Wax On, Wax Off

December Message to Priests and Deacons of the Diocese, as Master of Ceremonies

As we reach the darkest days of the year with the longest nights, we are no doubt grateful for electricity and the many advantages it brings over burning midnight oil. I remember the few times as I was growing up that the power went out in Elk Point, back before everyone had flashlights on their cell phones. It could be a hassle, to say the least, especially if it happened during the night or early morning, resetting whatever alarm you had been counting on to wake you up. For most of us who grew up with street lights in town, it can be difficult even to imagine the sort of blackness and complete absence of light that used to be part of everyone’s regular experience. Even just one flame of a small candle gives off an impressive amount of light when it’s the only source.

The light of candles has long played a prominent role in the celebration of the Christian liturgy and devotional life. During this season we have the Advent wreath that many families still light in their own homes. One of the most disappointing things in visiting churches in Rome was to see so many devotional candle stands replaced with electronic lights made to resemble candles, activated by dropping a coin in or by pressing a switch. Bad idea. Much of the appeal of lighting devotional candles just comes from the opportunity to handle an actual flame, at least that was always the case for me. The Exultet of the Easter Vigil is one the greatest compositions in the Church’s liturgy, sung in praise of the Paschal candle, which of course represents Christ Himself and hearkens back to the pillar of cloud and fire that guided the Israelites through the waters of the Red Sea and through the desert.

A few practical reminders: even when we have sufficient light from other sources, at least two wax candles near the altar are required, in normal circumstances, in the celebration of the Mass. Up to four or six can be used to show greater solemnity, seven if the bishop is the celebrant. At least four candles should be used when the Blessed Sacrament is exposed inside the monstrance. The amount of beeswax used in the composition of candles is no longer specified. “It should be noted that while an oil lamp may be used to indicate the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle (see GIRM, no. 316), the U.S. bishops have never given permission for the use of oil lamps at the altar,” even when these have been made to resemble wax candles (April 2018 Newsletter of the Committee on Divine Worship).

St. Anselm of Canterbury explained some of the symbolism of candles. The wax represents Christ’s pure Flesh, received from His Immaculate Mother. The wick stands for His human soul. The flame is His divinity. So as we see the candles of the altar consumed and growing shorter over time, we should be mindful of the sacrifice of Christ made present at every Mass, Christ consumed completely out of love for us and in obedience to the Father. God grant that we, too, might be wholly consumed by His divine Love—as we approach Christmas—and become light to those around us in a darkened world.

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Overcoming Habits of Sin

Homily, Advent Sunday 2C

Of all the sports I got involved with back when I was still in school, I would have to say that basketball was always my favorite to play, even though I probably wasn’t the best at it. And of all the sports I played, basketball was also one of the most demanding and most clearly disciplined. Every undesirable action had a clear consequence. Every missed free-throw, every missed layup, every stolen ball or intercepted pass corresponded to a certain number of laps at the end of practice. And if we weren’t hustling, running as fast as we could during practice, we would have more running to do at the end. Every undesirable action had a clear consequence that would be felt, in order to motivate greater effort, mental toughness, building skills and virtues.

I’ve been wondering lately whether we don’t make much progress in our spiritual lives because we don’t make use of any clear plan involving real consequences. Discipline, training, from which we get the word “discipleship” is a good thing in just a very basic sense, and if we think what it means to be an adult is to finally be without discipline, we’re really missing out on a lot of opportunity for continued growth. If discipline is just a tool for parents to train their children, or for coaches to train athletes, if we’ve lived a very undisciplined life just because we don’t have someone actively on our case or breathing down our necks, we’re likely to have lots of hills and valleys, winding roads that need to be straightened out in us.

