Sunday, July 31, 2016

Do Not Use

After the first Mass this morning, a parishioner asked, "Who was that priest we prayed for among the deceased?"  If was Fr. Jacques Hamel, the elderly French priest who was killed in his parish church by ISIS terrorists last Tuesday.  Given the horrific circumstances of his death, I figured our prayers could help.  Even more, I was encouraged by what I heard on the news this morning: that, all across France, Muslim men and women were attending Mass at Catholic Churches as a sign of solidarity.  I couldn't help but think that I was seeing this folktale unfold in real life...

 Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   C 

There’s an African folktale about a young man who married a woman whose brother was blind.  Wanting to get to known his brother-in-law better, he invited him to go hunting.  “Since I cannot see,” he answered, “I will certainly need your help, but—yes—I will go hunting.”  As the two are walking together through the bush, the young man is amazed at the blind man’s knowledge of the noises of the wild.  By their songs he correctly identifies every bird—and even notes their movements, based on the sounds of their wings.

When they reached their destination, the young man set two traps.   He set his own trap in a well-hidden location, such that no bird would ever suspect danger.  But he set his brother-in-law’s trap out in the wide open—making no effort to conceal it, since it was hot, he was tired, and the blind man wouldn’t know the difference.

The two men returned to the spot the next day.  Before reaching it, the blind man said, “We have caught something!  I can hear birds in our traps!”  The young man went first to his own, well-hidden trap, and within it found a small, brown bird.  But when he came to the blind man’s trap, he found a large, beautiful bird, adorned with all the colors of the rainbow.  He knew the bird would make a fine present for his wife, who would be impressed by its colorful feathers, so he put this bird in his own pouch and handed the small, brown bird to the blind man to place in his.

On their journey home, the two men rested in the shade of a large tree, talking about many things.  The young man soon recognized that the blind man was very wise, and so he said, “I would like to ask you a question that has troubled me all of my life.  Why do men fight with one another?”  The blind man paused for just a moment before replying, “Men fight because they do to each other what you have just done to me.”  The young man was ashamed and stunned into silence.  Not knowing what to say, he got up, took the brightly colored bird out of his pouch, and gave it to his brother-in-law. 

Taking the bird, the blind man asked, “Do you have any other questions for me?”  “Yes,” said the young man, “I have one more.  How do men become friends after they have fought?”  The blind man smiled and said, “They do what you just have done.  That is how men become friends again.”  (Based on, “A Blind Man Catches a Bird,” as written by Alexander McCall Smith and retold by Gioia Timpanelli)

This African folktale, like the words of Scripture we hear addressed to us this Sunday, seem to come to us from a far simpler time and place…and yet they speak so very poignantly to our supposedly “advanced” society.  “Guard against all greed,” Jesus says, “for life does not consist in possessions.”  As much—if not more—than ever, ours is a time that loves things and uses people, rather than the other way around.

We see it in our desire for cheap consumer goods—food, clothes, technology—without giving much thought to the laborers who provide them, the conditions under which they work, or how they’re being compensated.  We see it in the widespread use and acceptance of pornography, contraception, and abortion—almost without question, which reduce other people to commodities or inconveniences.  We see it in the degradation of the natural environment, focused more on how we want to live today rather than if our children will be able to live tomorrow.  We even see it the way an 85-year-old French priest had his throat cut on Tuesday as he offered daily Mass, in the name of promoting a radical ideology.

When God created this immense and beautiful universe, when he set the human race in and over it, God did so with a particular order and plan built right into nature: that things are there to be used, and people are there to be loved.  He didn’t intend his creation to be a vast moneymaking machine; he intended it to be a vast saint-making machine.  The essential trajectory of our lives, then, isn’t meant to be along the road to success; it’s to be along the path to holiness, the path to heaven—which is the only sure path to happiness, both now and forever.

God has created things for us to use responsibly, and people for us to love deeply, not the other way around.

