Counting the Days…

Bulletin Letter, Lenten Sunday 1A

Every year around this time I hear discussions about how many days are really part of Lent or if Sundays are included, so I did the math to try and set the record straight, but it is not exactly clear-cut. 

The first oddity we encounter is the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday. Now why would a season of the liturgical year start in the middle of the week? Most likely, this happened back when every day of Lent was a day of fastingfasting not in the loose sense of giving something up for Lent, but in the strict sense of eating only what is necessary to maintain strength and not eating between mealsThe exception was always Sundays because in honor of the Resurrection, it was never thought appropriate to fast on Sundays or Solemnities. The six weeks of six days of fasting came out to 36 days, so they added the four days leading up to the First Sunday of Lent to make it an even 40 days of fasting (46 days of Lent, including the six Sundays).

The current Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the Calendar (1969) give us yet another way of counting the days, which excludes the Easter Triduum. In paragraph 28, it says, “The forty days of Lent run from Ash Wednesday up to but excluding the Mass of the Lord’s Supper” on Holy Thursdaywhich actually comes out to just shy of 44 days of Lent. If this seems confusing to you, it should be. The four days that were originally added to make for 40 total days of fasting now give us four extra days of Lent.

Regardless, we still talk about Lent having 40 days because this symbolically harkens back to the 40 days Jesus spent in the desertafter His baptism in the Jordan by John and before His public ministry—and the 40 years Moses spent leading the Israelites through the desert out of slavery in Egypt. 

Today, Catholics ages 18 to 58 are still required to fast in the strict sense on just two daysAsh Wednesday and Good Friday. Fasting on these days means limiting oneself to one full meal. Two additional smaller meals are allowed if necessary to maintain strength, but these smaller meals together should amount to less food than the full meal. Eating between meals is not allowed.

Ash Wednesday and every Friday of Lent are still days of abstinence from meat for all Catholics age 14 and older, but on these days the Church allows us fish, eggs, milk products, and condiments of any kind, even when these are made from animal fat.

As for our own Lenten practices, giving something up or doing something extra in the areas of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, the Church does not legislate how we do these. You can decide to maintain them throughout the season of Lent, even on Sundays and Solemnitiesas long as they are not in conflict with giving thanks for the Resurrectionor you can decide to take a break from them on the Sundays of Lent. May the Holy Spirit lead you throughout the season of Lent, as He led our Lord Jesus in the desert.

Walking Together Towards God

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 7A

As I think back on my childhood, I have lots of memories at the dinner table. Some are pleasant memories; many are not so pleasant. I remember many evenings just sitting there, not allowed to leave the table until my plate was clean, looking with hatred upon the broccoli or beets or peas or carrots that still remained. I knew they would probably taste worse the longer I waited and the colder they got, but still I would sit there, brace myself, and plug my nose for every bite. As I look back on it now, vegetables are one of my favorite foods, but it took time, experience, and greater understanding for me to come to really appreciate them.

In the Gospel today, Jesus tells us to love our neighbor, to love even our enemies, and one of the things that holds us back most from love is a lack of understanding. When I was young, no matter how many times my parents told us how important it was to eat our vegetables, I just couldn’t understand how something so foul-tasting could be good for us. My perspective was limited. My experience was limited. So let’s say someone asks you to carry something for them for a mile, or to give them your coat. And maybe it’s someone you’ve met before. Someone you don’t like. Unless we actually try to view things from their perspective rather than our own, to understand why they’re asking something from us, we’re not gonna be very willing to help. If I just limit myself to my own small perspective and what’s familiar to me in my own limited experience, without striving to really understand the other, even those with whom I disagree, even my enemies, I’m not going to be able to love in the way that Jesus is calling me to love.

Now, as the pastor here, I might make adjustments—and I already have—to how the Mass is celebrated here, maybe to the music, and to how our sacred spaces are utilized, and I haven’t always communicated well the reasons for some of these changes, to help you understand my own perspective and the wider perspective of the Church’s tradition. Part of the challenge is finding a time to talk about these things with the whole parish. If I write in the bulletin, not everybody reads that, and if I’m waiting around for the Sunday readings to touch upon a certain subject, for me to address it during the homily, I could be waiting for an awfully long time. So in those places where I’ve failed in communication, I do apologize, and I greatly appreciate your patience with me.

