12 December 2017

Pointing

Second Sunday of Advent
Last week I mentioned that we began a new liturgical year with our beginning of the season of Advent.  New years are both times to look forward, as well as times to look back.  And looking back at our last liturgical year, it had its ups and downs for me.  Now, I’m not usually a guy to share struggles; I don’t want my burdens to become the burdens of others.  But, as the father of this parish community, I have to be vulnerable at times, as all parents do.  It’s important for me to be a pillar of strength for you and with you, but sometimes even parents communicate the struggles.
As I said, last year had its ups and downs.  There were some very good things that happened in my life (in no particular order): I continued to develop a good relationship with Powers Catholic High School, and boys and girls soccer both won State Championships; we had my first 8th grade graduation as pastor of St. Pius X Catholic School; I became a Michigan State Police Chaplain; I had my first Christmas and Easter here at St. Pius X, which is always a special time in the life of a priest; I have developed friendships here and strengthened others from elsewhere; I enjoyed a nice trip to Nashville and heard some great country music; I have welcomed new parishioners to St. Pius X, both by baptism and by transfers in.  
But there were also challenges, both personally and professionally: I buried my first grandparent; I had the sad duty of attending the Line of Duty Death of a State Trooper and an Oakland County Deputy; I had five parishioner funerals in 15 days (last year was apparently a year for funerals); our parish Mass attendance continued to shrink, mirroring trends across our diocese; we currently have a number of parishioners who have very serious illnesses and who are in hospice care; collections continue to be lower, which stifles the amount of ministry we can do as a parish; some parishioners, for a variety of reasons, continue to move to other parishes, and even with a majority of the ones that come to mind being because of changing residence or changing health, I still feel the pain, as I know you do.  The challenges seem to pile up faster than the joys.
Now, I don’t bring these up to make you feel bad for me, or for yourselves.  I persevere by the grace of God, who increases my joys and lessens my sorrows.  And certainly all those challenges are precisely challenges because of my love: for my biological family, my blue family (law enforcement, not Smurfs), and especially for my parish family.  If I didn’t love you, and all the others, I wouldn’t feel the pain that comes from those challenges.
But I bring these up because it is easy to get discouraged with those challenges, but God does not want us to despair.  Advent is precisely the season of hope, and the main character of our first reading and Gospel, St. John the Baptist, is precisely a prophet of hope.  Isaiah tells us that God wants to give us comfort, and St. John the Baptist shows us how.
St. John the Baptist is almost always depicted as pointing.  Whether it’s a painting or a statue, St. John the Baptist usually has his pointer finger pointing somewhere.  But not to somewhere, to someone.  And not just any someone, the Lamb of God, the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit: Jesus.
Things weren’t great in the time of St. John the Baptist.  Israel was under foreign occupation by the Romans.  Herod, not the one who tried to kill baby Jesus, but another Herod, was a puppet king who was no winner, either.  There were religious sects that didn’t associate with each other for various reasons.  And few seemed to have much hope that things were going to get better.  And the ones who did think things were going to get better, were convinced it had to happen by a violent, military uprising.  Now those are some challenges.
In the midst of all this, St. John the Baptist points out Jesus.  We don’t quite hear that today in the Gospel, but we do hear about John preparing a way for Jesus, so that when Jesus did appear, John could point Him out.  And that is the key for us today: we need to point to Jesus.  In the midst of all our challenges, for me, for the parish, for you as individuals and families, we need to point out Jesus.
Is Jesus going to take all our troubles away?  Not on this side of eternity.  Ask John: he was beheaded because of the dance of a pretty girl.  But the challenge with challenges is that they can demand our attention, demand our focus, and can become all-consuming.  Before long, the darkness surrounds us, and it seems like life is nothing but a challenge, and we can despair, we can lose hope.  But when we point to Jesus, we point to the light, and we direct our attention to the greatest thing we have: God who loves us, God-with-us, Emmanuel.  Instead of darkness, the light increases, and while the challenges still remain, they are not overwhelming.  
No matter what my challenges; no matter what our parish challenges; no matter what your personal and family challenges are, allow me to point you to Jesus.  Allow me to lead you in focusing on the Lamb of God, who fills us with the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.  And if you feel like Jesus has helped you to escape the darkness of despair and brought you into the light of hope, then be a John the Baptist with me.  Point out Jesus to those you live with, work with, and play with, so that they, too, can see the light.  

There is only one Person who knows what this new liturgical year holds for me and for us: and that Person is Jesus.  He is the Lord of all, and everything is in His care, and nothing happens that He does not allow for our holiness.  Focus on Him; focus on Jesus, the one who brings comfort to His People.  Be like St. John the Baptist: point out the Lamb of God.

04 December 2017

Late to the Party?

