Tuesday, September 1, 2015

God's mercy is bigger than our sins | Pope Francis & forgiveness for abortion

Like many, I was so excited by the news that came out today from Rome that Pope Francis has extended the faculty to absolve someone from the sin of abortion without the interim step of having to contact your local bishop.

As always, the media seems to have not fully understood what the Pope did and so there are some confusing or misstated notions out there. I wanted to write a brief post to clear up a few things:

ABORTION COULD ALWAYS BE FORGIVEN. I was watching ABC News tonight and the broadcaster said, the Pope's decree means that "abortion can now be forgiven." This gives the impression that somehow the Church held a prior position that abortion was unforgivable. The impression is that if you found yourself in the impossible situation of procuring an abortion, that was it, no more hope for a life with God. One strike, you're out.

This could not be further from the truth. Many women, or their spouses or partners, have often come to the Church to seek God's forgiveness for their actions. But, according to Canon Law, since an abortion also brought with it latae sententiae (= automatic) excommunication, the priest needed to consult with their Bishop to lift that excommunication. Another option would be in dioceses were certain priests have been given the faculty for this. Either way, it was a more complicated process and took a bit more time, but forgiveness was always available. 

Also, if you happened to know a Franciscan priest, the Order has had the privilege of absolving this sin directly for a very, very long time.

In fact, St. Pope John Paul II said this in his 1995 encyclical The Gospel of Life, "The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision (to have an abortion), and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed...But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope...Give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation."

So, what is the meaning of Pope Francis' action? My opinion is that the Pope wants to encourage people to seek out God's mercy. In my own personal experience with this, I have encountered many women who feel as though their actions have permanently separated them from God; that their sin is too great; that they are beyond forgiveness. To hear the words that God offers them forgiveness bring about a healing that is powerful, that is lasting and that is transformative in people's lives.

I believe the Holy Father is taking this moment to make that transforming forgiveness more easily available to encourage the kind of healing that it brings about. In his apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, the Pope said, “God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy.”

I think as we head into this Year of Mercy, Pope Francis hopes that we will all take that message to heart and be reconciled, forgiven, renewed, restored and transformed by this Sacrament of Mercy. God's mercy is always bigger than our sins. We are never outside of God's desire to unite us with Him once again.

- FT

Friday, August 28, 2015

Let's change the world

HOMILY FOR THE 22nd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, August 30, 2015:

Practice what you preach. Actions speak louder than words. You have to walk the walk. These are all common phrases that we know. There are many more like them, but they all have the same point – words are not enough. For our words to be true and be believed, they must be followed with action.

One of my favorite quotes of Pope Francis gets at this point. He said, “You pray for the hungry. The you feed them! This is how prayer works.” In our second reading today from St. James, he says the same thing this way, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Or, practice what you preach.

One of the greatest dangers for people of faith, I think, is to be enamored of Scripture, to love the teaching of the Church, to hold as precious the words of Jesus – but, to act no differently than the rest of the world when we’re outside of a church building. This is also what Jesus is tackling in today’s Gospel. The Pharisees and Scribes are obsessed with the external observance of the Law, while their actions say something different. They were obsessed with rituals, but neglected the change of heart and life that those rituals hope to bring about in people. In today’s passage, the Pharisees allow the failure to ritually wash their hands keep them from sharing God’s Good News with the people who need to hear it. Jesus points out that it is not the purification of hands that will save them, but the purification of their souls.

Now, Jesus isn’t condemning ritual or doctrine, but asking if those practices are effective. Is our practice the goal of our faith – is our faith nothing more than attending Mass or praying rosaries? Or do these practices help us become the people God wants us to be, as James says, those who “care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep [themselves] unstained by the world.” Have we become “Doers of the Word and not hearers only?”

We have been blessed in these years of Pope Francis to see someone who shows us what Christian words-in-action truly look like. For example, he doesn’t only talk about the homeless, but he opened the Vatican to them and created showers, provides food, brings in barbers to cut their hair – his faith-in-action is practical; it makes a difference to the people he encounters. A few years ago, speaking on the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, he said it this way, “Jesus tells us that the path to encountering Him is to find His wounds. We find Jesus’ wounds in carrying out works of mercy – giving to the body of your wounded brother, because he is hungry, because he is thirsty, because he is naked, because it is humiliated, because he is a slave, because he's in jail, because he is in the hospital. Those are the wounds of Jesus today. We need to touch these wounds of Jesus, we must caress the wounds of Jesus, we need to bind the wounds of Jesus with tenderness, we have to kiss the wounds of Jesus, and this literally. Just think of what happened to St. Francis, when he embraced the leper? The same thing that happened to Thomas: his life changed.”

St. James and Jesus are reminding us today that our faith should be obvious in our actions. That people should see the way we act in the world and know immediately that we are follows of Christ. That our faith in Jesus has changed our lives. We are being asked to prayerfully reflect on two basic questions: Do I hear God’s Word? And, do I act on God’s Word?

James tells us, “Humbly welcome the word that has taken root in you. Act on it. Because if all you do is listen, you are deceiving yourselves.” Yes, it is hard to love the way Jesus loves and the way He asks us to love others. But, in His Word and in His Holy Sacraments, Jesus gives us the strength to do what He asks. He gives us the strength to be a different kind of presence in the world – one that loves, one that shows compassion, one that reaches out – especially to those in most need; especially to those that others would simply walk by. So, let us hear God’s Word and be strengthened by His Body and Blood and truly leave this place as “Doers of the Word of God….for that will save our souls.”

Or as St. Francis of Assisi put it, “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” It will not only change us and make us more like Christ; it will change the world.

May the Lord give you peace.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

To be a saint is the vocation of everyone | Solemnity of St. Clare











SOLEMNITY OF OUR HOLY MOTHER SAINT CLARE, August 11, 2015:

I'd like to start with an impromptu poll among everyone here. By a show of hands how many here would like to be a saint? And again, by a show of hands, how many think that when all is said and done, you will in fact, be a saint? Good, I was hoping to see a lot of hands go up, especially in a group of religious and those following our beloved Clare and Francis.

There is a story that you may have heard before about the great Trappist mystic and writer Thomas Merton. Shortly after he converted to Catholicism in the late 1930s, Merton was walking the streets of New York with his friend, Robert. Robert was Jewish, and he asked Merton what he wanted to be, now that he was Catholic. “I don’t know,” Merton replied, adding simply that he wanted to be a good Catholic. Robert stopped him in his tracks. “What you should say,” he told him, “is that you want to be a saint!” Merton was dumbfounded. “How do you expect me to become a saint?” Merton asked. His friend said: “All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe that God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent to let him do it? All you have to do is desire it.”

As we gather tonight to commemorate and celebrate Our Holy Mother Saint Clare, we are in the final months of the Year of Consecrated Life called for by Pope Francis. As he called for this year, Pope Francis put a remarkable challenge before all of us living the vowed life. He said that religious women and men must “wake up the world! Be witnesses of a different way of doing things, of acting, of living! It is possible to live differently in the world. It is a question of leaving everything to follow the Lord. Religious follow the Lord in a special way, in a prophetic way. It is this witness that I expect of you. Religious should be men and women who are able to wake the world up.”

