Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Lord is with us! May it be done unto me according to God's will.

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ

Peace be with you. I couldn’t help but notice a connecting freeze between the first reading and the Gospel. In the first reading, when the prophet Nathan is asked by King David if he should build a house for God, the prophet responds “Go, do whatever you have in mind, for the LORD is with you.” In the Gospel, when the Archangel Gabriel goes to Mary, he says, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.” We should not be surprised to hear this phrase. As Catholics it is one of those phrases that is at the heart of our prayer. Several times in mass I will say The Lord be with you and you all respond and with your spirit. Or, at least, most of the time we respond and with your spirit sometimes we forget and do that phrase that we stop using four years ago “and also with you” especially if we’re around someone that doesn't make it to church very often. The good thing is though we are very patient with those people because we're going to see them in the next couple of days for Christmas and they may not remember that some of the words have changed so it’d be good to be patient and help them. But I digress, the phrase “the Lord be with you” is so pervasive in Catholic culture that I heard a rumor about the first Star Wars movie, which was released in 1978. When one of the characters turned to Luke and said “The force is with you.” Catholics instinctively responded “and also with you.”

But, the question is, do we really think about what we are saying when we say “the Lord be with you”? We are saying that all the time throughout our lives the Lord is with us. In my mind there are three ways that we can look at this two of which are unhelpful and one which is probably the best. The one way to look at it is the way that King David does in the first reading today. David has just finally found a place of his own in his relatively newly created city of Jerusalem. He has a nice house and has the Ark of the Covenant safely secured outside. So David believes that it's his responsibility to make as nice of a house for the Ark of the Covenant as he is living in. When he asked for advice from the prophet Nathan, initially he says basically go for it because the Lord is with you. But soon after the Lord, through the prophet Nathan, tells King David that he does not want him to build the temple because he's perfectly fine living in a tent. He says to King David who are you to build a house if I didn't ask you first? David assumes that he knows the will of God when he really didn’t. This is a very dangerous thing to do because none of us can know the mind of God. We all rely upon two things to know God's will; divine revelation in sacred Scripture and sacred tradition and the church led by the pope and bishops. So yes The Lord is with us but that does not guarantee that we will always guarantee that we will know what God wants.

On the other hand, I'm reminded of something that happened to me that you may have experienced something similar to. When I was in middle school, we had a strange study hall that happened every three weeks or so. It was an odd configuration and I honestly don't remember why it was this way. But one week the teacher who is supposed to supervise the study hall who clearly hated having to do this, forgot to show up. At first we were kind of reserved and didn't say or do anything different but the longer that it was clear that the teacher was not going to show up the more that we got rowdy and loud. Some even Left the classroom and wandered the halls of the school. When the teacher found out he claimed that he was testing us and that we all failed but it was clear that he knew he was the one who had failed because, from then on, he not only didn't miss any more classes but he was suddenly early. I use that an example of the way we sometimes think of our relationship to God. Sometimes we think of God as somebody who catches us doing wrong thing, as the teacher who is there to tell us to sit down and shut up. In this case, we may feel like we want to keep God distant and removed because he is only going to punish us if he actually shows up.

Clearly we need a better understanding of what it means for God to be with us. We can't think of God as somebody for whom we occasionally do something nice to make sure that he does nice things for us and we can't think of God as a mean judgmental teacher constantly trying to catch us doing the wrong thing. In my opinion, a better way to think of God being with us is the way Mary does. When the angel approaches Mary to tell her that she will be the mother of God, at first she struggles to understand how this could happen given the unusual circumstances surrounding her pregnancy. But when it is made clear that it is through the divine action of God in the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary responds by saying may it to be done unto me according to your word.

This should be our attitude as well. We are invited to respond like Mary in that we want to do God's will whatever it is. When we follow God's will, God is with us to give us his grace. When we do our best but don't ask God first what he wants, God still loves us like he did King David but he invites us to ask him first what his will is. When we do not do God's will, we distance ourselves from God and are in need of a powerful sacrament to be forgiven. Just as a reminder, we will be having communal reconciliation this afternoon at 4 o'clock at St. Patrick's in Britt. You are all welcome to come be a part of God's forgiveness.

