Let’s dig right in… 

Fordham University Professor Michael Peppard has an outstanding piece in Religion & Politics on how the NRA and Planned Parenthood have prevented the country from moving forward with sensible regulation of guns and abortion, respectively. Read the whole thing, but the money quote is here: 

Both lobbies raise money by working donors into a frenzy of fear. But in reality, the chances of gun rights being taken away completely are the same as the chances of abortion rights being taken away completely: zero. Our pragmatic, centrist country is ill-represented by such apocalyptic ideologies.

Over at The Atlantic, John Tierney concisely and incisively critiques the trend of publications like The Washington Post and Newsweek releasing “High School Rankings” lists, arguing that they could be dismissed as innocuously nonsensical if they were not also shaping actual education policy. He concludes: 

If it weren’t for the fact that these sorts of rankings actually shape school behavior, everyone would be perfectly justified in ignoring Mathews and the Washington Post as they spend time and other resources assembling his list. The ranking itself is meaningless. But the harm it and other lists of its kind do to public education and the role they play in driving the College Board’s revenues can’t be overlooked. These lists may sell papers and draw readers to websites, but for those of us outside of that business, we’ve a duty to push back against this kind of reductionism wherever we see it.

The embattled Archbishop of Newark took to the pages of the Newark Star-Ledger over the weekend to defend his actions with respect to admitted child molester and Diocesan priest who, it has been revealed, had been violating the terms of his deal with the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office. The priest in question, Fr. Fugee, was arrested earlier this month after assisting on youth ministry overnights and conducting other ministries in direct violation of the Court agreement. The Archbishop’s top aide resigned on Friday, but the Archbishop himself has dismissed demands that he step down over the scandal. In the Op-Ed, Archbishop Myers defiantly insists that they have done everything necessary to address the safeguard the children of the Diocese, asserting:

We are not perfect. But people who suggest we have not taken seriously the oversight of our clergy and do not put the security and safety of our families and parishioners, especially our children, at the forefront of our ministry are just plain wrong.

7 Months after cutting ties with Lance Armstrong, sporting goods behemoth Nike has quietly cut ties with Armstrong’s foundation, LIVESTRONG, with whom Nike had partnered in producing apparel. Bloomberg indicates that it is not clear what this will mean for the long-term viability of the foundation. 

In Ohio, a trial is underway, as a fired Catholic school teacher has filed a wrongful termination suit in federal court against the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, claiming she was wrongfully discriminated against. The teacher was after it came to light that she became pregnant by artificial insemination, a process condemned by official Church teaching. The Diocese has countered that, as a Catholic school teacher, the woman was a ministerial employee, and that the grounds of her termination were protected. 

The National Championship hopes of the recently resuscitated Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team have taken a hit following the announcement over the weekend that star quarterback Everett Golson is no longer enrolled at the school, due to an undisclosed violation of academic policy. Although it’s being reported by CBS Sports that other schools have begun to contact Golson about the possibility of transfer, as of now, Golson is indicating his intention to return to South Bend and finish his career under the watch of Touchdown Jesus. 

The New York Times on Sunday published a provocative investigative piece on the Archdiocese of New York, who, led by Archbishop Timothy Dolan, is among the litigants in the series of lawsuits against the Obama Administration with respect to the Health and Human Services Mandate of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) requiring that employers provide contraceptive coverage as part of their health plans. The Times details:

But even as Cardinal Dolan insists that requiring some religiously affiliated employers to pay for contraception services would be an unprecedented, and intolerable, government intrusion on religious liberty, the archdiocese he heads has quietly been paying for such coverage, albeit reluctantly and indirectly, for thousands of its unionized employees for over a decade.

The Archdiocese quickly released a statement in response

Ever wonder why your morning caffeine jolt is referred to as "a cup of Joe"? The folks over at Quartz have your answer. 

The Guardian publishes a scathing critique of unpaid internships in the journalism business, indicting media corporations for “ruining journalism” by preventing lower and middle class journalists from getting a foot in the door by requiring unpaid internships. The piece is brief but potent. 

New Republic Book Reviewer Daniel D’Addario pens a brutal and brilliant evisceration of gay rights activist Dan Savage, whose latest book feels, according to the critic, “like a very public act of self-love.” Read the entire review from start to finish—it’s extraordinarily well-written, and it’s D’Addario impressively pinpoints the locus of Savage’s missteps, in terms of both style and substance. 

