Thursday, May 29, 2014


Giving the best of Christianity to our children

Acts of the Apostles 16:25-34
 About midnight, while Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God as the prisoners listened, there was suddenly such a severe earthquake that the foundations of the jail shook; all the doors flew open, and the chains of all were pulled loose.  When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, thinking that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted out in a loud voice, “Do no harm to yourself; we are all here.” He asked for a light and rushed in and, trembling with fear, he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you and your household will be saved.” So they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to everyone in his house. He took them in at that hour of the night and bathed their wounds; then he and all his family were baptized at once. He brought them up into his house and provided a meal and with his household rejoiced at having come to faith in God.

                Parents always want to give their children the best, don’t they?  But sometimes they don’t know what the best is, especially when it comes to religion.  Parents from different religious backgrounds often attempt to raise their children in both denominations and say, “We’ll let them choose which one they want when they are old enough.  We don’t want to force our religion on them.”  So they raise their children to be “Metholics,” or “Baptolics,” or “Cathoterians.”  But parents don’t suffer this same dilemma when they decide what clothes their children should wear, or what T.V. shows they may watch, or what friends they may associate with, or which schools they will attend.  Parents know what are the best clothes, but not what is the best Christianity.  Forgive me for sounding arrogant but we believe the fullness of Christianity resides in the Catholic Church, while there is certainly lots of goodness and grace in other denominations.  If we didn’t believe that, we would cancel RCIA, and tell everyone to stay put in their Protestant church.

In the first reading from Acts we meet a man who has no doubts about what is the best religion for him and his family.  A jailor witnesses the power of God freeing Paul and Silas and hears the Good News of salvation.  What does he do next?  He goes home and tells his wife, “Let’s continue to raise our children in the Roman pagan religion as well as Christianity.  Let’s not force either religion on them.  When they are old enough, they can choose for themselves.”  Is that what he did?  No.  Acts 16 says, “He took Paul and Silas in at that house of the night and bathed their wounds; then he and all his family were baptized at once.”  When he baptized his family, we can assume that included small children and infants.  You see, when parents know what’s best, they don’t let their children decide.

                We are witnessing a phenomenon today of many Catholic parents postponing baptizing their children indefinitely.  Do you know when they finally baptize them?  When Johnny and Susie are in second grade.  Do you know why?  It’s because Johnny or Susie want to receive First Holy Communion with their classmates.  You see, these parents have let their children decide what’s best.  But that’s about as smart as letting them decide what’s best for supper every night: I hope you like mac and cheese and chicken nuggets!  Parents want to give their children the best so they read Dr. Spock and listen to Dr. Phil and Dr. Laura, but they ignore the Bible that tells them what’s really best for their babies is baptism.

                Again, forgive me if this sounds arrogant and condescending.  But the saints and martyrs didn’t suffer and die for a faith that was just as good as any other religion in the world.  They suffered and died for the best.  And that’s worth forcing on your children.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

I Am the Tradition

Fostering intimacy with Jesus
JOHN 15:26-16:4A
Jesus said to his disciples:  “When the Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, he will testify to me. And you also testify, because you have been with me from the beginning. “I have told you this so that you may not fall away. They will expel you from the synagogues; in fact, the hour is coming when everyone who kills you will think he is offering worship to God. They will do this because they have not known either the Father or me. I have told you this so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you.”

            Have you ever known someone so well you could finish their sentences for them?  Now, that can be really annoying, but it can also be really beautiful.  Spouses can often do that, and so can good friends.  Some friends can read each other’s thoughts, just by the look on their face, without ever uttering a word (that's especially helpful if you're playing Bridge).  You have to spend a long time with someone, and they have to trust you implicitly, to share that level of intimacy.  One theologian described intimacy as “in-to-me-see” to know the depths of another person – their thoughts, their hopes, their fears – is true intimacy.  Pope Pius IX once arrogantly said, “I am the Tradition!” without the humility we’d hope from the Vicar of Christ.  But what he said was spot-on: the pope SHOULD be the best friend of Jesus on earth, who knows our Lord’s intimate thoughts, and shares them with the world through the Tradition.  That's what the Tradition is for: to help us know Jesus intimately.

            In today’s gospel Jesus expresses this clear hope for his disciples: their intimate friendship with him will lead them to giving testimony about him.  Jesus says, “And you also testify, because you have been with me from the beginning.”  Because the 12 apostles had spent the most time with Jesus, and he had trusted them implicitly, they could finish his sentences and knew his deepest desires.  In fact, do you remember when they have to replace Judas, what was the highest criterion?  Judas’ replacement would have to be someone who had been with Jesus from the beginning of his public ministry.  When you become an intimate friend of someone, you want to introduce them to the world.

            I believe one of the goals of the Christian journey is deeper and deeper friendship with Jesus; to arrive at the point where you can say humbly, “I am the tradition”; to know Jesus so well you could finish his sentences and know his thoughts from just a glance.  One of the best ways to do that is spend time in Adoration, at the feet of Jesus, listening to him, learning from him, becoming his best friend.  Archbishop Fulton Sheen said Adoration is like gazing at the sunset.  If you stare at a sunset long enough, your face begins to glow with the same colors.  At Adoration we share “in-to-me-see” with Jesus – he sees into us, and we see into him.  We become best friends, and we are eager to tell others about our Friend.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

The Dove's Love

Loving like the Holy Spirit
 John 14:15-21
Jesus said to his disciples: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows him. But you know him, because he remains with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. In a little while the world will no longer see  me, but you will see me, because I live and you will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you. Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me. And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him.”

