13 August 2018

A Godly Diet

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
There are all sorts of diets these days: Atkins, South Beach, Paleo, No Carb, and the list goes on and on.  The different types of food you eat are supposed to help you either lose weight or maybe grow muscle mass, or help with a particular health goal.  Growing up watching cartoons, I was very familiar with the Popeye diet, where, if you wanted to grow strong, you downed a can of spinach.  I didn’t know what spinach was (we never really ate it at my house), but it seemed to work well for Popeye.  I have had spinach in salads and Greek food since, and it’s pretty tasty, but I can’t say that I have become as strong as Popeye when I eat it.

Our first reading, psalm response, and Gospel reading all have to do with eating.  So if you’re getting hungry, that’s understandable.  In the first reading, an angel tells Elijah to eat, or else “the journey will be too long!”  And our psalm and Gospel both speak about tasting the Lord.  The Psalm says that we are to taste and see the goodness of the Lord.  And Jesus in the Gospel talks about Himself as the Bread of Life, and if we eat of Him we will live for ever.  
We need the Eucharist.  It is our spiritual diet that gives us strength to live as Christians.  Vatican II called the Eucharist the source and summit of our Christian life: the fount from which we gain all of our strength to follow Jesus, and the goal of our life, because heaven in the wedding banquet of the Lamb of God.  We tend to talk about the Eucharist as food for our Christian journey with people who are dying, as we give them Viaticum, which literally means “on the way with you,” but in our daily lives, even when we are not dying, we need Jesus to be with us on our way to Him.  
The Eucharist is our spiritual life, because it is the life of God, the true flesh and true blood of Jesus.  We taste the goodness of God by tasting His Body and Blood in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist.  And yet, from the very beginning, we have also protected the Eucharist and required preparation for it, since it is not any everyday food.  St. Justin Martyr, in the early second century, spoke about how the Eucharist was only for those who were baptized and believed what the Church taught.  It wasn’t for everyone.  And to this day, we still hold that, unless one is Catholic, one cannot receive the Eucharist in a Catholic church (with very few exceptions).  Those who are not Catholics, even if they believe in Jesus, cannot partake of Holy Communion with us, because they don’t have communion with us, and we are never closer to each other in the Body of Christ than we are in the Eucharist.  
But even beyond that, sometimes even Catholics lose communion with Jesus and with the Church through grave or mortal sins, sins that separate us from the saving grace of God given to us in baptism.  And so the Church requires us to have that communion restored, to be healed of our grave or mortal sins before we present ourselves for Holy Communion, for, how can we have communion with Jesus in Holy Communion if we have separated ourselves from Him through sin?  Now perhaps you are thinking to yourself, “Well, I’m not aware of any grave or mortal sins, nor have I been in some time, so you’re losing me, Father.”  Praise God that you have been sustained in grace.  But others may struggle more, and, as a good shepherd, I need to warn the sheep about pitfalls.  If we have skipped Mass through laziness, if we are guilty of adultery or fornication, if we have taken God’s Name in vain, or any other grave sin, then we need to go to confession first before we present ourselves for Holy Communion.  Otherwise, our unworthy reception of the Eucharist does not help us on our way, but becomes another obstacle to having God’s grace and life within us through the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ.
But beyond what we shouldn’t do, what does the Eucharist do for us?  If it is the food for our Christian journey, how does it give us strength?  For one, the Eucharist unites us to Christ more closely than we could ever be with anyone else on earth.  We often think of marriage as the greatest exchange of love between two persons, but infinitely greater than that is receiving the Eucharist, because we receive the love of Jesus which was made manifest for us when He died on the cross for you.  If no one else existed on earth, Jesus would have still died for you; that’s how much he loves you, and that love is consumed when receive the Eucharist worthily.
A second effect is that our venial sins, the small ways that we have said no to God, are wiped clean.  All those little things that we do, and we know what they are, that are not what we should be doing as followers of Jesus, those things are washed clean in our souls.  The Eucharist is a great way to find forgiveness for our small sins (not our mortal or big sins, but our small ones).  
A third effect is that we get to taste heaven.  We often talk about being so close to something that we can almost taste it.  In the Eucharist, we can taste heaven, because we receive Jesus who is in heaven.  When we receive the Eucharist, heaven exists within us, and the more that we live the life of heaven here on earth, the more we’ll be ready for it for ever at the end of our lives.  The more we practice for heaven, the more we’ll be ready for it at game time.  Through the Eucharist, the veil that separates heaven from earth is pulled back, and Jesus gives us Himself so that we can experience it in a small way.  What a great blessing the Eucharist is for us!  There is nothing more valuable on earth, because nothing is more valuable than Christ, and the Eucharist is His Body and Blood.
I want to leave you today with a beautiful prayer written by St. Thomas Aquinas for the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, the Body and Blood of Christ.  I invite you to learn this prayer, and perhaps make it a part of your preparation prayers before Mass begins.

O Sacred Banquet, in which Christ is received, the memory of his Passion is recalled, the soul is filled with grace, and the pledge of future glory is given us.  Amen.  

06 August 2018

Want or Need?

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
In my first few years as a priest, I would, from time to time, buy lotto tickets with my own money.  Every time I would buy a ticket, I would remind God that I would give at least 10% to the Church, and how much good $15 million (I would usually only play if the jackpot were $150 million or higher) could do.  And yet, I never seemed to win; I barely even won enough to pay for the tickets.  So I stopped playing.