Over 1,000 people died in the collapse of a Bangladeshi garment factory, leading for a renewed call to scrutinize labor conditions in developing countries. By contrast, Fair Trade coffee products are selling at an all-time high, leading to a question explored by Foreign Policy… why do we care more about the ethics of coffee than clothes? [FP]

A psychiatry fellow at UCLA pens a #mustread about how our contemporary psychiatry has all too often become reduced to psychopharmacology, wherein insurance companies expect inpatients to be medicated and discharged, not talked to and treated comprehensively. [Atlantic]

BBC reports on a team of researchers in the United States and Sweden who are shedding some light on how babies begin to learn language while still in the womb. [BBC]

Paul Farmer, the well-known doctor and activist, has some thoughts on what the American medical system could learn from community health efforts in developing nations. [DailyBeast]

Pope Francis, repeating what is quickly becoming a central theme of his papacy, has exhorted Christians to embrace the joy that accompanies a life of faith, admonishing that sourpusses hurt the Church’s witness and mission. [CNS]

Amid the seemingly ceaseless torrent of all-things-Gatsby accompanying the release of Baz Luhrmann’s new big-screen adaptation of the classic American novel, New Yorker contributor Kathryn Schultz dares to offer a minority report, telling, “Why I despise the Great Gatsby." [Vulture]

The California Assembly has approved a bill that will allow transgender students to compete in sports according to their self-described gender identity, rather than their physiological sex. The measure will undoubtedly incite vigorous public debate. [LATimes]

Sports Illustrated offers 10 position battles in the NFL to keep an eye on over the summer. [SI]

The SEC Football Blog breaks down the easiest non-conference schedules in the SEC for the coming season. The SEC might be the toughest league in the country, but their non-conference fodder is pretty embarrassing. [SECBlog]

Unsurprisingly, Congressional Republicans are becoming more explicit in stating what has been obvious to impartial observers from day one: they want to use Benghazi to impeach the President (or at the very least scuttle his entire second term agenda), and prevent Hillary Clinton or the Dems from reaching the White House in 2016. [The Hill]

Finally, we turn to Mental Floss for 50 things that turn 50 this year. [Mental Floss]

As always, to get these stories in realtime, follow me on Twitter

It’s been a while, but there’ve just been too many links to post today without overwhelming my social media streams, so I figured I’d consolidate them here. 

Leading the day’s news is the Sports Illustrated cover story in which 34 year-old NBA veteran Jason Collins comes out as gay, becoming the first major male professional athlete to do so. 

Meanwhile, in Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, and at 170 million, the 7th most populous country on Earth, a member of the Associated Press reports that the gap between the super-rich and the poor is growing at an alarming pace. Largely resulting from Nigeria’s oil wealth, the aristocratic class drives BMWs and orders champagne while the majority of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. 

Across the continent, in drought-ravaged East Africa, officials are telling reporters that the 2011 famine killed over 260,000 Somali people, half of them under the age of 5. The figure doubles previous estimates and appears to have been inflated by extremist militants who prevented food aid deliveries to key regions. 

A pair of powerful #longread pieces on mental health appeared today. The first, from The New York Times on “The Problem with How We Treat Bipolar Disorder," includes the assessment that:

For many psychiatrists, mental disorders are medical problems to be treated with medications, and a patient’s crisis of self is not very likely to come up in a 15-minute session with a psychopharmacologist.

 

Mother Jones offers another potent #longread on mental illness, this one delving deeper into the history of how we have arrived at our current state of affairs in terms of treatment and exploring the way that, in the years following deinstitutionalization, legislators have eviscerated almost all spending on resources for the mentally ill, leading to prison systems that end up as de facto asylums. Included in the article is a damning set of statistics highlighting that funding for mental illness has been slashed by $4.35 billion nationally over the past decade, and by as much as 60% in some states. 

The Newark Star-Ledger reveals that a Catholic priest who has previously admitted to groping a teen boy and who underwent rehabilitation for sex offenders as part of a comprehensive pre-trial intervention agreement with prosecutors, has been violating the terms of his agreement, assisting with a local parish youth group and maintaining regular contact with teenagers. More troubling, the priest has been violating the terms of the arrangement with the full knowledge of Newark Archbishop John Myers. The Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office has launched an investigation; it is unclear whether the Archbishop or Diocese could face charges. 

Across the bridge, in New York, anti-abortion activists are calling on the New York State Department of Health to investigate late-term abortion clinics following the release of a series of videos in which staff at a Bronx abortion clinic are shown on tape telling a pregnant woman that, if a fetus is delivered and is breathing and still moving, it will be placed in a jar of solution to stop its breathing. The New York Times reports that the activist group, led by Lila Rose, plans to release additional videos. 

In Germany, the Archbishop of Freiburg has called for the Catholic Church to end its ban on ordaining women deacons. The Archbishop made other remarks as part of the 4-day conference, and attendees were left with the hope that the public comments might signal impending changes to Church policy. 

