Sunday, August 19, 2018

"THE YOUNG MAN WENT AWAY SAD."


Homily for August 20th, 2018: Matthew19:16-22.

          “What must I do to gain eternal life?” the young man asks Jesus. Keep God’s commandments, Jesus responds. I’ve kept them all, the young man responds. Has he -- really? That is more than doubtful. That would make the young man sinless. And according to traditional Catholic belief, the only completely sinless human being in all history is the Lord’s immaculate mother, Mary. Even the greatest saints have sins and fall short of God’s standards in some way. Indeed the saints are the first to acknowledge their sinfulness.

          So the young man in today’s gospel is actually mistaken about his spiritual condition. But his goodwill is clear. He sincerely desires to do what is right and what the Lord wants for him. With his unique ability to read the human heart, Jesus sees in this young man an attachment to possessions which is holding him back from offering himself completely to God. That is why Jesus tells the man to sell all that he has, and give to the poor. Relinquishing earthly treasure will secure him treasure in heaven, Jesus says. And it will free the young man to follow Jesus without hesitation or reserve. The young man's reaction shows that there are still limits to his desire to serve God completely. He "went away sad, for he had many possessions."       

          The Lord gives this call to some in every generation. Others he calls not to total renunciation, but to something equally important, and no less difficult: detachment. That means enjoying the good things the Lord gives us, thanking him for them; but not clinging to them tightly or fearing their loss.

          Show me someone who has discovered the secret of deep and true happiness, and I’ll show you someone who lives with open hands, and a heart open to others in need. Ask the Lord to help you live like that, and you’ll be happy too. The Lord is inviting you to begin – today!

Friday, August 17, 2018

"LET THE CHIDREN COME TO ME."


Homily for August 18th, 2018:  Matt. 19:13-15. 

The world in which Jesus lived was certainly not child centered. Children were supposed to keep out of the way: to be seen, perhaps, but not heard. That is why Jesus’ disciples thought they were doing him a favor by shooing children away from him.  

          Jesus surprises his disciples (he’s still surprising people) by saying: “Let the children come to me.” Then he adds something which he repeats, in one form or another, throughout the gospels: “The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” – in other words, to children. Elsewhere Jesus tells us that, to enter the kingdom of heaven, we must “become like little children” (cf. Mt. 18:2ff, Mk 9:36, Lk 9:47).

          What is it about childhood that Jesus recommends? First, an aspect of childhood which he certainly does not recommend: two little ones in the playpen fighting over a toy that interested neither until the other one picked it up. Even young children can be selfish. As we grow older we learn ways of hiding our selfishness. Children don’t know how to do that.

          One thing about children that Jesus does recommend is their natural sense of dependence. It never occurs to little ones that they can make it on their own. Few things are more devastating for a young child than to be separated from Mummy or Daddy.

          Another feature of childhood recommended by Jesus is the ability to wonder. Everyday things which we adults take for granted amaze little children: birds in the sky, flowers, balloons. Sadly, TV has robbed children of this quality. By age 3 at the latest, they have seen it all on the Boob Tube. Artists retain this capacity for wonder – and saints. A painter sees a piece of driftwood on the beach and gives it a place of honor in his studio at home. St. Teresa of Calcutta’s face was wreathed in smiles whenever she picked up a small child.

We pray, then, in this Mass: “Lord, give me always a sense of my dependence on you. Help me to gasp with wonder at the beauty of your creation!”  

Thursday, August 16, 2018

BETTER NOT TO MARRY?


Homily for August 17th, 2018: Matthew 19:3-12.

        Once again, we hear Jesus’ telling his friends that marriage is lifelong, and can be ended only by death. What about Moses’ permission for divorce, Jesus’ hearers ask? That was never part of God’s plan in creation, the Lord responds. It came about because of your sinfulness. Shocked by the rigidity of Jesus’ teaching, his hearers suggest that perhaps it is better, then, never to marry. No, Jesus responds, the single life is not for all. It is reserved for those who freely choose to forego marriage “for the sake of God’s reign.” For most people God’s words in the second creation tale (Genesis 2) apply: “It is not good for the man to be alone.”

        We tell engaged couples preparing for marriage that “it takes three to get married.” I used to think that the reason for that was because the problems which will arise when two grown up sinners, previously independent, decide to embark on life in double harness, they will encounter difficulties which they can overcome only with the help of the Lord God. That is true. But there is a further and more important reason why it takes three to get married: because no human relationship, no matter how intimate and filled with love, can ever fully satisfy the deepest desires of our hearts. We are hard-wired for God.

