Pornography addiction and the hope Jesus gives

Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Mark 1:21-28 (4th Sunday of OT, year b)

Perched atop the Oppian Hill in Rome sits San Pietro in Vincoli, or St. Peter in Chains. This Church was originally built in the 5th century to house the relic of the chains that bound St. Peter when he was imprisoned in Jerusalem. These chains are on display in a glass case underneath the main altar. Though ancient and remarkable, this relic is not the most incredible aspect of the Church. Located on the interior wall of the Church is a magnificent marble statue of Moses carved by Michelangelo in the 16th century. The figure of Moses looms large, dominating the Church. He is presented as a mighty and heroic figure.

Michelangelo's Moses (source)
Just as his statue dominates the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, Moses is arguably the most important and influential character in the Old Testament and the Jewish religion. This is because of the central role he played in the defining event in the history of Israel before the coming of Christ: the Exodus. We are all familiar with the drama of Exodus. If we haven’t read the biblical account, at least we have seen a movie based on the story such as the older Ten Commandments or the newer Exodus: Gods and Kings starring Charlton Heston and Christian Bale, respectively, as Moses. For generations the Hebrew people were enslaved in Egypt. It is difficult for us to understand the extend of their suffering, the sense of hopelessness, anger and sadness they must have experienced. After calling on God for so long, many had despaired that He would send help. At last, Moses came to save the people. With great deeds of power, he liberated the Hebrew people from Egyptian slavery and led them to the Promised Land. Because of the incredible role Moses played in the Exodus of the Hebrews from slavery, he was revered above all other leaders.

Eventually the Jewish people realized that the liberation God worked through Moses was not complete. The Book of Deuteronomy was written after the Jewish people had lived in the Promised Land for some time. They noticed that although they were no longer physical slaves in Egypt, they still were bound under a moral slavery. In the land of Israel, the Jewish people warred among themselves. They were slaves to sin, hatred and discord. They prayed that the Lord would again send a prophet like Moses. They desired a new, final Exodus to free them from this more insidious form of slavery and lead them to an ultimate Promised Land.

In the Gospels, Jesus is consistently presented as the new Moses. Jesus’ mission was to free us from the slavery of sin and death. In the story of the man possessed by an unclean spirit (Mk 1:21-28), Jesus confronts the ultimate type of slavery. Such an individual was truly a slave, as he was robbed of his freedom and the ability to determine his own life. This seemingly hopeless situation is not much more extreme than the bondage that sin can hold each of us under. Jesus came to bring about a new Exodus, freeing us from this slavery and leading us into the true Promised Land,  the Kingdom of Heaven which begins here and now and lasts forever. Like Moses, Jesus brings about this liberation with great deeds and power. Jesus worked miracles, cast out demons and taught with authority. God ultimately freed Israel from slavery in Egypt at the Passover, that event when the first born of the Egyptians were killed and the Hebrews were spared because they had marked their doors by blood of a lamb. Jesus ultimately frees us from the slavery of sin and death through His Passion, death and Resurrection. We call these events the Paschal mystery in order to make the link to the Egyptian Passover explicit (“Pasqual” comes from the word “passover”). Now it is the blood of Jesus and not a lamb that saves us. Christ is the new Moses who has brought about our true Exodus.

Jesus continues to free us from slavery. We sometimes think that Jesus’ freeing act is only something that He did once in the past, distant from our personal experience. This is a mistake! Jesus desires to liberate us from slavery here and now. One way we experience slavery today is in addictions. With our constant connection to the internet via computer, smartphone and tablet, one kind of addiction has become widespread today: pornography addiction. New technology has made pornography easily available, free and anonymous to use. 70% of people have come across pornography accidentally and the average age of first exposure is 11. Pornography functions like a drug, creating a real addiction. All this has lead to the fact that many, both men and women, struggle with addiction to pornography. 50% of Christian men and 20% of Christian women acknowledge they are addicted to pornography. Just about everyone, religious or secular, admits it is a problem. A couple months ago the secular men’s magazine magazine GQ published an article called 10 Reasons Why You Should Quit Watching Porn. The article explains the negative effects of pornography. It destroys intimacy in a marriage. For those not married, it damages their ability to ever have an intimate relationship with someone.  Many want to stop but cannot. The feeling of being enslaved to this addiction can make people extremely discouraged and isolated. It is all too easy to give into hopelessness, thinking there is no way forward.

