Pomp, pageantry and politics go into the mix of the inauguration of any new president of the United States. When Thomas Jefferson was sworn in as our third president, he walked to the Capitol for his swearing-in. He read his speech. Then, he went back to his boarding house. By such simplicity, he sent the message to the young nation that its president should not be seen as a monarch. When James Madison, another Founding Father of our nation, often called the “Father of the Constitution,” took office, every item which he wore was made in the United States. He wanted to make a statement about our country’s independence. When Abraham Lincoln took office in 1865, he invited African Americans to march for the first time in the inaugural parade. When Barack Obama was sworn in as president, he invited an openly gay marching band to participate for the first time in the parade along with military and school bands. The inaugural parade dates from the time of Jefferson. When he took office as president for the second time, Jefferson rode on horseback from the Capitol to the White House. Men from the Washington Navy Yard and musicians accompanied him along the way. This post-inaugural procession gave birth to the modern 1.5-mile inaugural parade that includes civilians and military personnel from the entire country. But, not all parades have been as simple as Jefferson’s. Dwight Eisenhower’s inaugural parade took place during the Cold War. It lasted 4 hours and 39 minutes. It was the longest of its kind in history. The parade made a statement about our military prowess. It showcased 22,000 service men and women and 5,000 civilians. There were tanks and artillery, 59 floats, 65 bands, 350 horses, three elephants and an Alaskan dog team. All the ceremonies and celebrations surrounding a presidential inauguration highlight the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next. The Founding Fathers established our republic in such a way that our federal government would transition without the spilling of blood in the streets. They wanted to insure continuity and change without revolution. But, they could not prevent protests. In a country that guarantees freedom of speech, it is inevitable that some individuals whose strong views differ from the new president do not remain silent. Prior to the passing of the office of president from Lyndon B. Johnson to Richard Nixon, there were days of protests. On the very day of Nixon’s inauguration, flags were burned and police attacked. As Nixon drove in his motorcade, he was greeted with rocks and other objects. For President Trump’s inauguration, the National Park Service issued 22 permits for First Amendment events to take place over inauguration week. Protesters and supporters all attending the same passing on of power demonstrate, to some degree, the freedom that Americans enjoy. At the center of all the cheers and jeers, the formal balls, the speeches and dinners stands the one and only requirement that the United States Constitution lays down for the inauguration: the taking of the oath of office. Before an individual begins to exercise the executive powers of president, that person must swear an oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” For this oath, it is customary to use a bible, even though this is not specified by the Constitution. John F. Kennedy used a Catholic bible. Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, Obama and Trump each took their oath of office, using two bibles. However, not every president has taken the oath of office on a bible. John Quincy Adams deliberately did not use a bible. Wanting to show the distinction between church and state, he swore his oath on a book of laws. At his 1963 swearing-in aboard Air Force One, Lyndon B. Johnson placed his hand on a Catholic missal that belonged to his predecessor. What is most important in every inauguration ceremony is the new president’s oath, his solemn promise to abide by the laws of the nation. The president is not the lawgiver. He is bound by the constitution. In fact, our constitution is the Founding Fathers’ practical application of the natural law to our nation’s governance. Like Sophocles, Aristotle, Cicero and St. Thomas Aquinas, our Founding Fathers accepted the fact that there is a God who created the universe. They accepted the fact that God implanted in man a law which all human beings can know by reason. This law precedes and is superior to all human laws. They acknowledged the reality that God is Supreme Judge of individuals and nations (cf. Dr. Robert S. Barker, The Review of Metaphysics 66, September 2012). Thus, amid all the loud accolades and strident protests surrounding the inauguration, we will best continue the great American traditions of freedom and liberty, of peace and opportunity for all by honoring the natural law. We need to once again as a nation listen more attentively to the law that God has implanted within each of us. When God is acknowledged as Creator and Supreme Judge, individuals will differ but will not divide their efforts from working toward the common good. They will respect every individual, born and unborn, as created with equal dignity. Putting aside the rhetoric of rancor, they will abide by the law of common civility so necessary for peace. In a word, the taking of the oath of office by our new president challenges, by its very nature, every American to return to the basics of God’s law, for his law is nothing other than his plan for our happiness.
Although there are differences that divide one church from another in the United States, every church is facing the same diminishing number of young people in attendance. LifeWay Research reports that, among Protestants, about 70 percent of young adults who had attended church in high school no longer do so. More astonishing is the statistic that 80 percent of young people raised as Catholics stop attending church by the time they turn 23. Not infrequently, once young people make their First Holy Communion, they do not return until Confirmation. And, after Confirmation, many disappear totally. Many with their parents’ blessing. In fact, only 30 percent of cradle Americans still practice the faith. Certainly, not one reason alone accounts for this loss of faith among our young people. Having young people engage in sports is good. It trains them in discipline, strengthens their bodies and fosters a sense of camaraderie. However, an overemphasis on sports has a negative impact on young people’s attitudes towards religion. Some parents make their children’s participation in organized sports a priority, even at the expense of church attendance. Sadly, they drive their children to practice and to games in place of going to Sunday Mass with them. Inevitably, when sports and other secular activities, even family events, come first, our young people are taught that Christ is only secondary. If Sunday Eucharist becomes inconvenient because of a conflict in schedule, then any excuse absolves them from observing the Third Commandment “Remember keep holy the Sabbath.” Happily, most parents want their children to receive the sacraments. They take pride in seeing them make their First Holy Communion and receive Confirmation. But, it should not end there. The reception of the sacraments is ordered to the Sunday Eucharist. Every sacrament is meant to deepen our relationship with Jesus who died and rose for us and who offers us a share in the entire mystery of salvation in the Eucharist. Some parents bring their children for catechetical instruction and pick them up when it is over; but, neither they nor their children attend Sunday Mass. Those who do not attend Sunday Mass miss what is most important: actively participating in the Paschal Mystery by which we are saved. Knowledge of the faith does not save of itself. Living the faith does! Another factor why our young people leave the faith is much deeper than simply not attending Sunday Mass on a regular basis. Faith is first learned in the family. For the first 16 centuries of the Church, the home was the school of faith. Mothers and fathers taught their children about God, instructed them in the ways of prayer and fostered in them the development of a virtuous life. Learning the faith within the family is primary and indispensable. It precedes, accompanies and complements all other forms of instruction in the faith (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2226). “Faith is caught before it is taught.” In homes where parents speak to their children about God and pray with them, young people are formed as true disciples. Since we are body and soul, we need signs, visible signs that show us the importance of faith within our family. How many homes today keep in a prominent place a crucifix or sacred image of Jesus, the Blessed Mother or one of the saints? Young people often poster their walls with images of their heroes. It helps them widen their vision when they see that their parents and they themselves have role models to lead them to heaven. Today’s loss of our young people to the practice of the faith cannot be divorced from the tragic loss of family life itself in the last three generations. Divorce, non-marital cohabitation and temporary “hookups” have become commonplace. As a result, we are witnessing the disappearance of the traditional family of a husband and wife in lifelong commitment with children. Certainly, there are many non-traditional families where single parents pass on the faith in an exemplary role and with success. But, overall, the breakdown of family as a model of communion, commitment and sacrifice undermines the pillars of faith. Parents who generously cooperate with God in bringing children into this world have the responsibility of bringing them to share in God’s own life which he gives through the Church. Their own faith, their love for one another and for God and their hope provide the proper environment for the life of faith to grow. Thus, their role in forming their children is irreplaceable. To a mother and a father, God gives the sacred trust to prepare their sons and daughters for life in this world and the next. What greater joy can a parent have than to know they have responded well to what God is asking them to do! What greater gift to give to a son or daughter than the knowledge of Jesus as not someone merely to learn about in catechetical instruction but as the Lord who lives and loves them intimately! Young people who encounter Christ in their own families and in their church, the family of God, do not leave the faith. Faith and family form an irreplaceable bond.