            This summer we will celebrate a number of big anniversaries.  Gene and Ruth Bruick will complete 60 years of wedded bliss, Ed and Lona Seiter also thank God for 60 years, and Leo and Barbara Anhalt will only have been married for 50 years, just spring chickens!  When you get to such milestones, people always want to know the secret of your success.  Well, I’ve figured it out.  Here it is:

             Everybody on earth dies and goes to heaven.  God comes and says, “I want the men to form two queues: one line for men that dominated their wives on earth, and the other line for the men who were dominated by their wives.  Also, I want all the women to go with St. Peter.”  The next time God looked, the women are gone, and there are two lines.  The line for the men who were dominated by their wives was 100 miles long, and in the line of men who dominated their women, there was only one man.  God got mad and said, “You men should be ashamed of yourselves.  I created you in my image, and you were all whipped by your mates.  Look at the only one of my sons who stood up and made me proud.  Learn from Him!  Tell them, my son, how did you manage to be the only one in this line?”  The man replied, “I don’t know.  My wife told me to stand here.”  See what I missed out on by becoming a priest?  Now which one of us made the real sacrifice?  What a great question: How do people stay married for 40, 50 and 60 years?

             People have been trying to answer that question since the time of Adam and Eve, the first married couple.  You’ll probably get a different answer depending on which couple you ask.  But if you push and probe far enough, I think any couple will admit that besides patience and kindness and forgiveness and good communication, something else is needed.  They perceive a certain (as the French say) “je ne sais quoi,” (literally, “I don’t know what”) something you can’t put your finger on, an intangible but real presence in their marriage.  And I believe that is the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit is exactly that extra something – really that extra Someone – who helps you go the long-distance in love.

            Catholic theology teaches that the Holy Spirit is the love exchanged between the Father and the Son in heaven: it binds them together and makes them one for eternity in heaven.  Now, when a couple stays married that long, they mysteriously invite the Spirit to be a full partner in their marriage.  When a spouse dies after a long and loving marriage the widow or widower not only misses the spouse but also the Holy Spirit they shared.  That’s why their ache of loss is so deep.  You see, marriage isn’t about who dominates whom, but about both being dominated by the Spirit of love.

             This is what Jesus promises the disciples in the gospel today: he will send them the Spirit.  The scene is the Last Supper and Jesus shares his most intimate thoughts and hopes with his closest friends.  He says, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth.”  In other words, the same Spirit that binds the Father and the Son in heaven will be poured into the hearts of the disciples at Pentecost.  Why?  So they will love like Jesus: the Jesus who washes feet, the Jesus who forgives the woman caught in adultery, the Jesus who prayed for his executioners from the Cross.  That’s superhuman love, the love of anniversaries that last 40, 50 and 60 years.  Scott Hahn once made this staggering statement, see if you can catch his logic.  He said, “What Jesus did for 33 years on earth is exactly what he had done for eternity in heaven, he loved his Father.  It’s just that on earth, that love looks like the Cross.”  Let me repeat that: “What Jesus did for 33 years on earth is exactly what he had done for eternity in heaven, he loved his Father.  It’s just that on earth, that love looks like the Cross.”  Jesus did not dominate others, nor was he dominated by others; he was filled with the Holy Spirit of love.

             This weekend I am also celebrating my ordination anniversary.  I was ordained on May 25, 1996 and have been a priest for 18 years.  Do you know how many parishes I’ve served in as a priest?  15!  I’m not sure I want to highlight that on my resume: apparently, I can’t hold down a steady job!  Even though I am not married, I have tried to love the parishes I’ve served with the love that the Father and Son share, the love of the Holy Spirit.  You see, it’s still love.  Being a pastor is not about dominating the parish, bossing others around.  It’s also not about being dominated by others and showing no backbone in preaching the hard messages.  It’s about loving like Jesus did, inspired by the Spirit. If I invite that Spirit to flood my heart, I might also one day celebrate 40, or 50 or even 60 years as a priest.  You’ll be pleased to know that one of our former pastors, Msgr. John O’Donnell is celebrating 60 years as a priest this year.  He was helped not only by the Holy Spirit but also a lot of Irish blarney!

             Today I want to remember in a special way all those who struggle to experience a long-lasting love: those who were widowed at an early age, those who have suffered a divorce, those who have never married.  We all long for a love that lasts 50, 60, 75 years, and only the Holy Spirit can make human love last that long.  You see, true love has little to do with butterflies in your stomach, but everything to do with a dove in your soul (a dove symbolizes the Spirit).  Bring the Spirit into your marriage by attending church together, praying together before bed, and especially receiving the sacraments together.

            What is the secret to a long-lasting love on earth?  It’s the same secret to a long-lasting love in heaven.  That secret is the Holy Spirit.  May Jesus give each of us an abundant share of his Spirit today!

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Catholics in Camelot

Accepting the love-hate relationship with the world
John 15:18-21
 Jesus said to his disciples:  “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you. Remember the word I spoke to you, ‘No slave is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. And they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know the one who sent me.”

