The Old Switcheroo

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 26C

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of going on a few different mission trips. One, while I was in college was down to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, in the years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. On the other trips, one in Mexico, and one to Belize, I actually served as a priest-chaplain. The general reaction of those who go on these sorts of trips is pretty consistent. We usually come back home saying that the people we served are some of the most joyful people we’ve ever met, even though they seemed to have very little in the way of material possessions. But they have their faith, they have their family and relatives, and they all seem much more attentive to the people that they meet. They also tend to have a much more enjoyable pace of life, able to really enter into each moment of the day, without being in a frenzied rush to move on to the next thing. I’ve heard similar reactions from people who have spent time with different religious orders, like the Missionaries of Charity, the order that Mother Teresa of Calcutta founded, working among the poorest of the poor, and if you’ve been inside their convents, you see that they also live poverty themselves, often without water heaters, air conditioning, or many other things that most of us today tend to view as necessities.  

We often forget that according to the standards of most countries in the world, almost all of us here would be considered fairly wealthy. And from the perspective of history, if we’ve never really had to worry and wonder about where our next meal is going to come from, wondering if we’ll have enough just to afford the food we need today or tomorrow to survive, if we’ve never really had to worry about starving to death, we’re definitely among the wealthiest people in the thousands of years of human historyIf we have a roof over our heads, food to eat each day, more than one set of clothing, and access to medical care, it’s easy to see that we have much more in common with the unnamed rich man in today’s Gospel rather than having much in common with the poor man Lazarus. It might be that Jesus doesn’t give a name to the rich man precisely because it could be any one of us. If we aren’t challenged by today’s Gospel, then we probably weren’t listening very closely.  

When both Lazarus and the rich man die, they essentially just trade places, receiving in the afterlife the opposite of what they had received during their life on earth. And it doesn’t actually say that Lazarus did anything really great to deserve this or that the rich man did anything extraordinarily bad. After they die, Abraham simply says to the rich man, “My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.” This reversal is a common theme throughout the Scriptures. God comforts the afflicted, but He afflicts those who are comfortable and complacent. St. Luke includes with the Beatitudes of Christ the corresponding Woes that He pronounces as well, among them, “Woe to you who are rich now, for you have [already] received your consolation.” If God gave us the same offer of reversal at the end of our lives, where do you think most of us would end up? During our time on earthhave we had more in common with those who enjoy their wealth, who dine sumptuously and have lots of different outfits, and all the latest gadgets and toys? Or do we live as one of the poor and afflicted ones, more like Lazarus, waiting for the salvation that comes from God? 

How do we live differently as Christians in today’s world? Do we live differently? If someone from the outside would look at what we own, how we spend our money, the vacations we take, the things that we throw away, would they be able to tell that we are followers of the poor man, Jesus of Nazareth? What difference, concretely, does the Gospel make in our lives, in our desires for the latest and greatest, in our frenzy to keep up appearances, or in our efforts at self-denial? Do we include God in the conversation about what we really need and what we want, about our next purchase and whether God might be aware of more pressing needs at our doorstep that we have overlooked?  

During Lent, most of us practice self-denial and penance to some extent, but during the rest of the year, what are we doing to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Christ? Many are not aware of this, but every Friday throughout the year—not just the Fridays during Lent, but every Friday—Catholics are still expected to practice some sort of self-denial or penance, to offer some sacrifice in honor of Christ, who suffered and died on a Friday. It no longer has to be abstaining from meat, as it still is during Lent, but each and every Friday we should be doing something intentional to conform our lives to the Cross of Christ. Just as every Sunday throughout the year is a little Easter as we celebrate the Resurrection of Christ, so also every Friday is to be for us a little Lent as we willingly unite ourselves to the sufferings of Christ. 

So what is God calling us to do, to simplify our lives, to rid ourselves of the excess so that we can more readily help those in genuine need, to be less indulgent when it comes to our food, drink, wardrobe, recreation and technology, to conform ourselves to the mystery of the Cross and the poor man from Nazareth? If at the end of our lives, God simply brings about a reversal of fortunes—and not just temporarily, but for the rest of eternity—will he find us living more like the rich man who freely enjoyed the good things of this passing world, living in comfort and security, or will we have more in common with Lazarus, the poor man looking for the comfort that God desires to give? There’s still time for us to change places. 

