The Heart of the Matter

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 22B

I’d like to start off with a bit of Catholic trivia. Did you know that most bishops today, when they become bishops, choose for themselves what’s called an episcopal motto, which is usually a short Latin phrase that they put at the bottom of their coat of arms or their seal? The motto of our own Bishop Paul Swain comes from Psalm 117, in Latin, Confitemini Domino, which translates as, Give praise to the Lord. Now one of my classmates from seminary, with a very interesting sense of humor, said that if there is ever a colony on the moon, and if I should ever become the bishop of the moon, I should choose as my episcopal motto the final verse of Psalm 88, which says, My only friend is darkness. Another priest that I know from seminary says that if he ever becomes a bishop, he wants to have John 15:14 as his motto, which says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.”

Now most of us don’t really associate commandments and obedience too closely in our minds with the concept of friendship and love. If you had a friend who started to tell you what to do all the time, you might not feel like staying friends with them for much longer. But our first reading today speaks about the gift of God’s Law as one of the earliest proofs of God’s love for His people. The commandments of God and of His Church are not meant to be burdensome to us, but are meant to free us, to help us to steer clear of the dead ends and the roads that would take us away from God and away from our true joy and fulfillment. 

The people of Israel came to see the Law of Moses as God the Creator’s great gift to them, as an insight into His own wisdom and design for everything he had created. God knows us, all of us and each one of us individually. God knows us better than we know ourselves. God knows that because he made us for truth and for love, and because he made us to live in a relationship with Him who is Truth and Love in Person, or rather in three Persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, He knows that no matter how much we try to change or deny who He made us to be, things like lying, cheating, stealing, killing, and living in our own selfishness will never truly satisfy us. He revealed his Law, His Ten Commandments to point out to us these dead ends which never lead to real happiness. 

But He doesn’t stop there. God doesn’t just want to change us from the outside, to impose His will and Law upon us from above. God wants our hearts. As we hear in the Gospel today, God wants to transform our hearts and our desires from the inside. That’s why he sent His own Son with a human Heart like ours, to be pierced for our sins, to heal us by his wounds. To die and rise for us, and to send his Holy Spirit into our hearts, to transform us from the inside. 

Even in the Ten Commandments, there’s a sign that God doesn’t want to impose himself from above but wants instead to transform our hearts and desires from within. Usually, commands that we’re used to are phrased like this: don’t kill, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness. But God’s Commandments are phrased more like His promises: you shall not kill, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal; you shall be my people, and I will be your God; you shall inherit the land I promised to give to your fathers. Even the Ten Commandments can be understood as promises about how God’s love will transform our hearts and desires if we live in this covenant with Him as part of His family. You won’t kill. You won’t even want to kill because God Himself will be directing your heart and your desires towards your true good and real happiness.

God wants our hearts. He wants us to entrust to Him the most intimate part of ourselves. And in exchange, He offers us with infinite generosity the Most Sacred Heart of His own Son. Ask Jesus today, to take your heart, with all its burdens, all its wounds, all its frustrations, and ask Him to give you His Heart in return, to transform you from within, to purify your desires, and to lead you to your true fulfillment. Too often we ask too little of God. We think we ask too much, and that’s why our prayers seem to go unanswered, but we really ask far too little. We ask God to change the things around us, and often very trivial things, to change our circumstances, when what he really wants to change is our hearts. God wants to transform the world for us by giving us a new heart and a new spirit with which to see and to love everything and everyone around us. Give your heart to God, and ask Jesus for His Heart. We’re not asking too much, because the Sacred Heart of Jesus is exactly what He wants to give us. 

Lifelong Learner

Bulletin Article, Ordinary Time Sunday 22B

With classes getting into full swing, daylight hours fading away, and temperatures becoming milder or even, according to some, colder, autumn seems to be on its way already. Summer has flown by, as usual, and the equinox is less than a month away. The strangest thing for me this year is that, for the first time in twenty-one years, I won’t be going back to school. I guess that means I should be ready to teach now, but I’m still learning every day. 

During my time at Holy Spirit so far, I’ve given Anointing of the Sick for the first time, I’ve done my first and very interesting house blessing, I’ve had my first couple of Baptisms, and I’ll be starting to meet with couples for marriage preparation. I’ve been learning to use a smart phone, at least to keep track of my calendar and appointments. I’ve also opened a Twitter account, though I don’t really feel the need or desire to tweet very often. I’ve met lots of amazing people in this parish from whom I am learning every day. One of the greatest things about being a priest is having the privilege to meet and get to know so many outstanding people and to begin to see the wonderful ways in which God works in our lives. If we’re open to it, God is trying to teach us every day through the events and people we encounter. 

