Sunday, August 21, 2016

Through the Narrow Gate

I have no homily to post for you this Sunday. My grandfather, Leo Giroux, died on Friday afternoon at age 92. (Fr. Scott agreed to preach here--and cover a bunch of other things, too--to allow me time to be with my family.) My "Pepère" had a long life full of many blessings; may the Lord grant him rest from all his labors.

“Strive to enter through the narrow gate..."
Luke 13:24

Sunday, August 14, 2016

In the Kiln

Wednesday-Thursday provided an opportunity for campout, so I headed to familiar spot: Cooper Kiln Pond.  It's was only sort of familiar: last time I was there, snow blew up my nose as I slept; this time, the thermometer on my car registered 90 degrees when I got back to it.  It was just the right spot--in the breezy shade of the lean-to right by the pond--to spend a couple of the dog days of summer...

Catching Fire

After the anticipated Mass, a young girl (8-9 years old) came up to speak with me.  She often has questions about my homilies, so I know she listens carefully.  She said, "Father Joe, when you were talking today, I heard a lady behind me say, 'There are kids in this church!'"  I tried to explain to her that she must have thought the story I told wasn't appropriate for children.  This young lady seemed much more taken aback by the woman's commentary than by the content of my preaching.  

"Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you...." 

 Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time   C 

It was late July, 1941, and a prisoner was discovered missing at the Nazi death camp in Auschwitz.  The usual price must be paid: when one is thought to have escaped, ten others must die.  The prisoners are all lined up outside, and ten are chosen, one-by-one.   One of the picked men begins to call out for mercy: “But I have a wife and children!”  The ears of the Nazi officers are deaf to his pleas… but they strike another man in the crowd.  In violation of every protocol, a prisoner steps foreword and says, “I volunteer to take his place.  He is young, while I am old.  He is a husband and father; I have no family.”  The man should have been shot on the spot for breaking rank, but the stunned officers turned toward him instead and asked, “Who are you?”  He did not respond with the number that had been tattooed on his wrist.  Nor did he answer with his own name.  He simply said, “I am a priest.”

The Nazi officers took him up on his offer.  He joined the other nine.  They were stripped naked, and thrown into an underground cell—not unlike the cistern into which Jeremiah had been thrown for proclaiming the truth thousands of years before.  The other prisoners knew what to expect in the days ahead, since some had been condemned to a slow, agonizing death by starvation before.  But this time was different.  Instead of anguished cries, they heard singing—religious hymns—and praying.  In the face of their certain death, the priest was giving the men hope—and the rest of the camp with them. 

He was the last of the ten to remain alive.  The Nazis grew impatient, and so on August 14, 1941—75 years ago today—they entered the underground cell with a needle full of carbolic acid, injecting it into his weak but willing arm.  The poison burned as it made its way through his veins and stopped his heart.  His lifeless body was then put in the ovens to be incinerated, as were millions of others.

That priest was a Polish Franciscan named Maximilian Kolbe.  Today, he is recognized by the Catholic Church as a saint—one in a vast and glowing cloud of witnesses whose example teaches us to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus as we persevere in running the race.  Given the manner in which he died, there’s a divine irony in the fact that he had once said, “The most deadly poison of our time is indifference.”  There was nothing indifferent about Maximilian Kolbe.  And the great ardor, the passion, the zeal with which he burned for Christ and our Blessed Lady, for the Church and all she teaches, was something that rubbed off on those who met him.  It rubbed off on his fellow friars who supported his often seemingly impossible plans.  It rubbed off on those who read the international periodical he published.  It rubbed off on the people of Japan to whom he went as a missionary.   It rubbed off on the husband and father for whom he offered his life in exchange, on his nine other cellmates condemned to death, and on the rest of the inmates in the Auschwitz who found hope in his heroic courage and love.  It rubs off still on men and women today, who are inspired by his life and helped through his prayers.

Jesus said, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”

Spontaneous combustion is a rather rare occurrence.  In general, something only catches fire when it comes into close and sustained contact with something else that’s already burning.  And what’s true of material things is also true of hearts and souls.  We catch the fire of faith by getting and staying in touch with those who are already aflame.

