Random Acts of Kindness by Monsignor Ferrarese

When we speak of random acts, we often are speaking of random acts of violence. We often read in the newspapers that so-and-so was a victim of a random act of violence. Some evil and furious person lashed out violently and the innocent person who got in the way by chance was the victim of that random act.

But I remember the story of an individual who would regularly keep quarters in his pocket, and when he saw that a parking meter (remember them!) had run out on a poor soul, he would put in a few quarters so that the owner of the car would not get a ticket. He said that he was practicing random acts of kindness. He just wanted to help people and did not want any attention or credit given to him.

A few times when traveling on the subway, I have seen some beautiful acts of unsolicited kindness. On a number of occasions, when the train was very crowded and I was standing, a seated rider offered me his or her seat. When it first happened, I was confused and then a little embarrassed. I never saw myself as ‘elderly’ and thereby eligible for an act of compassion. It was, to tell the truth, a little humbling! But my point is that I have seen that happen on a number of occasions, not only with myself as the beneficiary, but others as well. Was this hard and tough New York?

Deep in our nature, there is the desire to be of service to someone. While it is often obscured by circumstances, it lies deep enough that it often comes to the surface through simple acts of kindness and compassion. With all the negative views of human nature blaring from the headlines, it is a sign of God’s goodness and benevolent design that charity is more deeply embedded in our nature.

When I look at the world, for instance, while flying overhead in a jet plane, the order of life is amazing. Seeing the city of New York from the plane window, I see order and purpose and interlocking sacrifices to make things work together for the good of all. Business and building, protection by firefighters and police, sanitation, hospitals, schools, the armed services, stores and goods of all types, electricity in every home, indoor plumbing, hot water, etc. All of this is built on the desire for good—the good of our families, our friends, our neighbors, ourselves, moving toward a great crescendo of care and concern. This is all constructed on the foundations of the moral order God has inscribed in our hearts: honesty, compassion, justice. When it all hits me, I am moved to spontaneous prayer and praise! How can we not worship and adore such a good God! How can we not love and forgive each other?

Often what keeps us bound to destructive patterns are fears and resentments. We go over the hurts we have endured over and over again. We become afraid of more hurts in the future. This makes us suspicious and unwilling to let go. To let go means to risk being hurt again. Some of this is very human. We learn not to let go of our guard so we can prevent more hurt in the future. Some of this is demonic as well. The evil one uses our fears and our propensity to defend ourselves by an addictive return of the feelings we most need to avoid, so to confuse and discourage us. The antidote of course is the Cross.

The Doctrine of the Cross is not simply about enduring pain. It is about the struggle to be good, to postpone gratifications of all sorts, to sacrifice our comfort for others, of uniting our unavoidable sufferings to the sufferings of Christ. Properly understood, it gives us freedom in the most difficult circumstances to see all things in Christ and in His Holy Will. Therefore, we are not afraid of pain; we don’t look for it either. We accept some of the legitimate sufferings that we undergo for others and for God. This does not include the illegitimate sufferings we bring on ourselves by avoiding change and subscribing to false solutions. A young person may have a real problem with his or her parents. The solution is not to start drinking. God does not will this. So that person will spend many wasted years of suffering with blind alleys and plenty of hitting one’s head against a wall until, finally achieving sobriety, they can deal with the problems that first caused the drinking! This resolving to false solutions is done in many ways and causes much unnecessary sufferings unwilled by God. The struggle to achieve sobriety, however, and maintain it is salvific since God wills it, because it is for our true good.

So it is with much of life. Discovering and accepting the path of God is the surest way to happiness and the productivity resulting in random and non-random works of charity and kindness.

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Toward a Catholic Feminism

It would seem a contradiction in terms to speak about a Catholic Feminism. Over the issue of abortion, secular feminists and the Church have been at war. They seem to be irreconcilable opposites. Certainly, if we confine feminism to this one issue, they are on opposite sides; but feminism, properly defined as the coming to terms with equality and the combating of degrading stereotypes and debasing, often violent repression of women, is very congenial to the Church’s personalism. The dignity and infinite value of every human being, both male and female, is at the very core of the Church’s mission.

