Sunday, August 14, 2022

SURROUNDED BY A CLOUD OF WITNESSES

Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us persevere  

in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus. 

Hebrews 12:1-4 



Many of you might remember the thriller film, The Sixth Sense, which tells the story of Cole Sear, a troubled, isolated boy, who is able to see and talk to the dead, and an equally troubled child psychologist (played by Bruce Willis), who tries to help him. The most famous lines from the film belong to the young boy. “I see dead people!”

In a way, that is exactly what the writer of our second reading is telling us when he says, “we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses” who have already "finished the race."  In fact, he is saying four things.

First, our second reading is telling us that living the Christian life is like running a race. It is not a stroll for the lazy and indifferent. It takes the serious discipline of an athlete. We need to train every day of our lives. We need to know where we are going, remain focused, and keep our eyes fixed on the finish line. G.K. Chesterton said it best when he wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting: it has been found difficult and left untried.” The biggest threats to Christianity are not those who persecute it, but those who claim the name and think it ought to be easy, but who are unwilling to walk the talk!

Second, our second reading is telling us that there are people “in the stands,” people who have run the race before us and who have already crossed the finish line, who are cheering us on! It challenges us to remember that we are surrounded by a large group of supportive onlookers as we live out our lives as Christians. This is precisely what we mean when we say in our Creed that we believe in the “communion of the saints.” By that, we mean that we believe that there is an ongoing and real connection between those who have practiced the faith before us and those of us who are trying to practice the same faith today – an unbroken connection between those living here and those living in eternity. I, for one, do not actually see dead people, but I do feel their presence, helping me along the way. I believe that I am not alone on my journey of faith, but I am part of a larger story, a great procession of people marching through history. I have you and I have that “great cloud of witnesses,” all those holy men and women from every time and place,” who have finished their race and have crossed the finished line, but now are watching us race toward that same finish line - and they are cheering us on! 

When I started my St. Theresa Family Life Center project down in my home parish, I asked the people of the parish to pray to our beloved ancestors buried in our two cemeteries to help us carry on what they spent their lives to pass on to us! From the beginning of this project, I have felt them cheering us on toward the finish line!

The writer of this Letter to the Hebrews mentions some great Old Testament saints lining the racetrack, people like Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, the parents of Moses, Gideon, Samson, Job, Rahab, Samson, David and Samuel.

Just think of the holy men and women who have been baptized in this diocese, who have prayed in our parishes, who were married in our parishes, who were buried from our parishes. Think of Bishop Flaget, whose bones are buried downstairs at our Cathedral! He rode horseback from here as far north as Wisconsin and Michigan, all over Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio and Tennessee. Think of Father Elisha Durbin, who is buried on Barrett Avenue here in Louisville, who rode 200,000 miles on horseback caring for Catholic mission parishes in western Kentucky, southern Illinois and northern Tennessee. Think of Mother Catherine Spalding, whose bronze statue graces the front sidewalk at the Cathedral. She started and orphanage, a school and a hospital right there behind the Cathedral. This city reeks of their holiness! 

When I was pastor there, I could feel their presence, and not only theirs, but the little old ladies who had been keeping the lights on during the slim years when I arrived there in 1983, before we were able to revitalize that congregation and restore those buildings. Yes, I still remember many of them and I could still feel their presence watching over us!

I can feel the presence of my parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, my sister, the nuns and priests who taught me, as well as the hundreds of parishioners I have buried in all the parishes I have served.  I feel them cheering me on as I race toward the finish line!

Now as I lead the effort to renovate my old St. Theresa Grade School into the new St Theresa Family Life Center and dig through our parish history back to its founding in 1818, I am especially aware of the 222 poor slaves who were baptized down there in my home parish between 1824 and 1865, including the mother, grandmother and various family members of the first African American to be ordained a priest in the United States, the now Venerable Augustus Tolton. A slave himself, he will soon be canonized a saint. I feel their helping presence when I stand over his grandmother Matilda's grave not far from where I will be buried someday.

Third, our second reading tells us to “persevere in running the race that lies before us.” Dropping out of the race is always an option, especially when one leaves home and enters young adulthood. One of the big questions I used to ask college students when I worked at Bellarmine University, is this one: “Will you abandon the religious upbringing of your childhood or will you choose it for yourself of your own free will? Will you persevere in living your Catholic Christian faith or will you simply drop out of the race because it is too hard, because it is too much trouble, because it demands too much, because it is too inconvenient or because others around you are dropping out as well. The writer of our second reading is right! Perseverance in running the race requires the personal discipline and self-control of an athlete! Sometimes it means running against the wind, swimming against the stream and taking the road less traveled. Let us, however, listen to the encouragement of those who have finished the race before us and are cheering us on from the sidelines, rather than those who have dropped out of the race for whatever reason!   

