“Will only a few be saved?”

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 21C

The question in today’s Gospel has been the subject of lots of debate and speculation, even in recent times. “Will only a few people be saved?” Is hell crowded or empty? Will God’s mercy win out over everything, or does God actually respect our free will when we say No to Him? I think a lot of the discussion is motivated by a genuine concern for our neighbor. We see lots and lots of people not really engaged in spiritual pursuits. There’s a perception that in modern times human populations all over the world are tending to be less and less religious, more agnostic and atheistic. The errors of Islam have once again spread into huge portions of the world as well. And so, what can we say about them? Are they all going to hell? Even just asking the question for ourselves, another way we could phrase the question is, how difficult will it be to get to heaven? Should I kick it into high gear or just give up now because I don’t really stand a chance anyway? “Lord, will only a few people be saved?”

Now notice that Jesus does not say in reply, Yes, and Jesus doesn’t say, No. He says, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” If we think we are strong enough already, good enough Catholics, good people, nice people, we need to think again. The Saints who have made it to heaven were those who were always striving for more, challenging themselves and being challenged by God to answer more fully each day the call to holiness, to pray without ceasing and to serve the least ones. Saint Teresa of Calcutta would often summarize the Gospel on one hand. Five words. You did it to me. Jesus said, Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you did it to me. Mother Teresa was always striving to better serve the poor and the abandoned, the dying and those who had no one else to care for them. She was always striving to give more and more of herself to God, to Jesus in the Eucharist. Strive to enter through the narrow gate.

The original motivation for the question of whether only a few would be saved was probably the prominence of a spiritual elite in the time of Jesus. The Pharisees, the Sadducees, the priests and scholars of the Law, only a few of the total population, who were able to keep the laws about cleanliness and the many traditions of the Jews. These were perceived as the chosen few, the ones closer to God and often proud of their positions. Even in our own day, we might think that priests, deacons, bishops, cardinals, popes, that they have some advantage over the rest. In some ways, that is possible, in that we have hopefully spent a lot of time and study in learning the truths of the faith, but all of us will be judged rather on how we have actually put those truths into action, and those who know more intellectually don’t necessarily do more.

The first reading from Isaiah prophesied that God would take priests and Levites from among the nations, from the unclean Gentiles, the people that had not been chosen by God as the Jews had, and Jesus says that “people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God. For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” The spiritually elite have no advantage over anyone else in entering the kingdom of God. If anything, there is more of a danger that they become complacent and think that they are already doing enough. Are we striving, or are we settling? Strive to enter the narrow gate.

Now what about those others, the atheists, the unchurched, the “spiritual-but-not-religious,” the Muslims and followers of false religions, what about them? I can control the words, actions, and responses of precisely one person. And that person is me. The reply that Jesus gives in today’s Gospel reminds me of what He says to St. Peter on the shore of Galilee at the end of the Gospel according to John. Peter is walking with Jesus on the shore and turns to look at John and asks, “What about him, Lord?” And Jesus basically replies, Don’t worry about John. I’ll look after John. “You, follow Me.” “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” “You, strive to enter the narrow gate.” You, share the Gospel that we have received. Live it loudly, and let those whom God has called respond. God is going to take of those others. He offers and desires the salvation of each and every person. But you can control the response of you. So strive, and don’t settle, in the spiritual life. Share the Gospel with the person next to you, the people we actually meet each day. If every believing Catholic did that, the invitation from God would eventually reach everyone in the world. And then let God be the final Judge of their response. You, strive.

God’s Wayward Children

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 20C

As we just heard in the Gospel about divided households, one of the most common questions that I hear is, “Father, what can I do to get my children and grandchildren to come back to the Church?” A place to start would be to learn from the example of the Saints. Towards the end of this month, on August 27 and 28, we celebrate the Feast Days of St. Monica and of her son, St. Augustine, who became a great bishop and doctor of the Church. St. Monica has long been honored as a model for Christian wives and mothers because the conversion of both her husband Patrick and of her son Augustine was in large part due to her own persevering and constant prayers and tears on their behalf. Monica’s husband was baptized and received into the Church shortly before his death. She had to wait a while longer for her son’s conversion. Augustine wandered for many decades as a member of a false religion, the Manichees. He also fathered a child with the woman he lived with but who was not his wife.

