Friday, June 16, 2017

Changing Diapers

Experiencing the spousal love of Jesus in the sacraments
Matthew 5:27-32 Jesus said to his disciples: "You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you,  everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into Gehenna. "It was also said, Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce. But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery."

           Sometimes people ask me why I decided to become a priest. Of course, there are the usual suspects that inspire a priestly vocation: helping others spiritually, feeling called by Jesus, and eating free in Mexican restaurants. But if I reflect a little more deeply on the mystery of my vocation, I find it was really the love of my parents that was the taproot of my call. How paradoxical that the love of my parents made me want to be a priest; you’d think seeing the love of two people would make a man want to enjoy the same love himself, and get married  Not necessarily.

            I really didn’t understand how my parents love inspired my priestly vocation until I read a book by Pope St. John Paul II called, Man and Woman He Created Them. There, the pope-saint wrote: “If we reflect deeply on this dimension, we have to conclude that all the sacraments of the Church find their prototype in some way in marriage as the primordial sacrament” (Man and Woman, 511). All that flowery philosophical language just means that marriage is the model of every sacrament because marriage reflects most fully how Jesus love us, that is, as a holy Husband and a sacred Spouse. So, when I become a priest – when I receive the sacrament of Holy Orders – my vocation is also to share the spousal love of Jesus for the Church, just like my parents showed the spousal love of Jesus to each other. And I thought I wanted to become a priest just so I wouldn’t have to change dirty diapers.

            In the gospel today, Jesus speaks clearly and categorically about marriage, and the impossibility of divorce; marriage is going to be a lot harder than just changing diapers. Jesus, the holy Husband says: “But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful), causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Why is Jesus so unequivocal and unbending about marriage? Doesn’t he see there can be situations that make marriage impossible to endure and that a divorce sometimes becomes necessary? Yes, Jesus knows all these things better than we do, because Jesus knows “what is in man” (John 2:24). He knows us because he made us. Nevertheless, Jesus has bestowed both a beautiful blessing and a back-breaking burden on every marriage: to be a sign and sacrament of his own spousal love. In other words, husbands and wife must love each other like Jesus loves, and sometimes that means changing diapers, and other times it means being nailed to a cross, which is exactly how a divorce feels. That’s why John Paul said marriage enjoys the exalted title of the “primordial sacrament.”

             In May, 2000, I completed my canon law degree and began working in the marriage tribunal, which deals mostly with annulment cases. It’s a very heart-wrenching ministry because you deal with heart-breaking cases, where couples didn’t hit the heights of being a primordial sacrament. I sometimes joke that working in the tribunal is like making lemonade: “When life throws you lemons, make lemonade.” But annulments do more than just make the most of a bad situation. Tribunal ministry is ultimately about healing and wholeness. Divorce is devastating, and a human heart feels like Humpty Dumpty, who all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put back together again. But Jesus is the King of kings ,and he is the Healer of Hearts. And through the annulment process, I’ve been blessed to see people who love like Jesus again; often they can love even better after the annulment than before, like a bone is stronger after a break than before. When their marriage is blessed by the Church, a couple feels Jesus’ spousal love again in the primordial sacrament.

          Why do people get married? They want to experience and exchange the love of Jesus. Why do people get ordained as a priest? They want to experience and exchange the love of Jesus. Sometimes you have to change poopy diapers, and sometimes you have to write poopy annulments. But always the love of Jesus is a lot better than making lemonade.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Holy Hijabs

Keeping our faces covered until the coming of Christ 
2 Corinthians 3:15—4:1, 3-6
Brothers and sisters: To this day, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over the hearts of the children of Israel, but whenever a person turns to the Lord the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit. Therefore, since we have this ministry through the mercy shown us, we are not discouraged. And even though our Gospel is veiled, it is veiled for those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, so that they may not see the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

           Do you know what a “hijab” is? It’s a head-covering worn by many Muslim women in public. I know it is sometimes viewed as a sign of subjugation of women by men, and that does definitely happen, and should be denounced. But there is a deeper metaphorical meaning of a hijab: it is to veil, or to protect, the holy and the sacred from the unholy or the profane. In other words, just as God and heaven are veiled – hidden – from the view of earth, so too are women veiled from the gaze of men. But notice, this is not because women are inferior to men but exactly the opposite, it’s because women are superior to men, like heaven is superior to earth.

            The Western world has an equivalent of a hijab as well: when a bride enters the church on her wedding day, she sometimes veils her face. Not only that, but some grooms are not permitted even to see the bride before the wedding. Now, are all these crazy customs to demonstrate the inferiority of the bride to the groom (and to everyone else), or to highlight her superiority? Well, just as the father of the bride, who has to pay for the wedding if the veil means his daughter is superior or inferior. 
Furthermore, we use veils in the Catholic Church to highlight holiness. Some churches cover the tabernacle with a veil, some cover the chalice and paten with a veil, some nuns wear a veil, even the Communion rail is a veil to distinguish the sanctuary (the heavenly and sacred) from the rest of the church (the worldly and the secular). All these veils denote a metaphorical but also metaphysical “line in the sand” to shield the sacred from the sinful, to protect women from men, to hide heaven from earth, to distinguish and delineate what is superior from what is inferior. That is, hijabs can be holy.

           In the first reading today, St. Paul devotes a few verses to talk about veils, too. The Apostles writes: “To this day, whenever Moses is read, a veil covers the hearts of the children of Israel, but whenever a person turns to the Lord the veil is removed.” In other words, with the coming of Christ in the Incarnation, the great veil between heaven and earth has been swept aside, and we get to sneak a peek into heaven when we see Jesus. Nevertheless, our vision is still veiled and clouded, heaven is still hidden from plain sight, and “we walk by faith not by sight,” as St. Paul will clarify two chapters later in 2 Corinthians 5:7.

            So we have to ask the question: when will the veil be completely removed, when we will get to see the Bride lift the veil, and see the Bride and Groom kiss? Well, that’s exactly what the last book of the Bible tells us. The Book of Revelation, or in Greek “Apocalypsis” literally means “unveiling of a bride.” In other words, the end of time and the end of history not only marks the coming of Christ, but also the unveiling of the Bride of Christ on her wedding day. Christ will return as the divine Groom, and the Church will be revealed as the Bride, holy and humble, and the glorious Groom will lift her veil and kiss her eternally.

          The Book of Revelation closes with the importuning and impatient Bride begging the Lord to return in glory. We read: “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’” (Rev. 22:17). Brides can’t wait for their wedding day. But until that day arrives, while we walk by faith and not by sight, the Bride of Christ, the Church, should walk with veiled face, humbly wearing a holy hijab. And by the way, that goes for men as well as for women.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Ministry of Death

Allowing death to teach us how to live
2 Corinthians 3:4-11 
Brothers and sisters: Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. Not that of ourselves we are qualified to take credit for anything as coming from us; rather, our qualification comes from God, who has indeed qualified us as ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life. Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, was so glorious that the children of Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of its glory that was going to fade, how much more will the ministry of the Spirit be glorious? For if the ministry of condemnation was glorious, the ministry of righteousness will abound much more in glory. Indeed, what was endowed with glory has come to have no glory in this respect because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was going to fade was glorious, how much more will what endures be glorious.

