Saturday, July 26, 2014

Heaven on Earth

HOMILY FOR THE 17th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, July 26, 2014:

A teacher, a tax collector, and a politician wound up together at the Pearly Gates. St. Peter informed them that in order to get into Heaven, they would each have to answer one question. St. Peter addressed the teacher wanting to make it easy and asked, “What was the name of that ship that crashed into the iceberg? They made a big movie about it.” The teacher answered quickly, “That would be the Titanic.” St. Peter let her through the gate. St. Peter then looked at the tax collector, and decided to make the question a little harder: “How many people died on the ship?” As fortune would have it, he was a big fan of the History Channel and answered, “1,228.” “That's right! You may enter,” St. Peter said. And then, turning his gaze to the politician, St. Peter said, “Name them.” 



Have you ever thought about what Heaven is like? Maybe you, like me, had the chance to see the movie Heaven is For Real recently, or perhaps you read the book. It is a purportedly true story that answers just that very question and in the affirmative. Most of us, at one point or another, think about this eternal question. Is there a Heaven and what is it like? And this is the question that Jesus explores in our Gospel today. Jesus also gives us an affirmative answer about Heaven and even some insight about what it is like giving us several images to help explain the Kingdom of Heaven.

Praying with this Gospel reminded me of a very special experience a little more than 10 years ago when I had the opportunity to be at a Wednesday Audience with Saint Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square. At that audience, the Holy Father reflected on the same passage we have before us today. He said to us that the Kingdom of Heaven is not a destination always awaiting us, but an intimate relationship with God that can be experienced – at least partially – here on earth. He said, Heaven “is not an abstraction, nor a physical place amid the clouds, but a living and personal relationship with God.”

The Saint’s comments mirror those that we hear from Jesus today. Heaven is clearly one of Jesus’ favorite topics, particularly in Matthew’s Gospel. In His very first sermon recorded in Matthew, Jesus said simply, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” In the Sermon on the Mount, He declared, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” and “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Over and over again – a total of 51 times in Matthew – Jesus uses this favorite phrase of His: the Kingdom of Heaven. It should also be a favorite of ours as well.

So, what can we know about this Kingdom? Well, Saint John Paul reminded us that it is not “a physical place among the clouds.” And, don’t we all often imagine Heaven in some pretty extraordinary and supernatural ways – streets lined with gold, great and glorious mansions, all the food you can eat and not gain an ounce! We imagine some sort of celestial castle nestled in the clouds, twinkling stars and bright rainbows. Angels everywhere, zooming around God’s throne; the air alive with the sound of magnificent music.

But, Jesus simply compares the Kingdom to very down-to-earth things. No castle, no clouds, no angels, stars or rainbows or music. Rather, Jesus presents us with a farmer sowing seeds, weeds growing in a wheat field, a tiny mustard seed, a piece of yeast and today – a buried treasure, a merchant’s find of a precious pearl and a fishnet thrown into the lake. Now that’s not meant to burst our bubble or lower our expectations, but to remind us that the Kingdom is both heavenly and earthly. Jesus also makes this point when He gave us the Our Father, “Your Kingdom come…on earth as in heaven.”

So, our Gospel begs the question of us today - where is our treasure? And what might our treasure be? Is it in gold or riches, in power or fame? What is Jesus talking about, this buried treasure, this pearl of great price which we are supposed to have found? Where do we find this unique mix of heavenly and earthly reality?

And the answer is right here in this Church. The closest we can ever come to this dual dimension of heaven and earth is the Church and the Sacraments. The Church itself is the sign of our intimate union with God in heaven and with all humanity on earth. The mission of the Church is to proclaim and establish the Kingdom of God among all people. The Second Vatican Council said that the Church “becomes on earth the initial budding forth of that Kingdom of God.”

So, where is your treasure? Do we really consider the Church, and our parish community, to be our buried treasure and our pearl of great price? We are far luckier than the individuals in the Gospel today. They had to first sell all they had and buy the field where the treasure was buried and to buy the pearl. But for us, the Kingdom of Heaven is a free gift from God. Jesus is the one who found and bought the precious pearl and the buried treasure – and He paid for them with the price of His own life on the cross – all FOR US. But far from hiding and hoarding His treasures, He now and forever shares them with us freely. And, every time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, we enjoy a taste of Heaven right here. The dividing lines between Heaven and Earth are erased; God comes downs and makes our gifts holy; we sing with angels and saints, “Holy, holy, holy.”

Our treasure, our precious pearl of membership in the Church as the chosen and beloved People of God is the gift that all the money in the world cannot even begin to buy. Our prize of the Sacraments is nothing less than God’s immense and intense love leading us to our ultimate prize - eternal life.

