Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Everything You Wanted to Know About Epiphany But Were Afraid to Ask

Bulletin Column for January 5, 2020

            This weekend we celebrate the Epiphany! But who were these mysterious Magi who came from the East? Here are some things you may not know about the Magi!
            - Magi comes from the word “magus” in Greek, which in turn was borrowed from the Old Persian “Magus”. The Magus referred to a priestly class of the Zoroastrian religion in ancient Persia. Zoroastrians were unique in the ancient world in that they were monotheists, which was quite a radical idea – very different from the Greeks, Babylonians, Romans, and Egyptians that surrounded them, who worshipped multiple gods! Zoroastrians also had a concept of the Messiah, of heaven and hell, and many other similarities to Christianity. These Zoroastrian priests were close to encountering the True Faith because of their own pagan beliefs – God had been preparing them for the Truth through their own religion, so it’s no wonder that God chose them to come and encounter the Messiah in Bethlehem!
            - Magi is also where we get our English word “magic”, since these priests were skilled in astrology.
            - These magi were not “kings” – there is no Scriptural evidence for this!
            - We do not know how many magi visited the Lord! Christian culture has always posited three solely because they brought three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
            - The traditional names of Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar are not mentioned anywhere in the Bible. They come from a sixth-century tradition originating from Alexandria, Egypt. In other branches of the Catholic Church (for example, Syrian or Ethiopian) they have other names.
            - A very ancient tradition (dating to the 300s) posits that the three wise men were martyred for their newfound faith in Christ. Their relics were held in Milan for several centuries before being moved to the cathedral in Cologne, Germany, where they reside to this day.
            - The three gifts were of great value in the ancient world, and would be commonly given to a king. Gold was the most valuable metal. Frankincense is an aromatic incense made from the dried sap of the Boswellia tree, which is found in Africa, the Arabic peninsula, and India/southern Asia. It would be burned for its sweet-smelling smoke. Myrrh is a similar resin made from the Commiphora tree, native to north-eastern Africa and the Arabic peninsula. It has antiseptic properties and was often used in ancient medicine as a mouthwash or made into a tincture to heal wounds. It also has mild painkilling properties.
            - The three gifts were also highly symbolic in Christ’s life. We speak of Jesus as the Christ which is actually a title (not His last name!), as Christ means “Anointed One”. In the Old Testament, three groups of people were anointed with oil for their special role: priests, prophets, and kings. To call Jesus “the Christ” means that Jesus fulfills all three roles perfectly – He is the perfect High Priest who offers Himself in sacrifice, He is the fulfillment of all Prophets who speak on behalf of God and call Israel back to faithfulness, and He is the True King of Israel. These three gifts correspond with each of the three roles: gold was fitting tribute for the King of Kings; frankincense would be offered by the High Priest in worship; and myrrh, the bitter ointment, would richly symbolize the bitter death that Christ would suffer, as all of the prophets before Him did.
            - “Epiphany” means to have a revelation. This is a hugely significant day, theologically, because this is the first time that a non-Jew recognizes the Messiah. It shows that Jesus came to bring salvation to the entire world, not just to His people.
            - The three Wise Men did not visit Jesus in the manger. Luke’s Gospel is clear that they visited Jesus and Mary in a house – because this did NOT happen on the day of Christmas but probably several days or weeks later. More than likely, the Holy Family would have had time to find adequate lodging by then!
            - Throughout the world, the Feast of Epiphany is celebrated with many unique traditions! Hispanic countries often bake a “King Cake” (similar to the one made for Mardi Gras) which feature a miniature Baby Jesus baked into it – if you get the little plastic Jesus, you are supposed to win a prize! Others ask the Wise Men to bless their house by writing “2020 C+M+B” in chalk above their doorframe (for the year and the first letters of the names of the Wise Men – although it can also refer to Christus mansionem benedicat – “Christ bless this home”). Finally, others light multiple candles on this day, in remembrance of Christ being the light of the nations.
            Happy Epiphany!

