28 March 2017

Afraid of the Dark

Fourth Sunday of Lent
Part of moving into a new house, as I did last July, is getting used to it.  A foreign house, especially if you live in it alone, can be a little scary.  Probably a few of those first weeks, as I went to bed, my heart started to beat a little faster as I heard creaks and different noises in my house.  Of course, there was nothing there, but because it was a new house, I wasn’t used to the different noises it would make at night.  What didn’t help was that Flint does not have the reputation of being the safest place in Michigan (though I have to say I have not had any problems here).  The other big issue was that, especially immediately after going to bed, the house was dark, and the fact that I couldn’t see and wasn’t familiar with the different parts of the house and how the shadows fall probably kept me alert without any real cause for concern.
Not being able to see can often change the way we approach things.  To a child, those clothes hanging in the closet or the stuff underneath the bed can seem like monsters.  But even adults, in an unknown area might try to be more attentive as they walk to their car from a restaurant.  Law enforcement is always trying to keep their eyes open, especially these days, so that they are not taken by surprise by someone trying to harm them.
Our readings today remind us of the importance of seeing correctly.  In our first reading, even one of the great prophets, Samuel, does not see as God sees when trying to find the next king of Israel among the sons of Jesse.  Samuel was looking at outward appearances; God was looking at the heart.  
And St. Paul in the second reading reminded us to take advantage of the light of Christ, since we are children of the light, not of darkness.  We do not belong to the night or the darkness, no matter what Pat Benatar sings.  In baptism, we were given the light of Christ, and Christ always gives us the light of His grace to help us know right from wrong.  He does that through our conscience, but even our conscience has to be formed by the light that the Church gives us.  Especially living in an age which, in many ways, are contrary to the teachings of Jesus, our conscience is not always a sure guide for the choices we should make.  
The Gospel we heard, about the man born blind, is one we hear maybe every year, but definitely every three years.  Ironically, in this passage, the person who sees the best (besides Jesus) is the Blind Man.  Neither the Pharisees, nor even the disciples, see as Christ sees.  The disciples think the man is blind because of some sin.  Christ corrects them and says that it’s so that God may be glorified and His works be more visible.  The Pharisees cannot see that Jesus is displaying His divinity in healing the man.  They do not accept Jesus’ miracles, and therefore do not accept Jesus Himself.  Even the man, now formerly blind, exclaims, “‘This is what is so amazing, that you do not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes.  […] It is unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind.  If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything.”
But, if we are honest, sometimes we do not see as God sees.  We do not let the light of Christ illumine our lives.  We have a type of spiritual glaucoma, and no marijuana, medical or not, will cure our spiritual glaucoma.  Only Christ can heal us; only he can restore our sight.
Throughout the history of the Church we have examples of people who saw with the light of Christ.  They had 20/20 spiritual vision.  We call them saints, and we should strive to follow their example in our own lives.  I’ll mention just a few.
St. Martin of Tours, who lived in the fourth century, was a soldier, and later became a bishop.  But one of the stories about him mentions that, as a soldier, he was riding a horse in the cold.  He saw a poor man on the side of the road, with very little clothing.  St. Martin cut his cloak in half, and gave half to the man.  That night, Martin had a dream where Jesus was wearing his cloak.  St. Martin did not simply see a poor man, but saw Jesus, and tried to help him.

St. Francis of Assisi needs almost no introduction.  But how many of you have heard the story of how St. Francis, who had started to give up his father’s wealth, saw a leper, whose skin was rotting away from his body, but dismounted from his horse, gave him money to help, and even kissed his hand.  As hard as it was, Francis saw past his fear of contracting leprosy, and dared to touch, and even kiss, the lepers as a sign of his love for Jesus.

In our own more recent times, St. Teresa of Calcutta is someone who saw with the eyes of Jesus.  In the streets of Calcutta, Mother Teresa would see the “untouchables,” those whom society had rejected, literally rotting away in the streets as they died, flies likely laying their eggs in the putrid flesh, and Mother would care for them and show them the respect and love that she had for Jesus.  I worked in Rome with the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s order, not so much with the dying, but with the poor and neglected of the Eternal City.  I will admit: I struggled to see Jesus.  But for me I knew that my sight was not quite right, and that I need the healing of Jesus not to be blind to Him in the least of His brothers and sisters.  I’m sure I’m not there yet.  I still pray that I can see.  How is your spiritual sight?

20 March 2017

Drawing Closer to Jesus

Third Sunday of Lent
We are a month away from Easter Sunday.  Those words might sound exciting and comforting to you, as your Lenten penances only have 4 more weeks, but as a priest, four weeks to Easter is the busiest time of the year.  In addition to the usual busyness, I am one of the assistant Masters of Ceremonies for the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday morning, so I’m assisting with a lot of the behind the scenes work.  And, this is my first Easter here, so I’m learning how things have been done here before, and feeling my way through the liturgical celebrations as we enter into them.  This is my favorite time of year in the Church calendar, but it’s also the most intense, and, if we let it be, the most powerful.
Today we hear our first long Gospel, prepping us for Holy Week.  That’s not really why we have these long Gospels over the next three weeks, but it seems to work out that we have three long Gospels to prepare us for the Passion Narrative (a super long Gospel) that we will hear on Palm Sunday and Good Friday.  Today’s Gospel and the next two weeks’ Gospels are passages which deal with conversion, our major theme during Lent.  
Today’s conversion story is about a woman of Samaria.  And in her conversion, she comes to know Jesus more and more as the story continues.  She starts out by referring to Jesus simply as “a Jew.”  There’s no personal interaction, only referencing his religion.  But Jesus draws her in more closely, as he offers her living water.
That encounter with Jesus leads to a change in tone.  No longer is Jesus simply “you, a Jew,” but is now “Sir.”  Jesus offers her something, and she’s interested in this “living water” she is speaking about.  She likes the idea of never having to draw water again, because she is drawing water, alone, at the hottest part of the day.  We’ll learn why later in this story.

