Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Tide is Turning, the Time is Now!

Times and things are certainly changing in the Roman Catholic Church. As an outsider looking in, I feel a sense of exuberance, of excitement, of hope. Pope Francis, the Bishop of Rome and spiritual leader of the world’s more than 1.2 billion Catholics, has captured the respect and admiration of not only the members of his own Church, but of people of other religions, people like myself, and of people of no religion, who are searching for a glimmer of hope in a world which has a tendency, more often than not, to be cold and indifferent, greedy and selfish.
In the nine months since Pope Francis ascended the throne of Peter, the Bishop of Rome is proving himself to be a true spiritual leader by showing us all, clergy and laity alike, what it means to be a REAL pastor and a REAL Christian. He has become for millions around the world, a laudable model of a good shepherd and spiritual father, something all of us bishops and priests should want to be and strive to be. He does not teach or lead by negatives but rather by giving us living and tangible examples of love, compassion and mercy. He leads and teaches by example, not just by words.
The Pope does not wear Christianity merely as an identification tag on his lapel. On the contrary, he lives Christianity to the fullest, and in doing so he is changing not only the face of the Catholic Church but its very soul.
Political pundits and the media try their best to interpret the Pope’s messages and words in ways that best serve their own personal agendas. Some paint him as a conservative; others as a flaming liberal. And there are others who say he is walking the moderate line. In my humble opinion, I believe that Pope Francis is none of the aforementioned…not a conservative or a liberal. I don’t even think he is middle-of-the-road. I think the Pope is just Christ-centered. He looks to and draws from Christ all that is necessary for a good, healthy and productive life. This is something that politicians and the media don’t understand. Neither do those who coin themselves “conservatives” or “liberals.” None of these people get it…they just don’t get the Pope. What they fail to see is that the Pope is doing and saying nothing more than what Christ expects of all of us and that is to LIVE the Gospel and not just proclaim it and preach it. And the understanding of the Gospel that Pope Francis so joyfully proclaims and lives is the Gospel that the Church has preserved inviolate and unadulterated for more than 2,000 years.
The Gospel message is a very simple one. Christ made it very clear what we are to do to make the world what God intended it to be, to ensure that we preserve in every respect the image of God in which all men and women were created, and what is needed for salvation and true happiness, both in this world and in the next.
Mankind throughout the centuries has tried so hard to understand the message and meaning of the Gospel that we have actually lost sight of the message itself. Rather than listening to what Christ actually said, we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to analyze His words and His intent. In critical studies of the Gospel, we often assume Christ said this or meant that when in actuality, Jesus’ words and their meanings are very clear. They don’t need to be analyzed…they merely need to be heard, received, accepted and lived. This is what Pope Francis is trying to get us to understand, that we must simply listen to what the Lord is saying and follow His example. We have over-complicated the Lord’s message and in many ways have made it a burden when, in fact, it is a source of great joy, comfort and hope.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the best blueprint for living, for world peace, and for prosperity that any corporate executive, diplomat or politician could ever come up with. If it is understood and accepted in the spirit in which it was written then the world’s leaders would be in a better position to sit at the same table and hammer out realistic and workable solutions to the world’s problems.
Pope Francis wants people to understand that real power and authority and real compassion and mercy come only from God. Human beings are corrupted and fragile, but God is perfect. Man’s love is often conditional whereas God’s love for mankind is totally unconditional. When we put ourselves totally at the service of God, then what we do and how we behave are going to be completely different than if we were to ignore God and go our own way. When our lives are solidly set in Christ, then our way of thinking and what we say and how we say it will also be completely different. This is what is happening in the case of Pope Francis. It is why people are listening to him. The Pope is speaking solely from the heart of Christ. That is something that hasn’t happened in the Church for a long time.
Pope Francis knows that for too long the real face and soul of the Church have been, for centuries, suppressed by the pursuit of earthly power by men in positions of authority in the Church. Popes, patriarchs and bishops often abused their power in the name of God. Though there were some very pious and holy leaders in the Church throughout the centuries, there were many more who were ambitious, arrogant and ego-centric, men who were more intent upon building a powerful earthly institution that served them rather than a holy nation that served Christ and His people through them.
The real power of the Church is to be found in its faithful obedience to and the living out of the teachings of Jesus Christ. These teachings, which contain within themselves the promises of true happiness and salvation, are based upon the virtues of compassion and mercy, the two most important identifying characteristics of the Christian faith.
The Church is the Bride of Christ, the Body of Christ and the Kingdom of God on earth. These descriptions are not mere pious or romantic appellations, but the descriptions of a divine reality, a reality that soars beyond our limited human understanding.  From what I can see, Pope Francis seems to be focusing more on presenting the Church to the world as the Body of Christ rather than a business or corporation. He wants us all to rediscover, and thus understand, what the role of the Church is in this world and in the civil societies with which it co-exists. In other words, He is trying to get the message across that the Church is of Christ God and not merely a human institution.
When we see the Church merely as a human institution, we run the risk of removing Christ from the equation, of separating the Church from God and making it just a creation of man. But the Church is not a creation of man. It was founded by God Himself, in the person of Jesus Christ. Thus, the Church is, by its very nature, the Kingdom of God on earth. It exists both in this world and in heaven.
In order that the Church may function in this material world as an organized society of believers, it has taken unto itself man-made forms of structure and administration that it may operate efficiently and in ways that are understandable to the human experience. Sadly however, this human or man-made institution, rather than being known as a vessel of grace and sanctification, has become known more for its earthly power and wealth, its coldness and reserve, its rigidity and inflexibility. This is not what Christ intended His Church to be and this is what Pope Francis is trying to change.
In the ten months since the election of Pope Francis, we have seen a transforming spirit of joy come into the Church. One can feel a softer more welcoming attitude; an arms-open welcome and smile of a loving father instead of a sour-faced and arms-folded across the chest intimidating guard at the door. That is not to say the Pope has thrown out the teachings of the Church, but he has softened the tone in which those teachings are conveyed to the faithful. One can sense that the Church still stands firm in her teachings, but that firmness is now accompanied by open and genuine expressions of love and gentleness, of compassion and mercy. Yes, there is joy in the Church once again. People are once again proud of being members of the Church.  Many are rediscovering their faith, which may have been misplaced or even given up because they believed the Church broke trust with or betrayed them.
For many years, the Church has been very proficient in saying “No.” Very rarely did it ever say “Yes” to the faithful or even acknowledge them. But now the tide has changed. Pope Francis is intent on listening and is adamant that the Church will truly be the living Body of Christ, and not some museum piece or historical relic that has no real relationship to the world in which it lives. And that’s what we need to understand, that the Church LIVES and does not merely exist. The Church is a living organism, not the creation of any human power or government. It is given life by Christ and is imbued with the transfiguring grace of the Holy Spirit, the very spirit of God.
