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.

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.

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.

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!

The Divine Proposal

Homily, Baptism of the Lord A

One great thing about being celibate and never getting married is that I will never have to think up some elaborate way of proposing. Now, it isn’t always the case, but most guys try to put at least some thought into it. You want the proposal to be memorable and make for a good story in case anyone asks. And you also want to have a lot of confidence beforehand that she is going to say yes. I always get nervous, though, when I see proposals on TV or in stadiums. Anything too public can really end up backfiring. Sometimes it seems like the guy is hoping that the public pressure will ensure an affirmative response, but as we all know, it doesn’t always work out that way.

In the Scriptures, the Lord often describes His relationship with His people as a marriage covenant. The book of Revelation describes the wedding supper of the Lamb that takes place in heaven and is anticipated in every Sacrifice of the Mass. Sin and disobedience to God’s Law and the courting of other gods, allowing anything in our lives to take priority over our relationship with God, this is compared in Scripture to infidelity towards the Lord as our Spouse, as the Church’s Spouse.

In the Gospel today, John the Baptist has prepared in the wilderness the way of the Lord. He has prepared a people for the Lord’s possession. He has called Israel back, to repent of their sins and to recommit themselves with greater fidelity to God, “to fulfill all righteousness” in anticipation of the Coming of the Messiah. In another place in Scripture, John calls himself the friend of the Bridegroom—or the best man at a wedding—who rejoices at the Bridegroom’s voice.

Of course, Jesus is the Bridegroom, who today, by undergoing John’s baptism of repentance, commits himself in love and fidelity to sinful humanity. Even though Christ Himself is without sin and has no need of repentance, Jesus shows that He is willing to take upon Himself and share all that belongs to his beloved bride, even the consequences of our sins, the inheritance we have earned by our disobedience. In any marriage, the man and woman are called to share in a real partnership of life. What was hers becomes his, and what was his becomes hers. So when Jesus consummates His marriage covenant with us upon the Cross on Calvary, He will even accept death, which rightly belongs to us, so that we might share eternal life, which rightly belongs to Him.

In His Baptism, Jesus weds to himself our sinful humanity, restoring to us the inheritance of his perfect obedience. This inheritance is the Holy Spirit of God, who comes to rest upon Jesus at His Baptism. The Holy Spirit will be sent to dwell in the Apostles and disciples at Pentecost, those first members of Christ’s holy Church, just as the Holy Spirit continues to fill all those who are joined as members to the Bride of Christ through the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation up to our own day.

Today, we also hear the Father’s voice from heaven, saying, “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. I formed you, and set you as a covenant of the people, as a light for the nations.” In the mystery of His Baptism, Jesus takes upon Himself everything that belongs to us, so that we can share in everything that belongs to Him, including His obedience to God the Father, which brings about a more abundant life than anything we can experience through sin and disobedience and our many wanderings.

At this and at every Mass, Jesus renews His covenant of unending love with us, and He proposes once again to each of us as we approach for Holy Communion, offering the Gift of His very self, His Body, His Blood, His Soul and Divinity. He offers everything that belongs to Him. What is our answer and response to Christ’s proposal? Do we say, “Amen,” so be it, to all that Jesus has done for us and to all that He still longs to do in our lives? Or too often do we say “Amen” to Jesus at Mass, only to say “No” to Him throughout the rest of the week? If you’re married, you’re not just married when it’s convenient or advantageous. If you belong to Christ, and if Christ belongs to us, it’s all the time, not just to have our sins forgiven and to keep on sinning, but to allow Jesus to actually guide our thoughts, words, and actions, to take up our crosses daily to follow Him in the Way. Jesus committed Himself to us even to the point of death on the Cross. When will we finally commit ourselves, and conform ourselves to Him?

More than Leftovers

Homily, Epiphany

As we begin the new year 2020, many of us take the opportunity to look ahead and mark on our calendars the significant events and celebrations of friends and family, including birthdays, weddings, graduations, but how often do we look forward to the celebrations we will share together as the family of God? Today, the light of God’s glory has been revealed to the nations, as the three magi arrive to adore the Christ Child and to see His Mother. That light and revelation of God will only increase throughout the year, as we celebrate the mystery of the Cross, the saving death of Christ, foreshadowed even today in the gift of myrrh, and as the overwhelming light of the Resurrection dawns upon us at Easter, to scatter all darkness and to destroy sin and death forever.