I’m sure some of you have done that, have told God that if He just gave you some money, or something else you want, how much good you could do with it.  We tend to be, especially in our younger days, better at knowing what we want than what we need.  Sometimes what we want is what we need, but not always, and often that comes with a certain level of maturity.  As a kid at Christmas, it was always better to get toys than to get clothes (especially underwear!).  But toys will fall out of favor or break, while clothes (even underwear) are more necessary.
In our first reading and the Old Testament prefigurement of John chapter 6, we hear about the Israelites who are not happy with what the Lord in the desert.  They’re so ungrateful to God that they would rather go back to slavery than remain with God.  It’s interesting to really think about that: they would rather go back to slavery, to barely making it, to being subservient laborers making the grand buildings of the Pharaohs, than stay with God, who had destroyed Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea while the Israelites passed through safely.
We also hear about the Jews in this week’s installment of John, chapter 6.  Jesus knows that they are not following Him because they believe in Him, even after He fed more than 5,000 of them from 5 loaves and two fish.  They are following Him because they thought Jesus was what we could call now a vending machine that gives out free food.  And when Jesus pushes them to believe in Him, they demand another sign, another multiplication of loaves.  Instead of giving them what they want, Jesus says that He is the bread of life, and if anyone believes in Him he will never hunger or thirst.  
In both the first reading and the Gospel, the people want what they want, and reject what they need: God.  And we might think it is silly for people to prefer slavery to God, and to not recognize that Jesus is God based on His miracles.  But we have not always come so far; in our own lives we prefer things to God, and prefer slavery of our favorite sins to God.
So many times in our daily lives we think about things that we want, things that we think will make us happy.  Maybe it’s a person, maybe a boyfriend or girlfriend that we’re convinced we can’t live without.  Maybe we want lots of money, because we’re convinced it will make our life easy.  Maybe we want a better home with more space, or maybe a pool, or maybe that cottage up north on a lake.  There are so many things we can want, and focus our attention on, that we think will make us happy.  And none of those things are bad in themselves.  But they all come second to God, and not even a close second.  The person who has nothing but who has God can still be filled with joy.  The person who has everything but does not have God is never filled, and always feels that emptiness in his heart.  St. Paul encourages us in the second reading to put behind us the old way of life, the way of life where we focus on what we have and on what we can get, and to live in the new way of life where we recognize that we have all we need in Jesus.   
In fact, St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the saints depicted in our icons, says that virtue and holiness is found when we order rightly our loves, with the love of God first, and the love of everything else in its proper place after God.  It’s not wrong to want things, but do we think about those things more than we think about God?  Do we work harder to obtain those things than we work on our daily relationship with God?
There’s a beautiful Gospel hymn called “Give Me Jesus” that echoes this point.  It starts out, “In the morning, when I rise / In the morning, when I rise / In the morning when I rise / Give me Jesus. //  Give me Jesus, / Give me Jesus. / You can have all this world, / Give me Jesus.”  The next verse starts, “When I am alone,” and ends, “Give me Jesus.”  And the final verse starts, “When I come to die,” and ends, “Give me Jesus.”  The Gospel hymn reminds us that, at all times of our life, and even at the end of our life, we should recognize our need for Jesus.  The others are all wants, all desires that we may not really need.

That’s a hard prayer.  I know that I’m not perfect in preferring Jesus to everything.  But it’s my goal.  I have friends that I prefer to Jesus sometimes; maybe not when I think about it, but in the way I act.  But, if they are more important to me than God, then I’ve made an idol for myself, and I need to re-evaluate my priorities.  Of course, just because we prefer God to other people or other things doesn’t mean that we will necessarily lose them.  But we could if God asked us to, because God is enough for us.  In these moments of silence, think about what you desire the most.  What takes up most of your time and energy?  The many things that you want in your life, or the one thing that is truly necessary: Jesus?  You can have all this world, give me Jesus.

