Sunday, June 25, 2017

No Secret

 Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time   A 

A little girl was attending a wedding for the first time.  When the organ blared and everybody stood up, she looked down the aisle toward the church doors and saw the bride in her beautiful gown.   With a big smile she turned to her mother and asked, “Mommy, why is the bride dressed all in white?”   Not wanting to give a full explanation, her mother replied, “Because white is the color of happiness, and this is the happiest day of her life.”  The little girl then looked in the opposite direction and saw the groom standing tall in his tuxedo.  Which is when, with as serious face, she asked her mother, “Then why, Mommy, is the groom dressed all in black?”

“Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be made known.”  Those are some of the first words of Jesus’ message to us in this Sunday’s gospel.  In the original language, they would have called to mind some of the traditional attire worn at a wedding.  When Jesus speaks of things being “revealed” and “made known,” he’s using the same vocabulary that was used to describe a groom lifting the wedding veil to reveal the beauty of his bride.  In Greek, the word is apokalyptein, from which we get our English word, apocalypse.  Now, jokes like the one I just told depend on the notion that many men view their wedding day as if it were the “end of the world”—a catastrophic finale to their days of fun.  But I have no doubt Jesus is hoping that we’ll look to the end of days much more like a joyful bride, in happy anticipation of sharing a life with the one you love.

Listen again—and carefully—to those words of Jesus: “Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be made known.”  Jesus doesn’t say that some things will be exposed, or even that most things will be laid bare.  In the end, nothing at all will remain secret, everything will be brought out in the open.  Everything!  (And an already quiet church just got perfectly silent.)  That’s quite a sobering thought, isn’t it?  Little wonder that in this brief passage Jesus tells us three times to not be afraid!

Shouldn’t the thought of meeting God and spending eternity with him have us rejoicing?  So why does this thought have us quaking in our boots?  Because we’ve tried to hide some things.  Because we’ve kept secrets.  Because our outside and our inside don’t exactly match right up as they should.

For some of us, we’ve got it all together on the outside.  We get to church most every Sunday and have received the sacraments.  We’ve got a crucifix on the wall and a rosary on the rearview mirror.  To all outward appearances, we’re pretty good Catholics.  The secret is, however, that we’re not who we appear to be.  Have I cultivated a personal and intimate relationship with Christ?  Is he truly the center of my life, or just another part of it?  Have I given him full control?  Does he get the final say?  Or do I hold back—for fear of what he might ask me to do, or fear of what he might ask me not to do?  Jesus will ask nothing of us that is not for our good.  He who has his eye on the tiny sparrow will not neglect to care for us in our need—in fact, to secure for us the fullness of life.  He even has counted the hairs on our head!  (Admittedly, that’s a greater accomplishment in some case than in others.)   Do not be afraid to take your faith to heart!  You can keep no secrets from the Lord.

For some others, we’ve got it all together on the inside.  Our prayer is frequent, sincere, and intense.  We don’t really take issue with anything the Church teaches.  As far as the Catholic faith goes, we’re all in.  But we keep it all to ourselves.  It’s our secret.  Religion is really a private matter, isn’t it?  You don’t want to stand out from the crowd, do you?  What would the neighbors think?  But Jesus is clear: if we truly believe all that he has whispered to us, then we must be ready to proclaim it from the housetops.  Those who have acknowledged Christ before the world are the ones Christ will acknowledge before his Father.  Do not be afraid to share your faith with others!  You must not keep the Lord a secret.

“Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be made known.”  That’s only a frightening thought if we have something to hide—from the eyes of God or the eyes of our neighbors.  Live your life in such a way that you can look ahead to its end, not with dread but with happiness. You are a member of the Church: the bride of Christ.  When her great beauty is ultimately unveiled, be sure you’re wearing the appropriate color.  Do not be afraid!  Dress all in white.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Buzzing A-Long

I made it out camping last Wednesday-Thursday at Kelly Point on Long Lake along with one of our seminarians, Doug Schirmer.  We were not alone at the water's edge that night: there was a friendly couple camped out in front of the second lean to (the one I really hoped to get)...and more mosquitos than I've ever seen anywhere in my life.  The lean to was just about vibrating with the hum of their tiny, infernal wings (for some reason, they actually seemed thicker in the shelter than outside of it).  The racket did die down quite a bit (though never completely) during the cooler nighttime hours, which allowed them to buzz one-by-one in our ears.  In spite of the many itchy welts, it was still a good time in the woods...


