Sunday, December 16, 2012

Rejoicing with Josie

On this third Sunday of Advent we are urged and even commanded to rejoice.  The first reading from the prophet Zephaniah and the second reading from St Paul both speak of rejoicing.  But we need to ask ourselves honestly:  Have we developed a sort of immunity to rejoicing?  And what keeps us from rejoicing in the Lord always?

 Time is a powerful force in our lives.  It tugs at us constantly, pushing and pulling us, like the movement of a powerful tide, now to the past, then to the future.  The force of time makes it difficult for us to remain in the present, which is where we need to be if we are to rejoice in the Lord.

Sometimes, during Mass my mind wanders.  It may wander to what I will be doing later that day.  Or I may begin thinking about what happened to me the day before.  Let me tell you, this is not a good thing when you are up on the altar.  On more than one occasion I have almost missed saying or doing something because I was daydreaming. 

Does this ever happen to you?  I suspect it does.  It is natural to be reminded of other things that we need to do:  that perfect gift we still have not found, that party we have to prepare for.  Or we may be thinking of something that happened to us.  Maybe we are replaying an event over in our minds and wishing that we had done things differently. 

Right now, nine days before the coming of the Lord on Christmas Day, we need to focus on the present, not the past or the future. This season of Advent is all about staying in the present and waiting.  The people that John the Baptist preached to in today’s Gospel knew all about waiting.  And St Luke says that they were filled with great expectation, thinking that John himself might be the long expected Messiah.  And then Christ did arrive but for many it was as though the waiting had not ended.  And two thousand years later, many still live as though Christ had never come. 

We say that Advent is about the coming of Christ.  And we think that means just the coming of Christ on Christmas Day.  But in truth Advent has more to do with experiencing the reality that Christ has already come.  It is the experience that Christ has been born in us.  For what good is it for the Creator to give birth to his Son, if we don’t also give birth to him in our families, our parish, and our nation?

Last Sunday we had a birthday party for my youngest grandchild, Josie.  Well, Josie was all excited when she was opening the presents.  After she opened each one she would tell us all what it was.  She would say “ a pair of pants” or “ princess doll”.  Then she took one gift from the gift bag and she didn’t know what it was.  She said:  “It’s oh, oh, oh, something!”  And we all laughed at her excitement at receiving something.  Then, Lynn, her mother, told her that it was a jewelry box and she opened it for her.  And Josie was even more excited as she opened the jewelry box and it played a tune.

When it comes to the gifts that we receive from God, we are sort of like Josie.  We know that we are receiving something but we can’t really appreciate it until someone explains it to us.  And even then we can’t fully understand what we have received.

This is why we aren’t as joyful as we should be as we await the coming of the Lord at Christmas.  We may know that we are receiving some great gift, but cannot comprehend how important that gift is for us.  Of course, we have our Church, who can unwrap and explain the gift of the Son of God becoming man to us. 

We can be too busy to find the only gift which really matters this Christmas.  We can be checking our email, texting, Christmas shopping, watching some sporting event on TV, or just getting lost in our day to day tasks.  When that happens, it becomes increasingly difficult to experience the reality of Christ having already come.  We don’t have time to just be, to spend some time in prayer or in reflecting on the many blessings in our lives, or maybe even writing a letter to a family member telling them that we love them. 

There is often increased tension and anxiety in households as we prepare for Christmas. The season of Advent is a beautiful counter to anxiety and busy-ness by providing us an opportunity again each year to make sure we are on the right path to draw closer to God. And it’s also an opportunity to help those most dear to us draw closer to God as well.

 And what do you suppose God is doing during Advent?  The answer is found in the first reading: “The Lord, your God is in your midst, rejoicing over you with gladness, renewing you in his love, singing joyfully because of you.”   Even if we do not have time to rejoice, God does.  Why not rejoice with God this day and just listen to His joyful singing as you patiently wait to unwrap the precious gift of the Baby Jesus?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Pineapples and welcoming

On my birthday today, I gave the homily at the children's mass.  I took a pineapple to the pulpit and explained to the children the importance of welcoming Jesus into our lives.  This is what I said:

I bought this pineapple at Kroger’s so that I could use it during my homily this morning.  And, best of all, after I use it for the homily, I can take it home and eat it.  Has anyone had fresh pineapple?  It’s really good, isn’t it?

When I was growing up, the only pineapple that we had was pineapple from a can.  Now, this is OK, but fresh pineapple is much better.   When I was in the Air Force, we were stationed in Hawaii and lived for one year on the north shore.  I drove through the pineapple fields on my way to and from work.  And we often bought pineapples which had recently been picked.  I developed a love for pineapple and look forward to eating this one. 

Maybe you’ve seen welcome mats with pineapples on them. There’s an interesting story connected with pineapples. Over one hundred years ago, before there were airplanes, most travel was done by great ships that traveled over the sea. When a great sea captain returned from some exotic place, he’d bring home a pineapple and put the pineapple on his front gate. There were two reasons why he did that: first, not many of his neighbors had ever seen a pineapple, and they thought it was really neat-looking; the second reason was so he could let everyone know that he was home and he wanted people to come visit. Back then, if you saw a pineapple on somebody’s front gate, it meant “Welcome! I’d like for you to come visit my house.” Even today, we use the pineapple as a symbol for welcoming people.

