Sunday, May 31, 2015


I'm not sure if I wasn't clear or they weren't paying attention, but one couple on the way out of Mass this morning asked, "So, have you ever met your birth parents?"

I've heard it said that "adoption is growing in your mother's heart instead of her tummy." That even more true when applied to our heavenly Father.

There'll be no homily for you next Sunday. I'm leaving June 2 (Tuesday) for Rome, where I'm helping to lead a discernment pilgrimage (with another priest, 2 seminarians, and 4 young men pondering priesthood) until June 11. Please say a prayer for us pilgrims!

   The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity   B 

I was adopted.
I was born on October 8, 1974,
and by October 28, the adoption was complete.
The arrangements had been made prior to my birth,
so eager was my adoptive father to add me to his family.
And it was an act great of love on behalf of my birth parents
to put me up for adoption in the first place,
knowing the kind of life this new family would provide.

By this point,
many of you who’ve known me—or my family—for awhile
must be scratching your heads.
How could we not have known this?

But what I’m talking about it the day of my baptism.

When I was teaching Formation for Ministry a few months ago,
one of my students shared a story—
I believe it was about her daughter and son-in-law.
They were unable to conceive,
so they decided to adopt a child from Africa.
She shared to what great lengths
these would-be parents were willing to go—
the paperwork, the travel, the many sacrifices—
in order to bring this little girl into their family:
to take this child out of a difficult, even dangerous situation
and instead surround her with their love.
As I listened, I immediately thought:
Isn’t that exactly what God does for us?
To what lengths he has gone to take us out of the country of sin
and bring us into his kingdom—
surrounding us with love as his own children!

This talk of adoption is no mere metaphor.
As St. Paul reminds the Romans,
on the day of our Baptism,
when the water was poured out upon us,
the Holy Spirit was also poured into our hearts,
and we “received a Spirit of adoption.”
When we were immersed in the font,
we were also immersed in the very life of the Most Holy Trinity.
God has only one begotten Son,
but he has countless adopted children
who become true brothers and sisters of Jesus.
And it is through this Holy Spirit—
the very same Spirit of love who binds together
the Father and the Son for all eternity—
that we can cry to God, “Abba! Father!”
We get to call God, “Dad!”

When we come to this Trinity Sunday,
many folks of think of the doctrine of the Trinity
as something every dry and difficult.
What difference could it make in my day-to-day life?
But the reality is that the God’s self-revelation
as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
is about as personal, powerful, and passionate as it gets.
The God who is love itself couldn’t keep that love to himself,
but came to save us and take us into that perfect love forever.
That makes all the difference in the world!

There are a couple of aspects of our Catholic life
that can help to drive this point home.

What do Catholics go looking for
as soon as they cross the threshold of a church?
The holy water!  To bless themselves,
marking themselves with the sign of the cross
and in the name of the Holy Trinity.
We do that to recall the day of our adoption—
the day (in most cases) when our parents
first brought us through those church doors
that we might become members of God’s family.
But we should also be sure to look for the holy water
on our way out of church, because at our baptism
we were not only adopted, but also given a mission.
We hear Jesus this Sunday speaking to the Apostles
before he ascends into heaven; he tells them:
"Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father,
and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all that i have commanded you."
When we leave church, we need to spread this message around.
Imagine what a different world we’d live in
if more people believed that God
wanted a personal relationship with them:
that they were loved and always would be!
I was at a conference yesterday,
and something the speaker said made the whole room gasp
at the truth of his words:
You must really hate somebody
if you’ve discovered the secret to real happiness in this life and forever
and you won’t share it with them.
The world desperately needs us
to fulfill the mission entrusted to us by Jesus!

The second thing has become clear in the last few years
since we began using the new translation of the Mass.
Not long before we receive Holy Communion,
the priest introduces the Lord’s Prayer by saying,
“At the Savior’s command and formed by divine teaching,
we dare to say…”
What’s so audacious about the Lord’s Prayer?
They’re familiar words that everybody knows!
But consider how it begins.
We don’t address the Father—a distant and impersonal God.
We don’t address the Father of Jesus
concerned only with the relationship between them.
No, Jesus instructs us to pray to our Father.
Imagine, that when we call upon
the almighty Creator of the entire universe,
we dare to call him, “Abba!  Father!  Dad!”
That’s daring!
As Moses said to the people,
Has anything so great every happened before?
Was it ever heard of?
Has any other god chosen a people for his own,
and shown his care for them with such signs and wonders
as the Lord our God has done before our very eyes?
Yes, it’s daring for us to call God, “Father”…
…but it’s even more daring on his part
that God would adopt us sinners as his own.

