A Second Chance at Death

Homily, Lenten Sunday 5A

I sometimes wonder if Lazarus was ever upset with Jesus, for raising him from the dead. Almost all of us only have to die once, but someday, after the events in today’s Gospel, poor Lazarus would have to die a second time. Then again, maybe Lazarus was especially grateful to Jesus that he was given a sort of practice run the first time through. Do you think Lazarus might have lived any differently—after experiencing death—from how he had lived before?

We’ve all probably heard of people having near-death experiences. Some of us here may have even had a few ourselves. Consistent in almost every account is that these brushes with death often bring about a change in perspective. A heightened awareness that life is really very short and that death is always encroaching, that each one of us is terminal in a very real sense, no matter how healthy we might appear to be right now. For many, the current pandemic has also brought an awareness of our mortality to the forefront of our minds, and that’s not always a bad thing. This perspective can help us to better appreciate what a great gift each and every moment of life really is, and how so many things that we tend to worry about and put so much time and energy into are really not all that important in the larger scheme of things. And so many of the things that we tend to take for granted are never guaranteed.

Personal comfort and convenience, entertainment, nice cars and bigger houses, even our reputation and social status, all these things will be pretty useless at the moment when we stand naked before the judgment seat of God. We won’t have any excuses to hide behind, only the truth of what we did or did not do with the life and the time that God entrusted to us.

So are you ready? Am I ready? Or are there still areas of our life where we are fighting against God, insisting on our own way or the way of the world rather than the Way of Christ and His Church, the Way of the Cross? There’s a lot of talk today about various problems in the world, but so often our focus is on the symptoms and not the actual cause. We talk about corrupt systems of government and public policy, we talk about war and violence, terrorism, disease, and disasters. Even death itself is merely a symptom. But until we actually address the real cause of life’s problems, until we see sin for what it is, as the real problem, and our rebellion against God’s design and plan for us and for His creation as the root cause of all our other ills, we will not be able to move much closer to any actual solutions, to any lasting peace.

With the time that remains in this season of Lent, let’s move beyond just working on the symptoms of our disordered lives, for a temporary, cosmetic change, and instead, invite Jesus into the depths of our hearts, into the stench of our tombs, into the rottenness of our sins and habits of sin, that He might set us free and raise us to new life. The time of mercy is drawing to a close, and the end approaches quickly for each one of us. The opportunity is now. Let’s not waste it.

A New Way of Seeing

Homily, Lenten Sunday 4A

Personally, I’ve had a long history of problems with my eyesight. I was only in first grade when I was fitted for my first pair of glasses. I switched to contacts while in school and sports, but these would eventually start to irritate my eyes. My latest pair of glasses I ordered online for a fraction of the usual cost. A couple of my brothers now have had laser eye surgery, but I might wait a while longer for that. The interesting thing about almost always having corrective lenses is that most of the time, we don’t even realize how blurry our vision is until after we get a new prescription. We just get used to not seeing things so well, but then with a new pair of glasses, it’s like we suddenly realize again that trees have individual leaves on the branches, and we see blades of grass, or perhaps more distressing, we might suddenly notice ants or spiders crawling around in our rooms at home. The whole world comes at us again in stunning detail and high definition.

Now the man in today’s Gospel is not just seeing clearly again, having his sight restored, but is seeing things for the very first time in his life. Because the man was born blind and now receives from Jesus a whole new kind of vision that he had never experienced before, this Gospel passage was always seen as an image of the gift of faith, a whole new spiritual vision that God gives to us, to see things according to God’s perspective. We receive the eyes of faith at our Baptism, but if we fail to really nourish our faith, if we focus exclusively on trivial things, only on the here and now, without viewing them in the context of eternity, we run the risk of becoming rather nearsighted in faith.

How much of our time and energy do we invest into things that are really rather pointless and trivial, things that quickly pass away? Whether video games, sports teams, movies and television, the music we listen to, the gossip we engage in. And how does that compare with the amount of time or energy that we give to prayer, to fostering our relationship with God that will hopefully last forever? How much do we invest in really learning Christ, learning not just the teachings of the Church but also the reasons behind them? How much do we really strive to understand our Catholic faith and grow to love it and live it, to learn the Scriptures and the history and Tradition of the Church, and to act upon this knowledge?

