Friday, March 1, 2019


Homily for March 2nd, 2019: 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 is 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. St. 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, February 28, 2019


Homily for March 1st, 2019: 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 go on the rocks. 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 our new Pope Francis, is engaged in a profound study of the whole question. Cardinals from all over the world have held two synods in Rome to discuss how the Church can best fulfill its two duties: to preach the truth about marriage; but also to care for people whose marriages fail. They need all the support in prayer that we can give them. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2019


Homily for February 28th, 2019: 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. I knew I wouldn=t burst. But 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 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, February 26, 2019


Homily for February 27th, 2019: 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 called 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, February 25, 2019


Homily for the 8th Sunday in Year C, March 3rd, 2019: Luke 6:39-42  

During Pope St. John Paul’s papacy, an American priest was attending a conference in Rome. Following the last session, the priests were to meet with the pope. So on his way to the final session, the priest decided to stop by a church. As he climbed to the entrance, he threaded his way through a number of beggars seated on the steps. One of them looked familiar somehow. While he prayed in the church, he couldn’t stop thinking about the man he had seen. When he emerged, he approached the beggar. “You look so familiar. Do I know you?” he asked. “Yes”, the beggar replied. We were in seminary together.”
        At the end of the papal audience, each priest approached and received a blessing. The American priest, still undone by his encounter with the beggar, blurted out the story to John Paul. As all the priests were leaving, the Pope’s secretary singled out the priest. “His holiness would like you to join him for dinner tonight – with your friend”. The priest raced back to the church hoping the beggar would still be there. He was, and the priest told him of the extraordinary invitation. The beggar was aghast. He could not possibly have dinner with the Pope – “Only look at me,” the beggar priest pleaded with him.  
“You can use my hotel room for a shower,” the American priest replied, “and I have clothes that should fit you”. 
         After a lovely dinner, the Pope’s secretary motioned the American priest to come out in the hallway with him, leaving the beggar and the Pope alone at the dinner table. The papal secretary and the American priest walked up and down for a full fifteen minutes. As soon as the beggar emerged, the American priest could contain himself no longer. “What went on when you were with the Pope?” the American priest asked.
“After I'd made my confession, the pope asked me to hear his confession,” the beggar replied. “I was stunned. That’s impossible,” I said. “I’m no longer a priest in good standing.” 
“I’m restoring you to good standing,” John Paul replied.
          “But,” the beggar stammered, “I’m a beggar”.
          “We are all beggars” said the Pope. “And so I heard his confession.”
            When the two men got out into St. Peter’s Square, the American couldn’t wait to ask: "You’ve been gone now for 15 minutes. What on earth took so long?”   
         “After we’d both confessed to each other, "the beggar replied, "the Pope told me he wanted me to accept an assignment as priest for the beggars of Rome.”
                                        *                  *                  *
 Let’s talk about confession for a moment. Have you ever thought about how much easier it would be to prepare a list of sins for someone else to confess – especially if that other person was someone of whom you’re highly critical – than to list all your own sins? That would be much easier, wouldn’t it?
That’s what Jesus is talking about when he says in today’s gospel: “You notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own.” He is warning us about something we’re all guilty of at times: being alert for even small faults and sins in others, while overlooking much more serious sins of our own.
          The Lord has given us the remedy for those sins: the sacrament of penance, or confession. One advantage of sacramental confession is that it forces us to confront our own particular sins, not to be content with simply confessing that we are sinners in general. And in confession the priest has an opportunity to help us with our own particular sins and difficulties. So many people today feel that they’re “just a number.” In confession we’re not just a number. The priest is there for you personally, as a unique individual. But first you must come.
          Speaking for myself, I can tell you that without the sacrament of penance, or confession, I would not be a priest today. What a relief it was in the difficult years of adolescence – and more than a relief, a deep joy – to be able to go to a priest, tell him my sins, hear the words which assured me of God’s forgiveness; and then the beautiful closing words: “Go in peace, the Lord has put away all your sins.” Those words touched me so deeply that I still say them today, at the close of every confession I hear.
         Many Catholics think of Confession as something like going to the dentist: something we don’t particularly like, which will probably hurt, but which we know is good for us; and afterwards we’ll feel better. In reality, the sacrament of penance or reconciliation is so much more. It is a personal encounter with One who loves us beyond our imagining – as intimate as receiving the Lord’s body and blood in Communion. In Confession we receive, along with forgiveness, the love of the One who is love himself. His name is Jesus Christ.




Homily for February 26th, 2019: 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, shortly after his election, put at least a temporary stop to 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 almost 71 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, February 24, 2019


Homily for February 25th, 2019: 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, which we heard just ten days ago. 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 one who has faith.” Whereupon the man cries 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!”