26 June 2017

Do Not Fear

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time
What do we do when we’re afraid?  When we’re younger, we often try to hide underneath the blankets (sometimes even going into the fetal position because the blankets don’t quite cover everything from the tip of the head to the soles of our feet).  We might turn lights on to see what is there.  I’m sure night lights are still on sale and a popular buy for some children’s rooms.  We might run to a parent when we’re afraid, either as a child or as an adult.  I’m sure some parents here have been woken up in the middle of the night with a child crawling into their bed after a bad nightmare.  Some parents have received heart-wrenching phone calls from an adult child who is going through a difficult or traumatic time.  Fear is a very powerful force.

But Jesus today says not to fear three different times: “‘Fear no one’”; “‘do not be afraid…’”; and again “‘do not be afraid…’”.  In the first place he speaks about fear of someone concealing something, or a secret, or not being totally honest.  In the second place he speaks about fear of those who can attack our person.  And in the third place he talks about fearing about our physical needs.
Sometimes we can be afraid of speaking the truth.  We’re afraid of what someone might think, or maybe that if we speak out, someone will say something else about us.  Maybe we’re afraid about talking about Jesus.  Maybe we’re afraid because we worry that someone will think we’re a Jesus freak or a hyper-religious person.  To that fear, Jesus covers us with the blanket of His love, and says, “‘Fear no one.’”  In our first reading from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, Jeremiah was afraid of what the people would say about him because he was speaking the word of God.  He hears the whispering of those around him; he hears his so-called friends denouncing him to find fault with his message, which is not his message, but is a message from God.
Fear of those who can do physical harm is also easily understood.  Our bodies naturally put us in a fight or flight mode when we think someone might do us harm.  And certainly Jesus is not saying that we cannot defend ourselves.  But He is inviting us to trust in Him, even when we are threatened with bodily harm.  Because while the body is good, it is the soul that is the most important.  We can struggle with all sorts of bodily ailments, disfigurements, or disabilities, but our soul could be as strong as ever with God’s help.  If our soul is in a good place with God, then while our body can be tortured (either from enemies, or even just from old age or sickness), what others do to the body does not necessarily have any effect on what happens after we die, which is what we should be most concerned with.
Think about our brothers and sisters who are Catholic and Orthodox in the Middle East.  Some of them, especially in Syria, Iraq, and Egypt, go to Mass, and they must know that, given the terrorists in those countries, their church could be bombed or set on fire.  And yet they go to Mass.  Why?  Because they want Jesus; they want to hear the Word of God and receive the Body and Blood of Jesus in the Eucharist; because in some cases there, and in other places around the world, they only have Mass once a month, and it means that much to them.  But they are willing to risk life and limb to be connected with Jesus and spend time with him (and their Masses are often even longer than one hour!!).
Fear about our physical needs is also a tough fear to fight.  We know we need food, water, housing, and clothes to survive. But we are worried that we will not have enough.  Especially here in Flint, we are afraid that our water is not drinkable.  Those outside Flint don’t understand why at least some people, and maybe some here, are skeptical when the city or the State or the feds tell us that the water is fine to drink.  But we have been burned before.  So how can we trust in God to provide these things?  
We can trust in God to give us the gifts we need to work hard and contribute to society to the best of our ability, and receive as payment the money we need to take care of ourselves.  Certainly, we need to prioritize.  If we put cable TV ahead of a meal, or even fancy food ahead of the basic staples that we need to survive, then our priorities need to be rearranged.  While the cost of living has gone up, and maybe more than our wages, think back to your parents or your grandparents: so many of them were able to provide a good living on one income.  I’m not saying only one person should work, but I think our parents and grandparents prioritized better than we do (at least in general).  Our parents or grandparents probably didn’t take exotic trips every year for Spring Break, or have the newest gadgets.  But they put good food on the table, and often times they paid for a Catholic education.  There’s nothing wrong with Spring Break in Panama City Beach or having a gadget, but they should be placed behind other more important needs and wants.  And think about your parents or grandparents: maybe they didn’t have it all, but they never wanted for anything they needed.  And for those who had more, they often passed along their resources to those who legitimately could not work, or maybe just helped someone make it for a few weeks who had fallen on some hard times.  We also become the ways in which God takes care of all His children.  But no matter what, God cares for us, and knows what we need.

So we don’t need a blanket to hide us; we don’t need an LED lightbulb to illumine the darkness; we simply need God, and to trust in Him to help us not be afraid.  Talk to others about Jesus; work on having a strong soul; prioritize life with the truly important things at the top of the list.  With God, we need not be afraid.

19 June 2017

Spiritual Comfort Food

Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ
Probably each of us has a comfort food that we go to in times of distress or trial.  Sometimes it’s a particular recipe from a loved one, sometimes it’s just a type of food like homecoming or an ethnic cuisine.  It may betray my youth, but for me, pizza is definitely one of my comfort foods.  There’s nothing quite like a few greasy slices of bacon and pineapple pizza to make me feel good inside.