Now I played sports in high school. I ran track, played football and basketball. I probably enjoyed basketball the most, but to me they always remained sports, games, things that were meant to be fun, not taken too seriously. Sports can also teach important lessons of the value of discipline, hard work, setting and reaching goals, but I’ve always been very critical of our culture’s level of obsession with sports and performance. It’s one thing to play sports at our leisure and to learn the lessons that the game teaches to those who play, but it’s another thing entirely to have a whole culture and several industries centered around professional, college, and high school athletics. To have so much attention and pressure focused, that someone’s injury could lead them to question their entire identity and purpose in life. It’s not healthy, and it needs to change. The current pandemic has stripped away a lot of sports and many other things that we would consider part of normal life. It’s good for us to reflect: how have these restrictions affected us? How have they affected our faith? And in the wider culture, how has the concern over a disease—that could mean life or death for many—how has this crisis called into question the level of importance and value we tend to place on so many trivial things?

If Catholics and people of faith are unwilling to question and challenge the misguided values of the culture around us, if instead we just let ourselves be swept up into the madness, we fail in our prophetic mission, and we risk losing sight ourselves of what’s truly most important and lasting, in life and in death. We risk a spiritual blindness that is far worse than the loss of our eyes. God grant us the lens of faith to see everything more vividly in the perspective of eternity, and in view of the accounting that we must then render to God for every idle word and vain pursuit.

Confronted with Thirst

Homily, Lenten Sunday 3A

Some psychologists estimate that first impressions can be formed in as little as three seconds. Now because I’ve always been naturally shy and more reserved around people that I don’t know very well, I’ve never been very good at making an impression the very first time I talk to someone, or I end up coming across as rather gruff and overly serious. But, when I look at today’s Gospel reading, and the words and actions of Jesus towards the woman at the well, He makes even me look like an expert at first impressions.

When the Samaritan woman reaches the well, instead of trying to break the ice by mentioning how sunny it had been lately, or asking where she had purchased her water jar, Jesus instead decides to lead with, “Give me a drink.” Probably not the best thing to start off with, making demands of someone you’ve never spoken to before, but Jesus was tired so maybe we can cut Him some slack. But the other problem with His request is that the woman can tell that Jesus is a Jew, so she probably just thinks that He’s taunting her. Jews considered all Samaritans to be unclean, and so a Jew would never really accept a drink from her anyway.

When the Samaritan woman expresses her surprise, confusion, or anger at His request for a drink, Jesus doesn’t seem to do much better in His second attempt. He says, “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” Jesus is basically saying to her, “Don’t you realize who I am?” Now Jesus is sounding even more arrogant, making Himself out to be greater than the Patriarch Jacob who had given them the well.

After another brief exchange about living water, the Samaritan woman finally asks Jesus to give her this water. In reply, Jesus seems to completely change the subject, telling the woman to come back with her husband, and then proceeding to tell her all about her past and current living arrangements. “You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” Again, the first time we meet someone, it doesn’t seem like a good idea to bring up their sins and their checkered past. But Jesus has a different goal when it comes to making first impressions.

He is not really concerned about His own reputation. Above all, Jesus wants to help us realize our need for God, to experience our thirst for God, even if that thirst might be painful. The Samaritan woman was looking for love in all those relationships, but without knowing the love of God, she would always remain thirsty. What are the relationships in our own lives that we continue to use as a substitute for having a real and intimate relationship with almighty God? How often do we really make time for prayer and give the very best of ourselves to God, rather than just giving God whatever is leftover of our time and energy at the end of the day? How might Jesus be trying to shake us out of our complacency, to wake us up to re-evaluate our priorities in life? Whatever you think of the current situation with coronavirus, whether you think it’s overblown or really verging on the end of the world, plagues and the outbreak of disease have always been seen as opportunities and promptings to repent and call upon the mercy and protection of God.

The world doesn’t need more mediocre Catholics. The world is in desperate need of Saints. How often have we let our concern for what others might think of us prevent us from boldly sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with everyone we meet, just as the Samaritan woman invited everyone in town to come out and meet Jesus? If you’re not interested in becoming a Saint and going to extremes for the love of Christ, even willing to make fools of ourselves for the sake of the Gospel, if we’re content with just getting by as Catholics, then what are we really doing here? May Jesus Christ, present in this Eucharist, make a deep and lasting impression upon us, that we might always grow in His love and feel compelled to spread the Gospel to everyone we meet, to proclaim Christ to all the world.