Scripture often talks about the need to receive the discipline of Wisdom, the training that comes from the Word of God. Jesus Himself tells us to take His yoke upon us and to learn from Him, to be trained by Him. So when it comes to our sins and habits of sin, perhaps things that we’ve struggled with for years and years, do we have any real plan to work against them? To level those hills and fill in the valleys of our own words and actions? When we’re dealing with real disorder in our hearts, with strongholds of sin and evil spirits, we’re not gonna make any progress just playing patty cake, wishing away our bad habits. Moving hills, filling in valleys, and straightening roads doesn’t happen with just ‘positive thinking.’ It takes digging, dragging, working, and being held accountable. We need to allow ourselves to really feel the consequences of our sins so that we’ll learn to avoid them.

What does this look like? Let’s say there’s one sin in particular you want to really work on overcoming. Maybe it’s gossip and detraction or bullying, maybe it’s eating or drinking too much, maybe it’s pornography or using our time at work for things unrelated to our work, maybe it’s missing Mass on Sundays or days of obligation. Whatever it is, you decide not only that you’re going to go to Confession regularly—to be accountable to God and His Church, and to receive the grace and strength that come from God—but you also decide that you’re going to take on an additional penance whenever you fall into that sin. Something that you will actually feel, something that will make you uncomfortable, an actual inconvenience.

So maybe you give up your favorite food for the following three days. Or you don’t use the Internet on your phone for three days. Or you wake up early, or go to bed early for the next three days, or do a certain number of pushups or sit-ups, whenever you fall into the sin that you are trying to overcome. If we really stayed consistent with imposing these consequences on ourselves, do you think it might motivate a change in our behavior? Now to keep ourselves consistent and following through on our resolutions, it is extremely helpful, if not essential, to have someone else checking in with us, keeping us accountable. And they don’t necessarily need to know what behavior or sin we are trying to overcome, but just to hold us to the consequences that we’ve chosen.

Any progress in overcoming sin in our lives is made possible by the grace of Jesus Christ who offered everything on the Cross for our salvation. But grace is not magic. Grace does not do violence to our human nature. It calls for real cooperation at every level of our existence, including the fundamental benefits of discipline and training, imposing consequences that we actually experience as negative and difficult things, when we find ourselves continuing to choose what we should not choose. As we continue this Advent season, Jesus offers us His yoke to refresh us, His discipline and training to set us free. What are we really willing to do to prepare the way of the Lord, to truly repent and turn our backs on the sins that have enslaved us? Come, Lord Jesus. Come and set us free.

The Foundations of Our World

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 33B

Often, when we think of the ‘end times’ or hear people trying to predict when the end of the world will be, we think of earthquakes and other natural disasters, wars and violence, great tribulation, and signs in the sky, but a lot of these things have been happening more or less often ever since the world’s beginning. Every period of history has had its own fair share of signs of the end. So, speculation about when the end of world was going to be was never a very compelling concern to me. God alone knows the day and the hour, and that’s just fine. What was always much more of a concern—as I was growing up in junior high and high school—was what would happen to me if anything were to happen to my parents.

Being the youngest of nine kids, my parents were in their fifties, and to a teenager, that seemed pretty old. I didn’t think about it too often, and it wasn’t really a source of anxiety, but I did always pray that my parents would survive at least until I was out of high school. I was confident that God would always take care of me, no matter what, but I didn’t want to feel like a burden to anyone else or have to move away from the friends I already knew. At that stage in my life, even more than my own death, the death of my parents represented for me the end of the world, when everything I knew could change.

At the time of Jesus, the Jews and the early Christians associated several different events with the end of the world, monumental events when everything could change, including the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the Coming of their Messiah, the Christ of God. Now we also distinguish between the First Coming of Christ into the world at Christmas and His manifestation to Israel during His life, death, and Resurrection, and then the Second Coming of Christ at the end of time, to judge the living and the dead. But in the minds of Jesus’ contemporaries, all of these events were wrapped up together, in one concept of ‘the end of the world.’ So, in the Gospel, when we hear Jesus talking about the end times, we can often have trouble figuring out just which of these events He is specifically referring to.

