03 August 2020

Physical and Spiritual

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
From the Church of the Multiplication

    Last Saturday night, I somehow managed to pop out a couple of ribs.  I was not doing any strenuous activity, so I joked Sunday morning at Mass that 36 is the new 80.  I can tell you that I was very aware that something was wrong (even before I knew exactly what it was).  At the same time, I was due for confession and arranged to meet Fr. Jim Rolph after Mass on Sunday.  We joked that, even though my soul had the more serious pain from my sins, the pain in my body was crying out for more attention.
    In our readings today, we see a distinction between the physical and the spiritual realms.  Isaiah in the first reading and Jesus in the Gospel are dealing with physical realities.  Isaiah says that if we are thirsty, we should come the water of the Lord.  If we have no money, we can still approach the Lord and eat.  And Jesus, after healing people’s illnesses, recognizes that they will need food, and He cannot simply send them away to their homes, but gives them bread and fish, multiplied in a miraculous manner from five loaves and two fish.
    Often times when it comes to religion, we focus on the spiritual only.  And the spiritual is important.  But Catholicism deals not only with the spiritual, but also with the bodily needs.  The Letter of James says, “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?”  We can’t simply ignore the needs of the poor and think that we’re living as a disciple of Jesus.  After all, in Matthew 25, Jesus condemns those who did not provide for the physical needs of the least of his brothers. 
    As followers of Jesus, we should look for opportunities to assist those who are in need.  We cannot simply say that it’s only the work of Catholic Charities or of the government to help the poor.  To the extent that we’re able, we are called to help those who need help.  I know that sometimes there are scams where people claim to be in need, but aren’t, and that makes it hard to know when to give to others.  One good piece of advice is, if a person asks for money, and you’re not sure if they truly need it, offer to go buy them a sandwich or a drink from a local restaurant and give it to them.  If they’re truly in need, they’ll take the help. 
    If you listen to the Holy Spirit, you can also tell whether God is nudging you to assist others.  Just a few weeks ago I was at McLaren getting some blood work.  As I was waiting, a woman probably in her 50s was talking about how the lab had given her the wrong test for her illness, and this was her second trip to the hospital that week.  She talked about how she had to use extra gas to get back to McLaren and get the new test, and I could tell that it was a hardship for her.  At that moment I felt that nudging in my conscience to offer to assist her.  I asked her if I could help her with gas money, and handed her a $5 bill.  I know it only got her a couple of gallons, but she said it would help her make sure that she could make it back home without getting stuck on the side of the road.  I don’t say that to brag, but just to illustrate how those circumstances can happen.
    But at the same time that we are required to assist others with bodily needs, we’re not simply fighting a physical battle.  St. Paul reminds us that, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”  Those are all spiritual things, at least for the most part.  St. Paul says elsewhere that we don’t battle so much against earthly powers, but against spiritual ones.  It’s not only the things that we notice with our senses, there are so many more things happening on a spiritual level of which we need to be aware.  When we abstain from meat on Fridays, or do some sort of physical penance, it’s not the steak or the drumstick that we’re fighting against.  We’re fighting against our fallen humanity which wants to give in to whatever desires the body has at any given moment.  And the fallen angels are trying to push us to give in. 
    The Church on earth is described as the Church Militant, because we’re in a fight.  And while we do sometimes face oppressive governments that want to hamper our faith life, more often than not we’re fighting spiritual battles that want to take us away from God.  We can’t pretend that we’re not at war, any more than a soldier could pretend in Normandy, or Korea, or Vietnam, or Iraq, or Afghanistan that he wasn’t in a battle that meant life or death.  Pretending the battle isn’t happening means losing the battle.  So each day we need to put on the helmet of salvation, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of peace, the shield of faith, and the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God. 
    Humans are a union of body and spirit.  Both are important and need care.  Often times, we are more attentive to the needs, desires, and pains of the body.  But we can’t forget the spiritual realities, either.  Our call, as followers of Jesus, is, to the best of our ability, to address whatever bodily needs we can, as well as fighting those spiritual battles, equipped with all the spiritual defenses and weapons that God gives us.