My exams now are less formal, my assignments less academic, but in some ways I’ll always remain a student. You’ll still see me carry a backpack pretty much everywhere I go. The concept of lifelong learning has been around for many years and takes many forms. The Vatican has also written about the ongoing formation of priests, even after their years of formal seminary education. Blessed John Henry Newman once wrote, “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often” (On the Development of Christian Doctrine40). I hope that we can always keep an open mind and continue to learn from everything and everyone that God puts in our lives, even from the most difficult trials and from people with whom we disagree. 

For all of us, our “One Teacher is the Christ,” the Truth in Person (Matthew 23:10). And there’s just one final exam that will really matter. “At the end of life, we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made, how many great things we have done. We will be judged by, ‘I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was naked, and you clothed me; I was homeless, and you took me in’” (Blessed Teresa of Calcutta). “At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love” (St. John of the Cross, Sayings 64). May God teach us to love not only “in word and speech, but in deed and truth” (1 John 3:18).

Keep at it. 

All In

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 21B

When did you give your life to God? When were you saved? As Catholics, we don’t often ask these questions. They’re much more common among other Christians, but it’s helpful for us to reflect on what our answers would be. Have you given your life to God? Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior? One answer would be: at our baptism. At least that’s where it began for most of us. Even if we were infants, at our baptism, we began to participate, to take part in the life, death, and Resurrection, and in the whole mystery of Jesus Christ. But as we grow and develop, our faith and our response of faith need to grow and mature as well. When we’re able to think for ourselves and to make free choices and our own decisions, do we recommit ourselves to Christ, or do we stop following Jesus like so many of his disciples in the Gospel we heard today?

Just a few weeks ago, I was able to attend the Steubenville North Youth Conference in St. Paul with 43 young people from our parish and our area. During one of the talks, the speaker led those of us who were willing, in a prayer and pledge, committing our lives to Jesus Christ. He warned us not to do this lightly, not to just do it because the people around us were, and not to feel pressured into it, but he invited us to freely commit our lives to Christ, if God had prepared us to do so at that time. Now this was a great thing, and a powerful moment for many who felt they had never really done something like that before, and we need to renew our commitment to Christ time and again in our own words or in words that we find fitting for the occasion.

But, as I listened to the speaker emphasize the seriousness of making this commitment to Christ, I found myself asking: Well, don’t we realize, as Catholics, that this is exactly what we’re doing, every time we go to Mass? Granted, it’s a serious thing to stand and speak your commitment to Christ at a youth conference, but I would say, it’s a much more serious thing to come forward for Communion, to say “Amen, I believe,” to the very Body of Christ, and to receive Jesus Himself, the Holy One of God into our own bodies. Whether we realize it or not, our actions and words in receiving Holy Communion make the same proclamation as St. Peter in today’s Gospel, that we have come to believe and are convinced, that Jesus is the Holy One of God, that He is the Word of eternal life, that His words to us are Spirit and life, and that His Flesh and Blood give divine life to ours because His Flesh and Blood are joined to God Himself. This is what our words and actions proclaim at every Holy Communion, whether we realize it or not. Dwe realize it?

Do we realize that when we stand together and profess the Creed on Sundays, when we stand and say together, “I believe in one God,” when we profess the faith of the Universal Church, the same faith for which thousands of martyrs gave up their property, freedom, and life, do we realize that we recommit ourselves to God in that moment and are meant to cling to that faith with the same fidelity as the martyrs who shed their blood for it? Do we realize that when we offer the bread and wine at Mass—and it’s not just the priest who offers the bread and wine, but the priest together with and on behalf of everyone here and all the Church—that when we offer the bread and wine, we also offer our work, our joys, our sufferings, all our cares from throughout the week, and our very lives to be placed upon this altar, to be united to the one sacrifice of Christ, signified and made present here?

Do we realize what we do at every Mass? Do we say what we mean and mean what we say at Mass? Or do we just go through the motions? When we’re young or new at it, it’s important that we learn what to do and what to say during the Mass, the right responses and the postures and everything else, but as we grow and develop and are able to think and act intelligently, do we become more aware of what it is we’re actually saying and doing at Mass, or are we still infants in our faith? Do we pay attention to the words and prayers of the Mass, so that we can understand what we’re doing, and pray intentionally, or are we just waiting for it to be over? 

