Sunday, July 16, 2017

Summer Reading List

(Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on July 15 & July 16, 2017 at St. Paul Church in Cranston, R.I., and July 16, 2017 at Immaculate Conception Church in Cranston, R.I.; See  Matthew 13:1-23 and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2705-2708)

We are still in the beginning of the summer season and perhaps you have had the chance to check out some of the many different summer reading lists that are available online.  From, to the New York Times and Oprah, there are so many lists, and a seemingly infinite number of books to choose from.  

This weekend I would like to suggest the reading list recommended by the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  There really is one, in fact!  The Catechism lists several “titles” that we could consider this summer (see CCC, #2705).  More than simply reading these works, however, the Catechism states that we should meditate on them.  We should bring what we read into prayer and meditation before God, trying to understand what He is saying to us.  Pertinent to our Gospel this weekend, the Catechism explains, “Christians owe it to themselves to develop the desire to meditate regularly, lest they come to resemble the three first kinds of soil in the parable of the sower” (CCC, #2707).

Therefore, before looking at the Catechism’s “reading list,” we could take a few moments to look at what the Church teaches about Christian meditation.  To meditate is to pray in a way that actively seeks God.  It is to cultivate the soil of our hearts, to use an image form the parable of the sower, in a way that allows us to hear Him more clearly.  As the Catechism puts it: “The mind seeks to understand the why and the how of the Christian life, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking” (CCC, #2705).  When we meditate, we consider the deeper questions of the heart: “Why did God create me?  Why am I here?  What is the purpose or meaning of my life?”  More importantly, we examine, “How can I know and respond to what God is asking of me?”

The Catechism goes on to express what every person of prayer knows from experience: “The required attentiveness is difficult to sustain” (CCC, #2705).  Prayer is challenging!  Meditation does not come easily for any one of us.  The greatest of the saints, from the mystics to the scholars, teach us this important truth.  The two necessary requirements, in fact, are time and sacrifice.  We have to be willing to spend quality time alone with God, and we have to be willing to sacrifice even good things in order to grow in Christian prayer (remember Martha and her sister Mary, and that Mary chose “the better part”). 

How much time, though, and how much sacrifice?  Are five minutes at the beginning or the end of each day enough?  One of the excellent teachers of prayer in our own time is the French priest, Fr. Jacques Philippe.  Fr Jacques, in his book “Time for God,” writes that “Five minutes are not enough for God.  Five minutes are what we give someone when we want to get rid of him or her.”  God is not an insurance salesman or pesky telemarketer!  Fr. Jacques suggests that fifteen minutes are the minimum that we should spend each day in prayer with God, and that we should be open to the possibility of an hour or more.  He cautions against being too ambitious in this regard, lest we should become discouraged, but all of us can take fifteen minutes a day to seek God and try to understand what He is saying to us.

Now, with that said, we move on to our Summer Reading List!  The first “book” on the list should not surprise any of us: “The Sacred Scriptures, particularly the Gospels” (CCC, #2705).  So often our thoughts can be filled with doubt when we walk by sight and not by faith.  We may wonder: Has God forgotten me?  Is there a meaning or plan for my life?  Does God really forgive the things I have done?  What will happen to me and those that I love at the end of this life?  

But when we take the time to meditate on the Gospels and the awesome, beautiful life of Jesus Christ, our faith reminds us of the promises of God.  We recall that God so wanted to be among us that He was born into a human family.  Could that same God forget us?  Not a chance!  We meditate on the cross and all that Christ endured, and there is no question about the forgiveness of sins; He died for us and for our salvation.  Jesus Christ rose from the dead and promised eternal life for us and all the baptized, that we would rise with Him.  Spending time meditating on these awesome truths each day will transform our lives and flood our soul with faith.  

Secondly, the Catechism recommends that we “read” the book of sacred iconography.  Perhaps more prevalent in the East than in this area of the world, icons can help us to encounter God in a new and living way.  To pray the rosary before an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or to spend some time meditating before an icon of Christ or one of the saints, allows us to enter more deeply into the life of prayer.  Icons are referred to as “windows to heaven.”  When you look through a window, you can see the person on the other side; but that also implies that the person on the other side of the window can see you!  When we meditate on the mysteries of Christ, or the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or the virtues of the saints, before a sacred icon, the God of heaven gazes into our soul and helps us to grow in our spiritual lives.

