Friday, October 14, 2016


Homily for October 15th, 2016: Luke 12:8-12.

          “Anyone who speaks against the Son of Man [a title for Jesus] will be forgiven, but whoever blasphemes the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven.” These words of Jesus are difficult. We find them, in different versions, in all three of the so-called synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. From the beginning the words have caused heart-searching and anguish, especially for people inclined to scrupulosity. What can we say about them?

          Here is what the Catholic Catechism says: “There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit. Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and final loss.” [1864] Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit does not properly consist, then, in offending against the Holy Spirit in words; it consists rather in the refusal to accept the salvation which God offers to us through the Holy Spirit, working through the power of the Cross.

          Pope John Paul II explained it thus: “If Jesus says that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit cannot be forgiven either in this life or in the next, it is because this ‘non-forgiveness’ is linked, as to its cause, to ‘non-repentance’, in other words to the radical refusal to be converted. . . Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, then, is the sin committed by the person who claims to have a ‘right’ to persist in evil -- in any sin at all -- and who thus rejects redemption. One closes oneself up in sin, thus making impossible one's conversion, and consequently the remission of sins, which one considers not essential or not important for one's life. This is a state of spiritual ruin, because blasphemy against the Holy Spirit does not allow one to escape from one's self-imposed imprisonment and open oneself to the divine sources of the purification of consciences and of the remission of sins.” [Dominum et vivificantem, 46.]

          And Pope Francis says again and again: “God never grows tired of forgiving us. It is we who go tired of asking for forgiveness.” Committing the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit means, therefore, refusing to ask for forgiveness, and perseverance in such refusal until the end.

Thursday, October 13, 2016


Homily for October 14th, 2016: Luke 12:1-7.

          Twice in this short gospel reading Jesus tells his friends: “Do not be afraid.” These reassuring words do not promise that the Lord’s disciples will be spared suffering. Jesus promises something quite different: that he will be with us in every suffering.

          Next Monday we shall celebrate a man whose life bears witness to fulfillment of this promise: Ignatius of Antioch, in modern day Syria. Thought to have been a convert, he was for forty years the third bishop of that local Church. Arrested in about 105 B.C. by the Roman authorities for the crime of worshiping the God of Jesus Christ, rather than the Emperor of Rome, he was sent there, in chains and under guard, on a ship, sentenced to be thrown to lions in the arena for the amusement of the spectators.

          News of his arrest spread quickly through Christian communities on the ship’s route. Clergy and numerous faithful came to welcome Ignatius at each port of call, seeking the blessing of a man on the way to martyrdom. Others journeyed by land to Rome for the same purpose. During the voyage Ignatius wrote letters, still preserved, to four local Churches encouraging them to remain steadfast in faith. More than once he expressed his concern that well intentioned fellow believers in high places in Rome might intervene to prevent the fate that awaited him. “I fear your charity,” Ignatius wrote. “I shall never have another such opportunity of attaining unto my Lord. … Allow me to be the food of wild beasts through whom I may attain unto God. I am God’s grain and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts that I may be found the pure bread if Christ.” Ignatius died in the arena at Rome in about 107 A.D.    

         Probably none of us will be a blood martyr to Jesus Christ. Every one of us, however, is called to be a martyr to him in the original sense of the word – which in Greek, martyros, means simply “witness.” We ask God in this Mass for guidance and strength to bear witness to him in daily life, as we pray:

“St. Ignatius, pray for us.”


