Sunday, August 25, 2013

How are we saved? (Sunday homily)

When reading or listening to a Gospel passage like this one, 
you may notice something: 
many times, our Lord’s answer to a question 
doesn’t actually answer the question!

It starts with, “Someone asked him, Lord, will only a few be saved?”

First, he refers to a narrow gate—so that sounds like “few,” right?

But, later, he refers to people coming from east and west, north and south—
does that sound like “few”?

What our Lord was doing 
was actually answering the question that the person should have asked.

And that question wasn’t, how many will be saved, 
but rather, how to be saved.

So, how are we saved? By striving to enter the “narrow gate.”

In the Gospel of John, 
Jesus says, “I am the gate, 
and whoever enters through Me will be saved.”

We might wonder why the gate is “narrow.”
That sounds bad.
But remember why cities, in his time, had gates:
Because they also had walls.
And walls are for safety-to keep out threats.
In our day, those walls and gates are at the border.
In our Lord’s time, they were around cities.

And narrow gates mean you can see clearly who comes and goes.
Which is exactly what the Lord said elsewhere:
He is the gate, protecting the sheep; 
the sheep enter, but he keeps out the wolves.

A narrow gate doesn’t mean only few enter; 
it means you have to be patient.

It also means that while you might squeeze in,
The stuff we drag along, won’t.

This got me thinking about when you board a plane,
And people are bringing their stuff on the plane.
And they’re trying to jam what looks like a mattress 
into the overhead compartment, 
and they’re saying, “oh, it always fit before”!

If we don’t try to bring stuff, no problem with the gate.
And for heaven, that means all kinds of baggage.

A lot of folks carry a heavy load of unforgiveness.
Did you ever consider that one of the first people 
you meet in heaven might be that person 
who you say you can’t forgive?

What will you do then?

Notice what our Lord said:
“Many will attempt to enter, but won’t be strong enough.”

Well, listen up: none of us is “strong enough”!

We have got to drive out of our minds  
every last trace of the idea that any of us 
gets to heaven because we’re good enough!

We do not walk into heaven on our own!
Remember what Jesus said about the lost sheep?
How does it get home? 
He puts it on his shoulders.

Jesus is “strong enough”—and he will carry us through!
But he probably will say, 
“but leave that—and that—and especially that.”

Till now, there’s a word I haven’t uttered: hell.
Is hell real? Sounds like it is.

In the Gospel, Jesus says that people will be cast out, 
because he never knew them.
What that means is that there was never a true friendship.
Sure, they ate and drank with him—but they didn’t know Jesus, 
which is to say, they didn’t want to know him, not as he actually is.

We all love it when he says stuff we like;
And we shift around uncomfortably when he says things we don’t:
Whether it’s about money, or sex, or forgiveness, or suffering or ego.

I asked, a moment ago, what if we find in heaven a person we can’t forgive?
What are our choices at that point?
Entering heaven means letting go of that.
And if we can’t? What’s left?

The conclusion I reach is this:
No one is “sent to hell” as much as people refuse heaven.

If you’re interested, 
C.S. Lewis actually wrote about book about that, 
called The Great Divorce.
His argument is that hell is real—
and its gates are locked from the inside.

By the way, this is a good time to mention 
how we get rid of the baggage: go to confession!
The confessional is the spiritual garbage-dump.
And one way to find the power to forgive is to experience forgiveness.
The more we feel real gratitude for how much is forgiven us, the easier it is to forgive.
So again: go to confession.

One more thing about the “few” versus “many.”

Do you remember when, three years ago, 
we were preparing for the new translation of the Mass prayers?

And there was some concern about the use of “many” 
in the Eucharistic Prayer.

But as far as we know, that’s what our Lord said at the Last Supper.
That’s where he answers the question posed in today’s Gospel:
“This is the cup of my blood, 
the blood of the new and eternal covenant, 

poured out for you and for…many.

