Three challenges for men in real life

Given by Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde at the Annual Diocesan Men's Conference at All Saints Church in Manassas.

My brothers, three men are in our midst, whom we have never met in person nor seen face to face. Some of us may have heard their names before or even know something about them. But they are truly here in our midst right now. How do I know that for sure? Each one is connected with each of the three Scripture passages we have just heard: Hosea, from whose Old Testament book our first reading was proclaimed; David the King of Israel, whose Psalm 51 we echoed in our psalm refrain today; and the anonymous tax-collector, one of the two central persons in Jesus' parable recorded in today's Gospel passage.

True, they are an unlikely threesome. One of them, Hosea, was the husband of a prostitute; another, King David, was an adulterer who sent the husband of the woman he seduced to his death; the third was an unnamed tax collector, a kind of first-century equivalent of an IRS agent. Three men, each with a challenge for us today!

Men of Weakness

First we meet Hosea. He challenges us to be men of weakness.

"What can I do with you, Ephraim?" we can almost hear Hosea thunder in exasperation, as he delivers the message of the Lord. "What can I do with you, Judah?" I can almost hear a dad's voice as he nearly yells at his rebellious teenage son: "What can I do with you, Bill?" In other words, "How can I be God to you if you think you are God? How can I be God to you if you try to bandage up your wounds, and not allow me to do that for you?"

As I reflected on these words, I found myself thinking of some of my various struggles over the years. Here is one: I took up smoking at age 18 and it took me nearly 15 years to quit. At my worst, I was up to a pack and a half a day. How foolish I was! Here's another, I am Italian, and the stereotype rings true for me: I enjoy eating. Unfortunately this love of food is not matched by an equal love of exercise. I could go on …; but I think I will spare you any further examples.

What I am driving at here is just how weak we are, and how we men are loath to admit it.

We hear Hosea today speaking of our "wounds" (cf. Hos 6:1). But we cannot even ask for directions - let alone admit that we are weak, wounded, or do not have the solution to a problem. Rather than admit our weakness, we prefer to pretend that we are "in control," that we will solve the "problem" on our own and not "bother God." We are not weak; we just need more time. But we must face the fact: We are indeed weak because original sin has made us so; moreover, our early formation may have had us experience difficulties, which, in turn, weakened us.

My brothers, have we come to terms with our weakness? Maybe you struggle with confidence because your father was never satisfied with you. Maybe your parents divorced when you were young, and so you struggle with commitment. Maybe you've fought hard with the demons of drugs, alcohol, gambling or pornography, but always feel about two steps from giving in again. Maybe someone close to you hurt you deeply and now you can't seem to trust the woman you love, or your friends, or even the merciful Father we heard about this morning from Dr. Horne and Father Pignato.

These realities, especially if they happened during the formative years of childhood, tend to leave gaping, aching wounds that we try to fill or patch up - often with all the wrong things. What useless bandages have you tried to "bind up" your wounds? Power? Being "That Guy" at the office who always has to out-perform his colleagues? Fantasy Football or Netflix? A string of relationships that never get serious because you don't want to get too close? Thrill-seeking or extreme sports? Always needing to have the last word and be right? Pornography?

My brothers, we hear from Hosea that the Lord's "judgment shines forth like the light of day," so, we must allow the blazing radiance of the Lord's judgment to shine on these areas of our lives, which are often so dark with shame, secrecy, or regret.

If we hear Hosea's challenge to us this morning, we will admit our weaknesses. We will be men who boast of Christ, Who is made powerful in weakness, and desires that we too learn this paradox: In weakness, we are made strong.

Men of Repentance

Next, we meet David. He challenges us to be men of repentance.

My brothers, admitting of our weaknesses is only the first step. If we stop with the simple awareness of our wounds and weaknesses, we achieve little more than a self-help book. Our culture now celebrates "vulnerability" and "authenticity," but it has completely divorced these concepts from the reality of sin. We need to take the next step: to repentance.

"Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness." These words must become our own, etched on our own hearts: "In the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense. Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me."

Allow David to challenge you in some specific way today. Each line of Psalm 51, inspired by God, has the power to cut against the grain of our pride, self-justification and smugness. Psalm 51 should bring us to our knees, to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. If you are going to confession once every quarter, then I challenge you to prayerfully consider going monthly. Let David's challenge penetrate into your daily life.

Men of Mercy

Our third challenge comes to us today from an anonymous tax collector, in today's Gospel account. He calls us to be men of mercy.

To understand his message, we must first hear the Pharisee, who sounds like a representative of today's "selfie culture," as he says, "I fast twice a week … I tithe." We might say, "I have built up a great career … I have made my family wonderful. I am a good Catholic. I have served you for decades as a priest. God, I thank You that I am so amazing!" Yes we may have done some really great things, but we sin through pride if we fail to acknowledge that we do not do these things alone, solely on our own. Indeed, it is God who accomplishes all these things through us. This takes profound humility. Bishop Thomas Olmstead reminds us in his recent pastoral letter to men, "Into the Breach," "Indeed, the greatest protection from pride and self-reliance is turning humbly to God in prayer."

By contrast, with the Pharisee, the tax collector calls out, "Have mercy on me, God, a sinner." With these words, he admits that he is not God, and he admits that he has offended God through his sins. There is not one "I" in his prayer. Moreover, the tax collector acknowledges that it is God Who must also do the healing - God is in control. The tax collector challenges us to sink the roots of our lives more deeply into the soil of prayer, mercy, and humility.

My brothers, in closing, I ask each of you: Are you a man of weakness - a man who knows that his weakness is made powerful in Christ? Are you a man of repentance? Are you a man of mercy? Over lunch today and in the hallways, and in the days to come, ponder these questions with one another. Get serious about a daily "rule of life." Do not let it become like that "morning cloud" that fades away. By "rule of life," I mean an intentional, concrete, realistic plan that combines prayer, authentic friendship and charitable outreach to those in need as essential and non-negotiable elements.

1. Prayer. Essentially, this means being in touch with the Lord Jesus, opening our mind and heart to listening to Him and to dialoging with Him. So, if need be, make your smartphone work for you by setting prayer appointments, confession and your "iron sharpens iron" check-ins with your close brothers in faith. Visit Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Begin every day with at least 10 minutes of prayer. Encounter Jesus daily in His Scripture; grow in obedience to Our Blessed Mother through the daily Rosary. If you are married and have children, put prayer in the center of your family by praying daily with your wife and together as a family.

2. Authentic friendship. These are friends who stand by you for the long haul, who can read through a false front, who look you in the eyes, who call you to be your best, who are rooted in Christ. I have been meeting regularly to pray with a small group of brother bishops, and I cannot imagine my life without the blessing of these "iron sharpens iron" friendships. I also meet with two male lay friends; we support one another in prayer, honestly challenge each other on specific issues, and all this with a view to growing closer to Jesus and though Him to one another.

3. Charitable outreach. We cannot authentically develop a real personal relationship with Jesus without reaching out to those in need, whom Jesus Himself identifies as being Himself in disguise.

Yes, three challenging partners are with us as we take part in this Holy Mass and in today's Men's Conference. If only we can honestly admit our weaknesses, if only we can then let this honest admission lead us to true sorrow and the willingness to begin again differently, with Christ as our guide, and if only this sincere sorrow and repentance can then strengthen us to implore God's extravagant mercy as did the publican, then, having worked through these three challenges, we can continue to walk with Jesus Christ differently and more securely, rooted in daily prayer and weekly Eucharist (at least), strengthened by authentic life-giving friends, and reaching out to those in need because Christ is really the One we help.

Listen to the Lord once more! "What can I do with you, Bill or Tim or Henry or Paul? I will continue to love you forever. You give Me such joy because you are opening your heart to let Me love you. Let us hold each other tightly, every day, until we meet face to face forever!"

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016