        That is why there is so much loneliness in the world: because people, whether married or single, fail to seek their deepest desires from the only one who can fulfill our heart’s hungers – that is the Lord God. Mother Teresa use to call loneliness “today’s greatest suffering.”

        A seminarian asked me recently: “Are priests lonely?” “Johnny,” I told him, “everyone is lonely at times. Married people are lonely. Loneliness is part of the human condition. Loneliness comes about because no human relationship can ever completely satisfy the deepest longing of our hearts: not the perfect marriage, not the ideal friendship – and how many people have found the perfect marriage or the ideal friendship?”

        Are we doomed, then, to be always lonely? Not at all. There is One who can fill that empty place in our hearts. He longs to do so. But he will never force himself on us. He waits for us to open the door, to invite him in. An evangelical hymn says it best:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus / Look full in his wonderful face, 

and the things of this world will go strangely dim / in the light of his glory and grace.

 

 

 

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

"I CANCELLED YOUR ENTIRE DEBT."


Homily for August 16th, 2018: Mathew 18:21-19:1

          “Lord, when my brother wrongs me,” Peter asks Jesus, “how often must I forgive him? Seven times?” “No,” Jesus replies, “not seven times; I say, seventy times seven times.” Jesus was saying that the duty of forgiveness was unlimited. Then, as so often, Jesus tells a story to illustrate his teaching.

          The story’s opening is ominous. A king, for Jesus’ hearers, was a man with power of life and death over his subjects. The people with whom he intends to settle accounts are officials responsible for collecting the king’s taxes. “One was brought in, who owed a huge amount.” A lifetime was insufficient to pay it. The king’s cruel punishment, ordering not only the man himself but his whole family to be sold into slavery, would have shocked Jesus’ hearers. Then comes a surprise. When the man pleads for time to pay the debt, the king suddenly shows mercy: “Moved with pity, the master … wrote off the debt.”

          No sooner delivered from his desperate plight, the official finds a colleague who owes him “a much smaller amount,” and demands immediate payment in full. The second official’s reaction to the demand that he pay his debt mirrors that of the first. “Just give me time and I will pay you back in full.” The sole difference is that the second official’s debt could easily be paid, given reasonable time. How shocking for those hearing the story for the first time to learn of the first official’s harsh response. Seizing his colleague by the throat and throttling him, he insists that the man be imprisoned until the debt is paid.

          In the story’s conclusion the colleagues of the two debtors go and report the injustice to the king. Summoning the first official again, the king reminds him of the unmerited mercy he has received and, in an act of grim irony, grants the man what, in his original desperation, he had requested: time. Now, however, the time will be spent not in repayment but in prison, under torture. This detail would have deeply shocked Jesus’ hearers. In Jewish law torture was unknown.        

The story’s lesson is simple: if we are not forgiving toward others, as God is already forgiving toward us, we risk discovering one day that the forgiveness God has extended to us has been canceled. Jesus is telling us, in short, that our treatment of others, here and now — and especially of those who have wronged us — is already determining where, how, and with whom we shall spend eternity.   

