Sunday, December 10, 2017

A Rock and a Soft Place

If I'd thought if it sooner, I could have brought a rock and a pillow with me and tossed them both into the congregation—a good test to see if they really knew the difference!

   First Sunday of Advent   B 

We all know the difference between a pillow and a rock, don’t we?  Well, it seems that some of God’s holy ones through the ages have had a difficult time making the distinction. 

Take the patriarch Jacob, for example.  He was on a journey and, as the sun was setting, he found himself at a roadside shrine.  Settling in for the night, he took a stone from the shrine to tuck under his head and there he dreamed of a ladder—a stairway—leading all the way to heaven.  Use a rock for a pillow and of course you’ll have some crazy dreams! 

And then there are churches scattered across Italy that keep rocks as sacred relics of St. Francis of Assisi.  Having embraced a life of radical poverty, St. Francis always slept on the floor or the bare earth.  It seems that when he visited these places, these particular stones served as his pillows.

But you and I will never make the same mix up!

How do you describe a pillow?  Soft.  Comfortable.  Something you use to rest and be at ease.

And how do you describe a rock?  Hard.  Strong.  Something sturdy on which you can depend.

And God: Is he more like a pillow or a rock?

Our first reading this Sunday, from the book of the prophet Isaiah, would definitely lean toward the pillow.  “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God.”  The Lord is pictured as a tender shepherd cradling a fluffy lamb in his arms.

Our gospel reading, on the other hand, from the very beginning of the gospel according to Mark, tends more to the rock.  There we meet John the Baptist: the messenger preparing the Lord’s way.  Where does St. John live?  In the desert.  And what does he wear?  Camel’s hair and leather.  And what does he eat?  Locusts and wild honey.  If you live in a rocky wilderness, wearing scratchy hides and eating grasshoppers, it’s safe to guess you’re a pretty tough guy.  And John declares, “One mightier than I is coming after me!”  His message is a rather hard one: Acknowledge your sins and repent of them.

There are times where we’re tempted to think of God as only a pillow.  We convince ourselves that he’s really a big softy, and he’ll let us get away with just about anything.  And there are times when we’re tempted to think of God as only a rock—adamant and unyielding in his demands of us, ready to get even with sinners when the time is right.

Of course, neither of those perspectives is true.  God is, in fact, much more a mix of both.

Now, we can also fall into thinking that I must please God “the Rock” before I get to enjoy God “the Pillow”—as if we have to somehow earn his love, his kindness, his compassion.  The fact of the matter is that the opposite is actually the case. 

That’s what we learn from the second letter of St. Peter.  Jesus had promised his disciples that he would come again…and Christians were beginning to wonder what was taking him so long.   Peter assures them that what they’re experiencing isn’t a delay, but God’s incredible patience.  He doesn’t want to see any of his children perish, and so in his love and mercy God is giving them ample time to turn from their sins.  But even clinging to this comforting truth, they must face the hard fact: one day this sin-stained world will be wiped out to make way for new heavens and a new earth.  And so they need to always conduct themselves with holiness and devotion, to be eager to be found without spot or stain, becoming before God the sort of person that they ought to be.

It’s not that, if we’re good, then God will love us.  It’s because God loves us that we can’t help but want to be good.  You see, it’s only when I genuinely believe that I am loved—that I have full confidence that God loves me passionately, tenderly, unconditionally—that I can find the courage to honestly reassess the direction of my life, and then take the necessary steps—no matter how dramatic—to change my ways.  That’s the ringing shout of John the Baptist.  That’s the healing cry of Advent.

So maybe folks like Jacob and St. Francis were onto something with their eccentric sleeping habits!

Let God be your pillow.  Take your comfort in him.  Be at ease in his presence.  Allow him to restore and refresh you.  But also make God your rock.  Permit him to challenge you, to call you to repentance, to be your steady strength.  The Lord of all compassion is also the Lord of mighty power.  Rest in him, and stand firm.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Dare to Hope

   First Sunday of Advent   B 
The Advent wreath in St. Joseph’s Church here is huge: about 8 feet across and suspended on four long chains somewhere near 8 feet off the ground.  I understand that someone before Mass was concerned that the first candle of the wreath was already burning.  I had asked our crew to look into installing a trapeze so that I could swing right by to light it, and I even pondered shooting a flaming arrow to do the job, but since there wasn’t sufficient time to practice either of these very technical maneuvers, we took the path of least resistance and simply used a ladder ahead of time.

Crazy, right?  But no crazier than so much of what we heard in the news this past week.  In fact, it seems lately that each week is a bit wilder than the last.

