Saturday, December 24, 2011

“See here, this boy was born and that changed everything.”

I don’t know how many of you read the comic strip, Family Circus, but I’m a big fan. Just a few years ago, there was a great Christmas scene. In it, the young girl, Dolly, was sharing with her two young brothers the story of Christmas. Here is how she recounted it, “Mary and Joseph were camping out under a star in the East…It was a Silent Night in Bethlehem until the angels began to sing…then Santa brought Baby Jesus in his sleight and laid Him in a manger… Chestnuts were roasting by an open fire and not a creature was stirring…so the Grinch stole some swaddling clothes from the Scrooge – who was one of the three wise men riding on eight tiny reindeer.” And then Dolly says to her brother, “Pay attention, Jeffy, or you’ll never learn the story of Christmas!”

Although Dolly got the details a bit mixed up, she’s right – if we don’t pay attention we might just miss the real story of Christmas. There is so much in this season that can distract us from what is real. We get caught up in holiday parties, last minute shopping, and all of the frenzy that seems to come with this time of year. Unless we truly pay attention – with our hearts and our minds – we may miss the importance of this day.

As I was preparing for today’s Christmas Mass, a movie scene came to mind. It is from Steven Speilberg movie of a number of years ago called, Amistad. This movie is about a group of slaves who were able to win their freedom from slavery in the Supreme Court long before slavery was abolished in this country. It is a powerful movie. But, there is one point in the movie when a slave is given a copy of the Bible by an Abolitionist. The slaves, though, speak no English and have never heard of Jesus Christ and so he doesn’t know what this book is. But, this version of the Bible had pictures in it. The man was fascinated looking at these pictures. At one point in the film, two of the slaves are sitting alone in their jail cell, waiting. One slave thinks that the other one carries the book everywhere simply to impress people and he says to the one looking at the Bible, “No one is watching you here, you can put the book down.” The other one responds saying, “No, I think I have figured out the story.” Pointing to the pictures he says, “See, here, things were very bad for these people, it was a dark time, and they were oppressed. Worse even than us.” He flips a page to the scene at the manger in Bethlehem, “But, see here, this boy was born and that changed everything.” Referring to the drawing which depicts Christ with a halo he said, “You can see that he was very important, even the sun followed him where ever he went.”

“See here, this boy was born and that changed everything.” My friends, this is the great message of the feast we gather here to celebrate today. With the birth of Jesus, everything is changed – for our world and for each of us. In the midst of all the hustle and bustle of this season, we can be like little Jeffy and fail to learn the true story of Christmas. Our world can tempt us to lose sight of what we gather here to celebrate – the incredible reality that our God became one of us; the Lord of the Universe so humbled Himself to be born a defenseless little child. We need to remember always that nothing can ever take away the wonder of that event.

We often find ourselves looking for signs. We want God to show us the way, to give us a sign that he loves us. In my own life, when I was praying about my vocation to the priesthood, I was trying to decide if God was really calling me. I would often hear other young men talk about how God had told them this, or how they received a sign for that. I went to church one day to pray and I was a little angry with God, demanding a sign. I prayed, “God, why can’t you give me a sign? Is that too much to ask for God?” After leaving the Church, I was driving home when all of a sudden I passed a billboard that said, “Are you looking for a sign from God?” Now, the rest of that sign read, “Join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.” I didn’t take that sign literally to mean I should become a Mormon, but rather to stop asking for such things from God because He’s already given to each of us the greatest sign possible – His Son.

Today we celebrate this great sign – God Himself, in the form of a little baby born in a humble manger; the Light of the World that shone in the darkness; the Word become Flesh; the Savior of US ALL. We hear in John’s Gospel, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” No matter what trials we have in our personal lives, in our relationships, marriages, in our families, our work lives, this Son of God has come to triumph over them all. He can make everything right again in our lives. His Light can shine in our darkness – if we let him.

That is why we celebrate this day with such joy. We gather to hear this Good News of great joy that God showers on the world at Christmas. But, we still need to do something so that we can experience this joy in our lives, in our families, and in our world more personally.

How do we do that? The answer is in the word “JOY” itself. Just look at it. It’s a small word – just three letters: first J, then O, and lastly Y. Well, let me propose tonight that the J stands for Jesus, the O for Others, and the Y for You. So, to know joy in our lives is simple. Just live in such a way that Jesus and Others always come before You. Place Jesus, the Babe of Bethlehem, first in everything. When we place Jesus first, He encourages us to place others before ourselves. And that is the recipe for true joy. That is how we can convert the Christmas “Joy to the world” into a personal “Joy in our lives” now and always.

So, even as we hear the great story of Christmas tonight, we see this principle in action - those who practice J-O-Y are the ones who enjoy peace and joy, and that those who practice “me first” are always the unhappy and miserable ones. Just look at the shepherds who leave everything they own and their flock in the fields to go adore Jesus first. Or the wise men from the East who leave the security of their homeland and make a long and dangerous journey to Bethlehem just to worship the new-born Jesus and bring him gifts. They are the one's who receive God's favor, they are the ones who experience in their hearts the true peace and the true JOY of Christmas.

My brothers and sisters, today – this Christmas – let us resolve to follow their good example by always being people of JOY – placing Jesus and others before ourselves and then the true joy of Christmas will always be ours. This is the Christmas story that we all must learn by heart, in our hearts.

“Behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”

My friends, “See here, this boy was born and that changed everything.”

On behalf of Fr. Giles, Deacon Ernie, and our parish staff, let me wish you all a happy and holy Christmas!
Merry Christmas and may the Lord give you peace.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Have a Mary Christmas!

Three sons lived far from home and weren’t able to get home for Christmas. Instead, they arranged for their elderly mother to receive some special gifts. The first built a big house for his mother. The second sent her a brand new Mercedes Benz. But the third son smiled and said, “I’ve got them both beat. Mom is such a holy woman, she loves reading the Bible. But, now, her eyesight is so bad she can’t read it anymore. I sent her a remarkable parrot that recites the entire Bible. It took the monks 12 years to teach him. He’s one of a kind. Mom just has to name the chapter and verse, and the parrot recites it.” Soon after Christmas, the mother sent out her letter of thanks: “Dear Milton,” she wrote one son, “The house you built is too big. I live in only one room, but I have to keep the whole house clean!” “Dear Gerald,” she wrote the second, “I am too old to travel. I stay at home most of the time, so I rarely use the Mercedes.” “My Dearest Donald,” she wrote to her third son, “You have the good sense to know what your Mother likes. The chicken was delicious!”

Anyone who’s read a newspaper or watched a news broadcast knows that the annual Christmas Wars are upon us. Lots of commentary on whether or not to say “Merry Christmas” or what kind of tree stands in a town square. Even the comedians get in on this with their combination of all religious holidays into one generic greeting, “Happy Chrismahanukwanzakah.” Try and say that 10 times fast. Now, I generally don’t enter this battle mostly because I don’t look to politicians, secular settings or department stores to help me live my spiritual life – I look to the Church, of course, I’m going to wish people a Merry Christmas.

Not only that, but for me, I want our celebration to be not generic, but even more distinctly Catholic. A few years ago, someone had shown me some handmade Christmas cards that young people in my parish had made to send to military personnel overseas. One of the cards, made by a first grader read, “Have a ‘Mary’ Christmas.” Notice the difference, I didn’t say “Merry” m-e-r-r-y, but “Mary,” m-a-r-y. Now, I think this was actually just a spelling error, but the more I think of that card, especially with today’s Gospel passage, I thought, this is a good Catholic greeting for this season. Never mind the generic “Happy Holidays,” how about the extremely Catholic “Mary Christmas.”

Reflecting on today’s Gospel, we realize this season is really about Mary perhaps as much as it is about Jesus. First and foremost, Mary is the only woman in all of human history to be given the unique distinction - the almost incomprehensible distinction - of being the Mother of God. And by wishing a Mary Christmas we are being reminded that we are called to be just like Mary in the way that we welcome the Christ child into our lives and into our world.

Some children were preparing a Christmas play. Little Cynthia was assigned the part of Mary, but she wanted to change parts with her friend, who was playing an angel. When asked why, she said, “Because it is easier to be an angel than to be the Mother of Christ.” The little girl is certainly right. To be the mother of Christ is no small matter. Yet difficult as it sounds, that is exactly what we are all called to be. In fact, we could say that even though Jesus was born in Bethlehem, his real desire is to be born not once in a limited place and time, but to be born over and over again in the hearts of all believers.

“Mother of Christ” is a title we usually reserve for Mary. But Mary is mother of Christ in two senses. She is mother of Christ in the physical sense. She carried Jesus in her womb and gave birth to him. This is an unrepeatable event and an honor that no other human being could share with her. But she is also mother of Christ in a spiritual sense; and in this spiritual sense the role of being mother of Christ is available to all Christians. We all can and should become mothers of Christ. The idea of Christians called to be mothers of Christ is very common among Christian mystics. The mystic, Meister Eckhart, said that God made the human soul to bear the divine Son, and that when this birth happens it gives God greater pleasure than the creation of heaven and earth.