Ultimately when we say the Lord be with you and with your spirit we are reminding each other of God's presence among us and our desire to be close to God by doing his will. We remind our selves of our true nature, that in the end we all want to be able to echo the sentiments of Mary, “I am the servant of the Lord. May it be done unto me according to your word.”

Sunday, December 07, 2014

The comfort of the good news - Second Sunday of Advent

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ

Peace be with you. For the last three years, ever since I started growing popcorn, I’ve taken home three or four ears at Thanksgiving to see if it’s time to harvest it. At first, I figured my nieces and nephews would like to see what popcorn looks and feels like before it’s shucked and may be willing to shuck the an ear or two but, thus far, they’re more than willing to let their Uncle Dennis rub his hands raw on the pointy seeds. And, thus far, each year it’s been ready to go. I often say that there is something satisfying when I eat my popcorn because I know that it’s the fruit of my own labor. In fact, sometimes priests will kind of make fun of me for having a garden because I could just ask my parishioners for something and, chances are someone would probably grow it and supply me with it. However, I think it’s worth the struggle of planting, weeding, and harvesting.

I’m struck today by two phrases that come from our readings today. The first is “comfort” from the first reading. Even though this is the 40th chapter of the Book of Isaiah, most scripture scholars believe it is the beginning of a new section, either from the same author or from a pupil from his school of prophecy. The transition between the 39th and 40th chapter is quite stark and seems to imply several years have elapsed. In the 39th chapter, King Hezekiah brags about receiving emissaries from Babylon to whom he showed the beauty of his country, his vast wealth and storehouses of food as well as the location of his armaments and weaponry. The prophet responds by letting the King know that this act will bring about a war that will result in a great deal of death, the exile of his people, and the servitude of his own sons. Hezekiah’s either cynical or mocking response is basically “Well, at least we’ll have peace and stability while I’m alive.”

That’s what is written directly before we hear the words of the Lord to the Prophet Isaiah from the first reading; “Comfort, give comfort to my people…” It’s clear that a lot has happened between chapter 39 and chapter 40. The people are now in the very captivity promised them by Isaiah and God has determined that they have suffered enough and now it’s time for comfort. If this were to be portrayed in a sitcom, one moment Hezekiah and Isaiah would be dressed in nice clean outfits in a professional office with all kinds of the King’s sons and servants walking by looking busy. Isaiah and Hezekiah would be arguing and Hezekiah would say something like, “Oh, that’ll never happen!” And then the scene would shift to Hezekiah’s sons and Isaiah working as slaves in a quarry carrying wheelbarrows of rocks and each time they passed each other Isaiah would mutter “Your Dad said it would never happen but here we are. Great Job Hezekiah Jr!” We don’t hear anything about that. We aren’t concerned about the hardship they endured along the way, just that God has relented and has told Isaiah to “Give comfort to my people.”

In the gospel, I was struck by the phrase “good news.” For the next year, we will hear almost entirely from the gospel of Mark. Today, we heard the first 8 verses of that Gospel. Unlike Matthew and Luke who begin their gospels with two chapters describing the birth and childhood of Jesus, Mark jumps right into the heart of Jesus ministry by talking about its origins in John the Baptist. But even before he describes the clothing and diet of John the Baptist, which is quite similar to someone in exile, he offers a summary of what he is about to write. It is the gospel or good news of Jesus Christ. Most of the time we hear the word gospel, we associate it with one of four writings about Jesus Christ; Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. But, it’s important to remember that, before it described a particular type of writing, it described an attitude. This is the good news: that Jesus Christ came into this world. That it was announced by John the Baptist, the last of the great prophets. And that it was, indeed, good news of great comfort.

Sometimes, we struggle to understand why bad things happen to us. We can believe that as long as we follow the 10 commandments and do our best to come to church and lead a good life, that nothing bad will ever happen to us. But, sadly, bad things happen to everyone. Every one of us have something or someone in our lives that we wish we didn’t. It could be our job or our relatives or a friend or our house or car or even our own body. Today, God speaks to us words of comfort. He invites us to cleave to him in prayer, in the Eucharist, and in confession to find the joy of the good news. Jesus has come into the world not to condemn us and judge us but to bring us comfort and good news. Let’s bring that same comfort and good news to those around us.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

