The Faith of Martyrs

Homily, Lenten Sunday 3C

Since the dawn of mankind, one question has forever plagued the minds and hearts of every human being that has taken the time to reflect. One question has perplexed philosophers and confounded the wisdom of sages. One question continues to shake me to the very core of my existence: Why do bad things happen… to good food? Why, when I lift that last piece of pizza from the box, something would happen to throw off my balance and lose my grip and send that piece, toppings down, to the ground? And even if there’s still something salvageable in this case, after doing my best to remove any bits of grass and hair, and hoping against hope that the rest of what I still see is just black pepper, this doesn’t change the stark reality that in the case of good soup, whatever is spilled is ultimately lost to me. Sir Isaac Newton claimed to find the reason, as a tasty apple fell upon his head on its way to the ground at his feet. As he mourned the loss of that apple, he formulated the law of gravity, that the things of earth tend towards the earth. Still, the mechanics of how these tragedies happen are not very satisfactory as an answer to the question of why.

Whether small or big, we all face tragedy in our lives, times of disappointment and loss, even times when it seems the very foundation of our existence is shaken, or our world is turned upside down. And we all search for reasons. Why would a good, supremely loving, supremely just and merciful God allow these things to happen? Is God in control or isn’t he? And if he is, why does it seem like he isn’t paying much attention? These are the same questions the Israelites faced during their oppression as slaves in Egypt. Had God abandoned them and forgotten the promises He made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? In the time of Jesus, they faced tragedies of the sacrifice of human blood and the deaths of eighteen people when a tower collapsed. And in our day, we have seen sudden deaths, traffic accidents, devastating earthquakes, hurricanes and typhoons, terrorist attacks, cancers and other diseases.

In the time of Jesus, they often thought of these disasters as punishments for personal sin, but Jesus very clearly rejects this explanation. They didn’t suffer these things because they themselves were greater sinners. Jesus also demonstrates this in His own crucifixion. Jesus is the sinless One, who nevertheless suffers great torments and dies, not for any sin of his, but for proclaiming the truth for our salvation. Much of the evil we suffer stems from our own sins, but we can’t ignore the fact that we also suffer at the hands of others or because of forces beyond our control. And it is very little consolation to understand the physics or the biology of how so many suffer and die. We might blame the devil, but God is infinitely more powerful than the devil, so we can’t escape the reality that God does allow these things to happen.

Jesus doesn’t preach a prosperity gospel. Jesus never tells us, “If you follow Me, obey God’s commandments, and do everything you’re supposed to, nothing bad will ever happen to you.” Not only does Jesus not promise us an easy life, free from trials and tragedies, He goes so far as to tell us, “You will be hated by all because of Me,” and “in the world, you will have trouble, but take courage: I have overcome the world.” How is our Lent going so far? Is it starting to get difficult to keep our resolutions and disciplines? Are we perhaps disappointed that we’re not getting more out of Lent? That our small sacrifices have not obtained for us miraculous healings and overwhelming spiritual consolations from God? Is that the reason that we took on certain disciplines, to force God to bless us?

I’ve always greatly admired the early Christian martyrs, from those first centuries. They became Christian at a time when they knew that they would be hated for it. The Romans thought they were strange. Even the Jews rejected them. Often, members of their own family would disown them. And when faced with the loss of all their property, being taken or sent away from their homes, even under pain of torture and death, they would not deny their friendship with Christ Jesus, which they valued above all else. They would not deny the truth of the Christian religion. The martyrs were willing to suffer and die, for the sake of Truth. How many of us find it difficult even to go a whole day without some little lie, half-truth, or falsehood, to make things easier, to smooth things over, to avoid some minor inconvenience? How many Christians and how many Catholics are still willing to suffer or die for the Truth? If we find ourselves unwilling to endure even the slightest smudge on our public image, we’ve got a ways to go.

The world doesn’t need any more Catholics looking to take the easy road. The Church doesn’t need any more bishops and priests acting like politicians, placing more value on their friendship with this passing world than on their friendship with Christ. The world needs the faith of the martyrs. The Church needs men, women, boys and girls willing to stand for God in the midst of tragedy, willing to proclaim the truth in the midst of persecution and in the face of an unbelieving society. In many ways, we’re seeing the return of days like those of the first Christian centuries. In other areas of the world, the persecution has already begun. And persecution is on its way here, if we’re willing to proclaim the full Gospel. Are you living your Lent as if you’re really training for something? In the world, you will have trouble, but take courage, Christ has overcome the world. May Jesus also overcome the lack of faith, the cowardice within us, so that when He returns, we’ll have the strength to stand in His Presence.

