Friday, January 31, 2020

Homily for the Feast of the Presentation - Feb 2, 2020

Homily for February 2, 2020
Presentation of Our Lord
Light of Truth

            A few years ago, I was assigned to a parish that had a significant parish library. One day I was browsing through the library when I came across a book that caught my eye: it was entitled, “Ten Best Guesses About Life.” Written by a Catholic priest, the book’s introduction said, “Well, I don’t have any real answers about God, suffering, or the meaning of life, but here are my ten best guesses.”
            That frustrated me so much I wanted to throw the book across the room! While I respect someone who is humble and knows their limitations, I’m looking for more than ten best guesses – I want to know if there are answers to these fundamental questions about the human person!
            Thus, today’s Feast. This is often considered a feast of light, for two reasons. First, before the days of Netflix and Youtube, our ancestors were much more connected to the seasons and the sun and moon. February 2nd is halfway between the beginning of winter (the shortest day of the year) and the beginning of spring (the day on which the day and night are equal length). So, in a real sense, this is day in which the physical light is growing stronger, helping us believe that spring is right around the corner (which is also why that groundhog comes out in Pennsylvania on this day…). But more to our point, this is a feast that celebrates Christ as THE Light of the world.
God commanded the Israelites to consecrate every firstborn son to the Lord. A special sacrifice was required for the firstborn son, recognition that children are a gift from the Lord to be raised according to His commands. So Mary and Joseph bring Jesus forty days after Christmas to the Temple – 40 being the number of testing and purification in Scripture. This is the first time that baby Jesus would have been out in public – a sign that the Light of the World is now being offered to the world. Simeon sees this as not just a light for the Jews; no, he says that Jesus will be a “light for the Gentiles” so that the entire world will live in the light of God. This is why this Feast is often called “Candlemas Day” and candles are blessed today – as a symbol of Christ, the true Light of the World.
            What is the connection between Jesus and light? Light illuminates – it shows us how things really are. We’ve all seen something in the darkness and didn’t know what it was – “Is that a bear at the end of my driveway, or just my trash can?” Light shows us what things really are, it reveals things hidden in darkness. And Jesus, as the Light of the World, illuminates reality.
            John Paul II once said, “Christ reveals man to himself.” Do you want to know what it means to be human? Look at Jesus. Do you want to know the answers about God, suffering, the meaning of life and love? Look at Jesus. We don’t need “best guesses” when we have the light of Christ! Jesus continues His teaching work on earth today, through the Church. Jesus’ life, example, teachings, and Church all answer the deepest questions of the human heart.
            That’s why I have never really understood why people so often disagree with teachings of the Church, Christ’s Body on earth. All of the teachings of the Church are meant to illuminate reality. Even the controversial teachings, like the teachings about sexuality or immigration or respect for life, are not a list of prohibitions, but show us what it means to be truly human. The Church’s teachings – which continue Christ’s teaching work – shed light upon reality itself, helping us make sense of this crazy thing we call life. After all, as Pope John Paul II also said, “The Church is an expert in humanity!”
            But this light does more than just instruct us in Truth. Light also helps to purify us as well. We’ve all had that window that we think we’ve cleaned really well, but then the sunlight hits it, and all of a sudden we see a smudge we missed! Or perhaps we’re having dinner in a darkened restaurant, and it isn’t until we get home and face the bright bathroom lights that we realize we spilled pasta sauce on our tie! Light helps us purify things.
            Isaiah tells us in the first reading that when God comes to His temple, He will “purify” the sons of Levi – those are the priests who offer sacrifice in the Temple. And Simeon says that Jesus will cause considerable controversy – He will be responsible for the “rise and fall” of those in Israel, and “hearts will be laid bare” – in other words, we will find out who’s fake and who’s real, who loves God and who only pretends to love God.
            There really are only two options when it comes to Jesus. Either we love Him with our whole hearts, or we dismiss Him as irrelevant to our lives. If we’re somewhere in the middle, we will not stay in the middle – we will either be growing to love Him more, or will quickly lose what little faith we had.
            Have you ever seen on EWTN a priest named Fr. Don Calloway? His conversion story is rather remarkable. He was a drug addict by 13, and a dealer by 15. His father, a military man, moved the family to Japan, where as a teen Don got involved in the Japanese mafia, dealing drugs, committing petty crimes. He eventually got kicked out of the entire country of Japan and was sent to rehab back in the States, but nothing was working. Finally, one Friday night when he was 20, he declined invitations from his friends for yet another party. He was depressed, miserable, empty inside, and didn’t want to be with them anymore. Bored at home, restless, and wondering if he should just end it all, he picked up a book from his mother’s bookshelf to distract himself.
            The book happened to be about Marian apparitions – how Mary appeared in Fatima, Lourdes, and allegedly in Medjugorje in Yugoslavia. He read the book in one sitting and was moved to tears – God loved him? The purpose of his life was to spend eternity with God in Heaven? God wanted him to find abundant life through repentance and holiness? These simple yet powerful truths illuminated his mind – and caused him to purify his life.
            The next day he went to a Catholic Church and met with a priest, who told him the good news of God’s Divine Mercy. He then went home and literally purified his room – he brought out over 20 big trash bags full of everything from his past life – rock concert tee-shirts, drug paraphernalia, books and CDs and anything that reminded him of his sinful past. He started attending Mass daily, praying the Rosary, and is now a Catholic priest.
            His mind was illuminated by the light of Truth. That same light purified him, purged him of his sin. Today, that Light is offered to us. Do you question the meaning of life, of love? Do you wonder how to be happy, how to grow through suffering? Don’t just take your ten best guesses. The answers are out there – revealed by Christ the Light.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Sports and Jesus!