First Sunday of Advent
It may seem like the Church is a little late to the party.  Here we are, beginning the new liturgical year with the beginning of Advent.  There are no Christmas trees up (except our giving tree in the narthex); we have no poinsettias around; there are no manger scenes.  Yet in malls, at businesses, and it seems everywhere else, Christmas has already come.  And not only has it already come, it has been here for four weeks already!  Many places decorated for Christmas the day after Halloween.  So why doesn’t our Church get with it?!?
Because our Church knows the human condition better than the secular world, and, as a loving Mother, is helping Her children to grow in virtue, especially the virtue of patience and watchfulness.  She gives us this season of Advent to prepare.  And we only prepare, if we are not ready right now.  And we aren’t ready right now to celebrate the Nativity of Jesus.  We need time to wait and to watch.
Because, after all, we are still waiting and watching for Jesus to return.  The word “Advent” comes from the Latin word adveniens, which means coming, or coming to.  Ever since Jesus ascended into heaven, we are waiting for Jesus to come back, to come to us again.  These four weeks of Advent are a microcosm of the state of life for all Christians for their lives: waiting for Jesus, waiting to celebrate His coming.
And we wait and we watch because we “do not know when the Lord of the house is coming.”  Waiting and watching for this long is hard.  Perhaps we have become drowsy and fallen asleep, in the sense that we don’t really think that Christ is ever going to return.  It has been 1,984 years since Jesus ascended, with angels promising to return in the same way that He left us.  But it is not the right time yet, and so we can forget that Jesus will return.  We can live in such a way that shows that we think we have months, or years, or decades, or maybe even centuries before Jesus returns.  But in honest, we do not know the day, nor the hour.  
And so in this season of Advent, we do in an intense way for four weeks what we should be doing in our lives always: waiting for Jesus.  As a Church we don’t put up Christmas decorations until the last possible moment because we need to prepare our hearts.  Our first reading from the Prophet Isaiah gives us a clue on how to do that: we need to acknowledge our sinfulness, and ask God to return.  When we recognize that we have not lived like Jesus calls us to, we prepare a way for Jesus to come to us, because a heart that is repentant, that is contrite, is a heart that recognizes its need for Jesus.  And Jesus will not force Himself upon us.  If we do not feel we need Jesus (even though we, of course, always do), then He will not come to us.  And when we call out to Jesus to “return for the sake of your servants,” He hears our prayer and comes to us in love and mercy.  For what sibling would not come to the aid of His brother or sister, if that brother or sister pleaded for the presence of the brother.  Our Divine Brother, Jesus, is waiting to hear us cry out to Him in our need so that He can come and save us, but He will wait for us to ask.

Certainly in our homes and maybe our places of work, we are starting to decorate and we are beginning to celebrate Christmas in a secular way.  We have parties, we put up trees, we may even get together with family because of different schedules on Christmas day and after.  But let’s not forget that we’re not there yet.  There is virtue in waiting to celebrate because it helps us truly keep watch for Jesus’ second coming in glory.  In this time Jesus comes to us in mercy.  At the end of time Jesus will come to us in judgment.  In this time, we wait to celebrate the Nativity of Jesus as a tiny, helpless baby in Bethlehem.  At the end of time Jesus will come as a conquering King who will finally vanquish all the effects of sin and death.  May we truly be watchful in our daily lives, especially during this Advent season, so that Jesus may not come suddenly and find us sleeping.  “‘Be watchful!  Be alert!’”

27 November 2017

Matthew 25: Setting the Bar

Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe
There can easily be a disconnect between our modern culture and the first reading and Gospel passage today.  They both focus on sheep and shepherding, which would have been a very common thing in Palestine around AD 33.  As we look forward toward Christmas, we know that the shepherds were one of the first to see the infant Jesus with Mary and Joseph.  But today, I can probably think of only person that I know that owns sheep.  Sheep aren’t quite as common today as people who have chickens or cattle or horses, though goats are starting to make a comeback in some areas (there are more and more videos on Facebook with goats doing funny things).  

