Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Power of the Cross (Sunday homily)

(Note: the changes reflect what changed after I delivered it last night.)
There is a fascinating history 
to this Feast of the Exultation of the Holy Cross.

It begins with a Roman emperor named Constantine, 
who in AD 312 was embroiled in a civil war to see who would rule Rome. 
On the eve of battle, he saw a sign, 
and he had his soldiers trace that sign on their shields. 

It was the sign of Christ: the chi-rho, 
which looks to our eyes like an X on top of a P. 
It’s on our tabernacle right there. 
Those are the first two letters in Greek that spell “Christ.”

Constantine won the battle; 
then he decreed that Christians would be free 
to practice their faith without interference. 
History records that he wasn’t a stellar Christian; 
Even so, his mother Helen became a Christian at this time—
and she was devout. 

It was probably her idea to journey to the Holy Land 
in search of the True Cross. 
She was about 76 years old – 
and in those days, travel was very difficult, even for royalty.

When she arrived in Jerusalem, 
at the site of Calvary and the tomb were temples to Venus and Jupiter. 
The pagan Romans had built these almost 200 years before. 
Backed with the authority of her son the emperor, 
she had the pagan shrines torn down, and began digging. 
She found three crosses! Was one of them the Cross of Christ? 
How would they know?

They brought the three crosses to a sick woman’s bedside
and touched her with each cross. 
After the third cross touched her, she began to recover. 

A church, begun by Constantine in those years, 
now stands over the place of Calvary and the empty tomb; 
and this date is the anniversary of its consecration
it was on September 13 that the church was consecrated;
and the next day, today, the Cross was lifted up
before the people for the first time since the day our Lord died on it.
A portion of the cross was taken back to Rome, 
where it is on display to this day.

Is it real? I think it is. 

I find it hard to believe that Helen 
would have gone to such great trouble and expense, 
and then taken any old thing someone pushed at her. 
What’s more, consider that none of these things would have happened, 
unless Constantine won the battle – 
which he won after trusting in the sign of the Cross.

But our faith doesn’t depend on this particular story. 
What’s important is that the Cross happened. 
Jesus lived, was arrested, was crucified, died and was buried. 
And the tomb was found empty on the third day. 
These are the facts on which our Faith rests. 

Yet I think the reason God grants things like 
the discovery of the True Cross, 
or the various miracles that have happened with the Holy Eucharist, 
or the appearances of Mary, 
or any number of other miracles that have happened, 
is for the same reason he acted as he did in the first reading: 
to strengthen his people when they are “worn out by the journey.”

Meanwhile, the truth of the Cross is unassailable.  
The crisis of the human race, 
which brought God to earth and to the Cross, 
is the same as it was.
We still cannot save ourselves.
All our technology and prosperity may lengthen our lives, 
and expand our waistlines, but they don’t bring us peace. 

Wars are fought with different weapons, 
but for the same reasons, and with the same results. 

This year is the hundredth anniversary 
of the Great War to end all wars. How’d that turn out?

Thirteen years ago last week, terror struck our country. 
Are we any closer today to escaping the threat? 

Moses lifted up that strange sign, yet it gave life. 
The Cross – on which hung the savior of the world – 
is the strangest sign anyone could imagine:
God lifting up a broken man, his son, on the cross, lifted before the world. 
Even so: the Cross is the only hope the world has.

And there are powerful signs of the Cross at work in our world.

This week I read the story of a man named Mario Joseph, 
who lives in India. 
He was raised Muslim and became a minister – an “imam.” 
Simply reading the Koran – the Muslim Scriptures – 
he was led to realize: Jesus is the Savior of the world!

He was imprisoned and beaten by his own family; 
when his father threatened him with a knife 
unless he renounced Jesus, he called out the Lord’s name; 
his father fell and he was able to escape. 

He became a Catholic; he is still in India, where he tells his story. 
And he continues to pray for his family, 
even though they won’t talk to him.

There are other stories of conversion. 
All over the world, Muslims are choosing to become Christian, 
even with the terrible persecutions they and we are witnessing. 

Which may explain the ferocity of the persecution, don’t you think?

Why are Muslims converting? 
According to a study published in Christianity Today, 
Muslim converts give four reasons:

First, they are impressed by the lifestyle of Christians; 
they see genuine love and generosity, as well as moral lifestyles. 
They see women treated with dignity 
and marriages that were true partnerships.

Something for us to think about in how we live our lives!

Second, they experienced answered prayers 
when they asked Christians to pray for them, 
or when they prayed to Christ themselves. 

Third, they were not happy with their experience of Islam.

And the fourth and most amazing reason: 
they received dreams and visions, pointing them toward Christ.

