Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The pearl of great price: The Eucharist, the child, the poor. Sermon of July 24th

St. Anthony of Egypt sold all he had, entered the desert,
and endured every trial with joy - he had found the pearl of great price!

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
July 24th, 2011
Matthew 13:44-52

The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.

When we hear the parables of the treasure and of the pearl, and learn how we are to be ready to sacrifice all things for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven, we may recall the memory of St. Anthony of the Desert – the Father of Monasticism, who lived at the turn of the 4th century.
St. Anthony was only a young man, about 18 years old, when his parents both died and he was left an orphan. Wondering what the good Lord desired of him, he felt inspired to go to the church. Upon entering, Anthony heard the words of St. Matthew’s Gospel being proclaimed: If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come follow me.

The young St. Anthony was deeply moved by these words and felt inspired to give generously to the poor. You see, his family had been very wealthy, so he sold a good portion of his inheritance and gave it to the poor.
However, he did not give everything away – perhaps he was thinking, “Lord, if you are really serious, if you want me to give over everything; you are ‘gonna have to say it directly!”
[those, of course, are my own words … I doubt St. Anthony would have put it quite that way!] J

Shortly thereafter, Anthony again entered the Church and heard the words of St. Luke’s Gospel: Take nothing for your journey; neither staff, nor scrip, nor bread, nor money; neither have two coats.
Deeply moved by the Holy Spirit, St. Anthony immediately went forth, sold what little inheritance was left to him, and gave the money to the poor. Then, this heroic soldier of Christ, left the world and entered the desert as a hermit. There he would remain for nearly 100 years!
Many people came to St. Anthony to seek his counsel, and he ultimately founded the first monasteries in the history of the Church. Was it easy? Of course it wasn’t easy! He lived in the desert of Egypt! It was very hard, he suffered much, he was bothered by all sorts of crazy people coming and pestering him. And, on top of all that, he suffered terribly from the attacks of demons!
But St. Anthony persevered through all of this because he was filled with a profound spirit of joy. He had found that treasure, he had taken possession of the pearl – having left all things, he obtained the Kingdom.

Now, most of us are not called to seek the pearl and the treasure out in the desert. Surely, some here are called in this way – there are likely some among our young men and women who are called to leave all and follow God through the vocation to the religious life or to the priesthood. But most of us will search for the treasure in the ordinary circumstances of daily life. Where then shall we find the Kingdom in midst of the world?
I want to point out three places where we find the treasure, where we gain that pearl – and these are three occasions which are common and ordinary.

First, we find the treasure in the Sunday Mass. If the Eucharist isn’t the pearl of great price, I don’t know what is! It is at the Mass that we gain the riches of everlasting life. Here, in our Sunday worship, we store up treasures in heaven.
How valuable the Mass is! There is nothing more important in our week than Sunday Mass
In fact, Sunday Mass (or Mass on Saturday evening) is so valuable … why, it’s even more important than hunting and fishing season! J
The Eucharist is so important, that we wouldn’t ever want to miss it or skip out on the Mass in order to fish or hunt. If we truly understood the value of the Mass and the Gift that we receive, we would never skip Mass – not for travel, not for vacation, not for games.
Remember, this isn’t just about an obligation (though, it is an obligation); we are talking about the treasure and about the pearl – we have found the Kingdom, be filled with joy and give all things in order to attend Sunday Mass every week without exception.

Second, we find the pear of great price in all the good things that God has in store for marriage and family life. If the child isn’t the pear, I don’t know what is! The gift of the child, how could we ever reject the child?!
And yet, far too often, many people (and even many Catholics) refuse to accept the gift of children. Using artificial means of regulating fertility is like finding the treasure and abandoning it. If we knew the gift of the child, we would never use birth control. A nation which uses contraception is a nation which has rejected the child.
God wants us to trust in him! Will it be hard? Of course it will be hard! Remember, Anthony was in the desert for 100 years; it wasn’t easy, but he was joyful. So too, we also must be joyful – consider the gift of the child and the grace of God who will always provide for us, if only we trust in him.
The way to space out children and to be responsible in parenting is to use Natural Family Planning, not contraception. Natural Family Planning is the great means for parents to find the treasure of the Kingdom and to receive God’s plan for their family with joy.

Third, we find the treasure in being generous to the poor. The poor are that treasure hidden in society, neglected and ignored by so many. If we cannot see that the poor are that pearl, then we have missed Christ who is present to us through them.
The US Dollar is losing strength every day – I hear that it is worth less even than the Canadian Dollar. You may as well give your money to the poor before it is worth nothing at all! J
Mercy covers a multitude of sins, and those who are generous to the poor are the true friends of God.

