Archive | May, 2012

Filled with revulsion

31 May

It was a cloudy, steamy day in Southern Louisiana. The tall razor-topped wire fences encircled the housing units of one of the most notorious prisons in America – the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

This prison, located in Louisiana’s steamy delta, is more popularly known as Angola. The prison covers 18,000 acres on what used to be several plantations, particularly the Angola Plantation. It is a productive farm with prisoners working the crops. It has also been called the “Alcatraz of the South.”

Wikipedia calls it the largest maximum security prison in the United States, reporting 5,000 prisoners and 1,800 staff members.

Angola is bordered on three sides by the Old Man himself – the Mississippi River.

This reflection is based on a visit to the prison in the 1960s. Conditions today are apparently far different and much improved. Just check Wikipedia for a complete report.

I was there with two of the most important men in my life – Fathers Alexander O. Sigur and Charles B. Fortier, respectively the founding editor and business manager of our diocesan newspaper, The Southwest Louisiana Register. The paper was then headquartered in the downtown offices of the Lafayette diocese’s chancery offices.

We had been carrying a series on prisoners and prisons in South Louisiana. We were here to look over the facility, speak with the warden and staff and with some of the prisoners. We were also to visit Death Row and Gruesome Gertie – the electric chair once used to dispatch socially undesirables, presumably all of them guilty. Today, death is by lethal injection.

Having visited prisons before, I wasn’t too surprised with what we saw there; it all looked the same but felt much worse. The atmosphere breathed of despair and hatred, of lost hope and a loneliness that seemed to permeate the very air we breathed.

The men on Death Row either ignored us or gazed at us with contempt; but one I’ll never forget: He reached through the bars to touch us, for us to touch him. His eyes, filled with tears were pleading. I’ve never ever seen such desperation and longing in another human being.

But I was in for a shock, a view of the most insensitive thing I have ever seen. We were given a ride from Death Row to visit Gruesome Gertie.

On the ride to the site of execution, as I sat in the back seat between a priest and a guard, I sensed emptiness and sadness, even a subtle fear as I imagined the condemned man going to his death.

The ride, as I recall, took us through a rather deserted area of the prison compound. We drove through a ditch and stopped outside a warehouse. Inside the warehouse, there were various materials, stacked up lumber and some things that looked like junk.

I could imagine the condemned man, shackled and hustled forward by guards through this trashy place, getting the message: “You are junk. You are being discarded.”

But that was nice compared to what we saw next, and what the condemned would see in the last moments of his life – the Death Chamber, the residence for Gruesome Gertie, Louisiana’s electric chair.

In the rear of the warehouse, the guard stood aside and opened a side door – and there was Gruesome Gertie, housed in something that looked like an old-fashioned outdoor Johnny.  Huge electrical wires were linked from a power source to the top of the Death Chamber. 

The condemned was treated to a horrifying, degrading view of his way out of this world.

I don’t ignore or minimize the terror and pain of victims of capital crimes or the unrelenting sorrow of their families.

However, I think we might agree that in degrading the condemned, given their heinous crimes, we are degrading ourselves.

Times have changed – but I’ll never forget that visit to Angola.

I’m still filled with revulsion as I think of it.  And I am filled again with revulsion as I have to admit that at times I have that insane tendency to think of revenge more than justice – the kind of justice God wants for us and from us. His justice offers salvation, not condemnation (John 3:17).

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In quest of peace

26 May

Peace is beautiful – when it is at last achieved. But it is a work in progress.

I, then, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. Ephesians 4:1-3

 I had to read it again: “the bond of peace.”

That’s what got me the bond of peace.

Peace doesn’t just happen. As Pope Paul VI indicated to the United Nations all those years ago, peace is not merely the absence of war.

Read again what St. Paul has to say. See the blueprint for peace which fosters unity – all those virtues. Virtue doesn’t just happen. For example, you can’t just pray to be humble and patient. You have to work at it – tackling the demons that plague you, the demons you have unwittingly nourished over the years.

That’s the only way we’ll have peace in our homes, in our nation – if peace is peace is active, not passive.

To become virtuous requires work, not lazy surrender. Yes, you have to surrender to God – to the Most Holy Spirit who fills you with discernment, wisdom and strength. But you have to die to self for the sake of rising from the chains of pride, greed, envy, anger and lust.

The quest for peace is the quest for holiness.

Peace has to be achieved. It is a bond, a covenant. You agree that peace will be the bond of your family. As more individuals, families and other social groups live in peace, the nation will eventually reflect that bond, that covenant.

Choose peace. Work at it. Work for it. Make it the bond of your marriage, your family, your workplace.

Come, Holy Spirit, come. Come with your grace, your gifts of wisdom, strength, discernment and peace.

We can’t both be right

17 May


The full Gospel demands faith in Christ. It demands discovering and preaching Truth.

“God is a God of the heart. Religions divide. Religions don’t count. You have to be Christian.”

This is the opinion of some Christians.

The opinion can’t defend itself. Christians who hold this opinion are saying: “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe on Jesus Christ.