The Eucharist is, or should be, our spiritual comfort food.  It was prefigured by the manna in the wilderness that satisfied the Israelites in the desert for 40 years (which we heard about in our first reading).  Psalm 78, speaking about the deliverance from Egypt and the sojourn in the desert for 40 years was meant to be a reminder of this spiritual food as it said, “God rained manna upon them for food; grain from heaven he gave them.  Man ate the bread of the angels.”  The very popular Corpus Christi hymn, “Panis Angelicus” in fact means, “Angelic Bread” or “Bread of the Angels.”  
But the Eucharist is not simply a reminder.  St. Paul tells us that when we receive the Eucharist, we participate in the Body and Blood of Christ.  So many Catholics (a 2010 study by the Pew Forum put that number at 50%) do not believe that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, a cornerstone teaching of our faith.  And yet, we heard Jesus very clearly in our Gospel today: “‘Unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.’”  In order to share in the life of Jesus, we need to be connected to Jesus, and the best way that we can be connected with Jesus is by receiving His Body and Blood into ourselves in the Eucharist.  And our belief about what the Eucharist is changes the way we act.
During the Eucharistic Prayer, as the bread and wine become by Transubstantiation the Body and Blood of Jesus, we kneel.  We lower our bodies to express what is (hopefully) happening interiorly: the humbling of our souls as this miracle takes place.  Even before we get to Mass the Church asks us to refrain from any food and drink which is not water or medicine for 1 hour before we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, so that we may truly hunger for Jesus.  Some of you are old enough to remember a Communion fast which was much longer than just 1 hour!  But we try to prepare ourselves by not brining in coffee or juice to the church, by not chewing gum during Mass, and by doing our best to focus all our senses on Jesus who humbles Himself to become truly present under the appearance of bread and wine.  

The Church also asks us, based upon St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, to examine ourselves to see if we are in a state prepared to receive Holy Communion.  Does our life witness to what the Church teaches as true?  If not, if we find ourselves rejecting, either in thought or in deed, a major teaching of the Church, then we are asked to refrain from the Eucharist so that our communion with Jesus, which always means communion with His Mystical Body, the Church, may be real, and not lip service.
But besides the before of the Eucharist, there is also the after.  If we receive the Eucharist worthily, then it should transform our lives.  From time to time we may think, ‘If Jesus was walking this earth, then I would follow Him and live as a faithful disciple.’  Jesus does come to earth, especially through the Eucharist.  In fact, we don’t even need to have the separation of Him being outside of us that the Apostles and disciples experienced.  Jesus, in the Eucharist, enters into us so that we can be a faithful disciple.  The reception of the Eucharist is meant to have an affect on the way we live our lives.  It is meant to give us hope, give us strength, and help us to bring the gift of Jesus to those we encounter every day.  Maybe people who encounter us wouldn’t know exactly why we’re different, but could people recognize the difference in us after we receive the Eucharist?

Jesus promised at the Ascension that He would be with us always, even until the end of the age.  And He fulfills that promise in the Eucharist.  Do we prepare to receive our spiritual comfort food?  Do we examine our lives before receiving Holy Communion?  And does our reception of the Eucharist transform us to be more and more like Jesus each week?

16 June 2017

Communion Cannot Come through Facebook

Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity
One of the great blessings of technology is the ability to keep in touch with people that we would otherwise not see.  It can be notoriously difficult for priests to meet up with friends sometimes because of the nature of our vocation.  I have one friend who has lived in Ann Arbor for the past four years.  But even though we’ve been only 45 minutes to an hour away from each other, we’re generally doing pretty well if we can meet up twice a year.  So we rely on texting to catch up and see how each other’s doing.  Technology is certainly great for that.
Today we celebrate a communion of Divine Persons as we celebrate the Most Holy Trinity.  God is one.  But God is three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  How that works is beyond us.  Our finite minds cannot totally understand an infinite God.  But we do have some access to understand who God is.  God demonstrated His one-ness throughout the Old Testament.  The great prayer of faith of the Jews called the shema from Deuteronomy is: Adonai Elohim, Adonai ehad (The Lord is God, the Lord is one).  But in the New Testament, God also revealed that, while He is one, He is also Three Divine Persons, a communion of Persons, a communion of love.  That is why St. Paul can talk about Jesus as Lord (a reference to His divinity), and speak of the Holy Spirit in the same way that St. Paul speaks about God.  We hear that in the greeting at Mass, which comes from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”  The Holy Spirit is also on equal footing with God the Father and God the Son in the command to baptize that Jesus gives at the end of the Gospel according to Matthew: “[baptize] them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  
But even though the Trinity is based in Scripture, the Church has unpacked what it means to be one God and three Persons for two millennia.  In fact, the first term to speak about God’s three Persons was trias, a Greek word, used by Theophilus of Antioch in 180.  That word would later be translated into the Latin word trinitas, from which we get our English word Trinity, and was used by Tertullian who died in the early 3rd century.  Many of the first Ecumenical Councils starting in 325 were about how Jesus and the Holy Spirit are God.
But one of the great developments of Trinitarian theology is that God is a communion of Divine Persons.  His unity is not such that He is alone, but shares love between the Father and the Son, a love that pours all of the Person out (except His identity) to the other, a love so strong that it breathes forth (spirates is the technical theological term) the Person of the Holy Spirit, which doesn’t happen in a linear fashion, but has always been and always will be.
I brought up technology at the beginning of my homily because, as good as it is to help people keep in touch, it cannot create communion.  Communion can only happen in the presence of the other.  God the Father does not text God the Son.  Their outpouring of deep and abiding love does not happen by technology, and so neither can ours.  We can stay in touch with each other, but we do not have communion with each other by text, FaceTime, or SnapChat.  
We are created in the image and likeness of God, and so we also have a desire built within us to have communion with others.  This communion can be the communion of faith, the communion of family, the communion of husband and wife, and the communion of friends.  Each communion has its own rules and expressions of love, but they are all forms of communion.  And we all need these to be a happy, holy, and wholesome human being.  And this is where our challenge is as modern people, especially the young: we seek communion through technology, but we cannot find it there.  As good as texting my friend from Ann Arbor is, it doesn’t even come close to actually spending time with him.  
But if we don’t realize that technology doesn’t really fulfill that need, then we can put ourselves in a vicious circle or seeking communion in a way that will never give us communion.  Why do so many people (especially young people) act as if they’re glued to their phones?  Because they want communion, and they think staying in touch will meet that need, but they’re never quite satisfied.  It’s like setting up a treadmill at the starting line of a track meet.  Running is still happening, but you’re getting nowhere.  
Pornography is an even more evil expression of this phenomenon.  A man or woman desires the communion that is proper between a husband and wife.  But seeking it in a video with a stranger or strangers only mimics that communion, cheapens it, and in the end, does not fulfill the desire of the heart.  And so a man or woman can easily get sucked in to seeking communion when that communion can never come through pornography.
Technology is not inherently evil.  It does allow people to stay in touch and keep updated on each other’s lives.  But it never creates communion, and because we are created in the image of a Triune God, that’s what our hearts desire most of all.  
So how do we fill that need?  One way is time-tested: have a meal with each other.  Have a weekly family meal, or meals with friends.  Even the sacrifice of Jesus in the Mass is in the context of the Last Supper–a meal.  These are the ways that we find communion.  There are other ways, too, but simply by having a weekly or occasional meal, especially as a family, can satisfy that need for communion and keep us from trying to seek it in artificial ways.  Does it take a little more work than a text?  Yes, but love always takes a little more work than simply affection.  

