Sunday, April 27, 2014

Saints

   Second Sunday of Easter - Divine Mercy   A 
For the honor of the Blessed Trinity,
the exaltation of the Catholic faith
and the increase of the Christian life,
by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ,
and of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and our own,
after due deliberation and frequent prayer for divine assistance,
and having sought the counsel of many of our brother Bishops,
we declare and define Blessed John XXIII and John Paul II
to be Saints and we enroll them among the Saints,
decreeing that they are to be venerated as such by the whole Church.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

With those lofty words, 
just a few hours ago in Rome,
Pope Francis, gathered with
about a half-million Catholic pilgrims,
gave the Church and the world two new saints.

These are not saints who are unfamiliar to us,
but men who are remembered 
by many here this morning.
I’m too young to personally recall 
Pope John XXIII,
but I vividly remember Pope John Paul II.
In fact, as the ways of Divine Providence 
would have it,
I had the privilege of meeting 
Pope John Paul on a few occasions,
and he did me the great honor 
of being the first to use my chalice—
the chalice with which I offer Mass this morning.

These two popes, these two saints,
have left notable marks on the Church.
Pope John called the Second Vatican Council;
although he didn’t live long enough to see it through,
he did initiate this visionary project of renewal.
And Pope John Paul—who had been a bishop at Vatican II—
was the great interpreter of that Council,
leaving us more than 70,000 published pages
that will be studied for quite some time to come.

Now-Saint John Paul II left his mark on me, too,
but it wasn’t so much through any of those many volumes
of his wise and learned teaching.
On March 19—St. Joseph’s Day—1998,
I was asked to serve Mass for the Holy Father in St. Peter’s Basilica.
I would be the Pope’s official hand-washer during the ceremony.
(If he needed water and a towel, I was his man!)

This was a special day:
the Pope was about to ordain
three of his closest collaborators as Bishops.
Eventually, the Pope shuffled along with his cane
into the small, hidden room which served as a sacristy.
Even though it had already begun to droop
and lose some its expression, his face positively lit up
when he saw his three coworkers awaiting him there.
There were smiles, hugs, laughter.
And then it was time to prepare for Mass.
I was brought forward to wash the Pope’s shaking hands.
(His weren't the only hands that shook!)

Next, the Holy Father was to put on his priestly vestments.
He was unable to do so by himself anymore.
I was so struck by how the Pope 
simply held out his arms in the figure of a Cross
and allowed others to dress him.
Before me stood a man
who was the spiritual leader of about a billion Catholics,
also admired by men and women of other faiths or no faith at all,
arguably one of the most recognized and powerful people on the planet, 
who in the weakness of illness and old age
had to allow others to change his clothes.
The combination of both moral greatness and utter humility
in that very simple but profound gesture
something of the divine shining through the utterly human—
taught me more about real and living holiness
than any book he ever wrote or talk he ever gave.

As the Apostle Thomas makes clear in this Sunday’s gospel,
sometimes words just aren’t enough to satisfy the human spirit.
As people of flesh and blood and heart,
we are more than our minds—
and so it’s only natural that we seek after more
than just stimulating our intellect:
we desire action and personal experience;
we want to see and feel things for ourselves.
I often think that Thomas’ nickname—Didymus, “Twin”—
points to just how much we all have in common with him.

Maybe it was Thomas’ initial pangs of doubt
that inspired the first Christians to live in the way
which we hear described in the Acts of the Apostles.
Yes, we hear that they devoted themselves 
to the Apostles’ teaching.
But in addition, we hear that
the devout way in which the prayed,
the joyous way in which they shared their common life,
and the loving way in which they took care of one another’s needs
caused everybody around them to look on with awe.
They weren’t just well-studied and well-spoken 
in what they believed,
but they lived out that faith,
which made them stand out from other people.
They lived in a manner that wouldn’t make any sense
if Jesus Christ hadn’t been raised from the dead.
Their actions spoke even louder than their words ever could.