Immediately going back to school after my ordination to the priesthood allowed me to have some rather unique experiences.   Among them: I was able to spend my first Holy Week and Easter as a priest in the Holy Land.  On Holy Saturday, a few of us went to the visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which marks the sacred sites of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Each year, the Orthodox Churches await the coming of the “holy fire” in that building, believing that the Holy Spirit himself brings a flame from heaven that is then dispersed throughout the world—the light of the risen Christ.  We were curious to see how this tradition unfolded.  Hundreds and hundreds of people filled the ancient church before the doors were closed and locked.  (No outside flame was getting in.)  The patriarchs of the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Coptic Orthodox Churches entered Christ’s empty tomb together.  And then the crowd waited and prayed.  Eventually, an arm reached out from the Holy Sepulcher with a flame, a commotion ensued, and soon all the candles and torches and lanterns people had brought with them were blazing.  The flame was waving everywhere you turned—people being rather reckless because they believe the “holy fire” cannot burn you.  (I wasn’t so sure!)  It was an amazing (and somewhat terrifying) experience.  As we were waiting for the coming of the “holy fire,” we met an Orthodox priest who spoke some English.  Wanting the inside track, we asked him, “Tell us—where does the ‘holy fire’ really come from?”  He smiled and said, “It comes from the friction of putting three patriarchs in such close quarters together…”

My friends, the fire Jesus came to set on the earth is one that is passed from one person to another.  I recall our rector in the seminary once saying, “You can’t expect to find fire in the pews if there’s ice in the pulpit.”  Those are challenging words every preacher ought to recall!  But every person who steps into the pulpit first comes out from the pews.  We must all burn with that fire of love and mercy that warms the heart, with the fiery light of truth that shows the right way, with the purifying fire that transforms us and the whole world.  As we see so clearly in the example of St. Maximilian Kolbe, we catch the flame by getting close to those who are already ablaze with the Spirit of holiness—and then we must pass it on!

“The most deadly poison of our time is indifference.”  But there is an antidote and a cure for this poison of indifference.  Let us fulfill the burning desire of the heart of Jesus!  Let us all catch fire!

Sunday, August 7, 2016


 Ninteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   C 

A “bottomless pit.”  We use that expression to describe certain seemingly insatiable things.  If you buy a house or a car that needs constant repair or improvement, you might call it your “money pit.”  Or if there’s a teenaged boy in the family, you might think his stomach is a bottomless pit.  Fr. Scott is no longer a teenager, but his appetite still acts like one.  I often cook supper and think, “Good—we can get another meal or two out of this…,” but we almost never do.

Deep inside of each and every one of us, there is a longing—a hunger, a thirst, an emptiness—that seems insatiable.  And so we try everything we can think of to fill it: food, drink, drugs, sex, or other sensual pleasures; wealth or material possessions; power, prestige, or popularity; entertainment, sports, or other distractions.  But there will never be enough food, never be enough money, always be one more game to watch.  Even all the fried bread dough at the Franklin County Fair couldn’t satisfy this hunger!  It’s a longing nothing in this world can satisfy.  Such a bottomless pit can only be filled by something that’s inexhaustible; such an infinite desire seeks after something that’s infinite.  Actually, not something infinite, but Someone…

Jesus said to his disciples: “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom.…  Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach nor moth destroy.  For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.”

This deep longing within us is for God, but so very often, we attempt to satisfy it with something other than God.

This past week, I came across an article entitled, “Why DoesMass Last an Hour?”  Wearing heavy vestments on these recent hot summer days, even I have been tempted to ask that question!  People are so very busy these days.  It’s hard to find the time.  Why does Mass have to last for about an hour?  Often—if people’s facial expressions or body language are any indication—Mass feels even longer than that!  Sunday Mass can seem repetitive at the least, maybe even irrelevant.  But the author of that article was sneaky, because the question he really wanted to explore was, “Why does Mass have to last only an hour?”  If—as the Church teaches—the Eucharist is “the source and summit” of the entire Christian life; if it’s meant to be the beginning and end of everything we Catholics do and are; if this is when and where heaven meets earth; if the Mass is the most direct contact we can have with God in this life—then how could a single hour possibly be enough?

The average American spends five hours each day watching TV.  If you’re into video games, it’s an average of six hours a week spent on that pastime.  We manage to find two hours for a movie, or three hours for a football game.  Even in this country where we’re famously out-of-shape, the average American spends two hours a week on exercise.  So why is it so hard to set aside one hour out of 168 each week?  How many times before Mass begins have I heard, “Father, keep it short!”  How many of you breathed a sigh of relief when you realized I was using the shorter forms of the readings today?  Why is it so many Catholics get to Mass late, leave it early, or find it so easy to excuse themselves from coming altogether? 