 That opinion really  means, “What’s true for me is good for me. What’s true for you is good for you.”

That’s pluralism – everything goes; truth contradicts itself but that’s all right. Truth is what you make it. Just love Jesus.”

If you love Jesus, you want to believe in his full Gospel. You want to be one in faith, and one in truth. You want to believe that truth will set you free, that truth cannot contradict itself.

If you say my shirt is white and I insist that it is black, we can’t both be right.

If I say that in the Mass, bread and wine are transformed into the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ – and you say it is not so transformed, that it is only a symbolic devotion, we can’t both be right.

If you say it doesn’t matter what church you attend, and I say that it does matter, that Tradition and Scripture go hand-in-hand, we can’t both be right.

If you say faith resides in the heart, and I say faith is a gift to the intellect, that the heart is just a muscle, that love is a decision and you say love’s an emotion, we can’t both be right.

Pluralism denies the existence of objective truth. Oh, we can agree to disagree – but that flies in the face of Christ who said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”

There is no duplicity in Christ. Truth is truth.

We Need a Great Revival

14 May

You have to find God — in his essence, his simplicity and in his embracing and permeating presence in all of creation — and then discover he cannot be contained, totally understood or described or harnessed to fit your own ideas of who he is or should be.

One good thing has emerged in the aftermath of the government’s attack on religious liberty – Catholics and other people of faith are waking up and rising up.

This “waking up and rising up” will be less effective if people of faith use their energy and enthusiasm solely in the political arena and the voting booth.

What this country needs is one, gigantic, deeply rooted revival of faith, a revival that will propel God and his wisdom back into the very heart of America – in the family, workplace, on the golf course, in the theater and in the Congress, in the White House and the courts of this land.

Jesus tells us: “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love (Jn 15:10)”

“Remain IN my love.” That means more than a casual nod to God. It even means more than obeying the Commandments and the teachings of our Church. To obey our Lord and to remain IN his love is to get to the heart of God, to know God, to be fascinated by a Being who has no beginning and no end. To remain IN God is to let his divinity permeate and transform you.

To achieve that end is rather difficult because even people of faith trivialize God. He’s sidelined and often diminished in people’s minds. Just think of the number of times you hear:

Oh my Gawd!” as someone squeals over this or that triviality.

“Oh, my God” can be a form of praise, worship, petition or thanksgiving. Recall the prayers of the Church:

The Act of Faith: “Oh, my God, I firmly believe that you are one God in Three Divine Persons, Father, Son Holy Spirit …”

The Act of Hope: “Oh, my God, relying on your almighty power and promises … “

The Act of Contrition: “Oh, my God, I am truly sorry for having offended you …”

The Act of Love: “Oh, my God, I love you above all things with all my heart and all my soul … “

To become IN God you must seek to know him as he really is. Your idea of God is not God. God is at once immense and utterly simple, pure Spirit. He fills the pages of the Bible, but he can’t be shut in there; he is truly present in the consecrated host in the tabernacle, but he cannot be imprisoned there. God is truly present in vast universe he has created, but his Being is not confined there.

How then can you know God? How know him well enough to be IN him?

Listen to how God describes and names himself: “I AM” (Ex 3:13-14)

That’s it. He IS! Unfathomable, yet intimately present, HE IS!

That’s the foundation for a national revival of faith. God IS!

Embrace him as HE IS. From this great truth, God will continue to reveal himself to you, in private prayer, in the Scriptures and in the teachings and preaching of the Church. You and I, all of us, will be spiritual leaven rising up in God’s glory. God- in-us will put goodness, trust and faith back into our way of life.

That’s it!

God IS!

Why Catholics drift away from Mass?

8 May

Sometimes you come up against a solid, seemingly impenetrable wall. You are stumped. You back up, turn around and go away. Sometimes, when you have “blank walls” in your spiritual life, going the other way is not the answer. Stop, think. Talk to others who have been stumped in life’s most important experience — the experience of God in your life, the experience of truth, of joy and peace.

Say you have a family member – or a friend – who no longer goes to Mass; or maybe, you are a dropout from Sunday worship.

Among the reasons often given for dropping away from Sunday Mass are poor homilies, lifeless liturgies, impersonal atmosphere. This latter reason is sometimes expressed in the complaint that nobody called to see why the absentee was no longer at Mass. And that means he or she was not known well enough to be missed – or no one really cared.

In our Men’s Bible Study May 7,  it was mentioned that these reasons could be only excuses, but I’ve been around long enough to know that foundation exists for such complaints. However, rest easy pastor of St. Mary Magdalen, we all quickly agreed that our own parish is actually a vibrant, loving and inviting parish whose clergy and staff work hard to preach the Word and to include everyone in the life of the parish.

What do you see as the reasons for Catholics drifting away from the Mass – and even joining other Christian denominations – even those who describe themselves “non-denominational?” (A wise old friend once said, “The minute you say you are ‘non-demoninational’ you have become a denomination.”)