With the exception of feminism’s espousal of the right to an abortion, which the Church can never countenance, much good has come from our culture’s drive for equality.

This hit home when I recently took in a couple of Broadway shows of musicals that I have always loved: ‘My Fair Lady’ and ‘Carousel’. I had seen these musicals in the past but had never noticed how badly women were treated in them. In ‘My Fair Lady’, Professor Henry Higgins tries to change the poor girl Eliza into a Lady by changing the way she speaks, moving from a low-class cockney “peasant” to a high-class “posh” Englishwoman. George Bernard Shaw, who wrote the play ‘Pygmalion’ that the musical is based on, was writing about class in England (he was a liberal socialist). But in the course of the play and musical, the Professor berates and insults Eliza so much that today’s audience has to grit its teeth. And when he refuses in the end to give any credit to her, a modern audience loses all respect for Higgins. In traditional staging of the musical, Eliza goes back to the Professor whom she loves and gets his slippers for him, as he demanded on numerous times before. Realizing the sea changes in our culture, the director in this production has her pat his cheek and run away from him. This complete change is justified in my own mind by the harsh treatment of Eliza, which cannot nor should not survive in the post “#MeToo” movement.

In “Carousel”, the difference in time perspective was even more pronounced. Julie is in love with a drifter named Billy. Everyone but she sees that she is headed for trouble. But the excuses she gives concerning why she stays with him even though he beats her, just seem like a horrible joke. In fact, there was an audible gasp in the audience when she tried to excuse his behavior!

My point in bringing up these two examples is that much has changed in our attitude toward women. Nothing in this shift, moreover, is at variance with our Catholic faith. In fact, the equal treatment of women and the respect called for in dealing with women is completely in line with our faith. This cultural shift, felt in religions throughout the world, is in many ways the natural outgrowth of our Judeo-Christian heritage. The faith that gave us Esther and Mary has no problems with women voting or having equal pay or with having a choice in childbearing through natural family planning. But a Catholic feminism cannot say that there are no differences between men and women, nor that the privilege and the responsibility of bringing children into the world can be regulated by any means whatever, including killing the preborn child. This is not true feminism. Many of the early exponents of women suffrage were against abortion because it was a violation of women and not just a choice.

True and authentic feminism celebrates the uniqueness of women and the complementary role they play in defining the human family. This must never mean subservience to men. Unfortunately, this has been true even of the recent past. The two musicals that I cited are painful reminders of this.

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Feast of the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome

Feast of the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome

Today’s feast is a commemoration of those Christians living in Rome that suffered and were martyred in the first wave of persecution of the Church by the Roman state.  This wave of persecution was ordered by the Emperor Nero in response to the great fire of Rome in 64AD.  This fire destroyed over half the city.  Nero, looking for a scapegoat, chose the Christians, a small group that Roman citizens didn’t know much about. This began a 250 year period where Christianity would be subject to arrest, trial and death.

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Feast of Saints Peter and Paul

Feast of Saints Peter and Paul

On June 29th the church celebrates the feast of Saints Peter and Paul.  Even though they were not martyred at the same time there is an ancient tradition of celebrating the joint martyrdom of these two saints.  St. Augustine preaching in the late 4th century explained the significance: “Both apostles share the same feast day, for these two were one; and even though they suffered on different days, they were as one.”

Peter and Paul were the two most important individuals in the early Church; both were recognized as the leading preachers, teachers and leaders, and they are acclaimed as the founders of Christianity in Rome. This association with the city lent significant prestige to Rome as the premier center of Christianity; only Rome can claim having had Peter and Paul live, preach and be martyred there, and this was one of the reasons that Rome and its bishop came to be recognized as the leading center and leading bishop in the Church.

Peter met his martyrdom in 64AD by being crucified upside-down.  He was buried on Vatican hill and St. Peter’s Basilica was built, eventually, over his tomb. Paul was martyred in 67AD by being decapitated. He is buried in Rome in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls.

