Saturday, July 24, 2021

Does the Eucharist Inspire Reverent Awe?

A few weeks ago, the spiritual essay I receive in my email inbox each morning asked this question: “While at Mass, do you gaze with reverent awe when the priest holds up the consecrated host?”

Immediately, I answered somewhat defensively, “Of course I do!” (There was no one present in the room at the time. But I still shouted out my answer just in case the sender of the email had some doubts about my faith.)
A bit later, when I thought about it a little more, I qualified my answer to, “Well, maybe not at EVERY Mass, but most of the time.” Then, when I finally stopped being so defensive, I honestly admitted, “OK, I’m sure I gazed at the Eucharist with reverent awe quite recently. Probably at Easter, or maybe sometime last Fall.”

That question really struck a nerve with me. Over the years I’ve written often about the Eucharist, including a short book titled, “Is the Real Presence Really Real?”

I’ve also given many talks on the subject for various parishes and religious groups in the area. The message is not very complicated: based on Scripture and especially the words of Jesus Himself, the Church has taught from the very beginning that the bread and wine of Communion are miraculously transformed into the body and blood, soul and divinity, of Jesus Christ. It’s not a nice ritual, nor a mere symbol. It is the flesh and blood of Christ. The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly states this, and declares that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life.

I wrote about this subject a couple of years ago when a bombshell survey discovered that seven out of 10 Catholics in the U.S. do not believe that Jesus is really present in the Eucharist. Wow, talk about a catechetical failure! (Catechetical is just a fancy word that means “teaching.” I’m not trying to show off my capacious and occasionally ostentatious vocabulary. I ain’t that smart.)
Anyway, the U.S. bishops are planning to draft a teaching document in the coming months about the Eucharist. Unfortunately, like everything else in our country these days, this has become politicized. Some of the bishops and most of the media are claiming this document on the Eucharist is just a way for conservative bishops to embarrass President Biden, by declaring that he cannot receive the Eucharist because of his public and persistent support for unrestricted abortion, which directly opposes historic Church teaching.

The subject of politicians who claim to be devout Catholics while supporting anti-Catholic policies certainly is important. The bishops have a tricky and tough responsibility with this issue. However, that’s not the point here. A clear and firm teaching document about the Eucharist is desperately needed, not just for politicians, but for the tens of millions of lay Catholics in the 70% group who answered the survey by saying the Eucharist is just a symbol.

I freely admit, The Church’s teaching about the Eucharist is shocking. If the body and blood of Jesus are really, supernaturally present, then it is the greatest miracle since the Resurrection. Our Evangelical Protestant friends are always talking about having a “personal relationship with Jesus.” Well, consuming the real body and blood of Jesus at Mass puts us closer to Him than anything on earth. It is truly the source and summit of the Christian life.

But on the other hand, if the Church is mistaken about the Real Presence, and if it was originally meant to be just a symbol, then Catholics are committing the worst sin of all: idolatry.

Idolatry is defined as worshipping anything other than God. Those of us Catholics in the 30% group do indeed worship the Eucharist because we believe it is Jesus in the flesh. If we’re wrong, if it’s just some bread and wine, then we’re no different than those folks in the Bible who worshipped the golden calf.
There is no doubt a teaching document on the Eucharist from the bishops is needed. The 70% of American Catholics who don’t believe this core Church doctrine need it. And the people in the 30% group who do believe could use a good refresher course, especially those of us who have a hard time remembering the last time we gazed with reverent awe when the priest held up the consecrated host.

Benefits of Working in Your 60s

Recently, the business section of the newspaper had two interesting articles. The first one had this headline: “Benefits for men who work into their 60s.” Well, I’m in my 60s and I’m working, so I was curious to find out what my “benefits” might be. It turns out that men who continue working well into their 60s live longer than men who retire early. OK, I guess not being dead qualifies as a “benefit.”