For my taste, the most disturbing thing in the news—and the competition was stiff—was the scene from an international courtroom in the Netherlands.  Maybe you saw it, too.  A Croatian general, convicted of heinous war crimes, had appealed his sentence.  He had never once admitted his guilt—even in the face of overwhelming evidence and many eyewitness accounts of the brutal rape, torture, and ethnic cleansing that had occurred under his command.  When the judges announced that the general had lost his appeal, he defiantly pulled a small vial from his pocket and—with people watching live around the world—drank a fatal dose of cyanide.  He died shortly thereafter, having chosen to make a dramatic exit rather than face the facts: refusing to accept hard reality, refusing to accept his responsibility.

Our first reading this Sunday—the very first reading of this new season of Advent—is drawn from the final chapters of the long book of the prophet Isaiah.  Isaiah had the challenging task of speaking to God’s people in times not unlike our own.  The world around them seemed to be going mad, to be falling apart.   Israel was conquered, Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed, the survivors had been led off into exile.  How could this be?  Why was this happening?  Isaiah’s task is to get his fellow countrymen to own up to their guilt.  They had really messed things up.  They had grievously sinned.  And so we hear them cry:
            Why do you let us wander, O Lord, from your ways,
            and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?
            Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful;
            all of us have become like unclean people,
            all our good deeds are like polluted rags;
            we have all withered like leaves,
            and our guilt carries us away like the wind.
It may have felt like God had abandoned them, but the truth of the matter was that they had abandoned God. 

Aren’t we faced with similarly troubling circumstances today?  As public, trusted figures—politicians, journalists, and entertainers—are exposed for their corruption, one after another, we’re discouraged and disheartened.  Things are getting crazy, falling apart, everywhere you look.  But we must not be surprised: in a culture that sells sex and violence as entertainment, in a society where the lines are increasingly blurred between what’s true and what’s false, between fact and fiction, can we really expect anything different?  Both collectively and as individuals (there are no “innocent bystanders”), we reap what we sow.

Many—like the Croatian general—when faced with the darkness around them and the darkness within—give in to despair.  Suicide isn’t the only way to check out—to skirt reality and responsibility.  Some seek ways to numb the pain—whether it’s drugs, alcohol, social media, pornography, sports, or one of countless other obsessions or addictions—so prevalent these days.  Some just choose to ride the wave, to let go of their moral bearings: “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” 

But that’s not the message of Isaiah, and that’s not the message of Advent.

After pointing out Israel’s crimes, and calling the people to admit their guilt, he holds out for them a divine promise—something they can look forward to: that God has a plan to restore, to renew, to redeem them in a way they couldn’t even dream possible.  Trying to go it on their own had brought on their current misery.  But God himself will save his people.  God will provide them a way out.

And so they find themselves—as we do—at a critical fork in the road, between the path of despair and the path of hope.

Hope is one of the quintessential Christian virtues—along with faith and love.  Hope is the God-given power to long for that for which we were truly made.  God has deeply planted the desire for happiness in every human heart, and—despite the encircling gloom—hope confidently expects this deep desire to be fulfilled.  Hope gives us the ability to recognize where real happiness is found: not in the passing things of things world, but in the things that endure.  Hope acknowledges that happiness comes with knowing, loving, and serving God, and that God has prepared a place for us where we can live with him and be happy forever.  Hope is trusting in all of God’s promises, because he has always come through for us before.  Hope keeps us moving forward, not relying on our own strength—since we clearly can’t make it on our own—but depending on God’s grace.  The Lord will always provide.

Hope is the confident cry of the Psalmist, as we echoed when chanting our Entrance Antiphon today:
            To you, I lift up my soul, O my God.
            In you, I have trusted; let me not be put to shame.
            Nor let my enemies exult over me;
            and let none who hope in you be put to shame.

Jesus gives us a brief but forceful lesson in Christian hope this Sunday when he repeats over and over in just a few verses of Scripture: Watch!  Watch and pray!  Be alert!  Stay awake!   Constantly watching and waiting is how the Christian lives in hope.

Our watchfulness simultaneously looks in two directions.  Most obviously, we look ahead to the future.  As we’ve heard again and again in recent weeks, the Son of Man will come again, but we know not the day nor the hour.  Whether it’s the moment of our own death or the end of all time and history, hope keeps us always ready for the Lord’s return to take us home.  But we must also keep a close and careful watch on the present.  We must be alert to all the ways that Christ is present and active here and now: speaking in his living word, touching our lives in the Holy Eucharist and other sacraments, there to love us and be loved in the members of his Body, the Church.  We can wait in constant hope because Jesus promised not only to return, but never to abandon us.  He remains—just as promised through Isaiah—Emmanuel, God always with us.

Secular preparations for Christmas (and they’ve been underway since shortly after St. Patrick’s Day, I think) focus primarily on the sentimental: we prepare the favorite recipes, sing the old songs, watch the beloved movies, hang the traditional ornaments.  It’s all meant to gives us a warm and fuzzy feeling—and who doesn’t like that?  But if we’re honest, it’s all just a distraction—yet another means of escaping from a world gone mad, a world falling apart.