Last Sunday was the feast of Christ the King.  Christ wants to welcome each one of us into heaven.  Who knows, there might even be a pineapple on the front gate there to welcome us.  Of course, we weren’t very welcoming to Christ while he was here on earth.  First Herod tried to kill him when he ordered all of the Jewish boys under three to be killed.  Then, thirty years later, Christ was crucified as King of the Jews.  By Jesus accepting this rude welcoming, he shows his great love for us.  We have to choose whether or not we’ll accept his invitation to join him in heaven as we either welcome him into our lives or turn away from him day in and day out.   

How do we welcome Jesus into our lives? By praying to him, by following his commandments, by going to mass, by helping others.  We don’t need to put a pineapple outside our houses, do we?  We have to do is pray to Jesus and to follow his commandments.  Let us pray, “Lord Jesus, I’m so glad you came to earth to tell us about your Father and to show us the way to heaven. I want you to come into my heart, my life, and my home this Christmas.” 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

After the election, where do we go from here

Tonight, as we reflect upon our recent election, we might have a sense of despair.  We might have wondered, “what went wrong”, as we watched our fellow Americans including us Ohioans reelect President Obama.  Given the HHS mandate and its attack on religious freedom, how could the majority of Catholics have voted for the president?  Given his strong support of abortion and contraceptives, how could the vast majority of women have voted for him?   Did we just have the wrong candidate or the wrong message?  And where do we, as Catholics committed to life and marriage, go from here?

We must have courage and rejoice as St Peter tells us tonight even though we may have to suffer various trials.  Our objective, the salvation of souls, hasn’t changed.  We may have to work harder to achieve that objective, but the objective remains.  And we still in faith believe that Jesus, through his death on the cross, has already won salvation for us.  So, we may have lost a battle in this war, but we can remain confident, even certain, that ultimately Jesus emerges triumphant. 

I know that some say that “America cannot end.” But that is the first illusion we must put away, because it says that America is eternal, when nothing is eternal but God. Some say “we just need the right message,” but who had a better message than Christ, and the crowd still called for Barabbas. Who was more blessed than the apostles and saints, but they still were set upon and slain.

God’s blessing, if it is truly upon America, does not mean that she survives forever. In fact, if she is truly blessed, it means she gets to suffer for the sake of clarity — to spend some time in the crucible, in order to be refined.   For the road to heaven goes through Calvary for us as individuals and for our nation.

Our job at this point is not to save the nation. Our job now is to save each other; to help spiritually strengthen each other for all that is yet to come.

People of faith, take a good hard look at the new landscape and do not be afraid.  Changes are going to come and they’re going to come quickly, so now is the time to work on strengthening our spiritual lives.  We must make our spiritual lives stronger and healthier through prayer, fasting, and service to others.  And we strengthen our spiritual lives by divesting ourselves of the world and all of its things, its glamor and its empty promises.

We must be ready to help when those who are lost in the glamor and emptiness of this world become lonely.  And they will.  If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.

Believers who feel defeated by this election have actually been given a great gift; they’ve been given the opportunity to divest themselves of the sin of idolatry and pride. The battle is not between parties or between liberals and conservatives; it is between things seen and unseen. It is between light and dark.  It plays out ultimately for the profit of our souls, not our retirement accounts. If we are professing Christians, then we understand things are moving forward to a certain conclusion; the pageant of salvation leads, always, to a complete divesting of everything that has come before. The only way to victory, now is to depend strictly upon God. And God’s ways are not our ways, his thoughts not our thoughts, his “shining city on a hill” like nothing in our imagining.

There is cause for rejoicing here. I am excited. I am energized. I’m taking God at his word, as I read those inspiring words from St Peter tonight:  “Without having seen him you love him; though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy.  As the outcome of your faith, you obtain the salvation of your souls.” 

Praise the Lord.  Keep the faith.  There is plenty of work for us to do in this kingdom of God on earth.  As followers of Christ, we have the answer for this broken world.  Do not be afraid to proclaim this truth in love.   

Monday, September 17, 2012

Transforming our suffering

Today’s Gospel ought to make us a bit uncomfortable. It tells us the shocking truth that Jesus came to die for all of us. That’s how much he loves us.  But, it also tells us that he expects us to willingly take up our cross and follow him.

 Several years ago, the Red Cross in a small Oklahoma town posted signs all over town containing these words:

I gave my blood--Christ gave his. I gave a pint--He gave all.

The needle is small and sharp--The nails were large and dull.

The table is soft and restful--The cross was rough and painful.

The nurses are kind and gentle--The soldiers were cruel and mean.

The crowd applauds my sacrifice. The crowd reviled him.

Mine, at best, will prolong a life for a while.

His can save all forever.

          Jesus died for us. What do we do in response to His love?

