Sunday, September 27, 2015

Too Small?

   Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

Reflecting on this Sunday’s gospel,
someone shared the following story:
            Years ago, I had to change a flat tire at night.
            While attempting to remove the tire,
            the jack shifted unexpectedly, and the car fell off the jack.
            My fingers were pinned underneath the tire.
            Because the full weight of the car
            kept my fingers pressed to the road,
            I could not pull my fingers free, no matter how hard I tried.
            After some time, praise God, some passersby found me
            and lifted the van just enough to allow me to pull my fingers free.…
            Although my fingers are a small part of my body,
            they prevented my entire body from being free.
            If no one came to help me, I would have faced two choices:
            1) cut off my fingers so my body would be free to live, or
            2) keep my fingers and have my whole body die
            because a small part of it was captive.

Just hearing that story makes your hand ache, doesn't it?
It also takes some difficult—even disturbing—words of Jesus
and makes them much clearer.

What’s pinning you down? 
What’s holding you captive?
Is there some persistent sin you cling to, or that clings to you?
We must not deceive ourselves;
we must abandon all our little compromises.
We must not regard any sin as so small,
treat any occasion of sin so lightly,
as if it didn’t have the potential to do great harm to souls.
Jesus pulls no punches with us this Sunday:
we need to root out from our lives
whatever threatens our relationship with God—
and spare no pain in doing so.
It may feel like we’re cutting off one of our own limbs,
but if we want to know real life and happiness, real freedom and peace,
such things simply have to go.

A certain horror of sin and fear of its high cost
is a rather healthy thing.
But we mustn’t allow it to immobilize us—
afraid to act at all, as if everything were probably sinful.
While it’s true that no sin is so small
that we shouldn’t make every effort to avoid it,
neither is any act of charity so small
as to not be worthy of our efforts:
“Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink…
…will surely not lose his reward.”
If God is love, then wherever true love is found,
there is God—even if his presence is unrecognized;
and wherever you find the love of God,
there is Jesus Christ—even if his name is unknown;
and wherever you find Jesus Christ,
there is his body, the Church—
even in the most hidden manner—
standing as the gateway to eternal life.

St. Dominic Savio—a student of St. John Bosco—
died at the tender age of 14 back in 1857.
When he received his First Holy Communion at the age of 7,
he made four promises to the Lord
that he wrote down in a little book
and read again from time to time;
the final one was a resolution
to always choose death rather than sin.
Jesus warns us about causing one of his little ones to sin;
here’s one of his little ones 
showing us an altogether different path.

The choices we make now—
for good or for evil, and no matter how small—
have eternal consequences.
So don’t allow any sin to pin down your soul.
And never let any opportunity to act with love
needlessly pass you by.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Really Great

   Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

Two names seemed to dominate the news this week:
Donald Trump and Pope Francis.
Tempting though it is,
I’m not going to tell a joke about either one of them;
truth be told…I couldn’t find any appropriate for repeating in church.
But as Fr. Scott has been saying in recent days:
just imagine being a fly on the wall
if those two ever sit down together to chat!

Donald Trump and Pope Francis
are two men both striving for greatness…
…but they’re working from very different definitions
of what it means to be great,
and therefore taking very different paths to get there.

I suspect we’ve all heard plenty
of the things Mr. Trump has had to say lately.
But did you hear what the Holy Father said near the end of last week?
“If you were to find a person
who has never, ever spoken ill of another,
[that person] could be canonized immediately.”
That’s quite a statement!
The Pope was speaking about the temptation we all face
to point a condemning finger at others…
…and I’m afraid there won’t be too many of us—myself included—
ready for immediate canonization.
The Pope is reminding us—much like St. James—
that the source of disorder and conflict in the world
is our jealousy and ambition, our possessiveness and insincerity.
If we could just eliminate speaking ill of one another,
we’d be well on our way to a world marked instead
by peace and mercy and the good fruits of righteousness.

