Friday, August 18, 2017

"LET THE CHILDREN COME TO ME."


Homily for August 19th, 2017: 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.

          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 the ability to 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. Bl. 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 17, 2017

MARRIAGE AND DIVORCE


Homily for August 18th, 2017: Matt. 19:3-12.

“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Jesus is asked in today’s’ gospel reading. Jesus responds not by an appeal to law, but by reminding his questioners of what God did in creation. “From the beginning the Creator made them male and female and said, For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” -- something possible only for people of different genders. Divorce, Jesus says, was never part of God’s plan. It originated “because of the hardness of your hearts” – in other words, as a result of sin.   There is hardly a family today which is not touched in some measure by divorce. Despite talk about “no fault divorce”, it is always painful. How could it be otherwise when marriage is the union of a man and a woman “in one flesh”? The ending of such a one-flesh relationship is comparable to the amputation of a limb. Since Jesus refers his questioners to the Creation story, it’s worth looking back at the first two chapters of Genesis. In chapter one God says after each stage of creation: “It is good.” After making man and woman together, he tells them: “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28). Parenthood is thus the first purpose of marriage. And only a man and a woman can fulfill that purpose. At the end of that first chapter, God looks at all he has made and says: “It is very good” (vs. 31).      
The first thing that God looks at in Creation and says, “It is not good” is loneliness: “It is not good for the man to be alone,” we read in Genesis 2, verse 18. The creation of woman follows. Her fashioning from the man’s rib is of course a pre-scientific tale. But it shows that woman was made to complete man. The two sexes were not made for rivalry: domination on the one hand manipulation on the other. That came about through sin. They were created by God to complete and support one another. That is the second reason for marriage. Mindful, then, of Jesus teaching, we pray in this Mass especially for married couples who are experiencing difficulties or stress in their marriages; that God, for whom all things are possible, will help them to remain faithful.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

GOD'S CALL IS IRREVOCABLE.


“THE GIFTS AND CALL OF GOD ARE IRREVOCABLE”
Homily for August 20th, 2017: 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A. 
         Is. 56:1, 6-7; Rom.11:13-15, 29-32; Mt. 15:21-28.
AIM: To counter anti-Semitism by showing the role of the Jews in God’s plan.
 
