Sunday, September 10, 2017

Who are our watchmen?

In today's first reading, the Lord tells the prophet Ezekiel that he is the watchman for the house of Israel.  Ezekiel must warn others when they sin; otherwise he will be held responsible for their sin.  Once he warns someone, Ezekiel will not be held responsible for any sin they might commit and he will save himself.
Who are our watchmen today?  Most people would probably say that our religious leaders, our bishops, priests, and even our deacons are watchmen.  As clergy, we clearly are responsible for warning others when they are sinning. 
But, all of us, as Christians, as followers of Christ, are watchmen.  We are all responsible for warning others about their sinful behavior.  This is not a duty to be taken lightly as we hear in the first reading.  If we are negligent in this duty, we can be held responsible for someone's spiritual  death. 
It is difficult to reconcile this responsibility with today's attitude toward sin and truth.  If I were to tell someone that it can be a sin for him to miss mass on Sunday, he would probably say to me that he doesn't believe this and that I should keep my opinions to myself.  He might also comment that I am being intolerant of him and am judging him. 
Reminding someone that what they are doing is not right is never easy.  When we do this, we might be successful in getting someone to change or we might be told to get lost.  We all should shudder when we read today’s passage from Ezekiel where God tells Ezekiel “if you do not speak to the wicked person about their wickedness, I will hold you responsible for the consequences of his or her wrongdoing.”  We all may have a lot to answer for because of things that we didn’t say or do.
Love should be the motivation behind any form of fraternal correction.  Paul tells us today: “owe nothing to anyone except to love one another.”  We shouldn’t go around finding fault with people because we enjoy it.   We should do it because we love them and we hate to see them doing things that will cause themselves harm, either spiritually or physically.  
Often our words of wisdom or encouragement, even if offered in love, fall on deaf ears.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives us one more way to help our brother or sister who is straying from the path of righteousness.  Jesus encourages prayer for the person.  As a matter of fact, even before we dare offer advice or criticism to another, we should pray for the right words and then if we are told to mind our own business, we should keep on praying for them.  St James summarized our efforts in this area when he said: “whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”
There is no human power greater than truth spoken in love, but this power does not protect us from retaliation.  When Pilate asked Jesus , "are you a king?"  Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king.  For this I was born, and for this I came into the world to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.".  Then Pilate promptly ordered Jesus to be crucified.
Jesus doesn't promise we won't suffer for speaking the truth.  But he says, "If you seek to save your life on this earth, you will lose it.  How do you profit if you gain the whole world and lose your own soul."  We are not on earth to save our lives- or our jobs or our relationships with others if we have to suppress the truth to keep them.  Rather we are here to testify to the truth.  The person we will be for all eternity will be determined by how well we do that.

We all need to help each other on our spiritual journey, to be watchmen for one another.  At St Francis, there are groups of spirit-filled men and women who meet regularly- including bible studies, faith sharing,  marriage encounter and CRHP.    As we get to know each other and to know our joys and sorrows, our strengths and weaknesses, it is a great opportunity to share our struggles with each other and to provide some assistance, some fraternal correction, to each other.  If you are not already a member of one of these groups, I would encourage you to join one.   We all can learn from each other's successes and failures.  

Friday, August 18, 2017

Divorce and contraception

Just as in Jesus' time, it is difficult to reconcile Jesus' teaching about divorce with our society.  With divorce rates around 50%, Jesus would say to us that our marriages are a mess "because of the hardness of our hearts." 
During my lifetime, I have seen a dramatic change in attitudes toward marriage and divorce.  In the 50's and 60's, divorce was somewhat rare and there were few single parent families.  It was a much simpler time and many people listened to and respected the Catholic Church.

Then, came the sexual revolution and things rapidly changed.  Much of this change was driven by the birth control pill.  As the pill was rapidly accepted throughout all segments of society in the 70's and 80's, we witnessed an interesting and troubling phenomenon.  As the percent of women using the birth control pill grew, the percentage of marriages ending in divorce grew at approximately the same rate.  Unfortunately, this was true in Catholic marriages also.  There was little difference between the percentage of marriages ending in divorce for non-Catholics and Catholics.  in both groups, the number peaked and has stayed around 50%.

In July 1968, Pope Paul VI wrote a short prophetic encyclical: Humanae Vitae.  This encyclical said the marital act must be unitive (two become one) and procreative (life-giving).  The encyclical also said that if artificial birth control is widely accepted, we would see an increase in divorces, abortions, pornography, and spouse and child abuse.  We would also see governments interfering in this area and unnatural methods of creating life.  Unfortunately, all of these predictions, which were considered to be ridiculous when the encyclical was written, have proven to be true. 

