Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Narrow Gate: Not a Threat but a Gift

Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2013

“Lord, will only a few be saved?”
I was just speaking with someone last week about the idea of hell – and about how hard a concept it is for many of us who are younger to get our heads around.  That Jesus would say to people knocking at his door something so harsh: “I do not know where you are from.”  You can understand why they protested: “But you ate and drank in our company, you taught in our streets!” and we might add some more familiar protestations as well. “But I’m a good person, a spiritual person.  I’m not perfect, but look, I’m a lot better than some and I haven’t killed anyone.  Aren’t you a God who is good and merciful and full of love?  How could you reject me?” 

So many of us who are younger have grown up in what we might gently call an ‘entitlement’ culture, and for some the sense of entitlement reaches all the way to the gates of heaven.  So often we hear people speak as though we are entitled to go to heaven by virtue of being born: as though everyone is on the highway to heaven: maybe not everyone is in the fast lane, some might take some detours, some may break down on the way, some may need to pay extra tolls, but that we will all get there eventually. 

I like that idea.  But unfortunately, it is not true.  The Church formally declared that the teaching of universal salvation is heretical at the council of Constantinople in 453.  And why?  Because it simply does not match what Christ told us.  Not just once, but many times.  He told us that not all will be received into the home of our Heavenly Father.  In the Gospel today he calls it a ‘narrow’ gate. 
Now it seems that the older generation has an easier time with the whole notion of the narrow gate: maybe too easy a time with it.  I have encountered a fair amount of fear in the confessional: fear that sometimes becomes the dominant force in the spiritual life: fear of being shut outside, being left at the door.  Instead of worrying about my brother and sister, about thanking God for his many blessings, there can be the tendency to get hung up on one’s own salvation: whether Christ will open the door, whether I’ve done anything to offend him.  The irony is that this illness of the spiritual life can actually cause the very thing it is trying to avoid: isolation from God: fear for our salvation can cause us to become entirely focused on ourselves and oblivious to the needs of those around us, or to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, making it difficult for God’s saving grace to be at work in us.

So what does a healthy Catholic understanding of the afterlife look like?  Clearly it is not a perspective of entitlement. 
We cannot join our protestant brothers and sisters in confidently proclaiming that we are saved.  We don’t know.  We know we are not entitled.  We know that heaven is not guaranteed.  We know that it is a narrow gate and that as our Lord seems to imply today, some who think that they are all set to go through will be surprised to find out that they are not prepared.
And yet it is not healthy for our relationship with God to be overshadowed by a preoccupation with our final destiny, with anxieties about the life to come. 
Isn’t that the classic stereotype of Christianity today: that faith really doesn’t add anything to our lives but a fear about heaven and hell?  That we can be good people and live just fine without religion, without this whole idea of the narrow gate, so why bother believing such a fearful thing.
Some portray Christ as a shepherd who comes in to a beautiful pasture where the sheep were just peacefully grazing and enjoying life and being good sheep, and then he fences off the good field, the heavenly grasses and says “From now on you can only get in here if you are part of my flock – envelopes will be arriving in the mail next week.”  Well, I would resent that kind of a shepherd too!

So let’s look at the scene again.  How important it is that we have the right scenery for this gate of ours.  And the scenery is this: our world is a pasture that is in ruin.  The sheep rebelled, breaking down its fences and trampling its fields.  The meager tufts of grass have left the sheep tired and hungry, and now it is the night: we are at the mercy of countless wolves, and one thing is certain: we will not last the night.  No one is getting out of here alive.

So that is the scene.  It is into this pasture, the pasture of a fallen world, that Christ, our good shepherd enters.  A deadly pasture. 

Christ loves his sheep, and he wants to protect us.  So he fixes the fence, and he makes a gate, not to keep out sheep, but to keep out the wolves, to keep out sin and death.  And then he goes out searching for us, calling out to us, bringing together his flock to lead them to safety.

Christ tells us in another place in the Gospels that he knows his sheep because they hear his voice and they follow him, they listen to him.  Our Gospel makes it clear that being a part of the flock, knowing Christ, is not a matter of externals: of geography, of culture, or race, or of history.  It is not enough for us to smell like incense, to be seen in Church, to have the appearance of disciples.  We all know that you can wear sheep’s clothing and remain a wolf within. 

So we should be careful about trying to determine who we think will enter the gate and who will not.  Christ reaches out to all of his sheep, to all people.  Maybe they wandered for a time, maybe they were running with wolves for a while, maybe they were injured.  Christ leaves the 99 to find the one lost sheep, sometimes he carries us to the gate.  But he doesn’t force himself on us.  He calls and he waits to see what our response will be.  Whether we will listen and obey.  Whether we will leave behind the wolves and enter through the narrow gate.