          Some years ago a Baptist minister in Texas provoked an enormous flap by claiming that God does not hear Jewish prayers, because Jews do not accept Jesus as God’s Son. During most of Christian history this remark would not have been controversial at all. Hadn’t the Jews demanded that Christ be crucified? When the Roman governor Pontius Pilate tried to evade responsibility for Jesus’ death, didn’t the Jewish leaders respond: “His blood be on us and on our children”? (Mt. 27:25). For the better part of twenty centuries most Christians believed that the sufferings of the Jews were God’s answer to that cry, divine revenge for the crime of killing God’s Son. 
          Moreover, there is a long and too little known history of Christian persecution of Jews. This culminated during World War II in the slaughter of some six million Jews by Adolf Hitler, for twelve years ruler of a nominally Christian country, Germany. Most of the killing was done in the Catholic country of Poland. Other supposedly Christian countries, including our own, did nothing to halt the Holocaust, and must thus share some of the guilt.  Hitler justified his persecution of Jews by the false, but widely believed, claim that he was merely putting into practice what the Church had taught for centuries: that the Jews were enemies of God because they crucified God’s Son, Jesus Christ.
          We need to consider this painful subject of anti-Semitism from time to time.  This Sunday is a particularly good time to do so. All three readings concern the special role of Jesus’ own people, the Jews, in God’s plan. In the first reading Isaiah prophecies a time when the Temple at Jerusalem will become a house of prayer not just for his own people, but “for all peoples.” In the gospel Jesus initially rejects the request of a Gentile woman for healing because she is not a Jew. He grants her request because of her courage and persistence. She refuses to give up despite her double handicap. She’s handicapped first, as a woman in a man’s world; and second, as an outsider in the Jewish world of Jesus. Finally, in our second reading, Paul confronts the problem which tormented him, as a devout Jew: how was it possible that God’s own people rejected God’s Son, their long awaited Messiah, when he finally came.
          Paul’s answers this question in three ways. First, he says, Israel’s rejection of Jesus is partial only: many Jews have accepted Jesus (Rom. 11:7). Second, even this partial rejection of Jesus is only temporary (11:22-24, 31-32). In the end, Paul says, all Israel will one day accept Jesus because — and this is the third part of Paul’s answer — “the gifts and call of God are irrevocable.”
          What does this mean? It means that God has not rejected the people he first chose for his own just because some of them did not recognize God’s Son when he came. In Jesus’ day Jews were already scattered throughout the Mediterranean world. Many never even heard of Jesus Christ during his lifetime. Of those who lived in Palestine and knew Jesus, many did accept him. Jesus’ mother, his apostles, and Paul himself were all Jews. Pope Benedict says that Jesus’ condemnation was the work of small group of religious and political leaders, not of the Jewish people as a whole, even those in Palestine. And both Jesus himself, and his first followers, said that they acted in ignorance (Lk 23:34; Acts. 3:17; 1 Cor. 2:8).
          This background helps us understand the statement of the Second Vatican Council: “Neither all Jews indiscriminately at [Jesus’] time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crime committed during his passion. ... The Jews should not be spoken of as rejected or accursed as if this followed from Holy Scripture. ... The Church deplores all hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism leveled at any time or from any source against the Jews. The Church always held, and continues to hold, that Christ out of infinite love freely underwent suffering and death because of the sins of all men, so that all might attain salvation” (Nostra aetate 4, emphasis supplied).
          How will God’s plan be fulfilled, that all of Jesus’ own people come to accept him as God’s Son? And when will this happen? We do not know. We do know, however, that every kind of Christian anti-Semitism is an obstacle to God’s plan, and a sin. It is a monstrous perversion of our holy faith to say that God does not hear Jewish prayers. The Council, commenting on Paul’s statement in our second reading, that God’s call is irrevocable, says: “The Jews remain very dear to God for the sake of the patriarchs, since God does not take back the gifts he bestowed or the choice he made” (loc. cit.) The first of the patriarchs is Abraham.   Our first Eucharistic prayer calls Abraham “our father in faith.” Every year, on Good Friday, Catholics all over the world pray, in the Church’s public liturgy, “For the Jewish people, the first to hear the world of God, that they may continue to grow in the love of his name, and in faithfulness to his covenant.”
          That prayer expresses the Council’s teaching, “The Jews remain very dear to God.” We need to take that statement to heart. There are a number of synagogues within our parish boundaries. On Friday evening and Saturday morning, the Jewish Sabbath, we see many people walking: Orthodox Jews observing the strict Sabbath rule which forbids riding in a car. How many Catholics would come to Mass on Sunday, if we were required to walk?
          Let me conclude with two quotes from Pope Benedict XVI. Commenting on the cry of the crowd which called for Jesus’ death, “His blood be on us and on our children,” the Pope writes in his book Jesus of Nazareth: “The Christian will remember that Jesus’ blood … does not cry out for vengeance and punishment; it brings reconciliation. It is not poured out against anyone; it is poured out for many, for all. …Read in the light of faith, [the words] mean that we all stand in need of the purifying power of love which is [Jesus’] blood. These words are not a curse, but rather redemption, salvation.” (vol. 2, p. 187)
          The second quote is from address given by Cardinal Ratzinger (as he then was) to a group of rabbis in Jerusalem in the late 1990s.
          “Already as a child ... I could not understand how some people wanted to derive a condemnation of Jews from the death of Jesus, because the following thought had penetrated my soul as something profoundly consoling: Jesus’ blood raises no calls for retaliation but calls all to reconciliation. It has become, as the letter to the Hebrews shows, itself a permanent Day of Atonement of God. ...
          “Jews and Christians should accept each other in profound inner reconciliation,” Pope Benedict says, “neither in disregard of their faith nor in its denial but out of the depth of faith itself. In their mutual reconciliation they should become a force for peace in and for the world. Through their witness to the one God, who cannot be adored apart from the unity of love of God and neighbor, they should open the door into the world for this God so that his will be done, and so that it becomes on earth ‘as it is in heaven’; so that ‘his kingdom come.’”

