30 November 2020

A Pilgrimage to Bethlehem

 

Manger Square
First Sunday of Advent
    One of the great blessings in my life is that I have been to the Holy Land three times: once as a seminarian, and twice as a priest.  And while the climax of the trip is the visit to the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus died, was buried, and rose from the dead, also one of the major stops is the Church of the Nativity of the Lord.  Like a lot of other holy sites, a church was built in Bethlehem at the site of the Lord’s birth during the reign of Emperor Constantine, after his mother, St. Helena, had traveled to the holy sites.  Like other churches built during that time, it was destroyed.  But, a new church was built, around 529.  Unlike other churches, that same church structure from 529, though built up with additions, still remains.  As we were told, one reason why this church survived where others didn’t was because when the Persians attacked in 614, they spared this church alone, because above the church entrance were three Persian-dressed men.  It’s important to recall that, at the Epiphany, we celebrate Magi, wise men from the east.  And what is east of Judea?  Persia.  
    The Church of the Nativity has always been busy each time I went.  You enter through a door that makes you bend over to enter, called the “Door of Humility,” since you have to lower yourself to enter.  Then, as the antechamber opens up to the main nave of the basilica, you see how long the line is, and how long it will take you to wait in line to see the place where Jesus was born.  As a seminarian, I think I waited two hours or so.  This last time I went, I think I only had to wait 45 minutes.  
Door of Humility
    The line leads to a descending stair case, again, where one has to bow down to go through the archway above the opening, towards the Grotto of the Nativity, where Jesus was born.  At the location, in a small chapel, there is a silver star surrounded with a Latin inscription: Hic De Maria Virgine Maria Jesus Christus Natus Est, which means, Here, of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ was Born.  Across from there is the Grotto of the Manger, where Mary laid Jesus down to sleep after giving birth.  
    Why do I mention this church and my experiences?  Not only to highlight that it’s my intent to lead another pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2022, but because I remember that wait.  At first you start praying, maybe a rosary, especially the third joyful mystery of the Nativity of the Lord.  And you’re trying to stay quiet (because otherwise the Orthodox monks will shush you), but eventually you want to talk a little bit.  There’s lots to see as you wait, as some of the columns still have saints painted on them.  There are mosaics from earlier times beneath the current floor, which you can see through plexiglass-covered openings in the floor.  Everyone wants to get in as soon as possible, so the idea of the line is basically morphed into a clump of people as you get closer (which does get precarious on uneven and semi-circularly shaped descending stairs).  There are icons everywhere, as most of the Church is controlled by the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.  And the smells oscillate between the beautiful aroma of incense which is used in the Orthodox prayers, and the less than beautiful scent of BO of pilgrims who have been in the heat, or from other cultures who may have other approaches to deodorant.  But, through it all, you’re waiting to get to the cave, the niche where Jesus was born (we Latins tend to think of the creche, due to St. Francis of Assisi).  
Place where Jesus was born
    

So this Advent, we’re on our way to the cave.  We’re waiting, not only for our celebration of Christmas, but for Jesus to return, not as a babe but as a victorious King.  Jesus tells us to watch, because we don’t know when it will happen.  As we go on our way to Bethlehem, our celebration of Christmas, the first step in is always humility.  We cannot make our way to the cave, to Jesus’ birth, unless we humble ourselves before God.  If we try to get there with our pride, we won’t be able to enter in to encounter God.
    There will be times, on our way to the cave, when we know we want to pray, and there will be times when we are tempted to stop watching and waiting, and put our minds on something else.  As we go our minds will sometimes be lifted with the smoke of the incense into the heavens.  And sometimes we’ll be brought quickly back to earth by smells that are all to earthly, and not divine.  
    On our way to the cave, it’s important to recognize, as we heard the Prophet Isaiah say in our first reason, that part of the reason we don’t watch so well is because of our sins.  We miss seeing God because our sins have grabbed our attention.  So let’s confess our sins to the Lord, and ask for His mercy, confident in His love for us.  And having received the mercy of God, may we, with St. Paul, give thanks to God, who has given us His grace to become more and more like Him, who became like us in all things but sin.  
    Today we start our pilgrimage to Bethlehem.  Our path is humility, prayer, contrition, and patience.  It may take us a while, sometimes it may seem like a very long time, but we’ll get there.  And if we are ready, watchful in prayer, then as we celebrate God-with-us at Christmas, and as we watch and wait for Jesus to return, we will find such joy at seeing the star, Jesus, the Morning Star, who will return to inaugurate the day that never ends.  Venite, adoremus–Come, let us adore!

