Answering to God Himself

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 12A

Recently, a lot of people have been asking me whether I’m excited about my new assignment at the Cathedral. I usually respond by saying that, while I’m looking forward to it, I don’t really get excited. Packing and unpacking, relocating and having to meet new people are not the most exciting activities for me. But that has gotten me thinking about whether there is something that I’m really passionate about. What comes to mind right away is the universal call to holiness, that a life of prayer, penance, and heroic virtue is not just for the pope and bishops, or for sisters and monks in monasteries, but holiness and becoming a Saint is the vocation of every last one of us. And holiness is the real possibility for everyone who has become a new creation by the Holy Spirit through Baptism.

St. Francis de Sales, in his Introduction to the Devout Life, speaks very forcefully about this universal call to holiness. It’s not enough for Catholics living in the world to be nice people, good people, according to the standards that the culture around us presents. We need to be God’s holy people, to live differently from the world around us, and work to transform the world and culture by really living and proclaiming the Gospel. If the culture around us has made itself too busy for God, too busy for Mass on Sundays or holy days of obligation, that is no excuse for us. Is God or is God not more important than sports and travel and vacations and time at the lake?

When we stand before God at the end of our lives, I doubt that He’s going to ask us whether we followed faithfully what was popular and generally accepted. Instead, He’s going to ask, and show us, whether we were faithful to what was actually right and just, whether we followed Jesus and the Church He founded, even when it was difficult or unpopular to do so. As Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.” We won’t just have to answer to one another at the end of our lives. We won’t be judged according to the misguided standards of our own day. As Catholic Christians, we are held to the standards of the Gospel in every age.

We need to respect and to reverence God above and beyond any human being. To have regard for what God is asking of us rather than what the culture around us might have come to expect. Besides missing Mass on Sundays, living together before marriage has become very common today. Contraception within marriage has become common even among Catholics. But what is right and wrong, what is holy and unholy, is not based on majority opinion or common practice. The prophet Jeremiah from our first reading continued to proclaim the truth, even when no one in Jerusalem wanted to listen to him, even when they wanted to commit violence against him to silence him. Jesus would even die upon the Cross for the Truth that He embodied and proclaimed. How much are we willing to suffer, to remain faithful to the truth that God has revealed, rather than accommodating the misguided standards of the world?

As I come to the end of my second year of the priesthood, by the grace of God, I still believe with all my heart and soul that holiness and heroic virtue are possible for every last one of us, even in the most difficult circumstances. Holiness is not only possible but very much worth the effort. It’s worth every sacrifice. Sometimes I wonder, though, how many other priests and bishops still believe that God can really transform us and set us free. The temptation is always there—for all of us—to have more regard for what is popular, to water down the Gospel, to leave out or gloss over the more difficult teachings for the sake of always being positive and affirming, but at the end of my life, I won’t sit before a panel of former parishioners, who will be asked whether I made them feel welcome and appreciated. Instead, I will have to stand before God Himself and answer for every part of His Gospel that I was too afraid to proclaim.

Please continue to pray for me as I continue in the priestly ministry, as I begin the next chapter of my walk with God. I promise to continue praying for all of you, that God might grant us the trust and courage to live out fully the Gospel that is revealed for our salvation, and to proclaim everywhere in the world today the surpassing riches of Christ our Lord.

A Final Word

Bulletin Letter, Ordinary Time Sunday 12A

The passage of time can be a very strange thing. Two years can seem to go very quickly, while certain days or weeks seem to drag on and on. Journeying across the Atlantic Ocean can seem like an interminable flight, one that I’ve made now some 16 times. I can’t even imagine what the voyage must have been like on a boat. But as I look back on my two years here at Holy Spirit, they seem to have flown by. Two years is only half the time I spent in St. Paul for college or in Rome for theology. But just as at the start of life, two years can make a huge difference, these two years at the beginning of my priesthood have been a crucial time for me.

I still remember fondly starting out in the gym. Things seemed simpler back then. Transitions and flexibility were part of everyday life as the sacristy and offices relocated periodically. Still, a great grace for me as I started here was finding myself able to really be present to the words of the Mass, to really listen to the readings and enter into prayer, rather than worrying about what would be coming next or whether I would remember everything I was supposed to do. Now after two years, as I’ve celebrated Mass so many times already, I hope that I can continue to really pay attention to what God is doing and saying in the Mass and through the Scriptures and in the other Sacraments. I hope that the profoundly beautiful and powerful prayers that I am privileged to pronounce never become just routine for me, no matter how many years go by.

