Family: the Messy Classroom of Love

Homily, Holy Family B

Something that almost all of us have in common, when it comes to our family and relatives, is that we didn’t choose them. We never sat down before we were born, to look through a brochure of available families, before deciding, Yep, that’s the one, those are the people I want to be stuck with for the first 20 years or so of my life. Those are the people with whom I always want to have large portions of DNA in common. When it comes to our friends and other acquaintances, we might be able to avoid the ones who annoy us or rub us the wrong way, people we don’t like for whatever reason, but we don’t choose our family.

I’ve been convinced for quite a while now, that it is precisely those relationships that I would not have chosen for myself, that have actually challenged me and helped me to grow the most. Think of Proverbs 27:17, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” You see, if it was all left up to us and our own choice, most of us choose to avoid conflict, to avoid people that show us our weaknesses, we avoid people who annoy us or tell us what to do. In a healthy family, though, these things are unavoidable. In my family, I had six brothers and two sisters, and I remember fighting a lot with my siblings. And I don’t think we fought because we were bad kids—now maybe my parents would disagree—but we fought because that’s part of growing and learning for kids, and hopefully through those experiences we were able to learn some better ways of dealing with conflict.

Even as we celebrate the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Simeon tells us what lies in store even for the most perfect human family that has ever graced this earth: “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a Sign that will be contradicted,” and a sword of sorrow would pierce His Blessed Mother’s Heart. Not usually what we think of as the picture-perfect family, but every healthy family, every holy family in this world has joys and sorrows, conflict and resolution, pains and struggles along with victories. Real growth does not happen without pain.

And real love does not develop without a commitment to one another through the difficult times. It’s good for us to be stuck with people whom we find difficult to love. For parents and children alike, there are countless opportunities for us to begin to love even as God loves, not because of anything the other person can do for me, not because the other person is necessarily deserving of love. God doesn’t love us because. He just loves us. He made us and He chooses to love us. Our own families, all those relationships that we perhaps would not have chosen for ourselves, these are the messy classrooms of learning love, of becoming holy, of growing in patience because these crazy people force us to really practice patience. And as we really choose to love those that God has place in our lives, hopefully we’ll discover, as I have, that they are really better for us than any family we would have chosen for ourselves.

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, pray for our families and for the whole family of God. Teach us—and help us to continue to grow—through the conflict, through the messiness and chaos of our lives. Teach us that God the Father’s love for us is unchanging, unflinching, unwavered. Teach us to love like Him.

To See the Face of God

Homily, Christmas (Night Mass Readings)

In my family growing up, I was the youngest of nine kids, and being the youngest, I was never around babies very much. I never really understood all the excitement that people tend to have about babies. They don’t really do much, besides eat, sleep, cry, and fill their diapers. What’s the big deal? Probably some of my older siblings thought the same thing about me, when I showed up at home. What’s so great about him?  

Today—if I counted them correctly—I have a total of 16 nieces and nephews, and as they get older, they definitely get involved in more activities, but it has still always puzzled me why the birth of Jesus at Christmas has become such a big celebration. All that happens is simply a change in location. For nine months already, Jesus has been in the Virgin Mary’s womb. Now He’s out. But the really momentous event is what happened at the Annunciation, when Jesus was conceived by the power of Holy Spirit, when God became man and took our flesh upon Himself. That’when everything changed for us and for all creation.  

But in this world so full of darkness and pain, so full of violence and injustice, when our faith is so often put to the test, it’s not enough for us to simply believe that God is with us, even for us to know that Jesus is there, hidden away in the Virgin’s womb. The great desire of all the Saints of the Old Testament is still the deepest desire of every human heart. We want to actually see the face of God. Not just to know Him or to hear Him but to actually see Him with our own eyes. This is what we celebrate at Christmas, that “the grace of God has appeared” to us, that in the features of the Christ Child, we see the Face of God Himself, the visible Image of the invisible God. Come, let us adore Him. Let us stand in silent wonder, that God has finally visited His people, shown His Face, and revealed His own Glory. 