Within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem stands a small shrine called the Aedicule. In its present form, it dates from 1810. It marks the event at the center of the Christian faith. Here Jesus was buried. Here, from this grave in an abandoned limestone quarry, Jesus rose from the dead on Easter. Today, in one day alone, as many as 5,000 pilgrims may be counted visiting this sacred place to pray. Ever since a 1927 earthquake damaged the Aedicule, there has been serious concern about its crumbling condition. In 1947, British authorities shored up the building with unsightly exterior girders. Recently, with the blessing of the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox guardians of the shrine, a team of scientists from the National Technical University of Athens began working on the Aedicule to save it from collapsing. On the night of Oct. 26, 2016, scientists began their research inside the 19th-century Aedicule. They worked continually for sixty hours. First they removed a marble slab covering the place of burial, then a layer of fill material and then another marble slab from the time of the Crusaders. Finally, they exposed the original limestone bed in which Jesus had been placed after his death on the cross. Since the 1500s, no one has seen the actual bedrock of the simple tomb where Jesus was buried. But, on the night of Oct. 28, 2016, it was seen and was found intact. On the third day after Jesus’ death, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome went to this very tomb that Joseph of Arimathea had given to bury Jesus. They found it empty. So did Peter and John who came later. Jesus had been raised from the dead. From that first Easter, Christians have continued to visit the empty tomb and celebrate the Resurrection. In 135 A.D., the Roman emperor Hadrian tried to stop this continual procession of believers to the empty tomb of Jesus. He built a pagan temple over the place. But, he could not destroy the memory of this most hallowed place. In fact, his act of desecration actually provided an historical marker to locate the tomb of Jesus. In the fourth century, the Emperor Constantine removed the pagan temple and built the first church on the site. The recent uncovering of the tomb of Jesus brings back into focus the Christian tradition of burying their beloved dead as Jesus had been buried – in a grave in a cemetery. In light of the widespread changes in the way that funerals are conducted today, on Oct. 25, 2016, the Vatican issued the instruction Ad Resurgendum cum Christo (To Rise with Christ). This document aims at guiding Catholics in the proper and respectful way of burying their departed loved ones. The new instruction links our burial practices with our faith. It says that “the Church continues to recommend strongly that the bodies of the deceased be buried in the cemetery or in another sacred place” (Ad Resurgendum cum Christo, n. 3). This practice follows the example of the way in which Jesus himself was buried. It also expresses our belief in the resurrection. The Church does not “condone attitudes or permit rites that involve erroneous ideas about death, such as considering death as the definitive annihilation of the person, or the moment of fusion with Mother Nature or the universe, or as a stage in the cycle of regeneration, or as the definitive liberation from the ‘prison’ of the body” (ibid., n. 5). Burying the dead in a cemetery respects the dignity of the body which is an integral part of the human person and becomes, by baptism, the very temple of the Holy Spirit. According to the instruction, if Catholics choose cremation, the ashes of the deceased are to be treated with dignity. It is not fitting to keep the ashes of the faithful departed in a home. Nor may they be placed in mementos, pieces of jewelry or other objects. The practice of scattering the ashes of the faithful departed in the air, on land, at sea or in some other way is to be avoided. It conveys the appearance of pantheism, naturalism or nihilism. For this reason, it is inconsistent with the Christian faith in the resurrection and, therefore, unfitting (cf. ibid., n.7). The ashes of the faithful departed are to be reserved in a cemetery or sacred place. In this way, as one generation succeeds another, the deceased are remembered by others and included in the prayers of the family of faith. According to the new instruction, if a Catholic notoriously has requested to be cremated and to have his or her ashes scattered for reasons contrary to the Christian faith a Christian funeral must be denied to that person (cf. ibid., n.8). This denial of a Christian funeral is not to be seen as a punishment. It is not a judgment of the state of the soul of that individual. It is merely the logical consequence of the deceased’s own choice not to accept his or her death as a sharing in the death and resurrection of Jesus. According to our faith, the relationship of love that binds us together in life continues after death. Our loved ones who die before us remain part of the Church. They are joined “in the communion of all the faithful of Christ, those who are pilgrims on earth, the dead who are being purified, and the blessed in heaven, all together forming one Church” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 962). We pray for them. We have Masses offered for them so that, purified of any earthly sin, they may be welcomed into the glory of heaven. Like the early Christians who visited the tomb of Jesus, we visit the graves of our beloved dead. Their graves are for us a place of prayer for the happy repose of their souls and a sacred place to thank God for the gift of their lives. The empty tomb of Jesus assures us that “life is changed, not ended. When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death, we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven” (Preface of the mass for Christian Burial). Our Catholic burial practices truly respect our beloved departed, body and soul, in the sure hope of the resurrection.
In his Historia Anglorum, the 12th century English chronicler Henry of Huntingdon handed down the oft-repeated story of King Canute, the legendary Viking leader and 11th century King of England. Like individuals in authority in any age, he was continually being fawned over by those currying his favor. They praised him as the greatest monarch who had ever ruled. They extolled him as the mightiest man ever. They claimed that no one or anything would refuse to obey him. A man of common sense, he decided to expose the foolishness of their flattery. One day, King Canute took his leading men and courtiers down to the sea. He ordered his chair to be placed at the edge of the water. There he sat and commanded the waves not to break upon the land or touch his clothing. But the sea did not obey. It crashed against the shore, disrespectfully drenching the very person of the king. Jumping up, Canute exclaimed, “Let the world know that the power of kings is empty and worthless. There is no king worthy of the name save him by whose will heaven, earth and sea obey eternal laws.” Before the Almighty God, every creature in the universe is feeble. In God alone is all power. With a simple nod, he can level the towering pride and ambitions of any people, nation or person. No one can tame the tide. The tide rises and falls. It ebbs and flows. In the same way, time itself follows its own inexorable law. The seconds fly, the minutes move and the hours pass. Time has its own course that cannot be stopped by human ingenuity. In his Prologue to the Clerk's Tale, Chaucer enshrined this truth in the proverb “Time and tide wait for no man.” For thousands of years, people have been keeping track of the passing of time. Ancient Egyptians used sun dials; the Greeks, water clocks. The Chinese employed a candle clock; the Tibetans, the time stick. In the 16th century, Peter Henlein, a master locksmith of Nuremberg, began manufacturing the ever popular pocket watches. Today, atomic clocks mark the ticking away of time with greater accuracy than any previous timekeeping device. In fact, the caesium atomic clock will only be off by 1 second in about 30 million years. With greater and greater precision, we can measure time; but, we remain powerless to stop it. The 16th century German theologian Caspar Huberinus coined the Latin proverb Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis, (Times change, and we change with them) to express the effects of the relentless march of time on us. With the passing of the years, very little remains the same. We either improve or worsen our situation. History teaches us that nothing stays the same. One hundred and sixty years ago, we kept human beings as slaves in this country. Not today. Eighty years ago, children were working for low wages in factories in unsafe conditions. Not today. And, as recently as fifty-two years ago, public schools in parts of our country were segregated. But, this has ended. Thus, within the lifetime of our parents and grandparents, there have been some very good changes. And, we have changed, becoming less prejudiced and more concerned for the rights of even the youngest among us. But, with the passing of years, not all change has been for the better. Some Americans have become more accepting of sex outside of marriage, abortion, scientific experimentation on human life, the breakdown of the family structure, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. The times have changed and so have the morals of those who now accept these behaviors once universally judged wrong. A recent poll shows that 76 percent of Americans say that our values have declined. In a word, they believe that, with the passing of time, we are getting worse, not better. Respect for all human life from conception to natural death, the sanctity of marriage as a union of a man and a woman and the dignity of every human person, including the disabled, the terminally ill and the elderly, are basic human values that should be upheld in any age. Today’s decline in moral values is happening at the very same time that more and more Americans are moving away from the regular practice of religion. A recent study by the Pew Research Center has noted an alarming decline in church affiliation. In the 1950s, more than 90 percent of adults identified themselves as Christian. Today, 75 percent identify themselves as Christian, while 20 percent are not connected with any church. In Europe, before the Renaissance, Christianity influenced every sphere of life. Religion provided a standard moral code to guide education, medicine, business and culture. But, with the rise of humanism, a religion-based morality was replaced by a reason-based morality. As a result, people’s moral judgments began to differ, depending on how they reasoned to what is right and what is wrong. Leaving individuals to decide on their own the standard of right and wrong eventually leads to social chaos. As Dostoevsky once said, “Without religion, everything is allowed.” In Christ, who is “the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, Beginning and End” (Rv 22:13), God has given us the truth to follow and the strength to make those morally right choices that benefit all. In a time when public opinion has turned against religion in many ways, we cannot simply impose our faith and our morality on others. But, we can live it consistently, publically and joyfully. This witness, this “joyful certainty of those who have been found, touched and transformed by the Truth who is Christ, ever to be proclaimed,” can move others to recognize the irreplaceable benefit of religion to society (Pope Francis, Homily, World Youth Day, July 27, 2013). Time and tide wait for no man. But the Lord is waiting for us to be the salt that preserves society from corruption and the leaven that transforms society for the better.
