Sunday, April 21, 2019

God always gets the last word (Easter homily)

Six weeks ago we began Lent. 
And about an hour ago, we began the story of Creation, and – 
more importantly, the redemption of the human race.
So many stories of what God has done!
Why are these stories, and these words, the ones we recall tonight?

We heard God create a perfect world.
But we know that humanity sinned and defaced that beauty. 
Above all, the beauty and glory of what it means to be human.
And we heard about God’s call to Abraham, 
And his deliverance of slaves from Egypt.

Along the way, we heard about human failing coming back to the fore.
God’s People, brought into freedom, go back into slavery and exile.

But the main thing we heard – and this is what it’s all about – is this:
God gets the last word!

God had the first word: “Let there be light.”
And after all the human words, such as, “I will not obey,” or, 
“It’s too late for me!” God’s last word is:
“He is not here, he is risen from the dead! Alleluia!”

All this past week, I’ve been hearing confessions.
And as you probably know, many times we come to confession, 
and especially if it’s been a long time, 
or we have so much on our conscience, we can find ourselves wondering, 
How can God forgive? How can he love me that much?

The Cross, is his “I love you” written in the precious blood of the Lamb.
The empty tomb is his underlining and exclamation point that says, 
“And I really mean it, and I can do it!”

And in the sacraments – in baptism, in confirmation, 
in the Holy Eucharist, in confession, in the anointing of the sick, 
and in the sacraments that empower our vocation, 
either for marriage or for holy orders, 
God says, “I am with you always, until the end of the age!”

Why are you here? Why are you here?

Well, you might say, I’m here every week. 
Or, you might say, well, it’s Easter, so I thought I’d come. 
Or, my grandmother made me come!

But there is another reason. God is speaking to you.
Sometimes his voice sounds a lot like your grandmother!
God brought you here for a reason, I can only guess at it.
But maybe it is to tell you that your life, as good as it is, is his gift.
And if it’s not so good, it can be better.
But if Christ isn’t part of it, there’s a big hole that nothing can fill.

Last week, as we all know, the great cathedral of Notre Dame 
caught fire, and for several hours, 
it looked as though it would be completely destroyed.

Something amazing happened.
All this happened in France. You may not realize it, 
but France is a militantly secular country, 
and only a few people go to Mass.
And yet the whole country of France held its breath and, 
I bet some of those unbelievers even prayed!

Why? Because it’s an old and beautiful building? 
That’s part of it, but it isn’t the whole story.

I think folks saw something they’d taken for granted, 
because it was always there, 
and then, suddenly, they realized how fragile it was; 
and if they weren’t careful, they could lose it.

And that something isn’t just a church, 
but what inhabits that church: and that is Faith.
The whole world watched and wondered,
And I think a lot of people heard something in their heart:
That was God saying, I’m still here, I’m here for you.
And maybe you heard that in your heart this week, too?

So to return to my main theme: God gets the last word.
Oh, we argue with him; we try to talk over him, 
and we do a lot of things to drown out the voice of conscience.

Yet God keeps speaking, keeps inviting: will you come to me?
Will you let me forgive you? 
Will you receive the gift of the Holy Spirit in your life? 
Will you live a new life, shaped not by the world’s standards, 
but by the word and example and life and power of Jesus Christ?

Will you let me accompany you, day by day?
Will you walk with me, not only the way of the Cross,
But all the way to heaven?

Tonight, a member of our community, 
a second-grade girl named M____, has heard God call her, 
and she is answering his invitation.

Tonight, she will be baptized, she will be confirmed, and she will, 
beginning tonight, share in the Body and Blood of Jesus.

I don’t know if you realize it, but of all the sacraments, 
baptism is the one that Easter is about most of all.
Easter is Jesus’ rising from the dead.
Easter is an empty grave – and when it comes right down to it, 
either that really happened, or it didn’t.

If he didn’t really rise from the dead, then this is all a waste of time.
But if he did – and I’m here to tell you he did! 
And if so, then that’s power, power for you and for me!
That’s what baptism is: claiming that resurrection power!

Here’s something else baptism is.
God is, in a sense, having the first word – 
because in baptism, we are spoken into life by God.
In baptism you and I are born a new person.
Born into God’s Family. Born as citizens of heaven.
Born of the Holy Spirit!

But even in this sacrament of baptism, 
there is a sense in which God gets the last word, too. 
I’ve seen it, in my own life, and I’ve seen it in others.

The grace and power of our baptism is always there, 
and I’ve seen people who, at the end of their lives – 
and maybe they put God on the back burner for a long time – 
yet what happened in them so long before is still with them, 
when God claimed them, changed them, 
and made them his own, and they remember.

That’s not a guarantee. People can turn away forever, and they do.
Nevertheless, there is a power in baptism, 
because God is speaking, and God is acting.

So, in a moment, M____ will be baptized and confirmed.
She’s heard God speak and she wants what God has for her!

Then, a moment after that, you and I have the opportunity 
to follow her good example, and claim again what is already ours.
We’ll renew our own baptism. You and I will remember who we are.
Who spoke to us once, and again, and is speaking to us now.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Christian Passover (Holy Thursday homily)

It’s important to peel back the centuries of our own tradition 
to reveal what lies at the root of what we do tonight.

The first reading describes the Passover, 
celebrated by the Jewish People. 
It speaks of the “the fourteenth day of the month” – 
that is, fourteen days after a new moon, which means, a full moon. 
Did you see what is overhead? A full moon.

The lamb was one year old and “without blemish”; 
and notice, the lamb was obtained several days before, 
and lived with the family until the day of sacrifice? 
Why is this important? 
Because it symbolized the lamb being part of the household. 

Then, with the whole assembly present, the lamb was slaughtered. 
Elsewhere in Scripture, it makes clear, not a bone is to be broken.

The blood of the lamb is then spread over the doorposts, 
to symbolize protection from divine judgment. 
Scripture scholar Brant Pitre – 
whose work I am drawing on for these details – 
points out that when the blood was spread on the doorposts, 
it would stain the wood, providing a permanent sign.

And then, finally, the flesh of the lamb was eaten. 
This completed the sacrifice.

At the same meal, there were “bitter herbs” recalling slavery in Egypt, 
and unleavened bread and wine.

On Sunday, we recalled how Jesus entered Jerusalem, 
along with probably a million other faithful to keep the Passover. 
The ancient Jewish historian, Josephus, 
says there may have been as many as two million. 
With such numbers, that means quite a lot of lambs were sacrificed: 
perhaps two hundred thousand or more. 

History records that 
all the thousands of priests of Israel were present, 
and they had a well-practiced system of doing this. 
Without being too graphic, just stop and realize: 
there would have been a lot of blood. 
It would have been powerfully present.

Now, I want to compare all that with what happened 
when Jesus gathered with his apostles. 
In all that Jesus said and did at the supper, 
he never mentions the lamb. 
Instead, he takes the bread, and says, 
“this is my body, given up for you.” 

If you were listening closely to the Passion of Luke on Sunday, 
you heard mention of Jesus taking a cup of wine not once, but twice. 
In fact, in the Passover meal, there were four cups of wine shared.

The first cup that was prepared: I say, “prepared,” 
because it was mixed with water. Does that ring a bell? 
Watch what I do at the altar in a few minutes. 
This was called the “cup of sanctification,” 
and the father began the meal with a prayer, over this cup, 
and the food is brought to the table.

The second was the cup of “proclamation” – it was prepared, 
but not drunk right away; because then the account 
of what God did for his people in Egypt, in the exodus, was recounted, 
and the father would explain the meaning of what they did. 
And isn’t that what I’m doing now?

After this, the meal would be eaten. 
And then when the meal was finished, the father would share the “cup of blessing.” 
Then those present would sing several psalms, 
and then the Passover was concluded with the fourth cup, 
called the “cup of praise,” and it completed the sacrificial meal.

If you noticed what Paul just told us, 
Jesus took the cup “after supper” – 
meaning, this was the third cup. 
Which raises a question that scholars wrestle with:  
what about the fourth and final cup?

Well, if you are here tomorrow, Good Friday, 
you will hear these words in the Passion we will all read together:

After this, aware that everything was now finished, in order that the Scripture might be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I thirst.” There was a vessel filled with common wine.
So they put a sponge soaked in wine on a sprig of hyssop and put it up to his mouth.
When Jesus had taken the wine, he said, “It is finished.”
And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit.

