10 December 2018

A Level Path to Heaven

Second Sunday of Advent
One of the great memories in my life is my pilgrimage in northern Spain to the tomb of St. James the Greater, Apostle in 2004. 
One of the mornings as we started to walk
Eight of my fellow seminarians who were studying in Rome and I walked 110 km. in five days from a little town of Sarria to the city of Santiago de Compostela, the resting place of the remains of St. James.  Generally we would wake up around 5:30 a.m., get walking at about 6 a.m., and finish walking around 1 p.m., before it got too hot.  We averaged a little over 20 km, or 12.5 miles per day.  It was an amazing trip, with beautiful landscapes.  But I have to admit, rolling landscapes are much easier to look at than walk.  I was in much better shape in 2004, but even then I needed ace wraps for both my knees, which were ready to give out after only two days of walking.  Honestly, walking up the hills was easier than walking down them, and a make-shift walking stick was a great aide to the pilgrimage.  
So for me, the first reading and Gospel, which talk about mountains being made low, and valleys being filled in, makes perfect sense to me.  A flat land is much easier to traverse.  And let’s remember, whether it was during the time of the Prophet Baruch in the sixth century BC, or around the year AD 30 when Jesus was doing His public ministry, there weren’t cars to drive you, trains to take you, or Ubers to call, so hills and valleys were tough, whether it was on the knees of a donkey or the knees of a human.
Jesus makes things easier.  He levels out the road to salvation.  It may not always seem that way, but it’s true.  In order to find salvation, we need to follow Jesus.  It’s that simple, and that difficult.  No longer do we have to try to figure out if this or that prophet was really sent by God.  No longer do we have to make yearly pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the great Jewish feasts.  All we need to do is follow Jesus.  Even Jesus Himself tells us to take His yoke upon our shoulders, for His yoke is easy, and His burden light, and we will find rest for ourselves.  
Our Catholic faith is simply following Jesus as the full and final manifestation of who God is.  Our understanding of the Trinity comes from Jesus, who revealed the Communion of Three Divine Persons.  All the letters of St. Paul, the letters of St. Peter, the letter of St. Jude, the Letter to the Hebrews, the Letters of St. John, and the Book of Revelation are simply Jesus continuing to teach through those He appointed to act in His Name, so that, as He said, “Whoever listens to you, listens to me.”  All that the Church has taught as necessary for salvation throughout these nearly two millennia is Jesus teaching us what we are to believe and how we are to live.  This is done through the pope and the bishops in union with him, in a variety of different settings and different ways.  But at the end of the day, it’s simply following Jesus.  
I’ve been, for some time, very impressed with Bishop Robert Barron, who is an auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles.  Before that he was a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, and founded Word on Fire, an evangelistic Catholic ministry whose work is to spread the Gospel.  In particular, Bishop Barron focuses on beauty as a way to evangelize, rather than outlining the “rules” of Catholicism and defending them.  There is something to this, as the leveling out of the hills and valleys.  Rules can seem like efforts to climb and descend.  But beauty is something for which we were made.  St. Augustine says it this way in his work, The Confessions:

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you!  You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you.  In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created.  You were with me, but I was not with you.  Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all.  You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness.  You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.  You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you.  I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more.  You touched me, and I burned for your peace.”


God is Beauty itself, just as He is also Truth itself and Goodness itself.  But Beauty is often more accessible than truth.  Bishop Barron talks about baseball, one of his great loves, and says that no one really gets into baseball by simply studying the rules.  There is a beauty to the game which attracts the person to it.  But, he also states that, in order to play the game well, you need to know the rules, and the rules actually make you a freer baseball player.  Still, no one learns about the infield fly rule, and then says, “I really want to play baseball!”  They play because of the beauty of the game.  

In regards to our faith, Jesus is the one who attracts us, or should attract us, because, as Pope Benedict XVI said in Deus caritas est, his Encyclical Letter of 2005, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with…a person,” and that person is Jesus Christ.  If we have encountered that Person, if we love that Person, then all the other rules fall into place, make sense, and help us to encounter Jesus and love Jesus more.  That is the easy way, the level path, the road to salvation: falling in love with Jesus and following all that He teaches us because of our love.  No hills, no valleys, just a level pilgrimage to the goal of every human life: eternal happiness with God in heaven. 

