Monday, February 24, 2020

Growing During Lent

The key to Lent is doing something consistently; that way Lent is the source of a virtue that is developing or a vice that is shrinking. Among many ideas preached today, I offered the deal of selling every household in the parish a copy of "The Action Bible" for $5: read about 12 pages a day during Lent, it's in your own house, it's fun, and you're learning and growing. It's a steal. [Homily transcript coming later.]

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Teachers And Witnesses

This homily has two distinct parts: the first part could be a stand-alone reflection on teachers, witnesses, and the cost of discipleship. The second part is my pitch to the parish for hiring a parish catechetical director/youth minister, because, as Paul VI said, people will listen to teachers who are also witnesses, and we are in need of more of both. 

6th Sunday, Year A

Teachers and Witnesses

So today in the homily, I want to do two things: First, look at a sequence of readings to kind of get some ideas going for us. And then I want to try and apply those in some practical ways here for a parish and kind of give you a chance to kind of see the crazy insides of my mind. 

So start off with page 60 on your missalette. That's our gospel today. Start with page 60. It's Matthew, Chapter 5. So we're in the Sermon on the Mount. And this is really kind of the meat, the heart, of the Sermon on the Mount. The part where Jesus says, "You've heard it said X to your ancestors. I say to you, Y." Right, and then the back and forth. Two weeks ago would have been Beatitudes, which is like this beautiful poetic opening. Last week was the salt in the light. Now we're kind of getting into Jesus, reflecting on the law. And that's important is he starts by saying, "I did not come here to abolish the law" The law is good, right? We're keeping that. "None of it will pass away. I'm actually here to fulfill it. And my work is here to fulfill what's there in the Torah." 

But he does definitely say, we're going to do something more. Right. So on the right hand column, that's the first of this: "You've heard it said, 'Do not kill'. I said, don't even mock your brother. Don't call him 'Raqa'. Don't call him you fool. That's as bad." If you've ever wondered why our Catholic examinations of conscience, like under the fifth Commandment, it's not just murder, but it's a whole bunch of other things, like so: bodily harm but or some unkind words and hurting someone's reputation. They're all under there. It's because it's what Jesus does. He doesn't stop at murder. He goes through all these other things as, "This is part of that." Same with the sixth and ninth commandment; that's his next one, right? It's not just literally adultery. It's any kind of lusting, he says, "that's included". So we put under sixth and ninth as well. And then as well, with the oaths. On the right hand column of 61. The idea of—he says, "Just don't vow at all. Don't swear at all. Just simply let your yes be yes, and your no be no.". 

And when we look at that, there's a definite increase there. And it's especially interesting because we know that the law was already hard to follow. Paul tells us that, right? He says, and now we're going to add more. We're going to ask more of people. There's gonna be an even greater challenge, but that's definitely what Jesus is doing. What's interesting is that he says, "I want more out of you."  Look at page 60, left-hand column, very bottom two lines, he tells us: I want more from you. "I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of this scribes and the Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." The scribes and the Pharisees were the teachers. He says, they teach it, but they must not live it. They don't practice what they preach. He says, "You have to be more than that." And actually, he explains that like two lines above that, three lines above that, on the left hand column. "But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called the greatest in the kingdom." So teaching it, yes, but also obeying it. Walking the walk in addition to talking the talk. So he says there are teachers, and there are witnesses, and you need to be both.  

To understand more about where he's coming from, actually flip back a page to the beginning of our second reading on page 59. Now, the second reading and the gospel don't intentionally match. They're not put there together during Ordinary Time to match each other. But sometimes they show up really nicely together as they do here. And we see that Paul is also demanding more of his people. It's not just Jesus, right? Because Paul's writing to the Corinthians. These are pagans. Paul showed up and says, "I'm going to rock your world. You're not just gonna get Jesus' teaching. You're asking to be hearing hard things from me. We're gonna really spin your head here." And so he brought them the message of Jesus and it was demanding. He tells us about that. So, at the beginning of 59. "We speak a wisdom to those who are mature, not a wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age who are passing away." So he says, "This is not the wisdom of Socrates or Plato, Cicero, Seneca, Romans and Greeks," he says. "I'm giving you a different kind of wisdom. It's going to be different." And then he even says next column, "Rather, we speak God's wisdom, mysterious, hidden, which God predetermined before the ages for our glory." So he's saying, "God has something else in mind. But it's for our glory. It asks more, but it gives us more. It satisfies more, even though it actually asks more. 

