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. 

¡Viva Cristo Rey!

Homily, Christ the King C

The Catholic faith is full of paradoxes, things that at first seem like a contradiction. Today we celebrate the Solemnity of our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, but in the Gospel we just heard, what is the throne that Jesus chose for His coronation? He reigns as King from the Cross, an instrument of torture and public execution. He is crowned, not with silver or gold, but with thorns that tear into His head. Christ’s execution is, at the same time, His exaltation. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself” (12:32). Every crucifix continues to proclaim the love of God and the sovereignty of Christ that has the power to conquer and rule over human hearts more surely than any emperor or president or any other king throughout history. 

Those who try to rule by superior strength, by military might, or economic influence, these have always come and gone, and their kingdoms rise and fall in every age. Jesus conquers, not by demonstrating His superior strength, but by laying down His life for us, being wounded for us, stretching out His arms and having His heart pierced for us. When Jesus, lifted up on the Cross, draws us to Himself, we are faced with a decision, the same decision as those who witnessed the crucifixion in Christ’s own day. Will we place our faith in this mysterious power of Christ, the power that is “made perfect in weakness,” in trial, in persecution and suffering (2 Corinthians 12:9)? Will we freely take up our own cross and follow after Christ as His disciples? Or, will we rebel against that sort of King? Do we revile Jesus with the crowds at his crucifixion and with one of the criminals saying, “‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.’ Jesus, can’t you see that the world is spinning out of control? With natural disasters, with acts of terrorism, with incompetent and corrupt political and religious leaders? Jesus, what are you waiting for? Intervene. We’ve had enough of God’s vulnerability already. Come down from the Cross. It’s time for Him to show His strength.” 

Even in our own personal lives we might become frustrated and impatient with God’s gentleness. There might be a sin or several sins that we’ve struggled with for years, keeping us as slaves, or we see a family member or close friend enslaved by sin and wonder, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us. Take control. Force us to be good. But in freeing us from the slavery of sin, God refuses to subject us to a new slavery of His goodness. God always invites. He does not force His way. Jesus stands at the door and knocks (Revelation 3:20). He waits for us to respond, to open ourselves to Him. God wants us as His friends and His children, not as His slaves. 

Now imagine the faith of that other criminal in today’s Gospel, whom tradition gives the name of St. DismasIt’s fairly easy to acknowledge Jesus as King when He feeds the five thousand or when He enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to shouts of “Hosanna in the highest, or when our life and our world is going according to our plan, but imagine seeing this King crucified and you yourself suffering and dying next to Him on a cross of your own, and somehow, you have the audacity, the foolishness in the eyes of the world, you have the faith to say to this dying Messiah, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” How many of us would be prepared to say that? To acknowledge the coming kingdom of a God so seemingly powerless in the face of all the evil in the world as to be killed by His own people? And then to believe Him when He replies, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.  

This is the same faith that on November 23, 1927, allowed the martyr Bl. Miguel Pro to stretch out his own arms in the form of a cross in front of the firing squad, and to proclaim with his final words “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” Long live Christ the King! even as he had seen his beloved Mexico ravaged by civil war and by corrupt and anti-Catholic governments and dictators over the course of the previous 10 or 20 years. Put to death when he was only 36 years old, and just two years into his priesthood, Miguel Pro had probably hoped and planned on many more years to serve God and His people. When life doesn’t go according to plan, when we suffer injustice and tragedy, when God seems to ask too much from us, or when He seems silent in the face of great evil, do we still have the faith to proclaim that Christ reigns as King over all? That long after every other human power has passed away, long after every earthly kingdom or empire has risen and fallen again, one kingdom of heaven will endure.  

God grant us the grace today to transform the questioning in our hearts, “Are you not the Christ?” into the confession of faith, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. ¡Viva Cristo Rey!” Long live Christ the King!

Nice Idea or Living Reality

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 32C

Two plus three equals five. That’s a true statement. But even though it’s true, and we can have a certain appreciation for mathematics, I don’t think there have been many people willing to die for “two plus three equals five.” But millions of Christians have been willing and have actually died for statements like, “Jesus Christ is Lord,” or “Jesus is risen from the dead,” and, “there exists only one God in three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” For the martyrs, these statements of faith are not merely true in an abstract and impersonal way—like we might consider the truths of mathematics—but they had come to know Jesus personally and to experience God, not just as a nice idea, but as a reality, significant for every aspect of their lives.

Even the martyrs that we heard about in our first reading from Maccabees died not so much for the Jewish law that forbade them from eating pork, but they had courage to die because they knew and trusted personally the God who had given the law. They knew that all life is in His hands, and through the course of their own lives they had experienced God’s power and His providence for them. They knew that the One who had first given life to their souls and bodies would give life to them again in the resurrection, if they remained faithful to His commandments.

How many of us today, who have the advantage over those Jewish martyrs of all that Jesus reveals for us—and the testimony unto death of the Apostles who saw, and spoke, and ate with Jesus after He had risen from the dead—how many of us today would have such faith, such courage, to die for the God who gives us life? To believe so firmly, so personally, in the resurrection as to have no fear at all of what others might try to take away from us? Or is our faith still too abstract and impersonal? Nice ideas, but not really significant in my daily life?