But the season of Advent—the Church’s Advent—is a lot more realistic, a lot more hard-hitting.  Advent faces the tough stuff head on, requiring us to acknowledge reality and to accept responsibility—not in order to drag us down, but that we might allow God to raise us up.  We are not alone!  Yes, there’s much darkness around and within, but Light from light has come to shine in our darkness.  What only appears to be defeat is actually the prelude to a glorious and ultimate victory.

During these busy days of Advent, and throughout your life in this crazy, mixed up world, when you find yourself at the fork in the road, choose the path of hope.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Nazarites 2.0

Again this year, Fr. Scott and I challenged the men of the parish to join us in the Nazarite Challenge--to grow out their beards for the month of November and commit to growing in fraternity and holiness.  (Last year's challenge resulted in the formation of a great little parish men's group, "André's Brothers.")  Tonight, we invited those who accepted the Challenge to come together for Vespers, snacks, and drinks.  Just take a look at all these handsome, happy, hirsute faces:

Thanks to the talents of the wife of one of the men, even the cookies had whiskers:

But the greatest (and most unexpected) source of joy during this November's edition of the Challenge was that we finally got Fr. Stitt to break down and give the bearded life a try:

I'm not sure how long his man mane will last, but we'll make the the most of it while it does!

Here Comes the Judge

   Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe    

The Four Last Things
Part IV: Judgment

Two men were seated in the same train compartment.  One was grey-haired and thoughtful; the other was young, restless, and apparently quite worried.  In time, the older man spoke: “Something sure seems to be troubling you, son.  Is there anything I can do to help?”

“No, sir,” the young man replied.  “Actually, there’s nothing anybody can do to help.  But since I feel like I can trust you, and I probably won’t ever see you again, I’ll tell you my story, and that itself will be a relief.”  With utter honestly, the young man shared how he’d gotten started in petty crime—stealing small things from work to help support his widowed mother.  But then he fell in with two coworkers, who proved to be hardened criminals.  The three planned a serious robbery, but when the security guard caught them by surprise, he was shot by one of the older men, who were both captured by the police.  They pinned the murder on the young man, who had managed to get away, and now a warrant was out for his arrest.  He was headed for the big city, where he hoped to disappear into the crowds.

Kindly, but in all seriousness, the older man said, “You know, you really need to turn yourself in and tell this whole story to the court—just as you’ve told it to me.”

“It was easy to tell you,” the young man replied, “since you’re a stranger and so understanding.  I’d be much too scared to tell my story to a judge!”  But eventually the older man prevailed, and the young man promised to do it.

He kept his promise, and there came his day in court.  Just as restless and anxious as he’d been on the train, the young man was led before the bench with his eyes cast down.  After the charges were read, he was asked to make a statement.  It’s only then that he looked up at the judge—who, to his great surprise, was none other than his friend from the train.  It was suddenly much easier to tell his story to one who knew it already.  He was acquitted of murder, placed on probation for the attempted robbery, and never turned to crime again.

On these four Sundays of November, when the Church’s thoughts turn to prayer for the faithful departed, we’ve been reflecting on the Four Last Things.  We’ve already considered (1) death, (2) heaven, and (3) hell.  This Sunday, we contemplate the hinge between life in this world and life in the next: (4) judgment.

Every Sunday, we profess our faith that Christ our King “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”  This Sunday, we have a feast to celebrate that faith.  These last several Sundays we’ve been hearing parables reminding us to get ready: to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Son of Man, to prepare for Jesus’ return.  Today we hear yet another parable, through which we learn what will happen when he comes.

The scriptures are clear that all men will be raised in their bodies on the last day so as to stand before the judgment seat of Christ and give an accounting of their faith and works.  Standing before Jesus, who is Truth itself, the whole truth of our relationship with God will be laid bare for all to see.  Ever throw a pebble into a still pond and wonder just how far the ripples will go?  At the Last Judgment, the full extent of what we’ve all done and failed to do will be revealed as God’s justice triumphs over our every injustice, and God’s love and mercy prove stronger even than death.

But Jesus is not only the King and Judge of the whole universe; he’s my king and my judge.  Besides the general judgment at the end of time, we believe in a particular judgment at the hour of our death, when our eternal reward will be determined immediately—either to depart into eternal punishment, or to come and enter into eternal life.

By the way so many of us live, you’d think the criteria upon which we’ll be judged were how much money we’ve earned, or how far we’ve gotten in our careers, or how many friend we’ve made.  But Jesus makes it clear that only one question will be asked: “What have you done for the least brothers of mine and yours?”  That’s not an abstract question!  In fact, the King gets rather specific as he speaks to the sheep and then the goats.  That familiar list of charitable deeds is known to us as the Corporal Works of Mercy.  But why should these actions in particular be the ones upon which our everlasting destiny depends?  Because they’re a practical test of whether we really love our neighbor, and the love of neighbor is a practical test of whether we really love our God.

