Saturday, August 25, 2018

Homily for Ordinary Time 21 - August 26, 2018

Homily for Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 16, 2018
Why Be Catholic

            There are about seventy million Catholics in the United States, making it the single largest denomination in the country. But of those seventy million Catholics, 52% of them – more than half – will leave the Church at some point. It’s often said that the largest denomination is Catholics, the second-largest is ex-Catholics. Why do people walk away?
            A large reason is because they do not know why they are Catholic in the first place. They may not know what they believe or why they believe it.
            The Gospel also features people walking away. They are faced with a difficult teaching – Jesus had just told them that they would have to “eat His flesh and drink His blood” in order to be close to Him. For this difficult teaching, people walk away. But some stay, and Peter speaks for them all when He says, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.”
            Let’s be honest – it’s not always easy to be Catholic. Just recently there have been scandals in the news; reports of bishops and cardinals abusing their power and acting inappropriately. There are times that we might disagree with a priest or dislike the music or our fellow parishioners. Why should we stay Catholic when it seems like Stanwich Evangelical Church is doing so much better, with better music and better preaching and the people are far more welcoming and faithful to the Lord?
            I wrestled with that same question as a teen. I loved the Lord, but found my parish to be less-than-inspiring. The music was mediocre, the priests were uninspiring (and one of them got involved in a scandal of his own), and the people were cold. So for a couple Sundays, I explored other Protestant churches. I was amazed at the difference! They were friendly, welcoming, with a real sense of family and a deep love for the Lord.
            But…they lacked so much of the Truth. They did not have the Eucharist, or devotion to Mary, or the Pope, or saints, or even the full Scriptures (Protestants took out seven books of the Old Testament). I realized that the only reason to stay Catholic is because Catholicism is the truth.
            Recently I was having a conversation with four wonderful, faith-filled Catholics. I asked them what they loved about the Catholic Church. They said, “Oh, you know, the feeling you get when you go to church.” Or, “It’s just that sense of community.” That’s all well and good, and I’m glad they felt good and loved when they came to Mass, but what if the feeling disappears? What if a pastor comes in who you can’t stand? What if you have a fight with members of the parish and all that “good community” dries up? Will you, like the people in the Gospel, simply walk away from the Catholic Church?
            We remain Catholic because it is the Church that Jesus Christ founded. We remain Catholic because it is the Church where we receive His true Body and Blood. We remain Catholic because it has faithfully and without error handed down all of the teachings of Jesus.
            We do NOT remain Catholic because we like Fr. So-and-so, or because we have an attachment to a building or a community or a feeling we get when we’re here. Fr. So-and-so might disappoint us, our building might crumble, the community might not be there when we need them, our feelings may disappear. But we can trust that the Church will lead us to Jesus Christ, and He promised that the gates of Hell will not prevail against this Catholic Church – and that’s reason enough to stay.
            We should take the words of Peter as our own: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You – speaking in and through Your divinely-inspired Church – have the words of everlasting life.”

Monday, August 20, 2018

Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time - August 19, 2018

Homily for Ordinary Time 20
August 19, 2018
Why the Eucharist?