03 December 2018

History is Going Somewhere

First Sunday of Advent
If you asked a seminarian for a description of Hell, he would likely say that Hell would be remaining in seminary forever.  Don’t get me wrong, seminary is a great place, and were some of the best eight years of my life (four in college, four in theology), but it had a goal: ordination to the priesthood.  Of course, there’s no way to teach us all the things we’ll need to know in seminary, but if they kept us until we knew everything we needed, we’d never become priests; we’d be seminarians forever; which would be Hell.
It think sometimes we forget that history has a goal.  History is not aimlessly meandering throughout the centuries and millennia.  History is proceeding to the final judgement.  History is going towards Jesus.  And our goal, as Catholics, is to make sure that we’re on the right side of history.  
History for the Jews was going towards Jesus, their long-awaited Messiah.  Jeremiah speaks the Lord’s message that God was going to “raise up for David a just shoot.”  God was going to fulfill His promise that a son of David would sit on the throne of Israel forever, and that promise was fulfilled in Jesus.  Of course, the Jews do not recognize Jesus as the Messiah, but He is the Messiah, and proved it throughout the Gospels .  
For us as Catholics, as the fulfillment of Judaism and  even the Gentiles (those who were joined to Judaism who were not originally part of the Chosen People), our goal is to remain faithful to Jesus the Messiah until He returns to judge the living and the dead.  St. Paul reminds us that we know how to conduct ourselves as pleasing to God, through the instructions that St. Paul gave us.  And not just St. Paul, but the apostles, joined in union with St. Peter and his successors, the popes, who are called to authentically teach us how to live out our faith, and how to follow Jesus in new times and places.  
Jesus Himself reminds us in the Gospel not to become drowsy from immoral behavior and the daily grind of life.  Instead, we are to be vigilant, waiting for that culmination of human history in the return of the Messiah who, at the end of time, will bring to fulfillment the victory He won on the cross.
And this season of Advent is our reminder to be ready, and to keep ourselves on the right side of history.  Advent is the time when, as the days grow darker, we focus more intently on the Light of the World that is Jesus.  Nations will be in dismay because they are not faithful to the teachings of Jesus.  The ending of the world will cause non-believers to fear because they will be on the wrong side of history and their days of power and control will come to an end.  Those who follow Jesus will “‘stand erect and raise [their] heads because [their] redemption is at hand.’”
What will remain?  Jesus and all that is in Him and His Mystical Body, the Church.  What will pass away?  Everything that is contrary to Jesus and His Mystical Body, the Church.  Sadly, we tend to see things more in a political view than in a Gospel view.  We give allegiance to this or that political group, but not as much to Jesus and His Church.  The Gospel and the unbroken teaching of the Church tell us that we cannot support abortion, artificial contraception, homosexual activity, and the philosophy that we can determine our gender independent of the way God has created our bodies.  Of course, to our American ears that sounds like I’m attacking women and diversity and the Democratic party.  And certainly, we are called to love those who try to promote or get an abortion, those who engage in homosexual acts, and those who are confused about their gender.  But at the same time that we love them we cannot endorse their actions.  The Gospel and the unbroken teaching of the Church also tell us that we have an obligation to assist the poor, especially those who cannot care for themselves, and to care for the stranger, the alien, and those in prison, to strive for just working conditions and a fare wage.  Of course, to our American ears that sounds like I’m supporting laziness, like I don’t care about national security, and am in the pockets of the unions, and attacking the Republican party.  But God the Father doesn’t call us to be part of a political party.  He calls us to follow Jesus with all that it entails, which cannot be entirely encompassed by one political party (at least not one that I’ve seen).  We can have strong borders, encourage others to work, and make sure that employees are not taken advantage of for profit.  But we also have to make sure that we are treating all people with human dignity, no matter what their circumstance in life.

Our goal is to advance our life and the lives of those around us, towards Christ, following what He teaches in its fulness, not picking and choosing the parts we like.  Our goal is to be part of the trajectory of history that is going towards Jesus, committed to Him entirely, not committed to other groups or ideologies before Jesus.  During this Advent, let’s recommit ourselves to moving towards the goal of history, towards Jesus, and avoiding being on the wrong side of the judgement of Christ.

26 November 2018

Truth and Beauty

Solemnity of our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe
When is a king most a king?  That might seem like a very academic question, but it impacts how we understand and celebrate this Solemnity of our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.  A king, I would suggest, is most a king when he has defeated his enemies, and his kingdom is secure.  The ideal of Jewish kings is King David, who conquered all of his enemies.  King Solomon, his son, is least kingly when he is conquered by his wives’ attachment to their foreign gods.  
So for we who celebrate this great festival, when is Jesus most a king?  When He has defeated His enemies, that is to say, Satan, sin, and death.  And when did Jesus do exactly that?  On the cross.  And so, Jesus is most kingly when He is on the cross, dying for our salvation, and, at the same time, destroying the reign of Satan over this world.  That helps us understand today’s Gospel, which is Christ being interrogated by Pontius Pilate.  Of course, this was right before Jesus was led away to His crucifixion.  Pilate asks about Jesus’ kingship, alleged by the chief priests, and Jesus answers that His kingdom is a kingdom of truth.  That truth was released upon the world in the most powerful way when Jesus was nailed to the cross, the truth that St. John the Evangelist also tells us, that, “God so loved the world that he gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”
Truth is related to something else: beauty.  We so often hear the false, yet ubiquitous statement, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”  Beauty, though, is not subjective, because it is the splendor of the truth, and truth is utterly objective.  Something is beautiful as much as it is true, or reflects the truth.  Lies are ugly.  Tonight we enjoy beautiful music.  It’s beautiful not simply because of the number of people, not simply because of the instrumentation, nor even the notes themselves, but because it reflects the truth of heaven.  Now, maybe Mozart isn’t played 24/7 in heaven, but the genius of Mozart, why it has stood the test of time, is that he tapped into something otherworldly, something heavenly, which helps us recognize the grandeur, the immensity, the order of heaven.  And this particular piece was made for the Mass, where heaven and earth are joined in harmony with each other in this sacred space.  Mozart maybe isn’t played in heaven 24/7, but it helps us to recognize that in this church we straddle both heaven and earth as we worship Christ our King, which is true of every Mass.  