27 July 2020

Treasures and Grocery Stores

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

    I saw something on the internet that read, “You can’t truly refer to yourself as an adult until you catch yourself getting really angry when the grocery store changes their layout.”  I chuckled when I read this, because, if true, it means I’m adult.  I can’t stand when the thing I went to buy at Meijer’s has changed aisles! 
    We treasure funny things, don’t we?  I think we’d all admit that grocery store layouts are not the highest on our list of things we value, but it’s certainly on the list.  We have other things we treasure, like family and friends, which have no monetary value.  And then we actually do treasure…treasure, something of value.  A man recently buried $1 million in treasure across the State of Michigan after his jewelry store went out of business due to COVID-19.  The treasure is buried from Detroit to the UP, and for $49, you get clues to help you find it. 
    To what extent do we treasure or value our faith?  Obviously, if you’re here, you do treasure it to a certain extent.  And I would echo that sentiment for those watching on Facebook live.  There are concerns, very valid concerns, being expressed that people won’t come back to Mass in the same numbers as before the pandemic.  Now, to be clear, many of our parishioners have very valid reasons for not attending Mass.  It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that a super-majority, around 66%, or our parishioners are in the very vulnerable age group where COVID-19 is more likely to be fatal.  And I would encourage those people to stay home.  But people with lowers risks are starting to go to restaurants, and beaches, in larger and larger numbers, and yet not going to church.  And that reveals precisely what they treasure more.
    When we started to open up to Mass, there were a few people who were even crying they were so happy to be back to Mass.  And even those who weren’t crying expressed their joy to be able to worship God in church, which is infinitely better than watching it stream online. 
    But not that long ago, we pared down our Mass schedule, due to a diminishing crowd, and I had parishioners, some very faithful, who left because I dropped their Christmas Mass, or because the weekend Masses that parishioners chose was not convenient for them (this doesn't include those who have commitments at the time of our new Mass schedule).  I know change is hard, and I can promise you that I have been required to make more changes here than I ever would have wanted to.  But, especially across the US, there is this growing phenomenon of Catholics treasuring their convenience more than their own parish, or even their faith.  People have used, are using, and will use, the excuse that their pastor isn’t doing what they want as the “reason” that they will no longer be Catholic.  And that concerns me, both as your pastor, and as a priest who preaches the Gospel.
    Because both our parish and our diocese are in for some changes over the next few years.  By June 2024, 4 years from this past June, we hope to ordain 10 seminarians as priests.  By that same time, we could have 24 priests currently working in the Diocese who could take senior priest status (“retire”) at or beyond the age of 65, with 4 of those coming from Genesee County. Three of those four in Genesee County are over the age of 65 right now.  We will not be able to have the current configuration of priests that we have now for much longer in the future.  Most priests in the near future will be serving at least 2 sites, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that some churches will close.  Priests will still do all we can to provide the sacraments and pastoral care to the faithful, but it may not be at the time people prefer, or at a time that is as convenient as it has been in the past.  To be clear and transparent, I am not aware of any plans for any parish, including St. Pius X, across the Diocese of Lansing; so don’t go saying that we’re closing.  But even I can work out that the math of priests retiring versus priests being ordained is not going to allow the status quo to continue.
    I don’t say this to depress us, but to remind all of us that, as we go through these changes, we have to hold on to the treasure of our faith.  If our preferred Mass time is our great treasure, or our convenience is our great treasure, then we will fall away when difficult times come.  COVID-19 has made us re-evaluate what our great treasure is in our lives.  I saw this when I went to Woodhaven on 15 July, to see residents gather outside, socially distant, to receive the Eucharist for the first time since March.  It was beautiful to see the treasure that they had in the faith and the Eucharist, and how much it meant to them. 
    We are also looking at times across our country which remind me of what I learned about in school of the time of the French Revolution, where many faithful Catholic priests, consecrated men and women, and laity were executed at the guillotine because they would not swear allegiance to the new secular religion of France.  As our statues of saints are toppled, our churches are set ablaze, and our religion is mocked and ostracized, we will have to decide what we treasure more: our faith or our quiet life, or even simply our life period. 
    My hope is that we remain faithful, no matter what the cost, to the treasure that we found in Christ and in the one Church He founded.  We pray for the grace of perseverance not to abandon our parish or our faith because we have fewer Mass times, or they’re not when we want Mass to be.  There are many things we desire and want, like a grocery store that keeps the same layout.  But is Christ truly the one we treasure above all else?

13 July 2020

Does the Word Look Good?

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

    The way that the Prophet Isaiah describes the Word of God in our first reading, it sounds like something everybody would want.  It’s like rain and snow that water the ground, which provides grain for the farmer, which provides bread for the hungry.  That sounds like a pretty good deal!  So why, in the Gospel, does Jesus describe people who, when given the Word of God, do not understand it, or give it up only for a short time, or abandon the Word of God during persecution and tribulation, or even let worldly cares and riches choke it out? 
    We can have this idea that if something is truly good, then we would automatically, or naturally, want it.  Or, the alternative side of that same approach, if we want something, then it must be good.  In fact, St. Augustine says that we wouldn’t choose something if we didn’t think it was good for us.  But if we take a step back, we know that we don’t always choose things that are truly good for us, and the things that are good for us don’t always seem attractive.  Take food: hopefully, if given the choice between an apple and a Snickers bar, we would choose the apple.  But let’s be honest: the Snicker bar looks better and sounds like a more enjoyable treat.  Only when we recognize the value of health and well-being can we recognize that, for at least a majority of occasions, we should choose the apple over the candy. 
    While cliché, there is truth to the phrase, “The Word of God comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.”  The Word of God only looks good if we have correct vision and understanding of what is truly good.  It looks bad if our vision is off, if we have a wrong idea of what is good.  The Letter to the Hebrews says, “the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit…and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.”  As a two-edged sword, the Word of God cuts both ways.  A sword can be something that defends, but it can also be something that attacks.
    The Word of God is meant to challenge us, because, given our fallen nature, we don’t always appreciate what is good.  Adam and Eve were told that the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was not for them, though they could have every other fruit from every other tree in the garden, including the tree of immortality.  But, at least for that moment of the Fall, their vision, their desire, went askew.  They thought that something contrary to God’s will was good for them, and did not trust that what God had revealed was always good for them, even when He told them that the couldn’t have something.  Parents experience this with their children.  The child wants something that is not good for them, like candy for dinner.  The child doesn’t believe them, and may even try to get away with it once or more.  But then the stomach ache comes, or the cavities come, or any other amount of health problems comes. 
    What God has revealed to us, through the Scriptures and through the teaching of the Church, is good.  But we only recognize it as good if we are viewing the world with the eyes of God.  If we are viewing the world through the eyes of sin, then it can seem bad.
    We might not understand the Word of God, and so, we can be tempted by Satan to think that it’s not good (the seed sown on the path).  We might enjoy hearing the Word of God, but we don’t let it take hold in our lives, and then when we have to choose between a good from the perspective of God and a good from the perspective of fallen humanity or the world, we abandon the Word (the seed sown on rocky ground).  We might hear the Word of God, enjoy it, and even let it start to take root in our lives, but then when other desires of the world pop up in our lives, we see those as good, and those choke out the Word of God (the seed among thorns). 
    Let’s be honest: the call to follow Christ, who is the Eternal Word of God, currently does not always go along easily with our culture.  Certainly, there are parts of our faith, of our life in Christ, that the culture readily accepts: the rejection of racism; care for the poor and the immigrant; treating others as we would want to be treated.  But there are also parts of the Word of God that are contrary to the values of today’s culture, and are often mocked: the respect for human life from natural conception until natural death; marriage is only between one man and one woman for life; sex is only for marriage; the dignity of workers and not using them as pawns to simply raise more money.  And so often Catholics, those who claim to follow Christ in the one Church He established, simply skim past the parts of the Bible or the teachings of the Church with which they don’t agree.  But, as St. Augustine wrote, “If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.”  If you only choose the parts of Jesus’ teaching that you agree with, then you’re choosing the Snickers bar over the apple.  It may feel good now, but it could have bad effects later.  Belief in the Word of God leads to eternal life; belief in the self leads to eternal disappointment.