Now this task can seem daunting if we feel that it is our job alone, or even as our small group, to wake up the entire world to the truth and reality of the Gospel. What great plan could we come up with? What big strategy could we develop for the whole world. And, that’s when we remember that we are followers of the saints of Assisi. We “wake up the world” by being simply, profoundly, and fully who we are called to be. That was the great message and awesome plan of Clare and Francis. They both held the simple proposal that the Gospel could be lived; that it was possible to live the life devoted to God that Jesus came to reveal to us in its fullness. Clare and Francis showed us so profoundly – and yet so simply – that this possible. And, I think, that is why you and I are here. We believe it too; so much so that it lead us to leave our former lives and live a life of total dedication as a consecrated person. And, following the Gospel is just another way of saying I want to be a saint. I believe I can be a saint.

Pope Francis said, “To be a saint is not a privilege for a few, but the vocation of everyone. Saints aren't supermen and they weren't born perfect. They are people who, before attaining glory in Heaven, lived a normal life, with joys and pains, struggles and hopes. But when they knew the love of God they felt it with all their hearts.”

When we feel that sainthood is beyond us, out of our reach, we are probably thinking about the legendary saints – Clare and Francis, Anthony, Mother Teresa, Mother Cabrini – we are thinking of the saints who converted crowds of thousands by their preaching, who established schools and hospitals and orphanages and more by the droves, who established religious communities that grew and expanded and covered the world. And maybe for us, that isn’t our road to sainthood. But those glorious women and men were not saints because of the quantity of work they accomplished or even the eloquence of their holy speech – they were saints because they were faithful to God and to what God asked them to do; and because they did that with all their heart and lives. And, that is our road to sainthood too. We can be like them in the way we love God, in the way we follow Him completely.

As we celebrate Clare today, we are reminded that the goal of our existence is Paradise! That is what Clare learned herself and taught her sisters and us. The documents of the Cause of Canonization for St. Clare tell us that she said this as she was preparing to meet Sister Death, “Go forth in peace, for you have followed the good road. Go forth without fear, for He who created you has made you holy, has always protected you, and loves you as a mother. Blessed be you, my God, for having created me.”

Following St. Clare and St. Francis is really a way of saying, this is how we will become saints. Following the Gospel, relying fully on God, devoting ourselves to prayer, to charity, to our life together, mercy, compassion and devotion to the poor – these are the ways that our beloved Founders have taught us are the road to holiness, the pathway to sainthood, the very Way that will bring us to heaven.

Clare was a saint because she recognized God’s love in her life and followed Him with all her heart without reserve or hypocrisy. She spent her life serving others, enduring suffering and adversity, spreading joy and peace. She is a saint because she did not put conditions on God in her life.

Today, through this feast, Saint Clare gives us a message. She tells us: trust in the Lord because the Lord does not disappoint! He never disappoints, He is a good friend always at our side. Through her witness Clare encourages us to not be afraid to speak about God and the Gospel – to be witnesses of the Gospel capable of waking up the world.

“To be a saint is the vocation of everyone.” “All we have to do is desire it.” Let us entrust our prayers to the intercession of Our Holy Mother Clare and ask her that our hearts might be filled with the desire to be saints.

May the Lord give you peace.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The grace of surrender










HOMILY FOR THE 19th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, August 9, 2015:

In order to join the Navy, John first had to pass a routine physical. During the exam, the doctor discovered that, due to an abnormality, John couldn’t fully extend his arms above his head. Unsure if he should approve John, the doctor conferred with another doctor. "Let him pass," said the second doctor. "I don’t see any problems – unless he has to surrender."

Our first reading today is a story of surrender. We heard, “Elijah prayed for death saying, ‘This is enough, O Lord! Take my life.’” This is a statement that most of us can relate to, I think. How often do we feel like we are at a point in life when we want to throw up our hands, surrender, and say “This is enough! I’ve had enough!”

So, why was Elijah so down? Well, as we pick up his story today, God has asked a tremendous amount of him. He – a man alone – was sent by God to confront Queen Jezebel who had lead Israel astray to worship a false God. Elijah had just engaged in a major confrontation with her prophets before our passage today and the result was that the Queen sent a messenger to tell Elijah that before the day is done, he will be put to death. Elijah runs in fear for his life.

At this moment, Elijah did what God asked and was worried that his reward was to be execution. He has thrown his arms up in surrender, ready to give up. He has been plunged into darkness and doubt. Wanting to quit and turn his life over to the eternal hands of God, he sleeps. But when he awakened, God sent an angel to care for him. Food and water appeared and the angel fed him. He experiences God’s care for him and through it discovers he has the strength to make his way to safety - and to begin again. When Elijah surrendered fully to God; in response God refreshed and renewed him; gave him life once again.

Elijah’s story should sound familiar to us, because there’s not one of us here who hasn’t been brought low, or felt defeated, and ready to surrender at one point or another in our lives. Whether we’re the fifth grader who feels doomed by a difficult subject; the mom slowly worn down by a long summer tending to the children she loves; the disappointed spouse who despite trying and trying again, can see no hope for the future of their marriage; the investor who made all the wrong decisions till there was nothing left; the sick person who has tried every doctor, every cure, but to no avail… and so on.

In these moments, we might also feel like saying, “I’m finished, I’m empty; I have nothing left to give, to say, to do; I am too tired to lift a pencil; too tired to hope; too tired to cry. I’ve had enough. I surrender.” And what is God’s answer? He doesn’t say, “Buck up! Be strong!” He doesn’t say, “Get over it and move on.” God knows when our strength is spent and when we are empty. Instead, our loving and caring God sends an angel to us too and says, “Be still; rest with me awhile, and wait. As slow rain fills an empty cup, I will fill you; I will nurture you, care for you, feed you and restore your strength – if you hold up your cup, and wait, and be still with me.”

He sends these angels in the form of the good and supportive friends we have; in the love that people show us in life; in the kindness of a stranger; and so importantly in moments of prayer; pre-eminently in the Eucharist. Every Mass is exactly that kind of opportunity to be still with God, to be filled up with what He has to offer, to hear the gentle words of God’s encouragement in Scripture, and to be awakened to the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation offered in every Eucharist. Jesus said exactly this in today’s Gospel, “The bread that I give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

Our Gospel today is a continuation of “Bread of Life discourse.” It reminds us once again, that Jesus sustains us, lifts us up and feeds us in ways that offer newness, freshness, relief and even the promise of eternal life. “I am the bread of life,” He says. “I am the living bread come down from heaven,” He says. This message is for us a great message of reassurance; a great message of hope.

So, if you come to this place today feeling a bit like Elijah – feeling a bit wearied by life, downtrodden by challenging situations, or hopeless in the face of impossible relationships; if you come here today feeling like you could say, “Lord, this is enough.” God says to you, “Be still and know that I am God.” So, be still and wait with Me. Listen to My words. Feel My presence. Let me refresh you, renew you and make you whole, once again.

God will give you what you need to be strengthened to finish your journey. All you have to do is let Him.

