A Practicing Catholic

 

There are few things in the liturgical life of a priest more difficult than the funeral of a family member, all the more so when that family member is a parent. In the midst of your own grieving and loss the family calls upon you to set aside your “son” hat and put on your “father” i.e. “priest” hat. While this is a difficult task for any priest, though in its own way often cathartic, I cannot imagine having to do so under the spotlight of national attention. For Fr. Paul Scalia to simply get through his Father, Justice Antonin Scalia’s, funeral well would have been an achievement. Yet, in the midst of this very difficult situation Fr. Scalia gave us one of the most beautifully profound homilies I have ever heard. While it would certainly be worthwhile to write about Justice Scalia’s funeral, that is not the point of this post. Rather, Fr. Scalia’s Homily is a great inspiration during this season of lent.

In his homily, Fr. Scalia states:

We thank God for his goodness to Dad, as is right and just. But we also know that, although Dad believed, he did so imperfectly, like the rest of us. He tried to love God and neighbor but, like the rest of us, did so imperfectly. He was a practicing Catholic—practicing in the sense that he hadn’t perfected it yet. Or, rather, that Christ was not yet perfected in him. And only those in whom Christ is brought to perfection can enter Heaven.

Here, Fr. Scalia beautifully draws out the verb “to practice” from the adjective, “practicing” Catholic. That is to say, so often when people refer to somebody as a “practicing” Catholic, they do so as if that was the completion of the task, or that some sort of perfection existed in this state of “practicing.” Instead, Fr. Scalia highlights the fact that “to practice” is only the road by which we seek perfection.

 

NY castle-12
Not dead yet (taken in seminary, not high school)

When I think of practice, I think back to my time playing soccer in high school, particularly that dreaded time before school or the season had begun when we had two-a-day practices. For those of you not blessed to experience such a time of pain allow me to explain. Since school had not started yet, our coaches were able to gather us in the morning for the first practice of the day. They ran us through various drills and exercises, attempting to kill us. Having failed to do so in the morning, they would gather us together in the afternoon with the same goal. Of course, this was not their real intent. In reality, they recognized most of us were not in the physical condition necessary for the upcoming season, and that they had a finite amount of time to correct this lest we embarrass ourselves during the season.

In many ways, this is what the season of Lent is all about. None of us are as fully prepared to meet Christ as we ought to be, and, while the whole of our lives will be spent in this mission, Lent provides a special opportunity to focus on the mission, especially as we prepare for the Triduum: Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection. By our Lenten practices, we are better able to participate in the Triduum and Easter Seasons.  

Our faith requires such practice, a fact that the lives of so many before us have made abundantly clear. St. Peter is possibly my favorite example of this practice. It took him the entirety of his life to be perfected as Christ desired, despite the intimacy with which he knew Christ and the zeal he had to follow our Lord. St. Peter left his whole life and livelihood to follow Jesus. He was able to get out of the boat and, at least momentarily, walk on water. He saw our Lord transfigured upon the mountain, standing with Moses and Elijah. He proclaimed Jesus as Son of the living God and was given the Keys of the Kingdom

1601-2

Annibale Carracci: Domine, quo vadis?

Even at the end, as tradition tells us, St. Peter initially attempted to leave Rome to avoid martyrdom, and only in encountering Christ, who was carrying his cross to Rome to be crucified again, was Peter given the strength to return and face crucifixion. What strength it was, for in that strength was the humility to seek to be crucified upside down lest he die in the same way as our Lord.

caravagios crucifixion of peter

Caravaggio: The Crucifixion of Saint Peter

Allow me to finish by returning to Fr. Scalia:

We are gathered here because of one man. A man known personally to many of us, known only by reputation to even more; a man loved by many, scorned by others; a man known for great controversy, and for great compassion. That man, of course, is Jesus of Nazareth.

In the mess of our day-to-day lives, in the business of the world, it is easy to forget why we are here and what we are doing. Lent calls us back to the recognition that we are all here for one man: Jesus of Nazareth. It is only in the practice of the faith that that man, Jesus, can be perfected in us and that we will one day be called to celebrate eternally with him the feast he has prepared for us.

