Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Cosmic Symphony

Integrating our lives into the symphony of the cosmos
Luke 24:13-35
That very day, the first day of the week, two of Jesus’ disciples were going to a village seven miles from Jerusalem called Emmaus, and they were conversing about all the things that had occurred. And it happened that while they were conversing and debating, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him.
          Do you remember Bishop Peter Sartain? He was our bishop for six years and he’s now the archbishop of Seattle. Whenever he would describe an issue or situation, he would say that things happen on different levels, and he would invite us to try to see those multiple levels. For example, a couple struggling in their marriage may also be undergoing a spiritual crisis, as well as financial turmoil, and may be even deep psychological grief. In other words, things are not as simple as they seem on the surface, or in Latin, “prima facie.” Now, the interesting thing is how Bishop Sartain would use his hands to illustrate these different levels, by moving his hands up and down. Bishop Sartain used his hands a lot to make his point, and it always made me wonder if he was Italian. Do you know how to test if someone is Italian? Ask them to talk while sitting on their hands.
          In the gospel today we see that Scripture should also be seen and interpreted on different levels. St. Luke tells the story of two disciples who encounter Jesus as they walk along and finally Jesus joins them for supper. That’s one level of the story. But there’s also a spiritual sense. If you sort of “step back” and look at the story as a whole, you’ll see two parts: first, Jesus explains the Scriptures, and second, Jesus breaks bread and eats with them. Can you think of any other experience that has these two parts: Scripture study and breaking bread? Of course, it’s what you are doing right now, the Mass. In other words, Luke is not only recounting a historical event, he’s also teaching a spiritual lesson: disciples will always encounter Christ in the Mass. The best way to experience the Bible, like life, is on different levels.
          My friends, let me invite you to see how your life is lived on various levels. Sometimes, we want to oversimplify things and say, “All that matters is money!” or “Just pray about it, and everything will be fine!” or “Everything depends on who will become president!” But life is not that simple. And then, after you see these various levels, try to integrate them, so that there is harmony and consistency throughout your day, and throughout your life, and on every level.
          Your life should be like a great symphony. Different instruments each playing its proper part – cellos, violins, trumpets and drums, politics, prayer, finances and family – each unique but integrated into the whole. That way, our lives become part of the much larger symphony of the cosmos praising its Creator. And by the way, who directs a symphony? A conductor does. And how does he conduct a symphony? He uses his hands.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

The Missing Miracle

Seeing the miracle of the Resurrection in the faith of Christians
John 20:1-9
On the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark,  and saw the stone removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him.” So Peter and the other disciple went out and came to the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and arrived at the tomb first; he bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in.
When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place. Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed.

           Today we celebrate the central mystery of our Christian faith, namely, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. In his Easter homily, Bishop Robert Barron said: “Jesus’ resurrection is the be-all and end-all of the Christian faith. If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, all of us bishops and priests should go home and get honest jobs.” I personally am glad Jesus rose from the dead because I have a job where I only work one day a week on Sundays! Thanks for the cool job, Jesus! St. Paul said something similar to the Corinthians: “If Christ has not been raised from the dead…we are the most pitiable of men” (1 Cor. 15: 17, 19). In other words, all Christianity depends on the resurrection; without it, the whole Christian enterprise would have all been a huge hoax perpetrated for two thousand years. I’ll never forget a Scripture professor in the seminary who dared to declare: “If they find the bones of Jesus and prove that he never rose from the dead, I’m going to find the first beautiful blonde I can and move to the Bahamas!” Don’t worry, all you beautiful blondes are safe from Scripture professors because of Jesus’ resurrection. But our faith really revolves around the resurrection; it is the be-all and end-all of Christianity.
          But here’s the remarkable thing about the resurrection: no one actually saw it happen. Do you realize that? The moment of the resurrection was entirely secret, hidden from all humanity; there are no eye-witnesses to it. The resurrection is the great missing miracle of our faith. People saw the multiplication of the loaves, they saw the water change into wine, they saw Lazarus rise from the dead. But no one saw the miracle of Jesus breaking the bonds of sin and death and bursting forth into life. They only saw him after the fact. Instead, what we do see is the miracle of faith: people who believe without seeing.
          In the gospel today, we see the first link in that chain of believers that stretches down the centuries, namely, Mary Magdalene. In fact, she is called “the Apostle to the Apostles” precisely because she was the first to declare that Jesus was no longer dead, but risen. Because of her faith, the apostles believed, and because of their faith, the rest of the world believed. You see, at the heart of our faith is a missing miracle; the only miracles we usually see is the faith of the Christians around us.
          Two little brothers were terrible trouble makers. They were always breaking things, stealing things, lying, and making all kinds of general trouble. The parents tried everything to get the boys to change, all to no avail. Finally, they asked their pastor if he could help. He said he would talk to the boys, but only one at a time. The parents dropped off the youngest with the pastor. The boy sat in a chair across from the pastor's desk and they just looked at each other. Finally, the Pastor said, "Where is God?" The boy just sat there and didn’t answer. The pastor began to look sternly and said more loudly, "Where is God?" The little boy shifted in his seat, but still didn’t answer. The pastor started to get angry at the boy's refusal to talk and so practically shouted "Where is God?" To the pastor's surprise, the little boy jumped up out of his chair and ran out of the office, ran through the church all the way home, up the stairs and into his brother's room. He slammed the door and panted, "We're in BIG TROUBLE this time. God's missing and they think we did it!" All kidding aside, sometimes it does feels like God is missing, and his miracles are missing. Haven’t you ever felt like crying out loud, “Where is God?! Have you ever thought: “Just let me see one miracle and I will believe!!”? Don’t worry, I have felt that way, too.
          You know, even though I haven’t seen too many miracles – at least not the kind of miracles you see in the movies – I have seen miracles of faith, especially in our parishioners. For example, as I look around this church I am inspired by the faith of widows and widowers facing their first Easter without their spouse; but they believe in the resurrection of Rosie Ciulla, John Anthony Williams, Eleanor Riser and David McMahon. Their faith is a miracle to me. I see single moms and single dads raising their families on their own, but without a partner to share the burdens and blessings with. Their faith is a miracle. I am humbled by immigrants who work long, laborious jobs just to make ends meet, constantly under the threat of being deported. Isn’t that kind of faith miraculous? I marvel at teens facing an unexpected pregnancy and who choose life, but also at teens who have not chosen life, but have learned how precious life is. They’ve see the miracle called “human life.” I am astonished by young men who want to be priests and not want to run off with the first beautiful blonde they see. There’s a miracle for you! I am in awe of priests who travel half way around the world, learn a new language, and eat fried catfish, collard greens and grits, in order to serve strangers. I see a miracle of faith in the 32 people who will become Catholic this Easter here at Immaculate Conception, overcoming obstacles and facing criticism because they’re following the Risen Jesus. You know, I don’t need to see the miracle of the Resurrection because every day I see the miracles of your faith, and that tells me that our Lord is alive.
          Listen to this profound prayer by John Henry Newman: “God has created me to do Him some definite service: he has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. I have my mission – I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told of it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good. I shall do his work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep his commandments. Therefore, I will trust him. Whatever, wherever I am. I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what he is about. He may take away my friends; he may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, he knows what he is about.” Folks, the next time you ask, “Where is God?? Where are the miracles??” may I suggest you look a little closer at the Christian sitting next to you.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Sins in the Grave