Today we worship Christ, the King, who reigned most perfectly from the cross, and who still reigns perfectly in heaven as He continues to pour Himself out fully to God the Father for Christ’s Bride, the Church.  May our adherence to the truth prepare us for what God destines for us, a place in the Kingdom of Christ the King, where we will experience the fullness of the Beauty of God, in which we participate today.

19 November 2018

On (St.) Mike's Team

Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
When I was in Catholic elementary school we had this kid named Mike who was an amazing athlete, even then.  He was great at soccer, hockey, and swimming, and he wasn’t bad at basketball, either.  Most days at lunch we would play soccer on the parking lot, and if you were on Mike’s team you were usually going to win.  So, of course, everyone wanted to be on his team, because everyone wanted to win.
In these last weeks of our Church year (Advent begins the new year for the Church), we take time to focus on the end of time and the return of Jesus, what we often call the Second Coming.  Our first reading and our Gospel definitely have that as our focus today.  Jesus focuses on the end, what will happen, how to read the signs of the times, and yet also affirms that nobody knows exactly when it will happen: not the angels, nor even the Son of God, Jesus, when He was on earth.  The choice belongs to God the Father.  And Daniel, the prophet, in our first reading describes how a great battle will take place, but that St. Michael the Archangel will lead God’s people through the “unsurpassed…distress.”  

I’ll be honest with you: it feels like we’re going through an “end times” right now.  The world seems like it’s always one step away from another world war; there is what we might call a mass apostasy, a large exodus of people who are giving up their Catholic faith; hedonism, the philosophy that states that the most important thing in life is personal pleasure, seems to be the prevailing view of many people, even from some inside the Church; Christ’s Church seems to be under constant attack from outside forces; and, to paraphrase Pope St. Paul VI, the smoke of Satan has even entered and seems to have taken hold within the Church at the highest levels.  Things are not good.
To be clear, I’m not saying that these are the end times.  No doubt many people in Rome and beyond felt like the end was coming when the Roman Empire, which had existed since 753 BC and had helped Christianity spread, collapsed in the West in AD 476.  No doubt many people felt like the end of the world was coming when Islam swept across the Middle East, North Africa, and even into Spain.  No doubt, many people felt like the end of the world was coming when Europe started to break apart during the Protestant co-called Reformation and the religious wars that followed.  No doubt, many people felt like the end of the world was coming when Christian nation battled against other Christian nations in World War I and perhaps around 19 million people, civilian and military, died in the “War to end all Wars,” whose centenary the world just solemnly remembered on Armistice Day, 11 November.
As Jesus says, we don’t know when the end of the world will come.  And as we go through these trials, it can be easy to forget that the war has already been won.  Christ has conquered Satan, and all that is with him, sin and death.  Given all the bad news, it can, in fact, feel like we’re losing, that there’s no hope.  But there is hope, and even certainty, that Jesus has won and all that is wrong with the world will be made right, and the forces of evil have lost and will lose in the end.  And that should give us comfort and courage in the midst of these trying times.
But, the trials and tribulations that we are undergoing now should also encourage us to choose the winning team to join in our day to day life.  We should want to be on Mike’s team, not Mike from St. Mary School in Williamston, but St. Michael the Archangel.  He is God’s warrior who defeats evil and will lead the forces of God through the failing forces of evil.  We should want to be on Jesus’ team, for whom St. Michael fights, so that we win at the end.  And that is what is so sad about all those who are walking away from their faith.  I’m not the judge, so I’m not hear to judge their culpability, but we certainly don’t show that we want to be on Jesus’ team by not spending time with Him each week at Mass.  We certainly don’t show that we want to be on Jesus’ team by not following His teachings that He gives us through His Church.  We certainly don’t show that we want to be on Jesus’ team by not making Him the most important aspect of our life, rather than sports, pleasure, or following the culture that has set much of itself against God.  Each day we show by our actions on whose team we want to be.

I don’t know if the world will end soon; no one does.  But in these difficult times of trial and tribulation, when more and more of the world sets itself against Jesus and against His Church, it can be easy to be despaired, to want to quit.  What comes to my mind is a quote from a story told by a Catholic, JRR Tolkien, in his trilogy, Lord of the Rings.  Frodo the Hobbit says, “I wish the Ring had never come to me.  I wish none of this had happened.”  Gandalf the wizard replies, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide.  All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.  There are other forces at work in the world, Frodo, besides the will of evil.”  Choose to be on Jesus’ team.  Make that choice evident by how you live your life one day at a time.

05 November 2018

Both...And Not Either...Or

Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
One of the first things Bishop Boyea was asked in 2008 when he was introduced as the newest Bishop of Lansing, and one of the things that priests are often asked in their first weekend as they begin at a new parish is the four word question: Michigan or Michigan State?