The gate is not a threat: it is a gift.  Hell is not a threat, heaven is a gift.  We do not lose anything in Christ, we gain everything: we gain what we would never have had: we are given the promise of leaving this pasture unscathed, freed from the slavery to sin, the darkness of ignorance, and freed from death itself.  We can live a new day because of the gate, because of Christ – who did not come into this pasture to condemn, but to save us from sin and death. 

The specter of Christ at the gate, of the last judgment, of the possibility of hell, should not make us afraid: it should make us grateful to Christ for inviting us to be members of his flock, giving us a way out of this pasture, for the promise of salvation.  And it should remind us of what we should fear: the author of sin, and the prince of darkness.  The one who seeks to infect us with his rebelliousness, who prowls in the darkness when we wander away from the flock, waiting to devour us. 
I, for one, am glad that he is not getting in the gate.

Ablaze with God's Love

Homily for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2013

In recent days many of you have probably read about the horrible bloodshed and unrest in Egypt, and maybe you have also heard about how the Coptic Christians community is suffering.  Dozens of churches have been burned, Christians are being targeted, and so many are living in fear. 

As you probably know, the Christian community in Syria has been facing similar threats, with priests being kidnapped and killed.  And these are not the only two countries: in so many parts of the world today, particularly in Asia and the Middle East, Christians are persecuted for their faith.

In the Gospel Christ tells us that this violence and turmoil is unfortunately not the exception, but many times the rule for Christian life in this fallen world.  At another time he reminded his disciples that no servant is greater than his master, so if they persecuted Christ, if he had to undergo the suffering of the cross, then so would his disciples also suffer and undergo the cross.

Pope Francis recently put it another way at world youth day: perhaps in a way that applies more to our culture: he called it a mess.  He said he wished that the youth would go home and make a mess – that they would not be afraid to disturb the quiet reign of earthly kingdoms in this world, but announce the good news of the kingdom of God.

It’s often messy, he said, this proclamation – not always polite.  Our world, society – we ourselves – we do not easily submit to the rule of our heavenly king.  We tend to resent his will in our lives, even though it is only by his will that we exist in the first place.  But we have a tendency because of our fallen nature to bite the hand that feeds us.

It’s not just outside of the Church that we find the mess – but within the Church too, in our families, and within each of our hearts.

Some suggest that we attempt to strike an uneasy truce: that we let each govern themselves, or we let the strongest rule, or the majority rule, whatever will make for quiet.  But quiet is not the same as peace.  You can force slaves to be quiet, but you cannot force them to be at peace.  All you need for quiet is duct tape.  Or at least that’s what I hear…  But you need more than duct tape for peace.
Christ did not come to make this world quiet, he did not just pull out the roll of heavenly duct tape (though I would like some of that) and go to town.  He is much more dangerous than that. 
He tells us in the Gospel today that he came to set the world on fire, came to set us on fire.  And not some superficial fire that is just flash and smoke, singeing hair and leaving us with a nasty smell in the nose. 

The fire that Christ wishes were blazing is the fire of purification, of conversion, a fire that enters into the depths of our hearts through the sacraments and scriptures, in our prayer and acts of charity.  And deep within, through this fire, this grace, Christ works to purify our hearts, to remove the duplicity from our wills, to heal the rebelliousness of our spirits, and to forge within us new hearts.  New hearts that - forged in God’s love, tempered with sacrifice, and honed through discipline - are prepared to serve the will of our Father in heaven, and his will alone.  His fire makes us fully human by re-casting us in Christ form the inside out, in whose image and likeness we have been made. 
This deep and mysterious fire of God’s love messes with the superficial rulers of this world, it scares them because it cannot be controlled by them: it forges men and women who are ruled by God alone, who are citizens of heaven.  Men and women who St. Paul speaks of in our second reading today: who persevere in running the race that lies before them, while keeping their eyes fixed on Jesus, not growing weary or losing heart, but resisting even to the point of shedding blood.  Men and women ablaze with the fire of God’s love.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

On the Field

Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, August 15, 2013

I imagine that most of us have a memory of watching a sports game that was particularly intense.  I remember, for example, the super bowl of 2002, when I was in college and the Patriots won for the first time in forever.  We were sitting on the edge of our seats toward the end, especially… riveted.  I don’t think there was a person on campus who was not watching the game.

I’m sure college campuses in other parts of the country weren’t as preoccupied.  For them it was not personal – it was not their team, their region that had suffered such a horrible losing streak for so long and was finally looking like it might win. 

