Monday, January 27, 2020

Begin with the end in mind. Applying this philosophy to your life will help you tremendously to live the kind of life God wants for you.

When Stephen Covey wrote his book “The 7 habits of highly effective people” in 1989, he postulated that one of the habits was this - to begin with the end in mind.  In cultivating this habit, he advocates that it is when you envision the kind of future or result that you want, you have something concrete to work toward.  It was very much connected with the mission statement that one makes, either in one’s business or endeavor in life, and to constantly be checking if one is on track to attaining that goal or end.  To be effective (as an entrepreneur, as a leader or just as a person) one then needs to act based on the principles that would ensure that the outcome is achieved.

This book went on to become a bestseller, and it has since sold more than 25 million copies, in 40 languages worldwide.  It has also been listed in Time magazine’s 25 most influential business management books.

Beginning with the end in mind is indeed a good principle to follow in business.  But it shouldn’t be something that ought to be applied only to those in the world of business and entrepreneurship.  This very important principle is something that every single person, especially baptized Christians, needs to be aware and mindful of in life.

Covey didn’t come up with this principle on his own. It really has very very ancient roots and origins.  This concept of “beginning with the end in mind” has philosophical foundations that are evidenced in the writings of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle.  The philosophy is called teleology, which is a Latin phrase comprising of two words – telos which means “end”, and logos, which is the “reason or explanation of”. Aristotle gave special emphasis to the Four Causes, where everything created has a telos, or an end for which it is made, and Plato applied this philosophy to seeing purpose in both human existence as well as in other levels of created existence.  

Everything in life has a telos, or end for which it is made.  When something doesn’t fulfill what it is made for, it suffers a lack, and often it can be the result of abuse or misuse.  For instance, the ultimate end or purpose of a vehicle like a car is transport or movement.  The car was not made for it to be a display object, or to be kept off the road.  A Bugatti, which is an exquisite super car, was made for road use.  To buy it and to never use it, but to just keep it in its pristine condition in a personal garage merely as some status symbol would be to prevent it from attaining its telos.  Even a screwdriver is made for a particular telos – to drive screws into a surface. But if it is used only as an instrument to pry open the lids of tins, or as a weapon to harm people, its telos had been hijacked and misused.  The challenge with applying the philosophy of teleology to everything in life is that these days, there are so many gadgets and gizmos that are invented with multivalent uses.  The smart phone is an outstanding example of this.  It doesn’t just have one end, and the result is that quite often, this device has been the cause of problems in the lives of their users, and it may give one license to apply this undetermined or undefined telos to life and existence.

If we understand the philosophy of the great Greek greats like Plato and Aristotle, then we can and should apply teleology to the most important thing that we have – our lives.  Every human life is created by God, and its telos of full union with God in heaven after its life on earth is over.  The baptized Christian is graced in the fact that its telos is very clearly stated and defined.  For the unbaptized, this is something that lies in what is called the conscience. The more a soul is clear about its telos, the easier it will be for it to respond by living in accordance with the norms and rules that have been made clear by God in Christ and his teachings. 

Relativism, and its evil spawns of individualism and subjectivism ignores or denies this telos.  They are emphatic in declaring that the human person should and must determine for itself what its end is.  In his book “The Catholic Gentleman”, author Sam Guzman gives evidence of how this heresy has infiltrated to the upper echelons of the US justice system, where he quotes Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy having said something absolutely baffling.  Kennedy said “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

If we understand that all human beings are created with a divine telos, it is totally absurd to even postulate that every human has a right to define his own concept of existence.  It is when this error in thought is pushed to its extreme that we see people wanting to define themselves not as human beings but even as animals, in some cases.  I came across the sad story of a man named Dennis Avner who was a Navy veteran, and who had spent years and I am sure a lot of money, to transform himself to look like a tiger through many tattoos and implants.  (Just Google “Dennis Avner” and you will see what I mean).  And as if this was not enough to want to be an animal, he wanted to blur the lines further by wanting to transform himself into a female tiger, with fake implanted whiskers and a mechanical tail to boot. This story is sad because it has a tragic ending.  He ended up killing himself at the age of 54.

