Sunday, July 29, 2018

Musings of an aging pastor...

Dear Friends,
I am republishing a letter I wrote a while ago. There is a reason. I received a letter from the priests’ placement board asking about my plans. There are twelve boxes from which one can choose. The box that pertains to me reads, “I will be of retirement age in 2019 but am interested in discussing the possibility of staying in my current assignment beyond retirement age.” I will be 69 years old in a little over 4 months. That means that my scheduled retirement from parish ministry is less than one year away. The date of my retirement will be June 30th, 2019 unless I am asked to stay on, which I will most certainly do if possible, health allowing, and the Lord and the placement board willing. There are however several things to consider. 
The Archdiocese is undergoing a sweeping change. As far as I can tell all parishes are facing one of three possibilities:

  1. To continue as a parish
  2. To join with one or more other parishes to form a completely new parish
  3. To be closed. 

St. Francis Xavier and St. Joseph just north of us are already in the process of becoming one new parish. I don’t think that there is any danger of St. Lambert’s being closed because the vitality of the parish is an important factor. We are a parish filled with young people. We currently have two young men preparing for the priesthood, though we share one of them with an eastern rite parish. Our religious education program is full, and our church is full of children and young families.  However, I worry that the many groups that exercise a ministry in the parish are unaware of the other ministries. This is a potential problem.
Years ago, when I was pastor at St. Thomas of Canterbury, we had a large Vietnamese community. They wanted to have their own ethnic parish, so we had a lot of meetings to figure out how best to accommodate the need. One of the Vietnamese choir members said, “Why don’t we just make St. Thomas a Vietnamese parish. There is nothing else going on here.” I was thunderstruck. He was ready to close the parish because he was completely unaware of what the parish did. We had a school filled to bursting with refugee children who were essentially getting a free Catholic education, a huge soup kitchen, a clothing room, and a food pantry. We had mass in five languages. The parish was a magnet for people who wanted to enter the faith. This Vietnamese fellow had no idea what was going on.
St. Thomas was a very vital parish. So is St. Lambert’s. Did you know that we have five choirs? They are the Latin Mass Schola, the Plain Chant Choir, the High Mass choir (10 AM), the contemporary (family) choir and the beautiful Filipino Choir for special events. We have Youth Church (RE) and then the Youth Group (SLY). There is the Senior Activities group, the Wednesday Novena group, the Rosary group, the Hospitality groups, the Ministers of Care, the Parish Council, the Finance Committee, the Filipino Families of Skokie, Couples for Christ, Spanish Bible Study/Rosary group, the Thursday Bible Study, the Wednesday Bible study, Ushers, Altar Servers, Lectors, the Gardening Committee, the Brat Fest committee, and the monthly prayer chapel. We have the ethnic celebrations, the Haitians who celebrate Our Lady of Perpetual Help and the Sri Lankans who celebrate St. Sebastian. I bet I am missing half the groups in the parish.
I would like to propose an informational meeting of all these groups sometime in early fall. I think that it is important that we have a sense of what is happening here in order to prepare for the future. I am asking that each group put forward a representative and if I have missed any groups I would like to know what they are and who will represent them. The purpose of the group is information. It will not be assigned tasks, it will not be asked to raise funds or make decisions. We need to have a sense of the parish as we go into the future.
The second thing to consider, and the reason I am re-publishing an old article, is that as I age I find myself less able to do what I once did. I really believe that the church must be an intentional society, one that we join because of faith and not simply custom. The person who comes to mass rarely yet demands the sacrament services of the church has killed the church as we knew Her. The church that was just down the block when you needed Her is already dead.  We killed Her by neglect. The church that survives into the future will only survive because of a commitment by Her members. I remember an angry person who once called me to let me know that he was a perfectly good Catholic. He attended mass every Christmas and every Easter without fail!
Lukewarm commitment has killed the casual church and I don’t want to preside at her wake.  I want to serve the living church and her Lord. I am too old to waste what time is left by waiting on a corpse. 
Fr. Simon
The following first appeared January 14, 2018
“I know my sheep and my sheep know me.”  - John 10:14
