Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Second Trimester

Allowing God to knit us throughout life
 Psalm 139: 13-14
Truly you have formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb. I give you thanks that I am fearfully, wonderfully made; wonderful are your works.  

            Everyone knows how delicate and blessed are the 9 months of pregnancy for both mom and baby.  Pregnant moms take special care of themselves and their babies in the womb.  Of course, they know they shouldn’t smoke or drink and they should get extra rest.  Everyone else pampers the mother and baby, too, especially the husbands, who feel guilty they cannot do more.  Maybe that’s the real reason women used to have 8, 9 or 10 babies because that was the only way to get their husbands to do any work around the house!  Smart.  Many moms talk to their babies in the womb, and some even play classical music to them.  Everyone knows how precious those 9 months of pregnancy are.

             Someone else who’s very attentive to those first 9 months is God.  Today, Psalm 139 (a very profound psalm) says, “Truly, you have formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb.”  What a lovely image of God, like a loving mother knitting a sweater, so God knits us slowly and patiently, putting us together piece by piece, thread by thread, in the womb: first heart, then lungs, eyes, hands and fingernails.  The magic of ultrasound allows us to glimpse God’s knitting.  It’s not just the husband doing all the housework who’s busy those 9 blessed months, God is working overtime, too.  Anyone who has witnessed the birth of a baby has seen a miracle: God’s handiwork.

             I would like to invite you to see all of life as a time in the womb, where God continues to knit us together with his loving grace, until we die.  And try to see death not as the end but really as the day of your birth into heaven, when you truly begin to live.  You see, pregnancy is not just for 9 months, but really for 90 years – some husbands will be terrified to hear that!  The ancient philosopher, Plato, saw this truth and described it in his famous allegory called “The Cave.”  You should google that today and read it.  Only after we die are we truly born and begin to live.

             Let me leave you with a poem called “The Weaver” which shows how God knits us together throughout life, not just in the womb.

My life is but a weaving
Between my Lord and me;
I cannot choose the colors
He worketh steadily.

Oft times he weaveth sorrow
And I, in foolish pride,
Forget he sees the upper,
And I the under side.

Not till the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly
Shall God unroll the canvas
And explain the reason why.

The dark threads are as needful
In the weaver’s skillful hand,
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern he has planned.

He knows, he loves, he cares,
Nothing this truth can dim.
He gives his best to those
Who leave the choice to him.

 When you look at things that way, and consider that I’m 45 years old, I guess that puts me in the middle of the second trimester.

 Praised be Jesus Christ!

Not Momma's Fried Chicken

Eating the Eucharist alone brings everlasting life
  John 6:51-52
Jesus said to the Jewish crowds: I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world."

            What we eat says a lot about us, have you noticed?  Think about this for a moment.  Food is not merely a matter of taste – you like hamburgers, I like chicken curry – it reveals a lot more than that about us.  For example, what you eat says something about your priorities.  Some people spend enormous amounts of money on food and only eat fru-fru delicacies in fine restaurants.  I, on the other hand, never spend any money on food because I go to your home to eat!  That says something about us, doesn’t it?  Some people only eat healthy food – salads and fruit and nuts – and drink only bottled water – ugh, what’s wrong with those people??  My brother-in-law is a dentist and he says that if you have healthy teeth, you’ll have a healthy body because what you put into your body passes by your teeth.  Your teeth tell the tale of your body’s health or lack thereof.

             Your appetite can even reveal your ethnic background.  Did you hear about the man who walks up to the counter and orders a plate of potatoes?  The woman serving says, “Oh, you must be from Ireland.”  The man is furious and says, “What sort of stereotypical remark is that?!  If I walked in here and asked for an enchilada, would you assume I was a Mexican?”  “Well, no,” answered the lady.  “And if I walked in here and asked for chow mein, would you think I was Chinese?” asks the man.  “No, I suppose not,” replied the woman.  “So why do you automatically assume I’m Irish when all I want is a plate of potatoes?” asks the man.  The woman replies, “Because this is a hair salon.”  You know, Immaculate Conception is an Irish parish so I figured you would get that joke.  What we eat says more about us than just our diet.  What we eat also reveals our priorities, where we spend our money, who we spend time with, and so much more.  Your eyes are not the only windows into your soul, so is your mouth.
             In the gospel today Jesus talks about the most important thing we will ever put into our mouths.  He says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever.”  He goes on to clarify what he means by this “heavenly bread,” saying, “And the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”  In other words, Jesus instructs us explicitly to eat his body and drink his blood.  In John chapter 6 he says it multiple times so you don’t miss his point.

                For just a moment think of the most delicious food you’ve ever tasted.  Maybe it was a meal at a five-star restaurant in Paris, or maybe it’s your mom’s homecooking.  I personally love the gelato in Rome at “Old Bridge Gelateria,” just outside the Vatican Museum entrance.  It’s the bomb!  But do you know what’s going to happen to you after you eat all that delicious food?  Eventually, you’re going to die.  The purpose of food is to keep you alive, but no food will keep you alive forever.  Even if you ate nothing but salads and fruits and pecans and seaweed and only drank omega3 fishoil and the purest water in the world, and had an exclusively anti-inflammatory diet, what would happen?  You’d still end up dead.  On the other hand, if you eat the food that is the flesh of Jesus, that is, Holy Communion, you will be able to live forever.  You see, what we eat says a lot about us: it says whether we’re more worried about living in this world or in the next.  Sometimes, your mouth is a better window into your soul than your eyes.

             I would like to clear up a little confusion today about confession.  Some people think you don’t need to go to confession if you miss Mass on Sunday.  If you think that, please raise your hand.  I’m sorry to tell you this, folks, but those people are dead wrong.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church says in No. 2181: “The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice.  For this reason the faithful are obligated – meaning you gotta go! – to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants).”  Here comes the kicker, listen now: “Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.”  “Grave sin” is another way of saying “mortal sin,” and you must confess a mortal sin.  But why is missing Mass a mortal sin?  Is it just because, well, you know, we’re Catholic and we love to make up arbitrary rules to make everyone miserable?  (Well, we do have arbitrary rules that make you miserable, but this isn’t one of them!)  Making it to Mass on Sunday is a matter of life and death.  Jesus said, “He who eats my flesh will live forever.”  The implication is obvious for the Catholic who doesn’t eat his flesh: no life forever.  Only the Eucharist is the food of eternal life, not French crepes, not Cajun boudin, not Maine lobster, not Alaskan salmon, not your momma’s fried chicken!  Only if you eat the bread of angels will you one day be able to fly with the angels in heaven.  You see, my brother-in-law was absolutely right: your teeth tell the tale of your health.  They not only reveal if your body will live very long, but also how long your soul will live.

