Saturday, September 23, 2017

Homily for 24 Sep 2017

24 Sep 2017
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Most of us have something we’d like to change about ourselves.  Maybe we’d like to be taller or shorter, or thinner.  Maybe we wish we could be more outspoken or quicker on our feet.  Who knows—there are lots of ways we could be different than what we are.  There are a lot of different scenarios of life we could think about: “I want to have that person’s life;” or “I wish I could be more like so-and-so.”

It can take the more negative form, too, you know: “Why does that person get the perfect body and the perfect house?  What’s so special about that person that they have everything, and I have to struggle?”  Of course, that leads us into the gospel today: “These last ones worked only one hour, and you’ve made them equal to us, who bore the whole day’s burden and the heat—that’s unfair!”

We’re hard-wired, it seems, to compare ourselves to others.  It’s in our nature to be competitive.  And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Actually it can be a very good thing. 

When we’re baptized into the life of Christ, we’re asked to compare our own life to Christ’s life—not that we’re trying to be the Son of God, but we are trying to imitate him, his values and his particular way of loving God and loving others.  Saint Paul says as much when he says, “Conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ.” 

And then we have the Two Great Commandments to compare ourselves against, as well as the Beatitudes.  Our Blessed Mother serves as an example for us, as do all the saints.  For children, their parents and teachers serve as models.  As a musician, I might look to a particular artist for inspiration and guidance. 

And so, comparing ourselves to others and being competitive isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  It can actually inspire us to be better ourselves.  And that’s a good reason to think about those things we’d like to change about ourselves.  Personal growth, and becoming the person we’re made to be is a very good thing.

Of course, there’s a negative side as well.  And that can take the form of jealousy, envy, or pride, or even self-hatred.  For example, some people struggle with eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia.  The desire to have the ideal body weight or the ideal body shape pushes them over the edge.  Even if a woman is all skin and bones, she’ll still see herself as overweight; she can’t see what’s there.  Her comparison to a societal norm blinds her to reality.

Or there are people who are convinced that the world is against them, and so they see everything that happens as a strike against them; people are intentionally trying to slight them and to push them down.  And so, they might see others’ success as rightfully belonging to them.  That’s the basis of class warfare: the division between the “haves” and the “have nots.”  Reality, however, could be very different.  There are injustices in the world, for sure.  But the world isn’t one, big cesspool of inequality and unfairness.  

Closer to home, we could think of any parish merger.  It’s been eight years for us, and there’s still a certain “sibling rivalry” present.  There’s still a mindset here and there that compares and contrasts: “How are they being treated, and how are we being treated?” 

The negative in all these examples—and in the parable from the gospel today—is that attention isn’t focused enough on the right thing.  The parable of the prodigal son comes to mind.  The older brother was furious that his father would give a celebration for his younger brother.  He said to his father, “Look!  All these years I’ve been slaving away for you and never disobeyed your orders.  Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.”  To which the father answered, “My son, everything I have is yours.”

Everything the father had always belonged to his older son.  Just because the son wasn’t wise enough to enjoy it, doesn’t mean his father should be stingy in sharing it with others.  That older son should’ve been relishing in everything he had from his father, so that when his younger brother came home, he would’ve wanted him to share in it just as much as he had.  Instead of being focused on his own blessings, he was focused on his younger brother’s. 

That was the problem in the parable in today’s gospel as well.  The worker wasn’t focused on his own wage; he was focused on the other’s wage.  Instead of focusing on what someone else has, why don’t I focus on the blessings that are mine?  Why am I not happy with them?  Why is the grass always greener on the other side?

Comparing ourselves with others can be a good and fruitful thing to do.  It can also be disastrous.  It depends on what our motivation is.  And it depends on how balanced it is with the spirit of gratitude and cooperation.

St. Paul gives us the image of the “many parts of the one body.”  He writes, “There should be no division in the body, but its members should have mutual concern for one another.  If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Cor. 12:25-26).  If a neighbor gets a new job, can I be happy for that person, while at the same time being thankful for my own job?  If a classmate plays an excellent game of football, can I congratulate that person, while at the same time not wishing it was me getting all the accolades? 

Scripture today gives us an enormous challenge.  It asks us to be happy, to be grateful, and to consider ourselves blessed for all that we have and all that we are...regardless of what others have.  It sounds so simple.  But it’s tough to do. 

And maybe it’s helpful to think about God’s motives for doing what he does.  Again, from the parable today, we see: that God is generous (Mt 20:15); that he is concerned for what is just and right (Mt 20:4); and that he wants to involve as many people as possible in his work.  Why does God shower down his blessings in the way he does?  Because he is generous, because he is wise, and he wants everyone to share his life—not one person, not this group or that group, but everyone.