Yes, the tide is turning. We are seeing the Holy Spirit work in wondrous ways in the Church. The Spirit does not seem to be impeded anymore by human agendas or egos but is now free to work where He will in ways which we have yet to see unfold in their fullness. There is a sense of joyful expectation in the Church, of a rediscovered awareness of identity and purpose. The Church is once again becoming a family and not so much a communion of disjointed communities. That is not to say that everything is good and perfect, for it is not. We do have a long way to go, but now, with Pope Francis at the helm, and together with like-minded bishops with him, we now have hope that things can be a lot better than they were and that the Church can again be the spiritual and moral voice it once was.
Pope Francis truly speaks with the heart of Christ and with the Gospel firmly clenched to his heart. He is a leader not only of the world’s Roman Catholics, but of all people of good will. He is a fine example of what a bishop, priest and pastor should be. Certainly, we cannot discount the contributions and holiness of Pope Francis’ two immediate predecessors, Pope Benedict XVI and Blessed Pope John Paul II the Great. Each of these men contributed much to the Church during their reigns, but they were more intellectuals and theologians than they were pastors. Pope Francis brings to the Universal Church a different approach, that of a joy-filled servant. It is that image which we must embrace and encourage, especially among our young people. It is that image which gives new meaning and value to the priesthood, diaconate and religious life. Now is the time for parents to encourage their children to explore and discern a vocation of a life of service to the Church, either as priests, deacons, monks or nuns. Our young people can be part of a formidable force for change in the world by becoming part of a community which is rediscovering its role in the world.
Pope Francis has rolled up his shirt sleeves and is taking great pains to clean up what was once a beautiful house of the weeds and garbage that have accumulated over the years and which have created a sometimes ugly and unsafe environment for the people of God to live in. His renovations to the House of God are not just cosmetic but deliberate and structural. He is not just giving the Church a face-lift but making sure that every stone is solidly placed and secure with the mortar of the Word of God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
With a sense of holy conviction and determination our young people can be part of this rebuilding. By becoming priests, deacons, monks and nuns they can revitalize and reinvigorate the Church. By using time honored methods and by finding new ways to bring the Gospel message to all God’s people everywhere, they can be a part of making the world a better place and building up the Kingdom of God on earth.
There is room in the Church for many different expressions of the one Eternal Truth. We cannot let ourselves be drawn into the temptation of labeling this thing or that thing in the Church. We cannot label each other as “liberals” or “conservatives” or as “traditionalists” or “progressives.” We must work hard to rid the Church of this kind of behavior, especially when it comes to the observance and practice of liturgical rites. Sadly, liturgical preferences have become a significant source of division in the Church everywhere.
There is great beauty in every liturgical service celebrated in the Church. Truly, beauty is to be found in the simplicity of the “Novus Ordo” of the Roman Rite as much as it is to be found in Rite’s so-called “Extraordinary Form.” It is found in contemporary hymns as much as it is found in the time-honored and loved traditional hymns of the Western Church. It is found in the magnificent Byzantine liturgies of the Greek and Slavic Churches as much as it is found in the divine worship of the Coptic, Ethiopian and other Oriental Churches. The point is, when it comes to worship preferences, there is an abundance of different styles and forms of worship which all accomplish the same thing, the worship and praise of Almighty God through Jesus Christ, and which can satisfy the spiritual needs of every believer.
We should not criticize or ostracize our brothers and sisters who prefer a simpler, quieter worship service as opposed to Masses composed by Mozart, Verdi and the other great composers. We should not criticize or ostracize those who prefer the Extraordinary Form of the Mass over the Ordinary Form. We should not look upon those who worship according to the Byzantine tradition as being outside or not part of the Universal Church. The very catholicity of the Church is manifested by the myriad ways we worship God. There does not need to be in the Church a single unified form or rite by which we worship God. The only universal criteria that should be required is that whatever form of worship is used by and in the Local Churches includes the basics: lessons from scripture, the proclamation of the Word, exegesis and catechetical teaching, and the giving and reception of the Holy Eucharist. In this regard, it is one of the Pope’s roles, together with the bishops throughout the world, to ensure that the basic norms are observed and adhered to by all the particular Local Churches throughout the world.
It makes no difference if the Mass or Divine Liturgy is celebrated with cultural nuances, so long as those customs do not denigrate from the divine realities revealed to us and the faith which we profess as the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Divine worship, especially the Mass or Divine Liturgy, should naturally adapt itself to the cultures in which the worship takes place. For example, the Roman Rite Mass celebrated in the particular Church of Africa has within it elements of African culture such as music, dancing, drums, costumes, etc. It is a very joyful and vibrant celebration of the Mass. The same can be said of the Byzantine Liturgy celebrated in this area as well.
From its very beginnings, the Church has taken elements of the societies and cultures in which it finds itself and has sanctified them and made them part of its life. It has also taken practices which at one time were considered pagan or secular and made them its own, using them as tools to better explain the divine realities and eternal Truth.
We should not be exclusionary or closed-minded in our view of liturgical practices or customs. When the externals and rituals become more important than the One being worshipped and praised, then we have a problem. I think it is this kind of mentality that Pope Francis rails against. When it gets to a point that people within the Church become so preoccupied almost to the point of fanaticism with let’s say the celebration of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, then it is time for some correction and re-education. We have the same problem in the Orthodox Church. There are many people who have just become so fanatical about such things as what calendar should be used to determine the dates of feasts and other liturgical observances, whether or not a priest should have a beard or cut his hair, whether to use leaven or unleavened bread in the celebration of the Eucharist, etc., that they don’t care about things like feeding the hungry, visiting and caring for the sick, clothing the naked, etc.
Pope Francis is telling everyone in his Church it is time to focus on living the Gospel. It is a message that applies to all of us as well. Rules and regulations have their place and purpose in the Church, but they are not the be all and end all of the Church’s life. The Church is much more than just a system of rules and disciplines. It is also the Body of Christ, the fountain of His love, mercy and compassion to which all are invited and welcome to draw from. The Church is here to give God’s love, mercy and compassion to all people, regardless of their status and position in life and society. In God’s unending love, mercy and compassion is great joy and hope.
The Church is the vessel by which God delivers His love, mercy and compassion to His people, therefore the Church must be open and available to all who wish to receive the gifts the Lord desires to freely give to those who seek Him. Pope Francis is showing the world that the Church is more than anything else, the City of God and he is intent on doing what is necessary to make it once again a safe haven and spiritual paradise for God’s people here on earth.
Yes, the tide is turning and the time is now to become part of a great adventure which can result in many good things for the people of God. Don’t stand on the sidelines, get involved. Tell your parish priest and your bishop today that you want to be a part of rebuilding the City of God.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Exquisite Love of God

