Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Walking Tall

Healing our inner illnesses
Luke 19: 5-10

          When he reached the place, Jesus looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” And he came down quickly and received him with joy. When they saw this, they began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.” But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”

            My first pastor, Msgr. Gaston Hebert, taught me about the phenomenon called “psychosomatic illnesses.”  You see, our bodies and spirits are wired together so closely that what affects one is often manifest in the other.  Classical literature is replete with examples.  In Shakespeare’s play, “King Lear,” Gloucester loses his physical sight as a sign of his inner blindness and his inability to discern which of his sons is good (Edgar) and which one is corrupt (Edmund).  In Dostoyevsky’s novel, “Crime and Punishment,” Raskolnikov falls physically ill because he refuses to confess to the murder of his landlady.  Our principal, Sharon Blentlinger, explained that the first week of school many children mysteriously suffer from headaches and stomach aches not because of any physical malady but because they are “sick” of being in school.  A little psychosomatic illness can come in very handy!  You see, the spiritual world manifests itself in the physical world because they are so closely connected.

            In the gospel today, St. Luke describes a man suffering from a psychosomatic disorder.  Zacchaeus is short in stature but I believe that physical limitation is a manifestation of a spiritual limitation, namely, cheating people as a tax-collector.  However, when Jesus arrives in Zacchaeus’ home, he heals his inner, moral malady.  As a result, Zacchaeus says, “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone, I shall repay it four times over.”  Jesus replies, “Today, salvation has come to this house.”  In other words, Jesus healed Zacchaeus’ spiritual limitation, and I bet Zacchaeus was "walking tall" afterwards.  Now, of course, this does not mean all short people are corrupt tax-collectors!  But psychosomatic illnesses require more than Tylenol and Aspirin; they also need a good dose of spiritual medicine.

            Let me ask you today: how are you feeling?  Do you have a tummy ache or a headache?  Are you suffering from blurry vision?  Do you have trouble remembering things?  Does your back hurt and cause you to walk with a stoop?  Do you feel terrible and don’t know why?  Well, what are you waiting for, go see a doctor!  But also keep in mind the possibility of a psychosomatic illness.  Your body might be telling you something: not only where it hurts physically but also where it hurts spiritually and morally.  And then go see the Divine Doctor, Jesus, so he can heal you inside as well.  Make a good confession and find some innner healing and peace.  You see, a little psychosomatic illness can come in very handy sometimes.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

The Fourth Gambler

Taking risks in the Christian life
 Matthew 25:14-30

Jesus told his disciples this parable: "A man going on a journey called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one-- to each according to his ability. Then he went away. Immediately the one who received five talents went and traded with them, and made another five. Likewise, the one who received two made another two.  But the man who received one went off and dug a hole in the ground and buried his master's money.

            You all know that I love to go over to parishioners’ homes for supper.  But what you may not know is that after supper I love to teach the children how to play poker.  Yep, poker.  Now, I realize that saying this is either going to drastically reduce my dinner invitations or maybe really increase them a lot, because you’d like to learn, too!  It’s amazing how quickly the children learn the game; a brief review of the rules, the ranking of the hands, and the dynamics of betting and bluffing.  Now, some children are natural risk-takers: they love to “bluff,” pretending to have a bigger hand than they really do.  They confidently say, “I’m all in,” and push all their Cheetos or marshmellows into the middle of the table because that’s what we bet with.  Other kids, however, are very conservative and don’t want to lose, so they fold quickly because they have a weak hand.  At some point in the evening, I always feel like singing that Kenny Rogers song, “The Gambler,” “You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.  You never count your money, when you’re sittin’ at the table, there’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.”  Of course, poker is just a game but I hope it also teaches a valuable life-lesson: sometimes in life you have to take a risk, you can’t always play it safe all the time; you have to “gamble.”  In each person’s life, there comes a moment when you have to say, “I’m all in” and push all your Cheetos into the middle of the table, and risk it all.

            In the gospel today, Jesus tells the very familiar parable of a master who gives his servants different “talents.”  One receives 5, another 2 talents, and the third only gets 1.  You can almost imagine the master as “the dealer” of a poker game, and each of the servants gets a “hand” to play, some hands are better than others.  That’s the way life is. Two servants are willing to “gamble” and they double their winnings, while the third servant, who holds a weak hand, buries it, he basically “folds.”  The point of the parable is unmistakable: our talents are given to us to be multiplied, even put at risk, but definitely not to bury and not to fold.

            But did you notice there is another gambler in the parable?  Most people miss him.  The fourth gambler is the master himself!  The master is also “gambling,” not with talents, but with his servants.  He’s taking a risk that they will do well with his talents, he’s betting on them to make good with the talents. You see, the master has a lot to lose as well and he puts himself at risk.  We all know, of course, that the master of the parable is God.  I hope this will not sound too irreverent, but I believe God is like a shrewd gambler.  He has gone “all in” by sending his Son to save us, and then, he entrusts us –you and me – with his gifts and graces, his “talents.”  God is betting on us, like that master was betting on his servants.

            I often wonder why God called me to be a priest and now pastor of Immaculate Conception Church.  He took a big risk gambling on me!  He could have called someone smarter or someone younger or someone holier or someone better-looking – well, not better-looking.  Let’s be honest.  But God took a huge risk, a gamble, in inviting me and other weak, fallible and foolish men to be priests and to run his Church.  But you see, God is betting on us; he has gone “all in” with us.  But you know, we priests are gambling, too.  We’ve gone “all in” by giving up marriage and family, and possible fame and fortune to serve the Church.  Man, I sure hope this bet pays off, and bring us happiness!

But do you know who I think makes an even bigger bet?  It’s people who choose to marry.  They are basically gambling with their heart.  They have said, “I’m all in,” and pushed their heart into the middle of the table, and they are betting their spouse will love, cherish and respect that heart.  But it’s a huge risk, isn’t it?  Just ask anyone who has gotten a divorce.  The great Victorian poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote these memorable lines: “I hold it true, whate’er befall; I feel it when I sorrow most; ‘Tis better to have loved and lost. Than never to have loved at all” (“In Memoriam A.H.H.” Canto 27).  In other words, it’s better to take the risk of loving someone, marrying them, and possibly losing everything, than to fold and never take the chance, “than never to have loved at all.”

            You know, sooner or later in the Christian life, you have to take a risk; you have to put all your Cheetos into the middle of the table and say, “I’m going all in.”  We take great risks and gamble when we choose a vocation like priesthood or marriage; we gamble with our happiness and with our hearts.  We go “all in” when we decide which college to attend or what career to pursue; it may all “go south” and we fail miserably.  We gamble when we have another baby, hoping everything turns out well, like Catholics who used to have 6, 7, 8, and 9 kids.  Catholics were great gamblers back in the day!  We take risks when we move to another town and start life all over again.  I’m still in awe at my parents who moved not to another town but to another country – talk about a gutsy gamble!  We take a huge risk when we invite the priest over for supper and have no idea what he might teach our children after dinner!  But remember this: not only are you betting on God, that he will give you the grace you need, but God is also betting on you, not to bury your talents and abilities, not to fold.  Don’t forget about the Fourth Gambler in the parable.

