Friday, September 5, 2014


Homily for Sept. 6th, 2014: Luke 6:1-5.
          “Remember to keep holy the sabbath day,” is the third of the Ten Commandments. We find the Commandments twice in the Old Testament: in the 20th chapter of Exodus, and in the 5th chapter of Deuteronomy. Both versions say that we keep the sabbath holy by refraining from work. Exodus says that the sabbath rest commemorates God’s resting on the seventh day after creating the world and everything in it in six days. Deuteronomy doesn’t mention God resting; but it spells out in greater detail what Exodus says more briefly: that the sabbath rest is for all, domestic animals as well as humans, masters and slaves alike: “for you were once slaves in Egypt.”
          By Jesus’ day there was an enormous collection of rabbinical interpretation of this commandment, distinguishing between forms of work that were lawful on the sabbath, and those which were unlawful. The controversy continues in Judaism today. Orthodox Jews walk to the synagogue because they consider driving a car a form of work. Reform Jews reject this rigorism.    
          In today’s gospel reading some rigorists criticize Jesus’ disciples for picking heads of grain on the Sabbath, rubbing them in their hands, and eating them. Jesus appeals to a precedent in the Jewish Scriptures, when David took bread offered to God in the Temple and which only Jewish priests might eat, and both eating it himself and offering it to his companions. The precedent was weak: David had not violated the sabbath rest, though what he had done was illegal.  
          Crucial is the final sentence of our reading: “The Son of Man [a title for Jesus himself] is lord of the sabbath.” Jesus never abrogated any of God’s laws. But he made charity the highest law of all. That is why he healed on the sabbath, for instance. And that is why Pope Francis, celebrating the Mass of the Lord’s Supper in a prison on the first Holy Thursday after his election disregarded the liturgical law which says that only the feet of baptized men should be washed, in order to wash also the feet of some Muslim women. The highest law of all is charity.

Thursday, September 4, 2014


23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A.  Rom. 13:8-10
AIM: To help the hearers by giving an example of love in action.

          “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another,” we heard in our second reading. Is that realistic? Can we love on command? Certainly not, if the kind of love Paul is talking about is a matter of our feelings only. Feelings come and go. The love Paul is talking about, however, is something different. He is talking about an attitude; more specifically, about behavior. Here is an example.  The man who sent it to me is today a successful architect. Here is his story, in his own words. If it sounds familiar to you, it is because you have heard it from me before. Something this good deserves repetition.   
          “Thirty years ago, I was driving a cab for a living. When I arrived at 2:30 a.m., the building was dark except for a single light in a ground floor window.  Under these circumstances, many drivers would just honk once or twice, wait a minute, then drive away. But, I had seen too many impoverished people who depended on taxis as their only means of transportation. Unless a situation smelled of danger, I always went to the door. This passenger might be someone who needs my assistance, I reasoned to myself.
          “So I walked to the door and knocked. ‘Just a minute’, answered a frail,
elderly voice. I could hear something being dragged across the floor. After a long pause, the door opened. A small woman in her 80's stood before me. She was wearing a print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil pinned on it, like somebody out of a 1940s movie. By her side was a small nylon suitcase. The apartment looked as if no one had lived in it for years. All the furniture was covered with sheets. There were no clocks on the walls, no knickknacks or utensils on the counters.  In the corner was a cardboard box filled with photos and glassware.
          "‘Would you carry my bag out to the car?’ she said. I took the suitcase to
the cab, then returned to assist the woman. She took my arm and we walked slowly toward the curb. She kept thanking me for my kindness.
          “‘It's nothing’, I told her. ‘I just try to treat my passengers the way I would want my mother treated’.
          "‘Oh, you're such a good boy’, she said.
          “When we got in the cab, she gave me an address, then asked, ‘Could you drive through downtown?’ 
          "‘It's not the shortest way,’ I answered quickly.
          "‘Oh, I don't mind,’ she said. ‘I'm in no hurry. I'm on my way to a hospice’.
I looked in the rearview mirror. Her eyes were glistening.
          "‘I don't have any family left,’ she continued. ‘The doctor says I don't have
very long.’ I quietly reached over and shut off the meter. ‘What route would you like me to take?’ I asked. 
          “For the next two hours, we drove through the city. She showed me the building where she had once worked as an elevator operator. We drove through the neighborhood where she and her husband had lived when they were newlyweds. She had me pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl. Sometimes she'd ask me to slow in front of a particular building or corner and would sit staring into the darkness, saying nothing. As the first hint of sun was creasing the horizon, she suddenly said, ‘I'm tired. Let's go now.’
          “We drove in silence to the address she had given me. It was a low building,
like a small convalescent home, with a driveway that passed under a portico. Two orderlies came out to the cab as soon as we pulled up. They were solicitous and intent, watching her every move. They must have been expecting her. I opened the trunk and took the small suitcase to the door. The woman was already seated in a wheelchair.
          "‘How much do I owe you?’ she asked, reaching into her purse.
          "‘Nothing,’ I said.
          "‘You have to make a living,’ she answered.
          "‘There are other passengers,’ I responded. Almost without thinking, I bent
and gave her a hug. She held onto me tightly. 
          "‘You gave an old woman a little moment of joy,’ she said. ‘Thank you.’
          “I squeezed her hand, then walked into the dim morning light. Behind me, a
door shut. It was the sound of the closing of a life.
          “I didn't pick up any more passengers that shift. I drove aimlessly, lost in
thought. For the rest of that day, I could hardly talk. What if that woman had got an angry driver, or one who was impatient to end his shift? What if I had refused to take the run, or had honked once, then driven away?
          “On a quick review, I don't think that I have done anything more important in my life. We're conditioned to think that our lives revolve around great moments. But great moments often catch us unaware — beautifully wrapped in what others may consider a small one.”
          The man who sent me that story offers this final comment. “People may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said.  But they will always remember how you made them feel.”
          His story, which I have given you entirely in his own words, is a beautiful example of what Paul is talking about when he writes in our second reading: “Owe nothing to anyone except to love another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments are [all] summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.” That kind of love is not inborn. It must be given to us. We are here to receive that love, from the One who is love himself.  His name is Jesus Christ.
          The One who pours his love into our hearts give us this greatest of all gifts under one strict condition: that what we have freely received, we freely share with others. Or, to put it another way: You can’t keep Jesus’ love unless you give it away.