May the Lord strengthen you today and give you His peace.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Do you believe in miracles?

HOMILY FOR THE 17th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, July 26, 2015:

Johnny came home from Sunday school and couldn’t wait to tell his mother about class. “Boy that story of Moses and all those people crossing the Red Sea was something!” “Tell me all about it,” his mother said. Johnny began, “Well, the Israelites got out of Egypt, but Pharaoh and his army chased after them. So the Jews ran as fast as they could until they got to the Red Sea. The Egyptian Army was getting closer and closer. So…Moses got on his iPhone and called in a drone strike on the Egyptians. Then the Navy built a pontoon bridge so the people could cross over. And, they made it!” The mother was shocked, and asked, “Is that how they told you the story at Sunday school?” “Well, not exactly,” admitted Johnny, “but if I told you the way they told it to us, you'd never believe it, Mom.” How often do we find it difficult to believe in miracles because they seem a little too great? Our secular world makes no room for miracles and spiritual realities and is instead limited only to what we can observe and verify. We are taught to be skeptical when things seem too good to be true.

Today's Gospel is a good example. A secular view looks at the feeding of the 5,000 with skepticism. Skeptical Bible scholars will even pose questions about whether or not Jesus actually fed that many people. Maybe the miracle is that everyone shared, they say. But with the eyes of faith we look at this story in a different way. Faith opens us to the experience that says “Yes, God can and did do that great wonder! I believe it!” Jesus did feed a multitude, Jesus did heal countless people who were ill, Jesus did cast demons out of the possessed, He did raise the officials daughter and His friend Lazarus from the dead, Jesus did offer us His real Body and Blood in the Eucharist, and did Himself rise from the dead – all spectacular, and beyond the normal realm, but we believe because with God anything, in fact, everything is possible.

In our passage today, John mentions two disciples by name: Philip and Andrew. In this passage, they represent two types of faith. Philip is the skeptic, not ready to accept a miracle while Andrew’s faith makes room for miracles and so becomes a partner in one with Jesus.

To the problem of all these hungry people Philip responds skeptically. “Two hundred days' wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little,” he says. But Andrew, with a more expectant faith speaks up. “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.” Now, Andrew was realistic enough to know that five loaves and two fish were nothing before a crowd of more than 5,000, yet he had enough faith to see that it was enough for a start; to see that grace, that miracles build on nature. Perhaps Andrew was remembering the marriage feast at Cana where Jesus turned water into wine. He remembered that Jesus did not make wine out of nothing; He made it out of something. And it is the disciples' duty first to provide that basic something which Jesus in His love would then transform, like water into wine; or multiply, like bread to feed the hungry crowd. Expectant faith, therefore, does not make us fold our hands doing nothing looking into heaven. Rather it spurs us on to make our best contribution, our five loaves and two fish, knowing that without it there would be no miracle. A miracle is not God working for us; it is God working with us and us with God.

A skeptic looks at the feeding of 5,000 and says, “That probably didn’t really happen.” The person of faith looks and says, “5,000 people is that all? Jesus has been miraculously feeding millions or even billions of people through his Body and Blood at Mass for over 2,000 years.” You and I are each and every time we worship part of the greatest miracle of feeding the multitude. He continues to multiply that meager offering every time we gather for the Eucharist. All we offer Him is some bread and wine to work with, and for more than 2,000 years He continually transforms that into His very Body and Blood; His real presence in our midst. So, we should believe, not only because we have faith, but also because we have eyes that see it at every Mass, hands that touch and hold and receive and bodies that consume that same miraculous bread become Body over and over again. The Eucharist is the most incredible miraculous feeding of the multitude in history – and it is still going on!

This is how God wants us to work in the world as well. He doesn’t do these things as tricks or just for show. Instead, He tells us, “I have given you an example. As I have done, so you must do.” There is a wonderful quote of Pope Francis from this past March that gets right at this. He said, “Yes, you pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.” God needs us to do our part and whatever we do, He will multiply – sometimes to miraculous results.

Henry Ford once said, "Whether you think you can or not, you are right." The same can be said about our ability to be a force of change in the world. Believers, by believing, open their lives to miracles. Skeptics block their chances of experiencing a miracle. If we truly believe that Jesus did heal, did cast out demons, did raise people from the dead, did offer the Eucharist, did rise from the dead Himself – if we believe that, just imagine what He will do in our lives and through our lives if we’re open to Him. Jesus is just waiting to let a miracle happen through our own faith in Him. Jesus often said, “According to your faith will it be done to you.” Let us pray today and everyday to have the expectant faith of Andrew, to be open to what God wants to do in our lives. Through our faith, truly miraculous things will happen.

May God give you peace.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Pope Francis is Making Christianity Radical Again | faithStreet

By Gehring
During his recent whirlwind trip to three of the poorest countries in South America, Pope Francis was a man on fire. He played the role of thunderous Old Testament prophet, community organizer, and even a revolutionary rallying the downtrodden to stand up to injustice. In a speech in Bolivia widely viewed as one of the most important and far-reaching of his papacy, the pope brought an urgent message that should make global elites nervous.
The first pope from Latin America will visit the United States in three months and become the first pontiff to address Congress. If his South American tour is any indication, the powers that be here in the world’s financial, media, and military epicenter should buckle up.
“Let us not be afraid to say it: we want change, real change, structural change,” Francis told representatives from indigenous communities, workers, and activists fighting for social reforms. The pope highlighted what he called “the three Ls” (labor, lodging, and land) as central to human dignity. He warned time was “running out” to address ecological destruction and climate change. He railed against a “new colonialism” that includes fiscal austerity measures and “certain free trade agreements.” The profit-first mentality of global capitalism, Francis argues, is morally indefensible.
“Let us say ‘no’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality, where money rules rather than serves,” the pope said in what has now become a defining theme of his papacy. “That economy kills. That economy excludes. That economy destroys Mother Earth.”

A pope who is radical, not liberal

It’s tempting to squeeze this maverick pope into secular political categories. Some media coverage has reflected this instinct by describing the pope as a leftist. In many ways, this is understandable. The pope’s searing critique of the socioeconomic status quo — what he calls “an idolatrous system which excludes, debases, and kills” — is left of the Democratic party. Hillary Clinton might agonize over how far to go in challenging the titans on Wall Street, but the pope has, well let’s just say, fewer political calculations to consider.
The pope also uses language that would be familiar to Occupy Wall Street activists, who in 2011 made Zuccotti Park a magnet for those challenging the presumptions of unbridled market fundamentalism, or leaders who mobilized massive protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organization in 1999.
In fact, while some in the liberal establishment turned up a collective nose at Occupy, Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, who leads the Vatican’s justice and peace council and wrote the first draft of the pope’s recent encyclical, said at the time that the “basic sentiment” behind Occupy Wall Street aligned with traditional principles of Catholic social teaching on the economy.
While Pope Francis’ populist rhetoric warms the hearts of many liberals — including those who wish the church would pipe down on issues of sexuality and marriage — it’s a mistake to pigeonhole him with conventional secular terms. His source of inspiration is the radical message at the heart of the Gospels. In the shadow of the Roman Empire, Jesus put the poor and those on the peripheries at the center of his ministry.
He rattled the righteous defenders of the religious law, scandalized many, and fulfilled the message of the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free . . . ”
In Bolivia, Pope Francis specifically anchored his denunciation of a corporate globalization that has lifted some boats but has done little for those languishing in the villas miseries of Buenos Aires and the favelas of Rio in this context. “This system runs counter to the plan of Jesus,” the pope said bluntly. “Working for a just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor is not mere philanthropy. It is a moral obligation. For Christians, the responsibility is even greater: it is a commandment.”
In Ecuador, the pope made it plain: “Our faith is always revolutionary.” 

