A Haven for Saints and Sinners

By Msgr. Ronald Knox

“You may object that St Paul perhaps wasn’t thinking of what we mean by the Church; he was thinking of the invisible Church, as it has sometimes been called–not a society of people distinguishable here and now by possessing a common faith and a common organization, but simply an ideal concept, the sum total of those souls whose names will, at last, be found written in the book of life. Only, you see, that won’t do, because our Lord himself doesn’t think of the Church in that way. The kingdom of heaven (which was his name for it) is like a mixed crop, part of wheat, part of it cockle, only to be separated at the final judgment; it is like a net cast into the sea, which brings up fish for the dinner-table and fish which are of no use to anybody, not to be separated till the net is brought in to land. The Church, then, as Christ himself envisaged it is a visible Church, rogues and honest men mixed; not all members of the Church are bound for heaven by any means.

“And if you look around, to-day, for a visible Church which is visibly one, there is hardly any competition, is there? I mean, Christians who belong to other denominations don’t even claim, as a rule, that their denomination is the Church. Church unity is something which existed in the early ages, which will, it is to be hoped, come into existence again later on; it doesn’t exist here and now. Anybody who has reached the point of looking round to find a single, visible fellowship of human beings which claims to be the one Church of Christ, has got to become a Catholic or give up his search in despair.”

As quoted in Daily Readings in Catholic Classics, edited by Fr. Rawley Myers

Simplify for Christ

Homily, Eastertide Sunday 4B

Here at the Cathedral, and even at some other parishes here in Sioux Falls, this Good Shepherd Sunday was also First Communion Sunday for many of our young people. I wonder how many of us still remember our own First Communion. How often do we think back, to a much simpler time in our lives and a much simpler time in our world? It’s strange to think that my own First Communion was more than twenty years ago, but I still remember wearing a suit and tie along with the other boys in my class, and all the girls wearing dresses and veils, and I remember getting ready and lining up in one of the classrooms before Mass began. And then to receive Jesus, to be closer to Him than we are to the food that we eat. It’s still amazing to think that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, wants to be that close to us. He not only lays down His life for His sheep, but at the Last Supper He entrusted to His Apostles this Holy Eucharist, the means by which He would give His own Body and Blood to feed His sheep, so that we can live by the power of His Resurrection. In Holy Communion, we already have everything we could ever hope for, a foretaste of heaven itself, Jesus Christ, the fullness and source of all that is good. 

As the years go by and as we grow up, we tend to make things too complicated and overthink things, even when it comes to how we approach the sacraments. Not all at once, but little by little, we start looking for happiness and fulfillment apart from God. We start believing that we can find salvation in something other than Jesus, whether its in our education and degrees that we earn, or the careers that we carve out, or in the realm of politics and social activism. And maybe we never quite put it explicitly in those terms, to say, “I’m seeking salvation in science and technology,” or in entertainment and pleasure, but where we chose to spend our time and our energy says a lot about what we really believe. Even in our family life, if Jesus Christ is not at the center of everything that we do, we can end up with so many idols and false gods, so much unrest, anxiety, and ultimately, disappointment. With St. Peter in our first reading, the Church continues to proclaim that “there is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved,” Jesus Christ, in Him alone is our salvation and our peace. 

Most of us here know that we need to pray more, and we really do desire to pray more, but there are still just 24 hours in each day, the same as the day when we received our First Holy Communion. We want to pray more, but it’s not possible to add something to an already full schedule, without first taking something off. Now I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who told me, “My life is way too simple. I really wish I had more to do, more stuff to fill up my time.” But if we all know that we’re way too busy, and that we’ve been too busy for a long time, when are we going to finally wake up and do something about it? To simplify our lives and get rid of what we don’t really need? To empty ourselves so that God can fill us? 

“Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Think back to the day of your First Holy Communion, or even further back to a simpler time. What still keeps us from having the simplicity of St. Peter, to spend ourselves entirely on Jesus Christ? To take Jesus at His word? The simplicity to trust and to follow the Good Shepherd wherever He leads? 

