Sunday, February 12, 2017

Our plans as a parish to 'step it up' (Sunday homily)

In the Gospel we just heard, the key words are when Jesus says this:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”

That is the key.
Jesus is what Moses and the Law and all the Prophets hoped for.

Another way to understand what Jesus teaches is this:
Moses gave us the bare minimum.
Jesus says, “let’s step it up; let’s get to the heart of it”:
which is, that we don’t just follow rules,
we seek to know God, to follow him closely, to share his life.

We might think of what happened when the Apostles James and John,
and Andrew and Peter first met Jesus,
he didn’t give them commandments or any task,
but he simply said, “Come, follow me” – and they did.

This is a good time to talk about something
that I’ve been working on for two years, something big.
It’s time to make an announcement.

If you read my column a few weeks ago,
you saw me mention some “Pastoral Priorities”
that I’ve been working on with the staff and the Pastoral Council.
It’s time to share this with you. But I have to back up a bit.

When I first came to Saint Remy,
and after talking with so many parishioners,
you may recall what I said that,
despite all the good things going on in our parish,
I wanted to make sure we weren’t complacent.

So I began sharing with our staff and the Pastoral Council
a book I had just finished,
called Forming Intentional Disciples by Sherry Waddell.
I’d heard her give a talk in Dayton three or four years ago,
and I’d been impressed: she made sense.

But the first thing she talked about that was so powerful
was her diagnosis of what’s wrong with the Church in our country.
If you pick up this book, prepare yourself:
the first two chapters are brutal!
Let me share some of that with you now.

Ms. Waddell shared the following points – all carefully documented:

- Of all American adults who were raised as Catholics in this country,
how many still practice their faith? 30%.
- One in ten American adults were once Catholic, but no longer.
- When people leave the Catholic Faith,
4 out of 5 of them are gone by the age of 23.

Where are they going? Many are joining other religions,
especially Evangelical Christianity.
But many others are becoming so-called “nones,”
meaning they have no religious affiliation.
And one more sobering fact:

- Mass attendance, by age group, breaks down like this:
of those over 65, it’s almost half. Of those between 41-64, it’s 20%.
And of those just out of college, so called Millennials? Only 10%

What does this mean? It means that something is badly wrong,
and if things don’t change, a storm is going to hit.
Churches that are accustomed to seeing 500-600 people
on a Sunday will, before very long, see only 100-200.
The word for that is “collapse.” There is no other word.

Now, this isn’t what we’re experiencing in Russia,
and in this part of the diocese.
But we’re not walled off from the rest of the world.
So let’s not kid ourselves; we’re affected by this too.

Ms. Waddell says it simply:
“what worked before doesn’t work anymore.”
And I think she has that exactly right.

OK, that’s the end of the bad news.
I didn’t come here to deliver an obituary.
All that was simply to get your attention.
Now you see why I feel this strongly,
and why I’m now coming to you to communicate this urgency to you.

The reason I like Ms. Waddell’s book so much
that the staff and Pastoral Council and I took a year
to read it together, is this: after two chapters of bad news,
she lays out a compelling – and practical – way to respond.

And it boils down to this: the new way
must be to go beyond just following
the rules and emphasizing checking the boxes
of baptism, confirmation, first communion and marriage.
The way forward must be helping one another
to grow in our personal and intentional relationship with Jesus Christ.

Just what Jesus said in the Gospel:
following the commandments is good; that’s a starting point.
But he called us to step it up: get to know him –
that’s the whole point of it all!
That’s the whole point of the sacraments;
of the Mass; of our parish; of the Bible; of the Catholic Church.

The whole point is knowing Jesus;
following Jesus; letting Jesus change our lives.

There’s more to say, but that’s our task in one sentence.
From today, the reason this parish exists,
and the goal everything we do must aim at,
is to help everyone to know Jesus, to follow Jesus,
and to experience him changing our lives.

One more data point from the research.
When people were asked,
why they left the Catholic Faith to become Evangelical,
70% said, “my spiritual needs weren’t being met”;
62% said, “I felt called by God.”

In short, people don’t leave because they want LESS;
they leave because they hunger for MORE.

Now, let’s get into the specific priorities
the Pastoral Council and I have identified. They are as follows:

Our first priority is devout worship.
The first commandment, after all, is to love God and put him first.
As a parish, we will “foster worship and prayer that is full and faithful,
especially through the Mass and other forms of prayer.”
That’s not to say we aren’t doing that now;
but we identified that as the starting point.

Second is more disciples: it will be my task and yours
to help each other
“discover and deepen our relationship with Jesus Christ.”
I will be asking every organization, every group,
from pre-school to senior citizens,
to ask how they can grow in a personal encounter with the Lord.
As part of this, we will be seeking to discover
the spiritual gifts Christ gives us,
and how these can be put at his service in our parish.

A third priority is “better welcome.”
This means how we open our doors in every way:
here at church; in our encounter with our friends and neighbors;
in all our activities.
It also means how we reach out to those who are mourning,
those who have experienced a crisis, perhaps a divorce,
and how we treat those most in need.

The fourth priority is, quote, to “seek out.” Who? Everyone.
Catholics who are inactive; people who have no church home;
people who have never really met Jesus.
We will help each other find the ways
to share the gift we’ve been given.

And the final priority is simply “to pay for it.”
Not very exciting, but it’s important to mention
that some of these things may cost something,
and that’s something we’ll talk about as we go along.

