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.

Top 10 of 2019

Bulletin Letter, Holy Family A

On the threshold of 2020, we have opportunity to recall some of the great blessings of the past year. After much prayer and discernment (sort of), I give you

Fr. Schmidt’s Top 10 of 2019:

10. Getting repairs done after my vehicle’s first close encounter with a deer.

9. Receiving a flu shot for the first time in my life. The taste reminds me a bit of carbonara.

8. Finally getting to try Schmidt Beer. It’s a fairly standard American lager. At least it’s better than Hamm’s, in my opinion.

7. Beginning to compost food waste, hair and nail clippings, etc. Might have to take up gardening in the spring to put it to use.

6. Being able to use the hardwood floor in the sanctuary and sacristies of St. Augustine after helping to restore it with Fr. DeWayne Kayser and others from the parish back in the summer of 2010.

5. Surviving my first Christmas on the Prairie Concert in Hoven. I’m convinced it’s even better than the Christmas at the Cathedral Concert in Sioux Falls.

4. Having the consolation on particularly cold mornings to observe the great beauty of a heavy frost covering the branches of all the tress.

3. Moving into two of the finest rectories in South Dakota. I especially enjoy the wood-burning fireplace in Hoven. Unfortunately, I still haven’t fully unpacked or reorganized either rectory to my satisfaction quite yet.

2. Having a second set of twins (fraternal, one boy, one girl) born in the month of February among my nieces and nephews. The first twins (identical girls) were born in February back in 2006 in the family of another of my brothers.

1. Becoming the Pastor of two of the best parishes and three of the most beautiful churches in the Diocese of Sioux Falls.

And for all the countless blessings that I have neglected to notice or mention, I give thanks to God. Let’s continue to hold one another up in prayer and to give endless thanks for the immense blessings He has bestowed upon our parishes. May we use them well for the building up of His Kingdom in the New Year and every day of our lives. Happy 2020!
Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.

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. 

Keep Watch and Pray

Homily, Advent Sunday 1A

Seems like every year they start playing Christmas music on the radio earlier and earlier. I think the Hallmark Christmas movies started playing back at the end of October, and they’ve continued, uninterrupted ever since. Listening to Christmas music or watching Christmas movies before Christmas is not necessarily a problem, but it can distract us from really appreciating and entering into the unique graces of the liturgical season that we begin today, the season of Advent. Even as we shouldn’t be chowing down on chocolate rabbits in the middle of Lent as we prepare for Easter, a certain amount of restraint is appropriate during this time of preparation for Christmas. 

Advent was the last liturgical season to develop in the Church’s history, as a penitential season leading up to the full joy of Christmas, just as Lent is meant to prepare us for Easter. The name Advent simply means ‘coming,’ and the season focuses on three moments when Christ comes to meet us. As we begin Advent, and for the next couple weeks as reflected in our readings at Mass, the focus is on the Second Coming of Christ at the end of the world and the judgment that each of us will face at the end of our lives. Only with the Third Sunday of Advent the focus will shift to Christ’s First Coming into our world, as a baby in Bethlehem.  

That First Coming of Christ in weakness at the First Christmas was in the past, and the Second Coming of Christ in power and glory will be in the future. The third moment that Christ comes to us is in the present, today, through grace and the Sacraments, even right now in this Holy Mass. God’s work in our world and history is not just a thing of the past or of the future, but God wants to transform us today, and in every present moment through the coming of His Messiah into our lives. 

Now because Advent focuses on the fulfillment of God’s promises, His promises to the people of Israel long ago, Christ’s promise to return at the end of time, and His promise to give us new life here and now, the virtue that we should especially foster during this season is hope. Christian hope desires and obtains what God promises to give. There are many things that we hope for, even on a natural level, and God is generous in pouring out His blessings upon us, even if we do have to suffer from time to time. But even more than the blessings of health, food, shelter, and education, or any other good thing, God especially wants to give us Himself, in this Eucharist, in the communion of prayer, and ultimately in the eternal life of heaven. 

