14 October 2019

The Mass and Gratitude

Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
   One of the cartoons I would watch growing up was “Scooby Doo.”  For those who aren’t very familiar with the series, it follows a group of friends along with a dog, Scooby Doo, who solves mysteries, especially when aided by Scooby snacks.  While I haven’t watched the show in some time, I seem to remember that there was always some twist at the end, where one of the people they encountered earlier in the episode ended up being dressed up as a monster or a ghost, trying to scare and intimidate someone for some reason.
    Today’s first reading and Gospel accounts would have seemed like such a twist to those who heard the story.  For the Jews hearing about Elisha, they would have been shocked that Naaman, a pagan, would have been healed by God, and then really shocked that he wanted land so that he could worship the true God, rather than his pagan gods, on the soil of the Promised Land.  And for the Jewish Christians hearing about how the ten lepers were healed, but only the Samaritan, the non-Jew, returned to thank Jesus, the shock would have likely been similar.  In neither of those cases was the result expected: pagans were not often considered as likely for conversion, and Samaritans were supposed to be a heretical mix of Judaism and paganism, so they weren’t thought of highly, either.
    And yet, that’s what happened.  When Naaman encountered God through the prophet Elisha and the healing that Elisha performed, Naaman tried to reward Elisha, but then asked simply to be able to worship the true God.  And when the Samaritan, whom Jesus healed of leprosy, realized what had been done, he returned to thank God, while the others simply went about their business. 
    Gratitude happens most easily when we encounter someone who offers us something that we want or need, and we realize the value of that which we received.  When a friend calls or texts to help us out in difficult times, we are grateful.  When we receive a gift for which we asked, or maybe even we didn’t ask for it, but wanted it and received it, we are grateful.  When a neighbor, colleague, or even a stranger does something that makes our life a little easier, even if it’s something as simple as holding a door or raking the leaves up in our yard, we are grateful. 
    But gratitude is a virtue, which means it is a practiced piece of our character, a disposition to act in a particular way based upon many occasions of acting that way.  Virtues take practice for them to become second-nature; they don’t start off that way in most cases.  And so you display gratitude even when you get underwear for Christmas, or when your birthday gift isn’t exactly that item you wanted, or even when the execution of assistance ends up making life more difficult.  In order to be thankful people, to have that virtue of gratitude, we have to give thanks.
    Throughout the month of October, our diocese has each parish count the number of people who attend Mass.  Since 2012, our average attendance at Mass as dropped from 876 people, to 395 people in 2018.  That’s a decrease of 55%.  There are certainly a lot of factors that go into it, but part of that decrease goes to why people go to Mass.  I hear it from both youth and adults: Mass is boring; I don’t like the music; I don’t like the preaching; it’s too long.  The common thread in all of those answers, and even more that I’m not mentioning, is that the self is the center of importance.  There is something about the Mass that doesn’t appeal to me, whatever it is. 
    But the Mass is an act of gratitude.  In fact, the word Eucharist comes from two Greek words which mean to give thanks well.  The Mass is our sacrifice of praise, offered to God, for what He has done for us in the past week.  It is our sacrifice, and yet is acceptable because we unite it to Christ’s perfect and acceptable sacrifice of praise that He offered on the cross.  The Mass is our opportunity to practice the virtue of gratitude, even when it’s difficult, which means that we’re growing in virtue.
    And the key to gratitude is that it’s not about me.  Being grateful is precisely about the other and what he or she has done.  Maybe we did get underwear for Christmas that we didn’t really want or need.  But we say thank you because the other person wanted to express their affection for us, and we want to acknowledge that goodness in the other person.  Maybe someone helped us out when we were having a rough day, or week, or month, or year, and we want to acknowledge the time they took out of their own schedule to focus on us.  Gratitude, if true, does not care about what I get out of it.  Its only concern is that the other is affirmed in the gift they gave.
    Why do fewer people go to Mass?  Because we’re ungrateful.  When we don’t acknowledge the gifts that God gives us throughout every moment of our life, of course we don’t care to take time to say thank you to God at Mass.  When, instead, we live in an awareness of just how much God gives us, then we should desire to say thank you to God.  And even when maybe we feel that urge to stay home, or watch a game, and skip Mass because it takes effort, we realize that we want to express to God just how grateful we are for what He has given us.
    It was certainly a plot twist, a surprise, when the two pagans were the ones who gave thanks to God after encountering His gift.  What is more surprising is when those who claim to follow Jesus don’t return each week to thank Him for the many gifts He has given us.  Don’t be ungrateful to God.  Give thanks to the Lord for the gifts He has given us in this sacrifice of thanksgiving of the Mass.

07 October 2019

Where Do I Find God?

Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
    Where do you find God?  A lot of people will talk about finding God in nature.  Maybe you find God in the lyrics of a song that, as the young people say, hits you right in the feels (that means it gave you an emotional response).  Hopefully, you find God in reading Scripture, and in the Mass and the Sacraments.  But there’s another unlikely place where we can find God.
    Maybe it’s strange to say, but can we find God in suffering?  Can we find God in pain and sorrow?  Can we find God in the down times of life?  Because on earth there is no place we can go where God is not.  And that includes even in the darkest times in life.
    Habakkuk the prophet is speaking for God not long before the Babylonian Exile in 587 BC.  Things are not going well for Judah.  Ever since King Solomon, most of the kings had been pretty bad, with a few shining exceptions.  Judah is on a downward trajectory away from the Lord.  And Habakkuk is crying for help, but God does not seem to be listening.  But God tells Habakkuk to be patient, and speak what God tells him, “For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint.”  God promises something better for Habakkuk in the future, but He also reminds Habakkuk (in the sections we didn’t hear today) that He is in the midst of whatever happens, even if it seems dark and dismal.
    St. Paul in our second reading corresponds with St. Timothy for a second time, and reminds St. Timothy to hold fast to the gift of God that St. Timothy received in ordination when St. Paul laid hands St. Timothy.  St. Paul alludes to the fact that he is a prisoner.  He had been arrested and taken to Rome after the Jews tried to condemn St. Paul on trumped-up charges.  But because St. Paul was a Roman citizen, he could appeal to the emperor.  While the judgement was being decided (and we know that St. Paul was eventually beheaded by the Emperor Nero, so it didn’t turn out well).  But in the midst of that, and even the trial that Paul’s situation must have been for Timothy, St. Paul says not to give up, but “bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.”
    I think we often like to pretend that following God means an easy life.  We may tell ourselves that if we’re living like saints, then trouble won’t find us.  But that’s not the case.  Many people who have followed God have suffered.  Think of the myriad army of martyrs who suffered simply because they followed Jesus, starting with St. Stephen, all the way to the martyrs of the 20th and now 21st centuries.  Think of Mary, who never sinned at all.  And yet, in September we remember Our Lady of Sorrows and the seven sorrows of Mary, culminating in watching her Son and God die on the cross.
    But Jesus dying on the cross is exactly the good news that the world needs.  It doesn’t sound like good news, but when we go beyond the surface, we realize what a great thing the crucifixion is.  In Christianity, we profess God who entered into everything that is truly human.  And that includes suffering.  God loves us so much, that He even experience in Jesus the sorrow, pain, and darkness of human suffering.  He was abandoned, misunderstood, and experienced the death of his friends.  He was betrayed, unjustly incarcerated, and unjustly put to death in the most shameful way possible.  Jesus went to the darkest part of human existence, and redeemed it.  He didn’t take it away on earth, but met us there so that we would not be alone when we suffer. 
    That is truly news that does not disappoint, the vision that presses on to fulfillment.  No matter what pain and sorrow we are going through–from a hang nail, to a broken heart from a break-up, to a hospitalization, and even to the loss of a friend or family member through death–Jesus is there, and He does not leave us alone.
    In the midst of our sorrows and pain, we need to stir into flame the gift of faith that we received in baptism, that gift of trust in Jesus that He will never abandon us.  Life may not be a rose garden, but if we unite it to Jesus, then there’s no better place to be than with him.   

23 September 2019

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Solemnity of the Anniversary of the Dedication of St. Pius X Church
    Most of you are old enough (even I’m old enough!) to know the TV show that goes with these lyrics: “Making your way in the world today / Takes everything you got. / Taking a break from all your worries / It sure would help a lot. / Wouldn’t you like to get away? // Sometimes you want to go / Where everybody knows your name / And they’re always glad you came. / You want to be where you can see / The troubles are all the same. / You want to be where everybody knows your name.”  Of course, that TV show was “Cheers” (and now you’ll probably have that theme song stuck in your head).     
     But as we celebrate the Anniversary of the Dedication of this church, we celebrate not only the building, but what the building signifies, what it stands for, what it represents.  So many people find St. Pius X to be a kind, welcoming community, small enough where, at least at the Mass you go to, everybody does know your name, and generally they’re glad you came (we all have off days, right?).  St. Pius X is a smaller community, but it does encourage that sense of belonging and knowing the people at least who come to the same Mass, or join Bible studies, or volunteer together.
    And this building is celebrated because it is a foretaste of heaven.  In heaven, we are known better than we could ever be known here on earth.  Heaven is the place where God wants us to be, where He rejoices in our presence because He made us for heaven.  Heaven is that place where we take a perpetual break from our worries and troubles, basking in the love of the Trinity that brought all things into being, and sustains all things in being.  And this church is meant to remind us of that reality, and also to prepare us for that reality. 
    But sometimes we can get complacent about who is here.  We get so used to having the same people every week, that we can forget that, as people who are configured to Jesus in baptism, our mission is the same as Jesus’: to bring as many people as we can into the joy of heaven, the place where we are known and loved beyond all measure.  And before we know it, because we content with the people we have here, those people start to leave, as generations do, through changing jobs, or moving to be closer to family, or even death, until we’re a shell of the community we used to be.
    The way we used to keep parishes, the communities that gave us a foretaste of heaven, going was simply through baptism.  We conceived and birthed new members of our biological family that we also introduced into the family of God through baptism.  We lived the faith ourselves and shared it with our children, and that faith was also supported by the community.  But we no longer live in a world that supports faith, and we cannot rely on the osmosis of grace simply to do the work for us when we have children. 
    What Pope St. John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis have all encouraged us to do in the past forty years; what Bishop Boyea and our Diocesan Assemblies have encouraged us to do for the past ten years is not only to keep passing on the faith through baptism of our children, but also to bring in new people to the faith through our words and deeds.  Not pulling other Catholics into our parish from another Catholic parish, but reaching out to fallen-away Catholics, and reaching out to those who have no faith, and inviting them into this relationship with Jesus Christ where their name is known and people are glad they came. 
    Brothers and sisters, this doesn’t happen on accident.  This doesn’t happen by osmosis.  Sharing our faith only happens when we are purposefully doing it.  And if we’re not, we have to ask ourselves, why don’t I want someone to be in this community?  Why don’t I want to share with others a relationship with Jesus?  Are we afraid that it will make this place less of a home?  Are we afraid that Jesus cannot love other people without lessening His love for us?  If this is such a great community, which I know it to be, then why not invite others into that greatness? 
    St. Pius X church was consecrated on 23 September 1956, 63 years ago.  Priests, religious, and parishioners have worked hard to have this place be like “Cheers,” a place where you are known and loved, a place where you can offer your worries to God and be transformed by His grace, a place that anticipates that joy and peace and love of heaven.  Are we willing to invite others into this community?  Are we willing to invite others to the goodness that we have found here?  Do we really want others to have this foretaste of heaven?  Only you can answer that question, and the answer will be manifest in what you do.