Sunday, June 18, 2017

In My Pocket

  Solemnity of the Most Holy Body & Blood of Christ   A 

When I was a boy—and for quite a long time—I had an imaginary friend.  I called him “Mr. McGoo,” and had all kinds of stories about him: about his adventures, about his wife and kids, about where he lived, about his annual vacation in Florida.  Probably the most remarkable thing about Mr. McGoo was his size: he was just a little guy, and I’d carry him around in my pocket.

You’ll be happy to know that I don’t believe in Mr. McGoo any more…but I did think about him last week.

I was taking the Blessed Sacrament from the tabernacle, in order to bring Holy Communion to some of our homebound parishioners.  I did as I always do: I carefully placed the Sacred Host in the gold pyx, put the pyx in the black leather burse, and then slid the burse into my shirt pocket.

Which is when I realized: the garage sale was going on outside the church, and I’d be walking right through the middle of it to get to my car.  You see, whenever I carry the Blessed Sacrament on my person, I aim to carry on as if I were still standing right in front of the tabernacle—because, in effect, I am.  I turn off the radio in my car.  I don’t brush people off, but I also don’t stop to engage in conversation.  I try to stay very mindful of Who it is that I have with me—and what an immense privilege that is.

And so I thought about how I’d answer somebody at the garage sale if they asked, “What you got there in your pocket, Father?”  And the quickest, truest answer would have been, “Jesus.”  And then I wondered: would most people who hear me say that take me just the way my family did years ago when I said I carried Mr. McGoo in my pocket?

Our Catholic faith is that the Holy Eucharist is the real presence of Jesus Christ—his Body, Blood, soul, and divinity, under the appearances of bread and wine.  But to so many modern ears—including, sadly, many Catholic ears—that sounds like talk about an imaginary friend: a comforting idea, but not at all real.

Some of our parishioners recently attended a conference and came back with this story.  Their presenter shared some of the discouraging statistics about the number of Catholics who do not believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.  You may have heard some of these yourselves.  Depending on the survey, the statistics range from 10% of practicing Catholics to more than 50% of all Catholics do not believe what the Church has always taught: that the bread and wine really and truly become the Body and Blood of Christ.  

In contrast, the presenter then spoke about a parish she knows—down in Florida, I think—which is located in an area where many people practice voodoo and other occult religions.  Some of their sacrilegious rites call for a consecrated Host taken from a Catholic church.  And so in this parish, they have appointed “bouncers” to stand next to the priest and other ministers of Holy Communion in order to make sure no one tries to leave Mass with a Host. 

The speaker’s point in putting these two things side-by-side was to highlight the sad state of affairs: there are non-Christians who have a greater faith in the real presence than do many Catholics who come to Mass every Sunday.

The Church’s faith in the Most Blessed Sacrament is based on the absolute highest authority: the word of the Lord himself—as we just heard Jesus say in the gospel: “My Flesh is true food, and my Blood is true drink”; as he has repeated to us in every Mass since the Last Supper: “This is my Body, this is my Blood, given up for you.”  The Father has given us the living Bread from heaven.  We mere mortals are provided with the Bread of angels: the real presence of the Son of God, who remains with us in the Sacrament of the altar. 

We must never neglect this amazing truth!  Pope John Paul II used to encourage Catholics to renew their sense of “Eucharistic amazement”—the sense of wonder, awe, and reverence that rightly should be ours at so incredible a gift.  And our deep faith in it should be clear in how we act and speak in relation to the Eucharist.  Do I reflect faith in the real presence by how I dress for Mass?  By how I behave in church?  By how I speak about sacred things?  By giving the liturgy my full attention?  By how I prepare for Holy Communion?  By how I handle the Sacred Host?  By getting to Mass on time?  And by staying until it’s finished?  By not being too quick to excuse myself from attending? 

My old friend, Mr. McGoo, never really lived in my pocket; he only lived in my imagination.   But I firmly believe that Jesus really and truly comes to me in Holy Communion to live behind my pocket: to remain always in my heart.

May the heart of Jesus, present in the Most Blessed Sacrament, be praised, adored, and loved, with grateful affection, in all the tabernacles of the world, even until the end of time.  Amen.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Oh Lord!

   The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity   C 

A teacher asked her catechism class, “What is God’s name?”  An eager girl waved her hand and said, “I know!  I know!  God’s name is Howard!”  The startled teacher asked, “Judy, how do you know this?”  To which the girl responded, “Because every time we pray, we say, ‘Our Father, who art in heaven, Howard be thy name…”

What is God’s name?  That’s certainly an appropriate point to ponder on this Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity.  We call God our Father, the Almighty, the Creator and Ruler of all things.  We call his Only Begotten Son Jesus and Christ, the Savior, the Lamb of God, the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  We speak of the Holy Spirit as Life and Love, as Advocate and Counselor.