The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, God’s chosen dwelling place, represented the end of a world for the Jews, when they would no longer be able to offer animal sacrifice to the one true God. Jesus Himself becomes God’s definitive Temple and dwelling among men. Jesus talks about His own death and Resurrection as the destruction of this Temple that he will raise up in three days. As we hear in our second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, Jesus becomes the “one sacrifice for sins,” the “one offering” that “has made perfect forever those who are being consecrated,” making the animal sacrifices of the Jewish Temple obsolete, and changing the order of the world.

By his death and Resurrection, Jesus has made new heavens and a new earth. He himself becomes the New and Indestructible Temple. This is how he could say in the Gospel that “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” Just forty years after his own sacrifice on the Cross, the Jewish Temple was destroyed in the year 70. Instead of animal sacrifice, we are now called to put our faith in Jesus Christ, to depend upon His one perfect sacrifice, signified and made present to us at every Mass. “Heaven and earth”—as they were before the time of Jesus—have now passed away in a certain sense, but the Word of Christ will never pass away. We can depend upon it.

Now I should mention—in case anyone is still wondering—that both of my parents are still alive and well, and this is well after my finishing high school and going through eight years of seminary and three years in the priesthood. But a good question for us to reflect on today is, what are the things or the events that we associate with the end of our own world? What are the things that could happen to me, that—even if the rest of the world continues to go on around me—I would be shaken to my foundations? What do we fear, perhaps even more than our own death? In light of what we see so often on the news and even some aspects of our own culture that make it more and more difficult to live the truth in our daily lives, we might fear the end of many of the freedoms and securities that we have taken for granted, an end of independence and the free exchange of ideas.

For many of us, especially in our individualistic culture, independence is the main issue, the main thing that we have come to depend on, and we find it very difficult to have to depend on others. More than anything else, we fear feeling like a burden to those around us. My sense is that this is one of the most difficult aspects of aging or chronic illness, having to give up certain areas of our independence and rely on others for help. Independence can be a very good thing, but the reality is, at different stages of our life, we need to be able to depend on others, and we always depend upon God. Faith is fundamentally a surrender to our dependence on God, dependence upon His Truth and His love for us, so if we struggle with this and feel like a burden, God is inviting us to a deeper faith, a more profound surrender to His providence in our lives. A sudden illness or accident, or even the gradual effects of aging that leave us unable to do what we could once do on our own, can seem like the end of the world to us, but these can also be opportunities to deepen our relationships, to surrender in faith and in love.

The image of St. Peter refusing to let Jesus wash his feet is a good image for our pride and stubbornness at times. The Scriptures today invite us to a deeper faith, to have Christ as the unshakable foundation of our world and of our lives. To accept His one sacrifice for our sins, and to allow Jesus to bear us as His burden and to feed us with His own Flesh and Blood. As we surrender to a deeper communion with Christ in this Eucharist, he also draws us into greater communion with one another. Don’t be afraid of letting go and of letting others love you. We are all brothers and sisters. We are all the family of God. Receive the love of God through the people around you, so that you will be able to love in return.

In all circumstances, Give Thanks…

Bulletin Article, Ordinary Time Sunday 33B

As we know from the story that’s usually told of the first Thanksgiving Day on this continent, so often it is only through various trials and sufferings that we come to better appreciate all that we have been given. Not having enough can help us appreciate all the times when we have more than enough, rather than taking things for granted. There’s that old saying, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” And while you might think that’s especially true in the case of certain relatives, whose presence we find difficult to endure, having to go without certain things or having to be away from certain people for a time can really help us to appreciate them in a new way.