And this was not just a privilege of His Holy Mother Mary, and St. Joseph, and the shepherds, or even all those who would be able to look upon the Face of Jesus during His earthly life. No. If we truly believe what we confess as Catholics, we know that each one of us is given the very same privilege at each and every Mass. That under the humble appearances of bread and wine, we truly look upon Christ Himself, made present to us, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. Just as He once appeared humbly as a Baby born in a poor stable, so Jesus continues to reveal Himself to us as the humble Host, the Victim of sacrifice for our salvation. As we gaze upon Jesus in the Eucharist, as we behold the Lamb of God, He is looking back at us. 

As we continue on in this world of darkness, and as the world around us threatens to grow even darker, our life of faith needs this reassurance. We need to see God, to look upon Him with our own eyes in this Eucharist, every Sunday, even every day, we need His Presence. Right here on the Cathedral campus, we have an order of religious sisters dedicated to the Perpetual Adoration of Jesus in the Most Blessed Sacrament. Every hour of every day, there is a sister praying to Jesus for us, looking upon Jesus to strengthen our faith. This summer, their new monastery will be completed, and we will all have the opportunity once again to stop in to see Jesus in their chapel, when we’re in the neighborhood.  

In the new year of 2018, why not all of us make one resolution together, together as a parish, as a diocese, as a Catholic Church throughout the world, and a resolution that we’ll actually keep and hold each other accountable for, the resolution to grow in our devotion to Jesus Christ in the Most Holy Eucharist, in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and in silent adoration of His Presence in every tabernacle of the world? To extend this grace of Christmas and to seek the Face of the God of Jacob throughout the entire year, especially every Sunday. Nothing else has the power to bring peace to the world today. No one else can motivate us to a more genuine service and concern for the poor and the abandoned. Nothing else is going to matter quite so much at the end of our lives, as how we responded to the Face of Christ present in our midst. A Child is born for us, a Son is given us. On this altar, our God reveals His Face to us again. Come, let us adore Him. 

Humbled by God’s Trust

Homily, Advent Sunday 4B

I’ve shared with a few of you already some of the reasons why it’s a very good thing that God called me to the celibate priesthood, and that I won’t be raising any children of my own. Just one example: kids tend to outgrow their clothes every month or every few months when they’re younger, so I came up with a solution, that until they stop growing so quickly, maybe until you send them to school, you just wrap them up in a sheet. You’d save a lot of money, not having to buy different outfits for them, and you’d get a lot more use out of the sheet before they outgrew that.  

While I should never have to worry about some aspects of raising kids, already in my few years as a priest, as a father and shepherd of souls, I have been humbled and struck by the great responsibility that has been given to me, the level of trust that so many express, that I should lead them in the ways of God. A number of years ago, I once had the experience of asking someone if they trusted me. Their answer was: completely. I’ve thought often about that response, that someone, anyone would have complete trust in me, and the great desire that arose in my heart that I should never let them down, that I should do whatever it takes to live up to that trust, to be found worthy of it and never betray it. 

It should be a very humbling experience, for a mother or father to hold a new child in their arms, to realize the magnitude of what has been entrusted to them. Just think of our Blessed Mother Mary, as she accepted her vocation to become the Mother of the Messiah, the Holy One, the very Son of God. What did she know about parenting, that she would be qualified to raise her own Creator as her Child? And think of St. Joseph. Many people have wondered about his initial reluctance to take Mary into his home. Quite possibly, it was not because he thought Mary had been unfaithful, but because he thought himself unworthy of being the husband of the Mother of God, ill-equipped for serving as the foster father of the Christ Child. 

Many of us, when we think of the virtue of humility, we assume that the most humbling experiences are things like being punished for our sins, being humiliated. But far more humbling are those experiences that help us to recognize just how abundantly blessed we are by God, how much He has entrusted to us, and that we have done nothing to deserve it. Our first reading gives another example from the life of King David. When the Prophet Nathan called him out for committing adultery and for murdering Uriah the Hittite, was David humbled? Without a doubt. But what King David hears from Nathan today humbles him even more, to know that after all that David had done, after all the times he screwed up, God would be building him a house and a dynasty that would last forever. That a Son of David would reign over a kingdom that would have no end. 

