Saturday, February 13, 2016


Homily for April 27th, 2016: John 15:1-8.

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.” Some Bible scholars think that Jesus spoke these words as he crossed the Temple courtyard with his eleven still faithful friends after the Last Supper. It was Passover time, so there would have been a full moon. The golden vine around the Temple wall, which symbolized God’s people, glowed in the moonlight. Pointing first to himself, then to the vine, Jesus says: AI am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower ...@

In calling himself the true vine, Jesus implies a contrast. God=s people, the vine he had brought out of Egypt and planted in a new land, had not been true. Jesus had been true. His death the next day would be Jesus= final act of faithful obedience to his Father=s will. He was calling the little band of friends accompanying him to imitate his faithfulness ABy this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”

  To do this, they must remain united with him. ARemain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me.@ The person who remains united with him, Jesus says, Awill bear much fruit.@

AMy Father is the vine grower,@ Jesus says. He cares for the branches of his vine in two ways: by pruning those that bear fruit, and by cutting off and burning the unfruitful branches. Jesus= words about these unfruitful branches being thrown into a fire and burned are an implied reference to Judas, who was even then betraying the Lord.

The vine grower=s treatment of the fruitful branches seems at first sight severe: AEvery one that [bears fruit] he prunes so that it bears more fruit.@ The image, easily understood by Jesus= hearers, who were familiar with vineyards and grapes, is that of a gardener pinching off the new green shoots on a vine, so that all the growth can be concentrated in the few early blooming branches which the gardener has selected to bear fruit. 

Faced in life with setbacks, injustice, or suffering B as all of us are, at some time or other B which one of us has not asked: AWhy me? What have I done to deserve this?@ Jesus= words in today=s gospel do not answer these questions. Instead his words challenge us to view setbacks, injustice, and suffering as opportunities to grow. He is inviting us to submit to the vine grower=s pruning, and so to glorify him by producing abundant fruit.


Friday, February 12, 2016


Homily for February 13th, 2016: Luke 5:27-32.

          “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus’ critics ask indignantly. They put the question to Jesus’ disciples. Jesus himself answers it. ‘People who are healthy do not need a doctor,’ he says in effect. ‘The sick do. I have come not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.’

          To understand why the religious authorities are so indignant, we have to know that sharing a meal with someone was considered, in Jesus’ day, treating him as a brother. How could one give such treatment to tax collectors? They were the hated ripoff artists of the day, working for the Roman government of occupation to squeeze as much money as possible out of their fellow Jews, while retaining part of their receipts for themselves.

          Jesus speaks just two words to Levi: “Follow me.” Without hesitation, Levi gets up and follows Jesus. Other disciples of Jesus have already done the same, when, at Jesus’ command, they abandoned the tools of their trade as fishermen, their boats and nets, to follow Jesus. What motivated this immediate obedience? I think that if we could have questioned any of them, Levi or Matthew included, they would have replied: “There was something about this man, Jesus, which made it impossible to say no.” 

          As a parting gesture Levi invites his friends to dinner at his house, with Jesus as the honored guest. As we would expect, many of those friends were Levi’s fellow tax collectors. Others were simply “sinners,” as the gospel reading calls them: Jews, like Levi, who did not keep God’s law.

Observing these disreputable guests, the Pharisees, proud of their exact observance of God’s law, ask Jesus’ other disciples how their Master can associate with such social outcasts. Jesus overhears the question and again answers himself: “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous [by which Jesus means ‘people like you Pharisees’]. ‘I came to call sinners.’

What is the message for us? If we want Jesus’ loving care, we need first to recognize and confess our need. And the first thing every one of us needs from Jesus is forgiveness.


Thursday, February 11, 2016


Homily for February 12th, 2016: Isaiah 58:1-9a; Matt. 9:14-15.