    We’ve heard this Gospel passage countless times before.  But each time we hear it, it’s a good opportunity to ask ourselves: what kind of ground does the Word of God find in me?  Am I open to the Word of God as truly good?  Or have I decided that I know better than the Word of God, that sometime else looks better?  God wants to refresh us with His Word, so that we can be fruitful.  May we accept the Word of God into our hearts and bear fruit “‘a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.’”

06 July 2020

I'm Not 25 Anymore

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Powers Catholic Soccer Team after
winning the State Championship

    Many of you will probably remember that, about 2 or 3 years ago (the time flies by so quickly), I broke my thumb while practicing soccer with our Powers JV soccer team.  We were doing 3 v 2 drills, and I had tripped a little, and was on the ground, but I didn’t want a sophomore or freshman to beat me, so I hyper-extended my thumb pushing myself up, and got a little chip fracture.  As George Strait sings in his 2008 hit song, “Troubadour,” “I still feel 25 / most of the time…”  But that day was a good reminder that there’s a big difference between being a teenager soccer player and a 30-something priest. 
    When it comes to our spiritual life, sometimes we’re as much deceiving ourselves as I was thinking that I could still hang with even a JV soccer team.  We think that spiritual progress–deepening our prayer life, combating certain sins, growing in virtue–is something that we have to muscle through by ourselves.  It’s the theory of holiness that we simply pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.  This mentality of doing it ourselves is ingrained in us from a young age.  It is, as we might say, a quintessentially American trait.  That American spirit to do it ourselves led us to declare our independence 244 years ago; it led us blaze pioneer trails across the Appalachian mountains; it pushed Lewis and Clark to find passage from St. Louis to Oregon; it rocketed us to the moon in the 1960s.  So when it comes to building and growing a nation, it’s not a bad thing, but when it comes to building our spiritual life, it’s not the way the spiritual order works. 
    Our readings talk to us of humility, and that virtue is nothing more than the recognition of the truth.  It’s not pretending that we’re not as good as we are, but it’s also not puffing ourselves up on our own, either.  Jesus fulfills the prophecy of Zechariah by entering Jerusalem on a donkey.  He does so, not to say that He’s not a king, but to demonstrate that His kingdom isn’t one of force, but that His kingdom is established in peace. 
    Jesus also said today that the wisdom of the spiritual life has been hidden from the wise and learned, but has been revealed to the little ones.  The wise and the learned don’t get it, because they are used to doing things on their terms, to working with the mindset of the world where a person has to do it all by him or herself.  But the little ones realize how little they can do on their own, and always turn to their parents to help them achieve their goals. 
    Jesus also invites all who labor and are burdened to come to Him, because His yoke is easy and His burden is light.  Again, this is a clear demonstration that the spiritual life is not meant to be pursued on one’s own, but is to be striven for in partnership with the Lord.  A yoke is not meant for one ox, but for a team of oxen.  So the yoke that the Lord offers us, an easy and light burden, is meant for us to carry with Jesus, not apart from Him.
    So when we want to deepen our prayer life, look to Jesus to guide your prayer.  It could be a formal prayer (the Church certainly has a treasury of beautiful prayers that have been prayed over the centuries), or it could simply be talking with Jesus as one talks with a friend.  Maybe ask Jesus to help you add an extra 5 minutes to your daily prayer routine.  Or maybe try adoration from 7-7:45 a.m. on Fridays.
    When we’re trying to root out a sin from our life, whether it’s big or it’s small sins, a lot of times we think that if we only tried harder, then we’d get better results.  But often times sins can be so deeply ingrained in our lives that we don’t know how to get them out on our own.  It may be sin like gossip; it may be a sin like pornography; or maybe it’s a different sin altogether.  But the Lord doesn’t want us to try to rid the sin from our lives on our own.  His grace is effective at casting sin out of our life, just as light casts out darkness.  It may not happen all at once, but with the Lord’s help, we can find the freedom from the slavery that sin brings.  Invite Jesus to help you get rid of whatever sin is enslaving you right now.
    When we’re trying to grow in virtue, it’s much easier with the Lord.  A virtue is a stable disposition to act in the right way.  It comes through habitual actions of doing the right thing.  So we have to cooperate.  But the Lord’s grace can make it easier for us to do the right thing when we have the opportunity to do the wrong thing.  I know that patience has often been a difficult virtue for me, especially when traveling.  It seems like my plane is always delayed, or having mechanical problems, or the flight is cancelled due to bad weather.  And for years I would get so worked up and frustrated when my travel plans wouldn’t go as I had prepared or wanted.  Last November my vacation to Australia was delayed by a day because of weather; and then in January my trip to Dayton was delayed due to weather as I missed my connecting flight by mere minutes; and even my most recent trip to Nashville was delayed by a day due to weather.  But, in all those circumstances, I could see the Lord’s grace at work, supporting and sustaining my own efforts, to keep me calm and entrust myself to the Lord’s will.  I’m not perfectly patient, but I can see progress working with the Lord, rather than by myself.
    We’re often tempted to do things by ourselves, for a variety of reasons.  But to think that we can be fully successful by ourselves in the spiritual life, is about as realistic as thinking that I can keep up with high schoolers in soccer.  Don’t strive for holiness on your own.  Work with Jesus to be a saint; you won’t be disappointed.

