Sunday, August 12, 2018

Explanation, Please

This homily was posted even later than usual. And you didn't see one the last two weeks: the first, because we had a visiting preacher speaking on behalf of the missions, and the second, because I never found the time to type it up. That's the thing: getting these online requires me to carve out 2 hours or so after the Masses...and I'm finding that more and more difficult to do. Which is to say, you'll be seeing these less frequently from me. When time allows, I'll put one up, but it won't be every Sunday. Some have recommended recording my homilies, which I will consider. Thanks for reading all these years, and for your kind feedback. Stay tuned for whatever comes next...

   Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

Last night, after dinner, I took Fr. Tojo down to the Franklin County Fair.  Our main goal was to get some fried bread dough for dessert.  But while we were there, I thought I should also give him his first taste of something uniquely American: the demolition derby.  On our way to the grandstand, I thought I ought to try to explain what he was about to behold…but how do you explain the demolition derby?  As I heard the words coming out of my mouth, it all sounded perfectly ridiculous.  (Deacon Nick told me this morning that I should have said, “From what I’ve heard, it’s just like driving in India.”)

How do you explain the demolition derby?

How do you explain the Catholic priesthood?

Today is the eighteenth anniversary of my ordination as a priest.  And the readings we have just heard are the very same ones that were proclaimed at my first Mass.  At the time, my attention was understandably focused on the gospel, as we hear again from Jesus’ discourse on the Bread of Life—certainly appropriate words when beginning a life of ministry centered on the Eucharist.

But these eighteen years later, I’m thinking I really should have paid more attention to the first reading.

From the First Book of Kings, we hear part of the story of Elijah—the greatest of the Old Testament prophets.  We find him hiding under a broom tree, praying for death.  Some context tells us why.  Elijah was at work during some very dark times.  God’s one chosen people had split into two different kingdoms—neither one of them faithful to the Lord’s covenant. They had made foreign alliances, rather than trusting in God’s protection.  They had crowned kings for themselves, instead of following God’s divine guidance.  And they were worshiping idols and many strange gods—forgetful of the one true God who had claimed them as his own.  

To gain God’s people back, Elijah had just won a spectacular and decisive victory over 400 heathen prophets at once—even calling down fire from heaven.  But rather than seeing great crowds turning back to the Lord, Elijah sees them turn and walk away.  And not only that, but the queen—Jezebel—who was rather fond of these false prophets and their false gods, has now vowed to kill him.

It’s little wonder we hear Elijah praying, “Enough!”  Later in the chapter, we hear God ask, “Why are you here, Elijah?”  And the prophet lays out exactly how he feels: “I have been most zealous for you, Lord God of hosts, since the sons of Israel have forsaken your covenant, torn down your altars, and slain your prophets with the sword, and I—I alone—am left, and now they seek to take my life.”

I have to admit: sometimes I feel that way, too.

Sure, every newly ordained priest is a bit naïve about just what he’s gotten himself into.  But I look back over these eighteen years and have to ask, “Who woulda thunk?”  When I was in the seminary, we hade about 125 active diocesan priests in the Diocese of Ogdensburg; today, we have about 50—and only 4 of those are younger than I am.  Who woulda thunk? Given my training, I expected—and with good reason—that I would soon enough end up teaching at Wadhams Hall. But a year-and-a-half into my priesthood, the seminary closed.  Who woulda thunk?

Who woulda thunk that at the tender age of 35 I’d be appointed the pastor of what was at the time the largest conglomeration of parishes in the diocese?  And who woulda thunk that in eight years here, I would have presided over the merger of those four parishes and the closure of two of our churches, and would now be preparing for by far the largest sale in diocesan history of a former church building?

Would woulda thunk that these years would be marked by so much scandal caused by Catholic clergy? Not once, but twice, have I had to announce to parishes that their pastor has been removed from priestly ministry for sexually abusing minors.  I’ve heard heart-wrenching tales directly from victims and their families—yes, even here in our own parish.  And now such scandal is erupting again.  You probably haven’t heard much about it yet, but you will (unless, of course, it gets swept under the rug again).  A retired archbishop—a cardinal!—has been brought down in disgrace.  In the last month or two, new stories of cover-ups and patterns of sexual sin among priests and bishops have arisen in a number of dioceses, a number of seminaries, in this country and around the world.  It’s painful.  It’s ugly.  It’s discouraging. Who woulda thunk?

St. Paul tells us this Sunday to do nothing that would grieve the Holy Spirit with whom we have been signed and sealed as God’s own.  Priests have been sealed twice, and bishop’s three times. How aggrieved must the Holy Spirit be at their heinously sinful behavior?

It kinda makes a guy want to go out and look for a broom tree.

So what’s a priest supposed to do?  He’s supposed to do what priests have always been supposed to do.  He needs to be holy.  That’s the only appropriate response to sin and corruption.  And he needs to be faithful—all the more so when infidelity is all around.  To be holy, to be faithful: that’s a vocation that is common to us all—the call to be saints—whether you’re in the pew or at the altar.  Our vocations depend on one another.  I cannot help you become holy and faithful if I am not those things first myself.