          One of the occupational hazards of being a priest is having to do funerals. If you’ve been wondering why I haven’t had morning Masses, it’s because I’ll have had seven funerals in two weeks. Two weeks ago, I had the funeral for the very sad passing of Stacy Forsgren, a young lady who left behind three young children. Last Monday was the funeral for Arthur Rideout, Sr., a man always ready with a compliment. He said I was very good-looking, so I really liked him. On Thursday, we had the funeral for Charlene Dean, a woman who was beautiful on the inside as well as the outside. On Monday (two days ago) was the funeral for Mary Ann Huck, who was 97 years old and had pretty much seen everything in life. Yesterday was Bill Etzkorn’s funeral, who always gave me “a Coke and a smile” when I took him Holy Communion on First Fridays. And next Monday will be the funeral for Blanche Tinder, another wonderful and faithful I.C. parishioner. I once heard it said that you know you’re getting old when you know more people in heaven than you do on earth. Well, I’ve gotten a lot older in the past two weeks. Whoever said that “funerals come in threes” never worked at I.C. Church. Another friend texted me and said, “Fr. John, you’re burying half the people in Fort Smith!” Funerals are a priest’s occupational hazard.

            But I’ve found that this occupational hazard can also be an occupational blessing. How so? Well, funerals don’t just make you think about death more, they can also surprisingly make you think about life more. Two life lessons have really hit me forcefully through all these funerals. First, I’ve learned that life can be short, like the life of Stacy Forsgren, so make the most of it; no one is guaranteed a long life. Don’t become so busy or caught up in the rat race that you don’t take time to stop and smell the roses. Visit your elderly parents, tell your spouse you truly love them by going on a “date night,” go fishing with your grandchildren, play cards with your family like Bill Etzkorn loved to do. Simply stop and be alive.

            Secondly, death reminds us that this life is not all there is, but we may look forward to the next life, hopefully in heaven, after we are purified and perfected in purgatory. I’ve had to counsel several terminally ill people who obviously have to think about death a lot. Sometimes the pain and suffering makes them wish for death, and they feel guilty for wanting to die. I suggest that they shouldn’t long for death so much as they should long for the after-life, and death is the doorway. It’s  subtle difference to desire the after-life rather than death, but it’s a significant one, and it can be spiritually rewarding.  In other words, death can be an occupational blessing by making us appreciate this life, and also by making us look forward to the next life.

             St. Paul writes to the Corinthians in his second letter: “If the ministry of death was so glorious…how much more will the ministry of the Spirit be glorious?” Clearly, that’s a mysterious thing to say, but maybe it means that priests who do a lot of the “ministry of death” (like funerals) shouldn’t forget that they likewise conduct a considerable amount of the “ministry of the Spirit,” who gives life both in this world and in the next. In other words, and very ironically, death itself become a great life lesson.

             Of course, the Knights of Columbus would not be surprised by any of this. Their motto is “tempus fugit, memento mori,” which means “time flies, remember death.” If you’re the pastor of Immaculate Conception Church, it’s impossible to forget it.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Assassins of God

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

          Have you ever noticed how many things come in “three’s”? Here are just a few examples. There’s the “triple crown” of horse racing: the Belmont Stakes, the Preakness Stakes and the Kentucky Derby. The three-point shot in basketball has revolutionized the game, sometimes called a “trifecta” (a derivation of “perfecta”). Who can forget the great threesome of comedy, Larry, Moe and Curly, better known as “The Three Stooges”? Some of you look old enough to remember the famous “Rat Pack” of super actors, who were headed by the threesome of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr.  Even Sunday sermons should have three distinct parts: a beginning, a middle and an end. The actor-comedian, George Burns, once quipped: “The secret to a good sermon is that it should have a good beginning, a good ending, and they should be as close together as possible.”
But the highest threesome in nature is a human family. You have to have a father, a mother, and at least one child to constitute a family, and I say that with all due respect to those who cannot have children. Scott Hahn, the Presbyterian preacher-turned-Catholic theologian, says that in marriage a husband and wife become one flesh when they consummate their marriage, and that “one” is so real that nine months later you have to give it a name. In other words, not only is a child born, but a family is born when there are three persons.

         Why am I mentioning all these triples and threesomes? Well, I believe they are all “vestigia Dei” or in English, “traces of God” in the world. They are signs of God’s presence – that God is three in one (a Trinity) – all around us, if we only looked at the world with the eyes of faith. This is precisely what St. Patrick did in 5th century Ireland. He plucked a three-leaf clover and explained to the Irish people that just as you have three petals but only one clover, so, too, God is three Persons but only one God. That little three leaf clover was a “vestigia Dei,” almost like an ancient Triple Crown or the Rat Pack.

          Today’s Scripture readings provide more explicit testimony to the Holy Trinity. In St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he writes: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” You may have noticed that’s how the priest sometimes greets people at the beginning of Mass – that’s my favorite greeting. But there are other subtle signs of the Holy Trinity in the sacraments, more of these “vestigia Dei.” There are three readings of Scripture in the Mass: the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Gospel (when we stand). When you came into church, you dipped your fingers in holy water and made the Sign of the Cross, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” When a bishop blesses people at the end of Mass, he makes three crosses, not one like a poor priest does (if I did that, I would be firing blanks). These too are “vestigia Dei,” and it takes the eyes of faith to see them; otherwise, these Catholic gestures simply seem like superstitions or sorcery.  Do these signs in the sacraments make you think of God, or make you think Catholics are goofy?

           Let me give you two reasons why you should look hard for these vestigia Dei, especially for traces of the Trinity. First, because our search for God is more like a romantic adventure than a rational search, more like falling in love than writing a doctoral dissertation. All lovers first leave traces of their affection, instead of coming right out and sharing their heart. For example, they give a second glance in a crowded room; back in the old days a girl would “inadvertently drop” her handkerchief (today she would drop her cell phone); the boy would stutteringly state his over-rehearsed pick up line; the girl would feign no interest and play hard to get. In other words, the whole alluring and agonizing process of human courtship is scattered with “vestigia” of love, like bread crumbs leading one heart to another. Seek God, therefore, as a lover, not as a logician, and you’ll see the “vestigia amoris” (the traces of love) he has deliberately left for you: traces of the Trinity scattered throughout the world.
          Secondly, the last three centuries have seen a concentrated effort to erase and eradicate these “vestigia Dei” from human experience. I’ve recently been reading a book called The Drama of Atheistic Humanism by Henri de Lubac, where he says atheism is ironically the modern religion and wants to replace all other religions. He writes: “The phenomenon that has dominated the history of the mind during the last few centuries seems both more profound and more arbitrary…Man is getting rid of God in order to regain possession of the human greatness that, it seems to him, is being unwarrantably withheld by another. In God he is overthrowing an obstacle in order to gain his freedom” (The Drama, 24-25). In other words, philosophers like Fruerbach, Marx, Nietzsche and Comte want to convince us that these “vestigia Dei” are only our imagination, our minds playing tricks on us, and we’ll be happier and rise to the heights of greatness, only if we ignore them. Indeed, they want to go so far as to make us believe that God is not our best-Friend but rather our arch-Enemy. Therefore God should be killed. And that’s why Nietzsche brags, “We are the assassins of God” (The Drama, 50). And what is the assassin’s creed, how do they plan to kill God? They attempted to erase the “vestigia Dei” out of the world, so we would never find God.

         But there is one place God has left his trace that the atheists have overlooked, namely, in the human soul. St. Augustine taught that the Trinity is hidden in the three chief powers of the soul: the memory, the intellect and the will, and these too are “vestigia Dei.” The Doctor of Grace wrote: “But in these three, when the mind knows itself and loves itself, a trinity remains: the mind, love and knowledge” (On the Trinity, Bk. 8, Ch. 7).  You see, Fruerbach and Marx, Nietzsche and Comte tried to declare “God is dead,” but they did not count on the vestigia Dei God had left for them in their own hearts, and to kill God there they would have to kill themselves. Maybe that’s why in 1889, at the age of 44, Nietzsche suffered a mental breakdown from which he would never recover. Jesus will say to them as he said to the Sadducees: “God is a God of the living, not of the dead. You are greatly mistaken” (Mark 12:27).

