Sunday, September 10, 2017

Fences: Twenty-Third Sunday of Ordinary Time—Cycle A

Ezekiel 33:7–9; Romans 13:8–10; Matthew 18:15–20
            So when I looked at the readings for this weekend, I immediately thought, "Oh this is going to be one of those homilies." I will try to let the Holy Spirit do the talking for me, if you will let the Holy Spirit do the listening for you.
            I want you to imagine a scenario. You are in a tall building that has a playground on the roof. It's a great playground: swings, slides, things that kids can climb on and fall down and break arms and legs—just like in the old days. I apologize to all of you who are under 25 and have only encountered wood chips or the rubberized material on your playground floor. It really was much more fun when there was some adventure to it.
            So it's a great playground. You're the person on duty to make sure the kids play safely. There's just one problem. There's no fence around the perimeter of the building. Get to running too far, too fast, and without paying attention, and someone will plunge over the side to their doom.
            Look, don't get mad at me. I didn't design this thing.
            Great playground, no boundaries, clear consequence for going too far. How long do you think it will take before the kids learn that playing safely is a sketchy proposition without a fence around the edges of the building? How free do you think they will be to play with the kind of abandon that real play requires? They'll probably spend their recess huddling pretty close to the person who's there to monitor safe play, and little actual play will get done.
            So this is a pretty outrageous example, but it turns out that it has some purchase in the real world. Bishop Robert Barron mentioned in one of his many videos—it might've been in the Catholicism series or in one of his many Word on Fire videos—that school designers had studied the effects of open versus fenced playgrounds. As he explained, when a school's playground had no fence, the children tended to huddle close to the buildings and play with restraint. Only when a clear boundary was established were the children free to play without fear, to run and chase each other, to fall off of jungle gyms, and bounce harmlessly off of the rubberized asphalt.
            This was a 21st century school playground.
            That's the value of a boundary. It tells you where it's safe to play and where the danger begins. Ask anyone who has skied off of a Black Diamond run and out of the boundary of a ski area which side of the boundary feels safer. If seeking danger is the intent, ignoring the boundaries is goal #1.
            In our first reading, the Lord tells Ezekiel in no uncertain terms that he is responsible for the souls of people when he does not warn them of the dangers of their wickedness. "The wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death." That sounds unjust to modern ears, where we consider someone else's sins none of our business, so long as the sinner isn't hurting anyone else.
            "Who am I to judge?" is the new rallying cry of people who want Catholics to shut up about the moral teachings of the Church, based on a statement by Pope Francis. Never mind that the statement was taken completely out of context and also contradicts just about everything the Holy Father has ever uttered regarding Catholic moral teaching. The truth is that there is no such thing as purely personal sin. All sin is both personal and corporate—that is, it affects both the sinner and the whole community.
            I want to interject here a realization I had just a few minutes ago as I was preparing for Mass. You might have heard people say, "I love humanity. It's people I can't stand." Well, that sort of misses the point. I am commanded to love you, and you, and you, individually. Jesus love me individually, and you individually, and that's how we are supposed to love each other. And it's really not that hard, as I tell people. Loving another doesn't mean that we have warm and fuzzy feelings toward them. It simply means that we will what is truly good for another, even if they don't know what that is. And I realized a few minutes ago, that when I will what is best for someone, I'm actually willing what is best for me and for everyone. And that is effortless. I can will what's best for my worst enemy. So love, too, is corporate.
            Now, it is true that we must not judge people's hearts. None of us could possibly escape that judgment. We all fall short. We all fail. But that does not mean we should not identify sin for what it is. To do so is to fail in one of the primary spiritual works of mercy: admonishing the sinner. Yes, that's right. It is a work of spiritual mercy to help people recognize when their actions are not in line with the truth, with the teachings of the faith—even the most unpopular teachings.
            Why is it mercy rather than condemnation? Because it is merciful to tell people where the boundaries are, where the danger lies. If we allow people to run headlong into danger, we are not merciful. We can only call such attitudes callous. Yet that's what people so often expect of Catholics. "Just shut up about your moral teachings. Stop judging."
            We celebrated a dubious anniversary a few weeks ago: the anniversary of the publication of Humanae Vitae, absolutely one of the most controversial papal encyclicals of the modern era. When Pope Paul VI promulgated this letter, he was roundly castigated by the elite theologians of the US, Canada, and Europe. Many priests and theologians openly dissented, and many Catholics were told that the use of contraception was solely a matter of private judgment. But Pope Paul was not condemning anyone. He was warning of the danger. He was setting a boundary, as any good father should do. That is precisely what the Church does when it proposes moral teaching. It is setting a boundary—a fence, if you will—where it is safe to play on this fantastic playground that God has given us. And Pope Paul was right about so many of his predictions. Humanae Vitae is perhaps the most prophetic papal writing of the last 50 years. So like any other prophet, like Ezekiel, Pope Paul VI has been vilified.
            But he, like anyone who teaches the moral doctrines of the Church without apology, does so out of love. When I preach about a moral danger to you—whether about sexual sin of any stripe or persuasion, or of greed, of ignoring the poor or the immigrant, or of any number of temptations we all face, I am warning you out of love, not out of a desire to condemn. When Jesus Himself admonished the Pharisees, it was out of love to help them see the boundaries clearly. When someone points out the fences to you, it is not to punish but to point out to you the boundary that is dangerous to cross.