All of us here, decided to be at this Mass today. We each decided more or less freely, and perhaps for various reasons, but we’re here now, so be here. Be present to what we’re doing here, to the prayers and actions and what it is they mean. At every Mass, Jesus makes Himself really present to us. The question for us is: Are we really present to Him? 

To Meet Our Greatest Need

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 20B

You can’t really blame the crowds in today’s Gospel for asking themselves the obvious question. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Eating human flesh was unthinkable in the Jewish mindset, and in most cultures throughout history, cannibalism has been considered pretty disgusting if not really wrong and sinful. But it’s very striking that in today’s Gospel, Jesus offers us no explanation as to how we will be able to eat His Flesh and drink His Blood. Instead, He simply becomes more insistent that we desperately need to feed upon Him. “Amen, Amen, I say to you, unless you eat the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink His Blood, you do not have life within you.” In other words, you’re already dead, unless you live off the life of Christ.

Last week, I talked about how eternal life and the life of heaven can begin even now, when we live from the life and love of Jesus Christ in our own lives. But the sad reality is that the opposite can also happen. When we refuse to remain in Christ and live from his divine life, when we get so caught up in ourselves and in the things of this passing world that we lose sight of what’s really important, we can begin to live hell on earth, eternal death even before we die. We become a lot like zombies, the walking dead, souls lost and wandering in this world, driven by our unquenchable desires and devouring one another as a result. That’s why we desperately need to feed on Christ and remain in Him and allow Christ to remain in us, because Jesus Christ is the true and only fulfillment of all desire. When we don’t feed on him, we end up devouring ourselves and one another.

But the question remains unanswered in today’s Gospel of how it’s possible to eat the Flesh and drink the Blood of Jesus. And Jesus won’t really answer this question of how, until the night before His crucifixion. At the Last Supper, Jesus shows His Apostles how they will be able to eat His Flesh and drink His Blood. Through the power of His word—which can only be true and never false because He is God—through the power of his word Jesus changes bread and wine into the Sacrament of his Real Presence when he says, “This is My Body,” and, “This is the chalice of My Blood,” but the appearances or species of bread and wine remain, even when there is really no longer bread and wine, but instead the very substance and person of Jesus Christ under these appearances. And as Jesus commands His Apostles, “Do this in memory of Me,” He gives them the authority and power to do what He does with His own words, to make Him present again under the appearances of bread and wine. And down to our own day, through Apostolic succession, Catholic priests have been given the authority and power from Jesus to do what Jesus did with His words and make Him present to us once again on this altar.

So the Eucharist is not a thing, and we don’t just receive some thing when we receive Holy Communion. And we don’t receive bread or wine, but we receive someone, we receive a Person, the Divine Person of Jesus Christ Himself, with His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, to be our life and our salvation. But how do we prepare to receive such a Guest?

Just imagine for a moment, you’re sitting at home and there’s a knock at the door. And you go to the door and open it to find one of your best friends standing outside. Now imagine that you let this person inside your house, but you don’t say anything to them and you don’t listen to what they have to say. They’re free to do what they want in your house, but because you’re busy and have other things on your mind, you just go about your own business and leave your friend to attend to himself. Now if this is how you regularly host people when they come to your home, there probably won’t be too many who are eager to visit you.

But how often is this exactly how we receive Jesus in Holy Communion? Instead of taking some time to speak to Jesus and be attentive to Him and listen to Him at the time of our most intimate union with Him, we instead attend to other things, like how we’re going to get out of the parking lot, where we’re going to eat after Mass, what the people around us are wearing, what the people around us sound like while singing the Communion hymn, or any other number of things that might come to our minds. I know this because I do the same thing, thinking of what’s coming next or what announcements I need to make or whatever else. We all need to be more attentive to Jesus if we want to remain in Him and truly live. Let’s take this Mass as an opportunity to really focus on Christ, and when we notice our minds wandering to other things, not to get upset, but to gently turn back to Jesus, look upon His face, and find rest in Him and in Him alone.