Next on our list: spiritual books from the liturgy, from the Fathers of the Church and from the lives of the saints, along with all the great works of spirituality.  There are so many classic works out there.   Think about St. Augustine, who went from a very sinful life to become one of the greatest saints and theologians of all time.  How did that happen?  Read “The Confessions” of St. Augustine and find out!  Explore, “The Interior Castle,” with St. Teresa of Avila for the tour of a lifetime.   Some of the greatest saints in the Church have found the path to sanctity through spiritual reading and meditation: St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.  How about you?

The “great book of creation” also tops the list, as we look upon all the beauty that God created.  We “read” that book when we encounter an early, summer sunrise, or when we visit Narragansett Beach in the cool of the afternoon.  We do not simply gaze at these marvels.  No, we go one step further, and spend some time in meditation, seeking to understand what God is saying to us.  The One who is Beauty itself, in all of these created realities, is already seeking us and drawing us ever more deeply into a life-giving relationship with Himself.  

When we take the time to meditate—at least fifteen minutes each day, seeking God—the Catechism goes on to say that we begin to open up one of the greatest adventure stories of all:

To meditate on what we read helps us to make it our own by confronting it within ourselves.  Here, another book is opened: the book of life.  We pass from thoughts to reality.
—CCC, #2706

We meditate on the humility of Christ and His gentleness towards those around Him, and we become more humble.  We meditate on the patience of Christ on the cross, and His great mercy towards sinners (that would be you and me), and we become more patient, more merciful.  Our thoughts and meditations help to cultivate the soil of our hearts that, in the parable of the sower, bears tremendous fruit.  

As Christ teaches us in this wonderful parable, the sower scatters the seed everywhere: in the places that it will bear fruit and even in the places where the ground is infertile.  God is constantly speaking to us, communicating His love to us, revealing His word to those who are able to hear it.  In one of her reflections on prayer, the great mystic, St. Catherine of Siena, describes God’s word to us as a fountain; that spring is bubbling over with fresh, life-giving water.  In the city where she lived, there was a large fountain in the middle of the busy market square.  During the day, hundreds of people would be walking about that square, contracting business or shouting to one another.  One could see the fountain, but certainly there was no possibility of hearing it.  

But to go there at night, long after all the people had retired to their homes, one could not only see the fountain glistening in the moonlight; one could also hear the water bubbling up from that fountain.  The water could be heard cascading onto the tiles below.  God’s word is very much like that.  We have to be very still and prayerfully quiet, in order to hear it.  “Whoever has ears,” Jesus announces this weekend, “ought to hear” (Matthew 13:9).  

If we listen well, taking time each day to seek God in meditation, we place ourselves near the God who is the source and fulfillment of all our desire.  We allow Him to cultivate the soil of our hearts and make them receptive to His life-giving word and the treasures of the spiritual life.  If we are willing to do that, then we will discover the mystery Christ speaks about in this weekend’s Gospel, that we, too, can bear tremendous fruit for God, “a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold” (Matthew 13:23).

Sunday, July 09, 2017

The Humility of Faith

"The Door of Humility"
The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

(Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on July 9, 2017 at St. Paul Church in Cranston, R.I., and Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church in Woonsocket, R.I.; See  Matthew 11:25-30)

One of the most ancient churches in the Christian world is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  It was built over the place where Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, was born.  That church has been invaded, destroyed, rebuilt and reestablished, over and over again, across the centuries.  It is a testimony to the power of perseverance and to the tenacity of the Christian faith. 
The main entrance to the Church of the Nativity was built as a massive portal, with the arch of the gate reaching some twelve feet high.  Invaders and marauders would sometimes drive horses in through that vast doorway, or drive horse-drawn carriages out of it, loaded with the church’s treasures!  In order to defend against that sacrilege, the entrance was eventually walled up with brick and mortar.   Having sealed off the main portal, a small doorway was chiseled out, standing a mere four feet high and two feet wide.  There is no chance of getting a horse through that entrance!  In order for pilgrims to enter into the place where Jesus Christ was born, they have to literally kneel down and shift their bodies through the doorway.  Fittingly, it is called the “Door of Humility.”