Praised be Jesus Christ!

A King’s Secret

Giving God the glory for our accomplishments
Tobit 12:1, 5-15, 20 
Tobit called his son Tobiah and said to him, "Son, see to it that you give what is due to the man who made the journey with you; give him a bonus too." So he called Raphael and said, "Take as your wages half of all that you have brought back, and go in peace." Raphael called the two men aside privately and said to them: "Thank God! Give him the praise and the glory. Before all the living, acknowledge the many good things he has done for you, by blessing and extolling his name in song. Honor and proclaim God's deeds, and do not be slack in praising him. A king's secret it is prudent to keep, but the works of God are to be declared and made known. Praise them with due honor.

          I believe the older we get, the more inclined we are to give God the credit for our accomplishments. Some of you know that a lot better than I do. When we’re young, we think our success is due to our smarts, our strength, or our savvy. But later, we learn that all we did was God’s gift and made possible only by God’s grace. And therefore, it’s only right we should give him the glory.

           A case in point is Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. When he was merely 54 years old, Pope John Paul II named him the head of the Vatican department called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Cardinal Ratzinger’s role was to safeguard the authentic faith from possible threats or heresies. Some people who came into his cross-hairs nicknamed him “God’s Rottweiler,” because he had to correct them. These people portrayed him as arrogant and antagonistic, even though that was not the case. In his recent book, however, called Last Testament, Pope Benedict shows his true character as a very humble man. When asked how he learned so many languages, he replied: “It looks as if I know as many languages as God, but this is not the case.” And he explains that he learned some smattering of English by listening to “vinyl records.” Maybe someone can tell me after Mass what those are. I don’t think Pope Benedict ever took personal credit for his many talents and towering achievements, but as he has gotten older, he’s made that more explicit.
           In the first reading today, Tobit wants to give the Archangel Raphael credit for all the blessings he brought to their family. And I love Raphael’s reply. He says: “Thank God! Give him the praise and glory.” The heavenly messenger goes on to explain: “A king’s secret it is prudent to keep, but the works of God are to be declared and made known.” You see, all angels have “old souls” - they’re older than Methuselah, who lived to be 969 years old - and so they are keenly aware how God’s grace is the chief cause of their accomplishments. But the phrase I like is “a king’s secret it is prudent to keep.” I think that means we all are tempted to think of our ourselves as “kings and queens” and want others to praise us praise for our hard work and victories. But Raphael says, “Be humble, keep secret what you think you’ve done.” That’s exactly what Pope Benedict did in his last book, literally his Last Testament.  He didn’t want to be praised for speaking so many languages – which he actually does! – that’s how he kept the “king’s secret.”

          My friends, how old are you? Have you reached the age where you see how God’s grace has been the real agent of all your achievements? Or, even if you’re still young, do you have a “old soul” (like the angels) and see that everything is ultimately God’s gift? I cringe whenever I see an athlete gloat over his or her victory, as if they had done it all alone. On the other hand, I’m edified by those who give credit to their teammates, their coaches, and even the crowd for their wins. How do you react when someone compliments you for something you’ve done well? A friend of mine simply says, “Praise God,” like the Archangel Raphael did. On the other hand, how do you feel when people tease you, or point out your flaws, or criticize you, or call you “God’s Rottweiler”? To be sure those comments sting our egos and hurt our pride. But I would suggest to you that we should be very glad when that happens. Why? Well, because that’s the best way to know that you’ve kept “the king’s secret” safe.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Burning Boulder

Being embraced by the arms of the Holy Spirit

John 7:37-39 
On the last and greatest day of the feast, Jesus stood up and exclaimed, "Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink. As Scripture says: Rivers of living water will flow from within him who believes in me." He said this in reference to the Spirit that those who came to believe in him were to receive. There was, of course, no Spirit yet, because Jesus had not yet been glorified.

           Two of the great Scriptural symbols of the Holy Spirit are “water” and “fire.” These two elements of water and fire speak especially loudly in a funeral Mass. Recently, I explained to some altar servers before a funeral: “I’ll need the holy water at the beginning, and the incense (fire) at the end. Now, to help you remember that, just think how we begin and end our Christian life. We begin with baptism in water and end in the fires of purgatory.” The altar servers eyes became round as saucers, and I quickly added, “I’m just kidding! I’m sure you’ll go straight to heaven.” Those poor kids are traumatized for life, but some traumas are good for the soul, if they’re caused by the Holy Spirit.

            I’ll never forget when I saw how fire and water can work together like a one-two punch; they are a formidable force. About 20 years ago I went to Honduras on a mission trip. One of our projects was to install a septic tank for the local hospital. Don’t ask what they used before the septic tank. Since they didn’t have any power equipment, the dug with shovels and hoes and picks a huge hole about 20 feet deep, 20 feet wide and 20 feet long. But in the middle of the hole was a huge rock about 8 feet in diameter. There was no way to haul it out of the hole and their tools were ineffective against the rock. You’ll be amazed at their solution. They started by digging around the base of the boulder and brought in wood from nearby trees and shrubs. They arranged the wood around the base of the rock and started a blazing fire. After the fire had heated the rock almost to the point where it was glowing red with heat, they brought buckets of cold sea water and splashed it on the burning boulder. Can you guess what happened to the rock? The clash of heat and cold cracked the seemingly impregnable rock into a hundred small pieces, which the people carried out with ease. And that’s how fire and water of the Holy Spirit work throughout our lives: cracking our hard hearts and hard heads, so God’s love can break through.

             In the gospel reading, Jesus describes the first of the these two symbols of the Holy Spirit, namely, the water. Our Lord declares: “Rivers of living water will flow from within him who believes in me.” And in case you didn’t catch the cause of the water, John makes Jesus’ meaning plain, adding: “He said this in reference to the Spirit that those who came to believe in him were to receive.” In other words, one of the primary symbols of the Holy Spirit in Scripture is “water.” In fact, every time you hear a reference to the spiritual meaning of water in the Old or New Testament it’s almost always a reference to the Holy Spirit. Read the Bible with that in mind, and you’ll get a lot of surplus value in the Scriptures.

             Secondly, have you ever noticed the magnificent stained-glass window above the north entry of the church? You’ve probably noticed it while the deacons were preaching some Sunday. (Just kidding.) Look closely at what hovers above the heads of Mother Mary and the eleven apostles. They are flames of fire. The Acts of the Apostles recounts what occurred on the day of Pentecost when the apostles were set on fire with the Spirit, ready to live and even die for Jesus. Like the fire and water burst the boulder in Honduras, so the fire and water of the Spirit bursts the fear in the apostles’ hearts and filled them with faith.

            Let me give you some modern examples of how the Holy Spirit – as holy water and sacred fire – crack open impregnable boulders to build up the kingdom. You can catch the work of the Spirit in every sacrament: baptism, Eucharist, confirmation, confessions, anointing of the sick, marriage and holy orders. At one point in each sacrament the minister will extend his hands over “the matter” of the sacraments – over the water or over bread and wine or over the sinner. That moment is called the “epiclesis” which is Greek and means “invocation” or “calling down from on high.” At that moment, the Holy Spirit descends on the elements, like fire and water, and breaks them open so God’s grace and burst forth into the world. At every epiclesis, remember how the Honduras burst that boulder.

