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.