Holiness and fidelity take effort and discipline, to be sure.  But they also require more than our mere human strength.  We look again to Elijah.  What is he given when the task seems too difficult and the road ahead too long?  God sends him encouragement, in the form of an angel who tells him, “Get up! Keep going!”  And God also sends him food and drink, which are clearly no ordinary bread and water since they’re the fuel that allows him to walk 40 days and 40 nights to the Lord’s mountain.  We should note that the angel must insistently force Elijah to eat.  It would have been much easier for him to quit.  But God isn’t giving him an easy way out.  He sends Elijah back to his mission with the promise, “I am with you. And those who have remained faithful—however small their number—they’re with you, too.  I need you, they need you, to keep going.”

The Lord is still sending messages of encouragement under many disguises.  And he’s still feeding us, too—as he will again in a few moments here—with something way beyond ordinary bread: with his own person, with his own flesh, with very the Bread of Life.   The Holy Eucharist is the heart of Jesus Christ, God’s eternal love made mortal man, in a form that we can taste and see.  You see, with the Eucharist—as with all of priestly life and ministry—it all, always, comes down to love: Christ’s unconditional love for me, my less-than-perfect love for him, my real and true love for you.  That’s what keeps me going, despite it all.  And it not only keeps me going; it keeps me joyful.  The bottom of my chalice and paten are inscribed with words from Psalm 116: “How can I make a return to the Lord for all the good he has done for me?”  Yes, there’s much struggle, but there are far more graces and blessings. “I shall take the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.”  I continue to do so with joy.

So much has changed in the eighteen years since my ordination, but I am just as certain today as I was back then: that Jesus Christ himself called me to be his priest, and that I’m right where I’m supposed to be, trying my best to do what the Lord wants me to do.  That I still love being a Catholic priest even in the midst of so many challenges…makes even less sense than the demolition derby!

How do you explain the demolition derby?

How do you explain the priesthood?

Another way to ask the question: How do you explain love?

St. John Vianney is the patron saint of parish priests.  He, too, served Christ and his Church during some rather dark and difficult times.  In fact, on more than one occasion, he fled by night from his small parish in the French countryside, hoping to have taken refuge in a quiet monastery before his flock noticed that he was gone.  His scheme never worked.  Here’s how Fr. Vianney explained the priesthood:

“Only in heaven will [a priest] fully realize what he is.”

“Were we to fully realize what a priest is on earth, we would die: not of fright, but of love.”

“The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus.”

My friends, I ask you to please pray for me and for all of my brother priests.  Pray, too, for our seminarians and all who are discerning a vocation to the priesthood.  Pray that we will be faithful.  Pray that we will be holy.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

A Brave Shepherd

   Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

What were you doing 50 years ago?  In 1968, the Vietnam War was raging—as was opposition to it.  The Beetles released their “white album,” and Led Zeppelin made its U.S. debut.  Other debuts included 60 Minutes, the Special Olympics, and Boeing’s 747 jumbo jet.  Yale admitted its first female students. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, as was Robert F. Kennedy.  Richard Nixon won the White House.  Apollo 8 was the first manned spacecraft to orbit the moon.  The Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl, and the Detroit Tigers won the World Series.

And in the middle of it all, on July 25, 1968—50 years ago this week—Pope Paul VI released his encyclical letter Humanae Vitae (On Human Life), outlining the Church’s position on artificial birth control.  It would prove to be one of the most controversial documents in the modern history of the Catholic Church.  And that’s strange, really, since it only reaffirmed what the Church had always taught: that there is an intimate, intrinsic bond between sex and marriage because they share the very same purposes: the lifelong, faithful union of husband and wife, and the procreation and education of children.  By God’s design, these purposes are not to be separated.  This teaching was unanimous among all Christians—despite their many other divisions—until the early 20thcentury.

With the western world in the throes of the sexual revolution, many folks were expecting some change to be announced by Paul VI.  But since this teaching was firmly grounded in the Church’s constant doctrine from earliest times, the words of Scripture, and in the very way God put human beings together, the Pope didn’t so much say that he wouldn’t be changing anything, but that he couldn’t.  

As the Pope confirmed the Church’s longstanding tradition, countless souls abandoned it.  Today, contraception has become the norm—as common among Catholic couples as in the general population, and all-too-often with the quiet encouragement of priests and even some bishops: “We all know what the Church says, but it’s really between you and God.  Do whatever seems right for you.”  (Those words sound eerily similar to ones spoken by a wily serpent to a couple of newlyweds a long, long time ago.)

Pope Paul VI made some predictions in his 1968 letter—predictions of what would happen if the Church’s teaching went unheeded.  He predicted an increase in marital infidelity.  He predicted a general lowering of moral standards.  He predicted a loss of respect for women. And he predicted government interference in citizens’ reproductive lives.

Every one of his predictions has come true.

Consider these very telling facts…  Over the last 50 years the divorce rate has more than doubled; it has actually started to decrease recent, but that’s likely because so few people are now getting married in the first place.  The U.S. birthrate has dropped to an all-time low; our population has grown, but only due to immigration, since we haven’t been at a replacement birthrate since 1971. Pornography has become an $100 billion industry, annually producing 20 times more movies than Hollywood; what once—quite literally—lurked about in the shadows is now today influencing everything from childhood development to presidential politics.  

In an age that’s so in love with things being “all natural” and “organic,” we seem to make an exception for human reproduction, using whatever artificial means we can devise to either force God’s hand in having a baby or in avoiding one—even if that means eliminating one.  This is the only field of medicine I can think of that aims to get a perfectly healthy part of the human body to stop functioning as it should. It’s so ironic that we call them “reproductive rights” when what we actually mean are the many ways we can avoid reproducing.  We only want kids on our own terms.  We used to see kids as such a priceless blessing; now we feel the need to calculate what they would cost us.