            Very few of us bother to correct others concerning sin these days. But sometimes it's necessary to provide fraternal correction, to admonish the sinner, to warn our brothers and sisters of danger—spiritual or other. Always we should do so out of love: love the sinner, and hate the sin. Cardinal Robert Sarah recently said in an article in the Wall Street Journal that “to love someone as Christ loves us means to love that person in the truth.” We should always strive to love in the spirit of truth and serve truth in the spirit of love.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

A Still, Small Voice: Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time—Cycle A

Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time—Cycle A
1 Kings 19:9a, 10–13a; Romans 9:1–5; Matthew 14:22–33
            I used to be involved in an online discussion group where a fair number of former police officers participated, and the subject of de-escalation came up—that is, how to help people go from being really ready to doing something dangerous to talking them back into rational territory. My favorite tip was on how to talk to a loud drunk person. The trick is, apparently, to start speaking to them at a normal level—or maybe even a little louder to match their intensity—and then, assuming you have their full attention, to slowly get quieter. They then have to listen more carefully, and they slowly start to match your volume. That's the game here. Get the person to match your level of intensity. You might have to start with someone whose intensity is off the charts, but by matching their intensity and then decreasing yours, you help talk them from being loud and obnoxious into being quiet and compliant.
            I hear that some of you parents do the same with your children.
            It struck me that perhaps this is what God was doing with Elijah at Mt. Horeb. The back story is that Elijah has run for over forty days and forty nights to escape from Queen Jezebel, who wants to destroy him—and reasonably so since he has had all of her idolatrous prophets put to death. But he's the last of the prophets of the Lord of Israel and is certain that death is coming for him soon.
            He's fearful, and he does the only thing he can think of. He runs to the mountain of the Lord. He hides in the cave waiting for the Lord to come to him.
            Which God does, as He always does. We like to imagine that God draws away from us, but it's always our initiative to move away. God is always there, but we close ourselves off from Him. He has to pull out all the stops to get to us. And make no mistake about it, God will pull out all the stops.
            That's what we see here with Elijah. First the wind rending the mountain, then the earthquake, then the fire. But Elijah did not hear the Lord in wind, earthquake, or fire. Only in the whisper does Elijah hear the Lord. Now, I prefer the translation in the Revised Standard Version of the bible: Rather than a whisper, as in our New American Bible translation, the RSV says "a still, small voice."
            A still, small voice. To me, that has a different character than a whisper. A still voice has a ring to it, while a whisper sort of blows away with the breeze. So that's my pick: the still, small voice.
            So do you think the Lord is not present in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire? Perhaps He wasn't. But maybe He was present in all those forms... maybe God was there all along, but not in a way that Elijah could approach. Perhaps the Lord had to come to Elijah in ever smaller, more humble forms before Elijah could hear Him—before Elijah could even stand before Him.
            I know in my own life that it is not always the big events, the big noises or disruptions, that the Lord uses to get my attention. He often has to use the still, small voice to get my attention—like the police officer speaking to the drunk, or the parent bringing the intensity of the child's emotions down to a place where real communication can happen. That's what the Lord does to us: talks us down from our emotional upheavals to a place where we can actually hear what He's saying to us. Maybe that's why He came to us as a small child rather than in all of His glory.
            Think of Peter, too, in our gospel reading. First the apostles see Jesus walking to them on the water, and they think He's a ghost. He doesn't say, "I am no mere ghost! I am the Lord, the Almighty and powerful God!"
            No. He says, "Take courage. It is I"—in effect, "Relax, guys, it's just me."
            What happens next? Peter tests him. "If it's you, Lord, command me to come to you on the water"—in effect, "If it's really you, Lord...."
            Is it that Peter denies Jesus' power? Not exactly. He and the other apostles have just seen Jesus feed 5000 men plus women and children from five loaves and two fish.
            He doesn't deny Jesus' power.
            He denies Jesus' presence.
            He won't believe a mere apparition, in a vision only, but if that vision can make him walk on water, he'll believe.
            But even then, even when he now knows Jesus' is right there, he falters. He has everything right there that he needs to be secure... except for complete faith.
            That's our story right there. That's us. That is why Peter is such a great example for us and a great choice to be the leader of the Twelve. Jesus calls Peter "rock," and I don't think it's because Peter had rock-hard abs or biceps. It took Peter a few tries before he really understood, before Jesus got through his rock-hard head.
            Jesus knows us so well. He knows that most of us have to encounter Him in ways that are basic to human experience: in the still, small voice; in the cry of an infant in a manger; in a hand reaching out to help us when we stumble. That's why we have Jesus here with us in the Word of God, why we celebrate His presence in the Eucharist, and why we reserve Him in the tabernacle for the sick and for adoration. That's why Jesus gave the Church sacraments of matter.
            Because if Jesus left us here with no sensible means of His presence—no physical, material reminder of Him—we would always be fleeing to some Mt. Horeb somewhere trying to find Him.

