Fr. Joel Life on Planet Earth

I just came back from an early showing of the spectacular new PIXAR film “WALL-E”. I have to confess that I am a big fan of Pixar films. They have a genius for attention to detail and for creating compelling characters with real personality. Wall-E is no exception. It opens on the planet Earth in approximately the year 2800. The huge corporate conglomerate B-n-L (Buy n Large) is cleaning up mountains of trash left on planet Earth. At least, they began the clean-up, but now only one little robot is left working. Meanwhile, as we have made the planet uninhabitable, the last remaining humans are out in space. They float around on flying chairs with screens in front of them, imprisoned by their own sedentariness. The world unfolds slowly following a day in the life of Wall-E. He has developed a creative curiosity that begins to affect everyone he meets.

People who have studied Theology of the Body will be amazed by the unfolding plot. In the midst of his solitude, Wall-E is suddenly confronted with a new being, a dangerous but fascinating robot on some kind of special mission. The plot hinges on the ‘gift of life’ which must be guarded and protected. In the midst of a depressing future, life brings not only hope but also a new creation.

Our particular showing was interrupted mid-way by technical difficulties. At first I thought it was intentional — in the film, the humans discover themselves only when their ever-present entertainment screen is interrupted. Our audience experienced the same thing and were frustrated by it. The boy in front of me whipped out his cell phone and started playing games. Perhaps modern man cannot live without a screen in front of him. As a final kind of irony, movie goers were offered a free Chinese-made Wall-E watch (pictured above), with advertisements for an upcoming Disney movie. You might think that promoters would avoid giving out junk when the movie is about the build-up of trash. Ultimately, the bleak backdrop of a trashed world is overcome by a love that is willing to welcome life. I highly recommend this movie. WALL-E is all about what it means to be human.

Lourdes, France

Benjamin Life on Planet Earth

My second stop on the Easter trip was the tiny town of Lourdes, at the edge of the Pyrenees in South-western France. There, in 1858, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to a young girl named Bernadette along a river near the town. The apparition was investigated thoroughly and approved by the Church. What keeps pilgrims coming, besides the motivation of prayer, is a spring of water which bubbled up from the ground. Our Lady told Bernadette to wash in the spring and to drink from it, which she did. Pilgrims came to bathe in the waters and many were healed, resulting in an unbelievable number of sick and those in wheel chairs coming to the shrine every year. It is, I believe, the most visited Marian shrine in the world. Our visit coincided with the “HCPT pilgrimage,” which brings 5000 people from the United Kingdom to Lourdes every year.
I was able to celebrate Mass three times at one of the small altars in the middle of the basilica. The basilica is three levels, the lower level being dedicated to the mysteries of the Rosary and decorated with mosaics. The middle level has small altars and chapels for Masses, and the upper level is a proper church. It was build beside and above the grotto, while leaving the famous cave intact and open to the air. A statue there shows where Mary appeared to Bernadette, and an altar was set up for outdoor Masses.
Our visit was characterized most of all by water. First, of course, there was the water from the grotto, which I also bathed in, not for any physical healing but carrying some spiritual intentions for certain people. For those who are wondering, this is not the outdoor polar plunge; the water runs into a series of tubs where volunteers help the pilgrims take a dip very privately. Besides this water, there was a nearly constant rain, which rolled across the town and filled the river. Water in the Bible is almost always a creative force, and it seemed fitting for the week following Easter. It was, however, rather cold, and we gratefully took refuge in the coffee shops and restaurants. There are, of course, many ways to celebrate the end of Lent and the Resurrection of the Lord.

Ars, France

Benjamin Priesthood

The best way to learn about the history of the Church and the lives of the saints is to visit it. The week after Easter I took a pilgrimage to France. Many people think that vacations should not involve too many goals or plans, but we set out with an ambitious four part plan:
1) Sleep
2) Eat
3) Pray
4) See something.
Sometimes it was difficult to fit it all in but we managed as best we could.

Our first stop was the tiny town of Ars in central France, north of Lyon. A French priest named Jean-Marie Vianney was sent there to be pastor in 1818. He had not been a good student of Latin and consequently struggled to learn his theology, even being sent away once from the seminary despite his best efforts to learn. He was finally ordained more because of his evident love of God than any other reason. The bishop was probably thinking of this when he sent him to Ars, saying “There isn’t much love of God in that town; you will have to bring it.” So the priest set out, on foot, from Lyon to Ars. Near the town he encountered a little shepherd boy and asked him to point out the way to Ars. When the boy did, he said, “You have shown me the way to Ars, and I will show you the way to heaven.”

