May 30, 2020

Pornography, Confession, and Amendment of Life

Recently I saw online a video of a priest preaching about folks who go to confession over and over with the same sin—in this case, pornography—and how they may be 'abusing' God's mercy.

Certainly pornography is a serious issue. Any priest who hears confessions knows that it has become a serious public health crisis. It has the potential to deform imaginations and consciences and to weaken and even destroy real relationships.

And it’s true enough, to go to confession without any contrition or willingness to ‘amend my life’ (as we say in a common version of the Act of Contrition), would be something sacrilegious and a sin of presumption on God’s mercy.

But is that what is going on when people come to confession over and over, especially in the case of this particular problem? In my estimation, no. Or at least it must be rare. I think what is usually the case is that someone wants to make a change, to find freedom from the emptiness and ennui of this problem, but doesn’t know how to begin to succeed.

They want to make amendment of life, but fail. Why?

Sexuality is a mysterious and powerful aspect of the person, and it runs very deep. Therefore habits that develop around our living out of our sexuality tend to be deep and powerful as well. And if these habits are bad, they are that much stronger and harder to uproot.

Moreover, and perhaps getting at what is more sinister and tragic in this particular area, human nature and the effects of original sin being what they are, sex easily gets mixed up with domination, exploitation, and even violence. The pornographers are excellent psychologists, understand this lamentable situation very well and use it in subtle and not-so-subtle ways to instill craving for their product.

Therefore, to even start to think about dealing with a problem of habitual use of pornography, one has to be as fierce and dedicated as a wicked man who stands to make a lot of money. Unfortunately, for a lot of souls struggling against sin, we lack anything approaching this kind of commitment to prayer and desire for willingness. We are, as the Adam Ant song goes, desperate but not serious.
“Athanasius, Archbishop of Alexandria, of holy memory, begged Abba Pambo to come down from the desert to Alexandria.   He went down, and seeing an actress he began to weep. Those who were present asked him the reason for his tears, and he said,

‘Two things make me weep: one, the loss of this woman; and the other, that I am not so concerned to please God as she is to please wicked men.’” (Sayings of the Desert Fathers)
When was the last time I felt so much contrition that I cried?

In that spirit, an examination of conscience on our contrition itself and desire for willingness can be useful. How much do I really want what I say in the Act of Contrition to be true? As Fr. Cajetan of Bergamo, OFM Cap. writes in his great book on the spiritual life, Humility of Heart:
"There is a certain will," says St. Thomas, "which had better be called the wish to will than the absolute will itself"; [3 part., qu: xxi, art. 4] by which it seems that we can will a thing and yet not will it. Therefore examine yourself and see whether your desire for humility be only a passing velleity [a wish or inclination not strong enough to lead to action], or really in your will.
In my estimation, another issue that can impede a sincere amendment of life around these kind of issues is a sad lack of formation and knowledge about the spiritual life. People may be on fire with the desire for God and living a life that is quite devout, but they have never read about how to practice some of the classic tools like examination of conscience, guard of the heart, custody of the eyes, and so on. And they probably haven’t ever heard a priest preach on any of these things either.

We have two thousand years of spiritual mothers and fathers who have struggled in remarkably similar ways, original sin being quite unoriginal in its later effects, and saints who have written about their own struggles and with teaching for the faithful. Getting to know them is invaluable. It can be surprising and refreshing how explicit some of these teachers of the spiritual life can be around these sorts of topics. Just go look up the twenty-second of John Cassian’s Conferences, on nocturnal emissions.

Confused or irresponsible confessors can be another issue for folks who are struggling with this sin and who go to confession regularly. I think there are priests who have let themselves get fatigued by hearing the same confessions over and over, and have allowed this weariness begin to weaken their attention to the suffering of the penitent. There are also confessors, strangely enough, who don’t seem to really believe in sin or who seem to be more committed to some pop psychology or worldly anthropology than they are to the teachings of the Catholic faith. Pray for us priests.

So, are people struggling with pornography and confess their use of it over and over abusing God’s mercy? My experience leads me to say no in almost all cases. They are abusing and hurting themselves, for sure, and may be contributing to the abuse and degradation of others as well. And in many cases they are abusing themselves further by failing to get serious and practical about uprooting sin and avoiding its occasions. They also may not know about the rich tradition of tools our Catholic faith offers them.

It also has to be noted that the consumption—and I always say ‘consumption’ in the context of confession or spiritual direction to emphasize that its something you are putting into yourself, your heart and imagination—of pornography often goes together with masturbation. I have a post on that matter here.