The article said this phenomenon might be partially explained by the fact that men who are working full-time in their 60s are in reasonably good health, while many guys who retire early do so because of poor health. This difference in health has an impact on mortality.
That may be so, but I know the real reason retired men die sooner. Here’s my early retirement scenario: if I won the lottery jackpot tomorrow (quite unlikely, since I never buy tickets, which means my odds of winning are pretty much the same as people who do buy tickets), then I could retire sooner than planned — “sooner” being defined as two seconds after I woke up from fainting after discovering I won the jackpot.

Now that I’ve lived more than six decades, I’m starting to understand myself a little better. I know I would spend the first three or four months of early retirement doing all those things I don’t have time to do now: travel, sight-see, volunteer at the local parish, etc. But eventually, I know my life would settle into a routine of watching too much television and eating too much junk food.

At this point, people who know me well are thinking to themselves, “But Bill, you already watch too much television and eat too much junk food.” Ha! As it says in the Bible: “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” 

Let’s put it this way: if I had no set schedule and tons of free time everyday, the local Stop & Shop would have to expand its snack section from one aisle to four, and my left thumb would become as big and strong as my forearm from using the TV remote all day long. Then, soon after, my heart arteries would say, “It’s been fun, but we’re done,” and I would become another statistic for the next business section article about retirees who don’t live as long as people still working.
So, it’s a good thing for my longevity that I am still working full-time. Also, my tardiness to get serious about retirement savings means I’ll continue to work for many more years. 

The other article on the business page had this headline: “What if you save too much to retire?” Oh my, I needed a good laugh, and that headline made me chuckle for the rest of the day. That’s like asking, “What if a woman is too good looking?” or, “What if your team’s starting pitcher strikes out too many opponents?” 

It turns out the main point of the article was that some people contribute too much money into Individual Retirement Accounts and end up with tax problems. It wasn’t saying that it is possible to save “too much” money, just that ignoring IRS guidelines is foolish. Still, it’s a better problem to have than an IRA account with a balance of nine bucks.

The bottom line is this: it’s a good thing I did not go to work for the State of Connecticut after college, as my father encouraged me to do, because if I did, I would’ve been able to collect a full, lifetime pension in my mid-50s. This means right now I’d be enjoying retirement from my permanent home at Plot number G427 in St. Peter’s Cemetery. 

Friday, July 16, 2021

What Is Your Life Story?

Do you worry about the future? Do you wake up in the middle of the night and ask yourself questions such as: What if I lose my job and have financial problems? What if I develop a chronic illness? What if a loved one dies suddenly? What if the loved one who dies suddenly is ME?!

Wow, the future can be very scary. That’s because the future is the great unknown, and we instinctively are fearful and anxious about the unknown. However, as Christians, we’ve been given assurance that “all things work for good for those who love the Lord” (Romans 8:28). We have a divine promise that the future will be filled with joy and glory.

Now, of course, there might be temporary heartache and pain before we experience God’s eternal joy and glory. But the story of our lives WILL have a happy ending.

Is your personal story like an epic novel? How about an action movie? Maybe a Broadway musical? Or possibly a made-for-TV movie that ends up on the Hallmark Channel every December?
It doesn’t matter if your story is a 3-volume saga, like The Lord of the Rings, or just a brief tale on a 30-minute sitcom. What is important is to understand that your story is real. God created each and every one of us to be the lead character in an exciting drama.
I bet you didn’t know that you are the star of an important production. Yes, I agree it’s very unlikely that any of our personal stories will win the Academy Award or a Pulitzer Prize. For most of us, our individual story will be viewed only by our close family and friends, rather than millions of moviegoers. But that’s OK. Each of our stories also is being watched with rapt attention by God Almighty.

Try this exercise: instead of looking at your life from the ground level, look at it from 30,000 feet up in the air. Let me explain. The ground level view of life focuses on current activities: eat, sleep, go to work, get stuck in traffic, watch some TV, take a shower, pay the bills, and then wake up tomorrow and do it all over again.