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Feast of the Holy Family - December 29, 2019

Homily for Feast of the Holy Family
December 29, 2019

            I was once talking to a man who was having trouble with his two teenagers. He sighed to me, “Ah, you can’t live with ‘em; you can’t…sell ‘em on Ebay.”
            Family can be the greatest gift God gave us – and it can also be one of the most challenging. Someone else said to me this Christmas season, “Oh, I love my family…but only in small doses!” 
But our family was given to us to sanctify us. Family life is like taking a bunch of sharp rocks and tumbling them together. Through all the bumping and colliding, the rough edges get rubbed off until they become smooth pebbles. In the same way, in family life, our vices and flaws get smoothed out – if we let them. It’s not an easy process, but it does make us saints!
Let’s look at the Holy Family for an example of how to live in our family.
First, Joseph shows us that a man’s role is to be the spiritual leader of the house. It’s so significant that when God wants to communicate something to the entire Holy Family, He does so through Joseph – in today’s Gospel, we see God telling Joseph to take the family to Egypt, and then back to Israel. Even though Joseph was the only sinful member of the Holy Family (since Mary and Jesus were perfect), God still respected his authority by communicating directly with him about the Lord’s plans for the family.
In the same way, fathers and husbands have a critical role in leading the family’s faith life! A Swiss study from 2000 found that if only the father practices the Faith, the kids have a 38% chance of being a regular churchgoer when they grow up. If only the mother practices the faith, only 3% of kids will attend Mass weekly when they are adults. The study concluded that “It is the religious practice of the father of the family that, above all, determines the future attendance at or absence from church of the children.”
And this makes sense – when I was a little kid, my father was the strongest, greatest person I knew. He was my hero; he was the one I wanted to be just like. And when I saw him kneeling before God, I realized that if my hero needs God, then I do too! If the strongest man I know gets his strength from God, then I need to seek God as well.
Mothers and wives reflect God in a different and complementary way. It says several times in Scripture that “Mary treasured all these things in her heart.” Mary was the loving heart of the family. Her intimacy with God provided a loving heart to the home. The world could be a harsh and unforgiving place; I’m sure that after a long day of working with wood and tools and difficult customers, Joseph would have rejoiced to rest in the loving heart of Mary.
I have often seen this reflected in the unique relationship that men and women have with God. Men are most often inspired to do things for God; women most often seek intimacy with God. Both are needed; both are beautiful! So one beautiful role for the mother is to be that loving heart of the family, reflecting God’s tenderness and beauty.
Finally, children find holiness through obedience. St. Paul is clear in the second reading: “Children, obey your parents in everything.” And we’re all familiar with the Fourth Commandment but have you ever noticed that this commandment is the only one with a promise attached? It reads, “Honor your father and mother that you might have a long life in the land that God is giving you.” Jesus, who was perfect, obeyed His parents. We who are imperfect should obey our parents if we’re under 18, and when we reach adulthood we should always honor and respect them.
Some of us are blessed with excellent parents. St. Therese of Lisieux said, “God gave me parents more worthy of Heaven than of earth.” St. John Vianney said, “I owe a debt to my mother,” he said, and added, “Virtues go easily from mothers into the hearts of their children, who willingly do what they see being done.” But even if we do not have good parents we should still seek to honor them.
Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati was not blessed with holy parents. On the contrary – his father was an atheist and a selfish, materialistic man (he was the founder of the largest newspaper in Italy, and was very wealthy), and his mother was apathetic towards religion. They used to make fun of young Pier, who would walk himself to Mass as young as seven years old. But Pier always respected his parents, even giving up a girlfriend when his parents didn’t approve. Even though he was far holier than his parents, he was constantly respectful and obedient to them.
My friends, family life is not easy, even in the best of families – the Holy Family had their own troubles when the lost the boy Jesus in the Temple! But the Holy Family was still holy – and yours can be too. Men, be the spiritual leaders of your family. Ladies, be the spiritual heart of the family. Kids, obey and respect your parents whom God has given you. He has given your family to you to make you holy!