Wednesday, October 12, 2016


29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C.   Luke 18:1-11.
AIM: To encourage persistence in prayer. 
In 1961 the author, Joseph Heller, enriched the language with the title of a best-selling novel, later made into a film: Catch 22. The phrase designates a hopeless situation. An example would be a worker applying for a job who is told he cannot be hired until he joins the union. When he seeks membership in the union, however, they tell him he cannot join until he has a job. Like the widow in today=s gospel, he is stymied. Both are in a catch-22 situation. The woman=s hopeless situation is compounded by the judge=s cynicism. AHe respected neither God nor man,@ Jesus tells us. The judge, in other words, could not be moved either by considerations of duty or by threats to his reputation.
We need not think of the widow in the story as old. Women married in their early teens in Jesus= day. This widow may well have been young. Her repeated appearance in court indicates that she was also vigorous. Young or old, however, widows in Jesus= day were among society=s weakest members. It was a man=s world. Women were the property of men: of their fathers until marriage, thereafter the property of their husbands.  In a subsistence economy without any social safety net, a woman whose husband had died was vulnerable and destitute.
The widow in Jesus= story is the victim of a corrupt system. An Aopponent@ is withholding her sole means of support C the remainder of her dowry, perhaps, or her inheritance. If she is unable to vindicate her rights, she will starve.
Faithful to the age-old maxim that the squeaky wheel gets the most grease, she comes to court every day and makes a scene. At her first appearance the court officials doubtless explained to her that she could not be heard until she paid the usual fees. Since these went straight into the pockets of those demanding them, we would call them bribes. When the widow told them she was too poor to pay, they ignored her. Yet still she came. Those hearing Jesus tell the story recognize an impasse. Given the character of the judge, and the woman=s poverty, they expect no resolution. Some problems, they realize, are insoluble. 
Now comes a surprise. After days, perhaps many weeks, the widow suddenly achieves the breakthrough she has almost ceased hoping for. Without realizing it, she has found a chink in the seemingly impregnable armor of indifference with which the corrupt judge has covered himself. Consistent to the end, not out of any sense of justice but simply for his own convenience and to silence this public scold in his courtroom, he gives in, hears the woman=s case, and quickly grants her what she has so long sought in vain. 
Jesus= description of the judge=s thought processes would have caused mirth in the hearers. AThis widow is wearing me out,@ he reflects, and resolves to settle in her favor Aor she will end by doing me violence.@ This is the language of the boxing ring. The picture of one of society=s weakest members pummeling with her fists a man of virtually unlimited power, with others at his beck and call, is laughable. To recapture the story=s effect on its first hearers we might imagine a television skit in which an actor portraying the President of the United States ignores the verbal assaults of a homeless bag lady C until the woman hits him over the head with her bag, which turns out to be a water bomb that leaves the Chief Executive dripping wet.
The story=s impact comes from its reversal of expectations at the end. A judge who neither fears God nor cares for what others think of him comes to fear a poor widow. A petitioner without power, both as a woman and because she has neither husband nor money, turns out to be anything but powerless. Her power lies in her persistence. 
Like all Jesus= parables, this one describes conditions in God=s kingdom: a state in which normal worldly expectations are reversed. Where God reigns, Jesus is saying, victims claim their rights, often in surprising ways. And in God=s kingdom victims obtain their rights. The weak and powerless are powerless no more. Wherever God reigns Mary=s words at the news that she was to the mother of God=s Son are fulfilled: the proud are confused in their inmost thoughts; the mighty are toppled from their thrones; the lowly are raised to high places; the hungry are fed, and the rich are sent empty away. (Cf. Luke 1:51ff)
For the story=s original hearers the use of a corrupt judge to illustrate God=s goodness was so shocking as to require an explanation. Jesus supplies this with his two rhetorical questions: AWill not God then do justice to his chosen who cry out to him day and night? Will he delay long over them, do you suppose?
At once Jesus answers these questions himself C and then puts a further question to the story=s hearers, ourselves included: AI tell you he will give them swift justice. But when the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on the earth?@
Most of Jesus= parables involve a similarity between the central figure and God. In this case the story turns on the dissimilarity between the corrupt judge and God. It is a Ahow much more@ story. If even so depraved a judge as this one grants the petitioner her request in the end, how much more will God grant the prayers of those who ask him for their needs. God, Jesus is saying, is not like the corrupt judge. It is not difficult to get his attention. God is always more ready to hear than we to pray. God is approachable.
What is the point of praying, however, if God knows our needs before we do, and better than we do? When we ask God for things in prayer, are we trying to change God=s mind? If that were the case, God would be like the corrupt judge.  And the point of the story, as we have seen, is that God is not like the corrupt judge. How does prayer work, then?
To that question there is no fully satisfying answer. Prayer, like everything to do with God, is a mystery: not in the sense that we can understand nothing about it, but that what we can understand is always less than the whole. One thing is certain. Prayer does not change God. Prayer changes us. It opens us up to the action of God in our lives, as the sun=s rays open the flowers to their life-giving warmth and the nourishing moisture of dew and rain.
Prayer also reminds us of our need for God. How easily we forget that need, especially when the sun shines on us and things go well. Then we start to think we can make it on our own: by our cleverness, by luck, by pulling strings, by hard work, even by being so good that God will have to reward us.
We need to be reminded again and again that we can never make it on our own. No matter how clever we are; no matter how much luck we have; no matter how many strings we pull; no matter how hard we work or how hard we try to be good. Even when we have all these things going for us (and which of us has?), we still need God. God is the missing ingredient in life: the one without whom life is meaningless, without whose help all our striving, conniving, planning, struggling, and praying still fall pitifully short of the goal. 
AWill not God do justice to his chosen who call out to him day and night?@ Jesus asks at the story=s conclusion. The answer is obvious. Of course he will!  First, however, God wants us to Acry out to him day and night.@ He wants us to pray and to keep on praying, even when it appears useless C because God seems to answer only with silence. Perseverance in prayer strengthens our desire and deepens our faith, very much as sustained physical exercise strengthens the muscles, heart, and lungs. St. Augustine expresses this well: AGod wants our desire to be exercised in prayer, thus enabling us to grasp what he is preparing to give. ... We are small and limited vessels for the receiving of it. ... We shall have the greater capacity to receive [God=s gifts], the more trustfully we believe, the more firmly we hope, the more ardently we desire.@[1]