Peter rebuked Jesus after Jesus told him that he would suffer greatly, be rejected, and be killed.  Peter didn’t understand why Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah, must suffer in this way.  He couldn’t see the significance of the cross to our savior.  Jesus response to Peter was short and swift when he said:  “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”  We can all relate to Peter in his reaction to suffering.  We want to minimize or eliminate the suffering of those we love.   We certainly don’t want to cause suffering by any of our decisions.   And we struggle to understand the role that suffering plays in our own redemption.

          Often, parents experience difficulties, sacrifices, and suffering in raising their children.  Now, some people would say that avoiding these difficulties is why they have few or no children. They give a lot of reasons why they are nervous about the prospect of raising children. Some worry about being able to pay for college or even groceries. Yet others wonder how they could possibly have enough time for the children in their busy lifestyle. But by far the most common source of concern about having children that I have noticed comes down to one thing: A fear of sacrifice and suffering.

Of course, more life means more suffering; less life means less suffering. Any time we open our lives to new human beings, whether it's through pregnancy or adoption or missionary work or any other kind of intimate service, we're opening ourselves to the possibility of experiencing suffering -- not just our own, but the heartbreak of seeing a loved-one in pain, which is its own kind of torture.

But, suffering plays an important role in our earthly journey.  Because of suffering, our love isn’t just words, its deeds; it’s not just what we say, it’s how we live; no pain, no gain; no cross, no crown.  And through the Eucharist, the sacrament of love, we can transcend our suffering and unite it with the suffering of Christ.

Suffering without love is unendurable, it causes despair.  Love without suffering is just words, a warm-fuzzy feeling.  Love becomes authentic through suffering.  Love purifies and perfects suffering.  Love transforms suffering into sacrifice.  And the Eucharist transforms Jesus’ suffering on the cross into the supreme sacrifice.  The Eucharist gives us the capacity to love.  It enables us to accept our crosses, to endure them, and even to find joy in them. 

          Many beautiful stories came out of the tragedy of the fall of the twin towers of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001--stories of sacrifice and heroism. None is more impressive than the story of Ron Fazio of Closter, New Jersey.


          Fazio was Vice President of a company with offices on the 99th floor of Tower Two. When the plane slammed into Tower One, Ron Fazio made one of the best decisions of his life. He ordered his employees to evacuate the building. Even though their building had not yet been hit by the second plane, he insisted that employees get away from the windows, leave their desks and get out of the building. He stood there and held the door, yelling for everyone to hurry, and held the door open until everyone from his company had started down the stairs. They all made it down. So did he. But he remained outside Tower Two, helping others out of the building. The last anyone saw of him, he was giving his cell phone to someone else, after which the tower collapsed and no one ever heard from Ron Fazio again.

          That’s the difference between wearing a cross and bearing a cross--the willingness to give our life for others. Now, wearing a cross is fine if we have thought through the sacrifice represented by that cross. That cross we’re wearing represents Jesus holding the door open so that we can walk through to eternal life.   
             Jesus tells us: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  Are we opening doors for others?  Are we afraid of life because of the suffering which is involved?  Do we turn to the Eucharist to help us endure and transform our suffering? 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

A celebration at St Francis De Sales

Today, I was on the altar as a deacon for the 9 and 11 o'clock masses at St Francis De Sales.  The celebrant for these masses, Father Joe Dygert, was a recently-ordained priest (in 2011) from the diocese of Colorado Springs.  Father Joe graduated from St Francis De Sales grade school in 1995.  He returned to celebrate his first mass at St Francis since his family moved to Colorado Springs in 1996.  Father Benedict, a missionary priest from Tansania, gave the homily.  Father Benedict commented on today's Gospel in which Jesus tells the disciples:  " A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house." 

This modern day prophet, Father Joe Dygert, was greeted with enthusiasm and joy at his native place, Lebanon, Ohio.  We rejoice and take pride in the faith of this young priest.  We pray that his vocation to the priesthood will continue to bring him joy and peace and that he will continue to touch the lives of many as he did today.

Joe Dygert attended St Francis De Sales grade school with several of my youngest children.  He is two years' older than my fifth child, Ann and two years older that my fourth child, Mike.  I knew his family well when they were parishioners at St Francis De Sales.  Joe's mother, Christy, started Eucharistic adoration at St Francis De Sales.  I remember them as a strong, loving, faith-filled family.  Today, I rejoice with the other members of St Francis that one of our grade school alumni came home to inspire us and to share his faith with us.     

Friday, July 6, 2012

Listening to prophets

The first reading from the prophet Amos reflects a time when the Kingdom of Israel was divided into two:  Israel in the North and Judah in the south with Jeroboam II was the King of the Northern Kingdom.  Jeroboam was a wicked king and worshipped idols.  Amos came from the Southern kingdom of Judah to warn the people of the consequences of Jeroboam’s actions.  He says:  “Jeroboam shall die by the sword and Israel shall surely be exiled from its land.”  This prophecy proved to be true about forty years later when the people of Israel were exiled.  But Amaziah, who was the king’s priest, didn’t appreciate Amos or his prophecies.  He said to Amos:  “Off with you, visionary, flee to the land of Judah!”  In other words, he told him to go home and mind his own business.  But Amos stood his ground.  He said:  “I am not a professional prophet.  I was just an ordinary farmer.  It was God who called me and sent me to give you this message, whether you decide to listen or not.”