True Wealth

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 25C

One piece of Catholic trivia that you may or may not be aware of is that whenever a priest becomes a bishop, he chooses for himself an episcopal motto to appear at the bottom of his coat of arms. This motto is usually a short phrase taken from Scripture. So every Catholic bishop has a motto, and you can probably find them all on Wikipedia. For example, Bishop Swain’s motto in this diocese is, in Latin, “Confitemini Domino,” which means, Give praise to the Lord. It comes from one of the Psalms. Now when I was in seminary, one of my classmates joked about what the motto would be for the first bishop of the Moon or in outer space. He thought it should be, “My only friend is darkness,” from Psalm 88. Another line from Scripture that might look kind of odd as a bishop’s motto is from the Gospel of John, when Jesus is about to raise Lazarus from the dead: “There will be a stench.” Now in today’s Gospel, we have perhaps the most accurate motto for many bishops todayquite sadlywhen the dishonest steward says, “I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” 

It is kind of a puzzle why in today’s parable the landowner praises the dishonest steward for once again cheating the landowner out of what rightfully belongs to him. When he has people come in to reduce their debts, it’s the landowner who loses out by not being repaid the full amount. So what is Jesus talking about, and what can we learn from the dishonest steward? What is the dishonest wealth that Jesus refers to, and what is true wealth? “Make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” We need to see ourselves, the people around us, and the merely material things of this passing world in the proper order. What’s most important? Is it better to store up for ourselves money and to be surrounded by material things? Or is it better to be surrounded by friends? To use the things of this world to serve others. To have mercy and to show forgiveness.

St. Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises starts with what he calls the First Principle and Foundation of the spiritual life. He says, “Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.” This is the ultimate purpose of every human life. The other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help him in attaining the end for which he was created. Hence, man is to make use of created things in as far as they help him in the attainment of his end, and he must rid himself of them is as far as they become a hindrance.” How often do we consider whether what we’re doing each day, the words we say, and how we use the things of this world, is this really helping me, leading me towards that final goal, to live with God forever? And if what I’m doing, what I’m saying, and the things and the people that I surround myself with are not helping me get to heaven, am I actually willing to let them go? To make different friends, to change my own habits and my attitudes, to get rid of things that I don’t really need and that are a source of temptation for me? 

Jesus asks us in the Gospel, “If you’re not trustworthy with what belongs to another, who will give you what is yours?” What’s He talking about, “what belongs to another”? He’s talking about all the things of this passing world, all the things we like to think belong to us, but from day to day, there’s no guarantee that they’ll still be ours. And definitely, when we die, they’re going to belong to someone else. So what is it that’s really ours? That not even death can take away? It’s our soul. How many of us really value our souls the way that we should? To be concerned more for the state of our souls than for so many other things that we tend to worry about each day? How many of us really believe and behave as if the loss of sanctifying grace through just one mortal sin is among the worst of things that can happen to us, worse than the loss of all our material possessions? 

That’s what Jesus is talking about in the Gospel todayTo see things in their proper perspective, even in view of eternity. Realize what has been entrusted to you and where your true wealth lies. Realize the eternal consequences that should shape how it is we conduct ourselves during our short pilgrimage on earthTo know that your relationship with God, and your relationship with the people around you is much more important than your relationship with your cell phone or with your computer or TV or bank account, or the car you drive or what brand of clothes you wear or anything else. Keep things in perspective. Take care of your immortal soul even more than you care for your physical body. Life on earth is short and uncertain. “Make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” 

Singing the Mass

Bulletin Letter, Ordinary Time Sunday 25C

“I will praise the Name of my God with song and magnify Him with thanksgiving” (Psalm 69:30).

You may have noticed that I often attempt to sing quite a bit of the Mass. I do so not only because I enjoy singing, but also because this is what the liturgy itself calls for, especially at higher feasts. A common misconception that still persists today is that we’re supposed to just “sing at Mass,” meaning that we just sing songs or hymns at different points, on the way in, at the middle, during Communion, and on the way out. The ideal, though, is to actually sing the Mass.

One way that the Church encourages us to sing the Mass is by giving a hierarchy of which parts should always be sung when things like the Alleluia or Responsorial Psalm is sung. The parts that are primary (meaning they should be sung whenever there is singing during the entrance, Offertory, and Communion) include most of the dialogue parts (“The Lord be with you,” etc.), the Collect, the Prayer over the Offerings, and the Prayer after Communion (which are different at different Masses), the Preface and Sanctus, the Doxology at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, the Our Father with the parts surrounding it, and “The Peace of the Lord.” Other parts may be sung, but if they are, then all the parts I just listed as primary should also be sung (Cf. Musicam Sacram 1967, 28-29).

The goal of actually singing the Mass instead of just singing at Mass is also why I sing the Entrance and Communion antiphons out of the Missal, because these are actually what is proper to each Mass. There’s also an Offertory antiphon proper to the Mass that’s not found in the Missal. These antiphons are designed to be sung as a refrain between verses of the Psalms, much like the Responsorial Psalm during the Liturgy of the Word.