Finally, for anyone who happens upon this post who is struggling themselves with these issues, another quote from Fr. Cajetan:
It is in this that the good and wisdom of God is most admirably set forth, that He offers us a means of sanctifying ourselves through our very miseries, and we shall never be able to make the excuse that we could not become Saints because we committed grave sin, when those very sins might have been the means of sanctifying us by urging us to a deeper humility.

May 12, 2020

Kneeling Crucified

Today is the feast of St. St. Leopold Mandić, OFM Cap., (1866-1942), a Croatian who ended up as a noted confessor in Padua. I was reading Pope St. John Paul II's homily for his canonization, and came across this striking paragraph:
What remained for St. Leopold? Whom or for what did his life serve? He was for his brothers and sisters who had lost God, love, hope. Impoverished human beings, in need of God, who called out, imploring his forgiveness, his consolation, his peace and serenity. St. Leopold gave his life to these ‘poor’, offering his own sufferings and prayer for them, above all in celebrating the sacrament of Reconciliation. It was there that he lived his charism and there that his heroic virtues expressed themselves. He celebrated the sacrament of Reconciliation, carrying out his ministry as if in the shadow of Christ crucified. His gaze was set on the crucifix, hanging on the penitent’s kneeler. The Crucified was always the protagonist. ‘It is he who forgives, he who absolves!’ He who is the shepherd of the flock ...
Italian doesn't make a distinction between the noun crucifix and the adjective (or nominalized adjective, as in this case) crucified. I decided to translate both ways in different instances according to what seemed to me the simplest sense of the text. But I can't help but think that John Paul II meant to indicate a connection between a crucifix displayed in the confessional and the crucified humanity of Christ 'hanging' on the kneeler in the person of the penitent.

As a priest it's one of the things that strikes you with awe and your own unworthiness, becoming a witness to the suffering Christ in the penitents who come to you.

I had a wonderful spiritual director right before I entered the Capuchin Order. One time I asked him where God was when I was committing a sin. He looked at me like I didn't know anything.

"He's suffering with you on the Cross."

Full text of the homily (in Italian) here.

April 11, 2020

The Easter Itinerancy

(An old post updated)

Every year on this holy night I reflect on the grace of itinerancy that the Holy Spirit has given me; only twice in my whole baptism have I been in the same place for the Easter Vigil for more than two years in a row. When I think about the places I've been for the Vigil, it puts me in awe of God and in a state of gratitude for my journey.

Here's my Easter Vigil history:
  • 2020: (COVID-19 pandemic, prayed what is provided in the Liturgy of the Hours for qui sollemni Vigilæ paschali non interfuerunt)
  • 2019: Basilica of St. Teresa of Ávila, Rome
  • 2018: Basilica of St. Camillo de Lellis, Rome
  • 2017: Basilica of St. Camillo de Lellis, Rome (in the 25th year of my baptism)
  • 2016: Capuchin General Curia, Rome (concelebrant)

April 10, 2020

The Way of the Cross

A cross is first of all an intersection. The Cross of Jesus Christ reveals several: the intersection of deity and humanity, of heaven and earth, and of love and suffering. When love and suffering are joined, they become a sacrifice, a ‘sacer-facere’, a making of something holy. Discernment is the discovery, each day, of what will be the sacrifice I make of my own life, how I will follow in the Lord’s footsteps in suffering love. “I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.” (Romans 12:1)

In loving prayer and attentive discernment we discover the particular, individual ‘way of the Cross’ to which God invites us. This ‘way’ comes to be revealed not only in the ‘big picture’ of our ‘vocation’ but also in the activities, relationships, and struggles of daily life, which, in the light of the Cross, take shape as opportunities for charity and holiness. Let us seek this ‘narrow gate’ (Matthew 7:13) of our salvation. In the words of St. Bonaventure, the great Franciscan Doctor of the Church, “There is no way except through the most burning love of the Crucified.” (The Soul’s Journey into God, prologue)

(reflection for Good Friday prepared for our vocation department's social media)

April 2, 2020

RIP: Fr. Christopher Dietrich, OFM Cap.

Fr. Christopher Dietrich, OFM Cap.
Fr. Chris was one of those friars who kept to himself and did his own thing, so I probably would never have gotten to know him at all except that he was parochial vicar at Sacred Heart in Yonkers when I was sent there for my first assignment. I became the second parochial vicar, the 'junior' one I suppose you could say. He was very attentive to me when I was new, taking me on walks around the parish boundaries and telling me about the history of the neighborhood (he was a native), introducing me to different parks in the area that were good for walks (he was a great walker), and so on.

