24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Belief in the Eucharist, Part 4)

On August 18, 1996 in the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina, as he was distributing Holy Communion, a priest, Fr. Alejandro Pezet, was told that a consecrated communion host was left in the back of the church. He picked it up, and because it was contaminated, rather than consume it, he put it in a glass of water, then placed it in the tabernacle to allow it to dissolve. Eight days later, Fr. Pezet went to check on it to see if it had. He noticed that it didn’t dissolve, but also didn’t look like a communion host. It had morphed and seemed to have blood on it. This perplexed him, so he called the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio, whom we today know as Pope Francis.

Archbishop Bergoglio instructed him to have it professionally photographed. After doing so, it was returned to the tabernacle and remained there for several years, to wait and see what would happen. Nothing happened. It remained unchanged. Eventually Archbishop Bergoglio instructed that a small piece of it be sent for scientific analysis. They did not tell the doctors and scientists what it was. The study confirmed that it was muscle tissue from a human heart.

This prompted them to send another sample was sent to an expert, a forensic pathologist in New York: Dr. Frederick Zugibe, who held a Master of Science in Anatomy/Electron Microscopy from Columbia University and a PhD in Anatomy and Histochemistry from the University of Chicago. He was known worldwide for his ability to analyze the heart of a deceased person and determine the cause of death. Again, with no awareness of what it was, this expert analyzed it and Dr. Zugibe confirmed that it was tissue from a human heart, from the wall of the left ventricle, which is the part of the heart that pumps blood throughout the body.

One thing he couldn’t understand is that because it contained a large number of white blood cells, he concluded that the sample and its cells were still alive. Even more, because the white blood cells had penetrated the tissue, it indicated that the heart had been in severe stress, as if the person had been beaten severely about the chest. Dr. Zugibe asked those who had given him the sample, how it was procured and kept alive. He was stunned when they explained to him that it was a communion host from Mass.

This was not the first Eucharistic miracle. One goes back to the 8th century, the Miracle of Lanciano in Italy, and has its own amazing story. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that the host from that miracle was scientifically analyzed. The two samples were compared, and it was determined that they came from the same person. Both had type AB blood, the same as what has been found on the Shroud of Turin.

 This makes the fourth consecutive Sunday I’ve spoken about the recent study that revealed a declining faith in the True Presence in the Eucharist. I cited three prevalent causes: 1) secularism in our culture, which undoubtedly affects us; 2) poor catechesis, a lack of understanding of what of the teachings of our faith; and 3) the loss of mystery and reverence in our worship, which tends to teach us through our senses and consciousness. I offered some suggestions on how we as a Church, as a parish family, as households, can begin to correct some of our practices, habits, the ways we communicate and understand the teachings, all to nurture faith in the Eucharist. My homilies are online if you missed any of what I said.

Perhaps there’s one more thing can help us to restore lost belief: that is to better ensure that our hearts ready and I’ll cite three ways to help with that:

  • First, by acknowledging our need for God’s mercy and seeking it in regular confession. The Eucharist is not a gift we earn for good behavior, yet we recognize that we need to make our hearts ready for it. Regular confession cleanses our hearts and allows them to receive grace.

  • Second, by fasting for at least an hour before receiving (including chewing gum). This clears the way for the unique gift of grace, heavenly food.

  • Third, by taking time to pray before we begin Mass. We created the tri-fold pamphlet in your pews for this very purpose. Consider looking it over as you enter the pew before we begin Mass.

 One more thing. At last night’s Mass, as I was describing the story of the Eucharistic Miracle in Buenos Aires, I noticed a young lady—she’s in fifth grade—conveying her amazement to her mother as she heard the details—a child’s amazement. I think about how cynicism takes us over as we age—the skepticism, even as we hear the details of this miracle. And I think of Jesus’ words: “…unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3-4). Let us put aside the obstinacy and hardness of our hearts. Let’s take a moment now to make our hearts ready.

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Belief in the Eucharist, Part 3)

In the two most recent Sundays, I responded to the recent Pew Research survey that indicated that the majority of American Catholics do not believe that the Eucharist contains within it the True Presence of Jesus Christ, and that among Catholics 40 years and younger, that percentage drops to 20%. I also spoke about an apparent correlation, as revealed by the Pew Research survey: revealing that the majority of those who think the Eucharist is just a symbol, claimed they had no understanding of the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist: that the bread and wine are transformed through the power of the Holy Spirit to become the Body, Blood, soul and divinity of Jesus.

The Eucharist is so central to who we are as Catholics, not merely as an source of identity, but instead as our source of spiritual sustenance. And so, this lack of understanding that leads to a lack of belief is a serious problem that we must correct. Last weekend, in considering the causes, I spoke to our failure as a Church, parishes—and by extension, as families—to teach others, especially our children—that bad catechesis or no catechesis is a major cause. I remind you that my homilies are online, in case you wish to reference anything I’ve said thus far.

 In this weekend’s homily, the third part, I’ll identify and speak to another cause within the Catholic church and her parishes: it’s the loss of mystery and reverence. Some of you recall when the experience of Mass and what took place inside the parish church was very different than our current experience.

For all the good things that came with the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, it also led to some misunderstandings of what the reforms intended. Among the good things that came from it is that we came to better understand the dignity of all the faithful by virtue of their baptism. It therefore called for the faithful to assist in the offering and prayer that is the Sacrifice of the Mass. Instead of being removed from the liturgical activity, all people must be present in the entire liturgy—full, active and conscious participation.

But the unintended consequence is that the Mass came to be a rather common experience and rather casual. With it, the interior of the church buildings became stripped of art and architectural elements as not to distract us from focusing on ourselves. The music came to be more and more about us, and less about God: We Are Many Parts; We Are the Body of Christ; Gather Us In; God Has Chosen Me; As We Gather at Your Table; All Are Welcome. With the intended purpose of acknowledging our inherent dignity as sons and daughters—that God is near us and within us—it came to be disproportionately about us, and ultimately, making God and the experience in our image.

 As Catholics, we recognize that part of what feeds our intellectual understanding and even belief, is our senses, our imaginations, and human experience. The beauty and power of art and architecture inform us in ways that words and doctrine cannot. The sensory experience of music, the smoke from incense and its smell, the resting in extended silence, all feed into our imagination and by extension, our consciousness and even our belief.

And of course, our body postures help with this too: We genuflect when we pass the Tabernacle, we bow when we pass the altar, we sign ourselves when we enter the church, and all of it, the muscle memory, praying with our bodies, informing our consciousness that we are experiencing something beyond ourselves.

One more thing: While I think fellowship and enjoying each other’s company is important and absolutely necessary for a Christian community, and we must have places in the parish where we gather and can visit, maybe it’s fair to say that the idle conversation and activity that goes on inside here before and after Mass, undermines, in our subconscious, the sacredness of this space and what takes place within it. I know for sure, that there are people who want to pray before or after Mass and find it difficult when idle chatter is going on.

 In all this, I’m not suggesting that we need to go back to the experience of the 1950s or that we should not feel at ease here. But too often, what got sacrificed and was lost over time was the sense of mystery, transcendence and reverence. We domesticated the Eucharist and in our consciousness, rendered it ordinary bread. We’ve needed to recover some of what was lost.

Believe it or not—the elements that engage our imagination, our senses, our experience—in our liturgy, but also in the space itself—it all feeds into our regard for and understanding of the Eucharist, because the Eucharist is mystery and this is the one place where we come to encounter it and receive it. While rejoicing in our inherent dignity, let us temper it with humility, recognizing that we are in God’s house and in the presence of something beautiful, powerful, something beyond us and worthy of our adoration, and yet given freely to us.

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Belief in the Eucharist, Part 2)

Last weekend I referenced the recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center, in which nearly 11,000 Catholics were asked about whether they believe that in the Eucharist, Jesus is truly present. Only 31% said yes. I mentioned another recent survey indicating that among Catholics 40 years and younger, it’s only 20%.

Our belief in the Eucharist is no trivial matter for us as Catholics: It’s the gift Jesus gave us, to be our source of daily sustenance, and so much more. So, what or who is the cause in this trajectory toward unbelief? There are multiple causes. Continuing to address this topic, I remind you that my homilies are posted on our parish website.

 So again, the causes: For sure, part of the cause is the secularization of American society. The figures that we’ve come to call the New Atheists have made great inroads in planting the seeds of skepticism and disbelief about whether there’s a God at all. There’s no doubt that’s part of the problem.

That brings me to our second cause: it’s our ‘catechesis’, our passing on and teaching of the faith. Among the principle things we are called to do as Christian people is to care for the poor; second, we are to worship our God, to be people of prayer; but third, we are to know and share the teachings of our faith.

It’s worth pointing out that the survey also asked Catholics if they understand what the Church teaches about the Eucharist, that bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus. The responses showed a correlation, in that the majority of those who think the Eucharist is just a symbol, and not Jesus’ True Presence, are not aware of Church teaching on it.