What is this spiritual motherhood of Christ and how does it happen? Well, in Matthew’s Gospel, we hear, “While [Jesus] was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’”

This passage shows us that Jesus expects His followers to be not only His brothers and sisters but His mothers as well, and the way to be the mother of Jesus is by doing the will of God. Spiritual motherhood of Christ is attained by saying “yes” to God, even when God appears to demand from us what is humanly impossible, like asking Mary to be a virgin mother. To become mothers of Christ we need to make the prayer of Mary our own prayer: “Let it be done to me according to your word.”

This prayer of Mary has been known as the world’s greatest prayer. It is the prayer that brought God down from heaven to dwell in the soul and body of a young woman. It is the prayer that brought about the greatest event in human history, God becoming human in Jesus. It is a prayer that changed forever the course of human history some 2,000 years ago. It is the prayer that can change forever the course of our own personal history today and everyday if only we say it, pray it and mean it.

Yes, little Cynthia was right. It is not easy to be the mother of Christ. But in today’s Gospel Mary shows us how. It is in hearing God’s word and saying yes to God even when His will seems to go against all our plans for the future. As Christmas draws so very near, Mary reminds us that the best Christmas, in fact the only true Christmas, is when Christ is born not in the little town of Bethlehem so long ago, but in the very depths of our hearts today and every day.

May God give you peace and may you all have a very Mary Christmas.

Christmas Cookie Recipe (Third Revised Edition)

Note: Now that the Third Edition of the Roman Missal is in use, the International Commission on English in the Liturgy and Vox Clara have some time on their hands.  They thought it might be useful to offer an updated translation of the classic Christmas Cookie recipe from the original Latin:

Serves: you and many

Cream these ingredients, that by their comingling you may begin to make the dough: 1 chalice butter, 2/3 chalice sugar

In a similar way, when the butter is consubstantial with the sugar, beat in: 1 egg

Gather these dry ingredients to yourself and combine them, so that you may add them to the dough which you have already begun to make: 2 1/2 chalices sifted all purpose flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon vanilla

Mix the precious dough with your venerable hands.

Into the refrigerator graciously place the dough so that it may be chilled, for the duration of 3 or 4 hours, before the rolling and cutting of the cookies.

When, in the fullness of time, you are ready to bake these spotless cookies, these delicious cookies, these Christmas cookies, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Roll out the dough and taking up a cookie cutter or stencil of your choosing, fashion the cookies into pleasing forms.

Sprinkle colorful adornments over cookies like the dewfall.

Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the cookies have just begun to manifest the brownness that is vouchsafed to them by the oven's heat.

May these cookies be found acceptable in your sight, and be borne to a place of refreshment at your table, there to be served with milk or hot chocolate, or with your spirits.

(This originally appeared in Commonweal Magazine.)

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Messiah is among you!

HOMILY FOR THE THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT, Gaudete Sunday, December 11, 2011:
Patrick went to the mall to do his shopping just two days before Christmas. He drove around the parking lot for an eternity, but there wasn’t a space to be found. Finally, he prayed, “Lord, you know that I haven’t really practiced my faith in many years, but if you find me a parking spot I promise I’ll stop swearing, give up whiskey and gambling and I’ll go to church every Sunday!” Suddenly, lightning flashed and a parking space opened up right in front of him! And Patrick looked up to heaven and said, “Never mind, Lord. I found one.”

There is a story about a certain monastery that was going through a time of crisis. Some of the monks had left the monastery; no new candidates joined them in years; and people were no longer coming for prayer and spiritual direction as they used to. The few monks that remained became old, depressed and bitter in their relationship with one another. But, the abbot heard about a holy man; a hermit living alone in the woods and decided to consult him. He told the hermit how bad things had become and that only seven old monks remained. Praying on this, the hermit told the abbot that he has a secret for him: one of the monks currently living in his monastery was actually the Messiah, but He was living in such a way that no one could recognize Him.

With this revelation the abbot returned to his monastery, and recounted what the holy hermit told him to the community. The aging monks looked at each other in disbelief, trying to discern who among them could be the Christ. Could it be Brother Mark who prays all the time? But he has a holier-than-thou attitude toward others. Could it be Bother Joseph who is always ready to help? But he is always eating and cannot fast. The abbot reminded them that the Messiah had adopted some bad habits as a way of disguising His true identity. This only made them more confused and they could not figure out who was Christ among them. At the end of the meeting what each one knew for sure was that any of the monks, excepting himself, could be Christ.

From that day the monks began to treat one another with greater respect and humility, knowing that the person they were speaking to could, in fact, be Christ. They began to show more love for one another, their common life became more brotherly and their common prayer more fervent. Slowly people began to take notice of the new spirit in the monastery and began coming back for retreats and spiritual direction. Word began to spread and, before you know it, candidates began to show up and the monastery began to grow again in number as the monks grew in zeal and holiness. All this because a man of God drew their attention to a simple truth: that Christ was living in their midst as one of them.

Advent is, of course, a time to prepare for the coming of the Lord: recalling His coming to us as a Baby at Christmas; and His coming to us collectively at the end of time. Now, suppose that we were told, like the monks in our story, that the Christ whom we are waiting for is already here in our midst as one of us, what difference would that make?

In today’s Gospel John the Baptist tries to announce the same powerful message to the Jews of his time who were anxiously awaiting the coming of the Messiah. John tells them: “There is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.”

The reason the Jews of Jesus’ time could not recognize Him as the Messiah is that they had definite ideas on how the Messiah was going to come. The Messiah would suddenly descend from heaven in His divine power and majesty and establish His reign by physically destroying the enemies of Israel. No one would know where He came from, humanly speaking, because He came from God. So when finally Jesus came born of a woman like every other person, they could not recognize Him. He was too ordinary, too unimpressive, and so, for too many – they missed the very presence of God right in front of them.

The challenge remains to this day for us as well. We too have our definite expectations of what the presence of God in our midst should look like. This might be different for each one of us. And, it is good for us to anticipate God in our midst. But, not to the exclusion of seeing God as He is right in front of us in Word, in Sacrament, and perhaps where we miss Him most often - in ourselves and in every man, every woman we meet. After all, this is what our new translation of the Mass hopes we will see more clearly when we respond, “And with your spirit,” a recognition of God’s presence in those around us.

A group of young children were asked to answer the question: what is love? They gave many interesting answers, for example, 5 year-old Karl answered, “Love is when a girl puts on perfume and a boy puts on cologne and they go out and smell each other.” But, my favorite answer came from 7 year-old Bobby who said, “Love is what's in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen.”

We all know that “love” is just another word for God. St. John reminds us that “God is love and all who dwell in love dwell in God and God in them.” So, as our Christmas preparations perhaps take on a more hectic pace in these next few weeks, I have a secret for you, one of the members of our community is actually the Messiah, but they are living in such a way that they aren’t quickly recognized. So, how will we recognize this Godly presence in our midst? Let me paraphrase young Bobby and say that God is in our midst when we stop the hustle-and-bustle and just listen expecting to find Him all around us.

“There is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.” My friends, do you see what I see? Let us all pray that God will continue to open our eyes, our minds, our hearts, our very lives to see His presence in us and around us today, as we approach the Feast of Christmas, and always.

May the Lord give you peace.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Born free!

You may be familiar with the book or movie, The Song of Bernadette. It is the true story of 14 year old Bernadette Soubirous, who in 1858 reported having an apparition of the Blessed Virgin on a hillside outside of the village of Lourdes in France. At first, the authorities scoffed at her claims and even threatened to punish her if she did not stop speaking of the story. Then one day, the apparition told Bernadette to dig into the ground. She obeyed and a spring of water bubbled up. Soon miracles began to occur at this spring. A blind man washed in the waters and regained his sight. A mother washed her paralyzed baby in the waters and it became well within 24 hours. Years after Bernadette’s death, the same child, now an old man of 77, was an honored guest at her canonization in Rome. Today, literally thousands of cures are on file at the Medical Bureau in Lourdes.

One of the things that Mary said to Bernadette during an apparition was, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” The 14 year old girl wasn’t too sure what these words meant, but every adult knew their meaning. Just four years earlier, on December 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX, defined as Catholic doctrine the traditional teaching of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. This teaching goes back to the early days of Christianity. It says simply that Mary was untouched by original sin from the very moment of her conception in the womb of her mother Ann, and she remained that way the rest of her life.

