Sunday, November 29, 2015

Not Just Quantity, But Quality

   First Sunday of Advent   C 

One of our deceased priests used to tell this story
as if it was about his own niece…so it just might be true…

A young girl was preparing for her First Holy Communion,
but was sick on the day when the rest of her classmates
made their first confessions. 
Several weeks later, on a Saturday afternoon,
she went in to see the priest. 
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” she said. 
“This is my first confession.” 
“Oh, young lady,” the priest smiled,
“you only say it that way the first time. 
That was three weeks ago!  Let’s try again….” 
A bit more hesitant than before, she said,
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.  This is my first confession.” 
“Now, now,” said the priest, getting a little frustrated,
“what you need to say today is,
‘My last confession was three weeks ago.’  One more time….” 
But the girl said again, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. 
This is my first confession.” 
Beginning to lose patience, the priest responded,
“OK.  How about you just repeat after me. 
‘Bless me, Father for I have sinned….’ 
‘My last confession was three weeks ago….’ 
Very good!  Now, tell me your sins.” 
“Well…I guess I just told a lie.”

Young or old, 
most of us Catholics
have a complicated relationship 
with the Sacrament of Penance. 
I am no exception. 
When I entered the seminary, 
I did so right out of Catholic school,
where confession was scheduled for you 
every Advent and Lent. 
You went when you were told.  
I never rebelled against that. 
In fact, I took it seriously, 
genuinely examined my conscience,
and appreciated the deep down “clean” feeling 
you got after receiving absolution. 
But that’s about as far as it went, 
and where things pretty much stayed. 

When I went off to major seminary,
the rector gave us a conference
on ten helpful hints for a seminarian’s spiritual life. 
Most of what he had to say came as no surprise:
daily prayer, daily Mass, devotion to the Blessed Mother…. 
It was no surprise, either, when regular confession was on his list. 
What did startle me, though, was how often he suggested we go:
about once a month. 
I seem to recall that he shared
his own habit was to go every couple of weeks. 
I had previously felt like I was doing pretty good—
maybe even better than a lot of Catholics—
with my two or three times a year! 
But over the 19 years since I heard that talk,
I’ve taken the rector’s advice to heart
and increased the frequency with which I approach
the Sacrament of Penance. 
For most of my priesthood, I’ve gone every two or three weeks. 
Case closed.  Or so I thought…

While on my annual retreat just a couple of weeks ago,
I made an appointment to confess to one of the monks. 
And as I prepared for the sacrament during the week,
I was struck by something like never before:
the quantity—the how often—of my confessions
might be in a pretty good place,
but what about their quality? 

The best way to explain is by giving of example. 
Have you ever been pulled over for speeding? 
You know the feeling:
that feeling of getting caught; that feeling of being in trouble. 
And hot on the heels of that anxious feeling is the thought,
“How can get myself out of this mess?” 
My reflection on retreat made me begin to realize
that that’s how I often approached confession:
as a way of getting out of trouble
with the Great State Trooper in the Sky. 
It wouldn’t be such a bad way to think of it
if I were still in the second grade preparing for First Communion…
but it’s not exactly the most mature approach
for me to take as an adult and a priest. 

What’s been becoming clearer to me
is that my approach to confession
needs to be less about obeying regulations—
or even working the system—
and more about healing and building a real and personal relationship.  
Think about the person who knows you best and loves you most:
your spouse, your mother, your son, your dearest friend. 
Think about what it’s like when you’ve hurt or disappointed them. 
Sure, it’s hard to stand before them and apologize—
hard, but absolutely essential if the relationship’s going to endure. 
Yet, once you’ve said, “I’m sorry,”
and once you hear, “Of course I forgive you, because I love you,”
isn’t the bond between you generally a bit stronger than before? 

Wouldn’t you say that’s a much better quality of confession?

As you can see in your bulletin, one week from Monday
just as we did during Lent. 
On that day, the children of our parish
preparing for their First Holy Communion
will receive the Sacrament of Penance for the first time. 
It’s a great way to kick off the coming Jubilee Year of Mercy
declared by Pope Francis. 
It’s also the perfect way to enter into Advent.