So the idea of a sheep and shepherd might be a bit out there for us.  But we probably understand the metaphor well enough to get what Ezekiel and Jesus are saying to the people: God is going to shepherd His people, gather them together, and judge between the sheep (which are good) and the goats (which are bad).  In fact, one of the oldest depictions of Jesus is as the Good Shepherd in the catacombs of Pope St. Callixtus I in Rome.  
As we celebrate this weekend Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, we celebrate a Shepherd-King.  Yes, Jesus is our King, not an elected official.  We can’t vote Jesus out of office if we don’t like Him.  By virtue of the fact that we were conceived, we became subjects of a king.  However, at the end our of life, we will be judged and will be in the Kingdom of Jesus, “a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace,” or in the kingdom of Satan, a kingdom of lies and death, of sin and vice, a kingdom of injustice, hatred, and war.  And as it turns out, it is not so much that we are sent to one of those kingdoms, but our actions on this earth determine of which kingdom we want to be a part.  
Over the past few weeks we have heard how we will be judged: two weeks ago we heard that we need to be ready for the Bridegroom to return, and to focus our lives on that one goal above all others, and be like the wise virgins; last week we heard that we need to use the talents God gave us to help us enter the kingdom of heaven; and this week we hear that it is how we treat Jesus in this life, especially in the least of His brothers, that will determine in which kingdom we will live eternally.  
The kingdom of heaven has been described over the past few weeks as a wedding party, and, on the flip side, hell has been described as outer darkness, a place of “wailing and grinding of teeth.”  And today Jesus describes hell as an eternal punishment of fire, but heaven as the place of the blessings of God and eternal life.  
It is easy to think of hell as the place for the most degenerate of persons: Hitler, Stalin, bin Laden, and Charles Manson.  It is easy to think of heaven as the default where everybody goes as long as they don’t commit genocide or murder.  But Jesus doesn’t talk today about murderers going to hell.  The people who go to hell are those who didn’t feed others, give others a drink of water, welcome the stranger, give clothing to the naked, and visit the ill and in prison.  Those are the people who will go to eternal punishment.  That might sound harsh if it were me saying it, but Jesus, Mercy Incarnate, is the one who sets the bar, and it’s certainly a gut-check for me, as it likely is for you.  God wants everyone to go to heaven; we are also told that in Scripture in St. Paul’s first letter to St. Timothy.  But if we put together all of chapter 25 of the Gospel according to Matthew, the Gospel passages for the last two weeks and this week, heaven is for those who have kept themselves focused on waiting for the Bridegroom, using their talents that God has given them, and serving Christ in others.  To the extent that we do that, we are being prepared for heaven.  To the extent that we ignore chapter 25, we are being prepared for hell.  In our life each day, we are either going one way or another; there’s no standing still in our spiritual lives.  We are either moving closer to God, or farther away from Him.  

The good news is that we have today to move towards God, impelled by His grace.  We don’t have yesterday; all we can do is ask forgiveness for our past sins in confession, a sacrament that moves us closer to God.  We don’t have tomorrow; all we can do is hope that we will accept God’s grace to continue moving toward Him.  But we do have today, and we do have opportunities to move closer to God through prayer, worship, and service.  If we follow God and where He tells us to go in our daily lives, we know He only leads us to heaven because He is the Good Shepherd.  And if we follow the Good Shepherd, we will end up in the verdant pastures, near restful waters, where “only goodness and kindness follow me” as we “dwell in the house of the Lord.”

13 November 2017

Preparation

Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Most of you probably know that I spent a lot of time with the Powers Catholic Boys Soccer team, including being at the State Championship game, which they won, on Saturday, 4 November.  During the summer I was going to attend their conditioning workouts, both to be involved with the team (which is part of my outreach to the youth), as well as to get back in shape.  I only made one conditioning workout, which proved how out of shape I am!  But it was amazing to me to see all the hard work they put in during the summer, and then, once practices could begin, knowing all the drills they would to prepare for the games.  That preparation paid off, as they won the vast majority of their games, won all of the games in the post season, and only allowed two goals in the post season.  Their goal from the beginning of the season was to win a State Championship, and their preparation helped them to achieve that goal. 

In the Gospel today, and in the next few weeks, even in Advent, Jesus will talk about being prepared for the end of time, when Jesus, the Bridegroom, will return.  And in today’s parable, He talks about those who are wise virgins, prepared for the Bridegroom at any time, and those who are foolish virgins, those who are only ready if the Bridegroom returns quickly.  What may astound us in this parable is that Jesus does not talk about the wise virgins sharing their oil.  In fact, the wise virgins worry that there won’t be enough oil for both, so they keep their provisions to themselves.  Shouldn’t the wise virgins have shared what little they had?
But the point of this parable is that when it comes to Jesus’ return, we have to be prepared, and nothing should distract us from that goal.  If we take our eye off the prize, if we let our preparation slip, then there’s a chance that we will be left outside, and will hear the very sad words, “‘Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.’”  
Think of all the things you prepare for.  I’m a planner, so I love preparing; I hate having things left to the last minute.  I prepare for homilies (as much as I can), I prepare for vacations, I prepare for retirement, I’m even prepared for my funeral (the Diocese of Lansing encourages us to have plans made, since we never know when an angry parishioner might do us in!).  But can I honestly say that I’m ready for Jesus to return?  Some days are better than others.
We can put so much energy into things that will fade away.  Right now, probably the thing that so many people put time and energy into is sports.  Sports are great; they teach valuable lessons and help develop the body and mind.  But in these days, sports is like a God.  Everything else goes to the wayside, including many times people’s relationship with God, especially in Mass, because of sports.  And to miss a game or a practice can have a detrimental on the athlete him or herself or even on the entire team.  But when the Bridegroom returns, when Jesus comes back, would we be more ashamed that we let our team down, or that we didn’t make time for Jesus?  
The Dodgers just lost the World Series to the Houston Astros.  In 1965 the Dodgers were also in the World Series.  And one of their best pitchers, Sandy Koufax, refused to pitch in Game One because it fell on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, one of the Jewish holydays.  The Dodgers lost that game, 8-2, but won the World Series, 4 games to 3.  Koufax was probably seen as letting his team down in that first game.  But I would guess he felt that his relationship with God was more important even than the World Series.
There are other things that we can put ahead of our relationship with God than sports.  But as Catholics, we are called to put God and our practice of the faith, including going to Mass and attending CCD, at the first place in our lives.
It can be hard to live always waiting for Jesus’ return.  That’s why in this month of November, we especially remember the four last things: death, judgement, Heaven, and Hell.  We put those things at the front of our mind as a way of saying, “Life is short; I need to have my priorities straight.”  It’s not morbid, and it’s not scrupulous.  Living as if we could die any day is both realistic (we never know what could happen), as well as a good way of making sure that we are ready for the Bridegroom’s return.  It doesn’t mean we can’t plan for retirement or plan for the future in general, but it does mean that even those plans are put in their proper order, and that we’re not making decisions that make us set for this life, but in danger in the life to come.  Not everybody goes to heaven.  Jesus Himself refers to the path to heaven as a narrow way.  But by living with the mindset that the Bridegroom could return any day, we are more likely to stay on that path.  