Nave of the Church of the Nativity


23 November 2020

Jesus' Crown

 Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

     Some time back I got into watching “The Crown,” a Netflix series which dramatizes the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, starting with right before she ascended the throne.  Season 4 just came out, and it only took me a couple of days to watch the 10 episodes.  This season especially covers the story of Prince Charles and Princess Diana–how they met, their courtship, and the beginning of their rocky marriage.  Season 4 ends before they get divorced, so there’ll be more to come next year in Season 5.
    To be fair, this is a drama series, not a documentary, so, as a fellow priest pointed out after watching the latest season, there are things which certainly were exaggerated or added for cinematic purposes.  But, whether exaggerated or not, what came through in Season 4 was how selfish both Prince Charles and Princess Diana were.  I don’t want to give away too much, but in the episodes, throughout their rocky marriage, it was clear that each wanted to be the most important in the relationship and wanted the other to have a supporting role, which is not the best approach for marriage.
    When we think of queens, kings, princes, and princesses, we tend to think of power.  Indeed, we tend to view everything as an exercise of power these days.  Modern political and social thought has cast everything in the light of who has power, who should have power, and how more power can be gained by this or that group or cause.  So perhaps this idea of power struggle has bled its way into our minds as we approach this Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, our last Sunday in Ordinary Time, which we celebrate today.  
    But what does Jesus show us time and time again about His reign?  Not that He doesn’t have power.  In fact, Jesus says at the end of the Gospel according to Matthew, right before Jesus ascends into heaven, “‘All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.’”  It’s not as if Jesus has any equals when it comes to His power, any more than my legos as a child were in a power struggle with me.  But Jesus doesn’t use this power as a display of might, but as a commitment of service.  Jesus’ kingship is about doing the will of His Father, and helping us to reign with Jesus.  Everything Jesus did on earth and does in heaven is done with the goal of helping us to get to heaven and be in communion with the Most Blessed Trinity.  This approach a far cry from the self-centered, despotic uses of power that we are most accustomed to these days.
    Yes, Jesus’ power gives Him the right to judge the world at its end, to separate the sheep and the goats.  But Jesus uses this parable to teach us how we are to use the power Jesus shares with us, as we are baptized into him and become prophet, priest, and yes, king.  Jesus shows us that our use of power has to be the same as His, has to be one of service, especially to those who have nothing.  
    And that’s what we see from the saintly royals in the history of the church.  We just celebrated two royal saints last week: St. Margaret of Scotland, and St. Elizabeth of Hungary.  St. Elizabeth was a Hungarian princess, who was married at the age of 14, widowed at age 20, and died at age 24.  After her husband died, she made sure her children were taken care of, and quickly used her power and especially her money to build a hospital where she served the sick.  She gave up her royal trappings in order to serve.  St. Margaret of Scotland was an English princess who became Queen of Scotland.  She helped her husband grow in faith, served orphans and the poor every day before she ate, and washed the feet of the poor, in addition to her own daily habits of prayer.  She saw her position and power as an opportunity to show others the love of Christ, rather than lording it over them.  
    So for us, who have the baptismal dignity of kings because we are part of the Mystical Body of Christ, who is Himself King of kings and Lord of lords, how do we exercise that power that Jesus has given us?  How do we exercise control over ourselves, most importantly, and, when part of our life, over others?  Is it for self-aggrandizement?  Is it to make sure others know who’s the boss?  Or is it to assist others to be the best that they can be, to serve them so that they can more easily continue on the pilgrim route to heaven?  
    So often we think that, if we have power, others need to focus on us and tend to our needs.  But the truth, as is so often the case in the Gospel, is that, for followers of Jesus, that’s the exact opposite of the way it should be.  Just as it sounds backwards to say that the poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers, those who hunger and thirst for justice, and those who mourn are truly blessed, so for those who have power, it is meant to be exercised in a way that focuses not on the self, but on the other.  If we use our power to serve, we probably won’t get a crown of gold with diamonds, rubies, and emeralds, but we will get an eternal crown that does not rust or tarnish, with jewels that are the evidence of whom we chose to serve.  And that sounds like “the crown” that we would want.


16 November 2020

Confidence of a Quarterback


 Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

    When reading this Scripture for this weekend’s Mass, my mind went back to a high school football game some years ago, back when I was a priest in East Lansing.  I stood on the sidelines with the Lansing Catholic varsity team.  As I recall, we were winning, but it was a somewhat close game.  Cooper Rush, our quarterback, went back to pass to our wide receiver, Matt Macksood.  The pass was thrown to the back corner of the end zone.  Matt caught the ball, but there was some question as to whether or not the pass was completed inbounds.  The two officials who were closest were looking back and forth at each other, waiting for the other to make the call.  I had been watching the play intently, including Matt’s feet, making sure that at least one foot made contact with the end zone before he stepped out, and knew that it was good.  So I threw up my arms in the signal for a touchdown.  The two officials looked at me (I’m sure they noticed I was a priest) saw my arms held up, and then both signaled that it was a good catch and a touchdown.  After all, priests don’t lie, so I could be trusted to make the right call, right?!?
    Cooper threw the ball where only Matt could catch it.  It was going to be close, but Cooper had confidence that Matt would do everything he could to secure the pass in bounds and keep Lansing Catholic on the road to victory.  That’s the sort of confidence that a quarterback and a wide receiver have to have in each other, even if that confidence is not always rewarded with completions.
    This morning we heard the all-too-familiar Gospel passage of the talents.  This is often where the priest or deacon will preach on using our gifts and talents that God has given us well, not burying them.  Or maybe he will talk about stewardship and its importance in our personal and faith lives.  And those are both good topics for homilies.  But this morning I want to focus on the attitude of the servants who were entrusted with the talents to their master.
    The first two servants had confidence in their relationship with their master.  How do I know this?  They were willing to take a risk in order to make the master happy.  Any risk means that things could go horribly wrong.  When you try to invest money, there’s always a risk that you won’t make money, but lose money (just ask my portfolio, especially between March and June).  But they had confidence in their relationship with the master and knew that he wanted a return on his investment in them, which was worth the risk of losing it all.
    The third servant, though, also knew that the master wanted a return, but was afraid of losing money for the master, so he buried his talent.  His relationship with the master was one of fear.  And that fear even blinded him to the possibility of putting the money in the bank to get some interest.  He was not confident in his relationship with his master.
    What is our approach to God?  Are we confident in our relationship with Him?  Or do we live in fear?  We can talk about the fear of the Lord (in fact we heard in our psalm response, “Blessed are those who fear the Lord”), which is a gift of the Holy Spirit, but that fear is not servile fear, but respect for that fact that God is God and we are not His equals.  But at the same time, we are beloved sons and daughters in the Son of God.  We are not slaves, but friends of God.  And that friendship with God should give us a certain confidence.  We shouldn’t have arrogance (that’s when we lack the proper fear of the Lord), but confidence in God’s love for us, which allows us to take risk so that we can please the Lord and spread His love and truth.  It’s as J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door.  You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”  Confidence allows us to go places we might never imagine.
    That sort of courage to spread the Gospel only comes when we have confidence in our relationship with God.  It does mean that we are willing to take a chance in order to deepen our relationship with God and share it with others.  Sometimes it takes us places where we don’t expect.  It took me to Adrian, a small town on the way to nowhere, but where I fell deeply in love with the people and the community there.  It took me here to Flint.  Before I came here, I’ll be honest that Flint was probably not on my list of places to live.  But I love being here, I love you, my parishioners, and I love serving to try to make Flint better.  I had confidence that God wouldn’t take me anywhere where He couldn’t do some good, and I try to continue to respond to His will as best as I know it and as best as I can.  
    How is your relationship with God?  Do you fear God as a slave?  Or do you have confidence in what God can do with you, and will be pleased with the risks you take to serve Him in love?  Trust in Him; have confidence in His love for you; and you’ll do better than scoring a touchdown.

