Friday, February 28, 2020

Homily for First Sunday of Lent - March 1, 2020

Homily for March 1, 2020
First Sunday of Lent
On Temptation

            Temptation. All of us face it daily – but how to we deal with it well? Let’s look at our Scriptures today for that answer.
            First, did you notice the odd first sentence in the Gospel: “The Spirit led Jesus into the desert to be tempted”? Why would the Holy Spirit want Jesus to be tempted? For that matter, why did God create the serpent in the first place, knowing that it would cause Adam and Eve to sin?
            Because love requires the possibility to not-love. God could have created a race of robots, who loved Him because they had no other choice, no freedom. But that would not give Him glory. He wanted to be loved for His sake, but that meant leaving open the choice to reject Him. This freedom was a terrible risk – a risk that has doomed humanity throughout the centuries – but God wants to be loved so much that He is willing to take that risk.
            When we were kids, most of us had that Aunt Mildred who, at family gatherings, our parents would force us to hug. “Go give Aunt Mildred a hug, now!” And we would do it, out of obedience to our parents. But how much more would it mean to give her a hug freely! That is the kind of love God desires – free, strong, holy. So the first thing we learn about temptation from the readings is that God allows it so that we can grow in love for Him.
            Secondly, each temptation started with an attack on our identity and God’s identity. The devil starts by challenging Jesus, “If You are the Son of God…” Eve is tempted by Satan questioning God’s goodness: “Did God really tell you not to eat of the fruit?” Then Satan goes on to attack her identity by saying, in essence, “If you eat the fruit you will become like God, because now you’re not!”, even though she was already created in God’s likeness!
            This happens with us as well. Temptations often start with lies about us or God. Lies such as, “God’s not really going to help you” or “You’re worthless” or “It’s not worth it to follow the Lord.” We’ve got to recognize these lies for what they are! St. Leo the Great said, “Christian, remember your dignity, and now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return by sin to your former base condition.” Who are you? You are a child of God, an heir to Heaven, one of Christ’s redeemed! Remember who you are – and who you belong to – and you can destroy temptation immediately.
            Third, we see that temptation needs to be shut down immediately. This is the big difference between Eve and Jesus is that Eve engages the devil. The devil tempts, and she begins to sway. She looks at the fruit, sees how delicious it looks, begins to salivate and desire it. But Jesus doesn’t. The temptation presents itself, and bam! He shuts it down. He doesn’t ask the devil, “What kind of bread? Whole wheat? Raisin bread?” No, He shuts it down immediately.
            So often we play games with the temptation to see how close we can get before we fall into sin. But that is utterly foolish. Did you know that, on average, 41 people die each year taking selfies? They try to get closer, closer, closer to the edge of the cliff or the oncoming train, until they’ve passed the point of no return. And we are often like that with sin – “Oh, I’ll just have two drinks at the party,” “Oh, it’s fine if we hang out alone in her bedroom,” “Oh, I can read those atheistic books, they won’t harm my faith.” How many sins would be avoided if we just stopped the temptation at the outset?
            A fourth thing to learn from the readings is that we must stand on the Scriptures and the Teachings of the Church. How did Jesus respond to the temptations? He knew what God desired, and why – and He shot it back into the devil’s face. Many times in my temptations I have just needed to quote Scripture for the temptation to leave me alone. For example, if you are tempted to anger, read Scripture quotes about forgiveness. If you are tempted to lust, learn about the Church teachings on purity.
            Finally, we learn that temptations will not last forever. There is a great story from the life of St. Anthony the Abbot, a desert monk in the late fourth century. We read in his biography written by St. Athanasius that one day he sought to spend several days in prayer, so he went into an empty tomb to pray. As soon as he started, he was attacked with awful demons – lust, fear, terror, the burning desire to leave and return to his former life. Some of the demons took on the form of hideous animals who physically attacked him. After several days of fighting off all these temptations, exhausted and weak he cried out to God, “Where were you, Lord? Why did you not stop this suffering earlier?” God answered him, “Anthony, I was present at your side. But I waited, observing your fight. And since you have resisted so bravely, I will now always be at your side.”
            No temptation ever lasts forever. And how sweet it is when the angels come to minister to us after we have successfully overcome the temptation!
            So this is what our Scriptures teach us today about temptation. First, God allows it to make us holy, so we can choose to love Him despite many options to the contrary. Second, temptations usually make us question God or our relationship to Him, so we must stand fast on our identity as disciples. Third, we must never give way a bit – do not head down the road of temptation that ends in destruction! Fourth, we must stand on Scriptures and the teachings of the Church. Finally, we must have hope that no temptation will last forever.
            Eve was tempted, but did everything wrong – and the consequences were devastating for the human race. Jesus was tempted, and showed us how to deal with the temptations that every person faces. Let us follow His example, that this Lent may be a time of true repentance and victory over sin!