            Do you know what is the first stage of human development?  Beginning with Sigmund Freud and down to Erik Erikson, there’s universal agreement it is something called the “oral stage,” where the baby basically tries to shove the whole world into his or her mouth: toys, and crayons and dog food and anything else that’s within reach.  Their mouth is like a black hole that sucks in everything that comes close – be very careful!  Well, in the spiritual life, there is a corresponding “oral stage” where we learn to taste and see how good God is through our mouths.  The difference is, when we consume Holy Communion, we shove (not all this world but) all of heaven into our mouths.  What you eat says a lot about you.

         Praised be Jesus Christ!

Too Hard for God

Praying so that God cannot say “no”

2 Kings 2: 9-12
 When they had crossed over, Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask for whatever I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha answered, “May I receive a double portion of your spirit.” “You have asked something that is not easy,” Elijah replied. “Still, if you see me taken up from you, your wish will be granted; otherwise not.” As they walked on conversing, a flaming chariot and flaming horses came between them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. When Elisha saw it happen he cried out, “My father! my father! Israel’s chariots and drivers!” But when he could no longer see him, Elisha gripped his own garment and tore it in two.

             I think if you’re going to pray, pray for something big, something bold and daring, pray God will give you the moon!  Fr. Benedict Groeschel works in the Bronx and is a smash-mouth New Yorker. He often says, “I pray one day God will touch Madonna (the singer) and she will repent, change her life and become a cloistered Carmelite nun.”  Madonna has a better chance of becoming a Carmelite than I do.  Groeschel explains, “If you’re going to pray, pray big.”  The trouble with prayer is, of course, God doesn’t always give us what we ask for, does he?  Indeed, it seems he says “no” more often than he says “yes.”  So, we’re tempted to give up on prayer, and think, “Why bother? He’ll just say ‘no’ anyway.”  C. S. Lewis even wrote an essay on this dilemma titled, “Petitionary Prayer: A Problem without a Solution.”  But I think there is a solution.  A friend told me in the seminary, “When God says ‘no’ to what we ask, it’s only because he wants to give us something better.”  Just like when parents tell their child “no more cookies,” it’s because they want to give their child good health and avoid diabetes!  When God says “no” he says “yes” to something better.

             In the first reading today, we see Elisha praying very boldly.  He requests “a double portion” of the spirit of Elijah.  Talk about asking for the moon!  Elijah even cautions: “You have asked for something that is not easy.”  The crazy thing is Elisha gets what he prayed for.  Why?  Well, it’s because Elisha asked for the best thing possible, and God couldn’t say “no.”  God couldn’t think of anything better to give him.  It’s as if Elijah says, “Bingo!  You’ve asked for the best!  It won’t be easy for God to come up with anything better than that!”  When you pray, pray big.

             Folks, what are you praying for?  Do you pray to win the lottery and become rich?  Do you pray for a good job and a promotion?  Do you pray for your children to be successful and happy?  Do you pray to be able to wear skinny jeans?  I just pray for our softball team to win one more game this season.  (We’ve only won one.)  But do you know the best thing to pray for?  Pray God will give you his Holy Spirit, which is what Elisha was really requesting; that was “the double portion of the spirit of Elijah.”  I think God will grant you that prayer because there’s nothing better for him to give you.  When you have the Holy Spirit, you’ll know what else you should ask for, if anything.  You see, the problem of petitionary prayer is not that God says “no,” but that we pray for too little.  C. S. Lewis said in another essay: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us…We are far too easily pleased” (The Weight of Glory).

            Pray like Elisha for God to give you the Holy Spirit.  Make it hard for God to say “no” and find something better to give you.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

My Enemy

Seeing and embracing the enemy within
1 Kings 21: 17-21
After the death of Naboth the LORD said to Elijah the Tishbite: “Start down to meet Ahab, king of Israel, who rules in Samaria. He will be in the vineyard of Naboth, of which he has come to take possession. This is what you shall tell him, ‘The LORD says: After murdering, do you also take possession? For this, the LORD says: In the place where the dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, the dogs shall lick up your blood, too.’” Ahab said to Elijah, “Have you found me out, my enemy?” “Yes,” he answered. “Because you have given yourself up to doing evil in the LORD’s sight, I am bringing evil upon you: I will destroy you and will cut off every male in Ahab’s line, whether slave or freeman, in Israel.

             The Buddhists have some wonderful maxims that are surprisingly true. One particularly shocking saying states: “My enemy, my teacher.”  That’s surprising because we don’t normally expect our enemy to teach us anything we just want to defeat him or her.  Right?  We don’t particularly want to learn anything from the Alabama Crimson Tide, we just want to crush them into powder!  But if we’re wise, we’ll learn something when we lose to them and become a better football team.  Have the Republicans learned anything from the Democrats in the last two elections?  If the Democrats haven’t become their “teachers,” the Republicans may lose the next election as well.  This is not the same as the American proverb, “If you can’t beat them, join them.”  This is not about everyone becoming the same.  You see, my enemy doesn’t teach me how to become more like HIM, he teaches me how to become more like MYSELF.

             In the first reading today we see a showdown between two “enemies,” between King Ahab and Elijah.  When they meet King Ahab says arrogantly, “Have you found me out, my enemy?”  Now, if you’ve been following carefully the daily Mass readings you’ll be surprised to hear Ahab talk like that because Elijah was a close friend and trusted ally, but now Ahab declares him to be his enemy.  Was Elijah really his enemy?  Well, in a sense, yes he was because he stood in the way of what Ahab wanted, like the Crimson Tide stand in our way to an SEC championship.  But because Ahab hated his enemy (instead of embrace him as his teacher), he failed to see his own sins and stupidity; he learned little from Elijah.  When Ahab met Elijah, he should have greeted him by saying, “My enemy, my teacher.”

             Take a moment to think of someone you would consider your enemy.  Maybe it’s a rival company, like Coke and Pepsi.  It could be a political foe you face and the candidate of the other party is your sworn enemy.  Sadly sometimes, it’s a family member, a sibling, an ex-husband or ex-wife we see as the enemy.  It could be a co-worker or a classmate.  Sometimes we may see the influx of Hispanics into our parish as our enemies who must be stopped.  Or maybe it’s all the crazy Indian priests who have invaded our fair state!  The people who drive in Fort Smith are my greatest enemies.  Some people see God as their ultimate opponent and only want to grind him into powder, like the German philosopher Fredrick Nietzsche, who declared, “God is dead.”  If we take this tack, we will learn little about ourselves and only grow more bitter and egotistical like King Ahab.  I think all our so-called enemies will ultimately teach us only one thing: our greatest enemy is ourselves.  Like that old saying, “He is his own worst enemy.”  Maybe that’s why Jesus says in the gospel, “Love your enemy as yourself.”