30 July 2018

Like Fr. Mulcahy

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Whenever I ask my parents what they want for their birthday or Christmas, they usually say they don’t need anything.  There may be a few things that they might pick-up for themselves, but they’re usually not that communicative about what those things are.  And the things that I usually think of that they probably would enjoy, are a bit out of my price range for gifts. 
As we begin our five-week trek through John chapter 6 today, we start with Jesus feeding the 5,000 plus.  We heard a similar story in our first reading from the Second Book of Kings with the Prophet Elisha.  Elisha has twenty barley loaves for 100 people, and Jesus has five loaves and two fish for over 5,000 people.  When Philip says that they don’t have enough, Andrew replies that they only have a little, and certainly not enough for everyone.  But Jesus takes that little, and miraculously multiplies it so that everyone has enough, and, in fact, there are twelve wicker baskets left over.  God provides for His people, even when all they have is just a little gift.
I’m a pretty big fan of the TV show “M*A*S*H.”  And, as you might imagine, I identify a bit with Fr. Mulcahy.  But it goes beyond the fact that he’s a priest chaplain in the show, and I’m a priest and chaplain in real life.  Fr. Mulcahy is a little naïve, doesn’t get the big crowds for Sunday services, and doesn’t have much that is spectacular about him.  In one of the episodes, he has to compete against a great runner for a competition between two different units.  And even though the other runner is far superior, Fr. Mulcahy does not back down and runs his best race anyway.  I won’t spoil the episode for you by telling you what happens, in case you want to watch it.
I’m a bit like Fr. Mulcahy.  I’ve lived a fairly sheltered life.  People don’t generally look at me with the word “spectacular” on their mind (in fact, one of my great disappointments in life is how little time I have spent and spend on my own physical fitness).  I’ve got no great talents (one of my classmates has a special charism of healing).  I enjoy learning but I’m not a great student or teacher (one of my other classmates learns foreign languages with ease and has his doctorate).  I work hard at preaching, but I’m no Bishop Barron or Fulton Sheen, let alone St. John Chrysostom.  I’m just Fr. Anthony Strouse, with a few small talents from a small town, doing his best to lead people to God and run a parish.
But, like Fr. Mulcahy in “M*A*S*H,” I can honestly say that I try to give what little I have to God, and He uses them to bring about some good.  I know it’s God, because it’s far beyond what I could have ever done on my own.  God takes this pipsqueak of a man, with an average amount of small talents, and does great things, just like He did almost 2,000 years ago when He fed all those people.  There’s nothing spectacular about five loaves and two fish.  But God made it more than enough through Jesus.  
Maybe some of you are the brightest in your field, or the richest, or the strongest, or the most socially connected.  Praise God for those things and use them for His glory.  But if you’re like me, and don’t have much to offer the Lord, I would invite you today to give it to Him anyway.  How? you say.  Well, as you might have noticed in my three years here, I’m big on the liturgy, and celebrating it well.  And part of celebrating that well is for all the people at Mass to give Jesus everything, even the smallest thing, that has happened since you last came to Mass.  Just give it to Jesus.  Tell him about it in your prayer before Mass begins.  Visualize putting whatever it is you have with the bread and the wine that are brought forward.  And as you listen in silence to the Eucharistic Prayer I say, see the angels taking those small things and big things to God the Father in heaven, through Jesus Christ His Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit.  And then God will do something great with it.  I don’t know what it will be, but when we give our best gifts to God, no matter how small they are, He always receives them as the best gift from His children, and transforms us and the world by it.  
Maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe letting the liturgy transform us by offering ourselves to God the Father through Christ the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit won’t have a huge effect.  Maybe its just a cockamamie belief of mine that I picked up through years of study.  But I don’t think I am wrong on this.  And I think the Mass can transform us if we truly offer ourselves with the bread and the wine.  Now, it hasn’t made me a strong stud, I still don’t have the gifts that many of my brother priests do, and I’m certainly not a saint yet.  But I know it’s helping to change me, for the better, and helping me become the saint that God wants me to be.  

So maybe try it out yourselves, if you’re not already.  In these moments of silence after the homily, think of what you want to give God, no matter how insignificant you think it might be.  After all, if God can feed 5,000 plus with five loaves and two fish, imagine what He could do with you!

23 July 2018

Wasting Time with Jesus

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Brad Paisley, one of the great country music singers of our time, has a song he released in 2005 called, “Time Well Wasted.”  He goes through all the things he could have been doing, things that were very practical, like raking leaves, washing the car, etc., but talks about how spending time with his love was “time well wasted.”
America, in particular, has a thing against “wasting” time.  We place work and productivity on a very high pedestal.  And there’s something good about that.  Work can be sanctifying if we unite it to Jesus, and producing new ideas and new products helps to better society.  But the temptation in our prodigiousness, the excess of that virtue of working hard, is working too hard, and missing out on the important things of life.  I remember when I was studying in Italy how things would close down for a few hours around lunch.  Now, I don’t mean to offend, and certainly I don’t want to stereotype too much, but in Europe, Italians are not known for being hard workers in the first place.  But they always make sure to take a break in the middle of the day for pranzo, lunch, and a nice riposo, a nice nap.  And while we might think that’s a waste of daylight, there’s something good about spending time with family and friends to enjoy a leisurely meal and rest.  The work will always be there, but as some people learn in tragic ways, friends and family are not always with us on earth.
Bishop Barron, in his new series on the Mass, talks about how the Mass is the ultimate form of play.  That might seem counterintuitive, given how serious we take the Mass.  But, think about children and how seriously they take playing.  Or think about sports and how seriously we take playing those games.  There are rules, there are expectations, there are uniforms.  So often, we think that the most important thing is work, and we play if we have time.  But play can be more important, especially when we talk about the Mass.
It’s no secret that people don’t go to Mass anymore.  We notice it as we look around, and as we prepare for the transition to two Masses per weekend.  So why are Masses so scarcely populated, and not just here in Flint, where people continue to leave the city, but around the United States and around the world?
Jesus, after His disciples had returned, invited the apostles to go off “to a deserted place and rest awhile.”  The ones whose very title, “apostle,” means one who is sent out, need time to rest with Jesus.  And what do we do at Mass, if not rest with Jesus?  We worship God, and that is most important, but just like the Jews on the Sabbath, we rest, and worshipping God allows us to rest from our labors, not because we are lazy, but because we imitate God in resting from His work of creation.  I think that part of the reason for people not coming to Mass is that they expect the Mass to provide something that it’s not meant to provide.  If you want to be entertained at Mass, then you will surely be disappointed, because the Mass is not a movie or a show.  If you want an emotional or spiritual high, then you may be disappointed, because the Mass is not meant to appeal to every personality style and temperament every week.  If you want music that speaks to you each and every time, then you’re putting way too much pressure on the Mass, because Catholic music, truly Catholic music, is meant to be adding dressing to Scripture.  Can we be entertained at Mass?  It happens; some priests are funny, and others, like me, are just funny-looking.  Can we get an emotional or spiritual high?  It can happen, and praise God when it does!  Can music touch our hearts in a way that mere words cannot?  Sometimes the words put together with a certain musical setting hits us right in the feels.  But Mass is meant to help us worship God and rest in Him.  
I know that’s a tough message.  I know it’s not the message we want to hear, because we want to be entertained, we want the high, we want the feels.  But too many sheep have wandered away from the fold because what they want from the Mass is not what the Mass is meant to give.  Sometimes even priests have mislead and scattered the flock by overly inserting themselves in the Mass, making the Mass a performance of their personality, instead of celebrating the Mass as the Church asks.  And I also know that sometimes, despite my own best efforts, my homilies are boring.  Our sound system could also use some updating. 