03 November 2020

No Participation Trophies for Heaven

Solemnity of All Saints
    There are those who, when looking at a difficult task, think, ‘That’s so easy, anyone can do it!’  And there are those who, when looking at a difficult task, think, ‘There’s no way I’m going to be able to do this, and I don’t see how anyone could!’  I probably tend towards the latter.  I remember when I was training to run the CRIM in 2019: I had previously thought that there was no way that I was going to be able to run 10 miles; and when I was training, running circles around this parking lot, I still wasn’t sure if I could do it.  But, sure enough, on a relatively cool August day in 2019, urged on by Tommy Rinoldo, one of our seventh grade students here at the school who decided to run, I put one foot in front of the other with my iTunes exercise mix playing in my ears, and I completed the race, even finishing faster than I thought I could.
    Holiness, sanctity, being a saint, or, as the Powers students learned this year, hagiasmos, is often viewed in one of two ways.  We may think: everybody’s in heaven!  You’d have to be Hitler to go to Hell, so very few people have anything to worry about; it’s a shoe-in!  Or we may think: I’m not like St. So-and-so, so I can never get to heaven.  Probably the more popular approach right now is thinking that everybody goes to heaven, as long as they’re not Hitler.
    Honestly, I think that approach, in its own way, cheapens heaven.  If basically everybody goes to heaven unless you commit genocide, it makes heaven not seem like such a big deal.  It’s the participation trophy ideal making its way into our afterlife.  Participation trophies are nice, and I use that word “nice” on purpose, because you are commended for trying, and sometimes trying does take a lot.  But winning is better, and losing is worse.  No matter how you dress it up or try to ignore it, that’s a fact.  If you doubt it, ask the Wolverines how they feel about losing to the Spartans this weekend.  And the Wolverines wouldn’t want they’re own Paul Bunyan trophy simply for playing the game. 
    But, I would also caution us against the view that making it to heaven is like the odds of a high school athlete eventually getting signed to an NFL team.  One study puts that number at 0.08 percent.  That’s .0008 people out of every hundred people, or 8 out of every hundred thousand people.  If my dream were to play in the NFL, that stat would kill my dream. 
    Heaven is difficult to enter.  Jesus says that we get there by a narrow road, not a wide one.  Or, to put it in a cheeky manner, the fact that there’s a stairway to heaven but a highway to hell should tell us something about the number of people expected in either direction.  Heaven is not a default that we slide into by not doing anything horrendously wrong.  But it’s not only for some elite group of people.  Heaven is what God wants for everyone, and God is constantly working to help us get there.  It’s possible for each and every person here, if we cooperate with God’s grace.
    And to prove it, I want to focus on two saintly people.  Both of these people are blessed, that is, one stop short of being a canonized saint.  But it’s a safe bet they’re in heaven, even if they don’t yet have the miracle for the official designation.
  

Bl. Carlo Acutis
The first is Carlo Acutis.  He was beatified this past 10 October, after dying at the age of 15 in 2006 from leukemia.  He liked joking around, and making people laugh.  He loved playing soccer and video games.  His will-power was not so great when it came to Nutella or gelato.  He didn’t give in to those desires all the time; he knew he had to control himself, but he didn’t pretend that he couldn’t like soccer or video games.  His was a simple path of holiness.  He bought a sleeping bag for a poor person he met.  Even though he lived a comfortable life, he did his best to make less work for the people who cleaned his house.  He created a website that tracked Eucharistic miracles around the world.  And in 2006, when diagnosed with leukemia, he was noted to say: “I offer to the Lord the sufferings that I will have to undergo for the Pope and for the Church, so as not to have to be in Purgatory and be able to go directly to heaven.”  He knew responding to God’s grace could be tough, but he was in it to win it.  And now he’s one miracle away from being venerated around the world as a canonized saint. 
    The second was just beatified yesterday, and he is Fr. Michael J. McGivney.  He is the founder of the Knights of Columbus, a fraternal organization that Fr. McGivney founded to assist immigrants and their families with insurance policies in case a member of their family died.  He was born in 1852, the eldest of 13 children, six of whom died in infancy or at a young age.  As a man who had to work at the age of 13 to help support his family, he knew how difficult life could be.  And that life only became more difficult if one of the working family members died, which Fr. McGivney’s own father did in 1873 when Michael was away at seminary.  Seminary was put on hold for a time while Michael earned enough to support his family.  The Knights started small, in his parish in New Haven, Connecticut.  But it is now the world’s largest Catholic fraternal organization.  In 2019, the Knights donated $187 million and 77 million hours of charitable work.  They assist in defending life, especially the infant in the womb, but have also done great work in Iraq to help families who have lost everything through war and poverty.  They are great promoters of the parish, and also raise money each year to assist the mentally handicapped.  Fr. McGivney probably never imagined the scope his work would have, but he did what he could, for whom he could, when he could.
Bl. Michael J. McGivney
    And that’s our ticket to going to heaven.  It is tough; I’m not going to lie.  God’s grace often seems less attractive, especially in youth, and the highway to hell sounds like a ride with more fun.  But if we do all we can, by God’s grace, each day, taking little steps, not worrying about the distance, then we can get there.  It’s not impossible. 
    Today we celebrate all saints, all those who are in heaven.  If we haven’t before, let’s commit ourselves to be saints now, to run the race that is before us, disciplining our bodies, minds, and souls to win the prize of eternal life.  It’s not impossible, but it’s not possible without God’s grace and our effort.  Heaven doesn’t hand out participation trophies, so let’s do whatever we can to be champions in our life of Christ!

