Thursday, August 10, 2017

Sacraments of Dying

Looking forward to death under the aegis of Christ 
John 12:24-26 Jesus said to his disciples: "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honor whoever serves me."

           What is your attitude toward death? Most of us would rather not think about it, and when we bother to, we either laugh or cry. I recently came across these comical comments about death that show its humorous side. Bill Cosby said: “I want to die before my wife, and the reason is this: if it’s true that when you die your soul goes up to judgment, I don’t want my wife up there ahead of me to tell them things.” James Duffecy quipped: “A dead atheist is someone who’s all dressed up with no place to go.” Garrison Keillor joked: “They say such nice things about people at their funerals that it makes me sad that I’m going to miss mine by just a few days.” I sometimes joke with people about death by saying, “No one is getting out of here alive!”

           August 10 (today) is the feast of St. Lawrence, deacon and martyr, and he also had a humorous approach to death. He was one of the seven deacons serving in Rome under Pope Sixtus II. In 258 the Roman Emperor Valerian ordered a cruel and complete persecution of the Church which included the pope and his deacons. St. Lawrence was martyred by being grilled alive over a fire. It is reported that he joked with his executioner saying, “I’m well cooked on this side, you can turn me over.” St. Lawrence saw the humorous side of death, but where did his ability to laugh at death come from, not from a joke but from Jesus, in knowing that he was dying in the Lord, in knowing that he was dying for the Lord, and that he would soon be with the Lord for eternity. This is what the Christian faith does: it completely changes our whole life – including our death – because we see life as under the aegis of Christ. That is, faith helps us realize we truly live in his kingdom (even while we’re on earth), under his rule and his protection. In Christ’s kingdom, nothing happens without his permission, not even death, and that’s why St. Lawrence could laugh in the face of death.

            Believe it or not, the Church actually teaches us to pray for a happy death. Did you know that? What a strange thing to pray for: what could possibly be “happy” about death? Isn’t death the worst thing in the world? To be sure it is terrible; it is heart-breaking to lose a loved one; it is “the consequence of sin” as St. Paul teaches in Romans 5:12. But if we gaze at death through the lens of faith, its frightening fa├žade begins to fade and this great foe can even be seen as a gentle friend. It can go from a moment of eternal loss to a moment of eternal love, like Jesus’ death on the Cross.

           Have you heard of the “sacraments of the dying”? Just like there are three “sacraments of initiation” – baptism, confirmation and Communion – so there are three “sacraments of the dying”: confession, Communion and Anointing of the Sick. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “The Christian who unites his own death to that of Jesus views it as a step towards him and an entrance into everlasting life..[T]he Church for the last time speaks Christ's words of pardon and absolution over the dying Christian (confession), seals him for the last time with a strengthening anointing (Anointing of the Sick), and gives him Christ in viaticum as nourishment for the journey (Communion)” (Catechism, 1020). You know, sometimes people don’t tell a seriously sick person they are going to die; they whisper around the deathbed. They think they are being merciful, but I believe that is misguided. Why? That fails to see death through the eyes of faith, not as a foe but as a friend, as someone who obeys the orders of Christ the King. Don’t let death sort of sneak up on you, but rather face it head on, prepare for it, indeed, pray for a happy death!

            My friends, the best way to approach death is not as a comedian but as a Christian, and it will thereby lose its menacing and morbid make-up. It says in Revelation 14:15, “Blessed are those who die in the Lord, for their good deeds go with them.” A blessed and happy death is one we should all look forward to, one like St. Lawrence enjoyed.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Mother of Phenomenology

Being faithful to daily duties and persistent prayers
Matthew 15: 21-28 At that time Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, "Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon." But he did not say a word in answer to her. His disciples came and asked him, "Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us." He said in reply, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But the woman came and did him homage, saying, "Lord, help me." He said in reply, "It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters." Then Jesus said to her in reply, "O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed from that hour.

           Let me tell you the story of an extraordinary woman named Edith Stein. She is a shining example of being tested and tried by family and friends, by the Church and the state, and finally being killed for her faith, but never flinching. Sounds a lot like Jesus, doesn’t she? Edith was born in Poland on October 12, 1891 to devout Jewish parents, but she had become an atheist by the time she was a teenager. During World War I, she worked in an infectious disease hospital and developed a deep compassion for the sick and dying. That’s why when she studied philosophy at the University of Freiburg and her doctoral dissertation was titled, “On the Problem of Empathy.” Her thesis director was Edmund Husserl, who founded a whole new kind of philosophy called “phenomenology.” But because Edith was a woman, Husserl did not promote her to an academic chair, but advanced Martin Heidegger instead. Obviously, Husserl needed to study the phenomena of “sexism” a little more carefully. But Edith remained friends with both Husserl and Heidegger.

            In 1922 at the age of 31, Edith read the life of the Carmelite mystic, St. Teresa of Avila, and she converted to Catholicism. She wanted to be a Carmelite nun right away, but her friends dissuaded her – I feel her pain! Instead she began a career in teaching philosophy at Catholic institutions. As the Nazis rose to power in Germany and oppressed both Jews and Catholics, Edith wrote a letter to Pope Pius XI asking him to denounce the regime, he had been conspicuously quiet. She didn’t mince words when she wrote: “As a child of the Jewish people who, by the grace of God for the past eleven years has also been a child of the Catholic Church, I dare to speak to the Father of Christianity about that which oppresses millions of Germans.” She continued: “For weeks we have seen deeds perpetrated in Germany that mock any sense of justice and humanity, not to mention love of neighbor. For years the leaders of National Socialism have been preaching hatred of the Jews… But the responsibility must fall, after all, on those who brought them to this point and it also falls on those who keep silent in the face of such happenings.”  Wow, what a woman.  Eventually, in 1937 the pope publicly decried the evils of Nazism.

            In 1933, Edith entered the Carmelite order and took the name of Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Even though she took refuge in a convent in the Netherlands, the Nazis finally found the Jewish refugees – including Carmelite nuns – and deported them to Auschwitz, where Sr. Teresa Benedicta was killed in a mass gas chamber on August 7, 1942. Even her death and canonization as a saint were controversial. Did Edith die for being a Jew or did she die for being a Christian? Whatever others thought, Edith wrote this to her prioress about her feelings: she asked permission to “allow her to offer herself to the heart of Jesus as a sacrifice of atonement for true peace.” Obviously, her faith fueled both her life and death. On October 11, 1998, Pope John Paul II canonized Edith as a saint. I admire Edith because she was tenacious in testing; every time she was knocked down, she got back up.  What a woman.

           In the gospel today we see another woman who is tested and still remains tenacious. She is a Canaanite woman who asks Jesus three times to cure her daughter and three times Jesus ignores her or rejects her outright. But she refuses to give up, and finally wins over our Lord’s love. What a strange episode, how unlike our Lord, and the only meaning I can make of it is Jesus was teaching her to be tenacious in testing; don’t give up fighting the good fight like Edith Stein, even to the death. God will eventually vindicate you.

           My friends, learn the lesson of tenacious testing from Edith Stein today. What do you do when things do not go your way, when your plans are frustrated, when your hopes and dreams are dashed, when your marriage fails, or illness assaults, or you’re persecuted for being a woman, or a Christian or a Carmelite nun (I mean, who persecutes poor Carmelite nuns??)? Instead of grumbling or groaning, rather than shaking a defiant fist against heaven, simply keep doing what you should be: your daily duties, your persistent prayers, be cheerful, courageous and courteous, like the Canaanite woman and the Carmelite nun. In the end God will vindicate you, if not in this life, then certainly in the next.

           By the way, Edmund Husserl is commonly referred to as the “father of phenomenology.” He might be surprised to learn that his assistant, whom he refused to promote to professor because she was a woman, is today seen as the “mother of phenomenology.”

