Settling for False Comfort

Homily, Advent Sunday 2B

This past Thursday I was in Aberdeen for a little procedure at the eye doctor. Turns out I had two little holes in the periphery of the retina of my right eye. So after probably an hour or more of waiting around, first in reception and then in the exam rooms, along with signing my name and getting drops in my eyes several times, the procedure itself took less than 5 minutes, which just consisted of burning the edges of the holes with a laser. Really nothing too exciting, all things considered. But as I reflected on the readings for this Sunday and the type of comfort that God desires for His people, I couldn’t help but wonder what that conversation with the eye doctor could have sounded like if the standards of health in recent decades had shifted as much as moral standards seem to have shifted.

You might imagine the doctor saying something like this: “Well, we’ve found a couple holes in your retina, and we used to tell people that holes are bad, unhealthy, not ‘normal,’ but you know, some people nowadays actually like having some holes in their retinas, and for them it’s just more of a lifestyle choice. In a number of years, they could lead to other problems—well, we’re not allowed to call them problems anymore, but—other events in your eye, like, for example, the complete detachment of the retina and blindness, but again, I’m not here to make any judgments or to tell you how to live your life. I’m just sharing a little of what I’ve seen and what makes sense to me, but I don’t know your whole story or how attached you might be to these holes in your retina, but if eventual blindness is something you think you’d like to avoid, if possible, there is something we can do.”

You might well respond by telling the doctor, “Well, of course blindness is something I’d like to avoid. Are you crazy?” But this is how a lot of conversations around moral issues are actually conducted today. You’re not allowed to say that certain behaviors or lifestyle choices are actually sinful and gravely sinful, and that if unrepented, they will lead to something far worse even than physical blindness, namely, everlasting hell. But as much as the standards of this passing world have changed, the standards of God have not changed. That’s why when our first reading talks about comfort, bringing comfort to God’s people, this is not contradicted by the preaching of St. John the Baptist, who is telling the people to acknowledge their sins, to renounce them, and be converted to God.

The type of false comfort that’s often proclaimed and praised by the world tends to ignore, make excuses, sometimes even to celebrate or take great pride in sin and perversity. And why would anyone ask forgiveness from God for what they think is just a different way of living, different lifestyle choices? Violence, looting, lying, fraud, just different ways of being human. Who’s to say what’s actually unhealthy, unnatural, sinful? And without knowing and acknowledging our sin, asking for God’s forgiveness, we won’t be receptive to his mercy, to the treatment that He has prescribed for our disease.

Now the one part of my eye procedure that I haven’t mentioned yet—and what was the most uncomfortable—is that to properly aim the laser, the doctor takes a lens and presses it right up against the eyeball. That was definitely not comfortable, but I am comforted in knowing that we’ve done what’s possible to keep it from becoming a bigger problem. And often when we examine our conscience and try to take a clear look at the sins in our life, and as we bring those to the Sacrament of Confession, that can be an uncomfortable experience. But Confession is especially how God chooses to extend His mercy to us, to restore us to life and spiritual health, and to prevent further complications down the road, even everlasting complications.

Comfort, give comfort to my people, says the Lord. Our God comes to save us, to save us most especially from our sins, from the dead ends in life that cannot bring us genuine happiness and fulfillment. God offers us the comfort that the world cannot and will not give. Rather than the false comfort of ignoring the holes in our retina that could lead to blindness, ignoring the sins in our life that lead to everlasting death, God offers us the opportunity for repentance, forgiveness, and healing, if we will acknowledge our sins and strive to follow Christ. Don’t miss this opportunity. None of us knows the day or the hour when the Lord will call us from this life, and following the false standards of this dying world rather than the standards given to us by God and his Church will be no excuse. Repent and believe in the Gospel, for the Lord is near.

Zeal for Souls

Homily, Ordinary Sunday 23A

One of the priests I had for spiritual direction during my time in seminary still sends a Christmas letter each year. One that I remember from a few years back relates to our readings today. He had returned to his diocese, serving in a parish, and among the other things that he mentioned, like various hiking and biking trips and pilgrimages, he talked about serving as a watchman like Ezekiel, warning people about the sins we commit and the danger that sin is to our souls. Specifically, one weekend during that year he had decided to talk about keeping the Lord’s Day holy and our need to participle in Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation. Quite a few of his parishioners did not like hearing that neglecting to attend Sunday Mass even for just one weekend is a mortal sin that cuts us off from Communion with God. That even when we’re traveling out of town or involved in various other activities, if we don’t make our relationship with God the priority that it needs to be and express it concretely by actually getting ourselves to Mass, we place our eternal souls in jeopardy.  

