Be PERFECT? Can’t I just be pretty good?

I’ve been trying to spend more time reading the Bible lately and have been noticing that various passages — often passages that I’ve heard many times over the years — will just jump out at me with new meaning. For example, in Leviticus, we read, “You shall make and keep yourselves holy, because I am holy.” (Lv 11:44) Jesus reiterates this in Matthew, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Perfection is a pretty high standard. I know I’m not there, and I don’t see myself getting there any time soon. I can imagine the response Jesus would get if he were to appear on a modern-day talk show and say those same words:

“Oh, come on! You don’t really expect people to be perfect do you? Isn’t it enough that they try their best?”

“Aren’t you concerned that you’ll make people feel guilty when they can’t live up to this standard? Isn’t this a form of imperfection-shaming?”

“Don’t you think this will alienate imperfect people?”

“Why do they need to be perfect if God loves them no matter what?”

“Who’s version of perfect do you mean, anyway?”

While this verse sets a bar that none of us can achieve on our own, the beauty of it is that it doesn’t lower the bar. It challenges us to try to rise up to it until we can reach it. To the extent that we fail, we rely on God’s love and mercy to take us the rest of the way. Nevertheless, spiritual perfection is to be our aim, and our lives a constant journey in that direction. We don’t measure ourselves against the standards of our time, the sins of others or the sins we could have committed but didn’t, but against the standard of perfection.

This verse also implies that, to the extent we are imperfect, it by our own choice. (“Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault!”) There would have been no point in telling us to be something we can’t be. Jesus doesn’t ask us to be perfect students or perfect business managers or perfect drivers, but he commands us to aspire to the spiritual perfection of our Father. We must detach ourselves from whatever imperfections come between us and God and be willing to let the Holy Spirit perfect us.

It is worth noting that the statement is not, “Aspire to perfection.” It is, “Be perfect.” Here in this present moment, we are called to perfection, to turn away from all that is sinful, all that is not of God, and turn back to holiness. What is holding us back in this moment? What graces do we need to ask for and receive? What temptations are holding us back?

Moreover, this verse reminds us that there really is a standard of perfection toward which we can strive. Perfection is not a moving target; it is we who move in relation to that target. We might get closer in one way but further away in another, the bull’s-eye of the target remains in the same spot. We are not told, “Be perfect, as you define perfection for yourself,” but, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” It is God’s standard of perfection that matters; not ours.

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What I miss if I miss Mass

There’s an episode of “Seinfeld” called “The Comeback,” in which George is insulted at work and comes up with what he thinks is a clever retort, but only after the moment has passed and he is his car driving somewhere else. I had one of those situations a few days ago. Not that I was insulted or had a great one liner I could have delivered, but I missed what might have been a good opportunity to share my faith in a small way.

While traveling out of state, I was visiting with some rather distant relatives whom I will probably not see again for a very long time, if at all. One was joking about how he never misses Mass, and that he always mentions this when he encounters a priest. The priests are sometimes perplexed, as they never see him at Mass, so they ask what parish he attends. He doesn’t answer, but simply repeats, “I never miss Mass.”

If you haven’t figured it out already, the joke was that he almost never goes to Mass, but that he doesn’t miss going, either.

While on a plane back to Southern California, it occurred to me that perhaps missed an opportunity to share my own feelings toward the Mass. Because, truthfully, I love going to Mass.

This wasn’t always the case. For a long time I went to Mass primarily out of a sense of obligation. I hoped that it would somehow make a difference; that somehow I’d absorb grace through osmosis or something even if my mind wandered the entire time.

This changed one day when my parish had a mandatory, one-day retreat for parents of teens entering the Confirmation program. The Confirmation director deserves some credit for hutzpah, as there must have been at least a few parents who were annoyed at being told they HAD to attend a religious event, as if anyone had the right to suggest that they might have room to grow in their faith. Then, at the retreat, we were asked to consider our own spiritual lives and whether we were serving as good role models in the faith for our teens, or whether there was more we could do in our own relationship with God.

The director suggested we avoid viewing Mass attendance as a chore, using such phrases as, “We have to go to Mass now.” Instead, she suggested that we try to see it as an opportunity to draw closer to God and experience renewal. After all, God didn’t give us the Mass for His own benefit, but for ours. This resonated with me. My spiritual life had grown pretty dry and I knew I needed something more.