We have an enormous challenge: to be happy, to be grateful, and to consider ourselves blessed...regardless of what others have.  May we love ourselves as God loves us so that, in turn, we can love others and be happy for them, too.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Homily for 22 Sep 2017

22 Sep 2017

Jesus didn’t really care.  He was rather indifferent and uninterested; he didn’t care…about other’s opinions of him, that is.  It must’ve been an odd sight for people to see Jesus walking around with his band of sinners-turned-Apostles, and then with all those women, too.  But Jesus didn’t care—all of them were his disciples and he loved each of them, and they adored him.

In the spiritual life it’s called “holy indifference.”  God’s care for us, and our love for him become so rewarding that our life begins to revolve around love—not necessarily a sentimental love, but a love that looks like adoration, admiration, and commitment.  And what others think of that becomes irrelevant.  It’s a “holy indifference” to what others think.

God loves us, his sons and daughters.  And we adore him.  May God give us the grace to be…uninterested… in what others think of that. 

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Homily for 21 Sep 2017

21 Sep 2017
Feast of Saint Matthew
(School Mass)

Saint Matthew was an important person.  He knew Jesus personally, and he shared his faith with many, many people.  And we still read from his gospel thousands of years later.  Saint Matthew is a very important person for us.

And there are a lot of other saints, too.  But, you know, quite a few of them we’ve probably never heard of; saints like: Saint Athwulf of Thorney, or Saint Erconwald of London, or Saint Enda of Aran.  But just because we haven’t heard of them doesn’t mean they’re not important.  They each have a part to play in God’s kingdom.

It doesn’t matter if we’re popular or not.  The important thing is that we’re faithful to God, and that we are who God made us to be.  We each have a part to play—and only you can play that part.

Now the other day, my little pinky finger was saying, “I’m tired of being the little finger.  In fact, I don’t want to be a finger anymore at all; I want to be an eye—an eye is much more important than being just a little finger.” 

And I said, “Well, Pinky, if you stop being my little finger, how am I going to count up to 10?  How am I going to balance my hand when I’m writing?  And what about your neighbor, the ring finger—what’s he going to do without his little buddy next to him?”

And Pinky said to me, “You’re right.  An eye is important, but so am I, even though people don’t notice me too much.”  And ever since, he’s been happy to be my little pinky finger.

God put each of us into the world for a reason.  We each have a part to play—whether it’s a big part or a little part.  The important thing is to say, “God, what do you want me to do today?”  And then do it with happiness and peace in our heart.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Homily for 20 Sep 2017

20 Sep 2017

There’s a risk in being a devout Christian.  And the risk is that we’re going to look like a fool—not to God, or to ourselves, but to others. 

After all, God’s wisdom sometimes goes against the grain.  God’s law of love and forgiveness oftentimes goes against popular conventions.  The rituals and prayers that enhance our worship can be criticized as hopelessly out of touch.  There are lots of reasons why others may see us playing the role of “the fool.”

But that’s the risk of being a person devoted to Christ and his Church.  Whether or not it’s a big risk is a personal question.  It depends on whose opinion we value more: someone else’s or God’s.  St. John Vianney said, “Don’t try to please everyone.  Try to please God, the angels, and the saints; they are your public.”

We might be fools in the eyes of others for believing what we believe.  But it doesn’t matter much.  In God’s eyes we’re precious and dearly loved.  That’s what matters.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Homily for 19 Sep 2017

19 Sep 2017

Jesus did a great thing: he brought the widow’s son back to life.  But he didn’t do that for the man’s sake; actually, he did it out of pity for the widow.  He did it for her sake.

And we know the Lord blesses each of us in many ways.  But maybe the blessings aren’t always intended to make our own life better.  Maybe he blesses somebody else can benefit.

It’s good to remember the good things God has done for us.  And it’s just as good (and maybe even necessary) to share those blessings with others—not just because it’s the “nice thing to do,” but because maybe God is trying to use us as merely an instrument of his peace and blessings.

It’s a great thing to be blessed by the Lord.  May we pass those blessings on, especially to those who need a little help from their neighbor, and from God.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Homily for 17 Sep 2017

17 Sep 2017
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

When does nighttime end and the day begin?  Or when daylight end and the night begin?  It’s hard to tell.  If you go outside early in the morning and wait for the sun to rise, it’s just a gradual thing.  The darkness of night slowly transforms into the light of day.  And at sunset, just the opposite happens.  The light of days slowly slips away into the dark of night.

We tend to see day and night as distinct—and they certainly are.  But exactly where one ends and the other begins...that’s hard to tell.  And this very blurry line between the two is similar to how we view the life of heaven and the life of earth.  Heaven and earth are distinct, for sure.  And, yet, where one ends and where the other begins isn’t always easy to tell.