The 30,000 foot view looks at the entire journey of your life. Where and when were you born? Where did you grow up? What did you do in school? Who did you marry? Where did you live? How many kids did you have? What do you do for work? Who are your friends? Where do you go to church?
Every event of your life has been part of God’s plan. Every step of your journey weaves a fascinating tale, which is leading to a grand finale. 
In God’s epic story of your life, it’s not quite like the movies, with high-speed car chases and explosions in the final scenes. Instead, it’s usually more subdued, but equally as exciting. Remember that Jesus Himself made it clear that your divine mission in life is to love God with all your heart and to love your neighbor as yourself. So, the grand finale of your life story focuses on love.

Who is the person in your life who needs a little love? Is it a grandchild who needs some of your wisdom? Is it a co-worker or neighbor who needs a sympathetic friend? Is it a despondent fellow at the local soup kitchen who needs a smiling volunteer to let him know he’s not forgotten?

Please don’t make the common mistake of thinking that all the exciting and important parts of life occur when people are young and healthy and in their prime. Many people assume their lives are going to wind down with age and illness, and finally end with an anonymous whimper. Nope, that’s not how God writes His stories. All of us can have a big impact, even at the end of our earthly journey.
We just have to remember that God promised glory and joy to all those who trust in Him. Also, even though car chases and explosions are exciting ways to conclude an action movie, in God’s story of our life, the most exciting thing we can do is enter into loving relationships with other people.

So, please don’t worry about the unknown future. You are the star of a thrilling adventure story that’s heading into the climactic third act. Who knows, maybe your wonderful life story will win the Academy Award after all.

Americans Too Confident of Survival Skills

A recent survey found that the average American believes he or she can survive for 16 days in the wilderness. The report I read did not indicate the gender breakdown of the respondents, but I think it’s safe to say we can revise the previous sentence to say the average American believes HE can survive for 16 days in the wilderness. Women are way too smart to make that crazy claim.

Despite half of the survey participants claiming they could survive in the wilderness, additional questions discovered that only 14% could distinguish between edible and poisonous plants. For example, only one in three people were able to correctly identify poison ivy. This tells us that a sizable percentage of these people, their stomachs growling with hunger, very likely would conclude poison ivy leaves are probably a type of lettuce. As they begin to chew, their odds of surviving would drop from slim to less-than-none.
Only 17% of respondents were “very confident” that they could start a fire with a flint. I suspect many of these folks who answered this question in the affirmative thought to themselves, “By ‘flint,’ you mean a Bic lighter, right?”

I wonder if the survey clearly defined the word “wilderness.” Maybe some of the respondents thought “wilderness” meant the WiFi signal is weak, or the microwave doesn’t work.

This survey reminds me of an article I read many years ago, which explained that 85% of all Americans think they are “above average.” Besides being bad at math, we Americans obviously are WAY too confident.
If the “average American” really believes surviving in the wilderness for over two weeks is possible, there are only two likely explanations: either the average American is a former Army Ranger, with years of grueling survival training, or the average American has saturated his brain with so many TV shows and video games that he no longer has any grasp of reality. I’m voting for the out of touch with reality option.

Let’s review a few facts about human survival. First, we can survive for about three hours in a harsh environment without any shelter. (I wonder how many of those survey respondents assumed “wilderness” meant the temperature would be 75 degrees during the day, and 72 degrees at night?)
Next, human beings can survive for three days without clean water, as long as we have shelter from extreme weather. (I wonder how many respondents assumed “wilderness” meant there would be six-packs of Poland Springs bottles behind every tree?)
Finally, we can survive for three weeks without food, if we have clean water and shelter. (I wonder how many respondents assumed “wilderness” meant there would be convenience stores that take VISA cards scattered throughout the forest?)

You know what? Even if “wilderness” meant comfortable temperatures, bottled water, and convenience store snacks, I know I still would not survive for 16 days, and I can explain why in one word: insects. The first time I dozed off and a bug crawled up my nose, I would have a heart attack so major, I’d be dead before I had a chance to squeal like a six-year-old, except with a higher pitch. And I’m sure my last thought, before everything went black, would be this: “I am so glad this bug-induced heart attack is the cause of my death rather than being eaten by wolves.” (I’m really not sure if relief over a lack of wolves is common while having a fatal heart attack, but if I have one, I’ll let you know.)
There are two conclusions we can draw from this survey: 1) Don’t ever get lost in the wilderness; and 2) The average American has way below average common sense.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Father, Forgive Us, We Know Not What We Do