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Pope Emeritus Benedict and Fake News by Monsignor Ferrarese

One of the primary insights of our former Pope Benedict XVI was that the most dangerous erroneous beliefs of the modern world is the relativity of Truth. To the question Pilate proposed to our Lord during His trial, “What is Truth?”, the modern world would not have an answer, or more accurately would have a myriad of answers: Whose Truth? You have your truth and I have mine. All truths are relative since they emerge from each person’s human perspective. In this pseudo-logic, you have your truths and I have mine: there is no objective truth; all truth is subjective and, hence, it is the product of every individual human’s psyche.

Jesus told Pilate that He came to witness to the Truth. At another place, Jesus made the powerful statement that, “… you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free (John 8:32).”

What was Jesus talking about since, supposedly “advanced”, modern scholars and philosophers have declared this Truth to be extinct?

From the time of the philosopher Descartes with his turn to the subject (the person) as opposed to the object (the thing observed), modern thought has seen all of reality through the lens of the individual person. And since that person is seeing reality through the prism of his own history and perspective, one’s view of truth becomes more and more subjective. Hence we move from the quest of THE truth to an admission that each person has his or her own version of truth (with no definite article). Therefore, one must always suspect that what we say is true is only true for the person who has all those perspectives that produced it.

It is only a short jump from that to the difficult-to-understand theory that we not only describe our truth, we can produce it, and that even a nation’s laws must protect those choices.

We see this clearly in the abortion controversy. If a woman is pregnant and the developing fetus is wanted, then it is a child; but if it is not wanted, it becomes a “growth” that can be cut out. How can something cease to be a child merely because of the belief of the parents? Can wishing something to be change the reality of what is or is not in front of me?

Reality is reality. Wanting a zebra to be a giraffe won’t change the reality of that zebra. There is an objective truth to reality that cannot be explained away.

This over-reliance on the subjective is easily carried over into the realm of the political. While journalism stresses objectivity, we all know it depends on what newspaper you read that determines what the slant will be. A newspaper’s political philosophy informs all its reportage, even when the reporter reports otherwise. Editors will often enforce the accepted code that defines the publication in question.

As amazing as it may seem, even highly educated and otherwise intelligently urban writers are not aware of these preconditions of the intellect, these pervasive biases that cause them to select and shape what they see so that they conform the article to the paper’s politics. This can also easily be translated to all other media.

These firmly held, pervasive and unconscious beliefs seem invisible except to those who do not share those preconceptions.

Cardinal Newman tried so hard to convince his brother that there is a God. His brother, a convinced atheist, would not even entertain Newman’s arguments. Newman called this preconscious stance “Antecedent Probability.”

It is due to these biases that are usually unacknowledged and often unknown that the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ has come to the fore. As I have already mentioned, this has always been a problem. What has changed is the assumption that this is the normal state of things and that all things are relative, even the truth. In other words, the guiding principle is: just put it out there and don’t worry about whether it is true or not.

On another more cynical level, this lack of respect for truth as an objective reality can be used by people to deliberately spread falsehoods! The head of the Nazi propaganda machine, Joseph Goebbels, was quoted as saying, “If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it, and you will even come to believe it yourself.” And also, “A lie told once remains a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.” Wow! This is what totalitarian governments have done to guide public opinion away from the truth. How much easier does that become when you don’t even believe there is Truth (with a capital T).

We should be rightly suspect when any news organization, be they of the left or of the right (or even just leaning in either direction), tries to tell us some news item. For those of us that think that there is such a thing as Truth, we need to be aware that many in the world consciously or unconsciously push their agendas and call it ‘facts’ or ‘truth.’ While we believe in Truth, we live in a world that does not.

Pope Benedict was right about the world’s commitment to the relativity of Truth. We disagree with both the suppositions and the consequences of this assault on the real world that God created.