            The 17th century French philosopher, Blaise Pascal saw the whole Christian enterprise in terms of a great gamble, what he called “the wager” (Pensee, 233).  Basically he said, it’s good to bet on God.  Sometimes in the Christian life, you have to say “I’m all in” and push all your Cheetos into the middle of the table and bet it all.  Why?  Because God is betting on you.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Opposites Attract

Appreciating what is different
 Luke 17:33-37

Jesus said to his disciples: “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses it will save it. I tell you, on that night there will be two people in one bed; one will be taken, the other left. And there will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken, the other left.”  They said to him in reply, “Where, Lord?” He said to them, “Where the body is, there also the vultures will gather.”

            Boys and girls, have you ever heard the phrase, “opposites attract”?  What does that mean?  Well, it means that things that are very different –even the opposite of each other—go very well together.  The world is a more fun and exciting place because people are different and not all the same.  Now we’re going to play a little game.  I’ll say a word and you tell me its opposite.  Ready?  “White.”  The opposite is “black.”  That was too easy.  How about “peanut butter”?  The opposite is “jelly.”  Here’s a hard one, “hands.”  The opposite is “feet.”  Here’s a really easy one, “Arkansas Razorbacks.”  The opposite is “LSU Tigers.”  You see, life is more fun and exciting when you have opposites: white and black, hands and feet, peanut butter and jelly, the Razorbacks and the Tigers.

          In the gospel today, we see Jesus also likes opposites.  He says: “He who seeks to preserve his life will lose it, and he who loses his life will save it.”  What are the two opposites that Jesus puts together?  To save and to lose.  It’s funny, isn’t it?  Jesus sees that “saving” and “losing” are two opposites that go good together for Christians.  When we lose something, we actually save it.  When we make sacrifices for others (lose something) we will gain a lot more in return (save something).  I gave up my own family and kids by not being married to be a priest, but now I have over 300 kids in our school!  I gained a lot more than I lost.  The two opposites: “loss” and “gain” go good together and make life more fun and exciting.

           Boys and girls, sometimes we want the world to be all the same: everyone should look the same, everyone should dress the same, everyone should think the same.  We think that the best friends are those who think and dress and act just like we do.  But that would make life very boring.  Instead, look for ways that opposites attract and make life more fun and exciting.  Today, try to find more opposites that attract, especially Christian opposites; opposites that Jesus would put together.  Here are a few more opposites for you: boys and…girls, Summer and…Winter, Cowboys and…Steelers, democrats and…republicans, wining and…losing.  I think we’ve lost enough football games now, so now it’s time to enjoy the opposites: winning, especially against LSU on Saturday!

Praised be Jesus C

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Somebody's Daughter

Seeing others as brothers and sisters

Philemon 10-16
 I urge you on behalf of my child Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment, who was once useless to you but is now useful to both you and me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I should have liked to retain him for myself, so that he might serve me on your behalf in my imprisonment for the Gospel, but I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary. Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord.

             In the seminary my spiritual director gave me some great advice on how to deal with especially attractive women.  Since priests are required to be celibate, we have to learn how to guard our celibacy and not fall in love with every beautiful woman we meet.  Here’s what he said: “If the beautiful woman is older than you, think of her as your mother.  If the attractive woman is around your same age, look at her at your sister.  If the gorgeous girl is younger than you, treat her as your own daughter.”  And I have to say, his advice has come in very handy.  We have ladies in the parish now cooking meals for us priests and the next step will be to have them do our laundry too!  Thanks mom!  But seriously, when we see other people, especially women, as members of our own family, we not only see THEM in a new light, but we begin to see OURSELVES differently. What do I mean?  When I see these beautiful women as mother and sister and daughter, I begin to see myself as “son” and “brother” and “dad” to them.  And that helps me to know how to behave toward them and treat them as I should.  You see, my spiritual director wasn’t just telling me how to look at attractive women, he was teaching me how to look at myself.

            St. Paul is fulfilling the role of a good spiritual director in his letter to Philemon.  Even though the letter is very brief, Paul gives some great advice, namely, how to look at other people.  Philemon had a slave named Onesimus who had spent time with Paul and become a Christian.  Now, Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon, but with a little advice.  He says: “I send Onesimus back to you no longer as a slave but as a brother in the Lord.”  In other words, Paul urged Philemon, like my spiritual director urged me, to see Onesimus in a new light, not as a slave but as a brother.  But St. Paul was also subtly suggesting to Philemon to see himself differently: not as a master but as a brother.  You see, Paul wasn’t just teaching Philemon how to look at Onesimus, he was also telling Philemon how to look at Philemon.

             How do you treat other people?  Do you treat some people rudely and disrespectfully, like people who drive crazy in traffic or people in government offices who seem not to care?  Try to see them as your mother, your sister, your daughter.  Are there people with whom you’ve had a fight and find it hard to forgive?  Try to see them as your brother or sister.  (If it was your brother and sister you fought with, then you’re out of luck.)  Are there people you treat as objects of pleasure, like beautiful models in swimsuit advertisements or T.V. commercials?  Look at them as your mother, or sister, or daughter.  Like people sometimes remind us: “Hey, you know, that beautiful girl is somebody’s daughter.”  A good Christian would respond: "Yes, she's MY daughter."  When we train our eyes and our minds to see others in this new light, we also begin to see ourselves in a new light, as a brother or sister in the Lord.  And we act accordingly.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Brideshead Revisited

Remembering the wedding of Jesus and his Bride

John 2:13-17
 Since the Passover of the Jews was near, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. He found in the temple area those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, as well as the money-changers seated there. He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables, and to those who sold doves he said, “Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.” His disciples recalled the words of Scripture, Zeal for your house will consume me.

             We are very blessed here in Fort Smith to have two of the most beautiful churches in the diocese (the state of Arkansas): Immaculate Conception and St. Boniface.  I love their traditional, cruciform style, the stunning stained-glass windows, and the statues of saints peeking around every corner.  But I confess, I am not a fan of modern church architecture which often looks like a Pizza Hut restaurant (no offense to Pizza Hut), or a vacuous, air-plane hanger, just an open space with little spiritual sense.  Some people argue that church architecture is a matter of taste, “de gustibus non est disputandum” (there’s no arguing over taste).  They say: "I like contemporary and you like traditional; one style is as good as another."  But I disagree.  Whenever someone says that modern churches are as good as classical churches, I always ask them, “When your daughter grows up, where will she want to get married someday?  Where would she like to walk down the aisle on her wedding day?”  Of course, we know the answer: every girl dreams of getting married in a traditional-looking church, not in a Pizza Hut.

             But I believe our brides are really on to something essential about churches.  That is, a bride’s preference for a church is not just a young girl’s whimsy; rather it speaks of something spiritual and supernatural, and ultimately points to something other-worldly.  A bride always wants to marry in a traditional church because traditional churches were built according to a heavenly design.  What do I mean?  You see, traditional churches followed a pre-set pattern based on a heavenly model, on heavenly blue-prints.  Hebrews 8:5 says “Moses was warned when he was about to erect the tabernacle: ‘See that you make everything according to the pattern shown to you on the mountain’.”  And why did Moses have to follow these heavenly blue-prints exactly?  Because one day what would happen in that Temple would be a wedding, and you know, everything has to be perfect for a wedding.  If you don't believe me, just ask any mother of the bride!  You see, both old Moses and young brides understand that Temples are not a matter of personal taste; they are a matter of divine design.  God designed the heavenly Temple for the wedding of his Son, Jesus, and his Son’s bride, the Church, and every earthly temple should be an accurate replica of the heavenly one.