Of course, there’s also the significant, direct impact on the Catholic Church.  In our own parish back in 1968, we had 126 weddings and 230 baptisms.  This past year—50 years later—we had only 5 weddings and just 14 baptisms. It used to be that you’d see a big family and say (with a smile and a bit of pride), “They must be Catholic!” When was the last time you saw a big family—whether here in church, or anywhere?  Nowadays, folks mock or look down upon parents who have many children: “Don’t they know we’ve figured out what causes that?”

Pope Paul VI taught that sex and marriage go together, because loving union and procreation go together.  But over these past 50 years, we’ve watched them grow farther and farther apart, such that sex has become increasingly casual (even recreational) and deliberately sterile. It’s no wonder that every Pope since then has echoed the same concerns.  Does Humanae Vitae call Catholics to act irresponsibly, and simply have as many kids as they can—even more than they can handle?  Of course not.  But it does call us to accept and remain open to one of the noblest responsibilities entrusted to us by God: to cooperate with him in the creation of human life.

History has shown that any human society—including the Church—that hopes to survive (leave alone to thrive), does so not because they have lots of wealth, nor because they have military might, nor because they have a highly refined culture, but simply because they have children.

So if the Pope was spot on with all of his grim predictions 50 years ago, might he also have been right about how they could be avoided and corrected?

Our readings this Sunday talk a lot about shepherds—both good and bad.  Jeremiah warns against shepherds who mislead and scatter the Lord’s flock.  Jesus himself sees the vast, restless crowd gathering around him and, we’re told, “his heart was moved with pity for them”; the original Greek is a good bit stronger: he was stirred in his bowels—felt punched in the gut—to see them so lost, gone so far astray, “like sheep without as shepherd.”

Sheep require vigilant shepherds.  They are essentially without defense and cannot manage well on their own.  Even when they’re being guided to green pastures and restful waters, they are prone to wandering off and putting themselves in danger.

So it is with sheep. So it is with us—God’s sons and daughters.

Pope Francis has said of his predecessor 50 years later—a man whom he will canonize this October, “He looked to the peoples of the world and foresaw the destruction of the family because of the lack of children.  Paul VI was courageous.  He was a good pastor, a good shepherd.  He warned his sheep about the wolves that were approaching.”

It really all comes down to trust—to our need for an increase of faith.  When God creates the first man and woman, the Lord blesses them and gives them this first commandment: “Be fertile—be fruitful—and multiply…” (Gen 1:28).  Can we wholeheartedly believe that if we obey this command God will in fact provide all that we need?  Do we trust God enough to let him truly shepherd us, believing that when we do, we shall not want?  Can we let go of the fear that the Lord won’t come through for us, which sends us off trying to go it on our own?  Do we have faith that God is still teaching, still guiding, still protecting his Church through the shepherds he has appointed for us?

If we—sheep and shepherds alike—can grow in this trust, can live with this kind of real faith, then where might we be in another 50 years?

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Pick me! Pick me!

   Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

Remember picking teams in gym class or at recess?  I was often one of the last kids to be chosen.  I wasn’t exactly a nerd…but nobody was going to mistake me for a jock.  The team captains didn’t have much confidence in my athletic abilities…and neither did I, as a matter of fact.

It stings a bit when we get passed over—and not just when we’re little kids.  You finally get the courage to ask that beautiful gal/that handsome guy to go out on a date, and he or she says, “No thanks.” You apply for your dream job, and you don’t get hired.  But as much as rejection stings, we know what joy it brings to the heart when we’re noticed, when we’re acknowledged, when we’re chosen, when we’re made to feel that we belong.  And our desire for recognition, our need to belong, can sometimes cause us to veer in the wrong direction in order to get some attention.

We human creatures—even the most introverted among us—are inherently social creatures.  This is not only a matter of our emotional health, but also of our physical health (especially when we’re near life’s beginning or its end) and of our spiritual wellbeing, too.

Did you notice what St. Paul said in those verses from early in his letter to the Ephesians?  He said it repeatedly and in a variety of ways: that God the Father has chosen usin Christ—even before he created the world; that he has destined us for adoption as his own; that he has redeemedus, forgivenus,blessedus with every blessing in heaven; that he longs to lavish uswith the riches of his grace.

God has chosen you!  You belongto him!  God is your Father, just as much as he is Jesus’ Father.

But why would God do such a thing?  Experience in this world tells us that we often get picked because of what we can do, because of what another person needs from us, based on how useful we’ll be.  And feeling valued for what we are able to accomplish gives shape to a whole lot of people’s identity.  But what does God need from us?  What can we possibly do for him?  Nothing, of course.  Which means that the only explanation for why he has chosen us is—pure and simple—out of love.

In an age that celebrates personal freedom, that thinks we have the freedom to choose our own path, to define ourselves, to be or become any ol’ things we want to be, we need this reminder: that what matters most is not what we choose, but that we have been chosen; that my real identity rests not in my own freedom of choice, but in God’s perfect freedom in choosing me as his own.

