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!

Saddlebag Preachers

Proclaiming the gospel of what Jesus has done for us
Acts of the Apostles 14:19-28 
In those days, some Jews from Antioch and Iconium arrived and won over the crowds. After they had proclaimed the good news to that city and made a considerable number of disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch. They strengthened the spirits of the disciples and exhorted them to persevere in the faith, saying, "It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God." They appointed presbyters for them in each Church and, with prayer and fasting, commended them to the Lord in whom they had put their faith. Then they traveled through Pisidia and reached Pamphylia. After proclaiming the word at Perga they went down to Attalia. From there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work they had now accomplished.

         The life of a Catholic priest can be likened to that of a “circuit rider” in the frontier times of the United States. Itinerant clergy were sometimes also called “saddlebag preachers” because they rode on horseback, stopping in towns and small cities, where people were interested and where people were not interested in their message, as St. Paul urged in 2 Timothy 4:2, “preach the gospel in season and out of season.” Fr. Tom Elliott once joked that every priest on their ordination day should be given a Winnebago so he could easily drive to a parish, plug into the utilities, and when he was reassigned (which happened frequently), he could unplug and drive to his next assignment. We could called it the “plug and pray priesthood.”

         Being a circuit rider perfectly describes my own history. Even in the 3 and ½ years here as pastor of Immaculate Conception, I’ve also been pastor of St. Leo’s in Hartford, Our Lady of the Ozarks in Winslow, chaplain to the St. Scholastica Nuns, Administrator of Trinity Junior High, and the last two weeks Administrator of St. Boniface. I’ve started saving money to buy a Winnebago. And what does a saddlebag preacher preach? It’s simple: he shares his own journey with Jesus. I’ve learned that the most effective homilies are the most personal ones. Instead of trying to razzle-dazzle people with high spirituality or with deep theology, I simply tell people how Jesus has changed my life, and how he keeps changing it. A saddlebag preacher’s own life history is the gospel on two legs, or if he’s on horseback, it’s the gospel on four legs.

         Today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles recounts St. Paul’s life as a circuit rider. Actually, it relates the first of his three missionary journeys. In the seminary our Scripture professor chided us seminarians by saying that every fourth grader knows about St. Paul’s missionary journeys. And we seminarians did not. In the seminary we may not have learned much about the missionary journeys, but we sure learned Catholic guilt. But the vast majority of the 28 chapters of Acts describes Paul’s missionary adventures. And what did Paul preach driving around in his Winnebago? He simply told and retold the story of what Jesus did for him on the road to Damascus. Paul didn’t carry too much in his saddlebags, just his journey with Jesus; how Jesus changed his life and kept on changing it.

         Pope Francis is calling for a “missionary transformation” of the Church, that is, he wants everyone – priests as well as people – to see themselves as “missionary disciples” or “circuit riders.” This does not mean you have to run out and buy a Winnebago. It doesn’t even mean you have to buy tons of theology books, or memorize millions of Bible verses. Rather, it simply means you have to share with others your journey with Jesus. How has he changed your life, and how does he continue to change it?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Lay Christians are entrusted by God to the apostolate” (“apostolate” means sharing the faith) “so that the divine message of salvation may be known and accepted by all men throughout the earth” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 900). By the way, do you know why I just quoted the Catechism? It’s because a parishioner, a lay woman by the name of Margaret Sexton, told me once she loves it when I quote the Catechism.   So, I try to include a quotation whenever I can. But do you see what she just did? She shared with me her journey with Jesus. By telling me how Jesus has changed her life, Jesus is now changing my life. And that’s what a saddlebag preacher carries in his saddlebags: just their journey with Jesus.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Treasure in Clay

Loving our priests and praying for them
Acts of the apostles 6:1-7 As the number of disciples continued to grow, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. So the Twelve called together the community of the disciples and said, "It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table. Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task, whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word." The proposal was acceptable to the whole community, so they chose Stephen, a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit, also Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas of Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles who prayed and laid hands on them. The word of God continued to spread, and the number of the disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly; even a large group of priests were becoming obedient to the faith.