 Too many of us are woefully uninformed, and therefore we can’t begin to share what we ourselves do not have, whether to our own children or anyone else. Ask yourself: Since the start of 2019, how much time have I devoted to learning about my faith?

Some of you remember when Catholics learned from the Baltimore Catechism. Often, people critique that it was merely memorization and regurgitation of formulated questions and answers, that didn’t lead to a living interior faith; that it was all in the head, and not in the heart.

But then we shifted to a style of learning that I’ve sometimes heard characterized as having been reduced to making banners out of felt with cutouts of peace-doves and letters that say things like, “God loves me”. I’ve heard some people say, “That was pretty much the extent of my Catholic faith formation after we threw away the Baltimore Catechism”.

Perhaps it can be fairly stated that our catechetical method went from being overly structured to having no structure. The fallout, as some have proposed, is that we have a couple generations of Catholics who never were taught the faith and therefore have no ability to articulate it or share it with the next generation.

To counter this problem, what is increasingly being emphasized is whole-family catechesis. The practice of parents simply dropping off their children and heading off to run errands is something we’re increasingly moving away from. It’s absolutely best if parents learn with the children, preferably learning the same material as the child, but taught at an adult level.

With our parish’s limited facilities, it’s not easy, but our Pastoral Assistants for Faith Formation—Amy, Jill and Carlie—are working together to help provide more of this. Therefore, the parents of Confirmation youth are required to attend some classes. As are parents of First Communion parents. As are parents of Children’s Faith Formation. I haven’t figured out how to do it, but I’d also like some faith formation for parents of our parish school. If parents do not invest themselves in learning and show it’s important, there will be no faith in the life of the family, the domestic church, and the faith will not take root in the children.

You can imagine that sometimes people will decide and then wonder: “Okay, I want to learn about my faith, so what’s a good resource?” I remind you that for the past four years, we subscribe to a service called formed.org—at a cost of $2000 annually. Through your computer, smart TV or mobile devices, you can access educational programs, audio lectures, movies, e-books, etc. It’s amazing and available to you at no cost.

Having stressed the importance of coming to know and therefore share the faith, I realize that belief in Jesus’ True Presence in the Eucharist is more than merely an intellectual endeavor—it requires faith in something beyond natural human reason. But, there’s no question: The more one comes to know their faith and engage it in their consciousness—whether you have children or not—it provides a platform to nurture belief.

I’ll continue next week, addressing another prevalent cause. Along with serving the poor, and worshiping our God, if we don’t engage and learn, the fires of our faith will cool, and the gift of the Eucharist—Jesus’ very gift of himself—will be evermore lost on us.

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (Belief in the Eucharist, Part 1)

This weekend presents us with yet another challenging Gospel reading. In his long journey toward Jerusalem, Jesus responds to the question of how many people will be ‘saved’. He says “Strive to enter the narrow gate”, inferring that his way is the harder way. But then Jesus offers a parable, describing a time to come, when the master of the house has locked the door, and suddenly everyone wants in. They knock, pleading: “Lord, open the door for us….We ate and drank in your company”. To which he responds, I don’t know where you are from….Depart from me!

It makes me think of a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center[i], who on August 5th released results of the survey given to nearly 11,000 Americans who self-identify as Catholic, asking whether they believe that the Eucharist is the True Presence of Jesus or instead, merely a symbol—in other words, just bread and wine.

The results indicated that only 31% of Catholics believe in the True Presence, while 69% regard it as a symbol. It’s not clear if participants represented all parts of the U.S., nor is it clear if those polled were practicing Catholics.

The survey also asked those who participated if they know the Church’s teaching about the Eucharist and transubstantiation. I also learned recently that among Catholics 40 years of age and under, the number of those who believe in the Eucharist is only 20%, which seems to indicate that unbelief is a growing trend. And probably most of us would surmise that if this poll had been conducted 50 years ago, we would have seen a higher percentage of those who believe in Jesus’ True Presence in the Eucharist.

 So, lest there be any doubt among us here, let’s say it, that as Jesus declared, “My flesh is true food, my blood is true drink” (Jn 6:55), and as was echoed by St. Paul (1 Cor 10:16) and the early teachers of the faith, such as Ignatius of Antioch and Justyn the Martyr; and further echoed by the witness of Christian martyrs who died for this belief—let us state clearly what we believe: The Eucharist 1) is a primary source of our communion; 2) it is the sacrificial memorial of Jesus’ Paschal Mystery; 3) it is "the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of (Jesus)….truly, really, and substantially contained" (CCC, 1374).

 But considering the result of the Pew Survey—that so many Catholics don’t know the teaching on the Eucharist, and that ever-more Catholics don’t believe what is taught, we might ask: Does it really matter? After all, I try to be a good person. I don’t wish or cause harm to anyone or break society’s laws. So, does it really matter? Even more, one might wonder that since it’s not part of the Creed, maybe belief in the True Presence isn’t central to the practice of our Christian faith. Again, does it matter? A second question we might ask is: What or who is to blame for this trend toward unbelief?

Regarding the first question, it does matter—gravely so. And as for what caused this trend, there’s no single cause. In the coming weeks—because there’s more to say on all this than can be expressed in a single homily—I plan to make this the first of what will be either two or three parts. For anyone who’s not able to hear any particular part, my homilies are available on our parish website.

 For each one of us here and now, regardless of how strong or not our belief, I suspect….

  1. that there’s some place deep within us that realizes there’s more to all this than is visible to the eye and grasped by human reason;

  2. that there’s something, someone who created all this, that even the most advanced sciences do not fully understand;

  3. that some part of us knows there’s more to us than just our bodies and our consciousness;

  4. that everyone of us wants and thirsts for something more than we currently know, have and experience, evidenced by the fact that we’re never entirely satisfied in this life;

  5. that each of us wants there to be something more, something better beyond this life, and;

  6. that none of us has a clue how much we are loved.

With all this in mind—in any way these six assertions are true—I further believe that none of us wants to find ourselves on the other side of death hearing God say to us: You had a chance to know me. I made myself known to you, you ate and you drank….and even more, you had a chance to help your children to know me, but you made other things a priority…..I don’t know you….Depart from me! For all the ways that the Eucharist requires belief, let’s start by exercising our desire to believe, to know the God who comes to us, who makes Himself known to us, truly alive and present in the Eucharist.

[i] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/08/05/transubstantiation-eucharist-u-s-catholics/

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (What is Faith)

Do you have faith?

I suspect that most of us would say we do—perhaps without even thinking about it. But what exactly do we mean, when we say we have faith?

Today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews offers a definition: it says, “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” In this way, faith is unlike what we tend to associate with science, which is generally thought of as being built only upon things that are experienced or measurable. But let’s be clear, science makes its own assumptions on the permanence and uniformity of laws of nature. Even science takes a leap of faith on matters that it can’t prove.

And so the basis of our faith—that there is a God who always was, who made us in His image, who loves us, is with us, and has a beautiful plan for us—none of it can be proven or disproven scientifically.

Again, “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” We can understand that also to mean that we continue to believe in God’s promises for good things, even when we don’t see them brought to fulfillment. I think of so many saints who were faithful to what God was calling them to do, even if they never came to experience the fruits of their faithfulness in their lifetime. That’s faith. 

But another way I like to answer question of ‘What is faith?’ is by using the two-fold answer our catechism provides: it says faith is a gift, and a response (CCC, Glossary).

As St. Paul once said, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8). I remember an acquaintance once saying to me, “I wasn’t given the gift of faith”. I don’t agree with that. We’ve all received the gift, it’s just that some don’t bother to open it, perhaps because they’ve got too much other stuff that satisfies.

Or there are those who realize that the gift of faith requires work to understand it. It’s as though they unwrap the gift partially, not wanting to put the work into exploring it. Perhaps it would be like giving you a puzzle, that if you took the time to put it together, it would tell you I love you and why I do. Too many of us don’t bother opening the gift and thus we never advance beyond a First Communion level of understanding the faith: which tends to be shallow and lacking in meaning to us when we move into adulthood.

But our catechism says it’s also a response. Specifically, it says that the response involves the assent of one’s will and giving one’s self over to that mysterious and demanding gift. That’s why the Letter to the Hebrews speaks of Abraham. At some point, out of thin-air, God, previously unknown to him, spoke to him, and told him leave his home, to follow God’s promptings, and to trust that something good would come from it. That’s faith as a response.

Perhaps it can be said that one’s unwillingness to even unwrap the gift faith and to understand it, is itself a response. I think of faith as like a muscle: if you don’t use a muscle or feed it with nutrients, it will atrophy, it wastes away. So how do we strengthen faith, utilize it, and feed it? I’ll suggest five ways:

First, through prayer. Prayer is the way we connect with the One who is the source of our faith. Spend a few minutes talking to God every day. Make a holy hour each week. I have a hard time believing there is anyone here who can’t give an hour every week to come sit in the church and simply read, pray and be present with our Lord.

