The Law and Love

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 26B

Welcome back to Holy Spirit Church! It’s been a few months, but I hope it was worth the wait. I don’t remember too much of what it was like before, and as you can see, there’s still work to be done before it’s all finished, but what do you think of it so far? We look forward to eventually having all of our pews, kneelers, and a new tabernacle, and on October 11, the dedication of our new altar by Bishop Swain. Until then, we’ll be using a temporary altar, so that the bishop will be the first one to bless and celebrate Mass on the new altar. 

For the whole Diocese of Sioux Falls, as a successor to the Apostles, Bishop Paul Swain serves to unite all of us into one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. And the readings today are all about unity, even amid diversity, that the elders at the time of Moses were all united by one prophetic spirit that spoke through all of them. Today, we are still united by that same spirit, and our parish is even named for the Holy Spirit, the soul of the Church and the constant companion of every believer. The Gospel speaks about many who perform miracles in the name of Jesus, even though they are not part of his circle of disciples, but Jesus reminds us, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” We are united as Christians to all who bear the name of Christ, even those outside the Catholic Church, many of whom live lives of great faith and love and holiness. I’m sure all of us here have been helped at one time or another by the faith of other Christians. And personally, a large part of my answering the call to the priesthood I attribute to the influence of a non-Catholic friend who really challenged me in my own faith and in my relationship with God during my teenage years. Today, we pray in a special way for the unity of all Christians, and for the healing of our divisions that can keep so many others from coming to know Christ. 

Our second reading from the Letter of James reminds us that we are all united in the call to care for those less fortunate. This has been a constant theme of Pope Francis, that the Church and all her members need to be united in love and in concern, to reach out to the poor and to those on the periphery, the outcasts and the neglected of society. There can be political aspects of this, and policy changes that need to be made, and it is important that before we commit ourselves to any party platform or ideology or labels of liberal or conservative that tend to polarize us and set up rivalries, we need, above all else, to commit ourselves to the truth and to the process of discerning and cooperating in what would really make for the true good of society as a whole and for the good of the families and individuals that make up society. 

But Pope Francis does not often speak specifically to Congress, and St. James certainly wasn’t. They are speaking instead to you and to me. We shouldn’t just wait around for the government or other organizations to do for us what we are being called to do as a Christian people and as individual Christians to reach out and to care for those who need our love and support. And we will find that we never love or serve anyone without receiving gifts and blessings in return, so the truth is, we need the poor and the underprivileged as much as or more than they need us. 

But there is a tension. How do we really help others to grow and to feel connected and to become contributing members of society, and avoid enabling unhealthy lifestyles or unhealthy patterns of dependence? It’s obvious that just giving money to anyone who asks might not really help them, depending on how they use the money. The psalm and response today speak of love for the Law of God, and Pope Francis has mentioned a healthy tension that exists between law and love, between being called and calling others on to a high standard, and meeting others with mercy and understanding when they have fallen short of that standard. 

Law and love are compatible, but it is not an easy balance. We need to keep in mind that the Law of God and the teachings of the Church, even the difficult moral teachings concerning abortion, contraception, the death penalty, euthanasia, marriage and divorce, all of these teachings reflect the truth about who we are as human beings and as God’s children, and the Law is a high standard to guide us into an abundant life. But God and the Church also know that our growth is gradual and we often fall short and are in great need of God’s never-failing mercy. The road to true freedom and life does not come from denying the standards and having a policy of anything goes, but of living in this tension between law and love, patiently working towards growth and always being committed to the truth of who we are and the high calling we have received in Christ Jesus. May God unite us in our commitment to him and in our vocation to serve one another in genuine love. 

Parts of a Church Building

Bulletin Article, Ordinary Time Sunday 26B

As we return to the church and some semblance of normalcy, we thank everyone who helped to make our months in the gymnasium prayerful and relatively painless. The patience and flexibility of so many is very much appreciated, though if I attempt to start listing more specifically the groups that need to be thanked, I would doubtless neglect to mention somebody. So to everyone at Holy Spirit Parish and School that has contributed and continues to contribute to the renovation and these transitions, thank you.