Why is there all of this struggle?  Because we’ve gotten so used to trying to fill this deep hole within us with so many other things!  My friends, it’s high time we rediscover what’s really going on at Mass, that we recognize Who is truly present here among us.  We need to regain our taste for the only One who can ever satisfy our deepest cravings.  We need to move beyond looking at our attendance at Mass as the fulfillment of a religious obligation, and see it as something we can’t really live without.  This one hour is crammed with eternity!  The small, white host, and the little gold cup of the chalice—they accomplish the impossible: they contain the Infinite God!

I like to tease Fr. Scott that, one of these days, his metabolism is going to catch up with him—he’s going to find the bottom of that pit.  But the deep hunger, the deep longing that God planted inside you and me—that’s not ever going away.

Jesus is standing at the door of our hearts and knocks.  He’s put on his apron, has a place for us at his table, and is prepared to serve us—to fill us with every good thing.  It falls to you and me to be always ready to welcome and receive him.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Do Not Use

After the first Mass this morning, a parishioner asked, "Who was that priest we prayed for among the deceased?"  If was Fr. Jacques Hamel, the elderly French priest who was killed in his parish church by ISIS terrorists last Tuesday.  Given the horrific circumstances of his death, I figured our prayers could help.  Even more, I was encouraged by what I heard on the news this morning: that, all across France, Muslim men and women were attending Mass at Catholic Churches as a sign of solidarity.  I couldn't help but think that I was seeing this folktale unfold in real life...

 Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   C 

There’s an African folktale about a young man who married a woman whose brother was blind.  Wanting to get to known his brother-in-law better, he invited him to go hunting.  “Since I cannot see,” he answered, “I will certainly need your help, but—yes—I will go hunting.”  As the two are walking together through the bush, the young man is amazed at the blind man’s knowledge of the noises of the wild.  By their songs he correctly identifies every bird—and even notes their movements, based on the sounds of their wings.

When they reached their destination, the young man set two traps.   He set his own trap in a well-hidden location, such that no bird would ever suspect danger.  But he set his brother-in-law’s trap out in the wide open—making no effort to conceal it, since it was hot, he was tired, and the blind man wouldn’t know the difference.

The two men returned to the spot the next day.  Before reaching it, the blind man said, “We have caught something!  I can hear birds in our traps!”  The young man went first to his own, well-hidden trap, and within it found a small, brown bird.  But when he came to the blind man’s trap, he found a large, beautiful bird, adorned with all the colors of the rainbow.  He knew the bird would make a fine present for his wife, who would be impressed by its colorful feathers, so he put this bird in his own pouch and handed the small, brown bird to the blind man to place in his.

On their journey home, the two men rested in the shade of a large tree, talking about many things.  The young man soon recognized that the blind man was very wise, and so he said, “I would like to ask you a question that has troubled me all of my life.  Why do men fight with one another?”  The blind man paused for just a moment before replying, “Men fight because they do to each other what you have just done to me.”  The young man was ashamed and stunned into silence.  Not knowing what to say, he got up, took the brightly colored bird out of his pouch, and gave it to his brother-in-law. 

Taking the bird, the blind man asked, “Do you have any other questions for me?”  “Yes,” said the young man, “I have one more.  How do men become friends after they have fought?”  The blind man smiled and said, “They do what you just have done.  That is how men become friends again.”  (Based on, “A Blind Man Catches a Bird,” as written by Alexander McCall Smith and retold by Gioia Timpanelli)

This African folktale, like the words of Scripture we hear addressed to us this Sunday, seem to come to us from a far simpler time and place…and yet they speak so very poignantly to our supposedly “advanced” society.  “Guard against all greed,” Jesus says, “for life does not consist in possessions.”  As much—if not more—than ever, ours is a time that loves things and uses people, rather than the other way around.

We see it in our desire for cheap consumer goods—food, clothes, technology—without giving much thought to the laborers who provide them, the conditions under which they work, or how they’re being compensated.  We see it in the widespread use and acceptance of pornography, contraception, and abortion—almost without question, which reduce other people to commodities or inconveniences.  We see it in the degradation of the natural environment, focused more on how we want to live today rather than if our children will be able to live tomorrow.  We even see it the way an 85-year-old French priest had his throat cut on Tuesday as he offered daily Mass, in the name of promoting a radical ideology.

