The Power of Humility

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 30C

When I was a junior in high school on the football team, my coach decided to move me from wide receiver to the offensive line. And I wasn’t any bigger back then than I am now, so it became my task to try and block guys who were usually more than 50 pounds heavier than I was. But in football, weight is not always as important as leverage. Our coach always told us, “Stay low and keep your feet.” My one advantage happened to be that I was usually lower to the ground than the defensive linemen. Now I never became an All-American lineman, but by staying low I was able to hold my own and not get injured, and I’ll always remember that advice: “Stay low, and keep your feet.” Another saying that our coaches would repeat was, “The low man wins,” and this seems to echo what Jesus tells us in the Gospel today: “The one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Football coaches understand on a natural level the importance and value of this distinctively Christian virtue that is so often misunderstood. They understand how important it is to be grounded, to stay low and keep your feet, and that this lowliness is never meant to make us shrink back in fear, but provides the grounding we need to move forward.  

Too often when we think of being humble, we might associate it with some kind of self-hatred, or never thinking of oneself, or even a denial of the gifts and talents that we have from almighty GodHumility has been called the foundation of all the virtues, but too often people think they’re being humble when they’re really just being cowards. The word “humility” comes from the Latin word for earth or ground, and humility is what keeps us grounded in reality, grounded in the truth of who we are in relation to God and to our neighbors. Humility keeps us from pride, from illusions of grandeur and the endless pursuit of power, domination, and self-importance. But humility also keeps us from selling ourselves short and helps us recognize the gifts we have from God, the gifts we’re called to use to serve Him and our neighbor. Humility keeps us on the solid ground we need to move forward, to strive always towards the high calling and dignity that is ours in Christ. This is what my coaches understood about humility, that being grounded, having a firm foundation underneath us, staying low and keeping your feet, is the best way to gain the leverage to not only hold your ground but to move forward in spite of opposition, and this aspect of humility is illustrated nicely in our readings today. 

In our second reading, St. Paul is definitely not selling himself short. In fact, he might even sound like he’s boasting, more like the self-righteous Pharisee from the Gospel rather than the humble tax collector. He tells Timothy, “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day.” This might almost sound arrogant, but we should also notice how Paul is different from the Pharisee in the Gospel. While the Pharisee distances himself from “the rest of humanity” and from the tax collectorgreedy, dishonest, adulterous” people, as he characterizes them—St. Paul confesses instead that not only will he receive a crown from the Lord, but so will “all who have longed for his appearance.” St. Paul goes on to talk about his lowliness, and being deserted by all when he appeared in court, but he was grounded in the reality of God’s presence and protection during his trial, and this humility and trust in God gave him the strength to go forward in confidence, and persevere in preaching the Gospel in the face of powerful opposition, even ultimately to the point of laying down his life in witness to Christ. 

The tax collector, on the other hand, as Jesus describes him in the Gospel might not at first seem very strong. He “stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’” Isn’t this just the self-hatred I warned about earlierIsn’t he shrinking back in fear? No. If we remember the culture of his day, it becomes clear that this humble tax collector is actually very boldTax collectors were viewed at that time as being traitors to the Jewish nation and collaborators with their Roman oppressors. They were seen as public sinners and enemies of the freedom of the Jews. That’s why out of everyone else at the Temple, the Pharisee singles out the tax collector. And Jesus is criticized throughout the Gospel for dining with tax collectors. Good Jews should not even associate with them. By coming to the Temple area to pray, the tax collector exposes himself to the scorn and contempt of the Pharisee and of everyone else there who thought that tax collectors had no business praying at all and no hope of being heard by God. But the tax collector is grounded in the truth of the mercy of God. He acknowledges himself to be a sinner, he stays low, but he keeps his feet and does not despair. He throws himself upon the mercy of God, and he allows God to forgive, to justify him, to transform him and give him new life. His humility and trust in God give him the strength to step out, to pray to God in the face of public opposition and scorn 

Our first reading describes the strength of his prayer. “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds, judges justly, and affirms the right, and the Lord will not delay.” As we approach Christ present in this Eucharist, we ask God for His humility, to pray with perseverance, to imitate the boldness of the tax collector and of St. Paul, to be steadfast in preaching the Gospel of Christ in the midst of a culture and society more and more opposed to the Catholic faith. In our own journey of faith, we need to stay low, and keep our feet.