Bulletin Column for February 2, 2020

            This weekend, the roads will be empty and the bars will be full, because most of America will be watching the most-watched sporting event of the year: the Super Bowl! I will be among them, watching with disinterest since my team was slaughtered early on in the playoffs (sigh).
            But to one who avidly loves to watch and play sports, athletics has long been connected to our Catholic Faith – both as a way to grow in holiness, and as an obstacle to holiness. Today, let’s take a look at both to see how sports can be used for our spiritual good, and not for our spiritual harm!
            St. Paul himself uses sports analogies. In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul writes: “Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.” Thus, sports are an analogy for the “race” of faith. As athletes are disciplined, so must a Christian be disciplined.
            But Paul also recognizes that physical prowess, while good, is not as valuable as training in holiness. In 1 Timothy 4, he instructs Timothy, “Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come.” I remember talking with a high school senior who wanted to know if it was wrong to work out for three hours per day. I just simply asked him how much time he spent on his spiritual life, since the body will be rotting in the ground in 100 years but his soul will live forever. He got the point!
            In the early Church, most Christians avoided sports because they were practiced in a way antithetical to their Christian values. Public sporting events in the ancient Roman Empire were often dedicated to pagan gods, and athletes competed in the nude (much to the horror of the early Christians!). Many of the public sporting events included violence, such as gladiatorial matches, which the Christians objected to; and at times these games included the death of Christians themselves.
            But the patron saint of sports comes from this time period! St. Sebastian was a Roman soldier from Milan who kept his Christianity secret, hoping to evangelize the army from within. When his faith was discovered, he was sentenced to death by being shot through with arrows (hence, patron saint of archery, which was considered a very popular sport in times past). Amazingly he survived the arrow attack, and after being nursed back to health, used his status as a soldier to gain access to the pagan emperor Diocletian. Sebastian publically denounced Diocletian’s lack of faith, and was subsequently beaten with clubs until he died. Because of his physical strength (not many people could withstand becoming a human pincushion!), he is considered the patron saint of sports.
            Later Christians embraced sports and games, as a pleasant diversion. St. Philip Neri enjoyed a good game of billiards, and St. John Bosco urged the boys in his school to “have as much fun as you want, but don’t sin” – telling them that sports will keep them out of trouble! St. Hubert enjoyed the sport of hunting (perhaps a bit too much – he famously was preparing to shoot at a buck, but stopped because he saw a vision of the Crucified Lord between his antlers…mainly to reproach him for hunting on Sunday!).
            And then came Pope John Paul II. He was a sportsman extraordinaire, loving to ski and kayak (in fact, as Pope he frequently snuck out of the Vatican in the early morning to have a day of skiing in the mountains of Italy…and his Swiss Guard was always shocked when he would return late at night – they had no idea that the Pope was out of the Vatican!). He said many positive things about sports, including the following quotes:
            Playing sports has become very important today, since it can encourage young people to develop important values such as loyalty, perseverance, friendship, sharing and solidarity. Sports contribute to the love of life, teaches sacrifice, respect and responsibility, leading to the full development of every human person.
            Sport is an activity that involves more than the movement of the body; it demands the use of intelligence and the disciplining of the will. It reveals, in other words, the wonderful structure of the human person created by God as a spiritual being, a unity of body and spirit. If sport is reduced to the cult of the human body, forgetting the primacy of the spirit, or if it were to hinder your moral and intellectual development, or result in you serving less than noble aims, then it would lose its true significance and, in the long run, it would become even harmful to your healthy full growth as human persons. You are true athletes when you prepare yourselves not only by training your bodies but also by constantly engaging the spiritual dimensions of your person for a harmonious development of all your talents.
            John Paul II teaches us a healthy balance – we must enjoy sports, not just for pure pleasure, but because of the virtues that it forms in us: perseverance, teamwork, discipline. At the same time, we must not make sports into “a cult” (which is quite common today!).
            My college baseball coach, on the first day of practice, said something I’ll never forget. He started off his speech by saying, “Gentlemen, nothing in sports is eternal.” That helped keep everything in perspective. It’s a great thing to play sports, but it must be balanced by the realization that it really is just a game, and that there are more important things in life.
            So whether your team wins or loses this Sunday, enjoy the camaraderie and the joy of competition. Nothing like a good football game to bring America together!

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Homily for Ordinary Time 3 - January 26, 2020