I want you to notice that tonight, we will not finish this Mass. 
There will be no final blessing. 
We will go on a procession – recalling Jesus and the Apostles leaving the Upper Room, 
and going to the Garden of Gethsemane. 
In turns, we will keep watch with the Lord all night. 
Tomorrow, we will recall how the Lamb of God was slain.

Oh, I meant to give you one more detail. 
In Jesus’ time, when the lamb was prepared for the meal, 
in order to roast it, do you know how they did it? 
They took two skewers, made of wood. 
One was speared through the torso, from head to tail. 
The other was speared through both shoulders. A cross.

Tomorrow we will worship the Cross on which our Savior, 
our Lamb of God, was slain. This is our Passover. It begins tonight. 

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Silence before the Son of God on the Cross (Palm Sunday homily)

Every year on Palm Sunday, part of me – and maybe you, too – 
has so much to say in response. 
But another part of me says: What is there to say?
There is only silence before the Son of God on the Cross.

on the other hand, when we behold the Son of God on the Cross,
it seems the only response can be silence.

But real, true, extended silence? That is hard to do, 
with family and work and sports and farms and businesses to tend to.

All I can do is to challenge you to TRY.
Kids? Spouses? Parents? Maybe you can help.
This might be a good time to say, “I’ll leave them alone this week.”
Let’s give each other the gift of silence this week.

Maybe your Lent has been good, or maybe it hasn’t been so good.

But every day, every breath, is another opportunity.
This Holy Week is such a gift.
We will have confessions 
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday – 
see the bulletin for the times.

I invite you to be part of Holy Thursday, 
Good Friday and Holy Saturday evening – 
This is the heart of the heart of our Faith.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Instead of call-out culture, how about confession? (Sunday homily)

Have you ever heard of the “call out culture”?
This is something happening more and more today.

It is when you do something someone else is offended by,
so that other person goes on Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram, 
or some other website, and “calls you out.”

Here’s an example. Just the other day, a young guy down in Mississippi 
went out hunting for wild turkey. He bagged an unusual white one.
The local newspaper did a story.

Somehow, Keith Olbermann, 
who you may know from MSNBC and ESPN, 
saw the story, and thought this was terrible. 
So then he posted something on Twitter saying this guy was horrible,
Gave the man’s name, and said, I quote,  
“make sure the rest of his life is a living hell.”

That’s “calling someone out.”
Guess what happened next? 
Lots of other people thought that was terrible, 
so then more people started denouncing and “calling out” Olbermann.
That’s what the Pharisees were doing, and it’s the same mindset.
No mercy, no forgiveness – the offender must be driven out.
And if Jesus doesn’t agree with them, he’ll get the same treatment.
And by the way, Mr. Olbermann did apologize, to his credit.

Here’s the missing piece, which Jesus supplies:
Repentance. Conversion. Redemption.

Sometimes people will try to twist this story 
into saying that Jesus didn’t care about the sin; 
that that was the Pharisees’ preoccupation.

On the contrary: Jesus cares very much about sin. 
He knows full well how destructive sin is.
The key difference between Jesus and the Pharisees 
is that they disagree on the remedy.

Jesus’ remedy is conversion.
“Repent,” he said, “for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
“The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me,” 
he announced in his home town,
“to proclaim liberty” and a “year acceptable to the Lord.”

“Conversion.” Turning around; reorienting our life.
It’s not a surface thing – it goes to the core.

Notice in the first reading: God is not interested in looking back 
at the failures of his people.
In previous chapters of Isaiah, God hit them hard, 
telling them all the ways they had gone wrong. 
But not to destroy them, 
but to wake them up and get them on the right road.

To those people, he said, 
Look at the way I’m creating for you!
Look at the rivers of water I’m giving you!
And to the woman in the Gospel he said: 
Go free of condemnation; go and sin no more.
I’m going to keep inviting you to come to confession.
I need it; I wanted to go this past week, but I didn’t get there.
Pray for me that I can get there this coming week,
While I keep praying for you to seek out this grace as well.

If you look in the bulletin, you’ll see:
Wednesday evening from 5:45 pm to 6:10.
Thursday, 3 to 4 pm and again from 6:30 pm to 8:30 pm.
Saturday from 9 to 10 am and 3:30 to 4:45 pm.

Nearby parishes have lots of times, too, 
and some have penance services.

Here at St. Remy, during Holy Week, we will have confessions 
on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 
and you are welcome; but be warned, 
it may be like Wal-Mart the day before Christmas!
Maybe don’t wait till the last minute.

If you are thinking, Gosh, it’s been so long, I’ve forgotten how!
First of all, the priest will help you.

Second, the main thing is to examine yourself.
In the pews, in the blue binders that look like this,
In the back of the binder, is a booklet that looks like this.
Look in the back, you’ll see everything you need.
Especially look at the examination of conscience.
It’s all laid out there in plain language.

Maybe you’re thinking, it’s just too awkward, I’m too embarrassed.
Let me tell you about the best confession I ever made in my life.
It was Lent of 1991. Ten years before I had left the Catholic Church. 
That’s a long story I’ll save for another time.

But for ten years I was wrestling with what I believed, 
And inch by inch, God brought me back, closer and closer,
Till one day, I was driving past a Catholic Church, 
and I remember hearing a voice speak in my heart, and it was Jesus, and he asked:
“What holds you back?”

All those years, I’d had a mental “list” of questions and issues.
But in that instant, I answered the Lord, “Nothing.”

About two days later, I walked into that Catholic Church,
I got in line like everyone else, and I began my confession,
“Bless me father, for I have sinned. 
It has been ten years since my last confession.” 

I told the priest I’d left the Church, been baptized in another church, 
rejected teachings of the Church; and that I’d missed Mass.
I recounted my sins against each of the Ten Commandments 
just as I’d been taught long before.

You know how long it took? Probably five minutes or so.
Then I said,“for these and all my sins which I cannot remember, 
I ask pardon of God and penance of you Father.”

Let me tell you, if I as a priest heard a confession like that, 
I think I’d probably cry with joy! 

That priest who heard my confession – whose name I do not know –
Spoke a few words, which I cannot recall.
But he gave me absolution!
And the next Sunday, 
I received the Holy Eucharist for the first time in ten years.
Yes, it really is just that easy.

(Here I made the point that what was really important was that I kept going to confession. Once every ten years wasn't my point! And I said that, had I not kept going to confession, month after month, I would not be a priest, and probably wouldn't be a Catholic today. I talked about the pill I take every day -- I may not feel any different, but it helps, and it wouldn't work if I didn't take it regularly.)

God forgets what lies behind; he urges us to strain forward
for the prize, which is Jesus Christ himself!

What holds you back?

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Confession: get up and go! There's the Father (Sunday homily)

If you have ever wondered what God is like – 
what our Father in heaven is really like – 
this parable is where you must begin and end. 

Jesus is showing us, in a powerful and moving way –
Who God the Father really is.

I will do what I can with this passage, but not well enough.
Please, whenever you can, re-read this passage in Luke Chapter 15.
Again: Luke, Chapter 15. Read it and reflect on it. 
It will speak powerfully to you, if only you give it time.

Which of these two children do you want to be?
Would you like to seek high adventure on the road? 
Or stay close to home?

Would you enjoy spending money freely? Or working hard every day?
Do you want to end up with nothing? Feeding pigs and envying them?
Or would you rather be the brother 
who thinks he never did anything wrong?
Who can’t think of anything his Father ever gave him?

Do you want to see the Father run toward you, overjoyed to see you?
Wrap his arms around you – crying for so long to mourn over you, 
but now, with bursting joy to have you back again?

Well…are you prepared to open your heart and abase yourself,
Confessing openly your sins? 

Or do you find yourself unable to think of a reason to go to confession?
You see, every one of us is, at one time or another, either son.
Have you ever wandered away from God?
Or, do you see yourself as the good person, who doesn’t do that?
You are one of these children – or both.

As I’ve said before, as Deacon Meyer said last week, 
Lent is all about conversion. 
If you aren’t thinking about, praying about, 
working toward your own conversion, 
you are missing entirely what Lent is.

Of course, maybe you need no conversion? Then Lent makes no sense.
The Mass and the sacraments make no sense.
Our Catholic Faith makes no sense; because it is for sinners; 
for people who stumble and fail and get frustrated because they do.

