Since this is my (Fr. Kurt’s) final bulletin article, I decided to write about happiness and how we find it as an abiding characteristic in our lives. We all seek it and hope that most of the time we enjoy it, but we can sometimes be derailed in its pursuit. Bedrock to Christian faith is the conviction that to be human is to be built for happiness. St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas—along with Duns Scotus and St. Bonaventure in the Franciscan tradition—agree that a desire for happiness is hard-wired into human character.
But contemporary psychological researchers like Dr. June Gruber at Yale University are getting a lot of attention with claims that happiness has a “dark side.” This observation, rooted in social scientific studies on “positive feelings” and “personal success,” centers on the conviction that we can be “too happy,” and that too sharp a focus on “the pursuit of happiness” actually gets in the way of the very happiness we seek.
Gruber and her colleagues note that the search for happiness as an end in itself is almost always self-defeating. They speak of it in terms of elevated affective expectations that cannot always be met and lead to more acute disappointment, even more intense pursuit of happiness, loftier expectations, sharper sense of loss, etc. Such a spiral of failed hopes can lead to depression, even despair. Researchers also note that a focus on happiness, understood as positive feelings of contentment and satisfaction, can lead to social isolation. Preoccupation with our needs and happiness crowds out concern for the needs and happiness of others.
The prescription for an overzealous pursuit of happiness, as these studies see it, is moderation. Scaling back expectations, monitoring our own happiness less intently, and giving up a little self-satisfaction for the satisfaction of friends and family are some of the ways that people can avoid the pitfalls of “too much happiness.”
Underneath this common sense approach, Christian discipleship offers a deeper vision that sheds light on the issue of our contemporary understanding of happiness. At the heart of the human dilemma is not an excess of happiness—not too much of a good thing like pie or sleep or cheerful laughter. The problem is what we are pursuing when we pursue happiness. This is where the pop culture image of “repurposing,” converting something for use in another format or product, might shed some light.
At the beginning of the section of St. Matthew’s Gospel known as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes clear that the happiness to which we are called by God does not match customary expectations of happiness. The happiness—also called “beatitude” or “blessedness”—that Jesus offers is more than simply the absence of conflict. It is more than mere comfort, more than an abundance of pleasure or positive feelings. Jesus’ vision is one that recognizes the transience of such passing satisfactions—as good as they may be in themselves.
The vision of happiness he offers is a paradoxical one, identified with poverty and grief, with the bestowal of mercy and the yearning for justice, with meekness and peace and purity of heart. It is a happiness rooted, not in passing circumstances and sensations, but in communion with Jesus and his Father and their Spirit. It is a happiness that consists of living according to the purpose for which we were made. The Gospel that Jesus proclaims and embodies in his person is summed up in his image of the “kingdom of God.” It is a reality in which God’s will—God’s deepest desires and fondest hopes for the universe—is fulfilled. The kingdom is that condition in which what God wants is finally and fully accomplished.
Our purpose—as human beings and as friends and disciples of Jesus—is to recognize and embrace ever more passionately God’s vision for the world. Our purpose is to participate in Jesus’ mission to bring about the kingdom.
When we seek happiness on our own, as if we could be happy apart from our communion with God and with those God loves, we are attempting to “repurpose” ourselves. When we make our own satisfaction and comfort the end for which we hope, we may be reinventing ourselves in novel, even creative ways. But such reframing of reality will not bring us happiness, now or later.
The good news is that the happiness Jesus promises is already ours as a gift. God already loves us. His kingdom of peace and mercy, of healing and reconciliation and joyous communion, is not yet fully visible, but we count on its ultimate completion and appearance. The good news is that we can rejoice now—even in the midst of sorrow and obscurity—because, as Jesus reassures us, “the kingdom of God is among you” (Lk 17:21).
SIXTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
In the verses just prior to those for today’s reading, Paul speaks of humanity and creation yearning and groaning for redemption in the midst of suffering. Groaning is an interesting word, as it represents a longing that cannot yet be expressed. We are all in pain and long for deliverance, but we do not know what deliverance will look like. We do not have the right words for our prayers, so we groan to express our longing. Paul tells us that despite our ignorance and our inability to express ourselves, God’s Spirit accompanies us by groaning in us and with us. Moreover, this groaning of the Spirit is somehow praying for us according to God’s will, so this groaning is nothing less than the longing of the divine for us and in us. Paul describes a knowing and understanding God.
Wisdom 12 portrays a similar picture of a caring God, but it also gives two twists. First, this caring God is lenient and is likely to grant repentance. Second, secure in sovereignty and power, this God is slow to anger.
The fact that Psalm 86 also emphasizes the coming of all nations to this merciful and forgiving God reminds us of how Paul will suggest in Romans 11 that God will eventually save all of Israel. In light of this, we may consider how we interpret Matthew’s parable of the weeds and the wheat, particularly the master’s willingness to let both grow together until harvest time. Note also, in this regard, how the next two parables in the reading feature, respectively, the incredible growth of even a tiny seed and the ability of yeast to leaven all.
In the Responsorial Psalm, we hear that God is forgiving and abounding in kindness and fidelity. His power is shown by the mercy he showers on sinners. The Catechism explains, “God is the Father Almighty, whose fatherhood and power shed light on one another: God reveals his fatherly omnipotence by the way he takes care of our needs; by the filial adoption that he gives us…finally by his infinite mercy, for he displays his power at its height by freely forgiving sins” (#270).