With all the ugliness of our times, 
and the temptation to respond with even more ugliness, 
we might stop and notice something: 
is it possible that the world is actually being changed, 
less by war, or human ingenuity, 
but because of the power of the Cross?

You and I may not meet many Muslims. 
But we do meet people who need Christ in the center of their lives. 

What do they see in us?

What did our Lord say? 
“If I be lifted up, I will draw all men to me.”

Friday, September 12, 2014

Mary, Sobieski, Croissants & Coffee

Jan Sobieski at Vienna, by Jan Matejko; in Vatican Museums. (From Wikipedia Commons.)
Today the Church honors the Holy Name of Mary. As I described to the faithful at Holy Mass this morning, there is an interesting history to this observance.

It originated in Spain in the 1500s, and the date moved around a bit. But what's especially noteworthy about this date is that it is the anniversary of the victory of Polish King Jan Sobieski over the invading Turks, at the gates of Vienna, in 1683, despite overwhelming odds. (Be sure to click on the picture above; it's a magnificent scene, but it had to be shrunk down to fit.)

Before heading to the battle, Sobieski brought his army to Czestochowa, Poland, to the monastery of Jasna Gora, where the image of the Black Madonna was housed. As they marched to war, they sang the Polish national anthem, which was a hymn to our Lady.

The Turks, despite vastly outnumbering Sobieski's forces, eventually withdrew; in doing so, they left behind many of their stores of food. Among the items the jubilant Viennese discovered was coffee!

And so, to mark the victory, Viennese bakers created pastries in the shape of the crescents they saw on the Turkish banners: we know them by their French name, "croissant." Perhaps they drank the Turks' coffee with them?

While the story of the croissant may be apochryphal, it is certain that Pope Innocent XI gave thanks to our Lady for her intervention by establishing this feast in her honor. Pope Pius X established it on this date, which is the anniversary of the battle. After the Second Vatican Council, the feast was dropped from the calendar. But in 2002, the most famous son of Poland, Pope John Paul II, restored it to the Roman Calendar.

And so, after Holy Mass, the parish's new youth director and I drove down to Troy to eat croissants and drink coffee! But we didn't get the Turkish kind, which is no great loss, to be honest. But that's another story.

Our Lady of Victory! Pray for us!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

What has become of our culture?

In the last week, I've gotten a TV and audio set up for the rectory; and today, the Internet access point was installed; so now, I've got Pandora on my TV, and I'm listening to Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, and other good stuff.

Meanwhile, I'm surfing the Internet, and I see this headline on Instapundit:  Stop Dressing Like A Slob When Traveling. And I remember: people used to dress up to fly. And for church. And heck, they used to dress nicely for baseball games!


Don't believe it? Go find the movie, "Pride of the Yankees," or the "Babe Ruth Story," Heck, any movie from before 1960: you'll see that people dressed up better for everything.

Earlier this week, I had a funeral. And a young man was there, with a buttoned shirt -- open -- showing his tshirt. At a funeral! He couldn't at least button his shirt? Are you kidding me? At a funeral?

What's happened to our culture?

Whether it's movies, music, TV, or theater...

(Did you know there's a show on Broadway called "Naked Boys Singing?" (insert sound of my head shaking). How do I know? It showed up in some other news item I was reading. I couldn't believe it, but sure enough, it's real.)

As I was saying...wherever you look, can you find any example where our culture is better, more refined, more beautiful, than, say, in 1960? 1970?

I know what you're thinking: oh, that is what happens when you pass a certain age; you start getting grumpy about the current stuff, and then before you know it, you're watching Lawrence Welk re-runs.

OK, could be. So if you're reading this, and you're under 30, please, please post a comment here. Do you  think our current culture beats what my parents had? (FYI, I was born in 1962; my experience of contemporaneous culture has been a steady downward trend.) Do you think the culture you grew up with is something better than I do? Please let us know.

Do I sound angry? I'm not angry. I'm listening to Louis Armstrong, Dean Martin and Ella Fitzgerald. I have a great inheritance that is available to me. I think of the classical education I received, and the doors that opened for me. All that is mine, and it's not endangered...for me.

But I'm sad. I'm sad to think of people who dress like slobs at the funerals of someone they love, not because they are contemptuous, but because they simply don't know any better. They speak in fragments, peppered with vulgarities and obscenities for the same reason -- because they don't know any better. They gape at cathedrals, and wonder what they are; they see a Latin inscription, and just stare. They watch an American movie from the 1940s, and wonder, what world is that?

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Conversion is hard. But it's necessary. (Sunday homily)

The readings are all about calling people to conversion. 
The “watchman” in the first reading. 
The method of providing correction in the Gospel. 
And the challenge for all of us to have an open heart 
to hear that call to conversion.