Happy New Year! Things change. The Church and the world are facing new realities. Catholicism is not hereditary. God has no grandchildren, only sons and daughters. The Catholic Church will continue to exist only where its members and leaders understand that personal conversion to Christ is necessary for church membership. In other words, I am not a Catholic because my parents were Catholic. I am Catholic because I choose to be Catholic and hold Catholicism to be true and beautiful.  Our current way of doing business, and I do mean business, is counterproductive to the mission of the Church. For instance, it is absurd to want a Catholic wedding when I have not been to church since I was a child. It is absurd to want to receive Holy Communion unless I believe that it is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ and intend to live the Catholic Life.
We don’t worry much about this now, but in times past people wondered what happened to a non-baptized soul after death. The theory was that if they had lead good lives, they would live in eternal happiness in the limbo of the just. Only the baptized who had died in the state of grace would see God in heaven. If, however, a baptized soul did not fulfill the obligations of the Christian, that soul would be cast out into the outer darkness.
Pope Benedict reminded us that this is just a theory and that God in His justice and mercy will work things out. The catechism says that we are bound by the sacraments. God is not. However, I bring up this old theory because when a person is baptized, it is still true that he takes on the solemn obligation to attend Mass weekly and on holy days of obligation. He takes on the obligation of charity, of regular confession and communion and a whole host of other obligations. It is mystifying to me why someone would want to have their children baptized when they are not living the Catholic life and have no intention of teaching their children to fulfill their obligations as Catholics. Why would I want to hold someone to a solemn oath that they have no intention of fulfilling themselves? I suspect that by baptizing a child, who will never practice the faith, you hurt them more then you help. You start their lives off with a lie. Baptism and all the other sacraments are the most solemn oaths; they are not good luck charms or photo events.  I will no longer participate in a dishonest exercise of sacraments. If I don’t think that a person has made a decision for Christ and the Church as is evidenced by participation in the life of the Church, I will not join in their act of perjury.
I am bound as a pastor to serve my parishioners. If someone who is legitimately my parishioner thinks that they are in good conscience I am bound to share the sacraments with them. This being so, it is very important to define a parishioner. A parishioner of St. Lambert’s is a baptized Catholic living in the square formed by south of Greenleaf, east of Kenton, north of Jarvis and west of McCormick.
That definition also extends to people who attend St. Lambert’s regularly, are registered in the parish and use the Sunday envelopes. Why the Sunday envelopes?  They are the only objective evidence I have that one is regularly attending. I have often said that it does not matter how much if anything you put in the envelope. I don’t count the money. I have no idea who gives what. I never ask and don’t want to know. It is an offering to the Lord. Not to me.
It is common to have people register and then to request a sacrament next week, never to be seen again. This is just plain dishonest. It is fine for a person to register and begin regular participation and then after a reasonable period to request the services of the parish, but to register one week to have a baptism and then forget about the parish is dishonest.
There is a third category that I would define as parishioners, that is someone with whom I have a pastoral relationship. Remember that for me to participate in sacraments, I must have a canonical obligation to do so, or a real belief that the person requesting the sacrament is involved in real conversion to the Lord and the faith. Please don’t count on this third category. I see about two thousand people on a weekly basis. If you say, “Father, what do you mean you won’t give me a letter of recommendation to be a godparent to my niece? I come to church every week!” Perhaps you do but go out the side door and I have never seen you or talked with you but once or twice. I stand in the vestibule after almost every mass. USE THE ENVELOPES!  Again, I am not out for your money.
I want your soul!
If a person has grown up in this parish and has parents or significant family still participating in the parish, an exception can be made by providing a letter of good standing from the church where they currently participate. Sacraments should be received in the church community where people are currently active. The same is true of funerals. The church is not a building or a reminiscence. It is a living relationship.
This all may seem harsh, but if we don’t get used to the Church as an intentional society it will die. I have no desire to participate in the destruction of the Church to which I have dedicated my life by reducing her to a fond memory, a good luck charm or a photo event.
Fr. Simon
P.S. You can register with the parish by using the following link:

