Sunday, December 19, 2010

An Advent Meditation on Joseph and Mary, December 19th

4th Sunday of Advent, Year A.
December 19th, 2010
Matthew 1:18-24

Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.

During the season of Advent we have the opportunity to develop the interior life, the life of prayer. We all ought to be taking time every day, and especially in these final days before Christmas, to meditate upon the events of Christ’s life. The saints will tell us that daily mental prayer is morally necessary for salvation – and they recommend around 20 minutes a day. Unless we are regularly considering the great works which God has done in the past and the ways he has revealed his love for us, we will be unable to trust in his love now in the present and to look forward to his future coming in glory.
And so, whether our Advent has been a particularly good time of prayer and meditation, or whether we have not been as reflective as we had hoped to be, the Church now gives us these final days before Christmas to re-commit ourselves to daily mental prayer.

Perhaps one reason why so many of us struggle with mental prayer and meditation is that we don’t really understand what we are supposed to be doing. What exactly should those twenty minutes be spent on? What is mental prayer?
The two most popular forms of mental prayer and meditation are surely the Rosary and Lectio Divina (prayerfully reading Sacred Scripture) – I would like to focus on the second: how do we make a meditation with the Bible?

Today’s Gospel passage offers us a good opportunity to see how mental prayer should work – we can pierce into the text and try to fill it out a bit, seeking to come to a deeper appreciation of the Holy Family. All the while, during a meditation, we must be primarily concerned to look into what the holy persons present in the Biblical narrative are thinking, feeling, doing and saying. What is Mary thinking? What is Joseph thinking? Moreover, we look to discover something of the love which was in the hearts of Mary and Joseph – this love then inspires us to love God in our turn.
First of all, in order understand the relationship between Mary and Joseph, we need to know something of the historical circumstances of their betrothal and marriage. This can be discerned from a careful reading of the Bible passages.

It seems that, when Joseph and Mary were betrothed, but before they come together, they both thought that their marriage would be a natural union. There is no reason to think that either Joseph or Mary knew what God had in store for them – this is why Mary is so surprised when the angel came with the good news at the Annunciation!
Nevertheless, although Mary and Joseph entered into their betrothal period, believing that their marriage would be a normal and natural one, Mary had a desire deep in her heart to become a consecrated virgin. She desired to be a virgin, but she also knew that she was supposed to marry St. Joseph – and so she really didn’t know what to think. But she trusted in God and she also trusted in Joseph, she knew that all would come to pass for the good.

After their betrothal, Mary revealed to St. Joseph that she had a desire to become a consecrated virgin – and you can imagine that this must have been something of a surprise to Joseph! But he was a good man and a just man; and, what is more, he loved and respected Mary very much, and so he took the matter to prayer. Ultimately, Joseph agreed and the two of them together vowed virginity, promising to live as brother and sister in their married life.
But how do we know that Mary was a consecrated virgin? Think of what she said to the angel – Gabriel told her that she would conceive and give birth to a son, but Mary was terribly confused. Why was she confused? She was troubled because she had just made the vow of virginity (together with Joseph) and she knew that virgins don’t ordinarily conceive and give birth to children. If she had not vowed virginity, Mary would have presumed that the child would be the son of Joseph; but it is because she was a virgin and intended to remain a virgin that Mary said to the angel, “How can this be? Since I do not know man.”

Mary then told St. Joseph that she was with child, but she did not explain to him the full circumstances of the conception – she did not tell Joseph about the angel and the Holy Spirit. And why not? Mary remained silent because she was very humble and she did not want to speak more about the divine mysteries than was necessary. Moreover, Mary trusted in St. Joseph, she loved him and she knew that he loved her. She trusted that Joseph, being a just man, would not make a rash decision, that he would not come to a false conclusion, but that he would wait and pray and see what the Lord had to tell him.
Additionally, we see the great faith which Mary had in God – she trusted that God would reveal all things in the proper time, she knew that he would reveal the truth to Joseph in a manner most fitting and most holy.

But what did St. Joseph think? Understandably, he was very confused. On the one hand, he knew his wife was a consecrated virgin, and he knew that she was very holy. Think about it: Joseph had known Mary for many years and he had never seen her commit even the least venial sin! Every time he saw her, everything he knew about Mary told him that she was holy, a woman of great prayer and great faith. And, what is more, Joseph loved Mary, he trusted her, his heart was exceedingly tender towards her – she was his great joy in this life.
But, on the other hand, Mary was now with child – and Joseph didn’t know what to think. I do not say that he doubted the purity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I do not say that he suspected her of sin; I only say that Joseph was torn, that he was confused, and that his faith in God was proved in that he did not act rashly, but trusted in God and took the matter to prayer.

It was at this moment, during this time of trial and confusion, that the angel of the Lord came to Joseph in a dream and revealed the truth. Think of the faith which Joseph had – he believes in a dream! He is willing to stake his whole life, his reputation, everything all on a revelation given in a dream – what faith, and what love!
How tenderly Joseph received Mary into his home – and love filled his heart all the more, as he considered the Christ Child already present in the womb of the Virgin. How Joseph loved Mary and Jesus! How tenderly he watched over them as a father and lord.

Now we have seen what was in the hearts and minds of Joseph and Mary, the next stage would be to consider what love moved the Holy Trinity, as almighty God watched over the couple and guided Joseph and Mary through every difficulty. Finally, we would then consider the heart of Jesus; even in the womb, Jesus already knew and loved each and every one of us. How he loved  his foster father Joseph. How he loved his Mother Mary. Even in those quite months, as he waited to come forth from the most pure womb of the Virgin and to be revealed to the world, Jesus was interceding in our behalf and meriting our salvation.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Do you want to be more joyful?