No, Anthony Kennedy, I’m afraid we do not have the freedom to define our own concept of existence because it is defined in our very DNA as human beings.  Defining our own concept of existence will just not change reality.  As Sam Guzman says regarding people who live outside of reality, “there are hospitals for people who live like that”.

I strongly suspect that there are many versions of Dennis Avner out there.  Maybe not to the extent of doing what he did, but more hidden and silent.  Sometimes we see this in people who believe that they are their sin and their mistakes that they have made in life, and it is reinforced by their family members who stress that over and over again.  

A person who has committed adultery should not be labeled merely as “an adulterer”, but a person who has committed adultery. The same applies to a teenager who has committed shoplifting or some misdemeanor.  He needs to be seen not as “a shoplifter”, but a person who had at that point made a choice to shoplift.  Our sins do not define who we are, because that is not our reality.  

Of course, saying this doesn’t exonerate us from our sins and peccadilloes.  We just need to be reminded of our telos as lovingly created human beings who are made by God for full and final union with him, having lived our lives in the greatest way possible for holiness and eventual sanctification.

Monday, January 20, 2020

All of us have paths in life that we take that lead us to heaven. Mine just doesn’t happen to include being temperate with alcohol.

There’s a very erroneous notion of what being holy is, and it just doesn’t bode well for many Catholics who don’t know that this is erroneous.  For many Catholics, the idea that the norm and standard for every baptized Catholic is to be holy as God is holy is not for them.  Rather, they believe that it is something that is reserved for special (or some may even call them weird) people like members of the clergy or those who have taken religious vows.  Apart from them, holiness is just either not attainable, or at best, something like searching for the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  And what is perhaps even more of an erroneous notion is that sainthood and holiness is a reserve that is meant only for contemplatives and mystics (seen as those who are priests, monks and nuns special reserve).  

To be fair, this isn’t a new error in thought. It had been the thought of the general lay person from way back in the Renaissance period in Europe, and the fact that almost all of the canonized saints of the Church in that era, right up to the time of Pope (now Saint) John Paul II, were people who were either clerics or men and women who had given their lives to God’s cause as nuns, brothers and priests, and of course, those who had been martyred for the faith.  

But this notion did experience a turnaround when Pope John Paul II started to canonize many holy lay people who had lived their lives not behind convent or monastery walls, but in ordinary homes with ordinary families, having married spouses, being parents and grandparents themselves. These people had jobs like many do nowadays, and certainly not all of them had degrees in theology or spirituality. 

In fact, this ‘explosion’ of canonized saints since the pontificate of John Paul II has exponentially increased after his pontificate, with the current Pope, Francis, who has already canonized 848 saints since becoming the Bishop of Rome in March of 2013.  In total, the three most recent Popes have since canonized 1,375 saints, and this number far exceeds the combined total number of canonized saints since 1588 till the pontificate of JPII, 1588 being the year of the establishment of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

It certainly isn’t because the requirements for anyone’s canonization has been lowered.  Rather, what made JPII such an avid saint-maker was because he was inspired by the Constitution Lumen Gentium which came out of Vatican II.  In that constitution, there is a chapter entitled “The Universal Call of Holiness in the Church”, with its stress that all people are called to lead a holy life united to Christ.

This call to holiness isn’t just for the ordained clergy or religious who had made public vows.  It is something meant for all the faithful, regardless of rank or status in the body of Christ.  In whatever vocation of life one is called to, whether to marriage or to singlehood, every baptized Catholic is equally called to live the fullness of the Christian life and thereby to the perfection (as far as possible, with God’s grace of course) of charity.  

I don’t think that this message and truth has really filtered down to the laity in a deep and pivotal way.  There have been so many times where I have asked my parishioners if they want to be saints, and nine out of ten times, I hear their response of either an outright “no”, or “that’s not for me”, or “I don’t think so”. Occasionally, I may get a weak “maybe”. And when I ask them why, their answer is often “because it is so hard to be holy”.

Well, they got one thing right at least – that it’s hard, and that it requires effort.  A holy life that doesn’t require any effort on one’s part is almost an oxymoron. This effort that one needs to make is really an effort to love God above all else.  Love that doesn’t require any effort, any sacrifice and any self-donation isn’t a very high form of love.  But when we aspire for holiness and know that it is reflected in the way that we, with great effort, turn away from sin and all that leads to sin, it is really showing how much our love for God costs us.  Certainly not so that we can “buy” holiness or God’s love, but because it then shows how much we value being loved by God, and want to return it in effortful and extraordinary ways.

