Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanks to Father Barnes IV

I don't know what I would have done if I had walked into a Catholic Church two years ago this fall and not found Fr. David Barnes. I might never have stayed. Yesterday and again this morning, I was reminded of what an effective, persuasive priest he is, as he spoke from the pulpit on the Tobin–Kennedy matter.

First, let me be clear that what follows is my understanding of what Father Barnes said. Please credit me with any misunderstanding. The good padre has enough on his plate; he shouldn't have to answer questions about something stupid a parishioner wrote in a blog!

Second, Father barely mentioned the Catholic cause of the week, Providence (RI) Bishop Thomas Tobin's request that Congressman Patrick Kennedy refrain from receiving communion because of Kennedy's outspoken support for abortion. But it was clearly his personal focus.

Each morning, while referring to readings and to the martyrs honored by the liturgical calendar, Father suggested that there are many ways we can err as Catholics. Tuesday, he referred directly to the Tobin-Kennedy affair only at the beginning of the homily, saying that we must be neither "laissez-faire" nor "gleeful"—two common responses, one on either side of the current issue. Sure, it is wrong for cafeteria Catholics (my term, not his) to say, "Aw, heck, what's the big deal? Give the guy communion!" But it is just as wrong to exult in the sins of another, as many do when they say of Kennedy or anyone in his position, "Ha! Serves him right!" To conclude his homily yesterday, Father asked us to meditate on the Vietnamese martyrs, Andrew Dung-Lac and companions. They call us, he said, to a far higher moral position than either the laissez-faire or the gleeful.

Today, Father put a different spin on the matter, referring not to Tobin or Kennedy by name but only to the teaching authority of our bishops. He urged us to recognize that in the Catholic Church the bishops have such authority and that we must listen. To me, this was a ringing endorsement of Tobin's position, although Father never said so explicitly. Instead, he asked us to consider again that we can err on two sides. On one side are those who are so assimilated to our secular culture that they not only don't support the Church on social issues but are even embarrassed by the position Tobin has taken. On the other side are those who, when not gleeful at Kennedy's embarrassment, are railing stridently against him and all those who support abortion. Father Barnes's best line of the two days was this: "It's very easy for Catholics to become talk-show hosts."

Again, Father Barnes asked us to meditate on a martyr: St. Catherine of Alexandria (left), who despite her suffering in captivity apparently radiated such joy in her faith that she converted the emperor's wife and her jailer, before she herself was executed. There is no more convincing witness, Father Barnes said, than the way a Catholic bears suffering.

This he tied in with today's Gospel (Luke 21:12–19), in which Jesus warns his Apostles that they themselves will be called to martyrdom. There is a wonderful commentary on this Gospel reading by preacher to the papal household Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa in Magnificat, which I unfortunately do not have in front of me. The drift of the commentary is this: We may not be called to martyrdom, but as we age and fail in health, many of us will be in the position of Christ before Pilate and the Apostles before their persecutors: Stripped of earthly strength, we will have only our faith to sustain us. Then, each of us will be called to witness to our faith.

I could not help leaving church this morning thinking of my own father, who died helplessly in a hospice bed last autumn. He was no Catholic, but the quiet dignity and, yes, the religious faith with which he accepted his fate, and smiled gamely up at us from his pillow, is a witness I will always treasure and try to honor.