When God created this immense and beautiful universe, when he set the human race in and over it, God did so with a particular order and plan built right into nature: that things are there to be used, and people are there to be loved.  He didn’t intend his creation to be a vast moneymaking machine; he intended it to be a vast saint-making machine.  The essential trajectory of our lives, then, isn’t meant to be along the road to success; it’s to be along the path to holiness, the path to heaven—which is the only sure path to happiness, both now and forever.

God has created things for us to use responsibly, and people for us to love deeply, not the other way around.

In an age that’s constantly telling us—in ways both obvious and subtle—to look out after our own interests, to build bigger barns, to store up earthly treasures for ourselves, let us make sure that what we’re pursuing are true riches: those that matter to God.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Your Lips to God's Ear

At the early Mass this morning, as I reached the end of the second paragraph, a young girl in the front pew yelled out, "Well, what about 5?!?"

 Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   C 

Having grown up on a farm, I have memories of going with my dad to auctions—cattle auctions, equipment auctions.  I love the back-and-forth of the auctioneer and the bidders.  It’s like a game or dance—each one anticipating the next move of the other.  Of course, they find themselves at cross-purposes: the auctioneer trying to get the prices higher while the bidders work hard to keep them low.

I’ve always thought of an auction when reading this Sunday’s first reading: Abraham negotiating with the Lord over just how many righteous people it will take to keep Sodom from being destroyed.  “How about 50?  Would that be enough?  Or 45—can I get 45?  How about 30?  20?  Will you give me 10?”

But reading that passage again as I prepared for Mass this Sunday, a new and different image came to mind: the audacity of a little child trying to “negotiate” something with his father.  “Dad, you know I’d love an ice cream cone.  Can I have one if I’m good all day?  Of course, all day is a long time…so how about if I’m good this morning?  Or for the next hour?  Would 10 minutes be enough?”  I can see the child moving in as he makes his case: closer and closer, eventually climbing into his father’s arm’s, wrapping his arms around dad’s strong neck, and then leaning in to whisper into his ear.  The boy’s got one thing on his mind: getting that ice cream cone!  But what does dad have to gain?  Ten minutes of good behavior—maybe?  What the father gets is what he wants the most: to have his son draw closer and closer to him.

Jesus gives his disciples—gives us—a lesson in persevering prayer.  He tells us to keep on asking, to keep on seeking, to keep on knocking past midnight, if we must.  He tells us to ask the Father each day for our daily bread.  But why must we be so persistent?  Is it because God is stubborn?  Or hard of hearing?  Is heaven so far from earth that our messages rarely make it through?

Most of us approach prayer prepared to bargain.  We pray as if it’s a matter of us getting through to God; in fact, prayer is really all about God getting through to us.  We focus on what it is we hope to get; God is focused on to whom he can get close.  We can act as if prayer is a retail transaction, but to God, it’s all about deepening a relationship.

Our patron, St. André Bessette, understood this well.  Br. André used to say, “When you say to God, ‘Our Father,’ he has his ear right next to your lips.”  We move in close to seal the deal—to win what we’re after—and God does the same: he longs to make us ever more his own.

How about you?  Do you pray to God as the Great Auctioneer in there Sky, hoping to convince him that you're making an offer he can't refuse?  Or do you pray like a child who puts full trust in his loving Father?

If you read a bit further into Genesis, you discover that Abraham did not actually win the auction: there weren't 10 innocent souls to be found, and Sodom was destroyed for its many sins.  (The righteous were lead to safety before the destruction began.)  But Abraham did come to know the Lord much better through their back-and-forth exchange.  He discovered that God is just—not willing to sweep away the innocent right along with the guilty.  And he discovered that God is also merciful—giving one opportunity after another to flee from sin, to be converted from death-dealing to live-giving ways.  And Abraham discovered that God comes ever-so-close to his children—close enough to hear and respond to their every call for help.

When you pray, give up on trying to bargain with God.  Instead, draw close to him, and he’ll draw close to you (James 4:8).  Never tire of whispering into your Father’s ear.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Better Part

No homily to post for you today, since Bishop LaValley is preaching here as Malone bids a fond farewell to the Ursuline Sisters who are leaving our community after 118 years of service (1898-2016).

 Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   C 

A point to ponder: What sort of welcome do we give to the Lord?  Notice, it's not would we give but do we give, since Jesus keeps paying us visit after visit: in his word, in the sacraments (above all, the Eucharist), in the faces of the poor.  Whether our hospitality is more active (like Martha) or more contemplative (like Mary), is Christ the center of our attention?


