Friday, September 25, 2015

Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time - September 27, 2015

Homily for 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

September 27, 2015

Radical Holiness


            Larry Bird was perhaps the greatest basketball player in history, but it didn’t always come naturally. Every morning before school, he would go to the gym and shoot 500 free-throws. Rain or shine, no matter what else, he would shoot those free throws. He was so dedicated that even when he sustained a severe ankle injury in a game, the next morning he was back out on the court shooting his free throws while balancing on his crutches!

            Some might call that crazy. I’m sure his friends said, “C’mon, Larry, you don’t need to practice every day. Why not take a day off? Why not shoot only 100 free throws today, not 500?” But Larry had a goal – to become the best basketball player ever – and he achieved it!

            So, if holiness is our goal, what do we need to do to accomplish it? Today’s readings seem pretty harsh. Really, Jesus, do we need to cut off our hand if it causes us to sin? Really, St. James, you tell us that if we use our money for self-indulgence instead of generosity, then we will be judged worthy of Hell, as our second reading states? All that seems pretty severe! But it emphasizes how we have to be radical in order to become saints.

            Recently I came across a website that had the 10 Best Wedding Proposals. They included a man who proposed to his fiancĂ©e while they were both skydiving, another man (who was a professional stuntman) who lit himself on fire before saying to his future spouse, “You light up my life. Will you marry me?” And finally, a man who paid $85,000 to produce a TV ad asking his girlfriend to marry him. All of this sounds a bit extreme, doesn’t it? Kinda makes dinner and a movie seem dull by comparison! But the reality is, love is radical. When you love someone, you don’t just want to give them a little bit – you want to give them everything, go to extremes to show your love!

            And this is what the saints did. One time St. Francis was being strongly tempted by lust…so to rid himself of the temptation, he threw himself into a thorn bush. St. Philip Neri was so in love with God that his Masses used to take up to eight hours, as he would get lost in raptures of love. St. Marianne Cope (who was from Syracuse, NY), had so much compassion for the sick that she moved to a leper colony in Hawaii to spend her life serving those who were dying. St. Thomas More had the chance to become the second-most powerful man in England…but he chose his Faith over his King, and died as a martyr for Christ.

            The saints lived radical lives! No saint was a half-hearted follower of Christ. Their love for God was so intense that it drove them to do crazy things…like the extreme things our Lord is requiring of every Christian in today’s Gospel. Heroism isn’t just for saints – it’s for you and me, because we too are called to become saints!

            So, while Jesus doesn’t mean literally cut off your hands to avoid sin, He does mean be radical in following Him. If your iPhone leads you into porn, get rid of your iPhone or at least put an internet filter on it – no excuses! If going to certain parties means we’re be tempted to get drunk, maybe we shouldn’t go to such parties. If your kid’s sports games cause you to be too busy for Mass on Sunday, get rid of it! (The sports, not the kid). That is how radical Christ is asking us to be!

            If we’re not willing to be extreme, then our love is very small. You and I were created to be heroic saints, not mediocre people, living life on the fence. Jesus wants our whole hearts, our whole lives. After all, God’s love for us is foolishly radical – that God would want to become one of us, and allow us to crucify Him. He held nothing back. Will you?

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Homily for Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time - September 20, 2015

Homily for 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

September 20, 2015

Papal Visit


            The big exciting news for the Catholic Church in America these days is that Pope Francis is coming! Surely you’ve been seeing the news coverage of the Pope’s historic visit. This might be a good time to reflect upon the Pope’s role in world and in the Church, especially since there is a great deal of anticipation for the visit of the Holy Father!

Personally, I wish I could go see him, but it’s not to be. I was blessed back in 1995 to be in Oriole Park in Baltimore when Pope John Paul II came to visit. That was such a special experience, but since I was eleven years old, I remember being far more excited about being in a major league baseball stadium for the first time than in actually seeing the Pope.

We as Catholics should always love the Pope. The word “pope” comes from the Latin word for “father” – and thus, as his spiritual children, we should have a filial love for him. The Pope is often called the “Vicar of Christ” – in other words, he “stands in” for Christ, teaching with His authority. Therefore, if we love Christ, then we should love the Pope, Who stands in his place.