Be who God has created you to be: a person created in His image and likeness; a person created for communion with Him and with others.

05 June 2017

Finish Strong!

Solemnity of Pentecost
In high school track I was a short distance runner.  I usually ran the 100m dash, 200m dash, 100m relay, and/or 200m relay.  I always said that as far as running went, if I wasn’t done in 26 seconds or less, something had gone horribly wrong.  But at one meet, perhaps because my track coach was a sadist, he asked me to run a 400m dash.  I had never run it before, never trained for it before, and had no desire to run it.  But, coach was telling me to run the event.  And how bad could it be?  It was only once around the track.
As the gun fired to start us, I tried to set a pace that I felt would make me competitive in the second heat.  Even though I wasn’t prepared for it, I didn’t want to lose and embarrass myself or my team.  So I pushed it.  After about 200m, I realized just how long 400m was as my legs started to ache.  The two things which were competing to win at that point were the fatigue in my muscles and my pride not to lose.  As I crossed the finish line, I think I got third.  What I remember more vividly was that my legs felt like jello, and I was sure I was going to fall down.  But, I had given it everything I had, and had finished strong.
Today, as we come to the end of our Easter Season and celebrate the Solemnity of Pentecost, we should want to finish strong.  Of course, we’re not totally done with life, but we are done with the Easter Season.  And we finish our Easter Season the way that the Apostles began their public ministry: with the gift of the Holy Spirit.

We hear about that gift in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, a story with which we are likely pretty familiar.  There is a great wind, and then the Holy Spirit appears over the heads of the apostles and disciples like tongues of fire.  Immediately the disciples are compelled to speak about Jesus and how He was raised from the dead and offers us new life in Him.
As Catholics we may be a little uncomfortable with the Holy Spirit.  God the Father is someone we’re familiar with, but we can often keep Him at arm’s length, since He seems so mysterious.  Jesus is someone with whom we’re much more familiar, we know the stories from His life, but even He can seem a little distant, since He is seated at the right hand of the Father.  But He tends to be the focus of most of our prayers.  But the Holy Spirit–that’s the one who seems to make things go out of control.  Maybe we’ve even seen people who claim to have the Holy Spirit and they do what we consider “weird” things like speaking in tongues or having the gift of prophecy.  Perhaps we’re not that comfortable with the Holy Spirit.
But we need not be afraid of the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is the one who continues the ministry of Jesus in the Church.  He does give some people special gifts like speaking in tongues, prophecy, healing, etc., but He also showers His gifts upon all believers.  And we hear about some of those gifts that we can experience in the Scriptures.
At the Vigil Mass the first reading was from Genesis, and was the Tower of Babel.  The people all want to get to God on their own terms, but God makes them speak all different languages.  The unity of the people is not based on God, but on becoming the masters of their destinies, and so they are scattered.  But in the story of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit helps the people to have access to God by hearing the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus spoken to them in their languages.  And we experience that in our own way today: our Gospel was proclaimed in Latin, the mother-tongue of our Latin Rite church, and some of our petitions this weekend will be proclaimed in the languages of our parishioners, including Malayalam (from India), Tagalog (from the Philippines), Spanish, German, Arabic, and Italian.  And while perhaps we don’t all understand all these languages, they reflect the diversity of our cultures, and yet the unity of the faith, because what we believe is the same, no matter in what language it is proclaimed.
The Holy Spirit also gives us each gifts to build up the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church.  We all have certain gifts to build up our parish, our diocese, and the universal Church that the Holy Spirit encourages us to use.  Some of us garden and do yard work, some teach, some cook, some comfort the sorrowing, some serve as Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion or Lectors.  I am sure that some of our parishioners, besides being called to these ministries, are also called in the future to a vocation to the priesthood or diaconate, or to consecrated life as a sister or nun.  