             Do you know what we do at the end of our softball games?  It’s the hardest part of the whole game.  We form a line while the opposing team does the same, and then we walk by and give each other high fives, and say, “Good game.”  We try to smile and mean it, too.  I think from now on, I’ll start saying, “My enemy, my teacher.”

             Praised be Jesus Christ!

Sip from a Fire Hydrant

Appreciating the simplicity and sophistication of the Holy Trinity
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Brothers and sisters, rejoice.  Mend your ways, encourage one another, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the holy ones greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

             One of the great things about the Catholic religion is that it is at once both simple and yet sophisticated.  It’s easy to understand and yet an inexhaustible mystery.  The basic tenets of Catholicism are so simple a small child can understand them.  That’s why Pope St. Pius X lowered the minimum age to receive Holy Communion to 7 years old?  He believed that by that so-called “age of reason” (7 years old) you could grasp what Catholicism is essentially about.  Did you hear about the 3 boys tempted to steal a watermelon?  They stood at the fence and one said: “Look at those beautiful watermelons!  Too bad we’re past the age of reason.  It would be a sin to steal.”  One boy replied, “I’m only 6!  Hold my hat, I’ll go get us one!”  So, maybe the age of reason should be 6.

             And yet, the Catholic faith is so vast and so mysterious that it has baffled the world’s most brilliant scholars and saints.  St. Thomas Aquinas wrote one of the most comprehensive books on Catholicism – still studied in seminaries today – called “The Summa Theologica.”  Shortly after he finished writing it he had a glimpse of the Beatific Vision, he saw the face of God, and declared, “Everything I have written is so much straw compared to what I have seen.”  The fullness of the faith blew his brain.  Scott Hahn once said that studying the faith is like “taking a sip from a fire hydrant.”    Don’t try that at home, folks!  The Christian faith is simple enough for a small child, but always remains more than we can comprehend.

            There is no better example of this simultaneous simplicity and sophistication than today’s feast of the Most Holy Trinity.  This central mystery of our faith is so simple that St. Patrick used a three-leaf clover to explain it.  He told the 5th century Irish people who hadn’t even heard of Jesus, and said: “Just as a cloverleaf has 3 leaves, so there are 3 persons of the Blessed Trinity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”  He continued, “At the same time the clover is one, single leaf, just like God is ultimately one God, not three Gods.”  St. Patrick was so successful in simplifying the faith, he converted all of Ireland.  Nevertheless, we cannot fully fathom how God can be 3 Persons while also remaining one God.  There comes a point in our journey of faith in which we must surrender trying to understand it all, and simply believe.  In other words, we believe in the Holy Trinity NOT because it makes perfect sense to us, but because God told us that deep secret of his identity.  It’s like when you really and deeply love someone and share with them some secret about you that no one else knows.  In the end, we don’t really “get it” about the Holy Trinity, and what we thought we got will turn out, I believe, just to be so much straw.

            Today’s feast of the Holy Trinity is not just “pie in the sky theology.”  It offers us some very practical lessons.  First, the Trinity reminds us we don’t have to kill ourselves trying to understand the faith completely, and unlock every mystery; you don’t have to run to every Marian apparition or attend every Bible study (but do attend some).  In other words, we can relax in our religion, slowly grasping spiritual truths one after another.  Have you heard what they say in India?  They ask: “How do you eat an elephant?”  The answer: “One bite at a time.”  (They don’t really say that in India, I just made that up).  But you see, our faith is digested one bite at a time, not all in one gulp. The Trinity teaches us we'll never gulp it all.

Second, the Trinity teaches us not to be too smart for own good, and think we can out-smart God.  But some people do think they're smarter than God.  St. Augustine, when he first read the Bible, scoffed at it and turned up his nose because it seemed beneath his intelligence.  Scripture lacked the rhetoric and erudition he expected from fine literature.  Do you know anyone who believes religion is for backward and unthinking people?  Know any 18 year olds who think that?  For all those who hold that science and psychology and sociology have replaced religion, I invite them to take a crack at explaining the Holy Trinity.  Good luck!  The mystery of the Trinity will always baffle the best brains.

               Thirdly, the Trinity is an eternal mystery, which means, God isn’t going anywhere – he’s eternal – and will wait for us to come to him.  The most famous resident of Fort Smith was Judge Isaac Parker, and he certainly took his time in coming to the Trinity.  Did you know that on his deathbed he converted to Catholicism and died in the good graces of the Church?  It didn’t hurt he had a very devout Irish Catholic wife, who probably used a clover to teach him about the Trinity!  My friends, sooner or later, we will all come face to face with the Holy Trinity; we will all have to take a sip from that fire hydrant.

             I’m reading the book called “The Cloud of Unknowing” these days.  A friend let me borrow it and said, "I didn’t really understand anything I read.”  I replied, “Isn’t that the point of the book, ‘not knowing’?”  The thesis of the book is that as we draw closer to God, the more we are engulfed in a cloud of complete unknowing.  We leave behind all knowledge and feelings and memories.  As we draw near the Most Holy Trinity, and look back at all we thought we knew, all the things that made us look so smart, I have a suspicion that may look a lot like straw.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Left Behind

Mentoring the next generation as our legacy

1 Kings 19:19-21
 Elijah set out, and came upon Elisha, son of Shaphat, as he was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen; he was following the twelfth. Elijah went over to him and threw his cloak over him. Elisha left the oxen, ran after Elijah, and said, “Please, let me kiss my father and mother goodbye, and I will follow you.” Elijah answered, “Go back!  Have I done anything to you?” Elisha left him and, taking the yoke of oxen, slaughtered them; he used the plowing equipment for fuel to boil their flesh, and gave it to his people to eat. Then he left and followed Elijah as his attendant.