No Cross, No Resurrection

Homily, Lenten Sunday 2C

We’re all no doubt familiar with the exercise motto, No pain, no gain. Even biologically, they find that in order to get your muscles stronger, you need to exercise to the point of burning and doing some damage to your muscle fibers, so that they’ll adapt and rebuild themselves stronger than before. This is why getting started on an exercise routine can be so difficult. In order to see and start to experience real progress in our health, it takes going through some real pain, and many of us get discouraged before seeing much of a positive change in our lives. For those who do persevere through the effort and pain, they begin to understand at some level the value of suffering. They can start to see the pain differently. Instead of discouraging them from exercise, pain can even serve as a challenge that motivates them to reach new heights. No pain, no gain. And this is basically what Jesus is trying to communicate to us and to his disciples in His Transfiguration, to prepare us for the sufferings that He will endure.

His disciples were unable to understand that the Son of Man must be rejected, suffer and die, in order to rise triumphant on the third day. No pain, no gain. The first time that Jesus mentions this, St. Peter scolds him and says, “God forbid, Lord, that this should ever happen to you.” It should be easy for us to understand Peter’s reaction. In our second reading, St. Paul mentions those who “conduct themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ.” How often do we conduct ourselves as enemies of the Cross? How do we view suffering in our own lives? We often act as if pain and suffering, embarrassment and inconvenience, as if these are the worst evils, to be avoided at all cost. But God continues to tell us that sin and disobedience is the real enemy and the actual source of unhappiness and disorder in our lives. Do we grow comfortable with our sins because we are unwilling to endure the necessary pain to be rid of our sins and to experience the new life of Jesus Christ?

Getting into a routine of spiritual exercise can be even more difficult than getting started on physical exercise. The same principle often applies: No pain, no gain. In order to really start to experience some spiritual health and to attach ourselves adequately to Christ, we are often called to endure some pain and suffering as we strive to break our attachments to lesser things. Lent is an opportunity for many of us to renew our efforts to really strive after holiness, to seek the things that are above, the things that really matter and eternally endure, even as we temper our desires for earthly things.

On the Mount of the Transfiguration, we receive the assurance that all our efforts and any sufferings that we endure for the love of Christ are really worthwhile. Moses and Elijah discuss with Jesus the exodus that he will accomplish in Jerusalem, the deliverance and salvation that he will win for us precisely through His loving obedience, through His willingness to endure any suffering or shame to free us from all fear, and to triumph over death itself. The glory of Jesus is revealed, and the Resurrection comes about only through His suffering and death. Later in the Gospel of Luke (12:50), Jesus will even speak of His great desire and eagerness to undergo this baptism of suffering for the sake of sinners. The pain of the Cross, far from discouraging Christ, actually motivates Him to reach new heights in expressing God’s infinite love for us. Jesus invites us as well, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it” (Luke 9:23-24). In other words, no pain, no gain. As we receive Jesus Himself in this Eucharist, may God grant us the grace to persevere through any pain or suffering in our following of Christ. May we embrace His Cross so that we may also embrace the glory of his Resurrection.

A Heart Filled with Love for God

Bulletin Letter, Lenten Sunday 2C

This Friday, March 22, a human heart will be carried up the aisle of our Cathedral, but it won’t be for someone who needs a transplant. This particular heart is now 233 years old. Still, while it is with us, it will be safeguarded with as much attention as any living transplant organ. Sound a bit strange?

It’s certainly not something that happens every day, but for us who believe in the Resurrection, the veneration of the relics of Saints goes back to the earliest days of Christianity. The heart that will be here on Friday once belonged to St. John (Jean-Baptiste-Marie) Vianney, the Curé d’Ars, the Patron Saint of Parish Priests. During his life, Vianney was known for his ardent prayer, impassioned preaching, many miracles, and—as word spread about his sanctity—spending countless hours hearing the Confessions of pilgrims who traveled from all over France to the little village of Ars.

We are body and soul, not just spiritual but material as well. Whether it was the hem or tassel of Jesus’ garment (Mt. 9:20), Peter’s shadow (Acts 5:15-16) or handkerchiefs that Paul had touched (Acts 19:11-12), or even in the Old Testament, the bones of the Prophet Elisha (2 Kings 13:21), we know that God often chooses to work miracles through relics that once had a close connection to His holy ones.