Risen in the Flesh

Homily, Eastertide Sunday 3B

Even with the weather that we’ve been having lately, discouraging outdoor activities, I don’t watch much TV anymore. But there was one show that I always found fascinating, I think it used to be on the Discovery Channel, and it was called “A Haunting.” Basically, the show uses eyewitness interviews and makes a dramatization of people’s ghost stories, encounters with deceased souls or with demonic spirits. Very often, they call upon a Catholic priest to help resolve the situations. And in our materialistic culture, these accounts are good reminders of the unseen spiritual realities that constantly surround us.

In our Gospel today, though, Jesus is very emphatic and insistent that He has risen from the dead in His own Body. “‘Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.’ And as he said this, he showed them his hands and his feet,” with the nail marks from His Crucifixion. He even eats a piece of baked fish to emphasize the reality of His Flesh. Why was it so important that the disciples realize Jesus had truly risen from the dead in the reality of His Body?

The Resurrection accounts in the Gospels are not ghost stories. The Christian religion is not an abstract sentimentalism or wishful thinking, but an encounter with the living Christ that is meant to change and transform the concrete realities of our daily lives. In our second reading St. John is emphasizing the very same thing. It does us no good to call ourselves Christians, to claim to belong to Christ, to love Jesus merely in word or in thought, if we’re not allowing His Truth to take flesh and become reality in our actions and in the real decisions we make every day. “The way we may be sure that we know [Jesus and belong to him] is to keep his commandments.”

The word ‘Catholic’ is not just a label for the school we went to or sent our kids to. It does us no good if it doesn’t actually train us in real obedience to Jesus Christ and His Church. If what we learned at Catholic school was how to rationalize our sins and the “complexity” of our lives, and to excuse ourselves from actually keeping the first and greatest commandment, to love God first and above all, “with all our mind, heart, soul, and strength,” if the Catholic faith fails to take flesh in our daily lives, and in a special way on Sunday, the Lord’s Day, Catholic education is wasted. The Christian religion is not an old collection of nice ideas.

Today again, in this Eucharist, in the reality of the Flesh and Blood of Jesus Christ, we encounter a living Person who longs for us to fall in love with Him, to be transformed by His grace, to be strengthened against every temptation and distraction. In which areas of our lives is our relationship with Jesus still too abstract, too theoretical? Perhaps in the ways that treat our own bodies or the bodies of others, in how we eat or drink to excess, in how we allow ourselves to be consumed by anger or anxiety or the Internet, in how we write others off or avoid them, without really allowing ourselves to get to know them, or in how we put off prayer and allow other things to take priority over our relationship with God. May the power and the reality of the Resurrection set us free from our sins and habits of sin, the only real evil in this world, that we might experience the grace of obedience, the freedom of the children of God, and a living relationship with the Lover of our souls.

South Dakota Blues

Bulletin Letter, Eastertide Sunday 3B

Happy Easter! Most of us probably aren’t too thrilled about the weather lately, still having snow midway through April. I for one always hope that the Celebration of the Resurrection of Christ from the dead will bring on the new life of the spring season in earnest, but in South Dakota, you never can be sure. Seeing everything clothed in white is probably appropriate for Easter, though. The Easter season lasts until Pentecost on May 20, so we should at least see some green grass by then.

Back when I studied in Rome, I got to know some Australians pretty well, and it was so strange for me to hear about how they celebrate the same holidays in the Southern Hemisphere. Of course, with December at the start of summer for them, Australians are used to having a barbeque and going to the beach on Christmas. And while we usually have the new life of spring budding forth to call our minds to the Resurrection of Easter, Australians are entering the cool of autumn instead. So just remember, it could be worse.

Fr. Smith has already taken to running outside again. My legs are not quite as restless or ambitious, but I’ll be putting in lots of miles on the road with Bishop Swain for Confirmations in the upcoming months. Throughout the Easter season, I love the contrast that the Lectionary provides with readings from the Acts of the Apostles, after they had been “confirmed” and strengthened by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and the accounts from the Gospel of the Resurrection appearances, when the Apostles were still not quite getting it, hesitant to believe, and holed up in the room of the Last Supper with the doors locked.

Now how often do we behave more like those Apostles locked in the upper room, rather than the Apostles set on fire with the Holy Spirit—even though we, too, have received of His fullness through Baptism and Confirmation? How easy is it for us to recommend to others a restaurant or a movie or an app on our phones, but how seemingly difficult to share about our relationship with Jesus and His Church? When we should be actively looking for opportunities to share our faith, as the Apostles took advantage of every occasion and opening, far more often we are only active in looking for excuses to keep it to ourselves.