Of course, the first thing that comes to mind is death.  Death is a pretty easy way to tell where the boundary is.  There isn’t much of a blurred line there between earth and heaven.  And we can certainly grant that.  But, of course, there’s more to life on earth than life in the body.  And there’s more to life in heaven than simply life in the spirit.  Death is certainly a sign of something, but it isn’t necessarily the dividing line between earth and heaven.

The rising sun isn’t suddenly “risen.”  And the setting sun isn’t here one second and gone the next.  In the same way, life on earth doesn’t suddenly end.  And the life of heaven doesn’t suddenly begin.  The line between the two—if there even is a line—is pretty blurred; they flow into and out of each other pretty freely. 

And this can be a real challenge for us to accept in the 21st Century; even for us who profess faith in God, the Maker of “all things visible and invisible.”  When we hear about wars and terrorism; when we experience mercilessness from other people; when God seems to be deaf to our prayers, it can be a challenge to believe that the life of heaven is somehow part of our life on earth.  There’re enough “unheavenly” things around us to make us doubt that.

Our Scripture passages today focus on one particular area of heavenly life: the area of forgiveness.  The kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, is similar to when your debts are forgiven...simply because the king himself is kind and merciful.  Forgiveness is part and parcel of heavenly life.  So, too, are mercy and kindness.  If I forgive, the life of heaven is already, at least partially, within me.  And if I am forgiven (and I let myself be forgiven), the life of heaven has touched and enriched me.

And the idea here is that the “kingdom of heaven” doesn’t begin when we die; the pearly gates aren’t opened when we breathe our last.  The gates are open now.  One aspect of heavenly life—forgiveness—is something we can live right now.  The “rising sun” of heaven is already beginning to shine; we don’t have to wait to be a forgiving person, we can do that now, today.  We don’t have to wait to experience that part of heaven.

Now, in the Book of Sirach, we don’t hear anything about heaven.  We hear about the importance of forgiveness, but he doesn’t mention heaven.  Instead, he says: “Remember your last days, set enmity aside; remember death and decay, and cease from sin.”  And what he’s saying is simply: Know where you’re going, and live your life accordingly.  For Sirach (and many others at the time), the notion of a life after death was not widely believed; Sirach himself didn’t believe in any sort of general resurrection. 

When he saw death, he saw only “death and decay,” not heaven or life.  And so, we can only take his wisdom so far.  But he does get at something important when he says, in so many words: Know where you’re going, and live your life accordingly.  If we desire heaven, if we want to live that life, then begin living it today.  And we know we can because, again, the gates of heaven are open now; the grace of God, the life of God, the love of God is given for us to share in now, today.

“Know where you’re going, and live your life accordingly,” Sirach says, as do many of the saints of our Tradition.  If you google “heaven,” you’ll probably see tons of images of clouds; blue sky and clouds, with sunlight; maybe a brilliant staircase and a few people around gazing toward the holy city sparkling in gold.”  It’s presented as a place, and as a place which has little resemblance to our life on earth.  In short, heaven is presented as a foreign land; a place we have no connection to.

And so, even if we know we should want to “go to heaven,” it can be hard to get all that excited about it.  It’s like living in your home for decades; you’re comfortable, life is good, the weather is great; there’s no reason to live.  And then somebody comes and says, “Ok, it’s time to move.  Don’t worry, you’re going to a fantastic place; it’ll be great.”  My response would be like, “Why?  I’m doing fine here.  ‘There’s no place like home,’ as Dorothy would say.”  And I’ve heard more than a few teenagers say, “You know, heaven doesn’t look all that exciting to me.  I mean, what’s so thrilling about sitting on a cloud forever?  Maybe that would be heaven for a meteorologist, but not me.”

For some people, maybe for a lot of people, the idea of “knowing where you’re going, and living your life accordingly” isn’t very motivational—because heaven itself doesn’t appear to be all that compelling.  The vision of what God has in mind for his sons and daughters looks kind of...flat.  Of course, it isn’t true, but that’s the popular conception.

If we want to have a clue of what heaven is like, a good person to start with is God himself—Jesus.  He is “the visible image of the invisible God;” the God whose life is at the heart of what we call “heaven.”  Jesus gives us a view into heaven; he opens its gates to us.

Jesus is...endlessly forgiving.  That’s what his remark about “seventy-seven times” means.  In heaven there are no grudges, no resentments, no ill will, no hard feelings.  There are no wounds to be nursed, or self-pity to indulge in.  Instead, there’s forgiveness; forgiveness and mercy.  When I think of the confessional rooms, it sometimes strikes me how the door to the confessional is like a “door to heaven.”  On the other side is God’s complete forgiveness, and his unfailing friendship.