One of the adjustments I’ve made that’s probably the most conspicuous is to pray much of the Mass at the high altar, facing the tabernacle. In the bulletin, when I wrote about this, I mentioned that to me it seems much more inclusive. At Mass you’re not just supposed to be watching the priest pray, but we’re all praying together to God, and so it’s never made much sense to me to be facing a different direction from those that I’m praying with and to have my back to Jesus present in the tabernacle. Facing the tabernacle also helps avoid having the Mass come across as being like a play or a drama on stage, where you’re just passive spectators, watching the actors and listening to the monologues.

The other reasons have to do with the original aesthetics and architecture of these beautiful churches. They were designed for Mass on the high altar, three more steps up from the low altar that used to be in the middle. And for probably close to 3000 years—including 1000 years in the Hebrew Temple before the start of Christianity—this is how worship and sacrifice was always offered to God, with the priest and the people facing the same direction, praying to God together, as one body, not turned in on itself, but looking together for the Coming of Christ. Additionally, just from my personal perspective as a priest celebrant at Mass, I find it much easier for me to really focus and to pray the words of the Mass when I don’t have the added distraction of being able to see everything that’s going on in the pews or in the choir loft during the Eucharistic Prayer.

For all these reasons, I don’t have much inclination for bringing the low altar back or facing away from the tabernacle while praying the Mass. This may be different from what we’re used to what we might prefer, but I hope that you can understand my reasoning and even, over time, come to appreciate it.

Now I hope you never feel like I’m your enemy, and I’m not asking you to walk an extra mile, but I do ask that we have an open mind and an open heart, so that we’re able to receive the graces and learn the lessons that God has for us, even when our perspectives differ from one another. God is the One who has brought us together as His family here. I pray that we continue to grow together in truth and love, so that we can all be together for ever in His heavenly kingdom.

Signs and Symbols of a Bishop

Bulletin Letter, Ordinary Time Sunday 7A

I’ve heard from a number of you that you saw me on TV or YouTube as you watched our new Bishop’s Ordination and Installation. For those who didn’t see it, it’s still available online. I’ve been able to attend several ordinations of deacons and priests by now, but the Ordination of a Bishop obviously happens much less often. There are many common elements, like the laying on of hands, which takes place also for those becoming deacons and priests, but others are reserved only for bishops.

As the prayer of ordination was pronounced by the bishops present, two deacons held the Book of the Gospels open over Bishop-elect DeGrood’s head, emphasizing his duty to faithfully hand on the Gospel in its entirety, always placing himself at the service of the Gospel, rather than “peddling the word of God for profit” as so many false apostles did even in the time of St. Paul (2 Cor. 2:17). A new priest has his hands anointed, pointing to the sacred power of changing bread and wine into the Body of Blood of Jesus in the hands of a priest. A new bishop has the top of his head anointed with Sacred Chrism (always a sign of the Holy Spirit). We pray that he’s given the wisdom of God for teaching, governing, and sanctifying as he serves all the people of the diocese as their head and shepherd.

Rings have long been used in weddings as a pledge of love and fidelity. A new bishop is also given a ring, and he is to care for the Church in his diocese as for a beloved bride. Even in Eastern Churches that allow married men to be ordained as priests, only celibate, unmarried men are able to become bishops, reinforcing this sense that a bishop, specifically, is “married” to the Church, even as Christ Himself is Bridegroom of the Church. The miter is the pointy hat worn by bishops, the two halves of which symbolize both the Old and the New Testaments, which are to serve as the Bishop’s horns in battle against error and sin. The crozier is his shepherd’s staff, usually with a curved top to hook straying sheep and drag them back to safety.

The Installation refers to the new Bishop’s officially taking up office in the diocese, signified by his being seated in his cathedra, the word for the Bishop’s chair, for which all cathedral churches are named. May God bless our new Bishop with many years of ministry and help him to embrace his new home and family in South Dakota.

No More Catholic Buts

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 6A

When I was studying theology in Rome, one of our professors was from Poland, and he talked about three different approaches to the role that the law has in people’s lives, as illustrated by the legal systems of three different countries. He said that in France, by and large, all things are allowed except what the law prohibits. And this is probably the healthiest approach for human beings. The law is there to point out the pitfalls and blind alleys, but otherwise allows for a great measure of freedom. The term ‘laissez-faire,’ live and let live, is French in origin. In Germany, the trend is, instead, that all things are prohibited except for what the law allows, so kind of the reverse of France. In Germany the law tends to exercise a lot more control over people’s lives. Now in Italy, the approach has usually been that all things are allowed, especially what the law prohibits.