St. Gregory the Great, Bishop of Rome from 590 to 604, says the same in a slightly different form: AHoly desires grow with delay: if they fade through delay they are no desires at all.@[2]

God always answers prayer, though not always at the time, and in the manner, that we want. Halfway through my 89th year I am grateful to have lived long enough to be able to thank God for answering some of my prayers: ANot now@, and others ANever.@ Nor will God keep us waiting until we bid high enough for the things we need. All that is certain. One thing alone is uncertain. Do we truly believe in a God who hears and answers our prayers? Do really trust him? Or is our real trust elsewhere? In our own cleverness, in our good luck, in the strings we can pull, in our hard work, in the bribes we try to offer God in the form of prayers and sacrifices and good works? 

None of those things is certain, Jesus tells us.  There is certainty only in God. He alone can satisfy our deepest desires. Hence Jesus= final, insistent question: AWhen the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on the earth?

[1] Letter to Proba, 130; Office of Readings for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time.
[2]  Homily 25 on the Gospels; Office of Readings for St. Mary Magdalene.


Homily for October 13th, 2016: Luke 11:47-54.

          In today’s gospel reading we witness the mounting hostility to Jesus of the religious leaders of his people: the Pharisees, who prided themselves on their careful observance of God’s law; and the scribes, the experts in interpreting the law – which for Jesus’ people was, of course, the Ten Commandments. 

          “Woe to you,” Jesus says, “who build the memorials of the prophets whom your fathers killed.” We build memorials to people whom we honor. During their lifetimes, however, Israel’s prophets were not honored. Many were resented or ignored, for reminding people of  God’s demands on them. Others, like Jeremiah, were actively persecuted. Only when the prophets were dead and gone was it safe to start honoring them.

We see something similar in a modern prophet: Dr. Martin Luther King. Widely resented during his lifetime, and the target of hatred so strong that it led to his assassination, today he is honored by a stone monument in Washington, and celebrated on a national holiday. Jesus’ words about how his people treated God’s spokesmen, the prophets – rejecting them in their lifetimes, and erecting memorials to them after they were safely dead -- point to the reason for Jesus’ own death.

At the end of today’s gospel reading the opposition to Jesus becomes open and active. “The scribes and Pharisees began to act with hostility toward him,” Luke writes, “and to interrogate him about many things, for they were plotting to catch him at something he might say.”

This hostility continues today – in the form of gossip. Earlier this month Pope Francis, celebrating Mass for those who guard the Vatican, told them: “You watchmen guard the doors, the windows, so that a bomb does not enter.” However, “there are bombs inside, there are very dangerous bombs inside.” He was speaking, the Pope explained, about gossip, the weeds sown amid the wheat, which destroys and kills. “May the life of us all,” the Pope concluded, “the last page of the life of us all be: he was a good person, he sowed the good seed. And not – it would be very sad – that the last page be: he was wicked, he sowed the bomb of discord.”

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

"I AM SINNER." Pope Francis

Homily for Oct. 12th, 2016: Luke 11: 42-46

“Woe to you Pharisees!” Jesus says in today’s gospel. Who are these people about whom we hear so much in the gospels, most of it negative? Their name means “the separated ones.” They looked down on their fellow Jews who paid little attention to all the details of the Jewish law.  

          There is an example of this superior attitude in John’s gospel. The Pharisees and chief priests ask the Temple guards in Jerusalem why they have not arrested Jesus. “No one ever spoke like that before,” the guards reply. “Do not tell us you have been taken in!” the Pharisees respond. “You don’t see any of the Sanhedrin believing in him, do you? Or the Pharisees?” Then comes the condescending sentence:” Only this lot, that knows nothing about the law – and they are lost anyway!” (John 7:45-49).

Jesus never condemns the Pharisees’ meticulous efforts to keep God’s’ law. What he criticizes is their legalistic spirit. “You [Pharisees] pay tithes of mint and of rue and of every garden herb, but you pay no attention to judgment and to love for God. These you should have done,” Jesus says, affirming the payment of tithes on even the tiniest things, “without overlooking the others”: judgment and the love of God.