St. John Lateran: Moving from criticism to humble service

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ

Peace be with you. Today we celebrate the feast of St. John Lateran. If you read my bulletin column from a couple of weeks ago you know that there is no saint named John Lateran but that this is actually a compound name. The church was initially dedicated to St. John the Baptist but at some point in the mediaeval period someone referred to it as St. John the evangelist and it was donated by the Laterani family so most of the time it is simply referred to as St. John Lateran Cathedral. It is the Cathedral of the Diocese of Rome. Just like our diocese has a cathedral in Dubuque and a basilica in Dyersville, so the diocese of Rome has several basilicas and the Cathedral of St. John Lateran. We often associate the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, with St. Peter’s basilica because it is a huge building that can accommodate tens of thousands of people. But today we remember the Pope’s cathedral and of course Pope Francis.

For this feast the church gave us some very interesting readings to reflect upon that challenge me to ponder this question: what essential things do you think a Catholic parish has to have in order to be inviting and worth attending? One way of answering this question is to look at what people complain about. I thought of three common complaints. People want a clean church. I hear complaints about dirty bathrooms, cobwebs in windows and corners, and kitchens that aren't very clean. People want a good faith formation program where they can drop their kids off and have someone teach them the faith. And they wanted to be convenient and something they are in charge of. And people want mass to be short and fun. Mass should last less than one hour and there should be a good corny joke at some point that they can share with that “churchy” coworker on Monday morning. I imagine all of you have other things that you expect a welcoming church to have as well.

In our readings for this week I see two competing images that may challenge at our assumptions of what a church needs to have. The first comes from the gospel where Jesus challenges the temple authorities to stop "making my father’s house a marketplace." The temple authorities and those utilizing them were essentially turning the practice of their faith into something transactional. They buy an animal, sacrifice it, and in return they receive forgiveness of their sins. All throughout the Old Testament there are instances where the people of Israel I reminded of the insufficiency of the act of sacrifice alone. For example Psalm 50:13-15 “Do you think I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? Pay your sacrifice of thanksgiving to God and render him your votive offerings. Call on me in the day of distress.” The transactional relationship works well in the retail industry, you give me what I want, and I give you cash or a promissory note in return. But it makes for a very unsatisfactory experience of our faith and the church. It turns out relationship with God into something similar to our relationship to Walmart or a car dealership or a grocery store. And it neglects something fundamental: the very reason they didn't need those oxen, sheep, and doves is because the one driving them out would replace them with his once for all sacrifice. None of us could repay that debt.

Rather than a transactional, quit-pro-quo, understanding of the Church, we may reflect upon the image of the temple in the first reading, a temple flowing with water so pure that it’s capable of purifying the most salty water on the planet, the Dead Sea. This water is flowing from a temple of prayer and represents the grace of God offered to us through prayer. So it begins on our knees and flows into our daily lives. Rather than being characterized by a relentless search for control and power it is characterized by humility, first and foremost, and seeking what God wants not what is most convenient for me.

This is what Pope Francis preached about on Friday when he challenged all of us to move from being "pagan Christians" who go to church on Sundays but spend most of the rest of the week cultivating their attachment to money, power, and pride." Pope Francis challenged us to become authentic Christians. He asked "Do I try to love God and serve others?" He went on to answer his own question by saying "If you were meek, if you are humble, if you are a servant of others, then you are on the right path." Another way of saying this is to change our original question from "what are the essential things at church must have or do to be welcoming and worth attending" to "What am I doing here and in my daily life to humbly be built up as the temple of God and the temple of the Holy Spirit?”

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The one where I talked about Gran Torino.- 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ

Peace be with you.

In 2008, Clint Eastwood produced a movie called Gran Torino, in which he played Walt Kowalski, a man struggling to deal with certain changes in his life. The biggest change is that his wife has just passed away, leaving him alone for the first time in 50 years. Coupled with that, his neighborhood has changed from a blue collar, middle-class largely white part of town to an area where the majority of people are Hmong, a group of people are from Southeast Asia. Walt feels out of place and reacts to it with a great deal of anger. He’s racist, sexist, and the kind of jerk that people find hard to be around for any length of time. To put it simply, he’s hard to love.

