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Sunday Sermon: God didn’t make you a coward

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Saint Paul in prison, writing one of the epistles

 

As most already know who follow this website, I am a Catholic. I also serve as a Lector many weeks during Mass services, which gives me the opportunity and honor of reading to our parishioners from the Word of God.

This ‘Sunday Sermon’ series dates all the way back to 2005, and is always based on a reading or sermon from the Mass on that particular Sunday.

This morning, my New Testament reading came from the Apostle Paul’s second letter to Timothy. It is one of three known “epistles” written by Paul.

Before we get into the specific message for today, a quick vocabulary lesson.

An epistle is simply a letter or series of letters. In the New Testament, they come in the form of a book, made up of the letters from a particular apostle.

An apostle is someone who has been sent to specifically spread a message or teaching. Saint Paul, also known historically as Saul of Tarsus, was perhaps the most important apostle of the first century.

In the two decades immediately following the death of Jesus Christ, Paul underwent a personal conversion and then began to spread Jesus’ teachings throughout the Roman and Jewish world of the times.

The second letter to Timothy, a segment of which made up today’s New Testament reading, is considered by tradition to have been written just before Paul’s death, sometime in the mid-late 60’s during the first century A.D.

However, there are many scholars who now believe that it was actually the product of one of his students, writing in the decades after Paul’s death. In any event, it was certainly in keeping with his philosophy.

The letter was written to Timothy, who was one of the earliest Christian church leaders. Timothy served as the very first bishop of Ephesus, located in Egypt.

In the letter, Paul writes from prison, where the Romans are holding him for the teaching of the Gospel. He writes the following as encouragement to Timothy in the latter’s role as an early church leader:

Beloved:

I remind you, to stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.

For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control.

So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord, nor of me, a prisoner for his sake; but bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.

Take as your norm the sound words that you heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard this rich trust with the help of the Holy Spirit that dwells within us.

The phrase which jumps out at me from this letter is this: “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice…”

This letter is one of three ‘pastoral epistles’ written by Paul. They are considered as such because they were written to individuals with pastoral care and responsibility over a particular church, and cover issues of Christian living, doctrine and leadership.

While these epistles are clearly written to church leadership with them in mind, they are just as relevant to all members of the church.

God does not want us to live as cowards. He did not imbue us with a “spirit of cowardice“, as Paul writes.

Paul calls on all of us to draw on the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling within each believer, the love preached by Jesus Christ himself during his life on Earth, and the self-discipline gained during our own lifetime of experiences and failures in order to help spread the Word of God.

Stop looking to others to carry a load that you have every ability to help carry yourself. You can teach your family. You can volunteer in some way at your church. You can personally set an example by regularly attending church services and participating in the sacraments.

Far too often, far too many of us point the finger at others shortfalls, be those church leaders, politicians, any of our fellow men. We are often unwilling to look in the mirror at our own sins and shortcomings.

Have the courage to not only take that hard look in the mirror at yourself, but also to actually take some positive action regarding your faith.

Even if you consider yourself a brave Christian, we all have moments or periods of life in which we falter. Whatever your present or future attitude and situation, remember, God didn’t make you a coward. Don’t act like one.

Church Matters

There are some who will tell you that they don’t believe it is important to attend formal church services, such as the Catholic Mass. They will tell you that their relationship with God is private, between them and Him, and that they talk and/or pray to Him on their own.

People who use this excuse to avoid regular church services do so for a variety of reasons. Let’s leave out the atheists and the agnostics, we already get why they don’t go to church. The people that I am most interested in addressing here are the Christians of the world who stay home on Sundays.

The church avoiders include those who believe in “something”, but feel that there are many religions around the world, who is anyone to say that theirs is the one, true church, and thus refuse to commit to any one set of beliefs, staying away from church for this reason.

The avoiders also include the obvious, the true lazy excuse-makers. They just don’t feel like getting up early on a Sunday morning, or setting aside time on their days off from work to feel obligated to give up some of that free time.

The church avoiders also include those who are angry with their church, such as Catholics who stay away because of issues such as the Church position on abortion, or gay marriage, or because of the recent explosion of priest sexual abuse scandals.

In the end, all of these people who are avoiding church, making excuses for what they feel are valid reasons or ways of thinking, are getting it wrong. In the case of the “something” believers, they are missing the Truth of Christianity. For the lazy, they are thumbing their nose at God, who asks only one hour of the 168 in your week. For the angry, they are committing the mistake of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

The Truth of Christianity is found in the person and the teachings of Jesus Christ. “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” is what Jesus said. You have only a couple ways to confront that statement. You call him a crazy man or a liar, or he was telling the truth.