             How can you tell a really good teacher from a mediocre one?  It’s not by the degrees hanging on their walls, or by the variety of colors they use on their dry-erase board, or even by the number of years they have taught.  You judge a teacher by their students.  When we have school Masses, I love to ask the kids questions.  Do you know who really gets nervous when a student raises their hand?  It’s the teachers and parents!  I’ve seen a few parents quickly pull down their child’s hand to stop them from answering.  They know the answer will say more about the parent or teacher than the child.  Those are the kids I always call on.  Vernell Bowen, the Superintendent of Catholic Schools, told me that from a principal’s first day on the job he or she must start looking for their replacement.  Principals, too, must teach and mentor future principals.  In the seminary they told us it’s not good enough to be a humble and holy priest.  You must also inspire another young man to be a priest to replace you someday.  You see, your real legacy is not you, but what you have taught someone else, your legacy is who you leave behind.

             Today’s first reading is about the call of Elisha the prophet.  But did you notice how God’s call comes through Elijah, who throws the prophetic mantle over Elisha’s shoulders?  Elijah knew well that a teacher is best judged by the caliber of his students, so he began to mentor, tutor and teach Elisha to be even greater than Elijah.  Elijah’s greatest achievement would not be defeating the prophets of Baal, or making it rain, or miraculously giving food to the widow of Zarepath, but by the one who would replace him as prophet.  We will all be judged by our legacy: not WHAT we left behind, but WHO we left behind.

             This standard of evaluation is something we should try to apply to ourselves.  Each of us has a sacred responsibility to mentor the next generation; to raise up the world’s future prophets and principals and pastors.  No one gets an exemption.  I believe this is one reason grandparents dote on their grandkids.  Grandparents realize they were more or less successful raising their own kids, so grandkids are a chance for a “do-over” in parenting, in mentoring the next generation.  Let me leave you with this little poem that drives home the same point called, “The Little Chap Who Follows Me.”  It goes:

 A careful man I want to be;
A little fellow follows me.
I do not dare to go astray
For fear he’ll go the self-same way.

I cannot once escape his eyes.
Whate’er he sees me do, he tries.
Like me he says he’s going to be;
The little chap who follows me.

He thinks that I’m so very fine,
Believes in every word of mine.
The base in me he must not see;
The little chap who follows me.

I must remember as I go
Through summer’s sun and winter’s snow,
I’m building for the years to be;
The little chap who follows me.

In the final analysis, we will all be judged not by what we left behind, but by who we left behind.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Your Best Friends

Praying obtains God’s blessings
1 Kings 18:41-46
Elijah said to Ahab, “Go up, eat and drink, for there is the sound of a heavy rain.” So Ahab went up to eat and drink, while Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel, crouched down to the earth, and put his head between his knees. “Climb up and look out to sea,” he directed his servant, who went up and looked, but reported, “There is nothing.” Seven times he said, “Go, look again!” And the seventh time the youth reported, “There is a cloud as small as a man’s hand rising from the sea.” Elijah said, “Go and say to Ahab, ‘Harness up and leave the mountain before the rain stops you.’” In a trice the sky grew dark with clouds and wind, and a heavy rain fell. Ahab mounted his chariot and made for Jezreel. But the hand of the LORD was on Elijah, who girded up his clothing and ran before Ahab as far as the approaches to Jezreel.

             Today I want to tell you about the best friends you’ve never had.  These are people you’ve never met and will never meet on this earth.  They are not among your so-called thousands of friends on Facebook or your faithful followers on Twitter and Instagram.  These are not the people whose profile perfectly matches yours on eHarmony or waiting to go on a date with you.  They are not the anonymous masses who read your blogspot with bated breath.  They are definitely not the people who send you emails saying you’ve inherited $10,000,000 from a long-lost relative in Congo and please just send them your bank account number so they can transfer the funds.  Please.  Our best friends, I believe, are those anonymous, obscure monks and cloistered nuns who pray for us without ceasing.   Closed up in convents and in monasteries on mountaintops are Carmelites and Carthusians, Trappists and Benedictines and Cistercians.  Night and day they pray and do penance so God will bless us.   Archbishop Fulton Sheen said that God’s blessings hang down from heaven on silken cords, and prayer is the only sword that can cut those cords.  These monks and nuns are the best friends you’ve never had.

             Do you know who is the hero of the Carmelites?  It’s the prophet, Elijah.  In the first reading today he tells King Ahaz to go and eat while Elijah goes atop Mt. Carmel to pray.  How does Elijah pray?  It says, “So Ahab went up to eat and drink, while Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel, crouched down to the earth, and put his head between his knees.”  That was the ancient posture of prayer – like how we kneel at the consecration or while praying the rosary.  He prayed 7 times, just like religious nuns and monks have 7 set times to pray.  And while Ahaz ate and drank, Elijah withdrew that mighty sword of prayer and obtained rain for the land, just like we eat and drink while our cloistered friends cut down untold blessings for us each day.  These are the best friends you’ve never had.

            Do you ever wonder why the world hasn’t ended yet?  I do.  We’re in pretty bad shape.  The last century was the bloodiest in history.  We kill over 1.2 million babies by abortion each year.  Dictators ruthlessly dominate their people, ethnic cleansing is rampant (remember Rwanda?), women and children are being exploited and sold into slavery.  Why are we still here?  Because our best friends are asking God to give us more time to repent and return to him.  Msgr. Rudolph Maus in Fayetteville used to say that all those nuns with their rosaries and those monks in quiet contemplation are holding back the hand of God ready to give us our just desserts.  You see, prayer brings us blessings but it also holds back the hand of God.

            Now, are you still happy I didn’t become a Carmelite monk?

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Let Elijah Eat Cake

Giving God the faith and trust He desires
1 KingS 17:7-16
The brook near where Elijah was hiding ran dry, because no rain had fallen in the land. So the LORD said to Elijah:  “Move on to Zarephath of Sidon and stay there. I have designated a widow there to provide for you.” He left and went to Zarephath. As he arrived at the entrance of the city, a widow was gathering sticks there; he called out to her, “Please bring me a small cupful of water to drink.” She left to get it, and he called out after her, “Please bring along a bit of bread.” She answered, “As the LORD, your God, lives, I have nothing baked; there is only a handful of flour in my jar and a little oil in my jug. Just now I was collecting a couple of sticks, to go in and prepare something for myself and my son; when we have eaten it, we shall die.” Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid.  Go and do as you propose. But first make me a little cake and bring it to me. Then you can prepare something for yourself and your son. For the LORD, the God of Israel, says, ‘The jar of flour shall not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry, until the day when the LORD sends rain upon the earth.’” She left and did as Elijah had said. She was able to eat for a year, and Elijah and her son as well; the jar of flour did not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry, as the LORD had foretold through Elijah.

