Epiphany: Right Worship vs “Trending Now”

There continue to be no shortage of ideas about how to increase Mass attendance that cross my desk on an almost daily basis. As you might imagine, priests get email alerts all the time advertising “amazing” new programs for parishes, new books on how to attract the whole world to church, as well as new programs to increase participation, etc.   In addition to the steady email stream, priests hear ideas from many other sources as well about what we need to do differently or change in the liturgy to grow our crowds at Mass.

A lot of the ideas are very interesting. Many of them, it seems to me, are mainly about copying what the Evangelical churches do in their heavily entertainment-based services. Certainly there is merit to some of those concepts, but they also come with risks that are rarely considered at first glance.

Today’s Solemn Feast of the Epiphany offers its own timeless perspective on this ongoing conversation in the Church today about what worship should look like.  Saint Matthew describes it in his Gospel as the act of “doing homage.”

The Magi give as their reason for traveling in search of the newborn King of the Jews the desire to do Him homage and to worship. They are drawn to Bethlehem for this purpose.

It is important to remember that they did so in an era when most worship consisted of pagan rituals of nature deities, including star-worship, and that included very tangible uses of fabricated images, sacred poles, statues of gods, and rituals that centered on eating, drinking, dancing, uses of narcotics, ecstatic emotional escape, wild costumes, animal figures, live animals, and unbridled sexual orgies. Yes, all of that was “worship” in the ancient world, and historical records show that it was all VERY exciting. For comparison, just think of the contemporary allure of NFL Football games on Sunday which contain much of the above.

How interesting, therefore, that the Magi were drawn to leave all of that behind upon their encounter with what would have been a highly unusual sight for that time period: a child king in the most impoverished of surroundings, completely lacking in any fanfare or ceremony.

They did Him homage because they knew He was, and is, truth itself. And, because they knew that He intentionally set aside all the trappings of earthly entertaining grandeur to inaugurate a whole new way of being, of living, and of offering worship.

The new way of worship would not be smitten with the glitzy allure of the passing world but would instead rest on the subtleties of shedding power and attention, as opposed to amassing those deadly things. The Magi’s worship of someone, and something, so, so different than the customs around them was highly unusual and countercultural.

The homage of the Magi that we recall today tells us that the answer to right worship is not located in superficial attractions and clever new ideas. It is found only in correctly understanding what the heart of Catholic worship is: total homage to our God who operates in subtleties and wants us to love Him precisely because He is plain and simple. He does not appear grand on our altars deliberately, just as was the case in Bethlehem.

If we knew just who was on the altar in every Catholic Church at Mass, no one would ever think of praying elsewhere. As with the Magi, that is a decision of faith, and it is one that involves a rejection rather than an embrace of what is trendy and popular.  Only if we hold to those principles that are timeless and of the essence of the faith will we maintain right, even if not always crowded, worship.

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Homily: Learning from the Holy Family

Click HERE  to listen to the audio file of Father Reesman’s homily for the Feast of the Holy Family, Year B, given at Saint Frances Cabrini Parish on Sunday, December 31st, 2017 at the 10am Mass.

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On “Coming Out” From the Pulpit

A Healthy Approach to Same Sex Attraction

For a few years now I have had the privilege to walk with men and women who experience same sex attraction, and who desire to live an integrated life of wholeness and joy, in fidelity to the demands of chastity.

They do not like the terms “gay” or “lesbian” because they understand that whole, healthy persons do not reduce themselves to their mere parts, or to labels that can put them in boxes for years to come.

These same men and women also understand the pitfalls of sharing their own sexual struggles and attractions with wide audiences. Occasionally some of them may prayerfully discern the need for a carefully delivered witness talk about their story in support of the Church’s teachings, but such situations should be the exception rather than the norm. In our modern culture where the prevailing approach to sexuality is to speak without restraint, the people that I walk with attempt to take a very different approach that treats such topics with the delicacy, modesty, and sacred veiling that they deserve. We are not meant to live as though we are turned inside out, and doing so is not necessary for healthy integration.

There is wisdom in their approach, and it is one many of them have learned the hard way. Their approach is also the recommended pastoral approach of the Catholic Church, grounded in centuries of careful study of the human condition, and guided by the unbroken truth of revelation.