Just let that amazing truth of our faith sink in…

We see it in the call of the prophet Amos.  He begins to proclaim God’s message in the royal sanctuary at Bethel, and the priests of the shrine—members of the “establishment”—start asking, “Just who do you think you are, coming here and claiming to speak on the Lord’s behalf?” Amos’ response provides such a lesson: “Look, I know I’m just a country bumpkin—a tender of sheep and a pruner of trees.  I don’t know why he did it—maybe it’s because I’m such an unlikely candidate—but all I know for certain is that God has chosen me to be his prophet.  If you have a problem with that, you’ll have to take it up with the Lord.”

God has a part for you to play—specifically for you—in the great drama of salvation.  No, you don’t get to write the script.  He’s chosen your part, and no one else can do it. It’s all within God’s mysterious purpose, God’s plan.  You have been set apart for his service.  Discovering and fulfilling that special role is the secret to happiness.

We also see it in the sending out of the Twelve.  Jesus sends his apostles out to preach, to heal, and to battle the evil one. These guys were not the “first string.”  We’re not talking about men from prominent families, well-respected rabbis, or otherwise recognized community leaders.  A full third of them are fishermen!  (And not very good ones, from some of the stories you hear.) Jesus sends this motley crew out on mission very nearly—literally—empty-handed. That should make it clear to all: any truth they speak, any wonders worked at their hands, will not come from these Twelve mere mortals, but from the heavenly Father of Jesus Christ who sent them.

God does not call those who are qualified; God qualifies those he has called.

God has chosen you—chosen you out of sheer love.  Find your true identity in having been picked to be on the Father’s team. And find your true calling, your vocation, in the position the Lord has designated for you—and you alone—to play.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Out of Hiding

It's been since the last days of September that I spent a night in the woods--a rather long time for me to go without camping/backpacking.  It seems to have rained (or at least threatened to) on my every day off for a while now.  But not last Wednesday-Thursday!  It's wasn't extensive or overly adventurous, but I spent that night in the lean-to at Hidden Cove on Long Lake (a lovely spot I've visited before).  I wasn't too into taking pictures, but it sure was great to be out in the Adirondacks again...

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Reach Out & Touch Someone

   Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

The passage just proclaimed to us is the first Bible story I specifically remember hearing in church as a child.  It’s been more than 30 years now, so I don’t remember everything the priest had to say about it in his preaching.  But I do remember being struck not so much by the healing, nor by the raising from the dead, but by the story within a story.

This is more than just a good storytelling technique employed by St. Mark.  It points to the way that two people—previously strangers, I would guess—find their lives eternally intertwined after encountering Jesus.
"If I but touch his clothes..."
There are already a few connections between those who experience miracles in this gospel account.  For starters, they’re both women—which meant they weren’t exactly at the top of the pecking order in their society.  (It’s noteworthy that we’re told that Jairus is the name of the synagogue official, but both his daughter and the woman in the crowd remain unnamed.) The older woman has been sick for twelve years, which is also the exact age of the young girl; one’s been sick as long as the other has been alive.  And both of these women have been cut off, have become untouchable.  The hemorrhaging woman’s flow of blood resulted in more than the loss of her savings to unscrupulous doctors; it made her ritually unclean, and so cut off from community and worship in the temple.  Death has cut the girl off from life itself and from her family; it also means that anyone who touches her corpse becomes unclean.

But these two are now bound together even more intensely and intimately.  Both have been raised up, have been restored by coming into contact with Jesus.  Both are healed by his touch.  And as long as the story is told, it will be told of the two of them together.

Having such deep connections, being so closely intertwined, is not unique to these two biblical women.  We were made to be together (although I certainly understand if you don’t want to sit too close together in this heat).  After God creates the first human being, he fairly quickly observes, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18).  And what’s true of humanity in general is even more so the case for us Christians: God made us for communion with each other so that he could draw us into communion with himself.

But this coming together, this sticking together—we’re not doing such a good job of it lately.

Not long ago I read an article that addressed the prevalence of “diseases of despair” here in the U.S. today.  It spoke about the widespread sense of hopelessness in society, of the large number of people with an unfulfilled desire to belong.  We see it in the increasing diagnoses of depression and anxiety disorders.  The suicide rate has jumped 20% in just ten years.  Substance abuse—and deaths from it—are on the rise as people look for ways to numb the pain they’re feeling.  And mass shootings—which can only happen if you think that life has no real meaning or purpose—have become all-too-common these days.

We may be communicating information back-and-forth more and faster than ever before by means of invisible signals and those powerful little computers in your pockets…but we’re spending less and less time actually being together.  A recent study revealed that the average American family now spends less than 8 hours together out of the entire week.  One observer has called the way we over schedule our lives—especially the lives of our kids—“systemic abandonment.”  Modern life is practically programmed to keep us apart.
Jesus took the child by the hand...
While statistics and studies can be interesting, they also allow us to think that a problem is “out there,” “somewhere else.”  But I have to tell you: I now get a steady stream of people who want to talk to a priest because they feel utterly hopeless.  It’s for all kinds of reasons: divorce, a break up, a falling out with family, sickness, the loss of a job or housing, legal problems—you name it.  The problems aren’t new at all…but the deep sense of despair that results from them is.  I’ve noticed a common denominator.  I always ask these people, “Do you have a trustworthy friend or two that you can talk to—so you don’t have to face all of this alone?”  The answer I keep getting is, “I have no real friends.” I’ve come to realize that they’re not being melodramatic, since I hear the same thing again and again.  Their feelings of hopelessness come from feeling so very alone.  Remember that these folks aren’t seeking me out from across the country; they live right next door.