Our readings for this Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, as well as the “collect,” or opening prayer for this morning’s liturgy, are focused on that beautiful virtue of humility.  I would offer three small points (pun intended) for our reflection this weekend.

First and foremost, we discover in the Sacred Scriptures and in this morning’s Mass that God is humble.  God, who created everything we see and everyone gathered in this place; who is so far beyond anything that we could possibly think or imagine; God who is all powerful and who “dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16), chose to be born as a little child in Bethlehem.  The God who created the universe was content to be cradled in the arms of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  

More than that, when that child grew to be a man, He chose to redeem us not by force or by physical strength, but in weakness and humiliation.  Jesus Christ allowed Himself to be handed over to sinful men, to be unjustly treated; to be beaten and spat upon.  He suffered crucifixion before a jeering crowd in order to set us free from the slavery of sin.   As we heard this morning, in the opening prayer for the Mass:

“O God, who in the abasement of your Son, have raised up a fallen world, fill your faithful with holy joy, for on those you have rescued from slavery to sin you bestow eternal gladness.”

God’s humility redeems and renews our fallen humanity.  Following upon this great mystery, we recognize a remarkable reality in the Sacred Scriptures this morning.  It is in that same humility that God calls us into a deep and abiding relationship with Himself.  God does not coerce us into following Him.  He does not make demands or violate our freedom.  With gentleness and humility, He approaches us and asks: 

Are you tired?  Are you worn out?  
Are you lonely and afraid?  
Come to me!

Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. 
—Matthew 11: 28-29

What an amazing and overwhelming invitation!  God wants you and I to share in a relationship of love with Him.  He wants to cooperate with us in a shared life of grace and fruitfulness.  We, for our part, are completely free to receive or reject so wonderful an offer.  

Which brings us to the third and final point for our reflection this morning.  There can be only one true response to so great a gift as this relationship with God: humble faith.

Humble faith believes and accepts God’s offer on His terms, not on our own.  We cannot say to God, “I will believe in You and follow Jesus Christ IF You do this, or IF you grant me that.”  Humble faith does not say, “I have most of the important things in my life covered for now, but I would like to keep you here in the background, just in case I need to bring you out for the big stuff.”  

Faith means acknowledging that we do not have all the answers, but that God does.  It means that we are willing to trust in God and in His mercy, knowing that He can—and will—take care of us.   He can—and will—provide us with exactly what we need in all of the challenges we face in daily life.  Pope Francis, in his first Encyclical Letter, Lumen Fidei, The Light of Faith, explains:

Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey. To those who suffer, God does not provide arguments which explain everything; rather, his response is that of an accompanying presence, a history of goodness which touches every story of suffering and opens up a ray of light. In Christ, God himself wishes to share this path with us and to offer us his gaze so that we might see the light within it.
—Lumen Fidei, #57

Placing our faith in Jesus Christ will not make our lives easy, nor will it answer all of the questions, doubts and fears that we face.  Nonetheless, making that commitment to live the Christian life will light the path before us and help us to be radically transformed within.  We can, with the grace of God, discover the freshness of faith and the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).  Who among us would not greatly desire more of those fruits in our lives?

In conclusion, our readings for this weekend remind us that we do not need to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and visit the Church of the Nativity to enter through the Door of Humility.  That door is wide open, and we can enter it right here this morning, as we kneel before our Eucharistic Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.  We come before Him here, and in the quiet places of our daily lives, and seek Him in that humility that He models so beautifully for us.  And when we do, we rediscover the God who wants nothing else from us than to give us His mercy, His love, His grace and His peace.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Corpus Christi: Surprised by Love

(Solemnity of Corpus Christi-Year A; This homily was given on June 17 & 18, 2017 at St. Joseph Church in Pascoag, R.I., and St. Patrick Church in Harrisville, R.I.; See  John 6:51-58)

There is a classic novel written by Evelyn Waugh, called Brideshead Revisited. It takes place during the Second World War in England.  The main character of the book is Charles Ryder, a self-proclaimed agnostic.  He either doesn’t believe in God, or he believes that, if there is a God, we could never know Him anyway.  Brideshead Revisited is about Charles’ encounter with a deeply Catholic family, but one that is even more deeply flawed.  We soon discover there is a multitude of neuroses and much dysfunction in that family!  At times, some of the characters are entrenched in gravely immoral behavior that brings them very far from God.  