            But He's right here... in that still, small voice

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Yoke Yourself to Him—Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Cycle A)

Zechariah 9:9–10; Romans 8:9, 11–13; Matthew 11:25–30
            My oldest granddaughter, Kennady, has always had a sense for or awareness of the mystical. When she was around 4, Gina was reading to her for the first time from a book of saints for girls. She listened with rapt attention to the stories of St. Clare and St. Thérèse, but when Gina came to St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, Kennady said something rather odd. St. Frances was an Italian-American religious who came to the US and started hospitals, schools, and orphanages and spent her life in service to the sick and poor. Our granddaughter took one look at St. Frances and said, "Oh, she's my nurse!"
            To this day, we have no idea where that recognition came from, or how she came to connect St. Frances to nursing.
            Children, though, seem to have a knack for faith in the Divine. When I was a child, I accepted my parents' faith wholly and completely, and I loved the stories of Christ, the saints, and the people of the Old Testament. It wasn't until I grew to the wise old age of 13 that I began to question it and, eventually at 17, to leave the faith. It's not uncommon for adolescents to begin to assert their own will and put their mind to use, and they become too wise too soon. Children have an openness to faith that adolescents and adults often do not.
            I like to think that these little ones are who Jesus speaks about in the Gospel reading today. He says, "although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned, you have revealed them to little ones." In Matthew 18:4, he says, "Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven."
            But notice that Jesus isn't speaking to children. He speaks to his disciples. He calls them his "little ones" and encourages them to seek with a childlike faith. Jesus is comparing those who humble themselves and who trust in Him and His teaching to children, in contrast to those who trust in the wisdom of the world—the proud, the haughty, the jaded.
            Now Jesus isn't asking His disciples to do something He's not willing to do. As the reading closes, Jesus says, " Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart." Just the opposite of proud and haughty—meek and humble.
            That word "meek" gives us a link back to our first reading from the Book of Zechariah: "a just savior is he, meek and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass."
            This passage might remind you of the gospel readings from Palm Sunday, in which all three of the synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—have Jesus instructing two disciples to go to Bethphage and to retrieve a colt and bring it back to him, which He then rides triumphantly into Jerusalem. Clearly, you can see the parallel that the gospel writers set up here with this passage from Zechariah: "O daughter Jerusalem! See, your king shall come to you; a just savior is he, meek and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass." Matthew even quotes this same passage, and admittedly goes a bit overboard with the parallel, having Jesus enter into Jerusalem on the back of both the donkey and its foal. The three evangelists were all clamoring to make the same point. This is the one! The anointed! The messiah!
            But the Jews of the time were expecting someone more obvious, someone with power and stature. They expected a mighty king, a military savior—maybe coming on a war horse—or at very least a mighty... war donkey*. But that's not who Zechariah says is coming here. Not a mighty warrior, but a just savior, meek and riding on a colt. You can see, then, how a highly educated scribe, a scholar of the law, a Pharisee, a priest, or a member of the Sanhedrin, might look at this man entering Jerusalem on the back of a colt and have some doubts. How will this man riding on a donkey save us?
            Jesus counsels his disciples to look with different eyes, with a different heart, with simplicity and humility. And He comes to us in simplicity and humility—as an infant in a manger, on the back of a donkey, in the simple offering of bread and wine—and He transforms us into something greater. But we can't be transformed if we are already too full of ourselves and our own accomplishment. How can we recognize our need for transformation if we come in pride? How can we hear simple wisdom if we are too full of the wisdom of the world? Usually, it's those moments in which the wisdom of the world fails us so badly that we recognize our need for a savior.
            I like to share a prayer that was written by Thomas Merton. It's often called the Seeker's prayer. It goes like this:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think that I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.

That's what Jesus means when He says we need to seek Him with humble and childlike faith. He comes humble and meek to offer Himself to us and to lead us to the Father. When we humble ourselves and come to Jesus meekly and say, "I do not know the way," Jesus answers back, "Yoke yourself to me, and I'll show you."