             I have a curious little habit when it comes to eating dessert: I never clean my plate.  I always leave a small portion of cheesecake, or apple pie, or tiramisu.  Now I LOVE dessert, so this is no small sacrifice.  If anyone asks, I explain, “That portion is for Elijah.”  You see, when the Jewish people sit down to eat their Seder Meal, they always prepare an extra place-setting for Elijah.  Why?  They believe he will return before the coming of the Messiah to announce that coming.  Just in case he arrives during that Seder Meal, they can confidently claim: “See, we were expecting you!”  I don’t know how impressed Elijah will be with a mouthful of baklava, but at least I can also say, “See, I was expecting you!”

             In the first reading today, Elijah arrives unexpectedly and surprises a widow and her son.  And what does Elijah want?  He wants to eat!  Apparently, being a prophet really works up your appetite.  The widow of Zarephath doesn’t give Elijah a little of her dessert, however.  She gives him her last meal, even the last meal she had prepared for her son.  Elijah, in turn, promises her: “Do not be afraid…The jar of flour will not go empty nor the jug of oil run dry, until the day the Lord sends rain upon the earth.”  In other words, God will never be out-done in generosity!  If you give his prophet just one meal, you’ll be able to eat for a year!  Even if all you give him is a little chocolate cake, he will bless you abundantly.

             Of course, when Elijah returns he won’t really be looking for a free meal; he’ll be hungry for faith, to see if we believe and trust in God.  I gotta tell you, this parish is packed with little “widows of Zarephath” ready to give their last meal to a man of God.  Yesterday, I gave David McMahon and Tom Caldarera a tour of the youth building.  They both said, “We need to leave behind something beautiful for the next generation.”  That’s what Elijah wants.  Betty Etzkorn will be taking Communion to the sick till her dying breath (no matter how much we tell her to slow down)!).  That’s what Elijah wants.  John Brandebura will spend hours talking with just one patient in the hospital so they feel loved.  That’s what Elijah wants.  Pam Raible will welcome perfect strangers into her home.  That’s what Elijah wants.  Suzanne McGraw has organized a list of people to bring meals to the priests every Saturday.  Now, that’s just what I want, Elijah doesn’t really care.  Everywhere I turn in this church, I see widows of Zarephath ready to give their last meal out of faith and love.  And that’s what Elijah wants.  The prophet says to us in turn: “Do not be afraid.  God will never be out-done in generosity.”

             Praised be Jesus Christ!

Kiss This

Receiving the kiss of Jesus
John 20:19-23
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

             I want to talk to you today about something that will make some of you a little queasy.  I’m going to talk about kissing.  Eew!!  For the record, I have only read about this in books or seen it in movies, so my knowledge is a little sketchy.  I’m making most of this up.  Now, I’m not talking about a little peck on the cheek or kissing a lady’s hand, but rather a bona fide, pucker up and plant one right on the lips kind of kiss that may last several minutes.  When a kiss is that prolonged and passionate, you leave more than lipstick on the other person; you breathe your own breath into the other person, and the other person breathes their breath into you.  At the depths of every kiss, you exchange your spirit with the spirit of the other person.

             Did you know that all human history began with such a kiss?  It says in Genesis 2:7, “Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.”  God did more than cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on Adam.  What God gave Adam was the “ruach,” literally translated from Hebrew meaning, “the breath” of God, so Adam had God’s Spirit and God’s own life in him; without it he was just a pile of dirt.  Do you remember the story of the valley of the dry bones in Ezekiel 37?  One of the most riveting stories of the Old Testament!   Ezekiel surveys a valley filled with dry, dead bones and writes, “So I prophesied as God commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they came to life and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.”  That ancient army had more than “esprit de corps,” they had “Esprit de Dieu,” the Spirit of God in them, and they could not be defeated.  In today’s gospel, Jesus not only breathes on the apostles, he makes it possible for them to pass on that breath, that "divine ruach," on to others.  John the apostle remembers that day well, when he writes, “Jesus breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.  Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.’”  You see, when a priest raises his hand over you in absolution of your sins in confession, it’s not a human breath that forgives you, but that divine breath from Jesus, the “divine ruach.”  When our Protestant brothers and sisters complain, therefore, about Catholics and say, “Only God can forgive sins!” they are absolutely right.  It’s not my breath that forgives you; it’s God’s breath.

            Now, even though Catholic priests don’t get married, we nevertheless do our fair share of kissing.  Have you noticed how much kissing we do at the Mass??  It’s positively scandalous!  Maybe the pope feels sorry for us not having a wife to kiss so he lets us kiss all these things at Mass.  He basically says, “Here, you can kiss this.”  See if you can catch all these priestly kisses.  Before you even see the priest, as he’s vesting in the sacristy, he kisses a part of his vestment called “the stole” which hangs around his neck.  When he enters the sanctuary, both he and the deacon kiss the altar.  After the priest or deacon read the Book of the Gospels, they plant a kiss on that sacred page.  At the end of Mass, we kiss the altar again.  But do you know what my favorite part of the Mass is?  It’s the words of consecration, which I always say slowly and solemnly.  The priest is instructed at that moment to “bow slightly” as he says those words.  In the Old Mass – which some of you look like you’d remember – he actually had to bow down so far that his breath would caress the bread and wine.  Why?  At that moment the priest breathes the “divine ruach” that touches and transforms that bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus, just like that same divine breath opened Adam’s eyes for the first time, and made Ezekiel’s army “exceedingly great.”  That’s why at that moment in the Mass, the priest genuflects, the people kneel and the bells ring.

             On this Pentecost Sunday could you use a really good kiss?  Sorry, I can’t help you there.  But I can share with you the “divine ruach,” which is what we all need most.  When you feel like Adam, and every one treats you like dirt; when you fell like a pile of dry bones and your joy has evaporated; when you are paralyzed by fear like the apostles in the Upper Room, seek the breath of God, the divine kiss.  Jesus left the Spirit for us first and foremost in the sacraments, and especially in Holy Communion and in humble confession.  Those sacraments were specifically designed so that God could breathe his Spirit back into you when you feel dead.  That’s why we sang in Psalm 104, “Lord, send out your Spirit and renew the face of the earth.”  When God breathes upon the earth, everything comes to life.
             Do you remember how the movie “The Princess Bride” ends?  It ends with a kiss. The narrator says, “Since the invention of the kiss, there have been five kisses that have been rated the most passionate, the most pure.  This one left them all behind.”  A kiss from Jesus Christ is far better than the kiss between Wesley and Princess Buttercup.  Why?  Because you see, only after Jesus kisses you will you be able to breathe forever.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Everybody Wants a Pope

Appreciating the blessings of being Catholic
John 21:15-19
After Jesus had revealed himself to his disciples and eaten breakfast with them,  he said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He then said to Simon Peter a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”  He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted;  but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.”