          Lent is an opportunity for what is called in sports ‘spring training.’ It encourages us to take up three practices which are as essential for spiritual health as regular physical exercise and a healthy diet are for an athlete: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Both of today’s readings focus on the second practice: fasting.

Voluntarily giving up things we may legitimately enjoy, as an expression of our love for God, strengthens our wills and spiritual muscles. This helps us to resist the lures and lies of Satan, when he tempts us to make choices that we know to be sinful. Fasting may be of many kinds: refraining from food or drink, reducing the time we spend in front of the TV, computer, or movie screen, or engaging in hobbies and other legitimate leisure activities.  

Our first reading is a searing indictment of a wrong kind of fasting. The prophet Isaiah represents people who fast asking God: “Why do you not see it [and] take no note of it?” Speaking for God, which is what prophets do, Isaiah gives the answer. “You fast, but while you do so, you continue to act unjustly: fighting, quarrelling, abusing those who work for you.” If you want God to heed your prayers, work for justice, and for changing structures of society that cause injustice, Isaiah says. Practice acts of charity for the poor, free those oppressed by unjust laws.

There is a tragic division in the American Catholic family today: between the so-called social justice Catholics and those who concentrate, sometimes exclusively, on the so-called life issues: abortion, gay-marriage, and the family. These life issues are important. But so is social justice. There should be no opposition between them. Isaiah’s words show that both are essential. The Lord calls us, Isaiah says, to release those bound unjustly; to set free the oppressed; to share our bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and homeless, to clothe the naked when we see them. There are people in our parish who are doing all those things. When we join them, Isaiah promises, our light will break forth like the dawn, our wounds will be quickly healed. “Then you shall call,” Isaiah says, “and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!”

That, friends, is the gospel. That is the Good News!