Then Jesus changes the subject.  And it is probably not the subject that modern, polite people would talk about.  Jesus says, “‘Go call your husband,’” knowing full well what her situation is.  This woman at the well is an adulteress, which is why she’s drawing water alone at the hottest part of the day.  She has been married five times before, and the man she is living with currently is not her husband.  She, of course, doesn’t want to admit this (who would?), and coyly says, “‘I do not have a husband.’”  But Jesus reveals to her a part of her life that is not in order.  This leads her to acknowledge Jesus in a different way; she comes to know Him more.  He is not, “you, a Jew,” and he is no longer just “Sir.”  He is, she says, a prophet.  
But feeling a little uneasy about the trajectory of this conversation about her love life, she changes it to something she knows will divert attention away from her personal life: how to worship.  Not much has changed today: if you want to get someone in a heated conversation, talk about how you think Mass should be celebrated.  But Jesus doesn’t rebuff her question.  He answers by stating that true worshippers will worship God the Father in Spirit and truth. 
After talking to her about worshipping well, she is drawn to talk about the Messiah.  And Jesus says to her, “‘I am he, the one speaking with you.’”  Jesus reveals Himself and His mission.  When she first started, she did not recognize Him as anything but a foreigner.  Now she is led to think of Him as the Messiah, which in Greek, is translated π›ΈπœŒπœ„πœŽπœπœŠπœ, which we translate as Christ.  From there she tells everybody about Jesus, and they come to believe as well.
This process of conversion is present in our own lives, as well.  It is present in the life of our Elect, Alexis, who is preparing for the Sacraments of Initiation.  It is present in Chris, our Candidate, preparing to be received into the Church and receive the Sacraments of Confirmation and the Eucharist.  But it is, or should be, present in each one of us.  All of us have opportunities to grow closer to Jesus.
Some of us, honestly, don’t know Jesus that well.  He is, we might say, only “you, a Jew.”  He is a stranger to us.  Some of us know about Jesus.  Maybe we come to Mass every week, we do our duty, or we come because that’s what we’ve always done on Sundays.  But Jesus still isn’t known well to us.  He is simply a respected person.  But we keep him at arm’s length, because we like the way we live, and we don’t want to have to change.
Some of us recognize Jesus as a good guy, a religious leader, someone who speaks for God (in other words, a prophet).  We feel that tug at our soul for God, and maybe we’ve even had some religious experiences in our lives when we felt really close to God.  But we still don’t recognize who Jesus fully is.  Some of us recognize Jesus as the Messiah.  We’re very active in our faith, but there are still some areas of our life that we don’t want Jesus to see, and we’re not sure we want to tell others about Jesus.  That seems a bit pushy to tell others about Jesus.  

No matter where we are in our faith, Jesus calls us to a deeper relationship with Him.  Sometimes, as we grow closer to Him, He reveals our need for Him, a need that only He can satisfy, no matter how much we try to fill that need with other, passing things.  Sometimes Jesus even points out our sins to us, in order to reject our sins and choose Him.  But Jesus always wants us to grow close to Him, especially through our worship of the Trinity in Mass.  And then He wants us to tell others about Him.  Where are we in our conversion?  We are never done; we can always grow closer to God.  Are we open to letting God change our lives?

15 March 2017

Are We There Yet?

Second Sunday of Lent
“Are we there yet?”  This common cry from someone on a long journey is as common as it is annoying.  But it’s also understandable, especially if the long journey is towards a vacation or a nice destination.  Often times we like to skip the travel part, and just arrive at the destination.  The Star Trek idea of using a transporter has for a long time seemed to me an ideal way to travel, in as much as it requires very little time to get from point A to point B.