We often tend to put things into an “either…or” category.  In academia we all this a dichotomy, a choice between two different things.  In our politics: Republican or Democrat; in our fountain drinks: Pepsi or Coke; in our schools: Catholic or public; in our housing choice: rent or own; in our cars and beer: domestic or foreign.  Maybe it’s easier for our mind to operate this way, but we tend to put people in one of two camps.
So today, given our predilection for dichotomies, perhaps we think of it as love of God, or love of neighbor.  We probably don’t think of it that way, exactly, but we tend to focus on one, and perhaps we don’t focus on the other.  Maybe we like going to church, we love a beautiful liturgy, we love learning about our faith; or we like serving the poor, working at food pantries, promoting social justice.  
But to the scribe who comes up to Jesus and asks him the first of all the commandments, Jesus doesn’t try to pigeon-hole His answer into simply one or the other.  He says both love of God and love of neighbor.  Love of God is from the first reading we heard today in the Book of Deuteronomy.  Love of neighbor as oneself is from the Book of Leviticus.  Both are the most important commandments.  Both are part and parcel of following Jesus.
One could rightly point out that serving God is more important than anything else.  Part of what is radical in Jesus is that He demands total obedience, even above family, which only God could claim.  Being a do-gooder is not the same as being a disciple.  There are people who serve the poor, and yet reject God, and while I’m not the judge, rejecting God on this earth, especially in a purposeful way, is probably more on the road to Hell than Heaven.
But still, St. John, in his first Letter, says that we cannot serve the God that we don’t see, if we do not serve our neighbor (he uses the word brother) that we do see.  Being a philanthropist does not assure us of heaven.  But ignoring Jesus in the least of His brothers and sisters (to paraphrase Matthew 25) is also not helpful in us receiving eternal salvation.  St. John Chrysostom, one of the saints in our icons, says it this way: 

Do you want to honor Christ’s body?  Then do not scorn him in his nakedness, nor honor him here in the church with silken garments while neglecting him outside where he is cold and naked.  For he who said: This is my body, and made it so by his words, also said: You saw me hungry and did not feed me, and inasmuch as you did not do it for one of these, the least of my brothers, you did not do it for me.

Jesus instructs us of the great Catholic principle: both…and.  Both love of God and love of neighbor, not either or.
Most people focus on one or the other, love of God or love of neighbor.  So today Jesus challenges us to make sure that a focus on one does not mean the exclusion of the other.  Do you love worshipping God here in the church, being formed by the Mass and by our faith formation groups, learning more and more about what God has revealed through Scripture and Tradition?  Wonderful!  But remember: those clothes that you never wear in your closet or dresser: those belong to the poor; they have a right to them.
Do you love being with people and bringing them the love of God through your actions?  Do you feed them, clothe them, work for justice on their part?  Wonderful!  But if you skip worshipping God at Sunday Mass to serve the poor, then you are making an idol of the poor and worshipping them rather than God.
St. Theresa of Calcutta, Mother Theresa, is an embodiment of both…and.  Yes, most of her day was spent working with the poor, the outcast, and the dying.  But she never missed her opportunities for daily Mass and a Holy Hour of Adoration in front of the Blessed Sacrament.  That was the most important part of her day, and it gave her the strength to serve the poor, the outcast, and the dying.
Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati is another embodiment of both…and.  He loved being outdoors, enjoying the beauty of God’s creation, being sustained by the Eucharist in Mass, but he secretly did work with the poor, contracting and dying of polio that was so prevalent among the poor he served.  And his secret was so well kept, that his rich parents had no idea who all the people were who attended his funeral, though the poor knew Pier Giorgio as a person who cared for them and their needs.  

Life is too complicated to be simply divided into two things.  Our faith is too rich to be simply divided into two things.  It’s not Scripture or Tradition, it’s both Scripture and Tradition; it’s not faith or reason, it’s both faith and reason; it’s not Word or Sacrament, it’s both Word and Sacrament; it’s not love of God or love of neighbor, it’s both love of God and love of neighbor.

15 October 2018

What Do You Desire?

Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Christmas is slightly more than 10 weeks away.  As a priest, that makes me say: oh my!  Now, when I was a kid, that meant it was time to start picking through the toy catalogues from different stores to see what I wanted for Christmas presents.  I have no idea why, but there were years where I wanted a Charlie McCarthy ventriloquist doll (I was a weird child, I guess).  But I focused my attention pretty quickly on what I wanted.