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Homily for Ash Wednesday - February 26, 2020

            In Jesus’ day, the word “hypocrite” didn’t really have any bad connotations. Actually, it just meant an actor in a play. Hypocrite literally means “one who is under a mask”, because actors in Greek plays would always wear masks to show which character they are playing.
            But Jesus draws a comparison between these actors and people who say one thing and do another. The person behind the mask doesn’t match up with what the rest of the world sees! The world sees a pious person praying, but the person is just doing it to seek attention. The world sees a generous giver, but their motivation is human praise. Thus, they are actors, hiding behind masks.
            Today, you and I will receive a “mask”. We will receive a visible, outward sign that will show to everyone in the world that we are Christian. But are we? Does our forehead say we are followers of Christ but our life say otherwise?
            These ashes are not just some empty custom or “culturally Catholic” thing. They are a tangible sign that we are repenting of our sins and sincerely seeking to love and serve God. Will these ashes become an outward sign of our inward repentance? Or will they just be the mask of a hypocrite?

Monday, February 24, 2020

The Value of Fasting

Bulletin Column – March 1, 2020

            Every Lent, I hear people tell me, “Father, I don’t like to give up something for Lent; I like to take on something extra.” That’s a great idea – but also one that misses part of the meaning of Lent.
            During Lent, the Church gives us three spiritual weapons: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (generosity to the poor). These weapons help us overcome the three temptations that we all face daily: prayer overcomes the temptations of the devil, fasting helps us discipline the weakness of the flesh, and almsgiving removes the temptation to worldly riches and possessions.
            So when people say they are “taking on” something rather than giving something up, they mean that they are practicing prayer or almsgiving (or, better yet, both).
            But the Church intends for us to engage all three weapons! It’s not an either-or but a both-and (or all-of-the-above!). So why is fasting so important, and how can we do it well?
            1. First, fasting helps us grow in self-mastery by strengthening our will. St. Paul tells us that “the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.” (Gal 5:17). We are engaged in a battle between our lower desires (those of the body) and what we know is truly good (relationship with the Lord). Because of original sin and the effect of concupiscence, our desires have become disordered. Now we all want to sleep in rather than attend Mass; we desire chocolate more than broccoli; we would rather watch Netflix than read Scripture.
            So, to overcome this concupiscence, we fast! Our will is like a muscle – when we exercise it, it grows stronger, so that our flesh does not rule over our spirit. If we can give up a chocolate bar, it becomes easier to give up gossip. If we can deny ourselves a second helping, we learn to deny ourselves a lustful indulgence. Fasting is the tool that can help us overcome stubborn sins!
            2. Fasting helps create a space for God. Any sort of ache in our life – boredom, loneliness, restlessness, painful memories, depression – can be an avenue for God to invade your life. But too often, we tried to avoid these aches by filling them with things: food, distraction, social media, etc. When we fast, we are taking away our usual coping mechanisms, the comforts we think we couldn’t live without, and we then invite God into that aching, painful place. He will come in a powerful way.
            3. Fasting helps us identify with Christ. Feeling the pain of an empty stomach helps us remember Christ’s pain upon the Cross. Feeling “cut off from the world” because we gave up social media helps us realize that Christ was rejected and alone in His Passion. When we feel pain or discomfort for the sake of Christ, we become more like Him.
            4. Fasting helps us grow in gratitude. Sometimes we take for granted the gift of eating whatever we want, taking hot showers, etc. But when we deny ourselves a physical pleasure, we realize how much it meant for us. The first dessert on Easter Sunday is so much sweeter because we had foregone it for the previous forty days.
            So what are some good ways to fast? A couple general suggestions:
            1. Be reasonable. Find something that will challenge you but not break you. One year I tried to give up listening to music for Lent – but I found that I was becoming so grouchy that it backfired! Make sure that your fast doesn’t make you grumpy or too tired or fainting with hunger. Don’t be afraid to modify your fast if you find that you took on too much (or too little!)
            2. Don’t compensate. If we are giving up desserts, that does NOT mean that we should compensate by eating more of the main dish than we should! If we are giving up social media, don’t compensate by watching an extra hour of television. The point is not to substitute one bad habit for another, but to create the space for God to act.
            3. The highest rule is charity. If someone gives up dessert for Lent but their friend made a batch of cookies specifically for them, going through great effort to demonstrate how much they cared, then the charitable thing to do is to take the cookie and eat it with gratitude. Fasting is never an end in itself – it is meant to make us more like Jesus.
            So, my friends, I pray that you will have a wonderful Lent – let us make use of all three weapons of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving that the Church gives us!