Pray Always

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 29C

It’s fairly common for people nowadays to take regular trips and vacations, to get away for time at a lake or a cabin, to spend a few days hunting or fishing, camping or hiking, but it’s not so common for people to take time away for a spiritual retreat on a regular basis. This next week I’ll be going on a priest retreat at Broomtree. Every priest is required to go on retreat once a year. I always look forward to the opportunity to refocus and gain perspective, to remember why I wanted to become a priest, all the amazing things God has done in my life, and to grow in my relationship with Christ, to bind myself more fully to the Vine and Source of Life, because apart from Jesus, I can do nothing and bear no fruit. 

But this isn’t just true for priests. Each and every baptized person, every Christian—if we’re going to actually live effectively as Catholic Christians and bear fruit for God in the world—we need to abide in Christ. The Gospel tells us that we need “to pray always, without becoming weary.” It doesn’t say that we need to worry always, or to talk to ourselves throughout the day, thinking about all we need to get done, all the people who get on our nerves, how hungry we are and what we plan to eat at our next meal, maybe even growing angry that the car in front of us is going so slow. Instead, we need to pray always, to talk to God and to live in His presence. To invite Him into our thoughts and inner monologue, into our judgments and reactions and tell Him about all our concerns throughout the day.  

So much of our energy is wasted on our insistence on living in some abstract, idealized world and continually being disappointed when life does not quite live up to our inflated expectations. Some of us play out countless scenarios of what could happen in the future, and we plan every possible reaction to every possibility, even though our experience has shown that very rarely do any of these hypotheticals actually happen the way we plan. We end up spending ourselves on inventions of our own mind and fears of our own making. Or on unrealistic expectations of the people around us, how everyone should drive, or talk or not talk, all the people we’ve tried to fix who refuse to take our advice. Instead of accepting life as it comes to us and asking God for the grace to bear it patiently, we spend ourselves instead on continual frustration, because things in life don’t follow our own hopes and desires. Inviting God into our thoughts, our hopes, our fears, allows Him to help us purify these, to help us accept life on its own terms, to open ourselves to God’s will and God’s ways, and allow Him to guide and change our own thoughts and behaviors, which are the only things we really have some control over. 

When I was in seminary studying for the priesthood, we were told that the default setting of priests should be intercessory prayer. So just like computer programs or phones have default settings that they can return to when being reset, so too, priests as mediators between God and man should have a sort of default setting, what we should normally be doing in any spare moment. Whenever were not occupied with something else, we should always reset and come back to intercessory prayer, even as we walk or wait in line or shop at the grocery store, that we would be asking God to fulfill the various needs of those around us and those who have asked the help of our prayers. 

I know I have a long way to go to be able to pray always without becoming weary as God is calling me. But each one of us needs to strive for that persistence and constancy of our prayer and conversation with God. What is your default setting? Do you have one? Do you ever give yourself the opportunity to be alone with God, or do we fill our lives with so much noise and clutter, avoiding the silence, avoiding our vulnerability in the sight of God, but ultimately avoiding the intimacy that we so desperately need in our relationship with Christ, and the only thing that can satisfy our deepest desires? St. Alphonsus Ligouri is quoted as saying, “Those who pray are certainly saved; those who do not pray are certainly damned” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2744).  

How much longer will we choose to live with the clutter of our sins, of our anxieties, of our anger and impatience, the clutter of our preoccupation with trivial matters and our obsession with what others might think of us? How much longer will we risk our eternal salvation on things that can never satisfy our hearts? Lord Jesus, come and teach us to pray, to abide in prayer, that we may receive from God every good gift and look forward with longing to the life of heaven.  

Mass Intentions

Bulletin Letter, Ordinary Time Sunday 29C

One of my responsibilities as a pastor is to offer one of the Masses on every Sunday and holy day of obligation for all the people of the parishes assigned to me. What we might not often consider is that the “people of the parishes” includes everyone who lives within the parish boundaries, whether they are Catholic or not, whether they are registered members here or elsewhere.