            Don’t you think it’s really cool to be Catholic?  I do!  Just think about all the neat stuff we have that most other Christians don’t get.  We pray the rosary and statues line our churches.  We have celibate priests and flying nuns, like Sr. Mary Sarto.  We’re so cool Hollywood makes even movies about us like “The Bells of St. Mary’s” with Ingrid Bergman and Bing Crosby and “Mass Appeal” with Jack Lemmon.  But do you know what’s the coolest thing of all?  We got the pope, baby!  And Pope Francis is the most popular person on the planet today.  Now, everybody wants a pope!

             Of course, being pope is not a popularity contest.  It’s about loving and serving, just like Jesus reminded the first pope, Peter, in the gospel today.  Jesus asks Peter three times do you love me, and three times Jesus commands Peter to feed his sheep.  The pope’s love for Jesus is not so that he can become Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year,” but so the pope can better care for the flock with Christ’s own love.
             Let me tell you another cool thing about being Catholic.  Every Catholic can directly appeal their case to the pope.  Now get this.  If you have some problem you’re dealing with in the Church, and feel your pastor or bishop will not give you a fair shake, you can ask the pope to hear your case.  Really.  Canon 1417 of the Church’s Code of Canon Law gives every Catholic the right to appeal their case straight to the pope.  The Scriptural sanction for this extraordinary appeal process comes from the first reading from Acts 25, where St. Paul appeals directly to Caesar to hear his case.  This principle of Roman law – a right of every Roman citizen – found its way into canon law as an appeal to the pope.  This is just another example of how the pope obeys Jesus command to “feed my sheep.”

             I wonder how many people who leave the Catholic Church realize how much cool stuff they lose.  They walk away from Holy Communion and humble Confession, from the Knights Templars and the Knights of Columbus, from baptizing babies and Monday night Bingo!  But most of all, they walk away from the one person Jesus specifically commanded three times to feed his sheep: the pope  That love of Christ to feed his sheep is codified in canon law and beams in the smile of Pope Francis’ face.

             Let us pray and work tirelessly to invite all lapsed Catholics back to the Church.  After all, we got all the cool stuff.

             Praised be Jesus Christ!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Boniface's Boldness

Fighting neo-paganism with the Gospel

St. Boniface was born circa 675 in Wessex, England. He studied in English monasteries before traveling to Europe, where he converted pagan peoples in present-day Germany and the Netherlands. In his role as a bishop and archbishop, he also worked on church reforms. After returning to missionary work, Boniface was killed by pagan tribespeople in Frisia on June 5, 754, at the approximate age of 80. In the first half of the 8th century, St. Boniface served as a missionary in Europe and helped reorganize the church in Germany and the Frankish kingdom.

            I’ve always been partial to German people, even long before I learned the Aryans – the so-called “Super Race” – had arrived in India as far back at 1,500 BC.  There’s likely Aryan blood running through my veins believe it or not.  I graduated from St. Theresa’s elementary school with classmates named Beck and Gangluff, Kordsmeier and Uekmann.  My best friend since fifth grade was a little kid with German ancestry, named David Beck.  For five years I was pastor of St. Edward’s, formerly called “St. Edward’s German Catholic Church,” when people were still proud of their pedigree.  It’s true that Germans keep wanting to take over the world – remember that diminutive dictator named Adolph? – and we have to remind them not to get too big for their britches, but there’s something ultimately appealing about the German spirit.

            Today is the feast of St. Boniface, a Benedictine monk who was sent to tame that bold German spirit.  Let me share just one story about St. Boniface, a story depicted outside St. Boniface Church a few blocks from here.  Boniface met the German boldness with the even greater boldness of the Gospel.  On a pre-announced day, in the presence of a tense crowd – no doubt with Becks, Gangluffs, and Kordsmeiers, as well as Reiths, Wewers and Borengassers present – Boniface wielded a huge ax and chopped down a sacred pagan oak tree dedicated to the god, Donar, on Mt. Gudenberg.  The people waited for the gods to strike Boniface dead, but nothing happened.  Boniface then took the planks from the tree to build a Christian chapel.  That’s why the local church of St. Boniface, and so many German styled churches in the world, use wood in their construction and architecture.  It’s a reminder that the spirit of the Gospel always trumps the spirit of the world, even the bold German spirit.

             I think the modern world needs Boniface’s boldness desperately, as we face a pervasive paganism in our culture.  Pope Benedict, with that same Aryan blood coursing through his veins, boldly reminded the Church and the world not to give in to this new paganism.  His first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, is worth re-reading, where, like Boniface, he lays an ax to the tree of modern paganism.  I also believe that’s why Benedict resigned as pope.  He wasn’t running away from the fight, rather he was going to where the fighting is the fiercest, in prayer.

            On this feast of St. Boniface, patron saint of Germany, let’s pray for all Germans, especially all my friends from school and here at I.C.  May Boniface teach us again how the spirit of Gospel always trumps the spirit of this world.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Back In the Day

Accepting the graces of our past
John 17:11B-13,17-19
Lifting up his eyes to heaven, Jesus prayed, saying: “Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are one… Consecrate them in the truth.  Your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world. And I consecrate myself for them, so that they also may be consecrated in truth.”

             Do you ever look back at your youth and shake your head in disbelief at some of the things you did?  Heck, sometimes, I shake my head at some of the things I did yesterday!  I often think of that classic scene from the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed are walking home from a dance and it’s very romantic.  The moon is hanging low, love is in the air, and the young couple is lost in conversation.  Suddenly, an older man watching them from his front porch shouts, “Ah, why don’t you go on and kiss her?!”  Jimmy Stewart yells back, “I’ll show you some kissing that’ll put some hair on your head!”  Then the old guy says, “Ah, youth is wasted on the young.”  What a great line, “Youth is wasted on the young.”  As we reminisce over our life, we may feel some of our youth was wasted when we were young.  As he neared the end of his life, St. Thomas Aquinas received a glimpse of the Beatific Vision; he saw God.  That experience prompted him to say, “Everything I have written is like so much straw compared to what I have seen.”  Maybe Aquinas looked back at his life an shook his head at what he had written.