Secondly, feed your faith through the grace of the sacraments: particularly confession and the Eucharist. Come to daily Mass once a week. And make a sacramental confession at least quarterly throughout the year. Don’t let pride and fear keep you from the beautiful graces that will feed your faith.

Third, feed your faith through your consciousness. We can’t live on a diet of only what TV, YouTube and Instagram offer. Spend at least a few minutes every day either with spiritual reading or maybe listening to something that helps us you to better understand your faith: Sacred Heart radio, Formed.org, etc.

Fourth, have at least one person in your life regularly who models faithfulness or helps you to become a better Christian. Stay close to and keep before you, holy people.

Fifth, live like Jesus in the way you can. Bringing love and healing to the brokenness around you. Seek the Father’s will and live it out courageously, in humility, in simplicity.

Brothers and sisters, all these things are available to you at no cost. So, will you feed your faith or will it simply remain stuck or even worse, waste away? We are body and soul, so, while you may be physically healthy, you may be dying spiritually.

Faith is a gift to you, but it demands a response. In just a moment, as our God becomes present to us from this altar, it’s up to us to respond from within. Come forward as a true act of faith; respond and desire to receive the grace to strengthen that faith.

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Vanity of Vanities)

Today we hear from the Book of Ecclesiastes. It’s the only Sunday of our 3-year cycle that we hear from this book. The Hebrew name for this book is Koheleth, a Hebrew word that means “one who gathers or assembles”. The Greek translation of Koheleth is Ecclesiastes, and it’s from that word that we have the word ecclesia or its Germanic equivalent church, meaning “assembly” or “gathering”.

The book begins with the words: “The words of David’s son, Qoheleth, king in Jerusalem”. Long standing tradition holds that this book is possibly written by, or more likely, about Solomon, David’s son and king of Jerusalem. It’s believed to be about him, at the end of his days, asking questions about life and reflecting on how he has lived.

In the early part of his life, Solomon is said to have been a virtuous and wise man, a king. He brought peace to the people of Israel and built the Temple in Jerusalem. It started off well but went downhill. He ended up being led astray and making horrible decisions, becoming a man of many gods and many wives, a man who sought wealth and his own glory. He never recovered.

 Jesus’ parable in the Gospel seems to speak of Solomon, even if he doesn’t refer to him by name: a rich man, who had so much that he didn’t know how to account for it all, aspiring only to rest, eat, drink and be merry. And as the end of the parable, the man proved to be rich, but not in what matters to God.

In Ecclesiastes he looks back on his life, wondering what happened. It’s clear that he feels far from God; that God is distant and removed. He laments that there’s little security in life, and that the world is harsh. He also makes it clear that death is not only a dreaded end, but inevitable.

Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” he declares. Vanity is a translation of the Hebrew word hevel, and in this context refers to something like breath or wind: something that is there, one moment, and simply dissipates right before us….suddenly gone…..like life. Qoheleth, at the end of his life, is a man of little cheer, exploring the questions that lie in every human heart.

I suspect some of us can relate. Too many of us busy ourselves and fill our lives with so much of what we’re convinced is important and even necessary: things to sate our various appetites, giving ourselves over to shallow relationships that we tell ourselves make us feel loved and needed. There’s no shortage of it all. The only thing in short supply is time.

Who doesn’t, in the quiet moments, wish that things were a little simpler, quieter, and that we could catch up? But also, who of us really feels fulfilled and satisfied, that all our needs and desires are met? Who of us is content that we’re investing ourselves adequately in our relationships and in turn, being loved as we want? There’s always more beyond our grasp, and we tell ourselves that if we can get that elusive ‘next thing’, that it will satisfy what’s lacking. And yet it proves not to be true. There’s always more and we remain hungry. In fact, for too many of us, this restless pursuit leaves us with a fundamental unhappiness, emptiness, and too often, despair. “Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!”

An anonymous author once wrote:

First I was dying to finish high school and start college.

And then I was dying to finish college and start working.

And then I was dying for my children to grow old enough for school, so I could return to work.

And then I was dying to retire.

And I am dying….and suddenly I realize

I forgot to live.

So how do we avoid coming to such an end? I guess the way I see it, ultimately, God has entrusted each of us with just a few things that are important above all others. Aside from our souls and our health, there’s our relationship with Him, our families and a few truly trusted friends. Those are the things that make us rich in what matters to God. Yes, life demands other responsibilities from us—paying bills, going to work, staying caught up on social media and fantasy football—but they’re not of primary importance, despite what we might be made to believe.

What—or perhaps better, who—is it, the two or three things, that are most important in your life? What/who makes you rich in what matters to God? At the end of our fragile and unpredictable lives, if we are to look back, like Qoheleth/Solomon, I suspect we’ll either feel satisfaction or emptiness, to the degree we either nurture or neglect these blessings. In this Mass, this act of thanksgiving, let us acknowledge in our hearts and give thanks to God for the what/who that makes us truly rich.

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Martha + Mary)

Today’s reading tells us that Jesus entered the village of Bethany, and accepted an invitation from friends, Martha and her sister Mary, to stop for a visit. In the midst of their time together, one sister, Martha, is described as being “burdened with much serving”, while her sister, Mary, has simply parked herself on the floor with Jesus. Having had enough, Martha interrupted what was going on and asked Jesus to intercede: “Tell her to help me”.

The differences between these two sisters—Martha the busy-body and Mary the mesmerized listener—has been understood through the centuries, as the contrast of two states of religious life: the active Christian and the contemplative Christian. And Jesus’ response about Mary having “chosen the better part” has left many to draw the conclusion that he’s declaring the contemplative life to be superior. Instead, I propose a different way of looking at this narrative: both sisters are doing something important—one is serving and one is listening—but only one is doing what Jesus needs in the moment: and ironically, it’s the one who is doing seemingly nothing.

We might ask: How is sitting on the floor useful? And how can that be what Jesus needed? Martha’s getting a lot done—preparing a meal and serving it—isn’t that more likely to serve a need? Especially given that we are of a culture where quantifiable results and productivity are so valued. Our American identity is built upon what is called the Protestant Work Ethic, which holds that one fulfills his/her duty to God by hard work and indicators of measurable success. We tend to be do-ers. It’s in our American blood. Sitting and listening, as did Mary, is not a measurable activity, if it’s to be considered activity at all.

Perhaps the context within this reading helps. As we move week to week through the Gospel of Luke, we are now in chapter 10. It was three weeks ago that we heard the verse that declares: “Jesus resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem” (Lk 9:51, 13th Sunday in OT). That verse begins a long section, chapters 9 through 19, in which Jesus makes a long, slow, southward journey toward Jerusalem, where rejection, public humiliation and certain death on a cross await him.

And so, as he stopped along the way to visit and share a meal with Martha and Mary, he knew all that awaited him in the holy city. He knew that he would not be returning to Bethany and that this would be the last time to visit them in their home.

In a situation like this, one is less likely to need a person bustling about, fulfilling tasks, but instead to be with friends, to be close and to be present. And it’s Mary who seemed to know what was needed. We have no idea what Jesus said to her, but only that he spoke, and that she was attentive and present.

Mary reminds us today that so often what people need is not for something to be done, but that they need us to be present. That’s not easy for people whose first response is typically to try to fix the problem or to simply be do-ers. I remember learning this (and I’m still learning it.), serving as a chaplain at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle. I learned that so much of pastoral ministry, dealing with the inner workings of another person’s heart, is simply listening, being attentive and being present. I had to learn to just shut my trap and listen and to love the person before me. I had to resist the temptation to seek how to fix their problem, because in almost every case, their problems were beyond my fixing.

The other trap we can fall into with people in crises of the heart is to retreat. I remember as a young man being uncomfortable being around someone who was dealing with death, failing health, or depression. I didn’t know what to say or do and so I tried to escape the situation altogether. Who knows, maybe that’s what Martha was doing by being a busy-body.

The fact is that like Martha and Mary, part of our lives is dealing with people who are facing difficulties: their crises of the heart. There’s a time to attend to practical needs, like Martha. And there’s a time to be just be present, like Mary.

Here, in this Mass, let us look to Mary as a model: the one who listened attentively to the Word of God. She listened to the pain of Christ and loved him. In a few minutes, Jesus as our High Priest, will speak to us, saying “This is my Body and Blood…broken, blessed and given up for you….it is my covenant with you….my gift of love to you”. As he did with Martha and Mary, he shares a meal with us, he visits us, here in our home. Like Mary, let us be present to him, at his feet, listening attentively and loving him.

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Radical Mercy - The Good Samaritan)

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most beloved, but also challenging of parables. Jesus offered it in response to a fellow Jew, a scholar of the Law, asking,“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”, then eventually, “Who is my neighbor?” . It was test, asking Jesus to clarify who we are obliged to show God’s mercy toward.

Of the three figures who passed by the victim, the first two—a Temple priest and a Jew from the tribe of Levi—while we regard them as uncompassionate, they were in a dilemma. As strict followers of Jewish Law, contact with blood would have rendered them unclean, and so they gave a wide berth in passing the victim.