Jesus is instrument of truth and wisdom.  A biblical scholar once remarked that “whenever you uncover a bit of truth, you uncover a bit of God.”  We could also say “you uncover a bit of heaven.”  In heaven there are no secrets, there is no ignorance; nothing is hidden away, no one is deprived of the knowledge of things.  And we know that truth only comes to those who are humble and curious, so we can also say that in heaven there isn’t any pride; there is no competition—but just the thrill of “soaking it all in.”  

In Scripture, Jesus is revealed as the Bridegroom.  And from the first pages of Genesis to the last pages of Revelation, a recurring theme is that of marriage: the beauty of union, the beauty of fidelity and companionship.  We hear it so often in Scripture: heaven is the “wedding supper of the Lamb.”  Heaven is a feast, a gathering, a celebration of belonging and, again, reconciliation and wholeness.  In heaven there are no outsiders, there are no cliques.  There isn’t any “them and us;” instead it’s “us and God.”

Heaven is goodness, truth, and beauty.  It’s the experience of harmony, where each person plays off the other in a divine music directed by God.

Heaven isn’t so much a place, as it is an experience of life.  Heaven is a way of living life.  And whenever we live that life, we are living the life of heaven—even if we do it imperfectly.  When we forgive and are forgiven, we are experiencing heaven.  When we’re thrilled with love and friendship; when we’re vulnerable with another person we trust; when we accept and love someone else unconditionally, we are experiencing heavenly life.

When we’re struck by the beauty of the day, or we’re captivated in awe at a thunderstorm, we are experiencing heaven.  When we learn in school; when we’re honing our skills and figuring out how the world works; when we’re wondering about God and sharing our life with him in the quiet of prayer, we are experiencing heavenly life.

The life of heaven doesn’t begin when we die.  It happens today, every time we “let God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  And God’s will is: forgiveness, mercy, beauty, truth, goodness, friendship, kindness, knowledge, charity, and so much more.  It might sound a lot like our life on earth.  But, then again, there’s a blurry line between heaven and earth, just like the dark of night and the light of day.   

Heaven isn’t just a future life; it’s also our present life.  We don’t have to wait to experience it.  We don’t have to wait to live it.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Homily for 15 Sep 2017

15 Sep 2017
Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows

We know that Saint Paul had a difficult life as an Apostle.  And, yet, he writes, “I am grateful [for having been] appointed to the ministry.”  What comes to mind here are the Beatitudes: “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness...Rejoice and be glad” (Mt 5:10,12).  Even though being a disciple of the Lord could be difficult for him, Saint Paul was still “grateful;” he was able to see himself as “blessed.”

Another Scripture passage comes to mind as well: the Canticle of Mary (Lk 1:46-55).  “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his handmaid.  All generations will call me blessed.”  But, as we know, “a sword pierced her heart,” as the Prophet Simeon said it would.  However, even in her sorrow, our Blessed Mother still considered herself “blessed.”

The question that arises from the Scriptures today seems to be this: Even when the Christian life is difficult, can I still be “grateful” for having been chosen to share Christ’s life with him?      

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Homily for 14 Sep 2017

14 Sep 2017
Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
(School Mass)

Chicken soup—sometimes chicken noodle soup—that works when you have a stomach ache.  It makes you feel better.  Sometimes, though, you have to have something really simple like toast and milk.  Or even warm milk.  That works sometimes.  Of course, if you’re really sick, you might have to take some medicine, like Pepto-Bismol or Nyquil or something.

Anyway...there are lots of different things we can do to make us feel better if we’re sick.  But what about if we’re not sick, but we’re...sad, or lonely, or maybe we feel bad because we were mean to somebody.  Then what do we do?

Well, we can always look at the Cross of Jesus.  Remember what he said in the gospel...”I have to be lifted up [on the Cross] so that everybody who believes in me may have eternal life,” and be healed and made well again.  If you’re sad, just look at the Cross.  And Jesus will be sad with you.  If you’re lonely, just look at the Cross.  And Jesus will be there with you; we’re never alone with Jesus.  Or if we’re feeling bad because we were mean to somebody, just look at the Cross.  And Jesus will say, “I forgive you.  And I love you always.”

The Cross of Jesus is like chicken soup for our spirit.  And that’s because when we see the Cross, we see God’s powerful love.  And love is the best medicine he has for us—even better than soup, or toast and milk, or Pepto-Bismol.  God’s love makes us better.  Thanks be to God for such a sweet-tasting medicine to heal our spirits, the medicine of his love poured out for us; for you and me.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Homily for 13 Sep 2017

13 Sep 2017

Jesus “raised his eyes toward his disciples,” and he simply spoke about what he saw in them.  So often, that’s how the Lord is compassionate toward us: he serves as a mirror so we can see ourselves as God sees us.