26 October 2020

The Gospel according to "Saved by the Bell"?

Kelly Kapowski & Zack Morris
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
    Last weekend, Deacon Dave gave a great homily on our call to take care of what God has given us, especially human life in all its stages.  A lot of times, when we think about caring for human life, we think of our opposition to abortion, or of caring for mothers who are carrying a child in their womb, or of making sure that the elderly are not euthanized.  But, Deacon Dave last week reminded us, and our readings today also remind us, of another aspect of caring for our fellow brothers and sisters: our care for the poor and marginalized.
    It’s ironic, because last Saturday morning I was watching “Saved by the Bell,” which was a favorite TV show of mine in middle and high school.  I am a little ashamed to admit that, when I was in middle school I hoped my high school experience at Lansing Catholic would be like that at Bayside High.  I am not as ashamed to admit that I also liked watching “Saved by the Bell” because I had a crush on Kelly Kapowski, one of the lead female characters.  In any case, last Saturday’s episodes that I saw were a two-part Christmas episode where Zack Morris, the leading male character, meets an attractive young woman working at the mall, and he wants to date her, and then meets a homeless man in the mall bathroom.  It turns out the man and the young woman are father and daughter.  Zack is alerted to some of his stereotypes regarding homeless people, and does his best to help this family and give them a merry Christmas.  It was a good lead-up to today’s Gospel and first reading.
    Jesus in the Gospel today reminds us that, not only are we to love God, but we are also to love our neighbor.  And the Lord tells the Chosen People through Moses that loving their neighbor means not mistreating aliens (a word that is not popular today but just means “a person from another place”); taking care of widows and orphans (who, in that day, did not have social security or welfare to sustain them; they were totally reliant on the community for their survival); and caring in general for the poor.  We, as followers of Jesus, are held to this same standard, and are called as part of our care for human life, to do our best to care for the poor and marginalized.
    In the “Saved by the Bell” episode, the producers did a great job of pointing out that the homeless are not homogenous in their circumstances.  The father in the episode had been a computer programmer, and had been laid off by his company.  He tried to find work, even traveling to a different State, but couldn’t get a job.  I think often times we say, “the poor,” and consider them all the same.  But there are different types of poverty, even within the category of financial poverty.
    Caring for the poor can be difficult, because I believe that all of us want to help the poor, but we may not know how, and we may wonder about the person’s particular circumstances.  Or maybe we feel that it’s the government’s place to care for the needs of all the poor, so that the poor will leave us alone.  But we need to encounter the poor so that we can recall that they are human, created in the image and likeness of God, just as we are.
    Still, there are different needs.  One person can be poor because he has a disability that does not allow him to work.  Another person can be poor because she lost her job and doesn’t have any savings to get her through unemployment.  Another person can be poor because medical bills for an unexpected illness or injury depleted almost all financial resources.  Or a person could be poor because they don’t want to work and would rather collect money from government programs.  There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, which can seem frustrating or daunting.  And yet, we are still called to assist the poor.
    There are also structures that can sometimes encourage people to be poor, or rely on the government for their existence.  There are people who want to work, but if they work, they won’t qualify for welfare, and the money they would earn in a job is less than they would get from welfare.  Work is part of our responsibility as citizens, to use our gifts and talents for the building up of society, and contributes to assistance like social security and Medicare, but it also reminds the person of his or her dignity.  It’s surprising to me that people with better financial and economic minds than mine don’t come up with a system where, if a person earned less from working at a job, the difference between solely being on welfare and the paycheck could be made up by welfare, thus taking care of people and helping people find the dignity of work, which, St. Paul says, we need to do if we are able.
    But, as I mentioned earlier, caring for the poor cannot be pawned off on the government.  It was Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” who complained that he paid taxes to care for the poor, so that should be enough.  We are called, to the extent that we’re able, to assist the poor personally, even if that means donating time instead of treasure (and I know the North End Soup Kitchen and Catholic Charities can use some volunteers).  Sometimes volunteering is the best way to help when we don’t know if the person begging at the top of the exit ramp truly needs the help (which I believe some do) or are trying to prey on people’s sympathies, though they could work rather than beg.
    But no matter how we do it, God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–invites us today to truly see the poor, not as a homogenous group of people, but as individuals, created in the image and likeness of God.  And as we look upon their suffering, to do what we can, even if just the smallest little bit, to show them the love of God by assisting them.  In that way, too, we can be part of a culture that respects all life, from natural conception to natural death.