One of the most poignant moments in Jesus’ entire 33 years on earth occurred while He was hanging on the cross. With his body wracked in torturous pain, the Lord looked heavenward and gasped, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Isn’t that amazing? Jesus asked his heavenly Father to forgive the very people who were in the process of murdering Him. Wow. Talk about compassion.
Besides giving us insight about the depth of Jesus’ forgiveness and mercy, this event also gives us an example to follow. You see, human beings have an annoying habit of taking action based on faulty information. People often do things out of anger or fear or ignorance. In other words, they know not what they do.
When people behave in ways that hurt others, most of the time they either are not purposely trying to cause pain, or if they are, they’re convinced it’s justified because the other people caused them pain first. It’s actually very sad the way folks hurt each other because of misunderstandings and misinformation.
Instead of immediately plotting revenge, the person who has been hurt should follow Jesus’ example and forgive them, specifically because the offending persons know not what they do. Granted, this is very difficult. When a person has been hurt by someone else, the instinctive reaction is to lash out and hurt them back. “An eye for an eye” is not just an Old Testament judicial concept; it’s a deep-seated part of human nature.

So, when we’ve been hurt by someone, the most difficult thing in the world is to have the forgiving and merciful mindset of Christ. At that moment, every fiber of our being screams, “Fight back! Hurt them even worse!” Can you imagine if Jesus chose to go in that direction while hanging on the cross? Instead of, “Father, forgive them,” suppose He instead called down fire from Heaven and yelled, “Father, fry them!”
Whoa, that would’ve satisfied His human instinct for vengeance, but it would not have satisfied His spiritual desire to pay the price for the sins of Mankind and make eternal life possible for His faithful followers.

There are other times when we should offer a slightly modified version of Jesus’ famous statement. Whenever we are the ones causing pain to others, we should look heavenward and exclaim, “Father, forgive ME, for I know not what I do!”

I’d venture to say the majority of sins we commit are done out of ignorance. This is not to say we don’t know the difference between right and wrong, and therefore we’re not responsible for our actions. Oh no, we understand right and wrong all too well. However, there are plenty of times when we commit selfish little venial sins, and then afterwards we are completely shocked that we inflicted so much pain on someone else.
Personally, I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to apologize for saying or doing something stupid (and I can count pretty high — all the way up to ninety-twelve!). Even if my actions were self-centered, it never occurred to me that I would cause a lot of pain. So, this means it’s accurate to say I did not fully know what I was doing, and therefore it’s appropriate for me to look heavenward and exclaim, “Father, forgive ME, for I know not what I do!”

No wait, I should say that to God right after sincerely saying something very similar to the person I’ve hurt.
Jesus’ astounding statement of forgiveness from the cross is a great example for us. We should say the same thing when people hurt us, and we should say it when we’re the ones doing the hurting.

It’s like that old joke: “What are the two must abundant things in the Universe?” Answer: “Hydrogen and stupidity.”
Actually, the most abundant thing in the Universe is the love of God. Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do.

Stop Abusing Exclamation Points!!!

In a dim and dusty church basement, I slowly stand up, clear my throat, and nervously say, “My name is Bill, and I’m an exclamation point-aholic.”

Everyone in the crowded room replies in unison: “HI BILL!!!!”

Seeing the shocked expression on my face, one guy smiles at me and says, “Don’t worry, Bill. We’re kidding. Just a little prank we like to play on the new folks.”
If you’ve been involved with emails, texts, and/or social media in recent years, then you know exclamation point abuse is out of control. There really ought to be a 12-step program to reign in this offensive grammatical, punctuational misconduct. And I’m not kidding!!!!

Oops, there I go again. Sorry. It’s become such a bad habit that I can’t even acknowledge receiving a simple message without typing, “OK, thanks!!”
I’m pretty sure every grammarian in the country would say “OK, thanks” does not require a single exclamation point, let alone two. (But it certainly needs one period, with “period truancy” being another troubling aspect of modern communication.)

