Monthly Archives: September 2014

26th Sunday: Knowing Jesus

To hear the audio of today’s homily please select the audio below:

Religious education programs begin in most parishes this month. Many of the programs involve young people, of course, but we are all called to grow in faith, no matter how old we are.

Unfortunately, adults often see faith as something you learn as a child and that’s it.

The Catholic writer Frank Sheed once said the problem with adult Catholics is that they don’t keep engaged in the faith they learned as children. He used the example of our eyes. We have two eyes. Let’s say one of them is the eye of faith; the other is the eye of experience. 

As children we may see the world with two eyes; but as adults we may see the world only with the eye of experience, losing the focus that faith gives, another dimension. Faith helps us to see.

Jesus said to his disciples “you are all learners.” Not only children learn, all of us learn. We’re lifelong learners, lifelong believers, even till the end.”

I was talking to a man last week who said “You know, I go to church pretty regularly; I try to live a good life, but I would like to know Jesus.”

I told him that’s what we’re trying to do all our lives–to know Jesus.

I told him to get a good bible, like the New American Bible, and start reading it. Listen to the readings in church that tell us what Jesus said and did. This is a time he reveals himself to us, as one of the Eucharist prayers says it so well:

“You are indeed Holy and to be glorified, O God, who love the human race and always walk with us on the journey of life. Blessed indeed is your Son, present in our midst when we are gathered by his love, and when as once for the disciples, now for us, he opens the scriptures and breaks the bread.”

From what we know of Jesus, he bravely faced the issues of his time and its questions and challenges.  Knowing Jesus, then, means that we face the issues and challenges of our time as bravely as we can. 

Let me point out one of today’s challenges– our changing climate.  Last Tuesday evening at the United Nations Summit on Climate Change,  the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin brought a message from Pope Francis.

He said that after thirty years of study we have to admit there are critical days ahead. We know that “the entire international community is part of one interdependent human family…There is no room for the globalization of indifference, the economy of exclusion or the throwaway culture so often denounced by Pope Francis,”

Our faith “warns agains the risk of considering ourselves the masters of creation. Creation is not some possession that we can lord over for own pleasure; nor, even less, is it the property of only some people, the few: creation is a gift, it is the marvelous gift that God has given us, so that we will take care of it and harness it for the benefit of all, always with great respect and gratitude” (Pope Francis, General Audience, 21 May 2014).

It’s not just a matter of some technical changes like emission reductions, the cardinal continued. We need “ to change our lifestyles and the current dominant models of consumption and production.”

Knowing Jesus means living as Jesus would if he were with us today.

We’re all learners. The consoling thing is that we can start anywhere, anytime to know Jesus. The gospel readings for this week and last week tell us that. The workers going into the vineyard and two sons in today’s reading tell us the invitation is always there, so let’s take it.

The Pope in Albania

Pope Francis made a one day trip on September 21, 2014 to Albania, a small mountainous country on the Adriatic Sea. One newspaper said “Francis’s decision to choose tiny, poverty-ridden Albania instead of one of the continent’s big Catholic powers for his first European trip as pontiff is in keeping with a papacy that wants to give priority to the poor and the neglected.”

He had other reasons too. Albania, with a Muslim majority, has Catholics and Orthodox Christians among its citizens. The pope praised the respect and trust between these groups as a powerful sign in today’s world. Other countries in Europe and the rest of the world, experiencing the effects of immigration and resettlement, need to emulate its example.

“May no one use religion as a pretext for actions against human dignity and against the fundamental rights of every man and woman, above all to the right to life and the right of everyone to religious freedom,” Pope Francis said.

“This is especially the case in these times where an authentic religious spirit is being perverted by extremist groups and where religious differences are being distorted and instrumentalised.”

Here’s a great story of Albanian inter-religious cooperation from ABCnews. 

