16 October 2017

Invites, RSVPs, and Attendance

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

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

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

09 October 2017

Department of Redundancy Department

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

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

01 October 2017

"Let your words teach and your actions speak"

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

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

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

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

27 September 2017

Backwards and Forwards

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

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

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

11 September 2017

The Other Works of Mercy

Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Hollywood has recently become very good at remaking movies.  Sometimes the movies are the same basic movies, but sometimes the remakes take a different spin.  Some of the remakes I’ve seen and are quite good, like “True Grit.”  Some are good, but have slightly different story lines, like “Ben Hur.”  Others I have seen and think the original was better, like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”  Sometimes I wonder if people today realize that “Planet of the Apes” originally included Charlton Heston rather than James Franco.

For the past few years we have been talking a lot about mercy, especially during the Jubilee Year for Mercy that Pope Francis proclaimed.  And during that year most people focused (and rightly so) on the Corporal Works of Mercy: feed the hungry; give drink to the thirsty; shelter the homeless; visit the sick; visit the prisoners; bury the dead; give alms to the poor.  These still remain important parts of our faith.  It’s not like we can stop doing these things because the Jubilee Year for Mercy is over.  
But there are also the spiritual works of mercy, and I wonder how many of us know what they are?  The Spiritual Works of Mercy are: counsel the doubtful; instruct the ignorant; comfort the sorrowful; forgive injuries; bear wrongs patiently; pray for the living and the dead; admonish the sinner.  This last Spiritual Work of Mercy, admonish the sinner, is especially apropos for today’s readings.  
In the first reading, God admonishes the Prophet Ezekiel that he is to warn the wicked of their behavior.  If he doesn’t, then not only shall the wicked die for his or her sin, but also Ezekiel, because he failed to warn that person.  This admonition is also given to priests every year in our spiritual reading.  Because we are shepherds, we have the responsibility to make sure people know how to make good choices (virtue and grace) and how to avoid bad choices (vice and sin).  If we fail to do that, then we will also bear the same punishment as those who make bad choices and sin.  This is why so many of the saints consider the priesthood not a reason to boast, but a reason to fear for the final judgment.  
But admonishing the sinner is not only for priests.  Jesus, in the Gospel, tells his disciples that when someone sins, especially when it’s against you, to tell the person his fault, and hopefully that person will listen.  But, Jesus gives more advice in case the person doesn’t listen.  He then encourages the wronged party to bring in other people who can attest to the sin, hopefully convincing the person of the wrong that has been done.  But if that doesn’t happen, then (and only then) involve the Church.  If they don’t listen to the Church, then it’s time to stop trying to convince them, and instead, simply pray and fast for that person.
Admonishing the sinner is not, of course, easy.  Especially with certain sins, people prefer sinning to following God’s plan.  And when confronted with God’s plan, people sometimes don’t take it too well.  Sometimes, though, the fault is also with the person admonishing.  Sometimes people want to get back at the person, or rub that person’s fault in his or her face, rather than acting out of love.  That is why what St. Paul says in the second reading is so important: “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; […] Love does no evil to the neighbor.”  Love doesn’t mean that sin is not sin; love doesn’t mean do whatever you feel like doing.  But it does mean that if we are correcting sinful behavior, we are doing it for the right reasons: out of love.  Parents do this all the time with bad behavior.  If a child uses violence against another, that child may have to have a time-out, or maybe even be spanked (not abused, though).  But if that is done out of love to help the child, then it can truly be a work of mercy, so that the child doesn’t continue to use violence, or escalate that violence as the child grows older.  
Still, you might wonder how to admonish well.  The USCCB website gives this advice: “In humility, we must strive to create a cutler that does not accept sin, while realize that we all fall at times; Don’t judge, but guide others towards the path of salvation; When you correct someone, don’t be arrogant.  We are all in need of God’s loving correction; We should journey together to a deeper understanding of our shared faith; ‘Remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.’”  Those are all very good practical pieces of advice for how to admonish a sinner.