This was definitely my experience of having to celebrate Thanksgiving Day for four years as I studied in Rome. If you’ve ever been outside the United States for Thanksgiving before, you probably know that it’s just not the same. We did our best at the North American College to make it feel like home, and we tried to invite other Americans in Rome to join us for our Thanksgiving celebration, but there were certain things that were definitely unique. It usually took a few years for the Australians and Canadians at the College to catch on to the meaning of this American holiday, of Turkey and feasting and football. And with an Italian kitchen staff, the first course was always ravioli. I had never actually heard of a Turkey Trot before studying in Rome, and for those who are unfamiliar, it’s a race, often 5 kilometers, that you run on Thanksgiving morning, I think so that you don’t feel as guilty about eating too much later in the day. Our Turkey Trot in Rome is probably the only one in the world that goes around a sovereign nation, because we would run it around the borders of Vatican City. I ran every year and tried to win the costume contest, since I had little hope of winning the race. Still, even with all this to keep us occupied, we longed to be back in the US, we longed to be home.

As we recall the blessings of the past year, we thank God for his gifts of life, of love, of family and friends, of food and shelter, clean water, and the privilege of living in the greatest country in the world, these United States. We thank God especially for the gift of our Catholic faith, for which so many have lived and died to hand it on to us. We thank God even for the trials and sufferings of the past year, all that we have learned from them, and for all that these crosses have helped us to better appreciate. May God be with you and your families and friends this Thanksgiving, and may Jesus bring us all one day beyond our trials and the exile of this life into our heavenly home.

Beyond Our Human Limits

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 32B

During this past summer, I went on a hiking trip with some Confirmation students and a few other chaperones to Bear Trap Ranch near Colorado Springs. On one of our longer hikes, I was talking with one of the students about running, and he mentioned a camp that he had gone to for wrestling and how he’d managed to run something close to a half marathon. Before going to that camp, he never would have thought that he could run that far, but the main theme of the camp was to reach—and then to push beyond—their own physical limitations. Most of us like to stay in a sort of comfort zone that we set up for ourselves, and to always have plenty in reserve, whether that’s effort or energy or time. We’re comfortable with things that come easily to us, things that don’t require our full effort or undivided attention. Most of us don’t really enjoy reaching our limits, having our weaknesses exposed, even if just to ourselves. There’s always that doubt and fear at the back of our minds. What if my best still isn’t good enough? What if I give everything I have, my full effort, all that I’m capable of, and still come up short?

The Scripture readings today present to us two women, two widows who have reached their own limits but are able to respond to God’s invitation to go beyond. The widow in our first reading is interrupted as she is preparing for what she thinks will be the very last meal that she’ll share with her son. She’ll use the very last bit of flour and oil in the house and be left with nothing. But a stranger comes along and asks for a drink of water, and that she prepare something for him to eat before she makes something for herself and her son. This widow, who was actually not part of God’s chosen people, not an Israelite, she steps out in faith to follow Elijah’s instructions, even to put her own life and last meal on the line. She believes that the prophet’s God can provide even as her own resources are on the verge of running dry.

The widow in the Gospel steps out in faith as well. Jesus tells us that the people making large contributions to the Temple still have plenty for themselves left in reserve, giving “from their surplus wealth.” But with the two small coins of the widow, she “has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.” She believes that God Himself will provide what she truly needs, taking her beyond the limits of her own circumstances.

How does our own faith compare to the faith and trust of these poor widows? Do we ever risk anything in believing, in professing the Catholic faith? How often do we venture towards the limits of our comfort zones and risk coming up short, needing to depend on God or others for help? Or do we always just play it safe, comfortable in our own self-sufficiency? If getting acquainted with and pushing beyond our physical limitations sounds intimidating—discovering that we can only do 12 push-ups, jog for 60 seconds, and be left wheezing for a lot longer—getting acquainted with and pushing beyond our spiritual limitations and fears is a much more exciting and important task for us.

