In the movie Groundhog Day Bill Murray’s character, Phil, ends up experiencing the same day over and over again as he reports on the appearance of the famous groundhog and whether winter will continue or spring will set in. Phil’s character is arrogant, self-centered, and only out for himself. He doesn’t truly care for anyone other than himself.
Phil becomes trapped in time on groundhog day. Every morning he wakes up in bed in his hotel and hears the same thing from the radio alarm clock by his bed, no matter where he was the night before. He tried to leave the town, but the road is blocked by a blizzard. He tries everything he can think of, but he’s completely trapped. He doesn’t move on until he learns humility and starts to treat other people as people without worrying about whether or not it will help himself.
We also get trapped repeating the same patterns over and over again, and I’m not talking about getting stuck in a rut or feeling bored with our lives. We seem to get trapped in our sins, repeating the same sinful behaviors over and over. It can seem impossible to get out of these cycles, and we’re sometimes temped to lose hope and give in to despair. However, we know that God doesn’t want us to stay in our sins. Jesus Christ came down to free us from sin. He doesn’t just forgive our sins; He also gives us the help of His grace to truly overcome them in our lives.
There are certain tactics that we can use to overcome our sins, depending on the particular sin we’re struggling with, and we should talk with our confessor or spiritual director about our specific situation. However, when we’re truly stuck there’s one thing that’s absolutely necessary. We must learn humility. Even if we do everything else right, if we’re prideful in thinking that we will overcome our sins through our own efforts, then the Lord will allow us to stay in our sins rather than allow us to overcome them only to be trapped in the worse sin of pride. If we humble ourselves by recognizing that God alone can free us from our sins, then He will give us the grace to break free.
To humble ourselves, we should pray every day for help overcoming our sin. Pray for help for that day, and name the sin that you need help with. In this way we humble ourselves by admitting our weakness and asking God for His strength. Then, we have to show that we’re serious about rejecting sin. We do this by fasting. Traditionally, Catholics fasted by abstaining from eating meat on all Fridays of the year, not just Lent. A lot of people in south Louisiana think that’s kind of meaningless since our seafood is so good. Well, in that case, you can either take it further and also abstain from seafood, or you can choose something else to fast from, like only drinking water, or giving up TV or the internet. Whatever you give up, it shouldn’t make you absolutely miserable, but it should make a difference and be something that you truly miss. If you don’t drink coffee, then giving up coffee isn’t really fasting.
There’s a story about a priest complaining to St. John Vianney that Church was dying out even though he’d tried everything he could think of. St. John Vianney asked him if he had prayed and fasted for them. Prayer and Fasting are powerful spiritual tools, because they teach us to give up our pride and rely on the help of God.
The fourth of St. Thomas Aquinas’ “Five Ways” shows, once again, that we think about the world in a different way than the medieval person did. We tend to look for physical causes for everything, because the success of the sciences, especially physics and biology, have shown how valuable that way of thinking is. We tend to look at abstract properties like goodness, nobility, and beauty as subjective opinions, not something that actually exists in the real world. This is what we mean in the famous saying, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
The medieval mindset saw meaning, purpose, and symbolism in everything, because they saw God at work in everything. They saw goodness, truth, and beauty as objective, not subjective. Something is more or less good, true, and beautiful based on how well it compared to the ideal in the mind of God.
The argument goes something like this. Some things are more or less good, true, noble, beautiful, etc., than other things. Something is more or less good (noble, beautiful, etc.) as compared to something that is the maximum, the most good, as something that is hot is more or less hot compared to fire. Anything that isn’t perfectly good must get its goodness from something outside of itself that causes it’s goodness. Therefore, there must be a Perfect Good which causes goodness in other things, and this we call God.
If we believe that goodness, beauty, and other attributes like that are completely subjective, then this argument isn’t convincing, and it may even seem naive. Does beauty depend entirely on our opinions whether something is beautify or not? Certainly, my experience, education, and preferences have an effect on what I think is beautiful, and what I think is beautiful someone else might think is ugly. However, I don’t think that our opinions are the standard of beauty, because they depend on our experience, education, and preferences.