Jesus’ response calls us to see mercy as an ultimate value: challenging the philosophical and moral framework that ordinarily shapes our responses. And furthermore, because Jesus adds the detail that it’s a foreigner who embodies this radical mercy, it seems to convey that mercy extends beyond those who are my people, my fellow citizens, those of my religion?  

Of the many saints and historical figures who have shown us what this mercy looks like, among those is Peter Claver, born in 1581 near Barcelona, Spain. After joining the Jesuits at age 20, he was sent to the new world, to the port-city of Cartagena. Peter went to evangelize, but soon came face to face with a troubling reality, as ships arrived in the port, filled with African slaves—men, women and children.

As ships arrived, he found his way to the cargo area, treating wounds, giving food and drink, quelling their fears. For this, he faced contempt and rejection. After 40 tireless years of merciful love, Peter contracted an illness from a widespread epidemic. The illness left him unable to continue his work. For the remaining 3 years of his life, most of his days were spent in sickness and alone in his private quarters, where he died in the year 1654.

Then there’s Katharine Drexel, born in Philadelphia in 1858. As daughter of a successful investment banker, Katharine and her sisters inherited a fortune. She also inherited her father’s compassion for the poor. While much work was being done to respond to the needs of the population of European immigrants, Katharine recognized that there were two other groups in the U.S. whose needs were being ignored: Indians and blacks.

After establishing a religious community, Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, she poured every drop of her financial resources, influence and energies into establishing missions and schools to serve these two marginalized groups—traveling from one outpost to another to another. Many denounced her efforts, declaring that she was wasting her time and money on an unworthy population, but she remained undeterred. Mother Drexel died in 1955 at age 97, having lived through eras that included slavery, wars waged against the Native Americans and the beginning of the civil rights movement.  

Finally, Joseph de Veuster, born in 1840 in Belgium, entered religious life and took the name Damian. In 1864, he was sent to the distant group of islands known as the Kingdom of Hawaii. Years later, when the local bishop asked his priests to volunteer to serve the needs of the leper population that had been segregated to the island of Molokai, a small group of priests said yes, with the plan that they would serve in rotation. Fr. Damian went first, and began to bring order to the chaos, making furniture, building a school and homes, farming, but also caring for the sick, making coffins and digging graves. As it turned out, he never left the island. After about 11 years, he contracted the illness that would eventually end his life in 1889, declaring, “….I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ”. 

The list of such figures goes on: Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, Mother Teresa, and so on. I can’t imagine that the course of these beautiful lives wasn’t inspired, at least a little, by the Parable of the Good Samaritan. While you and I aren’t likely to live as heroically as these figures—though only God knows—we are challenged to embody God’s mercy in the setting of our ordinary lives. We’re challenged to overcome the myriad of reasons that serve as our excuses and justify our fears.

When Cain asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”, God response inferred it so. (Gen 4:9-12). But even more, Jesus makes it clear that in our acts of mercy to those who are suffering, it’s him we encounter: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 5:40).

At the end of our lives, may we not be regarded merely as people of principles—though the principles serve a purpose, and we must not be reckless in discounting or abandoning those. But more than principled, may we be sons and daughters, driven to grind through the hard questions and to find solutions to the dumbfounding complexities and even the legalities, in any way they serve as barriers to justice and human dignity—all that the world may know God’s tender mercy. As we have received mercy, we must reflect it in our lives.

St. Peter Claver….pray for us!

St. Katharine Drexel….pray for us!

St. Damian of Molokai….pray for us!

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (The Influence of Atheism)

In light of today’s Gospel in which Jesus sends out 72 of his followers, laborers for the Kingdom of God, it calls to mind the very notion of evangelization. What is evangelization? It’s sharing the faith with others, inviting them into what it has to offer.

That’s not an easy thing to do and even for those of us who are alive in the faith, most of us are at a loss on how to share it without it backfiring. Of course, too many Christians have never really come to life in the faith, and so they don’t really know how to share it.

But I was thinking about how hard it is in our current culture, especially given that we are experiencing the opposite of what evangelization is intended to do. If evangelization is the compelling invitation that draws more people into the faith, we live in a culture where the religious population is shrinking. What’s causing this effect? We could cite church scandals, bishops who have lost our trust, and priests who have done people harm; maybe it’s bad preaching or unfriendly parishioners. Maybe it’s uninspired worship.

There are all sorts of things that may be a reason for one person or another, but one of the reasons is the framework of understanding that’s been gradually constructed in the minds of our youth. Too many of them are leaving the faith. Perhaps it’s for the reasons I just cited, or maybe because the faith was never shown to be meaningful by their parents. But a lot of it has to do with what they are taught in institutions of learning.

Those of you who attended the parish mission with Dr. John Bergsma back in March, recall what he explained about those with atheistic agendas in the field of science—and how many of our institutions of learning are filled with those whose aim is to ‘evangelize’ atheism. Among the more familiar names of this movement are Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris. Not merely taking the passive approach of live and let live, their aim is to put an end to religious structures. Like the 72 Jesus sent out, their disciples are waiting to form the minds and hearts of your children in our high schools, colleges and universities.

What’s their motivation? One reason is that life seems easier if you choose to do away with God. You get to be your own god, and it feels liberating. But also, some see religious dogma as the cause of wars, hatred and genocide. While it’s true that many have killed in the name of religion, that’s never been what Christianity teaches. Even more, I would argue that wars, hatred and genocide would remain even without religion. Perhaps you recall also all that Dr. Bergsma explained to us that refutes the arguments of atheists, and furthermore, all the compelling evidence he cited for a supreme being.

The voices of the atheists are influencing too many of our young people. Why are they succeeding? I think largely because they seem to be rooted in science and logic. It feels intellectually grounded, in contrast to what we are told are the primitive myths of religion.

To be clear, while there’s no proving to them God’s existence, neither can they prove their claim that there is no God. And for whatever way their claims seem solidly rooted in science, they ultimately have no answers for any original causes, nor for the human desire for transcendence. And here’s the thing: they cast away the idea of God, but what one is left with is a soul that is restless and thirsting for meaning.

As we do away with God, and religion as a means to draw us to him, are we a happier society? Are people at greater peace in their minds and hearts? Does it help us to love ourselves more? I think not. Instead, as a population we are increasingly lost, relying more than ever on upon what our psychiatrists and psychologists can provide and prescribe, to mask the emptiness, and to help give us a will to live, when too many of us don’t want to. The empirical findings and sciences of sociology seem to indicate that when we do away with God, we’re left rootless and lost.

Brothers and sisters, not only is very strong evidence of a supreme being, but even more, He is a personal God—not just some life-force in the background of the universe, observing us remotely. Today’s words from Isaiah speak of God who is tender and nurturing, speaking in words altogether maternal, like a mother caring for and taking delight in her baby—even if we’re a bunch of messed-up babies. The fact is—God loves you like you’re His little one—even if you don’t know it, can’t feel it or don’t care. That love is the notion of God that Jesus sent the 72 to proclaim and that’s the God he still invites us to know and to rest in.

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Freedom)

This week we will celebrate our beloved nation’s birth. One of the absolute bedrock values that our nation is built upon is freedom. It’s part of our American identity. But what do we mean by freedom? We might say that it’s freedom from the rule of a tyrant or dictator or freedom to worship God as we choose. Perhaps it’s freedom that comes from citizens electing their own representatives to create laws and regulations that serve them according to their needs. We cherish this freedom and we would cease to be American without it. In the coming days, many of our nation’s citizens will regale their great love of freedom by consuming copious amounts of adult beverages and over the course of six or seven days, blasting illegal fireworks, one after another…after another…and another, at all hours of the day.

Our Scriptures also speak a lot about freedom, but it’s a different understanding of freedom than we associate with nationalism. Today, we heard St. Paul’s words to the Christians of Galatia, saying, “For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery. For you were called for freedom, brothers and sisters.”

Paul wrote these words, sometime around the year 50 AD, to a rather new Christian community in a region known as Galatia, in present-day Turkey. These new Christians were mostly of Gentile origin, meaning that they weren’t of Jewish heritage. What happened is that not long after Paul moved on to another community, a group of interlopers, who happened to be Christians of Jewish heritage—Paul calls them Judaizers—came in an began to disrupt the community. They told the Galatian Christians that since Jesus and his original band of followers were Jews, to be true followers, they too would have to follow Jewish Law and all its practices. Paul got wind of it all and wrote this emotionally charged letter, admonishing them for being so easily carried astray, and rallying against the interlopers who had created the disruption by preaching a different Jesus.

He told them that as followers of Jesus, they are free from the yoke of the Law, because salvation came to them through Jesus, rather than the works of the Law. They’d already been given the gift of salvation. Instead, their task was therefore to receive that salvation through their choosing to live like Jesus. And therein lay their true human freedom—to exercise their will in conformity to Jesus’ call or not.