Homily for Ordinary Time 3
January 26, 2020
The Call to Discipleship

            Are you a disciple? I would guess that in this church today, not everyone is a disciple. Some are here because they are forced to be here by their parents or spouses; some come out of habit; some are here because of fear of Hell. But being a disciple means so much more than that – and let us look at today’s Gospel to see three important points about what discipleship entails.
            First, notice that it is Jesus who calls. “Come, follow Me,” He says to Peter and Andrew, James and John. They didn’t take it upon themselves to seek out the Lord – God sought them first. And this is a major difference between Christianity and all other world religions – other religions are man’s search for God, while Christianity is primarily about God’s search for man! From the moment of your birth, God has been seeking you, trying to show you His love, trying to win your heart and form your soul to be in relationship to Him.
            Have you ever considered what a gift this is? I was born and raised Catholic, which means that I’ve never had to wonder, “Oh, I wonder what the meaning of my life is?” I’ve never had to ask myself if God loves me; I’ve never had to wonder whether there is life after death. All of these consoling truths have been given to you and me as a free gift because of our Catholic Faith. How wonderful to know that our relationship with God, through our Catholic Faith, was freely given to us!
            But after Jesus says “Come”, He then says “follow Me.” You know, there is a huge difference between an admirer and a follower. I admire Michael Jordan – he is an incredible athlete who has donated a lot of time and money to charity. But I don’t follow Michael Jordan, in the sense that I don’t want to be like him. He spent thousands of hours working out and shooting baskets; I don’t. (I’m also not 6’6”!). We can admire someone from afar, or we can try to follow in their footsteps.
            Many of us admire Jesus. We think, “Oh, He had some wonderful teachings and did some great miracles.” But Jesus says “follow Me” – live like Him! The word “disciple”, from the Latin “discipulus”, means “one who learns from or follows a teacher.” From that word we also get “discipline” because a disciple follows the spiritual disciplines of the Master. We see Jesus living out every virtue: humility, courage, faithfulness, prayer, self-sacrifice, love, purity. And then we must seek to imitate, not just admire, the Lord.
            And then they left their nets to follow Him. Following Jesus involves leaving things behind, giving up things – and that’s why it’s hard! We give up our sins (notice Jesus’ first word in Matthew’s Gospel is “Repent”). We also give up things that keep us from Him. Is our smartphone keeping us from Him? We give it up. Is a relationship keeping us from Him? We leave it behind. Is it an addiction to food, TV, gossip? If we find that hanging out at a certain bar, or on certain websites, or around certain people always lead us into sin, we give them up. Yes, it costs something – or rather, everything. Peter and his friends literally left their job, their homes, everything. Because there is a cost to discipleship.
            Imagine if Jesus invited someone who wasn’t willing to lay it down. Imagine that after Jesus invited James and John, Peter and Andrew, He then went along the shore and found Michael and Bob, and He invited them to follow Him. But Michael and Bob said, “Oh, Lord, I don’t know. You’re asking me to give up my job? You’re asking me to leave my home? I have to give up my family? I don’t know…” And they decline His offer, like many of us do when we’re more attached to the things of this world than the Lord. Perhaps Jesus offered this kind of radical discipleship to many, many more people – but we only hear about the ones courageous enough to leave everything. What is in your life that is preventing you from following Him more courageously?
            My friends, Jesus is inviting you. It is He who is calling you to be His disciple. It is He Whom we should imitate, and not just admire from afar. And it is worth giving up anything that prevents us from following Him, because to possess the friendship of Christ is worth everything. Many of you are not yet disciples, but He is inviting you right now. He is saying to you today, “Come, follow Me.” Will you follow Him?

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Church Etiquette Part II - The Communion Line

Bulletin Column – January 26, 2020
            And now for Part II of “Church Etiquette”!
            To pick up the theme from a couple weeks ago, church etiquette is important! And one of the times it is most important is in the Communion line. How we receive Our Lord gives Him the dignity and honor which is His. But there are some things to remember as we approach the most sacred moment of the Mass.
            Our first big decision is whether to receive on the hand or on the tongue. Which one is the more ancient tradition? Actually, reception on the hand is more traditional; it has been around since the early Church. Listen to the words of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, writing around 350AD:
            In approaching therefore, come not with your wrists extended, or your fingers spread; but make your left hand a throne for the right, as for that which is to receive a King. And having hollowed your palm, receive the Body of Christ, saying over it, Amen. So then after having carefully hallowed your eyes by the touch of the Holy Body, partake of it; giving heed lest you lose any portion thereof; for whatever you lose, is evidently a loss to you as it were from one of your own members. For tell me, if any one gave you grains of gold, would you not hold them with all carefulness, being on your guard against losing any of them, and suffering loss? Will you not then much more carefully keep watch, that not a crumb fall from you of what is more precious than gold and precious stones?
            Other Church Fathers bear witness to the early Church custom of reception of Communion on the hand. For example, St. John Chrysostom writes, “Tell me, would you choose to come to the Sacrifice with unwashed hands? No, I suppose, not. But you would rather choose not to come at all, than come with soiled hands. And then, thus scrupulous as you are in this little matter, do you come with soiled soul, and thus dare to touch it? And yet the hands hold it but for a time, whereas into the soul it is dissolved entirely.” Another Church Father, St. Basil the Great, wrote: “And even in the church, when the priest gives the portion, the recipient takes it with complete power over it, and so lifts it to his lips with his own hand. It has the same validity whether one portion or several portions are received from the priest at the same time.” So the more ancient and venerable tradition is to receive Holy Communion in the hand.
            However, the Roman church also developed, by the sixth century, the tradition of reception of Communion on the tongue. This spread to the rest of Europe by the ninth century. So, reception on the tongue AND on the hand are both venerable traditions (not modern liturgical inventions!). The choice is up to you.
            But how do we receive in a manner worthy of Him Whom we are receiving? Here is where the etiquette comes in!
- Make sure your hands are clean! The Lord should not have a dirty throne on which to rest!
- Have nothing else in your hands. No car keys or gloves if you wish to receive the King of Kings.
- Receive Holy Communion, don’t TAKE Holy Communion. Often I get over-anxious people who try to grab our Eucharistic Lord out of my hands. Don’t do that!
- Make sure that Our Lord does not leave crumbs upon your palms. See St. Cyril’s instruction above – treat Our Lord with more respect than you would treat a handful of gold dust, which we would preserve with total care!
- Place your left hand flat upon your right to make a throne. Don’t receive with one hand (even if you have a baby in your other arm – in that case, please receive on the tongue!). And don’t make your hands into a small pocket for me to drop Our Lord into.
- Open your mouth wide enough. This is a major problem at St. John’s – I often have to “thread the needle” to put Our Lord in between two barely-opened lips.
- Stick out your tongue. This is the only time it would be appropriate to stick out your tongue to a priest! Make sure your tongue is out because I don’t want to go into your mouth (you’d be surprised how many people just open wide but without a tongue to place the Lord upon). My apologies for being so graphic, but this is how we must receive!
- Don’t lunge for the Eucharist, bite, or otherwise move around. Sometimes I feel like I’m trying to hit a moving target. Even worse are those who think they must lunge forward to bite the Eucharist out of my hands. Stay still, people!
- No gum! Jesus should not have to fight for mouth-space with Juicy Fruit.
- Make sure your soul is prepared! We should not be receiving Communion if we have a mortal sin on our souls (such as intentionally missing Mass on Sunday, sexual sins, or getting drunk/using drugs). If you are unable to receive Communion, you are welcome to stay in your pew or to come forward with your arms crossed for a blessing.
- Bow reverently before receiving! The Church has specified a bow as the proper action before reception of Communion – not a curtsey or genuflection or sign of the Cross.
- Say “Amen” – and nothing else! Recently I had a parishioner make a comment about my homily before receiving Communion – right there in the Communion line! Other responses I’ve gotten include: “Thank you” or “Praise to You, Jesus” or “Hi, Father Joseph!” None of these are appropriate for the reception of Holy Communion!
            In summary, church etiquette is most important for that most sacred moment when we are sacramentally united to God Himself in the Eucharist. There is a right way to receive Him – and a hundred wrong ways to receive Him. Out of respect for Him and the Church, let’s follow these few brief rules of etiquette so that we might not distract ourselves or others (or bite the priest in the Communion line!)