Charles’ new friends will prompt him (and the reader) to question the authenticity and value of their Catholic faith.  What, after all, is so great about a faith that seems to have little or no impact on the people that profess it?  But, of course, Charles gradually discovers that the greatness of their Catholic faith is not found in any particular one of them, as much as it is found in the God who loves them.  Brideshead Revisited is a story about God’s mercy, and how He consistently guides them and sustains them with grace and a deep sense of the virtue of hope.
Towards the end of the book, Charles meets up with one of the daughters of the family, Cordelia.  It has been several years, and Cordelia begins to explain how the family had to sell off their large estate, which included its own Blessed Sacrament chapel.  She says to him:
They’ve closed the chapel at Brideshead . . . mummy’s Requiem was the last Mass said there.  After she was buried the priest came in . . .  and blew out the lamp in the sanctuary and left the tabernacle open and empty, as though from now on it was always to be Good Friday.  I suppose none of this makes any sense to you, Charles, poor agnostic.  I stayed there till he was gone, and then, suddenly, there wasn’t any chapel there anymore, just an oddly decorated room.  I can’t tell you what it felt like.

Few things are more desolate for a devout Catholic than an empty tabernacle.  If you have ever been to the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, then you know the Blessed Sacrament is removed and the tabernacle is empty until the end of the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday.  It often takes the absence of someone we truly love to recognize how important they are in our lives.  The real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is no exception.

In the mid 1700s, a Franciscan priest in the Italian city of Siena went to the tabernacle one morning during Mass, only to find it completely empty.  Someone had come in during the night and stolen the Blessed Sacrament!  What they were really after was the golden ciborium, the container that held the Eucharist.  Without understanding what they had done, they stole the Body of Christ along with it.

The people were outraged.  The Archbishop immediately organized public prayers of reparation and the entire city prayed for the return of the Blessed Sacrament.  Two days later they found the consecrated hosts in a church halfway across the city.  They had been dumped into a large poor box, which hadn’t seen much use over the years!  When they finally retrieved them, the hosts were covered with filth, dust and cobwebs.  Obviously they couldn’t consume them; they would have gotten sick.  Instead, they cleaned them off as best they could and put them aside so that they would eventually deteriorate on their own.  Only they never did.

Some fifty years later, they still retained the same freshness.  The archbishop ordered a scientific experiment to be done, and a commission declared that they were perfectly intact and showed no signs of deterioration.  These same hosts are still there in that little church in Siena, just under 300 years later, as fresh as the day they were first consecrated.  A crisp fragrance of newly baked bread is said to accompany the sacred particles.  It is considered the world’s only continuing Eucharistic miracle.

As remarkable as the miracle of Siena is, these hosts are no more, and no less, the same body of Christ that we receive at each Mass.  In a moment we will all experience a Eucharistic miracle, as the bread and wine which we bring before the Lord is transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ.  The Eucharist is an amazing Sacrament, and it has the power to change our lives.  As Christ says to us in the Gospel:
I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.
—John 6:51

Receiving the body of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist, embracing Him in faith and persevering in that Gift, we receive the power of God that sustains us for eternity.  We do not merely receive our Lord and “reserve” Him within us for a decade, or for three hundred years.  Christ, the Living Bread, will give us eternal life.  What an amazing and awesome Gift we have in Christ!