In the context of national freedom, we tend think of being freed from something. But in fact, St. Paul would want us to understand that human freedom means that we are freed for something. Our Catechism says it this way: “Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one's own responsibility. By free will one shapes one's own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude” (CCC, 1731). How different out lives, our families and our world would be if we truly exercised this freedom.

In thinking about this, I imagine the inside of an old dungeon-style prison. And as you look down the main corridor you can see the iron bars of each individual cell—those on the right, those on the left. Within each of those cells, though out of view, are prisoners, sitting within, motionless and silent, having lost hope of being freed.

But at some point, somebody entered the prison and had keys for every cell. He went through the entire prison, motioning the prisoners out, as he unlocked and opened each cell’s door. We would expect the prisoners to run out as fast as they could. But instead, they simply remain within, sitting on the floor, with their backs against the cold cinder-block wall, perhaps believing the task of getting up and leaving to be too much trouble; fearing the unknown of what freedom would bring; and fearing the loss of the familiarity of their cell.

We have been given freedom to live according to something great and beautiful, a higher ideal. And the more we free ourselves of the things that have nothing to do with the One who gave us freedom, the freer we become to ascend toward that higher ideal. Ironically, in our freedom we choose so many things that shackle and limit us—fear and hopelessness keep us in our cells. Jesus wants us to be free, saying, “Follow me”. The more we exercise our will and follow, the freer we become. As we ask God’s blessing on our beloved nation and its people, and celebrate the freedoms we enjoy as Americans, may we ultimately be freed from anything that would yoke us, that we might ultimately be freed for Jesus and the salvation he won for us.

Solemnity of Corpus Christi

In 1264, Pope Urban IV instituted this solemnity for the Universal Church, as a statement of our belief in the True Presence of Jesus in Eucharist. But let’s be clear, that’s not when this belief began. It was only a formal declaration of belief, long held. So where did we get this idea, that the Eucharist was more than just a bread wafer and wine? From Jesus himself: “My flesh is true food and my blood, true drink….unless you eat my body and drink my blood, you do not have life within you” (John 6: 53-55). And from the earliest times, the Christian people have believed this. You need only consider the writings of Ignatius of Antioch (D. 110), Justin the Martyr (D. 165) and Irenaeus of Lyon (D. 202), Tertullian (D 250) and Origen of Alexandria (D. 254). I remind us that before there was a Bible, Christians gathered to celebrate the Eucharist.

But there was a Belgian nun who lived in the 1200s named Juliana of Liege, who through her deep experiences in prayer, received a calling to create a specific liturgical celebration that formally celebrates our belief in the True Presence. She shared this strong desire with Pope Urban IV, but it would not be until sometime later that he would act upon it.

What happened is that a priest from Prague by the name of Peter, decided to make a pilgrimage to Rome in 1263 to pray at the tomb of his namesake, St. Peter. Along the way he stopped at a little church in the Italian town of Bolsena, about 70 miles north of Rome. He asked if he could celebrate Mass at a chapel there.

Fr. Peter had struggled with doubts about this notion of Jesus’ True Presence in the Eucharist, and so before he celebrated the Mass he prayed for faith to believe. Then as he celebrated the Mass, he raised the host, as he said the words of consecration. The host began to bleed profusely, onto his hands and onto the altar cloths. He nervously wrapped the host in the corporal, and uncertain of what exactly to do, he left the altar, as blood continued to drip on to the altar steps and the floor.

Fr. Peter left the chapel and went to the neighboring town of Orvieto, about 12 miles away, because residing there at that time was Pope Urban IV. He first confessed his sin of unbelief and described what happened. Pope Urban sent a delegation back to Bolsena. What he saw in the evidence was enough to compel him to at last, act on Sister Julian’s request.

Over the next year he worked on it, and in 1264 he issued a statement declaring this solemnity, Corpus Christi, for the Universal Church. And he asked a Dominican friar to compose prayers and hymns to be used for such a glorious feast. His name was St. Thomas Aquinas, and from his pen came the beautiful hymns that we still sing today: Tantum Ergo, Adoro te Devote, O Salutaris and the Pange Lingua.

When Thomas, who was a brilliant mind, struggled with an intellectual issue, he would place himself before the tabernacle, even resting his head on it, pleading for guidance. Towards the end of his life, he wrote a treatise on the Eucharist. Upon completing it, not believing that he had done it justice, he laid the pages he had written at the foot of the cross of Jesus and began to pray. He heard a voice say to him, “You have written well of me, Thomas, what would you desire in return?” Thomas replied, “Non nisi Te” (“I will have nothing, except you.”).

 From this altar, we see before us, held aloft, the Pearl of Great Price. To those without regard or belief in it, it seems insignificant. But as St. Paul once said, and is true of us who believe, “We live as having nothing (in other words, just a wafer of bread), yet everything is ours” (2 Cor 6:10). And that everything—the God who created the cosmos, the mountains, our parents, our children, as an act of love—makes Himself vulnerable and allows Himself to be placed in our hands and on our tongues—in an act so intimate. Let us pray that we might be conscious of what we receive; that like Fr. Peter of Prague, we might at least desire to believe in this mystery; that we might have hearts disposed to receive it; so that ultimately, we might be overcome by it and possessed by it.

Solemnity of the Holy Trinity (The Reform of Man, Discovery of the Holy Trinity)

On this Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, we do our best to contemplate the mystery of God’s inner-life as Three Divine Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Theologians speak of how this mystery is reflected in the human person—that one way of grasping the notion of the Holy Trinity is to consider the mystery of who we are: male and female, and even more, the life generating capacities that their complementary as male and female bears.

I recently started reading a book entitled The Anti-Mary Exposed, written by a woman named Carrie Gress, who has a doctorate in philosophy from the Catholic University of America. She speaks of the modern anti-Mary mentality and the rise of toxic femininity. To be clear, feminism can mean different things for different people. On one hand, I see the value in a feminism that sees the imperative value in equal treatment, for women to have opportunities like men, to have a voice, to not be regarded as a lesser-being. But then there’s what Dr. Gress calls Radical Feminism, which she says stems from what’s described as “a particular women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and ’70s that has Marxist roots”…adding that “Marxism and all the systems of government and economics that arise from it depend upon the belief that human nature can be changed, by force if necessary—as Dr. Gress says, seeking ‘equality and respect through the vices of Machiavelli: rage, intimidation” and such (http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/assailing-the-anti-mary).

Among the things that come out of the latter brand of feminism is a view that children are simply an obstacle to a woman’s true happiness and achievement, but further an anti-male mentality, that the author says is harmful, not only for men, but also for women.

We commonly see it in popular culture. In a review of the most recent Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, the reviewer pointed out that “almost without exception, the male characters are bumbling, incompetent, morally compromised. They don’t know what to do until they get proper female instruction”. On the other hand, “almost without exception, the women are brilliant, heroic, virtuous, etc., rolling their eyes” at the misguided men. This, the reviewer pointed out, is contrasted with the male-female complementarity, the twinning of Luke and Leia, from the original Star Wars movies (Bishop Robert Barron, YouTube).

Please understand, my point is not to denounce the empowerment of women, though I do believe we must be careful not to therefore undermine the value of a woman as mother or spouse. Yes, I say this as a man, but I also do so as having had strong female-figures in my life since childhood. My point is primarily that the empowerment of women shouldn’t come by means of male-bashing, as seems to be an increasing trend in our culture.

But perhaps too often, men have brought this on themselves—that too many men, fathers, husbands, brothers, perpetuate the stereotypes of all that’s embarrassing about male-ness: men who use their power over and against those who are weaker; who subject women to abuse or human-trafficking; who behave as though sex is a recreational sport that has no meaning or consequences for themselves or the other; who are driven by the pursuit of status, wealth and the things money buys; men whose bodily appetites are insatiably fed by the violent or sexual imagery they view; who think being shallow and dumb is somehow cool; who are preoccupied with self-preservation or think their power is shown in self-reliance; and so on.

My brothers, on this Father’s Day, may we consider, in contrast to all that, what God intended for men. As with any ways that humanity or other God-given institutions suffer the effects of our fallen nature, we do well always to consider what God originally intended. Though there are many ways to describe God’s high ideal for us, we see it beautifully personified in our patron, St. Joseph, who struggled, but nonetheless found a way to trust in the precarious plan that God had for him, even with its uncertainties and causes for fear—a courageous man, giving his life to defend what God had entrusted to him.

Men, fathers, husbands, sons, brothers: We were made for more than what we are too often inclined to settle for, and our sons learn it from us. On this Fathers’ Day, in whatever way male-ness needs to be redeemed, let us look ultimately to Jesus for how it’s done—Jesus, who lived in simplicity and humility, who was willing to make himself vulnerable, to be sacrificed for the good of those he loved…Jesus, who had a band of brothers. In all that was his great strength.