So then go back one more page back: top of 58. That's last week's chunk of First Corinthians. And here Paul goes more into the depths on that. So he talks; he picks up that wisdom idea, though. So at the beginning: How did Paul come? "When I came to you, brothers and sisters proclaiming the mystery of God."—so there's that word—"I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom." So, again, he's not coming with the message of Aristotle. Right. He's come with God's wisdom, a different kind of wisdom. Therefore, he's gonna be a different kind of teacher and a different kind of witness. Right. And so he's going to challenge them even more. That what Jesus asking is hard. But he says, "I came with something else too." Look at the bottom line there —Oh I'm sorry. Go go back where I left off— what did [Paul] want to do? "I was resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." And that's the real key, because where are you going to find the power to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, hand away your cloak, to forgive your enemies? To not mock your brother? To not need to swear? To not lust? Where are you going to find all the power to do those kind of things? It's going to be in the cross. That's the only place you're gonna find the power to be able to do that. And so earlier in First Corinthians, Paul had said, "The world sees the cross and it sees foolishness and weakness." And he says, "You know, that's fine, because God's weakness is actually greater than the world's power. And God's foolishness is actually greater than even the world's wisdom." We continue at the bottom of that same column there, he says. I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling. And my message was, my and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of spirit and power." 

So he says, "I didn't just come teaching. I came witnessing also." I came with power, not just teaching, but action. A demonstration. Paul believes that he had to live the cross, even to looking foolish and weak to other people, if he was going to live out what Jesus wanted. So he's witnessing, showing people the cross of Christ, the weakness of Christ, the wounds of Christ, even the death of Christ in himself. He's a teacher and he's a witness. 

Why do I keep mentioning those two? (You can close your books, by the way.) I keep mentioning those two because [Pope] Paul VI, famously [said them], in 1975 had a letter called "Announcing the Gospel" and is even quoted by secular sources, it's such a good quote. He said, "Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers. And if he does listen to teachers, it's because they are also witnesses." Think about that. Think what's your own life. Think about the best teachers, right? They didn't just tell you stuff. They lived in a certain way. They showed you a certain kind of life. They gave you examples in their own being. And you're like, "I want to follow that. They're a witness and I want to follow them.". 

And you think of that every step of the way. We know that the faith is more caught than taught. Think from the very beginning. Go back to the earliest teachers— "Who are the basic teachers, the original teachers, the primary teachers of children?" It's our parents, right? And if our parents are just teaching it but not living it, it doesn't stick. But if they teach it and witness it, then it sticks in an incredible way. Nothing can replace the witness of our parents. 

But we do have others, right? We have priests. Priests of a particular job. We always say that's not the job of priest to convert the world. It's your job to convert the world. It's the job of priest to give you the tools. To give you the scriptures, explain the gospel, to give you the sacraments for healing and for food for the journey. So that allows you to be the ones who can convert the world. But even with priests and parents, you still have other things, right? You know, we have religious education for a reason because we need more teachers, more witness. So, GodTeens, CCD, Catholic schools, right? They're all examples of: "Here's a person who's a teacher and hopefully a witness as well." And they're showing us how to do that. 

This now allows me to transition to my more practical thing that I want to talk about. Back in November, I said, "OK, we're finally having a balanced budget. What are the dreams we haven't let ourselves dream for years because we couldn't afford to? What are the things that we need?" And so I've mentioned that I'd like to see us give stipends to our musicians. I'd like to have a St Vincent de Paul [society], which I talked all about last week. To do some other little things here in the church. And —back then— I said, I'd like to have a youth minister, a part time youth minister to be able to help right here in the parish. Right. Gery Kenney is a campus minister for Bishop Newman. But that's just Bishop Neumann, 7-12. I want something for the parish. And if it actually helps the other parishes in the county, the, great, that's awesome, too. But somebody who reaches out in that way. 