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St. Irenaeus

St. Irenaeus

St. Irenaeus was s Christian bishop who lived during the 2nd century.  He was of Greek ancestry from Smyrna which was located on Asia Minor.  He knew Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna and a disciple of St. John the Evangelist.  As a young man Irenaeus heard Polycarp preach.

As an adult he moved to the city of Lyons in southern Gaul, now France.  He was a priest and he survived the persecution of the church by order of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius.  He was then named bishop of Lyons.

Irenaeus was famous for his orthodox preaching and teaching.  He preached concerning the right (orthodox) belief of the church in the face of certain heresies of his day.  His most renowned work is called Adversus haereses (Against Heresies).

Little is known of the later years of his life as bishop.  Some believe him to be a martyr. He is venerated as a saint by most Christian denominations.  His feast day is June 28th.

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St. Cyril of Alexandria

St. Cyril of Alexandria

Cyril of Alexandria was the Patriarch of Alexandria from 412 to 444.  Alexandria was one of the 5 ancient Apostolic Sees in Christianity.  It was also one of the great ancient centers of learning, both secular, think of the great library located there, and ecclesial.  As one of the apostolic patriarchs Cyril had tremendous influence over Church theology, teaching and discipline.

Cyril was patriarch during the Nestorian conflict.  He was the leading bishop at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD and he fought quite hard for Mary to be called Theotokos, God-bearer, not as his opponents called her Christ-bearer, Christotokos.

Because of his great defense of Christology and Mariology he is one of the doctors of the Church.

His feast day is celebrated June 27th.

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The Dictatorship of Noise by Monsignor Ferarrese

One of the most original and controversial spiritual writers of our age is an African Cardinal named Robert Cardinal Sarah. He grew up in poverty in his home country of Guinea, West Africa, and converted at an early age from animism to Christianity. Historically, Africa has always produced a very radical form of Christianity: from the time of Tertullian, Cyprian and Augustine, the African fathers of the Church challenged a comfortable reading of the Gospel.

Along with many of the Bishops of Africa, both Catholic and Anglican, you have a very strong, and some would say rigorist, form of Christianity. They resist the watering-down of our faith because of the needs of convenience. In their often-bitter battle with an expanding Islam, they seek to present the Christian faith in all its ardor and its demands.

Pope Francis has put him in charge of many aspects of Church life including the Liturgy. Cardinal Sarah clearly comes from the people and is interested in maintaining the purity of the Christian message.

It is, therefore, very interesting that one of his first books is one entitled “The Power of Silence”. In it, he details the presence everywhere of what he calls ‘noise’. If we are honest about it, we have to admit that he is right! There is so much noise around us (think of the construction on Astoria’s streets!), but also the mindless chatter that comes from our devices: radios, TVs, computers, smartphones, etc. Then you add in the noise from within: voices of the past, our fears, our hopes, our angers, our resentments seething inside of us in its totality. Thus we have a cacophony of noises that obscures the voice of God.

Only silence can restore the balance of creation.

As many of you already know, I am a great believer in the contemplative side of the Church. By that I mean the whole monastic and eremitical movement in the Church (in both the Catholic and Orthodox traditions). Monks and Nuns (‘Nuns’ are properly the female branches of the contemplative orders in the Church—to be distinguished from the more active orders of women that we call ‘Sisters’) have provided for the Church a contemplative grounding in prayer. They are like Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus listening to Him while Martha does the work and complains about Mary’s idleness. These monastic centers in the Church are found in practically every country including our own. I am preparing, for instance, for my retreat with the Trappists (one of these orders) this August when I will be embedded in a community down in Virginia and for two weeks live their arduous, but rewarding, life.

Whenever I go to one of these monasteries, I love the experience of getting out of the car after a long drive and being engulfed by the silence—no machines, no whirs and throttles, no ad-men trying to sell me something. Just healing silence.

