Love God First

Homily, 17th Sunday after Pentecost

We live in an Information Age, constantly bombarded with endless words, images, advertisements, 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 exam? “Which is the greatest of all the commandments?” 

Instead of replying with one of the 10 Commandments and their familiar phrasing from the Exodus account, Jesus quotes one of the laws from the Book of Deuteronomy to emphasize not just what we must do, but also the why. 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. Jesus goes on to give sort of a bonus answer, the second greatest commandment: to “love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.

Now it should seem rather obvious, but it’s important that we keep the first commandment as the first and our greatest responsibility, our top priority, 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 stems 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. I’ve heard this error defended by appealing to the first letter of St John where he says, “Whoever does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” Of course, John is not contradicting what Jesus says in the Gospel but warning against an empty piety that pretends to love God while despising everyone. We need both, 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. And we don’t just love God through loving our neighbor. 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 put out of order as well.  

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 and recreation, 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.” 

Without Terms and Conditions

Homily, Ordinary Sunday 25B

When I was first starting out in the priesthood, my first four years I spent assigned to parishes in Sioux Falls. Around the same time, my sister who lived in Sioux Falls was starting her own family. Now with most of my other nieces and nephews, it was usually longer lengths of time between when I would get to see them, so it always seemed like they grew up so fast. But seeing or visiting my sister’s family more often, especially in those first two years when they usually attended the parish I was in, I got to see more of the day to day growth of her daughters. I’m always kind of amazed to see young parents, and especially mothers, dealing with their new babies. The sacrifices they make are really incredible. And having to raise children is a great training ground for unconditional love because you can’t really negotiate with a baby. When the baby cries, someone has to feed him. You can’t sit down with a baby to discuss terms and conditions, saying something like this: “Look, we’re very tired, but we’re willing to work with you. So three nights out of the week, you can cry and wake us up, and we’ll take care of you, but anything beyond that and you’re gonna have to start fending for yourself.” Parents learn very quickly who’s really in charge when a baby is in the house, and they don’t really have time to stop and wonder what’s in it for them or when it’s finally going to pay off. 

As we hear in the Gospel today, “Whoever receives one child such as this” in the name of Jesus receives Jesus Himself, and whoever receives Jesus receives the Father who sent Him. In another part of the Gospel, Jesus says, “You must receive the kingdom of God like a little child.” We usually take this as meaning that we’re the ones who need to be like children, with the innocence and openness that children have, as we receive God’s kingdom. But the other way to understand that saying is that it’s God’s kingdom which is like a little child, and we need to receive His kingdom like we would receive a little child, like parents receive a new baby, not with terms and conditions and negotiations, but unconditionally, to receive God and His kingdom on His own terms. To take the bad with the good, so to speak, sleepless nights along with smiles. Each and every human life brings with it countless joys and sorrows, and it’s hard to separate out the triumphs from the trials. So every child is both a great blessing from God and a grave responsibility.  

All of us, and not just those among us who have their own children, but every one of us is called to receive the kingdom of God as we would receive a little child, taking the bad with the good and following Jesus unconditionally. Notice that Jesus always speaks about the sorrow of his suffering and death, together with the joy of his Resurrection. Joys and sorrows cannot be separated in this life. The Christian life brings great trials and crosses, but also great joys and fulfillment. The greatest among you is the one who is willing to become “the last of all and the servant of all,” not asking “what’s in it for me?” or seeking only to serve our own desires. Instead, we love God and serve Him unconditionally, as He has loved us, and we seek His will in all things, knowing that He’s the one who’s really in charge, centering our life around Him, just as the lives of new parents naturally center around their new child. Are we willing to accept this new life that God has for us, with all its joys and all its trials? Are we willing to accept God into our lives on His own terms, as we would accept a child? 

I wonder what it was like for our Blessed Mother Mary, to receive the Son of God as her own Child, to feed Him, bathe him, and hold Him in her arms, to do all that she could to comfort Him and serve Him. To accept all the trials and sufferings, and all the joys and miracles of His life as her own. Once again in this Eucharist, we have the opportunity to receive Jesus on His own terms, to receive the Risen Christ who was slain for our sins, to proclaim with the whole Church, and to be conformed to the Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus, to be transformed by the joys and the sorrows of the Life of Christ, to accept and to follow Jesus unconditionally, so that he may lead us through the Cross to the unending joys and glory of heaven. Receive the Child Jesus as we receive Him in this Eucharist, and let Him have His way. 