This encyclical was not understood or accepted by most Catholics.  In fact, even some theologians, priests, and bishops rejected it.  It was just too counter-cultural for many people to embrace.  Because of this, the birth control pill was widely used by Catholic women.  It was not difficult to find a priest who said that this was OK.

Fortunately, some Catholic couples have continued to follow church teaching as outlined in Humanae Vitae.  The divorce rate among these couples is under 5%.  Many of them are using Natural Family Planning or NFP to space their children.  This has about the same effectiveness rate as the pill.  It has proven to be very effective in helping them either achieve or avoid pregnancy.   And many of our priestly vocations have come from these families.  My wife and I taught NFP for many years.  We witnessed many couples whose marriages were blessed and strengthened, including ours, as a result of using NFP.

Today, we are witnessing another troubling trend.  Many couples are choosing not to get married and just live together.  They figure, why bother, since it will just end in divorce, like we see with so many of our friends.


So, today, let us pray for all married couples.  Let us pray that we have the courage to live and to embrace our marriage covenant.  Through our marriage, we are meant to  live a covenant which is free, total, faithful, and fruitful and which images Christ's love for His Church.  Let us live our marriage covenant with joy and encourage other couples to do the same.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

A funeral homily for Tim Smith

All of us probably have mixed emotions today.  We are glad that Tim's suffering is over.  But, we have also lost a father, a brother, a grandfather, a great grandfather, a friend.  And we realize that we won't have Tim to talk with, drink with, argue with, or just to hang out with.  This funeral mass is intended to help us let go of Tim and to pray for him.  
I met Tim at our Christ Renews His Parish men's retreat last September.  He could barely breathe.  He was scheduled to have chemotherapy the next week, which he wasn't looking forward to.  He was physically, mentally, and spiritually down.
Over that weekend, Tim's spirits were lifted.  He went to confession and communion.  He also connected with a group of men who would continue to support him for the next nine months.  And over the next few months as his condition deteriorated, he reconnected with his family. 
When Tim decided to attend this retreat, he wasn't regularly attending church and he didn't have any close friends in the parish.  But, in late August, he ran into someone he had worked with many years earlier.  Led by the Holy Spirit, she asked Tim to attend the upcoming weekend.  And, surprisingly, he accepted. 
Jesus, in his great love for us, is always calling us to him.  Even if we have drifted away from him, he still continues to call us back.  Often, we either don't recognize the call or ignore it.  Sometimes, like with Tim, we accept the call and he is waiting for us with open arms.
Today's mass is meant to be joyful and happy.  Now, a funeral mass might seem like a strange place to talk about joy and happiness.  But, if we truly believe in eternal life, 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.
The Latin word for blessed in today’s Gospel, 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 love of God.  The one thing we all desire is joy.  Jesus tells us in the beatitudes how to find true joy and happiness.   
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.
As I talked to Tim over the last few months, I was always impressed that he seemed at peace with his suffering.  He didn't complain that his lungs were a mess.  Instead, he appreciated the time that he was able to spend with family and friends before his rapidly approaching death.   Last Saturday, on the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Tim's trials and suffering came to an end.   Now, he has transitioned from the trials of this life to eternal life.   
For Tim, this is a joyful day.  His pain from his disease is over.  His time of trial on this earth has ended.  The suffering that he endured over the last few months likely gave him a ticket straight to heaven.  And he is probably giving direction to some angels right now. 
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. 

I pray that we will bear our trials and suffering with grace and perseverance as Tim did. I pray that all of us here and especially Chris, Melissa, and Kathleen will find hope and courage during this difficult time. And I pray that we all will experience God’s love and will find true joy and happiness in this life and in eternal life.    

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Spritual eyesight

In today's Gospel, Jesus cured the beggar of his blindness.  Many people were familiar with the beggar who was at the city gate.  So, they were surprised when suddenly he could see.  This miracle caused disagreement about who this Jesus was.   The Pharisees said this man Jesus is not from God.  But the beggar said he is a prophet

Our eyesight is very important to us and most of us see pretty well.  I wouldn't be able to read the Gospel and this homily if I didn't see well.  But it is only important during our short lifetime here on earth,  maybe 100 years.

But, what about our spiritual eyesight?  This impacts our eternal life - forever and ever.  Do we know Jesus and his church?  Do we believe the truths that Jesus and his church teaches?  Even the hard truths?

Jesus cured the spiritual eyesight of the beggar.  The beggar said: "I do believe, Lord."   Our spiritual eyesight, on the other hand, probably has a number of blind spots.  There might be some areas where we always follow His commandments and fully understand the teachings of Jesus' church.  For example, we might not have any problem with the seventh commandment "Thou shalt not steal" because we don't have any interest in stealing.    But, there probably are other commandments and teachings which we struggle with and maybe even tend to ignore.  These are our spiritual blind spots. Many struggle with the sixth commandment "Thou shalt not commit adultery" and how it impacts our lives.  We might agree with some teachings of the church in the area of human sexuality but disagree with others.