09 September 2019

How Much to be a Disciple?

Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
    How much?  We’ve probably all asked that question, usually buying something.  How much?  Maybe we’ve asked it when we were ready to start haggling over the price, whether listed on the product or told us.  How much?
    So it might seem weird for Jesus to talk about the “cost” of discipleship.  He invites us to ask ourselves if we have enough to be His disciple, using the image of a builder about to construct a tower, or even a king about to attack another kingdom with his army.  In both cases, the individual has to ask: do I have enough? 
    I would hazard a guess that the questions, “How much?” and “Do I have enough?” are probably not questions we readily associate with discipleship.  After all, we can all come to Jesus as we are, right?  How do those questions make any sense?
    And that’s exactly what Jesus wants, and what Jesus deserves.  God gave us everything.  Everything we have in life comes as a gift.  Even that for which we toil is indirectly a gift, as our ability to work is itself a gift from God.  So what does the One who gave us everything deserve back?  Everything. 
    That may seem like a lot, but there are probably some people in our life to whom we wouldn’t mind giving our all.  While married couples may not give their all perfectly, they certainly try to give their spouse anything he or she needs.  Parents, even if misdirected to things of lesser importance, sacrifice just about everything for their children.  Sometimes even simply good friends are the ones from whom we would sacrifice anything: time, effort, money. 
    Think about how foolish it would be to barter when it came to a person we loved.  Imagine a husband saying to a wife, “I’ll give you everything that I am, but you’re going to have to let me keep my weird habit of (fill in the blank).”  If he loves her, and she says that he has to give up whatever for her, he will do it.  The same could be said vis versa.  And if we’re not willing to give that whatever up, then it’s safe to say that we don’t fully love that person.  Of course, a person who truly loves us won’t make us give up anything which is good for us.  But a person who truly loves us does insist that we give up things which cause us harm.
    So, now think of Jesus.  How often do we say, “Jesus, I love you, but if you make me give up (fill in the blank), then I’m going to leave you”?  We may not say it directly, but it’s what’s in our mind at times.  For young people, it’s often the Church’s teaching on sexual morality.  For some families it’s the Church’s insistence that we gather each Sunday and Holyday to worship God at Mass.  I think for others, it has to do with our convenience.
    Right now there’s a committee with representation from across the Diocese looking at how many priests we’re going to have retiring and being ordained in the next 5-10 years, and what that will mean for parishes.  I’ve mentioned this before, but over the next four years, we have around 20-25 priests who will be eligible for retirement, but will only be ordaining around 5 priests.  That’s a net loss of 15-20 priests.  So expecting that each parish will have the same amount of Masses in the same number of places is simply unrealistic.  I’m not clairvoyant when I say that some churches will likely close, others will merge, and Mass times will be different.  And, I know that when Mass times change, people leave; that happened here.  And while for some people, Mass at a particular time is not possible because of a work schedule, and for others it’s not practical due to getting children ready, there are no small amount of cases where I’ve heard and been told that if it’s not the time that person wants, he’s leaving.  Which is to say, “Jesus, I’ll only give you everything if it’s not too inconvenient.” 
    This is also a great reminder for us to pray for vocations.  Sometimes parents are open to having priests, as long as it doesn’t come from their family.  But all young men should be open to a vocation to priesthood.  Maybe that’s how a young man is to give his all to Jesus.
    I’m have no plans to change our Mass schedule.  But if we, in the future, went down to one Mass, would you stop going altogether?  What’s most important is not so much where we go, but that we go.  Changes to parish structures all across the Diocese of Lansing are bound to happen.  Will we stick with Jesus no matter what the configuration is?  No matter what the future holds, are we willing to give Jesus everything?  Are we willing to take up our cross, and give our all to Jesus?
Jesus doesn’t do “gotchas.”  He lets us know that following him has a cost, and that cost is everything.  That’s what He means when He says that we have to “hate” family, and even our own life, and have to take up our cross and follow Him.  On the cross, a person lost everything.  You were separated from family, not being able to join them, but being fastened to the wood of the cross.  You were separated from any dignity, not only because you were killed as a criminal, but, as most scholars say, you were naked as the day you were born.  And of course, you were separated from life, as you slowly asphyxiated, where your lungs filled with fluid and your breaths became more and more shallow until you could breathe no more.  Being on the cross meant giving your all.