I wonder what that night must have been like for the families of the players on the field during the game: their mothers and fathers, wives and children.  If all of us were so riveted by the drama of those final moments of the game, how much more intense that experience must have been for the family. 

Today much of this community goes about its daily work just like any other day.  August 15th means little to them.  Maybe some are aware or hear that it is the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a Catholic feast.  But most people are not even aware, and if they are, they are not particularly interested.  Many of those around us might as well be in Texas during a Patriots Game.

Now I suppose some might say that we are like avid Patriots fans sitting in the bleachers.  That we who celebrate the victory of Mary’s Assumption today, we all root for team Mary.  Or maybe, some might be a little more precise and say: look, we are not just Mary’s fans, we don’t just root for the team: we are her family: Jesus has given Mary to the Church, to all of us, as our mother.  So we are not just celebrating today as fans, but we are celebrating our Mother’s assumption into Heaven.
But I don’t think either of those analogies go far enough. 

Because while it is true that we are probably all big fans of Mary, and while it is also true that in Christ we are her sons and daughters and she is the mother of all believers, the reality is that you and I are not sitting in the bleachers.  You and I are on the field.  By virtue of our Baptism, what we celebrate today as we recall Mary’s Assumption into heaven is not just her victory, but our own, not just what God has done for her, but what God promises he will also give to us. 

Each time we celebrate one of these great Marian feasts, we are not only celebrating what God did for Mary and how he works through her, but we also reflect on how Mary shows us about who we are.  Mary is our mother, she is the mother of the Church: what has happened to her, what God has done in her he also offers to each of us. 

St. Bonaventure put it this way: “As the sun excels and makes glorious all the bodies of the world, so the Blessed Virgin excels and makes glorious the members of the whole Church.”
Mary is the first Christian, the first to be given the gift of eternal life by Christ, her son – the first to experience the future that Christ has promised to all of his disciples, to all of us.  She is our family, but she is also our model in faith: the sign and the pattern for what we hope will be for us as well.  She is our coach and team captain.

That is why this is a Holy Day of Obligation.  Not because the Church wants to force us into the stadium to watch some game that doesn’t concern us.  But because we are on the field and Mary shows us how to run the race, how to fight the good fight, how to compete well in the battle against sin and death, and today she shows us the prize that awaits us across the finish line. 

Our first reading today from Revelation makes Mary’s courage and strength so apparent: she gives birth into the gaping mouth of a dragon.  I cannot think of a more powerful depiction of courage.  Most women would still tremble at giving birth in a room full of saints.

And she is on the field with us.  That is the beautiful thing – she walks with us and coaches us and encourages us as we seek to follow her example of courage and of trust in her Son. 

She sings to us the battle hymn, or the fight song, in the Gospel today: the Magnificat.  It is a hymn that makes the halls of hell tremble.  A hymn of humble yet confident trust in God, a hymn of praise and thanksgiving.  “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.”

But today, let us remember what one of the fathers of the Church has taught us: “The Magnificat was not said once and for all in the garden at Hebron; it was put into the mouth of the Church for all the centuries.”  Christ has come to earth, is given to us in the scriptures and sacraments, has given Mary to us as our mother and guide, so that it is not only her soul that proclaims the greatness of the Lord, but so that there are thousands of souls, millions of souls who join with her on the field, singing her hymn of praise, confident that one day we too will share with her the bright victory of eternal life with her Son.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Making a Mess

The recent words of Pope Francis to the youth gathered in Rio de Janeiro last month spread like wild-fire: “I want to tell you something. What is it that I expect as a consequence of World Youth Day? I want a mess. We knew that in Rio there would be great disorder, but I want trouble in the dioceses!  I want to see the church get closer to the people. I want to get rid of clericalism, the mundane, this closing ourselves off within ourselves, in our parishes, schools or structures. Because these need to get out!”

It has been interesting to watch the reactions of Catholics to the Pope's words.  Some have swooned at these words, waxing nostalgic about how he reminds them of Blessed John XXIII.  "Dust off the picket signs and the blow horns everyone!  Let’s go march on the hierarchy and make a mess.  You heard the Pope, he wants us to!  Time to challenge this male-dominated and homophobic church and enter the modern world."

And then you have those who have interpreted the Pope’s words in the same way, but with horror: “He’s as bad as Obama.  Next thing you know he is going to be telling us that there was no virgin birth."

But what about actually seeking to understand the Pope’s comment, rather than use it as a launching point to promote an agenda or instigate panic?

What did the Pope mean when he said “Make a mess?”  I would submit that what he was saying is not immediately apparent.  He was speaking in another language and off the cuff, and he used words that were open to an incredible range of interpretation when not understood in context.    There are few words in the English language that say so little as the word 'mess.'

