Abandon Your Nets

Homily, Ordinary Sunday 3B

Many of you are familiar with my vocation story, how I ended up in the priesthood. It’s fairly simple and straightforward. I was the youngest of nine from a big Catholic family. I was aware of a call to the priesthood from a very young age. I often considered it and prayed about it. I entered college seminary right out of high school, went on to major seminary, was ordained a transitional deacon, then a priest. Many other priests have a more interesting story to tell. My friend over in Ipswich, Fr. Smith, is a convert to the faith. He only became Catholic after he had started working, so it’s not really surprising that it took him a few more years to answer that call to the priesthood. Now does that mean that God had not been calling him, even from the beginning of his life? 

When I was reading the Gospel for this Sunday, something occurred to me that I had never really considered before. You see, every other time I’ve read or heard this Gospel, I always just assumed that Jesus was specifically calling Andrew, Peter, James and John to follow Him. And these are the four, out of everyone who was mentioned, who do end up following Jesus. But that’s not the only possibility. It could be that Jesus was actually saying, “Follow Me” to everyone who was mentioned: the four who would become Apostles, of course, but also to Zebedee, and to the hired men who were with them. But out of everyone there, Andrew, Peter, James and John were the ones who were ready to abandon their nets and follow Jesus, at that time. 

There’s a lot of talk in different areas of the Church and areas of the world about a “vocations crisis.” But God certainly knows how many priests we need, how many religious sisters and friars and monks. God is still calling, but there are many who for various reasons are not able to hear, to recognize, let alone respond generously to a call from God. There are many perhaps who, unlike Samuel in last Sunday’s first reading, don’t have an Eli in their lives to help them recognize the Lord’s call and listen to His voice. Before Fr. Smith became Catholic, even if God was calling him to the priesthood, how much sense would he have been able to make out of that? That’s actually part of Bishop Swain’s vocation story. Bishop Swain recognized a call and desire towards the Catholic priesthood even while he was still a Methodist. 

What kept Zebedee and the hired men from also following Jesus? What was keeping them from abandoning their nets, maybe not to become Apostles like the four, but at least to become disciples of Christ? You see, this doesn’t just pertain to those having a religious vocation, but there are many ways that all of us put off and avoid a more radical following of Jesus, no matter what our vocation in life. What are the nets that we still refuse to abandon? That’s an interesting verb, abandon. “They abandoned their nets.” To me, it seems to suggest that they didn’t bother making plans for their nets or boats as they left them. Peter and Andrew didn’t pause and say to Zebedee, “Well, since you’ll be sticking around, we want you to take our nets and boats and put them to good use.” Instead, they just dropped them on the shore, turned and followed Jesus without giving those nets a second thought. 

Too often we look back. We look back with longing on what was—even when it comes to our sins—and we fail to keep our eyes fixed on Christ and to look forward to the possibilities and fullness that a life of radical dependence on Jesus is able to bring. On Friday, we just observed the Day of Prayer and Penance for the Legal Protection of the Unborn, the 48th anniversary of the legalization of abortion in the United States. But abortion is only part of the culture of death today. Someone posted a history of the progression of court cases and decisions that led up to Rowe v. Wade. The first case, Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965, cited a right to privacy as justification to then allow the sale of contraception to married couples in the United States. Up until then, contraception had been illegal in many States. In 1972, again citing a right to privacy, another decision allowed the sale of contraception to the unmarried. And less than a year later, in 1973, Rowe v. Wade cited this “right to privacy” to legalize abortions. 

Can we really claim to be Pro-Life in the way that Jesus wants us to be when so many Catholic couples continue to use contraception, to use their sexuality apart from God’s design for it? For many, that’s the net that we’re unwilling to abandon. Perhaps the sense of control, not self-control that’s able to abstain during certain periods of time to work within God’s design. Instead, it’s the control of my circumstances, control of the marital act, to experience its pleasure apart from its possibilities. What God has revealed about human sexuality has not changed in this area or in any other. Sins that could send people to hell in 1921 can do the same thing in 2021.  

