Ten Minutes

Homily, Lenten Sunday 1B

You might be aware already that during the time I spent preparing for the priesthood, for four years I was a student in Rome. Being in Rome, you tend to run into people from lots of different places throughout the world. During our time overseas, a friend of mine once met a Ukrainian priest. Now at various times in the history of that country, it was illegal to practice the Catholic faith, and priests could be killed if they could be identified. Because of the persecutions, this Ukrainian priest was not in the habit of wearing his collar and black clerical attire. He did, however, consistently wear a pin on the front of his jacket that simply read, “10 minutes.” Inevitably, people who met him would ask about this pin and what it meant. He would start by just giving some statistics about how insignificant the length of 10 minutes can seem, out of a day or out of a week. Ten minutes is less than 1% of the 24 hours in a day, and it is less than 0.1% of an entire week.

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

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

If you’ve ever been to Broomtree Retreat Center, you’ve probably seen the motto, “In the silence, God speaks.” I’ve been reflecting lately on just how noisy our world is today, when you consider what life was like before the constant notifications on our cell phones, before the population boom, before the industrial revolution. Probably the loudest thing that people on earth would hear would be the occasional thunderstorm. Imagine Jesus out in the desert for 40 days, or the silence that would have prevailed upon the earth after the 40 days of the flood with Noah. For many of us, to be out in the desert like Jesus, beyond the hunger we would feel for not eating during that time, even more noticeable for us would be the deafening silence that Jesus experienced.

But in our world of noise, we risk losing touch with the deepest desires of our hearts and the most important questions of life, losing touch with the simple beauty and awesomeness of existence. Silence amplifies our interior life. It brings up within us questions that we might easily ignore while living on the surface level of life. Lent can be for us a privileged time to foster that silence and prayer, to be able to face those questions of life and death in the presence of God. But how much genuine silence do we really have each day, or each week? When was the last time we even had 10 minutes? God is challenging each one of us today to make it a priority, to give Him room and opportunity to speak in the silence of our hearts and minds. 10 minutes. What difference could it make, for you?

God Loved Us First

Homily, Ash Wednesday

Why are we here today?  There could be many different answers to this question. To get ashes on our foreheads. To begin the season of Lent. Right now, to pretend to listen to a homily on Ash Wednesday. Why are we here? There could be other answers, but as we begin this season of Lent and all our Lenten practices, it’s good for us to keep in mind the most important answer to this question, the most basic and foundational truth of our existence and the real reason for our presence here today.

So why are we here? St. Paul gives us the answer in our second reading: “For our sake, [God] made Him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” All of us are here today because God has so marvelously shown and proved His love for us, His great desire for each one of us. In Jesus His Son, who became obedient even to the point of death on a cross for love of us, we discover the meaning of life itself. We are here because of all that God has done for us.

There is often a temptation as we think of what to give or give up for Lent to be preoccupied with asking ourselves what we can do for God, or even what we can do for ourselves through our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Instead, it’s important that we always keep in mind that any good we do, any success we have in our Lenten disciplines is already a response to God’s infinite love for us, and that it’s only possible through His grace and providence. Our love for God in response to His love is the essential part of our Lenten practices; it is what remains “hidden and secret,” in our acts of penance, as Jesus mentions in today’s Gospel, “and your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”

Most of our problems and lack of progress in the spiritual life stem from not sufficiently allowing ourselves to be struck and convicted, to be moved by the startling and overwhelming love of God that is revealed to us in Christ Jesus, revealed especially in His suffering, death, and Resurrection. One of my favorite devotions has always been the Stations of the Cross, and Lent is especially a time to consider God’s wonderful work of our redemption in Christ. Every Friday during Lent at 7 pm here at the Cathedral, we’ll be praying the Stations of the Cross, and I encourage you to attend, and to let the reality of what Jesus did for you and for me really sink in and stir your hearts.

Also, if you’ve never taken the time to just read one of the gospels from start to finish, maybe to do so over the course of a couple days, but to read one of the gospels as you would read other books, it can be a very powerful experience. This year especially focuses on the Gospel according to St. Mark, which is the shortest of the Gospel accounts, 16 chapters, and only 64 pages if you were to buy it in paperback form. I invite you to try it out, or to do it again as we enter into Lent, and as you read the Gospel, to pay attention to what you notice, to what surprises you, to the plot and movement of the Gospel events. Let yourself get caught up in the experience of the apostles and the first Christians who found in Jesus the great love of God in bodily form, the reason why we are still here, the reason why we still gather as Christians to worship God every Sunday.