Fight Your True Enemy

Homily, Lenten Sunday 1A

One of the challenges of warfare—sometimes most of the challenge—is to be able to correctly identify and recognize the enemy. From what I’ve heard, this is what makes the war on terror so difficult and so stressful. Terrorists don’t wear uniforms, and they often disguise themselves as civilians. If we don’t know who or what we’re fighting against, or if we’re not able to recognize them, we can end up wasting a lot of energy, time, and other resources, even fighting against ourselves and against our own allies.

Now if you look at the Old Testament and the history of Israel, even if you look at that part of the world still today, we know that God’s chosen people were well-acquainted with warfare, with conflict, invasions, and exile. And by the time Jesus was born, one of the great expectations, and part of the sort of job description of the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One of God, He was supposed to free the Jews from their enemies. Even as God had freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and sent against the Egyptians the ten plagues—in a sense, making war upon them—so the Jews in the days of Jesus were expecting the Messiah to lead a military campaign against their oppressors. And who were they most likely to identify as their oppressors, as their enemies in the time of Jesus? Probably the Romans, the governors that Caesar had appointed over them.

The Gospel we heard today probably doesn’t sound much like the account of a military campaign, but that’s exactly what it is. After His baptism in the Jordan River, after we see Jesus Anointed with the Holy Spirit of God descending upon Him like a dove, the Spirit of the Christ leads Him on campaign “into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” You see, the Jews had a much more ancient and dangerous enemy than the Romans, or the Greeks, or the Babylonians, or the Assyrians, or the Philistines, or the Egyptians, or any other group of people that had made life difficult for Israel over the centuries. Jesus identifies the true enemy of the Jews, the true enemy of every human being. And by overcoming the various temptations of the devil, Jesus leads us as our King and General to lasting victory over sin and death.

As we begin this season of Lent, the main problem that most of us have, myself included, and the reason that many of us don’t actually make a lot of progress in our spiritual lives is that we don’t see sin and disobedience of God for what it really is: the only real enemy in life, the only thing that can bring us lasting harm. Most of us just want to treat the symptoms rather than the cause of our disease, to fix and tinker with our circumstances of life, instead of actually seeking the transformation of our hearts, of our minds, of our behaviors. We’d like to have more money, to have a better job, less stress, better relationships, but we’re not often all that interested in actually breaking with sin, identifying, working against, and rooting out our own bad habits, our own ways of thinking, of speaking, and of doing things that we know are not healthy and not holy.

Because we treat our own sin as a minor problem—or excusable for me because of my difficult and special circumstances—because we don’t recognize and fight our real enemy, we continue to run up against the same walls time and again in our spiritual lives. It’s no great wonder that we face the same problems—for years or even decades—in our relationships, in our families, in our workplace and in our free time, when we have not yet taken a real stand against the greatest evil in our lives, which is sin and disobedience of God.

As I was growing up, I came across a very short biography of St. Dominic Savio, who was a student of St. John Bosco in Italy. From the time of his First Holy Communion at 7 years old until his death at age 14, St. Dominic Savio had a motto that he would often repeat to himself, one of the resolutions he had made on the day of his First Communion: “Death, but not sin.” Death, but not sin. He was very clear in his own approach to life of what his greatest enemy was and the lengths that he should go to avoid it, that he would rather die than willfully commit even one sin. He would allow his physical life to come to an end rather than jeopardize his spiritual life in the slightest way.

In my own life, I often wonder what my motto would be, when I’m really honest with myself. Instead of, “Death, but not sin,” it might sound more like, “Sin, but not the slightest inconvenience or discomfort,” that the greatest evil that I often see for myself is being prevented in any moment from doing what I happen to think that I want to do, whether what I want to do is good for me or not. This is why I continue to make little if any progress, because I do not recognize and fight against my greatest enemy.

Jesus the Christ came to undue the works of the devil, to show us how to recognize our greatest enemy, our own sin and disobedience, and Jesus gives us the grace to overcome every temptation, if we will follow Him into battle, if we allow Him to lead us as our King and as our General.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Stuck Together by God

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 3A

During this past week, my sister asked me if I like my assignment in these parishes better than my previous assignments, but it’s difficult to compare because it’s so different. This is my first assignment as a pastor. I don’t have to drive the Bishop around anymore as his Master of Ceremonies, but now I have to drive myself around a lot than what I used to. The biggest change and what I noticed most at first is that I live by myself now. And back in July, I realized it’s probably the first time in my entire life. After high school, I entered seminary, and even if I had my own room, I really didn’t live by myself. There were always other seminarians around and people to talk to. After ordination, at my previous assignments as a parochial vicar, I always lived in the same house with one or two other priests. 