Fourth, our second reading tells us to “keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.” Distractions are a problem for all of us no matter how many laps we have completed. There are those who seek to draw our attention away from the race we are running. “Look here! Look over there! Look at me! Look at this! Pay attention to this! Pay attention to that! See this! See that!” If we are to persevere in running this race, we must keep our eyes fixed on the finish line, we must “keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.” We must remain focused on what we are doing and why we are doing it, until we hear Jesus say to us at the finish line, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your master!”








































Thursday, August 11, 2022

GIVING AIN'T EASY


I do believe that those of us who have prospered should
view our good fortune not as an indication of personal
merit or entitlement, but as an obligation to recognize
the needs of others.
Elizabeth Deutsch Earle


As most of you know, I like to collect quotes and other bits of wisdom to reflect on at a later time. The above quote came from a book I was reading one night. The sentiments are not new to me because Jesus had said as much when he said, "For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required." However, she seemed to say it again in a fresh new way.

Even growing up, I remember being influenced by two particular people. They lived at different ends of the spectrum when it came to the "goods" of this world. One was determined to amass as much as he could for his own welfare. The other, was always sharing what she had with others, even when she had little to give. The first one was focused on "saving." The second one was focused on "sharing."  The first one was self-focused. The second one was other-focused. I knew, even then at that young age, that I was being inspired to "be like" the second one rather than the first one.  

Even though I was inspired to be a "giver," rather than a "hoarder," I had to learn how to be a giver. I had to learn that the desire to "give" comes from the certain knowledge that one has been blessed beyond what one has earned. I also had to learn to be the kind of giver that leads to helping others in an effective way, rather than the kind of giver who seeks to merely relieve one's own guilt. 

Wanting to really help others means that you have to be able to give in a smart and effective way - and that takes valuable time and serious effort. Giving in a simplistic and naive way often has at its source a personal need for instant gratification and the alleviation of guilt.  In a real way, that kind of simplistic and naive giving amounts to giving to oneself! 

For the one who knows no limits to giving, even with the best motives and purest intentions, there is the danger of burn-out, often called "compassion fatigue."  Even a heroic giver needs to pace himself or herself, take some time out and get some rest because true giving can be exhausting! 









Tuesday, August 9, 2022

GRANDMOTHERS AND MOTHERS

 

SO TRUE

“Faith rarely comes from reading a book alone in a corner; instead, it spreads within families, transmitted in the language of mothers, in the sweetly lyrical accents of grandmothers.”
Pope Francis in Canada

I was very moved by the words of Pope Francis when he spoke of the role of mothers and grandmothers in our faith formation. Maybe it touched me because it has been so true of my faith formation and that of so many of the people I know.

My paternal grandmother! I have written about her and talked about her several times in my writings and homilies. Her name was Lillian Delia Mills Knott. "Grandma" was a county midwife who lived across the road from us when I was a child. When my mother was about to give birth to me, my "grandma" was called over to "deliver" me right there in the house. It was a difficult birth. My mother and I both almost died in the process. As a country midwife, my grandmother knew what to do. She baptized me right there in the bed where I was born.

We were especially close growing up. She taught me to grow my own garden, churn butter, grind sausage for her and watch her do many kinds of things so I would "learn how." She didn't talk much, but she allowed me to "be with her" any time I wanted. She lived long enough to attend my First Mass and I knew she had to "be with me" on that important day as well!

The earliest memory I have involves my dear mother, Mary Ethel Mattingly Knott. It occurred on spring afternoon when I was around four years old. I had at least two siblings at that time (one five and one three) so her having time to rock me to sleep would have been almost impossible, but that day it happened! I can remember the sheer curtains waving in the breeze of the open window. I remember it being very still as she hummed and rocked. I experienced what it was like to "sleep in heavenly peace," as the Christmas carol SILENT NIGHT mentions. I am convinced that I experienced a bit of heaven that day in my mothers arms. I still own that rocking chair!

I can remember exactly where I was standing in one of the bedrooms while my mother was trying to teach me the OUR FATHER, HAIL MARY and GLORY BE in preparation for my First Communion. I can still remember her ironing my borrowed, stiff, white "First Communion suit" and dressing me for church, while keeping me away from "breaking my fast" which would have put a halt to the whole event should I eat or drink anything before receiving my First Communion.

They were not literal mothers and grandmothers, but the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth played an important "supportive role" in raising us children. Most of the year, we spent more of the day under their care than we did with our mothers and grandmothers. We learned more about God from them, by far, than from the pastor of the parish. They taught us Catechism, prepared us for the celebration of the Sacraments of Penance, Eucharist and Confirmation. And, yes, I got my first and only clear verbal encouragement from Sister Agnes Bernard (my 7th and 8th grade teacher) the night before I left to go to the seminary.

Last, but not least, I want to celebrate Matilda Hurd Chisley and Martha Jane Tolton, the grandmother and mother of the Venerable Augustus Tolton, the first African American slave in the United States to become a Catholic priest. His grandmother and mother were slave members of my home parish of Saint Theresa (established in 1818) down in Meade County, Kentucky. They are the ones who held onto their Catholic faith through thick and thin and heroically passed it on to the young slave boy, Augustus. Father Tolton's mother, left a single parent with three children, stood with him faithfully before and after his ordination. I give Matilda and Martha Jane the most credit for producing a saint when they passed on our faith to him. I am very proud to know that both he and I learned the Catholic faith mostly from the women who came from our parish of Saint Theresa in Rhodelia.