Friday, January 17, 2020

Homily for Ordinary Time 2 - January 19, 2020

Homily for Ordinary Time 2
January 19, 2020
Called to Be Holy

            A few years ago I spent a week in Fatima on pilgrimage. It was beautiful to be there in such a holy place, where you could truly feel Our Lady’s presence. But there are only so many days I could visit the small shrine, so by day three I had to explore the surrounding region. I walked a couple miles along country roads to reach a little town where there was a small, simple church. I went in, and started exploring the church.
            This church was rather unassuming – nothing special. Small, with white walls, it could have been anywhere in the world. As I wandered through the church, I came upon the baptismal font. The plaque hanging above the font read, “In this font was baptized Sts. Francisco and Jacinta Marta.”
            Something about that simple sign and nondescript church moved me more profoundly than the entire elaborate shrine of Fatima. It was amazing that in such an unexceptional place, two saints were baptized, nourished with the Eucharist, forgiven of their sins. That baptismal font had produced two saints – and, at the time, no one would ever have imagined that this obscure church in a nowhere town in a backwater region of Portugal would be the source of such grace!
            We sometimes like to think the saints are somehow born special. Perhaps they had saintly parents, or came out of the womb with haloes on. Popular biographies sometimes make us believe that the saints are superhuman. I recall reading a biography of St. Catherine of Siena, for example, that said that as a baby, she refused her mother’s breast milk on Wednesdays and Fridays, preferring to fast in honor of Our Lord. Really? That certainly makes it sound like we can admire the saints, but not imitate them.
            But that small baptismal font in Fatima made me rethink that. Saints can really come from ordinary families, in an ordinary town? Yes! And St. Paul says the same thing. We read today the opening of his letter to the Corinthians. These were ordinary folks with their flaws and problems, as we read later in the letter, but notice how St. Paul greets them – “Grace and peace to you who have been sanctified by Christ Jesus, called to be holy.” Let’s look at that.
            First, “You have been sanctified.” By the Blood of Jesus, we are already holy! If we are in the state of grace, then God’s grace is already at work within us. We must not discount that. Yes, we are sinners, but we are sinners justified by His death. St. Paul almost always begins his letters by addressing the Christian community as hagion – the “holy ones”. When God lives in us through grace, we are the holy ones.
            But we can always increase our capacity for grace. Consider a shot glass and a bucket. Fill both to the top with water – which one is more full? Neither – they are equally full, completely full to capacity. But which one holds more water? The bucket. We may be filled with God’s grace, but we can increase our capacity for grace. That is why St. Paul tells us that we are “called to be holy” – we are called to constantly increase our capacity for grace, to more perfectly respond to grace.
            How do we do that? Prayer, the Sacraments, repenting from our sins, growing in virtue, acts of service and love. Letting God infuse every part of your life. Do you ever have those dried-up sponges on the side of the sink? You know how you put a little water on a corner of the sponge and it starts to fill the rest of the sponge with water? But we can still leave some parts of the sponge dry if we want, and not allow the water to penetrate through the whole thing. Sadly that is how many Christians live their life – with God’s grace penetrating only part of their life (the Sunday part, the part where it’s easy and convenient to be a follower of Christ). But when you let God’s grace penetrate every part of your life, as water soaks a sponge so completely that the sponge is overflowing with water – that is when we become saints.
And that kind of holiness is for everyone, not just special people! How many saints can come out of that baptismal font here at St. John’s? How many saints can be formed here in Stamford? All it takes is to say, “God, here I am. Sanctify me. Make me like You. I give my whole life to You.” – and then it takes a lifetime to live that out, to cooperate with the grace already at work with you. But the first step is to say, “Jesus, I want it – I want to be as holy as You!”
I’ve been reading about a young girl on the path to sainthood: Venerable Anne de Guigne, who died in the early 1900s at 11 years old. Unlike many saints, she was born with a terrible temper and selfishness. She would often throw tantrums if she didn’t get her way, and would not share anything with others. But at the young age of four, she experienced a powerful grace. Her father, who was fighting in World War I, died on the front lines, and when the officer came to inform her mother of the death, Anne’s mother collapsed in tears. Anne asked how she could make it better, and the mother replied, “Your father is in heaven, but if you wish to comfort me, you must be good.”
Her life was changed at that moment. As her mother later testified, “She changed through two things: willpower and prayer.” The next years of her young life, she gave all of her energy into controlling her temper and making sacrifices, two things that did not come naturally to her! But she could only do so because she began a rich relationship with Jesus. Everything she would suffer, she offered to the Lord with joy. Every action of hers, she sought to unite it with Jesus. It wasn’t rocket-science – but it was grace at work in her. She eventually conquered herself; or rather, God won the victory in her. When she died of meningitis at the age of 11, her cause for canonization was opened.
If saints could come from a nowhere-town like Fatima, why not here in Stamford? If saints could be made of willful little girls like Anne de Guigne, why not you? His grace is ready to make you a great saint – if you are willing.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Breaking Racial Barriers