12 October 2020

Kenny Chesney the Theologian

 Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time



    Since I’ve been a priest for ten years, people ask me if I just recycle my old homilies.  Generally, the answer is no, as each time I preach I am in a different place, and so is the parish to which I’m preaching.  And yet, as I heard this Gospel passage, and saw the theme developing, especially from the first reading and Gospel, my mind kept going back to a Kenny Chesney song that I knew I had used before in a Sunday homily.
    So I went to my blog where I keep all my homilies to see how I had used it, and if I had used it here at St. Pius X.  And lo and behold, I have used the song…twice…once in 2012 when I was at St. Thomas Aquinas parish in East Lansing, and once in 2014 when I was administrator of St. Joseph parish in Adrian.  So, now I guess it’s your turn to hear the words of this Kenney Chesney song that my previous two parishes had heard.
    The song is from the album “Lucky Old Sun,” and was written by Jim Collins and Marty Dodson.  It became Kenny’s fifteenth number one hit.  The song is entitled, “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven.”  Country music has long been known for its lyrics, and was described by Harlan Howard as “three chords and the truth.”  The lyrics I’ll highlight today are from the refrain and a little from a verse.  Kenny sings:


Everybody wants to go to heaven,
Have a mansion high above the clouds.
Everybody want to go to heaven,
But nobody want to go now.
[…]
Said preacher maybe you didn’t see me
Throw an extra twenty in the plate.
There’s one for everything I did last night
And one to get me through today.
Here’s a ten to help you remember
Next time you got the good Lord’s ear,
Say I’m coming but there ain’t no hurry
I’m having fun down here.


The lyrics are even better with the melody.
    There is truth in those lyrics, as in there are people who would say those words echo their sentiments.  There’s this general desire of people to go heaven, that mountain of the Lord about which the Prophet Isaiah spoke in our first reading.  But, if pressed, there are things that they would prefer to do while on earth, items to check off their bucket list, however saintly or devilish, that they want to do first.  Everyone wants to say with Psalm 23, “and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord / for years to come,” even if they don’t always want to follow the lead of the Good Shepherd and go to the pastures He points out.
    So there’s this cognitive disconnect.  When we hear the parable that Jesus tells, the one we hear today about the wedding feast to which the king invited guests, we think they’re crazy to say “thank, but not thanks,” especially for something as simple as farming or doing business.  But, if pressed, we often RSVP in the negative, but for worse or flimsier reasons than for farming or business.  
    The excuses become even more mundane if we look at the Mass as the foretaste of heaven.  Each week I say: “Behold the Lamb of God.  Behold him who takes away the sins of the world.  Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.”  This is as close to heaven on earth as we can come.  And yet, even without COVID, we have all sorts of excuses why we can’t make it.  
    But truly, each day we are RSVPing to the King’s invitation for the wedding feast for His Son, Jesus.  Each day we make choices that say, “Yes, I’m coming,” or “Nobody want to go now.”  And what the Gospel reminds us is that a simple desire to go may not be enough.  Jesus, in the parable, tells of a guest who came, but one was not in a wedding garment (and in the parable it’s a man, which isn’t surprising, since men often wouldn’t know how to dress for a particular occasion).  The king says to him, “‘My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?’”  The man has no answer.  So he is bound and cast outside into the darkness.  
    When we were baptized, we were given a wedding garment, a white cloth which represented the cleanness of our soul.  The priest said, “you have become a new creation and have clothed yourself in Christ.  May this white garment be a sign to you of your Christian dignity.  With your family and friends to help you by word and example, bring it unstained into eternal life.”  When we make a choice against God, when we deem something other than God a higher and more important good, we stain that garment.  God, in His mercy, can cleanse it for us in the Sacrament of Penance, but we still have to hold on to it (symbolically speaking) and not throw it away by our choices.  
    It is so easy to fix our hearts and minds and attention on what is earthly, on the physical things that scream for our attention.  It is so easy to go day-to-day with an earthly mentality, that we don’t want to go to heaven, yet.  But that is why St. Paul reminds us to set our minds on what is above.  That is why, as we will hear in a few minutes, we are invited to lift up our hearts, so that we are, once more, reminded that getting to heaven is our top concern so that, at our time, we are ready for the wedding feast of the Lamb.

05 October 2020

Our Approach to Others

 Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
    Parents here will recognize the time-honored teaching technique of repeating something in a variety of different ways with the same message.  If repeated enough, it can finally be understood.  And that is what we have heard from Jesus over the past few weeks.  Two weeks ago we heard the parable of the vineyard.  Those who came first were upset at those who came later, and yet were given the same payment.  Last weekend we heard the parable about the two sons.  The first was disobedient in words but obedient in actions.  The second was obedient in words but disobedient in actions.  This week we hear another vineyard parable, except this time, we hear about tenants who are supposed to care for the vineyard, but when the landowner sends servants to obtain the produce, they harass and kill them.  Finally, the landowner sends his son, but the tenants kill him, thinking that they will get his inheritance.

    These parables are probably being told towards the end of Jesus’ ministry before the crucifixion.  Two weeks ago the Gospel was from the beginning of Matthew, chapter 20.  Last week’s Gospel was Matthew, chapter 21, verses 28-32.  This week’s Gospel is Matthew, chapter 21, verses 33-43.  I say this because the beginning of Matthew, chapter 21 is the entry into Jerusalem that we celebrate each Palm Sunday. 