         Many years ago I learned a wise Latin aphorism that I often reflect on. It goes, “corruptio optimi pessima.” All of you Latin scholars will immediately know what that means. In case you are not a Latin scholar, it means, “The corruption of the best is the worst.” But what does that mean practically speaking? Well, in any given group, when the best of the best fall, they become the worst of the worst. The timeless example of this is in the world of the angels. When God created the angels, long before he created human beings, do you remember who he made the best and the brightest of them all? It was an angel by the name of “Lucifer” whose name means “light bearer.” Sadly, he rebelled against God – you can read about that in Revelation 12 – and he became corrupt, was literally “dis-graced,” he fell into hell, and from then on was called “Satan.” The corruption of the best becomes the worst.

         Here’s another practical application of “corruptio optimi pessima.” A friend of mine, Fr. Erik Pohlmeier, likes to say that his favorite century of Church history is the 15th century, or the 1400’s. I was shocked when he said that because that was a time of terrible corruption in Church leadership, going all the way up to the pope. I’m not going to describe it to you because you might all leave the Catholic Church and become Mormons. All I could think of was “the corruption of the best is the worst.” But Fr. Erik’s point was more subtle than that. He argued that the fact that the Church survived such a period of scandal and sin – and is today over 1 billion members world-wide – is the strongest evidence that she must have been founded by Jesus. Think about it: if the holiness of the Church depended on us priests, the Church would have never made it past the first century; it would have ended a long time ago. Ironically, the weakness of priests provides proof that God must be sustaining his Church. St. Paul says in Romans 5:20: “Where sin abounds, there grace abounds all the more.” In other words, God’s grace works through everything, even through the corruption of the best, the priests and the pope.

          I always smile when I hear today’s first reading from Acts of the Apostles. Why? Well, the last line reads: “The word of God continued to spread, and the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly; even a large group of priests were becoming obedient to the faith.” I love that last line, “even priests were obedient to the faith.” Now it’s not talking about Roman Catholic priests (obviously), but rather about Jewish priests, the Levites. Nevertheless, that line makes me chuckle, because it could very easily be applied to all priests, and I remember what Fr. Erik said about how the weakness of priests argues strongly in favor of the Church’s divine origin. Sometimes people ask me, “Fr. John do you want to be a bishop?”  And I always say, “Not on your life.”  Why? Well, because it’s a lot easier to be a shepherd to the sheep than a shepherd to the shepherds. Priests are the toughest nuts to crack, and if you can convert them, everyone else is easy.  I’ll stick with what’s easy. But here’s my point: there is plenty of the best and the worst in every priest.

          My friends, think of all the priestly shepherds that God has sent to St. Boniface Church over 125 years. First, you were blessed with a long line of brave Benedictine monks, starting in 1887, when this church was founded. Two particularly stand out in my mind: Fr. Hilary Filatreau and Fr. Placidus Eckhart. I always went to Fr. Hilary for confession because he could not hear very well. Some of you still remember them fondly. In 1998 diocesan priests started to provide pastoral care to you. Fr. Bill Elser, Fr. Jon McDougal, Fr. Jason Sharbaugh and starting Monday, Fr. Mario Jacobo. Each has certain skills – like Fr. Bill Elser’s famous homemade ice cream! – and each has his shortcomings, including the priest speaking to you. These men were ordained by the laying on of hands and the power of the Holy Spirit. However, that did not change the fact that every morning they still put their pants on one leg at a time (black pants). They are human, and seek salvation, like the rest of humanity. Pray for priests, be patient with priests, and put up with your priests. They are not perfect, but they are still priests of Jesus Christ, whom you may not have chosen or called, but they are the men Our Lord has chosen and called.