What do you want?  What do you desire?  We’re really good at asking God for things that we want.  Some are as frivolous as a Charlie McCarthy ventriloquist doll; others are more enduring like love, health, and good friends.  King Solomon, the traditional author of the Book of Wisdom whence our first reading came today, asked for prudence and wisdom.  As we hear in the Second Book of Samuel, he didn’t pray for gold, for a long reign, or for the death of his enemies, but for the gifts that were truly necessary to be a good king.  Prudence is that virtue that tells us when, to whom, and how to do the right thing.  Wisdom is that virtue that tells us what to do, what that right thing is. 
In the Gospel we heard today, a man goes to Jesus desiring to go to heaven.  He, like King Solomon, didn’t want passing things.  He wanted eternal life.  Jesus tells him to obey the commandments.  “Yep.  Got it,” he says.  And then Jesus “loved him and said to him, ‘You are lacking in one thing.  Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’”  Jesus presses to the place where his desire for heaven stops, and in this case, it was his money.
I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we all have parts of our life that we are not quite comfortable giving to Jesus.  Those parts probably change during our lives, but they’re there, nonetheless.  We all can say (I hope) at a surface level, “I want to go to heaven.”  But then that desire bumps into another desire, and we find out what we value more: heaven or the other thing.  Today’s Gospel is not so much about having money (though it can easily be an obstacle to our relationship with God).  It’s about whatever it is that we value more than our relationship with God and our goal of going to heaven.
If you wonder if you have anything that you value more than heaven, then think about how you would feel if it God asked you to give it up in order to go to heaven.  Maybe it’s control (or what we consider control) of our life.  Some people, like me, like to have things planned out and have a particular direction.  If God asked me to give that up, that would be difficult for me.  God may not ask me to give control up, but if I’m not willing to give it up, then I’m not ready for heaven.  What if God asked you to give up your family?  It should make you sad (if losing your family makes you happy, we need to talk!).  But could you do that for God?  People do.  People who convert to Catholicism, especially in the Middle East, are sometimes disowned by family members.  What if God asked you to give up all your money?  Could you do that for God?  Could you do that to gain eternal life if Jesus asked you to, like he asked the man in today’s Gospel?  How about your political affiliation?  If God asked you to stop being a Democrat or Republican or Libertarian or whatever so that you could go to heaven, could you do that?  Sadly, too often I know people who are more committed to a political platform than to their faith.  Whatever it is, if we desire it more than we desire God, than we desire eternal union with Him in heaven, Jesus invites us to give it up to find true and eternal happiness.
Sometimes God doesn’t ask us to give something up, but He asks us if we’re willing to give it up.  But sometimes He does ask us to leave less important things behind, sometimes even to leave people behind because they’re not helpful to our eternal salvation.  How do you know?  Pray.  Pray and ask God what you need to leave behind to focus on your relationship with God.  It may take time, and even if we walk away from Jesus, He never walks away from us.  But I encourage you to pray to God to see what He is inviting you to leave behind.  To help you, I invite you to look up Bl. Charles de Foucauld, who wrote a beautiful prayer on abandoning ourselves to God.

Father,
I abandon myself into your hands;
do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me,
and in all your creatures - 
I wish no more than this, O Lord.
Into your hands I commend my soul:
I offer it to you with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father.

Amen.

08 October 2018

God's View of Marriage

Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
My sister, Allison,
and her fiancé, Tom
My youngest sister, Allison, is getting married in March.  This is the first and only wedding that I’ll have the chance to do for one of my siblings (unless, God-forbid, a spouse dies), since my other sister, Amanda, got married before I was a priest.  Of course, in all of the prep, there’s the wedding questions about the Mass, the dress, the tuxedos or suits, the reception, the food, and whom to invite.  As a priest, I see lots of different options for how weddings are celebrated.  I will say that entertainment and mass media has increased the ideas that people have (some good, some bad) for what their wedding should look like.
What almost never gets considered, or is given only a small consideration, is how the Church, the Bride of Christ, views the wedding and, more importantly, the marriage.  We hear about marriage in our first reading and Gospel today, but before I get there, I do want to take the opportunity to say that the Church expects certain things even from the wedding, ways that our Catholic understanding of marriage is expressed.  But just having a wedding in a church is a big part of that.  A wedding is not a ceremony whose goal is to make the couple look as much like royalty as possible.  A wedding is supposed to be in a Catholic church (unless the bride or groom would find such a location offensive due to their Jewish or Muslim faith) because marriage is a sacred covenant, an agreement between the couple, yes, but also between the couple and God.  And a church is a place where God dwells in a way that God doesn’t dwell on a beach, in a fancy barn, or anywhere else.  
But, back to the readings.  In our first reading we hear about God creating marriage.  It’s not explicit, but God creates Eve for Adam, as an equal partner, to compliment him.  Man and woman are different (I know that, for many of us, that’s common sense, but in today’s culture, saying that man and woman are different is quite shocking!).  And in creating Eve to be with Adam, God creates marriage.  And since God created marriage, and since God does always what is for our good, we see in Adam and Eve a pattern with which we have no authority to tinker.  Marriage cannot be one man and two women; it cannot be one woman and two men; it cannot be two people of the same sex.  That doesn’t sound loving, but everything God does for us is an act of love, and Scripture makes it very clear how God created marriage.  