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Most Holy Trinity—Cycle A

Exodus 34:4b–6; 2 Cor. 13:11–13; John 3:16–18
            God in the Most Holy Trinity is pure mystery. How three are also one, how Father begets Son and through Son, how the Holy Spirit proceeds—this is a mystery. We have these technical terms in our dogmatic theology to describe the relations of Father, Son, and Spirit, but it all points to the mystery that is God. Today we celebrate this mystery that is at the core of our faith.
            There's a pious legend about St. Augustine and the Trinity. It has no basis in anything Augustine wrote and appears to originate during the 15th century. St. Augustine is walking along a beach on the Mediterranean Sea, and he's trying to wrap his head around the the Holy Trinity—the headiest of all Christian mysteries, no pun intended. He comes upon a little boy, who is scooping up water from the sea with a shell, and then carrying it over to a hole he has dug in the sand and dumping it in. Augustine asks him, "what are you doing?
            The boy answers, "I'm going to pour the whole sea into this hole."
            Augustine shakes his head and says, "Son, that is impossible. It's futile to even try."
            And the boy responds, "It's no more futile than you trying to get the mystery of the Trinity into your head." And with that, the boy, who is actually an angel, disappears.
            The whole point of a mystery is to be mysterious. If we could comprehend it, it wouldn't be a mystery, and it would be too small to be God. That, too, is a realization that Augustine came to in his theological reflections: if you understand it, it's not God.
            This notion is illustrated in the Hebrew scripture as well. In the first reading from Exodus, the Lord descends to Moses on Mt. Sinai and proclaims His name: "The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious..."
            Now, this passage raises no questions for us in the English translation. That's the way it is with scripture. The English translation seems so simple, but when you know the source language , the mystery deepens. That's the case here, because where we say "the Lord, the Lord," the Jewish reader reads "Adonai, Adonai," which means the same thing. But that's not what actually appears in Hebrew text. The Hebrew text uses the root for God's actual name. We sometimes see it rendered as Yahweh or Jehovah, but no one really knows how it's pronounced. So the Jewish people have accepted this mystery and instead always substituted either the word Adonai or the word HaShem—the name—wherever they see this four-letter root.
            That's the essence of mystery. Over-think it or over-define it, and you empty it of its power. This is a charge that many Eastern Rite Catholics and Eastern Orthodox often make of Latin Rite Catholics and our scholastic tradition. The Most Holy Trinity is one of the greatest of these mysteries, along with the Holy Eucharist. We can come up with theological formulas and terminology and fine, hair-splitting arguments and logical proofs, but when it comes down to truth, we are speechless in the face of mystery. And the Most Holy Trinity is a tremendous mystery.
            I love the closing doxology in St. Paul's second letter to the Corinthians. Note that we often hear this in the opening greeting at Mass: "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you." What I love about it is that it captures particular elements of this Trinitarian mystery so well: the gift of grace that we receive by our Lord's sacrificial act, the love of the Father through the Son that leads to the procession of the Holy Spirit, and the communion we have because of this love, this active principle in the Triune God. It's such a concise summation of the Trinity's action. I love that we preserve it in our liturgy.
            The reading from the gospel of John is another of those simple formulations of the evangelion, the good news. When we talk about evangelization or sharing the gospel, we're referring back to this word evangelion that was in the original Greek of the written gospels. John gets right to the point: God the Father so loved the world—that is, all of creation—so much, that even as broken as it was, He extended reparation and salvation through the death of His son. John is telling us that the Divine Physician makes house calls. We fall from God, and He comes to rescue us—to save us. Jesus' name actually reflects this fact, as it literally means in Hebrew, "God's salvation."
            Now it's common for people to dismiss the hard truths of Catholic doctrine about sin and to focus only on God's mercy. Certainly we must trust in God's mercy because it is ultimately how we are redeemed and saved. But we must not forget that justice and mercy are a package deal. If there were no Divine justice, there would be no need for God's mercy. The blessing here is that God makes His mercy available to anyone. Jesus did not come to condemn, as John writes, but that the world might be saved through Him.  So what condemns us if it is not Jesus, whom the Father has appointed as judge over Heaven and Earth?
            The truth is that we condemn ourselves. We do it in our everyday actions, when we choose what we will over God's will, when we dismiss the needs of others because of our unnecessary wants, when we turn our backs on the truth and the right and the moral because it is scary or inconvenient. It's either our will or God's will, and if we choose self over God, we condemn ourselves to our own will, and He will let us have what we choose.
            God is the greatest good, but we are so often distracted by lesser goods and even by things that aren't good at all. And we all do this. In a few minutes, we will commune with the greatest good on this altar, but how often do we slouch to this altar begrudgingly? How often do we look on our religious obligation as a chore? God offers us the greatest good—Himself—for our salvation, and we only have ourselves to blame if we turn away from Him. But His mercy is available to us if we turn and embrace it.