I always want to encourage people coming to me for either counseling or confession to strive for holiness, and often, I seem them struggling to overcome a personal sin, like some addiction or predilection in life.  I tell them that their path to sainthood is precisely going to be through this particular cross that they are carrying, and most likely not in any other challenge that they are going to face in life.  Sometimes their response to me is “I wish God would just take this addiction away from me, and then I will be set for holiness without much problems”.  What they fail to see is that if this “cross” is taken away from them, their being able to live without stumbling and getting up in this particular way through this particular sin is no longer going to be of much merit to them at all.

I sometimes give them the example of my relationship with alcohol.  I have never liked it, and I really cannot understand how anyone can find it delightful or delicious at all.  In fact, I have no relationship with alcohol, period. I just wasn’t given the ‘grace’ to enjoy that ting that burns at the back of my throat whenever I swallow alcohol. I tried ‘learning’ to drink, especially when I was working in the hotel industry, but I never managed to appreciate it at all.  So, my being temperate or abstinent when it comes to alcohol intake is hardly anything that is seriously going to contribute to my striving for holiness. It is certainly to no merit of mine that I have never been inebriated.  Because I have no relationship with alcohol, I jokingly tell people that as a priest, I only drink as part of my ‘job’.  Some people get my humour, whilst others just return a vacant look.

In Church language, when one practices restraint in the intake of alcohol, one is temperate, or is practicing temperance. Of course, temperance isn’t just limited to alcohol intake.  Temperance is really the control one has over any excess in life, and one ought to be practicing temperance in one’s chastity, modesty, humility, forgiveness of one’s transgressors, and in showing mercy as well.  That is because in each of these dimensions of life, there is always some human impulse that is involved.  Our resolve to love God is shown when we make effort to control these impulses and practice self-mastery.

In these dimensions or aspects of life, there would hardly be any merit for us if our predilection for them was somehow taken away from us by God.  Asking God to take away your struggle for living a chaste life is therefore the wrong way to pray, as compared to asking God for the grace to live a chaste life and to choose chastity despite your very real temptation to sin against chastity. While the former is probably going to make your life easier, it is the latter which is meritorious to your soul.

I have been criticized by quite a few people that I only seem to have one agenda in my homilies, my writings and my talks – to get people truly interested in becoming saints through their hunger for holiness.  Like Sts Francis de Sales and Jose Maria Escriva, I want people to know that sanctity isn’t just the special preserve of monks, mystics and contemplatives alone. All of us, without exception share in this universal call to holiness.

If that is our shared goal in life, then I think it’s not all that wrong if my one singular agenda as a priest is to get as many souls as possible to set their lives and hearts for heaven as well.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Yes, I am judgmental. All of us are called to be judges, but not judges of the heart.

These days, it will be very very difficult to find anyone who doesn’t know anyone who is of the LGBT persuasion.  As far as I know, all my priest friends know of and often encounter these brothers and sisters in their ministry, or have been approached by parents who themselves have one or more children who have same-sex attraction (SSA) issues.  While in the past (and here I am referring to the early part of those who are of my generation) this issue was hardly discussed or even openly talked about, it just took about thirty years for that to shift in a very seismic way, with the whole pink and rainbow movement.  Where in the past you would be a rarity if you knew someone who had SSA, these days, it is just the opposite – if you don’t know anyone who is, you are more of an oddity.  

I was recently challenged in a very direct way by someone whom I knew in my youth, to write something in my blog about this issue, and I was also asked to make it clear what my thoughts are.  I was told that I was being judgmental in my stance toward those who consider themselves to be living a LGBT lifestyle.  

I took this to prayer, to see if this comment was true and legitimate.  The truth, I have come to see, is that yes, I am judgmental.  But that in itself is not wrong.  Let me clarify.