We’re halfway to Good Friday and the Cross, 
to Resurrection and the empty tomb.
If you’ve stumbled during the first half of Lent, don’t give up, get up!
Don’t be ashamed to struggle – our Father is not ashamed of you!

And in case I wasn’t obvious enough:
If you want to experience the Father Jesus shows us in the Gospel, 

None of the reasons not to go make any sense. Not one of them.

It must have felt awful for that younger son, day by day, 
realizing how foolish he’d been, 
how rotten he’d been toward his Father; 
and as his life spiraled down, each day was a fresh opportunity 
to reproach himself and rehash all his mistakes.

But as bad as that was, there is worse:
You are safe at home, and when you think about your lost brother,
all you do is dwell on how he wronged you, and your Father.
Rehearsing that, day by day. Stoking resentment and anger.

Both sons went wrong. But only one goes to confession 
and experiences God’s endless, unbelievable, tidal wave of love and forgiveness.

And I want to pause here and make one point in bold, CAPITAL LETTERS

When you and I confess our sins to God, and he forgives,
They are gone. Gone, gone, gone-issimus gone;
Gone to the maximum gone-ness;
Goniest, goney-gone gone!

Get that? Where are those sins? What happened to them?
God forgave them and they are GONE!

No, people don’t do that for you. But God does. That’s Good News!

In the first reading, Joshua and the rest of God’s People 
crossed the Jordan and left behind, forever, 
the reproach of slavery in Egypt.
They entered into a new land and a new life.
That is us, led by Jesus. 
And if passing through the Red Sea was a symbol of baptism, 
What might it mean that they later passed through the Jordan?
Maybe that’s the forgiveness of the sacrament of confession.

So again, Lent is your time and mine to make a similar journey.
And if you feel like you’re going in circles? “I’ve been here before!”
God’s People said in the desert, a lot!
Our job isn’t really to know the way; 
and even if we doubt we can make it, that’s not the worst thing. 

Actually, the only thing you and I have to do is let Jesus lead us.
And when the Holy Spirit says – as he said to the younger son – 
“it’s time to get up and go!” That’s what we do.
Look! There’s the Father, waiting.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

'The Scandal' and the Cross (Sunday homily)

There was a news item last week concerning an opinion survey.
It found that a shocking number of Catholics 
have considered giving up their Catholic Faith, 
in light of reports about scandalous behavior 
by priests and neglect and coverups by bishops.

I have several reactions to this.
Part of me is shocked that so many people 
would consider leaving their Catholic Faith behind.
For those who rarely come to Mass rarely, it was almost half.
For people who attend Mass weekly, it was over 20%.
That’s a lot of people. That’s both shocking and discouraging.

At the same time, there actually is something positive in this.
People are paying attention. 
They are thinking about how this affects them. That is good!

This is not Pope Francis’ Church, or Archbishop Schnurr’s Church,
Or mine. The Catholic Faith belongs to ALL of us.
So while I understand the anger and the questioning – I’m angry too! – 
the answer is not to walk away, but to fight!

Let me connect this to the readings a little; 
and as a bonus, I can explain that first reading, 
which is pretty obscure.

No doubt you’re wondering what is up 
with the “smoking fire pot and a flaming torch,”
which passed between cut-up animal carcasses!

Oh, and just to lighten things a little.
You may remember that at one time, 
this used to be translated, a “smoking brazier” – 
which sometimes readers didn’t pronounce correctly, 
and so it ended up sounding like an article of clothing, 
and isn’t that a dramatic image!?

So, anyway, dead animals and a flaming torch – what’s up with that?
The ritual was that you cut up the animals, 
and then, by walking between them,
it means, “may this happen to me if I break my word.”

The flaming torch? That stands for God.
In other words, God the Almighty was pledging himself to Abraham, 
may I die rather than break my word!

Abraham must have wondered, how can God pay with his life?
But of course, you and I know the answer to that!
We know Jesus, who is God-become-man, who paid with his life!

That’s what’s going on behind the Gospel reading.
Just before he gives his Apostles this vision,
He had told them: they are on the way to Jerusalem, to the Cross.
That’s the “exodus” that he discusses with Moses and Elijah.

And that Exodus – that Passover – is what the Eucharist is all about.
Jesus is the Lamb who was slain, and we eat his body and blood.
And notice: God went beyond his word:
Because he kept his promise to Abraham; and still he died on the Cross!

This sacrifice of the Cross – this is what the Holy Mass is.
This is what we are privileged to share in each time we’re here.

So here’s the thing about these discouraging news items.
First, no matter what else you and I feel about all this,
The fact remains that this Faith, our Faith, is all about Jesus.
He came, he gave his life for us, 
and he shares his Body and Blood with us.
God help me, God help me, but I can never leave that!

A second point. A parishioner said to me last week: 
maybe this is what a purification looks like?

As awful as it is to see all filth aired out, it is needed.
And the upside is that this helps keep the pressure on
the pope and the bishops. 

I do not say that with any disrespect.
Archbishop Schnurr has said he wants to be held accountable, 
and he wants other bishops held accountable.
The more he hears from you? That helps him.

The Holy Father, I think, is surrounded by people who tell him, 
this is just a few loud voices in the U.S.
The more you and I speak up, that will help the pope be strong.

What else do we do? This is the hardest work:
To help purify the Church, each of us must ourselves grow in holiness.
You might say, but it’s the bishops, the priests, 
who need to be holier! And you are absolutely right. 
But let me tell you, when a lazy priest or a business-as-usual bishop 
spends time with the faithful who are fired up?
Something has to give. 

One of the benefits for me being here is that you challenge me.
Lots of parish priests have a half-hour, or an hour of confessions.
When I arrived here, his parish had over five hours a week,
and you wanted even more! 

For me, sitting in the confessional challenges me 
to reflect on my own sins, and it keeps me going to confession.
I thank you for that.

So, you and I, like Jesus and the Apostles in the Gospel, 
are drawing near Jerusalem. We are headed toward the Cross.
What we do in solemn ritual during Lent 
is what each of us lives with every single day. 
That’s why we do it here, so our lives make sense.

Every generation of Christians, in every culture, 
lives in the shadow of that Cross. 
For so many, it has been persecution.
For you and me, it is this excruciating purification.

Keep praying that God purifies his Church. His bishops and priests.
And remember what this Mass is.
Remember that when we take the Body and Blood of Jesus to our lips, 
that is God keeping his solemn pledge to us.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Learn the power of 'No' (Sunday homily)

Let me repeat something that is so simple we may miss it:
Lent is all about conversion. 
That’s the point of self-denial, of taking more time for prayer, 
and of giving away money or things to others.

You and I don’t do these things to gain more of God’s love, 
Because He already loves us as much as he possibly can.
We also don’t do these things to fit in with others – 
wrong reason there!

No: the only point, the only value, is the extent to which
these sacrifices or additional prayers advance our own conversion.
The only real point is to move closer to being the saints
we’re destined to be.

So here we are at week one. We start with humility.

In the first reading, the faithful Israelite must confess:
My father was a nobody. My ancestors were slaves.
We didn’t set ourselves free – God did it.
In fact, everything we have comes from God.

And in the Gospel, even Jesus the Lord humbles himself.
He goes hungry – and after 40 days, the hunger is becoming serious.

But perhaps the main thing we might notice
in the Gospel is the power of a single word: NO.

How much you and I need to learn the power of saying “NO”:
No to temptation; No to all the tasty and enjoyable things 
that are too important to us;

No to all the distractions and short-term things 
that occupy us so much, that fill our thoughts,
so that if we ever think about the long-term, 
it’s shallow and rushed, or only at the end of the day 
and we fall asleep before anything comes of it.

Let’s not mince words. This is really hard. 
It’s an essential part of our Lent.
Do you know how we know it’s important?
Because Jesus himself did it. 

He went into the desert and fasted.
He said “No” to pretty much everything – 
food, drink, entertainment, other people’s company –
before he launched on his great mission of our salvation.

He did it, without needing it, to be in solidarity with us.
And in doing it, he makes clear how much you and I DO need it.

By the way, if you’re wondering why we began Mass 
with the sprinkling of holy water, the answer is, 
we did this to remember our baptism.
Remember that Lent is also about preparing for baptism, and – 
for those of us who have been baptized – 
about renewing and reclaiming it.