I used to think that priests have a lot in common with the disciples of Jesus, and that a call to the priesthood was like the call that we hear in the Gospel today, as Jesus calls His first Apostles by the Sea of Galilee, and as Peter and Andrew, James and John respond, by leaving everything behind to follow Jesus, leaving their nets, their boat, and their father. Priests definitely have a lot in common with the Apostles when it comes to our mission of proclaiming the Gospel and of serving the people of God by exercising authority in the Church. But I often wonder what it was like during those three years of Jesus’ public ministry, to be stuck with the 11 other Apostles, day in and day out. Maybe the eight years I spent in seminary would be somewhat comparable, but most seminaries have more than 12 students. If I really didn’t get along with certain other seminarians, it would have been easy enough to steer clear of them, but in a class of just 12, there wouldn’t be much choice about whom you spend your time with. The other Apostles were stuck with these four fishermen, and with Matthew the tax collector, Simon the Zealot, and even with Judas Iscariot, the one who would betray Jesus.  

For each of us who follow Jesus and become His disciples, a particular challenge for us is to really love—and over time, to learn how to love—those people that God has stuck us with, whether they are family members, relatives, in-laws, coworkers, classmates, or teachers. How would our lives be different if, instead of going out of our way to avoid the people that we find difficult, if instead we went out of our way to makes efforts at showing them kindness and concern, and to spend more time with them? I know in my own experience, in my family and in my preparation for the priesthood, having to live with other seminarians and other priests, it was especially those relationships that I perhaps would not have chosen for myself that have helped me to grow the most. How often in our lives do we end up resisting God’s work in us by avoiding anything difficult or awkward in our families and in our social interactions? 

In our second reading, St. Paul is heartbroken that divisions and cliques have made their way even into the Church at Corinth, that the one family of God has become divided. But Christ is not divided. As we receive the one Lord Jesus Christ in this Eucharist, may He continue to draw each of us closer to Himself, to unite us all together in the one Light and Truth revealed for our salvation. And may we always look to Jesus in the Eucharist as the source of our unity and of the strength that we need to reach out to those whom we would rather avoid or exclude. Lord Jesus, make us one. 

Why I’m Pro-Life

Bulletin Letter, Ordinary Time Sunday 3A

This past Wednesday was the 47th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, which effectively legalized abortion throughout the United States. Since then, more than 60 million lives of the unborn have been lost to abortion. For some perspective, all the wars and military conflicts the US has been involved in account for the loss of just over 1.1 million lives of US soldiers.

It always sounds ridiculous to me when people say that men are not allowed to have an opinion when it comes to abortion. That it shouldn’t concern us. It doesn’t affect us. But abortion affects everyone. There is a loss to every generation, even if it is not always noticed. As I went through school and college and seminary, I would often wonder just how many of my own classmates I never got to meet. How many friends, coworkers, even fellow priests were just gone, never even given a chance at life. We may never know on earth the full extent of the loss sustained by the human race through abortion. But we all witness the effects every day.

I’m thankful for all those who attend the March for Life in Washington and similar events in Pierre or other state capitals, prayers outside of clinics, and every effort made to work towards ensuring the legal protection of every human life, from conception to natural death. The other threat to the dignity of human life at the level of public policy is assisted suicide, which has already become legal in some eight states and the District of Columbia, but it’s being pushed in many other places. What should be a no-brainer in providing pain management and palliative care can turn into a manipulative bid for insurance companies to save some money or for hospitals to free up some beds by killing off patients.

At the same time that we work for change at the level of laws and public policy, we need to also be working to correct the cultural values that give rise to such unthinkable “choices.” A culture that demands sex without consequences will always end up killing its own, whether legal or not. Catholics that have accepted the use of contraception and sterilization against the laws of God have contributed to this same culture that sees the gift of life as an unwanted burden and God’s plan for human sexuality as intolerably oppressive. Do we look down on unwed mothers instead of offering support? How do we show love and support to those who are advanced in age or seriously ill? To bring meaning to their lives and to their sufferings, many of which are not physical sufferings?

Being pro-life involves more than just public events a few times a year. The effort needs to be made daily and in every place and interaction, to build a culture of life at the level of the human heart. Our Lady of Guadalupe, pray for us!