Sunday, May 26, 2013


My little joke got great laughs the first three times I delivered this homily, but you could have heard crickets the fourth.  So I'll spend this afternoon pondering the great mystery of just what it is that makes a joke funny...

   The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity   C 

A priest asked the catechism class,
“What is the Holy Trinity?” 
A little boy answered very weakly,
“The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” 
“I didn’t understand,” said the priest. 
“You’re not supposed to,” replied the boy.  “It’s a mystery!”

The Most Holy Trinity is indeed a mystery:
the mystery at the very heart of the Christian faith.
But I believe we’ve taken to making the Holy Trinity
even more of a mystery than it already is.

One way we do that
is by keeping the Good News to ourselves.
A recent study shows that 62% of U.S. Catholics
seldom or never share their faith or view of God with anyone else.
We speak about our beliefs at an even lower rate
than Americans who don’t believe in God at all.
In other words: atheists in this country
talk about God more than Catholics do!

We also make the Trinity more of a mystery
by convincing ourselves 
that the Triune God is complicated.
With almost 2,000 years 
of theological reflection under our belt,
we have entire libraries filled with intricate speculations
and a specialized vocabulary of tongue-twisting terms
which most folks can’t spell, leave alone comprehend.
To many minds, when faced with all of this,
God has become a puzzle to be solved,
an abstract idea in need of explanation.
How can 1 + 1 + 1 = 1…and not 3?
Perplexed, we gladly leave not only talking about God,
but even trying to get anywhere close to him,
to the “professionals,” to the “experts.”

The result?  From the same survey…
Less than half—48%—of U.S. Catholics today
are certain that you can have 
a personal relationship with God.
And 29% of Catholics think of God 
merely as some sort
of impersonal superpower 

By sometimes saying too little,
and by other times saying too much,
we’ve managed to make the mystery of God
into a great big question mark…
…and no one is much inclined 
to give his or her time and attention—
leave alone their very life—
to a question mark.

Page around in your Bible a little bit,
look through the ancient Creeds,
the prayers of the Mass, and the lives of the saints,
and you’ll get a very different impression of God
than the one which so many of our contemporaries
have come to accept.

The God of Christianity,
the God revealed to us by Jesus Christ,
the God we preach and confess and adore
not just on this solemnity, but Sunday after Sunday,
isn’t some nameless, faceless energy
existing simply to keep in motion
the massive mechanics of the universe.
No—the God of Jesus Christ is personal.
The God we believe in is so intensely personal, in fact,
that this God is three Persons—a divine Trinity.
And the God of Jesus Christ is also relational
so completely relational, in fact,
that this God is an eternal exchange of love.
And this perfect communion, this perfect unity of love
is not a relationship closed in upon itself;
rather, salvation history is the story
of that relationship spilling over again and again:
God the Father crafting the heavens and the earth out of love,
and taking delight in the human race;
God the Son dwelling among us in human flesh
and dying for love of sinful mankind;
God the Holy Spirit poured as love into our hearts
and guiding us into all truth.

Is the Most Holy Trinity a mystery?  Of course!
But not in the sense that God
is a question to be answered or a riddle to be figured out.
One God in three Persons is a mystery
in the way that the beauty of a sunset is a mystery,
in the way that the birth of a child is a mystery,
in the way that falling in love is a mystery.
You see, the life-changing mystery revealed to us in Christ
is that the All-knowing, All-powerful, All-holy Lord of all things
so desperately desires to draw each one of us into his inner life—
to have a personal relationship with you and with me.

What is man, O Lord, that you should be mindful or him,
or the son of man that you should care for him? (Ps. 8:5)

God loves.
And God wants to be loved.
So simple!  So mind-boggling!
That’s a mystery we can believe in...
...and maybe even one we can begin to understand.

Sunday, May 19, 2013


   Pentecost   C 

Bad joke warning…
What did the fireman say 
when he saw the church on fire?
“Holy smoke!”
(You can’t say I didn’t warn you!)

Especially given the history here,
it should certainly get your attention to hear me say:
How I’d love to see the Church burning!
Now, don’t get me wrong:
I’m not talking about the building.
The Church, of course, 
isn’t made up of four walls and a roof;
the Church is what’s left 
when the building goes.  (cf. G. Rulter)
It’s the people—
the living members of this Body of many parts—
that I long to see set ablaze.