So what was the context of his remark?  “We knew that in Rio there would be great disorder,” Pope Francis said, “but I want trouble in the dioceses!”  The Pope was first referencing the mess in Rio de Janeiro: the mess  in the streets.  Anyone who watched the coverage during World Youth Day saw how the celebrations shut down the city, they snarled traffic, they brought normal life to a standstill.    In this context it becomes clear that the Pope is expressing a desire that the Church be for society the same kind of visible and tangible and yes, “messy” presence of Christ that the youth were for the people of Rio this July.  “I want to see the church get closer to the people,” he said.

The pope’s next line is an important interpretive key for us to further understand what he meant by this mess: “I want to get rid of clericalism, the mundane, this closing ourselves off within ourselves, in our parishes, schools or structures. Because these need to get out!” 

Those who have been reading Pope Francis since he was elected will recognize in this statement a reference to a dominant theme of his teaching as archbishop, of his address to the cardinals prior to being elected pope, and of many of his addresses and other public statements since beginning his pontificate: the rejection of what he terms ‘clericalism,’ and particularly of a clericalization of the laity, and the insistence that the Church is not and cannot ever be viewed in merely mundane or secular organizational terms, but that the Church is first and foremost a spiritual reality: the living Body of Christ in the world.

Many have read excerpts from an interview then Cardinal Bergoglio gave in 2011, when he spoke of sickness in the Church.  Asked about the role of the laity, the cardinal did not mince words: “There is a problem, and I’ve said it many times before: the temptation of clericalization. We priests tend to clericalize the laity. We don’t realize it, but it is like our [clerical state] being contagious. And the laity –not all, but many,- ask us on their knees to clericalize them because it’s more comfortable to be an altar server than the protagonist of the way [of life] of the laity. We don’t have to fall into that trap. It is a complicity that is sinful. Neither to clericalize nor to ask to be clericalized. The lay person is a lay person and has to live like a lay person with the strength of baptism, which renders him capable of being leaven of God’s love in society itself, to create and sow hope, to proclaim the faith, not from the pulpit but from his or her daily life. And carrying the cross like we all do. The lay person’s cross, not the priest’s cross. Let the priest carry the priest’s cross. God gave him shoulder enough to bear it.”

And so when the Pope speaks of a ‘mess,’ I would submit that it is pretty clear that he is not talking about the mess of a protest in front of a chancery.  Instead, I think he is speaking of a mess that shares more in common with the commotion that first clogged the streets of Jerusalem 2000 years ago and has continued to disrupt the day to day life of men and women since.  The mess that ensues when the divine breaks into the human, when the kingdom that is not of this world encounters the kingdoms of this world.  In short, the mess of the cross.

Where is the cross encountered, where is the mess to be made today?  Certainly there are crosses and messes inside the Church, but this is not where Pope Francis wants the laity to focus.  He wants them to focus on the streets.  That has been the Pope’s continual message: that the laity stop messing around in the sacristy and in the sanctuary and get out into the world.  That they start messing around in the world, bringing their faith to bear in daily life and witnessing to the transformative power of the Gospel in the street.  Let the Pope worry about corruption in the curia.  Let the Bishops worry about what is in the Catechism.  Let the priests worry about how to offer Mass.  The pope, the bishop, the priest: the hierarchy is in service to the Church, but it is not the Church.  The Church must extend to the dining rooms, living rooms, bedrooms, voting booths, and classrooms where the laity live: and the hierarchy cannot and should not interfere in spreading the Gospel in these parts of society.  These places are the specific domain and responsibility of the laity; it is in their homes and communities that Christ desires to work through all baptized men and women to build his kingdom, his body, the Church.

As Cardinal and now as Pope, Francis is identifying one the most serious ailments facing the Church in our time, particularly in the West.  The doors of the Church were flung open during the Second Vatican Council, but rather than the laity rushing out to meet the modern age, it seems that many were confused and rushed inside the sanctuary and sacristy and pulpit.  The doors were opened, but they went the wrong way. 

Instead of bringing others to encounter our Lord in the Eucharist and confession, parishes were embroiled in battles over where to place the tabernacle and rivalries about who would get to be an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion.  Instead of planning ways to increase understanding of the Gospel so that families would live according to Christ's teachings in their communities, religious educators debated translations and gender inclusivity and ecclesiastical authority.  Instead of enriching programs that would foster direct service to the poor and the needy, the imprisoned and the sick, pastoral councils were preoccupied with making the parish a ‘welcoming community,’ organizing small sharing groups, and planning the next bean supper.