             There will always be a love-hate relationship between Christians and the world.  Sometimes people will love us and sometimes they will hate us.  For example in 313 Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.  We were riding high, everyone loved us, we were “the king of the world!”  Then a hundred years later, as the empire was crumbling, everyone blamed Christians and persecuted us.  St. Augustine wrote his famous work, “The City of God,” to defend the Church.  This happens again and again down through the centuries.  Here’s a more recent example here in the U.S.  Americans loved us when the Catholic Kennedys were in Camelot, but now everyone hates us as we defend counter-cultural values.

             In the gospel today Jesus tells us this topsy-turvey, love-hate relationship should come as no surprise.  He says, “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first.  If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”  Jesus, too, experienced that love-hate relationship with the world.  Palm Sunday everyone cheers, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” They were ready to crown Jesus the king of the world. But five days later on Good Friday, the same crowd cries, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”  Our relationship with the world will always have these peaks and valleys.

             So, let me ask you: where are we today in that up-and-down relationship with the world: in the “loving time,” or in the “hating time”?  I believe we are in a transition period, going down from popularity and headed toward persecution.  Cardinal George of Chicago put it this way.  He said, “I am the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago, and I will die in my bed.  My successor – the next Archbishop – will die in prison.  And his successor will die in his blood.”  That’s a pretty grim prediction, but it should come as no surprise if we take Jesus’ words seriously.

 You know, we Christians really shouldn’t worry about what the world thinks of us -- loving us, hating us or ignoring us -- we should just keep our eyes on Jesus.  Don’t get too excited if everyone loves you, and don’t be depressed if everyone despises you.  That’s what happened to Jesus.  We should be pleased as punch when that happens to us.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Pray, Pay and Obey

Embracing the virtue of obedience

 ACTS of the apostles 15:22-31
The Apostles and presbyters, in agreement with the whole Church, decided to choose representatives and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas.  This is the letter delivered by them: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage. If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right. Farewell.” And so they were sent on their journey. Upon their arrival in Antioch they called the assembly together and delivered the letter. When the people read it, they were delighted with the exhortation.

            You know that most priests and monks and nuns take the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.  Now which of these three do you think is the hardest?  Most people would probably answer, “chastity,” the vow that priests cannot get married.  But every time I visit my brother and see them trying to raise their four crazy kids, I think, “You know, chastity doesn’t look all that bad!”  Now, Archbishop Fulton Sheen said something different.  He believed that each of these vows was hard at a different stage in our life. While we are young chastity is the hardest, in middle age obedience is toughest, and in our golden years poverty is hardest.  There’s a lot of truth to that.

             This Sunday is my ordination anniversary and I’ll have been a priest for 18 years.  In my opinion the hands-down hardest vow is obedience.  In 18 years as a priest, I’ve served in 15 parishes, and that constant change and upheaval is extremely hard.  And so, my basic philosophy as your pastor is twofold: (1) don’t screw things up, and (2) stay off the bishop’s radar.  And hopefully I won’t get moved.  But every time I have been moved, it’s been a blessing.  I’m very blessed to be at I.C. now.  You see, obedience is hard, but it’s a very important virtue, and a crucial vow: it shows we trust God more than ourselves, and that is the heart of Christianity.

            In the first reading today, we see the virtue of obedience in full flower in the church in Antioch.  The Apostles, led by Peter, in Jerusalem have sent a letter regarding how they should treat the Gentile converts.  You can be sure that letter ruffled a few feathers among the Jewish converts.  But how did the church in Antioch react?  It says, “When the people read it, they were delighted with the exhortation.”  In other words, they were humble and obedient.

            My friends, obedience isn’t just for priests and nuns, it should be the badge of honor of every Catholic, even though it’s hard.  It’s hard when the bishop takes up a second collection, it’s hard when the bishop moves your pastor, it’s hard when the bishop champions issues you disagree with.  But that’s precisely when the virtue of obedience has to kick in and we trust in God more than we trust in ourselves.  It used to be said that all a Catholic had to do was “pray, pay and obey.”  Well, a Catholic has to do more than that, but obedience is always at the heart of Catholicism.

            In the end, the undoing of the Church will not be due to promiscuous priests, and it won’t be because of greedy priests.  The greatest damage to the Church has always been inflicted by disobedient priests, who trusted in themselves more than in God.  That’s why obedience is not only the hardest virtue, but, for my money, also the highest virtue.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Skinny Soccer Player

Peering through the eyes of faith
Philippians 4: 6-10
Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you.

            There’s an old saying that goes, “Hindsight is 20/20.”  What does that mean?  Basically, it means that after you’ve completed something, a given stage in life, and you look back on the road you’ve walked, you see it more clearly.  You look back and perhaps regret things you did or wish you had done different things.  Hindsight gives you clear vision.  When I was in high school I really wanted to play football.  But my parents said, “No, son, we have enough medical bills.  Why don’t you play soccer instead, and study more?”  I was disappointed at the time and knew that the football players were the cool kids.  But now, looking back, I am glad my parents made my study more.  That’s partly how I became a priest.  Girls aren’t crazy about skinny soccer players, they prefer a big, buff football player.  I couldn’t see clearly in high school what was truly important, but I can see that perfectly with 20/20 vision now.  Hindsight is 20/20.