There are many symbols used in the Scriptures
to help us understand 
the nature and workings of the Holy Spirit.
In the Acts of the Apostles,
the driving force of wind announces the Spirit’s presence;
like the wind, we know not
from where the Spirit comes nor where he goes,
but recognize him by what his power moves.
This morning, I’d like to focus our attention
on another symbol in particular,
and that symbol is fire.

We have a love/hate relationship with fire, don’t we?
We have loud alarms in our homes to warn us of fire
and large departments of committed volunteers
with massive amounts of heavy equipment
whose sole purpose is to put fires out.
That is because fire destroys.
In a sense, that’s the first work of the Holy Spirit.
There are parts of the Church which ought to burn down—
areas in need of transformation, of renewal, of reform.
Sure enough, those places in the Church
calling for renovation, restoration, or replacement
are the very same ones we find within ourselves.
The Church is a society of sinners;
her faults are necessarily my own.
With the almighty power to take down things
which previously seemed indestructible,
the Holy Spirit purges sin:
searching out the shadowy corners of our hearts
and gutting them of all that is not of God.
Quite paradoxically, those parts of us
which seem the most beyond God’s reach
are actually the ones most susceptible to the Spirit’s fire:
when wood is dead and dry, after all,
it only takes a small spark to ignite it.  (cf. E. Leseur)
As St. Paul says, “Where sin has abounded,
grace abounds all the more” (Rom 5:20).

Now, despite fire’s destructive potential,
we find ourselves rather unable to live without it.
We need fire because fire warms.
Whatever your chosen fuel,
we’ve all spent the long winter months
depending on some sort of flame to heat up our homes.
Likewise, the Holy Spirit thaws out our often frozen wills.
As a French spiritual writer once put it,
            We need know nothing about the chemistry of combustion
            to enjoy the warmth of a fire. 
            Holiness is produced in us by the will of God
            and our acceptance of it.  (Jean-Pierre de Caussade)
Not knowing how to pray as we ought,
the Holy Spirit intercedes on our behalf,
that prayer might achieve its proper end:
not that I work on God,
trying to bend his will to mine,
but that I allow God to work on me
and his will to be done in my life.

And we also need fire because fire gives light.
Whether from sun or candle or electric bulb,
we’d stumble about even more than we already do
if it weren’t for flames, both big and small.
God’s gift of the Holy Spirit gives light to the mind.
The Spirit leads us into truth
by undoing the isolating confusion of Babel:
restoring us not only to clear communication—
hearing God and his messengers 
speaking in a language we can understand—
but restoring us, too, to genuine communion,
both with God and with one another.
The Holy Spirit, whom the Father sends in Jesus’ name,
lights our way on the dark and winding paths of this world
by teaching us everything
and reminding us of all that Christ told us.

The fire of the Holy Spirit burns away sin,
warms the heart, and enlightens the mind.
And like elemental fire here below,
the Fire sent from heaven is meant to spread.
Any attempt to preserve the gifts of the Spirit
as purely personal possessions
only results in snuffing them out.
That’s why I want—better yet, why we need
to see this Church catch fire:
because this cold, dark world,
this world weighed down by human sinfulness,
needs desperately to catch fire.
That’s not something we can achieve
by implementing a clever program
or embarking on a smart advertizing campaign.
Fire is a driving force, an unyielding energy,
but it can only transform what it touches—
and what it touches,
it transforms into nothing other than itself.
We must let the Holy Spirit’s fire touch and transform us
so that, through us, the same Spirit
might touch the lives of those around us, one-by-one.
“If you are what you should be”—said St. Catherine of Siena—
“you will set the world ablaze.”

A few years ago, an astute Catholic pastor noted
how we’ve come to consider high attendance
at Mass or other Church functions
as a sure sign of success.
He went on to point out that, on the great day of Pentecost,
the standard was a good bit higher:
people had to be on fire.  (cf. M. Heher)

Oh, that we might see the Church on fire!
Don’t say, “Holy smoke!”
Instead, pray, “Come, Holy Spirit!”

Sunday, May 12, 2013

At Table

A very happy Mother's Day to all you moms out there!