The message of today’s Gospel brings light into this darkness: have hope because Jesus came to free you from this slavery! There is help available (here is a good place to start). Patiently work to overcome this addiction knowing that Jesus’ love, mercy and strength accompanies you every step of the way. Nearly 2000 years ago when St. Peter was imprisoned, wearing the chains now on display in San Pietro in Vincoli, he must have felt that he might never be free of them. Jesus, however, intervened in his life and broke these bonds. We need to trust that in our lives too Jesus will intervene in the same way, freeing us from all that keeps us enslaved.

The conversions of Saul and Tony Stark

Acts 22:3-16, Mark 16:15-18 (Conversion of St. Paul, Apostle)

Tony Stark was an incredibly talented man. He was an ingenious engineer and especially skilled with robotics. Tony, however, used his skills in a selfish way, amassing an incredible wealth that he used to fund his playboy lifestyle. One day his life was changed forever when he was kidnapped by a group of terrorists who tried to force him to build a weapon of mass destruction. Refusing to build the weapon, Tony created a powered suit of armor that he used to escape captivity. From this point onward, he was a changed man. Instead of using his great talents for selfish reasons, Tony Stark decided to dedicate all his skills and energy to defending the needy in the world. Tony Stark became Iron Man.

Saul was a man possessing great skills, drive and enthusiasm. He was fluent in Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew. He had a very cosmopolitan upbringing, being well versed in Greek, Roman and Jewish cultures. Though a Jew, Saul also had Roman citizenship, a great advantage to those living in the Mediterranean region during the first century. Saul was a devout man. He prayed and scrupulously followed the religious laws of his people. His knowledge of the Jewish faith was exceptional on account of his years of study under Gamaliel, one of the most famous teachers of that time. Saul was extremely loyal to the Jewish religious authorities. He was desperately trying to make a difference in the world. He wanted more than anything to complete the mission God had given him. Unfortunately, at the time, Saul thought that this mission was to track down, persecute and kill Christians. One day Saul’s life was changed forever when he was making his way to Damascus, chasing down Christians who had fled there. Along the road, Saul encountered a blinding light and heard a voice addressing him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul responded, “Who are you Lord?”. The voice answered with words that would forever mark his  life: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:3ff). From that point onward, Saul decided to dedicate all his talents and energy to telling other people about Jesus and the salvation that comes to us through His Passion, Death and Resurrection. Saul became Paul.

Though the story of Tony Stark becoming the comic book hero Iron Man is fictional, it has much in common with the true story of Saul becoming the hero and Apostle Paul. Both are stories of conversion. These conversion stories are dramas which take place in three acts or scenes. As followers of Jesus, our lives should follow the same story.

Act 1: Before our conversion, we use our time, gifts and energy for the wrong mission
Tony Stark and Saul were both very talented individuals. At the start, however, they misused their gifts. Stark was selfish, living a life in which he looked only to please himself. Saul, in persecuting Christians, was violently misguided in what he thought God was asking of him. We too can commit the gifts God has given us to the wrong mission. Pope Francis explains that as Christians we are called to be missionary disciples. We must be both disciples and missionaries. We fall short as disciples when we sin and fail to cultivate our relationship with Jesus through prayer and the sacraments. Even if we are sincerely living as disciples, we can fail in our call to be missionaries. As Pope Francis points out, all of us are called to lead other people closer to Jesus through our words and actions. It is not enough just to live a life in which we avoid sin and strive to grow in virtue. We are supposed to be missionary disciples. If we are not trying to do this, we are using misapplying the time and talents God has given us.