In our own lives, are we really aware of all that God has entrusted to us? The magnitude of His gifts to us? In this Eucharist and in Holy Communion, Jesus says to each one of us, I trust you completely, I give Myself to you completely, holding nothing back. Do we really desire to be worthy of that trust, to do whatever it takes to live up to it and never betray it? To actually make sacrifices in our lives, to live according to God’s will, according to the teachings of His Church? Or do we treat the Gift of God casually, thinking nothing of receiving Communion unworthily, in the state of mortal sin? Thinking nothing of behaving in church and in front of this Tabernacle as we would conduct ourselves and carry on conversations in a common lounge or concert hall? As He did for the Blessed Mother and for St. Joseph, Jesus places Himself in our hands, and He dwells in our midst. God grant that we may live even as Mary and Joseph did, worthy of God’s Trust. 

Joy: Identity and Purpose

Homily, Advent Sunday 3B

What is joy? And where does it come from? And if we’re living without joy, how can we find it? Joy is more than just being in a good mood. Joy is deeper than just putting on a happy face and pretending that everything is wonderful. True joy comes from having a sense of peace with who we are before God, fulfilling the call that He has placed within our hearts. A number of summers ago, I was given the great privilege of attending a 30-day silent retreat, to set aside a whole month of my life just to be with God, as I approached my final years of seminary before ordination, to go through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. A profound grace that occurred for me during that retreat centered around this very question: where does joy come from?

As I contemplated giving the rest of my life to God in the celibate priesthood, the greatest sense of freedom and childlike joy flooded over me, as I came across this line from today’s Gospel: “I am not the Christ.” I am not God, and I don’t have to be. And no matter what the world tells me, no matter what my own expectations are, I don’t have to be the one in control. It’s okay if I’m weak, and if I feel overwhelmed at times. It’s okay if I’m not the strongest or the smartest or the best looking or the most popular. It’s okay if I don’t have a handle on absolutely everything in my life. I don’t have to bear the weight of my own existence and give meaning to it, because God Himself has already given me purpose and value.

I am not God, and I don’t have to be. Most of our life on this earth is a struggle against this basic truth, but when we finally surrender and acknowledge God as God, and ourselves as a tiny piece of His creation, we are set free, free to live as His children, free to play, to marvel at the wonders of His creation, to find joy in all life’s little blessings, and even in life’s sorrows and difficulties, knowing in our hearts that the God of love, revealed in Jesus Christ, is ultimately in control, and that resurrection from the dead will have the final say.

Besides the example of St. John the Baptist, who came to simply be a voice that would proclaim and bear witness to the Word of God, the readings this weekend give us two other models of freedom and joy. In the place of our Responsorial Psalm today, we actually had another passage from Luke’s Gospel, Mary’s Magnificat. Mary, the Mother of God, found joy and fulfillment, not in magnifying herself or her own importance, but instead she says, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Even Jesus Himself came not to do His own will, but to do the will of the one who sent Him, “to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the LORD and a day of vindication by our God.” Joy comes from accepting who we are before God, and accomplishing the work that He has given us.

And joy is a vital necessity. “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks.” If we are living without joy, we are not really living as Christians. If we are constantly struggling to magnify ourselves, to proclaim our own greatness, we will never find true joy. “For we do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for the sake of Jesus” (2 Corinthians 4:5). As a priest, my job, in a lot of ways, involves preaching to the choir, proclaiming Christ to those who have already heard the Word of God and who are at least somewhat active in the practice of the faith. My mission and vocation is to provide the teachings, the sacraments, and other spiritual helps to assist all of you in your irreplaceable mission to the world.

Your mission and vocation is to live out the joy of the Gospel, not primarily here at the parish, but in your homes, in your schools and workplaces, and in the wider culture, to proclaim Christ by what you say and do, even to those who have never heard the Gospel, or who have never heard or seen it lived out in a convincing way, even to those who are not interested or don’t know that they really should be interested. Your mission in the world today is to be convinced yourselves and to strive to convince others—especially by the way that you live—that Jesus Christ, and only Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of all human desire. You are able to reach people and places that I would never be able to reach.

But what is the message that the people around us are usually hearing by the way that we live? Are they really convinced that our joy comes from Jesus Christ, and from Him alone? Or more often, do we only convince them that our happiness comes from enjoying the comforts of this passing world and our social status? And when we’re not comfortable and things don’t go our way, how many of us are still a joy to be around? As we receive Jesus in this Eucharist, we acknowledge that He is God, and we are not. We receive His own strength, His own patience in suffering, His own power and purpose to spread the love of God throughout all the world today. “The One who calls you is faithful, and He will also accomplish it.” God grant that we surrender to the grace of Christ today, that His joy may fill our hearts and be spread to everyone we meet.