3rd Sunday of Advent, Year A.
December 12th, 2010
Gaudete Sunday

Rejoice in the Lord always, I say it again rejoice! The Lord is near.

Recently, I had the opportunity to go Christmas caroling with the children from our parish grade school. And, before the kids went out to sing in the various places around the city, the teachers had to remind them to smile. Children, of course, can get a little nervous when in front of a crowd, and so it was necessary for the teachers to remind them to be joyful when singing their Christmas songs.
There is indeed something about Christmas carols which requires that we rejoice as we sing them. There is something about the very nature of Christmas which demands joy.

Today is Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete simply means “rejoice”. The Church tells us to be joyful in the Lord; and it is not a recommendation, it is a command The Faith demands that we Christians be joyful, that we truly do rejoice in the Lord.
But what is this joy which the faith requires? Is it, perhaps, a passing emotion? No, of course not. The joy of which we speak is the spiritual and supernatural joy the soul takes in the Lord when she is in the state of grace. Joy is an effect of the theological virtue of charity – it is as stable in the soul as the state of grace.
In fact, joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit; that is, it is the activity of the Holy Spirit working in and through us! This is why the Church can demand that we be joyful – true joy is always present in the soul which is united to the Holy Spirit through grace.

Precisely because spiritual joy is not a passing emotion, the saints could be joyful even in the midst of terrible hardship and persecution. We can consider how many of the martyrs rejoiced even as they were tortured and killed.
Consider the saint presented to us in today’s Gospel: St. John the Baptist. John lived a very austere and difficult life. He was out in the desert, eating locusts and wild honey. He was not dressed in fine clothes, but in camels hair. John’s life was certainly not easy and he did not have hardly any material comforts – and yet he rejoiced to see the day of the Lord and to point out the Messiah when he came. Moreover, even at the end of his life, when, due to the malice of Herod, John awaited his martyrdom; he was nevertheless joyful and looked for consolation not in the things of this life, but in the Lord.
This is the lesson to be learned from John – if we desire to be truly joyful, we must not be like a reed swayed in the wind, we must not be tossed about by our passions and our worldly cares, we must not look for consolation in the base realities of this life; rather, we must be rooted in the Lord and find all our joy in him.

And so, we have an opportunity to ask ourselves: Am I as joyful as I would like to be? Am I as joyful as I should be? Let us be honest, why do we lack the joy which Christ desires for us?
Now I know that we are all very busy and there are many demands pressing in on every side. Perhaps even we might feel stretched too thin, exhausted. We might think that we are not has happy and joyful as we should be because there are just too many demands that we have to live up to.
My brothers and sisters, it is a lie. There is only one reason why you are not joyful – you sin too often and you pray too little. Only one thing can rob us of spiritual joy, and that is sin. For only sin can take away divine grace.

It is time to stop making all these excuses. Yes, it may be true, perhaps life is hard and demands too much. But the proper response to this is to seek our consolation in Christ. If we do not take our delight in Christ through daily meditation, we will begin to seek joy in all the wrong places. The Lord says, “I know you are tired, I know that life is burdensome to you; then leave the world, even if for just a moment. Come to me and rest a while in prayer. Enter my Sacred Heart and find your true peace, your true joy.”

Advent is a time to be free of all those sins which bind us. Now is the time to begin anew the life of grace, to strive for virtue with greater zeal than before.
Consider the love which Christ our God showed us in becoming a child to save us. May his second coming be for us the fulfillment of all joy.

Advent Confession, Sermon of December 5th

2nd Sunday of Advent, Year A.
December 5th, 2010.
Matthew 3:1-12

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!

Advent is confession for the communion of Christmas. Advent is confession for Christmas’ communion.
What does this phrase really mean? Well, let’s be straightforward – it means that each and every person in the parish who has reached the age of reason should go to confession at least one time during the season of Advent. All of us should go to confession at least once during Advent, in order to be well prepared to receive Christ more fully this Christmas.

Advent is a sort of confession, in preparation for the communion with Christ which we must more deeply enter into at Christmas. It is for this reason that St. John the Baptist tells us, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” Notice, fist John challenges us, then he gives us a word of encouragement.
First, John says, “Repent.” This is the challenge – it is the call to turn away from sin, to rid ourselves of all the worldly attachment which plague us. But then he continues, “For the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” Here is the encouragement – this is the time of grace, this is the time for conversion, the Lord will help you, do not be discouraged.

Advent is confession for Christmas’ communion. Advent is that time to be free from those same old sins which weigh us down. Advent is the time to consider that the Lord is coming, grace is here; let us use this grace well.
In order to understand more fully how Advent is like confession and Christmas like communion, it is necessary to consider the relation between these two sacraments.

How is confession related to communion?
Obviously, confession is given as that means of healing and forgiveness so that we can enter into communion more deeply and with greater fruitfulness. Confession is a means of preparing the way of the Lord, readying our hearts for the reception Christ’s sacramental presence in the Blessed Sacrament.
Sometimes, confession is necessary before communion – whenever we have committed a mortal sin, it is necessary to first go to confession before coming to receive communion; forgiveness is needed before we are prepared to enter into union with our Lord.
Here it is good to mention that intentionally skipping Mass on Sunday, without a serious reason, is a mortal sin – if we have skipped Mass on a Sunday or a holy day of obligation, we must first receive the Lord’s forgiveness through confession before we receive him sacramentally in communion. Moreover, it must be mentioned that December 8th is the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, it is a holy day of obligation.  If we are planning on skipping Mass this coming Wednesday (December 8th), then we cannot come to communion today – we must be honest with God, we must never receive communion when we are separated from Christ through serious sin.