In the first reading from the Book of Exodus, Moses highlights three groups of people that Walt would have found hard to love. First, there’s aliens, or as we would call them “undocumented immigrants.” They speak don’t speak English and they have traditions and cultures that seem strange and sometimes offensive to us. One example of this has to do with rosaries. I get asked if it’s okay to wear a rosary around your neck and I have to honestly say that it depends on where you’re from. People from Europe generally believe it’s disrespectful to wear a rosary like a piece of jewelry and say it should be in your hand instead. People from Mexico and other Latin American countries say that the rosary should be kept close to the heart and believe it’s perfectly acceptable to wear around your neck. It’s just different traditions, neither of which is wrong.

Next, Moses talks about widows and orphans, or “single parent families” as we may call them today. Walt would say that they get trapped in a cycle of dependence by the federal government and that they job the system as a result. This week, a friend of mine wrote on Facebook that he followed a woman through the check out line at Target. He saw that she was buying diapers and formula using the government issued debit card for the poor. He felt bad for her and almost offered to buy her groceries when her phone went off and it looked suspiciously like an iphone 6, the most recent version. And, when he got out to the parking lot, he saw her loading her groceries into the back of what looked like a new SUV.

Lastly, Moses talks about the poor in general. Walt would say that the poor are a bunch of lazy ne’er-do-wells who take advantage of people’s charity and that they should get a job.

Now, let’s be honest. We’ve probably all had thoughts similar to Walt’s before. Sometimes it’s not easy to love people. Yet, in our gospel today, Jesus tells us to do just that. He summarizes the entire Old Testament into the two most important commandments: Love God and love neighbor. Though it seems to be two separate statements, it seems clear in the context of the question and in Jesus’ response that the two are intimately connected. Obviously, the key word is love. As Christians, we are supposed to allow the love of God to form and shape who we are. Yet, sometimes it’s hard to love others and sometimes it just seems impossible to love them. After all, what do we get out of loving someone if they aren’t going to love us back?

This is where I turn to the second reading where St. Paul talks about how impressed he is that the Thessalonians are imitators of him who is himself an imitator of Christ. They saw St. Paul living the Christian life and that, likewise, inspired them to live a Christian life. In fact, they were so inspired that people from “Macedonia and in Achaia…(and)…every place (their) faith in God has gone forth” is now imitating them. That’s how love works. That’s what Walt figured out by the end of Gran Torino. He could be a person of hate chasing everyone off his front lawn or he could be a person who stands up for the alien and the poor and the widow in love. The more love that we exhibit through the actions of our lives, the more people will want to live it in theirs. Yet, hate works the same way: the more we hate the more people will hate others. The question we, therefore, have to ask ourselves is in what ways can we spread the love of God to this world so that others will see it and spread the love of God to others?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

You have made them equal to yourself, but do they want to be equal to each other?

My Dear brothers and sisters in Christ

Peace be with you. This past Wednesday, I got to teach the 6th grade class for Faith Formation at St. Patrick’s in Britt. I say I “got to” but, in truth, it was really “had to” because there is currently no catechist for that grade. It makes me really sad that our two biggest parishes, Garner and Britt, still have one class without a permanent catechist. Buffalo Center, Lake Mills, and Forest City have all the catechists they need and Britt and Garner just can’t seem to get people to volunteer. So, I got to teach 6th grade after working all day in the office and celebrating two masses, one in the morning and one in the evening. I kept asking myself why one of these kids’ parents wasn’t willing to step forward and teach their kids as they promised to do so in baptism. I also kept thinking that I was going to do a terrible job. I often struggle to be able to relate to middle school kids. I used to joke that it would be best if kids would be locked in dog kennels from sixth grade through junior year of high school. Still, I tried to keep a smile on my face in the hopes that being positive would lead to positive results. And, to be honest, it did. The kids were great, full of excitement and questions. The class time flew by and we even had to leave a few questions unanswered. On my way out the door, I posted to Facebook, “I was just reminded that 6th graders have a ton of energy.” To which Christine Carrier, our Director of Faith Formation, replied “Just a friendly reminder of how much gratitude our catechists deserve.” Just like me, these people work all day long and still come to class prepared to teach. They’re the ones I should be thinking about, thanking, and praying for. I needed to be reminded that, just like me, they’re busy people who have given of their time to teach someone else’s kids. Thank you for all you do.