It is this welcoming and comfortable self-referential country club of pseudo-spiritual communitarianism that the pope wants replaced with authentic parish life: with the messiness of a community that is trying to live the Gospel in the day to day world.  He desires for us to build Catholic communities that do not seek to be the end in and of themselves, but to be a source of strength and encouragement for those who are working to live the mess that is necessarily entailed in following Christ in our families, the streets, the schools, the courthouses, the hospitals, the nursing homes, the tenements, the prisons, the workplaces, the malls, the parks and neighborhoods.  He reminds us that the purpose of the Church is not to be a locus of neat and tidy worship services that serve as a refuge from the hard realities of life in a fallen world.  The Church is the body of Christ incarnate, a body that shone with divine light on the Mount of Olives and anointed with precious oil, but that also was spit on and scourged and crucified on the cross.

The refuge of the sanctuary is meant to recharge us and equip us for carrying the cross, for confronting the mess, of life in a world groaning in labor pains as it awaits resurrection.  We are not in heaven yet.  The Church is not triumphant yet.  This is the Church militant, and a sign of her authentic presence in a culture is often not peace and tranquility but a great big mess. 

In a way, the Pope’s words to the youth were a further precision of the words of Blessed John Paul II: “Do not be afraid to set out into the deep and lower your nets for a catch.”  How our recent popes have desired the laity in particular to become the protagonists of conversion within society!  To deliberately approach the activities of daily life so as to ensure that they are authentically witnessing to their union with Christ in the world, and thereby becoming vessels of his grace that reaches out in love to all people.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Beginning in Augusta

Just a note for everyone:

Since there is a three week rotation here at St. Michael's in Augusta, I am spending the next three weeks introducing myself and basically am giving the same homily three weeks in a row.  So rather than post the same homily three times, I am hoping to write about some different things in the coming weeks and then to post my first homily here after the third weekend.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Homily on the Occasion of my Departure from St. Paul the Apostle Parish

Homily for the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time.
On the Occasion of my departure from St. Paul the Apostle Parish, Bangor ME
July 14th, 2013

In the Gospel today we hear the beautiful parable of the Good Samaritan.  And I find myself preaching on my final weekend together with all of you here at St. Paul the Apostle Parish. 
There are so many things that come to mind, so many things that it seems would be good and important to say before I go.  But there is not time to speak of everything, and so I want to just focus on a few things:

First of all, I want to tell you all how grateful I am to Fr. Nadeau.   He has been incredibly good to me and has been a wonderful example of a good and faithful pastor.  You have seen us work together, I am sure.  But there are many things that you have not seen.  How many times I would come home after a long meeting to find Fr. Nadeau, also back from a long meeting, working to prepare a late dinner so that I did not just end up snacking on doritos and gummy worms.  Or the time that I decided to pull out the poison ivy at St. Matthew’s by hand – and the gloves did not quite work and he bought a million guaze pads and ended up waiting in the emergency room with me at St. Joseph’s for quite a while one evening. 

And I cannot begin to count up the number of hours we have spent talking about all of you over the last 5 years.  Whose child we just baptized, who just found out they had cancer, which altar server fainted at Mass, what new work of art one of the kids made at the school, or who we hadn’t seen for a while at Mass.  Over the years, other parochial vicars were a part of those conversations: Fr. Ouellette and Fr. Tony, and also our chaplains Fr. Rolly and Fr. Apollinaire, and retired Fr. Rudy. 

But because I arrived just a month after Fr. Nadeau and we have lived under the same roof for 5 years, I think we have shared in a particularly intense way the experience of being your priests these last years.  Fr. Nadeau brought me into the critical discussions about the direction of our parish: involving me in the work on a new daily Mass schedule, the shape of a new bulletin, the location and construction of a new parish office, and later on in the creation of new positions for a combined parish staff, the crafting a lifelong faith formation program, the establishment of an 8 Mass weekend schedule down from the previous 12, and countless other smaller projects and initiatives and issues that needed to be addressed. 

It seems that one thing has happened after another in this parish since we arrived, not to mention the larger events of our diocese: the capital campaign, same sex marriage battles, and a whole host of other bigger challenges that we have gone through together.  I have watched Fr. Nadeau face more challenges than I would ever wish on a priest in these 5 years, and go face them with remarkable grace and stamina.  So I ask you, as I move to a new assignment, please support him in the years to come, as I hope I have shown you by my example in the last 5 years. 

What do I mean by support? 
I hope that many of you, especially those who are younger, will become more involved in helping to build up the parish.  Perhaps serving as catechists to teach and hand on our faith or as members of a commission to help foster community life or look after the needs of the less fortunate.  Not asking what the parish can do for you, but following the example of the Good Samaritan in today’s Gospel: asking what you can do to help this parish be a loving neighbor to all who live here in Bangor, Brewer, Hampden and Winterport.

