When Everything is Not Enough

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 25A

“Blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear. Amen, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it” (Matthew 13:16-17). Many of us, when we think of the parable in today’s Gospel, of the workers in the vineyard, those working just one hour receiving the same wage as those who worked all day, our immediate reaction can tend to be, that’s not fair. Maybe we think of ourselves as those who have worked all day, those who have tried to be faithful to God throughout our lives and have borne the burden of God’s law from our youth. I’m a cradle Catholic, but when I read this parable in the context of all of salvation history, including the Old Testament, I can only ever see myself as one of the workers hired in the final hour.

Just think of so many Saints and Prophets who lived in the Old Testament, who bore the heat of the day and the brunt of the work, who hoped in God with perseverance without seeing that hope fulfilled in their own lifetimes. Think of Abraham, who at the age of 75 packed up everything he had, to come out of retirement, to walk those 500 miles and journey to a strange land. And for what? To continue wandering, even to the day of his death, as a stranger and alien in the Promised Land, acquiring only a small parcel as a burial ground. But “you are no longer strangers and wanderers. You are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,” with heaven itself as your inheritance (Ephesians 2:19).

Think of Moses who led God’s people out of slavery in Egypt, who put up with God’s people for their forty years of wandering in the desert, and their almost constant desire to return to Egypt, to submit once more to the slavery from which God had freed them at so high a cost. What reward did Moses receive for his labors? He was allowed to catch a glimpse of the Promised Land from across the Jordan, but he would die before entering in. He was among those who ate the manna in the wilderness, that bread from heaven, but still died. But you have been ransomed, not from slavery to Pharoah, but from slavery to sin and Satan, not with the blood of lambs or goats, but by the Precious Blood of the sinless Son of God. And you are given to eat of the true Bread from heaven, the very Flesh of God, who gives unending life to those who feed on Him.

“Blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear. Amen, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it” (Matthew 13:16-17). What have we done to deserve any of God’s blessings, to deserve the fullness of God’s blessings poured out for us at every Mass upon the altar? More than any of the Patriarchs could ever have imagined, we consume Jesus Christ, God’s own Son in the Flesh. There is nothing more that God can give, because He gives us everything in the One who sustains all things in existence. And what have we done to deserve anything from God? We have hardly begun to work, even in this final hour.

If we’re still hoping for something more from God, something more than His own Son in the Flesh, we need to get a clue. If Jesus Christ is not enough for us, if the Messiah that no one in the Old Testament would have dared to ask for, is not enough for us, “if we have hoped in Christ for this life only, we are the most pathetic of all people” (1 Corinthians 15:19). But if God has truly given us everything, in giving us His own Son in the Flesh, if we have received the same wage as all the Saints of the Old Testament, and received it first, then God deserves everything in return. Why do we still hold back? Why do still fail to trust in our Father who loves us? Why do we still rebel against the gentle yoke of Jesus Christ and the laws of God that are not burdensome but actually set us free? In this final hour, God continues to invite us to become His friends and His coworkers. Why do we still hesitate and stand idle? We will not get another chance. Now is the time to begin.

The Power of Forgiveness

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 24A

There isn’t much on TV anymore that I’m interested in watching, but I’ve always been kind of fascinated by Forensic Files, a show that highlights how investigators have used science and technology to find and examine evidence in real-life cases. And the interviews with victims’ family members, friends, and those involved in each case highlight different aspects of human psychology. I always greatly admire those who are able to forgive, even in murder cases, those who are still able to acknowledge the humanity of the criminal, not just writing them off as monsters but even praying for their conversion and repentance. By and large, I think those who are able to forgive and to let go of the anger and desire for vengeance are able to move on with their own lives in a much healthier way.

A lot of us tend to have the misconception that refusing to forgive is somehow punishing the one who wronged us, but most of the time, they couldn’t really care less whether we’ve forgiven them or not. Instead, unforgiveness and resentment usually punishes only the one who refuses to let go and move on, with an openness to new possibilities and new life. “Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.” We tend to think that being able to blame someone helps us to deal with the tragedies of life, but more often, this focus upon our assailants or those we perceive as victimizing us, tends only to poison and harden our hearts against the other opportunities that life presents.

A healthier attitude does not ignore the fact that life is not fair or that life can even be tragic at times, but this tragic element of life does not become the preoccupation of the one who is able to forgive and to move on. Life is not fair. Accept it. Acknowledge it, but don’t get stuck in it. We are all on borrowed time. The universe does not owe us anything. Ultimately God does not owe us anything. All the more reason to be infinitely thankful for the opportunity to live and breathe at all, to have whatever short time we’re given with those we love, and to make the most of every opportunity.

