippee! I don’t HAVE to do religious stuff anymore unless I WANT to. And guess what? I don’t want to. But God still loves me and I’m still going to Heaven! Yippee!”

Despite this widespread way of thinking, the Church clearly teaches that we are obligated to attend Mass each weekend. Vatican II never changed that. If you truly believe that Vatican II said that we only have to go to Mass whenever we feel like it, and God really won’t care either way, you really need to look up those documents online and read them.

It’s sad that so many people view Mass as an unpleasant chore. If folks only understood what happens at every Mass, our current problem would not be the fact Mass attendance has dropped 65%, it would be concern over how to build enough new churches to hold all the people clamoring to go to Mass.

The fact is, at every single Mass, an astounding, supernatural miracle occurs: bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. It’s not a mere ritual; it’s not a symbol; it’s a breath-taking miracle, clearly taught and instituted by the Lord. And it happens at every Mass. In a way unlike any other, Jesus becomes truly present in the Eucharist. It is the most awesome and sublime gift God Almighty can offer to us: the gift of Himself.

If Catholics really understood what the Eucharist is (though it’s not a “what,” it’s a “who”), Mass attendance would be on the rise, regardless of whether people thought they HAD to go or if they only WANTED to go. 

So that’s my explanation, and I’m sticking to it. You may call me Professor Simpleton if you’d like. But oftentimes the Lord’s most profound truths are the simplest, such as this one: He loves us, and He wants us to love Him back. Mass is the perfect place to do this.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

DON’T Say It Again, Sam

Marge Dweebler enters the living room and says to her husband, “Vern, are you watching that stupid video again?” Vern does not answer. Marge looks at him closely and stops short. “A bow tie? A white dinner jacket? You’ve got to be kidding me!” She notices his hair is slicked back and he’s chain-smoking unfiltered Camels. “Vern, when did you start smoking?”
“That’s so long ago I don’t remember,” he replies without looking at her.
“Are you going to come to bed tonight?” she asks.
“I never make plans that far ahead,” Vern mutters, his gaze remaining fixed on the black and white images on the TV screen.

“Vern, please!” she says. “You’ve watched that video a hundred times. All you ever do is sit there like a zombie and recite lines from the movie. Oooh! I curse the day you bought that stupid DVD!”
“Not an easy day to forget,” Vern says. “I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.”
Stop it!” Marge yells. “Oh, Vern, you’re driving me crazy. Don’t you care about me?”
“Well, if I gave you any thought, I probably would,” he says.
“That’s it! I’m leaving! I’m packing my bags and taking the kids, and we’re going to my mother’s house!”
Vern looks up at her and says, “Tell me, who was it you left me for? Was it Laszlo, or were there others in between? Or aren’t you the kind that tells?”
With that, Marge screams and stomps out of the room.

The next morning, Vern arrives at the office and sits down at his desk. His boss walks in and says, “Dweebler, we need to talk. We’ve got a little prob—” He stops in mid-sentence and stares at Vern. “A trench coat? A fedora? Vern, this has gone far enough. People are starting to talk. I hate office politics as much as the next guy, but—”
“I’m not interested in politics,” Vern says. “The problems of the world are not in my department. I’m a saloon-keeper.”
“No, you’re not,” his boss says. “You’re a district sales manager. And your little fantasy world is hurting business. I want to know what you plan to do about it.”
“You want my advice?” Vern asks. “Go back to Bulgaria.”
“Vern, Come on, pal,” the boss pleads. “This has become a real problem.”
“Yes, well, everybody in Casablanca has problems,” Vern says. “Yours may work out. If you’ll excuse me.” With that, he get up from the desk and begins to walk away.
“That’s it! I’ve had enough,” the boss yells. “I’m calling Security! You’re finished, Dweebler!”
Suddenly, Vern pulls a pistol from the pocket of his trench coat. “Not so fast, Louis,” he says. “Nobody’s going to be arrested—not for a while yet.”

“Whoa, whoa, hold on, Vern,” the boss says. “Don’t do anything rash.”
“Louis, I wouldn’t like to shoot you,” Vern says, “but I will if you take one more step.”
“Vern, we can work this out,” the boss says, his voice trembling. “I know some doctors who can help you. How about I call them? They’ll come over and talk to you.”
Vern answers, “You call the airport, and let me hear you tell them. And remember, this gun is pointed right at your heart.”
“Yeah, yeah. OK, Vern, I’ll make the call,” the boss says as he fumbles with the phone.
Within five minutes, police detectives, SWAT team snipers, doctors from the State Hospital, and Marge Dweebler arrive at the office building. They cautiously approach Vern’s office. Marge begins to weep when she sees him. “Oh, Vern!” she sobs.
“Oh, it’s ‘Richard’ again,” Vern says sarcastically, turning toward Marge. “We’re back in Paris. Your unexpected visit isn’t connected by any chance with the letters of transit? Seems as long as I have those letters I’ll never be lonely.”
A SWAT team sniper whispers, “I’ve got a clear shot. Should I take him out?”
One of the doctors, a movie buff himself, sizes up the situation and says, “No, wait. I’ve got an idea.” 

He slowly walks toward Vern and says, “It might be a good idea for you to disappear from Casablanca for a while. There’s a Free French garrison over at Brazzaville. I could be induced to arrange a passage.”


Vern looks at him with surprise and says, “My letter of transit? I could use a trip. And it doesn’t make any difference about our bet. You still owe me 10,000 francs.”
“And that 10,000 francs should pay our expenses,” the doctor replies.
“OUR expenses?” Vern says.
“Mmm, hmm,” the doctor nods with a smile. Then the doctor nonchalantly reaches up and sticks Vern in the arm with a hypodermic needle filled with a sedative.     

Vern’s eyes slowly glaze over and a crooked smile spreads across his face. As the doctor gently guides him down the hall and toward the elevator, a dark, misty fog rolls in and envelops the black and white world of Vern Dweebler. He turns to the doctor and says, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”