All of us are called to judge.  I had this awareness all along, but it became much clearer after I was graced to come across, in a very timely way, a book entitled “Who am I to judge?”. It is written by Edward Sri, who wrote this book as a response to moral relativism, which is humanity’s current plague. In a very erudite way, Edward Sri has made it very clear that while we are called to judge all actions, whether it is ours or those of others, we are certainly not called to judge the hearts and minds of others.  That is God’s divine purview.  We have absolutely no right to judge peoples’ hearts and their intentions.  

Why we need to judge actions
But where actions are concerned, there is great need to do this.  And we do this for a couple of reasons. Firstly, we call out a judgment on acts because we need to be clear where actions are harmful either to others or to ourselves.  This judgment doesn’t make us superior to others, but it enables us to make a stand on where right is, and where wrong is, and more importantly, why they are either right or wrong.  Not calling out a judgment on actions that impact and affect the way we relate to one another is living in a passive way, and not allow these to give a moral texture to our own lives.  Secondly, this kind of passive living will lead us to be ambivalent about actions and choices, rather than to be clear and steadfast in our choices and outlook in life. 

It is because I am clear about this, both as a person and as a priest of the Catholic Church, that I am also clear about stating what is right and what is wrong in the ways that people of the LGBT persuasion are living this out in life.  

I am certainly not a “they-can-do-whatever-they-want-to” sort of priest.  And I am certain that Pope Francis wasn’t one either when he was quoted as having said “who am I to judge?”.  He made this clear in his book “The name of God is mercy”, where he explained the context in which he said it.  Confessors in the confession do not judge a person’s heart.  By bringing up the sin, the penitent himself does, and this is absolved by the confessor priest.  

We make judgments all the time
The truth is that we judge all the time.  The result is the choices that we make in life.  Why did I drink orange juice instead of apple juice where there was a choice before me this morning?  I made a judgment that orange juice was better for me, for whatever reasons.  Why did I take route A to the office this morning instead of route B?  It was a judgment made, even if it was somewhat arbitrary.  Why did I eat a burger instead of an egg sandwich for lunch? These are judgments.  Yet, I have never heard any penitent coming to confess these “judgments”. 

We need to make the ‘big ticket’ judgments
If we make such judgments on small things, we are called to similarly make judgments on the real big things in life, and on the issue of the our moral and sexual life, these will include how and whether it is moral for one to act out one’s sexuality.  We need to be clear that our sexuality is a gift from God, and so is our free will. Because we are moral beings, the laws and limits to how we act out our sexuality applies equally to all, whether one is heterosexual, homosexual or otherwise.  That we are called to live chaste, moral and righteous lives applies to all, whether one is single or married.  In short, no one gets a pass.

But it is when one begins to think and believe that there are some people in the world for whom these laws and norms do not apply and therefore should be given some exemption, that things begin to go awry.  There have been so many times that Catholics who have SSA come to me with tears in their eyes, lamenting that it is so unfair that heterosexuals can have intimacy so freely and casually whilst they are called to chaste living.  Having sex freely?  I’m afraid this ‘license’ to be freely intimate with any degree of casualness isn’t given to anybody!  Not to the single, not even to the married (case in point, marital rape) and by logical extension, not to anyone, LGBT or not.  Chastity is the norm for everybody, but this is very poorly understood, and even poorly received and lived out.  

It is when one understands this universal call to all human beings, that one is then able to make the sound judgments of actions, be it one’s own actions, or the actions of another.  Living out one’s sexuality in a physical way with someone who is not one’s spouse of the opposite gender is therefore objectively and morally wrong.  And if one understands this well, then if follows that any form of intimate activity within marriage that disrespects and uses the other person for one’s own benefit, or disregards the spouse’s moods, feelings and disposition is therefore also morally and objectively wrong. Calling these out as wrong is indeed a judgment, but is is a judgment of actions.  They are not judgments of the soul or judgments of the heart.  As I said before, that is God’s department, and none of us is called to act in that capacity.  

In his book, Edward Sri gives a very concrete example of how one needs to make judgments on an action - you see a car barreling at break neck speed down a narrow road with nary a care for the safety of anyone and in its path a child is slowly walking across the street. By calling this bad driving is a judgment indeed. When you make a judgment by calling this bad and dangerous driving, you are also reminding yourself to never drive this way.  But you are not making a judgment on the mind or the heart of that driver.  He may have his reasons for doing that.  That is, as they say, between him and God.  However, his actions and the result of this actions are not between him and God.  They impact the community and the lives of others.  One isn’t wrong at all in judging the bad driving, but one needs to restrain oneself from judging the driver and his mind or his heart.  