Giza built pyramids fit for a king. Athens gloried in the Acropolis envied by the wise. Rome boasted of her Colosseum and her military might. Jerusalem took pride in her Temple, the place of the worship of the true God. Yet, not one of these receives as much praise in songs and hymns as the little town of Bethlehem. David was born in Bethlehem. Here Samuel anointed him king in place of Saul. And, from the well of Bethlehem, three of David’s bravest soldiers at the risk of their own lives brought him water to refresh him in the midst of battle. Micah, eight centuries before the coming of Christ, predicted that an honor greater than David’s fame would crown this tiny hamlet. Moved by the Holy Spirit, Micah prophesied, “But you, Bethlehem-Ephrathah, least among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth…one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient times” (Micah 5:2). The birth of Jesus bathes Bethlehem with the splendor of heaven’s glory. In biblical times, the fields surrounding Bethlehem produced an abundance of grain, figs, vines, almonds and olives. It was here that Naomi and her daughter-in-law returned at a time of famine in Moab. Ruth went to glean the grain in the fields of Boaz, whom she married and then became the great-grandmother of David. Because of its rich fertility, the whole region was called “Ephrathah.” The name means “fruitfulness” or “abundance.” How fitting that such a place would be the birthplace of Jesus who brings the abundance of grace to the world. “Bethlehem” literally means “House of Bread.” It has this name of its location in the grain producing region of Old Testament times. How appropriate that Jesus is born here. After the multiplication of the loaves and fish, Jesus identified himself as “the bread that came down from heaven,” (Jn 6:41). As bread satisfies our hunger and strengthens us physically, Jesus fills our empty hearts with the love and wisdom of God. We feast on his every word. As Scripture says, “Not by bread alone does man live but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord” (Dt 8:3). In his great discourse in chapter six of John’s gospel, Jesus goes even farther in identifying himself as the bread of life. He says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (Jn 6:51). With these words, he promised the Eucharist, his very body and blood as our food and drink. Jesus did not mean his words to be taken merely symbolically or spiritually. He meant us to take them literally. Many objected to this literal meaning of his words and walked away. But, Jesus did not change what he said. He did not accommodate his words to their lack of belief. He meant exactly what he said. How blessed we are that the Church has always held true to the reality of the Eucharist as the very Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus. Famished by the world, we can be nourished and satisfied by Christ himself. Bethlehem is not an event lost in the faded light of the distant past. Its glory still shines bright upon us. In every Eucharist, Jesus offers himself to us as the Bread of Life. Thus, every Eucharist is Bethlehem for us. As the shepherds said to each other on the night Jesus was born, we say to one another each time we go to Mass, “ Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us” (Lk 2:15). We go to receive the Bread of Life. Jesus’ own invitation “Take and eat,’ this is my body” (Mt 26:26) requires a worthy response on our part. As St. Paul tells us, we should examine ourselves before receiving Holy Communion. His words are strong: “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the Body and Blood of the Lord. …For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Cor 11: 27 and 29). When St. Paul speaks about “discerning the body,” he is telling us two very important conditions for the worthy reception of the Eucharist. First, we must recognize the Eucharist for what it is. We must hold firm that this is no ordinary bread, no blessed bread, no sacred sign. We must believe that the Eucharist is truly the Bread of Life. It is Jesus, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, whole and entire, before whom the angels bow in adoration. Without such Catholic faith, no one should dare receive the Eucharist. Secondly, we need to recognize the holiness of Christ who comes to be our food and drink. Thus, we should approach Holy Communion in the state of grace. As the Catechism of the Council of Trent beautifully expresses, “Before [Jesus] gave to His Apostles the Sacrament of His precious Body and Blood, although they were already clean, He washed their feet to show that we must use extreme diligence before Holy Communion in order to approach it with the greatest purity and innocence of soul.” Therefore, anyone whose life objectively stands in serious, public contradiction to any one of the Ten Commandments needs first to repent with a firm purpose to sin no more before receiving Holy Communion. Anyone who has committed a mortal sin needs to approach the Sacrament of Reconciliation, make a good confession and be absolved before receiving. As St. Paul solemnly warns us, “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor 11:27). The Sacrament of Reconciliation cleanses us of our sins, whether mortal or venial, thus disposing us for the proper reception of Holy Communion. We are all sinners. Thus, we need the humility of the shepherds to whom the angel brought the glad tidings of our Savior’s birth. When the angel announced to them that “In the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord” (Lk 2:11), they rejoiced. They knew that they were sinners. They recognized that Jesus had come to save them from their sins. And so they hastened to the manger. We, too, need to acknowledge our sins, seek forgiveness and hasten to Bethlehem. Jesus, the Bread of Life, longs to be our food and drink. He comes to the weakest and the strongest among us. The repentant sinner and the struggling saint find in him, “the true bread come down from heaven” (Jn 6:32). Before so great a sacrament, we humbly echo with ardent faith the words of the Centurion . . . “Lord, I am not worthy.” Repenting of our sins and receiving the Eucharist, we come to Bethlehem and Jesus makes our soul his manger and our home his dwelling place.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle once said, “Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.” The most influential person in the scientific revolution, Sir Isaac Newton, confirmed this when he remarked, “If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been due more to patient attention than to any other talent.” The English author Chaucer praised patience as the “conquering virtue.” However, in our fast-paced society, patience is not a readily practiced virtue. Technology has increased the speed on the information highway. But, at the same time, it has diminished our patience. Researchers report that most of us will not wait more than a few seconds to download a video. Many prefer the pleasure that comes from winning a fast-moving video game in place of the joy that comes from leisurely reading a book. So accustomed are we becoming to same-day delivery services and smartphones that can summon a ride on the spot that we are increasingly less patient. Modern technology is indeed a mixed blessing. We can quickly amass facts. But this is not the same as acquiring knowledge. Even in our personal relationships, modern technology both helps and hinders. With lightning speed, we can connect with someone around the globe. But, this instant connection may, at times, impede us from communicating with someone seated with us at the same table. Unfortunately, because of the desire for instant gratification, it becomes all too easy to dismiss patience as an outdated virtue. Patience appears merely as a technique to manage our frustrations when we do not get what we want when we want it. Patience seems to be a way to inhibit our pleasure and to put our aspirations on hold. But, this is far from the truth. Patience is not passive. Patience frees us of frustration. It regulates our emotions and gives reason the space to think, to evaluate and to make clear judgments. Without patience, we readily throw things away and discard relationships. As Fulton Sheen once said, “Patience is power. Patience is not an absence of action; rather it is timing. It waits on the right time to act, for the right principles and in the right way.” So important is patience in our Christian life that the Church gives us an entire liturgical season to train us in it. God has already made the down payment on the final coming of his kingdom. He has sent his Son in the flesh, born of Mary in Bethlehem. One day will be the end of history. Then, Christ will return in glory and usher in the Kingdom of God in all its glory. But, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, when Christ will come again. So we must wait - patiently wait. During Advent, the Church parades before us people who patiently wait for God to fulfill his promises. Elizabeth waits for the birth of John the Baptist. Mary and Joseph wait for the birth of Jesus. Simeon and Anna stay close to the Temple in Jerusalem, patiently waiting for the Messiah. The Magi wait, searching the heavens to reveal the birth of Wisdom. Like them, each Advent, we wait for Christ to come. With eyes stretched to the end of time, we patiently await Christ’s coming at the end of our life and on the last day. But, he has already come into history. He has already entered our lives. Patience, quietly not rushing from one activity to another, actually trains our hearts to see Christ already present to us. And, so to help us value this great gift of Christ’s presence, the Church gives us Advent as the school of patience.
Some psychologists today have begun speaking about “a culture of anxiety.” The fast pace of modern living, the constant exposure to media hype, blitz marketing tactics coupled with the uncertainty of our economic and political future: all these lead to stress, worry and anxiety. The constant stream of text messages, non-stop phone calls and daily traffic jams likewise add to our stress level. Today almost 40 million Americans are suffering from some form of stress-related disorder. Stress and anxiety take their toll on our mental health. They prevent us from focusing our attention on our work and on our relationships. They lock us in the prison of our own worries. Stress and anxiety negatively impact our physical health. When anxious or stressed out, we can face a loss of appetite, diminished sleep, lack of energy at work and tension in our relationships with others. However, researches are now discovering that “an attitude of gratitude” actually improves our health, both in mind and body. Gratitude is a positive attitude that directs our attention to what is good in our lives. It helps us enjoy and cherish the happy moments. It opens us up to forming strong relationships with others. It uplifts our hearts and puts a spring in our steps. An attitude of gratitude puts us at ease. It bolsters our immune system and enables us to more effectively ward off disease. The pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock knew stress and anxiety. They had set out to reach the New World, fearing that they would lose their religious freedom. For sixty-five days, they faced rough seas and storms. Not able to reach their initial destination, they finally landed at Plymouth Harbor in mid-November of 1620. Their first months in the New World added to their worry and stress. As they went about carving out a home from the wilderness, they struggled through a bleak winter. More than half of the original settlers died. With the coming of spring, they planted crops, made friends with their new neighbors and enjoyed the produce of their hard labor. As those first settlers faced the approach of a second brutal winter, they gathered their first harvest in the fall of 1621. Because they firmly believed that God had not abandoned them, they set aside a day to thank him. They gathered together with family, friends and neighbors to enjoy the good things that God had given them. Thus, the attitude of gratitude that had sustained them in times of prosperity and adversity gave birth to the first Thanksgiving Day. As we gather to celebrate Thanksgiving Day, it is good to remember how important it is to cultivate an attitude of gratitude that goes beyond one meal on one day. Martha Washington once remarked saying, “I am still determined to be cheerful and happy, in whatever situation I may be; for I have also learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances.” No life is without suffering and hardship. But, God is present in every circumstance. Focusing our attention on what we have and not on what we want helps us realize how good God is to us. Our giving thanks to God, not just on one day, but every day, opens our eyes to his blessings, our hearts to his love and our bodies to his healing grace.
The confrontational, contentious, name-calling and combative tone of the 2016 presidential campaign has left its mark on the American psyche. Across the political spectrum, Democrats, Republicans and independents in equal numbers have felt stressed out from the constant barrage of negative news reports and adversarial commentaries. Not only have we suffered through politicized news reporting twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, but we have endured the unrelenting battering of the social media. In England, the campaign for its prime minister lasts just one month. In Argentina, candidates begin their advertisements only 60 days before the election. Their official campaign starts only 25 days later. In France, the presidential campaign is generally only two weeks long. But, in America, the campaign for president begins almost two years before the election. In the time allotted for campaigning for the office of the president of our country, a woman could conceive and bear a child and then conceive again and bear a second child. These six hundred and forty-four days are time enough to work the public into a frenzy. Not to mention the estimated two billion dollars spent by one candidate alone. The U.S. far outspends every other country in its campaign for its leaders. Hence the stress of our most recent campaign. Why all this time? Why all this money? Why all the media’s concentrated attention on the candidates during their campaigns, often at the expense of informing Americans of the tragic events happening around the world? Perhaps the heart of the issue is the frantic effort to realize an impossible dream. In 1630, while still aboard the ship Arbella, Puritan John Winthrop told the future Massachusetts Bay colonists that their new community would be seen as “a city upon a hill.” By this, he was saying that they would soon land and set up a new community that would be an example of charity, affection and unity for the entire world. On 9 January 1961, President-Elect John F. Kennedy resurrected this phrase “a city upon a hill” to remind us that “the eyes of all people are upon us” to establish a just society. President Ronald Reagan likewise used the same image of “a city upon a hill.” Many others, such as George W. Bush and Barack Obama have alluded to this ideal society of “a city upon a hill.” In the political rhetoric of both Democrats and Republicans, past and present, there continues to sound forth an inherent optimism of establishing the ideal “city on the hill.” Each major political party sees itself as having the right policies and programs to usher in what is best for our society. In effect, this belief of each political group belies the centuries-old search for Utopia. Five hundred years ago this year, Sir Thomas More sent the manuscript of his work Utopia to his life-long friend Erasmus of Rotterdam. The great Dutch humanist arranged to have the work published. In it, Thomas More details a picture of a prosperous and harmonious country. In the imaginary land of Utopia, there is no private property and no poverty. Leaders are limited in the amount of money that they can accrue. And, anyone aspiring to high office is seen as unfit to hold it. No brothels. No public pubs. Those who read More’s work as a communist manifesto of the ideal political order without private property miss the point. Utopia is a Greek neologism for nowhere. The narrator of the story of Utopia bears the surname “Hythloday” which means “peddler of nonsense.” More cleverly crafts his work as a sarcastic commentary on the political corruption of his day. He is not advocating a heaven brought down to earth. Rather, he is exposing the inability of man to achieve an ideal society on his own through any one political order. As Professor John Boyle has remarked, “The political order is not the source of our happiness. This is a theological point…dear to More’s heart. The political order can serve to help order men to their happiness, but it cannot achieve it. This is a matter of Church, of the City of God. Political order can more or less help, but it can’t achieve …the Utopian dream.” Perhaps all the frustration, stress, anger and disappointment generated by the 2016 presidential campaign is the logical consequence of politicians’ promising a Utopia that they cannot deliver to a society intent on building not the city of God, but the city of Man. Politics are merely a tool to achieve an end. They can be used to foster the common good or to advance evil. Politics reflect the culture in which they are embedded. Our hope for happiness lies beyond this world. Now is the time to return our culture to God and his laws that transcend the whims and fashions of a particular day! Reprinted with permission from The Beacon, the official publication of the diocese of Paterson, NJ.