The prize of heaven is even more important than a State Championship or a World Series or a Super Bowl.  State Championships and World Series and Super Bowls will eventually end.  Heaven and hell are forever.  “‘Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.’”

06 November 2017

Glorifying God and Lifting Burdens

Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
This week is the week the Church in the United States focuses on promoting vocations to the priesthood, diaconate, and consecrated life, and it’s called National Vocation Awareness Week.  That may seem odd, because our first reading from Malachi and our Gospel passage sound pretty rough on priests.  God the Father, speaking through Malachi, has some harsh words for priests: “If you do not listen, if you do not lay it to bear, to give glory to my name, says the LORD of hosts, I will send a curse upon you.”  God the Son, Jesus, also is critical of the scribes and Pharisees, who were not necessarily priests, but who were leaders of the Jewish communities in their day: “‘The scribes and Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.  Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example.  For they preach but they do not practice.  They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them.’”  It doesn’t sound like God the Father or Jesus has much love for priests and religious leaders!
  But, on the contrary, God the Father and Jesus both love priests, but they both also hold priests to a very high standard, because they are acting in God’s Name and are called to reflect who God is.  As Jesus says elsewhere, “To whom much has been given, much will be expected.”  God through Malachi chastises the priests because they are not leading the people in giving glory to God’s Name.  And Jesus does not condemn the priests for what they are teaching, but for what they fail to do in terms of helping God’s people.  Sadly, in our own country, a few priests have not led the people in glorifying God, and they have not helped God’s people, but have hurt them, sometimes in horrific ways.  
So what is the solution?  Should we get rid of priests?  Should we close down the seminaries and become Christian communities who do not have priests because a small group of priests have not lived up to their vocation?  To do so would be not put ourselves as masters of the Church, and as I preached a few months ago, it is not our Church; the Church belongs to Jesus; She is His Bride.  Instead, we need better priests.
People often ask me what I do each day (usually right before someone else chimes in that priests only work for an hour or two on Sundays).  And I can say that no two days are exactly the same.  There are some common things, but you never know what will happen on any given day.  The most important part of my job is to do what Malachi said: to lead you in giving glory to God, and that happens most perfectly, most eminently, in the Mass.  The Mass is the high point of my day, as I offer to God the Father through Christ the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit, the one, acceptable sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross for the salvation of the world.  And in that, I hopefully draw you in, not to glorify ourselves, not to focus inward on how great we are, because we are not great, but rather, to glorify God and so focus on serving God first in the Mass and then after the Mass in our daily lives.  That is the key to a priest’s life: the Mass; the Eucharist.
Outside of that, I try to do what Jesus condemned the scribes and Pharisees for not doing: practicing what I preach, and lifting burdens from people’s shoulders.  Practicing what I preach means treating ever parishioner the way I would want to be treated, and treating them according to what the Church, sitting on the Chair of St. Peter, has taught, never giving special consideration because a person is famous, gives a lot, or is a friend.  Each day I also try to lift the burdens of the people in my parish, as I talk to them about their marriages, as I hear their confessions and offer them God’s mercy, as I try to help our school students see how much God loves them and help them to mature as Catholic young men and women.  Does it take a lot out of me?  Certainly.  Being a priest is about giving of oneself, in a similar way to how marriage is about giving of oneself (without the sex part).  But that is why the Eucharist is so important, because it is the source of the strength and wisdom, without which a priest would quickly burn out and become useless.

The reality is that we need more priests.  We need courageous, adventurous men who are trying to live according to God’s law to become priests.  We don’t need sissies; they won’t make it.  The priesthood calls for a man’s man; not a man with machismo, who is all about his own strength, but for a man who seeks to glorify God and care for the people entrusted to his care, even when the people don’t want the care that he knows God wants for them.  You don’t have to be perfect to become a priest; I’m living proof of that!  But you do have to want to follow God as perfectly as you can, so that God can be glorified, and His people can be cared for in love and truth.  