God, from the first moment of man’s creation, through the mouths of His prophets throughout the centuries, and through His holy Church has said to mankind, “If you love Me, follow Me with all your heart and I will love you in ways that defy description and all human understanding and that will bring you inexplicable joy; and I will shower you with many blessings.”
St. Philemon of Agrigento, a solitary who lived in the 3rd century, once said to one of his spiritual children, “Those who truly love God will have a deep love for their brothers and sisters and in that love, their love for God will ever increase.”
Such is the intensity of God’s love. It has an expansive and explosive character. It is volatile; not in a bad way, but in a way that enlivens and renews and transforms everyone it touches. It is a love which sweeps us away and wraps us in ecstasy. When we are caught up in the exquisite love of God, our life experience is unlike anything we could ever dream of or hope for.
When we experience the exquisite love of God we become a true believer in Him. In turn, our love for God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, becomes greater and more precious than all the riches and wealth the material world can offer.
Loving is the mark of a real and true Christian. It is a noble state given by God to humankind as a participation in His very essence. God has told us about His love, has invited us to participate in His love, through His Son, Jesus Christ. In Jesus we experience the exquisite love of God in real and tangible ways.
A person who loves God loves Christ, loves his family and friends, and loves his fellow man, but he loves them for and through his love for God. The human being who knows the true value of loving God and His Son crosses the boundaries of a limited human existence and enters a realm that transcends all human understanding and defies the limited knowledge of human reasoning. A person who loves God fights the limitations of this world and sweeps aside the desire and love for material possessions, finding gratification in serving Him and obeying the teachings of His Son, Jesus Christ.
If, in your life, the money you have in the bank, the house in which you live or the car that you drive are more important to you, to your spouse, to your children and to your friends are dearer to you than God Himself or the striving in His cause, then what shall it be like for you on that fearful day of judgment? Shall you convict yourself against what has been given to us in the Gospel as the acceptable way of living? God does not coerce a faithless and rebellious people but invites them in love and mercy to submit to His will so that they can participate in His exquisite love and be truly happy and free.
The state of living in God’s exquisite love, were it be to be compared to living in a state of indifference, which makes us slaves to earthly things, transforms a human being into a zealous fighter for God. Proclaiming ourselves as Christians means that we have entered into an intimate relationship with Christ, God become flesh, becoming in Him and through Him warriors fighting for the ultimate good. Our life as a Christian is a test, a test in which every man and woman who professes to be a disciple of Christ confirms his or her non-attachment to the things of this world and seeks rather a most powerful loving relationship with the Creator, through Jesus Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of the world. The exquisite love of God is not only an emotional and mental state, it is a physical and spiritual state that is manifested by deeds.
When it comes to love, there are two kinds of lovers – those who are believers and are attached to God through Jesus Christ and those who have taken the world as what they love, becoming slaves to the evil one and his rule over the material world. Those who have taken the world as their lover instead of God will never find true happiness, fulfillment or satisfaction. But those who love and serve the Lord, who overflow in their love for God, will find riches beyond measure and life in abundance in service of the Lord.
The exquisite love of God draws us into an experience that opens our eyes, our hearts, and our minds to the things and experiences which are not possible to those who do not love God, who have no faith, or even a lukewarm faith. One who is truly in love is one who has a deep longing for his or her beloved. One who is in love with God longs for the Beloved who Himself is true Love. God, through Christ, calls us to be one with Him: “Come, all who love Me! Follow Me and I will love You beyond all measure.”
One of the most visible signs of loving God is an intense love of the Gospel. The sign of loving the Gospel is loving and obeying Christ. The sign of loving Christ is loving and serving one’s fellow man. The sign of loving one’s fellow man is forsaking the things of this material world. And the sign of forsaking the material world is taking from it only what is needed for survival.
When we experience the exquisite love of God we become one with Him. When that kind of relationship exists between us and God, God becomes the ears we hear with, the eyes we see through, the hands we work with, and the feet we walk with. This all happens through the person of Jesus Christ, who enters into us in the Eucharist, filling us with Himself, the divine essence which purifies our souls and bodies and lifts us up from our human weakness.
When we are in that love relationship with God, we are swept up in an experience which transcends all human understanding. In this most sublime of relationships if we ask for something, it is granted to us. If we ask for refuge and help, it is lovingly given to us. If we beseech mercy and forgiveness, it is freely and abundantly poured out upon us like soothing and fragrant oil.
God loves the person who strives to be holy, who seeks after Him with his or her whole heart. He showers with His love those who yearn and long for Him. He turns His face toward them and extends His hand, drawing them to Himself and into the warmth of His presence. Once they submit themselves to the will of God, His love fills them and shines through them and all their deeds and works satisfy God and glorify Him. The love of God causes them to obey Him, keeping them away from all that would separate them from Him. The lover and the beloved become one. The one in love with God tastes a sweetness and joy unknown to those who have shunned God or who are lukewarm in their faith.
The fruits of the exquisite love of God are given only to true and faithful believers. The condition of this state of love is purity of affection and desire with constant remembrance of the Most Holy Trinity. For when you love something, you constantly remember it, and when you love someone, you constantly think about him or her. True love means to bear the object of that love in your heart always. With regard to a love relationship with God, it means to be persistent in the remembrance of the Lord and finding the sweetness of secret conversations with Him, being always in a constant state of praise, thanksgiving and gratefulness.
Experiencing the exquisite love of God means seeing the richness of the heart of God; it means seeing and embracing His Exaltedness, His Majesty, His Knowing and His Omnipotence. This is the experience of the righteous, the repentant, and the obedient.
Blessedness comes to those who have drunk from the cup of God’s love and who have eaten of the Bread of Life. The sweetness of God’s love fills the heart and refreshes the soul, sweeping the one who loves God away on the wings of ecstasy to a state of complete communion with Him. The exquisite love of God washes the senses and purifies the soul until everything of man is in God and from God. This is the case of the true lover of God. Love is only complete when the lover sees only the beloved and no one else.
God says to us, “I have made you for Myself.” We are destined to be His, to be with Him for eternity. All we have to do is accept His invitation to become the lover of God. True love of God is exaltation, proclaiming without hesitation and always our love for Him and His love for us.
May we always seek to be partakers and recipients of the exquisite love of God and become true lovers of Him who loves us unconditionally and whose love makes us burn with longing for things divine and eternal.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