It’s similar, maybe, to how we adults can sit and watch children play.  They just do their thing, totally unaware that we’re watching them.  But every now and then you have to speak up, especially if the kids are about to do something dangerous.  You have to speak the truth to them. 

God sees us.  He watches us “play” and go about our daily lives.  But every now and then he pokes at our conscience and says, “Hey, you might want to rethink what you’re doing.”  He doesn’t do it to meddle, or to be accusatory.  He does it because it’s the compassionate thing to do.

Jesus “raises his eyes toward his disciples,” toward us and all his followers.  He sees us; he looks into our souls and minds and hearts.  And he sees a lot of good.  He also sees those areas of life where we can be better—not to point a finger, but in order that we might love ourselves more.  God is compassionate to us in that sort of way.

Thank goodness we have a God who cares enough to try to keep us on the right path, the path of being “blessed” and happy.

Homily for 12 Sep 2017

12 Sep 2017

Judas Iscariot was a good guy.  He was drawn to the personal charisma of Jesus, and Jesus saw in him someone who could be an effective instrument of the Kingdom.  Judas Iscariot was a genuinely good guy. 

But, as St. Luke reminds us, Judas “became a traitor.”  Jesus didn’t choose a traitor; he chose a man who showed promise.  Only later did Judas “become” a traitor.  Leaders of people, even if they’re chosen by God, don’t always live up to their calling.  Sometimes, leaders—even leaders in the Church—go bad.  Judas is just one example.

And when that happens, it’s a test of our faith, and it’s a test to see in whom we’ve placed our faith.  Do we put it in other people?  Or is our faith, ultimately, in the wisdom of God?  The psalms say, “It is better to trust in the Lord, than to trust in men; it is better to take refuge in the Lord, than to trust in princes.”

And we know that it’s better because God does not disappoint; God does not fail.  Even if the all-too-human leaders God has chosen fail, God himself is always steady and faithful.  God is never in danger of “becoming” a traitor.  God is forever faithful.  When can never go wrong by placing all our faith in him, our leader, Shepherd, and Guide.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Homily for 10 Sep 2017

10 Sep 2017
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

As I drive around and see the animals out in the fields, it makes me think of the Church.  And it isn’t so much because of the animals, but because of the fence around the fields, and how the animals stay inside that boundary.  They’re free to roam anywhere they want—as long as it’s within that field, within that fence.

And it makes me think of the Church because that’s how it is with us, too.  We’re free to roam and live however we want—as long as it’s within the parameters God lays out for us.  If we stay within those parameters, we’re part of the Church.  But if we step outside those limits, we take ourselves out of the Church; we separate ourselves from the flock.

I’m sure the farmers probably see something else when look at their herds and their flocks, but for me, the image of the Church comes to mind.  And this is what Scripture brings to mind today as well.

The Prophet Ezekiel talks about those who are appointed “watchman over the house of Israel.”  A watchman was somebody stationed atop the walls of the city.  And his job was to make sure the city was kept safe, and to sound the alarm if there was any threat to the citizens.  God speaks of his people as a city, a “holy city,” with walls built of “living stones”—where the faithful themselves are the defensive wall of the city, the “fence around the field.”

And then in the Gospel, Jesus describes the process of making things right within that holy city.  But if someone refuses to live by the law of God (that is, the law of love), then, Jesus says, “treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.”  In other words, treat that person as an outsider—with love, of course, but keeping him at a distance.  And we know what Jesus is getting at here. 

When somebody has the flu or they have a cold, we tend to keep a distance.  We love them, but we don’t want to get too close.  And that’s only the wise thing to do; after all, we could get sick, and we don’t want that.  When a child is sick, we don’t send him or her off to school.  Instead, we keep them home, not only so they can get better, but also to keep the other kids at school from getting sick. 

Again, it’s just the wise and prudent thing to do.  And that’s why Jesus says what he says with regard to those around us who refuse to live according to the law of God, the law of love.  “Love them,” Jesus says, “but keep them at a distance so you aren’t affected in a bad way.”

The underlying idea in all this is that the Church has a protective wall around it, and those who live within that “holy city” are expected to live within certain standards; standards of belief, standards of worship, standards of conduct with each other (that’s what Saint Paul gets at today in his letter to the Romans when he writes: “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”).

The Church has a protective wall, it has a “code of conduct,” it has expectations of those who are its citizens.  And people are free to live and roam anywhere they want, as long as it’s within those parameters—within that fence of Christ the Good Shepherd.  And this can be a challenge for some people.