Wednesday, February 10, 2016


First Sunday in Lent, Year C.  Rom. 10:8-13; Luke 4:1-13
AIM: To show how Jesus= response to temptation is a model for us. 
What do temptations as bizarre as these have to do with us? We have no power to turn stones into bread. No one is offering us world dominion. And though we may get dizzy atop high buildings and feel an urge to jump off, no one of us is so mad as to think we would survive the experience. The common thread which links all three temptations is this: Jesus was being tempted each time to use what he had C his power as divine Son of God C to get what he wanted.
Jesus has just completed a forty days= fast. He is hungry. The devil suggests a quick fix: AIf you are the Son of God, command this stone to be made bread.@  Notice that the first thing the devil does is to sow a seed of doubt in Jesus= mind: AIf you are the Son of God.@ Are you really sure? Maybe you=re deluded. The very first time the devil appears in the Bible he uses the same deceitful approach. ADid God really say you should not eat of any fruit of the garden?@ the devil asks the woman in the third chapter of Genesis. God, of course, had said nothing of the kind.  He had placed only one tree off limits: the tree of the knowledge of good an evil C clearly an allegorical tree, for you cannot find it in any botany book.          
Note, second, how the devil uses something Jesus wants to tempt him: his craving for food. Satisfying his hunger was no sin. What was crucial was how he did so. Should he follow the normal way of getting food? Or should he take the shortcut suggested by the devil? Use what you have, the devil was saying C your divine power C to get what you want: bread. Feeding on God=s word, however, is  more important than feeding on bread. So Jesus responds to the temptation with a quote from his own Jewish scriptures: AOne does not live by bread alone.@
In the second temptation the devil works through Jesus= imagination. He shows him all the kingdoms of the world, promising to give him authority over all of them if only he will worship the devil. Again, the tempter appeals to something Jesus wants. He is about to embark on his public ministry. Jesus wants the whole world to know him and accept his message. Once more, the tempter tempts Jesus to use what he has C his heart, his soul C to get what he wants: the loyalty of the whole world. Once again Jesus refuses to take the shortcut. The end never justifies the means. Jesus states this with another scriptural quotation: AIt is written, >You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.=@
The devil makes one last try: AThrow yourself down from the Temple.@  Soon people would be challenging Jesus: AShow us a sign, some dramatic proof C then we=ll believe in you.@ What sign could be more dramatic than jumping from a great height C and walking away unhurt? Jesus wanted people to believe in him.  AUse what you have, then,@ the devil was telling him, Ato get what you want.@ Jesus knew, however, that his heavenly Father is not a God of the sensational, but a God who works through the ordinary things of everyday life. So Jesus answers the tempter with a final scriptural quotation: AYou shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.@
Are Jesus= temptations really so different from ours? Use what you have, the devil tells us in so many ways, to get what you want. What is the most precious thing we Catholics have? Is it not our faith, or religion? So why not use our religion to get the things we want? Praying for the things we want is entirely appropriate.  Unfortunately, however, some Catholics think that our religion gives us access to a kind of supernatural power to get what we want C if only we say the right prayers, and make enough sacrifices. Behind that belief is the idea that God is at our disposal. He is not. We are at his disposal. Does God answer prayer? Of course he does. But he will not always do so in the way we expect, or at the time we think right. At the end of my eighty-eighth year I can tell you that I have lived long enough to thank God that he has answered some of my prayers ANot yet@, and others ANever.@       
ABow down and worship me,@ the tempter tells us. AUse my methods C all that stuff they tell you in church about God and his commandments is unrealistic: it doesn=t work C and it=s certainly too slow.@ And so we take shortcuts. A candidate for political office enters into a shady deal to win an election. A college student cheats on an exam to get into medical or law school. To gain a promotion at work, which will mean a better life for his family, a man spreads false rumors about a colleague. We all know how easy it is to rationalize things like that. AIt=s war out there,@ we tell ourselves. AEverybody cheats a little. Once I=m farther ahead I=ll be able to do so much good for people.@ 
Those arguments are so plausible. But they don=t work. God=s command-ments forbid us to cut moral corners, even in the highest and noblest cause. Loyalty to God means that there are times when we must say No, when all around us are saying Yes; and times when we must say Yes when everyone else is saying No.
What about Jesus= third temptation? AThrow yourself down B God will look after you. Aren=t you his Son?@ Doing that would be the sin of presumption. We yield to this temptation whenever we presume that because we are faithful, churchgoing Catholics, God will look after us, no matter what.
 In the Catholic high school where I once taught the faculty used to joke about the fact that at exam time all the votive candles in the school chapel were burning brightly. AThe candles work better,@ a colleague commented, Awhen the students have done their homework.@ Cynical?  No B right on. To suppose that you can loaf all semester, and then that God will bail you at exam time and guarantee you a passing grade because you suddenly get religion, frantically saying prayers and lighting candles B that is the sin of presumption. 

To think that we can abuse the wonderful bodies God has given us by years of unhealthy living B overindulgence in rich foods, alcohol, or tobacco B and then that just because we=re regular at Sunday Mass God will work a miracle when the doctor says we have a life-threatening illness: that too is the sin of presumption.

It is presumption to think we can consistently exceed the speed limit on the highway, drive after drinking, and be determined that no car will ever overtake us C and that nothing can happen to us because we pray the rosary and haven=t cheated on our spouse (or on a promise of celibacy, for people like me). 

God does not suspend the laws of probability, or the normal working of cause and effect, for people who buy him off with prayers and churchgoing. Jesus rejected this final temptation, as he had rejected the first two, with another quotation from his well stored memory: AYou shall not put the Lord your God to the test.@ (Deut. 6:16)

AUse what you have to get what you want?@ No. Use what God gives you to get what He wants. That is the key to a happy life, and a fulfilled one. There is no other. On this first Sunday in Lent the Lord is placing this key in our hands. He is asking use to use it C to use what he has given us to get what He wants. When we start to do so, we make a beautiful discovery. We discover that Paul=s words in our second reading are true. God has no favorites.A The same Lord is Lord of all, enriching all who call upon him.@                 



Homily for February 11th, 2016: Deut 30:15-20; Luke 9:22-25.