The Silent Challenge

Bulletin Article, Ordinary Time Sunday 20B

During our time overseas, a friend of mine once met a Ukrainian priest. At various times in the history of that country, it was illegal to practice the Catholic faith, and priests could be killed if they could be identified. Because of the persecution, this Ukrainian priest was not in the habit of wearing his collar and blacks. He did, however, consistently wear a button that simply said, “10 minutes.” Inevitably, people who met him would ask about this button. He would start by just giving some statistics about how insignificant 10 minutes of a day or week can seem. Ten minutes is less than 1% of the 24 hours in a day, and it is less than 0.1% of an entire week. 

After giving these statistics and perhaps others, he would present them with a challenge or a sort of experiment. He would challenge them to spend just 10 minutes of the upcoming week in complete silence, to shut off their phone and computer and TVs and iPods and iPads, and to just sit for 10 minutes straight in silence. He challenged them to do this every week and eventually every day. At the end of his conversation with them, he would give them his phone number and ask them to report back, if they wished, or to contact him with any questions.

Now, even though in his first conversation with them, he would never mention God or suggest praying during their 10 minutes of silence, those who would take up his challenge and call him to talk about their experience would often end up talking and asking about God and about prayer. Through these simple conversations and the challenge to spend just 10 minutes in silence, he was able to guide many people to grow in their faith and spirituality, and he even helped several people eventually discern and enter the priesthood or a religious vocation. How much difference can 10 minutes make? Quite a lot, actually, depending on how you use them.

If you’ve ever been to Broomtree Retreat Center, you’ve probably seen the motto, “In the silence, God speaks.” We have a difficult time nowadays finding genuine silence because of how busy we are and because we’re constantly connected to our phones and Wi-Fi and everything else. But without at least some time with genuine silence, we run the risk of losing touch with our deepest desires and the beauty and awe of existence. Just 10 minutes can make a big difference if we are willing to risk facing ourselves and being in the presence of God for that long. Take the chance. Take the time for some silence in your life on a regular basis, and let me know what you discover. God bless and keep you in His merciful love. 

Old Testament: Why So Mean?

In reply to the questions: “Just why is there so much fire and brimstone [Sodom and Gomorrah] in the Old Testament, and the New Testament is way nicer? And still is the Word of God?”

First off, a few counterexamples, because fire and brimstone is definitely not isolated to the Old Testament. Jesus seems very fond of talking about Gehenna as a fiery hell “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mk. 9:47-48) and the darkness outside where there will be “wailing and grinding of teeth” (Mt. 8:12). See also Mt. 5:22, 29-30; 7:13; 10:28; 13:38-42, 49-50; 23:15, 33; 25:28-30, 41, 46; Mk. 9:43, 45; Lk. 12:5; 16:23-24, 26; 17:28-30; Jas. 3:6.

St. Paul is also fond of listing the “unrighteous” who “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9-10). See also Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 5:5; Heb. 12:14; Rev. 21:8; 22:15.

So, just to be clear, following Christ is still serious business, even more serious than in the Old Testament, because the rewards or punishments receive an eternal perspective. Indeed, Jesus implies this when He mentions Sodom and Gomorrah in the Gospel (Mt. 10:15; 11:23-24; Lk. 10:12).

As for the other part of the question, the inspiration of the Old Testament, I would say that we need to always keep in mind that Scripture is the Word of God expressed in human language. God works with what He has to work with. We can say that Jesus Christ is the definitive Revelation of God, but even the New Testament is written in human language and expresses truth in all the complex ways of human language and culture.

With the Old Testament, there is an additional challenge because until the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, God’s Revelation was gradual and progressive. He begins by calling Abraham to Himself and his family, tribe, and eventually nation, but there is still much in the cultural milieu of the patriarchs and nation of Israel that must be purified, and they are only gradually able to see God and the plan that He has for them more clearly over time.

Take for example the gradual awareness that the God of Israel is not just the greatest god but the only God that exists, or their awareness of being a chosen people to then being a light to the nations, or the desire for very temporal, earthly rewards of the Promised Land and prosperity to deeper desires for righteousness and life beyond the grave.

So, in many passages of the Old Testament, we find God depicted in ways that reflect many of the same ideas that pagans had about their own gods in the nations that surrounded Israel, God as someone who gave them laws to live by, and who would bless them and protect them but also destroy and punish their enemies. And their understanding of God was not false, but they only gradually came to understand that their enemies were not the nations that surrounded them or oppressed them, but the sin and rebellion in their own hearts, and death that was a consequence of sin.