03 September 2019

Seeing the Colosseum Daily

Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

    When I was a junior in college seminary, I had the chance to do a study abroad in Rome for the Fall Semester.  My studies were at the Angelicum, not that far from the Colosseum.  In fact, in one of our classes, if you looked out the window, you could see the Colosseum.  The first time I saw the Colosseum, it was amazing.  The tenth time I saw the Colosseum it was pretty cool.  The twentieth time I saw the Colosseum it was ok.  After seeing it daily, sometimes multiple times in a day, it honestly lost a lot of its charm.  But when my parents and sisters came to visit at Christmas, they were so excited to see the Colosseum, and were in awe of it when I took them there.
    What we experience on a regular basis can become pretty boring because we are so used to it.  There’s that phrase that we hear from time-to-time: familiarity breeds contempt.  It can happen with places, even places like the Colosseum.  It can happen with people; how many times do we take for granted those who are closest to us?  It can happen with the Mass.
    Now, this is the point where some of you are about to turn off your hearing aids or your attention, because it’s another Fr. Anthony homily on the Mass.  Contrary to what the Letter to the Hebrews says, Mass might be better attended if it had “blazing fire and gloomy darkness, and storm and a trumpet blast and a voice speaking words…” from the clouds.  And yet, the author states that it’s not that, and implies that it’s something better.
    In Mass we approach:

Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and countless angels in festal gathering, and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, and God the judge of all, and the spirits of the just made perfect, and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and the sprinkled blood that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel.

But we’re used to it.  We’ve been coming, hopefully every week, and it’s like the Colosseum; maybe it was awe-inspiring at one point, or maybe it still is at different points in our life.  But generally, it’s mundane.  The homilies don’t always grab me; the music doesn’t always move me; the readings don’t always seem to apply to me. 
    This is much different from the description of the ambassadors of King Vladimir of Russia in the late tenth century, who, upon attending a Divine Liturgy (think Eastern Rites) at the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, said, “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendor or beauty anywhere upon earth.”  They probably meant the building.  And, truthfully, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome never got old for me like the Colosseum did.  St. Peter’s always inspired awe, even as I became familiar with the ins and outs of the building. 
    But what we have here is much greater than a building.  And maybe I’m not the best messenger, but Bishop Barron certainly did a great job in his series on the Mass.  I know the parishioners who attended that DVD series told me how much it changed their appreciation of what happens at Mass.  At each Mass, we do enter the narthex, as it were, to heaven, to the city of God, and countless angels worship with us, with their eyes veiled to what we humans are allowed to receive: Jesus, the Body and Blood of Christ, which does not cry out to God for vengeance, as did Abel’s blood, but pleads for our forgiveness.  And united with us, worshipping God the Father through Christ the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit are all the saints, including the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, St. Joseph, St. Pius X, Sts. Ambrose, Athanasius, Augustine, and John Chrysostom, your patron saints, and the whole multitude of heaven.  That’s a pretty impressive thing.
    To be honest, I sometimes forget this, so it’s not as if you’re alone in this temptation.  But when I take a minute to sit back and think about it, I remember just what is going on, and I wonder at the great mystery in which I am able to participate.  After all, what we come to is not a what, but a Who, God, who communicates His life through His Word, through the signs, and especially through the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Jesus.  All those things I said earlier may still be true: the homily may not grab you, the music may not move you, and the readings may not seem to apply to you.  But you get to spend time with Jesus, who loves you more deeply than anyone else could, who died for you because He loves you, and can think of no other place better to be than right here with you.
    There are so many places in the world where this simple joy, the joy of coming to Mass, is not possible on a weekly, let alone a daily, basis; where coming to Mass means walking miles, sometimes as many as some of you ran or walked in the Crim; where coming to receive Jesus who shed His Precious Blood for you means you may shed your blood in witness to Him.  Let’s do what we can–preparing for Mass throughout the week; pre-reading the readings before Mass begins; thinking of all the people who need prayers and all the good and bad things that we want to offer with the bread and the wine–to make sure that coming to Mass does not become as routine as seeing the Colosseum every day in Rome.