            In the gospel today, we see Jesus acting in a very uncharacteristic way.  Meek, mild, gentle, loving Jesus makes a whip out of a cord and drives people out of the Temple, turns over tables and sternly warns people, “Stop making my Father’s house into a marketplace.”  Someone sent me a “meme” (a little cartoon) recently, that showed this same scene, with a caption that read: “If anyone asks you ‘what would Jesus do?’ remind them that flipping over tables and chasing people with a whip is within the realm of possibility.”  But why is Jesus getting so bent out of shape over making a little money in church?  What’s the big deal?  Well, Jesus is not only a Savior, he’s also a loving groom, and he wants the Temple to be perfect for his Bride’s wedding day.  You see, Jesus knows Temples on earth should mirror the Temple in heaven, and they are all ultimately designed for a wedding day, namely, Jesus’ wedding day.

             Now, sometimes not even traditional churches nor traditional-minded priests do their job well.  One day a priest and a taxi driver both died and went to heaven.  St. Peter met them at the Pearly Gates and said to the cabbie, “Come with me.”  St. Peter led him to a huge mansion.  It had anything you could imagine from a bowling alley to an Olympic sized pool.  “Wow, thank you!” said the taxi driver.  Next, St. Peter led the priest to a rugged old shack with a bunk bed and a little old television set.  “Wait, I think you are a little mixed up,” said the priest.  “Shouldn’t I be the one who gets the mansion?  After all, I was the priest, went to church every day, and preached God’s word.”  St. Peter answered him, “Yes, that’s true.  But during your sermons people slept.  When the taxi driver drove, everyone prayed!”  So, just sitting and sleeping in a traditional-looking church is not enough; you have to actually pray while you’re here.

             My friends, every time we go to Mass on Sunday, we should go with the attitude we’re attending a wedding.  Just imagine how well everyone would dress: the men would be in suits and ties, ladies would be in dresses, boys and girls would look cute as a button, and not like Dennis the Menace.  We all wear our best to a wedding, don’t we?  And people pay attention and pray at a wedding, too.  They pray the happy couple will not mess up saying their vows, and married couples remember their own vows and pray that God will help them be faithful to each other.  And if the priest is a little more like that taxi driver, he’ll help people think about the heavenly wedding day between Jesus and his bride, and not put them to sleep.

            That’s why Pope St. John Paul II called marriage the “primordial sacrament,” because it’s the fundamental pattern of every sacrament: baptism, confession, Communion, etc. should all have seeds of marriage in them.  Every sacrament, especially the Mass, should make us feel like we’re going to a wedding.  That’s why every church building should be one a bride wants to get married in.  And that’s why Jesus got upset, because people didn’t treat the Temple according to his divine design for a wedding.  And that’s why taxi drivers who get people to pray get a higher place in heaven than priests who put people to sleep.

             Have you ever read the novel Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh?  It’s about a young man named Charles Ryder, who falls in love but never marries his beloved, a girl named Julia.  At the end of the book he returns to Julia’s home, a mansion in England, and stops to pray in the family chapel.  He reminisces about the purpose of a chapel as he stares at the red flame of the tabernacle light, he says: “Something quite remote from anything the builders intended has come out of their work…a small red flame…and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.”  You see, Charles realizes his love is not all lost: he didn’t have Julia’s love but he still had Jesus’ love; he could look forward to the heavenly wedding day.  In the very last line of the book, a junior officer tells Charles, as he comes out of the chapel, “You’re looking unusually cheerful today.”  Every time we come out of the church, we should look “usually cheerful,” too.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Boys Allowed

Remembering we are citizens of heaven
Philippians 3:20-4:1

But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified Body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, in this way stand firm in the Lord, beloved.

             When I was in grade school we had a class called “civics” and we learned about “citizenship.”  Who can tell me what a citizen is?  A citizen is someone who has full membership in a country.  It’s like girls who build a clubhouse and post a sign outside that reads: “NO BOYS ALLOWED!”  Only girls can be “citizens” of that country-club.  Now, if you’re a citizen of a country what privileges do you have that others don’t?  If you are an American citizen what can you do that those who are not American citizens cannot?  You can vote, like many people did on Tuesday.  That’s a great power and privilege.  You can become president of the United States!  How many of you want to be president?  (I don’t either.)  You can pay taxes!  The government thinks that is a privilege, but we just think it’s a pain in the royal rump.  It’s a great blessing to be an American citizen.

             In the first reading today, St. Paul talks about the best country to be a citizen of.  Does anyone know what that country is?  It’s heaven!  Is that even better than being an American citizen?  Believe it or not, it is!  What do you think will be some privileges that heavenly citizens will have?  We’ll get to ride on clouds all day and play “bumper clouds”!  We’ll get to eat pizza and Oreos all day!  We’ll get to see those who have died.  And the best thing of all is we won’t have to pay taxes!  Now there is a sad thing about heaven: boys will be allowed.  Sorry girls.

             Boys and girls, always remember you are citizens of TWO countries: America and Heaven.  That’s called having “dual citizenship.”  It’s like having one foot on earth and one foot in heaven: you belong to both countries.  I want you to remember that because America is wonderful but it’s not perfect and never will be perfect.  We've had problems in our country in the past, like slavery and we even fought a Civil War over it.  We will have problems in the future and we may fight more wars over those issues.  Of course, we always pray for our country and ask God to bless us and make this nation great.  But always remember there is only one perfect place to call home, and that is heaven.  That’s why St. Paul tells us today: “our citizenship is in heaven,” where even boys are allowed.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

You Lucky

Finding our honor in Jesus Christ
Philippans 3:3-8A

Brothers and sisters: We are the circumcision, we who worship through the Spirit of God, who boast in Christ Jesus and do not put our confidence in flesh, although I myself have grounds for confidence even in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he can be confident in flesh, all the more can I.  Circumcised on the eighth day, of the race of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrew parentage, in observance of the law a Pharisee, in zeal I persecuted the Church, in righteousness based on the law I was blameless. But whatever gains I had, these I have come to consider a loss because of Christ. More than that, I even consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.

            Have you ever seen the movie, “The Karate Kid”?  It’s about a young man who learns karate from a Japanese WWII veteran.  One day Daniel, the young man, discovers that Mr. Myiagi won the Medal of Honor in WWII.  As a gift, Daniel brings Mr. Myiagi a glass case made of rosewood to display his medal.  Daniel explains, “I got you this rosewood display box for your medals.  I thought it’d be nice to show them off or something.”  Mr. Myiagi answers, “Why, thank you, Daniel-sun.  But why show off?”  Daniel says, “Well, you know, wining the Medal of Honor means you’re brave and all that stuff.”  Mr. Myiagi takes Daniel’s hand and puts it on his chest, over his heart, and says, “This say you brave.”  Then looking at the medal, he says, “This say you lucky.”  Of course, I mean no disrespect to anyone who’s awarded the Medal of Honor.  But where does our honor, our bravery, our true worth derive from?

