Jesus is the One

Homily, Advent Sunday 3C

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near.” You may have noticed by now that I am not the most expressive or energetic person in the world. I have a very German ethnicity, and even though people often tell me that I should smile more, it still feels very strange or even creepy to me to smile at other people for no apparent reason. I’ve also determined—and the Masses I sometimes have in Hoven at 7:20 am have confirmed—that I’m not really a morning person. It’s not until about 9 am that I start to hit my stride. If you do ever see me smiling a lot at in the morning, please call someone, as I will probably be in need of immediate medical attention. In general, I find that I can communicate most of what I want to express just by using my eyebrows. 

On this Gaudete Sunday, we’re more than halfway done with Advent. We light the rose-colored candle of the Advent wreath and wear rose vestments as a way of anticipating Christmas joy. And we’re told to rejoice, to rejoice in the Lord, not just to be superficially happy or silly, or artificially smiley, but to recognize and to give thanks to God for all the marvels He has done. In the Gospel, John the Baptist sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the One who is to come, or should we look for another?” Are you the Messiah? Are you the answer to the hopes of all Israel, the answer to the hopes and dreams of every person on the earth? Or should we keep looking for something or someone else? 

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.” Jesus is the answer and fulfillment of every human hope. Jesus is the healing for every wound and affliction we can experience. Jesus is the One, the only One, who can bring us to life from the dead. Yet how often we keep looking for someone else, for something else to bring us peace, to bring us joy, to bring fulfillment and meaning to our lives! Are you the One who is to come, or should we look for another? Jesus is the One. So stop looking elsewhere! No one else and nothing else can fill you the way that Jesus wants to feed you in this Eucharist. 

For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son” to die for our sins upon the Cross, so that we might have eternal life. And yet so often we act as though that’s not good enough. We want money. We want success. We want pleasure. God offers us His own life, the opportunity to become sons and daughters of God and to live forever. And we settle for living only for today. He offers us citizenship with the Saints in heaven, and we settle for trying to fit in and make a name for ourselves in a dying world. Jesus offers us the peace that the world cannot give, and we settle for merely avoiding conflict and argument, and ignoring the problems we’d rather not face or deal with. 

What are you looking for in a Messiah? If you were to ask that question of Jesus, “Are you the One who is to come, or should we look for another?” what answer from Jesus would actually satisfy you? “The blind regain their sight.” So what? Why should I care? I can already see. But do we see and understand things as clearly as we think we do? “The lame walk.” Who cares? I can walk just fine. But do we walk and conduct ourselves as we really should? “Lepers are cleansed.” I take a shower every day. But are we really as clean as we know we could be? “The deaf hear.” Do we listen as we really should, and can we recognize God’s voice when He speaks? “The dead are raised to life.” We are alive, but are we really living? Do we often find life burdensome? And if we do, have we learned to find rest in God? “Come to Me, all you who labor and are weary, and I will give you rest,” says the Lord. “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me. For I am meek and humble of heart. And you will find rest for your souls.” 

Jesus is the One. There is no other. Looking elsewhere for someone or something else will never bring us the rest that we seek, the joy that we desire. What is it that you’re looking for? And not just on the surface, but what is your heart longing for? And if you haven’t found it yet in Jesus, look again. 

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.

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! 

¡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?

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.  

The Old Switcheroo

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 26C

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of going on a few different mission trips. One, while I was in college was down to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, in the years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. On the other trips, one in Mexico, and one to Belize, I actually served as a priest-chaplain. The general reaction of those who go on these sorts of trips is pretty consistent. We usually come back home saying that the people we served are some of the most joyful people we’ve ever met, even though they seemed to have very little in the way of material possessions. But they have their faith, they have their family and relatives, and they all seem much more attentive to the people that they meet. They also tend to have a much more enjoyable pace of life, able to really enter into each moment of the day, without being in a frenzied rush to move on to the next thing. I’ve heard similar reactions from people who have spent time with different religious orders, like the Missionaries of Charity, the order that Mother Teresa of Calcutta founded, working among the poorest of the poor, and if you’ve been inside their convents, you see that they also live poverty themselves, often without water heaters, air conditioning, or many other things that most of us today tend to view as necessities.  

