Sunday, August 26, 2007

Start up the Hill!

The Patronal Feast
of the Parish of Santa Rosa
Arima, Republic of Trinidad and Tobago,
Sunday, 26 August 2007
St. Rose of Lima
Readings from the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

“The Lord says this: I am coming to gather the nations of every language. They shall come to witness my glory.”
“And men from east and west, from north and south, will come to take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Yes, there are those now last who will be first, and those now first who will be last.”
“Try your best to enter by the narrow door, because, I tell you, many will try to enter and will not succeed.”

The primary duty of a Nuncio, my job if you will, representing our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI to the peoples and countries of the Antilles Episcopal Conference (AEC), is to do what the Successor of St. Peter would do at Jesus’ command if he were here: “strengthen the brethren”. I’m supposed to be a source of encouragement and help first and foremost to Catholics in this part of the world, starting with the bishops. To be able to encourage someone you have to know and love that person. That means I need to spend more time observing and listening than I do speaking. Every once in a while I need not only to share the lessons I’ve learned, I need to build people up by saying or doing something. How’s that for a great job description? And how about a few words of challenge and encouragement for all of you on this your parish’s patronal feast, your day to celebrate St. Rose of Lima?

Truth to be told, if all of us concentrated on promoting others we’d have a much better world. Constructive criticism has its place, I suppose, but it shouldn’t be any more than that occasional course correction on a voyage propelled by words and actions giving others encouragement. I knew a priest once, when I was still a high school boy, who went around telling everyone they were great. “Tom, Bill, Martha, Cathy, you’re great?” he’d say. People liked him until they figured out that often he really didn’t even know their names, let alone who they were… (How does he know I’m great?) The old catechism’s first question, “Why did God make me?”, “He made me to know, love and serve Him in this life, and to be happy with Him in the next” really says it all. If I don’t speak or act from knowledge and through knowledge from love, I’m not serving God or my neighbor. I’ll tell you you’re great, or in the case of singing God’s praises (How Great Thou Art), once I know better what I’m talking about.

What about the hidden and brief life (31 years) of the first daughter of the Americas to be proclaimed a saint? St. Rose lived simply, she did penance constantly, she prayed intensely, and she loved the Blessed Virgin Mary very much. Almost 400 years have passed since her death and she’s still a light and an example for others. Her people especially, if they are people of the Gospel, are still proud of her and can still win lessons from her, as you and I can today, too. (…)

This coming December, it’ll be three years since I first landed at Piarco. I continue to learn and be surprised by the people of this region and of Trinidad in particular, whom the Holy Father has entrusted to my special care. Lots can be said, but let’s concentrate on Jesus’ words, words which St. Rose of Lima took seriously already at the tender age of 5, words from the Gospel of St. Luke today, words which I believe hold special meaning for all of us present here:
“Try your best to enter by the narrow door, because, I tell you, many will try to enter and will not succeed.”

One of the lessons my Mother learned as a girl growing up on the farm, she and her older brother being the 2 youngest of 8 children from the only Catholic family in their one room school house, was that when you’re outnumbered like that you shouldn’t talk either religion or politics. Some people still get heated up about politics today, but more folks than not seem to be indifferent about matters of religion – even here in Trinidad. I read in the Catholic News that only 17% of those who declare themselves Catholic go to Mass regularly on Sundays. People are not exactly hustling to “enter by the narrow door” or so it would seem. Jesus would tell us in the Gospel that needs to change. The question is: what can you and I do if our life is in order to convince other people not to put off until tomorrow entering into the sheepfold? St. Rose of Lima did her share by giving good example and that’s what I’d like to encourage you to do as well.

You see, Catholics have never been fans of standing on street corners and preaching from on top of soapboxes, and for that matter neither am I. How do you communicate to your family, to your friends and neighbors, that knowing, loving and serving God is serious business which cannot be put off until tomorrow? Remember, St. Rose got serious at age 5 and never let up until her death at age 31. Don’t underestimate the power for good in the world of your good example at home. Child, youth, aged – it makes no difference – as you eagerly seek to know, love and serve God and all those who cross your path starting right at home like she did, you’ll light lights just like St. Rose.