Today the Lord invites us to be our brother’s keeper, to help keep people from sin, or bring them back from sin if they have fallen.  May we do this Spiritual Work of Mercy with love, and be willing to accept this Spiritual Work of Mercy with love, knowing that we all have responsibility for and with each other to live according to God’s plan for happiness and holiness.

05 September 2017

You're Killing Me, Smalls!

Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sometimes there are quotes from different things that we have read or seen that stick with us and come to mind.  In the move “The Sandlot,” there’s a line that often gets used among people of my age: “You’re killing me, Smalls!”  Or a series of books that I read called the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan includes a line from the protagonist that has stuck with me: “duty is heavier than a mountain; death lighter than a feather.”  When Alan Rickman, who played Severus Snape in the “Harry Potter” series died, his one word response to Dumbledore, “Always,” becomes an oft-mentioned word.  And, on a lighter note, anyone who has seen “The Lion King,” is sure to say, at least once in a while, “Hakuna Matata.”
Scripture is also a great place to find quotes that can and should stick with us.  Bishops, and popes often have mottos for their ministry.  Bishop Mengeling’s phrase was “He Must Increase,” which is from St. John the Baptist in the Gospel according to John, when John says, “He must increase; I must decrease” in reference to Jesus.  Bishop Boyea’s motto is “In manus tuas,” which is Latin for “Into your hands.”  This comes from Psalm 31, and says, “Into you hands, Lord, I commend my spirit.”  It was also the words that Jesus said as He was dying on the cross, and is part of a response that consecrated men and women, and those in holy orders say before they go to bed each night.  In seminary, we had a classmate who was joking about becoming a bishop.  We said that his motto should be, “And Jesus wept.”

Today in our readings, we have four Scripture passages that might stick with us.  From our first reading: “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped”; from the responsorial psalm: “My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God”; from our second reading we have two options: “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship” and “Do not conform yourselves to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind”; and from our Gospel: “Get behind me, Satan!”
Each of these has its own context.  In the first reading, Jeremiah is fed up with God, because all Jeremiah has done is tell the people what God told him, and yet everyone hates him.  Jeremiah suffered greatly, because the people didn’t want to hear that they needed to change, or else they would be exiled by the Babylonians.  Jeremiah feels compelled to say what God wants him to say, because Jeremiah loves God, but that love of God leads to suffering, and Jeremiah feels like he was tricked, but he can’t stop speaking for God.
In our Psalm, the author talks about how he wants God, desires God, like parched earth for water, so he looks toward the sanctuary to see the power and glory of God.  This is a psalm that is said on every special celebration in the Church’s life by those in religious communities and holy orders, so it’s one that comes to my mind often.
Our second reading with its two passages are from St. Paul, who is urging the early Roman Christians to be faithful to Jesus Christ.  St. Paul encourages the Romans to not simply let Catholicism be a religion of the mind, where we think about holy things and quietly commune with God in our souls, but even to offer our bodies to God, as a form of worship, as a way of giving God praise, so that what we do with our bodies and our souls may both be acceptable to God, whom we worship.  The second phrase, though, guards the Romans against becoming to comfortable in a pagan society, and being modeled on the outside world.  Instead, St. Paul says that they should be transformed by the conversion of what they think is good, so that they might do what is good and pleasing and perfect to God.
Lastly, our Gospel, which sounds like a good admonition to get rid of temptations, is spoken to St. Peter.  This passage follows after the one we heard last week, where Jesus calls Peter blessed and the rock upon which Jesus will build His Church.  This week, after Peter says that Jesus should not suffer, die, and be raised, Jesus says to Peter, “‘Get behind me, Satan!  You are an obstacle to me.  You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.’”  Jesus insists to Peter and the other apostles that suffering is part of the plan of God for the redemption of humanity, because suffering is part of the human condition, and Jesus must take it all upon Himself in order to redeem the entire human condition.