    And the point Jesus is making in all three of these Gospels has to do with the attitude of the Chosen People, and specifically the religious leaders like the Pharisees, scribes, chief priests, and Sadducees, to the proclamation of the Gospel, the Good News, by Jesus.  In the first parable, Jesus compares the attitude of the members of the Chosen People who are not rejoicing that sinners and Gentiles (non-Jews) are hearing God’s word and changing their lives to those who went to work early in the day, but then were upset when those who came later and especially those who came at the last minute got paid the same.  In the second parable, Jesus compares the sinners and Gentiles who, at first, reject God’s command, but eventually do it, and compares certain members of the Chosen People to the second son who says he’ll follow God’s command, but then doesn’t follow through and actually do it.  And in this parable that we heard today, certain members of the Chosen People are the tenants.  The servants are the prophets whom God sent to teach the Chosen People how to live.  The son is Jesus.  And the religious leaders do the same thing as the tenants: they kill both the servants and the son.  In all of these parables, Jesus is telling some of those who were listening that they were on the wrong path, and needed to convert and accept the Gospel.  And especially the religious leaders who heard this got angrier and angrier because they knew Jesus was talking about them (which is why the continued to conspire to put Jesus to death).
    So what does this have to do with us?  I would say that Catholics, in particular, can struggle in the same ways as those to whom Jesus was addressing His parables.  So often, especially in these days, Catholics have the mentality that, as long as we’re baptized and we’re not Hitler or Stalin, then we’re good; we’re on the right path.  But Jesus is telling us that, while baptism is important as the ordinary means of salvation and the way Jesus taught us to come into communion with God, it’s not like if we have our baptism card then we’re all set.  We are constantly called to deeper and deeper conversion, to deepen our love for and our understanding of God.  Each day there are parts of our lives that need to change to be more like Jesus; we’re never done.  Baptism can easily become for us like circumcision was for some of the the Jews at that time: as long as I’ve gone through it then I don’t need to worry about anything.  And that’s simply not how a relationship with God works.  If we truly love God, we try each day to be a better friend of God, not resting on our laurels of previously having a good day or week with God, or even simply on the fact that we’ve had our Catholic card punched.
    The other struggle we can have is based upon how we view welcoming others into the Catholic faith.  Sometimes we can feel like a person needs to have it all together before they can be invited to church.  Certainly, entrance into the Catholic Church requires that daily conversion about which I just spoke.  But Jesus didn’t tells sinners that they needed to be a saint before they could start following Him.  He called them to follow so that they could become a saint.  Now, to be sure, becoming a saint means configuring our life to Christ and starting certain actions and leaving other actions behind.  Jesus never pretended that a person’s sins didn’t matter.  But he didn’t let their sins stop the conversation about moving in the right direction.  The woman caught in adultery in John’s Gospel is a perfect example: Jesus doesn’t condemn the woman for her adultery.  But after not condemning her, He tells her to go and sin no more.  
    This is not to say that we can approach everything that Jesus offers no matter what.  If our lives are not right in major ways, we should not approach the Eucharist.  If we are in an irregular marriage; if we support (by words or deeds) abortion and/or euthanasia; if we have stolen something of significant value, then approaching Jesus in the Eucharist as if none of that makes a difference is not the way Jesus wants us to do things.  But, on the other hand, it also doesn’t mean that Jesus doesn’t want us to see us again our interact with us again until we get our lives right by our own strength.  We can’t do it on our own strength.  We need Jesus to convert our hearts, and therefore our lives, so that we can, once more, have communion with Jesus in the Eucharist.  
    Today Jesus invites us not to set up more barriers to interacting with Jesus than He does.  He calls us each not to treat baptism as a “get out of hell free” card.  He calls each of us–me and you–to deeper conversion each day, to pattern our life more on Jesus each day, so that we can turn away from sin, and be faithful to the Gospel.

14 September 2020

One of the Hardest Things about being Catholic

 Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time



    What’s the hardest thing about being Catholic?  Is it believing that Jesus, who looked just like us, is God?  Is it believing that Mary never sinned, and did not have original sin?  Is it trusting that Jesus will not allow His Church to teach anything about what we are to believe or how we are to live that goes against His will?  Is it that bread and wine are transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit to truly become the Body and Blood of Jesus?  Is it having only one spouse for an entire life?  Is it not using artificial contraception, or artificial means of conceiving?   Is it going to church every Sunday and holyday?  Is it not lying, not gossiping, not coveting?  Or is it Jesus’ command that we hear today, that we are to forgive?
    Maybe some of those other things are hard for us as well, but I hazard a guess that forgiving someone who has hurt us is one of the most difficult parts of our faith.  I don’t mean forgiving someone who didn’t really do us that much harm, or even forgiving someone who did us harm, but whom we easily love and so we easily forgive.  And I don’t mean forgiving a stranger whom we don’t care about and will never see again.  I mean forgiving someone who truly pierced our hearts by their actions, by their betrayal, by their serious wrongdoing, whom we know, with whom we interact.  
    And yet, that’s what Jesus calls us to do as His followers.  We forgive, not only seven times, but seventy-seven times (and if you think that the number seventy-seven is meant to be exact, think again; it means over and over again).  Forgiveness should be easy, because, as the author of Sirach says, “Wrath and anger are hateful things.”  We usually stay away from things that are full of hatred.  But for some reason, we can cling to wrath, anger, and unforgiveness.  
    We think that by holding on to the pain, to the hurt, to the wrong, to our grudge, that it makes us more powerful.  We think that it hurts the other person by our being mad at them (when, in fact, the other person generally doesn’t know and/or doesn’t care).  So we nurture our hatred toward that person.  What that person did can be truly wrong, maybe even heinously wrong.  Maybe someone ruined our good name, or cost us our job.  Maybe someone inflicted great bodily harm against us, or, sometimes even worse than bodily harm, emotional or spiritual harm.  I’m not talking, and neither is the Lord, about ignoring the bad behavior, or saying that it doesn’t matter.  Forgiveness only means something when what happened does matter, and did really hurt us.  
    Perhaps even more striking than what Jesus teaches us about forgiving others, though, is that the way we forgive, or don’t forgive, others, is how we will be forgiven.  Elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says it this way: the measure we measure out to others will in turn be measured out to us.  In other words, God will forgive us as we forgive others.  This shouldn’t come as a shock, though, because we say it each time we say the Our Father: forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.  May we take it as: forgive us, because we’re forgiving others.  But we can also look at it as: forgive us in the measure that we forgive others.
    I want you to close your eyes now.  Go ahead, close them.  Think of a person that has hurt you, that you are having a hard time forgiving, or maybe cannot forgive.  Think of that person’s face, their eyes.  Think about what that person did that you are finding it difficult or impossible to forgive.  Maybe you feel that hurt welling up inside you again, that anger pulsing through your body, wanting retribution, wanting justice, wanting revenge.  What words did you say to that person in anger?  
    Keep your eyes closed.  Now picture yourself standing before the judgement seat of Christ.  You are there, cognizant of your sinfulness, but wanting mercy, wanting to be welcomed into heaven.  You can almost feel the joy, the warmth, the light coming from just beyond where you are.  You can sense that you were made for that place, that it would complete you.  And from the mouth of Christ you hear the words that you spoke in anger to the person you cannot forgive.  What do you feel now?  
    You can open your eyes again.  If we really took that exercise seriously, it was probably pretty stark; maybe even scary.  I know it was for me as I composed this homily.  Jesus died for us, He forgave us for leading Him to the cross, not because He had to, but because He loves us.  He wants to forgive us, and the only thing that can stand in our way is our lack of forgiveness towards others.  So today, even if it can only be far away and can’t or shouldn’t be in person, forgive that person who has harmed you.  Let go of the hatred and the grudge you’ve been holding on to.  Forgive others, so that your heavenly Father can forgive you.