This priest said that he did not get the most positive feedback for telling people the truth rather than what they wanted to hear. Recalling something that St. Paul had written, this priest said in his letter, “Woe to me if I preach, and ‘woe to me if I do not preach’” (Cf. 1 Cor. 9:16). In the first case, he has to put up with those who do not want to hear the truth. In the second case, he will have to answer to almighty God for the truth that he was unwilling to proclaim.  

Today, the culture around us more and more seems to say that mere tolerance is the best that we can hope for. “Don’t offend anybody. Don’t challenge anyone to grow and to mature. Always be politically correct. Keep on an even keel. Live and let live.” But Jesus continues to call us on to something greater than what world offers. Not just tolerance or indifference to the people around us, but to actually love one another, even as Christ has loved us, which includes at times challenging one another to repent and live according to God’s will for our lives. That if we see a fellow member of the Church, a brother or sister committing sin, we would have enough concern for their soul to warn them about it. Through the course of the year, the Gospel account of the death of St. John the Baptist comes up a few different times in the readings at Mass. When it does, I like to point out that St. John the Baptist had such concern for the soul of King Herod that he was willing to put his own head on the line. He told Herod, “It is not right for you to have your brother’s wife.” You are in an invalid marriage. Your eternal soul is in danger. St. John the Baptist wasn’t trying to make enemies for himself, but he was willing to endure every persecution if it gave his listeners a chance to become friends of God. 

When was the last time any of us had such concern for the soul of our neighbor that we were actually willing to risk something for his spiritual well-being? To risk reputation and human regard to speak a difficult truth, with all patience and compassion, but also with clarity and firmness of faith. God has revealed His plan for us, how we are to live for true spiritual health and fulfillment. The Church that Jesus founded upon St. Peter and the Apostles is not here just to reassure ourselves that God is merciful and we’ll all end up in heaven someday. No. There are real dangers, eternal dangers. There are real risks. There exists real human freedom that can say no to God, that can choose lesser things ahead of God, and God will not force Himself upon anyone. The Church is here to continue the mission of Ezekiel and St. John the Baptist, the mission of Jesus Himself, to have such concern for the good of our souls to risk being scorned by the rest of this world, to provoke us to actually repent and to conform our lives to Jesus Christ.  

And as Jesus proclaims in the Gospel today, this mission of the Church is entrusted, not just to the ordained priests and deacons, but to every member of the faithful. By our Baptism and Confirmation, the Holy Spirit has anointed every one us to share in Christ’s mission as Priest, Prophet, and Shepherd of souls. To love one another as Christ has loved us. To challenge one another to root out sin and to live in friendship with God. Do we really love our neighbors, or do we just tolerate them? Have we become so individualistic, so indifferent to the souls of our neighbors that we will not speak even a word, while so many are living in sin, living in opposition to God’s plan, amid so many addictions and false gods? As Catholic Christians, all of us will have to answer to God for the souls that are lost, and for what we were unwilling to do to call them back to Christ. Do you love your neighbor? Do you have concern for his eternal soul? What are we willing to risk to show it? 

Commandments of Love

Homily, Easter Sunday 6A

If we were doing a word association exercise, where I say a word and then you respond with the first thing that pops into your head, what do you think would be the most common things associated with the word “love” today? Maybe hearts, romance, Valentine’s, marriage, maybe even commitment or sacrifice. But what would we probably not expect to hear as a response when prompted with the word “love”? Commandments. Obedience.

Jesus says to his disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” and, “Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me.” In another place He says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” Not usually things that leap to our mind when thinking about love. Is it because Jesus doesn’t understand what love really is? Or are we the ones who don’t really understand love or the commandments? A lot of people talk about love. That we just need to love one another, to come together, to accept one another, but I often wonder what it is we actually mean by the word ‘love.’ Because to me, a lot of what I hear in the wider culture about ‘love’ sounds much more like mere tolerance or even indifference. “Do whatever you like. It doesn’t matter. As long as it makes you feel happy. As long as you’re being true to yourself. Be whoever you want to be, whatever you want to be, even if that’s something different than the reality of who God made you to be, and who He is calling you to be.” But this is not really love.

