Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Hopeless As Hell

Seeing the grace and hope in every situation  

Isaiah 11:1-10  
           On that day, A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him: a Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, A Spirit of counsel and of strength, a Spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD, and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD.   

          I have a firm conviction that there are no hopeless situations. That is, I believe no matter how bad, or how sad, or how dark or how depressing life gets, there is always hope. Why is that? Well, because I am convinced there is a grace – a spark of goodness and of God – in everything. I absolutely believe this.   

          To test this theory, let’s look at the most hopeless place of all, namely, hell. Who can forget that famous inscription above the doors to hell that Dante reads before entering hell in the Inferno. It states, almost as if the doors were talking to us: “Through me you pass into the city of woe: Through me you pass into eternal pain…Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” I remember one friend in seminary who posted those words above his dormitory door, “Abandon all hope!” But is even hell without hope? One of the great theologians of the last century, Hans Urs von Balthasar, argued that we can have a “reasonable hope” that all will be saved. Notice, he did not say that everyone will in fact be save, indeed, some may not, but it is not unreasonable to hope for that. Why did he say that? Well, because there is grace everywhere, so there is hope everywhere. Even Dante, when he entered beneath those dark doors, did not abandon all hope – he emerged on the other side a holier and more hopeful man.   

          In the first reading today, we see the root of all our hope, namely, in the prophesy of Isaiah. The prophet foretells: “On that day, a Shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse and from his roots a bud shall blossom.” Isaiah is predicting the future Messiah, of course. But notice the imagery is one of virtual hopelessness – a lifeless stump – like the admonition on the gates of hell, “abandon all hope.” And yet Isaiah did not abandon all hope. Why? Because there is grace everywhere, thanks to the coming of the Messiah. You see, with the coming of Christ, “hope springs eternal in the human breast; Man never is, but always to be blessed,” as Alexander Pope poetically put it. With Jesus, there is always hope.

          My friends, I offer this message to you when you face supposedly hopeless situations. Please know there is a grace in every moment, and that grace should give you hope. Sometimes we feel we have sinned so much God will never be able to forgive us, maybe we’ve even procured an abortion. That’s why the pope let priests for give abortions: so people feel like there’s always hope. Some people struggle with same-sex attraction, or a family member does. They feel it’s hopeless to remain a good Catholic under those conditions. I say don’t give up hope, keep trying to do the right thing. When a Catholic gets divorced, they feel marriage is hopeless and want to give up on love. But I believe there is a grace in every moment, even the moment of divorce, a grace that helps us grow closer to Christ. Perhaps your children have stopped going to church and Mass. Don’t give up hope: even if they are not searching for God, God is searching for them.  Maybe you are terminally ill and feel hopeless; there is grace in the suffering, too.

          In other words, it’s not only on the doors of hell that we read the words, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Those words are ubiquitous. But even more ubiquitous is grace and goodness and hope. Here’s the whole quatrain from Pope: “Hope springs eternal in the human breast; Man never is, but always to be blessed: The soul, uneasy and confined from home, Rests and expatiates in a life to come.” Christians never abandon all hope.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Monday, November 28, 2016

Closet Christians

Opening all the doors in our hearts to Christ  
Matthew 8:5-11  
           When Jesus entered Capernaum, a centurion approached him and appealed to him, saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, suffering dreadfully.” He said to him, “I will come and cure him.”  The centurion said in reply, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man subject to authority, with soldiers subject to me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come here,’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.”   

          I have a curious custom whenever I bless someone’s home. When I bless a house, I bless the whole house, including closets, and bathrooms, and attics. Some people’s eyes become the size of saucers when I say that. Do you think that’s why I don’t get invitations to bless homes anymore? But I quickly explain that blessing a home means inviting Jesus into every corner and crany and closet of your home, which is really a symbol of inviting him into every corner of your heart. Sometimes we’re afraid to let Jesus see our closets where we hide our still un-Christians lives and our un-Christians loves. We are not ready for Jesus to rule and be king over everything.   

          In his homily this past Sunday, Bishop Robert Barron probed deeper into making Christ’s kingdom more complete. He asked these provocative questions: “Is your private life ordered to God and his purposes? Is your professional life attuned to the worship of God? Is your family life under the aegis of God?” (Don’t worry, I had to look up the meaning of “aegis,” too.) He went on: “Does your mind belong to Jerusalem? See what I’m driving at? Your mind seeks all sorts of things; your mind is preoccupied by all sorts of things in the course of the day. Is it above all preoccupied with the things of God, or is your mind filled with a lot of trivial matters?” In other words, Bishop Barron is pointing out all the “closets” in our hearts where we do not want Christ to enter. We are “closet Christians.”  
          In the gospel today a Roman Centurion also hesitates to let Jesus inside his home. You all remember the context: what the soldier says is actually an act of extraordinary faith. Indeed, Jesus praises him for it by announcing to all his hearers: “Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.” So, the solider is to be commended for his faith. But I believe we would be remiss if we concluded that the Centurion’s faith was therefore perfect. He still had more work to do: to grow in that faith, to build a real and lasting relationship with Jesus, to become Jesus’ friend, to become Jesus’ disciple. His great statement of faith was a tremendous first step; but his journey with Jesus had just begun. In other words, his reluctance to have Jesus “enter under his roof” sounds a lot like today’s Catholics afraid of letting me bless their closets. The Centurion, too, was a closet Christian.   

          My friends, ask yourself today, like Bishop Barron did: what are the closets I don’t want Christ to see and save? Sometimes we tend to leave our faith on the front steps of the church as we leave Mass, and live like everyone else the rest of the week. Our un-Christian closets could be called “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.” Some people don’t invite Jesus into their intimate life as spouses. We hear the slogan, “Keep God out of the bedroom!” Our sex-life becomes an un-Christian closet. Here in the United States we have built a wall of separation between Church and State, and we believe religion does not belong in politics. This past Friday I baptized Daisy Northey, the granddaughter of Senator John Boozman. Afterwards, he invited me to say the prayer before the U.S. Senate meets in session. Senator Boozman doesn’t want the U.S. Capitol to be an un-Christian closet.   

          On October 22, 1978, the newly-elected Pope John Paul II delivered his first homily as the Holy Father. He said basically what I say when I bless a home, he said: “Open wide the doors for Christ. To his saving power, open the boundaries of States, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Do not be afraid. Christ knows ‘what is in man,’ He alone knows it.” Folks, Jesus already knows what’s in your closet.   

          Praised be Jesus Christ!  

Pillars of the Earth

Discovering the roots of our own personalities and purposes  
Luke 21:34-36  
          Jesus said to his disciples: “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap. For that day will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth. Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.”

          Traumatic events and experiences tend to leave an indelible and enduring mark on the rest of our lives. Even if we forget them, they don’t forget us: these mini-milestones shaping our thinking, our choices, our history and our destiny. Did you ever read the historical fiction book called Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett? It’s one of those books that’s hard to put down once you start reading. It’s about the building of a cathedral in a fictional town of Kingsbridge in the 12th century. The Catholic Church is not often shown in a positive light, but one character shines our impeccably, namely, Prior Philip, the stern but saintly abbot of the monastery, the real cornerstone of Kingsbridge.  I often fancy myself the Prior Philip of Fort Smith.