It can be difficult when we’re not at the destination.  But think about Abram in our first reading.  This is really the beginning of the story of Abram, who would be renamed Abraham.  God calls Abram to leave Haran, where Abram’s father, Terah, had taken him.  Terah had been called to go to the land of Canaan, but something happened and Terah never made it to his destination.  So God calls Abram to go to Canaan.  One website said that the distance between Haran and Canaan was around 500 miles.  To put that in context, 500 miles south of us is the city of Nashville, Tennessee.  And Abram was 75 years old when he started that journey.  Abram did make it, and traveled around Canaan, also going to Egypt, and always seeming to struggle a little.  But he never saw the fulfillment of God’s promise that God would make of Abram a great nation.  In fact, Abram had only 2 sons, and only one of them, Isaac, was actually the son of the promise to be a great nation.  
Jesus, for His part, also knew that the pilgrimage His apostles would be on would be difficult.  He had told them that He would have to suffer and die, but assured them of the Resurrection.  But still, they didn’t really understand.  In their mind, the Messiah was not supposed to bring sorrow and die, but to bring a new Davidic kingdom, with nothing but good times for the Chosen People.  
So, to give them something to hold on to in the midst of their struggles, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on Mt. Tabor, which, from personal experience I can say is no easy hike, and there He is transfigured before them.  Jesus gives them a taste of what the Resurrection will be like so that, as they’re struggling with Jesus’ suffering and death, they will be able to hold on to a little piece of heaven.  Of course, the disciples like this heavenly vision, and would rather not leave, especially Peter.  He basically is saying today, “I’m happy here; let’s not bother with the rest of your mission.  This is good enough.”  But Jesus takes them back down the mountain, and continues His journey, His pilgrimage to Calvary and the cross.
In our own faith life, we may ask from time to time, though maybe not in these words, “Are we there yet?”  We want to be at our destination: heaven.  And that’s good.  But to get there, we have to press on.  We cannot, like Terah, Abram’s father, stop and settle on the way, lest we give up and not reach our destination, the true Promised Land.  In the midst of our sufferings and trials, we want to be done with it all and be in a place where there is no more suffering, no more confusion, no more “not yet.”  That takes courage and perseverance to press on, even in the face of difficulties, when we know that God is calling us to keep going.
Some of you, maybe many of you, feel like this parish is at least in a time of suffering and pain.  God invited you to a new pilgrimage, not so much by you moving, but by me moving here, which is a change from my venerable predecessor.  We might say that we, like Abram, have left Haran, but we haven’t made it to the Promised Land yet, and we’re wondering when, or even if, we will get there.  In many ways I feel your pain and insecurity.  We look at the bulletin and see how far off we are in Sunday/Holyday collections and wonder how we can make it (but don’t worry; I’m cutting back on expenses as much as possible).  Fr. Anthony is different than Fr. Robert, and different is sometimes scary.  Some of our friends have left the parish to go to other parishes.  These things are on my mind and heart as well.  But, I am personally comforted by the words of Jesus we heard two weeks ago, when He told us not to worry and not to be anxious, because God cares for us.  That is what helps to limit the sleepless nights that I sometimes have.

I wish I could suddenly appear in a brilliant, shining light to give you a sense that everything is going to be alright.  There are definitely signs of hope: our school is strong and growing stronger, and it is my firm belief that by spending time with our youth and their families in their schools and in their activities, which I do my best to support and to which I frequently go, our parish will rebound and that through our youth and their families, especially through our wonderful schools, new families will be drawn into our parish.  I’m not saying that everything is going to be easy and painless from here on out.  I seem to find myself on the cross every week, and the words of Psalm 22, the words that Jesus said on the cross, come easily to my mind: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  But my hope and my consolation is the Resurrection, which was prefigured in the Transfiguration that we heard about today.  God is continuing to do great things in our parish, as he has since our foundation in 1955.  But we’re not in the Promised Land yet.  We, like Abram, must press on until we get there.

07 March 2017

Untying Knots

First Sunday of Lent
Have you ever had a string or a chain that seemed to be tied up in knots, so much so that it feels like it’s impossible to untie?  Of course, we always find those knots when we have the least amount of time, and need that chain or that string to be used without it being all bundled up in knots.  Sometimes the knots can be the result of lots of jostling in the pocket or in a backpack, and what started out as two individual sides to the chain or string, suddenly appears to be inseparable without breaking it.

