Saturday, August 27, 2016

Finding Christ in the Poor


One of the first things Pope Francis did three years ago following his election was meet with the media and, of course, they immediately asked him why he had chosen the name Francis. He answered, “Some people wanted to know why I wished to be called Francis. Some thought of Francis Xavier, Francis De Sales, and also Francis of Assisi. I will tell you the story. During the election, I was seated next to the Archbishop Emeritus of São Paolo, Cardinal Claudio Hummes: a good friend [and a Franciscan, I might add]! When things were looking dangerous, he encouraged me. And when the votes reached two thirds, there was the usual applause, because the Pope had been elected. And he gave me a hug and a kiss, and leaned in and said: ‘Don't forget the poor!’ And those words came to me: the poor, the poor. Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then, I thought of all the wars in the world, as the votes were still being counted, till the end. Francis

is also the man of peace. That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi. For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation. He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man. How I would like a Church which is poor and is for the poor!”

I couldn’t help but think of this story from the very beginning of this papacy, not just because I am a Franciscan, but because I think it speaks to what Jesus is telling us today in the Gospel. Jesus tells us today, “When you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

We know that the poor were the most beloved of Jesus. The Beatitudes are themselves a hymn of praise for the poor. Just look who are listed among the blessed. Blessed are you: who are poor, who are hungry, who are meek, who are persecuted – it is to them that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs. Jesus loved the poor and spent most of His time among them. They held a special place in His heart. And Pope Francis is reminding us that love for the poor is meant to be at the heart of our call too. He is reminding us that we are most perfectly and beautifully and clearly Church when we are in direct contact with these most beloved of Jesus – with the poor.

Our Christian message is so pure when we serve the poor, isn’t it? Just think of all the times that we have to explain Catholic doctrine and dogma – whether it’s the theology of the Eucharist or Confession or our teachings on marriage – these are complex and deep and abiding mysteries that are not easily understood. But, when we feed the hungry in a soup kitchen, does that require explanation? When we house the homeless, does anyone miss the faith connection? When we give warm coats and blankets to the needy in the cold winter, do we need to write a doctrinal thesis? No, our faith and its witness is pure and powerful when we love the poor and when we show that love for the poor in what we do. This is what Pope Francis means when he speaks of wanting “a church that is poor and for the poor.” A Church that is poor and is for the poor is pure in its intent, its mission and its witness.

But, we live in a world that wants to say that the poverty around us is always someone else’s problem. President Ronald Reagan in 1986 declared the War on Poverty over. “And poverty won,” he infamously said. That is unacceptable to us who follow Jesus, the great lover of the poor.

My friends, we are called to let our faith inspire in us the same kind of love for those who are in need in our world. To develop a mercy in our hearts so that when we see someone who is homeless, someone who is hungry, someone who is in need, we don’t fall into the trap of our culture to blame the poor for their poverty, but instead to look on them as precious in the sight of God; beloved in the eyes of Jesus; and so beloved in our eyes as well. The poor are our prime constituency, they are our focus and they need to be our preferential option. And more importantly, they need to be our brothers and sisters who we seek out with joy and mercy to help in their need. When we love the poor, we do more than simply make their difficult their lives better, it is more than mere philanthropy. When we love the poor, we are loving God; when we reach out to the poor, we are encountering God; when we find the poor in our midst, we discover God in our midst. “What you did for the least of my sisters and brothers, you did for Me.”

Two years ago, for the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, the Pope reflected on the moment when Jesus invited Thomas to touch His wounds. He said, “The path to our encounter with Jesus are his wounds. There is no other. We find Jesus’ wounds in carrying out works of mercy, giving to the body of your wounded brother, because he is hungry, because he is thirsty, because he is naked, because it is humiliated, because he is a slave, because he's in jail, because he is in the hospital. Those are the wounds of Jesus today. And Jesus asks us to take a leap of faith, towards Him, but through these His wounds. We need to touch the wounds of Jesus, we must caress the wounds of Jesus, we need to bind the wounds of Jesus with tenderness, we have to kiss the wounds of Jesus, and this literally. Just think of what happened to St. Francis, when he embraced the leper? The same thing that happened to Thomas: his life changed."

Let us allow our discovery of God here at Mass – in Word and Sacrament – be the inspiration that leads us to discover Him once again outside of this church, in all the people we meet, but especially in the poor and those in need. Truly then, we are living as daughters and sons of God. Truly, if we love to poor and reach them in their need, this will change everything for us too.

May the Lord give you peace.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Now that is the right question!


I saw a great cartoon earlier this week. It showed a Dad knocking on a bedroom door. From inside the room, a voice cries out, “No! I don’t wanna go back to school!” The man says in reply, “I know honey. I know. But, you have to.” The voice asks, “Why?” The man responds, “Because, honey, you’re the teacher!” Maybe some of you can relate to this theme? This is indeed for many a conflicted time of year – for parents, rejoicing; for teachers and kids, dread – but I think today we can learn something valuable from it in terms of our faith.

Summer is such a wonderful time of year. Everything seems to move at a different pace. We put more emphasis on being with family and friends; on relaxing and enjoying the outdoors, good food, one another. We go to cookouts, baseball games, summer camp, the beach; we have vacation time, and so on. And especially as the days of summer begin to wane, we really want all of it to go on forever. But, the reality is that we know we must return to the orderliness, the discipline, the work of the school year. There’s just no quick or easy way around it. Despite the fact that many of us perhaps don’t want to go to school, or work, or back to the regular pace of life, we have to. We must return to gain knowledge, to learn how to live and interact in our society, to gain and perfect the skills we need in life; to earn the money we need to enjoy the pace of summer. And, no matter how much we convince ourselves that we could find an easy way around it, there simply isn’t one.

