Feb 112018


Mark 1:40-45

A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean.”  Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, “I do will it. Be made clean.”  The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.  Then, warning the him sternly, he dismissed him at once.  He said to him, “See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.”  The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter.  He spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.  He remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to him from everywhere. 


In reflecting on today’s Gospel lesson, I got to thinking about Lenten preparations and from that this question arose: “How many times do we sin in the midst of a blessing and not even know it?” Perhaps we’re like the leper in today’s Gospel lesson. Christ cured him of his leprosy and immediately afterward Jesus gave him two specific instructions: the first was to go to the local priest and get the healing verified according to the OT law, and then the second was “don’t tell anybody.”

There’s no indication that he went to the priest and he certainly didn’t keep his mouth shut. The text tells us that the man went away and began to tell everyone he met about the whole matter. The cured man lapsed into sin in the midst of his blessing.

I think it may be more common than we think. Like the cured leper, we may be euphoric over some really Good News: perhaps there’s been a wonderful promotion, perhaps one of the kids got a full ride to the college of her choice, perhaps there’s been a supernatural healing and the joy knows no bounds. But in response we did something that displeases God. We may have imbibed way too much in our favorite adult beverage. In our joy we may have crossed the line in showing affection to someone of the opposite sex who wasn’t our spouse.

Or perhaps we betrayed a confidence, shared a story that wasn’t ours to tell.  Remember Jesus told the healed leper “mums the word” but he wouldn’t do as he was told; he relayed something he was forbidden to share; he couldn’t or wouldn’t properly channel the exuberance. There are so many reasons which require confession and reconciliation.

Sometimes we disobey because we forget or are overwhelmed by the moment.  I suspect this was the case of this healed Leper. Other times we succumb to a long time temptation, a chronic sin, regularly it concerns one of the three “Ls”: lust, loathing or lucre (sex, hatred, money). They are the stuff of big time sins.

Other times we disobey and offend God because we demand to know why we should be faithful and if the reason doesn’t measure up to our satisfaction, then we say “I’m not doing that. If this instruction can’t be defended to my satisfaction, then I’m not even going to bother to try to be obedient.” That’s often the case with those who use artificial birth control or who opt not to follow rules on fasting or almsgiving.

As you know, hubris, pride, is the foundation of all sin and the basis of hubris is the desire to be in control and to avoid submission to God in all things.  In some things most asuredly, but certainly not all things.  Most of us want to pick and choose. We think or say ‘’Jesus you can be the Lord of my life, except in these specific areas,  I’m keeping control here.”

I’m reminded once again of the old story told about Russian Czar Ivan the Great and 500 of his soldiers. They were to be baptized, but they had some reservations; after much pondering and discussion each man agreed to be baptized, but as he was immersed, he held his sword hand out of the water making it clear that “My sword and my fighting hand will not submit to the Lord Jesus. I get to choose how I engage in battle.”

This story of the unbaptized sword hand is a wonderful illustration of how folks pick and choose to be obedient. Figuratively speaking, if this story were to be re-told about us modern Catholics, what would the illustration be? What would we be holding up out of the waters of baptism? Would we be holding up our wallets, our checkbooks? How about our watches? We offer God our spare time, if and only when we don’t need to dedicate ourselves to more important matters. How about our will, our pride, our sexuality? There are a lot of things that we do and have which we will not submit to God. Let’s ponder some of those things.

How about our unreadiness to forgive or to let go of old grudges? How about our hesitation to be generous, our laziness in taking initiative to help when our aid is sought? How about our social pretensions or our hopes of recognition by people we long to impress and with whom we want to associate? What of our hopes of claiming status for our families and ourselves? Our snobberies and our judgments in careless talk and gossip? Our reverse snobbery in our snide and cutting comments about the affluent and successful? How about our choice to dwell in the past and to be unwilling to come to terms with lesser realities and more current sober circumstances?

How about our tendency to savor and to keep at the ready all that resentful criticism and self-justification? And then there are our secret betrayals and disloyalties to those we love and to those to whom our loyalties are owed. The list is legion.

One of the more common manifestations of sin is a hardened heart, manifesting a lack of compassion and kindness. There is the calloused heart that is the particular sin of people who are competent, those who are efficient and proficient and skilled, they are the ones who get things done. But as a result they often are the ones who get really impatient and critical of those who are less competent, who are not very efficient, who are not proficient and lack skill. It is easy, even common, for those who are blessed with competence to get annoyed with those who are not as gifted. Those with calloused hearts get very disparaging of those who are less capable. Kindness is put aside and impatience is linked with condescension. Those with calloused hearts often detest people who don’t follow through or are perceived as being lazy, confusing behavior with a person’s basic worth. In some cases, folks with calloused hearts become apathetic to the plight of those in need and I would remind you that apathy, not hate, is the opposite of love.