Now if anyone is unfamiliar with Natural Family Planning, the methods of spacing births that respect God’s designs, please let me know. There are many physicians in Aberdeen that are able to meet with couples and give training in these methods. If there’s any way that the parish can be of assistance, we want to make that available. We want you to have everything you need to be able to follow Christ in radical ways. To abandon the nets today and not look back. To proclaim the Gospel of Life fully in a world that so desperately needs to hear it. 

“Peace, Peace” When There Is No Peace

Bulletin Letter, Ordinary Sunday 3B

I almost have to laugh—if it weren’t so sad that many actually believe this—when people say we live in one of the most peaceful times in human history. Of course on the surface, the world does seem relatively peaceful today, especially in contrast to the many armed conflicts of antiquity and the more recent world wars of the 20th century. But peace is not merely the absence of war. 

As long as close to a million innocent human lives are snuffed out each year since 1973, in our country alone—through what many still call “reproductive rights,” “healthcare,” and “choice”—there cannot be peace. We really live among the most violent and barbaric periods of all time. And the fact that so many do not even recognize this as violence only adds to the horror. 

I often wonder how many classmates were “missing” as I went through school, how many friends I never had a chance to meet simply because they were never given a chance at life. How many of those lives lost would have been with me in seminary, serving as priests today? Or sustaining the world by their prayers and work as religious monks or sisters? St. Teresa of Calcutta is often quoted, saying, “It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.” 

I’ve always been highly suspect of efforts to paint every issue as a “life issue,” because this inevitably downplays the gravity and scale of abortions that take place not only in our country but throughout the world. Environmentalism, immigration, and even capital punishment are simply not cases—in principle—of the direct and intentional killing of clearly innocent human life. The possibility that innocent people can be executed in the case of the death penalty is a greater indictment of our justice system than of capital punishment itself. And the number of executions carried out each year is not at all comparable to the number of abortions.  

Euthanasia or assisted suicide is the most closely related as it also consists of intentionally killing innocent human life. We continue to pray for an end to abortion and every attack on the sanctity of human life. We also pray for all women who have undergone abortions—often finding themselves sorely lacking in the support they would need as mothers—that they would experience God’s boundless mercy in the Sacrament of Confession and begin healing. We pray especially for those currently considering such a “choice,” that God and the people around them would help them see that there are many other—and much better—options.

Students of God

Homily, Ordinary Sunday 2B

Probably all of us can remember—if we think hard enough—various teachers and coaches we had during our lives. And most of us remember a few of them in particular more vividly, those that made a big impact on us—for better or worse. Some may have even changed or shifted our perspective on something for the rest of our lives. One such teacher for me was one of my college professors. Up until that point in my life, all through grade school and high school, I had never really cared much for history as a subject. It just seemed so boring to me, one dumb thing after another, just memorization of a series of names, dates, and events. But my college professor for an introductory course took an approach to history that I hadn’t seen before.

We would still look at people, events, and great works of literature from different points of history, but we were encouraged to focus on the various challenges faced in the areas of their physical environment (so the limited amount of natural resources, droughts, famine, or other adversities they had to contend with) or in their human environment (conflicts with other nations or even within their own society, the rights of the king versus the rights of parents and families) or challenges in their sacred environment (what they thought of God or their various religious practices). And from seeing how a society from a given point in history handled those challenges and attempted solutions would tell us a lot about what they considered to be most important, what they valued as true, good, and beautiful. Now with this approach to history, I could actually find meaning and purpose in the study of history that went beyond just memorization of names and dates. I could even find meaning and significance for my own life and what I consider to be true, good, and beautiful by comparison to the perspectives from people of societies of the past, even those who lived thousands of years ago.