St. Augustine says, “A song is a thing of joy; more profoundly, it is a thing of love” (Sermo 34). I realize that many do not yet experience much joy or love for this type of singing, especially since all of us are not necessarily gifted as singers, but I appreciate your patience and participation. An ancient proverb says, “Whoever sings well prays twice over,” but even if you can’t sing well, I’m sure the Lord—who gave you your voice—likes to hear you try.

Parable of the Father’s Love

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 24C

My family and I have always thought of ourselves as being very German. And for the most part, we like to be on time, we like to be organized, and we like to work. Now I’ve always loved my family very much, and I’m very proud to be among them, but it isn’t always easy. Being very German, we don’t necessarily like to talk very much, especially about our feelings. And my dad, in particular, can be a quiet man. He wouldn’t necessarily say the words, “I love you,” very often because that just wasn’t his way. I think there were times when I was younger that he seemed distant to me. But as I grew up, I started to understand and notice how my dad really expressed his love for us through his actions.

There were nine of us kids at home, and I’m the youngest, and I’m sure my parents had to work very hard to keep us well-fed, and dressed, and to buy us plenty of Christmas and birthday presents. They also taught us the value of hard work with paper routes, mowing lawns together, and shoveling snow, which I’m more grateful for now than I was at the time. And they always encouraged us to do our very best in school and in everything we did. But the most striking memories for me when it comes to my dad, and what I find most expressive of his love for us, were the times when he would get a call from one of us and hear that we were in trouble, that the car had broken down, or that we’d been in an accident. He would drop everything and drive any distance to make sure that we were safe, and to bring us home. When I would see my dad go to such great lengths for us in these and in many other situations, I couldn’t doubt that my dad really loved us and that he loved me.

Jesus became man to reveal God to us as our loving Father. Are we able to experience the love and protection of our heavenly Father, or does he still seem distant to us? How often do we actually pray to God the Father in our personal prayer? Or do we only pray to Jesus? None of our human fathers are perfect. They’re all different. Some people never even get to meet their own dad, or have only a few memories of him, so it can be a challenge for many of us to experience how God is our Father and how infinitely He loves us, but the parable in today’s Gospel is meant to lead all of us into our heavenly Father’s love, no matter what shortcomings or limitations our earthly fathers may have.

We often call this the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but the purpose of the parable is more to reveal the mercy and love of the father of two sons, the father who spends every spare moment watching the horizon for any sign of his younger son’s return, so that “while he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion” and “ran to his son.” The father who “must celebrate and rejoice” now that he has his son back home, safe and sound. The same father who comes out to plead with his elder son to enter the feast, and who tells him with great love, “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours.” These images and expressions are only the faintest glimpse of God the Father’s incomprehensible love and infinite desire for each one of us.

You see, it makes very little difference to God how we ended up in the mess that we’re in, how we came to be lost or in trouble, whether we decided to jump in the mud ourselves or whether we just slipped and fell. Like the best of parents, His one concern is to get us cleaned up, and when we’re sick, to get us healthy again. So whether we’ve sinned against God or simply hold onto our pride, whatever has befallen us or how we’ve harmed ourselves, God’s one concern is to bring us home to Himself, safe and sound, and He will not rest until He has done so. He will stop at nothing to rescue us even from death itself.

This is the love that God the Father has for each and every one of us—whether we realize it or not, whether we believe it or not—a love that will not rest until we are reunited with Him in His unending life. When we start to really experience this love and to desire it for ourselves, that’s what has the power to change our hardened hearts. That’s what makes sin lose its grip on us. We should remind ourselves often, that before God asks anything from us, He desires to give Himself to us and say to us, “You are here with me always; everything I have is yours.” What is our response to His invitation? Will we return to the Father’s house? Will we finally enter into the feast?

Autumn Ember Days

Bulletin Letter, Ordinary Time Sunday 24C

“The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest” (Luke 10:2).

Among the Apostles and early Christians and throughout history until very recently, Christian asceticism (“discipline,” voluntary self-denial) found regular expression throughout the year, even on a daily basis. Every Friday, not just during Lent, commemorates the Passion and Death of Jesus upon the Cross for our salvation, even as Sunday is a weekly celebration of His Resurrection. We should still be offering to God some form of penance and self-denial on every Friday throughout the year, even though Fridays during Lent are now the only ones on which this penance is required to include abstinence from meat.

