Wednesday, December 31, 2008

With Mary, Looking on the Face of Christ

Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God

Vigil Mass, 31 December 2008

Numbers 6:22-27

Galatians 4:4-7

Luke 2:16-21


            The Octave Day of Christmas, this special feast in honor of Mary, Jesus’ Mother, celebrated eight days after His birth, on the day He received His Name and was bound to the Covenant through circumcision, this day which in modern times has been celebrated by the Catholic Church as the World Day of Prayer for Peace, finds us once again teeter-tottering on the brink of a New Year, 2009. As believing people we gather tonight to sing “Thank you, God!” for all that has been in 2008 and “Please, God!” make 2009 even better! Our lives and our world are indeed in His Hands.

            The Holy Father closes his message for tomorrow’s World Day of Prayer for Peace with these beautiful words addressed to people everywhere, Catholic and non alike: “At the start of the New Year, then, I extend to every disciple of Christ and to every person of good will a warm invitation to expand their hearts to meet the needs of the poor and to take whatever practical steps are possible in order to help them. The truth of the axiom cannot be refuted: ‘to fight poverty is to build peace.’”

            Earlier in his message, Pope Benedict mentions a series of points that have to be addressed in fighting poverty. Among them is child poverty, which is, I think, an appropriate topic to address on the Octave of Jesus’ birth. The Holy Father writes: “When the family is weakened, it is inevitably children who suffer. If the dignity of women and mothers is not protected, it is the children who are affected most.” What to do? Besides finding ways to serve the most vulnerable in our midst, maybe we need to remind ourselves once again of who we are, where we come from, and what is most important in our lives as Catholics.

Poor Mary and Joseph, Joseph especially, must have been aghast, almost desperate, at having to bring Jesus into this world in a stable. Jesus came to us as the poorest of the poor. Lots of Nativity art work shows poor Joseph sitting there, holding his head, struggling to figure this all out: the mystery of God come to birth as a man and here in this humble stable. And yet… the stable at Bethlehem was a point of light which drew the visit that night of the shepherds alerted to this blessed event by the angel of the Lord. We heard about it this evening in Luke’s Gospel: “As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds went back glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen; it was exactly as they had been told.”

            Why did God, in the fullness of time – at the high point in His work of salvation, why did He expose His Only Begotten Son to dire poverty? How do we make sense of the challenge all of this must have represented to the Mother of our Lord? Why was Jesus born in a stable? Well, simply explained, knowing us as He does God could settle for no less than this high price. God’s sacrifice to restore mankind to Himself and God to mankind was total: the Father did not spare His only Son, but delivered Him up for the sake of all of us. It was a true sacrifice – from end to end: from the cradle to the grave, as they say, and of course in victory beyond the grave for Jesus and for us in the glory of the Resurrection.

            I saw an advertisement on TV for a new reality show, which is supposed to be starting in the New Year (no doubt to replace some show which flopped in the first part of the television season). My bet is that this new one will flop too; at least you’ll never find me watching it. At any rate, it’s another one of those TV programs where the contestants compete for weeks on end to become somebody’s best friend and thereby share his life of liming and carefree partying. I’m sorry, but why would anyone want to do that? It’s just too little to get excited about! Moreover, it all seems terribly unreal and leads me to believe that my dictionary must be out of date, because in mine I can’t find a definition for this grand old word “reality” to fit this sort of folly. Even if I bought a new dictionary that provided a new definition of “reality”, I’m sorry, I wouldn’t accept what the movie and television industry is trying to sell me. It’s simply wrong and way too shallow to waste one’s time on. Ultimately, if that were the only tradeoff for poverty, I would think you would be better off poor and in a stable.

Channel-surf all you want and Google-search until you drop, my bet is that you will never find anything bigger or better than what “Mary… treasured … and pondered … in her heart”: life with Jesus, True God and True Man. Not only was her life reality, but the Blessed Mother looked God in the face at Bethlehem, held Him in her arms, fed Him, kissed Him and tucked Him in to sleep when His tiny eyelids got heavy; she watched Him grow; she pondered the mystery of her Son for thirty years and more.