Life and Football

Gonzaga football team 1934. Photo courtesy of the Gonzaga University Archives.

Gonzaga football 1934.  Photo courtesy of the Gonzaga University Archives.

While football is not my favorite sport (that honor belongs to soccer), I do like the game and all the more so when I can watch it with the brethren. In seminary, football games were one of the major social events, in particular a super bowl party that gathers over a hundred men studying for priesthood. In 2012 the NFL experienced a referee strike leading them to seek out replacements, many of whom proved themselves unprepared for the task.  As a result bad calls came to characterize the game with victories and losses turning more on the lack of skill of the referees than on the skill of the players and coaches.

Football, like all sports and games, is not about the rules. Football is about the skill, athleticism, and strategy of one team pitted against the skill, athleticism, and strategy of the other. However, without the rules you can’t have such a contest.  A bad call can ruin a game:  losers feel cheated, and even the victors feel that the victory has been cheapened in the process.  While the game is not the rules, there is no game without them.

Life is much the same way: it is not about the rules, but it does depend upon them. We so often picture the Christian view of life as a set of rules; follow them and you go to heaven, don’t and off to hell. This picture does not accurately reflect the law of Christ. In truth, the rules are no more the point of life than they are the point of football.

Life is about love, truth, beauty, and goodness. We desire these things at the core of our being and more than merely experiencing them, we desire to fully participate in them. We desire to dive head first into the mystery of it all. In this life we get bits and pieces:  a beautiful sunset, the love of a parent, the thrill of discovery, all of these things touch upon the deeper realities of what life is all about. All of these experiences point to a relationship with Him who is Love, Truth, Beauty, and Goodness itself. Further, He has revealed Himself to us directly through the faith. We see this meaning as through a veil and it is only in the next life that the veil will be lifted, and our relationship with Him who Is is brought to fulfillment. Only within fullness of eternity can the perfection of our desires be achieved.

We are so often like children learning the rules of a new game. We can’t understand, why the rule is what it is: why you can pass forward at one point and not another, or why at one position intentional grounding is illegal and another it not.  We might struggle to see why contraception is wrong or why Sunday mass is so important. Of course there are good answers to these questions, and answers that ought to be found, but they can only be found within the context of the rules. It is only within the law of God that truth can be found, and it, along with love, beauty, and goodness is what it is all about.

Fail Better

try again

Passing the midway point of lent has always raised mixed emotions in me. On the one hand, it is a striking relief to know that I am on the downhill slope to Easter, that there is light at the end of the tunnel… And on the other hand, I cannot help but look back and realize how amazingly I have failed to live up to my hopes for this year’s Lenten practices.

Every year seems to follow a similar pattern, great and lofty hopes for change and renewal in my spiritual life, quickly dashed upon the rocks of my own frail humanity. It is utterly frustrating at times to see the goal and know how to achieve it but fail again and again to actually succeed. It is, in some ways, the most infuriating consequence of the our fallen humanity that we can see the good and know how to achieve it, yet again and again find ourselves utterly incapable of actually doing so. This is true of faith, of friendship, of physical health; indeed, it is true of every aspect of our human life.

All of which brings me the title of this, my first blog post: “Fail Better.” As Samuel Beckett said, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail Again. Fail Better.” This might very well be the quote that summarizes my spiritual life. For every step I take seems to lead to another stumble, another fall. Yet, the only way I know to avoid this cycle is to stop moving forward. That is, to quit. To quit, though, is to leave the way. To leave the way is to leave Christ. To leave Christ is to leave love, happiness, and meaning lying at the side of the road right next to my cross.

And so onward I go, “Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more” knowing that I’m not far from my next stumble, my next fall. The alternative I cannot bear, and fortunately I know that I am not alone on this path. I follow behind Him who goes before me. It is to Him I return when I stumble and fall and He is the one who picks me up again. Though Christ does not know failure, he does what it is to fall. Christ too, stumbled and fell on his own way to Calvary, and so I, too, shall follow, to try again, fail again, but hopefully fail better.