Relics can be a reminder to us of our own mortality and our great hope in the future resurrection of the body. They also bring home to us the real humanity of the Saints, that any one of us can follow in their footsteps when we truly open ourselves to God’s will for us. In Lisieux, I was struck at seeing the very ordinary childhood room with some of the dolls and hair brushes that St. Thérèse had used. In Minneapolis in a glass case, the Missionaries of Charity have a big winter coat and gloves, second-class relics of St. Teresa of Calcutta, which she used during a winter visit to their house in Minnesota. The Saints walked among us. The very same trials of everyday life that we ourselves experience are what the Saints used to grow closer to God.

The heart of St. John Vianney will be with us at the Cathedral beginning with the noon Mass on Friday, throughout the afternoon, and until the Stations of the Cross at 7 pm. I encourage you to take advantage of this privileged opportunity and spend some time in the Cathedral to venerate a heart that was so filled with love for God, to beg the holy priest’s intercession for our families and friends, for a fruitful and transformative Lenten season, for the sanctity of all priests and bishops, and for vocations to the holy priesthood. St. John Vianney is featured in one of our stained-glass windows, over the confessional on the south side of the Cathedral. He’s waiting there for you to come back to Confession, to return to God, to repent and believe in the Gospel.

Mean What You Say

Homily, Lenten Sunday 1C

Let me just start out by saying that hate is not nearly a strong enough word for the complete idiocy that is daylight savings time. Of course, we strive to be grateful for the extra penance as we begin our Lenten season. A man reading the paper one morning came across an article that talked about how, on average, women tend to use far more words than men do each day. He was excited to show this to his wife to prove that he had been right all along when he would tell her that she talked too much. So he showed her the article that said that men use about 2,000 words per day while women use closer to 7,000 words. His wife thought for a moment before saying, “Well, that’s because women end up having to repeat almost everything we say.” And the man, looking up from the paper again, said, “What was that?”

There’s an old saying that repetition is the mother of all learning. So much of what we say at every Mass is simply repeated, it’s what we say at every Mass, but the danger in this is that we stop paying attention to what we’re saying, and we no longer let ourselves be challenged or changed by the Word of God. Our first reading from Deuteronomy contains what many scholars believe is a primitive sort of creed of the Hebrew people. They would repeat this same formula each and every time they came to offer the first fruits of their harvest: “My father was a wandering Aramean who went down to Egypt with a small household and lived there as an alien. But there he became a nation great, strong, and numerous,” and so on.… It was a summary of the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, their forefathers, and how God fulfilled these promises by bringing them into the Promised Land and granting them an abundant harvest even in their own present day. Much like the Nicene Creed that we repeat every Sunday is a summary of how God fulfilled and surpassed all His promises in Christ His Son, and by revealing Himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But do we still pay attention to what we’re saying as we recite the Creed each Sunday after so many years? Are we able to make it our own prayer and an expression of the faith we place in the saving power of Christ, still active for us in our daily lives?

Besides the Creed, the whole Mass, everything we hear, say, and do at Mass is meant to be our most exalted prayer that we offer in union with Christ’s own perfect prayer to His heavenly Father. So are we able to really pray the Mass, or do we just try to ‘get through’ it, while our mind is in a thousand other places? Are we present in body but absent in mind and spirit? A great blessing for me as a priest has been having to read and repeat the prayers of the Mass and really think about what we are doing and what we are praying for. If we start to really mean what we’re saying, these are the most powerful prayers that the Church gives us. But even as a priest saying Mass every day, it always remains a challenge to really pay attention to what I’m saying and doing, and to not let it become just routine.

As I said before, routine and repetition are not the real problem. The problem is when our routine prayers become separated from living faith. In the midst of His temptations in the desert, Jesus always took refuge in the Word of God, in the words of Sacred Scripture. This is why Catholics memorize prayers and why other Christians memorize passages of the Bible, so that when we are tested and go through trials, we can fall back and find strength in the Word of God. It’s especially in times of temptation and trial that we are challenged to actually mean what we say and to exercise our faith. A good Lenten practice would be to strive each day to really be present where we are and to what we are doing, to be present to those around us, really listening when someone is speaking to us, and when God speaks to us through the prayers and readings proclaimed at Mass; and to strive each day to really mean what we say. When we tell someone, “I love you,” then we should prepare ourselves to sacrifice and suffer for the one that we love. And when we stand and say, “I believe in one God, the Father almighty,” then we should prepare ourselves to sacrifice and to suffer for the love of Christ, for the truth of the Creed for which countless martyrs bore the ultimate witness by the shedding of their own blood.