The teaching of the Immaculate Conception finds its support in Sacred Scripture. For example, in today’s second reading we heard , “he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him.” And in today’s Gospel, the angels says to Mary, “Peace be with you! The Lord is with you and has greatly blessed you!” It is not surprising that God preserved Mary from sin. After all, she was to be the mother of His Son. What is more fitting than for the Son of God to be born of a sinless mother.

There is a story that may help us appreciate better how Mary could be born without sin while everyone else is born a slave to sin. At one point in history, many Christians were captured in battle and sold as slaves to non-Christian countries. These enslaved Christians had children and because they were slaves, their children were also doomed to live as slaves. In time it became a practice among Christians to purchase the freedom of these children born of slave parents. And sometimes that purchase was arranged before the child was born – or even conceived. In other words, even though the child was conceived and born of slave parents, it was free. Its freedom had been purchased in advance.

We may look upon Mary’s birth in a similar way. Even though Mary was born of parents enslaved by original sin, she was born free. God’s grace, of which Mary was full of, had purchased her freedom in advance – even before her conception.

This freedom is not reserved to Mary alone. Unfortunately for us, we were not so graced as to be born without original sin. But, instead for us, what God gave Mary through birth, is offered to us through Grace and faith in Jesus Christ. As we prayed in our Opening Prayer, “as you preserved her” so too may we “be cleansed and admitted to your presence.” Mary’s grace can be ours through the Sacrifice of her Son, through our membership in His Church availing ourselves of the saving Sacraments He bestowed upon us and our imitation of Mary’s life, saying our own personal yes to God at every moment.

We American Catholics have always had a special devotion to Mary under this title of the Immaculate Conception. It was to Mary, under this title, that we dedicated our country in the early days of our nation’s history. And so today we celebrate the Solemnity with special joy and gratitude as it is in a special way “our” feast. And so let us conclude with a special prayer to Mary today. It is the prayer that was prayed daily by the sailors on board the ships of Christopher Colombus during the voyage that resulted in the discovery of our great country. Each night at sunset the crew would gather on deck for evening prayers. These prayers would always end in the singing, in Latin, of the Salve Regina. Many of us are familiar with the English translation of this prayer. Please say it along with me if you know it:

Hail, Holy Queen, mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness, our hope.
To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve.
To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.
Turn the, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy towards us,
and after this, our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
O Clement, O Loving, O Sweet Virgin Mary.
Pray for us, O holy Mother of God,
that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

May our Blessed Mother pray for us; and may the Lord give us peace.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Worth the wait!

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 can tell a joke, some can’t.” (Special thanks to Fr. James Martin for this joke.  His new book Between Heaven and Mirth makes a great Christmas gift!) 

We hear this familiar command in our Scriptures from both Isaiah and John the Baptist today, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” It’s certainly appropriate as this is, after all, a season of preparation. We are preparing ourselves for the celebration of Christmas, the great feast of God’s Incarnation as one of us; and we await His future return to us at the End of Time.

But, what kind of waiting do we do as we approach Christmas? Well, first and foremost, it must be a purposeful waiting. In life we are certainly used to waiting. Just think of the hours spent waiting in traffic, or time spent waiting in line at stores – especially at this time of year. These forms of waiting are not exactly purposeful. More often than not, they’re not worth the wait. Just think of department stores this time of year. I know for myself, I’ll inevitably end up waiting in a long line at the check out. While waiting I’ll usually take a look at what I plan on purchasing and ask a simple question of myself – is it worth the wait? Often enough, I’ll decide it isn’t worth the wait and put down what I have a leave the store.

During Advent, we ask the same question – is it worth the wait – but with a very different answer. It is in fact worth the wait because instead of a frustrating waiting with undefined benefit, our Scripture today call us to wait in an effective and purposeful way. They give us something to do in our waiting, we are to “Prepare the way of the Lord.” The readings put before us some examples of waiting purposefully. We have of course, Isaiah and John the Baptist who both offer us a waiting that involves reform of life, they call us to prepare for the arrival of Jesus by living a life of repentance. They call us to reflect on our own lives as ask “are we ready for Jesus return?” But, there is another Advent example that I find even more helpful in understanding how we are to wait – the example of Mary.

If we look at our Scriptures as a story, at this point in the story, Mary is pregnant. She has not yet given birth to the baby Jesus. We can learn a lot about purposeful waiting from pregnancy. Pregnancy is all about waiting. I remember a few years ago, I was visiting with a friend and his wife who shared the news that they were expecting their third child. I responded excitedly, “Congratulations! That’s great! You must be so excited!” But to my enthusiasm, my friend’s wife looked at me, rolled her eyes a bit, sighed and said, “Don’t get me wrong. I’m really excited about having another baby. I just wish I could do it without going through pregnancy.” We tend to romanticize pregnancy don’t we? Pregnancy is so beautiful. Women look so radiant. But, for my friend’s wife, and many women like her, pregnancies are difficult. With her two prior pregnancies, they were so difficult that she had to remain bed-ridden during the final months. She experienced serious medical issues during her last pregnancy. For this third child, she was also very closely monitored.

The simple point is that being pregnant is not easy and can even be quite difficult, but it is worth the wait. And it is I think the most helpful image for our time of Advent waiting and preparing. We, too, all of us, are in a sense pregnant and waiting – waiting to give birth once again to Jesus in our lives. And so, God calls us all to make real change in our lives; to acknowledge His Son and “make straight our paths.”

As God calls each of us to reform our lives, depending on what we need to change, this might be for us a difficult pregnancy. But, if we can wait and prepare, it will bring forth new and wonderful life – but just like any pregnancy, it takes time, it takes patience, it takes the will to be transformed into the image that God calls us to.

I would suggest three things that we can do this Advent to help us wait fruitfully and prepare the way for the Lord. First, pray. Advent is the perfect time of year to jumpstart our prayer life. So many times God is trying to give us guidance and light, but because we don't spend time in prayer, we haven't learned to recognize His voice, so we miss out. Pope Benedict said a few years ago, “Do you leave space to hear God's whisper, calling you forth into goodness? Let His word shape your journey." The second things we can do is make good use of the Sacraments. Sometimes in personal prayer we are unsure of God's presence, but in the sacraments Christ guarantees that He is truly present. During Advent we can spend time with Christ in the Eucharist, maybe going to daily Mass to receive Holy Communion more frequently, learning to listen and letting Him teach us to follow Him. During Advent, a trip to confession is the most direct way to clear all the debris that comes from life's storms off the roads of our souls. As I said last week, let’s not carry our sins all the way to Christmas Day. And the third things we can do is reach out to others, to those who don't know Christ, or those who are suffering. As we reach out to them, we too come closer to Christ.

Jesus is eagerly looking forward to Christmas, because He wants to make a fresh entrance into the Jerusalem of our souls, and fill us with His comfort. Let us pray through the intercession of Mary, Mother of God, Mother of the Church, for the patience and the courage to allow God to create new life in us – as individuals, as a parish community, as a Church. Let us use this time of Advent to “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”

May God give you peace.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Finding Beauty in the Third Edition of the Roman Missal

Today, throughout the English-speaking Catholic world, Catholics will begin to pray the new translation of the Holy Mass in the Third Edition of the Roman Missal.  By now, you've probably heard about this (I hope!).  Dioceses have been offering workshops, parishes have been talking about this; even the secular media have done stories on this "biggest change" in the Catholic Mass in the last 50 years.

Most of what has been written in the secular media focuses on the perceived problems with the new translation.  The grammar can be awkward in places as it follows a Latin rather than English structure.  Some words can be confusing and requiring additional catechesis (like "consubstantial). There are phrases which might not be immediately accessible like the oft-referred to response, "And with your spirit."

These things have been discussed exhaustively, and hopefully someone has taken good notes for the time with we are welcoming the Fourth Edition of the Roman Missal. In the meantime, what I think has gotten lost in these discussions is that there are also some real moments of profound beauty in the new translation.  While imperfect, there really are moments when this new translation is successful in drawing us more profoundly into the reality of God and the reality of our worship.  I have spent a lot of time over the last 8 months or so giving workshops, retreats and presentations to different groups of people on the new translation and I have been struck by some real moments of beauty in the prayers.

Let me give you a few examples. The first is one that we will hear immediately as it comes from the Opening Prayer (or Collect) for the First Sunday of Advent.

In the outgoing translation, we prayed:

All-powerful God,
increase our strength of will for doing good
that Christ may find an eager welcome at his coming
and call us to his side in the kingdom of heaven,
where he lives and reigns....

In the new translation, we will pray:

Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God,
the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ
with righteous deeds at his coming,
so that, gathered at his right hand,
they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ...

There is a passivity in the old, "that Christ may find an eager welcome."  It doesn't necessarily call anything forth from me individually.  We could almost think, "I hope the welcome committee is well organized when He returns."  The new translation seems to ask something of us individually, "the resolve" to not just welcome, but "to run forth to meet your Christ."  We are called to more than mere eagerness, we are called to run to Christ who is coming to us.