08 September 2020

Interdependence not Independence

 Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
    Think about the great milestones in a person’s life that we celebrate: first steps; going to school; riding a bicycle without training wheels; driving; going to college; buying your first house.  What do all those have in common?  They are all about independence.  It’s not so amazing that a child walks while his or her parents are holding on; it’s noteworthy (as well as the beginning of a new, scary part of childhood) when the child can walk on his or her own.  Yes, kids first learn how to drive with a parent in the car.  But when do we really celebrate?  When you can drive on your own.  Going off to college is, yes, going to a large group of people in a new place (at least before COVID), but it’s striking out on one’s own away from parents.  And buying one’s own house (or apartment) means, generally, that you’re not living with your parents anymore.
    There’s nothing in se wrong with this, but look at how much we celebrate independence and individuality and doing things on one’s own.  We celebrate when a person doesn’t need another person anymore, but can do something on his or her own.  I can tell you that I really knew I was an adult when my parents didn’t have to pay for their own birthday dinners, but I paid the check.
    And yet, our readings today all talk about interdependence, rather than independence.  Let’s start with the Gospel.  Jesus recognizes that there will be conflicts among His disciples.  While He calls them to love one another, He also realizes that we do not always do that.  And so, Jesus says that if our fellow disciple sins against us, we are to deal with it, not independently (by gossiping and holding on to grudges by ourselves), but interdependently, by telling our brother or sister that they have sinned against us, and need to repent.  If the other doesn’t listen to us, we invite others who have knowledge of the fault to bolster our case.  If the other doesn’t listen to them, we invite the church to get involved (notice that running to tell the priest is not the first step!).  If the other won’t even listen to the church, then we can work on separating from them.  The process of reconciliation is not one-sided in Jesus’ church, but always works with at least two.
    In our second reading, St. Paul tells us that we are to love one another, because love fulfills the law.  Love, by its very nature, is diffusive.  It seeks an outlet.  Self-love is not really what is meant by love.  Yes, we have to care for ourselves, but if we truly love, then it always involves the way we treat each other.  All of the commandments that we are bound to keep, are examples of ways that we should love each other.  We cannot say that we are keeping the commandments if we cut everyone else out of our life or only do what is best for ourselves.  That narcissism is part and parcel of our current culture, but it’s anathema for followers of Jesus.
    And lastly, in our first reading, Ezekiel talks about the shepherds of Israel.  He’s not talking about people who care for sheep, but people who care for people, the religious leaders.  And God says through Ezekiel that shepherds have a responsibility to look out for others, to warn them about sin and death, so that they can avoid it.  When the shepherds warn about sin and death, they also save themselves.  If they don’t warn the sheep about sin and death, not only do the sheep die, but God promises to hold the shepherds responsible, too.  
    As followers of Jesus, we are interdependent.  What we do affects each other.  We are our brother’s keeper.  We cannot simply say that we’re doing the right thing, so let the world go to hell in a hand basket.  We have a responsibility towards each other, especially as fellow believers.  
    There’s a word that we have when a follower of Jesus doesn’t do publicly what he or she is supposed to do, and that word is scandal.  We currently associate that work with priests who committed horrible crimes against the most innocent, and that is certainly a horrible scandal.  But scandal applies to all, not just priests and not just about sexual abuse.  When a Catholic says publicly that he or she supports abortion, euthanasia, artificial contraception, sex outside of marriage, marriage between two people of the same sex, or that sex has no connection to biology, that is a scandal, because Catholics are not to support such practices or ideas because they are contrary to God’s revelation.  When a Catholic makes derogatory comments about a person simply because of that person’s race, gender, IQ, economic status, or religion, that is a scandal, because Catholics are called to show respect to every person as created in the image and likeness of God.  As Catholics we can judge certain beliefs and actions to be wrong without judging another because God has revealed to us that those things are wrong.  Sin, too, is always interdependent: it always effects more than simply the person committing the sin.  We are both to work so that we are not a scandal to others, as well as work to correct others so that they are not a scandal to the world.
    G.K. Chesterton, an early 20th century Catholic author said, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”  So often, when we come to a difficult part of our faith, we try to be independent, to make it on our own, or to choose to reject what the Church calls us to believe or how the Church calls us to live.  We owe it to Jesus, and to each other, to be interdependent; to help each other live as followers of Jesus.  Catholicism is not a religion of independence; it’s a religion of interdependence which calls us to care for and to challenge each other to be the saints that God call us to be in Baptism.