There is just one Church that Jesus founded upon the Apostles as the sacrament of salvation for all the world, the Mystical Body of Christ that continues down to our own day as the Catholic Church. The one perfect Sacrifice of Christ made present in every Catholic Mass was entrusted to His Apostles at the Last Supper to be regularly celebrated, continuing Christ’s work of redemption in the world today. The fruits of the Mass benefit everyone in the territory—and indeed the whole Church of God—and call down God’s blessings upon all the land.

Other Masses celebrated are offered for particular intentions, by request, and usually accompanied by a stipend or offering to the parish from the one requesting. These intentions are listed in the bulletin next to the schedule of Masses. I don’t always announce the intention, and it is not necessary to do so. Not everyone who requests a Mass wants the intention announced, and if the person being prayed for is still living, it can cause concern or confusion. There’s also the possibility of my reading the wrong line and announcing the wrong intention. Be assured that each Mass is offered for the intention listed in the bulletin, so please consult it if you prefer to know the particular intention.

Many who request Masses have certain dates or locations where they’d like the Mass offered. Melissa does her best to honor these requests, but it’s obviously very helpful for scheduling if there is some flexibility, especially if it includes a large number of Masses. The benefit of Christ’s Sacrifice reaches the intended parties regardless of the time or place of the Mass.

We should also keep in mind that Church law requires each requested intention to be fulfilled within one year from the date on which the request was made. If too many Masses are requested for us to fit in within the year, we have to send the remaining stipends to other priests (often retired) who will be able to offer the Masses in time. The standard suggested stipend for each Mass in this diocese is ten dollars, but a larger stipend can be offered for each Mass, especially when offering a large sum if there is concern for fitting them in within the year and keeping the full gift local to support the parish. Thank you for bearing patiently the limitations of having one priest between two parishes and three churches.

Numb to Sin

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 28C

When I was growing up, we had a fireplace in the house, and I was always kind of fascinated by fire. And with the snow outside, a fire sounds really good right about now. I could spend hours just watching the flames dance back and forth. I also liked to stoke the fire and keep it going, and if I wasn’t careful enough, I could end up burning myself, which, as you probably know, isn’t the most pleasant thing to do. When we get burned, I doubt that many of us think it’s a great blessing to be able to feel the heat and pain caused by the fire, but if you’ve ever done research on leprosy or Hansen’s disease that we hear about in today’s readings, one of the main problems caused by leprosy is damage to the nerve endings and numbnessthe inability to feel pain. So while most of us have reflexes to prevent serious injury when we get too close to fire or touch something that’s hot, or even when we just stub our toe, those who have leprosy can end up doing a lot more damage to themselves because they don’t feel the pain that a healthy person would feel in the same situation. 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus heals ten lepers. And how would they know that they’d been healed? They would have started to feel again, and to feel pain, which might explain why only one of them returned to give thanks to God. For most of us, pain is not a pleasant experience, but it does serve a purpose. Pain can motivate us to pull back and get out of harmful situations, like fire or injury. Pain can let us know that all is not well, and that a change might be in order. The ability to feel pain is a sign of health and normal functioning in our bodiesNumbness, whether physical or spiritual, is never a very good thing, even though we might sometimes think feeling nothing at all is better than feeling pain. 

When we ask God for healing, when we cry out with the lepers in the Gospel, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!” God always answers our prayers. But when the answer to our prayers is actually a new awareness of a harmful situation that we’re in, a new awareness of sin, an experience of pain or restlessness and the healing of our spiritual numbness through trials, are we still able to recognize this as a great grace and healing from God, and to give thanks for it?  

It’s not the easiest thing for me to point out to fellow Catholics that certain things are serious sins that we need to bring to Confession before receiving Communion again, things like missing Sunday Masseven when we’re travelingor to point out that certain living arrangements contrary to God’s law can also prevent us from receiving Holy Communion fruitfully. But throughout the Bible, the Presence of God, and so the Presence of Jesus in this Holy Eucharist, was never to be treated casually or thoughtlessly. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that “our God is a consuming fire,” and St. Paul makes it clear to the Corinthians that the holiness of God in Holy Communion can even be dangerous and contribute to sickness or death, if we consume the Body and Blood of Jesus without first examining ourselves, examining our consciences to make sure we have the proper dispositions (Hebrews 12:29, Deuteronomy 4:24; Cf. 1 Corinthians 11:27-30). 