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Homily for Ordinary Time 7 - February 23, 2020

Homily for February 23, 2020
Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Natural Love And Supernatural Charity

            In 1955, a group of Christian missionaries sought to evangelize some of the untouched Amazon tribes. Five missionaries selected the Waodani tribe in the jungles of Ecuador to preach the Gospel. Over the course of several months, they air-dropped gifts to the Waodani people, trying to win their hearts. Finally, the following January, a missionary named Nate Saint and four others landed on a small Amazonian sandbar and tried to reach out in friendship with the Waodani.
            But the natives had never seen white men before, and were terrified by their presence. In fear, they attacked the missionaries and speared the five missionaries to death.
            But that was not the end of the story. Members of Nate Saint’s family wanted to carry on Nate’s mission, so they moved into the jungle and made contact again with the Waodani tribe. This time, the contact was peaceful and many members of the tribe converted to Christianity. In particular, one of the converts named Mincaye began a deep friendship with Nate Saint’s son, Steve – even serving as Steve’s godfather when the boy was baptized. Mincaye was one of the tribesmen who had killed the missionaries – and now, through the grace of forgiveness, he had become a friend and brother in Christ to the family of the man he had killed. A powerful testimony of loving your enemies – from both sides!
            This Gospel idea of loving your enemies is easier to understand if we make the important distinction between natural love and supernatural charity.
            Most of the time when we love someone, it is because there is something that draws us to them. Perhaps we have something in common with them, or we find them attractive. Perhaps they are nice to us, or maybe we have a good time with them, or maybe we’re related to them. Not bad things at all – we all need friends and family with whom we can share our lives.
            But there is a deeper kind of love – and that is supernatural charity. This means that we love someone simply because we see the Image of God in them. We love them because we love God, and in loving God, we love the people that God loves (which includes all of us!). We love them, not with our human affections, but with divine grace.
            The big difference is that natural human love is an affinity for someone because of who they are: their gifts, their personality, etc. Supernatural charity is love for someone, not because they are pleasant or attractive, but simply because we want to love like God loves – and we want to love who God loves, which is all of humanity – including those we wouldn’t naturally like.
            So let us ask two questions: who? and How?
            Who does this teaching apply to? I hope that you do not have any actual enemies. But all of us have people in our life we’d rather not be around. That person with the annoying laugh; that coworker who likes to argue politics; that classmate who’s just kinda weird; that neighbor who always seems angry; that in-law…enough said. These are the people we must love like God loves – it is not optional.
            So how? How do we love them? Do we have to be best friends with them? Not necessarily. Love is defined by St. Thomas Aquinas as “willing the good of the other”. In other words, we seek to do them good. We don’t gossip about them. We return their unkindness with a smile. We find a way to bless them – perhaps going out of our way to share that snack, or offering them a kind word. Doing these things won’t feel loving, and you may not feel an affection for them. That’s okay – supernatural charity isn’t a feeling, but a choice to love as God loves.
            It helps to try to see these people like God sees them. God died for annoying people and boring people and mean people just like He did for you and me. God loves Hitler and Adam Lanza and that guy who cut you off in traffic in the same way that He loves you and me and Mother Teresa. God sees all human beings as His precious creation, as potential saints. Besides, sometimes we are the annoying people and the mean people and the ones who hurt others – and God never gives up on us.
            Ultimately it is only grace that allows us to have supernatural charity. We cannot do it on our own. I will close with a saint who lived this virtue quite well. Some of us may be familiar with the story of St. Therese of Lisieux. As a cloistered nun, she had a burning desire to be a missionary or a martyr, but suburban France was not a place to do either! So, in prayer, God revealed that her mission was to love – to do small things, all things, with great love.
            In her convent was a fellow sister who grated on her every nerve. Here’s what St. Therese said in her autobiography: “One of our nuns managed to irritate me whatever she did or said. As I did not want to give way to my natural dislike for her, I told myself that charity should not only be a matter of feeling but should show itself in deeds. So I set myself to do for this sister just what I should have done for someone I loved most dearly. Every time I met her, I prayed for her and offered God all her virtues and her merits. [In addition to prayer,] I tried to do as many things for her as I could, and whenever I was tempted to speak unpleasantly to her, I made myself give her a pleasant smile and tried to change the subject. After all this she asked me one day with a beaming face: “Sister Therese, will you please tell me what attracts you so much to me? You give me such a charming smile whenever we meet.” Ah! It was Jesus hidden in the depth of her soul who attracted me, Jesus who makes the bitterest things sweet!”
            What heroism! What supernatural charity! When Jesus says, “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect,” this is what He means: see all people as God sees them, and love them as God loves them.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Catholic Ecology