There are other passages in Scripture that we can use.  Memorizing little bits of Scripture can help us as we go throughout our day, in good times and bad, to praise the Lord or ask for His help.  When we feel like nothing’s going right even though we try to do God’s will, we might say, “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped.”  When we feel like we need God to be present to us, we might say, “My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.”  When we need to remember that being Catholic is not simply about the prayers we say in quiet, or the thoughts in our head, or that we should not let ourselves become like our fallen, hedonist culture, we might say, “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship” or “Do not conform yourselves to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”  When we are tempted by Satan in any way, or when we are afraid to follow God’s plan because it’s not the one that we want, we should say, “Get behind me, Satan!”  The Word of God can help us in any situation.  Let’s be familiar with it so that we can turn to Jesus, the Word of God, when we want to thank God and ask for His help, in times of sorrow and times of joy.

28 August 2017

Knowing and Loving Jesus

Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
Anthony John Strouse; brown hair, hazel eyes; approximately 6 feet tall, 154 pounds; resides at 3139 Hogarth Avenue, Flint, MI 48532; Catholic priest and Michigan State Police chaplain; enjoys traveling, reading, and watching high school and college sports; oldest of three children.  Those are a lot of facts about me.  Most of those could be found online.  But just because a person knows those facts, does that mean that they know me?  I think we could all agree that knowing about a person is not the same as knowing the person him or herself.
Today Jesus asks the apostles who He is.  The apostles themselves have seen a lot of things, and have spent a lot of time with Jesus.  At the time of Jesus, and especially in Judaism, to be a disciple of a rabbi meant that you went everywhere he did.  Being a disciple wasn’t a hobby or even a part-time job; it was a way of life that changed all your circumstances.  So the apostles knew a lot about Jesus.  They had seen him change water into wine, heal a lame man lowered down from the roof, teach people a new way of life in the Beatitudes, walk on water, and even multiply 5 loaves and 2 fish so that over 5,000 people could be fed.  
And as Jesus asks who others say He is, they give Him the facts, and some of the inferences others are making about Jesus: “‘Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’”  But then Jesus makes the question very personal and requires an answer that takes some soul-searching: “‘But who do you way that I am?’”  The basic facts are not enough when faced with this question.  You can’t simply rattle off stats when a person asks you who they are, because a person is more than just the aspects of his or her life.
Of course, we are familiar with St. Peter’s response; this is one of the clear passages that Catholics rely on to support our belief that Jesus instituted the papacy, not merely as a first among equals (as Jesus gave the power to forgive first to St. Peter, but then to all), but in a unique role, because to none of the other apostles did Jesus ever say, “‘…upon this rock I will build my church…’” and “‘I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.’”  St. Peter, our first pope, does not merely describe facts about Jesus, but identifies who Jesus is: the Christ, the π›ΈπœŒπœ„πœŽπœπœŠπœ (the Greek word for Messiah), the Son of the one, true, and living God.
We are probably good about reciting facts about Jesus.  We probably remember things that we learned about Jesus in Catholic Schools or religious education classes.  But do we know Jesus?  Not, do we know about Jesus, but do we know Jesus?  Whom do we know better: Jesus or our spouse?  Jesus or our best friend?  Jesus or our children?
Of course, to know someone, we have to know something about that person.  The complaint from many people who grew up with the Baltimore Catechism, and there is certainly some truth to this, is that they knew all the facts, but never realized that being a Catholic entailed a relationship with Jesus, and therefore a relationship with His Mystical Body, the Church.  They could tell you why God made us (God made us to know, love, and serve Him in this life, so to be happy with Him in the next) and recite all the necessary memorized prayers, but Jesus was, more or less, a stranger.  If we fast forward to the next generation, the general observation is that they were very good at knowing that Jesus loves them, and how to make crafts about Bible stories (the joke is that CCD really stands for cut, color, and draw), but they don't know anything about what the Church actually teaches, and often times do not know prayers beyond the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Grace Before Meals.
In reality, both approaches are needed.  We need to know the facts about a person, but we need to build on those facts to a deeper relationship.  If we put it in terms of a marital relationship, this makes perfect sense.  Can you imagine going up to a person and saying, “I know your height, weight, hair color, hobbies, credit score, eating habits, etc., so let’s get married!”?  That would be crazy!!  On the other hand, can you imagine going up to a person and saying, “I don’t know anything about you, but I know that I love you, so let’s get married!”?  Equally crazy!!  
In order to love a person, we first have to know that person.  So many of the annulments that I deal with are from people who admit that they thought they knew the person they were marrying, but it turns out they were wrong.  Learning about Jesus and about the Church is important, especially as a younger child.  We need to learn the facts, the rules, and the prayers that so many generations memorized.  And that doesn’t end in childhood; I’m not done learning about Jesus and the Church, and I have 4 degrees in those subjects!  So we all need to continue to form our mind with the intellectual treasures of the faith.  
But, especially as we are in middle school and older, we also need to develop and emphasize that relational aspect with Jesus.  If all we know are facts about Jesus, then it’s hard to say that we’re a disciple of Jesus, because a disciple is someone who knows the Master intimately, not just at a surface level.  St. James says it this way in his letter: “You believe that God is one.  You do well.  Even the demons believe that and tremble.”  Demons know about God, but they don’t have a relationship with God.  