A good Catholic definition of love is to will the good of another, to desire what’s best for them. But how do we know what’s actually good for ourselves or for another person, not just what’s pleasing to them for the moment, not just what they happen to want right now, but what they genuinely need? Love, to actually be love, needs to be grounded in the truth, grounded in the reality of who we are and what we were made for, who God made us to be, and the genuine good that God has designed for us, those things that truly satisfy us and bring fulfillment. And as Jesus tells us in the Gospel, love needs to be grounded in the commandments, the commandments that God reveals for our salvation.

At home, as I was growing up, how did I know that my parents actually loved me and really cared about me? Did they tell me, “Do whatever you want?” Not very often. More often, they would say, “Do your homework. Do the dishes. Do your chores. Clean your room. Get off your lazy butt, and be the person that we know you can be.” They gave me direction. They gave me motivation. They wanted me to learn, to grow, to develop as a person. To learn from my mistakes, take responsibility for my actions, and reach my full potential. They wanted me to follow Jesus and the Church that He established with His own authority. Now I always knew that my parents would love me no matter what, no matter what mistakes I made or trouble I got into, but I also knew that they loved me enough to want what was best for me, to challenge and discipline me to really strive for the true good, even if that meant that they wouldn’t always be my favorite people at the time.

In a similar way, God really loves us. He doesn’t just tolerate us or shrug His shoulders at whatever we do. He wants what’s best for us. He wants us to truly live and thrive as human persons. He gives us His commandments and the teachings of the Church not to restrict our freedom, but to free us from the lies of the world around us, to free us from our slavery to sin and pleasure, to give us boundaries that keep us safe from the many dangers and behaviors that harm us, to help us reach our full potential. God has revealed to us what makes for true and lasting happiness. Why do we still hesitate to just give it a try, all of it, for once? All the rules and commandments of the Church, why not actually try them out and see what happens? Or have we even bothered to learn what those commandments are, and the reasons behind them?

The Church as God’s instrument of salvation and the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of Truth who speaks through her—are not the ones out of touch with reality. It’s those who are too much influenced by the lies and relativism of the world and culture around us who are really out of touch. God and His Church are not insensitive to what people might want, but they are much more concerned about what we actually need. And God is not the one who benefits when we follow His commandments. We are. Don’t settle for the tolerance or indifference of this world. You were made for the love of God. God gives us the grace and strengthens us with His Holy Spirit to follow His commandments, to reach our potential and have life in abundance. Why not actually try it, and see what happens?

Humbled by Trust

Homily, Easter Sunday 2A

Before the events of today’s Gospel, the last time that Jesus had been gathered together with His disciples in the upper room was, of course, for the Last Supper. At the Last Supper, Jesus foretold the betrayal that one of them would carry out, but Peter had proclaimed that he would follow Jesus even if that meant having to die with Him, and the Gospel says, all the rest of the disciples made similar professions of their constancy and willingness to suffer. But by the time we see the Twelve on Good Friday, all of them, except for John, had run away and abandoned Jesus. The Good Shepherd was struck and put to death, and His sheep scattered. Judas had betrayed Him. Three times, Peter had denied any knowledge of Him. In the hour of His greatest need, these chosen men who had left everything to follow Him, they finally abandoned their Lord and Savior to public execution by the Romans on the wood of the Cross. Maybe one of the reasons why the Apostles were slow to believe or didn’t want to believe the reports that Jesus had really risen from the dead, was because they were afraid of what He would say or do to them after what they had done, or failed to do, for him on Good Friday. Desertion is a serious crime.

Now imagine if you had been through what Jesus went through, and these Twelve whom you had chosen and invested in for three years had all turned tail and fled during your Hour of greatest need. What do you think would be your first words to them, the next time you saw them? What are the first words of Jesus to His Apostles that we hear in today’s Gospel? Instead of scolding them or asking them where they were while He was being handed over to death, His first words to them are, “Peace be with you.” And when He had shown them His hands and His side to let them know that it was really Him, Jesus even says to them a second time, “Peace be with you.” He not only tries to comfort them after they had so miserably failed to support Him, Jesus even goes on to entrust to them His own sacred mission. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And He breathed upon them the Holy Spirit, the very life of God.