Act 2: We have an experience that causes us to dramatically rethink our lives
Tony Stark was kidnapped. Saul saw a blinding light and dialogued with the Risen Lord. Some people have dramatic moments of conversion like this. One event causes them to reconsider their lives completely and make serious changes. For others, it may be a series of events stretched over a length of time. Slowly but surely they begin to assess their lives and make changes. There are many different kinds of experiences that can become a catalyst for conversion. God can use a moment of tragedy such as a death or illness in the family as a wake up call to have us focus on what is most important in life. At such times people often begin praying or going to Mass again. Other times, the experience can be a joyful one. Sometimes when people make the choice to get married, it becomes an opportunity to leave sinful behaviors behind and grow closer to God. Whether large or small, we have all had such experiences. Though the experience may cause us to question the way we live, the experience alone is not enough. We need to decide to change.

Act 3: After conversion we devote our lives to Jesus and His mission
In this final act of the conversion drama, we choose to accept more fully our call to be missionary disciples. Instead of using our talents, time and energy for the wrong mission, we to use them to follow Christ. We become disciples by leaving sin behind and growing in virtue. We become missionaries by making a conscious effort to lead people closer to Jesus. We see this so clearly in the life of St. Paul. Saul becomes Paul when he decided to become a follower of Jesus and preach the gospel far and wide at great personal cost. During his life, St. Paul traveled over 15 000 km (more than the distance from Vancouver Island to Newfoundland and back) starting new churches. He was persecuted, beaten and eventually killed because of his efforts. Because of his burning zeal to preach the Gospel, St. Paul left an enduring legacy on the Church.

Deep within each of us there is a desire to be a hero. We want to do great things and impact the world around us. Owing to our lack of engineering skills - and the fact that it is impossible - we will never become like Iron Man. But, when we live our lives as a story of ongoing conversion we can become like St. Paul. When we zealously use all our gifts to follow Jesus and answer His call we become missionary disciples, who are, in the end, the true heroes.

Manny Pacquiao and Christian Unity

1 Samuel 3-19, John 1:35-42 (2nd Sunday Ordinary time, year b)

Currently, Pope Francis is visiting the Philippines, drawing large crowds. For Filipinos, there is only one living figure whose popularity even comes close to that of Pope Francis: Manny Pacquiao. Several years ago, this boxer, who was raised a Catholic in an overwhelmingly Catholic country, created a sensation when he announced that he had become an Evangelical Protestant. This event caused much discussion and raised a lot of questions in people’s minds regarding the relationship between Catholics and non-Catholic Christians. As today marks the start of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, it seems like a great opportunity to reflect on this topic.

Manny Pacquiao, source: inboundpass
The way in which people responded to Manny Pacquiao’s decision demonstrated that sometimes Catholics have a hostile and negative attitude towards Christians that are not Catholic. This sentiment is nothing new. We can make jokes and speak badly about non-Catholic Christians (Evangelicals, Anglicans, Orthodox, Baptist, etc.). We can see them as competition or the enemy. We can think that the Catholic Church is the only group in which Jesus or the Holy Spirit works in the world. We might think that though non-Catholics claim to be following Jesus, they really are not.

We must recognize, with great joy, that a real unity and bond exists between Catholics and Christians from other Churches and communities. The readings today tell us about people who respond to God’s call. When He realized who was calling his name, Samuel responded to God wholeheartedly: “speak, your servant is listening”. The gospel relates how Andrew, Peter and others made the choice to follow Jesus, enter into a relationship with Him and participate in His mission. We have a real bond with other Christians because we have all responded to this call of Jesus. Particularly because of our baptism we share communion with other Christians. We are really brothers and sisters. We are striving to have a relationship with Christ and carry out His mission. The Holy Spirit does indeed work through non-Catholic communities in order to bring about the salvation of the world. With these truths in mind, our attitude towards non-Catholics Christians should be one of fraternal respect, welcome and care, never forgetting that we are on the same team. I understand that becoming an Evangelical Protestant was life changing for Manny Pacquiao. Though raised Catholic, Manny says he never really had a relationship with Christ before. In a country in which 78% say they are Catholic and only 49% go to Mass each Sunday, I suspect that his story is not uncommon. When he became an Evangelical, Manny converted from seriously destructive behaviour and his faith came alive. God certainly used this non-Catholic community to bring the boxer closer to himself.