Forgiveness is absolutely central to the Gospel message of Christ because forgiveness is absolutely essential for life in a fallen world, with free will and evil decisions, and with all the limitations of a physical universe. The same weather patterns that gave opportunity for human life on earth also give rise to natural disasters from time to time. The same free will that allows the opportunity for genuine love and sacrifice is the same that allows for all the atrocities of war, murder, and abuse. Life in this world is full of double-edged swords, realities that are able to cut both ways, either for good or for evil. Forgiveness helps us to keep striving always for the good, to move beyond just being a victim to being a protagonist, to being a force for good, no matter how small.

How much is anger and resentment a part of our lives? How often do we spend far too much time playing the victim and use it as an excuse for not meeting the opportunities that life does present to us? Many of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, still need to forgive God. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we often blame God for everything that goes wrong, for every tragedy, even for that fact that we owe Him a huge debt in the first place, even if He does forgive it. Whenever something happens where we’re not sure who else we can blame, we can always blame God because He’s supposed to be in control. He’s supposed to always take care of us. He’s supposed to protect us from the tragedies of life. But He often doesn’t. Because He loves us, He doesn’t shelter us from every storm. Because He wants us to grow and mature and develop strength, God does not protect us from every test and trial. Because God is a good parent who wants His children to learn to stand, to walk, to move forward, God is not overprotective and pampering.

Still, it can often feel like God gives us more than we can handle. I’ve always found it encouraging that over 40% of the Psalms in the Bible, the prayers that Jews and Christians have used for thousands of years, over 40% of the Psalms can be classified as Psalms of complaint, that a very normal way of praying to God is by complaining to Him. I can tell you with confidence, that most other people are not interested in hearing you complain. But God wants to hear from us. Especially if we have any anger or resentment toward God, we might find it helpful to pick up those Psalms and give expression to our frustration. And to ask God for healing, forgiveness, to open our hearts to His infinite, but often challenging, love. That mysterious love revealed for us hanging from the Cross.

As Christ is both our Victim and our Priest, He does not let tragedy or the sins of those around Him hold Him back from doing all the good that He can. What is still holding us back? What is keeping us from claiming the power we have in Christ to turn the tragedies of life into opportunities for good, to turn the Cross into the Resurrection? When we forgive from the heart, we will know that power.

The Soul of Your Neighbor

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 23A

A couple years ago in December, I received a Christmas letter from a priest who had served as my spiritual director for a few years during my time in seminary. He had been back serving in a parish, and among the other things that he mentioned, like various hiking and biking trips and pilgrimages, he talked about what we hear in the readings today. He had been serving as a watchman, warning people about the sins we commit and the danger that sin is to our souls. Specifically, one weekend he decided to talk about keeping the Lord’s Day holy and our need to participle in Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation. Quite a few of his parishioners did not like hearing that neglecting to attend Sunday Mass even for just one weekend is a mortal sin that cuts us off from Communion with God. That even when we’re traveling out of town or involved in various other activities, if we don’t make our relationship with God the priority that it needs to be and express it concretely by actually getting ourselves to Mass, we place our eternal souls in jeopardy.

This priest said that he did not get the most positive feedback for telling people the truth rather than what they wanted to hear. Recalling something that St. Paul had written, this priest said in his letter, “Woe to me if I preach, and woe to me if I do not preach” (Cf. 1 Cor. 9:16). In the first case, he has to put up with those who do not want to hear the truth. In the second case, he will have to answer to almighty God for the truth that he was unwilling to proclaim.

Today, the culture around us seems to say that mere tolerance is the best that we can hope for. Don’t offend anybody; don’t challenge anyone to grow and mature. Always be politically correct. Keep on an even keel. But Jesus continues to call us on to something greater. Not just tolerance or indifference, but to actually love one another, even as he has loved us, to challenge one another to repent and live according to God’s will for us. That if we see a fellow member of the Church, a brother or sister committing sin, we would have enough concern for their soul to warn them about it. During the year, the Gospel account of the death of St. John the Baptist comes up a few times in our Lectionary. I like to point out that St. John the Baptist had such concern for the soul of King Herod that he was willing to put his own head on the line. He told Herod, “It is not right for you to have your brother’s wife.” You are in an invalid marriage. Your eternal soul is in danger. St. John the Baptist wasn’t trying to make enemies for himself, but he was willing to endure every persecution if it gave his listeners a chance to become friends of God.

When was the last time any of us had such concern for the soul of our neighbor that we were actually willing to risk something for his spiritual well-being? To risk reputation and human regard to speak a difficult truth, with all patience and compassion, but also with clarity and firmness of faith. God has revealed His plan for us, how we are to live for true spiritual health and fulfillment. The Church that Jesus founded upon St. Peter and the Apostles is not here just to reassure ourselves that God is merciful and we’ll all end up in heaven someday. No. There are real dangers, eternal dangers. There are real risks. There exists real human freedom that can say no to God, and God will not force Himself upon anyone. The Church is here to continue the mission of St. John the Baptist, to have such concern for the good of our souls to risk being scorned by the rest of this world, to provoke us to actually repent and to conform our lives to Jesus Christ.

