Friday, April 15, 2016


Homily for April 16th, 2016: John 6:60-69.

          There is something poignant about Peter’s response to Jesus’ challenging question: “Do you also want to leave?” Many had already done so: “Many of [Jesus’] disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer walked with him,” John tells us before reporting Jesus’ challenge to the Twelve. What caused their departure was Jesus’ refusal to soften his teaching about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. “Let me solemnly assure you,” Jesus said, “if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (6:53). That was strong meat indeed, especially for people whose dietary laws forbade the consumption of blood in any form. Still today the kosher laws of observant Jews require that the blood be drained from any meat offered for human consumption. Jesus’ words are also the answer to Protestants who insist that Jesus’ presence in the bread and wine of their Communion services is “purely spiritual” and not real. 

          The apostle Peter was, frankly, not the sharpest crayon in the box. His response to Jesus’ question, “Lord to whom shall we go?” suggests that he may not have understood the meaning of Jesus’ strong words. He was captivated nonetheless by the One who spoke them: “You have the words of everlasting life.”

          Any preacher who is faithful to his commission to preach the full gospel, and not just what people want to hear, will encounter criticism and rejection. I say that from personal experience. It is the preacher’s task to comfort the afflicted – but also afflict the comfortable. When I have said from the pulpit that marriage is possible only for one man and one woman, I have been told: ‘That’s just one opinion.’ The answer is simple: it is the teaching of the Bible, and of the Catholic Church. Told that this teaching is “very hurtful to many of our parishioners,” I remain unfazed. The Lord whose commission I hold to preach “the truth the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” will ask me one day whether I did that; or whether I abbreviated his truth because someone might be uncomfortable and offended. Similarly with the person who was offended by a homily which dealt in part with pornography – which any priest who sits in the confessional soon learns is a serious problem today – and in consequence could no longer attend our church. Jesus encountered rejection. If we who serve him never only smiles and affirmation, we must ask whether we are doing our job.

Thursday, April 14, 2016


Homily for April 15th, 2016. Acts of the Apostles 9:1-20.

          The story we heard in our first reading is one of the most dramatic conversion stories of all time – in the same class with the story of St. Augustine’s conversion three centuries later. The chief persecutor of Jesus’ disciples, until then a small sect within the Jewish community, becomes overnight the man called by God to carry the gospel message to the whole world.

In Augustine’s case, conversion started with a child’s voice from the other side of the garden wall, saying, “Take up and read.” When Augustine opened the biblical scroll he was holding, his eyes fell on Paul’s words in his letter to the Romans: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof” (13:13f). Those words kindled in Augustine a fire that never went out.

          In the case of Saul (he received the name Paul only when he was baptized), the voice said: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” We might have expected a different question: “Why are you persecuting my Church?” The question came in personal form because the Church is Christ’s body: he has today no voice to speak to people but ours, no hands to reach out in compassion but ours, and so forth.

          Note the reaction of the man God has chosen to baptize Saul, Ananias. He’s scared out of his wits. ‘I’ve heard about this man, Lord,’ he says. ‘He’s dangerous.’ ‘Go,’ God tells him. ‘He is my chosen instrument to carry my name to Jew and Gentile alike.’ Go to St. Paul’s Church just south of Columbus Circle in New York’s Manhattan. Over the altar you will see carved in stone three Latin words: Vas electionis est – “He is my elect or chosen vessel.”

          To those words the Lord adds these: “I will show him what he will have to suffer for my name.” What does this tell us? A personal encounter with the Lord God – like that experienced by Saul, Augustine, and countless others down through the ages – is never just for the individual. God comes personally to chosen souls to commission them to go to others, proclaiming: “I have seen the Lord!” And in every case, the fulfillment of this call means suffering.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016


Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year C.  Rev. 9:7, 14b-17; John 10:27-30.
AIM: To help the hearers understand the promise of eternal life, given by Jesus, the good shepherd. 
We have all played the child=s game AMake a wish.@ As children we were taught to make a wish, for instance, before blowing out the candles on our birthday cakes. I used to wish for a pony. I never got one, and I have long since stopped regretting it. A pony would not have brought me the happiness I imagined in my childhood fantasies.
We all have wishes, some of them secret, some openly expressed. Some of these desires are down-to-earth: a fulfilled life, good health, freedom from worry. Other wishes soar higher, and include the fulfillment of our deepest desires and our greatest dreams. Whatever our age or circumstances, whatever our temperaments, from childhood to old age we go on hoping and wishing, whether we are optimists or pessimists, romantic dreamers or prudent planners. 
In the gospel we have just heard Jesus offer the fulfillment of a wish that people have had since the beginning of time, yet never attained. AI give them eternal life,@ Jesus says, Aand they shall never perish.@
That is huge. Think what those words mean. The greatest enemy of every one of us is death. One day, we all know, will put an end to every wish and every dream. No one really wants to die. When people say they=d like to die, this is usually because they have become so old, so ill, or so depressed, that they think life is no longer worth living. 
We=ve all seen bumper stickers that say AHappiness is being a grandparent@, or AAsk me about my grandbaby.@ Ever see a bumper sticker that says AHappiness is being a parent@, or AAsk me about my baby@? Why do people advertise their grandchildren, but never their children? One reason, surely, is that new parents are just too busy. Grandparents don=t have the same responsibility. They can walk away. A deeper reason, however, is that grandchildren nourish our deepest desire of all: the desire for immortality. As death grows closer, grandparents can feel that in some way they will live on in those who, but for them, would never have been born. Grandchildren hold out the promise of defeating our last and greatest enemy: death.
Jesus Christ promises more. He who has already defeated death by being raised to a new life beyond death says of us, his friends: AI give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.@ As long as we are trying to live for him, death cannot defeat us, any more than it defeated Jesus. For us, as for him, the grave will be the gateway to a new life, one infinitely more wonderful than the life we live now.
Jesus connects this tremendous promise with his role as Agood shepherd.@ We are remote from the pastoral society in which Jesus lived. So we sentimentalize the figure of the shepherd, portraying him on holy cards and in stained glass windows as a romantic figure, cuddling a cute little lamb in his arms. Jesus= hearers knew that a shepherd=s life is hard.  He must stay out even in the worst weather, constantly on the move, protecting the foolish and easily frightened sheep from wild animals, thieves, and from their own tendency to wander off and get into trouble.
Jesus calls himself Athe good shepherd@: the one who never deserts his flock, who works not for pay, but for love. There is an almost personal bond between this shepherd and his flock. AMy sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. ... No one can take them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father=s hand. The Father and I are one.@
Jesus, the model shepherd, acts for God his Father. No one can take from Jesus= hand the sheep whom the Father has entrusted to him, any more than those sheep can be snatched from the hand of God, to whom they belong.

With this shepherd we are safe. As long as we follow him, our final destiny is sure. Today=s second reading describes that destiny in language of poetic imagery. It is part of the author=s vision of the life and worship of heaven, originally written to give hope to Christians toward the end of the first century since Christ=s birth, in the midst of fierce persecution. 

To understand what those words might have meant to those for whom they were first written, try to imagine yourself hearing them spoken to you as a member of a terrified family in Afghanistan today, caught between terrorists trying to drive the invaders out of their land by killing as many foreigners as possible, and American troops trying desperately to defend themselves as they attempt to bring freedom to a people too long terrorized and oppressed. 

AThe one who sits on the throne will shelter you. You will not hunger or thirst anymore, nor will the sun or any heat strike you. For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd you and lead you to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away all tears from your eyes.@

That is poetry, not prose. It is the author=s attempt to describe, by means of poetic images, a vision given to him by God. In that vision, and in the image of Jesus our shepherd who promises us eternal life, we have a faith by which to live. In that faith we can find, one day, courage to die. 


Homily for April 14th, 2016: John 6:44-51.

          “I am the bread of life,” Jesus says. “Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat and not die.” Jesus is speaking to his fellow Jews. To understand what he is saying, therefore, we must start with the Jewish Scriptures, which we call the Old Testament.

          The rabbis often spoke of the manna which nourished God’s people during their desert wanderings under Moses as God’s word or instruction. Amos, the first of Israel’s prophets to write down his message (earlier prophets spoke orally only) writes about a famine coming on the land, because of the people’s unfaithfulness: “not a famine of bread or a thirst for water, but for hearing the word of the Lord” (8:11f). The theme of bread as God’s word is frequent in the so-called Wisdom books of the Old Testament. In the book Sirach, for instance, we read: “He who fears the Lord … will come to wisdom … She will nourish him with the bread of understanding . . .” (15:1 & 3).

          This is the background for Jesus’ astonishing claim: “I am the bread of life … the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever.” Jesus’ words are real nourishment. That is why the two disciples who encountered the risen Lord on the road to Emmaus could say, after Jesus had made himself known in “the breaking of the bread” (the oldest term for the Eucharist): “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).

          All Catholics know that Jesus comes to us in Holy Communion. Many still do not realize that he comes to us equally in what the second Vatican Council called “the table of the word.” The rediscovery of that term, which had lain, largely forgotten, in the Church’s attic for centuries, was one of the Council’s great gifts to us. “The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures as she venerates the body of the Lord,” the Council said, “insofar as she never ceases, particularly in the sacred liturgy, to partake of the bread of life and to offer it to the faithful from the table of the Word of God and the Body of Christ” (Verbum Dei, 21).  For a balanced spiritual diet, we must be nourished by both.



Tuesday, April 12, 2016


Homily for April 13th, 2016: John 6:35-40.

          An African priest tells about a priest-friend who is studying in Paris. One day the French priest with whom he lives was unwell unable to celebrate his regular 4 p.m. Mass for nuns in a nearby convent. He asked the African priest to substitute for him. When the African priest rang the convent doorbell at 3.55, the Sister who answered was surprised to see an unfamiliar face. She thought he was a street person asking for help. “I’m sorry,” she told him. “We’re just about to have Mass. We can’t help you now. Come back later.” Fifteen minutes later, the nuns called the rectory to ask where their priest was. Imagine their embarrassment when they learned that they had just turned him away.