How does it work? You just need to try and try hard. (Isn’t there some kind of tennis or sport shoes with the slogan “Just do it”? Well just do it!) Start with the basics: never a day without prayer – morning offering, meal prayers, and examination of conscience and bed time prayers; never a Sunday without Mass; regular confession with a firm purpose to change your ways and seek to live by all of God’s commands; learn about your faith; love your neighbor – do so especially for the sake of the poor and helpless.

St. Rose was a penitential soul: imitating her example of penance, personal sacrifice, is probably the hardest one for us in our day and time. Apart from supporting evils done to us by others, not barking or snapping when things don’t go our way or when we’re crowded a bit, nudged too hard or our toes are stepped upon, I’m talking about seeking to share the Cross of Christ as St. Rose did according to her state in life and the culture of her times. You see, it’s not so much that we have life too good, but our problem is that we want to have it too good. Embrace the Cross!

As I say, just do it! There’s a children’s book entitled “The Little Engine That Could”. It’s about a tiny train with a load to haul; the little train is frightened by a hill, but he makes it up over the top, he succeeds by starting, just by starting up that hill, while repeating over and over again to himself: “I think I can, I think I can”. The lesson is clear. Just like St. Peter, stepping out of the boat to walk on the waters to Jesus, we need to just do it, that is live the faith to the full, with our eyes fixed on Jesus. We cannot let ourselves be impressed by the wind and the waves.

The longer I watch, the longer I listen, the more convinced I become that many young mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, fail today for failing to try. They fail to try to learn, to try to love and to try to understand both each other in marriage and the children given to them by God in sacred trust.

Look at today’s man! Between airports and TV, you’d be surprised at the number of grown men one sees these days who are dressed like boys. They’re not doing anything wrong but they certainly confirm the old saying that mamma’s biggest boy is her husband. Is he trying?

Watch a woman who moves through life with a measure of grace and modesty, a woman who is at once self-confident and politely attentive to those around her. I wish there were more such women around: they radiate all kinds of things you can’t bottle and which steady our world. They know what they are about. They are trying for sure, trying to enter by the narrow door.

When there is more than one teacher for a grade level of primary school parents are and always have been anxious that their son or daughter get the better of those two teachers. It went without saying (years ago anyway) that which boys and girls were in the class wasn’t so important: if they misbehaved they’d be disciplined in school and punished again at home so that they would learn that comportment is part of trying, of growing and learning. We can say what we want about the quality of schools, but how many boys and girls out there today not only fail to try in school but make life miserable for their classmates? Even children have responsibilities, even children (don’t forget that 5 year old Santa Rosa) need to do their part, need to start up that hill.

I must admit that I am shocked by how pessimistic many people are about the future of society. I know older people even who’ll say, “Father, I’m glad I won’t be around in another few years!” Personally, I don’t agree when it comes to hope for the world. Moreover, I think that the man or woman of faith who is seeking the Lord, who is trying, shares my conviction that things don’t necessarily have to go bad at home, at school, in the neighborhood or in our world.

The lesson of the saints, our faith in the power of God to save if we but cooperate with His grace, should tell us that everything is possible for those who love God. We just need to be ready to embrace the Cross of Christ if Its shadow falls on us. I know of a man who was probably the most fortunate of a less than fortunate family. He wasn’t a lottery winner or some kind of a star. His life was nothing spectacular, but he did have the basics: he had a decent wife and healthy children, he had a good job and then threw it all away because things at home and at work got tough at a certain moment. Today he blames everyone else for his misfortune including God, the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ. He blames everyone except himself. He’s turned his back on the world, claiming the world has abandoned him and so practices transcendental meditation… He was among the first in a sense and now he’s last. He needs to try again. Maybe you do too? Try to enter in by the narrow door!

