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?

Co-Redemptrix

Bulletin Letter, Epiphany

Every new year starts with the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. We often think of this title as a great honor for the Blessed Mother, but it has more to do with being clear about who Jesus is. Mary, being the Mother of Jesus, is the Mother of God because Jesus is God. Jesus is the eternal Son of God and Second Person of the Holy Trinity who at the time of the Annunciation joined to Himself a perfect human nature in the womb of Mary. This was declared dogmatically at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Since then, three other dogmas about Mary have been defined: her Perpetual Virginity, her Immaculate Conception, and her Assumption—body and soul—into heaven at the end of her earthly life.

Another title of the Blessed Virgin that has been the subject of controversy, even recently, and often not well-understood is “Co-Redemptrix.” The word itself is simply the feminine form of the word ‘redeemer’ with the added prefix co- which means ‘with.’ This title has often been misunderstood to imply equality between Mary and Jesus in the work of redemption, but the prefix co- does not imply equality. In fact, it often implies subordination. The Church refers to priests as coworkers or collaborators with the bishops, but bishops are obviously of a higher rank in the Church’s hierarchy. A copilot would be another example: one who assists but is not in command of an airplane.

What is actually meant by Co-Redemptrix is that Mary cooperated and participated in a unique, powerful, and subordinate way in the supreme and irreplaceable work of redemption wrought by Jesus, her Divine Son. As only a mother could, she suffered with Him along His way of the Cross, her own heart breaking as she witnessed her Son, her own flesh and blood, scourged and torn and crucified for our salvation. And she offered her sufferings to God, united to those of Jesus, for the sake of the Church.

Even St. Paul would tell the Colossians, “I rejoice now in my sufferings for you, and I fill up what is lacking of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for the sake of His Body, which is the Church” (1:24). There is no value lacking in the afflictions of Christ. What is lacking is the conformity of our flesh to Christ’s Passion. “Deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow” your Lord and Teacher, crucified for our salvation. Our Blessed Mother as Co-Redemptrix shows us how in a preeminent way. St. Paul and every Apostle and disciple of Christ strove to do the same.

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.

Time is Running, Eternity is Waiting

Bulletin Letter, Advent Sunday 3A

Hard to believe we’re already reaching the Third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete (“Rejoice”) Sunday. And though the winter solstice isn’t until Saturday, the 21st, many of us have probably had our fill of winter already. I hope your Christmas shopping is going well. Before you know it, we’ll be ringing in the new year. 2020. Already 20 years since all the concern over Y2K for banking and digital systems, if you were around for that. I was just mentioning to someone that if I remain in good health, I won’t be able to retire until the year 2063. How’s that for perspective?

Last year, Bishop Swain went on a pilgrimage to Poland to visit many of the sites that were significant in the life of St. John Paul II. One highlight he often mentioned after his return was seeing the parish church where Karol Józef Wojtyła was baptized and where he attended Mass during his childhood in Wadowice, Poland. On the side of the church, just outside the house where he was born and lived, there is a decorative sundial that the future saint probably saw several times a day for the first eighteen years of his life. For the title above the sundial are the Polish words for, “Time is running. Eternity is waiting.”

Another common saying along the same lines in Latin is, Tempus fugit; memento mori. “Time flies. Remember death.” In Sirach 7:36, we find, “In all you do, remember the end of your life, and you will never sin.” Hopefully, we all have regular—even daily—reminders that our life on earth is temporary, not out of any excessive fascination with death but to give us a healthy perspective on life. Is what I’m doing each day really worthwhile? Are the things I worry about and stress over so often going to matter much next week, next month, next year, or in the next life? Am I becoming the person I’ll want to be when I meet Jesus face to face?

Having that reminder just outside his front door during all the years of his childhood no doubt formed St. John Paul II in the perspective that urged him to spend well the years on earth entrusted to him by God. Time is running. Eternity is waiting. How will you spend these final days of Advent, waiting with anticipation for the Coming of Christ?

This Wednesday, December 18, Friday, December 20, and Saturday, December 21, are the Winter Ember Days. Please join in offering to God some extra fasting and prayers, thanking Him for the harvest and begging him for more holy priests and religious to labor in His vineyard.

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?

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.

Pray Always

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 29C

It’s fairly common for people nowadays to take regular trips and vacations, to get away for time at a lake or a cabin, to spend a few days hunting or fishing, camping or hiking, but it’s not so common for people to take time away for a spiritual retreat on a regular basis. This next week I’ll be going on a priest retreat at Broomtree. Every priest is required to go on retreat once a year. I always look forward to the opportunity to refocus and gain perspective, to remember why I wanted to become a priest, all the amazing things God has done in my life, and to grow in my relationship with Christ, to bind myself more fully to the Vine and Source of Life, because apart from Jesus, I can do nothing and bear no fruit. 

But this isn’t just true for priests. Each and every baptized person, every Christian—if we’re going to actually live effectively as Catholic Christians and bear fruit for God in the world—we need to abide in Christ. The Gospel tells us that we need “to pray always, without becoming weary.” It doesn’t say that we need to worry always, or to talk to ourselves throughout the day, thinking about all we need to get done, all the people who get on our nerves, how hungry we are and what we plan to eat at our next meal, maybe even growing angry that the car in front of us is going so slow. Instead, we need to pray always, to talk to God and to live in His presence. To invite Him into our thoughts and inner monologue, into our judgments and reactions and tell Him about all our concerns throughout the day.  