Now, throughout the Old Testament, God continued to reveal more about how He created marriage.  But, sometimes the message got muddled.  And that’s where our Gospel comes in.  The Pharisees ask Jesus if, as Moses said, divorce is still allowed in following Jesus.  Jesus had overturned a lot of what the Pharisees thought was right, and so they’re seeing if he’s upending marriage, too.  Moses allowed a husband to divorce his wife for certain reasons, including infidelity.  But Jesus clarifies: man and woman in marriage are no longer two, but one flesh, joined by God.  So what God has joined together, no one must separate.  
As radical as it now sounds to say that two men or two women cannot be married in the eyes of God and His Church, it was that radical in the time of Jesus to say that divorce could not happen.  This was not an easy statement.  It was very counter-cultural.  But Jesus, who is God, who is Love Incarnate, tells us this so that we can truly be happy.
This is, I’m sure, where all sorts of objections come to our mind.  When we think about how the Church does not allow or recognize homosexual marriage, maybe we think it’s not fair to have two people who feel a certain way for each other to deny them marriage.  But marriage is ordered toward sex (as well as union and fidelity and the good of the spouses), and sex is ordered toward children.  All the goods of marriage have to be present to be part of God’s plan.  Older people get married, yes, but even sometimes older people conceive children; just ask Abraham and Sarah or Elizabeth and Zechariah.  And God reveals in the Old and New Testament that only those who are married can have holy sex.
When we think about divorce and remarriage, sometimes people bring up cases of abuse, and say that the Church is saying they need to stay in those abusive relationships.  We turn back to Genesis: Adam and Eve are co-equal partners, who are there to help each other.  Abuse is not an example of helping each other.  Marriages can be annulled if abuse happens, but even before that, the defense of self and/or one’s children is another basic part of God’s teaching.  If you’re in an abusive relationship, God is not calling you to be a verbal or physical punching bag.  Come to me, and I’ll help you to take care of your marriage situation.  
Even if you’re not part of an abusive marriage that broke up, but simply divorced, I can help you examine if there was an obstacle that existed before you were married, even if it was only known after you got married.  Or if you have questions about your marriage situation, I’ll be glad to help you understand it in the light of what God has revealed in Sacred Scripture and the teaching of the Church so that you can be truly happy according to God’s plan.  I’m not here to beat you up spiritually or emotionally even if your marriage is not what is part of God’s plan; I’m here to help you get to that place where your marriage reflects God’s vision for marriage.

There are a lot of groups that give us what they think is the key to a happy marriage.  We see royal marriages, Hollywood marriages, and what some people call marriage but which are, in God’s eyes, not marriage.  Go to the Creator of marriage to understand how to live this beautiful Sacrament.  Go to what He has revealed through Scripture and the Church to understand how marriage truly works.  It may be difficult; it may be counter-cultural.  But, as it comes from the source of all true happiness and joy, it will make you truly happy and filled with joy.

05 October 2018

Would that All God's People Were Prophets!

Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sometimes reading the Bible is difficult.  Sometimes it’s difficult because of unique names.  The two we had in the first reading, Eldad and Medad, aren’t too bad, but when you get to names like Melchisedech, Rehoboam, Abinadab, etc., it’s easy to see why some people get a little nervous.  It’s also tough because some parts of the Bible are read differently than others.  In some cases, we can follow the literal meaning that is easily recognizable at face value.  Other times, God speaks more figuratively.  And, if you’re just reading the text, you can’t always tell the difference.  It’s not like there are brackets around the literal phrases and italics for the more figurative statements.  But that’s why we have a Magisterium, an official teaching office entrusted to the Pope and the Bishops to help us understand how the Word of God is to be interpreted.  And that’s why we offer Bible studies at our parish: to help you understand what the Word of God means. 
Back in the late-second to the mid-third century, there was a guy from Alexandria, Egypt, and his name was Origen.  Origen was a firebrand of a guy.  He really wanted to be a martyr to witness to how much he loved Jesus.  But his mother wasn’t so keen on the idea.  Origen was bound and determined to die for Jesus, and was ready to run off to die for Jesus.  So his mother hid all his clothes, guessing (correctly, as it turned out) that he would not run out of the house naked.  Origen was known for his interpretation of Scripture, and he is one of the most prolific theological writers of the third century.  But, he could not always tell the difference between literal and the figurative senses of Scripture.  In one big mix-up, Origen took the passage we heard today much too literally: “‘If your hand causes you to sin, but it off.  It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire.’”  But Origen’s issue was sexual sins, so it wasn’t his hands he cut off, and I’ll leave it at that.
While that part of our Gospel is not literal, our first reading can be taken literally.  God sent His spirit, that He had previously bestowed on Moses, and gave it to seventy elders.  God told the seventy to be in a certain spot to receive His spirit.  Of course, two of the seventy didn’t make it, or didn’t get the message.  So they were in the general camp, when they started prophesying.  Joshua, Moses’ assistant, complains because they didn’t follow directions.  But Moses said, “‘Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets!  Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!’”  Moses wanted, and God wants, all His people to be filled with the Holy Spirit so that we might all be prophets, so that we might all speak God’s message.  But perhaps we take this passage a bit too figuratively.  
After all, we might say, the priests are the ones who are supposed to be prophets and speak God’s word.  Or religious sisters; they’re supposed to be prophets and speak God’s word.  Or missionaries in Africa and tropical islands: they’re supposed to be prophets and speak God’s word.  That’s not us!  But, that’s not what God is saying here.  God is saying He wants us all to speak His message for Him.  We can’t pawn it off on priests or deacons or sisters or missionaries.  We are all called to be prophets, as I preached last Sunday.
But what, then, are we meant to say?  I think all of us can start with the basics of Catholicism.  And in case you’re rusty, here it is: we’re sinners; we cannot save ourselves; God sent His Son Jesus to save us from sin and death; Jesus did this by His Death and Resurrection; we can be saved by believing in Jesus and following Him; if we believe in Jesus and follow Him, we’ll be ready for heaven, which is perfect happiness and the goal of our life.  That’s it.  
And you know what?  People need to hear it.  People are generally miserable.  Sometimes they hide it.  Sometimes they try to distract themselves with temptations or shortcuts to happiness: sensual pleasure, power, and glory.  All of them, but especially the first one, is the Johnny Lee song: “Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places.”  The second one is when we strive to be in control–of the world, of people, of work, of ourselves–when in fact we have control over almost nothing.  The third one is about being known, being famous, being popular.  And while all of them will give us pleasure, and may even distract us for a while, they will never give us true happiness.  

