Friday, May 20, 2016


Homily for May 21st, 2016: Mark 10:13-16.       

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: “It I to just such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” – 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. Little children haven’t learned yet how to do that.

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

          Another feature of childhood recommended by Jesus is the ability to wonder. Everyday things which we adults take for granted amaze little children: birds in the sky, flowers, balloons. Sadly, TV has robbed children of this ability. By age 3 at the latest, they have seen it all on the Boob Tube. Artists retain this capacity for wonder – and saints. A painter sees a piece of driftwood on the beach and gives it a place of honor in his studio at home. 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. And help me to gasp with wonder at the beauty of your creation!”  

Thursday, May 19, 2016


Homily for February May 20th, 2016: Mark 10:1-12.

          In today’s gospel reading Mark gives us Jesus’ teaching about marriage and divorce. The second creation tale in Genesis presents marriage as something established by God in creation. “A man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife,” we read there, “and the two of them become one flesh.” (Gen 2:24). Hence the teaching, that this one-flesh relationship once established, is permanent and can be dissolved only by death, comes from the Lord God. It is not some legal burden imposed on people by the nasty Catholic Church, to limit human freedom and make people miserable  -- as many people in today’s secular society believe.

          In today’s gospel Jesus’ critics ask him how this teaching about the indissolubility of marriage can be reconciled with the provision in Jewish law for the ending of marriage by divorce which we find in the 24th chapter of the book Deuteronomy. This says that a husband who finds what the text calls “something indecent” in his wife, can write and hand to her a bill of divorce and send her away. And that ends the marriage. The text makes no provision for a wife who wishes to divorce her husband. Divorce came about, Jesus tells his questioners “because of the hardness of your hearts,” in other words because of human sin.

          This leads to an almost classic dilemma. The Church has two duties which conflict with one another. There is first the prophetic duty, to proclaim in season and out that marriage is indissoluble and terminable only by death. The second duty is pastoral: reaching out in loving care to people whose marriages fail. These two duties often conflict with one another, which puts the Church in a bind.

          The problem has become so urgent that the Church right now, under the leadership of Pope Francis, is engaged in a profound study of the whole question. Two synods of bishops from the whole world in Rome discussed how the Church can best fulfill its two duties: to preach the truth about marriage; and to care for people whose marriages fail. In March of this year Francis issued the apostolic letter The Joy of Love reaffirming the truth that marriage is lifelong and indissoluble; but also telling the Church’s pastors to treat those whose marriages fail with compassion and love. To do that we need the guidance of the Holy Spirit. What better could we pray for in this mass than precisely this divine guidance? 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016


Trinity Sunday C. Romans 5:1-5.

AIM: To explain the Trinity in terms of love.


          The Old Testament book of Job has a question which preachers the world over ask themselves on this Trinity Sunday, when they must speak about the One whom no words can properly describe, and whom the human mind can never fully grasp. “Can you fathom the mystery of God, can you fathom the perfection of the Almighty? It is higher than heaven ... it is deeper than [the nether world]; you can know nothing” (11:7f, NEB].

          Confronted with something beyond our understanding, it is a sound principle to start with what we do understand. For many people my age computers are a mystery. The first encounter with one produces confusion and discouragement.  After considerable frustration, we turn to something we think we may understand.  ‘When all else fails, read the directions.’  

          Where can we turn, however, to penetrate the infinitely greater mystery of God? What better starting place than the one we know best: our daily experience of our own human nature? Here is what Pope Saint John Paul II, wrote about the human experience in the first encyclical of his pontificate, way back in 1979: “We cannot live without love. We remain beings incomprehensible to ourselves, our lives are senseless, if love is not revealed to us, if we do not encounter love, if we do not experience it and make it our own, if we do not participate intimately in it.” (Redemptor hominis, 10)

          This insight, that life is unsupportable without love, is as old as the creation stories in Genesis. In the second one God says, after creating man: “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will provide a partner for him” (Gen. 2:18). The creation of woman follows. God fashions her from the man’s rib – a way of showing that the two sexes were made to complement and complete each other. The first creation story in Genesis says that this complementarity of male and female reflects the nature of God himself. “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image and likeness ...’ So God created man in his own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (1:26f).

          If we are made in God’s image; and if we are created male and female with the instinct to unite in love to create other human beings, then this suggests that there is something in God that corresponds to our human experience of love and the family. When we look at Jesus Christ, we see this confirmed.

          Though born into a human family, Jesus had no earthly father. He constantly referred to God as “my Father.” Jesus lived a life of intimate union with his heavenly Father. He prepared for his public ministry by a prolonged period of prayer and fasting. Though he was always available to people in need, Jesus spent whole nights in prayer. He said, “My Father and are one” (John 10:30). He spoke repeatedly of the mutual love between the Father and himself (John 3:35, 5:20, 10:17, 15:9). Jesus could even say, “I have life because of the Father” (John 6:57).  And he told his friends, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

          Pondering this evidence, Christians came to realize even before the last New Testament book had been written that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). To express this truth, theologians in time developed the doctrine of the Holy Trinity: that the God who is one is also in some mysterious way three. The Father loves the Son; and the Son loves the Father; each giving himself to the other in a continual torrent of love who is the Holy Spirit – “God’s passion for himself,” as the German Jesuit Alfred Delp wrote before giving his life for Christ on February 2nd, 1945, in the closing weeks of Adolf Hitler’s evil tyranny.