You know, it’s a great privilege to be an American; to have individual liberties, to have the freedom to pursue happiness and to fulfill our wishes and desires.  And, really, the philosophy of American freedom fits very nicely with the idea of the Church and her “fences and expectations.”  Just because I’m a free American doesn’t mean I can do whatever I want.  It means I’m free to do what I long as it does no harm to me or my neighbor, as long as it respects the freedom of others, as long as it contributes to the good of the society, as long as it’s respectful of legitimate authority, and so on.

In the Church there’s the often heard phrase, “all are welcome.”  And it’s true: all are welcome in the Catholic Church.  No one is turned away...except those who don’t believe what we believe, or those who have no desire to be a disciple of Christ, or those who have no interest in contributing to the life of the Church.  Those are all non-negotiable aspects of what it means to be the Church.  They’re part of the definition of the Church.

And so that phrase, “all are welcome,” really needs to be expanded.  It should be something like: “All are welcome to be a disciple of Christ, and to have their lives changed by committing themselves to live as a citizen of his holy city, the Church.”  All are welcome to do that.  But, of course, not everyone accepts the invitation.  Some would even find that invitation distasteful includes expectations and limits.

One of the blessings of the Second Vatican Council is that it reinstituted the “Rites of Christian Initiation.”  They’ve always been there—Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist—but the Council made their context more obvious again; the context being “initiation.”  We’re baptized into the Church, then the faith of the Church is confirmed, and finally we receive the Eucharist as persons who’ve been fully initiated into the life of Christ and the Church.  They’re not only sacraments; they’re also major milestones toward initiation into the Church.

And this idea of initiation goes back to biblical times.  Jesus walked around and preached.  And crowds of people were drawn to him and followed him, including his many disciples and the twelve Apostles.  But as time went on, the numbers got smaller and smaller.  There’s the one scene (John 6:22-29) where Jesus is trying to tell people that “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.”  And we read that “many of his disciples who were listening said, ‘This saying is hard; who can accept it?’  As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.”

Jesus was trying to initiate them with the truth, but they couldn’t accept it.  So their initiation ended there.  Jesus was trying to bring them inside the “fence” of his pasture, inside the “walls” of the holy city, the early Church.  But they chose not to go with him.  They remained outside.  And so, even if some find the idea of expectations and limits to be distasteful, they are nonetheless, essential to the reality of the Church.

Pope Francis is known for saying many things, one of which is the phrase, “Who am I to judge?”  “If someone seeks Christ with a sincere heart, who am I to judge?”  And he’s absolutely correct.  God alone is our judge, our merciful and endlessly forgiving judge.  And yet, at the same time, Christ put into the hands of the Church the ability to bind and to loose: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  We don’t judge people, but the Church does have expectations of its members, and those expectations are binding.

But, really, the expectations aren’t anything we can’t handle.  God lays them out in the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God; have no other gods before me; worship no graven images; do not take the Lord’s name in vain; remember the Sabbath; honor your father and mother; do not kill; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not lie about your neighbor; do not covet what others have.” 

Of course, Jesus sums that all up in the Two Great Commandments: “Love the Lord you God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus gives the model for right worship; namely, the gift of self for the good of the other.  He teaches a great deal about how to live with one another, in the home, in the Church.  He emphasizes the importance of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving for members of the Church.  And so and so on.  The Church has some clearly defined “walls” around itself.  And we’re each one of the “living stones” in that wall, which means we each have a responsibility not only to God, but to one another in upholding those expectations.

When I was growing up—and even today—whenever we’d play Monopoly (the board game), the rule was that if you landed on “Free Parking” you got all the money that was in the middle of the board.  Of course, it doesn’t actually say that in the rules.  And every now and then there’d be a disagreement about what the rule was for the “Free Parking” space.  And that’s just an example of how the game isn’t so much about the board and the pieces and such—it’s about the rules.  The game is the rules and how to play within them.

The Church isn’t so much about this style of worship or that style of worship, or what “I think” and what “you think”—it’s about the “rules.”  The Church is our set of beliefs, and our commitment to Christ, and our adherence to God’s law of self-sacrificing love.  Those are the “rules” we play by.  And if someone doesn’t want to play by those rules, then we’d have to question if they really want to be part of the Church.

Our role as “living stones” in the defending wall of the Church is to play by the “rules” God has given us—to live and to roam freely within the “fence” the Good Shepherd has set up for us.  But our role is also to question when we or others seem to be playing by a different set of rules, or trampling down the fence.

For example, gossip has no place in the Church.  It doesn’t serve any good purpose.  And so we should call it out when we hear it.  If that other person refuses to stop, then they put themselves outside the Church; they “excommunicate” themselves, because in the Church we have a rule that we don’t gossip.  In the meantime, it’s wise to distance ourselves from that person, so his or her “sickness” doesn’t infect us in a bad way.