Jesus gave authority to the first Pope, Peter, in Matthew 16 when He promised Peter “the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven”. Consider how awesome that is! Jesus is leaving His Church, His entire mission of saving the human race from eternal damnation, in the hands of a mere man – the Pope, the successor of St. Peter.

Now, over the centuries, we have had saintly Popes like Pope St. John Paul II (the Great) and we have had wicked popes like Pope Sixtus V who spent all the money in the Vatican treasury and had several girlfriends on the side (generally frowned upon when being Pope!). And we have had Popes who were pretty mediocre. But the Church has carried on, despite the weaknesses and failings of each individual Pope.

Just before the French general Napoleon marched on Rome in the 1800s to take the Pope captive, he famously had a debate with a churchman who was trying to talk him out of the plan. In frustration, Napoleon exclaimed, “Don’t you know that I can destroy the church!” The cardinal replied, “The clergy have been trying to destroy the church for 1800 years. We haven’t succeeded, and neither will you!”

This is, to me, one of the greatest arguments to prove that the Holy Spirit really is in charge of the Church – that despite church leaders who have often been weak, corrupt, sinful individuals, the Church itself has continued on with its mission of teaching, sanctifying, and governing the People of God. The Church must truly be a divine institution, because if it were merely the creation of human beings, it would have been destroyed by our own sinfulness!

You see, the Pope is not the head of the Church – Jesus Christ is the head of the Church. The Pope must be obedient to Christ, and Christ promised (in Matthew 16) that “the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church”. For this reason, while other churches come and go, nations rise and fall, fashions become popular and then fade away, the Catholic Church will always remain as the protector and bulwark of truth.

Because the Pope must be obedient to Christ, he is not free to change the teachings of the Church. The Pope is given the task of handing on, preserving, and enlivening the teachings of the Church – not changing the teachings. This is an important fact that the main-stream media does not seem to understand. The media has been portraying Pope Francis as someone who will “change” the teachings of the Church – whether it’s about married priests, divorce and remarriage, gay rights, Mass attendance, abortion, the environment, or any other controversial topic. The media seems to think that the Pope can just change any teaching he wishes, because the media sees the Pope as merely the CEO of a large corporation instead of an obedient servant to Christ. Yet the reality is: the Pope cannot change Church teaching! He is responsible for handing down the unchanging teachings of Christ. Although each Pope puts his own personal emphasis on Church teaching – such as Pope Francis’ wonderful focus on the poor – he cannot contradict what has been taught in the past.

We believe that the Pope, in union with the Bishops, have a special gift that preserves them from error when they teach in the name of Christ. This gift is called infallibility. This does not mean that everything the Pope says is true – if the Pope says that the Yankees will win the World Series, that doesn’t mean it will happen. Rather, infallibility means that when the Pope, in union with the Bishops, teaches something solemnly about faith or morals, the Holy Spirit guards them from making an error. This gift of infallibility does not mean that the Pope is a perfect person. The gift does allow us to be confident that whatever the Pope, with the Bishops, officially teaches as Church doctrine is actually what Jesus teaches about a certain topic.

So do not be deceived by media reports in the next few days, because the media wants us to believe that Pope Francis is taking the Church in a new direction. No, Pope Francis has always been faithful to Christ and His teachings. The Church only has one direction – Heavenward. That’s why the Church exists – to get us to Heaven – and that is precisely where our Holy Father is leading us!

But that is countercultural. Our first reading today is a beautiful meditation on why the Pope and the Church is often criticized in the media. The media generally wants to advocate for an “anything goes” mentality, a “this-world-is-all-there-is” viewpoint. And when the Church declares that our life’s goal is Heaven, and we get there by being a faithful disciple of Jesus, that goes against the values of the media. So the media tries to force the Church to “get with the times” and stop preaching about the Cross and other “old-fashioned” values such as discipline, purity, holiness.