When I went to Mass the next day, I decided to spend a few moments in prayer before it began. I asked God to open my mind and my heart to whatever He might want me to hear that day, and to help me be mentally present during the Mass. The priest’s homily that day could have been written me. He spoke of the need to be one person rather than trying to be two — one who attends Mass and another who disregards God’s will throughout the remainder of the week.

The next week, I said the same prayer. Once again, the priest (a different one this time) gave a homily that could have been written just for me. I continued to say this prayer before every Mass, and soon found that I NEVER left Mass without gaining something. Sometimes it wasn’t the homily, but maybe a particular reading, or even one of the short prayers the priest says during various points within the Mass that I used to completely ignore. Sometimes it was just feeling the presence of Jesus.

Two years later, I still begin Mass this way. I also spend a few moments reflecting on the preceding week — how well I followed God’s will, and where I might have done better — and on the challenges in the week to come. I offer prayers for others in need, and I thank God for all of the gifts in my life. Sometimes I run out of words, so I say just say, “Jesus, you know what I need. I trust in you.” And I will just sit and know that he is with me.

This weekly ritual has not only impacted my experience within the Mass, but it has allowed the Mass to impact my life more fully. I am very much still a work in progress and I don’t have the answers, but I do find myself turning to God on a regular basis, asking for His help, and even allowing Him to push me to reach out to others, become more engaged with my family and community and take on new challenges.

Would it have made any difference if I’d spoken up during the conversation I described? I wouldn’t necessarily have needed to give a lecture — a simple, “Actually, I love going to Mass,” might have piqued someone’s curiosity and pushed the conversation in a new direction. Or, maybe I’d have gotten some funny looks. Who knows? In the Parable of the Sower, seeds are scattered everywhere. Some take root, and some don’t. I can only hope if I should find myself in a similar situation again, I will have the presence of mind and the courage to share my own experiences in my faith.

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How I hope Pope Francis approaches the environment issue

It has been well publicized that Pope Francis is planning to issue an encyclical on creation and respect for the environment at some point this year. My hope is that the Holy Father will take this as an opportunity to unite people in finding practical or even not-so-practical ways to address environmental concerns, reminding people of their role as stewards of the planet and the need to be aware of the impact individual lifestyles and large-scale operations can have on various regions of the world.

What I hope he does not do is create further division, demonizing some based on their personal opinions based on their own readings about environmental issues. An example of this approach was seen recently when Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Silvano Tomasi spoke recently at the Climate and Health 68th World Health Assembly meeting in Geneva, Switzerland. The archbishop stated that the religious leaders and technical experts who participated in a recent event held by the Holy See “left no further room for denial under the mistaken guise of so-called religious belief when they declared that human-induced climate change is a scientific reality.”

So, because a bunch of people who were already in agreement got together and agreed with each other, there is no room for anyone who disagrees. Pretending that there is no one who disagrees with you doesn’t make you more right, and there is evidence that many scientists disagree with the view “that climate change is happening, that it is not a normal cycle of nature, and humans are the main or central cause.”

In 2008, WND reported that more than 31,000 scientists signed a petition stating that “There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gases is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere and disruption of the Earth’s climate. Moreover, there is substantial scientific evidence that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide produce many beneficial effects upon the natural plant and animal environments of the Earth.”

Even among scientists who believe that that the earth is getting warmer and that human activity is a contributing factor, there is disagreement about whether we are the primary cause and how much difference behavioral changes could make, and on how much damage global warming will actually cause.

My point is not that these scientists are necessarily right, just that there seems to still be significant disagreement within the scientific community on the subject. And arguing that those who disagree with one’s position don’t count isn’t going to persuade anyone that you are right. If that’s the approach Pope Francis takes, the only people his encyclical influences will be those who already agree with him.

There are ways in which an encyclical on environmental stewardship could be play an important role. I think most people, regardless of their opinions on global warming, understand that air and water pollution are bad things, for example. The problem is that we tend to look at the air and water in our own region and ignore it everywhere else.

For example, according to this pollution index, the U.S. ranks on the lower end of the scale 118th out of the 135 listed countries. But some of our biggest oil suppliers besides ourselves and Canada do not fair so well. Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Venezuela, Nigeria, all have pollution index scores twice that of ours. China, from whom we import so many products, is the 10th worst polluter on the planet. Doesn’t our consumption of these exports confer some kind of responsibility upon us for the pollution generated in the process of making those resources available.