Or we can take unforgiveness which, again, has no place in the Church.  Forgiveness is part and parcel of neighborly love; it’s one of the “rules” we commit ourselves to.  It doesn’t mean we have to be best friends with everybody; but it does mean that we shouldn’t harbor a grudge and refuse God’s mercy to someone.

And, in all this of course, we know very well that none of us lives these “rules” perfectly.  None of us is a saint…yet.  And that’s okay.  The important thing is that we aspire to be a saint, to live by the standards and expectations God has given us.  That’s what makes us each a part of the Church.  The intent in our hearts is most important.

It’s part of our common role as members of the Church, and as “watchmen” of the holy city: to adhere to God’s law of love ourselves, and to guard against anything that threatens the well-being of the flock.  All are welcome into the life of the Church, and the pastures of the Good Shepherd are wide and green with plenty of room to live and roam.  But we enter the gates of the Church—and remain in her walls—only by choice.  May God give us the grace to live well as members of his Body, the Church.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Homily for 8 Sep 2017

8 Sep 2017
Feast of the Nativity of the BVM

“Do not be afraid to take Mary into your home,” the angel said to Joseph.  And there are two other events that come to mind when we hear this.  First, at the crucifixion when Jesus said to John, “Behold your Mother,” and the disciple “took her into his home.”  And then, second, at the birth of Mary to Joachim and Anne, when she was welcomed into their home as the fruit of prayer and faith.

On this feast day of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we see that her whole life is characterized by her dependence on the hospitality of others.  She’s like the proverbial baby in a basket left on the doorstep.  She never forces her way in, but can only be welcomed into the home.

What we know of Mary’s birth comes mostly from the “Infancy Gospel” of James (or the “Protoevangelium” of James).  And in it, Mary’s mother, Anne, is described as having made her daughter’s bedroom into a “sanctuary,” a holy place befitting the holiness and specialness of her child.  Mary was a cause for joy, gratitude and holiness in her parents’ hearts.  And therein seems to be the gospel, the “good news,” of today’s feast.

God gives us the Blessed Virgin as a help to our own holiness and happiness.  And so, as the angel said, “Do not be afraid to take Mary into your home,” into your hearts.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Homily for 6 Sep 2017

6 Sep 2017

We hear the word “hope.”  And we think of “wishes” or “desires” which we’re not sure if they’re going to come true, but we’d like them to.  That’s how we use the word “hope.” 

It’s kind of like Christmas morning for a little kid (and adults, too) and “hoping” that we’re going to get a particular gift.  We might get it, but there’s always the possibility that we won’t. 

But Saint Paul uses the word differently.  When he talks about hope, he means something that we know is going to happen, but it’s just a matter of waiting for it.  And so, within the idea of Christian “hope” are the ideas of confidence, peace, and no worries.

Again, it’s like Christmas morning.  There’s no doubt that that blessed morning will come.  The kids aren’t worried about that.  And that’s the kind of hope we have as Christians.  We have a “sure and certain” hope.

We don’t have to worry if good or evil will triumph in the world.  Evil may have the occasional “win” on the battlefield—you know, a terrorist bomb, or a shooting, or something tragic like that.  But we Christians possess a “sure and certain” hope and knowledge that goodness has already won the war.  It’s just a matter of waiting for evil to accept it.

God has blessed us with the virtue of hope; a sure and certain, confident hope.  The storms of life will come, but no worries . . . we know God is with us.     

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Homily for 3 Sep 2017

3 Sep 2017
22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

The Church is changing, as it always has been.  And, for many of us, that reality is the cross we’re given to carry.  The Church is changing.

In 1970, Professor Joseph Ratzinger (who would become Pope Benedict XVI) wrote a book called “Faith and the Future.”  In it he said: “From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge—a Church that has lost much.  She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning.”

Last weekend we talked a little about how the Church was prospering up until the late 80s and early 90s.  But since then she’s been in a massive decline—in all areas of her life.  The Church is in a free-fall; she’s becoming smaller, as Ratzinger said it would—not because the Church should become smaller, but because she’s unable to sustain herself in the “crisis of today.” 

Ratzinger continues: As the number of [the Church’s] adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges.”  We see this happening quite a bit today.  The “social privileges” he mentions includes especially the viability and the relevance of the Church in the view of others. 

Take, for example, the authority of the Church.  When it comes to morals, politics, education, study, and so on, the authority of the Church is severely handicapped.  It’s kind of like the Prophet Jeremiah; the Church has a message for the good of others, but the usual response seems to be only “decision and reproach.”  Either that, or the Church simply becomes the butt of jokes...”she will lose many of her social privileges.”

Ratzinger also writes that the Church “will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in [times of] prosperity.”  And by that word “edifices,” we can take it to mean parish communities as well as their church buildings.  “She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity.”  And, of course, we know that to be true only too well—as does any parish which has been merged, or downsized, or closed entirely.