And as Jesus proclaims in today’s Gospel, this mission of the Church is entrusted, not just to the ordained priests and deacons, but to every member of the faithful. By our Baptism and Confirmation, the Holy Spirit has anointed every one us to share in Christ’s mission as Priest, Prophet, and Shepherd of souls. To love one another as Christ has loved us. To challenge one another to root out sin and to live in friendship with God. What are we waiting for? Have we become so individualistic, so indifferent to the souls of our neighbors that we will not speak even a word, while so many are living in opposition to God’s plan, amid so many addictions and false gods? As Catholic Christians, all of us will have to answer to God for the souls that are lost, and for what we were unwilling to do to call them back to Christ. Do you love your neighbor? Do you have concern for his eternal soul? What are we willing to risk to show it?

Be Different as Christ is Different

Bulletin Letter, Ordinary Time Sunday 23A

Last year, for teaching a course on the Letter to the Hebrews, I was reading a book called A Different Priest by Albert Vanhoye, S.J. When other people noticed the title of the book, they often wondered if it was a book about me. Over Labor Day, Fr. Smith and I gathered with 16 other priests near Clark, SD, and we can both assure you that I’m not the only different priest in the Diocese of Sioux Falls. Like the first Apostles of Jesus, our priests all have different personalities, strengths, weaknesses, and areas of interest. Recently, I’ve also been reflecting on the meaning of the word holy or sacred. Sacred can simply mean “set apart, distinct, different.”

I’m not convinced, yet, that the reason our priests are so different is because they’re so holy, but there has always been an instinct to set aside for God special places, things, and even people. Our church is a sacred place, and the vestments and vessels used at Mass are probably pretty different from the cups and plates you use at home. Priests and religious are also considered sacred persons, consecrated to God. That’s why they typically wear a distinctive outfit.

I’ve begun celebrating a Latin Mass at 8am on Saturday mornings in the Sacred Heart Chapel to highlight other sacred things from our rich tradition. In Latin, we have an entire language that is sacred, very different from what we usually hear on the street, but connecting us with centuries of Catholics who have gone before us, back even to the ancient Roman Church. In Gregorian chant, we have a sacred musical tradition suited especially to the one musical instrument that God Himself created, the human voice. And the moments of sacred silence during Mass should allow us to consider the awesome love of God that is far beyond what any human words can express.

These signs stand in sharp contrast to our regular experiences of shooting the breeze, listening to the radio, and having our lives filled with noise. The sacredness of the liturgy is meant to clue us in to the fact that something life-changing and earth-shattering is happening whenever we encounter Jesus in the sacraments. At every Mass, His perfect sacrifice that saves the world is renewed, and we receive the New Man, the Risen Christ who lives forever. In the sacred liturgy, we are joined to the angels and saints in heaven, where God has prepared for us what no eye has seen nor ear heard, that which is beyond the imagination of our hearts (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:9).

The sacred and different can and should also challenge us. St. Peter puts it very simply: As He who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct (1 Peter 1:15). The Second Vatican Council reminds us that holiness is the vocation of every Christian, not just of priests and religious. How is God calling us to live differently than what we see in the currents of society, to pray differently, to suffer differently? “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of His own, so that you may announce the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).

Be different as Christ is different. Be holy.

Take Up Your Cross

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 22A

We’re all probably familiar with the exercise motto, No pain, no gain. In fact, physiologically, they find that in order to get your muscles stronger, you need to exercise to the point of burning and actually doing some damage to your muscle fibers, so that they’ll adapt and rebuild themselves stronger than before. This is why getting started on an exercise routine can be so difficult. In order to see and start to experience real progress in our health, it takes going through some real pain, and many of us get discouraged before seeing much of a positive change. For those who do persevere through the effort and pain, they begin to understand at some level the value of suffering. They can start to see the pain differently. Instead of discouraging them from exercise, pain can serve as a challenge that motivates them to reach new heights. No pain, no gain. You may have heard by now that I enjoy running barefoot, without shoes or socks, and I can tell you from experience, there’s definitely some pain involved as your feet and muscles adjust to a different style of running. No pain, no gain.

This law of physical exercise sounds an awful lot like the spiritual law that Jesus so often repeats in the Gospel, as He does again today. “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” No pain, no gain. No Cross, no Resurrection. This spiritual law of self-denial found expression in the early Church and down to our own day in what is known as Christian asceticism. Now if you’re not familiar with the term asceticism, it simply refers to spiritual discipline, training, penance. It can be expressed in various forms of fasting and self-denial, giving things up for Lent, abstaining from eating meat on Fridays, leaving the table before you feel completely stuffed, refraining from defending yourself when criticized by another, and many other practices.