30 October 2017

What is Love...Baby Don't Hurt Me

Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
If you were to say the phrase, “What is love?” to a certain generation of people, they would immediately think (or say or sing), “Baby, don’t hurt me,” and would, if not too beyond the pale, probably start bobbing their head side to side (and even if they couldn’t, they would want to).  It’s almost a conditioned response, like Pavlov’s dog drooling when a bell rings.
Today Jesus gives us the two greatest commandments, and they both focus on love.  The greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind.  The second commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves.  In both of these cases, we are called to love.  This makes perfect sense, as, if we look at the object in all Ten Commandments that God gave to Moses, the first three deal with love of God (thou shalt not have other gods besides me; thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; and the Sabbath rest), while the other seven deal with love of neighbor (Honor thy father and mother; thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not commit adultery; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not bear false witness; thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife or thy neighbor’s goods).  
In theory, love is easy.  We all probably know that loving God is most important (especially because we’re here at Mass), and we know we need to love our neighbor.  In the theoretical realm we are with Jesus 100%.  But as it gets down to the nitty gritty, things can seem much more complicated.  We can truly start to wonder, “What is love?”
After all, we use the word for lots of things and people: I love my parents; I love my spouse; I love my siblings; I love my friends; I love pizza.  But if we love pizza in the same way we love our parents, something is off.  And if we love our friends in the same way we love our spouse, that tends to lead to trouble.  So love is not so clear a word to understand.
Love today often means a kind of respect for another person’s choices whatever they may be, as long as that person’s choices do not affect me personally.  Love seems to mean that anything goes, as long as person really desires something or someone, no matter what objective reality, or even the Church or Bible says.  People can try to rationalize all sorts of behavior by stating that God loves us, as if the love of God turns a blind eye to anything fallen or sinful.  People are very quick to say, as they’re rationalizing something contrary to Catholic faith or morality, “God loves me as I am,” to which I quickly respond, “But He loves you too much to leave you as you are.”  God’s love is a divinizing love; it is a love that seeks to make us like Himself, which means it is a love that calls us to reject all that is sinful and broken in us.  We cannot appeal to the love of God to support the killing of an elderly person in euthanasia; we cannot appeal to the love of God to support sex outside of marriage; we cannot appeal to the love of God to support doing that which is contrary to God’s law or the natural law.
And that divinizing love, because it is who God is, does not stop with God.  It begins with God, and the love we have for God has to be the most important, but to truly be the love of God, it also has to extend to our brothers and sisters.  St. John says it this way in his first letter, “whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.  […]whoever loves God must also love his brother.”  We are given a challenging example of that in our first reading: “‘You shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.  […] If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry.’”  Now, before you tune me out because you think I’m going to support one political party or another, let me make this clear: I am not supporting a Republican or Democratic Party platform.  The Church supports both the right to immigrate, as well as the right of states to legitimately limit immigration.  The following are quotes from Paragraph 2241 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent that they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. […]
Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption.  Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens. [emphasis original]



We can civilly discuss all day current policies in place in the United States.  But the key is whether or not our approach to immigrants is one based in love.  And as Catholics we should especially consider the plight of immigrants, even as we protect our own country, because the words from Exodus could very easily be changed to: You shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens from Italy, or Ireland, or Germany, or Poland.  If we can stand before the judgment seat of God with a clear conscience on the way we speak about and treat immigrants, and that it was based on love of God and neighbor, then we have nothing to fear.  But so often, our idea of love, whether it comes to immigrants, or to other moral issues, needs to be purified by the Word of God and the teachings of the Church, so that it truly reflects the love of God which seeks to make us like Himself.

16 October 2017

Invites, RSVPs, and Attendance

Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Ironically, as I was preparing for the homily this past week, I received an invitation in the mail for a wedding that is being celebrated in July.  Talk about the Word of God being active and alive!
With Facebook, there are more and more events to which we can be invited.  Sometimes there are still the paper invitations, especially with weddings, but I have seen more and more people go to online invitations for open houses, parties, and we use it on our parish Facebook page for different events happening in our parish.