I really want to emphasize this healing; it is something so tangible and real. When I feel the silence, it is not a void or an absence of sound. There is still the whisper of the breeze and the distant song of birds. But it is so gentle and harmonized that I usually take a deep breath and exhale. At that moment, I can literally feel the tensions leave my body and my mind. I notice then a kind of embrace by reality and by God, a sort of welcome home! At that moment, I wonder why it has taken me so much time to leave the world of constant noise and distractions.

But most of all, in that silence I encounter God, really and truly. It sometimes brings tears of gratefulness to my eyes. I want to embrace nature. In that loveliness I touch God; I find peace.

Yet even with the beauty of nature around me and a community of monks dedicated to constant prayer and contemplative silence, I still find noise bothering me. It is the internal noise of our wildly moving thoughts and emotions that often obscure the gentle quiet voice of God. This type of noise is much more difficult to turn off. We can’t point to modern life’s tyrannical hold on us. We have to take responsibility in shaping the mess that we are in.

Gradually, through Christian mindfulness and the Jesus Prayer, the voices within tire out and we can begin to hear God’s whisper again. This takes discipline and perseverance, but it is possible to enjoy that spiritual environment of contemplative silence even when we return to the city. While riding the subway, I can close my eyes and pray to God in interior silence so that the noisy outer world, while still there, ceases to be a dictatorship. I am free in the silence of my prayer.

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Ideals or Commandments? by Monsignor Ferrarese

There is a tension in moral theology between two tendencies: On one side are those who see living the moral life to be a following of the Commandments, whether they are easy or hard. Just like a West Point Cadet, the response to failure in this regard is the terse response: No excuse!

In this way of thinking and believing, God never asks us to do something that is beyond our strength. Hence, when there is weakness, God’s strength supplies what is needed.

In contrast to this way of looking at the moral life, there are those who consider the Church’s teaching to be a set of ideals or guidelines that we are asked to try to fulfill. In this approach, one is not judged so much on the accomplishment of the Commandment, but on the effort used to try to do it. In contrast to the no excuses response, people with this understanding have a gradual approach to fulfilling the moral law. “Do the best you can” is their mantra.

This second approach to moral living was expressly rejected by Saint John Paul II in his encyclical entitled “Veritatis Splendor” or the “Splendor of Truth”. He called this approach ‘gradualism’. The moral life as displayed in that encyclical was under the guidance of God Himself who gives to each person the wisdom and strength to accomplish what was called for. This Papal teaching seeks to portray moral reservations of a teaching’s do-ability as part of the struggle of being a good Christian. But the following of the difficult commandment, says Saint John Paul II, should never be put outside the realm of possibility.

This teaching has many consequences for the day-to-day life of the average Catholic. Often, when an individual is at variance with the moral law, they express the hope that maybe the law will change in the future.

But true change is not possible with issues that have been consistently taught over many centuries. To question these teachings and to ascertain they will change is a misunderstanding of the binding force of tradition. Would the Holy Spirit be leading the Church wrongly all these years?

This, of course, brings up the whole area of the development of doctrine.

It is clear that one can grow in the understanding of a particular teaching without having to throw it out because it was superseded by modern development. I believe it was the great medieval theologian St. Vincent of Lerins who used the paradigmatic image of the growth of a human being as being analogous to the development of dogma: As someone grows from childhood to adulthood to old age, one surely changes in ways of seeing the world and expressing one’s essence. But, says St. Vincent, it is still the same person who has grown and developed over many years. So it is with Church teaching: it can develop, but it is always the same teaching. It cannot so change that it is a contradiction to the initial teaching. A baby zebra can become an old zebra, but never a kangaroo!

So we are left with a teaching that says what it means; and the responsibility of us all is in following it as best as we are able, without watering it down or making it an ideal. That some of the moral teaching of the Church seems difficult to do may be accurate, but one must also admit that one can have a very inadequate idea of the power of God’s grace and its ability to forge new possibilities in the soul of the Christian.