Saint John Paul said, “When this world has passed away, those who accepted God in their lives and were sincerely open to His love…will enjoy that fullness of communion with God which is the goal of human existence.” And it is possible to get a taste of Heaven on earth through the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist which is such a profound meeting place of Heaven on Earth, such a great foretaste of the happiness and peace and communion which we will one day know perfectly with God in Heaven.

Where is your treasure? “Seek first the Kingdom of Heaven.”

May the Lord give you peace!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Letting weeds become wheat

HOMILY FOR THE 16th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, July 20, 2014:

Growing up, as a young boy, Sunday nights always had a ritual. You quickly took your Sunday night bath so that you could be in front of the TV in time for Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, followed by The Wonderful World of Disney and Little House on the Prairie. Now, Wild Kingdom in particular was always exciting because inevitably Marlin Perkins would come face-to-face with something ferocious – a lion, a tiger, a bear (oh my?). And it would be exciting.

I was thinking of this recently because I never expected to experience such a ferocious encounter of the wild living here in the concrete jungle, but when grilling some chicken in the small alleyway between the friary and church a week and a half ago, I suddenly found myself dodging a very angry pigeon that was dive-bombing in my direction in a great flurry. Why? Well, I quickly discovered the answer. This was a mother pigeon protecting two eggs next to the air conditioner unit for the Church and I apparently was a threat. So, I gave Mama her space.

I was then away for a week and came back home on Friday and was eager to see if I had any new pigeon chicks in the alleyway. What I saw was the Mom protecting one cute little chick, and the second egg cast outside of the nest. And, that was a really sad sight – to see the Mom protecting one, but having completely cast off another of her children. But, of course, I reminded myself that that was simply the way of nature. That’s the way it sometimes goes. Some make it, some don’t.

We heard in our Gospel today, “His slaves said to him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull the weeds up?’ He replied, ‘No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest.”

Now, unlike the chicks in my alley, Jesus gives us a different image from nature today – that of wheat and weeds. So, what is He trying to tell us today through this image? To put this image into context, I think our human nature can sometimes be like the pigeon or other animals in the wild – we want to create categories. Often enough the categories are things like us and them; who’s in and who’s out; good and bad; sinner and saint – here in the North End we have our own special categories like Mike’s or Modern’s. We tend towards being exclusionary; to judge who is better and who is worse.

Too often, even after we have come to know God in our hearts, when we have given ourselves totally to Him – we still want to create these categories. We cast aside our own sins, we seek forgiveness and reconciliation, we walk in the light of the Lord. But, something else happens – we now become acutely aware of everyone else’s sin. When we become wheat – to use Jesus’ imagery today – we see all the weeds around us. And that is the problem that Jesus is trying to get at today with this image of wheat and weeds – what we might call the old Holier-Than-Thou Syndrome. We transfer our natural human tendency towards being judgmental and exclusionary into the spiritual realm.

But, Jesus calls us to something different. He calls us not to something merely natural, but through Him, the Son of God, through His gift of the Sacraments – He invites us into the supernatural where we are no longer bound by the flawed constraints of our weak human nature. He tell us today, “Let the weeds and wheat grow together until the harvest.”

Jesus recognized – especially in the Pharisees (a name which means literally “the separated ones” by the way) – that even our holiness can become a temptation to judge others. We all know the type – we’ve all probably been like this at one point or another in our lives – we decide that we can judge spiritually who is in and who is out. Take any of today’s hot-button issues. We might decide it is someone who is divorced or who committed adultery; or someone who had an abortion. It could be someone who is just mean and hateful, someone who is gay or lesbian, someone who has stolen or even committed some other horrible crime. We look at them and we become a self-appointed judge and jury deciding their spiritual fate. But, where is God’s love and mercy in that? Where is God’s opportunity for encounter, relationship, reconciliation and forgiveness and healing in that?

The problem, of course, is that God never asked us to do any of this. Pope Francis said it much more succinctly last year when he said simply, “Who am I to judge?” It was a powerful statement coming from the Holy Father, but it is one that should come from each one of us too. Who are we to judge? There is only one judge; and it is not us – it is God, the true and only judge we will face.

But, who are we to love? Who are we to forgive? Who are we to show compassion? Who are we to reach out to the needy, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned, the refugee, the immigrant? We are. Jesus is very explicit about those things. These are our commands. This is what He asks us to do – to love, to be His loving, kind, compassionate and forgiving presence in our world. How are we doing with that?