26 August 2019


Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
    Why such difficulty to enter heaven?  Jesus says that the way to heaven is narrow, and many are not strong enough to enter.  Certainly, the easy answer is that our fallen human nature tends towards things that it should not want.  We call this concupiscence.  But I think that there’s a larger point that Jesus was making, and it didn’t really occur to me until around midday this/Saturday morning.
    For those of you who don’t know, I had been training to run the Crim, and had signed up to do the full 10-mile race.  I had never run 10 miles in my life (and this may be the only time I do so).  I knew I had to train, and in May asked one of the Powers graduates who ran cross country, Ethan Hamilton, for advice.  He suggested that I try to run 5 miles 3-4 times per week, and 7.5 miles once per week.  Because of my parish and State Police responsibilities, and especially never knowing when I would be needed for an emergency, I ran around the edge of the parking lot.  So you’re aware, the edge of our parking lot is about four-tenths of a mile, so I was running a little bit more than 12 laps for 5 miles, and around 18 laps for 7.5.  It was not the most entertaining path to run.  I trained pretty well in May, really well in June, and then in July things started to taper off a bit as my resolve wavered, and in the past few weeks, I did not run as much as I should, and I had only done one 7.5 mile run in probably 2 months. 
    So, I trained, and yesterday morning, I ran the CRIM.  I was nervous (I don't know why; it’s only running and I didn’t have a goal for time, I simply wanted to finish and try not to walk any of it).  One of our parish families helped me navigate getting to parking and getting around before the race began.  And then the race started.  My parents had come (they have both run marathons, including Boston) to support me, as well.  As I ran the race, there were people lining the streets, cheering everyone on.  But what I noticed is that, when I saw parishioners, or when I saw Troops from our Flint Post who were working traffic, I got an extra boost. 
    I had been warned about the dreaded Bradley Hills, the steep inclines on Bradley Street that occur around miles 5-6.  Honestly, and I don’t say this to brag, but they weren’t that bad for me.  And part of the reason was a word that I said when running up them (and all the hills): Currahee.  I learned the word from watching “Band of Brothers,” an HBO miniseries on Easy Company of the 2nd Battalion of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division of the Army in World War II.  Currahee was the name of a hill they had to run up and down at Camp Toccoa for training.  And the word Currahee is a Cherokee word which means, “We stand alone.”  That word connected me to the heroes who worked hard to be prepared so that, when they landed behind enemy lines the night of D-Day; when they were surrounded and short of ammo in the snowy forest of Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge; as they ran up Eagle’s Nest in some of the last holdouts of Nazi Germany; they could conquer any force that came their way.    I mention the CRIM because I realized that I was able to accomplish what I did because of others.  If I would have tried the CRIM alone, and had no support from parishioners and Troopers, I hope I would have finished, but maybe I would have walked, and maybe it wouldn’t have happened at all. 
    Salvation is hard, getting to heaven is hard, because we so often try to go it alone.  If Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob couldn’t get to heaven on their own; if Moses and Elijah couldn’t get to heaven on their own, then we probably don’t have much of a chance either.  Heaven is only possible when we support each other.
    The most important support in salvation is, of course, Jesus, without whom salvation is impossible.  Without Jesus, we can do nothing that will get us to heaven, no matter how many “good deeds” we do.  But how often do we try to make it on our own good deeds and best behavior?  And how often do we not even live up the weak standards we set for our behavior?
    It’s also important to work with each other to get to heaven.  Again, without Jesus, no matter how many supporters we have, we can’t get there.  But maybe we need to focus more on helping each other get to heaven.  It’s the reason the Church exists: as a band of brothers (and sisters) who help each other get to heaven.  Coming for Mass is the chance to root each other on, as well as to partner up again with Jesus through worthy reception of Holy Communion.  Confession is saying sorry for the ways that we tried to make it on our own, and weren’t successful.  But we need each other.  It’s not simply me and Jesus.  Jesus has a Mystical Body, and that Mystical Body is the Church, where we are assembled to help each other on the way to salvation.  That’s my mission as your pastor: to help you get to heaven.  I hope your mission as parishioners is to help me get to heaven.
    St. Paul compares life to a race.  He says in his second letter to St. Timothy: “I have competed well; I have finished the race…From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me.”  In the CRIM today I was given strength by the parishioners and Troops who waved and cheered as I passed them by.  I was able to finish (my official time was 1:34:58; not bad for a first-timer) my race because of others.  Heaven is not necessarily hard because of the moral demands that Jesus makes on each one of us.  It’s hard, and many fail to enter, because they try without Jesus, and without their brothers and sisters in the Church.  Don’t run alone; you’ll never make it.  Run with Jesus; don’t simply focus on yourself; help others get to heaven.  It will make the race much easier.