Bulletin Column – January 19, 2020

            Many years ago, I had the privilege of hearing Cardinal Francis Arinze speak. Originally from Nigeria, he served in the Congregation for Divine Worship for many years before his retirement. After his talk, he took questions from the audience, and my brother asked if he had ever been the victim of racism in the Church, being from sub-Saharan Africa.
            Cardinal Arinze replied that, yes, he had found that some people in the Church could be racist. After all, he said, the Church is made of sinners of every type! But he went on to say that the Church’s ultimate message was one that every tribe and tongue, people and nation, could embrace – the message of God’s universal love for all, and the offer for salvation for all within the Catholic Church.
            This week, the secular world celebrates Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, who was instrumental in overcoming racism in this country and bringing civil rights to minorities. But did you know that another man, a century earlier, worked hard to overcome his own racial boundaries within the Catholic Church?
            His name was Fr. Augustine Tolton, and he was the first African-American to be ordained a Catholic priest in America.
            Born in Missouri in 1854 (before the Civil War!), he was a slave on a plantation run by Catholics. His parents were Catholics as well, but it is unknown if they chose the Faith on their own or had it hoisted upon them by their masters (a common occurrence in antebellum South). But his story shows how God brings great good out of every circumstance – his slave master’s wife was his godmother, who took seriously the godparent’s role to teach their godchildren about the Lord.
            From a young age, Augustine was drawn to religious ideas. At some point (historians don’t know how), he and his family gained his freedom (some historians think Augustine’s father fought with the Union Army, while others think his master freed all the slaves at the beginning of the Civil War). Upon gaining their freedom, the family moved north to Illinois, which was a free state, and Augustine and his siblings began working at a cigar factory – despite their young age!
            But Augustine’s intelligence and faith would not go unnoticed. The parish priest, a stubborn Irishman named Fr. McGirr, invited the young lad to attend the parish school – a move that was very controversial, even in a free state. No other school had yet been racially integrated – he would be the first black student in a white school in the state. But despite threats from fellow townspeople, Fr. McGirr held fast and supported Augustine’s education at his parish school.
            Upon graduation, Fr. McGirr encouraged Augustine to pursue a priestly vocation. Augustine applied to every single seminary in the country – and was rejected by all of them because of his skin color. But Fr. McGirr persisted, and managed to help Augustine enter a seminary in Rome, which trained priests from all over the world. He was ordained in 1886 at the age of 31, and celebrated his first Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica.
            He had studied all about Africa and its cultures, fully expecting to be sent there as a missionary – after all, who would respect a black priest in America in the 1880s? But the bishop of Quincy, Illinois had another plan – come back to the USA to help found missions for black Catholics.
            Obediently, he followed orders – and found immense resistance wherever he went. In Quincy, the other clergy treated him with hostility and would not support his efforts. He was then transferred to Chicago, where he found greater success – he grew the black mission of St. Monica from a mere 30 worshippers to more than 600 each Sunday. He was well-known for his eloquent sermons, beautiful singing voice, and kindly manner (plus he was quite skilled at playing the accordion!). In fact, he was so successful that many whites came to his Masses to hear the talented priest!
            Sadly, he was often-overworked and rarely took a day off, injuring his health. During a severe heat wave, he collapsed and died the following day, on July 8, 1897. But his reputation for holiness spread far and wide after his death, and now he has been declared “Venerable” (the second step toward becoming a saint) by the Vatican.
            Long before Martin Luther King Jr. overcome the racial barrier and preached racial harmony, Fr. Augustine Tolton lived it – motivated by the Gospel which calls all men to brotherhood, he did not allow racism to squelch his faith or his desire to serve the people of God. Through his intercession, we pray that all racial prejudice may cease, and that all people from every background might embrace the love of God!

