April 3, 2020
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Freedom to Change

Our hypocrisy is easier to see when we get older. I don’t know if it’s because we become more reflective or, simply being less active give us more time to think. As I get older, I am certainly more reflective about things in my past. Such reflection is a time where it’s easy to see how my faith and my actions were misaligned.

I thought about this again with the death of Kobe Bryant.

I was never much of a fan of Kobe Bryant. I grew up in the Michael Jordan era. In Chicago, my generation moved along into adulthood with the greatest basketball player ever. Kobe was just another upstart trying to dethrone the king. He was adept at putting a ball through a metal ring and by all rights, a gifted athlete. His death was pronounced a great tragedy. Sadly, it took a while for the news to report that several families experienced tragedy in that crash.  

In looking for news to cover while waiting for details on the crash to be released, the media began to hype that Kobe was Catholic. “Oh no,” I thought. I didn’t want the news to go there. I didn’t want to hear about his Catholicism and knowing the events of his life in 2003 are still in the memory of so many people. The Church didn’t need another story of hypocrisy…

Yet, the stories of his faith life kept coming. He was married Catholic and was generous in donating to his church. He went to daily Mass. Kobe Bryant, it seemed, was no longer the man that I remembered from 2003.

This reflection made me recall being in diaconate formation. Like me, I would guess there comes a time where each deacon candidate reflects on the challenge of putting on a dalmatic and standing before a congregation that is so aware of their sin. While that is precisely why clerics wear vestments, it is still challenging to be asked to represent the Church in a workplace where the demands of the job sometimes are misaligned with such a vocation. Conceivably, that’s why the conversion of St. Paul means so much to us today. 

Back then, I discussed this quandary with a mentor of mine who was a “late vocation” priest. He told me, “Greg, I so know your feelings. I have said Mass in front of people who I laid off from their jobs when I was a banker.” In such experiences, we tend to forget that life is not about who we were then as much as being about who we are today. It is not a challenge for a God who loves us to let go of the past. The challenge resides in our letting it go. We have the Sacrament of Reconciliation to deal with the past. Yet, repentance without a freedom to change doesn’t work. We withhold that freedom to change not only from ourselves but, all too often, we withhold it from others as well.

The problem for us is that we can’t see a change in heart until long after it occurs. That’s why we are to leave judgment to God – he knows our hearts. That is also why the Church is so hesitant to withhold communion from people despite so many public demands for it to do so. Perhaps today standing in the communion line is where that change of heart will occur for someone. We must have faith that the Holy Spirit can work miracles. The Holy Spirit guided the apostles to bring faith in the shadow of the cross. The Holy Spirit led faith to survive Rome. Do we believe that the Holy Spirit can overcome the lies of today’s society? It’s a pointless question. The real question is can I believe that the Holy Spirit can overcome the concupiscence in me?  

The death of Kobe Bryant illustrated the compromise with inherent evil within me. As I look to change, I held him to 2003. I knew little of his life from 2003 to 2020. Evidently, he became a pretty good dad. As a father of three daughters, he became an advocate for women’s athletics. He defiantly has me beat there. Most importantly, while looking for my change of heart, I denied the possibility of change for another. That is precisely the hypocrisy Jesus warned the Pharisee and Sadducees of.

Perhaps, that is where we all get it wrong as a society. This weekend, Kobe Bryant’s accomplishments as a basketball player were celebrated. Wouldn’t it have been better for Jennifer Hudson to have sung in celebration of his growth as a man?

Politics tells candidates to hide from their past. I say own it. Society, it seems, embraces judging candidates for who they were decades earlier. That is only acceptable if that is who they still are today. Surely, we all have retribution to pay for past mistakes. Yet, the greater mistake is not letting people pay it and move on. We must allow for growth. We can’t expect the justice system to work if prisoners are not given a chance to rebuild and get a fresh start. We can’t expect people to look for repentance if they are going to forever be held to the chains of the past. How often do we complain of managers who still base their annual reviews on events that occurred long in the past? We complain but, often do the very same thing to others. Joy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation is not only God’s forgiveness but the freedom to move on. Jesus tells the woman caught in adultery, “Go and sin no more.” (John 8:1-11) We “forgive” others but still chain them to those events in the past. In those cases, we are fooling ourselves. “Forgiveness” was never part of the equation.

Sometimes we are one lost sheep and at other times we are the ninety-nine. Faith is a celebration of being both. We all need the freedom to repent. We all need to rejoice when one returns to the flock. We need to give others the very chance of repentance that we ask for ourselves.  

I am saddened that it took his death for me to see the hardness that still resides in my heart. May I learn to forgive, to grant forgiveness and give that freedom to others. May I learn to love unconditionally. May eternal rest be granted and perpetual light shine upon Kobe Bryant and all who died in that crash. Amen.

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Written by
Deacon Gregory Webster
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