How does this faith of the Church in the judgment of King Jesus affect your life and mine, here and now?  For one thing, it should instill in us a holy fear—the sort that prompts us to covert our lives while time yet remains.  And for another, it should give us blessed hope—looking forward to the Lord’s return with eager expectation, for it is then that God’s will, God’s plan for creation, will come to its glorious and perfect fulfillment, when God will be all in all.

My friends, we should all see ourselves in that young man on the train—we’re all sinners, restless and anxious because we’re guilty as charged.  And for that very reason, let us reach out with charity to every stranger who walks into our lives, for in each and every one of them the King of the Universe is giving us another opportunity to become his own friend.  And if we thus allow Jesus to be our friend in this life, we will be able to stand before him with great confidence when he comes again to judge the living and the dead.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

What the Hell?

 Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time   A 

The Four Last Things
Part III: Hell

It’s been said that in heaven the cooks will all be French, the police will all be British, the lovers will all be Italian, and everything will be organized by Germans.  On the other hand, in hell the cooks will all be British, the police will all be French, the lovers will all be German, and everything will be organized by Italians!

I want to thank you all for your prayers during this past week while I was on retreat.  It was truly a graced time of prayer and reflection—without a doubt, the best retreat I’ve ever made.  In fact, I could say it was a little “taste of heaven”…even if the cook was Italian and not French.  The greater irony is that, coming off of this heavenly experience, I jump back into our homily series on the Four Last Things by preaching to you today about uplifting topic of hell.

We’ve just heard Jesus tell us his parable of the talents.  When we hear this story, it’s easy enough to think of it in terms of our natural abilities—our “talents”—and many a homily has been given on it inviting folks to get more involved in their parish and share their God-given gifts.  It also brings to mind the stewardship of our financial resources, providing many a pastor the opportunity to talk about increasing the collection.  Those things are good and important, but this Sunday we’re going to consider something far more decisive.

The “talent” mentioned in the gospel was an ancient unit of money, and it’s value varied.  A single silver talent was worth between 15-20 years’ wages of manual laborer.  A bronze talent was worth a bit less; a gold talent, a bit more.  In any case, we’re talking here about a considerable amount of wealth.

The master entrusts his fortune to the care of his servants according to their ability.  Two of his servants are obviously quite capable, given the large amount they each receive.  And they didn’t disappoint him: by trade and investment, by their effort and risk-taking, they earn him a 100% return.  (Don’t you wish you could find a stockbroker like that?) 

Then there's that poor third servant, who's quite the opposite of the industrious woman, the worthy wife, described in such glowing terms by Solomon.  This one gives back the exact amount he had received.  Even if he’d only earned a small return, that would have been better than nothing at all.  But he made no effort, took no risk, and simply buried the great wealth that had been given to his care.

The master’s response to this lack of initiative can seem awfully harsh, especially since nothing was actually lost: the servant had not squandered his money nor run off with it.  It’s harsh…unless what we’re talking about here is something more valuable than money.  In fact, it’s nowhere near too harsh if what this parable is really talking about is our salvation.

This Sunday, instead of taking stock of how we’re using our skills and our finances, let’s take stock of how invested we are in our Catholic faith.  God has entrusted us with things worth far more than even a huge heap of bronze, silver, and gold.  After his Death and Resurrection, before making the return journey to the Father, Jesus handed over to the care of his followers some incredible treasures: he’s given us the Church, the seven sacraments, the holy scriptures, prayer, his Mother Mary and all the saints.  By his Blood, Jesus won for us all the means necessary for our salvation.  What are we doing with them while we await his Coming?  Are we putting them to good use?  Earning a high return?  Or have we buried and hidden them away for safekeeping?  We know our Master’s high expectations; what are you and I doing to fulfill them?

You see, if we haven’t proven ourselves trustworthy and industrious in this world, how can we expect to inherit the next?  If I’ve only prayed halfheartedly here, should I expect to one day enter into the fullness of joy?  If I don’t always make time for Mass, can I reasonably expect happiness that never ends?  If I don’t read the Bible, ought I hope for what it promises?  If I give my time to sitting in front of the TV or surfing Internet but never to adoring the Blessed Sacrament, can I rightfully anticipate to behold God face-to-face?  If I don’t keep company with God’s holy ones on earth, can I assume I’ll be comfortable dwelling with them in Paradise?

You and I were made by God, and you and I were made for God: to enjoy life with him eternally.  That’s been God’s plan from the very beginning.  In God and with God is found our true meaning, our deep fulfillment, our real happiness—now and forever.  Hell is being separated from all of this—to be separated from God: from the one for whom our hearts long; from the destiny for which we were created.  To close oneself off from God’s love and mercy, to die in mortal sin without repentance, to fail to make any investment or return—even a small one—on the priceless means of salvation with which Christ has entrusted you, means being separated from the Lord forever.  That’s not the whim of some strict, angry God.  Hell is our own choice.  We damn ourselves.