About ten years ago, in his Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was reflecting on his inauguration homily immediately after being elected pope.  He had indicated, at that time, that nothing is more beautiful than to be surprised by God, to encounter Him in love, and then to share that friendship with those who do not yet know Him (see Sacramentum Caritatis, # 84).  So many people in the world around us—people that we know and love—think that God is angry; or they think that God is absent; that He does not care about us, or is indifferent to our daily struggles and challenges.  None of those things are true.  Our friends in the world around us are starving for a real encounter with the living God of mercy!

Pope Benedict went on to say that this great opportunity to share with others our relationship with Christ is profoundly Eucharistic:

The love that we celebrate in the sacrament is not something that we can keep to ourselves.  By its very nature it demands to be shared with all.  What the world needs is God’s love; it needs to encounter Christ and to believe in Him.  The Eucharist is thus the source and summit not only of the Church’s life, but also of her mission: ‘an authentically eucharistic Church is a missionary Church.’
—Sacramentum Caritatis, #84

Has not this been the constant and consistent message of Pope Francis, from the initial days of his papacy?  It is the constant call from God, that the Church should reach out to those well outside her borders, and enable others to encounter God.  Traditionally, the Solemnity of Corpus Christi would fittingly conclude with a procession.  The priest, carrying the Blessed Sacrament in a monstrance and elevating our Lord as he exits the Church, is followed by the entire congregation as they process through the streets of the local city or town.  What an awesome witness for those in their homes or in places of business, to see that Jesus Christ and His Bride, the Church, are present in their midst.

In a certain sense, every Mass concludes with a procession of this kind.  In every celebration of the Eucharist, we are called to be surprised by joy, surprised by love, and to then bring that love, and the presence of God, to those who long to experience it.  

So many people in the world today experience what Cordelia describes in Brideshead Revisited, and what that Franciscan friar experienced in 1730 in Siena: that God is absent from their lives, that there is a void in their souls that simply cannot be filled in any other way.  How are we being called to bring the presence of Christ to a world hungry and thirsty for God?

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Easter Glory, Fully Alive!

Saint Irenaeus of Lyon (130-202)

(Seventh Sunday of Easter-Year A; This homily was given on May 27 & 28, 2017 at St. Joseph Church in Pascoag, R.I., and St. Patrick Church in Harrisville, R.I.; See 1 Peter 4:13-16 and John 17:1-11)

Our readings for this weekend are particularly focused on the theme of glory.  Six times in the Gospel we just listened to Jesus uses that word.  St. Peter, in our Second Reading, uses it three times.  What do we believe about the glory of God?  St. Paul, in his First Letter to Timothy, describes the God, “who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has ever seen or can see” (1 Timothy 6:16).  That is a good description of the glory of God.  God is impossibly far from us; He is holy and transcendent; His glory could never be seen . . . But then, suddenly, the God who “dwells in unapproachable light” and lives in eternal glory steps into time in Jesus of Nazareth.  The God of glory took on our human nature.  As we profess in the Creed every week, “He was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man.”  The glory of God that could never be seen was made visible in the person of Jesus Christ.  The disciples saw Him, touched Him, and heard Him speak (see 1 John 1:1).  

Christ is heard by the disciples, and us, this weekend as He prays to God the Father at the Last Supper.  St. John tells us that Jesus raised His eyes to heaven and prayed:

Father, the hour has come.  Give glory to your son, so that your son may glorify you.
—John 17:1

What “hour”?  The hour of the crucifixion, the hour when the Son of God would offer His life for the salvation of the world.  He continues:

I glorified you on earth by accomplishing the work that you gave me to do.  Now glorify me, Father, with you, with the glory that I had with you before the world began.
—John 17:5

I glorified you on earth by accomplishing the work that you gave me to do . . . 

The work that the Father gave Christ to do consists, firstly, in the great miracles that are signs of God’s presence among us.  The Father gives Christ the power to change water into wine; He opens the eyes of the blind; Jesus heals the sick and raises the dead to life.  These miracles revealed the glory of God (see Matthew 15:31).  Moreover, when Jesus proclaims the Good News of the Kingdom of God, He brings glory to the Father.  He announces the Gospel to the poor, revealing to them that they are not forgotten by God; that they are chosen, beloved, sacred, saved.  These are the works entrusted to Christ that bring glory to the Father.