And our own score of 31.45 is at least twice that of any of the countries in the top six.

There are definitely opportunities for improvement here, and we should be considering whether our consumption habits may be hurting the environment, and thereby hurting other people. Maybe it’s a matter of finding new ways of doing things. Maybe it’s a matter of consuming less. Spreading awareness of the impact of our everyday choices could be an important step.

But demonizing people who disagree on a matter of science is not going get people listening.

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Invisible fruit: Trust God’s plan, even if you can’t see the point

It’s a bad idea to go places expecting to see miracles, even if you’ve seen miracles in those places before. God always works, but not necessarily according to our schedule or in ways that we can see.

This past weekend, I was a chaperone on a weekend retreat for high-schoolers enrolled in our parish’s Confirmation program. This was my fourth time chaperoning such a retreat over the last year, although this was a new batch of students who had begun taking Confirmation classes in September.

I had been looking forward to the experience. While I knew it would entail functioning on minimal sleep and responding to typical teenage antics, I also assumed there would be moments of awe and inspiration. Upon my first chaperoning experience last year, seeing youth and young adults with faith on fire led me to re-examine my own relationship with God and embark on what has been an ongoing journey of metanoia.

Each subsequent retreat has come with its challenges, but also moments of inspiration in which a youth or young adult will share something so beautiful or even profound that it makes the whole weekend worth it. Sometimes just seeing the change on someone’s faith upon coming out of Confession on the retreat can be inspiring.

This retreat wasn’t quite the same for me. Some of the kids were far more challenging than past groups in terms of being out of control and at times flat-out disrespectful toward the adults. (According to my sons, who are regularly involved with the program, I’m not the first person to make that observation.) And maybe it was me — maybe my own frustration closed me up spiritually so that I couldn’t absorb those moments in the same way — but I just didn’t have any of those moments of grace that I’d experienced in the past.

When I got home, my wife commented that there were probably some good kids there, too. And she’s right, but those weren’t the ones with whom I had to interact. (The chaperones on these retreats don’t lead activities or anything; we’re really just there to keep the kids under control in the cabins at night and to intervene where there’s a problem.) One of my sons asked whether there was any part of the retreat I enjoyed, and I found the question hard to answer. There were some goods moments, but nothing that just spiritually blew me away.

Then THAT VOICE stepped in, asking questions like, Were you there for the kids or for yourself?; Does the fact that YOU didn’t feel spiritually inspired mean that the kids weren’t?; and my personal favorite, What if the kids who were the most difficult were the ones who needed to be there the most?

Sometimes the seeds we scatter bear fruit where we least expect it. None of the kids on last year’s retreat knew that their words and actions would inspire a major spiritual awakening in me. I have no idea how kids were inspired this weekend or how deeply, but if one kid may have been moved as I was last year, wasn’t that worth my time and energy, and perhaps even putting up with a little disrespect?

Once, while contemplating the Mystery of the Nativity, it occurred to me that anyone who passed by that scene would not likely have had any clue that they were passing by the most important moment in human history. (The shepherds knew only because the angel told them.) If anything, they probably just saw a baby being born in a dirty place to a couple of poor people. They might have even looked at the situation with contempt: “Can’t those people get a room at the inn?” Even if they appreciated that the miracle of life taking place, they could not have appreciated its full significance.

Then there is the Eucharist. Physically, no one can see the change that occurs as bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, yet we trust God that this is taking place.

The fact is, miracles happen everyday that we don’t recognize. We may even participate in them and have no idea. Sometimes we need to just do what God asks without expecting to be rewarded, even with the gift of seeing someone’s faith awaken. We need to trust God that if we do His will, good will come from it.

(Incidentally, I plan to blog about this separately, but I did have an incredible spiritual experience of my own yesterday on a day trip to Mission San Juan Capistrano. God doesn’t always speak to us in the places where we’re expecting to hear His voice. Sometimes He likes to surprise us.)

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Usury and doctrinal development

The other day I found myself once again pondering what, at a glance, looks a lot like a dramatic change in the Church’s teaching on a moral issue. As a Catholic who counts on the Church to be a reliable and authoritative teacher on matters of faith and morals, I’ve always found this matter to be a bit of a challenge.