In an age that’s constantly telling us—in ways both obvious and subtle—to look out after our own interests, to build bigger barns, to store up earthly treasures for ourselves, let us make sure that what we’re pursuing are true riches: those that matter to God.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Your Lips to God's Ear

At the early Mass this morning, as I reached the end of the second paragraph, a young girl in the front pew yelled out, "Well, what about 5?!?"

 Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   C 

Having grown up on a farm, I have memories of going with my dad to auctions—cattle auctions, equipment auctions.  I love the back-and-forth of the auctioneer and the bidders.  It’s like a game or dance—each one anticipating the next move of the other.  Of course, they find themselves at cross-purposes: the auctioneer trying to get the prices higher while the bidders work hard to keep them low.

I’ve always thought of an auction when reading this Sunday’s first reading: Abraham negotiating with the Lord over just how many righteous people it will take to keep Sodom from being destroyed.  “How about 50?  Would that be enough?  Or 45—can I get 45?  How about 30?  20?  Will you give me 10?”

But reading that passage again as I prepared for Mass this Sunday, a new and different image came to mind: the audacity of a little child trying to “negotiate” something with his father.  “Dad, you know I’d love an ice cream cone.  Can I have one if I’m good all day?  Of course, all day is a long time…so how about if I’m good this morning?  Or for the next hour?  Would 10 minutes be enough?”  I can see the child moving in as he makes his case: closer and closer, eventually climbing into his father’s arm’s, wrapping his arms around dad’s strong neck, and then leaning in to whisper into his ear.  The boy’s got one thing on his mind: getting that ice cream cone!  But what does dad have to gain?  Ten minutes of good behavior—maybe?  What the father gets is what he wants the most: to have his son draw closer and closer to him.

Jesus gives his disciples—gives us—a lesson in persevering prayer.  He tells us to keep on asking, to keep on seeking, to keep on knocking past midnight, if we must.  He tells us to ask the Father each day for our daily bread.  But why must we be so persistent?  Is it because God is stubborn?  Or hard of hearing?  Is heaven so far from earth that our messages rarely make it through?

Most of us approach prayer prepared to bargain.  We pray as if it’s a matter of us getting through to God; in fact, prayer is really all about God getting through to us.  We focus on what it is we hope to get; God is focused on to whom he can get close.  We can act as if prayer is a retail transaction, but to God, it’s all about deepening a relationship.

Our patron, St. André Bessette, understood this well.  Br. André used to say, “When you say to God, ‘Our Father,’ he has his ear right next to your lips.”  We move in close to seal the deal—to win what we’re after—and God does the same: he longs to make us ever more his own.

How about you?  Do you pray to God as the Great Auctioneer in there Sky, hoping to convince him that you're making an offer he can't refuse?  Or do you pray like a child who puts full trust in his loving Father?

If you read a bit further into Genesis, you discover that Abraham did not actually win the auction: there weren't 10 innocent souls to be found, and Sodom was destroyed for its many sins.  (The righteous were lead to safety before the destruction began.)  But Abraham did come to know the Lord much better through their back-and-forth exchange.  He discovered that God is just—not willing to sweep away the innocent right along with the guilty.  And he discovered that God is also merciful—giving one opportunity after another to flee from sin, to be converted from death-dealing to live-giving ways.  And Abraham discovered that God comes ever-so-close to his children—close enough to hear and respond to their every call for help.

When you pray, give up on trying to bargain with God.  Instead, draw close to him, and he’ll draw close to you (James 4:8).  Never tire of whispering into your Father’s ear.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Better Part

No homily to post for you today, since Bishop LaValley is preaching here as Malone bids a fond farewell to the Ursuline Sisters who are leaving our community after 118 years of service (1898-2016).

 Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   C 

A point to ponder: What sort of welcome do we give to the Lord?  Notice, it's not would we give but do we give, since Jesus keeps paying us visit after visit: in his word, in the sacraments (above all, the Eucharist), in the faces of the poor.  Whether our hospitality is more active (like Martha) or more contemplative (like Mary), is Christ the center of our attention?


