With One Voice

Bulletin Letter, Ordinary Time Sunday 22B

Already in my three years of priesthood, I’ve done a number of funerals and burials for veterans of our nation’s military. Anyone who has witnessed the same would likely agree that the graveside military rites are very impressive and moving, an expression of gratitude on behalf of the country they served to protect, and a sign of solidarity with the veterans that still live.

Also in my time as a priest, I’ve already witnessed the funerals of several other priests, now fellow brothers who strove to serve and defend the people of God in Christ’s Church. If you’ve been to the funeral of a priest in recent years, one of the most profound moments actually takes place outside, at the very end. As they load the body into the hearse, the bishop and the fellow priests in attendance all join together in singing the Salve Regina, the Latin of the Hail, Holy Queen, a hymn to our Blessed Lady from “this valley of tears,” a hymn that almost all of us learned during our time in seminary as the closing of each day at the end of Compline. So as the day of his short life comes to a close, we bid farewell to our brother by joining our voices in this plea for a Mother’s care.

The Salve Regina is part of our common heritage, not just as priests, but as fellow Catholics on a worldwide and historical scale. In 1974, Blessed Pope Paul VI published a booklet of simple chants, Jubilate Deo (“Sing to God”), that he hoped would continue to unite the voices of all Catholics. It is a powerful experience to be able to join people from all over the world in the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei. Even if we never travel outside these United States, our voices echo those of Catholics not only from other parts of the world but down through the ages of history, with countless Saints and Doctors of the Church now in heaven.

At Masses during the week, since getting the St. Michael Hymnal at Cathedral, I’ve been trying to teach some of the chants from this booklet, that—by Bl. Paul VI’s design—is to form a “minimum repertoire of Gregorian chant.” I also do this so that I don’t have to look at the hymnal myself, as I purify vessels and clear the altar after Communion. I’ve mainly focused on the beautiful hymns to our Blessed Mother, as these are used seasonally in Compline and seem very appropriate after receiving Jesus in Holy Communion. The Wikipedia article on “Jubilate Deo” has a full listing of the Latin Mass parts and hymns that every Roman Catholic should be able to sing. It’s actually a relatively short list.

With one voice, we lift our hearts to God. Thank you for your willingness to learn together, things new and old.

A Bitter Pill

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 20B

During this past week, I’ve been having trouble with my sinuses. I am getting better, but I just want to apologize up front in case I need to pause for a coughing fit at some point during this Mass. Dealing with illness, though, brings to mind that taking medicine is not always a pleasant experience. I think especially of parents trying to give medicine to their children. I’ve been at my sister’s house a few times when they’ve had to give eardrops to my niece. And thinking back to my own childhood, I don’t think I was ever a big fan of cough syrup, no matter what they said the flavor was supposed to be. But I’m glad that most parents care enough about their children to make sure that they take their medicine, whether they want to or not.

Too many people today seem to act as though life can just be flowers and sunshine, without any hard work, clouds or rain, any real discipline, or anything that would be unpleasant. That to avoid the foolishness, ignorance, and debauchery that our first two readings warn us about, and to embrace the wisdom of God that leads to genuine happiness, we often act like all we need to really do is follow our own desires, just to be our genuine selves, and to stay positive, to affirm the good without ever having to condemn the darkness and sin. Of course, we hear something very different from Jesus Christ, whose summary message was so often, “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me.”

Sadly, over the years, even many bishops and priests have adopted a very naïve and un-Christian outlook for ministry and for the Church’s place in the world. Just keep smiling, making jokes, making friends with the world. To really save souls and to advance the cause of the Church, we need to be popular, to gather as many people as we can into the Church, and to do that, we need to be more positive and make the Church’s teachings more palatable. We’ll avoid talking about the difficult teachings. We’ll preach mercy and tolerance, joy and happiness, but let’s not get too hung up on condemning any real sins or asking that people actually change their habits and behaviors in daily life. We’ll tell stories and jokes to entertain, and get some music at Mass that really gets their toes tapping. We’ll conform the Church’s prayer to what the people want, instead of asking anyone to conform their lives to Christ and to His Church.