Our lives are meant to be intertwined…but instead we’re coming apart at the seams.

Our first reading this Sunday, from the Book of Wisdom, begins with a bold assertion: “God did not make death.”  Death, of course, is the ultimate disintegration.  Your body comes apart from your soul.  And I don’t at all mean to be disrespectful or distasteful, but it’s rather amazing how quickly (in moments, really) the human body begins to break down after we die.  Not to mention that our ties with the people we love are also broken.  Death is a coming apart in the most profound way.  But that was not God’s original plan for us.  Death came hot on the heels of sin—sin being the disintegration of our relationship with God.  And because God means to stick to his original plan, because God made us to be imperishable—to hold together within ourselves, among one another, and with him—God himself came to our rescue in Jesus.

The Lord rescued us the same way you rescue a drowning child: he jumped all the way in. (Jumping in…that’s kind of a refreshing thought in this heat, isn’t it?!) The Son of God fully immersed himself in our humanity.  He so perfectly enmeshed himself, so completely intertwined himself with us, that he willingly took upon himself our rejection, betrayal, isolation, abandonment—even wondering if he’d been forsaken by God his Father.  Neither did he shy away from that most bitter unraveling which is death itself.  But Jesus underwent death so that he could destroy it from the inside.  Jesus jumped all the way in so that he could rescue us from hopeless and despair, so he could restore us to right relationship with God and with ourselves and with each other.  In other words: Jesus dove in to bring us back to life again.

Jesus Christ still wants to come to our rescue.  But he’s looking of our help to do it.

Pope St. John Paul II once said, “Many people today are disoriented and lost in search of genuine fellowship. Often their lives are either too superficial or shattered by brokenness. Their work often is dehumanizing. They long for an experience of genuine encounter with others, for true fellowship. Well, is this not precisely the vocation of a parish? Are we not called to be a warm, brotherly family together? Are we not people united together in the household of God through our common life? Your parish is not mainly a structure, a geographical area or a building. The parish is first and foremost a community of the faithful. This is the task of a parish today: to be a community, to rediscover its identity as a community. You are not a Christian all by yourself. To be a Christian means to believe and to live one’s faith together with others.”

Those are such important words to hear on this fourth anniversary of the founding of St. André’s Parish.  And they’re so important to hear at this time of challenge and change in our parish.  It really is all about coming together.

To touch Jesus, to be touched by Jesus—as the hemorrhaging woman and the young daughter of Jairus attest—means allowing oneself to become completely intertwined with Jesus and with all those others he has come to save.  So let Jesus touch you, let him heal all that is broken inside you.  But also reach out to those who are hurting, those who feel hopeless.  They’re all around!  Make contact, make connections, with the folks in next pew, your classmates or coworkers, the stranger you meet on the sidewalk, the person sitting across your kitchen table.  Bring them—bring their wounds, bring the places in their hearts that have died—to Jesus.  Let Jesus touch and be touched by them through this parish.  Let Jesus touch and be touched by them through you.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

They say it's your birthday...

   The Nativity of St. John the Baptist   

In the Church’s vast annual cycle of feasts, she celebrates just three birthdays.  The most well known of them, of course, is the nativity of our Lord on December 25.  Everyone remembers that one, since it’s Jesus’ birthday…but we’re the ones who get the presents!  We also celebrate the birthday day of his blessed mother, Mary; that’s on September 8, precisely nine months after we honor her Immaculate Conception on December 8.  (Don’t forget your mother’s birthday!)  And this Sunday, we celebrate the nativity of St. John the Baptist.  Why today?  Well, when the angel appeared to Mary and told her that she would bear God’s Son (recalled on March 25, nine months before Christmas), he offered as proof the fact that her elderly, barren cousin, Elizabeth, was already pregnant—sixth months along, to be exact.  And so now, three months after the feast of the Annunciation, we celebrate John’s birthday.

The birth of every child has us asking—as did the neighbors at the end of today’s gospel reading—“What will this child be?”   Each newborn is a mystery yet to unfold.  But this is a particularly apt question at the birth of John the Baptist, given the miraculous signs that surrounded it.  Family and friends had some understandable expectations for this boy.  First, they expected he’d be named Zechariah, after his father…but instead, he’s named John—the name given by the angel who announced his birth.  Then they expected that he’d become a temple priest, just like dear ol’ dad (since the Old Testament priesthood was a hereditary one, and both sides of his family were of priestly stock)…yet he rather becomes a wild and fiery prophet baptizing out in the desert.  And as Paul’s preaching reminds us in our second reading, the crowds who heard John thought that he was the long expected Messiah…but John insisted he was only preparing the Savior’s way.

We have our own hopes and dreams for our children.  And children grow to have hopes and dreams of their own about the future. But the fact that St. John the Baptist didn’t fit any of the expectations others had of him is a great reminder that God has his own hopes and dreams for every child.  How often do we stop to consider those?

The Church celebrates these few sacred birthdays because when God has a message to send to the world, when there’s a wrong to be righted, when there’s important work to be done, he doesn’t do so by means of earthquake or thunderbolt; he does it by sending a baby.  These tiny children often come from humble roots, born in unlikely circumstances—when and where you’d least expect it.  But God sends a baby who carries his own hopes and dreams—not just for this individual child, but for the whole world.  Each one is entirely unique, with a mission, a vocation, all his own.