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Homily for Christmas 2019 - The Crib and the Cross

Homily for Christmas
December 25, 2019
The Crib and the Cross

            A thousand years ago, a man named St. Anselm wrote a long book called “Cur Deus Homo?” – “Why did God become man?” He said that God became man for one reason: to save us. As we say in the Creed, it was “for us men and for our salvation” that He came down from Heaven to take on flesh. God had to take on a human body – because only a human body could die.
            St. Paul tells us that “the wages of sin is death.” When we sin, we turn our back on God, Who is the Source of all life. Turning our back on God is to choose death. We owed a debt of death that we could not pay back. Consider: back when we were in school, if we punched a classmate, we would get in trouble. But if we punched a teacher, we would get expelled. If we punched the President, we’d be arrested. The same offense could merit different punishments based on who we offend. But what would happen if we punched God? Strict justice would require that, since we have offended the Most Holy, the All-Perfect One, we would suffer the worst penalty – physical and spiritual death.
            But God did not want us to die. He said to Himself, “I love them too much! I cannot allow My children to die – I will pay the price for their sins; I will take their death upon Myself.” But God could not do that as God – since it is impossible for God Himself to die. So He had to take on flesh so that He would have a body to sacrifice back to the Father.
            I wonder if Mary ever looked at those tiny hands in the manger, and saw that they would be pierced with nails? Did she ever kiss His forehead, thinking that it would be crowned with thorns? When she wiped His face, did she know it would one day be covered in blood and spittle? When she would hear His little heart beating, how could she know it would be pierced with a lance?
            The crib only makes sense in light of the Cross. He was born – so that He might die, for us men and for our salvation. Even our Christmas carols bear witness to it. Most people don’t sing the original second verse of “What Child is This” but it contains the powerful words: “Nail, spear shall pierce Him through; the Cross be borne for me and you.” We often skip the third verse of “Joy to the World”: “No more shall sin or sorrows grow, or thorns infest the ground.” Powerful words, reminding us why He came – to save us from sin and death!
            Listen to what St. Thomas Becket said, only four days before his own martyrdom: “Whenever Mass is said, we re-enact the passion and death of Our Lord. And on this Christmas Day, we do this in celebration of his birth, so that at the same moment we rejoice in his coming for the salvation of men, we offer again to God his body and blood in sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. Who in the world will both mourn and rejoice at once and for the same reason? It is only in these our Christmas Mysteries that we can rejoice and mourn at once for the same reason.”
            Christmas can be a time of great sentimentality: Bing Crosby and Christmas cookies, presents and lights and trees and fun childhood traditions. But God-becoming-man is not mere warm-fuzzies: it demands a response.
            The response is to repent of our sins and making Jesus Lord of our entire lives. God took on flesh to save us – but He will not save us without our consent. As St. Augustine said, “God created us without us, but He will not save us without us.” His saving birth and death are useless unless we love Him in return by giving up our sins, praying daily and coming to Mass weekly, and seeking to glorify Him in our everyday lives.
            The first nativity scene was organized by St. Francis of Assisi, who wanted to re-create the scene of the nativity in Italy. But this followed upon another powerful scene from the life of St. Francis. One day he went missing, and his religious brothers could not find him. After searching for a couple days, they found him in the forest with tears streaming down his face, crying out again and again, “Love is not loved! Love is not loved!”
            Every Christmas we see the love of God, who was willing to go to any length to love us and save us – even to taking on a human body so that He could pay back the debt of death that we owed. What love! This love demands a response – repentance and following the Lord Jesus.
            From the realms of starry wonder, He descends, the God most high.
            To assume a lowly body, all His glory He hides:
            For here, upon the manger, lies the God who was destined to die.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Advent - December 22, 2019