And you might recall that when you and I were baptized, 
The priest asked three questions, and we – or our parents for us – 
gave three renunciations. Or, if you will, three “No’s”:

Those questions were:
“Do you renounce Satan?”
“And all his works?”
“And all his empty show?”

That lines up with what Jesus does in the Gospel, doesn’t it?

And notice, Jesus is tempted by the devil after 40 days.
That means his struggle with evil corresponds to Holy Week.
Good Friday represents the devil seeking to kill him,
Perhaps because he would not bow down to him.

In the Garden of Eden, 
Adam was fearful and failed to oppose the enemy.
But the new Adam wades into battle, refusing the devil’s offers,
And instead, renew his total trust in the Father.

You see, when we learn the power of “No” when it’s needed,
We gain the power of a true “YES” when that is needed!

YES to being truly generous with ourselves and our time and our stuff.
YES to trusting God with peace and calm.
YES to going deeper and farther, 
the way Peter stepped out of the boat, 
and walked – albeit briefly – on the water.

So if you want to take something away from this homily,
Take a simple word. That word is “No.”
Use this Lent to learn how to say that word and mean it,
In the face of all those things that get in our way and hold us back.
A “No” to the stomach, a “No” to the eyes, and a “No” to the ego:
So you and I can receive the fullness of God’s life.

That’s a good way to make Lent fruitful, don’t you think?

Saturday, March 09, 2019

'You are worth more than you think': a talk for women and girls of the parish

Every year in March we have a "Women's Day" at St. Remy: a morning of reflection, with Mass, confessions, adoration, a talk and then brunch. Here's my talk from today.

The title of my talk is, “You are worth more than you think.”
I prepared for this by re-reading Pope St. John Paul II’s letter
on the dignity of women, called MULIERIS DIGNITATEM, from 1988.

As you may recall, Pope John Paul would develop things
up from the foundation – so in this letter,
he starts out with the Book of Genesis.
And if you have heard of his “Theology of the Body” –
that is, his exploration of the meaning of God’s decision
to create male and female – you will find some of it here.
It is amazing how much richness Pope John Paul
was able to draw from the first few lines of Genesis!

The other thing you will find in that letter is a lot about Mary,
for two reasons.
First, the pope wrote this letter as part of a year devoted to Mary;
and second, if he is going to talk about the dignity of women,
of course he is going to end up talking about Mary,
who is the woman of all women in human history,
because she was predestined and prepared, through all time,
to be the mother of the Savior, the Mother of God.

So, if we do as St. John Paul did, and begin with Genesis,
then we lay down a couple of very fundamental truths.
First: this world, and everything in it, is God’s special creation.
His work of art.
There is nothing about this world that is not part of his design,
that God does not call “good.”

And then, Pope John Paul reminds us
that at the apex of all this artistry is the human being,
which God designed as “male and female.”

To quote Pope John Paul:
[T]he woman is created by God "from the rib" of the man 
and is placed at his side as another "I", as the companion of the man, 
who is alone in the surrounding world of living creatures 
and who finds in none of them a "helper" suitable for himself.

What does he mean there? He means,
the woman is just as much a person as the man.

But he goes on to say:

In the "unity of the two", man and woman are called from the beginning 
not only to exist "side by side" or "together", 
but they are also called to exist mutually "one for the other".

To say that man is created in the image and likeness of God 
means that man is called to exist "for" others, to become a gift.

By “man” here, he means the human being; all of us.
And notice what he says: we are called to “become a gift.”
This is who we are before sin enters in – which, of course,
this same part of Scripture describes right after.

When the man and the woman sin,
everything about this harmony is messed up.

God asks the man – what happened? And he says:
“The woman whom you put here with me—
she gave me fruit from the tree, so I ate it.”
And later God will tell them their relationship will be poisoned:
He will seek dominion over her;
And to the woman, God says, “your desire shall be for your husband":
Which St. John Paul takes to mean that the woman
will be “closed within her own instincts.”
What does he mean by that?

I think he means this:
That where the man is prone to misuse his power,
the woman is prone to be ensnared, and trapped,
precisely in terms of her qualities of nurturing and loving.

And this makes sense, because in recent times,
the movement for “liberation” of women
has often taken the direction of “freeing” women
from their own special qualities and gifts.
Pope John Paul called this “masculinizing” women.

We can see many examples of this.

For many years there was a “double standard.”
Men would be impure and unchaste in their behaviors,
and people would wink at it, saying, oh, boys will be boys!
But if women behaved similarly, they were shamed.

The so-called solution to this was not to demand
a higher standard of men;
but for women to lower their standards.
This was part of the so-called “Sexual Revolution.”

This was the context of the birth-control pill
being heralded as a great “liberation.”

The trouble is, women and men really are different;
and unchaste behavior – wrong for both –
has different consequences for each.

And it’s interesting how the words of Genesis play out:
Men, when they sin in this regard, tend toward power:
Domination and aggression.
And for women, they experience
a greater sense of betrayal and devastation.

Another “masculinization” of women is abortion.
A true liberation of women would be to treat
the uniqueness of women as something to honor and value.
But what do we do? We treat what is special about women
as something to be suppressed, as a sickness to be cured. 

Three more examples of “masculinization” of women:
The idea that there is something wrong with a woman
who makes her children and family a priority.
Second, the push to have women in combat roles in the military.
And third, the notion that women are “lesser”
if they are not ordained as priests.

Let me quote Pope John Paul again:

In our times the question of "women's rights" 
has taken on new significance in the broad context 
of the rights of the human person. 
The biblical and evangelical message sheds light on this cause, 
which is the object of much attention today, 
by safeguarding the truth about the "unity" of the "two", 
that is to say the truth about that dignity and vocation 
that result from the specific diversity and personal originality of man and woman. 

Let me repeat that phrase:
“the specific diversity and personal originality of man and woman.”
This is an important truth that is almost lost in our society.
And Pope John Paul goes on to say that if, in order to remedy injustice,
Women try to “appropriate to themselves male characteristics contrary to their own feminine ‘originality,’”
The result will be to “deform and lose
what constitutes their” – that is, the woman’s – “essential richness.”

“Deform and lose!” And listen a little more to Pope John Paul:

It is indeed an enormous richness. In the biblical description, 
the words of the first man at the sight of the woman 
who had been created are words of admiration and enchantment, 
words which fill the whole history of man on earth.

What were those words?
“This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”!

So with that foundation, let’s talk about more specific things.

St. John Paul talks a lot about the two most basic vocations
of a woman: motherhood and consecrated virginity.
Now, don’t misunderstand what he’s saying.
He’s not saying that women shouldn’t be doctors, artists,
athletes, lawyers, business owners, farmers, teachers, and the rest.

Instead, what he’s saying is that underneath these specific paths –
which arise out of our diverse gifts and opportunities –
there are more fundamental choices that are universal.
And as valuable and meaningful as these particular choices can be,
they aren’t as central to our identity as a man being a father,
or a woman being a mother.

To use myself as an example: I’ve been a student; a journalist;
I worked in politics; I worked in public relations; I did fundraising;
I worked in marketing research; I sold clothing at one point –
all before becoming a priest.
All these things I did were meaningful, and part of me,
but they don’t go to the heart of my own sense of purpose, of calling.

While I did all those things,
I was thinking also about being a husband and father.
For various reasons, I did not meet the right girl.
And at a particular point, the idea of being a spiritual father
was planted in me, and it grew, and one thing led to another,
and here I am.

Now: as a priest, guess what? Sometimes I am a student.
Sometimes I am a “journalist” – I write articles;
sometimes I raise money, and organize projects.
Sometimes I even have to “sell” things!

So it is for each of us.
And just as a man is always reflecting on what it means to be a father,
a woman reflects on what it means to be a mother –
even if we do not have our own children;
because you and I can still be fruitful and life-givers in other ways.
And if we never find those ways, that is the greatest sadness of all.

So Pope John Paul talks about motherhood bringing about,
on the woman’s part, “a special gift of self” – and, wow, WHAT a “gift of self”!

It is astounding to think of how warped we are as a society.
Women have this incredible gift and responsibility: to be life-bearer.
And look how we treat this miracle?
So often, this is something “in the way,” a “problem,”
something to be “fixed” or escaped.