The martyrs were content to have all their property taken away, because God can provide for us a more lasting inheritance in His heavenly kingdom. The martyrs who were sent to prison and put in chains knew that belonging to God, being His children, is a more authentic and lasting freedom. And the martyrs who suffered torture and gave their lives gave them gladly, because they knew the love that Jesus has for us, the love that led Him to suffer and die on the cross, with every last drop of His Precious Blood. To the martyrs, these were not just nice ideas, abstract and impersonal. Instead, the love and promises of God were personally significant realities they had come to know through their daily lives of faith and prayer, and in their experience of God’s presence in the sacraments.

Two plus three equals five. Jesus is risen from the dead. Which of these truths has been more significant in our lives? Would we be willing to sacrifice any of our own property, knowing that the God to whom everything belongs is able to give us far more and far better in return? Are we willing to sacrifice any of our own desires, getting our own way, knowing that God’s will for us is able to accomplish much greater things than we could ask or imagine? For love of you, Jesus willingly suffered and died for your sins. Do we treat this just as a nice idea, or is it real for us on a personal level? Can we say with St. Paul, “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me”?

Until we stop viewing the love of God as an abstract idea and actually allow the weight of all that God has done to move us, all that God continues to do in our daily lives, to provide, to bless, even to entrust us with sufferings, joining us to the dignity of Christ’s redeeming Cross, until these are no longer just nice ideas for us, God will continue to wait for our response. Two plus three equals five. So what? God loves you. So what are you going to do about it?

Hosting Jesus

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 31C

I’ve mentioned before that I split my time between the two rectories in these parishes, mostly to save on mileage and driving time, also because they’re two of the best rectories in the diocese. I’m very privileged to be pastor here, but living in two places does have its challenges. I still haven’t completely unpacked and settled, but I also don’t have much occasion for hosting people at the parish houses. I did host my brother and his family once already a number of weeks ago. They live in Aberdeen and came over to Bowdle once for Mass and supper. I didn’t cook for them, so don’t worry. They brought the food with them in crock pots. But I kind of had to scramble to move the piles of stuff to the less public parts of the rectory. I’m kind of amazed at how ready Zacchaeus was to welcome Jesus into his home. How many of us would have some tidying up to do, if Jesus suddenly invited Himself over to our house or into our rooms? Would we be able to rejoice right away—as Zacchaeus does—to hear Jesus say, “I need to stay at your house”? Or are there certain things we wish he wouldn’t see? Maybe certain sins that we’ve let into our homes, sort of kept as pets, and that we make excuses for?

In the Gospel today, the tax collector Zacchaeus has very little opportunity to do much cleaning up around the house as Jesus invites Himself over. With infinite mercy, Jesus is willing to enter in to the mess of Zacchaeus’s house and whatever He will find there, and Zacchaeus is able to welcome him without embarrassment, without anxiety, but instead with overwhelming joy. But this experience of God’s great mercy does not leave Zacchaeus unchanged. His life is transformed. He confesses his faults and repents of his sins as he says, “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.” Far more important than cleaning his house before Jesus arrives, Zacchaeus wants to set his heart in order, to cast out all greed and indifference, so that God can find a lasting home within him.

At every Mass, we, too, are given the awesome opportunity and privilege to welcome Jesus into our own homes and into our lives, into our minds and hearts. How do we prepare ourselves to receive such an honored Guest? How do we conduct ourselves in his Presence? Jesus is the King of the whole Universe, of all that exists. He’s more important than the pope or the president of the United States, and he comes to visit us at each and every Mass. And, at all times, Jesus is here in the Tabernacle, waiting for us. When we come into the church, are we attentive to the Presence of Christ? Do we silence not only our cell phones, but even more importantly, do we silence our minds and hearts, and do we arrive early to give ourselves the time we need to put aside our distractions and plans and worries, all the clutter, so that we can really focus, and welcome Jesus with joy?

Another priest shared with me his amazement that so many people would never think of arriving late to the movies, after the show had already begun, and then how so many people are willing to wait at the end through the entire credit sequence to see if there’s just one last scene. And yet, so many Catholics think very little of arriving late to Mass or of leaving before the final blessing and dismissal. What do we really value in life, and how do our actions show to God what we think is really important? One of the practices that I grew up with in Elk Point and in Jefferson and that I am glad to find in these parishes was that after the final hymn, everyone in the church would kneel down in silence to give everyone a chance to say a prayer of thanksgiving for the great gift that we had just received, to speak with Jesus, still dwelling within us from Holy Communion. Do we silence our conversations as we enter this church, before and after Mass, to give one another the opportunity to speak heart to heart with Jesus?

As Jesus enters in to the mess of our lives, our experience of God’s mercy is meant to transform us, even as it transformed Zacchaeus, who not only confessed his sins but truly repented and made the necessary changes in order to welcome Jesus fully and follow him in his daily life. Have we allowed God’s mercy to change us, to actually free us from our sins? Or do we become presumptuous and treat the mercy of God casually, comfortable with where we’re at or giving up on the freedom and transformation that Jesus promises and desires for us? When we are more focused and attentive to the Presence of Christ in this church and in this Eucharist, we open our minds and hearts to the transforming power of the mercy of God, who wants to dwell within us not only every Sunday, but every day and every moment of our lives. May God fill us, as he filled Zacchaeus, with the burning desire to see Jesus, to climb any tree or to put aside any sin or distraction, and to be transformed.

The Power of Humility

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 30C

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

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

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

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

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