             As you graduate from sixth grade, you’re completing a milestone in your life, and now you enjoy a little hindsight.  You’ve come to the end of elementary school.  As you look back on your years here, is there anything you would have done differently if you had the chance?  Perhaps you feel you should have worked harder in math class, or practiced your band instrument every day, or not fallen asleep in Fr. Andrew’s homilies!  Can you see how hindsight is 20/20?  You see clearly what you should have done in third grade or fifth grade but when you were in that grade, you didn’t really know what was important.  This will happen again in high school when you complete it.  It will happen again when you finish college.  It happens to men when they turn 40 years old: they look back at their life and say, “Ahh!  I should have done things differently!”  And then it happens to them again when they turn 60, and they say, “Man, I sure regret what I did when I was 40!”  Only when we arrive at end of the road, and look back over the terrain we’ve traversed, can we see with crystal clarity what we should have done.

             Well, I figured out a way to cheat and get hindsight before you complete the journey.  I know how to see what a man lying on his deathbed can see, I know how to understand what he understands; a man near death enjoys 20/20 vision over his life.  Do you know how to cheat and see things like that?  That’s called faith.  Faith is perfect eyesight, you see what’s important and what doesn’t really matter in life.  That’s why they say, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”  A foxhole is where a soldier crouches because bullets are flying over his head and he could die any moment.  As he huddles close to death, he suddenly sees clearly: of course there is a God!  He says things like, “I should have forgiven my brother,” and “I should have listened to my wife,” and “I should have gone to church more often,” and “Being a skinny soccer player really is better than being a football jock.”  When you are at the end of the road and can take a look back over your life everything becomes clear.  You can enjoy that same clarity right now if you peek through the eyes of faith.  Faith lets you cheat and have hindsight right now.

             That’s what I hope you’ve learned here at Immaculate Conception School.  I hope you’ve learned not only how to add and subtract, not only how to read and write, not only how to play fair and to be a leader.  But I pray you’ve learned to see with the eyes of faith; that’s 20/20 vision!  That faith inspired St. Paul to say to the Philippians: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”  That’s what a man lying on his deathbed might say, and that’s what a student graduating from Immaculate Conception might say.  Why?  Because they can both see…perfectly.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Montague and Marriage

Respecting God’s design for marriage

Acts of the Apostles 11:19-26
Those who had been scattered by the persecution that arose because of Stephen went as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to no one but Jews. There were some Cypriots and Cyrenians among them, however, who came to Antioch and began to speak to the Greeks as well, proclaiming the Lord Jesus. The hand of the Lord was with them and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. The news about them reached the ears of the Church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to go to Antioch. When he arrived and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced and encouraged them all to remain faithful to the Lord in firmness of heart, for he was a good man, filled with the Holy Spirit and faith. And a large number of people was added to the Lord. Then he went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the Church and taught a large number of people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians.

             I have a funny habit of giving people nicknames.  Actually, many people find it very annoying; too bad for them.  For instance, I like to call Fr. Andrew, our associate pastor, “The Boy Wonder,” because he’s really a rather exceptional priest.  Now, I secretly hope that people will start calling me “Batman.”  So far, no luck.

            Names are curious things.  Do you remember that saying, “A rose by any other name would still smell the same?”  It’s originally from Shakespeare’s play “Romeo and Juliet.”  Listen to a few lines the Bard lays on the lips of Juliet.  She says to Romeo:

“Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What is a Montague?  It is not hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, not any other part,
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called.”

That’s what I keep telling Fr. Andrew: you still smell as sweet “were you not Fr. Andrew called.”

             But in the first reading today, we see that names do matter, especially when you want to call someone a Christian.  Acts 11 describes the early Christian community in Antioch.  The distinguishing quality of that community was it had overcome racial, ethnic and even religious differences to be united in Jesus.  This universal embrace of everyone earns the followers of Jesus, for the first time, the name of “Christians.”  You see, they had been called many things before that – the Way, the disciples, the holy ones, brothers, etc. – but now they would be called “Christians,” a name even better than Batman and Robin.

            The state of Arkansas is struggling with what name to use for the union of two people of the same sex.  Last week, Circuit Judge Chris Piazza overturned the state’s ban on same-sex marriages.  Yesterday, some Arkansas counties granted marriage licenses to gay couples, while others did not, Sebastian County being among those that didn’t.  I would strongly urge you to read Bishop Anthony Taylor’s message on this issue.  It is beautifully balanced, avoiding homophobia on the one extreme and unbridled freedom on the other extreme.