When we first arrived, Fr. Nadeau would say to me “This is not normal parish life.  Everything is up in the air now, but don’t worry, we will settle into a normal priestly existence in a couple years.”  After a while he stopped saying that.  And I think one day he said “Well, maybe this is the new normal.” 

And we both had to accept that.  I think it’s easier for me, because this is all I’ve ever known: rotating among 6 churches, reconfiguring things right and left, trying to balance 89 million things and often carrying a nagging feeling that you are neglecting someone or letting them down.

We are going through a time of unprecedented change in our diocese and certainly in this parish.  I have had the tendency sometimes to focus on how long and treacherous the road seems to be, but Fr. Nadeau is very good at reminding me of the works of charity, the good Samaritan moments, that must be at the heart of the daily life of a priest, and of every parish: the celebration of Mass, the anointings, baptisms, weddings, and funerals.  The time spent in the school or at faith formation and youth ministry gatherings, visiting families, counseling couples, trying to help someone get the oil or prescription that they need, training altar servers.

It is easy, when we are anxious about the road, to overlook those who are lying in the ditches.  But we cannot allow ourselves to become so preoccupied with navigating the constant twists and turns of restructurings and changes that we no longer see and serve Christ who comes to us as our neighbor in need on the side of the road.

As I prepare to leave, I want to make sure that you know that if I have in any way passed you by, neglected any of you, if I have done anything to offend you, if I have misled you in any way through my teaching, I am sorry and I ask for your forgiveness and prayer.  I am far from perfect, and this has been my first parish assignment, so I pray that God will make up for my failings.

I am not even sure how to begin to express my gratitude for your love and support over these 5 years.  I came to you as a baby priest, not exactly half dead along the side of the road (although I had just survived grueling comprehensive exams) but certainly in need of support along the road. 
And this parish, all of you, have taken such good care of me.  You have helped me to learn how to walk the road of the priesthood: how to pray with you, how to listen to you, how to teach you, how to offer Mass with you.  I am so grateful for the trust that you have put in me and for the countless prayers, notes and cards, kind words, and culinary delights over the years.  I have found in you so many good Samaritans.  Thank-you. 

Fr. Dan Belargeon is fortunate to be assigned here as your new parochial vicar.  I am sure he will plug in right away and will find in you the same warm welcome and generous support and encouragement that you have given me.

I arrived a baby priest, as I said.  I suppose you could say that I am now entering into my adolescence.  Look out Augusta.  People keep telling me that I should work on cleaning up the politics down there, but I have told them that I don’t know how to do exorcisms yet.

A final word.  We should all give thanks to Christ today for the gift of our faith.  He is the first and perfect Samaritan – he is continually at work to lift us up, to bind up our wounds, to carry us to the house of our heavenly father.  He is the only reason that we are together in this church, in this parish.  We share a communion, a friendship, that rests upon his shoulders, shoulders stretched out upon the cross because of his love for us.

Our second reading from St. Paul, the patron of this parish, reminds us:
He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
He is the head of the body, the church.
For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things, making peace by the blood of his cross

Jesus Christ transforms us into his body, the Church.  Through the sacraments, the scripture, and tradition of our faith, he teaches us and gives us the strength to love our neighbor: to walk the chaotic and winding road of life together with compassion, generosity, and love.

So we thank God for bringing us together, for teaching us and ministering to us along the road we have walked here at St. Paul the Apostle Parish during these last 5 years, and I pray that he will continue to guide all of you and to draw you closer to himself and to one another in the years to come.  Please pray for more vocations to the priesthood, please keep me in your prayers, and know that I will certainly be praying for all of you.


Homily from the 13th Week in Ordinary Time

I think that for most of us, one of the challenging aspects of living a Christian life is trying to figure out when and when not to be accommodating.  How do we decide when to accommodate the ideas and actions others and when to insist that we cannot?  How accommodating should we be of the ideas or actions of our children, siblings, spouses and friends?  When should we insist that we cannot accept certain ideas or actions?

How many times we get to the end of the day and wonder: “Should I have put up more of a fight, insisted more on what I knew was right, not been so quick to agree?”; or we wonder the opposite: “Should I have backed off, given the other person more room, not insisted so vehemently?”

It seems that some propose an easy solution to the whole question of accommodation: when you can accommodate, you should.  And some even have a misguided notion that this kind of accommodation is a sign of humility and goodness in a person.  In fact, some insist that kindness and compassion require that we accommodate ideas and actions that we do not agree with.  I find this argument rather amusing, since those insisting on accommodation are demonstrating a profound unwillingness to show it!  Perhaps you have also noticed that often those who insist on accommodation the most, accommodate the beliefs and actions of others the least.

