See the Face of God

Homily, Christmas Day

In my family growing up, I was the youngest of nine kids, and being the youngest, I was never around babies very much. I never really understood all the excitement that people tend to have about babies. They don’t really do all that much, besides eat, sleep, cry, and fill their diapers. So what’s the big deal, I thought? Probably some of my older siblings thought the same thing about me, when I showed up at home. What’s so great about him?

Today—if I counted them correctly—I have a total of 18 nieces and nephews, and as they get older, they definitely get involved in more activities than when they were just babies, but it has still always puzzled me why the Birth of Jesus at Christmas has become such a big celebration in the Church and in the world. All that happens is simply a change in location for the Baby Jesus. For nine months already, Jesus has been in the Virgin Mary’s womb. Now He’s out. But the really momentous event is what happened at the Annunciation, when Jesus was conceived by the power of Holy Spirit, the moment when God first became man and took our flesh upon Himself. That’s when everything changed for us and for all creation. So what’s so special about the Birth of Jesus?

In this world so full of darkness and pain, so full of violence and injustice, when our faith is frequently put to the test, it’s often not enough for us to simply believe that God is with us, even for us to know that Jesus is there, hidden away in the Virgin’s womb. The great desire of all the Saints of the Old Testament is still the deepest desire of every human heart. We want to actually see the face of God. Not just to know Him or to hear Him but to actually see Him with our own eyes. This is what we celebrate at Christmas, that “the grace of God has appeared” visibly to us, that in the features of the Christ Child, we see the Face of God Himself, the visible Image of the invisible God. Come, let us adore Him. Let us stand in silent wonder, that God has finally visited His people, shown His Face to us, and revealed His Glory.

And this is not just a privilege for His Holy Mother Mary, or St. Joseph, or the shepherds at the manger scene, or even all those who would be able to look upon the Face of Jesus during His earthly life. No. If we truly believe what we confess as Catholics, we know that each one of us is given the very same privilege at each and every Mass. That under the humble appearances of bread and wine, we truly look upon Christ Himself, made present to us, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. Just as He once appeared humbly as a Baby born in a poor stable, so Jesus continues to reveal Himself to us as the humble Host upon the altar, the Victim of sacrifice for our salvation. As we gaze upon Jesus in the Eucharist, as we behold the Lamb of God, He is looking back at us. As we continue on in this world of darkness, and as the world around us threatens day by day to grow even darker, our life of faith needs this visible reassurance. We need to see God, to look upon Him with our own eyes in this Eucharist, every Sunday, even every day, we need His Presence.

In the new year of 2020, why not all of us make one resolution together, together as a parish, as a diocese, as a Catholic Church throughout the world, and a resolution that we’ll actually keep and hold each other accountable for, the resolution to grow in our devotion to Jesus Christ in the Most Holy Eucharist, in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and in silent adoration of His Presence in every tabernacle of the world? To extend this grace of Christmas throughout the entire year and to seek the Face of the God of Jacob, especially every Sunday. Nothing else has the power to bring peace to the world today. No one else can motivate us to a more genuine service and concern for the poor and the abandoned. Nothing else is going to matter quite so much at the end of our lives, as how we responded to the Face of Christ present in our midst. A Child is born for us, a Son is given us. On this altar, our God reveals His Face to us again. Come, let us adore Him.

The Standard of God

Homily, Advent Sunday 4A

I’ve always greatly admired St. Joseph, and he’s always been a special patron of mine. In the year 1870, St. Joseph was named the patron of the entire universal Church; he is also the patron of our Cathedral and the Diocese of Sioux Falls, and he’s the patron of my home parish in Elk Point, so at every level of the Church I saw that St. Joseph was always praying for meHe and I seem to have a lot in common as wellFrom all indications, hwas a man of very few words. In fact, in the whole Bible, we don’t find any words of St. Joseph recorded. And—here’s something we might all find encouraging—I’ve always considered St. Joseph to be a special patron of those who fall asleep during prayerbecause so many of his most important communications from God occurred while he was sleeping, through dreams.  