Yes, there are storms and troubles out there, and sooner or later,
they will come here. But there’s no reason to be fearful,
and absolutely no reason just to sit still.
Jesus told us in the Gospel to step it up; know him in full.

It’s hokey to say, but it’s so true:
you and I don’t know what the future holds,
but we know who holds the future, amen?
We don’t have to reinvent anything; we don’t have to discover anything.
We only have to share with others what God shared with us:
Jesus Christ!

Sunday, February 05, 2017

'Make America great again' -- what does God think? (Sunday homily)

The main thing to notice about first reading
is that Isaiah wasn’t merely speaking to his fellow Israelites 
as individuals; he was speaking to them as a people and as a nation. 

So let’s keep that in mind 
when we hear Isaiah speak of sharing our bread with the hungry, 
and sheltering the oppressed and the homeless, 
and when he promises that “light shall rise” for us 
and our “wound quickly healed” –
these are things that will happen for them collectively.

So when we think about applying this to ourselves, 
it’s more than about how each of us acts individually; 
it’s about how we act, first, as a parish; second, as the Archdiocese; 
and third, how about as a nation?

So first, what does this mean for us as a parish community?

We can have a good conscience, 
because the people of our parish are doing a lot. 

We are providing food for the hungry and clothing for the cold, 
especially through St. Vincent de Paul.
Rustic Hope and Elizabeth New Life Center 
are sheltering women and saving the lives of unborn children 
in difficult circumstances; 
New Choices in Sidney shelters women and families facing violence; 
and our local group, RACK, makes a big difference for many.

To be clear, I am not saying our parish can take credit for all this. 
But our parishioners are definitely involved in these efforts.
And the point is not to congratulate ourselves, 
or to be satisfied with these efforts, 
but simply to say, we’re doing a lot – and let’s do even more!

What about what we do beyond our local parish, 
as part of the Archdiocese? 

This is a good time to mention the annual Catholic Ministries Appeal. 
Everyone should have gotten a letter from the Archbishop about this, 
describing the six projects that are included. 
And, as happens every year, 
this Sunday is when I invite you to make a pledge to support this fund. 

If you are ready to do that right now, 
there are pledge forms and pencils in the pews, and if you want one, 
I’m sure your neighbor will pass one down. 
Please feel free to do that as I keep speaking.

All six projects are worthy causes. Just a quick run-down, 
while you write in your name and address and so forth:

- Supporting more priests through Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary. 
This is where Elijah Putoff is studying right now, 
and after Ethan Hoying and Joseph Stickel 
finish college studies, will join Elijah there as well. 
You’ve met many of the men who have recently been ordained, 
and others who are there. Do they impress you? They impress me. 
So that tells you, our seminary is doing a good job.

- Care for our retired priests. 
The pension fund for our retired priests needs to be strengthened. 
Archbishop Schnurr deserves credit for taking this on, 
and he has made good progress, but this will help further.

- St. Rita School for the Deaf. Obviously a worthy cause. 
Think of what a difference they must be making!

- New Evangelization projects. You know the programs 
we’ve been sharing with you, which many find so helpful? 
Our parish was already on it; 
now the Archdiocese is spending money 
to get it into all the parishes. 

- Chaplains for colleges, hospitals and prisons. 
All these are important, but think especially about jails and prisons. 
They can be a dark place, full of despair. What a way to bring light!

- Catholic Charities and Catholic Social Services. 
The work these agencies do ranges from providing food and help for rent and utilities, 
to providing counseling for people in trouble. They are also helping welcome refugees. 
They are doing precisely what Isaiah was describing!

Those are the six priorities of the Catholic Ministry Appeal. 
I personally support this fund each year 
and I invite you to do what you can. 
Our parish has been very generous to this fund over the years, 
exceeding our goal each year. 

You may be interested to know that when we surpass the goal, 
some of that comes back here, 
and we put that toward our youth and children’s programs.

You can of course write a check, or provide credit card information – 
or else, you’ll get a follow up letter.

Finally, let’s talk about what Isaiah’s words mean for our nation.
Of course, we have done a lot over the years 
to help the rest of the world; 
but I think there is room for some self-examination.

We all know President Trump issued an order recently 
regarding immigration from seven specific countries, 
and also refugees, especially from Syria. 

And we all know there is a lot of confusion about this situation, 
and the situation seems to change daily. 
But let’s consider some basic facts.

According to the Department of State, 
something near 60,000 people had visas revoked, 
all in a matter of a few days. 

These are people who had previously been cleared to enter the country, 
and made plans to do so. 
That’s a lot of husbands, wives, children and families 
whose lives have been disrupted. 

Some of them were coming here for medical treatment. 
Some were people who had – at great risk – 
assisted our troops when they were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We all know that the refugees we’re talking about have endured tremendous suffering, 
especially in Syria. 
And while we didn’t cause that suffering, 
decisions our government has made over the years 
have played some part in the whole situation.

What many don’t realize is that the refugees 
who were on their way when the order took effect 
had all been subjected to rigorous checks and examinations. 
They don’t just walk in. 

The President says more needs to be done, 
and he is doing this for our safety. 
No one can fault him for these concerns.

To go back to Isaiah: what does God expect of us as a nation? 
The President has assured us 
that when he has better procedures in place, 
we will still welcome refugees, 
and he also has endorsed “safe zones” for them in Syria. 
I think part of our task as being salt and light 
is to hold him to these commitments.

We all want our country to be great – 
but I think we want to be great the right way, don’t we? 
Great as God sees greatness. That’s what Isaiah was talking about.