            Recently, I read one of those silly little filler stories newspapers buy to make copy. It was about some movie star who insisted on doing himself a bungee-jump in an upcoming film, instead of leaving it to the stuntman. He classified the experience as “one-time” and “life-changing”. The only drawback, he said, was that now he’s having recurring nightmares about dying. Bungee-jumping the ultimate? Guess again! No matter how intense and exciting the here and now may be, to set your heart on this side of the grave (eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die) is too little for a full life. “In death”, as the preface for the funeral Mass goes, “life is changed, not ended”.

On her feast, let us look to Mary and the love with which she bore and brought to birth the Promised One. In the course of Jesus’ relatively short but intense lifetime, Mary shared first His little joys, and later His great sufferings and His victory. We need only look to Mary and understand that in her the Church is prefigured in all its glory, as are we the various parts of that great body. Mary participates in God’s work of reconciling the world to Himself through His Son and we can too, born again through water and the Holy Spirit, if we so choose and as Saint Paul says, make up in our lives through personal sacrifice for what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the salvation of the world. It does not get any better. That is reality, far more than an unforgettable bungee-jump or an everlasting lime. Would that we were eager above all else to live as Mary did! Poor, yes, but not spiritually impoverished!

            The newspapers and the yearend reports of radio and TV ask despairingly again and again about the whereabouts of peace: too many killings, too much violence! … Why despair? Granted, the battle for peace will not be absolutely won until the end of time. Meantime, if we make life easier for mothers and their babies, if we give children a chance to grow healthy, strong and loved, if we give a joyful answer to all who ask about our concern for the needs of the less fortunate and thereby better illustrate the reason for our hope in everlasting life, we might be able to help others to wonder at those things which Mary pondered with such profit in her heart.

            Strive in 2009 not only to be worthy of your inheritance, as St. Paul would say, heirs in God and heirs with Christ, but strive to be eager to receive the blessing, the only blessing which is really real (far beyond a constant search for entertainment, beyond health, good looks and money), receive the blessing which God instructed Moses to teach to his brother Aaron, the high priest, and which Mary in her life knew in its fullness: “May the Lord uncover his face to you and bring you peace”. Strive in 2009, as Mary did in her day, to ponder the mystery of the Incarnation (God become Man) and through your understanding and faith help to bring Christ to a waiting world.

            The Blessed Virgin Mary had a life in this world worth more than many a Magnificat and now she sits with her Son on His Throne in glory. Material poverty and disadvantage in this world must be fought, fought with a loving and expanded heart.

Who is poor, really? Poor indeed is the child who does not know the stable at Bethlehem and its Light. Poor indeed is the person of any age who thinks reality lies elsewhere but in the manger.


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Humble Heart You Will Not Spurn

Christmas Night - 2008 - Rosary Monastery


            The first verses in one of the Advent responsorials (taken from Psalm 25 and Zechariah 7:9) goes to the heart of that essential exchange between us and God. It goes like this:

            “The Lord leads the humble to justice; he teaches the meek his ways.

-Mercy and truth are the Lord’s ways, his witness to all who seek him.”

When we speak about Christ’s birth in a stable at Bethlehem, we’re used to speaking about His (namely Jesus’) humility, that the Almighty and Eternal God emptied Himself to come among us as a man, and a poor man at that. This notion is key, but it is no less essential for us to recognize that the other side of that coin is the importance of our own humility as we go to meet the Lord Who comes, as we make our way to the stable in Bethlehem. If we want to know the Lord’s ways, if we want to be His children above all else, then we have to be humble.

            “The Lord leads the humble to justice; he teaches the meek his ways.

-Mercy and truth are the Lord’s ways, his witness to all who seek him.”

The author of the spiritual classic, The Imitation of Christ, offers us a powerful insight into this virtue (humility) not only in terms of how it can help us to appreciate the great mystery of Christmas but for how essential being humble is to living in God’s love the whole year through:

            “God protects and frees a humble man; he loves and consoles a humble man; he favors a humble man; he showers him with graces; then, after his suffering, God raises him up to glory. He reveals his secrets to a humble man and in his kindness invitingly draws that man to himself. When a humble man is brought to confusion, he experiences peace, because he stands firm in God and not in this world. Do not think that you have made any progress unless you feel that you are the lowest of all men.”