When we’ve given everything we have, our full effort, all our resources, and still come up short, when our very best still doesn’t seem good enough, God is still there. Do we really believe that God can provide flour and oil till the end of the drought? Do we really believe that Jesus can multiply five loaves and two fish to feed thousands? God is never outdone in generosity. When we reach our limits and think that we can’t take another step, God invites us to step out in faith, even as he invited the poor widows. What is our response? Where is our faith? Do we trust in our own comfort and security, or do we believe in the power of God who can do all things? As we come to this Eucharist, to witness the Body of Christ given for us upon this altar, the Blood of Christ poured out for our salvation, the Sacrifice that obtained for us Rising from the dead, may God cast out from our hearts and minds all fear and doubt. That we may respond by giving ourselves entirely to God, who has given Himself—without limit—to us.

God First

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 31B

We live in an Information Age, constantly bombarded with endless words, images, and competing ideas. I vaguely remember a time when cell phones were actually used primarily for making phone calls, and as I was growing up at home, we still had a couple sets of encyclopedias, which many people younger than I have probably never seen. Before the days of Wikipedia, when you had a question about something, instead of “Googling it” or asking Alexa or Siri, we would actually take a book off the shelf and try to find it alphabetically. In the sea of information available to us today with the Internet always at our fingertips or in our pockets, we can definitely understand the motivation for the scribe’s question to Jesus in today’s Gospel. What’s the main point? Could you narrow it down for us? What’s the most relevant information for me? What am I going to have to remember for the test? “What is the first of all the commandments?”

At the same time, though, the scribe’s question should also seem kind of odd or just too obvious, to us and to any of the Jews that lived in his own time. He asks, What’s the first commandment? We immediately think of the 10 Commandments written on stone tablets, maybe recalling the scene from one of the many movies that have been made about the Exodus. And the Jews of his own day would have thought of the same thing. Though they hadn’t seen the movies, they’d heard the story of Moses and the Exodus many times from their parents and in the Temple and the synagogues. And of course, the first of the 10 Commandments is this: “I am the Lord, your God. You shall not have any strange gods before me.”

But the scribe has seen and heard that Jesus rarely gives the standard or expected response. And so the scribe wants to know, from this One who teaches with authority and who has no bias for anyone’s social status, how would Jesus answer this question? Instead of replying with the first of the 10 Commandments, Jesus quotes one of the laws from the Book of Deuteronomy. The center and motivation of our response to God, what’s most important, is love, and that we love God totally, with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. And Jesus goes on to give a bonus answer of the second greatest commandment: to “love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Now it should seem rather obvious, but it’s important that we keep the first commandment as the first and our greatest responsibility, and to keep the second as the second. Total love of God is more important than anything else, and love for our neighbor is next on the list. So many of the disorders and unhealthy patterns in our own lives, so much of the dysfunction in our relationships and in our families, these stem directly from placing love for myself above my love for God or neighbor. Or I place love for my neighbor, for what others might think of me or trying to please everyone around me, I place these concerns above my love for God, and I end up being unfaithful to God to please and to keep false peace with my neighbor.

A common misconception that’s been around for quite a long time says that we can love God only through loving our neighbor. This is false and has led to major problems even within the Church. We need both, love of God and love of neighbor, and we can’t really have one without the other, but they’re not always the same thing, and our love for God needs to come first. If we’re not setting aside time and energy each day just for prayer, for silence, to be alone in the presence of our God, our relationship with Him will not be what it needs to be, and all our other relationships suffer. God is First. And when He’s not, everything else is affected and becomes disordered.

Now even if we give God, let’s be generous and say that we even give Him two and a half hours every Sunday, that’s still less than 1.5% of our entire week. Not quite loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. Each and every day, do we wake up and say to God, “Lord, I give this day to you. Whatever good I am able to do, whatever happens, whatever I have to suffer, I offer or endure it for love of You”? We are Catholic Christians not just on Saturdays or Sundays, but also on Tuesdays, and every other day of the week. The relationship we have with God should affect what we do every day, how we conduct ourselves in the workplace, in the classroom, on sports teams, in music and the arts, in the grocery store, even in heavy and incompetent traffic on the road. Do we live differently because we know Jesus Christ and because He knows us? Do we actually put God first in our lives, or is He relegated to second, third, or fourth?