          God’s chosen people, the Jews, were slaves in Egypt for more than four centuries, over double the life of slavery in our country. Oppressed people seldom develop high standards of social life. The high statistics of black on black crime in our country illustrate this. They also show that we are still paying the price of slavery. The price of oppression continues to be demanded even after the oppression has ended. The stories coming out of North Korea are similar – or worse. Oppressed people follow the law of the jungle, preying on one another in ways that horrify us.

          So the ragtag group of people who crossed the Red Sea with Moses had grown accustomed for centuries to inflicting on one another the cruelty they experienced from the people who had enslaved them.

          This is the background for God’s gift to Moses of the Ten Commandments. They were not then, nor are the Commandments now, fences to hem people in. The Commandments are ten signposts pointing the way to human flourishing and freedom. 

          That is exactly what Moses tells the people in our first reading. “Today I have set before you life and prosperity, death and doom. … If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God … [He] will bless you … If, however you turn away your hearts … and serve other gods … you will certainly perish. …Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live.”

          Is that just long ago and far away? Don’t you believe it! The worship of false gods is as widespread today as it was in Bible times. Today’s idols are pleasure, power, possessions, and honor. None of those things is bad. They become idols, only when we make pursuit of any one of them central in our lives. Once we do that, we inevitably experience frustration – because we can never get enough.

What is the remedy? Jesus gives it to us in the gospel. “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Doing that means putting the Lord at the center of our lives: before our own desires and ambitions, even before those whom we love most. A long life has taught me that people who do that, and only such people, experience the peace and joy that only the Lord can give.  


Tuesday, February 9, 2016


Homily for Ash Wednesday, February 10th, 2016.       

The English author, G. K. Chesterton says: AThe soul does not die by sin, but by impenitence.@ More deadly than sin itself is the refusal to acknowledge sin, and to repent of it. Repentance is at the beginning of every Mass. It is also how we begin Lent.

ALord, have mercy,@ we pray. When we appeal to God, we are acknowledging that we can never get rid of sin on our own. Sin is like addiction. Part of the reason for the success of Alcoholics Anonymous in dealing with the addiction to alcohol is the spiritual soundness of the first two of its twelve points:

1.       We admitted we were powerless over alcoholCthat our lives had become unmanageable.

2.       We came to believe that a Power greater than our own could restore us to sanity.  

As we begin Lent, therefore, we confess our powerlessness and appeal to the only power that can make us whole. Do we realize how counter-cultural that is? The self-help books all tell us that we=re not powerless. We can do it on our own. We can get our act together. The only thing we lack is self-confidence. In confessing our sins we are not asking for an increase of self-confidence. Instead we appeal to God for mercy. Prayer for God=s mercy is one petition which is always certain of a favorable response.

AA clean heart create for me, O God,@ we prayed in the responsorial psalm.  Cleanliness is not something grim. Nor is the repentance which leads to cleanliness. It is liberating B and joyful. One of the most beautiful things in married life is the ability to say, AI=m sorry,@ and to hear the words, AI forgive you.@ 

Beautiful as human forgiveness is, however, it is only a pale shadow of God=s forgiveness. When we forgive, there is always a memory of the wrong or injury done B a skeleton in the closet, we call it. God doesn=t have any closets, and he certainly does have any skeletons. God=s forgiveness is total. In the Old Testament book of the prophet Isaiah we hear God saying: AThough your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow@ (1:18). And later in the book God says: AI wipe out your offenses; your sins I remember no more.@ (43:25). That, friends, is the gospel, the good news. We don’t need to drag after us an ever lengthening tale of guilt. When we truly repent, Go forgives: totally and completely.  

Monday, February 8, 2016


Homily for February 9th, 2016: 1 Kings 8:22-23, 27-30.