I was adopted on October 28, 1974.
I’ve made it a point in recent years
to learn and remember the date of my baptism.
It’s the most important day of my entire life.
And so it is for you, too.
Recall this wonderful day not just once a year,
but whenever you bless yourself with holy water
or recite the Lord’s Prayer,
for you have received a Spirit of adoption,
making you a coheir with Jesus Christ
and though whom you can in truth
call God, “Abba!  Father!”

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Assembly Required

It only struck me just now that the car he's building is a "fire bird."  A coincidence?

   Pentecost   B 

My sister and her family are camping this Memorial Day weekend,
and I went to see them for a little while Friday night.
Someone had given my 9-year-old nephew
his first model car kit—a ’77 Pontiac Firebird—
and he was sitting in the camper excited to get started.
It was a scene right out of my own childhood—maybe yours, too:
a cardboard box full of teeny tiny plastic parts,
an instruction sheet covered with complicated diagrams,
and a tube of sticky glue that promises to dry quickly…then never does.

It’s the very definition of: “Some Assembly Required.”

In recent years,
we’ve heard the word “gathering” a lot in Catholic circles.
The Entrance Chant of the Mass
is commonly now called the “Gathering Song.”
New and renovated church buildings don’t have vestibules;
they have “gathering spaces.”
But if you read official Church documents,
the preferred word you find for the faithful who come to Mass
isn’t a “gathering,” but an “assembly.”
There’s a real difference between the two,
and it’s worthy of our reflection
as we celebrate Pentecost this Sunday.

What do we typically mean when we speak of a gathering?
I think of a get-together like many people will have for Memorial Day:
something casual and social—a party, a picnic, a barbeque.
People gather to mix and mingle.
There’s often no particular reason for it—
no agenda; nothing specific to accomplish.
Many are invited to a gathering;
whoever can make it, comes.

An assembly, however, is rather different, isn’t it?
I think of assemblies in the school gymnasium.
Maybe they’re different today, but when I was still in school
an assembly was always a rather orderly affair:
students were seated by class or homeroom,
there were places for the teachers
(usually where they could keep a good eye on the students),
and the principal had a designated spot right up front.
An assembly is always called with a very particular purpose in mind.
At an assembly, your presence is expected
and your absence is always noted.

Can you begin see what difference it makes
that the Church calls this an assembly
rather than a gathering?
Like my nephew’s model car,
we as God’s people are “some assembly required.”
It’s not enough that we gather—
like so many parts collected in a single box.
The pieces have to be put together,
and that’s the specialty of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is given to us
like an instruction sheet for putting the Church together.
He is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father—
sent to guide us into all truth.
We’re not interchangeable parts—
a random gathering of individuals
who happen to pray in the same place at the same time.
No, we are members of one body—
each part, with its own gifts, absolutely vital to the whole.
We certainly see that at Mass:
the priest has his role,
the deacon, servers, readers, musicians,
and ministers of every sort have theirs,
as does the entire assembly of the faithful.
We know full well what confusion it causes
when somebody doesn’t show up to do their designated duty,
or inadvertently takes another person’s task.
And just as your own human body doesn’t function
simply because all your parts are in the right places
(as important as that may be),
so, too, forming the Body of Christ is more
than a matter of merely being in the right configuration.
Each one of us must fully and consciously do his or her part
as outlined in God’s original design.
It’s not enough to occupy a pew!
We need to know our purpose—as individuals and a whole—
and be clear about why we do what we do.

Now, the Holy Spirit isn’t only our instruction sheet;
he’s also the glue that holds all these many parts together.
On Pentecost, the Apostles were enabled
to speak to the people of many nations in one voice—
in a language everybody was able to understand.
What had previously been just a large and very diverse gathering
could now be assembled as one.
Consider how we recite the Creed at Mass.
Each part begins with, “I believe…”
Yes, it is my personal profession of faith,
assenting to all God has revealed.
But it is also the voice of the whole Church speaking as one—
the Church’s collective “I.”
You see, the “glue” of the Holy Spirit unities us,
without ever making us all the same.
A gathering of soloists, each doing their own thing,
is only able to make noise,
while a choir assembled to sing a common song, even in multiple parts,
can produce a most beautiful harmony.
Because it is God who calls us,
we can be so much more than the sum of our parts.