          We learn how Philip’s own past has shaped his present. When he was 6 years old, his father – simply called “Da” – came home from battle. The family lived in Wales. But their house was invaded by English soldiers who killed both of his parents. But before Philip met his own demise, he was saved by an Abbot named Peter, who took Philip and his brother to the monastery to be raised as monks. But the trauma of witnessing his parents’ brutal murder also awakened a monastic vocation in Philip. He never wavered about being a monk, and he was always very compassionate toward children in need. You see, “Pillars of the Earth” is not only about cathedral pillars, but also about the “pillars” of each person, the foundational experiences that profoundly impact our lives.

          I hope this doesn’t sound too irreverent, but I think we can also see some “pillars” in Jesus’ own particular past, and how they influenced him. Now, Jesus is fully God and fully man, so it’s never an “apples to apples comparison” with him. Nevertheless, can you recall a particularly pivotal point in the Jesus early life? Shortly after Jesus was born, King Herod ordered the murder of all baby boys two years old or younger. This caused the Holy Family to flee into Egypt, and they stayed there as refugees for four years, until Herod died. How did those four formative years shape the psyche and sensibilities of the little Savior? That topic would be profitable for your meditation. But my point is that experience did become one of the “pillars” of Jesus own human life. It may have awakened an awareness that everything in this world passes away and to prepare for the next world. Hence, in the gospel today, the 33 year-old Jesus says – not so surprisingly – to his disciples: “Be vigilant at all times and pray you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.” In other words, just as Prior Philip’s personal pillars were the foundations of his future, so, too, Jesus’ own past shaped his future.

          My friends, today let me invite you to pry into your own past and to find your own pillars. Take time in silence and solitude to remember your childhood experiences – you may have forgotten them, but they have not forgotten you! Did your parents die or get divorced when you were young? How did you feel about that? How did you deal with that? I often reflect on the lasting impact of moving to the United States from India when I was just 7 years old. I am convinced that experience of losing all I knew – my friends, my school, my language, my home – planted the seeds of a priestly vocation: I wanted to hang on to Something (God) and to Someone (Jesus) I would never lose. In other words, traumatic experiences can also have beneficial effects: like for Prior Philip, and for Jesus, and for me. They can be moments when God’s grace bursts into our life shining his light and love. Ask yourself today: What are the pillars of my own earth?

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Thanksgiving Lamb

Putting aside our differences when we share a meal  
Revelation 18:1-2, 21-23; 19:1-3, 9A  
I, John, saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority, and the earth became illumined by his splendor. Then the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who have been called to the wedding feast of the Lamb.”   

          I’ve been pastor of Immaculate Conception for three full years now, and it should come as no surprise to anyone that I love to come to your homes for supper. And the reason I do that is so we can get to know each other, love each other, and help each other love Jesus more. Moreover, I’m convinced that’s exactly what happens when you share a meal with someone, in a word, “communion” happens. As the old adage goes: “the fastest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” We touch each other’s hearts, and Jesus touches our hearts. Now, one priest I know disagrees with that dictum. He says: “the only plate that touches my heart is the collection plate.”  
          To be completely honest, I have not always been so successful at securing suppers like I am today. I’ll never forget the first time I wanted to eat a supper with a layperson. I was in eighth grade and had this huge crush on a pretty little blonde girl. I called her and asked her if she’d like to grab something to eat at Taco Bell. And her answer sounded a lot like Meghan Trainor’s new song, she basically said, “My name is ‘No,’ my sign is ‘No,’ my number is ‘No.’ You need to let it go, you need to let it go.” That’s exactly what she said. So, it’s taken me many years to finally perfect this rare talent to go to lay people’s homes for supper, and I’m pretty good at it now. But you see, sharing a supper with someone is always an expression of love, and by the way, that’s exactly why that little blonde girl said, “no.”   

          In the first reading today, St. John says that the very last supper we will ever share – because it’s the supper that lasts forever in heaven – will likewise be an infinite expression of love. We read in Revelation: “Then the angel said to me” – that is to St. John – “Write this: Blessed are those who have been called to the wedding feast of the Lamb.” In other words, the end of time and the business of eternity will be the celebration of a shared meal. But not the sharing of any ordinary meal, but a “wedding feast,” the perfect love feast between two people madly in love with each other. My favorite picture of any wedding is where the bride and groom feed each other with a little bite of wedding cake. Have you seen such pictures? That always gives me flashbacks to feeding that little blonde girl a little bite of bean burrito. But notice John’s vision is not just the wedding feast of two people, but also the wedding feast of the Lamb, that is, the wedding feast of Jesus. In other words, the best shared suppers always brings us closer to each other and closer to Christ.   

          Today our country celebrates Thanksgiving Day. And what is the perennial and perfect sign of this celebration? It is fireworks? No. Is it gifts wrapped under a tree? No. Is it brightly colored eggs? No. Thanksgiving is symbolized by a shared meal as an expression of love. Historians typically trace back the first Thanksgiving to 1621, when a meal was shared between Pilgrims and Native Americans after their first harvest. In attendance were 90 Native Americans and 53 Pilgrims. When invited to that meal, no one said, “My name is ‘No’.” And because the Pilgrims were also Puritans (meaning Calvinist Christians), they no doubt invoked their Savior Jesus Christ in prayer. Meals always express love for each other and for Jesus.   

          My friends, as you sit down to your own Thanksgiving meals today, I pray you also feel true and tender love for each other and for Jesus. Sometimes family gatherings can be strained with tension and turmoil. Old wounds and un-buried hatchets come out. Misunderstandings between in-laws and out-laws resurface. Divisions, disagreements, divorces, and even deaths can cloud and rain on an otherwise joyous occasion. But today, like the Native Americans dropped their tomahawks and the Pilgrims put down their muzzle-loaders, so too may your families forgive and forget any past problems, and sit down at the table to share your love for each other and for Jesus.   

          And as you trim the turkey today, try to look forward to that “last supper” that will last forever in heaven. There, we will feed each other like a bride and groom give each other wedding cake – or feed each other with bean burritos, as the case may be  – and there Jesus will feed us with his love, at the “wedding feast of the Lamb.” At that Thanksgiving supper, we will share Lamb with one another, and not turkey.  And when you’re invited to that last supper, don’t answer, “My name is ‘no’.”  

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

The Devil’s Due

Learning from our enemies to be wise  
Luke 21:5-11  
           While some people were speaking about how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings, Jesus said, “All that you see here–the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.” Then they asked him, “Teacher, when will this happen? And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?”  He answered, “See that you not be deceived, for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he,’ and ‘The time has come.’ Do not follow them!   

          Yesterday, Mrs. Marsh sent an email announcing the up-coming debates. The topics of the debates sounded intriguing, and when I saw which students were lined up on the opposing sides, I wondered who’d win the debates. Let’s take an informal survey and see what you think. One topic was entitled: “Cell phones should be allowed in school,” a very vanilla subject that no one cares about (that’s called sarcasm). Just listen to who’s on which side and then I’ll ask you to raise your hands to vote on who will win the debate. On the affirmative side (meaning they will argue cell phone should be allowed in school) are (please stand): Seth Martin, Faith Rossi, Jayson Toney, and Abby Vargas. On the opposing side (meaning they will argue that cell phone should not be allowed in school) are (please stand): Reiter Ahlert, Tristan Do, Blaine Stites and Matt Stites. Now, remember a debate is not a bar-room brawl, but about intelligence and insight; it’s about brains not about brawn. Raise your hand if you think Seth, Faith, Jayson and Abby will win. Now, raise your hands if you think Reiter, Tristan, Blaine and Matt will win. I thought the same think, too.