The question for us is whether or not we are willing to respond to the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit may lead us to new circumstances that are unfamiliar for us, just as the foreign lands to which the apostles went were unfamiliar to them.  But if it is the Holy Spirit calling us to them, then we know it is for the building of the Church and the spreading of the Gospel.  Do not be afraid of the Holy Spirit, but be open to His gifts, and then, with the courage the Holy Spirit gives us, use all that we have to continue to ministry of Jesus in the world!

30 May 2017

We're Already in Heaven

Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord
One of the priests at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, who is now a bishop, once said about homilies, “If it’s not worth stealing, it’s not worth using.”  So allow me to steal a little material later on in today’s homily that will help us enter in to today’s celebration of the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ.  After all, we can be tempted to remain at a superficial level about today’s solemnity.  We know that Jesus ascended, body and soul into heaven.  But, the next question easily becomes: so what? or who cares?  In all reality, what difference does it make if Jesus is in heaven?  Those are fair questions.
The difference that it makes is that we are, in one sense, already in heaven.  No, this isn’t heaven right here in Flint.  You probably don’t doubt that.  But here’s the thing: St. Paul reminds us that Christ is the head of the Body, the Church.  Our human nature is united to the one Person of Jesus.  Jesus even says at the end of today’s Gospel: “Behold, I am with you always,” and He can say that because we are united to Him through Baptism.  In that sense, all of us who have been united to Christ in Baptism by being united to His Mystical Body, the Church, are already in heaven, at least potentially speaking.  The Ascension celebrates the fact that in Christ, human nature has been given an even better place than the Garden of Eden; we have been given heaven.  That’s a big deal.

Heaven is our inheritance because it’s the inheritance of Jesus, the Son of God, for his obedience to God.  Christ, as St. Paul says, was obedient, even to the point of death, death on a cross, and His obedience was what allowed Him to pass from death to life, and open that new life for us.  Heaven is the one million dollar inheritance that our rich ancestor leaves us.
But, we have to receive that gift.  Jesus does not force that inheritance upon us.  He reigns as King at the right hand of the Father, but does not force us to be a part of His kingdom.  We have to be open to that gift, and the way that we show that we are open to the gift is by the way we live our life.  Our obedience to Christ on earth does not earn us heaven.  We cannot earn it, any more than any other human could have earned it.  Only Christ could gain heaven for us.  And yet, we show that we want to receive our inheritance by the way we show that we’re disciples of Jesus in our words and deeds.
And this is where the stolen parts come in.  There is an ancient document from some time after Christ called the Letter to Diognetus.  Diognetus is one of those names that has fallen on hard times.  I don’t think you’ll find it in the top 500 of baby names.  But, the author of this letter beautifully writes:

[Christians] live in their own countries as though they were only passing through.  They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens.  Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign county.  […] They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh.  They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven.

The author of this letter reminds us that our homeland is not here.  We are only passing through this world.  It can be so tempting to live as if this is all there is.  We try to make our decisions to have as good as a life as we can on earth.  But do we pay attention to having a good life after we die?  Do we live so as to receive our inheritance?
And we should live this way because we try to live as if we’re in heaven.  It’s not easy, but if we want to live in heaven for ever, it helps to practice for it.  It’s like sports: to be ready for the game, we have to practice.  The more we live on earth like we’re in heaven, the more familiar heaven will hopefully be for us.  And the more familiar heaven is for us, the more that we show that heaven is what we want.
That’s why our way of life is (or should be) different as Catholics.  We may drink, but we don’t get drunk; we date and marry and have kids (well you do; I don’t), but our understanding of dating and marriage and children is not the world’s understanding; we work hard to make a living, but we don’t work as if making money is all there is to life.  We live differently because heaven is different.
And coming to Mass on Sundays is part of our practice.  Mass is a foretaste of heaven.  The Book of Revelation says that there is a fair amount of singing praise to the Lamb in heaven.  In heaven we spend our time worshipping God and being surrounded by His love.  We get a foretaste of that worship in the Mass, and we receive Love Himself in the Body and Blood of Jesus.  Mass helps to prepare us for heaven.  The less we come, the less we are prepared.  The less we are prepared, the less likely we are to actually be ready to go there.  

In Christ, our human nature is already in heaven.  That’s the joy of today’s celebration.  Our response is to try to be as ready as we can to be there with Jesus, not only in potential, but in actuality.  Prepare yourself for heaven.  Prepare yourself for the home Jesus has prepared for you.