What spoke so loudly then still speaks so loudly now.
Pope Paul VI—who reigned between our two new saints—
once wrote:
            For the Church, the first means of evangelization
            is the witness of an authentically Christian life….
            Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers,
            and if he does listen to teachers,
            it is because they are witnesses.…
            It is therefore primarily by her conduct and by her life
            that the Church will evangelize the world,
            in other words, by her living witness of fidelity to the Lord Jesus—
            the witness of poverty and detachment,
            of freedom in the face of the powers of this world,
            in short, the witness of holiness.  (Evangelii nuntiandi, 41)


Saints are followers of Jesus
who make it to heaven to live with God forever.
Some saints have a capital “S”:
those who—like Pope John and Pope John Paul—
are formally recognized as such.
But it’s vital that we remember
there are countless more saints down through the ages
who won’t be given their own feast days
or have churches named after them.
Saints—as today’s canonization reminds us—are what it’s all about.
The Church exists for one purpose only:
to produce saints;
to make us holy now, and to get us to heaven forever.
Yes, we are all called to be saints—
not just a few of us, but all of us!
To give flesh and blood, to give a living face, to the risen Jesus—
both great and humble, wounded yet glorious!
With two new models of holiness for us to imitate,
let’s be the witnesses that our times so desperately want and need—
not just talking about Divine Mercy but showing it,
that the world might see and touch it’s Lord and God today.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Redeemed

   Easter Sunday of the Resurrection of the Lord   

Back when I was Fr. Tom’s age—
(for some reason I love saying that!)—
I was assigned down in Lowville.
One summer,
a Canadian priest came from Ottawa
to help us out for awhile.
I clearly recall how Fr. Mark
returned from a bike ride one day
and started asking me questions
about one of the other churches in town.
“It’s out past the grocery store,” he said,
“on the opposite side, right before you go up the hill.”
I knew the spot he was talking about,
but told him I was quite sure
there wasn’t a church anywhere nearby.
And yet he insisted.
So the next time we were driving in that direction,
I asked Fr. Mark to point it out.
“There it is!” he said,
indicating a rather nondescript brown building
which sat a little bit off the road.
And atop the somewhat shabby structure
was a sign that was the source of all the confusion;
it read: Family Redemption Center.
I guess they don't have those in Ontario...

What Fr. Mark found, of course, wasn’t a church at all—
but it has a whole lot more in common with one
than you might at first think!

God the Father sent his Son on a mission—
one with which we North Country folks
are quite familiar in the springtime of the year:
he sent him to walk along the world’s sidewalks and roadways
and to pick up the trash.
After the long winter,
a lot of litter had accumulated:
among the other debris
from the earthly paradise he had created
were people,
tossed aside like any other used up commodity—
human lives wallowing in the ditches of sin
and the depths of the grave.
God knew there would be great reward
in this clean up effort:
not only would it help toward making the place
look more like he originally intended,
but some of that junk was actually worth something:
what had been cast off as rubbish
turns out to actually have enormous value.

And so Jesus goes down into the mud and the muck
because he sees something worth saving down there…
…which is when he effects a most marvelous exchange.
When we bring in empty bottles and cans,
we do so expecting to get paid.
For most of us, that’s “redemption.”
But in it’s original sense,
“to redeem” doesn’t mean to collect your deposit
or get something for practically nothing;
rather, “to redeem” means “to buy back.”
You see, first Jesus picks us up, brings us in, 
and then he pays—and not a measly nickel, either!
St. Peter puts it this way:
            Realize that you were delivered
            from your futile way of life…
            not by any diminishable sum of silver or gold,
            but by Christ’s blood beyond all price:
            the blood of a spotless, unblemished lamb…
            It is through him that you are believers in God,
            the God who raised him from the dead (1 Pt 1:18-21).

The all-pure Son of God gets his hands dirty
that we, in our grime, might be made clean.
Jesus assumes the human condition in all its dysfunction—
going all the way down, so to speak—
that he can then raise us all the way up.
Sin and death are thus traded in
for new and everlasting life.
By his Cross and Resurrection,
Christ has bought us back for God.
As we sang out last night
in the beautiful words of the Easter Proclamation:
            Our birth would have been no gain,
            had we not been redeemed.
            O wonder of your humble care for us!
            O love, O charity beyond all telling,
            to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!


On the day of our baptism—
when each one of us was immersed visibly in water
but invisibly into the Paschal Mystery—
we were marked in a quite permanent way,
not with a stamp that reads, “NY 5¢,”
but with a seal which says, “Absolutely Priceless!”
Do we live each day as men and women
of immense dignity and eternal destiny?
Do we find constant joy in this completely unmerited redemption?
Does this Easter faith direct how we treat one another?
Do we help our neighbors to see their own real value?
Because it is for this that Christ died,
for this that Christ rose,
for this that Christ established his Church—
his great “Redemption Center.”

Christ is risen from the dead!
His Cross and Resurrection have redeemed us
and revealed our true worth.
Let us ever live and rejoice in this faith.

Happy Easter!
  

Friday, April 18, 2014

Two Mothers

   Friday of the Passion of the Lord   

On Tuesday, 
Balal was scheduled to die.