"I CANCELLED YOUR ENTIRE DEBT."


Homily for August 17th, 2017: 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 15, 2017

RULES FOR RECONCILIATION


Homily for August 16th, 2017: Matthew 18:15-20.

          In the gospel we heard Jesus giving instructions about how to handle disputes in the Christian community. They have existed from the beginning. Luke’s gospel tells us, for instance, and that even at the Last Supper they argued over “who should be regarded as the greatest” (22:24). The instructions Jesus gives owe much to existing rabbinical rules for the settlement of disputes, yet bear the imprint of Jesus’ compassion for human weakness. He outlines a three-fold procedure.

          Jesus’ first step is personal confrontation of the offender: “Tell him his fault between you and him alone.” “But, of course,” we say. In fact, too often this is exactly what the offended party does not do. It is much easier to avoid direct confrontation and instead to tell everyone who will listen how badly the offender has behaved.

          I witnessed this years go when I worked in the office of the archdiocese as Vice Chancellor. We received many telephone calls complaining about things done by priests in parishes. Many of them were put through to me. “Have you talked to Father about this?” I would always ask. In almost all cases the answer was No. “Go and see him,” I would always advise the caller. “A letter or e-mail is too impersonal. Have a personal conversation.” That is Jesus’ advice: “If he listens to you, you have won over your bother.”  

          Only if that fails should you proceed to the second step, Jesus says. “Take one or two others along with you.” They will be able to testify to what was said and done. Only if this second step fails to achieve reconciliation, should you go public: “Tell the Church,” Jesus says, meaning the local Christian community. “If he refuses to listen even to the Church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or tax collector.” This final step – and it should always be saved for last – is what we today call excommunication.

At each stage there is opportunity for repentance and reconciliation. This is how God treats us, as Pope Francis tells us often when he says: “God never gets tired of forgiving. It is we who get tired of asking for forgiveness.”

          The gospel reading concludes with the wonderfully reassuring words: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

Monday, August 14, 2017

MARY, WOMAN OF FAITH.


August 15th, 2017: The Assumption.  1 Cor. 15: 20-27.
AIM:  To present Mary as the model of faith and our intercessor before God.
 
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). The Council spoke often about God=s Apilgrim people.@ The phrase expresses the awareness we have today that in the Church we are underway to a goal we have not yet reached. 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. We know remarkably little about Mary=s life. What we do know, however, shows that she had to walk often in darkness. There were many things which, as Luke tells us, Mary Adid not understand@ (Lk 2:50) and could not understand.
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 was to be 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] early 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.
As some of you know, I had the great privilege of serving for six years, like my father and grandfather before me, as a priest of the Anglican Church, called in our country the Episcopal Church. Leaving the church which had taken me from the 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, were 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 M√ľnster 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.

In 95 minutes I received: tonsure, 4 minor orders, subdiaconate (all since abolished; and, sub conditione, diaconate and priesthood. At the end of the ceremony the Bishop said: “Herr Hughes, we welcome you into the presbytrerate of this diocese. We have given you the orders of deacon and priest conditionally, and we leave it to God what has really happened.

 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 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.@     

Sunday, August 13, 2017

ST. MAXIMILIAN KOLBE


Homily for August 14th, 2017: 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 11, 2017

JESUS USES HYPERBOLE.


Homily for August 12th, 2017: 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.