One of the other regular practices of “denying oneself, taking up our cross, and following Christ” included the observance of Ember Days, once during each of the four seasons of the year. Following the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14), the Autumn Ember Days occur on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of this upcoming week. This set of three days is set aside especially to give thanks to God for all the blessings of the past year and to beg His abundant favor upon us in the future, favorable weather and health for our families, livestock and crops. These days are also dedicated to prayer for vocations, that God would reap a spiritual harvest by granting us “priests, holy priests, many holy priests and religious vocations.”

The Ember Days are observed as days of prayer, fasting (maximum of one full meal and two smaller meals if necessary to maintain strength, and no eating between meals), and abstinence from meat (all of Friday, with meat allowed at one meal on Wednesday and on Saturday). Please join me in keeping these sacred days, when so many are experiencing slavery and destruction through an excess of self-indulgence and a lack of even the most basic discipline. Pray that many more will answer the call to be holy priests, when so many priests and bishops have failed to follow Christ.

Practically Spiritual

Homily, Ordinary Time 23C

I may have mentioned to some of you already that I come from a family of engineers. My dad has always been able to fix pretty much anything mechanical, and every one of my six brothers earned a degree in engineering of one kind or another. My oldest sister is a high school math teacher. My other sister and I are kind of the odd ones; she became a dental hygienist, and I became a priest, but I think we all still have the same tendencies to be very analytical and practical in our approach to different things. They say that optimists view the glass as being half full, while pessimists say the glass is half empty. An engineer, on the other hand, would say that the container is twice as big as it needs to be.

Our readings this weekend talk about having a practical approach to our faith and spiritual life, looking to what lies ahead, taking stock of our resources, setting goals for ourselves and forming a plan of action to reach those goals. Most of us realize the importance of being practical when it comes to things like exercising, losing weight, studying for an exam, learning to play a musical instrument, or to excel in any sport. In the Gospel today, Jesus mentions building a tower or commanding an army. To make progress in these or any other areas of life, it makes a huge difference for most of us when we actually have clear goals in mind and someone else to keep us accountable and committed to a regular schedule of practice and discipline.

But for some reason, when it comes to our spiritual lives and spiritual health, many of us are very impractical and far too abstract. When is the last time that you made any concrete goals for yourself to grow in your spiritual life? If it’s been since Lent, it’s been too long. And how did you follow up with those goals to pursue them? Who do you talk to about your faith to keep you accountable to the goals that you set for yourself? If we go to Confession frequently, most of us probably don’t need a trained spiritual director most of the time, but all of us need a friend that we can check in with and who checks in on us, to see how we’re doing in our relationship with God, and if we’re being faithful to the commitments we have and to our spiritual needs.

One of the goals I had for a number of years was to read the entire Bible once through each year. I was never really able to do this until I actually sat down and calculated out the number of total chapters and determined that to meet my goal, very practically, I would need to read 26 chapters of the Bible each week, which comes out to 4 chapters every weekday and 3 chapters on Saturday and on Sunday. Once I had a clear plan, it became easy to see when I was falling behind or when I was staying on track. But without a goal, and without a practical plan to reach that goal, it becomes very difficult to determine whether we’re headed in the right direction or making any progress.

Many of us today are too busy. We would like to pray more and to spend more time in silence with God, but we never seem to find the time to fit it in. But I know for myself, very practically, when I make an appointment with someone and actually put it into my calendar, I’m going to do whatever I can to be there, to be in my office or wherever it is that we’re meeting. To make time for prayer, most of us need to do just that: make an appointment with Jesus, actually put it into our calendar and be committed to being there for the duration of the meeting. He’s the most important person that you’ll meet with all day. If we’re too abstract and just keep saying, “I really need to pray more,” we never actually will. If we want to be more patient with those around us, more generous, more compassionate, more at peace with ourselves and with everything around us, we won’t make progress without prayer and without God. And we will not pray more without making an appointment and without making it a priority.

So what are your goals for your spiritual life? And what are the practical steps that you’ll take to make progress towards those goals? And who is going to keep you accountable? If we have trouble answering any of these questions, we probably won’t be able to make the progress that we want to see. If we are not practical and committed, we will never be holy. Heaven should be the final goal for each and every one of us, to live forever with God should be the aim of our entire life on earth. All our other actions have meaning and purpose only so far as they are leading us ultimately to eternal life with God. May God give us the wisdom and strength to take whatever steps we need to make progress towards our true home in heaven.

Lifelong Learning

Bulletin Letter, Ordinary Time Sunday 23C

With school getting back into full swing, daylight hours fading away, and temperatures becoming milder or even, according to some, colder, autumn seems to be on its way already. Summer has flown by, as usual, and the equinox is less than a couple weeks away. It’s been a few years since I’ve had to go back to school in the fall, but I always think back to those days.