A citizen of Iran,
his homeland executes more criminals each year
than any other country on the planet except China.
(His would already be the 200th this year alone.)
He was convicted of murder,
having stabbed to death another man—Abdollah—
in a street brawl seven years ago.
No one has ever claimed he was innocent—
not even Balal.

Now, Iran does not execute criminals
like we do here in the West:
discreetly, in antiseptic conditions.
No, Iran executes the guilty in public by hanging.
A scaffold of rusty pipes was set up in an open square,
a curious crowd gathered ’round it.
A tattered noose was tossed over it
and, placed beneath it, was an old wooden chair.
Balal was escorted into this scene blindfolded.
He was made to stand atop the chair
and the rope was placed around his neck.

His victim’s parents were brought forward;
in Iran, the have the right by law 
to knock the chair away.
Still grieving over the killing of her 18-year-old son
(the second son she’s lost),
Abdollah’s mother slapped Balal across the face.
And then she did the unexpected:
with her husband’s help,
she removed the noose from Balal’s neck.
A right also granted her by law: she chose to spare his life.


She later said that she’d recently had a dream
in which Abdollah assured her
that both of her boys were in a good place.
He told her not to retaliate.
And so she forgave this man.
Which is when Balal’s mother came forward:
she embraced the sorrowful mother
of the man her own son had killed.
The two women sobbed in each other’s arms:
one because her son had been lost,
the other, because her son had been saved.

At the Cross her station keeping,
Stood the mournful Mother weeping,
Close to Jesus to the last.

Today, we stand beneath the gallows—
what more, we bow before them,
touch the wood and kiss it.
And here, we behold two mothers weeping:
the Blessed Mother, Mary,
because her Son has been lost,
and our Holy Mother, the Church,
because her children have been saved.
Mary weeps, because it his her own flesh and blood
hanging there upon the tree.
Sharing like none other in his suffering,
she is a sort of living martyr,
as was foretold when her Son was but a little boy:
“and you yourself a sword shall pierce” (Luke 2:35).

Is there one who would not weep,
Whelmed in miseries so deep,
Christ’s dear Mother to behold?


Saint Paul once wrote to the Romans:
“Only with difficulty does one die for a just man,
although perhaps even for a good man
one might find the courage to die. 
But God proves his love for us
in that while we were still sinners
Christ died for us” (5:7-8).
Mother Church looks though her tears
to witness the death of one which means life for the many,
the innocent offering himself to save the guilty,
the noble King who is sacrificed
for the sake of sin’s wretched slaves.

Just the night before—
after supper, while they remained at table—
Jesus had told his disciples that there can be no greater love
than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13).
But could he have been wrong about this?
Might not that love be still greater
which lays down it’s life for a stranger, or even an enemy,
and so—through the unsurpassed power
of compassion and forgiveness—
makes of them a friend?

Yes, we stand between two weeping mothers today—
we who had been justly sentenced for our crimes,
we who have been inexplicably pardoned,
we who live because Christ came for us to die.

Can the human heart refrain
From partaking in her pain,
In that Mother’s pain untold?

And yet, our tears are not purely shed out of sorrow.
Even now, on Calvary, they are tears of joy.
Out of the most wondrous love
poured forth from his Sacred Heart
together with his Precious Blood,
because of a mercy which could only be divine,
his life has been lost
that our life might be saved.
  

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Do This


"Do this in memory of me."

"Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacle of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetich because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc—one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei—the holy common people of God."

Dom Gregory Dix (British Benedictine, 1901-1952)
  

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Begins

How appropriate that today, as we concluded 6 weeks with Fr. Robert Barron's study program, Catholicism: The New Evangelization, this would show up in the Sunday comics...


Pursuit

   Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord   A 

One of our late priests used to tell the story
of being assigned to an Adirondack parish
where, during the fall, they would add
a Sunday evening “Hunters’ Mass” to the schedule. 
He discovered a box of offering envelops in a rectory closet
specially designed for the season:
they were marked with a picture of a deer
and the line, “We’re looking for a buck, too…”

St. Hubert is the patron saint of hunters.
A French nobleman of the very early Middle Ages,
Hubert decided to go hunting one day—
Good Friday, to be precise—
when most everyone else was crowded into church.
A beautiful stag came into view
and, as he pursued it, 
the animal turned toward Hubert,
who saw the most amazing sight between its antlers:
a vivid, radiant image of Christ hanging on his Cross.
Hubert then heard a voice say,
“Unless you turn to the Lord and lead a holy life,
you shall quickly go down into hell.”
Hubert realized he’d been pursuing 
all the wrong things—
following his own way, instead of God’s.
He received instruction, was ordained a priest,
later consecrated a bishop, and died a very holy man.
It’s said that Hubert attracted many to the faith
by his great skill with a bow and arrow…
…but you can be quite sure
he never went out hunting on Good Friday again.