The Kingdom of God is Coming, It’s Here: 25th Sunday

To listen to the audio for this week’s homily please select the audio slider below:

Matthew 20,1-19   25th Sunday A

The kingdom of God is coming, it’s here, Jesus says in the gospels. Often he describes the kingdom of God as a harvest, as he does in today’s gospel from Matthew. It’s an abundant harvest, bigger than you think. Pray that God’s kingdom come, he says to his disciples. Pray that it comes here on earth as in heaven. Don’t underestimate the kingdom, the harvest God sends.

It looks like the owner of the vineyard in our parable today has underestimated the size of his harvest. The first crew he sends out at 9 in the morning aren’t enough, so he calls more workers at noon, then 3 in the afternoon. At 5 in the afternoon he’s still adding to his workforce. Looks like he didn’t expect much.

That’s one of the first lessons to draw from the gospel. Don’t underestimate the power of God. Unfortunately, that’s what we do. We can expect too little from God. We forget that his kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven. We think he has nothing or little to do with human affairs, or our world or the things here on earth.

The workers in the vineyard don’t seem to appreciate a big harvest either. They’re interested in something else– how much they’re getting paid and how much the other fellow is getting paid. The owner’s not fair, they say, because he pays the last workers the same as those who came first to work in the vineyard. They’re concerned with themselves, blinded as they are by envy and jealousy.

“Are you envious because I am generous,” the owner of the vineyard, who now seems to be a figure of God, says to them. Is this another lesson to draw from the parable? Envy and jealousy and measuring everything from our own perspective blinds us to God’s generosity. They blind us to the coming of God’s kingdom.

On his way through the towns of Galilee, Jesus announced the coming of the kingdom of God. He was bringing it to the world. It was an abundant harvest, yet even as he announced it, powerful voices were denying it was true. The scribes and Pharisees called him a false teacher, even his own disciples’ and his own family didn’t understand him. Still, he proclaimed God’s great kingdom. In the darkness of calvary he proclaimed it to a thief on a cross, and then he proclaimed it to his own disciples as he rose from the dead.

But let’s admit it, as we look at our world today we don’t see signs of a great harvest. Where is the harvest Jesus spoke of? Where is the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God seems far off, hardly here or ready to come. We’re living in a post-modern age, they say, when cynicism and questioning touch everything.

More than ever, we need to look at our world, not with our own eyes, but with the eyes of Jesus.

I like the story from John’s gospel describing Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman on his journey from Jerusalem to Galilee. It’s a hot afternoon; Jesus is tired and stops by a well to get a drink of water. It’s not a friendly place; the Samaritans don’t like the Jews and the Samaritan woman doesn’t like this Jew sitting at their well. But as they talk a new world appears, a light pierces the darkness and  the woman recognizes Jesus as the Messiah and calls the people of her town to see him.

“‘In four months the harvest will be here’”? Jesus says to his disciples, “ I tell you, look up and see the fields ripe for the harvest” He sees the kingdom of God coming in this small unexpected event. In the awakened faith of the woman before him, he sees the kingdom come.

That’s one of our greatest challenges today, to look up and see, in simple signs and in spite of everything, that the fields are ripe for the harvest. The kingdom of God has come.

Visiting the Rhine River

Cologne

I’m going in October with a group from St. Mary’s, Colts Neck, NJ, on a river cruise on the Rhine. This river was a path Christian missionaries took to bring the gospel to all nations. We’ll visit cities like Strasbourg and Geneva, places connected to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

In his book “Trent and All That: Renaming Catholicism in the Early Modern Era”, Harvard University Press, 2000, John W. O’ Malley, S.J. says that historians today are wary of using the words Reformation and Counter-Reformation to describe these historical periods. Recent historical research indicates the names don’t altogether fit the reality of the two movements.

“Reformation” means reform, the reform of something broken or in need of new life. In the case of the Catholic Church, it implies it was in shambles because of superstition and abuses of power. But recent social research indicates that the Catholic experience at the time was still quite vital, for the most part. True, the papacy was in need of reform, other abuses were present as they always are, but ordinary Catholic life was far from lifeless.