In our own lives, because of the rebellion in our hearts, many of us can tend to have a very Italian approach to what we decide to do, and telling us not to do something often just makes us want to do it more. I think back to when I was a teenager—I often just couldn’t imagine that my parents had any idea of what they were talking about, at least when it came to understanding what I wanted or how I should live my life. Now it didn’t take me too many years to figure out that my parents were actually right about a great many things, but how often do we take the same stance when it comes to God and His Church, questioning the wisdom of God’s Law for us and the teachings of our holy Mother Church? What would God know about what I’m going through, about my desires, and what it means to be human? What does the Catholic Church know about how I should live my life, or what will bring me happiness and fulfillment?

In the Gospel today, Jesus presents a very high standard for those who choose to follow Him in carrying out the fullness of God’s Law and wisdom. To help us avoid the pitfalls and blind alleys of this life, Jesus calls us to put away from our hearts not only sinful actions, but also those things that lead us into sin, the anger and resentment, lust and self-indulgence, boastfulness and deceit. But as St. Paul tells us, God’s Law is a mysterious and hidden wisdom, “not a wisdom of this age nor of the rulers of this age who are passing away.” So in the eyes of the worldly, God’s Law is always incomprehensible and seen as hopelessly oppressive, but to those who know the power and wisdom of God through His Holy Spirit, His Law is our freedom and joy.

God created us. God knows us, and He knows what He made us for, and in Jesus Christ, who became man and walked in our flesh, God knows us intimately, from the inside, what it means to be human, and what our humanity is really capable of, through the power of His Holy Spirit. God knows that simply to follow the crowd according to the standards of this passing world can never truly satisfy us. God made us for more. God offers us more. Through the Catholic Church, which draws upon more than 2,000 years of human experience, God continues to call us on to something greater than what the world offers, and through the power of the Sacraments, God gives us the grace we need to truly follow Christ, even when it is difficult, even when we don’t fully understand.

Still, the world is all too full of those we might call “Catholic buts,” people who say things like, “Well, I’m Catholic, but I disagree with the Church’s teachings on contraception, or gay marriage, or needing to go to Mass every Sunday,” or “I’m Catholic, but I don’t let that affect how I vote or how I live my life outside of Mass.” The world doesn’t need any more Catholic buts. We have far too many already. The world needs Catholics today who will embrace and strive to live and understand all that the Church teaches, everything that God has revealed for our salvation and our true freedom, even and especially when it is difficult and when it differs from what the world is telling us. I don’t often need the Church telling me I’m wrong where I already know I’m wrong. I need the Church to tell me I’m wrong in those areas where I think I’m right.

G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” When we encounter what seems difficult in the high standards of Christ and His Church, how often do we give up on them before we’ve even started? Reject them and think ourselves wiser than God and His Church, even before we’ve bothered to understand why the Church teaches what she does? God grant that our hearts be opened in faith and trust, to the mysterious wisdom of His Law in the teachings of our loving Mother, the Catholic Church, to keep us clear from the pitfalls and blind alleys—the slavery to sin—that the world offers us, so that we might safely reach, at last, our eternal home.

To the Apostles and Rome

Bulletin Letter, Ordinary Time Sunday 6A

With our new Bishop Donald DeGrood installed this past Thursday, it’s a good opportunity for us to reflect on what a bishop is and why we need one. Even in the time of Moses, his brother Aaron served as the first high priest in the tent or tabernacle that housed the Ark of the Covenant during their travels through the desert. Aaron’s sons assisted their father as fellow priests in offering sacrifices, while the rest of Aaron’s tribe (the Levites) assisted with various other tasks connected with the sacred things while not as directly involved in the priestly duties of Aaron and his sons. This model of sacred ministry persisted through the centuries even as King Solomon constructed the first Temple in Jerusalem: one high priest, several assisting priests, and the Levites.

When Jesus founded the Church upon the Apostles, and as the Church spread from Jerusalem to other cities, they would establish three degrees of ordained ministry as well. The first we read about in the New Testament are the deacons (from the NT Greek diakonoi, “servants,” Cf. Acts 6). Initially tasked with “serving at table” impoverished widows so that the Apostles could concentrate on prayer and proclaiming the Gospel, deacons correspond most readily to the Levites of the Old Testament. Next, we hear of the Apostles Paul and Barnabas appointing priests (presbyteroi, “elders,” Acts 14:23) in each city as they returned from their first missionary journey, to govern the Church in their absence. Eventually, as the Apostles themselves began to be martyred, each major city would have one high priest, a bishop (episkopos, “overseer”) and successor to the Apostles.