Likewise, this passage from the new Preface I of Advent:

For he assumed at his first coming
the lowliness of human flesh,
and so fulfilled the design you formed long ago,
and opened for us the way to eternal salvation,
that, when he comes again in glory and majesty
and all is at last made manifest,
we who watch for that day
may inherit the great promise
in which we now dare to hope.

Or how about this from the Eucharistic Prayer for use in Masses for Various Needs I (okay, maybe the could shorten that title!):

You are indeed holy and to be glorified, O God,
who love the human race and who always walk with us on the journey of life.
Blessed indeed is your Son,
present in our midst when we are gathered by his love,
and when, as once for the disciples, so now for us,
he opens the Scriptures and breaks the bread.

And later in that same prayer:

Lord, renew your Church which is in Massachusetts
by the light of the Gospel.
Strengthen the bod of unity between the faithful and the pastors of your people,
together with Benedict our Pope, George our Bishop,
and the whole Order of Bishops,
that in a world torn by strife
your people may shine forth as a prophetic sign of unity and concord.

Another example from the Opening Prayer (Collect) for Midnight Mass of Christmas:

O God, who have made this most sacred night
radiant with the splendor of the true light,
grant, we pray, that we, who have known the mysteries of his light on earth,
may also delight in his gladness in heaven.
Who lives and reigns...

One final, I love the new dismissal texts, particularly these two:

God and announce the Gospel of the Lord.
Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.

The point is simply this: there is a lot to welcome here.  There is a lot of beauty here.  This is our new Mass translation.  Will it be the last?  Probably not, but we will be praying it for decades to come, so let us welcome and pray that new beauty as we welcome this new translation of the Mass.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

An Elegy for the Sacramentary

POSTED AT: MONDAY, NOVEMBER 21, 2011 12:46:32 PM

There has been a great deal of ink spilled (and pixels posted) over the new English translation of the Mass, that is, the new edition of the Roman Missal, which will be formally introduced into American parishes this coming Sunday.  Even the secular media has gotten wind of the changes, with the result that by now most Massgoing Catholics are aware of the changeover, as well as the discussions surrounding the new translations and the process that led to their approval.  (Surveys show that less active Catholics are much less aware.)  In short--depending on who you read--it’s a beautiful translation that preserves the majesty of the original Latin; or it’s not much of a change at all; or it’s an overly literal translation that sounds clunky.
Which is it? It’s probably unfair to judge until a few months have passed, and the priests and people have had the chance to hear and speak and pray with the changes.

Yet while there have been an enormous amount of commentary on the initiation of the new Roman Missal, there has been relatively less about the loss of the Sacramentary (the book of the Mass prayers) and an appreciation for the riches it brought to the church for the last few decades.
Any significant change is like a death; and so any change brings about the need for some grieving.  You sell a house and buy a new one; and you are sad about the loss of the old one--even if your new house is more spacious.  You move from one job to another; and you shed a few tears saying goodbye to old colleagues--even if you’re looking forward to the new position.  You graduate from high school to college, and even if it’s your top choice, you cry at your graduation. 
It would be odd, therefore, not to acknowledge some sadness over the passing of something so central to Catholic life as what will soon be called the “old” Sacramentary.  Even if you are eagerly anticipating the new translations, something significant is moving into the past, and is being lost.
So let me say something: I will miss the old prayers, even as I prepare for the new ones.  I’m 50 years old, which means that by the time I was conscious of the Eucharist--say, around 1967--the Mass was being celebrated in English.  I dimly remember saying things like “It is right and just” as a very young boy, which was most likely a holdover from the early Mass translations after the Second Vatican Council.  But, for the most part, my entire Catholic life has been shaped by the familiar prayers of the Sacramentary, the book that we are leaving behind this coming Sunday.

Those prayers accompanied me as I marched up the aisle, hands folded tight, for my First Holy Communion and Confirmation in our suburban Philadelphia parish; they helped me to pray during some confusing high school years in that same church; they taught me about God during my college days in Philadelphia when I dragged myself (sometimes hungover) to Sunday Mass; they challenged me during my stint as a wannabe executive in New York City; and they startled me at times, and eventually helped prompt me to consider the priesthood, when I was working in Connecticut in my late twenties.
As a Jesuit novice in Boston in the late 1980s, I listened far more intently to those prayers and grew to love their simplicity.  One virtue of the prayers of the Sacramentary was their clarity, their economy, their clean lines.  They seemed, well, natural, and sounded like the prayers I said when I was alone with God.  And in the novitiate, when I began to attend daily Mass (a first for me), it seemed as if I was hearing some of those old phrases for the first time: “You renew the church in every age.”  “Each year you give us this joyful season.”  “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you.” “Happy are those who are called to his supper.”   How wonderful that these prayers, which I had said as an eight-year-old, could deepen in me.  In this way my adult faith felt profoundly connected to that of my youth.
Over the next few years, during my Jesuit training, I would hear those prayers during philosophy studies in Chicago, when I prayed them with Jesuits from across the country; and in Nairobi, Kenya, where I would hear them said, and sung, with an East African accent.  Later, during theology studies in Boston, I began to wonder what it would be like to say the priest’s prayers.  But I certainly didn’t need to “learn” them any more than I needed to learn the Our Father; I had known them all my life.  All I needed to do was grow in comfort at praying them in a new way.  A few weeks before my diaconate ordination, my sister and brother-in-law gave me a great gift: the Sacramentary, and I began to study it in earnest.  And on the day of my first Mass, I could barely believe that I had the privilege to say these words: “Father, you are holy indeed…”
As many priests will tell you, it takes a while to move from saying the prayers of the Mass topraying them.  From feeling like you are performing to praying with the congregation.  And at some point I know I will feel comfortable with the new English translation.
Last week I celebrated what was probably my last “public Mass” (that is, outside my Jesuit community) using the Sacramentary, and as I moved for the final time through the words that I’ve known since I was a boy, I became sad.  Most likely I would never hear some of these phrases again.  And as I stood at the altar, my mind went back to, oddly, my First Communion: I had heard these same words on that day.  Other priests have shared with me their sadness as we set aside these familiar words, phrases and cadences.

As we move to the new, let's not forget the value of the old.  After all, tradition is an important part of the church, and we would be remiss if there was not an elegy for the old Sacramentary, the prayers of our youth: simple, clean, clear, direct, unadorned, beautiful. 
James Martin, SJ

Happy Thanksgiving!

NOTE: This is a wonderful holiday story from my good friend and brother, Fr. Joe Lorenzo.  No one can tell holiday stories like Fr. Joe can.  I share this with you to get us all into the spirit of this Thanksgiving week!  Enjoy and Happy Thanksgiving!!

Thanksgiving is one of the holidays that has national origins, and yet is very often treated with religious overtones. Although it is not a holy day in the church, and people do not feel the need to go to church on that day, it is still a day when families get together to celebrate around the dinner table, much like we would do on Christmas or Easter.

Growing up in an Italian family always presented a dilemma for us, especially around Thanksgiving time. After all, we asserted the fact that we were “Americans”, not Italians, and that we should be celebrating this holiday in American-style, like other Americans. (It’s funny how, as young people, we wanted to be Americans like everyone else- but as we grow older, we gravitate more and more toward our traditional ethnic origins). Today I would take a dish of mom’s ravioli over a turkey any day.

In those days, I think we were keenly aware that we were different- and didn’t want to be different. I remember the days after Thanksgiving especially, when our non-Italian friends would bring their turkey sandwiches to school for lunch- white meat turkey on white bread smothered with white mayonnaise. How we Italian kids envied them with our eggplant parmigiana, meatball, and sausage sandwiches on fresh Italian bread, oozing with gravy and oil. I remember one of the Irish Sisters that taught us remarking that she could always tell which homework was from the Italian children- it had grease stains on it! And we would gladly trade (with some candy bars thrown in) our greasy gravy-filled sandwiches for one of their turkey delights.

So we revolted. Us kids (cousins, etc) went to our parents, proclaiming, “We want a traditional turkey dinner this year for Thanksgiving. We’re tired of the same old Italian stuff.” And so, it was announced that this year we would have a traditional American turkey dinner for Thanksgiving. However, some concession would still be made to our Italian heritage, but, by far, it would be a turkey dinner.

We were delighted, thinking of the turkey sandwiches on wonder bread we would proudly display at school Monday morning.

Finally, the day arrived. We were all excited- it was like Christmas morning, opening our gifts. I remember going over Aunt Tessie Jr’s house in Park Slope. The table was set. We had so many people the table extended in through two rooms, using fold-up tables to extend the dining room table. There at each place was a half grapefruit, with the fruit cut in pieces, and a cherry on top. Yes, this was exciting.