There’s still so much that God desires to teach me and each one of us, no matter how many years we’ve been out of school. One of the greatest things about being a priest is having the privilege to meet and get to know so many outstanding people and to begin to see the wonderful ways in which God works in our lives. If we’re open to it, God teaches us every day through the events and people we encounter.

Our exams may be less formal than for those still in school, our assignments less academic, but in many ways we’re called to remain students throughout our entire lives. The concept of lifelong learning has been around for many years and takes many forms. The Vatican has also written about the ongoing formation of priests, even after their years of formal seminary education. Blessed John Henry Newman once wrote, “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often” (On the Development of Christian Doctrine, 40). I hope that we can always keep an open mind and continue to learn from everything and everyone that God puts in our lives, even from the most difficult trials and from people with whom we disagree.

For all of us, our “One Teacher is the Christ,” the Truth in Person (Matthew 23:10). And there’s just one final exam that will really matter. “At the end of life, we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made, how many great things we have done. We will be judged by, ‘I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was naked, and you clothed me; I was homeless, and you took me in’” (St. Teresa of Calcutta). “At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love” (St. John of the Cross, Sayings 64). May God teach us to love not only “in word and speech, but in deed and truth” (1 John 3:18).

Keep at it.

Masquerading as Humility

If I asked you to tell me the opposite of being humble, the opposite of humility, the virtue mentioned in our readings today, you’d be able to tell me: the opposite of humility is pride, boastfulness, thinking too highly of ourselves and of our abilities. What a lot of people don’t realize, though, is that most virtues are actually a balance between two different vices. So we can usually say that for every one virtue, there are actually two opposites, two opposing vices, at either extreme.

Let’s take a different virtue just as an example: Courage. Now genuine courage is a proper balance of confidence on the one hand and caution on the other. Someone who lacks confidence or in the extreme has zero confidence and who has far too much fear and caution, this person would be called a coward, someone who shrinks back or runs away from any challenge. It’s easy to see that they’re not courageous. At the other extreme, though, if we have someone who is all confidence but lacks any reasonable level of caution, even in the face of real danger, that’s not courage either. That’s someone we would call foolhardy or reckless, someone liable to get themselves killed by needlessly engaging in dangerous activities. The reckless person looks more like someone who has genuine courage because he takes action rather than being paralyzed by fear, but this is also what makes recklessness more dangerous. It’s better able to mimic the real virtue, so that reckless people often think of themselves as being courageous, whereas the coward would usually be more aware that he doesn’t have courage. Keep these things in mind as we look now at humility.

Humility is nothing other than having an accurate picture of ourselves, of who we are in relation to God and in relation to one another. True humility recognizes the gifts and talents that we have from almighty God and asks how we might use these gifts to better serve God and to serve our neighbor. Genuine humility should always motivate us toward service, to take the lowest place and to serve even those who cannot repay us, as we hear at the end of today’s Gospel. The most gifted man to ever walk the earth was also the most humble, Jesus Christ, and He always described Himself as One who came to serve, not to be served.

Pride is usually what we think of as an opposite to humility because pride is thinking too much of ourselves, overestimating our importance and turning a blind eye to our genuine limitations. Pride often does get in the way of the service that God calls us to undertake because the prideful person desires instead to be served, or to serve others only in view of how we might be repaid. Pride prevents us from making a genuine gift of ourselves.

The vice at the other extreme, though, is probably more common among Christians and even more dangerous than pride because it often looks more like humility while doing just as much or more to prevent our service of God and neighbor. This other extreme is often just called false humility for lack of a better term, but we might also call it pusillanimity, which is a big word that basically means having a tiny soul. At the other end of the spectrum from pride, false humility or pusillanimity underestimates and undervalues the gifts that we have from God. We sell ourselves short, and this paralyzes us from serving God and others because we think we’re too weak, too sinful, that we don’t know enough, that we’re too busy and don’t have enough time to help out.

Far from taking the place of honor or the lowest place, false humility can often keep us from even attending the banquet to which God invites us, this banquet of love in which we are called to imitate Christ’s own service of God and of one another. Pride gets in the way at times, but even more so, false humility and selling ourselves short cuts us off from the love that God has for us in Christian service. “Oh, little me, what can I do? Five loaves and two fish are all that we have. But what are these for so many?” God can do more than we can imagine with whatever we bring to Him in faith, if we’re willing to put ourselves and our resources at the service of God and our neighbor. May Jesus fill us today with His Holy Spirit to grant us true humility, to purify us both from pride and from pusillanimity, so that we’ll recognize and give thanks for the gifts God has entrusted to us, and actually use them to serve God and to serve those who are most in need.