In 2014, the invitation of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to speak at the Rutgers University commencement ceremony sparked controversy. When students and faculty disagreeing with her policies protested, she graciously withdrew from giving her address so as not to detract from the celebration of those graduating. In effect, the politically correct, instead of championing the freedom of speech, succeeded to squash any view contrary to theirs. In 2015, students at Princeton University demanded that the name of Woodrow Wilson, the university’s 13th president, be removed from the School of Public and International Affairs. Outraged by his racial legacy, they wanted to erase his memory from the university. Commenting on this, Adriane Lentz-Smith, an associate professor at Duke University remarked, “Woodrow Wilson was a white supremacist. To say this of a southern-born Democrat from the early 20th century is no more remarkable than observing that Georgia clay is red or that hound dogs bay.” In the case either of Condoleezza Rice or of Woodrow Wilson, it is the same ugly reality of one group demanding that all others conform to their views and judgments. Would that these two situations were the only cases of such intolerance! But, they are not. Recent reports of Catholic bashing by members of the political elite have fed into the narrative that the few can determine how the majority must think and act. The elite have changed the political rhetoric in our country. We would be naïve not to notice. And, it is not just simply the lack of civil discourse in public debates and speeches that should alarm us. Much more damaging is the framing of social issues with a language that drips with gnostic intolerance. In 2014, it was said that abortion should be rare. Today, it is demanded that abortion be available as a matter of “justice.” Justice for whom? Is justice applicable only to a mother? What about a child about to be born? Pro-life politicians are now said to have “extreme views about women.” They are even compared to terrorists. How is it possible that those who defend the right of a child to be born and live are now labelled extremists by pro-abortion politicians and there is no outcry of injustice from the ordinary citizen? Under the rubric of a woman’s health, avid pro-abortionists even defend the barbaric practice of partial birth abortions on babies late in pregnancy. Former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop has strongly spoken out against this. He has said that “partial-birth abortion is never medically necessary to protect a mother’s health or her future fertility. On the contrary, this procedure can pose a significant threat to both.” And he is not alone in exposing the lie that supports partial-birth abortion. The Physicians Ad Hoc Coalition for the Truth, the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, the Catholic Medical Association, the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists have all said that partial-birth abortion is dangerous for both mother and child. In fact, if a woman late in her pregnancy becomes ill, it is possible for a doctor to save her life and the baby by inducing labor or by performing a Caesarian section. In reality, the only purpose of a partial-birth abortion is to terminate the life of the innocent child about to be born. To be perfectly honest, abortion is not like any other social issue facing our country. It cannot be equated with capital punishment, poverty or even a woman’s rights. Abortion is the killing of innocent children in the womb; and, in the case of partial-birth abortion, the innocent children suffer great pain as their bodies are dismembered. Pro-abortionists use the language of women’s rights and women’s health to disguise the intrinsic evil of abortion. How tragic is it that now supporting abortion is becoming the litmus test for an appointment to the Supreme Court of our land! The consequences of this will have far-reaching effects on the ethic of life and freedom of religion. No Catholic can be faithful to the gospel of life and, at the same time, support or endorse, privately or publicly, policies that advance the killing of innocent children. Political rhetoric should not deceive us from working to remove from our midst the scandal of abortion.
On Nov. 27, 2012, Saudi Arabia joined with Austria and Spain in opening the King Abdullah International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Vienna. This organization promotes understanding and tolerance among Jews, Christians and Muslims. Yet, within Saudi Arabia itself, religious freedom does not exist. Most recently, authorities of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice stormed a private residence and arrested 27 Lebanese Maronite Catholics who were celebrating the feast of the Assumption of Mary. It mattered little to the police that the Koran holds Mary in great esteem. The police stripped the worshippers – men, women and children – of their visas and deported them. The crime: their Christian prayers were not Islamic. Saudi Arabia is a theocratic monarchy. Islam is the state religion with no legal protection for the freedom of religion. In fact, the law requires every citizen to be Muslim. According to Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom, Saudi Arabia is the only nation state in the world with the official policy of banning all churches. Interesting enough, there are over two million Christians who work in Saudi Arabia. How different is the situation of the United States. Our country is a democratic republic and, from its inception, has not enshrined one religion over another as the national religion. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Because of our freedom to exercise religion, Christians have always been involved in the politics of our nation. Fifty-one of the 55 of our nation’s Founding Fathers belonged to a Christian church. Christians have a biblical worldview that embraces the goodness of creation, the sanctity of life and the eternal destiny of every person. Inspired by their faith, Christians have contributed to philosophy, science, art, music, and education. And politics is no exemption. When it comes to political issues, a Christian cannot leave his or her beliefs aside. At the basis of every decision that affects the common good, there is a moral value at stake. Taxation and spending may not seem, at first glance, to be a moral issue. But they are. They affect the lives of every citizen, especially the poor. State and national budgets require moral judgments. So do laws about immigration. Such laws must balance the moral imperative of welcoming the stranger while, at the same time, protecting one’s own country from any form of harm. Our laws against violence and human trafficking, likewise, stem from our moral judgments on the inherent dignity of the human person. Unfortunately, the current political rhetoric aims not to clarify the positive role of religion in politics, but to condemn religious beliefs that interfere with a strident secularistic agenda. Those who hold that gender is not a social construct are branded “intolerant.” Those who hold that marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman are now labeled “bigots.” Those who hold that a child in the womb has the right to life are said to be “extremists” against women’s rights. Those who refuse to sanction assisted suicide and euthanasia are judged as “fundamentalists” for not accepting the right to live and die as one chooses. In making political choices that determine the common good, Catholics must follow their conscience. However, conscience is not some sort of personal intuition. It is a judgment of reason based on the truth. As the Second Vatican Council taught, “Conscience must be well-formed with careful attention to the sacred and certain doctrine of the Church. For the Church is, by the will of Christ, the teacher of the truth” (Dignitatis Humanae, 14). And, on the pressing moral issues facing us, the Church’s teaching is clear. Sadly, some Catholics profess to be privately in line with the Church’s teaching while politically taking public positions against her teaching. How logical is that? Can anyone be privately against violence, but then say publicly if someone wishes to be violent in their home, that is not their concern? Can someone affirm the dignity of every person and then publically endorse policies that discriminate against all immigrants seeking work and a safe haven? Can someone hold privately that slavery is wrong and then publicly not support laws against human trafficking? Truth held privately must be lived publicly. If we have a well-formed and correct conscience, we will be constrained to stand privately and publicly for the sanctity of life, God’s plan for marriage, the dignity of the human person and the needs of the poor and the stranger among us. Because the Christian faith is both belief and behavior, dogma and morality, Christians cannot avoid bringing their faith to bear on the societal issues of the day. The Church teaches the rightful autonomy of the civil sphere from religion but not from morality. Thus, Catholics can legitimately debate certain political issues and may even disagree on the best ways to serve the poor and welcome the immigrant. But, the right to life of every person from the moment of conception to death is so fundamental that it should inform and guide all other choices. When the right to life is legally denied to some, then no one’s rights can be secure. As citizens of a constitutional republic, we participate in the very governing of our country. By our involvement in political issues and our support to those who espouse the moral values sacred to us, we work for the common good. Even when our choices are difficult, we have an obligation to participate in determining the future of our country. If we absent ourselves from the discussions and do not act according to the sound teaching of our faith, we will have no one to blame but ourselves when our society prohibits “the free exercise of religion.” Although the marriage of faith and politics may be uneasy, the two can never be put asunder. This column first appeared in The Beacon, Oct. 27, 2016.