Bulletin Column – February 23, 2020

            I am a tremendous lover of nature. Backpacking through the mountains is my vacation of choice; one of my weird hobbies is finding and enjoying edible wild foods; at a former parish (St. Mary’s in Bethel) I tapped the maple trees on the church campus and made our own maple syrup.
            But like many things in our polarized culture, the environment and nature has been the subject of two polar opposite ideologies. On one hand, there are those who elevate the environment to an almost-divine status. In making an idol out of nature, some believe that human beings are a “parasite” on the pristine, beautiful wilderness. Taken to its extreme position, many have advocated for population control through abortive and contraceptive methods in order to protect the environment.
            On the other hand, we have those who rapaciously consume nature, and see the environment as nothing more than raw material that can be used (and abused) for profit. We see this in the way our culture often emphasizes the “convenience” of disposable, single-use items, such as plastic water bottles (when we live in the country with the cleanest water in the world!). Corporations pollute endlessly, strip-mining beautiful landscapes and using exorbitant amounts of fossil fuels and resources.
            But there is a middle point between these two extremes. To quote my favorite ecologist, Samuel Thayer, “If we only view nature as a virgin or a whore, marriage will elude us!” Our Catholic Faith gives us considerable guidance to understanding the proper role of nature and our relationship with it.
            First of all, nature and creation are good. When God created the material universe, He declared it to be “good”. The world is a reflection of His glory and providence, of His might and beauty. As the great poet (and Jesuit priest) Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God!”
            We were created as part of nature. In the Second Creation Account (Genesis 2), we are clearly created from the dust of the earth – so much so that the name Adam comes from the Hebrew word “adamah” which means red clay. In a couple days, we will hear those haunting words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” – because we are a part of nature.
            But we were created higher than nature, as well. In the First Creation Account (Genesis 1), we are created “in the Image and Likeness of God”. In essence, we are the link between God and His creation – we are partly of this earth (in our flesh) and partly like God (in our soul). As such, we are called to be the mediators between creation and God.
            For this reason, God gave man “dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that crawl on the earth” (Gen 1:28). That word “dominion” is critical – it means that we exercise a kind of stewardship over the earth. The earth is not ours to treat how we like – we must rule it in God’s Name, bringing order out of chaos so that the harmony of nature reflects the harmony of God.
            After all, it was before the Fall that Adam was given the task of “cultivating and caring for” the Garden. God’s plan had always been for Adam to work the land, bringing it into submission through his intellect and free will, so that it might bring forth food and shelter and sustenance. This act of co-creation, of working the land and keeping the animals, gives dignity to man and makes him like God.
            So, as Catholics we must see man’s relationship to nature as one of stewardship. Nature does not belong to us – it belongs to God, and it is on-loan to us. We owe it to God to care for the earth, to keep it healthy and fruitful. At the same time, the earth was given to us for our use and enjoyment, so we needn’t see it as merely a museum. We are allowed to use animals for food, so long as we try to treat them humanely. We are allowed to extract minerals and coal from the earth, for the earth was meant to provide for our well-being, as long as it can be done in a way that respects the long-term health of the land. Nevertheless, the rights and dignity of the human person far, far supersede the rights of nature – we must never harm a human being in the interest of protecting nature, nor practice population control in any form as if human beings were a pest to be eradicated or controlled.
            All of these thoughts were percolating in my mind because of our Holy Father’s new Apostolic Exhortation Querida Amazonia, on the Church in the Amazon, which shares a dream of Pope Francis for the Amazon region. More commentary on this Apostolic Exhortation coming in future weeks!