Today the Lord invites us to know Him better.  Maybe we need to grow in the facts that we know about Jesus.  Maybe we need to grow in our relational part of our friendship with Jesus.  In whatever way we need to continue to grow (and we’re never done, not even after Confirmation!), God promises to assist us by the Holy Spirit, so that we can truly be the friends of God, not only in name, but, more importantly, in deed.

21 August 2017

What to Do with the Time that is Given to Us

Solemnity of St. Pius X
This has been, in many ways, a tough year for us at St. Pius X.  But what immediately comes to my mind when I think of our challenges is a scene in “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings” when Frodo and Gandalf are sitting in the dwarf mine of Moria, waiting to see which way they should go.  Frodo says, “I wish none of this had happened.”  Gandalf responds, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide.  All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

Let me be clear: while I have certainly regretted some of the struggles that we have gone though, as a church and as a diocese, over the past year, I have never regretted becoming your pastor.  And I hope that, even if you have not relished some of the adjustments that have been made since I became your pastor, you do not regret being members of this parish.  But our challenge, as St. Pius X parish, is not the struggles themselves, and the difficult time that our parish and city and diocese are experiencing.  Our challenge is what to do with the time that is given to us.  
This Gospel that we heard is one of my favorites.  The apostles had seen the risen Christ many times, but then He must’ve spent some time away, because they seem to despair again, like in the upper room before they saw Jesus.  So Peter decides to go fishing, and the other apostles go with him.  But, as always in the Gospels, Peter can’t catch anything until Jesus, who mysteriously appears on the shore, tells them to cast their nets to the other side, and they catch 153 large fish.  Peter recognizes Jesus, and with his usual impetuosity, jumps in and swims to shore.  After eating the fish, Jesus takes Peter aside, and asks him the three questions about where St. Peter’s heart is.  
That must have been hard for St. Peter to be asked if he truly loved Jesus.  When someone you love asks you if you really care about him or her, doesn’t that hurt?  And Jesus asks three times, which for Peter had to remind him of the three times he had denied Jesus.  Peter looked back at the past 50 days and didn’t have a lot to show for it.
Right after the last verse, Jesus then prophesies for Peter how he will die, and then Jesus invites Peter to follow Him.  But things don’t always go well for Peter.  He will later be rebuked by St. Paul for not being consistent with welcoming Greeks into Christianity.  And even at the end of his life, as the persecution of Nero is closing in on him, St. Peter, by tradition, will try to flee martyrdom.  But Jesus reveals Himself to Peter walking back to Rome.  St. Peter asks Him, “Domine, quo vadis?” “Lord, where are you going?”  Jesus tells Peter He is going to Rome to be crucified a second time.  Peter then repents of being scared of dying for Jesus, and returns to Rome, to be crucified upside-down.  
St. Pius X himself lived in turbulent times: he only became pope after the clear-and-out favorite was vetoed; during his pontificate a group of theologians tried to undo perennial Church teachings; revolutions against governments in Europe and Asia started to develop, which led to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, which ballooned into World War I, shortly before St. Pius X died.  How many times must he have wondered why he lived in such times?  But instead of simply bemoaning the bad, he worked to promote the good.
And as we celebrate our parish patron, that is our opportunity as well: to decide what we will do with the time we have been given.  God wanted each of us to live right now.  He wanted you to be a part of this parish, and He wanted me to be your pastor.  And He wanted this because we have what it takes to follow His will and strengthen our parish and school to help it survive and thrive in the future.  Yes, the world may seem very dark right now, and not just our little corner of it, but indeed the whole world seems to be teetering on the edge of darkness.  But God is the sun who can put an end to the darkness of night and usher in the light of day.  