In our readings today we hear about two great teachers, or really, three teachers: Eli, John the Baptist, and the Lord Himself. Eli had served as the guide and guardian for the Prophet Samuel up to that point in his life, and St. John the Baptist had gathered a few disciples or students of his own—including St. Andrew—from the many who went out into the desert to receive his baptism of repentance. But the time had come for Eli and for John the Baptist to hand over the reins, to hand over their students to a far better Teacher. Eli recognizes that the Lord was calling Samuel, and so as his final lesson, teaches Samuel to respond and listen to the voice of the Lord. John the Baptist points out the Lamb of God, the Lord in human flesh, and immediately his disciples leave him and follow Jesus instead.

As good teachers, Eli and John the Baptist rejoice for their students even as their time with them comes to an end. The best of teachers are servants of the truth, really, they are servants of God who is Truth. Good teachers are subject with their students to something greater than themselves. And so it’s not with any resentment or jealousy that Eli and John the Baptist entrust their students to the greatest of Teachers, to God Himself.

But we also know that the quality of the teacher is only one part of the equation. If students don’t show up for class, if they don’t do the reading and the homework, if they don’t pay attention and apply themselves, if they’re not really open to learning, even the best teacher is not going to have much effect. Jesus, the Lamb of God, still desires to be the Teacher and Guide for each one of us, but many of us—myself included—are not very good students of God. Through the Scriptures and through the teachings of His Church, which God guarantees by His own faithfulness, He wants to shift our perspective for the rest of our lives. Are we actually open to God’s perspective, to the teachings of the Church that don’t already line up with all our own opinions? Have we done any homework, any reading to try and actually understand the reasons behind the teachings of the Church instead of assuming that they’re just outdated? The truth doesn’t change. It doesn’t actually have an expiration date. The truth never becomes outdated.

In our prayer, do we ever really listen for the voice of God? Do we ever say with Samuel, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening,” and then actually spend some time in silence, giving the Lord time and opportunity to speak to us, or are we always rushing on to the next thing? Do we even know how to recognize His voice, to distinguish His voice from our own desires or from worldly voices that compete for our attention? “We have found the Messiah,” the definitive Teacher who is Truth Himself in the flesh. If we are good students, faithful disciples, the Lord will show us what’s truly important, in this life and for the life to come. If we have “ears open to obedience,” He will pass on to us His own values of what is True, Good, and Beautiful. The Lord Himself is the Way, and in this Sacrament of His Body and Blood, He gives us His own strength to walk on the Way to everlasting life. “Behold the Lamb of God,” and become His disciples.

Planned Obsolescence

Bulletin Letter, Ordinary Sunday 2B

This week I was finally forced to get a new cell phone, as the screen on the one I had stopped working. I did have it for over five years, though, and it was a 2013 model, so I shouldn’t really be surprised. However, I am surprised to discover that the concept of “planned obsolescence” is already close to 100 years old. Someone first wrote about it back in 1928. The idea is just that products are no longer build to last, or even that they are intentionally built to fail after a certain period of time (often just a few days or months after the warranty runs out). 

They are expected—planned—to become obsolete or practically unusable due to new technologies or due to their own lackluster construction. It does seem rather curious to me that many of the same companies who profess to be so concerned about our care for the environment and developing renewable resources are the very ones whose fragile products are filling our landfills. Pope Francis has complained about our “throw-away culture” on more than one occasion. 

Growth and maturity in the spiritual life often involves a very different attitude and approach. We are called to deepen our appreciation for what we’ve always had rather than thinking we’ve outgrown the gifts of God and should move on to other novelties. The Scriptures, the Sacraments, and prayers that we’ve had memorized for years never really become obsolete, but we often find renewal precisely in rediscovering things of the past or things we’ve been familiar with since childhood. 

And more than anything else, we never outgrow our dependence on God. There was a time in my life that it finally dawned on me that so often when I would pray to God for virtue, for strength to avoid temptation and sin, I had the wrong idea about what virtue would mean. If I wanted virtue to be strong on my own—so that I wouldn’t have to depend on God so much—of course this isn’t the type of “virtue” that God wants to see in us. God loves us as His own dear children. He wants to be with us. He wants to live His Life in us. Real virtue brings us into closer relationship with God, greater dependence, not independence from Him. Even Jesus Himself said, “I can do nothing on my own” (John 5:30). His strength came precisely from living in complete dependence upon God the Father, with the Holy Spirit working through His human nature. 