          Now, why do we have debates at Trinity Junior High? Is it to confuse our students so they don’t know what’s right and wrong? Is it to undermine the values their parents teach at them at home and make them even more rebellious? Is it to teach our students to reject authority and embrace anarchy? Is it to make you lose your Catholic faith? No, of course not. Rather, it’s to teach you to think. And a sign of a serious student is to know not only what YOU think, but also what OTHERS think; and even to respect their opinion even as you disagree. Unfortunately, the recent presidential debates demonstrated the exact opposite: disagreement with great disrespect. The Buddhist say: “My enemy, my teacher.” My enemy can teach me not only what they think but also help me to cherish more my own opinions.   

          In the gospel today, Jesus invites his apostles to learn the ways of their enemies, to get inside their heads, like you do in a debate. He says: “See that you are not deceived, for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he,’ and ‘The time has come.’ Do not follow them!” In other works, do not blindly believe everything that everyone says; do not be deceived. Rather, think critically and ask WHY people say and act in a certain way; learn from your enemy. Your enemy may teach you that “That guy is crazy, don’t follow him.” Or “She has a lot of hurt in her heart, she’s just venting.” But first you must understand your enemy, you must learn from him.   

          One of the brightest brains in the Catholic Church was St. Thomas Aquinas (some think he was the smartest ever). In his opus magnus called Summa Theologica (summary of theology), he would list the top three opposing arguments before he stated his own opinion. He basically said: “Here are all the reasons why I may be wrong,” before he said why he was right. He gave the devil his due. That kind of deference and respect made St. Thomas’ own opinions irresistible and irrefutable.   

          Boys and girls, in junior high school you’re beginning to form your own opinions and ideas about the world, about people, and especially about yourself. The great question that haunts you in your sleep: “Who am I??” But before you believe what anyone says or reject them, listen and learn from them, especially if they look like your enemy. Sometimes, your parents can look like an enemy, sometimes Coach Meares and Coach Yarbrough look like your enemy, sometimes Dr. Hollenbeck and Fr. John look like your enemies. Or, even the Catholic Church feels like a foe. But before you turn your back on them, do what St. Thomas did: list the three reasons you may be wrong and your enemy may be right. Let your enemy be your teacher. If you can learn from your enemy, you’ll not only be very smart; you’ll also be very wise.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

The Amazing Race

Seeing all people as extraordinary and amazing
Lk. 23:35-43 
           The rulers sneered at Jesus and said, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the chosen one, the Christ of God.”  Even the soldiers jeered at him.  As they approached to offer him wine they called out, “If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.”  Above him there was an inscription that read, “This is the King of the Jews.” Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.” The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”          
          People are amazing.  And I’ve met some pretty amazing people in just three years here at Immaculate Conception.  I’ve learned that what makes someone amazing is that they see things differently, and they see things that other people cannot see.  For instance, Eileen Teagle can see things I cannot see.  When I first arrived here as pastor, I wanted to arrange the furniture and pictures in my office, and I personally would have just shoved everything up against the walls and hung the pictures close to the ceiling.  But someone suggest Eileen would have a better idea, and she did, making my office warm and welcoming – and heck now I never leave my office!  Eileen sees things that others miss. 

          Another extraordinary individual is Ben Keating.  He plays the trumpet so well that he’s applying to the prestigious music school in New York City called “The Julliard School of Music.”  Ben doesn’t just see music as notes on a page, but music for him is alive and sensual and it dances and it laughs.  On the other hand, the only thing I can play is the radio.  Have you ever heard of Zane Chunn?  He has won virtually every award both nationally and internationally for cowboy mounted shooting.  He rides a horse and simultaneously shoots pistols and rifles at targets and he does it in lightning speed.  And by the way, Zane is only 19 years old.  Zane sees what other riders miss, they literally miss it!   

          Can I brag for a moment on Russ Bragg (pun intended)?  Lots of men love to grill steaks and burgers and hot dogs.  But I don’t know anyone who has a smoker like Russ does: his smoker is about the size of the north entry of the church!  Russ sees cooking differently from other men: he sees it as a service to others.  Last week I talked with Lawson Hembree and asked him to make a donation to Trinity Junior High because his children attended that school.  He explained that his family would likely help, but first he wanted to teach his children the importance of philanthropy.  He’s worried that the next generation, the so-called “Centennials” (that’s what they’re calling the generation that’s following the Millennials), don’t appreciate the need to give to charitable causes.  Lawson sees money differently, not just as a right for me but as a responsibility to you.  Amazing people see the world differently from the rest of humanity. 

          In the gospel we meet another amazing man, the Good Thief, who was crucified alongside of Jesus.  He, too, sees what others miss.  According to Church tradition he is often referred to as St. Dismas. What is amazing about Dismas is his ability to see who Jesus really was, namely, a king.  As he hangs on the cross on Jesus’ right side, he says to our Lord: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  He saw Jesus entering his own kingdom like a conquering hero on a white horse, and St. Dismas wanted to be part of that parade.  But just like Eileen and Zane and Ben and Russ and Lawson, Dismas sees what others missed.  The rulers didn’t see Jesus kingship; the soldiers just jeered at him; even the other thief only mocked Jesus asking for a miracle.  You see, St. Dismas was given the gift of faith and he saw that, what to all the world looked like a common criminal, was really the King of kings about to enter his glory. 

          But I believe that faith not only helps us to see who Jesus really is – a king – but it also helps us to see who each other really is – a child of God.  I don’t know if you watched the presidential debates.  Most of it was pretty pathetic and puerile. But there was one brilliantly beautiful and blissful break.  At the end of the second debate, a spectator asked both candidates: “Would either of you name one positive thing that you respect in one another?”  Everyone in the audience exploded into applause (so they had to say something nice).  Hillary answered that she respected Trump’s children and obviously their own success says a lot about Trump himself.  For his part, Trump said, “She doesn’t quit.  She doesn’t give up. I respect that.”  What a wonderful question that was!  The spectator was really asking: can you see each other with the eyes of faith?  Can you see anything good in each other?  Can you see each other as children of God?  And for a fleeting second (it was just a second), they could see each other as a child of God, like St. Dismas could see Jesus as the Son of God.  Amazing people see things that others miss. 

          My friends, people are amazing.  And I’m not only referring to Eileen and Zane and Russ and Lawson.  But I mean everyone on earth, and each person without exception.  And if you’re having trouble seeing that, then I suggest you ask God for more faith.  Why?  Because faith helps you not only to know who God is, but it also helps you to know who man is.  Faith shows you that all people are amazing.  So, let me ask you: is there anyone that you think that is not amazing?  Do you think your former boss who fired you is not amazing?  Do you think your ex-spouse who divorced you is not amazing?  Do you think your elderly mother who blames everything on you is not amazing?  Do you think Donald Trumps is not amazing?  Do you think Hillary Clinton is not amazing?  Do you think I am not amazing?? (Don’t answer that last question.)  Yes, people are crazy and selfish and wicked and lazy and sinful.  But they are still a child of God, and Jesus still suffered and died on the Cross for each of them, too.  Jesus thinks each one of those people is pretty amazing, amazing enough to die for. 

          Have you ever watched that reality television show called “The Amazing Race”?  I’m not a fan of reality TV shows, but this one intrigues me because it’s not just a race to see who completes all the challenges and comes in first.  It also introduces the contestants to the world’s cultures and peoples, and by extension, introduces the television audience (you and me) to others cultures and languages and customs.  When I think of the title of that show, “The Amazing Race,” I don’t just think about a trek across the world, but I also think about a trek across humanity.  In other words, the most “amazing race” is really “the human race.” And with a little more faith, you could see that. 