And so— I can't do a lot with Microsoft, but I can do an Excel spreadsheet— so I made a little sheet asking myself, can we actually make this a full time job? Because someone said to me, "Father, you're not going to get a quality person if it's just part time. If you want somebody with real skills, I think you have to make it full time. Don't make it a youth minister. Make it a full parish catechetical director —with youth ministry— but also with adult education as well. And I think we can fill that 40 hours. By the way, that personal also then gave me ten thousand dollars saying, "Go for the big bucks; go for the full time job; make it a 40 hour job. Get somebody who's good at this." And then another person last week, give me another five thousand dollars. So I got fifteen thousand dollars. And now I want your money, too. All right. Because if you hear what I'm saying and it appeals to, if you say that's what we need, that would be good for our parish. Well, then, yeah, "Say, Father, here's a thousand bucks. We'll spread it out over the year." Right or, you know, "Here, we want to help in some way because we want this."

The person I'm looking for, the kind of person I'm looking for is, intelligent, personally talented, but also very resourceful, comfortable with young people, but also can talk to adults. (Some people can talk to young people but can't have an adult conversation; it's pretty awkward. Right?) Somebody who's organized; a lot of this stuff is actually organization. And somebody can talk to groups, but also talk one on one to individual people and help them. The reason I'm bringing this up now is spring is the time to look for someone. February, March. That's about as late as you want to go. Teachers are turning over jobs. Youth ministers are turning over jobs. Focused missionaries who have a lot of these talents I'm going to describe they're leaving their jobs; and some are looking for a nice, quiet little Nebraska town to settle down in. That's why we should be ready to grab these people. 

So I'm going to share some of these ideas here. Number one thing, absolute number one thing. I think we should have multiple Bible studies at Wahoo Public high school. I think that's an essential thing to reach out there. There's opportunities there. I would like at least two. Maybe it's guys/girls. Maybe it's older/younger. I don't care. But at least two to start with. I think this person should be the junior high CCD teacher. Junior high is a hard age. It's a hard age to teach. And If we're being also honest: oftentimes people, throughout the country, you get confirmed and you're like "Eh, I don't really need education any more." That happens throughout our country. So if you're going to have a junior high teacher, they better be good. They better be able to attract people to stay with it through those middle years. Right? 

The diocese is inviting every freshman in our diocese in the fall to come to a freshman "Encounter" retreat. It's like a one day retreat at Pius high school. It's not teaching. It's not catechetical. It's witnessing and evangelizing. And then they'll go back to their parishes having made these little "freshmen encounter groups". And so I think this person should be very instrumental in forming that and maybe even leading that freshman encounter group. This will eventually kind of age-out GodTeens. But you also need somebody who can help with GodTeens right now. This person would help with that. 

But also, what about adults? We said it's important. I think I've come to realize that I talk to high for RCIA. I think I shoot over people's heads. You know that every Sunday, right? So the idea would be, let's have this person teach RCIA to people who are new. I can do another Adult Ed class on another day. And then I'd like this person to teach a second class. That'd give you three adult education opportunities throughout the week. They'd be amazing because we totally act like if you're 18, you're fine; we'll never teach you again. Right, just come to Mass on Sunday. But we need those opportunities. Also, I want at least two adult Bible studies, and these would be like "led Bible studies". Here's a person who has a set of knowledge and information. Let them teach you how to pray. Let them teach you to be disciples. Let them teach those kind of things. Also, a lot of behind the scenes stuff. Meeting with priests, finding out what we're doing and what we need. Meeting with other youth ministers in the area. Finding your peers and learning what they're doing. Work with them. Assorted preparation work. 

Meeting with parishioners—this is huge. Some people will come talk to priests, but other people won't, right? And people are like, "I don't want to go there; I don't want to I talk to a priest." Could this person, like, do one-on-one discipleship over the long term with people that be awesome? I think they should at least three hours available a week to do that. Maybe also just doing like one-time counseling, not discipleship, but like, "I just an hour to talk to somebody; can I share my thoughts with you?" That would be a great thing. Also, things like FCA, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, we have it here in Wahoo, maybe they can work with them. 

Junior high. Junior high gets forgotten. People just totally forget that, right? We'll take care of you K-6 and then we'll take care of you at 9-12; we got stuff that. And junior high is just like a wasteland, right? Just like: it's left there. We should be having regular activities for our junior high, both in the Catholic schools and in the public schools. We should be pulling them together and doing events. I think this also be monthly events where everyone in like the high schools can come together. Also service opportunities, not because we need service hours, but because just even once a week there's an option that, "You could go serve?" I think people would do that if it's regular. We need somebody who knows: this old lady can't clean her house, somebody who knows that this old man can't do his yard. We need to have those options: go to the food pantry and organize. If you do those regularly, it doesn't seem weird and extraordinary when you try to have service. 