Yet the glory of God is made manifest mostly in the event about to take place in the Gospel, the “hour” when Jesus would ascend to the wood of the cross.  St. John the Evangelist, whose Gospel we have been listening to for several weeks now, teaches that the cross is the greatest expression of the glory of God (see John 12:28).  

How is that possible?  How is the crucifixion of the God-Man, His suffocation and agonizing death, an expression of God’s glory?  The glory of God, in fact, is not revealed in suffering for suffering’s sake.  The glory of God is revealed through love in the midst of suffering.  At the cross Jesus reveals the greatest of all loves.  First and foremost, the glory of God is revealed in the love that Christ has for His Father.  In the obedience of love, the Son surrenders Himself completely to the Father, obedient even to death on the cross.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus kneels in overwhelming agony and prays “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).  That same divine and glorious love of Christ for the Father is revealed in His love for us.  Jesus offers Himself up in love for our salvation, for the forgiveness of our sins, to give us a second chance and a new beginning.  God is glorified in this totally selfless act of generous love that redeems the world.  That love will cost Christ everything, and so He prays: Now glorify me, Father, with you, with the glory that I had with you before the world began (John 17:5).

Now glorify me, Father . . .  The Father glorifies the Son by raising Him from the dead.  This is the great mystery of Easter that we have been celebrating for seven weeks now.  God is glorified in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead.  But then Christ goes on to say something that would have shocked His disciples, and should certainly surprise us. He continues:

“I pray for them . . . I have been glorified in them” (John 17:9-10).  Christ glorified in them?  These disciples of Christ would have known, all too well, their weaknesses and failings.  They would experience failure in a painful way later that night when they abandoned Him at His arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane.  We ourselves experience the same weaknesses and failures.  How is Christ glorified in these disciples?  How is He glorified in us?  The glory of God is made manifest in us through the awesome gift of the Holy Spirit that we received at Baptism.  As disciples of Christ, baptized into Him, we were cleansed of original sin and given new life in the Holy Spirit.  God dwells in us, lives in us, breathes in us.  Christ is glorified in us because He has given us new, eternal and divine life.  We now share in the very life of God!

One of the most amazing lines in the Catechism of the Catholic Church reveals that God has an innermost secret.  Did you know that?  God has a special secret that He has now chosen to reveal to all who can bear it.  The Catechism explains:

By sending his only Son and the Spirit of love in the fullness of time, God has revealed his innermost secret: God himself is an eternal exchange of love, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and he has destined us to share in that exchange.
—CCC, #221

It is not the case, then, that in heaven we will have coffee with God every Tuesday; we will not have an encounter with God at some specific moment of eternal life.  No, in Christ we are now swept up into the eternal exchange of love between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Christ is glorified in us because we are sharers in the divinity of Christ!  Lest we should forget so awesome a reality, the second Eucharistic preface for the Ascension reminds us in the sacred Liturgy today: “For after his resurrection he plainly appeared to all his disciples and was taken up to heaven in their sight that he might make us sharers in his divinity.”  

One of the early Church Fathers, St. Irenaeus of Lyon, is well-known for his beautiful quote, “The glory of God is man fully alive.”  The glory of God is revealed in men and women fully living the Gospel and totally focused on the life of Jesus Christ.  When a husband and wife strive together, year after year and decade after decade in Christian marriage, Christ is glorified (in one of the parishes I celebrated Mass in this weekend, the intention was for a couple celebrating 60 years of marriage; in the second parish, a couple was there celebrating 68 years of married life!).  When we struggle through various trials and difficulties; when we bear agonizing crosses and strive through intense periods of sorrow, and maintain our Catholic faith, God is glorified.  When we experience moments of betrayal and are able to forgive the pain and harm that others have caused us by their words and actions, however difficult that may be, then God is glorified.  “The glory of God is man fully alive.”  What an awesome calling we have been given in Christ!