This is the Divine Mercy that we celebrate today, the infinite mercy of God. Jesus never gives up on us. Even when we have abandoned Him, and denied Him so many times and in so many ways through our words and actions, through our sins, His invitation always remains. His peace is always ready to console us and even to entrust to us His own mission in the world today. We often think humility comes from being humiliated and brought low, and when we’ve let someone down the way the Apostles had abandoned Jesus, we almost want to be punished. We want Him to be mad at us, to scold us, but it often humbles us even more when we are lifted high, knowing that we don’t deserve it. When we realize once again not how angry God is, but just how patient God is with us. Just how good He is. And then to realize that despite the number of times we’ve screwed everything up, He still knows that we are capable of great good if we would finally rely on His power. He trusts us to carry out His own work in the world today, even though we’ve proven so many times to be unworthy of trust. That’s the mercy of God that humbles us, shocks us, hopefully moves us to repentance.

The incomplete, counterfeit version of mercy and love that the world tends to talk about today is merely tolerance or enabling, even indifference. But God doesn’t just put up with us or look the other way. The truly amazing thing about a God who really loves us is that Jesus wants to see us actually turn away from our sins and start to do the very same things that He Himself did during His time on earth. And God breathes upon us His own Holy Spirit, not just to cover us over superficially with the snow of His righteousness, but to really transform our minds and hearts, to redirect our desires and give us that strength to carry out the mission of Christ in our daily lives.

What is the mission of Christ that He entrusted to His Apostles, the work that He started that they were to continue? What is the mission that Jesus still entrusts to each of us today? Nothing less than to reconcile the world to God. The Holy Spirit gives each of us the strength to challenge ourselves and to look for opportunities with those we interact with on a daily basis, to challenge everyone we meet to take more seriously our relationship with God. Even if it’s not popular today to talk about or to be serious about religion, the Holy Spirit helps us to share with others our relationship with Jesus Christ, to invite others back to Mass and to Confession, to invite non-Catholics to become Catholic, to join the one Church that Jesus Himself founded.

I guarantee that it was not culturally acceptable for Peter and the Apostles after Pentecost to tell the crowds, “You crucified the Son of God. Now be baptized, every one of you, into His Name, because there is no salvation, there is no true life for any of us except through the Name and in relationship with Jesus Christ.” What Peter and the Apostles told the Jewish crowds was not culturally acceptable, but this was not a concern for them, and it should not be a concern for any disciple of Jesus Christ. If we are truly grateful for the Divine Mercy that we have received from almighty God, why are we so hesitant to share that with others, to invite others to experience that same mercy, the only life that’s worth living, in relationship with God? And when we know that our sins cannot satisfy us, why do we hesitate to leave them behind, once and for all, to finally allow the Holy Spirit to transform our hearts and minds, to set us free from the mere tolerance or indifference that the world offers?

Receive the Holy Spirit. As the Father sent Jesus into the world, so now Jesus sends each of you, to proclaim the Gospel and to reconcile sinners into right relationship with God. No one else is going to do it for us. The mission of Christ is now our mission, Christ Himself working through us. There is no other work during the course of our entire lives that is going to matter more once we reach the end. Receive the Holy Spirit, and become instruments of God’s infinite mercy.

Use Your Words

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 2A

A few years ago, in a small town much like this one or others in South Dakota, a new postmaster arrived in town, so everyone—as they visited the post office to pick up their mail or to drop things off—was introducing themselves. Towards the end of the week, the local parish priest came to pick up the mail for his parishes. He introduced himself and asked how the new postmaster was settling into town, if he was able to find everything he needed, where he was moving from, how their town compared, and other points of interest like the weather. As the priest finished speaking with him and turned to go, the new postmaster said, “Father, aren’t you forgetting something?” The priest replied, “Do I have a package that I need to pick up?”

“Well, no, but aren’t you going to invite me to come to Mass on Sunday?” The priest was sort of embarrassed and said something about not realizing he was Catholic, but the postmaster went on to say, “Just so you know, Father, since I arrived in town, several members of each of the other churches, the Lutherans, the Methodists, the Baptists, I’ve already had several of each invite me to join them for their Sunday worship service, and they didn’t seem too concerned to know whether I was of the same faith tradition or not. They just wanted to share what they found valuable in their own lives. But you know, Father, not even one Catholic that has been through here this week has invited me to join them for Mass on Sunday.”