And since this is what everybody needs, Bishop Boyea has proclaimed another Year of Prayer.  This time the Year of Prayer is focused on helping us become a community of Missionary Disciples.  Not just that we believe in Jesus (which is a necessary first step), but that we share that news for others.  So, to be clear, when the Bible says would that all of God’s people were prophets, it’s not symbolic language, it’s not figurative language.  God wants all of us to hear His message of salvation and truth; and then proclaim it to others.  So go and announce the Gospel of the Lord!

24 September 2018

Rebuild My Church

Solemnity of the Anniversary of the Dedication of St. Pius X Catholic Church
As we celebrate this 62nd anniversary of the dedication of St. Pius X church, the first thing that came to mind was the admonition given to St. Francis in the church of San Damiano in Assisi: Rebuild my church.  This is what St. Francis heard a voice say to him.  Being the practical man that he was, he started to gather stones because that little church was falling apart.  But soon he realized, even as he completed that little church that still stands today, that God was giving him a bigger mission: to help rebuild the Church, the people of God, that that little church, the building, symbolized.
Ever since Vatican II, it has been vogue to say that the buildings don’t matter; that what matters is the people.  Like all errors, it’s attractive because it’s partly true.  But being partly true, it’s also partly false.  Buildings do matter–the way they look, their shape, how they are decorated and adorned–because God uses material things to communicate His grace, His life.  Our minds need order, and a building orders creation, and orders it for a particular use: for the worship of God.  No other place helps us worship God more than a church, especially a beautiful one.  Yes, seeing a sunset on Lake Michigan with the hues of pink and red against the blue background and white clouds is a way to experience God; no, it’s not the same as worshipping God in a church.  Inside the church is better because God dwells here in a special way that He does not in nature.  
And yet, the people do matter, because the building represents what the people are called to be: living stones in God’s temple.  Some of us are more chiseled than others.  But we are the stones that God uses to build His temple, built on the foundation of the apostles, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone, the stone that holds everything together.  We are the church, just like this building is a church.  And just like this building is ordered, not just stones randomly placed on each other, so the church is made up of different people with different roles, functions, and ministries, which keep the church going.
But today, just as in the 13th century, the church needs to be rebuilt.  And in this case, I’m not talking about this building, though it can always use repairs and beautifications.  But I’m talking about the people.  We need to rebuild God’s Church.  It is falling apart.  The gates of Hell will not prevail against it, as Jesus promised St. Peter when He made him the first pope, but we need to strengthen this building.  Some of the stones are covered in filth of crimes against children; some of the stones are covered in filth of breaking promises of chastity; some of the stones are covered in filth of cover-ups and dereliction of duty.  And the only thing that will change that, the only thing that will take us from these dark days of scandal is if we are the stones that God wants us to be in His temple.
There are three ways that we rebuild the Church and are the stones that God wants us to be in His temple.  And they are connected to our identity given to us in baptism to be priests, prophets, and kings.  
Our identity as kings does not make us in line to become an earthly monarch like Princes William and Harry.  Our identity as kings allows us to govern, not only our passions, but also to transform this world to look more like the Kingdom of God, in whose kingdom we are subjects by baptism.  We are not all called to be politicians, but we are all called to transform this world in our day to day lives.  That means we cannot settle for the common argument, “My faith tells me that X is wrong, but I don’t want to force my view on another.”  One example shows how foolish that sentiment is: My faith tells me that murder is wrong, but I don’t want to force my view on another.  If we really believe murder is wrong, then we should work as hard as we can, in many different ways, to prevent murder from happening.  If it’s truly wrong, then it’s wrong for everyone, not just Catholics.  To rebuild the Church, we cannot be satisfied with being Catholic only within the walls of this church.  Our faith, strengthened by a worthy reception of the Eucharist, should exude from us in everything we do.  We have too many part-time Catholics who only live their faith when they go to Mass, if they go to Mass.  Live your life saturated with the teachings of Jesus.  It will rebuild the Church.
As prophets, we are called to proclaim God’s Word.  Prophets were not early fortune tellers, who told you what lottery numbers to play.  Prophets spoke God’s Word, and told of what would happen if God’s Word was not obeyed.  Jeremiah did it in the 7th century BC in Judah, when he told the people that they needed to live their faith out, especially in the treatment of the poor, widows, and orphans, or else the consequences were exile and destruction of the Temple.  Very few, especially the princes, listened to Jeremiah, and so the people went into exile, and the Temple was destroyed.  We, too, are called to speak God’s Word to others.  We are called to do so charitably: “Stop X or you’ll go to Hell!” has rarely found a welcome ear.  But letting others know how God’s law and the teachings of the Church help us to be happier people, that’s something people listen to, especially when spoken out of love.  Live your life proclaiming the teachings of Jesus and His Mystical Body, the Church.  It will rebuild the Church.
Last but not least is priest.  Now, the priesthood of the baptized is different not only in grade but also in kind from the ministerial priesthood.  But both are important.  And being a priest by virtue of baptism means offering our daily sacrifices to God like a priest offering a sheep or goat in the Old Testament.  The sacrifice that God desires from us is a contrite, humble heart.  He wants us to recognize that He is God, and we are not.  He wants us to do penance for our sins, and even the sins of others, so that God’s mercy, and not God’s judgement, may rain down from heaven.  Sacrifice is not fun; it’s not easy; it always calls us to not do things we would like to do.  But it’s how we live out our call to be priests.  Not eating meat on Fridays was a sacrifice all Catholics used to do every week.  Maybe we should return to that.  Sacrificing five minutes of our time to pray is a great sacrifice.  Praying for that person that drives us mad is a great sacrifice.  Praying an extra rosary, reading the Bible, coming to daily Mass if we can, those are all sacrifices.  Sacrificing time and energy and the things we love is not easy; it requires personal commitment.  But living out your baptismal priesthood will rebuild the Church.