God has big plans for us this year, as He does every year, if we are willing to spend it with Him, if we strive to place Jesus at the center of our families, at the center of marriages, at the center of all that we do in school, at work, in our free time. Jesus is Emmanuel, God-with-us, and He wants to be with us always. Do we welcome His Presence? Or does Jesus take a back seat to so many other things in our lives? Do we fill our schedules only to give God what is left over, if there is anything left? At the bidding of a star, the three magi uprooted their entire lives. They put all their other plans on hold, to walk hundreds of miles just for a chance to search for the newborn King of the Jews, with no guarantee that they’d actually be able to find Him. How many miles would we be willing to walk for God? How many months or years of our lives would we be willing to give in search of Jesus?

Throughout my own life, whether I realized it or not, I was always searching for Jesus. I had lots of interests. I was always an excellent student in school. I could have pursued pretty much any field of study or career, but I ultimately decided to waste my life on Jesus. Do you know why? It’s not because I thought it would be an easy life. It’s not even that I thought I could make much of a difference as a priest, although I probably thought so at one time. As the culture around us continues to shift away from God and as different scandals continue to break in parts of the Church, I fully expect to receive the hatred of the world in return for my service of God. So why am I still here? Why are you still sitting here on a Sunday morning? Why am I willing, even—in the eyes of the world—to waste my life in the priesthood? Only because Jesus Christ deserves it.

Jesus deserves everything. The One who gave everything on the Cross for our salvation, for my salvation, He deserves everything in return, whatever smallest good that I am able to accomplish by His grace, whatever small tribute we are able to lay at the feet of Him and His Mother. The magi brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh over many miles to waste them on a Child too small to make any use of them. And Jesus still deserves more. How much are we willing to give Him? How much are we willing to spend on Him? He deserves more than just some time on Sunday. He deserves more than what is left over in our schedules and in our energies and resources. In 2020, how much more are you willing to waste on Jesus Christ?

The Family God Chose for Us

Homily, Holy Family A

Something that almost all of us have in common, when it comes to our family and relatives, is that we didn’t choose them. We never sat down before we were born, to look through a brochure of available families, before deciding, “Yep, that’s the one, those are the people I want to be stuck with for the first 20 years or so of my life. Those are the people with whom I always want to share large portions of my DNA.” When it comes to our friends and other acquaintances, we might be able to avoid the ones who annoy us or rub us the wrong way, people we don’t like for whatever reason, but we don’t choose our family.

I’ve been convinced for quite a while now, that it is precisely those relationships that I would not have chosen for myself, that have actually challenged me and helped me to grow the most. Think of Proverbs 27:17, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” If it were all left up to us and our own choice, most of us choose to avoid conflict, to avoid people that show us our weaknesses. We avoid people who annoy us or tell us what to do. In a healthy family, though, these things are unavoidable. In my family, I had six brothers and two sisters, and I remember fighting a lot with my siblings. And I don’t think we fought because we were bad kids—now maybe my parents would disagree—but we fought because that’s part of growing and learning for kids, and hopefully through those experiences we were also able to learn some better ways of dealing with conflict.

Even as we celebrate the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, the most perfect human family that has ever graced this earth, we hear in the Gospel that they had their trials of their own. Joseph’s sleep was regularly interrupted by messages from angels, telling him when and where to move, to protect this new Christ Child and His Mother. I wonder if Joseph ever had second thoughts as he traveled on the road. What if he had stuck to his original plan, disregarded the angel’s message and simply divorced Mary and washed his hands of the whole situation? He could have stayed in Bethlehem. He wouldn’t have had to go to Egypt. He wouldn’t have to move to Nazareth.

Whether he would have chosen this life for himself, had he known all that it would eventually entail, and the many difficulties that he would have to face as head of the Holy Family, even the rumors that would circulate about himself and about his wife, this was the life that God chose for him. This was the Family that God chose for St. Joseph, and he could trust that God would provide what he needed at every stage of their journey together.

When the Bishop called me and asked if I’d be willing to move four hours away from Sioux Falls, five hours away from my parent’s home and my hometown, I didn’t know and I still don’t know what’s all going to be involved during my time as pastor of these parishes. If you were given the choice, you probably wouldn’t have chosen me as your new pastor. He’s too young. Too inexperienced. Too rigid, backwards, and traditional. But we are family now. We don’t choose our family. God does. And God will provide the graces we need to work together, to grow together, to learn together. Hopefully, to grow closer in union with Jesus Christ together. The Church is meant to be a holy family. Each parish and diocese is meant to be a holy family. There might be other people even here this evening, sitting in other pews of this church, maybe in the same pew, whom you might not especially like or agree with all the time, and you might not want to spend much time with them, but you are family. And God brought us together. To learn from one another, to test one another, to challenge one another, to grow in holiness and virtue together. To grow in our recognition and love for the Truth of Jesus Christ.