That said, it is unfortunate that Manny felt he had to leave the Catholic Church in order to encounter Christ. In founding His Church, Jesus gave His followers various gifts in order to help them grow in holiness and to complete the mission He had given them. These gifts include the sacraments, scripture, and even the hierarchical structure of the Church. Though some of these gifts are found in non-Catholic communities, the fullness of these gifts is only found in the Catholic Church. Sometimes other Christian communities make better use of Christ’s gifts than we do. For example, the gift of scripture, though in the Catholic Church, is often made better use of by non-Catholic Christians. We can learn much from other Christians about how to use these gifts better. From our perspective, however, the Catholic Church is not just one church among many others. We profess that the Catholic Church is the only Church that has the fullness of gifts that Jesus wanted to give His followers. If Manny had remained a Catholic, there would be more gifts for Him to make use of to grow closer to Jesus and carry out His mission

That we Christians all profess to follow Christ and yet differ in mind and go different ways as if Christ were divided is a serious problem. We should be very concerned with working to build unity among Christians. Divisions among us contradicts the will of Christ who established one Church only. One of Jesus’ last prayers to His Father was that all His followers be one (John 17:21). These divisions are also a scandal to the world and an impediment to our work of evangelization. How can we lead others to the Triune God of perfect unity when we are divided? As Catholics, working to build unity among Christians is not an optional mission.

There are practical things we can personally do to bring about greater unity among Christians.
  1. Pray, as Jesus did, for this unity. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is a powerful reminder of our duty to do this.
  2. Treat non-Catholic Christians as your brothers and sisters. Be kind and respectful. Remember we are on the same team and so we can and should work together.
  3. Get to know your own faith better. Do you appreciate the richness of the Catholic faith? Are you able to explain your faith well to others?
  4. Strive to grow in holiness by responding better to the call of Jesus. The closer we all come to Jesus in prayer and by leaving sinful behaviours behind, the closer we all grow to one another.

My grandfather was a Catholic who grew up in southern Germany. He explained that when he was growing up it was normal for Catholics to cross to the other side of the road when they approached a Protestant church. Many things have changed for the better since then. Though we have much work to do, we should rejoice that great progress has been made in fostering unity among Christians. Today let us remember that fostering unity among Christians is an important mission to which we have all been called.

God loves you because He loves you

Mark 1:7-11 (The Baptism of Our Lord)

Imagine a young boy is holding up a picture he has just drawn with crayons, showing it to his father. Why does he do this? Though he may not say it out loud, the boy is asking, “dad, is this good, do you accept it?” With this simple gesture the boy is also asking his father deeper questions: am I good, do you accept me? We are all like this little boy because each of us yearns to know that we are good and that we are accepted by others. We just have different ways of seeking out the answer.

The way that we think, feel and act is greatly affected depending on whether or not we sense that we are loved and accepted. We all desire to know that others consider us good. When this need is met we are at peace and we come alive. When we experience uncertainty in this area, it can be devastating. We don’t need to look far to find examples. Is the case of a teenager succumbing to “peer pressure” and doing something they know to be wrong, like getting a tattoo they later regret, not just a misguided attempt to feel accepted? Is the man or woman who has a string of promiscuous relationships not at some level searching to feel loved? How many people go through life unhappy with themselves, thinking they are not good because of how much they weigh or how they look? Is the man working longs hours at the expense of spending time with his family not seeking the approval of his boss and coworkers?

Sometimes we think we need to earn acceptance and approval from God. The actor Bradley Cooper (who you may remember from such films as the Silver Linings Playbook) said in an interview, “Unfortunately, when someone asks me a favor, I can’t say no. Because of my upbringing - my Catholic guilt - if I don’t do it, it plagues me.” Catholic are famous for feeling guilty. Whether this is an accurate stereotype or whether guilt is always a bad thing is debatable. However, the idea of “Catholic-guilt” points to a way of thinking that we can fall into. Often we do things because we would feel bad if we didn't. Sometimes we think “God cannot love me or accept me until _______”. We fill in the blank with different things. God will not accept me until I overcome this sinful behaviour or I pray more or I stop having doubts about my faith or I become a good person. We can feel that God’s love and acceptance is conditional. We need to do something or be someone different before we can earn it.

