Sunday, April 29, 2012

World Day of Prayer for Vocations

Roman Catacombs, 3rd century A.D.

is where the heart’s deep joy 
meets the world’s deep need.
Frederick Buechner

Lord God, 
give us shepherds 
after your own heart.

Heads Up

Of course, when I gave this homily for the first time (last evening), it was in our one and only church without a window of the Good Shepherd. Go figure...

   Fourth Sunday of Easter   B 

St. Helen's Church, Chasm Falls, NY
Every year, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter,
the gospel reading focuses in on the Good Shepherd.
It’s one of the most popular images of Jesus.
In fact, three of our four churches 
here in the Malone Catholic Parishes
have stained glass windows of the Good Shepherd.

How did this get to be such a popular image of Christ?
It’s kind of surprising, really.
During Jesus’ lifetime,
shepherds were not very highly regarded.
They were considered rough characters—dirty and stinky—
generally viewed as not very religious
and not at all trustworthy.
(Many believed that sheep weren’t the only ones
that shepherds were fleecing…)

It’s no wonder Jesus had to specify 
that he’s the Good Shepherd!

So how is it that Christians—both early on and still today—
have come to treasure this image in particular?

In those first centuries, 
when Christians were still living in hiding
Hermes Kriophoros ("Ram-bearer")
5th century B.C.
and the symbols they used to share the faith 
had to be secret ones,
the shepherd was a perfect fit.
You see, in the predominant Greek religion,
there were many gods—and Hermes was one of them.
Among his supposed duties
was to lead the souls of the dead into the afterlife.
And so his picture—understandably—
was painted or carved on many tombs.
Hermes was often depicted 
carrying a ram on his shoulders
because, according to a Greek myth,
in order to save a city from the plague,
Hermes once appeared and circled the city carrying a ram
which was to be offered in sacrifice.
The story was reenacted every year
with the handsomest youth in the city 
chosen to do the same:
carrying a ram around town on its way to sacrifice.

All that is to say:
the early Christians could paint and carve pictures
of Jesus the Good Shepherd in their catacombs
without arousing any suspicion at all.
And so they did—a lot.
Christ, the Good Shepherd
3rd century A.D.
Many of them survive to this day.

But if you look closely, there are some differences.
For one, the ram is replaced by a sheep,
which is a simple enough thing to do: just lose the horns.
And the sheep is often not alone:
other sheep lie down and graze at the shepherd’s feet;
we’re dealing with a flock here, not just one.
But the most important difference
is in the way the sheep holds its head.
In the pagan Greek depictions,
the ram often has its head downcast:
it’s on its way to sacrifice;
it’s on Hermes shoulders because its life is almost over.
But in the Christian depictions,
the sheep usually has its head held high:
this sheep has been rescued, has been saved;
it’s on Jesus’ shoulders because its new life
has only just begun.  (cf. P.-M. Dumont)

It’s pretty subtle, really,
but those first Christian images of the Good Shepherd
convey a rather profound message.

Your average shepherd’s first concern about his flock
is what he can get out of it:
providing wool or milk, being sold for meat or for sacrifice.
If a shepherd’s protecting his sheep from wolves,
it’s to protect his investment.
His care for them is out of selfish interest.
Laying down one’s life for one’s sheep?
I’d imagine that was exceptionally rare—
and not just among hired hands.

St. John Bosco Church, Malone, NY
But Jesus’ approach is altogether different.
He’s a shepherd whose concern for the flock 
is completely selfless.
He’s not trying to get anything whatsoever out of them.
Instead, he very willingly lays down his life—
rejected and crucified—
for the sake of his sheep.
He dies so that his sheep won’t have to.
He dies—and he rises—that his sheep might live.

As you can see,
those early paintings and sculptures
portray a radical belief:
In Jesus, we have a shepherd who has become a sheep.
He is the Lamb of God, 
whose sacrifice—once for all—
takes away the sins of the world.
That’s a shepherd who’s not only good,
but might even seem too good to be true.