We often forget that according to the standards of most countries in the world, almost all of us here would be considered fairly wealthy. And from the perspective of history, if we’ve never really had to worry and wonder about where our next meal is going to come from, wondering if we’ll have enough just to afford the food we need today or tomorrow to survive, if we’ve never really had to worry about starving to death, we’re definitely among the wealthiest people in the thousands of years of human historyIf we have a roof over our heads, food to eat each day, more than one set of clothing, and access to medical care, it’s easy to see that we have much more in common with the unnamed rich man in today’s Gospel rather than having much in common with the poor man Lazarus. It might be that Jesus doesn’t give a name to the rich man precisely because it could be any one of us. If we aren’t challenged by today’s Gospel, then we probably weren’t listening very closely.  

When both Lazarus and the rich man die, they essentially just trade places, receiving in the afterlife the opposite of what they had received during their life on earth. And it doesn’t actually say that Lazarus did anything really great to deserve this or that the rich man did anything extraordinarily bad. After they die, Abraham simply says to the rich man, “My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.” This reversal is a common theme throughout the Scriptures. God comforts the afflicted, but He afflicts those who are comfortable and complacent. St. Luke includes with the Beatitudes of Christ the corresponding Woes that He pronounces as well, among them, “Woe to you who are rich now, for you have [already] received your consolation.” If God gave us the same offer of reversal at the end of our lives, where do you think most of us would end up? During our time on earthhave we had more in common with those who enjoy their wealth, who dine sumptuously and have lots of different outfits, and all the latest gadgets and toys? Or do we live as one of the poor and afflicted ones, more like Lazarus, waiting for the salvation that comes from God? 

How do we live differently as Christians in today’s world? Do we live differently? If someone from the outside would look at what we own, how we spend our money, the vacations we take, the things that we throw away, would they be able to tell that we are followers of the poor man, Jesus of Nazareth? What difference, concretely, does the Gospel make in our lives, in our desires for the latest and greatest, in our frenzy to keep up appearances, or in our efforts at self-denial? Do we include God in the conversation about what we really need and what we want, about our next purchase and whether God might be aware of more pressing needs at our doorstep that we have overlooked?  

During Lent, most of us practice self-denial and penance to some extent, but during the rest of the year, what are we doing to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Christ? Many are not aware of this, but every Friday throughout the year—not just the Fridays during Lent, but every Friday—Catholics are still expected to practice some sort of self-denial or penance, to offer some sacrifice in honor of Christ, who suffered and died on a Friday. It no longer has to be abstaining from meat, as it still is during Lent, but each and every Friday we should be doing something intentional to conform our lives to the Cross of Christ. Just as every Sunday throughout the year is a little Easter as we celebrate the Resurrection of Christ, so also every Friday is to be for us a little Lent as we willingly unite ourselves to the sufferings of Christ. 

So what is God calling us to do, to simplify our lives, to rid ourselves of the excess so that we can more readily help those in genuine need, to be less indulgent when it comes to our food, drink, wardrobe, recreation and technology, to conform ourselves to the mystery of the Cross and the poor man from Nazareth? If at the end of our lives, God simply brings about a reversal of fortunes—and not just temporarily, but for the rest of eternity—will he find us living more like the rich man who freely enjoyed the good things of this passing world, living in comfort and security, or will we have more in common with Lazarus, the poor man looking for the comfort that God desires to give? There’s still time for us to change places. 

True Wealth

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 25C

One piece of Catholic trivia that you may or may not be aware of is that whenever a priest becomes a bishop, he chooses for himself an episcopal motto to appear at the bottom of his coat of arms. This motto is usually a short phrase taken from Scripture. So every Catholic bishop has a motto, and you can probably find them all on Wikipedia. For example, Bishop Swain’s motto in this diocese is, in Latin, “Confitemini Domino,” which means, Give praise to the Lord. It comes from one of the Psalms. Now when I was in seminary, one of my classmates joked about what the motto would be for the first bishop of the Moon or in outer space. He thought it should be, “My only friend is darkness,” from Psalm 88. Another line from Scripture that might look kind of odd as a bishop’s motto is from the Gospel of John, when Jesus is about to raise Lazarus from the dead: “There will be a stench.” Now in today’s Gospel, we have perhaps the most accurate motto for many bishops todayquite sadlywhen the dishonest steward says, “I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” 

It is kind of a puzzle why in today’s parable the landowner praises the dishonest steward for once again cheating the landowner out of what rightfully belongs to him. When he has people come in to reduce their debts, it’s the landowner who loses out by not being repaid the full amount. So what is Jesus talking about, and what can we learn from the dishonest steward? What is the dishonest wealth that Jesus refers to, and what is true wealth? “Make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” We need to see ourselves, the people around us, and the merely material things of this passing world in the proper order. What’s most important? Is it better to store up for ourselves money and to be surrounded by material things? Or is it better to be surrounded by friends? To use the things of this world to serve others. To have mercy and to show forgiveness.

St. Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises starts with what he calls the First Principle and Foundation of the spiritual life. He says, “Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.” This is the ultimate purpose of every human life. The other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help him in attaining the end for which he was created. Hence, man is to make use of created things in as far as they help him in the attainment of his end, and he must rid himself of them is as far as they become a hindrance.” How often do we consider whether what we’re doing each day, the words we say, and how we use the things of this world, is this really helping me, leading me towards that final goal, to live with God forever? And if what I’m doing, what I’m saying, and the things and the people that I surround myself with are not helping me get to heaven, am I actually willing to let them go? To make different friends, to change my own habits and my attitudes, to get rid of things that I don’t really need and that are a source of temptation for me? 

Jesus asks us in the Gospel, “If you’re not trustworthy with what belongs to another, who will give you what is yours?” What’s He talking about, “what belongs to another”? He’s talking about all the things of this passing world, all the things we like to think belong to us, but from day to day, there’s no guarantee that they’ll still be ours. And definitely, when we die, they’re going to belong to someone else. So what is it that’s really ours? That not even death can take away? It’s our soul. How many of us really value our souls the way that we should? To be concerned more for the state of our souls than for so many other things that we tend to worry about each day? How many of us really believe and behave as if the loss of sanctifying grace through just one mortal sin is among the worst of things that can happen to us, worse than the loss of all our material possessions? 

That’s what Jesus is talking about in the Gospel todayTo see things in their proper perspective, even in view of eternity. Realize what has been entrusted to you and where your true wealth lies. Realize the eternal consequences that should shape how it is we conduct ourselves during our short pilgrimage on earthTo know that your relationship with God, and your relationship with the people around you is much more important than your relationship with your cell phone or with your computer or TV or bank account, or the car you drive or what brand of clothes you wear or anything else. Keep things in perspective. Take care of your immortal soul even more than you care for your physical body. Life on earth is short and uncertain. “Make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” 

Parable of the Father’s Love

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 24C

My family and I have always thought of ourselves as being very German. And for the most part, we like to be on time, we like to be organized, and we like to work. Now I’ve always loved my family very much, and I’m very proud to be among them, but it isn’t always easy. Being very German, we don’t necessarily like to talk very much, especially about our feelings. And my dad, in particular, can be a quiet man. He wouldn’t necessarily say the words, “I love you,” very often because that just wasn’t his way. I think there were times when I was younger that he seemed distant to me. But as I grew up, I started to understand and notice how my dad really expressed his love for us through his actions.

There were nine of us kids at home, and I’m the youngest, and I’m sure my parents had to work very hard to keep us well-fed, and dressed, and to buy us plenty of Christmas and birthday presents. They also taught us the value of hard work with paper routes, mowing lawns together, and shoveling snow, which I’m more grateful for now than I was at the time. And they always encouraged us to do our very best in school and in everything we did. But the most striking memories for me when it comes to my dad, and what I find most expressive of his love for us, were the times when he would get a call from one of us and hear that we were in trouble, that the car had broken down, or that we’d been in an accident. He would drop everything and drive any distance to make sure that we were safe, and to bring us home. When I would see my dad go to such great lengths for us in these and in many other situations, I couldn’t doubt that my dad really loved us and that he loved me.

Jesus became man to reveal God to us as our loving Father. Are we able to experience the love and protection of our heavenly Father, or does he still seem distant to us? How often do we actually pray to God the Father in our personal prayer? Or do we only pray to Jesus? None of our human fathers are perfect. They’re all different. Some people never even get to meet their own dad, or have only a few memories of him, so it can be a challenge for many of us to experience how God is our Father and how infinitely He loves us, but the parable in today’s Gospel is meant to lead all of us into our heavenly Father’s love, no matter what shortcomings or limitations our earthly fathers may have.

We often call this the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but the purpose of the parable is more to reveal the mercy and love of the father of two sons, the father who spends every spare moment watching the horizon for any sign of his younger son’s return, so that “while he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion” and “ran to his son.” The father who “must celebrate and rejoice” now that he has his son back home, safe and sound. The same father who comes out to plead with his elder son to enter the feast, and who tells him with great love, “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours.” These images and expressions are only the faintest glimpse of God the Father’s incomprehensible love and infinite desire for each one of us.