Our lives change when we realize that we are beloved sons and daughters of God. The feast of the Baptism of our Lord, which we celebrate today, challenges us to reflect on our own baptism and what is means for our lives. At baptism, we are grafted onto Jesus. We become joined to Him and He freely gives to us what rightly belongs to Himself. Jesus is the Son of God. In Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism, a voice from heaven proclaims “you are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.”  In baptism, we become beloved sons and daughters of God. One of my favorite parts of the rite of baptism of children emphasizes this point before calling on those present to pray the Our Father:
Dearly beloved, these children have been reborn in baptism. They are now called children of God, for so indeed they are… In their name, in the spirit of adopted children, let us pray together in the words our Lord has given us.
There is nothing we can do to earn the status of God’s son or daughter. It is an unmerited gift from a God who love us unconditionally. I had one professor who repeated this phrase often: “Why does God love you? God loves you because He loves you.” God loves us because He loves us. We human creatures love someone on account of goodness we recognize in them: their kind personality or their sense of humour. God is not like this. When God loves us, He creates goodness in us.

God our Father accepts us as we are. As St. Augustine said, “a friend is someone who knows everything about you and still accepts you”. Jesus has called us His friends (John 15:15). If we could only appreciate this deep within ourselves, our constant and at times painful and self-destructive search for approval and acceptance from others would come to an end. Saying that we are accepted by God as we are isn’t an excuse not to become better. Just the opposite. It is only when we feel unconditionally loved and accepted that we can grow. Knowing that we are accepted allows us to blossom, growing to become the son or daughter God has created us to be. Our lives change when we realize we are unconditionally loved and accepted by God, our heavenly Father.

It requires an ongoing act of faith to recognize that we are the a beloved son or daughter of God. Perhaps at this moment you have no problem believing this. Soon, however, you will experience doubts and hear a nagging voice telling you, “you are worthless” or “you are a failure” or “how could you ever think God could love you after what you have done”.  In Scripture, Satan is called the accuser. Satan will do everything to convince us that we are orphans, that God is not in fact our loving heavenly Father. We must fight Him. We often need to make an act of faith in the fact that God loves us unconditionally. Paul Tillich, the 19th c. philosopher and theologian explained that faith is the courage to accept that God accepts us inspite of our being unacceptable. We need to regularly renew our belief in the fact that God is a Father who loves and accepts us always.

Today let us hear God our Father telling each one of us personally the same words He said to Jesus in the gospel. You are my beloved son. You are my beloved daughter. In you I am well pleased. We should have these words tattooed across our hearts.

Top Five Reasons Why the Wise Men Were Wise

Matthew 2:1-12 (Epiphany of the Lord, year b)

Nearly ten years ago, I attended World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany with a group of university students. The trip had a large impact on my life. While in Cologne we visited the famous gothic Cathedral which dominates the skyline of the city. An ornate, golden box within the Cathedral contains what is believed to be the remains of the Magi, or Wise Men, who we encountered in the Gospel. The Magi are enigmatic figures. Probably, much of what you think we know about them is inaccurate. For example, contrary to what the song We Three Kings would have us believe, the Gospel of Matthew - the only Gospel which speaks of the Magi - does not say that the Wise Men were kings or even that there were three of them! The Magi were probably from Persia, and members of the priestly caste. They were custodians of the religious and philosophical knowledge that had developed in the area. The Magi were also men of science, having particular interest and training in astronomy. One of the most memorable moments at World Youth Day in Cologne was the prayer vigil during which Pope Benedict spoke to my group (along one million others) about the need for us to imitate the Magi, becoming truly wise like them. To help us do this, I would like to share with you what I think are the “Top Five Reasons Why the Wise Men Were Wise”.