We sat down for our Thanksgiving Day dinner, as Americans did all over the country. We started with a prayer, usually led by one of the younger cousins. Then we started. How delicious it was, that cold fruit sliding down our throats. After the grapefruit came out several large platters of antipasto- with Italian cold cuts, olives, peppers, artichoke hearts, cheeses, all smothered with olive oil. OK. This was still a turkey dinner, right? After the antipasto came a delicious bowl of hot turkey soup. Yes, we were back on track- Americans again. Then it started- our choice of lasagna, ravioli, or cavatelli, followed by sausage, meatballs, bracciola, pork ribs. What’s going on here? Don’t worry, we were reassured. Turkey’s on its way.

Then came what we were waiting for- a large turkey, sweet potatoes, turkey stuffing, turkey gravy, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, sweet corn. Our eyes bugged out of our heads. This was wonderful, until we realized that we were stuffed. We had filled up so much on the pasta and gravy meat, we couldn’t eat another thing. “You see?” my mother bellowed from the kitchen. “You wanted turkey and nobody ate it!”

Yeah no one ate it, not after all that other food. Our turkey was followed by Italian pastries, and pumpkin and apple pies, accompanied by black coffee (espresso, we say today).

Although the older folks got their way- we cleaned up on the Italian food and the turkey was untouched- we had tons of leftovers for the next few days- including a lot of turkey meat to proudly display at school the next Monday, on wonder bread, dripping with mayo.

Eventually, our American traditions won out- and now we have only our turkey with all the trimmings. But every Thanksgiving, when I sit down to give thanks to God for all his blessings, I remember them all- Mom and Dad, Aunt Tess, Aunt Tess Jr. and Uncle Happy, Aunt Rose and Uncle Nick, Uncle Joe and Aunt Marie- all the De Palo’s and Lorenzo’s, all gone on before us- and I wish I could trade in that big fat turkey for a nice bowl of ravioli with some wonderful meatballs.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving.

Fr. Joe

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Heaven anyone?

One day, three men arrived at the Pearly Gates in Heaven. St. Peter was there to greet them and asked the first man, “What is your religion?” He replied, “I’m Episcopalian.” St. Peter looked on his list, found the man’s name and said, “Go to room 24. But be very quiet as you pass by room 8.” He asked the same question of the second man, “Sir, what is your religion.” The second man replied, “I’m a Methodist.” Again, St. Peter checked the list and found the man’s name and said, “Please, go to room 14. But be very quiet as you pass by room 8.” Finally the third man steps up and is asked the same question, to which he replies, “I’m a Baptist.” St. Peter said. “Go to room 21. But be very quiet as you pass by room 8.” The third man’s curiosity got the better of him so he asked, “St. Peter, I’m more than a bit curious. You told each of us to be quiet as we pass by room 8. What’s going on in room 8?” St. Peter responded, “Well the Catholics are in room 8, and they think they're the only ones up here.”

Can I ask by a show of hands, how many of you want to get to Heaven? I hope that every hand in this church would be raised in answer to that important question. Of course, we all want to get to Heaven. Heaven is our goal; our destination; our final reward. But how many of us have actually thought about what it takes to get there? What constitutes living a life worthy of Heaven? Does it simply mean being a Roman Catholic as our joke suggests? Does it mean going to Mass every Sunday and on Holy Days of Obligation? Does Heaven come when we’ve gone to Confession regularly or prayed our Rosary daily or fulfilled certain devotional practices? Are these the things that will help us to merit the reward of Heaven?

Well, on this last day of our Church year, as we celebrate this Solemnity of Jesus Christ our King, our Gospel passage puts before us the answer to this very question. In this passage from Matthew, Jesus is sitting on His Throne, judging all of creation. Our King is deciding who will be welcomed into the glory of Heaven and who will not. He gives us this image of the King separating people into two categories – sheep and goats. And guess what we want to be? We want to be sheep! The sheep are welcomed into “the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world.” The goats are sent off to eternal punishment. And Jesus is not mysterious about what makes someone a sheep as opposed to a goat.

In this passage, Jesus essentially gives to us the criteria for gaining Heaven. So, for all of you who raised your hands today hoping for the glory of Heaven, here are the criteria: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me…whatever you did for one of the least brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” The criteria for entrance into Heaven will be the kind of life that we lived and the ways in which we strove to reach out to those most in need around us – those who are hungry or thirsty or strangers and alone or naked or sick or in prison.

The question for salvation is essentially this? Do we have hearts that have been converted, transformed, and changed to love as Jesus loves – to love always, to see everyone with hearts moved to compassion, to reach out even and especially to those that the rest of society has deemed unimportant or worse disposable. Do we have categories in our hearts where we have decided that some people are unworthy of our love and concern?

So what happened to going to Mass and going to Confession and praying our Rosary and saying our devotions? Why aren’t those in the criteria? Does this mean that these things are not important? Of course not. But what it means is that we need to understand them properly in this economy of salvation. An improper understanding of the spiritual life of the follower of Christ is to view these things as the goal or as an end in and of themselves. They are not the goal, they are the means to the goal. So, we do these things not as the culmination of our spiritual life, but we do these things as the way to cultivate our heart so that we can love like Christ our King.

It isn’t easy to love the way Christ loves. In fact, on our own accord, it is probably impossible. For whatever reason, we are born with an ingrained selfishness; a primary concern for our own welfare before that of others. The more we allow Christ to transform us, the more He changes the direction of our love – away from ourselves and always towards others. And that’s why He gave us all of these things to serve us on this journey to Heaven – He gave us the Sacraments, the Gospels; He gave us one another – the Church – all so that we can receive everything we need to get to Heaven. And so we should treasure and nurture these things as the essential elements that make us into the Christians we are called to be.

St. Augustine famously said of the Eucharist, “We become what we receive.” And so as Jesus satisfies our spiritual hunger and thirst through the great gift of His Body and Blood, He also teaches us to be like Him; to become what we receive. As we are nourished by Him, He asks us to go out from this place and offer nourishment to the hungry and thirsty around us – not because we deem them worthy or unworthy of our charity, but for no other reason than they are loved by God and so by us. We come to Church as spiritually naked people, but as St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Galatians, “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” As He covers our nakedness with Himself, we are called to go out and cloth those who are naked, to cover up those who have no home.

As Jesus has offered us freedom from the sin that kept us in chains and in bondage, He invites us to visit those in prison and speak to them about the true freedom they too can find in Christ.

You know, we call what we gather here to do each Sunday the Mass. Did you know this word comes from the Latin verb mittere, which means “to send.” In other words, by the very title of what we are here to do, it tells us something. This Mass must be in direct relationship to what happens outside of these doors, outside of this church. We come here and are filled with God’s Holy Word and receive the Sacred Body and Blood of His Son for one reason – to be sent! We are sent into the world as the very presence of Christ to transform it. We are sent into the world to literally love it to holiness; love it to Heaven. And in the process we get ourselves there too! It is no coincidence that the very last words that the priest says at the end of every Mass are “Go!” Go in the peace of Christ! Go in peace to love and serve the Lord! Or my favorite change in the new translation of the Mass that we will begin to pray next week, “Go and glorify the Lord by your life!”

So, who wants to get to Heaven? It starts here. Let Jesus lift the sins that bind you. Let the Lord fill you and satisfy you with His Holy Word. Let the Lord transform you into Himself through the grace of His Body and Blood that we receive and then go and feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, cloth the naked, care for the sick, visit the imprisoned – LOVE as Jesus loves without restriction; without limit because “whatever you did for one of the least brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Do this and Heaven will surely be yours!

May the Lord give you peace.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Use it or lose it!

A flood struck a local town and a man quickly found himself trapped in his home. Being a faithful man, he began to pray that God would rescue him. As the water continued to rise, his neighbor urged him to leave and offered him a ride in his pick-up truck to safety. The man thanked him but responded, “God will save me.” The water continued to rise and as it began to fill his house, he climbed up on the roof. A boat came by and the driver said "Come on board and we'll bring you to safety." Again the man thanked them but said, "God will save me." The flood waters continued to rise and now a helicopter flew over and offered to lower a ladder and bring the man to safety. Again, he thanked them, waived them off and said, "I know that God will save me." Eventually, the waters overtook the house and swept the man away and he drowned. When he reached heaven he asked, “God, I have such great faith in you. I'm a good Catholic; I go to Mass, I pay my tithe, I say my prayers. Why didn't you save me?" To which God replied, “Hey, I sent you a pick-up truck, a boat and a helicopter and you refused it all. What else could I do for you?!”

At one time or another, we’ve all heard the phrase “use it or lose it.” We hear this phrase in relation to things like freedom of speech, the use of our intellect, even weightlifting and general health and exercise. In these types of situations it is easy for us to see that if you don’t use it, you certainly will lose it.