What do you think? Consider, too, the possible reasons below:

Lack of proper catechesis regarding the Mass;

 Insufficient knowledge of and/or experience in the nature of our communion as Body of Christ;

Distractions in life or even in the Mass itself;

Lack of a personal, vibrant relationship with Christ;

No awareness of the role of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life, and/or,

Lack of being formed into wholesome discipleship.

So, what do think?

(One great aid to understanding the Mass is Father David Knight’s “Experiencing the Mass.” In less than  a hundred pages, he gives us “Five Moments of Mystery.” He leads us slowly and deeply through the Mass from the Entrance Procession to the sending after Communion. It’s worth a parish investment to put it in the hands of parish liturgical and formation leaders and to be used in education and formation programs. For this book and other spiritual treasures, go to www.immersedinchrist.com .)

With gratitude and pride

5 May

So many Americans have gone into the harsh, treacherous lands of war, lands devoid of comfort, security and peace. They have fought, have been wounded and many have died — for you and for me, for all Americans and all people who yearn to be  free.

We had not expected to see it; in fact we didn’t even know it existed A couple of years ago, it became a highlight of our visit with our son David, his wife, Susie, and his family. 

I’m speaking of the new and impressive National Infantry Museum & Soldier Center in Columbus/Fort Benning, GA. At that time, still lacking some planned displays, the museum has one that will never be surpassed. 

It’s called “The Last 100 Yards.” The last hundred yards of every battle is the deadly and all-important space between victory and failure. It’s where many men and women in uniform pay the ultimate price for our national security and freedom.

The exhibit is so very lifelike, peopled with reproductions of fighting personnel whose faces were crafted from the faces of  real soldiers. 

As you enter the exhibit, you find yourself in the midst of a battle in the Revolutionary War – complete with shouts and the sound and flashes of explosions. You proceed into all the major conflicts from the Civil War onward to World Wars I and II, to Korea and Vietnam and the Desert Wars. 

You see the wounded, hear the shouted commands. You see fighting men with weapons, scaling rope ladders to the top of a cliff. You get a good idea of what it must be like to place yourself in harm’s way, to know that you may lose a limb or two – or your life. You may not ever see you wife, children, parents and siblings again. 

But you press forward! You are a soldier, one who has already given his life to his country. You see death; you hear the cries of the dying. You pray. You hope – and you press on. You kill – and you will never forget it. 

As David led us through The Last 100 Yards, Peg and I could hardly speak. We were choked up with emotion. 

I was filled with gratitude and pride – gratitude for the countless men and women who have given so much so often; pride, because these are Americans, Americans who know the value of freedom and responsibility and are willing to pay the price for the preservation of our nation and our heritage.

Thank you all military personnel, all veterans — living and deceased.

Faith, Solid and Fragile

2 May

You have to keep your eyes open if you want to discover the beauty of faith. And your heart must be thristy for truth and for God himself.

AT MEN’S BIBLE STUDY, April 30, we began studying Romans. The question arose about faith – not what faith is, but the reality, quality and power of faith. The question arose: Does it mean that if we sin we do not have faith?

No, we sin even though we have faith. Human nature is compromised by the original sin of pride on the part of Adam and Eve. So, despite our good intentions, strong and true faith to the contrary, we sin.

I am reminded of something I read in Father John Catoir’s works: “We don’t pray to be holy; we pray because we are holy.” That statement shook me to the core – because I thought I had to make myself holy; it was in my power. Actually, it is God who makes us holy. As the old adage holds, “God don’t make no junk.”

From the question of personal culpability for sin in the lives of the faithful of God, we discussed briefly those folks who are known as public sinners – prostitutes, pimps and drug pushers for example. Do they or do they not have some degree of faith in God? Who knows but God?

I tend to believe that people who chose such an apparently “evil” life are more victims of sin than people out to deny God at every turn. Father James T. Burtchaell, in “Philemon’s Problem” (five stars on Amazon), writes of an engrained evil in society, an evil into which people are often born and never find or even believe there is a way out. (I read this book many years ago and recommend it without reservation.)

THEN, MOST OF US with very gray or no hair recalled our catechism days when we were told that faith was a gift from God. But we do not recall ever being told that faith was a relationship. Perhaps our young minds did not register this part of the lesson.

Just look up “faith” in the new Catholic Catechism. You’ll find more than 150 subcategories dealing with this crucial and wonderful topic.

Here are some of the very first areas treated in the catechism: to believe in God alone; to believe in Jesus Christ; to believe in the Holy Spirit. It goes on to state that faith is a grace (a gift); and, faith is a human act (you accept the truth that God is).

The catechism goes on to discuss faith in the light of reason and understanding – and its relationship to science.

So, “faith” can’t really be contained in a quart jar with the lid screwed on tight. Faith is solid, in that God calls us to himself and reveals Truth; faith is fragile in that we are weak sinners, and too often we grab on to “faith” and try to lock it down into a comfortable, manageable, unchanging and unchallengeable myopic image of true faith.