Often people in authority don’t appreciate it when others predict negative consequences from their actions.  We see this in our country today as our bishops tell our nation’s leaders the consequences of their contraception mandate.  Our bishops have said that this violates the religious freedom of the church.  They have said if this mandate stands, then Catholic charities, hospitals and schools will have to choose between following their conscience and continuing to operate. 

When you consider that the Catholic Church is the second largest provider of charitable and hospital services, with the government being the largest, this should cause our leaders to rethink their mandate.  Is providing free contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs so important that it is worth forcing some of these agencies to close?   For me, observing this is like watching a train wreck about to happen.  I pray that our nation’s leaders will see the folly of their actions and will change this mandate.  I suspect that many don’t realize how important this issue is to our church.  Based upon all that I have read, I firmly believe that our bishops will not budge on this issue.  And for this I am very proud of them.  Hopefully, our nation’s leaders will reject the advice and influence of Planned Parenthood and others who support this flawed policy and will listen to the voice of reason as provided by our bishops.

I wonder if any of us are being called, like Amos was, to speak out on this issue.  We may say that we aren’t trained speakers or medical doctors or in positions of power.  But if God calls us to speak out against this evil, then we, like Amos, must do our part.  Whether others listen to our message or not is up to them.

I pray that all of us will take some action, however small it may seem to be, against this evil government mandate.  This may involve writing letters, speaking to our friends and neighbors, talking to our politicians, walking the picket line or even just praying.  Like Amos, we may not be able to change our nation’s flawed decision.  But, as a citizen and a Christian, we will have done God’s will.       

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Religious freedom

As we hear in tonight’s reading from the prophet Ezekiel, we are responsible for the behavior of our neighbors.  If we see our neighbor doing something which is evil, we must tell him or her that this action is evil.  If we neglect to tell him, we assume some responsibility for his behavior.  However, we cannot judge the person who exhibits an evil behavior, because we don’t know their motive.  Only God can judge people.  The old adage applies:  hate the sin, love the sinner.
Today, our religious freedom is under attack from the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services’ contraceptive mandate.  This mandate requires that virtually all organizations pay for contraceptives, sterilizations and abortion-inducing drugs in their health insurance.  The only exceptions are those religious organizations which employ and serve those of the same faith.  This mandate directly challenges our Church’s long standing opposition to contraception and abortion.  Many charities, hospitals, and universities will be forced to either violate their conscience or to likely close their doors if this mandate isn’t changed. 
This is an issue of religious freedom.  The question simply is: ”Does our government have a right to mandate a religious organization to take an action which is directly against its long established beliefs?  As a religious people, we have a responsibility to speak out and warn someone when they are doing something evil.  Also, as a religious people, we cannot participate in evil by paying for it or in some other way encouraging it.  For, if we do this, we clearly assume some responsibility for that evil.  
The contraceptive mandate reminds me of an issue which our nation faced during prior wars regarding young men who were drafted.  That issue involved the right of those who were morally opposed to the war; known as conscientious objectors, to refuse military service.  While it certainly was in the best interest of the country to have all young men available for the draft, our nation decided, in the interest of religious freedom, to allow those who were morally opposed to war to provide some service to the country which was not related to the war. 
While this may not be the best analogy, because providing free contraceptives certainly cannot be seen as important to our nation as winning a just war, it does illustrate that our nation has always realized the importance of following one’s conscience.  In fact, while I was in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, they emphasized to us that we must not follow an order which our conscience told us was not moral.  However, they were also quick to tell us that we must be willing to accept the consequences of not following that order. 
Recently, we celebrated the feast of St. John the Baptist.  John’s courage in upholding the truth about marriage, and his subsequent beheading as a result, challenges us in a time when it is not popular to speak the truth or live by the truth. Both he and St. Thomas More remind us that just because certain behavior is enshrined in the law of the land does not mean that is morally right. St. John the Baptist and St Thomas More, pray for our country, for our Church, and for each of us that we properly form and bravely follow our conscience.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Pentecost; tongues of fire; a strong driving wind; frightened men gaining the courage and the power to speak boldly; the people were astounded and amazed!  Wow! 

Who is this Holy Spirit that filled the apostles with such power on Pentecost?  Where do we find the driving wind and the tongues of fire in our world?  How can we harness this power to transform our lives and our world as the apostles did after Pentecost?

The Holy Spirit is alive and well in our world and in our parish.  On our Christ Renews His Parish or CRHP weekend last month, through the power of the Holy Spirit, several men had life changing experiences.    

After the weekend, Jerry, a member of our parish, wrote:  “On Saturday night, I was telling Jim about my crazy experiences with religion. How growing up I had been to about every type of Protestant service you can think of – from Anglican to Pentecostal tent revivals. I never knew Catholicism until I got married. Oh, I had studied its history and studied about the Reformation and the spawning of the protestant churches, but I hadn’t experienced it in action.  Now, after 31 years of sitting on the sidelines observing, I’ve decided it’s time to get in the game.”