Are we spiritually aware, or have we developed a spiritual leprosy, a spiritual numbness that prevents us from experiencing a healthy pain in our conscience in response to sin and sinful situations that do us greater harm than any physical injury? Do we have the reverence we should have, in approaching this fire of the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist? With Naaman the Syrian and with the Samaritan in today’s Gospel, we give thanks to God even for the pain and trials we experience, as answers to our prayers. May God continue to wake us up to the spiritual realities that surround us, that we may be purified and found worthy to withstand and to dwell within the “consuming fire” of God’s love for us. 

Blessings during Communion

Bulletin Letter, Ordinary Time Sunday 28C

One thing that all my classmates in Rome noticed about going to Mass in Italy is that the Italians don’t go up for Communion the same way as Americans. I don’t think it even occurred to most of us that there could be any other way but to proceed up, row by row, in an orderly fashion.

In many parts of Italy, as the priest consumes the host, people start to make their way to the front from any and all parts of the church. So whether the person was seated in the front, back, somewhere in between, or if they had just been walking around in the church until Communion time, everyone proceeds up for Communion pretty much whenever they feel like it, and if you’re not proactive, you might be the last one to receive even though you sat in the front row. Some people are more critical of this method, but I appreciate that it makes it less obvious for those who choose to abstain from Holy Communion, and it doesn’t pressure people into going forward when they would rather stay in their seat.

This past weekend, I had training for Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion in Hoven, and the question always comes up of what is supposed to happen for those who come forward at Communion time but can’t receive or don’t want to receive the Eucharist in Holy Communion at that Mass. In the Roman Rite, blessings are not given while the Blessed Sacrament is exposed, except in formal Benediction by a priest or deacon with his own hands covered by a humeral veil. So while Communion is being distributed, any words or gestures resembling a blessing should be avoided. This also avoids duplicating the blessing that is conferred on all who are gathered as part of the Concluding Rites of the Mass.

I realize this is different from the customs that both you and I have witnessed in many places. I also know that many young children come up and don’t know quite what to do and can just sort of freeze at the front of the line. Even adults expect something to happen as a sort of cue to let them know to move along. So for those who come forward without receiving, I’ve instructed the Extraordinary Ministers to try and make eye contact and to say something in the form of a greeting (such as “God be with you,” “Peace be with you,” or “The Spirit of Christ be with you”) without touching the person and without making the Sign of the Cross. I tried this out last Sunday, and both kids and adults seemed to catch on really quickly. I thank you for your patience as we try something different and work towards greater consistency.

Fake It Till You Make It

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 27C

There’s a tendency nowadays to sort of scoff at the idea of doing things out of a sense of duty or obligation, to look down our noses at this statement of the faithful servant in the Gospel: “We are unprofitable servants. We have done what we were obliged to do.” It might even make us uncomfortable to realize that these are actually the words of Jesus Himself, and that this attitude is what Jesus promotes and encourages among those who wish to be His disciples.

What we don’t often stop to think about and realize is that obligations and minimum requirements are just a regular part of countless aspects of our daily lives. If you want to get a job and then actually keep that job, you’ll probably be required, obligated, to show up for work on time, and to let somebody know when you’re not gonna be there. When you’re a student, if you want to get credit for the classes you’re taking, you might actually have to show up for class once in a while. When you’re on a sports team, if you want to be able to play on the team during games, you have to show up for practice. And there are plenty of times when we’d probably rather not go in to work, or to school, or to practice or training, but as an employee, as a student, or as an athlete, these are the basic requirements and obligations that we need to fulfill, when we feel like it and when we don’t feel like it.

For some reason, though, when it comes to how we practice our faith, we don’t like to talk much about obligations anymore. And the sin that we often try to avoid most of all is being insincere or fake, being a hypocrite, just going through the motions or saying the words out of a sense of duty without really feeling close to God. But is someone who shows up for work or school or practice a hypocrite just because he doesn’t feel like being there? Of course not. He’s just a committed employee or a committed student or athlete. So why should we feel like hypocrites when we show up for Mass to fulfill our Sunday or holy day obligation as Catholics, even if we still have trouble really focusing or entering into the prayer of the Mass? Or if it seems boring to us. Or we don’t feel like we’re getting anything out of it. We’re committed Catholics and disciples of Christ, who need to give thanks to God every Sunday and holy day by assisting at Mass, whether we feel like it or not.