Bishop DeGrood now serves as our visible link through all the centuries of the Church to the Apostles and Jesus Himself. He is also our link to the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis, who rightly presides over all other bishops as successor to St. Peter, Prince of the Apostles. Rome is also where St. Paul, the great Apostle to the Gentiles, shed his blood for Christ, and at the time of Jesus, Rome was the capital of the known world.

All the ministry carried out by other priests and deacons in each diocese is done as under the authority of and in communion with the local Bishop and the Pope, the two who are mentioned by name in the prayers of every Mass. Through them, we belong to “one flock and one shepherd,” the one Church of Christ spread throughout the world and down through the centuries (John 10:16).

Performance Reviews

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 5A

My dad likes to give me a hard time. He says that because I started seminary right out of high school and now that I’m a priest, I’ve never actually had a real job. And sometimes, I tend to agree with him. I never had to go through an interview or give references to be appointed as pastor here in Hoven or in Bowdle. And I haven’t really sat down with the bishop to go through my job description and evaluate how things are going since I started here. During seminary, I had yearly evaluations and discussions of my progress in spiritual, pastoral, academic, and human formation, but now a lot of the formality of that process is no longer there. I do hope to continue to grow and be challenged and held accountable by God in my ministry and in my life of prayer.

The Gospel today challenges each one of us to take seriously the work and the mission that we have received from God as followers, disciples of Christ. “You are the salt of the earth.…You are the light of the world,” and “your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” If you had to meet with God today, to evaluate your job performance as a Catholic Christian, how do you think you would do? I, for one, would probably be more than a little nervous. Am I really making good use of the time, talent, and treasure that God has entrusted to me, to bring glory to His Name?

Our first reading from Isaiah provides us with the main outline of what we might call a job description for us as the light of the world. For a fuller description, we should call to mind all the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. First, the corporal or physical works of mercy: to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked and shelter the homeless, to visit the sick or imprisoned, and to bury the dead. How often in my life do I proclaim the Gospel of Christ by participating in these concrete acts of God’s mercy? When was the last time that I volunteered to serve the poor and vulnerable, or visited someone in the hospital or nursing home, or even those in the prison? Or wrote them a letter? When was the last time I gave clothing to the poor, when I have so much in my closet at home that I never really wear?

Next, the spiritual works of mercy can be even more challenging for us: to instruct the ignorant and advise those in doubt, to admonish sinners and to comfort the afflicted, to bear wrongs patiently and to forgive offenses willingly, and to pray for the living and for the dead. How often do I really bear witness to God’s truth in the midst of a culture of relativism that often tells us, “Believe whatever you like”? To actually warn the sinner about his sin, to have enough concern for the good of his soul, and enough courage to risk the tension of a conversation about those behaviors and choices that we recognize as unhealthy and unholy? Or how readily do we participate in gossip without regard for the dignity of those that we talk about? How long do I hold onto grudges, instead of growing in real patience and forgiveness with those who wrong me?

The world around us is in desperate need of the Light of Christ. Our homes, our schools, our workplaces, every relationship, and every human being need the Light of Christ. How well are we doing in our work and mission of spreading that Light through these spiritual and corporal works of mercy? The mission entrusted to you by God is not about doing more here at the church or at parish functions. It’s not about being an usher, or an extraordinary minister of Communion, or a musician or choir member, or a reader, greeter or server, or any other of those good things that we might volunteer to do here at church. Your primary mission is to bring the Light of Christ that you receive in the Word of God and in this Eucharist, to bring that Light out into the world, into your families, to your coworkers, into all your relationships, into every day and moment of your week, to spread that Light to everyone through the works of mercy.

God grant us the grace to be stirred into action, by the fire of the Holy Spirit, to stop waiting around for someone else or for some other saint, but to become saints ourselves and fulfill our mission of bringing the Light of Christ to everyone that we meet.

Septuagesima: It won’t be long now…

Bulletin Letter, Ordinary Time Sunday 5A

As I was growing up, my parents always just called each other Mom and Dad, so you can imagine my surprise the other day when I found out that my mom actually has a first name of her own. And if I mention that my parents now have a dog from Kansas named Toto, you might even be able to guess what my mom’s name is. What brings it to mind is that St. Dorothy’s feast day was this past Thursday, February 6, which I actually knew this year before my mom mentioned it.