And Now You Want me to Pray!

Shortly after my ordination to the priesthood back in 1997, the bishop who ordained me told me a story about a newly ordained priest who preached during Divine Liturgy about the absolute necessity of prayer.  His sermon was emphatic and emotionally charged. He told the members of his congregation there were no choices, no excuses...we must all pray incessantly!  After Divine Liturgy, a parishioner approached him and very earnestly protested that her life was too busy and that there was absolutely no way she had time to pray.
Your family doctor tells you that you must eat better or start exercising.  Your dentist instructs you to take more time brushing.  Your accountant recommends that you spend more time looking after your finances.  The lady on the television says that your child’s lunch sandwich should be cut into interesting shapes and kind notes written with the mustard.  You want to spend more time with your family and really, the house is a mess.

And now your priest says that you must pray.
Well . . . yes. That's his job. To remind you of the things that are important for the well-being of your soul and of your relationship with God. Prayer SHOULD be a regular part of your, well, of OUR lives (I don't excuse or exempt myself from this advice).

But not all prayer has to be hour long stints (as good as that might be) or on your knees (as helpful as that might be) or in a quiet room (as conducive as that might be) or very formal (as much as that might be an aid.)  Intense and meaningful prayer can be a few simple sincere words. So, yes...we should pray every day and with great fervor.
But you still say you have no time. Well then, here's my advice to you: rob, steal, and cheat as often as you must to get some prayers in.  Be creative. Recycle time.  Standing in line at the grocery store or at the bank or at the DMV may not be a very conducive place to pray, especially now that we have televisions and all sorts of technology assaulting us and blaring at us, but you can say the Jesus Prayer, or one Our Father or Hail Mary, or even, “Thank you God for the bounty in my life.”  That's what I mean by rob, steal and cheat...take the time away from the worldly things to address the other worldly and more important eternal things...the really meaningful and life-changing things.

When you are in love, it is absolutely great to have the evening or the day to spend with the person of your dreams.  But when that is impossible how reassuring it is – how much it makes your day to receive a text, “Just thinking of you.”  “Love you.”  “Can’t wait to see you.”  Don't you think God would be satisfied with a "tweet" rather than nothing at all?  Of course He wants to hear from you.  If you cannot say a rosary or an akathist, send a hello.
Waiting for the computer to warm up, pouring the coffee, alone in the bathroom or shower, turning off the commercials on the radio while driving, walking through the doorway into a tough (or not so tough) meeting, standing at the pump at the gas station, while taking the trash out – any of these are an opportunity to send a text message to God.
We always seem to be too busy for God but God is never too busy for us. On the contrary, He always makes time for us, and is available for us 24/7, 365 days a year. We shouldn't look to God only in times o0f difficulty and trouble. We should turn to Him every day. A glance in His direction with a smile goes a long way in letting Him know that we love Him, are thinking about Him, and are happy He is a part of our lives.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Why Me, God?