Finally, if we really believe that these three – the Mass, the child, and the poor – truly are the pearl and the treasure, then we ought to be filled with joy! Here is our means of attaining to the Kingdom of God, which is worth more than any passing treasures of earth; let us sacrifice all our self-love, all our selfishness, all our distrust. You will lose nothing, but you gain everything! And, consumed with the joy of God’s Kingdom, we should be bold in speaking of these things with others.
If we believe that the Eucharist is the great Gift that it is, we will try to bring fallen-away Catholic back to Mass. If we know that the child is a pearl given us by the Lord, we will not be afraid to proclaim the truth about marriage and family, and to encourage others to use Natural Family Planning [and parents and grandparents have a special obligation to explain this to their children]. Finally, if we know that the downtrodden are that true treasure, we will not be ashamed to defend the poor and to be a witness of God’s preferential love for them.
Be joyful! Though these pearls and treasures may only be obtained through much sacrifice, if only you preserver in God’s love, you shall soon attain to life everlasting.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The yeast leavens the whole batch, Sermon of July 17th

After the worst persecution of the Church,
Rome herself became Catholic under Constantine the Great

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
July 17th, 2011
Matthew 13:24-43

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened.

In today’s Gospel, Christ gives us three parables by which he encourages to persevere in the face of evil. In each of these three parables – the weeds and wheat, the mustard seed, and the yeast which leavens that batch of dough – our Savior gives us some indication of answer to the great and mysterious question: “Why is there evil in the world?”

I would like to focus on the parable of the little bit of yeast which is mixed with the three measures of wheat flour to leaven the whole batch. We must understand something about the imagery which the Lord uses – the visual is of a woman mixing in the yeast and then kneading and beating down the dough. It is precisely this act of violence, this continuous beating down which makes the whole batch to rise.
The point of the parable is this: As the violent force of the woman beating down the dough causes the yeast to leaven the whole batch, so too the evil in the world actually contributes to the increase and spread of goodness. It is not merely that good and evil co-exist until the end of time, but the evil is used by God to promote the good.
This is borne out in the life of the Church: The more the Church is persecuted, rejected and ridiculed, the more the Church will grow and the more the faith will spread.

I do not mean this only as a theological or spiritual truth, it is also an historical reality. Even without faith, simply looking at history, we can see Christ’s parable being fulfilled.
Consider, for example, the early Church. In the first days, the Church was terribly persecuted by the Roman Empire. This persecution was intense – but the more the Romans attacked the Church the more the faith spread.
This persecution reached its climax under the emperor Diocletion at the end of the 3rd century: under his reign the Churched suffered the most cruel and organized attack which she had ever faced.
But after this greatest of all persecutions came the emperor Constantine, who not only converted to Christianity himself, but made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. Behold the wonder of it all: After the worst persecution which the Church had ever seen, Rome awoke to find itself Christian!

Similarly, consider that Rome fell to the pagan barbarians of northern Europe. Now, every time in history when one people conquers another, the victors impose their religion upon the vanquished. But what happed when the pagan barbarians sacked Rome? They converted to Christianity!
This is a real miracle of history: Conquering Rome, the barbarians were conquered by Christianity! Nothing like this has ever happened before.
Behold, the parable of the yeast and the dough working itself in history.

Yet, the Lord Jesus has something more to say: This parable isn’t simply about how the true Faith and the Catholic Church will conquer and convert all peoples and nations. The Savior is not only the Lord of history, he is also the Lord of your heart and of mine.
The parable of the yeast and the dough also is meant to encourage us personally in our journey.

Do you feel stretched too thin? Are you suffering? Is the life of faith sometimes a struggle and difficult? Perhaps we sometimes feel like we can’t go on much further.
It is precisely in these times of difficulty – so the Lord tells us – precisely when we are beaten down and struggling, that is when the grace of Christ is most effective in us.
We say: “Lord, please take away my struggles and my temptations.” But he tells us: “The dough must be kneaded and suffer violence, only then with the yeast leaven the whole batch!”

So do not be discouraged when things are tough. Do not become despondent when you suffer temptations or when you seem to take two steps back for every one forward. Trust rather in the grace of Christ!
Think of it: Once the yeast is in the dough, you can’t get it out! The grace of Christ Jesus is in you, if only you are faithful he will enliven you, he will win you over.

The good Lord conquered the Roman Empire, can he not conquer your soul? He defeated and overcame nations and peoples, shall he not win you to himself?
Of course he will! What have you to be discouraged about? Christ died for you, will he not give you everything else besides?
We must only keep our hearts and minds focused on Christ our Savior. Humbled by our weaknesses, but confident in his love, we shall persevere through all things.
And, though your faith may seem like only a little mustard seed, if only you look to Jesus and persevere in his love, that little seed of your faith shall grow into the great tree of glory in life everlasting.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

God's grace can transform bad soil. Sermon of July 10th

Alessandro Serenelli, who murdered Maria Goretti,
venerates her whom he called "my little Saint"

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
July 10th, 2011
Matthew 13:1-23

A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, […] some fell on rocky ground, […] some seed fell among thorns, […] but some see fell on rich soil, and produced fruit.