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

THE ASSUMPTION


Homily for August 15th, 2018: Luke 1:39-56.
Mary, the Second Vatican Council says, Ashines forth on earth, until the day of the Lord shall come, a sign of certain hope and comfort to the pilgrim People of God@ (LG 68). Our pilgrim way is beset with difficulties. We are reminded of them each time we read the morning headlines, or watch the news on television.
On this feast of Mary=s Assumption we are reminded that Mary also confronted difficulties on her own pilgrim way. What did Mary understand about the angel=s message that even before her marriage to Joseph she was to become the mother of God=s Son? She understood at least this: that in a tiny village where everyone knew everyone else and gossip was rife, she would be looked down on as  an unmarried mother. Yet Mary responded without hesitation in trusting faith: AI am the servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me as you say@ (Lk 1:38) 
That act of trusting faith was not blind. Young as Mary was B and the Scripture scholars think she may have been only fifteen B she asked what any girl in her position would have asked: AHow can this be, since I do not know man?@ (Lk 1:34) Even this question, however, reflects faith. Mary was questioning not so much God and his ways as her own ability to understand God=s ways.
Nor was Mary=s faith a once-for-all thing. It needed to be constantly renewed.  Before her Son=s birth, Joseph wanted to break their engagement. When the couple presented their newborn child to the Lord in the Jerusalem temple, Mary heard the aged Simeon prophesy the child=s rejection and his mother=s suffering (Lk 2:34f). Three decades later, after Jesus left home, he seemed on more than one occasion to be fulfilling his command to his disciples about turning one=s back on parents and other relatives (cf. Lk 14:26). At the marriage at Cana Jesus seemed to speak coldly to his mother. She seems not to have been present at the Last Supper. Only at Calvary was Mary permitted to stand beside her now dying Son, along with Athe disciple whom Jesus loved@ (John 19:26); deliberately unnamed, many Scripture scholars believe, to represent the ideal follower of Jesus Christ in every time and place.
The last glimpse we have of Mary in Scripture is immediately before Pentecost. With the apostles and Jesus= other relatives, she is praying for the descent of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:14). Thereafter Mary disappears. Her work of bringing Christ to the world was taken over by the Church. 
How did Mary=s life end? We do not know. In defining Mary=s Assumption on All Saints Day 1950, Pope Pius XII said simply: AWhen the course of [Mary=s] earthly life had ended, she was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven.@ The body the Pope referred to is Mary=s new resurrection body: the body with which Jesus rose from the dead B the heavenly and spiritual body which, as St. Paul says, each one of us will receive in heaven (cf.1 Cor. 15:35-53). There Mary continues to pray for us on our pilgrim way. As the Catechism says: AThe Church loves to pray in communion with the Virgin Mary ... and to entrust supplications and praises to her.@ (No. 2682).
For many Christians, however, and for almost all Protestants, Catholic teaching about Mary, and our devotion to her, are troubling. Especially troubling is the Catholic practice of praying to Mary. Surely, Protestants say, we can pray only to God. Strictly speaking, they are right. When we Catholics pray to Mary, or to any of the other saints, what we are really doing is asking them to pray for us and with us. The conclusion of the classic Marian prayer, the Hail Mary, makes this explicit: AHoly Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now and at the hour of our death.@
If it makes sense to ask our friends on earth to pray for us, doesn=t it also make sense to ask the prayers of our friends in heaven, the saints? The Catechism says it does: ABeing more closely united to Christ, those who dwell in heaven ... do not cease to intercede with the Father for us. ... We can and should ask them to intercede for us and for the whole world.@ (No. 956 & 2683) Without Mary=s prayers, I would not be a Catholic priest today. Let me tell you how I know this.
Before I was a Catholic priest I was an Anglican priest, like my father and grandfather before me. Leaving the church which had taken me from the baptismal font to the altar, and taught me almost all the Catholic truth I know, even today, was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. Starting in 1959, and for almost a year, the question of the Church, and of my conscientious duty before God, was not out of my waking thoughts for two hours together. 
One of the many obstacles to my decision was the need to abandon, possibly forever, the priesthood to which I had aspired from age twelve, and which had brought me great happiness, with no guarantee that it would ever be given back to me. In Holy Week 1960 a Trappist monk at St. Joseph=s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, himself a convert from Judaism, who was helping me along the last stretch of my spiritual journey, said to me: AWhy don=t you give your priesthood to Our Lady, asking her to keep it for you, and to give it back to you when the time is right?@ With his help I did this. 
Had I known then that it would be eight years before I could once again stand at the altar as a priest, I would never have had the courage to go through with it. During those years I had many difficulties B so many that well meaning priest-advisers told me I should forget any idea of priesthood and embrace a lay vocation.  This I was never willing to do. I knew that Our Lady was keeping my priesthood for me, and I was confident that she would give it back to me one day. 
After eight years, on January 27th 1968, I knelt before the bishop of Münster in northern Germany, where I was then living, to receive the Church=s commission to stand at the altar once again, as a Catholic priest. I had never told the bishop about entrusting my priesthood to Our Lady. You can imagine my joy, therefore, when, at the end of the private ninety-five minute ceremony in his private chapel, the bishop turned to the altar and intoned the Church=s ancient Marian hymn: Salve regina, AHail, Holy Queen.@     

 

Monday, August 13, 2018

"HOW CAN THIS MAN GIVE US HIS FLESH TO EAT?"



August 19th, 2018: 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B. John 6:51-58.
AIM:  To explain the doctrine of the Real Presence, and to help the hearers receive the Eucharist worthily.
 