“Let them grow together,” weeds and wheat together, Jesus tells us. Why? Well, in the Kingdom of God, something amazing can happen. Weeds can become wheat. If Jesus, through His grace and mercy, can transform mere bread and wine into His Body and Blood – as He will do again in front of our very eyes on this altar today – then surely He can also turn weeds into wheat. Perhaps some of us here – maybe many of us here, maybe all of us here – were once weeds ourselves, but through God’s amazing grace, have been transformed into wheat. “Let them grow together,” He says because He is giving us all the time we need to do the same. He wants all the weeds to become the beautiful wheat of His harvest.It might be nature’s way to cast off the ones who don’t look like they are going to make it. But, that is not God’s way and it most certainly should not be our way. Pope Francis said, “Let the Church always be a place of mercy and hope, where everyone is welcomed, loved and forgiven." Let’s make his words our words too.

May the Lord give you peace.

Friday, July 4, 2014

We hold these truths to be self-evident...


Happy Independence Day! Sort of. You may know that the Second Continental Congress actually voted to separate from Great Britain on July 2, 1776, but it took a few days to do the paperwork. John Adams was certain that July 2nd would be commemorated as our nation's Day of Independence (since it was the actual day). So certain, he wrote to his wife Abigail on July 3, "The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more." But, the Declaration itself had that "July 4th" date so prominently displayed at the top, that ended up winning the day. Some had also suggested August 2 as our national celebration since that was the day that most of the colonial representatives actually signed the document. Interesting history, but I think we can agree 238 years later, the issue is settled - HAPPY 4th!! Personally, a tradition I follow each year is to read the Declaration of Independence out loud. It is a wonderful experience. The words are powerful and often inspiring. I hope you try it:

IN CONGRESS, JULY 4, 1776
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

John Hancock
New Hampshire:Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple, Matthew Thornton
Massachusetts:John Hancock, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, Elbridge Gerry
Rhode Island:Stephen Hopkins, William Ellery
Connecticut:Roger Sherman, Samuel Huntington, William Williams, Oliver Wolcott
New York:William Floyd, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis, Lewis Morris
New Jersey:Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon, Francis Hopkinson, John Hart, Abraham ClarkPennsylvania:Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, John Morton, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, James Wilson, George Ross
Delaware:Caesar Rodney, George Read, Thomas McKean
Maryland:Samuel Chase, William Paca, Thomas Stone, Charles Carroll of Carrollton
Virginia:George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton
North Carolina:William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, John Penn
South Carolina:Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr., Arthur Middleton
Georgia:Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, George Walton

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Welcome all into the fold of God's people | Bishop Edgar da Cunha

NOTE: It was announced today that Pope Francis has chosen Bishop Edgar da Cunha, SDV, currently Auxiliary Bishop of the Newark Diocese, to become the new Bishop of Fall River (my home Diocese).  I didn't know much about him, so I've been doing some online research this morning and so far am VERY impressed with our new shepherd.  Of course, I love that he is a fellow religious. And he certainly seems to be a man who shares the same love of the poor and immigrant that is such a hallmark of Pope Francis' pontificate. Here is an example. I found this homily on the USCCB website by Bishop da Cunha. It reminds me of a favorite quote of Pope Francis, "Let the Church always be a place of mercy and hope, where everyone is welcomed, loved and forgiven." This homily by Bishop da Cunha was delivered on May 8, 2010:

Bishop Edgar da Cunha, SDV
In our first reading from Acts 16:1-10 Luke tells us that the apostles decided that gentiles need not be circumcised or follow Jewish law and that , as a result, “the churches grew stronger in faith and increased in number.” What better result could we hope for, what else could we want? But what can we do today to make our “Church grow in faith and increase in number”? We need to imitate the action of the apostles and welcome all into the fold of God’s people. 

In contrast to the attitude of the apostles was the way African slaves were treated. Tens of thousands of them were captured and sold for labor in the New World from the 16th to the 19th Century. Before they were hauled into the ships, they were required to go through a ritual where they were stripped naked and had to go around the “Tree of Forgetfulness.” Men went around it nine times and women and children seven times. After that they went through the “Gate of No Return”. This ritual was meant to have them forget who they were, their background, their traditions, customs, religion, and all they were. It was like reformatting your hard drive. Huge efforts were made to cut them off from their past, but they failed. The “Tree of Forgetfulness” did not work. They could take the slaves out of Africa but they could never take Africa out of the slaves.

We can take people out of their land, their home, their country, but we cannot take these vital memories and roots out of them. So, we might as well embrace them with their uniqueness, their differences, their language, their culture, and tradition. That is the way the Church is going to “grow stronger in faith and increase in number.” 

We know that uniformity is not possible and it shouldn’t even be desired. So, our effort is not for uniformity but for unity. We all remember the song from Carry Landry: “There is a time for building bridges and that time is NOW. Take our hearts, Lord, take our minds, take our hands and make them ONE.” We know how difficult this task is, but we must never stop praying for it and working on it.

We know we can catch more flies with one drop of honey than with a barrel of vinegar. Unfortunately when some of the people knock on the doors of our churches they are given vinegar. We want to serve them honey.