As the years went on, without any signs from Augustine that he would ever be baptized and enter the Church, St. Monica is often distraught and frankly, difficult for her son to be around. They both had lived in North Africa, but at some point, to escape his mother’s tears, Augustine leaves in the middle of the night without telling his mother, on a ship heading for Rome. And after teaching for a while in Rome, he goes to Milan to further his career. Now it’s in Milan that Augustine begins listening to the preaching of a Catholic bishop, St. Ambrose, whom both he and his mother would come to greatly admire.

Monica catches up to Augustine while he’s in Milan, and she makes herself a thorn in the side of St. Ambrose. She pleads with Ambrose to convince her son of the error of his ways, but Ambrose replies that at this point, Augustine is unteachable. But not to worry. Her son is intelligent and through his own study, Augustine would eventually find his way out of the Manichees and into the Church. A turning point for St Monica in her own journey of faith comes when St. Ambrose finally tells her, “It is impossible that a son of so many tears should be lost.” From this point on, Monica has a greater confidence and calm, a deeper faith that God would eventually answer her many prayers and tears.

We never know and we can’t always see the way that God is working in the hearts of those around us. And when it comes to adult children, it’s fairly rare that their own parents will be the ones to convince them. People are often more open to learning and asking about certain things from other people, even as God placed St. Ambrose on the path of St. Augustine while he fled from his mother. So the first thing to do is to pray. Pray that God will do whatever it takes, that he’ll place the right people in their path, and have confidence that He will, in His own good time. Pray that God would wake us up and help us to long for Him and for the Body and Blood of Christ.

Besides prayer, what kind of example do we set in living out the faith ourselves? When we let travel or sports or vacation take priority over getting to Mass on Sunday and on days of obligation, what does that communicate to God and to those around us? When we talk as if it doesn’t make any difference for someone to be Catholic, to be Lutheran or Methodist, or some other type of Christian, or even Mormon or Muslim, as if the truth of the Scriptures and the Apostolic Tradition handed down to us, and whether or not we actually belong to the same Church that Jesus Himself established upon St. Peter and the Apostles, as if these were matters of indifference, what does that say to the people around us?

I’ve always found it striking the number of times that Jesus seems to downplay the importance of blood relations. Even in the Gospel today, “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three.” Throughout His public ministry, Jesus doesn’t spend a lot of time telling us to love our own relatives. Maybe He just takes it for granted that we will. What Jesus does tell us over and over is to love God and love your neighbor. Love the person next to you. The people you see and interact with on a daily basis.

Now if you have adult children whom you see maybe a few times a year, I’m not telling you to stop loving them. Please continue to do so, and to call them on to greater fidelity to God. But we need to be realistic about the sort of influence we’re still able to have in their lives. And, are we just as concerned about our actual neighbors, the ones Jesus tells us to love, the person next to us, the people who live next door to us, the people we see and interact with in our day to day lives, are we as concerned as we would be for our own children that our neighbors are coming to know God better and to share in our Catholic faith? Love God. Love your neighbor. The first and second commandment. Do we live that way? Until we do, we won’t win back those who have fallen away from the faith. Jesus wants to cast fire upon the earth. Do we still have any fire in us? And can anyone else see it?