          If we want to know what God is like, therefore, a good starting point is our experience of love. St. John goes so far as to write: “The unloving know nothing of God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8). We human beings were never intended, either by God’s design or by anything in our nature, to live in isolation or estrangement from one another.  God did not create us for hatred, for violence, for racism, for aloneness, or anonymity. He made us to develop and to enjoy deep and intense relationships of love with one another. Each of us was born into a family. Even those who do not marry and form a family of their own are still called to form communities of love, large and small, with our sisters and brothers.  When I was told thirteen years ago that, because of my age, I must retire, I asked at once to remain in the parish I had then served for almost 22 years. The people I served and loved had become my family.    

          During his life on earth Jesus modeled for us this life of love, family, and community. We see this in his intense union with his heavenly Father. And though unmarried, Jesus also had an earthly family: his disciples, women as well as men, and especially the inner circle of the twelve apostles. Their loving fellowship reached its climax at the Last Supper, when Jesus performed for them the menial task of washing the apostles’ feet, and told them that what he had done for them, they in turn must do for one another.

          In today’s second reading Paul tell us: “The love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” The ability to love God and others which Paul refers to there is not bestowed on us simply to give us a warm feeling inside. God’s love is poured out into our hearts so that the image of God may be perfected in us; so that by becoming more divine, we may also become more human. How sad when people refuse this divine gift of love, or fail to develop it. The Spanish philosopher-poet Miguel de Unamumo writes: “It is sad not to be loved. But it is much sadder not to be able to love.”  

          The French Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin took this thought a step farther when he wrote: “Some day, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides, and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love; and then, for the second time, man will have discovered fire.” On this Trinity Sunday, the feast of God’s love – exchanged between Father and Son through the Holy Spirit, and poured out through this same Spirit into our hearts – let us pray for this divine fire, in the words of an ancient Catholic hymn.  

          O Holy Spirit, Lord of grace / Eternal source of love,

          Inflame, we pray, our inmost hearts / With fire from heaven above.


          As thou dost join with holiest bonds / the Father and the Son,

          So fill thy saints with mutual love / and link [our] hearts in one


(O fons amoris, Spiritus, C. Coffin, 1676-1749;

translated by J. Chandler)


Homily for May 19th, 2016 : Mark 9:41-50.

AIf your hand causes you to sin,@ Jesus says, “cut it off. ... And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. ...  And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.@ How can Jesus say such things? He is not encouraging us to maim ourselves. He is using hyperbole: deliberate exaggeration for the sake of effect. We use hyperbole all the time. In my early childhood a dearly loved aunt used to say to me, when she thought I was over-eating: AJay, if you eat any more, you=ll burst.@ At age five I had never heard of hyperbole and couldn’t have told you what the word meant. But I knew I wouldn=t burst. I had no difficulty understanding that my aunt wanted me to ease up on the food intake.

What is Jesus= real point? He is telling us that if we are serious about being his followers, our commitment to him must be total. We must be willing to sacrifice even things as dear to us as hands, feet, and eyes. Taking Jesus= language literally would make God into some kind of sadistic monster. The God whom Jesus reveals is a God of love.

But this raises a further difficulty. How could a loving God condemn people to the eternal punishment indicated by Jesus= words about going Ainto Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire@? Gehenna was well known to all Jesus= hearers. It was a deep ravine outside Jerusalem, previously the site of idolatrous rites in which children were made to pass through fire. It thus became a symbol for hellfire. Hence the difficulty B

How can a loving God condemn anyone to eternal punishment B to hell? The answer to that question may surprise you. God does not condemn anyone to hell. If there is anyone in hell B and the Church does not tell us whether there is, while firmly insisting, with the Bible, that hell is a possibility and a reality B then it is because they have freely chosen hell for themselves. The Catechism is clear on this point: ATo die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God=s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called >hell.= ... God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end.@ (Nos. 1033 & 1037, emphasis supplied.) The judgment that God will pronounce on each one of us at the end of our lives is not the adding up of the pluses and minuses in some heavenly account book. It is simply God=s ratification of the judgment we ourselves have pronounced by the fundamental choice we have made throughout our lives. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016


Homily for May 18th, 2016: Mark 9:38-40.

          “There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me,” Jesus tells his disciples who have found someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name who was not among his followers. “For whoever is not against us is for us,” Jesus explains. We find a strikingly similar incident in the Old Testament book of Numbers.