This bond which the Holy Spirit forms
among the disciples of Jesus
is, of course, meant to hold us together
for more than just an hour each Sunday.
That’s why the Spirit is also something
that my nephew’s model car will never need: fuel.
The Holy Spirit is the power that moves things forward.
And fuel, to do its job, must burn.
Do we not find the Apostles marked by fire
after receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit?
What about us?  Do we allow the same Spirit to burn within us?
Would anybody look at us and say,
“There’s an assembly on fire for it’s faith”?
We live in a time that has developed
some incredible technologies for communication,
but we seem to have lost our knack
for building and sustaining authentic community.
We have more ways to connect,
yet are more isolated than ever.
I think of the race to the parking lot that follows most Masses.
The rush to get to the next thing
doesn’t exactly say that we’ve connected on a deep level—
that we’ve been fully assembled—does it?
If it were only because we were in such a hurry
to go out and spread the Gospel!
We must give the Holy Spirit permission to change us—
to glue us together following the pattern laid out by Christ
and then ignite us with his holy fire—
if we are to have any hope of changing the world.

I suspect that model car kit
will occupy my nephew much of this holiday weekend.
I also suspect he won’t have a complete ’77 Firebird by Monday.
Some assembly will still be required.
Likewise, the Church is a work in progress—
assembled not just once, but Sunday after Sunday,
year after year, down through the ages.
While the Church was first begun on Pentecost,
she will only be fully assembled in heaven,
where the risen Christ has gone in triumph before us.
As members of his one Body,
let us each play our unique part, all the while in perfect unity,
that the Spirit sent out by the Lord
may accomplish his mission within, among, and through us,
and thus renew the very face of the earth.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Four for Four

This Thursday I took advantage of a little opening in my schedule to hike a not-so-little Adirondack loop.  Starting at the "Garden" parking area outside of Keene Valley, I first made my way up the Brothers--a ridge of three peaks that opens up on some great perspectives of the Valley and the Great Range of the High Peaks.  So there are the views from the first Brother (2940 ft.)...

...with a pretty neat rock shelter near the summit.

Then there's a view from the second Brother back over the first.

The third Brother (3681 ft.) came with a view of my real destination for the day: the dramatic profile of Big Slide.

Along the route there were a few lovely little streams...

...and some rather stubborn snow.

The trail got a bit steep in some spots...

...but what a view when you get to the top!

Big Slide (4250 ft.) is #27 of the 46 Adirondack High Peaks.  You ascend 2800 ft. from the parking area to get to the top (more than half of it in the first 1.5 miles as you reach the first Brother).  It was a better-than-average place to eat lunch.

I followed Slide Mountain Brook down... where it runs into Johns Brook.  I made a brief detour to check out Johns Brook Lodge, and then enjoyed a nice woods walk out to the Garden--making for a 10 mile circuit (6.5 hours)...and a truly lovely day in the mountains.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Irrelevant Numbers

We shared the news with parishioners at Masses this Sunday that Fr. Justin Thomas has been reassigned after just one year with us.  He'll become the parochial vicar at St. Mary's  Cathedral and Notre Dame Church in Ogdensburg on July 1.  Fr. Scott Belina, currently assigned to the Cathedral and the Chancery, will become the new parochial vicar here at St. André's.  Please pray for both of them and all of our priests in transition.

   Seventh Sunday of Easter   B 

This week, the Pew Research Center
The numbers are quite sobering.
There are almost 8% fewer Christians in this country
than there were just seven years ago.
For many years,
the largest single religious group in the U.S. has been Catholics;
we’ve now been surpassed…
…by those who have no religious affiliation at all—
nearly 23% of the population,
and they’re the fastest growing group.
13% of all Americans used to be Catholic, but aren’t anymore.

Looking up some sacramental records a few days ago
brought the numbers close to home.
50 years ago—in 1965—196 children
received their First Holy Communion in Malone and Chasm Falls;
this May, we had just 30.
Since St. André’s Parish was officially founded on July 1st,
we’ve had 97 deaths, but only 8 baptisms.
You can see smaller collection numbers in the bulletins.
You can see the empty pews.