So much of our energy is wasted on our insistence on living in some abstract, idealized world and continually being disappointed when life does not quite live up to our inflated expectations. Some of us play out countless scenarios of what could happen in the future, and we plan every possible reaction to every possibility, even though our experience has shown that very rarely do any of these hypotheticals actually happen the way we plan. We end up spending ourselves on inventions of our own mind and fears of our own making. Or on unrealistic expectations of the people around us, how everyone should drive, or talk or not talk, all the people we’ve tried to fix who refuse to take our advice. Instead of accepting life as it comes to us and asking God for the grace to bear it patiently, we spend ourselves instead on continual frustration, because things in life don’t follow our own hopes and desires. Inviting God into our thoughts, our hopes, our fears, allows Him to help us purify these, to help us accept life on its own terms, to open ourselves to God’s will and God’s ways, and allow Him to guide and change our own thoughts and behaviors, which are the only things we really have some control over. 

When I was in seminary studying for the priesthood, we were told that the default setting of priests should be intercessory prayer. So just like computer programs or phones have default settings that they can return to when being reset, so too, priests as mediators between God and man should have a sort of default setting, what we should normally be doing in any spare moment. Whenever were not occupied with something else, we should always reset and come back to intercessory prayer, even as we walk or wait in line or shop at the grocery store, that we would be asking God to fulfill the various needs of those around us and those who have asked the help of our prayers. 

I know I have a long way to go to be able to pray always without becoming weary as God is calling me. But each one of us needs to strive for that persistence and constancy of our prayer and conversation with God. What is your default setting? Do you have one? Do you ever give yourself the opportunity to be alone with God, or do we fill our lives with so much noise and clutter, avoiding the silence, avoiding our vulnerability in the sight of God, but ultimately avoiding the intimacy that we so desperately need in our relationship with Christ, and the only thing that can satisfy our deepest desires? St. Alphonsus Ligouri is quoted as saying, “Those who pray are certainly saved; those who do not pray are certainly damned” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2744).  

How much longer will we choose to live with the clutter of our sins, of our anxieties, of our anger and impatience, the clutter of our preoccupation with trivial matters and our obsession with what others might think of us? How much longer will we risk our eternal salvation on things that can never satisfy our hearts? Lord Jesus, come and teach us to pray, to abide in prayer, that we may receive from God every good gift and look forward with longing to the life of heaven.  

Numb to Sin

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 28C

When I was growing up, we had a fireplace in the house, and I was always kind of fascinated by fire. And with the snow outside, a fire sounds really good right about now. I could spend hours just watching the flames dance back and forth. I also liked to stoke the fire and keep it going, and if I wasn’t careful enough, I could end up burning myself, which, as you probably know, isn’t the most pleasant thing to do. When we get burned, I doubt that many of us think it’s a great blessing to be able to feel the heat and pain caused by the fire, but if you’ve ever done research on leprosy or Hansen’s disease that we hear about in today’s readings, one of the main problems caused by leprosy is damage to the nerve endings and numbnessthe inability to feel pain. So while most of us have reflexes to prevent serious injury when we get too close to fire or touch something that’s hot, or even when we just stub our toe, those who have leprosy can end up doing a lot more damage to themselves because they don’t feel the pain that a healthy person would feel in the same situation. 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus heals ten lepers. And how would they know that they’d been healed? They would have started to feel again, and to feel pain, which might explain why only one of them returned to give thanks to God. For most of us, pain is not a pleasant experience, but it does serve a purpose. Pain can motivate us to pull back and get out of harmful situations, like fire or injury. Pain can let us know that all is not well, and that a change might be in order. The ability to feel pain is a sign of health and normal functioning in our bodiesNumbness, whether physical or spiritual, is never a very good thing, even though we might sometimes think feeling nothing at all is better than feeling pain. 

When we ask God for healing, when we cry out with the lepers in the Gospel, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!” God always answers our prayers. But when the answer to our prayers is actually a new awareness of a harmful situation that we’re in, a new awareness of sin, an experience of pain or restlessness and the healing of our spiritual numbness through trials, are we still able to recognize this as a great grace and healing from God, and to give thanks for it?  

It’s not the easiest thing for me to point out to fellow Catholics that certain things are serious sins that we need to bring to Confession before receiving Communion again, things like missing Sunday Masseven when we’re travelingor to point out that certain living arrangements contrary to God’s law can also prevent us from receiving Holy Communion fruitfully. But throughout the Bible, the Presence of God, and so the Presence of Jesus in this Holy Eucharist, was never to be treated casually or thoughtlessly. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that “our God is a consuming fire,” and St. Paul makes it clear to the Corinthians that the holiness of God in Holy Communion can even be dangerous and contribute to sickness or death, if we consume the Body and Blood of Jesus without first examining ourselves, examining our consciences to make sure we have the proper dispositions (Hebrews 12:29, Deuteronomy 4:24; Cf. 1 Corinthians 11:27-30). 

Are we spiritually aware, or have we developed a spiritual leprosy, a spiritual numbness that prevents us from experiencing a healthy pain in our conscience in response to sin and sinful situations that do us greater harm than any physical injury? Do we have the reverence we should have, in approaching this fire of the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist? With Naaman the Syrian and with the Samaritan in today’s Gospel, we give thanks to God even for the pain and trials we experience, as answers to our prayers. May God continue to wake us up to the spiritual realities that surround us, that we may be purified and found worthy to withstand and to dwell within the “consuming fire” of God’s love for us.