When was the last time that we shared our faith by simply inviting someone to come to Mass with us, to pray the rosary with us, to come to Confession with us? Have we ever invited anyone else into God’s Wedding Feast, the Supper of the Lamb that we celebrate every Sunday or even every day? In the Gospel today, St. John the Baptist bears witness to One greater than himself, the One who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. John testifies that Jesus is the Son of God. How often do we actually bear witness to Christ in our words and actions?

There’s a popular saying that’s often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. “Proclaim the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” The problem with this saying, though, is that St. Francis never said it, and it’s often used as an excuse to never proclaim the Gospel with actual words. Our words are necessary. In his day, St. Francis even risked his life to be able to speak to the Muslim king of Egypt, to tell him about Jesus Christ and invite him to be baptized and convert to the true faith. St. Francis used his words to bear witness to Christ, to invite others to the practice of the sacraments, even when this meant risking being put to death and not just embarrassment or awkwardness or what others might think, or any other excuse many of us use to remain silent about Jesus Christ and His Church.

Since my arrival in these parishes, many have commented that maybe now with a new pastor, and with Mass starting on time, maybe we’ll see a lot of parishioners come back to Mass and to Confession. But it doesn’t happen automatically. It doesn’t happen without people inviting them back, inviting new people in. It doesn’t happen without each of us falling more and more in love with Jesus Christ, with this Sacrament of His Body and Blood, with this perfect Sacrifice of the Mass that is not meant to entertain us but to sustain us. Our parishes will not be renewed until each of us realizes that when it comes to the Mass, it’s not so much about whether we’re able to get anything out of it. More important is whether we’re actually able to bring anything to it. Do we offer to God “the prayers, works, joys, and sufferings” of each day? Do we bring the rest of our lives to be offered with Jesus on this altar? And when we receive Jesus Himself in return, what more could we hope for to get out of it?

So what is it that stops you from inviting others in, from inviting others back to Confession, back to Mass? What’s stopping you from actually using your words to talk about Jesus and to share your faith? You might say, Well, Father, that’s your job. But it’s also yours. And I’m just one person. There are people and places that you can reach that I would never be able to reach, in your homes, in your workplace, in your schools, in restaurants, stadiums, and stores. There are ways that you can share the Gospel more effectively and more convincingly than if someone were to hear the same thing from me or from another priest. It’s easy for people to be dismissive of what they hear from a priest. “He has to say that stuff. That’s his job.” But if you were to invite them back to Confession, maybe they’ll listen.

The riches of the Catholic faith are truly meant for all. If there are roughly 7 billion people in the world, and just over a billion Catholics—and of those only a small portion that really believes and practices the faith—what does that mean for us? It means that there are still an awful lot of people in the world that should become Catholic. So, let’s get to work.

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.

Pastoral as Christ is Pastoral

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 15C

Everyone loves a good storyteller, but a good teacher often goes unappreciated for many years. The goal of a storyteller can be merely to entertain and amuse, to hold our attention long enough for a good laugh, but a good teacher can change the way that we see things and the decisions that we make for the rest of our lives. Jesus in the Gospel is both Storyteller and Teacher. He often teaches the crowds using parables, using short stories and images, but the purpose of the parables is not primarily to entertain. Instead, the parables of Jesus confront us with decisions that we’ve made or that we’ve failed to make, the decisions to which God is constantly calling us, to surrender everything to His care, to Him who feeds every bird of the sky and who clothes every lily of the field. Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Him, rather than following our own ways or the ways of the world. To sell all that we have to buy the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price. Or like the Good Samaritan in today’s Gospel, to drop everything to take care of the person in need by the side of the road. How have we responded? Have we responded to Jesus? Do we live our lives for God and for others? Or do we still follow our own ways and the ways of this passing world?

When I was in seminary studying for the priesthood, and still today after four years as a priest, there are many strategies for ministry described as being “pastoral,” strategies for shepherding the people of God, gently, patiently, ambiguously. To be honest, I’ve found many of these strategies to be rather laughable and pointless, meaningless when we actually examine them and find that they’re very different from what we see Jesus actually doing in the Gospel.

One popular phrase today for ministry is “to meet people where they’re at.” Now this is all fine and good and even necessary. Obviously, communication is impossible if we don’t bother to start from some common ground. But “meeting people where they’re at” and “smelling like the sheep” is rather pointless if we don’t ever bother to lead them anywhere. If a sheep is headed in the direction of selfishness and the pains of hell, when a sheep is headed over the edge of a cliff, only a very bad and careless shepherd would simply reassure the sheep headed for destruction, saying, “Way to go! God loves you. He cares for you. Have a nice trip, as you fall into this pit.” Yes, Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners; He received and did not condemn the adulterous woman; He healed many of the sick and forgave their sins. But Jesus would often tell them, “Go, and sin no more, so that nothing worse may happen to you” (Cf. John 5:14; 8:11). And Jesus offers His own behavior as a model for life and true freedom when He says, “Follow Me.”