Today God says to each of us what He said to St. Francis of Assisi: rebuild by Church.  By living out our vocation as priests, prophets, and kings, we can be shaped and chiseled into the living stones that build up God’s temple.  It may hurt at times; it will always require a sacrifice; but without you, the People of God, the Church, living out this call, then the Church will remain in ruins, not destroyed, but not thriving, either.  Rebuild God’s Church!

04 September 2018

Responding to the Word

Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Usually every week, a different day each week, I get a phone call.  Recently it’s been more local numbers, like from Lansing, Detroit, or somewhere in the area.  I answer the call, and this is what I hear: (long pause); and then: hello, could I please speak with Mr. Strouse?  I think if you own a phone, you get those calls, too, unless you just let them go to voicemail (which they never leave, of course).
Today we hear about great news: God is closer to us than we could ever imagine.  Moses tells the Chosen People in the first reading, “‘For what great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the Lord, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him?’”  And while that was true in its own way in the Old Testament, as God revealed Himself to His people, and gave displays of His presence while crossing the Red Sea, while fighting the pagan nations, and while giving the Law on Mount Sinai, it’s even more true for us because of Jesus, the Messiah, who is God-made-flesh.  Jesus is truly and full God, and yet truly and fully man.  God walked among us, spoke to us with a human voice, listened to us with human ears, touched us with human hands, and experienced everything we do, except without sin.
We’re used to that news, because we’ve heard it for almost 2,000 years.  But it’s pretty shocking.  God, who is transcendent, made Himself sensible and limited.  He knows what it’s like to be born, to be in a family, to be poor.  He knows the heat of the day and the cold of the night, the fatigue of walking all day and the joy of reaching a destination.  He knows the cool splash of water, and having a great meal fill His stomach.  He knows what it is to be loved, but also what it is to be rejected.  And He knows what it is to die, to experience excruciating pain.  In any experience we have, we know that God understands us, even better than we do ourselves.
And that’s a great comfort.  When we’re sick, when we’re tired, when we’re lonely, when we’re supported by family, when we make a new friend, when we complete a job; all these things the Lord Jesus knows intimately.  He never abandons us.  And God desires to be so close to us that He gives us the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, the co-eternal Son of God, in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist, so that He can dwell inside us, just like in a tabernacle here in the church.  That’s great news!!
And yet, we can sometimes be like the telemarketers who call us but who don’t respond.  God gives us this great gift, and we’re unresponsive, or, even worse, apathetic.  St. James tells us today that we are to be “doers of the word and not hearers only.”  We’re often good at hearing.  We often stink at doing.  
We are part of the way that God’s work, the ministry of Jesus, continues today.  The Holy Spirit gives us His gifts to continue the work of Jesus.  God doesn’t need us, as if we didn’t exist nothing could happen.  And yet God humbles Himself to allow us to bring His presence to others.  He gives us His grace so that we can continue that closeness with His people.  His Spirit fills us with His life (what we call grace) so that when His children are sick, tired, lonely, celebrating, making new friends, completing a job, etc., they feel His presence and His love through us.  Sometimes, too, God wants us to challenge others with the power of His Spirit.  When we see something happening that is not right, we are not called to be tattletales, but are called to address the wrong.  
People are rightfully upset about the reports coming out that other bishops knew about Archbishop McCarrick and the evils he perpetrated, and yet they did nothing.  There seems to be some evidence that even Pope Francis knew.  And we are justifiably and righteously angry about that.  But it should also become an opportunity for us ask if we have looked the other way in our own circumstances when we have seen evil done: evil like cheating or stealing from a company; greed; harassment; inappropriate jokes; and more.  We have to be prudent about when to address wrongs and how to address them, but how often are we content to be hearers only of this message of repentance, and not doers ourselves?

God is close to us.  He is closer to us than we are to ourselves.  And Jesus makes Himself present to us in a special way by humbling Himself each day by becoming incarnate, once more, in the Eucharist, in His Body and Blood that look like bread and wine.  But God, who strengthens us with His grace and His presence, wants us not only to enjoy His presence, but to spread it to others, to help others experience how close the Lord, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him.  “Be doers of the word and not hearers only.”