24 August 2020

Broken for the Lord

 Solemnity of St. Pius X

    There’s a Trooper I know who used to work in Flint, but now works for our Aviation Unit, flying helicopters.  He and I both enjoy drinking bourbon (a quality pastime if ever there was one), as well as watching movies.  Obviously the latter has become impossible in theaters during the pandemic.  But, over the past couple of months, we’ve gotten together to watch movies in each other’s homes, either on Netflix or on DVDs that I own.  His wife is not a big mafia movie fan, so when she’s been gone, I’ve introduced him to “The Godfather” trilogy (we’ve finished one and two so far).  
    In the second movie (spoiler alert!), there’s a scene where Michael Corleone and his brother Fredo are in pre-Castro Cuba celebrating the New Year in the presidential palace.  Michael has learned that his brother, Fredo, has betrayed Michael and his family to competing interests, and in one of the famous movie lines of all time, Michael says, “I know it was you, Fredo.  You broke my heart.  You broke my heart.”  Hold that thought.

    This weekend we celebrate our heavenly patron, Pope St. Pius X.  He was known for many things, but one of the things he is especially known for is lowering the age for First Holy Communion to the age of reason, usually around 7, and encouraging frequent reception of Holy Communion (as well as of confessing regularly).  For that reason, he is often called Pope of the Blessed Sacrament.  
    Perhaps we have heard the encouragement to be Eucharistic people.  And that certainly is a good thing, especially as we celebrate the Pope of the Blessed Sacrament.  Maybe we think that means that we need to go to Mass (and confession) frequently, or spend more time in adoration.  Both of those things are good, and are ways to be Eucharistic Catholics.  But sometimes being Eucharistic Catholics is a bit more messy than simply going to Mass.
    It’s like First Communions themselves.  On the holy cards we’re used to seeing cute little girls in a white dress with a veil, kneeling down, about to receive the Sacred Host, or a little boy, all gussied up in a suit and tie, with an angelic look on his face.  Any parent knows that, while that one moment may happen, it was preceded by the young girl not wanting her hair done the way you want it done, or trying to brush out the tangles five minutes after you were supposed to leave for church; or by that young boy, dressed up and ready to go, who found a cool-looking frog or snake and just had to pick it up, never worrying that the animal may release a liquid surprise on the hands, or even the suit, of the boy.  The reality is often messier than the image we try to create in our minds.
    The same goes for being Eucharistic Catholics.  Again, going to Mass (and confession) frequently is a great thing.  Spending time with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, especially during Eucharistic Adoration, is a marvelous way to grow in our love and appreciation of the Eucharist.  But another part of being a Eucharistic Catholic is having happen to us what happened to Jesus, and to Michael Corleone: our hearts are broken.  
    The Eucharist comes from grains of wheat that have been crushed into flour.  And so, we are invited to have the same happen to us: to be crushed to make of ourselves an offering to God.  The flour is added to water, and is baked to make the unleavened hosts that we use for the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ.  So for us, when our sufferings are added to the water of baptism, and baked in the fire of the Holy Spirit, they become an offering that we can give to God, which He receives, and transforms by His power, into something that gives us life.   
    Being Eucharistic Catholics doesn’t mean we betray our family to its enemies, and celebrate in Cuba.  But it does mean that our hearts are going to be broken, just as the Sacred Heart of Jesus was.  We don’t have to go looking for that suffering; it will find us easily enough.  But when it comes, we have the choice to accept it as merely people of the world, and try to ignore it, fight our way out of it, or pass it along to another.  Or we can be Eucharistic Catholics and accept necessary sufferings, unite them to Jesus on the cross in His perfect offering to the Father, and receive God’s life-giving grace from that sacrifice. Suffering is not the only part of being a Eucharistic Catholic, but during this continued pandemic, we can find ways to unite our sufferings with Jesus and grow in new ways in our faith life.
    Being crushed was the path that Jesus took when He suffered and died.  That was the way of the Master; that is the way of his disciples.  In the first “Godfather” movie, (again: spoiler alert!) Vito brings the dead body of his son, Santino, aka Sonny, and says to the undertaker: “Look how they massacred my boy.”  God the Father could have said the same thing about Jesus.  And yet, Jesus willingly offered Himself to the Father, in all the pain and the suffering of the crucifixion, so that we could be reconciled to the Father.  Jesus’ love for His Father and for us, His Bride, meant suffering.  Our love for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as well as for each other, will also mean suffering in our lives, suffering that can be salvific.  Just as the wheat is ground so that it can become bread which gives eternal life, so our suffering can become an acceptable sacrifice which, when united to Jesus, brings salvation to us or to people we love.  
    A broken heart is part of being a Eucharistic Catholic: a heart broken for the Lord and His people.  Jesus asks us today if we love Him enough to be broken and offered to the Father.  He asks us as He asked St. Peter and St. Pius X: “‘Do you love me?’”