For a long time I couldn’t see the beauty and eloquence in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. I simply didn’t like it. Then, I had a teacher who helped me to see the play in a new light, to understand the deeper themes and the genius of the writing, and to appreciate Romeo and Juliet for the masterpiece that it is. My personal preferences didn’t change, and it’s still not my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays, but I came to see that beauty that was already there. That wasn’t based on my opinion. The beauty was there whether I saw it or not, but once I saw it I couldn’t deny it. It reached out and took hold of me. That’s what beauty, truth, and goodness have in common. We can deny them, but they don’t depend on our opinions, and once we see the beauty in a piece of art, the truth in a proposition (like 2 + 2 = 4), or the goodness in another person, we can no longer deny it. So, if beauty, truth, and goodness really exist, then they must come from somewhere, “and this we call God.”
Back in November Archbishop Aymond declared 2021 to be the Year of the Eucharist in the Archdiocese of New Orleans. In December, Pope Francis declared 2021 to be the Year of St. Joseph for the universal Church. So, what are we focusing on for this year, the Eucharist or St. Joseph? Archbishop Aymond, after consulting with the priests of the Archdiocese, has declared 2021 to be the Year of the Eucharist and St. Joseph. We’ll focus mainly on the Eucharist, but we’ll also have extra devotions and teachings for St. Joseph as well.
During 2020 we experienced an unprecedented time of separation from the Sacraments throughout the world. Due to quarantines related to Coronavirus, we were unable to attend Mass here in the Archdiocese of New Orleans for about 6 weeks, and we’re actually still on reduced capacity in Churches. With the vaccines coming out, we have a good chance that restrictions will be further relaxed and more people will be able to get to mass.
This has been such a challenge because the Eucharist is absolutely necessary for living the faith. It isn’t lagniappe, a little something extra that we can take or leave, it’s the very Body and Blood of our Lord Himself and the real presence of God. The Catholic faith is about union with God, and Holy Communion is the path to union with God. Unfortunately, absence from the Eucharist can’t help but affect how we few the Eucharist and our own practice of the faith. For some, it has reinforced their need for the Eucharist and even lead to conversions. For others, it’s helped form a habit of not going to Mass or staying at home and watching Mass on television. Televised Mass isn’t enough because we’re not gathered with the Church to praise the Lord and we can’t receive Communion that way. Watching mass on TV or the internet is like using a spare tire on your car; it’s good as a temporary solution to get you where you need to go, but it won’t last in the long term. The year of the Eucharist is meant to reinforce the Sunday obligation (when it’s reinstated), to center our faith back on the Eucharist and the Holy Mass, and to bring us together as one community, one Church, around the Eucharist.
The Year of St. Joseph was called because 2021 is the 150th anniversary of the declaration of St. Joseph as Patron Saint of the Catholic Church. Theologically, St. Joseph is the patron of the Church because he was chosen by God as the foster father of our Lord Jesus Christ and protector of the Holy Family of Jesus. Since the Church is the Holy Family of the brothers and sisters of Christ in union with our Father in heaven through the gift of the Holy Spirit, St. Joseph is entrusted with the protection of the Catholic Church. The Church, clergy and laity, needs St. Joseph’s intercession and protection from corruption within and persecution without.
This year is an invitation to all of us to ask for the paternal guidance of St. Joseph over the Church, to renew our love for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and to recenter our families around the altar and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
The celebration of the new year is on different days in different cultures and at different times in history. For the most part, the Western cultures follow the Roman tradition, traced back to Julius Caesar, of celebrating the new year on the first day of January to honor the god of beginnings, Janus. After the past year, I’m sure that many of us need a new beginning, but we’re better off looking to Christian tradition to see what they renewal should look like.