But I invite you to come to St. Pius X each weekend after your weekly work of spreading the Gospel to rest with Jesus and to worship Him, who brought us near by His blood, and who reconciled us to God through His Body through the Cross.  Sunday sports may sound more enticing.  The lawn may need mowing and the laundry may need cleaning.  The kids may be a handful and may be noisy.  But come to Mass anyway, to rest with Jesus.  And since you all already do come to Mass, tell your kids, tell your godchildren, tell your friends that Jesus knows you need a rest–not entertainment, not an emotional or spiritual roller coaster, but rest.  Receive the Body of Christ.  Taste the fountain of immortality.  Waste time with Jesus and worship Him who gives you the precious gift of rest in Him.

09 July 2018

Domesticated Prophets

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
According to the most scholarly of sources, Wikipedia, dogs were domesticated sometime around 14,700 years ago, based on a dog being buried near a human grave.  Since then, we have many different varieties of domestic dogs that are called, because of their long association with humans, man’s best friend.
What our early ancestors did with dogs, we have done with Biblical prophets: we have domesticated them.  We have taken out, or chosen to ignore, many of the wild traits, in order to make it more comfortable to live with them.  But prophets have always been quite eccentric people that were not, at first blush, the best spokesmen for God.  Moses, the first great prophet, was slow of speech and tongue, according to his own words.  And he, by the power of God, changed a staff into a snake, caused the Nile to turn to blood, and brought a number of plagues upon Egypt.  Samuel, the great prophet who anointed the first kings of Israel, Saul and David, killed the Amalekite King Agag because Saul, was ordered by God to kill King Agag, but refused to do so.  Elisha was jeered at by some small
boys, who said, “‘Go up, baldhead!” and he cursed them, and two she-bears came out of the woods and tore them to pieces.  In chapter 20 of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, God tells Isaiah, “Go and take off the sackcloth from your waist, and remove the sandals from your feet.  This he did, walking naked and barefoot.”  And it says in the next verse that this happened for 3 years.  Jeremiah told the king that Jerusalem, the place of the great Temple of the Lord, was going to be destroyed, and no one believed him.  And St. John the Baptist, the last and greatest of prophets, wore a camel-hair tunic and ate locusts and honey.  None of these seem to be people that civilized folk would want to be around.
And perhaps that is part of the reason they were never accepted in their home towns, as Jesus said in the Gospel today.  We tend to think of the prophets as nice guys who were able to tell the future.  We make them pretty well-dressed, white-bearded men.  But they railed against the injustices of their day and often became very unpopular in the process (walking around naked for 3 years can tend to make a person unpopular).  In many cases, they spoke out against the king, because he was the leader of the people.  But no matter whether they spoke out against a person or a situation, they always spoke the words that God gave them to say.
It’s cliché, but as prophets, God calls us to give comfort to the afflicted and affliction to the comfortable.  Jesus, as the source of prophecy and the Prophet about whom Moses spoke, to whom the Chosen People needed to listen, lived this out in a most perfect way.  To the Pharisees and scribes, those who were assured about their own righteousness, Jesus did not have great words to say, calling them “broods of vipers” and “white-washed sepulchers.”  But to the sinners, those who were often excluded from the daily life of Israel, Jesus preached love and acceptance, even while calling them, too, to conversion.  The woman caught in adultery is not stoned for her sin, but is told to go and sin no more.  The Samaritan woman at the well was convicted by Jesus about her many husbands, but she is also encouraged to drink the living water that comes from Jesus so that she can have eternal life.
There are parts of our life that God calls others to confront in us, and parts of our life that need the comfort of God.  When a person does not realize the conversion that needs to take place, God calls us to issue strong, dramatic words to help that person realize his or her need for God and a change in life.  When a person is beat up by the world, and despairing of any chance of redemption, God calls us to issue tender, loving words to help that person realize how much value he or she has.  We are not called to be nice, to say, “but that’s none of my business,” when we see sin and its effects in others.  But we are called to be prophets, by virtue of our baptism, who afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.  
I’m not suggesting that we should walk around naked, not even for a day.  I’m not saying that we should curse people who make fun of us and send she-bears after them to tear them to pieces.  I’m not saying that we should threaten the destruction of a church.  But we also have to be careful about only saying things that people want to hear, things that do not make demands on life or call for conversion, things that do not challenge.  

God has called us to be prophets, and that in itself is a radical demand.  God calls us to speak His Word in our daily lives so that others can either turn from the evil they’re doing and live, and/or know just how much God loves them and wants the best for them.  Do not take the wild nature out of our prophetic call!  God save us from domesticated prophets!!