            Juliet may want Romeo to change his name from “Montague” but we cannot change the name and meaning of marriage.  Why?  Well, because we didn’t invent marriage; it was given to us by God, and He gave it to us as a gift.  Some things we can change: like whether we want capitalism or socialism, a parliament or a congress, the BCS bowl series or college football playoffs.  But other things we cannot change, like marriage as the union of a man and a woman.  If we do attempt to do so – because an “attempt” is all it will be – we begin to tug at the very fabric that holds humanity together, a fabric God himself has woven together with immeasurable love because it is a reflection of His love.  In saying this, we want to lose no love for anyone, like the early Christians, we desire to love everyone: homosexuals, heterosexuals and everyone in between.  But as St. John Paul II often reminded us: “there is no real love without truth, and there is no real truth without love.”  In taking this stand, I wonder what names people will give us now.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

The World's Toughest Job

Seeking the happiness that only Jesus can give

John 10: 7-10
So Jesus said again, “Amen, amen, I say to you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy;  I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”

     After walking on this earth for almost 45 years here are the only two things I know for sure (actually, it was more like stumbling forward than walking). Here are the only two things I’m sure of: (1) everyone wants to be happy, and (2) no one is completely happy. Ironic, isn’t it? Ask anyone, regardless of their country or class, their culture or their character, do you want to be happy? And you will receive a resounding and unanimous “yes!” But if you ask them, “Have you found happiness?” What will they say? If they are honest (and many people are not!) they will reply, “No. I'm still searching." For instance, children want to play more video games, wives want their husbands to talk more, husbands want their wives to talk less, short people want to be tall, and tall people want to wear high heels, Russia wants to take over Armenia, Catholics want shorter homilies, and priests want bigger collections. No one is completely content.

     In the gospel today, we meet the only one who can tell us what true happiness is, namely, Jesus. Our Lord says categorically: “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” In other words, Jesus is saying, "I want you to be happy!" No one knows better than Jesus the tragedy of the human condition: we all seek happiness but no one knows where to find it. That's why Jesus came: to answer that ache in the heart of humanity. In other words, our happiness lies in Jesus, not in being taller or in hearing shorter sermons or in taking over the world. Only Jesus offers us life abundantly, perfect peace, true happiness.

     Now, besides Jesus someone else who knows this human drama and dilemma of searching for happiness is our mom. For nine months before we even took our first breath, our moms wanted us to be happy. And no one really knows all the sacrifices a mother makes for her child’s happiness. A friend recently sent me a youtube video of a pretend job interview for “The World’s Toughest Job” and the position was called “Director of Operations.” If you haven’t seen it, you should google it today for Mother’s Day. The interviewees thought this was a real position until they started hearing the requirements. Here are some of the requirements of this job: you must be able to work standing on your feet all day sometimes all night, you need degrees in medicine, finance, and culinary arts, you will get no vacations – indeed during Thanksgiving, Christmas and the holidays your work load increases – you get no coffee breaks and you can only eat lunch after your associate (your child) does, you will not be able to sleep, and if you had a life you must give that up. And the salary for this position is zero. The people interviewing for this position are aghast, exclaiming, "That's inhumane!" And "Who would ever do such a job?!" Then the interviewer tells them that in fact billions of people do this every day, they are called "moms." It brings tears to my eyes every time. But moms do all that for two reasons: (1) moms know their children want to be happy, and (2) moms know their children do not have a clue how to be happy.

     Now, imagine what would happen if a perfect mom ever had a perfect Son, and not just a perfect Son, but a Child who was happiness itself, joy on two legs. Of course, we know that mother-child combination is Mary and Jesus. On this Mother’s Day say a Hail Mary for your mother. Heck, pray a whole Rosary for her! Could it be Mother's Day that brings some of you to Mass today - to make your moms happy? And take a moment to realize all the sacrifices she has made for your happiness. It might also be necessary gently to remind her that happiness is not wearing high heels, but Jesus. Only Jesus can make both you and your mother happy. Psalm 23 teaches, When The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want. That’s why Jesus said: “Amen, amen, I say to you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them…A thief comes only to steal, and slaughter and destroy. I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Runnin' with the Spirit

Keeping pace with the Holy Spirit throughout life

Acts of the Apostles 7:51-55

Stephen said to the people, the elders, and the scribes: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always oppose the Holy Spirit;you are just like your ancestors. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They put to death those who foretold the coming of the righteous one, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become. You received the law as transmitted by angels, but you did not observe it.” When they heard this, they were infuriated, and they ground their teeth at him. But Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and Stephen said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

            One of my bucket list items was to run a marathon and I did.  But I gotta tell you, there really is no good reason to go out and run 26.2 miles.  Now the key to a successful marathon is your pace – don’t run too fast and don’t run too slow.  All official marathons even have people they designate as “pacers” who carry a long stick with a time on it: 5:00, 4:30, 4:00, 3:30, etc.  If you run with them, you’ll finish the marathon at that time.  But what do all rookies do?  They come out too fast and later end up walking or quit and don’t finish.  That’s exactly what I did.  As I was walking the last 6 miles a lady passed me who had written on the back of her shirt, “you’ve just been passed by a mom of eight.”  And then her eight children passed me!

            The Christian life is analogous to running a marathon, and Jesus has sent us an official “pacer,” namely, the Holy Spirit.  The key to successfully running the race of the Christian life is to keep pace with the Spirit: not running ahead, and not lagging behind.  This is exactly what’s happening in the first reading from Acts of the Apostles.  Stephen accuses the Jewish Sanhedrin, “You are always opposing the Holy Spirit.”  The Jews either ran too fast or too slow.  But Stephen, Acts reads, “is filled with the Holy Spirit.”  In other words, Stephen kept pace and finished the race well earning the crown of victory.