Personal Training

Bulletin Letter, Ordinary Sunday 25B

Among the Apostles and early Christians and throughout history until very recently, Christian asceticism (“discipline,” voluntary self-denial) found regular expression throughout the year, even on a daily basis. Every Friday, not just during Lent, commemorates the Passion and Death of Jesus upon the Cross for our salvation, even as Sunday is a weekly celebration of His Resurrection. We should still be offering to God some form of penance and self-denial on every Friday throughout the year, even though Fridays during Lent are now the only ones on which this penance is required to include abstinence from meat. 

One of the other regular practices of “denying oneself, taking up our cross, and following Christ” included the observance of Ember Days, once during each of the four seasons of the year. Following the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14), the Autumn Ember Days occur on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of this upcoming week. This set of three days is set aside especially to give thanks to God for all the blessings of the past year and to beg His abundant favor upon us in the future, favorable weather and health for our families, livestock and crops. These days are also dedicated to prayer for vocations, that God would reap a spiritual harvest by granting us “priests, holy priests, many holy priests and religious vocations.” 

The Ember Days are observed as days of prayer, fasting (maximum of one full meal and two smaller meals if necessary to maintain strength, and no eating between meals), and abstinence from meat (all of Friday, with meat allowed at one meal on Wednesday and on Saturday). Please join me in keeping these sacred days, when so many are experiencing slavery and destruction through an excess of self-indulgence and a lack of even the most basic discipline. Pray that many more will answer the call to be holy priests, when so many priests and bishops have failed to follow Christ. “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest” (Luke 10:2). 

For adult catechesis this year, I’m considering monthly sessions. The first couple topics will likely be a history and overview of the Rosary and Liturgy of the Hours in October, Funeral Planning and End of Life Issues in November.

Suffer Alone or with Christ

Homily, Ordinary Sunday 24B

Today, we reach the turning point in St. Mark’s Gospel. Up until this passage I just proclaimed, everything’s been going great. Jesus has gathered His disciples, and with great authority He has been teaching, casting out demons, and healing every disease. Crowds of people are always following Him just to hear Him and to get close to Him. They even recognize Him as a great Prophet, and last week as He healed the deaf-mute, the crowds exclaimed, “He has done all things well.” Today, St. Peter even recognizes Jesus as the Christ, the promised Messiah who would bring salvation. Not everyone was so happy about Jesus, though, and there had been frequent disagreements with the Jewish authorities among the Pharisees and Sadducees. Today, Jesus spells it out for us and for the Apostles, that He doesn’t just bring a naïve ‘prosperity gospel,’ or promise that once we begin to follow Him all our problems and sufferings will go away. Jesus begins to make His way toward Jerusalem, where “the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days. He spoke this openly.”  

Jesus tells us plainly that the Christian Way is not an easy way. There is no easy way in this life. Suffering is unavoidable, but there are two ways to approach suffering. There is the narrow way of taking up our cross and following Christ, of freely accepting the suffering that we meet in this life out of love and obedience for God our Father. And then there is the wide way that many travel, of rebelling against any thought of suffering or loss or limitation, of taking Christ aside and rebuking him, saying, “God forbid that such things should happen to You or to us.” How many of us, the moment we face any trial or touch of suffering, how many of us find ourselves with St. Peter, opposing Christ because we are thinking “not as God does but as human beings do”? How many of us become enemies of the Cross of Christ the moment that our faith is tested? This second way, the way of the world, often seems easier to us, but there are untold sufferings and deep emptiness along that path—living far from God and His plan for us. The way of the world, the way of sin and rebellion, involves sufferings that no human soul was meant to endure because it involves suffering in isolation from God.

As I reflected on today’s readings and considered the mystery of the Lord’s Cross, I was reminded of the life of the Servant of God Chiara Corbella, an Italian wife and mother who died about ten years ago at the age of 28. When Chiara got married, she and her husband wanted very much to have children and raise a family together, but great trials awaited them. Their first child lived for just 40 minutes after being born due to a rare condition. After having the child baptized and being able to hold her in their arms, they very quickly had to say goodbye to their little Maria. Since there was nothing wrong genetically or otherwise that should prevent them from having healthy children together, Chiara and her husband decided to try again. This time, because of a different developmental issue, their son Davide lived for only 38 minutes. Again, they had him baptized and bid farewell. 