The Church is changing; she’s getting smaller and smaller.  And for a people of genuine faith, the fact of that is a heavy cross to accept.

One of the saddest things to hear is a grandparent who’s heartbroken because the kids or the grandkids don’t go to Church.  And they oftentimes think it’s their own fault, as if they weren’t faithful enough themselves to be a good influence on the kids and grandkids.  But, in reality, there’s something much bigger happening—the Church, in general, is getting smaller.

And the Lord isn’t necessarily happy about that.  After all, he’s the one who said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!  For you are not thinking as God does, but as human beings do.”  The Lord wants a robust Church of committed disciples.  He doesn’t want that community to shrink.  But, at the same time, the Lord isn’t willing to compromise himself in order to get others to follow him.  He doesn’t go into “crisis mode;” he just remains steady and true.

Saint Paul picked up on that when he wrote, “Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”  If we’re too worried about being on board with the latest trends in religion, or if we’re concerned that we’re going to lose the youth because our worship is too outdated or our teachings are too old-fashioned, well we’re almost ensuring that the youth will go and that the Church will get even smaller.

I remember watching a video once about vocations to the priesthood.  And they were interviewing a young man who was considering life as a friar or a monk.  And he described one religious community where all they did to try to win him over was shower him with excitement and balloons, a party and the latest in music.  They were trying to draw him into the Church by using everything but the person who’s at the heart of the Church; namely, God.

The Church is getting smaller, and that can be a cross to accept and to carry.  But it’s a cross that won’t crush us—as long as we don’t go into “crisis mode,” and as long as we keep our priorities and our focus straight.

You’ve probably read in the bulletins (and you might remember a homily in which I mentioned this), that we’re looking at relocating the tabernacles at our Greenleaf and Askeaton churches.  It’s not a move “backwards;” it’s a move that hopefully will serve as a visual reminder of just who exactly is our priority and focus as Catholics; namely, Jesus—Emmanuel, “God among us,” in the flesh.

The Second Vatican Council in 1965 did some wonderful things for the Church.  One of which is that it reminded us—especially the laity—that all believers are members of “the faithful.”  God is present in the Eucharist, in the priest, in Scriptures, in all the sacraments, and in...the gathered faithful.  It’s why there’s been such a push in church architecture to have the seating arranged such that the people would be able to see themselves. 

But in our Post-Modern world that’s characterized by radical individualism, and self-absorption, it’s good to have a visual reminder of who gathers us and why.  It might not seem like much, but where we put the tabernacle can help us keep our priorities and focus on what’s at the heart of the Church; namely, Christ and sacrificial love of God and neighbor.

And this cross we’re given to carry here in the 21st Century—the shrinking of the Church—is a chance to renew ourselves after the example of Christ’s sacrificial love.

Joseph Ratzinger wrote in 1970 that “in all [this societal change and crisis]...the Church will find her essence afresh, and with full conviction, in that which was always at her center:” faith in the Holy Trinity and in the enduring presence of the Holy Spirit among believers.  And that’s a good thing.  This particular cross isn’t all bad. 

He also wrote that the Church “will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision.”  Again, that’s a good thing.  It means that the Church and the parish—even if it’s smaller—will be a community of intentional followers of the Lord.  And a community of really intentional disciples who put the Lord first is what makes the Church grow.  So, it’s not all bad.

Ratzinger wrote that 21st Century Catholicism “will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members.”  It’s going to take a lot of work and dedication to be a Catholic today, and we don’t have the support of the larger culture.

When students are preparing to go off to college, and they wonder how their faith is going to continue on, the response is: “You’re going to have to take responsibility for that yourself.”  You will be a faithful Catholic if you want to be, and if you’re personally committed to God and his community of the faithful.  And that really goes for all of us.  Being a disciple of Christ as a part of the Church “will make much bigger demands [today] on the initiative of her individual members.”

Gone are the days when the parish consisted of a church, a priest, a cemetery, a school, a ladies’ society, a men’s group, the church choir, and the congregation gathered on Sunday.  This is a very different world today, with a different understanding of what it means to be a parish, what it means to be a Church, and what it means to say, “I am a Roman Catholic.”  And it’s not all bad. 

It’s a cross we’re given to carry here in the 21st Century—the shrinking of the Church.  But, like the Cross of Christ, it brings a certain hope of renewal and rebirth.  At the core of the “true Church” is love: sacrificial, selfless love.  If we possess that, if we nurture that kind of godly, neighborly love, the Church may get smaller, but it will not go away. 

Nothing triumphs over sacrificial love.  That is our faith; that is our reason to be calm and at peace, even as the Church continues to change.  If we rest our heart on the Heart of Christ, all will be well.  All will be well.