Homily for Sept. 5th, 2014: 1 Corinthians 4:1-5.
          “Thus should one regard us,” Paul writes in our first reading, “as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” Living as servants and stewards is fundamental in Holy Scripture. We find it already in the second creation tale in Genesis, chapters two and three. The man whom God places in Eden is not its owner. The garden belongs to God. God places Adam in the garden “to till it and care for it.” He is God’s agent, his steward, to tend the garden on behalf of its creator and owner. As long as Adam obeys the creator’s laws, he enjoys the garden’s abundant fruits. When he breaks God’s law, he is expelled from Eden – a symbol of the ordered, beautiful world of God’s making. In terms simple enough for a child to understand, the Genesis creation tale proclaims what the modern ecology movement has rediscovered: that there is a sacred order in nature. When we respect nature’s laws, we prosper. When we violate the natural order, we pay a price. We are creation’s stewards, accountable to God, our creator.
          We are stewards of all God’s gifts: our time, our talents, and treasure – the money and other possessions we have. These are gifts entrusted to us by God, for a limited time. One day we shall have to give an account to God of how we have used his gifts. Crucial to the right use of these gifts is gratitude to their giver, the Lord God. 
          Hebrew religion taught the offering of firstfruits. The Jewish farmer and shepherd offered God the first fruits of field and flock, out of gratitude, in recognition that everything comes ultimately from God. Jesus, who learned this practice in childhood from his mother, from St. Joseph, and in the synagogue school at Nazareth, would be shocked to find many of his present-day followers offering God not the firstfruits but leavings: what is left over after they have provided themselves and their loved ones not only with necessities, and often with many luxuries besides.
          Show me someone who is deeply happy, and I’ll show you someone who puts God first -- in all areas of life: who gives the Lord God the first claim on his or her time, his or her talents (which means the skills and abilities we have developed by using the gifts God has given us). Such a person also put God first financially, by giving Him not a tip but the first claim on his or her money and other possessions. There are such people here in our parish – and in every parish the world over. They are expressing their gratitude to God for all his bounty. And if a long life has taught me anything, it is this. Grateful people are happy people: no exceptions!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014