However, to return to confession and communion and the relation to Advent – we must heed the call of John the Baptist, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” What we cannot do, what would be utterly disastrous for our spiritual lives, would be to think that we really have no need of repentance. This alone will destroy our life with Christ, if we say, “Oh, I am basically a pretty good person.” No! We are sinners, and we stand in great need of a Savior!
This is what led John the Baptist to treat the Pharisees so harshly – he called them a “brood of vipers” because they considered themselves to be basically good people who didn’t really need to repent. The Pharisees thought that they really had no great need of a Savior, because they didn’t think that they were really sinners. And, it is true, if we deny our sin, then we deny our Redeemer.

This Advent we ask the Lord to purify us of this Pharisaic tendency to deny our sinfulness and our need for God’s mercy and forgiveness. It is the Pharisee who says that he doesn’t really need to go to confession. It is the Pharisee who says that he really doesn’t have any sins to confess.
We, however, must know our sinfulness and our need for God’s grace. It would be good for each of us to get in the habit of making a more regular confession, since this helps us to be ever more conscious of our faults and of God’s love and mercy. Those who come to Mass every Sunday, should go to confession at least every other month. For those who attend daily Mass, we ought to confess at least once a month. These two sacraments work together – confession and communion. They are meant to be received together, and together they will bring us happily to life everlasting.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Christ, the merciful and compassionate King

Christ the King, Year C.
November 21st, 2010
Luke 23:35-43

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

As Americans we have a hard time accepting the idea of kings and kingdoms; but as Catholics we know that Christ is not a president, he is a King. Christ did not found a democracy, he established a Church, which is his Kingdom. However, when we think of Christ as King, we must remember that he far excels all earthly kings and rulers, he is the Good King, the King of justice, the King of peace.
If we want to understand who Christ is as our King, we must consider what a good king is meant to do for his people: he provides for their needs, especially in difficult times. The good king judges his people in fairness, he is eminently merciful. Moreover, the good king protects and defends his people from outside invaders, he is their safeguard against the enemy.

This image of the good king, ruling over and providing for his people, is something of an image for the Kingdom of Heaven – that Kingdom of peace and justice, of security and eternal joy. When we consider that this is the Kingdom which Christ comes to establish, we ought not fear his coming, but we must look forward to that day with great joy – thus we pray, “Thy kingdom come.”
It is true that, when he comes again, the Lord will separate the just from the wicked, as sheep are separated from goats, but we need not fear – for we are the people he has redeemed, if only we turn to him in faith. The Kingdom which Christ brings is the fulfillment of our hope.

On the other hand, Christ wishes for us to know that we need not even fear his judgment, if only we entrust ourselves to his mercy. The Lord desires to prove to us that he is not a king who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses and suffering. And so we are given to think upon the Cross. It is particularly at this moment, when he is most humbled and most humiliated, that Christ reveals himself as our King.
The Kingdom of peace and justice is coming, yet we still suffer – but Christ proves that he knows our suffering, he shows that he is capable of compassion.

And, so that we might be more inclined to turn to his Divine Mercy, the Savior desired that the good thief should repent at the last moment. Then, in the midst of the greatest of all suffering, the Lord received the contrition of the penitent thief. A life of sin is reversed by the simple words, “Jesus, remember me. Oh my Jesus, do not deny me. Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Here we learn that the mercy of Christ is greater than all human weakness and sin. Witnessing such great Love, how could we turn away? How could we flee from Christ’s mercy?

One thing, however, will not due – unfortunately it is something which is very common today – the one thing which will surely separate us from Christ and plunge us into Hell is this: If we deny that we have sinned, if we act as though we are not sinners, if we pretend that we are worthy of heaven, then Christ will deny us. So many people today will say, “Oh, I am basically a good person. I haven’t done anything that bad.” What pretense! What arrogance!
Only this – denying that we are sinners in need of Christ’s mercy – only this can separate us from the Love of God.

As we come to the end of the Church’s liturgical year, and as we prepare to enter into the season of Advent, we look forward to the coming of our merciful and compassionate King. For those who are faithful, his Day of Judgment, shall be a day of vindication and the beginning of life everlasting.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

When Confession is needed before receiving Communion

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C.
September 12, 2010
Luke 15:1-32, The parable of the prodigal son

While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him … Then the celebration began.

There is a very popular saying about love, which goes like this: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
My brothers and sisters, that is a lie. Love is not opposed to apologizing. Anyone who is married knows from concrete experience that love often requires us to say “Sorry”.
In fact, true sorrow can only come from true love; and perfect sorrow comes from perfect love. Sorrow is an expression of love. True sorrow heals and restores true love.

How well this is expressed by the parable of the prodigal son. It is love which leads the wayward son to have the confidence to return to his father and to ask for mercy. The son realizes that he does love his father and that he is heartily sorry for having offended him; what is more, the son also knows that his father truly loves him and will forgive him.
Even before the son has reached the house, the father runs out to meet him and welcomes his son with the embrace of love. The father has loved his son even when he was astray, now his love is complete as he forgives his son and draws him back into the family.

This is a very beautiful and encouraging parable – it teaches us so much about God’s forgiveness and mercy – but I would like to focus on one specific aspect of the story. Notice that the boy, when returning, is first greeted by his father and forgiven, and only then does he enter the house. First he receives forgiveness, then he enters for the feast.
Consider how inappropriate it would have been if the prodigal son would have simply come into the house without having apologized to his father, without first receiving forgiveness. It would have been terrible!
It is very clear: First forgiveness, then the feast. First confession, then communion.

This is why, at Mass, we begin with the penitential rite – conscious of our sinfulness and our need for God’s forgiveness, we say, “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.” We recognize the need to say “Lord, I am sorry, have mercy on me, forgive me.” We must be reconciled with God; we must first receive his forgiveness, then we come to the feast of heaven.