Aim High

Homily, Solemnity of the Assumption

In the 1960s, there was a lot of excitement about the missions to the moon. My parents and some of you might even remember those years, but as you can tell by looking at me, I definitely don’t remember the ’60s. I hardly remember the ’90s. But, from what I’ve heard, the lunar missions represented the striving of all mankind to overcome our limitations. There was a sense that these events were significant, not just for America or for the astronauts involved, but for every human being. If even one human person succeeded in landing on the moon, then it became at least possible for any human being to reach the moon because we all share a common humanity. This communal sense of accomplishment was well expressed by Neil Armstrong as he stepped onto the lunar surface, saying, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The mystery we celebrate today, on this Solemnity of the Assumption, is a much more significant leap for all mankind. As God raises up to the glory of heaven His chosen and uncorrupted Ark of the New Covenant, the body and soul of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we are given sure and lasting hope of what God’s grace is able to accomplish for our frail humanity. You see, it’s one thing for the Lord Jesus to ascend into heaven, Jesus, who is fully human but also fully divine. We would expect someone who first came down from heaven as God, to return there after His triumph over sin and death. But today we celebrate something very different, that God “has looked with favor on his lowly servant” and given a share of His heavenly glory, and an anticipation of the resurrection of the dead, to one among us, a pure creature. One who had never before been to heaven, beyond the confines of this passing world, the Blessed Virgin Mary is now raised up, above all the angels, and our own human nature, body and soul, is given a more certain hope of the inheritance promised to each one of us through our Baptism, we who have become a new creation in Christ.

So if you are weary of life in this passing world, with all its war, violence, and politics, take courage, because God “has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.” If you tire of bodily food, and hunger instead for the food that lasts forever, place your hope in God, who “has filled the hungry with good things” and sent the rich away empty. But if you’re comfortable, satisfied with your life here on earth, complacent to simply enjoy as much as possible all that this world has to offer, take heed, because this world is passing away. Only those who have begun to live for heaven even now, will be able to follow where our Blessed Mother has gone before us. Not everyone was able to go to the moon, but only those with the necessary discipline and training.

How much are you willing to sacrifice? What sins are still weighing us down and binding us to the earth? Mary gave herself entirely. She lived her life completely for God. Why can’t we? “The Almighty has done great things,” and “nothing will be impossible for God.” By the power of God’s grace, we can serve Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, as Jesus commands us. If we hope to reach where Christ and the Blessed Virgin have gone before us, we must strive to follow their example. If we’re still just living for this world only, why should we expect to reach anything beyond it?

You’ve probably heard the saying: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” Too many of us when it comes to our spiritual lives, just sort of drift. We don’t really aim for anything too specific, or if we do, we set our sights far too low. Heaven is beyond anything we could ask or imagine. There is no sacrifice too big in exchange for enjoying everlasting friendship and union with almighty God. May our Blessed Mother teach us to value those things which are truly important in life, to put first things first. To aim high, so that we’ll be able to follow her in living for ever.

Living Faith

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 19C

Several decades ago, there was a circus and theatre troupe that came and set up just outside a small town. On one of the first days after they arrived, a clown showed up on Main Street yelling and causing a commotion. Pretty soon there was a crowd gathered around him listening to his cries for help and his claims that a fire had broken out in the backstage of the theatre. The people laughed and clapped and commented, “What a creative way to promote and get people out to the circus!” As the clown became more desperate and pleaded with the townspeople to believe what he was telling them, as he began shedding tears and beating his hands on the ground, the people became even more impressed with his performance. “Wow, he’s really getting into it! This has to be one of the best clowns I’ve ever seen!” By the time the smoke and flames became noticeable from the town, the fire had already spread too far. All the tents of the circus were lost and close to half of the town itself burned to the ground.

Pope Benedict XVI once warned that too often today those who teach the faith can be perceived like a clown, like someone just filling a role, putting on an act. We can even treat priests this way and reduce the Sacraments to a merely human performance. “Oh, Father, you have to say that stuff because you’re a priest. Confession, Anointing, the Last Rites, that’s just a way to try and bring some comfort to the person, and make them feel a little better.” Listen. If I didn’t believe that what the Catholic Church teaches is true, actually true, and verifiable, with good reason and good evidence, I would never have become a priest. I would never have wasted more than eight years of my life in preparation just to fill a role. If I didn’t actually know that in the celebration of the Sacraments, God’s own work is accomplished, that sins are forgiven, that souls are rescued from damnation, that what we do on this altar has eternal consequences, that Jesus Christ really does give us His own Body and Blood as our food, if I didn’t know this, I would not be standing here.