           Archbishop Fulton Sheen, after a long and celebrated career as pastor and preacher – he was called “the great communicator” by Reverend Bill Graham (not shabby praise) – the elderly archbishop wrote his autobiography entitled, Treasure in Clay. He explained why he chose that title, which he took from 2 Corinthians 4:7, saying, “God did not call angels to be priests; he called men. He did not make gold the vessel for his treasure; he made clay.” My friends, don’t let the clay of the priesthood distract you from the treasure that’s hidden inside.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Friday, May 12, 2017

Jesus Army

Being humble soldiers in the army of the Lord
John 13:16-20 
When Jesus had washed the disciples' feet, he said to them: "Amen, amen, I say to you, no slave is greater than his master nor any messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you understand this, blessed are you if you do it. I am not speaking of all of you. I know those whom I have chosen. But so that the Scripture might be fulfilled, The one who ate my food has raised his heel against me. From now on I am telling you before it happens, so that when it happens you may believe that I AM. Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me."

        How many of you know what an army is? What does an army do? An army is a group of people, composed of men and women, who go to fight a war. Now, how is an army organized? All armies have “ranks” of soldiers, some soldiers are “privates” (they’re the lowest level) and others are generals (they are the highest level). Who is the most important and gives all the commands, the general or the private? Obviously, it is the general. For example, the general could tell the private: “You have to wash my car.” And the private would have to do that, and do it quickly. Could the private tell the general, “No way, you have to wash my car!” What would happen to him? He would be kicked out of the army.

         This is the same here at St. Boniface. I am the administrator, which means I am the all-powerful leader of this church. And so I am like the general. And let’s say that our kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Audra Harper, is like a private, because she doesn’t have any power in this school. So, theoretically, I could say, “Mrs. Harper, I want you to wash my car!” Do you think she would do it? Okay, that’s a silly example; I’m just trying to be funny. But I hope you get my point about how an army is organized: privates obey the orders of the general; generals do not obey the orders of privates.
In the gospel today, Jesus tells his apostles how his army will be organized. In Jesus’ army there are privates and there is one general. Who is the general in this spiritual army? Jesus is, obviously. And in Jesus’ army who are the privates? The apostles are (and us, too). And Jesus’ army fights a war, too, against sin and Satan (all armies fight wars). And it’s really a tricky war because Satan and sin are invisible, which means you cannot see them. It’s very hard to fight an invisible enemy. Now, here’s the funny thing about Jesus’ army. Even though Jesus is the general, he does not tell the privates to wash his car. He washes their car! And he does more than that: he even washes their feet. Have you ever seen a general get down on his knees and wash the feet of his privates? Of course not, that would be ludicrous! But if you read John chapter 13, that’s exactly what you would see: Jesus, the general, washing the feet of his privates, his apostles. You see, Jesus’ army is kind of funny; the stronger, the smarter, the more handsome serves the weaker, the slower, and the less beautiful. In other words, I should wash Mrs. Harper’s car, if I really belonged to Jesus’ army! And by the way, that’s exactly how you fight the invisible enemy of sin and Satan: by being humble. That’s how Jesus’ army wins the war.

         Boys and girls, how many of you want to be in Jesus’ army? I hope you all raise your hands! I want to be in his army, too. If you’re in an army, you have to learn to say “Sir, yes sir!” when your general gives you a command, and you have to say it loud, like you really mean it. Now, in Jesus’ army the stronger serves the weaker. So, that means you should never bully anyone because you are stronger. And you should not have a group that leaves anyone out because you do not like them. And you should not tease anyone who is different from you. In other words, you should wash their car, not tell them to wash your car, just like I should wash Mrs. Harper’s car.  That’s the command Jesus gives his privates, and we should all respond enthusiastically, “Sir, yes sir!”

         And that’s how you win the war against sin and Satan. We are fighting a war against an invisible enemy, and when we are humble and willing to wash cars and even feet, that’s when we win the war.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Plain Ole White Boys

Avoiding embarrassment and appreciating our extraordinariness
Acts of the Apostles 12:24—13:5A 
The word of God continued to spread and grow. After Barnabas and Saul completed their relief mission, they returned to Jerusalem, taking with them John, who is called Mark. Now there were in the Church at Antioch prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Symeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen who was a close friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." Then, completing their fasting and prayer, they laid hands on them and sent them off.