   Seventh Sunday of Easter   C 

Two weeks ago today,
my Mom and Dad celebrated their fortieth wedding anniversary.
To mark this important milestone,
we went out for a very nice dinner:
my parents and grandparents,
my siblings and their spouses, my nieces and nephew.
When the food was served,
I assumed—as the “professional pray-er” in the family—
that I’d be called upon to say grace,
as often happens at family celebrations.
But instead, the honor fell to the youngest one at the table:
to my three-year-old niece, Abby.
First, we made the Sign of the Cross together.
Next, after telling us al to hold hands,
Abby gave a very spirited rendition
of her favorite church song: Alleluia.
(She’s the one I told you about on Easter Sunday.)
And then my brother asked her, “What do we thank God for?”
She answered, “We thank God for Nana and Papa!”
To which we all responded with a hearty, “Amen!”

"Nana" and "Papa" with their grandchildren, after a blessing but before heading out for dinner

As we fast approach the end of this Easter Season,
the Church presents us with Jesus at prayer.
Now, he’s not off, all alone, in the wilderness,
as the gospels so often portray him.
Nor is he in the formal setting of worship in the temple
or of the Sabbath service at the synagogue.
Rather, we find Jesus praying at table.
Our passage from John’s Gospel this Sunday
is taken from the end
of Jesus’ long, beautiful Last Supper discourse.
The prayer we are privileged to hear on his lips
serves as it conclusion and climax.
It’s a very intimate prayer,
addressed to the Father by his Only Begotten Son.
It’s a very personal prayer for his closest friends and collaborators:
the Apostles seated there at the meal beside him.
And Jesus prays intensely, too,
for all those who will come after them—
those who will believe because of their word.
Which is to say: he’s praying for you and for me.

We benefit not only from Christ’s intercession on our behalf,
but from the compelling example he gives.

In most of the world’s cultures,
eating is accompanied by some sort of prayer.
Anthropologist Robin Fox has pointed out, 
Making food is a sacred event.
It's so absolutely central—
far more central than sex.
You can keep a population going
by having sex once a year,
but you have to eat three times a day.
It's like the American Indians.
When they killed a deer, they said a prayer over it.
That is civilization.
It is an act of politeness over food.
Fast food has killed this.
We have reduced eating
to sitting alone and shoveling it in.
There is no ceremony in it.  (cf. Time, 6/4/06)

There are so many benefits that flow
from taking the time in our families—even as busy as we all are—
to sit down to eat together and to begin the meal with grace.
Studies have repeatedly shown
that when families eat together with some regularity,
kids are less likely to drink, smoke, do drugs,
develop eating disorders, get depressed, or consider suicide,
while the same kids are more likely to
not only eat their vegetables and know which fork to use,
but also delay becoming sexually active and do well in school.

So, on this Mother’s Day,
I want to encourage moms—and dads, too—
to restore prayer to its rightful place at the table.
What is there to lose?
And there is so much to be gained!

Don’t save grace just for special occasions,
and don’t limit it to when you’re eating at home.
My young niece showed us how it’s done
right there in the middle of a busy restaurant.
Granted, my family had certainly
already been tagged as a bit different:
we were slightly on the rambunctious side (not just the kids),
and there sat a priest in his Roman collar right in the middle of it all!
While saying grace at home
is a powerful way to build up one’s family,
saying grace when you’re out
is a powerful way to give public witness to your Catholic faith.
What will people think?
Hopefully, they’ll be reminded to think of God!
It’s not about being preachy
and showing off how holy you are;
it’s about being grateful,
drawing attention to the Lord, rather than yourself.
Be like St. Stephen: unafraid to stand up for what you believe.
Sure, it's risky:
People might throw odd looks in your direction...
...but they’re pretty unlikely to cast any stones.

You may have noticed that Abby’s grace made no mention of the food.
A wise man once said,
“It isn’t so much what’s on the table that matters,
as what’s on the chairs.”  (W. S. Gilbert)
Here in the Eucharist, they are one and the same:
he who is our unseen Host is himself also the Banquet;
it is the Body of Christ which is present upon our altars,
and the Body of Christ which gathers around them.