You see, the greatest events in human history are not a matter of who won the battle or who won the election; they’re babies.  God has a place in his plan for every one, even before they’re formed in the womb.  And each one carries the crucial message that God hasn’t grown discouraged with us, that God hasn’t given up hope for the human race.

It’s so important that we see this!  It’s so important that children grow up seeing this!  We need to make sure that children know that they’re precious—to us and to God.  We need to make sure that children know that they’ve been given a role by God that only they can play.  We need to make sure that children know that they’re filled with immense potential—a part of the fulfillment of God’s dream for us all.

While this is true of every fragile, tiny life born into this world, two other upcoming birthdays can help us to see how it’s also the case on a wider scale.

In just ten days, it’ll be July 4—the birthday of our nation.  What were those brave patriots dreaming of in 1776 when they signed the Declaration of Independence?  What were their hopes for these United States? What did they imagine we’d become? And what about God’s dream for our country?  For our place in the great family of nations?  Are we fulfilling his plan?

And even sooner, on July 1, we will celebrate Foundation Day—the birthday of St. André’s parish. It was 177 years ago this month that the first recorded Mass was offered in what is now our parish, when a few Catholics in the young settlement of Malone gathered with a visiting priest in John McFarlene’s house to pray.  What were those pioneering souls thinking of?  What hopes did they have?  And what about God’s dream for the Catholic Church here in our community?  Are we living up to our potential?  

What will this child be?  

What will this nation be?  

What will this parish be?

As we—every one of us—play our own part in the unfolding of the mystery, with expectations and hopes of our own, let us make sure our highest goal is to fulfill God’s dream for us—for each and for all.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Arbor Day? Father's Day!

   Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 
Trees seem to be on God’s mind this Father’s Day…and so they’re on my mind, too.

Trees play an important role in many passages from the scriptures.  Just last Sunday, we were reminded of the repercussions from Adam and Eve’s snack stolen from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which sent them next to the fig tree to make themselves some clothes.  

Without a doubt, the most celebrated of trees in the Bible are the famed cedars of Lebanon. In the responsorial psalm this morning, we were told that the just man grows like one of these.  There are not too many cedars of Lebanon left these days, but once upon a time these mighty trees grew in thick forests on the snowy mountain slopes there—some of them living for more than 1,000 years. Their wood was highly prized, such that King Solomon harvested their timber to build the temple in Jerusalem.

We have our own majestic trees much closer to home.  Did you know that the tallest tree in all of New York State stands just 30 miles south of here, not too far outside of Paul Smiths?  There you’ll find an old growth grove of white pines, which have somehow been spared logging and storms for centuries.  They’re believed to be nearly 350 years old.  5 of them are taller than the Statue of Liberty.  The tallest is over 160 feet tall, and more than 13 feet around.  (Those measurements are from 2012, so it’s likely even a bit bigger now.)

These trees are massive!  But consider how they started out.  Have you ever seen a white pine seedling?  It’s a rather puny thing.  (Think Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree…only more pathetic.)  It’s a stick with a few needles—that’s it! So tiny, so vulnerable, so seemingly insignificant.

God’s not only thinking about trees this Sunday; he’s also thinking of the birds in their branches. Our readings speak of how the birds of the air dwell in their shade.  Trees offer them shelter; trees protect them.  And trees also bear fruit—seeds and cones, nuts and berries—providing birds with food; trees nurture them.   Now, birds aren’t meant to stay in trees; the sky is their true home.  But the shelter and sustenance birds get from trees makes it possible for them to do what they were created to do: to fly high, to soar.

Ezekiel uses a cedar to prophesy about Israel: that out of this tiny nation would one day come a mighty king—a savior, the Messiah.  And Jesus points to the largest of plants that springs up from the smallest of seeds to teach us about the Kingdom of God: that from a few ragtag followers would come a great community of believers—the Church.

But in addition to these original meanings, I think the trees have a particular message for us on this Father’s Day.  You see, what trees provide for the birds is pretty much a dad’s job description: to project and to nurture his children.  And he does so with one goal in mind: so that these kids can soar!

It’s clear enough how to do this for children’s bodies: they need shelter and they need food. (And if there are teenagers in the house, they need lots of food!)

But what we do for their bodies, we must also do for their souls.

Many commentators today are saying that, here in the U.S., we have a Catholic Man Crisis.  

In 1965, 55% of Catholics went to Mass every Sunday; now, it’s only 23%.  50 years later, we have 30 million more Catholics on the books, but there are actually 8 million fewer Catholics sitting in the pews. 

It’s not been an equal exodus of the sexes.  Just look around!  Conservative estimates are that among regular Mass-goers, 60% are women, 40% are men.  We see the same thing in the rest of church life, as well.  Experts say that when it comes to roles in the Catholic Church that do not require ordination, 85% are filled by women.  The Catholic Church has the reputation of being a patriarchal and male-dominated institution…but the facts on the ground are a good bit different from the perception.

Among the men who are here in church, studies show that they’re rather disengaged.  83% say they rarely or never take part in any parish activity outside of Mass.  Less then half of these men say they pray at any other time.  And 55% say they get nothing out of Mass.

The Catholic Man Crisis quickly becomes a Catholic Fatherhood Crisis.