There is a similarly conflicted reality in what Jesus is telling his followers in today’s Gospel. Someone asks him, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” Jesus responds, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” This is not the answer they were looking for; I’m sure it’s not the answer we wanted to hear either. We would like Jesus to tell us, “Don’t worry, be happy. Do what you want, everyone is saved!”

But, I think rather than the wrong answer in our Gospel, perhaps the real problem here is that the man in our Gospel isn’t asking the right question. He asks, “Will only a few be saved?” when what he really should have asked was, “Lord, how can I be saved?” Rather than a mere curiosity about others being saved, we need to be asking, “What do I need to do to be saved? How can I serve God better in my life today, right now? How can I make reach out and be the kind, loving, compassionate, forgiving presence God has called me to be?”

Too often, we turn our faith into a matter of comparison. In other words, as long as there is someone else worse than me, then somehow I’m okay. But, our faith in Jesus isn’t comparative, it is personal. It is a one-on-one relationship with the very means of our salvation – Jesus Himself. Jesus shows us in Word and Sacrament everything we need to know for our salvation. The gate is indeed narrow and we have to do the hard work to be ready to walk through it. But, the gate is open and it is the right size for each of us to walk through. All we have to do is follow the person ahead of us through that gate; and that person is Jesus.

We can feel like those who were turned away who said, “But, we ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.” We might feel the same way, “Lord, we have eaten Your Body and we drank of Your Blood and You taught in our Church. Isn’t this enough?”

To this Jesus says: “Eating and drinking beside Me is not the same as eating and drinking with Me. You can be near Me and not a part of Me. You can hear Me without ever listening to Me. You can know Me and still not accept Me. You can wink at Me while never loving Me. You see, I am not the one that is locking you out. You are locking yourself out. I’m not closing the door on you. It is you who close the door on Me. Acknowledge Me, accept Me, love Me and then follow Me through the door that leads to My Kingdom.”

This is how we pass through the Narrow Gate – by allowing God to change us, to form us, and transform us. Remember, Jesus tells us, “I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved.” My friends, let us ask today, “What must I do to be saved?” And may God give us the strength to follow.

May the Lord give you peace.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

The day is today, the hour is now!


A priest walked into a bar and made an announcement. He said, “Anyone who wants to go to heaven, please stand up now." Everyone there stood up except for one man who continued to sip his drink at the bar. The priest said to him, “Sir, don't you want to go to heaven when you die?” The man looked up and said, “When I die? Yes. But, I thought you were gathering a group to go right now.”

We heard in our Gospel today, “You must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come." I had a chance last year to spend a month in Italy doing some work at our Franciscan sites in Assisi. It was a great experience to be in our Franciscan homeland, but also a great chance to experience Italian culture. One of the wonderful aspects of this culture is that Italians are known for their relaxed approach to life. For example, an afternoon siesta is a must, and they take the whole month of August off for vacation. Sounds pretty good. But, they are also fond of frequently responding “Domani” to many requests. Domani is the Italian word for “tomorrow.” So, can you help me today? Domani, come have some wine; domani, have some prosciutto; have a little pasta. It is a domani culture. For those who don’t know, the word “domani” means “tomorrow.” In most ways this is admirable. It’s an approach that places family and friends and engaging the other first over the more mundane and tiresome aspects of life. But, as we are reminded today, there is one area of our life that we cannot take a domani approach and that is in our life of faith.

“At an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come." Today’s Gospel challenges when it comes to our faith life, not be people of tomorrow, but, instead, to be people who are filled with the love of God, who live lives dedicated to Christ, who are ready for his return - today.

There’s a bumper sticker that says, “Jesus is coming – look busy.” My friends, if Jesus were to come today, right now, here during this Mass what would He find? Would He find in us a people who had prepared themselves for His return? Ready for His judgment? Or would He people who have said, Domani, tomorrow Lord; tomorrow I will get my relationship with You in order. Tomorrow I will work on my sins. Tomorrow I will say “I’m sorry”. Tomorrow I will right that wrong. I do love you Lord, and dedicate myself to You, but not today – tomorrow, domani.

“At an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come." Jesus is right, we do not know the day or the hour that He will return, but we do know the day and the hour that we can get ready – the day and the hour are right now. Jesus wants us to live completely and fully in His love; to be freed completely and fully from our sins through the gift and grace of Confession; to be filled with the power and holiness that comes through His Body and Blood. He wants us, quite simply and quite profoundly, to be the people that He created us to be. And, He wants us to be that today, not tomorrow. And all we have to do is choose it. Choose Christ. Choose holiness. Choose goodness and kindness and compassion.

Pope Francis said recently at World Youth Day in Poland, “I ask you: Are you looking for empty thrills in life, or do you want to feel a power that can give you a lasting sense of life and fulfillment? To find fulfillment, to gain new strength, there is a way. It is not a thing or an object, but a person, and he is alive. His name is Jesus Christ. All together, then, we ask the Lord: Launch us on the adventure of mercy! Launch us on the adventure of building bridges and tearing down walls, barriers and barbed wire. Launch us on the adventure of helping the poor, those who feel lonely and abandoned, or no longer find meaning in their lives. The Lord does not keep his distance, but is near and real. He is in our midst and he takes care of us.”

So my friends, today is the day for us all to cast off our fear, to cast off our lack of trust, to cast off whatever it is that has kept us up until this point from living fully and completely for God.

In fact, we do know the day and the hour of our faith. The day is today and the hour is now. Let us be the ones who are ready for the Savior’s return. Let us surrender our hearts and our lives to Him. Let us ‘put on Christ’ and live for God alone and our lives will be full and happy and holy and fruitful. Let us all be able to say: Jesus is coming, I am ready!

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...