Just think of how this parable of the Good Samaritan would play out if the Samaritan would have used only the “pastoral” strategy of merely meeting the victim of robbers where he was at. The Samaritan sees this man wounded and ailing in the ditch, and so he decides to go and be with him, to lay down beside him in the ditch, to meet him where he’s at. So the Samaritan lays down beside him and says to him, “God loves you. God is merciful. I love you. Isn’t this great that we’re here together in this ditch? That you don’t have to suffer alone?”

When we have the ability to bring people to a better place, to greener pastures, to a hotel instead of a ditch, but we don’t, because our only concern is meeting them where they’re at… If we leave them in their misery and desperate, sinful situations without ever bothering to show them the way out to a more abundant life in Christ, this is not love or pastoral concern. This is laziness and indifference. We just want to get along, to be positive and avoid uncomfortable conversations, to avoid calling sin what it is. Any strategy of ministry that claims to be “pastoral” but also allows people to remain in ignorance, to remain in sinful, harmful situations without offering a better Way and greener pastures, this is not what we learn from Christ, our Good Shepherd.

If God does not actually offer us a better Way—even if this Way seems more difficult at first—if His Way is not truly more healthy and fulfilling than what the world and our own selfish desires offer us, then “salvation” doesn’t have any real meaning for us in this life. We were made to know the truth and to be made free by following the truth, the Truth who is Jesus Christ. God made us for more than just stumbling blindly through this life, being wounded and wounding others through our continual habits of sin. God offers us more in the life-giving commandments that He revealed to Moses and in all the teachings of His Catholic Church. That a life free from selfishness, drunkenness, sexual immorality, hatred, lies, violence, contraception, gossip, insults, pornography, laziness, and neglect of our relationships, a life lived in obedience to God and in accord with who He made us to be, this is truly a better and more abundant life, and it is made possible for us by God’s grace.

As we approach Jesus, the Good Shepherd, the Good Teacher, the Good Samaritan, present in this Eucharist, may He set us free from all the lies that keep us bound, from the desires that enslave us to this passing world. Lord Jesus, meet us where we are, but don’t leave us there in our misery. Bring us to greener pastures. Help us to leave behind our sins and to embrace Your more abundant life.

Expect the Cross

Homily, Eastertide Sunday 5C

Just last night, I was driving back from the Graduation Mass of O’Gorman High School held at the Elmen Center. Just within that short distance, I observed and came up behind not one, but two separate cars at different traffic lights that after the light turned green, these cars continued to sit, stationary, at the intersection for several, very long seconds, before finally moving through and getting out of my way. I avoid driving when I can, I think because it is often a near occasion of sin for me, to see so many drivers not paying attention to the road. In human life, our own expectations play a large part in how we deal with what happens to us and the amount of frustration that we experience on a daily basis. You see, I can tell myself time and time again, that people are really not very good drivers, that they’re often not paying much attention to their surroundings. I can tell myself this, but part of my own expectation is still that they really should, and so when they’re not, I get angry, I get frustrated. Things are not how they are supposed to be. When our experience falls short of our expectation, we get mad.

Of course, the same thing also happens in our spiritual lives, in our relationship with God. Many of us, whether we really think about it or not, whether we’d be able to admit it or not, many of us have very strange expectations when it comes to the spiritual life. Many of us buy in to a sort of ‘prosperity gospel,’ thinking to ourselves, “If I’m a good person, if I follow the commandments, follow the Church’s teachings, send my kids to Catholic school—whatever it might be—if I do what I’m supposed to do, then God is supposed to bless me. God is supposed to protect me and my loved ones from anything bad or difficult from ever happening to us. If I do what I’m supposed to do, then God should do what He’s supposed to do and make life easy for us.” Now, we wouldn’t always put it in these exact words, but when some obstacle or difficulty arises and we immediately start to question, “What have I done wrong? Why is God allowing this to happen to me or to my loved one?” It seems pretty clear what our expectations really are.