Today’s Gospel offers us another example of “use it or lose it.” A man went on a journey and entrusted his servants with his money. Upon his return, he required an accounting of them. Now to put this in perspective, it is helpful to know that a talent was worth about 6,000 denarii, and one denarius was equivalent to a day’s wage. So, assuming a six-day work week, every talent was worth just shy of 20 years wages. No small sum. So, even the servant who received only one talent was entrusted with a sizable sum. Some are troubled by the harshness of the master’s treatment of this man. After all, he did not direct the servants to invest the money. So, why should one be penalized for not having done so? We can only conclude that investment was presumed. They had been told, in effect, “Use it or lose it.”

The readings of these last weeks of the church year prompt us to look at different aspects of the endtime. Last week we were exhorted to await the time of fulfillment in readiness. Today we are told that we cannot simply sit back and do nothing while we’re waiting. We must be industrious while we wait. Use it or lose it.

The man who buried the money in the ground knew that he would be held accountable. He said, “I knew that you were a demanding person.” Thus he is punished not because he is a poor manager of funds, but because he did not take his responsibility to be industrious seriously. The same is true for us. But, instead of a talent, God has given us something far more valuable – the gift of our faith; the treasure of the sacraments; the pearl of the Gospel - and He has asked us to be industrious in investing these, in using our faith in such a way that it will increase faith in the world – our investment should show a grow of faith in ourselves, in the members of our families, our friends, our workplaces and communities. The world should be an increasingly more Christian place because of the way each of us invest our faith in it.

Blessed Pope John Paul II wrote in a 1988 letter cautioning the faithful against, “the temptation of legitimizing the unwarranted separation of faith from life, that is, a separation of the Gospel's acceptance from the actual living of the Gospel in various situations in the world… How can one not notice the ever-growing existence of religious indifference?” This is the question of industriousness that our Gospel raises. It asks, how do we live our lives? Do we live a life that is witness to a separation of faith from life, of hearing the Gospel but not living the Gospel? We come to church, but do we share faith at home – do we read Scripture and pray with our families, do we teach our children the ways of faith and show them how wrong the prevailing culture around them is? Do we teach them to be kind and loving and compassionate in a world that seems to have less and less of these virtues? Do we hold strong to the teachings of the Church and support them in our daily lives or are we part of the ever-growing number of people who boldly speak out against the teachings of Jesus that call us to respect life, love our neighbor, reach out to the poor, the marginalized, the outcast, the immigrant; to be peacemakers? Is our faith multiplying? Is our faith showing a return on its investment?

The message of our readings calls us to a few things today. First, it is important to remember that we are accountable to God for living up to the responsibilities of our life in a faith-filled way. Parents must devote themselves wholeheartedly to parenting, teachers to teaching, politicians to lawmaking and so on. Do people look at the way you live and say it is obvious that you are a Christian, or is Christian something we are only at Church?

Our readings ask us to focus on the end of time, the eventual second coming of Jesus. But, they also encourage us to endtime living now. No more waiting to live as God would have us live. Live in the Kingdom, as members of the Kingdom now – right here, today.

“Use it or lose it.” We can either use and put into practice the gift of faith that God has given us, or we can lose our access to the Kingdom He promised us. Surely we want God to say also to us when our time has come, “Well done, my good and faithful servant … Come, share your master’s joy.”

May God give you peace.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Be prepared!

John had fallen on some bad times. Things were so bad that he could barely support himself and his family. Desperate, he got an idea. He would go back to Church and ask for God’s help. He was a little nervous because he hadn’t stepped into a church in years, but he finally made it through the doors. He knelt down in the back and prayed: “God, if you’re up there, please help me win the lottery so I can support my family.” He returned to the same church day after day and made the same prayer. But nothing happened. Weeks passed, then months. Finally, one day, he was making his regular visit: “God, if you’re up there, please help me win the lottery.” And much to his astonishment, the ceiling opened, the choirs of angels appeared, a bright light shone down and a thunderous voice from heaven answered: “OK, fine John. But, can you help me out and at least go buy a ticket?!”

My friends, I think sometimes we can be like John too. We all want everything that God promises He will give us, but how often do we fail to do our part, afraid perhaps to take the risk of fully living the life God has called us to?

A few years ago, Steve McEveety, who produced such well known movies as “The Passion of the Christ” and “Braveheart” was giving a lecture to a group of college students who wanted to pursue a career in entertainment. During the question and answer period one of the students asked an interesting question. She asked, “Mr. McEveety, what is your goal in life?” This wealthy and successful Hollywood Producer paused and thought for a moment, then turned back to the audience and responded, “My goal in life? To get my kids into heaven. And I guess to get there myself, too.” It certainly wasn’t the answer the audience expected to hear. And yet, if you think about it, isn’t that how all of us should answer the same question? What else in life could possibly matter if it means being denied our glorious reward in the end?

As we approach the end of our Church year, our Scriptures look towards the end of the world and the Second Coming of Christ. Jesus speaks to this “end times” theme today in a way that can be summed up in two words: be prepared! With the parable of the 10 virgins, Jesus gives us a lesson in watching and waiting, and reminds us that the fulfillment of the Kingdom is in God’s hands. We can neither hurry it or stop it. But we must be prepared for its coming. Today’s readings want to tell us something about that fulfillment and about our need to be ready.

The fulfillment of the Kingdom that Jesus speaks of is nothing other than the realization of all that God promises. The Bible tells us that God promises us a secure and prosperous future. That God promises peace. “Peace is my gift to you,” Jesus tells us and by that he means not merely a superficial peace; not merely the absence of war or conflict, but a true peace that includes these things plus everything that we need to be happy and to thrive, to be holy and destined for Heaven.

The challenge for us as Christians is that we cannot live in our world the way non-believers do. We must live in a different way. We must live in an extraordinary way in these ordinary times. We must live in a way that shows we know there is nothing ordinary about it, instead we know that the time of God’s fulfillment is at hand. We must live with our eyes, our hearts, our lives focused on Heaven.

In today’s parable, the virgins are part of a very large bridal party. And the point of the story is the necessity of always being prepared, “for you know neither the day nor the hour.” All of the virgins were ready for an immediate arrival of the bridegroom and his company, but only half of them were prepared for the long wait and the half that were not ready, were excluded from the feast.

Parables always ask us to identify with someone in the story and so which are we? Are we prepared? Or will we be among those left out because we failed to be ready for Jesus. The great Church theologian St. Augustine in his autobiography talks about the struggle he faced in fully accepting Christ in his life. Prior to his conversion he had a mistress and bore a child out of wedlock. When he writes about this time, he says, “I prayed, ‘Lord, grant me chastity, just not yet.’”

How often do we essentially pray in the same way? God, help me leave behind my sin, my anger, my need to gossip, my jealousy of others, my grudges that I hold, my failure to come to Mass every week or go to confession, help me to live a life fully committed to you in all that I say and do – just not yet!

The challenge placed before us today doesn’t need to be overwhelming. God isn’t calling us all to leave our lives and to quote Hamlet, “Get thee to a nunnery!” But, we are all being invited to live in the moment; to live each moment as though the fulfilled Kingdom of God were in our midst. You may have seen the bumper sticker which reads, “Jesus is coming! Look busy!”

So, what is God asking us do right now? He is asking us to take those first steps at being prepared. So, perhaps that means there’s a relationship in your life that you need to fix, or even end? Maybe there is someone you need to forgive or seek forgiveness from? Maybe you need to renew your commitment to the ABCs of being a Catholic: daily prayer, regular communion and confession, supporting the Church, making reasonable efforts to know what the Church teaches?

God doesn’t want our lamps to run out of oil. He wants His light to keep shining in our hearts, for our own benefit, and for the benefit of those around us, now and forever. But He won’t force us to fill up that lamp and keep it filled. Today, as He comes again to offer Himself to us and for us in the Eucharist, tell Him that you will do your part, whatever it may be. Let us all make that promise to God today.

When Pope John Paul II was dying, the doctors were treating him with pain killers and other procedures to keep him with us as long as they could. At one point, the Pope simply had enough, and he waved them away, knowing that his moment had come. And his last words were, “Let me go to the Father’s house.” To the Father’s house, where all his brothers and sisters in the faith were waiting for him, where all the saints he had canonized would be cheering his arrival, where he hoped to see again his mother who had died when he was so young, his older brother who passed away soon after, and his father, who had not even lived long enough to see his son ordained a priest. Let me go to the Father’s house.

Let us pray that we too may be counted among those who are ready; among those who will be welcomed into our Father’s house.

May God give you peace.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Common people, uncommon destiny

HOMILY FOR ALL SAINTS DAY, November 1, 2011:
If you read my column in Sunday’s bulletin, I quoted a story by the famous Trappist monk Thomas Merton in his book Seven Storey Mountain about a conversation he had with a friend about sainthood and how to attain it. Merton was uncertain of what it would take, but his friend Robert simply reminded him, “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.”

