Saturday, February 22, 2014

Helen Ziegler- rest in peace

For about forty years Kathleen and I went to her brother’s house, to Will and Helen’s, for thanksgiving dinner.  Initially, we weren’t even engaged.  But, eventually, we got married and began to bring our children, then their spouses and then the grandchildren.   These dinners became a tradition in the family and we used to say that if you brought a girlfriend or boyfriend to Thanksgiving dinner at Will and Helen’s then you had to marry them.  We only missed a few Thanksgiving dinners during this time; several when I was in the service and once when we decided to go skiing instead.  And the year when we went skiing, we all decided that we should have gone to Will and Helen’s because we missed being with the family.
These dinners were happy events.  After all, we say Happy Thanksgiving.  The Latin word for blessed in today’s Gospel, beatitudo, can also be translated as ‘happy’.   So, Jesus is telling us nine different ways to be happy.  He says: “Happy are the poor in spirit, happy are those who mourn, happy are the meek, happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, happy are the merciful, happy are the pure in heart, happy are the peacemakers, happy are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, and happy are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely in my account.”
Some of these ways to be happy are not what we would expect.  To understand this teaching of Jesus, these beatitudes, we need to better understand what happiness is.  Today, many associate happiness with “having a good time” that is, pleasure or comfort.  But, long term happiness is spiritual and moral and not emotional and pleasurable.   The saints in heaven are supremely happy, because they’re with God, the source of all happiness.  Happiness, then, is joyful, flowing from the life of God.  The one thing we all desire is joy.  Jesus tells us in the beatitudes how to find true joy and happiness.    
Now, a funeral mass might seem like a strange place to talk about joy and happiness.  But, if we truly believe in eternal life with Jesus in heaven, then this is the perfect setting to speak of happiness. Death for those who are following Jesus isn’t meant to be a sad event.  Instead, it is a transition from the trials and suffering of this life to eternal joy with Jesus in heaven.
Happiness in heaven is what we all are striving for, but we might not realize it.  We might look for happiness in the things of this world, like money or power or pleasure or honor.  But, eventually, even if we achieve some of these things, we come to realize that they only satisfy us for a short time and then we look for more.  Ultimately, we are looking for the joy which only God can offer us.
In his apostolic letter, Pope Francis recently wrote:  The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. … With Christ, joy is constantly born anew.  The salvation which God offers us is the work of his mercy. God, by his sheer grace, draws us to himself and makes us one with him.
I’ve known Helen for over forty years.  And to me, she always seemed to be happy.  I know that she had trials in her life, as we all do, but she endured these trials gracefully and maintained a joyful disposition.   She let God lead her as she persevered through the difficulties of life.  Our first reading from the book of Proverbs described the ideal wife by saying:  “She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs at the days to come.  She opens her mouth in wisdom, and on her tongue is kindly counsel.  Her children rise up and praise her.  Her husband, too, extols her.”  That was Helen.
Several weeks ago, my wife and I visited Helen in the nursing home and then in the hospital.  It was obvious that her days were numbered.  Where we once were praying for her to recover; now we prayed that her suffering would end soon.  Last Saturday, her trials and suffering came to an end.   She lived a long life and now has transitioned from the trials of this life to eternal life.   
All of us are dying.  For some, death will come in days or months.  For most, it will be many years.  We all will take this journey from life through death to everlasting life or everlasting death.   Even Jesus, the Son of God, made this journey.  Out of love for us, he came to earth just like us and died like we all must die.  Jesus death and resurrection provide hope and consolation to all of us.  He has shown us the way to everlasting life.  And through him, we obtain everlasting life.

May we bear our trials and suffering with grace and perseverance as Helen did even during her final days. May all of us here and especially Will, Greg, Dan, and Rob find hope and courage during this difficult time.  And, through the love of our merciful and forgiving God, may we experience true joy and happiness in this life and in eternal life.    