Over the last couple of weeks, coverage of the Catholic Church has reached a fever pitch as Cardinals from around the world arrived in Rome to elect a new Pope. By and large, the American media, for whom the Conclave is an irresistible fascination, has approached it much the same way they would the South Carolina Primary, the Golden Globes, or the NFL Draft, churning out opinion pieces, candidate profiles, and, of course, process stories about the politicking and gamesmanship that takes place behind closed doors. 

But of all the storylines that’ve emerged, perhaps none is more unusual than the one centered around the role of the Holy Spirit in electing the next occupant of the Chair of St. Peter. Catholics, after all, profess that the Church is of Divine origin and sustenance—founded by Jesus and guided by the Holy Spirit. So the question inevitably becomes… just what exactly does that “guidance” look like? 

Well, in the case of Pope Fabian way back in the third century, it is said that a dove descended upon his head, and that he was elected by universal acclamation of all gathered who interpreted the occurrence as an unmistakable sign that he had been chosen by the Holy Spirit. (If only the Holy Spirit ALWAYS communicated by way of such unambiguous gestures!) 

So how DOES the Holy Spirit “guide” the Cardinal-electors as they attempt to select the person best equipped to carry on the apostolic mission of spreading the Gospel and caring for the flock of believers? 

The peerless humorist, theologian, and author, Jesuit Father Jim Martin, took a swing at it in the pages of Time today, and it’s well worth a read. Religion News Service’s David Gibson digs a bit deeper into the admixture of Holy Spirit and human politics in his piece posted to NCR. And the invaluable John Allen, who, along with Whispers in the Loggia’s Rocco Palma, carries on the proud legacy of Xavier Rynne during the Second Vatican Council, interweaves a bit of discussion about the role of the Holy Spirit throughout all of his excellent, must-read articles like this one, entitled, “Conclave 101.” 

Amid a surfeit of such trenchant exposition, I hardly need add my own amateur analysis, but Jesus frequently communicated singular truths through multiple formats, one of which was the use of metaphors drawn from the world around him that would be accessible to his everyday listeners. And since we’re just commencing March Madness… what better way to expound upon the role of the Holy Spirit in the guidance of the Church than by invoking a college basketball analogy? 

What do we mean when we say that the Holy Spirit guides the Church?

The bishops can be likened to the players on the court, and the Coach can be likened to God. What brings these players together is a belief that this Coach knows what he is doing and has a plan for the team to succeed. They share a common mission—to win. And they share many common beliefs about the best way to get to that goal; that’s what has brought them to play at this program, be it Georgetown, Duke, Michigan, Kentucky, or UCLA. The program might emphasize certain first principles that all can agree on, like the basic premise that unselfish play on offense and a tenacious refusal to relent on defense are the two sine qua nons for success. 

And these first principles might be further extrapolated to include specific approaches, such as an agreement that there should be no fewer than three passes on offensive possessions before anyone takes a shot. But ultimately, as the principles become more and more specific to real-game situations, there will inevitably be disagreements about the best way to proceed. If the opponents knows of this strategy about passing and is content to fall back into a 2-3 zone, allowing unperturbed passing around the outside of the arc, but preventing any passes into the paint, might it be a good adjustment to have one of the guards put the ball on the deck and attempt to penetrate the zone, collapsing the zone and allowing for a better look? One may think so, while another may believe that the zone simply necessitates well-placed bounce passes to a post player near the foul line, rather than switching styles entirely to have the guards play a more slashing and driving style.

Such is the case with a “team” of believers like the Church, or in this instance, the bishops of the Church. All are playing for the same team; all share a common mission; and, by and large, all believe wholeheartedly in the game plan of the Coach. But as particular circumstances arise, there will inevitably be disagreements about the best way to proceed. Jesus utilized wheat and grape wine, because he lived in the Mediterranean. What about communities of Christians in South Asia or sub-Saharan Africa, where rice, yam powder, or some other grain is traditionally made into bread, rather than wheat, and palm, date, or rice wine, is more readily available than that from grapes? Does the fact that the unleavened bread of the Eucharist is made from wheat, rather than millet, make a significant difference in light of Jesus’ instruction to, “Do this in memory of me?” Well, different disciples are going to come to different conclusions, and as long as the disagreement comes from a place of sincerity and the dialogue is marked by charity and humility, then that tension isn’t the end of the world. 

But when the disagreement becomes a dispute, and the teammate is seen as someone whose position will actually harm the team and impede success, then it becomes a whole lot harder to maintain unity and work together towards a common goal. 

So, returning to the original question… where does the Holy Spirit fit in?