An invitation is, firstly, a sign that we are important to the person doing the inviting.  I remember when I was helping to plan my ordination reception with my parents.  There were all the considerations about whom to invite.  Because you can’t only invite one second cousin.  If you invite one, you have to invite them all.  But sometimes you’re closer with some family members than with others.  So if we’re invited, it is a sign that we are important enough to get the invite.  And I think that’s one of the takeaways from the Gospel reading today: God considers each of us important enough to invite to His wedding feast.  That’s no small thing.  God wants each of us to share eternal life with him.  
Isaiah describes that wedding feast using the image of the mountain of the Lord.  There will be the best of foods and the best of wines.  The quality of the food and wine is so good that Isaiah does something common when something is too good for words: he repeats himself.  But beyond the food and wine, on the mountain of the Lord there is no more death, no more tears, and no more reproach (which is a word we don’t hear that much and means “the expression of disapproval or disappointment”).  The day of the mountain of the Lord is a day of rejoicing, because God has saved us.  And this reading is one of the suggested readings for funerals, because the mountain of the Lord should be the goal of our life, and it’s where we hope our loved ones go after death.
But, another takeaway from the Gospel is that not everyone RSVPs to the invitation in the affirmative.  There are people who decline the invite for things of lesser importance: farming, business, or even just ignoring the invite altogether.  Even though invited, they don’t give much weight to the relationship with the person who is inviting them to rejoice with him and his family.  And when there is more room for guests, because so many people have not accepted the invitation, the king invites others, some who are good, but even some who are bad.  Just because we are invited does not mean we go.  We have to choose to go to the wedding; simply having the invitation is not enough.
And lastly, Jesus talks about one of the guests not having the proper garments for a wedding.  Even though the king was glad to invite the good and bad alike, there were expectations about proper dress for the wedding.  And the one who did not have the proper garment was thrown out into the darkness, in the place of “wailing and grinding of teeth.”  When I hear those words about a garment, I immediately think of the words that I tell a child or adult at baptism: “you have become a new creation, and have clothed yourself in Christ.  See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity.  With your family and friends to help you by word and example, bring that dignity unstained into the everlasting life of heaven.”  We are told at our baptism, when we receive our invitation, that on the mountain of the Lord, at the Lord’s wedding feast, there is a proper clothing requirement, and that requirement is supposed to white to represent our purity from sin.  Reconciliation is, as it were, bleach, that, by God’s grace, washes clean our baptismal garment that we have soiled by our disobedience to God.
So often, evangelicals will ask the question, “Are you saved?”, and our Gospel helps us answer that question with a Catholic answer.  We were saved when we were baptized, when we accepted the invitation from Jesus to attend His wedding feast in heaven as we died with Christ in the waters of baptism that freed us from sin and made us children of God and members of the Church.  We are being saved as we, by the grace of God, try to keep our baptismal garment clean and daily act in such a way as to show that we want to attend the wedding at the end of time.  And we hope to be saved when we are invited to the banquet hall, with the proper wedding garment, and are able to rejoice with Jesus in the Kingdom of Heaven forever.  

Being baptized isn’t enough.  Baptism is the invitation to the wedding feast.  We have to respond to the invitation that Jesus extends to us each day of our life.  Because Jesus also says at the end of our Gospel, that, “‘Many are invited, but few are chosen.’”  Let’s not ignore this invitation, or act in such a way that shows that we have better things to do than to go attend the wedding feast of the Lamb.  Let us make our own the words that we hear at each Mass: “Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.”

09 October 2017

Department of Redundancy Department

Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sometimes hearing something a second time is just annoying.  How many times has a parent responded to a nagging or whining child who keeps bringing up the same issue, “I heard you the first time”?  Or sometimes we might hear deja vu all over again, which is saying the same thing twice, since deja vu colloquially means all over again.  Or, in seminary, if someone said something redundant, we would snarkily ask if he was from the Department of Redundancy Department.  
Today we hear a very similar parable twice: from Isaiah in the first reading and from Jesus in the Gospel.  But this is not Jesus being redundant; this is one of those times when someone says something twice in order to stress its importance.  And the chief priests and the elders of the people would have recognized the parable as Jesus told it.  They would know what it means.  
And for us, who have heard this story numerous times, we can probably intuit the meaning fairly easily.  But one point that is the basis for the entire parable, is to whom the vineyard belongs.  In Isaiah’s version, Isaiah talks about a friend who has a vineyard, who does all the work, but the fruit of his work is not what he expected.  In Jesus’ version, it is still a vineyard, but he talks about the people working it, rather than the fruit that is produced.  But in both cases, God is the clear owner of the vineyard.  It does not belong to Isaiah; it does not belong even to the tenants or the servants.  God owns the vineyard, and he expects it to produce proper fruit.
So often we can think of the Church, the Body of Christ, as ours.  In the proper context, we rightfully say that we, the People of God, are the Church.  But the body cannot do anything without a head; and Jesus is the head of the Church, while we are the other members.  We cannot do anything without Jesus.  Sometimes we think that the Church can teach whatever she wants.  But that’s only true if we are the owners of the vineyard.  If, instead, we are merely tenants, or those housed in the vineyard, than we don’t get to make decisions about the structure of the property, or what fruit we want to grow.  We only get to work in the vineyard.
Right now it is very popular to say that the Church needs to change her teaching to keep up with the times.  We should allow women to be priests; we should stop talking about homosexual acts as sinful; we should recognize homosexual marriage; we should let people get divorced and remarried without an annulment.  But that very approach betrays a lack of understanding about who owns the vineyard.  God has revealed to us, through Sacred Scripture and by the Holy Spirit guiding the Pope and the bishops in what they teach as to what we are to believe and how we are to live, what is His will for His vineyard, the Church.  We cannot change it, because the vineyard is not ours.  The Pope and the bishops cannot simply make up what we are to believe or how we are to live.  If they teach something contrary to what we call the Deposit of Faith, the body of beliefs that have been handed on to us from the apostles and their successors, then they can either be reprimanded, or sometimes even lose communion with the Church.  
But God doesn’t expect us to only guess what His plan is for His vineyard.  He has given us the prophets to tell us His will; He has given us Jesus who is the full revelation of the Father, who leads us into all truth; and He has given us the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, to help us to know what to believe and how we are to live.  Certainly there have been some bad tenants: there have been bad laypeople, bad priests, bad bishops, and even a few bad popes!  But God’s vineyard has remained intact.  And we have an unbroken line of consistent teaching from Old Testament through the New Testament right down to 2017.  