Sunday, August 7, 2022

WALKING BY FAITH, NOT BY SIGHT

 


Faith is the realization of what is hoped for

and the evidence of things not seen.

Hebrews 11:1

 

 

I have been at this “priest thing” almost all of my life. I really never wanted to be anything else. I first felt that I may be “called” to it when I was seven years old. I started seminary at age fourteen. I was ordained at twenty-six. I have been a priest now for fifty-two years. Eighteen years ago, for the first and only time in my life, I actually thought about quitting. It was back when we were going through the sexual abuse scandal here in Louisville. I was so angry, disappointed, embarrassed and disillusioned that I thought about throwing in the towel, moving out of state and finding a job that had nothing to do with God, the church or the priesthood.  I really wanted to quit, but I didn’t – and I won’t!  

 

I felt like Jeremiah who was called to be a prophet at a very tender age. Jeremiah gave his all to his job, but one day when he was so frustrated he reached the point where he wanted to just quit. He screams at God, “You seduced me into taking this job and now I feel like I have been used! I keep telling myself that I won’t even mention your name ever again, but when I do, a consuming love for your word burns in my heart. I can’t help myself. I feel that I really can’t quit. I feel that I have to keep going!” 

 

When I was deep in my depression, the question I kept coming back to was this one: “Ron, where is your faith placed?” Is it in priests? No! Is it in bishops? No! Is it in the Pope? No! They are merely the “earthenware jars” that hold the “treasure,” but they are not the “treasure.” Is your faith in organized religion? No! Organized religion, has and will always be, in need of reform. I knew that to leave would be to turn my back on God. I also knew enough scripture to know that I cannot have God without his church, no matter how many people try to have it that way! When others say “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” to me they are like the kids who want to eat the filling out the Oreos, and leave the cookies! My faith is not just personal. It is also communal! We are in this faith thing together! 

 

No, for me to leave would be to turn my back on God and his people. (1) How could I turn my back on the God who called me to be a priest, simply because of the gross sins of a handful of brother-priests and those who were misguided in their efforts to protect them?  (2) How could I turn my back on God who “adopted” me at baptism and made me a member of his family, the church? How could I victimize my “faith family” again by leaving, when it has been severely wounded and in need of spiritual care? How could I go off and leave my “faith family” in its time of need?  

 

After my mind explored the possibility of leaving, after I wallowed in my depression for months, after I wrestled with the question of faith, I finally came to the realization that, if I have any faith at all, then this was the time to prove it - to prove it by staying, by remaining faithful, by remembering why I am doing this to begin with! 

 

Today, Abraham is held up to us as a model of faith, and so he was! In fact, Eucharistic Prayer I refers to him as “our father in faith” because of his extraordinary ability to trust God, even when God’s promises seemed utterly impossible. Even in his old age, Abraham did not bat an eye when God called him to leave his country, everything that was familiar to him, and head to a place unknown. He went simply because God told him to go. In his old age, when God told him that he would father a son, his first, one that he had longed for all his life, he did not bat an eye, despite all the natural evidence to the contrary. Abraham and Sara were both senior citizens. When Abraham heard the news, he did not bat an eye, but believed that somehow God would do it. Sara, on the other hand, snickered with laughter when she heard the news, and worse yes, denied having laughed when she was caught. Abraham's ultimate test of faith came when God asked him to sacrifice his precious, one and only, son Isaac. Without batting an eye, Abraham prepared to sacrifice his precious little boy in unflinching obedience, not knowing how God would keep his promise of making his descendants as numerous as the stars, if he did!  

 

What bout you? Do you have faith? No, I don’t mean do you believe this or that Bible story or this or that Church doctrine to be true. I mean, do you really trust God?  Can you believe in things you can’t see, promises that God hasn’t kept yet? Can you keep walking with God, even when you can’t see where you are going, even when your most precious things, relationships and assumptions are taken away from you?  

 

I am amazed at people who say they have “lost their faith” when an old church was renovated, when an altar rail was removed, when a Mass time was changed or when a priest said something to disappoint them. I am also struck when I hear that someone has lost their faith over the death of a loved one or during a major health crisis. They surely lost something, but it wasn’t faith! If faith only holds up when things are going well, when the world is the way we like it, when we are blessed with all that life has to offer, when we are young and in perfect health, then it is not faith. Faith is only faith when we cannot see where we are going or cannot understand the things that happen to us, when we are swamped by doubt and confusion. It is only then do we know whether we have faith or not. If we can go on loving and trusting God, after we hear the diagnosis of cancer, then we can say we have faith. If we go on loving and trusting God, after our house burns down, when we lose our job, when a family member dies and if our friends abandon us, then we can say we have faith. If we can trust God after we have lost everything we can lose, then we can say we have faith!  

 

If your faith hasn’t been tested yet, and surely it will be, I hope you can, without batting an eye, keep on loving and trusting God in the darkness and confusion. If you can do that, then you will know that you really are a man or woman of faith!  

                         

Faith is the realization of what is hoped for
and the evidence of things not seen.
Hebrews 11:1