Friday, December 9, 2016


Homily for December 10th, 2016: Matthew 17: 9a, 10-13.
          When the President comes to town, he rides in a bullet proof limousine (a sign of the violent and dangerous age in which we live). Preceding him are numerous policemen on motorcycles, and others in police cars. This almost military procession is more than is actually needed to protect the Chief Executive. It is done to prepare people for the one who is coming.
          Jesus’ people, the Jews, also expected that when the Lord’s anointed, the Messiah, came he too would be preceded by an entourage, including a prophet who would prepare the way for the Lord’s servant. The Old Testament speaks of this in a number of places, especially in the book of the prophet Malachi, who writes: “Lo, I will send you Elijah, the prophet, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and terrible day, to turn the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with doom” (3:23f).
          In the gospel reading we have just heard Matthew tells us that Jesus’ disciples recalled this tradition about Elijah coming. Where is he, they want to know? He has already come, Jesus replies. But people did not recognize him. In fact, they killed him. Then Matthew writes, “the disciples understood the [Jesus] was speaking to them of John the Baptist.”
          Mark’s gospel tells us that John’s message was twofold. He preached repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And he proclaimed One who was coming after him. He would be greater than John, baptizing not with water but with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:1-8). That is exactly what the gospels record. Though Jesus accepted baptism himself, there is no record of his ever baptizing anyone else. Instead, immediately after his resurrection, Jesus “breathed on [the disciples] and said: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive men’s sins they are forgiven them; if you hold them bound, they are held bound’” (John 20:22f. )
          Was that just in ancient times? Not at all. That is still happening today. Jesus is still breathing on us and giving us the Holy Spirit. And in the sacrament of penance or confession he is still forgiving our sins through the men, themselves sinners, whom he has empowered to do this in his name. I made my own confession just a week ago, knowing that it is the best possible preparation for Christmas. If you have not yet done that, I hope you will. Then you will be ready for the coming of your Savior and Lord, who is also your elder brother, your lover, and your best friend.

Thursday, December 8, 2016


Homily for December 9th, 2016: Mathew 11:16-19.

          Jesus speaks often of children in the gospels, usually in a positive sense In today’s gospel Jesus speaks about a negative aspect of childhood. Grieved that so few of his own people have responded either to his cousin, John the Baptist, or to himself, Jesus compares them to children who reject every approach of those who reach out to them in loving concern. ‘You complained that John was too strict and ascetic,” Jesus says in effect. ‘Me you find too laid back and merciful. What do you want?’ Jesus asks them.

          Children can be like that. I experienced it myself, in my own childhood. I might have been nine years old, or even younger, with a sister seven, and a brother five. I remember my father saying to another grownup, in a tone of resigned frustration: “My children are contra-suggestive.” I no longer know what occasioned this remark, but I can easily imagine it. Whatever my father suggested, by way of a leisure activity – whether it was a walk, a drive in the country, or a visit to a museum – we said: “Oh, no -- we don’t want to do that.”

          Most of us carry over this childhood stubbornness into adult life. We’d like to determine our own agenda, thank you. But of course we can’t. God set the agenda for us before we were even born. “My yoke is easy”, Jesus says, “and my burden light” (Mt. 11:30). Jesus’ yoke is easy, however, only if we accept it. Otherwise it chafes. How better could we respond to Jesus’ words in today’s gospel than to pray: “Not what I want, Lord, but what you want.”