Reason #1: The Magi understood that all religions find fulfillment in Jesus
The Magi were not Jews. Though gentiles, they knew that God existed and that He was a gentle God. Perhaps they were aware of the prophecies of new king of the world to be born in Judea who would be intimately associated with God and work in His name. The Magi were pilgrims in search of God and true justice and peace. Their journey for truth, already kindled by the practice of their own religion, found its fulfilment in Jesus whom they worshipped as God and King. If we want to be wise, we need to understand that all religions find their fulfillment in Jesus. The Magi journeying to Jesus represents all religions of the world leading to Christ. Today more than ever, we need to maintain a balanced viewpoint. On the one hand, it is not correct to say that other religions have no value or are inherently evil. On the other hand, we cannot say that all religions are equally good and true and that we should not encourage people of other religions to come to know Jesus and become a part of the Church. As Catholics we profess that the “seeds of truth” are present and active in other religions. People in other religions can certainly have an authentic relationship with God. At the same time, we hold that all that is true and good in other religions points to and finds its completion in Jesus. For this reason we are called to evangelize all people, knowing that true human fulfillment comes from knowing Christ.

Reason #2: The Magi saw no contradiction between religion and science
The Magi were probably men well acquainted with the more advanced science of the time, specifically astronomy. The Magi were wise because their study of nature did not end with focusing solely on the stars but rather led them to seek out and ultimately worship the One who had created the stars. It is unfortunate that many people today think that science is somehow the enemy of religion. This is a pet peeve of mine. If we want to be wise, we do well to remember that “there is no insoluble contradiction between faith and reason because there is only one truth, to which both faith and reason refer”. God gave us a brain and He wants us to use it. Therefore, “Christian faith demands and promotes the (natural) sciences. Faith exists so that we might know things that are not apparent to reason yet are real above and beyond reason” (quotes from Youcat #23). From a Catholic perspective there is no reason why science and religion should be opposed. Period.

Reason #3: The Magi were able to see God’s presence where others could not
Certainly others saw the star and thought nothing of it. The Magi were wise because they recognized that God was active and speaking to them through the star. If we want to become wise, we must learn to appreciate how God is present and showing us His care and love in seemingly ordinary circumstances. Once Mother Teresa was searching to get a specific medication for a sick person. Unfortunately she was unable to find the medication in her region, in fact, it seemed it might be impossible to find in all of India. One day, just as the need for the medication was becoming severe, a package arrived from the United States. When Mother Teresa opened the package she found at the very top the medication that she was searching for. We might think, “now that is a lucky coincidence”. Mother Teresa, however, said “see the tender loving care of God, giving us what we need”. Mother Teresa was wise because she could recognize God’s presence and action where others could not.

Reason #4: The Magi took risks in order to follow God
In order to follow the star towards God, the Magi left their homes behind, much like Abraham did in response to God’s call. They travelled over 1000 km to visit Jesus. This entailed great risk and hardship. If we want to be wise we need to realize that following Jesus is not for the faint of heart. Being a Christian is a risky business.

Reason #5: The Magi knew that we cannot meet Jesus without changing our lives
Herod was incredibly threatened by Jesus and rejected Him because he did not want to give up his power or change his life. The Magi, on the other hand, were open to changing their lives. One large change they had to make was in the way they understood that God worked in the world. They expected the newborn King to be a powerful ruler, this is why they went to Jerusalem first. When they went and found Jesus in a humble, poor stable their preconceptions were shattered. They learned that true power does not consist in a king issuing decrees from his throne. True power is found when we offer our lives as a gift to others. The Magi were able to change what they thought able God as they worshipped Jesus, gave Him gifts and committed themselves to following His path. If we want to be wise we need to realize that we cannot follow Jesus without changing our way of thinking and acting.

As Pope Benedict reminded us, the Wise Men are models for us all. Let us pray that we may be wise as they were by becoming pilgrims who are ever restless seeking after Jesus Christ. Like the Magi, let us have the courage to change our lives as we encounter the Lord.