The English philosopher John Stuart Mill once quipped that “the Battle of Marathon, even as an event in British history, is more important than the Battle of Hastings.” And, he was right. Though the Battle of Marathon was fought centuries before Europe was born, the fate of Western Civilization hung on the outcome of that famous battle. In September of 490 B.C., 10,000 Athenians left their city to face the invading Persians at Marathon. If the Persians had won the battle, their manner of governing would have extinguished the beginnings of democracy in the West. But they did not win. Instead, the Greeks, by their decisive victory, ensured that Greek influence would spread across the Mediterranean to Rome and, through her, to the entire West. Thus, the Battle of Marathon was the crossroads where two ideas of civilization met and where history took the road to freedom and democracy. Today, we stand at a decisive point in our history. In our day, religious freedom and government control stand at the crossroads. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees us the right to practice our own religion or no religion at all. But, there are increasingly loud voices in the highest levels of government that are demanding that religion conform to the political agenda of the ruling class. On Sept.8, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued its 306-page report, “Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles with Civil Liberties.” In a few words, the report asserts that the government should not grant religious exemptions to nondiscrimination laws. The report maintains that such exemptions “significantly infringe” on the civil rights of those who claim protection from the government on the basis of “race, color, national origin, sex, disability status, sexual orientation, and gender identity.” Such a unilateral emphasis on civil rights over religious liberty provides the rationale for the government’s demand that Catholic schools hire teachers who are opposed to Catholic teaching. It allows the government to penalize those Catholics and others, who, on the basis of their religious beliefs, withhold their services for celebrations of same-sex unions. It opens the way for insisting that church-sponsored hospitals provide contraception, perform sex change operations and abortions and engage in euthanasia. All of these are actually now happening. As part of the report of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, its chairman, Martin R. Castro, made an alarming statement. He said, “The phrases ‘religious liberty’ and ‘religious freedom’ will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance.” In effect, he totally dismisses as irrelevant the religious beliefs of many, while making a special point of targeting Christians. Castro’s statement places Catholics along with orthodox Jews, Mormons and Muslims in the category of the intolerant. In his stated opinion, those who accept the understanding of marriage as a union of a man and a woman, uphold the sanctity of life or adhere to the natural law are not to be taken seriously. They are simply ill-informed and prejudiced. This way of thinking leads to the wholesale dismissal of religious freedom and the rights of conscience. Sadly, Martin Castro is not a lone voice calling for religious people to abandon their beliefs in favor of the political trends of the day. In his article “Bigotry, the Bible and the Lessons of Indiana,” New York Times columnist Frank Bruni agrees with Mitchell Gold, a prominent philanthropist, who said, “Church leaders must be made to take homosexuality off the sin list.” Both Bruni and Gold are advocating that the Church must be compelled to change her centuries-old teachings. So much for freedom of religion! One very prominent politician recently proposed in a keynote address that “deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed.” When applied to the God-given right to life, this means, in effect, that the ill-conceived legal right for a woman to procure an abortion trumps the religious liberty of those who refuse to perform abortions. “Religious beliefs…have to be changed.” For some, it is as simple as that! No state, no politician, has the right to dictate what the Church teaches. The Church’s mandate is divine. Jesus handed on to the apostles the truth about God and about human life. In fidelity to the Lord himself, the Church speaks that truth, both when popular and unpopular. The Venerable Fulton Sheen once said, “[The Church] holds that just as the truth is one in geography, in chemistry, and mathematics, so too there is one truth in religion… The Church cannot change, because her principles are God-made. Religion is not a sum of beliefs that we would like, but the sum of beliefs God has given.” In his first address to the United Nations in 1979, St. John Paul II defended religious liberty as a safeguard against the intrusion of the State into areas where Caesar does not belong. He said, “religious freedom, affirmed in law and cherished in the consciences of a people, creates essential limits to the power of the state and sets boundaries to the capacity of the state to intrude into the convictions and conscientious practices of individuals, families, and communities” (George Weigel, “The First Human Right,” National Review, May 5, 2014). Where there is no religious freedom, there is the tyranny of the elite. Furthermore, our rights are not disconnected. Where there is no longer the right to life for the unborn, all other rights are meaningless. St. Teresa of Calcutta had her priorities right. She said, “The greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion, which is war against the child. The mother doesn't learn to love, but kills to solve her own problems. Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want.” As faithful Catholics, we always exercise charity to those who disagree with Church teaching. However, we do not let any false characterizations of us as bigots diminish our fidelity to the truth the Church teaches. With all Americans, we stand at the crossroads. In the days and months and years ahead, will we choose the road that leads to an increasing loss of religious liberty and the destruction of human life or the road that leads to life and true freedom? The choice is ours.
In 1904, St. Louis, Missouri hosted the 21st World’s Fair. The fair was so big that a visitor would need more than a week to give even a casual glance at all the attractions. The fair’s 1,272 acres boasted 1,500 buildings, connected by some 75 miles of roads and walkways. The fair feasted the visitor with the marvels of modern technology, such as the x-ray machine, the electric typewriter and motion pictures. For the first time, most visitors came to enjoy the ice cream cone, iced tea and the hot dog. Electricity, however, stole the show. Electric lights on the inside and outside of all the major buildings and on the roads dazzled the visitor. Among the 20 million visitors awed by the fair was the famous German Max Weber, who is credited with laying the foundations for modern sociology. His questioning mind could not rest until he found the reason for the incredible progress which he witnessed in America compared to his own country. Shortly after Weber returned to Heidelberg, he wrote his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In his book, he produced one of the most influential arguments claiming that all the economic and technological progress that he witnessed was a consequence of the Protestant Reformation. It contains one of the most influential of all arguments about Western civilization: That its economic dynamism was an unintended consequence of the Protestant Reformation. He contended that the Protestant work ethic actually gave birth to modern capitalism (cf. Peter Kirsanow, “The American Work Ethic,” January 25, 2013). Names such as Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Carnegie and Morgan all seem to give their approval to Weber’s theory of the imprint of a Protestant work ethic on our country. But, the idea of work as a value and as a vocation long predates the Protestant Reformation. One thousand years before Luther or Calvin, St. Benedict of Norcia recognized the inherent dignity of work. He urged his monks to live in community and to combine their life of prayer with manual labor (ora et labora). Benedict understood that work is spiritually meaningful and important for one’s own sanctification (cf. Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, 126). In the Catholic tradition, work has never been seen as a punishment or as a means of accumulating wealth and power for oneself. Such ideas are not biblical. Catholic tradition upholds all work as something good. By our work, we co-operate with God and build up the human community. After God created man and woman in his own “image and likeness” (Gen 1:27), “God blessed them and said to them: Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1:28). To work: this is the first command that God gives humanity in the entire Scriptures. Thus, by working, we actually are like God who has created all that is. As Pope Francis teaches, “we were created with a vocation to work” (Amoris Laetitia, 128). In the beginning, God placed our first parents in the Garden of Eden “to cultivate and care for it” (Gen 2:15). In this paradise free from “blood, sweat and tears,” humanity was to work to the delight of God himself. But, once Adam and Eve disobeyed God and committed Original Sin, they lost Eden and work, good from the beginning, now took on the aspect of toil and hardship as a punishment for sin (cf. Gen 3:17-19). In echoing God’s primal command to work, St. Paul goes as far as to say “if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat” (2 Th 3:10). By our work, in business and at home, we truly cultivate and care for creation itself. Labor or work: it is part of [God’s] plan; it means making the world increase with responsibility, transforming it so that it may be a garden, an inhabitable place for us all (Pope Francis, General Audience, June 5, 2013).
When the early Dutch settlers arrived in the American colonies, they brought with them a unique piece of architecture that immediately became popular. They introduced the typical Dutch farmhouse door. It was a door split horizontally with the bottom half remaining closed and the top half easily opened. The closed bottom half kept the children in the house and the animals out. The top half allowed fresh air in. This clever way of fashioning a door gave birth to the common English expression “going Dutch.” When two people dine together and split the bill, each taking care of their own expenses, they are said to be “going Dutch.” Last year, Newsweek journalist Winston Ross headlined an article on euthanasia with the clever expression “dying Dutch.” How appropriate! It is from the Netherlands that many countries are now importing the practice of sanctioning euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide. Euthanasia, the intentional ending of someone’s life to relieve suffering, is legal today in Belgium, Ireland, Colombia and Luxembourg. Assisted suicide, that is, intentionally providing a person with the knowledge or means to commit suicide, is legal in Switzerland, Germany, Japan, Albania and Canada. Other countries such as France and England are not far behind. In the United States, Oregon, Washington, Montana and Vermont all have gone “Dutch with dying.” These states have legalized euthanasia. Ten other states -- Alabama, Idaho, Massachusetts, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming -- have no enactments that make it a criminal act to assist or counsel the suicide of someone wishing to end their life. In January, 2016, New Jersey legislators voted against a bill legalizing assisted suicide. A month later, a new bill was reintroduced to allow the terminally ill to end their lives. The Dutch have been very liberal in removing any restriction on terminating human lives. Now, the vulnerable and the weak may have their lives ended. Newborn babies, teenagers with disabilities and individuals with depression or dementia may be euthanized. Even children ages 12 to 15 may be euthanized, if their parents agree. After 16, they can decide for themselves. When people are ill or disabled, it is precisely those moments of caring for them that bring out the best in others to be selfless and compassionate. It becomes a time for family members and friends to deny themselves in order to be with and comfort those who suffer or are terminally ill. Suffering can strengthen the bonds of love and prepare both those suffering and their caregivers to be more closely united with the God of all love. No Christian can look at the cross of Jesus without acknowledging that suffering can be redemptive. Those who try to justify euthanasia argue that suffering is meaningless and intolerable. Yet, today’s palliative care provides ways to ease pain without terminating the life of the individual. Legalizing the killing of any person to end their suffering introduces a dangerous view of life. It reduces life to a disposable commodity to be used and then discarded at will. But the human person is more than his or her suffering. The will of a society to care for the suffering will always be the mark of a civilized society. A recent Gallup poll reported that seven in ten Americans now hold that physicians should be able to legally end a patient’s life. While it is sad to see the increase in those supporting euthanasia and physician-assisted suicides, it is not surprising. As more and more people reject belief in God or are living lives as if there were no God, the respect for life as the fundamental gift of a loving God is diminished. Where God is absent from people’s lives, they themselves forget that we are merely stewards of the gift of life. God is the God of life. He alone has absolute dominion over life. Such a basic truth becomes meaningless in a totally secularized and godless society. And, the results are disastrous. Any society that legalizes euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide effectively removes the protections needed for its most vulnerable members. The sick, the disabled and elderly begin to see themselves as a physical, emotional and financial burden on others. And so does the state. In 2008, Barbara Wagner sought treatment for lung cancer. Oregon denied her treatment because of cost. The state offered, however, as an alternative, to pay for her physician-assisted suicide. As the health care industry becomes more and more a profit-driven system with an emphasis on cutting costs, financial considerations soon replace ethical principles in dealing with the disabled, the elderly and the terminally ill. Legalizing euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide negates the inherent value of every human person. It opens the door to abuse, coercion and denial of health care because of costs. It ultimately splits society into those who have power to make life and death decisions for others and those who are subject to the will of the more powerful. The momentum to intentionally and deliberately end the life of someone who is suffering or terminally ill, if not stopped, will eventually unravel the fabric of the civilized world. When it comes to death, do we really want to “go Dutch?”