A pope who upholds Catholic social teaching

If you have a problem with what Pope Francis is saying, your real problem is with the Hebrew prophets, Jesus of Nazareth, and a century of Catholic social teaching about the common good.
Some conservatives determined to paint Pope Francis as na├»ve and marginalize him as a Marxist have clear political motivations. “This pope grew up in a third world country that, frankly, is an example of what happens when you don’t have capitalism and democracy,” scoffed former ambassador Otto Reich, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs in the George W. Bush administration.
Rep. Paul Ryan, a Catholic who has mistakenly argued his budget proposals are consonant with his faith’s teachings, also strikes a condescending tone. “The guy is from Argentina,” Ryan told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in 2013. “They have crony capitalism in Argentina. They don’t have a true free enterprise system.” Leaving aside the stunning arrogance and myopia in those statements — Wall Street greed and criminal behavior get a free pass — these critiques are part of a larger effort to delegitimize the pope when it comes to economic justice.
Ryan and Co. conveniently ignore the fact that the Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to “sinful inequalities” that are “in open contradiction to the Gospel.” The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published by the Vatican under Pope John Paul II, states that “wealth exists to be shared” and that “evil is seen in the immoderate attachment to riches and the desire to hoard.”
This doesn’t make Pope Francis or the Catholic Church anti-market or anti-capitalist. Catholic teaching is clear that the economy should exist to serve human beings, not the other way around. Ever since Pope Leo XIII issued the church’s first social encyclical in 1891, at a time when the savage inequalities of the Industrial Revolution left workers with little protection against the whims of rapacious owners, the church has advocated for living wages, the need for unions, and prudent oversight of markets to ensure human dignity is not sacrificed on what Pope Francis has called “the altar of money.”
Pope John Paul II spoke about the “priority of labor over capital.” Pope Benedict XVI challenged the “scandal of glaring inequalities.” Francis is building on themes addressed by his predecessors, while clearly putting more institutional muscle behind inequality and social exclusion.
It’s true that Pope Francis is shaped by his experiences in Argentina, and his unique vision as the first non-European pontiff in over a millennium. This is an asset. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio earned a reputation for being the “Bishop of the Slums” for the considerable time he spent in the toughest sectors of town. During the 2002 Argentine debt crisis, along with other Catholic bishops, Bergoglio spoke out against fiscal austerity measures and pointed to “social exclusion, a growing gap between rich and poor, and . . . the negative consequences of globalization and the tyranny of markets.”
A pope who brings a perspective from the peripheries and aligns with the powerless knows his harshest critics are waiting for him in the United States. Expect the backlash to Pope Francis’ urgent pleas for action on climate change and inequality to heat up in the lead up to his visit. The most influential moral leader in the world today is calling out a status quo that political and financial elites benefit from at the expense of the poor. Those who prefer religion safe and sanitized — or relegated to issues of sexual morality — are on the defensive for good reason.
“Artists are here to disturb the peace,” the American writer James Baldwin once wrote. The same might apply to a pope bringing radical Christianity back to center stage.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Of Star Trek, Pope Francis & Encyclicals

HOMILY FOR THE 16th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, July 19, 2015:

Let me start with a classic line from TV history. Raise your hand if you know it. “Space, the final frontier…” Good, good. Now, keep your hand raised if you can finish the sentence: “…these are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its’ continuing mission to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Okay, you have all just outed yourselves, like me, as a scifi geek.

Now, yes, for the truly geeky among us, I like Star Wars too, but the thing I always preferred about Star Trek was the vision that Gene Roddenberry, its creator, had for a humanity that eventually got beyond all of the things that divide it; a humanity that became united for the common good. In this future Earth, there are no more wars, there is no more poverty or hunger, there is no more prejudice or racism, and we humanity lives in balance with the created world around it.

I have been thinking about my love for Star Trek this week as I’ve seen the spectacular photos NASA has released from the New Horizons probe on a survey mission to Pluto – the farthest mission for a human space craft yet. It has travelled more than three billion miles to get there. How’s that for a “strange new world”?

A priest-friend of mine earlier this week shared one of the Pluto photos on Instagram along with a beautiful quote from Psalm 8 that reads, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established;/what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?"

Believe it or not, all of this was leading me to think deeply about the encyclical of Pope Francis which came out just about a month ago called Laudato Si or Praised be You. I read an article a few weeks ago that was asking if many Catholics had heard a homily preached on this first great encyclical of the Holy Father, and many, sadly, had not. And I began to wonder why? I think that the answer lies in the way that a lot of coverage has focused on the document. It has been treated largely like something that was issued by the Environmental Protection Agency or GreenPeace, rather than a spiritual document by the reigning Pontiff of the Holy Catholic Church.

You see the media keeps calling the document the “Pope’s encyclical on the environment”. It is as if Pope Francis decided to use one of the highest levels of teaching authority in the Church to essentially say, “Don’t forget to recycle your bottles and cans. Please try to reduce the amount of water you use. And, oh yeah, big oil is bad.” Now, these things are in there and they are good, but that would be like reducing Star Trek to space ships, Klingons and transporters – all of those are in there (and they’re pretty cool), but if that’s all you see, you are missing the bigger vision. The Pope, too, has a bigger vision here for us.

For example, in Laudato Si (which takes its name, by the way, from a prayer of St. Francis praising God in all of creation), Pope Francis writes, “As Christians, we are called to accept the world as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and our neighbors on a global scale. It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet.” In this simple and yet profound statement, the Pope reminds us that we care for our common home, the Earth, not because it makes good environmental sense (although it does), but because the Earth is, in effect, a Church – it is the place where we meet God. The world is a sacrament of communion with God.

The Pope says, “Creatures tend towards God…Everything is interconnected, and this invites us to develop a spirituality of that global solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity.” The Holy Father continually returns to this two-fold theme that everything is created by God and therefore is a reflection of Him; and that because of this divine origin, we are all connected. This not only effects the environment, which we should treasure as a gift from God that has been entrusted to us, but it also effects the way that we relate to one another.

We can understand water, for example as a gift. We need it to live. We can appreciate it for its beauty. We enjoy it for our recreation. We understand its relation to the land and crops and growth. But, we don’t always understand one another as the same kind of gift from God that should likewise be treated as precious to us as it is to God. The Pope writes, “When human beings fail to find their true place in this world, they misunderstand themselves and end up acting against themselves.”