John, who came with his friend Scott all the way from Morristown Tennessee, wrote: “The Lord touched us in a very special way, and thanks to all of you we experienced the power of the Holy Spirit. Through all of you we saw the Lord working.   Scott and I would be humbled to be part of the next group of witnesses. While we live in Morristown and it is a long distance, if we have faith and allow the Holy Spirit to do his work, he will help us find a way.  With your help and with the Holy Spirit, we hope to bring CRHP to our parish in Morristown.”

How do we experience the Holy Spirit working in our lives?  Have we ever witnessed the power of the Holy Spirit like these men did on their CRHP weekend?  If you haven’t met the Holy Spirit, you don’t know what you are missing.  And if you have experienced this but have lost the fire of your faith, it is time to get it back.  All of us have opportunities to experience the power of the Holy Spirit many times in our lives.  It may be at an adoration hour, mass, a baptism or a first communion, a death of someone close to us or even listening to a homily.  At these times, we can develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Through the Holy Spirit, our faith can move from our head to our heart.  And then, we won’t just know about Jesus, we will feel him in our heart.  And the Holy Spirit is yearning to touch each of us in a special way.  He wants to impact our day to day decisions which shape who we are.  He wants to guide us and to influence everything about our lives.   For, if the Holy Spirit isn’t guiding us, the devil is more than willing to take over.

The Holy Spirit has influenced my life many times.  Some of these had a big impact on me and some were very small.  I’m sure that there have been many times when he has influenced my life and I didn’t even realize it.  Recently, I made plans to vacation in Gatlinburg Tennessee shortly after the CRHP weekend.  At the time, I didn’t know that several men who would attend that weekend would come from Morristown Tennessee, about an hour from Gatlinburg.   A little over a week ago, I met with John and Scott in Tennessee who are on fire with the Holy Spirit.  Now, they are members of our giving team and are making plans to start CHRP at St Patrick’s in Morristown next year.  It’s amazing how the Holy Spirit works.  Some people call these coincidences but I consider them to be God-incidences; the Holy Spirit working in my life.   

So now, I ask all of you to reflect over the next few minutes on the message that you are hearing in your heart.   Is the Holy Spirit calling you to pray more often?  Is he asking you to evangelize others or maybe just to be a friend by helping others?  Is he calling you to the sacrament of reconciliation where you can wipe the slate clean?  Is he telling you to have a heart to heart talk with someone you love; your parent, your child, or your spouse.  Or is he just asking you to rest in the peace and joy of Christ’s love?  Whatever your message is, make sure that it comes from the Holy Spirit and then embrace it.  Do not be afraid.  Few of us will experience a strong wind or tongues of fire. 

Let us pray.  Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in us the fire of your love.  Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created and You shall renew the face of the earth.  Amen.    

Monday, April 16, 2012

Can you blame Thomas?

Can you blame Thomas?  How could he accept what the apostles were telling him?  Some things, like a person rising from the dead, are just too incredible to believe.  No one expected Jesus to rise from the dead and there was no good reason to believe that he had.  So, when the other apostles exclaimed, “We have seen the Lord!” it was just too much for Thomas to believe.  Now, Thomas is asking for proof that Jesus rose from the dead.  He tells the other apostles that he won’t believe unless he sees the wounds of Jesus and puts his hand into his side.  What about us?  How much proof do we need?  Must we see Jesus face to face in order to believe? 

We can all relate to Thomas.  We have all met people who are on fire with the love of the Lord.  Sometimes the more they witness to us about his love, the more skeptical we become.  Many find it difficult to believe based upon another person’s faith.  And, if this person tells stories of incredible miracles, we may be even less likely to believe. 

In the eyes of the world, believing in the resurrection of Jesus is na├»ve, and maybe even silly.  Many are indifferent and lukewarm in their faith today.  They may or may not go to church on Sunday.  They are familiar with the story of the resurrection but haven’t quite bought into it.  Their faith often doesn’t have a significant impact on their day-to-day actions.  It isn’t that they don’t believe in God; it’s just that this belief isn’t strong enough to impact their behavior, especially when their faith is telling them one thing and the world just the opposite.  The current debate on contraception is a great example of this.  Our church tells us that it is immoral; our society tells us that it’s OK, and our government tells us that it is so important that it is a basic right.  Where do we find the truth?  How does our faith lead us to the truth in important matters such as this? 

A friend of mine commented to me that he thought it would have been easier to have faith in Jesus time than it is now.  He said that he believed his faith would have been stronger if he had walked with Jesus.  Common sense would seem to suggest that it would be easier to believe if we could have seen the risen Jesus and talked to his disciples.  But for us, believing is not a matter of physical observation but of realizing spiritual truth.  And, unlike the Apostles, we have the benefit of the New Testament, the Catechism, and two thousand years of Church teachings.  The apostles didn’t have any of this.  At times, they struggled with believing that Jesus is the Son of God.  They had a lot to learn about the risen Jesus and faced many heresies.  And yet, by faith, in spite of persistent doubts, they converted their followers to Christianity at an amazing rate.