How are we saved? Jesus is the “how.”

Thursday, August 22, 2013


Well, the cat's out of the bag, as it were: word of my plans to take a sabbatical early next year has now reached Facebook. By now, surely the NSA has begun a file!

Here's the story...

One of the bennies of being a priest is a sabbatical every ten years. A sabbatical can be organized in many ways, because the key purpose of the sabbatical is "rest and refreshment" for a priest's ministry. Many times, priests will have a plan for study, reflection, and travel; sometimes that study can be fairly serious, or more low-key. In the Archdiocese, there is a wide leeway about that.

Since I passed my ten year anniversary in May, I'm eligible for a sabbatical; and I'm following the advice of my first pastor, who always said, "take your time"--meaning, time off. His point was that there would be plenty of occasions when events would prevent time off, so don't be embarrassed to take it when you can.

He's right. As happens to everyone, work and family obligations will crowd in on vacations and days off. So I decided to apply for a sabbatical.

The plan is to be in Europe and the Holy Land between mid-January and mid-April; I'll be back by Holy Week. There are obviously some things to plan for in the parish, particularly making sure that any help needed from me, for Lent and Holy Week planning, happen before I go.

What about the parish?

When a priest goes on sabbatical, the Archbishop appoints a temporary administrator, who will take care of routine business matters: signing checks, and making any necessary decisions that can't wait. In my first assignment as a priest, my pastor took a sabbatical, and I was in charge. It was far easier than I expected. To a great degree, this was because the pastor was well organized and had developed a good staff; and they did their jobs. What also helped was that any planning or big decisions were either handled before he left, or else waited for his return. 

It was funny, because there were those who sought me out, precisely because the boss was away, hoping I would overturn some of his decisions, or else be more sympathetic. Well, I wasn't so foolish as to fall into that trap! If it wasn't a routine matter, I'd say, "that sounds important enough that it should wait until the pastor returns." I have to admit, it amused me to witness the reaction. In several cases, the folks clearly didn't want to bring it to the pastor! But I'm sorry, that's how it had to be.

I'm very happy to tell you that Father Kyle Schnippel will serve as temporary administrator for Holy Cross-Immaculata. Father Schnippel is currently director of vocations for the Archdiocese. His ten year anniversary is next year; I hope he takes a sabbatical (once I get back)!

Father Schnippel will do a great job. He's got a cool, level head; he has some familiarity with the parish from having Mass here many times over the years, and I know he will enjoy a dip into parish ministry. And before the full intensity of Holy Week hits, I'll be back.

While on sabbatical, I don't know if I'll post much online. I haven't decided. What do you think?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Walking to the ballgame

Last night, for the first time in my life, I walked from home to the Reds park.

When you live on Mount Adams, it's not that hard.

I got a call yesterday: a priest friend of mine, along with some of his friends had some tickets; could I come? You bet! I had an appointment at 6 pm, and a quick exchange of emails, and the couple graciously agreed to meet me at 5:30 pm.

No time to change from my clerics; no problem. The guys met me at 6:30 at Holy Cross-Immaculata, and we decided to walk to the park; and catch a taxi or two back home.

First time I walked down the steps; not a problem! In a few minutes, we were at Adam's Landing, just a few yards from the river, and not a bad walk to the park. A lot of fans park in this area.

Too bad the Reds didn't do so well last night; but it was a fun evening. Ten dollars for taxi fare got all six of us back to the hill around 10 pm; after a little refreshments, some of the guys had to head home.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Mary, Ark of the New Covenant (Assumption homily)

Today is the Solemn Feast of the Assumption. What is that?

We celebrate today the moment when—
at the end of her life on earth—
God took Mary to himself in heaven. 

Note that we believe Mary was taken to heaven—
she didn’t go there on her own steam.

So, how do we know this happened?

While Scripture doesn’t mention it explicitly, there are hints.
Notice the first reading: John looks up into heaven, 
and sees “the ark of the covenant.” 
But the ark of the covenant is a “woman, clothed with the sun.”