29 June 2020

No Quid Pro Quo

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   

    Our society operates most frequently on a transactional mentality.  If I give you this, then you give me that.  It used to require physical money, or at least a card which represented money, but not you simply click a button, input some information, and the transaction can take place.  I click on the song I want in iTunes, it asks for some information which I have to input, and then the song is mine. 
    Maybe, in hearing the first reading and the Gospel today, we suppose that God’s blessings and eternal life operate in the same way.  Elisha goes to the Shunamite woman, who gives Elisha something, so he wants to give her something back.  In this case, Elisha intercedes and the woman is able to conceive a son, even though she has an old husband.  At the end of today’s Gospel, Jesus says that if we host a prophet, we’ll get a prophet’s reward, or if we welcome a righteous man, we’ll receive a reward for that, or if we simply give a cup of cold water to a little disciple, we will not lose our reward.  Sounds very much like a quid pro quo. 
    But, while God does reward generosity, and, in fact, cannot be outdone in generosity, getting to heaven is not about a transaction.  It’s not so much about giving up anything, as it is about becoming something.  St. Paul in the second reading talks about being baptized into the death of Jesus, buried with Jesus through baptism, so that we can rise with Christ.  What St. Paul is talking about here is becoming one with Jesus, in His Death, so that we can also be one with Jesus in His Resurrection.  And the whole of the Catholic life is about becoming one with Christ, so that, as St. Paul says elsewhere, it is not longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. 
    Heaven is our destiny if and only if we have been transformed into the Person of Christ.  In the Christian East we use this term, divinization.  St. Athanasius said, “God became man so that man might become God.”  Baptism, into the Death of Jesus, is meant to being that transforming process by which, each day, we die to our fallen humanity and rise with our risen humanity, which is seated at the right hand of the Father in Christ.  Heaven is a reward, but perhaps it’s better to speak of it as the logical destination for one who is configured to Christ, since Jesus Christ is already there.  It’s not, “If I give Jesus the right stuff, then He’ll let me in to heaven.”  In that mentality, we’re viewing salvation as secular economic theory: I need to give the least I can to get the most I can; it’s getting the biggest bang for our buck.  But that mentality is antithetical to the Christian life.  Christ demands all of us, because that is what He has given fully the Father.  That’s why Jesus also says today, “‘Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.’”  It’s not that Jesus says we can’t love our parents or children, it’s that Jesus deserves all of who we are.  He wants to transform us entirely, not simply the parts that we feel we can part with.
    How do we know if we’re living in a wrongheaded, transactional mentality?  All we have to do is ask ourselves: ‘Is there a part of my life that I don’t want to give over to Jesus?’  And of course, Jesus’ Mystical Body is the Church, so what the Church teaches as belonging to faith or morals is precisely important for recognizing what we’re truly willing to give to Jesus.  How often to we hear some form of, “The Church can’t tell me how I’m supposed to live out my sexuality;” or, “I want my wedding on the beach, not in a church;” or “Why does the Church think that she can tell me what to consider when I’m voting?” or, “I’ll only support the Church financially if I approve of what this priest/bishop/pope is doing”?  If our mission, as Catholics, is truly to conform our lives to Christ, then no part of our life, those I’ve mentioned or others, is off limits to being transformed by Jesus.
    But take comfort that we may want to give ourselves entirely to Jesus, but we’re not quite experts in it, yet.  One can easily say, “Jesus, I give you my entire life; do with it as you please,” and shortly thereafter, as Jesus tells us what He desires of us, we fall into the temptation of holding back from the Lord.  Our first parents, Adam and Eve, grasped at the fruit because they were afraid that they had to take in order to receive good things, and that tendency remains strong in us.
    Still, the important part of our pilgrimage with the Lord is that we are doing our best to allowing the Sacraments of Baptism, Penance, Confirmation, the Eucharist, and Holy Matrimony or Holy Orders to truly transform us to be more like Jesus.  It’s not about giving Jesus the least amount of ourselves that we can, just barely enough so that we can squeak into heaven by the skin of our teeth.  Today, and everyday, Jesus invites us to give all of who we are to Him, so that we might, in return, receive everything from Him.