When troubles, heartache and bad things happen to us, we often ask, “Why me God?” or “Why is God punishing me?” These are very tough questions to ask and the answer to them is even harder for us to accept and bear.
The past month has certainly been a difficult and trying one for me, for Phil, and the Church. The range of emotions that I, personally, have experienced over the past month has, at times, been very troubling to me; especially the feelings of anger, resentment, doubt and despair. There have been others, but these have really been the most disconcerting. I have sat here wondering what the past sixteen years of my priesthood and the past nine years of my episcopate have meant, if anything.
Thursday, September 19th, was a particularly difficult day for me as it was the ninth anniversary of my episcopal consecration and it was also one of my scheduled court appearances. As I sat in court waiting for my turn to appear with my attorney before the judge, I could not help but ask myself the question that has plagued me since this all started over a month ago" "Why me God?" The anger and resentment run deep and I struggle every day to rid myself of these and the other feelings which attack and plague me, but then something happens every time I am in that courtroom.
Every time I stand before the judge, I am confronted with the sight of the steeple of my Cathedral with the Cross sitting on its peak. It is clearly visible from where I stand in the courtroom and it is on that Cross that my gaze is fixed the entire time I stand at the podium. All of a sudden, a peaceful calm comes over me and I know that what is happening to me is happening for a reason, that this tribulation is the Cross I am to bear for love of my Lord and His Church. In human terms, I am afraid and scared, but who wouldn't be in my situation?  But on another level, I know God loves me and that even in my utter weakness and sinfulness, He would never abandon me.
I have always believed things happen for a reason and everything that happens figures in God's plan of salvation and redemption, it's just hard to swallow when bad things happen to you personally, especially when one strives to do things that are pleasing to God and meant to glorify Him. So when bad things happen to me or something goes wrong I ask, like every fallen mortal, "Why me, God?"
While God loves us with a limitless love that defies human understanding, He is still capable of afflicting us with hardships. It may not seem logical that a God who is  pure Love can discipline or afflict the ones He loves, but the reality is, He does. God afflicts us or disciplines us because His love for us is so intense and immense and he wants the best for us.  Like every loving parent, He wants us to be the best we can be in every way. If He sees us doing something we shouldn’t, if He sees us straying from the righteous path, the path of virtue and holiness, then He is going to do something to correct our behavior and nudge us back in the right direction.
When God afflicts or disciplines us, He does so with a purpose. He wants us to step back and look at how we are behaving or living and see that we may not necessarily be making the choices that are right for us, choices that may be putting distance between us and Him. By afflicting us, God hopes to open our ears to His word, to His instruction. In affliction, God hopes to teach us something about ourselves, to reveal something we overlooked or even refused to see that may not be quite right, something that makes us less than what He intends us to be or destroys the image in which He created us.
Many times we are often deceived by our own sinfulness, especially the sins of pride, arrogance, and ambition. We can even be deceived by our inexperience or immaturity. On many occasions, we believe we have the answers to everything and know what’s always best for us. Unfortunately, this is not true. We don’t necessarily have all the answers. We don’t always know what is best or even good for us.
David the Psalmist wrote: “Search me, O God, and know my heart, try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there are any hurtful ways in me, and lead me in the everlasting way.” (Psalm 139:23-24). David knew very well that there could be things in his life, in his way of living that could be harmful to him and his relationship with God and others. Understanding this, David turned to God for help and assistance to identify and correct what was lacking or deficient in him so that he could continue in the way of righteousness.
God sends us affliction, or allows us to be afflicted to show us ourselves. In affliction we can learn a great deal about ourselves and about where we are in our relationship with God and others. In times of affliction and hardship, we are able to see ourselves, to see what is weak and lacking in ourselves. In affliction and hardship, we are able to make necessary changes in our way of behavior and living that will make our lives better and make us better persons. God always uses affliction as a tool of instruction to teach us the ways of God.
All of us, no matter what our station in life is, experience affliction and hardship at one time or another. Even “good” people, people who strive to live lives of righteousness, experience hardship, trials and tribulations in their lives. And not just once in a while. Righteous people are tested, some even severely, and they experience difficulties many, many times during the course of their life. How we react to that affliction, to the hardships we experience, is another question. Do those tribulations and hardships drive us further away from God and our faith? Or do they bring us closer to Him, strengthening our bond with Him and strengthening our faith in Him? Do the troubles and trials we encounter in our life produce the fruit of righteousness and holiness or do they cultivate a harvest of anger and resentment in our hearts and minds that becomes like a cancer that eventually destroys us?
Afflictions and troubles in life are never fun, but they do have their rewards. Those rewards include greater knowledge and understanding of self; opportunities to change, making us better persons; and of having a closer and more intimate relationship with God.
Whether the trials and afflictions we experience are brought about by our own sinfulness, or because the world we live in is fallen and broken, or because they were sent to us by God directly, they are ultimately for our own good. God uses our afflictions and troubles as tools to instruct and teach us and to bring us into a more intimate communion with Him.
St. Peter warned us not to be surprised or disheartened by the trials and tribulations we experience in our life, telling us that God will always work them out for good. (1 Peter 4:12) God knows what’s best for us and we need to trust Him. We may not like what is happening to us and we may be tempted to despair, we may even fall into despair because of our afflictions, but God is with us. We must never forget that God is with us and walking by our side in the person of Jesus Christ.
During those times in our life when things seem the darkest and we feel we can’t go on, we need to know that Christ has lifted us up and is carrying us in His loving arms. Jesus is always walking the journey with us. Even in times of inexplicable pain and hardship he is with us, comforting us, encouraging us, guiding us, and advising us.
Even if you feel that you are living a righteous, holy and good life to the best of your ability, you should know that God will send you afflictions none the less. He will do so because He loves us too much to leave us where we are spiritually. We can always be better than what we are today. We should never be content to be mediocre in our spirituality but ever strive to perfect it in Christ so that it is always vibrant and fresh, exciting and transfiguring.

God can afflict also as a means of purification. We may be walking the righteous road but there are things in our life that must be purified. We may be given over to affliction so that our relationship with God becomes purer and stronger. Like gold in the furnace, God tries us and tests us, that the gold of our heart may be pure and solid, and that our souls may radiate with the glory of His righteousness; that our lives may become acceptable offerings in His sight, like fragrant incense.
When we are given over to afflictions, we should look at them as tests of our faith and devotion to Christ, as means of purification, as vessels which pour a Christ-like spirit into us, and as tools which equip us and strengthen us spiritually and which help us grow in wisdom, understanding and the knowledge of God.
Physical, mental, emotional and spiritual hurt, pain, suffering, disappointment, and sorrow are inevitable while we are here on this earth, but we can always choose how we respond to them. We can blame others; we can turn to drugs, alcohol and sex to escape from our troubles and afflictions; we can turn to Satan to provide us with false happiness; and we can despair and say there is no hope of anything good coming from this life. Or, we can respond by saying God is in control and will take care of everything according to His will and divine plan. God will see us through. He has sent us His only-Begotten Son, Jesus Christ, who remains with us even unto the end of the age to be our Savior and Redeemer, our Help and Protection. Let us look to Him to get us through the difficulties of this life.
Thank you God for this present tribulation in my life; may it be for me a means of growth, purification and drawing closer to You and Your divine Son. Glory to You, O Lord, for all things!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Power of Hate