In the gospel, I imagine most of us have some sympathy for the workers that have been there all day. They got to the market early, were the best workers there, and have worked from the cool 50-60 degree morning through the 90 degree heat of the day. Yet, at the end of the day, they receive the same amount of money as people who were initially passed over by this landowner and several others and, so are probably not the strongest or brightest and they only came to work for an hour. It seems clear to me that this can’t be a workable business model. Imagine what will happen the next day if you treat your workers like this: everyone will show up between 4:30 and 4:45 expecting that the landowner will hire them for an hour and give them a full day’s pay. Still, what bothers me about the workers who worked all day is what they complain about. Even though it says they think they should get more money than the ones who came later, they say, “You have made them equal to us.” They’re concerned that, by everyone getting the same pay for not the same amount of work, that you have made unequal people equal to them.

Perhaps for an insight into what Jesus is talking about, we should look to the second reading. In it, St. Paul has just started writing a letter to the Christians in the town of Phillippi while he is imprisoned for being a Christian. In the prison environment, he finds himself reflecting on two possible outcomes of being imprisoned; one which is good for the people he is writing to and one which is good for himself. He could be beaten and set free, which would mean he could continue evangelizing and teaching the Philippians. Or, he could be falsely charged, convicted, and given a death sentence. Now, I feel like it’s important to point out that, when St. Paul says he feels death is gain, he’s not struggling with depression and suicide. I hope, if that is something you’re thinking about doing, you’re talking to a family member or a friend or giving me a call. That’s serious and important but It’s not what St. Paul is talking about. He is saying that death would be gain because, by condemning him falsely and killing him, he would share in the same persecution and death as Jesus did. In some ways, he would be equal to Christ by sharing in a death like Christ’s.

Part of our culture as Americans is believing that we need to be separate, different, unique, and better than those around us. We separate ourselves out by family, by parish, by school, by town, by college sports team, and by a million other identifiers. But, part of being a Christian is recognizing how we are alike, how we are connected as one body, and how we are all one in Christ. Sometimes, while talking with people in the cluster, I’ll ask that we do things differently so that we are united and I’ll get a response like “We don’t do that here” or “I know that’s the way they do it over there but that’s not the way we do it here.” It sometimes feels like people put pride in being different than the parish or town or school down the road. It’s like they’re turning to me and saying, “You have made them equal to us.” Can we put aside selfish desires and the egotistical need to constantly be different in order to be equal in the grace and love of Christ?

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The glory of this world is not the glory of Christ

My Dear brothers and sister in Christ

Peace be with you. If you are on Facebook or Twitter or any other kind of social network, you’ve undoubtedly heard about the ALS Ice Bucket challenge. In case you aren’t on the computer as much as I am or you’ve been living in a cave, the idea is that one of your friends challenges you to dump a bucket of ice water over your head in support of research to ALS or, as it’s commonly called, Lou Gehrig’s Disease. If you don’t want to dump the water, you can donate to the ALS Society in support of the research. Most people do both, donate and dump the water, and then record the dumping so that you can challenge other friends. It sounds like a good way to raise money for an important cause. About a week ago, I started noticing some of “those people” on facebook starting to critique it. By “those people” I mean the crazy Christian types who seem to think that every issue needs to be put under the microscope and turned into an us versus them scenario. You probably all know the type, the ones who put out a list of businesses on facebook that use “Holidays” instead of “Christmas” and tell people not to shop there. Or the people who put out voter guides almost exclusively based on the candidate’s position on abortion. THOSE people. They critiqued the ALS society for using fetal stem cell lines in looking for a cure. At first, I didn’t take too much stock in it. I mean, it’s just a silly fundraiser for a company trying to solve a frustrating mysterious illness…a fundraiser that has raised, according to one report, 94 millon dollars. Still, I didn’t want to say anything because I knew that, if I put a critique on my facebook page, it would get a firestorm of criticism like “The Pope says judge not. Why are you being so judgy Father?” Or, “My grandfather died of ALS. They should use whatever tool is at their disposal to solve this.” So, I said nothing. After all, lately I’ve had enough meetings, emails, and telephone calls from people who hate me. Why add to it on social media.

But then two things happened on Friday that challenged me. The first was that Archbishop Jackels spoke out publicly against the challenge because of the use of fetal stem cell research. Fetal stem cell research is basically creating human life for the purpose of farming it for what we want and, in the process, killing it. Archbishop Jackels encouraged the priests, deacons, and all people to speak out against it. The second was a video that not only pointed out the use of fetal stem cell research but also pointed out that only about 70% of what you donate goes directly to research into curing ALS. The other 30% goes to pay the Board of directors who each earn between one hundred and four hundred thousand dollars.