During her third pregnancy, Chiara and her husband were hopeful and had every indication that their child was completely healthy and developing correctly. But when Chiara found a sore on her own tongue that wouldn’t heal, the doctors found cancer. Now some cancer treatments would put the health of her child at risk, so Chiara decided to receive only those treatments that could ensure the child’s safety until their third child was born. To save her own life, it would not have been sinful for Chiara to receive other cancer treatments, even if these would have—as an unintended side-effect—endangered the health and life of the child she was carrying, but Chiara freely chose not to risk the child’s health. If anyone could have used a miracle, or we might even say, if anyone was ever deserving of a miracle, it would have been this faithful couple who had already suffered so much. But Chiara would continue to suffer throughout the pregnancy and even lose sight in her right eye because of the cancer. Chiara Corbella embraced her cross and knew the joy of following Christ and of laying down her life for her child. She was able to celebrate their new son’s first birthday before she died on the feast of St. Anthony of Padua in 2012. 

The Cross of Christ always remains a mystery to us, and suffering never becomes easy in this life, but the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and love that we receive from God can guide us through the cross to the resurrection. Faith enables us to trust in God’s plan of love even in the darkness, even when we can’t see the purpose or make sense of our sufferings. Hope helps us continue to desire more than what we could ever experience in this passing life, the joys of heaven where every pain and tear will be wiped away forever. Supernatural love allows us to love even as God loves us, to pour ourselves out in love, even for those who are not willing or not able to return our love, just as Chiara sacrificed herself for a child still too young to make any sort of repayment to her. 

The Cross and suffering are unavoidable in this life. There are two ways to approach the cross, and neither one is easy. Will we embrace the Cross by the grace of God and follow Christ, or will we spend our lives fighting against it, still suffering just as much or in even more profound ways without the helps that come from God? The yoke of Christ is easy and His burden is light because it is with Christ. When we rebel against the cross, we still end up suffering, but we suffer alone, and we suffer all the more because we have isolated ourselves from God and from others. Choose Christ, embrace the Cross, and find true life in Him.

Close to Jesus to the Last

Bulletin Letter, Ordinary Sunday 24B

This coming Tuesday and Wednesday are special Feastdays, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and Our Lady of Sorrows. The dates correspond to the Dedication of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem back in the year 327, after the discovery of the True Cross by St. Helena, Constantine’s mother. The whole month of September is devoted in a special way to Our Lady of Sorrows, who—above any other Saint, as Co-Redemptrix—was strengthened by God to follow Jesus along His Way of the Cross and to join the sufferings of a mother’s Immaculate Heart to His supreme Sacrifice for our salvation. 

It seems appropriate that as we approach the beginning of autumn in the Northern Hemisphere, as much of what is green turns brown or other colors, and life seems to fade from much of the natural world around us, the Church directs our minds once again to the sorrows and death that saved the world. Another reminder that even as the Death of Jesus on the Cross was not the end, so the fading and colder temperatures of this season will not be the end—even if we’ll have to wait more than a few days for spring to return. 

Bishop Emeritus Paul Swain (emeritus is the term used for retired bishops, the Latin word for “having completed one’s service) would often mention the Seven Sorrows of Mary as especially comforting, to know that our Blessed Mother endured many hardships and anxieties similar to our own even throughout her life, and that our own sufferings are not pointless but have value in God’s eyes when joined to the saving Cross of Christ. As we head towards cooler days, let’s take the Blessed Virgin as a constant companion. Reflecting upon all that she endured can help to lighten our own burdens and bring perspective to our sufferings. With firm faith, she continued to magnify the Lord who had done great things in her, to know that Christ would rise again, as He had promised. 