Homily for Advent 4
December 22, 2019
God With Us

            Back in 1995, pop singer Joan Osborne had a hit song, “One of Us” in which she asks the question, “What if God was one of us?” The song’s writer later said, “It would be an interesting thought, wouldn’t it? That God became one of us? I wonder what that would be like?”
            Poor fellow! I suppose he never read the Gospels! This is what the Incarnation means – that God has become one of us. He entered into the messiness of this world, with its suffering and filth, just because He loves us. Consider: the Incarnation means that God got sick. God stubbed His toe. God had friends and went to parties. God played games. God worked hard and sweated and hungered. God got tired. God had to learn how to walk and talk. God wept when His friend died; God rejoiced with His Apostles.
            Many of our Founding Fathers such as Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin practiced a unique religion called “Deism”. Deism believed that God exists, but that He has nothing to do with His creation. They use the example of a watchmaker – back in the 1700s, a watchmaker would wind up his watches and then just let them run, and they functioned on their own. Likewise, they said that God created the universe, set the laws of nature within them, and then just stepped back and watched the universe run on its own without any intervention.
            But this is not Christianity! Christianity says that God stepped down into His creation. He was not aloof, distant, just watching over creation. He is intimately involved in His Creation – first and foremost by becoming part of it, in Jesus Christ.
            It can be very comforting to know that God is “Emmanuel” – God-with-us. Seven years ago I had one of the hardest days of ministry of my life. It was December 14, 2012, and I was assigned to St. Mary’s in Bethel on the day the Sandy Hook shooting happened. Bethel is only seven miles from Sandy Hook, and almost all of our parishioners had friends or neighbors who were affected. That night, our church was packed with seven hundred people for a prayer vigil.
All throughout the day, I had been texting my friend Fr. Luke Suarez, who was assigned in Newtown at the time, to see how he was doing. Finally, at 10pm, he texted back and asked that all of the clergy from Bethel come down to the Sandy Hook firehouse – we were needed down there. So we headed out, unsure of how we were needed. When we arrived at the firehouse, the police chief split us up into 26 different teams of a clergy member, a mental-health professional, and a police officer to give the official declaration of death to each of the 26 people killed in that shooting.
I will never forget whose house I visited – the house of Jack Pinto, one of the first-graders killed in the shooting. On the drive to the house I was more nervous than I have ever been in my life. We arrived at the house and knocked on the door, and heard only screaming from inside: “We know he’s dead! We know he’s dead!” We came in and sat with the family for an hour. What words could you say? There was nothing that can console a family in such grief, that their six-year-old had been brutally murdered. A lot of that time was spent in silence, just being with them, being present.
Later on, I reflected on that experience. Although there were no words that could bring the dead back to life, we came and we prayed and we tried to help them understand that “God-is-with-us” – Emmanuel. Yes, God did not take away their suffering. But God was with them in their suffering, because God knows what it is like to be human, with all of its grief and pain and joy. This is an incredible consolation to all of us. We can no longer say to God, “God, You don’t know what I’m going through!” Because He does know what you’re going through. He can say, “I’ve been there – and I am with you.”
And so our response to this great mystery of the Incarnation is to love Him and to follow Him. First, we love Him. I’ve met many people who said that they felt betrayed by their dads because their dad never came to their baseball games as a kid. Showing up is a form of love – if someone comes to your sports game, or visits you when you’re sick, or invites you to coffee when you’re sad, then you know that this person really loves you. In the same way, to prove His love for us, God “showed up” – He became one of us. He’s not an absentee father; He loves us enough to come and be with us!
But not only do we love Him for His Incarnation, we follow Him as well, in the hopes of becoming like Him. As St. Clement of Alexandria said, “God became a man so that you might learn from a man how to become like God.” God has taken our humanity and filled it with His Divinity. When we look at Jesus, we realize what we are meant to be – imitating Him, we become more than human, as His grace makes us like God.
My friends, this mystery of the Incarnation (God-taking-flesh; God-with-us) is one of the central mysteries of our Faith. Even our very society sees it as the turning-point of history – this is the year 2019 because we count from the date when God became man! What a consolation it is to know that God loves us enough to enter the world with all its messiness and pain! What a joy it is to follow Him as He shows us the path to Heaven!

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

New CD Released

Dear friends,
Thank you for reading my blog!

I have some exciting news to share. Recently I have been blessed to release a new CD of Christian acoustic folk/rock music! "Until Eternity Dawns" features 11 original tracks of uplifting, foot-tapping, rollicking and edifying music. Check it out!

You can find it on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, and other streaming and downloadable devices. Hard copies can be purchased from the following website: http://frjosephgill.bandcamp.com or by visiting the bookstore of St. Mary's in Norwalk or St. John's Basilica in Stamford. Finally, you can download the entire album for free from the following website: http://www.noisetrade.com/josephgill .

Happy listening!