The men and women who experience same sex attraction, seeking to live life in the way that Divine revelation clearly points out to us, are aware that it is very easy to awaken unhealthy desires in themselves, and others, when they dwell on the topic of sexuality too openly and too often. Doing so feeds the appetite for stimulation and unchastity, glamorizing ways of acting and thinking that blur our reason and vision.

The men and women I walk with are keenly aware of the deep emotional wounds that frequently accompany their particular situation, which means they spend a great deal of time working to avoid attention seeking behavior. They know how tempting it is to make their sexual struggles or personal wrestling into a focal point.   Their self knowledge leads them to work hard at focusing on the countless other facets of life that do not directly intersect with their sexuality.

They are also wary of being used and manipulated for other people’s agendas, especially that of the gay lobby. Many of them have been used already in life due to sexual wounds, and they have no desire to become a pawn in the manipulative game of identity politics that is sweeping the culture and now the Church as well.

“Coming Out” Makes Healthy Integration Even More Difficult

For all of these reasons, and many more, these men and women do not make a point of identifying themselves as “gay.” It is precisely because they wish to be known as more than a label, and known as son or daughter of God first and foremost, that they quietly choose to deal with their struggles in the protected and appropriate zone of private spiritual direction, the confessional, and a trusted support group.

This is why the best pastoral approach that the Church can suggest to people who experience same sex attraction is NOT to “come out” as “gay.” Doing so only leads to more confusion, pain, and emotional frustration. It is not in accord with the virtue of chastity, or the dignity of discretion that we are all called to. It does not lead to wholeness, joy, or healing but rather the reverse.

Is there such a thing as a “Gay Celibate?”

All of the above is adequate reason to be troubled whenever a Catholic priest chooses to “come out” at Mass, from the pulpit, to his congregation. Doing so is a wildly unhealthy thing for any man who experiences same sex attraction as our pastoral practice over the years has shown again and again.

In the case of a priest, however, the situation is even more acute.

Priests should know that the people in the pews have the right to receive, at Mass, the unbroken teachings of the Catholic Church, rather than being forced to make a false choice between supporting or abandoning a priest who willfully makes the occasion of a homily about his own interior struggles that are best left dealt with in the internal forum of spiritual direction and pastoral counseling.   Being forced to make a judgment about the needs of a priest of God, their shepherd, causes deep wounds to their faith and unleashes wave upon wave of confusion.

Granted it is easy to get confused about why we might want to be supportive of a priest, or any man, to do something so public. After all, the Church does recognize that people struggle, and we know that God has infinite patience for us as we strive after the life of goodness and virtue. Priests are weak men, too, that much is clear.

But, the priesthood, and a life of celibacy by its very unique and beautiful calling, can never be about exercising authority in order to meet the emotional needs of the minister. That is not the radical other-centered behavior that all priests (and all fathers, mothers, consecrated men and women) are called to.   The love and acceptance that any priest who “comes out” is seeking is never authentically discovered in such a radically self-revelatory act.

Only Christ can calm our restless inner need for earthly affirmation. And he does so most keenly as we strive to assent to the truth of his revelation about human nature. For married couples this assent to revelation finds its proper context in the marital embrace and in the daily lived sacramental reality of married life, and even then the Church recognizes this state to be only a temporary one, confined to this life.

The celibate priest, on the other hand, must find the healing and affection his heart desires in the context of radically other-centered shepherding, as he is conformed more and more to Christ the priest who offers himself as a pure sacrifice for the salvation of all. And even then, at the core of celibacy is an intentional ache that priests must rest within, deliberately, so that they can realize most deeply that it is Christ for whom they, and all humanity, longs.

To speak of a “gay celibate” is theologically, pastorally, and emotionally confusing and incoherent. One term, “gay,” is about an identity reduced to categories and misplaced emphases. The other term, “celibate,” is about a calling to the highest levels of other-centered integration and wholeness. The two terms are fundamentally incompatible.