The laziness of true excuse-makers who are otherwise believers is perhaps the worst of them. These people know they should be in church, but they would rather sleep, or go out to breakfast, or read the paper, or watch a ballgame. Again, God’s own words as given to us in His most basic commands: “Remember to keep holy the Sabbath”. He asks you for an hour of your week. Christ suffered on the cross for hours for you. That is too much for you? Really?

For those staying away out of anger, you are only punishing yourself. Your anger should be directed at priests who committed these heinous sins, and at the bureaucrats who protected them. But your experience at Mass on Sunday is your chance to overcome these sins. Coming together as a community of believers in worship shows that, no matter what, you will not lay down, your Church cannot be laid low by men.

In his “Why Should I Go to Mass on Sunday?”, William J. Bradley says it well: “When we go to Mass we tell the world around us who we are and what we represent. Simply by going to Mass makes us all evangelists to our family, friends, neighbours and the community in which we live.”

At Mass we are encouraged by God’s words in the Bible, we are strengthened by our Lord’s gifts in the Sacrament of Eucharist, and we are uplifted by our fellow parishioners prayers. Find a schedule of Catholic Mass at your local church. Walk in and slip into a pew. Listen. Pray. I believe that you will be surprised at what God will open in your heart, mind, and soul.

Resolve to come back to church

In these first few days of the New Year many of us are struggling with beginning resolutions to improve our lives. For many this involves losing weight and getting in better physical shape. For some it involves straightening out their financial lives.

No matter what your particular resolution, deciding to go back to Church, or perhaps even to go to Church regularly for the first time in your life, would be the single most important and rewarding for yourself and your family.

Going to Church requires taking care of a few formalities first, such as which Church to attend. There are many ‘fly-by-night’ operations out there disguised as churches. There are also any number of churches run by a strong pastor wholly dependant on that one person, always a dangerous proposition.

At the risk of alienating some, I am going to make a very brief case for you to give the Roman Catholic Church a try. Most of you probably already know which Catholic parish in which you live. If you don’t just visit the Archdiocese website at archphila.org or give them a phone call at 215-587-3600.

The Catholic Mass is one of the most solemn and comforting services that you will ever experience. The solemnity comes from it’s respect and reverence for the experience of worship. There is rarely any jumping around or hollering or dancing here. Prayer, scripture, and sacrament are the highlights of a Catholic Mass.

When you attend a Catholic Church service you are getting virtually the same general Mass service being experienced by hundreds of millions of Roman Catholics the world over on any given Sunday.
There is a structure to the Mass involving two main parts: the Liturgy of the Word involving scriptural readings from both the Old and New Testaments, and the Liturgy of the Eucharist involving the preparation for and receiving of the Body of Christ.

In the Liturgy of the Word there are three readings. The first is always going to be by a lector and will come from the Old Testament, giving a teaching or passage from the traditional books of the Bible familiar to both Christians and Jews.

The second is also from a lector and is going to be from the New Testament, usually from Paul’s mission and that of Jesus’ disciples in the aftermath of his death.

Finally there will be a reading by the Priest from one of the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John relating to some incident directly involving Jesus Christ.

In the Liturgy of the Eucharist the priest will present and bless the bread and wine, and with God’s help will turn it into the body and blood of Jesus Christ in a process known as Transubstantiation. During this portion of the Mass there will be traditional praying of the Lord’s Prayer, the ‘Our Father’, a greeting among the community in offering one another a Sign of Peace, and then the actual receiving of the Lord in the Eucharist or Communion ceremony.

The entirety of the normal Catholic Mass service will take up about an hour of your time on any particular Saturday evening or Sunday morning. Depending on the size of the parish, Mass is offered 3-4 times on Sunday mornings. Also at many Catholic churches the Mass is offered in a 5pm or 6pm service on Saturday evenings for those who have to work or otherwise cannot make it to church on a Sunday morning.

As far as financial responsibilities, there are collections taken up as ‘offerings’ to the Church. Usually there is one main collection that will be for the support of your particular parish. There may be a 2nd collection directed towards a particular purpose, such as supporting the Church in a particularly difficult area of the world.