What will you be doing this Friday—Good Friday?

That day on which our Savor was crucified,
life in Jerusalem went on much like it did any other day:
people did not stop going about their usual business
just because another convicted criminal was being dispatched.
But for those who knew Jesus—
who had heard him speak so powerfully of God’s love
and seen him heal countless wounded bodies and broken hearts—
it was a day unlike any other, before or since.
Yes, this sin-weary world kept turning,
but it was given an entirely new axis
as the holy and life-giving Cross
was planted in the rocky soil of Golgotha.

The days are now gone—which some of you, no doubt, remember—
when businesses closed at noon on Good Friday,
and many families shut off their radios and televisions
to sit silently for three very solemn hours.
Our times, rather, look a lot like those of Jesus:
everything appears pretty much normal.

So I challenge you to make this Friday different.

Your work schedule may not allow you
to take part in any services here at church—
but that doesn’t mean it has to be another ordinary day.
Like St. Hubert,
heed the Lord’s call to change your course.
Rise early or stay up later
to spend some extra time in quiet prayer.
Embrace the Church’s tradition of fasting.
Make a visit to church,
even if you can’t make it to the liturgy.
Lay aside some of your usual pursuits,
recalling to what extraordinary lengths
the Lord was willing to go in order to pursue you:
emptying himself utterly;
the Almighty and Eternal God
becoming obedient and humble
even to the point of death.

What will you be doing on Good Friday?
  

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Awhile

Ol' Chuck and I have even more in common than I thought...


Sunday, April 6, 2014

Think About It

Given a recent wilderness adventure of mine, I've been thinking about it a bit more than usual the last few days...

   Fifth Sunday of Lent   A 

John and Jim loved baseball.
They lived and breathed the sport
to the point that they often speculated
on whether or not there would be baseball in heaven.
They agreed that whoever got there first
would come back to let the other one know.
It so happened that John died, and his friend grieved for days.
After about two weeks,
Jim awoke to a familiar voice calling his name.
It was John, and he’d returned with the promised report.
“I’ve got good news and bad news, Jim,” he said.
“The good news is, there’s baseball in heaven.
We play everyday!
The bad news is…you’re scheduled to pitch next Tuesday.”


This Sunday’s gospel makes abundantly clear
the inevitably of death,
even for those who are close to Jesus.
What we see in the death of Lazarus
is seen repeated in the lives of so many saints.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a French Carmelite nun,
died painfully from tuberculosis at the tender age of 24 in 1897.
Recognizing her great holiness,
one of the other sisters said to her that, when she died,
a radiant choir of angels 
would most certainly come for her.
Thérèse—ever the realist—
wouldn’t accept such attempts 
to make death “pretty.”
But she also refused to see death 
as something fearful.
When another sister said, 
“Death will carry you off,”
Thérèse quickly responded,
“No, not death.
God will come to take me. 
Death is not a ghost,
a horrifying figure such as one sees in pictures. 
It says in the catechism that death
is the separation of body and soul—
nothing more.
Well, I have no fear of a separation
which will unite me forever with God.”

Staying close to Jesus may not spare us from death,
but faith does have the power to rob death of its terror.

This Sunday’s lengthy gospel
contains the Bible’s shortest verse:
“Jesus wept.”
Death is not the Lord’s plan for us; it never has been.
Jesus weeps, not because he believes that death is the end,
but because it pains his Sacred Heart to see us suffer—
suffering that’s a result of sin.
Yet Jesus does not stop at shedding tears.
He will proceed from Bethany to Jerusalem to shed his blood,
that by his own dying on the cross and rising from the grave
death might be swallowed up in victory.

The sacred writings of the Hindus ask,
“What is the greatest wonder of the world?”
And the same text answers:
“That all of us know that we will surely die,
but each of us foolishly thinks he will not die any time soon.”

Do I give death any thought—
and not just generically or the passing of loved ones,
but my own death, which could come at any time?
And if I do think about death—
do I see it as the end, as something final which I should dread?
Or do I see death as a new beginning,
as an opening to a life beyond this one,
which has the potential to give meaning and purpose
to every moment I spend on this earth?

I can’t be sure if there’s baseball in heaven,
but I do share the perspective of none other than Peter Pan:
“To die will be an awfully big adventure…”

We will soon enough walk again with Jesus
on his way of the cross
It’s a way that necessarily passes through death to new life.
Jesus would not avoid it;
we cannot avoid it.
So why not be ready?