Now, I know that locally some folks are saying
that numbers are down because we’ve changed Mass schedules
and realigned or closed churches.
(You should know that,
among the changes Bishop LaValley made on Wednesday,
there will now be one pastor for Chateaugay, Burke,
Constable, Westville, Bombay, and Fort Covington.)
To a point, what folks are saying may be true.
Change is almost always hard to swallow—
and, as many constantly remind me,
that’s especially hard for older folks,
who make up the majority of active Catholics in the North Country.
But let’s be honest:
while a few people leave because of such changes,
the fact of the matter is we simply have to make these changes
because so many have already left.

By this point you’re probably thinking,
“Fr. Joe, aren’t you supposed be preaching the good news?”
True enough!
But this is the reality we must reckon with,
and pretending things are otherwise won’t make it so.

This past Wednesday evening
there was a meeting in Constable for the Catholics of our deanery
concerning pastoral planning in the Diocese.
Several who got up spoke about the need
for the Catholic Church to be more “relevant.”
The Church needs to get with the times, we were told,
to adapt and change a bunch of things.
Church music should sound more like what kids listen to these days.
We should lower our expectations of those receiving the sacraments
so nobody feels left out.
Sermons should be based more on what’s on YouTube,
and less on what’s in the Bible.
Some of the things proposed went so far
that the Church being described
couldn’t be considered Catholic any more.

The great yet unspoken paradox is:
people say that too much change is the problem…
…but more and radical change is the solution!

Should the Church become more like the surrounding world?
Do we like the direction the world is going?
Is the world today in such good shape
that we should take it as a model to follow?

Let’s not forget that this approach has been tried…and failed.
Do you remember the Folk Masses,
back when hip cats still thought folk music was groovy?
The Catholic Church in the U.S.
has made many accommodations to the prevailing culture
in the last fifty years;
if they’d worked as well as some thought they would,
we'd be starting new parishes these days, 
not consolidating old ones.
If we keep trying to play the “relevant” game,
the Church will always be a few steps behind.
Not to mention it gives a dangerously mixed message:
yes, it says, “We’ll do anything to get and keep you”…
…but it also says, “We’re desperate.”
And telling the world you’re desperate
doesn’t exactly communicate that you’ve put your trust in God;
instead, it says you’ve lost your faith.

Certainly, the Church needs to speak in our times and to our times
in a way that our times can understand.
The Church needs to respond in love
to the real needs and concerns of people today.
But while our language and methods can be adapted,
the message can never be altered.
The Church didn’t write the Gospel; she received it.
We don’t, then, get to revise or rework it
to better suit our contemporary tastes.

Still at table with his Apostles the very night before he died,
we hear Jesus fervently, urgently praying for them,
praying for all of his disciples—praying for you and for me.
“Holy Father,” he says, “I gave them your word
and the world hated them,
because they do not belong to the world
any more than I belong to the world.
I do not ask that you take them out of the world,
but that you keep them from the evil one.”
That doesn’t exactly sound like a prayer
for accommodation to the world or relevance to the times!
At that first Eucharist, Jesus does not beg the Father
to consecrate his followers in public opinion—
to set them apart for what’s most popular or convenient.
No, Jesus prays, “Consecrate them in the truth.”

My friends, the pressing issue for our times—
the pressing issue in every age—
is not that the Church ought to conform herself to the world;
it’s that the members of the Church must conform themselves to Christ.
It’s the world that needs changing,
and Christ has given his Church the power to make all things new.
But that power can’t be unleashed until we’re clear
about who’s actually at the center of this enterprise.
Is it all about us, or is it all about Christ?
Where’s the focus?  Who answers to whom?
Who or what do we really worship?
Are we trying hard to be
the “church of what’s happening now”?
Or are we a Church truly striving
for holiness now, and heaven for ever?

A priest driving through the countryside
landed his car in the ditch.
Luckily, a farmer came by to help
with his big, strong horse named Buddy.
The farmer hitched Buddy to the car
and yelled, “Pull, Clover, pull!”
Buddy didn’t move
Then the farmer hollered, “Pull, Prancer, pull!”
Again, Buddy didn’t respond.
Now the farmer shouted, “Pull, Rosebud, pull!”
Still, nothing.
Then the farmer gently said, “Pull, Buddy, pull,”
and the horse easily dragged the car up out of the ditch.
The priest was grateful, but also quite curious,
so he asked the farmer
why he called the horse by the wrong name three times.
“Oh,” the farmer answered, 
“that’s because Buddy is blind
and if he thought he was the only one pulling,
he wouldn’t have even tried.”