“Even youths grow weary, and young men stumble and fall, but those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength” (Isaiah 40:30-31).

Become What We Can

Homily, Baptism of the Lord B

One of the oldest lessons in the Bible and one of the first that we probably struggle to learn in our own families—and perhaps even throughout our lives—is to take responsibility for our actions, to own up to our mistakes and our sins. At home, our avoidance of taking responsibility can involve trying to hide or just glue back together—hopefully, without anyone else noticing—something we’ve broken, maybe a picture frame or figurine. Maybe they won’t notice that it’s gone or the new cracks in it. At the very least, we try to come up with a story that makes it seem like someone else’s fault or at least not as much our own fault. Maybe we can blame the dog.  

Even our first parents after committing the very first sin tried to hide themselves from God using fig leaves, and when confronted, they went on to blame someone else. Adam told God it was the woman, whom God had put there with him, casting the blame both on Eve and also on God for putting her in the Garden. Eve, of course, blames the serpent. And from an early age, most of us struggle to just say simply, “I did this. I messed up. I could have done something else, but this is what I chose.” Or even, “It was an accident. I wasn’t being careful enough. I’m sorry.” 

We’ve been entrusted with a great gift: free will. And when we use it to good effect like we’re supposed to, most of us don’t have nearly as much trouble taking credit for our accomplishments, for good grades, for points on the scoreboard, or for a job well done. But when we abuse our freedom and commit sin, suddenly it’s someone else’s fault or because of our circumstances. But the Gospel urges us to own up to our sins. Those who went out to the Jordan River to be baptized by John acknowledged their sins, and Isaiah tells us in our first reading, “Let the scoundrel forsake his way, and the wicked man his thoughts; let him turn to the Lord for mercy, to our God, who is generous in forgiving.”  

I often think of a reminder that another priest gave his parishioners, that when we come for the Sacrament of Confession, that’s the time to talk about our own sins, not the sins of other people around us. But our instinct is to make excuses, blame it on something else. But when we can acknowledge our sins simply and own up to them, that’s when we can receive God’s mercy in a more powerful way and allow Him to move our free will back in the right direction. 

More and more over the past decades, various psychologies and sociologies have more and more diminished our sense of personal responsibility and of free will. Much more common today is collective guilt and guilt by association, which is often just another form of unjust prejudice. Even the most recent invasion of the Capitol in Washington can’t just be blamed on those who actually broke windows, committed vandalism and violence, but we have to see who else can be implicated, which other of my political opponents can share the blame for this? And I’m not saying we don’t have an effect upon one another, even through our words, but at the end of the day, you can choose what it is you’re going to do or not do, and you’re responsible for that response. 

But more and more we’re told, it’s just your upbringing, it’s just your privilege or your lack of privilege, you were just born that way, or born into a certain set of circumstances, or it’s just the people you surround yourself with, or the news station you choose to read or watch. And while all these things have a certain amount of influence, we can also choose how much we allow these things to influence our own behavior. I can’t think of anything more patronizing, disenfranchising, and demeaning than to tell people they really can’t help the kind of person they’ve turned out to be or the actions they’ve taken because of their family’s income, their skin color, or whatever else. 

Many people are familiar with Fred Rogers from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. When he appeared before Congress to obtain more funding for public television, he shared a song during that hearing that made a big impression. “What do you do with the mad that you feel/ When you feel so mad you could bite?/ When the whole wide world seems oh, so wrong…/ And nothing you do seems very right?/ … It’s great to be able to stop/ When you’ve planned a thing that’s wrong,/ And be able to do something else instead/ And think this song:/ I can stop when I want to/ Can stop when I wish/ I can stop, stop, stop any time./ And what a good feeling to feel like this/ And know that the feeling is really mine./ Know that there’s something deep inside/ That helps us become what we can./ For a girl can be someday a lady./ And a boy can be someday a man.” 