If an ordained priest does happen to experience same sex attractions, then there are some essential points to abide by based on the Church’s pastoral wisdom. Firstly, the answer for him is not to adopt such a reductionist label as “gay.” Also, it is unwise for him to satisfy his emotional thirst for acceptance by forcing his flock to minister to the minister. The priest must also know that the path to wholeness can never take the form of strident rejections of the Church’s teachings. Wholeness comes only by embracing them. Lastly, a priest should not adopt a public label that will follow him for the rest of his ministerial assignments causing no small amount of confusion, questioning, and conflict as he lives out the remainder of his ministry.

Essentially, a priest who experiences same sex attractions must do what any other man with his same inclinations must do. He must handle it in a subtle, gentle, prayerful, discreet, and private network of healthy support, in accord with the Church’s best pastoral practices.

Advising a priest not to “come out” has nothing to do with rejecting struggles. It has nothing to do with some refusal to accept people. On the contrary, it has everything to do with the best of pastoral practices that we have learned are essential for fostering the healing and wholeness that God desires for us all.

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Homily: Getting Past the End

Click HERE to access the link to the podcast for Father Reesman’s homily for the 32nd Homily in Ordinary Time, Year A, given at Saint Frances Cabrini parish on Sunday, November 12th, 2017 at the 10am Mass.

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Changing the Climate Change Conversation


The Scripture readings in the weekday and Sunday lectionary cycle this time of the year are heavily laden with images that, for some people, call to mind the end of the world in which creation itself (the seas, the sky, the stars, etc) turn nasty and bring havoc on humanity.   Such biblical imagery, coupled with the ever increasing volume of media reports about rising seas, warming temperatures, raging fires, and “climate change” have led more than a few faithful Christians to ask: is the world ending?

This is a topic worthy of several blog posts, but I can offer a couple of points for perspective in this particular article. For one, a careful reading of the Scriptures in their entirety would suggest that many of its images about the destructive forces of creation have more to do with ancient ways of explaining God’s supreme power over the earth to a pantheistic world (that believed stars were gods) than with an actual, literal desire on God’s part to destroy the earth in some fiery show of might. We must be cautious in an overly literal reading of those passages.

Granted, it is a doctrine of the Church that there will be a final judgment and a second coming, but not necessarily in a way that will bring floods, fires, locusts, etc. God seeks to perfect and renew his creation, not destroy it. And the new heavens and the new earth that are envisioned in the Scriptures are quite likely these heavens and this earth, in a perfected, glorified, sinless state. Sinners will be punished and the righteous will be saved, but how exactly that will look is mysterious.

God’s plan for creation, and this earth, includes the human family by design and by intention. We are the crowning of his creation, and we are its stewards and managers according to the ancient Jewish and Christian worldview.

This leads to a comment or two about “climate change” as it is discussed these days in so many sectors. Without debating the merits of the scientific observations about the climate of the earth, it needs to be stated that one glaring problem of the whole societal discussion is that it lacks a solid grounding in philosophy or in an explicitly Christocentric worldview. This is a serious difficulty because without those things, we will be mistaken in our conclusions about the nature of the problem and what to do about it.

On the philosophy front, to give a very simple example, we are unable to answer the question using pure science alone of whether or not any change in the climate at all is a good or a bad thing. The term “climate change” itself is intentionally vague and misleading. The climate is always changing because creation is a dynamic system. Species have appeared and disappeared all throughout history, long before modern civilization. Therefore, the fact that the climate is changing, all by itself, does not offer any ethical or moral guidance about what it means. It is philosophically equivalent to pointing at a car passing by and saying “it’s moving.” More helpful questions or observations would be: is it driving itself? Is it going to crash and cause injury? Is it a police car that is legally allowed to drive at a high rate of speed? Where did the car come from and where is it going?

The “extra” questions are those that pertain to “teleology” and “epistemology,” which is the study of purpose, ends, design, and meaning in existence. Those areas naturally give rise to ethics- what is “good” and “bad.” Modern science has intentionally divorced itself from those essential areas of inquiry because it denies design or purpose. Therefore, all that science can say is “the climate is changing.” By itself, in isolation, it is a very unhelpful comment.

No, what is needed is information about what the authentic role of humanity is relative to the rest of creation. We have always tinkered with our surroundings, and to demand that we reach some plane of existence wherein we do not impact our surroundings is contrary to our design and nature as creatures.