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Homily for Ordinary Time 6 - February 16, 2020

Homily for February 16, 2020
Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Forgiveness, Chastity, and Faithfulness

            Today’s Gospel speaks to us of some counter-cultural themes: forgiveness, chastity, faithfulness. Let’s look at some of these themes.
            First, forgiveness. This is a tough one for a lot of people. But we have to understand what forgiveness is, and what it is not. Forgiveness is a choice, not a feeling. If we forgive someone, it does not mean that what they did doesn’t matter, or that it doesn’t hurt. No, forgiveness recognizes that they really did wrong to us, but we choose to release them from our anger and from a desire to revenge. Sometimes we need to choose to forgive over and over again – daily, or hourly – and eventually we may feel forgiving. But we need to start with a daily choice to forgive – and that can include asking God’s blessing upon the person who hurt us.
            A great example of this is St. Maria Goretti and her mother. Maria Goretti’s family was from Italy in the early 20th Century, and they were very poor, so poor that they had to share a home with another family. The other family had a 19-year-old son named Alessandro whose mind was corrupted with bad magazines and lust. Several times, Alessandro asked Maria to sin with him, but she continually refused. Finally, in anger, one day Alessandro demanded that she sleep with him, but when she refused, he stabbed her fourteen times before fleeing. Maria was found by a fellow villager and rushed to the hospital. On her way there, she forgave Alessandro and begged for mercy for him. Tragically, she died of her wounds.
            Alessandro was caught and sentenced to thirty years in prison. At first, his heart was bitter and angry at his punishment, but one night he had a dream, in which he saw Maria appear to him with fourteen lilies, assuring him that she forgave him. At this, he was a changed man. When he was finally released, he went to visit with Maria’s mother and offered his apologies. Maria’s mother, heroically, said that if her daughter could forgive the murderer, how could she do any less? They were reconciled through the grace of forgiveness.
            But St. Maria Goretti is also the patron saint of chastity, which Jesus addresses in the Gospel. This is a particularly counter-cultural virtue. Chastity is the virtue that respect’s God’s plan for human sexuality. And it’s a relatively simple plan: God intended that the fullness of our bodies only be shared with a spouse within the covenant of marriage, open to His great gift of life. Chastity seeks to live in accord with that plan.
            Chastity does not say that sex is bad – on the contrary, chastity says that sex is good and powerful. Anything that is powerful needs to be used properly – a gun is fine for hunting or target shooting, but in the hands of the wrong person it can be incredibly destructive. Our sexuality is a great gift, meant to unite spouses in a holy covenant and allow them to participate in God’s creative action by bringing forth new life. But if it is mis-used, that same powerful gift becomes a destructive force.
            This is why chastity is necessary – chastity safeguards genuine love. It says, “I love my spouse (or, if you are unmarried, your future spouse) so much that I am willing to master myself, so I can present my body as a gift to them.” This is difficult, because it involves self-mastery and self-denial – which is not easy!
This past summer I was chatting with my siblings who no longer practice the Faith, and we were talking about the #metoo movement. I said, “One thing that is missing from the national conversation about the Me-Too movement is chastity.” And they all started to scoff, saying, “Come on, no one believes in that anymore! It’s impossible, it’s unreasonable to expect anyone to live in chastity!”
But Jesus seems to think differently. He makes it clear that we must practice chastity in every aspect of our behavior: not just avoiding adultery, but also avoiding viewing impure content, dirty conversations, and any sexual activity outside of marriage. It is difficult, but not impossible – one must have a solid prayer life, avoid temptations, and practice daily self-discipline like fasting or other self-denial. Chastity is worth it – because our hearts long for authentic, genuine, self-giving love – not the cheap substitute of mere physical pleasure.
Chastity also safeguards another theme we hear in the Gospel – that of faithfulness. After Kobe Bryant’s death, I was edified to read a great article about how he fought for his marriage. It is public knowledge that he cheated on his wife earlier on in his marriage, and even though he repented, she filed for divorce in 2011. But he wasn’t willing to give up – he prayed for her, and worked hard on his marriage. Two years later, she withdrew the petition for divorce. Later on, in an interview, he said, “I’m not going to say our marriage is perfect, by any stretch of the imagination. We still fight, just like every married couple. But you know, my reputation as an athlete is that I’m extremely determined, and that I will work my tail off. How could I do that in my professional life if I wasn’t like that in my personal life, when it affects my kids? It wouldn’t make any sense.”
I know that some of us here may be suffering the pain of divorce, as that difficult reality is all too common in our society. And only the Lord knows what you are going through – this is not meant as a judgment upon your particular circumstances. But if you are still married and are going through a rough patch, I urge you and beg you – stay faithful! Fight for your marriage! It’s worth it! Not easy, to be certain, but God’s grace will meet you there and give you the strength to stay faithful when it’s difficult. After all, God has forever been faithful to us, even to the Cross – and our marriages are called to reflect that.
My friends, these three virtues – forgiveness, chastity, and faithfulness – are profoundly counter-cultural. They are difficult, without a doubt – but God’s grace can give us the ability to live them out. The Lord instructs us to live forgiveness, chastity, and faithfulness because these will lead to joy, holiness, and abundant life.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Do We Get A Second Chance?