St. Rose of Lima entered by the narrow door and nations of every language, from east and west, from north and south, have recognized this and followed her. Rose lived a hidden life on earth, but from heaven she shines from end to end. She belongs to Lima, she belongs to Peru and Latin America, she belongs in a special way to the native peoples of the Americas, and she belongs to you, people of Santa Rosa R.C. Church, Arima! Don’t stay behind at the bottom of the hill! Start the climb! Just do it! Be lights for the world in our day and time! Follow her example and try to enter by the narrow door!

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Girded and Watchful

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
11-12 August 2007
Holy Cross Parish, Hutchinson, Kansas

The key word that sums up this Sunday’s readings is “Passover”. Passover is a word we all know; it’s a coin really with two faces, the one is “deliverance” and the other is “retribution”. In the Exodus from Egypt, as we heard in our First Reading today recounting the first Passover, God’s destroying angel passed over the houses of God’s Chosen People marked with the blood of the lamb, saving them from God’s wrath and delivering them from their slavery, leading them out of Egypt toward the Promised Land, while punishing their oppressors, the Egyptians, with the sudden death of their firstborn – retribution for their having oppressed God’s People.

This Sunday’s readings focus less on the topic of our salvation or deliverance and more on the retribution side of the coin as it applies not only to those who oppose God’s People but also to us who belong to the household. We’ve just heard about the punishment of those who do not turn to the Lord, those who are not sealed with the Blood of the Lamb, that is, those who are not watching and waiting for their Master’s return.
“That servant who knew his master’s will but did not make preparations nor act in accord with his will shall be beaten severely; and the servant who was ignorant of his master’s will but acted in a way deserving of a severe beating shall be beaten only lightly.” Harsh words!

Am I motivated to look forward to heaven? Is that the quest of my life, the direction in which my heart is set? Or are the attractions, distractions and worries of this world the ones which have me in tow? Where will the Lord find me and my heart when He comes to call me?
St. Peter poses a further question in the Gospel which applies for every day and time, and therefore to us: “Lord, is this parable meant for us or for everyone?” Who really is supposed to keep watch for the Lord who comes? Just priests and nuns? Retired people maybe? How are all the healthy young lay people out there in the world supposed to order their lives? Take note that the Lord Jesus doesn’t simply respond to Peter’s question by saying “Yes, it’s meant for everyone”. He answers Peter with another question: “Who, then, is the faithful and prudent steward whom the master will put in charge of his servants to distribute the food allowance at the proper time?”

Do you, each and every one, believe that you are so called? I hope so! Recognizing that through Baptism you have been made a part of God’s People has its implications for the way we behave. “Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.” says the Responsorial Psalm. What sort of language, what sort of entertainment, what sort of life is appropriate for the rank and file among the baptized?
Stewardship is really the universal call. All of us, no matter what our state in life, have to be watching and waiting, ready at all times for the Master’s return, all the time serving the needs of others as well. What exactly is expected of us depends on where we are in the Church: I, for instance, have a stewardship role in the Holy Father’s place for the Church in the Antilles: I am to “strengthen the brethren” as Jesus charges St. Peter in another place in the Gospel. Fr. Joe has been entrusted by the Bishop with watching over and caring for the people of Holy Cross Parish. Moms and Dads have the care for each other and for their children. Single people have a special part to play in the work place and society as well. Filial piety, the respect and love we owe our parents, is ultimately a sacred trust given to us all, as stewards, for as long as our parents live.