It should come as no surprise that it’s one of God’s most common names that gets precious little thought from us—and that’s Lord.  I counted it up last night, and we we’ll address God as Lord at least 62 times in the course of today’s Mass—and that’s without the homily or the hymns!  We call on God as the Lord constantly (sometimes, sadly, in not the most prayerful tones), but what does that mean?  What does it mean to say that God is the Lord, our Lord, my Lord?

In Hebrew, the language of Moses and the Old Testament, the word is adonai, indicating one who holds authority.  In Greek, the language of St. Paul and the New Testament, the word is kyrios, meaning master or ruler, one who decides for others.  In Latin, the traditional language of Roman Catholics, the word is dominus, pointing to an owner, one who doesn’t just use something but possesses it.  Our English word, lord, comes from an old expression: the loaf-ward, the keeper of the bread, the one in control of doling out the provisions.

This little vocabulary lesson makes it pretty clear: to be lord means to be in charge, to be the boss, to call all the shots.

I think we can all easily agree that Lord, then, is a very appropriate name for God, who holds supreme authority, who rules as King of creation, who provides us with all we need.  But to speak of God as Lord of the universe holds him off at a safe distance, doesn’t it?  On this feast of the Holy Trinity, we often focus on how far God is beyond us—an immense mystery well beyond the ability for our mere mortal minds to conceive.  Today, I want us to consider just how personal it needs to be when we call God our Lord.

I’m sure you remember last November’s election, and how some protests quickly sprang up against President Trump with the slogan, “not my president.”  You don’t have to like Mr. Trump, or agree with what he says, or even abide by his directives, but that doesn’t change a simple fact: he’s the duly elected president of this country, and your personal preferences cannot change that.  It is quite similar when we say that God is the Lord.  God cannot be the Lord of all things if he is not also the Lord of your things—your every little thing.  Choosing to live as if things were otherwise doesn’t alter the reality one bit.

To call God your Lord is not theoretical, but a very personal affair.  It means giving God permission.  It means bending your will to his.  It means letting him set the agenda for your entire life—in matters both great and small.  God wants to be Lord of more than just this one hour a week.  As God tells us of himself repeatedly in the scriptures: he is a jealous God.  He won’t settle for second best.  God has no interest in being your “senior advisor.”  He will be Lord, or nothing.  God doesn’t give us suggestions, but commandments.  God isn’t waiting around to provide you with affirmation; he longs to give you direction.  As an old bumper sticker puts it, “If God is your copilot, you need to swap seats!”

God wants to take complete charge of your life, not because he’s bossy, not because he has control issues, not because he’s bent on pushing you around.  God wants to be your Lord because he loves you.  God made you—as you may recall from your own catechism days—to know, love, and serve him in this life, and to be happy with him forever in the next.  To follow his will is the shortest, surest route to holiness and happiness. 

But it’s so very, very hard to do!  You know that.  I know that.  And God knows that, too.  Which is why God sent us his beloved Son—not to condemn the world, but to save it.  In Jesus, we’re given the perfect example of total obedience to God’s will—all the way to the Cross; living and dying in our human flesh, he shows us the way, and assures us that following it is possible.  And God didn’t stop there!  As we celebrated last Sunday, God also sent us his Holy Spirit, to dwell within us, to guide us always, to fill us with grace—giving us God’s own strength in place of our own weakness.

If you’re wondering if God is really the Lord of your life, here’s a little test…  Take a look at your bank statement.  Where does most of your money go?  Take a look at your schedule.  How do you spend the majority of your time?  What’s the first thing you think about when your roll out of bed in the morning?  What’s the last thing on your mind when you’re falling asleep at night?  Whose opinion concerns you most when you’re making a big decision?  The answer to these basic questions provides pretty good insight into who (or what) is truly the lord of your life.

I don’t know of anyone who actually calls God Howard, but we all call him Lord again and again.  Let’s make sure it’s more than just a name.  Give God permission.  Let him take full control of your life.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Lord, Send Out Your Spirit

No homily for you again this week: We're on a parish pilgrimage to St. Jospeh's Oratory in Montréal today to pay a visit to our holy patron...

   Pentecost   A 

Come, Holy Spirit, come!
        And from your celestial home
                Shed a ray of light divine!

from the Sequence for Pentecost

Sunday, May 28, 2017


No homily for you this weekend: our deacon preached!

   Seventh Sunday of Easter   A 

All these devoted themselves with one accord to prayer,
together with...Mary the mother of Jesus...
Acts 1:14

Sunday, May 21, 2017

If You Love Me...

This homily was for First Holy Communion today...which will explain the question & answer/outline format...