This next one is gonna be a little weird. I'm gonna explain it. I think we should have dinner for CCD, at least the older kids, because what happens? You come out of practice —fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth grade— and you don't have time to do all three of these: to eat, to shower and to go to CCD. So either you come sweaty, or you come hungry, or you don't come, right? So put the meal in there. They eat fast: 15 minutes to eat a hot meal and go right to your classroom? I think that's reasonable. You could have a different family every week for like 15 weeks and then do it again next semester. This person could coordinate that. They don't have to cook 30 meals, but they could coordinate and help in that in that way. I'd love to. Also, it lets us use our cafeteria, the new cafeteria, on Wednesday nights immediately as soon as we have it done. That would be great. 

Other things. This is huge to me —I don't know if this person will have the skill set, but somebody needs to do this— I want Religious Ed, even if it's just an hour a week, for people with special needs. Maybe it's special needs kids, because they need to know Jesus. Or maybe it's adults. When I was in Hastings, there was a religious sister who would do special needs for like 16 to 40 year olds and they would watch Bible videos; they would learn about Jesus. Nobody takes care of those people. Nobody gives them religious education like anywhere in this country. We need that. They should know Jesus, too. They should know the Bible, too. So maybe that's this person. Maybe not. But I want it. 

Somebody checks with the homeschoolers even just a couple times a month" "Like, how are you doing? Do you want to come to our stuff, these events? That'd be great." Somebody who visits 6th Grade, in CCD and at St. Wenc. How are you gonna get them into junior high stuff? Talk to them in sixth grade. And then finally, just promoting diocesan events. World Youth Day, March for life, TEC retreats, SKY Camp, the canoe trip... Any of those things, they would promote those. 

According to my sheet, that's 19 and a half hours directly in front of people and 19 to 21 hours behind the scenes, because you should have about 1 to 1 on those things. Now, not every week has all of that, of course. Right. But the idea that over the course of a month they could be doing 30 to 35, maybe 40 hours— that I think is worth it. If this is a thing that interests you and you think this the thing we should do. Let me know. Help me out here. Say, "This is this is a worthwhile thing." And give me names, too, if you can think of people,. 

Finally I just want to say: the beauty of this is that it's not just teaching. If people are teaching and witnessing, they make other teachers; they make other witnesses. If this person can do that also for adults in Bible studies, then you have an army of teachers, an army of witnesses to go out there and share the faith. 

Monday, February 10, 2020

"The Poor Are Your Venmo" —St. Augustine, Probably

There's lots of room to debate how we care for the poor: locally, politically, economically. What is not up for debate is that we must give to them, and that, quite literally, our souls are on the line when it comes to it. It uncomfortable to hear the Church Fathers talk about what we, the rich, must do for the poor. That probably explains why you, like me, never heard the Fathers while we sat in the pews. What's more remarkable is that I never heard these direct quotes in the seminary. The first time I even heard reference to the Fathers having an opinion on this topic (don't those guys just talk about homoousios?) was sitting in on a Chesterton fan club meeting at my high school friends' very trad Catholic college. The synoptic gospels say much about giving to the poor; the Church Fathers insist that those words are not just hyperbole. (if you just want to hear the Church Fathers, i.e. part three, jump ahead to 11:00.)

(The image is "Saint John Chrysostom and the Empress Eudoxia" by Jean-Paul Laurens)

5th Sunday of the Year, Year A

The Poor Are Your Venmo

So first, a little bit about the genesis of this homily. 

Back in November, when I was talking about different things that people could get excited about and spend money on, I talked about how we have certain special projects coming up. Maybe the idea of getting a youth minister or giving some sort of stipend to our musicians, repairing things in the church, replacing things. And I also mentioned the St Vincent de Paul Society, which most people probably hadn't heard of before. And then this spring (it's not quite spring yet, but) in February, January, we had the sheets with time and talent. And one of the options was to join a new St Vincent de Paul Society. And I heard a lot of people saying, "Well, I was kind of interested. But what is a St Vincent de Paul Society? I might be interested, but I'm gonna need some more info." I had a lot of people ask me on that. 

So because today's first reading highlights our responsibility to the poor, I figured, hey, this is as good a time as any to explain what that looks like. 

I also want to talk a little bit about our local poor. And then finally, I want to have you hear some of the quotes from the Church Fathers on our responsibility to help the poor. 