Monday, February 10, 2014

He leadeth me - a homily given at the Presentation Ministries Retreat

Recently I read He leadeth me by Father Walter Ciszek.  Father Ciszek was an American Jesuit priest who felt a strong calling to serve the people of Russia in the late 1930’s.  After ordination, Father Ciszek was assigned to a small parish in Poland.  From Poland, he went into Russia with a logging crew.  When the authorities found out that he was a priest, he was arrested and spent twenty three years in Soviet prisons and labor camps.  They convicted him of being a Vatican spy and, on many occasions, threatened to kill him. Father Ciszek struggled with his faith and wondered why he went to Russia where it was often nearly impossible for him to minister as a priest.  Eventually, he came to realize that he was led to the Soviet prisons and labor camps by the Lord for a reason and that he should serve as best he could under very difficult circumstances.  Father Ciszek couldn’t control the people who were placed in his path.  But he could minister to those he did meet.
While in prison, Father Ciszek said:  “I grew firm in my conviction that whatever happened in my life was nothing else than a reflection of God’s will for me. And he would protect me.”  Father Ciszek ministered to those he met who were willing to listen.  He persevered in spite of the attempts of the authorities to silence him.  He planted seeds but normally wasn’t able to see the results of his efforts.
All of us have roles to play in salvation history.  John the Baptist’s role was an important one, to announce the coming of the Lord.  As we hear in today’s Gospel, he was beheaded by Herod because of his role.  Father Ciszek also had a role in bringing the faith to the Russian prison camps and Siberian towns.  He fanned the flame of faith in a barren time and place. 
Our role might not require the complete commitment of John the Baptist or the continual sacrifice of Father Ciszek.  But, our faith is very important to those the Lord puts into our path.  Our primary role in salvation history might be limited to evangelizing our friends, our family, and our co-workers. For some of them, we might be the only Christian witness that they hear.  We are to bloom where we are planted.
I’d like to tell you a story about a couple in our parish, I’ll call them Amy and Jim, who are living their lay vocation.  A few years ago, Amy attended a Christ Renews His Parish or CRHP weekend here at St Francis de Sales.  Amy was touched by the witnesses she heard on the weekend and resolved to develop a closer relationship with Christ. 
Jim saw the impact the weekend had on Amy and agreed to attend the next men’s weekend.  After the weekend, Jim, who was normally pretty quiet, witnessed to his friends about Christ.  He and Amy also had many serious discussions about living their faith.  There was one area of their faith where they continued to struggle, the issue of having additional children.  Jim and Amy had three children and each one had medical problems after birth.  After the third child, they had decided that they shouldn’t have additional children and Jim had a vasectomy. 
Now, after attending CRHP and finding a closer relationship with the Lord, they became aware of the church teaching against contraception.  They prayed about what they should do and discussed the issue with Father Rob and me.  Since Jim’s business was struggling, they really couldn’t afford the cost to get the vasectomy reversed.
After much prayer, they decided to have faith and to trust in the Lord.  They got a new credit card with no interest for several months.  Jim had his vasectomy reversed and put the cost on the credit card.  Jim’s business picked up and in several months, they were able to pay off the credit card.  When Jim wrote the check, Amy asked him if he realized what day it was. It was Father’s day.
Several months later, Jim was on a CRHP giving team with me and gave the witness on Father’s Loving Care.  During his witness he told this story.  At the end of his witness, he told us that Amy was pregnant.  I was so touched by the faith and trust of this young couple that I almost cried.
After the baby was born, they asked me to baptize her.  I call her a CRHP baby.  The baby hasn’t had any of the health issues that their other children had after birth.  It has been a joy to the family and to many of us in the parish.  Amy and Jim are witnesses to all of us at St Francis of the power of living your lay vocation.  Jim is on the current CRHP giving team and will be giving this witness once again.
When I look out at the congregation at our Sunday masses, I see couples like Jim and Amy who are living their lay vocation.  I see families large and small who are coming to church every Sunday and are doing their best to be Christ in this community.  I hear the crying babies, who are the future of our church.  They give me hope for our Church and for our nation. 

Approximately one third of the deaths in our nation today occur in the womb.  Our nation doesn’t support its families and is confused even about what marriage is.  We must pray that our nation doesn’t completely reject God, like Russia did in Father Ciszek’s time.  But, we have hope because of the young families, like Jim and Amy, in our communities today.  These families are raising godly children.  Unlike my generation, which brought us free love, no-fault divorce, and the collapse of the family, this generation, these families, are leading us back to Christ and his Church.  I pray that all of you, and especially the young mothers and fathers who are with us today, will live your lay vocation. Christ is counting on you to build His kingdom on earth.