As we celebrate the Lord’s Baptism in the River Jordan, by which Jesus made the waters holy for our own baptism, we see in the humanity of Christ the potential for our own humanity, for our own holiness, what we can be, but until we rediscover the common-sense wisdom of free will and personal responsibility, we’ll continue to commit the same sins, time and again, not really believing that we’re able to do something else, and we’ll continue to see violence and excuses and blame cast around. We need to rediscover that we can choose to do something better. God strengthens us to do so as He washes away our sins. Use well the gifts entrusted to you by God, most especially the great gift of your freedom of soul, which no one can take away from you, even if your body would be placed in chains. No more excuses. No more diversions. Take ownership of your life and of your actions. Your freedom was purchased at the price of Christ’s own Precious Blood poured out for you. Don’t let His sacrifice be in vain. 

Year of Grace

Bulletin Letter, Baptism of the Lord

It’s nice to be back to a fairly ordinary week. Christmas and New Year’s Masses along with a couple funerals make for a rather full schedule. I finally had time to finish opening Christmas cards. Many thanks for your generosity to me and to the parishes during this season, especially at the end of what had been such a difficult year for so many. I especially ask that you continue to pray for me and for one another as we embark upon the Year of Grace 2021.

I’ll always laugh a little when I see the phrase “Year of Grace”—which appears in the liturgical Ordo, the official list of Feasts for the Church’s calendar—because one year, when another priest read that, he became convinced that the Pope had made a special declaration that this would be a Year of Grace, much like we are currently in the Year of St. Joseph or like the Year of St. Paul back in 2008 and 2009. He had even started to formulate a plan for a parish mission on the theme of sanctifying grace and other events focusing on the Sacraments. A bit of the wind came out of his sails when I informed him that in fact, every year is called the Year of Grace in the Ordo, and the Pope had made not made any special proclamation.

I do often reflect on that phrase, though, and how fitting that every year should be a year of grace for us and should be recognized by us as a year of grace. No matter what else happens this year, the most important and consequential for us in this life and into eternity will be how much we are able to receive and cooperate with the grace and gift of God. Human actions are only able to go so far. And we are all too familiar with how destructive human action can be at times, but it is the working of God that will endure forever. The Kingdom of Christ will have no end, even while earthly kingdoms rise and fall.

God is faithful. He does not change, and He has not changed His mind about His plan for us. God has decided that this is and will be a year of grace for us, a time when His assistance is ready for those who call upon Him, a time when He continues to pour out the Gift of Himself in the Sacraments of His Church. Will we respond to His Grace and meet any challenges with the confidence that comes from God, or allow the thorns of worldly anxiety to choke the word of God in us? “In the world, you will have trouble. But take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Manifestation of God

Homily, Epiphany

Most people, when they learn that I spent four years of my studies in Rome, assume that I learned Italian while I was there. But most of the people in the college where I stayed were American, Australian, or Canadian, and my classes were in English. When I would go to stores or other places in the city, I was very fluent at pointing and most cash registers or restaurant checks display numbers for pricing. Even when I go to stores or restaurants around here, I often don’t have much occasion for speaking English, so I didn’t need all that much Italian over there. There are two specific words, though, that everyone who lives for any length of time within Rome learns very quickly, because not knowing these two words can result in grave inconveniences. The first is sciopero which means a strike, a labor strike, usually a transportation strike, which means that if you were planning to use the bus or trains or airplanes that day, you might not actually end up going anywhere. Luckily, they were pretty organized at scheduling their strikes, so you’d know ahead of time. 

The second essential Italian word is more related to the name of today’s Feast, and that is manifestazione, which sounds like the English manifestation. Probably closer in meaning to demonstration, because the other thing about Rome being the capital of Italy with lots of government buildings, they have their fair share of picketing, protests, even protests that turn violent. So if you didn’t want to get stuck standing by a car fire or police barricade on your way home from school (on the other side of Rome), it was a good idea to know about any manifestazioni going on and to choose an alternate route. 