          Boys and girls, would you like to know what I hear in confession?  Well, this morning, I am going to tell you; I’m going to share with you some sample confessions.  Before I do, however, I want you to understand these are not actual confessions that I have heard in the confessional.  A priest should never, ever reveal what he hears in confessions.  He must take those sins to his grave.  Rather, I just looked on the internet, and found these sample confessions.  I share them with you in the hopes that they will jog your memory and help you to make a good confession, too.  I’ll give you three samples.
          Sample one: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned, I am a middle-aged woman who has 3 school-aged children and who works part time.  My last confession was five months ago and these are my sins.  I come to church almost every Sunday but I am easily distracted and often day dream or fall asleep.  I have grown indifferent to my husband.  I love my children and I take care of them but I must admit that I do not pay much attention to what they do or who they are with.  I can be very curt with them, maybe mean.  I tend to gossip often at work.  I don’t take good care of myself.  I rarely pray.  I seem to be telling a lot of lies lately.  I am sorry for these sins and the sins of my whole life.”
          Sample two: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.  I am a single woman who is working full time.  My last confession was 3 months ago, and these are my sins.  I told a few lies.  I was really mad at one of my co-workers so I started a rumor about her and I know that it hurt her reputation.  I do a lot of flirting for attention and sometimes dress quite seductively.  I got in the habit of taking small things from work.  I know it’s wrong but I do it anyway.  I still work too much, and though I made a commitment to get my life into balance, I don’t seem to be doing much about it.  I am sorry for these sins and the sins of my whole life.”
          Sample three: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.  I am a teenager who is a senior in high school.  I play a lot of sports.  My last confession was 10 months ago and these are my sins.  I missed Mass on Sunday at least 10 times.  I copy my friend’s homework because I am too lazy and too tired to do it.  I like to brag a lot because I have been a pretty successful athlete.  I take advantage of girls.  I give my parents a hard time.  I give the appearance of being a good friend, but I don’t really care about my friends very much.  I am sorry for these sins and the sins of my whole life.”

          Boys and girls, I hope these 3 sample confessions gave you an idea of what sins you, too, need to confess.  But I hope it also gives you some peace of mind in knowing that other people are not perfect either -- not your peers, not your parents and not even your priests -- that we are all sinners in need of a Savior.  Now, we’re all going to say our Act of Contrition together, and it’s a really short one that you can easily remember.  Just repeat after me: “Oh, my Jesus, have mercy on me, for I am a sinner.  Amen.”  One last item: non-Catholics are welcome to come talk to a priest, too, but let the priest know you are not Catholic when you walk in.  Good luck.

Albatross Necklace

Learning how our actions have consequences for others
Ezekiel 47:1-9, 12
The angel brought me, Ezekiel, back to the entrance of the temple of the LORD, and I saw water flowing out from beneath the threshold of the temple toward the east… He said to me, “This water flows into the eastern district down upon the Arabah, and empties into the sea, the salt waters, which it makes fresh.  Wherever the river flows, every sort of living creature that can multiply shall live, and there shall be abundant fish, for wherever this water comes the sea shall be made fresh. Along both banks of the river, fruit trees of every kind shall grow; their leaves shall not fade, nor their fruit fail. Every month they shall bear fresh fruit, for they shall be watered by the flow from the sanctuary. Their fruit shall serve for food, and their leaves for medicine.”
          Boys and girls, have you started to notice that what you do affects others, either positively or negatively? If you do something good, it blesses others; if you do something bad, it harms others. What I do impacts you. For instance, if I walked up and punched Dalton Smith in the nose, it would hurt him. And then he would probably punch me back. And then lightning would strike him from heaven and he would be fried to a crisp. Or, if I give a boring homily, you will fall asleep, as I see Ethan Martinez already has. A few days ago I helped Francesca Rossi with her geometry homework, and she got all the answers correct. What I do impacts you, my actions have consequences not only for me, but also for you; for good or ill, to bless or curse.
          In 1798 the great English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote a lengthy poem called “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” It’s about a sailor who shoots an albatross (a sea bird) and by that action curses and dooms the whole crew of the ship. As penance and punishment, they make him wear the dead albatross around his neck, an albatross necklace! Listen to these lyric lines: “Day after day, day after day, We stuck, nor breath nor motion; As idle as a painted ship, Upon a painted ocean. Water, water, every where, And all the boards did shrink; Water, water every where, Nor any drop to drink.” The undrinkable water was a symbol of how the mariner’s sinful actions carried the consequences of the curse to his crew-mates. Whatever I do, sooner or later, touches you, both for good and for bad.
          In the first reading from Ezekiel, we see water again symbolizing the consequences of actions, but this time as a beautiful blessing.  The water flows out from the Temple, and wherever it goes, there is life, like fruitful trees. And when it gets to the salt water, it even makes the salt water fresh. In the gospel we see the true Temple from which water flows is really Jesus himself. What he does blesses others, like healing the crippled man. But St. Paul will teach us that each Christian is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19) – we are to be like “mini-temples” – and waters of blessing should flow from us, touching and healing others. A Christian’s actions carry consequences, not only for the Christian, but also for the whole world.
          Boys and girls, I want you to think a little more deeply about what you do and what you don’t do, and how that affects others.  When you make poor choices – like cheat on a test, or when you spread rumors, or when you become lazy because it’s Springtime – those choices hurt others. But when you make good decisions – like pick up trash, or compliment others, or help the poor, or finish the year strong – those decisions bless others. Even choices you make in secret, when you think you are alone, are also ripples in the water that carry consequences to the farthest shores, to bless or to curse.
          Almost 200 years before Coleridge wrote “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” another English author, John Donne wrote “Meditation 17” but made the same point. He wrote: “No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.” “If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.”  You wouldn’t think a little clod of dirt slipping into the Atlantic Ocean would make much difference to a huge continent, and yet it does. And so too do your actions, and my actions, however small or secret, affect the continent of humanity.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Rembrandt to the Rescue