Both in the order of nature, and later, in the order of grace,
notice how central the woman is!
Adam – and with him, each individual man –
can never transcend himself, be more than himself,
without the woman.

Obviously, both men and women
participate in the stewardship of human life.
Both a father and a mother can look at the child God gives them,
and say, “mine!” But the words, “This is my body,” “This is my blood,”
mean something only a mother can understand.
Eve understood that when she had her first child.
Mary understood that when she carried the Messiah.
And finally, when Jesus himself inaugurates salvation,
these are his words which we remember at every Mass.

The pope took a look at an episode in Scripture,
when someone cried out to Jesus,
"Blessed is the womb that bore you…” And Jesus responds,
Yes, but even more, “those who hear the word of God and keep it.”
And Pope John Paul points out that

The motherhood of every woman, understood in the light of the Gospel, 
is similarly not only "of flesh and blood": 
it expresses a profound "listening to the word of the living God" 
and a readiness to "safeguard" this Word, 
which is "the word of eternal life.”

And then he says, “The history of every human being
passes through the threshold of a woman's motherhood.”

Now, the other fundamental choice is consecrated virginity,
that is, “renouncing marriage and thus physical motherhood.”

But according to Pope John Paul,
this “makes possible a different kind of motherhood:
motherhood "according to the Spirit" (cf. Rom 8:4).

He says further,
[I]t can express itself as concern for people, 
especially the most needy: the sick, the handicapped, the abandoned, 
orphans, the elderly, children, young people, the imprisoned 
and, in general, people on the edges of society. 

John Paul says this, too, is “spousal love,”
which “always involves a special readiness
to be poured out for the sake of” others. 

So let’s make this more practical.

As a woman, you have a special vocation and privilege of nurturing life.
Both men and woman contribute to the giving of life,
but women have a special gift of nurturing it.
This is true no matter how old you are
or whether you are single or married.

So one thing you can say, as a girl or a woman: “I am a life-nurturer.”

As Jesus said, women have a gift of “receiving” the Word of God.
It is so often the case that women
have a special aptitude for spiritual things.
Women will more often sign up for a Bible study,
And if men come, it will be because the women bring them.

Even so, it is essential that the father provide leadership,
because if he isn’t there, the sons won’t be there.
Fair or not, that’s how it tends to work.

The result, I think, is actually a partnership,
with the father and mother, boyfriend and girlfriend,
brothers and sisters, reinforcing each other.

The harsh reality is that these truths
are not being reinforced by our larger culture.
And it is obviously true that many men
will be seduced by the values of the culture.

It is not fair, but girls, you have to insist.
You have to remember your value, even if the boy does not.
So many young men are consuming entertainment and imagery
that tells them that he should have what he wants when he wants it –
and you should give that to him.
So often, that boils down to particular pleasures,
and to attention focused all on him.

Original sin makes all of us selfish.
A lot of our culture reinforces this.
And if a boy or a girl, a man or a woman,
gets drawn into fantasy and the imagery that drives it,
then that selfishness goes absolutely crazy.

This is wrecking marriages and families.
What happens is that a husband and a father
gradually becomes enmeshed in a fantasy world –
which he thinks is secret.

In that fantasy world, he is king – the Emperor!
Everything goes exactly as he likes.
Little by little, how he looks at everything,
and other people in particular, becomes skewed.
It’s all about what they can do for him.

Even someone who is otherwise a good guy
will become distorted by this mindset,
and he won’t even realize how selfish he really is.

You know how I know this?
I read an account of a father who had a terrible habit
of viewing ugly materials online. He thought no one else knew.
But he knew it was wrong, and he sought help.

Thankfully, he was able to get away from it.
Then something amazing happened.
He was driving somewhere with his young son,
And his boy turned to him, in the car, and said:
“You know what? I like the new daddy!”

That man was stunned. He had no idea
how much he’d been twisted by that secret vice.

Now, the cultural messages I referred to, that encourage men
to be all about self and pleasure and right now, are aimed at you, too.
And they tell you that this will make you happy;
And that people like me and your parents who tell you not to listen,
Are trying to spoil your fun.

Your value does not lie in making men happy,
but in being who God created you to be.
One of the flaws of men –
made much worse by our culture –
is that we tend to value only a few of the gifts women have to give.
And if we men get them too easily, we don’t value them very much.

So here’s my dating advice:
You hold out for a man who values you across the board!
That will not only be better for you, but far better for him.

Here’s some more advice – and I say this as a son, and a brother,
and in my own way, a father:
Don’t ever let any man treat you with disrespect!

That doesn’t mean you have to have to strike back,
either with words or in a physical way.

All of us have been insulted or been treated rudely,
and we all know the value of keeping cool and turning the other cheek.

My point is that too often, women get the idea
that they’re just supposed to take it. That this is normal. 
No, it’s not.

It occurs to me that maybe I could be more helpful.
If you think so, I’d be grateful for anyone here
who came to me and said, “here’s how you can help.”
I’m open to ideas of how I as a priest, and our parish,
can be part of the solution.

To draw this to a close, let me say this.
If you want to know what Christ thinks of women,
Look at the role he gave to his own mother.

She was there, in a sense, before the beginning.
God the Father came to her, through the Archangel Gabriel:
Her “yes” opened the door to the Messiah.
She was there at every moment of his life,
Above all, at the Cross and at the tomb.
She was there when the first Christians
were praying for the Holy Spirit.

And when her life on earth came to a close,
Jesus desired her to be with him, body and soul, in heaven.
And now, notice how much he has entrusted to her.
We can pray any way we want. No one is required to pray with Mary.

Yet look what has happened over the centuries.
Mary has quietly become the mother of us all!
Helping us in so many ways: keeping us company,
comforting us, praying for us, praying with us,
showing us how to come to her son.

Doesn’t this tell us everything we need to know
About what God thinks about the role and dignity of women?

Friday, March 08, 2019

8 Reasons to Sing the Proper Chants of the Mass

In my last post, I explained about the proper texts we are supposed to be using at Mass, including what is sung at the beginning, at the offertory and at communion. The use of familiar hymns it turns out is the least-preferred option precisely because they displace Scripture-based prayers that are meant to be used. It shouldn’t have to be said, but the Word of God is always the best option, isn’t it?

Still, someone might well ask: Why do we have to sing at Mass at all?

A lot of people prefer a quiet Mass, and would be fine if there were much less music, or even none. The traditional “low” Mass includes no singing, and is dominated by silence. Many people love this, despite not being familiar with Latin. Lots of people don’t like to sing. So why sing – at all? In other words, who cares?

Well, God cares.

It’s true that our worship adds nothing to God; he does not need it. Even so, God commands us to worship him. Why? Because it is good for us. Worship demands our best, including our best effort. Singing demands more of us. Singing creates unity and expresses solemn purpose. When was the last time anyone recited the National Anthem? No; we always sing it!

The Holy Mass is the highest expression of worship; indeed, it is the most important thing we do as Christians. Ideally, virtually the whole Mass can be sung. More usually, the Church envisions various parts to be sung, depending on how special the occasion and the capacity of those participating. Thus, it’s entirely reasonable to have some Masses with very little sung, and others with a lot. That tends to satisfy more tastes, to boot.

So what am I planning at St. Remy? To quote a Broadway show from 50 years ago: “something for everyone!”

We have the Traditional Latin Mass five times a month. Most Masses involve congregational singing; on more solemn occasions, the priest will sing his prayers as well. Our 9 am Mass is the most solemn, involving lots of chant and incense. Again: “something for everyone.”

As far as restoring the use of the proper chants I’ve been talking about: During the past two years, at my direction, Carla Meyer has been slowly introducing some of the proper chants intended to be sung during communion. She has generally sung them herself, but that is only because she is still teaching herself. These can be sung by a choir, and they include a refrain that everyone could sing as easily as the psalm response, or a refrain for a hymn.

Will hymns disappear? No! My intention is that we routinely include at least one of the proper chants each Sunday, and routinely at weekday Masses. We’ve been using the communion chant, but it could be one of the others. Since hymns are allowed, we will continue to use them. Since different people have different preferences, there will be variety. My goal is that the proper chants go from being exotic and unheard of, to being a familiar part of how we worship together. And I’d like to see a day when on some occasions – such as the 9 am Sunday Mass –  we would have Mass using only the proper chants.