15 June 2020

Love which Helps Us Love

Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi)

    This past Thursday I celebrated the tenth anniversary of ordination to the priesthood.  Sometimes the days are long, other times the days pass quickly, but it’s hard to believe that I’ve been a priest for a decade. I look back and can remember some great moments at each of the three parishes at which I served, and I can remember some moments that I’d probably rather forget at each parish.  But that’s life, isn’t it?  It’s no different for married couples, who promise fidelity in good times and in bad.
    What is it that keeps priests and married couples going through the ups and downs?  It’s love.  Last week I mentioned that love is one of the most fundamental things for humanity, and that Bishop Barron defines love as willing the good of the other.  To love is to act in a way that places the other above oneself, and to do what it takes to help the other, no matter the cost.  As a priest, love means getting up at 2 a.m. to go to a nursing home and baptize and confirm a dying man who had earlier requested to a nurse to become Catholic; love means standing with a family and helping them grieve in the hope of the resurrection as they bury their newborn baby, or dad or mom; love means bringing a couple together in marriage, some of whom have been preparing for marriage for over a year, some of whom have just found out that the intended is about to be deployed overseas and they need to be married soon so that the US military will pay for the move to military housing; love means feeling the crushing sting of defeat in a State Championship game one year, and crying tears of pain with the seniors who will never play organized soccer again, as well as the sweet taste of victory in the State Championship game the following year, and crying tears of joy with the team who achieved the goal they set for themselves before the season even began; love means baptizing, forgiving, and confirming all in the name of Christ; and yes, sometimes love even means correcting a sheep who is starting to wander away, and the pain of that correction not having its intended effect to call back, but pushing the sheep farther away.
    As a priest, as of last Thursday, I have celebrated or concelebrated 4,073 Masses, baptized 116 people, confirmed 60 people, blessed the marital unions of 67 couples, and been the principal celebrant of 174 funerals, including 4 grandparents and other family members.  There are a lot of things that have gotten me through all of these times in three parishes: a loving family; friends, especially one or two that I can vent to; my brother priests; from time-to-time a drink or two; but most of all, the Eucharist: the Body and Blood of Christ.
    And the reason why the Eucharist is what really gets me through is because the Eucharist is love.  Follow the connections: God is love, Jesus is God, the Eucharist is Jesus, so the Eucharist is love.  And it’s not only true intellectually.  We know that the Eucharist is the fruit of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, the fruit of His love for us.  And His love for us is precisely proven in that He was willing to die for us.  Jesus Himself said that no one has greater love than to lay down his life for a friend.  The weight that Jesus had in saying that was that, in about a day from when he said it, He would lay down His life for His bride, the Church.  But since most of the apostles would not be there, and because He wanted the Church through all time to be able to be joined to that sacrifice of love, He instituted the Eucharist and the priesthood on Holy Thursday, so that we would not only think of His love, or remember His love, but we would be able to partake of His love. 
    But the Eucharist isn’t simply for priests to give them strength and spiritual nutrition in their vocation.  No matter what your vocation, the Eucharist is meant to strengthen and nourish you.  It is meant to increase your joys and lessen your sorrows.  By receiving love Himself, the Body and Blood of Christ, you are meant to be empowered to love more, to will the good of others, whether it’s the members of your family, your co-workers, or even the stranger you meet on the street.  The Eucharist is the love which allows you to show love by caring for a sick family member all through the night; to go to sporting events for your children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces; to support friends and family as they begin married life, or even as they struggle through married life; to walk through the valley of the shadow of death for those you know; to work to the best of your ability with integrity in your job; to treat everyone as created in the image and likeness of God. 
    I thank God for my ten years as a priest.  I thank God for sending me to East Lansing, to Adrian, and now here in Flint.  But most of all, I thank God for the Eucharist, the fruit of Jesus’ love, which allows me, unworthy though I am, to love to the best of my ability, and act in Jesus’ power and name. 

