Friday, March 3, 2017


Homily for March 4th, 2017: 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 himself. ‘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.

Is all that long ago and far away? Not at all. There is a similar controversy going on in the Church right now. It has to do with marriage. According to age-old Catholic teaching, marriage is the lifelong union of one man and one woman terminable only by the death of one spouse. The Church has the prophetic duty to proclaim this unchanging truth.

                    The Church has, however, a pastoral duty as well: to reach out in love and concern to people whose marriages fail; in particular to those who, after civil divorce, wish to marry again while continuing to practice their Catholic faith. Many are able to do so after receiving from a Church court, called a tribunal, a ruling, called an annulment, that there was some defect in the previous marriage which prevented it from becoming full marriage in the Catholic sense. But what about the large number of divorced Catholics in good faith who are unable to obtain an annulment – either because the evidence they present is insufficient; or because they live in a country where Church tribunals do not even exist? Can we find some way, without compromising our teaching about the indissolubility of marriage, to readmit them to the sacraments? Or must they live the rest of their lives in an extra-sacramental wasteland? Pope Francis himself has put this question on the Church’s agenda. Two synods have discussed the question in Rome. In April 2016 Pope Francis issued an encyclical on the subject, called Laetitis amoris, or The joy of love.

          Already we are hearing cries alarm about an alleged “threat to the faith.” That is nonsense. Pope Francis is challenging us to find a of way, without undermining Church teaching, to extend the love and compassion we see in Jesus to people excluded up to now, by a rigid application of Church law. Today’s gospel shows that Jesus loves such people. How can we do the same?

Thursday, March 2, 2017


Homily for March 3rd, 2017: 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 reading 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. 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 crucial. 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, March 1, 2017


March 5th, 2017: First Sunday in Lent, Year A.
Gen. 2:7-9. 3:1-7; Rom. 5:12-19; Mt. 4:1-11.

AIM: To explain sin’s roots and consequences, and the meaning of redemption in personal life. 

          “Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the animals that the Lord God had made.” Not only cunning, we discover in what follows, but able to talk as well! It is not difficult to imagine someone hearing this reading for the first time saying: “What kind of nonsense is this, anyway? Here we are at the beginning of the third millennium, and we’re supposed to take this seriously? Give me a break!”

          What about it? How should we take this reading? Literally? Of course not. But seriously? Yes indeed. It is only the story’s incidentals, such as the talking snake, and “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” which are childlike.  Underneath these fanciful details the story is not only shrewd but also very true: it corresponds, as we shall see, to what we daily experience.

          It is a story about testing. The man and woman in the first reading fail the test. The gospel shows us Jesus being put to his test. He passes the test. The details of his testing, like the details of the story in our first reading, seem fanciful to us, even bizarre. If we had more time, I could show you that they too are very up-to-date, very like what we experience. For that I must ask you to wait until the first Sunday in Lent another year. Enough today to concentrate on Adam and Eve.

          “But they’re not called Adam and Eve,” I can hear someone saying. That’s true. Our translation avoids those names for good reason. In the original language, Hebrew, Adam and Eve are the ordinary words for “man” and “woman.” This is not the story of two individuals. It is the story of Everyman and Everywoman — ourselves included.

          Note, first, how their testing begins: with a lie: “Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?” the serpent asks suggestively. In reality, God had said nothing of the kind. The tempter’s lying question is typical of the one whom Jesus calls “a liar and the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44).

          The serpent continues his lying insinuations even after the woman corrects him, by saying there was only one tree of which God had said: “You shall not eat it or even touch it, lest you die.” 

          “You certainly will not die,” the tempter responds. We’ve all heard the condescending, sarcastic tone in which those words were spoken: “Die? Aw, whadaya talkin’ about?  Don’t be ridiculous. You won’t die. He just says that.” 

          The woman listens just long enough to be impressed. That is her first mistake. She doesn’t realize it, but she’s dealing with a confidence artist. When you encounter someone like that, break off the encounter at once. Staying to discuss the matter can only get you into trouble.

          Having made one mistake, the woman now makes a second: she looks at the forbidden tree and its fruit. “The woman saw that the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom.” Our wills are stronger than our imaginations — if (but only if) we use our wills to control our imaginations. Permit your imagination to wander uncontrolled, and your imagination will take charge, rendering your will powerless. That is what happens to the woman in this story: “So she took some of the fruit and ate it.” 

          Realizing that she has done wrong, that she has disobeyed the Lord God who has given her and the man the beautiful garden where they live, her first concern is to get someone to share her guilt with her: “And she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” At this point it is worth pausing to wonder whether, if the Bible had been written by women instead of men, the story might not have been a little different. Possibly we would find the roles reversed.

          Be that as it may, what they have done (harmless as it may seem to us) has consequences: “Then the eyes of them both were opened, and they realized that they were naked.” Now we understand the tree’s name: “The tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” You can’t find such a tree in any botany book. The tree, and its name, are symbolic. Now that the man and woman have tasted the tree’s forbidden fruit, they know good and evil in a way they had not known them before. They have tasted evil.

          The story’s sad conclusion, which was not included in our reading, is closest of all to our experience. Confronted by God, they are ashamed and helpless. They can construct only the most pitiful of defenses. All they can do is pass the buck. Each of them blames it on the other. They both blame the serpent. 