What about you? When you stand every Sunday and profess the faith, to recite the Creed, the same Creed that countless martyrs have died for, throughout every century of the Church, do you really believe the words that you’re saying? Or are we just filling a role as Catholics, putting on a performance? Do we actually seek to understand what we profess to believe? To be lifelong students in the faith? Or do we settle for going throughout almost our entire lives with a religious education that’s about at the level of a 5th grader? If we don’t actually believe that Jesus Christ died on the Cross for our sins, that He rose from the dead for our salvation, and that through the Sacraments of the Church we really participate in that grace, what are we even doing here? Just filling a role. Putting on an act. Meanwhile, the world around us is burning to the ground.

Abraham in our second reading, believed what God told him. Abraham had faith, enough to leave his homeland, never to return. To believe that God could grant him and his wife a child in their old age. Faith enough to offer that one child back to God, knowing that God would find a way to keep His promises. Abraham had enough faith to turn his life upside-down in order to follow God.

Today in many ways, the Catholic Church is at a crossroads. Many of the structures and institutions that we’ve come to count on over the years, it’s just not clear how much longer they will be able to continue, whether it’s Catholic schools, Catholic hospitals, or other Catholic institutions in a society that’s becoming more and more hostile to even the basics of moral and ethical truth. Admittedly, many of these Catholic institutions have already been in decay from the inside, for quite some time, and they will continue to decay, as long as so many who are involved are simply filling a role, putting on an act, instead of living from genuine faith. Many have failed to profess with any real conviction or understanding the unchanging truths of the Church’s teachings.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus even warns His own chosen Apostles, St. Peter with the Twelve, and through them He warns the successors of the Apostles today, Catholic bishops, not to abuse their role as shepherds and stewards of God’s people and the Church’s heritage. We’ve definitely witnessed in recent decades how the lack of genuine faith even among many Catholic bishops and priests has been immeasurably damaging to the Church and her mission of salvation in the world today.

Many of us are concerned about the future of the Catholic Church, in our own parishes, in our own families. How to attract the next generation of Catholics. I can promise you this: if we don’t really believe and strive to understand what we profess to believe, if we don’t view the Church’s teachings as something that’s actually true, if we don’t allow our faith to inform how we live our daily lives, the words that we speak, the conversations we have and how we have them, how we treat one another, how we treat the Body and Blood of Christ in this Eucharist. If we don’t have the faith of Abraham, to allow God to turn our lives upside-down, to see things differently and to do things differently than how the world tells us we should live, we will not be able to win people over. If we’re not thoroughly convinced ourselves, we’ll never convince anyone else. If it’s fake, if it’s an empty show, it’s not going to work. So the question that remains for each one of us: Do we really believe what we profess? And are we striving every day to live what we believe?

The Assumption and Days of Obligation

Bulletin Letter, Ordinary Time Sunday 19C

This week, we celebrate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven, the oldest Marian Feast on the calendar. In the East, it is more often called the Dormition, or “falling asleep” of Mary, recalling that she was preserved throughout her life from original sin and from any personal sin. Free from sin, like Jesus her Son, she was not subject to death in the way that we are. Death is one of the consequences of sin, so being without sin, she did not have to die. If Mary died, it was not from any necessity but allowed by God to unite her more closely with the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, who freely accepted Death upon the Cross for our salvation.