Finally, I realize that all this may seem a lot of trouble. Here are eight reasons this effort is worth pursuing:

1. God’s Word is better than mere human words. The point of this isn’t that hymns are bad, but rather, that hymns are an inadequate substitute for the texts of Scripture. The Proper Chants, which we aren’t using, are drawn from Scripture. Some hymns draw on Scripture, but most do not.

2. The Proper chants are integral to the Mass – so maybe the better question is, what justifies slicing them off and forgetting about them? For a long time, they were only available in Latin, so that limited their appeal. But today, we have many resources, in English. Shouldn’t we restore to the Mass those parts that got left out?

3. This is what Vatican II called for. Consider two points from the Second Vatican Council: “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 116). And in “sacred celebrations there is to be more reading from holy scripture, and it is to be more varied and suitable (Ibid., 35). When we sing the Propers in English, that isn’t Gregorian chant, per se, but it is based on it.

4. Using the Proper Chants connects us with our Tradition. These texts – translated into English – are ancient; they have been part of the Mass beyond memory. These are prayers that Mother Seton, Francis of Assisi, Gregory and perhaps even our patron, St. Remy, would have known and prayed. Since they are mostly psalms, they are texts that Jesus, the Apostles, and the Virgin Mary would have known and prayed.

5. We aren’t really supposed to sing “songs” at Mass; we sing prayers. That simple statement bears some reflection, in order to see the difference.

6. Mass music is not “mood music.” If I go for a drive on a beautiful day, I might turn on some up-tempo music to suit my mood. Or, when I get home in the evening, I might like something relaxing. In many ways we use music to get “in the mood” – and sometimes people will object to liturgical chant at Mass, because they think it’s not “upbeat” or cheerful enough. But when we sing the Our Father, does anyone want that to have a jazz tempo?

7. The music of Mass must not sound like anything else. Music has a unique power to evoke a mood and to spark memories and associations. As a result, I need only hum a few notes of a familiar tune, and you will immediately think of a TV commercial, a TV show, or a play or movie associated with it. One unfortunate feature of many contemporary hymns is that they were composed in a style very similar to Broadway tunes or other popular songs. “Here I am, Lord,” by Dan Schutte, has a section that reminds many of the theme from the TV show, “The Brady Bunch.” In many funerals, one of the final prayers is sung to the tune of “O, Danny Boy,” because it’s Irish and a sentimental favorite. The result is that such music doesn’t draw us toward the awesome mystery of the Mass, but away from it – to some other association.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church has her own unique music, intended for – and associated with – one thing: worship of God. Isn’t it curious that in recent years, Catholic monasteries have released CDs of this ancient music, which people use for prayer and meditation in their cars or in their homes. Why does this music have such power? Because it doesn’t sound like anything else – it evokes heaven and longing for God. As such, it is perfect for Holy Mass, which is the closest we can come to heaven while still on earth. As much as we can, our experience of Holy Mass should take us out of our everyday life, and bring us to experience eternity – and to hunger for more.

8. Obedience, fidelity and humility are attractive and fruitful virtues. The Church has given us guidance on how best to celebrate the Holy Mass. Being docile to that guidance will bear great spiritual fruit. What’s more, many younger-generation Catholics are attracted to the celebration of Mass that is more timeless, more transcendent and more reverent. This has drawn such Catholics to our parish, and similar things are happening in parishes around the country, where there is a kind of “new traditionalism.” What I think would probably be best would be a “something for everyone” approach, using more hymns at some Masses, but pursuing the use of the proper chants at others.

(Adapted from St. Remy Parish Bulletin.)

What are the 'proper chants' for Mass and why should we use them?

Suppose I told you that there are prayers which the Church intends to be included with Mass, but we never pray them? You are never given access to them. They have been left unused for a long time. Would that not seem odd? Wouldn’t you be curious? Wonder why we never pray them? Wouldn’t you want to know more about this?

This is not a hypothetical; it is the actual situation in most parishes.

There are, indeed, proper chants assigned to every Sunday Mass, meant to be sung. But what usually happens each week is that Mass begins instead with a hymn, substituted for the prayer text which is designated. The same thing happens while the offering is taken and the bread and wine go to the altar and during communion.

But this is not what the Church intends. Instead, Holy Mass is intended to begin with a psalm-prayer called the “Entrance Chant,” or “Introit” – it accompanies the priest and servers entering the church. The people are encouraged to join in singing this prayer, or else a musician or choir can chant this prayer. When the bread and wine (and collection) come to the altar, another prayer – drawn from the psalms is meant to be sung: the Offertory Chant. And a third prayer is sung during Communion. Once the priest or deacon says, “Go in peace,” that is the end of Mass, and nothing is called for afterward (although prayers or hymns can follow; or silence).

It is important to realize, these are prayers, meant to be sung. They accompany processions (entrance, offertory, communion), they are drawn from Sacred Scripture, and they vary with the calendar.

This is something I’ve written and spoken about before. For the past three years, as a parish we’ve taken some modest steps to re-incorporate these proper chants. Periodically, we use the proper communion chant at Sunday Mass and on some feast days, and we use two of the proper chants at every funeral. Over the next few weeks in this column, I’ll explain more about this, including the small steps I propose we continue to take. Nothing sudden or wholesale. Yet I hope you’ll see this as an opportunity to deepen our faith.

So the obvious question: how did it happen that these sung prayers the Church intends to be used at Mass have been habitually omitted, and replaced by hymns?

It had to do with the old form of the Mass. The Traditional Latin Mass ideally is offered with the priest, deacon, choir and people singing everything – but for various reasons, this was rare. More common was the “low” Mass, in which nothing is sung, and the priest offers a lot of his prayers in a low voice. So, for example, the Traditional Latin Mass offered at St. Remy early on Wednesday mornings and on First Fridays, is a “low” Mass. Before the Mass was reorganized in 1970, this was the most familiar form of Mass for centuries.

As the prayers were all in Latin, and often prayed in a low voice, in many places it became customary for the people to add devotional songs – in their native language – while the priest prayed his prayers silently. When the Mass was revamped in 1970, and it became possible to have Mass in English, and also for much of it to be sung, the old habit of substituting hymns continued. Re-introducing all the proper sung texts of Mass was a part of implementing Vatican II that was left undone. Only recently have a variety of musical settings even been provided, so that parishes can begin to use them. And then, only if a pastor actually cares to bring it up (like me!) That brings us to the present moment.

To be clear, substituting hymns for these Mass texts isn’t “wrong.” The General Instruction for the Roman Missal allows for it, but makes clear that it is the least-preferred option:

(1) the antiphon from the Missal or the antiphon with its Psalm from the Graduale Romanum, as set to music there or in another setting; (2) the antiphon and Psalm of the Graduale Simplex for the liturgical time; (3) a chant from another collection of Psalms and antiphons, approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop, including Psalms arranged in responsorial or metrical forms; (4) another liturgical chant that is suited to the sacred action, the day, or the time of year, similarly approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop. (Also see GIRM paragraphs 47, 74, 86-87.)

Did you notice? The first three options all are a “psalm” with an antiphon – in other words, texts taken from Scripture. That’s what we ought to give preference to. As mentioned last week, my intent is not to upturn everything. Rather, I want to make modest additions of these proper chants here and there, which is what we are gradually doing now. It really is “baby steps” at this point. I realize someone might say, “why change”? And I understand, change can be frustrating. But obedience – in this case, to the teaching and norms of the Church – is a virtue. God will bless us and our parish if we are open to greater use of Sacred Scripture in our worship.

To be continued in another post...

Sunday, March 03, 2019

'It's game time, let's go! Let's make the best Lent ever!' (Sunday homily)

The first reading said, 
“When a sieve is shaken, the husks appear”;
and that’s a good image for what we want to do with Lent:
We want to get those unsavory parts of our lives up on the surface –
and, of course, get them out.

If you are thinking about Lent as something to be “got through” – 
just grit your teeth and march through to Easter – 
then you’re not going to gain much of anything from Lent.

The whole point of Lent is conversion. We all know that Jesus said: 
“Repent, and believe in the Gospel. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
All Christians know that. 

But what we as Catholics do – that not all Christians do – 
is give ourselves six weeks of focusing on that repentance, 
that turning back to God, that getting ready for the Kingdom.