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Hair in Heaven

Living on earth by the standards of heaven
Revelation 10:8-11  
          I, John, heard a voice from heaven speak to me. Then the voice spoke to me and said: “Go, take the scroll that lies open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land.” So I went up to the angel and told him to give me the small scroll. He said to me, “Take and swallow it. It will turn your stomach sour, but in your mouth it will taste as sweet as honey.” I took the small scroll from the angel’s hand and swallowed it. In my mouth it was like sweet honey, but when I had eaten it, my stomach turned sour. Then someone said to me, “You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, tongues, and kings.”   

          Boys and girls, I have some important questions for you today, so put on your thinking caps! But first I want to tell you one question that people often ask me. They ask: “Fr. John, how old will people be in heaven?” Do you know how old you will be in heaven? Let’s do a quick survey. Raise your hand if you think you will be ten years old in heaven. Now, everyone knows that Mrs. B is 39 years old, so raise your hand if you think you’ll be as old as Mrs. B in heaven, that is, 39. Well, do you know what the best answer I’ve heard to that question? St. Thomas Aquinas said we will be 33 years old because that’s how old Jesus was when he went to heaven. My point is that our age on earth and our age in heaven will be different. That’s good news for us old guys!   

          Now, let me ask YOU some questions about heaven. Will there by Americans in heaven? YES! But it won’t really matter if you’re an American, and we won’t do the Pledge of Allegiance in heaven. Will there be Mexicans in heaven? YES, but it won’t matter if you speak English or Spanish. Will there be Cubs fans in heaven? YES, but there will not be any goats in heaven, so relax. Will there by Razorback fans in heaven? YES, that’s why it’s called “Hog Heaven,” but no one will need to call the hogs there. Will there by Republicans in heaven? YES, sorry Democrats. Will there be Democrats in heaven? YES! Sorry, Republicans. All these people will all be there, but it won’t matter if they are Mexicans or Republicans or Razorbacks. They will all love Jesus and they will all love each other, and they will all be 33 years old.

          In the first reading from Revelation, which Fifi Coleman read so nicely, it said: “Keep on telling what will happen to the people of many nations, races, and languages and also to kings.” What St. John means is tell people what heaven will be like and how they will love each other in heaven, so they can love like that on earth. You see, thinking about heaven helps us to know how we should live on earth. We have studied the “seven habits” here in school. Does anyone know what the second habit is? It states: “Begin with the end in mind.” That’s what St. John was saying, too: the end is heaven, so start thinking about heaven and that will help you know how to behave on earth.

          Boys and girls, I want you to measure your earthly behavior be heavenly standards, how things will be in heaven. For example, I’ve got a bald spot on my head. Have you noticed that? But I don’t worry about it. Do you know why I don’t care about that? Because I will have tons of hair when I get to heaven! Like I did when I was 33 years old. I’m trying to let how things will be in heaven guide how I behave on earth. Here’s another example. After the election some people said mean and hurtful things about people from Mexico. Will people talk like that in heaven about each other? No, of course not. So, we shouldn’t talk like that on earth, either. Boys and girls, one reason I love this school so much is that we’re trying to teach you that heavenly standard to live by. I’m so proud of Mrs. B and the teachers and staff who try to model that.

          How old will you be in heaven? Will you call the Hogs in heaven? Will Fr. John have hair in heaven? Think about these questions, and try to live your life by the answers.   

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Mass Minions

Understanding why Catholics attend Mass  
Revelation 5:1-10  
           Then I saw standing in the midst of the throne and the four living creatures and the elders a Lamb that seemed to have been slain. He had seven horns and seven eyes; these are the seven spirits of God sent out into the whole world. He came and received the scroll from the right hand of the one who sat on the throne. When he took it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each of the elders held a harp and gold bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of the holy ones.   

          I am almost afraid to admit this but I really love funeral Masses. I know that may sound macabre and morbid to many of you, but I really believe funeral liturgies not only comfort the family and loved ones of the deceased, but they also help us experience something heavenly. One priest said, “In the Catholic Church, we do funerals right!” What is so “right” about Catholic funerals? Well, at a funeral Mass, it’s not just the words of the homily that speak powerfully, but so do the symbols of holy water, the pall, the Easter candle, and especially the incense. Let me say a word about incense. 
          Some people hate the use of incense at Mass, and complain every time we use it. At a former parish, I’ll never forget one man who would very overtly cover his nose with handkerchief so everyone would see his dislike of incense. I love to explain, however, that incense brings out the biblical roots of the liturgy. Psalm 140 in the Old Testament mentions how incense rises like prayers to God, and Revelation 5 (today’s first reading) describes how 24 elders carry “gold bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of the holy ones.” In other words, using incense at Mass isn’t something that popes invented in the middle ages; it’s something that the angels invented in the eternity of heaven. When we attend a funeral Mass, we should feel that not only does the incense rise to heaven, but that we are lifted up to heaven, too. The Mass is where heaven and earth meet.   

          Listen to how Bishop Robert Barron, the popular preacher and writer, describes the special connection between the Bible and the Mass in the book of Revelation. He explains: “John the visionary gives us a glimpse into the heavenly court, and he sees priests, candles, incense, the reading of a sacred text, the gathering of thousands in prayer, and other gestures of praise and the appearance of the Lamb of God. He sees, in short, the liturgy of heaven, the play that preoccupies the angels and saints for all eternity” (Catholicism, 173-74). That is, when we go to Mass, we really go to heaven, and all the signs and symbols, the smells and bells, are divinely designed to transport us there.  
          May I just pause a moment and brag on our parishioners? I am so edified when I see so many people attending daily Mass, and at 7:00 a.m. You could have slept in an extra hour; you could have enjoyed another cup of coffee and read the sports section and the comics; you could have gone for a long walk, or caught up on the last episode of Game of Thrones or Walking Dead. But instead of any of that, you crawl out of bed and come to Mass. Why? Because for a few moments you get to go to heaven, and sit next to the angels. And I’m very proud of you.   

          Let me conclude with another excerpt from Barron’s book. He writes: “At the very beginning of her career, Flannery O’Connor, who would develop into one of the greatest Catholic writers of fiction in the twentieth century, sat down to dinner with Mary McCarthy and a group of other New York intellectuals. The young Flannery, clearly the junior member of this sophisticated circle, was overwhelmed and barely said a word all evening. McCarthy, a former Catholic, trying to draw O’Connor out, made a few nice remarks about the Eucharist, commenting that it was a powerful symbol. Flannery looked up and said in a shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s only a symbol, I say to hell with it’” (Catholicism, 192). And that’s why Catholics crawl out of bed and go to morning Mass: either the Eucharist is everything or to hell with it.   

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Crazy Parents

Avoiding the temptation to put people on pedestals  
Revelation 4:1-11 
            I, John, had a vision of an open door to heaven, and I heard the trumpetlike voice that had spoken to me before, saying, “Come up here and I will show you what must happen afterwards.” At once I was caught up in spirit.  A throne was there in heaven, and on the throne sat one whose appearance sparkled like jasper and carnelian. Around the throne was a halo as brilliant as an emerald. Surrounding the throne I saw twenty-four other thrones on which twenty-four elders sat, dressed in white garments and with gold crowns on their heads.   