And so, my friends, just think of the many pressing, confusing or troubling issues that our world faces right now. If you are trying to understand how to respond to the legalization of gay marriage in our country, or to the transformation of Bruce Jenner to Caitlyn Jenner or anyone who is transgender. If you have been shocked or rocked by the shooting in Charleston a few weeks ago, the more recent one in Chattanooga this week. If you are dejected by the issues of racism that have reared their ugly heads so poignantly, so disappointedly once again especially over this past year. If you are struggling with what to make of our fractured, wounded and divided world – the Pope reminds us that this answer is our connectedness.

No matter the issue, we are being reminded once again that we are connected; that we are one; that we are sacrament; that we are communion. We are being reminded that everything in this world created by our God – the land and see, the earth and sky, the plants and animals – and so especially the people, all of the people – need to be treated with love and kindness, with compassion and mercy, with hope and joy. We are people of connection, communion and love, not judgment and condemnation. This is how we make the prayer of St. Francis our own – to be channels of peace who bring love where there is hatred, pardon where there is injury, faith where there is doubt.

So, my brothers and sisters, “Qapla”, success, and don’t forget to recycle your bottles and cans. And more importantly, don’t forget that every day and every moment; that every person and every encounter; that every breath, and tree and sunrise and sunset – are all experiences of God where the “divine and human meet” in the smallest occurrences of life.

May the Lord give you peace.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

A possible response from US Bishops on Gay Marriage

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to make history most likely tomorrow (Friday) or Monday on the issue of  gay marriage in the United States. Most of the speculation seems to favor that the action of the Supremes will in effect make same sex marriage legal across the United States.

This, just a month after the once lock-step Catholic bastion of Ireland became the first nation to approve gay marriage by referendum. After the approval of that referendum on the Emerald Isle, though, I was very impressed with the open and pastoral tone that was struck by Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin. Following the vote, he said, "We [the Church] have to stop and have a reality check, not move into denial of the realities. We won't begin again with a sense of renewal, with a sense of denial. I appreciate how gay and lesbian men and women feel on this day. That they feel this is something that is enriching the way they live. I think it is a social revolution."

The Archbishop also spoke about the Church's need to reach out in a new way to young people and to rethink the way our doctrine and theology are presented.

His response has me pondering, naturally, how will our bishops here in the United States respond in the days to come? Once again, this anticipated outcome of the Supremes will be an opportunity for the U.S. Church and I see basically two options.  Option one is to once again hunker down in battle mentality. The bishops can make proclamations about conspiracies and "gay agendas" and media manipulation and the triumph of the secular over the sacred.

But, I think the evidence is in on this approach and the conclusion is that it doesn't work. It doesn't lead anyone to Christ, to the Church, to a deepened relationship with the Lord. In fact, data would suggest that it has the exact opposite effect. A recent Pew study showed that the largest religious group increasing in the United States are those who are "not affiliated" to any Church or denomination. The group where most of these "nones" are leaving from is the Catholic Church. And among the chief reasons for the departure is the perceived "judgmental" attitude of the clergy/church officials. One of the key things that Pope Francis has showed us, I think, is that very often the problem is not the teaching of the Church, but the way that teaching is presented and the attitude of the presenters.

What Archbishop Martin did was to acknowledge something - he acknowledged his gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Ireland who were experiencing a significant moment in their lives and the life of their nation. He was acknowledging that they had experienced years of oppression and discrimination and so it was very natural for them to experience the referendum as a great moment of liberation. He acknowledged the reality as it was experienced right before him. That seems like an obvious statement, but it is one that needs to be stated because the problem is that too often, we don't see what is right before us and instead recast it into a narrative that better suits the story we want to shape. But, dialogue begins with acknowledging the reality of the other. It all starts there.

So, let's imagine Option Two. Here is another way that our U.S. Bishops could respond tomorrow or Monday if the Supreme Court makes same-sex marriage the law of the land.
A possible response of the U.S. Bishops: "Today, in a truly landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision, the result of which makes it legal for people of the same-sex to contract a legal marriage in the United States. To the extent that this decision represents the end of discrimination and oppression of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters as a group of people, we rejoice with them. The Catholic Church has long opposed discrimination under the law in all of its forms and we rejoice whenever such legal discrimination is cast aside in favor of progress toward the recognition of the equality of all people. We rejoice with those who welcome this movement of liberation. We understand that civil law is different than church law or theology, and our tradition as well as current and long-held theological understanding of the sacrament of marriage continues to be that sacramental marriage is a union between a man and a woman. But, we also understand the desire of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters to find long term, lasting, loving and committed relationships. The Church in recent years has struggled in its attempts to reconcile all of these positions in a coherent way that leads all her children to Christ without making some feel as though they are not welcome within our walls and our communities, or that we desire anything less than a full, happy and fulfilled life for them. What we ask of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters today is this: please, keep struggling with us; let's continue to dialogue together. We need you and hopefully, you need us too. Please continue to be active members of our parishes and communities and help us understand one another better and figure out how we all walk to Jesus together."
The Archbishop was right, "We have to stop and do a reality check." Our reality check would quickly show that the strategy of condemnation, finger-pointing and name-calling has done nothing more than close off the conversation, drive people away from the Church, and relegate our voice increasingly to the margin. Perhaps another strategy - the one that Jesus employed - might be called for: the strategy of respectful, open dialogue. It's time for option two. It's time to find common ground, recognize the good in others, begin by accepting them where they are, be open to a conversation, be able to state like Archbishop Martin that we at the very least understand why people might welcome this ruling, even if it isn't in line with our teaching. We are called to the attitude of Christ, "neither do I condemn you" and instead to be oases of compassion, love, joy, healing and mercy. It is then that we begin to be not just a community, but a family. It is then that we move forward together in Christ, towards Christ.

Let's see which option the bishops choose.

- FT

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The healing power of forgiveness in Charleston

The day before the brutal, hate-filled, racist killing of nine innocent people attending a Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston,  the Scriptures of the Catholic Mass gave us this Gospel passage from Matthew, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."  Little did we know that just the next day, our faith in that passage would be put to the test.

Newtown, Aurora, Fort Hood, Columbine, Virginia Tech, and more. While these tragic events are different each in their own way, I don't know about you, but I'm beginning to feel something like fatigue at what seems to be a repeating pattern every six months or a year or so of yet another horrific moment when evil raises its head yet again and strikes out at innocents followed by the cycle of recrimination and justification; mourning and weeping.

I pray that it will end. I pray that we will be renewed. I pray that we will find our way to a better reality - one where love conquers hate, light overtakes the darkness, goodness triumphs over evil, and we all find a way closer to each other as brothers and sisters.

But, then, in the face of such tragedy, people of faith can do amazing things that restore faith and hope and love. I think of the amazing power of reconciliation that we saw in 2006 among the Amish people in Nickle Mines, Pennsylvania. If you recall, in October of that year, a 32-year-old man held 10 school girls captive and horrifically killed them before turning the gun on himself. A moment that shocked the world and completely devastated these people.

But their reaction - born of their deep and abiding faith - was to forgive. They forgave the killer of their children and not only in word, but also in deed. Family members of the deceased, just days after burying their own children, attended the funeral of the man who took the lives of their own.