In our first reading today we hear about a familiar story.  Adam and Eve tie themselves up in knots.  We all know the story: God gives them every good thing on earth, but forbids them to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Of course, that’s the tree that Satan tries to get Eve to eat, which Eve then gives to Adam.  That was the first knot.  And then Cain murders Abel: the second knot.  And the knots keep on getting more and more entangled with each other as human history unfolds.  Sure, there are some Godly men and women who manage to untie a few, but the chain seems irrevocably tied up in such a way that it can never be returned to its original form.
Now, the story we heard, called The Fall, is usually presented as Eve’s fault.  Maybe some of you ladies received a little elbow nudge from your husbands during that first reading.  And certainly, Eve was the one who disobeyed God first.  But did you hear what St. Paul said in our second reading from his letter to the Romans: “Through one man sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all men, inasmuch as all sinned…”  St. Paul places the blame not on Eve, but on Adam (this is where you ladies can give a little elbow nudge back to your husbands).  Adam was the head of the human race, and in Adam’s good choices or bad choices, all of humanity was to receive blessings or curses.  
So what does Jesus do in our Gospel?  He starts to untie all the knots.  Jesus, the new Adam, the new head of the human race, who was also fully God, starts to untie the knots that sinful humanity, starting with our first parents, had created.  And Jesus starts by taking it to the one who really caused the mess in the first place: Satan.  
In one sense, Jesus begins at a disadvantage: he has a human nature, which is subject to temptation.  Jesus had also been fasting for 40 days in the desert, so that human nature was weak.  But Jesus was proving that, even in our weakness, united to God, humanity can defeat Satan.  Satan, for his part, gives the three most common areas where humans fall: physical desires, not trusting in God, and worshipping false gods.  How many times have each one of those (or even all of them together!) been the downfall in our lives?!?  How many times has it taken far less tempting than Satan did to Eve to get us to fall?!?  And yet, Jesus stands firm and rebuts Satan’s temptations with the Word of God.  
Jesus unties the knots by resisting the dominion of Satan.  The final knot is untied when Jesus offers Himself, the unblemished Lamb, who knew not sin but took sin upon Himself, and sacrifices even the good of life for the lives of all of humanity.  And the gift of the new Adam, as St. Paul reminds us, far outweighs the punishment that the first Adam brought upon us.  “For just as through the disobedience of the one man [Adam] the many were made sinners, so, through the obedience of the one [Jesus], the many will be made righteous.”
What knots have we tied ourselves in?  How have we so entangled ourselves that we can’t seem to get things straight?  How have we given in to the Tempter’s seductions?  Whatever they are, they do not stand a chance against Jesus.  Jesus knows how to untie each knot, but we have to ask Him to do so.  It is evidence of the evil one to force himself upon us.  God always invites us to accept His way, but never makes us do anything.  
We are not condemned to a life where we constantly give in to the temptations which seek to tie us up, to bind us in the chains of slavery.  If we are baptized, we have all the grace we need to say no to the major temptations of life: misuse of physical desires, mistrust in God, and giving more attention to lesser goods than to the One who is Goodness Himself: God.  
It would be easy if temptations were really two little angels, one of which looked light and glowed, the other of which was red, surrounded by fire, and carrying a pitchfork.  But that’s not the way life works.  The knots we get tied up are often knots that look good, that appeal to our lower appetites, that seem to attractive.  

But Jesus is always there to help us see temptations for what they are: empty, fleeting, and wholly unsatisfying.  And the same way that Jesus fought temptation is a sure recipe for success for us: knowing the Word of God and allowing it to illumine the path we want to take to find out if it’s the path God wants us to take.  Let Jesus untie your knots.  Find freedom in obedience to God’s way and friendship with Him.

27 February 2017

Oregon Trail, Age of Empires, and Clash of Clans

Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
When I was in middle school, probably my favorite computer game was Oregon Trail.  We didn’t have the greatest graphics then, everything was still green and black, so it wasn’t too life-like, but it was fun trying to take settlers from St. Louis to Oregon, without them dying from dysentery or starving to death because there was no food to hunt.  When I was in college, graphics had improved a lot, and my new favorite game was Age of Empires, where you got to build civilizations and defend from bands of foreign armies.  There were many a Friday night where I was playing with or against fellow seminarians on our dorm network.  Now that I’m an adult, I’ve moved on to much more sophisticated things, like Clash of Clans.  In this game, you build a city with walls and attack and defend from other players.  You can also hold mock wars with other groups, and win gold, elixir, and dark elixir.
The common thread in all of these games is the ability to control persons or civilizations.  Perhaps I have a bit of a control-complex, but it’s fun to help civilizations grow and use them to attack other groups.  There’s something fun about being in control.
But Jesus reminds us today that control in life is limited to very few things.  In most aspects of our life, we don’t have any control.  But Jesus tells us not to worry or be anxious.  If you’re like me, that’s easier said than done.  In a more and more chaotic world, the temptation is to try to gain more and more control over our circumstances in life.  
Now certainly, Jesus is not telling us that we should ignore our responsibilities in life and just let things go in favor of seeing how God works.  Jesus is not telling us that we no longer need to go to work, no longer need to pay our bills, no longer need to do our homework, etc.  Those are our responsibilities as part of being a parent or student.  
But think about all the other things we worry about over which we have no control whatsoever.  Probably one of the biggest is what people think of us.  How much time do we spend wondering what someone would think if we do a certain good or neutral action?  We can spend so much time trying to imagine what other people are going to say or think about us that we miss the opportunity to do the good that God wants us to do.
Another area that people commonly worry about is the state of the world.  There are very few things that we are going to do that will have a direct impact on our nations or other nations.  But, if we stop worrying about it and “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” in our lives, then we will be doing what we can, however indirectly, to bring peace and truth and justice to the world.  We can’t control the actions of our nation or other nations, and so should not worry about it.  That’s not to say we shouldn’t do anything about it.  But we shouldn’t be anxious about things over which we cannot control.  We can control our own actions, how we treat others, and so should do our best to live a peaceful and holy life.
Another area of worry is children who do not practice their faith.  Even if they’re not our kids, so many of us at least know someone who has stopped practicing their Catholic faith, and people can spend no small amount of time wondering about where they went wrong, what more they could have done, etc.  We shouldn’t worry about that.  Again, this doesn’t mean we should do nothing.  What we can do is first and foremost, pray for that person.  Spend a good deal of time praying for that person.  Maybe even offer your Lenten penances for that person.  And then, as you feel moved by the Holy Spirit, invite them to come to confession with you, and then Mass.  If they decline, let them know the offer is always there.  
Trust in God is also important in the other areas of our life: marriage, how many kids to have, whether or not to send those kids to a Catholic school.  Certainly, in all those decisions, we should use the gift of reason that God gave us, as well as the teachings of the Church.  But all those decisions also rely on trust in God: trust that we will choose the right person to marry, the person with whom we want to be a saint; trust that, following the teachings of the Church and using Natural Family Planning, that if God surprises us with another child, we will have the ability to love and care for that child; trust that, even if we have to give up a few of our creature comforts, God will help us provide a quality, Catholic education to our children.  