Advent, we all know well, is a season to prepare for Christmas,
which comes predictably each December
as we recall the Lord’s first coming in humility—
a babe lying in a manger.  
But Advent is also a season of preparation for Christ’s return—
his second coming, in glory and power on the clouds;
of that, we know not the day nor the hour. 
As an English poet once wisely asked,
“What do I profit if Jesus is born in thousands of cribs all over the world
but is not born in my heart?”  (Alexander Pope). 
At the start of her new year,
the Church focuses our attention on the “last things.” 
Even here at the beginning,
we must always be looking ahead to the end—to the very end:
the end of time, or at least the end of our time. 
We mustn’t fail to live fully in this present moment,
but we do so with a view to where our present is ultimately taking us.
Of course, that’s precisely what confession does for us, too.

Just days before his own death,
we hear Jesus tell us that a day is coming
when sun, moon, and stars will be shaken,
but we should not be. 
Nations will be in dismay, the seas will be churning,
and people will die of fright,
but we should stand up straight and raise our heads. 
The coming of the end—whether of my life or of the whole world—
is indeed a time to be feared
if my concern is simply whether I can get out of trouble. 
But that’s not the case at all if I’ve been working steadily
on a relationship with the Lord Jesus;
instead, I can anticipate that moment with great hope,
for it will mean my redemption is near at hand.

I read a book on prayer during my retreat
in which the author quotes St. Ignatius of Loyola
who once suggested that, before beginning to pray,
one should stand for the length of time it takes to say an Our Father,
considering how God is looking down on him right then. 
It’s actually quite a transformative thing to do—you should try it! 
It affects not only that moment of prayer,
but what you say and do throughout the day,
how you come to Mass or go to confession,
if you can stay conscious that the Lord is looking down on you—
not broadly watching the world to catch wrongdoers,
but personally gazing upon you with the most perfect love.

“Pray,” Jesus tells us, “that you have the strength…
to stand before the Son of Man.” 
At the end, everyone must stand
before the Judge of the living and the dead. 
But we stand before him even now. 
So stand before the Lord this Advent,
stand before him in confession,
and let the Lord look upon you with great love.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Where, Oh Where...?

Fr. Scott and I went out for a backpacking/camping overnight Thursday-Friday in the St. Regis Canoe Area near Lake Clear.  We spent the night in the lean to on St. Regis Pond.  I've stayed there a couple of times before (here and here)...and it seems there's some sort of problem pretty much any time I go into these woods, and this time was no exception.

The forecast wasn't the best ever--rain showers and some wind Thursday afternoon and into the night, but clearing, if cooler, on Friday--and that forecast was accurate.  The weather, however, wasn't really an issue; the heavy rain didn't start till well after we were settled in for the night.  The moon and stars peeked out every now and again, and we heard the "laughter" of what must be some of the last lingering loons of the season.   We were blessed with quite a beautiful sunrise.

The trouble came when we were headed back out of the woods Friday afternoon.

It took us about an hour-and-a-half to hike in on Thursday: an hour on a wide, open "truck trail," and then a half-hour, half-mile bushwhack along the pond shore to the lean to.  The going wasn't bad at all, and the way was familiar from previous visits.  But we decided to try another route on the way back to the car--bushwhacking in the other direction to catch another trail.  Let's just say it took us four hours to get where we wanted to go due to a pesky marshy area and bog that we just couldn't seem to get around (but which has the magical power turning hikers around in a complete circle), and that's only after we returned to the lean to to retrace our steps from the day before.  It was all but dark when we got to the parking area at 4:45pm, and starting to snow.  We were a little sore, with a few minor scrapes and scratches, but otherwise none the worse for wear.

This makes 23 months in a row now that I've spent at least one night sleeping in the woods!  But it was just a little too close to becoming two nights in the woods this November.

Out of this World

   Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe    

On my way to retreat two weeks ago,
I needed to drop off my computer for some repairs
at the Apple Store in Syracuse. 
It’s located in Destiny USA: 
a six-story shopping mall,
with more than 200 stores, restaurants, and attractions—
the largest in New York State, 
and the sixth largest in the country. 
It’s huge 
(I used a map to find my way around)
and, even early on a Monday morning,
it was loudly bustling with people.

My very next stop was the Trappist monastery
where I’d be making my retreat:
home to 28 monks who’ve dedicated themselves
to quiet prayer, hard work, and simple living
among some woodlands and farm fields
not far outside of Geneseo.

The contrast couldn’t have been much more dramatic. 
I had only driven a couple of hours from one to the other,
but I’d passed between two completely different worlds.