As the sun comes to melt away the snows and uncover the green grass once more, may the fire of the Holy Spirit melt away the indifference from our hearts and open them to spread the love of Christ to every person we encounter, to every corner of the earth.

Mary, Spouse of the Holy Spirit, pray for us!

To Reconcile the World to God

Homily, Eastertide Sunday 2B

The Apostles had failed. On Good Friday, all of them, besides John, had run away and abandoned Jesus. Judas had betrayed him. Three times, Peter had denied any knowledge of him. In the hour of His greatest need, these chosen men who had left everything to follow him, they finally abandoned their Lord and Savior to public execution by the Romans on the wood of the Cross. Maybe one of the reasons why the Apostles didn’t want to believe that Jesus had really risen from the dead, was because they were afraid of what he would say or do to them after what they had done, or failed to do, for him on Good Friday. Desertion is a serious crime.

Now imagine if you were Jesus, and these Twelve whom you had chosen and invested in for three years had all turned tail and fled when you needed them most. What would be your first words to them, the next time you see them? But what are the first words of Jesus to His Apostles that we hear in today’s Gospel? Instead of scolding them or asking them where they were while He was being handed over to death, His first words to them are, “Peace be with you.” And when He had shown them His hands and His side to let them know that it was really Him, Jesus even says to them a second time, “Peace be with you.” He not only tries to comfort them after they had so miserably failed to support Him, Jesus even goes on to entrust to them His own sacred mission. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And He breathed upon them the Holy Spirit, the very life of God.

This is the Divine Mercy that we celebrate today, the infinite mercy of God. Jesus never gives up on us. Even when we have abandoned Him, and denied Him so many times in so many ways through our words and actions, through our sins, His invitation always remains. His peace is always ready to console us and even to entrust to us His own mission in the world today. Now the incomplete, counterfeit version of mercy and love that the world tends to talk about today is merely tolerance, or even indifference. But God doesn’t just put up with us or look the other way. No. The truly amazing thing about a God who really loves us is that Jesus wants to see us actually turn away from our sins and start to do the same things that He Himself did. And God breathes upon us His own Holy Spirit, not just to cover us over with the snow of His righteous, but to really transform our minds and hearts, to redirect our desires and give us that strength to carry out the mission of Christ in our daily lives.

And what is the mission of Christ? Nothing less than to reconcile the world to God. The Holy Spirit gives each of us the strength to challenge ourselves and to look for opportunities with those we interact with on a daily basis, to challenge everyone we meet to take more seriously our relationship with God. Even if it’s not popular today to talk about or to be serious about religion, the Holy Spirit helps us to share with others our relationship with Jesus Christ, to invite others back to Mass and to Confession, to invite non-Catholics to become Catholic, to join the one Church that Jesus Himself founded.

I guarantee that it was not culturally acceptable for Peter and the Apostles after Pentecost to tell the crowds, “You crucified the Son of God. Now be baptized, every one of you, into His Name, because there is no salvation, there is no true life for any of us except through the Name and in relationship with Jesus Christ.” What Peter and the Apostles told the Jewish crowds was not culturally acceptable, but this was not a concern for them, and it should not be a concern for any disciple of Jesus. If we are truly grateful for the Divine Mercy that we have received from almighty God, why are we so hesitant to share that with others, to invite others to experience that same mercy, the only life that’s worth living, in relationship with God? And when we know that our sins cannot satisfy us, why do we hesitate to leave them behind, once and for all, to finally allow the Holy Spirit to transform our hearts and minds, to set us free from the mere tolerance or indifference that world offers?

Receive the Holy Spirit. As the Father sent Jesus into the world, so now Jesus sends each of you, to proclaim the Gospel and to reconcile sinners into relationship with God. No one else is going to do it for you. The mission of Christ is now our mission, Christ Himself working through us. Why do we still hesitate? There is no other work during the course of our entire lives that is going to matter more once we reach the end. Receive the Holy Spirit, and become instruments of God’s infinite mercy.

The Folly of Imitating the “Ancient” Church

April Message to Priests and Deacons of the Diocese, as Master of Ceremonies

I often hear a line of reasoning that goes something like this: “In the early Church, this is how things were done or how the liturgy and the sacraments were celebrated, so it must be perfectly acceptable to do things the same way today.” Not only is this based on lots of speculation, but it also fails to take into consideration the genuine development of Christian doctrine that has occurred during the many centuries in between.