In my mind, this sinister addiction to exclamation points has reached the stage where I now consider a simple “OK, thanks” to be far too insincere and perfunctory. What if the other person thinks my expression of thanks is phony and mechanical? What if he interprets my lack of exclamation points as a sign that I’m actually not very thankful, or that my bland punctuationless reply is really dripping with sarcasm?! I simply have to let him know that I’m really, REALLY thankful!! I just HAVE to include some exclamation points!!!

Oh my, do you see how this thing can spiral out of control?
At an online “questions & answers” forum dedicated to grammar, someone asked whether it’s acceptable to use two exclamation points. Here’s the answer: “Never. At least not for grammatical purposes. More than one exclamation mark doesn’t have any meaning. An exclamation doesn’t get more ‘exclamation-y’ by more marks.”

Oh yeah? Well, I happen to think an exclamation gets way more exclamation-y the more marks you use. So there!!

Modern digital communications have turned most people into grammatical illiterates. (Or is that “illiterate grammarians”??? [Oops, I have a question mark abuse issue, too. {And apparently parentheses abuse is another personal pathology.}])

That reminds me of a funny T-shirt I saw a while ago. The top line said, “LET’S EAT GRANDMA.” The second line said, “LET’S EAT, GRANDMA.” And the bottom line said, “PUNCTUATION SAVES LIVES!” (See how a little comma makes things much calm-ah? [Notice how I used a Boston accent on “calmer” to make it rhyme? {Uh oh, again with the out-of-control parentheses!}])

These grammatical mistakes are not to be confused with typos. Typos are errors in spelling, grammar, or punctuation as a result of typing too hurriedly. In our hectic, fast-paced world, who has time to proofread anymore? We just type away and then hit “send.”
Instead, I am referring to willful grammatical blunders (also known as “blundergrams” to those of us who pretend that we’ve read the AP Stylebook). The addiction to exclamation points, along with the use of “cuz”, “gonna”, and “thru” are pretty much taken for granite these days. (Yeah, I know I typed “granite.” Just wanna see if yur paying attention.)

The laughter finally dies down in the church basement. As I stand in front of dozens of people, I can feel my face getting red and my throat tightening up. I am determined to beat my exclamation point addiction, and I know I must share my story and be strengthened by the encouragement of the group.
I take a deep breath and say, “I, uh, I don’t know when my addiction began. But irregardless of that…”

Friday, July 2, 2021

Trusting God Is Hard 

In the Gospel reading at Mass this weekend, Jesus sent His twelve disciples out, two-by-two, to preach in the surrounding villages. Scripture explains, “He instructed them to take nothing for the journey but a walking stick—no food, no sack, no money.” 

How strange. Jesus sent them out on an important mission without any supplies at all. If I had been one of the Twelve, I would have complained, “Hey Jesus, how do you expect us to be successful if we go wandering out there without any food or money or important stuff?”

At minimum, I would require: cash, credit cards, snacks, sunglasses, bug spray, bottled water, snacks, road maps, iPhone, flashlights, first aid kit, snacks, raincoat, umbrella, toothbrush, extra clothing, GPS, batteries, laptop computer, and just in case, extra snacks. And of course, if we were going to be away overnight, I would need a lot MORE stuff. 
What was Jesus thinking sending those guys out with nothing but the tunic on their backs? It’s almost as if He was expecting them to trust in God for all their needs. What a weird concept. Trust in God? Who does that nowadays? 

Oh sure, we believe in God…most of the time. And we trust in God to meet our needs…in an abstract, general sort of way. We know that when we’re 95 years old and on our deathbed, we’ll be able to look back on our lives and say, “Yep, God took care of me and helped me through the tough times.” 

Yes, we trust in God, generally speaking, but what about the real world? What about today, tomorrow, and next week? There are real problems to deal with here. The mortgage is due, the job is stressful, the car is making a funny noise, the teenage kids have green hair and half a hardware store piercing their various body parts, and a sharp pain just below the ribcage keeps waking you up in the middle of the night. You know what I mean, real problems. 