            In 1345 in Wawel, Poland, thieves broke into a church and began to steal the vessels. They even broke into the tabernacle and stole the ciborium (vessel that holds the Eucharistic hosts). Later that day as they were examining their cache of stolen goods, they realized that the ciborium was not gold but only gold-plated, and not as valuable as they thought. In frustration, they threw the ciborium, with the Eucharist still inside, into a nearby swamp.
            That evening, the priests of the church saw that their church had been broken into. They began to search the town for clues, but could find none. Completely dispirited and saddened, they returned home, praying that God would return the vessels – and the Eucharist – to the church.
            That night, when darkness had fallen, several townspeople noticed something strange coming from the swamp. Bright lights seemed to radiate from the moist ground. They immediately reported this to the Bishop, who ordered three days of fasting and prayer. On the third day, the Bishop led a procession out to the swamp, where he discovered the source of the light: the Eucharist was radiating bright beams of light into the air. The Bishop was able to return the ciborium with the unharmed Eucharistic Lord to the Church. When the King of Poland, King Casimir III, heard of this miracle, he was so amazed that he ordered a huge basilica to be built on the spot – a church which still stands today.
            Clearly the Eucharist is the greatest thing in the Universe – the very Flesh and Blood of God. Not a symbol, not a sign, but His true Body, hidden beneath the species of bread and wine. But why did He give it to us? It seemed bizarre to the Jews, who murmured and complained about this teaching. Why did He give us His flesh to eat?
            Two reasons. First, what was the first sin, the sin of Adam and Eve? It was eating. Our disobedience came through consuming – taking into our flesh – the sinful fruit. Thus, we can only be saved by obedience to Christ’s words, “Take and eat” – consuming His Body. The Eucharist is the medicine that undoes the disease of sin.
            Second, what closer way is there to be united to something than to eat it? When I eat an apple, it becomes digested and metabolized so that all the nutrients – calories, vitamins, minerals – literally become a part of my muscles and skin and hair (what little I have left!). Likewise, Christ wants to unite Himself to us. But this union can’t be merely spiritual, because we are not just spiritual beings. We have a body, and it’s in and through our body that we practice virtue or vice, that we sin or do good deeds. Our body is a critical part of us, so Jesus knew that He had to save our bodies along with our souls. Thus, for Him to dwell deep within our entire selves – body and soul – He needed to give Himself in a way that He can literally dwell in every cell of our body and every recess of our soul. Hence, the Eucharist.
            It takes faith to see Him. He comes to us veiled in something very common and ordinary – bread and wine – so that we are not afraid to receive Him. After all, who would want to approach the Communion line if you received a jiggling, bleeding piece of flesh! But because God knows our frailty, He hides Himself in a way we can understand and receive.
            We need not ask, “God, where are You?” He has not abandoned us so long as the Eucharist is with us. Let us approach Him with greater fervor and love, for He has humbled Himself so that He could dwell in our body and soul.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time - August 12, 2018

Homily for August 12, 2018
Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Eucharist, Part 1