When you restore an old, warped, rusted piece of equipment, the first thing you need to do is look at the original form. This lets you picture what the final product should look like and make a plan to get there. For a renewal in our lives, we may listen to motivational speakers and read self-help books, but we have to ask ourselves if they’re giving us a true picture of what life should look like. Instead, let’s look to the author of life, our Lord Jesus Christ. God is the Creator who created humanity in the beginning and who personally created each one of our souls. When we look to Jesus Christ we see how humans are supposed to live. We see, in a way, the original plan for our creation. Jesus was uncompromising with what was true and right and made a whip of cords to clear the money changers out of the Temple, but He was also gentle and compassionate in calling sinners to repentance. He knew the mission His Heavenly Father gave Him and didn’t let any obstacle deter Him. He was comfortable with the poorest of the poor and in the presence of kings and Roman governors. He shows us that sentimental love isn’t enough; we are called to a sacrificial love.
Once you know what it’s supposed to look like, then you need to start taking off what doesn’t belong. Clean off the dirt, remove the rust, and scrape off the old paint. You may need to use a sander and a wire brush, but all of that stuff needs to go. In the same way, we need to see what in our own lives is a corruption of the original plan. Once we know who we’re supposed to be, who God is calling us to be, then we can see what parts of our lives are distorting that vision. All of our sins and all of our vices need to go. Even some good things may be getting in the way of being the person, the spouse and parent, the friend, and the Christian that God is calling us to be. In the Christian tradition we call this asceticism, which is the practice of disciplining ourselves by denying ourselves some things so we can obtain greater things.
Finally, we may have to reshape some things so the tool can come back to flush and everything can fit together and work smoothly. We know that in our lives things don’t always work smoothly, and sometimes it seems like we’re just treading water. God doesn’t expect the impossible, and we can’t expect perfection, because then we may give in to discouragement and give up. What we should expect is to make an improvement every day, to grow in holiness every day, and to grow closer to Christ every day. We can do that, as one of my teachers said, by looking at Jesus, looking at ourselves and seeing where we don’t measure up, and then making an adjustment. Renewal isn’t something that happens once and then it’s finished, it’s a process of responded to God’s invitation to renewal every day.
The last three ways may be better to cover one at a time, so we have the space to do it properly. The third way is from possibility and necessity. The things in our experience are only possible, but not necessary, like a chair. The chair can exist, but it doesn’t have to exist. At one time it didn’t exist, and then something caused it to exist, and at some point it will stop existing. If everything were only possible, then there could have been a point in which nothing existed. If this happened then nothing would exist now, since nothing can come from nothing. Obviously, things do exist. The alternative is that some things are necessary and must exist, and are not just possible. Logically, they must receive their necessity from themselves or from something else, and we’ve already seen that a chain of causes cannot go on for infinity. Therefore, there must be something that does not depend on anything else for its existence, but is necessary of itself. This all men speak of as God.
This is the hardest of the five ways for me to wrap my mind around. I think it’s because all of the things around us are only possible, so it’s hard to imagine that something could be truly necessary. We may think of the universe as necessary, but it began to exist with the Big Bang. Even the laws of the universe are not necessary as many of them began to exist with the Big Bang, and they don’t truly have to be what they are. God, however, is completely self-sufficient and has created everything else that exists.
I think what St. Thomas Aquinas wants us to see is that must things depend on other things to exist. We call this contingent existence. God, on the other hand, is necessary. He is pure existence or the act of existence itself, and He is holding everything else in existence at every moment. Last week I used the example of a pool cue striking a cue ball which then strikes the other balls. This is a series of causes and effects that follow in a sequence. Some things have effects that happen at exactly the same moment. For example, when you plug a lamp into a power outlet the electricity causes the lamp to light up, but it happens simultaneously. The same thing happens when you pick up a ball. You hand is causes the ball to rise, but it’s not one thing and then the other, they happen at the same time. God didn’t just create us and let us go; like a parent, He is constantly holding us in existence. The Catechism says:
“With creation, God does not abandon his creatures to themselves. He not only gives them being and existence, but also, and at every moment, upholds and sustains them in being, enables them to act and brings them to their final end. Recognizing this utter dependence with respect to the Creator is a source of wisdom and freedom, of joy and confidence” (CCC 301).
And as the Acts of the Apostles says, “For in him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28)
Fr. Bryan was pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes from July 3, 2017 to June 2022.