We’re certainly talking about duty, but not as much in the sense of a task to be fulfilled as in the sense of a dignity which is ours. “Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.” Each and every one of us has an appointed task in God’s plan for the salvation of the world.
The other night on EWTN’s program for young people called “Life on the Rock”, Father Francis was pressing the representatives of an international youth group called “Generation Benedict” who were on the show to explain how they planned to convince their peers of the value of being practicing, fully committed Catholics. In essence, he was asking how you get people to commit themselves to living according to God’s Will within His Holy Catholic Church when there are so many distractions, so many things out there which seem more fun and more attractive. Truth to be told, that is a question Catholics of all ages and states in life could ask themselves at every turn. Am I focused? Am I really convinced? Do I have the right priorities? As obvious as having faith in God may be, challenging ourselves and others to turn away from sin, big sin or small, and to be faithful to the Gospel is a real struggle. All too often people are as short-sighted as the delinquent steward, abusive toward his fellow servants and bent on his own pleasure and entertainment, thoughtless of the consequences he’d face upon his master’s return: “That servant who knew his master’s will but did not make preparations nor act in accord with his will shall be beaten severely; and the servant who was ignorant of his master’s will but acted in a way deserving of a severe beating shall be beaten only lightly.”

It’s easy to shake a finger at someone else and shout “Clean up your act!” The reality, especially as we face up to our own human frailty, is quite another. What to do? Are we really convinced that watching and waiting for the Lord is our calling? Are we convinced that a holy life, care and concern for others, sobriety, living close to God, are the happy choice, the right choice?
Leaving you hanging with such questions would probably be the best route to go. In a sense Jesus’ response to Peter’s question “Lord, is this parable meant for us or for everyone?” is the only real answer to give to a responsible adult: “Who, then, is the faithful and prudent steward whom the master will put in charge of his servants to distribute the food allowance at the proper time?”
Who then is the good Catholic? Can we hedge on any of the commandments or requirements the Church places upon us? Can we be anything other than the best: faithful to the practice of Mass and the Sacraments, eager to share our faith with our children, especially, but also since we’re sharing joy, eager too to share our Catholic faith with others? Do we recognize the gravity of having let a day pass without having lifted our hearts and minds to God in prayer? This type of examination of conscience could go on and on, but let’s just leave it right there with Jesus’ question: “Who, then, is the faithful and prudent steward whom the master will put in charge of his servants to distribute the food allowance at the proper time?”

Passover: salvation/deliverance… retribution for our negligence as well as for wrongs committed – here we are, watching and waiting, I hope, for the Lord’s Passover.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

What Matters to God

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
4-5 August 2007, Hutchinson, Kansas
Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish

“Vanity of vanities… Here is one who has labored with wisdom and knowledge and skill, and yet to another who has not labored over it, he must leave his property”.

“…seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.”

“Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.”

The readings for this Sunday lend themselves to a real rip-roaring sermon on detachment from material things. Just quoting Jesus’ words from today’s Gospel, I guess I could really come down hard on a congregation exhorting them not only to change their ways and seek first the kingdom of God, and I could also urge them to give of what they have to help those in need, instead of leaving it to their estate. Giving a tough sermon like that, however, is a job for the pastor and not for a guest like me, so I suppose you could say that Fr. Ned is getting off easy this week. He asked me to give a missionary sort of talk to you and I’ll try to do that not losing sight of the powerful message in these readings.

“Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.”

What is it that matters to God? Who is it today who merits Jesus’ condemnation like the successful big farmer in the Gospel, if not the person in any walk of life and at any age who is totally caught up in himself or herself? The farmer with his storage barns for years to come is right in not worrying about next year’s drought. He’s wrong in concentrating on creature comforts as if having them was all there is to life. What are those things which “matter to God” in which we should be rich and thereby spare ourselves the Old Testament writer’s head shaking “vanity of vanities”? Let it be clear that we’re going much beyond the question posed in the First Reading of what’s the point of storing up this world’s goods with hard work and intelligence, if it means leaving them for someone else to squander? In asking what matters for God and how can I be a part of that kind of important business, I’m asking the profound and basic question concerning why I was placed on this earth and which is the way to the really big happiness which God has willed for me. It is certainly seeking God’s kingship over me, but more than that, it’s sharing joy; it’s sharing truth with all those I can. It’s sharing the wealth, not only in the material sense, but in terms of life and ideas. It’s what it means to be a missionary.
What is being missionary all about? It’s about reaching out beyond me and inviting others to know truth and share my joy. In that part of the world of today which we glorify with that funny expression “virtual reality” sharing truth and joy seems to be harder than it was in the past. People read blogs and listen to podcasts but the virtual nature of that sort of activity gives one the sense that things are just sort of out there, that people don’t really, I mean really, exchange ideas or reach out to one another.

The Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries were times when the missionary consciousness of the Catholic Church was truly dynamic. Not only were there lots of vocations to the missions from countries like France, but this was the time of the birth and growth in France and beyond of what we call today the Pontifical Mission Societies. We’re most familiar with two of them: the Propagation of the Faith, which manages the October Mission Sunday collections from around the world, and the Missionary Childhood, which works to involve small children in praying and sacrificing for the sake of other children their age in mission countries, that those children might come to know Jesus, too.
I can remember yet as a little boy in the 1950’s how strong the Missionary Society of the Holy Childhood was in our parish and school and how we used to save money and say our prayers for children elsewhere in the world that they too might come to know, love and serve God as Catholic Christians.

If I have a message for you today, that would be it. Namely, I would like to invite all here present to rediscover that kind of focus from the past now in the Twenty-first Century. My hope would be that all of you, young and old, might prize the spread of the Gospel more than creature comforts. That you would do something in proportion to your age and state in life to share the Good News about Jesus with someone else near or far.
That’s saying it a little too abruptly. In a sense you are already going beyond yourselves. You’re here today at Mass and I’m sure that you’re here on every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation, offering God the praise He is due. I’m sure prayer is a part of your daily life as well, and that you strive to live a good and holy life. I’m sure that all of you parents have taught and are teaching your children their basic prayers; I am sure that you pray with them at mealtimes and most certainly also at bedtime – no doubt you talk to them about God Our Father, about Jesus, His Son and Our Lord, about Mary, the Virgin Mother of God and our Mother, too. I am confident that you all share the wealth of your faith, that you are all truly missionary, at home.
What I’m not so sure of is whether you are eager to share your faith with others farther afield, that you really are convinced that your life is at its best within the Church and that others would be happier too if they shared your same faith. I guess I’d like to see another “golden age” of missionary zeal in our day and time. I say this because I know that the little children who in significant numbers in 19th Century France dreamt of spreading the Gospel in North American or China haven’t crossed my path in the Midwest of the United States today. Whether such an environment of mission consciousness exists or not determines whether or not there will be the numerous vocations necessary to preach the Gospel to those who have not as yet heard about Jesus. I’m wondering too where the people will come from who will come to the part of the world where I serve and provide for those numbers which are missing. I had the great joy of seeing Father Boor the other day and he said that one of the big things he’s preaching about out in the Dodge City diocese where he’s helping out these days is vocations. He’s convinced and I’m sure he’s right that the Lord is calling more than enough young men and women in Western Kansas to be priests and sisters. They just have to hear the call and respond. The region of the Antilles Episcopal Conference, where I live, is not that fortunate for a lot of different reasons. The regional seminary is almost empty and that means that even if things were to turn around in a big way those good people (let’s say a million Catholics) have to face a whole generation without ordinations and desperately short of priests to celebrate Mass for them, hear their confessions and do all the things only priests can do for their people. The life of the Church in the Antilles is very much endangered.
The Caribbean is right on your door step. I’d ask you to keep your neighbors down south in your prayers. Let your prayer reach out in missionary fashion beyond your home and neighborhood.
“Lord, let the Gospel be alive in our hearts, in our parish, in our community, in our diocese. Lord, call forth priests from our parishes, from our families, from our homes for the service of your Church here in the diocese of Wichita, in the Dodge City diocese and farther afield. Lord, let the Gospel be proclaimed anew in the countries our ancestors came from. Lord, send workers into your harvest for the sake of your people throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.”