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Hounds of the Lord

Praying for our precious religious orders
Matthew 15:1-2, 10-14 Some Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, "Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They do not wash their hands when they eat a meal." He summoned the crowd and said to them, "Hear and understand. It is not what enters one's mouth that defiles the man; but what comes out of the mouth is what defiles one." Then his disciples approached and said to him, "Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?" He said in reply, "Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit."

           Sometimes people ask me an unusual question, but if you grew up Catholic, you’ll know exactly what they mean. They ask me: “Are you an order priest?” They are asking if I am a diocesan priest or if I belong to a religious order, like the Dominicans or the Franciscans or the Jesuits. I try to explain this fundamental difference between diocesan priests and order priests by comparing it to the military. A military has a standing army, with ranks of private and captain and general, but a military also has special forces like Navy Seals and Army Rangers and Marino Commandoes. Diocesan priests are like the standing army with ranks like deacon, priest and bishop, and the religious orders are like the special forces because they live in small groups called communities and have a special mission called a “charism.”  Men and women who join religious orders have an awesome vocation, and I am in awe of them.

           That always reminds me of that old joke about religious orders. What are the three things that even God does not know about the Church? (1) How many congregations of religious women there are, more than even God can count. (2) How much money the Franciscans have stashed away (they’re supposed to be poor). And (3) What the Jesuits really think, and what they will do next (they’re known for being very stable and predictable). Of course, that joke is only told by Dominicans.

            Every year on August 8 the Church celebrates the feast of the founder of one of those great “special forces” called the Dominicans because it was founded by St. Dominic. St. Dominic, on December 22, 1216, received the approval of Pope Honorious III, to start a religious order to preach the gospel particularly against heresies. At that time the Albigensians were running rampant in Southern France and convincing Catholics that the world was inherently evil. But Catholics believe what it says in Genesis 1:10: that God created the cosmos “and saw that it was good.” For 800 years, therefore, the Dominicans have preached the gospel against those who attack Catholicism. Dominicans will have two letters after their name – O. P. – which means “Order of Preachers.” Perhaps the greatest single Dominican to ever live was St. Thomas Aquinas, whose teachings in the Summa Theologica and other writings still shape the studies of seminarians who are preparing to become priests. I had a Dominican professor in the seminary who taught us Mariology – the study of the Blessed Virgin Mary – and warned us not to commit “Mariolotry,” that is, not to worship Mary. That’s what Dominicans do: they keep us Catholic. That’s their special charism, their “special sauce.”

            Today, I want you to pray for the Dominicans, but also for all religious orders. Why? Well, I am convinced that they have a singular and unrepeatable role in the life of the Church and in the life of Christians. The Second Vatican Council taught that these religious orders practice the highest virtues and aspire to the greatest levels of sanctity called “perfectae caritatis,” or perfect charity, or perfect love. They want to identify themselves as closely to Christ as possible by exercising the “evangelical (gospel) counsels” of “poverty, chastity and obedience.” Religious orders may have touched your life: you may have been taught by the Sisters of Mercy, or the Benedictines; you might have attended a Jesuit university like Boston College, or perhaps you worked in a soup kitchen with Franciscans, or helped the poorest of the poor with the Missionaries of Charity started by St. Teresa of Calcutta, or asked for the powerful prayers of cloistered Carmelite nuns. These are the special forces of the Catholic Church, and their special sauce adds great flavor to our faith. We simply could not be victorious in our struggle against Satan without their help.

            One of the nicknames the Dominicans have, and one they wear with particular pride, is “Hounds of the Lord.” Where does that name originate? You divide the name “Dominicans” into two Latin words, “Domini” and “canes,” which mean “Hounds of the Lord.” And like a good watchdog, the Dominicansm, the Hounds of the Lord, keep the House of the Lord safe from intruders.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Curb Your Hanger

Feeding others before feedings ourselves
Matthew 14:13-21 When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. The crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns. When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples approached him and said, "This is a deserted place and it is already late; dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves." He said to them, "There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves." But they said to him, "Five loaves and two fish are all we have here." Then he said, "Bring them here to me," and he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds. They all ate and were satisfied, and they picked up the fragments left over–twelve wicker baskets full. Those who ate were about five thousand men, not counting women and children.

           Most Americans have never experienced real hunger. If someone is hungry, it’s not due to a real lack of food, but more likely to ignorance of where to find it. Deacon Greg tells me there are nine free meals served in Fort Smith every day. Maybe you’ve experienced being “hangry,” when hunger makes you angry (the word “hangry” is a portmanteau of hungry and angry). Catholics voluntarily experience a little hunger while fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. I always tell people this rule of thumb about fasting: “If it didn’t hurt a little, you didn’t do it right.” Nevertheless, all these hunger pains are a far cry from the dire need of those who truly cry out with hunger.

            The depths of real hunger came home to me in a particularly poignant scene in the recent movie, “The Lion.” It’s about a very poor family in India who survive by the two small boys going out to look for valuables in the trash which they then sell for food. But even more compelling is the scene where they sit down to a meager meal with their mother, who forgoes the food herself so there would be enough for her two boys. She overcame her “hanger” with love, and in a sense, her food was her fondness for her sons. We don’t feel so hangry when we sacrifice food for the sake of love.
In the gospel today, we hear the very familiar story of the multiplication of the loaves and fish. Jesus takes five loaves of bread and two fish and feeds the “vast crowd” Matthew says, whom he later describes as “5,000 men, not counting women and children.” But equally enlightening as the miracle itself was what Jesus does not do. None of the gospels record Jesus eating himself. That is, Jesus, like the mother in the movie “The Lion,” was nourished by another kind of food, namely, fondness for his children, his disciples. Jesus’ joy came from feeding others. Jesus overcame feeling “hangry” by feeding others first.

            We will probably not experience severe hunger in our lives, but we may frequently feel the pangs of being “hangry,” where our hunger pains may cause us to become irritable and unfriendly toward others. Here are a few simple suggestions on how you can curb your hanger, that is, by thinking of feeding others before ourselves. When I was studying in Rome, I learned that you should always pout wine into other people’s glasses before you refill your own glass. Feed others first. Here in America children are taught not to take the last cookie, or the final French Fry, but to leave that for someone else. Feed others first. Personally, I leave the last bite of my dessert for Elijah (sometimes it’s not a very big bite!). Feed others first. By practicing these small habits, we learn that there is another kind of food, a more nourishing, spiritual food, called “love,” that fills not our stomachs but our hearts. Indeed, love is the most satisfying food of all.

            The best way to curb your hunger - as well as to curb your hanger - is not with diet supplements or protein shakes, but by feeding others first. Even more so, when you feed others first, you will feel the joy of Jesus, which is love.

Praised be Jesus Christ!


Learning we cannot love those we do not know
Matthew 17:1-9 b Jesus took Peter, James, and his brother, John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them;  his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, "Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him." When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Rise, and do not be afraid." And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone.
           Do you know what an “avatar” is? Most Americans will recognize it as the title to a science-fiction movie. But perhaps you’ll also be familiar with the computer-generated avatars that we use every day. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines avatars like this: “an electronic image that represents and is manipulated by a computer user in a virtual space (as in a computer game or an online shopping site) and that interacts with other objects in the space.” A friend sends me text messages with little figures – a sort of “avatar” – that have her eyes and glasses and hairstyle, and other facial features. Have you seen those? I’m sorry to say this, but the avatar is a little more flattering-looking than the real person; but that’s precisely the point, isn’t it? Avatars are supposed to “enhance” us, make us appear better than we really are.