No Other Light

Homily, Advent Sunday 2B

“Here is your God! Here comes with power the Lord GOD, who rules by his strong arm; here is his reward with him, his recompense before him. Like a shepherd he feeds his flock.” For me, it’s always been difficult to imagine, what it would have been like, to live before that first Christmas. To go back, more than 2000 years. To hear prophecies like this one, and others, and to really wonder, just how and when would God finally choose to deliver His people? What was it like, to have wandered in real darkness for thousands of years, through the desert, through wars, through famines, disease, and exile, always with the fear of death, and little hope for anything beyond the grave? In a very real sense, the world had been steeped in the darkness of night before the one Light of the world entered in, before the dawning of the Son of God, the Sun of Righteousness, with healing in His rays. What it must have been like to actually meet Jesus Christ, after the collective longing of thousands of years of human history!

“Here is your God! Here comes with power the Lord GOD, who rules by his strong arm; here is his reward with him, his recompense before him. Like a shepherd he feeds his flock.” If we think that the world today is in darkness, if we still live without real hope, it is because we still fail to recognize the Light of Christ, present in our midst. It is because we still place our hope in our own ways rather than on God’s ways. Light has dawned for all humanity, but how often do we still wander in darkness and in sin?

Jesus came that we might have life, and have it in abundance, yet how often do we settle for death, because we refuse to keep God’s commandments? And His commandments are not burdensome. “You will know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free.” The Law of God, the Law of the Gospel, the Truth of Jesus Christ is the only thing that can set us free from the emptiness, the hopelessness, the pointlessness, the meaninglessness, that the darkness and lies of the world continue to offer us. G.K. Chesterton is quoted as saying, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.” Why not give ourselves entirely, the whole of our lives, to Jesus Christ? We have only darkness and emptiness to lose, and everything to gain.

Two thousand years later, Jesus Christ is just as present to us today as He was to Mary and Joseph. That’s what we believe as Catholics. That’s what we know, by God’s revelation. In this Eucharist, Jesus, the Light of the world dawns upon us at every single Mass. The Light of the world continues to shine upon us out of every Tabernacle. We either believe it, or we don’t. We either live that way, or we die in our sins. How often, when we meet with frustrations of various kinds, with the anxieties of life, with sadness, pain, and tragedy, all the darkness of this world, how often do we actually take refuge in front of the Tabernacle, to be bathed in the Light of Christ; by faith, to be healed by the Sun of Justice?

Or instead, how often do we attempt to take refuge in the emptiness of our sins, in the false and fleeting pleasures that enslaved humanity even before the time of Christ? Jesus is here. Why do I still live as if He’s not? “Here is your God! Here comes with power the Lord GOD, who rules by his strong arm; here is his reward with him, his recompense before him. Like a shepherd he feeds his flock.” How long will I run, from the Good Shepherd? How long shall we stay in the darkness? God has already given us the Remedy. We wait in vain for any other.

The Closeness of the Sinless

Homily, Immaculate Conception

For the first 17 years of my life, St. John Paul II was pope. And I don’t think it ever really occurred to me until after Benedict XVI was elected that there ever had been other popes or that there could be other popes in the future. John Paul II was our pope for so long, that his was really the only face that I had associated with the word ‘pope.’ Now, I never had the privilege of actually meeting him in person, but what I heard from those who had met him was very consistent. Each one seemed to describe the same thing about the experience. When they shook his hand and were given an opportunity to speak to him, St. John Paul II would look them straight in the eye, and it would seem as if the rest of the world just disappeared from around them, that to the pope, in that moment, the one person who was speaking to him was the only person in existence, and they had his full and undivided attention. I’ve heard similar things from those who met other saints, like St. Teresa of Calcutta. To me, these accounts are a powerful image of how personal and particular God’s love is for each one of us, and not just in a fleeting moment, but all the time, we have God’s full and undivided attention. 

These stories of encountering living saints also give us insight into the Solemnity that we celebrate this evening, of the Immaculate Conception of our Blessed Mother. I think many of us have this misconception that because Mary was completely without sin, from the first moment of her Conception in the womb of St. Anne and throughout her earthly life, we tend to think that her sinlessness makes her too lofty and distant from us, while in reality, exactly the opposite is true. 