12 August 2019

Read Receipt

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
    One of the things I love about the iPhone is a feature that is part of iMessage, the texting platform for iPhones.  IMessage itself is great, because you can use it over wi-fi, without using your data.  This has come in helpful when I’m in a foreign country and want to text someone a message, but don’t want to use International Roaming.  But within iMessage there’s an optional feature called a “read receipt,” which, as the name implies, allows you to see if someone has read your text.    While I love the feature, others, especially young men in high school and college, aren’t always as enthusiastic about it, and often keep it off, because there’s no excuse or fewer excuses not to respond when someone, say your girlfriend, texts you.  Still, I have found myself wondering, if friends don’t have read receipts turned on, or if they don’t have an iPhone, if they received my text or not, and if they are ignoring me or not.
    Today in our readings we hear about faith.  As we heard in our second reading, “Faith is…evidence of things not seen.”  And the author continues to talk about Abraham and his displays of faith: leaving his homeland in Ur; the conception of his son, Isaac; and then trusting in God even when God asked Abraham to sacrifice that same son, Isaac.  I think it’s fair to say that we have a decent number of parishioners who are past the child-bearing age.  But put yourself in Abraham’s shoes: imagine that you had no heir, and then God tells you that you will conceive.  You would probably laugh like Sarah did when she heard the message. 
    And then imagine even further, when that same God tells you to sacrifice Isaac.  We have the benefit of knowing that God stopped Abraham from completing the sacrifice, but Abraham didn’t know that.  And yet, he trusted God, another way of saying that Abraham had faith.
    There are no read receipts when it comes to prayer.  Prayer is an act of faith, trusting that our loving God hears us and will answer our prayers.  How many prayers have been said in this building over the decades?  Of courses there are the Masses, where we pray and offer our lives to the Father through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit, but also the prayers that are written in the prayerbook by the statues of Mary and Joseph, the prayers that accompany the lit candles, the prayers said during Adoration, and the prayers from people who simply come into the church to spend a few minutes with Jesus.
    Sometimes, like with the birth of Isaac, we know our prayers have been answered.  Sometimes, they may seem to float into the air and disappear, and we don’t know if God answered them or not.  I think especially of the prayers that we say that our deceased loved ones are in heaven: we pray for that to be true, but unless they are canonized, we take it on faith and hope that they are with God for eternity.  And while we’re unsure, we continue to pray for them and offer Masses for them in case they’re in Purgatory and need our assistance to be welcomed into heaven.
    The Church has also been praying, since the beginning, for Jesus to return.  We may not use the Aramaic words, Marana tha, which means, “Come, Lord Jesus,” but the constant prayer of the Church is that Jesus return and put a final end to sin and death so that we no longer have to suffer through this valley of tears.  We maybe have even asked, “Lord, can’t you come back now?”  And it takes faith to believe that Jesus will return, and He will right every wrong, punish every offense, and judge the world with justice.  Until then, we keep waiting, with faith, for the Master to return.
    And we do our best not to beat His servants while we wait.  This doesn’t only mean avoiding physical violence against the children of God, but doing our best to treat others like Jesus did.  We don’t grow lax because we’re not sure that Jesus heard us, but stay with our daily habits of prayer, our weekly penitential practices, spreading the Gospel by word and deed, and our Sunday worship of God at Mass. 
    And we stay with that for probably one of two reasons.  The first reason is not the fulness of the relationship God wants with us, but is a childish way of responding to God.  And that reason is we don’t want to be punished.  I say childish because it’s like a child who doesn’t want to clean his or her room, but does so in order not to get grounded or a spanking.  We get the job done, but it’s done merely out of obligation.  The second reason is that we love God, and that we want to please Him because we love Him.  This is an adult way because true love always seeks to make the beloved happy.  And nothing makes God happier than spending time with Him, especially in prayer, but also in acts of charity and service. 
    In our prayer, whether our prayers of need or our desire for Jesus to return, there is no read receipt.  On this side of eternity, our relationship with God is always an exercise of faith.  But, follow the faith of Abraham, our Father in Faith, to trust that God will give us every good gift that we need, and that Jesus will return one day to make all things right in Him.

05 August 2019

Don't Lift Your Arms, Lift Your Heart

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
    Well, it’s August.  And you know what that means: school is just around the corner.  By this time, parents are probably looking forward to the start of school, and I’m reminded of that Target commercial, where the kids are standing in the school supplies aisle, looking dejected, while the parent goes up and down the aisle on his cart like a scooter, and the song, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” plays.  Hopefully, summer break was restful and relaxing, and it is a great time to get away, to experience “Pure Michigan,” and to put behind you the worries of work or school. 
    Vacation is the perfect time to set aside the daily grind.  This is especially true if you can set aside your smart phone, and truly disconnect from the hustle and bustle of the daily routine.  I know that can sometimes be difficult, but I know that when I really get a chance to unplug from work, it’s like a burden being lifted from my shoulder, so that I can come back with renewed energy to shepherd this parish.
    St. Paul tells us today to “seek what is above.”  He reiterates himself: “Think of what is above, not of what is on earth.”  So we know that he really means it.  He does not mean that we can ignore our daily responsibilities indefinitely.  But he does tell us to concentrate on heavenly things, the things that make us open to God’s grace, rather than the things of earth, by which he means the things that are sinful, like “immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and…greed.” 
    Jesus, too, reminds us to not obsess about earthly things, because they can disappear so quickly.  The man in the parable is not condemned for working hard and gaining riches, but for only making plans to make more riches and focusing on his wealth.  As Solomon said in the first reading, “Here is one who has labored with wisdom and knowledge and skill, and yet to another who has not labored over it, he must leave property.”  It’s not a problem if riches are not the focus of life; it’s just another reality of this passing world.  But if, instead, we have made money our main focus, our god, then the thought of losing it would be devastating.  But not as devastating as realizing at the end of our life that the things that last don’t really have to do with money, or any earthly things, but the things that are above.
    Lifting up our hearts is like our weekly vacation from the world, a weekly reminder to set our hearts on the things which are above.  It’s no accident that this invitation comes right before the Eucharistic Prayer, the holiest part of the Mass, where the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus.  Jesus Himself invites us to come to him, we who labor and are burdened, and have a rest.  That doesn’t mean you can fall asleep right now!  But it does mean that we can be at ease and not concern ourselves with work, with our daily anxieties, with our smart phones, but just be in the presence of God.
    Church buildings are meant to put our minds and hearts at rest, like we were in the Garden of Eden (before the Fall).  Church architecture is meant to put our mind at ease, because our minds understand that this type of building is different than a school, a gym, a bank, or a store.  The music is meant, not to get us riled up or excited, but to help us rest.  We train our readers so that they can read well and not make us wonder, “What was that he or she said?”  We train our servers to assist at the altar and not draw attention to themselves, but let our attention be put on the prayers that we say and hear, and the symbols that we see and hear (and sometimes smell).  The more a church looks like a church, the easier that is.  The more that we keep to what the Church has perfected over our two millennia in our sacred liturgy, the more the symbols and signs speak to us what they mean, rather than muddling the message with our own words and meanings. 
    If our hearts are focused on what is earthly, then rest, the rest that God wants us to have on His day, our Christian Sabbath, will not seem like rest.  It will seem odd, peculiar, and yes, boring.  But if we are practiced at setting our hearts on things that are above, then our earthly liturgy will prepare us for the heavenly liturgy, that rest that is our inheritance as children of God. 
    Especially in our days when life seems to be moving so quickly and our hearts and minds go from one concern to another, we need to reclaim the rest that we deserve, that God wants for us, each Sunday we come to Mass (and at daily Masses, too!).  Every time you hear, “Lift up your hearts,” don’t lift up your arms, but “seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.”  In the words of the ancient hymn from the Divine Liturgy of St. James, “Let all mortal flesh keep silence, / And with fear and trembling stand; / Ponder nothing earthly minded, /  For with blessing in His hand. / Christ our God to earth descending, / Our full homage to demand.”
We’re reminded of this every time we come to Mass.  In the preface dialogue, I invite the people to “Lift up your hearts.”  I’m not inviting you to lift up your arms, which is very simple, but misses the point of that invitation.  The invitation is not to lift up our arms, but to lift up our hearts.  That’s much harder, but it’s much more powerful. 