Our blind spots are likely areas where the secular world and Jesus' church disagree.  We hear day in and day out what the secular world (that is, the devil) is saying.  Eventually, after being brainwashed by movies, TV, sports figures, politicians, and even our friends, we bend our beliefs to match theirs.  One blind spot for many Catholics is contraception.  In fact, the majority of Catholics reject this teaching of Jesus' church and agree with our society.  Some would say "How can artificial contraception be wrong, everybody does it, our church needs to get with the times"?
For many years, I had a blind spot in this area.   For many years,  I followed the teachings of the church based upon obedience but not trust.  This worked fine for me until I was in my early thirties.  Then, after we had our fourth child with our oldest just 6 1/2, I seriously questioned the church's teaching on contraception.  I thought: surely the church doesn't expect me to have a lot more children.  How am I going to send them all to college?  How is my wife going to take care of all of them while I am trying to pay the ever increasing bills?  In short, I was following my plan for life and things seemed to be falling apart.  I was blinded by my pride and just couldn't see that I was wrong and needed to let go and let God - to trust in Him. 

Gradually, over the next few months, with my wife's help, I began to pray and to study on this topic.  My wife and I took some natural family planning classes and we began to understand and to accept the teachings of the church.  Eventually, we were moved by the Holy Spirit to have another child.  
Truly, with the help of the Holy Spirit, I was able to embrace this difficult Church teaching.  I swallowed my pride and humbly decided to trust Jesus and his church with our childbearing.

In the movie, A Few Good Men,   Jack Nickelson says to Tom Cruise "You can't handle the truth!"  I think that would apply to me during my struggles with contraception and to many Catholics today.  We have been blinded.  We just can't handle the truth because we have accepted our society's lies.   
How do we improve our spiritual eyesight?  It takes time.  It doesn't happen overnight.  We need an infusion of grace and the power of the Holy Spirit. 

Deacon Ralph talked about this at our recent mission.  We need to repent of our sins.  We need to get to know Jesus and his church through prayer, scripture study and the sacraments,  especially the Eucharist.  And we need fellowship with other Catholics on the journey.  We should join a small group of men and women and share our spiritual journeys with each other.  We are all in this together.  It is a difficult road that we travel but the reward, eternal life with the father, is well worth the effort.

Who are you following - Jesus towards eternal life or satan, the prince of the world, towards eternal death?   It's your choice and Jesus will respect your free will, your choice. 


Let us pray:  O Christ Jesus, when all is darkness and we feel our weakness and helplessness, give us the sense of Your presence, Your love, and Your strength. Help us to have perfect trust in Your protecting love and strengthening power, so that nothing may frighten or worry us, for, living close to You, we shall see Your hand, Your purpose, Your will through all things.  Amen

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Are you joyful or happy and what is the difference?

As you enter the doors of our church, you see the Latin phrase "Introibo ad altare Dei"  which translates "I will go unto the altar of God".  Certainly, as we celebrate mass, we are at the altar of God, especially during the consecration.  The rest of that phrase is: "to God who gives joy to my youth."  Are we feeling joy right now as we sit before the altar of God?  And, if we are not feeling joy, why aren't we?  What keeps us from experiencing joy?
Spiritual joy is different from the conventional concept of happiness.  Happiness depends on what happens in our lives, as well as those circumstances, people, and events over which we often have little  control.  It is fleeting and usually short term in nature.  Real joy, however, is that constant, abiding, and personal relationship with God that we experience when we do His will as loving servants.  This joy may often be expressed through our enthusiastic demeanor, laughter, humor, or cheerful attitude. 
Most of us are pursuing happiness instead of joy.  We yearn to satisfy the deep longing of our hearts but frequently confuse joy and happiness. 
Joy is a loving, warm sense of an intimate relationship with God.  Authentic joy is a spiritual and biblical concept.  Joy is the second of the twelve fruits of the Holy Spirit.  Love is the first fruit of the Holy Spirit.  We cannot have joy without love. 
Happiness, on the other hand, lasts a short time.  We tend to pursue happiness and avoid pain.  PBS conducted a survey a while back asking people what was their greatest desire.  Almost ninety percent answered: "I want to be happy."  Like most people, I also want to be happy.  I love it when the Reds or Bengals win, when my children and grandchildren do well, and when my arthritis isn't bothering me too much.  Unfortunately, that happiness doesn't last.
In today's Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples: "No one can serve two masters.  He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and mammon."
True joy comes from serving God.   If we serve mammon, that is money and possessions, we will be disappointed and frustrated by our constant search for happiness.
In 2004, over 1000 priests were surveyed.  The main question asked was : "How happy are you in your priesthood?"   Over 90% of the priests responded that they were very happy.  In 2009, another survey of over 2000 priests was conducted and again over 90% agreed that they were happy.  When the priests were asked the source of their happiness, they answered that that their spiritual life was the cause of their inner peace, well-being, and personal joy. 
How can we increase and maintain our joy?  Since joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, we should receive it gratefully, accept it humbly, and then share our joy with others.
We can increase our joy in several ways.  Receiving the Holy Eucharist at Mass is the most intimate way to experience a joyful relationship with Christ.  If possible, we should attend daily mass so that we can experience this spiritual joy every day.
The anticipation of eternal life in heaven is another way that we experience joy.  Whenever we have doubts about our faith, our family, or our nation, we can take great consolation in the promise of Christ that we are destined to live forever with Him.
Trusting God is another important element in our spiritual joy.  Jesus tells us in today's Gospel: "Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear.  Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life span?"   We would all be much more joyful if we could take these words to heart and stop worrying. 
And finally, prayer and meditation leads us to spiritual joy.  in his first letter to the Thessalonians, St Paul tells us: "Rejoice always, pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus."
The key to finding spiritual joy is knowing God's will for us and then surrendering to His will.  This can be a difficult challenge, especially for us men, since we reject the idea of surrender.  We pride ourselves on being self-sufficient, self-reliant and totally independent.  Pride is what prevents us from completely abandoning ourselves to God's will, but when we do, God will reward us with peace and joy. 