Pope Francis spoke similarly in the lengthy interview he gave shortly after his election, and published all over the world in late September, 2013. “The Church sometimes has locked itself up in small things,” he said. And he gave this example: We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. … The teaching of the Church is clear and I am a son of the Church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” People immediately assumed that the Pope was changing Church teaching. Yet within days he told a group of gynecologists: “Every unborn child, condemned unjustly to being aborted, has the face of Jesus Christ, the face of the Lord.” You can’t get more specific than that.

What is the bottom line? The laws of God and the Church are important. Observing them is the key to happiness. Even more important, however, are help and mercy for those who fail in this – and that is all of us. Asked at the beginning of the interview, “Who is Jorge Bergolio” (the Pope’s original name), he responded: “I am a sinner. This is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.” In saying those words, the Pope spoke for all of us, without exception.

Monday, October 10, 2016


Homily for October 11th, 2016: Luke 11:37-41.

          Jesus is the guest of a Pharisee, a man who is careful to observe all the provisions of the Jewish law. Offered an opportunity to wash his hands before dinner, Jesus offends his host by brushing aside this Jewish custom. An act of rudeness? So it would seem. As the story unfolds we discover, however, the Jesus had a reason for what looks like an act of discourtesy. He wanted to show his host that mere external cleansing is useless if it is not accompanied by internal cleansing as well.

          “Oh, you Pharisees!” He says. “Although you clean the outside of the cup and the dish, inside you are filled with plunder and evil.” What might this mean for us today? A possible modern parallel would be Catholics who are always careful to dress up for Sunday Mass: a suit and necktie for men; for women a nice dress; inside, however, unconfessed and hence unforgiven sins: cruelty, resentment, and hate; dishonesty, impurity, and pride. The Lord in his mercy has given us a remedy for such sins: the sacrament of penance or confession. Correctness in dress and outward behavior is important. Coming to the Lord’s Table as we would to a picnic or baseball game shows scant respect for our host. Yet inner and spiritual cleansing is even more important.

          Now Jesus surprises us (as he does often). Rather than pointing to confession of sins, he speaks of something else: almsgiving. “But as to what is within, give alms, and behold everything will be clean for you.” Luke wrote his gospel for a partly Gentile community. Almsgiving hardly figured in the ancient pagan world of Jesus’ day. For Jews, however, it was important. The Jewish farmer and shepherd gave the firstfruits of field and flock to the Lord. He did so to express gratitude to the Lord who gives us all we are and have, sin excepted. Only when we are truly thankful to the Lord for all the blessings he showers upon us, so many more than we deserve on any strict accounting, are we truly in a right relationship with him. And we show our gratitude by sharing the Lord’s blessings with our brothers and sisters. Only then, Jesus tells us, will everything be clean for us.

Sunday, October 9, 2016


Homily for October 10th, 2016: Luke 11: 29-32

         “This generation seeks a sign,” Jesus says. He is referring to the repeated demand of his contemporaries for a miracle so dramatic that it will force them to believe. We heard this demand in he gospel reading las Friday, as we noted then, belief cannot be forced, any more than love can be forced. Jesus’ miracles confirm the faith of those who already believe. They do not force belief on those whose hearts and minds are closed to him and his message.

          Jesus then mentions two such confirming signs: Jonah, and the so-called queen of the south, Sheba. Jonah’s sign was not his survival in the belly of the great fish. We saw when we were reading Jonah last week that this was one of the parts of Jonah’s story which showed that it was fiction – though, like much great fiction, notably Jesus’ parables and Shakespeare’s plays, the vehicle for important truth about God, humanity, and life. The sign of Jonah which Jesus refers to is the immediate repentance of the people of Nineveh – Gentiles without the gift of God’s law – in response to Jonah’s preaching. Jesus contrasts the response of the Ninevites with the failure of so many of his own people to respond to his message.

          The sign of Queen Sheba is different, though in one respect the same. Like Jonah, she came from afar, motivated however not by a divine command, but by the report that King Solomon possessed wisdom greater than that of all other rulers or sages. “There is something greater than Solomon here,” Jesus says. He is referring to himself. He not merely possesses wisdom: Jesus is wisdom personified. Similarly the statement that “there is something greater than Jonah here” means that Jesus’ message is more compelling than Jonah’s -- yet the people still do not respond. Jesus sums up by saying that the Ninevites and Queen Sheba showed a readiness to respond which his own people do not.

Are we responding? “I have come,” Jesus says in John’s gospel, “that they may have life, and have it to the full” (10:10). Are we embracing Jesus’ offer of life to the full? Or do we think of our faith as observing enough of the Church’s complicated rules and regulations to be able, on Judgment Day, to squeeze our way into heaven?
          Think about it – more important, pray about it!