             Another example is with people who have hard heads or hard hearts. Do you know anyone who’s especially stubborn or so set in their ways that it seems they’ll never change? I hate to mention this but sometimes it’s former Catholics who become the most virulent anti-Catholics. Do you have anyone in your family who has left the church and can’t stand to talk about Catholicism? After all, Martin Luther, who launched the Protestant Reformation, was a former Catholic monk. But no one is beyond God’s grace and returning to the Church. Fr. Benedict Groeschel, who has passed away recently, said he prays every day that the singer Madonna will change her life and become a cloistered Carmelite nun. Invoke the Holy Spirit on those you think may never change, and remember how the Hondurans burst that boulder.

           And lastly, I am convinced that the hardest head of all is the one that looks back in the mirror every morning when you brush your teeth or comb your hair. Why? Well, because are often blind to the boulders of our own sins. Psalm 19:12 states: “But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults.” In other words, there’s a “hidden hardness” inside of us that’s invisible to our eyes. That’s why it takes our whole life for the fire and water of the Holy Spirit to burst that boulder inside of us, like fire and water did in Honduras.

              Let me conclude with the words of Pope Francis, who said: “Christian identity, as the baptismal embrace which the Father gave us when we were little ones, makes us desire, as prodigal children…yet another embrace, that of the merciful Father who awaits us in glory” (Evengelii gaudium, 144). That’s basically what I was telling those altar servers: our lives are lived between these two great “embraces” – the water of baptism and the fires of purgatory. Water and Fire are like the two arms of the Holy Spirit, who hugs us tightly until he burst the boulder of our pride.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Strange Bedfellows

Accepting the allies that help us in times of trouble

Acts of the Apostles 25:13B-21
King Agrippa and Bernice arrived in Caesarea on a visit to Festus. Since they spent several days there, Festus referred Paul's case to the king, saying, "There is a man here left in custody by Felix. When I was in Jerusalem the chief priests and the elders of the Jews brought charges against him and demanded his condemnation. I answered them that it was not Roman practice to hand over an accused person before he has faced his accusers and had the opportunity to defend himself against their charge. So when they came together here, I made no delay; the next day I took my seat on the tribunal and ordered the man to be brought in. His accusers stood around him, but did not charge him with any of the crimes I suspected. Instead they had some issues with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus who had died but who Paul claimed was alive. Since I was at a loss how to investigate this controversy, I asked if he were willing to go to Jerusalem and there stand trial on these charges. And when Paul appealed that he be held in custody for the Emperor's decision, I ordered him held until I could send him to Caesar."

          There’s a curious but also classic phrase that I like a lot; it’s the phrase, “strange bedfellows.” I apologize for the slightly suggestive sense, but it originates in Shakespeare’s play “Tempest.” You know, if you quote Shakespeare or the Scriptures, everything is okay. The Bible or the Bard said it! We read in Tempest Act 2, Scene 2, “Alas, the storm is come again! My best way is to creep under his gabardine; there is no other shelter hereabout: misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.” A more modern rendering might be: “misery loves company.” When times are tough – when, “Alas, the storm comes again” – we are open to help from all quarters, and are not so picky about who is friend and who is foe.

           I’ll never forget a line uttered by Gandhi, the great leader of Indian independence. As he was rising in prominence an English clergyman came to offer his help to Gandhi. Bapu (Gandhi’s affectionate nickname) said to him: “When you are fighting in a just cause, people seem to pop up, like you, right out of the pavement. Even when it is dangerous.” And it would be dangerous indeed, right up to Gandhi’s assassination in 1948. But Gandhi was succored by strange bedfellows from all over the world, even from the British who had colonized India.

            In the first reading today, St. Paul also encounters an unlikely ally – a strange bedfellow – in King Agrippa. In Acts chapters 25 and 26, Paul makes his case before Agrippa and almost converts this Jewish monarch to Christianity. This the third time Paul recounts the extraordinary events on the road to Damascus in Acts.  After listening to Paul’s conversion story, Agrippa says to Paul, “You would soon persuade me to play the Christian.” And in private Agrippa adds: “This man (meaning Paul) is doing nothing at all that deserves death or imprisonment.” In other words, God sent a sympathetic if not strange bedfellow to Paul in his hour of need, when “Alas, the storm is come again!” Just like Gandhi said, people were popping up right out of the pavement to help Paul.
Today, try to be a little more open to strange bedfellows who may help you when, “Alas the storm is come again!” Sometimes we turn away from people simply because we see the color of their skin, or they speak with an accent (even priests), or because of where they live (the wrong side of the tracks), or maybe even their ethnic origin (they’re German or Irish or Italian), or maybe because someone is an undocumented alien here in the United States. We can write such people off without much thought.

          My parents have a Hispanic man who helps them do yard-work and some minor maintenance around the house. When they try to pay him, he turns them down. They have to force him to accept some money. His name is Agrippa, but do you know what my parents prefer to call him? They have dubbed him, “King Agrippa,” and they love him like family. It doesn’t matter to my parents if he’s hispanic or speaks broken English or has legal status or anything else external. They see his heart, and his heart is huge. That’s what St. Paul saw in the original King Agrippa, and that’s what he loved about him.

         My friends, don’t wait for the storm to come again to make you see who might be a strange bedfellow for you. Look below the surface and see the huge heart that beats beneath in every person, and love them. After all, the Bible and the Bard said so.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

You Speak Russian

Articulating the arguments of our enemies

Acts of the Apostles 22:30; 23:6-11 Wishing to determine the truth about why Paul was being accused by the Jews, the commander freed him and ordered the chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin to convene. Then he brought Paul down and made him stand before them. Paul was aware that some were Sadducees and some Pharisees, so he called out before the Sanhedrin, "My brothers, I am a Pharisee, the son of Pharisees; I am on trial for hope in the resurrection of the dead." When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and Sadducees, and the group became divided. For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection or angels or spirits, while the Pharisees acknowledge all three. A great uproar occurred, and some scribes belonging to the Pharisee party stood up and sharply argued, "We find nothing wrong with this man. Suppose a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?" The dispute was so serious that the commander, afraid that Paul would be torn to pieces by them, ordered his troops to go down and rescue Paul from their midst and take him into the compound.

         Many years ago I learned one of the most helpful skills in dealing with people from watching the movie “Hunt for Red October.” This skill can be summarized in the maxim, “Know your enemy.” In the movie, Captain Ramius, played by Sean Connery, is a Russian submarine commander, who takes a submarine armed with nuclear warheads and propels it toward the United States. He comes face to face with Jack Ryan and the battleship U.S.S. Dallas. In the tense scene where the two face-off, Captain Ramius makes a joke in Russian, which Ryan catches because he speaks Russian. Surprised, Ramius asks, “You speak Russian.” Ryan answers in Russian, “It is wise to know the ways of your enemy.” And Captain Ramius replies in English, “It is.” (Of course, Ramius spoke British English because he’s really James Bond.) In other words, both men had taken time to learn the ways of their enemy – by learning their language – and guess what happens? They’ve taken the first steps to become friends.

          Someone else who had mastered this skill was St. Thomas Aquinas and he put it on full display in his classic work Summa Theologica. Before he gave his own argument for the truths of the Catholic faith, he listed the three reasons why his enemies would disagree with him. He often stated their arguments more forcefully than they themselves did. When you take time to “know your enemy,” you disarm them, diffusing their hostility and animosity, and you take the first steps toward friendship. Just like Jack Ryan, St. Thomas Aquinas “spoke the language of his enemies,” and he sometimes made some surprising friends.