Running to our mother in this Year of Mercy
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Jesus told this parable: “A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father, ‘Father give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’ So the father divided the property between them. After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation. When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need. Coming to his senses he thought, ‘I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’ So he got up and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’ Then the celebration began.
          Archbishop Fulton Sheen tells the story of when he was a small boy and had a toothache. Have you ever had a toothache? They’re not very fun, are they? Well, the archbishop said, “Whenever I had a toothache, I would always go to my grandmother, never to my parents. My grandmother would put a little ointment on the tooth and make the pain go away. My parents, on the other hand, would take me to the dentist, and the dentist would poke and probe and pull and make the pain worse!” Does that story sound familiar, maybe happening in your own family? If you had a toothache, would you run to your mother or to your father? Most of us would answer, “I would run to mom!” Why? Well, because most mothers are merciful and tender and gentle. They just make the pain go away.
          My absolute favorite painting by the famous Dutch artist Rembrandt is titled, “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” Have you seen it?  If you had, you’d never forget it.  It was completed in 1667, just two years before he died, and so in many ways this embodied his crowning achievement. The painting captures the touching scene when the younger son (the prodigal son) returns home to beg his father’s forgiveness for wasting his wealth. In the painting, the son is kneeling in front of his father, with his head buried in his bosom. The father’s hands are on the son’s back and shoulder. But there’s something strangely symbolic in the father’s two hands. His left hand is clearly a man’s hand: strong, firm and authoritative. But his right hand is distinctively womanly: tender, soft, gentle and caring. Why these different hands? Well, Rembrandt wanted the father to depict God’s masculine but also feminine virtues: his justice but also his mercy. And nothing means mercy like a mother’s hand. That’s why we look for a mother’s hand when we suffer from a toothache.
          Today’s gospel is the great parable of mercy in Luke 15. This is the parable that Rembrandt immortalized in paint and canvas 350 years ago. Now, even though the point of the parable is mainly about mercy, there’s someone conspicuously missing, namely, the mother. Where is the mother of this family? If you were the prodigal son and you had to return home after how you had lived this profligate life, would you run to the arms of your father or your mother? I mean, the prodigal son’s problem and pain was a little worse than a toothache! Well, this is where Rembrandt comes to the rescue. Through his masterpiece he interprets this Scripture, and we see that the reaction of the father is both fatherly and motherly, both just and merciful, because the father’s hands are both masculine and feminine. In other words, the prodigal son’s father and mother are present in the parable embodied in the fabulous figure of the father, who is an earthly reflection of the heavenly Father. You see, the prodigal son really ran into the arms of his father and mother; the mother was not missing.
          You’ve heard by now that Pope Francis wants the Church to celebrate a Year of Mercy. What on earth is that? Well, it’s not just something on earth, but also something in purgatory. To put it simply, he wants us to take the place of the prodigal son in Rembrandt’s painting and feel the love of those two hands on our shoulders, especially the tender merciful hand of the mother. One way the pope wants us to feel God’s motherly mercy is by granting Catholics a “plenary indulgence.” Now, let me ask you, who indulges their children? Well, mostly mothers do, and grandmothers really do. When you indulge someone you give them what they desire, not what they deserve; you give them ice cream not broccoli.
          Now, let me be more specific. A plenary indulgence is like a “get out of jail free card,” because it excuses us from the punishment we deserve for sins in purgatory. But to obtain this plenary indulgence, you have to fulfill four conditions. First, you must go to confession and be in the state of grace. If you don’t like to go to confessions, you’re out of luck. You have to go to confession. Second, you must receive Holy Communion, preferably within Mass. Third, you must pray for Pope Francis – typically saying one Our Father and one Hail Mary for him suffices. And fourth, you must make a pilgrimage to an official “Holy Door,” which in Arkansas is located in Little Rock, at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church. If you fulfill those four conditions – confession, Communion, prayer for the pope and going through the Door – it will feel as if the pope has laid his right hand – the hand of motherly mercy – and indulged you as all good mothers and grandmothers do. This is why Catholics frequently refers to the Church as “holy Mother Church,” because in her arms we find the marvelous mercy of God.  Mother Church makes the pain of purgatory go away.
          You know, most people who behold Rembrandt’s masterpiece sit in front of it and try to imagine what it felt like to be the prodigal son, with the father’s two hands on their shoulders. In this Year of Mercy, however, you don’t have to imagine that at all, you can actually experience it first hand (pun intended!). If you fulfill the four conditions of the plenary indulgence, you can spiritually step into Rembrandt’s priceless painting, and into Jesus’ parable, and enter the warm embrace of the heavenly Father, and be wrapped in the mantle of God’s motherly mercy. Why? Because whenever you have a toothache, you run to your mother.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Ambulance Chasers

Becoming passionate about justice and Jesus

Mark 12:28-34
One of the scribes came to Jesus and asked him, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” Jesus replied, “The first is this: Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” The scribe said to him, “Well said, teacher. You are right in saying, He is One and there is no other than he. And to love him with all your heart, with all your understanding, with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered with understanding, he said to him, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” And no one dared to ask him any more questions.
          Lawyers often get a bad rap. And I should know because I am one of them, a church lawyer, or more precisely, a canon lawyer. They are pejoratively portrayed as “ambulance chasers,” looking to make money off someone else’s misery. Have you heard the old joke, “What do you call a plane full of lawyers that crashes and sinks to the bottom of the ocean?” The answer: “A good start.” But all that, I believe, is a gross exaggeration that just plays well on late-night television. Most lawyers are principled and passionate people who defend the rights of individuals and institutions in courts of law. In other words, they care about justice.
          As a prime example, we recently witnessed the passing of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a Catholic lawyer. His son, Fr. Paul Scalia, delivered the funeral homily. Fr. Scalia began with these words: “We are gathered here because of one man. A man known personally to many of us, known only by reputation to even more; a man loved by many, scorned by others; a man known for great controversy, and for great compassion. That man, of course, is Jesus of Nazareth.” Fr. Scalia went on to explain that his Dad was passionate not only about justice, but also about Jesus. You see, whenever a lawyer serves justice, he really serves Jesus.
          In the gospel today, St. Mark describes the encounter between a scribe – really a Jewish lawyer – and Jesus. The scribe asks Jesus’ opinion about which law is the greatest. In answer, Jesus gives him two great laws: the love of God and the love of neighbor. The scribe-lawyer was pleased with Jesus answer because he was thirsty for the truth. If you take time to read the whole 12th chapter of Mark, you’ll find it is filled Jewish experts and lawyers riddling Jesus with questions, who really were “ambulance chasers,” but not this attorney. And Jesus says to him (in contrast to the others), “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Every lawyer who serves justice “is not far from the kingdom of God” because they are not far from Jesus.
          Today, ask yourself this question: when I talk to people do I sometimes sound like a lawyer who’s an ambulance chaser? For instance, in your conversations with your spouse or your children or your boss, do you sound like you are you trying a case in court, cross-examining a witness, prosecuting a felon? Do you have to prove your point at all costs? Or, do you humbly admit you might be wrong and your spouse might be right? I mean, what lawyer ever concedes that his or her opponent might be right? That would be a lawyer who really serves justice, and in doing so, really serves Jesus. He or she thirsts for the truth, like the scribe in the gospel.
          Look at it this way: at your funeral Mass, do you want the priest to talk more about you or more about Jesus?

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Swinging a Toothpick

Learning to use our words wisely

Matthew 18:21-35
Peter approached Jesus and asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times. That is why the Kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt. At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’ Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan. When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe.’
          Boys and girls, you are growing powerful. Have you noticed that? For example, some of you have gained physical power, like when you play sports. Others are strong intellectually, with very sharp minds. Some are stunningly beautiful or handsome, which is also a special kind of power. Still others possess the ability to make people laugh, a sense of humor, which again wields much power. How are you using that new power: to help people or to harm them? You’ve probably experimented and done both, sometimes helping, sometimes harming, and that’s how you know you have this unique power.
          Let me tell you about another power that many people pass over, namely, the power of words. It is said that Shakespeare had a working vocabulary of 54,000 words. By contrast, most Americans have a working vocabulary of about 3,000 words. Shakespeare died in 1616, exactly 400 years ago this year, but we’re still reading his plays and poems. Will anyone read anything you or I write 400 years from now? I kinda doubt it. In other words, the power of Shakespeare’s words reaches across centuries to touch and tickle our ears today. That dude was powerful.
          On Sunday, I attended the 8 a.m. Vietnamese Mass in Barling. I felt like a Gringo in a Spanish Mass – clueless and very self-conscious. I felt very powerless and puny. But all of you who speak Vietnamese and Spanish wield the power of words in other languages. Don’t lose that power, but be careful how you use that power.
          Today’s gospel is really about how to wield our words in a way that helps rather than harms. The king employs words of clemency and compassion to a servant in debt to him. He forgives him. And it’s clear to everyone paying attention to the parable, that debtor should have done the same, but didn’t. Rather, his words were cruel and critical, “Pay back what you owe!” Both the king and the servant employed the power of words: one to help, the other to harm.
          In 1839, English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton coined the phrase, “the pen is mightier than the sword.” Have you heard that before? That means words do more damage than a sword that can cut off your head. Have you used your words like swords to harm other people? For instance, have you ever put a note in someone’s locker, saying scathing and scandalous things about them? The pen is mightier than the sword. Have you written on a bathroom wall in a way that made you feel powerful? The pen is mightier than the sword. Or rather, have you used your words to heal, to comfort, and to inspire others? The choice is in your hands, and on your tongue.
           Shakespeare was a master of 54,000 words, whereas you and I are masters of about 3,000 words. If Shakespeare brandished a sword, you and I are swinging toothpicks. Well, try to do some good with your toothpick.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Full Face