The Apostles clearly understood
that there could be no going it alone.
As we find them looking for a twelfth Apostle
to take the place of Judas,
it’s clear that the Christian project isn’t a solo effort.
It requires a shared vision. 
It’s a matter of a common mission.
They must make every effort to be one, as they had heard Jesus pray.
And so, like them, we must stick together.
We must put our energy into making sure we’re on the same page,
rather than attempting to change the script.
We must avoid the temptation to go chasing after the spirit of the age,
and instead relentlessly run after the Spirit of Christ.
“We know that we remain in God and God in us
by the Spirit he has given us.”
The load may be heavy, but we never pull alone.
The Lord Jesus has ascended to his throne in heaven,
but he has not abandoned his Church.
He has given us the Holy Spirit,
who sets the agenda and gives us the strength to fulfill it.

The numbers sure get our attention these days.
But, my friends—it’s not about the numbers!
It’s not about being relevant!
It’s about being faithful.
That’s the only thing that has ever mattered.
That’s the only thing that will ever work.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

What He Really Wants

We were celebrating First Holy Communion at several of the Masses in the parish this Sunday, so I depended on the children to help fill in a few blanks in my preaching.  These are just my notes, but I think you'll still be able to understand what I was trying to say.

Update: Over the course of this Sunday, I've learned that moms really like fuzzy red slippers, but really don't like getting fishing poles for Mother's Day...

   Sixth Sunday of Easter   B 

What is today?  Mother’s Day.
What kind of things do your moms like?  Do your moms not like?
Would you ever give your mom [things not liked] for Mother’s Day?
Why not?  Why give her what she likes?  Because you love her.
Do you love her only this one day a year?  All the time.

To be loved: “to be wanted even when you’re not needed.”

So, you love your moms?  Do your moms love you?
How do you know?  Tells you and shows you.
Just one day a year?  Every once in awhile?   All the time.
Your mother would do anything for you.

Does Jesus love you?  How do you know?
Tells us: in this Sunday’s gospel—words from Last Supper:
            “As the Father loves me, so I also love you.”
Shows us: in many ways, most especially his Cross:
            “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Does Jesus love you only one day a year?  Once in awhile?  All the time.
Jesus would do anything for you.

Do you love Jesus?  How does he know?
Tell him: in prayer.
Show him: by loving each other; by coming to Mass.
At Last Supper, Jesus said: “This is my commandment: love one another”;
            also said: “Do this…in memory of me.
Jesus told us what he wants.
Just like mom:
            you should give Jesus what he’d really like because you love him.
Jesus really wants to be wanted even when he’s not needed.

At the Last Supper, 
         Jesus took bread and said…“This is my Body.”
And he took a chalice of wine and said…“This is my Blood.”
So when we come to Mass 
            and the priest takes the bread and wine,
            they become…the Body and Blood of Christ.
The Eucharist is Jesus.
And Jesus is…God.
And God is…love.
Which means that the Eucharist is love:
            love we can eat and drink;
            the perfect love of God 
            come to live and work inside of us.
Do we want to be loved only one day a year? 
Do you want to be loving only once in awhile?  All the time.
Eucharist helps us like nothing else can
            to know God’s love for us
            and to show God’s love to others
            because it is love.

That means that coming to Mass 
            and receiving Holy Communion
            is one of the best ways to be loving to others:
            to your mom, and your dad, 
            to your brothers and sisters, and to your friends.
Parents: Taking your children to Mass every Sunday—
            more than the school to which you send them,
            more than all the practices 
            and games and recitals to which you drive them,
            more than any gifts you can afford to give them—
            is the very best way of all to show your love for them.
Most of what you do for your kids
            lasts only for a season or a certain stage of life.
Helping them fall in love with Jesus affects them forever and ever.
Don’t forget that!  Don’t let your kids forget that!
Show them how much you love them by coming to Mass every Sunday.

We have a special day each year
            to express our love for our moms.
We have a special day each week
            to express our love for Jesus,
            and for Jesus to express his love for us.

May you experience the love Jesus has for you today
            as you receive your first Holy Communion
            and may you experience it all the time:
            every time you come to Mass—Sunday after Sunday—
            for the rest of your lives.