The law of prayer is the law of belief. What we do should be an expression of what we believe. So the abandonment of more recent practices in favor of “more ancient” ones always carries with it the danger of obscuring the genuine insights that took place during the time between.

Simply doing as the first Christians did lends itself to also having a less mature and explicit appropriation of the truths of faith. Did Christians in the first century believe that Jesus had a full human nature and full divine nature united in His one Divine Person? Yes, but not as clearly or explicitly as Christians after the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Would practices surrounding the Eucharist change as we came to a greater understanding of its nature? They had to. And a return to earlier practices might very well occasion a loss of faith.

The kingdom of God is like “a mustard seed” that grows into “the largest of plants,” and growing plants have different needs than they did when they were still just seeds (Matthew 13:31-32).

May God continue to bless you in nourishing the faith of believers, that they might live upon and give expression to the full deposit of faith, handed down to us through the centuries and millennia of the Church’s living memory.

Encountering the Risen Christ

Homily, Easter Sunday

I was the youngest in my family, and when I was a little kid, I didn’t really like going to sleep. I always thought I might miss something during those hours of the night, so even when I went to bed, I’d often be lying there with my eyes open, trying to stay awake until everything else had settled down in the house. I didn’t want to miss anything. Now among the Apostles, the one who acted the most like a little kid, the one who always said exactly what he was thinking, the one who never wanted to miss anything but was always trying to be the first in line, was St. Peter. And on that first Easter morning, as St. Peter and St. John arrive at the empty tomb, we might well imagine Peter turning to the beloved disciple and saying, “Uh… John, I think something happened here, and we missed it. Now what do we do?” 

During our lives, all of us have good days and bad days, and we go through different seasons. The same is true in our spiritual lives. I was kind of hoping that Easter this year would really bring on the spring season in earnest, but it looks like our wintry weather might continue during this week. And we might often be experiencing a kind of winter in our spiritual lives, even as Easter arrives. The same was true even for those first Apostles as they discovered the empty tomb. People often tell me, “Father, I pray, but I don’t feel anything. It doesn’t seem like anything’s happening or that it does any good. I’ve gone on retreats and mission trips, I’ve tried using the Scriptures to pray, but still, I don’t feel anything.” We should keep in mind that the most significant event in the history of the universe was felt by no one. The most significant event of all time was felt by no one. It happened in the darkness of a tomb. Jesus alone. None of the disciples, none of the women, were there to see it. When the first man rose from the dead never to die again, it was felt by no one else. Everyone missed it. Now what do we do? 

We do the same as his first disciples. We encounter the Risen Christ in mystery, seemingly in disguise, like the gardener that Mary Magdalene meets, like the stranger walking the road to Emmaus, like the man on the seashore of Galilee. We encounter the Risen Christ upon this altar, in this tabernacle, in the Sacrament that He Himself left us as His abiding Presence, under the appearances of bread and wine. We encounter the Risen Christ on the street, disguised as a poor man asking for our help. We discover the Risen Christ in our neighbors and family members who are the most difficult for us to love. And we encounter the Risen Christ in ourselves, when we find ourselves able to love in the way that Jesus loves us: to forgive and to do good, even to those who hate us, to have patience with those who annoy us to no end, to give, without wanting anything for ourselves in return. 

And as we encounter the Risen Christ in the silence of prayer, in the sacraments of His Church, in the works of mercy done for those in need, we, too, become witnesses to His Resurrection for the rest of the world today, even as his first disciples carried His Name to all the ends of the earth. The precise beginning of the Resurrection of Christ was experienced by Jesus alone in the darkness of the tomb, but the power of His Resurrection and His Presence, has continued down to our own day. In faith, we need to keep our eyes wide open, to the realities and opportunities that we encounter each and every day, to the Risen Christ revealing Himself in our midst. “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light” (Ephesians 5:14). In baptism, we have been enlightened by Christ. Jesus gives us eyes for seeing and ears for hearing, what we might otherwise gloss over and miss out on. We are to walk always as children of the light, whether we feel like it or not. Jesus offers us meaning, purpose, fulfillment, eternal life. How much longer shall we continue to wander in the darkness, looking for life apart from Him? Jesus is the only Way.