However, we must also recognize that for serious sins, the Lord has given us a special sacrament which we must make use of before coming to Communion. I am referring to the sacrament of Confession. After committing serious sins, the Church requires that we go to Confession before coming to Communion. It is just like in the parable – first Confession, then Communion.
Now I know that this has not been preached about very much, and perhaps this is the first time some of you have heard this teaching. I don’t know why so few priests are speaking about it… The Catechism is very clear on this point, paragraph 1385 states: “Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to Communion.” Even the music books (Breaking Bread, OCP) in the pews state this in equally strong language on the inside of the front cover, under the “Guidelines for the reception of Communion, for Catholics.”
After committing a serious sin, we cannot receive Communion without having first gone to Confession. Instead, we must either remain in the pew or, if staying in the pew would be too difficult, we may come up and cross our arms to receive a blessing – but we must not take Communion when we have serious sin on our souls.

Now some will say, “But I have asked God for forgiveness in my heart, isn’t that enough?” Perhaps God has forgiven you, in your heart. However, if we have made only a “spiritual confession”, we are able only to make a “spiritual communion”; forgiveness in the heart can only lead to communion in the heart – thus, I would recommend offering special prayers to Jesus and professing your love for him, but one must not receive him in Sacramental Communion without Sacramental Confession.
If we want to receive Christ in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, we must first receive his forgiveness in the Sacrament of Confession. If we desire to take Communion from the hands of the priest at Mass, we must first receive forgiveness from the hands of the priest in Confession.
My brothers and sisters, nothing is more effective in leading us to holiness and union with Christ than a good and worthy Communion. Nothing is more valuable before God than receiving the Eucharist in the state of grace and in a worthy manner.
On the other hand, nothing will destroy our union with Christ more than an unworthy Communion. Nothing is more effective in separating us from Christ and plunging us into the depths of hell than taking Communion after having committed serious sin and not having gone to Confession.
Let us make no mistake, a good and worthy Communion is everything! Everything relies upon the Most Blessed Sacrament of the altar!

But let’s get real practical. I would like to list three serious sins, sins which are very common and which must be confessed before we come to Communion. Certainly, there are many other sins, and there are even many other worse sins, but I mention these three because they are so common and so often misunderstood. Everything I say here is from the Catechism; it is not my opinion, it is the clear teaching of Christ and his Church.

First, skipping Sunday Mass. To skip Mass on Sunday, without a grave reason, is a very serious sin.  If we skip Sunday Mass, we must not come to Communion until after first going to Confession.
Second, any sin against the 6th Commandment; that is, any external sexual sin either alone or with another person – I think you all know what sort of sins I am referring to here. Sins against chastity are very serious. We must confess any external sin against chastity before we come to Communion.
Finally, drunkenness and drug abuse. By drunkenness, I do not mean simply being a bit tipsy or loopy; I am talking about real intoxication, a loss of reason. To intentionally get drunk or abuse drugs is a serious sin, it must be confessed before coming to Communion. Moreover, to drive while under the influence is a serious sin – one must first go to Confession before coming to Communion.

I do not say this to be hard or difficult. This is a teaching of love! It is all about forgiveness and communion. But we must come to Christ in the proper order – we must approach God in a worthy and holy manner.
Be sure of this: The good and worthy Communions we make in this life will bring us all to the glory of life everlasting.

Monday, November 15, 2010

On the last judgment, Sermon of November 14th

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C.
November 14th, 2010
Luke 21:5-19

Jesus said, “All that you see here – the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down … But not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”

I would like to begin with a little thought experiment – take a moment and think about what your primary image of Christ is. When you think of Jesus, what image or what event first comes to your mind?
I am sure that, for many of us, we think of various moments in Christ’s life – either his birth or one of his miracles, perhaps his preaching or his love for the children; I am sure that many think of the crucifixion, when he proved his love for us. Perhaps even some have thought of the resurrection or Christ as he is now, reigning in the glory of heaven. And all of these are fine and good images of Christ – but none of these are the principle ways in which the earliest Christians thought about the Savior.

For the first Christians, the primary image of Christ was not something from the past (something from his life on earth), nor from the present (as he now is in heaven); rather, the central focus of the earliest Christians was a future event: the second coming and the day of judgment. When they thought of the Lord, they immediately thought of the end of time and the coming of God’s Kingdom.
Today’s Gospel, in which Christ speaks about the last days, would have been at the fore of everyone’s mind in the early Church – more than anything else, the early Christians looked forward. They focused on the goal; not only their own personal goal, which is salvation and heaven, but also the goal of all history: The last day, the final judgment, and the resurrection of the body.
Moreover, in the earliest days, the Church suffered intense persecution and grave trials. The first Christians would have identified with Christ’s words: For they were often betrayed and even killed by family and friends. They knew well that the whole world hated them. And yet they did not fear, for they knew that Christ would be coming soon.

It is our task, in these final days of the Church’s year (which begins anew at Advent), to make this fundamental disposition of the early Christians our own. We too must foster this longing for the Kingdom. Indeed, I am sure that we all desire that Christ would come again, for we all pray “thy kingdom come.” And yet, though we do want the kingdom to come, we often secretly add, “but please not today!”
Perhaps we are a bit afraid of the second coming, perhaps we fear the end of the world. But why are we afraid? It is Christ who is coming. It is the Lord, our Savior; he comes to bring peace for his people!