NO ORDINARY FOOL: A Testimony to Grace

Everybody's reading it!
John Jay Hughes
            Autobiographies can easily fail. In the spirit of “mistakes were made but not by me,” they can become exercises in self-justification or, even worse, a long-delayed opportunity for debunking enemies and settling scores. Or they can become ponderously tedious, when their authors slot in masses of unnecessary and uninteresting details (“on that flight from Cleveland to New York I left my raincoat on board”) or insist on listing all the celebrities they met at receptions, and keynote speeches they delivered at conferences.  Fr. Hughes keeps beautifully clear of any such self-justification, payback time and tedious detail.
            The subtitle of this autobiography catches its tone.  Throughout, Hughes bears witness to the Lord’s ability to write straight on the crooked lines of human uncertainties and infidelities.  With humility and humour, he describes his struggles with loneliness, sexuality and misunderstanding. Through it all God supported him, thanks to his steady commitment to prayer.
            The son and grandson of Anglican priests and a direct descendant of a United States Founding Father and first Chief Justice, John Jay Hughes was a gifted boy from a privileged background. At the age of 12, he decided to become a priest and after graduating from Harvard University (he includes a hilarious story about President Lowell) sailed for England and did three years of seminary training at the Society of the Sacred Mission, Kelham (near Newark-on-Trent). Ordained to the Anglican priesthood in 1954, he served in several parishes in the United States and spent a year in an Anglican monastery before joining the Catholic Church in 1960.
            Hughes describes the agonising struggle he faced in moving from Canterbury to Rome – a move that brought great sorrow to his father. After a heart-rending farewell, they corresponded over the years but never met again.
            After further studies (which eventually included a doctorate on the validity of Anglican orders), a painful dismissal from a seminary in Austria and years of waiting, he was received in 1968 into the Catholic presbyerate by the Bishop of Münster in Germany.
            Being a “conditional” ordination to the priesthood, it shattered the normal precedent of regarding Anglican orders as clearly invalid and made Hughes an international celebrity. Years before, he had submitted to the Holy Office (now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) a document tracing his orders, through the two Episcopal bishops who had ordained him, to Old Catholic and Polish National Catholic bishops acknowledged by Rome to be validly ordained.  A positive answer came in 1959 from the Holy Office and it was on that basis that the German bishop later went ahead and conditionally ordained him.
            Twenty years of “exile” ended in 1980 when John May was appointed Archbishop of St. Louis.  At once he asked Hughes to become a priest of his archdiocese and his personal theologian.
            This autobiography engages the reader constantly. Out of his own experience Hughes talks eloquently about prayer, preaching (and the indispensable preparation it demands), and the happiness that comes from being generous in tithing. He tells stories of great suffering, above all the premature death of the mother whom he adored: “My whole world collapsed.  From this blow I have never fully recovered.” Throughout, he witnesses to the joy and high adventure he has experienced in his life as a priest.
            Before being ordained in the Episcopal Church, he went on a private retreat and made his confession to a monk, “a man of shining goodness and deep sanctity.”  “When I had finished my sorry tale of sin,” Hughes continues, “he spoke words I have never forgotten: ‘You’re taking a tremendous gamble offering your life to God as a priest. And God is taking an even bigger gamble in accepting you. You’re just going to trust one another.’”
            The narrative never becomes heavy. Wit and a self-directed irony carry it along briskly. Hughes conveys a sense that life is a wonderful party to be at. He celebrates the centrality of friendship and dialogue in human and Christian existence. The book teems with affectionate vignettes of friends and relatives, like his maternal grandfather who, in the heady days of the 1920s, voyaged annually to France to replenish his stock of linen  underpants (embroidered with his initials by French nuns) and revisit the land of his Huguenot forebears.
            From his time of study in Innsbruck and Münster, Hughes retrieves charming portraits of his professors: Karl Rahner, Walter (now Cardinal) Kasper and Joseph Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI). “Joseph Ratzinger’s lectures on the Church in the summer semester of 1965 were the most beautiful I have ever heard at any of the three universities I have attended on any subject. After every lecture, one wanted to go into a church and pray.”
            God set the agenda for the life of John Jay Hughes, a prodigiously gifted person and priest.  I cannot recommend this autobiography too highly.
Gerald O’Collins                   [Published in the London Tablet for 21 February 2009, p. 29]
[O’Collins is an internationally celebrated Australian Jesuit, the author of a shelf full of books on biblical and other subjects, and emeritus professor at Rome’s Gregorian University.]