In conclusion, there is a famous sermon preached by C.S. Lewis back in 1942.  That sermon, given at Oxford University, is called, “The Weight of Glory,” and in it Lewis reflects on this amazing mystery of the glory of God dwelling in us.  He expresses how this remarkable reality “Seems impossible. . . our thoughts can hardly sustain it.  But so it is.”  Nonetheless, there is a certain danger, he notes, that we could become too concerned with our own glory and lose sight of what Christ is asking us to do.  Be that as it may, Lewis continues, it is not possible for us to be too concerned for our neighbor’s glory!  We simply cannot become too concerned for how well the glory of God is being formed and manifested in those around us.  This, he insists, must be our focus if we are to take seriously the Christian life and the high calling of Jesus Christ.

C.S. Lewis goes on to explain that there are no “ordinary people” in the world we live in.  Because we are called to a supernatural destiny, to the life of God Himself, the people we meet each day—whether they are receptive to that call and becoming more like God, or whether they reject the grace of God and become something He has never intended—are far from ordinary:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.  All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.  

This is our privilege and our call in the Christian life, to help one another to reach perfection in the Christian life.  How is God challenging us to recognize His presence and even His glory in the people around us this week?  How can we help our neighbor to grow in the Christian life, or at the very least not be an obstacle to that growth?  Where, this week, will we be able to recognize and even facilitate the glory of God in our midst?  For, in the words of St. Irenaeus of Lyon, “The glory of God is man fully alive.”

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Good Shepherd Sunday: The Center Holds

(Fourth Sunday of Easter-Year A; This homily was given on May 6, 2017 at St. Joseph Church in Pascoag, RI and May 7 at St. Joseph Church in Pascoag, RI, St. Patrick Church in Harrissville, R.I. and Portsmouth Abbey in Portsmouth, R.I.; See John 10:1-10)

A number of years ago I was visiting a priest friend who lives in the region of Italy called Puglia.  If you are looking at a map of Italy, Puglia is located in the heel of the boot.  It is the southern-most region of the country.  At one point, we were able to drive to the coast and visit the Basilica named “St. Mary at the End of the Earth” (Santa Maria de Finibus Terrae).  The basilica commemorates St. Peter’s apostolic journey from Jerusalem to Italy, and his fulfillment of Jesus’ command to bear witness to Him “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  Before he suffered martyrdom in Rome, it is believed that St. Peter went to the “end of the earth” as he knew it, and proclaimed the Good News.

As we were making our way back to the monastery, traveling on a small, country road, we suddenly saw a shepherd in a nearby field. A small flock of about twenty sheep trailed behind him.  I thought, “Here is a shepherd literally guiding his flock at the end of the earth!”  That is, in fact, the very image that we get of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, in the Gospels.  Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd who would go to the end of the earth to find us and bring us home.  He goes to the very end of Himself, offering all that He has on the cross, to bring us into eternal life with God.  He is indeed the Good Shepherd!

But is it possible for us, of our own volition, to go beyond the reach of the Good Shepherd?  Could we possibly find ourselves, by our own misused freedom, in a place where we can no longer hear the voice of the Good Shepherd?  St. John the Evangelist, in the Gospel this weekend, indicates that such a thing is, in fact, possible.  He relates to us Jesus’ teaching about the Good Shepherd:

The sheep hear his voice, as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.  When he has driven out all his own, he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice.
—John 10:3-4

They follow the voice of the Good Shepherd, Jesus explains, but they will not follow the voice of a stranger.  Then, tragically, St. John relates how the Pharisees were not able to receive this beautiful teaching about the Good Shepherd.  He explains:

Although Jesus used this figure of speech, the Pharisees did not realize what he was trying to tell them.
—John 10:6

They could not hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. 

They were unable to realize what Jesus was saying to them, because they had grown accustomed to not listening to Him, not hearing Him. 

Time and again, in the synagogue and in the Temple, they had determined not to listen to what Jesus had to say.  Now that He was trying to teach them about Himself, to call them, they “did not realize what he was trying to tell them.”

There is every indication that, in the world we live in, many are not hearing the Good Shepherd.  In the laws that are passed, which violate the gift of human life for the vulnerable, the sick and the elderly, the unborn, the voice of the Good Shepherd is not being listened to.  In a culture where crimes are committed and live-streamed on Facebook, the voice of the Good Shepherd is not being listened to.  Many baptized Christians today, people that we know and love, are growing more and more accustomed to not hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd.