On April 19, 2016 the retail store Target announced that it would provide gender neutral bathrooms and also allow men and women to use the same fitting rooms. The following day, nearly one million people protested the decision, pledging to boycott the store. The store’s new policy is part of a trend spreading across the country to accommodate 1 percent of the population. Starbucks and Barnes and Noble have also announced that their customers may use the bathrooms according to the gender of their choice. On June 3, 2013, a woman in Nashville, Tenn., complained to the manager of the restaurant that she encountered a burly man dressed like a woman in the ladies’ room. The manager blithely told her that she could use the men’s room. On June 23, 2013, the Colorado Civil Rights Division decided that a 6-year-old boy who identifies himself as a girl should be allowed to use the girls' bathroom. The division held that not to allow him to use the girls’ bathroom would create a hostile environment for him. On April 19, 2016, a teenager in Virginia, who was born a girl but now identifies herself as a boy, won the right in the 4th Circuit Court to use the boys' bathroom. In several states, activists are advancing their agenda that people should have the right to use public lockers, fitting rooms and restrooms on the basis of the gender that they say they are. Lawmakers are divided. On March 23, 2016, North Carolina passed House Bill 2 into law. The new law requires transgender people to use bathrooms according to their sex marker at birth and not according to their own choice of gender identity. Immediately, there was a backlash. Entertainers such as Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Jimmy Buffet and Beatle Ringo Starr canceled their shows. The protesters insist that the rights of transgender individuals are being cast aside. Even President Obama has entered the battle over gender identity. On Friday, May 13, 2016, his administration issued a sweeping directive from the Departments of Education and Justice. It mandated that every public school district in the country allow transgender students to use the bathrooms that correspond to the gender that they themselves choose. These are just a few examples of the most recent efforts in our country to redefine what makes a man a man and a woman a woman. Biologically, a person’s sex is determined by chromosomes (female, XX; male, XY), reproductive organs and hormones. In the past, society had clear ideas of the meaning of masculine and feminine identity. Today, this is not so. It is ironic that advances in psychology have been accompanied by a tendency among some to assert that basic human biology has no meaning for self-understanding. Healthy human integration must surely include acceptance of our biological constitution. Today, this is not so. A secularized society is rapidly accepting “gender identity.” This means people choose to designate themselves man or woman not on the basis of their biological markers but on how they experience themselves as either male or female. Those who espouse gender identity no longer see gender as a line dividing male and female, but a continuum on which to measure the masculine or feminine qualities of a person. The legal ruling radically altering society’s view of human sexuality has been the Supreme Court landmark decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. Once five judges ruled from the bench of our highest court that two individuals of the same sex can legally marry, they made one’s sexuality, whether given by nature or changed by medicine, no longer relevant to marriage. In a word, they cast aside the natural law along with reason itself. There are individuals who simply do not fit into any rigid, binary category of male and female. While it is laudable to be tolerant and not judge individuals, nonetheless, it is lamentable to say that gender is utterly meaningless. To what end should society embrace the notion that the gender and sexuality are merely social constructs and need to be deconstructed? Pope Francis has been addressing this issue of sexuality and gender head-on. No surprise that his statements are not headlined by a media that espouses a view opposed to his. Pope Francis has been clearly teaching that we cannot merely interpret our bodies according to our will. Rather, we need to pay attention to God’s design for his creation. In his internationally acclaimed encyclical on the environment, Pope Francis quotes St. John Paul II on this point. He writes, “Not only has God given the earth to man, who must use it with respect for the original good purpose for which it was given, but, man too is God’s gift to man. He must, therefore, respect the natural and moral structure with which he has been endowed” (Laudato Si, 115). Pope Francis also says that “it is not a healthy attitude which would seek to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it” (Laudato Si 155). When…sexual differences are eliminated, we lose the anthropological basis of the family. Thus, the Holy Father speaks strongly against any gender ideology that makes one’s identity as male or female merely a personal choice that can be changed over time (cf. Amoris Laetitia, 56). As Pope Benedict XVI said in his address to the German Parliament on Sept. 22, 2011, “Man does not create himself.” Here is the heart of the matter. We are not the Creator. In a 2015 interview with Italian journalists Andrea Tornielli and Giacomo Galeazzi, Pope Francis re-emphasized this. He called the radical ideology that denies sexual differences and espouses gender identity a sin against the Creator. Christian anthropology has always held that “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). But today, many propose that men and women create themselves as they see themselves and as they want to be. For these individuals, there is no design in creation because there is no one who put it there. Heirs to Nietzsche, they announce that God is dead. The throne of heaven has been left vacant and man now places himself on it. In a word, the denial of the beauty of the creation of human sexuality is, in fact, a denial of the Creator of all beauty. In the end, when God’s design is ignored or denied, we sow the wind of our own ideas and reap the whirlwind of confusion. Crossing the new frontier of gender identity, we court chaos.
In the 19th century, before the age of television, oratory was an extremely popular form of entertainment. During those golden years of public speaking, one of the most noted speakers was American lawyer and political leader Robert Ingersoll. He captivated his audiences, sometimes with speeches lasting three hours as he lectured on almost any subject. But, his most frequent theme was agnosticism. One day, two college students attended his lecture. At the end of his scathing skepticism about religion, one student said to the other, “Well, I guess he destroyed your Christian faith, right out from under you, didn’t he?” The other student calmly responded, “No, not at all. Until he can explain my mother’s life, I will stand by my mother’s God.” How true! No one on earth teaches us more convincingly about God and life than our own mothers. Our mother’s untiring devotion and care follow us all the days of our lives. Even before our birth, we hear the reassuring sound of love in our mother’s voice. After we are born, it is from her lips that we learn how beautiful we are coming fresh from the hands of God. And, our self-confidence is born. Our mother’s eyes see our gifts and her finger points us in the right direction to a meaningful life. As Napoleon Bonaparte observed, “the future destiny of a child is always the work of the mother.” When we are infants, our mother’s hands help us take our first faltering steps. And, she never leaves our side. By her wisdom, she guides us still, even at a distance, throughout all our life’s journey. Those times when we fall and hurt ourselves, she is there to wipe away the tears and heal the wounds. Not only in our childhood, but always. There is no joy or happiness that touches our hearts that does not make us hasten to share it with our mothers. Our life successes, great and small, are crowned by her smile. With outstretched arms, she is ever ready to welcome us home. And, even as her body fails and her strength wanes, she diminishes not in strength to embrace us with love. Our mother’s heart is the best schoolroom to learn that life is about loving and that all love comes from God and leads us to him. Our mother puts great faith in us even before we can speak or walk or pass our first test in school. Just like God himself who loves us before we can even respond to his love with a worthy life, our mother loves us not for what we do, but for who we are. We are her child. Into her precious, strong, untiring arms, God places us, the children whom he loves with the very heart of a mother (cf. Is 66:13). And, by her goodness, our mother leads us back to God. This Mother’s Day, we remember our own mothers with love and great affection for all the sacrifices they made for us. May God bestow on those mothers among us the blessings of our love and gratitude. May he grant to those who have gone before us his loving mercy and the reward of their most noble vocation, happiness in his presence forever. Distance and death may separate us. But, once formed beneath our mother’s heart, we remain ever there within. We ask God’s blessing on all those who share in the noble vocation of motherhood. May God reward their love a hundred fold. And, may those who have passed from this life to the next enjoy peace and eternal happiness with God in heaven. Image credit: Evgeny Atamanenko via www.shutterstock.com.