Much, much easier said than done!
As Pope Francis continues,
“All of us could say, ‘This is beautiful, eh! 
But Father…how does one do it?  How does it start? 
What is the first step in order to take this path?’”
The Pope’s answer is straightforward:
the first step is finding “the courage to blame oneself.”
When I find myself dwelling on another’s faults,
I need to stop and consider my own errors and weakness.
When I feel the need to comment on some else’s flaws,
I need to stop and instead think about my own.

Most of the time,
when we speak harshly or critically of others—
whether it’s someone near and dear to us,
a religious or political leader,
or someone famous we only know from the Internet or TV—
it says much more about us than it says about them.
How clearly that plays out this Sunday
in our reading from the Book of Wisdom!
Speaking ill of my neighbor
actually speaks more to my own insecurities:
a poor attempt to build myself up by tearing someone else down—
a strategy, although often tried, that’s never been known to work.

And so Pope Francis’ advice to blame yourself
means asking,
“Why does this person make me feel and think this way?
What is it that’s inside of me that causes this strong reaction?”

When the Son of God came in our human flesh,
he turned the world’s notion of greatness upside down.
Society—both ancient and modern—
says that greatness is about having power;
it’s about having possessions;
it’s about having people to do your bidding;
it’s about taking the first place
and getting everybody to listen to whatever you have to say.
Jesus, on the other hand, teaches us—
by his example even more than his words—
that real greatness has nothing at all to do
with popularity or power.
Real greatness isn’t about selfish ambition,
but about freely taking the last place.
It’s not about being served,
but about serving others—
and being unafraid to do so even to the point of suffering and death.
To be great is to be “the servant of all”:
serving not only the influential,
but those of no importance, those most vulnerable;
serving those who—like a little child—
will have no way to ever repay us;
even serving those of whom we’re tempted
to speak with harsh words.

“In order to recognize a person as a saint,” said Pope Francis,
“there is a whole process, there must be a miracle,
and then the Church proclaims him a saint. 
But if you were to find a person
who has never, ever, spoken ill of another,
he could be canonized immediately. 
It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
Yes, Holy Father: beautiful, indeed!

When Jesus catches the Twelve
arguing amongst themselves on the way,
they’re actually partly right:
we are all called to greatness—
we’re all called to holiness, all called to be saints.

May the Lord give us the courage to strive for the highest goals
and flee every temptation to be merely mediocre.
May God free us from the fear of failure
and enable us to aspire to true greatness,
following Jesus Christ on the pathway of humility:
humble enough to blame ourselves,
humble enough to be the servant of all.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

180 Miles

I don't have many photos to share (there's no room for a camera when there's already a paddle in your hand), but this is how I spent last Sunday morning...

Sunday, September 13, 2015


No homily this Sunday, since right now I'm somewhere paddling my way across the Adirondacks...

   Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Open Up

Fair warning: there will be no homily for you next Sunday, as I will be paddling again in the Adirondack Canoe Classic (the "90-Miler"). If you're at the finish line in Saranac Lake on Sunday afternoon, I'll be the one in the big red hat...

   Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

The news the other day reported on the latest survey 
about the place of religion in American life.
Have you ever noticed how such surveys
almost always single out Catholics?
I don’t recall ever hearing about an analysis
on what modern Methodists feel about Martin Luther…
…but if there’s been a study of Catholics somewhere
on how they feel about the Pope or Church teaching,
the media seems to make sure everybody knows all about it.

This survey, predictably, was about Catholics, too,
in anticipation of Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to the United States.
And what, pray tell, was this survey’s great, newsworthy revelation?
That U.S. Catholics are pretty much like other Americans.
According to the survey results,
Catholics in this country are increasingly accepting
of non-traditional family arrangements,
and less and less likely to view contraception,
remarriage after divorce, or homosexual acts as sinful.
(The report also pointed out—imagine!
that Catholics who regularly go to Mass
are more likely to align what they believe
with what the Church actually teaches.)

Of course, that’s not exactly what I’d consider a “news flash!”
Such a shift isn’t very surprising at all.
America has long functioned as a “melting pot”:
spend enough time in this country,
and you’ll become more and more like those around you—
whether it’s the language you speak, the food you eat,
the clothes you wear, or the doctrines you hold to be true.
We human beings have a natural desire to fit in—a need to belong—
and so we’re often willing to sacrifice those things
that would make us stand out from the surrounding crowd.