When children—especially sons—see dad bored, disengaged, late for Mass, leaving early, dozing off, skipping it completely, checking the score on his phone during the homily, checking out the ladies on the way to Holy Communion, checking out from Mass all together, it sends a message: Maybe this Catholic thing isn’t real.  At the very least, it’s not very manly.  I guess that, if I want to learn how to be a man, I’ll have to look somewhere else.

And when these same children notice that what they hear from the pulpit doesn’t match up with the way dad speaks and acts the rest of the week, it teaches them:  There’s no real connection between faith and life.  It’s OK to just go through the motions. (It must just be something we do to keep mom happy.)

These are not simply my own observations.  The Swiss did a rather revealing study a few years back.  It showed that when mom is regular about going to church but dad is not, then only 2% of their kids (just 1 in 50) will remain faithful to the religion in which they were raised.  But when it’s dad who goes regularly to church but mom does not, that number jumps to 44% of their kids remaining in the faith.  (Oddly and interestingly, that rate for dads is even higher than when both mom and dad are regular churchgoers.  But moms: that doesn’t mean I want you to stay home!)

All this is to say—Dads, your faith may sometimes feel like a white pine seedling: kind of puny compared to the task at hand, easily overlooked, knocked over, or snapped right off.  But what God sees is not something puny at all; what God sees is something full of potential. Yes, God can make your faith grow—make it strong and fruitful—but only if you let him.  Do that, and you’ll be able to fulfill the noble vocation the Lord has given you: to protect and nurture those souls that God allowed you to bring into this world—souls he created because he hopes to see them soar…all the way to heaven.

So let God our Father be a true father to you.  Let him shelter you.  Let him nurture you.  Let him teach you how to walk by faith, not sight.  After all, you can’t give what you ain’t got.  But God can turn that right around—in fact, God’s the undisputed master when it comes to starting small but reaching high.

I issue this Father’s Day call to “man up” as your spiritual father.  “Father” is more than just a formal title for me as your parish priest; it’s my job description, too: to protect and to nurture the church family entrusted to my care.  If I don’t call and challenge you to grow—well, the ripples effects…we’re already seeing them.

How I long to see this parish become a grove of old growth Catholics—the most magnificent around—strong and fruitful in a way that puts the white pines of Paul Smiths to shame! But I myself can only do so much. As every wise farmer and forester knows: the real secret of growth is hidden away, underground.  It must all begin in the soil of our hearts.

Just men shall flourish and grow like the cedars of Lebanon.  Thus the Lord has spoken.  Let us strive to make it so.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Who's to Blame?

   Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

I had a classmate in the seminary from the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana…and you knew it from the moment Bryce first opened his mouth.  He was the reader at morning Mass one day, and the first reading was the one from Genesis that was read today.  But instead of God asking Adam, “Who told you that you were naked?” as we’d expected, we heard, “Who told you yous was nekkid?”  We knew that Bryce’s grammar was much better than that, so we asked for an explanation on the way to breakfast.  “Oh, you northerners!” he said.  “Don’t you know that there’s a difference between ‘naked’ and ‘nekkid’?  When you’re naked, you don’t have any clothes on, but when you’re nekkid, you don’t have any clothes on, and yous up to sumptin’.”

That unfortunate incident with the apple in Eden set into motion some very longstanding patterns in the world—and more than just putting clothes on every morning.  The original sin was the start of the blame game.  Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent.  (The serpent—very interestingly—doesn’t blame anybody.)  Yet a closer reading reveals that Adam blamed someone else before blaming Eve: “The woman whom you put here with me—she gave me the fruit…”  The old catchphrase is, “the devil made me do it,” but from day one we’ve been laying the blame on God.

What’s happening here is more than a simple attempt to convince the Lord that “really, it’s not my fault!”  The temptation to disobey God actually flows from the temptation to doubt him.

God hasn’t given our first parents some arbitrary rule about produce.  The forbidden fruit is taken from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  We can think, “What’s so bad about human beings knowing right from wrong?”  The actual nature of this tree doesn’t translate well into English, for it’s not about recognizingright and wrong but about determining for oneselfwhat’s right and wrong.  Hence the serpent’s enticement: “You know, God has only forbidden you to eat from that tree to protect himself.  If you eat it, you’ll be just like him—making your own rules.  He’s holding out on you.  He doesn’t really have your best intentions at heart…”  The serpent manages to make something evil look good in order to make God look bad.  And it’s an effective trick he still hasn’t tired of using all these centuries later.

Notice what Adam and Eve do right off the bat: they hide and sew fig leaves together to clothe themselves.  This is more than shame at their “nekkidness.”  Their doubt of God’s good will runs so deep that they now feel the need to protect themselves from him.  That’s why it’s significant to note what this unhappy couple does notsay to the Lord: that they’re sorry. They never ask for forgiveness! Fearful and ashamed, they persist in their doubts about God: doubting that God is merciful; doubting that’s God’s love for them is bigger than their sin.

We find a parallel pattern in this Sunday’s gospel.  The established religious leaders are feeling threatened by this traveling preacher, healer, and exorcist.  Proper order must be maintained for the good of the people.  “We haven’t authorized this Jesus to say or do these things.  Clearly he’s mad—no, wait—he’s possessed!”  It’s absurd to claim that Satan is fighting against Satan, but that’s their argument.  “Of course, we would never be in league with the evil one, so Jesus must be.”  They are so certain that they’re right, so proud and self-righteous, that they cannot see their error, even with the truth laid out clearly before them.