            Recently a priest was telling me that a man in his parish was criticizing him for elevating the Host too long during Mass. The man said to the priest, “You hold that up like it’s the most important thing in the world!”
            Let that sink in for a moment…the Eucharist literally is the most important thing in the world. But a 2010 study found that only 63% of Catholics actually believe that Jesus Christ is truly present in the Eucharist. Let’s look at why we believe that the Eucharist is truly Christ’s Body and Blood.
            First, Jesus Himself said that the Eucharist is His Body and Blood. We just heard the powerful words of Jesus in John’s Gospel, Chapter 6: “The bread that I will give is My Flesh for the life of the world.” Let’s put that statement in context. Jesus is talking about Himself as the Bread of Life – could that possibly be symbolic? Yes, of course. Jesus says He is the Vine, He is the Light, He is the Gate…and He is not literally a vine, a light bulb, or a gate. But then Jesus goes on and makes it more explicit – He is not just the Bread, but His Flesh is the Bread that we must consume.
            In Greek, there are two words for eating. Ephago simply means to eat. This could be used symbolically, like when sometimes in English we say that we are “chewing” on an idea. We are not literally putting the idea in our mouth and chomping on it. But the other word is Trogon which means to chew, gnaw, grind with our teeth. It’s a very graphic verb that cannot be used symbolically – it’s a literal word. And this is the word that Jesus uses in John 6 to describe the Eucharist. He says, “You must trogon (chew, gnaw) My Flesh and drink My Blood.”
            Look, too, at the reaction of the Jewish people. They get more and more disgusted until they finally walk away. In two weeks, we will see them turning from the Lord because of the difficulty of this teaching. Jesus does not follow after them – rather, He turns to His Apostles and asks if they will also be leaving. This shows that Jesus is serious about His teaching that the Eucharist is truly His Body and Blood!
            But there are other reasons why we believe that the Eucharist is truly Him and not just a symbol. For example, the Church has always believed it, even from the beginning. I once wondered aloud to one of my professors in seminary, “Why is there nothing about the Eucharist in the Creed?” He replied, “Because no one doubted it in the early Church.” One of the early Church fathers, St. Justin Martyr, wrote around the year 150: “For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word is the flesh and blood of that Jesus." No one doubted Christ’s Real Presence, really, until Martin Luther in 1517. So since it was always and everywhere believed, we can be confident that it is true.
            Finally, there have been Eucharistic miracles throughout the centuries that help us to believe more strongly. I have seen one in a small town called O’Cebriero in Spain. Around the year 1300, during an intense blizzard, an unbelieving priest didn’t want to celebrate Mass out of laziness and a lack of faith. No one was coming to church in such horrible weather, so he prepared to lock up the church when he spotted one single peasant trudging through the deep snow to Mass. Reluctantly he welcomed the peasant into church, muttering, “You came all this way for a piece of bread?”
            He began to say Mass for this one peasant, and when he reached the consecration, the Eucharist turned into visible flesh and blood, and all of the statues in the church turned and bowed down to the Host on the altar. The priest was completely stunned and resolved to reform his life. The Eucharist-turned-flesh has been preserved, as have the statues which now face the altar and are inclined in a bow. There have been over 120 Eucharistic miracles that science cannot explain, some as recent as 2009.
            So what does all this mean to us? Since the Eucharist is truly the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, it literally is the most valuable thing in the universe. We ought to come to approach Him in this Holy Sacrament every Sunday without fail. What could possibly be more important for your time than the Eucharist? Can a sports game or a vacation compete with receiving the God of the Universe?
            A Protestant was once speaking with a Catholic priest, and the Protestant said, “If I believed what you believe about the Eucharist, I would come into the church on my knees!” He recognized the truth – that the Creator, Redeemer, Savior is present in the Eucharist. To prepare for reception of Holy Communion, then, we must make sure that our bodies are prepared – that we are dressed appropriately, and we receive Him with clean hands. The Church asks us to fast for one hour before receiving Him – not eating or drinking anything but water (and that includes no gum or coffee either!). This is to help us realize that this is not just a snack but is truly a unique and life-giving type of Divine Food.
            But in addition to being physically prepared, we must be spiritually prepared. That means that we must not be conscious of any mortal sin on our soul in order to receive Him worthily. Get to confession frequently to make the Eucharist fruitful. If you plant seeds on rocky ground, it doesn’t grow. If you receive the Eucharist without first removing sin, it bears no fruit and does not help you grow in holiness.
            My friends, I would not give up my life to give people merely bread on Sunday mornings. I would give up my life to change bread into the Body of Christ. Prepare your hearts – we are preparing to receive the True Flesh and Blood of Jesus in a few moments.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time - August 5, 2018

Homily for August 5, 2018
Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time
The Highest Good