Knowing God so we can know ourselves

Exodus 3:1-2, 13-14
Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian. Leading the flock across the desert, he came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There an angel of the LORD appeared to Moses in fire flaming out of a bush. As he looked on, he was surprised to see that the bush, though on fire, was not consumed. So Moses decided, “I must go over to look at this remarkable sight, and see why the bush is not burned.”
Moses said to God, “But when I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ if they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what am I to tell them?” God replied, “I am who am.” Then he added, “This is what you shall tell the Israelites:  I AM sent me to you.”
          A year after I was ordained a priest, the bishop sent me back to school to study canon law. Apparently, I had not learned enough in seminary, so the bishop sent me to Catholic University of America to learn some more. It’s like catching a fish that’s too small to keep, so you throw it back and let it get bigger, then you catch it and eat it. The bishop was not ready to fry me up and eat me yet! While I was in Washington D.C., I got to tour the U.S. Capitol Building, and see the “House Chamber,” the large ornate hall where the House of Representatives meet. It was breath-taking, standing where presidents deliver their “State of the Union Address” and where our country’s laws are discussed, debated and decreed.
          But something surprising struck me along the walls of this hallowed room. There are reliefs of the twenty-three greatest law-makers in the history of the world, such as Hammurabi and Napoleon I and Thomas Jefferson. But one relief is different all from the rest. Twenty-two of the reliefs have only a side portrait, as if you’re seeing them from their shoulder and see only half their face. But only one showed his full face, from the front. The full face was that of Moses, the greatest law-giver of all time, who gave us not human laws but divine laws, the Ten Commandments.
          But I believe Moses did more than just give us another list of laws to obey, like Gaius and Maimonades did. Moses taught us that we can only be fully human when our lives are rooted in God. Only if we know God can we know ourselves. In other words, only if we have a relationship with God will we see our “full face,” otherwise, we see ourselves only as a side portrait; we see only half of us. You see, when man is cutoff from God, he not only doesn’t know God, he doesn’t really know himself; Without God, man is only half himself.
The first reading today presents precisely this dramatic moment in Moses’ life, his first encounter with God in the burning bush, and his encounter with himself. Notice how the story reveals not only the identity of God, but also the identity of Moses. First Moses asks God for his name, and God replies: “This is what you shall tell the Israelites: I AM sent me to you.” God’s name is that great and mysterious “I Am Who Am,” a name so holy to the Jews that they never even utter it out loud. It is symbolized by the four letters, “YHWH.” By the way, that was the first four letter word you shouldn’t say! But notice that God’s identity is not all that hangs in the balance in this sacred scene. Moses also asks, “But who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Moses asks God in effect, “Who am I?” because he knows only God can fully answer that question because God made him. Indeed, through his interaction with God in the remaining 37 chapters of Exodus, God reveals Moses’ deepest identity as “the most humble man on earth” (Numbers 12:3). You see, Moses not only came to know God in the burning bush, Moses also came to know himself; Moses saw his “full face” in the Face of God.
          A boy was sitting on a park bench with one hand resting on an open Bible. He was loudly exclaiming his praise to God. “Hallelujah! God is great!” Shortly after, along came a man recently graduated from college. Feeling very enlightened he was eager to educate the na├»ve young boy. He asked him why he was so happy. The boy said, “Don’t you have any idea what God is able to do? I just read that God opened up the waves of the Red Sea and led the whole nation of Israel right through the middle.” The man laughed lightly, sat down next to the boy to open his eyes to the realities of the so-called miracles of the Bible. He said, “That can all be explained because modern scholarship has shown that the Red Sea in that area was only 10 inches deep at that time. It was not problem for the Israelites to wade across.” The boy was stumped. He eyes wandered from the man back to the Bible in his lap. The man, content that he had enlightened the poor, ignorant boy, got up to go. All of a sudden, the boy began to rejoice even louder than before. The man asked again why he was so happy. The boy said, “God is greater than I thought! Not only did he lead the nation of Israel through the Red Sea, he topped it off by drowning the whole Egyptian army in 10 inches of water!” I guess that college graduate needed to go back to school to learn a little more; he was still a small fish. He needed to learn that without God you are only half yourself.
          Today I’m here to talk a minute about Trinity Junior High and to encourage you to send your children there. Of course we have superior academics: our Quiz Bowl team just won the state championship. By the way, they’ve won it 11 out of the last 12 years.  And the year we didn’t win, we didn’t compete.  We have excellent extracurricular activities like band and cheer, dance and basketball. We just hired Coach John Vitale to be the new head football coach. He’s been the head football coach at Van Buren high school. We’re blessed with dedicated and driven teachers and the St. Scholastica Sisters on the same campus praying for us daily.
          But our biggest blessing is that God is the classroom. Every day begins with a prayer. We have Mass every Tuesday, confession twice a year (actually, the students need confession every week!) and two weeks ago I led their annual retreat. Each teenage student asks himself or herself the same burning question that Moses did: “Who am I?” and Trinity Junior High is like the burning bush where God answers each student back in their hearts, revealing their deepest identity. Of course, at other schools students will learn math and science, history and economics, and play football and volleyball, but only in a Catholic school will they learn who they are; they will see their “full face.” Every other school will only give them a “side profile.” Without God, you are only half yourself.
          By the way, do you know where that full-face profile of Moses is placed in the House Chamber? It is on the wall directly opposite from where the president stands when he delivers his State of the Union Address. Moses faces the president. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder to each Commander-in-Chief of the only law-giver who has a full face: because Moses knew God, he knew himself. That’s something the president and each of us should keep in mind whenever we ask ourselves the question, “Who am I?”