Why then does the press still consider such a survey to be “news”?
Because non-Catholic, even non-religious America,
still expects us Catholics to be different from the rest.
And they’re exactly right to do so.

In the gospel reading this Sunday,
Jesus says to the deaf-mute man, “Ephphatha!  Be opened!”
This healing word of Jesus can sound an awful lot
like the message we get from the surrounding culture:
Be open!
Be open to new experiences!
Be open to other people!
Be open to ways of thinking that are different from your own!
It’s kind of hard to argue with any of that:
such openness to the world
and the rest of the people who inhabit it
is generally rather enriching.

But such an attitude of openness without a firm foundation—
keeping an open mind without first possessing a sure set of values—
can be a recipe for spiritual disaster
because not every new experience is healthy for our souls,
and not every other person is looking out for our eternal welfare,
and not every different way of thinking is good or true.

How are we to know the difference?
And what difference should that make?

Jesus instructs those who witnessed his miracle
not to tell anyone about it.
It’s not that his mission was top-secret;
it’s that the healing Jesus came to work in the world
has a lot less to do with our outward senses,
and much more to do with the openness of our hearts—
and that’s something the crowd wasn’t quite ready to understand.

The openness of the heart to which Jesus calls you and me
is by no means an uncritical one.
We see this rather clearly in the Rite of Baptism.
Going back to at least the fourth century,
it’s been standard practice in some parts of the Church
to do as Jesus did with the deaf-mute man:
to touch the ears and the mouth of the one being baptized.
(Thankfully, we do so without the groaning and spitting!)
This visible sign points to an invisible grace
as the priest or deacon says,
“The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the dumb speak. 
May he soon touch your ears to receive his word,
and your mouth to proclaim his faith,
to the praise and glory of God the Father.”
Jesus is still touching us
so that we won’t be spiritually deaf or mute;
and Jesus is still praying that we’ll be opened—
but not open to just anything:
open to hearing and speaking the Word of God.

Now, that’s not to say
we ought to be closed-minded to everything else.
While there’s certainly evil present and at work in the world,
it can only harm us if we allow it to penetrate our hearts.
Recall what Jesus said last Sunday:
What defiles us isn’t what enters from outside,
but what emerges from within (Mk 7:14-15).
At the same time, 
neither can this openness be an excuse for indifference.
God gave you a mind and a conscience on purpose;
he expects you to form them both well and use them both wisely,
so that you’ll be able to flee from all that’s evil
and cling to whatever is genuinely good (Rm 12:9).

You see, when the Word of God
has already entered and filled your heart or mine,
we can be open to the world without condoning what’s wrong in it.
It helps no one to call bad good,
or to be casually accepting of anything immoral.
Nor is it up to us mere mortals to redefine what is sinful.
Ours is the delicate task of hating sin while loving sinners.
Spending too much of our time
loudly denouncing the evils around us
tends, paradoxically, only to strengthen them.
Instead, we need to constantly encourage true goodness—
particularly by being and doing good ourselves.

As G. K. Chesterton once said,
“The point of having an open mind, like having an open mouth,
is to close it on something solid.”
What most forms your thoughts and opinions,
your deep feelings and beliefs?
Is it the surrounding culture?  The expectations of modern society?
The unspoken pressure to be “like everybody else”?
Or are you actively open to the Word of God—
as it is read in the Scriptures, and enfleshed in the Sacraments,
and applied by the Church’s official teachers and her Saints?
What steps have you taken
to inform your mind and form your conscience
from an authentically Catholic point of view?

The rest of the world expects us Catholics to be different.
So let’s be sure not to disappoint them!
Be more open than they ever imagined you’d be:
open to receiving and proclaiming the Word of the Lord.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A Little Green

Just a quick report on a quick overnight last Thursday-Friday: I camped out on one of the sites on the shores of Little Green Pond, near the fish hatchery just outside of Lake Clear.  (I've been on a couple of other adventures in this area before.)  It wasn't my wildest night out (I drove right up to the campsite), but it was a pretty sunset, a quiet night, a great fire...and some very welcome peace.