The mother of the shooter, spoke about that moment and said, "For the mother and father who had lost not just one but two daughters at the hand of our son, to come up and be the first ones to greet us...Is there anything in this life that we should not forgive?" She was so moved by this act of forgiveness that she continues to this day to go once a week to care for the most seriously wounded survivor of that day.

This extraordinary, beautiful and powerful forgiveness brought about a transcendence that lead that community to a true sense of healing so that life might go on, that they might move forward. It doesn't make the pain go away; it doesn't solve the problems that lead to the tragedy, but it does allow people to see one another precisely as people who are worthy of salvation, worthy of dignity, worthy of a new future - all because of the power of forgiveness.

Amazingly, we saw something of that again this week in Charleston. Just days after yet another senseless tragedy that took, this time, nine innocent lives of good and holy people studying God's Word in His house, we were humbled to hear these words from the loved one of a victim. The daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance who died at Mother Emanuel said, "I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you and have mercy on your soul. It hurts me, it hurts a lot of people, but God forgive you and I forgive you."

Another family member, the sister of Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49, said, "We have no room for hate. We have to forgive. I pray God on your soul."

When tragedy strikes, anger is the easy response and the quick response. Solutions - whether legal, political or societal - are also a fast way to direct our strong feelings into something constructive. These are all necessary responses and part of the process. 

But, a reconciliation born of faith takes time, it takes patience, it takes a willingness to be vulnerable in the face of evil and danger. It is also the only path that can bring about lasting change and true healing. Let us be reminded of that example from the Amish almost 10 years ago. Let us be inspired by these good, holy and brave survivors in Charleston who have the miraculous courage to proclaim forgiveness in this dark and painful moment. 

"Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."  If you've ever wondered what that looks like in practice, look no further than the Amish, look no further Charleston this week. 

Forgiveness transforms, it heals, it calls us higher, it makes us whole, it shows us and the world who God has truly called us to be. 

Let us all strive to do the same. It just might change the world. "...where there is injury, Lord, let me bring pardon."

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Kingdom of God is like a dandelion...and that's no joke

HOMILY FOR THE 11th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, June 14, 2015:

A young man considering a vocation with the Franciscans was invited to dinner at the local friary one evening. As dinner went on, from time-to-time, one of the friars would stand up and say a number and the rest of the friars would laugh hysterically. One stood up and said, “72,” and everyone laughed. Later, another stood and said, “149,” and again everyone laughed. Another stood and said, “14,” and again, everyone laughed. Confused, the young man asked the friar beside him what was going on. He answered, “Well, you see, we’ve all lived together for a long time. By now, we know each other jokes by heart, so we numbered them all to save time. Someone says a number and we remember the joke and laugh,” then he said, “Why don’t you give it a try. We have 300 jokes, just stand and say any number you like.” The young man stood tentatively and said, “107,” but this time there was nothing but silence. The man sat down sheepishly and asked the friar what went wrong. He said, “What can I tell you? Some people just can’t tell a joke.”

I was thinking of this today because I think there’s something like this going on in our Gospel. I think Jesus is telling us a bit of a joke, but I didn’t notice anyone laughing as I read it today. It was a classic case of the flop.

So, what’s the joke? Well, as we heard in the Gospel, Jesus asks the familiar question “To what shall we compare the Kingdom of God?” Now if you think about how you might answer that question, most of us would probably choose something amazing to compare the Kingdom of God to. We might choose, for example, the image we heard in our First Reading from Ezekial – the great and mighty cedar tree. This is an image that is used over and over again in the Old Testament and these were mighty trees. They were large and strong, they would soar into the sky as high as 200 feet. Standing at their base it might feel you could climb them all the way to Heaven. Certainly a worthy comparison to the Kingdom of God.


But, instead of something so majestic, Jesus said, “It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth.” And, I think this is his joke. Instead of a mighty cedar, Jesus is essentially comparing God’s kingdom to something like a weed; that’s what the mustard bush was after all. We might understand better if it were told like this: the Kingdom of God is like dandelion seed, which, when sown into your lawn....” As always, though, Jesus is telling His little joke to make a much bigger point. The point is that we may want the Kingdom of God to be like the beautiful, majestic cedar tree shooting all the way to Heaven itself, but the reality is that God’s Kingdom needs to be a little closer to earth; a little closer to our reality. And, the Kingdom of God needs to be persistent – ever try to get rid of those dandelions? The Kingdom of God will not simply arrive and remain forever. It will pop up over here, and then over there, and again over there. And, we need to be the ones continually planting those tiny little seeds of the Kingdom so it becomes present in our world.

We are the sowers of the seeds of the Kingdom of God. We help to bring forth that Kingdom when we commit ourselves to Kingdom values – peacemaking instead of discord, forgiveness instead of vengeance, reconciliation instead of revenge, justice instead of crookedness, generosity instead of greed. We are called to be sowers of that little seed; to make our own personal contribution to the presence and the growth of God’s Kingdom; and our personal contribution is incredibly important.

Kingdoms don’t grow by themselves. The seeds we sow in God’s name have enormous potential. They are the principles we hold dear, the loving witness that we give, the faithful promises we make and keep, the needy people we help to raise out of poverty, injustice or despair. They are the prayers we say, the children we welcome into relationship with Christ, the Holy Masses we celebrate, the hurts we forgive, the kindness we show, the family members, neighbors and even enemies we love and forgive. The seed can be all sorts of things – a listening ear, an encouraging word, a happy memory shared.

My friends, the seeds we plant will take root and grow and the presence of the Kingdom of God will be realized more and more each day in our midst if we remain persistent in spreading them. We are builders of the Kingdom of God and honored to partake in this great and wonderful and majestic work of Christ. And, that’s no joke. Bring forth the Kingdom of God!

May the Lord give you peace.

Friday, June 5, 2015

How Christians should REALLY respond to Caitlyn Jenner

Have I got your attention? I have been really struggling with wanting to say something about all of the coverage surrounding the recent transitioning of Bruce Jenner to Caitlyn Jenner.

Now, perhaps, like you, there is a lot here that I really don't understand. If I'm going to be completely honest, the experience of having a biological gender but experiencing that you are actually another gender, is so very far outside of my realm of experience, it really leaves me quite speechless.

But, what has troubled me at an even deeper level over especially this past week has been the response of far too many so-called Christians, and even those who are called forth to be leaders in the Christian community to this public announcement.

Over the course of the last week, I have come across blog posts or articles that have had titles like, "How Christians should respond to Caitlyn/Bruce Jenner" and some of them have even begun with some hope, but they have quickly descended into something that makes me question how anyone could ever think that these are Christian responses to anything.

Let me give you a sampling:

"You may want to write in your social media, 'This disgusts me.'" or "Bruce Jenner is not a woman. He is a sick and delusional man." These are the tamer ones because I won't give space here to the truly objectionable quotes.