Friday, December 13, 2019

Homily for Advent 3 - December 15, 2019

Homily for Advent 3
December 15, 2019

            It took a long time to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. A really, really long time. The construction began in 1506 and finished in 1626 – 120 years! There were thirty-one popes during that time! Imagine that you’re a construction worker laying stone at the very beginning – you must know that you would never live to see it finished! It must be kind of discouraging to begin something that you know would not be completed in your lifetime.
            In many ways, that is what we hear in the first reading. Notice how everything in the first reading is in the future tense… The desert will exult; the steppe will rejoice. The glory of Lebanon will be given to them, they will see the glory of the LORD. Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf will be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the mute will sing. Isaiah never lived to see the fulfillment of the prophecy – it came true 700 years later, when Jesus made it clear that the prophecy referred to Him.
            Hope is the theological virtue that makes us wait with confidence on God’s promises. Often we use the word “hope” to mean “wish” – as in, “Oh, I hope I win the lottery” or “I hope I get a puppy for Christmas.” But the virtue of hope means something different: hope is the confidence that God will do what He promised.
            And we can look at hope in two ways: first, what God promised to the world, and second, what God promised to each individual soul.
            First: God promised to redeem the world. But the world seems like a mess, doesn’t it? Suffering, sin, violence, brokenness, addiction. The redemption is a work-in-progress. Christ came once, as a baby, to begin the work of redemption, but the work of redemption will only be finished when He comes again in glory. To have the virtue of hope, then, is to have confidence that God will come again and bring to completion the redemption He promised. Someday this mess will all work out as part of God’s magnificent plan for the redemption of the universe.
            Many early Christians believed that Jesus would come again during their lifetime. They got anxious as years passed and still no Jesus! They suffered persecution, trials, pain, and death – and wondered why Jesus hadn’t come yet! This is why St. James reminded them in the second reading that hope requires patience – God is faithful to His promises, and He will redeem His people…but it might take a while!
            We may not even live to see the fruits of God’s redemption! In 1912, a Canadian man named Dr. William Leslie felt called by God to minister in a remote region of the Congo. He spent 17 years with the Congolese people, trying to teach them about God’s word but having very little success. He was eventually driven out by a tribal chief who wanted nothing to do with this new religion of Christ. Dr. Leslie returned to Canada, feeling like a failure. Fast forward a hundred years – in 2010, a group of Protestant missionaries traveled to the same region to preach the Gospel – and they were stunned to find a 1,000 seat stone cathedral built in the jungle, with thousands upon thousands of believers in Christ among the tribespeople. Where had their faith come from? From only a handful of believers who had listened to Dr. Leslie a hundred years earlier. He didn’t see God fulfilling His redemption in his lifetime, but God was at work, accomplishing His purposes!
            But the virtue of hope deals not only with God’s promises to the world, but also to God’s promises to each individual believer. But we have to be clear – what did God promise us? Not wealth, health, material blessings. He didn’t promise us that our loved ones would always be alive, nor did He promise that everyone would always love us. Actually, He promised quite the opposite – “You will be hated by all”, “You must pick up your cross and follow Me.”
            But He did promise us that all things work for good for those who love God. He did promise that He would bring to completion the good work He has begun in us. He did promise that no eye has seen or ear heard the good things that He has prepared for us who love Him.
            Essentially, He promised to save us and bring us to eternal life with Him. That is His promise – and the virtue of hope means we have the confidence that He will do this! Even though we are sinners, who may struggle with the messiness of our lives and our relationships, we can have confidence that if we trust in Him and entrust ourselves to Him, He will bring us to Heaven with Him.
            But this too takes patience! There is a great story of a devout man who was praying one day and he heard God say to him, “Go out behind your house and push the giant boulder out back.” The man obeyed, and went and pushed and pushed, but didn’t move it an inch. The next day he went back out and pushed, and it still didn’t move. Day after day he struggled and tried to push this boulder, but nothing worked. Months passed, and finally, he was exhausted and fell to the ground, crying out, “God! Why have you told me to push this boulder? I haven’t moved it an inch!” God replied, “I never told you to move it – I told you to push it. Now that all your pushing has made you strong, I will call you to a real task.”
            Sometimes it seems like we’re not making any progress in the spiritual life, that we are still pushing against the same boulder for years and years. But hope says, “God will come through for me; He will sanctify and save my soul. I must only have confidence in Him.”
            So, have hope! God will take the messiness of our world and our lives, and redeem it. He has already begun the work of redemption in the world and in our souls. And with hope and patience, He will bring that good work of redemption to completion.