   Sixth Sunday of Easter   A 

Do your parents love you?  Yes.
How do you know?  Food, clothing, shelter, teaching…  They care for me.

Do you love your parents?  Yes.
How do they know?   I obey them.
Is it always easy to obey?  No.

But it is easier to obey when we know we are loved—when we can trust the person who asks us to obey, isn’t it?

Does Jesus love you?  Yes.
How do you know?  He gives me everything I need.  He cares for me.

And the greatest way Jesus shows his love for us is right here in front of us: his Cross.  That’s the biggest, best love the world has ever known: that Jesus was willing to die for us.  That’s what we are celebrating during this Easter time: that Jesus died and rose again to take away our sins so that we can live with him forever.

Do you love Jesus?  Yes.
How does he know?  I obey him.

Jesus says to us in the gospel today, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

Is it always easy to obey the commandments?  No.

But just like with mom and dad, it is easier to obey because we know that Jesus loves us.  We can trust him.  He knows what is best for us, and whatever he asks is meant to keep us safe and make us happy.

Jesus has given us many commandments to follow.  There are two I want us to think about today.

[1] After Jesus rose from the dead, on the day he’s returning to heaven, he tells his friends: “Go and teach all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19).  Jesus gives a commandment that those who believe in him be baptized.  You were baptized, right?  And your baptism comes with a mission: to tell other people about Jesus—to tell them about his love so that they can love him, too.  That job belongs to all of us.

[2] On the night before he died, when Jesus shared a Last Supper with his friends, he took bread and wine and said, “Do this in memory of me” (1Cor 11:23-25).  Jesus gives a commandment that those who believe in him should come together with others who love him.  And that’s what we do today, that’s what we do every Sunday, when we come together for Mass, when we celebrate the Eucharist, when we receive Holy Communion.

Telling others about Jesus and coming to church on Sunday are two very special, very important ways we keep the commandments of Jesus and show him that we love him.

But do you know what else?  These two Sacraments—Baptism and Eucharist—are also two ways that Jesus keeps showing his love for us.  They are two ways that Jesus has chosen to remain with us always.

[1] In Baptism, the Holy Spirit comes to be with us.  Jesus promised that he would send the Holy Spirit to teach us the truth and show us the right way.  We cannot see him, but the Holy Spirit is with us always as our Helper.  He leads us to Jesus.

[2] In Holy Communion—which you are about to receive for the first time—Jesus comes to live within us.  We do as Jesus did: we take the bread, and it becomes his Body; we take the wine, and it becomes his Blood.  Regular food and drink goes to our stomach, but through his Body and Blood Jesus goes to stay in our heart.  The Eucharist is Jesus living within us, his love now found in our hearts.

Boys and girls, I know that your parents love you very, very much.  I know that because they brought you to be baptized years ago.  I know that because they prepared you for your first Holy Communion.

But I also know that Jesus loves you even more.  Remember that every time you see his Cross.

And make sure that Jesus knows you love him, too.  He said, “If you love me, keep my commandments.”  Remember the commandment he gave to you at your Baptism: your special mission to tell the whole world about his love.  And remember the commandment he gives us about the Eucharist: to come together again and again with him and with one another around his Body and Blood, so that Jesus may live in us now, and we may live with him forever.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Make Yourself Right at Home

   Fifth Sunday of Easter   A 
What’s the most important work in the world?  That, of course, depends on your criteria.  If we look at how much money people get paid, we’d have to say that movie stars, music makers, and professional athletes do the most important work in the world.  A better argument might be made for doctors, who cure and comfort the sick—who are among the very first and the very last people we see in life.  Having grown up on a farm, I could say that farmers do the most important work: if there were no farmers, there’d be no food, if there were no food, we wouldn’t be able to eat; if we couldn’t eat, we’d all be pretty cranky…and it would quickly go down hill from there.  One might also make the case that priests do the most important work, since without the priesthood we wouldn’t have the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist or our sins forgiven in Confession.

Have you ever heard of C. S. Lewis?  He was an Irish-born writer—the author of the classic book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe—who taught at Oxford University.  He was one of the keenest Christian minds of the 20th century.  One might have expected him to say that professors do the most important work in the world.  But when Mrs. Johnson sent him a letter in 1955 complaining that a housewife’s work was never-ending and felt like it was going absolutely nowhere, he gave a reply that was surprising then—and is even more surprising now, 60 years later: that the work of a housewife (or, as we’d say today, of a homemaker), “is surely in reality the most important work in the world.”

If Mr. Lewis were introduced to a woman and asked what she did for a living, and her reply was, “Oh, I’m just a stay-at-home-mom,” I have no doubt he’d be quite distressed.  He’d be distressed, not that her career options were limited, but that she didn’t recognize the great dignity and nobility of her lofty, God-given vocation.