Bulletin Column for February 16, 2020

            This past week, as the world was still remembering the death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, a high school principal in Washington State posted on social media that Kobe “deserved” to die, calling it “karma” because, as she claimed, Kobe Bryant was a rapist. The principal was put on administrative leave for her callous and insensitive comment.
            Now, it is true that Kobe was accused of rape back in 2003 – a charge that was eventually dropped. And rape is a horrendous, shameful, awful sin and crime. But have you ever noticed how our culture defines people by their sins, and does not believe in second chances?
            By all accounts, Kobe had repented of his sin and had begun to live his life as a model Catholic (he was frequently seen at daily Mass, including on the morning of his death). Must we, as a culture, hold someone’s transgressions against them until their death – and beyond?
            I remember seeing the newspaper headline on the morning after one of my brother priests had passed away – a priest who had been accused of abuse, but then acquitted. The front-page newspaper headline in the Stamford Advocate proclaimed, “Accused priest dies”. Wait a second – he was innocent! And yet our culture likes to label people, and once labeled, the label sticks around forever.
            Thankfully, this is not how God works. As Pope John Paul II said, “We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures, we are the sum of the Father's love for us and our real capacity to become the image of His Son Jesus.” Thank goodness for such mercy! When God looks at us, He doesn’t see our previously-forgiven sin – He sees the Precious Blood of His Son that covers us; He sees a beloved son or daughter made new in mercy.
            We’ve had saints who have been rapists (St. Moses the Black), murderers (St. Paul), Satan-worshippers (Bl. Bartolo Longo). We have had saints with gambling problems (St. Camillus de Lellis), saints who were alcoholics (St. Monica), saints with drug addictions (St. Mark Xi Tianxiang), saints who were prostitutes (St. Mary of Egypt). We’ve had saints who stole things (St. Augustine), saints who were lustful (also St. Augustine) and saints who were heretics before coming to the fullness of truth (…also St. Augustine…).
            If the only people becoming saints were those who are born saints, how few saints there would be! But God’s mercy is free, overwhelming, and scandalous: it takes these people who have thrown their lives away through sin, who have made grievous mistakes and even severe crimes, and makes them heirs to the Kingdom of Heaven.
            Thus, I believe that it is important that we extend that same mercy to all repentant sinners. Was Kobe a sinner? Of course – we all are. But as a culture we like to hang that “scarlet letter” around people’s necks for all to see, no matter how repentant they are. In fact, there is a modern phrase for that: “virtue signaling” – which means that by pointing out another person’s transgressions, we somehow tell others how virtuous we are, by comparison.
            What does that look like, practically? That family member or neighbor who may have made some serious mistakes in the past – do we accept them once they’ve changed, or do we constantly bring up in conversation those past transgressions? Those celebrities who may have done serious wrongs – do we pray for them, for their conversion, or do we believe they’re beyond redemption? In our own life, do we still suffer the shame of a past sin – or are we able to cast it into the ocean of God’s mercy and forgiveness?
            Once, when St. Faustina was having visions of Jesus, she reported them to her Mother Superior. The Mother Superior did not believe her, so she told St. Faustina, “The next time you see Jesus, ask Him what I said in my last Confession.” So the next time she had a vision, St. Faustina asked Jesus what the Mother Superior had said in her last Confession. Jesus’ response: “I don’t remember.”
            Jesus does not remember our sins when they are confessed and forgiven. To be a Christian, then, is to be able to see beneath the sin to the person underneath. This doesn’t mean that sin and crimes shouldn’t have consequences – they definitely should. I certainly wouldn’t lend my car keys to a man who’s been convicted of grand theft auto. But I should see him as more than just a thief – but as a child of God, who stands in the need of mercy, just like the rest of us. God gives second chances to repentant sinners – can we do any less?