Sometimes that has put the Church against what is common or what is popular.  The Romans certainly didn’t want us to claim there is only one God, and that the emperor was not God; certainly there have been cases for over 2,000 years where it would have been much easier not to follow Jesus’ teaching on marriage and family life; Turkish and Arab Armies during different empires tried to invade Europe and supplant Christianity by force with Islam; France, the so-called eldest daughter of the Church tried to destroy the Church and supplant it during the French Revolution; the Mexican federal government and local American governments tried to make Catholicism illegal or irrelevant; Joseph Stalin famously wondered how many military divisions the pope has; and recently our own government has sought to make Catholic institutions provide services that are contrary to our faith.  And it would be easy to capitulate, to give up, and to simply go along with the culture.  But then we would be betraying the mandate of the owner of the vineyard, and we would risk having the vineyard leased to other tenants who will produce the right fruit.  Will we listen to the parables of the Lord’s vineyard?  Will we, as tenants, listen to the ones the Lord sends us so we know how to tend his vineyard?

01 October 2017

"Let your words teach and your actions speak"

Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
I think we have all been on one side or another of the following situation: a mother or father says to a child, “I need you to take out the trash, dear,” and the child says, “Ok,” and then some time passes, and the trash is not taken out because the child is playing a game, or watching tv, or doing something that he or she considers a little more important (and definitely more enjoyable) than taking out the trash.  That’s basically the same parable that Jesus gives today in the Gospel, and this parable is one to which we easily relate.
Talk, as is said, is cheap.  What really counts is actions.  We all know this.  If we loan someone money, and they keep telling us, “Oh yeah, I’ll get that to you by the end of the week,” but the weeks pass, and there is no reimbursement, we learn not to loan that person money.  Kids can sometimes get in trouble for not doing the chores they say they will but never seem to accomplish.  We can sometimes find out who our true friends are when we are in need and someone does or doesn’t stand by us.  What we say has exponentially more force when we follow it up by what we do.  St. Anthony of Padua said it this way: “Actions speak louder than words; let your words teach and your actions speak.  We are full of words but empty of action, and therefore are cursed by the Lord, since he himself cursed the fig tree when he found no fruit but only leaves.”  People say lots of things, but if they really want to make a difference, then those words need to be followed up by action.  The son in the Gospel who was praised was the one who originally said no, but did what the father wanted.
We have, in our life as Christians, said yes to the Lord on numerous occasions.  The minister of baptism says to parents,

You have asked to have your children baptized.  In doing so you are accepting the responsibility of training them in the practice of the faith.  It will be your duty to bring them up to keep God’s commandments as Christ taught us, by loving God and our neighbor.  Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking?

Parents say to God that they will raise their child or children in the faith.  And yet, how many times do we never see those parents again at Mass?  How many times do children, especially as they approach First Holy Communion, not know how to pray, either conversationally with God, or even our simple memorized prayers like the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be?  It is not uncommon, even for parents who send their children to a Catholic School, to think that they no longer have to worry about raising their children in the faith, and yet, my personal experience and so many studies have shown that when the faith is not lived out at home, even if the child attends a Catholic school, that child will abandon the practice of the faith.
Or if we look at another sacrament, the Sacrament of Confirmation.  In that sacrament, we are given more grace and power of the Holy Spirit to share our faith with others, and to live as witnesses to the faith that was, for most, professed for them in baptism.  But out of those who have been confirmed, who said to God that they want to accept the grace of the Holy Spirit, how many show that faith in their words and actions?  How many simply leave the majority of the practice of their faith at the doors of this church, so that their worship of God at Mass has no effect on the choices they make in their daily lives?  And that’s if people even continue to practice their faith after Confirmation.  The old cheesy joke about a pastor with a bat problem comes to mind: a young pastor has bats in the church.  He tries to kill them with a tennis racquet, but no luck; he tries an exterminator, but the bats keep coming back.  So he asks a neighboring, older pastor who previously had bats what to do.  The older pastor says, “I just confirmed my bats, and I never saw them in church again.”
The other temptation for us, as children of God, is to do what we probably all have done as kids.  When it came to our life at home, we have all probably said to ourselves ‘I’ll do my chores later when it’s more convenient.’  We have all also probably said to ourselves, ‘I’ll grow in my faith when I’m older.’  Whether it’s saying a rosary more frequently, saying daily prayers, going to an extra Mass or two during the week, or any other religious practice that we know is good, it can be very easy to say, “I’ll do that when I’m older or retired.”  And certainly sometimes our Mass time is not conducive to working people, since we start at 8:15 a.m.  But, I know we have more retired people in our parish than come to daily Mass.  It’s not a requirement, so I’m not saying you have to come, but how many of you have thought about daily Mass, and maybe even told God you would go more, but then don’t follow through?  It’s very easy for all of us, myself including, whether we’re in school, working, or retired, to promise God that we’re going to grow in our faith, and then not follow through, and so we keep saying that we’ll do it later.  But in reality, we never have later.  The future is never ours to own.  All we ever know is that we have today, and how we can live our faith in the present.