It sounds kind of crazy, but the real possibility of hell is actually a necessary element of God’s boundless love for us.  Because he loves us, God has the highest respect for us and for the free will that we’ve been given.  If we weren’t truly free, we could not truly love him in return.  Which means we can choose to love…or choose not to love.  And love, of course, isn’t just a matter of some nice words or vague feelings; it’s a matter of action, it’s an entire way of life.  Our human freedom would be a big sham if the winning score were already fixed regardless of how we play the game.  Do you think the Son of God would have gone to all the trouble of becoming man and dying on a Cross if heaven were simply automatic for everybody?  God will not force himself on us. 

God does not want us to go to hell.  And the Church fervently prays that none of her children will be lost.  But the decision, my friends, belongs to each soul.  We must choose, and follow through on our choice.

So, how do we grow the Lord’s investment in us?  How do we make a responsible return on the immense spiritual wealth that we’ve been given?  (1) For one thing, on a personal level, we need to remember that faith, like the muscles of our bodies, needs to be exercised in order to grow and get stronger—and it’s not enough to do so only on rare or special occasions.  As with money: put your faith to work, and it will work for you.  (2) Secondly, on a wider scale, we grow our faith by spreading it around.  If we hope to see faith increase in the world, then we must be willing to share it with others.

Like our reflections on Purgatory a couple of Sunday’s ago, such talk might seem awfully old fashioned.  I suspect it’s been quite awhile since you’ve heard a homily on hell.  In fact, it’d be easy to think that modern, enlightened Catholics shouldn’t even talk about this stuff any more!  But just listen to what the Bishops at Vatican II had to say on the subject, citing this Sunday’s parable:
Since we know not the day nor the hour, we should follow the advice of the Lord and watch constantly so that, having finished the course of our earthly life, we may merit to enter into the marriage feast with him and to be numbered among the blessed and not be ordered to depart into the eternal fire like the wicked and slothful servant, into the outer darkness where "there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Lumen Gentium, 48).

Now you might be thinking, “Father, I come here to Mass hoping to go home with a good feeling.  Thoughts of hell don’t exactly leave me with a smile on my face.”  My silly opening joke wasn’t enough to do that!  But my task as your parish priest isn’t to get you to smile for an hour or two; it’s to make sure you share in the happiness that never ends.  These teachings may be sobering, I know, but the stakes are that high.  Hell isn’t there to cause us to live in fear and trembling, but it does call us to get serious about the heavenly treasures placed into our hands.  Each one of us will be called upon to give a full accounting.  What return will you make?

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Just Heavenly

I'm away on retreat right no homily to post for you.  Please pray that my spiritual exercises get me a bit closer to heaven!

Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time   A 

The Four Last Things
Part II: Heaven

"The great lesson designed for us in this parable is expressed in those words with which our Lord concludes: Watch because you know not the day nor the hour. The bridegroom in the parable came in the middle of the night, that is, at a time when he was least expected…. Not that he desires to surprise us, for if he did he would not so often warn us; but that he desires we would always watch, and be always ready, that so we may never be surprised.…Oh, who can express or conceive the greatness of these heavenly rewards, of these highest honors, of these never-ending joys, signified here by our Lord's ministering in this manner himself to the servants whom he shall find watching!…Conclude to bear always in mind this indispensable duty of watching, so frequently inculcated by the Son of God, that so you may never be surprised and sleep in death. Carry always with you the lamp of faith to enlighten yourself, but never forget that this light must be kept in with the oil of good works."
Richard Challoner (1691-1781)

Sunday, November 5, 2017

We're All Gonna Die

Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time   A 

The Four Last Things
Part I: Death (& Purgatory)

The Lectionary gives us some rather rough readings for the clergy this Sunday, doesn’t it?  The Apostle Paul sets out the ideal for Christian leaders: to share both the gospel—which is the very word of God—and even to share something of ourselves, building a true rapport of love with God’s people.  But the prophet Malachi passes on a word of warning from the Lord to his priests: You have turned aside from the right way, and caused many others to falter; of your blessing I will make a curse.  And then Jesus warns the crowds about the scribes and Pharisees—the religious authorities of their day: You should do as they say, but not as they do.  They don't practice what they preach.

Rough words indeed!  And, sadly, they still ring all-too-true today, as the scandals of the last few decades have made painfully clear.  We should be troubled by the reprehensible things some priests have done.  But we priests should also examine ourselves about some things we have failed to do—more specifically, some things we have failed to say.  In the face of the surrounding culture, this is not an easy time to be a faithful, uncompromising Catholic.  It’s no excuse, but it’s not an easy time to speak up and say what one ought as a faithful priest.

Now, this is probably when you figure: So he’s going to talk to us about abortion, or sexuality, or some other hot button issue.  Relax.  No…at least, not this Sunday.