On April 12, 2016, the Pew Research Center published the results of its survey entitled “Religion in Everyday Life.” The survey reports that three-quarters of Catholics say that they decide what is right or wrong on the basis of their own conscience. Only twenty-one percent of Catholics say that they look to the teaching of the Church for guidance in making moral decisions. And, an even fewer eleven percent look to the Pope. Those who reject Church teaching often say, “I am following my own conscience.” This statement evidences some confusion on exactly what it means to follow one’s own conscience. Does it simply mean deciding on one’s own what is best for oneself? What exactly is conscience? A captain sailing a great ship across the high seas cannot simply determine on his own where north, south, east and west are. These are fixed points. From ancient times, navigators looked to the position of the sun and the stars to guide them safely to their directions. So also our conscience cannot simply decide on its own what is right or wrong. Our individual conscience is no more the source of what is good or evil than a captain’s personal decision of where north or south should be. Rather, our conscience is our reason looking to the objective truth found in natural law and in divine revelation and then making a judgment that a particular choice leads us in the direction of our ultimate destination, God himself, the source of all goodness. Our conscience does not make a particular act good or bad simply by what we decide. It simply recognizes the moral quality of a particular act (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1778). In each of us, God has inscribed the law to do good and to avoid evil (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 16). We must apply to any given situation that basic law in light of sound moral principles that come from both reason and revelation. Conscience is not a matter of feeling or individual preferences. In forming our conscience, we need to think, to reason and to judge what is objectively good. This is why Pope John Paul II called the process of forming our conscience “an interior dialogue of man with himself” (Veritatis Splendor, 57-58). And, since the moral rightness of every choice finds its source within God himself, the Pope also referred to conscience as “a dialog of man with God” (Veritatis Splendor, 60). Conscience is a distinctly human reality. It comes from our rational nature and sets us apart from the rest of God’s creatures. We have a God-given right to make moral decisions and to act in freedom. The Second Vatican Council emphasized that religious freedom should enable individuals to “form their own judgments in the light of truth” (Dignitatis Humanae, 8). Since each of us is ultimately responsible for our own actions, we must always obey the certain judgment of our conscience and should never be forced to act against our conscience. Most recently, in reminding us that we bear the responsibility for our moral choices, Pope Francis has said that the Church is called “to form consciences, not to replace them.” We are ultimately bound to follow our conscience, but we are not free to dismiss what reason can tell us, what God has revealed and what the Church teaches. In forming our conscience, we need to look beyond our feelings and beyond our preferences. As humans, we can be mistaken. Sometimes ignorance clouds our discernment; sometimes, sin. But, a well-formed conscience will not contradict the objective moral law, as taught by Christ and his Church (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1783-5, 1792, 2039). In the 13th century, St. Bonaventure poetically and accurately described the gift of conscience. He said that our conscience is a messenger from God. It does not tell what to do on its own authority. Rather, it commands or forbids certain choices on the very authority of God. Like a herald proclaiming the decree of the king, conscience binds us to obedience (Cf. St. Bonaventure. In II Librum Sentent., dist. 39, a. 1, q. 3). The choice of Sir Thomas More that brought about his martyrdom makes this very clear. On 30 March 1534, the English Parliament passed the Act of Succession, legitimating the marriage of King Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn, the sister of his mistress. In its preamble, the King repudiated the supremacy of the Pope in religious matters. Sir Thomas More, Chancellor of England, would not take the oath. He chose to follow the promptings of his conscience and not the demands of King Henry. He knew that we are answerable to a higher court. As St. Paul says, “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor 5:10). In Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, Sir Thomas More struggles with his conscience. His friend the Duke of Norfolk tries to persuade him to do what everyone else is doing. He says to More, “Can’t you do what I did, and come with us, for fellowship?” With insightful brilliance, Sir Thomas More replies, “And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me for fellowship?” Thomas More chose not to go along with the many who simply acquiesced to the King’s demands to save their lives. He would not surrender his responsibility for following a correct, well-formed conscience. King Henry VIII executed him as a criminal. God exalted him as a martyr. While on the scaffold before being beheaded, St. Thomas More declared that he died “the king's good servant, but God's first.” His martyrdom, like his life, reminds us that, in the end, we are the ones who choose heaven or hell as our final destiny. By following a correct, well-formed conscience that is in conformity with divine truth, we make the right choices to arrive by God’s grace and guidance to our true destination, heaven.
In his post-synodal exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis has offered the Church a challenge to reflect more deeply on Christ’s teaching on marriage. The Holy Father reemphasizes the Church’s firm teaching on family and the Sacrament of Matrimony, while challenging us to be understanding and compassionate toward those who struggle in the concrete exigencies of their lives to form stable and healthy families. Many in the media have greeted the Pope’s teaching as a revolution in Church doctrine. They see the Pope’s teaching as the carte blanche for Catholics living in marital situations not consecrated by the Sacrament of Matrimony to receive Holy Communion. This is not the case. The Holy Father’s teaching is nuanced and draws deeply on the Church’s Tradition to speak to our world today. First, we must notice the form of Pope Francis’ teaching. It is not an encyclical stating a new understanding of doctrine. Rather, it is an exhortation; and, it must be read in that light. As an exhortation, it is meant to summarize the results of the 2015 and 2016 synods on the family and to offer encouragement to the faithful to live out our Catholic teaching. It is an exercise of the Pope’s pastoral ministry and is not an extraordinary exercise of papal infallibility. Pope Francis’ teaching must be contextualized within Tradition. He has inherited the great teaching of his sainted predecessors to whom all Catholics owe a great debt of gratitude for their courage in clearly explaining the Church’s consistent teaching on marriage. Pope Francis draws on the richness of their teaching and emphasizes the Gospel imperative of charity to all individuals whatever their marital situation. In his reflection on marriage, the Pope upholds the beauty and the sacredness of marriage. He reminds us that “Christian marriage…is fully realized in the union between a man and a woman who give themselves to each other in a free, faithful and exclusive love, who belong to each other until death and are open to the transmission of life, and are consecrated by the sacrament…”(292). However, he recognizes the reality that some individuals enter into irregular situations or “…forms of union radically contradict this idea” (ibid.). While urging respect for the dignity of all individuals, the Pope does not shrink from affirming that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family. He further states that “it is unacceptable that local Churches should be subjected to pressure in this matter and that international bodies should make financial aid to poor countries dependent on the introduction of laws to establish ‘marriage’ between persons of the same sex” (251). Contrary to any ideology that would reduce marriage by demeaning or eliminating male and female sexuality as a precious gift from God, the Pope teaches that the differences and mutual reciprocity of male and female are essential to the beauty of marriage as designed by the Creator. When these sexual differences are eliminated, we lose the anthropological basis of the family. Thus, the Pope speaks strongly against any gender ideology that makes one’s identity as male or female merely a personal choice that can be changed over time (56). At a time of increased secularization, especially in the United States where the government refuses to recognize the right of Catholics to practice their faith in all areas of their lives, the Holy Father strongly “rejects the forced State intervention in favor of contraception, sterilization and even abortion” (42). To counteract such a mentality, he advocates a return to the wisdom of Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae (82). And, at a time when some of our most prominent leaders and judges advocate abortion on demand and legalized euthanasia, the Pope unambiguously offers the truth on the value of every human life. He defends each person’s God-given right to life. As Pope Francis teaches, “the family is the sanctuary of life, the place where life is conceived and cared for. It is a horrendous contradiction when it becomes a place where life is rejected and destroyed. So great is the value of a human life, and so inalienable the right to life of an innocent child growing in the mother’s womb that no alleged right to one’s own body can justify a decision to terminate that life, which is an end in itself and which can never be considered the “property” of another human being. The family protects human life in all its stages, including its last.” (83) Because “the welfare of the family is decisive for the future of the world and that of the Church” (31), the Holy Father recognizes that the tragedy and heartbreak of divorce cast a dark shadow over family life. In the eighth chapter of his exhortation, the Holy Father reflects on the situation of those Catholics who have suffered a divorce. He urges compassion and understanding to the many and varied situations in which so many divorced Catholics now are living. The Pope encourages pastoral ministers to accompany these individuals toward a fuller participation in the life of the Church. The Holy Father adopts an essentially pastoral perspective in speaking of irregular unions. His statements of outreach to the divorced and remarried must be seen as a way of accompanying and guiding people to the truth of Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce and to a proper understanding of the worthy reception of the Eucharist. The Pope himself states that he cannot include in his teaching each and every individual situation. In chapter eight of the exhortation, Pope Francis offers some guidance for a pastoral care to divorced and remarried Catholics. Applying some ideas and principles that the Pope mentions or implies to the different and complex situations of the divorced and remarried leads to the inevitable consequence of varied interpretations. It is for this very reason that Amoris Laetitia cannot be read apart from the Church’s consistent teaching. When a man and a woman enter into a valid, sacramental marriage, no person on earth, not even the Pope himself, can dissolve that marriage. It enjoys what Pope Francis calls “the gift of indissolubility.” However, some individuals who have been married in the Church do divorce and remarry civilly without the benefit of annulment. In some cases, they have not sought an annulment. In other instances, their marriage cannot be declared null. What is the situation of these individuals? Can they receive the Eucharist? Instead of giving a ready-made, one-size-fits-all answer, chapter eight of the exhortation calls for pastoral discernment. Hence, many will answer this question in different ways. For this reason, it is important to remember that the Church has spoken on the issue and has given certain unchanging principles that cannot simply be dismissed. Jesus unambiguously taught that divorce was evil and that a man or woman who divorces his spouse and marries another commits adultery (cf. Mt 19:3-9; Mk 10:1-13). The Ten Commandments lists adultery as a serious sin. The Church can never change that teaching. Neither can the Pope nor any other authority on earth say that the engaging in sexual relations outside a valid marriage is not sinful. Every sacramental marriage images the love of Christ for his Church. Since Christ never stops loving us even in our weakness, those sacramentally married are graced to love each other, even in their failures, until death. However, the Church can declare that a particular marriage entered in good faith did not meet the requirements of a valid, sacramental marriage. Thus, after a civil divorce and church annulment, the individuals who were never married sacramentally in the first place can now marry and are free to receive the Eucharist. Furthermore, the constant teaching of the Church, most recently taught by Pope John Paul II, leaves a way open for those who, without the benefit of the annulment of their previous marriage, have civilly contracted another marriage. As Pope John Paul II has clearly taught, the sacraments are available to these individuals under certain conditions. “Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage” (Familiaris Consortio, 84). In the press conference introducing Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia, Cardinal Schönborn twice said that the Pope’s new exhortation did not change this teaching. What, then, is new in Pope Francis’ teaching? The Holy Father places a strong emphasis on not judging others and on looking for ways to welcome everyone, no matter what his or her situation, to their rightful place in the Church. Pope Francis speaks to the real life situations of married couples. He acknowledges that there are certain situations that are complex and do not admit of a facile solution. He “does not disregard the constructive elements in those situations which do not yet or no longer correspond to [the Church’s] teaching on marriage” (292). He offers to those in such situations the balm of compassionate pastoral care to heal their wounds, to help them form correct consciences and to accompany them to full integration in the life of the Church. A challenging teaching, indeed!