What can we start doing this week to help us remember God in our daily lives? Maybe something as simple as starting each day with the Morning Offering: “O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer You my prayers, works, joys and sufferings of this day, for all the intentions of Your Sacred Heart, in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world, in reparation for my sins, for the intentions of all my relatives and friends, and in particular for the intentions of the Holy Father. Amen.”

The One Goal of Human Life

Homily, Solemnity of All Saints

It always seemed strange to me—as I was growing up—that there was one question that popular culture seemed to regard as unanswerable. On TV, in movies, books, and songs, and in the comic strips, no one seemed willing or able to give an answer, or even to convey the hope that an answer actually exists, to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” Or, to put it differently, what is our purpose? What is the goal that we should be working towards in all our various activities? It seemed strange that an answer was never given or attempted, because to me the answer always seemed so clear. What is the meaning of life? The answer is Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. For us—for every human being—for those who lived thousands of years ago, whose names and actions are completely forgotten on earth, our life is meaningful and has lasting significance only to the extent that we live in relationship with Jesus Christ, who is our Resurrection. The meaning of life is for us to live forever, but not here. Not on earth, but in heaven. And to live forever with God is worth any sacrifice.

This is the answer that was discovered by all the saints we celebrate today, all those who have been canonized, but also so many others who have entered into eternal life with God whose names may no longer be remembered by anyone on earth, or even the saints we knew in our own families. The saints in heaven have reached the one goal of human life that will be the only thing that really matters in the end. Whether they were successful during their life on earth, or endured a life filled with one failure after another, whether they were poor or rich, man or woman, girl or boy, powerful, influential, and famous, or known only to a few other people, they all have one thing in common now. They look upon the face of God and live forever. The question we need to ask ourselves today is, are we headed for that same goal? Are we directing all that we do and all that we suffer towards that one and only goal of human life? What keeps us from really surrendering the whole of our lives to Jesus Christ and becoming saints ourselves?

When we think of all the human activity throughout the world and throughout history, the births, the deaths, the waking, sleeping, thinking, feeling, eating, and the feverish toils of all human generations, the obsessions, the discoveries, the violence and pain, and the manic pace of life in the modern world, what is it all for? Is there any point, any really lasting significance? What is our goal, in life and beyond this life, and if we don’t have a goal in mind, how will we ever make progress? “The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint” (Léon Bloy). So what’s holding you back? What keeps you from living for God? We get one shot at this life. Let’s not hold anything back.

Missionaries in Our Daily Lives

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 29B

I’ve been a priest now for over three years, and one the only times that your likely to see me wearing something other than black clerics is when I’m out for a run. So a lot times as I’m just going about my day, I’m not really conscious of the fact that I’m wearing anything very different from anyone else around me; that is, until someone stops me in the aisles of HyVee and asks, “Where do you keep the lemon juice?” I’ve also noticed that I’m much more comfortable with people calling me “Father” or “Fr. Darin” or even “Fr. Schmidt” rather than calling me by just my first name or my last name, whereas at one time, the opposite was true, especially before I was ordained, to have people calling me “Father.”

I know it can seem strange to be calling someone who’s less than half your age, and someone who looks like he’s less than a fourth of your age, to call me “Father,” but I appreciate your efforts. It’s a title of respect and honor, but more important than that, it serves as a reminder to me and to other priests of what our vocation is, what God has called and is equipping us to do as priests and mediators, and as we hear in the Gospel today, it is a reminder that we have been called to serve, and to be the slave of all, to offer our lives with Christ as a ransom for many. I need your help to remember often, who I am called to be for you and for all. Even my own parents make an effort to call me father, even though they’re now 73 years old and have known me since the beginning of my life. Some of my siblings and cousins tend to think that’s a bit strange, but I appreciate yet another reminder of who I am called to be, although if my parents ever need a priest, I do hope they find someone else to minister to them, especially for Confession.