One subject we priests have failed to preach and teach about in recent years is Purgatory.  And I think that’s the case for two reasons: speaking about Purgatory requires us to consider two intertwined realities we’d rather forget: sin and death.

At a conference I attended last spring, a Catholic Hospice nurse gave a fine talk to a room full of priests.  I remember distinctly how she said to us: Fathers, do not neglect your duty to the dying.  It’s the most important thing you do as priests: you prepare people to meet God.  She was right.  And that’s really something we priests need to do for our people long before we’re praying at their deathbeds.

More than a month ago, Fr. Scott proposed that we do something to remedy the situation and give a series of homilies on “The Four Last Things”: death, heaven, hell, and judgment.  Having just celebrated the feast of All Saints, the commemoration of All Souls, and at this Mass praying by name for the 140 individuals whose funerals and burials have taken place in this parish over the last 12 months, we begin today with a Catholic consideration of death—and along with it, some thoughts on Purgatory.

Any clergyman or funeral director can tell you: the way we mourn our dead in America has changed rather rapidly and dramatically in recent years.  In fact, many people don’t even call them “funerals” anymore; instead, they plan “celebrations of life.”  And—quite understandably—in search of some comfort, folks frequently say things like, “She's an angel now” (even though they didn’t exactly think of her in angelic terms while she was alive), and, “He’s in a better place” (which isn’t all that hard to imagine, given the hardship we endure in this world).

But is getting into heaven automatic—a guarantee—as we so often speak and act?  That’s not what we read in the pages of the Bible.  And it’s not what we find in the writings of the saints.  It mustn’t be taken for granted—whether for ourselves, or for our departed loved ones.  For you and me, that means we need to get our lives in order, to set our priorities straight, for a day of reckoning will come, and there’s no escaping it.  For our dead, that means we need to do more than celebrate their lives, more than simply remember.  We mustn’t stop at pulling out the old pictures and playing their favorite song.  We need to pray for them—which is what our Catholic funeral rituals are all about.  That’s what those who have passed away truly need from us.  They may have been good people—maybe even really good people—but they were not perfect people.  We will all, however, stand before a perfect God one day, and to him we must render an account—priests and parishioners alike.

The Church’s teaching on Purgatory has roots in the Old Testament (e.g. 2Maccabees 12:39-46) and the practices of the earliest Christians, who—even if they didn’t use the word—consistently prayed for their dead…and why pray for the dead if you don’t believe your prayers can have any effect?  It’s best to think of Purgatory more as a process than a place: the process of purification to become as holy as necessary to enter the joy of heaven (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1030).  Purgatory is only possible for those who have died in God’s friendship—that is, in a state of grace, repentant of all mortal sin.  It’s not a second chance, not an opportunity to start over, not a “Get Out of Jail Free” card; Purgatory’s a matter of taking care of unfinished business, of completing the soul’s deep cleaning that we have already begun before death. 

Scripture tells us that nothing unclean will be able to enter God’s presence in heaven (Revelation 21:27).  While it will be more or less intense, more or less uncomfortable, depending on the sort of life we’ve led, Purgatory is the definitive removal of any remaining impurities: sin, our attachment to it, and all of its lingering effects.  The pains of Purgatory—often described in terms of fire—are not a temporary, lesser hell intended to torment us, but are the side effect of the thorough purging necessary to truly heal us.  (Think of it like physical therapy: it only hurts because God has to push you hard enough to help you get better.)

When a loved one dies, we miss them.  We can also feel quite helpless in the face of their passing, and wish there was something we could do.  There is!  Maintain your real and living connection with the faithful departed.  Don’t fail to aid them at a time when they are unable to help themselves.  It’s a good and pious custom to visit and care for the graves of the deceased—the places where their mortal remains await the Day of Resurrection.  But we should also come to the assistance of their immortal souls, and we do that by our prayers, by gaining indulgences, by doing penances, by performing acts of charity, and—of supreme value—by offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

The Church’s doctrine of Purgatory might seem “old fashioned” to some—best left on a dusty old shelf and forgotten.  But I think it’s actually one of the most consoling truths of our Catholic faith.  I know all too well that I’m not who I want to be, who I ought to be, in order to live in God’s presence forever.  Plain and simple: I’m a sinner.  If I could get frequent flyer miles in the confessional, I’d be taking a lot of exotic vacations.  Which is to say, if this life is my only hope—I’m pretty much sunk!  But if I haven’t cut myself off completely from the Lord, if the work of my purification can carry on and be completed after I draw my last breath—that’s truly a great work of Divine Mercy.  It’s a source of incredible hope.