Worse for me was an article I read about a high ranking U.S. Church official speaking at a conference this week on the sacred liturgy. He was speaking to a room full of devoted Catholics, devoted to the Church, devoted to the liturgy. Speaking to the crowd, he said that someone told him of a university that offered housing “for a grand total of 14 different gender identities. I’m sure even more will be invented as time goes on.” The crowd of Christians, it is reported, laughed. They laughed.

Speaking of the Jenner situation, he said that when culture no longer respects the natural law in regards to gender the natural conclusion is that this will lead us to the  "paganism of old" with "the practice of child sacrifice, the worship of feminine deities, or the cult of priestesses."

Putting aside the, at best, challenging logic of that claim, how is any of this the way that a Christian should respond? Condemnations, accusations, and laughter. What, Sweet Jesus, would You do?

I watched the Diane Sawyer interview a few weeks ago, and again, I state that I am really confused about the whole issue of what's really going on when someone is experiencing what they call transgender disorder. What I was not confused about at all was this - the experience of Bruce Jenner's life up until now, the last 65 years, has been an experience of pain, difficulty, confusion and often depression.  It has harmed his ability to form and maintain good, open, fully honest relationships.

What all of this has engendered in me has been compassion. I feel so sad for anyone who goes through their life feeling this terrible disconnect between who they are on outside and who they feel they are on the inside - no matter the reason, no matter the cause. I cannot imagine what pain that must be to endure.

It also made me feel some sense of relief for Caitlyn that she can finally feel as though she can begin to address the situation of her life openly and honestly. There must be a tremendous liberation in that experience for her. (And for those of you who might be wondering why I'm using "she" and "Caitlyn" it is because no matter what my own personal feelings or struggles with the issue might be - I see the person first, and respect their own inherent, God-given dignity. It is a respect every person deserves.)

Please show me the passage in Scripture where Jesus says, "No, I don't think so. I don't accept you. Try again. I reject you." I'll give you a few moments to go look that one up....

Are you back? Good. I'm sure what you found was that Jesus always meets people where they are at - with love, with compassion, with joy. Jesus sees the person before Him. He loves that person - not some idealized or future perfect version - the person before Him as is. And, so should we.

Why is it that in the world of social media, those who don't claim to know Jesus have been the ones responding with love, support, care and compassion; and so many of those who do claim to know Jesus have been responding with judgment, contempt, condemnation, or worse? And we wonder why people find a disconnect between the Gospel and what they experience from the followers of Jesus?

The response that Christians REALLY should have is this:

Be people of prayer - pray for Caitlyn and people like her who find themselves in what has to be a very difficult situation. Pray that they experience God's presence in their struggle.

Be people of compassion - this is a very good general rule for us followers of Christ, by the way. The world needs our presence to be one of kind compassion. Let's not be quick to judge. Imagine if we were as quick to offer compassion as we are to offer condemnation.

Be people who listen - imagine what we can learn by listening to the experiences of other people; these experiences that are so very different, perhaps, than our own. Listening helps us to learn, it helps us to become more compassionate, it helps us to see the other as a person.

Be open and welcoming - imagine the difference we could make in people's lives if they felt closer to God, closer to Christ, closer to the Church by feeling as though they were welcome in our midst, welcome to be part of our life of prayer and community. Pope Francis said just yesterday, "The Eucharist is not the prize for the strong." Imagine the benefits of a full sacramental life for people in struggle.

Be who we are called to be - that's the heart of it. They will know we are Christians by our love. Unfortunately, especially in the public sphere, that doesn't seem to be what we show. I know how loving our Christian communities are. I was formed by them. I live in them and I thrive in them. I want the rest of the world, especially those who need us, to know this too. Let's show them how we love.

I'll give you one blog post that did have a good answer, "Jesus wasn't the one to turn away from those the world had labeled broken. He was the one who would walk towards them with open arms."

Let's respond as Jesus would respond - with mercy and compassion; with love and joy - with arms open wide.

May the Lord give you peace.

- Fr. Tom

Sunday, May 3, 2015

“You only love God as much as the person you love least.”

HOMILY FOR THE 5th SUNDAY OF EASTER, May 3, 2015:

NOTE: I offered this homily for our men in formation in Boston this morning

“You only love God as much as the person you love least.” As you know, Fr. Mike and I were in Washington on Friday night for the 25th anniversary gala of Franciscan Mission Service. This quote by Dorothy Day was shared by one of the young adults who received the San Damiano Award for her service to the poor. “You only love God as much as the person you love least.” Let that one sink in a little bit as we focus in on our readings today.

As much as the Easter season is about Jesus and His resurrection, this season so often is also about another central figure, Saul who becomes Paul – and, not coincidentally the effect of resurrection, or the effect of encountering the Resurrected One, in his life. We hear a lot about Paul in the Acts of the Apostles which have such a prominent place in our Easter readings, and of course, we always hear a lot from him, as his letters to the various churches he establishes are read just about every Sunday throughout the year.

As I was reflecting on today’s readings, this point about resurrection really struck me. Just think about our passage from Acts. At this moment, Paul – still known as Saul — was a fresh convert to the faith and newly arrived from Damascus. I hope your ears perked up like mine did at the beginning of the passage: “they were all afraid of him.” Isn’t that stunning? The early Christians knew who this guy was and what he did– he was a persecutor, a Christian-hunter. It’s fair to say that, among the Christians in Jerusalem Paul probably wasn’t very popular. Nobody trusted him. They even feared for their lives just because he was there. The beginning of the Chapter puts it even more dramatically. It says, before his conversion, “Saul, still breathing murderous threats against the disciples.” This was one mean guy.

“You only love God as much as the person you love least.” This very mean Saul is not who usually comes to mind when we think of the great saint. So, what happened? Well, his conversion moment, of course, his direct encounter with Jesus. But, what else? Well, there was also one person in the community of believers who saw something more. That person was Barnabas. Barnabas believed in Paul’s conversion – and believed in him. Today’s reading says he “took charge” of Paul. But Biblical scholars think it was more than that. One commentator has suggested that there would not even be a Paul if there wasn’t first a Barnabas – someone who after that tremendous moment of conversion became a mentor and guide, a friend and confidant; but also a figure who must have had great courage, and patience, and perseverance. In other words: Barnabas was someone who personified Christian love. “You only love God as much as the person you love least.”

Years later, when Paul wrote his now famous passage to the Corinthians about love, the one we usually apply only to marriage and weddings – how it bears all things, hopes all things, and never fails – I believe, he was really talking about this. Not something romantic or flowery. But something that is a gift of self, that demands sacrifice and faith. That is unafraid and steadfast. That is willing to risk. Willing, even, to see beyond someone’s past; even a horrible and violent past like Saul’s. In other words: a love willing to “believe all things” – even to believe that a lowly tentmaker from Tarsus, a man who was a sinner and persecutor, might have the potential to be a saint. “You only love God as much as the person you love least.”

Let me share one more detail with you about our good Barnabas. Barnabas is not the name he was born with. His given name was Joseph. But just as Saul became Paul, he, too, was given a new name by the Christian community to symbolize his new life in Christ. He was given the name Barnabas, a name which translated means, “Son of Encouragement.” Encouragement is what he gave to the growing community of Christians – and it surely describes what he offered to Saul and he grew into the Saint Paul we have come to revere.