Monday, December 9, 2019

'Tis the Season for Giving

Bulletin Column for December 15, 2019 – ‘Tis the Season to Give!

            In front of many shopping malls and stores this time of year, you will see someone in a red vest in front of a red kettle, ringing a bell. The Salvation Army comes out in force, reminding us that “Need knows no season.”
            But I have always wondered – where does that money go? In fact, where does the money go for all of those huge charities? I think it’s a valid question. The CEO of United Way makes over $375,000; while the head of Catholic Relief Services makes $469,000. The Salvation Army is actually a Protestant religion. Wounded Warrior Project went through its own financial scandal. There are plenty of good charities out there, but according to Charity Navigator (a website that helps people filter the good from bad in charities), the average charity only uses 75 cents of each dollar you donate for its good works – the other quarter goes to fundraising, salaries, and overhead.
            I don’t think that’s a particularly good percentage. But there are many other local charities that do incredible work nearby, who I highly recommend and try to donate generously to them. Here are eight amazing charities worth our time and money – some of which you may already be familiar with!
            Veritas Catholic Radio – about a year ago, a Ridgefield husband and father left his Wall Street job because he felt called to bring Catholic radio to Fairfield County. Three months ago, Veritas Catholic Radio began broadcasting in Fairfield County! With eleven million people in its broadcasting range (it can be heard all through Fairfield County, Long Island, and Westchester County), the Gospel is heard round-the-clock on 1350AM (and soon on an FM station!). Their programming, from EWTN, is solidly Catholic – and pretty soon, there will be some local shows as well, about the Church in our diocese. The content can change lives as people sit in traffic on I-95! I heartily support it, as it uses the media to bring the Good News right into people’s radios!
            Source of All Hope – one place that the Gospel is needed is in the inner cities. Our country’s inner cities are filled with drugs, homelessness, sin, and despair. Into that situation came a friend of mine, Fr. James Boric, recently appointed as pastor of the Basilica of the Assumption in one of the worst, most dangerous neighborhoods of Baltimore. Baltimore already has the highest per-capita murder rate in the nation, and the drug and poverty problem is so bad that some neighborhoods resemble third-world countries. So Fr. Boric decided to start a missionary program to these neighborhoods. He invited a couple young men to give him a year as urban missionaries, where they would go out every day to the streets to minister to the homeless. More than sharing food and socks with them, they share the Gospel. Since its inception in 2018, lives are being transformed by these urban missionaries who are completely dedicated to bringing Christ to the poor, the drug-addicted, the homeless. Check it out at www.sourceofallhope.org – it’s definitely worth a donation!
            Sisters of Life – we are so blessed in our own hometown to have a religious congregation of sisters completely dedicated to the protection of life! The Sisters of Life, founded in New York in 1991, are completely dedicated to the sanctity of life, from conception until natural death. They pray vigorously for life to be respected, they run homes for unwed mothers and their children, they offer retreats for post-abortive women and men. They do so much good – and they are so joyful in doing it! Definitely a charity worth supporting.
            Project Beloved – There are many crisis pregnancy centers out there, but what about after the baby is born? What about before pregnancy? Project Beloved is a truly pro-life medical clinic beginning here in Stamford by two of our amazing parishioners, Tom and Noelle Amann. This is a holistic clinic where they seek to provide womb-to-tomb care, guided by the Catholic Faith and the Theology of the Body. They hope to open the clinic in 2020. Check them out at www.projectbeloved.co .
            Helping the Poor
            New Covenant Center – Probably all of us are familiar with the New Covenant Center, one of the great Stamford landmarks. It has been run by Catholic Charities since 1978, and is the only place in Stamford where people can get a meal 365 days a year. Over 700,000 meals were served last year alone. In addition, they offer a food pantry and other social services.
            Off the Streets – Deacon Mike Oles was frustrated. The Bethel, CT resident had been working at a homeless shelter for many years but wondered if something could be done to address the root cause of homelessness. He decided to found an organization in Danbury to house the homeless – and has been remarkably successful in doing so! Over the last ten years, the organization has helped over 3500 people get off the streets and into stable housing. It’s a completely volunteer-run organization, so 100% of donations goes toward security deposits and furniture to help make a home for the homeless. I have worked with them quite a bit in the past (Deacon Oles and I were assigned together in Bethel) and it’s an amazing organization! Check it out at www.offthestreetsnow.com .
            Forming the Youth in the Faith
            Camp Veritas – For several years we have sent some of our young parishioners to this life-changing Catholic summer camp in upstate New York. Over 1500 kids come every summer to their five weeks, and it is as transformative as it is fun! It has the usual camp activities (sports, rock climbing, hiking, boating, swimming, etc), but also includes daily Mass, Adoration, spiritual talks from the Franciscan Friars and Sisters and diocesan priests, daily Rosary. I have never seen anything more effective at helping young people become disciples. Many have come back saying their life is completely changed by the week-long immersion in their Catholic Faith. I highly recommend contributing to this charity – and sending your kids if they’re in middle or high school!
            Cardinal Kung Academy – Started last year by two of our parishioners, this classical Catholic high school forms young people to be serious disciples through study of the Faith and the classics of Western Civilization. Now in its second year, it has been a wonderful addition to Stamford and there is a lot of positive buzz about the school. I highly recommend it!
            This Advent season, if we are looking to be generous with our money, these are eight local charities where our donations will make a tremendous impact. As they say, “Think globally, act locally” – and give locally, too, because there are some great things being done in Stamford to help the poor, further the pro-life cause, form youth, and evangelize the city!