I’ve been learning more about the old calendar of feasts and which Saints died on each day as I read the Roman Martyrology. It’s fascinating to learn just a bit about these Saints, sometimes only their names, but each representing a life given over to Christ. Also on the old calendar of feasts, today’s Mass wouldn’t just be another Sunday in Ordinary Time. It was actually the beginning of a sort of pre-Lenten season. As Lent refers to the approximately 40 days prior to Easter, Septuagesima Sunday comes from the Greek word for 70, being about 70 days from the Octave of Easter.

This Pre-Lent is observed in various ways. It’s good to begin considering what we plan to give up or to do as extra prayer, fasting, and almsgiving when we reach Ash Wednesday, now less than 3 weeks away. You might even try some of your penances out in advance, to try and ease yourself into it. On the other hand, perhaps more common is to observe the next few weeks as the season of carnival, culminating with Mardi Gras, French for “Fat Tuesday.” Anticipating the long days of penance that Lent would bring, people made sure to get their feasting in beforehand, also an occasion in many places for parades, dancing, and music.

However we decide to spend these final weeks before Lent, it goes quickly. Don’t let Ash Wednesday catch you off guard this year. Spend some time in prayer, really asking God what He would like you to do, so that you and our parish and our Catholic Church throughout the world can experience a real renewal this year, as we look forward to the matchless gift of our salvation, the victory of Life over death, the Resurrection of Jesus, our Easter Joy. Renewal in the Church and in our state and country begins with your relationship with Jesus Christ.

Bucket List from God

Homily, Feast of Presentation

I’m not sure how long ago it was that I first heard about the concept of a bucket list, but I’ve never thought much of it, let alone compiled one for myself. For those who aren’t aware, it’s a list of things that you want to do or accomplish or places you want to visit before kicking the bucket, before you die. Another related phrase that’s come into usage is yolo, which stands for, “you only live once,” which could just be another way of saying, “Carpe diem” or “seize the day.”

Bucket lists and these other phrases can bring more into focus for us the question of, what makes for a meaningful life. What makes a human life worthwhile? And where do our answers to these questions come from? “You haven’t really lived till you’ve eaten this particular dish, or gone skydiving or bungie jumping or visited this amazing destination.” Does true life merely consist in chasing experiences or traveling the world or reaching a certain place in a career? And is it God telling us these things, or do we receive our direction in life, our desires, our goals and ambitions, more from the evil one, or the standards of this passing world?

The old man Simeon, who receives the Infant Jesus in his arms today, as Joseph and Mary present the Child in the Temple, Simeon seemed to have just one thing left on His own bucket list. The Holy Spirit had told him that he would not see death before he had seen the Christ. And as he finally sees with his own eyes the Christ Child in the Temple, and bears witness to the salvation that has come for all the nations of the earth, he prays to God, “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word.” Now that I’ve seen the Light of Christ, I’m ready to die. How often is it that we ask God what He wants for us in this life? What are the items that He would place on our bucket list? And by the end of our lives, what kind of legacy are we going to be leaving behind?

A few years ago, I attended a funeral, and the deceased had been cremated, so I knew there wouldn’t be a full casket present, but I was surprised and disappointed with what was chosen as a final receptacle for the ashes. Right up in front of the altar was a fairly cheap, plastic, tackle box. And inside that tackle box was placed the cremains of the one who had died. Now I don’t know who had arranged for this, if it was part of the wishes of the deceased, but it just seemed so strange to me, and reductive of the meaning and value of a human life. I’m absolutely certain that there was much more to this man than the fact that he liked fishing, and I hope that for each one of us, there’ll be much more that people remember at the end of our lives than just one of our hobbies or a devotion to a certain sports team. Will they remember the times that they saw the Light of Christ in us?

All of us here have received much more than Simeon or Anna during their lifetimes. Not just to look upon Christ with our eyes but to become one with Him through the waters of baptism, to share in Christ’s own identity as sons and daughters of God. And most of us here have also eaten His Flesh and Blood, we’ve received His Soul and Divinity in Holy Communion. Do we really believe that we’ve already received the fullness of Life in this great Sacrament? That there’s nothing greater that we’ll ever do or accomplish, that at every Mass heaven itself comes to visit us, and there’s no greater place we’ll ever be in this life? Does receiving Communion change us and transform our priorities? Or for the rest of the week, do we just go back to living as if we’d never seen the Christ?

You only live once. But you will also live, somewhere, for all eternity. What legacy are we leaving by how we’re living today? And could we be living for something more? Something more meaningful, more lasting, more divine? Jesus is the Life of our life. Don’t let it pass you by without living for Him.