If you’ve been following the news in the Catholic world recently and have wondered how things could have gotten to this point, or how they continued for so long without really being corrected by those who had the responsibility to do so, I am convinced that it’s nothing all that new. It’s human sinfulness. It’s deplorable, it’s evil. It needs to be rooted out. But it’s not all that surprising, when you consider that for so long it has been fashionable to have compassion and endless tolerance instead of simple and swift correction and accountability. Don’t judge. Don’t condemn. Mercy without any real justice or repentance.

We become comfortable with our sins and make excuses for ourselves and for those around us. Not surprising then, that bishops and priests, even at the highest levels of the Church, have often done the same and covered for each other, rather than actually defending their flock and the most vulnerable. When we care more about our appearance and reputation in this world than about how God sees us, is it any wonder that so many within the hierarchy seem to care more about the Church’s reputation in the public square rather than having transparency and justice, and preparing for the accounting that we’ll have to give in the sight of God at the end of our lives?

Now of course, we should expect more from the Church’s shepherds than that they just follow the same trends that we see in the world. But the medicine and the remedy is not pleasant. In order to give us the Remedy of His own Flesh and Blood in the Eucharist, Jesus had to endure His bitter Passion and Death. In this life, it is not possible to avoid everything that is unpleasant, and insisting on trying to avoid it only tends to make things far worse. As a Church, we need to stop avoiding the unpleasant medicine. We need to do penance, fasting, prayer, discipline. We need to start addressing sin with clarity and firmness. Instead of trying to make God in our own image, we need to strive to conform our lives to Him. Please pray for the Church. Pray that those who are guilty or complicit receive just punishment, that those who are innocent will be defended by God, and that all of us come to follow Christ more faithfully and put far from us the foolishness of this passing world.

Worship Requires Sacrifice

Response to a Query

A few years ago, we had a Biblical scholar, Dr. Leroy Huizenga, come to our diocese to speak with all the clergy about the Gospel according to Matthew. One of the most intriguing points in his presentation concerned the eschatological sayings of Jesus, namely, concerning the end times.

In the Jewish mind, the concept of the destruction of the Temple was inextricably bound up with the idea of the end of the world and the coming of Messiah, so it is not always clear or distinct when Jesus is referring to the destruction of Jerusalem (“before this generation passes away”) or to His own death and return from the dead, or to His Second Coming at the end of days.

The reason for this conflation was that for the Jews, worship of God always involved sacrifice. The first ones recorded as having offered sacrifice to God were Cain and Abel, sons of Adam. The destruction of the Temple would imply the cessation of sacrifice (and therefore “worship” of the one true God in its full sense). For this to come to an end again after the Babylonian Exile would effectively, in the Jewish mind, bring about the end of the entire world.

John 4:20 makes little sense if we don’t have this in mind. “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” By this time, synagogues were in many, many places. Jews and Samaritans offered prayers and praise to God in almost every city they inhabited, so what was so special about Jerusalem that only there “people ought to worship”? This only makes sense if we know that worship always implied for them sacrifice. The Temple in Jerusalem was the only place where Jews were allowed to offer sacrifices to God and, therefore, “worship” in its primary sense.

The Eucharistic sacrifice of the Mass is of course the fulfillment of all the Old Testament sacrifices, the New Covenant in His own Blood that Jesus entrusts and commands His Apostles to renew “in memory” of Him, in the fullest Jewish sense of “memory,” not just to recall pasts events abstractly in our minds, but by the ritual action and grace given by God, to make present again, throughout the generations, the saving work of Christ, the sacrifice of His own Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. So just after foretelling the end of Jewish worship of God, Jesus institutes a New Worship in Himself, the New Temple, in spirit and truth.