Homily for the Baptism of the Lord

Homily for Baptism of Our Lord
January 12, 2020
Fruitful Baptism

            Pope John Paul II was once asked by a reporter, “What was the most significant day of your life?” There could be lots to choose from – the day he was ordained a priest, or elected Pope, or the day he was shot but survived, or the day that Communism finally fell. But he responded, “My most important day was the day of my baptism.”
            The day of his baptism – St. John Paul II realized that baptism was the start to his relationship with God, and therefore it was the most important day of his life.
            Most likely, everyone in this Church has been validly baptized. Would you say it is the most important day of your life? Do you even remember your baptism date? (I’m ashamed to say I don’t know mine!).
            There is a big difference between a valid baptism and a fruitful baptism. In all Sacraments, validity means that we do what the Church asks of us. So a valid baptism means that water is poured on your head while someone says, “I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” That is all that’s needed for a valid baptism. But for any Sacrament to bear fruit, it must be received with a spirit of faith and lived out.
            So let’s look at the three main effects of baptism – and see if it has borne fruit in our lives.
            The first effect of baptism is that it takes away original sin. The worst effect of original sin is that it separates us from God. Because of original sin, we are born empty – we have no grace within us.
            Imagine if someone carried around a wallet that had no money in it – you’d say, “What’s the point?” Imagine if a kid showed up at school with a backpack that was completely empty – you’d question, “Why bother?” The whole point of a wallet is to fill it with something; the whole point of a backpack is to put something in it. In the same way, our soul – and even our bodily life – would be useless without being filled with God’s divine life (otherwise known as sanctifying grace).
            So – have you kept that sanctifying grace in your soul, and increased it? Or have you lost it through mortal sin? The first effect of baptism is that it makes fills us with sanctifying grace – make sure never to lose that! St. Theresa of Avila said that if we saw a soul in the state of grace, we would be tempted to bow down and worship it – that’s how valuable grace is to our soul! It makes is like God!
            The second effect of baptism is that it makes us a son or daughter of God. We all know many wonderful people who were adopted – perhaps they came from a foreign country where their lives would have been filled with suffering and poverty. What a blessing, then, to get out of that country where they would remain poor and alone, and enjoy the richness of a family here in America!
            Likewise, without baptism we would have had a life full of spiritual poverty, despair, and loneliness. But now that we are adopted into the family of God, we have all the rights and dignity of being the son or daughter of the King, destined to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven!
            But this, too, requires a response. Just as it would not be fitting for Prince Harry to eat out of a dumpster, it would not be fitting for a son or daughter of the Most High God to wallow in the filth of sin. Sometimes we prefer the trash of this world to the glories of eternity – and that is beneath our dignity! For we are sons and daughters of God!
            A third effect: baptism makes us a member of the Church. Have you ever belonged to an exclusive club? Just this week I got my Stamford beach pass for this new year, which fills me with an exorbitant sense of superiority – “Oh, look at me! I have the exclusive right to park at Cove Island, unlike the rest of the riffraff in Stamford!” Of course I am kidding, but when you join a club or an organization you have certain privileges and honors.
            By being a member of the Church, you now have access to the greatest treasures known to humankind! You can receive His Body and Blood; you can receive forgiveness of sins; you have the saints and angels as your friends; you have access to all the treasury of graces and prayers and teaching!
            But this, too, demands a response. No one likes that guy who joins the Knights of Columbus but doesn’t ever come to meetings; no one should buy a gym membership and then never go. Likewise, to be a member of the Church means that all of us have a responsibility to build up the Church – through our prayers, through our service to other believers, through attending Mass and other events here at St. John’s, through financially supporting the Church, through bringing other people to Christ. Being a member of the Church has many rights – and many responsibilities.
            My friends, baptism can and should be the most important day of our lives. It is the day when we became citizens of Heaven. But baptism is not an automatic magic charm – it is something that must be lived out. It gives us sanctifying grace, but we must then live in that grace; it makes us adopted children of God, but then we must live as His children; and it makes us a member of the Church, but we must then build up the Church. Baptism takes a little water and a few words to be valid – it takes a lifetime of cooperation with God’s grace to be fruitful.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Church Etiquette