Saint Paul reminds us of the commandments. 
As the “watchman” appointed for Russia, I will do the same. 
Despite what you may have heard, 
all the commandments remain in full force!

Is that all there is to calling us to conversion? I remind you?

If only it were that easy.

The truth is, conversion is often painful. 
If you’re hooked on something – 
food, alcohol, anger, pornography, gossip – 
giving it up is going to be really hard. 
It’s humiliating, to have to face the power these things have, 
and how weak we are. 
And it’s embarrassing to realize 
what whiny-babies we can be about some things.

That’s changing ourselves. That’s hard enough.
Then there’s confronting others. That’s even harder.

The process described in the Gospel is hard to get just right.

We all know people, I think, who see this passage, 
and then they have a green light to get all up in someone’s face; 
and we’re watching, from the sidelines, cringing. 
It doesn’t work; it really makes things worse. 
And the person who did the confronting—because Jesus said so!—
is saying, “Gee, I don’t know what went wrong?” 
But we know; we saw the whole thing.

On the other hand, 
we all know people who really need to do some confronting, 
some speaking up…they don’t do a thing.

The balance is so hard.

So what, do you think I just gave us all permission to ignore this? 
Not at all. I’m just reiterating my point: conversion is hard. 
But it’s also necessary.

Last week, the comedienne Joan Rivers died, 
and there were a few people talking about 
what she’d be like in heaven. 
That’s what we often do: try to picture ourselves, 
or others, carrying on with our habits and preferences in heaven.

Look, I hope Ms. Rivers makes it to heaven, pray for her soul – 
but is that really what heaven is? 
More of the same as here?

Does that even sound like heaven to you?

People gossiping around the pop machine at work: 
Do you really want an eternity of that?

So the point I’m making is that while conversion is hard, 
it’s not something we can just skip.

It reminds me of when I was in high school. 
I’d get home on Friday afternoon, 
and I’d have a pile of homework to do. 
All this reading; these language worksheets; a paper; 
memorize the periodic table. 

It was so discouraging. 
So I’d go do something else; I’d have dinner, I’d watch TV—
and it was still there when I went to bed Friday night. 
Still there Saturday morning. And night. 
And after Sunday Mass. Still there when Sunday night came. 
The job didn’t become easier by avoiding it. 
And Monday morning was judgment day.

Well, thankfully, there’s more to heaven than high school! 
Aren’t you glad?

All right, I’ve stated the problem. 
What do we do with it? Here are some suggestions.

First, don’t dodge it, admit it: we need conversion.

As far as what may need to change? We’re all different. 
I have sins I confess over and over, and you might say the same.

Second, talk to the Lord about what you’re going to tackle. 
Is it more prayer, or more serious prayer, in your life? 
Is it overcoming a sinful habit? 
Is it being more truly generous? Correcting a fault? 
Repairing a relationship? 
Your resolution is up to you.

Third, make a plan. It can be a really simple plan. 
Start somewhere, even if it’s small.
Be practical. If you use bad language, how about a “swear jar”?
Do you know what that is? 
Every time you use one of those words, 
you put a quarter, or a dollar, in the jar. 
Then you give the money away! Ouch!

Is the Internet causing you problems? 
Put your computer in a public place. 
The rest of you? 
When someone moves his or her computer to the living room? 
Don’t. Say. A. Word. 
Part of what’s hard about conversion 
is we make it hard for each other. 
Let’s help each other in gracious ways.

Fourth. Go to confession. Can’t leave that out. 
I know it’s embarrassing; 
I am embarrassed sometimes when I go to confession. Just go. 

Fifth. Accept that you will have to give up something. 
Or take on something hard. 
One way or the other, there will be sacrifice. 

And this is a good place to say, 
it’s not going to be the same for everyone. 
One person can have a few drinks, but stop at the right time. 
Another person, can’t even have the one. 
It doesn’t seem fair. Don’t compare yourself to others. 
If you go to the gym, they person ahead of you 
was benching 400 pounds. Yeow! 
You’re embarrassed, you can barely manage 200. 
Then the guy after you? He moves the weight down to 50!

Also, it should be obvious that what I’m talking about here 
is shedding bad habits, and embracing a more challenging spiritual life.

None of this is about “accepting” 
or giving permission for someone treating us badly. 
Conversion and sacrifice are about how 
we become better, stronger, fuller people. 
More truly alive in the Holy Spirit. 
It’s not about how we become better doormats. 