          Have you guys ever noticed how crazy adults are, especially your parents? Like the old cliché: “ you can’t live with them, and you can’t live without them.” And part of the reason adults and parents look more and more crazy is because of how you are changing and growing as a teenager. Every teen sees adults in a very special and singular way – like no one else – because it’s all tied up with how you see yourself. Let me explain.   

          When you were a child, you put your parents on a pedestal and you thought they were prefect, some of our seventh graders probably still do. But how many ninth graders think your mom and dad are perfect? What happened to them? How did you parents fall off that pedestal of perfection? Well, really it’s because of something that has happened, and is happening, to each of YOU. When you are a little kid, your dad looks like Superman: he’s all-powerful, he can pick you up, carry you on his shoulders, and he knows everything, like how to hunt deer – he s so smart! And your mom is like Wonder Woman: she can answer every question, heals all your wounds like magic, and makes you feel safe and loved. And she’s beautiful: by the way, your mother is the first woman every man loves, and all subsequent women you’ll fall in love with, will be held up to her standard. Small children happily place their parents on the pedestal of perfection.   

          But what happens when you become a teenager? Your body grows strong, your mind becomes sharp, you have insights of your own, without anyone’s help. The boys see that they are stronger than their dad, and if they got in a fight with their old man, they could beat them up. Right? A girl sees that she’s more beautiful than her mother. Sorry, mom! You understand things your parents don’t know anything about, like “ghost apps.” You are stronger, smarter, bigger and more beautiful than your parents. What’s more, your parents don’t know everything, and they make mistakes, and do and say wrong and hurtful things. They are not perfect, like you used to think they were as a small child. But do you know what they are? They are human, like me and like you. You dad never was Superman, and your mom never was Wonder Woman, even though you thought they were, and wished they were. They are just human beings doing the best they can.   

          In the first reading today, which Mr. Newcity read so nicely, we see where adults do become perfect, namely, in heaven. St. John writes about his vision of heaven, and he sees this scene: “Surrounding the throne (Jesus’ throne), I saw twenty-four other thrones, on which twenty-four elders sat, dressed in white garments and with gold crowns on their heads.” Do you know who the “24 elders” are? They are the 12 tribes of Israel from the Old Testament plus the 12 apostles of the New Testament. 12 plus 12 equals 24. But John’s point is that people (elders, apostles and parents) don’t become perfect till they get to heaven; on earth they’re still very human and very imperfect. The thrones they sit on are the pedestals of perfection: in heaven, not on earth.   

          Boys and girls, be careful about putting people on pedestals of perfection. No one gets a pedestal or a throne until they get to heaven. We’ve just experienced and endured a very bitter presidential election, but don’t put either candidate on a pedestal, and think they are perfect. Be careful about repeating the rhetoric you’ve heard over the past year, “build that wall” and other nonsense. Be better than that. I want you to know how sad I am over the departure of Mr. DeHart. I really like him and hate to see him leave, but he resigned and wanted to pursue other projects. There’s no need to put him on a pedestal and campaign for his return. Be bigger than that. You go to basketball and volleyball and football games and see adults acting very immaturely. Don’t copy them, pray for them, and be bigger than that.   

          And I am so proud to see how Trinity students are growing into fine young men and women. I heard about the basketball game against Woodland, where there was taunting. But Trinity players and fans didn’t do that. I’m very proud of you. I love how you make everyone feel welcome in this school – regardless of their color of skin, their native language, their social class, how much or how little hair they have. No one in this school is perfect, but everyone in this school is a brother and sister, and deserves respect.   

          Let me tell you what happened at the last football game against Pocola, in case you missed it. The game was a great battle; our boys gave it everything they had; they left it all on the field. I knew they gave it their all because there were tears in the eyes of tough football jocks. When we all huddled in the middle of the field and about to pray, Coach Vitale noticed that one player was missing. He said, “Hey, where’s so-and-so?’ No one could find him. Then someone noticed he had gone over to the Pocola team huddle and was congratulating them on their victory. I mean, who does that??? He came back, knelt down, and we all prayed. I’m not going to tell you the name of that player because he knows who he is and his teammates know and God knows. And it doesn’t really matter who it was, because I think any Trinity student would have done the same thing. I’ve never been more proud of this school than in that moment.   

          Boys and girls, leave the pedestals of perfection for heaven. While you’re here on earth, just do the best you can every day. And remember that everyone else is probably doing the best they can, too, even your crazy parents.  

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Thrilla in Manila

Seeing the sacred and sinister sides in the spiritual struggle  
Revelation 1:1-4; 2:1-5  
          I heard the Lord saying to me: “To the angel of the Church in Ephesus, write this: “‘The one who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks in the midst of the seven gold lampstands says this: “I know your works, your labor, and your endurance, and that you cannot tolerate the wicked; you have tested those who call themselves Apostles but are not, and discovered that they are impostors. Moreover, you have endurance and have suffered for my name, and you have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: you have lost the love you had at first. Realize how far you have fallen. Repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”
          I’m not a fan of Dan Brown novels. But last spring I drove to Seattle to give a retreat and listened to his audiobook called, Angels and Demons. Talk about a “thrilla in Manila” (what Ali called his fight with Frazier) – it will keep you on the edge of your seat because it is fast-paced and far-fetched. The motif of the book is an “ambigram.” Do you know what that is? It’s an artistic rendering of a word that’s written in such a way that it looks the same from different angles. For example, the words, “angels and demons” can be written so it reads the same right-side up and up-side down. It’s a fascinating form of art.   

          But I believe it also contains a spiritual lesson. We know that each of us has been assigned a guardian angel. Now, do you ever wonder what or whom that guardian angel is supposed to guard us from? After all, what good is a guardian angel if he’s not guarding?  It believe there is also an evil spirit, a demon, assigned to each of us, to exploit our weaknesses and make us turn away from God. That is the real “thrilla in Manila,” where our angel does battle with our demon in our hearts. You know, that spiritual fight makes the famous Ali-Frazier fight look like two toddlers playing patty-cake in a kiddie pool. Every guardian angel has his counter-part demon: the angel guards us, the demon torments us.

          In the first reading from Revelation John also draws our attention to this war between angels and demons. Now, John only explicitly mentions the angel of the church of Ephesus, and he does not directly name the demon. Nevertheless, he does indirectly mention the demon. He says: “Yet I hold this against you: you have lost the love you had at first. Realize how far you have fallen.” In other words, the evil spirit (demon) assigned to Ephesus had tempted the people to grow complacent, lazy and indifferent to their faith. By the way, do you know any young adult Catholics today who have grown complacent, lazy and indifferent to practicing their faith? Yeah, that demon is alive and well today. But John’s point is that this is not by accident. A spiritual force lurks behind their laziness, and in this round of the “thrilla in Manila,” Frazier has landed the decisive blow.   

          My friends, we thank God that he has assigned to each of us a guardian angel. But we should not forget that Satan has also assigned to us a tormenting demon. One is the counter-part of the other. And we should take a moment to learn how to cooperate with the angel and how to resist the demon. A great book in this regard is C. S. Lewis’ classic The Screwtape Letters, where he helps us get inside the devil’s head and see his sinister strategies. Another way to fight the demon is to figure out our own predominant fault. Each of us has a particular sin or vice that we are especially prone to: one of the capital sins, either envy, or greed, or gluttony, or sloth, or lust, or anger, or pride. Our demon knows what that weakness is and that’s exactly where he jabs at us. Do you know your own spiritual weaknesses and soft spots?