Friday, December 6, 2019

Homily for Advent 2 - December 8, 2019

Homily for Advent 2
December 8, 2019
The Trees That Are Cut Down

            There is an interesting theme in the first reading and Gospel today – and that is the theme of trees being cut down.
            John the Baptist warns the Pharisees that “the ax is at the root of the tree” because they have not born fruit of holiness. Yes, they were good Jews in name-only – they said, “Oh, we are good sons of Abraham!” but they did not love God or their neighbor. Because they have not born fruit, they will be cut down.
            Isaiah, too, writes about a tree that has already been chopped. He says that there is a “stump of Jesse” – this means that Israel, as the Chosen People, seemed to be destroyed. He was writing around 700 BC, at a time when the Jewish people were divided into two kingdoms and constantly oppressed by the Assyrians. More than that – they were wicked and idolatrous, and had abandoned the Covenant. Isaiah writes that the destruction of the entire nation is coming until only a “stump” – a remnant – would remain, but that a shoot would sprout from that stump to bring about the restoration of Israel. The shoot, of course, is Jesus.
            This imagery of a barren, fruitless tree being chopped down is pretty applicable to us in our modern world. One reason why the Church seems to be shrinking – combining parishes, less Mass attendance, lack of vocations – is because the Church has not had the kind of fruit that it should. Where are the saintly priests like St. John Vianney nowadays? Where are the holy families like Sts. Louis and Zelie Martin, who raised five girls to become nuns (and one of them was a saint herself, St. Therese of Lisieux)? Where are the zealous missionaries, servants of the poor, prayer warriors, and saints?
            Certainly there are still some, but is that the vast majority of Catholics? Like the Pharisees were proud of their Jewish heritage but did not live holy lives, so we have many Catholics who proudly proclaim their Catholicism but live lives in opposition to Church teaching, or just live in sin and apathy.
            Recently our Bishop released a letter saying that he is beginning the process of reorganizing the Catholic schools in our diocese. Many are shrinking so badly that they won’t be viable in another couple years. One could point to a number of factors, but I wonder if it’s just the natural result of producing no fruit! Have Catholic schools produced students who are fervent disciples, who believe in God and the Church’s teachings? This is the fruit that God is looking for.
            God will allow these Catholic institutions to be cut down if they bear no fruit – and He can allow the same thing in our own lives if we do not respond to His grace. God will withdraw the grace of faith from those who refuse to repent and bear fruit of holiness. He doesn’t waste grace on unrepentant hearts, just like a farmer wouldn’t water and fertilize a tree that was giving him no fruit.
            In God’s mercy, He will go to great lengths to call us to bear fruit! St. Theresa of Avila had already been a nun for many years, but was lukewarm and mediocre in her spiritual life. She was content to commit small sins, and didn’t really put her heart into her prayers. One day, as she was in the chapel, God gave her a vision…of her own place in Hell! Here are her own words: “I found myself, as I prayed, plunged right into Hell. I realized that it was the Lord’s will that I should see the place which the devils had prepared for me there and which I had merited for my sins. This happened in the briefest space of time, but, even if I were to live for many years, I believe it would be impossible for me to forget it.” From this shocking experience, she repented of her sins and began to live a fervent life of holiness!
            I do not say this to frighten us, but to spur us on, that we may bear the fruit of holiness. Are we really trying to eliminate sin from our life? Do we seek God with all our heart, or are we too attached to the things of this world?
Lest this homily make us despair, we must remember that God has brought a living shoot from the stump of Jesse. He redeemed Israel’s unfaithfulness through a faithful remnant, culminating in Jesus. He will redeem His Church and raise up saints – you and I can become those saints! – but only if we repent of our sins, respond to His grace, and bear the fruit of holiness in our lives.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