22 May 2017

Catholic Super Powers

Sixth Sunday of Easter
It is likely not a surprise to anyone who attends St. Pius X Catholic School, that the principal, Mr. Kaplan, has a favorite superhero, and that superhero is Batman.  That’s a fine superhero, though, as I believe the TV show “The Big Bang Theory” pointed out, he’s a rich guy who works out a lot and has a lot of cool tech-toys.  So, as superheroes go, he’s not number one in my book.
Probably my favorite superhero would be Captain America.  I probably like him the best because I’m Captain America before he received the Super-Serum which gave him amazing strength, stamina, and intelligence.  He also has that special shield that is bullet proof and always seems to spin back to him like a boomerang.  For me, I’m just too lazy to do the work to give me a chiseled body like Captain America. 

I think most kids dream about being a super hero.  We all want to have a special ability that sets us apart from the rest.  Whether it’s Batman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, Storm, or any one else, we want to have special gifts that allow us to do special things.
What we hear in our readings today is that those who are baptized have received a special gift.  This gift doesn’t give you superhuman strength, a magical lasso, or the ability to control the weather.  The special gift, the special power we might say, is the gift of the Holy Spirit.  
Philip, in our first reading, went down to Samaria.  Philip is likely the Deacon who was appointed by the apostles as one of the first seven deacons.  Filled with the Holy Spirit from his baptism and his ordination, he does great signs, including curing those who were paralyzed or crippled.  After Philip baptizes people in Samaria, Peter and John, the apostles, give them a full outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which is the precursor to our celebration of the Sacrament of Confirmation.  
In the Gospel, Jesus also promises to send the Holy Spirit to the Apostles.  He will be another Advocate, another Person to plead their cause.  The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth, who will remain with the Apostles even after Jesus leaves earth.  The Holy Spirit will teach the Apostles all that they need to know.
The Holy Spirit, the Sprit of truth, continues to remain with the successors of the apostles.  The Holy Spirit protects the pope, the prince of the apostles, and the college or group of bishops, the other successors of the apostles, from teaching the Church anything that is false when it comes to what we should believe, or how we should live.  That is one exercise of special powers from the reception of the Holy Spirit.
Another exercise of special powers from the Holy Spirit is given to priests and bishops, and allows them to act in Persona Christi capitis, in the Person of Christ the Head, and allows them to exercise Jesus’ authority and power when it comes to the sacraments.  It is not by my own holiness, but only by the power of the Holy Spirit that I am able to perform the miracle of changing bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus.
But the special power of the Holy Spirit is not limited to the ordained.  It is not only deacons, priests, and bishops who receive special powers from the Holy Spirit, but every person who is baptized and confirmed.  What are those powers that all the baptized and confirmed receive?
We all have the ability to offer our lives as a priestly people (as Deacon Joe preached last week) to God the Father through Christ the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit.  That is no small power.  All the baptized and confirmed have access to God and to give Him the acceptable sacrifice of their lives, united with the bread and wine at Mass, and throughout the week.  
All the baptized and confirmed have the ability to avoid mortal sins, and to continue an unbroken relationship with God.  Mortal sin destroys in us the theological virtue of charity, and severs us from a saving a relationship with God, which can only normally be repaired through sacramental confession.  But because of our reception of the Holy Spirit, we are not doomed to fall into mortal sins.  We can reject Satan and his lies and temptations, and be faithful to God throughout our lives.  Fidelity to God is possible by the power of the Holy Spirit, and we all have the ability.
And those are just two exercises of the power of the Holy Spirit.  Everyone who is confirmed has received the sevenfold gift of the Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.  Some have the gift of healing, the gift of prophecy, the gift of speaking in tongues, and others, which are all given for the building up of the Church.  

We don’t have to be Captain America or Storm to have superpowers and to fight evil.  If we are baptized and confirmed, we have the power of the Holy Spirit to help us to fight evil and live as God called us to live.  