So how do we go about exercising our desire for God and His gifts during this Advent season? Most people are familiar with the Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and most Catholics try to give up something or do something extra throughout the season of Lent, but do we ever commit ourselves to doing something special throughout the season of Advent? During Advent, the focus is not so much on fasting or almsgiving, but we are called to “Stay awake!” to keep watch and to pray, even as the readings remind us today. “Stay sober and alert.”  

very appropriate practice for Advent is to keep vigil, to spend some extra time in prayer and in silence, especially in the darkness of night or early morning. We observe in nature, at least in the northern hemisphere, that this is the darkest time of the year with the shortest days of sunlight. True Christian hope waits with patience and perseverance even in the darkness, for the dawning of the Light of Christ. In nature, this is also the most quiet time of the year, all except for the windThe rest of creation waits with us in silence for its renewal in Christ Jesus. During this season of Advent, we might make more of an effort to shut off the radio and the podcasts, to shut off the TVs and the Netflix to make more time for genuine silence and for prayer, for waiting and watching with patience and hope for the Advent of Christ our Savior. 

How often do we really think about heaven and what it’s going to be like? To exercise our desire for the coming of God’s kingdom? Every time we pray the Our Father, we prayThy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven, but many of us have grown quite comfortable with our lives on earth, living very often according to our own will, rather than God’s. And we’re not all that eager for Christ to return. Something for us to consider today is whether we actually look forward to the end of the world with hope, or do we dread it with fear? If the return of Christ at the end of the world or at the end of our lives is something we fear, how might God be inviting us to change and to be transformed, so that our outlook can be infused with Christian hope? Please do what you can to make this Advent season special, to make it an opportunity to step back from the busyness of the world, to wait and watch in darkness and in silence for the coming of Christ into every moment of our daily lives. Stay awake! Keep watch and pray! 

Faithful to the Living God

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 33C

The end is near. Keep watch, and be ready. It’s likely that every generation has had members who were convinced that the end of the world was going to take place within their own lifetime. I was able to find a list of the different dates and years that have been predicted as the end of the world, many of which were even proposed by Christians. One hundred and seventy-four predictions that have come and gone, and the world keeps spinning. No doubt there have been many, many other predictions that are not found on that list that have also not come true. The signs that Jesus talks about in the Gospel, “wars and insurrections,” nation rising “against nation, and kingdom against kingdom” … “powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place, and awesome sights and mighty signs” from the sky, we know that all these things Jesus mentions have been part of every age in human history, and our own is not all that unique. 

Still, today, there are many convinced that the end is finally near, whether from climate change or even because of signs and events in the Catholic Church. If you don’t pay much attention to news coming out of Rome these days, you’ll probably have a more peaceful life. But those who have been watching are no doubt aware of different controversies that arose during the recent Amazon Synod.  

The most noteworthy was probably the allowance at the synod and events connected to the synod of a certain image that came to be known by the name of Pachamama, the name of a fertility goddess revered by indigenous Amazonians. Wood carvings of this image were present at an opening tree-planting ceremony in the Vatican Gardens, in which participants formed a circle with the Pachamama image at the center and bowed themselves to the ground toward it. The images were also present in a church just down the road from St. Peter’s while the synod was going on. The images were at one point taken out of the church by a Catholic man and thrown off a bridge into the Tiber River nearby. They were later recovered. The person who threw them into the river did so because he thought this was a clear instance of idolatry that had been allowed into the Vatican and into a Catholic church. Those looking for signs of the end times might point to such things as a fulfillment of the prophecy of Daniel, the “abomination of desolation” set up in God’s holy Temple. 

Now I don’t personally have intimate knowledge of the history of Pachamama in the Amazonian missions or what the participants in the tree-planting ceremony would say they were doing, what significance bowing to the ground towards any statue has in their culture, or who or what they would say was being depicted by those wooden statues, so I can’t say with 100% certainty that it was a case of pagan idolatry, but from the outside it definitely looks that way to many Catholics.  