When I make it clear this way how and why we ought to judge actions, am I ‘judgmental’, and am I being thus in a bad way?  In encouraging and teaching others to do the same, am I spreading an evil or negative way to live?  When a parent gives her children rules and teaches her children rules – be they rules in the house, or rules of daily living, does this make her a bad parent or a good parent?  A bad parent not only doesn’t teach her children the rules of life, but by being silent about right and wrong, gives her children the impression that they can do anything they want, as long as they are happy. 

Similarly, a bad priest would be one who doesn’t give clear instructions and teachings, or is just silently passive when lives are lived in a very morally illicit and even dangerous way.  My being clear about life and how one ought to live in God’s ways is my act of charity and compassion.  Being silent about it will be my tacit cooperation with evil and sin.

It’s how one understands compassion.
Perhaps the issue at hand is how one understands compassion.  Compassion isn’t true compassion when one allows evil to persist and thrive.  If my being labelled as being judgmental about LGBT issues like ‘married’ gay persons, or living out an active gay lifestyle is because I am not approving in anyway of these choices, it is because I am judging the actions

My compassion is shown when I understand that for many people, living a truly chaste life is something that is so difficult and requires much effort and self-denial, something that the human heart naturally finds offensive and repugnant.  My charity is shown when I give them good reason to continue in their struggle for holiness despite how difficult it is.  And for the LGBT community (and for anybody, in fact), this struggle is not only real, but needs to be seen in a positive light – by seeing it as a cross that they can carry with a purpose that is greater than themselves, and to offer any hardship and affliction up for souls in purgatory and for the holiness of the world.  For so many of them, I need to help them to understand that their route to sanctity and holiness is precisely in this cross of sacrifice through chaste living that they are carrying in their lives.

My compassion is also there when I try to understand how and why they may have chosen to live this way, and to give them the benefit of the doubt that perhaps it could be because they had not been morally formed well as far as the truth about life is concerned.  The loud voices that promote relativism are drowning out the soft whispers of the conscience of so many hearts, leading them to have made these choices.  When I take all that into consideration, this is where I practice true compassion.  

I am also compassionate when, despite their choices, I do my best to continue to love them and serve them and minister to them, and it is because I love them that I have to point out to them what is the morally right choice to choose in life.

And if this is going to be seen as my being judgmental in a bad way, I guess this will be my cross that I will offer up for souls as well.

Monday, January 6, 2020

My personal take on The Two Popes currently on Netflix.

There was much hype regarding the production and release of the Netflix movie The Two Popes and I was able to catch it over the Christmas/New Year holiday period.  I was particularly keen to see how they would portray the two leaders of the Roman Catholic Church and particularly what would be the slant of the screenwriter, Anthony McCarten.  The little information that I had of this man was that he had been raised Catholic, but nothing more can be found about how he has lived his Catholic life. Information of this kind would reveal the leanings of his work.  But because nothing of the sort could be culled from the internet, I had to make some deductions from the movie itself.

What was positive about the movie was that it took pains to portray the political turmoil that was bedeviling Argentina during the time when young Jorge Bergoglio was a young Jesuit.  This movie’s portrayal of his backstory also showed that Jorge did make certain choices which impacted the way his fellow Jesuits lived and ministered as priests and to a certain extent, the compromises that were made.  This gives us a glimpse into the heart of the man before he rose the ranks of first the episcopacy and then ultimately to the papacy, becoming the first ever Argentinian Pope of the Roman Catholic Church in history.  
Not taken from a scene from the movie, but from an actual meeting of Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict at prayer.
In this regard, one can then understand why Pope Francis appears to have strong leanings toward the oppressed, and a tenderness toward the poor.  One can understand why the man isn’t as hard lined as many would think a Pope should be when it comes to issues that make it very challenging for one to live a righteous and morally upright Catholic life, perhaps because he had seen (and continues to see) the struggles of a people who had tried to be faithful but were facing opposition and persecution for their faith.  