In these final two weeks of the Liturgical year, and as we prepare for Advent, we can consider what it is in our lives that makes us to fear the coming of Christ, and then offer that to the Lord.
Is it an attachment to sin in our own lives? Let us turn to Christ and ask for his healing love. We have the sacrament of Confession, it is a great means of healing and strength.
Or, do we fear the final judgment because we have loved ones who are estranged from Christ or from the Church? We should pray for them. Remember, Christ died for them; will he not convert them, if only we persevere in prayer? We need only entrust them to the Divine Mercy!

No, we must not fear the second coming, we must not fear the day of judgment. There will indeed be tumult and distress, but this will not be from Christ – it will be that final assault of evil, that sad moment of human weakness and sin. For the world will not slowly get better and better, progressing to become the Kingdom of God. Rather, the world will get worse and worse, and the Church will suffer intense persecutions and trials. But then, when it seems that the gates of hell are about to prevail against Christ’s Bride, then he will come!
The second coming will not be a time of chaos, but, for those who believe, it will be the end of all sorrow and the beginning of eternal peace. Indeed, for Christ’s faithful, the second coming will scarcely be a day of judgment – rather, it will be a moment of vindication!

When the Lord tells us that he will soon return in glory to judge the heavens and the earth, this is not a threat. No, it is a promise which gives rise to a great hope. And this hope wells up within us unto life everlasting.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The happiest and most perfect vocation? To be a monk or a nun!, Sermon of September 5th

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C.
September 5th, 2010
Luke 14:25-33, The cost of discipleship

Great crowds were traveling with Jesus, and he turned and addressed them, “If anyone comes after me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple … Anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.”

Of all the saints of the Church’s history, excepting the Blessed Virgin Mary, perhaps none is more beloved than St. Francis of Assisi. The joy of this great Saint was a light to the world in his day, and has shown through these 800 years even to illumine our own times. St. Francis may well be the happiest and most joyful man of the past millennium.
And yet, if we ask from where this joy came, we must affirm that St. Francis found his joy in hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life … in renouncing all his possessions and following Christ!

When still a young man, Francis renounced his father and mother, his brothers and sisters, his family inheritance, and followed Christ. He would no longer be bound to his earthly family, but to God above. In this he embraced the vow of obedience, by which all other relations are subjected to our relationship with God.
Moreover, Francis took upon himself the vow of poverty, renouncing all his possessions in order to imitate Christ who became poor for our sakes. Francis became known as the poor man of Assisi.
Finally, we must recognize that St. Francis can be said to have hated wife and children, when he vowed himself to perpetual chastity – becoming celibate for the sake of the kingdom of God.

It was these three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience which made St. Francis to be the happiest man of his age – through living out these vows, Francis followed Christ in the most perfect vocation.

We may be a bit surprised by the words of today’s Gospel, which speak of “hating” father and mother, wife and children, and even one’s own life. There is a great cost to being a disciple of Christ, there is a real sacrifice which must be made. Now I am sure that you have head in past homilies of how this word “hate” does not mean hate in the usual modern sense – our Lord, of course, is advocating that we love God above all and that all our other loves must be ordered to this love of God. We do not hate anyone, but our love for others must always be seen in relation to our love for God
Yet, you have probably also heard that Jesus is speaking in a hyperbole here, that he is exaggerating. In fact, it is true that most of us are not called to renounce all human relations and follow the words of Christ to the letter, but we must never forget that there some who are so called – this is not a case of pure exaggeration.
Consecrated religious– that is, monks and nuns – do take the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. And, just like St. Francis, monks and nuns really do live out the radical discipleship of which Christ speaks in the Gospel today.

Now you might wonder, “Can anyone really be happy, living such a life?” We need only look to St. Francis for our answer – there was none more happy, more full of joy than he, and yet he found his joy precisely in these vows. We affirm not only that one can be happy as a monk or a nun, but (what is more) there is no life happier! There is no life more joyful than consecrated life – the life of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Do you doubt the truth of this? Even statistically it can be proven! It is a very sad fact that about 50% of marriages today end in divorce – but I assure you that not nearly 50% of priests, monks, or nuns leave their vocations. If it is true that some particular monks or nuns have been unhappy; it is also true that, on the whole, they are among the happiest people in our country. I am speaking scientifically now: Those who have consecrated their lives to God through these three vows are, on the whole, far happier than married persons. Statistically, the happiest life in the United States right now is religious life!

And so, to you young people here, I ask: Have you thought about religious life? Have you thought of becoming a priest or a monk or a nun? There is no happier life. If you are called to be a religious, there is no life greater! Why, the life you live on earth will become a foretaste of heaven!

And to you here who are parents and grandparents, I ask: Have you encouraged your children and grandchildren to consider religious life? If they mention the thought to you, have you supported them? What are you afraid of? If you want your sons and daughters to be happy, help them to discern a call to become a monk or a nun, or perhaps a priest – there is no life happier, there is no surer road to joy!
But how can young people even consider the possibility of religious life, if they are never given an opportunity to see monks or nuns? It is a bit easier for them to have some encounters with diocesan priests, but you must work to give your children an opportunity to meet consecrated religious. There are a few monasteries and convents in the area – there are Carmelite monks in Wyoming, and Benedictines in North Dakota. Why not take a family trip some time? Especially, as your children come into their high school years, it will be important to give them some exposure to religious life – how else will they be able to discern if God could be calling them to this most precious and most joyful vocation?