The Seven Sorrows of Mary: 

1. The Prophecy of Simeon (“A sword of sorrow shall pierce your heart.”) 

2. The Flight into Egypt 

3. The Loss of the Child Jesus in the Temple 

4. Meeting Jesus on His Way of the Cross 

5. The Crucifixion 

6. The Taking Down of the Body of Jesus from the Cross 

7. The Burial of Jesus

Hear His Word, Proclaim His Faith

Homily, Ordinary Sunday 23B

By now, I’ve lost track of how many baptisms I’ve celebrated as a priest. One part of the ritual for baptizing children is inspired directly from the Gospel passage we just heard. As most of us know from experience, infants and little children are not very different from the deaf and mute man in today’s Gospel. Hearing with their ears, small children understand very little, and even when they begin to understand, they still might not want to listen very well, or they pretend not to hear, and it’s usually quite some time before they’re able to speak plainly. So, after baptizing the child, the priest or deacon touches the ears and mouth of the child with his thumb, while saying, “The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the dumb speak. May he soon touch your ears to receive his word, and your mouth to proclaim his faith, to the praise and glory of God the Father.”  

I’ve always considered this a beautiful gesture and prayer, even for those of us who have been able to hear and to speak for a long time. When you take into account everything else we hear, how often do we really use our ears to serve God, to listen to His Word? And with everything else that we say, how often do we actually proclaim our faith in Christ, “to the praise and glory of God the Father”? These great gifts of hearing and speaking are easily taken for granted, but if you’ve ever experienced hearing loss or the loss of your voice, or have spent some time with someone else who has trouble hearing or speaking, it’s amazing how difficult it becomes to communicate even the simplest of things. 

As our second reading on Sundays, we’ve started having passages from the letter of St. James, but there’s one important part of his letter that won’t be read. In James chapter 3, he discusses the power of speech. He compares the tongue to the rudder of a ship and to the bit and bridle of a horse. Even though the tongue seems to be one of the smallest members of the body, what we say can make a huge difference in the direction that our lives take, even as a relatively small rudder on a larger boat determines where the whole boat will end up, or that we can steer a large horse using what we put in its mouth. 

Think of how many times we sin on a daily basis by listening to things we know we shouldn’t, or by misusing the gift of speech, saying things we shouldn’t or by not speaking up when we actually should. Everyone realizes that gossip or spreading lies and rumors is sinful and can make for a toxic social environment, but how often do we willingly listen or even seek it out to indulge our curiosities? How often do we spread to others what they really don’t need to know? We don’t just sin when we lie or spread unverified or exaggerated stories. Even when we share things that are true or that we’ve observed firsthand, when we speak about the faults of others without it really being necessary to do so, talking negatively about people behind their backs and harming their reputation in the eyes of those who have no connection and no responsibility to correct those problems, this is called the sin of detraction. 

The Gospel model for addressing faults or sins we observe in others is still that we first bring it directly to the attention of that person. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (Mt. 18:15-16). Most of the time, we might not be all that interested or invested in actually seeing those problems addressed or corrected, but we’re just making conversation. Something we might ask ourselves is, if the person I’m talking about were standing right here with us, would I still be saying what I’m saying about them? If I’ve never bothered to confront the person directly about it, then I haven’t done what I can to remedy the situation. Then it’s usually better to live by the old adage, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” 

The situation is obviously different, for example, in the case of a teacher sharing with a child’s parents about the subjects they struggle with in school. The teacher has already worked with the child in class, and sharing that information—even negative information—with parents is aimed at working together to help the child succeed. They all exercise a certain responsibility for the education of the child. But if that teacher were to share the poor grades of the same student with someone else’s parents, what would be the purpose? If they don’t have a responsibility for that student, they don’t have any need for that information, and the teacher who would share such negative information to those who don’t need to know would be committing the sin of detraction against that student. 

The gifts of hearing and speaking are ultimately given to us by God to be used in His service, that by using them well, we can reach our heavenly homeland. Even as He did for the deaf and mute man in today’s Gospel, Jesus wants to open our ears to listen to His word of truth, and move our hearts to put it into practice. He wants to open our mouths to proclaim His faith, plainly and with confidence to those around us, to the praise and glory of God the Father. These are the sacred purposes for which God has entrusted to us our ears and mouths. What a shame to put these gifts instead to sinful purposes, to listen to empty talk, to spread falsehood or detraction, or to remain silent when God is calling us to speak up. Most profoundly in Holy Communion, Jesus does touch our tongues and open our mouths in faith. St. James tells us, “If anyone is able to discipline his tongue and not sin in anything he says, he will be perfect, able to bridle his whole body” (James 3:2). Let Jesus guide and direct what we say, what we don’t say, what we hear and listen to, so that He can lead us to green pastures and heavenly delights. 