Well the Coach draws up plays… those can be likened to the revelation of Scripture, which provides a blueprint for how we ought to “play” together as a team. The team reviews the plays together at practice, rehearsing together, and gearing up to go out and take the court with one another in the games. That’s not unlike the Mass, where we review our “game plan,” talk about how we ought to handle various scenarios if and when they arise, and gear up to “take on our week,” so to speak. 

Once out in the game, the fury and frenzy of the action overtakes all else. Powerful frames pound the floor and throw elbows for position, with the echo of missed shots clanging off the rim and the high-pitched squeal of sneakers on freshly waxed hardwood reverberating throughout the arena. Throw in the overwhelming roar of the fans, and it can feel as though a thick fog of discombobulating noise has descended directly onto the court, drowning out the voice of teammates in a blur of sound and chaos. (The crowd noise, in this sense, functions like the noise of 21st century culture… an interminable brouhaha of music, movies, mobile devices, and many more technological miracles that prevent us from ever being silent!) 

It is into this impenetrable din that the Coach is shouting his instructions, “Pass to the post!” “Get back on D!” “Call out screens!” and the faces of the players can often be seen glancing back at the sideline with confusion and angst. 

The voice of the Coach can be likened to the Holy Spirit, emanating from the lips of God in an attempt to provide guidance to the players out on the court. Sometimes, the guidance is clear and unmistakable, “Don’t foul!” but other times, it’s difficult for the players to hear exactly what he’s saying, and it’s not entirely clear. (“Did he want all of us to crash the boards when the shot goes up, or are a couple of us supposed to start backpedaling on D to prevent a fast break?”) 

And even then, the Coach himself can’t come out onto the court and force the players to follow his instructions. Ultimately, they have to make the decision to pass the ball or take the shot. And for myriad reasons, ranging from ignorance (“I didn’t realize the refs would call all these hand-checks”) to selfishness (“I haven’t been getting the ball enough, so I’m going to take it to the hoop myself on this one”) the players at times fail to follow the Coach’s instructions to the letter. They may decide to improvise a bit; to add their own flourishes; or even to discard it altogether, deciding that they’re the ones getting shoved around under the basket and can make a better decision about whether to put the ball on the deck or go right up with it on the next play. 

The Pope, then, is not unlike a Captain. He’s not “in charge” of the other players; his role is to get everyone on the same page and serve as a source of unity. In the stress of a game situation, owing to fatigue, frustration, and differing experiences, various players may grow irritated with one another or tempted to do their own thing. It’s the job of the Captain, in the huddle, to get everyone on the same page and reminding them of all the success they’ve had when they stuck to the game plan. 

So to recap: the bishops are like college basketball players, all buying into the same gameplan, all attempting to carry it out to the best of their ability as a team. The Coach continually communicates with the team out on the floor by shouting instructions, but due to any number of factors, not the least of which is the crowd noise, these instructions are often difficult to make out exactly, so the players do the best they can to interpret, all while they keep playing. And even then, they’re free to choose to disregard the instructions.

The Coach guides, but ultimately, the players on the court have the freedom to decide. That’s how the game works. 

There’s more than one March Madness taking place this year, and both are likely to be full of drama, suspense, upsets, and unpredictable finishes. 

Daily Readings - http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/022413.cfm

As they were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus, 
“Master, it is good that we are here;
let us make three tents,
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
But he did not know what he was saying.

The Transfiguration is a fascinating piece of the Gospels. Each of the Synoptic authors record it as a distinct event, so it obviously bears enormous importance to the narrative of who this Jesus is. For a more in-depth exploration of the Transfiguration in this context, click here for an older Scripture reflection I had produced while at the University of Michigan.

But in my reflection today, I’d like to focus on the person of Peter. Understandably, most sermons unpacking the Transfiguration center around Jesus. He is, after all, the focal point not only of this story, but of the Gospels (and our faith!) more broadly. 

On the other hand, there is something to be gained from considering Peter’s role in the story. We have Jesus revealing this awesome and indescribable reality… and Peter, somewhat typically, misunderstanding the whole thing. 

Have you ever been out at a party, telling a really great story, and you have a friend who keeps interrupting you and trying to guess where you’re going with it? Imagine the following scene: 

"So my friends and I manage to score tickets to the Super Bowl. And we’re all set to fly down there, when…"

"Oh no!" your friend interjects. "Did something bad happen?"

You give a look, somewhat annoyed, and you continue on with your story.

"So we get to the stadium, and we’re in the line to go through security…"

"Oh man! Did they stop you on your way in?" the friend once again interrupts.

At this point, you’d probably want to turn to your friend and say, “Would you just let me finish the story?” 