For all the ways that the Most Holy Trinity eludes our rational capacities, God wanted to be known by us and thus took on our flesh, lived among us, and taught us by word and example. It’s in this same Jesus that we ultimately will be able to reveal the depths of the beautiful mystery of man and woman, and through that, further discover the dumbfounding mystery of our Triune God.

Solemnity of Pentecost (Spirit in Your Bread, Fire in Your Wine)

There is so much that can be said about this feast day and what it represents in our faith. In fact, too much. The Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Most Holy Trinity, and therefore God, is altogether mysterious. We do our best to understand the Spirit, using four particular symbols that come from the Scriptures:

  • As Jesus came up from the waters of baptism, behold, the heavens were opened, and the Spirit of God descended upon him like a dove (Mt 3:16).

  • But also, like water. Jesus said, “Whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Jn 4:14).

  • And then we’re told, “The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (Jn 3:8).

  • And as we hear today, the Holy Spirit is likened to a blazing fire.

When you think about water, wind, a dove and fire: it can either make us feel comfort, or it can make us unsettled. And just as the Holy Spirit is sometimes called the Paraclete or Advocate—the latter term coming from ad vocatus, meaning one who accompanies—we realize that our Advocate is sometimes our defender and other times our prosecutor—the Spirit of truth, guiding us to all truth (Jn 16:13). Also, he is the one, whom Jesus said would remain with us until his return, as his continued and abiding presence.

But another way we understand the Holy Spirit is as one who unifies us. The reading from the Acts of the Apostles speaks of how people of different languages and nations were drawn together into the one Spirit, in order to share in Jesus’ mission. And that same Spirit was given to us, varied as we are, to draw out from us, our God-given gifts, all for the sake of this same Mission.

It just so happens that this year, this solemnity falls on June 9th, the feast day for St. Ephrem, sometimes called the Harp of the Holy Spirit, known for his lyrical and poetic writings, written for the purpose of teaching the faith.

He was born c. 306 in southeastern Turkey (Nisibis), near the Syrian border. He inherited the Christian faith from his mother. As a young man he began to live like a monk: a strict prayer life, virtually no possessions, and in community with like-minded individuals. Eventually he was ordained a deacon.

Beginning in 338, Nisibis came under attack from Persian forces. Over the course of two decades, King Shapur II pounded away at the city walls, until at last, the people surrendered and were forcibly expelled. Many people, including Ephrem, fled to another city, Edessa, roughly 140 miles west. By this time, Deacon Ephrem was in his late 50s. After 10 years of living in Edessa, Ephrem, in caring for the sick and dying during a plague, contracted the illness. He died on this date in 373.

In his writings—of which, more than 400 poems still exist—he drew upon influences of Rabbinic Judaism, Greek science and philosophy, and Mesopotamian tradition. They are beautiful, powerful, and deeply theological.

Today’s solemnity calls us to bear in mind the unbridled power of the fiery Spirit of God, the sanctifying element that spiritually animates us as individuals according to our distinct gifts. In light of that, we consider the words of the deacon, St. Ephrem, the Harp of the Holy Spirit, in regards to the bread and wine, which before us in a moment will be enlivened and changed by the descending Holy Spirit, to become our Eucharist, the means by which we are spiritually united and made sharers in God’s Divine Life:

“In your bread hides the Spirit who cannot be consumed; in your wine is the fire that cannot be swallowed. The Spirit in your bread, fire in your wine: behold a wonder heard from our lips.

The seraph could not bring himself to touch the glowing coal with his fingers, it was Isaiah’s mouth alone that it touched; neither did the fingers grasp it nor the mouth swallow it; but the Lord has granted us to do both these things.

The fire came down with anger to destroy sinners, but the fire of grace descends on the bread and settles in it. Instead of the fire that destroyed man, we have consumed the fire in the bread and have been invigorated.”

In this sacred food, may we receive the Pentecost fire. May it burn our sins away, leaving behind only what is of God….Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.

Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord

There are several ways to understand this feast: It’s the final element of the great 3-part mystery that we call the Paschal Mystery: Jesus’ Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension. Also, it marks the pivotal moment in which Jesus’ followers would themselves have to take the reins in the mission of building the Kingdom. Third, it speaks to the moment that humanity formally entered into heaven. These are objective theological explanations, but for the disciples, perhaps Jesus’ Ascension can simply be understood as a period of waiting.

I say that regarding Jesus’ words at the end of the Gospel we just heard. Jesus gave his disciples a final instruction, reminding them that much lay ahead for them: that they were to go to all nations preaching repentance, bringing about forgiveness of sins. He told them they were to be witnesses to Jesus himself by virtue of their lives. But then he also told them: “….behold I am sending the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

In other words, before they were to go out into the world, and before they were to give their lives over as witnesses, they would first need the Holy Spirit, the promise that Jesus’ Father would send upon them. After all, without the Holy Spirit, these simple Galilean fishermen would be entirely ill-equipped for so great a task. He makes it clear: for now, stay put in Jerusalem and wait.  

You and I have the benefit of hindsight to know that the promised Holy Spirit would be poured upon them ten days later, which we’ll celebrate next weekend. You and I also have the benefit of having heard how it all happened—that Pentecost event. But for those disciples to whom Jesus was speaking, having been given so little detail, they didn’t know what they were waiting for nor when whatever it was would come. And I suspect that if they had dared to ask for clarity, Jesus would have said, ”Don’t bother trying to figure it out. Just stay put and wait….have faith.” So, they stayed and waited. But with so much uncertainty, that waiting must have been mentally, emotionally and spiritually exhausting.

It makes me think of moments when I’ve experienced people vigilantly remaining close to their loved ones as they move closer to death—not knowing if death will come in the next few minutes or days from now…..waiting in that uncertainty.

It makes me think of circumstances in our lives in which things are not in good order—perhaps as we wait in hope for a call from a prospective employer; as we wait in worry for our children who are making unhealthy or even harmful decisions, wondering when they’ll get it together—those moments in life when we’re left wondering when God’s promises to take care of us are going to take effect.          

Waiting is hard and we tend not to be at our best when left to wait. It’s in that uncertainty that we’re more inclined to wain in our trust in God, wondering if He’s even aware of our circumstances; if He’s even real or truly good. Like the Israelites, who waited at the bottom of Mt. Sinai, day after day for Moses and God to appear and lay out a plan for them, to move them toward the great promise. They gave up on waiting, deciding it might be better to just go ahead and make a god, a golden calf (Ex 32). Not so different, in our waiting, we’re tempted to begin seeking alternative solutions to the things we’re hoping for.

So much of the spiritual life requires waiting. Yet, in a culture like ours that regards waiting as a curse or a burden, we’re so preoccupied with what comes next and building our earthly future, that patience and waiting is not something we’re accustomed to. The consequence to this restlessness is that God has little or no time or space to speak to us, to guide us, to make His presence known to us, and to show us how His promises are being fulfilled. Patient waiting and truly being in the present in the moment is something all of us would do well to nurture.

What God is trying to move us toward: In what He’s calling us to leave behind, is to be discovered in that space. In the gradually revealed answer to what’s out of order in our lives is in it too. To soothe our restless hearts and let us know that we are deeply loved. It’s all comes in the patient waiting, letting Him come to us in the present moment. As he said to his disciples, just before he Ascended, I believe Jesus would likewise say to us: Stay put, remain steady, and wait. The promise of my Father will come upon you.

5th Sunday of Easter - First Communion

For all the ways that the Book of Revelation tends to inspire intrigue and is used a blueprint for predicting the end of the world, today’s second reading shows us there’s much more to it—and it’s beautiful. It’s author, John, describes beautiful visions that were given him, and ultimately what we find is that it’s not a book of terror, but instead a book of promise and hope.

At the end of all the turmoil and the fight against good and evil, the dust begins to settle and suddenly, he sees something: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth.….I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven…..I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people….The One who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’”

It says that God comes to us. There is nothing anyone of us have ever done that is the cause of God’s love, His coming to us. I remind us of what the Eucharist is—Jesus’ Body and Blood, his very life—and it’s generously given to us. In this gift, He not only comes to us, but he dwells in us. We become living tabernacles.

I remind us that we are body and soul. We get it when it comes to caring for our bodies. But the human soul is too often forgotten about and too often neglected. Grace is food for your soul, and this Eucharist grace—that is God’s very life source—is the nutrition it offers.

Parents, God wants to be part of the lives of your children. I remind you that they were his children before they were yours, and he has asked you to care for them, to make Him known to them. I don’t think for a moment that you want anything but goodness for your children, and to love them. But I remind us: The primary task of a Christian parent is not college for their child. It’s not to create for them the infrastructure that makes for comfort, power, and self-reliance. Instead it’s to make sure they come to really know this Jesus who gives himself to them, to get them to heaven.

If that’s not our goal and what we desire in our hearts, then this moment is a little hollow. But if it’s true that your job is to get them to heaven, how is that plan coming together? What kind of foundation has been laid? The point is not to put anyone on the spot, but instead to ask us to reconsider what we’ve set as priorities, and to adjust as needed. It’s not too late.