After all, if charging interest on a loan was once considered immoral but is now allowed, isn’t that a reversal of moral doctrine? And if such a reversal is possible, might not similar reversals be possible on other moral teachings of the Church? And if the Church’s moral teachings are reversible, does the Church have any moral authority to begin with?

I’ve gradually learned not to assume that my inability to answer a question regarding the faith means that no answer exists. Too often people stumble upon some doctrinal puzzle they can’t solve themselves and conclude that they’ve outsmarted the Church.

It is a bit like a beginning violinist concluding that something is wrong with a million-dollar Stradivarius because he can’t make it sound the way he thinks it should. Given the number of brilliant minds who have belonged to the Church over the years, one is very unlikely to come up with a doctrinal question that hasn’t been dealt with at some point. If I’m stuck on a question about Church teaching, it is probably a reflection on me, not on the Church.

Unfortunately, however, my ability to come up with questions I couldn’t answer, and naive assumption that no one else in the Church could answer them either, led me away from the Church for a number of years. Determined not to make that mistake again, when I have a question about some aspect of Church teaching, I assume that there has to be an answer out there somewhere, and I try to find it.

Granted, this is a lot easier to do than it would have been, say, 30 years ago, when you had no search engines to look through thousands of years worth of Church documents scattered across countless websites in a few seconds. For some questions, though, finding a satisfactory answer can still be tricky.

The case of usury was, for me, such a question. I’d looked into the matter on a number of occasions over the years but found only vague explanations that the Church’s moral teaching had not changed, but that the nature of money had, and that this change in the nature of money made the old prohibitions against usury obsolete. (To be clear, these old prohibitions were not merely against charging excessively high rates of interest, which is how we tend to use the word “usury” today – they were against trying to make a profit of a loan at all.)

The other day, I was glad to find a somewhat in-depth discussion of what has really happened with the Church’s teaching on usury over the years. Father Gary L. Coulter has on his website an essay titled “The Church and Usury: Error, Change or Development,” which he wrote as research paper toward his master’s degree in theology. I appreciated that Fr. Coulter sought to explain the matter rather than simply explain it away. I have to admit, I still find the issue a little abstract, but Fr. Coulter’s essay made the water a little less muddy.

In a nutshell, Fr. Coulter explains that while money was once considered a “barren” commodity that only had value as it was spent, it has become a productive commodity in today’s economy, such that ordinary people can use it to generate new wealth.

Basically, as I understand Fr. Coulter’s explanation, if you had $100 in the Middle Ages, you had two options – spend it or save it to spend on some other day. If I loaned that $100 out to someone and got it back, I was out nothing – I would still have the full, one-time use of that $100 upon getting it back. If I charged him $10 for the loan, I was $10 richer and he was $10 poorer, even though I had neither given up nor produced anything in exchange for that $10.

This was the primary moral problem with lending money – that one was taking money from someone else without really giving up anything or producing anything in return.

One point Father Coulter made that I found particularly interesting is that the Church did allow for compensation where the lender could show that he HAD given up something in making the loan, for losses that occurred as a result of making a loan, including lost profits. The catch was that those losses had to be provable, and the burden of proof was on the lender.

The Church also permitted the lease of productive commodities, because it was understood that by lending out such commodities, the lender deprived himself of their productive benefits. For example, if I leased a wheelbarrow to someone, I would be deprived of the use of that wheelbarrow during that time. Presumably, there would also be some wear and tear on the wheelbarrow, too, making it less valuable when I received it back. Plus, as owner of the wheelbarrow, I would maintain some of the inherent risk of ownership, such as the possibility that the wheelbarrow might fall apart due to previous wear or some defect.

The Church also allowed for the investment of money in business enterprises, such that if I provided capital for a business, I could take some share of the profits, even if I was not materially involved in the operation. Of course, I also bore a risk of loss in doing so – if the business failed, I lost my capital.

Today, money has the ability to be productive for an individual even while it is not being spent. Just as lending out my wheelbarrow deprives me of its use for a time, so does lending out my money. There is also a greater understanding of the inherent risk involved in lending money today, and an acceptance of compensating the lender for bearing that risk. Therefore, a lender is assumed to have just title on a loan, where previously it was assumed that he did not.