That friend is Peter. Throughout the Gospels, we see Peter, Jesus’ right hand man, arguably the person with whom he is closest in the world… constantly leaping impatiently ahead. It’s who Peter is. He’s excitable, he’s impetuous, he’s antsy. And a lot of times, that anxious energy is channeled to do great ministry. But sometimes, Jesus looks at him, and it is a small wonder that the evangelists do not record Jesus saying, “Peter, would you chill out?” 

"Let me finish the story," Jesus could almost be heard to be saying. Right in the middle of this incredible event, Peter is already trying to skip to the next step. The experience isn’t even over yet, and Peter’s already like, "This is so great! Let’s build tents to memorialize it!" (It would be like if you were on vacation in Miami with a group of your closest friends, and halfway through a week-long trip, your buddy is like, "This is so great! We should go back to the hotel and book our flights for NEXT YEAR’s trip!" Everyone wants to turn to Peter and go, "Dude… just relax and enjoy what’s happening RIGHT NOW!”

Peter, for the best of reasons, is eager to do do do. He struggles just to be. Just to be present and fully immerse himself in the experience happening all around him. He’s anxious to get to the future. And that eagerness to start planning for the future prevents him from wholly appreciating what’s happening in the now.

In some sense, we are all Peter at some point in our lives. (For some of us, it’s a daily experience.) We are eager to plan ahead. Eager to think about the future. Eager to do do do, rather than allow ourselves just to be. Jesus was revealing something unique and profound to Peter, and he was already planning in his head how he’d memorialize it. Jesus is constantly revealing things to us as well, but in our hurried rush to get to the next thing, we may be too busy to fully experience what’s happening now. 

As Americans, we are particularly forward-looking and action-oriented. From the time we are in high school and told we need to be taking AP classes, studying for the SATs, and thinking about where we’d like to go to college… which will help us get the job that we want… We are constantly looking ahead and planning what steps we will have to take. Rarely do we pause and just be… just enjoy being in the current state we find ourselves in and give ourselves over fully to the relationships and experiences that are all around us. In the coming weeks, when we find ourselves getting too caught up in the future, whether it is an exciting thing we are looking forward to, like prom or a wedding, or a stressful one we are dreading, like exams…  let us take a deep breath, look around us, and see where God is already at work in the now. Perhaps we could ask Peter for help. 

Daily Readings - http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/022313.cfm

For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?
Do not the tax collectors do the same?
And if you greet your brothers and sisters only,
what is unusual about that?
Do not the pagans do the same?

There is an adage that goes, “The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.”

Based on today’s Gospel, Jesus, undoubtedly, would agree. The passage is taken from Jesus’ sprawling Sermon on the Mount, in which the evangelist depicts him as laying out a whole way of living. He uses multiple rhetorical devices throughout, and here we see him setting up a contrast, “You have heard it said…” after which he cites a well-known commandment from the Scriptures, only to continue, “But I say to you…”

Many of the examples Jesus takes are from portions of the Mosaic law that were minimalistic requirements meant to prevent society from descending into chaos and conflict. “You have heard it said that you should strike your brother,” and he raises them to a whole other level… “But I say to you, that anyone who harbors anger in his heart has sinned.”

This “new way” of living out the Law is presented as a way not simply of “getting along” with people, but of actively cultivating right relationship and societal flourishing. And the exhortations bear as much pertinence today as they did 2,000 years ago. 

Imagine Jesus saying, “Be polite to those who are rude to you at the grocery store.” “Smile at those who give you nasty looks from across the room.” “Offer to give up your elliptical to the gym to the unpleasant woman who scowls and impatiently demands to know how much longer you will be.” 

In other words, do not simply “Not lash out at people,” but intentionally treat everyone you meet with kindness, patience, and generosity… especially the people who show the least of it to you. 

Taking a trip to Haiti to build houses following a hurricane, or serving sandwiches at a soup kitchen on a Saturday… these are the “easy” ways of being Christian. Not easy because they require little sacrifice (they require a great deal of sacrifice), but easy because they are glamorous. And obvious. It feels good to hand out food to homeless persons once a week, just like it feels good to help people rebuild following a disaster. And while these are important and commendable examples of living out our Gospel call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, etc. our faith as followers of Jesus extends far beyond these “big gestures.”

"The way to live," as articulated by Jesus here in the Sermon on the Mount seeps into all the myriad moments in between. It permeates every minute of our day, compelling us to exude joy and charity throughout every interaction, particularly those we find least enjoyable. The instances when we are sleep deprived, frustrated at work, in need of a vacation, and someone walks away from a treadmill at the gym having left it a gross mess and not having wiped it down. When someone takes the last cup of coffee in the office and doesn’t make a new pot. When a family member uses up all the ice cubes and puts the tray back with only one left. 