            May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

You cannot pass on what you do not have—Fifth Sunday of Easter (Cycle A)

Acts 6:1–7; 1 Peter 2:4–9; John 14:1–12
You cannot pass on what you do not have.
You cannot pass on what yourself you do not have.
It's a pretty simple fact. Parents can't hand on an inheritance beyond what they possess—financially or genetically. A teacher cannot impart greater knowledge than they possess. To hand something on, you have to possess it. This is, in part, the message of our readings today. In each reading, we can see that a gift, a faculty, or a foundation is passed on from one who possesses to one who does not.
I want to focus on what the Apostles do here in this passage. I have to admit a certain bias for this first readings from Acts, as it is what many consider to be the founding of the order of the diaconate, which is the first overt celebration of the sacrament of Holy Orders. All the elements are present for a sacrament: valid recipients are chosen from among the people; clearly the Apostles are valid celebrants; they lay their hands on the candidates, which is even today the matter of the sacrament of orders; and then there are the prayers of consecration. I don't think any other sacrament is so clearly exemplified anywhere in scripture as the sacrament of Holy Orders is in this passage
We see that the Apostles are busy preaching the gospel, and they see this as their primary responsibility. Service to the people is also a responsibility, but the twelve do not see it as their primary responsibility—one that they have to address themselves, but must make sure is accomplished. So they do what any executive does: they grant that responsibility to someone else.
This is the essence of why we have Holy Orders. Our bishops cannot do everything themselves, so they grant a certain set of rights to deacons, and a higher order of rights to the presbyters, or priests. Deacons can preach, baptize, receive consent at weddings, impart blessings, and perform some funeral rites. Priests can do all of that, as well as consecrate the Eucharist, absolve sins, anoint the sick, and confirm the faithful. Bishops can do all of that and ordain priests and deacons. All of these faculties devolve down from the bishop to the priests and deacons.
            This is the way it is with our Lord as well. He says that he does not His will but the Father's, that He is in the Father and the Father in Him, that those who believe in Him will do the same works. And so also the Apostles and bishops have done. The bishops act on this authority granted to them by Jesus. They grant these rights, based on the model they have been given, to those that they believe are qualified to exercise it. That's why we have Holy Orders. A higher authority passes on its gifts and faculties to one lower, just as parents pass on gifts through genetic transfer, through formation and so on. A bishop ordains priests and deacons to different degrees of his service. He possesses the fullness of orders. He grants the faculties of this ministry to priest and deacon to act in his name. That is why all priests and deacons vow to the bishop who ordains them to obey him and his successors. My obedience to the bishop didn't stop when Bishop Driscoll retired. It simply transferred to Bishop Christensen.
            So let's look back at Acts and this particular event. The seven men are Greek-speaking Hebrews. Deacons are ordained to service, in whatever that form might take. Shortly after this passage in Acts, we see St. Stephen evangelizing in the Hellenist Jewish synagogue, and he pays for his boldness with his life. So a deacon is our Church's first martyr. Later on in Acts, Phillip is prompted by the spirit to go south on the road to Gaza, where he encounters an Ethiopian eunuch. He instructs him and baptizes him, and then is immediately whisked away by the Holy Spirit. You see, Phillip doesn't go where he wills but where the Holy Spirit wills him to go. That should be the response of all who are ordained to the diaconate and priesthood.
            So you see that a deacon's role was then similar to what it is now. We serve in outreach ministries. We preach. We baptize. But what's most important for anyone in Holy Orders is to witness to the gospel. That is our strongest tool of evangelization—to be Jesus' hands and feet in the world, to represent for Christ. And guess what? Witnessing to the gospel is not just our responsibility. It's yours as well.
All of the faithful are obligated to spread the gospel. All of us are ordered to that service. In the reading from Peter, we see how that inheritance goes another step further—from the hierarchical orders to the universal priesthood. "You are a chosen race," he writes, "A royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light."
That's right. You and I ... all clergy and laity... are a royal priesthood, and your ministerial role is to declare the wonderful deeds of Christ. This is our mission, your mission, the mission given to the Church by Jesus. If you recall, at the end of Matthew, Jesus sends the Apostles out on this self-same mission: "Go and make disciples of all the nations." That is the core mission of the Church: to evangelize, which means in Greek, to tell the good news, to proclaim the gospel. It is the mission that the last three popes have all called us to do. Preach the gospel! Do it in your deeds, always, and if necessary, in  your words.
But to do that, you need to know your faith. You need to study your faith. You need to know what the Church teaches. Most Catholics who leave the Church know next to nothing about what the Church teaches. That is tragic, but what is worse is that many of us sitting here don't know our faith and can't answer the questions of our children and our friends. It's great that we're here and love our faith, but as St. Peter says in his first letter, always be prepared to give an answer for your hope. We must always be prepared to explain the gospel, to explain why we believe.
Every week, I send you out with one of two dismissals. I either chant, "Go and announce the gospel to the world," or I chant, "Go in peace, glorifying the Lord with your life." I intentionally use those two because the Church literally wants you to go out and live your gospel witness to the world. You're not simply to come to mass to get your fix and leave, to fill your tank for the next week. No! You're supposed to take what you get here and share it in the world, in your workplace, in your school, in the line at the supermarket.
Do we light a lamp only to put it under a basket and hide the light? No! We expose the light so that everyone can see. That's what the great commission is about. That's what the Church lives to do, and that's your primary ministry and calling is as a Christian. Go and announce the gospel to the world. Announce it with your actions! That's the most important witness you can provide. And when people see what you've got, when they see the joy you have because of your faith, they will want it. That is the number one factor in conversion of people to the faith: believers who are on fire with their love for Christ and who live like it. And the number one factor keeping people away from the faith is believers who claim to be Christian with their lips and deny Him with their actions.