        Sometimes, that which we think is embarrassing about us is really what is most extraordinary about us. Surprisingly, what we wish to change, should be what we celebrate. Let me use myself as an example. When I was young, I was embarrassed to be Indian. I have a funny middle name “Konuparampil.” I speak an obscure language no one has ever heard of called “Malayalam.” I have brown skin, but all my friends were all white. I visited a family recently, where the man said he was glad to be a “POWB.” I asked, “What’s a “POWB”? He said, “Plain Ole White Boy.” That’s what I wished I was, a plain ole white boy. And other people do this all the time, too. Msgr. Scott Friend told me once that back in 1940 his family (originally from Germany) changed their from “Freund” to “Friend.” Can you guess why? The United States was at war with Germany, so it was not very popular to be German in 1940. Even plain ole white boys wanted to be plain ole white boys!
But I would suggest to you that these embarrassing traits are really extraordinary talents. My family name is my connection to my history and my heritage. If I were to change my name, I would cut myself off from my past. I wouldn’t know who I really am, because I couldn’t trace my genealogy or my true identity. Without my true name, I would remain a mystery to myself. It’s true that not many people speak Malayalam. But fluently speaking more than one language growing up made it easier for me to learn other languages later. Now, I pray morning prayer in Latin, and evening prayer in French, and say Mass in Spanish. That’s all thanks to speaking Malayalam while I was growing up. And what about being brown skinned? Is that a loss or a liability? Hardly. Why do you think people go to the beach to vacation every spring and summer, or use spray-on tans or frequent tanning salons? All my white friends want to look like me! In other words, what I thought was a weakness turned out to be a strength; indeed, it turned out to be a gift and a grace from God. And today, I am very grateful for all those things I used to be so embarrassed about.

         In the first reading from Acts of the Apostles, we meet three leaders of the Church who celebrated their uniqueness and differences. They were okay with not being “plain ole white boys.” First was “Symeon who was called Niger.” He was from northern Africa, and was sometimes called “Simeon the Dark.” He was definitely not a plain ole white boy. Second was “Lucius the Cyrene,” who also hailed from Northern Africa, modern day Lybia. And third was “Manean, a close friend of Herod the Tetrach.” You remember Herod? He was the one who beheaded John the Baptist, and played a role in Jesus’ condemnation. Not many Christians would want to be known as “a close friend” of Herod! That was not exactly a claim to fame. But each of these leaders had learned that what seems embarrassing can also be extraordinary. God changes these liabilities into assets, into graces and gifts. The fact that these men were the leaders of these churches showed that the early Christians could see that, too.

         Boys and girls, today I want you to think about those thing that embarrass you most about yourself. Are you embarrassed by your name and wish it were different? Do you wish you were a “Friend” instead of a “Freund”? Do you wish you didn’t speak English with an accent, because your first language was Spanish or Vietnamese, or Tagalog, or Laotian? Do you want to change your physical attributes: be shorter or taller, skinner or stronger, smarter or faster or have curly hair or have flat hair? People always want the opposite hair style of what they have. Do you ever think to yourself, “Why can we all just be plain ole white boys??”

         But God, in his infinite wisdom, has made you who you are: born into a certain family, speaking a particular language, with unique physical features, with abilities and disabilities. Don’t be embarrassed by who you are. You are extraordinary. Even if you are a plain ole white boy.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Wounds That Heal

Six skills to soften the crosses we carry
1 Peter 2:20B-25 
Beloved: If you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good, this is a grace before God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps. He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. When he was insulted, he returned no insult; when he suffered, he did not threaten; instead, he handed himself over to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross, so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you had gone astray like sheep, but you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