Part One:

So let's start with the gospel. Open up your books to Page 58. 58 is today's gospel. 

It's about halfway down on the left hand side there. 

So we are in the Sermon on the Mount. And last week we would have had the Beatitudes, the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, except it was the Feast of the Presentation, and it bumped that. And then next week we have the famous "You have heard it said X, but I say to you Y" part of the sermon. 

Today, we get the comparison of salt and light. Look at just the very last couple of lines at the end of the gospel. Jesus says, "Just so your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father." Alright. 

We've all heard this plenty of times, but when we see that "light", let's see how that connects to the first reading. Turn back a page to 57. There's always be a connection between your first reading and gospel on a Sunday. So you notice halfway down on the left hand column... left hand column, halfway down, you see the first reference to light: "Then your light shall break forth like the dawn," and you see it again on the right hand side, about four lines in the bottom: "Then light shall rise for you in the darkness." So they too were being promised that light would be coming. But look at the "if"—what makes the light come about? Back in the left hand column, we're told that it's "share your bread at the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless, clothe the naked. And when you see them, do not turn your back on your own." That's how you get the light. 

On the right hand side, same question. How do you get there? "If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation, and malicious peace speech. If you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted, then the light will rise for you." So that's that's the connection. 

And this is in Isaiah. Isaiah was very well known to the Jews of Jesus' day. So if Jesus says, "your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds," they're going to hear: "Ah, Isaiah. 'Do good to the hungry, the oppressed, the afflicted, and then your light shall break forth'." That's what they're going recognize. Go ahead and close your missalettes. 

So there is a constant call to the people of God to take care of the poor— in the Old Testament, in the New Testament, and then in the Church after that. But if we're being honest, in the last five hundred years, Christians have put much more energy into arguing over doctrines or trying to make converts than listening closely to this call. 

And therein begins the fascinating story of the St Vincent de Paul Society. So it actually was not started by St. Vincent. He had died about 200 years earlier, It was started by a guy named Frédéric Ozanam. He's now called "Blessed Frédéric Ozanam". And so he was living in Paris in the 1830s. This was a period of extreme unbelief and even anger at the church. (Sound familiar?) So this is 40 years after the French Revolution and all its anti-Christian ideas. And also after the reign of Napoleon and all of the ways in which he tried to co-opt the church into his regime and stuff like that. So at this point, the Faith is legal, but it's sneered at. People look down upon Christianity and say, "It's old fashioned. It went out with the kings like Louis XVI and stuff like that. We don't need that now."

Now Frédéric is a student at the university. Then he becomes a journalist and then a lawyer and then a professor back at the university. And so he, like a lot of men at the time, would belong to debating clubs or dinner clubs or you'd have different topics come up. And it's a mix of Christians and atheists and agnostics and stuff like that. And one day the question came up, "Is the church still good?" And someone said, "You know, the church was once clearly a force for good. Back in the day when it took care of people..." Then they asked Frédéric this question: "What is your church doing now? What is she doing for the poor of Paris? Show us your works and we will believe you." And that cut Frédéric to the heart. And so he when he left there, he said, "I am going to do something. I know there are Christians who care, then I need to organize them."

So he started organizing people who said, "We will take care of the poor in the streets of Paris. And he chose St. Vincent de Paul as the patron of the group, because nobody, even the most atheistic people, could doubt that St. Vincent de Paul really cared about the poor, the widow, the orphan, the wounded veteran. All these people were the people that St. Vincent cared for 200 years earlier. And Frédéric figured that even an atheistic Paris in a very secularized France had to recognize the beauty and holiness of St. Vincent. And the Society's goal was to help all: everybody in Paris, especially in a material way, but also in spiritual ways. And to help them regardless of faith and regardless of whether or not they were practicing a faith. Their goal was charity first, then you can preach the gospel. Whereas too many today think it's the opposite: preaching the gospel, and then maybe help them out if they believe, right? No, he said "Charity first. Then they'll have ears open to hear." And now, 200 plus years later, we have 800,000 members of different St Vincent de Paul societies throughout the world. 

When I was in Lincoln at St. Patrick's, my first parish, they had really vibrant St. Vincent society. And what was interesting was, you know, St. Pat's is on the north end; it's a little more blue collar than like the far southeast, which is a little more affluent. And like St. Peter's and St. Joe's down in the south, you know, if they had somebody call their St. Vincent de Paul Society. They would just be like, "Okay, you need help of the bill? Here's some money. You need help getting this? Here, we'll give you money. Go get that." But St. Pat's didn't have the money. So they just did a lot on their own. 