Our faith is built upon the faith of the apostles.  It is built upon Thomas, the doubter, who comes face to face with Christ and makes his act of faith when he says:  “My Lord and my God!” It is dependent upon that faith being passed down by people of faith in communities just like ours.  Fortunately, our faith journey isn’t a solitary one.  We have the wisdom of many others to light our path. 

Last weekend, our faith was on display for all to see.   On Friday, many of us reverenced the cross in front of the altar.  I watched in awe as you came two by two to demonstrate your unity with the sufferings of Jesus.  You were young, barely able to walk, old, struggling to kneel down to kiss the cross, teenagers trying to look cool, and mothers and fathers carrying children.  At the Saturday vigil, the catechumens and their sponsors filled this area as they came into the church after months of preparation.  On Easter Sunday at the 11 o’clock mass, our congregation overflowed into the gathering area and even onto the sidewalk outside.  We can easily imagine Jesus smiling as he watched all of this.  In spite of doubts due to the persistent attacks of the evil one, the faith of our community continues to grow.

If we look for proof, we’ll never find it.  If we have faith, we have all the proof we need.  During the desert times when we’re struggling with our faith, we struggle to see God in anything.  But, on those occasions when our faith is strong, we see God even in the little things of our lives. 

We’ll never have all the proof we’d like to have.  And that’s OK.  That’s what faith is all about.  And we won’t see Jesus face to face until we are with him in the heavenly kingdom.  Like Thomas in the upper room, we have doubts.  St Paul told the Romans:  “The victory that conquers the world is our faith.  And the victor over the world is the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.”  Today, we give thanks for the patience and mercy of Jesus on this Divine Mercy Sunday.  And we give thanks for the faith of our community , for those who recently joined us at the Easter vigil, and for our shepherd leading us on this faith journey.  For, through the faith of others, we see a glimpse of the Risen Lord.  Thanks be to God.  His mercy endures forever.  

Monday, March 26, 2012

Embrace your cross

Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish neurologist and psychologist, was invited to emigrate from Vienna to the US in 1941.  His parents were overjoyed but Viktor hesitated.  He wondered if he could leave his parents in Vienna where they would likely be sent to a concentration camp.  Should he work on his research and write his books?  Or should he concentrate on his duties as a child, and do whatever he could to protect his parents?

Then, Victor found a piece of marble lying on a table at his house.  This marble was from the site where the National Socialists had burned down the largest Viennese synagogue.  His father had taken the piece home because it was a part of the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed.  One gilded Hebrew letter was inscribed on this broken piece of marble.  The letter stood for the commandment “Honor your father and your mother.”  Then, Viktor knew that he must stay with his parents in Vienna.

Jesus knew perfectly well what was awaiting him.  As the Son of God, he knew of his upcoming suffering and death.  As a man who is like us in every way except sin, Jesus was troubled.  He realized that this painful death was his destiny.  The cross was awaiting him.  He was about to give glory to his Father through a humiliating and excruciating death.  And, knowing what was coming made his task even more difficult.  Jesus had to choose the cross.  He needed to be obedient to the will of his Father even unto death.  Jesus told his disciples the kind of death that he would die.  He told them that he would be lifted up and would draw everyone to him.  His disciples could feel his anguish and pain but they didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.  Jesus would go into this difficult time without the support of his closest friends.  They would betray him, deny him, and most would just abandon him.  Jesus knew all of this and yet he chose the cross.

Because he honored his parents and stayed in Vienna, Viktor Frankl spent over two and a half years in Nazi concentration camps. While he was interred, his wife, his mother, and his father all died in concentration camps.  He suffered unbelievable cruelty and stared death in the face many times.  Viktor found out first-hand what suffering was all about.   Viktor tells us:  “The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life.  He may remain brave, dignified and unselfish.  Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation, he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.”

As the Son of God, Jesus was not spared from suffering.  St Paul tells us that Jesus found obedience through suffering.   There is a Greek proverb:  “Sufferings are lessons.”  Jesus, in his human nature, learned from his experiences.  He chose to obey, even unto death, atoning for Adam and Eve’s sin of disobedience.  Jesus knew what obedience was, but he learned obedience in practice through his passion and death.

Probably none of us will ever experience suffering which can approach that of Jesus or Viktor Frankl.  But, during our lives, all of us have the opportunity, and the need, on many occasions, to carry our cross.  It may be the cross of raising children, dealing with the loss of a job, financial problems, elderly parents,  sickness, marital difficulties, or something else.  Whatever our cross is, we can either run from it or embrace it.  When we embrace our cross, we find obedience to the Father’s will through our suffering.  And, mysteriously, we find hope.   Through the cross, we follow Jesus and serve others.  Through the cross, we die to ourselves and gain everlasting life.  Through the cross, we turn away from our secular culture and we embrace our loving God and our neighbor.

I have been a member of this parish for forty years.  I have come to know many of you.  I am aware of some of your crosses as some of you are aware of mine.  When I look out at all of you on Sunday, I don’t see pain and suffering as a result of these crosses.  Instead, I see hope, faith, love, and even joy.  I see many who lean on the cross of Christ and on each other as they persevere in carrying their cross.  I see a community of faith coming to mass and to the Eucharist for the grace of God which carries them through their tough times.    