Now, you and I can shake the sieve,
But truly, the conversion – the change – only happens with God’s help;
With the help of his supernatural grace, that is, his divine life poured into our lives.

So, again, this isn’t just a matter of ritual or rules.
Those exist in service to something far more important, which is – 
To repeat myself – our conversion. Our becoming heavenly.

One day every one of us will leave this life, we know not when.
But when you depart this life, where will you go?
Do you want to go to heaven? Of course you do.
You might kid yourself and think it’s a foregone conclusion – 
but really, what exactly in the words of Jesus lets you think so?

Seriously now – does what Jesus says really make sense, 
if heaven were something we can all count on?
Jesus keeps saying, wake up! Get ready! Change your life!
Why would he do that if we could just cruise on auto-pilot 
straight through the Pearly Gates? 

Here’s a lesson that each of us can – and will learn – during Lent:
Change is hard. Conversion is hard.
If you give up bacon or beer for Lent, 
How long before you’re looking for a loophole?
Will it be a week? Or only a few days? Maybe hours! 
Me too!

One reason to give something up is precisely to humble ourselves, 
and to face the reality of our weakness and our spiritual flabbiness.
And I say it again: me too.

In the second reading, St. Paul talked about resurrection.
When the discipline of Lent becomes a real drag, 
remind yourself of what lies ahead. 
By the calendar, Lent leads to Holy Week and then to Easter:
The way of the Cross to Calvary, to the grave and then to new life.
The way of our life is to purgatory, one way or the other, 
and then to heaven and one day to resurrection.

One day you and I will live again, flesh and blood, new and improved.
What is mortal will clothe itself with immortality.
That’s what Jesus told us to get ready for. 
The classic tools of this conversion are fasting, prayer and giving alms.
We deny ourselves food and other things we love;
We pray with greater intensity;
And we give money or other things away to help others.

No matter who we are, or what our age is, these are things we can do.
You may think that giving money or stuff away is for grownups.
But if you’re a kid, you can do it to.
Talk to mom and dad about how to do this; but just ask yourself:
What do you have that you can share?
What could you give away?
I repeat, again: talk to mom and dad about this.

In today’s bulletin are a couple of handouts.
Our Life Committee has organized some movie nights; 
each film was chosen as a way to grow in faith.
The other handout gives all manner of helps to grow in holiness.

I especially want you to notice some opportunities for prayer:
Daily Mass – Morning Prayer before Mass – Stations of the Cross –
Adoration of Jesus in the Eucharist.

And I want to invite you to come to the sacrament of confession.
Not only is that when we “shake the sieve” of our lives;
It’s also what helps us be transformed from bad trees into good.

Is there anyone here who wonders if you’ll make it to heaven?
Here’s one – me! I am a sinner and I know I have a lot to answer for.
And I know I’m far from alone.

Here’s a promise I would not make if I did not truly believe it.
It is my conviction that if you keep going to confession, 
no matter what else happens, no matter what struggles you have, 
no matter how long it takes and how weak you are,
Keep going to confession, and you WILL GO TO HEAVEN.

Why do I believe that?
Because hell is the place of the proud. Too proud to ask.
Confession, on the other hand, is a lot like purgatory. 
We know just how weak we are and how much we need to change.

When you are in confession, and Jesus tells you, “I forgive you,” 
You and I are the thief on the cross, 
Empty-handed, but filled with absolute peace!
In all the Bible, Jesus gave so many assurances to people,
But only one person heard him say, 
“This day you will be with me in Paradise”?

Please look at this handout, to notice all the times for confession. 
During Lent we’ll start confession a little earlier on Thursdays.
You can also see all the opportunities in nearby parishes.
And lots of confessions during Holy Week, but why wait?

It’s game-time, let’s go! Let’s you and I make this our best Lent ever.
I’m praying that this will be a time of conversion:
For myself, for you, and for our parish.
Will you join me in that prayer, and in making that happen?

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

What does it mean when we have bad bishops and priests?

 I know a lot of Catholics are terribly discouraged with so much that we read concerning the failures of bishops and priests. Believe me, I know that feeling personally. There’s an insurance company commercial with a slogan, “we know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.” With the Church being around for 2,000 years, “we” the Church have seen everything. As Scripture says, “nothing new under the sun.”

That is not to minimize the present crisis; only to provide some reassuring perspective. It was in prior crises that the Church gained a vital insight: that the work of God and the power and effect of the sacraments does not depend on the holiness of the members of the Church; not even her clergy, not even the pope.

Yes, there is something special about the Church, about the pope in particular, about him and the other bishops acting together, and about the sacraments. Yes, in certain moments, God will ensure that the pope and bishops do not teach erroneous things; this is the nub of “infallibility.” But whatever is special, this depends, ultimately, not on us human beings, but on God.

So no matter how wicked a priest may be, if he celebrates the sacraments as the Church intends, the Mass is a true Mass; absolution is absolution; baptism is baptism, and so forth. It is important to reflect on why this is (and also, the “not-why.”) Let’s start with the “not-why.”

Sacraments are true and effective, even through the hands of depraved priests and bishops, NOT because of any special consideration for those wicked priests and bishops. It isn’t “for” them. Indeed, if they do not repent their wickedness, they will face all the more fearsome punishment. Tremble at the thought – because, as a priest, I certainly do.

No, the sole reason God works this way is precisely for the benefit of the faithful, for whom the sacraments exist. The Mass and the Eucharist do not exist for me as a priest; rather, they exist for the sake of each and all of us, as sinners in need of divine help to salvation. So important is it to God that the grace of the sacraments reaches as many as possible, and that you and I have assurance in this, that God will entrust them even to the filthiest of hands. 

Similarly, it is undeniably true that the Church’s bishops – including the pope, the Bishop of Rome – have been, let us say, an uneven lot. Anyone who wants to take a trip through history can find ample examples not only of wicked shepherds, but even more easily, maddeningly mediocre ones. And I have seen many people point to the moral failures, and cowardice, of bishops in the history of the Church as proof against the claims we make that the Catholic Church is founded by Christ, and will be safeguarded by him, until the end of time.

My response is to quote something from the great British author, G.K. Chesterton, in his book Orthodoxy. (“Orthodoxy” means true or right beliefs.) It’s a long quote, but I’ll provide it, because it’s so good. But if you find this is too long to read, the quick summary is this: if the Church were merely a human institution, with no divine reality, it ought to have failed long ago.

This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic. 

The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one's own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. 

To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom -- that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect – Chapter 6 of Orthodoxy.

I want to make another point on this, because I would be very sorry to give the impression of not taking these matters seriously. I do. All the emotions and feelings you feel, I feel, when I read about a bishop who showed no backbone, or who failed to act decisively to deal with a priest who committed crimes. And, like you, I pray and pray that we will have stronger, better bishops. I pray that God will help me to be a holier and wiser priest. Sometimes people get so discouraged, that their faith is weakened. I understand; but I look at it this way. The Catholic Church and the Catholic Faith aren’t the property of the pope or the bishops, or priests. They belong to ALL of us. Why should the behavior or bad choices of other people lead me to give up what belongs to me?

Our faith, our trust is truly in Jesus Christ himself. Remember, we call the Church the Body of…CHRIST. Not the Body of Peter, or Paul, or Gregory, or Leo, or Pius or Francis. It is not the Body of Dennis Schnurr or Martin Fox. It is the Body of CHRIST. The Body of our Lord has terrible wounds; it has happened before. You and I can pray for things; we can hope for things; we can speak up and have our limited influence. But the one thing over which each of us has the greatest control is ourselves. Do you want the Body of Christ to be holier and healthier? Of course you do! So do we all. Then increase spiritual health and holiness in yourself. As each of us seeks to grow in holiness, that helps the Body of Christ – far more than posting furious comments online, or in losing sleep, or in expressions of anger or cynicism.

(From my parish bulletin column.)

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Lent is coming: let's make it the best ever! (Sunday homily)

Lent begins in three weeks. 

For the next three Sundays, 
you and I will hear from Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, 
from chapter 15, where he talks about resurrection.
This is a great transition to Lent.

Let’s recall what we believe as Catholics.
At the moment our life in this world comes to an end, 
you and I will immediately face Christ as our judge.
We call this the “particular judgment.”