Chris Stefanick is a husband, father of six, and one of the most powerful and popular Catholic speakers in our country today.  Last Thursday—All Souls Day—he released a brief video on the Christian understanding of death that I’ve posted to the parish website.  I couldn’t say it any better, so I’ll just repeat his words:

Death.  It’s the final enemy of mankind.   And even though it feels so unnatural and shocking, everybody has to experience it.  And the billions of people on this planet will all be replaced by billions more in about a hundred years.  Every single one of us has to die.

So how do you deal with that uncomfortable fact?  You know, the Romans and the epicureans throughout history, they drowned that reality with their wine.  Buddhists embrace that reality with the notion that we have to let go of our sense of self now—it’s just an illusion anyway.  You know, atheists: they try not to think about it too much. 

But Christianity—it’s the ultimate defiance to death.  We believe in the Christmas invasion.  We believe in a God who was born behind enemy lines and walked through the valley of the shadow of death with us.  We believe in the Easter victory.   We believe in life everlasting.  You see, we Christians make peace with death because we can look it in the eye and say, “We win.”

We weren’t made for death.  We were made for life, and death’s days are numbered.    Sure, we still have that gut-level fear of death, which is not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of being human.  It’s OK.  It keeps us from playing in traffic and running with scissors.

I mean, we still have to deal with the pain of death, which is very real.  But a new light shines in the darkness.  And all that pain, and fear, and sadness, and even anger: it’s forever changed by Easter Sunday.   It’s forever changed by the faith that death isn’t a period; it’s a comma.  It’s forever changed by the hope of reunion with all those faces we miss so much.  And by the knowledge that we don’t face death alone: we have a God who is walking with us.  And we have an army of loved ones who went before us who are cheering us on, right on the other side of that finish line.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Hip for Halloween

Just take a look at what Fr. Scott had carved when I got home on Halloween...

Priest turned hipster (that's the look I was going for in my costume), meet Hipster pumpkin!

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Does That Make You Jealous?

 Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time   A 

Did your parents ever play favorites among your brothers and sisters?  Or did you ever play favorites with your own kids?  Most siblings joke about just who mom or dad loved best.  In my family, it wasn’t a joke: with one sibling so clearly more intelligent, handsome, and charming than all the others, of course I was their favorite.  Just kidding!!!

A study done a few years ago revealed that parents playing favorites isn’t really a joke.  It turns out that 70% of fathers and 74% of mothers admitted to purposely giving preferential treatment to one of their children.  

That’s kind of disturbing news, isn’t it?

But what if I were to tell you that God himself shows favoritism among his children?  But—you object—God loves us all, and he loves us all equally.  True enough.  But if you read the Scriptures closely, you begin to see that God repeatedly shows special treatment to some folks.  Consider our first reading this Sunday.  As God lays out laws for his people, he singles out foreigners and strangers, widows and orphans, the poor as people deserving of favored treatment and protection.  God has a soft spot for outsiders and the vulnerable, and he expects us to do the same.  God wants us, like him, to show extra care and compassion to those who need love the most—maybe even to those who deserve love the least.

Who in your life right now, who among your neighbors, is poorest when it comes to experiencing love?  And what are you going to do about it?

Now, what if I were to tell that God’s love no only plays favorites, but that it’s insanely jealous.  It’s true.  God tells us so point blank, just a couple of chapters earlier in Exodus, while giving the Ten Commandments: “I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God” (Ex 20:5).  What is God jealous for?  Well, God is jealous for your love, your trust, and your company.

God is jealous for your love.  He won’t be content just being one more item on the long list of people and things you love.  God won’t even settle for being number 1.  If there’s anything else on the your, God wants it to be there because you love it for his sake.  Of course God expects us to love him more than our house or our car.  He expects us to love him more than our country or the Church.  He even expects us to love him more than our spouse or our children.  God is jealous for your love, and so he asks for your whole heart.

God is jealous for you trust.  In what sort of things do we put our trust?  Maybe we put stock in our intelligence, good looks, or charm—the things that made us the favorite son or daughter.  Maybe we see strength in our family name, our influence, or our wealth.  But all of those things can and do fail us.  God wants us to leave no room for such idols, for such false gods—demanding our undivided allegiance.  God is jealous for your trust, and so he asks for your full soul.

God is also jealous for your company.  Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone who can’t take their eyes (or their thumbs) off of their Smartphone?  They might say they’re still listening…but how much of their attention are you really getting?  Imagine how often God must have that experience when he’s trying to communicate with us!  God’s purpose in creating us—in creating all things, actually—is to enter into an exclusive, intimate relationship with you and me—one that starts now, and is meant to last forever.  God is jealous for your company, and so he asks for your entire mind.

God’s looking for more than a little affection, more than an emotional response from us; he’s looking for a deep and total commitment.  The Lord has every right to expect from us our all.

God’s love is jealous, and it plays favorites.  And both of those details come to the fore as Jesus reveals the two greatest commandments in God’s law: that we must love God with all of our heart, soul, and mind, and love our neighbor as ourselves.  To keep these is our highest obligation.  In fact, we can’t be genuinely observing any other of God’s laws if we are not first keeping these two commands.