Every day I check out www.news.va to see what the latest news is from the Vatican and to read the synopses of His Holiness, Pope Francis’ daily homilies. Today, His Holiness talked about people who speak ill of their neighbor. He calls such people hypocrites because they lack the courage to see their own shortcomings and failures.
In his homily, the Pope focused on gossiping and how it has a “criminal” side to it because when we gossip or speak ill of our neighbor, we imitate Caine’s homicidal gesture. Wow! This is a really strong and vivid analogy which is very unsettling, to say the least. Yet, when you think about it, what the Pope says is very true. Every time we gossip about someone, every time we say something bad about someone, especially when we don’t have the facts to back it up, we assassinate someone’s character which can ultimately destroy someone’s life and reputation.
Gossip is evil. It is borne out of things like hatred and envy. As the Holy Father says, “He who has hatred in his heart is a murderer.” These are not the Pope’s words though. Pope Francis was quoting from the First Letter of St. John in which the Apostle writes: “Anyone who has hatred in his heart for his brother is a murderer, he walks in darkness and does not have eternal life within him.” (1 John 3:15-16)
The Pope goes on to quote St. James the Apostle, who said “The tongue is to be used to praise God, but when we use the tongue to speak ill of our brother or sister, we are using it to kill God, to destroy the image of God in our brother or sister about whom we speak ill.”
Sadly, it is much easier to hate and to gossip than it is to be kind and work things out, especially in times of difficulty. When we are hurt or have been aggrieved by someone, especially someone we have loved or trusted, it is a lot easier to hold our anger and be resentful than it is to let go and move on. When someone has done something wrong to us, what do we do? We complain about them to others, we talk badly about them. We may even make things up about them that are not even true in an effort to justify our own feelings of hurt and anger. Gossip and rumor mongering do nothing but create more evil from evil. If we cannot say something nice about someone then we should not say anything at all. If someone has wronged us, there are ways to address the situation but those ways should never rest on a foundation of hatred or resentment.
Pope Francis used the Apostle Paul as an example of how we should handle difficult and even contentious people. The Pope recounted how St. Paul had been a sinner and that he said of himself, “I was once a blasphemer, a persecutor, a violent man. But I have been mercifully treated.” The Pope went on to say, “Perhaps none of us are a blasphemer – perhaps. But if we ever gossip we are certainly persecutors and violent.”
Gossiping is certainly an act of violence. It is no different than physically attacking someone with your fists. Gossiping can do irreparable harm and damage to an individual and not just emotionally. It can hurt people professionally, psychologically, spiritually and economically. Gossiping can literally destroy lives, especially when its motivation is hate.
A person who hates has sold his soul to the devil. A person who bears hate in his or her heart is soulless and has destroyed the very image of God in which they were created. For these people we should pray earnestly and intently that the Holy Spirit may once again enter into them, transfigure them and renew them, making them once again children of the light.
It is very possible for people to willingly align themselves with Satan in order to get what they want. It’s not only a possibility but a reality. People look to Satan every day to provide them what they seek because they know he will do it immediately. Satan is more than willing to step in and provide us with immediate gratification and satisfaction and the fulfillment of our every worldly desire and want. But there is a price to be paid for what Satan has to offer.
Ozzy Osbourne wrote a song called ‘Lord of This World.’ In the song, Osbourne has Satan asking those who seek him out to provide for their needs and wants the following question:
‘You made me master of the world where you exist. The soul I took from you was not even missed. You turn to me in all your worldly greed and pride, but will you turn to me when it’s your turn to die?’
Most of us, when we approach death, start looking more to God. But that is not the only time when we should look to the Savior and Redeemer of all to help us. We must look to God at all times and keep ourselves away from Satan, away from his temptations and false promises.
Gossip is one of Satan’s temptations. It is one of the tools he uses to trap us and draw us closer to him. Gossip is the language of Satan. It is foul and rooted in evil. Satan laughs and rejoices when we do things like gossip because he knows that we simply cannot resist the temptation to revel in another’s misfortune or weakness. It is so easy to say bad things about another person, to point out their faults and misdeeds, and not look at our own shortcomings and failings.
The closer we get to Satan, the more enticed by sin we become and the more comfortable we become with it as a lifestyle. The more we give in to sin, the more power Satan gains over us. The more power Satan has over us, the harder it becomes to break free from his control. We become slaves to Satan and his rule of darkness. As Satan tightens his grip on his victims, he continues and intensifies his evil work until he has destroyed their personalities and ruined everything that could have meant life and happiness for them. They, in turn, eventually become his agents of evil, sowing seeds of discord, hate, intolerance, indifference, injustice and oppression everywhere they go and especially among people of good will.
God gave us all a free will and we can use it to do good or evil, to follow Him or to follow Satan. The choice is clearly ours. God does not interfere with our choices. But He provided us with a way, in the person of His Only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to make the right choices. Jesus Christ, and He alone, has the power to deliver us from the evil that is within each of us which, sooner or later, will be our ruin. He took our sin upon Himself and died for us on the Cross to set us free from all that binds us and from the consequence of sin, which is death. Satan has no power over us except that which we freely give Him. If we look to God and not Satan, then Satan’s power will diminish over this world and it will become a place of light, peace, justice and goodness. It is either the kingdom of darkness or the kingdom of light. You have to decide which kingdom you want to live in and who you want to serve.
We must treat people mercifully, even those who have wronged us, no matter how difficult it may be. We must rise above the temptation to hate and seek vengeance. If we do not treat those who wronged us with mercy, how can we expect God to be merciful to us in our great sinfulness? How can we hope for goodness anywhere in the world or in our own community when we look everyday to Satan instead of God?
God expects so much more of us but we seem content to just maintain the status quo. As I said, it is easier to hate and hold a grudge than it is to love, forgive and be merciful. Such behavior only empowers Satan even more and makes him stronger. How can this be good for humanity?

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Only Christ and the Gospel Matter

Pope Francis, spiritual leader of the more than 1.2 billion member Roman Catholic Church, in meeting with youth during his recent visit to Rio di Janeiro for World Youth Day 2013, told the young people present to “go and make a mess in your dioceses.” In other words, he wanted them to shake things up, stir up the pot as it were, and make some changes in the way faith is lived and practiced in the local Churches. I am sure the Pope’s words made a lot of bishops in the Catholic Church very uneasy.

It is no longer business as usual in the Catholic Church. The “old boy network” is fast being dismantled and Francis is steering the “Ark of Salvation” in a different direction. Many Orthodox Christians would ask the questions, “What does what is happening in the Roman Catholic Church have to do with us? and “Why should we care what the Pope does? Well, my friends, the answer is very simple. It is because the pope, as a bishop, is doing and saying things that most of our bishops do not do and say. True, the Ecumenical Patriarch speaks in defense of the protection of the environment, and that is certainly a worthy cause, especially since it is God’s creation and we must all be good stewards of it. Unfortunately, however, it is not enough. Our bishops do not speak on the other important issues as Pope Francis does.

When you read the numerous, almost daily articles being written about Pope Francis in media outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Huffington Post, you will find a common theme running through all the articles, and that theme is one of “revolution.” In many ways, Pope Francis has started a real revolution in the Catholic Church. He is intent on making the Church relevant in this world by ensuring that it adheres faithfully to its primary function of preaching and living the Gospel. He is slowly stripping the Church of any perception of it being a multinational corporation or business and seeks rather to make it the society of faith, the Kingdom of God on earth, that Christ intended the Church to be.