            My friends, it’s not easy to run a marathon, and it’s not easy to run the race of the Christian life.  I think of very talented men like Fr. John Corapi and Fr. Alberto Cutie, both of whom left the priesthood.  They ran ahead of the Holy Spirit and couldn't finish the race.  That’s why I needed 3 months with the Carmelites: to learn to listen to the Spirit and recalibrate my pace, to come along side the Holy Spirit.  Ask yourself today: who is pacing you?  Listen to the Holy Spirit in your heart.  You’ll hear him saying gently either, “Speed up” – get to Sunday Mass, go to confession, pray the rosary, read the Bible – or he’ll say “ease off the pedal” – take a vacation, spend time with your family and friends, relax.  If you don’t listen to the Holy Spirit, you might find yourself getting passed by a mom of eight and her eight children, because she is DEFINITELY keeping pace with the Holy Spirit.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Ten Thousand Questions

Learning more through questions than answers

Luke 24:13-35
That very day, the first day of the week, two of Jesus’ disciples were going to a village seven miles from Jerusalem called Emmaus, and they were conversing about all the things that had occurred. And it happened that while they were conversing and debating, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him. He asked them, “What are you discussing as you walk along?” They stopped, looking downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, said to him in reply, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know of the things that have taken place there in these days?” And he replied to them, “What sort of things?” They said to him, “The things that happened to Jesus the Nazarene, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, how our chief priests and rulers both handed him over to a sentence of death and crucified him. But we were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel; and besides all this, it is now the third day since this took place. Some women from our group, however, have astounded us: they were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; they came back and reported that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who announced that he was alive. Then some of those with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women had described, but him they did not see.” And he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the Scriptures. As they approached the village to which they were going, he gave the impression that he was going on farther. But they urged him, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight. Then they said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?”

            As I get older, I become more convinced that questions are more important than answers.  Sometimes, asking the right question is more critical than knowing the right answer.  When I was in high school, we had this really annoying classmate who asked obvious questions all the time.  Right after the teacher explained something in chemistry, for instance, he raised his hand and asked the teacher to explain it again.  Everyone groaned, “Argh!”  We all thought he was slow and dense.  But that young man graduated with honors, went on to medical school, and is now a practicing brain surgeon.

            In college my least favorite teacher taught a seminar class on literature.  But he never stood in the front of the class and lectured.  He would sit with the students and just ask questions during the whole class.  For example, we read “Crime and Punishment” and in class he’d ask, “Why did Raskolnikov refuse to turn himself in for murdering his landlady?”  And some student trying to brown-nose would raise his hand.  I buried my head in my hands and cried, “Why don’t you just tell us the answer?!”  Now, however, when I talk to people or read a book or watch a movie, I instinctively ask myself, “Why did he just do that?”  You see, rather than hand me a laundry list of answers, that college professor taught me to think, to ask questions, to ponder and probe.  Sometimes the right question is more valuable than the right answer.

            In the gospel today we see Jesus teaching with questions as well.  He joins two disciples walking to Emmaus and asks them what they are discussing.  They reply dumbfounded: “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who doesn’t know of the things that have taken place in these days?”  Then Jesus makes this marvelous reply, he asks, “What sort of thing?”  (As if Jesus didn’t know!)  Can’t you just imagine the two disciples groaning like my classmates in high school and college, “Argh! What a dumb question!”  But was it?  Through that innocent and apparently na├»ve question, Jesus invites those disciples to reflect and ponder and put into their own words that saving mystery of Jesus' death and resurrection.  They needed to think more deeply and Jesus’ question made them do just that.  After Jesus leaves, what do those two disciples do?  They ask a question: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way?”  Like my college professor, Jesus had taught his disciples to think with questions. Sometimes, the question is not only more important than the answer; the question might even be the answer.

            Now, not all questions get answers.  Listen to this funny conversation.  A father and a son went fishing one day.  While they were out in the boat, the boy suddenly became curious about the world around him.  He asked his father: “How does the boat float on water?”  The father replied, “Don’t rightly know son.”  A little later, the boy looked at his father and asked, “How do the fish breathe underwater?”  Once again, the father replied, “Don’t rightly know son.”  A little later the boy asked his father, “Why is the sky blue?”  Again the father answered, “Don’t rightly know son.”  Finally the boy asked his father, “Dad, do you mind me asking you all of these questions?”   The father replied, “Of course not, son.  If you don’t ask questions, you never learn nothin’.”  I guess that day the boy learned exactly how smart his father was.

            My friends, I would encourage you to question everything.  And I would even invite you to question your faith.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions.  But always bear in mind Cardinal Newman’s caution, he said: “Ten thousand questions do not equal one doubt.”  Ten thousand questions do not equal one doubt.  Don’t doubt your faith, but do question it, probe it, examine it, explore it.  A few weeks ago a lady did just that during my homily.  Did you hear about this?  Right in the middle of the homily, she raised her hand and said, “I have a question.  I don’t understand what you mean!”  And then a few moments later she said, “Can you please explain that!?”  A friend of mine in the congregation turned to the person next to him and whispered, “I didn’t know you could heckle the priest during Mass!  I’ve been missing out all these years!”  That lady was right: my sermon was long-winded that day.  She taught me something through her questions.  The question mattered more than the answer.