More important is the question of what is the ethical, good, and responsible management of our surroundings and of creation. For that, we must turn to divine revelation and to questions of sin, conversion, grace, virtue, vocation, divine plan, and God’s perfecting of his creation of which we are (as was stated above) an essential element.

But, modern science has also intentionally divorced itself from any reference to divine revelation, which means it has left itself no means to answer its own pressing questions. What is worse, such a worldview actually leads to the destruction of humanity (and creation) not its rescue, which is the great unspoken lie or trap in the current discussion on climate change. At base, it is an anti-human endgame and conversation. Which is why so many are so suspicious of it.

The polarized divide between the climate change alarmists and the “deniers” of the evidence can only be bridged by a return to philosophy and revelation. We are responsible for the earth because of our God-given vocation and purpose. No other truth will unite us. No other truth will authentically protect all of creation.

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A Christian Response to the Mandalay Bay Tragedy

A great deal of ink has already been spilled with reactions to the tragic shooting episode in Las Vegas that took place on the 1st of October, and no doubt much more will be said in the days and weeks ahead as America digests yet another disturbing episode of violence. I will offer a few comments as well, as a pastor, in the midst of what could be called a “teachable moment” for us all.

Suffering Unleashes Prayer and Love

First and foremost, events such as this one are always a summons to prayer. As Christians we understand that prayer is not the last resort, but rather is the first thing that we do, trusting that our Father hears us, and that he weeps as we weep. The killing, within minutes, of 59 people and the injuring of hundreds and hundreds more produces a mountain of emotional, spiritual, physical, and political wreckage. Only prayer and only faith can bring healing at the deepest of personal levels.

The good news in this story is the heroism of the law enforcement officials, the long lines of would-be blood donors, and the outpouring of support. As Saint John Paul II wrote at the very end of his beautiful apostolic letter on the meaning of human suffering, hardship is allowed by God, or exists, to unleash love in the world.   Love has indeed been unleashed in response to a blatant attack on human life, and that love will bring healing.

Our Secular Limitations Have Been Laid Bare

What also brings healing is truth, and that, too, needs to be spoken in response to all of this. One hard truth is that abortions and incidents of gun violence claim a staggering amount of lives all across our nation on a daily basis, and yet our public reaction to this fact is often quite muted and desensitized. All violence is lamentable because each person is sacred, but our contemporary social fabric undermines this truth in countless ways.   Deep soul searching on a cultural level was in order long before the Las Vegas shooting took place.

Still, it is also true that mass shootings like this one, especially those that target unsuspecting people, strike us as especially cold and they are unsettling in unique ways. It is important to pay attention to why that is the case.

One reason is the cold realization that we are never going to be totally safe from harm at the hands of others or simply from harm in general. A central aim or premise of Western society in recent history has been the assurance that with enough science, enough technology, enough legislation, and enough military might we can insulate ourselves from tragedy and pain as we try, more and more, to control all the things that were once so unpredictable and uncontrollable, from hurricanes, to hepatitis, to hijackings.

In the face of this widely accepted premise, the Las Vegas shooting reveals to us the radical limits of our own human mechanisms, and the flimsy reality of our self assurance. It reveals the failure of government and of (apparently) civil society to protect the innocent. For a culture that has placed so much trust in its structures, that is a hard reality to face.

Focusing Only On Guns Does Not Look Deeply Enough

This is why the debate over gun control, before and after these awful tragedies, is so fierce. Advocates for gun ownership sense, rightly so, that in a world of barbaric possibilities, we must be able to defend ourselves precisely because the social structures that promise us such protection ultimately cannot deliver what they are selling. Hence the American default reaction to news of deadly attacks is to fall back on the security of personal, individual, self-defense and with it, guns.

Of course, the fact is that guns all by themselves do not protect us either, ultimately, which is the great myth of the gun lobby agenda. Still, we cling to these earthly solutions whenever we sense that other entities, such as big government and mother technology, have failed.

It is quite revealing that the almost instantaneous response to this shooting coalesced around such a horizontal, non-transcendent, and earthly remedy for this situation: gun legislation, either for or against. It shows how secular all of our thinking has become in mainstream cultural and media circles.