The reason I bring it up and that it comes to mind is that we probably don’t think very often about what the name of today’s Feast really means. Epiphany basically has the same meaning, from the Greek word for manifestation or revelation or demonstration. But while political demonstration involves showing how frustrated, angry, and disappointed we are with our leaders or laws or human conditions, the Epiphany is all about God manifesting His glory to us, demonstrating His power, revealing His Face to those who seek Him, hopefully to set us on fire for love of Him, not a fire that destroys any of our communities, but one that draws us together and leads to eternal life.  

The Feast of the Epiphany actually celebrates three moments of God’s manifestation to us. The main one that we associate with the Feast is the Adoration of the three magi or three kings. These foreign kings from the East stand in for all the nations and Gentiles, those who were not Jewish, but whom God also called to see, to behold the Face of the newborn King. The second moment of manifestation or epiphany is what we celebrate next Sunday: the Baptism of the Lord, which manifests both the Holy Trinity and the identity of Jesus, revealed as the beloved Son of God by the Father’s voice from heaven, and as the Christ, the Messiah, the One Anointed by the Holy Spirit, who descends in the form of a dove and remains upon Him.  

The third moment of Epiphany, which we don’t always hear too much about, happens during the wedding feast at Cana. This was the first of Jesus’ miracles when He turned water into wine, manifesting His power, also manifesting God’s care and providence for us, the role of Mary’s intercession, most of all the great abundance of God’s gifts. The ridiculous amount of wine that Jesus provides is meant to reassure us that with God, we don’t just have enough to get by, we will have more than enough when we’re actually willing to follow Mary’s instructions to do whatever Jesus tells us. 

This Epiphany, this manifestation of God’s love, God’s power, God’s glory, is also an opportunity for us to manifest our love for God. The three magi brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. What tribute will you bring to lay at the feet of the Christ Child? More than anything else, God desires your trust, the loyalty of your heart, your willingness to follow Christ and to take the advice of His Mother to “do whatever He tells you,” so that you might also experience the transformation and abundance that Jesus brings. And so that you, in turn—more than any political demonstration or violent rioting—would by your faithful following of Christ make manifest the glory of God, not just to crooked politicians, but to the entire world.

Holy Chalk!

Bulletin Letter, Epiphany

A number of years ago, I first came across the custom of blessing chalk on the Solemnity of the Epiphany. I had never seen or heard of it in my first decade of life. For those not familiar, the custom is for each family to gather at the entrance of their home and pray for God’s blessings upon them and upon all who enter under their roof during the rest of the new year. The head of the household takes chalk blessed on the Day of Epiphany and writes on the lintel over the main entrance to the house and perhaps over other entrances or doorways, “20+C+M+B+2 1” while pronouncing (if possible) in his best Latin, “Christus Mansionem Benedicat,” meaning, “May Christ bless the house.” The letters “CMB” also stand for the traditional names of the three wise men: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. The numbers at each end are for the current year. 

Blessings have always been a big part of Catholic practice, even in the Old Testament. There is still a tradition of asking a newly ordained priest for his blessing. Bishop Swain, at the end of my ordination Mass, was the first to ask for and receive my priestly blessing. A few years ago, my dad was at the VA for another knee replacement. When I visited him there, he was very insistent that I give him a blessing before leaving. It was quite a privilege for me to have these two men ask for my blessing after I had admired them for so many years and received so many blessings through them. I also had the great privilege of blessing my sister and her husband about ten minutes before the birth of one of my nieces. 

What does it mean to bless? The Latin “benedicere” comes from the words meaning “to speak well of.” A blessing has been defined as a calling down of God’s favor or protection upon someone or something. A blessing is the opposite of a curse. And it belongs especially to fathers to pronounce blessings. First and foremost, God the Father blesses us and speaks to us our true name and identity. He calls us “very good,” as we hear at the end of the first chapter of the Bible, and the Word of his blessing in Jesus Christ through the Sacraments makes us good and restores what we had lost through sin. 