Bulletin Column for January 12, 2020 – Church Etiquette

            We’ve all been there – we are lost in prayer, totally drawing close to God. We are about to enter the seventh mystical mansion of St. Teresa of Avila’s “Interior Castle”; our souls is about to be mystically united to God as we are lost in the abyss of contemplation and devotion. Joy and peace and love shower down upon us, and we feel like we are on the very threshold of Heaven.
            And then someone’s cell phone rings in church.
            The moment is lost, our contemplation is broken, and suddenly we’re transported back from Heaven to a hard pew on 279 Atlantic Street – all because of a cell phone!
            Church etiquette is important! In a church that is as diverse as ours, it is important to observe a few simple rules to make sure that everyone finds St. John’s as a prayerful, peaceful place. Nothing is more annoying than interrupted prayer or needless distractions. So, my fellow church-goers, here is a (tongue-in-cheek) guide to church etiquette at St. John’s Basilica!
            Number one: silence your cell phone! I promise that it’s not God calling you on your iPhone 11! Now, all of us make mistakes and forget to silence it (it’s happened to me a couple times when celebrating Mass) but for Heaven’s sake (literally), don’t let it ring forever – no one wants to hear all four verses of “Despacito” before it finally goes to voicemail!
            Number two: don’t answer your cell phone! Sadly, this happens every single weekend here – not sure when that ever became acceptable church behavior!
            Number three: as quietly as you think you’re whispering, someone can still hear you. Whether we’re whispering our Hail Mary’s or trying to whisper to a friend, it’s still distracting.
            Number four: in America, standing, kneeling, and sitting are acceptable prayer postures. Some people look like they’re doing calisthenics in their worship, with hands raised, swaying, prostrations, and other movements that are usually found on a dance floor. If you wish to pray expressively, just do it in the back of church where no one can be distracted by your prayer!
            Number five: dress modestly. Even if you’ve studied John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body”, the only people who were ever “naked without shame” were Adam and Eve. This isn’t a big problem in the winter, but summer is just around the corner…
            Number six: consider other people’s sight-lines. If there are only three people in the church, don’t come in and plop down in the pew right in front of them so that they can’t see the altar!
            Number seven: as Aquinas said, “Virtue is in the middle!” We’ve all seen those aisle-huggers who refuse to scoot to the middle, meaning that latecomers have to crawl over them. Just a little scoot goes a long way to welcoming our neighbors!
            Number eight: don’t sleep (or at least don’t snore). Hey, even saints fell asleep in the chapel (Bl. Fulton Sheen once conked out completely for a Holy Hour, and when he awoke he asked the Lord if it was pleasing to Him – the Lord replied to him, “I forgive you…but don’t do it again!”). It happens – but it should only happen by accident and not on purpose (unless you’re under seven years old…). And make sure you don’t snore!
            Number nine: no gum! What is fine at the mall or the baseball field just doesn’t cut it for the King of Kings.
            Number ten: don’t leave Mass early (without an absolutely urgent reason). Remember – the first person to leave Mass early was Judas. And no, being the first in line at Donut Delight does not count as an urgent reason.
            Number eleven: tears are good – tissues are gross. St. Augustine wrote, after the death of his mother, “I allowed the tears which I had been holding back to fall, making them a pillow for my heart, and my heart rested on them.” Whether in grief or joy, God grants us tears as a healing release. But once the tears have dried up, please take your used tissues with you – every weekend we find them crumpled on the pews!
            Number twelve: let the little children come unto Me…within reason. I love the fact that our church has so many little kids – thank you for bringing them to Mass! But there comes a time in every kid’s tantrum that it just gets distracting, and little Johnny could use a small visit to the vestibule of the church so he can calm down. No shame in that!
            Hopefully this was a little bit helpful (and humorous) – we have a wonderful church and a wide variety of people from all backgrounds and walks of life. Respect and consideration are two virtues that can help St. John’s be the best it can be!
            Stay tuned for Part II on Etiquette for Receiving Communion…

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Epiphany Homily

Homily for Epiphany
January 5, 2020
Seeking God

            A few years ago I was out camping in Idaho on my way to Glacier National Park. We stayed in a campground overnight and I got up early the next morning to pray my breviary. As I sat on the picnic table bench, praying, an older man with a long ponytail came up (a classic hippie) and we started chatting. He asked what I was doing, and I told him I was praying the Liturgy of the Hours. He looked pleased and replied, with all sincerity, “That’s cool, man. Real cool. Me, well, I worship the trees!”
            I laughed and thought to myself, “Well, I worship the One who made the trees!”
            But the desire for God and religion runs deep within the human person. This man wanted to worship, but he worshipped the creature instead of the Creator. Every human being who ever existed has a desire for God, and a capacity to know Him and love Him.
            But by our own devices, we get lost along the way. That is why we needed God to reveal Himself to us – in the Scriptures, in the Church, in the Sacraments. It was through an active intervention of God – a miraculous star – that drew these wise men (probably Zoroastrian priests from Persia, who worshipped one God and were looking for a Messiah as well). These men, having the same spiritual hunger that we all share, wanted to know more about God – and they found Him.
            Twenty-first century men and women long for God as much as the Wise Men did. After all, as St. Augustine said, “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” But many modern men and women fall into one of three errors in their search for God.
            The first error is idolatry – making something else into God. It surprises me how rarely this sin is confessed, but how frequently it is practiced! There is a phrase in vogue among young people today – they say, “I am such a god at basketball” or video games or whatever. No, you’re not a god – and more than likely, you have made basketball into your god!
            In centuries past, if you had a gathering of people who wore special clothing and came together weekly in a giant building on Sundays, no matter the weather, to chant and respond in unison, it would have been called church. Now it’s called the NFL – and there is certainly a great deal of religious fervor there! For many people, it has become a religion, much like money, technology, or public opinion has become a religion.
            Now, obviously there is nothing wrong with watching football or making money. So how do we know when it crosses the line from healthy to idolatrous? We look at three things: our time, our money, and our enthusiasm. How much time do we spend on football or our job or our physique, versus focusing on our immortal soul and our relationship with the Lord? How much money do we spend on these things – is it a healthy and balanced amount? And are we far more enthusiastic about these things than about the Lord?
            Someone once asked me if working out three hours a day was sinful. I asked him in response how much time he spent in prayer. Our bodies will be worm food in a hundred years; our souls will live forever. We have a desire for God, but too often we fill it with the idols of this world. King Herod did this – he was more concerned about keeping his power than about serving the Lord – and thousands suffered for it.
            But the second error in our search for God is to turn to an amorphous “spirituality” instead of religion. Have you ever met those people who say, “I’m spiritual but not religious”? Or those who say, “I follow Jesus but I don’t believe in the Church.” But in their search for God, these wise magi, who would have been part of a well-to-do, powerful priestly caste, had to humble themselves to accept God as He was – as a baby in a manger. They didn’t get to refashion God in their image. And this is what people do when they decide to throw out the Sacraments or the Church – they say, “Oh, I’ll just pick the teachings of Jesus that I like” or “I’ll just pick whatever traditions and rituals I like, and toss out the rest.” When we search for God, we must allow Him to reveal Himself as He is – through the Scriptures, and through the Church that He established to teach in His name.
            The third error - our search for God will never be satisfied with New Age mysticism or the occult. Some people, in their desire for the supernatural, try to seek out spirituality in other ways – with energies, horoscopes, Ouija boards, palm readers or mediums. All of these open us up to the world of evil spirits and demons. Even things like Reiki and yoga  and the New Age Movement and certain types of Eastern meditation can be very dangerous, as they are spiritualties that do not seek after the God of the Scriptures. One can open themselves to incredibly dangerous demons by seeking spirituality through occult mysticism. I’ve worked with many people who dabbled in these things only to regret it!
            So, in sum, everyone has a desire for God. But we must seek Him in the ways He has revealed Himself: in the Scriptures, in the Sacraments, in the Church. He will be found by those who seek Him in these ways, since He established them as His continuing presence in the world.
            I will close with this story. Back in 1979, Pope John Paul II returned to his home country of Poland, which at this time was still behind the Iron Curtain. The Communists reluctantly allowed it, but were doubtful that anyone would come to see the Pope. After all, the Polish people had been under an atheistic Communist regime since the 1940s – hadn’t they destroyed all the religion in the country? Much to their surprise, over a million people gathered in Krakow to hear the Pope. At that gathering, the Pope spoke of the need to keep Jesus Christ at the heart of history, at the heart of their country. In response, the people started chanting, softly at first, “We want God! We want God!” Their chants got louder and louder until it became a tremendous thunder throughout the whole city. And the Communists knew it was the end – a few years later, Poland was freed as Communism collapsed across Europe.
            We want God – the magi wanted God – every human being who ever lived wants God. We will not find Him in our idols, in vague spirituality, in the occult or New-Age meditation. We will find Him in the crib, on the Cross, in the Sacraments, in the Church.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