Only Christ’s own perfect offering of His whole Self to His heavenly Father is “worship” in the fullest sense, but as the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life, we are called to participate in that one sacrifice, to imitate what we celebrate, to unite to the sacrifice of Christ all our “prayers, works, joys, and sufferings” of each day (Morning Offering). Insofar as the rest of our thoughts, words, and actions flow from and return to the sacrifice of Christ in the Eucharist, they are part of our worship of God.

The practice of the presence of God throughout the day is prayer and adoration and in a certain sense an offering of our attention and ourselves to God, in imitation of Christ Himself. It is “worship” in a derivative sense, as it is by the grace of the Eucharistic Christ that we are able to live in awareness of God’s presence.

The Life of God

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 19B

In January of my first year of college seminary, we went on a mission trip to Bay St. Louis in Mississippi. It was a welcome break from the Minnesota winter back at St. Thomas, and I even got to try an alligator po boy while I was there, which is basically just a sub sandwich made with alligator sausage. But the mission trip was also hard work. It was the third year after Hurricane Katrina, and we spent our days painting houses, climbing through the rafters with electrical wire, trying our hands at basic carpentry, and getting our feet soaked in the rain and mud. By Thursday evening of that week, I was completely exhausted. There are few times during my life when I have felt more tired and worn out. Someone told me later on that they saw me come in to the dining area for supper that evening, with all life drained from my face. And as I just sat and ate my food, I avoided talking to anyone, to conserve energy. Later that evening, we had exposition and adoration of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, and I don’t know if I’ve ever wanted more than I did that evening, to find rest, new life, and new strength in Jesus Christ.

In our first reading today, Elijah has had it. He’s exhausted. He has tried to be a faithful prophet for God, but now he’s on the run from the king’s wife, who wants him dead. He’s given everything he’s got in service to God and his people, but he still feels like he’s come up short. He collapses under a broom tree and prays for death. But instead of death, God gives him sleep, and sends an angel with some food and water to strengthen him for the rest of his journey, strength enough to walk 40 days and 40 nights to reach the mountain of God.

The food that Elijah ate under the broom tree foreshadows the Eucharist that we celebrate at every Mass. Jesus wants to be our bread, our food for the long journey of life and even beyond the grave to eternal life. Jesus wants to work through us, so that we can work with His strength, love with His heart, and suffer with His patience. This is eternal life, not just what happens after death, but even now, being able to live by the very life and power of Jesus Christ when our own strength and patience reach their limits. This is the sense in which Jesus could say, that whoever feeds on Him will never die, because we begin even now to live the divine life that we are called to live in heaven for all eternity. By our baptism and through this Eucharist, everything that belongs to Christ belongs to us as well, and there is nothing beyond His power. By God’s grace as Christians, there is nothing that we cannot endure. There is no bad habit or slavery to sin, no addiction that is stronger than God’s strength in us.

Now, to be clear, Jesus wants to live his life through us at all times, not just when we’re exhausted and pushed beyond our limits. Even when things are going well for us, it is God who provides us with everything we are and everything we have. But God’s presence and action in us is often much more noticeable when our natural strength and resources do fail and come up short. I think back to my college years working two summers of Totus Tuus in the diocese, and if there’s anything that can push someone to their natural limits, it’s cramming into one vehicle with three other people and their luggage, traveling from parish to parish each week, meeting a whole new set of parishioners each time, singing silly songs, and playing games, and teaching lessons, and getting a little sleep at night, and just wishing that you’ll make it through the Friday morning session and the water fight, without passing out from sheer exhaustion. So many times, I knew that I had nothing left to give, and so many times God provided exactly what I needed to continue to be a blessing to those around me, despite my own weakness and weariness. In those times, I knew that of myself, I was capable only of losing my patience and lashing out, so the grace of God was clear to me in allowing me to love with the heart of Christ when my own puny love was exhausted.