            In 2007, Brad Paisley, the country music star, released a hit song called “Online.” He sang about a middle aged, overweight man, who still lived in his parents’ basement. But a marvelous transformation occurs whenever he sits down at his computer and goes “online.” He sings: “Cause online I’m out in Hollywood / I’m 6’5 and I look dang good / I drive a Maserati / I’m a black belt in Karate / And I love a good glass of wine.” The refrain of the song says it all: “I’m so much cooler on line; I’m so much cooler online.” That’s the real allure of avatars: they make us look “cooler,” they hide our imperfections, they make us appear younger and richer and funnier. But all the while, the real “us” remains hidden in the basement of our parents’ home, and really in the basement of our hearts. No one knows the real me, they only know my avatar.

            When I prepare couples for marriage I give them this advice: “The worst thing that can happen to you on your wedding day is that you marry a stranger.  You may fall in love with an image – an avatar – that is merely a mask, and you don’t know the real person. Everyone wants to look like the “perfect 10” but we’re not. On the other hand, the best thing that can happen to you on your wedding day is that you look at each other and say: ‘Look, honey, I know you’re not the knight in shining armor, but I want to marry you anyway.’ How wonderful it would be for someone to know the real me – warts and weaknesses and weird habits and all – and still want to spend their life with me! Real love is always based on real knowledge of another person, and that’s only possible when we stop hiding behind our avatars.

            Today we celebrate the great Feast of the Transfiguration, which Pope St. John Paul II added as the fourth luminous mystery of the rosary. In a sense, you could say the Transfiguration is about Jesus sort of dropping his avatar for a brief moment so the apostles could see his glorious divinity. Now, let me add that Jesus’ human nature is not really an avatar because Jesus really IS a human being “tempted like us in all things but never sinned” as Hebrew 4:15 insists. But today Jesus wants the apostles to see his divine nature, his glory, his Godhead. Why? Well, because Jesus doesn’t want them to fall in love with a stranger, but rather, for them to know the real Jesus: God and yet man, eternal but also temporal, all-powerful and all-knowing but also “growing in wisdom, age and grace” (Luke 2:52). Jesus invited them into the depths of his heart – into his basement, you might say – so they could see the depths of the mystery of Christ.

              Romano Guardini, a particularly insightful theologian, wrote: “The greatest of all graces is to love the Lord with a heart fully conscious of what it is about; to love not only ‘our dear Savior’ in the impersonal sense which the phrase so often has, but Christ himself, corporeally and spiritually, as one loves an irreplaceable person to whom one is bound through thick and thin” (The Lord, 222). In other words, don’t just love Jesus’ avatar, the Jesus of pious paintings, but love the real Jesus. That’s what the Transfiguration teaches: true love is possible only where there is true knowledge of the person we say we love.

            My friends, what are the avatars that you hide behind? That is, what are the masks and mirages, disguises and deceptions that make others thing you’re “so much cooler” than you really am? Has the rise of social media – Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, Snapchat, etc. – made it harder for us to love other people? It’s funny how easy it is to text someone, but sometimes I find awkward talking to face to face. Does that happen to you? We need the lesson of the Transfiguration and invite people into our basement, into our hearts, and see the real us; or else, they only love the avatar. Sometimes priests can hide behind the Roman collar, and it’s almost like an avatar of authority but also sadly of alienation. Many years ago, a priest friend of mine committed suicide, which stunned everyone who knew him. Even though everyone loved him, he left behind a note that said, “I didn’t think anyone loved me.” He needed the grace of the Transfiguration, and allow people to see him in his basement, in his heart of hearts, to see the person behind the priesthood. During World War II many Germans changed their names to sound more American: they hid behind a false name like an avatar. We use avatars so people think we’re “so much cooler” than we really are.

             Most of us are not 6’5, live in Hollywood, drive Maserati’s, hold a black belt in Karate, we may not even look “dang good.” But God made each of us precious and irreplaceable because he made us in his image and likeness; that’s what’s really hiding in our basement! And if someone doesn’t love you for that, maybe their love is not worth having.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Hometown Zero

Growing in the virtue of humility
Matthew 13:54-58 Jesus came to his native place and taught the people in their synagogue. They were astonished and said, "Where did this man get such wisdom and mighty deeds? Is he not the carpenter's son? Is not his mother named Mary and his brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas? Are not his sisters all with us? Where did this man get all this?" And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, "A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and in his own house." And he did not work many mighty deeds there because of their lack of faith.

           Few things are as edifying as someone who is self-effacing. What does that mean? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines self-effacing as “not trying to get attention or praise for oneself or one’s abilities.” Or, to put it in one word, “humble.” And the best place to grow in being self-effacing and humble is at home. No one can humble us better or faster than those who know us best: our older brother or sister, our parents or our children, our neighbors. The rest of the world may see us as a “knight in shining armor,” but at home we’re the “arrant knave” as Hamlet said (Hamlet, I, v). Sometimes we’re not the hometown hero; rather we’re the hometown zero.

           Today’s feast of St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests (like me), is a perfect case in point. He struggled in the seminary and barely learned enough Latin to say Mass. Four times he ran away from his parish to become a monk but came back because his people needed him – hmmmm. In 1818, he was appointed pastor of a small town in France called “Ars,” consisting of 230 people. Jealous priests of his diocese circulated a petition saying John Vianney was not fit to be a priest. John Vianney asked to see the petition and signed it himself because he completed agreed he was not fit to be a priest. Next to the definition of “self-effacing” in the dictionary should be a picture of St. John Vianney. In the minds of his brother priests, John Vianney was not a hometown hero but a hometown zero. But such heroic humility was precisely why St. John Vianney is venerated today, and why he’s the model for parish priests. People are attracted to humble priests like moths to a flame.
In the gospel today, Jesus also receives a cool reception when he returns to his hometown. We read: “They took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and in his own town.” In other words, Jesus was not a hometown hero welcomed in the streets of Nazareth with a ticker-tape parade; he was ridiculed as a hometown zero. Do you remember another time Jesus was humbled at home? When the boy Messiah was 12 years old, he stayed behind in the Jerusalem Temple teaching the priests and Pharisees. But his mother and foster-father scolded him for it, and he returned home and was obedient to them. Not exactly the knight in shining armor; more like the arrant knave. But when he humbled himself, what happened? Luke records after that incident: “And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man” (Luke 2:52). Jesus, like St. John Vianney, learned humility at home, and that was the heart of his holiness.

           My friends, we know it’s “hard to be humble” because Mac Davis popularized that notion in song. “Oh, Lord, it’s hard to be humble...” We want people to praise us and tell us how wonderful we are. Mark Twain once said, “I can live for three months on a good compliment.” We only want to be humble if people will pat us on the back for our humility, which of course, is not humility at all.
Instead, may I suggest you try to be more self-effacing? That is, try not to talk about yourself and your accomplishments, but focus rather on others and what they do well, and compliment them. Find the good in others and praise them first. A few years ago while in another parish, we were searching for someone to promote the school. One candidate’s cover letter used the word “I” 25 times. He would be very good in promotion, but only in promoting himself. We didn’t hire him. Paradoxically, it is when we think least of ourselves that others will think the most of us.

            If a petition were being circulated saying that you are doing a poor job and should be fired, would you sign it? Probably not, and that’s precisely why we haven’t found the heart of holiness, which is humility. It’s only when we think of ourselves as a hometown zero, that we will finally become the hometown hero.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

For A Day

Learning to embrace the best of the old and new
Matthew 13:47-53 Jesus said to the disciples: "The Kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea, which collects fish of every kind. When it is full they haul it ashore and sit down to put what is good into buckets. What is bad they throw away. Thus it will be at the end of the age. The angels will go out and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth." "Do you understand all these things?" They answered, "Yes." And he replied, "Then every scribe who has been instructed in the Kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old." When Jesus finished these parables, he went away from there.

