Rejoice Always! This Means You.
By Fr. Robert J. Carr
It is a general rule of ministry that one never talks about their past. As you know, I generally do not abide by that rule for one simple reason. My past is more a celebration of God's grace in our lives than anything about me.
If I Could Spend Time in a Bottle
You know I spent five years virtually living in a bottle. I have told you that, and I share that often because it is not I who quit drinking, it is the grace of God that led me out of that prison. I have been sober now for going on twenty-six years. I also, through the grace of God, returned to the Church. When the first Sunday of Lent came around, I was looking for something to do for Lenten discipline. I realized that returning to Sunday mass was probably the best thing I could do.
It was that practice that led me to St. Charles Borromeo Parish on Point Loma, California. Point Loma is a part of San Diego. There I experienced mass that was literally life-changing. The community was alive in the faith and they participated powerfully in the mass.
I entered the Church also dressed as the angry sailor I was. I was in jeans, a jean jacket and a printed T-Shirt. I was literally, albeit subconsciously, just daring someone to throw me out of the mass. No one did. Again the whole experience was life changing. So much so, that I began to question how I could possibly leave the Church in the first place if this is what mass is. I learned quickly when I attended mass in another state. My impression was that the mass was dry and not life giving at all. It was more an obligation than a celebration. It was there, in fact, that I understood the use of the word celebration in the context of mass. Mass must be a celebration not an obligation. We celebrate mass as we did on Point Loma not obligate it as we did in the parish where I attended mass that weekend.
Paul says it all. Rejoice always Philipians 4. Does the meaning of those words change for you when I tell you that Paul was writing from prison as part of the persecution against Christians? Remember, this is a Roman prison, not an American prison. Both are nasty places, Roman prisons were nastier by far than American prisons. Yet, here he is calling the early Christians to be joyful. How can one possibly imagine doing this? He also taught to pray without ceasing and in all circumstances give thanks.
The Secret of Christianity
This is the secret of Christianity. It is one that the worldly do not get. When we truly live the gospel of Christ, we live at a deeper level of our faith. One of the comments made during my homily preparation group is that God is awesome. That relationship with God changes our vision so completely that the most painful situation can be turned into a source of grace and joy. This is just part of the fruit of the Christian life.
Being a Catholic is a time to be joy-filled in the Lord always. Why? Because we enjoy the experience of knowing that we are God's children by baptism and that we are being created every day in his image to become more and fully human and fully alive, regardless of where we are.
However, Paul adds another dimension in his letter to the Thessalonians that makes, American Catholics especially in the North East, nervous.
Do not quench the Spirit.
Do not despise prophetic utterances.
Test everything; retain what is good.
Refrain from every kind of evil.
Whoa! We Do Not Do That Kind of Stuff Around Here Pard'ner
This is not North American Catholicism. That is especially the line do not despise prophetic utterances. In modern terms that means the Charismatic Renewal. This element of Catholic spirituality makes some people quite nervous. It is different, it is not the normal course of events for us here in this part of the country and some have a terrible fear of the demonic when they hear of these things. Yet, here it is in the letters of Paul along with his words to rejoice. Test everything, do not quench the Spirit, and do not despise prophetic utterances.
One of the themes Pope Benedict has been preaching this week is one that builds on Pope John Paul II's theme of ending mediocrity in our life and in our community. He has warned that any concept of Catholicism being a boring way to live one's life is just plain wrong. Yet, unless we understand and absorb these words of Paul-- these joyful words even in the midst of oppression--we will never comprehend an exciting and challenging Catholicism in our lives. We will be in danger of obligating mass and not celebrating mass. We will be living an oppressive form of faith that gives us no life. That is worse than no faith at all.
The Dangers of Mediocrity
Pope Benedict criticized the philosophies around us that preach that Christianity is boring. He also brought forth that the solution is to recognize the dangers of mediocrity and to live a powerful faith. This leads us back to Paul's words.
Paul Says Rejoice!
Do not miss they are not suggestions here, they are commands without faith. This faith in Christ is something that so changes our way of acting, that we should be looked upon by others as crazy in our approach to life. Remember, elsewhere Paul calls Christianity foolishness to the Greeks, which means to the philosophers.
It just does not make sense for someone to be in chains, to be in prison for an unjust cause and to be praising God, to be rejoicing and to be praying unceasingly. It makes more sense for such a person to be bitter, angry and resentful. However, even in that situation Paul does not give those attitudes an excuse. This is the outward manifestation of our faith. This is how the Spirit works through us. If we are rejoicing in the Lord when things are going wrong, how much more so can we rejoice in the Lord when we are in his presence at mass. How much more can we rejoice in the Lord when we receive him in the Eucharist. How much more can we recognize his awesomeness in our lives? God is awesome.
It is this relationship with Christ in its most profound levels to which we are called, that is the relationship that not only fosters chastity but also fosters the ability to rejoice in the most difficult of circumstances. It is this relationship that leads people rejoice under trial, to bear terrible burdens with grace and to live heroicly the virtues that lead us to eternal life.
The worldly do not understand this, because they have stifled the spirit. They despise prophesies and worst of all they are not thankful nor do they rejoice always. If we follow that path we will be just as blind in their ignorance as they are. Yet, Jesus calls us to a deeper level of existence which sees our trials as avenues to holiness and eternal joy.
Francis taught the definition of happiness is to be joyful in painful circumstances. Yet, Paul's admonition is just as important to me as it is to you.
The other day, my car broke down in Braintree. It literally stopped dead on the street while at a traffic light and I could not get it started again. First thing to do is to praise God, literally. Then it is time to call my roadside assistance service.
True Dedication to Service
Forty-five minutes after I called my car manufacturer's 24 roadside assistance telephone number a tow truck arrived to take me and my car to the local dealer in Braintree. The driver told me a fascinating story. His daughter was just hit by a car and was in the hospital. She was fine, although needed to be looked over by medical personnel. He took the call to tow me to the dealer, because his mission as a tow truck driver is to help others when they are in need. He took no payment as he was paid by the manufacturer. He then drove back to the hospital to be with his daughter and his wife. What kind of person can do that? Obviously a special person, who is a loving and aware of his mission. Had I not broken down, I would not have met that kind of person.
Excuses are like . . .
He could have given all kinds of legitimate excuses to not answer that call, but he did not. Paul could have given all kinds of legitimate excuses to be bitter and sullen, but he was not. We can come up with all kind of excuses to not make each mass a celebration but likewise they do not hold water. A relationship with Christ is transformational in ways the world will never know. Today we are called to that relationship and we have no excuse to ignore that call, to stifle it nor even to simply to say no.
http://www.revrobertjcarr.com MA, US
Fr. Robert J. Carr - Priest, 617 230-3300
Rejoice, Struggle, Faith, Paul
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