            Pope Francis is asking a lot of questions these days about Church practice.  Can priests be married?  What greater role can women play in the Church?  How do we welcome those who feel ostracized, pushed out, by the Church?  What does it mean practically to make the poor a priority?  Maybe some of the pope’s questions make people uneasy and squirm in their pews.  Perhaps some Catholics bury their head in their hands and groan, “Argh!  What dumb questions!”  But remember Newman’s sage advice: “Ten thousand questions do not make one doubt.”  While the pope questions, he never doubts.  Like that father taught his son while fishing, “If you don’t ask questions, you never learn nothin’.”  When we ask questions we begin to ponder and probe and penetrate the saving mystery of Jesus’ dying and rising like those disciples in the Scriptures.

            Listen to how St. Peter urges us to test our faith.  He writes in 1 Peter 1:7, “So that your faith, which is more precious than gold that is tested in fire, will lead to praise, glory and honor at the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ!”  Our faith must never be doubted, but it must be questioned, tested by fire of honest and relentless probing, because only then will it lead to praise, glory and honor.  “If you don’t ask questions, you never learn nothin’.”

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

A Girl's Best Friend

Seeking the crown that does not fade

John 6: 11-15
Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining, and also as much of the fish as they wanted. When they had had their fill, he said to his disciples, “Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted.” So they collected them, and filled twelve wicker baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves that had been more than they could eat. When the people saw the sign he had done, they said, “This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world.”  Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry him off to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain alone.

            Boys and girls, have you noticed how in different sports the winners get to wear jewelry or receive fine china?  Think about this.  If you win the Superbowl, what do you get to wear?  The champions wear a “superbowl ring” with lots of diamonds.  What about boxing?  It’s a very fancy belt, again adorned with lots of gold and jewels.  What about hockey?  The winning team gets their names engraved on the Stanley Cup made mostly of silver.  What about college football?  The winning team gets a ball in the shape of a football made of Waterford Crystal which costs about $30,000.  How about poker?  Yeah, poker is a sport!  Our friends across the river running casinos will be happy to hear that!  The winner of the World Series of Poker gets a bracelet, again made of gold and jewels.

            Today we have our annual May Crowning of Mother Mary.  What jewelry or fine china will we give her?  Uh, none.  Is it a tiara of diamonds like Miss. America wins?  Nope.  We give Mary a simple crown of flowers.  How long do you think those flowers will last?  A few days, then they will get old and fall off.  Isn’t Mary beautiful like Miss. America?  Yes.  Hasn’t Mary done marvelous things like those beauty pageant queens?  Yes.  But she wants the crown that Jesus will give her in heaven.  Because you see, in the end, all those Lombardy trophies, those Stanley Cups, those Poker bracelets will turn to dust, but not the crowns that Jesus gives us.  They say that “diamonds are a girl’s best friend,” but not if that girl happens to be Mary.

            In the gospel today, the people want to crown Jesus a king.  What does Jesus do?  He runs away and hides!  Why?  He doesn’t want these earthly crowns and cups and diamonds.  He wants his Father’s crown; he wants his heavenly Father to be proud of him.  Jesus chose to wear the crown of thorns because that will be replaced in heaven with an eternal crown.

            Boys and girls, do you know why your parents send you to a Catholic school like Immaculate Conception?  It’s because they want you to be truly great.  They hope one day you might win the Stanley Cup, or be crowned Miss America or hoist the Crystal Football as college football champions.  They probably don’t want you to win the poker bracelet, though. All those things are great, and I hope you do become rich and famous. But your parents also send you here so that you remember to work for that crown that will never fade or turn to dust: the eternal crown that only Christ can give you.  You come to a Catholic school, not only to make your earthly parents proud, but also to make your heavenly Father proud.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

The Bible Blueprint

Living as a vibrant Christian community

Acts of the Apostles 4:32-35
The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. With great power the Apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all. There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the Apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need.

             I gotta tell ya, it’s very easy to be the pastor of Immaculate Conception Church.  Now, don’t go tell the Bishop because he’ll just give me more work to do.  But why is it so easy?  Well, there’s such a genuine sense of community here: people eagerly volunteer for things.  Just look at the crowd at daily Mass, we have enough players for TWO softball teams, lots of people helped bring food and spent the night when we had the sleepover for the homeless, our capital campaign is going great, and most importantly, people have signed up to bring meals for the priests every Saturday night.  Now, if we could just get backrubs every Sunday night, everything would be perfect!

            This utopian society is very close to how the early Christians lived.  Listen to the description in the first reading: “The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common.”  The early Christians displayed a vibrant community life because they deeply cared about each other, and especially helped the poor in their midst.  I don’t know if the apostles got backrubs, but I bet it was easy to serve a community like that.

            As wonderful as all this is, however, we still have more work to do.  The Pew Research Center says that only 30 percent of Catholics attend weekly Sunday Mass. 
How many young Catholics who go off to college stop going to Mass – maybe members of your own families?  Scott Hahn once said, “The largest single Christian denomination in the United States is Roman Catholic.  The second largest is “ex-Catholics.”  So, now is not the time to sit back and rest on our laurels.  We must develop a specific and sustained strategy to welcome Catholics home, and attract non-Catholics.  That seems to me what Pope Francis’ master plan is: if we love each other, and especially if we love the poor, people will flock to the Catholic Church.  So far, his plan is working like a charm.

            The Bible gives us a blueprint on how to be a thriving Christian community.  Immaculate Conception is doing a lot of things right, but we still have a long way to go.  Maybe we could start with those backrubs next?