Perhaps the most troubling thing about the whole affair was the response from members of the Vatican press office, even from bishops and priests in that office. One explanation they gave is that we shouldn’t see the images as pagan or sacred, neither depicting Pachamama nor Our Blessed Mother Mary, but merely as symbols of womanhood, life, fertility, mother earth, etc. But then, my question would be, where else in a Catholic context would it ever be appropriate to pray to or venerate symbols of abstract concepts or inanimate objects? Seems to me that’s the very definition of idolatry. As Catholics, we pray to persons, to conscious beings, to the angels, to the saints, to those who can hear and respond to our prayers and intercede for us. We pray to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Source of every blessing, and we worship Him alone. Mother earth is not a person. She’s not listening. There were lots of people who would pray to “symbols of fertility.” Every pagan, naturalist religion has used fertility idols, but these are the very false gods that the First Commandment absolutely prohibits.  

So when what’s at stake in allowing the Pachamama image or whatever it was into the Vatican or into a Catholic church, when what is at stake is the false worship that was punished with death in the Old Testament, and then the explanation is just that these should be seen as symbols of life and fertility, if there’s any doubt at all, any possibility that this even could be idolatry to the false goddess of Pachamama or any other false god, then it shouldn’t have been allowed on Vatican grounds or in any Catholic church. And the fact that the Vatican spokesmen seemed confused as to why this seemed like such a big deal to so many Catholics makes clear that they really don’t understand what is at stake. 

I certainly hope that no one here is in the habit of praying to or bowing down to a football or to a volleyball, or any symbol of sportsmanship. I hope we understand what’s at stake and strive to offer true worship to God alone. May the Holy Trinity continue to purify us from all our idols and false gods and give us perseverance to live the true faith, even when we are handed over, as Jesus says, “by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends,” by members of our own household of faith, even to death. The most bitter persecution of the Catholic Church is the persecution that comes from within, persecution from our own fellow Catholics. Whether the end of the world is near or not, the end of each of our lives will come “on an unexpected day and at an unknown hour.” Stay faithful to Christ above all. Persevere to the end, and you will have life without end. 

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?

People, Look East

Bulletin Letter, Ordinary Time Sunday 32C

For one of the breaks from school I had during college seminary, I decided to visit the home of a classmate from the Diocese of Joliet in Illinois. He also came from a large family, and during the week they would load up their van to attend Mass each day in a parish on the outskirts of Chicago. Mass there was pretty much what I was used to, with maybe just one or two exceptions. 

When the priest went to the altar for Offertory and the Eucharistic Prayer, he faced the tabernacle, the same direction as most of the people. He also spoke in such a way that it was clear he was talking to God and not to the people assembled there. Otherwise, the Mass was in English as usual, and it was fairly ordinary. As someone in the pews at that time, I was amazed at what a difference it made, just to have the priest facing the same direction, all of us facing and praying to God together. After being ordained a priest, there was a time at Holy Spirit Parish in Sioux Falls when the skylight was leaking onto the altar, so for a regular weekday Mass, I simply used the opposite side. On his way out, one of the parishioners commented, “I really liked that, Father. It felt more like we were all praying with you, rather than being talked at or just watching.” 

The practice of ad orientem worship (literally, “towards the East”), with priest and people facing the same direction, goes back for more than 1000 years in the Roman Church. If Jews faced Jerusalem to pray and Muslims faced Mecca, Christians traditionally faced east, the direction of the rising sun, because when Christ, the “Sun of justice,” returns again—it was always thought—He will appear in the east (Cf. Malachi 4:2). Impressively enough, both St. Anthony in Hoven and St. Augustine in Bowdle are built in such a way that in saying Mass toward the high altar and tabernacle, both priest and people actually face east. But even in churches where this is not the case, Christ present in the tabernacle or represented by the altar and crucifix was considered liturgical east. 

This is all so much to say that I would like to begin using the high altars in our churches for the celebration of Mass during the Advent and Christmas seasons, when we especially look forward to Christ’s return at the end of the age and celebrate His first appearance among us in human flesh. This should also simplify setup for the concert in Hoven. I realize many of you have been to Mass celebrated this way before. I hope our openness and appreciation for how the Mass was prayed for so many centuries will continue to mature and deepen. 

Hosting Jesus

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 31C

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

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

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

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

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

The Power of Humility

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 30C

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

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

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

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

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

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.