In this Eucharist and at every Mass, Jesus longs to feed us with His own strength, with His own life, with His own patience, so that we will be able to love as Christians, as other Christs in the world today, to love God and to love everyone around us with the love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, to live, even now, the divine life that Jesus came down from heaven to bring us. Through this Eucharist, feast upon the very life of God, and let Him live through you.

The Courage to Pray

From the autobiographical Life of St. Teresa of Avila, virgin and doctor

How often I failed in my duty to God, because I was not leaning on the strong pillar of prayer. I passed nearly twenty years on this stormy sea, falling and rising, but rising to no good purpose, seeing that I went and fell again. I may say that it was the most painful life that can be imagined, because I had no sweetness in God and no pleasure in the world.

When I was in the midst of the pleasures of the world, the remembrance of what I owed to God made me sad, and when I was praying to God my worldly affections disturbed me. This is so painful a struggle that I know not how I could have borne it for a month, let alone for so many years. Nevertheless I can trace distinctly the great mercy of our Lord to me, while thus immersed in the world, in that I had still the courage to pray. I say courage, because I know of nothing in the whole world which requires greater courage than plotting treason against the King, knowing that He knows it, and yet never withdrawing from His presence; for, granting that we are always in the presence of God, yet it seems to me that those who pray are in His presence in a very different sense, for they, as it were, see that He is looking upon them, while others may be for days together without even once recollecting that God sees them.

During eight and twenty years of prayer, I spent more than eighteen in that strife and contention which arose out of my attempts to reconcile God and the world. As to the other years, of which I have now to speak, in them the grounds of the warfare, though it was not slight, were changed; but inasmuch as I was—at least I think so—serving God, and aware of the vanity of the world, all has been pleasant.

The reason, then, of my telling this is that the mercy of God and my ingratitude, on the one hand, may become known; and, on the other, that men may understand how great is the good which God works in a soul when He gives it a disposition to pray in earnest, though it may not be so well prepared as it ought to be. If that soul perseveres in spite of sins, temptations, and relapses, brought about in a thousand ways by Satan, our Lord will bring it at last—I am certain of it—to the harbour of salvation, as He has brought me myself; for so it seems to me now. May His Majesty grant I may never go back and be lost! He who gives himself to prayer is in possession of a great blessing, of which many saintly and good men have written—I am speaking of mental prayer—glory be to God for it and, if they had not done so, I am not proud enough, though I have but little humility, to presume to discuss it.

I may speak of that which I know by experience; and so, I say, let him never cease from prayer who has once begun it, be his life ever so wicked; for prayer is the way to amend it, and without prayer such amendment will be much more difficult.

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

For Food that Lasts

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 18B

“Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life.” How much time and energy do we spend each day on very trivial, temporary things? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus puts the question to us this way: “Why do you worry about what you are to eat or drink, or what you are going to wear? Does your heavenly Father not richly provide for the birds of the air? Does He not richly clothe the lilies of the field? You are worth more than many sparrows. Seek first the kingdom of heaven, and all these things will be given to you as well.” When we’re really honest with ourselves, how much time and energy do we spend on passing things? And in comparison, how much time and energy do we actually spend each day in prayer, in study of the Scriptures and Catholic teaching, engaged in the spiritual and corporal works of mercy?

It’s amazing how many names of actors and actresses or athletes we can remember, how many plots of movies and sports statistics and lyrics to songs we can memorize, but to commit to memory any verses of Scripture or any biographies of Saints, how much of what we bother to know is actually helping us get to heaven? “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life.” So much of this life on earth seems to consist of studying pointless subjects in school for countless years, only to get a pointless job, to spend 40 hours a week just to make money, just so we can spend it on entertaining ourselves and feeding our faces. Do we spend any comparable effort in working for the nourishment of our souls? “Seek first the kingdom of heaven and His righteousness.”