As we approach Good Friday, we remember and give thanks for the cross of Jesus.  And we also give thanks for the cross which we carry.  Embrace that cross! Share it with others!  Help others with their cross!  Let our cross lead us to our resurrection.          

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Our Church wrestles with evil

The Spirit drove Jesus into the desert for forty days.  It is there that he encountered Satan—Jesus did not avoid the devil or underestimate him, but he contended with him and wrestled with him. Jesus battled against evil. In that worst of places; in that harshest of environments; among wild beasts.  He was not spared from the human situation, from temptation, from struggle. He confronted it all.

Today, our Church finds itself in the desert wrestling with evil.  Our government has told our Church to include coverage in its health insurance for pills which either prevent conception or abort the newly-conceived human embryo.  In the interest of providing what it describes as women’s reproductive services, it is trying to force our Church into violating its conscience by paying for these drugs and thereby participating in this evil.  This issue has divided our Church and our nation by pitting those who are for religious liberty or support the teachings of our Church against those who support our governments’ definition of women’s health.  And the media and many of our nation’s politicians would have us believe that this is an issue about contraception and the extent to which these teachings are or are not being followed.  But it’s not.  This is about religious liberty and the mandate to follow one’s conscience, either as an individual or as an organization.

Our bishops, the shepherds of the Church, find themselves in the middle of this controversy.    They have courageously said that they will not comply with this mandate.  Can our Church stand strong as it is being attacked?  Will some Church leaders choose to go to jail rather than complying?  What impact will this issue have on Church attendance and financial support? 

And what about each of us?  We find ourselves in the middle of this mess.  Are we standing with our Church leaders in the desert? Do we believe that our government has the right to impose this mandate?  Or are we indifferent and simply don’t care one way or the other?

During his time in the desert, Jesus became more detached from the things of day-to-day living.  He was not intimidated by the devil.  His time in the desert was a time of fulfillment as he prepared for his mission and a time of separation from the culture of the world. 

When he emerged from the desert, Jesus proclaimed the good news by saying:  “The Kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent and believe in the gospel.”  He preached the kingdom of God to a world which was hungry for the truth.  Jesus began his public ministry by teaching, healing, and eventually dying on the cross.  His mission was a battle against the power of sin in the world.  By separating himself for forty days in the desert, He detached himself from the things of earth so that he could better proclaim the heavenly kingdom.  In the desert, Jesus met the devil and defeated him.  He saw the devil’s tricks and remained faithful to his Father’s will.  Jesus, with his death and resurrection, forever guaranteed his victory and his Church’s victory over the devil.   

When our Church emerges from this time of testing, it will be better able to minister to our broken world.   Our Church, and we as members, will always be foreigners in this secular world, for we are meant to be citizens of heaven. We are meant to contribute to our country in ways which don’t conflict with our loyalty to God.  Our loyalty to the teachings of Christ and His Church should always take priority over our loyalty to our country or to any political party.

Like the season of Lent, our current time of testing is a blessing for us and for our Church.  It encourages us to pray and to sacrifice not just for ourselves but for our Church and our nation.  Our response to this threat will shape the future for our children and our grandchildren.  Never before have we wondered what our country stands for as much as we do right now.  Do we stand for religious liberty, support of life, and concern for the poor?   Will this be marked as a moment in history when good men and women respond and redirect their nation toward God and His culture of life?  

Our response should include calls and letters to our government leaders.  But even more important is our response to our heavenly Father.  If ever there were a time to rattle the gates of heaven with our prayers, now is that time.  And there is no better time than this Lent to offer sacrifices to change the outcome of what is happening in our country.    We can each make a profound difference.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The demon of abortion

While Abby Johnson was attending Texas A&M, she volunteered at the local Planned Parenthood clinic.  During this time, Abby had two abortions.  She had the first one when she was twenty years’ old.  She agreed with Mark, the father of the baby, that they weren’t ready for the responsibility of raising a child.  So, he took her to the Planned Parenthood clinic in Houston to get rid of their problem.  After the abortion, Abby was relieved that she could get on with her life. 

Her second abortion occurred a few years’ later.  This time, she was eight weeks’ pregnant and opted for a medical abortion using RU-486, the abortion pill.  Abby thought that for early abortions, this medication abortion was the more private and comfortable way to go.  The days that followed were sheer agony for her.  She couldn’t bear the thought of going to an emergency clinic and just suffered alone.    Abby was surprised that the pill caused her some genuine physical suffering and that it wasn’t a comfortable way to have an abortion after all.  After about eight weeks of feeling ill, Abby was able to return to her volunteer work at the clinic. 

Upon graduation, Abby accepted a job from Planned Parenthood.  She worked her way up through the ranks over several years and found herself in the important but morally-challenging job of director of the clinic in Bryan, Texas.

One day, due to a staff shortage, Abby was called into the exam room to help the medical team during an abortion.  As she took the ultrasound probe, Abby argued with herself thinking: “I don’t want to be here.  I don’t want to take part in an abortion.”  Abby could not have imagined how the next ten minutes would shake the foundation of her values and change the course of her life. 