If you become a registered member of a parish, which you can and should do once you determine to which you belong, you will receive weekly envelopes in which to place your collection offering. There are guidelines suggested, but give as little or as much as you feel you can afford. If you cannot afford a formal offering on a regular basis, go to the Church anyway, and perhaps find some other small way to support the efforts, including through your prayers.

The Roman Catholic Church is the largest Christian denomination in the world with more than a billion members made up of 1/6th of the planet’s population. By joining the Church you join that support system in an institution tracing it’s origins directly back to the Apostle Peter, Christ’s hand-picked choice as “the Rock upon which” the Lord’s Church would be built.

There are some usual criticisms that you will hear about the Catholic Church that usually come across in four usual challenges by non-believers or advocates of other churches. These challenges involve staleness or blandness of the Mass ceremony, the priest sexual abuse, praying to statues or images, and the Papacy.

First, Catholics do not ever pray to statues or paintings or any other image. We put no image above or in place of God. What we will do regularly is ask for the intercession of Jesus’ mother Mary or the holy men and women from the Church’s past known as ‘Saints’ to pray to God on our behalf. We can and do pray directly to God, and believe that the intercession by these other holy individuals can help as well.

Secondly, where one man or woman might find the Mass boring many others find it beautiful, and I am firmly in that second group. Within that one short hour you get many opportunities to participate in group prayer, personal reflection and prayer, sacramental participation, and the singing of hymns. One Priest will indeed be more dynamic or personally charismatic than another, but it is the content of the Mass that is most important, not the individuals making the presentation.

Where the Priest abuse scandals are concerned, they are a fact of Church history that would be a mistake to ever ignore or deny. That denial and cover up went on for far too long, and no one is more ashamed or angered by that fact than Church members. Here I always point out an old saying to critics: “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”

There are many, many thousands of good men around the world today serving God as Catholic Priests. These are men who have no taint of personal scandal, and who deserve our admiration and respect for giving up a worldly life in service to God and our community.

The Church is much more than the actions of rogue, degenerate men in Priestly garments. We are the community of God’s people, and we will overcome this challenge and defeat Satan the same way the Lord’s people have always done, by learning from mistakes and strongly addressing them, and by standing together and leaning on prayer and on the Word of the Lord in moving forward.

Finally, those outside the Church simply are wrong when they say that we the Pope is the “head of the Roman Catholic Church” and that we place the Holy Father above Jesus or put him right along side God. The fact as all Catholics know is that Jesus Christ is the head of the Catholic Church. The Pope is the spiritual leader of the Church, and has himself lived a life guided by and inspired by God.

Just as with any large and historically established institution, there will always be critics of the Church. Don’t let their easily defeated challenges influence your decision to join or come back to the Catholic Church. Pray for your own personal inspiration from God, set aside one hour for a few weeks and actually come to Mass, and open up your heart and mind to the opportunity.

I personally have experienced the power of returning to the Church myself and can tell you without hesitation that it will be the most rewarding resolution that you can keep this New Year.

Time, talent, and treasure

This morning for the first time I processed up the main aisle and on to the altar, and then stepped up to the lectern in front of my fellow parishioners at the 7:30am Mass at St. Christopher’s Church in Somerton to present the first reading from the Old Testament.

The selection was from the 1st book of Samuel, one of the ‘Historical Books’, and told the story of how a barren woman named Hannah prayed to God for a son and promised that if the Lord so gifted her she would turn the child over to the priesthood. God granted her desire, and she kept to her promise after weaning Samuel as a small child.

God had given Hannah a gift, and Hannah responded in kind by sharing her gift with the Lord. It was this very gifting process that led me to the lectern on Sunday morning through a ‘Stewardship’ program beginning to spread through the Catholic church and other Christian denominations as well.

Stewardship is the process of realizing that all that we have and all that we are is a gift from God. This makes us ‘stewards’ of these gifts in that we manage them on behalf of the Lord during our time here on earth.

In managing these gifts we are not only encouraged but are expected to share them with the body of the Church. In evaluating exactly how each of us can best share our gifts we should examine in our own lives the opportunities that we all have to give of our time, our talents, and our treasure.

The first opportunity, to give of our time, can take on many forms. The very least amount of time that we should be giving is that 1 hour each week to attend Mass. The normal 7-day week consists of 168 hours. God only asks that you come to His house for one of those. The very least you can do is give Him that hour and keep holy the Sabbath.

Of course what we are really talking about in Stewardship is giving more than the minimum. So more than the minimum of your time might involve some other activity on behalf of the Church. You could volunteer to help clean the church building prior to Christmas or Easter. Every parish or church community has volunteer opportunities ranging from smaller commitments to larger ones.