May the joy and the love of Christ dwell in our hearts this day and, as we come into a more intimate union with his Most Sacred Heart, may we be drawn away from the cares of this world and begin to rejoice in the foretaste of life everlasting.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

On the resurrection of the flesh, November 7th

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C.
November 7th, 2010
Luke 20:27-38

Some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection, came forward and put this question to Jesus…

When an architect builds a house, he must consider every angle and every board in relation to the final product he is trying to accomplish. And, if even for a moment, he should lose sight of his goal (which is the finished house), the angle or wall will be out of place and, perhaps, the whole structure will collapse. Moreover, though the work is difficult at times, the architect finds great encouragement in thinking about how great the house will be when it is finally completed – thinking of the goal, he is able to persevere.
I think that there is an analogy between the work of the architect and the Christian life – we Christians must be constantly thinking about our goal, we must be constantly thinking and speaking about heaven! Perhaps one of the reasons we are sometimes not as joyful and as happy as we would like to be is this – we are not thinking often enough about life everlasting. The mere thought of heaven brings joy in the midst of difficulty and sorrow; and, as we keep our eyes on the prize that awaits us, we are able to persevere through all trials and sufferings.

It may be that we do not think of heaven as often as we should because we often have too small an image of what heaven will be like – many think of heaven as disembodied souls just floating around in the clouds, not doing much; sure, we are with God, but we are just floating there. If you tell this to a child, the boy or girl will tell you that that sounds pretty boring! And the child is right!
Heaven will not be just floating around as a separated spirit – we will not be angels. We will be human beings and, in the last day at the resurrection of the dead, we will have our bodies returned to us. We will have our bodies in heaven! These very bodies, this flesh which dies and is buried and corrupts; we will have this very flesh returned to us in the general resurrection! It is too great for us to imagine – but we must try to imagine it, we must think about it, and we must think of heaven in concrete terms; we are humans, that is how we have to think.

The brothers in 2 Maccabees give us a great witness to this hope in the resurrection. The one is so convinced that he sticks out his hands and tongue and says, “Go ahead and cut these off, destroy my body as you like; for God will one day restore these very hands and this very body to me, in the resurrection of the flesh!” The thought of the resurrection gave the brothers the strength to persevere and even to rejoice in the midst of intense suffering and persecution.
But many “learned” scholars today will come up with all sorts of objections to the resurrection of the body. 1,500 years ago, St. Augustine said , “On no other point does the Christian faith suffer more opposition, than on the resurrection of the body.” It is true today as well; many will admit that the soul lives on, but the world will yet deny that this very body will rise glorious and renewed.
The objections which some will make in the modern day to the resurrection remind me of the Sadducees’ objection in today's Gospel. These men were considered among the wisest and most learned in all of Israel, and they come to Christ with a very long and complicated objection – did you notice that it took them several verses to explain the intricate problem they had thought up? And yet, almost with a single word, with only a sentence, Christ is able to refute their objection and show them to be fools. The Sadducees were indeed fools, and so are all who doubt the resurrection of the body.
This is what we must say today to any and all objections against the truth of the resurrection – God created the whole world out of nothing, surely he can give us our bodies back at the end of time. If God has the power to create the universe, surely he can figure out whose body goes to whom and which part goes to which person. For God, all things are possible; he has promised and he will do it.

In any case, let us say this: If the dead are not raised, then neither has Christ been raised from the dead. And if Christ has not been raised, then his body is still in a tomb somewhere; and he is dead. But if Christ Jesus is dead, then our faith is in vain and hope is for nothing – if Christ is still dead, then all we do here in the church is worthless, we may as well all go home! But, alas, Christ has been raised and, by his power as God and even in a mysterious way through the power granted him as man, he will raise up even our bodies to share in the glories of his own resurrection. For those who hope in him, the Lord Jesus will indeed make us co-heirs with himself in life everlasting.

How a rich man is saved, Sermon of October 31st

 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C.
October 31st, 2010
Luke 10:1-10

Now a man there named Zacchaeus, who was a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man, was seeking to see who Jesus was…

Wealthy persons rarely come up in the Gospels, but when they are mentioned they usually do not fair too well. This is particularly true of the Gospel according to St. Luke – we have already heard in recent weeks of the parable of the rich man and the poor Lazarus; how the rich man went to hell, since he did not help Lazarus when he was in need.
Just a few verses before today’s Gospel, there is the passage about the rich young man who desired to follow Christ – the Lord told him to sell all his possessions and give his wealth to the poor; but the rich man went away sad, for he was attached to his many possessions. It was on this occasion that Christ said, “It will be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter heaven.” We may sum it all up with the Lord’s own words, “Woe to you who are rich.” Indeed, the rich will hardly be saved.

No, rich men do not usually do too well, when they meet Jesus; and this should be a bit alarming for most of us. Nearly every one of us would be considered rich in the Gospel sense of the word – we have our basic necessities provided for, and we have at least a few luxuries besides.
But St. Luke does not want us to be discouraged, and Jesus wants each and every one of us to know that he loves us. Thus, so that we might not feel dejected, St. Luke includes the account of the conversion of Zacchaeus – and we ought to note that this account is found only in Luke’s Gospel. He puts in there, I think, because he knows that he has been particularly hard on the rich and he doesn’t want us to give up hope.

In the story about Zacchaeus, the first thing we learn about the man, even before we learn that he is short (which is really a bit humorous), the first thing we learn is that he is a chief tax collector (and, thus, very powerful) and that he is wealthy. Before St. Luke tells us anything else, we learn that Zacchaeus is rich and powerful, and so we might be thinking to ourselves, “I know how this story is going to end, Zacchaeus is really going to get it.” But, behold, there is a new twist, something which is quite unexpected – Zacchaeus is not rejected by Christ, nor does he turn away from the Lord, but he is welcomed by our Savior and becomes his disciple.

When Jesus looks up in the tree and sees Zacchaeus, he calls to him and accepts him as a disciple – and we must point out that Zacchaeus was still rich at this time. The Lord called Zacchaeus while he was still rich, and Zacchaeus became a disciple while still wealthy. Here we find a great deal of encouragement – for Jesus looked at Zacchaeus and he did not see a rich man or a tax collector, he saw a son of Abraham, a poor lost sheep in need of a true shepherd. The gaze of our Savior pierces through all that is superficial and penetrates to the core. Perhaps for the first time in his life, someone loved and accepted Zacchaeus for who he was as a human being, rather than for his riches and his power.