To offer encouragement means to support and uplift. It is taking time to give of self – to give a hand to hold, a shoulder for support, an ear to listen, a voice to calm all doubts and erase all fears. It is to love like Christ loves. To see beyond sin into holiness. This is the effect of resurrection. It will raise us not only on the last day, but it can raise us on this day too – right out of whatever weighs us down.

“You only love God as much as the person you love least.” Barnabas, the Son of Encouragement, loved a man that “they were all afraid of”, a man who “breathed murderous threats against them” and he loved and encouraged him into a saintly life.

My brothers, let us pray today that we too might be Sons of Encouragement – for each other, for those we struggle with, for those who seem to need that love and encouragement more than anyone else. “You only love God as much as the person you love least.” Let the person we love least, be the person we love most and then we will be loving the way that God loves, and we will be encouraging as Barnabas encouraged, we too will be Sons of Encouragement and making our way to Heaven.

May the Lord give you peace.

Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church "cool" | Washington Post

NOTE: This is a great argument on being true to ourselves as a Church and the power of our worship. What moved me most is when the writer says, "What brought me back to the church was the sacraments." I would only add, that the challenge for our churches is not to make them more flashy or relevant, but they must be done well! - FT

 April 30 | Washington Post
Rachel Held Evans is a blogger and the author of “Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church.”
Bass reverberates through the auditorium floor as a heavily bearded worship leader pauses to invite the congregation, bathed in the light of two giant screens, to tweet using #JesusLives. The scent of freshly brewed coffee wafts in from the lobby, where you can order macchiatos and purchase mugs boasting a sleek church logo. The chairs are comfortable, and the music sounds like something from the top of the charts. At the end of the service, someone will win an iPad.
This, in the view of many churches, is what millennials like me want. And no wonder pastors think so. Church attendance has plummeted among young adults. In the United States, 59 percent of people ages 18 to 29 with a Christian background have, at some point, dropped out. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, among those of us who came of age around the year 2000, a solid quarter claim no religious affiliation at all, making my generation significantly more disconnected from faith than members of Generation X were at a comparable point in their lives and twice as detached as baby boomers were as young adults.
In response, many churches have sought to lure millennials back by focusing on style points: cooler bands, hipper worship, edgier programming, impressive technology. Yet while these aren’t inherently bad ideas and might in some cases be effective, they are not the key to drawing millennials back to God in a lasting and meaningful way. Young people don’t simply want a better show. And trying to be cool might be making things worse.
You’re just as likely to hear the words “market share” and “branding” in church staff meetings these days as you are in any corporate office. Megachurches such as Saddleback in Lake Forest, Calif., and Lakewood in Houston have entire marketing departments devoted to enticing new members. Kent Shaffer of ChurchRelevance.com routinely ranks the bestlogos and Web sites and offers strategic counsel to organizations like Saddleback and LifeChurch.tv.
Increasingly, churches offer sermon series on iTunes and concert-style worship services with names like “Vine” or “Gather.” The young-adult group at Ed Young’s Dallas-based Fellowship Church is called Prime, and one of the singles groups at his father’s congregation in Houston is calledVertical. Churches have made news in recent years for giving away tablet computers , TVs and even cars at Easter. Still, attendance among young people remains flat.
My friend and blogger Amy Peterson put it this way: “I want a service that is not sensational, flashy, or particularly ‘relevant.’ I can be entertained anywhere. At church, I do not want to be entertained. I do not want to be the target of anyone’s marketing. I want to be asked to participate in the life of an ancient-future community.”
Millennial blogger Ben Irwin wrote: “When a church tells me how I should feel (‘Clap if you’re excited about Jesus!’), it smacks of inauthenticity. Sometimes I don’t feel like clapping. Sometimes I need to worship in the midst of my brokenness and confusion — not in spite of it and certainly not in denial of it.”
When I left church at age 29, full of doubt and disillusionment, I wasn’t looking for a better-produced Christianity. I was looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity: I didn’t like how gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people were being treated by my evangelical faith community. I had questions about science and faith, biblical interpretation and theology. I felt lonely in my doubts. And, contrary to popular belief, the fog machines and light shows at those slick evangelical conferences didn’t make things better for me. They made the whole endeavor feel shallow, forced and fake.
While no two faith stories are exactly the same, I’m not the only millennial whose faith couldn’t be saved by lacquering on a hipper veneer. Accordingto Barna Group, among young people who don’t go to church, 87 percent say they see Christians as judgmental, and 85 percent see them as hypocritical. A similar study found that “only 8% say they don’t attend because church is ‘out of date,’ undercutting the notion that all churches need to do for Millennials is to make worship ‘cooler.’ ”
In other words, a church can have a sleek logo and Web site, but if it’s judgmental and exclusive, if it fails to show the love of Jesus to all, millennials will sniff it out. Our reasons for leaving have less to do with style and image and more to do with substantive questions about life, faith and community. We’re not as shallow as you might think.
If young people are looking for congregations that authentically practice the teachings of Jesus in an open and inclusive way, then the good news is the church already knows how to do that. The trick isn’t to make church cool; it’s to keep worship weird.
You can get a cup of coffee with your friends anywhere, but church is the only place you can get ashes smudged on your forehead as a reminder of your mortality. You can be dazzled by a light show at a concert on any given weekend, but church is the only place that fills a sanctuary with candlelight and hymns on Christmas Eve. You can snag all sorts of free swag for brand loyalty online, but church is the only place where you are named a beloved child of God with a cold plunge into the water. You can share food with the hungry at any homeless shelter, but only the church teaches that a shared meal brings us into the very presence of God.
What finally brought me back, after years of running away, wasn’t lattes or skinny jeans; it was the sacraments. Baptism, confession, Communion, preaching the Word, anointing the sick — you know, those strange rituals and traditions Christians have been practicing for the past 2,000 years. The sacraments are what make the church relevant, no matter the culture or era. They don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.
My search has led me to the Episcopal Church, where every week I find myself, at age 33, kneeling next to a gray-haired lady to my left and a gay couple to my right as I confess my sins and recite the Lord’s Prayer. No one’s trying to sell me anything. No one’s desperately trying to make the Gospel hip or relevant or cool. They’re just joining me in proclaiming the great mystery of the faith — that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again — which, in spite of my persistent doubts and knee-jerk cynicism, I still believe most days.
One need not be an Episcopalian to practice sacramental Christianity. Even in Christian communities that don’t use sacramental language to describe their activities, you see people baptizing sinners, sharing meals, confessing sins and helping one another through difficult times. Those services with big screens and professional bands can offer the sacraments, too.
But I believe that the sacraments are most powerful when they are extended not simply to the religious and the privileged, but to the poor, the marginalized, the lonely and the left out. This is the inclusivity so many millennials long for in their churches, and it’s the inclusivity that eventually drew me to the Episcopal Church, whose big red doors are open to all — conservatives, liberals, rich, poor, gay, straight and even perpetual doubters like me.
Church attendance may be dipping, but God can survive the Internet age. After all, He knows a thing or two about resurrection.