Trust can be hard.  It’s easier to try to control things.  But if we really think about, there is very little that we actually control.  If we rely on the one who actually does have control, then we can find greater happiness from not worrying and wasting energy about things beyond us.  Simply follow the advice of Jesus: “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”

13 February 2017

The Spirit of the Law

Sixth Week in Ordinary Time
Some, or maybe many of you, have heard that I have applied to become the chaplain of the Flint Post of the Michigan State Police.  I’m almost done with the process and will know by the middle of March whether I have been approved or not.  In the mean time, hoping that I am approved, and trying to get to know the troopers, I have been doing ride-alongs with them.  Many people who have experiences with law enforcement have negative experiences with them, because they have been caught doing something wrong.  But in my ride-alongs, I have been extremely impressed with the mercy of the troopers, and how often people get only a warning.  In fact, on one ride-along, a trooper asked me (and he said, “Be honest,”), “Do you think I should be doing anything differently?”  I told him that, if I were in his shoes, I probably would have given out more tickets and given fewer warnings.  He chuckled.

Besides what I see as a generally antagonistic culture when it comes to law enforcement (i.e., the cops are always wrong, they use way too much force all the time, they’re all racist, they’re horrible human beings, etc.), we are also in a culture that does not value the law.  Many people, if not we ourselves, feel like the rules were made to be broken, and that rules get in the way, rather than help us.  
So Jesus’ words today might be hard to swallow.  After all, Jesus, so we hear, wasn’t about laws and rules!  That’s why he was so tough on the Pharisees and the scribes!  But what did Jesus say today?  “‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.  I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.  Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law.’”  It would be hard to argue the whole “spirit of the law” theory while quoting these words.
But Jesus was a spirit of the law guy.  Now, the spirit of the law does not mean undoing the law.  So often that’s what we want it to mean: the spirit of the law means we don’t have to follow the real law.  But as Jesus goes beyond the letter of the law (Thou shalt not kill…, thou shalt not commit adultery…, whoever divorces his wife…, do not take a false oath…), He seems to make things stricter, not looser.  
As a confessor, I’m not sure I have ever had someone say, “Yeah, I killed somebody.”  But I do often hear anger and hatred and vengeance of the heart.  But Jesus goes beyond simply doing bodily harm.  He goes to the heart of the issue, which is, pardon the earlier pun, the heart.  
The letter of the law says that I cannot take an innocent life.  If we consider how many people are on earth, and how many of them ever actually murder someone (murder being the word we use for the taking of an innocent life), that percentage is probably pretty low.  But how many of us have wanted to do someone serious harm because they wronged us?  How many of us have held something against another person in hatred and vengeance?  That’s probably a much larger percentage.  But Jesus, the new Moses, the new Lawgiver, tells us that our offering here at Mass is only acceptable if we have been reconciled with those with whom we have issues.  If there is a large separation between us and another person, or us and God, we should go to confession, receive forgiveness of sins, and only then present ourselves for Holy Communion.
The letter of the law says that we can’t have marital relations with a person who is not our spouse or who is married to another.  Jesus reminds us that the infidelity or unchastity does not begin with the exterior parts of our body, but begins in our hearts and in our minds.
The teaching on divorce might seem very difficult.  After all, Jesus makes it very clear that we cannot divorce and remarry without committing adultery, unless the marriage is unlawful.  This is the passage that the Church points to in what is commonly referred to as the annulment process.  The Church examines the validity, or lawfulness, of the marriage.  But until the Church declares that bond unlawful, each spouse is bound to live a life free of sexual relations with someone other than their spouse.  
Whenever Jesus gives us a law, it is meant to guide us to lead happy lives.  And in my ride-alongs with the Michigan State Police, I can tell you that, outside traffic stops, the difficult situations into which the troopers are called began earlier than when 911 was called: with anger or lust in the heart; with distrust; or with any other issue.  The calls we responded to were simply the outer manifestations of interior problems that had been festering for some time.  

Today we are invited to listen to the words of Jesus.  To paraphrase our first reading from Sirach, if we follow the words of Jesus, we will be happy and be in a right relationship with God.  Before us are the choices between good and evil, life and death.  Choose the life-giving words of Jesus.  

06 February 2017

Preserving and Enlightening Society

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
The stereotypical Catholic home in the early 1960s, so I’m told, had 3 pictures in their house: one picture was of the Sacred Heart of Jesus; one picture was of the Pope (which would have been Pope John XXIII); and one picture was of John F. Kennedy.  The first two make sense without explanation.  The third makes sense to any Catholic, because John F. Kennedy was the first Catholic elected president of the United States.  