Be sure, God wants to come down, to descend upon them and make his dwelling within them through this heavenly food. God, who never stops creating, wants to make something new in them through this intimate encounter in Jesus’ Body and Blood.

4th Sunday of Easter - Annual Catholic Appeal

Today is traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday. Throughout the Bible we find God imaged as a shepherd to His people, but it’s in St. John’s Gospel that Jesus distinctly says, “I Am the Good Shepherd”. It just so happens that Good Shepherd Sunday falls on Mother’s Day this year. I suspect it’s not a stretch, for most of us, to think of all the ways our mothers have been like shepherds for us—I know it’s true for me—guiding us, protecting us, sacrificing herself for us.

But as Catholics, we think of our Church as a mother, and similarly, a shepherd for us. I know the Church is flawed, not always a perfect mother, but that’s certainly her ideal, and the task for which she still strives.

Recently you likely received and saw letters from both Archbishop Sartain and Fr. Todd regarding the upcoming campaign for the Annual Catholic Appeal. We would do well to remind ourselves, what exactly is this and why do we have it? It’s a one-time donation we make each year that helps fund about 60 different ministries in our diocese. In this big, diverse diocese of nearly 180 parishes and 900,000 Catholics, there is much to be done in the name of Jesus, our Good Shepherd.

So, for example, your contribution to our Annual Catholic Appeal helps our youth, by means of funding CYO programs (which by the way, many of our St. Joseph boys and girls take part in this). It helps fund the Office for Youth and Young Adult Evangelization, as well as the Newman Centers on college campuses in our state —so important to reach out to young adults. It helps to support our Catholic schools, making places of prayer for our children, 5 days a week. The Annual Catholic Appeal helps fund our many programs that serve the poor and the vulnerable, particularly Catholic Community Services. And there’s more—a whole lot more.

 To fund these services and ministries, our parish will be assessed $135,000. I’m asking for your help. As you surely recall from past years, what we pull together above that $135K comes back to our parish in the form of a rebate. In years past the rebate paid for the pews you’re sitting in, our bell tower; it paid to renovate our beautiful Blessed Sacrament Chapel. It has given substantial support to our outreach programs.

After discussion with our Pastoral Council and other parish leadership, we came to the decision to use this year’s rebate in the following ways:

  • First, we will give $10,000 of our rebate to outreach, in service to those in need.

  • Second, we plan to build walls to serve as a backdrop for the ambo and the presider’s chair. Depending on how long you’ve been here, you may recall when there was nothing but open space in those locations. While the openness it provided was good, we eventually hung the fabric panels you still see. They provided a place to hang seasonal art, to give color, beauty and focus to the sanctuary, the heart of where we worship. The walls we plan to construct will still provide openness and light to pass through, a place for seasonal art and color. You get some sense of it, looking at the architectural rendering in the back of the church. Our intention is to have these built in the summer.

  • But there’s more: We also plan to set aside a portion to help fund next year’s Parish Mission and Parish Picnic.

  • Finally, any remaining amount will be used to fund maintenance needs for our parish facilities.

For whatever way it serves as a convenience for you, we will now give you the opportunity to fill out a pledge card, which can then be placed in the collection basket. I ask you to pray about possibly contributing the equivalent of $1 per day for the year. If you’re not sure if you can do that or even want to, please spend a little time this week praying about. I’m well aware that there are those among us who are struggling to make ends meet, and so any contribution is helpful, even prayers in lieu of a monetary gift. It all helps.

 As a seminarian, I benefited directly from your past generosity: all so that I might be here with you all, to serve in the name of Jesus the Good Shepherd. And if I live long enough to become a retired priest, I’ll again benefit directly from your generosity. For it all, I am most grateful and privileged. For all the ways you’ve made it possible, through contributions to the Annual Catholic Appeal, through prayers, and everything else—for it all, I am truly grateful.

2nd Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy)

We’re a week removed from Holy Week, from all that went wrong: the abandonment of Jesus’ friends, his arrest, suffering and death. Today’s Gospel follows up that mess, as Jesus suddenly appears to his friends, where they were gathered like frightened bunnies. Instead of anger or laying on the guilt, he simply says, “Peace be with you….Receive the Holy Spirit”. This is the very definition of mercy: receiving something good, even when it’s not deserved.

It’s a curious thing that Jesus shows them his wounds, and that he bears them at all. These are not exactly the wounds, as we contemplated them on Good Friday, wounds that were born of our sins. As Jesus was Resurrected, so his wounds were also transformed. St. Gertrude the Great (D. 1302) once describe her vision of Jesus and how he extended his hand to her, revealing his wounds like radiant jewels—mercy.

It’s no accident that Pope John Paul II—back in the year 2000—established this as Divine Mercy Sunday. But part of this goes back to Poland, where he was born and raised. He knew the story and the writings of Sister Maria Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun and mystic who lived during his lifetime. Her writings describe that when she was 25 years old, one Sunday night she was in her cell alone and saw Jesus before her for the first of what would be many occasions. His right hand was raised in blessing and his left was touching his garment, just above his heart. Red and white rays emanated from his heart, which were to symbolize the blood and water that poured out of him from the cross. As he had shown her this image of himself, he wanted the world to know of God’s mercy, to change hearts, to change the world, and so he directed her to have someone paint this image.

Though not without difficulties, she did as instructed. She had the image made, describing what she saw to the artist as best she could. When she saw his finished painting Faustina cried, because it wasn’t close to being as beautiful as she seen in real life. But Jesus later consoled her, "Not in the beauty of the color, nor of the brush is the greatness of this image, but in My grace." Faustina also wrote a diary of all that Jesus revealed in that image about God’s mercy: our need for it, our need to trust in it, and our need to be merciful to others. To be clear, it’s not that nobody ever knew of God’s mercy before Jesus spoke to Faustina, but clearly Jesus wanted us to experience it in a new way.

Moved by all this as a young man, Pope John Paul II wanted the world to truly know what God’s mercy means for us. In 1980 he wrote his second encyclical, Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy). He echoed what so many theologians before him had proposed: that mercy is the greatest attribute of our infinite and perfect God, and that we are proof of it. He said that the Church is authentic in her mission when she proclaims God’s mercy, when she brings people close to the sources of His mercy.

And as he says in Dives in Misericordia,Therefore, the Church professes and proclaims conversion. Conversion to God always consists in discovering His mercy, that is, in discovering that love which is patient and kind as only the Creator and Father can be” (DM, 13). That’s the primary reason there is a Christian Church in any part of the world and it’s the primary reason for St. Joseph parish in Issaquah—to help us receive and live in God’s Divine mercy.

The Eucharist and the Sacrament of Reconciliation are two of the most powerful ways of receiving and living in that mercy, but we can partake in either without actually receiving it. How? As John Paul II said, the only thing that can keep us from God’s mercy is our unwillingness to give ourselves over to it, to allow it to change us. We must have a true intention and desire to be affected and changed. And we must always recognize it as a gift greater than we deserve.

Some of us are trapped in the realities of past sins. Some of us are trapped in patterns of sin that we can’t leave behind. As he did with the disciples, Jesus would want to come to us with his transformed wounds, to heal ours. Let him. But some of us are too preoccupied to even bear in mind our sins and how we need God’s mercy. Our very ignorance is the barrier that keeps us from being lifted up in his mercy.

But we exist also to make it known to those around us. How? For sure, by proclaiming it, but also by modeling it. As I have heard it said, part of the benefit of receiving God’s mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation is so that we can learn to be more merciful ourselves. So as a disciple of Jesus, do the people around—strangers, people in traffic, your siblings, your coworkers, your exasperating family members—do they see God’s mercy in you? Do they get better than they deserve, or do you tend to merely mirror the behavior of those around you? We all want things to be better—for our families, for our world. It begins with us. As Jesus told us, “Be merciful, just as also your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).

And as this same Lord told Faustina,”Humankind will not have peace until it turns to the Fount of My Mercy.” For the sake of His sorrowful Passion….have mercy on us and on the whole world.

Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion

Today’s celebration is known as Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion. Most of us simply know it as Palm Sunday, but it’s important that we see the connection between the palm frond we just received and the passion (passio, meaning ‘suffering’) of Jesus.

Many of you remember the movie Saving Private Ryan. The opening scene was jarringly realistic. Many of the men who survived the invasion on the beaches of Normandy remarked about its authentic depiction of the events. For the rest of us who never experienced anything like that, it gave us some sense of their experience.

The film was powerful because it didn’t merely show us violence and death but made us viewers feel fear as we experienced it. This is in contrast to so many movies and video games in which death and violence are gratuitous or trivialized, where violence and death are a form of entertainment. Saving Private Ryan drew us into the drama and forced us to consider the realities of death and invited us to deepen in our consideration of life.

Today’s liturgy serves as sort an overture to what will happen in the coming days. Like the aforementioned movie, we are to enter into and re-live the events we commemorate: Jesus’ journey to the cross: his passion, death and yes, his Resurrection.