           One of the things I love about my parents is their flexibility and their adaptability as immigrants. They worked very hard to teach their three children both to hang on to old Indian traditions but also to embrace new American customs. For instance, they taught us to use a knife and fork to eat instead of our hands, like we do in India. But do you know food actually tastes better if you use your hands to eat? It’s like the difference between drinking a soft drink from a can (where you can taste some of the aluminum) versus from a bottle (where the taste is clear). So, when no one is watching, I eat with my hands.

           Another example is marriage. In India, marriages are usually “arranged” by the parents, but that would be scandalous to American sensibilities. So, my parents admirably adapted to the new culture. They love that my brother married a beautiful Indian woman, and my sister married a handsome American man. But of course, I married the best Bride of all, the Church, in becoming a priest. My parents were successful immigrants. Why? Well, because they taught their children the value of both the old and the new. Sometimes you must hang tenaciously to the old, and sometimes you must warmly welcome the new.

           In the gospel today, Jesus teaches his disciples to have this same immigrant insight, how to hang on to the old and the new. Jesus says: “Every scribe who has been instructed in the Kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household (head of a family) who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.” In other words, Jesus urges his apostles to have my parents “immigrant insight,” which is really gospel discernment, in order to discern carefully what is old and needs to be saved and what is new and needs to be learned.

             If you study the 2,000 year history of the Church, you’ll discover there have been 21 “ecumenical councils” where all the bishops of the world sat down with the pope and decided matters of faith and morals. It’s fascinating to see the drama unfold in each council: the characters and the conflicts and the controversies. One council even happened in our own lifetime, the Second Vatican Council, in the early 1960’s. But do you know what the pope and bishops were really trying to do in every council? They did what my parents did as heads of a household: decide how to embrace both the old and the new. What do you keep of church teachings and what do you change? That’s not at all an easy decision or discernment.

             Folks, which way do you tend to lean: are you “old-fashioned” or do you prefer the “new-fangled”? Are you a “progressive” or tend to be a “traditional”? Do you like the “good old days” or do you think things have “never been better”? Would you rather write a hand-written letter or do you like to send text messages? Do you like the latest styles and fashions, or do you stick to stubbornly to the styles of “yester-year”? I heard someone ask recently do you know what the word “fad” means? It means “for a day.” Well, we all struggle with this dilemma because the march of history forces us to choose one or the other. May I suggest to you the immigrant insight of my parents, and Jesus’ gospel discernment? Don’t be exclusively one or the other, bur wisely and lovingly sometimes cling to the old, and sometimes welcome the new. Then, you, too, will be a “scribe instructed in the Kingdom of heaven.”

             You know, my dad is actually more old fashioned and hates to change, while my mother loves to try new things like texting an facebook. But that’s exactly what makes them such a good team, because sometimes the “old is gold” and at other times the “latest is the greatest.” And when you learn to love the best of the old and the best of the new, you will have actually embraced what is eternal.

 Praised be Jesus Christ!

The Imitation Game

Spending time in the transforming presence of the Lord
Exodus 34:29-35 As Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the commandments in his hands, he did not know that the skin of his face had become radiant while he conversed with the LORD. When Aaron, then, and the other children of Israel saw Moses and noticed how radiant the skin of his face had become, they were afraid to come near him. Only after Moses called to them did Aaron and all the rulers of the community come back to him. Moses then spoke to them. Later on, all the children of Israel came up to him, and he enjoined on them all that the LORD had told him on Mount Sinai. When he finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face. Whenever Moses entered the presence of the LORD to converse with him, he removed the veil until he came out again. On coming out, he would tell the children of Israel all that had been commanded. Then the children of Israel would see that the skin of Moses' face was radiant; so he would again put the veil over his face until he went in to converse with the LORD.

           It’s funny how we imitate the people around us. Last year at my roast and toast, Jason and Michelle Wewers said they were worried when I was named pastor of I.C. They feared I would have a thick foreign accent, like some Indian priests do. But when they heard me speak, it was far worse than they imagined, because I sounded like Barak Obama, and they might have to change parishes. (Sorry for the political overtones.) I had heard the president speak so often I started to sound like him. Parents with small children know the princesses of every Disney movie, as well as their names, and even the color of their dresses. People in Fort Smith love to go to the rodeo, and horses and equestrians are a proud part of our parades, in case you couldn’t tell from all the “road apples” after a parade. We think and act and dress and do things like those around us.

           One of the most poignant examples of this “imitation game,” is found in Dostoyevsky’s great Russian novel, Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov, the protagonist, is a murderer and an atheist. But he meets a young lady, Sonia, a devout Christian, who slowly influences him to replace his hate and isolation with love and solidarity, and ultimately with faith. When he first meets Sonia he kisses her feet, like the sinful woman who met Jesus; he humbly looks at her feet than her face. Raskolnikov would be sentenced to prison in Siberia for his murder, and Sonia would follow him there, where Sonia would change Raskolnikov’s sorrow into a smile. The people around us change us profoundly and permanently.

             In the first reading today, Moses is changed not by other people but by God. Moses repeatedly went to talk to God, face to face, as one friend talks to another. And what happened to Moses? We read: “As Moses came down from Mt. Sinai…he did not know that the skin of his face had become radiant while he conversed with the Lord.” Just like I never noticed I sounded like Obama, and Fort Smithians don’t think twice about the road apples, so Moses was oblivious to how his face glowed with God’s glory after being in his holy presence. Archbishop Fulton Sheen once described being in Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament like staring at a glowing sunset. Our faces begin to glow with the glory of what we behold. Like Raskolnikov in the presence of Sonia, so too, when we look at Jesus in the Eucharist, we are changed profoundly and permanently.

            My friends, we have to ask ourselves whose presence we spent time in, and how it changes us. We all play a sort of “imitation game” mimicking those around us, whether we realize it or not. When I visit someone’s home, I love to look on their bookshelves and study what they read. I wonder in what books they bury their heads, because how we act and think and dress and decide things is influenced by them, however subtly or slowly. Children who bury their heads in their phones or Ipad’s have their souls shaped by what they see. Their faces glow, too, like that of Moses, but maybe not exactly with the glory of God. When we watch a particular news channel, do we sound more like Barak Obama or Donald Trump, rather than sounding like Pope Francis or Bishop Taylor? We’re playing the imitation game. When we can quote movies and songs and late night comedy shows quicker than we can quote the Bible and the Catechism, that’s the imitation game we’re playing. Our faces, like that of Moses, are also “radiant” because of those we “converse” with. The people around us shape us profoundly and permanently.

            Henri de Lubac, a great theologian of the last century, summed it up well, when he asked: “Do the unbelievers who jostle us at every turn observe on our brows the radiance of that gladness which, twenty centuries ago, captivated the fine flower of the pagan world? Are our hearts the hearts of men risen with Christ? Do we, in our time, bear witness to the Beatitudes?” (The Drama of Atheistic Humanism, 122-23). And if we don’t, then we know why.  We’re playing the imitation game and the people around us change us profoundly and permanently.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Armchair Quarterbacks

Learning to lead with love more than laws
Exodus 32:15-24, 30-34 Moses turned and came down the mountain with the two tablets of the commandments in his hands, tablets that were written on both sides, front and back; tablets that were made by God, having inscriptions on them that were engraved by God himself. As he drew near the camp, he saw the calf and the dancing. With that, Moses' wrath flared up, so that he threw the tablets down and broke them on the base of the mountain. Taking the calf they had made, he fused it in the fire and then ground it down to powder, which he scattered on the water and made the children of Israel drink. On the next day Moses said to the people, "You have committed a grave sin. I will go up to the LORD, then; perhaps I may be able to make atonement for your sin." So Moses went back to the LORD and said, "Ah, this people has indeed committed a grave sin in making a god of gold for themselves! If you would only forgive their sin! If you will not, then strike me out of the book that you have written."