Certainly we can’t get all silly and spiritual and pretend like we can trust in God to deal with real here-and-now problems, can we? After all, doesn’t the Bible say that God helps those who help themselves? (Well, actually, the Bible says nothing of the sort. I did a computer word search. It ain’t in there.) 
One of the main themes of Scripture is that God helps those who are helpless and who trust totally in Him. This is a completely foreign concept to modern Americans. We need to be in control and have all the bases covered. Apparently, trusting God wasn’t a problem for Jesus’ disciples since they went out on their merry way—without ANY supplies—and had a very successful journey preaching in the countryside. 

So what is Jesus trying to tell us this week, sending the guys out two-by-two but without any supplies? It’s simple: we must trust in God and assist one another. He didn’t send them out alone. He sent them out in pairs so they could help and encourage each other. 

This is the exact opposite of what we do. We don’t trust in God and we depend only on ourselves: the quintessentially American “Lone Ranger, John Wayne, I did it my way” mindset.   
One of the mottos of Alcoholics Anonymous is, “Let go and let God.” One of the hardest things in the world is to admit we can’t do everything ourselves and we need God’s help. But if we are able to take Jesus at His word and trust in Him for everything—even the here-and-now everyday stuff—our lives will be transformed and our journey will be successful. 

But it probably couldn’t hurt to bring along a few extra snacks. 

Personal Enrichment During the Shutdown

Recently, I read an article that discussed some of the productive things people did with their spare time during the COVID pandemic shutdown. By the way, I’m not sure which term best describes the last 15 months: shutdown, lockdown, quarantine, etc. I think historians will look back on the period of time from March, 2020, through June, 2021, and call it “The Great Pause.”

Anyway, with all the free time available during the last year-plus, a lot of folks made the most of the opportunity and engaged in personal enrichment activities. According to the article, this helped these individuals to “grow as a person.” For example, some people learned a second language. For many years I’ve wanted to learn how to speak Spanish, especially since Spanish has become so commonplace with my two favorite institutions, Catholicism and baseball.
But alas, it turns out that eating Tostitos and salsa is not a great way to learn a foreign language. Other than saying, “adios” when a guy strikes out during a beisbol game, my knowledge of Spanish still is nada.

During the pandemic shutdown, many people learned to play a musical instrument, such as the guitar. I was going to buy a guitar last year and start watching YouTube videos to learn how to play it. But I didn’t want to, uh, bother the neighbors. Yeah, that’s it. I didn’t want the neighbors to complain. So, instead, I learned something equally as impressive: I now know how to download songs onto my smartphone so I can listen to music. After all, listening to music is pretty much the same thing as making music, right?

Some folks used their spare time during the COVID crisis to write a novel. I never got around to writing a novel during the past year, but for many decades I’ve been thinking up some great ideas for novels. My plots are so clever, there’s no doubt in my mind they will be best-sellers, just as soon as I can force myself to wake up a couple hours early each morning and write it all down. Yeah, I’m sure that will be happening any day now.
For the time being, I’ll have to settle for writing these 600-word essays each week on monumental topics such as nose hair, Pop Tarts, and beisbol. But there’s no doubt in my mind a best-seller is just around the corner.

With so much free time available since the Spring of 2020, some people decided to do research and make new and important discoveries. And this is exactly what I did! During the shutdown, I did some major research and discovered that the Reese’s Peanut Butter Eggs sold during the Easter season taste better than the regular Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. This is due to a more optimal peanut butter-to-chocolate ratio. I still need to conduct additional scientific experiments to quantify the exact percentages, but my research has been suspended until next Spring, since they stopped selling the Eggs right after Easter. (Unless, of course, the Hershey Corporation wants to provide a research grant, in the form of a few pallets of off-season Peanut Butter Eggs. Just a thought.)
In keeping with the goal of growing as a person, I must say my Reese’s research indeed has helped me to grow as a person. Mostly around the waist.

Some people might say I really did not take advantage of my free time to engage in personal enrichment activities. Well, to these folks I say: just wait until the NEXT pandemic. Next time I am definitely going to write a novel — in Spanish — and set it to original music that I’ll compose on my guitar. ¡Hasta luego, mis amigos!