“Counter-Reformation,” or “Catholic Reform” usually mean that reform of the Catholic Church took place mainly through the efforts of the Council of Trent and a renewed papacy. But recent research questions the determining part played by the council and the popes in the life of the church at the time.

Historians in the past tended to see the Catholic Church then only in terms of the papacy and council bodies like Trent. They didn’t see its complexity exemplified by its confraternities, religious orders, saintly mystics and patterns of devotion. Social historians today are aware of the vitality in the Catholic Church that existed in its ordinary fabric. Its renewal didn’t just come from above, but from below.

The medieval cathedrals at Strasbourg and Cologne, which we’re going to visit, are examples of the profound faith of the medieval church. They weren’t built to satisfy the vision of a powerful bishop or ruler; they expressed the faith of a dedicated people. We can read what they believed and how they thought about life in those great cathedrals.

One of the O’Malley’s insights I liked was his comment on the lecture on the Counter Reformation by H. Outram Evennett, an English historian, some years ago at Trinity College. Rejecting the thesis that the Reformation was solely a reaction to a decayed medieval church, Evennett opined that both the Reformation and Counter Reformation “were two different outcomes of the same general aspiration towards ‘religious regeneration’ that pervaded the 14th and 15th centuries.”

Does this indicate that both Catholicism and Protestantism are moving in sync towards a place together in the modern world? I hope so.

This Sunday we listen to one of the parables of the kingdom, the Workers in the Vineyard, from Matthew’s gospel. Like the workers, squabbling among themselves, we’re often blind to the larger patterns of God’s plan unfolding in history. In a post-modern society of questioning and doubt it’s also difficult to believe in a plan for the world. There’s a harvest on its way and it’s an abundant one. My homily’s on that.

Mother of Sorrows

Mary sorrow

We remember the sorrows of Mary on September 15th, the day after the church celebrates the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. In John’s Gospel Mary stands bravely close to Jesus while others flee the dark happenings on Calvary. Standing beneath the cross of her dying Son was certainly her greatest sorrow.

Her sorrows were not confined to Calvary, however. They began earlier.  Early in Luke’s gospel, the priest Simeon in the temple, taking the Child Jesus in his arms tells Mary this child will cause a sword to pierce her heart. His words were etched in her mind as she left the temple holding her endangered Child. Fleeing to Egypt, she protected him in her arms. Later, she sought him anxiously when he was lost on a Jerusalem pilgrimage.

These were hardly all the sorrows she faced, though. What of her long waiting in Nazareth, not knowing all to expect? What of the years her Son ministered in Galilee, when he faced rejection even from his own family? What of the ominous journey to Jerusalem? Those years brought, not physical sufferings, but sufferings of another kind.

Mary’s sorrows were the sorrows of her Son. Mary’s cross was a daily one she bore day by day.  “O Lady Mary, thy bright crown is no mere crown of majesty. With the reflect of his own resplendent thorns, Christ circled thee.” (Francis Thompson)

Mary teaches us  that our sorrows, whatever they may be, reflect the Cross of Jesus. They will not crush us or beat us down; they lift us up to glory.

Saint John Chrysostom

John Chrysostom

Saint John Chrysostom was born around 340 into a military family in Antioch, Turkey. After study under Libanius, the great rhetorician of the day, John lived with monks in Syria for a few years, but poor health brought him back to Antioch where he served the church for five years as a deacon, taking care of the poor.

Ordained a priest in 386, John became an outstanding preacher and bishop; his “golden mouth” (Chrysostom) delighted his hearers with sermons on the gospels and letters of Paul. Appointed bishop of Constantinople, his sermons had the opposite effect on the rulers and churchmen of that city with his attacks on their pomp and luxury. The Empress Eudoxia exiled him from the city in 402 AD.