In his letter, C. S. Lewis writes:
[Being a homemaker] is surely in reality the most important work in the world. What do ships, railways, miners, cars, government etc exist for except that people may be fed, warmed, and safe in their own homes? As Dr. Johnson said, “To be happy at home is the end of all human endeavour”. (1st to be happy, to prepare for being happy in our own real home hereafter: 2nd in the meantime to be happy in our houses.) We wage war in order to have peace, we work in order to have leisure, we produce food in order to eat it. So your job is the one for which all others exist.  (Letter to Mrs. Johnson, March 16, 1955)

That’s a different perspective than we’re used to, right?  Here’s another novel idea: that Jesus spoke of himself as a homemaker.  Did you catch it in this Sunday’s gospel?  Jesus says, “In my Father's house there are many dwelling places.  If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.”  Jesus makes a solemn promise—in the midst of his Last Supper—to make a home for us.

That gospel passage is one of those most commonly chosen to be read at Catholic Funerals—and for obvious reasons, given its very comforting message.  But when Jesus first spoke those words, his disciples wouldn’t have thought about death; they would have thought about a wedding.  In order to better understand what Jesus is saying, we need to know a little bit about the wedding customs of the day.

Nowadays—despite Church teaching and countless studies to the contrary—it’s most common for people to live together for a while before they get married.  In the time of Jesus, however, it was exactly the opposite: a couple would get married, and then it would be a while before they moved in together.  You see, a man and a woman would first be betrothed.  That was much more than a simple engagement: they exchanged vows, and were considered legally married.  (If the relationship broke up, they would have to get a divorce.)  Then the husband had up to a year to prepare a place for his new wife.  He’d return to his father’s house, and spend his time and resources to build or renovate a room for her—the very best he could provide.  And only when everything was ready would he come to take her home, to start their new life together and man and wife.  And only then would they have the wedding feast: their relatives and the whole community celebrating that a new family was making its home.

Knowing that, let’s listen again to the words of Jesus: “In my Father's house there are many dwelling places.  If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.”  Do you now hear what he’s saying?  Jesus wants to be one with us just as husband and wife become one—just as he is one with the Father.  He wants to share his whole life with us!  He’s proven that by laying it down for us. He has vowed to love us freely, fruitfully, faithfully, and forever—and we have done the same in our baptismal promises, which we renewed at Easter.  Each time we come into this church, he is bringing us deeper and deeper into his Father’s house.  Each time we celebrate the Mass, it’s Christ’s wedding reception: the celebration that he is taking us into his home to be with him always.

That’s pretty amazing, right?  But what’s the practical import of all this? 

We need to make sure we make room for the Lord in our homes.  By and large, that means setting aside space for Jesus in our schedules and priorities—and not just some hidden corner that’s left over after everything else is taken care of, but the very best, most valuable spot we can provide.  We must make our relationship with Christ—as individuals and families—our main concern.  One way to help us do this is to actually make some physical room for God in our houses: to set aside a little space where we can hang a crucifix or holy picture, where we can enthrone our Bible or light a candle, that becomes a sacred space for us to pray—alone or together, in good times or bad.  As St. Peter reminds us in the second reading, we are to be living stones that are built up into a spiritual house.  We need to be sure we make a real home for Jesus in our lives.

We also need to be sure we never lose sight of the home Jesus has made for us.  This is more than a matter of mansions in the sky, awaiting us down the line in a far distant heaven.  The new life Jesus wants to share with us is meant to begin right here, right now.   He paid for it dearly—with the price of his own blood—sparing no expense.  Let us not neglect his gift!  Let us return to this house of the Lord regularly to receive the sacraments—the great tokens of his love.  Let grow in our intimacy with Jesus by speaking with him daily in prayer.  Let us make ourselves right at home in Christ.

The work of the homemaker is surely the most important in the world.  All other work exists for it.  The Son of God himself has made it his own.  Let’s be sure to make a home for Jesus in our families, in our daily lives.  And let’s be sure to fully move into the home Jesus has made for us, that we might enjoy the new life he longs to share with us—now and for all eternity.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

A Fishy Spot

Between weather conditions and my schedule, I didn't get out in the woods much this past winter--in fact, I haven't been out for an overnight since October (the longest I've gone since my whole backpacking craze started back in the fall of 2013).