We should profess our faith not only here in the church, but to all the world by the way that we live every day. The world doesn’t need more Catholics who simply go through the motions. Our world needs Catholics who go through the motions animated by living faith. Even in the midst of temptations and trials, may all our thoughts, words, and actions—throughout this Lenten season and into eternity—proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord of all.

Taking God at His Word

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 8C

I think we all know a few people whom we might describe as not having any filter between what they think and what ends up coming out of their mouths. Maybe that’s even how people would describe you. It can be helpful at times. You never really have to ask their opinion on things, because they’re always just about to tell you. Other times, all we can do is sort of cringe in anticipation of what we know is going to be awkward. “From the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks.” What we say and how we say it can reveal a lot about us. Other times, it can be misunderstood or not come out quite right. Even if we’re usually careful about our choice of words and tone of voice, there are times for all of us when we say something, and then almost immediately regret it. Benjamin Franklin is often quoted as saying, “A slip of the foot you may soon recover, but a slip of the tongue you may never get over.”

On the other hand, hopefully all of us have experienced the great power for good that words can have upon us and those around us, affirmations, encouragement, even things that we continue to remember years later. As I was growing up, I remember having to pile into the car with my brothers and sisters. Because I was the youngest, I would often have to sit between my mom and dad in the front seat. Towards the end of one trip, someone was asking what time we would be getting home. When they heard it would be around 10 pm, they started to complain about how late that would be. So I piped up and said, “Well, at least it won’t be 11 o’clock.” And I’ll always remember my dad then saying to me, “You know, that’s what I like about you. You’ve got a positive attitude.” Now you’re all left wondering what happened to me since then to make me so negative. But there’s no denying that words can have a lasting impact, for good or for ill.

Hopefully, there are also words that our heavenly Father speaks to us that we have really taken to heart, that we remember and can recall for encouragement, consolation, even to stir up sorrow and repentance from our sins. We should have a sense that the words of Sacred Scripture are words that God is personally speaking to each one of us. We’re all familiar with the Parable of the Prodigal Son, how the Father welcomes him back and throws a feast, but actually the words that the Father speaks to the elder son are what stuck out to me during one retreat, and I continue to think of those words often. When the elder son refused to enter into the feast, the Father also comes out to him, and he says, “Son, you are here with me always. Everything I have is yours.” Do I really believe that God says that to me? “You are here with me always. Everything I have is yours.” Jesus is speaking to you and to me when He says, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart. And you will find rest for your souls, for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Do we believe that?

The truth is that most of the time, we would rather not take God at His word. We’d rather not believe that sin is as damaging and as unsatisfying as God warns us it is. For many of us who find ourselves too busy to pray, we’d rather not believe that prayer is all that it is cracked up to be, and that we are so often missing out on the greatest opportunity that this life on earth has to offer. When we so often ignore and rebel against God, we’d rather not believe that living in the presence of God and in communion with His will for us is actually as great and as satisfying as God promises it is.

If anyone here suffers from FOMO, the “fear of missing out,” we know there are things we tell ourselves to help us cope with missing out on something good. “Well, I’m sure that party was lame anyway. I really never wanted to go. Would have been too loud. And I bet the food wasn’t very good, either.” We do the same even more so when it comes to our spiritual lives or our lack of a spiritual life. We tell ourselves, “A life lived for God can’t really be as good as Jesus says. The Resurrection and heavenly glory can’t really be worth all the sufferings that the Saints endured, the Cross that Jesus freely accepted,” because if it is, if what God keeps saying to us actually turns out to be true, then the way I’m living my life needs to change. If I’m living as if sin is no big deal, but it really is, that’s not a comfortable position to be in. If I’m living as if suffering is the worst evil that should be avoided at all cost, but it really isn’t, then my whole approach to life needs to change, and that’s not easy.

God speaks His heart to us. Out of His great love and concern, He continues to tell us the truth, through the words of Sacred Scripture and through the teachings of the Catholic Church. But we don’t really want to believe it, because we don’t want to have to live it. The season of Lent begins this Wednesday, another opportunity for us to take God at His word, to really believe Him, and to even make changes to the way we’re living to reflect the Truth of what God says to us. It can be a transformative experience, or it can be another missed opportunity. The choice is ours. Let’s make it a good one.