02 July 2018

Death and Resurrection

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Death.  It’s scary.  It seems so final.  What is beyond death is, generally, unknown.  It is the biggest change a person goes through in life, after being conceived and born.  We do everything we can to avoid death: we create new medicines; we buy creams to try to keep us looking young; we spend lots of money to fight death.  And yet, death comes to us all, some as young people, some as old.
Fighting death is, in one sense, natural for us because we were not made for death.  In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve cared for the Tree of Life, which would have allowed them to live forever.  But they were cast out of the garden, and banned from that tree.  And, as our first reading stated, “God did not make death.”  Death entered the world because when our first parents rejected God, they rejected life.  St. Paul says it this way in the Letter to the Romans: “Therefore, just as through one person sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all, inasmuch as all sinned…”  Everything in our being knows that we are made for eternal life, and yet we all have to experience death, and so we fight against it.
But, we need no longer fear death, because Jesus has conquered it by His Death and Resurrection.  Jesus gave a foretaste of that in today’s Gospel.  The woman with hemorrhages was getting worse; perhaps she was close to death.  But she went to Jesus because she had faith that He could make things better.  The little girl, the synagogue official’s daughter, was already dead by the time that Jesus got to her.  But her parents had faith, and she was returned to them.  Jesus unbound the power of death and gave new life.  Now, in both cases, the woman and the girl, they would later die.  But their faith changed the approach to death.  They followed Jesus’ command that we heard, “‘Do not be afraid; just have faith.’”
Death, for those who have faith in and follow Jesus should not be something that we fear so much.  Yes, we still may be anxious about the unknown, and we should not do anything to speed up our own death, but we need not be afraid if we have faith.  
In “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” a story is told about the Deathly Hallows and three brothers.  Two of the three brothers try to cheat death.  But the third brother gained Death’s cloak of invisibility, and hid from death for many years.  After a long life, the third brother gave his cloak of invisibility to his son, and, as the story goes, “greeted death as an old friend.”  That’s not quite our view of death as Christians, but there is something that rings true in that story.  As believers in Jesus, death is not something we fear, but something that we can greet as a friend, because it is the necessary transition from this life to the life to come.  St. Augustine says that the only Christian who should fear death, is the one who has not truly followed Jesus, because eternal life will not be a life of joy, but a life of eternal torment.
If we are not afraid, if we have faith in Jesus, death is that which is the conclusion of our trials and testing on earth, and the beginning of our reward.  The student who has studied is not afraid of the final exam, but sees it as the necessary way to move towards graduation.  Our final judgment is not based on what we know, but, as St. John of the Cross states, whom we loved and how we loved.  But it still can allow us to graduate, to move on, to pass over, from this Valley of Tears to the eternal banquet of the Lamb of God in heaven.  
But death need not only be thought of in terms of our final breath.  We experience little deaths throughout our life, and our approach to those little deaths should be no less occasions of faith in what Jesus can do.  There’s the little deaths that happen in our family life: when we realize that our little baby is no longer a baby and is becoming more independent; when we lose a job; when, despite years of Catholic education and formation in the home, a child breaks our heart and stops practicing the faith.  There’s also little deaths that happen in our faith life: when we lose a pastor that we love; up 75 a bit and then down 475, St. Mary in Mt. Morris announced last Tuesday that, effective immediately, the school is closed; in our own parish as we make the transition to two weekend Masses from three.  All of those and more are little deaths in our lives.  We can fear it, we can fight it, we can kick and scream about it, or we can be not afraid and have faith in Jesus, trusting that He who brought us to all those situations and more will carry us through it.

Because our faith and our hope is in what is beyond the death, and that’s new life.  When Jesus rose from the dead He blazed a trail for us so that where He has gone, we hope to follow.  And although we have never seen what is on the other side of our own death, we have seen what is on the other side of Jesus’ death, and that is new life, transfigured life, glorified life.  To gain that new, transfigured, and glorified life, we need only follow Jesus and His way.  As we face death, in its many forms, Jesus invites us today: “‘Do not be afraid; just have faith.’”

25 June 2018

Celebrating Birthdays

Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist
In our own times, birthdays are big deals.  Everybody I know celebrates birthdays, or avoids their celebration because they don’t want to be reminded that they’re going older.  Some people celebrate half birthdays (another excuse to party, I suppose), and some priests I know joke about celebrating an octave (8 consecutive days) of the day of their birth, just like we do for Jesus in the Octave of Christmas.
But for the Church, we generally celebrate the day a person died.  We don’t do this because we’re morbid, but because, especially as the Church first started celebrating holy men and women, we were celebrating martyrs, those who died for the faith.  So the date of their death was actually the date of their victory through Christ, the day they were born to eternal life; we might call it their heavenly birthday.  So today’s celebration, which supersedes a Sunday celebration, something not all that common, means something pretty big.  There are really only three birthdays that the Church celebrates: the Nativity of the Lord on 25 December, which is one of the holiest days of the year, after Easter; the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary on 8 September, which, when it falls on a Sunday, is not celebrated; and the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, which is one of the handful of days in the Church’s calendar that has different readings for the vigil, the night before, than for the day.