In the Lord of the Rings, Frodo still had difficult times ahead of him: battles to survive, getting lost, getting captured, and even making it to Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring (which, spoiler alert, he cannot even bring himself to do).  Frodo becomes estranged from the group of his friends, and even at one point sends his best friend, Samwise Gamgee, away.  But, after all that (spoiler alert) the One Ring is finally destroyed, and the darkness is defeated.  Frodo regains his friends and no longer has to carry the burden of the One Ring.
It is up to us to decide what we will do with the time we have been given.  Will we follow where God leads us in being faithful to the teachings of Christ and His Church?  Will we take opportunities to talk to others about Jesus, and invite them to start or deepen their relationship with Christ and the Church He founded?  Will we fight against the powers of darkness who seek to divide this parish and keep it focused on itself rather than love of God and love of neighbor?  
Or do we simply want to keep the status quo?  Do we want to give in to our self-centered culture which only pursues its own desires, no matter what Christ and His Church says?  Are we content simply to keep our faith to ourselves and not share it with others?  If we are for these last approaches, for giving up because the battle is hard, then we will contribute to the weakening and perhaps even eventual dying of our parish.  But, if we are willing to be transformed by the grace of Christ and continue to spread the Gospel, then we won’t be a victim of our difficult times, but a victor in Christ.  

Today I recommit myself, through the intercession of Pope St. Pius X, to working as hard as I can to do the things that will help this parish grow by being faithful to who we are as Catholics: followers of Jesus, transformed by the Sacraments, faithful to His Church, that joyfully spread the Gospel.  Will you join me in this fellowship?  Will you do what you can with the time that is given you?

14 August 2017

"Do You Trust Me?"

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
It doesn’t seem like that long ago, but the Disney version of “Aladdin” came out 25 years ago!  Robin Williams is the voice of the Genie, and it has the famous song, “A Whole New World.”  That song takes place on Aladdin’s magic carpet, and it begins right after Aladdin, pretending to be Prince Ali Abawa, asks Princess Jasmine, whom he likes, “Do you trust me?”  Those are the exact same words that Aladdin asks Princess Jasmine when she is pretending to be a commoner and she is running away from trouble in the marketplace: “Do you trust me?”
“Trust,” we so often say, “is earned, not given.”  Or we might say, “Trust, but verify.”  But in our Gospel, St. Peter takes neither of those approaches.  Jesus has done some amazing things for Peter (helps him catch fish even though they had been fishing all night; changes water into wine), but it’s not clear that Peter knows exactly who Jesus is.  It’s not for another chapter in Matthew’s Gospel that we hear Peter confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God.  And it’s clear that most of the apostles think that the vision of Jesus is a ghost, not the real thing.  Peter had no way to verify if it truly was Jesus.  In fact, in Peter’s act of faith (which, admittedly, falters), Peter walking on water was the way he was going to verify it was Jesus.
But Peter must have trusted that it was truly Jesus, and that if Jesus told him to walk on water, then walk on water was what Peter would do.  Think of all the temptations that Peter had before he even got out of the boat: they were being tossed about by waves, it was the middle of the night, and the apostles were all terrified.  And yet Peter stepped out onto the water because Jesus, or something that Peter thinks might be Jesus, tells him to do so.  
But as soon as Peter stops trusting Jesus, as soon as the realities around Peter become the focus and not Jesus, Peter starts to sink.  But even then, Jesus verifies and earns Peter’s trust, by reaching out to save Peter when he cries out in fear.