New Year, New Spirit

Bulletin Column for December 29 – All Things New

            This week we will celebrate yet another year passing by. Welcome, 2020! Around this time, many people like to make New Years’ Resolutions. Maybe it’s to lose weight, or take up a new hobby, or start working out. A new year is a chance to become a new person.
            Sometimes our spiritual life gets stale, as well, and needs to be refreshed. God made us humans to love variety, but sometimes we’re still praying the same way we prayed twenty years ago or sixty years ago, stuck in the same routine and same rut. We get into a habit, and are still in that habit decades later. Perhaps God wants to do something new in your life? Breathe some fresh air into your soul?
            Here are some great new year’s resolutions that can help us to experience His love in a powerful new way!
            Visit a New Church – I have met people here who have worshipped at St. John’s for their entire lives. Some of them have told me that they have literally never attended Mass in a different location! Although that is impressive dedication, it can also be stultifying. It can be a beautiful experience to worship at a Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC, or even over at Our Lady Star of the Sea in Stamford (just make sure your contribution envelopes still make it to St. John’s! J). Different architecture, different preaching, a different setting can be a way to refresh the spiritual life.
            Take a Pilgrimage – We have some great spiritual places in the Northeast that many people have never visited. The Lourdes Shrine in Litchfield, CT; the Divine Mercy Shrine in Stockbridge, MA; the North American Martyrs Shrine in Auriesville, NY; the Cloisters in NYC…the possibilities are endless. All you need is an afternoon. Take a picnic lunch and a few hours of silence, visiting these spiritual places, and you will find yourself with a new appreciation for the love of God.
            Read a New Spiritual Book – There are so many writings of the saints and other holy people that we could never read them all in our lifetime! Some of the best include “Introduction to the Devout Life” by St. Francis de Sales, “Imitation of Christ” by Thomas a Kempis, “Divine Intimacy” by Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdelene are some of my favorites. There have been so many times in the spiritual life where God spoke to me through a spiritual author. Open your hearts, and listen, and He will speak!
            Go on a Retreat – When’s the last time you’ve taken a weekend to reconnect with God? The Sisters of Life offer wonderful retreats for men and women; as do the Regnum Christi lay movement. We have a great retreat house in Darien, run by the Bridgettine Sisters – anyone can make their own personal retreat there.
            Pray in a New Way – If you’ve always said three Hail Mary’s before going to bed, why not add a chapter from Scripture? Perhaps you have always prayed in your favorite lounge chair – why not take a walk in the woods instead? Much like investing, I find that diversification is key in the spiritual life – there will be a time when I find the Rosary dry, but that’s when God speaks to me in Scripture. Then Scripture will become dry, and God will speak to me through spiritual music. The more avenues we have for God to speak to our hearts and souls, the more likely we will be able to hear Him. Try something new!
            Come to Something New at St. John’s – Most parishes find that any of their programs are only attended by 10-15% of parishioners. That means that 90% of men have never tried the Holy Name Society; 90% of women have never come to Walking With Purpose or Women, Wine, and the Divine; 90% of teens have never come to the Youth Group. But our spiritual life dries up when we lack the good Christian community that we hope to foster here at St. John’s. We don’t believe in a “me-and-Jesus” mentality – we’re not individualists when it comes to the Faith. Rather, we are a Church who is pilgrimaging together through life, seeking the Face of Christ together. Why not give some of these things a try? You might find a powerful encounter with Christ and some good Catholic friends as well!
            Jesus promised in the Book of Revelation to “make all things new”. We have a new year, and a new chance to become the men and women that God has created us to be. Why not do something new in your spiritual life?