How can a woman be the “ark of the covenant”?

Remember what the ark was—
it was a box, created in Moses’ time, 
to carry the tablets of the Ten Commandments, the Word of God. 
And it also carried a jar filled with Manna, the bread from heaven.

But—that was the ark of the old covenant.
Mary is the ark of the new covenant!
The old ark carried God’s Word written in stone;
Mary carried the Word of God become man!
The old ark carried the Manna from the desert;
Mary carried Jesus, the Bread of Life!

And just as the glory of the Lord 
would overshadow the ark when Moses and the people worshipped, 
what did the Archangel Gabriel say to Mary:
“The power of the Most High will overshadow you.”

Notice the psalm we used today: 
“The queen stands at your right hand, clothed in gold.”
That psalm is actually referring to 
what we would call the “queen mother”—
the mother of the king—
because it describes her watching as the king meets his bride.

Who is the king? Jesus of course.
Who is the queen mother? Mary!
And the bride is the Church.

It simply makes sense. 
Why would God tell Israel to honor the ark of the old covenant, 
and not expect the New Israel to honor the ark of the new covenant?

What Saint John Damascene said, almost 1,300 years ago, 
still makes sense:

“It was necessary that she who had preserved her virginity 
inviolate in childbirth should also have her body kept free 
from all corruption after death;
“It was necessary that she 
who had carried the Creator as a child on her breast 
should dwell in the tabernacles of God.

“It was necessary that the bride espoused by the Father
should make her home in the bridal chambers of heaven.

“It was necessary that she who had gazed on her crucified Son
and been pierced in the heart by the sword of sorrow
which she had escaped in giving him birth,
should contemplate him seated with the Father.

“It was necessary that the Mother of God 
should share the possessions of her Son, 
and be venerated by every creature
as the Mother and handmaid of God.”

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Faith: 'What surrender will you make to God?' (Sunday homily)

Many years ago, I had a conversation with my brother. 
We were talking about the Catholic Faith, 
and I was explaining why I believed what I believe. 
And he said something that shocked me: 
“I don’t hear any faith.”

I had to think awhile about that 
before I realized what he was saying.
His point was that, in my explanations of what I believed, and why, 
I was making the case 
for how reasonable the Catholic Faith seemed to me.

And it is true: I have thought through what we profess;
And it does seem reasonable to me.

His point was that, if it’s all so reasonable, where’s the faith?

Saint Anselm is the one who coined the phrase, 
“faith seeking understanding.” 

He is one of a long line of Christian thinkers—
Really beginning with Saint Paul the Apostle,
But continuing, unbroken, down to the present—
who have taken what our Faith teaches, 
and pressed it through the sieve of their intellect.

Here’s the funny thing: down through the ages, 
there have always been those who claimed 
we Christians can’t handle a rigorous examination of our Faith.
It’s not true: Christianity gave birth to the scientific method 
and the great universities.

Yet here was my brother making the opposite point: 
that I’d organized my Faith 
into an elegant flow-chart of logical propositions.

And he was right!

As I said, that was, oh, maybe 20 years ago now.
Today, while I make no bones about professing the Catholic Faith—
in its entirety—I am readier to admit 
that there are some parts I find harder to explain.

That’s where the faith is. 

So, what are some things we can say about faith?

First, there is a seeking—a hunger.
Abraham went far and wide seeking the Lord.
St. Anselm, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, 
and so many others, went as far into the mystery of faith
as their great intellects could take them.

But then there is a humility, a submission, 
like that of the servant in the Gospel.

I mentioned St. Thomas Aquinas a moment ago.
As brilliant as he was—and he wrote prolifically—
there came a day, near the end of his life, 
when he had a vision; and after that, he wrote no more.
He said, “after what I’ve just seen, all I’ve written is like straw.”