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Number Two

Seeing the world through God eyes

Genesis 37:3-4, 12-13A
Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him a long tunic. When his brothers saw that their father loved him best of all his sons, they hated him so much that they would not even greet him. One day, when his brothers had gone to pasture their father’s flocks at Shechem, Israel said to Joseph,  “Your brothers, you know, are tending our flocks at Shechem. Get ready; I will send you to them.” So Joseph went after his brothers and caught up with them in Dothan. They noticed him from a distance, and before he came up to them, they plotted to kill him. They said to one another: “Here comes that master dreamer! Come on, let us kill him and throw him into one of the cisterns here; we could say that a wild beast devoured him. We shall then see what comes of his dreams.”
          Boys and girls, if you could pick between the following two options, which would you like or prefer? Listen carefully, and raise your hand if you like Number One or Number Two. First choice: would you like to be Superman or be a kindergartner? Second choice: would you rather have a vacation in Disney World or play in your back yard? Third choice: would you prefer to be the pope or to be an altar server? Fourth choice: someday would you like to drive a Hummer or drive a Fort Escort? Fifth choice: would you rather be Peyton Manning and win the Superbowl or be Fr. John and throw the football with the Immaculate Conception students at recess? Now, here’s the last choice: would you prefer to live in a castle or live in a tent? Most people would choose Superman, Disney World, the pope, the Hummer, Peyton Manning and a castle. But what do you think God would choose? How many think that God would choose option Number One or option Number Two? It’s kinda strange, but if you study the Bible carefully and watch Jesus closely, you’ll see that God usually picks Number Two, not Number One.  God thinks differently than we do.
          This is the point of the story of Joseph and the coat of many colors. Joseph is the youngest son, the runt of the litter, of Jacob, who had 12 sons. Joseph’s 11 older brothers were stronger and bigger and smarter and had more toys than Joseph did. They probably drove Hummers. All Joseph had were his dreams and a really cool coat. Now, this wasn’t part of the story today, but later we learn whom does God chooses to save the whole family. It wasn’t Ruben or Judah or any of the other 11, but it was little Joseph. It’s so strange, but God often picks Number Two – or in this case Number 12 – to do his will. God often chooses very differently than we do.
          Boys and girls, I want to tell you a little secret. No one person will be good at everything. You may be good at some things, but you’re not good at everything. For example, raise your hand if you’re NOT good at basketball. Now raise your hand if you’re not good at spelling. Raise your hand if you’re not very good with math – don’t worry, I’m not either! How many of you are not good at learning Spanish? Raise your hand if you’re not good at English! Now, does that mean that God does not love you? No, it means exactly the opposite. God always and especially loves those whom the world ignores to do his will. You are like Joseph, and God has a very special plan for your life.
          Boys and girls, as you look around at the world, you know what you like – Superman, the pope and castles. But also ask yourself: what does God like? You might see a very different world.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Tasting Blood

Embracing adversity as a means to grow
Isaiah 1:10, 16-20
Hear the word of the LORD, princes of Sodom! Listen to the instruction of our God, people of Gomorrah! Wash yourselves clean! Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes; cease doing evil; learn to do good. Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow. Come now, let us set things right, says the LORD: Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; Though they be crimson red, they may become white as wool. If you are willing, and obey, you shall eat the good things of the land; But if you refuse and resist, the sword shall consume you: for the mouth of the LORD has spoken!
          I want to thank everyone who filled out the surveys after the retreat last week. You’ll be happy to know that to the questions, “What did you enjoy MOST about the retreat?” everyone answered, “The long movie!” No, I’m just kidding. Actually, the only person who liked the movie was Patrick Jones. Patrick knew the answer to my question: “Why did Msgr. O’Flaherty ask Col. Kapplar for his signature?” He said, “So he could forge it!” By the way, a huge congrats to our Quiz Bowl Team on their victory as State Champs; I am very proud of you.
          But do you know why I made you watch that long and complicated movie? Well, so you’d know a little about what happened in Rome during WWII. But also to test your endurance, to push you out of your comfort zone, to make you suffer a little. There’s an old saying, “Whatever doesn’t kill you only makes your stronger.” Adversity, struggle, suffering makes you bigger and better. There are four captains on the Southside Rebel football team this year. Do you know where all four of those captains went to junior high? It wasn’t Ramsey, or Chaffin, or Greenwood. It was Trinity. Do you know what happened when they played football at Trinity? They got their faces mashed in; they tasted blood in their mouths. But that adversity only made them stronger and better, faster and smarter. A retreat is about growing as a person, and nothing helps you grow like adversity, just like manure is helps flowers to grow.
          This is the same point that Isaiah makes in the first reading: adversity makes you grow and can even purify you and make you holy. Isaiah prophesies that the Jews will be deported into bondage during the Babylonian Captivity. They will lose their lands and they will suffer as slaves. But, he says, this adversity will also purify you. He writes: “Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; though they be crimson red, they may become white as wood.” In other words, through their adversity and suffering, they will become stronger and better and holier. That Babylonian Captivity was like a retreat for the Jews, and they were purified as the People of God.
          Boys and girls, you are constantly confronted with choices; you can do A or you can do B. Well, don’t always choose the easy and comfortable and pleasant path. Sometimes choose adversity and difficulty. For example, choose the AP subject instead of the normal subject.  If you’re good at math, take more English.  If you’re good at English, take more math. Eat the salad and vegetables instead of the cheese pizza. Be friends with someone no one talks to instead of hanging out with the cool kids. Play football at Trinity instead of Chaffin. In other words, taste a little blood in your mouth – it will make you bigger, stronger, better and holier.
          Let me conclude with this poem by Robert Frost that captures this point far more eloquently. It is called “The Road Not Taken.”
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth
Then took the other, just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden back.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by
And that has made all the difference.
          Boys and girls, it’s not so bad to taste a little blood in your mouth by adversity; it can make all the difference in your own life.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

The Flaming Brazier

Accepting our lot as imperfectly perfect Christians
Genesis 15:5-6, 17-18
The Lord God took Abram outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so,” he added, “shall your descendants be.” Abram put his faith in the LORD, who credited it to him as an act of righteousness.
 When the sun had set and it was dark, there appeared a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch, which passed between those pieces. It was on that occasion that the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying: “To your descendants I give this land,  from the Wadi of Egypt to the Great River, the Euphrates.”
          Do you suffer from perfectionism – that desire to be perfect in your life: to be the perfect husband, the perfect wife, the all-A student, the quarterback who never throws an interception, the priest who always gives a great homily, etc? We all feel a little of that push to be perfect, don’t we? I think the best antidote for such perfectionism is to mess up and then be able to laugh at yourself after you do.
          Several years ago, I was in a chapel attending a small Mass with just a group of priests, no lay people. That meant the priests themselves had to be the lectors and altar server, etc., and I got to be the lucky lector. That day, the first reading was exactly the same as today’s first reading from Genesis 15, but the translation was the older translation, before it was revised a few years ago. You may have noticed that today’s reading says, “There appeared a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch, which passed between those pieces.” The older version, however, had this: “there appeared a smoking fire pot and a flaming brazier, which passed through those two pieces.”  But when I said the word “b-r-a-z-i-e-r” I accidentally said, “a flaming brassiere.” Well, you can just imagine the laughter among my brother priests. So, what did I do? I wrote to the pope and explained the problem with that word, and that’s why he ordered that a new translation of the Bible should be used at the Mass. And now it reads, “A flaming torch.” So, all you lectors: you’re welcome! Here’s another example of imperfectionism. How many lectors have accidentally introduced today’s second reading by saying, “St. Paul’s letter to the Philippinos” instead of “to the Philippians”? When you mess up in front of a church full of people on Sunday, you are instantly cured of perfectionism. You know, every time I try too hard to be perfect, I just remember that “flaming brazier” and I feel very humbled and very imperfect. Sometimes the best we can do is to be imperfectly perfect.
          In the gospel today, we see Peter’s faltering attempts to be perfect as well. Peter is overcome with joy at Jesus’ Transfiguration and blurts out, “Master, it is good that we are here; let’s make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” The gospel goes on to add, “But he did not know what he was saying.” In other words, Peter was babbling. I bet James and John frequently reminded Peter about that incident, especially if his head was getting a little too big. And I’m sure now many of YOU will never let me forget Genesis 15! Peter’s imperfections are on public display in the gospels, but he was also able to laugh at himself when he saw his imperfections. I am convinced that Peter was the foundation of the Church NOT because he was perfect, but because he was humble, and he could laugh, and he could love. You see, Jesus is far more pleased with humility than perfection; that we struggle to be imperfectly perfect disciples.
          My friends, we are now into the second full week of Lent. It’s early enough in Lent that if you haven’t decided your Lenten resolution, it’s not too late. May I suggest that you work on rooting out perfectionism this Lent? Look at your faults and foibles and be able to laugh at yourself; don’t take yourself so seriously when you mess up. Now, don’t misunderstand me. I do NOT mean we shouldn’t try hard, or strive to be better, or that you should settle for mediocrity. By all means, be great! But when you mess up – and you WILL mess up – be able to laugh at yourself, and move on. One of the great saints said, “We will only stop struggling with lust six minutes after we’re in the grave.” In other words, there is no perfection on this side of the grave; we’re doing good to be imperfectly perfect Christians.
          And that goes for other people, too. Have you ever looked at someone else and thought: “Wow! There goes a perfect family! He’s the most caring husband, and she’s a gorgeous and giving wife! Their children are only seen and not heard, and a huge house and cool cars!” Well, let me share the same advice that Fr. Clayton Gould once gave me. He said, “John, everyone is normal until you get to know them.” Let me repeat that: “Everyone is normal until you get to know them.” Once you get to know someone – not just from a distance but up-close and personal – you realize they have problems and pitfalls, peculiarities, too. In other words, the “Jones next door,” are also striving to be imperfectly perfect.
          A few weeks ago, my mom asked me a very hard question. She said she tries very hard to pray when she goes to Adoration but she gets distracted. She wanted to know how to overcome distraction. I said, “Well, mom, I’m not sure we can overcome distraction in prayer, but maybe a distracted prayer is better than no prayer at all.” I explained further: “When I was a little boy, I used to bring you pictures I drew and I would sing songs for you. Those pictures and songs were far from perfect, but you love them anyway. I think that’s how God looks at our distracted prayers. He knows they’re the best we can do – and we utter them with love – and he accepts them with a smile.” You see, God the Father happily accepts our distracted and imperfect prayers.
          I’m not sure if this homily inspired anyone to become a lector at Mass. Who wants to mess up like Fr. John did?? But I do hope this homily helped some of you to keep struggling to be a better Christian; not to give up when you mess up. Folks, there is no perfection on this side of heaven; there are only priests trying to pronounce “brazier.”