Now you know!  God plays favorites.  So be sure to love those whom God loves best: love your neighbors who need it most.  And God is insanely jealous—jealous for your love, your trust, and your company.  So give him what he desires more than anything: all of your heart, all of your soul, and all of your mind.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Don't Play That Game

 Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time   A 

When I was born in Plattsburgh, the city had a most unique mayor: Roland St. Pierre—Father Roland St. Pierre, a Roman Catholic priest.  With the permission of his superiors, in 1971 he resigned his position as pastor of my home parish in order to run for office.  He beat the incumbent that November by a margin of almost 2-to-1, and went on to be reelected twice.

Have no fear: I’m not about to announce to you that I’m running for mayor of Malone!

Fr. St. Pierre’s time as an elected official certainly raises the issue of the appropriate relationship between Church and State, between religion and politics.  That’s not a new concern, as this Sunday’s gospel reading makes clear.  Jesus gives us one of his best one-liners—a catchy sound bite long before our Popes and our Presidents began to “tweet”: Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and unto God what belongs to God. 

It’s a deceptively simple phrase. 

To begin with, Jesus affirms that there is a legitimate distinction between these two spheres of influence.  Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar…  Like right religion, a just government has a valid and crucial role to play in the world: making laws, giving order to society, providing for our defense, negotiating treaties, and—yes—even levying taxes in order to pay for all of this.  It’s not a question of either/or, but of both/and.  Which is why it should strike us as strange that a priest would be an elected government official.  It crosses and tangles the lines.  In fact, Canon Law now completely forbids it.  (Sorry, Fr. St. Pierre!)  We can’t allow politics become our religion.

…and render unto God what belongs to God.  And what, my friends, belongs to God?  Everything, of course—even Caesar!  While religious leaders shouldn’t seek to be political leaders, that doesn’t mean the Church doesn’t have anything to say to the State.  In fact, calling politicians to account is an essential part of the Church’s mission, which we especially remember on this World Mission Sunday.  As Christians journeying onward toward the next world, we have a God-given duty to keep making this one better—working for peace and justice, speaking up for those with no voice, whether that’s the unborn child, the refugee, or those approaching their last days on earth.

But Jesus gives this teaching—quite important in and of itself—in a very particular context that reveals to us another critical life lesson (one which I never recognized before hearing Bishop Robert Barron recently reflect on this gospel passage).

In case you haven’t noticed, the Pharisees rather dislike Jesus.  In fact, it’s not too much to say they hate him, since we know they will eventually conspire with other Jewish leaders (whom they would normally consider enemies) in order to have Jesus eliminated.  And so we find them this Sunday setting a trap for him. 

They begin with some false flattery in their effort to trip him up, asking for his opinion on paying the census tax.  Paying taxes has always been unpopular—and particularly so in this case, since we’re talking about money the Jewish people must pay to their pagan Roman conquerors.  The Pharisees know that if Jesus says they should pay, he will be betraying his own people—and therefore alienate much of his “base.”  But they also know that if Jesus says folks should not pay, he’ll run afoul of the Roman authorities—and they can be sure those authorities will find out, since some Herodians are standing nearby, who’re in pretty thick with the Romans.

Have you ever noticed just how mean religious people can be to one another?  We see it between the faithful of different religions, and of different denominations, but it’s most disturbing of all when it’s Catholics versus Catholics.  Two people, two groups, have a difference of religious opinion, and they end up at each other’s throats.  They don’t simply want to convince their opponents otherwise; they attempt to all out destroy them.  If you don’t believe me, look at Catholic news sites online and read some of the comments.  They’re often filled with cruel and hurtful words.  When religion gets so politicized, it results in character assassination at its best, and something like 9/11 at its worst.

This, unfortunately, isn’t reserved to the Internet or international affairs; I’ve seen it all too many times right here in our own community.

We can never serve the God of love by hating other people.  Sure, we can respectfully argue about differing positions.  We can—and should—kindly and constructively correct others when they are mistaken.  But there’s absolutely no room for hate.  It only serves to undermine the gospel we’re on a mission to spread.  When we speak the truth, it must always be in love.

Jesus shows us this other way.  He sees right through the Pharisees’ trap, and refuses to play their game.  That’s the great strategy of his comeback: he doesn’t take the bait; he doesn’t fight fire with fire; he avoids being drawn in to battle.  If Jesus had responded with a counterattack, he would have only given them justification for their suspicion and hatred.  That simple but effective strategy is not a bad one for you and I use to use still today!

Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and unto God what belongs to God.  Let us never neglect our duty to speak up as Christians on the matters of the day, yet without allowing politics to become our religion.  And let us also avoid the temptation to make our religion something political.  We must never look on each other in terms of winners and losers, but always as true brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ—all children of one and the same God.