          Have you heard the term “armchair quarterback”? It is a derogatory term used to describe someone who commands others from the comfort of his couch but he’s unwilling to make personal sacrifices. Such a leader fails to grasp that leadership has more to do with example than with exhortation, with love than with laws. Something inside us instinctively cringes when someone tries to lead us without love.

           On the other hand, a good leader is ready to “take one for the team,” that is, he or she will make personal sacrifices. Sometimes in basketball games a coach will become deliberately disruptive and the referee will call a technical foul on him and eject him from the game. I always smile when that happens. Why? Well, because the coach will sometimes do that on purpose to inspire his team to try harder: the coach’s suffering galvanizes his players to give their best. John Maxwell, one of the leading experts on leadership, defines leadership with one word, “influence.” He writes: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” He continues: “Leadership begins with the heart, not the head. It flourishes with a meaningful relationship, not more regulation” (Developing the Leader Within You, 7). In other words, leadership has more to do with love than laws.

           In the first reading today, Moses proves he’s no “armchair quarterback” and that he’s willing to “take one for the team.” Moses descends from Mt. Sinai carrying the two tablets of the law, the Ten Commandments. But the people have turned away from God to sin and idolatry. So, what does Moses do? First he corrects the people, but then he goes back up the mountain to talk to God, and beg for his mercy. But Moses does even more than that: he’s willing to sacrifice himself for the people – a foreshadowing of what Jesus would do. Moses says to God, “Strike me out of the book that you have written.” Moses, like smart and sacrificial basketball coaches, was ready to be “ejected from the game,” so that he could inspire the Israelites to give it their best. Moses understood that giving the law is not enough to be a great leader; he must also have great love, shown in sacrifice. “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
           My friends, sooner or later we all exercise some sort of leadership. Parents must lead their families; priests must lead their parishes; presidents must lead their nations. Maybe you coach a little league team or you direct the church choir. You could be a volunteer boy scout or girl scout leader, or the CEO of a global corporation. Nearly everyone is a leader. And if you absolutely insist on avoiding leadership, then you’ll definitely have to follow one. Sometimes priests say sarcastically: “The only thing worse than being an associate priest is having one.” I’ve always been blessed with exceptional associate priests.

           So, if you’re going to be an effective leader, get off your armchair and lead with love, make some personal sacrifices. Get thrown out of a basketball game by deliberately earning a technical foul; take one for the team. I recently asked the church staff to take a small pay-cut so we could balance the budget, but I told them my salary would be cut, too. I am convinced that church finances take care of themselves if the pastor leaders with love, that is, some personal sacrifice. Don’t yell at your kids to do their chores, do the chores with them. Show them, don’t shove them. Like Moses, be willing to be “ejected from the game,” because that’s when you’ll truly be in the game.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

With Less Art

Learning to speak softly and therefore more spiritually
Luke 10:38-42 Jesus entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me." The Lord said to her in reply, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her."

           One of my favorite phrases is “speak softly and carry a big stick.” That was originally said by President Theodore Roosevelt to describe his foreign policy: good diplomacy (soft speech) should be backed up by a strong military (a big stick). But I like it because often those who speak softly are more effective in communicating than those whose words are loud and proud. A good example is Dc. Stephen Elser. His homilies are spoken softly and simply, but they are no less spiritual or supernatural and also very insightful. I’ve told him not to change his style because that’s more appealing to many people than my propensity to pound the pulpit.

           One of the most enduring figures of Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet” is Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. She, too, preferred to speak softly, and she wished that others would too. At one point she is listening to Polonius (one of the king’s counselors), who drones on and on – like some Sunday sermons – and she says succinctly, “More matter, with less art” (Hamlet, II, 2), meaning “get to the point.” Later, she watches a play where an actress is overly effusive and she says famously, “The lady dost protest too much, methinks” (Hamlet, III, 2) Sometimes speaking softly means you don’t need the big stick because you make your point more pointedly.

            The Scriptures offer us two examples of ill-spoken words; indeed, the people would have done better to speak softly, or not speak at all. In Exodus 24, Moses presents the people with the “book of the covenant,” and they boldly respond in unison: “All that the Lord has said, we will heed and do.” But just eight chapters later, they are bowing down worshiping the golden calf in Exodus 32. Their own words condemned them. In the gospel Martha complains about Mary’s inactivity and asks Jesus to correct her. But our Lord corrects Martha instead: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part.” Jesus could have said about Martha: “The lady dost protest too much, methinks.” In other words, sometimes it’s better not to be busy and bluster, but to speak softly or even to be silent. In the spiritual life, far more is gained through silence than by speaking. That is the ultimate meaning of the phrase, “More matter, with less art.”

            My friends, we are all guilty of talking too much, or of saying things we don’t mean or even saying things we later regret. We need to learn to speak softly. I love to celebrate 50th wedding anniversaries and hear couples renew their vows.  Often their voices are hushed and humble because they know exactly how hard it is to live those vows, and maybe even how many times they’ve stumbled. How different their words sound than on the day of their wedding! They’ve learned the meaning of “more matter, with less art.” Priests repeat our ordination promises each year at the Chrism Mass. The weight of those words grows heavier each year, and the older the priest, the softer he seems to speak them. Priests slowly learn that discipleship demands “more matter, with less art.” More Christ-like love and less lip-service. Often grandparents speak softly instead of raising their voices – unless their hearing aid doesn’t work – because they’re aware how over the course of their long life they’ve said things rashly – like the Israelites and Martha – and it’s usually better to speak softly instead of eat your words later. Life is lived better when you have “more matter, with less art.”
When the prophet Elijah wanted to see God in the Old Testament, he experienced a violent wind, a tremendous earthquake, and a blazing fire, but God was not in any of those phenomena. Finally, Elijah heard “a still, silent sound” (1 Kings 19:12), and he hid his face.  Why? The prophet had finally found God. It seems God, too, prefers “more matter, with less art.”

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Friday, July 28, 2017

Faces of Faith

Seeing the Face of God first in the faces of others
EX 19:1-2, 9-11, 16-20B In the third month after their departure from the land of Egypt, on its first day, the children of Israel came to the desert of Sinai. After the journey from Rephidim to the desert of Sinai, they pitched camp. While Israel was encamped here in front of the mountain, the LORD told Moses, "I am coming to you in a dense cloud, so that when the people hear me speaking with you, they may always have faith in you also." When Moses, then, had reported to the LORD the response of the people, the LORD added, "Go to the people and have them sanctify themselves today and tomorrow. Make them wash their garments and be ready for the third day; for on the third day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai before the eyes of all the people."

           Would you like to see God? Of course, we all would love to gaze into the God’s eternal eyes, and, please God, one day we will in heaven. But here on earth, we first find God’s divine Face in the human faces around us. We know that no one can believe in God unless He gives them the gift of faith: that special eyesight to see spiritual things. But that gift of faith is delivered through the faces of faith we see around us. Try to think of some of the faces of faith that have helped you to see God a little better.

            The very first face of faith is found in our parents, especially our mother. I don’t mean just because mom always drags you to church on Sunday. Doctors say a baby’s eyesight extends about 12 inches, the precise distance between a baby’s face nursing at the breast and her mom’s face. The very first glimpse we get of God is when we stare into our mom’s eyes.  How so?  Well, however inchoately, we sense in the unconditional love of her eyes, the love of God. Here at Immaculate Conception not one week goes by that I don’t hear a story of how someone became Catholic thanks to Msgr. John O’Donnell, or “OD” as some affectionately call him because people “overdosed” on Jesus while he was here. In Msgr. O’Donnell’s face, people caught a glimpse of the Face of God: in his joy, his eloquence, his tenderness, even in his Irish wit they saw God’s goodness. The first time we see the face of God is when we see him reflected in the face of man, in faces beaming with faith.