This parish has also taught me the joy and importance of striving to speak prophetically. Now the main feature of a prophet is not that he tells the future. Rather, a prophet is able to assess the situation that the world is in and speak the Word of God into it. In a world and for hearts—including my own—that are often far from God, the Word of God is often challenging, even jarring and unsettling. But complacency and satisfaction with one’s current progress is the enemy of the spiritual life. It’s often like trying to climb an escalator that’s headed in the opposite direction or swimming against the current of the cultural river that surrounds us. When we stand still or stop moving forward, we start moving back. “Therefore, let the one who thinks he is standing firm take heed, lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).

Now, it seems my time at Holy Spirit is running short. I am thankful for all the lessons that God has taught me during my time here. I carry them with me as I go forward. I hope that you have been able to learn something from me as well, though I am conscious of my great imperfections and the possibilities for misunderstanding and offense, even between people who have the best of intentions. I ask for your continued prayers and your forgiveness for my many failings as I continue in the ministry entrusted to me by God.

Ignoring or Acknowledging Jesus

Homily, Corpus Christi A

Just two evenings ago, I returned from a pilgrimage in Italy, so as we celebrate today the great Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, I can’t help but think of the Eucharistic miracles that I have seen over in Italy. One took place in the 1200s, just before this Feast of Corpus Christi was established. A priest was celebrating Mass in the town of Bolsena, but he was having doubts about whether Jesus was really present in the Eucharist. When he pronounced the words of consecration over the Host, Blood began to seep out and drip onto the corporal, the white cloth underneath. This Blood-stained corporal can still be seen in the city of Orvieto today.

Another Eucharistic miracle that I have visited is possibly the earliest one. Back in the 700s, a monk was doubting the True Presence, and after he consecrated the Host and the Chalice at Mass, the Host was transformed into human Flesh, and he found human Blood inside the Chalice. The Host and the coagulated Blood can still be seen in the city of Lanciano in Italy. In the 1970s and ’80s, the Flesh from this miracle was examined under a microscope, and it was determined to be a slice of cardiac muscle from the middle of a human heart, but records of the miracle are found several centuries before dissections were commonly carried out on human bodies.

Orvieto and Lanciano are just a couple of the many Eucharistic miracles that have occurred over the centuries, all of which point to the reality of what we receive at every Mass, no longer bread and wine but the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ Himself, God who became Man for us. How often does Holy Communion become just routine for us? How often do we fail to recognize Jesus, who gives Himself completely for us, Jesus, who desires to be closer to us than we are to ourselves, to really live in us?

Whenever I travel to Rome, I’m a bit put off by the level of celebrity that surrounds the Pope, the crowds clamoring to get as close as possible, to see and even to reach out and touch the Holy Father. But when was the last time that we wanted so badly to attend Mass, to wait in line for hours in the hot sun for a chance to see, not just the Vicar or Representative of Christ, but Jesus Himself in this Eucharist, and not just to reach out and touch Jesus, but to receive Him into our own bodies, to become one with Him in Holy Communion? Do we realize what we do here at every Mass? Or is it just part of our routine? To be witnesses to the saving sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross, as Jesus makes the offering of Himself present to us, upon every altar.

When we come into the church, do we realize why we genuflect, why we acknowledge—not some thing—but some One inside this tabernacle? Why we should give ourselves and those around us the space for silence and prayer in this sacred place? Or do we ignore Jesus and fail to recognize Him, and carry on as if we’re in a country club, a performance hall, or in a common bar? We would never ignore the Pope or the President, if we found ourselves in the same room with them. Then why do we ignore the Lord of all the Universe and think we have better things to do than to speak with Him while we’re in church?

This year is the 100th Anniversary of the Apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima to the three shepherd children, including now Sts. Francisco and Jacinta Marto. We would do well on this Feast of Corpus Christi to make our own the prayer that an angel taught to them those 100 years ago: “Most Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, I adore You profoundly and I offer You the most precious Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, present in all the tabernacles of the world, in reparation for the outrages, sacrileges and indifferences by which He Himself is offended. And by the infinite merits of His Most Sacred Heart and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I beg of You the conversion of poor sinners. Amen.”

Come, Holy Spirit, Forgive Us Our Sins

Homily, Pentecost A

In the 1960s, there was a lot of excitement about the missions to the moon. My parents and some of you might even remember those years. I definitely do not. But, from what I’ve been told, the lunar missions represented the striving of all mankind to overcome our limitations. There was a sense that these events were significant, not just for America or for the astronauts involved, but for every human being. If even one human person succeeded in landing on the moon, then it became at least possible for any human being to reach the moon because we all share a common humanity. This communal sense of accomplishment was well expressed by Neil Armstrong as he stepped onto the moon’s surface, saying, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The event we celebrate on this Pentecost Sunday is a much more significant leap for all mankind. Just as the Holy Spirit anointed the perfect humanity of Jesus and consecrated Him as Priest, Prophet, and King, so now the Holy Spirit comes to dwell even in the imperfect humanity of His Apostles and disciples, to make them holy, and to gather into His one Church all mankind, all the nations of the world. At Pentecost, holiness becomes possible for every human person, and therefore the potential to reach not just the moon, or any star or planet, but to reach heaven itself, the dwelling place of God. Every last one of us can now become Saints.

