Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Avoiding the Pitfalls of Pelagius

Dear Parishioners,

One of the heresies of the early church was called Pelagianism.  It was named for Pelagius, who was thought to have been either a British or Irish monk (an aesthetic), living around the late 4th or early 5th century.  His teachings were opposed by St. Augustine and were officially condemned by the Council of Carthage (418-9).   One core error associated with his teaching was the belief that human beings can earn salvation by their own efforts, unaided by God’s grace.  Essentially, the heresy can be remembered this way:  “I can do it all by myself.  I don’t really need God’s help!”

Sometimes people may think similarly about salvation in our contemporary society.  Perhaps there are those who think that if we do enough good deeds, accumulate enough “brownie points” before God, then He has to let us into heaven.  After all, we earned it!  How often have we heard a list of accomplishments—a curriculum vitae—at various occasions indicating how much a person has achieved in his or her life?  Do we really think that we will hand God our resume, show Him our multiple academic degrees or inform Him of our lifelong accomplishments so that we will be let us into Heaven to share eternal life with Him?

The primary focus regarding salvation can never be on us, but has to be on JesusHe suffered and died for our salvation.  His death on the cross is the means by which our sins are forgiven and we are given the glorious possibility of eternal life.  It’s really all about Jesus, and not all about us!  Moreover, every good work of ours has its origin in God’s grace, is sustained by God’s grace and is brought to completion with God’s grace.  Yes, we still retain our free-will—but we never do it all alone, like some rugged individual.

Sadly, a typical situation in which this Pelagian thinking manifests itself is in our funeral rites.  The term used today reveals a lot:  the celebration of life memorials!  The focus here is presumably on what the person has done, and not on what Jesus has done for us.  (I unfortunately anticipate that there is going to be some pushback in this regard!)  During funerals, there necessarily has to be an emphasis on Christian hope—with all its encouragement—given to us who are left behind.  This is because Jesus is the firstborn from the dead (see Col. 1:18 or Rev. 1:5). 

However, we can never become so overly presumptuous as to place a person in Heaven automatically.  Only God Himself reads the heart, knows the person’s motivation and understands the human person so completely as to be the ultimate judge of anyone’s salvation.  Jesus died for us sinners, and we need to ask for His forgiveness and mercy for our deceased.  We should never deprive anyone of our prayers and Masses, offered for their eternal salvation.  The Catholic Church’s teaching on purgatory, a period of cleansing or purification before Heaven, can be of great consolation in this matter when it is properly understood.

No, I can’t do it all by myself.  I need Jesus.  I need His grace.  I need His unconditional love, His mercy and His forgiveness—more now than ever!

Fr. Ed Namiotka

St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo
"Doctor of Grace"

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Preaching the Sunday Homily

Dear Parishioners,

As I write, I am attending our annual Presbyteral Convocation in Avalon.  This meeting of our priests serves a number of purposes:  it renews our priestly fraternity in union with our bishop, it allows us to relax, to reflect and to pray, and it gives us various opportunities to be informed and updated.  This year the main topic of our conferences is preaching.  There is an emphasis on the effective communication of the Word of God, especially during the Sunday homily.

When thinking about this vital task of every priest, I believe that it may be insightful if I tell my own story.  I used to think (as a child and a teenager) that it would be okay to be a priest—except for the part about speaking in public.  I am quiet, shy and introverted by nature and did not have a lot of self-confidence whenever I had to talk in front of others.  This doesn’t exactly bode well if you may have to preach to others on a regular basis.

God certainly has a sense of humor!  What exactly is it that I have spent most of my life doing?  Try teaching in a classroom in front of teenagers and preaching in front of a congregation on a daily basis!

I remember the first homily that I gave as a deacon at Mass.  I had been up all night tossing and turning, so nervous about the task ahead of me.  When Mass began, I had to make a decision.  I could read what I had written from a text verbatim or I could preach (without reading from the text) from my heart.  With the second choice, I would take the chance of freezing up, of forgetting what I was supposed to say and of possibly looking like a fool.  Maybe I should be a fool for Christ (see 1 Cor. 4:10)?  I chose to go without reading the prepared text and stepped up in front of the altar.  I said a simple, spontaneous prayer which I continue to say each and every time I preach:  “Lord, touch my lips that I may touch people’s hearts.”  The rest is history.

Lest people ever think that there is not some vital preparation for my Sunday homily each week, I begin with prayer and a reading of the Sacred Scriptures.  Then I look to some biblical commentary to shed some light on the text itself.  I think of stories, events or examples to make the biblical text come alive and then try to apply it to contemporary situations or events.  In the entire process, I am open to the Holy Spirit to guide me to speak the words that God wants the congregation to hear.

It’s always a challenge to stay fresh, to be interesting and not to seem repetitive.  It is sometimes intimidating to preach the Gospel in season and out of season (see 2 Tm. 4:2), when the message is popular and when it goes against the tide in society.

Most importantly, the Gospel of Christ, when preached in all of its richness and purity, is truly life-giving!  To a world that is hungering for truth, direction, meaning and purpose, the Gospel has the answers!  Together with the Holy Eucharist, it fills the hungers of the human heart.