Today the Lord invites us to let our actions speak; to follow what we say by what we do.  May we all take seriously the admonition by St. John in his first letter, “let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth.”

27 September 2017

Backwards and Forwards

Anniversary of the Dedication of St. Pius X Church
Today we have the great joy of celebrating the Anniversary of the Dedication of St. Pius X Catholic Church.  We have the chance to exclaim with the psalmist, “How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord God of Hosts.”  This may seem odd that we would take a day to celebrate a building.  But as Catholics, we know that the material world has been redeemed in Christ and sanctified, and what is visible has become a way for the invisible to be communicated.  Bricks and mortar are no longer bricks and mortar, but are elements that remind us that each of us plays a role in building up the kingdom of God.

But how do Catholics view a church building?  While this sense has been lost by many, a church building is not about functionality.  Church buildings do not exist simply so that people can stay protected from the rain and snow, the heat and the cold.  Our church building is a temple for the True God, which points us back to the Temple that King Solomon built (we heard about that in our first reading today, and it was alluded to in the Gospel).  And that temple points us back to the Garden of Eden, the place of paradise where humanity and God could dwell in peace and harmony.  But it also looks forward to the heavenly Jerusalem, the temple not built by hands, eternal with God.
The temple was divided into different parts.  There were different courts, or areas where people could gather to pray.  Then there was the sanctuary, where the priests could go and offer sacrifices, some of which went to God, some of which went to the priest, and some of which were given back to the people.  Then there was the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary, where the High Priest could go, once a year on the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, and ask forgiveness for all the sins of the previous year.  
In our own church building, we have different areas.  We have the narthex, sometimes called the gathering space, where people are welcomed to the church each time they come to Mass.  This is the place where we can speak to each other and find out how each other has been since the last time we saw them.  Then we have the nave, the place where the pews and the choir are, the place where we have devotional candles set up.  This is the place of prayer, where our focus changes from talking to our neighbor to talking to God, the best friend of our soul, who rejoices with us in our joys, and comforts us in our sorrows.  Then there is our sanctuary, the raised area where the Word of God is proclaimed and the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross at Calvary is re-presented for us.  This is a place that is proper to the priest, but into which other commissioned extraordinary ministers of the Word and of Holy Communion, and servers are invited in during particular parts of the Mass to assist the priest.  And at the head of our sanctuary is the Tabernacle, the Seat of Mercy of God, which holds our reserve Blessed Sacrament.  Christ remains here with us, always interceding for forgiveness for our sins before God the Father.  
But our church also points back to the Garden of Eden.  No, this doesn’t mean we get to be naked in church; no one wants that!  But it is meant to be a place of peace and harmony with God.  In this building God speaks to us directly, as He spoke to Adam and Eve, helping us to know what His will is for us, both as a Church and as individuals.  God also feeds us, as He gave Adam and Eve every good food for their sustenance.  God gives us the Body and Blood of His Son, the bread of eternal life, which sustains our souls as we try to follow Jesus.  And in the center of this Garden of Eden is the tree of life, the Crucifix, from which we are able to receive eternal life because of the sacrifice of Jesus, the unblemished Lamb, whose Blood speaks more eloquently than that of Abel, the son of our first parents.  That is why the Crucifix plays such an important role in our faith and in our church: because it is the source of immortality for all who believe and unite their lives to it.
But our church also looks forward to heaven.  In fact, in the Mass, the veil that separates heaven and earth is pulled back, and we are able to anticipate here on earth the glory and peace of heaven.  As the Book of Revelation says, those who have been redeemed sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts” to God the Father and to the Lamb who was slain but lives.  We worship with all the angels and saints, of which our few statues, and in the future our icons, will remind us.  We see those here on earth who worship God, but we probably do not see the myriad, the thousands upon thousands of angels and saints who join with us in worshipping God.  In this church we also anticipate heaven we are also called to leave the fallen world behind, and so we are invited to “lift up our hearts” from the fallenness of our world to the perfection of heaven.  
That all sounds nice, but how does it affect us?  How does our understanding of the church building help us follow Jesus?  It changes the way we behave, the reason why we try to keep quiet in the nave, so that everyone can pray to God in the silence of our hearts; the reason why we don’t chew gum or drink coffee as if this were simply an auditorium.  But it also gives us a reason to return each week.  Who here doesn’t need a break from our fallen world?  Who here doesn’t want to have communion with God?  Who here doesn’t need time away from technology and the cacophony of sounds to have time with God in the silence?  I know I do!  And, as we have a chance to be refreshed by God, we can then better respond to our fallen world, and share the love and the truth that Jesus calls us to spread as He calls us His disciples.  

So while we celebrate a building today, we celebrate a place that prepares us for heaven, and allows us in our own time to taste a little of eternity.  And that is certainly good news for us, who need to hear God and be fed by Him.  And for that reason, we can all say, “How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord God of Hosts.”