          You know, I don’t think I’ll read any more Dan Brown novels. Why? It’s not because I care what he says about the Catholic Church.  Rather, it’s because when I need something fast-paced and far-fetched, I can just look into my own heart, and see angels and demons fighting there.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Temple Run

Opening our hearts to old ends and new beginnings  
Luke 21:5-19  
          While some people were speaking about how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings, Jesus said, “All that you see here-- the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.”   

          I had a very intriguing conversation with a parishioner last week. The person asked me a question that I’d never heard before. He asked: “Why did Christianity break off from Judaism? Why did it not simply continue the Jewish tradition since Jesus and the apostles were all Jews? Why did we break off?” Do you know the answer to that question? Well, don’t worry, I didn’t either! So, I said a prayer to the Holy Spirit and started shooting from the hip.   

          I said: “Actually, in the year 70 AD the Jewish religion of the Old Testament came to a climactic conclusion; it essentially ended. How? Well, Old Testament Judaism revolved around the Temple in Jerusalem: Jewish identity as the Chosen People, Jewish national pride, and all Jewish traditions found their source and summit in Temple worship. The great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that the Sabbath is in time what the Temple is in space. That basically means the Jerusalem Temple was as important and indispensable as the weekly Sabbath. Try to imagine Judaism without the Sabbath day of rest (impossible, right?), and that gives you an idea what it would feel like for a Jew without the Temple. Well, in the year 70 AD, the Roman General Titus marched into Jerusalem with his Roman legions and leveled the Temple, never to be rebuilt again. For all practical purposes, the Old Testament ended in 70 AD.  The Judaism that emerged afterwards was very different: revolving around the synagogue, rather than around the Temple.” Basically, my answer to my friend was that Christianity is the continuation of the Old Testament, kind of like the “second-half” of the same football game, the second-half is the “New Testament.” In other words, Christianity never really broke off from Judaism; it is the true development of Judaism (with all due respect to our Jewish friends). But my point is that the Old Testament religion really did end in 70 AD and Christianity took its place, or rather continued where it left off. The Old had to end for the New to begin.    

          In the gospel today, Jesus is preparing his followers for that fateful day in 70 AD, predicting the future. Of course, Jesus was speaking before that happened, around 30 AD, 40 years prior. Listen to what St. Luke records: “While some people were speaking about how the Temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings, Jesus said, ‘All that you see here – the days will come when there will not be a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.” Now, you have to appreciate how audacious and apocalyptic that sounded to first century Jewish ears. It was equivalent to Jesus saying that there would no longer be a Sabbath day of rest but it would be erased from the weekly calendar. Remember that for the Jews the Temple and the Sabbath were equivalent in importance. Indeed, the Christians would adopt a new Sabbath, namely, Sunday (not Saturday). And the Christian Temple would also be new: built out of “living stones” (1 Pet. 2:5) of individual Christians themselves, not brick and masonry. You see, the old dispensation of Temple worship came to an end in 70 AD, and the new dispensation of sacramental worship took its place. The end of the old ushered in the new.   

          You know, all this talk of the ends of things can be rather sobering and serious, so let’s lightening things up a bit. A Bible study group was discussing the unforeseen possibility of sudden death. The leader of the discussion asked, “What if you knew you only had 4 weeks to live, how would you spend that time?” One person answered: “I would take to the streets and spread the Good News to everyone who hasn’t heard about Jesus yet!” Everyone in the group nodded their approval of that answer. Another lady spoke up saying: “I would spend my time with my family and make amends for my mistakes.” Again, all praised the wisdom of that answer. But one gentleman in the back spoke up loudly and said: “I would go to my mother-in-law’s house for the 4 weeks.” Everyone was puzzled, and the leader asked: “Why your mother-in-law’s home?” The man said: “Because that will make it the longest 4 weeks of my life!” So, not everyone wants the old to end and the new to begin.   

          My friends, coming to the end of anything can be scary and intimidating and might even make you run your mother-in-law’s house for four weeks! When we come to the end of high school or college, we’re not sure what the future holds for us, and we want to stay safely where we are. How hard it is to move to a new home and say goodbye to your memories and your history and your neighbors. If you lose a job, we feel the pain and grief of loss, maybe even failure. Those who retire always look forward to it, until they spend a few days at home. Then, their spouse wants them to get a new job! Those who’ve suffered a devastating divorce know how bitterly a marriage can end. And of course, the one “end” we must all face is our own death, and transition to eternal life.

          In all these moments of old endings and new beginnings, remember the great transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament: the old had to end for the new to begin; and the new was better and brighter and more beautiful. Sometimes we stand around admiring the “costly stones and votive offerings” of our Old Testament temples – our old homes, our old jobs, our old earthly life – when Jesus predicts that General Titus will demolish it and not leave one stone on top of another – that is, these things will one day end. But the end of the first-half only means a brief break before we begin the second-half. And, as everyone knows, the second-half of the game is always more fun and exciting; unless, of course, you’re watching the game at your mother-in-law’s house.   

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

The Kicker

Praying persistently and persuasively  
Luke 18:1-8 
          Jesus told his disciples a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.  He said, “There was a judge in a certain town who neither feared God nor respected any human being. And a widow in that town used to come to him and say, ‘Render a just decision for me against my adversary.’ For a long time the judge was unwilling, but eventually he thought, ‘While it is true that I neither fear God nor respect any human being,  because this widow keeps bothering me I shall deliver a just decision for her lest she finally come and strike me.’”  The Lord said, “Pay attention to what the dishonest judge says.  Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night?  Will he be slow to answer them? I tell you, he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily. But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”   

          Being from the South, you’ve no doubt heard the expression, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Have you heard that? It means that the person who complains the most gets the attention he wants. This famous phrase was originally penned in a poem called, “The Kicker” back in 1870. By the way, the word “kicker” in those days meant “complainer.” The poem was written by Josh Billings and goes like this: “I hate to be a kicker (complainer), / I always long for peace. / But the wheel that does the squeaking, / Is the one that gets the grease.” The poem is somewhat simple but sensible.   

          Now, other cultures have other ways of expressing this same maxim. In Japanese they say, “The stake that sticks up gets hammered down.” In Chinese, they hold: “The crying baby gets the milk.” In Korean, they teach: “The pointy stone meets chisel.” And in Spanish, we hear: “The baby who does not cry, does not suck,” meaning the baby who doesn’t cry doesn’t get to nurse. It’s fascinating how wide-spread this notion is: it cuts across virtually every culture and is a perennial human experience.   

          In the gospel today, Jesus uses a parable to teach a similar point about the squeaky wheel, the kicker. He describes a dishonest judge who finally relents and renders a decision for a widow who was a “kicker,” a complainer. Listen now to the words Jesus places on the judge’s lips, he says: “While it is true that I neither fear God nor respect any human being, because this widow keeps bothering me, I shall deliver a just decision for her lest she finally come and strike me.” Jesus’ point is really about praying persistently, and this persistence turns out to be praying persuasively; it wins God’s favor. In other words, be a squeaky wheel – a kicker – when you talk to God. Jesus give us permission today that this very common human experience - something we often do with each other - should also characterize our relationship with God.