As a new priest with a head full of theory and theology but very little sense of what the sacred ministry looked like in day-to-day practice, I was careful to observe the priests around me in those days. I noticed that Fr. Chris was very much appreciated by the people as a confessor and preacher. He had a gift for the sort of folksy preaching that has long been associated with Franciscans.

Having gone to Fordham for college (where he came under the influence of Avery Dulles), Paul -- as he was known in the world -- entered the Order when he was twenty-two, making him a 'late vocation' by the standards of his time. I always got the feeling that this left him with a hint of alienation with regard to the brothers, as if he were an irregular member. It was something I began to identify with in my developing understanding of the particulars of my own vocation to consecrated life.

He was one of the few friars of my province who kept his religious name after permission (and encouragement, I suspect) was given to return to use of one's baptismal name. He liked to joke about how his patron saint had been removed from the general calendar, and disputed the allegation of non-existence by producing a relic of St. Christopher that was in his possession.

Fr. Christopher was also an ordination classmate of the late Fr. Benedict Groeschel, something I didn't realize until we had a celebration for Chris's fiftieth of priesthood and Benedict showed up.

Perhaps in your charity you could offer a prayer for the eternal rest of this friar and priest, my first colleague in the sacred ministry.

Requiescat in pace.

March 31, 2020

Friars vs. State of Israel

(Original post, May 22, 2009)

Riffing on the case of Dr. Tim Whatley, who was accused of converting to Judaism "just for the jokes," one of my classmates in the Order once mocked me with the accusation that I entered religious life "just for the bizarre stories."

The story of the Capuchin friary in Jerusalem is one such story.

Back in the 1930s, responding to the beginning of the twentieth-century flowering of Biblical studies, someone in the Order decided we ought to have a house of studies in Jerusalem, where brothers could live while they studied Sacred Scripture or patristics at the local institutes and universities. Ten years or so later, it was all ready to go.

But in 1947, before any friars actually studied there, it was commandeered by the British as a military headquarters as the British Mandate was coming to an end. Then, during the 1948 war, the Israelis took it over in the same way. Once independence was established, instead of returning our new house of studies to us, the Israelis turned it into a psychiatric hospital.

This continued for about fifty years. Israel paid a small rent to the Order for the use of our building, but did not raise it once the whole time.

However, in order not to lose the property through adverse possession, the Venice province of the Order kept a couple of friars assigned there the whole time, staying in small, adjacent building where the custodian and his mother lived as well!

At some point in the 1990s, someone decided that enough was enough and the Order hired a Jewish lawyer and sued the government of Israel. The judge not only returned the property to the friars, but awarded all the back rent, adjusted for time and inflation, back to 1948.

It will now be renovated and turned into a guest house for Capuchins and folks with them on pilgrimage to the Holy Places.

UPDATE: Fr. Kevin, the guardian, introduces the house:

March 29, 2020

The Resurrection and the Life

Jesus said to her,
“Your brother will rise.” 
Martha said to him,
“I know he will rise,
in the resurrection on the last day.” 
Jesus told her,
“I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die." 
(John 11: 23-25)
I am the resurrection and the life. A final hope, a theological concept, is revealed in person. Eschaton made flesh.

That's the sacramental mystery at the heart of Christianity.

March 7, 2020


With Lent comes the Lord’s invitation: to let ourselves be led up the high mountain where we become our deepest and truest selves. The mountain is prayer. It is there that we discover the call that is God himself. In prayer we get to know God and ourselves, for our true identity is nothing more than who we are in God’s desire for us. This divine desire—or will of God—is revealed in how the call takes shape in our particular circumstances, and so becomes our vocation.

If we consent to remain on this high mountain of prayer we will have glimpses, visions of Resurrection glory, of the Christ who transfigures creation. These moments will be short and obscure for they are only a touching of the hem of his garment, but they will also be beautiful beyond our own imagining and desire. They may also be frightening, for they call us to a new boldness and single-mindedness in following Jesus. But the vocation is not to be feared, for wherever it leads us, the call is only to him, to Jesus Christ, and to the life of the new creation that dawns in his Resurrection.

(Reflection prepared for our vocation office to post on its social media for the 2nd Sunday of Lent)