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Isn't the Bible self-contradictory? part 5

Letter to Fidel Labrador continued…
Here’s how St. Paul got his chance. Remember that Emperor Claudius had a penchant (Fancy French word used by the pretentious, pronounced “pawn-shawn” meaning a bit of a tendency) toward women of ill repute?  His first wife, Urgulanilla was forced on him by his grandmother the Empress Livia whom he divorced for committing adultery and murdering her sister in law. Two wives later he married his cousin Valeria Messalina who seems to have had a contest as to stamina with the head of the guild of interesting and available women. (I’m being discreet here) the Romans seem to have had a guild for everything. (By the way, Messalina won).
The morals of the Roman ruling class may shock you, but they are really no different than those of our ruling class, the politicians and Hollywood luminaires. Both have the moral sensibility of weasels. His final wife was his niece, Agrippina. She was the mother of Nero. Yes, THE Nero who didn’t actually fiddle whole Rome burned, he did blame it on the Christians. Before he started killing Christians, he was tolerant of them because they were just another kind of Jew as far as anyone new. That’s certainly what most Christians thought, as evidenced by the aforementioned Chrestos riots.  Agrippina managed to get her son Nero adopted by Claudius (they were actually sort of cousins) and he was made joint heir along with Claudius’ underage son whom Nero later had killed. Once it was a sure thing that Nero would be the next emperor, Agrippina fed her husband/uncle a dish of poisoned mushrooms and that’s all she wrote.
Nero seems to have allowed the Jews to return to Rome gradually. He killed his first wife, his cousin Claudia, then married his friend Otho’s wife Poppea Sabina and sent Otho off to be the governor of Portugal. Poppea is important I suspect. She was Nero’s girlfriend before she was his wife and according to Josephus she was a friend to the Jews, though I’m not sure of all the dates. Things were definitely looking up for the Jews and that small Jewish sect, the Christians. By the way, just for the sake of salacious gossip, Roman authors wrote that Nero kicked Poppea to death in 65 AD while she was pregnant with his child. She had gotten into a hissy fit about all the time he spent at the race track. Ever after, Nero was disconsolate at the loss of her.
The author of naughty novels and man about town, Petronius found Nero a substitute for Poppea. First the good news: the substitute looked exactly like Poppea. Next the bad news: the substitute was a 14-year-old boy. This was easily remedied by gender re-assignment surgery. You thought all this was modern stuff. It’s just as disgusting now as it was then. Nothing new under the sun. This is the world, not unlike our own, in which Christianity was born and which the faith conquered. All this allowed the Jews to return to Rome and with them the Christians. I believe that St. Paul wrote his letter to make the point that, as the Church of Rome was being re-founded, it should be founded as a CATHOLIC Church, that is, a Universal Church with no distinction between Jew and gentile.
St. Paul provides a reasoned way to extrapolate from the Law of Moses that the rigorous following of dietary and sacrificial law is no longer necessary. He points out that Abraham was not a Jew. It was impossible to be a Jew before Moses because to be a Jew is to follow the law scrupulously. There was no Law of Moses before Moses. Jews will disagree with this, but it makes sense to me. Abraham had a righteousness that cannot come from the Law of Moses because it predates the Law of Moses.
James and Paul are not contradicting each other. They are agreeing. St. James is saying the same thing in his epistle when he writes,

 “O foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is worthless? Was not our father Abraham justified by what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith was working with his works, and his faith was perfected by what he did.…”  (James 2:20-22)

 In other words, Abraham could only do this if he completely trusted the Lord. St. Paul makes exactly the same point. Both Paul and James point to Abraham, who could not have been justified by the Law of Moses. James is using that reality to point out the responsibility of Christians for one another especially the rich for the poor. Paul is using the example of Abraham to point out that Greeks and Jews now have something beyond the Law of Moses. This is precisely where Orthodox Judaism and Christianity part ways. Christians and Jews agree completely that righteousness includes good works. Paul never absolves the Christian of the need for good works. In the very same letter to the Romans, Paul says clearly that without good works we cannot enter eternal life.                             
God “will repay each one according to his deeds.” To those who by perseverance in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, He will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow wickedness, there will be wrath and anger… (Romans 2:6-8)
Notice that the translation I have chosen uses the word deeds not works. This is a little dishonest. The word in Greek is “ergon” which means (a) work. It is exactly the same word used in the phrase Works of the Law, erga tou nomou in Greek. I don’t think it could be more clear. We are bound by the obligation to charity and the Ten Commandments which predate and supersede the Law of Moses.
This may all seem a bit obscure and tedious, but I assure you wars have been fought over the relationship between faith and works, and are still being fought   though, thank Heaven, with pen and no longer with sword.  I remember meeting a much respected evangelical theologian who had just finished sending Mother Teresa to hell, that is if she thought her works had saved her. His theology taught that if you believe you are saved by a work, then you are not trusting Jesus and you are bound for hell. I had to ask myself, “Has this fellow ever even read the Gospels?” There are whole wings of Christianity since the Reformation that having never seen things like the Dead Sea Scrolls tried to figure out what was meant by the phrase, “You are not saved by works.” they came up with the convenient theory that you need do nothing to go to heaven if you are saved. I hope they are right. I suspect they are wrong.
Rev. Know-it-all

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Isn't the Bible self-contradictory? part 4