            The Scriptures today tell us this is in keeping with the divine design, that is, God wants it this way. In Exodus 19, Moses meets God on Mt. Sinai, but God says surprisingly, “I am coming to you [Moses] in a dense cloud, so that when the people hear me speaking with you, they may always have faith in your also.” Did you catch that last part? God wanted the people to have faith in Moses, too, so that when they saw Moses’ face they would remember God’s presence and power. Moses had a face of faith that helped the people to see God. In the gospel, Jesus explains why he speaks in parables, saying, “Because knowledge of the mysteries of the Kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted.” The apostles were to be the faces of faith to the early Christian community (because they knew the mysteries of the Kingdom), just like Msgr. John O’Donnell was a face of faith to the Fort Smith community. The first place we see the divine Face is in a human face.
Folks, what kind of face do you show the world? Remember this world is desperate to see God: from our first breath coming out of the womb until our last breath before we’re place in the tomb, our hearts beat with a more or less conscious desire to see God. And the first place someone sees God’s Face is in a human face, maybe your face. Do you have a face of faith?

           Let me conclude with a longish quotation from Bishop Robert Barron, whose self-professed goal is to show God’s face to our culture. Bishop Barron writes: “In 1933, on the nineteen-hundredth anniversary of the redemption, Pope Pius XI invited Christian missionaries to take the Gospel literally to the ends of the world, to ensure that the message was heard everywhere. The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate took up the challenge. A small group was sent to the northern reaches of Canada, where they proclaimed Jesus Christ risen from the dead. Then they asked, ‘Are there any people further north?’ When the answer came back in the affirmative, they set out, found the more distant community, and proclaimed Jesus to them. This process continued until they came, finally, to a tiny gathering of people who said, ‘No, we’re the last ones.’ When the Oblates had preached to this little band, they went back to Rome with the message: ‘We’ve announced Jesus Christ to the ends of the world’” (Catholicism, 142). They showed God’s face to everyone. My friends, whether it’s in Canada or in Cammack Village, the first place people see the Divine Face is in a human face.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Patience Now

Slowly growing in the virtue of patience
Matthew 13:24-30 Jesus proposed another parable to the crowds, saying: "The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field.  While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off. When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well. The slaves of the householder came to him and said, 'Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?' He answered, 'An enemy has done this.' His slaves said to him, 'Do you want us to go and pull them up?' He replied, 'No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest; then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, "First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn."'"

           Would you describe yourself as a very patient person? I think this virtue is especially elusive for modern Americans, who are accustomed to having things right away, the sooner the better. We drive fast on the freeway, and we’re perturbed with people who poke along in the passing lane. I hate to tell you this, but several times I’ve actually passed a slow poke who was in the left lane, passed them in the right lane, gotten in front of them, and slowed down until they finally moved into the right hand lane. Yes, I need to go to confession for that. We want faster wifi connections and go into withdrawals and start shaking if we can’t download something fast. We have little tolerance for Sunday Mass that’s more than one hour, and we start staring at our watches (or phones).  Like Moses said to Pharaoh, we want to say to the priest: “Let my people go!” We’re like the Christian who prayed for patience saying, “Lord, give me patience, and I want it right now!” We say like Tom Cruise in the movie, “Top Gun,” “I feel the need…the need for speed.” We Americans can’t slow down or be patient.

          But some things in life – indeed the best things – cannot be rushed; we must wait patiently for them. For example, falling in love cannot happen “at first sight,” and usually when it does, it doesn’t last long. “Speed dating” leads quickly to “speed divorcing.” Friendships fostered over years are the richest and most rewarding. A good meal usually isn’t prepared in five minutes in a microwave, but prepared over hours of time, because they include “three scoops of love” which takes time. Farmers know they must be patient waiting for the spring planting to turn into the fall harvest. Yes, you can inject steroids to make your chickens grow faster and fatter, but you’ll also lose something in the balance. Patience is a virtue modern Americans could use a lot more of, and they need that patience now!

           In the gospel today, Jesus tells his disciples that waiting patiently is necessary in the Christian life, too – it is indispensable for growth in goodness; patience even makes us more like God. Jesus tells the parable of the sower who scattered seeds, but weeds grow together with the wheat. The farmer allows both to grow together until harvest, and then he will dispense with weeds and wheat as befit both. But what struck me about the parable was the farmer’s patience and willingness to wait. God is the divine farmer, who knows that his grace works slowly in the life of each Christian: not like a steroid but like a seed. In fact, sometimes growth in the virtues is as imperceptible as seeing the grass grow. Sometimes we only see the growth in the rearview mirror – after years of living the Christian life. We’re more patient today than we were five years ago. We’re more prayerful today than we were ten years ago. We’re more punctual today than we were twenty years ago. Can you see what happening? Some of the weeds in us are miraculously transforming into wheat, and that’s why the Farmer lets both grow. 

We read in 2 Peter 3:9 says, “The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard ‘delay,’ but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” You will recall that St. Peter also had some weeds that needed to turn into wheat - his impetuosity, his denials - and he was personally grateful for God’s patience.  God’s patience gives us hope, and our patience gives God hope.

          My friends, how do we grow in the virtue of patience? Well, because it’s a virtue, it is gained by practice. Every coach will tell you that “practice makes perfect.” And that’s true with patience as well: the more we practice it, the more perfect it becomes in us. Here are several ways to practice patience. First, pray for the grace to be patient. But remember God may delay in answering your prayers, and thereby teach you to be patient, waiting on his answer.  Garth Brooks told us that “some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” Second, try to be more patient with yourself – in overcoming stubborn sins, in learning a new language, in starting a new job, in using a smart phone, etc. – then we’ll be more patient and understanding with other people’s struggles, like those who drive slowly in the left hand lane. They’re slow like we are. Third, do you know how long you should wash your hands with soap? A friend told me you should sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice while rubbing soap on your hands, only then will the soap do any good in cleaning your hand. Some things in life are only attained slowly, like cleanliness; that’s one reason they say “cleanliness is next to Godliness” because both require the virtue of patience. Fourth, reflect on God’s patience toward you, and thank him. How long as God waited patiently for you to learn spiritual principles and put them into practice? God is patient with us like he was with St. Peter.

            The best things in life are not obtained by rushing and recklessness, but rather by patience and perseverance. Heck, even God must wait patiently for us to come to repentance. Friar Laurence gave Romeo and Juliet the same advice in Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy, saying, “Wisely and slowly; they stumble that run fast” (Romeo and Juliet, II, 3). If they had heeded his words, this play would have been a romance, and not a tragedy.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Fear of Tears

Letting our tears teach us lessons of love
John 20:1-2, 11-18 Mary stayed outside the tomb weeping. And as she wept, she bent over into the tomb and saw two angels in white sitting there, one at the head and one at the feet where the Body of Jesus had been. And they said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken my Lord, and I don't know where they laid him." When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus there, but did not know it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" She thought it was the gardener and said to him, "Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him." Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni," which means Teacher. Jesus said to her, "Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them, 'I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'" Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord," and then reported what he told her.

           Many years ago while I was still in seminary, I experienced one of the most grueling but also one of the most grace-filled moments of my life. I participated in a “Clinical Pastoral Experience” program (CPE, for short) and worked as a hospital chaplain. The hardest part of that program was group sessions, where we all sat in a circle and shared our feelings. I hated that part. Most of the time I tried to sit inconspicuously and slide my hand into my pants pocket and pray my rosary. But sooner or later everyone’s attention turns toward you, and you have to share your feelings; you become a sort of “emotional monkey in the middle.”