As we consider the parable of the sower, we should recognize the incredible generosity of God in offering his grace so freely. When a farmer plants seed, he would never simply scatter it to and fro, on good and poor ground alike. But God is different from man – he is so generous and loving – and he sends his grace upon all types of people: Not just upon the good soil, but upon the rocky, hard, and thorny soil as well.
This is the essence of the parable: It is not so much that we become good and holy and then God loves us – as though the sower only sowed seed upon the good soil. Rather, while we were yet sinners, God loved us and sent his grace upon us. And, what is more, as we continue to strive for holiness and find (all too often) that we fall – God still raises us up and supports us.
God does not say, “Become a saint, then I’ll love you.” Rather, he says, “See how much I love you, now let me help you become  a saint!”

As I think about this parable, I am reminded of the story of St. Maria Goretti, the virgin-martyr of modern Italy, whose feast day the Church celebrated last week. St. Maria Goretti, if you recall, was a young Italian girl who – at the age of only eleven years – suffered a most terrible death.
Maria and her family lived in a housing complex together with a young man (who was, himself, not much more than a boy; only about 18 years old) named Alessandro Serenelli. Now, one day, Alessandro attacked Maria Goretti, with the intention of abusing her.
Maria resisted him and said: “No, don’t do it. It is a sin!” You see, even in that terrible moment, she was thinking more about Alessandro’s soul than about herself. She resisted mostly because she did not want Alessandro to commit a mortal sin and so risk his salvation. How greatly did little Maria Goretti love even her enemies!

When Maria resisted his force, Alessandro stabbed her several times with a knife and then left her to die. As Maria was rushed to the hospital, she was praying for Alessandro and she insisted that her family forgive him. She underwent a terrible surgery, without any anesthesia, and then she died.
Alessandro was arrested and tried for murder. He was convicted, but was spared the death penalty because he was so young. Sentenced to thirty years in prison, Alessandro seemed to be bad soil indeed – certainly, everyone thought that he wasn’t worth their prayers or forgiveness.
But as Alessandro was taken away and incarcerated, something wonderful was being prepared in heaven.

After a few years, when Alessandro was asleep, Maria Goretti appeared to her murder in a dream and let him know that she had forgiven him and that, now that she was in heaven, she was praying earnestly for him. Alessandro saw Maria sending down lilies upon him, from the Blessed Virgin Mary.
He was amazed. How could she love him so much?! After all he had done to her, Maria Goretti was spending her heaven praying for his conversion! And this is where the story really begins to get good.

Alessandro experienced an intense conversion while still in the prison. He realized that God still loved him and that the grace of God was sufficient for him. Though he had done a terrible thing, though he was bad and rocky soil, filled with thorns; still, God loved him and was pouring even more graces upon him. And the proof of God’s love was the love of little Maria.
When the time came for Alessandro to be released from prison, he went and begged forgiveness from Maria Goretti’s family. Then, he did something that I don’t think any one of us would have expected: He became a monk! This murder, this lost soul, now entered religious life and spent the rest of his life on earth as a brother.

Alessandro called Maria Goretti, “My little Saint.” He had learned how to love her in truth and purity. He had a great devotion to her and, wonder of wonders, was able to be present at her canonization Mass when the Venerable Pope Pius XII officially declaired Maria Goretti a saint.
There at St. Peter’s Basilica, sitting in the front, were Assunta Goretti (Mari Goretti’s mother) and Alessandro Serenelli (her murder).
How easy it is for God to take what was once bad soil and make it into rich soil which will bear good fruit!

And here we find a little challenge for ourselves as well. It certainly encouraging to recognize the infinite riches of God’s mercy, but we must also imitate that love. It will not due for us to say: “Well, sure, I’ll forgive my enemies, but first they have to prove they’re worthy of my forgiveness.” No! That’s not how God works! We must be merciful just as our Father in heaven is merciful.
Likewise, we cannot say: “Well, I’ll compromise with my neighbor, but first he has to give a little.” No! That’s not how God works! We have to sow the seed of mercy and love even in the bad soil. We have to stretch and give of ourselves for the good of others, even when they don’t deserve it.