I will try to do my best to preach it to you accurately, with love and conviction, as God’s Word to us!

Fr. Ed Namiotka

Monday, October 13, 2014

It Isn’t Christmas Yet!

Dear Parishioners,

A couple of weeks ago, on my day off, I went out to dinner with my mom.  Afterwards, we planned to see a movie.  We had some time before the show would begin, and we decided to stop into one of the local department stores to browse.  Lo and behold, I couldn’t believe it!  Christmas decorations! Christmas displays!  Christmas presents!  It was still September!  It was hot outside!  We had been to the beach earlier that day!  I had been in a bathing suit that afternoon soaking up the sun!  Unbelievable!  Simply unbelievable!

Our society is so obviously driven by an intense consumer mentality indicative of a world focused on materialismthings, things and more thingsBuy this product!  You need this beauty aid to look good!  This car will tell everyone how important you are!  This latest smart phone is worth standing outside all night long to purchase!  If you don’t wear these athletic shoes you will not excel among all the competition!  You absolutely must give her this piece of jewelry to tell her how important she is to you!  This television . . . this computer . . . this beer . . .  this candy . . .  this toy . . . will make your dreams come true, will satisfy your every longing, will make you the perfect person, will tell him how much you love him, will show everyone that you understand what it means to enjoy life.

Will it really?  Rather, it will probably just increase the amount of debt that you owe on your credit cards.

Instead, should we not treasure the person over the thing?  Isn’t the time that we can spend listening, helping, consoling, encouraging, teaching, etc., much more valuable than the things we could ever give to someone?  In the end, what do we actually take with us when we die?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing from this material world!

Before Christmas actually arrives, our society celebrates occasions like Halloween and Thanksgiving.  Then the Church asks us to observe the four weeks of Advent in preparation for Christmas.  When Christmas arrives we have an octave (8 days) to celebrate it and an entire season to enjoy it!  (You can tell when you are actually in the Christmas season itself because everything about Christmas is removed from the stores, the after-Christmas sales are over, no more Christmas music is played, the decorations and trees come down, and the focus is on Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day and Easter!)

All of the stress on things (which can cause a considerable amount of stress in our lives) can eclipse the more important spiritual matters to which we need to be more attentive—the Incarnation and Nativity of Jesus, the Son of God.  This eclipse will happen, however,  only if we let it! 

I’m sorry for ranting and raving here.  I guess there’s just a few things that I had to get off my chest.  Normally, I wouldn’t be writing about Christmas this far ahead of time—in  October.

But I decided to mention these matters before the Easter baskets are put on display.

Fr. Ed Namiotka

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Remembering Fr. Benedict

Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR  (1933-2014)

Dear Parishioners,

On October 3rd, the vigil of the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR, returned to the Lord at the age of 81.  Many people might remember him from his weekly TV appearances on EWTN, from the numerous books that he wrote or from the many talks or retreats that he gave during his life.

Fr. Groeschel was a true character.  He hailed from Jersey City (which he often compared to “purgatory”) and continually spoke of and witnessed to his love and concern for the poor.  He was most at home with the downtrodden, outcasts and the poorest of the poor.  His unique sense of humor carried him through life, including his ability to poke fun at himself.  (I still remind people of his saying that there are “no U-Hauls in a funeral procession—you can’t take it with you!”)

I attended a number of priest retreats with Fr. Benedict as the Retreat Master at Trinity Retreat House in Larchmont, NY.  As a seminarian at Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary, he gave the annual retreat during one of my years there.  He spoke to the priests of our diocese at one of our annual convocations.  I recall his regular presence at the annual March for Life in Washington, DC.  I read his books, listened to his tapes and CD’s, and watched his videos and TV shows.  I certainly admired his love for and fidelity to the Catholic Church.

Leaving the Capuchin Franciscan Friars (OFM Cap) in 1987, Fr. Benedict helped found the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal (CFR) because of a desire to embrace poverty more completely.  This new order sought renewal and reform within the Catholic Church by their evangelical witness.  They currently number approximately 120 friars.

Fr. Benedict was hit by a car in 2004.  The trauma of the accident triggered a heart attack and he nearly died.  Remarkably, against all odds, he recovered and assumed many of his former duties.  However, in 2009, at the age of 75, he had a stroke which once again slowed him down by affecting his cognitive abilities and speech.

His legacy of charity, scholarship and other good works (with too many accomplishments to list here) was tarnished and overshadowed by a faux pas in 2012 in a newspaper interview in which he defended some sexual abusers and seemingly blamed the victims.  He subsequently apologized for his statement and any harm that was done by it.  Unfortunately, the incident became widespread in the media and the damage to his reputation was doneA lifetime of good work was somehow eclipsed by this unfortunate incident.

May our prayers be with you Fr. Benedict.
I’m sure that you’ll survive purgatory okay after working in the Bronx and growing up in Jersey City!

Fr. Ed Namiotka
St. Francis of Assisi