            In the first reading today, St. Paul tells the Philippians where to find honor, worthy and dignity, namely, in Jesus.  First, however, St. Paul lists all the “Medals of Honor” he had won as a Jew: being circumcised, being of the tribe of Benjamin, a Pharisee, and finally a persecutor of the nascent Church.  If Daniel-sun would have been a Jew, he would have made a rosewood case for St. Paul to display and show off these medals.  But here’s what St. Paul would have answered Daniel-sun: “I consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”  In other words, the only true honor we have lies in Jesus, in being his follower and disciple; anything else we’ve done only means “we lucky.”

            When people ask you who you are, how do you answer them, how do you describe yourself?  Do you list the job you hold, or the letters after your name, like CEO, or MD, or PhD?  Do you boast about your ethnic identity: “I’m Irish,” “I’m German,” “I’m Polish,” or “I’m a Suth’ner and the South will rise again!”  Or do you point to the achievements of your children and grandchildren and take pride in them, because after all, as everyone knows, “the apple CAN’T fall far from the tree.”  Patting your children on the back is surreptitiously pointing to yourself.  In other words, what are all the medals of honor you’d like to display in a rosewood case?  Rather, we should memorize Phil. 3:8, and repeat daily with St. Paul, “I consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”  Our only boast lies in being a disciple of Jesus, of knowing our Lord.

            Shortly after he was elected pope, a reporter asked Pope Francis, “Who is the new pope?”  Francis smiled and humbly answered, “I am a sinner.”  That is what each of us should answer as well, if we are honest and humble: we are sinners, we are followers of Jesus, stumbling behind him at best.  Anything else only means, “you lucky.”

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Spawn of Satan

Learning humility from the electoral process
Philippians 2:5-11

Brothers and sisters: Have among yourselves the same attitude  that is also yours in Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and, found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

             Today is Election Day in the United States.  Today, America, the great defender of democracy, will show the world why the democratic process is so great; why Abraham Lincoln said: “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people should not perish from this earth.”  But do you know why I personally love “Election Day”?  Because tomorrow we will see no more political ads on T.V., especially the negative ads that make the other candidate look like the “Spawn of Satan.”  Whenever I see those ads I’m repulsed, not only by the gross caricature of the candidate, but also by the candidate who allowed it, and also by how low our democratic process has sunk for someone to get elected.  I always wonder: do such ads help you get elected?  Don’t they just make BOTH candidates look like the Spawn of Satan?  Why should I vote for either candidate?  I read an essay once that argued that our current electoral process is designed specifically to root out the best and the brightest, and leave only those whom the political machine can control.  Look at it this way: could a truly Christian candidate, who refused to sling mud on the other candidate, ever get elected?  I wonder.

             In the first reading today, we see one quality of any Christian, especially one who wants to be a role-model for the whole community, namely, humility.  Philippians chapter 2 is the great “hymn of humility,” and describes Jesus by saying, “he humbled himself and took the form of a slave,” but then “God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him a name above any other name.”  In other words, a real Christian (who imitates Christ) doesn’t brag about himself or herself, and certainly refrains from belittling another person.  Rather, he or she let’s God lift them high.  You see, when you call another person the “Spawn of Satan,” you’ve only managed to sink into the same mud your slinging at the other person.  As we said in grade school, “It takes one to know one.”

             If there’s only one lesson this political season should teach us, it’s that slinging mud only makes both candidates filthy.  Or, as Gandhi eloquently said: “An eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind.”  But we don’t have to run for president of the United States to sling mud.  We do that every day in our conversations: when we criticize and complain about our co-workers, our boss, our in-laws, our spouses, and maybe even our priests!  When we see how destructive and just plain dumb political ads are, we should be resolved not to do likewise ourselves.  Let us stop our own mud-slinging campaigns against each other.  Rather, let us humble ourselves, and one day, maybe God will greatly exalt us.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Undiscovered Country

Praying for our beloved dead

2 Maccabees 12:43-46

Judas Maccabeus then took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, in as much as he had the resurrection in mind; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin.

             Have I told you lately how much I love being pastor of Immaculate Conception Church?  Well, here’s the latest reason why I believe this parish is so great.  I’ve done a lot of funerals lately, at the pace of one or sometimes two a week.  My niece likes to call our parish, “I.C.U.” because we do have a lot of people in the Intensive Care Unit!  But do you know what happens the days following a funeral?  The church office here is flooded with Mass intentions for that person who just died.  You may have noticed in the bulletin each week that a specific Mass is “offered” for a specific person.  For example, after Sally Johnston’s funeral we had tons of “Mass intentions” to pray for her.  After Bob Raible died, again we scheduled lots of Masses to be said for him.  So, I figure, “Hey, if I die as the pastor of Immaculate Conception Church, there will be hundreds of Masses said for me!  Sweet!”  You see, I.C. parishioners really love to pray for the dead because they really love those who have died.
             Now, let me ask you a very important question: WHY do we pray for the dead, and even have Masses offered for them?  It’s really a very odd thing, isn’t it?  And, as it turns out, it’s really a very Catholic thing.  Here’s the reason: we pray for the dead because we believe they may be in purgatory, and purgatory is a curiously Catholic concept.  Think about it this way: if the dead were already in heaven, our prayers for them would be superfluous, unnecessary, like offering water to a man who’s already drinking champagne!  Heavenly souls would say, “Thanks for your prayers but no thanks!  I got something better!”  On the other hand, if they are in hell – God forbid! – then our prayers will not do them any good, will they?  Their fate is sealed; they have taken “the escalator down,” sort of say.  So, we believe our beloved dead must be somewhere else, not in heaven but also not in hell, rather they are in a special third place where Masses can benefit them, like a cup of cold water offered to a thirsty man.  We call that place “Purgatory.”  That’s another reason I love Immaculate Conception Church: you people really pray for the dead, and one day, I’ll be one of those dead who needs your prayers.  Please remember me!

            You know, sometimes people ask me, “Father John, will you please celebrate my funeral Mass?”  I always answer, “Of course I will but only on one condition: you have to go first!”  But you know, one day, I will go first, before some of you, into what Hamlet called “the undiscovered country,” that land that lies beyond death, and I hope those who are left behind me will pray for me.  I hope that undiscovered country for me will be a place called Purgatory.

            That’s why today’s first reading is from the second book of Maccabees.  2 Maccabees 12:43-46 is the “locus classicus” (the basic Scriptural citation) for the Catholic Church’s teaching on purgatory.  If anyone asks you where in the Bible it talks about “purgatory,” please point them to these valuable verses.  Even though the word “purgatory” doesn’t appear there, it’s obvious that purgatory is what the inspired author is talking about.  By the way, this is also the reason why Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, wanted to remove the books of Maccabees from the Bible because its teaching about purgatory is clear and irrefutable.  In this passage we see Judas Maccabeus acting very Catholic!  He was the leader of the Jewish revolt against the Romans back in 165 BC and he takes up a collection for sacrificial offerings to be made for his dead soldiers.  That would be the Old Testament equivalent of having a Mass offered for them!  And verse 45 says, “He did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought.”  You see, Judas Maccabeus would have made a perfect parishioner of Immaculate Conception Church.  Why?  Well, because he loved to pray for the dead because he loved the dead.  He believed in an Undiscovered Country called Purgatory.