The Present of Presence

Bulletin Column for December 8, 2019

            Our Orthodox Jewish brothers and sisters are quite strict in keeping the Sabbath. They take God’s command to “not work on the Sabbath” quite literally. On the Sabbath, they are forbidden from using cars, looking at their iPhones, cooking, or even pressing the buttons on an elevator (an elevator in a Jewish apartment building will stop on every floor on Saturdays!).
            I have always thought this was extreme and nonsensical. Wasn’t it less work to drive your car to synagogue than to walk – often in bad weather?
            But a couple weeks ago, I got the chance to ask a rabbi about it at Congregation Agudath Shalom here in Stamford. His explanation was so insightful that I now understand why they practice such restrictions on the Sabbath.
            Rabbi Cohen explained that the point of the Sabbath is to be present to the people around you. The Sabbath should be a time of reconnecting to God and reconnecting with your family and neighbors. Cars, the Internet, and manual labor can take us away from the people around us; they can distract us from God; they can make us more concerned about things happening halfway across the state or the globe instead of in our very homes and neighborhoods.
            How true that is! How many times have we gone out to a restaurant to see a family sitting around the table, each lost in their own screens? How many times have we driven like maniacs to get somewhere while ignoring the people in the car with us?
            Presence – it is such an important, and rare, gift in today’s society. As Simone Weil put it, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” There’s a powerful scene in the new movie about Mr. Rogers (called “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”) where Mr. Rogers is speaking to a reporter. The timeless children’s show host asks, “Do you know what the most important thing right now in the world to me is?” The journalist asks what it could possibly be, and Mr. Rogers replies, “Talking to you.”
            This is the season where we spend endless hours buying presents – but the best present is your presence. Personally I would rather receive an hour of someone’s time than yet another gift card to Dunkin Donuts.
            We live in the richest country in the world – then why is it that the suicide rate has gone up 20% in the last twenty years (and the second leading cause of death among teens)? Perhaps it’s because we have enough presents but not enough presence – we have everything money can buy, but not enough of what is truly valuable.
            And this is doubly true when it comes to God. Prayer was once defined as “wasting time with the Lord” (said Henri Nouwen). It is not about “doing” something for God or writing a check to the Church – He ultimately desires our presence. It is no surprise that the most intense way in which God is close to us, in the Holy Eucharist, is often called the “Real Presence” – because it is Him, present to us. He is always available, never distracted. And we should give Him that same loving attention in our prayer life.
            So, I encourage you this month to work on giving presence instead of presents. Give people your time, not your money. Give God your attention, not your frantic and distracted scraps of time. Resist the temptation that says that you “need” to buy something for “everyone on your list”. No, we don’t. We could, instead, give them the gift of time, of attention, of our very self.