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Second Chances

Lavishing God’s mercy upon everyone

1 Peter 1:3-9
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you who by the power of God are safeguarded through faith, to a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the final time. In this you rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

            This Divine Mercy Sunday will showcase three popes, who, each in his own way, proclaimed the message of mercy.  Two of these popes will be canonized saints, inducted into the Catholic Church’s “Hall of Fame,” Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II.  The third is our current, beloved Pope Francis, who will do the honors of canonizing the other two.  How did each of these pontiffs preach mercy?  Well, John XXIII taught mercy through humility; he knew he needed mercy as much as the next guy.  Consider these humorous examples.  Not long after being elected pope, John XXIII was walking along the streets of Rome.  A woman passed by him and whispered to her friend, “My goodness!  He’s so fat!”  Overhearing what she said, the pope turned around and replied, “Madame, I trust you understand that the papal conclave is not exactly a beauty pageant.”  We wouldn’t have any popes if it were!  John XXIII used to keep a daily diary.  One day, thinking about his father, he wrote, “There are three ways to ruin your life: women, gambling and farming.  My father chose the most boring one.”  Here’s my favorite anecdote: every night after a long day as the pope, weighed down with the world’s worries, John XXIII would say as his final night prayer: “Lord, this is your Church, you take care of it.  I’m going to bed!”  Pope John XXIII found it easy to show mercy to others because he needed plenty of mercy himself, and that’s how he taught mercy.

            Pope John Paul, II, my personal papal hero – I’ve still got his rookie card – established this feast of the Divine Mercy on the Sunday after Easter.  He canonized Sr. Faustina Kowalska and her teachings in a book called The Diary of Divine Mercy.  It didn’t hurt that she was a Polish nun, either!  (You’ll remember that John Paul was Polish.)  JP II made the message of mercy an annual celebration throughout the whole Catholic world, so we wouldn’t forget about mercy.  Finally, we have Pope Francis, whose papal motto is “miserando atque eligendo.”  That’s Latin and roughly translated means: “having mercy he chose him.”  God chooses each of us because he first has mercy on us; God doesn’t wait for us to be perfect, he loves us even while we’re sinners.  Mercy is the key to unlock the papacy of Francis and explains why he reaches out to welcome everyone: hugging the man with the severely deformed face, washing the feet of prisoners on Holy Thursday, welcoming homosexuals, the divorced and remarried, and insisting we go “out to the peripheries” to welcome everyone without exception.  Each of these three popes, each in his own way, was on a mission of mercy.

            In the second reading today, we hear the very first pope proclaiming the message of mercy, too.  St. Peter writes: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who IN HIS GREAT MERCY gave us a new birth to a living hope.”  In other words, mercy is what makes God tick and why he sent his Son to save us.  God first has mercy on us, and therefore he chooses us: “miserando atque eligendo.”  St. Peter, of course, knew all about mercy from the inside out, how often he needed Jesus’ mercy.  He had denied Jesus three times, he protested when Jesus wanted to wash his feet, he walked on water but sank and was scolded for having little faith.  Pope Peter had received plenty of mercy, and so he proclaimed it.  You see, God’s mercy is not a new concept cooked up by John XXIII or John Paul II or Francis; it’s been beating in God’s heart for all eternity.

            Do you know what mercy means to me?  It simply means a second chance.  And not just a second chance, but a third and a fourth and a thousand more chances if I need it.  Believe me, I need every chance I can get!  Now, the one sacrament that is the epitome of mercy is confession, and I try to go every three months.  Some people criticize Catholic confession by saying, “You Catholics can easily go to confession, get forgiveness and run out and sin again!”  Anyone who says that has never been to confession: it is anything but easy, ask any Catholic!  I remember once, after I had made a particularly painful and embarrassing confession, the priest said to me, “That was a very good confession.”  That’s all he said, “That was a very good confession.”  I can’t tell you how healing those words were; I could feel the cool waves of mercy washing over my hot sins.

            Folks, ask yourself today: does mercy characterize your Christianity?  Do you give people a second chance, a third, and a hundred?  We easily give our children plenty of chances, don’t we; but how about with your spouse, and with your neighbor, and with your priest?  How many chances do they get?  Try to learn from the three popes grabbing headlines today.  Adopt the attitude of Pope John XXIII and be able to laugh at yourself, and readily see and acknowledge your faults and foibles, your sins and silliness.  Like Pope John Paul II, read the Diary of Divine Mercy and implement the teachings of St. Faustina.  Watch the example of Pope Francis and reach out with mercy to those at the margins of your life, break out of your inner circle to those you usually ignore, to those you shun, to those you think cramp your style.  Oh, and while you’re lavishing mercy on everyone else, don’t forget to sprinkle a little mercy on God, too.  Yeah, God.  Ironically, sometimes not only must God forgive us, but we may need to forgive God for some hurt that we think he has caused us.  I am convinced that at the root of modern atheism is some perceived hurt people believe God has dealt them, and instead of forgiving him, they choose the easier path of not believing in him.  Rather, have mercy and choose to believe in God: miserando atque eligendo.  Have mercy on others and choose to love them, give them as many chances as they need.

            By the way, our church softball team received a little taste of mercy, too, Saturday: we won our first game!  It was because the other team forfeit.  I think their name was “Christ the King.”

            Praised be Jesus Christ!