So, up till now, we are all very much encouraged; for we know that Christ looks at each of us with that same gaze of love which fell upon Zacchaeus – but though Christ loves us as we are, he calls us forward to be something new; and this is a challenge to us. Zacchaeus is accepted by Christ as a rich man, and the Lord does not even command him to give his possessions to the poor – but Zacchaeus is compelled (not by word or deed, but by love itself) he is compelled to give half of his wealth to the poor. Because he loves Christ, Zacchaeus must also love the poor. The love of Christ, which so fills Zacchaeus, overflows in a love for the poor.
It is the same for us – Christ loves us and that love moves us not only to a true love for him, but also for an intense and even a sacrificial love for the poor. Because the love of Christ is pure, it is also purifying – and thus, the love of Christ compels us to love others even as he has loved us.

I am reminded of the words of Mother Teresa, “Jesus in the Eucharist, Jesus in the poor. It is the same Jesus.” Now Mother Teresa surely knew that Christ is not present in the poor in the same way in which he is present in the Eucharist. He is present in the Eucharist really, truly, substantially, and sacramentally. In the poor, though he is present really and truly, Christ is not present substantially and sacramentally. The mode of presence is clearly different, but the one who is present in the Blessed Sacrament and the one who is present in the poor is the same Jesus.
The Savior is so closely identified with the poor that he can truly say, “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do it to me.”

May the love of Christ purify and fill us, and may our love for the poor here on earth bring us swiftly to the glories of life everlasting.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Recommendations for spiritual reading

A Dominican sister engaged in spiritual reading

November 1st, The Feast of All Saints

Well, not even a full month into my new blog, I am going to break the format. This post is neither a sermon nor about Sunday. Rather, I have decided to post a small sample of books for some suggested spiritual reading. I gave this list to the parishioners this morning with a few words of encouragement:

“We are given the great blessing of a friendship and communion with the saints, but we need this to be more than just a theoretical fellowship. As human beings, we need some tangible reminders of this communion – and what better way than through prayer?
We can do more than simply pray to the saints (though that is already nine tenths of the work), we can also pray with the saints. We can pray after the model of the saints, taking them as safe and reliable guides in the spiritual life. Rather than running off to any number of silly ‘self-help’ books on spirituality, we ought to give pride of place to the spiritual writings of the saints.”

Below is a very simple and small list of recommended spiritual reading from the writings of the saints. Particular mention must be given to Sts. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila (who are Doctors of the Church particularly for their spiritual insights) and also to St. Alphonsus Liguori (who is recognized by the Church for his writings about prayer).

Some recommendations for spiritual reading, from Fr. Ryan

If you want a good introduction to the spiritual life in general, consider: Introduction to the Devout Life, by St. Francis de Sales…
St. Francis becomes your personal spiritual director as you read this treasure. Though it is called an introduction, this spiritual classic will be helpful to people in all levels of the spiritual life.  300 pages.

If you are looking for a child-like spirituality, consider: Story of a Soul, by St. Thérèse of Lisieux…
In her autobiography, Story of a Soul, St. Thérèse tells us of the experience of her youth and her entrance into the convent. We are given a very personal insight into the spiritual life of this young girl, whom Pope St. Pius X has called the greatest saint of modern times.

If you want a book that can be read in 10 minute segments in the midst of a busy life, consider: The Way, Furrow, and The Forge by St. Josemaría Escriva…
The founder of Opus Dei offers a spirituality most especially suited to the life of working people. He understands how busy modern life can be and he will help you to live out your vocation as a lay person, active in the world.
“The Way, Furrow, The Forge” is available in a single volume edition from Scepter Publishers.

If you want to learn how to speak with God throughout the day, consider: How to Converse Continually and Familiarly with God, by St. Alphonsus Liguori…
In approximately 50 pages, St. Alphonsus teaches you how to “pray always”. This book can be read many times – it is a practical guide for growing in holiness while going about the activities of daily life.

If you want a book that can help you to pray the Rosary better, consider: The Secret of the Rosary, by St. Louis Marie DeMontfort…
St. Louis Marie DeMontfort is widely recognized as the Church’s greatest promoter of Marian devotion. He will help you to understand who Mary is in the life of the Church and who she wants to be in the life of your soul. The Secret of the Rosary and Secret of Mary are very short works of around 100 pages each.
Also, consider: The Secret of Mary and True Devotion to Mary, by St. Louis Marie DeMontfort.

If you want help with making daily meditations, consider: The Way of Salvation and Perfection, by St. Alphonsus Liguori…
St. Alphonsus offers meditations for every day of the year. He guides you into the depths of the spiritual life and will bring you to a closer union with our Savior. This book is meant to be used as a step by step guide-book during times of prayer.

If you like poetry, consider: A Spiritual Canticle and other poems, by St. John of the Cross…
The poetry of St. John of the Cross is the fruit of his mystical union with God. The poems themselves are relatively easy to read, and they are not very long. The Saint offers a more systematic explanation of the spiritual life in Ascent of Mount Carmel and Dark Night of the Soul.
“The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross” is published by ICS Publications.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Sermon on prayer, July 25th

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
July 25th, 2010
Luke 11:1-13, Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray

Jesus said, “Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”

If we are ever to succeed in the spiritual life, we must believe and accept this fundamental truth: In heaven or on earth, there is nothing more powerful than prayer. Prayer really makes a difference in the world – God really hears and answers our prayers and, because God is all powerful, so too prayer is all powerful. Nothing is more powerful than prayer.
I would like to share with you three stories which illustrate the great power of prayer.