          As you know, Bishop Taylor appointed me as “acting administrator” of St. Boniface from May 3 to May 15. My role is not to make any major changes – like buying a new Jacuzzi for the rectory – but to help in two areas. First, to facilitate the search for a new principal for our school, which is urgent. And second, to make Fr. Mario’s arrival here as smooth as possible: he will be your new pastor. You may know that Fr. Mario’s brother died tragically recently in Mexico, and naturally that weighs heavy on his heart. In this time of transition, the second reading from St. Peter is particularly apropos for our parish. St. Peter, the first pope, wrote: “If you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good this is a grace before God…because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps.” As we say good-bye to Fr. Jason and hello to Fr. Mario, we may feel some unease and even some suffering. The job of a pastor is to help you carry that cross as you follow Christ. I once heard it described like this: “a good preacher should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Today, I’d like to “comfort the afflicted” (in case you’re feeling some affliction) by sharing with you six skills I’ve learned in how to shoulder the cross of change, especially in interacting with other people. I hope it lightens your load a little.

          First, whenever you discuss an issue or a problem simply state the concern without comparing it to other things or other people. Sometimes we think we look better by comparing ourselves to others; we think, hey, at least I’m not as bad as that guy, so I must be better. We priests are notorious about this. Every priest who comes into a new parish thinks to himself: “Man, this place was a disaster! It’s a good thing I’m here to clean up this mess.” Like Mighty Mouse, we sing, “Here I come to save the day!” Of course, when I leave this parish guess what the new priest will say? He’ll say, “Man, this place is a disaster! Good thing I’m here.” Notice what we’re really doing. We think we look better when we make someone else look bad. But we don’t look better. Fr. Jon McDougal often told me, “Everyone is just doing the best they can.” He was right; he didn’t compare priests or parishes. Everyone is doing the best they can.

          Second, try to distinguish between statements of feeling and statements of fact when you’re talking to someone. We often think someone is expressing a fact when they are really sharing a feeling. Whenever you hear absolute terms like “always,” or “never,” or “every time,” or “not once,” or “everybody” or “nobody,” people are voicing their emotions, not expressing facts. When you hear someone sharing their feelings, acknowledge that feeling, and don’t fire back with facts contradicting them. Just listen to them with compassion and empathy. When you do that, you will be the more mature one, the “bigger person” in the conversation.

         Third, remember the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, “freedom of speech.” That means that everyone has a right to their opinion and also a right to express that opinion. That also means we have a corresponding responsibility to respect people’s opinions whether we agree or not. But it helps me to remember an old adage: “opinions are like armpits: everyone has two and they all stink.” So, while I respect other people’s opinions, I don’t need to get defensive or feel threatened by them, just like I’m not threatened by people’s armpits. In other words, there’s no need to shout down other people’s opinions; the Truth is big enough to defend itself, against other people’s opinions and against my opinions. The Truth is that big.

         Fourth, most things people say are autobiographical and subjective, that is, their statements reveal more about themselves than about the topic they are treating. When I first arrived at Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary, I stopped to talk to a fourth-year deacon. Trying to make some small talk, I said, “well, you know, this is a really great seminary.” He paused, looked at me and said, “That statement tells me more about you than it does this seminary.” I didn’t know what he meant so I half-laughed and walked off, thinking, WEIRDO. But I’ve never stopped thinking about what he said. Why? My statement only expressed my opinion about the Mount, but it was still very much up for debate how great the seminary is. Now, if someone says to me, “Fr. John, you’re the greatest priest in the universe!” I say, “Thank you.” But in my mind, I repeat what that deacon said to me in the seminary, “That tells me more about you than about my priesthood.” On the other hand, if someone says, “Fr. John, you’re the worst priest in the world!” I say, “Thank you.” But in my mind I realize they’re telling me more about them than about me. Of course, we have to listen and learn from what others say, we shouldn’t ignore them, but we also don’t have to take it so personally, because their statement is mostly autobiographical and subjective.