Serving Mammon Quite Faithfully—God, Not So Much

Bulletin Letter, Ordinary Sunday 23B

Long considered a spiritual classic, the Imitation of Christ comes up every once in a while in the Office of Readings. My favorite passage was in the reading for Monday of this week, and I can’t help finding it even more striking in light of all that’s happened with the pandemic, environmentalism, or elaborate rules of woke vocabulary. Here’s the passage: 

The world promises rewards that are temporal and insignificant, and these are pursued with great longing; I promise rewards that are eternal and unsurpassable, yet the hearts of mortals respond sluggishly. Who serves and obeys me in all matters with as much care as the world and its princes are served? Blush, then, you lazy, complaining servant, for men are better prepared for the works of death than you are for the works of life. They take more joy in vanity than you in truth.

Imitation 3.3

It’s obviously a good thing to take reasonable steps to prevent the spread of disease even as we gather to worship God at Holy Mass, but among those who should especially prioritize spiritual and heavenly things, have we seen any comparable effort at stemming the contagion of sin and raising awareness of its dangers not just in this life but for all eternity? 

One critique of many Catholic bishops and priests I’ve heard is that they were willing, for example, to ban receiving Communion on the tongue in their dioceses or parishes out of concern for bodily health, but few seem to remember these same shepherds ever having such great concern for the spiritual health of their flocks. Had they ever issued reminders with any comparable urgency about the need to be in the state of sanctifying grace in order to receive Holy Communion, lest we “eat and drink condemnation upon ourselves” (1 Cor. 11:29)? 

In other areas, we might just consider how eagerly, with such enthusiasm and energy, many people pursue the false pleasures of drinking bouts and various addictions—scratching an itch that only promises to grow itchier the more it is scratched—and compare how reluctantly and sheepishly so many of us ever broach the subject of our friendship with Christ during a conversation with someone who could benefit from the Gospel. If only the followers of Christ would serve Him with as much vigor as others (or we ourselves) tend to serve instead our false gods. “Athletes deny themselves all sorts of things. They do so to win a crown that withers, but we a crown that is imperishable” (1 Cor. 9:25). 

God’s Own Values

Homily, Ordinary Sunday 22B

Where do our values come from? Our sense of right and wrong, and what makes for true happiness, genuine human flourishing, the good life? In our Gospel today, Jesus mentions three different sources that we can allow to guide us, to shape our own affections, of what we love, and of what we hate and despise, three sources of standards for our life: the commandments of God, human precepts or the shifting standards of this passing world, and the disordered passions of our own hearts. And what happens if there’s ever a conflict between these three sources of values? Are we quick to throw out the commandments of God in favor of human custom or the fickle desires of our own hearts?

The first and highest source of our values is the commandment of God, the word of truth “from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change.” The commandments of God teach us to love what God loves, and to hate and despise what God hates. God loves and desires our genuine happiness, even more than we desire it ourselves. God knows, because He made us, that sin can never truly satisfy us. God weeps for the misery of His children, as they continue to choose their own destruction through sin and disobedience. Moses and the Israelites always viewed the 10 commandments—and even many of the other laws governing their daily life and their worship of God—as being among the greatest of gifts that they received from God, as indispensable insight into God’s own plan in creating us. “What great nation has statutes and decrees that are as righteous as this whole law which I am setting before you today? Observe them carefully, for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations.”

Do we still view God’s commandment as a great gift and blessing? Wisdom to guide our feet away from all the blind alleys and pitfalls that can never bring true happiness or lasting peace? As the proper boundaries within which our freedom and creativity can really flourish, safeguarded against the abuse of freedom and slavery to sin? Instead how often are we tempted to think of God’s commandments as being outdated, out of touch with reality, overly restrictive of our freedom, especially when it comes to human sexuality, or in what is required of us in the worship of God, or when it comes to the use of drugs and alcohol or moderation in the enjoyment of the things of this world? And if we don’t quite trust the timeless wisdom of God’s commandments, what does that say about the real source of our values?