08 June 2020

Living Icons of the Trinity

Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity

    You might think that it’s strange that the most fundamental part of our faith, the belief that God is a Trinity–one God, three Divine Persons–can’t really be explained.  Our modern mind tends to think that if something is fundamental, then it should be the easiest to explain.  The more advanced, less necessary things are usually harder to explain.  That's certainly true for math.  Addition, like 1+1=2, is much more fundamental and much easier to understand than calculus.  And yet, think about something that is most fundamental in life also can’t really be explained: love.  We can talk about what love is like; we can recognize love when we see it; but it’s often hard to explain precisely what love is.  Even Bishop Barron’s excellent definition, that love is willing the good of the other, itself calls for further understanding.  What does it mean to will the good of the other?  What is the good that we should be willing for the other? 
    And yet, while God in Himself is beyond our finite minds, He does not leave us without images and some understanding of who He is.  In fact, just as the Trinity is the fundamental teaching of our Catholic faith, so one image of the Trinity is the fundamental building block of society: marriage and family life.
    People often chide the Church for being backwards about marriage and the family.  Or they may say that the Church has too many rules for couples and families or couples who want to increase the size of their family.  But if marriage and the family is meant to be an icon of the Trinity, an icon of the most important, most fundamental teaching of our faith, doesn’t it make sense that the Church would go to extreme lengths to help her children be the best icons and examples of the Trinity that they can be?
    How is marriage and the family an icon of the Trinity?  Well, to begin with, the Trinity is a communion of Persons.  God revealed His oneness through the Old Testament, and that oneness was guarded carefully by the Chosen People, especially living in the midst of pagan cultures that often had many gods or goddesses.  But even in the beginning, God gave hints about the fact that His oneness was not a solitary existence, but an existence of communion, an existence of union with others.  In the first chapter of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, we hear, “‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.’ […] God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them (emphasis added).”  If we go ahead to the next chapter, we see that Adam is not meant to be alone, and that animals, pets, are no substitute for human love.  God gives Adam an equal partner, Eve, to be his wife, and to live as a communion of persons. 
    We read in St. John’s first epistle in the New Testament that God is love.  Love, of its very nature, is not inward facing, but outward facing.  To love is an action that requires another.  And so, if God is love, then God, who is one, still mysteriously has an outpouring of that love.  And, of course, that love is eternally poured out to His Son, Jesus.  From all eternity, God the Father pours out everything that He is, except His identity, which cannot be given away, to God the Son.  And God the Son receives all of that love, and also, eternally, pours out all He is, except His own identity, back to the Father.  Isn’t that what love is supposed to be like between a husband and a wife?  Aren’t they supposed to give all of who they are, except their identities, to the other, and receive that full gift of love from the other?  Don’t we see problems with married couples precisely when someone holds something back: a secret one keeps; a lie someone tells; a grudge someone holds onto?  I often tell people: love isn’t 50/50.  Love is 100/100.  Divorce is 50/50.  The image is not the reality; the Trinity is not a sexual communion.  But the image still holds that a man and a woman in marriage are called to give entirely of themselves to the other, as a living icon of the Trinity.
    But, even love does not stop between the two.  The eternal love of the Father and the Son is so strong that it eternally breathes forth a Divine Person, the Holy Spirit.  The communion between the Father and Son is not closed in on itself, but, as a true relation of love, is open to the other.  Again, this is where words fail us, because the Holy Spirit is not “other,” but the same one God.  Still, we talk about the Holy Spirit as an eternal reality of the love between the Father and the Son. 
    So with marriage: to truly be an icon of the Trinity, the couple must be open to that love creating a new person.  That doesn’t mean that Catholics have to have as many kids as possible.  But it does mean that, if couples are truly loving, they responsibly cooperate with the procreation of new life in accord with how God has made the male and female body and do not turn to artificial means either to achieve or to restrict procreation.  Openness to life is part and parcel of Catholic marriage because we do not believe in a “binity,” only Father and Son, but a Trinity, a communion of Three Divine Persons.  As with marriage as an icon, the family of the icon is not a one-to-one correlation.  You can’t stop being open to life after you’ve had one kid because there’s only Three Divine Persons.  And even senior couples who marry, or couples who find that they cannot conceive, can still be open to life (even though their bodies cannot express that openness), by not keeping their love to themselves, but allowing it to overflow either by adopting or fostering children, or by acts of charity in the parish or community. 
    When one considers that marriage and family are icons of the Trinity, living reminders of who God is in Himself, it is not a surprise that the Church works so hard to encourage couples and families to live that vocation out in particular ways, to better communicate what they are imaging.  We do not understand the Trinity in itself, and we never will.  But thanks be to God for families who remind us of who God is, a communion of love!