Finally, never give up. 
It is the enemy of our souls who says we can’t change, 
we have no hope, and that the last sin we just committed 
ran out our credit with God. None of that is true. 
God is never lacking in mercy for us; 
he is bigger than all our sins, all sin in the world;
and there is no sin, no combination of sin, 
which will change God’s love for us. 
He never gives up on us! 
Anyone who goes to hell, ends up there not because God gave up, 
but because they gave up—or weren’t willing to try.

Didn’t you ever wonder why, when our Lord created the sacraments, 
he gave us Holy Mass, over and over and over, 
and we have confession, and we can go, back, and back and back?

This is why. There’s a light on for us—and it’s always on. 

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

I agree with Victoria Osteen!


Recently, Victoria Osteen, married to Rev. Joel Osteen, was ripped for making some comments that sound odd, and as she worded them, narcissistic:

"So, I want you to know this morning: Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy," she continued. "When you come to church, when you worship Him, you're not doing it for God really. You're doing it for yourself, because that's what makes God happy. Amen?"

If you click on the paragraph above, you'll go to one article about it, and a video as well.

While it sounds terrible, part of what she says is correct. That is, the second part, about worship.

Our worship of Almighty God adds nothing to his greatness; God needs nothing from us, and while we speak of "pleasing God" and "making God happy," no less than Saint Thomas Aquinas pointed out, in his Summa Theologica that God is, by his nature, cannot change or be changed. When we speak of God having emotions, we are really describing his unchanging will regarding that which is good or evil, as in good making God "happy" and evil making him "angry."

So if worship does nothing for God, why do we worship?

We worship because it is right that we do so; we are creatures, and creatures need to recognize and adore their Creator. We might ask, why is it necessary to stand with good posture? Because to stand with poor posture -- pushing our bones and muscles out of proper shape and form -- distorts us, and might ultimately cripple us. Just as our body needs proper form in order to function well, so creatures need to be in their proper "alignment" vis-a-vis both God, and all other creation.

Or, to pick up on Ms. Osteen's reference to "happiness": to be in right relationship with God makes him "happy" only in a metaphorical sense, per Saint Thomas, but for us it actually does make us "happy" in the true sense. Recall the question from the old Baltimore Catechism:

Q: Why did God make me?
A: God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next.

So it is certainly true that God's aim for us may be expressed simply as, to make us happy--provided we understand "happiness" as being in right relationship with God, our world, and other people. Worship is essential to us being in right relationship with God and others.

That said, the other comment I can't really do much to salvage: "Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy."

Well, uh, yeah, sort of...but no.

That skips over some really important intermediate steps:

Do good to others because:

1) God commands it.
2) As stewards of creation, God has given us a share in governing creation, which means our choices make a real difference in this world. We help make this world more like heaven, or more like hell.
3) People all around us are hungry, suffering injustice, lacking essentials, in need of companionship, healing and strength -- and God sends you and me to care for them.

So...do good to others so that others may be blessed by God through you.

Do good to others so that when the Lord calls all before his throne, you are numbered among the "sheep" of whom he says, "whatsoever you did for the least of my brethren, that you did unto me"--rather than the horrifying alternative.

And theeeeen...it's true to say we "do good" so that we can "be happy" -- as in, happy in heaven, rather than roasting in hell.

Monday, September 01, 2014

What a priest does on his day off...

I was really looking forward to today.

Yesterday, after the last Mass -- and baptism, which I'd forgotten about -- I was very tired. I went home and stretched out on the couch for several hours. In the evening, I went over to the picnic, and had dinner with some parishioners. After visiting, I went home again. I'm sorry, folks, I wasn't more involved.

This morning, I slept late. That means, up around 8 or so. For breakfast, I put some of those Pillsbury rolls in the oven, then sat down to read the new online. Only I sat too long, and the rolls burnt! So I did it over again.

I spent the morning reading, then in the early afternoon as I was getting ready to go over to church to offer Mass, I got a call: an older parishioner needed Last Rites. I was dressed casually, so I threw on my cassock, went over to church to get holy communion for the woman, and then drove over to her house. Two of her daughters and I prayed with her, and I did all I could. Then I drove back and had Holy Mass privately. I think someone walked in while I was offering Mass (I was at the high altar, facing the Lord, so I couldn't see); after Mass, I went back over to my house and fiddled around on the Internet; my other project was to go down and buy a TV.

So I drove down to Piqua, only the store I was looking for wasn't where I thought it would be! After some driving around, I found it; I picked out a TV, plus a DVD/audio system to go with it, and then went to get something to eat. I just got back and have been reading some news.

Some off-days I go to a movie; when it gets a little cooler, I hope to get out on my bike. But today, I just wanted to rest. For some reason, I haven't been sleeping as well as I'd like, and that's why I was tired.

Meanwhile, I'm thinking about how grateful I am for the parishioners who have been pitching in to paint my house. It looks great! Thanks!