 "O Lord, give me the wisdom to know your will, the courage to accept it, and the strength to do it.  Amen.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Sacrifice and love

For my freshman year in college, I borrowed the tuition money from my father.  About ten years' later, he called and requested that I repay him as soon as possible.  At the time, this was  difficult for me financially with two small children and a third on the way.  I paid him the money as he requested. But, it didn't sit well with me and I didn't talk to him for over a year. 
Eventually, my wife told me that I needed to forgive him.  She said that my unforgiveness was hurting me.  So, I swallowed my pride and called him and patched things up.
Many years later, when he was moved into a retirement home, he asked me to handle his finances.  As I reviewed his finances, I realized that his only income was from social security.  In fact, for many years, the three of them, my mother, father, and sister were living on his meager social security income.  Then, I felt guilty that I was so upset at having to pay back my loan many years earlier.  If I had known how little money they had, I would have willingly helped them out. 
In today's Gospel, John the Baptist said: "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world."  This is the first time in the Gospels that Christ is called the “Lamb of God”.    Also, John the Evangelist used this title twenty-nine times in the Book of Revelation.  This image of a sacrificial lamb would have been familiar to the Jews of the time. 
The primary holy day for Jews is the Passover.  In the Passover ceremony, each family sacrifices and eats a lamb to recall the night when the firstborn sons were spared from the angel of death by putting the blood of the lamb on their doorposts. The Passover lamb signifies God's merciful and saving love.  The prophets described the Messiah as a lamb who went silently to the slaughter, to take the sins of his people upon himself and wipe them away.   
The book of Revelation reveals to us that Jesus is victorious and glorious in heaven as the slain lamb, surrounded by saints, martyrs and virgins, who render him the praise and glory due him as God. Before distributing Holy Communion the priest says "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world".  This encourages us to be grateful to our Lord for sacrificing for us.
Today, not too many people describe themselves or those they admire as lambs.  They are more likely to be described as lions.  We don't often think of sacrificing for others.  When my dad asked me for money, I wasn't thinking about sacrificing for him  but of taking care of my needs.
When I hear the word 'lamb' outside of the context of mass, I think of a meek animal and sacrifice.  Normally, you wouldn't associate either weak or sacrifice with God.  You would expect God to be called a lion instead of being referred to as a lamb.
Referring to Jesus as the "Lamb of God" in the first appearance of his public life foretold what was to come- His sacrifice on the cross.  And it also provides an example for us to follow in our relationships.  We are meant to relate to each other as lambs, not as lions.  We are meant to love each other with a sacrificial love, not a love which possesses or dominates another. 
We see examples of sacrifice all around us.  We see the sacrifices of mothers and fathers as they raise their children.  We see the sacrifices of soldiers and police and fire personnel as they put their lives on the line for us.  And we see the sacrifices of priests and religious who choose a chaste life to serve God and His church.
Sacrificing is hard.  It is natural to put ourselves first and hard to put someone else first.  And yet, that is what we are asked to do.  True, lasting love requires sacrifice.  Jesus showed us the way and encourages us daily to follow him. 
Today, as the priest raises the host and says the words : "Behold the Lamb of God" ponder the humility and sacrifice of Jesus in becoming man and then submitting to be crucified.  Then, in the spirit of Jesus as the Lamb of God, sacrifice in some small way today for someone you love.