I’ve heard from older priests that you kind of lose your name after being ordained. From then on, people can simply call you “Father.” And there’s something very beautiful about that. The practice of calling any priest “Father” reflects the understanding at some level that, despite personal differences, and even the personal sinfulness of a priest, every priest is still anointed by the Holy Spirit to bring God to us and to bring us to God. That’s another reason why I try to wear my clerics whenever I’m in public, so that even if someone doesn’t know who I am personally, they can still recognize me as a priest, as “Father,” and they can approach me for Confession, for prayer, or for whatever else. Wearing my clerics also helps me to reflect more on whether my words and actions communicate or contradict the love of Christ to those who see me, to those who come in contact with me.

This weekend we celebrate World Mission Sunday. We remember and pray for those in foreign missions, taking the Gospel throughout the world, but we also renew our own commitment to being missionaries of God’s love in our own day to day lives, in our homes, in our workplace, in classrooms, restaurants, and shopping malls, while we drive on the road or walk in the park.  Now there’s no standard uniform for Christians or other Catholics like there is for priests, to make us stand out, but it would be very good for all of us to reflect this Sunday on how well we communicate the love of Jesus in all these various places and our activities, to everyone who sees us or comes in contact with us. How does our tone of voice, our sarcasm, the way we talk about others or the way we ignore or avoid certain people, how does that build up the kingdom of God in our world today? How do our small acts of kindness and consideration, our stopping to help someone in need in the midst of our busy schedules, how does our talking to someone who’s having a difficult time and our really listening to them, how does that communicate God’s love?

You see, we’re all called as Catholic Christians to bring God to others and to bring others to God, to have a priestly mediation and missionary focus in our world and culture. And like Jesus and the Apostles, we’re not meant to use power and authority to subject others to our will, but to serve them out of love and out of concern for their souls, and for their material needs as well. We open ourselves to receive the grace God has for us at this Mass, and to receive our vocation and mission in the world today. As we receive Jesus Himself in this Eucharist, we are sent out to bring His love to everyone we meet. Jesus commissions each one of us, “Go, and make disciples of all nations.” Make disciples of all colleagues. Make disciples of all classmates, of all neighbors, of all persons we come in contact with, by loving them with the same love with which Jesus has loved us, by serving one another, laying down our lives for one another. Go, therefore, and spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Lessons from Leaves: Simplify or Die

Bulletin Article, Ordinary Time Sunday 29B

During this past week, I had the opportunity to attend a spiritual retreat at Broomtree with other priests of the diocese. At one of the talks, I turned my chair towards the window to watch as leaves of the honey locust trees drifted down in the light of the rising sun. They fell in such great numbers and for such a long time that it was like watching snowfall gently drifting on the breeze. It helped that our retreat master was blind, so that he did not notice or have any concern that I was not looking at him as he talked.

We’ve seen quite a bit lately with regard to the changing of the seasons, even the first hints of winter. I always enjoy seeing the leaves change colors during this time of year, and I was fascinated to learn why this happens as a preparation for the harshness of winter. Before the leaves fall, deciduous trees actually take nutrients back out of the leaves to be stored in the roots during the winter (or during the dry season in warmer parts of the world). One of the nutrients that many trees reclaim from their leaves is chlorophyll, the pigment that gives their leaves a green color and allows them to harness the power of the sun in photosynthesis. So leaves change color before falling because the tree reabsorbs their green chlorophyll.

Also, I found out that leaves don’t just fall, but most of these trees actually have specialized cells that ‘cut’ the leaves from the trees and seal off their places against the elements. Plants with needle-like leaves often keep them year-round, ever-green, as they are hardier and lose a lot less moisture than the broad leaves of deciduous trees.