You are a royal priesthood, a holy nation. You are being sent to preach the gospel to the world. Your life may be the only gospel some people ever read. So you need to have the gospel, to know the gospel, to pass it on—because you can only pass on what you possess.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Another Easter Vigil

Today, I had the privilege of assisting at the fourth Easter Vigil since I was ordained. I'm always grateful for the opportunity, and I try to block out the Triduum on my work calendar so I can give adequate attention to liturgy and my prayer life.

When I entered the diaconate, I was never told that liturgy can actually be exhausting. But if you take a good look at our director of liturgy after the Easter Vigil Mass (salute, General Tish), you will come to understand just how much work goes into these liturgies, and we often have to attend rehearsals for them as well. Fortunately, General Tish gives us our marching orders. We don't question her dictates. There's a joke among clergy: what's the difference between a terrorist and a liturgist?

You can negotiate with a terrorist.

That said, the clergy typically wing it anyway.

This year, I had the added privilege of seeing catechumens and candidates, whom my wife and I prepared, enter the Church. I expected to be a bit more emotional, but the demands of the Easter liturgy held my focus. There were a few moments still that gripped me: the woman (one of our neophytes) who received communion from my cup because she couldn't risk gluten contamination; the unbaptized Christian father who wanted to lead his family to the Church; the man who came for love of his wife, who I think  found more than he expected.

All of them I see as my spiritual children, and while I am grateful that they will be moving on to new roles as Catholic faithful, I will miss them after our time of mystagogy.

Thank you, Lord, for allowing us to serve you in this way.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Palm Sunday 2017—Cycle A

            Because of the lengthy passion reading, I've been asked to keep this brief, so this will probably be the shortest homily you ever hear from me on a Sunday.
            We're living in an era and culture in which the word "love" is greatly misunderstood, greatly misused, and greatly undervalued. We love our pets. We love pizza. We love getting our nails done.
            Well, some of us do...
We have a single word for many dramatically different emotions, preferences, and actions; so I want to be really clear on what the Church and what scripture mean by the word "love."
            Love in the sense of human relationships is expressed in scripture by four different terms in Greek: phileo, which is the kind of love that friends have for each other; eros, which is romantic love; storge, which is the love expressed as natural familial affection and obligation; and agape, which we often call unconditional love.
            The last of these is what we want to address: agape. It is the highest ideation of love we have—love that gives everything. In the language of theology, love is not a feeling. Love is not about the heart palpitations and wooziness that two people feel when they are attracted to each other. Love is an act of the intellect and will, which makes it a moral act. Love does something.
            Love does something.
            The philosopher Jean Vanier made this claim about love, and if you've heard me preach at a wedding, you might remember how fond I am of this description: "To love someone is to show them their beauty, their worth, and their importance."
            "To love someone is to show them their beauty, their worth, and their importance."
Love is completely directed at the other. Not at what I get out of it, but what I give.
            Love is also in the action. Love, true unconditional agape love, is in the sacrifice that one makes for another: the sacrifice we make for our families when we work at jobs we don't like, the sacrifice we make when we volunteer long hours, the sacrifice we make when we give even when it's the hardest thing to do.
            We just reenacted an account of the most difficult sacrifice—one which we will reenact again on this altar in just a few minutes. If you want to know the true nature of love, the true measure of complete self giving, then you only have to look right up there (pointing to crucifix).
            That is what the word love means.

            That is what love is. The rest is commentary.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Basilica of St. Mary of the Assumption (in praise of lavish worship space)

A few weeks back, my sister-in-law's father, Al, passed away. As the de facto patriarch of the family now, I flew there to attend the memorial with my mother.  A little over two years ago, Al came out with another family friend when my father passed away. We had no clue at the time that he would be leaving us so soon after. He was a faithful Christian and by all accounts, a generous and decent man. And that's not saying nearly enough.

In any case, as any of you who have followed my blog know (even though I mostly post homilies now), when I travel, I like to visit all of the local Catholic churches. As luck would have it, Marietta is home to the Basilica of St. Mary of the Assumption, which was decreed a basilica only on 2013. The original of St. Mary's Church was built in 1837. (Catholic worship in Marietta began as early as 1749 with Jesuits traveling with French explorers.) This structure served the parish until the early 1900s, when a new church was begun in the current location. The history of its construction is rather interesting (well, if you're history geek like me), and I encourage you to go read it.