          In the first reading today, St. Paul uses this same skill to save his skin before the Sanhedrin. He is placed on trial before both the Sadducees and Pharisees. You’ll remember that before his conversion to Christianity, Paul was Saul, a devout and even deadly Pharisees who persecuted and punished Christians, putting them to death. Knowing his enemies well (because he was one of them), Paul declares: “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, the son of Pharisees. I am on trial for hope in the resurrection of the dead.” And a huge dispute broke out between the Pharisees and Sadducees because these two sects vehemently disagreed on that subject. And Paul goes free. But notice what the Pharisees say: “We find nothing wrong with this man.” In other words, not only has Paul saved his life, he has made a few friends, too. Why? Because Paul knew the ways of his enemy; he spoke their language.

            Today, try to think of who is your enemy, with whom you disagree, with whom you fight. If you’re a Democrat, you don’t like the Republicans; if you’re a Cleveland fan you don’t like Golden State; if you’re North Korea, you don’t like anybody! Of course, our enemies could be a lot closer to home: our spouse sometimes seems like an enemy, our parents seem to fight against us, and maybe even our next door neighbor is not so neighborly sometimes. Once you’ve identified your enemy, ask yourself: “Do I truly know my enemy?” That is, can you speak their language like Jack Ryan, or can you articulate their arguments like St. Thomas Aquinas? If you can master that skill – and it’s as hard as learning to speak Russian – not only will you be able to disarm your enemies, but you might even take the first faltering steps toward a new friendship. What you really realize, though, is that the real enemy was never the Pharisees, or the Russians or the Republicans, or your spouse, or your neighbor, or your parents, but only yourself: your pride, your prejudice, and your personal preferences. Speaking the language of your enemy helps you to see the real enemy was always within.

             St. Francis of Assisi also mastered this skill, and he summarized it in his famous “Prayer of Peace.” The Poverllo wrote: “O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek / to be consoled as to console, / to be understood as to understand, / to be loved as to love. / For it is in giving that we receive, / it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, / and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”  In other words, if you can understand your enemy, he might turn out to be your friend.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Three Stages

Grabbing the grace God gives in each life stage
Acts of the Apostles 19:1-8 While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul traveled through the interior of the country and down to Ephesus where he found some disciples.  He said to them, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?" They answered him, "We have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit." He said, "How were you baptized?" They replied, "With the baptism of John." Paul then said, "John baptized with a baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus." When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. Altogether there were about twelve men.

          It’s Monday morning, so let’s start with a little riddle; don’t worry, it’s easy. What has four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening? The answer: a human being. In the “morning of life,” we walk on “all fours” crawling like a baby; at “noon of life” we walk erect on two legs; and in the “evening of life” we need a cane to walk, and therefore have “three legs.” How many legs are you walking on these days?

           Archbishop Fulton Sheen also distinguished and described three stages of life, which correspond to three predominant temptations and sins we face. When we’re young we’re tempted mostly by lust and sexual sins. So, if that’s your problem, congratulations, you’re still young! When we’re in middle age, we’re tempted by ambition and power. We want to climb the corporate ladder, or become a “monsignor”! When we’re older, in the twilight of our lives, we amass wealth in the hope that money will buy us long life. Obviously, these is a lot of overlapping in these temptations, but there is also a lot of truth to them segregated into these stages. Now, Erik Erikson, the famed German-American psychoanalyst, said there were actually nine stages in life. But I like three stages because that’s easier to remember and more Catholic because of the Holy Trinity.

            In the first reading today, St. Paul explains to the Ephesians that the Bible can be divided into three stages, too. We read in Acts 19, “They were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them.” You see, the whole Bible can be sorted into three stages. First, the Old Testament highlights the work of God the Father. Second, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John recount the labor and love of the Son. And the rest of the New Testament, from Acts to Revelation, points out the purview and purposes of the Holy Spirit. This division is underscored in the liturgy of the Mass when we stand for the gospel reading but sit when the other Scriptures and proclaimed: the gospel reading enjoy pride of place. In every age of the Bible, God reveals more of himself – first Father, then Son and finally Spirit – but only in heaven will we see God “face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12). In other words, you cannot fully know God without taking serious stock of each stage.

            My friends, take a moment to reflect on what stage of life you are walking in and how God reveals himself gradually and gracefully to you. Here are two ways to help you figure out what state you may be in. First, how many legs do you need to walk? And second, what temptations cause you daily difficulties? Once you figure out your stage, try to grab the grace in it. In other words, don’t wish you were in another stage. Have you noticed how young people can’t wait to be adults, and working people cannot wait to be retired, and how elderly people want to be young again? When we do that we miss the grace God gives us in this stage; we miss his self-revelation as Father, Son or Holy Spirit. For example, can I say this, “I am happy to be 47 years old; I don’t desire to be a day older or a day younger”? If I can say that, and really mean it, I will catch the grace offered in this age. Otherwise, I will miss what God reveals about himself to me in each stage.  I will not know God.

            Four legs, two legs or three legs; temptations to sex, power or money; Old Testament, Gospels or New Testament? These are not just life stages we pass through, each one of them is a gift from God. And the gift he gives us in each stage is himself.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

The Unknown Gods

Giving thanks to the blessings of unknown gods

Acts of the Apostles 17:15, 22—18:1 After Paul's escorts had taken him to Athens, they came away with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible. Then Paul stood up at the Areopagus and said: "You Athenians, I see that in every respect you are very religious. For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, 'To an Unknown God.' What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all that is in it, the Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands because he needs anything. Rather it is he who gives to everyone life and breath and everything. He made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth, and he fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions, so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, though indeed he is not far from any one of us.

          It takes a long time for us to realize all that our parents have done for us. I’m 47 years old, and even now I’m discovering the extent of their blessings. One way they exert their influence is in how we imitate them. Oscar Wilde said, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” When I was a small boy, and my family would go to a restaurant, my mother invariably ordered a glass of water without ice, and made the waiter take it back if he brought it with ice. That annoyed me to no end and I complained, “Mom, just take the water with the ice and stop giving the waiter a hard time!” But now, when I go out to eat, guess what I order to drink: a glass of water, please hold the ice. Little by little, we become our parents. By imitating them we are thanking them for what they have taught us. But for so long that blessing remained unknown to us.

          Here’s another example. Sometimes I see people on the side of the street with signs asking for help. My heart goes out to them, but my mind goes back to my parents. I wonder: how is it that I have a fairly comfortable life – nice car, good clothes, plenty of food, a warm home – but they do not? A big reason is due to the decision my parents made to send me to Catholic schools, which opened doors for a future that may have remained locked otherwise. I wonder how many homeless people attended Catholic schools? Of course, while I was at St. Theresa’s and Catholic High and University of Dallas, I saw none of these blessings; I just struggled to survive. In other words, for so many years of my life my parents were like “unknown gods” to me. They were blessing me, but I was oblivious to them.

           In the first reading today, St. Paul tells tries to teach the Athenians about the “Unknown God” in their life. St. Paul stands at the “Aeropagus” (a prominent rock outcropping northwest of the Acropolis in Athens), and declares: “You Athenians, I see that in every respect you are very religious. I even discovered an altar inscribed ‘To an Unknown God.’ What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you.” He goes on to explain that all the blessings they enjoy come ultimately from this God, and the time has come to acknowledge him, thank him and worship him. In other words, just like we wander in ignorance of where our blessings come from – our parents’ love, sacrifice and solicitude – so the Athenians wandered in ignorance of in whom “we live and move and have our being.” It takes us a long, long time to realize how the unknown Gods have blessed us.