Whether she died or not, what we know for sure is that at the end of Mary’s earthly life, she was assumed, taken up, body and soul into the glory of heaven. “Go up, O Lord, to your resting place; you and the ark of your strength” (Psalm 132:8). Mary was the incorruptible Ark of the New Covenant. The old Ark of the Covenant in the Temple contained the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, the staff of the high priest Aaron, and a jar of manna that fed the Israelites in the desert. Mary, the New Ark, housed in her womb for nine months Jesus Christ, God in the Flesh. She bore the eternal Logos, the Law that shapes and governs all that exists, the High Priest and Mediator of a New and Eternal Covenant, He whose Flesh is the Bread from heaven that sustains us for everlasting life.

The Assumption is a holy day of obligation. We’ll have Mass at 7pm on Wednesday in Hoven and at 7 pm on Thursday in Bowdle. Hopefully everyone is able to make it to one of those times. Attendance at the Supreme Sacrifice of Christ in the Mass on every Sunday and holy day of obligation should be the priority of our spiritual lives. Except when serious obstacles arise, failure to keep the Lord’s Day holy in this way is a grave sin. Travel or being out of town, vacations or sporting events are not excuses. What does our effort or lack of effort to get to Mass say to God about how much we really value our relationship with Him? When we’re willing to go such distances and bear with such inconveniences for work, shopping, or sports, should we not be willing to endure much more for the Body and Blood of Christ?

Enough is Never Enough

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 18C

More than a few years ago, I used to play basketball for Elk Point-Jefferson High School, and at some point, our coach adopted as our motto the word “unsatisfied.” Now I’m not sure if that was an indication of how well or unwell we had been playing as a team, and “unsatisfied” is definitely more challenging to say at the end of a huddle, rather than just saying “break” or “Huskies,” but this motto “unsatisfied” did drive home to us that we should always be striving for more, never fully satisfied with how well we played during our last game, or how much we hustled during our last practice, or how many free throws we were able to make yesterday. Unsatisfied. Always striving for more.

As important as this is for athletes and sports, it is far more important in our lives of faith and in our relationship with Jesus Christ. Instead of a game we’re playing and trying to win, we have just one life entrusted to us by God. We need to be continually striving to live it well, according to the truth of who God made us to be; to practice, every day, as long as it takes, to get good at receiving God’s love and following His commandments, and sharing God’s love with everyone we meet, to love even those who don’t deserve it, because we ourselves didn’t deserve it. And since our eternal destiny depends upon how we live this one life, we should be willing to lose everything else, in this short life on earth, to make sure we persevere in the salvation Christ has for us in eternity.

Are we doing everything we possibly can, to make sure we’ll be spending our eternity with God, or do other questions and concerns take priority in daily life? Am I more concerned about what other people think of me and my place in this world, about always having enough, or even far more than what I actually need, of the comforts and conveniences of this passing world, rather than being concerned about what God is asking of me and my place in the world to come? Do we settle for the bare minimum in our lives of faith, for being mediocre Catholics, mediocre disciples of Christ?

We think to ourselves, “Well, I’m good enough, I’m a nice enough person.” We often settle for the bare minimum in our spiritual lives, all the while we’re continually striving for more and more in other areas of life, more money, more comfort, more security, more influence and recognition, better jobs, better vehicles, bigger barns and silos and bank accounts, to store up for ourselves the things of this passing world. Just think how different the world would be if more people put as much time, energy, and willpower into becoming saints, instead of so many trying to become CEOs or professional athletes.

“Vanity of vanities. All things are vanity” and a chasing after the wind. Life on earth is short, no matter how many years or decades it lasts. The mortality rate of human beings is still 100%. Only one thing is worthwhile and truly lasting. There is one God who can help us to live forever. Are you unsatisfied with your spiritual life? I hope so. And if you are, what are you going to do about it? Do we settle, or do we strive? Do we recognize in ourselves that desire for God, that desire for the infinite? The desire that will never be satisfied, with enough food, with enough clothing, with enough money, power, or pleasure? Having enough of what this world can offer will never be enough for us. We were made for more. We were made for God. Don’t. Settle. For anything less.