History has the uncanny habit of repeating itself. American writer, historian, and philosopher Will Durant once said, “So the story of man runs in a dreary circle, because he is not yet master of the earth that holds him.” The biblical writer Qoheleth made the same observation about 2,000 years earlier. He said, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl 1:9). This seems certainly true when it comes to the persecution of Christians. For the first three centuries after Christ, his followers faced fierce persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire. From the persecution under Nero (64 A.D.) to the Edict of Milan (313 A.D.), Christians were persecuted sporadically for 129 years. As many as 100,000 Christians gave their lives rather than renounce Christ for the state religion. Even a cursory glance at news reports confirms that we are witnessing a brutal recurrence of the persecution of Christians. On February 24, 2016, radical Islamic mercenaries swept through Christian villages in Nigeria, slaughtering over three hundred, including pregnant women and children. On March 3, 2016, al-Qaeda gunmen attacked a hotel on the Ivory Coast, murdering anyone who refused to praise Allah with them. They killed eighteen people, including a five-year old Christian. On the following day, sixteen militant Muslims stormed a Catholic retirement home in Yemen, murdering four nuns and the elderly residents. So abhorrent is Christian faith to these radicals that they feel obliged to eliminate anyone who converts from Islam to Christianity. On October 10, 2015, radical Muslims in Uganda dragged a mother of eight from her own home and shot her in reprisal for her husband’s conversion to Christianity. On January 7, 2016, a group of Muslims in Bangladesh took the life of a man for leaving Islam. Those who hate Christians like to use Christian holy days as the occasions to make their violent attacks. This year, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah prohibited the public celebration of Christmas in his country of Brunei. Those who disobeyed faced a five-year prison sentence. Following the warnings of ISIS condemning the celebration of Christmas in the Middle East, angry rioters greeted the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem with a barrage of stones as he entered Bethlehem on Christmas day. Pakistan is a predominantly Muslim nation. On Easter Sunday, 2016, Pakistani Taliban set off a bomb in a public park in the city of Lahore where families were celebrating Easter. They killed seventy people and wounded more than three hundred others. This attack mercilessly targeted innocent women and children for no other reason than the fact that they were Christian. On December 21, 2015, Islamist gunmen attacked a bus traveling from Kenya’s capital of Nairobi to the town of Mandera. After spraying the passenger bus with bullets, the gunmen demanded that the Muslim passengers step aside so that they could kill the Christians. The Kenyan Muslims courageously refused. They protected the Christian passengers. They told the attackers that, if they wanted to kill the Christians, they would have to kill everyone. The militants left in defeat. Love of neighbor had triumphed over fear of death. In the midst of the daily disheartening news of bloodshed and terrorism, the heroism of the Kenyan Muslims should be broadcasted far and wide. Their common stance shielding their Christian neighbors from harm has brought the two communities closer together in the area of Mandera, Kenya. Their brave act is a bright light amid the darkness. The ongoing attacks on Christians and other religious minorities have little to do with war or insurgency. The victims are singled out simply for their religious beliefs by those who claim exclusive possession of the truth about God. The evil perpetrated by such misguided individuals should not blind us to a goodness in human nature that transcends the division of religious beliefs. As in the brave stance of the Kenyan Muslims, good people of every faith will always stand against those who, like the Romans of the first century, murder anyone who does not accept the state religion. Compassion toward one another out of respect for our common God given humanity is an answer to religious persecution.
The March 22, 2016 brutal bombings in Brussels’ international airport and metro system killed more than 35 innocent people and injured more than 270 others. These cowardly terror attacks brought Europe to a standstill. They made Europe more keenly aware that, even as she strives for economic and political unity, Europe has within her borders and in her homes the enemy poised and ready to bring her down. The well-orchestrated violence unleashed on Brussels brings home the frightening fact that ISIS has an extensive and well-established network throughout Europe of individuals who can communicate easily and securely with each other and their leaders. These are not just a few isolated individuals intent on overturning European values, but hundreds of people who have the expertise to manufacture bombs and are ready to give their lives at a moment’s notice for their cause. History records the fact that, in the past, Europe has faced attacks from certain Muslims committed to using war as the means of conquest. Within 100 years after the death of Mohammed, Muslim warriors zealously conquered lands for Islam. In 711 A.D., Muslims invaded the Iberian Peninsula. Within 25 years, they managed to conquer what is today Spain and Portugal. Then, they expanded into France. In 732 A.D., Charles Martel stopped their advance at Poitiers. Years later, when the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire were poised to take Europe, the Polish king Jan Sobieski stopped their advance at the gates of Vienna in 1683. Had he lost that battle, Europe’s landscape would be crowded with more minarets than steeples today! Our tolerance toward people whose faith differs from ours makes living together in peace a reality. Our leaders, both political and religious, keep reminding us not to identify Islam with these horrible acts of violence. Certainly, not every Muslim endorses violence as a means to advance his or her religious beliefs. But this truth cannot blind us to the reality before us. Some Islamic jihadists do. On Sept. 11, 2001, 19 terrorists turned commercial airliners into weapons of war, bringing down the World Trade Center in New York and hitting the Pentagon in our nation’s capital. In total, the terrorist attacks claimed the lives of 2,996. The nearly simultaneous 2004 bombings of Madrid’s commuter trains killed 192 people and injured more than 1,800. In 2005, the terrorist bombings of London’s Underground during the morning rush hour took the lives of 52 civilians and injured 700 more. In January, 2015, terrorists attacked the Charlie Hebdo offices and a Jewish supermarket in Paris, killing 17 people and wounding 22. In November of the same year, more terrorists attacked France’s national stadium and then set off suicide bombings coupled with mass shootings in Paris. They killed 89 people attending the Bataclan theatre, 41 others at restaurants and cafés and injured more than 368 other civilians. The President of France, François Hollande, called it the deadliest attack on France since World War II. Today’s war against Europe is dangerous and insidious. Radical jihadists want to undermine not simply Europe but Western civilization. America included! Because of Europe’s open borders, it is relatively simple to enter one country after another. Without careful screening, those bent on destroying the very people who welcome them enter their host countries, plot their evil with ease and then strike terror, leaving innocent people dead and civilized people questioning where will this all end. The new war which Europe and America face is different than previous wars. The enemy has blurred the boundaries. They are already present within the borders of the countries where they plan their violence. Their methods are different. They neither recognize the laws that govern civilized nations nor the compassion that unites all peoples. For them, innocent lives count for nothing. Present day terrorists have donned the cloak of religious ideology. But, by their violence, they renounce the very nature of true religion. For, “violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. God is not pleased by blood…and not acting reasonably…is contrary to God's nature” (Pope Benedict XVI, Regensburg Address, September 12, 2006). True religion leads to tolerance and understanding. No religious person can claim to speak and act in the name of God and promote hatred and violence. Is this not something of the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus? Photo credit: www.shutterstock.com.
The Election of a President and the Nation’s Morality Make America Great Again. Fighting for us. Re-igniting the Promise of America. A New American Century. Unleash The American Dream. Real Leadership. Slogans play a major role in every presidential campaign. Their few words succinctly summarize the candidate’s position. They capture the voters’ attention and inspire confidence. Each new election offers the nation the hope to begin anew, to address its problems with fresh insights and to usher in a better day. Slogans for change instinctively resonate well with American voters. Clever politicians who know human nature can craftily ply campaign slogans. They may play on the discouragement and disappointment of the people with their government. They may even tap into the voters’ baser instincts, scapegoating certain groups of individuals to solve the nation’s problems. One would hope that candidates challenge their listeners to rise to heights of courage and sacrifice. Beneath the surface of every political slogan lurks the promise of better days to come. It is as if the nation must be delivered from its current bad state; and, there now appears on the stage of history the one individual capable of “saving” the nation. In a sense, inherent in our presidential campaigns, there is a latent political mechanism. In 2008, America faced a bad economy and an unpopular entanglement in the bloody conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans desperately longed for deliverance. The supporters of then Senator Barak Obama applied the titles of “chosen,” “called” and “anointed one” to him. The media took their cue from these descriptions in reporting on the young, charismatic, and hopeful candidate. The use of religious rhetoric reinforced the voters’ desire for better times. Religious language has been a part of the American political enterprise from its very beginnings. America was born with a religious affirmation. It began with the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal” and “they are endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Our Founding Fathers may have separated church from state, but they did not divorce religion from political discussions. They refused allegiance to an earthly monarch as the guide to the nation’s moral life. Instead, they acknowledged deep-seated goodness in each person as a source of national liberty. They realized that a virtuous and moral-living populace is the basis for true freedom. Many a slogan of today’s age of relativism and tolerance trumpets the idea of unbridled freedom. Every individual has the right, so it is said, to his or her own ideas. And, no government has the ability to curtail them. According to this way of thinking, the standards of right and wrong belong to the private realm of conscience, not to the public order of society. History proves otherwise. Great civilizations collapse when the moral order is violated. Goodness, as given in the moral law, alone guarantees a society’s well-being. As George Washington said in his farewell address, “It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.” No president will ever be the Messiah that saves the nation. Redemption lies elsewhere. Citizens with the right moral compass will support those candidates who promote values consistent with our deeply religious heritage. Their votes allow society to rise above its problems and prosper. However, citizens who have lost their sense of morality will be attracted to empty words and false promises for personal gratification. By not taking the moral high ground, they will hasten the demise of liberty. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “Only a moral and virtuous people are capable of freedom; the more vicious and corrupt a society becomes—the more it has need of masters.” Ultimately, the election of any particular person to the presidency is a reflection on the morality of those who are voting.