But it is clear that the mass media will always take sides when reporting what is either Tweeted or said by Pope Francis.  Those with an agenda will always want to read or hear him make comments that will support their stand, and to that effect, put words into his mouth.  When the famous statement made by him “who am I to judge?” was uttered, there were many who chose to interpret that as a tacit approval of living the LGBT lifestyle, when in truth, it was more of an interpretation of a statement.  I always tell people that we must be prudent and to differentiate between what the man Jorge Bergoglio says or Tweets, from what Pope Francis says or tweets in an official capacity as the Pontifax Maximus.  

But there is one major thing that I feel very strongly (in a negative way) about regarding the movie, and this is the very one-dimensional portrayal of Pope Benedict XVI, Josef Ratzinger.  It is particularly about how he is seen to be almost in a state of despair before retiring from the Papacy, because he says that he doesn’t hear the voice of God in prayer.  To show this giant of a spiritual man who has a tome of theological wealth of writings under his belt and who had been the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith for 24 years before his Papacy almost falling into despair because in prayer he “doesn’t hear the voice of God” anymore is both a shame and laughable at the same time.  Could it be more accurate to conjecture rather that this is more a revelation of what Anthony McCarten considers a healthy prayer-life to be – when one constantly hears the voice of God?  One wonders.

To show Pope Benedict almost despairing to not hear God’s voice is akin to him casting aside St Paul’s words to the Corinthian Christians to not despair when he writes in 2 Cor. 4:8 “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair”.   Moreover, it also treats as non-existent the strong testimonies of faith of the saints who persevered in their prayer life and love relationship with God despite not receiving consolations – saints like St Theresa of Avila, St Theresa of Calcutta, and perhaps most notably, the mystic and poet St John of the Cross whose faith was so strengthened during his time when he experienced his Dark Night of the Soul.  

I would say that this is shallow and one-dimensional portrayal of Pope Benedict’s prayer life because it gives very little credit to how this holy man understands what prayer is.  The unfortunate result of this movie is that it may have given some depth to the character of Pope Francis but it  achieves this at the expense of flattening out the character of Pope Benedict XVI, and giving him as much depth as a pool that is two-inches deep.  And that is a shame.

I’d like to take this opportunity to expand on just how wrong it is to reduce prayer to hearing God’s voice. 

Prayer is first and foremost not a feeling nor a sensation or emotion.  It is less about hearing God’s voice, than it is about loving God with effort and dedication. Prayer is far more love-based than it is sentiment-based.  The very common problem that many people face (and they tell me this all the time) is that they make the mistake of either praying for a feeling, or when there is a feeling.  And they come to some kind of crisis in their prayer life when those feelings and sentiments are missing or have stopped altogether.  In my counsel to them, I try to lead them to understand that feelings alone are not good indications of a good prayer life, and for that matter, neither are they good indications of a good marriage.  That is because feelings fluctuate like the stock market.  To prayer only when there are feelings doesn’t show much love because one can be praying as a form of self-gratification. 

I am certainly not afraid nor ashamed to admit that every day when I enter the Adoration Room for my Holy Hour with the Lord, that I do not hear the voice of God in any audible way.  But I know that I am doing this because I am loving God and it is a demonstration of my fidelity, and I know that this suffices.  My faithfulness to this routine is prayer in itself.  If God chooses to give me any consolations, it is a welcome bonus, but it cannot be for this that I go into daily prayer.  If it is so, then it will be reducible to some form of self-gratification.

But love that is effortful, love that is willing the good of the other for the sake of the other, and prayer that is based on this love reveals a prayer that is solid because it is based on a love that is solid.  I am sure that of all people, Pope Benedict knows this.  Maybe not Anthony McCarten, I'm afraid.

Would I recommend spending time watching this production?  Watch it if it is a glimpse of the backstory of the person of Jorge Bergoglio that interests you.  But if you are hoping to get some inspiration to develop your spiritual life in a mature and serious way, you may be in danger of giving yourselves reason to abandon your prayer life after watching The Two Popes rather than becoming inspired to be faithful to stick with fidelity to a constant prayer routine in life.  

If it is a better understanding of your Catholic faith that you are seeking, you’d be better off watching the archived episodes of Life is Worth Living which was hosted and presented by the erudite and holy Bishop Fulton Sheen which was made back in the 1950s.