Learning more about leaves during my retreat gave me opportunity to reflect: where have I perhaps spread myself too thin? What sort of pruning does God desire for me, to re-collect myself, my attentiveness, my energy, to really prepare and focus on the most important things in life? For certain plants, it can be a matter of life or death, to simplify and prepare for the winter, or die before the spring returns. Our lives have seasons as well. Continuing to pour ourselves into the same things that we always have can limit our opportunities for the growth that God wants for us in other areas. As we watch the leaves fall this season, may God help us to drop the diversions and distractions from our own lives, so that we can more fully invest in our relationship with Him and with those that God has entrusted to us.

Nothing Less than God

Power. Pleasure. Possessions. The rich, young man of the Gospel has it all. He has everything that this world is able to offer. And he even has one more thing that most others in his position don’t have. How many politicians or wealthy businessmen would be able to claim with much credibility that from their earliest days, they have kept all the commandments? Power. Pleasure. Possessions. Integrity. Everything and more than anyone could hope for from this world, but he is still not satisfied. He is still restless.

How many of us can go almost our entire lives without ever coming to the level of awareness that this young man has reached in the Gospel? We just keep thinking and convincing ourselves that peace and contentment is just over the next hill. When we’re young, we think, “I can’t wait to have some independence, to be able to drive, to not have to listen to my parents anymore, to finally be finished with school.” Then all these things happen, and then what? Surprise, surprise, we’re still not satisfied. So then we move on to other goals, other prospects just as dubious. “I just need to reach the right level in my career, to have the right pay-grade and accomplishments, to have a big enough house, and an ideal family, then I’ll finally have it all.” We spend years and even decades of our lives chasing dreams, feverishly pursuing each set of goals that we’re not even sure will bring us any lasting happiness. In fact, when we’re really honest with ourselves about our experience, we’re actually pretty sure that these things will always leave us unsatisfied. Even when we reach and live the best day of our life, we inevitably wake up the next morning on the day after the best day of our life. So what do we do? Where can we go with this unending restlessness that’s just part of what it means to be a human being?

Where does the rich young man go? He goes to Jesus. He sees something different in Jesus. The “Son of Man who has nowhere to lay His head,” something about this strange Man from Nazareth tells him that just having more of the same, more power, more pleasure, more possessions in life, more accomplishments, all these things and more of these things won’t bring him the peace that he’s looking for. In desperation, the rich young man asks Jesus, “What is it that I still lack?”

There are actually three commandments that Jesus very noticeably left out of the list that he had told the young man. The first three commandments, those that especially concern our relationship with God, are not mentioned when Jesus first tells him to keep the commandments. And the infinite God is the only answer to our endless desires. Another rich young man, after he was finally able to follow Jesus in his own life, St. Augustine, once said, “Our hearts were made for God, and they will be ever-restless, until we rest in God.” To fill up what was lacking in the man’s relationship with God, Jesus calls him to leave behind anything that would hold him back from following Jesus. Jesus is revealed as Emmanuel, “God-with-us.” Only by following Jesus and living in relationship with Him are we able to begin to satisfy the restless longing of our hearts.

And God is not with us in some unknown tomorrow, some goal that we haven’t yet reached. And God is not present to us yesterday or some time in the past. Today is always the best day of our lives because today, the present moment, is the only time that we can actually meet God. He’s not a God of the future or of the past. “He is who Is.” God wants to meet us today and satisfy our hearts. God wants today to be a moment of grace for us and the first day of the rest of our lives with Him. So, what’s still holding us back? What do we still lack? What dreams and worldly ambitions that can never really satisfy us are we still clinging to? If you’ve known disappointment and discontent even amid the power, prestige, pleasure, and possessions of this world, you’ve known what every Saint has recognized: the desire for God alone that lives in every human heart. Don’t settle, for anything less than God.