Moving back up to the church also presents us with an opportunity to really appreciate having a sacred space and learning again how to conduct ourselves in it, especially now that Christ will be present in the tabernacle in the main part of the church. Inside the church, we do what we can to contribute to a prayerful atmosphere, facilitating for everyone present the ability to pray and to worship God. This includes doing our best to be silent and still, especially in those times between communal prayer. This may mean making an extra effort to arrive early and get situated in the pews before Mass begins. During the Mass itself, this means listening as attentively as possible, and singing and speaking out loud together the parts of the Mass and the responses.

The words and terminology we use can also make a difference, even in our unconscious attitudes and behavior. I still remember something from my first weekend at Holy Spirit all those months ago. At the end of the Masses that weekend, I was asked to announce that someone or something would be in the foyer after Mass, and I remember asking myself, what or where is a foyer? I had never really used the word much before, though it wasn’t too difficult to guess at what it meant. The dictionary informs me that it is used especially for the entryway or lobby of hotels and theaters. For the entryway of a church, yet another word has been used instead: narthex. The main body of the church is called the nave, from the Latin word for boat or ship, not to be confused with knave, which denotes a deceitful person. The other important area of a church is the sanctuary, where the altar is and usually anything else at that same level. The sanctuary at Holy Spirit is set off by steps. Included is a diagram that shows the main parts of a church having a layout somewhat different than that of Holy Spirit Church, but it helps to illustrate.

Receiving God as a Little Child

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 25B

When my sister finished cutting my hair last Sunday, I was kind of disappointed, and I told her it didn’t make me look any older. Some evenings before that, I was out with Fr. Cimpl, and I was wearing my blacks, but for the first time since my ordination, I was carded in the restaurant. By now I’m used to the comments, and looking young is not a bad problem to have, but believe it or not, I am 27 years old, and as I’m starting out in the priesthood, many of my friends and classmates from high school and college have already gotten married and started having children. And 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 negotiate with a baby. When the baby cries, someone has to feed him. You can’t really sit down with a baby to discuss terms, 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. Good Christian parents can receive God along with their children because their children bring them an opportunity to love even as God loves, unconditionally, taking the bad with the good, and always wanting what’s best for their children. Each and every human life brings with it countless joys and sorrows, and it’s hard to separate out the joys from the sorrows. 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 selfish desires that we hear about in our second reading. 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, and let Him have His way. 

The Two Ways

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 24B

Today, we reach the turning point in Mark’s Gospel. Up to this point, 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 among the people. 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, they 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, and there had been frequent disagreements with the Pharisees and the ruling powers, but today Jesus spells it out for us, that He doesn’t just bring us a naïve ‘prosperity gospel,’ or promise that once we begin to follow Him all our problems and sufferings will go away. Today, 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. There is the narrow way of 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 think, “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? There are two ways, and neither one is easy. There is the Christian Way, the way of the disciple, to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow in the footsteps of Christ, to be conformed to the sufferings of Christ, and to His love and obedience for the salvation of the world. And there is the way of rebellion, of constantly fighting and trying to avoid every least bit of suffering or trial, of trying to squeeze out of this life every last drop of pleasure and self-indulgence. This second way often seems easier to us, but there are untold sufferings and deep emptiness along that path that no human soul was meant to endure.

As I prayed with today’s readings over this past week and considered the mystery of the Lord’s Cross, I was reminded of the life of Chiara Corbella, an Italian wife and mother who died three 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 tongue that wouldn’t heal, the doctors found cancer. 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 this would have, as a 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, but the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and love can guide us through 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 meaning or make sense of our sufferings. Hope enables us to continue to desire more than what we could ever experience in this life alone, the joys of heaven where every pain and tear will be wiped away. Supernatural love enables 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 return. The Cross and suffering are unavoidable in this life. There are two ways, 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? The choice is ours. 

Overwhelming Generosity

Bulletin Article, Ordinary Time Sunday 24B

I hope everyone had a wonderful Labor Day Weekend. In the days leading up to it, I had an interesting question posed to me during one of my first classroom visits here at Holy Spirit. One of the students asked me whether I have another job besides being a priest. I could only talk about a few hobbies of mine and mention how St. Paul was so committed to providing for himself during his missionary journeys by continuing to work as a tentmaker, a trade likely passed on to him by his father. St. Paul also says, though, that ministers have a right to be supported by the churches they serve, even though he himself chose to waive that right. Not having to worry about personal finances hopefully frees up ministers to devote more time and energy to serving the community, to draw them closer to God.