         Fifth, always make others look good. Clearly, in confidential settings we have to speak frankly and forthrightly about others, “calling a spade a spade.” However, in public settings, only say good and kind things about others. I learned this lesson from Msgr. Hebert. In 2000, I was being installed as pastor of St. Edward in Little Rock at a bilingual Mass. Msgr. Hebert did not speak Spanish, so I could say anything about him. Before we walked out into the sanctuary, he sensed his precarious position, and said sternly, “John, don’t make me look bad.” I just smiled broadly, making no promises. But I’ve remembered that comment and tried to use it in public settings, “Don’t make people look bad.” Even in the rare and anguished times I’ve had to let a staff person go, I tried to let them leave with their head held high. Msgr. Hebert’s baritone voice booms in my head, “John, don’t make me look bad.”

         Sixth and lastly, please remember there is a grace in every moment, especially in the sad and dark and lonely moments. I am convinced that’s where the greatest graces are hidden. God is never nearer than when he feels farthest. And my definition of grace is “anything that brings us closer to Christ.” Our Evangelical friends are fond of saying, “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.” Ask yourself: When have you prayed the hardest: when all was well, or when you were in dire straits?  Usually, we pray better when we’re in trouble. Or, put it this way: how hard is it to make it to Mass when you’re on vacation? It’s easy to forget God when we’re having fun in the sun. This transition of priests may uncover some hurts and wounds that sting, don’t ignore
them or bury them or shove them in the closet. Rather, ask Jesus to give you the grace to heal and grow closer to him, indeed, to become more like him.

         When I try to live these six lessons, my cross feels a little lighter. And it’s a little easier to do what St. Peter says in his first letter: “When Jesus was insulted, he returned no insult; when he suffered, he did not threaten; instead, he turned himself over to the one who judges justly…By his wounds you have been healed.” My friends, when we join our sufferings to those of Christ, by our wounds others will be healed, too.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Friday, May 5, 2017

Glorious Food

Filling our souls with the glorious food of the Eucharist
 John 6: 52-59 
The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his Flesh to eat?" Jesus said to them,"Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink his Blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my Flesh is true food, and my Blood is true drink. Whoever eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever." These things he said while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.

         Boys and girls, have you ever seen the musical movie called “Oliver”?  If you haven’t I hope someday you will watch it.  It’s about an orphanage of boys and every day they have to eat this gray goup called “gruel” for their breakfast.  None of the boys like it, and they all dream of eating real food and growing fat like all the people in charge of the orphanage.  They come to breakfast singing a song called, “Food, Glorious Food” as they march in to eat their gruel.

         What is your favorite food?  I hope it’s not gruel!  Some people love to eat pizza, others are huge fans of chicken pot pie, while others love cheeseburgers.  If you’re hispanic, you might like “carne asada.”  If you’re an Indian like me, then you definitely love you some “chicken curry.”  Like those children in the musical movie, we all sit down to our favorite meals and we’re ready to sing, “Food, Glorious Food!” before we dive in.

         Now, how many times do you like to eat every day?  Many years ago I read a book called, “Lord of the Rings,” where I learned about little creatures called “hobbits.”  Most of us eat three times a day - breakfast, lunch and dinner - but how many times do you think a hobbit eats?  They eat seven times a day: breakfast at 7 a.m., second breakfast at 9 a.m., elevenses at 11 a.m., luncheon at 1 p.m., afternoon tea at 4 p.m., dinner at 6 p.m., and finally supper at 8 p.m.  They love to eat!  A hobbit sings that song, “Food, Glorious Food!” seven times a day when he sits down to eat.  We all love food, and we all love to eat our favorite food.

         Today, I want to tell you about a beautiful young lady, who gave up eating all food, except one, and that was her favorite.  She only ate the Bread and Wine of the Mass, the Eucharist.  Her name was Alexandrina da Costa, and she lived in Belasar, Portugal.  She was born in 1904 and died in 1955, when she was 51 years old.  For the last 13 years of her life, she did not eat anything - no cheeseburgers, no pizza, no carne asada, no chicken curry - and she only received Holy Communion each day.  And she didn’t get Communion seven times a day like a hobbit, but only once.  Her love for Jesus was so amazing that the doctors wanted to test her and make sure she was not cheating, and hiding candy under her pillow (like some kids do).  They took her to the hospital for 40 days and watched her closely to make sure she did not eat.  The only thing she ate was Holy Communion.  