          Why did those good Sisters go without Mass that day? It was because the priest who came did not look like the person they were expecting. That was Jesus’ experience. His fellow Jews were expecting that God’s long awaited anointed servant, the Messiah, would come dramatically, descending from the clouds of heaven. Jesus was not dramatic. He was ordinary. When Jesus said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” they thought he must be crazy. “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph?” they asked. “Then how can he say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”  

          Jesus’ people knew about “bread from heaven.” That was the manna with which God had fed their ancestors during their desert wanderings. But the prophets also spoke of bread as the spiritual nourishment which God gives to those who approach him in faith and try to do his will. So when Jesus said, “I am the bread come down from heaven,” he was using the language of the prophets.        When Jesus says, “I am the bread come down from heaven,” and “I am the bread of life,” we read those words as a reference to the Eucharist. That is correct. But there are two tables in the Eucharist: the table of the Lord’s body, but also the table of the word. The first part of the Mass, the liturgy of the word, is not merely a preparation for the “essential part”: consecration and communion. It is equally important, and equally essential. The Second Vatican Council said in 1965: “In the sacred books the Father who is in heaven comes lovingly to meet his children, and talks with them. And such is the force and power of the word of God that it can serve the Church as her support and vigor, and the children of the Church as strength for their faith, food for the soul, and a pure and lasting source of spiritual life.”

          We repeat then in this Mass the words of the boy Samuel when the Lord called out to him in the Jerusalem Temple: “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening” (1 Sam. 3:10).



Monday, April 11, 2016


Homily for April 12th, 2016: John 6:30-35.

          “Whoever comes to me will never hunger,” Jesus says, “whoever believes in me will never thirst.” Those are tremendous claims indeed. Only our familiarity with the words keeps us from recognizing how daring they are.

          What do we hunger for? Many things. One hunger, however, is universal. Every one of us hungers for acceptance and love. At life’s beginning, our parents, mothers especially, satisfy this hunger, if they are at least reasonably good parents. Even the best mother’s love pales, however, beside the intensity and fervor of God’s love for us.

          A three-year old Chinese girl in the pre-school of the parish where I was previously showed me this not many years ago. Her name was Doris. At the time an only child, her parents told her that she would soon start pre-school. She talked of it with excitement for weeks. When school started, however, there were floods of tears. It was her first time away from her parents. She had never had a baby sitter.

Because I was a close friend of her family -- I had seen Doris for the first time an hour after her birth -- I felt a special responsibility for her. When her three-hour school day ended at noon, I would meet Doris outside her classroom, and stand with her at, or in cold weather inside, the glass door of the school, waiting for her mother to appear to take her home. The instant Doris glimpsed her mother, she would break away from me and run as fast as her little legs would take her to her mother’s arms. What an example of hunger for love! It was heart-stopping.

That hunger for love does not diminish as the years go by. When parental love no longer satisfies us, most of us start looking for satisfaction of our hunger from things which, though good in themselves, leave us still hungry and frustrated, because we can never get enough of them: things like pleasure, possessions, power, and honor.

For many people it takes years, for some decades, before we discover that there is only One in who can satisfy the deepest hunger and desires of our hearts. His name is Jesus Christ.

Sunday, April 10, 2016


Homily for April 11th, 2016: John 6:22-29.
AThis is the work of God,@ Jesus says in the gospel reading we have just heard, Athat you believe in the one he sent.@ Or as another translation has it: Ahave faith in the one he sent.@ What is faith? For many of us, I think, faith means belief in the truths contained in the creed which we recite every Sunday at Mass. Faith in that sense is more properly called Abelief@: mental assent. Important as that is, faith has another meaning: personal trust C an affair not just of the head, but of the heart.  Even the creed begins not AI believe that@ but AI believe in.@ To believe in someone is to trust that person. Here’s a story about such trusting faith.
Some Alpine guides in a Swiss village organized a climb late in the season, after all the tourists had departed. They reached their chosen summit without difficulty. They were disappointed, however, not to have found an edelweiss, the delicate star-shaped white flower that grows only at high altitudes and is prized by mountaineers as a souvenir of their exploits.
The group had already started their descent when one of them spotted a single edelweiss on a narrow ledge some thirty feet below. To get it someone would have to be let down on a rope. There was no time to linger, for the weather, which changes rapidly in the mountains, was deteriorating. The climbers turned at once to the youngest and smallest member of the party, twelve-year-old Hans, making his first major climb with his father. It would be easy to let him down. In five minutes they could be on their way again. 
AWhat about it, Hans,@ they asked. AWill you do it?@
Hans peered anxiously at the narrow ledged with the treasured white flower C and at the sheer drop of hundreds of feet immediately beyond.
AI=ll do it,@ Hans replied, Aif my father holds the rope.@
That=s faith B unconditional trust! That is what Jesus is talking about when he says in today=s gospel: AThis is the work of God: that you believe in the One he sent.@
We pray in this Mass that, through the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit, we too may receive the trusting faith of that twelve-year-old boy.