            My friends, take time today to stop and see where your blessings come from. Some of those blessings will come from unknown gods spelled with a small “g,” that is, from your parents. Make a list of at least 10 things your parents did for you as a child that have shaped the adult you have become today. Hopefully it will be hard to limit the list to 10! If it is hard to name 10 things, perhaps you are like the Athenians and still ignorant of your “unknown gods,” and still have not realized how they have blessed you. And secondly, stop and see the blessings you have received from the “Unknown God” spelled with a capital “G,” that is, from your heavenly Father: your talents, your vocation, your faith, your hope of heaven, the treasures of grace hidden in the sacraments, your friendship with the angels and saints, your spiritual mother Mary, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, even the commandments and the laws of God are blessings, your prayer life, the community of the church and spiritual friends, the wonders of nature, the joys of family life, just for starters. We enjoy all these gifts long before we know the God who bestowed them.

            St. Paul asks in 1 Corinthians 4:7, “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not receive it?” In the end we will see that everything is a gift from the Unknown God, and we will finally and fully acknowledge him, thank him and worship him.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Not Our Problem Dear

Prudently picking the problems we must solve
Acts of the Apostles 16:22-34 About midnight, while Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God as the prisoners listened, there was suddenly such a severe earthquake that the foundations of the jail shook; all the doors flew open, and the chains of all were pulled loose. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, thinking that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted out in a loud voice, "Do no harm to yourself; we are all here." He asked for a light and rushed in and, trembling with fear, he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" And they said, "Believe in the Lord Jesus and you and your household will be saved." So they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to everyone in his house. He took them in at that hour of the night and bathed their wounds; then he and all his family were baptized at once.

         Arguably one of the most popular pastors of Immaculate Conception Church was Msgr. John O’Donnell. Next to the definition of “Irish wit” in the dictionary, you will see his smiling face. But popularity has its price. Since he was the pastor of the biggest Catholic church in town, people expected him or the parish to take care of all sort of problems. Sometimes those requests were reasonable, but sometimes they were just passing the buck. But because Msgr. O’Donnell also had a huge heart, he gladly gave himself to the point of exhaustion.

           One day he was visiting New Orleans and saw a baseball cap for the city police. On the cap were the letters, “N.O.P.D.” standing for “New Orleans Police Department.” His Irish wit always sitting just below the surface of his smile, he bought several hats as gifts for the church staff. He handed them out to the staff members saying, “Wear this if someone comes in asking you to do something unreasonable. The letters stand for “Not Our Problem Dear,” – N.O.P.D.  Fortunately, they have not worn that hat when I have asked them to do something. When you’re popular you must prudently pick what problems are yours and which are “Not Our Problem Dear.”

           In the first reading today, the jailor find himself in a similar predicament: trying to discern which problems are his and which are not. Paul and Silas are imprisoned and an earthquake frees them from their chains. The jailor realizes his life will be at risk for his apparent dereliction of duty and is ready to take his own life. He wanted to don that hat that said, “Not Our Problem Dear.” He wanted to escape responsibility. But when he learns that the apostles are still inside, he realizes that something bigger is happening here. He hears the Good News proclaimed by them and he and his family are baptized. In other words, he told his family to put on the hats with N.O.P.D. but he interpreted those letters to mean “Now Our Problem Dear.” You could say that, in a sense, they made Christianity their own problem, and that’s the best problem you can have. Everyone must discern what problems are “now ours dear” and what problem are “not ours dear.”

           Here are a few tips I’ve used to help me make this same discernment. First, I have a personal rule that I do not give people money – cash – when someone catches me in the parking lot. However, I do put money in the poor box and I give to the church to help the poor. That way I feel my money truly helps the poor instead of merely enabling the lazy. Second, even when I cannot give someone exactly what they request – a million dollars for instance – I try to give them something: a smile, my time to listen to them, or a cup of coffee. I feel like the little kid in the gospel who had only 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish, but Jesus was able to use that to feed thousands. And third, I pray for those who need help on my daily rosary, or sometimes we even pray together. In other words, we do not have a responsibility to give everyone everything they ask for, but we do have a responsibility to give them something.

            Msgr. O’Donnell was exactly right in handing out the N.O.P.D. hats to the church staff. The hard part is knowing when those letters should mean “not our problem dear,” and when they should mean “now our problem dear.”

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Selective Hearing

Learning to open our ears to the Holy Spirit

Acts of the Apostles 8:5-8, 14-17 Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Christ to them. With one accord, the crowds paid attention to what was said by Philip when they heard it and saw the signs he was doing. For unclean spirits, crying out in a loud voice, came out of many possessed people, and many paralyzed or crippled people were cured. There was great joy in that city. Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent them Peter and John, who went down and prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for it had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.

         This may sound like a sweeping generalization, but I believe we all suffer from “selective hearing disorder.” Selective hearing is when you focus on some ambient sounds, but ignore others. Children ignore their parents voices telling them to turn off the ipad and come to dinner. Husbands tune out their wives telling them what’s on the “honey-do list” and instead keep watching the baseball game. Catholics miss the part in the sermon where the priest says give more in the collection. Huh? What?

          Selective hearing disorder can even affect monks. A new monk arrived at the monastery. He was assigned to help the other monks in copying the old texts by hand. He noticed, however, that they are copying copies, and not the original books. So, the new monk goes to the head monk to ask him about this. He points out that if there were an error in the first copy that would be continued in all of the other copies. The head monk says: “We have been copying from copies for centuries, but you make a good point, my son.” So, he went down stairs into the cellar with one of the copies to check it against the original. Hours later nobody has seen him. So, one of the monks goes downstairs to look for him. He hears sobbing coming from the back of the cellar and finds the old monk leaning over one of the original books crying. He asks, “What’s wrong?” The old monk cried, “The word is ‘Celebrate.’ ‘Celebrate’.” I guess you have to be a celibate priest to truly appreciate that joke. So, sometimes selective hearing disorder works in our favor (we hear what we want to hear), and sometimes it doesn’t (we miss something significant). It’s hard to discern which voices to focus on, and which ones to tune out.

           In the first reading today, the apostles help the people to focus on the voice of the Holy Spirit instead of listening to unclean spirits. In classic Catholic spirituality, this is called “discernment of spirits,” that is, tuning our selective hearing to the Holy Spirit. First the apostles cast out unclean spirits, that is, they helped the people hear that certain voices were harmful and do not lead to happiness. Then the apostles, through the laying on of hands, bestowed the Holy Spirit upon them. By the way, this happens to modern Catholics at Confirmation, when the bishop lays his hands on them. In other words, Catholics learn when the Holy Spirit says “celebrate” (and calls you to marriage) and when he says “celibate” (and calls you to priesthood). The apostles were correcting the people’s “selective hearing disorder.”

           People sometimes ask me how I prepare my Sunday homilies. And to be honest, it requires that I adjust my selective hearing so that I can hear the Spirit. Maybe the tips I use to preach will help you be more sensitive to the Spirit as well. I try to do three things to prepare my homilies: (1) listening in prayer, (2) listening to people, and (3) listening in the silence. Let me explain each one.
First, listening in prayer. Before I preach any homily, I always whisper this prayer I made up myself, saying, “Come, Holy Spirit, help me say what you want me to say, and help them to hear what you want them to hear.” Have you seen my lips silently moving before I preach? Now you know what I’m saying. I am constantly amazed how people thank me for a certain point in a homily that I never actually made. The Spirit spoke to them. And sometimes they thank me even when the deacon was preaching – and I definitely do not want credit for their preaching. Maybe you could say that prayer before having a serious conversation with your spouse, or with your elderly parents, or with your teenagers. Prayer helps you correct some of that “selective hearing disorder” because the Spirit helps people to “hear what he wants them to hear.”