True to his word, the priest set about doing all in his power to preach the Gospel. He soon became famous as a holy man who lived in an austere life and had great gifts. One of his greatest was hearing confessions, and more and more people came to confess to him until he was hearing confessions 16 hours a day. With morning Mass, teaching catechism, and eating, he only slept about three hours a night. It was his prayer that sustained him. In fact he wanted to leave the parish to be more dedicated to the contemplative life, but the bishop and the people refused to let him go, insisting he did too much good in the parish. He died at the age of 73, and soon afterwards a large basilica was added to his parish church to accommodate the pilgrims who came. He was named the patron saint of parish priests. The town today is still very small, but with the presence of the shrine and the pilgrims it has changed forever. We can say that John Vianney brought the love of God, and it is still there today.

Online Confessional

Benjamin Priesthood

Modern man has come a long way from crawling up to a wooden box to confess his sins to a priest. A recent article on CNN discusses the rise of online confession of sins. A brand of websites, generally started by large Protestant churches in the United States, allow you to anonymously post your sins in a digital admission of guilt. You can even browse through others confessions and leave comments if you want. In my opinion, it is bad enough to have your sins haunting the back of your mind, why would anyone would want their sins scattered to the winds of the world wide web? I suppose the promise of anonymity encourages the web savvy to find solace in the embrace of the internet. After all, the greatest burden of the sinner is feeling alone and cut off from the “good people” of the world by some unmentionable private sin. In a strange way, the sin becomes a ticket into a communion of sinners gathered around the warmth of a glowing plasma screen.

It bears mentioning that the Catholic confession is a completely different experience. Technology is almost non-existent; only the priest and the penitent and a screen between them, and you can dispense with the screen if you want. Anonymity is not guaranteed, in fact, it can be an intensely personal experience. The confidence that your sins will not be spread to others demands trust in the priest and in the Church who forbids any priest to reveal the sin of a penitent. The most intimidating thing about confession is, perhaps, the fact that the priest is not a silent screen. He is free to ask for more information; details that are easy to skip over to make the sin sound “not so bad.”

Yet confession offers something that other forms of self-accusation never could, reconciliation with God and with the community. There is no need for the whole community to hear a person’s transgressions, and if they are good people, they aren’t really interested. The priest takes the burden on himself, and hears the sin on behalf of the community and offers their forgiveness. More importantly, the priest hears the confession on behalf of God and offers his forgiveness, through a human voice and a human face.

The biggest difference between a online admission of guilt and Catholic confession is that the first is centered on the person and on their sin. Catholic confession is centered on the love and the mercy of God, made visible in the scriptures and in Jesus Christ. The sins a person has committed, no matter how terrible, are like drops of blood in the fire of God’s love. In front of that, our sins don’t stand a chance. Confession helps us to grow in the spiritual life, and the first thing we need to learn is that we aren’t really that important, and neither are our sins. It isn’t like we just committed a sin that no one ever did before. The second lesson to the spiritual life is that we are important to God, and confession is really an encounter with that God who loves us and is calling us to a greater life than what we have been living. This realization changes the nature of confession forever. Perhaps the reason why few people approach confession is that no one really believes that God loves them, and they think the best we can hope for is a big online hug.


Can men drink tea?

Benjamin Life on Planet Earth

Next to the pursuit of holiness, the pursuit of manliness is near and dear to my heart (I think, in the end, they aren’t that different but that is another topic). In any case, I and a few of my friends prefer tea to coffee, which opens us up to the occasional barb from others who fancy themselves experts on the subject of manhood. So, in the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, I want to ask this question to all you blog readers out there: is there anything unmanly about saying “I would rather have tea than coffee?” Is there anyone out there who learned to drink coffee because it made his life more masculine? Do you have to drink from a manly looking cup?

Keeping the space.

Benjamin Being Catholic

I began my homily this weekend by noticing that something was missing in the chapel. In front of the altar there were an angel, and a shepherd, and a sheep, a cow and a donkey, and a man and woman who seemed to be worshiping a napkin. In the place where the center of the display should have been, there was only an empty space. So, I took a purse from one of the ladies at the Mass and filled the space with it. It was a large, brown purse and it filled the space quite well.

The problem with life is that something is missing. We aren’t sure what exactly we expected to find in life, but whatever we have isn’t what we expected. The temptation is to fill that space with whatever we happen to have on hand, whether it is food or money, shopping or movies, friends or family. In fact, the several weeks leading up to Christmas look like one big orgy designed to fill every possible crack in our lives with something. The result is a misshapen life, like trying to fill a nativity scene with a purse. There is a haunting beauty to emptiness, a beauty that draws the soul, but emptiness stuffed with the first available thing is like a woman who dates idiots because she is lonely.

With a purse filing the nativity scene, there isn’t any room for the baby Jesus to come. A full life is not able to accept the gift of the Son of God. Advent is a moment to take out what has been filling our life up to this point, so that we will have space for the Lord to come. The problem is, the Lord comes when he is ready to come, and not when we demand him. We have to keep vigil by the emptiness, protecting it from invasion, so that whenever the Lord is ready to fill our life, we will be able to receive him.