Another way to increase your Stewardship would be to share your talent. For some that might be a physical gift. Perhaps you are good with carpentry or plumbing and could volunteer to help your church in those areas. I am a police officer and a teacher with a great deal of public speaking experience, thus my decision to become involved in sharing that talent as a lector.

Not everyone is cut out to be a lector. Many people have a fear of speaking in front of large crowds, or just simply are not very good readers, or both. Neither of those has ever been a problem for me. But where tools are concerned, I’m lucky that I can even screw in a light bulb. Every one of us has some type of talent or career experience that we can share. Again, your individual church will have opportunities available for you to help.

Finally, you can share your treasure. This means exactly what it sounds like it means – money. You can do this through direct giving, increasing even slightly the amount that you place in a church envelope or collection, for instance. It could also mean bequething property or valuables to the church on your passing.

There are many skeptics when it comes to giving money or valuables to what they perceive to be an entity as large as the Catholic Church. Keep in mind that every individual parish runs largely on it’s own resources. Your directed gift or increased contributions will go directly to help the church that services your very own communities spiritual needs.

You don’t have to do anything. You can just keep going along the way that you are right now. Many Catholics and other Christians, and members of other faith systems, have drifted away from church almost entirely. Many Christians joke of becoming ‘Chreasters’, where they attend services only on Christmas and Easter. Others say things flippantly such as “I’m good with God, me and Him talk directly to one another.”

Jesus turned to Peter and told him that he would be the rock upon which “I will build my church, which will overcome all the evil forces arrayed against it.” Jesus also taught that “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” In these specific but in many other example of his teachings and his living he showed the importance of gathering as a church community.

Personally, I have decided to begin with the small steps of volunteering with my church Lector Society to do the readings at Mass. My wife and I have decided to slightly increase our Sunday collection offerings. I am going to begin to look for other opportunities, and we will continue to build our own stewardship role with our church over time.

God calls each of us to the role of Stewardship, the sharing of those gifts which He has given to us in this life. It is up to each one of us to more closely examine our lives and our abilities, to get in touch with our own church, and to find an opportunity to present and share those gifts of time, talent, and treasure in honor of the Lord.

NOTE: This is the final ‘Sunday Sermon’ entry of 2009, a regular series of which all previous entries can be read by clicking on to the label below this posting at http://www.mattveasey.com

A Good Catholic Boy


During the course of our lives most of us are going to have any number of labels placed upon us by others. Some we will wear with pride: hard worker, strong willed, high energy. Others will cause us to reevaluate ourselves: lacks effort, undisciplined, tardy.

Recently, someone hung on me the moniker of being a “good Catholic boy” based on limited knowledge gathered by my writings and commentary at this blog. I believe that it was meant to be somewhat complimentary, but it also has caused me to evaluate whether or not it is actually true.

The only way to figure out if I am indeed a ‘good Catholic boy’, in fact if anyone can be described in such a manner, is to determine what exactly that phrase means. To do that, I think we need to break it down, word by word. What does it mean to be good, to be Catholic, to be a boy? And then we need to figure out if, taken together, those words would constitute a compliment. Would they be something of which to be proud?

Let’s start off with being ‘good’, a virtue the meaning of which most of us could probably agree. Webster’s primary definition of ‘good’ states “of a favorable character or tendency“, and secondarily as “virtuous, right, commendable“. Sounds ‘good’ to me. But do I personally fit the bill?

Examining the totality of any American citizen’s life is going to reveal specific incidents of what most of us would consider ‘good’ actions and ‘bad’ actions. It is not only possible, but it happens in fact that people who are good the majority of the time, good in their nature, do sometimes commit bad acts. Conversely, people who many would consider as bad or even ‘evil’ can sometimes do a good act.

I would like to consider myself as falling into the former category, where I feel that most of us fall. An honest evaluation of the person that I know myself to be inside, and the reactions that people generally have towards me, lead me to believe that I am indeed a generally ‘good’ person. That I know also for a fact that I have committed some ‘bad’ actions in my life does not detract from that basic goodness, it simply keeps me striving to improve as a human being.

While being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ as a part of your basic character as a person is really not that hard to determine in most instances, even easier to determine is the idea of being a boy. It starts with the premise that you are sexually a male, so that part is easy. The real difficult point is to draw a line between boyhood and becoming a ‘man’, an adult male.