The gospel reading we have just heard marks a turning point in Jesus= life. Immediately after this passage, John tells us, AMany of [Jesus=] disciples exclaimed, >This is more than we can stomach! Why listen to such talk?=@ And a few verses later John adds: AFrom that time on, many of his disciples withdrew and no longer went about with him@ (6:60 & 66).
What caused this defection? It was Jesus= claim: AI am the living bread that came down from heaven.@ Jesus= hearers knew all about Abread from heaven.@ That was the manna with which God had fed his people in the wilderness. That bread had nourished those who received it, but it did not make them immortal. Jesus did not hesitate to claim, however, that the bread he gives would impart immortality: AThe bread I will give is my flesh for the life of the world. ... Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.@
That sounded preposterous. AHow can this man give us his flesh to eat?@ Jesus= hearers asked indignantly. The question was understandable. How could someone claim that he would give people his flesh to eat and expect to be taken seriously?
Despite the uproar his teaching caused, Jesus did not soften his claim or try to explain it away. On the contrary, he strengthened it, speaking now not only about eating his flesh but also about drinking his blood. That was scandalous. Jewish dietary law, still followed by observant Jews today, strictly forbids the consumption of blood in any form. To be Kosher, which means ritually pure, meat must come from an animal that has been killed so that all the blood is drained from it. [Cf. Lev. 17:10-14; Act 15:29]  
Jesus also strengthened his previous language about eating his flesh. Up to this point the gospel writer, John, uses the ordinary Greek word for Aeat@ [phagein].  After the indignant question, AHow can he give us his flesh to eat?@ John shifts to a stronger word [trÇgein] which normally refers to how animals eat: something like  Amunch@ or “devour” in English. To capture the force of this word we could translate, not: AWhoever eats my flesh ...@ but, AWhoever feeds on my flesh ... @ 
Strong language indeed. Small wonder that even many of Jesus= disciples Awithdrew and no longer went about with him@ (6:66). We might do the same if the full force of Jesus= teaching, and the astonishing nature of his claim, had not been dulled for us by constant repetition. We need to listen afresh to Jesus= words, to let them penetrate our hearts, our minds, and souls as if we were hearing them for the first time. They take us into the heart of our Christian and Catholic faith. Jesus= words in today=s gospel concern the inner meaning of the Eucharist in which, as St. Paul tells us, we Aproclaim the Lord= death, until he comes@ (1 Cor. 11:26).
Many Scripture scholars believe that Jesus uttered his words about the bread of life at the Last Supper. To support this view, they point out that John=s gospel gives no account of the institution of the Eucharist. Instead John recounts Jesus= washing of the disciples= feet, and then passes at once to the departure of the traitor, Judas.
Whenever Jesus spoke the words, we cannot read them today without reference to the Eucharist. More than the other three gospels, which do record Jesus= institution of the Eucharist, this fourth gospel which contains no such record tells us what the Eucharist does for the believing follower of Jesus Christ who participates in this sacred meal with living faith.    
The indignant question, AHow can this man give us his flesh to eat?@ is unanswerable apart from faith. If Jesus is a mere man like any other, then clearly he cannot give us his flesh to eat. Faith tells us, however, that Jesus, while completely human, is also more than human. He is the one who reveals God. He is God=s divine Son. 
Physically, the food that Jesus offers us in the Eucharist is ordinary bread and wine. Spiritually, which means in their inner, invisible reality, the consecrated elements are the risen and glorified body and blood of our divine Savior and Lord.  As the Catechism says: AIn the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist, >the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.=@ (1374)
When we receive this Abread from heaven@, we become partakers of the divine life that Jesus shares with his heavenly Father and the Holy Spirit. This is why Jesus could say: AWhoever eats this bread will live forever.@ The human life we received from our parents will not continue forever. The divine life, however, given to us first in baptism and nourished in this sacred banquet, will continue forever. Because we share in this divine life, Jesus could also say: AWhoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.@
To benefit from receiving Christ=s body and blood, however, we must come to the Eucharist with due preparation and in living faith: with sorrow for our sins and trust in God=s forgiving love. The Catechism spells out this preparation as follows: AAnyone conscious of grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion ... To prepare for the worthy reception of this sacrament, the faithful should observe the fast required in their Church.  Bodily demeanor (gestures, clothing) ought to convey the respect, solemnity, and joy of this moment when Christ becomes our guest.@  (1385 & 1387).
Without preparation and living faith we cannot derive nourishment from this spiritual food, any more than our bodies can derive nourishment from ordinary food when our digestion is undermined by illness or unhealthy living. The more faith we bring to the Eucharist, the greater will be its power to bring us close to Jesus Christ and to build up within us his gift of eternal life.