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Homily for Ordinary Time 5 - February 9, 2020

Homily for February 9, 2020
Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time

            Imagine if you were to go home tonight and you go to switch on your favorite lamp, but nothing happens. So you replace the light bulb, but it’s still dead. You check your fuse box, but none of the fuses are blown. Do you just figure the lamp is dead and throw it in the garbage? No, of course not – there’s one more critical thing to check: is it plugged in?
            A lamp cannot give light unless electricity is pouring through it. A Christian cannot be light unless Christ is pouring through them.
            It is interesting to note that this metaphor is the only one that Jesus applies both to Himself and to us. He calls Himself “the Light of the World” and He calls us the “light of the world”. Why is that? Because we are not lights on our own – we are only lights when we are intimately united to Christ the Light.
            But most of us are trying to do this “life” thing on our own. Oh, we’ll turn to God when things are really bad, maybe, but most of the time we just try to figure it out for ourselves. I remember sitting in on a board meeting at a local Catholic school that was struggling with enrollment. The other board members were successful entrepreneurs, businessmen, advertising executives, and the like. The conversation was on marketing strategies, communication strategies, business strategies – nothing bad per se, but something was missing from this whole conversation. A friend who is a serious disciple spoke up at the meeting and said, “Shouldn’t we bring this problem to God?” There was visible discomfort among these “Catholic” leaders – all of whom were trying to solve this problem with their own strategies. Finally the chairman said, “Well, yes, we should definitely pray for the school. Now, moving on to the next agenda item…”
            It was a light bulb trying to give forth light without being plugged into the Source. And that is all-too-often how we run our lives. And our faith. I have known a fellow for years who, every time I urge him to return to the Sacraments, just tells me, “Ah, I’m a good enough person.” Okay, perhaps you haven’t murdered anyone – but is your heart transformed and alive in Christ? Yes, we’ll give God a couple Hail Mary’s before we go to bed, but God is after your heart – He is trying to live in you, through you, winning your heart and leading you on a journey of sanctification, healing, and joy.
            We are plugged into the Source when we share every last bit of our life with the Lord. There’s a great story in the first book of Samuel about King David, who was a man with a heart yielded to the Lord. One day, David asks the Lord, “Do you want me to go up to a town in Judah?” And the Lord responds, “Yes, go up.” “To which town?” David asks. “To Hebron,” the Lord replied. I love this – inviting God into even the simple decisions, seeing God in even the simplest blessings.
            What does that look like in daily life? Let me give three examples.
            First, noticing that everything good is a sign of the love of our Father. Let’s say we are awestruck with a beautiful sunset or a warm spring breeze. We could say, “Oh, that’s nice” or we could say, “Lord, thank you for this small gift of Your love.” At our youth group last Friday, I was leading a small group and I asked the kids, “Have you ever experienced the presence of God?” And all of them – every single one – said, “No, I haven’t.” But I said, “Yes, you have – but you just haven’t noticed it was Him!” He has been wooing your heart through gifts – the unexpected kindness of a friend, the beauty of nature or art, the material blessings we have – we just need to connect the dots!
            Second, asking God in every decision – and then listening to His answer. Protestant author John Eldridge tells the story of camping with his family in Yellowstone National Park. They were all packing up to go home, ready to hit the road after a long week camping, but before they left, they asked God, “What are Your plans for today?” (How many of us ask God what HE has planned for the day, instead of rushing through our to-do list?) They both felt like God was asking them to have breakfast there at the lodge, instead of on the road. They thought it odd, but they did so and had a great and lengthy breakfast in the lodge. An hour later, as they started to drive away, they spotted a family of grizzly bears by the side of the road. They stopped the car and got out (carefully, of course!) and were amazed at being able to see them – they rarely show up in Yellowstone and they had so desperately wanted to see one, but hadn’t gotten the chance. But because they asked God what to do – and then followed His counsel – they were blessed with an unexpected gift.
            How often do we do that? If we have a problem at work, do we ever stop and pray, “Lord, what do You want me to do?” If we are having difficulties in our marriage or with our kids, do we pray, “Lord, how do You want me to handle this?” How often do we have a big decision to make, and we ask God for His guidance? Or do we try to do things on our own, just kinda figure life out? It’s like a light bulb trying to shine without being plugged into the source!
            Finally, let your longings lead you to God. This past week I came across this profound quote from St. Augustine: “The whole life of the good Christian is a holy longing. What you long for, as yet you do not see; but longing makes in you room that shall be filled, when that which you are to see shall come.”
 “When you would fill a purse, knowing how large a present it is to hold, you stretch wide its cloth or leather: knowing how much you are to put in it, and seeing that the purse is small, you extend it to make more room. So by withholding the vision God extends the longing, through longing he makes the soul extend, by extending it he makes room in it.”
So often we feel an ache, a hurt, a longing – and we quickly fill it. We’re bored – so we fill it with distractions. We’re lonely – so we seek out internet porn. We have painful memories – so we drown them in beer. We feel anxious and depressed – so we turn out attentions to Youtube or the refrigerator or a thousand things so we don’t feel the longings. But this boredom, loneliness, restlessness, ache is meant to drive us to God. We shouldn’t run from it – those are His knocks, as He waits to be invited into your soul.
So here’s the point of all this: we cannot possess the Light unless we are connected to the Light through an intimate union with God. That’s more than just “saying prayers” – it is sharing our life with Him. He has been knocking at the door of your heart through the longings and desires He has placed within us. He has been trying to win your heart through gifts. He wants to be your Counselor in every decision, in every thought.
We are only the “light of the world” if we are intimately united to Christ, the Light of the World. We can’t do it on our own.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Kobe Bryant and the Rest of Humanity, Rest In Peace