Or we might think of another act of surrender by a saint—not so long ago.
So many of us remember Pope John Paul II.
When he became pope, he was vigorous and healthy;
what a contrast were his later years, 
when his back became stooped, he could no longer walk, 
his voice became slurred because of Parkinsons.

I’ll never forget the last time I saw him alive. 
It was Palm Sunday, 2005. 
He wasn’t able to offer Mass, but he came to the window to greet people.
They brought him a microphone, 
and you could see he was struggling to speak. 
In the end, he couldn’t say a word.

But he didn’t have to! His surrender to God,
That painful, obedient walk to the Calvary of his own death:
a thousand homilies couldn’t have been more eloquent.

So here we are.
In a few moments, as we always do, we’ll profess the Creed together.

It’s a ritual we enact: we say the words:
But what’s going on in our heads?
How much are we, like Saint Anselm, seeking to discover what they mean?

But in the end, it’s not about the mind, or even the heart, but the will:
Above all, what surrender will we make to God?

Saturday, August 03, 2013

What is our stuff for? (Sunday homily)

All this week, I’ve been trying to write a homily for this weekend—
reflecting on the readings, about materialism and greed—
but most days, I’ve been too busy focusing on our festival!

This is an interesting juxtaposition, isn’t it?

At first, I thought about how this works itself out in the secular world, 
but it occurred to me: 
how does it work itself out in our parish?

Why do we have a festival? 
It’s fun and it brings the community together—
but it’s also a lot of work.
I’m going to give our staff some time off after all this. 
They’ve worked hard, as have so many of our parishioners, 
and many volunteers from the community.

Why do we do it? A big reason is because we need the money.

We have this church, parking lot, priest’s house, parish hall; 
if we didn’t own any of this—
if we just rented a room each week for Mass—
we wouldn’t need nearly as much money.

So are we like the fellow in the Gospel, just piling up stuff?

It depends on what the stuff is for.

When I went to Piqua, and I moved into the rectory, 
the priest who had been pastor before me was there.

One evening, I had some folks coming for dinner,
and in the dining room was a cabinet filled with beautiful glassware. 
I wanted to use the good stuff, so I went to that cabinet.
And the retired priest was shocked and said:
“You can’t use those glasses!”

“I can’t? Why not?”

“Because they’re Sarah Jone’s glasses!”  (I’m changing the names here.)

“Who’s she?”

“She’s a parishioner.”

“How did we get her glasses?”

“Well, she died and donated them.”

“Then, I think she won’t mind if we use her glasses!”

So we did. 
And, guess what? Eventually, we broke some of the glasses—
And that is what Father was trying to avoid by not using them.

But the point of “stuff”—money, property, fancy glassware—
Is that it be used to benefit people.

Part of our Catholic Social Teaching is that
God has given us a world of abundance; 
and that abundance is meant for the benefit of all.

We call this “the universal destination of goods.”

That doesn’t mean we can’t acquire things; 
it doesn’t make being wealthy is a bad thing. 

But it does mean that for each and every one of us,
whether we have a lot of stuff, or only a little,
We are not the absolute owners of it.
We’re not even the absolute owners of ourselves—
Which bears on other issues of our Catholic Faith.

The mistake the man in the Gospel made was he forgot
That God made us a trustee of all we have;
not just treasure, but time and talents as well.
Everything on our balance-sheet is God’s first; and ours second.

And as much as we do try to run this parish in a business-like way,
That must be how our parish operates too.

We aren’t selling a product.
Jesus Christ isn’t a bag of Doritos, 
And we don’t re-make the formula to suit current tastes!

He is the Truth that humanity needs; 
even if he isn’t always what we want.

If we measured Christianity as a business, 
Then everyone who died for this Truth would be a failure:
Starting with the Lord himself!

Every time this parish asks of each other—
an hour, a dollar, or the use of your talents—
We owe a further explanation: what for?
How will this save souls?
How will this build the kingdom of Christ?