01 June 2020

Celebrating Pentecost 2020 Like the First One

Solemnity of Pentecost

    Welcome back to Mass (albeit, in smaller numbers than usual and celebrated a little differently than usual)!  It’s providential that at our first weekend back we celebrate the Solemnity of Pentecost.  Remember that the disciples were in the Upper Room, and had been waiting there since the Ascension, when Jesus told them to wait for the promised gift of the Spirit.  That would have been nine days earlier.  They probably weren’t keeping social distancing, but maybe they didn’t have anyone to cut their hair, either.  But they used that extended period of waiting to pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit, even as they were sad at not being able to be close to the physical presence of Jesus.  I know many of you, and I hope all of you, have used this time away from the Mass to grow closer to Jesus through personal prayer, or watching the Mass on TV or online.  You’ve been waiting to return to that closeness with the glorified Body of Jesus in the Eucharist.  Have you been praying the Rosary more, or reading Scripture more?  What ways have you exercised new spiritual muscles during this 2+ month period of fasting from attending Mass?
    What also makes this providential is that at Pentecost, having prayed for the Spirit, and then having received it, the disciples went out and proclaimed the Good News that Jesus was risen from the dead, and that He has given new life to all those who follow Him: a new way of life on this earth, and eternal life in heaven.  They spoke, as we hear in the Acts of the Apostles, in different languages so that everyone could understand them.  And I hope that the same thing will happen to you as you leave this “Upper Room.”  Has you have received the Holy Spirit in baptism and confirmation, and as you will soon be nourished with the Body and Blood of Jesus in the Eucharist, you will have everything you need to be like the disciples and tell others about Jesus. 
    This is the point where Catholics get a little nervous, I know.  Some may feel like they’re ill-equipped to evangelize, to spread the Gospel.  And certainly, as St. Paul says in his first Letter to the Corinthians, there are different gifts.  We are not all given the same gifts for building up the Church.  But at the same time, as St. Paul says in the Letter to the Romans, the Holy Spirit “comes to the aid of our weakness.”  We did not receive a Spirit of fear, but of power from the Lord, to accomplish the work He wants us to. 
    But you might still feel like you don’t know what to do.  Is the Holy Spirit going to make you talk in different languages?  Perhaps He will, like He did for the disciples at the first Pentecost.  But, perhaps for you speaking in different languages is speaking in a way that another person understands, even if you’re both speaking in English.  At the core of spreading the Gospel is telling people why Jesus makes a difference in your life.  Of course, this presumes that He does.  Maybe a honest reflection means that we’re in need of more convincing of this in our own life.  But, we probably all have stories about how Jesus helped us in life, or got us through a rough patch, or changed the way we interacted with people, used our money, or engaged in our work.  If you don’t have a short story of how Jesus has impacted your life, then today go home and think about it. 
    The story may be a powerful one, like this one: When my sister, Amanda, was hit in a bad car accident, she later told me that while she was waiting for the ambulance to arrive, as the van was pinned on her right arm, but still conscious, she was praying Hail Marys to try and keep her calm.  That’s definitely a witness to the different Jesus and Mary can make in life.  Amanda still had scarring, and had a number of surgeries and a long rehab, but her faith helped her to pull through.
    The story may be an everyday account.  The other day, when returning from a death notification with the State Police, I decided to try out Smoothie King.  It was only Tuesday, and the week had already been difficult, for reasons that don’t really matter here.  In any case, I ordered a small, but then when I got to the window, I was offered a medium that, with my coupon, was about the same price as the small.  I said ok, and they asked me to pull ahead while they made my order.  A few minutes later they came out with two smoothies.  They told me that they had made both the small and the medium, and figured they would give me both.  That was a sign, albeit small, of Jesus’ love, something I really needed at that point in my day. 
    Evangelization is partly telling the story of Jesus, and I bet you know the highlights better than you think, and partly telling the story of Jesus in our life, which only you can tell.  Sometimes the Spirit drives us to be a priest, to serve the people of God, in different towns across a diocese, or maybe even as a missionary in a far-off land.  Sometimes the Spirit gives us the gift to be a spouse and a parent, and to tell our story to other family members, or co-workers, or maybe even people we don’t know in our communities.  But we’ve had 10 Sundays to pray and prepare for being here today.  Let’s not waste the Body and Blood of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit that we received in Baptism and Confirmation, that same Spirit that was given at Pentecost, but rather use these great vehicles of grace to tell the world about Jesus: that He is alive, that is the key to our happiness, and the difference He has made in our life. 

26 May 2020

Gone and Yet Here

Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord

    If there’s one thing that has proliferated during our pandemic, it’s memes.  Memes, if you’re not familiar with the word, is a picture, often with a short phrase, that’s intended to be humorous.  One that came to mind today (which I saw in April but would have also been appropriate earlier this month!) was: Anyone else feel like life is being written by a 4th grader right now?  “And there was this virus, and everyone was scared.  And then the world ran out of toilet paper.  Yeah, and then there was no school for like a month, and then it snowed.”  If we bring it up to the present day we could also include murder hornets and, sadly, the recent floods in central Michigan and wildfires near Grayling.  It does certainly sound like a bad story!
    As we go through the main points of the Gospel, it may also sound a little like a disjointed story.  You can imagine trying to explain the Gospel to someone who has never heard it before: There’s a virgin, Mary, who conceives a Son.  But it’s not conceived with her husband, but by the Holy Spirit.  And Mary’s Son, Jesus, is also God’s Son, but he’s not half-God and half-human, he’s fully God and fully human.  And Jesus heals people and walks on water, and multiplies bread and fish for the hungry, but then He dies on the cross.  But then He comes back from the dead, not like a zombie, but in a glorified body which can pass through doors.  And He visits some people during 40 days after the Resurrection, but then ascends into heaven.  But He’s not really gone, because His Body is the Church. 
    Christianity holds in tension so many things: Mary who is mother and virgin; Jesus who is God and man; Jesus who truly dies, but is truly risen from the dead; and what we celebrate today, Jesus ascended into heaven, but did not leave us orphans without His presence.  He’s gone, but He’s still here.  After all, we heard it at the end of the Gospel today: “‘behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.’”
    So how is Jesus still present with us, if, as we heard in the Gospel, He ascended beyond our sight into the heavens?  There are two ways.  The first we’ll celebrate next Sunday on Pentecost.  When the Ascension was celebrated when it should be (on Ascension Thursday, 40 days after Easter), we could point to the first novena in the church.  This is where you can insert the bad joke, where a Franciscan, a Dominican, and a diocesan priest are all asked individually by a layman, “Is there a novena for a Ferrari?”  The Franciscan, when asked, answers, “What’s a Ferrari?”  The Dominican, when asked, likewise answers, “What’s a Ferrari?”  The diocesan priest, when asked, answers, “What’s a novena?” 
    A novena is 9 days of prayer, usually for an intention.  There are nine days between the Ascension and Pentecost, and the Blessed Mother, Apostles, and disciples were praying for those nine days to continue the work of Jesus, without really knowing what they should be doing.  And their prayers are answered by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, where all gathered in that upper room are empowered to preach the Gospel.
    The Holy Spirit continues Jesus’ presence in the world.  Through the Holy Spirit, the Good News is still preached, freedom from sin is still granted, the hungry are still fed, the sick are still healed, the dead are still raised.  All that Jesus did on earth continues through the work of the Holy Spirit.  Sometimes that happens directly by the Holy Spirit, but sometimes it happens by people empowered by the Holy Spirit, like the first Apostles and disciples, who continue that work through the Church.
    And the Church is the second way that Jesus’ presence is continued on earth.  The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, and is present in heaven with Christ at the right hand of the Father (what we call the Church Triumphant), is present in Purgatory, awaiting the time when they will be ready for heaven (what we call the Church Suffering), and is present here on earth, as St. Paul says, working out our salvation and trying to live the life of Jesus daily (what we call the Church Militant).  The Church continues the teaching of Jesus, frees people from sin through the Sacrament of Penance, feeds the hungry of body through food pantries, and feeds the hungry of soul through the Eucharist, heals the sick through the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, and prays for the resurrection of the dead in the funeral rites and Mass.  And in many more ways, the ministry of Jesus in Judea 2,000 years ago continues throughout the world.
    And that’s you and me.  Our call through baptism and confirmation is to continue the presence of Jesus in whatever way that we can.  People are no less hungry for Jesus than they were 2,000 years ago, and Jesus can satisfy their hunger through the Holy Spirit working through us as the Church. 
    Yes, there is that tension, that Jesus is both gone and present here on earth.  But His presence on earth is both the work of the Holy Spirit and us, in cooperation with the Holy Spirit.  This week, let’s make sure that our lives reveal that Jesus is alive and that, while He ascended into heaven, He is still working and active here on earth!