Often, there is an underlying false assumption that the Church is merely an antiquated institution that will eventually catch up with modern life. A more vainly human way of putting it is: “Sooner or later the Church will come to see that I am right and it will find ways to show that it is ok to believe what I now see as the truth.” Stated this boldly, we can see the inadequate way it is formulated. A humbler understanding would be: “Perhaps the Church in her wisdom sees something that the modern world and I do not see?” However, it has become, unfortunately, a rule to see the person and their wisdom as infallible and the Church as a plodding old institution that refuses to change. This, to put it mildly, is highly inaccurate.

We need to get beyond the false dichotomy of ideal and real to the truer division between truth and falsehood. We also should understand that God’s power is limitless and only awaits an open and courageous heart.

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On the Love of Learning and the Desire for God by Monsignor Ferrarese

There is an oft-quoted thought about the Gospels and the Church: “Jesus taught adults and blessed children, but in the Church today, we teach children and bless adults.” While this is without a doubt true, it sets up a false dichotomy: It is not an either/or question, but really a both/and one! Learning is necessary at every stage of our development.

At one point in the Gospels, Jesus emphatically made this point. He said: “As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’ You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers… Do not be called ‘Master’; you have but one master, the Messiah (Matt. 23:8,10).” This fits nicely with the great tradition of Judaism regarding the study of the Torah and the accumulated wisdom that eventually became the Talmud. Jews, it is often said, are taught to question, for in questioning one becomes a true learner; for it is in questioning that we make our own the need to learn more and hence to grow.

Unfortunately, this license to question has not always been part of our Catholic tradition. This is mainly grounded in an important distinction: there is a questioning born of respect and reverence of tradition, and then there is the philosophical questioning which is born of skepticism or even the need to disprove the truths of tradition. To be a learner in the ways of faith, one must always approach religious questions with the respect of the Rabbis, not with a deconstructuralist desire of the philosophers to take apart reality and, even more, that of the skeptics who are merely interested in trying to prove religion to be wrong, useless and even dangerous!

I distinctly remember a question I raised in my fifth grade class: if God wanted to have us be happy with Him forever in heaven, why did He not just put us there in heaven? Why all this struggle here on earth? To this day, I think it was a good question. But my teacher took me to task for even asking the question. She gave me no answer, only a feeling of shame at having asked it. It was only in the seminary that I had that question answered: God wanted us to learn here on earth how to be good and to freely choose to love Him in return. The question was good and I am glad that I had the adult learning of the seminary to teach me.

But many Catholics think that once they have received Confirmation, their learning about the faith has ended. Learning is lifelong! An adult Catholic that does not seek to learn more about their faith has ceased to engage one-on-one with God, which is His preeminent desire for each of us. To love God must mean to learn more about God. If it does not lead to more learning, it is not really love. While classrooms and Adult Education courses are clearly not the only way God continues to teach us, they are important paths that God can use to feed what must be a hunger for learning. If we don’t want to learn more about God, are we really expressing our love for Him in the best way we can?

We have tried here in our parish to provide a multitude of opportunities for a person to grow as an adult Christian: the lecture series (8 so far), film festivals (18), Pastoral Institute Courses, parish retreats (8), Bible studies, Arise discussion groups, Opera workshops (5), Pilgrimages (4), RCIA courses; not to mention scores of Baptism, Marriage and first-sacrament Parent courses. I challenge anyone to find another parish that has done more to educate the adult Catholic! But while our attendance at Sunday Masses averages between 1500 and 2000 individuals (including children), attendance at our Adult Education offering is just a fraction of this. Now, a person’s work schedule and parenting responsibilities does prevent a lot of adults from making use of these opportunities. But I cannot help believing that there are some adult Catholics who just don’t see the need to keep learning about their faith.

This lack of hunger for learning is not a good sign in an adult Christian.

But the Lord, over and over, urges us against discouragement. So we continue to provide opportunities for growth that make adults better Catholics. There are many in our parish that do hunger to learn more and who do take advantage of the feast offered each year for growth in an adult-Catholic faith. The cheer on their faces as well as the words of thanks at these events sustains my hope that, more and more, adults in our parish may choose to continue to learn about their faith and to deepen it!

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