Anyway, I forgot to take a photo of the exterior, so I borrowed this from the basilica web site, It really doesn't give a good impression of entry, which is beautiful. Statues of Sts. Peter and Paul flank the stairs. I explained to my mom the significance of the items they each hold (keys for St. Peter and a scroll and sword for St. Paul) and how such items are keys to identifying saints and martyrs.

Two of the most striking features of the church are the stunning stained-glass windows and the beautiful paintings. My home parish, St. John's Cathedral in Boise, has some beautiful examples of German leaded stained glass, so these always shout out to me. The basilica's windows are different in style but beautiful nonetheless.

The paintings are of various scenes: the sermon on the mount, Jesus' baptism, and so on. A renovation was done in the 70s to lighten and simplify the interior, and remove the high altar and rail. Now while I'm not typically happy with changes made during the fever of the Spirit of Vatican II (which sometimes grew into serious infections and wreckovations), I have to say that the sanctuary was still beautiful prior to the renovation. However, the color and art added in the 2008-2009 renovation really bring out the beauty of this church. Check out the restoration page to see the differences.

The twelve apostles surround the altar. Notice the image of the assumption behind the altar. You can also see the umbrellino to the right. The tintinnabulum on the left is not as visible. These are symbols of a church's status as a basilica.

Here's another shot of the Assumption, with the tintinnabulum in the lower left corner and the tabernacle in its proper place of honor.

I did not have a chance to ask anyone what relic is there in front of the crucifix, but I think it likely that it's a relic of the True Cross.

I think this might give a better impression of the colors in the windows. Here are some better shots.

So my mom and I stopped in front of this altar and considered it for a moment. I turned to her and said, "It looks like the Blessed Mother is giving Jesus a high five." And my mom covered her mouth and giggled and said, "I thought the same thing." As a scrupulously observant Catholic in her youth, she wasn't sure if she should say anything.

This beautiful altar for Mother of Perpetual Help is in the back of the church.

I wish I were a better photographer, but truly, I should be trusted with nothing more than a phone or cheap camera. However, even with my meager skills, I think the beauty of this church comes out.

Many people–many Christians and even Catholics—do not understand why the Church spends so much of its resources for its architecture and their interiors. The frequent complaint is that the Church could sell off everything and feed and house so many people. The complaint misses the mark on several points:
  • First, the Church is the largest complex of charitable organizations that has ever existed. The Church feeds more people, houses more people, educates more people, and cares for more sick people than any other institution now in existence or that has ever existed. They do this while still building beautiful churches and commissioning beautiful art.
  • Second, the Church holds much of its "treasure" as a trustee, as a guardian, for public benefit. It safeguards these cultural treasures so that they can be enjoyed by everyone and not simply by the highest bidder. It does not see itself as owner so much as caretaker.
  • Third, Christ said that we will always have the poor with us. If the Church sold off all of its art and architecture, the proceeds would feed and house the poor for a very short time. And then all of it would be gone into private hands. While it's held in trust, donations for the preservation of the works and for charitable purposes can be gathered.
  • Fourth, Catholic churches are not for the rich, the privileged, the parish, or patrons. Anyone can enter a Catholic church and spend time there in reflection. On my last business trip to San Francisco, I saw homeless people sleeping in the pews. I have seen at least one person sleeping in a stall in the men's room of our parish (during a particularly harsh winter). Our churches are for all of us, for anyone. Do the poor and homeless deserve less grandeur in which to contemplate God? The whole point of such decor is to elevate our minds to Him, whether we are rich or poor. To gut churches to address only material needs is to neglect the spiritual needs of many who otherwise would starve.

I love the beautiful reminders we have in our churches to remind us that what we see here dimly (even in such radiant beauty) is nothing compared to the beauty we will encounter in the face of our Lord.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Meme me me...

It's that time of year to start dusting off my vocal chords and start practicing that marathon of Catholic liturgical chant, the Exultet. This chant follows the lighting of the Paschal candle and the procession. I have been privileged to be able to do this for my parish for the past three years since I was ordained. If you've never heard it, you can listen now.

Currently, we chant ours in English and Spanish. I'm hoping someday to be able to chant it in Latin, if God wills it.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Listen to Him; Trust in Him—Second Sunday of Lent (Cycle A)