             Whenever I hear today’s gospel passage, I smile.  When I was ordained I had a small card made to remember the occasion.  On the back of the card I had quoted this gospel from John 17: “Consecrate them in the truth.  Your word is truth.  As you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world.  And I consecrate myself for them, so that they also may be consecrated in truth.”  Now I think: Seriously?  That’s the best Scripture verse I could come up with for my ordination??  Of course, there are no “bad Bible verses,” but couldn’t I have picked a more catchy quote?

             I think we have to be very careful not to be too hard on our youth, not to be too critical of our past.  We can be guilty of “chronological snobbery,” where we judge the past too harshly because of all the mistakes we made and how much more we know today.  Maybe back in the day we did the best we could with the graces God had given us, and that’s okay.  Be careful not to fall into the temptation to wish you could go back and change your past.  Indeed, isn’t it precisely all your choices – both the good and the bad – that have made you the person you are today?

             Maybe it was everything Aquinas had written – all that straw – that prepared him to glimpse the Face of God.  Maybe it was all the mistakes the old bald guy had made as a kid that helped him see that youth is wasted on the young.  Maybe John 17 is the best Scripture quote for an ordination card, at least it is for my ordination card, “Consecrate them in the truth.”

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Jane Austen at Mass

Taking part in the dialogue between the Father and Son
 John 17:1-6
                Jesus raised his eyes to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come. Give glory to your son, so that your son may glorify you, just as you gave him authority over all people, so that your son may give eternal life to all you gave him. Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ. I glorified you on earth by accomplishing the work that you gave me to do. Now glorify me, Father, with you, with the glory that I had with you before the world began. I revealed your name to those whom you gave me out of the world. They belonged to you, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word."

One of the great novelists of all time is Jane Austen, who wrote such classics as Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma.  Now, there’s one thing glaringly absent from all her novels: she never wrote a dialogue between two men without a woman present.  Why?  Well, she confessed that she couldn’t imagine what men would talk about when they are by themselves without a woman present.  How could she?  Since she never witnessed two men talking alone, she never recorded it.  Frankly, I don’t see what the great mystery is: guys only talk about sports, the weather and good beer.  Don’t worry, Jane, you didn’t miss anything!  Jane Austen was a literary genius at capturing the sophistication and subtlety of conversations, but there was one dialogue that not even she dared to depict.

            In the gospel today, we witness a rare and intimate conversation between Jesus and his Father, a conversation no one had heard before.  Jesus pours out his heart to his Dad: his hopes, his fears, his joys and his struggles.  Like Jane Austen, we could never have imagined what the Father and the Son would talk about when alone, but now we can.  These two guys at least did not discuss sports or the weather.  And what is the topic of their conversation?  Believe it or not, they actually talk about us, you and me.  Pope Benedict said the Mass is where we get to witness, like a fly on the wall, the great dialogue between the Father and the Son.  But more than being just passive witnesses, we get to share in that intimate convo, adding a few lines here and there, like Jane Austen wished she could have witnessed the conversation of two men alone.  You see, the Mass is the eternal dialogue between the Father and the Son, and we get to contribute to that conversation.  Don’t mess up your lines!

             May I suggest that this is one way we can plunge more profoundly into the mystery of the Mass?  For those of you who go regularly to Mass, we can feel that it becomes rather routine and automatic, like driving through a car wash.  Instead, pay attention to the prayers like Jane Austen would have listened eagerly to two men talking, asking, “What could two men possibly be talking about??”  Much of the Mass is that secret conversation between the Father and the Son.  That’s also why, in the old Mass, the priest had his back to the people.  It wasn’t really that he had his back to the people; rather, it was that he turned his face to the Father, and he spoke on behalf of Jesus to his Dad.  In the old Mass, that divine dialogue became explicitly clear.  If you pay close attention, you’ll hear what the Father and the Son’s favorite topic of conversation is: it’s actually you and me, even while we’re still talking about the sports and weather.

             Praised be Jesus Christ!

Not For Sissies

Embracing the tensions of discipleship
John 16:29-33
The disciples said to Jesus, “Now you are talking plainly, and not in any figure of speech. Now we realize that you know everything and that you do not need to have anyone question you. Because of this we believe that you came from God.” Jesus answered them, “Do you believe now? Behold, the hour is coming and has arrived when each of you will be scattered to his own home and you will leave me alone. But I am not alone, because the Father is with me. I have told you this so that you might have peace in me. In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world.”

             I’m reading lately the writings of the famous psychologist Erik Erikson.  Have you heard of him?  He taught that people progress through eight developmental stages through life, starting at birth and ending at death.  The final stage is old age, where people learn wisdom.  An example of such wisdom, I suppose, is what an elderly friend of mine likes to say, “Getting old ain’t for sissies!”  There’s wisdom for you!  Now, the interesting thing about Erikson’s theory is that each stage requires embracing a certain tension between two polar opposites.  Only when you appreciate both poles of this tension, and can hold them both simultaneously, have you mastered that stage.  A child, for example, struggles between trust and mis-trust, and only when he or she sees the value of both – even seeing the purpose of mis-trust – does he or she integrate both into something called “hope.”  You see, the trick is in the tension.

             In the gospel today, Jesus suggests there is a similar tension in the Christian life, a struggle between belief and disbelief, and we must embrace both throughout our lives.  The disciples boldly say, “Now we believe!  We have no more questions!  We’ve arrived at the final stage of Christian perfection!”  But Jesus replies, “Not so fast.  Do you believe now?  Behold, the hour is coming and has arrived when each of you will be scattered to his own home and will leave me alone.”  In other words, you’ve forgotten the value of the tension between belief and disbelief.  Only when you see that questions and even disbelief can be valuable (because they will deepen your faith), and hold both together in creative tension, will you master this stage of growth.  The apostles would always feel that push and pull between belief and disbelief, and they would be able to integrate both only when they rested in Jesus, who has conquered the world with all its troublesome tensions.  You see, the trick is the in the tension.

             One of the great challenges we face today is how many Catholics have left the Church.  Do you know any?  Usually those Catholics have faced some crisis in their faith: a divorce, disbelief in some teaching, disobedience to pastor or bishop, scandals, same sex attractions, etc, and they felt they had to leave the Church.  They faced a kind of “spiritual ultimatum,” an either-or, take-it-or-leave-it choice, and they left.  We who stay in the Church may believe that’s the case, too, you can’t keep both the baby and the bathwater.  But the Church, like Erikson and Jesus, has always rejected the “either-or” mentality, and said the best way forward is “both-and.”  Somehow, in mysterious but creative tension, no one has to leave the Church: we can all go forward together.  That’s the hope that Pope Francis holds out to the world.  That’s the wisdom of the cross, which is both horizontal and vertical, in perfect tension and perfect balance.  In other words, the trick is the tension, to embrace both, and rest in Christ who has conquered the world.
            Maybe my old friend was wiser than he knew: “Getting old ain’t for sissies.”  Being Catholic ain’t for sissies either, as we embrace the tension of the Cross, and embrace its wisdom.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

So long, Jesus!