This is clearly not the path or accommodation that Christ taught.  As we see in the Gospel today, Jesus could be extremely un-accommodating.  Even to the point of insisting that a disciple could not bury his or her own parents before following him.  He would not accommodate what seems to be a perfectly legitimate request.  And yet in how many other passages we see our Lord bend over backwards to accommodate the needs of those he encountered!

Today’s Gospel reading gives us the opportunity to pause a bit and look at the whole question of accommodation.  Clearly, just because we can accommodate something does not mean that we should.  And so we have to ask: “Well what should the Christian accommodate?  Why are there instances when Christ clearly insists that we must not make accommodation?

“For freedom Christ set us free;” St. Paul teaches us in our second reading today, “so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.”  In other words, do not settle for sin.

Now it is obvious to most people that when someone directly commits a sin they are enslaved by it.  But what is less obvious is this: sin also enslaves those who accommodate it.  In fact, sometimes it enslaves them more than the person committing the sin.

If a family accommodates a drinking problem, the whole family becomes slaves to the bottle, perhaps sometimes more than the person drinking from it.  If poor sportsmanship is accommodated on the field, or lying and deceit in the workplace, or obsession with material wealth and status among friends, or immoral laws and regulations in the government, these areas of sin affect everyone involved.  In other words, a family, a workplace, a community, a culture can be enslaved by darkness not only by committing sin, but also and sometimes most profoundly by accommodating it.

How many times this has become clear only after the fact: there are millions of people who regret how they were enslaved by the sins of others who they accommodated in their violence against children, minorities, the poor, the marginalized, and the vulnerable. 

As the often quoted passage from Burke goes, “All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” You cannot accommodate without giving accommodation, without giving a home, a piece of yourself to what you have allowed.  And that is why we all know that it is impossible to have a clear conscience when sin and evil are being accommodated.  So that is a pretty clear line with regard to accommodation.  Sin and evil can never be accommodated without entering into slavery.

But what about our Gospel reading today?  Jesus is even unwilling to accommodate what seem to be good and noble requests:  to say goodbye or to bury parents? 

And so Christ shows us that there are there even times when we should not accommodate good things.  Yes.  Yes there are.  And this is where it gets very tricky.  For example: when a child is so involved in extracurriculars that they are not getting enough sleep and are showing signs of stress and anxiety and are not able to spend time with family or friends.  Extracurriculars are good, but they need to be balanced with the greater goods. 

Or when our adult children want us to go to camp over the weekend where there will be no possibility of attending Mass.  Camp is good, but thanking God for camp and everything else he gives us is the greater good.  Or when our family is life is dominated by endless xbox hours or hours in front of the tv or computer or constant interruptions from cell phones.  None of these machines are evil, but they are not the greatest good. 

Now many times there can be creative solutions worked out when we are not dealing with areas of outright evil, we can make reasonable accommodations that allow us to still place first things first.  But sometimes, even with good things in this world, we have to simply say no.  If we know that a good thing cannot help but lead us to a not so good end – if we will not be able to control it, if we know that we are risking greater goods, sometimes we must let the dead bury their dead and give no accommodation even to something that is good.  This happens all the time in prayer – how many times the devil tries to distract us from prayer with the goods of this world.  What is the governing concern?  It is what St. Paul teaches today: we must make sure that our accommodations leave us free to follow Christ, encourage us to follow Christ where he leads us. 

And this brings us to a third kind of accommodation: the path of healthy and good accommodation shown to us by Christ.  Accommodation of an older parent who is having a hard time remembering, accommodation of a young child who is sick and needs our attention, accommodation of a friend who is misinformed about the teaching of the church but willing to listen to what we really believe, accommodation of the single mother trying to pay for her groceries and wrangle the children in the grocery check out.  These are the accommodations of Christ, of the Christian.

When we find ourselves accommodating, we should always ask: is this accommodation one that is of Christ?  Is it helping me and those around me to be more like him?  If we find ourselves accommodating sin, we need to remember that it is enslaving us through our accommodation and leading us to death.  When we are making accommodation for various goods, have we ensured that our lives remained focused on seeking the greatest goods.  And we must all make sure that we are being accommodating enough to Christ who comes to us in prayer and the scriptures and sacraments, in the faces of the poor, the stranger, the ignorant, and the suffering.