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Pope in Fort Smith

Trinity Junior High School Retreat
Did you happen to hear where the pope is this week?  He’s just south of the border in Mexico.  And do you know who he’s visiting while he’s in Mexico?  He’s going to the poorest places, to the slums, where there’s violence and corruption, where drug lords and gang leaders run the town not the mayor or the police.  He’s not going to Cancun or Puerta Vallarta and sit on the beach to work on his tan; he’s not visiting the rich and famous.  Imagine for a minute you are the pope -- wearing a white robe and a little white beenie -- and could fly anywhere in the world, where would you go?  Would you go to the poorest places or the richest resorts?  If Pope Francis came to Fort Smith, which part of town do you think he would visit?
          Now, when he visits a town, what does he do there?  Well, he invariably celebrates Mass.  Why?  Well, that’s just what Catholics do, who knows why?!  The reason Catholics do that, especially the pope, is because the Mass is the most excellent expression of Jesus’ love for us.  And because Jesus is “emotionally intelligent,” he’s made sure the Mass contains all five “love languages” that we’ve learned today.  He knows we don’t all speak the same love language.  You see, the pope doesn’t just celebrate Mass in Spanish and English and Polish, he also knows the languages of “words of affirmation,” and “physical touch,” and “gifts” and “quality time” and finally “acts of service.”
          Can you find the five love languages in the Mass?  Where is “words of affirmation”?  After the priest reads the gospel, we all say, “Praised be to you, Lord Jesus Christ!”  We affirm Jesus -- we praise him -- with our words.  Where is “physical touch”?  At the sign of peace, we turn to our neighbor and shake their hands.  Some families hug.  We touch each other.  What about “quality time”?  Well, we should be giving Jesus our undivided attention at Mass -- not thinking about the cute girl sitting in front of us!  Mass time is Jesus time.  Where do we see “acts of service” at Mass?  Well, just look at our lectors, altar servers and cantors.  We don’t pay them to do that; they serve us and Jesus as a language of love.  Finally, “gifts” -- where are they?  We bring up the gifts of bread and wine, and Jesus gives us the gift of himself in Holy Communion.  The Mass is a holy exchange of gifts because Jesus knows how to speak that love language fluently.
          Boys and girls, the Mass is a masterpiece of love: because Jesus has mastered all five love languages, and he speaks them in the Mass, and we’ll catch them if we pay careful attention.  The Good Lord knows each of us has our own love language, and so he speaks to us in our native tongue, just like the pope speaks Spanish while he’s in Mexico, and English when he came to the United States.  Every time you attend Mass, try to catch examples of the five love languages.  They will speak to your heart, because Jesus doesn’t want you to miss how much he loves you.  And that, by the way, is why the pope celebrates Mass everywhere he goes.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Duel with the Devil

Learning life verses to save our lives
Luke 4:1-4
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and when they were over he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, One does not live on bread alone.”
          I would like to begin with a little confession this morning. Don’t get too excited, I didn’t kill anybody. Sometimes, when I drive around town, I’ll turn on the radio and listen to local Protestant preachers. Please don’t tell the pope! Now, I’m not listening for the “substance” of their sermon, but rather I am listening for the “style” of their sermon. In business, they call this finding “best practices,” that is, learning from other companies and competitors. I can’t tell you how often Protestant preachers have given me some of the best stories, jokes, analogies and anecdotes that I’ve used in my own homilies.
          For example, one day a preacher was explaining the importance of learning a “life verse” from the Bible. Have you ever heard of a “life verse”? Well, if you listened to Protestant preachers more, you would have! He said that every Christian should memorize at least one verse of the Bible and use it to guide his or her life. This verse should be deeply meaning to you; it should speak to your heart. You should repeat it every day and it will serve as a “compass” to keep you from getting lost. When I heard that, I thought, “What a great idea!” And then I thought, “Now, what is the shortest verse in the Bible so I can memorize it and remember it??” Do you know which verse is the shortest? It is John 11:35. It reads, “Jesus wept.” And the reason Jesus wept is because Catholics pick the shortest verse of the Bible to memorize! Well, if that’s the best you can do, at least it is a start. But the real reason to have a “life verse” is because someday it may save your life.
          Today’s gospel is about Jesus’ temptation in the desert, where he duels with the devil. The devil throws three temptations at Jesus: (1) he urges him to change stones into bread, (2) he offers him all the wealth of the nations, and (3) he dares him to flex his divine muscles by jumping off the parapet of the temple. And how did Jesus defend himself? Apparently, Jesus also enjoyed listening to Protestant preachers, because he pulled out his life verses! He quoted the Old Testament three times and ultimately left the devil dumbfounded and dejected. In other words, Jesus’ life verse saved our Lord’s life in his duel with the devil in the desert. Maybe your life verse should be one of Jesus’ own life verses, namely, Luke 4:4, “Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone’.” That is, don’t just live for material things, but also seek spiritual things, like “every word that comes from the mouth of God.” I’m sure Jesus would be happy to let you borrow his own life verse.
          May I share with you a few examples of Bible verses that are especially meaningful to me? I really like Romans 5:20, which reads, “Where sin abounds, there grace abounds all the more.” That gives me great comfort when I see sin sort of “abounding” in my life, because I know if I look hard enough, God’s grace is around and abounds even more. Folks, remember that there is always more grace than sin in your life, you just need eyes of faith to see it. Here’s a popular verse you see everywhere, Philippians 4:13, where St. Paul says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” If you find God is sending you more crosses than you have shoulders to carry them, remember Philippians 4:13, and you’ll find strength even if you lack shoulders! Here’s my personal life verse, it’s also from Philippians 4:8, which reads, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about these things.” That’s a pretty cool one, don’t you think? But I’ve already claimed that one; so go find your own.
          My friends, Jesus shows us a simple way to defeat the devil today: learn a life verse. It will save your life in your mortal combat with the devil. And if enough Catholics learn life verses, it won’t just be a “Protestant thing” anymore; it may also become a “Catholic thing.” In any case, it is a really “Christian thing.”