In the late 18th century, European civilization and culture began to grow in leaps and bounds during the period known as the Enlightenment.  Scientific advancements were opening up new avenues of knowledge; discoveries were being made that went beyond what could have been imagined centuries before.  Many at that time began to speculate how poverty, crime and other social ills could be eliminated completely.  An “Age of Reason,” would finally replace an age of religion and superstition, where such things as faith in God were useless, at best.  But then something unexpected happened.  The knowledge that was aimed at progress was used to coordinate and facilitate the First World War.  Progress was replaced by destruction of human life on a scale unprecedented, and the Enlightenment project gave way to a broken world.

In 1920, immediately after World War I, Ireland’s William Butler Yeats wrote his famous poem “The Second Coming.”  It is a dark and ominous poem that begins:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold . . .

Yeats communicated the desperate plight of a culture come loose from its moorings.  Under the guise of freedom, they had drifted so far from the “falconer” that they were unable to come back.  They could no longer hear the call to come home.

Things fall apart . . . the center cannot hold . . .
There was an article in the Wall Street Journal last August that focused on the intense current preoccupation with Yeats’ poem.  It explained that, in the first 7 months of 2016, “The Second Coming” had been cited by journalists and commentators more times than in the 30 years preceding it!  Referring to world terrorism, Brexit, and the U.S. elections, the message was one of apocalyptic despair:  Things are falling apart; the center cannot hold; we have drifted too far away to bring things back together.

It is crucial for us, as people of faith, to recognize that this is NOT the message of Jesus Christ in the Gospel this weekend! 

On the contrary, Jesus Christ cries out to us as the Good Shepherd, with every indication that we can, in fact, hear Him.  We can listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd, calling out to us with a message of hope, a message of peace, and the promise of redemption.  As St. Paul proclaims, “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17).

Jesus Christ promises us this weekend that “Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture . . . I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10: 9-10).  We thank God that there are several ways our faith teaches us to listen to that voice of the Good Shepherd. 

Firstly, we can hear the voice of the Good Shepherd when He calls out to us in the sacramental life of the Church.  The moment we are baptized, we enter into the very life of Jesus Christ.  The Holy Spirit lives and moves in us, calling out to our hearts that we belong to God.  On the altar, the Good Shepherd comes to us, seeking us out, to give Himself to us in His body and blood.  The Eucharist strengthens us to live the Christian life and to consistently hear the voice of God in a world replete with distractions.  The sacraments allow us to tune in to the voice of Jesus Christ.  Can we hear Him?

Secondly, we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd when we listen to the reading of Sacred Scripture in the Mass.  The Church teaches us that, when the word of God is read in the Sacred Liturgy, it is Jesus Christ that speaks to us.  We listen to the readings and Christ speaks to our hearts.  We hear the words of Psalm 23 this weekend, and it is the Good Shepherd that says to us, “I am your shepherd, there is nothing you shall want; I make you to lie down in green pastures, I lead you beside the still waters; I restore your soul.”  Are we listening to Him when He speaks to us in the Mass?

And finally, we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd when we take the time, each day, to be alone and silent before Him.  We take some amount of set time each day to be still with God, to listen to Him and to communicate our thoughts, desires, fears, hopes and joys.  We pray.  God is so eager to speak to us, to encourage and to console us, if only we will open our hearts, trust and believe.  Faith is a gift from God, no doubt; but it is also a response to the one who is calling out to us.  Can we hear that voice, that call of the Good Shepherd?

Because it is absolutely true that God would seek us out anywhere, and bring us home with great love.  If we were to fall away from God and drift thousands of miles away, He would seek us out and find us!  He most certainly is the Good Shepherd that goes to the end of the earth to save us. 

But He would much rather speak to us here.  Now. 

Today, and all throughout this coming week, we ask for the grace to listen well to the voice of Jesus Christ, our Good Shepherd, who constantly calls us to new and abundant life.