Every healthy family, every holy family in this world has joys and sorrows, conflict and resolution, pains and struggles along with victories. Real growth does not happen without pain. And real love does not develop without a commitment to one another through the difficult times. It’s good for us to be stuck with people whom we find difficult to love, because then our love can grow stronger and more genuine. For parents and children alike and fellow parishioners, there are countless opportunities for us to begin to love even as God loves, not because of anything the other person can do for me, not because the other person is necessarily deserving of love. God doesn’t love us because. He just loves us. He made us and He chooses to love us. Our own families, all those relationships that we perhaps would not have chosen for ourselves, these are the messy classrooms of learning love, of becoming holy, of growing in patience because these crazy people force us to really practice patience. And as we really choose to love those that God has placed in our lives, hopefully we’ll discover, as I have, that they are really better for us than any family we would have chosen for ourselves.

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, pray for our families, pray for our parishes, and for the whole family of God. Teach us—and help us to continue to grow—through the conflict, through the messiness and chaos of our lives. Teach us that God the Father’s love for us is unchanging, unflinching, unwavered. Teach us to love like Him.

The Standard of God

Homily, Advent Sunday 4A

I’ve always greatly admired St. Joseph, and he’s always been a special patron of mine. In the year 1870, St. Joseph was named the patron of the entire universal Church; he is also the patron of our Cathedral and the Diocese of Sioux Falls, and he’s the patron of my home parish in Elk Point, so at every level of the Church I saw that St. Joseph was always praying for meHe and I seem to have a lot in common as wellFrom all indications, hwas a man of very few words. In fact, in the whole Bible, we don’t find any words of St. Joseph recorded. And—here’s something we might all find encouraging—I’ve always considered St. Joseph to be a special patron of those who fall asleep during prayerbecause so many of his most important communications from God occurred while he was sleeping, through dreams.  

In today’s Gospel, God communicates his will to St. Joseph in a dream, challenging his understanding of God’s plan for him and his wife, and even calling him beyond the practices that were considered acceptable and justified in his own day. At the time of St. Joseph, this righteous man, according to societal standards and even in Jewish practice, it would have been perfectly justifiable for him to divorce his wife, when he knew that the child she was bearing was not his own. But God calls St. Joseph to something greater, something almost unimaginable, to become the guardian and foster-father of God’s own Son. Amazingly, once St. Joseph knows what God’s will is for his marriage, he immediately obeys and takes Mary, his wife, into his home, even though he probably still struggles to fully understand what this is all going to mean for him, how this is possible, and what sacrifices he will be called upon to make as he becomes the Head of the Holy Family and the Husband of the Ever-Virgin Mother of God. In faith, St. Joseph is able to follow God’s call, to go beyond the standards and practices considered acceptable in his own day. 

Throughout history, God challenges and calls His holy people beyond the standards of the world around them. Jesus challenged His Jewish contemporaries on their understanding of marriage and divorce, calling them on to something greater, to the indissolubility of marriage. It’s not surprising then, that authentically Christian marriage has always had standards that go beyond those of secular society. What makes Catholic teaching distinctive is that it is not a product of man-made religion; Catholic teaching is not subject to the same changes and shifts that we see in secular society or popular culture. Fundamentally, the Church’s teaching is not about what we think of God or our search for God or heaven or happiness.  

Catholic teaching is about Revelation that comes from God. Christmas is all about God coming to us, seeking us out, God’s initiative to reveal Himself in human flesh, and as He does so, God challenges our understanding of ourselves and, in faith, calls us beyond what we thought was possible, beyond even our own desires. God reveals His design and plan for humanity, and in doing so, he also makes clear those things that are incompatible with our true fulfillment. 

In our own day, God continues to call us beyond what the world offers us, to fulfill His will and to cooperate with our salvation in Christ. And the difference between the Catholic standards that have been revealed by God and the standards of the world is still most noticeable in this area of marriage, divorce, and chastity. Marriage and the family are the very foundation of society itself, and yet, we have seen in recent years how quickly this foundation seems to be shifting under our feet. But God, through the Catholic Church, continues to call us to something greater, despite the prevailing currents of society.  

Now I realize that there are even many well-intentioned Catholics who think that the Church will eventually just have to accept things like gay marriage, contraception, cohabitation and sexual relations prior to marriage, or divorce and re-marriage without recourse to the annulment process. There may even be Catholics who think that the Church will eventually accept abortion, but I am here to tell you that the Catholic Church is the custodian and steward of God’s Revelation, the Church is not its Master or Author. There is no Pope, no bishop, no council which has the power to change what God has revealed once and for all, even to make things easier for us or to make the Church more fashionable to society. Personally, I consider it to be the height of false compassion to offer people the false hope that the Church’s teaching could change in these areas of God’s plan for human sexuality.  