11 May 2020

Doh!

Fifth Sunday of Easter

    When I was growing up, my parents did not let me watch “The Simpsons” because, I suppose, they thought it too crude and disrespectful.  So, of course, when I was in college seminary, and “The Simpsons” came on TV, I was definitely going to sit down and watch it.  And if you’ve watched “The Simpsons,” or even if you haven’t, you’re probably familiar with the character Homer Simpson, the lazy, glutinous, well-meaning, and sometimes philosophizing dad.  Homer has a quintessential word, or maybe grunt is a more appropriate word, that is associated with him: doh!  You might imagine Homer hitting his head while he says it, which gives it the proper context, a grunt and action of futility and frustration.
    If Jesus was Homer (and that comparison, obviously, is an absurd one), when St. Philip said, “‘Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us’”, Jesus would have said, “Doh!”  For three years Philip had been following Jesus each day, seeing the miracles, hearing the teaching, and now, at the Last Supper, Jesus is giving His farewell address before He dies on the cross.  Jesus comes to His great unveiling to the Apostles of His unity with the Father and says,  “‘If you know me, then you will also know my Father.  From now on you do know him and have seen him.’”  And what does Philip say?  “Jesus, just show us the Father and we’ll be good.”  It’s like the teacher saying, “2 x 3 = 6,” and then the student saying, “So wait: what’s 2 x 3?” 
    Jesus reveals the Father in everything He does.  Jesus is not the Father, but He is the revelation of the Father, so that we no longer have to wonder what the Father is like.  We see it in Jesus.  Jesus only heals at the will of the Father.  Jesus only teaches what the Father wants taught.    Jesus loves with the love of the Father.  Jesus only suffers because that is the will of the Father.  No one can truly come to the Father without the Son.  This is the basis of our claim, that, if not true, would be pure arrogance: Jesus is the only means of salvation.  He is, as St. Peter said the second reading, the “cornerstone,” upon which the entire heavenly kingdom is built.  Without the cornerstone, the whole building collapses.  Without Jesus, there is no heaven for us.  With Jesus, we have a place in the heavenly temple.
    But that revelation of the Father through Jesus continues in our day.  Bishop Barron is coming out with a new series on the sacraments, and I was able to get a sneak peak at episode one, about the sacraments in general and baptism in particular.  Bishop Barron quotes Pope St. Leo the Great: “What was visible in our Savior has passed over into his mysteries.”  That last part of the sentence in the original Latin is: “in sacramenta transivit.”  Mysteries was another way of saying sacraments, and, in fact, in the Christian East, they still refer to the sacraments as mysteries.  But the point is that we see the Father through Jesus, and we see Jesus especially through the sacraments.  The sacraments are our opportunities to encounter Jesus in a powerful way.
    And yet, how often do we think: I wish I could just talk with Jesus?  I wish I could see Jesus?  I wish I could hear Jesus?  As Homer would say, “Doh!”  Through the sacraments of baptism, penance, the Eucharist, confirmation, holy matrimony, holy order, and anointing of the sick, we encounter Christ in a way that He gave us, and through our encounter with Christ, we encounter the Father.  The sacraments are not “church graduations” after we pass a class.  They are opportunities that we can encounter God, a new beginning of, and the fruit of, a relationship that we have with God.
    Why did Philip miss what Jesus was saying at the Last Supper?  Why was Philip confused after Jesus said, “‘If you know me, then you will also know my Father’”?  How Philip was expecting to experience the Father was not the way the Father was revealing Himself.  And maybe, more often than we’d like to admit, we miss it, too, because we want to experience the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit on our terms. 
    How often do we come to Mass expecting to be entertained, or to feel something, or to “get something out of it”?  We can equate those with encountering God, and sometimes we do encounter God in that way.  But we can want the Father to reveal Himself on our terms, in our ways rather than His ways.  I know watching Mass on live-stream, as great of a blessing as it is, brings with it even more challenges to paying attention, participating, and really offering ourselves to the Father through Christ the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit.  But right now, this is how Jesus is revealing the Father.
    Like St. Philip, we all want to encounter the Father.  Like St. Philip, that happens through Jesus, and therefore especially through the seven sacraments which flow from Jesus’ Mystical Body, the Church.  May both you and I, no matter what, cling to Jesus and the ways that He reveals to us the love of the Father in heaven.