          Maybe she sang, “Food, Glorious Food!” when the priest brought her Communion every day.
In the gospel today, Jesus says, “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.”  Jesus is talking about Holy Communion, where that Bread is really Jesus’ Body and that Wine is really Jesus’ Blood.  That’s what Blessed Alexandrina da Costa believed, and that’s what you and I believe as Catholics.  Boys and girls, you and I don’t have to give up eating our favorite food, like Alexandrina did, but we do have to eat the Eucharist every Sunday.  At Sunday Mass, we should sing as enthusiastically as those children in the musical movie did, “Food, Glorious Food!” because the Eucharist is indeed “glorious food.”

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Thursday, May 4, 2017

My Work Wife

Showing love, respect and admiration to our secretaries
John 6:44-51 
Jesus said to the crowds: "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him, and I will raise him on the last day. It is written in the prophets: They shall all be taught by God. Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life.

           As usual, I missed Secretary’s Day again this year. I guess I need a secretary to remind me about this day, but that would sort of defeat the purpose, wouldn’t it? And this year they’ve expanded it to a whole week, to make sure knuckle-heads like me would not miss it. But I did. So, I’d like to give my secretaries a shout-out in this sermon.

          In 21 years as a priest, the bishop has assigned me to 17 different jobs (parishes, mission churches and diocesan offices), each of which was staffed with professional and personable secretaries. In every position I held, without exception, each secretary has taught me lessons in how to be a holy and humble priest. I truly believe that parish secretaries should help develop the curriculum in seminaries. They could each write a best-selling book about their experiences, but I hope they don’t.
           They’ve taught me more practical wisdom than I’ve learned from mountains of theology books. One taught me the value of letting my secretary know where I was when I wasn’t in the office. I thought that was “cramping my style,” but it actually helped the secretary to field phone calls that made my style even less cramped. Another secretary insisted I take a vacation (I’m a workaholic), and I was so grateful that I did afterwards. She taught me to “work smarter, not harder.” All secretaries have taught me that parishioners are like the bones of a human body. They tell me which parishioners are the “jaw bones” (only love to complain), and the “butt bones” (only sit around and don’t work), and the “back bones” (who hold the parish together). They’ve smoothed ruffled feathers when I didn’t treat someone with Christ-like compassion. They made excuses for me when I missed a meeting or showed up late. They were a gentle shoulder when I need to vent, a sounding board for my hair-brained ideas, and they kept fishing me out of hot water with the bishop.

           Every day they work tirelessly (and thanklessly) to make me look like a rockstar priest and pastor, even though often I fail at both. If they’ve been a secretary for more than a few years, they’ve worked with more than one pastor. They know each one has his strengths and weaknesses and they always highlight the first and try to forget about the second. They know we are not the “knight in shining armor” but they try to make us look like one anyway. That’s how they serve Jesus.

          In the gospel today, Jesus quotes the Old Testament prophets, saying, “They shall all be taught by God.” Notice that Jesus said “all” would be taught, and that includes priests, too. When I was first ordained, I thought it was my job to teach other people. After all, aren’t the people supposed to just “pray, pay and obey”?? But my secretaries have taught me far more about being a disciple of Christ than I could ever hope to teach them. One day, I mentioned to Bishop Peter Sartain (now archbishop of Seattle), that the Holy Spirit works through him. He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “John, the Holy Spirit works through all of us.” “They shall all be taught by God,” Jesus said. I wonder if some wise, loving parish secretary taught the good archbishop that lesson along the way.