I hope this makes some sense. It is a very complex issue and one of the greatest questions concerning how the infinite God can reveal Himself to us who have such limited categories. His reality always exceeds infinitely our own limited concepts, but our statements about God still attain to the truth and allow us to reach Him and enter into His mystery.

The Bread of Life, Wisdom from God

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 18B

When was the last time you really felt content with what you had? Do you remember ever thinking to yourself, “I have everything that I could possibly want, and if I died right now, I would die happy”? If you’re like most of the human race, an overwhelming sense of bliss is not something that overtakes you very often. The world is often not as we would want it to be. So what is the peace that Christ came to bring us? Can we really believe Jesus when he says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst”? Are we satisfied by Jesus who is Truth, or are we doomed to grumble forever, like the Israelites in our first reading, to grumble against the government, against the people we work with and live with, and to grumble against God that we never get what we want?

Today we begin the section of John’s Gospel called the Bread of Life Discourse. This chapter of John includes the plan and desire of Jesus to feed us with His own Flesh and Blood, but in this week’s Gospel reading there aren’t yet any references to consuming the Flesh and Blood of Jesus. Instead, we are encouraged to believe in Jesus as the bread that came down from heaven, as the bread of life. But what is Jesus talking about with this heavenly bread stuff? Our alleluia verse actually spells it out for us today. “One does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” So the bread of life that came down from heaven for us is actually the Word and Wisdom of God that comes to us in Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate. Jesus is for us the Truth that gives us life, the Truth about who God is and about who we are. He is the Truth that sets us free from our grumblings and our frustrations. The Truth is the bread of angels and the food that doesn’t perish but lasts to eternal life.

But we might reply with the famous question of Pontius Pilate, “What is truth?” Truth is simply the conformity of the mind to reality. There’s an objective reality outside ourselves that exerts itself upon us whether we like it or not. And the truth, our knowledge about the reality of the things that exist, helps us to live in freedom, to know how to live and how to properly interact with the things and the people that we encounter. If our mind is not conformed to the reality of things, this can be very dangerous. Take for example, someone who doesn’t know the reality of fire. If we don’t live according to the truth about fire, we might try to catch fire in our hands and end up getting burned. When we don’t live, or when we refuse to live according to the truth, there are gonna be consequences, but when we live the truth, we live in freedom, able to accept our place in reality and able to work with, instead of against, the things and the people that we encounter.

The Truth that Jesus Christ is in His own Person, the Truth that he brings down to us from heaven, is the Truth of the very mind of God, the Creator of reality. God knows all things as they truly are, and not just as we would want them to be. So the question for us becomes, are we ready to receive this Truth from God, are we willing to conform our minds to His reality, to receive our life and existence as a gift from God and to live the Truth in the freedom that He brings? Or will we continue to be preoccupied with trying to get reality to finally conform itself to our will and our desires? Will we continue to live the lies, in slavery to sin, to try the same things over and over, each time expecting a different result, but each time meeting with the same sadness, emptiness, and discontent, getting burned again and again because we don’t know or refuse to live the truth of who God is and who we are, and the purpose of His creation. 

Jesus Christ is the Truth that sets us free, the bread that came down from heaven to give us life in abundance. And Jesus, after He died and rose and ascended into heaven, sent the Spirit of Truth to guide his Church in every age. This is what we believe as Catholics. The truth of the teachings of the Church is guaranteed by God Himself, the Holy Spirit, who desires to lead everyone to salvation. The teachings of the Church, even the most difficult ones, are meant to give us life and freedom. But how many of us have really experienced the Church’s teaching as an overwhelming blessing in our lives? Hopefully we have. But if we haven’t, let me ask, how many of us have truly lived out the Church’s teachings? I know I have a long way to go. 

I’d like to encourage us this week, if there is anything in the Church’s teaching that we disagree with, that we just can’t understand, that we think is just completely crazy and stupid, that we would ask Jesus to come in and open our hearts and minds to receive his Truth. And come talk to me about it. I’m not too busy yet to try to answer questions you might have, or to at least listen to your perspective. If we’re hungry and thirsty and not satisfied with the Truth that comes from God, we need to do something about it. St. Paul tells us today, “You must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds,” but “as truth is in Jesus […] you should put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth.” Easier said than done, but that is our call. To receive reality as it truly is, a gift from God, and to conform our minds to his Truth instead of always trying to get reality to conform to our desires. Open to Christ. Open up to his reality. Believe and receive the Bread of Life.