As Christians, by virtue of the royal priesthood that we share in Christ, we are all called to be a blessing to others, to “speak well of” one another to remind each other—even to challenge one another—to live up to our true identity in Christ Jesus, to be “holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life” (from the “Benedictus” of Zechariah, Luke 1:75). May you be given every favor and blessing in this new year, and may you and your families and households be a source of blessing to many others, and to all who enter under your roof. 

God’s Big Plans

Homily, Mary Mother of God

I sometimes wonder about my parents, at the time of their wedding, what ideas they would have had about what their life together was going to look like, whether they had any idea that they would be raising nine kids, and how much trouble each one of us would be. And had they known, would they still have gone through with it? As the youngest, I am definitely glad that they did not stop after the eighth kid. But throughout their life together, they remained open to God’s plan for their marriage and for their family, and with great generosity and faith, they received each new life with great thanksgiving. 

As we celebrate today the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God, and as we continue to contemplate with the shepherds the manger scene, I often wonder if Mary realized at the time of the Annunciation—nine months earlier, when she said “yes” to her vocation as Mother of God—did Mary realize what this was going to mean for her life and reputation, and for her marriage with St. Joseph? Did she foresee the rumors that would circulate about the child’s origin, the gossip and the calling into question of her own fidelity, in being found pregnant before living with her husband? Today we think of “Mother of God” as a title of great honor, but during her own lifetime, Mary’s vocation as Mother of God probably brought her the suspicion and scorn of her neighbors. But throughout her trials, Mary remained open to God’s plan for her life and for her marriage, trusting that God’s plan would be far better than her own expectations and desires, even when that plan proved difficult, and next to impossible to understand. 

The Gospel today tells us that as Mary heard about the shepherds’ vision of angels, she “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” Mary continued to try to understand what being the Mother of God would mean for her and for the world. As they named her Son Jesus, which means ‘salvation,’ did she ever wonder what that salvation was going to cost, what God the Father’s plan would entail for Jesus and for herself on Calvary someday? And just how bitterly her faith would be put to the test as she would witness her own Son’s crucifixion?  

We should not celebrate today’s Feast of Mary, the Mother of God enthroned in heaven, without keeping in mind and learning from what that title cost her. If it is true that God lifts up the lowly, then it’s often only through various trials and sufferings that God brings us to the glory He has planned for us. As I was growing up my mother made it clear to me and to my siblings, that what we wanted to do or what we wanted to be when we grew up was not nearly as important as what God wanted us to be and what God wanted us to do with our lives. I remember hearing one of my brothers tell her, “Well, I’ve thought about the priesthood. I just don’t think it’s for me.” Then she’d reply, “It doesn’t matter what you think. What does God think about it?” If it’s not something you regularly ask already, I encourage you to pray every day of this new year, and to ask, “God, what do You want me to do? What is Your will for my life?”  

And even if we’re older and we’ve already set out upon our vocation, there is never a stage of life when we no longer need to ask this question. I’ve become a priest. That is my vocation. But am I being the sort of priest that God wants me to be, or am I serving merely my own will? Out of concern for my reputation and comfort, do I take the easy road rather than the road that God has laid out for me? Do I shy away from speaking difficult truths, the teachings of the Church that are not as readily accepted by Catholics today? No matter what your vocation or occupation, how can your marriage better serve God’s plan and reflect God’s own sacrificial love? How can your work and your way of conducting yourself and your business better reflect God’s work in the world, God’s justice, mercy, peace, and generosity? In retirement, how can you use your time and resources to better serve God’s purposes and the people around you? For all of us, what are the compromises with evil that we’ve made, to avoid discomfort, to avoid any possibility of confrontation or difficult conversation, to avoid any trial of faith, and ultimately, to miss the opportunity of becoming what God has called us to be? What are the limits that we’ve placed upon ourselves or upon God that keep us from fully embracing all that God has revealed through the teachings of the Catholic Church? 