He returned after a brief absence and resumed his fearless preaching against the city’s powerful political and church elite.  Eudoxia finally sent him into exile on the Black Sea after John gave a sermon that began “Again Herodias  is raging, again she is perturbed,  again she wants to receive the head of John on a dish.” Hardly a way to ingratiate yourself with royalty.

“ Glory be to God for everything. Amen” John said before he died on his way to exile. “If Christ is with me, whom shall I fear. Though the waves and the sea and the anger of princes are against me, they are as weak as a spider’s web.”

He died on September 14, 407 AD, the Feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross, which we celebrate tomorrow.

We need people today with “golden mouths” to speak to power. In its prayer for his feast, the church thanks God for this bishop made “illustrious by his wonderful eloquence and his example of suffering,”  a nice reminder that preaching isn’t just about beautiful words. John died on a feast of the Holy Cross. Preaching can be a dangerous act.

Bread and Wine

photo

The German theologian Romano Guardini years ago recommended in a little book “Sacred Signs” that we let the signs and the words of the liturgy guide our prayer. He was a key figure in initiating recent liturgical reforms in the Catholic Church, which made the signs and prayers of the liturgy better able to communicate the mysteries we celebrate.

I suspect, though, that in our liturgical prayer today the words of the liturgy–the scripture readings and the homily–get more of our attention than the signs.

Maybe we need to pay more attention to signs like bread and wine. They’re sacred signs we can take for granted.

In our prayer over the bread at Mass we say: “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we received the bread we offer you, fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life.” The bread we offer is the fruit of the earth and work of human hands. It’s a sign of all creation, of everything that the “God of all creation” gives us, of everything our hands have fashioned.

“The word bread stands for everything,” Augustine said in one of his commentaries on the Lord’s Prayer. (Epistle to Proba) Early commentators like Tertullian, Cyprian and Origen wrestled with that petition, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Does it mean just the food we eat, or does it mean the wisdom we need? Is Jesus Christ our daily bread? I like Augustine’s explanation because it’s so open-ended.

Scientists say that our universe came into existence about 15 billion years ago. About 3.5 billion years ago life began on our planet. Bread and wine represent that universe; they’re brought to the altar to tell its story.

About 200,000 years ago human life emerged on our planet. 200,000 years of human life are represented in the bread and wine, and our lives are part of the human story represented in bread and wine.

We believe that God created our world and it’s good, according to the Book of Genesis. There’s a plan for this universe, a plan conceived in God’s wisdom and love. In its opening chapters, Genesis poetically describes the beginning of our universe, but then turns quickly to the journey of the human family from its beginnings .

God’s plan, however, involves, not just the human family, but also the universe itself. All creation is waiting for the kingdom of God to be revealed. The bread and wine are signs of it.

Certainly human beings have an important role in the coming of God’s kingdom, as the incarnation of Jesus Christ makes clear. We’re not slaves, cogs in the wheel, as life grinds on. We represent God here in the universe and have to exercise a godlike care of this world. Each of us has a part to play that God’s kingdom come. We share in the promise.

We know too that the mystery of evil is at work in our world, a mystery also represented in the bread and wine. When Jesus took bread into his hands at the Last Supper, he saw a sinful world ready to put him to death, but he still took the bread in his hands. His blood would be poured out, but he still took the chalice to drink from it.

How magnificent is his response. He takes all created reality, all human existence, the goodness and evil of life in his hands, embracing them all with God’s love and care. From his hands he gives them to us, blessed by his presence.

“This is my body.” “This is my blood.” Incarnate in this great universe he gives life to it and to us.

In communion, Jesus gives himself to us in bread and wine, the signs of the world in which we live. We’re to live in that great world and have a role in it to fulfill. The Word made flesh is our bread of life, our food and drink, who gives wisdom and power to us.

Father Thomas Berry, a Passionist priest who taught me long ago, had a passionate love of the universe and a concern that the universe story enrich our way of looking at life. In one of his writings he saw the universe story enriching our understanding of the sacraments. It does.