14 July 2019

Who Are Our Neighbors?

Fifteen Sunday in Ordinary Time
    It seems like we are perpetually in an election cycle, with politicians running for this or that office.  And already we are now in presidential election mode, even though the day for voting is one year away…from November.  I don’t know about you, but it can sure get exhausting for me, watching all the ads, seeing all the coverage of the debates, and the back and forth between our two dominant political parties (though, it’s important to note, there are more than just Republicans and Democrats!).
    As Catholics, we are often at odds with both parties in particular ways, which makes it tough, and which gets a lot of Catholics into arguments with other Catholics and even within their families.  I know I wish that there was one major party that we could wholeheartedly embrace, but that’s not currently the case.  And even if there was, the recent general practice has been to preach about issues, not parties or candidates, which can be wise.
    I bring this up because Jesus today talks to us about loving our neighbor, which is precisely the realm of politics: how we treat our neighbor.  If we ignore our religion when it comes to our political activity, then we can’t really say that we’re loving our neighbor as ourselves, because our belief in what God has revealed to us about who we are, how we are to live, and how we are to treat others affects the make-up of society.
    As Moses said, though, it’s not that you have to be a genius to understand what God has revealed about how we are to treat our neighbor.  We don’t have to go up into the sky, or go across the sea.  God has revealed it through His Word in Sacred Scripture, and through the teaching of the Church, to which we owe religious submission of will and intellect when it comes to the doctrines of the Church.
    So in our own day, we are challenged in how we are to love our neighbor.  Jesus instructs us to love those who have a homosexual attraction.  They are created in the image and likeness of God and deserve respect, courtesy, and love, just like any other person.  We should not discriminate against people with homosexual attractions.  But, at the same time, God created marriage between a man and a woman, and we cannot support any other definition of marriage.  Nor can we accept sexual acts between two people with homosexual attraction, as sexual acts, are reserved for marriage.  Just as Jesus challenged the Jews with His parable, we are challenged to love persons with homosexual attractions, even without supporting the choices those persons may want to make.
    We are challenged to love our neighbor when it comes to immigration.  We cannot support any action which is contrary to the dignity of any human person, no matter where they come from, or how they entered our country.  We are called to welcome those who are fleeing violence and oppression in their countries, especially when that oppression is based on a political view or a religious belief.  At the same time, we are allowed to have legal ways to enter the country, and make sure that those who wish to enter the country are not trafficking in illegal drugs or even trafficking human persons, and we can even utilize physical barriers at the border.  Just as Jesus challenged the Jews with His parable, we are challenged to love the immigrant, both legal and illegal, and respect their human dignity, even while we defend our border and the legitimate laws of how to enter the country.
    We are challenged to love our neighbor when it comes to the infant in the womb.  We cannot support any legislation or any politician who supports the killing of an innocent human being, simply because it’s in the womb of the mother and is not desired, or not “convenient” to the lifestyle that the parents want.  If an innocent human being in the womb can be killed, then no innocent human being is safe.  At the same time, we are also called to care for and support mothers who often have difficult decisions to make to bring their child to birth, as sometimes they have no support from the father of the child, or from their own family.  We should remind them of the beauty of life, and of the opportunity to give their child up for adoption for those couples who cannot conceive.  Just as Jesus challenged the Jews with His parable, we are challenged to love the infant in the womb and all life from natural conception to natural death.
    Love of God and love of neighbor is not complicated to say.  But the practical applications of how we love our neighbor need to be based in what God has communicated to us, and can often be complicated.  Hopefully we will strive, not only to know that we need to love God and our neighbor to be happy, but also to put that love of God and neighbor into practice as members of God’s chosen people, the Church.
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy, either.  Jesus’ example of the story of the Good Samaritan would have challenged the Jews in Jesus’ day.  Samaritans were pagans, and not just any pagans, but pagans who used to belong to the Chosen People.  They abandoned their worship of the true God to worship pagan gods.  In the parable, the priest and the Levite (one of the lower members of the priestly class), leaders of the Chosen People, walk on the opposite side of the victim.  But the Samaritan, who knows no loyalty to a Jew, cares for the victim and even spends money to nurse him back to health. 