One of the most frequent things God says to us throughout the Bible is, “Do not be afraid.” Give yourself entirely to Christ and to God’s plan for your life. Whatever the trials or sufferings, I promise you, they are worth it. God’s plan for your life will far exceed your own desires and expectations. The world today is in desperate need of saints—those who have been radicalized for Christ—not people who are halfway. Mary gave everything to God and through her trials became Mother of all the living. Let’s follow our Mother’s example as we rely on her prayers. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen. 

Centered on God

Homily, Holy Family B

I was talking to another priest about visiting people in their homes and how he’s in the habit of kind of looking around—not in an obvious way—but noticing what they have hanging on their walls or how their house is decorated. Do they have any religious art, crucifixes, sacramentals, things that serve as reminders to family members and to visitors that this house and this family belongs to God? If someone had to guess based on what they saw in your home, or maybe in looking at the schedules of the members of your family, how you spend your time, where you spend your money, and when we’re really honest with ourselves, what would we say is really at the center of our family? Do we even have a center, a common goal or purpose? 

For the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, that center was always God. Mary conceived and gave birth to Jesus as a Virgin Mother. Her whole life was changed when the Angel Gabriel revealed God’s plan in the Annunciation. And her response to God would be the same throughout her life: “Let it be done to me according to your word.” Joseph’s life was changed when an angel in a dream revealed God’s plan to him and told him to take his already pregnant wife into his home. Through the rest of his life, he would not hesitate to follow God’s will and direction, even to move to another country, to Egypt, when the safety of his new family was threatened, and then to move to Nazareth at God’s direction. Jesus who is God in the Flesh is the One whom Joseph and Mary would always strive to protect and to serve as they watched over him, and as they were privileged to witness His growth in strength, wisdom, and grace. 

Keeping God at the center is what made the Holy Family holy. Placing anything else at the center of our own families has consequences, but it won’t make them healthy or holy. So when we’re honest, what is at the center of our family? Is it sports? Academics? Music? Money? Are there things that we serve more faithfully than we serve God? Is your first concern that the members of your family are growing into the likeness of Christ and following God’s will for them, or are we more concerned that they’re becoming the smartest, the best looking, the most athletic, the most successful in a worldly sense?  

I often think of the passage from the end of the Book of Joshua. Before Joshua dies, after he had spent his life serving God and leading the people of Israel—after the death of Moses, Joshua is the one who led them into the Promised Land, into their inheritance—so before he dies he gathers the tribes once again and puts the question to them, saying: “Decide today whom you will serve,” whether the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or “the gods that your fathers served beyond the river” before Abraham was called out, or the gods of the Egyptians or the gods of the people surrounding you, “in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” 

There are things we can do to work at this, to try and improve. It doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s an ongoing commitment that we need to renew time and time again. It takes effort and discipline. Are there times that you pray as a family, times that go beyond just the meal prayer or Sunday Mass? My mom would always repeat to us, “The family that prays together stays together,” especially as she had everybody stop what they were doing and come into the living room to pray the Rosary in the evening. It takes commitment and consistency. Do you ever talk to one another about your relationship with God, about what you’re learning in religious education or at Mass or in personal study? Do you share how you see God working in your life, what he’s asking of you each day?  

Again, these things don’t happen overnight, they’re habits that need to be developed and practiced, but if we don’t start somewhere, we won’t get anywhere. And if we’re not working to make sure that God is at the center of our family and of our life, something else will always take His place. And it usually ends up being one of the false gods that many of the people around us already serve, whether that’s money, sports, success. But these other things, these other gods—no matter how good or wholesome they might seem—when they take priority over the true God in our lives and in our families, they can never make us happy. They can never make us holy. 

Most holy Mother Mary and most faithful St. Joseph, intercede for us. Help us to place at the center of our lives and of our families Jesus Christ, our Savior. Teach us to serve Him and His most Sacred Heart above all others—as you did—so that like you, we may find in Christ the cause and fulfillment of all our joy.