            I know that death and purgatory are heavy subjects, so let me lighten things up a little here.  Bobby was sitting next to his grandpa when he innocently asked him, “Grandpa do you know how to make animal sounds?”  “I sure do,” Grandpa replied.  “What sort of animal sound would you like to hear?”  “Bobby replied, “How about a toad?  Do you know how to sound like a toad?”  “Sure,” said Grandpa, cupping his hands to his mouth, “Croaak, croaak.  How did you like that?”  “Yipee!” screamed Bobby, jumping up and down, “We’re going to Miami!”  “Huh?” questioned Grandpa.  “Why’s that?”  Bobby answered, “Because Grandma said so.  She said that after you croak we’ll all go to Miami!”  You know, I am so glad I don’t have my own children!  Of course, we should not just be interested in where WE’LL go after someone dies, but we should also care where our beloved dead go when they die.  Where are they??  One real and very likely possibility for our beloved dead is a place called purgatory.  But here’s what even more amazing, and to me, a great consolation: we can actually speed up that process of purification and perfection of the poor souls in purgatory by our prayers, especially the Mass.  That’s what Judas Maccabeus did and that’s what I.C. parishioners do because they love the dead.

            Hamlet said in his soliloquy: “The dread of something after death, The undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns, puzzles the will.”  But, you know, our wills are not puzzled because we know the landscape of that undiscovered country, a special part of which is called Purgatory, a place of purification and perfection.  Today let us pray for our beloved dead, so that tomorrow someone will pray for us.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Good Slavery

Becoming slaves of Jesus Christ
Philippians 1:1-11

Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus, to all the holy ones in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

            Boys and girls, how many of you believe slavery is a good thing?  How many of you even know what slavery is??  Who can tell me what a slave is?  A slave is someone who has a master who tells them what to do.  Can a slave do whatever they want?  No.  Slaves must obey their masters.  It’s like that game “Simon Says.”  You have to do whatever Simon tells you.  If Simon says, “Jump on one leg.”  You must jump on one leg.  If Simon tells you, “Pick your nose!”  You must pick your nose!  If you disobey Simon, what happens?  You lose the game!  Simon Says is modern day slavery!  Now, that’s just a game, and we’re only having fun.  But do you think it’s good to be a slave in real life?

            Do you know someone who thought slavery WAS a good thing?  It was St. Paul!  Listen to how he begins his letter to the Philippians.  He say, “Paul and Timothy, SLAVES of Jesus Christ, to all the holy ones in Philippi.”  Both Paul and Timothy were slaves!  Now, to whom did St. Paul say he was a slave, who was his “master”?  Jesus.  Do you think Jesus would be a good master?  Yes, he’s the best master, because he only tell us to do what is best for us.  He never tell us to pick our nose!

            Now, boys and girls, there are two kinds of slavery: “good slavery” and “bad slavery.”  Good slavery is when Jesus is your master and you obey him.  St. Paul teaches us about this good slavery, by offering us his example.  How many of you want to be a slave of Jesus Christ?  Good!  Bad slavery is when we are slaves to anything or anyone else besides Jesus.  For example, I am a slave to coffee!  I must have coffee everyday and all the time, or I think I will die!  That is bad slavery.  Some people are slaves to American Girl dolls.  They must have ALL the American Girl dolls, and ALL their outfits, and ALL their accessories!  That is bad slavery.  Some people are slaves to football.  They watch football on T.V., they play only football, they talk about only football, they EAT footballs!  That is bad slavery.  Some people are slaves to their phones.  They never leave home without it.  They may leave their home without their pants on, but they will NEVER leave their homes without their phones.  They believe they will die without it.  That is bad slavery.  We can be slaves to exercise, we can be slaves to money, we can be slaves to our children – because we always do what they want.  All these things are bad slavery because someone or something else is our "master" telling us what to do.

            You see, boys and girls, we are all slaves to someone or something.  The only question is: who is your master?  There is only one kind of slavery that is good, and only one Master who is good.  And it isn't coffee.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

A Many-Splendored Love

On the Feast of Pope St. John Paul II
 22 October 2014

The poets love to sing that, “Love is a many splendored thing.”  Indeed, love can fly you to the moon, or dump you in the depths of despair.  We can try to run from love and its strange power over us, but we cannot hide.  Pope St. John Paul II went so far as to say, “Man [and woman] cannot live without love.”  We can live without television, we can live without alcohol, we can live without sunsets over the Pacific Ocean, but we cannot live without love.  Without love, we will die.  In his penetrating book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl gave powerful proof of how clinging to love helped many survive the Nazi concentration camps.  Without love, we will die; with love, we are stronger than death.

But what is love, this “many splendored thing”?  The Scriptures tell us where to start: “For this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he has loved us” (1 John 4:10).  That passage has baffled me for years (and still does), but here’s one interpretation: love isn’t something WE do first, but rather something GOD does first, and therefore something God has to teach us.  In other words, we make many mistakes trying to love others.  Just think of all the ways you failed today: we love some people too much (like our children) and we love other people too little (like our enemies).  So God has to show us how to love properly and perfectly.  What does God teach us about love?  St. John continues, “And [God] sent his son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.”  That is, God loves us for our benefit, not for His own good.  Genuine, true love seeks first and foremost the good of the beloved, not its own good (although the lover certainly benefits in the balance).  Love – at least, God-style love – is unselfish, and because it is unselfish it feels like a sacrifice, it’s hard, it hurts.  “He sent his son as a sacrifice.”  At the heart of every true love is a gift: something I freely and joyfully (often sacrificially) do for you.  That is the first and most important lesson of love.

Love again glitters in the limelight as the question of love’s institutional expression, namely, marriage, grabbed the attention of the Supreme Court of the United States.  The SCOTUS recently ruled that certain federal benefits should be granted to same-sex couples, and declined to rule on California’s Proposition 8, which effectively allowed same-sex marriage in that state, as well as every other state.  Since then, state after state has conceded legal status to same-sex couples, and I believe the trend will continue and gain momentum.  But here’s the fundamental problem: our culture and our country lack the philosophical and constitutional principles to successfully stave off same-sex marriage becoming “the new normal.”  Why is that?  As far back as 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville made a piercing and prophetic observation in his book Democracy in America, saying, “America is therefore one of the countries in the world where philosophy is least studied, and where the precepts of Descartes are best applied.”  How so?  He continued, “Everyone shuts himself up in his own breast, and affects from that point to judge the world.”  We “shut ourselves up in our own breast” when love is what WE believe it is rather than letting God teach us what HE believes it is.  President John F. Kennedy summarized accurately the prevailing American view of the separation of religion from political life when, on September 12, 1960, he addressed the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.  He said: “Whatever issue may come before me as President--on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject--I will make my decision in accordance with these views [that is, the absolute separation of church and state], in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.  And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.”  While Kennedy’s speech is laudable in many respects – and helped him get elected! – it also evicted religion from its rightful role in the public square.  When we refuse to allow God to teach us about love, whether through Christianity or any other “religious megaphone” God uses to speak to the world, “we shut ourselves up in our own breast.”  We grope blindly in the dark, trying to grasp at love either through trial and error, or democratic vote, or judicial fiat, but we will come up short.  We cannot figure out what love is on our own; God must teach us.

Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t advocate throwing in the political towel, or feel like Don Quixote charging a windmill.  While it may be unlikely to stop same-sex marriage gaining ground, some compromise solution is still possible and desirable, like granting benefits to couples but not calling it marriage, or individual states not capitulating or compromising at all, or strengthening traditional marriages, etc.  But I’m not holding my breath.  In the United States and much of western civilization, love will indeed be a many splendored thing.

How do we live in this increasingly atheistic culture, where God’s voice is “anathema” in the public square?  Let’s go back to Pope St. John Paul II, who said, “Man cannot live without love.”  I have several friends who are homosexual.  They are sincere, courageous Catholics and I love them dearly.  John Paul’s statement is as true for them as for the couple happily married for 50 years.  Homosexual persons cannot live without love.  For that matter, celibate priests cannot live without love (in case you’re wondering).  But we don’t crack the code of love without divine help.  We Christians also look to Scripture that says love is a sacrificial gift; it seeks the benefit of my beloved before my own happiness (and often at the price of my own immediate happiness).  That’s one reason I chose to be a celibate priest, sacrificing my sexuality puts the needs of the parish above my own desires.  That’s why dating couples choose chastity, seeking the holiness of their boyfriend or girlfriend at a painful personal price.  But that’s the hard road; it’s the way of the cross.  Not only is it hard to choose that, it’s confounding to comprehend WHY we should.  That’s why God has to teach us what love is.  Love is not what we think it is; love is what God thinks it is.

For all who struggle to love – pretty much the whole human race – the best way to learn about love is to fall in love with Jesus first.  Our Lord must be our “Significant Other,” and our most Significant Other.  One day, a scribe asked Jesus, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment?”  Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.”  Once you’ve mastered that, you can move on to the second commandment, “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 22:37-39).  I firmly believe that anyone who loves God with all their heart and all their soul and all their mind will choose what’s best for their beloved instead of what they want for themselves, they will sacrifice their own desires (even sexual desires).  Once you’ve learned to love God (and obey His teachings), you’ll be in a better position to love your neighbor (even your same-sex neighbor).  Maybe a similar conviction inspired St. Augustine to make the daring statement, “Love, and do what you will.”  I am convinced that any person who loves Jesus (not the Jesus of our imagination, but the real Jesus) with that kind of intensity will choose either heterosexual marriage or refrain from sexual activity.  Dag Hammerskjold, secretary-general of the United Nations (1953-1961), voluntarily chose celibacy for the sake of world peace.  Mahatma Gandhi and his wife chose to be celibate for the sake of Indian independence.  Same-sex couples, while remaining in a deeply committed and warmly loving relationship (maybe even enjoying the civil status of marriage), should refrain from sexual activity out of love for God, and love for each other.  Love – God-style love – seeks the good of the beloved, often at a steep personal cost.  Any other “love” is a chimera of our own making.

Anyway, when we get to heaven, all bets will be off on marriage because there won’t be any marriage, same-sex or otherwise.  “At the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven” (Mt. 22: 30) – that, by the way, is the real Jesus talking.  Here’s a snap-shot of heaven: in some mysterious, mystical way, all humanity will comprise the corporate “Bride” and our one “Spouse” will be Christ.  In heaven the heterosexuals don’t win, and the homosexuals won’t win.  Only those who love Jesus will win.  Celibate priesthood anyone?

Image Is Everything

Protecting the image of God in us

Matthew 22:15-21

The Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech. They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone's opinion, for you do not regard a person's status. Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?" Knowing their malice, Jesus said, "Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin that pays the census tax." Then they handed him the Roman coin. He said to them, "Whose image is this and whose inscription?" They replied, "Caesar's." At that he said to them, "Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God."

            Everyone worries about their image.  We all want to look good in other people’s eyes.  But do you know who worries the most about their image?  Politicians do, especially during the campaign season.  Every political ad is about a candidate’s image, which is all we see on TV these days.

            One day a corrupt senator dies and goes to meet St. Peter at the Pearly Gates.  St. Peter says, “I’m sorry, there’s a problem.  I cannot let you in until you spend one day in hell and one day in heaven.  Then you can choose where you want to spend eternity.”  The senator says, “I’d like to choose heaven.”  St. Peter replies, “I’m sorry but we have our rules.”  So St. Peter escorts the man to an elevator which takes him down, down, down to hell.  When the doors open he finds himself in a middle of a green golf course.  In the distance he sees the clubhouse and standing in front of it are his friends and political colleagues all dressed in fine clothes.  They run to meet him and they spend the day together feasting on lobster, caviar and champagne.  When it was time to go everyone cheerfully waves as the elevator takes him up.  St. Peter greets him in heaven and shows him around there.  He sees content souls moving from cloud to cloud playing harps.  At the end of the day, St. Peter asks him, “Now that you’ve seen both, where would you like to spend eternity?”  The senator replies, “Well, I’m surprised to say this, but even though heaven is nice, I’d rather be in hell.”  So, the senator takes the elevator down, down, down to hell.  When the doors open, he’s appalled to see a barren wasteland with garbage everywhere.  His friends are dressed in rags and picking up the trash that keeps falling from the sky.  The senator walks over to the devil and asks, “I don’t understand.  Yesterday, everything was perfect, but today it’s awful!”  The devil puts his arms around the senator’s shoulder and says, “Yesterday we were campaigning.  Today, you voted.”  The senator got a little taste of his own medicine.  We all worry about our image – we’re all on the campaign trail! – but often the image can be deceiving.

            In the gospel today, Jesus is also worried about an image, but not the image you might think.  The Pharisees ask him if it’s lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar.  And Jesus asks them a very curious question: “Whose image is on the coin?”  They answer, “Caesar’s.”  Then Jesus replies, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to God what is God’s.”  That answer would have evoked another “image” in the Jews’ minds, the image of God.  Remember what it says in Genesis 1:27, “God created mankind in his image”?  In other words, not only do coins have an image, but so do creatures, especially the human creature, made in the image and likeness of God.  Jesus’ point was to give Caesar that which has his image, and to God that which has his image, that is, give to God your whole self.  The Pharisees were always on the campaign trail, only worried about the image that others see, but Jesus reminds them they were created in the image of God.  That image is ultimately the only one that matters.

            Which image do you worry more about: the image of the campaign trail, or the image of God?  Several years ago the soft drink “Sprite” ran a commercial that boasted, “Image is everything!”  But which image were they promoting?  Obviously, how others see us: whether others think we’re smart and skinny, whether people believe we’re savvy and sexy.  The true test of character, though, is how we behave when NO ONE can see us, when we’re NOT on the campaign trail.  What do you do when you’re alone?  When you’re alone do you eat the whole bag of potato chips because no one sees you?  Do you watch garbage on T.V. and the internet in the privacy of your home?  Are you lazy, callous and crude because it doesn't hurt anyone's feelings?  I recently heard a statistic that 90% of stuff people text they wouldn’t dare if they thought it would become public.  Several friends of mine have said they dropped their cell phone in the toilet.  And I always think: you know, there’s only one way that can happen – if you’re checking your phone in the bathroom!  When we’re alone, we think: “No one can see me so my image is safe!  I’m off the campaign trail!”  And yet we tarnish the image of God in us, we don’t behave like a child of God.  Indeed, “image is everything.”