01 July 2019

No mo' FOMO

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
A little over a month ago, on one of the very few nice days that we had in May, I decided that I was out of shape (that reality had been true for some time), and I should do something to get in shape.  So I decided to do a 30-minute run around the exterior of the parking lot here at St. Pius X.  And then I decided to try to keep it up around every other day.  And then someone suggested that I run the CRIM, which I foolishly agreed to do.  So I’ve been running about every day or two, usually doing 5 miles, but once a week trying to get in a 7.5-mile run.
A few months ago, I would have told you that I would only run if I were being chased, or chasing after somebody.  And I can confirm that I never have a smile on my face while I run.  Yes, you do get the endorphins (the good feelings) after you’re done, but the fact that you get them after you’re done running should say something about running in general.  I can tell you that there have been no few amount of times where, during a run, I wonder what in the world I’m doing, and I just want to give up.  But I keep on pressing forward, at least until I attain my goal of running the CRIM.
Jesus in our Gospel tells us to keep going.  He tells us not to look back to what was before, but to continue following Him.  There will be all kinds of excuses about why we can’t follow Him, but He tells us to ignore those, and press on forward.
One of the plagues of today’s culture, especially among the youth, is FOMO–Fear Of Missing Out.  I can’t tell you the number of young adults that I have spoken with over my nine years as a priest who convey to me their fear about experiences that they really want to have, but which may pull them away from a current education, job, or even significant other.  There is a general lack of perseverance, of sticking with something for the long-haul, simply because it gets tough, or challenges appear.
Following Christ is not for sissies.  It gets tough, and there are many temptations to veer off course to something else, maybe not even something bad, that catches our eye.  As a priest, in my three parish assignments, there have been times–during my four years in East Lansing, during my two years in Adrian, and yes, even during my three years here–where I take my eye off Jesus ahead of me, and want to look back and wonder if I made the right decision.  At first, as I entered college seminary, I was more like Elisha, telling my mom and dad goodbye, and then just going for it.  But whenever a trial would present itself, and each parish has its own trials, there would be a little voice (like the one in cartoons that comes from a little red guy with horns, a tail, and a pitchfork) asking me to think about what life would have been like if I wouldn’t have  gone through the seminary and been ordained.  But the voice of the little angel on the shoulder with the halo and wings would respond with what Jesus said today: “‘No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.’”  And, by the grace of God, I have persevered and been filled with such joy by remaining faithful to how God has called me to be a saint.
But it’s not just for priests.  For married couples, too, there’s the temptation to cut bait and run.  To be clear, I’m not talking about physically or verbally abusive situations, where a person needs to leave the marriage for his or her own physical or mental health.  Marriage is tough; it takes perseverance.  For me as a priest, I had eight years for the seminary staff to prepare me to be a priest.  For married couples, it’s usually around 8 months, and it’s not daily preparations; it’s a day here, a weekend there, etc.  And yet it is no less demanding of a vocation, and the temptations to look back also present themselves.  But that’s why it’s so important, when discerning marriage while dating, to make sure that it’s a person with whom you feel God is calling you to spend the rest of your life.  
There will be challenges that married couples will need to face together.  Many of you here can speak to that better than I can.  Many of you here have celebrated 25, or 30, or 40 or even 50 years together as a married couple, and some of you are even working towards 55 or 60 years of marriage.  What I notice about successful marriages is that they both work at following Christ, and, more often than not, they don’t give in to that temptation to look behind them at what could have been.  That’s true if you marry when you’re 19 or 22 or 30, whether you have 3 children or 5 or 8.  Don’t look back at what could have been; face forward toward Christ and where He is calling you to be as a couple.
And for those not married or not considering a vocation to the priesthood, Jesus’ words are still applicable.  It is not helpful in our relationship with Christ to look back and think what could have been.  It’s not helpful to give in to FOMO, to the fear of missing out, and never make that commitment towards doing something great, no matter how hard it is.  That goes for the simple act of making it to Mass every Sunday and Holyday; that goes for choosing to avoid places where you know you’ll be tempted to wander away from God; that goes for choosing to serve others rather than serve yourself.  

In the life of a disciple, there will always be moments where we wonder what life would have been like if we would have chosen B instead of A, gone left instead of right, given in to temptation rather than following Christ and His plan for our life.  Don’t look back; don’t second-guess yourself.  Keep your determination to follow Christ and you’ll find the joy that comes from persevering and finishing the race that God has set before you.