In these moments, we are challenged to “love our enemies,” and do good to those who annoy the heck out of us. 

Daily Readings - http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/022213.cfm

Do not lord it over those assigned to you,
but be examples to the flock.

The Feast of the Chair of St. Peter is a particularly appropriate observance given the events of the past two weeks. Pope Benedict XVI made the historic announcement that he would be resigning the Office of the Papacy, the first Pope to do so in over 600 years. 

In doing so, Benedict followed the exhortation from today’s First Reading, providing an example to the flock (as well as to the other shepherds). By relinquishing the duties of the Pope, Benedict has emphasized that the Chair of Peter is an Office, not an individual. He explicitly cited his inability—given his advancing age—to execute the duties entrusted to him as the successor of Peter, as the justification for his decision. The move represents a powerful and unmistakable act of humility by the Holy Father. He is saying to those entrusted to his care that it is about us, and not about him. He is living up to the honorific bestowed upon the Pope, “Servant of the Servants of God.” This is an act of true service leadership.

And it has repercussions well-beyond the Office of the Papacy. Benedict’s decision ought to resonate with each of us, insofar as we find ourselves entrusted with a particular task. All too often, we can make the mission about ourselves. We can come to place ego above outcome; accolade above efficacy. Benedict, by his witness, is reminding us, “It’s not about me.”

We who are professional ministers or leaders of organizations do very well to heed this example. We are invited to discern, every day, whether the decisions we make advance the cause of which we are a part, or advance our selves apart from it. Each of us is called to this sort of discernment, to attempt to determine where we are called to invest our time and talent, and where we are challenged to move on. 

Many of us can probably think of an example—be it a pastor, a coach, a teacher, a CEO, or some other leader—who did not recognize when it was “time to move on,” or did not see that his/her way of doing the job had become more about him/her as an individual, rather than about the mission itself. In circumstances in which we find ourselves struggling with whether or not to continue on, or to step aside, may we look to Benedict’s example of humility in relinquishing on of the most powerful Offices in the world, and pray to the Holy Spirit that we may be guided by that same humility in our own decision. 

Daily Readings - http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/022113.cfm

“Ask and it will be given to you;
seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you.
For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds;
and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” 

"So how come when I ask, I so rarely receive?"

The promise of today’s Gospel seems fairly straightforward: “ask and it will be given to you.” Not a lot of room for ambiguity there. And yet, in our own lives, how often do we ask God for something, only to, well… not receive it?It would seem as though there’s been some misleading advertising here. 

What’s telling is that Jesus then goes on to invoke the analogy of a parent being asked for a loaf of bread by the child, saying, of course you will give the child bread rather than a stone. But, as any parent knows, there are an awful lot of things that children ask for, that, to be frank, aren’t in their best interest. A child may ask to eat brownies every night instead of solid food. Or to stay up till midnight watching TV. Or to go days without showering and brushing teeth. 

Also worth noting is that Jesus says, “ask and you shall receive,” not, “ask and you shall receive exactly what you asked for.” And he says, “Knock, and the door will be opened,” but not, “Knock, and you will find precisely what you were expecting behind the door.” 

Sometimes, what we receive… what we find behind the door… is not what we asked for or were looking for, but what we need. We trust that our Heavenly Father knows what we need to flourish and will provide that for us, even if it is not what we would necessarily choose for ourselves. 

Let us pray today not only that we may receive; but that we may have the trust to accept what is given, even when it is not exactly what we had in mind. 

Daily Readings - http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/022013.cfm

R. A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.

The word “contrite” is not one we ordinarily hear outside of church. Catholics are familiar with contrition primarily through the Sacrament of Confession, in which they are required to recite an “Act of Contrition,” prior to receiving absolution. Altar servers and those in proximity to the presider at Mass may recognize that term from the preparation of the altar at the outset of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The words are actually lifted from today’s Psalm—the priest petitions that the gifts of bread and wine offered “with humble spirit and contrite hearts” may be found acceptable to God. He then proceeds to wash his hands, asking that he be washed of his iniquities and cleansed of his sins, that he might be made worthy to preside over the sacrifice at the altar. 

But beyond these limited circumstances, we are unlikely to use the word “contrite” or to express “contrition.” So what does it really mean?

Contrition is a powerful concept. Contrition means far more than sorrow or regret over a sin committed—it rather means an abject detestation for sin. Contrition entails a clear knowledge of precisely how heinous a sin is and an equally visceral loathing, in the pit of our being, of the sin for that reason. And although it may sound, at first, as though it is a very negative concept, it is, properly understood, the product of great love. But in order to understand it better, we need to unpack it a bit more. 