Letter to Fidel Labrador continued…
Where are we? Always a fine question when I am writing.  St James says one is not saved by faith alone, but by works also because faith without works is dead.  St. Paul says that one is not saved by works of the law.  What’s going on here? I have already explained my theory that St. James, the bishop of Jerusalem is writing a fund-raising letter for the hungry Jerusalem community. Jesus had taught that if we don’t feed the hungry and clothe the naked He will say to us on the judgment day, “…depart from me, I never knew you.” (Matt 7:21) 
I have labored mightily to show that St. Paul never says that good works are not necessary for salvation, just that works of the Law of Moses won’t save you. What was Paul driving at? On to the salacious Roman gossip.
The Roman emperor Claudius (ruled 41-54 AD) was the last man standing when Caligula, his nephew and most of the other members of the family of Julius and Augustus Caesar were dead. Claudius pretended he was an idiot and they never bothered to kill him. After the army assassins killed crazy depraved Caligula, the palace guard realized that without an emperor they were out of a job. They found crazy semi-depraved Uncle Claudius hiding behind a curtain and made him emperor. The terrified senate went along with it and it turned out that Claudius was a pretty good emperor, except for his weakness for women of very little character.  Claudius had been quite close to a Jew, Herod Agrippa, grandson of Herod the Great (the baby killer of Bethlehem fame).  In fact, Agrippa was raised on the Palatine hill in Rome in the palace of the Caesars, not to be confused with Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. The emperors had the habit of inviting the children of client kings to live with the imperial family in Rome. It was a good way to Romanize them and to keep their families on their best behavior, that is if they ever wanted to see Junior again, so Claudius, Caligula and Agrippa were all chums.
Caesarea Maritima
After Caligula was assassinated in 41 AD, Agrippa seems to have helped Claudius have the senate and the palace guards agree on the accession of Claudius to the imperial purple. Claudius gave Agrippa control of most of his grandfather Herod the Great’s territory. He also gave part of Lebanon to Herod Agrippa’s brother Herod. (They weren’t real original in their choice of names.) Agrippa became one of the most powerful and consequently most dangerous kings in the Middle Eastern territory of the Roman Empire. Herod started fortifying places and making lots of new friends in the Middle East, which made his friend Emperor Claudius a bit nervous. Could it be that Herod Agrippa was fomenting rebellion and taking himself a little too seriously as a possible Jewish messiah? He was acclaimed as a god by the crowd in the amphitheater in Caesarea on the coast of the Holy Land. The Acts of the Apostles said for this sin of allowing himself to be hailed as a god, he was struck down by an angel and was dead only three years after receiving the enlarged kingdom.
What’s point of all this? Jews had started to make Emperor Claudius nervous. They were 10 percent of the population of the empire. There was a community of them in all the major cities of the empire, maybe a million around Alexandria Egypt and certainly a large number in Antioch, the third city of the empire and a sizable community in Rome. They were well positioned to make trouble. They did in fact revolt in the Holy Land in 66 AD and again in 132 AD, but more ominously they rose up in Cyprus and North Africa in 115 AD. They certainly made the emperors nervous and Claudius, despite what everyone thought, was certainly no fool. When, in 50AD (probably) there were riots among the Jews of Rome about a certain Chrestos, Claudius said, “Enough!” and expelled the Jews from Rome.
This fellow Chrestos was probably Christos, the Greek word for messiah. Christianity had reached Rome early and they were busy fighting over the whole issue of who was in the Church and who was out. Claudius seems to have sent the whole lot packing. Paul met the exilesPriscilla and Aquila from Rome in Corinth around 50 AD and they opened a tent making business together. From them Paul would have heard the sad story of the Church of Rome and I suspect this gave Paul a great idea. He would get his theological point of view in on the ground floor when things eventually opened for Jews in Rome. His opportunity was not long in coming. (More on this later.) Remember his point of view. God loved Greeks as well as Jews and a Greek didn’t have to become a Jew to become a Christian.
The synagogue was a new thing at the time of Christ. The synagogue is never mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament). It possibly developed in the Babylonian community of Jews a couple hundred years before Christ. The religion of Israel was a domestic religion that required three pilgrimages to the Jerusalem temple per year if possible. The prayers and blessings and dietary laws that made up the practice of religion were up to the individual. The sacrifices necessary for purification etc. were performed in the Jerusalem temple, but beyond that, there were no place of religious assembly. The equation changed in Babylon. How could one maintain the religion of Israel without the temple? Pilgrimage was pretty much out of the question if you had to walk to Jerusalem from Babylon in Iraq. The answer? The synagogue! It was a place where one could be an Israelite with other Israelites -- a sort of community center.  Gradually the synagogue and the rabbis, religious teachers, came to supplant the temple in the daily life of Jews, especially those not living in the Holy Land. For a couple centuries the rabbis and the synagogue existed alongside the temple and the sacrificing priests, the cohenim, the descendants of Aaron and the tribe of Levi. When the temple was finally destroyed, all that was left was the synagogue. It became the de facto center of what was now truly “Jewish” life. 
There were a lot of gentiles (non-Jews) who attended synagogue. They were called the God-fearers. They had pretty much given up on the silly religions of the ancient world. Remember the Egyptian hippo-jackal-cow gods? The Roman and Greek gods looked more like people, but you had to hide your kid sister from them and sometimes your kid brother. They weren’t very nice gods. A lot of well-educated Romans and Greeks were fascinated by the Jewish religion which spoke of one God who was reasonable and actually interested in human beings, a reasonable moral code and a fairly reasonable set of writings. They weren’t going to jump into the deep end of the pool what with circumcision and no pork and temple sacrifices. They came to synagogue and prayed and studied but nothing more. They were Jewish wannabes, but couldn’t go the whole way, then along comes St. Paul…
Next week: More salacious ancient Roman gossip, I promise