God so desires to make us one with Him, to illicit a response of love from us by His grace, that Jesus even gives us His own Body and Blood to eat, at this Mass and at every Mass. Far greater than the ashes that we will receive on our foreheads, Jesus invites us to receive Him into ourselves, to consume Him and to be consumed by Him in Holy Communion. May this great love and desire of God for us move us to repentance, animate all our Lenten practices, and help us to pray to God with today’s Psalm, “Restore in me the joy of your salvation; [and] sustain in me a willing spirit.” Amen.

A Lifeline from God: the Promise to Pray

Bulletin Letter, Lenten Sunday 1B

As we begin the Lenten season, if you’re anything like me, you’re probably wondering, “Didn’t we just finish Advent?” And as busy as the winter might be, the months ahead seem to always bring an even heavier flurry of activities. I think I’m still getting used to observing Lent as a priest. My experience has not been much like the forty days that Jesus spent in the desert, to be alone with God His Father. With all the Confessions and school events, it’s a challenge to make time to slow down and simply be. It becomes critical then, even in the midst of our other activities, to be able to pause at various times throughout the day, to retreat to our inner sanctuary, to be alone with God in the silence of our hearts.

Even if just for a minute or two, a few times throughout the day, this interiority can make a huge difference for how the rest of our day goes, for the level of patience we are able to have, and for having a sense of freedom, of driving ourselves or of being directed by God, rather than being driven by so many outside pressures or interior anxieties. I’m endlessly grateful for the Liturgy of the Hours, (also called the Divine Office), the Church’s official prayer that I am obliged to pray every day, an opportunity and privilege to stop whatever else I’m doing to speak with God, four or five times a day, on behalf of the world and God’s holy People. These times of prayer serve as a reminder to me not to be only a slave of productivity, but to allow God’s grace to permeate everything that I do.

I was almost a senior in high school by the time I first experienced the Liturgy of the Hours, which draws upon the great treasury of the Psalms and other prayers of Sacred Scripture, and I’ve never seen life in quite the same way ever since. Every Sunday during Lent, we all have an opportunity to enter into this Prayer of the Church at Solemn Vespers with the Bishop at 6 p.m. at the Cathedral of St. Joseph. The choir does an outstanding jobfrom what I’m told, even better than the priest schola of earlier years. Come and experience it yourselves, and invite others to these privileged moments of prayer amid the sea of busyness.

There’s a danger for anyone to get caught up in appearances, to serve for the praise of human beings rather than for the commendation that comes from God (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:5). St. Teresa of Calcutta, though known for being extremely active in serving the poorest of the poor, always kept prayer as her top priority, especially praying in the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. This allowed her to keep perspective through her trials, and to keep humility through her renown. “God has not called me to be successful. He called me to be faithful” (From her book, Love: A Fruit Always in Season). May God grant us the grace of true prayer, “so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:5).

Lord God, King of heaven and earth,
deign to direct and sanctify, to rule and govern
our hearts and bodies this day, our thoughts, words and actions
in your law and in the works of your commands,
that today and into eternity, being of service to you,
we may merit to be saved and set free.
(Translated from the closing prayer of Lauds from Monday, Week III of the Psalter)

A Simpler Faith

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 6B

“If you wish, you can make me clean.” How does our faith today compare with this simple and humble statement of the leper of the Gospel? “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, and the various other skin diseases that would have been associated at the time, these were all physical ailments, but the social and emotional sufferings of these diseases were often even harder to bear, because the leper had to keep himself separated from the community at all times. “Unclean, unclean,” he would call out as a warning to the people around him, all the while thinking of himself as dirty, unwanted, isolated, alone.  

What are the sins and habits of sin in our lives that still make us feel unclean? What are the sins of which we are most ashamed? Much of modern psychology would simply have us deny and repress the symptoms of our spiritual diseases without actually addressing the underlying cause. They say, “Oh, that’s just so much Catholic guilt. To have peace in this world, you just need to train yourself to stop feeling guilty when you sin.” But this is not the peace that Jesus Christ offers us, the malaise and complacency of mediocrity, or even the approval of evil because people just can’t control themselves anyway.  

No. Jesus came to set us free. To have us take responsibility for our actions, not to deny that our sins are sins, or the role that we have in committing them, but to confess our sins, to ask forgiveness and, by His grace and strength, to freely choose the good. When we do something wrong knowing that it’s wrong, it’s a great sign of spiritual health that we actually feel bad about it. Guilt is the response of a healthy conscience when we choose to sin. Hopefully, this guilt that we experience will help motivate repentance, help us to turn away from sin and finally try something better. The type of guilt that is unhealthy is when we feel guilty for things that we did not choose. But we are more than just the product of genetics or of our accumulated experiences. No matter where we’ve come from or whatever has been inflicted upon us along the way, God returns to us our free will, today, to choose the path we will take in moving forward.  