Sunday, July 10, 2016


 Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   C 
In preparing for this Sunday, I tried to think of famous neighbors I might use as familiar examples.  The two who first came to mind perfectly fit the bill.  To begin with, I thought of Dennis Mitchell—better known to most of us as “Dennis the Menace.”  From the comic strip, we know just how Mr. Wilson feels about his much younger, very active neighbor: he’s too loud, too messy, eats too much of his food, and breaks far too many windows.  And then there was the second famous neighbor: [singing] “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful for a neighbor…”  We all know Fred Rogers—that’s Mr. Rogers, of course.  Through his TV show, we all became his neighbors, and he introduced us to many others, as well.

Dennis Mitchell.  Fred Rogers.  If you got to pick, which would you chose to be your neighbor?

The fact of the matter is we don’t generally get to pick our neighbors, do we?  “And who is my neighbor?” asks the scholar in the gospel.  Our neighbors are those God sends to us, whether they live in the house next door or are sitting in the next pew; whether they have a nearby locker at school or work with us on the job; whether they play with us on the team or they’re driving in another car on the road.  Our neighbors are neighbors simply for being near to us, and—no matter who they are, what they do, or where they come from—we are called to treat them love and care and compassion.

That’s a critical lesson in light of the news lately—so full of shootings and strife, of refugees and fear of the stranger.  We hear about these problems on a national and global scale, worrying and wondering, “But what could I ever do to make a difference?”  Remember: you and I haven’t been called to save the world.  (That position has already been taken.)   No, we’ve been called to love our neighbors—without picking and choosing among them—and just imagine how the whole world could be and would be transformed if each of us treated those nearby with love.

“And who is my neighbor?”  The question asked by the scholar of the law is what prompts Jesus to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan.  But did you notice how Jesus—as he often does—answered that question with another question?  Near the very end of the passage we’ve just heard, Jesus asks in response, “Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?”  The difference between the questions is rather subtle, but hugely significant.  The first assumes that the neighbor is somebody who is near to us, while the second urges us to draw near to someone else as neighbor.  The first is passive, while the second is active.  We aren’t to wait for a neighbor to come to us in need; we are to go and be neighbor to others.

Being neighborly—reaching out—in this way is at the very heart of being a Christian, because by it we imitate Jesus.  In Jesus Christ, God has become neighbor to you and me—moving right into the neighborhood, choosing to dwell among us, and promising to remain with us always—no matter how much we behave like Dennis Mitchell.  And from the example of Jesus we have so much to learn!  We can be tempted to only love those who seem deserving…but the Son of God came to save us when we deserved it the least, yet needed it most.  We can be tempted to love only those who will recognize the gift and show their thanks….but how often are we ungrateful for God’s blessings?  We can be tempted to only reach out when there’s room in our schedule…but was their anything convenient about the Cross?

This is where the name of the upcoming diocesan vocations summit is so instructive: INSPIRE: Called to Love.  We all share a common vocation—the call to reach out in love.  And just as we don’t get to choose those who become our neighbors, nor do we get to pick those to whom we are to go in love as neighbor.  That’s the “inspired” part.  The commands of God—we’re told in the first reading—as so close to us that they’re already in our hearts.  The same Holy Spirit who inspired the writing of the scriptures dwells in your heart and mine, and still speaks to us: “Go there!  Do that!  Help him!  Speak to her!”  But we must listen for and obey those inspirations.  And when we do listen and obey, when we reach out in love, when we become neighbor, we discover that in drawing close to another person we’ve also drawn close to God.

We often find ourselves asking, like the scholar of the law, “And who is my neighbor?”  But the more crucial question is the one once asked by Fred Rogers—asked by God of you and me each and every day: [singing] “Would you be mine?  Could you be mine?  Won’t you be my neighbor?”

Monday, July 4, 2016

Verso l'alto!