Please don’t misunderstand me. It is not my intention, nor is it the intention of the Church, to alienate or to exclude anyone. Every last human being is invited into faith and relationship with Jesus Christ and into His Church, but if God has a real plan for us, and if He desires our free cooperation in that plan, if we’re called not just to be passive onlookers, but to actually take up our cross and follow Christ and become His disciples, it only makes sense that there are behaviors, choices that we can make, sins that we can commit that place us outside of God’s plan for us, that take us off the Path that Christ lays out for us, and these require repentance. Almost everyone still acknowledges murder as something that definitely places us outside of God’s plan, but there are many other actions that fall short or go against what God asks of us.  

Please also understand that I hope to have, and hope that everyone will have, the utmost compassion for those who experience homosexual attractions, for those who go through divorce and would like to try marriage again, for married couples who contracept, and for couples who live together before being married, many of whom have never been presented with any clear alternative to what the world offers. We all sin in different ways, and I am a sinner as well. I’m often more blameworthy because of all that has been entrusted to me, but we don’t do anyone any favors by condoning behaviors and lifestyles that God has revealed cannot lead to their true happiness and fulfillment, according to His plan for our lives.  

Please pray for me as a shepherd of God’s people. And may St. Joseph intercede for us all, to follow Christ in real faith, as God continues to challenge every one of us to become His holy ones, to become Saints, to endure many trials and to go beyond the standards of this passing world, to experience a joy and lasting peace that is far greater than anything we could ask or imagine. 

Underneath It All

Homily, Advent Sunday 2A

It wasn’t too many years ago that I was still in seminary, but already, there’s not a lot that I remember from my homiletics course, and our preaching practica was mostly trial and error, but there was at least one thing that was made abundantly clear to us as we prepared to preach the Word of God: you probably shouldn’t start your homily by insulting your congregation. Now I’m not sure where St. John the Baptist went to seminary, but he seemed to have a somewhat different policy, at least when it came to the Pharisees and Sadducees. Don’t get me wrong, calling your audience a “brood of vipers” or the offspring of snakes can definitely serve to get their attention—which is often one of the goals of an introduction—but hurling insults at them probably does very little to establish the sympathy of your listeners. So was St. John the Baptist in need of some sensitivity training? Or is there something else going on in today’s Gospel? 

It might help us to keep in mind who the Gospel tells us were the ones that really embraced the message of John the Baptist. Later in the Gospel, Jesus will say that it was the tax collectors and prostitutes who believed John and repented of their sins (Matthew 21:32). What was special about tax collectors and prostitutes at the time? What did they have in common? They were both groups of public sinners. Everyone knew and could recognize them. They weren’t able to hide behind any façade or bother pretending to be great and admirable people. There was an authenticity and sincerity about them. Tax collectors and prostitutes knew that they were weak, they knew themselves to be sinners, and they knew that they could not save themselves. 

The Pharisees and the Sadducees, on the other hand, were of a very different sort. These were the religious authorities at the time. Their public appearance was often very impressive, with prayers, fasting, and almsgiving, but Jesus describes them as “whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth” (Matthew 23:27). They have a holy appearance. In public, they act like they have it all together, but their focus on the merely external observance of God’s Law prevents them from recognizing and acknowledging their own need for a Savior, all the ways in which, despite putting on a brave face and keeping up appearances, they are broken and hurting inside, like any tax collector or prostitute.  

Still today, God is not nearly as interested in your public persona as He is with your heart and your soul“Not by appearance [does] he judge, nor by hearsay [does] he decide.” Underneath all the posturing, are we able to authentically relate to God and to another human being? Or are we constantly covering ourselves with walls and layers of defense and illusions to prevent anyone from seeing, to prevent even God from seeing, how vulnerable we truly are, how broken and desperate for salvation? God wants to meet us there, behind all appearances and false fronts, and hopefully there are other people in your life that you can really trust, and around them, you are free to just be yourself, without any disguises.  

No amount of social media can satisfy our need for real intimacy, of knowing that underneath it all, in all our brokenness, we are loved, we are valuedwe are appreciated. We are wanted and desired by God. St. John the Baptist wanted to break through the false fronts and the hardened hearts of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, not because he didn’t care about them, but because he knew that this was his best chance at freeing them from their own illusions, from their own pride and presumption, that it is when we become truly vulnerable before God that we can be free, and only in being able to really share our weakness with another human being do we find true strength. Jesus has shared in all our weakness as a fellow human being, as a friend, and He raises us up into the power and the love of God. May we have the strength today to open ourselves fully to Christ in this Eucharist, and throughout this Advent season, to open ourselves more and more, to let God see and save who we really are, behind all appearances.