As Christians, this can often seem like a very challenging world. Oftentimes, we stand on the opposite side of issues with the majority of people. Whether it’s gay marriage or immigrant children crossing the border for a better life or the use of fetal stem cell research, we often clash with friends and family who would rather follow a political party or whatever Oprah Winfrey says than the ways of Christ and his Church.

Our readings today offer us hope in this scenario. The first reading from the Prophet Jeremiah tells of a time when the Prophet felt kind of like I did for the first part of the week. Thus far in the book, God has asked him to speak out five times in warning to the Israelites about the upcoming Babylonian Exile. Either they reform their lives or they will lose the land God has given them. Each time he has done what God wants and each time people mock him and ignore him. So, he tries to ignore all the lawlessness and sinfulness around him and just be silent. But, then he can’t take it any longer and he has to speak out and warn them again. He feels like he was duped into a position of calling people to do what God wants and repent from what they have been doing when, instead, people are doing the exact opposite of God’s will and continuing to sin.

In the Gospel, Jesus begins to tell the Apostles that he must suffer and die but, unlike the prophets before him who befell the same fate, he will rise. For Peter, it is unthinkable that Jesus will die. Jesus is supposed to be the kind of leader that will unite Israel and make it a great nation again under his leadership. So Jesus has to rebuke Peter strongly and encourage him to get behind him or else he is acting in the same selfish way the devil acts.

Sometimes, as Christians we have to be “those people,” We have to speak out in ways that we know won’t be popular. We have to defend those who have no voice or whose voice is muted by the powerful. The purpose, however, isn’t just to be a contrarian or make people upset. Our sole focus needs to be doing what we know is right and the way we know we are doing what is right is if we are doing so, not for personal prestige or power or preservation of the status quo but because we want to follow God’s ways in the Church. What things in our life are challenging us today to get behind Jesus and follow him?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Funeral Homily - Donna Rayhons

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ
      Peace be with you. Let me begin my homily today by turning to Donna’s family to let you know of the prayers of the six parishes of the Archangel’s Catholic Cluster. We have been praying for you and will continue to pray for you as you mourn your loss. Let me also thank the priests who are here today. Fr. Peter Nguyen who is the pastor of St. Joseph’s in Wesley, St. Benedict in St. Benedict, and St. Joseph Church in St. Joe. Fr. Henry Huber was the pastor here immediately previous to me and is now the pastor of Immaculate Conception in Gilbertville and St. Joseph in Raymond. And Monsignor Bleich was Donna’s classmate in school and is a retired priest for the Archdiocese of Dubuque. We’re glad you could all be here for this opportunity to pray together and say goodbye to our friend.
     As I was praying over the readings and the obituary this morning, I thought of someone very close to my heart, my grandma. Like Donna, she suffered for years with some form of dementia and I watched as she went from being matriarch to being someone who needed to be cared for. As I prayed, I thought of a song that I first heard in the 1980s called “Veronica” by the singer Elvis Costello. It describes the kind of frustration that we who have had relatives with dementia have when we visit them.

Is it all in that pretty little head of yours?

What goes on in that place in the dark?