Today—and in every Mass—Christ prays for us again at his Table.
Let’s be sure to leave a place for Christ at every table at which we eat.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Gates & Walls

   Sixth Sunday of Easter   C 

This coming Thursday—forty days after Easter—
the Church will celebrate the Ascension of the Lord,
when the risen Christ returned to the Father who sent him.
At this time every year—and very appropriately so—
the Church has us listen to one or another portion
of Jesus’ farewell address to his disciples.
The Lord is giving them—and us—
instructions on how we are to carry on
when he is no longer physically present here among us on earth.
That’s why we hear Jesus saying things like:
I am going away, but do not be troubled;
If you love me, keep my word;
The Holy Spirit will remind you of all that I told you.

One of the main thrusts of Jesus’ farewell remarks
(and we’ll hear this especially next Sunday)
is for his disciples to stick together.
Father, he prays, make them one as we are one.
As was the case for Israel,
salvation is offered not to any individual but to a people.
There’s safety in numbers—for soul as for body.
A community will be far better equipped than any single person
in both preserving and proclaiming the Gospel.

But this sticking together—as obvious as it may seem—
is not nearly as easy as it first sounds.

One of the biggest challenges to sticking together
confronted the Apostles pretty early on:
the foundational question of who’s in and who’s out.
When Christ walked about from town to town,
it was a simple enough thing to decipher:
those who stayed close to Jesus
were counted among his company.
We must remember that not everyone who heard him followed,
and not everyone who followed him stayed.
But after Jesus has ascended to the Father—
when the Apostles are coming in and out of hiding,
when the Church is beginning to grow
and Christ’s message is beginning to spread—
reckoning just who is on the list becomes much more difficult
as people’s bonds with the Lord become much less visible.

We might know we ought to stick together…
…but with whom ought we to stick?

In the Book of Revelation,
we hear of John’s vision 
of the heavenly Jerusalem.
Amid all the exotic images 
and symbolic language,
we should note that he describes a city
which has both gates and walls.
Gates are about getting in.
Gates tell us that this City of God 
is a gathering place:
a home where there is welcome 
and room enough for all.
But walls tell us something else.
Walls give a place shape.
Walls are about form and identity.
Walls tell us that there are 
definite characteristics  
which define those who call 
this city their home.  (cf. R. Barron)
Thus the Lord’s community—
on earth as in heaven—
is open not only to twelve chosen tribes, 
but to all the nations…
…yet it has clear boundaries 
which the Lord himself has established,
and which we have no ability to alter.

The debate first had among the Apostles and elders  long ago
continues on in our own day…
…though the question no longer centers on Jews versus Gentiles.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York
recently shared this folksy story from his childhood.
My buddy Freddie from across the street and I
were playing outside—he said
Mom called me for supper.
“Can Freddie stay and eat supper with us?”  I asked.
“He’d sure be welcome,
if it’s okay with his mom and dad,” she replied.
“Thanks, Mrs. Dolan,” Freddie replied. 
“I’m sure it’s okay, because mom and dad are out,
and the babysitter was just going to make me a sandwich
whenever I came in.”
I was so proud and happy. 
Freddie was welcome in our house, at our table. 
We both rushed in and sat down.
“Freddie, glad you’re here,” dad remarked,
“but . . . looks like you and Tim
better go wash your hands before you eat.”
Simple enough . . . common sense . . .
you are a most welcome and respected member now
of our table, our household, dad was saying,
but, there are a few very natural expectations this family has. 
Like, wash your hands!  (Blog, 4/25/13)

A city with both gates and walls.
A family of both warm welcome and necessary expectations.
A community which both accepts us as we are
and loves us enough not to leave us that way.
This is the vision of the Church
which was laid out for the Apostles,
and which has—across the ages—been handed on to us.
It’s never been an easy vision to live.
Some of us need to get better at throwing open the gates:
being more respectful of those who differ from ourselves,
making every effort to understand their point of view.
And some of us need to better learn how to live within the walls:
to recognize that what, in fact, most needs changing
is not the rules, but me.

Who’s in?  Who’s out?
Both before and after his Ascension,
the essential criteria remains the exactly same:
it’s all about staying close to Jesus.
And that’s precisely what we’ve come to do in this Eucharist.