First, consider St. Monica in northern Africa at the end of the 4th Century. Her son, Augustine, had lost his moral compass; he had renounced the true faith, he had gone astray. And yet, Monica did not lose hope – with many tears and sacrifices she offered her prayers to God for her son’s conversion. And, because of her perseverance and her faith, God answered her prayer. Not only did St. Augustine convert to Catholicism and reform his life, he even became a priest and eventually a bishop. St. Augustine is one of the greatest and most influential Fathers and Doctors of the Church – the whole Church relies upon him for the clarity and brilliance of his teachings, and he relied upon the prayer of his mother Monica. How great indeed the power of prayer!

Second, we look to 16th Century Rome. A young boy named Paulo Massimo, the son of a nobleman, has just died. His parents, grieved by their loss, call a local priest to come and offer prayers – the priest is named Fr. Philip Neri, he would one day be St. Philip Neri whose renown is so great that he has been called the Second Apostle of the City of Rome. St. Philip comes to the house, kneels at the foot of the bed where the boy’s body lay, and begins his prayers. The young boy suddenly opens his eyes, resuscitated by the power of St. Philip’s prayers, sits up in bed and begins speaking to his parents and the priest. How great the power of prayer!

And finally, consider that today, at the many altars throughout the world, priests will take bread and wine – and, by the simple words of the Eucharistic prayer, these natural elements will be transformed, becoming the very Body and Blood of Christ our Savior. Behold the true power of prayer!

Jesus tells us, “Ask and you will receive” – how shall we ignore his invitation? When we consider how powerful prayer is – for all good things can be gain through prayer – how is it that we pray so little and with such little zeal? Truly, there are many graces which are lost, simply because no one asks for them in prayer.

Do not doubt the power of prayer, it is far greater than any human power. All the kings of the earth cannot force the conversion of a heart, and yet the humble mother Monica won her son’s conversion through prayer. All the doctors in the world cannot raise the dead, and yet Fr. Philip restored life through prayer. No human or angelic power can effect the mystery of transubstantiation, and yet the prayer of simple priests throughout the world confect the Eucharist today!

We turn to the Lord and say: Oh Jesus, grant that in seeking, we may find you; that in asking, we may receive your blessings; and that in knocking, may prayer (which is the door to the interior life) be opened to us.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

To whom do you pray during Mass?

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C.
October 24th, 2010
Luke 18: 9-14, The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector

The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself…

Of the many themes that the parable of today’s Gospel brings up, I would like to focus specifically on the prayer of the Pharisee and, in fact, on one small aspect of that prayer. Notice that our Savior tells us that the Pharisee spoke the prayer to himself. He does not speak to God or pray to God, he speaks and prays to himself. And, if we look at the words of his prayer, we see that the Pharisee is really worshiping not God, but himself.
This is an example of bad prayer and bad worship – this is how we ought not to pray. But what is bad worship? Bad worship and bad prayer is self-serving and self-satisfied. Bad worship is dictated by our likes and dislikes rather than by the teaching of the Gospel and the Tradition of the Church. Bad worship is very sentimental. Moreover, bad worships is a lot of fun – notice that the Pharisee enjoyed his time in the Temple area much more than the tax collector. Bad worship is socially acceptable and very popular.

Here is a little story to illustrate bad worship: After Sunday Mass a family – a husband and wife and a young boy – are all driving home. Scarcely do they pull away from the Church and the father begins to complain about the music. Then the wife says, “If the music was bad, that homily was even worse!” And on and on, they went back and forth. Eventually, the parents stopped talking and, after a brief moment of silence, the little boy in the back piped up and said, “Well, I don’t think it was too bad, for a buck!” J
Obviously, this is a silly little joke; but I think there is something more profound here as well. Do we think of worship as entertainment? Do we come to the Mass the same way we would go to a movie – giving our money and expecting a good show? There is, for all of us, room for growth and for purification.

Bad worship is, in fact, a great problem among the Protestants and, especially, among the Evangelical so-called “Bible” churches. Sure, these churches are packed (with a lot of ex-Catholics, I might add!) and the music is great. The sermons are exciting and the service is a lot of fun – their youth group is huge. You can even get your cup of coffee on the way in…
But, I ask, does anyone go home justified? Certainly not by that style of worship…it is bad worship, it is dictated by the trends of the day.
This can be a problem in the Catholic Church as well. There is a real tendency in the modern Church to become “fashionable” and focused on the momentary tastes of the time, rather than on the Church’s venerable Tradition.

I look at many churches and I wonder – the priest is looking at the people and the people are looking at the priest, but is anyone looking to God? The priest speaks to the people and the people speak to the priest, but is anyone speaking to God? True worship is a disposition of the heart that must be fostered.
For 2000 years, and even in our own day, the Church honors the Liturgical practice called ad orientem – this is the posture of prayer where the priest and the people all face in the same direction, toward the East and toward the Crucifix. The priest and the people, looking together and praying together, worship God. Some people, rather foolishly, will say that the priest “has his back to the people.” That is just ridiculous! It’s not so much that the priest is facing away from the people, as with the people – they aren’t worshiping him, after all, they are worshiping God; and he should be worshiping together with them, as a member of the same Body!

What is important here is not so much the particular externals of this Liturgical practice, the real point is the fundamental attitude which we must adopt during worship. We are not simply speaking back and forth, we are not meant to be turned in on ourselves or our community; we must look to the Lord, worship the Lord, and speak our prayer to the Lord.
May the grace and the love of Christ Jesus, form us interiorly and lead us to a deeper participation in the true spirit of the Liturgy.