In the Sacrament of Confession, I’ve prayed the formula of absolution countless times, but I’ve always found it fascinating what it says about the Holy Spirit, or how little it seems to say. Listen carefully: “God, the Father of mercies, through the Death and Resurrection of His Son, has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins.” Why did God send the Holy Spirit? For the forgiveness of sins. Is that all? But what more do we need? Sin and only sin is what holds us back from becoming holy, from becoming Saints, from having our lives completely transformed by the grace of God and the Fire of His infinite Love. Why do we seem to never make much spiritual progress? It’s because we fail to see that sin and disobedience is the only real source of our unhappiness, in this life and in the next.

Instead, we tend to think that suffering and inconvenience are what we should try to avoid at all cost, or giving offense to our own sensibilities or to the sensibilities of those around us. But through the power of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles were able to rejoice in their sufferings, in the shame that they bore for the sake of the Name of Jesus. They would even go so far as to freely accept death, rather than sin, and to bear witness to Christ with their own blood. But holiness is not just for Apostles or priests or sisters or monks or hermits or martyrs. Every last one of us is called and given the power to become a great Saint.

Are you a coward like I am? So were the Apostles. Or perhaps you’re a little slow on the uptake. The Twelve that Jesus chose struggled throughout His three years of ministry to understand much of anything that Jesus was trying to teach them. Have you sinned? So did every last one of His Apostles. Have we denied Jesus in our thoughts, words, or actions? St. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, denied three times that he even knew Jesus. No matter what we’ve done or who we’ve been, if we’ve murdered, stolen, lied, gossiped, cursed, committed adultery, or even run away from God, as almost every Apostle did on Good Friday, God wants to make us into His Saints today, to free us from our sins and give us life that’s actually new, actually different from the life that we lived before.

The possibility of being a Saint has been opened for each one of us. Through our Baptism and Confirmation, we have been given the very power of God Himself, who gives strength for all things. God wants to free us from our sins. Will we let Him? Will we actually start to take sin and disobedience seriously, as the only real obstacle in life? Will we make the Sacrament of Confession and the forgiveness of our sins a regular part of our spirituality? Come, Holy Spirit, set us free from our own small-minded goals, that we might truly set our sights on the heights of heaven.

“For our God is a consuming Fire” (Hebrews 12:29)

Bulletin Letter, Pentecost A

Every year at the Chrism Mass in each diocese—which takes place either on Holy Thursday itself or on some other day prior to Easter—priests renew their commitment to the promises they made when they first became priests, but there is nothing like attending the Ordinations of new priests to bring back memories of one’s own Ordination. During these past couple weeks, I had the opportunity to witness 10 new priests ordained in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and, on June 2, the Ordination of six new priests here in Sioux Falls. On June 26, I’ll celebrate my second anniversary of priestly Ordination along with my 29th anniversary of Baptism.

As I see these young men and our other seminarians so eager to get started after so many years of study and formation, I continue to pray that the Fire of the Holy Spirit would completely consume us. Fire has always been my favorite image of the Holy Spirit, who appeared to Mary and the Apostles at Pentecost and filled them with zeal and courage to proclaim the Gospel of Christ throughout the world. Fire is not very balanced or moderate. It is not politically correct. Fire is not interested in negotiation. Instead, it seeks to completely consume anything it touches. The Holy Spirit wants to consume us, completely, making of us a pure offering to God—not on our own terms, but according to the will of God. He wants to purify all our thoughts, words, actions, and desires.

I’d like to say that I’ve made this my life’s mission, to spread the Fire of the Holy Spirit and the Truth of Jesus Christ to everyone I meet, but at the same time, I know how far I fall short, how much of myself that I continue to hold back from the Fire of God. But God doesn’t ask us to serve Him with half or even most of our heart and mind. “Hear, O Israel! The Lord, our God, is Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:29-30; Deuteronomy 6:4-5).

I’m not interested in adding to the already staggering number of mediocre Catholics. The world doesn’t need any more. Instead, I want to “fan into flame the gift of God” that was given us at our Baptism and on the day of our Confirmation, that we might burn with love and knowledge of Him and give ourselves entirely (2 Timothy 1:6). If we think we’re just going to gently coast into heaven at the end of our lives, I think we’ll all be in for a rather rude awakening. “The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Source of God’s creation, has this to say: ‘I know your works; I know that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will vomit you out of my mouth’” (Revelation 3:14-16).

Following Christ is serious business. Let’s get to it, by the Fire of His Holy Spirit.