The fact is, the vast majority of Christians who come to celebrate Easter Sunday have not partaken of any of the events that preceded it. They show up to a church filled with white lilies and they hear about the empty tomb and are supposed to be joyous about it. That dumfounding event that we call the Resurrection is only a cause for joy if we properly bear in mind what preceded it and why it was necessary: suffering for our sake, abandonment, and a cruel death that seemed to be the end of it all. Without that, what’s Easter?

At the beginning of this mass you received a palm: a simple slender thing that might serve as a decorative keepsake in your home. But today we consciously hold it as a way of bringing the past and the present together. And as we hold it, it reminds us of the fact that it’s not just Jesus’ story, but also our story. It’s not only an event of the past; it’s happening now, because the Passion of the ‘whole Body of Christ’ is still happening and the resurrection of the whole body of Christ is still a future event. But perhaps also think of your palm branch as a theater ticket, admission to the drama that awaits us.

The story which we are beginning today, like every truly great drama, only has its deepest meaning if it reaches into our lives and challenges us. This week, especially on Holy Thursday and Good Friday, our Lord whom we greeted today will be present to suffer for us, to love us. He’ll be present, but will you? With admission already in hand, we are at the entrance of the venue where the drama awaits us. Don’t let it go to waste.

5th Sunday of Lent - The Woman Caught in Adultery

In today’s Gospel, with its dramatic story, one of the things it stirs up in almost all of us, is sympathy for the woman. We know nothing about her, not even her name. We only know that she was caught in the act of adultery—admittedly, not a good thing, whether in Jesus’ culture or ours. But like you, I suspect, I’ve often wondered why it’s only the woman who is being scrutinized. Why wasn’t the man also undergoing this public trial?

As I thought about it, I considered how this woman was used. First, she was used by the conspicuously absent man. Yes, possibly she was using him too, but in that culture, men held the position of power. She was used for his pleasure.

But then she was used again. The scribes and the Pharisees had brought her and were using her as bait to put Jesus in a precarious position. Again, although the woman had done something immoral, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for her.

This past week I saw a movie, currently showing nearby, called Unplanned. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. It’s an autobiographical account of a woman named Abby Johnson who, as a college student, was recruited to volunteer at a Planned Parenthood clinic. Although she was opposed to abortion, she was told that Planned Parenthood, in advocating for and supporting women, actually seeks to reduce the number of abortions. That appealed to her, so she began volunteering.

Over time, she moved up the ranks, having come to believe the claim that Planned Parenthood, helping women, made abortion less common. She eventually became director of a clinic, but soon began to see fallacies in the claims of her employer, especially when, as director, she was told that Planned Parenthood planned to expand their abortion services, and thus the quota on abortions would be substantially increased. When Abby questioned the increase, she was sternly told: “Fast-food outlets break even on their hamburgers. The french fries and soda are the low-cost, high-margin items….Abortion is our fries and soda!” She was told that her 401K and health benefits, were there because of abortion services.

I don’t want to give away too much of the movie, because many of us need to see it, especially in any way we don’t know where we stand on this issue. It would seem, despite Planned Parenthood’s claim to advocate, empower and support women, that they’re instead using them. As the movie reveals, and as my personal experience has shown me, women tend to hurt afterwards, not feel empowered. I’ve seen how they carry the pain afterward.

I had the privilege of serving as the priest on a Project Rachel retreat, where women (and men) wounded by having made the choice to abort their child, were able to face their decisions, the painful loss, and find a path toward healing. What they learned, that they didn’t understand when they made the choice, is that it’s not merely a ‘women’s issue’. They learned it’s not about seeking to control anyone’s sexual or reproductive freedoms, despite how it’s commonly presented.

There’s a baby involved, whose fragile and tender life is hanging in the balance. And despite how we’re told that these services help situations of incest or rape, taking the life of the baby does not fix the pain already inflicted in such cases. But the fact is, most abortions are not the result of incest or rape. Instead, they occur usually because women are in fear, feeling helpless and without support. We must love them and help them.

In fact, even as troubling as the idea of abortion is, and as much as pro-choice advocates might tell us that it’s judgmental or intrusive, we can’t be merely like the accusers in today’s Gospel, seeking to shame. Recall Jesus’ words: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone….” As we advocate for the right to life for the unborn, we are also sinners, each with our own baggage and immediate struggles.

One of the beautiful and unique things about our Christian faith is what it says about God’s regard for the human person: He loves humanity so much that He became human, to make of us sons and daughters, rather than just His creatures. As he wanted to help the adulteress woman to live in the fullness of her humanity, so he desires it for those who are experiencing a crisis pregnancy, and their vulnerable and voiceless children. He desires it for you and me. Therefore, we do not use people for our purposes. We use things, but we love people.

In the Gospel, after all her accusers drifted away, one by one, Jesus was left with the woman, undoubtedly scared, feeling powerless, and ashamed. He asked her, “Has no one condemned you?” When said no, he replied in truth and love, with a two-part message: First, I don’t condemn you either. In other words, I want you to live and to know my love. Then he added, But to do that, you must leave your sinful ways behind. We who are baptized into Jesus, are called to mirror this love that heals and gives life, but also like Jesus, to understand that some things that are never ‘okay’. We, even as sinners, are called to speak truth, but always with love.

4th Sunday of Lent - Divine Justice-Mercy

In our faith tradition, there are four virtues that we identify as ‘cardinal virtues’—cardinal meaning virtues from which other virtues come: prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. Today’s Gospel challenges our idea of justice. Culturally speaking, justice means that someone gets what he/she deserves. If you’re bad, you deserve bad; if you’re good, you deserve good.

Jesus was responding to some people, identified as Pharisees and scribes, who were complaining that he passed time with sinners. He decided to make a point to them by telling a story: the story we know as the Prodigal Son. Jesus described the son’s irresponsibility and selfishness in choosing to leave and putting his family’s financial well-being at risk: all so that he could leave the family who loved him and satisfy his wanderlust. Like any of us hearing a story, Jesus’ listeners would have seen this son to be sinful and foolish.

Jesus then described how the son eventually fell into a desperate situation, having to work and eat with pigs. The listeners would have thought, “Ok, that’s justice, he got what he deserves.” They would also have understood the son’s regret and his desire to go back home: “Father, I have sinned against you and no longer deserve to be called your son. Treat me as a servant”. They would have agreed that going back as a hired worker was appropriate. That’s justice, they would have thought.

But then Jesus flipped justice upside down: He described that when the son approached home, his father saw him in the distance and rushed out to embrace him. Before the son could even finish his rehearsed words of repentance, the father smothered him with kisses and affection, clothed him in sandals, a robe and a ring—all outward signs to everyone, that the son’s identity was restored.

A quick word about the older son and his resentment. He believed that he had earned his father’s love by doing what was right, that he had become entitled. Throughout the Christian Scriptures, we are reminded that this is not so. Those of us who regard ourselves as rightful heirs, because of our self-perceived faithfulness, do well to bear this in mind.

But Jesus’ listeners, quite like the older son, listening to the story, would have shifted their focus from the foolish younger son, to the father’s foolish response. He wasn’t following the protocols of justice. Justice would have been to wait until the hungry and weary son reached him, and to take a bowl of rotten vegetables and dump them on the ground at his feet. To say, “Here’s what you deserve”.

We’re likely not so different from Jesus’ listeners: we want virtue to be rewarded and sinners to be punished, whether it’s people in the news or the person driving erratically in morning traffic. But Jesus is giving us a deeper understanding of justice, telling us something important about God the Father—that our Heavenly Father’s justice gives us something better than we deserve—we call that mercy.

And that’s what St. Paul emphasized in our second reading: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them…For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” In other words: God took on our sinful nature, so that we could unite ourselves to God’s divine nature. And as St. Paul says, we did nothing to deserve so great a gift and in fact, he ignored all our offenses.

And God’s brand of justice—mercy—can offend our sensibilities and maybe even scandalize us, as though God condones bad behavior. But the fact is, we’re all sinners. It’s only a matter of degree. At this Mass, you and I are the sinners dining with Jesus. How’s that for justice? And to be clear, God’s mercy does not mean that a society no longer has a judicial system or even prisons, that no one gets speeding tickets. Paying debts to society is not negated, even as God is merciful to those who seek His mercy.

So why do we struggle with God’s justice? Perhaps because unlike the foolish son in the parable, we’ve never dealt with our past transgressions and made things right.

But God’s justice asks us to resist our tendency to write-off a person, to see them as less than a brother or sister. God’s justice asks us to pray even for His mercy for criminals, even as we pray for those they’ve harmed. God’s justice asks us to consider how much God loves that person, and it calls us to love them likewise.

And if God’s justice doesn’t resonate within, I encourage you to gaze into the visible manifestation of that mysterious justice and mercy. “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that (you) might become the righteousness of God in him.” God’s justice is mounted to the wood of the cross, and you are the beneficiary.