Well I used to know a girl and I would have sworn that her name was Veronica

Well she used to have a carefree mind of her own and a delicate look in her eye

These days I'm afraid she's not even sure if her name is Veronica

     This is precisely what we are grappling with today. Donna had a carefree mind of her own and a delicate look in her eye, all the way the end of her life. She was deeply in love with her Lord in the scriptures and in the Eucharist. She cared for people through her gifts of honey and baked goods. And, yet, we who cared about her, watched as that became more and more difficult for her to do as her mind and her body started shutting down.
     Yet, Donna provided us with four focuses to help us in the process. Three of these focuses are the readings. The first reading from the book of Wisdom describes the aftermath of a battle and the words of consolation offered to those who have lost loved ones. The writer assures us that, even if the person seems to be lost and absent from our lives, they are in fact being tenderly held by God and are at peace. The second reading, likewise, assures us that we who have faith in the resurrection of Christ will share with him the glory that he alone can give. Both of these readings give us hope that Donna is, in fact, in a better place, a more peaceful place. Yet, Donna also wanted us to be challenged today. The Beatitudes in the Gospel of St. Matthew remind us that humility and meekness are traits that are rewarded in the kingdom of God. It’s not a search for power and control that are rewarded but a humble heart. I believe Donna left those beatitudes as challenges for us to seek in order to build up the kingdom of God around us.
     The last focus that Donna wanted us to have isn't one that she made or created. But it is one that she treasured deeply in her life; the Eucharist. Donna was a faithful church goer during her life and she received her Lord often in the Eucharist. The Eucharist, for Catholics, is the body of Christ that forms us into the body of Christ, the church. It is our heavenly medicine that guides us to eternal life. In the heart of the Eucharistic prayer, we hear Jesus say that we are to do this in remembrance of him. This remembrance isn’t a simple retelling of the story but a bringing together of the members, a remembering, of his body the church, both those alive and those who have gone before us. We pray today that Donna is a part of that heavenly feast where Father, Son, and Spirit gather all the elect together into a place without suffering and pain and a place where she is sure that her name is Donna because God has called her by name.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Love and Mercy - Trinity Sunday

My Dear brothers and sisters in Christ

The grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you. The last time I celebrated Mass here, I talked about my experiences on retreat at Conception Abbey in Missouri. As you may remember, it was a beautiful experience of praying with and working with Archbishop Hanus, who is retired there, as well as the other monks living there. In fact, it was such a good retreat experience, that I continue to reflect upon some of the things I read and prayed while there. The monks have a very regimented, predictable routine of prayer and work and part of what I love is being folded into their this lifestyle. It starts promptly at 6:00 am with 35-40 minutes of quiet, peaceful praying of the psalms and listening to sacred scripture and the fathers of the church. Then, we get some time to go off and pray silently by ourselves before we gather again at 7:15 for morning prayer, which lasts about 20-25 minutes. On Tuesday at morning prayer, I was starting to feel like I was getting back in the rhythm of prayer. At one point, we stand, fold up our chairs, and then step forward, rest our books on the top of the chair ahead of us, and chant a part of the gospel. They had a slightly different wording of the gospel than the one I have memorized so, on top of holding a prayer binder, I had to hold an extra piece of paper balanced on the binder. Now, picture this, me holding a binder balanced on the back of a chair and balanced on top of that is a piece of paper at 7:30 in the morning. I closed my eyes in order to soak in the beauty of the prayer and really hear what I was praying and then I started to feel the piece of paper falling forward. So, I adjusted my hands on the binder to try and secure the paper but, instead, I lost control of the binder and it fell forward onto the ground making an extremely loud, echoing crash. And then, in true cartoon fashion, I looked down in frozen horror unable to prevent the plummeting wooden chair, which had been nudged by my falling book just enough so that cruel gravity could act upon it. “SLAM, BAM, CRASH, BOOM!” The entire monastic community quickly looked up at me and I realized I had brought the entire prayer to a virtual stand-still. It felt hours but was, in reality, seconds for the monks to recover and finish the prayer. As I exited the chapel, I fully expected either the Abbot or Archbishop Hanus to take me aside and ask me to leave and never return, both actions I felt they would have been completely justified in taking.

Today is the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity. As we transition from the Easter Season to Ordinary Time, we focus first upon this central mystery of our faith. We believe in one God who has manifested himself as three divine persons. They are distinct but not separate nor confused. They are of the same substance and all three are eternal. The most common image that is used to try to understand the trinity is love. We heard this most explicitly today in the Gospel from St. John, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” The church has consistently taught that we were created out of love. The Father loves the Son and the Holy Spirit is the love between Father and Son. But, real love cannot be contained or limited. So, the love of God overflowed Father and Son with such intensity and grandeur that it created humanity. While on my retreat, I had an opportunity to read a book by Cardinal Walter Kasper called “Mercy” in which Cardinal Kasper says the love of God needs to be intimately connected with divine mercy. Why create humanity? Why make something that you know will hurt you, blame you, hate you, deny you exist, and, ultimately, sacrifice you so they don’t have to suffer the punishment they deserve? Only because God is much more merciful than our created minds can grasp and because this mercy is at the very essence of God’s being, in other words it is his love.