They had a couple of retired and semi-retired people who really took seriously that on any given day, we can help you out before the day is over. And so sometimes they would be building things. They had guys who could fix things. And then a whole garage of stuff they had scrounged together over the years. They're like 20 mattresses, little kids mattresses, big people mattresses. They had beds, they had bunk beds. They had like secondhand stoves and laundry machines. And if people said, "Hey, I just moved and I have nothing, can you help me out?" And they would show up with a truck. It was like an ice cream man, but a truck full of appliances going around town. It was awesome. 

And I am convinced that the fruitfulness of St. Patrick's Parish came out of the faithfulness of their St. Vincent de Paul group. Father Doher is an example. He's a vocation out of St. Pat's. But there's been a flurry of vocations out of St. Pat's the last 30 years. And I think it's because of that prayerful, charitable support that comes out of that parish. And I'm convinced they were able to build a church which was really —most people thought— out of their means and ability, because God rewarded them for the way they'd taken care of the poor in their community, one on one. 

Part Two:

So let me talk for a second about our own local poor here in Wahoo. So currently most charity is taken care of by the ministers in this community, Protestant and Catholic both, by the priests and stuff like that. 

In our own church, St. Wenceslaus we have a Good Samaritan fund. When I first got here was called Good Angels, which was very confusing since it's very similar to Guardian Angels, which is like school scholarships. So we said, "call it Good Samaritan." And when I got here it had like six thousand dollars in it. People had given money to give to charity and stuff like that. And so as people would call, I would cautiously and with some questioning, you know, help them out. I try to be as generous as possible, but I definitely have people hang up on me because I ask too many questions sometimes. Because I want to be respectful of your money. 

But I also thought, you know, I don't want to die or get moved from here with $6,000 still in that account. That would mean I didn't actually use your money for what you wanted to be used for. So again, I ask questions, but I make sure to hand it out. And we pretty much use that money up, which is a great thing to actually be able to say we've done what we're supposed to do. Mostly we help out with gas vouchers and stuff like that. Sometimes we help with bills, we always say, "Let's do half. You need help with rent. You need help with your electric bill. If you can get half, we'll do the other half." That's oftentimes what we do there. And that's how most of Saunders County runs —with actually the clergy doing it. 

Now, I want to give you a little stats from our state census. So Saunders County—this is the county, not the city. The median income is $66,700, with the average of the poverty level in the county is 7.8%. That's the percent that is below the poverty level. You move into Wahoo proper though, the income drops to just $53,900 and the poverty level doubles to 16.1%. And to put that in perspective, the average for the entire state of Nebraska is around 11%, maybe 12% some years. So we're quite a bit more impoverished in the city of Wahoo than the state as a whole. I also looked at disability, because I think it plays in there. Of those in town below the poverty level, 29% of men and 32% of women are disabled. They are officially, according to state, considered on disability. 

And I'll say that's completely true from what I see at the food pantry. Tons of people at the food pantry are coming in on disability and you can tell they are hurting. 

So the reason I bring that up is because the constant teaching in the New Testament is that charity begins at home. Mother Teresa used to be upset when people would fly to Calcutta. They'd go to India to work with the Missionaries of Charity, and she'd be like, "Why are you here? There are plenty of poor people in your own hometown. There are homeless throughout your state. You have them. You don't need to fly to India (and whatever that plane costs) to come and look for them here." Now she would let them stay, but then quickly she'd be like, "Go home and find them in your own area."

Christ in the City is an apostolate in Denver, Colorado, that works with homeless there in the city. It's one of the most successful apostolates of the last 15 years I'd say in the Catholic Church. And one thing that they're really good at —so they hire, well, they recruit, 20 or 30 college-aged kids to work for them for a year or two— and then they bring in high school groups and college groups on spring breaks and summer trips. And they do have them work with the homeless for a week. And they say, "OK, we've taught you how to do it here, but don't come back here. Go do it in your own hometown. Go do it in your own area. Do it there."