In our first reading, we hear how Sts. Paul and Barnabas “strengthened the spirits of the disciples and exhorted them to persevere in the faith.” How did they do this, what did they say to them? They said, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” Not usually what we would think of as very encouraging words. You, must, suffer, to enter God’s kingdom. Great. They didn’t say, It is likely, or it is advisable for us to endure hardships. No, they said, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” Jesus Himself asked the disciples on the road to Emmaus, “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and so enter into His glory?” In another place, He says, “Whoever does not deny himself, take up His cross daily and follow Me cannot be My disciple.” Jesus never promises us an easy life. He promises an abundant life, but not an easy one. “How wide the gate and easy the road that leads to destruction, and there are many that go that way. But how narrow the gate and constricted the path that leads to life.”

How realistic are our own expectations for the spiritual life? Do our expectations actually line up with the words of Scripture and with what Jesus has told us so many times? “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me,” says the Lord. Jesus is clear about what our expectations should be. No one carries a cross unless they’re headed towards their own crucifixion. So why are we so surprised when we encounter obstacles, when we encounter many hardships in our following of the footsteps of Christ, who walked the Way of the Cross? “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” Don’t get mad. Don’t get frustrated. Expect it, and ask God for every grace to grow in patience, to grow in perseverance, to grow in appreciation for the share in Christ’s own Cross that God entrusts to us.

In giving us a new commandment, Jesus tells us, “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” What does the love of Christ look like? Jesus willingly suffered and died, out of love for you. If we are not willing to sacrifice, to suffer for one another, we shouldn’t pretend to be following Christ’s commandment to love as He has loved us. Expect the cross. If we expect the cross, it will not overwhelm us when we encounter suffering. And like the Apostles who went before us, we may even be able to rejoice in our sufferings out of love for Jesus Christ. To Him be glory and honor forever.

One Shepherd, One Flock for All

Homily, Eastertide Sunday 4C

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. What images come to mind when we think of shepherds? We often think of very peaceful and pleasant scenes: green pastures, gentle breezes, streams of water, sheep grazing quietly on the hillside; or we picture the shepherds kneeling at the manger scene in front of the baby Jesus. But the actual life of a shepherd was hardly ever comfortable or easy, and often not very peaceful. Shepherds at the time of Jesus and in His neck of the woods lived tough lives. They stayed with the animals day and night, often enduring adverse weather, the heat of the day and cold of the night. They had to be watchful of dangers from predators, storms, and rustlers. And they had to be mindful of the inattentive and wandering sheep that so easily could get lost or get themselves into trouble.

To be a shepherd and to keep the sheep safe from the many dangers of this world was and is hard work. Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow Me.” What does it mean to be one of His sheep? Are we confident that we really belong to Jesus Christ? “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow Me.” If we don’t hear and recognize the voice of Christ, if we don’t take the time to listen to what God is saying to us, and if we aren’t really following Jesus in our daily lives, then we’re following some other shepherd, or we’ve struck out onto our own path. There’s an old saying that whoever chooses to direct himself has a fool for a guide.

But many people wonder, do we even really need Jesus anymore? You’ve probably heard people say on more than one occasion things like, “Well, he doesn’t go to church anymore, but he’s really the nicest person you’ll ever meet.” Or, “Well, you know, he doesn’t really believe in God, but he’s such a good person, and isn’t that what really matters? As long as someone’s a good person, they’ll go to heaven in the end, right?” But this is not what we hear in God’s Revelation of Himself and in the witness of Sacred Scripture. It’s not enough to “be a good person,” to do my best to follow what I think is right. From the beginning God is always calling us into relationship with Himself. To be part of His family, part of His “one flock.” And Jesus is the fullness of God’s Revelation. Jesus says things like, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” “Whoever believes in Me and is baptized will be saved. Whoever does not believe in Me will be condemned.” Jesus is not optional.

One very popular and pervasive attitude today is religious indifference. “Who’s to say? There are lots of religions, lots of ways to enlightenment, to God, to heaven.” There’s a lot of focus on the mere possibility of salvation for those who never explicitly believe in Christ or live in communion with the Church founded by Him. But our focus should be on what God has positively revealed and commanded. The sacraments of His Church are still the only ordinary means revealed by God for our salvation. Speculation about other possibilities is often motivated by the fact that there are many in the world today who are not Christian, who are not Catholic, there are many atheists and agnostics, and we rightly condemn any violence committed in the name of religion, but another motivation is to try and sooth our own consciences for our lack of zeal, our complacency and unwillingness to take risks to proclaim Jesus Christ as the One Savior of the world. We make excuses to just get along, to remain silent, and shirk our duty as Christians to proclaim the Gospel to every creature.