            In April of 2005 Pope Benedict was newly elected as pope and came out on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica.  Beside him was standing Cardinal Francis George of Chicago with a very pensive look on his face.  When the cardinal returned home, reporters asked him what he was thinking about at that moment.  He answered: “I was gazing over toward the Circus Maximus, toward the Palatine Hill where the Roman Emperors once resided and reigned and looked down up on the persecution of Christians, and I thought, ‘Where are their successors today?  Where is the successor of Caesar Augustus today?  Where is the successor of Marcus Aurelius today?  And finally, who cares?  But if you want to see the successor of Peter, he is right next to me, smiling and waving at the crowds” (Robert Barron, Catholicism, 35).  You see, the Roman Emperors worried about the image of the campaign trail, and that image eventually evaporates.  But the Roman Pontiffs (the popes) worry about the image of God in their hearts, and that image lasts forever.  And so too should we, because after all, “image is everything.”                                               

Praised be Jesus Christ!

No Secret Sins

Embracing a more transparent life
 Luke 12:1-4
 At that time: So many people were crowding together  that they were trampling one another underfoot. Jesus began to speak, first to his disciples, “Beware of the leaven–that is, the hypocrisy–of the Pharisees. “There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the darkness will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed on the housetops."

             Everyone loves to hear a secret.  What is a secret?  It’s a juicy piece of information that only you know, or only a few people know.  Raise your hand if you like to hear secrets.  We all do!  Do you want to hear a secret?  Did you know that Mrs. B was a movie star before she became a Catholic school principal??  I’m just kidding; that’s not really true.  I just made that up.  But that’s an example of a secret – something that no one else knows.  Now, do you know the only thing better than knowing a secret?  It’s telling a secret; sharing that secret knowledge with someone else.  Are you supposed to share a secret?  NO!  But we secretly love to, don’t we?  Fr. Andrew studied in Rome, Italy, and he told me once that a “Roman secret” is something that you only tell one person at a time.  Card tricks are supposed to be secrets because a good magician never tells his secrets.  But I love to tell people how to do card tricks when I go to their homes for supper.  The only thing better than knowing a secret is sharing that secret.

            Do you know someone else who loves to share secrets?  It’s Jesus!  He says in the gospel today: “There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known.”  Wow!  Do you think we have any secrets that Jesus does not know?  I don’t think so!  He knows everything, even our secrets.  And guess what will happen in heaven?  Jesus will share all those secrets with everyone!  I gotta tell you Luke 12 is one of the most frightening passages in the whole Bible for me: that there will be no secrets in heaven.  The only thing better than knowing a secret is sharing that secret.  All secrets will be shared in heaven.

            Do you know why Catholics have to go to confession?  Confession is practicing telling our secrets sins to another person, a priest.  Why do we have to tell another person our sins?  Because in heaven everyone will know all your secret sins anyway!  “There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed.”  Some people say, “I don’t need to confess my sins to a priest because I just tell God.  My sins are only between me and God.”  But do you think those sins will stay a secret forever?  Not at all: in heaven all secrets will be shouted from the rooftops.  A
t least that is what Jesus says in the gospel today.  When you confess your secret sins to a priest, you’re getting ready for the day everyone else will know those sins, too.  Actually, that’s why we do everything we do in the Catholic Church: to get ready for heaven.

            Boys and girls, everyone loves to hear a secret and everyone loves to tell a secret.  So does God!  Think about that next time you try to do something “in secret.”

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Friday, November 7, 2014

Catholic Sandwiches

Keeping our bodies and souls together
 Luke 11:37-41

           After Jesus had spoken, a Pharisee invited him to dine at his home. He entered and reclined at table to eat. The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not observe the prescribed washing before the meal. The Lord said to him, “Oh you Pharisees! Although you cleanse the outside of the cup and the dish, inside you are filled with plunder and evil. You fools! Did not the maker of the outside also make the inside? But as to what is within, give alms, and behold, everything will be clean for you.”

            Do you know what the “Catholic way” is?  It is never “either-or” but always “both-and”; it is inclusive; it finds the best everywhere and embraces it.  For example, Catholics do not endorse either Democrats or Republicans but we embrace what’s good in both parties.  The Catholic faith is not liberal or conservative, but we have elements of both in our teachings, both liberal and conservatives tenets.  The popes do not champion either capitalism or socialism, but do promote what is good in both.  In other words, Catholic sandwiches don’t have just either peanut butter or jelly, but we always prefer both peanut butter and jelly – those are the best sandwiches!  One professor in the seminary taught us, “Wherever there’s anything that’s true or good or right, we’ll take that.  That’s Catholic!”  The Catholic way is always the high road of the cross and Christian love, and never the low road of petty partisan politics.

            In the gospel today, Jesus is teaching the Pharisees this lesson of “both-and,” how to make a good Christian sandwich.  They notice that Jesus fails to wash his hands before supper and they call him out on it.  And Jesus replies, “Oh, you Pharisees!  Although you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, inside you are filled with plunder and evil.  You fools!”  You know, it can’t feel good when Jesus calls you “a fool.”  But he’s upset because the Pharisees had taken the low toad of pettiness instead of the high road of inclusivity; “either-or” rather than “both-and.”  The figured as long as you get the outside clean, it doesn’t matter what the inside looks like.  But Jesus insists on being clean on both the outside and the inside.  Both peanut butter and jelly is best on your Christian sandwich.

            Do you know where to find the root of all this “either-or” thinking?  It can be traced back to the 17th century French philosopher, Rene Descartes, who famously said, “I think, therefore I am.”  In other words, the human person is essentially a spirit (the thinking part), and only accidentally a body.  Far greater than splitting the atom, was the moment when Descartes split the human person and said the human being can be “either-or”, either a body or a spirit.  Ever since then, we’ve emphasized one to the detriment of the other.  Peter Kreeft, a theologian at Boston Collge, said that’s why we’re frightened by both ghosts and cadavers – when we see one without the other, either the body or the spirit, rather than the full human person.  I’m very worried about the current fascination with zombie movies and T.V. shows that are really “either-or” thinking about the human person.  We should be repulsed by them; that’s fundamentally not-Catholic.  I always worry when a family chooses to cremate a person who has died.  Now, the Church permits cremation.  But once the body is ashes, some people want to sprinkle them on a lake or divide it among the children, or keep it on the mantle.  The cremains, like the body, should be buried or interred until it is reunited with the soul.  You see, the Catholic way is not “either-or” but always “both-and” and especially when it comes to both the body and the soul.

            How do you make a good Christian sandwich?  Jesus tell us today: you have to have both the inside and the outside, both the body and the soul, both peanut butter and jelly.  Don't let Descartes teach you how to make a different sandwich!