After the incident at morning prayer, as we left the chapel, neither Abbott Gregory nor Archbishop Hanus said anything to me. That afternoon, I had an opportunity to work with some of the monks weeding a flower garden. I fully expected one of them to say something, but none of them did. In fact, it seemed like they went out of their way to be gracious to me, as though they knew I was embarrassed about what had happened. At first, I thought I had dodged a bullet but then it became clear that, actually, they do that with each other all the time. They forgive each other because they want the other monks to forgive them when they make a mistake. They live out the meaning of the phrase from the Our Father, “…forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” I started to think about all the times that I have been angry and frustrated by someone else’s mistakes long after those mistakes were made. I thought about the times when I have gossiped about other people’s mistakes instead of helping them learn. And, I thought about how hurt I’ve been when I’ve become aware of people, especially parishioners, complaining about something I’ve said or done when they haven’t talked to me personally or when we simply disagree about something. Love and mercy are two sides of the same substance at the heart of Trinitarian love. Being loving and merciful, therefore, is also how we are called to live our lives, especially to those hardest to love. What is one grudge that God is calling you to let go today?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Finding the prophetic love of God

My Dear brothers and sisters in Christ

Peace be with you. On July 28th of last year, Pope Francis was on his way back from World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro when he was asked a question about a controversial Italian priest who was being accused of having inappropriate relationships with men. The Pope answered the questioned very thoroughly but there was one part of his answer that has absolutely captivated the media. The Pope said

“If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him?

I imagine most of you have heard about this quote…or at least part of this quote. The problem is that five words out of this answer became the entirety of what the Pope said, namely, “who am I to judge.” The media made it sound like the Pope was changing church teaching in this off-hand comment. They treated him like he was a president deciding that he was no longer going to enforce laws that are on the books. In truth, as you just heard, Pope Francis was simply attempting to articulate the old teaching using new words. He was trying to be a prophet.

Our readings today invite us to listen to two great Prophets. First, we hear the Prophet Isaiah say that from his Mother’s womb the Lord challenged him to reach out to the ends of the earth. The message of God isn’t intended to be hoarded by a few people, a privileged minority. God wants his message to reach out to all parts of this world, to everyone. This is echoed in the Gospel when John the Baptist says that Jesus is the very embodiment of this message, the one who will take away the sin of the entire world.

The challenge, of course, in today’s world is that, for many, the message isn’t all that new and doesn’t seem to affect their daily lives. Many have written it off and no longer follow the teachings of the church in lieu of their own teachings. And, oftentimes, when the media sets the context for the debate, it does so by asking questions intended to make the church’s teachings untenable. For instance, this week we will remember the horrific Supreme Court decision of Roe V. Wade. Hundreds of thousands of Americans will protest this decision in Washington DC and will be either completely ignored by the media or will get equal time with the hand full of pro abortion protestors present. And, if any media outlets do dare to go deeper, they will focus on the topics of rape and incest and will use phrases like “a woman’s right to choose” and “women’s reproductive health” instead of “infanticide” or “murder of innocent children.” Pro lifers will be painted as a group of old, sexist men determined to make women second-class citizens instead of focusing on the actual participants in the March who are overwhelmingly women.

The problem is that we see abortion through a political prism with Democrats and Republicans putting their own political spin on it. However, abortion is a justice issue. It is an issue at the core of human dignity. It calls for prophets to stand up and remind people that life has dignity, that a fetus doesn’t get dignity because of the desire of parents but has it because of its nature as human life. We need prophets to listen to the voice of God and preach respect of human life to the ends of the earth. That’s our job as Christians: to remind people that the important thing in life is the respect for the dignity of the human person from natural conception until natural death.

The message that we hear from the prophets and, in the end, are invited to profess, is that God loves us and that God loves us so much that he wants to enter into a profound relationship with us. We are not his pets. Earth is not his ant farm. We are his sons and daughters in dignity. He not only knit us together in his image and likeness in the womb, but he set us up to have a special place in this world. God loves us so much that he wants to be in a relationship with us throughout the entirety of our lives. He walks with us and invites us to get to know him and love him, not as a fickle god that punishes us when we don’t do what he wants. But as a God that freely offers himself to us in this Eucharist, in the sacraments, and in our personal prayers. There are so many people who don’t know of the love God has for them. This week, make it a point to let other people know how much God loves us.