I'd hoped to get out camping two weeks ago (remember that day when it reached 80 degrees?), but I didn't get out for the office early enough in the afternoon to safely embark, so I settled for a nice hike the next day to the lean-to on St. Regis Pond--one of my favorite spots:

It's about 3.5 miles in (the last half mile is a bushwhack, since it's really a canoe access lean-to...although I've never been there by boat myself).  It was a great place to sit for a spell with a good book and my lunch.

This past week, I was a bit more guarded with my scheduling, and did make it out overnight Wednesday-Thursday.  When I left the rectory, I had plans to get a good bit farther afield, but as I drove from Malone and watched the clock, I decided it would be best to get into the woods, and to some overnight accommodation, a little sooner.  So I headed right back to the St. Regis Canoe Area ("behind" the NYS fish hatchery in Lake Clear) with my sights set on the lean-to I'd revisited just one week before.  Four things we different on my return: the trail was a bit wetter (but not too muddy), the woods were a bit greener (with some flowers now coming up, too), the temperature was a bit lower (the forecast was down in the 20's overnight), and most crucially...the lean-to was already occupied.

This left me, at 5:30pm, with another half-mile/half-hour of bushwhacking to get back to the trail, and a serious decision to make about my campout: should I return to the car and head home, or push on to the lean-tos on Fish Pond (another 2+ miles) and hope that at least one was still empty?  If they were full (and I'd never before found them empty, mind you), that would me a long hike back out, which would certainly end in the dark.

Up for adventure (and making a firm Act of Faith), I continued on.  And I found Fish Pond #2 empty!  I arrived in time to take in a great sunset view with my late dinner...

...and enjoyed a great (if chilly) night in the woods at a new-to-me lean-to.

As far as a good portion of my prep and packing went, it was pretty much winter camping in May (albeit without the ice and snow) I guess I didn't miss out on the entire season, after all.

Little Lambs

   Fourth Sunday of Easter   A 

I received the following email from a parishioner last week:

Hi Fr. Joe! You may not believe this…but I say the rosary every morning and on May 1st, I was thinking about how May is Mary's month and how I'd like to make a crown for the Blessed Mother statue at our house.  And actually, quite often, I visualize myself giving the Blessed Mother a hug for all she suffered seeing her son suffer.  So, imagine my surprise when I arrived at work on May 1st and a colleague called me to go and see her for a minute.  When I went to see her she showed me this picture in an old St. Joseph's Academy yearbook.  

It's curious because this statue of Our Lady has her holding a rosary…and the little girl is me.  I almost fell over.  I couldn't believe it.  I was hugging her then and I'm still hugging her now.

Doesn’t that just warm your heart?  It certainly did mine!  And receiving this message and the photo from about 40 year ago got me thinking, too:  What are the chances, 40 years from now, that the pastor of Malone will receive a message like this?  It’s certainly a point to ponder…

I think we can agree that, in the last 40 years, things have certainly changed.  The world has changed so much.  Our country has changed a lot.  There has even been some notable change in our Church.  And family life sure a changed quite a bit in the last 40, 50, 60 years.

But something that hasn’t changed much during that time is the way we’ve approached the religious education of our children.  We’re still using an essentially classroom-based model: teachers and students, lessons and books.  And since it hasn’t changed, while just about everything else connected to it has, it’s no longer working.  It’s sad to say, but for many of our youngsters, the parish “Sunday school” program is their only contact with the Church—with God and the things of God—and that means they associate the Catholic faith with sitting at a desk.  Kids are bored, parents are frustrated, and recruiting volunteers to serve as catechists gets more difficult every year.  Add to that the fact that Catherine Suprenant, our Director of Christian Formation, who’s done such a great job since she arrived last August, is leaving us on Tuesday, and it becomes pretty clear: it’s high time for us to make a change.

The traditional model of religious education still does a fairly good job of getting our kids to learn various Catholic doctrines.  There’s no question: that’s rather important.  If they stick with it a few years, most of them can tell you there are 7 sacraments and 10 commandments.  Borrowing the language of this Sunday’s gospel, they’ve learned a few things about the Shepherd.  But do they really know the Shepherd?  Can they recognize his voice?  Being able to repeat some of the Shepherd’s words is a matter of basic memorization, but knowing the Shepherd’s voice is a matter of a relationship.  Teaching our kids by rote puts religion in league with reading, writing, and ’rithmetic; but forming them is a matter of faith, hope, and love.  One touches the mind only; the other involves the heart.

This “Good Shepherd Sunday” is the World Day of Prayer for Vocations.  We’re all keenly aware of the notable decrease in recent years of young Catholics answering the call to give their lives in service to Christ and his Church.  But how can we expect them to even consider a life as a priest or deacon or consecrated religious—or, for that matter, as Christian husbands, wives, and parents—if we haven’t succeeded in making genuine Christians out of them in the first place?  No one gives their life for anything unless they’ve first fallen in love with it.