But as we have watched, over the centuries, nations rise and fall…I’m sticking with the one thing that remains unchanged and solid: the Catholic Church, led by Pope Francis, who is the representative of Christ on earth, and who teaches us the true path to Heaven.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Homily for 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time - September 13, 2015

Homily for 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

September 13, 2015

The Cross


            Have you ever had to take unpleasant medicine? For most of my childhood I was too scared to swallow pills whole, so I would try to find creative ways to take medicine, which usually involved grinding up the pills and putting them into Tang or orange juice. That did very little to take away the absolutely disgusting taste of powdered Asprin!

            Sometimes it is necessary to do unpleasant things for our own benefit. Going to the dentist, studying for tests, working out, doing our taxes – these things are not fun, but in the long run they bring us greater peace and blessings.

            We just heard Jesus emphasize that His suffering and death on the Cross was necessary. But why? Why was it necessary for the Majestic King of Kings to die this horrific death on the Cross? Couldn’t He have redeemed us in some other way? After all, I believe it was St. Alphonsus Liguori who said, “A single drop of Jesus’ Blood could redeem a thousand worlds more sinful than ours.” Why did He have to undergo all of the tortures of His passion? I believe that there are three reasons.

            First, Jesus wanted to demonstrate the full ugliness and horror of sin. If God is the source of beauty and life, then to willingly separate ourselves from God means that we are choosing ugliness and death over life. We know this to be true – why is it that Mother Teresa, a wrinkled old nun, radiated such beauty and vitality? Because she was totally united to God, the Source of beauty and life. So, on the Cross, Jesus wanted to give us a visual experience of the true consequences of sin. His scourged body, with blood dripping down from His open wounds, hands and feet driven through with a nail reminded us of the hideous consequences of sin: death.

            Second, because Love gives, and perfect Love gives all. We see this in a healthy marriage – because a husband and wife love each other, they share the same bank account, they share the same bedroom, they want to give their lives to each other. Since God is love, and His love is not limited, He wanted to give everything to us. And what could be more of a gift than His very life, laid down on the Cross? As Jesus said, “No man has greater love than to lay down his life for his friend.” Jesus wanted to show us that His love was boundless, so He gave all that He could give!

            Third, on the Cross Jesus wanted to show us that He enters into the depth of human suffering to be with us. Now, no one can say to God, “You don’t know what suffering is like!” He DOES know what suffering is like, because He willingly entered into it. Not only was He physically tortured on the Cross, suffering more physical anguish than any human being in history, but He also suffered mental anguish – He experienced all of the guilt and shame of centuries of human sin; He experienced the fearful, soul-wracking anxiety of knowing everything that was going to happen to Him; He acutely felt separated from the Father, as He cried out, My God, My God, Why have You abandoned Me?

            He knows the depth of human pain because He entered into it, and paradoxically, He transformed it. It was through the Cross that He rose again to a new and more abundant life – as Pope Benedict XVI said, Jesus’ Resurrected body was not just like His first body, but He had entered into a new plane of existence. The Cross now for us the path to life. At the end of today’s Gospel He lays before us the paradox of Christianity – it’s by embracing the Cross that we find joy; it’s by laying down our life that we find it again.

            What does this look like practically? For an example, when we’re stuck in traffic, the world tells us to just get angry, drive aggressively, cut people off, and mutter curse words about the other drivers. To embrace the Cross is to realize that here is an opportunity to spend a few extra moments in prayer, to grow in patience, or to offer this small suffering up by uniting it, in our hearts, to Christ’s suffering on the Cross.

            Or, for another example, if we are blessed to have extra money, the world tells us to spend it on luxuries, and to always strive for more. To embrace the Cross is to realize that we have been given this money to do good for others, and we ought to be grateful to God for what He has given us.

            Or, for a final example, you come home from work and you’re tired, but your kids need help with their homework and your spouse forgot to take out the trash again and there’s a message on the answering machine from that cousin who needs to talk – again. The world tells us, you don’t deserve this. Get angry, or just walk out. But to embrace the Cross is to choose charity; to choose to die to yourself and engage your kids, to sacrifice for your spouse, to listen to that difficult cousin. Not easy – but embracing the Cross forms us to become saints.