Do we trust Jesus?  Or do we feel Jesus hasn’t earned our trust, or we need to verify before we can trust Jesus?  Would we be willing to step out on water (and not the frozen kind) to walk to Jesus, or would the fear of drowning keep us from even putting one foot over the side of the boat?
Trusting God can seem hard.  It doesn’t mean life always goes well.  Jesus had to entrust Himself to God the Father even on the cross.  Temptation eats at Jesus, as we hear Him say, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”  But even though tempted, Jesus doesn’t give in to His fears, and will also say, “Into your hands I commend [or entrust] my spirit.”  Even as He is dying, Jesus shows us how to trust God in horrible circumstances.  
What makes it especially difficult to trust is when we feel that we have been let down.  We all have that one person, maybe a former friend, who has let us down, betrayed us, and not been there when we needed him or her.  Maybe that friend was even a spouse.  And now we find it hard to trust again.  That fear of betrayal, of abandonment, can easily bleed into our relationship with God.  We show up, but it’s on our terms, not God’s.  We have expectations about how things should be, and if they’re not fulfilled, then we’ll cut bait and run.  
For many of us, we trust God with certain things: secrets, hopes, fears, etc.  But maybe there’s an area of our life where we don’t trust God.  Maybe we don’t trust God when it comes to money.  Maybe we don’t trust God to guide our relationship.  Maybe we don’t trust God when it comes to conceiving a child or how many kids we should have.  Maybe we don’t trust God to truly forgive us.  All of those are very common ways that we think we know better than God, or we don’t want to involve God in those parts of our lives.  But to that fear, Jesus invites us to trust in Him and walk on water.
Maybe we don’t trust that God will be enough for us, or we don’t trust that we can be alone with God.  In our first reading, Elijah heard God not in the dramatic aspects of life–the strong and heavy wind, the crushing of rocks, the earthquake, the fire–but in a tiny whispering sound.  The only way to hear that tiny whisper is to keep silence.  If we really want to know if we trust God, try being silent with Him.  Silence can be the scariest thing in the world, because we might actually hear God, and maybe we don’t trust that what He says to us will be for our good.  It’s so much easier to play with our phones, to listen to music, to distract ourselves, than to be silent with God.  
After the music stops and while I’m still purifying the sacred vessels (or as some say, cleaning the dishes), can you simply kneel or sit in silence and wait to hear God, whom you have just received in the Eucharist?  It would be comical if it weren’t so sad, how many times someone feels like they have to break the silence by a “cough” or another noise (and I’m talking about adults, not kids).  But it is in the silence where we can so often hear God speaking to us, inviting us to trust Him in every aspect of our lives, not just the ones we want.
Take time in your life for silent prayer with God, a time, maybe just 5 minutes, to entrust yourself to God.  For some of us it may be as scary as stepping out onto the water like St. Peter did.  But remember that God will not let us drown.

Today at the end of Mass, we will also, along with every other parish in the Diocese of Lansing, entrust our parish and all who belong to it, to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in an act of consecration.  In a formal way we give ourselves over to God for His glory, rather than our own plans.  We do so on the 100th Anniversary of the apparition of our Blessed Mother to the shepherd children at Fatima.  We entrust our lives to her and ask her to help us to say yes to God, just as she did at every moment of her life.  There is more information in the narthex if you are interested.  May we truly trust in the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, and His Immaculate Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary.