Birthplace of St. John the Baptist
in En Kerem
And St. John the Baptist, the Precursor, as he is also called, is a pretty big deal.  He’s not as holy as the Blessed Virgin Mary, but he prepares the way for the Lord.  He plows the ground, as it were, so that the seed of faith that Jesus plants, can grow in the hearts of the men and women of his time.
John is known as being, what we would call a radical: he wears camel hair and eats locusts and honey.  He lives near the Jordan River, in a mainly uninhabited place, and tells everybody that they’re sinners, in need of repentance.  He calls out King Herod for his unlawful marriage to his brother’s wife, and St. John loses his head for it.  But the word radical does not really mean extreme.  Radical comes from the Latin word radix, which means root.  Our English word radish is simply a transliteration of the Latin word, which, in another form can be radice.  Not a very inventive word for not a very special root that we eat.  But John goes to the root of following Jesus: proclaiming repentance in preparation for Jesus.
In the Gospel on Saturday we hear about how John’s conception is achieved miraculously, but without faith from his father, Zechariah, believing it could happen, and so he is struck mute by the Archangel Gabriel.  And in the Gospel on Sunday, we hear about the naming of John, which frees Zechariah’s tongue and allows him to proclaim God’s wonders again.  But in both the first readings, we hear about being a prophet, speaking God’s Word to the people, which is exactly the mission of St. John the Baptist.
And that is exactly the mission of all of us: to proclaim God’s Word.  And that Word is not so much a particular teaching (though we can teach others about what God says), but a Person, the eternal Word of God that St. John the Apostle and Evangelist talks about, the Word that was in the beginning, the Word that was with God and is God.  We, like Jeremiah, like Isaiah, like St. John the Baptist, are called to prepare the way of the Lord, to make straight His paths.  
But, you might say, if you’re paying attention and not reading your bulletin, Jesus has already come!  We don’t need to prepare for Him, any more than we need to prepare for the Belgium vs. Panama World Cup Soccer game, because it’s already come.  But, in fact, Jesus’ coming happens daily to each person.  Each day Jesus wants to enter our hearts.  But in order to do that, we have to be prepared for him, and in order to be prepared, someone has to help us prepare, and that’s where we come in.  Each day we are called to help people see Jesus in what we say and in what we do: in the kind word to a person who is having a rough day; in the challenging word that we speak with love to a person who is not living as Jesus teaches us; in serving people in the food pantry.  But we have to be purposeful about it, about making it about Jesus.  When the person asks us why we are being kind to them, or why we are lovingly challenging them, or why we are serving them, we need to witness to Jesus and say it’s because Jesus loves them, and as followers of Jesus so do we.  It’s not enough to hope that they’ll catch on.
Imagine if John had been calling people to repentance, but then when Jesus came by, not said, “Behold the Lamb of God!”  He would not have completed his mission.  If, when John was baptizing and being asked why, John said, “I don’t really feel comfortable talking about it,” instead of, “One is coming after me who will baptize you with fire!”, maybe we wouldn’t be celebrating the Nativity of St. John the Baptist.  But we are.  And that in itself is a challenge to us to be like John, to prepare the way of the Lord, to help Jesus find a welcome home by our participation in the mission to proclaim the Word of God, the eternal Word of God, Jesus Christ in our daily words and actions.  

Be radical!  Embrace your mission!  Prepare the way for the Lord!

12 June 2018

These Aren't My Pants

Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Probably the weirdest thing I’ve heard working with law enforcement, is when we had a driver out of a car and the Troopers were making sure he didn’t have any weapons or drugs on him.  As they looked in his pockets, they found some drugs.  We asked the person why he had drugs on him, and he said, I kid you not, “These aren’t my pants.”  Now, I know that I live a sheltered life, but I don’t have any particular memory in my 34 years of life, or at least since I was responsible for dressing myself, that I ever wore someone else’s pants, and certainly not with drugs in them.
“These aren’t my pants,” may sound crazy as an excuse, but we’re good at excusing ourselves and rationalizing our behavior.  We’ve been doing it almost since the beginning of humanity.  God called Adam on the carpet, Adam, who represented all of humanity, for eating the fruit that we were forbidden to eat, and what did he do?  “These aren’t my pants.”  Well, not so much, because he was wearing a fig leaf.  But he did the same thing: “It’s not my fault!  The woman made me do it!”  Then God goes to Eve, and, anticipating by some millennia the Flip Wilson Show, she basically said, “The devil made me do it!”  