When I was discerning my own vocation, asking the question, “Why did God make me? What does He want me to do with my life? What type of work does He want me to fulfill?” I looked at my various options. I knew I would enjoy building things, making houses where people would live, but I also knew that these houses are only temporary. Someday, they would grow old, fall down and come to nothing. My work would have no lasting place. So what else? I also knew that I could study and end up working in the medical field, to help those who are sick to recover their health, but again, this life on earth is only temporary for all of us. Even if I could help extend the years of life for individuals, each one would eventually grow old and die. My work in medicine would have no lasting significance in the large scheme of things.

Ever since I was very young, God placed in me a desire to be part of His work, to be part of something that is truly lasting, to work “for the food that endures for eternal life.” Just last night, I was called out to Dow Rummel to anoint a man who was dying. I also gave him the Apostolic pardon, which frees from all temporal punishment due to sin, any time he would have had to spend in Purgatory, so that he can enter directly into God’s heavenly kingdom if he is receptive to this mercy. When I chose to study for the priesthood and when I became a priest, I knew that if I could help even just one soul reach heaven, that would have eternal consequences. There is no more lasting work than to bring others to experience the salvation that comes from God. To celebrate Mass and to give the Body and Blood of Christ, the One who is the food of eternal life.

But the ordained are not the only ones called to take part in God’s own work. “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life.” Each one of us by our baptism and confirmation has been given a mission from God to bring the Gospel to every corner of the earth. There are people and places that you can reach that I would never be able to reach, in your homes, in your workplace, in your schools, in restaurants, stadiums, and shopping malls. There are ways that you can share the Gospel more effectively and more convincingly than if someone were to hear the same thing from me or from another priest.

How is God calling you today, and tomorrow, and the next day, to take part in His own work of redemption? Of sharing the Good News with someone you meet? There’s lots of bad news to go around. Why not share the Good News of Jesus Christ for a change? Will God call you to take a moment to pray with someone who is having a hard time? To listen and to ask questions? God wants for you to win souls for Jesus Christ. To work “for the food that endures for eternal life.” How much of your time and energy will you give to this work? Will you seek His kingdom first?

The King of Ages

Bulletin Letter, Ordinary Time Sunday 18B

One of my favorite titles for God in all of Scripture is “the King of the ages” (Tobit 13:6; 1 Timothy 1:17). Not only does everything that exists now belong to God as sustained by His power, but everything that ever existed, in all times and seasons. One way that this was remembered and expressed among Catholics was to dedicate each month and each day of the week to a Saint or some mystery of our faith. Some of them, we might be familiar with already, as I was from a young age, like May being Mary’s month and October the month of the Rosary, and Thursdays being specially devoted to the Blessed Sacrament as it was on a Thursday that Jesus instituted the Most Holy Eucharist, and every Saturday to remember Mary’s faith in the Resurrection. Others, I never heard of until much later, and I still have to look them up each time. For your reference and mine, here is the full listing:

There are some variations. I’ve seen lists that move the Angels to Mondays and have the Apostles for Tuesday and the Childhood of Jesus with His Holy Name for January, but what I’ve listed above seems to be the most consistent that I’ve found.

The hours of the day are also consecrated to God by the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours (the Divine Office), which largely uses the Psalms to praise God at the principal hours of the day, especially in the morning, evening, and before going to sleep at night. Priests and religious are obliged to pray the Divine Office, but the Church encourages all the faithful to take part. With the Mass and the other Sacraments, the Liturgy of the Hours is the official prayer of the Church, but I was almost a senior in high school before I had ever really heard of it. Now there are even apps for it that you can get on your smart phone, including iBreviary.

If you’ve been looking for ways to be more invested in your faith and to give more of yourself and more of your time back to God, the Liturgy of the Hours and these devotions for the days of the week and months of the year are a great way to keep God and the mysteries of His merciful love always before our eyes. “To the King of ages, incorruptible, invisible, the only God, honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (1 Timothy 1:17).