And in that moment, Christ will weigh our faith: 
did we respond to his grace? Did we obey his commands? 
Did we repent of our sins and turn to him for mercy?

And one of two things will happen.
If we die without God’s friendship, having rejected his grace; 
refusing to change, or, perhaps giving mere lip service, then what? 
Remember what he said: “Not everyone who cries, ‘Lord, Lord!’ 
will enter the Kingdom.” 

And they will say, “but look what we did in your name!” 
And Jesus will say, ‘Depart from me! I never knew you!’”
So if that’s where we are in that moment before Christ, 
then we will go to hell, precisely because we refused the grace 
and the conversion of our lives that would prepare us for heaven. 

On the other hand, if we “die in God’s grace and friendship” 
(Catechism of the Catholic Church 1030),
Then we enter into heaven. 

But at that point, you and I may need some further brushing-up, 
so that we are truly ready for heaven. 
This is purgatory.

That said, if we made this life a time of conversion, 
of breaking bad habits, of self-denial, 
purgatory will have little or even nothing to offer us.
Here’s a prayer that you may want to pray each day:
“Lord, send me here my purgatory.” 

The point Saint Paul wants to make is simple:
Do not make the mistake of thinking this life is all there is.
You and I are meant to live forever.
Moreover, our bodies are not just something 
we throw away or leave behind. 
We will have our bodies back in the resurrection.

And in the Gospel, Jesus warned us not to put too much confidence 
in the usual measures of success: 
Having lots of stuff, being comfortable, 
and having the praise of others.
None of these things will matter in the long run.

Someday, when Christ chooses to draw this phase of history to an end,
 this world will be remade: a new heavens and a new earth.
All people – redeemed or damned – will have their bodies back.
If we are among those who submitted to the Kingship of Jesus Christ, 
then it is a resurrection to life. Otherwise, it is a terrible fate.
Scripture refers to the fate of the damned as a “second death.”

We don’t talk about hell very often. But Jesus talked about it a lot! 
He wants us to take it seriously when he says, 
“Repent, and believe in the Gospel. The Kingdom of God is at hand.”

So Lent is coming, and we have three weeks to gear up.
Since I mentioned purgatory, that’s a good way to understand Lent: 
You and I are seeking our purgatory here and now.
Our sacrifices, penances and extra prayers are tools, 
in service of what Lent truly is about:
Conversion. Change of heart. Change of life. Getting ready for heaven.

The origin of Lent is that it was a time of intense preparation 
for those who were going to be baptized at Easter – 
and that is why they fasted, and prayed intensely, 
and examined their lives so closely.

And for those of us who have been baptized,
Lent is our time to re-embrace our baptism.
So notice: at Easter you will be asked to renew those vows.
It's not a mere ritual; it’s a very solemn moment we take weeks to prepare for.
Those of you who are married -- do you remember the day you made your vows?
Was that a powerful moment? Of course it was!
And I remember the day I was ordained, 
and especially the hour before as I prayed very intensely.
Well, our baptism is far more solemn and important than those events.
And that preparation for renewing our baptism 
parallels what our life on earth is about:
Preparing very seriously and intentionally for heaven.

So, Lent is near. It’s time to get ready.

I want to issue everyone in the parish a challenge:
Let’s make this the best Lent you’ve ever had.
I’m asking that we all unite in that desire – 
and help each other make it happen.

So I want to ask you – every single person here – 
to do two special things.

First: now is the time to think about what your plan for Lent will be.

And, second, I ask everyone to begin praying that this Lent 
will indeed be a powerful time of conversion for our parish. 
Pray for yourself, your family, and for each other. 
Let’s pray for our parish to experience conversion. 

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Speak -- or be silent -- but only out of love (Sunday homily)

Prophet Jeremiah in the cistern (Jeremiah 38). Picture links to where I got it.

Jeremiah had to do it; and so did Jesus.
That is, they had to say things that upset people.

Pretty obviously, of course – 
there is a difference between the “have to do” and the “want to do.” 
That’s where so many of us get messed up.

So let’s get this straight right off the bat:
What happened in the Gospel is not permission to be a jerk.
Let me say that again:
Don’t point to Jesus, or Jeremiah, 
or for that matter, any part of the Bible, as an excuse to be a jerk.

Because that is not what happened in the Gospel.
Yes, Jesus sure did provoke them. They wanted to kill him!
But why did he provoke them? What would justify it?

Jesus was trying to make them think – 
to see something they weren’t seeing, and weren’t going to see, 
unless someone really shocked them out of a kind of mental sleep-walk. 
To get them to say, “wait, what?!?”

A lot of us go online, and maybe we post comments here and there.
Or maybe we get into family discussions and maybe they get heated.

So maybe you’re thinking, 
“yeah, it’s good to stir things up.”
Someone was hurt? “Don’t be a snowflake!”

Well, here’s the test.
Before you say – or post – anything that is going to set people off, 
ask yourself this question: 
Where is the love?

How is what I am saying or doing grounded in love?

And maybe you’ll say, well, I’m saying this because I love God – 
or because I love the truth. So far, so good.

But then take it one more step:
How is what I want to say about loving this person, right here?
Can you answer that question, first?

And more than that, maybe make that the first thing you say?
Instead of leading off with, “Here’s why you’re wrong!”
Try, “Because I care about you, I want to say thus-and-so…” 
and explain why what you’re saying is really about love.

You may not have thought about it this way, 
but everything you and I stand for, as Catholics – 
everything we get beat up for believing – is about love.
Love for real, flesh-and-blood people.

So, for example, we take a stand about what marriage is. 
That, in turn, is directly related to what a man is, what a woman is.
There is a love properly shared between a husband and wife; 
another love, proper for two men, and for two women.
Likewise, yet another love proper being parents and children,
And between brothers and sisters. 

So what are we doing today? Mashing all that up, saying “love is love.”
No, that is a lie.
And encouraging people to live a lie is never the loving thing to do.

Yes, it’s true, Jesus would hit a subject pretty hard.
But never forget: at the very moment he said and did those things, 
he was planning to die on the Cross for those very people!

So that’s the test: how much is what we’re doing and saying 
really about love in a concrete way, for real, living human beings?
And if not, maybe hold our tongue?

Look: some people never speak up. 
So some people listening right now, the message you need to hear 
isn’t to hold back; because that’s what you always do.

The message for you is, speak up! 
Ask the Holy Spirit to give you the courage and the inspiration. 

But some of us – I include myself here – speak up ALL THE TIME.

Before I was in the seminary, there was this girl, and this date.
We were in Virginia, and our plan was an early breakfast, 
and then to drive down to Kings Dominion – like Kings Island here – 
and ride roller coasters all day.

When I woke up that morning I could not talk.
I felt fine otherwise; but no voice. Nothing.
So we went to the park, and for that whole day, 
she had 100% of the conversation. For about 15 hours.
If you knew my friend Mary, you’d know this did not intimidate her!

But here was the great revelation for me:
The world did not stop spinning because it was deprived of my opinions!

More important is to absorb what we hear St. Paul say:
If what you are saying and doing isn’t first and last about love – 
not abstract love, but concrete love of flesh-and-blood people – 
then what is it worth?
Nothing, says Saint Paul.

It’s not the greatest segue, but let’s recall the opportunity 
you and I have for practical, concrete acts of love, right here, 
in the form of the Catholic Ministries Appeal. 

Two weeks ago I talked about the good works this is making possible: 
assisting the poor with food and utilities;
Keeping faith alive for college students, people in prisons and hospitals;
Supporting more priestly vocations, and St. Rita School for the Deaf, 
and the retirement fund for our elderly priests.

Talk about showing love: this isn’t abstract; it isn’t pie-in-the-sky; 
it’s here and now, flesh and blood. 

I spent most of my time today talking about ways our words hurt;
Or we don’t speak at all, when there really is a need.
But let me give you an opportunity, right now, 
To use words in a loving way.
There are envelopes with pledge forms, and pencils, in your pews.
They look like this. If you want to do this now, 
someone will pass it down.

Your words – your name and contact information – 
on this form are an act of love. 
So are the numbers you write on there: 
the amount of financial support for this cause.
You can include a check right now; 
or you can write in your credit information.

I make my check payable to the seminary, 
so that I can direct my gift there.
Without saying how much, I will say my gift is a lot for me.
That doesn’t mean you have to do the same; 
But I want you to know I’m serious about this.