            During the 40 years’ wandering of God’s people in the wilderness, Moses calls together 70 elders of the people, who gather round the tent where God was worshipped. God comes down in a dark cloud and speaks to Moses. “Taking some of the spirit that was on Moses,” the text says, “he bestowed it on the 70 elders; and as the spirit came to rest on them, they prophesied.” (Num. 11:24ff.) Two of the 70 elders, named Eldad and Medad, didn’t make it to the assembly; but the spirit came on them nonetheless, and they too prophesied. An unnamed young man reports this to Moses; and his lieutenant Joshua urges Moses to stop Eldad and Medad.  Moses refuses. “Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets,” Moses says.

          What is at issue in both incidents is what we call today tolerance. There is a great difference, however, in the tolerance affirmed by both Moses and Jesus, and the basis for tolerance today. Modern tolerance rests on the belief that there is no such thing as truth. There is only your truth and my truth. But truth itself doesn’t exist, modern society says. Such a position would have been unthinkable to Moses and Jesus.

          Biblical tolerance is based on the belief that there is good in all people of good will, even if some of their beliefs may be mistaken. The Catholic Church holds that there may be a kernel of truth even in positions which may be mistaken. Hence we respond to people whose beliefs differ from ours not simply by condemnation, but by affirming whatever is good and true in their positions. This is what enabled Pope Francis, questioned aboard the plane which brought him back to Rome from World Youth Day in Brazil about people, including priests, with an attraction to their own sex: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” In the media frenzy which followed the Pope’s two conditions – searching for the Lord, and having good will – were mostly ignored. Pope Francis has said more than once that he is “a son of the Church.” He has changed no Catholic teaching, and does not intend to. 


Monday, May 16, 2016


Homily for May 17th, 2016: Mark 9:30-37.

          “What were you arguing about on the way?” Jesus asks his friends after they had completed their day’s journey and reached the house where they would spend the night. “But they remained silent,” Mark tells us. On the way Jesus had told them he would be crucified and rise again on the third day. Even though Mark tells us that they did understand what Jesus told them, they clearly understood enough to be embarrassed when he asked them the subject of their conversation. For they had been discussing “who was the greatest.”
          Luke’s gospel tells us that they even argued over this at the Last Supper. (Lk 22:24) I’m sorry to tell you, friends, that this argument continues today. And we clergy are especially susceptible. Even canonized saints have engaged in the contest for position and honor. One of them was the 18th century French saint, Vincent de Paul. He decided to be a priest, even managing to get himself ordained several years before the minimum age, because he thought of priesthood as a career, rather than a service. Only years later did he come to realize his error, acknowledging it by writing: “If I had known what priesthood was all about, as I have come to know since, I would rather have tilled the soil than engage in such an awesome state of life.”  In an attempt to put a damper on this contest about greatness, Pope Francis has put at least a temporary stop on the granting to priests of the honorific title of “Monsignor.” Well, Holy Father: Good luck!

Jesus responds to the argument about greatness by calling a young child to his side. “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me,” he tells his disciples. “And whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For the one who is least among all of you is the one who is greatest.” We grasp the full meaning of Jesus’ action and words only when we know that he lived in a society which was anything but child-centered. In Jesus’ world children, like women, were supposed to be seen and not heard.   

When I entered seminary just over 68 years ago, we newcomers were given a book of “Principles,” as they were called, to guide our lives. One of them went like this: “Choose for yourself the lowest place, not because of modesty, but because it is most fit for you. There is always someone whose burden is heavier than yours. Find him out, and if you can, help him.”

I’ve never forgotten that. Nor should you. 


Sunday, May 15, 2016


Homily for May 16th, 2016: Mark 9:14-29.

The boy who is brought to Jesus by his father is possessed by “a mute spirit,” Mark tells us. He is evidently both deaf and dumb, unable to speak. The symptoms Mark describes are consistent with what today would be called epilepsy. Jesus lived in a pre-scientific age. Illness was normally attributed to demons. That is not entirely false. Illness and death were not part of God’s original plan of creation. They entered the world as a consequence of human sin. And it was human sin that opened the door for the Devil and his dark power.  

Jesus’ cry, “O faithless generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I endure you?” reminds us of Jesus’ sigh before the healing of a deaf man in chapter seven of Mark’s gospel. That sigh, and Jesus’ words here, are expressions of the Lord’s grief over the consequences of human sin – in both cases illness.

The father’s detailed description of his son’s condition shows that he is in anguish over the boy. “If you can do anything,” the father concludes, “have compassion on us and help us.” Quoting the father’s own words, “if you can,” Jesus assures him: “Everything is possible to a man who trusts.” Whereupon the man bursts out: “I do believe, help my unbelief!” His prayer for greater faith shows that he still has doubts.

As the story goes on, it becomes clear that even this imperfect faith is enough. It enables Jesus to cast out the demon and restore the boy to good health. Jesus’ words, “Mute and deaf spirit, I command you: come out of him and never enter him again!” show that the healing is permanent. 

What is the story’s lesson for us? It tells us that what opens the door to God’s action is faith. And it assures us that this faith need not be perfect. Finally, the story encourages us to pray with the desperate father of this boy: “Lord, I do believe, help my unbelief!”