We’re so good at dodging responsibility.  These aren’t my pants, someone else made me, it’s the Devil’s fault, and so many more excuses come to mind.  But sin is always our fault.  We have free will, and we only sin when we make choices that go against God’s law, natural law, and just human laws.  Temptations, however, are not sins.  Sin is only when we make a choice.  
If I desire to eat that quarter pounder on a Friday of Lent, my desires are not rightly ordered, but I haven’t sinned unless I pull through the drive-thru lane and take a bite into the burger.  If I’m laying in bed Sunday morning, the birds chirping, a cool 68 degree and sunny day, wanting to play nine holes instead of going to Mass, I’m not wanting to be where I should be, but I haven’t sinned.  If I’m cut off in my car by someone who needs remedial driving lessons and my desire is to lay on my horn and raise a certain finger to greet them, the emotion of anger is probably getting the better of me, but if I don’t act on that emotion, I haven’t sinned.  It’s only when we make that choice, in thought, word, or deed, when we exercise our free will in a negative way, that we talk about sin.
The Good News is that Jesus came to conquer sin.  The people in our Gospel today didn’t recognize that, and the scribes claim that Jesus is casting out demons by the power of demons.  But as Jesus points out, if Satan is fighting against himself, how does he expect to win?  Jesus comes to destroy the reign of Satan, and does so as God.
That’s why it’s so important to turn to Jesus when we are tempted, so that we don’t give in to that temptation and sin.  We shouldn’t wait and figure that we’re strong enough; let’s be honest, we’re weak.  Almost every time I have thought: I’m strong enough; I can handle this, I end up giving into temptation.  When I realize that I am weak and that without God I can do nothing, it is then that God conquers sin through me.  
Another thing that can be very common in our spiritual life and spiritual battle with sin is to “flirt” with the temptation.  We say no at first, but then we might return to the temptation a little later, and then maybe we say no again, but then we go back to it.  And eventually it conquers us.  But if we nip the temptation in the bud, and call on God to help us at the beginning, then God will preserve us from falling into temptation.  
There is only one sin that God cannot forgive, and that’s the sin against the Holy Spirit.  While there are different theories, what I was taught in seminary is that the only unforgivable sin is the sin that we don’t allow God to forgive, because God does not force His grace upon us; He respects our free will.  If we think that this sin or that sin is so bad that God cannot forgive it, then He won’t; not because it’s so heinous, but because we don’t allow Him to.  
The other key to fighting sin comes from our second reading.  St. Paul exhorts us not to be discouraged.  That can be easier said than done, especially when we’re struggling with the same sin over and over again, no matter how big or how small.  But God will give us victory eventually if we persevere in His grace and keep fighting.  It’s only when we give up, when we decide it’s useless, that Satan wins and gains mastery over us.  If we keep fighting, no matter how many battles we lose, God can still win the war.

When we sin, don’t blame others, don’t be discouraged, and do call on Jesus to help us.  Jesus came to free us from sin, and will do exactly that if we allow Him to and cooperate with the grace He gives us through the Sacrament of Penance and the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist.  

04 June 2018

How to Receive Jesus

Solemnity of Corpus Christi
Arguably the most popular topic for renaissance painters was the Madonna and Child.  There are more paintings of our Blessed Mother holding her child, Jesus than probably any other saint or person.  In almost all of those paintings, Mary is holding Jesus, and is looking down towards Him with love and wonder.  Probably the most famous statue of the Blessed Mother is the Pietà by
Michelangelo.  Currently housed in a chapel in the Papal Basilica of St. Peter in Vatican City, it shows the Blessed Mother holding the lifeless Body of her Son after He was taken down from the cross.  She is still looking down towards Him, but this time with sorrow on her face.
In both the paintings of Madonna and Child, and the Pietà, Mary’s gaze is towards Jesus.  She is focused on Him.  And as we come to Mass today to celebrate the Most Holy Body and Blood of our Lord, Mary invites us to do the same thing: to gaze towards Jesus.
For cradle Catholics, the Eucharist might seem very familiar, maybe even not a big deal.  But in the Eucharist, the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, we see the same Jesus that Mary held, and receive Him either on our tongue or in our hands.  It is the biggest deal on earth, and the greatest treasure the Church has.
Jesus, on the night of the Last Supper, that we heard about in the second half of our Gospel passage today, instituted both the ministerial priesthood and the Eucharist, as His way of perpetuating the new Passover, no longer the angel of death passing over the house of the Israelites, but Jesus, the true Passover or Paschal Lamb being sacrificed so that we, His adopted brothers and sisters in baptism, would not have to suffer eternal death.  Each time the Mass is celebrated, Jesus’ one, perfect sacrifice on the cross is made present to us again as we enter the ante-chamber, the narthex, as it were, of the perfect tabernacle in heaven.  That is why, instead of the risen Christ, the crucified Christ should occupy the central place above the Tabernacle in the sanctuary: placed before our eyes in a prominent way should be the mystery of what the Eucharist recalls: the crucifixion.  
But because this re-presentation of Calvary happens so frequently, as Catholics we can forget its power, and forget just how awesome it is to be able to come into the presence of Jesus Christ Himself.  Our posture hopefully helps us to remember.  We kneel during the Eucharistic Prayer, lowering our very bodies in adoration of the miracle of the bread and wine becoming the Body and Blood of Jesus.  Not simply a reminder of Jesus’ Body and Blood, but the same Body that hung on the Cross; the same Blood that was poured out for our salvation in Jesus’ Passion.  We even used to (and people are still allowed to) kneel to receive the Eucharist.  There was something good about this, as it reminded our bodies that we are not worthy, and therefore lowered, before the presence of Jesus.  
Our heavenly patron, Pope St. Pius X, encouraged frequent reception of the Body and Blood of Christ, and in his time, many people would only receive once per year, even though they attended Mass every Sunday.  There was, in his time, an over-exaggerated sense of sin and unworthiness to receive Jesus.  And so it was very important to encourage frequent, worthy reception of the Eucharist.  In our day, we have gone to the other extreme: the Eucharist is something that everyone who comes to Mass gets, even if they are truly unworthy and should not receive.  Only Catholics in a state of grace, that is, not aware of any grave sins, should receive the Eucharist.  Those who skip Mass out of laziness, who have taken the Lord’s Name in vain, who have misused the beautiful gift of human sexuality, or who have lied in a serious way need to go to confession before they receive the Eucharist, otherwise, as St. Paul says, they eat and drink damnation upon themselves for receiving the Eucharist unworthily.  Our venial sins are forgiven by the reception of the Eucharist, but our grave or mortal sins need to be healed before we can receive Holiness Himself in the Sacrament of Sacraments.  Too often the line for the procession for the Eucharist is like a line of a drive thru at a fast food restaurant.  But the line for the Eucharist does not lead us to a Whopper or a Big Mac, but to our Lord, Savior, and Creator, Jesus Christ.