If followers of Jesus are to reflect God in the world, they are to be merciful and forgiving to others, just as God is described in the reading from Wisdom. The Catechism states, “The Christian should strive by works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, to put off completely the ‘old man’ and to put on the ‘new man’” (#1473).
For Your Reflection: What is your reaction to the phrase, “Those who are just must be kind” in the reading from Wisdom? When have you looked to the Spirit to learn how to pray? How do you seek to nurture your faith?
FEAST OF ST. MARY MAGDALENE
Wednesday, July 22, 2020
St. Mary Magdalene is one of the greatest saints of the Bible and a legendary example of God’s mercy and grace. The precise dates of her birth and death are unknown, but we do know she was present with Christ during his public ministry, death and resurrection. She is mentioned at least a dozen times in the Gospels.
Mary Magdalene has long been regarded as a prostitute or sexually immoral person in western Christianity, but this is not supported in the Scriptures. It is believed she was a Jewish woman who lived among gentiles, living as they did.
The Gospels agree that Mary was originally a great sinner. Jesus cast seven demons out of her when he met her. After this, she told this to several women she associated with, and these women became followers.
There is also debate over if Mary Magdalene is the same unnamed woman, a sinner, who weeps and washed Jesus’ feet with her hair in the Gospel of John. Scholars are skeptical this is the same person. Despite the scholarly dispute over her background, what she did in her subsequent life, after meeting Jesus, is much more significant. She was certainly a sinner whom Jesus saved, giving us an example of how no person is beyond the saving grace of God. During Jesus’ ministry, it is believed that Mary Magdalene followed him, part of a semi-permanent entourage who served Jesus and his disciples.
Mary likely watched the crucifixion from a distance along with the other women who followed Jesus during his ministry. Mary was present when Jesus rose from the dead, visiting his tomb to anoint his body, only to find the stone rolled away and Jesus, very much alive, sitting at the place they laid him. She was the first witness to his resurrection.
Mary Magdalene is a great example for each of us to realize that we can always go to Jesus to confess our sins, to renew our life and to become an ever better follower, having received forgiveness and mercy.
A FEW CLOSING THOUGHTS
As I bring my bulletin-writing days to a close, I want you to know that I have truly enjoyed communicating with you each week via the bulletin. I suspect most pastors would like to have a way of addressing their parishioners on a number of issues that are not always appropriate for a homily. Some have developed a Newsletter separate from the bulletin for this purpose; others write a short piece every week and put it on the parish website, but for me the bulletin has been an excellent venue to help people to consider all kinds of possibilities for their spiritual and human development.
This all started for me many years ago when I was visiting one of our parishes in Ashland, Wisconsin, and I picked up a copy of the parish bulletin. I found there an excellent article by the pastor, Fr. Medard Buvala, O.F.M., and I asked him if he did this every week and, if so, how did he find the time and energy to devote to it. His answer was brief and to the point. He said, “If you think something is truly worthwhile, you can always find the time.” That hit me square in the face, and I decided right then and there if I ever became a pastor, I would try to do the same.
When I became pastor of St. Mary’s Church, Memphis, in 1984, I began to fulfill my promise. It continued in 1988 when I was transferred to St. Anthony’s in St. Louis as pastor, then in 2000 at St. Francis Solanus in Quincy, and now at St. Peter’s since 2009. I sometimes wonder what all the topics have been in those articles over the years. There were times when I was facing a deadline and still had not decided what to write, and there were times when I experienced “writer’s cramp,” feeling like my brain had become locked. Some of the friars with whom I have lived have likened me to what Andrew Greeley was accused of, namely, never having a thought that was not published.
I owe so much to the Sisters of St. Joseph who taught me during my elementary school years and especially to Fr. Blane O’Neill, who was my writing and literature teacher during my senior year of high school. He could be brutal in his methodology, but he taught us how to develop a theme, how to use the tools of the trade, and how to persevere even when we felt down at our attempts and accomplishments.
I now look forward to reading what our new pastor, Fr. Michael Fowler, will write in his bulletin column. I feel sure that both you and I will continue to learn a great deal from his wisdom and knowledge. God bless you all!
UPDATE ON ST. PETER’S GALA
Due to the continuing problems of gathering in large groups during this pandemic era, we have decided to hold a Virtual Gala this year, a two-day Gala on October 10-11. Our goal is to net $250,000, which will be used as in former years to help address the deficit in our operating budget. To secure your place in this two-day Celebration, we ask you to go on your desk top, tablet, or smartphone to https://stpetersauction.givesmart.com and click on the Register Now button to provide us with the information we will need to keep in touch with you between now and the Event. Please put the dates for this Virtual Gala in your personal calendars. We look forward to seeing you on October 10-11.
A CHUCKLE FOR THE SUMMER
A priest was getting ready for a trip to Rome, and a man came to him with a request: “When you get to Rome, could you light a candle for me and my wife? We really want children and the doctor just told us we might not be able to have any.”
The priest agreed to the request. Ten years later, he ran into the man again in a supermarket. With him were twelve kids.
“Oh, this is wonderful!” said the priest. “But, tell me, where’s your wife?”
“Oh, she’s gone to Rome to blow out that candle!”