This past week I paid a quick visit
to some friends down in Old Forge, my last assignment.
They have a four-year-old son (soon to be five)
who gave me many reasons to smile while there.
Before I was even out of the car,
he was out jumping up and down on the porch:
“Fr. Joe is here!  Fr. Joe is here!”
(If only everybody was so happy to see me!)
Once inside, he took me by the hand
and gave me a full and very detailed tour of the whole house—
including all his favorite toys in the bathtub.
But my fondest recollection of our day together
is when we sat down for supper and said grace.
Not only did this little guy make the sign of the cross
(and do so very well, by the way),
but he’s the one who led the table in prayer.
He thanked God for his food, thanked God for his family,
thanked God for Fr. Joe’s visit.
When he went on to thank God for his “Mighty Machines,”
we wrapped things up with a quick “Amen!”
before he could go on any further.
I was so moved—and not simply because I made the list.
Clearly, at four-years-old, this child is the student:
being taught and learning all the time—
from his parents, above all.
But in that moment, he turned the tables and was teaching us.
The sheep became a shepherd.
He went from being led, to leading the rest of us—
from hearing the shepherd’s voice, to speaking with it.

And so it is that we have a shepherd who becomes a sheep.
Notre Dame Church, Malone, NY
And so it that we who are sheep are to become shepherds.
That’s the sort of language we’re somewhat used to
when a man hears the call to be a priest or a deacon.
My official designation in the Church is pastor,
the Latin word for “shepherd.”
It’s rather obvious, then, why this Fourth Sunday of Easter
has been designated the World Day of Prayer for Vocations.
But having a vocation is not limited
to just a few who are ordained—
as essential as their ministry may be.
We’re all called—each in our own way—
to carry on the work of the Good Shepherd.
Each and every one of us has the vocation
to make sure the world sees and understands
this beloved image of Jesus—
not so much in painting or sculpture or stained glass,
but in the flesh and blood of our daily lives.
Our Shepherd knows us oh-so-well;
we must always strive to know him better,
and to make him better known.

As Saint John reminds us,
the only begotten Son of God became man
that we—by adoption, through Baptism—
might become the sons and daughters of God.
Indeed, what love the Father has bestowed on us!
Jesus, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed:
freely laying down his life as our ransom from sin and death.
The example he gives is clear:
being counted among God’s flock
is not about what we have to gain,
it’s about what we have to give.
So let us listen attentively and follow where he leads:
the Good Shepherd is calling us each by name.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

In the trunk

A little thought for Earth Day...

Don't Lose Your Head it was a bit of a gimmick...and Augustine probably would never have tried it...but it seems to have gotten the point across.

   Third Sunday of Easter   B 

Saint Augustine lived long, long ago and far, far away—
dying in northern Africa all the way back in the year 430—
but this important bishop and teacher
once gave an Eastertide sermon on the gospel passage we’ve just heard,
the message of which is still quite important for us today.

To help us better understand the point he’s making,
I want to start with a little demonstration…
            - Can I have two volunteers, please?
            - Hold up this sheet.
            - show head only: can’t see my body…but can presume it’s there
                        - What if I told you I was scratching my belly?
                        - What if I told you I was standing on one foot?
                        - You’d have to take my word for it, right?
            - show body only: can’t see my head…but can presume it’s there
                        - What if I told you I dyed my hair? or shaved it all off?
                        - Again: you’d have to take my word for it.

And one more important point before we get to that ancient sermon…
We often speak of the Church as the Body of Christ—
not his physical Body, but his mystical Body:
Christ is the Head, we are his members,
and the two are closely united,
just as much as my own head is attached to my body.

So with all this in mind, let’s listen to what Saint Augustine had to say:

                                                   Now we too find ourselves in a situation
                                                   not unlike [that of the disciples in the gospel]:
we can see something which was not visible to them,
while they could see something not visible to us.
We can see the Church extending throughout the world today,
something that was withheld from them,
but Christ, who in his human body was perceptible to them,
cannot be seen by us. 

                                                   And just as they, seeing his human flesh,
                                                   were enabled to believe in his mystical body,
                                                   so now we, seeing his mystical body,
should be able to believe in the head.
Just as the sight of the risen Christ
helped the disciples to believe in the Church that was to follow,
so the spectacle of that same Church
helps to confirm our faith in the resurrection of Christ. 