The man with the unclean spirit cried out asking Jesus what he had to do with them and if he had come to destroy them.  The man shocked the crowd when he said that Jesus was the Holy One of God.  This man knew that Jesus was the Messiah.  The other people in the synagogue didn’t know this.  So, we know that this person was possessed by the devil.  The devil is trying to counteract the teaching of Jesus.  He always opposes truth and the work of grace.   

How would Jesus respond to this possessed person?  Would Jesus or his disciples physically throw him out of the synagogue?   Or, would Jesus just ignore him and talk over him?  Clearly this man, the devil in disguise, represents a threat to Jesus’ authority.

After witnessing the abortion, Abby’s life wasn’t the same.  She decided to quit working at the clinic before the next Saturday when they performed abortions again. She saw an old note on her desk from Elizabeth, a Coalition for Life volunteer who often was outside the clinic fence on the sidewalk.  The note said:  “The Lord has done great things for us and we are filled with JOY.  I am praying for you, Elizabeth.” A light broke through the darkness and Abby saw with simple clarity that she was on the wrong side of the fence.

Abby knew what she had to do.  She drove over to the Coalition for Life office several blocks away.  When she got inside, Abby told the confused volunteers:  “I want out.  I just can’t do this anymore.”   And, so Abby’s new life, her life of grace, her life as a pro-life advocate began.  To spread her pro-life message, she wrote a book, titled Unplanned, which describes her journey from pro-choice to pro-life. 

When Jesus was confronted with the man who challenged him in the synagogue, his response to the evil in his midst was quick and effective.  Jesus said, “Quiet, come out of him!”  Immediately, the unclean spirit came out and the man made a loud cry.  With this victory, Jesus shows us that He is the Messiah, the Savior, and is more powerful than the devil.  

The people were amazed by Jesus’ teaching and by his victory over the devil.  They didn’t know what to make of Jesus.  His fame spread throughout the whole region.  Jesus victory over the devil is a sign to all of us of God’s salvation which comes to us through Jesus. Jesus’ power over evil assures us that, with his help and grace, we can throw off any demons that we may have.

The unclean man was freed from the devil after a miracle, a direct intervention of God in his life.  Abby was freed from the demon and evil of abortion through the grace of God and the prayers of many, especially the Coalition for Life volunteers who picketed outside the gate. 

In these troubled and confusing times, our world is crying out in pain, like the possessed man in the Gospel and like Abby who could no longer take part in an abortion.  People around us are hungry to hear the message of Jesus who brings us healing, life, and peace.  The world is suffering because it is under the grip of the devil who offers pain, death, and turmoil. We need a change, a transformation, a healing.     

When we look at our own lives, where do we find ourselves in these two stories?  Are we like Abby and the man with the unclean spirit?  Are we struggling with demons in our lives?   Are we like Elizabeth, the Coalition for Life volunteer?  Are we helping others, through our prayers, our actions, and our example, in our daily struggles against the forces of evil?   Or do we sometimes see ourselves in both places, struggling with demons while we pray for ourselves and for others?  Today, may all of us resolve to support and defend the culture of life and to condemn the culture of death in our community and in our world.  And may we with God’s grace throw off any demons which we may have invaded our life and  embrace the healing and peace of Jesus Christ. 

Friday, January 27, 2012

David's sin against Uriah is similar to our sins of abortion

Our first reading today is the famous story of David and Bathsheba.  In this story, one sin leads to another.  And the third sin is even worse than the first one.  After getting Bathsheba pregnant, David makes every effort to assure that his good name is not harmed as he twice tries to get Uriah to go to his house.  When he sees that he cannot make Uriah responsible for Bathsheba’s pregnancy, he decides to arrange for him to die in battle.  This is the worst sort of thing that he, the king, could do.  Uriah is one of the best and most loyal soldiers in the army.  He is killed to protect the good name of King David.  It is no wonder that the Lord is displeased with David, who he chose to be king.

One example today of sins that occur often as a result of earlier sins is abortion.  Like in the story, often this sin is a cover up for an earlier sin such as a young couple who aren’t ready to accept the child which they conceived out of wedlock.  And, like the case of David killing Uriah, this subsequent sin is even worse than the first one.  Instead of reconciling the earlier sin, this act compounds the earlier sin.

In the next chapter of the book of Samuel, David pays for his sin.  The prophet Nathan, speaking for the Lord, tells him: “Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight?    Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun.”  

How will our nation pay for its sin of over 54 million abortions?   Will it pay for its sins by the destruction of the family?  Will it pay for its sins by a general acceptance of immorality?  Will it pay for its sins by introducing its children to immorality at a very early age?  Will it pay for its sins by discrediting its ethical anchor, the Catholic Church?

Last Monday, a busload of us from St Francis De Sales attended the Right to Life march in Washington DC with about 300,000 others.  It was inspiring to see so many young people at this march.  Clearly, many of our young people have embraced this issue.  But, it was also discouraging to think that on this, the 39th anniversary of the Roe versus Wade decision, about one in four babies are aborted in the womb.  How long will our Lord let our nation pretend to be great while it permits this atrocity?  How do each of us respond to this atrocity?