08 May 2017

It's Not What We Know, It's Who We Know

Fourth Sunday of Easter
We’ve probably all heard the saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”  I experienced that saying firsthand when I studied in Rome for 5 months as an undergraduate.  During  my time I met a monsignor who worked for the Roman Rota, the Supreme Court, as it were for the Catholic Church (though that analogy is not 100% accurate, as the pope is really the supreme judge).  He was also a chaplain for the local chapter of the Sovereign Military Order of the Knights of Malta, a chivalrous religious order that provides medical help in the name of the Church.  He  took me to different churches that I would have never known about, and certainly would not have been able to enter.  To be honest, it was pretty cool.
Msgr. (now-Bishop) Giuseppe Sciacca, me, and some of
my classmates from my semester in Rome
It may sound surprising, but when it comes to eternal salvation, it is also not what you know, but who you know.  No, not in the sense that if you’re best friends with this priest, or this religious sister, or this bishop, then you can do anything you want.  But it is true when it comes to Jesus.  Salvation is intimately connected with knowing who Jesus is, and having a relationship with Him.  We can know all sorts of facts about Jesus, we can even be able to repeat the Catechism word for word.  But that knowledge does not equate to salvation.  Even Satan knows about Jesus; in fact, Satan probably knows more about Jesus than we do.  But Satan does not know Jesus as it pertains to having friendship with Jesus.
Jesus Himself asserts that it’s all about knowing Him.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks about Himself as the “gate for the sheep.”  He is the one by whom the sheep (that is, we) enter into the verdant pastures that Psalm 23 spoke of in today’s Responsorial Psalm.  No one else is the gate: not Moses, not Mohammed, not Buddha, no one else.  If we wish to enter into heaven, we have to go through Jesus.
Now, I know what some of you are thinking: what about all the people who didn’t or don’t believe in Jesus, who don’t truly know Jesus?  We can talk about people who came before Jesus, who had no way of knowing about Him, and those who have come after Jesus, who maybe do or maybe don’t have access to knowing about Jesus.  What Scripture makes clear, both in today’s Gospel, as well as in Peter’s speech in another place in the Acts of the Apostles, is that there is no other name on earth by when people are saved other than the Most Holy Name of Jesus.  So anyone who is in heaven, and only God decides who is in heaven, is there only because of the one saving act of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection.  Jews are not saved by the Law of Moses (St. Paul makes that very clear); Muslims are not saved by following the Qur’an; Buddhists are not saved because they followed the path of enlightenment.  If they are in heaven, it is only through Jesus.
The Church also taught in Lumen gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Vatican II, and I will quote the section: “Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do his will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.”  So the Church teaches that is possible that those who are ignorant of Christ through no fault of their own, and who are seeking God and following, to the best of the ability, their conscience, that they be saved.  We don’t know if they’re saved, because the only way we know to receive the gift of salvation is to know Jesus and be in a relationship with Him, begun in Baptism.  But the key is that if any person is in heaven, they are only there because of Jesus.
This should be a catalyst for us not simply to know about Jesus, but to truly know Him.  It should move us to say, ‘Do I really know Jesus?’  Simply being baptized, or even receiving other sacraments, does not necessarily mean that we know Jesus.  We might know about Jesus, but do we know Him as well as we know our friends or our spouse?
It should also be a catalyst to tell others about Jesus.  Your co-worker’s salvation could depend on how well you help them to understand who Jesus is.  Your spouse’s salvation could depend on how well you have made the life of Jesus your own and live it in your marriage.  Your classmate or friend’s salvation could be aided by the fact that you help them to know Jesus and reflect that relational knowledge through what you say and do.  Is that easy?  No.  The cost of discipleship, of knowing Jesus, is very expensive.  But God is pulling for us and giving us what we need to know Jesus and to share that knowledge with others through His divine grace, which is given to us through the Sacraments.
This weekend our First Communicants will receive Jesus, the Gate to Heaven, in the Eucharist.  In this new way, they are receiving the help to have union with Jesus, to truly know Him, and not simply to know about Him.  They asked for His mercy on Saturday, which He readily grants to those who are sorry and who seek to make the life of Jesus their own in their own way.  And on Sunday, having been purified of the obstacles to His life, they then/now receive that life and love in Jesus’ Body and Blood.  What a beautiful gift for Jesus to spread the table of the Eucharist, the altar of life, before us as we gather in the house of the Lord, which anticipates the eternal temple of God, the heavenly Jerusalem, where God wants us to dwell for years to come!  And each week we are invited back to Mass, to get to know Jesus better, and then to make His life our own by the power of His grace.  

When it comes to eternal salvation, to being welcomed into heaven, it’s not what we know, it’s who we know.  Do we know the Good Shepherd, the One who is the Gate for the sheep, who came that we “might have life and have it more abundantly”?

04 May 2017

Pope of Carman Hills

Third Sunday of Easter
Sometimes people don’t quite get it.  This past Thursday I decided to go to the Powers Boys Lacrosse game.  They were playing at Davison.  While the first half wasn’t so great, Powers managed to get their offense going, and really did well on defense, and ended up winning 12-6.  At the end of the game, we all lined up to shake hands and say good game.  As I passed one of the Davison players and shook his hand, I heard him say as they passed me, “Dude, they brought their pope!”  Now, to be clear, I have no aspirations of being anything other than a parish priest.  But maybe if Fr. Tom Firestone can be the Pope of Flint, then I could be the Pope of Carman Hills!
The disciples in today’s Gospel were the ones who didn’t quite get it.  We’ve heard this Gospel passage before, and we’re probably quite familiar with it.  On Easter Sunday, the very day Jesus rose from the dead, two disciples, one of who was named Cleopas are walking away from Jerusalem.  They had heard Mary Magdalen tell the apostles that Jesus was risen from the dead, but they don’t believe her.  They figure all their hope that Jesus truly was the Messiah is hopeless.  And then this guy comes up to walk beside them, though they don’t recognize Him.  
As they walk, this guy talks about how the suffering of the Messiah was prophesied by the entire Old Testament, and He gives them the different passages that refer to the Messiah and how they were fulfilled.  As the two approach Emmaus, the guy acts like He’s going farther.  But they invite Him to stay with them, because it’s dark, and there would likely be robbers along the road.  So the guy stays with them, and says the blessing of the bread, breaks it, and gives it to them.  At that, “their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight.”  They then run back to tell the others that they, too, have seen the risen Lord.
Even though these two disciples had been with Jesus for some time, maybe even all three years, spending days and nights with Jesus, only rarely leaving His side, they didn’t quite get it.  They didn’t understand why the Messiah had to suffer and die, and they didn’t believe He rose from the dead.  It takes Jesus being present with them, opening up the Word of God, and especially the breaking of bread for them to recognize Him.
Do we quite get it?  Or do we walk through this world downcast, as if our hope in Jesus wasn’t worth much?  Do we live as if Jesus has not been raised from the dead?
In essence, the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus is a paradigm for the Mass.  Think about it: there’s a walk, we might call it a procession; the Lord is with them; the Word of God is opened up by Jesus; and then Jesus blesses bread, breaks it, and gives it to the disciples.  This should sound familiar, because it’s what happens at every Mass.  The priest, acting in the Person of Christ the Head, processes into the sanctuary; he says, “The Lord be with you;”  the Word of God is proclaimed from the Old Testament, New Testament, and is applied in the homily; then the priest, still acting in the Person of Christ the Head, changes the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the Eucharist is then given to those who follow Jesus in the one Church He established.  The Second Vatican Council says it this way: 