           Secondly, listening to people. I always warn people to be careful what they say around me because it may end up in next Sunday’s sermon. But I think some people are inspired by that, and hope they will end up in the sermon – enjoying “their 15 minutes of fame” as Andy Worhol once said. Two people I want to make famous in today’s homily are Bishop Taylor and Pope Francis. Now, I gotta tell ya, I don’t always agree with or appreciate they say – please don’t tell them that! Nevertheless, I believe they are the authorized and apostolic voices of the Holy Spirit, and if my opinion differs from theirs, then I should be suspicious of my own opinion not theirs. As early as the second century AD, St. Ignatius of Antioch taught, “Be subject to the bishop and to one another, as Jesus Christ was subject to the Father” (Letter to the Magnesians, 13:2). In other words, let the voices of other Christians, especially church leaders, correct your “selective hearing disorder.” Who knows, the pope could actually change “celibate” to “celebrate”! Go, Francis! Go, Francis! But you have to listen to him to hear that.

           And third, listening in the silence. Do you remember how Elijah heard God’s voice in the Old Testament? God’s voice was not in the earthquake, or in the strong wind, or in the fire. Rather he spoke in a “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-12). You need silence to hear that still small voice. C. S. Lewis said that the two things you won’t find in hell are music and silence. Listen to Screwtape’s (the devil’s) strategy: “Music and silence – how I detest them both! We will make the whole world a universe of noise in the end” (Screwtape Letters, XXII). Folks, when every second of your day is filled noise – car radio, ipad, television, ear buds, your playlists, the 24-hour news cycle, etc. – your life resembles hell more than heaven. Hell is noisy with the voices of unclean spirits, whereas heaven is silent with only the whispering of the Holy Spirit. In the silence I hear the ideas for my homilies, and in the silence you will hear the Spirit, too.

           My friends, it doesn’t matter if you didn’t hear a word I said in this homily, or if you took a nap. The Spirit knows what you need to hear. Just don’t tune him out with your selective hearing disorder. He may be saying “celebrate” but you only hear “celibate.”

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Foiled Again

Seeing our adversaries as our antagonists and allies

John 15:18-21 Jesus said to his disciples: "If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you. Remember the word I spoke to you, 'No slave is greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. And they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know the one who sent me."

         I loved learning about literature when I was in college. Great authors often use the literary device of a “foil” in their plots. Do you know what a foil is? The foil is the antagonist in the story – we would call him the villain – work works in direct opposition to the protagonist, or the hero. The Joker was the foil to Batman, Khan was the foil to Captain Kirk, the Wicked Witch of the West was the foil to Dorothy. The foil does not just make the plot interesting – because we wonder who will win – but he or she also enhances and highlights the noble qualities of the hero. The hero’s goodness shines in sharp contrast to the villain’s badness.

          My favorite foil of all time, however, is Snidley Whiplash of the cartoon series called, “Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties.” It’s easy to recognize Snidley as the foil or villain because he wears a black cape, a black top-hat and a moustache (all good villains do). Snidley’s favorite crime is tying innocent women to the railroad tracks, who are always saved by Dudley at the last second. Do you remember what Snidley says every time Dudley saves the day? His customary catch-phrase was “Curses, foiled again!” But notice what’s happening in the story: Dudley shines brighter because he stands in sharp contrast to sinister Snidley. In literature, the foil enhances the story but it also enhances the hero; indeed, the foil is the “necessary evil” in all great literature.
           In the gospel today, Jesus teaches his disciples that they, too, will have a foil in their life as Christians. Our Lord warns them, “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world…the world hates you.” In the gospel of John, the evangelist employs “the world” as the foil to Jesus and his followers. The world in this sense was embodied by characters like Pontius Pilate, King Herod, Judas Iscariot and ultimately by Satan. These foils not only make the life of Christ the greatest story ever told, but also highlight his holiness. Jesus’ goodness grows greater as he stands next to the world’s sinfulness. Jesus saves his bride, the Church, often tied to the railroad tracks by Satan, and we hear Satan say, “Curses, foiled again.”

           My friends, let me invite you to look at your life as a great work of literature. You are the protagonist (of course!), the hero, Dudley Do-Right. But how will we highlight your holiness and make you look good? We need to give you an antagonist, a villain, someone to antagonize you, a foil! Can you think of any foils in your life: someone trying to sabotage your happiness and make you miserable? Maybe your foil will be your spouse, or perhaps you think it’s your parents, or maybe it’s the opposing political party, or is it Russia? My personal foils are the deacons. You may wish you didn’t have a foil, an antagonist, and that your life would be easier and happier without them. Yes, it would be easier, but it would also emptier, and your life story would not reach the heights of great literature. Your foil is your opportunity to highlight how good you are: how patient you are, how humble you are, how forgiving you are, how cheerful you are. Dudley Do-Right would be a feeble and fickle hero if he didn’t have Snidley Whiplash to make him look so daring and dashing. Folks, you need a foil to defeat daily and make him or her say, “Curses! Foiled again!”

          Have you heard that song called “Let Her Go” by the band Passenger? The lyrics are a haunting reminder of how contrast (or a foil in literature) serves to highlight goodness. They sang, “You only need the light when it's burning low, Only miss the sun when it starts to snow, Only know you love her when you let her go, Only know you've been high when you're feeling low, Only hate the road when you're missing home, Only know you love her when you let her go.” All great literature teaches that the greatest adversary, the antagonist, can also be the greatest ally, the necessary evil that makes goodness shine so bright. 

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Head of the Table

Handling authority issues without resentment or resistance

Acts of the Apostles 15:22-31 The Apostles and presbyters, in agreement with the whole Church, decided to choose representatives and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. This is the letter delivered by them: "The Apostles and the presbyters, your brothers, to the brothers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia of Gentile origin: greetings. Since we have heard that some of our number who went out without any mandate from us have upset you with their teachings and disturbed your peace of mind, we have with one accord decided to choose representatives and to send them to you along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, who have dedicated their lives to the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. So we are sending Judas and Silas who will also convey this same message by word of mouth: 'It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage. If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right. Farewell.'" When the people read it, they were delighted with the exhortation.

         Most people struggle with “authority issues” to some degree, that is, they can’t quite relate to authority figures in a happy and holy way. They get nervous when the cop pulls them over for speeding. Their knees knock when they’re called into the principal’s office (or the pastor’s office). They dread the conversation with their boss.  This authority angst tends toward two extremes: either you become obsequious, and just a “yes man,” or you become belligerent and oppose the authority figure. When we have a parish council meeting, the last seats to be taken are always next to me. At church on Sunday, there are always plenty of empty pews up at the front, near the seat of authority.
Now, sometimes, the “authority issue” resides in the authority figure himself or herself. The leader makes it hard for people to approach them: they are aloof, or arrogant, or acrimonious in their attitude. John Maxwell paints a portrait of an able and approachable authority figure in his book Developing the Leader Within You. He writes: “The chairman of a large corporation was late for a meeting. Bolting into the room he took the nearest available seat, rather than moving to his accustomed spot. One of his young aides protested: ‘Please, sir, you should sit at the head of the table.’ The executive, who had a healthy understanding of his place in the company, answered, ‘Son, wherever I sit is the head of the table’” (Developing the Leader Within You, 68). What a humble thing to say, and how easy it would be to approach such authority. Relating to authority figures (and relating to other as the authority figure) is critical in any organization, be it a family or a country or a church.
          In the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear the first instance when the pope and bishops asserted their authority, namely in Acts 15 and the famous Council of Jerusalem. Pope Peter and the other bishops settle a dispute about new converts having to follow old Jewish customs like circumcision. Hearing about circumcision all the men in the room would have slowly crossed their legs. The apostles gently assert their authority, saying, “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities.” Like Maxwell’s humble CEO, the apostles knew that wherever they sat was the head of the table. And how did the people respond? We read a few lines later: “When the people read it, they were delighted with the exhortation.” There is no trace of authority issues in the early church. The apostles were humble leaders and the people were cheerful followers, and therefore the Church grew exponentially.