Over Labor Day Weekend, my mind was drawn back to my time in seminary and an overwhelming sense of how many people were working very hard and praying to support seminarian education and to provide me with the opportunity to devote eight years of my life in preparation for the priesthood. When I was a seminarian, I kept thinking that once I became a priest, I would then be able to start to earn my keep. I have now begun my work as a priest, and even though it is busy, and weekends and holidays some of the busiest times for priests, the work has not been overwhelming. What continues to be overwhelming is my sense of the generosity of so many working so hard to support our priests. 

From Sunday afternoon through Labor Day and breakfast on Tuesday, the priests of our diocese were invited to stay or spend however much time they could or desired at Oak Tree Lodge near Clark, SD. Fr. Cimpl allowed me to go and enjoy the cooler weather and the company of some of the other priests of the diocese. I enjoyed testing my reflexes on the old pinball machines that are there, teaming up with Fr. Lichter to win a couple games of billiards, and teaming up with Fr. Short to win a couple games (and lose many more) of ladder golf. I had a great time just getting to know a little better the other priests of the diocese and where they are serving and the stories they can tell from a wide variety of experience. As the newest priest in attendance, I also had the great privilege of being the main celebrant and preacher at our Mass on Labor Day. This event just reinforces my sense of the overwhelming generosity of so many people to support our priests. Please pray for our priests, that we would have the grace to work with the same generosity as laborers in God’s vineyard, to bring such a rich harvest into the Kingdom of God. May God’s blessings be yours in abundance. 

Open Your Mouth in Praise of God

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 23B

In my first two months as a priest, I’ve been privileged to perform a few baptisms already. And there’s one part of the ritual for baptizing children that 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, they understand very little, and even when they begin to understand, they still might not want to listen very well, and it is usually quite some time before they are 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 some time. When you take into account everything else we hear, how often do we really listen to the Word of God? 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”?

The 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 can be to communicate even the simplest of things. As our second reading on Sundays, we’ve been 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, that 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. 

A psychology professor who specializes in marriage and family counseling and who teaches at the University of St. Thomas would sometimes talk about a certain ratio of positive to negative interactions necessary for healthy relationships. From a number of studies, it seems that for relationships to really last and to feel worthwhile to us, the ratio of positive to negative interactions needs to be around five to one. That means that for every fight, argument, or criticism, for any one negative interaction, most of us need about five positive interactions, compliments, kind words and actions. We might think that a balance would be more like one to one, one positive interaction for every negative, but it really takes more effort for the positive to outweigh the negative in our relationships. 

In our interactions with others, we’re not just limited to words. Our actions need to reflect the words that we speak, but what we do say can make a big difference. We might reflect on our own relationships with others: Am I overwhelmingly positive in what I say and do? Do I really make the effort to build others up rather than tearing them down? And in our relationship with God, are most of our interactions with Him overwhelming positive? Do we make the effort to recognize and give praise and thanks to God for the many gifts that He has bestowed on us? Do we trust, believe, and experience the great love that God has for us? Or when we pray, do we instead constantly complain and question and ask for better gifts than what we feel God has given us? 

As part of his first principle and foundation in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, he says that “Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.” I found it strange that among what Ignatius lists as the purpose of our existence, he puts first the praise of God. I’d never really thought much of praise or that it makes much difference. To me, what seemed most important is that we do God’s will and follow His commandments in our actions and in the way that we shape the world. But just think for a moment of how different the world would be if most people were in the habit of praising God throughout the day, of giving thanks for His gifts of creation, forgiveness, and salvation, of speaking of His goodness and generosity and the very personal ways in which He hears and answers our prayers. Think of how different we would be if we made a habit of praising God throughout our day and throughout the week. Relationships require effort, if they are going to be satisfying and worthwhile. And it’s no different in our relationship with God. Thankfully for us, though, most of the effort is on His part. May the Lord Jesus in his love and mercy “soon touch your ears to receive his word, and your mouth to proclaim his faith, to the praise and glory of God the Father. Amen.”