The two other sources and influences that Jesus talks about in the Gospel include what He calls human precepts and the evil desires arising out of our own hearts. Instead of giving priority to the commandments of God, how often do allow human precepts and the prevailing opinions of society to guide us instead? Not all of society’s standards or expectations are necessarily bad by any means, but God might have a different plan for us than just to get an education, to get a job, to make money, to get married and have 2 and a half kids, five dogs, and a boat. Especially when it comes to material possessions and keeping up appearances, there can be tendencies toward pride and envy, and measuring success not in terms of God’s will and Gospel simplicity but in how we compare to others.

In recent years, the most noticeable conflicts between the commandments of God and what society now considers acceptable or even praiseworthy are in the areas of transgenderism and homosexual behavior, but it’s not limited to just those. For a longer time, there has been acceptance of cohabitation before marriage, abortion and fertility treatments that don’t respect human life and sexuality, contraception, and many forms of adultery, including divorce and remarriage without investigation into whether the first marriage was valid and binding till death. In other areas, recreational use and abuse of drugs and alcohol is widely accepted. And most people are no longer consistent about the worship of God every Sunday and holyday. But the commandments of God have not changed in any of these areas.

Do we really seek to understand why, and not just dismiss the Church’s teachings as Old Testament meanness and insensitivity? Or do we rather take our cues and adopt and adapt our values to the shifting opinions of the passing world around us? The people of God, members of Christ and temples of the Holy Spirit—which we are—are called to be holy as God is holy. We are to be set apart and different from the ways of this passing world. But being different and going against the flow can be difficult, and it can bring persecution, so what do we do instead? We keep the peace, we go along to get along, we don’t make waves, as our lives all go together from one disaster to another, from the emptiness of one living hell to the next.

The third possible source of our values is easy enough for us to understand. Jesus speaks of the evil desires which come out of our own hearts, “evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.” The commandments of God are not easy to live out, especially when our own hearts are inclined to other ways, other methods of getting what we want. So it becomes easier for us to doubt the commandments of God, rather than doubting our own disordered hearts. Today, we’re told to be “true to ourselves,” but when this means not being true to God and who he made us to be, we will never find lasting peace or fulfillment. The Gospel continues to call us instead to take up our cross, to die to ourselves, so that the Life of Christ can bear fruit in us.

God still wants to save us, from the lies of this passing world and from the evil of our own hearts. God gives us the grace in Christ Jesus His Son and in the power of the Holy Spirit, to truly live according to the timeless wisdom of His commandments, to be set free from slavery to sin and from the rat race and living hell that the world offers us. How long have we been living already according to human precepts, measuring ourselves against the standards of the world, feverishly feeding the most superficial desires of our hearts with very little satisfaction, without any true peace, all the while our deepest and truest desires go unanswered? Why not actually give the commandments of God a real try for a change? Whatever we leave behind in following Christ, He will more than make up for, in eternal life.

Bike Across the Prairie

Bulletin Letter, Ordinary Sunday 22B

While it’s not my favorite hobby, I do a fair bit of bicycling from time to time. It can be a nice opportunity for prayer and reflection. I’ve gone a few miles out from each town along with riding between Bowdle and Hoven or Hoven and Gettysburg several times, once from Hoven out past Onaka and back. Those can be fairly long rides if I do them in the same day, especially since at least in one direction the wind will likely be against me. I have not, however, done anything like what Fr. Terry Anderson and Fr. Mark Lichter have done for several years. 

This year (actually this week) they’ll be riding 250 miles in 5 days, from the world’s only Corn Palace in Mitchell to the so-called Cathedral on the Prairie in Hoven. On Thursday, they should reach Onaka, then they’ll stay with me in Bowdle Thursday night before resuming their course on Friday from Onaka to Bowdle to Hoven. They compete not to see who finishes first but who raises the most money. Since he spent some time in these parishes previously, Fr. Anderson thinks you should contribute to his cause, which is funding for the relatively new St. Thomas More Catholic School in Brookings. Their parish website has a link where you can donate: http://stmbrookings.weebly.com/ 

Fr. Lichter is now in St. Wenceslaus Parish in Tabor. As a seminarian I spent a summer with him at Sacred Heart in Yankton, along with Fr. John Rutten and—ordained in the meantime—Fr. Tim Cone, who had been the choir director there at the time. You might meet Fr. Cone sometime as he is one of the four priests now in Aberdeen.  