In today’s Gospel, God communicates his will to St. Joseph in a dream, challenging his understanding of God’s plan for him and his wife, and even calling him beyond the practices that were considered acceptable and justified in his own day. At the time of St. Joseph, this righteous man, according to societal standards and even in Jewish practice, it would have been perfectly justifiable for him to divorce his wife, when he knew that the child she was bearing was not his own. But God calls St. Joseph to something greater, something almost unimaginable, to become the guardian and foster-father of God’s own Son. Amazingly, once St. Joseph knows what God’s will is for his marriage, he immediately obeys and takes Mary, his wife, into his home, even though he probably still struggles to fully understand what this is all going to mean for him, how this is possible, and what sacrifices he will be called upon to make as he becomes the Head of the Holy Family and the Husband of the Ever-Virgin Mother of God. In faith, St. Joseph is able to follow God’s call, to go beyond the standards and practices considered acceptable in his own day. 

Throughout history, God challenges and calls His holy people beyond the standards of the world around them. Jesus challenged His Jewish contemporaries on their understanding of marriage and divorce, calling them on to something greater, to the indissolubility of marriage. It’s not surprising then, that authentically Christian marriage has always had standards that go beyond those of secular society. What makes Catholic teaching distinctive is that it is not a product of man-made religion; Catholic teaching is not subject to the same changes and shifts that we see in secular society or popular culture. Fundamentally, the Church’s teaching is not about what we think of God or our search for God or heaven or happiness.  

Catholic teaching is about Revelation that comes from God. Christmas is all about God coming to us, seeking us out, God’s initiative to reveal Himself in human flesh, and as He does so, God challenges our understanding of ourselves and, in faith, calls us beyond what we thought was possible, beyond even our own desires. God reveals His design and plan for humanity, and in doing so, he also makes clear those things that are incompatible with our true fulfillment. 

In our own day, God continues to call us beyond what the world offers us, to fulfill His will and to cooperate with our salvation in Christ. And the difference between the Catholic standards that have been revealed by God and the standards of the world is still most noticeable in this area of marriage, divorce, and chastity. Marriage and the family are the very foundation of society itself, and yet, we have seen in recent years how quickly this foundation seems to be shifting under our feet. But God, through the Catholic Church, continues to call us to something greater, despite the prevailing currents of society.  

Now I realize that there are even many well-intentioned Catholics who think that the Church will eventually just have to accept things like gay marriage, contraception, cohabitation and sexual relations prior to marriage, or divorce and re-marriage without recourse to the annulment process. There may even be Catholics who think that the Church will eventually accept abortion, but I am here to tell you that the Catholic Church is the custodian and steward of God’s Revelation, the Church is not its Master or Author. There is no Pope, no bishop, no council which has the power to change what God has revealed once and for all, even to make things easier for us or to make the Church more fashionable to society. Personally, I consider it to be the height of false compassion to offer people the false hope that the Church’s teaching could change in these areas of God’s plan for human sexuality.  

Please don’t misunderstand me. It is not my intention, nor is it the intention of the Church, to alienate or to exclude anyone. Every last human being is invited into faith and relationship with Jesus Christ and into His Church, but if God has a real plan for us, and if He desires our free cooperation in that plan, if we’re called not just to be passive onlookers, but to actually take up our cross and follow Christ and become His disciples, it only makes sense that there are behaviors, choices that we can make, sins that we can commit that place us outside of God’s plan for us, that take us off the Path that Christ lays out for us, and these require repentance. Almost everyone still acknowledges murder as something that definitely places us outside of God’s plan, but there are many other actions that fall short or go against what God asks of us.  

Please also understand that I hope to have, and hope that everyone will have, the utmost compassion for those who experience homosexual attractions, for those who go through divorce and would like to try marriage again, for married couples who contracept, and for couples who live together before being married, many of whom have never been presented with any clear alternative to what the world offers. We all sin in different ways, and I am a sinner as well. I’m often more blameworthy because of all that has been entrusted to me, but we don’t do anyone any favors by condoning behaviors and lifestyles that God has revealed cannot lead to their true happiness and fulfillment, according to His plan for our lives.  

Please pray for me as a shepherd of God’s people. And may St. Joseph intercede for us all, to follow Christ in real faith, as God continues to challenge every one of us to become His holy ones, to become Saints, to endure many trials and to go beyond the standards of this passing world, to experience a joy and lasting peace that is far greater than anything we could ask or imagine. 

Keep Mass in Christmas

Bulletin Letter, Advent Sunday 4A

The other day I came across this phrase online. Of course, we are all probably familiar with the campaign to “Keep Christ in Christmas” that warns against Christmas being reduced to commercialism, economic stimulus, and empty sentimentalism, often missing the fact that the real miracle of this season is that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” God became man in Jesus Christ and changed human history for ever.