Genesis 12:1–4a; 2 Timothy 1:8b–10; Matthew 17:1–9

Do you trust God? Do you trust that He has a plan for you? When you struggle with adversity, do you trust that somehow He will bring about good? Imagine the Lord telling you, "Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk" as He does to Abram in the first reading. Now Abram is in Ur of the Chaldeans, which would be somewhat close to Basra in modern day Iraq, some seven or eight hundred miles from the land of Canaan.
He's not talking about a move from Boise to Melba, but from a land of these—your own people—here, to that unknown place 800miles away with people you know nothing about. And you're going to walk—with all of your children, your herd animals, and your belongings. Imagine the trust you'd have to have to take that directive. But what does that trust yield? Not only are Abram's descendants a great nation, but all the communities of the earth are blessed. Abram's tremendous faith brings about tremendous returns. Abram becomes Abraham, a name that means "father of a multitude." And from that multitude comes the salvation of the world, our savior Jesus—all because of the faith and trust of one man.
            In every era, the faithful are tried. That is as true now as it was in earlier times. In 2 Timothy, Paul tells Timothy to bear his hardships for the sake of the gospel and that God would strengthen him. Paul and Timothy lived during some of the earliest periods of Christian persecution. Surely what Timothy faced is far different from what we as Christians in the U.S. face today, but we may well face adversity as our society trends toward increasing secularism. It's difficult for many of us to remember that Catholics were not always part of the mainstream in this country. There were times early in our nation's history when Catholics faced heavy civil restrictions and when Catholic churches and convents were burned by mobs. We forget about the virulently anti-Catholic Know Nothing party or that the Ku Klux Klan, which was very popular in the 1920s, was also violently opposed to Catholics. It wasn't until after John F. Kennedy that hostility toward Catholics in U.S. society decreased. Will we ever see anything like that kind of hostility again? I'd like to think not. But elsewhere in the world, there is no question. Christians, mostly Catholics and Orthodox, are persecuted throughout the Middle East and Africa. So there will be hardships. We will be tried. We will have our crosses to bear. Jesus promised that much to us. But He also promised to walk with us in our struggles.
            In Matthew, we get the story of the transfiguration of Jesus. All three of the synoptic gospels share this same story, and in all three Jesus takes only three of the twelve apostles up the mountain with Him: Peter, James, and John. Commentaries make a lot of this group Jesus takes with Him: John MacEvilly notes that they meet the numerical requirements for witnesses required for legal proof under Jewish law. Others note that each of the three has a unique role: Peter, being the leader of the twelve apostles, James being the first apostle martyred for the faith, and John as the one who would survive all the rest. But clearly, these three shared a special relationship with the Lord, and they would also be the three who accompanied him to Gethsemane on the last night of His mortal life.
            So what is the point of this transfiguration? Recall that the apostles expected an earthly messiah. They expected Jesus to change the status quo in Judea, perhaps to run the Romans out of the country. Jesus understood this, which is why he told the twelve not to repeat that He was the Christ. He understood the political ramifications of such an announcement.
            But He also had this core twelve who were the foundation of His Church, and He knew that His coming death might shatter their faith. He attested to this several times and warned them of His impending death. You might recall that He encourages Simon Peter to strengthen the others after he himself has turned back, so He knows that Peter will tested.
            So He takes them to the top of Mount Tabor, and there, He is revealed in all of His glory. He appears there with Moses and Elijah, representing the law and the prophets of Judaism and showing His authority over them. Of course, Peter as usual is motivated to say something foolish, which is when the Father makes the matter clear: "This is my beloved son. Listen to Him."
            Listen to Him. Trust Him. The world will tell you that your faith is nonsense, but listen to Him. You will face faith-shattering setbacks, but trust in Him. Even as they descend from the mountain, Jesus prepares them for His death because He knows that they will be tested and that they will lose heart. It isn't until His resurrection that Peter and John get it, that the pieces all come together.
            How often is it like that with us? How often do we need the two-by-four of the Holy Spirit to whap us upside the head and awaken us to God moving in our lives? I was awakened to this reality again recently when two people, one of whom is a member of our parish, contacted me separately out of the blue for the same new job opportunity. Whap! The Holy Spirit got my attention right quick. That's what Jesus does here at the transfiguration. He gives Peter, James, and John a glimpse of His true glory. They don't know yet what it means. They will be tried and tested. But when the third day comes, it will all become crystal clear. He is raised from the dead. He is alive again. He can be nothing other than God with us. He prepares them so they can trust Him.
            This was God's constant complaint against Israel. He brought them out of Egypt. He fed them in the wilderness. He gave them a land flowing with milk and honey. Yet they continually lost faith. They failed to trust. Our current political and cultural climate gives us so much right now of which we can be fearful or anxious. Maybe you're afraid of what the current administration is doing. Maybe you're afraid of what the North Koreans or the Islamic State are doing. We should remember the words of Psalm 146:
Put no trust in princes,
in mortal men in whom there is no help.
Take their breath, they return to clay
and their plans that day come to nothing.
We have to remember that God is in control. Despite our fears and our anxieties, He can turn all things toward good ends.
            I know that I too often fail to trust. Sometimes it comes in those moments when I am asked to take on a new challenge in ministry. Sometimes it comes in those moments when I want clarity and stability. But God doesn't promise us constant prosperity and perpetual stability. He promises that He won't desert us and that we will be safe in His care, however that may come about. In some cases, we have to choose the difficult path, but know that God is with us. He doesn't promise us an easy life, but He promises that He won't let us fall, so long as we simply trust in Him.