            Embracing the cross is a paradox (a paradox is something that seems, at first glance, to be a contradiction, but is actually true). Embrace the Cross? Embrace an instrument of torture? Find life by dying to ourselves, by putting to death our sin, our unhealthy desires, our worldliness? Much of Christianity is absurd to those who, as Jesus put it, “are thinking not as God thinks, but as human beings do.” Fasting, for example – to a worldly person, it makes no sense to give up dessert. But for a spiritual person, fasting and making small sacrifices helps us grow in discipline and dependence on God. Or prayer – for a worldly person, prayer is a waste of time. But for a spiritual person it is intimacy with God. Our faith itself is absurd to those who do not believe!

Peter himself had a hard time accepting this teaching about embracing the Cross – he tried to rebuke Jesus about it. Peter was “thinking as the world thinks” – focusing on earthly pleasures, comfort, an easy life. But Peter did eventually embrace the Cross – in fact, St. Peter died by being crucified upside-down in Rome under the Roman Emperor Nero in 64AD. He was crucified upside-down because he told his executioners that he was not worthy to die in the same manner as the Lord. And because he was willing to embrace the Cross, it became the gateway to eternal life.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time - September 6, 2015

Homily for 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

September 6, 2015

Closed Ears, Closed Hearts


            St. Dominic Savio, the young saint from Italy who died at the age of fourteen, was known to be selective in his close friends. Although he was kind and patient with everyone, he only became close friends with boys whom he knew to be virtuous. One time, at the boarding school where he lived, there was a new student, a young man who looked pale and weak. Dominic quickly introduced himself to the boy, and they began a discussion. At one point, the new boy told Dominic that he was sick with a very serious illness.

            St. Dominic asked him, “Do you wish to get well?”

            The boy replied, “I don’t wish to get well. I just want to do the will of God, whatever He wants.”

            From that moment, St. Dominic immediately became friends with the boy – he could see that although his body was sick, his soul was quite healthy. They remained fast friends until the new boy died some years later from his illness.

            Today’s Gospel features two miracles from the Lord – granting hearing to a deaf man…but even greater than that, bringing that man to faith in Christ. Jesus opened his physical ears, and by doing so, opened his soul to faith.

            It is quite possible to be healthy in body and sick in spirit, just as it is quite possible to be sick in body but healthy in spirit. A healthy soul is one that is living in the state of grace, seeking holiness, having a personal relationship with Jesus.

            But just as the body can be sick and deaf, the soul can also be sick and deaf. In what ways?

            First, pride. Pride weakens our soul to the point of spiritual death. Pride is when we say to ourselves, “I don’t need God, I can live my life just fine without Him.” Pride also says, “I disagree with Church teaching – I’m going to decide for myself what’s right and wrong.” In both cases, our ears are closed to hearing the teaching of the Lord.

            Second, obstinate sin. If there is a sin in our lives that we enjoy, then we will not want to hear the Lord’s call to repentance. Our hearts will be hardened and deaf.

            Third, lack of prayer life. If we do not spend time in silence – substantial time, like ten or fifteen minutes per day - then we will never hear the Lord because all of the noise of everyday life will drown out His still, small voice.

            Fourth, being surrounded by bad influences. If we are the only one among our friends who is serious about following Christ, it’ll be very difficult to follow Him. If the music we listen to, the movies we watch, and the magazines we read are filled with messages such as “Money is the point of life,” “Have as much pleasure as you possibly can”, “This life is all there is, so anything goes,” – if these are the messages we constantly hear, our hearts will become deaf to the Truth. There are many competing voices in the world which can drown out the words of Christ.

            So, the antidote to all of this is humility, repentance, prayer, and seeking the Lord in Scripture, prayer, and spiritual reading.

            I’d like to close with a spiritual exercise: one powerful way to open our ears to listen to the Lord is to do the following meditation. Imagine that you are sitting at a table across from Jesus. First, tell Him how much you love Him. Tell Him any worries you have, any sins that you want to repent of, anything you wish to thank Him for. Then, be silent – what is He saying in response to you?