On 12 September 1960, while still running for president, JFK gave a famous address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.  That speech specifically touched on his religion (there was then, as there remains today, a certain popular anti-Catholicism), as well as religious liberty.  He had many good points in that speech, talking about other important issues as well, including encouraging others to work together, rather than let confessional differences tear the country apart.  Of course, in that time, there was still a general Judeo-Christian culture, prayers were said even in public schools, and many businesses were closed every Sunday and Good Friday.
But, in that speech, JFK seemed to also suggest, if not outright say, that one’s religion should not dictate how one acts in a pluralistic society.  Because there are so many religions in America, when it comes to the choices that individuals make in politics, they should check their faith at the doors of the chambers of the legislature or the doors of the oval office.
Fifty years later, Archbishop Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, wrote a critical response to Kennedy’s speech, which, he says, did not so much talk about different faiths and the roles they play in American society, but sought to make politics a no-man’s land when it comes to religion.  In part of Archbishop Chaput’s speech, he cites part of the Gospel we heard today when he says, “Human law teaches and forms as well as regulates; and human politics is the exercise of power – which means both have moral implications that the Christian cannot ignore and still remain faithful to his vocation as a light to the world.”
When Jesus says today, “‘You are the salt of the earth’” and “You are the light of the world’” He does not add the caveat, “unless you live in a pluralistic and polyreligious country.”  In fact, Jesus spoke these words in a country that was under foreign occupation, with only a puppet king, whose strings were pulled by a pagan, Roman government, many of whose values directly contradicted God’s revelation in the Tanakh, the Jewish Scriptures.  No, Jesus tells us that we are to give the earth a certain flavor, and we are to provide for the world a certain light, so that others may see our good deeds and glorify our heavenly Father, the true God.
Salt in Jesus’ time wasn’t just about flavor, either; it was a preservative.  It kept things from becoming rotten.  And light wasn’t as simple as flipping a switch; it didn’t exist along roadways automatically when it became dark out.  Light required fuel of some kind, but that fuel kept people from tripping and harming themselves, and guided their feet to their destination.  Light helped individuals encounter each other even as the darkness of night surrounded them.
Brothers and sisters, I don’t think it’s grossly unfair to say that, in many ways, our society has become rotten.  People no longer encounter each other in the light, but seek to control and harm each other in darkness.  Why has this happened?  It would be too facile to say that it is because so many politicians (though not all) check their religion at the door.  But think of how many Catholics are in government today, and how many of them say, “My faith says X is wrong, but I can’t force my faith on others, so I’m going to support X.”  Reasonable people can disagree on how best to implement different aspects of the Gospel, but so many today don’t even think the Gospel has any place in American society.  
But politicians are not the only ones to blame for our current state of affairs.  It is also because Christians do not always try to be salt and light.  In fact, we have, in too many circumstances, become flavored with a taste that is not from the Gospel, and have been guided by a light which does not come from Christ.  We have fallen victim to the ideology that states that we have the freedom of worship, not the freedom of religion.  We can worship God however we want in our churches, but we cannot take the teachings of Jesus out of the church buildings and into our homes, workplaces, and even our government.  I believe that Kennedy sought to assure people that Catholics could be good Americans; but the result we see today is the same that Kennedy’s Irish forebears saw when they came to the US: Catholics need not apply or be engaged in American society.
If we wish to preserve what is good in society; if we wish to be a truly enlightened society, we must first be convinced by what Jesus teaches, and then live it out in all aspects of our lives.  Do we take the Word of God seriously when it says, “Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them.  […] Remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech”?  Or are those just pious words that are meant to do nothing else but bounce off the brick walls of this church and die in the air?

If we are not the salt of the earth and the light of the world, then our culture, our nation, our politics will continue to spoil, and will soon become rancid.  Darkness will surround us.  Our vocation, our call in Jesus, is to be salt and light.  To paraphrase Kennedy in another speech, let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the Catholic answer.  Let us be salt and light.

30 January 2017

A Strong Eighth Grader

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
This past Wednesday at our school Mass, we celebrated the Feast of Conversion of St. Paul.  And in my homily I was talking about how God chose St. Paul, even though he had started out persecuting Christians, and trying to arrest them.  And in part of the homily I referenced both what we heard in our second reading today, as well as when St. Paul says that he was given a thorn in his flesh, but God assured St. Paul that God’s power is made manifest in weakness.  To illustrate the point between being strong and weak, I asked one of our eighth grade students to come forward (he didn’t know he was going to be called forward, either).  This was one of our students who plays football and basketball, and is pretty athletic.  Once he was forward, I asked him to flex.  He looked at me for a second, turned a little red with embarrassment, but then flexed and showed off his guns (that’s how some young men talk about their muscles).  And I’ll be honest, I didn’t realize how strong he was!  After Mass he told me that he benches 200 lbs.  I can barely add any weights to the bar, so I was the demonstration of one who is weak.