          Folks, here are a few ways we can put this parable into practice. First, pray the rosary and repeat 150 Hail Mary’s every day! Some people may argue: isn’t one prayer enough?? Does God have a bad memory that I have to keep praying so many Hail Mary’s to remind him what I want? The Rosary is only prayed by “a kicker.” Second, do a “novena prayer,” which is nine consecutive days of saying the same prayer. Again, a novena helps you become a kicker. Third, have multiple Masses offered for your intention. You might ask: isn’t just one Mass of infinite worth and value and enough for everything? Yes, but one Mass won’t make you “a kicker.” One parishioner left $10,000 worth of Masses to be said for him after he dies – he’ll be kicking till the end of time! Jesus gives us permission to be a kicker today; he gives us permission to be persistent in prayer, which is really being persuasive in prayer.

“I hate to be a kicker, / I always long for peace. / But the wheel that does the squeaking, / Is the one that gets the grease.”

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Laptop Love

Learning to love heaven more than earth  
Luke 17:26-37  
          Jesus said to his disciples: “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be in the days of the Son of Man; they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage up to the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Similarly, as it was in the days of Lot: they were eating, drinking, buying, selling, planting, building; on the day when Lot left Sodom, fire and brimstone rained from the sky to destroy them all. So it will be on the day the Son of Man is revealed. On that day, someone who is on the housetop and whose belongings are in the house must not go down to get them, and likewise one in the field must not return to what was left behind. Remember the wife of Lot.   

          If you woke up in the middle of the night to see your house engulfed in flames, is there anything you’d try to save, besides your family? Some would run in to save their dog or cat, and for some people their pets are more important than their family (at least their pets are a lot nicer!). Perhaps you’d try to save your precious jewelry, or any family heirlooms passed down over many generations. Maybe you’d rush back to grab old photographs or other memorabilia.

          On September 15, two months ago, Gideon Hodge, an actor and writer in New Orleans, ran back into his burning home to save his laptop containing his drafts of two novels he was writing. He ran past firefighters who yelled: “Hey, you can’t go in there!” And he emerged a couple of minutes later soaking wet caring a bag with his laptop. Some of us would love our laptops to go up in flames! But we can certainly sympathize with people who do such things: they want to save something they might lose forever.

          But in the gospel today, Jesus suggests that we should put our sympathies elsewhere, not on earth but in heaven. That is, we should have a certain detachment from worldly goods. Jesus reminds the people of the catastrophe that befell Sodom, when “fire and brimstone rained from the sky” and Lot and his family fled the doomed city. The angel who escorted them to safety warned them: not only do not go back for your laptop, but don’t even look back at the city in flames. Do you remember what Lot’s wife did? She looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt. Her gesture of turning back, which seemed innocent enough, really betrayed her heart: she wanted to go back to Sodom. Her heart was still back there with all her earthly treasures, instead of where the angels was leading them (heaven).  In other words, thank God for the gifts he has given you, but when the time comes to leave them behind, don’t hesitate. Love heaven more than you love your laptop.

          My friends, God has given us this world for our happiness and for our holiness. But he has something much better waiting for us in heaven, and so we should exercise some detachment from earthly treasures. Here are a few examples. I know a priest who, whenever he buys new clothes or a new book, he always gives to the poor an equal number of old clothes and old books. That way, he doesn’t accumulate more and more. One family I know tithes down to the penny. They calculate their income and give exactly 10%, which could be $54.23. The spiritual purpose of tithing is to teach detachment, to be able to let go of this earth.

          Yesterday, at a meeting in Little Rock, Bishop Taylor shared something called, “The Pact of the Catacombs.” Apparently, in 1965, at the close of the Second Vatican Council, 40 bishops gathered in an ancient, underground basilica to sign a “pact” by which they pledged to “try to live according to the manner of our people in all that concerns housing, food, means of transport, and related matters.” They wanted to live “evangelical poverty,” like Jesus lived.  In other words, these bishops vowed not to run back into a burning building to grab their laptops; they vowed not to look back if the world went up in flames.

          Folks, it’s a good thing to love this earth. But we should love heaven even more.  

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Curiouser Country

Offering a little perspective on the recent election
          In light of last night’s election, a line from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland comes to mind: “‘Curiouser and curiouser!’ Cried Alice (she was so much surprised that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English).”  A very curious presidential campaign season has resulted in an even “curiouser” election!  To some people’s pleasant surprise, while to other people’s deep disappointment, Donald J. Trump is the President-elect of the United States.  To me, however, all this just seems rather “curious.”  Why?

          Well, for one thing, we did not elect an emperor, a plenipotentiary who wields all authority arbitrarily to implement his every whim and wish.  I tip my top-hat to Daniel Day Lewis’ portrayal of Abraham Lincoln, who stated boldly: “I am the President of the United States, clothed in immense power!”  Nevertheless, the Founding Fathers wisely established a government with a “division of powers” into the executive, legislative and judicial branches.  Indeed, it was in part “to revolt” against the excesses of such unbridled royal power (taxation without representation) that we fought the Revolutionary War.  We’re not going back.  Clearly, the president possesses plenty of power, not to mention the so-called “bully pulpit.”  But the Constitution places prudent and purposeful restraints on presidential power.  So, to me, it is merely “curious” whom we’ve elected as the 45th president of the United States.  In four years, there will be a 46th president.

          The second reason this election is only “curious” is because as a Christian, my peace and hope and joy are not ultimately tied to the fortunes of any given state or country.  A Christian’s peace and hope and joy should be built on Jesus’ words, especially when he said to Peter, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Mt. 16:18).  Notice, that Jesus uttered that promise about his Church and to the first pope; he was not referring to the United States and to the president.  My friends, think about it: countries, nations, empires will all come and go, but the Church remains.  That is, as a Christian I should attempt to rein in both any ebullient enthusiasm, as well as any dour despondency, over this election.  Don’t get too excited, and don’t freak out.  May I suggest that a conscientious Christian would see this election as merely “curious.”

          Lewis Carroll’s classic recounts the story of a little girl who had a great adventure in a “Wonderland.”  But she never forgot her home, or her desire to return there one day.  The United States of America is surely a “wonderland” in so many ways; we are blessed to live here, and to be able to elect our president (with the help of the Electoral College).  But it is not ultimately our home; our home is heaven, and we should never stop longing to return there.  In the meantime, enjoy the adventure!  It’s bound to get only “curiouser and curiouser...”

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Portrait of a Bishop

Respecting and praying for our bishops  
Titus 1:1-9  
          For this reason I left you in Crete so that you might set right what remains to be done and appoint presbyters in every town, as I directed you, on condition that a man be blameless, married only once, with believing children who are not accused of licentiousness or rebellious. For a bishop as God’s steward must be blameless, not arrogant, not irritable, not a drunkard, not aggressive, not greedy for sordid gain, but hospitable, a lover of goodness, temperate, just, holy, and self-controlled, holding fast to the true message as taught so that he will be able both to exhort with sound doctrine and to refute opponents.   

          Bishops often get short-shrift in the Catholic Church. They don’t get the respect they deserve. And this starts with small children. Several years ago, I asked my little nephew if he’d like to be a priest, and he immediately answered: “No way! I want to be the pope!” I said, “Don’t we all??” And sometimes people say to me, “Fr. John, we think you’ll be a bishop someday.” And I always shake my head and say: “Good Lord, I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy!” It’s a very, very hard and thankless job.   