So, when we approach Jesus, what do we end up saying to Him? If we buy in to some of the lies of modern psychology, we might end up saying something like this, “Lord, if only that traumatic experience hadn’t happened to me when I was younger, you could make me clean.” “If I wasn’t already so entrenched in these bad habits, you could make me clean.” But Jesus came to seek and to save what was lost, to restore innocence to those in shame, to restore freedom and integrity to those enslaved by unruly passions. Is God all-powerful or is He not? Why do we complicate things that should be simple? With the faith of the leper, we cry out, “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean. There is nothing beyond your power to heal and to save.”  

As we begin the season of Lent this Ash Wednesday, what are those sins or habits of sin that we’ve tried to leave behind so many times before? Where is God calling us to deeper faith, to a simpler faith, to finally take Jesus at His word and to experience the peace and freedom that He brings, beyond anything the world has offered us? If you wish, Jesus can make us clean, through the Sacrament of Confession, by the power of His word. Let your desire for the peace of Christ consume you more and more, and be made clean. 

Made for Greatness

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 5B

There’s a popular saying that I’ve often heard used by parents, usually something along these lines: “I’ve worked hard to be able to offer a better life for my children.” In our culture this has become a sort of standard for evaluating success or failure as parents. Did your children have greater opportunities growing up than when you did? I’ve often wondered, though, what exactly we mean when we say a better life for our children, a better life for the next generation. If what we really mean is an easier life, it will almost certainly not be a better life. If the idea is that I’ve worked hard so that they won’t have to, we usually end up with a generation largely unwilling to do much of anything for themselves or for those around them. 

As the youngest of nine kids in my family, when it came time for my graduation from the University of St. Thomas, I was kind of surprised to find out that this was a very proud moment for my dad. It had been a sort of dream of his that all his kids would graduate from college—something that he and my mom never had the opportunity to do—and I was the last one to graduate. I also couldn’t help but notice that my dad never really offered to pay for our schooling. He and my mom did something much more valuable than paying our tuition. Instead of just working hard so that we wouldn’t have to, as we were growing up, my parents invited us into their work, to work alongside them, so that we would have the confidence and the competence to go forward and build upon the great foundation that they had given us.  

So whether it was mowing lawns, shoveling snow, or waking up before 5:30 each morning to deliver the Sioux City Journal, each of us knew the satisfaction of a job well done. Each of us knew the strength that only comes through effort, even from the effort of working against our own inclinations: to get up and out of bed when we would rather sleep, to get our homework done and to do it well, when we would rather be watching TV or playing games, to eat everything on our plate when we would rather just have ice cream. These are the simple, common-sense, but profoundly important lessons that often only come through the trials, difficulties, and challenges of everyday life. And when we try to shelter and protect the next generation from every little discomfort, there’s an emptiness, a meaninglessness that they won’t be able to escape.  

An easier life is not a better life. It’s more important that we and those who come after us develop strength of character rather than becoming skilled at receiving hand-outs. If we truly claim to be followers of Christ, then we should know with all confidence the power of the Cross, the instrument of our salvation. God didn’t just work hard so that we don’t have to. Jesus didn’t take our infirmities and bear our diseases so that we could live free from all affliction. Still today, through our very sufferings, God invites us into His work, to work alongside Him for the redemption of the world. In our first reading, Job calls this life upon earth a drudgery of endless trials, but it’s through the profound sufferings that Job faces that the strength of his patience is proved, and the purity of his faith that God is the One in control. And in the Gospel, afflicted with unclean spirits and various diseases, everyone is looking for Jesus. Knowing our need for Jesus comes from actually facing and owning up to the harsh realities of life and death, not in pushing them aside and pretending that everything is wonderful.  

How often do we ignore the deepest desires of our hearts, just because these are not easily attained, and we settle for so much less than what we know we could be? We find it difficult to live according to God’s Law. So we make excuses for our sins and try to just be satisfied with temporary pleasures and creature comforts, all the while the deepest longings of our hearts go unanswered, and the emptiness persists, just under the surface. We were made for nothing less than union with God almighty, that all our thoughts, words, and actions would be according to His will and bring us into His presence. Please don’t settle for what the world offers us or for what the world offers to your children. Don’t settle for success when God is offering you holiness. The world offers us comfort, but we were not made for comfort. We were made for greatness.