          I still shudder at how relentlessly they plied me with questions, asking why I said this, or why I felt that, or why I didn’t do something else, on and on they asked and wouldn’t stop. It felt like emotional waterboarding, torturing my heart. They kept probing deeper and deeper, peeling back layer after layer of my motivations and masks until I finally blurted out, “Because I love the Church!” and I burst into tears. It’s hard to convey how I felt at that moment, almost as if I stood there naked before that group of strangers, or at least my heart was naked, and I wept. But I learned that the tears were a sign of my deepest love. It wasn’t until I wept that I had touched the tap-root of my heart’s deepest desire. You see, they didn’t perform that emotional waterboarding so they could learn something, but so that I could learn something. I learned what I truly loved, because that’s what I would weep for. I also learned to overcome my fear of tears. I am convinced that summer CPE not only made me a better person, it would make me a better priest.

           In the gospel today, we see another sort of group therapy session, and Mary Magdalene is the fortunate monkey in the middle. First she is questioned by two angels, who probingly ask her: “Woman, why are you weeping?” Then Jesus appears and asks again, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you weeping for?” Little by little they help Mary to peel back the layers of her loves until she discovers her heart’s deepest desire: Jesus. She recognized Jesus, not as the gardener, but as her Lord and her Love. Of course, May was a lot faster in following the trail of her tears than I was. Tears flow when you touch your deepest feelings. After Mary embraced Jesus, her heart’s desire, she left the tomb calm and confident to share her Good News with the world. Having overcome her fear of tears, she became a better person, and even a better priest; after all, she’s called the “Apostle to the Apostles.”

           My friends, do you still suffer from a fear of tears? Do you feel awkward or embarrassed when someone cries, or even when you cry? Maybe you’ve witnessed weeping at a funeral, or while consoling someone who’s dealing with a divorce, or as you hold the hand of someone in the hospital. Or maybe you cried watching a sappy movie, or got choked up telling someone you love them. Instead of a fear of tears, may I suggest you learn to welcome them?  Tears are a sign of your heart’s deepest desires. I assure people who cry during counseling sessions with me that I consider that a compliment. Why? Well, weeping makes you feel vulnerable and that means you trust me enough to show me your heart. I remember very well that day many years ago when I felt vulnerable - indeed naked - crying in CPE. In other words, don’t fear your tears, but welcome them as harbingers of your heart’s love.

           Here’s the upshot: when you overcome your fear of tears, you will become not only a better person, but also a better priest. How so? You will be ready to share with the world the Good News of what you love the most.  And like Mary Magdalene, hopefully that will be Jesus.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Ultimate Vacation

Finding real rest and profound peace in Jesus alone
Matthew 11:28-30 Jesus said: "Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light."

         Summertime is the season for vacations. Have you taken your vacation yet? Some people go to the beach and sit in the sun and read or work on their tans. Everyone wants to look like Fr. John. Other people spend their time at amusement parks, or enjoying the great outdoors at national parks, or watching old episodes of the T.V. show called “Parks and Recreation.” Still others take the so-called “stay-cation,” where they stay home and let their neighbors go away on vacations, because that’s who they really need a vacation from. So often, however, what happens when you return from your vacation? You feel you need a vacation from your vacation! Too often vacations only produce greater exhaustion rather than producing a profound peace.

           One friend of mine likes to say that the best part of her vacation is coming home to sleep in her own bed. Ironically, she finally rests when she returns from her vacation. Vacations are like that story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, where Goldilocks first sleeps in a bed that’s too hard, and then in a bed that was too soft, and finally she finds a bed that’s just right, and she discovers real rest. We, too, approach vacations like beds: hoping going here or running there will help us find real rest. But at the end of the journey, we need a vacation from our vacation; we still looking for the best bed, the ultimate vacation.

         In the gospel today, Jesus tells his disciples where to find real rest, profound peace, the ultimate vacation, namely, in him. Jesus says simply: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves.” That Scripture is evocative of St. Augustine’s famous, opening passage in his Confessions, where the Doctor of Grace wrote: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in thee” (Confessions, I, 1). St. Augustine wrote that after a life of painful personal experience of looking in vain for real rest in all the wrong corners of the world, and in all the wrong corners of his heart. He was like Goldilocks, trying one bed that’s too hard, and another that’s too soft, until he found the best bed, namely Jesus himself.

         My friends, where are you looking for rest, relaxation and renewal? Of course, it’s fine to take a vacation to see the world, or get away from the daily routine. But be careful thinking a vacation can promise perfect peace, and real rest. Your body may be on vacation, but your soul (your heart) may still be restless. We may be tempted to find peace at the bottom of a bottle, in alcohol. Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “Men drink because they like the stuff; women drink because they don’t like something else.” In other words, they’re trying to escape from something, or someone! But we wake up the next more with a hangover and we feel we need a vacation from our vacation to Margarita-Ville.  Opioid addiction has reached pandemic proportions in the United States. Why? People sadly think they will find real rest in drugs. Teenage suicide is also growing inexorably and exponentially. Young people party on Spring Break in Cancun, but they do not find the real rest they desire with all their hearts. They still desperately need a vacation from their vacation.

          Our whole life plays out like the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, a poor exhausted little girl, looking for rest.  We try one bed that’s too hard, and another that’s too soft, until we finally find Jesus, the One who is just right, the only One who gives us real rest, perfect peace, the ultimate vacation. Only when we rest in the Lord will we finally feel we no longer need a vacation from a vacation.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Feed the Seed

Nourishing the seed of faith planted within us
Matthew 13:1-9 On that day, Jesus went out of the house and sat down by the sea. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat down, and the whole crowd stood along the shore.  And he spoke to them at length in parables, saying: "A sower went out to sow.  And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for lack of roots. Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it. But some seed fell on rich soil and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.  Whoever has ears ought to hear."

         “Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow? With silver bells and cockle shells, and pretty maids all in a row.” You’ve probably heard that nursery rhyme before. But have you heard an interpretation for it? There are actually several possible meanings of the rhyme, but my favorite is the Catholic one. Duh. The subject of the rhyme is a woman named “Mary,” someone who is “quite contrary,” and that refers to the Blessed Virgin Mary. That means that Mary is “contrary” to the common, acceptable modes of behavior, she’s not in step with her peers – she’s counter-cultural because she’s both a fruitful virgin and yet also a chaste mother. She’s very contrary, paradoxical.
What then is her garden? There are two meanings hidden here. One is the garden of the whole Church – because she is the mother of the Church, and she tends all her children like flowers in her garden. But Mary’s garden is also the individual souls of each Christian, where she cultivates the virtues to grow, like chastity, honesty, cheerfulness and hardwork. Mary makes both the universal Church as well as the individual souls of Christians grow in holiness.

          The silver bells are church bells, especially the bells we hear rung at Mass. When I ring the those bells before Mass starts, what happens? Everyone jumps up: that’s how Mary makes the garden sprout, people jump up. The cockle shells are a little more arcane, a less familiar symbol. A shell is awarded to a person who’s completed a pilgrimage, especially the grueling 550-mile pilgrimage across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostella. Therefore cockle shells represent piety and prayer and pilgrimage. Nothing helps you grow in goodness and grace like serious and sustained prayer.
And finally, what do “pretty maids all in a row” refer to ? Well, it’s not the chorus line on Broadway! It’s actually a chorus of nuns in chapel at “Lauds” and “Vespers,” chanting their morning and evening prayers. I think it’s a real tragedy that St. Anne Convent is not filled with Sisters of Mercy, and St. Scholastica Monastery is not overflowing with Benedictine nuns. What a big blessing they would be in our Catholic schools, rapping kids knuckles with rulers! Cloistered and consecrated nuns make us grow in virtue because of their words of exhortation and their works of mercy.