Over Labor Day, I’ll be gathering with the Bishop and several other priests at the Abbey of the Hills. I’ve only been there a couple times while it was still Blue Cloud Abbey, but I don’t think I’ve ever stayed there for a retreat or anything. Through generous donations, they’re hosting this priest gathering free of charge and providing meals for us to have some fellowship. I hope you always pray for our Bishop and for the priests and deacons of our diocese. Pray for the safety of the two priests on bikes, and be sure to give them room and a wave if you see them out on the road. 

Convinced and Committed

Homily, Ordinary Sunday 21B

Sometime over the past couple years, I remember seeing this trend of yard signs. I don’t think I’ve seen any around here, but pictures get posted to social media and they kind of make their rounds. The sign that became the most popular says, “In this house, we believe/ healthcare is a human right/ black lives matter/ women’s rights are human rights/ no human is illegal/ science is real/ love is love.” It’s been characterized as sort of a liberal creed. And there’s really not much in the words themselves of this creed that anyone would really disagree with. But over the years, many different and contradictory meanings have been foisted onto these words. When murdering the unborn is considered “healthcare,” then what does it actually mean to say that healthcare is a human right? And of course, “love is love” is such a profound statement. Saying something like, “chocolate is chocolate” is bound to be just as true. But when what the culture around us means by “love” is just the mere tolerance or affirmation of pretty much anything, complete licentiousness, and includes every sexual perversion under the sun, then what is “love”? 

In response to these yard signs, you can now signs with some or all of the Apostle’s Creed, a much better statement and foundation for a household. I think it’s the house of one of my brothers that as you come in through the front door, one of the first things you see is a plaque with the verse from our first reading from the book of Joshua: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” 

I hope our families and the households of this parish are striving to serve something more lasting than just the latest issues that the media tells us we should be outraged about. To serve the Lord, the source of eternal life. I’ve always admired this declaration of Joshua and of the families that followed his example. And of course St. Peter in our Gospel, as he answers for the 12 Apostles when Jesus asks them, “Do you want to leave me as well?” “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.” To make a decision, a commitment to the Lord. 

Now it’s one thing to put up a sign or a plaque as reminders, or to admire these statements of faith and love, but to actually live them out, day by day. To persevere in our resolve even when things get difficult and we’re faced with temptations to sin and to serve other gods. Have we ever struggled to keep that resolve? Have we ever fallen back into the same sins, time and time again? Well, it might help us to take a look at the reasons behind these declarations, the motivation for this firm commitment to the Lord from the Israelites and from St. Peter to strengthen our own resolve. 

Have we come to know with our mind and heart, with our whole being are we convinced that Jesus is the Holy One of God? Are we convinced that Jesus is the Source—not just of eternal life sometime later—but the Source of heavenly life that begins here and now? Do we know that Jesus is the only Source of the truly blessed life yesterday, today, and forever, even on this side of the grave? In our first reading the Israelites recalled that it was the Lord who freed them from slavery in Egypt, the Lord who ransomed and purchased them as a people, who provided for them at every stage of their journey through the desert, who brought them into the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. They had seen the wonders of the Lord with their own eyes. They were convinced. And being convinced, they were committed. 

Are you convinced? Are you convinced that Jesus is the One who ransomed you, freed you from slavery to sin and death and from the fires of hell? Like a merchant in search of fine pearls, Jesus found you, rejoiced over you, and gave everything He had on the Cross to purchase you with His own Blood. Jesus looks upon you with the greatest love. Are you convinced that at every Mass, Jesus offers His own Flesh and Blood for you? That with our own eyes, we have seen the wonders of the Lord. If we’re not convinced, we won’t be committed. If we’re not mindful of all that Christ has done and continues to do to show His extravagant love for us, if we forget, we will wander and serve other gods. 

St. Thérèse had a great devotion to the Holy Face of Jesus. I’ve often found that when I’m in the midst of temptation, considering some sin, it’s enough for me to imagine and picture to myself the Face of Jesus looking at me. Not looking with reproach or condemnation, but looking with love. It’s our awareness of God’s love for us that gives us the strength to respond in love to Him. If we’re convinced, we can be committed. And to the extent that we waver in our commitment to the Lord, to that same extent, we’re still in need of being convinced of His great love for us. Remember the wonders the Lord has done for us. And remember that His one motivation in everything He does is love.