          My friends, the longer you live, the more leaders you see.  Just think of all the pastors who have preached from this pulpit during your lifetime. Msgr. Galvin, Msgr. O’Donnell, Msgr. Oswald, Fr. Luyet. Each one had a unique leadership style, and each exercised his authority differently in this parish. And how did you respond to that leadership? Did you feel some “authority issues” by either being overly subservient, or did you rebel and become a “roaming Catholic” and take your ball and go to another parish? How do you deal with our bishop and with our pope as leaders of the Church? Be aware of the authority issues lurking in your heart, and try to react to their teachings like the people in Acts to the authority of the apostles, that is, by being “delighted in their exhortations.”  All healthy organizations need humble leaders and cheerful followers.
           Do you want to know how I deal with my authority issues, as both a leader and as a follower? I remember that the real leader of the Church (including Immaculate Conception Church) is the Holy Spirit. I like to say that “the Holy Spirit is driving the bus!” That means that the Holy Spirit speaks through the clergy and the laity to lead the Church. When we gather for a parish council meeting, I remind myself, “Wherever the Holy Spirit sits is the head of the table,” and he sits in every seat.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Higher Happiness

Allowing the angel in us to tame the animal in us
John 15:9-11 
Jesus said to his disciples: "As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and remain in his love. "I have told you this so that my joy might be in you and your joy might be complete."

         The best definition of a man (or woman) I ever heard was given by Fr. George Tribou, principal of Catholic High School for Boys in Little Rock. He often told us boys, “a man is he who controls the animal within which he lives.” That definition is based on an assumption that every human being is composed of two things: of soul and body, or put another way, of angel and animal. If the angel does not tame the animal side of us, then the animal side will kill the angel in us. The animal side pursues pleasures like money, sex and power, or more colloquially, “sex, drugs and rock and roll.” If you pay close attention to advertising, you’ll notice how advertisers always appeal to the animal side of us. The first rule of advertising today is, “sex sells.”

         On the other hand, the angel in us can get the upper hand and tame the animal, and we become real men or real women, “controlling the animal within which we live.” The angel in us aims at a higher happiness, like honesty, hard-work, humility, holiness. I remember in philosophy, they taught us an ancient aphorism: “it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than to be a pig satisfied.” In other words, it is better to be a happy person (like Socrates) than a happy pig. (Obviously, I did not study philosophy at the University of Arkansas, where everyone wants to be a happy pig.) Nevertheless, the answer should be self-evident; we should seek the higher happiness.

         In the gospel today, Jesus agrees with Fr. Tribou’s definition of a man, and adds that it is in him – and only in him – that we find that higher happiness. Our Lord says, “Remain in my love…I have told you this so that my joy might be in you, and your joy complete.” That is, when the angel tames the animal, when you “control the animal within which you live,” you experience Jesus’ own joy, which “completes” our own joy. I once heard Bishop Robert Barron say that we live “at a higher pitch of creation,” when we are united with Jesus. Think of a musical score, Beethoven’s 9th symphony for instance, written and performed at a higher octave, a higher pitch. Our happiness is higher, our satisfaction is deeper, our love is more intense, our purpose is more defined, our sacrifices seem smaller. We are no longer a happy pig, but a happy person.

          Folks, let me suggest three ways you can “control the animal within which you live,” and help the angel to tame the animal side of you. First, take time to pray every day. My favorite form of personal prayer is the rosary. I sometimes walk through the church offices praying the rosary. It keeps me calm in the middle of a stressful day, and when the staff see me praying the rosary, it calms them down, too. Prayer helps me hit that higher happiness, and touch the joy of Jesus. Second, do some daily penance by making small sacrifices each day. Don’t put sugar in your coffee, don’t listen to the radio while driving, come five minutes earlier to Mass, stay five minutes later after Mass. These things allow your angel to tame the animal in you, who seeks the passing pleasures of this world. Instead, sacrifice helps you reach that higher happiness. And third, help the poor. Sometimes, we think we should help the poor as an “addendum” to living our faith - we give them the “leftovers” - but Pope Francis says the poor should come first in living our faith. The poor and marginalized always come first to the Holy Father; the pope jumps out of bed every morning to help the poor. That’s how he acts more like an angel and less like an animal.

          By the way, I do want to apologize for this homily to all my friends at P.E.T.A. – people for the ethical treatment of animals. I want to assure everyone that no actual animals were harmed in the making of his homily.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Paid Agitators

Choosing to be peace-makers instead of trouble-makers
Acts of the Apostles 15:1-6
Some who had come down from Judea were instructing the brothers, "Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved." Because there arose no little dissension and debate by Paul and Barnabas with them, it was decided that Paul, Barnabas, and some of the others should go up to Jerusalem to the Apostles and presbyters about this question.

         I believe there are two kinds of people in the world. Some people tend to be trouble-makers, while others are rather peace-makers. The first kind love to stir the pot and create conflict and controversy. Some people do this professionally, as we saw during the presidential campaign, with so-called “paid agitators,” who disrupted townhall meetings and campaign rallies. I could see this in my siblings and me when we were young. My parents often lamented, “Why is it that you three cannot be together for more than five minutes before there is turmoil and trouble??” And they were right. If we saw that we were all playing peacefully together, one of us felt it was our sworn and sacred duty to stir the pot and start a fight. Can you detect this in your own family?

         John Maxwell, the popular leadership guru, says every leader carries two buckets: one filled with water and the other with gasoline. When he or she sees a fire – a conflict or controversy – raging in the organization, they have a choice to make. Will they use the water to put out the fire and be a “firefighter,” or will they use the gasoline and cause the conflagration to become bigger? When we were little kids, we loved to throw the gasoline (all kids love to play with fire), never the water. Some people are peace-makers, others are trouble-makers.

          In the first reading today these two kinds of people exist even in the nascent Church. You would think that all Christians would naturally be peace-makers, wouldn’t you; but sadly, we’re not. In the Acts of the Apostles, one group of Christian converts constantly caused conflict and controversy. We read: “Some who were from Judea were instructing the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved. [And] there arose no little dissension and debate.” This group was called the “Judaisers,” and they loved to stir the pot in the early Church, like me and my brother and sister when were young. On the other hand, Paul and Barnabas, wanted peace; they were throwing the water on the fires of conflict. In every group or gathering, you find these two kinds of people: trouble-makers and peace-makers, firefighters and fire-starters, apostles and agitators.

          My friends, let me suggest three things you can do today to be a peace-maker instead of a trouble-maker. First speak kindly about others, and if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Sometimes, our silence in such situations can speak volumes. The ancient proverb teachers, “the pen is mightier than the sword,” and that means don’t underestimate the power of your words, to do good and to cause harm. Weigh your words wisely; “loose lips sink ships.” Secondly, try to see the issue from the other person’s point of view. Most people are not crazy and usually have legitimate reasons for what they think and do. Even if you disagree with someone, you can still try to understand them. Just because Fr. Andrew Hart is a Cubs fan and I am a Cardinals fan, doesn’t mean he’s crazy. Wait. Sorry, that’s a bad example. Anyway, you get my point. And thirdly, pray for your persecutors, asking God to bless them. Even if you cannot love someone, you can at least pray for them. Just say one Hail Mary in the moment you feel like throwing the gasoline on them and lighting a match. All peace-makers wield prayer as a powerful weapon.

         Today, ask yourself: which kind of person am I: a peace-maker or a trouble-maker, a firefighter or a fire-starter, an apostle or an agitator. You have two buckets in your hands, which one will be empty at the end of the day?

Praised be Jesus Christ!