“[Christ] is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of His minister, ‘the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross’, but especially under the Eucharistic species.  […] He is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church.  He is presently, lastly, when the Church prays and sings, for He promised: ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them’.”  

Each Mass, and especially on Sunday, the first day of the week, the very day of the Resurrection, we might say we relive the road to Emmaus.  
But there is another part to the story which I didn’t mention.  After the encounter with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, the disciples run back to tell the others about Jesus being risen from the dead.  This encounter with Jesus changes them and they can’t help but talk about seeing Jesus.  Do we relive this part of Emmaus?  Does our encounter with Jesus so affect us that we want to tell others about Jesus, risen from the dead?
There has been a lot of ink spilled recently about encountering Jesus.  There are many programs and retreats that encourage such an encounter with Jesus, and many of them are good!  But the Mass is the pre-eminent place to encounter Jesus.  It is the place where we, most often, get to spend time with Jesus.  Yes, it’s the same basic format every week.  But this unchanging format allows us the opportunity to enter more deeply into the Mass, rather than remaining at a superficial level at all the stuff that is different.  

If we’re not encountering Jesus in the Mass, then why are we not?  Is Jesus holding Himself back?  Certainly not.  It isn’t all about feelings; we can encounter Jesus without having a gushy, emotional response.  But we should have some sense that we have spent time with Jesus.  And if we don’t, then maybe we haven’t brought our full attention to the Mass, or having been holding something back from Jesus.  Today we have the opportunity, as we do every Sunday and every time we come to Mass, to encounter Jesus walking with us, opening the Word of God for us, and giving Himself to us in the Eucharist.  Hopefully we are open so that the Mass will transform us as it transformed the disciples on the road to Emmaus.

10 April 2017

Homeward Bound

Easter Sunday
When I was in 8th grade my parents had me move down to the basement, which they had just partially finished.  My dad put up a wall and added a door.  That room was so nice, as during the summer it stayed a cool 60 degrees (we didn’t have air conditioning in our house; it was too expensive), and during the winter it was around 75 degrees, due to the fact that it was right next to the furnace.  Another great feature was that my parents had replaced their stereo system upstairs, complete with 2 tape decks, radio tuning, two speakers, and a record player, with a CD/Radio player, so the stereo system made its way into my room, along with the records that my dad had kept.  One of those records was Simon and Garfunkel: Concert in Central Park, which was recorded in September 1981, two years before I was born.  It has all the classics: “Mrs. Robinson,” “America,” “Scarborough Fair,” “Still Crazy After All These Years,” “Slip Slidin’ Away,” “Kodachrome,” “Bridge over Troubled Water,” “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover,” “The Boxer,” “The Sound of Silence,” and “Homeward Bound.”

“Homeward Bound” starts with the little guitar lick which is immediately recognizable.  If you know the song, you can probably hear it playing in your head right now.  And the refrain, for those who don’t know it, goes (I’ll speak the words): “Homeward bound, / I wish I was, / Homeward bound, / Home where my thought’s escaping, / Home where my music’s playing, / Home where my love lies waiting / Silently for me.”  It’s a beautiful song, with nice, crisp harmonies.  Maybe on your way home, load it up on iTunes or YouTube and give it a listen.
Today we celebrate that we can be Homeward Bound.  The Good News, the Gospel, is that home is now open for us, and we have a surefire way to get there: by Jesus.  Now, today a lot of people believe that everybody goes to heaven; hell is only for Hitler or Stalin.  And while heaven is pledged to us in baptism, baptism is not our “Get Out of Hell Free” card.  I hope everyone’s in heaven, but Jesus talks about getting there by a narrow way, so we do have some sense that maybe it’s not necessarily the default.  Nevertheless, we probably also think of heaven as always being open to humanity.  But it wasn’t.  Heaven was opened by the Death and Resurrection of Jesus after Adam and Eve closed the way by their sin.  It is the long-standing tradition of the Church that even all the good people of the Old Testament–Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, Moses, the prophets–all had to wait for Jesus to free them from the abode of the dead, which He did when He descended there while His body lay buried.  In fact, there is an ancient homily that talks about this.  It’s too long to give in its entirety, but a few passages will suffice:
[Jesus] goes to free the prisoner Adam and his fellow-prisoner Eve from their pains, he who is God, and Adam’s Son.
The Lord goes in to them holding his victorious weapon, his cross.  When Adam, the first created man, sees him, he strikes his breast in terror and calls out to all: “My Lord be with you all.”  And Christ in reply says to Adam: “And with your spirit.”  And grasping his hand he raises him up, saying, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.
“I am your God, who for your sake became your son, who for you and your descendants now speak and command with authority those in prison: Come forth, and those in darkness: Have light, and those sleep: Rise.
“I command you: Awake, sleeper, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld.  Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead.  Arise, O man, work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image.  Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person.”