Christ calls us to seek first the kingdom of God, his kingdom that gives us life and freedom.  To make no accommodation for anything that would separate us or others from his love.  To resolutely determine with Christ to journey toward the heavenly Jerusalem, following the will of our heavenly Father to the end.  May he give us the grace not be tempted to make accommodation for anything that would keep us from following our his example.

What Would Jesus Find if He Went Through Your Trash?

Homily for the 10th Sunday of Ordinary Time

This past Wednesday, at the General Audience, Pope Francis had some pretty stark words as he recalled the observance of World Environment Day.  He spoke about a culture of waste and indifference that is increasingly the norm. 

“This "culture of waste", he said, “tends to become the common mentality that infects everyone.”
 “Human life, the person is no longer perceived as a primary value to be respected and protected, especially if poor or disabled, if not yet useful - such as the unborn child - or no longer needed - such as the elderly.”

“If in so many parts of the world there are children who have nothing to eat, that's not news, it seems normal.  In contrast, a ten point drop on the stock markets of some cities is a tragedy. A person dying is not news, but if the stock markets drop ten points it is a tragedy! Thus people are disposed of, as if they were trash.”

“Man is not in charge today, money is in charge, money rules. Men and women are sacrificed to the idols of profit and consumption: it is the "culture of waste."  If you break a computer it is a tragedy, but poverty, the needs, the dramas of so many people end up becoming the norm.”
“We are living in a time of crisis.” he said.  “The human person is in danger.”

It is not hard to see his point.  It seems that so many things have become disposable, easily thrown out when we are through with them or when they no longer perform to our needs or expectations.  But it’s not just material goods, that’s what the Pope is telling us.  The culture of waste, this disposable culture spills over to the general attitude about life and is affecting the way that we treat people too.  Unwanted children become disposable.  Difficult marriages become disposable. Elderly parents become disposable.  Employees become disposable.  Friendships become disposable.  Churches become disposable. 

Soon, the trash can seems to loom large in every sector of life.  And it can seem that it is inevitable that one day each of us will find ourselves staring into it.  What a challenge in our day.  I don’t think most of us even know where to begin. 

There are hard numbers.  Our survival is at stake.  Losing a house.  Not being able to afford an education or the cost of healthcare.  How can we keep from living in a way that is disposable when we ourselves are constantly under the threat of being disposed of?  It’s not as if we are somehow outside of the whole dynamic, protected from being cast aside and dismissed. 

But isn’t there also sometimes a lot of rationalizing going on? 
In many cases, haven’t we made lifestyle choices that make it harder for us to be committed to others and to be good stewards of our world?  If we put the t.v. in the most comfortable room of the house, what do we think is going to happen?  If we get the million channels and high speed internet, how do we think we’re going to spend our time when we come home after a long day and are tired?  Can we really claim that we wish we spent more time with others, more time praying, reading, or pursuing worthwhile interests when we set up our lives in such a way that it requires herculean efforts to pursue any of those things?  If we choose to walk down a dark alley every day, how can we claim to be surprised when we get mugged?  If we buy into a disposable lifestyle, how genuine can our repentance be when it comes time to take out the trash?

Living according to our faith has to go deeper than the mere desire to do good.  Our desire must take flesh in strategies that actually make it possible for us to live according to the Gospel.  What would happen, for example, if we settled for a less material wealth, less square footage, fewer gadgets, less entertainment options, fewer conveniences, a worse neighborhood, having to share a camp in the summer?  Maybe both spouses wouldn’t have to work or could work fewer hours and invest more time at home and in the community, taking care of an ailing parent, spending time with children, siblings and friends, volunteering at church, and in other ways that would make life more meaningful and healthy in our community.

What really matters in life?  How many people are we zipping by on the street or the screen each day?  How many of our parents and children and grandchildren and friends and neighbors do we pass by on our way to the next thing.  How much of our lives – how many relationships are we allowing to go hungry and neglected - and for what?

Of all the things that we should be known for as disciples of Christ, it should be our cherishing of life, of the world and the people God has entrusted to our care.  Christ has told us that whatever we do to the least, we do to him. Jesus doesn’t breeze by anyone.  He stops.  He stops even when someone seems absolutely dead and hopeless, like the young man on the side of the road today.  No human person, no human situation is disposable for Christ.  Every created thing, and especially every person on this planet, even those who aren’t useful or helpful or convenient, is a gift from God and a pathway to his love.  Jesus has told us this point blank.  “Whatever you did for the least of these you did for me.”  To walk away from someone is to walk away from Christ.  To mistreat someone is to mistreat Christ.  To neglect someone is to neglect Christ. 

Jesus Christ was a dumpster diver - a saver.  He didn't throw people away, he didn't throw relationships away, let them go, or neglect them.  What if he went through your trash can?