Tuesday, September 2, 2014


Homily for Sept. 4th, 2013: Luke 5:1-11.
After a discouraging night of toil on the lake, the net coming back empty time after time, until Peter and his companions were bone weary, Jesus tells Peter to try again in broad daylight. Peter knew that would be an exercise in futility: “Master, we have worked all night, and taken nothing.” But then, perhaps just to humor the Lord, Peter adds: ABut at your command I will lower the nets.@ Peter=s willingness to do the unthinkable enables him to experience the impossible. No sooner have they started to pull in the net, than they feel it heavy with fish.
Throwing himself at the feet of Jesus, with the fish flopping all around him in the boat, Peter can only blurt out: ADepart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.@ To which Jesus responds with words of reassurance: ADo not be afraid: from now on you will be catching men.@ In that moment, Peter=s life is changed. AThey brought their boats to shore,@ Luke tells us, Athey left everything and followed [Jesus].@ Peter never forgot it.
APut out into the deep water,@ the Lord says to Peter. He is saying the same to each one of us right now. Do not abandon the quest, though it seems fruitless. Leave the shallow waters near shore. Forsake what is familiar and secure for the challenge of the unknown deep. Dare, like Peter, to do the unthinkable. Then, like him, you too will experience the impossible. 
                   As we travel life=s way, with all its twistings and turnings, its many small achievements and frequent defeats, we who in baptism have become sisters and brothers of Jesus Christ should be sharpening our spiritual vision. For it is only with the eyes of faith that we can perceive the unseen, spiritual world all round us: beneath, behind, above this world of sense and time. Faith assures us that God is watching over us always, in good times and in bad. The same Lord who challenged Peter, devastated by failure at the one thing he thought he knew something about, to APut out into deep water.@
Glimpsing this mighty God, our loving heavenly Father, with the eyes of faith, we too join B as in a moment we shall B in the angels= song:  AHoly, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!  All the earth is filled with his glory!@   


Homily for Sept. 3rd, 2013: Luke 4:38-44.
          In Jesus’ world illness of various kinds was due, people thought, to possession by demons. Today’s gospel portrays Jesus as one who has power over these supernatural forces of evil. He “rebukes” them.  
Jesus too comes from the supernatural world. As God’s Son, however, Jesus has power over the evil forces in that supernatural world. That is why Luke, the gospel writer, tells us that Jesus “rebukes” the supernatural forces of evil. He rebukes the life-threatening fever which has laid Peter’s mother-in-law low. And he rebukes the demons in the many people who are brought to him for healing. Luke’s language shows that he is describing what we today call “exorcisms.” Freed from demonic possession, these people are healed at once. There is no period of convalescence. Peter’s mother-in-law, we heard, “got up immediately and waited on them.” Her healing helps explain Peter’s willingness, reported in the next chapter of Luke’s gospel, immediately to leave his work as a fisherman in order to follow Jesus.
          The demons leave the other people whom Jesus heals, shouting, “You are the Son of God.” Unlike the many who witnessed Jesus’ healing and refused to believe in him, these evil inhabitants of the supernatural world recognize Jesus as a fellow inhabitant of that world – though unlike them a good one. Jesus rebukes them and does not allow them to speak, we heard, “because they knew he was the Christ”: the long awaited anointed servant and Son of God. Jesus did not want to acquire the reputation of a sensational wonder-worker. He was that, but he was so much more.
          Especially significant is the information that at daybreak, “Jesus went to a deserted place.” Why? He needed to be alone with his heavenly Father. If Jesus, whose inner resources were incomparably greater than ours, needed those times alone with the Lord, we are fools, and guilty fools, if we think we can make it in reliance on our own resources alone. That’s why we are here. To receive all the goodness, love, purity, and power of Jesus – our elder brother, our lover, and our best friend; but also our divine savior and redeemer. And when we have him, we have everything. 