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Heavenly Hold 'Em

Making the most of the life God has given us
 Luke 11:27-28

While Jesus was speaking, a woman from the crowd called out and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts at which you nursed.” He replied, “Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.”

            There is nothing more foolish than to fret about our fate; to worry about the cards that God has dealt us in giving us our family, our nationality, the color of our skin, our height and history, and our personal pedigree.  And yet how often we wish our life were otherwise, different than it is, maybe born into another family.  We say wistfully, If only I had been born in Sam Walton’s family!  Then, I wouldn’t have a care in the world and just build museums all day!  Or how blessed to be born into Gene Bruick’s family, where we play golf all day!  There’s a great scene in the movie “The Lord of the Rings,” where Frodo frets about his fate.  He regretfully pines: “I wish the ring had never come to me.”  He’s referring to the ring of power he must carry to Mt. Doom and destroy.  But Gandalf wisely advises him: “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide.  All we have to do is to decide what to do with the time that is given to us.”  In other words, it doesn’t matter if you’re born a Baggins or a Bruick, a Walton or an Antony.  What matters is what you do with your life.  It doesn’t matter what cards you’re dealt, but how you play your hand.

            In the gospel today, a woman compliments Jesus on his pedigree, and maybe she wished she had been born into his family.  She shouts: “Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts that nursed you!”  But Jesus, like Gandalf, replies, “Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.”  That is, stop fretting over your fate and wishing your life were different.  Humbly accept the cards God has dealt you and do the best you can with what blessings you’ve been given.  In the end, that’s how each person will be measured: not by their last name, but by their lasting legacy.

            So, how do we make the most of our fate?  How do we play our cards well?  Here’s two things everyone can do.  First, figure out your strengths and develop them.  Each person, without exception, is given gifts and abilities, talents and treasures.  Don’t bury them, invest them and get the best possible R.O.I. (return on the investment).  Everyone gets an Ace in their hand.  Second, figure out your faults and short-comings and work to overcome them; no one is perfect.  Everyone gets a two-card or a four-card in their hand, and you have to deal with them, too.  As Kenny Rogers sang in “The Gambler,” “Every gambler knows the secret to surviving is knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep.  Cause every hands a winner and every hands a loser.”  Those who win in the card game of life are not those who fret over their cards and fold.  But rather, those who make the best of what they’ve been dealt, who hear the word of God and observe it.  Cause every hands a winner, and every hands a loser.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Blue Demons

Engaging in spiritual warfare
 Luke 11:24-26

“When an unclean spirit goes out of someone, it roams through arid regions searching for rest but, finding none, it says, ‘I shall return to my home from which I came.’ But upon returning, it finds it swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and brings back seven other spirits more wicked than itself who move in and dwell there, and the last condition of that man is worse than the first.”

            Fr. Tom Elliot and I have a friendly competition on Facebook: we try to get the most “likes” on our FB posts.  One time I went against my better judgment and even “liked” something he posted.  It was a “meme” (a little picture) with a caption that read: “Everyone makes fun of Catholics until they have a demon.”  Isn’t that true?  How many movies feature anything but a Catholic priest helping someone possessed by a demon?  When you have an evil spirit, you don’t call the Ghostbusters, you call Fr. Andrew or Fr. Pius (not me!).  Now some people may scoff at demons and devils as superstitious or old-fashioned or just names of college basketball teams, something that modern psychology has done away with.  That’s true to some extent.  But I believe that behind every addiction lurks an evil spirit.  Whether it’s an addition to drugs or alcohol, or to gambling or to sex and pornography, there is an evil spirit (a demon) who wants to enslave you, and make you serve him instead of serving God.

            Someone who very much believed in demons was Jesus.  In the gospel today our Lord goes to great lengths to explain the psychology of demons.  You see, Jesus uses psychology not to disprove demons, but to get inside their sinister minds!  He says: “When an unclean spirit goes out of someone it roams through arid regions searching for rest, but finding none, it says, ‘I will return to my home from which I came.’”  In other words, demons are very real for Jesus, not hocus pocus superstition or the figment of our imagination.  And they have one mission: to enslave us so that we will serve them instead of God.

            Today, open your eyes to the spiritual world around you.  Sometimes our advances in psychology and medicine, in science and technology (laudable as they are)  actually close our eyes to the spiritual world; they can tempt us to believe demons are outmoded or obsolete.  But demons are very much alive and well, in our sins and especially in our addictions.  A great book on demon psychology is C.S. Lewis’ “Screwtape Letters.”  Lewis asserts that one of the demons’ best weapons against humanity is to make us believe they don’t exist.  They’ve wielded that weapon to great effect in our modern culture.

            We don’t have to look far and wide to find demons; they are perched on our left shoulder (guardian angels are on our right) and always knocking on our hearts.  They have a hand in all our sins and stupidity.  “Everyone makes fun of Catholics until they have a demon.”  Do you think Fr. Tom will like this homily-post on Facebook?  Haha, I win!

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Chain Gang

Praying the Holy Rosary daily
Luke 10:38-42

Jesus entered a village  where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak.  Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving?  Tell her to help me.”  The Lord said to her in reply, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.  There is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”
           One of the most frequent requests I receive every day is for prayer.  People ask me to pray for their sick grandmother, they ask me to pray when they’ve lost a job, they ask me to pray that they will find a good husband.  They even ask me to pray they win the lottery!  I say, “I’ll only do that on one condition: you must give 10% to the church if you win.”  Apparently, God must not like “conditional prayers” because no one has won yet!  How do I fulfill these prayer requests?  I tell people, “I’ll remember you on my rosary today.”  Then, I make sure I pray the rosary daily.  For me, the links of the rosary are like a huge chain that stretches between heaven and earth – our prayers go up the chain, carried in Mary’s arms, and God’s blessing come down the chain.  Everyone who prays the rosary makes up part of this holy “chain gang.”

            Sometimes, the popes ask for our prayers, too, sometimes they specifically ask we pray the rosary.  The most famous papal prayer request came from Pope Pius V, who asked all Christians to pray for victory in an important battle between Christians and Moslems on October 7, 1571.  The pope asked the whole Christian world to join this holy chain gang!  The Christians were victorious, and Pope Pius established today’s feast of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary on October 7.  It seems we need Mary’s rosary again today to defend ourselves against the radical Islamists, like ISIS.

            I bet I am not the only one who gets prayer requests; I bet you get plenty, too.  How do you fulfill them?  I hope you don’t just pay lip-service to that need by promising to pray but never really doing anything concretely.  Here’s the perfect answer: join the holy Chain Gang and pray the rosary every day!  I never walk out of the house without tucking the rosary into my pocket – and my cell phone, too, of course!  Some people hang their rosary from their rear-view mirror of their car.  That’s all fine and good, but none of that will be any good if we don’t pray that rosary, and if possible, pray it daily.  I always look forward to Thursdays now because Pope St. John Paul II added the 5 new Mysteries of Light to the rosary on Thursdays.  John Paul loved being on Mary’s chain gang!

            The Holy Rosary is the quintessentially Catholic prayer, only Catholics pray the rosary (or Catholic wannabes).  It’s a great blessing we have received.  It’s a blessing we should share with those who ask for our humble prayers in their need.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!