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Dumb Question

Being fearless in asking questions
Matthew 9:14-15
The disciples of John approached Jesus and said, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast much, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus answered them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”
          Children love to ask questions. And they love to ask lots of questions. And sometimes they even answer their own questions. Here are some samples of their sagacity. One child asked, “Why do pandas like old movies?” The answer: “Because they are black and white.” Another question: “When does a doctor get mad?” Answer: “When she runs out of patients.” Here’s a clever one: “Is swimming good for your figure?” Answer: “If swimming is good for your figure, explain whales to me.” And here’s my favorite: “What kind of lighting did Noah use on the Ark?” Answer: “He used floodlights!”
          These are humorous examples, of course. But children also ask serious questions, like “Why can’t we see God?” and “Where do babies come from?” and “Who wrote the Bible?”  Good questions! Over the course of my 20 years as a priest, I’ve learned that not all questions have answers, at least that I know. Some answers will only be found in heaven. But it’s still good to ask the question, you never know what you might learn.
          In the gospel today, John’s disciples ask Jesus a question. They ask: “Why do we and the Pharisees fast much but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus gives a cryptic answer in calling himself the “Bridegroom,” and that it is not customary to fast when the Groom is present. What’s the point? Well, notice how a seemingly simple question prompted Jesus to divulge his deepest identity. He is the heavenly Bridegroom who has come to earth to claim his Bride, the Church. This was a little more important than knowing what kind of lights Noah used on the Ark! But you’ll never know the answer unless you ask the question. I bet Jesus loved it when people asked him questions! And those fortunate people didn’t have to wait till heaven to get their answers.
          Some people think there are “dumb questions,” but I don’t. Do you think it’s a dumb question to ask, “What was God doing before he created time?” One religious retort was, “He was creating Hell for people who ask dumb questions.” But I believe that’s the farthest thing from the truth. In his book, The Universe in a Nutshell, Stephen Hawking explained that precisely that “dumb question” -- What was God doing before he created time? -- inspired the greatest minds, like Albert Einstein, to rethink the nature of space and time and discover the theories of “general relativity” and “quantum mechanics.” In other words, there are no “dumb questions.” In fact, there are only two kinds of questions: Good questions and those questions you didn’t ask. As soon as you ask the question, it becomes a good one. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, you never know what you might learn. Now, as for the answers, some of those you’ll only find in heaven.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Turning Heads

With gratitude to the Sisters of St. Scholastica
Matthew 25: 1-13
Jesus said: “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones, when taking their lamps, brought no oil with them, but the wise brought flasks of oil with their lamps. Since the bridegroom was long delayed, they all became drowsy and fell asleep. At midnight, there was a cry, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ Then all those virgins got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise ones replied, ‘No, for there may not be enough for us and you. Go instead to the merchants and buy some for yourselves.’ While they went off to buy it, the bridegroom came and those who were ready went into the wedding feast with him. Then the door was locked. Afterwards the other virgins came and said, ‘Lord, Lord, open the door for us!’ But he said in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
          Much has been written about the rich but also rocky relationships between men and women. As a priest who counsels couples, I’ve read a few of those books. Few things take up as much of our time, talents and treasure than managing our relationships with those of the opposite sex. One such book is called Me
n are from Mars, Women are from Venus. It certainly feels like we’re from different planets, sometimes! Another is called Love and Respect and explores how women crave love and tenderness while men seek respect and admiration. You know how big a man’s ego can get! But the most valuable lesson I’ve learned about love came from the movie, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” The bride is having cold feet the night before the wedding, and her mother gives her a little advice. She says, “Dear, there are only two things you need to remember about marriage. First, the man is the head of the house. Second, the woman is the neck. And the neck can turn the head.” We often hear it said that the man is the “head” while the woman is the “heart,” and that’s certainly true. But I would suggest to you that a woman’s best role is symbolized by being the neck. By the way, that’s what we mean when we say a woman can “turn heads.” In case you didn’t know that.
          Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Scholastica, and what a special blessing to be at St. Scholastica Monastery for this Mass! There’s no other place I’d rather be today. It’s hard to talk about St. Scholastica without making mention of her twin brother, St. Benedict. I only want to point out one aspect of St. Scholastica’s life, namely, that she embodies all that’s best in how a woman should relate to a man. (Pay attention, ladies!) I don’t know if she ever read Love and Respect, or Men are from Mars, or watched “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” but Scholastica knew how to deal with Benedict in a way that was a blessing to both. In the famous book, The Dialogues of St. Gregory the Great, we read about the last time St. Scholastica went to visit St. Benedict. By that time, they had both founded monasteries and were coming to the end of their lives. Because women were not allowed inside the monastery, Benedict and a few monks met St. Scholastica outside the monastery, in a nearby farmhouse. When evening came, Benedict got up to go – because his “rule” required him to spend the night inside the monastery – but Scholastica begged him to stay longer. When he refused, she fell to her knees to pray. Suddenly, a severe thunderstorm broke out and Benedict was forced to remain in the farmhouse all night. Benedict cried out, “God forgive you, Sister! What have you done?” Scholastica replied, “I asked a favor of you and you refused. I asked it of God and he granted it.” I believe this is what that wise Greek mother meant when she said, “The man is the head but the woman is the neck, and the neck can turn the head.” Didn’t St. Scholastica turn Benedict’s head to more spiritual matters in their long, nocturnal conversation? And if this doesn’t sound too irreverent, didn’t St. Scholastica even turn God’s head by her prayer, and his answer of the thunderstorm? You see, wise women know how to turn a man’s head, and the wisest women turn men’s heads to heaven.
          Would you indulge me for a moment and allow me to add a few personal points about St. Scholastica and this magnificent monastery? I would like to just say three things. First, as Administrator of Trinity Junior High, just down the hill from you, I feel very blessed every time I drive on this monastery campus. You consecrated women turn this priest’s head when I look up the hill and know you are praying for me and our school. You’ve done more than pray; you’ve also supported us financially, and you even attend our school functions, like the “Men in Black versus the Boys in Blue” Quizbowl (although I couldn’t tell who exactly you were cheering for!). Whenever we see you, you turn our heads to think of heaven. Secondly, your monastery is a landmark in this community. Even John Bell, the renowned Fort Smith painter, has immortalized the monastery with oil and canvas. You turn the heads of the people of Fort Smith to think of heaven. And third, you are embarking on a campaign to build a new monastery for your future. Be assured of my prayers and support for the success of this campaign. But may I also ask you a favor? Whatever you build and however your future unfolds, don’t stop “turning heads” to heaven: that is your purpose, that is your power, and that should be your pride. Wise women know how to turn a man’s head, and the wisest women, like St. Scholastica, always turn a man’s head to heaven.
          Today’s gospel from Matthew 25 is very apropos to this feast of St. Scholastica. Let me ask you: what made the wise virgins so “wise” and the others so “foolish”? Well, the wise were always ready for the Bridegroom; they never took their eyes off heaven. The fools looked away, they got distracted, and finally they were left out of the wedding. The real purpose and the real power of the wise virgins – and really of all wise women – is to keep their eyes on heaven, and to turn our heads to heaven, too. My dear Sisters of St. Scholastica, keep turning our heads to heaven, but if you don’t mind, please don’t give us whiplash.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Freddy Kreuger’s Lent