Laws, regulations, science, technology, and a government are helpful things. Indeed, even guns are helpful things in a fallen world. They are all basically morally neutral entities. But, they also are all limited in their power.

All the gun restrictions in the world are not going to stop the human person from inflicting mass harm and chaos if they are Hell- bent on doing so. One has only to look at the recent terrorist attacks that utilize such seemingly innocuous objects as trucks and cars driving into crowds, or that fly airplanes into buildings, to see that the desire to carry out evil is remarkably inventive. Guns are not really the point. They are a side issue, even if they are an important thing to discuss.

Secular Society Craves A Motive

More illuminating in the Las Vegas situation has been the relentless pursuit of a motive. Customarily, motives are really only important in a criminal trial so that guilt and judgment can be determined and dispensed. However, this killer is dead so there will be no earthly trial.

But, we are putting him on trial anyway in a sense. This is the case because the other very unsettling reality to confront is that we cannot seem to explain the killer, or his intentions, using any of our conventional categories. In life, especially in our era of science and technology, we soothe ourselves with ready explanations, causes, and answers.   But, in this case, we seem to have come up empty, and it really upsets us. In all of our hubris, we cannot handle such a blatant limitation to the perceived powers of our insight.

The fact is that in our modern era, most of the “whys” we have often come up with are purely sociological or psychological in nature. Those fields of study are our modern-day religion and authority. We would like to blame economics in this situation, or insanity perhaps, or religious fanaticism, or hatred, or some political agenda.   All of those explanations would make us feel better about it all because then this heinous act would be tidily categorized under the vast heading of sociology and the mechanical certitude of programmed behavioral norms that have become our new cultural bible.

We Are All Capable of Murder

It appears, however, that this killer was a very rational man. Antisocial and self absorbed, but, otherwise he appears in many respects to be a lot like all the rest of us.

And there is the rub: in the absence of a clear motive, and therefore the safe distance of a “category,” in this case, we are left with the stark reality that every single one of us, me included, is capable of murder, evil, and plunder. The government, science, technology, gobs of money, even gobs of self-protective guns cannot save us from this simple truth. We can all kill each other off today, in fact, if we really want to just by using our bare hands.

This particular killer represents so many of the worst parts of our modern culture that we are driven by in the West: independence, self gratification, addiction to gambling and money, materialism, using other people (like his girlfriend who he lured away from a marriage and her children) just to name a few.   What does it all lead to in its worst form? A simmering anger with self, life, and the world, that explodes in the public manner that we tragically witnessed.

Simply put, he represents the vast human capacity for sin in which each of us also shares, without exception. And our Western culture today has become a magnifier, or a lightning rod, for that same capacity.

The Divine Remedy of Grace and Greatness

In the face of all of this, a Christian explains this tragedy, and the flaws of our culture, with the truths of our tradition. We are sad, and we can legitimately wonder why God would allow such things. But, we also know that we are free, that there is sin, there is evil, and that God does not desire for any of us who are his children such an empty life as this killer apparently lived.

We know that Christ stretches out a hand to save us as persons, and as a nation. We know that grace can change our distorted natures, and that a warped societal fabric can be re-woven with the truth and power of the Commandments and of the Gospel.

We know that purely secular remedies are inadequate, and that we all stand in judgment before God, and also that we can all be raised up to greatness by his transforming grace. We know that love is stronger than death, that prayer moves mountains, and that societal order and peace are divine gifts given to persons, and nations, who are open to God’s holy will.

We know that only in the revealed truths of our Christian tradition do we have the most complete framework on which to build a just culture, and the intellectual tools to settle the fierce social debates in which we are currently engaged. Without Christ, we simply walk in circles, or in the darkness, with no hope of moving forward.

When sad events like Las Vegas happen, we Christians must proclaim the powerful and healing message that we know to be the truth about life, death, and reality. In these things we must be confident because they are the truth. The truth sets us free. The truth heals persons, and nations. Now, as always, it is our job to proclaim it out of love for ourselves, for our country, and for God.

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Homily: Remembering- to Bear Fruit

Click HERE for the audio file of Father Reesman’s homily for the 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A, given on Sunday, October 8th, 2017 during the 10am Mass at Saint Frances Cabrini Church.


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