           My friends, I’m not sure if you’ve been as fortunate as me and had 17 secretaries in 21 years. But every good secretary tries to make his or her boss look like the “knight in shining armor,” even when they know he is not. It is with great admiration, respect and gratitude that our secretaries are sometimes called “work wives.” They deserve a day of appreciation, if not a week.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Wrong Side of History

Following the guidance of the Holy Spirit in history
John 6:30-35 
The crowd said to Jesus: "What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you? What can you do? Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, as it is written: He gave them bread from heaven to eat." So Jesus said to them, "Amen, amen, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." So they said to Jesus, "Sir, give us this bread always." Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst."

         Have you ever heard the phrase, “the wrong side of history”? It’s a fascinating phrase because it helps us to penetrate below the surface of history and see the deeper undercurrents. First of all, to say there is a “wrong side” of history” implies that there is also a “right side.” Let me give you an example. In the mid-19th century – around 1850 and 1860 – a deeply divisive debate raged in the United States over slavery and ultimately exploded into the Civil War. At that time both sides of the issue thought they were on the “right side” but eventually the war and human history would reveal who was in fact on the “right side” and who was on the “wrong side” of history. Today, we would be appalled at anyone who championed slavery as morally acceptable. The course of history has a way of settling heated controversies.

          But I believe more is going on that meets the eye in human history. I like to say “the Holy Spirit is driving the bus.” In other words, history is not merely a conglomeration of blind forces converging over a long period of time – dictators and wars and natural disasters. But rather, there is a noticeable “method to the madness,” and people of faith can see that the Holy Spirit is directing the tumultuous traffic and the “long and winding road” of human history. In 1965 the Second Vatican Council made this prophetic statement, saying, “The People of God (that’s you and me) believes that it is led by the Lord’s Spirit, who fills the earth. Motivated by this faith, it labors to decipher the authentic signs of God’s presence and purpose in the happenings, needs and desires in which this People (that’s you and me again) has a part along with other men (and women) of our age. For faith throws light on everything” (Gaudium et spes, 11). That’s just a fancy way of saying that “the Holy Spirit drives the bus” of human history, and he steers us away from the “wrong side of history.”

          Another example of the right and wrong side of history is found in today’s feast of St. Athanasius. How you ever heard of him? Every Sunday you say something thanks to him, namely, the Nicene Creed. You know that moment in the Mass where, after the deacon’s long homily, you stand and wake up and stretch, and we all say this long statement of faith called the Creed?  The technical name for it is “the Nicene Creed” because it was forged in the famous Council of Nicaea in 325. At that time another divisive debate was raging all over Christendom about Jesus’ identity: was he fully God and also fully man? On one side was a bishop named “Arias” who denied Jesus was fully God, and on the other side was St. Athanasius, who defended Jesus’ identity as having two natures, God and man. (I’ll give you a clue who won, it was the saint). That’s why the Creed has that long section, “God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father.” All that affirms – against Arias – that Jesus is 100% God. Every time you profess your faith you should not only know what you believe, but also know how history unfolds. In other words, the Holy Spirit guided the pope and bishops – he drove the council bus – steering them away from the “wrong side of history.”

          My dear ladies, today’s feast day also has so much richness and relevance for the Ladies Auxiliary. Haven’t you seen in your own storied history times when you were on the “right side” and at other times on the “wrong side”? Well, that applies to everyone by Rita Helfrich, who’s always right. But it’s especially the job of the new officers of the Auxiliary to pray and ponder and perceive how the Holy Spirit is leading all of you. It’s wise to do this with the help of your pastor and your bishop and your pope. Your specific job is to do what the Second Vatican Council said: “Motivated by this faith, it labors to decipher the authentic signs of God’s presence and purpose in the happenings, needs and desires in which this People has a part along with other men (and women) of our age. For faith throws light on everything.”

          I want you to know how proud I am of you because you are so docile to the promptings of the Holy Spirit (especially when I ask for a favor). You try very hard to let the Holy Spirit “drive the bus of the Ladies Auxiliary.” When you do that, you will not end up on the wrong side of history, and you won’t end up in the ditch.

Praised be Jesus Christ!