Jesus takes Adam and Eve, and all the just, home to heaven.
And that is what Jesus offers us today, if we believe in Him, and follow Him, and seek what is above.  It is as if the Old Testament patriarchs and matriarchs were waiting at the door of their home, but they did not have the key.  Jesus Himself opened the door, and welcomed them to the place He had prepared for them, and they had accepted by their lives.  The door remains unlocked, and Jesus desires to open it to us, if we decide that heaven is the home we desire.
It was always good to be home after school, after track or soccer or play practice.  It is nice to be home after work; to take it easy, to eat home-cooked food, to be in a place of relaxation.  By His Resurrection, Jesus gave us the opportunity to be in our heavenly home after we die, if we live for Him.  Do not dally in preparing to go home; do not wait until the last minute.  Be like St. John, the beloved disciple, in living a life that hurries toward heaven, as John hurried toward the tomb.  Do not be distracted by the many passing joys that are along the side of the road and off the beaten path.  Live in a way that prepares you for the gift of heaven, our home.

Because heaven is the place where we can escape from this exile and have our thoughts on God; heaven is the place where angelic music plays as we worship God; heaven is the place where God, the ultimate love of our hearts is waiting silently to welcome us into His peace.  Be homeward bound.

Too Good To Be True...But It Is

Easter Vigil
There are more movies than I can count where the ending seems too good to be true: the awkward guy gets the gorgeous girl; the bomb is defused in the last second before it explodes; the lies of the villain are exposed and the persecuted hero is vindicated.  We’ve all seen it in movies, we’ve all read it in books.  But when it comes to real life, very rarely do those things happen.  Life, it seems is more tragic than fiction could ever create.
But tonight is not an example of tragedy.  Tonight, in fact, is when we celebrate something that is too good to be true, but is true, nonetheless.  No one, save perhaps the Blessed Mother, would have dared to hope that Jesus would rise from the dead.  Even the holy women who went to the tomb, weren’t going because they thought Jesus might rise.  They were going to complete the mourning rites which had to be suspended due to the celebration of Passover on the previous Friday night and Saturday.  In fact, none of the disciples can believe the news that Jesus rose from the dead until they see Him and recognize Him.
All of our Old Testament readings from Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah, and Ezekiel were all examples of stories that looked like they were going to have a happy ending, but didn’t.  Adam and Eve are created by God as the crowning of His creation; they are made in the image and likeness of God.  Yet, as the story continues, we know that they disobey God and put mankind on a trajectory of pain, suffering, and death.  
The Chosen People are doubting God as the Egyptians grow closer.  Then God, through Moses, splits the Red Sea in two and they pass through it, even as the water closes in on the Egyptians who follow and destroys Pharaoh’s army.  But, we all know that story.  Not long after they sing their song of freedom, which was sung by our choir after the reading from Exodus, they once again doubt God, and worship false gods.
Isaiah and Ezekiel both prophesy about a time when Israel will be restored to glory, when God will shower His love upon them and give them a new heart and new life.  God promises to take care of Israel, give them peace, and forgive them of their sins for the sake of His Name.  But even after the Israelites return to the Promised Land from their exile in Babylon, after they realize that they were sent away because of their infidelity to God, they still turn away from God, and eventually lose their land and their sovereignty to the pagan Romans.  All of those Old Testament stories have so much potential, so much build up, but never seem to come to the desired climax.
But not so tonight.  Not so with the Resurrection.  This is the night when the good ending finally happens.  This is the night when evil and darkness are conquered, once for all, and good and light win the day.  This is the night which “sets Christian believers apart from worldly vices and from the gloom of sin, leading them to grace and joining them to his holy ones.  This is the night, when Christ broke the prison-bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld.”  Tonight we celebrate that we are not relegated to tragic endings, to falling into sin and darkness.  Tonight we participate in and God renews in us the truth that in Him we can thrive and succeed.
And that new life in Christ, made possible by the Resurrection, will be imparted through the waters of Baptism, which Christ Himself makes holy, to Alexis, Brooklyn, and Camryn.  They will put on Christ and have the opportunity to live a life free of grave sin, free of separation from God, free from Satan.  
The new life of Christ will also be perfected in Christine as she makes her profession of faith and as she and Alexis are confirmed and receive the Eucharist for the first time.  They will be strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit not only to claim that new life for themselves, but also to share it with those they meet by word and example.  And for those of us who are baptized, for those of us who are confirmed, we, too, have that new life of Christ in us, and tonight we can start afresh in living that new life.  

Tonight, as we come to the empty tomb of Christ to worship Jesus and His Resurrection, leave at the tomb all that is not of God.  Do not be afraid to place all your sins, your worries, your fallenness at the place of death, and walk away tonight with the Risen Christ, who offers to us the best ending that we could ever imagine: the new life of the Resurrection.