We should take as our model as we approach the Eucharist Mary, the Mother of God.  Mary shows us how to love Jesus in the Eucharist.  Mary shows us how to hold Jesus carefully as a mother with her child, in the Eucharist.  Mary shows us that, to hold Jesus, we should be doing all that we can to say yes to Jesus, and being reconciled with Him in the Sacrament of Penance if we have, in some major way, said no to Him.  As we celebrate Corpus Christi, may we rediscover a profound spirit of wonder and awe in the presence of Jesus, who each day around the world humbles Himself by changing bread and wine into His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity in the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist.

14 May 2018

Our Hope in Christ, Assisted by Mary

Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord
This past Thursday I buried a brother; not a biological brother, but a brother priest.  Fr. Tom Butler was a priest of the Diocese of Lansing, and well-loved for his sense of humor that he shared with his parishioners and with us priests.  And while many of his jokes could not be told in a church, probably not even in polite company, there is one story for which I will always remember him.
Fr. Tom told this story at a regional penance liturgy at St. Anthony in Hillsdale, where he was pastor for many years.  Fr. Tom and his family were originally baptist, but converted to Catholicism.  His mother embraced the faith, but always found a relationship with our Blessed Mother difficult.  Fr. Tom’s brother passed away some years ago in the Dallas, Texas area.  It was a cold day, and so, at the end of the funeral, he and his mother stayed just inside the doors of the church while the casket was carried to the hearse.  As it happened, his mother turned a little, and was noticeably startled.  Fr. Tom asked his mom if she was alright, and she said yes.
A few weeks later, his mom called Fr. Tom.  She said, “Tom, do you remember your brother’s funeral?”  “Yes, mother,” he replied.  “Do you remember when your brother’s casket was put into the hearse, and I was startled?”  “Mother, are you ok?” Fr. Tom asked.  “Yes,” she said.  “When I was standing there, I felt someone tap me on the shoulder.  I thought it was you, but then when I turned, I saw Mary, the Blessed Mother standing next to me.  She said to me, ‘I’ll watch over your son until you can join him.’  Then she disappeared.”
Perhaps it’s not fair to tug at the heart strings on this day the we honor mothers and celebrate the Ascension of the Lord.  But this story is perfect for these two celebrations.  We all know that the Ascension is when Jesus went, Body and Soul, into heaven.  But the Ascension is also our hope, because where Christ has gone, we are meant to follow.  Jesus took our human nature, which He had united to Himself at the Annunciation, and brought it into heaven at the Ascension.  He showed us the way to get there: by following Him with all our heart, mind, and soul.  Because Jesus has gone to heaven, we hope that we can go there, too.
Hope is not mere optimism, a wish that things will go well.  Hope is the grasping of things unseen.  It is, as we might say, the already, but not yet.  Hope is being at the edge of victory, and only having to finish.  Hope is what belongs to us as baptized Christians.  Our hope is that if we have died with Christ in baptism, then we shall rise with Him to new life.  When we are baptized, God does all the work, and we have only to cooperate with His grace throughout our life to claim the prize of victory.  
And how do we cooperate with God’s grace?  Mary shows us how.  Our Blessed Mother watches over all of us, her sons and daughters, and helps us grow closer to her Son.  Mary always said “yes” to God, and that’s how we take our hope and make it a reality.  It’s as simple and as complicated as that: say “yes” to God in all the decisions of our life.  And if we don’t say “yes” to God, Mary, as our loving Mother, picks us up, cleans off our wounds, and encourages us to try again.
Sometimes it may seem like we give Mary too much honor, and go to her too much.  That is often the complaint from our Protestant brothers and sisters.  Some accuse us of worshipping her, which we don’t; we worship God alone, but we honor Mary, the Mother of God.  But think about it this way: Jesus loved Mary, and Jesus’ love is infinite.  So there’s no amount of love that we can give to Mary that would ever even come close to rivaling the love that Jesus showed her.  
And Mary, free from all sin, does not let that honor stay with her.  Because she is the first and only perfect disciple, Mary always takes whatever honor we give her, and directs it toward her Son.  Mary has no selfishness, no pride, no ego that would cause her to take something away from God.  Her soul, as she herself said, proclaims the greatness of the Lord.

So today, as we celebrate the Ascension and Mother’s Day, we celebrate our hope of eternal life in Christ, and our Blessed Mother who helps us make our hope a reality.  Never be afraid to run to Mary to help you make Christ’s life your own in your daily experiences.  Never be afraid to run to your Blessed Mother when you fall down in sin; she will help pick you up and direct you to the forgiveness that God gives to His children.  Cling to that hope that belongs to us as children of God, that where Christ has gone, we are meant to go, too.  If we die with Christ, we will live with Christ, and if we live with Christ daily, then we will reign with Christ for eternity, in the kingdom of heaven, where our human nature is seated at the right hand of the Father in Christ.