          How true to life that is! Those of us old enough to recall World War II remember something similar at its close. The day after Adolf Hitler’s squalid suicide in his Berlin bunker, there wasn’t a single Nazi to be found in all of Germany.  Coming closer to home and nearer in time, I could cite the collapse of the Enron corporation in October 2001. Nobody, it seems was responsible. The company’s president sent out his wife to tell a nationwide TV audience that her husband (known until then as one of the country’s great hot-shot executives) had been kept in the dark by his associates. Other officers of the company said they had  warned of danger ahead — but no one would listen.

          But why look at other peoples’ sins? Which one of us has never tried to avoid responsibility by blaming others?

          This is no simple legend of a credulous and primitive people. It shows deep psychological insight into our human condition. We can distinguish right from wrong. All that is best in us draws us to choose good and refuse evil. Yet time and again we do the opposite.  The story, in short, is the biblical writer’s attempt to explain what we daily experience. 

          In our second reading, however, Paul tells us that the story has another chapter. “Just as through the disobedience of the one man, the many were made sinners, so, through the obedience of the one, the many will be made righteous.”  The one obedient man is Jesus Christ. The man and woman in the first reading are put to the test, and fail. Put to his test in the gospel, Jesus rejects evil, and emerges triumphant.

          At birth we inherit the fallen human nature of which we read in Genesis. At baptism, which is our birth into the great family of God which we call the Catholic Church, we receive a share in the unfallen nature of the perfect man, Christ Jesus. Is it any wonder that we so often experience conflict within? Fallen human nature drags us down. The Christ-life within us, received at baptism, pulls us up. Is there anyone here who does not long to see the Christ-life victorious over the dark forces within which threaten to drag us down from what we know to be the highest and best?  

          Jesus Christ knows, from his own experience, how bitter that inner conflict can become. He knows that without a power greater than our own we cannot pass the test. That is why he offers us here his Body and Blood: not a good conduct reward for services rendered, but medicine for sick sinners: strengthening, nourishing food for those who come, dusty, weary, and wounded from life’s pilgrimage; seeking strength to journey on another day, another week; pitching our tent each night a day’s march nearer home.            


Homily for March 2nd, 2017: Deut 30:15-29; 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 even  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 were and 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.  



Homily for Ash Wednesday 2017.

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 if he did there would certainly not be any skeletons in them. 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, God forgives: totally and completely.  

Monday, February 27, 2017


Homily for February 28th, 2017: Mark 10:28-31.

          “We have given up everything and followed you,” Peter tells Jesus at the beginning of our brief gospel reading. Peter’s words immediately follow Jesus’ command to the rich young man in yesterday’s gospel reading: “Go sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven.” 

          In reminding Jesus about what he and the other disciples had sacrificed in order to follow Jesus, Peter was implying the question: ‘What reward will we have?’ Jesus responds by saying, in effect: ‘You will receive, already in this world, a hundred times as much as whatever you have given up for me; and in the world to come eternal life.’ Jesus qualifies this promise with the words, “with persecution.” The persecution which those two words foretold would start not long after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension to heaven. It would continue, with varying intensity, for three centuries more.

          Today it has returned: in the Middle East and parts of Africa, where the age of martyrdom has returned with an intensity, cruelty, and brutality not seen since antiquity. The persecution we are witnessing in this and other western countries has not reached that intensity – yet. But it is there nonetheless. The late Cardinal George of Chicago was referring to this persecution in his oft-quoted statement to a priests’ gathering a few years ago: “I expect to die in my bed. My successor will die in prison. His successor will die a martyr in the public square.” Too often omitted, when those words are quoted, is the cardinal’s concluding prophecy: “His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization as the Church has done so often in human history."

          We pray therefore in this Mass, as Jesus has taught us to do: “Deliver us from evil.”

Sunday, February 26, 2017


Homily for February 27th, 2017: Mark 10:17-27.

          “What must I do to gain eternal life?” the young man asks Jesus. Keep God’s commandments, Jesus responds. I’ve kept them all, the young man responds. Has he -- really? That is more than doubtful. That would make the young man sinless. And according to traditional Catholic belief, the only completely sinless human being in all history is the Lord’s immaculate mother, Mary. Even the greatest saints have sins and fall short of God’s standards in some way. Indeed the saints are the first to acknowledge their sinfulness.

          So the young man in today’s gospel is actually mistaken about his spiritual condition. But his goodwill is clear. He sincerely wants to do what is right and what the Lord wants for him. With his unique ability to read the human heart, Jesus sees in this young man an attachment to possessions which is holding him back from offering himself completely to God. That is why Jesus tells the man to sell all that he has, and give to the poor. Relinquishing earthly treasure will secure him treasure in heaven, Jesus says. And it will free the young man to follow Jesus without hesitation or reserve. The young man's reaction shows that there are still limits to his desire to serve God completely. He "went away sad, for he had many possessions."       

          The Lord gives this call to some in every generation. Others he calls not to total renunciation, but to something equally important, and no less difficult: detachment. That means enjoying the good things the Lord gives us, thanking him for them; but not clinging to them tightly or fearing their loss.

          Show me someone who has discovered the secret of deep and true happiness, and I’ll show you someone who lives with open hands, and a heart open to others in need. Ask the Lord to help you live like that, and you’ll be happy too. The Lord is inviting you to begin – today!