Staying close to Christ over the summer
 John 16:16-20
Jesus said to his disciples:  “A little while and you will no longer see me, and again a little while later and you will see me.” So some of his disciples said to one another, “What does this mean that he is saying to us, ‘A little while and you will not see me, and again a little while and you will see me,’ and ‘Because I am going to the Father’?” So they said, “What is this ‘little while’ of which he speaks? We do not know what he means.”  Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, “Are you discussing with one another what I said, ‘A little while and you will not see me, and again a little while and you will see me’? Amen, amen, I say to you, you will weep and mourn, while the world rejoices; you will grieve, but your grief will become joy.”

            Jesus says something very strange in the gospel today.  He says, “In a little while you will no longer see me, and in a little while you will see me again.”  What did he mean?  Did he mean he was going on summer vacation to Hawaii and in August he will be back for the start of school?  No, that’s not what he meant, but sometimes, we say that to Jesus at the end of school each year, don’t we?  We think summer vacation means not only no more school, but also not more church!  We say not only “So long!” to Mrs. B and Mrs. Hill and Mrs. Smith, but we also say “So long!” to Jesus.  We say, “In a little while you will no longer see me, but in a little while you will see me again.”  See you all at the end of summer!  So long, Jesus!  I’m outta here!

             Is that the right thing to do over the summer – stop going to Mass?  Of course not.  A few weeks ago we had the funeral of Mr. Joseph Kaelin.  How many of you know who that is?  His children and now grandchildren attend Immaculate Conception School.  Do you know how he planned his summer vacations?  The first thing he looked for was not a sunny beach, it was not a scenic, high mountain, it was not a river teeming with fish.  He first looked for a Catholic church.  And if there wasn’t a church close by to that sunny beach or towering mountain or fishy river, he didn’t vacation there.  He always made it to Mass, even during the summer.  Joseph Kaelin never said to Jesus, “In a little while you will no longer see me, but in a little while you will see me again.  So long, Jesus!”  Joseph Kaelin saw Jesus every Sunday.

            Boys and girls, what are your summer plans?  Maybe you’ll go to Disney World, or the Grand Canyon.  Maybe you’ll stay home and read a book and enjoy a trip much farther away than any plane or train can take you!  Wherever you go, no matter how far, stay close to Jesus: get to Mass every Sunday this summer.  There is no vacation from your vocation to be a Christian, not even during the summer.  Never utter the words, “So long, Jesus!”

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Stick To Your Knitting

Embracing the cross as the core of Christianity
 Acts of the apostles 17:15, 22-18:1
 After Paul’s escorts had taken him to Athens, they came away with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible. Then Paul stood up at the Areopagus and said: “You Athenians, I see that in every respect you are very religious. For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, ‘To an Unknown God.’ What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all that is in it, the Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands because he needs anything. Rather it is he who gives to everyone life and breath and everything. He made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth, and he fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions, so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, though indeed he is not far from any one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being,’ as even some of your poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ Since therefore we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the divinity is like an image fashioned from gold, silver, or stone by human art and imagination. God has overlooked the times of ignorance, but now he demands that all people everywhere repent because he has established a day on which he will ‘judge the world with justice’ through a man he has appointed, and he has provided confirmation for all by raising him from the dead.” When they heard about resurrection of the dead, some began to scoff, but others said, “We should like to hear you on this some other time.” And so Paul left them. But some did join him, and became believers. Among them were Dionysius, a member of the Court of the Areopagus, a woman named Damaris, and others with them. After this he left Athens and went to Corinth.

             Have you ever heard the old expressing, “stick to your knitting”?  It means stick with what you’re good at instead of branching into areas where you have no expertise.  The most obvious example of this is when Wal-mart tried to be more like Target – you know, Tar-Jay – and sell high end merchandise.  They failed miserably and decided to “stick to their knitting” and be the best bargain store.  As a personal example, I tried this as a Carmelite and the Carmelite monks told me, “Stick to your knitting and go back to the Diocese!”  Actually, they were happy for me to stay; it was Jesus who told me in prayer, “Stick to your knitting.  I made you to be a diocesan priest.  Do that well.”  Did you ever see the movie “Chariots of Fire”?  Eric Liddell, the Scottish runner says, “God made me for a purpose.  But he also made me fast.  And when I run, I can feel his pleasure.”  When we “stick to our knitting,” when we do what God created us for, we, too, can feel God’s pleasure.
             We see St. Paul learning this lesson throughout the Acts of the Apostles.  In Acts 17 he tries to branch out into a new way of presenting the gospel message: he tries philosophical argument.  He’s in Athens, the intellectual center of the Ancient world, and he tries a new approach to speaking about Jesus, he refers to him as “the Unknown God.”  How did that work out for him?  It was an abysmal failure.  Paul realizes he must “stick to his knitting,” so he later writes to the Corinthians, “I decided to forget everything else and preach only Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”  When Paul stuck to his knitting, he converted the masses, and he could feel God’s pleasure.

            Yesterday, I attended a meeting with Bishop Taylor in Little Rock to discuss how the Diocese should handle ministry to homosexual persons and same-sex marriage.  I want  you to know Bishop Taylor takes this issue very seriously and wants to show great care and compassion.  We wanted to avoid two pitfalls: alienating gays by insisting marriage is only between one man and one woman, but also offending traditional Catholics by welcoming gays and seeming to compromise Church teaching.  We felt the predicament of Paul: how do you preach the Gospel in this brave new world?  In the end, I believe we must “stick to our knitting.”  That is, like Paul we, too, must resolve to preach Jesus Christ and him crucified.  In other words, instead of trying to discuss this issue in terms of how to define marriage, instead of considering it a matter of freedom and rights, instead of looking at it in terms of equality and tolerance, we should invite everyone – which means everyone – to know Jesus Christ and him crucified.  We must all embrace the Cross, which has always been the only way forward for any Christian in any period of history.  That’s how a Christian “sticks to his knitting.”

            In the seminary, I was having a hard time and I talked with Msgr. Hebert.  He looked at me kindly – he always looks at you kindly – and said, “John, this is your cross.  Pick it up and carry it.”  Such simple advice.  And when I did, I could feel God’s pleasure.

Praised be Jesus Christ!