Today is the memorial of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, the patron of the Frassati House apostolate here in St. André's Parish.  Together with our five parish missionaries (who will be departing Malone this week), we kept vigil for the feast last evening...

But a couple of weeks ago (June 23-24), we spent a different sort of night together: one out in the woods.  We camped out at the two lean-tos at Catlin Bay on Long Lake.  They were two stunning days spent in a rather spectacular spot.  We were having so much fun, I didn't take any pictures... except of some pretty happy campers as we were about to head home...

Blessed Pier Giorgio, pray for us!

Sunday, July 3, 2016


 Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   C 

I recently heard a great story—a true story—on the radio, told by a young man from New Mexico.  He was traveling in rural India, in a tribal area in the northeast of the country—a region of mountains, jungles, and wild animals.  He found the local people fascinating and exotic, and eventually realized they must find him a bit exotic, too, since very few Westerners ever visited.

The young man had been traveling for an extended period of time—more than a year.  He had lost some weight.  While normally dark complected, his skin was even darker than usual from all the time he’d spent in the sun.  And he’d given up on shaving or cutting his hair, growing a bushy beard and hair down to his shoulders.

While hitchhiking one day, his driver told him about an incredible place: the most religious, most pious village in the region, which he simply had to see.  (The area had once been frequented by Christian missionaries.)  So, after having been dropped off, the young man headed right for the main square of this town.  Normally, the first ones to see him walking into a village were the children and the pets—and, on seeing a stranger, they would scamper off and hide.  In this village, some children were out playing in the square, as usual, but when they looked up and saw him, they instead fell to their knees and held hands.  One of the little boys pulled out a small picture; he’d look at the picture, then at the young man—back and forth again and again.  When the young man got close enough, he could see that it was a picture of Jesus.

“They think I’m Jesus Christ!” he realized.

So the young man decided to have a little fun.  He crossed his ankles, held his arms straight out from his sides, and hung his head.  It had the desired effect: the children gasped.  But the next thing he knew, the young man was writhing in pain on the ground.  As he gathered his wits about him, he realized that one of the little boys had gotten up off his knees, formed a fist, and punched him as hard as he could in—let's just say—a place that would really, really hurt.  As the young man began to get up, a woman from the village came running toward him.  “My son,” she said in her broken English.  “My son angry.  My son loved his grandmother.   When she died, we told him Jesus took her away….”

The moral of the story, said the young man: “If you’re going to impersonate Jesus, then you better be willing to pay the price.”  (WeekendEdition Saturday, NPR, 7/2/16)

As St. Paul concludes his letter to the Galatians, he writes: “I bear the marks of Jesus on my body” (Gal 6:17).  For Paul, faith in Jesus was much more than an idea in his head or a feeling in his heart; it was something he experienced in a physical way, leaving its mark on his body.  For Paul, those marks came from beatings and stonings, from being shackled and nearly drowned, from being left for dead.  It was no figure of speech when he wrote, “I bear the marks of Jesus on my body.”  Following Jesus was written into his flesh for all to see.

What does it look like today to bear the marks of Jesus on our bodies?  It looks like the dirt lodged deep under a man’s fingernails because, instead of going golfing, he gave up a Saturday afternoon to do yard work for an elderly neighbor.  It looks like the dark circles around a young mother’s eyes as her three little kids climb onto to and off of her lap—she and her husband recognizing that children are not a burden, but a blessing.   It looks like the priest in a tattered clerical shirt, who realized a parishioner needed new clothes more than he did.  It looks like the woman who, despite the pain, always leaves chemotherapy smiling because any day lived with and in and for Jesus is the very best day of her life.

It’s good for us to reflect, “How might I bear the marks of Jesus on my body?”  But let’s do so, not in some hypothetical way, but specifically and concretely—and not about something we might eventually get to, but something that we can do today, tomorrow, or this week.  Just remember: if you’re going to imitate Jesus, then you’d better be willing to pay the price.