St. Paul reminds us today that we don’t have to be the wisest, we don’t have to be the most powerful, we don’t have to be nobly born in order to follow Jesus.  God so often chooses those who are not considered strong or powerful or wise to be the vessels of His power.  That’s the way our God works.  More often than not, God’s choices don’t make sense in our modern understanding, whether modern is in the time of Jesus, the first millennium, the second millennium, or even now in the third millennium since the birth of Christ.  
As strange as Jesus’ teaching sounds to us, it probably sounded as weird for the people listening to Jesus.  Now, as then, we don’t tend to think of the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who desire righteousness, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness as people who are blessed.  Those people, in fact, seem like the ones who are the victims of society, and those who get run over by everybody.  But Jesus calls them blessed.  
How are they blessed?  They are attentive to God and His will, rather than the will of the world.  They are the ones who spend their attention and energy on serving God and bringing about His reign, rather than trying to hoard money, grab after power, cheat people, seek after vengeance, or look for and act on the desires of lust.  
And though Jesus taught on the mount in Galilee some 2,000 years ago, those words still apply to us today.  If we want to be blessed we have to rely on God, work for justice and peace, be meek and merciful, and be clean of heart.  Clean of heart may be one of the hardest in today’s world.  There are so many groups that make purity difficult: every second over $3,000 is being spent on lewd web pages.  Lack of purity can lead to addictions, can rewire the brains of our youth not to appreciate what is truly good and truly beautiful, can destroy marriages and families, and promote human trafficking.  It is an enslaving force in general.  But Jesus desires us to be free.  He wants to unshackle us from this uncleanness, so that we can live in true blessedness.  If you or someone you know struggles with lack of purity, like pornography, the Diocese of Lansing website has resources on its Marriage and Family Life webpage.  

No matter what beatitude strikes you as the most difficult, being weak is not a problem.  God chooses “the weak to shame the strong,” as St. Paul reminds us in our second reading.  All of us have weaknesses.  And so all of us can be chosen by God to show that God does great things, not by human accomplishment, but by His grace.

23 January 2017

Jesus in Hicksville

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sometimes the name of a place is used, but then no one really knows where it is.  For example, people will still sometimes say, “She lives to Timbuktu,” to express that the woman lives very far away.  But if you ask people where Timbuktu is, most people don’t know, other than the fact that it’s far away.  Other people might think it’s a made-up city.  In fact, Timbuktu is a real city in the West African country of Mali.  Now, as Americans aren’t always the best at geography, even saying it’s in Mali in West Africa might not help.  So, hopefully to make it clearer, Mali is north of the countries of Ivory Coast and Ghana.  If you’re still not clear where Timbuktu is, you can google it when you get home.

For Jews hearing about the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, they would have understood where that was.  We, as 21st century Americans, probably just glossed over those names, and figured that they are some weird names from a time long past.  Zebulun and Naphtali were two of the 12 sons of Jacob, also known as Israel.  Long after they died, the tribes that bore their names received land in the Promised Land.  They were not the strongest tribes or the most distinguished for anything, and they became the part of Israel that broke away after King Solomon died.  They were later conquered by the Assyrians, and mixed Judaism with the pagan religions.  For observant Jews, those lands were backward, not faithful, and not a destination.  We might use the term “Hicksville” to describe it.
But the Prophet Isaiah promised that God, after degrading those lands, would give it a great light, to bring it out of darkness.  God would give them great joy, as at a harvest festival, and would end their slavery.  God promises good things for those who, for centuries, were not seen as entitled to good things.
That promise was fulfilled in Jesus.  Jesus goes to Capernaum, “in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali,” to preach the Gospel, saying, “‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”  Jesus is the one who is the Light of the World, and gives them light by revealing the good news of salvation in Him.  Jesus cures the sick and expels demons, something that would cause anyone to rejoice.  And Jesus would eventually destroy the slavery of sin by His death on the cross.  Jesus was the perfect fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy to “Hicksville.”  While Jerusalem was the place to be because of the temple, and was the center of religious life for any Jew, God, in the Person of Jesus, goes to places that other religious leaders had long since abandoned.  
And while in “Hicksville,” Jesus begins to form His new Church.  He choses Twelve Apostles, some of whose names we begin to hear at the end of today’s Gospel: Simon, later called Peter, and his brother, Andrew, as well as James and John, the sons of Zebedee.  These four are fisherman.  They are not well educated, and while they practiced Judaism, they were not scholars of it.  None of them were rabbis or scribes.  
In one sense, as people who live in the greater-Flint area, we should be able to relate to the land of Zebulun and Naphtali.  Flint may not be “Hicksville,” but it’s not exactly the top destination of Michigan.  Generally, people are not climbing over each other to move into Flint, as we all well know.  But that does not mean that God has abandoned us.  To the contrary, God still brings light to people who walk in darkness, and still wants to crush the slavery of sin in our lives.  
We see that through the care of Bishop Boyea, a successor to the apostles, for Flint.  Besides the entire Faith in Flint initiative, which seeks to gather the resources of the Diocese of Lansing to assist the Catholic and even non-Catholic population of Flint, no other region in the Diocese has so many young, dynamic priests like Fr. Zach Mabee, Fr. Paul Donnelly, Fr. James Mangan, and Fr. Dan Kogut.  Just as God has a special love for what Biblical scholars refer to as the anawim, the poor and outcast, so Bishop Boyea has shown his special love for Flint by sending all-star priests to build-up the faithful and spread the Gospel.
But God is also calling you to build up the Church.  While we priests do our best to support the faithful with the graces which flow from the sacramental life of the Church, it is the faithful who are called in particular to spread the Gospel and build up the Church.  It is by encountering Christ, even here in Flint, which strengthens us to live our faith, not just for an hour on Sundays, but seven days a week in our homes and workplaces.  Faith sharing groups like ARISE are meant to strengthen our faith and give us the courage to be sent out, which in Greek comes from the word π›‚π›‘π›π›”π›•π›π›Œπ›π›Š, which means those who are sent out.