Another frequent manifestation of a hardened heart is the scarred heart. It’s the heart of those who have been wounded by some mal-treatment, perhaps by the abuse of a parent or an adult in authority, perhaps by someone to whom you’ve given your heart and they have scorned or abandoned you and these wounded hearts have become hardened with scar tissue. As a result, there is a strong desire to avoid pain: emotional, psychological and spiritual pain especially, so there is a stuffing of compassion and kindness. If you have a scarred heart, you are not going to make yourself vulnerable.

Those with severely scarred hearts will shut down or lash out irrationally because of the old wound and vulnerable people, children in particular, will be the recipients of neglect or rage and if the wounds of the heart have been severe, then the rage will be savage as it is inflicted on little ones. It’s a prime reason for child abuse in families and both men and women are subject to this.

To soften a hardened heart, whether due to callous or scar tissue, takes prayer and perhaps psychological counseling and of course the grace of the sacrament of reconciliation. If your heart is hardened, I regularly recommend envisioning our Blessed Mother coming to you and with her strong, dexterous fingers, massaging the callous or scar and breaking it up. It may be painful, but the heart does become softened.

It’s important to know why the heart is hard, so then the reason can be addressed and healing can take please. And of course there must be the desire to have the heart be softened so that love and kindness and grace can flow out of it.

I bring all this up now because this coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and Lent is upon us. It’s time to address our sins and to bring them before the throne of Grace for forgiveness and healing and reconciliation.

In closing, I’d like to share with you this prayer for Lent by the onetime Dean of York Cathedral in England, The Very Rev. Eric Milner-White:

Lord, bless me this Lent.

Lord, let me first most truly and profitably,

By feeding in prayer on the Spirit—

Reveal me to myself

In the light of thy holiness.

Suffer me never to think that I have

Knowledge enough to need no teaching,

Wisdom enough to need no correction,

Talents enough to need no grace,

Goodness enough to need no progress,

Humility enough to need no repentance,

Devotion enough to need no quickening,

Strength sufficient without thy spirit;

Lest, standing still, I fall back for evermore.

Show me the desires that should be disciplined,

And sloths to be slain.

Show me the omissions to be made up

And the habits to be mended.

And behind these,

Weaken, humble and annihilate in me

Self-will, self-righteousness, self satisfaction,

Self-sufficiency, self-assertion, vainglory.

May my whole effort be to return to thee;

O make it serious and sincere,

Persevering and fruitful in result,

By the help of thy Holy Spirit,

And to thy glory,

My Lord and my God.





Feb 062018


Last week we reflected on Jesus’ first public exorcism. In today’s passage from Mark we read that immediately after that exorcism, Jesus goes to the home of Simon Peter and ministers to his, Simon Peter’s, mother-in-law. It’s rather curious why this particular passage should be here and in the other Synoptic Gospels, Matthew and Luke, other than to make the point that Simon Peter was married. This is interesting to explore. We know from a comment that St. Paul made in I Corinthians 9 that Simon Peter was not a widower, that he actually took his wife with him when he went on his Apostolic travels.

As we unpack this, we see a tension developing in the early Church about celibacy; something that is playing out this very day. One might say it was the “St. Peter Camp” vs. the “St. Paul Camp.” We know that St. Peter and at least some of the other Apostles were married and St. Paul was not and as we read in last week’s epistle lesson from I Cor. 7, he, Paul, thought no Christian should be married at all. But ironically he defended his right to have a spouse. He writes in I Cor. 9:5—“Do [I] not have the right to be accompanied by a wife, as the other Apostles and…Cephas?” –another name for Simon Peter.

Because St. Paul thought that Jesus would return at any second, he taught that every Christian should be celibate, especially those in positions of ministerial leadership because marriage and family distracted from being fully prepared for Christ’s return. But he did acknowledge that this was his own opinion and not a direct teaching from God.

The issue of celibacy was as contentious as the purpose and place of circumcision in the NT Church. Over the years other Apostolic Churches, including Orthodox and most Eastern Rite Catholic Churches who are in communion with the Pope, by the way there are some 23 of these fully Catholic Churches and most of them do allow married priests. Along with the Orthodox, these Churches have agreed that Bishops must be celibate but priests and deacons may be married prior to their ordination. But if the wife dies, the priest or deacon may not remarry.