One of the monks—Fr. Eugene—
preached a very thought provoking homily
while I was at the abbey. 
He related that, in sociology, they speak about “going native,”
when somebody gets too involved in the community he’s studying
and moves from being an “outsider” to an “insider.”  
Fr. Eugene didn’t then go on to describe
some exotic tribe living on a far-distant island;
instead, he used this “going native”
to discuss the Church’s rightful place in the world. 
He pointed out that we Christians
are actually “outsiders” in this world;
we’re citizens of a different Kingdom. 
And when the Church has gotten herself in trouble in ages past,
it’s generally been because she’s become too much of an “insider, “
taking on too many characteristics of worldly culture—
grasping for money or prestige or power;
in other words, she’s “gone native.” 
Those who have worked for reform in the Church at those times
did so by calling her back to the simplicity of her beginnings—
to become an “outsider” again.  
Fr. Eugene wrapped up by pointing out—rather astutely—
that this situation seems
to have been turned around 180 degrees in recent years. 
When we hear voices
calling for “reform” or changes in the Church today,
they’re generally calling for her to become
more like the surrounding world, not less.

Especially here, not far from the border,
we’re rather accustomed to folks
who have dual national citizenship. 
That, of course, can happen
between two countries that are at peace. 
Many Christians, likewise, live their lives
as if they hold dual citizenship between this fallen world
and the Kingdom of God—
as if you could keep one foot in each…
…but that is not a viable possibility. 
That’s because we’re dealing with two realms
locked in long and bitter conflict,
and if you don’t believe they’re at odds,
you have only to look at the Cross and see
what the powers at work on earth once did to the King of heaven. 
Sometimes the contrast between them is startlingly obvious—
like leaving the mall for the monastery. 
But most often, it’s pretty subtle—
or at least escapes our notice.

Which kingdom holds sway in my life? 
Which is the king to whom I’ve made myself subject? 
Since it must be one or the other, a quick test is to ask,
“Do I most wish that the Church would ‘get with it’
and become more like the rest of the world? 
Or do I work and pray that the world would respond to the truth
and become more and more like the Church
has always said it could be?”

“My kingdom,” says King Jesus, “does not belong to this world.”  
And yet we know that the Son of God
is not at all aloof from this world’s suffering and sadness;
in fact, wearing a crown of thorns rather than gold,
he could have hardly entered into it more completely. 
Christ’s victory is won and his dominion established,
not by any earthly force or success,
but through a love that’s stronger even than death. 
While his kingship is from above,
it has the power to transform this world from the inside. 
Jesus Christ lived, died, and rose again thoroughly in the world
while never being of the world.

Those who acknowledge—in both word and deed—
that Christ is their true King,
like him do not belong to this world (cf. Jn 17:16). 
With him, we too can be agents
for this world’s transformation from within…
…but  only if we remain “outsiders.” 

You’re a subject of the eternal King! 
You’re a citizen of his heavenly Kingdom! 
Resist every temptation to "go native."

Sunday, November 15, 2015

No Passing

I'll be returning from retreat this evening.  Thanks for your prayers this week!

   Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

"Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away."
Mark 13:31

Sunday, November 8, 2015

All In

I'm leaving for my annual retreat this afternoon.  I'll be spending the week with the Trappist monks at the Abbey of the Genesee.  Thanks for your prayers...and for understanding why I won't be posting a homily next Sunday!

   Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

Listening to the news on public radio early Tuesday morning,
I heard a story coming out of the northern Italian city of Cesena.
It started as the dream of one man
to bring his favorite American rock band to play in his hometown.
He knew that if he was going to get their attention,
then he would need to pull off something big…
…and that’s just what he did.
It took him and a small team a little over a year to do it,
but in late July Fabio Zaffagnini
assembled 1,000 rock-and-roll musicians on a soccer field
to play one song together: “Learn to Fly” by the Foo Fighters.
Out on that field were drummers, guitarists,
bassists, and vocalists from all over Italy.
The oldest was a 65-year-old blues man;
the youngest, a 9-year-old drummer.
They were there for a single purpose,
and—after a few rehearsals, lead by a great conductor—
they played together perfectly in sync.
I looked up the video online later that morning.
 Even if you don’t like loud rock music,
anyone who hears it would have to admit it’s pretty amazing.
But not only did these 1,000 people make an incredible sound;
as soon as I saw their faces, I thought:
I want to be there!  I want to part of this!
They were all so clearly present to the moment,
so focused on a common goal, so visibly joyful,
that it was downright infectious—even on my computer screen.
You should know that Fabio’s plan worked.
Just one day after he posted the video online,
the Foo Fighters had seen it—and promised to come to Cesena.
Last Tuesday night, they made good on their promise.