          Here in our church offices we have a conference room called “The Bishops’ Room,” where we display the portraits of all the Arkansas bishops going all the way back to Bishop Byrne, the first bishop of Arkansas. Now, interestingly, along the opposite wall from the bishops are all the pastor of this parish, going all the way back to Fr. Lawrence Smyth, our first pastor. Sometimes, I imagine them facing each other like the famous “Shoot-out at the O.K. Corral” – bishops versus the pastors, staring each other down. When you look carefully at the size, structure and style of our church, you’ll notice it’s built suspiciously like a “rival cathedral” to the one in Little Rock. Hmmm. Of course, today in heaven, those past pastors and beloved bishops walk arm-in-arm, sipping scotch and laughing at such silliness. They’re probably laughing at this homily.   

          In the first reading from Titus, we see why bishops get such a bad rap. It’s all St. Paul’s fault! He takes all the fun out of being a bishop. Listen to his downright dour description of the qualities of a bishop. He writes to Titus, who was one of the very first bishops in the Church, saying: “For a bishop as God’s steward must be blameless, not arrogant, not irritable, not a drunkard, not aggressive, not greedy for sordid gain, but hospitable, a lover of goodness, just, holy, and self-controlled.” But wait, that’s not all, Paul keeps going: “He should hold fast to the true message as taught so that he will be able both to exhort with sound doctrine and to refute opponents.” By the way, when Paul says “refute opponents” means refute the pastors of Immaculate Conception Church. But can you see how Paul takes all the fun out of being a bishop? No wonder my nephew wanted to be the pope – at least the pope gets a cool airplane and to travel the world.   

          Of course, I’m saying all this tongue-in-cheek. I have the utmost respect for bishops, especially our own bishop, and I ask you to pray unceasingly for them, because they need our prayers, not our complaints and criticisms. You know, every bishop has to fulfill 3 basic tasks: he must be “priest,” “prophet,” and “king,” and that’s no small thing. That is, as a priest he must celebrate the sacraments with seriousness and devotion, helping people feel the presence of God in the sacramental symbols of bread and wine, of baptismal water, of wedding rings, of funeral incense. As a prophet he must proclaim with courage and conviction the whole gospel message, not just the part that pleases the people, not just the part you and I like to hear. He must proclaim the gospel regardless of whether it sounds conservative or liberal, traditional or progressive. And as king he must shepherd God’s people making wise decisions for the good of the whole diocese, indeed for the good of the whole Church.  Not a very easy job.

          These three tasks are called the three “munera” which is Latin and means “offices” of a bishop: “munus sactificandi” (priest), “munus docendi” (prophet) and “munus regendi” (king). These three munera mean that each bishop represents Jesus Christ in the midst of the people. Of course, that’s not nearly as cool as having your own airplane and traveling the world.   

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Perfectly Prolife

Working and voting to be more prolife  
Luke 20:27, 34-38  
          Some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection, came forward. Jesus said to them, “The children of this age marry and remarry; but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. They can no longer die, for they are like angels; and they are the children of God because they are the ones who will rise.  That the dead will rise even Moses made known in the passage about the bush, when he called out ‘Lord,’ the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; and he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”   

          All Catholics should be prolife. That’s not really “negotiable” for a Catholic; it’s not something we can take or leave. But we express our prolife position and principles in a wide variety of ways. For example, last weekend I made an announcement at the end of Mass that we will have a novena of Masses for the dead. I explained that we pray for the dead because one day we will also be dead. And we will want someone to pray for us. After Mass a father stopped me and shared that when I said, “one day we will be dead” his small son laughed out loud thinking I was joking. You see, that little boy was “prolife” and didn’t even know it. He thought we would live forever on earth, and that’s one way to be prolife.   

          Someone else with a very peculiar prolife position was General George S. Patton, the famous World War II general. Now, it’s true that he was Episcopalian and not Catholic, but his granddaughter is not only a Catholic but a Benedictine nun named Mother Margaret Georgina Patton. In the famous speech General Patton delivered to the Third Army, Patton colorfully said (and I have to censor it somewhat): “Now, I want you to remember that no ‘buffoon’ ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb ‘buffoon’ die for his country.” (Which word do you think I censored?) Now, those words don’t exactly hit the highest ideals of the prolife position, but it’s a small start. At least Patton was prolife about his own men. I’m sure Sr. Margaret Patton could help smooth some of her grandfather’s rough prolife edges. By being a religious nun who has taken the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience - which is very much a death to one’s self - she could argue that you do win the spiritual war by dying for your country, by dying for our eternal homeland of heaven. All Catholics are called to be prolife, but that prolife position can come in many shapes and sizes, and it takes many forms and fashions.   

          In the gospel today, Jesus presents the perfect prolife position, namely, how God sees human life. He answers a query from the Sadducees, who incidentally deny the afterlife and do not believe in the resurrection or heaven. He says, “That the dead will rise even Moses made known in the passage about the bush, when he called, out, ‘Lord,’ the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; and he is not God of the dead but of the living, for to him all are alive.” In other words, the perfect prolife position is to see all people through God’s eyes, and to him all are alive, especially those in heaven, those whom we mistakenly think are dead. Only God is perfectly prolife.   

          Last Friday, I ate lunch with Sam T. Sicard. As we walked back to his bank building, he shared with me how some people cling to life in an almost desperate way. He told me how his father died many years ago. Sam Sicard Sr. was a devout Catholic, in his seventies and faithfully attended Mass. One day, while at Mass, after receiving Holy Communion, Sam Sr. slumped over in his pew and died of a massive heart attack. He died immediately right there at Sunday Mass. Sam T. went on to explain how many people tried to console him by saying that was such a horrible tragedy and such a sad thing that happened. But Sam T.’s response was exactly the opposite: he felt his father’s death was perfect. What better way to leave this earth, than after having lived a full life, raised a family, built a strong bank, and now just having received Holy Communion. It’s like dying in the arms of Jesus! Sam saw his father’s death like Jesus said to the Sadducees: “And he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” You see, we are all on the spectrum of the prolife position: the little boy who laughed at me in Mass was prolife, General George S. Patton was prolife, Mother Margaret Patton was prolife, and Sam T. Sicard is prolife. We are all trying to be more and more prolife, but only God is perfectly prolife.   

          My friends, we are only two days away from November 8 and the election of our next president, I would like to say two things about Catholics and the prolife position. Oh, no, he’s going to talk about politics from the pulpit! Yep. Now let me say two things. First, no Catholic in good conscience can fail to be prolife or ignore this monumental issue of our day. The Catechism states in no. 2258: “Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves a creative action of God and it remains forever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end.” The Catechism continues: “God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being.” The Catechism is pretty clear cut about never violating the value of human life. In other words, being prolife must be a cornerstone of your Catholicism; you shouldn’t ignore it or minimize this intrinsic good.   

          The second point is that you should carry that prolife conviction with you to the ballot box and let that guide your voting. Now, I cannot tell you whom to vote for, nor should I. To be quite honest, I find it difficult to recommend any of the major party candidates. I believe voting is a profoundly private decision where one must listen to the voice of one’s conscience and do what it commands. There is a spectrum of prolife positions, and people who are deeply prolife can honestly disagree on the best way to promote the prolife cause. The one thing we can do is follow the dictate of our own conscience, at the same time, we can refrain from judging others as they follow the dictate of their own conscience. One thing that helps me to do that is to remember that only God is perfectly prolife, but no one else is: not you, not me, and not our political candidates.   

          A Catholic does not really have a choice about being prolife; it is part and parcel of our faith; it’s something we should feel deep down in our bones. But how we put into practice that prolife principle in concrete situations can be done in a wide variety of ways. The one thing a Catholic cannot be “pro-choice” about is being “prolife.”   

          Praised be Jesus Christ!