Monday, September 1, 2014


Homily for Oct. 2nd, 2014: Holy Guardian Angels.
          Today’s memorial of the Holy Guardian Angels reminds us of an important truth of our Christian and Catholic faith. The world in which we live, which we entered at birth and which we shall leave at death, is surrounded by another world which, though we cannot see it, is every bit as real as the world which we see, touch, hear, and feel. This other world is spiritual. It is the world God, the angels, the saints, and our beloved dead. Though invisible, this spiritual world is not only as real as the visible world all around us. It is in truth more real than that world. For the world we see is passing away. The unseen, spiritual world is not passing away. It is eternal. Moreover, this spiritual world is our true homeland. St. Paul tells us this when he writes in his letter to the Philippians that, because of baptism, “we have our citizenship in heaven” (3:20).
          The Catechism says: “The existence of the spiritual, non-corporeal [that is, not bodily] beings that Sacred Scripture calls ‘angels’ is a truth of faith” (No. 328). And the Catechism goes on to quote St. Augustine, who says that “angel” is the name of their office: it tells us what they do. Their nature is spirit; in other words, they are not bodily but spiritual beings. “With their whole beings,” Augustine writes, “the angels are servants and messengers of God.” (No 329) They appear often in Scripture. The angel Gabriel told Mary, for instance, that she was to be the mother of God’s son. The Catechism quotes the 4th century Greek Father, St. Basil, who writes: “Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life” (No. 336).
          Whenever, then, we are in danger; whenever we are strongly tempted, it is a joy to know that we can pray with confidence: “Holy guardian angel, protect me and keep me safe! Amen.”


Homily for Sept. 2nd, 2014: Luke 4:31-37.
          “Jesus taught them on the sabbath,” we heard in the gospel, “and they were astonished at his teaching because he spoke with authority.” And a few verses later Luke, the gospel writer, tells us that following a dramatic healing, “they were all amazed and said to one another, ‘What is there about his word? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out.’”
          The people who hear Jesus realize that he speaks “with authority.” What does that mean? It means that he spoke differently from the other religious teachers they were accustomed to hearing. Those teachers interpreted God’s law. Jesus spoke not as an interpreter of God’s law, but as the law-giver. Read the last part of chapter 5 in Matthew’s gospel, for instance, and you will find Jesus citing one Commandment after another, and then saying: “But I say unto you.” After citing the Commandment which prohibits murder, for instance, Jesus says that it applies not only to killing another, but even to the emotion which leads to killing: anger. (Cf. Mt. 5:21-23)  Citing the Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” Jesus says that it applies even to lustful thoughts. (Mt. 5:27f.)
          The people who hear Jesus are also amazed that he has power to heal people with a mere word. The man whom Jesus heals in today’s gospel is possessed, Luke tells us, “with the spirit of an unclean demon.” In a pre-scientific age without blood tests, microscopes, or X-rays, that was the normal way to explain illness. The demon throws the man down and at Jesus’ word comes out of him, “without doing him any harm.”
          Jesus still speaks to us today: in Holy Scripture, in the teaching of his divinely commissioned Church, and in the still, small voice of conscience. His word still has power to convict people of sin, changing their lives, and setting them on the right path – to Him. When people pray to Him and listen to his words, there are still miraculous healings which no doctor can explain.
“Heaven and earth will pass away,” Jesus says, “my words will never pass away” (Mt. 24:35 NEB). How better could we respond than with the familiar prayer: “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.”

Sunday, August 31, 2014


Homily for Sept. 1st, 2014: Luke 4:16-30.
          “All spoke highly of him,” after Jesus reads in the synagogue from the prophet Isaiah and proclaims the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that God would send someone to comfort, heal, and liberate people. Only a few verses later, however, the same people who were “amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth” are ready to hurl Jesus headlong from the brow of the hill on which Jesus’ home town, Nazareth, was built. What’s going on here? 
          The “year acceptable to the Lord” which Jesus says he was sent to proclaim is reminiscent of the jubilee years, celebrated by Jews in Jesus’ day every half-century. During a jubilee year the fields lay fallow, people returned to their homes, debts were forgiven, and slaves set free. Jubilee years also reminded people that God did not reserve his blessings for those he had called to be especially his own. God loves and blesses all people.
Jesus gives his Jewish hearers two examples of this universal love. During a prolonged famine, Jesus reminds them, God sent our great prophet Elijah not to a member of our own people, but to a Gentile widow living outside Israel. And Elijah’s successor, Elisha, never cured any lepers among our own people, only the Gentile Naaman, from Syria. Those were the words that changed the people’s admiration for Jesus to resentful anger. 
Last May Pope Francis caused similar outrage in some quarters by saying, during his homily at a daily Mass: “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘But Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! Christ died for all, even for atheists.”
          Pope Francis was repeating, in more colloquial language, the teaching of the Second Council: “Those also can attain salvation who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do his will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience” (LG 16).
          Being a member of God’s holy Catholic Church is a great privilege and a blessing. But it does not guarantee us a first-class ticket to heaven.