          “Listen to the petitions of your servant and of your people Israel which they offer in this place,” Solomon prays at the dedication of the Temple. To pray that God will hear the petitions offered in the Temple is what we would expect. But then comes something we do not expect: “Listen from your heavenly dwelling -- and grant pardon.”

          Solomon’s prayer reminds us that whenever we approach God, the first thing we need to ask for is pardon for our sins. None of us is worthy to enter into the presence of the all-holy God. That is why the first thing we do in every Mass is to ask forgiveness for our sins, and implore God’s mercy.

          Our wonderful Pope Francis has made prayer for God’s mercy central in his preaching. Repeatedly, and in different ways, the Pope tells us: God never grows tired of forgiving us; it is we who grow tired of asking for forgiveness.

          It appears that this theme is rooted in the Pope’s personal history. At age thirty-six Jorge Bergoglio was put in charge of all the Jesuits in Argentina. The country was under a cruel military government. They arrested hundreds of people they did not like, perhaps thousands, and without trial flew them in planes over the South Atlantic and dropped them into the sea. Many Jesuits embraced something called liberation theology, putting political action and protest before traditional priestly duties: administering the sacraments and preaching the gospel.  
          Guiding his Jesuit brothers along the right path in this chaotic and perilous situation would have been difficult even for a much older man with greater experience than Fr. Bergoglio. Some Jesuits were clearly over the line. To protect them he forbade his brothers to provoke the authorities by living in the slums and engaging in political protest. Inevitably this provoked charges that he was “soft on injustice.” Over time Bergoglio came to feel that he may have been too rigid, and that his treatment of his Jesuit brothers who confronted the military regime in Argentina, and embraced the cause of the poor, had perhaps been too harsh. This continues to weigh on him today, as Pope Francis. It helps us to understand his constant emphasis on our need for forgiveness.

Regardless of our personal history, we all need to pray for God’s mercy and forgiveness. And Pope Francis is right to remind us that this prayer is one that God will always answer.

Sunday, February 7, 2016


Homily for February 8th, 2016: 1 Kings 8:1-7, 9-11.

          “The Lord intends to dwell in the dark cloud,” King Solomon says at the dedication of the Jerusalem Temple. He was speaking about the cloud which filled the Temple, the earthly dwelling place of God, at its dedication. God manifested his glory not in light, but in darkness – so thick, our first reading says, “that the priests could no longer minister there because of the cloud.”

          The author of psalm 23, the best loved of all 150 psalms, speaks of God dwelling in darkness when he writes: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and your staff comfort me.”

          We must all walk through that dark valley at one time or another. I entered it when I was just six and a half. On the day after Christmas that year, 1934, my father came home from the hospital to which my mother had been taken with pneumonia just a week previously, gathered his three little children – myself six, a sister four, and our brother, two -- and spoke the three most terrible words I have ever heard: “Mummy is dead.” My whole world collapsed, and I was in darkness.

Never in the 82 years since this tragedy have I ever said, or ever permitted anyone else to say: “It was God’s will.” My mother’s death was not God’s will. My mother’s death was a mystery – a dark mystery. Yet God, who as Solomon said in his prayer for the dedication of the Jerusalem Temple, “has chosen to dwell in thick darkness” was in this mystery. 

          I can no longer recall the exact day when I discovered God in the darkness. I can fix it, however, before the age of nine. With blinding certainty it came home to me one day that I would see my mother again, when God called me home. From that day to this the unseen spiritual world – the world of God, of the angels, of the saints, and of our beloved dead – has been real to me. I know people who are there: my mother first, and now so many others whom God has called home to himself. Decades later I realized that this insight was the beginning of my priestly vocation. It kindled in me the desire to be close to that spiritual world. And where am I closer than when I stand at the altar, obeying Jesus’ command at the Last Supper: “Do this in my memory.”

          The anonymous medieval work on prayer, called The Cloud of Unknowing, speaks of finding God in the darkness when it says: “By loving he may be caught and held: by thinking never.”