St. Paul didn’t mince any words in our first reading, when He warns His fellow Jews that without believing in the Messiah God sent for them, they risked the loss of eternal life. “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first, but since you reject it and condemn yourselves as unworthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles.” Judaism is incomplete, as long as it fails to recognize the Messiah promised by God through the Prophets, Jesus the Christ. The message of Muhammad in the 7th century is incompatible with the Gospel. Muhammad was a false prophet who has led many astray. We need to proclaim Jesus Christ to Muslims, to Jews, to all peoples, to fallen-away Catholics. There is one Lamb who stands before the throne of God in heaven. One Lamb who was slain for our sins and is risen from the dead for our salvation and for the salvation of all. It’s time to stop making excuses for ourselves, and time to start sharing the Good News.

Fear God, Not Man

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 6C

During this past week, there’s been some news in the Catholic world, but I won’t say that I find it all that encouraging. For those who don’t know, the former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick has been laicized, which means that he is no longer allowed to celebrate Mass or the other sacraments and should now be addressed and referred to as “Mr. McCarrick.” Ordination, of course, is permanent and cannot be removed, but the Church regulates the exercise of priestly power and of preaching, so as far as is possible, McCarrick has been removed from among the Church’s clergy. Already last summer, allegations against him of abuse became public and were found to be credible and substantiated. I definitely agree with the Vatican’s decision to laicize McCarrick, but I have no illusions that this is actually “a clear signal” that the Church will not tolerate abuse.

I don’t forget that he really should have been laicized several decades ago. I don’t forget that there is still rampant cowardice and institutionalism among his fellow clergy, those who covered for him, and those who allowed or even actively promoted his advancement as a bishop, as an archbishop, and as a cardinal of the holy Church of God, those who enabled him to remain in office long after the first big round of scandals broke in 2002. What I find dangerous and incredibly stupid and naïve about some of the reporting that I’ve heard on this, is that there are those eager to portray this as the end of the affair, finally, the end of a sad chapter of the Church’s history and the beginning of a new chapter of trust and optimism. The same thing that was said back in 2002, with new directives and safe environment training. “Oh, but we really mean it this time.” I will believe that the Vatican is taking this seriously when I actually see negative consequences for those who feign ignorance, those who failed to investigate questions when they knew they wouldn’t like the answers, those who stood by to get ahead. These are not shepherds. These are thieves and robbers that allowed wolves to have their way with the sheep.

The readings today could not be more clear. Those who do not trust in God above all, those who do not fear God more than any human being will always make compromises to just get along. They will serve their own appetites, their own desires for popularity, for ease and comfort. In my first years of the priesthood, I had to make a decision. Would I follow the subtle temptations of using the priesthood to serve my own ends? Would I remain silent on certain topics that would be difficult to communicate, difficult for people to receive? Would I fail to admonish fellow priests and clergy out of fear of how they would react or how that could affect my “career path”? Or, would I follow Christ and the laws of His Church, even if this should prove to be unpopular?

We like to think that we can have it both ways, that there will never be any real conflict between the love of God and love for my neighbor. But there are conflicts. There are times when we have to decide, Will I serve God first, above all? To correct, to admonish, to discipline, even if that means that as a parent you won’t be your child’s best friend? “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man.” On account of your faithful following of Jesus Christ. “Your reward will be great in heaven, for their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way.” But “woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way.”

Mr. McCarrick and his allies have shown us the rotten fruit of trying to have it both ways. The Way of the Cross, the way of discipleship and following Jesus demands a decision from us. Will we serve God above all, even when that brings trials and persecution? Or will we put our own desires ahead of God’s, to just get along, and to enjoy a false and empty peace and complacency? “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all.” This is not the end of the McCarrick scandal. If those who are able continue to neglect correcting what needs correction, to fail in disciplining those who need discipline, the Church will continue to suffer for it. But the solution is for all of us to decide today—and every day of our lives—to serve God first, above all. To have no fear of men. So that at the end of our lives, we will have confidence to stand before the judgment seat of almighty God, and to say to Him, “I strove always to live at peace with all men, but I did not shy away from the conflict and the strife that comes from remaining faithful to Your Word above all.”