We find ourselves today in the midst of two of the most beautiful and intimately connected feasts in our Church year – All Saints Day which we celebrate today and All Souls Day which we will celebrate tomorrow. These days are not only intimately connected, but they also reveal a very natural progression that we all go through when we lose a loved one. At first we react with shock and sympathy and grief. We let our “Lord have mercys” fall gently upon the souls of our beloved dead. But, as the days, weeks and months progress, we tend to move on to the questions of why. Why did they have to leave now? Where is my loved one? Are they now merely the victims of death?

To all the questions of the hereafter, the Church responds with these feasts. The celebration of All Saints Day is a rapturous reminder that the path to glory leads beyond the grave. Today, on this day, our restored, forgiven and glorified humanity is on show. Today’s feast is not the gala performance of the canonized – all of those names saints we know so well, whether Blessed Mother Teresa or John Paul II, Saint Padre Pio, Saint Francis or St. Margaret – they have their days throughout the year. Today’s emphasis is on the rest of the saints in Heaven; perhaps even in particular the oh-so-many who will never be recognized by name.

The saints we celebrate throughout the year; whose lives are for us inspiration – perhaps because of their dramatic death for the faith, or the strength in which they lived their commitment to Christ – these saints are Heroes of the faith placed before us often in great drama. But, today we recall the every-man, the every-woman, the ordinary, the regular, the just-like-us saints who made it to the glory of heaven because they were - very simply, very profoundly - faithful to God in their lives.

Today’s feast is a celebration of the commonplace; the beatification of the ordinary; the vindication of the daisy rather than the rose. Today’s feast reminds us that common people – you and me – have an uncommon destiny. And the enduring title for these men and women who reach that Heavenly destiny is “saint.” They are not destined to become so much dust, but to see God as He truly is and be in His presence for ever. The people that you and I have loved in our lives, but have gone to their eternal reward, are now eternally loved by God in Heaven. His will is that they gather around His throne, the palm of victory in their hands. They are saints. And this we celebrate today.

But, this feast of All Saints is not just the feast of the blessed in Heaven. It is our feast day too. What the saints enjoy, what the holy souls anticipate, you and I are promised. Too often I hear people say that they could never be a saint. But, perhaps it is because they are only looking at the great heroes of faith and realizing that perhaps they would not have the courage to give their life for Christ. But we are, in fact, all called to be saints – most likely it will never be in a dramatic way; most likely it will be in the ordinariness of our every day lives continually being faithful to our God. Most likely, our names will not be enrolled in the calendar of saints celebrated by the Church. But, sainthood is ours if we only desire it and let God lead us to that heavenly destination.

And so, this promise on God’s part for our eternal happiness requires action on our part. The terms of this action are spelled out in today’s Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount. But some people hear this sermon and are dismayed. It can seem to imply that to get somewhere in the next life means getting nowhere in this life. It is the poor, the mournful, the meek, and the hungry who will succeed. But, this is a false interpretation. Christ’s sermon is not an endorsement of destitution. It does not suggest that a dollar in your pocket is less Christian than a hole in your pants. It does insist, though, that worldly success and the accumulation of wealth are not ends in themselves. We are not here on earth to build an empire that magnifies ourselves; we are here primarily to serve, as Jesus served.

A truly Christian society matures not in selfishness but in service. Happiness for the Christian lies not in having, but in giving. The poor in spirit accumulate wealth insofar as they give away, insofar as they love God and transform His world with gentleness, mercy, compassion, forgiveness and peace.

One final point – the most important perhaps. This is God’s feast day too. Saints don’t make it on their own. Ultimately God makes it for them. The saints living successful Christian lives and eventually moving joyously around His throne in Heaven is evidence of God’s heart and love for us. All Saints Day is God’s heart translated into happy people. It is proof of His compassionate purpose, confirmation of His universal love for us, a triumphant vindication of His will for our salvation.

“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.”

God has created each of us for Heaven; for sainthood. As we gather around His altar, let us, in union with the saints above, give thanks to our God for His saving Grace.

May God give you peace.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Taking off our masks

A six-year-old was excited about his Halloween costume. “Mom, I want to be the Pope for Halloween!" he said. "Son, you can’t be the Pope," the mother said. "You’re not Catholic. You’re Lutheran." The boy thought about it a moment and considered his alternatives. After a few minutes, he asked, “Well, then is Dracula a Lutheran?”

Of course, tomorrow is Halloween, which for many is a dress-up day in which children run from house to house in their costumes begging sweet treats. I read in the newspaper that among the most popular costumes this year are Angry Birds, zombies, Captain America and Charlie Sheen (no comment). Halloween is a day of make-believe, a day of pretending to be someone, something that we are not.

I want to talk a little bit about pretending today, but first I need to begin with a brief Latin lesson. So, pay attention, there may be a quiz at the end. The Latin verb, teneo is translated to mean “I hold.” Many common English words contain versions of this Latin verb. For example, if you add the prefix “ex” meaning “out” to the verb teneo you get the word “extend” – which of course means to “hold out.” Or add the prefix “re” to our root and you get the word retain, or to hold back. You get the idea. Well if you add the prefix “pre” which means “in front” to our root, you get “pre-tend” or that which you hold in front of you so that you are not seen, but only the image. This is essentially what children do at Halloween – they pretend; they hold in front of them an image that is different from who they really are. In fact, very often, the image that they hold in front, or that they pretend to be, is so different that it is hard to recognize the true person.

Well, our readings today, are very apropos to this theme of pretending. In our first reading, the prophet Malachi has strong words for the priests of his time who pretend to conduct the ritual sacrifices properly, when, in fact, they were bringing substandard and blemished animals to be sacrificed at the altar of the Lord. They were bringing pretend offerings while “retaining” or “holding back” what was real and holy from the Lord. Malachi tells the religious leaders that if they continue misuse their God-given powers, then terrible things will happen.

And we heard in our Gospel passage today, “Do and observe all things whatsoever [the Pharisees] tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice.” Jesus is speaking about a group of pretenders, the Pharisees. Jesus tells His disciples and the crowd to adhere to the demands of the Law of Moses, but as for those who interpret the Law for their own benefit, do not follow what they do. They are pretenders, holding in front of themselves religious symbols. As Jesus said, “They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.” Phylacteries are containers affixed to arms and foreheads. Inside are written important verses of the Law. People who see them are impressed believing that those who wear them are as holy as the verses themselves.

Jesus reminds His listeners that it is not what one wears outside that makes a person a follower of God’s ways. It is not the name “teacher” or “father” or “master” which make a person a reflection of God’s holiness. Rather, it is what is written in your heart, shown forth by the way you live and what you do, that gives witness to a person’s holiness. Becoming a servant, a child, a humble person, are ways of revealing true Godliness, true holiness. Jesus, of course, is the true opposite of the Pharisees. He is no pretender, but rather Jesus is the real deal. He lives what He preaches and invites His followers – He invites each one of us – to let go of any pretending in our lives and to follow Him in what we say and in what we do.

So for each of us here today, the question is not “do I wear a cross,” but rather “do I bear the cross?” It is not only a matter of going to Mass every Sunday, but of going forth from Mass every Sunday to live what we have received. Too often, we hide the identity that God has placed within us; we hold back the holiness that God wants us to share with the world. We pretend to be someone we really are not.

The day after Halloween is All Saints Day. It is the day we celebrate all those who put aside their natural pretenses and witness to Christ living within them. Costumes are for fun; but being uncovered from the pretenses we wear in our daily lives is a true, Godly joy. In the ritual for the Ordination of a Deacon, the Bishop hands the Deacon a Book of the Gospels and says to him, “Receive the Gospel of Jesus Christ, whose herald you now are. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, practice what you teach.” This is also the call of all of us today. You can enjoy an evening of pretending on Monday, but after that and always, cast off all pretenses, throw aside whatever false image of yourself that stops you from being a herald of the Gospel.

Let us all take up the charge to be true heralds of Jesus Christ in every aspect, every moment of our lives. Let us believe what we read, teach what we believe and practice what we teach.

May the Lord give you peace.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Please won't you be my neighbor?

A few years ago there was a billboard advertising campaign that received some notice. You might have seen some of them. They were billboards offering messages from God. They said things like: "Don’t make me come down there again.” - God or, “We need to talk.” – God or “Keep using my name in vain, I’ll make rush hour even longer.” – God or “You think it’s hot here?” – God or “Have you read my #1 best seller? There will be a test.” – God or finally on that would fit today’s Gospel, “That `Love Thy Neighbor‘ thing? I meant it.” – God.