Finally, we are challenged in another way when we recognize that we are called always and everywhere to spread the seed of the Gospel – that is, we have to preach the truth! Far too often today, we are afraid and we are cowards. We don’t stand up for what is right and we don’t challenge people to live the Gospel.
We make all sorts of excuses: “They’re not ready to receive it yet,” we say. “I can’t force my views on them.” No! Your job is to preach the truth, to sow the seed – let God give the growth. You speak the Gospel and God will due the rest.
When we think that others aren’t ready to hear the truth, we are often despairing of their salvation. It is like we are saying that they are such terrible soil that we ought not to waste our time sowing the seed of truth in them. This will not due!
Now, I am not saying that we should be “Bible-thumpers” or that we should be rude – of course not! Truth must be united with charity, and charity with truth. But, in today’s world, we Catholics need to learn to be a lot more bold – Courage!

Receive the seed of God’s word into your heart. Let it germinate there in good soil. Trust always that God will bring forth in you the great fruit of life everlasting.

Monday, July 4, 2011

On Humility, Sermon of July 3rd

See how humble our Jesus is: a donkey was his throne in Jerusalem!
St. Josemaria Escriva, The Way 606

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 3rd, 2011
Matthew 11:25-30

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.

As we hear our Savior’s words my yoke is easy, and my burden light, we may ponder and question within ourselves: “How can it be that taking up a yoke should make our way easier? How can adding a burden make us lighter?” And, if we consider the matter, we will not be surprised to discover that St. Augustine (who asked and answered most of the modern questions we have about the Bible and the Faith) discussed this point also, and offers us a most insightful answer.
How can a burden lighten the load? St. Augustine gives us the analogy of a bird, take for example a dove. As we consider the dove we recognize that its wings add weight to its body – in this sense, they are a burden. As the dove walks along upon the ground, it must bear this load, this burden of its own wings. It carries these wings along.
However, if anyone – desiring to free the bird of this additional weight – came and clipped the wings back, who would say that he had made the bird lighter? Surely, the bird would weigh less, but now it would be confined to the ground and could no longer fly to the heavens. This small burden of the wings, truly lightens and frees the bird.

So it is with the imitation of Christ. On one level, following our Lord is a yoke and a burden – we take up his example, we take up the Cross, and we follow. However, more profoundly, we must say that this yoke is easy and the burden is light; since, by bearing this load we made truly free.
And what is the burden our Savior gives us? What is the yoke by which we are to imitate the good Jesus?

The Lord says learn from me. And what are we to learn? He does not say learn from me that I created the heavens and the earth, that I am the almighty God. Nor does he say learn from me that I have worked great miracles and converted peoples. Nor even does Christ tell us learn from me that I have preached well and proclaimed the truth with power.
Rather, before all else, Jesus tells us learn from me that I am meek and humble of heart. Humility, Christ tells us to imitate his humility before all else.

Humility is the foundation of the virtues, as charity is their queen. But what is humility?
Principally, humility is about how we relate to God. To be humble is to admit that every good thing we have and every good act we do comes from God as from its first cause. We are only instruments – free instruments, true, who cooperate with his grace – but still, we are only instruments in the hand of God. Thus, whatever good we possess must be credited more to God than to ourselves.
However, when it comes to evil, to vice, and to sin, this we claim for ourselves. Whatever is good in us comes from God, but whatever is evil comes solely from ourselves.

Hence, in true humility we admit that we are nothing without God, but we quickly add that – by his grace – the good Lord makes us to be something great. The virtue of humility is that burden that, by lowering us in our own estimation, raises us to the heights of heaven by the grace of God.

Humility also has an aspect of relation to others. Humility does not mean ignoring certain objective facts: We cannot deny it if we participate more fully in the sacramental life of the Church than our neighbor. It is ok to admit that we are more faithful to Sunday Mass than another.
Moreover, by certain manifest facts, we can even say that we seem to be further along in the spiritual life than others. It will do no good to completely ignore reality or to simply refrain from making any conclusion whatsoever – this would be a bit ridiculous.

Still, humility leads us to think less of ourselves in the sense that we admit that whatever is good in us is from God – therefore, we cannot boast over others, but we must give the glory to God alone. Indeed, perhaps today you are raised up above your neighbor, but maybe tomorrow you will fall and God will raise him up in your place. This is humility, to recognize it all depends upon God and there is no room for our boastful pride.
Moreover, we know that we have each been given many graces, and we have wasted many of them. Perhaps our neighbor has been given less graces and has done more with the little he had. Thus, we can never know who is truly greater; and it is always God who is greatest anyways.

Humility, united with charity, will certainly get us to heaven. And so we must pray for the virtue of humility. But be careful, God just might give you what you ask for. Because humility is gained only through suffering humiliations, and so we must receive these with joy as coming from the good Lord.
St. Josemaria Escriva, one of the great saints of modern time, spoke well to this point: “You are not humble,” he said, “when you humble yourself, but when you are humbled by others and bear it willingly for Christ.”
To be truly humble is to desire the lowest place and, when the lowest place is given you, to receive it with joy.
Lowering ourselves in the eyes of others, Christ our Savior will raise us up on high.