Wednesday, December 7, 2016


Dec. 11th, 2016: Third Sunday in Advent, Year A.
Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10; James 5:7-10; Mt. 11:2-11.
AIM: To nurture the faith which enables us to wait in patience.
 A few years ago I had a phone call from a young man on the east coast. Now 31, he graduated in 2009 first in his class in one of the best Catholic high schools in St. Louis. Four years later he graduated with honors from one of the top colleges in the country. Endowed by God not only with high intelligence but with a golden singing voice, he is now at a leading music conservatory preparing for a career in music. Like all artistic fields, the one he is trying to enter is over crowded, but can also bring rich rewards. He called me in great distress, on the verge of tears at the threatened breakup of his relationship with the girl he has long wanted to marry. I=ll call them Peter and Mary.
They met during their freshman year at college. Both devout Catholics, and both highly intelligent, they hit it off at once. Close companions during their four college years, they remained close after graduation. Gradually, however, their paths diverged. After college Mary landed a lucrative position with a major Wall Street financial firm. She is now completing her M.B.A. at a leading business school. Immersion in the world of big money has undermined her faith. Right now she=s one of our CEO Catholics: Christmas-and-Easter only. Peter is at Mass every Sunday, and on weekdays when he can get there.
When Peter raised the subject of marriage recently, Mary told him that it wouldn=t work. AYou want a girl who=ll go to Mass with you every Sunday, Peter.  I=m not that person.@ You can imagine how that hurt. My friend Peter had such hopes, such dreams. Now they seem to have collapsed, leaving him devastated.
          The gospel reading we have just heard describes a similar collapse of hopes.  AAre you the one who is to come,@ John asks from his prison cell. AOr should we look for another?@ Like my young friend Peter, John the Baptist also had great expectations. He had staked his life on the message that the hopes of his people for centuries, about the coming of an anointed servant of the Lord, the Messiah, were about to be fulfilled. The promised Messiah, he thought, would come in power and glory. He would overthrow the hated Roman military government of occupation and set his oppressed people free. The person who came to him to be baptized in the Jordan River turned out, however, to be very different from what John had expected. 
John=s message was stern. We heard him in last Sunday=s gospel calling his hearers a Abrood of vipers,@ and asking sarcastically: AWho warned you to flee from the coming wrath?@ (Mt. 3:7) Jesus= message was different. He too could be stern. Mostly, however, Jesus was much gentler. The difference between John and Jesus can be seen in people=s reactions to them. John they found too ascetic, Jesus too easy-going (cf. Mt. 11:18f). 
John=s question, AAre you the one who is to come?@ reveals a crisis of faith. Was Jesus really the one John had believed and proclaimed him to be? Like everyone who tries to live by faith, John had to discover that faith is not a once-for-all affair. It=s not like learning to ride a bicycle, or memorizing the multiplication table. Faith must be constantly renewed. 
Is that surprising? Don=t we see the same in every relationship based on faith? Marriage is such a relationship. So is priesthood and the life of the vowed religious Sister or Brother. In all these cases promises are made solemnly and for life. But they need to be daily renewed and reaffirmed. For me that means getting out of bed when my clock radio goes off at 5.15 in the morning. Only if I get up then can I be in church before six, so that I can spend a half-hour waiting in silence on the Lord before I celebrate Mass at 6.30. Without that time with Him I=d just be spinning my wheels. 
We are gathered here around the Lord=s twin tables of word and sacrament to receive from the One who alone can give it to us the strength each of us needs to renew our commitment to Jesus Christ, and to the life of trusting faith to which he has called us. 
From his own crisis of faith, the result of the seeming collapse of his hopes and expectations, John learned that faith must be constantly renewed. From Jesus= answer to John=s question the Baptist learned something more: that faith is always free. It cannot be compelled, any more than love can be compelled. To his question, AAre you the one who is to come?@ John expected a Yes or No answer. Jesus did not give it to him. Instead he gave John the evidence he needed to work out his own answer: Jesus= miracles of healing. Tell John, he said, about the blind regaining their sight, the lame walking, lepers being cleansed, the deaf hearing, the dead being raised.
John’s gospel calls Jesus= miracles Asigns.@ They point to faith. But they cannot compel it. In telling John to consider the miracles, Jesus was asking his cousin what he asks of us: a free decision based on the evidence of Jesus= words and deeds, but going beyond what this evidence proves in the strict sense. Isn=t that what we want of those we love? their free decision to give us their love and trust, without our having to prove in advance that we deserve to be loved and trusted?
The decision for faith is always free. And the decision must be constantly renewed. That requires something we Americans have never been very good at: patience. Our second reading is about patience. It is from the letter of James. That letter was written for people who had been told to expect the imminent return of the Lord in glory. He hadn=t come. James reassures them: AThe coming of the Lord is at hand.@ But they must await his coming with patience. Like the farmer waiting for his crop to ripen, like parents waiting for their children to walk and talk, there are things in life which cannot be hurried. We must simply await them in patience.
That is what I told my young friend Peter. AIf you decide that the difference between you and Mary about faith means the end of your relationship, breaking it off will be terribly painful. But dragging things out, continuing to entertain impossible hopes, will only prolong the pain. Be assured, however, that God never closes a door in our lives without opening another. He has shown me that again and again in my life. He will do the same for you, Peter. The Lord has someone out there with whom he wants you to share your life, to be your wife and the mother of your children. When the time is right B God=s time, not yours B you will recognize her. Meanwhile you must exercise patience.@