31 July 2017

Jack Sparrow's Compass

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
I will admit: when I first heard that Disney was making a movie based on the ride “Pirates of the Caribbean,” I was very skeptical that it would be a good movie.  But, 7 movies later, I am happy to be wrong.  One of the staples in every movie has been Captain Jack Sparrow’s special compass, which doesn’t point towards north, but points towards whatever the person holding it wants most.  The compass helps Jack find the Black Pearl, the fountain of youth, and all the other things and places that Jack or the other characters want, especially rum.  

Of course, a compass that points toward what we want is not real.  It would be a nice invention, but, as far as I know, it doesn’t exist.  If it did exist, though, where or to what would it point?  Would it be a new house, a new car, or something?  Or would it point to a place, or even to a person?
We are a society that generally gets what it wants pretty quickly.  If we want to know something, we simply ask Siri or Alexa.  If we want to buy something, we put it on the credit card, even if we don’t have the money to buy that thing.  Our desires are satisfied quite rapidly.  But we are probably also one of the most miserable societies in this history of the world, because more often than not, our desires fluctuate between very transitory or passing things or relationships.  When it comes to the deeper things of life, many people seem to set those aside.
And yet, our deepest desire is for God.  The clichΓ© phrase puts it this way: we have a God-sized hole in our heart.  St. Augustine, the great Doctor of the Church, puts it this way in his book The Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”  We seek after so many things and people, but what we really want, what all those things and people cannot give us, is a deep relationship with God.  And the things and even other people cannot fulfill those desires because we really want the infinite, and those things and people are finite.  
A person on the road to heaven would have a compass that would point right here, to the tabernacle, because inside is Jesus, who is the deepest desire of our hearts.  The person who is living out the call that God gives to every baptized person to be a saint would want to have God.  Yes, that person would probably have other things–a house, a car, personal relationships–but they would all come second to God.
Is God the treasure that we desire?  Is God the pearl of great price in our life?  The person who is working in the field and finds a treasure, then does everything he can to buy that field so that he can have that treasure.  The merchant who is searching for a fine pearl sells everything he has so that he can get that one, perfect pearl.  What do we do to deepen our relationship with God?  What are we willing to give away?
Because in order to say yes to God, we have to say no to other things.  That’s not just true with our relationship with God, it’s true with everything in life.  Whenever we say yes to one thing or person, we say no to another.  When I said yes to becoming a priest, I was also saying no to every single woman that would cross my path for the rest of my life (in terms of a romantic relationship).  For a married woman, when she says, “I do,” to her husband, she is also saying, “I don’t” to every other man, no matter how handsome or kind he might be.  When a student says yes to partying on a Tuesday night, he or she is saying no to the homework that is due the next day.  Saying yes to anything means saying no to the other options.  That sounds tough, but it’s the way life works.  And it’s true whether the choice is for something good, or for something that is a lesser good.
Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular, is getting more difficult to live.  We no longer have a culture which supports living out our faith.  The truths of the faith which cannot change are so often now opposed by friends, family, and even the government at times.  We have not yet reached systematic persecution in the United States, but the groups who call those who live out Catholicism bigots, backwards, and hate-filled seem to grow every year.  More and more we will have to decide what religion we will say yes to: Catholicism or hedonistic secular humanism–a secular type of religion that tells us to do whatever feels good, whatever we want?  And that decision will be made by what we love the most, what we truly think is the treasure in the field or the pearl of great price.  

If we had a compass that pointed to what we want the most, where would it point?  If it doesn’t point to that tabernacle, more precisely, to Jesus who is inside it, then Jesus invites us to reprioritize our lives.  God has made us for Himself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.  May God be the strongest desire in our life.