There’s a popular saying: “Fake it until you make it.” But for whatever reason, we don’t think we’re allowed to do this in our lives of faith. But the only way for us to grow in the virtues is to do the right thing even when we don’t feel like it. Let’s say I’m going about my day and I run into somebody who really annoys me and gets on my nerves. I find it difficult to be around them, and, if I could manage it, I’d rather avoid them altogether. Now, what if I were to make a conscious effort to smile at this person, to wish them a good morning, to ask how they’re doing and to take a genuine interest in their life? Would that be wrong for me to do? Would it be insincere? Hypocritical? No. To treat someone with respect even when we don’t feel like it is just part of growing in the virtue of charity, in the love of our neighbor. Because the only way for us to arrive at a place of genuine concern and care for those individuals we find difficult is for us to actually practice those concrete signs, gestures, and words of kindness, even when we’d rather do or say something else.

Fake it till you make it. Should we come to Mass on Sundays, go to Confession, or act with charity towards the people around us merely out of a sense of obligation? Of course we should strive for more than just meeting the minimum requirements of our Catholic faith and human decency, but if that’s where you’re at right now, and that’s the best that you can offer to God today, that’s very good. Even the greatest Saints experienced times of what’s called spiritual dryness—sometimes for many years—when God felt absent, when they felt like they were far from God. But they were committed, and they continued to act on what they knew to be true and how God and His Church had called them to conduct themselves.

We know now from letters to her spiritual directors and others that St. Teresa of Calcutta went through decades of dryness and darkness in the experience of her faith, all the while she remained committed to caring for the poorest of the poor and guiding the Missionaries of Charity which she had founded. Her commitment was heroic, not hypocritical. Fake it till you make it. Speak and act the way that God wants you to, even when you don’t feel like it. Practice the virtues, and they get easier with time and experience. We are committed and obligated to going through the motions, through the sacraments we celebrate here, so that these motions, the very actions of Christ, can transform our minds and hearts.

Time to Clean House

Bulletin Letter, Ordinary Time Sunday 27C

People often ask me if I’m a dog person or a cat person, wondering if I would ever keep a pet as a priest. I usually respond that I’m a plant person. It’s not that I don’t like cats and dogs. We had both as I was growing up at home. But they’re a little more involved—and host to a wider variety of smells—than plants. Between the hair and other “droppings” that don’t always end up where they are supposed to, pets can definitely make keeping a clean house more of a challenge. There’s also the noise pollution to consider.

“Foxes have dens, and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head” (Mt 8:20). I’m blessed to live in two of the finest rectories in the Diocese of Sioux Falls, but they don’t really belong to me. These houses are parish property, for the use of the priests who have served as your pastor, and those who will serve you in the future. I’d hate to hand them on in a diminished condition because of a pet that needs more attention than I’d be able to give.

Like anything else, messes build up little by little. Many of us are in the habit of doing a periodic cleaning of our rooms and houses. A similar accumulation of hair, dust, and clutter can happen in our spiritual lives through sin and complacency, and it’s good for us to take opportunities to get our spiritual house in order, especially if it’s been something we’ve neglected for a while. A regular Confession does wonders in this respect. It’s also good for us to get away, not just to go on vacations but on a spiritual retreat (required for priests at least once a year), to get together with Catholics from other places, and to hear the witness of missionaries from other parts of the country or world.

On Thursday, October 10th at 6:30 pm, St Mary Parish in Aberdeen will be hosting Justin Fatica, one of the dynamic cofounders of Hard as Nails Ministries. He was even featured in an HBO documentary back in 2007 and lives in Syracuse, New York. Roncalli had originally arranged for him to come and speak to their students, but his talk at St Mary is free and open to anyone, a great opportunity for families and people of any age to hear and be challenged by a nationally-known evangelist. I’d love to see you there.