            Over the centuries, God has given certain spiritual gifts to saints that we might find unpleasant. For example, many saints have had the stigmata, which is the wounds of Christ. St. Padre Pio is one of the most recent examples, from the early 1900s – when he was praying in the chapel one day, he saw light shoot out from the Crucifix and enter his hands, feet, and side. He was overcome with pain and fainted. Upon awakening, he was shocked to discover that he had the five wounds of Christ. For the next forty years, he bore these wounds. Scientists and doctors tested him, and found that these wounds were not caused by human beings. He bled about a pint of blood each day – if an ordinary person lost as much, he would soon be dead, which shows that it was truly miraculous! One time a woman asked Padre Pio if the wounds hurt, and he replied with a twinkle, “Do you think God gave them to me for good looks?”
            Another spiritual gift that God has given was the gift of surviving on nothing but the Eucharist. For example, St. Nicholas of Flue (a 15th Century Swiss saint) was given permission by his spiritual director to eat nothing but the Eucharist for over twenty years. When he tried to eat other things, he would get violently ill. His own fellow townspeople were so skeptical about this that they once hired ten soldiers to guard his house continuously for a month, to see if he was sneaking food at night, but they soon found that St. Nicholas of Flue had truly eaten nothing that month except the Holy Eucharist, and survived as strong as any other man.
            Now, I don’t know about you, but I think I would struggle to see these as “gifts”. If Jesus appeared to you or I and said, “I’d like to give you a gift – please accept My Five Wounds, which will cause you agonizing pain until the day you die,” we might say, “Thanks, but no thanks!” Or if God asked me to refrain from food for twenty years, I’d probably respond, “But Lord, I’m really gonna miss pizza and ice cream!” We wouldn’t want these gifts because of the difficulty and the cost, even though they would make us profoundly holy and make us more like Christ!
            All the time, both in Scripture and in our lives, God offers us a higher good, but we choose a lesser one. Our first reading features the Israelites who had just been freed from slavery in Egypt. God did remarkable signs – the 10 Plagues, the parting of the Red Sea – and now they are headed into the Promised Land, a place filled with milk and honey, but on the road the people begin to complain. “Man, slavery wasn’t that bad because at least we had good food!” God wanted to offer them freedom; they preferred beef stew. Talk about choosing a lower good over a higher good!
            But the same thing happens in the Gospel. Jesus had just performed a miracle that we read last week – the multiplication of Loaves & Fishes to feed five thousand people. The people are so excited that they try to make Him king, but as He is not supposed to be an earthly political king, He flees to the mountain. The next day they find Him, but Jesus goes right to the heart of things: “You are not seeking Me because you saw the signs (in other words, because you believe in Me as the Savior) but because you ate the loaves (because you want free food).” Jesus wanted to offer them forgiveness for their sins, a relationship with the Living God, and eternal life…and all they wanted was more free food.
            Free food isn’t bad; it’s just a lesser good than the good that God wants to give us. And how often do we choose the lesser good over the greater? God wants us to be holy; we want to be comfortable. God wants to invite us into a living relationship with Him through prayer; we’d rather watch TV. God wants to make us rich in virtue; we’d prefer to be rich in our bank account. We so often choose the lesser good over the greater good.
            This is a result of original sin called concupiscence. Concupiscence means “dis-ordered desires.” In other words, we desire things we know are not the highest goods! Because of original sin, chocolate seems more appealing than broccoli, sleeping is more desirable than working out, wasting time on the internet seems better than reading Scripture. Because of concupiscence and original sin, our desires are disordered (in the philosophical sense) because they are not “ordered” (directed) towards the highest good.
            So what must we do? We must practice discipline if we are to gain mastery over these unruly desires. The word “discipline” and “disciple” are from the same root in Latin – if we wish to be good disciples, we must discipline our desires. Our Church gives us several tools to grow in self-disciplines – namely, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We pray so that we can give Christ the firstfruits of our time and energy. We fast so that physical pleasure does not take the place of higher goods. We give generously of our time and money to others so that money does not become our god.
            These three practices are often recommended during Lent, but they are vital any time of year, since the spiritual battle over concupiscence is never-ending. We are daily tempted to choose a lesser good over a higher good. We are always tempted to play video games instead of reading a saint book; to seek the comfort of the couch over the discipline of doing the dishes; to seek the quick pleasure of spreading a piece of gossip instead of the deeper joy of growing in Christian charity.
            Next time we are faced with the choice to choose a lesser good over a higher good, seek the higher, even if it costs. It takes discipline; it takes struggle. But just like a determined athlete can enjoy a winning season only through countless hours of practice, so a Christian can only enjoy the fruits of a deeper relationship with the Lord through constantly denying oneself the lesser good so as to possess the greatest good there is: life in Christ.