And so we have before us two ways to cut ourselves off from the power of the Holy Spirit, from the reach of God’s forgiveness—to commit what Jesus warns is “an everlasting sin”: on the one hand, to believe, “I’m too far gone; God could never forgive me” (doubt and despair); on the other hand, to believe, “I’m that good that I don’t need any forgiving” (self-righteousness and pride).  Neither perspective is able to accept a Savior, and so neither can be saved. God won’t ever force himself on us.  We can only be forgiven if we’re open to it.

The pattern of doubt goes even farther than the bad things that we do, that have a human cause and for which someone (maybe even oneself) is to blame—what we call “moral evil.” It also extends to the bad things we must endure—things known as “natural evil”—such as disease and natural disasters.  Whether it’s the common cold or cancer, that we’re stuck in a traffic jam or just lost our home in a tornado, we find ourselves asking, “Why doesn’t God stop picking on me? Why is God punishing me?” Even our insurance companies refer to such incidents as “acts of God”!  Doubting God’s good intentions slides into discouragement, or even into outright rejection of him.

At one point or another, we’ve all found ourselves in these situations.  “If you’re so good, God, then why did you make us this way? If you’re so good, God, then why did you make the world this way?”  They’re questions that arise from the seeds of doubt sown way back when by the serpent.

This is the point where you’re thinking, “Now Fr. Joe is going to answer those questions and clear everything up.”  Sorry—but no answers here.  In fact, no one has the answers to the mystery of evil.  And really, who are we—mere mortals—to question our Maker and his inscrutable plan?

No, I don’t have the answers, but I do have two examples to which we ought to look for inspiration.

The first is St. Paul. In our second reading today, he writes, “While on the outside we may be wasting away, on the inside we’re being renewed every day.  We can accept this momentary light affliction because it will produce an eternal weight of glory.”  But when we’re stuck in sin, when we’re deeply suffering, such words can seem to be little more than pious platitudes.

That’s until we read these words in context.  They come to us from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.  Corinth was the Las Vegas of its day—Greece’s “sin city.”  Paul was justifiably worried that what happened in Corinth wouldn’t stay in Corinth.  So he called out the Christians there for participating in the culture’s wickedness.  And, as you might expect, the Corinthians didn’t take it very well.  So they launched a counter attack against Paul: “Just who do you think you are?”  And their greatest argument against his credibility was just how very much he suffers. “Your life’s a mess, Paul.  You keep getting sick.  We’ve lost count of the times you’ve been arrested and jailed.  You’ve been beaten, stoned, and left for dead.  You’re a disaster!  What kind of man of God goes through all that?  The Lord certainly must not love you very much!”

St. Paul responds by telling the Corinthians that they’ve got it all wrong.  All this suffering doesn’t call his credentials into questions; all this suffering ishis credentials.  His suffering is evidence that he serves Jesus who suffered himself. Rather than making excuses, or demanding an explanation, he invites them to examine the evidence in his own life.

Paul isn’t preaching a God who is separate from us, high above this messy, painful world, watching and waiting to catch us doing wrong.  (Gotcha!)  That’s the kind of God the serpent convinced Adam and Eve to fear.  No, Paul believes in a God who desires to walk right along side of us.  That’s precisely what God comes to do when he finds Adam and Eve in hiding: he’s out for his evening stroll with them in the garden.  God wants to walk with us, to carry our burdens, to carry us.  In Christ, God identified with us in our sin and our suffering so completely that he willingly endured the shame and anguished death of the Cross.  And just as God raised Jesus from the dead, so he can also lift us up from our despair and discouragement…but only if we allow God to, and to do it on histerms.

Paul knows this from firsthand experience.  That’s why later in this same letter he can say that he actually boasts of his weakness, because when he’s weak it makes it clear that God is strong (2:9-10).  Yes, Paul admits, life is hard—terribly hard sometimes—and we must take responsibility for our part in that.  No one promised that it would be easy.  No one gets through without suffering—no one.  But there’s more—much more—than meets the eye. As difficult as things can be, as much as we struggle to understand, we do not face any of it alone.

A second example of one who broke the pattern set in motion in Eden is the woman we find waiting outside the door at the conclusion of this Sunday’s gospel: Jesus’ dear mother, Mary.

Jesus’ words to the crowd can sound awfully disrespectful when we know his mom is within earshot: “Who is my mother?  Who are my brothers?”  But the offense is only apparent.  Carefully consider his response: “My mother, my true family, are those who do the will of God.”  Other than the Lord himself, did anyone ever do God’s will more perfectly than Mary?  She’s the Mother of God by giving him birth, for sure, but also his Mother by her unwavering obedience—making Mary the first and greatest of Christ’s disciples.  The first woman, on hearing the serpent’s temptation, said, “Mywill be done!  I know best what’s good for me.” This woman, on hearing the angel’s message, said, “Thywill be done!  May it be done unto me according to your word.”  Mary’s complete trust in God—even without knowing his plan or understanding her place in it—gave us the promised Savior who came to crush the serpent’s head.  His victory is already won.

“Who told you yous was nekkid?”

We need to stop laying blame, especially on God.  Yes, we have an enemy…but it isn’t him!  When you’re tempted to shame and despair, to self-righteousness and pride, to discouragement and doubt, be sure to break the pattern.  Decide instead to trust God and his blessed will for you—to trust that with the Lord there is loving mercy and the fullness of redemption.