To keep getting emails like the one I shared with you today, we have to help our kids fall in love with Jesus, Mary, and the Church—in a away that begins in youth, but lasts for a lifetime.  It’s so important that we help the littlest lambs in the Lord’s flock to get close enough to him that they recognize their Shepherd’s voice!  There are the voices of so many strangers—all of them thieves and robbers—insistently calling out to our young people to lead them in other, dangerous directions.  But the voice of Jesus is the only one that leads to a new and more abundant life.

Considering the lengths to which we’ll go to get our young people on the team or into a good college, shouldn’t we devote even more effort and energy into getting them into heaven?

As I consider that cute photo, my thoughts turn not only to the little girl whose has now grown into a woman of faith, but to whoever it was that stood on the other side of the camera.  Her mother?  Her father?  Or maybe a grandparent?  It’s fairly possible that they posed the shot…but even if they didn’t, they surely planted the seeds of faith which inspired that child.  And that’s something which has not changed: the fostering of children’s relationship with our Lord, our Lady, and the Church happens best when it takes place within the context of their primary human relationship, which is their family.  Nothing that happens in a parish program can substitute for what can only happen at home! 

While no final decisions have yet been made, the new approach we’re seriously considering starting next fall is much more focused on teaching parents and grandparents and parishioners than it is on directly teaching our children (since we can’t pass on that which we do not have for ourselves).  More than ever, our focus needs to be on the entire family.  Watch for details as they become available in the weeks and months ahead, and start considering now what you personally can do to help pass on our precious Catholic faith to future generations. 

Here’s the rest of that email:

Which leads me to my question…out of sheer curiosity, do you have any idea where this statue may be?  This picture was taken behind St. Joseph's Academy about 40 years ago.  In this month of Mary, I'd just love to give her another hug, for old times' sake. 

I’m very happy to report that we know right where that statue is: it was moved to St. Joseph’s Cemetery on Fort Covington Street some years ago.  And I’m fairly confident our Blessed Mother will be receiving a crown of flowers there real soon—if she hasn’t already—and that she’ll being getting a hug.

Let us commit ourselves anew to doing all that we possibly can to foster such life-long faith and devotion in the young lambs of Jesus’ flock. 

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Correct Me If I'm Wrong

   Third Sunday of Easter   A 

Do any of you like to be corrected when they’re wrong?  No one?  I didn’t think so.  Me neither!  And have you ever noticed that correction can be harder to take from some people than others?  I have to say that I absolutely hate it when Fr. Stitt is right. For some reason, when we don’t agree and his side proves true, it really gets to me.  And it happens often enough, too, because he’s so smart!  (I’d ask you to keep this a secret between us…but he already knows it.)

Now just imagine what it’d be like to be corrected by Jesus.  That might even be a pleasant experience, right?  He’d certainly be kind and gentle.  He wouldn’t make you feel uncomfortable.  Maybe Jesus would just let your error slip by.  Right…?  The way some folks talk about Jesus, you could get that impression.  But let’s take a closer look at this Sunday’s gospel.

The story is from the first Easter Sunday.  Two of Jesus’ followers, in light of the last three very difficult days, are headed out of town: they’ve turned their backs on Jerusalem, turned their backs on the Cross, even turned their backs on the news of an empty tomb, and are trying to get as far away as their feet will take them before the sun goes down.  They’re discouraged.  The feel defeated.  They’re filled with questions.  They’ve lost hope.

It’s then that Jesus joins them on the road—but they do not recognize him.  Their first question to him is, “How could you possibly not know about all that has been going on?”  But after recounting their version of events—their tale of woe—the question seems to be: And just how is anybody supposed to make sense of that?

Did you catch how Jesus responded?  He didn’t say, “There, there—everything will be just fine.”  He didn’t say, “Well, you’re certainly entitled to your feelings.”  He said, “Oh, how foolish you are!”  As so often happens when we translate the Bible into English, the Lord’s words have gotten softened a bit.  More literally, Jesus says, “You’re not thinking!  Oh, how mindless you are!”  Or, as one translator puts it, “You’re being just plain stupid!”  (I’m glad Fr. Stitt doesn’t correct me that way!)