But to “keep Mass in Christmas” recalls that the main celebration of this or any other holiday (holy-day) is to participate in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, which is where the suffix –mas comes from. Other examples include Candlemas on February 2, now the Feast of the Lord’s Presentation in the Temple, which includes a blessing of candles. Michaelmas is September 29, now the Feast of the Three Archangels. Other names for holydays that are used even less frequently include Martinmas on November 11 for St. Martin, Hallowmas on November 1 for All Saints, and Childermas on December 28 for the Holy Innocents.

The only “sacraments” or “liturgy” that seems to still be part of pop cultural observances of Christmas include gift exchanges, caroling, baking unhealthy, sugary snacks, and the ritual lighting of Christmas trees. I always found the “lighting” of the Christmas tree outside in the garden after it had dried out to be much more impressive, flames engulfing and making very short work of it. All this pales in comparison to offering the Flesh of God upon our altars and being fed by Him who is “a consuming Fire” (Hebrews 12:29).

Every Sunday is a holy day for Christians, and the main way we’re called to keep the Lord’s Day holy is by coming to Mass. If we’re too busy even for that, we’re too busy. Period. I’d hate for any of us to stand before the Lord on Judgment Day and say, “Well, lots of other Catholics and non-Catholics didn’t go every Sunday or holy day, either.” Since when has the Christian standard been reduced to what’s common or widely accepted? You know better.

Keep Mass in Christmas and on every Sunday and holy day of obligation, so that we can stand without shame in the presence of God at the end of our lives as we give an accounting, not for anyone else, but for our own conduct and how we’ve made use of what was entrusted to us by God. That we may know the joy that comes not from health, wealth, or success, but the joy that comes uniquely from God, the peace that the world cannot give nor ever take away. A very Merry Christmas to you and yours!

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.

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! 

¡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!

The First Thanksgiving

Bulletin Letter, Christ the King C

During my assignment at the Cathedral in Sioux Falls, one of the other priests there started a small garden next to the rectory, growing basil, peppers, and tomatoes. Every so often, he would use a very fragrant fertilizer made from fish parts. If you’re familiar with the story of the first Thanksgiving, you’ll recall that the Native American Squanto taught the Pilgrims to plant their crops along with placing fish in the ground for fertilizer. This helped them to even have a harvest to celebrate Thanksgiving in October of 1621. What we probably don’t realize, and what most history books don’t mention, is that the feast in 1621 among English settlers was actually not the first Thanksgiving Feast held in what is now the United States.

The First was actually celebrated among Spanish settlers near what would become St. Augustine in Florida on September 8, 1565, more than half a century earlier. After making it to shore, the chaplain of the expedition, Fr. Francisco Lopez, celebrated Mass (the word ‘Eucharist’ comes from the Greek for ‘Thanksgiving’) to give praise and thanks to God for a safe voyage. Being September 8, they celebrated in honor of the Birthday of Mary, the Mother of God (nine months after the observance of her Immaculate Conception on December 8).

After Mass, Fr. Lopez ordered that the natives from the Timucua tribe be fed along with the Spanish settlers. That first Thanksgiving meal consisted of the supplies of the voyage, salted pork, garbanzo beans, ship’s bread, and red wine—after the Body and Blood of Christ received during Mass, of course. The meal may have also included Caribbean foods collected when they made a stop in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on their way to Florida. If the Timucua natives contributed food, it would have likely included corn, fresh fish, berries, or beans.

Even the presence of Squanto and what he did to aid the survival of the Pilgrims leading up to the later English Thanksgiving was due in part to the help of Spanish Catholics. Squanto had been taught English and trained as an interpreter by settlers from previous expeditions in New England, but one of the officers took him back to Europe and planned to sell him into slavery. Franciscan friars in Spain found Squanto and ensured his freedom, instructed him in the faith, and likely baptized him. He later made his way to England, where he worked as a shipbuilder while improving his English. He joined an expedition to return home, where the Pilgrims would meet him a year later at Plymouth.

This Thanksgiving, we praise God for the many blessings He continues to share with us, our families, our friends, our State and country. We thank Him especially for the great gift of our Catholic faith, the salvation Christ won for us, and the nourishment He provides in His own Body and Blood in the Eucharist, that First and most awesome Thanksgiving meal.

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.