Never going away in the battle to be better
Joel 2:12-14
Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God. For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment. Perhaps he will again relent and leave behind him a blessing, Offerings and libations for the LORD, your God.
          What is the worst thing in the world? Well, if you’re a Catholic, you might answer that the worst thing in the world is a “mortal sin.” Why? Well, we believe that if you die with a mortal sin on your soul, you will go to hell. And that’s pretty bad. But I think there’s something even worse than a mortal sin, namely, discouragement, giving up the struggle to be good. Have you ever felt like giving up in the battle to be better? Don’t worry, I have felt that way, too.
          Nick Saben, the coach of the Alabama football team, once made this crazy comment: “What makes Freddy Kreuger such a horrible character? What makes him scare you to death? You can’t get rid of that guy. He never goes away.” Do you recall Freddy Kreuger, the ugly serial killer who shows up in your dreams? Coach Saben was telling his players never to give up, to be resilient and relentless, to “never go away” in a football game. That’s one thing that makes the Crimson Tide a great football team, and also why they’re so ugly.
          This is one of the great lessons of Lent: don’t give up in the battle to be better. For 40 days we’ll make some sacrifice or do some charity or pray more. But does that mean that after 40 days you’ll be perfect and never do anything wrong again? No. There’s no perfection on this side of the grave. That’s why we receive ashes on our foreheads today: to remind us we’ll only be perfect after we turn to ashes, after we die. One great saint said, “We’ll stop struggling with lust only 6 minutes after we’re in the grave.” So, what is the point of Lent? It is part of the battle to be better; that is, just try to be a little better by Easter than you were on Ash Wednesday. Like Coach Saben said, “never go away,” never give up.
          This Lent instead of giving up chocolate or chai latte or Cheerios, pick a sin you’d like to work on overcoming. Maybe it is lust and watching inappropriate things on the internet, or maybe it’s criticizing and complaining, or maybe it’s being lazy and a couch potato, maybe you need to tame your temper. And for 40 days be like a dog with a bone in the battle to be better. You’re not going to be perfect by Easter – you’ll only be perfect after you turn to ashes – but that’s doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. “What makes Freddy Kreuger such a horrible character? What makes him scare you to death? You can’t get rid of the guy. He never goes away.” My friends, “never go away” in the battle to be better.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Nice Boys

Learning how to be a better friend
Luke 5:1-8
While the crowd was pressing in on Jesus and listening to the word of God, he was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret. He saw two boats there alongside the lake; the fishermen had disembarked and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, he asked him to put out a short distance from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. After he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” Simon said in reply, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets.” When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish and their nets were tearing. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come to help them. They came and filled both boats so that the boats were in danger of sinking. When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
          One of the most precious and priceless joys of life is a true friend. Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, extolled friendship saying, “Without friends, no one would want to live, even if he had all other goods.” That is, life would be worthless without friends. Wouldn’t you agree? When I was in high school, our principal, Fr. George Tribou, told us if we had three good friends in life, we should count ourselves very lucky. I remember s
coffing at that, thinking, “Well, if I was a crotchety old priest like you I would be worried about friends, too! But look at me: I’m a handsome, strapping, young man. I’m the king of the world! Everybody wants to be my friend!” But now that I’m the crotchety old priest, I realize that Fr. Tribou was right: true friendships are few and far between. How many good friends do you have, I mean really good friends?
          One of the great blessings of friendship is that we can be ourselves with our friends. We don’t have to “put on airs” or pretend to be someone we’re not. With our friends, we can finally relax deep down. One night a teenage girl brought her new boyfriend home to meet her parents, and they were appalled by his appearance: he wore a leather jacket, motorcycle boots, tattoos, and had a pierced nose. Later, the parents pulled their daughter aside and confessed their concerns. “Dear,” said the mother diplomatically, “he doesn’t seem very nice.” “Oh, please, mom,” replied the daughter dismissively, “if he wasn’t nice, why would he be doing 500 hours of community service?” I mean, don’t all nice boys do 500 hours of community service? Friendships are precious and priceless.
          In the gospel today we see what happens when Jesus becomes Peter’s best friend. Bishop Robert Barron noted the great significance of Jesus climbing into Peter’s boat. He said: “When Jesus entered into Peter’s boat, he also entered profoundly into Peter’s life.” You see, Peter’s boat was his livelihood, and it would be like someone getting into your car, they would be getting into your private space, invading your personal life. But notice the two amazing things that happen next. First, Jesus blesses Peter with an extraordinary catch of fish. Jesus’ friendship often brings great blessings, sometimes even worldly blessings. Just look at me: I scored being pastor of Immaculate Conception Church! How cool is that?? But secondly, Peter becomes keenly aware of his own sinfulness. The gospel records, “Peter fell at the knees of Jesus and said, ‘Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man’.”  In other words, when Jesus becomes our friend, when he gets in our boat and into our lives, we not only can be ourselves, but we also can see ourselves. And what we see is our sins; that we, too, probably need to do 500 hours of community service. Scott Hahn often says that “Jesus loves us just the way we are, but he loves us too much to let us stay that way.” Like all true friendships, becoming friends with Jesus changes us for the better. Friendships are precious and priceless, and none moreso than Jesus’ friendship.
          Now, let me turn the tables and ask the question from another direction. We know Jesus is a faithful friend to us, but what kind of friend are we to him? Do we treat Jesus as well as we treat our other friends? For instance, we stay up till 2 am texting our friends, but how late have we stayed up talking with Jesus in prayer? A friend of mine begins to yawn as soon as he makes “The Sign of the Cross.” We love to “retweet” and “share” and “like” what our friends post on social media, but when was the last time you shared something Jesus said or did on social media? Before we make major decisions, like who to vote for as president, we talk to our friends and we ask their advice and we listen to their counsel. Sometimes we even vote like they do. But have we sought Jesus’ opinion about who should be the next president? Who would your friend, Jesus, vote for, do you think? Would Jesus be proud of how you will cast your vote? We “creep” on our friends’ Facebook to see what they are doing, but do we “creep” on the Bible (God’s Facebook) to see what Jesus did? In other words, what would you think of a friend who only wanted to see you for an hour on Sunday (and he often would leave early), a friend who only called you when he needed something or when he was in trouble, a friend who always blamed you whenever anything went wrong? He or she wouldn’t be much of a friend, would they? I guess Fr. Tribou was right even about Jesus’ friends; if Jesus had 3 good friends in life, he should consider himself very lucky indeed.
          This coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, and the beginning of Lent. This year, instead of giving up chocolate or alcohol or watching T.V., do something to work on your friendship with Jesus. That’s what Lent is really all about. Ask yourself: what can I do this Lent to be a better friend to Jesus, to become one of his good friends? And if you can’t think of anything else, maybe you can start with 500 hours of community service, as, you know, all the nice boys do.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!