As people of faith we are called to live in this world aware that we are also citizens of another world: the unseen, spiritual but utterly real world of God, the angels, the saints, and of our beloved dead. Being obedient to that call is difficult. It requires patience. We gather here at these twin tables of word and sacrament so that the Lord can renew our patience when it has worn thin and threatens to give out.
It was God who first enabled us to make our decision for faith. Here in the Eucharist he enables us to renew that decision. Here he gives us the patience to endure life=s disappointments and trials Aas seeing him who is invisible@ (Heb. 11:27). Once we grasp the greatness of God=s gifts to us, we realize that we are the people who are experiencing already the great promises of our first reading. We Asee the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God.@ Here God himself Astrengthens the hands that are feeble, makes firm the knees that are weak.@ When our hearts are frightened, he says to us, as we heard Isaiah saying to the people of his day in that first reading: ABe strong, fear not! Here is your God ... he comes to save you.@ We are Athose whom the Lord has ransomed@ by the poured out blood of his Son. We are Acrowned with everlasting joy ... [we] meet with joy and gladness, [as] sorrow and mourning flee away.@       


Immaculate Conception of the BVM.  Genesis 3:9-15, 20; Ephesians, 1:3-6, 11-12;
          Luke 1:26-38.
          Have you ever felt so ashamed of yourself that you wanted to run away and hide? Today’s first reading is about a man who felt that way. After disobeying God’s command, Adam hides, hoping to avoid a confrontation with the loving Creator and Father against whom he has rebelled. 
          When God pursues him and asks, “Where are you?” the man replies: “I was afraid ... so I hid myself.” He thought he would find happiness by ‘doing his own thing.’ Instead he finds only disappointment, frustration, and shame. Is there anyone here who has never had a similar experience? This simple story is no primitive folk tale. It is the story of Everyman – true to our common experience of life. If the story has a moral, it is this. We find happiness, joy, and peace only when we stop trying to run away and hide from God, and begin entrusting ourselves to him in faith. 
          The Church gives us, in Holy Scripture, a beautiful human model of this trusting faith: Mary, the mother of the Lord. The Catechism says: “By her complete adherence to the Father’s will, to his Son’s redemptive work, and to every prompting of the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary is the Church’s model of faith and charity.” (No. 967)
          Mary did not insist on what she wanted, on doing her own thing. She was content to do God’s thing, even though all she could understand about it at the time was that it meant the humiliation of being an unmarried mother in a tiny village where gossip was rife and everyone knew everyone else’s business. 
          On today’s feast of the Immaculate Conception, we praise God for preparing Mary from the moment of her conception in her mother’s womb (which took place through normal human procreation) from that fundamental defect of human nature which the theologians call “original sin.” This defect means that we come into the world imperfect, not as God originally intended us to be. From this defect we are healed by baptism, when God reaches out and claims us for his own. In baptism we are reborn spiritually, becoming God’s children by adoption; and by his free gift, we are graced with the perfect human nature of our savior and redeemer, Jesus Christ. 
          The Immaculate Conception means that Mary had no need for baptism. As the Catechism says, quoting the words of our second reading: “The Father blessed Mary more than any other created person ‘in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places’ and chose her ‘in Christ before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless before him in love.’” (No. 492)  
          Today we praise God for bestowing this unique privilege on Mary in order to prepare her beforehand to be the mother of his Son. That gift did not take away Mary’s freedom, however. For her, as for each of us, her acceptance by God – her salvation – was a free gift that required her cooperation with God, the giver of this gift. 
          As we honor Mary for her words of free assent, “May it be done to me according to your word,” we invoke her prayers that we may make our assent to God; that we too may say our “Yes” to God, as she did.  

Tuesday, December 6, 2016


Homily for December 7th, 2016: Matthew 11:28-30.