In the Eucharist we receive Christ=s body. Ordinary food is absorbed, through the process of digestion, into our bodies. In the case of the bread from heaven which Jesus gives us in the Eucharist, exactly the opposite happens. Receiving Christ=s body, we become members of his body. No one has said it better than St. Augustine: AIf you receive worthily, you are what you have received.@

ST. MAXIMILIAN KOLBE


Homily for August 14th, 2018: St. Maximilian Kolbe.

          Just five days ago we commemorated a 20th century martyr: St. Teresa Benedict of the Cross, born Edith Stein, killed by the Nazis in the gas ovens of the Auschwitz concentration camp on August 9th, 1942, because of her Jewish birth. Today the Church commemorates another World War II martyr, St. Maximilian Kolbe.

          Born in Poland in 1894 to devout Catholic parents, he was a mischievous boy. After his mother scolded him one day for some misdeed, he changed. He explained later that in the night the Virgin Mary had appeared to him holding two crowns: one white, the other red. “She asked me if I was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one meant that I should persevere in purity, and the red that I should become a martyr. I said that I would accept them both."

          At age 16 he entered the Franciscan order, received the religious name Maximilian, and was ordained priest at age 24. During years of ministry in Poland he founded a Marian sodality, as well as a printing press and radio station to spread the gospel. From 1930 to 1936 he served as a missionary in Japan, where he mastered the local language.

          When the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939 Fr. Maximilian arranged shelter for 3000 refugees, 2000 of them Jews. Soon arrested by the Nazis, he was imprisoned in Auschwitz. There he shared his meager rations with others, prayed with them, and heard many confessions. In the summer of 1941 three prisoners managed to escape. In retaliation the camp commander ordered 10 prisoners, selected at random, to be starved to death in an underground bunker. When one of the men selected cried out, “My wife, my children!” Fr. Maximilian immediately asked to take the man’s place.

          In the hunger bunker Fr. Maximilian prayed with his fellow prisoners, celebrating Mass with tiny amounts of bread and wine given him by friendly guards, until only he was still alive. After 2 weeks the Nazis then killed him with a deadly injection.

The man whose life he had saved was present at his canonization as a “martyr of charity” by  Pope St. John Paul II in October 1982. As we commemorate him today, we praise God that the age of martyrs is not dead.   

 

Friday, August 10, 2018

JESUS USES HYPERBOLE


Homily for August 11th, 2018: Matthew 17:14-20.

          Today’s gospel reading gives us an example of Jesus using hyperbole. How so, you ask? Webster’s dictionary says that hyperbole is “a statement exaggerated fancifully, as for effect.” The American humorist Mark Twain was using hyperbole when he said: “The first time I ever saw St. Louis, I could have bought it for 3 million dollars; and it is the mistake of my life that I did not do so.” In Mark Twain’s youth 3 million dollars was like 300 million today. The statement is absurd – but also very funny, which is of course the effect Mark Twain was aiming at.

          Helping people understand the power of faith is the effect Jesus was aiming at when he spoke the words in today’s gospel: “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘move from here to there,’ and it will move.” That is as absurd as Mark twin claiming he could have bought Louis for 3 million dollars. No one would expect a mountain to move on command.

          What Jesus is actually saying is that with faith we can accomplish the impossible. What is faith, anyway? Many Catholics would probably say: faith is the list of truths that we profess every Sunday in the creed. That is not wrong. But faith in that sense is properly called the faith.

          The primary meaning of faith is trust. Even in the Creed, we say “I believe in God.” To believe in someone is to trust that person. When we say we believe in God, we’re saying that we trust him enough to entrust our lives to him. Faith in that sense is not something that comes to us naturally. It is a gift. And the one who gives it to us is God.

          Each time we come here we are praying that through his two tables of word and sacrament God will deepen and strengthen our trust in him. We are like the man in Mark’s gospel who comes to Jesus asking healing for his boy, who suffers terrible convulsions. Jesus asks the man if he truly believes that Jesus has power to heal. “I do believe,” the father replies. “Help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). With this gospel reading Jesus is inviting us to make that man’s prayer our own.