Let us take the fairly common contemporary example of prescription drug abuse. It may, upon initial consideration, seem like the matter of whether or not one decides to pop vicodin each night is a personal matter, affecting only the person who swallows the pill. But upon further reflection, of course, this is not a case. The teen who is getting high most likely causes great anguish in his/her parents, who suffer immensely to watch their beloved child damage his body in this way. Moreover, the drug abuse inevitably permeates into other areas of the person’s life, as was poignantly depicted in the hit television show House. Over the past decade, viewers have watched as this ostensibly personal struggle seeped into every corner of the main character’s life, causing great pain to nearly everyone he encountered throughout. In fact, one of the recurring themes of the show is the way in which House’s colleagues and friends attempt tirelessly to get him to understand the hurtful consequences of his selfish habits. 

At various points, House expresses some degree of regret over his decisions. In isolated moments, his regret even rises to the degree of an unmistakable, soul-shaking remorse at his actions. But more often than not, his primary reaction is one of irritation or false regret. He expresses remorse not because he “detests the sin,” but because he is annoyed that he has been caught, or because he fears the consequences. 

This latter example is what theologians refer to as “imperfect contrition,” i.e. sincere sorrow over what one has done… but motivated out of fear of punishment. Think of the example of the young child who has deliberately disobeyed his/her parents and regrets the decision not because s/he knows how wrong it was, but because s/he fears the punishment. Back to the teen popping vicodin, the imperfect contrition might be one in which the teen is authentically sorry… but primarily because of the negative consequences, not out of a hatred of the act itself. 

Perfect contrition, by contrast, is one motivated not by fear, but by love. Imagine that the teen walks in on his mother in tears, bellowing with anguish from the pain caused by watching her beloved child hurting himself so. The teen then realizes how hurtful the act of popping the pill is to someone he loves, and he begins to detest the act itself. Not because he is afraid he will get in trouble, but because he greatly loves his mother and would never want to cause her this sort of pain.

Returning to the example of House, there are moments of lucidity, in which the character (who struggles with this addiction, and addictions always complicate the concept of “sin” because they compromise one’s ability to choose freely) genuinely does see the pain he is causing those he cares about, and he temporarily feels what might be described as perfect contrition. 

Or at least the pre-requisite for it. Because in addition to sincere loathing of the sin itself, understanding how it damages those we love, one must also cultivate a firm resolve to eliminate that sin from one’s life, taking the necessary steps to do so. 

In every instance of sin, we recognize that, like the mother of the teenager, our Heavenly Father, God, is watching us with that same degree of deep and indescribable angst. Even the most seemingly of “individual” sins has relational repercussions, because the God who created us hurts beyond words to see us hurt. Therefore, expressing contrition ultimately means recognizing the extent to which we are loved by God, wanting desperately to be able to love God back in that way, and hating everything that impedes us from doing so. Perfect contrition, perfectly understood, means despising with every fiber of our being, everything that prevents us from being the happiest, most flourishing version of ourselves, because that is what, more than anything, our God who is love and made us in love, wants for us. 

Phew. Quite a bit more than just saying, “I’m sorry.”

Our challenge as persons of faith is not merely to express sorrow, but to feel authentic contrition. To, as the Psalmist implores the Lord, be washed completely clean of all those things that prevent us from being the person God made us to be. And to be imbued with the grace of the Spirit to choose in the future to express our love to God by loving ourselves and one another as God has loved us. 

Daily Readings - http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/021913.cfm

Jesus said to his disciples:
“In praying, do not babble like the pagans,
who think that they will be heard because of their many words.
Do not be like them.
Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

There is a great scene in the movie Meet the Parents, in which Ben Stiller’s character, Greg, is asked to offer grace at the house of his in-laws. Greg isn’t a particularly religious person, but he feels compelled to meet the expectations of his stern father-in-law, portrayed by Robert DeNiro, so he begins reciting bits and pieces of various religious-sounding quotes, stitching together a well-meaning if nonsensical string of platitudes and prayer-bites. 

We laugh, because, of course, it is a ridiculous and incoherent mess. But we laugh, too, because we can empathize with Greg’s condition on some level. We all want to meet the expectations that are put upon us, and sometimes we end up giving it our best, but still feeling totally inadequate afterwards. 

We sometimes even feel that way about prayer. 

In my ministry, I hear the refrain all the time: “I should really pray more.” 

"Oh?" I ask the person. "Why is that?" 

Almost invariably, the person seems confused and perhaps even annoyed. Isn’t it obvious? “Well because we’re supposed to pray,” or something to that effect, is the usual response. “Supposed to? Supposed to according to whom?” 

"Well, I dunno. The Church. God. We’re supposed to pray!"