I’ve watched that video and listened to that song
again and again these last several days.
And the more I’ve learned about the project,
the more I’ve realized how much all those folks were invested in it.
When people heard Fabio’s plan, they could easily have said,
“Well, if you just give a little, and I just give a little,
maybe eventually we’ll have enough to make something happen.”
That, of course, is the perfect recipe for a broken dream.
Instead, what actually happened
is that everyone who got involved gave it their all
and that made all the difference.

Who would have guessed
that that field full of rock-and-roll musicians
could be such a magnificent image
of what the Church is supposed to be?

In the gospel passage we’ve just heard,
Jesus isn’t so much concerned
about the money the poor widow contributed.
Now, that’s not to say it didn’t matter to him at all;
elsewhere in the gospels we find Jesus has plenty to say about money,
and himself makes sure to pay the temple tax (Mt 17:24-27).
But what’s at issue here isn’t that she put two coins in the coffer;
it’s that she placed her whole life in God’s hands.
Being the Son of God,
Jesus could see what we often cannot—
what’s going on beneath the surface.
He knew she was all in.
Like the widow of Zarephath,
this woman could give all she had
because she knew it had come from God to begin with—
and that God would likewise continue to provide
anything and everything she might need.
It’s not a question of how generously she contributed;
it’s a question of her faith—of how much she trusts the Lord.

This is Stewardship Sunday,
and it’s often a time for giving the “sermon on the amount.”
The focus is generally on how much we’re giving—
meaning, how much money.
But I’d like you to ask yourself a different, deeper question.
What’s my level of commitment to this whole Church thing?
How much of my time and talent,
how much of my energy and attention,
how much room in my head and room in heart
am I willing to set aside exclusively for God and the things of God?
Can I truthfully say that I’m all in?

Now just imagine a parish where people approach their faith
the way those Italian musicians approached that one performance.
It would be absolutely amazing!
It’d be a community where people were so present to the moment,
so focused on a common goal, so visibly joyful,
that it’d be infectious.
It’d make other folks say, “I want to be there!  I want to be part of this!”

My friends, let’s not just imagine it.
We can make it real.

The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us
that Christ is not a priest
entering an earthly sanctuary again and again—
as did those in the temple of old—
to offer an animal’s blood.
No—Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice is perfect
because it’s his own innocent blood that’s shed.
He’s all in.
Christ gives 100%—and he gives it for you and me.

Let's, then, make sure we're all in for him.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Not So Loony

The great weather this past week got me out to enjoy a last little bit of fall before it soon enough becomes winter.

Thursday morning I headed out to hike up Loon Lake Mountain (3328 ft).  The trail (2.85 miles long) was only reopened in the last few years, and leads to an old fire tower and some great views--including of Whiteface and the high peaks beyond.  You earn them, however: of the 1651 feet of elevation gained during the climb, almost 1200 of them come in the steep, rocky, and somewhat wet final mile.

On my way back home along old Route 99, I stopped to finally make the short jaunt in to get a look at Debar Pond (lying between Debar and Baldface Mountains) and the gradually decaying Debar Lodge on its shore.

Like the old lodge, autumn's glories are fading...but can still be seen.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

What's in a Name

   Solemnity of All Saints    
We’re very happy to have Bishop LaValley
coming to Malone later today
to bless and dedicate Frassati House.
Ever since I started telling folks about this project,
there’s been a little confusion surrounding it’s name.
First, people have had some trouble pronouncing it.
A few have called it “Frascati” House…
…which is a delicious Italian white wine,
but was not the inspiration for this particular endeavor.
And even more have had trouble spelling it…
…including my computer,
which persists in “correcting” the name whenever I type it
by changing it from Frassati House to Frosty House.
Our five missionaries will soon enough
experience a North Country winter,
so there’s no need to rub it in like that!

Much more important than its pronunciation or spelling—
just who is the guy behind this tricky name?

Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati was born in 1901
in the northern Italian city of Turin
into a family of great wealth and prestige.
His mother was a painter and a lukewarm Catholic;
his father was a newspaper editor and politician
who wasn’t sure he even believed in God.
Despite his parents’ lack of religiosity,
their son was quite pious;
when Pier Giorgio was sent to study at a Catholic school,
he asked for and was given permission
to receive Holy Communion on a daily basis—
something that was quite rare at the time.
In fact, he’d sneak out of the house to attend early morning Mass,
and then crawl back into bed so no one knew he’d been gone.
While at college, he joined and led several student organizations
that worked for social and political reform—
always from a Catholic perspective.
He enjoyed a good practical joke, appreciated the arts,
but loved to be in the mountains best of all,
often organizing trips with his friends
to climb some peaks or ski down a few.
Behind the scenes,
Pier Giorgio was greatly devoted to serving the poor.
He was always emptying his pockets—
even the money his parents gave him to pay his bus fare—
in order to give to the sick and the needy,
to orphans and the unemployed.
His concern for the disadvantaged
was only revealed at his funeral
when, alongside Turin’s elite and powerful,
the city’s poor lined the streets by the thousands
to pay their respects to the young man
who had cared for them so unselfishly.
His family didn’t know he’d been visiting the poor;
the poor didn’t know he came from such a prominent family.
Pier Giorgio died suddenly at the age of 24.
The cause?  Polio…which he probably contracted
from one of the many sick people he’d been helping.
He was declared “blessed” by Pope John Paul II in 1990—
and many of us are praying the Church will soon declare him a saint.

You can see that Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati is the perfect patron
for our new missionary venture here at St. André’s.
He had an infectious joy that still draws others—
especially other young people—to the Catholic faith.
He’d sometimes make friendly wagers 
with his friends over little things;
while his friends demanded money when they won,
Pier Giorgio, if he won, would make them come to church with him.
He once wrote in a letter,
“I shall always be cheerful on the outside to show my companions…
that you can be a Catholic and still be young and happy….”

Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati is also the perfect example
at the start of this Vocations Awareness week.
He held marriage in high esteem,
falling in love with a young lady at university,
and dreamed of spending the rest of his life with her…
…but she was from a lower social class
and his mother, sensing his intentions,
told Pier Giorgio he simply could never marry her—
so he never told the young lady of his feelings.
He also had great respect for the clergy.
Pier Giorgio depended on the ministry of priests
for his regular regimen of Holy Communion and confession.
Because of his affable character and active spiritual life,
he was encouraged many times to consider the seminary himself.
But Pier Giorgio recognized the work he could do
for his Church and his poor as a single layman,
living out the promises of his baptism to the full.
The story of his life reminds us that our vocations—
our individual places in God’s plan—
are all interconnected and interdependent,
and that each and every one of us has one.

Finally, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati
is the perfect example for us on this All Saints Day.
This solemnity is not merely a showcase for heroes from the past—
a parade of the white-robed multitude before the throne of God;
it is also an invitation—better yet, a challenge or even a demand—
that we be saints, too.
After all, “saint” is just another word
for somebody who’s made it to heaven,
or who is living in this world in such a way
as to assure that he or she is heading there. 
In other words, if you hope to live with God forever,
sainthood is what you’re after!
Pier Giorgio always aimed for the highest goals.
On the back of a photo from his very last mountain climb
where he’s scaling a rocky cliff,
he wrote, “Verso l’alto”—“To the top”—
which is how he lived every day.
But while he urges us toward greatness,
his example also shows us that holiness is in reach.
His sanctity wasn’t found apart from the ordinary stuff of life,
but right in the midst of it.
That’s why Pope John Paul II called Pier Giorgio
“a man of the eight beatitudes.”
Everything he did reflects those first memorable words
of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:
the Lord’s counter–cultural rule of life
that turns this world’s values on their head,
teaching us that true blessedness, true happiness,
is rarely found in the places we usually look—
in possessions or power or prestige;
instead, we discover it among the poor and the peacemakers,
the merciful and the meek,
those who hunger for what is right
and persevere in the face of persecution.
That is to say, if you want to be holy,
if you long to see God’s face, if you desire to be a saint,
then go where Jesus goes and do what Jesus does.

Spreading the faith, embracing a vocation, growing in holiness—
these were not the fruit of Pier Giorgio’s own efforts;
they are never something any of us can do on our own,
but are all things God alone can accomplish within us.
We can only be holy because our heavenly Father is holy.
It is the work of the Holy Spirit.
It’s the way grace flowers when we willingly cooperate with it.
It’s a living recognition of what we already are: God’s children now.

My friends, along with the holy men and women
of every time and place,
we are bound together in a great communion of saints—
in a chain of faith, hope, and love
that stretches between heaven and earth.
Let’s be sure to support and encourage one another
all along the way “verso l’alto”—“to the top”

Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, pray for us!