The faith of the disciples was made complete, and so is ours:
theirs by the sight of the head,
ours by the sight of the body.
But to them and to us alike the whole Christ is revealed,
though neither to them nor to us
has it yet been granted to see him in his entirety. 
For while they could see the head alone with their physical eyes
and the body only with the eyes of faith,
we can see only the body and have to take the head on trust.
Nevertheless, Christ is absent from no one;
he is wholly present in all of us,
even though he still waits for his body to be completed.
Sermon CXVI ]
You see, the risen Jesus came to his disciples
and showed them his wounded hands and feet to make it clear:
he’s the same God-made-man
who had been crucified just a few days before.
And Jesus asked those disciples 
for a piece of fish
and ate it right there before their eyes 
to help them understand
not only was he flesh and bone—no ghost!—
but that he was picking right up 
where he left off:
again sharing a meal with them, 
as so often before.
All of that is rather remarkable to us
who cannot see or touch him for ourselves!
But the promise Jesus makes to those disciples—
that what was now beginning in Jerusalem
would extend to all the nations
and reach the very ends of the earth—
that had to be nearly impossible for them to grasp.
There weren’t very many disciples—
even fewer, in fact, than there had been before.
And it was painfully obvious from what had happened to Jesus:
the authorities were rather hostile to the gospel message.
How could this movement possibly grow?
Was there any reasonable chance
that what Jesus had started would endure?

They had a clear view of the Head,
but were unsure about the full extent of his Body.

Nearly 2,000 years later,
there are 2.1 billion Christians in the world—
more than half of them Catholics—
comprising a third of the world’s population.
Here, on the other side of the planet from the land where Jesus walked,
you can find churches built in his honor all over the place.
We can see for ourselves: it’s just as Jesus promised!
And yet…ours is an age of growing doubts.
Did Jesus really exist in the first place? 
If so, did he rise from the dead?
Was Jesus divine, or was he deluded?
Is there any God at all?

Today, while the reach of his Body is quite evident,
we have our questions about the nature of its Head.

It’s good for us to recall that before he was a saint,
Augustine was no goody-two-shoes.
Actually, he was the quintessential wild child.
His immoral lifestyle 
kept his pious mother constantly in tears
and on her knees praying earnestly for his conversion.
He was an ideal candidate 
for that repentance and for that forgiveness
which we hear so much about 
in the scriptures this Sunday.
Saint Augustine arrived on the scene 
a few centuries too late to meet Jesus in the flesh,
but he came to know the person 
and the power of the risen Christ
through his contact with the Church:
through the wise preaching of her leaders;
through the moving beauty of her worship;
through the steadfast virtue of her faithful.
And that contact changed his life forever!
It’s because Augustine could see and hear and touch Jesus
in the learning, the liturgy, and the life of the Church
that he accepted baptism as a Christian (387 AD),
and was later ordained as a priest (391 AD).

He encountered the living Body,
and so came to believe—to trust—in its divine Head.

How are we doing when it comes to making Jesus visible today?
Granted, some of us may have questions—even serious ones—
about the state of the Church as a whole.
But Christ’s mystical Body is formed
by countless individual members.
That’s where we have to start: with you and me.
As Peter so boldly proclaimed to the people:
Christ is alive!  Christ is with us still!
But would anybody know it by walking into this church right now?
Or if they ran into us later this afternoon?
Or if they spoke with us at work or at school tomorrow?
We each have a duty to bear witness:
to let the Lord’s hidden face be revealed in and through us
by sharing what we’ve seen, what we’ve learned,
what we’ve experienced ourselves.
There is no part of the body so small or seemingly unimportant
that it can’t lead another to Christ, our Head.

It was in the breaking of the bread
that Jesus was made known to his disciples
on that first Easter Sunday,
and it’s still in the breaking of the bread
that the Church most undoubtedly meets her Lord today.
In the Holy Eucharist, Head and members are united as one.
May the great sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood
help us to see the Lord’s face,
and help others to do likewise.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Gone Moral

Oh, the dangers of taking the high ground...


As you can see, it's been quite a week...but I'm in a much better place now.

   Second Sunday of Easter   B 

I should have known that something was up
when my vacation plans just wouldn’t come together…

Lent—as you know—is a rather busy time for us priests,
so I blocked out the week after Easter for a little “R&R”.
But that’s about as far as the plan got.
When I arrived at home on Easter Sunday,
I learned that my uncle and godfather was seriously ill;
yesterday/Friday, he had open heart surgery.
I took my car to the shop for some repairs;
they said I’d have to come back later in the week,
since they’d have to order some parts;
I returned later in the week,
only to find they’d ordered the wrong part.
Then, of course, there’s been all the drama
about the boiler blow-out at Notre Dame
and getting the extensive clean-up started,
which brought me back to Malone 
a little more often than would normally happen during some “time off.”
Looking to salvage 
at least a little reaspite from it all,
I thought I’d make a trip 
to see my favorite barber for a haircut…
…only to discover that her shop 
was closed for the entire week.
On more than one occasion,
I’ve turned my attention toward heaven 
and asked,
“You do realize that Lent is over, don’t you?
It’s supposed to be Easter!”
Appropriately wrapping up on Friday the 13th,
I’ve taken to calling this “the worst vacation ever.”