Sunday, July 10, 2016


 Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   C 
In preparing for this Sunday, I tried to think of famous neighbors I might use as familiar examples.  The two who first came to mind perfectly fit the bill.  To begin with, I thought of Dennis Mitchell—better known to most of us as “Dennis the Menace.”  From the comic strip, we know just how Mr. Wilson feels about his much younger, very active neighbor: he’s too loud, too messy, eats too much of his food, and breaks far too many windows.  And then there was the second famous neighbor: [singing] “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful for a neighbor…”  We all know Fred Rogers—that’s Mr. Rogers, of course.  Through his TV show, we all became his neighbors, and he introduced us to many others, as well.

Dennis Mitchell.  Fred Rogers.  If you got to pick, which would you chose to be your neighbor?

The fact of the matter is we don’t generally get to pick our neighbors, do we?  “And who is my neighbor?” asks the scholar in the gospel.  Our neighbors are those God sends to us, whether they live in the house next door or are sitting in the next pew; whether they have a nearby locker at school or work with us on the job; whether they play with us on the team or they’re driving in another car on the road.  Our neighbors are neighbors simply for being near to us, and—no matter who they are, what they do, or where they come from—we are called to treat them love and care and compassion.

That’s a critical lesson in light of the news lately—so full of shootings and strife, of refugees and fear of the stranger.  We hear about these problems on a national and global scale, worrying and wondering, “But what could I ever do to make a difference?”  Remember: you and I haven’t been called to save the world.  (That position has already been taken.)   No, we’ve been called to love our neighbors—without picking and choosing among them—and just imagine how the whole world could be and would be transformed if each of us treated those nearby with love.

“And who is my neighbor?”  The question asked by the scholar of the law is what prompts Jesus to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan.  But did you notice how Jesus—as he often does—answered that question with another question?  Near the very end of the passage we’ve just heard, Jesus asks in response, “Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?”  The difference between the questions is rather subtle, but hugely significant.  The first assumes that the neighbor is somebody who is near to us, while the second urges us to draw near to someone else as neighbor.  The first is passive, while the second is active.  We aren’t to wait for a neighbor to come to us in need; we are to go and be neighbor to others.

Being neighborly—reaching out—in this way is at the very heart of being a Christian, because by it we imitate Jesus.  In Jesus Christ, God has become neighbor to you and me—moving right into the neighborhood, choosing to dwell among us, and promising to remain with us always—no matter how much we behave like Dennis Mitchell.  And from the example of Jesus we have so much to learn!  We can be tempted to only love those who seem deserving…but the Son of God came to save us when we deserved it the least, yet needed it most.  We can be tempted to love only those who will recognize the gift and show their thanks….but how often are we ungrateful for God’s blessings?  We can be tempted to only reach out when there’s room in our schedule…but was their anything convenient about the Cross?

This is where the name of the upcoming diocesan vocations summit is so instructive: INSPIRE: Called to Love.  We all share a common vocation—the call to reach out in love.  And just as we don’t get to choose those who become our neighbors, nor do we get to pick those to whom we are to go in love as neighbor.  That’s the “inspired” part.  The commands of God—we’re told in the first reading—as so close to us that they’re already in our hearts.  The same Holy Spirit who inspired the writing of the scriptures dwells in your heart and mine, and still speaks to us: “Go there!  Do that!  Help him!  Speak to her!”  But we must listen for and obey those inspirations.  And when we do listen and obey, when we reach out in love, when we become neighbor, we discover that in drawing close to another person we’ve also drawn close to God.

We often find ourselves asking, like the scholar of the law, “And who is my neighbor?”  But the more crucial question is the one once asked by Fred Rogers—asked by God of you and me each and every day: [singing] “Would you be mine?  Could you be mine?  Won’t you be my neighbor?”

Monday, July 4, 2016

Verso l'alto!

Today is the memorial of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, the patron of the Frassati House apostolate here in St. André's Parish.  Together with our five parish missionaries (who will be departing Malone this week), we kept vigil for the feast last evening...

But a couple of weeks ago (June 23-24), we spent a different sort of night together: one out in the woods.  We camped out at the two lean-tos at Catlin Bay on Long Lake.  They were two stunning days spent in a rather spectacular spot.  We were having so much fun, I didn't take any pictures... except of some pretty happy campers as we were about to head home...

Blessed Pier Giorgio, pray for us!