But why? The idea that we ought to do something can only come from one of two sources—either internal or external. We may hear external pressure to get to the gym more or eat healthier, but we often begin to resent those external sources of pressure. It feels like nagging and judgment. It isn’t until we internalize that “ought,” that we begin to perceive the, “I should get to the gym more,” not as an oppressive burden imposed upon us from outside, but as a positive declaration emanating from within. I really do WANT to go to the gym more. 

The same is true of prayer. So long as the source of our motivation to pray is external—our parents, the teachers we had in CCD, the pastor chiding us from the pulpit—prayer will continue to be something we do to satisfy others. And to satisfy God. 

But what Jesus here calls us to is a radical re-orientation toward prayer. God doesn’t want us simply to multiply words to fulfill some felt sense of obligation. (What friend or spouse would want to talk on the phone each night with a person who was only doing it because s/he felt like s/he “should,” and therefore struggled to find things to say the whole time? Would we not rather be friends with someone, dating with someone, married to someone, whose voice we cannot wait to hear on the other end each night? Someone whom we cannot WAIT to share our day with?)

When you pray, Jesus tells us, don’t simply sit in church mindlessly repeating formulas because someone told you you were supposed to. As though being in church longer made it a holier act, or using more words made it a better prayer. Say what is on your heart. Be honest. Don’t just go through the motions!

None of us wants a friend or spouse who is just going through the motions of talking with us, so why on earth would God want us to go through the motions with God?!

And if we have nothing to say, perhaps we can begin by saying that! Two of my favorite quotes on prayer speak to this exact point: St. Paul writes, in the Letter to the Romans

In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.27And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because it intercedes for the holy ones according to God’s will.

Right there, from the earliest moments of the Church, we see an explicit example of what so many of us feel so very often! That we do not know how to pray as we ought. And yet, thank God, the success of our prayer does not depend on our form. (It’s like the opposite of Olympic Diving or the Gymnasts on the balance beam… technique matters not a bit, so long as we get up on the platform and give it our best… we earn a perfect 10 from God who judges only whether or not we are trying!)

More recently, the 20th Century monk Thomas Merton famously opined: “I believe that the desire to please you, does in fact, please you.” 

Too often, prayer becomes a source of anxiety for us. We sigh and give ourselves a hard time for not doing a better job with it. We lump it in with our New Years’ Resolutions, our fizzled diets, our forgotten birthdays, and all the other times in our life we fail to live up to expectations. But we see Jesus laying out the key components of a successful prayer, all of which have at their core honesty and authenticity. 

Our Father who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name,

Adoration and Humility: We begin our prayer by acknowledging that we are speaking to someone more powerful than ourselves. God who is good, and God who is all-powerful. 

thy Kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

Submission: We submit our will to the will of God, a radical and profound act of humility. We say to God, “Not my will, but thy will.” 

Give us this day our daily bread;

Supplication: “HELP! Give me what I need to get by!” Still continuing with the theme of humility, this is perhaps the part of the prayer that delights God most—when we acknowledge before God and our community, that we are NOT God. That we NEED God. That we are dependent upon God. If the source of all sin is pride, then the antidote is radical dependency on God, without whom we can do nothing.

and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us;

Contrition: We acknowledge our failings, and we beg forgiveness. Another radically counter-cultural thing to do. To admit we were wrong. Admitting we were wrong leaves us vulnerable… it permits the other person to use that against us. And yet, it is the only way we can rebuild relationships that have been damaged. To begin by saying, “I am sorry.” 

and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.

Supplication, Pt II: “Help (again)! It’s hard out there!” 

The components of a successful prayer, as outlined by Jesus, are acknowledging that God is God (and, thus, as logical corollary to that: we are most definitely NOT God); asking God for what we need; and apologizing for where we have failed to be the person God made us to be. (At other points, it is clear that giving thanks to God is the final key piece.) 

At no point in this instruction does Jesus mention the minimum length of the prayer, nor specify that it should be one style as opposed to another (Rosary, Liturgy of the Hours, Lectio Divina, Eucharistic Adoration, free-form caterwauling) and at no point does he indicate that we are to do this in order to satisfy God’s expectations. Rather, he emphasizes that prayer is meant for us, and that God wants us to authentically express what is on our hearts, which God already knows anyway. 

God is not sitting up in Heaven by the phone, staring at his watch and growing more irritated by the minute , waiting for us to fulfill our daily obligation to call. Rather, God hopes that, when we get that job we had been hoping for, we will call up and exclaim, out of pure joy, “I got it!” Or, conversely, that after we have had a horrible day, we will call up to vent and scream about the injustices at work or the agony of a broken heart. 

When you pray, Jesus could be paraphrased, “Do not tell your Heavenly Father what you think he wants to hear. Tell him what you want to say.”