As I said in an earlier post, I am a true Pope Francis fan. Obviously, I have never met him, but I truly owe him a deep debt of gratitude. For several years now, and especially the past two years, I have questioned my role and effectiveness as a bishop. I have listened to numerous accusations and heard remarks to the effect that I am not a real bishop because I drive around in an old pickup truck; because I cut my hair and don’t have a beard; because I don’t wear a cassock all the time; because I take my mother and godmother to play bingo or to the casino once a week; because I worked as an EMT, etc. “He can’t be a real bishop because OUR bishops don’t do things like that!” The “legitimacy,” “credibility,” and so-called “canonicity” of both myself and the Church I shepherd have always been judged in light of those things that I do or don’t do, especially when it comes to the “externals.”

But Pope Francis has proven that statement to be totally false. Thank you, Pope Francis, for renewing my belief that a bishop is nothing more than a servant and no different than the people he serves and for renewing in my heart the joy of what I do and the life that I live as a servant of the Lord.

It is true, I do drive around in a beat up pickup truck, but that truck has served me and the Church faithfully for many years. It gets me where I have to go and it has helped me deliver thousands of toys to thousands of underprivileged children throughout Oneida, Herkimer and Madison counties for many years; it has provided the means to deliver hundreds of Thanksgiving baskets to needy families in the same geographic areas and for the same number of years; and it has helped deliver furniture from our Cathedral thrift shop to newly arrived immigrant families from Burma, Bosnia and elsewhere. Yes, that little tan pickup truck has served me and the Cathedral parish well. With over 160,000 miles on it, it has been a hard worker for the Church and will be sorely missed when it is gone.

It is true that I cut my hair and do not wear a beard. Simply put, I don’t have a beard because I have a skin condition which does not permit it. And I cut my hair because I prefer short hair. Long hair and a beard are fine if one wants to wear them, but having a beard and long hair does not make one a better priest or bishop. In fact, having a beard and hair that is unwashed, greasy and full of dandruff, like some Orthodox priests have, certainly does nothing to edify or inspire the faithful.

It is true that I don’t wear a cassock all the time, and sometimes I do not wear one when I am at the Cathedral, but that is only because I am working and it is inconvenient to wear it when one is cleaning or doing some kind of physical labor. Sometimes I don’t wear it because I simply want some privacy. A priest is on call 24/7, seven days a week, 365 days a year. We need our own private and personal time too in order to take care of ourselves physically, mentally, and emotionally.

It is true that I go to the casino. I take my mother once a week. It is our time together and I make no apologies for it. It is nothing more than entertainment and a day out with my mom or family so nothing more should be made of it than what it is.

It is true that I worked as an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician). I did so for nine years, and some of that time was even after I was made a bishop. Those were nine very happy and enjoyable years. I saw my work as an EMT as being nothing more than a way to fulfill the Lord’s command to care for the sick. If my health situation permitted it, I would still be doing it as part of my priestly and episcopal ministry.

Orthodox Christians, and I use the word Christian lightly because for many Orthodox it’s more important to be “Orthodox” than it is to be “Christian,” can be a very judgmental people. Don’t get me wrong, I know many Orthodox people who are good Christians, but I also know a great many more who have no idea what Christianity is really about. Because of this, the Orthodox Church has become a closed society. It’s as if there is a sign on the door of some of our churches that says, “Sinners and other Unacceptable People Not Welcome here.” The “Unacceptable People” could easily be defined as those who are not of the same ethnic background or liturgical heritage; or who may be gay, divorced, homeless, of a different skin color, or who don’t think the same way they do.

It saddens me to say this, but I find very little Christianity in Orthodoxy. And Pope Francis is making that even more evident as each day passes. The words and actions of the Pope make abundantly clear that as far as the Church is concerned, only Christ and the Gospel matter. What that means is that we should be focused only on the eternal truths revealed to us in the Gospel and making them present in our world.

Christ has given us the way to salvation and that way is a life in Him, a life which carries within itself the riches of love, mercy, compassion and forgiveness. And we are to share these riches abundantly with others. In our Orthodox Church, I don’t see very much sharing of these riches with fellow believers let alone non-believers.

As Pope Francis continues on with his program of renewing the Catholic Church we will increasingly see that what continues to separate the two Churches will not be so much the theological differences that we have argued about for years but the very fundamental way in which the two Churches each witness to and live the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Pope Francis has certainly made it clear to the world that He wants the Church to be a society to be emulated. Hence, his aggressive program to strip the Church of its worldly trappings and power and replace them with the power of God and the life suggested and encouraged by the Gospel.

Pope Francis is fast becoming a respected moral authority throughout the world and is equally as fast re-establishing the papacy’s prestige and image even among the most ardent secularists. The reason he is successful in this area is not because he speaks with the power and authority of a monarch, but rather with the power and authority of one who knows and understands his position to be one of service. By his example, we come to know that for the Church, only Christ and the Gospel matter and that’s what people really expect and want from the Church.

I made mention in the beginning of this post that Pope Francis is the spiritual leader of more than 1.2 billion faithful throughout the world. The reason I took pains to point that out is because if all of those 1.2 billion people take hold of his message and follow his example, what tremendous changes for the better would occur in the world. Maybe it’s idealistic to believe such a thing could happen but I believe that all things are possible with God. And, let’s be honest, people ARE listening to the Pope in ways and places we would never have before thought possible.

Pope Francis gives confidence and inspires. He has truly inspired me and given me the confidence to know that I am on the right course and that it is ok not to be a part of the status quo. I became so concerned about maintaining the “image” of an Orthodox bishop and trying to gain the acceptance and recognition of my so-called brother bishops and of other Orthodox Christians that I started to lose sight of who and what I really am, especially in light of being a Christian. I think what it boils down to is that we should be Christians first and foremost and that will make us better Orthodox and Catholics. In fact, I am starting to believe that if union between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches is ever to be a possibility, we need to dispense with all the theological dialogues and find out what we share in common first as Christians. In this matter, the Catholic Church is light years ahead of the Orthodox Church because we Orthodox really don’t know how to live and act as Christians. As I said, it is more important for many of us to be Orthodox than it is to be Christian.

In watching Pope Francis, the vision and understanding I once had of the Church at the beginning of my priesthood and especially at the start of my episcopacy is once again coming into full view. I feel re-energized and invigorated once again that the true mission and purpose of the Church is to be at the service of the people of God, to be a society of joyful and joy-filled believers who find their happiness and fulfillment in Christ and the life He offers. It doesn't matter what people think of me; it only matters how I stand in the eyes of Christ, who is my life and reason for being, and my only Judge.