In the early Church, asceticism and self-denial was distinctively Christian because, unlike the heathens who lived only for this passing world, to enjoy as much as they could in this short life all that it had to offer, followers of Christ were called to embrace the Cross, to live differently in this life, to remind themselves through their practices of self-denial to use the things of this passing world not as ends in themselves but only to draw them closer to the One who lives forever, to Christ our Life whom death can never conquer. Fasting and penance, it seems to me, was more prominent among Catholics before the Second Vatican Council. There were regular days of fasting and abstinence even outside the season of Lent. Even during the great Easter season, there would be days of prayer and penance—known as rogation days—before a big Feast like the Ascension. And abstaining from meat on Fridays was done year-round, not just during Lent.

But the Second Vatican Council did not do away with regular fasting and penance. The Council Fathers simply decided to allow for more freedom and creativity in deciding what we will offer to God. So instead of requiring everyone to abstain from meat on Fridays throughout the year, on Fridays outside of Lent, you can offer some other form of penance and self-denial. As Catholics, the Church’s law still requires us to practice self-denial on at least a weekly basis, every Friday throughout the year. Just as Sunday, the Lord’s day, should bring us to a weekly celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection, so every Friday, not just during Lent, we are required to offer some form of penance, in honor of the Lord’s Passion, as a reminder of our eternal destiny, in reparation for our many sins.

So giving something up and intentionally denying ourselves is not just a yearly thing. We should deliberately embrace the Cross every Friday, at a minimum, and indeed, according to Luke’s Gospel, Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses daily, and follow Him. People often object that life presents enough crosses to us without us going looking for them. But the penance and self-denial that we practice intentionally and willingly is perhaps the only way for us to really be prepared to see any value in the crosses that we suffer unwilling. No pain, no gain. No Cross, no Resurrection. A disciple without regular and intentional discipline and training is not a true disciple. If we hope to follow Christ to the heights of heaven, we must be willing to follow Him into the depths of our own poverty and pain. Take up your cross.

Soothing Melodies

Ministry Forum September 2017, as Director of Worship

Some time ago, I came across a very intriguing article in The Washington Times entitled “Chant: A healing art?” Most people my age are familiar with the Halo video game series for Microsoft Xbox. Something interesting about the series (besides the standard battles against alien hordes) is that much of the soundtrack is based on Gregorian chant. Among other things, the Times article mentions that a recording studio, seeing how wildly popular the soundtrack became, decided to produce an album of monastic chant. The album they produced ended up reaching number one in classical and number nine in pop. Besides its popularity and universal appeal, the article also mentions the apparent healing effects of Gregorian chant. The full article is available here.

The positive effects of Gregorian chant should be no surprise to us if we take seriously the endorsements it receives from so many popes and even an ecumenical council. In the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of Vatican II, the Council Fathers state that “the musical tradition of the universal Church,” of which Gregorian chant is given pride of place, “is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 112; cf. 116). So, greater even than the most beautiful and grand architecture, sculptures, paintings, or any other visual art, Gregorian chant is a most priceless treasure.

The challenge, I readily acknowledge, is that chant is not always immediately appealing, especially when it is not done well or when it is sung far too slowly. In my own experience, it is often only when I have almost reached the point of memorizing a piece of chant that I am then able to pray it in a very powerful way. Often, we lack the patience and openness to really devote ourselves to learning and being formed by the rich traditions of our Catholic faith, the many treasures that are our own inheritance in God’s holy Church.

As September starts and I get more settled into my new assignment, I would like to offer opportunities to experience more of the treasures of the Roman Rite. Beginning on September 2, I will be offering a Latin Novus Ordo Mass every Saturday at 8 am in the Sacred Heart Chapel of the Cathedral. Booklets and music sheets with English translation will be provided to follow along and respond. The variable parts of the Mass (particular to the day’s celebration, namely, the Collect, readings, homily, Preface, Prayer over the offerings and after Communion) will all be done in English. Everything else, which is basically the same at every Mass, will be in Latin, except the Kyrie, which is actually Greek. The Entrance and Communion antiphons will be sung in Latin whenever possible, to allow exposure to the riches of Gregorian chant. The antiphons of the Blessed Virgin Mary should become very familiar, as Saturdays offer ample opportunity for Masses in veneration of the Mother of God.

In future months, there may be Saturdays when I am not available. Please check the Bulletin of the Cathedral of St. Joseph for specific dates when the Latin Mass will not be taking place. In September, every Saturday works for me. Please spread the word.