          The point of this popular rhyme is simple but also serious: if you want a garden to grow, they need careful and constant cultivation. If you leave them alone, weeds and wild things will take over. If you’re growing a spiritual garden, you need to provide supernatural fertilizer – the sacraments, sacrifice, and sound spirituality – that’s how you feed the seed of faith.

          In the gospel today, Jesus is also concerned about making seeds grow, an analogy for the spiritual maturation of Christians. He tells the parable of the sower who spreads seeds on different soils, some soil gives growth while others choke off the plants because the ground is not carefully cultivated. Jesus wants to warn his disciples about the danger of not being fertile soil. Why? Faith only flourishes in good ground. In other words, it takes effort to make your faith grow, while it is easy to lose your faith: simply do nothing, simply by neglect.

           Do you know anyone who used to be Catholic but now no longer goes to church, to Mass? I bet you do, and maybe it’s someone in your own family. Scott Hahn, the Presbyterian minister-turned Catholic-theologian, frequently says that the largest Christian denomination in the United States is “Roman Catholic.” But he adds that the second largest is “ex-Catholics.” These fallen away Catholics called “the nones” because their religion is “none in particular.” In August, 2016, the Pew Research Center said: “Perhaps the most striking trend in American religion in recent years has been the growing percentage of adults who do not identify with a religious group. And the vast majority of these religious “nones” (78%) say they were raised as a member of a particular religion before shedding their religious identity in adulthood.” Why is this a growing trend?  The answer is simple. The seeds of faith fells on shallow soil, and it withered and died, because people did not “feed the seed.” Those who were Catholic did not remember the nursery rhyme, “Mary, Mary, quite contrary,” they did not seek Mary’s prayers, or hear the “silver bells” of Mass, or pursue the “cockle shells” of pilgrim piety, or the sacrifices of sisters, “the pretty maids all in a row.” It takes a lot of effort to stay in the Church, it merely takes neglect to leave the Church, because you fail to feed the seed.

          My friends, how do you feed the seed of your faith, how do you cultivate good ground? It’s not enough to just come to Mass once a week; that would be like watering your flowers or vegetables once a week. Let me suggest two ways. First, what kind of company do you keep? Who are your companions and confidants? I love to text people all the time, especially on Friday nights when they’re probably at a party. I’ll text someone and their friend will ask, “Hey, who texted you?” And the Catholic will reply cover their mouth and mumble: “Um, my priest.” But you see what happens: when you’re friends with a priest: that says something about you. It says you probably don’t have much of a social life. But it also says you “feed the seed of your faith.” Who are your friends, do they cultivate your faith or cause you to forget it?

          The second suggestion is to consider what you are reading these days. What books are feeding your head and your heart? Of course, it’s fine to enjoy fantasies and fiction, histories and mysteries. But also make time for some serious spiritual reading. The Bible first and foremost. Currently, I’m reading several books: The Dynamics of World History by Christopher Dawson (a great book on the role of religion in history), The Lord by Romano Guardini (who helps you see Jesus in a whole new way), The Drama of Atheistic Humanism by Henri de Lubac (answering the question why people are atheists today), and in my car, listening to audio books, “Building a Biblical Worldview” by Scott Hahn and “Hamlet” by Shakespeare. Even a priest must feed the seed of faith, or he will starve his soul.

          Folks, the most precious gift you have been given is the seed of faith. But faith will not flower or flourish on its own; you must feed the seed. Mary’s garden grows because she uses supernatural fertilizer, and that’s how your garden will grow, too. Or it will not.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Friday, July 14, 2017

Games People Play

Seeing God as the Grand Master Chess Player
Genesis 41:55-57 When hunger came to be felt throughout the land of Egypt and the people cried to Pharaoh for bread, Pharaoh directed all the Egyptians to go to Joseph and do whatever he told them. When the famine had spread throughout the land, Joseph opened all the cities that had grain and rationed it to the Egyptians, since the famine had gripped the land of Egypt. In fact, all the world came to Joseph to obtain rations of grain, for famine had gripped the whole world. The sons of Israel were among those who came to procure rations. It was Joseph, as governor of the country, who dispensed the rations to all the people. When Joseph's brothers came and knelt down before him with their faces to the ground, he recognized them as soon as he saw them. But Joseph concealed his own identity from them and spoke sternly to them.

            I came across a maxim lately that I think carries not only a social lesson, but also a spiritual one. The maxim is “he’s playing chess while others are playing checkers.” Have you heard that before? Even if you are not a “grand chess master,” you probably know the enormous difference between chess and checkers. Checkers is fairly straight forward; red pieces battle against black pieces, and move only in one direction, until they are fortunate enough to become kings. Checker games are short and sweet. Chess, on the other hand, is quite complex: two whole kingdoms wage war, the pieces move in different directions – pawns, castles, knights, bishops – and the most powerful piece on the board is the queen. Women instinctively love to play chess, and wish more men would learn.

            An illuminating illustration of this maxim – he’s playing chess while others play checkers – is the movie, “Casablanca.” Do you remember what Humphrey Bogart is doing the first time you see him? He’s playing chess. But most people do not see the delicious detail that there’s no one on the other side of the table, no opponent, which means he’s playing chess by himself. If you play close attention to the plot of “Casablanca,” you’ll quick catch how Bogart moves through the movie anticipating other’s moves and is always two or three steps ahead of Major Strasser, Captain Renault and Victor Laszlo. In other words, they’re all playing checkers – Major Strasser, the Nazi, is trying to take over the world, Renault is trying to make more money, or Laszlo is leading the resistance – while Bogart is playing chess – trying to help all of them moved by love, but most especially Ilsa Lund, his queen, clearly the most powerful piece on the board. The movie helps us see how many people play checkers, but only a few play chess, indeed, sometimes, only one.

             In the reading from Genesis, this maxim helps us see which “games” Joseph and his brothers are playing as well. I would suggest to you that Joseph is playing chess, while his brothers are playing checkers. How so? A famine has spread over the whole world, and Jacob’s family comes begging for bread from Pharaoh. Joseph has become “prime minister” in Egypt, second only to Pharaoh, and tests his brothers, asking them to bring their youngest brother, Benjamin. The brothers just play checkers – they want food, basic necessities of life – while Joseph plays chess – he desire God’s justice and love, higher and holier ends. Like Bogart, Joseph, masterfully maneuvers everyone to fulfill God’s will – installing the Israelites in the most prosperous part of Egypt (Goshen), helping the people to become fruitful and multiply, but only to reveal how God has stayed two or three steps ahead of them. Most play checkers, but only a few play chess.

             My friends, what game are you playing? Are you simply laying a sort of “checkers” in life – chasing after money, sex and power – missing how magnificent the drama of life really is? How sad it is to see so many people think that the purpose of life is to maximize pleasure and to minimize pain. They merely play checkers. On the other hand, if you look through the eyes of faith, you’ll see laid out before you a spiritual and supernatural chess board, where two kingdoms wage war – the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan – where history unfolds not because of political or military or economic forces, but according to the will of God, who like Bogart is always two or three steps ahead of everyone else. And who’s the most powerful piece on the board? It’s the queen, of course, Mother Mary, and that’s why all Catholics love chess!

             This vision of faith and this interpretation of life, prompted Paul to pen to the Romans: “All things work together for the good of those who love God” (Romans 8:28). Most people play checkers, but few – the few who have faith – play chess. They see what God sees and can stay two or three steps ahead of everyone else.

            By the way, did you know that in real life, Humphrey Bogart, the actor, was an accomplished chess player? He held the rank of 2100, which is outstanding. When you see history through the eyes of faith, you, too, might feel the confidence of Christianity, like Bogart did in Casablanca, and raise the toast, “Here’s looking at you, kid.” That’s a toast to Mary, of course.

Praised be Jesus Christ!