The personal attacks used to bother me, but thanks to Pope Francis they won’t bother me anymore. In fact, to those of you have been my detractors and persecutors, I want to thank you, for you have taught me good lessons in humility, patience and forgiveness. You have also helped my prayer life immensely. Please keep the arrows coming because they keep me on my toes and help me grow in many ways.

And Pope Francis, once again, thank you so much, for you have given me new hope and restored to my heart and my life a sense of joy and peace that has been absent for a long time. I hope to make my priesthood and episcopate one worthy of the blessings of God by your holy example, which I hope will continue to inspire, motivate and keep me grounded for many years to come. There will always be dark days and difficult times in one's life, but Your Holiness has reminded me by your words and life that Christ is the Light that dispels the darkness and leads us all to a calmer, safer, and better and happier place. Many years, Despota!

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Way to go Francis!

I have to say that I am totally taken with the new Pope, or should I say, the new Bishop of Rome. The man lives in a guest house, rather than the Apostolic Palace; he rode a shuttle bus back to the hotel with his fellow cardinals after his election rather than being driven in a limousine; he carries his own bags when he travels; and in the more than 100 plus days since his election as the head of the Roman Catholic Church, he has yet to refer to himself as the “Supreme Pontiff.”

I was watching EWTN’s live coverage of the Way of the Cross at World Youth Day in Rio a little while ago and carefully watched Pope Francis as he made his way through the crowds to the site of the day’s activities. His interaction with the people, the way he spontaneously stepped off the Popemobile to bless a statue here, receive a gift there, or just to talk to and bless people and children was amazing. You could see the joy and happiness in the man’s face; that he was thoroughly enjoying every moment of it. You could tell it wasn’t about him just being the pope, but more about being a pastor and shepherd. And that emphasis is what makes him being Pope all the more special and appealing.

Pope Francis, the “Supreme Pontiff”, is so much more approachable than most bishops and priests. In the few months that he has been Pope, numerous stories have been surfacing about the acts of kindness the bishop does for others. But, the surprising thing about what he does is that his acts of kindness are not so much random as they are deliberate. What I mean to say is that his acts of kindness are genuine. They are genuine because that is the type of man he is…a kind man; a man who loves people and loves to be with them. You don’t see that kind of personality among most of our Bishops.

Pope Francis doesn’t see himself primarily as the Supreme Pontiff but as a pastor and bishop first and second. Certainly the man knows who and what he is, but I personally believe he is more comfortable with his roles as pastor and shepherd and that is inspiring. He has within himself the heart of Christ and that is why people like Sir Elton John have come to respect him.

Pope Francis has accomplished much over the past few months but the real test will be how he handles the hot button issues that have caused so much agony and pain for and in the Roman Catholic Church. But, if the last three months are any indication of the Pope’s tenacity and commitment to having a holy Church, then I think we are going to see a lot of garbage being thrown out the windows of the Vatican and a lot of spit-shining of the Catholic Church’s image going on before the year is out.

If Pope Francis succeeds is cleaning up the Catholic Church, then other Churches and ecclesial communities around the world are going to find it very hard to continue in their “business as usual” mindset. While the Catholic Church may not now be a model to emulate in several areas, I think it will definitely become THE model to emulate in a lot of ways in the not-to-distant future. Certainly our Orthodox Church will find it hard to ignore the fact that this Pope is dead serious about setting things right in his Church. Given that, our bishops will have to rethink their priorities and positions, especially in areas of administration and governance, relationships with the faithful, and ministry.

Our greatest talent in the Orthodox Church is the gift we have for polemic. We are awesome in our ability to point out the dysfunction in the Catholic Church but refuse to see that same dysfunction in ourselves. Whatever dysfunction exists in the Catholic Church, I think its days are numbered under Pope Francis. The Pope is 76, and while he is in relatively good health, he nevertheless understands that time is precious and that he must do all that he can to correct what is wrong in his Church while he is physically and mentally able.

Pope Francis is a good example for all of us bishops, both Catholic and Orthodox alike. There are lessons we can learn from him, good and valid lessons. Some (and probably most) of my brother Orthodox bishops would say there is nothing a “heretical and schismatic Roman Catholic non-bishop” can teach us. In fact, most would say he should look to us to teach him the right way. The problem with that assertion however is that many of our bishops only preach the Gospel and don’t actually live it, whereas not only does Pope Francis preach the Gospel but he actively lives it. The man is full of compassion, love and respect for his fellow human beings, and it makes no difference of what faith they are. Not only is that the sign of a true Christian, but it is also the mark of a true gentleman.

During one of his speeches at World Youth Day, Pope Francis told the people gathered that he wanted to rid the Church of clericalism. Can you imagine how that must have made some of the bishops and priests present there and watching on television sweat! And if any of our bishops were watching and heard that, I am sure they rushed to their medicine cabinet to grab their nitro or an aspirin tablet because the statement probably caused them chest pains.

All too often, clergy, especially bishops, act as if they are better than those they are called to shepherd and serve. How often have you encountered a priest or bishop who is patronizing; talks down to you or even denigrates or humiliates you in some way? Some are even downright rude and arrogant. Sadly, such behavior among the clergy is commonplace. Clergy, especially bishops, have a skewed sense of privilege and entitlement. Clergy should be humble and kind. They should emulate Christ in the way they live their lives and in the way they deal with God’s people.

We clergy are no better than the faithful which we serve. We may stand at the head of the assembly by virtue of the sacramental priesthood we have been given, but that certainly does not make us better than them. We are called to lead them in holiness and virtue. We are called to be teachers, pastors, and servants who are just, fair, patient, loving, compassionate, forgiving, merciful, honest and very devout and staunch believers. These are the characteristics of a good spiritual father, pastor and shepherd.

Pope Francis is an example of what a good pastor, shepherd, servant and priest is. We Orthodox bishops and priests can take many lessons from him and learn much from him. We would do well to pay close attention and assess where we are and what we are doing in our own Churches in light of what he is doing in his Church. Arrogance and a blatant refusal to learn lessons from people outside our faith will not bring us closer to God.