There's a young man from Hastings whose name is Blake Brouillette, who took that so seriously. He's from Hastings. He went to college at UNK. He took a trip out to Christ in the City. He heard that message and he came back and he took seriously, "I'm gonna start visiting homeless in Kearney, and in Hastings." They are small towns, but they have them. And then he would go visit his friends in Lincoln, the ones who went to UNL, and his friends joked that you always knew what it was going to look like when Blake came in for a Saturday night or Friday night in town. You're going to stop at Wal-Mart. He's gonna buy about 50 pairs of socks and some water bottles and sandwiches. And you're gonna go down under the O Street overpass and he's gonna start handing out socks and water bottles to people and you're gonna go with him. And then you're gonna go have dinner or go out to do whatever you're going to do on a Friday night. And for a bunch of college kids, that was life changing to have one of their own saying, this is how we start a day of hanging out. We do it by taking care of the poor first. 

Part Three:

So this brings me to my third part. I want to share with you what the church has said, pretty constantly for the first 1500 years about the poor. We all know Matthew 25: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned. We all know they we're told to give and give generously; it will be given back to us. We know that we're told that it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than this for a rich man to enter into heaven. We know that. 

But what I'm about to tell you now with these quotes from the Church Fathers—this is going to hurt. None of us are going to like hearing this. These are quotes mostly from within about 100 years after the legalization of Christianity in the Roman times. These are bishops. These are Church Fathers. These are the brightest minds of their day. We still look back to St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, John Chrysostom, St. Basil the Great. These are our brightest minds and they're bishops; they're men of the world. They're not like, you know, crazy hippie types like St. Francis, throwing off their clothes in the city square and running off to the hills. No, these are normal church leaders in big cities. And we're going to be amazed, what we hear from them. 

First of all, a big warning. These are statements about our responsibilities. They're not a statement of how to do them. In other words, do not take a political meaning from these quotes. There is lots of room for legitimate debate about how we do this economically, politically. Some would say, hey, it's a strictly private affair, individual charity —more of a libertarian approach. Others would say, hey, use the state apparatus, you know, use the county, the nation, the state level to help people out. We can legitimately debate how to help the poor. What these quotes show us is that we cannot not take care of the poor. 

So a first one for introduction. This comes from St. Basil the Great. He was the bishop of Caesarea, which would you be a mid-sized diocese like maybe like an Omaha sized city. And he says, first, "How can I make you realize the misery of the poor? How can I make you understand that your wealth comes from their weeping?"

That's pretty intense, Basil. Right? I want you to notice that as we go on that they don't talk about it as being a question of "charity" to the poor. They call it "justice". They say it's not that you're giving out charity. You're actually returning something out of justice. You're giving to poor people what is actually theirs. 

This is Ambrose of Milan next. He's the one who converted St. Augustine. He said, "You are not making a gift of your possession to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his."

And then we have from St. Basil again: "When a man strips another of his clothes, he is called a thief. Should not a man who has the power to clothe the naked, but does not do so be called the same? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry. The cloak in your wardrobe belongs to the naked. The shoes you allow to rot [in your closet] belong to the barefoot. The money in your vaults belongs to the destitute. You do injustice to every man whom you could help, but do not."

This is so hard for us to accept in 2020. Right? The idea that our surplus isn't just charity to the poor, but they actually have a right to it?? And notice who he considered "the rich" in that one: The common trope you hear people talk about is: Who is rich? If you ask the people who are poor, they'll say somebody who makes $100,000 a year is rich. Then if you ask person with $100,000, they say it's somebody who makes a million a year. You ask that person and they say it's somebody who makes 20 million dollars a year. 

But who does Basil say is rich? Anyone with two cloaks, anyone with spare bread, he says, is rich and can help the poor. 

I think about this every single time I'm on my day off, I'm in Lincoln on Thursday, I think by getting a fancy coffee at some business. "Ooo, can I justify getting this? Like, can I really do that in light of what St. Basil says?"

And as you hear these, you might be thinking, like many people, that this is kind of an attack on private property. "Isn't it trying to take away what we have legitimately earned or bought with our earnings?" Well, actually the Church Fathers answer that directly. 

St. John Chrysostom is next. He is the patriarch of Constantinople. That's the capital of the whole Roman Empire. This would be like being the bishop of New York City or of London or something that. In his parish are the emperor and the empress, generals and nobles. And these are the people in his front row when he's saying this. And John says, "The rich are in possession of the goods of the poor, even if they have acquired them honestly or inherited them legally." Wow. 