Bulletin Column for February 9, 2020 – Memento Mori

            A couple of weeks ago, the news story broke: Kobe Bryant, the basketball great, was dead at 41. Along with his 13-year-old daughter and several others, their helicopter crashed in the fog on their way to a basketball game.
            People were stunned – in the prime of his life, this father and athletic legend would meet such an untimely demise?
            But then, reports started to surface that Bryant and his daughter were seen at daily Mass that morning. Bryant was a devout Catholic, and it was not uncommon for him to attend Mass and receive Communion. Many people were edified at his example.
            What a grace it would be to receive Holy Communion on the day of our death! May we always stay so close to the Lord that we may be found in His grace at our passing.
            If you ever visit St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, you will notice that many of the tombs of the Popes feature skulls, skeletons, and hourglasses – the symbol of Memento Mori (“Remember your death”). There is a rich tradition within the Church of being conscious that today may be our last day on earth. We must always be prepared, for our death may come at an hour we do not expect.
            The saints knew this. St. Jerome often kept a skull on his desk as he wrote, to remember the shortness of this life and the length of eternity. The Carthusian religious community, founded by St. Bruno, would greet one another with, “Brother, remember your death.”
            There is a sobering church in Rome, officially called the Church of the Immaculate Conception – but unofficially called the Bone Chapel. In 1631, the Franciscan pastor of the church had no place to bury the bones of thousands of friars who had been buried in a local monastery, now closing. He opted to incorporate them into the decorations in the crypt of the church. To visit the five small chapels in the crypt is a haunting experience, as you will see chandeliers made from skulls, rows of vertebrae and femurs decorating the walls, and several entire skeletons cloaked in the Franciscan habit. There are remains of about 4,000 Franciscan friars in the crypt, all of whose bones have become part of the decorations. It could be considered macabre, but there is a powerful sign in the middle of one of the chapels that should give us pause:
            What you are, we once were.
            What we are, you will become.”
            All of us walking around on the earth will become like them. For some of us, that moment will come soon. For others, it may be delayed by fifty or more years. But for all of us – rich and poor, famous and obscure, no matter our race or health or bank account, will someday be laid low by the rapacious grasp of death.
            When I left St. Benedict’s, in appreciation, the fifth-grade CCD class gave me a book as a parting gift. It was St. Alphonsus Liguori’s “Preparation for Death”. (I wasn’t sure if they weren’t trying to give me some subtle hint about something!). It is a powerful reflection about death, and it has us imagine what it would be like to die having lived a virtuous life of faith, assisted by Jesus and Our Lady. It then has us contrast that image with a dying man who has foolishly refused God’s grace for his entire life. What death would be more envious? The first would be a beautiful passing, a seamless transition into a new and more abundant life. In the second, the man would do anything to wrestle and fight with death, to try to buy more life, to be dragged unwillingly into the darkest night – all because he knows that when death strikes, all of the pleasures and riches of this world will be utterly meaningless.
            Christians should not fear death – for we are already dead. Priests wear black because it is a symbol that they are dead to the world – the pleasures of this world no longer draw them. Early Christians practice baptism by a three-fold total immersion in water, as a symbol that baptism is a death (going underwater, as into a tomb) and resurrection (rising up again out of the water, into the air). Those who are truly dead – who use this world without becoming bound to it, who love others while remaining healthily detached – do not fear death.
            St. Francis of Assisi put it best in his “Canticle of the Sun”:
            Praised be You, my Lord,
through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no living man can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those whom death will
find in Your most holy will,
for the second death shall do them no harm.
Remember your death, my friends.