You see, it makes very little difference to God how we ended up in the mess that we’re in, how we came to be lost or in trouble, whether we decided to jump in the mud ourselves or whether we just slipped and fell. Like the best of parents, His one concern is to get us cleaned up, and when we’re sick, to get us healthy again. So whether we’ve sinned against God or simply hold onto our pride, whatever has befallen us or how we’ve harmed ourselves, God’s one concern is to bring us home to Himself, safe and sound, and He will not rest until He has done so. He will stop at nothing to rescue us even from death itself.

This is the love that God the Father has for each and every one of us—whether we realize it or not, whether we believe it or not—a love that will not rest until we are reunited with Him in His unending life. When we start to really experience this love and to desire it for ourselves, that’s what has the power to change our hardened hearts. That’s what makes sin lose its grip on us. We should remind ourselves often, that before God asks anything from us, He desires to give Himself to us and say to us, “You are here with me always; everything I have is yours.” What is our response to His invitation? Will we return to the Father’s house? Will we finally enter into the feast?

Practically Spiritual

Homily, Ordinary Time 23C

I may have mentioned to some of you already that I come from a family of engineers. My dad has always been able to fix pretty much anything mechanical, and every one of my six brothers earned a degree in engineering of one kind or another. My oldest sister is a high school math teacher. My other sister and I are kind of the odd ones; she became a dental hygienist, and I became a priest, but I think we all still have the same tendencies to be very analytical and practical in our approach to different things. They say that optimists view the glass as being half full, while pessimists say the glass is half empty. An engineer, on the other hand, would say that the container is twice as big as it needs to be.

Our readings this weekend talk about having a practical approach to our faith and spiritual life, looking to what lies ahead, taking stock of our resources, setting goals for ourselves and forming a plan of action to reach those goals. Most of us realize the importance of being practical when it comes to things like exercising, losing weight, studying for an exam, learning to play a musical instrument, or to excel in any sport. In the Gospel today, Jesus mentions building a tower or commanding an army. To make progress in these or any other areas of life, it makes a huge difference for most of us when we actually have clear goals in mind and someone else to keep us accountable and committed to a regular schedule of practice and discipline.

But for some reason, when it comes to our spiritual lives and spiritual health, many of us are very impractical and far too abstract. When is the last time that you made any concrete goals for yourself to grow in your spiritual life? If it’s been since Lent, it’s been too long. And how did you follow up with those goals to pursue them? Who do you talk to about your faith to keep you accountable to the goals that you set for yourself? If we go to Confession frequently, most of us probably don’t need a trained spiritual director most of the time, but all of us need a friend that we can check in with and who checks in on us, to see how we’re doing in our relationship with God, and if we’re being faithful to the commitments we have and to our spiritual needs.

One of the goals I had for a number of years was to read the entire Bible once through each year. I was never really able to do this until I actually sat down and calculated out the number of total chapters and determined that to meet my goal, very practically, I would need to read 26 chapters of the Bible each week, which comes out to 4 chapters every weekday and 3 chapters on Saturday and on Sunday. Once I had a clear plan, it became easy to see when I was falling behind or when I was staying on track. But without a goal, and without a practical plan to reach that goal, it becomes very difficult to determine whether we’re headed in the right direction or making any progress.

Many of us today are too busy. We would like to pray more and to spend more time in silence with God, but we never seem to find the time to fit it in. But I know for myself, very practically, when I make an appointment with someone and actually put it into my calendar, I’m going to do whatever I can to be there, to be in my office or wherever it is that we’re meeting. To make time for prayer, most of us need to do just that: make an appointment with Jesus, actually put it into our calendar and be committed to being there for the duration of the meeting. He’s the most important person that you’ll meet with all day. If we’re too abstract and just keep saying, “I really need to pray more,” we never actually will. If we want to be more patient with those around us, more generous, more compassionate, more at peace with ourselves and with everything around us, we won’t make progress without prayer and without God. And we will not pray more without making an appointment and without making it a priority.

So what are your goals for your spiritual life? And what are the practical steps that you’ll take to make progress towards those goals? And who is going to keep you accountable? If we have trouble answering any of these questions, we probably won’t be able to make the progress that we want to see. If we are not practical and committed, we will never be holy. Heaven should be the final goal for each and every one of us, to live forever with God should be the aim of our entire life on earth. All our other actions have meaning and purpose only so far as they are leading us ultimately to eternal life with God. May God give us the wisdom and strength to take whatever steps we need to make progress towards our true home in heaven.