And then again Basil says, " 'I am wronging no one,' you say. 'I am merely holding onto to what is mine,' you say. What is yours?? Who gave it to you so that you could bring it into life with you [when you were born]? Why, you are like a man who pinches a seat at the theater at the expense of latecomers, claiming ownership of what was for common use. That's what the rich are like: having seized what belongs to all, they claim it as their own on the basis of having gotten there first. Whereas if everyone took for himself enough to meet his immediate needs and released the rest to those in need of it, there would be no rich and no poor." 

Dang. This is pretty intense, right? So for 2,000 years people have been saying things like, "You know, the poor, lazy— it's their own fault. They do this to themselves." John Chrysostom totally disagrees. He says the opposite. He says, "Now, don't tell me that you actually work hard. If you call earning money, making business deals and caring for your possessions 'work', I say, 'No, that is not work. But alms, prayer and protection of the injured and like— these are genuine work.' You charge the poor with idleness. I charge you with corrupt behavior."

And then finally, one last one from John. He says, "Let us learn that as often as we have not given alms, we shall be punished like those who have plundered. For what we possess is not personal property. It belongs to all." 

Now, Saint Augustine sees this a little bit differently. I mean, he agrees with them, but he sees in it an emphasis on what's happening in our souls at the same time. Augustine says, "You can take [with you] nothing of what you've loved in this world. What you do [however] take with you is the vice of having loved it." Right, so you can't take your possessions, but you can take your vice of greed. He says that's the danger. 

And then he draws this amazing analogy, this image of two Christian men on a journey, the journey of life. But he says neither of them can make it, if one of the two men is rich. He says that while the wealthy find their possessions are weighing them down on the road, the poor are too hungry for that journey. So, let the rich give their heavy possessions away to the poor man, and it will help them both. So it's a great analogy: to think of them—by trading their stuff—they can both make it. Whereas if one holds onto it, neither one can make it. 

He also has this analogy with that. He says the poor are the "porters of heaven, the porters to heaven" for the wealthy— lifting off of them their spiritual burdens and their possessions. He says, "For when the rich give generously to those in need, the poor will be nourished, and the poor will transfer that wealth to heaven for the rich, where those possessions will be transformed to reflect the heart's eternal treasure: loving communion with God."

I was thinking about the porter image, and was like, "Oh, it's like the poor people are like Western Union. You give them money that goes to some other place!" Then I realized: half the church doesn't know what Western Union is anymore. So, let's put it this way: "The poor are like Venmo. If you give money to the poor people, they will make it land in heaven for you and you can [have treasure] on the other end. But you have to send it through them if you wanted to arrive on time.

St. Clement of Rome of the first century —he's our fourth Pope— he reflects on this. He says there's a prayer difference here; there's a benefit here. He says, "Let the strong take care of the weak. Let the weak respect the strong. Let the rich man minister to the poor man. Let the poor man give thanks to God that he gave him one through whom he can be satisfied." It's an awesome reflection of how they're both receiving a spiritual gift there.

So I want to ask you: In 30, 40, 65 years of going to church, have you ever heard any of these quotes before? I know I had not. I never heard them grow up. And even in the seminary where we should be learning this, never. They pussyfooted around this topic, but they never went there directly. And when I found this out, I was mad. I was mad because I don't want to risk me going to hell because my professors didn't share the gospel with me, because my priests back home didn't preach it to me when I was growing up. 

When the gospel says give generously and give away your possessions— that wasn't hyperbole, at least not to the Church Fathers and the Church Doctors. These are, you know, the brightest minds in the Church, and they thought this was the truth about the human condition. 

So let us all ask along with them: How do we care for the poor? What are we holding onto ourselves? And how does that greed eat away at our hearts? Everyone may hurt when they hear this, but we should also be thankful for having heard the truth. 

And finally, let me say again, it doesn't matter exactly how we take to this work. It matters that we do take to this work. Maybe that means joining the St Vincent de Paul Society. Maybe it means giving money to the poor directly. Maybe that means setting up a special account that they can be helped out. 

But it definitely means doing something. Since our money apparently is not actually our own, but it's truly the poor's possession, and not ours. 

Assorted Church quotes on the rich and poor
St. Basil's whole sermon "To The Rich"
A good paper with many quotes for John Chrysostom
Good article on St. Augustine's thought
Another collection of Patristic quotes 

Sunday, February 2, 2020