Putting an exact age on this shift is troublesome. Just because someone reaches the age of 18 for instance, where in America you can do such things as vote, is not enough. Even reaching the age of 21, where again in America you can legally consume alcohol and by which point many people have or are about to graduate from college is not enough.

Moving from ‘boy’ to ‘man’ is not about some numerical, chronological age. It is about combining a certain minimum age with reaching a maturity level at which you begin to think outside of yourself on an egotistical level. Some can reach this point at age 16, others at 18, others at 21. Some males take decades to reach the point where they can legitimately call themselves a ‘man’ in real terms.

Being a man means taking care of your responsibilities to home, family, and career. It means placing the needs of your family ahead of your own personal needs and desires. It means setting a good example, working hard, and taking important issues such as faith, politics, and morality seriously. During my own life, moving from boyhood to manhood came in fits and starts.

I had some tremendous responsibilities put on my shoulders at a time when many would still have considered me a boy in chronological age. Parenthood, marriage, and taking care of a sick parent all came to me at very young ages. Over the years I handled most of those responsibilities, but in retrospect I know that I didn’t always handle them the way I now believe that a true man would. I absolutely can be accused of being selfish, ignorant, and unreliable at times, especially when I was younger.

But I certainly feel that the totality of my life experiences has left me as a ‘man’ today. I know that I have grown as a father and grandfather, as a husband in my second marriage, as a homeowner, as a professional in the law enforcement field. So at this stage of my life I feel pretty comfortable in accepting someone calling me a ‘good man’, even if I still may act a bit childish from time to time.

The final term to look at here is that ‘Catholic’ label. That one might indeed be the hardest, even though for some it might seem the easiest to determine. Let’s face it, anyone can call themselves whatever they want and justify it in some way. People who consider themselves ‘Catholic’ as a matter of faith do that frequently. You grew up Catholic, or you go to a Catholic church at times, or you send your kids to a Catholic school.

Does any of that make you ‘Catholic’ truly? If not, what does make one a Catholic in deed, not just as a label. The roots of the word go back to Greek origin, and basically are going to lead you to ‘universal’ as a definition. In the early Church, if you were a Christian you were catholic. Of course as we all know there were many doctrinal splits in the Church over the millenia.

Today being a Catholic with capital ‘C’ signifies to most that you belong religiously to the Roman Catholic Church. You can call yourself a member if you are baptized into the Church, and then more fully as you progress through receiving the Sacraments, particularly Confirmation. Stronger commitments are reached with regularly attending Mass and receiving the Eucharist at Holy Communion, and in cleansing yourself of sin in Penance and Reconciliation.

But these are acts of physical or emotional commitment on ones part. What is truly needed to really be able to call oneself ‘Catholic’ is an understanding and living out of the basic creed of the Church to be ‘one, holy, and apostolic’ in nature. You follow the ‘one Church’ established by Christ whole-heartedly, you always attempt to live your life in a holy manner even if you fall short most times, and you try to spread Christ’s word in apostolic fashion by your own words and deeds.

In this sense, I feel comfortable calling myself a Catholic. I do believe in the Church and it’s creed, in the teachings of Jesus Christ, and I do feel inspired by the Holy Spirit as a direct presence in my life. I read the Bible. I go to Mass and receive Communion. I go to Confession and perform Penance (though not as often as I probably should), and I have been both baptized and confirmed in the Church.

As I have gotten older I have begun to express my Christianity and Catholic beliefs much more frequently, particularly here at my blog. I have volunteered as a lector in my own church. I have supported my wife as she herself converted to Catholicism some years ago now. I have subtly tried to pass along my faith to my children, something that I failed to do strongly enough when they were young. I pray every single day that they come to a full faith in Christ during their lifetime. I believe that I still have much more to do, but that ‘Catholic’ is certainly a term you can use to describe me at this point.

So in the end, the term that was hung on me of being a “good Catholic boy” is a bit misleading. I am only ‘good’ most of the time. I still have much room to grow in my ‘Catholic’ faith. I have mostly shed the habits of a ‘boy’ and take my responsibilities as a man far more seriously. But I know inside that I am a ‘good’ person, I am happy to practice and express my ‘Catholic’ faith, and am confident enough in my manhood to still allow the ‘boy’ in me to come out at times.

A good Catholic boy.” I have some work to do still, but I think that I can happily live with that. I hope to be able to live up to that label going forward in experiencing this gift of life that God has given to me. I would invite anyone reading this to also try living up to the challenge one day, one action, one moment at a time.