Can you tell I’ve been feeling a little sorry for myself?

What we most need whenever we hit a rough patch in life
is to regain a little perspective.
It’s not like I’m in the Midwest
living under the threat of tornadoes.
And this week has certainly not been a “disaster”
when compared to the sinking of the Titanic a century ago.
With the exception of my uncle—
who’s now recovering very, very well—
no one, thank God, got hurt in any of this.
In the grander scheme of things,
these problems are pretty small stuff.

It’s the Paschal mystery—
the mystery of Christ’s death and Resurrection—
that helps us, above all, to gain the right perspective.

While having dinner 
with Fr. Scott Seymour the other night—
during which, like just now, 
I was whining about my troubles—
he reminded me of a story 
told about St. Teresa of Ávila—
the Spanish nun, mystic, and Doctor of the Church
who reformed the Carmelite order in the 1500’s.
It seems that one day the devil appeared to her,
disguised as the risen Jesus.
Sr. Teresa wasn’t fooled one bit,
dismissing the evil one immediately.
But before leaving, he paused to ask her, 
“How did you know? 
How could you be so sure 
that I wasn’t really Christ?”
Her answer: “You didn’t have any wounds!
My Jesus has wounds.”

If after his Resurrection Jesus Christ
still carries about in his glorified Body
the wounds of his sorrowful Passion,
what makes me think I should be spared all troubles in life?
Since Christ bears those marks in his hands, feet, and side
into eternity out of his love for me,
can’t I, his disciple, bear up under my struggles
out of love for him?

No matter how great or small my share in it,
the Cross is never the end of the story
for those of us who believe
that Jesus is the Only Begotten Son of God.
If we share by faith in his suffering,
then we share, too, in his victory over this passing world.

As he did to Thomas, Jesus shows me his wounds
to remove my doubts, to calm my fears.
This is how much I love you! he says.
And this love is everlasting.
As these wounds remain with me, so I remain with you.
Hang on!  I’ll see you through.
If it’s rest you seek, then rest in me.
Let my peace live in you.

Now that’s perspective!

The secret to surviving through suffering and struggle
is not to wallow in self-pity,
but to allow one’s self to be washed in Divine Mercy:
to live each day—in good times and in bad—
repeating with every beat of my tired, troubled heart
the prayer given to St. Faustina:
Jesus, I trust in you!  Jesus, I trust in you!  Jesus, I trust in you!

After her death in 1582,
a short poem was found written on a prayer card
in St. Teresa’s breviary;
it became known as “St. Teresa’s bookmark.”
They’re wise and challenging words to live by:

Let nothing disturb you,
let nothing frighten you.

All things are passing;
God alone is unchanging.

Patient endurance
obtains all things.

He who possesses God
wants for nothing.

God alone suffices.

Even our worst days have been made by the Lord;
indeed, his mercy endures forever!

Divine Mercy

For the sake of his sorrowful Passion, 
have mercy on us and on the whole world.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Who you callin' Catholic?

"I wonder if you can say anything about the Catholic faith without people taking offense."

Fr. James Martin, SJ, has put out an absolutely hysterical (and all-too-true) assessment of the current state of (in-)civility in the Catholic blogosphere on America's group blog, In All Things.  Well worth the read...

Clean Up

Early in the morning of Tuesday, April 10, the furnace at Notre Dame Church was discovered to be seriously malfunctioning.  While the problem was caught before a fire started, the furnace was badly damaged and smoke filled the church, chapel, and sacristy, coating everything with a black, greasy film.  Repairs and clean-up will take a minimum of several weeks to complete.  Because of this, Notre Dame Church has been temporarily closed, effective immediately.  All Masses (Sunday, weekday, and funeral) and other services that would normally take place at Notre Dame will be held at St. Joseph’s Church, 306 W. Main St., until further notice.  Many thanks to our parishioners for their patience and understanding.