Let me give you an image that many of you will be familiar with. A plain sweater, white canvass sneakers, a warm smile and a simple song that welcomed us every day. Sing it with me: “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor. Would you be mine?” Every day Fred Rogers welcomed us to his neighborhood. As a child I watched Mr. Rogers and still have such fond memories. Over the years not much changed with the show; it was the same house, the same trolley to take you to the world of make believe, and the same puppets like King Friday. In every episode Mr. Rogers always asked the same question: “Would you like to be my neighbor?”

Today’s Gospel follows after last week’s passage in which we had the Sadducees trying to trap Jesus with their question about paying taxes to Ceasar. This week, the Pharisees take a stab at trying it testing him again with a question about the greatest commandment. The textbook answer, of course is love of God. But, again like last week, Jesus does not stop there. He goes on to give a more practical answer, one that challenges His listeners. Just like last week, Jesus gives the other side of the coin, which, in this case is love of neighbor.

Jesus makes the point that anyone who truly loves God must necessarily also love their neighbor; and that these are virtually one in the same thing. You cannot truly love your God unless that loves shows forth in love of neighbor. As Jesus said: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind…You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” Or as we hear in the First Letter of John, “God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him.”

Jesus is reacting against the Pharisees one-dimensional understanding of love. For Jesus, true love must express itself in three dimensions: the love of God; the love of neighbor; and the love of oneself. The commandment to love your neighbor as yourself presumes that you first love yourself as a beautiful person created in the image and likeness of your God. That you see your dignity and beauty as a unique part of what God has created – as unique and beautiful as the oceans, the stars and the sky, the mountains or any other part of the created universe.

Last week, Jesus wasn’t so concerned with what was due to Ceasar, instead He was more concerned with what was due to God, something the people were forgetting. In the same way, the emphasis on today’s question about the greatest commandment is not on the obvious love of God but on the love of neighbor, which, again, was being ignored.

Just look at the treatment that Jesus received. He and His followers were persecuted by well-meaning religious people motivated by what they believed to be zeal and love for God. The same people asking about the most important commandment are the ones trying to trap and eventually kill Jesus. They are so conscious about love of God. Why then are they so insensitive when it comes to love of neighbor?

This is, of course, a concern that reaches our ears and our world today. The error of the Pharisees is still with us. We don’t have to look further than the ever growing divide between rich and poor, the continuing problem of homelessness, the ongoing scourge of prejudice, violence, war, death and destruction that are so much a part of our world to wonder where is our love of neighbor?

There are many Christians who try to separate the love of fellow human beings from their love of God. Their commitment to faith does not include commitment to issues of human rights; to economic and legal justice; to the call for peace; to equality and the ending of prejudice and persecution. We do well to heed Jesus in today's gospel: true love of God and true love of neighbor are two sides of the same coin. Any attempt to separate them is a falsification of the message of Christ.

Again, we hear in the First Letter of John, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” Or the reflection on faith and works from the Letter of James, “What good is it…if someone says he has faith but does not have works? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? Indeed someone might say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works…For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.”

Let us pray today that God will shake loose from us any indifference we may feel towards our brothers and sisters in need. We ask God to give us the same loving and compassionate relationship towards our neighbors that Jesus had. We pray, not only for the knowledge of how to love, but the wisdom to want to love in all circumstances.

“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind…You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” Won't you be my neighbor?

May the Lord give you peace.

Revive our evangelical Franciscan spirit!

What a wonderful way to begin your visitation today by coming together to celebrate this Holy Mass today. And, how perfect God’s timing always is for us. Today, we celebrate the Memorial of Blessed Pope John Paul II or John Paul the Great. This is the very first time that we, as Church, get to celebrate this memorial since his beatification this past Spring. So, this is a wonderful day and our beloved former Pope has so many words that can inspire us today.

In preparing for Mass this morning, I also took a moment to look at the SFO Constitutions to see what they had to say about a fraternal visitation. This is what I read, “The purpose of both the pastoral and fraternal visits is to revive the evangelical Franciscan spirit, to assure fidelity to the charism and to the Rule, to offer help to fraternity life, to reinforce the bond of the unity of the Order, and to promote its most effective insertion into the Franciscan family and the Church.”

What a lofty and wonderful goal for us today. A day in which we can “revive our Evangelical spirit.” And we need that from time to time. I am just returning from two weeks of different meetings – a week with the General Minister and all of the Franciscan Provincials of the English Speaking Conference, and then more recently a week with all of the brothers of my Province as we gathered for an All Province Assembly this past week – meetings that have left me today in exactly that space – revived in my evangelical Franciscan spirit; and so I want to share a few thoughts on that in the hopes of setting your day off in the right direction.

First, a word of revival from our Scriptures today – again, so well planned by our Lord! Just look at what we read in Paul’s letter to the Romans, “The law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has freed you from the law of sin and death.” Isn’t this the heart of the Gospel that our Holy Father Francis so dearly clung to and encourages us to do? You know the Rule of the First Order begins with this sentence: Francis wrote, “This is the rule and life of the Minor Brothers, namely, to observe the holy gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by living in obedience, in poverty, and in chastity.” That is the Rule of 1223. There’s often a question about that Rule; what took so long? Francis received his approval for our way of life in 1209 and we don’t have an approved written rule until some 14 years later. Why? My belief has always been that Francis would have simply said, “We have a Rule and it was written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.” And, so when Francis writes that first sentence, I like to think that it was a bit tongue-in-cheek or perhaps another way of thinking about it is that it was written as commentary. “The rule and life of the Minor Brothers is to observe the Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” Period! End of sentence. I think if he could have, he would have ended there.

This is the heart of the statement in Romans, “The law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has freed you from the law of sin and death.” This is what we celebrate as baptized members of the faith. This is what we celebrate as members of this Franciscan way of life. Freedom. We celebrate freedom. We live in this incredible freedom to be children of God. We live in this incredibly freedom – enshrined in our life as we pursue poverty, chastity and obedience in ways that are appropriate to our different states of life married, single, religious, lay – we live in a freedom that allows us to not follow the way of the world and instead follow the way of the Gospel. This is evangelical! This is liberation!

As I met two weeks ago with the Provincials and our General Minister José Rodríguez Carballo, Br. José spoke to us about vocations. One of the things he said was, “We do have the strength to call young men to join us. The worst thing we can do is to think that we have reached a time when we cannot have vocations. Put all your strength into this. First of all, we must believe in our life and have the courage to propose our life to young people. If we don’t propose the Gospel life, many others will propose other values.”

While he was naturally speaking about the First Order, I think we can take his words and make them words for our Secular family as well and ask a few critical questions – do we live with the sense that we can still call other to join us in this way of life? Do we live with the courage that proposes as an option the Gospel life to others. We know there are many competing values in our world today; there are many options out there that are all asking people young and old to follow – the path to fame, the path to riches, the path to power; not to mention the many voices that clamor for violence and war and the subjugation of people (especially the poor, the marginalized, the immigrant, the sick); there are no shortage of voices out there. How loud is ours? How loud is our call to the Gospel – not by mere proclamation, but by example. We all know the quote, often attributed to Francis, “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary use words.” Is your Franciscan life evident simply by the way you live? Do other see your love and advocacy of the poor, your love and call for peace, your love and protection of nature, your love and respect for all life from natural birth to natural death and every moment in between? Are these Franciscan values visible? I would echo the General Minister’s words and say, Yes! We do have the strength to call others to this Gospel way of life!

The best way to do this is to be united as a fraternity; to “reinforce the bond of unity” that the Secular constitutions call for. I mentioned my second meeting was an All Province Assembly this past week. It was held at our retreat house in Wappinger Falls, NY. As you can imagine, we had wonderful moments of prayer, we had profound moments of sharing and of course, we had way too much food! It was a spirit accentuated by the famous words from Psalm 133: Ecce quam bonum et quam jucundum habitare fratres in unum. "Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity." During our week, we laughed, we fought, we cried, we discussed important things about our life and about our future. But we all left with the giddiness that comes from brothers being together in united. Let today be like that for you. Let this visitation strengthen the bonds of your fraternity in the same way.

And finally, a word from our beloved Blessed John Paul. There is so much that can be shared from his decades as the Chief Shepherd of our Flock. But, I’ll just share one of my favorite quotes. He said in 1993, “Jesus wants to enter into a dialogue with us and, through His body which is the Church, to propose the possibility of a choice which will require a commitment of our lives. As Jesus with the disciples of Emmaus, so the Church must become our travelling companion today.”

As with St. Francis, remain close to one another, close to your sisters and brothers in fraternity. As with St. Francis, remain close to the Church, in particular close to the Eucharist where “the Lord of the whole universe, God and the Son of God, should humble Himself like this under the form of a little bread, for our salvation.”

Let us preach with our lives, call forth with our example, dialogue with Christ and be renewed and revived in our commitment today.

May the Lord give you peace.

Changing the impossible

HOMILY FOR THE 2nd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, January 20, 2019: When my parents got married more than 50 years ago, my Mom came from a pract...