Celibacy, of course, is the official position of the Latin or Roman or Western Rite Church to which we belong. Married clergy like me from other traditions are allowed to be priests as a special favor by the Holy Father in a case by case basis; our presence is not meant to challenge the status quo. Like those in Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic Churches, we may not be bishops and we may not remarry if our spouses die. I think I’m the only priest in the Archdiocese of Oregon who was personally “signed off” on by Pope Benedict XVI.

This brings up all kinds of questions. So I turn now to a little article written by Barbara Anne Cusak, Canon Lawyer and Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

She writes that: Celibacy is a discipline of the Catholic Church practiced universally in the West. [It is not a doctrine.] Although it is highly valued, Pope Paul VI stated that celibacy “is not, of course, required by the nature of the priesthood itself. This is clear from the practice of the early church and the traditions of the Eastern rite churches.”

Mrs. Cusak continues: Much has been said about practical reasons for celibacy, such as giving the parish priest more time to dedicate to the children of God, etc. When all is said and done, however, we must understand it as a powerful sign of the presence of the kingdom of God. It is not essential to the priesthood, but it is a radical witness to the reign of Christ in the world. In the West the church eventually adopted the practice of celibacy as a universal discipline. The East, however, never didThis historical situation opened the doors to the possibility of a married clergy in the West under certain circumstances—most notably for those whose lifelong traditions allow for a married clergy. This includes certain Protestant traditions.

Continuing on, Mrs. Cusak wrote: In his 1967 encyclical, “Of the Celibacy of the Priest,” Pope Paul VI called for a study of the circumstances of married ministers of churches or other Christian communities separated from the Catholic Church and of the possibility of admitting those who desire full communion to the Catholic priesthood and to continue to exercise ministry. Pope Pius XII had already granted special permission for some married Lutheran clergy to be ordained to the Catholic priesthood shortly after the Second World War.

In a 1980 statement, Pope [Saint] John Paul II allowed an exception for married Episcopal clergy who wanted to become Catholic priests. As an aside, I am one of these guys. For almost 24 years I was the Rector (or Pastor) of the Episcopal Church up River Road. Several of you will remember the vacation Church schools we cooperated on during several summers back in the 1980s.

Moving on: Some may wonder if there will be a change of position on the ordination of married men becoming priests. Chancellor Cusak responds: The ordination of a married man remains an exception and one that is granted only in very specific cases involving men who had already been called to ministry in another church or Christian denomination and later came into full communion in the Catholic Church.

There are about 200 married Western Rite Catholic priests in the US at this time, including a group of organized formerly Anglican or Episcopalian parishes called the Ordinariate, it’s like a diocese without geographic boundaries. They make use of a modified Anglican liturgy and they have a bishop and a formal structural hierarchy. They function like the gathering of Catholics in the Armed Forces, who also have their own bishop and a diocesan structure. The rest of the clergy are like me, married men who were ordained and became diocesan priests.

So, how does the Church make sure that these men coming from other traditions will truly teach the Catholic Faith? Well, I’ll tell you it takes a lot of training. It was a really challenging experience for me to go back to school at age 60. I had to spend an academic year up at Mt. Angel and I had to pass exams in Ascetical Theology, Canon Law, Church History, Dogmatic Theology, Liturgical and Sacramental Theology, Moral Theology, and Sacred Scripture.

It was rather grueling, eventually taking two days to write out the supervised qualification exam and then I had to fly back to Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University in New Jersey to pass the oral exams. I will always be grateful to Fr. Tom Yurchak, pastor of St. Jude parish in the south hills who walked me through the process. He put in a lot of time and effort.

Formally, the diocesan bishop is required to present the case to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican. A dossier of at least 13 required documents is submitted, including a petition for a dispensation from the impediment of marriage that stands in the way of the ordination. The actual dispensation can only be granted by the pope. That’s when Pope Benedict signed off on me.

One can ask: does this mean that the Catholic Church will now allow priests to marry or that priests who left ministry to marry will be able to return?

The answer is: no. Chancellor Cusak writes that: There is historical evidence and contemporary practice that demonstrates that married men may be ordained. However, there is no tradition in the Church of allowing someone to marry after ordination. These priests who left the priesthood to get married, have lost the opportunity to be reinstated. The rule is married first, and then ordained, with special permission from the Pope. One can’t be ordained and then married.

I hope this is helpful information. Our Gospel lesson for today clearly shows that St. Peter was married and the Epistle lesson from last week shows that St. Paul was not and believed that no Christian should be married. I don’t see the issue of married clergy being resolved in my lifetime and probably not yours either.