The moral principles underlying the usury teaching remain intact, however. It is still wrong to try to obtain more from a contract than one has a justifiable claim to, but it is understood that, in today’s economy, one generally does have a justifiable claim to interest due to a change in the nature of money.

If the primary sin of usury is the attempt to get something for nothing, I am inclined to wonder if, while the principle may not apply to the standard practice of charging interest, it might apply to other attempts to get something for nothing, simply because one can. Clearly, if I charge excessive interest on a loan, not simply because the borrower is high-risk or because of opportunity costs, but because I happen to know that the borrower is desperate and has no alternatives, this would seem to be an obvious case of usury.

If I charge someone a higher price for something sheerly because I know that person has no other options – not because the situation somehow imposes a higher burden on me – this would seem to violate the same principle, whether I am a loan shark or an auto mechanic. Insider trading – exploiting another person’s lack of knowledge to sell something for far more or purchase something for far greater than what I know the value to be – would be another example. Frivolous lawsuits, where one tries to exploit the legal system to gain compensation well beyond a wrong he has suffered, might also apply.

I found another article at CatholicCulture.org that also wrestles with this subject, making more or less the same points as Fr. Coulter.

This is not a development in Church teaching that can be summed up adequately in a few words, but I am at least satisfied that it is not a change in moral doctrine, but a change in economic conditions.

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The problem with parish-shopping

I was reading an article this morning from First Things David T. Koyzis titled, “The Death of the Parish,” lamenting a current trend toward parish-shopping that occurs, leading to mega-churches and perhaps a tendency for pastors to try to attract new consumers, or parishioners, by offering the products and services — such as sermons on topics people want to hear about — that the consumers demand.

He makes some great points, I think, although his solution — having all churches do away with parking lots so that people will be forced to walk to a church in their neighborhood — is more than impractical.

As a Catholic, I love the fact that no matter what parish I might visit for Mass, it a participation in the same Eucharistic feast that occurred on Holy Thursday and continues at every Catholic parish in the world today. Still, I’ve seen a kind of erosion of parishes that can occur with church-shopping as people flock to the parish that the deem nicer than the one in their own neighborhood.

Personally, I think biggest problem with church-shopping is the focus on what we get out of it, instead of on what we are there to do. Our focus ought to be on worshiping God as He deserves to be worshiped, not on what is in it for us. While is one of the great ironies of God that the more we seek to give Him the praise and worship He is due — even though none of this enriches Him in anyway —  the more gifts He pours on us. Yet, it is all to easy to become preoccupied with the gifts God gives rather than the God that gives them.

It becomes a bit like visiting distant relatives rather than close family members at Christmastime because those relatives happen to give nicer Christmas presents. It is one thing to fly out to see our Great-Aunt Mathilda because we know that she is all alone for the holidays and that our own parents already have a full house. It is quite another to do so because Great-Aunt Mathilda has more money to spend on us.

Worse yet, when we focus on what our parish has to offer, we tend to focus on all the wrong things. We go where the priest is entertaining, where the music is to our liking, where the pews are comfortable, and where there are social activities we enjoy. We go where the homilies say what we want to hear, where the right sins are criticized (the ones we aren’t inclined to commit anyway) and the right virtues extolled (the ones we like to think we have). We are drawn toward those gifts that make us feel good, that comfort us, rather than those that challenge us to become holier. We shop for what we want instead of relying on God to give us what we need.

This consumer-style focus can also lead us to overlook what God might be calling us to do in our own back yard. If we notice something lacking in our parish, perhaps there is something we can do to make it better, instead of looking for a new parish.

I also worry about the trend toward parish-shopping making Catholic parishes less catholic in the original sense of the word. I was told by an older Hispanic gentleman at my parish that, at one time, the number of Hispanics who attended Mass at our parish was very small, even though a large number of Hispanics lived inside the parish boundaries. This, he said, was because they did not feel that they belonged in our parish, so they went across town to a parish in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood.

Fortunately, this is no longer the case, and our parish now has vibrant and visible Hispanic, English-speaking, Vietnamese, Filipino and even Indonesian communities. Still, we have to be careful not to allow these communities within the community overshadow our unity as one Catholic parish, and more importantly, equal members of the one body of Christ.

St. Paul told the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendant, heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28-29)

Christ called us to be one body, united in him. If Catholics are traveling to other parishes because they don’t feel welcome at their own, we need to find ways to be more welcoming.

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