Sin and disobedience is what divides us. Sin is what separates us from God and from one another, and leads to division even within ourselves as individuals, between our thoughts, our actions, and our desires. Mary, the Mother of God, is not more distant from us sinners because she is without sin. Instead, without any hindrance herself, she is all the more intimately close to each one of us. It is precisely because St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Calcutta became holy and had overcome sin and selfishness—to a large extent—in their own lives, that they were able to enter so intensely into the lives and concerns of those who met them. How much more, then, is our sinless Mother able to be close and attentive to us in our every need! Already in the early centuries of the Church, Christians had an intense devotion to the Mother of God. I think they realized at some level that only she who was the “All-Beautiful One” could care and intercede with a mother’s concern for all of our needs. 

No matter how far you may wander in this valley of tears, Mary, our Mother, because she is sinless, will always be close to you, always calling you back to Jesus, her Son. “Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known, that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thine intercession was left unaided. Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins, my Mother; to thee do I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy, hear and answer me. Amen.” 

Time for God

Homily, Advent Sunday 1B

As I was growing up in my home parish of St. Joseph in Elk Point, we always had in the pews these little blue booklets, The Catholic Devotional. I don’t remember using them all that much, but on one of the pages, there was sort of a clever poem that has come to mind again recently. The poem is titled, “No Time”: I knelt to pray but not for long. / I had too much to do. / I had to hurry and get to work / For bills would soon be due. // So I knelt and said a hurried prayer / And jumped up off my knees. / My Christian duty was now done. / My soul could rest at ease. // Now all day long I had no time / To spread a word of cheer. / No time to speak of Christ to friends. / They’d laugh at me I’d fear. // “No time. No time. Too much to do.” / That was my constant cry. / No time to give to souls in need. / At last the time to die. // I went before the Lord, I came, / I stood with downcast eyes. / For in his hands God held a book. / It was the book of life. // God looked into his book and said, / “Your name I cannot find. / I once was going to write it down / But never found the time.”

It’s popular today in our culture to be always busy, to be filling our time with all sorts of activities, and to convey to the people around us that we’re really busy. I’ve fallen into this habit myself when someone asks me about my assignment here at Cathedral and as Master of Ceremonies. It’s been busy, I say, and maybe it has, but each of us is given the same 24 hours each day, and we always seem to find the time for things we really want to do. 

This Advent season is a great opportunity to ask ourselves, Are we really spending our time wisely, on things of lasting importance? And how much do we really invest in that relationship that is meant to last for ever? The Catechism quotes St. Alphonsus Liguori as saying, “Those who pray are certainly saved. Those who do not pray are certainly damned.” If any of us are too busy to pray, we are really too busy. As the Gospel tells us, if we are too busy—or too lazy—to keep watch for the Lord’s return, we risk our entire eternity. Nothing else in this short life is of greater importance. 

What is the quality of our prayer, and how many hours of practice have we really devoted to it? Is it enough just to be present for maybe an hour each week, as prayer is going on around us? Or are we really surrendering ourselves into God’s hands, each day and in each moment, not just paying lip service, but really striving to open our hearts and minds to God, to give Him our full attention and our sincere concerns? To allow His Word and His Sacraments to become our very life.

In the rectory this Advent, Fr. Morgan, Fr. Smith, and I have decided to shut off the TV and the streaming services. Fr. Smith even took the TV off its stand and put it in a closet. Even as priests, we have the same struggles, the same temptations, we need the same reminders to clear out the noise, to simplify, to allow ourselves the space and the silence to hear God’s voice, to really watch for the Advent of Christ. God doesn’t want this to be just another December for us. How is God calling you to grow in prayer and vigilance this Advent season? Perhaps there are spiritual exercises that we have neglected for a while, gotten too busy over time. Advent is an opportunity to recommit ourselves to the daily Rosary, daily meditation, the morning offering, night prayer. 

Don’t let this Advent be another missed opportunity, that we could end up regretting for the rest of eternity. We do not know the day or the hour when the Lord will call us from this life. “Be watchful! Be alert!” Be ready at all times for your Lord’s return.