          I spoke to you twelve days ago about Jesus’ words, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Jesus’ words in today’s  gospel reading were among the examples I quoted. “Take my yoke upon you,” Jesus says. In Jesus’ day yokes were in daily use. Carved out of wood to fit over the shoulders, they had arms extending out beyond the shoulders, with a ring on each end supporting a rope from which the person using the yoke could hang a bucket or other container. This made it possible to transport with relative ease loads which could not be carried by hand.

          It was crucial that yoke fit the shoulders of the person using it. Otherwise the yoke would chafe and the person attempting to use it would soon throw it off. “My yoke is easy,” Jesus says, “and my burden light.” There is an unspoken IF there. The yoke and burden Jesus offers us are easy and light only if we accept them. If we chafe against the yoke and try to throw it off, then it is not easy; and the burden which it supports is heavy and definitely not light.

          To help us accept the yoke Jesus says: “Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.” Meekness and humility do not come to us easily or without prolonged effort and many failures. We must be lifelong learners. Our teacher is the best there is. He understands our difficulties. He is not interested in how often we stumble and fall. He is interested in one thing only: how often, with his help, we get up again, and continue the journey.

          Our teacher’s name is Jesus Christ. 

Monday, December 5, 2016

'WILL HE NOT LEAVE THE 99 . . . ?"

Homily for December 6th, 2013: Matthew 18:12-14.

          Jesus introduces this little story about the stray sheep with a question: “What is your opinion? If a man has a hundred sheep and on of them goes astray, will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills and to in search of the stray?” The way the question is framed, with the word “not”, suggests an affirmative answer – ‘Why sure, of course that’s what the man would do.’

Suppose, however, that Jesus had framed his question differently, leaving out the “not”. Then he would have asked: “If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray, will he leave the ninety-nine in the hills and go in search of the stray? The obvious answer to that question is: “No way would he do that. That would risk turning a small misfortune – the lost of a single sheep – into a major disaster: dispersal of the whole flock.

          Jesus tells the story to illustrate how God treats us. Unlike the shepherd, God’s love for us is not measured, calculating, or (by our human standards) prudent. God is willing to go to any lengths to prevent the loss of a single one of his children.

          In the second part of the story Jesus tells us that when the shepherd has recovered the one stray sheep, “he rejoices more over it than over the ninety-nine that did not stray.” That certainly seems unreasonable – until we ask: Who are these ninety-nine who have never strayed? We all stray at times – even the saints. None of the saints was perfect – except for the Lord’s Mother, Mary. The saints are people whose efforts at perfection were heroic.

          Jesus told this story to assure us that God’s love or us is without limits, and without end. That is the gospel. That is the good news.


Sunday, December 4, 2016


          “Child, your sins are forgiven,” Jesus says to the paralyzed man in today’s gospel. Jesus is not saying that every illness is the result of sin. His words suggest, however, that Jesus saw in this particular man a spiritual burden that needed to be loosed before the man could be healed physically. 
          “We have never seen anything like this,” the onlookers exclaim in astonishment as they see the formerly paralyzed man pick up his mat and walk. For Luke, the gospel writer, the true miracle, however, is not the man’s physical cure, but the spiritual healing of forgiveness. 
          Perhaps you’re thinking: “What is so miraculous about forgiveness? Don’t we forgive others every day?” Thank God, we do. Between our forgiveness and God’s, however, there is this great difference. When we forgive, there is always a memory of
the injury done, a “skeleton in the closet.” The wrong needs only to be repeated, or one like it, for the memory to be revived. God doesn’t have any closets. And even if he did, there wouldn’t be any skeletons there. God’s forgiveness is total. Jesus brings us this total forgiveness. In the sacrament of penance, Jesus uses his priests to bring us this gift.
          Some of the things we priests hear in confession help us to repent. Across the distance of almost sixty years I can still hear a child’s voice saying: “I stamp my foot at my mother and say No.” And I thought: that little one has greater sorrow for that small sin than I do for my sins, which are far worse. Telling you that is no violation of the seal of confession. I haven’t identified that child. I believe the Lord sent that little one into my confessional, to teach me a lesson. I’ve never forgotten it.
            “What will the priest think?” people sometimes ask. Let me tell you what one priest thought, a young man newly ordained and in his first parish assignment. In a letter to a friend, still in seminary, the new priest wrote: “I go into the confessional now, Jack; and I experience God in a completely new way.”