The strength of this parish comes from your response to God’s grace.  If you engage your faith, and make it something that is not only about Sundays, we will be a strong parish.  If we are willing to be challenged to conform our lives more closely to Jesus, and then to be sent out to show and tell others about that transformation in our lives, then Flint will become a place of blessing, a place Jesus is at work.  God calls us to repent and spread the good news of the kingdom of heaven.  Will we respond to God’s call?

09 January 2017

Giving Not Getting

Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord 
To give a person a good gift, one has to know the person.  For example: last Monday my grandfather turned 90.  There are lots of thoughtful gifts that one can get a 90-year-old: maybe precious metals, mementos, etc.,.  My grandfather didn’t want any of it.  He simply wanted to eat together as a family and spend time with each other.  So all four of my uncles, even the two from Arizona, came together with my parents and we ate out at a restaurant.  However, disregarding my grandfather’s instructions that there were to be no gifts, I bought him something we joke about all the time, something I was sure he would use: bologna.  He loved the gift, and it caused a good amount of laughter.
My grandfather, seated next to my grandmother,
with their 5 children behind them
I also recently asked some of the kids at Powers that I know who are dating what they got for their significant others.  The students I spoke to talked about getting jewelry (especially for the girls), clothes, and other sentimental items.  Some of them took their boyfriend or girlfriend out to dinner, or gave them gift cards.  Talking with the students, it reminds me why I was glad I never had a girlfriend in high school for whom I had to buy things.   
We hear today about the gifts that the magi brought Jesus: gold (for a king); frankincense (for a god); and myrrh (for burial).  We of course know that these gifts were very fitting for Jesus (as well as very pricey), as Jesus is the King of Kings, True God, and the one who suffered death and was buried for our salvation.  The gifts of these three wise men were the perfect gifts.
The gift that Jesus wants is the gift of our lives.  He wants all of us, not just some of us, but all of who we are, and He wants that gift because in giving ourselves to Him, we end up finding true happiness.  This is one of the paradoxes of our faith: it is only in giving ourselves away to Jesus that we actually find who we are meant to be and how we can be happy.  In this new year, people do all sorts of things to try to better themselves and give themselves happier lives.  In reality, the only way we truly better ourselves is by giving our mind, heart, body, and soul to Jesus.  Loving God and loving our neighbor is a gift even better than gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
What is interesting is that, as we come to Mass each Sunday to adore the Christ, just as the magi did two millennia ago, some, maybe even many, of us come not wanting to give a gift, but wanting to receive one.  Mass has become to some, or maybe even many, “what do I get out of it?”  Perhaps the words that priests least want to hear on a Saturday evening or Sunday is: “I don’t get anything out of Mass, Father.”  
Of course, we do get something out of Mass.  We get to hear the Word of God; we get to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus; sometimes we get a good homily; we get the opportunity to unite or lives more closely with Jesus.  If we feel like we don’t get anything out of Mass, we have to ask ourselves: is the Word of God and the Body and Blood of Jesus not a good enough of a gift for us?  But the real problem is not what we get or don’t get out of Mass, but thinking that we go to Mass to get something in the first place.  Just as the beginning of cultural changes are hard to pinpoint, so the beginning of this phenomenon of going to Mass to get something is also hard to pinpoint.  When did we first start thinking: Mass is only as good as when I am moved emotionally, or like the music, or like the homily?  I don’t know, but that approach is a poison that is drawing people away from Jesus.
Don’t get me wrong: people do sometimes have great emotional experiences during the Mass, or the music helps them to pray and unite their lives to Jesus, and on rare occasions they even get good homilies.  And that is something for which we can give thanks.  But each time we come to Mass, we come to give, not to get.  Coming to Mass to get something out of it is like the wise men arriving at the home of Mary and Joseph and Jesus, and saying: “Thank God we found the newborn king!  What can you give us?”  No doubt, the magi did receive something for seeing Jesus, and recognizing in Him the newborn King.  But they did not travel from afar to get something, but rather to give something.

If we come to Mass because of what we like, or the experience we want to have, we are coming not so much for Jesus, but for ourselves, and we are missing the point of Mass.  We have the opportunity each week to come and adore the same Jesus the magi worshipped.  We have the opportunity each week to give Jesus the gift that He wants: not so much gold or frankincense or myrrh, but the gift of who we are, so that He can truly make us free and happy.  The wise men followed the star from afar to come to Jesus in Bethlehem; most of us don’t even have to use OnStar to get to St. Pius X.  But in the Eucharist God becomes flesh once more, and we can do Him homage.  If we put ourselves into the Mass, then we will likely get something out of it.  But even if we don’t “get anything out of it” (beyond hearing God’s Word and receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus), then we don’t need to get worried or leave.  At those times Jesus invites us to give more deeply of ourselves and unite even the things we don’t like to the cross of Jesus, so that He can transform us more powerfully into His disciples.  Jesus desires the gift of all of who we are.  Did we come to get or to give?