Despite this very blunt start to the conversation, they keep talking with this Stranger.  And obviously they’re captivated by his interpretation of all that has taken place, because they invite him stay with them: “Join us for dinner—we’ll even pick up the tab!”  And it’s there at the table, as he takes, blesses, and breaks the bread, that their eyes are finally opened.  “We’ve seen this before, in the way Jesus constantly shared a table with tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners.  We’ve seen this before in the way he fed 5,000 with just five loaves.  We saw this last Thursday night when, during the Passover supper, Jesus broke bread and said, ‘This is my Body.’  This is Jesus!  Which means, he’s alive!  So, the grave is empty, but not because his Body was stolen.  He was crucified, but it wasn’t the end.  He is risen on the third day, just as he said he would be!  Which means everything else he said must be true.  Which means he truly is the Son of God.  Which means the way of life he taught us wasn’t just another nice suggestion from a swell guy; it’s the very word of God, which demands my complete obedience.”  Their hearts on fire, their faith and hope restored, they immediately return to Jerusalem to share the Good News with others.

You see, the people of Jesus’ day were truth-seekers.  They were in search of answers to the heart’s deepest questions—ones we’re still asking 2,000 years later:  “What’s the purpose and meaning of life?  Where do we come from, and where are we going?  How do we make sense of it all?  Is there a right way we ought to live?”  The two travelers found the answer in Jesus and, recognizing the truth, they went from being truth-seekers to being truth-speakers.

We see this in St. Peter.  His sermon, which we hear in our First Reading, was one he gave on Pentecost—just 50 days later.  No longer locked up in hiding, he’s now speaking out before the crowds.  He repeats the story that turned around the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.  It’s a message of great hope!  But did you notice what he says right in the middle of his message, as he speaks of Jesus’ crucifixion?  Taking a page from Jesus’ own playbook, he bluntly announces, “This man…you killed!”  True words—but such hard words to hear!

If we continue reading the next verses in the Acts of the Apostles, what do we find?  How did the crowd react?  Did they shout him down?  Did they pick up stones to hurl at him?  No.  Acts tells us they were cut to the heart and asked, “What are we to do?”  And Peter answered, “Repent and be baptized.”  And 3,000 of them were baptized that day (Acts 2:37-41).  3,000 truth-seekers become 3,000 truth-speakers!

In my years as a priest—especially in these last several months—there’s a trend I’ve started to notice, and it’s one that causes me great concern for our Church, for our country, for the whole human family.   I’m afraid that, these days, when people ask questions, they’re not actually looking for answers; they’re looking for affirmation.  What we want is somebody to tell us we’re right…even (especially!) when we’re wrong.  You see it the way we’re no longer governed by common sense and the common good, but by opinion polls.  I see it whenever I teach one of the Church’s harder truths—whether in a homily, or in the bulletin, or in responding to a particular question.  People don’t want to hear it! 

I’ve had four separate incidents like that just in this past week.  Someone asked me a question the other day, and I responded with the answer Jesus gives in the gospels.  I could tell from the look on her face that she wasn’t buying it, so I made it clear again that this wasn’t my own opinion, but the very word of the Lord.  To which she responded—at least with a smile on her face—“But that’s not the answer I was hoping for.”  There was another exchange where, after I’d affirmed some Church teaching, a parishioner wrote (I’m paraphrasing here), “I know what the Church teaches, and I even agree with what the Church teaches, but when you said it, it upset some people, and that upsets me.”

What’s a guy supposed to do?   I know what the temptations are.  One is simply not to say anything.  The other is to tell folks just what they want to hear.  But when we stop speaking the truth, before long we stop seeking the truth.  And then we’ve turned our backs to Jerusalem and are walking away from the Cross.

It’s good to ask ourselves: How do I take correction?  Am I more concerned with finding answers, or being affirmed?  When I find that a Church teaching is difficult, do I automatically assume that I'm right...and the Church isn't?  Am I willing to make changes when I see that I’m wrong?  Or do I expect the world, the Church—even God—to change to accommodate me?

I still hate it when Fr. Stitt is right…but I’m increasingly grateful when he corrects me.  And that’s the case because we’re good friends.  I know he only does it because he loves me.  He doesn’t want to see me get hurt.  How much more so is that the case with Jesus!  God did not come in human flesh to throw his authority around, to wag his divine finger in our faces.  He came out of love.  The way of life Jesus teaches—and I say “teaches” because he’s still teaching us through his Church—isn’t just one more opinion among so many others; nor is it meant as a way for an uncaring tyrant to keep us down with a long list of rules; it’s God himself saying, “You were made for so much more!  What I want for you is far better than this!  Let me lift you up—raise you with me, all the way to heaven!”  And to prove this love, he was willing to pay the highest price: not in sliver or gold, but with his own Most Precious Blood.

God has shown us the path to life: it is the way of truth, a road Jesus walks with us—he who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  As he opens the Scriptures and breaks the Bread for us in this Eucharist, may we be renewed and strengthened to always honestly seek the truth, and be given the courage to always speak it.