            He reveals his secrets to a humble man…” The shepherds outside of Bethlehem on this holy night were certainly humble from a social standpoint. If they hadn’t been, the angel might not have spoken to them or if he had, they might not have heard his voice. It’s not that the shepherds had cultivated a life of prayer which opened them up to this experience, but rather that they were men without pretense, men who had no demands or expectations they could put on anyone else. That is what made them the most eligible to receive a visit from the angel of the Lord later to be joined by the heavenly host. On this night the shepherds really got a shock; you might say they must have had the original or the biggest “Hey, you! Who? Me?” experience of all time as the angel of the Lord spoke to them and they recognized who it was who was speaking to them.

            “In the countryside close by there were shepherds who lived in the fields and took it in turns to watch their flocks during the night. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them. They were terrified…”

            Singled out they were, those shepherds, to receive a one time and for all times message: “Do not be afraid. Listen, I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people. Today in the town of David a savior has been born to you, he is Christ the Lord.”

            Many times it seems as though the world has changed so much that I’d be afraid to presume a child of today has the same perception of things around him as I did as a child. Most of us as children would have been innocent to the plight of those shepherds and most pleased to receive a visit from the angel of the Lord. We were affirmed and loved enough perhaps that the angel’s appearing would have been awe-inspiring, yes, but no great shock should we have been singled out by God to hear first the glad tidings of great joy. Our home environment may not have been perfect, but thanks to our Baptism and life within the community of the Church, we certainly lived in God’s Universe and had every reason to believe that an angel might just come calling with some renewed expression of God’s love for us, His dear children.

            I’d like to believe that’s how children today as well perceive the account from Luke’s Gospel of the birth of the savior and the announcement in the night to the shepherds of this most blessed of all events in history. It came, however, as a real shock for the shepherds and a real fright: they were on the fringe of society, nobodies so to speak, who were not accustomed to being spoken to by the better half of society let alone by heavenly emissaries. These coarse, most likely totally unschooled men and boys, disregarded by everyone but perhaps the dogs who helped them watch the sheep, were on this night caught up in something cosmic: “And suddenly with the angel there was a great throng of the heavenly host, praising God and singing: ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace to men who enjoy his favor’.”

            St. Paul tells Titus and us in tonight’s Second Reading: “God’s grace has been revealed, and it has made salvation possible for the whole human race… our great God and savior Christ Jesus… He sacrificed himself for us in order to set us free from all wickedness and to purify a people so that it could be his very own and would have no ambition except to do good.” We can always speculate on why the angel of the Lord was sent to the shepherds and why they were singled out for the shock of being the first outside of the Holy Family to know of God’s love for his people expressed in such an extraordinary way. The point is that they the shepherds were chosen; no doubt God chose them as the humblest of all the people in that area; they the least of God’s people were singled out to hear the message of an angel. “No ambition except to do good” St. Paul says: maybe you have to be down and out like a shepherd to be able to set your hopes on God in that radical kind of way: “No ambition except to do good”.

What about the better half of society? Why exclude the wealthy, the powerful, and the successful from this type of exchange? In point of fact, we do not want to exclude anyone, but we do want to look reality straight in the face. By way of illustration, let us look for a moment at the present world economic crisis, which has saddened Christmas for so many this year and has uncovered numerous crimes of greed and deception such as the case of fraud attributed recently to a once very wealthy and successful businessman who seems to have cheated investors out of (some say) as much as US$ 50 billion – that’s more money than all of us together if we worked hard for weeks could ever throw away or burn. I don’t know, let us just say that perhaps wealth and glamour distract too much. Maybe only the lowest on the totem pole can hear angels sing!

            We do not want to exclude the possibility of a “Hey, you! Who? Me?” experience for anyone. The prophet Isaiah in the First Reading speaks about “the jealous love of the Lord of hosts”. How do you get your mind around the depth of God’s love for us, each and every one of us regardless of who we are, Love shining forth from the cave at Bethlehem unless you label His love “jealous”? There is nonetheless the question of whether I, to the extent that I am comfortable in this world, I even really care about God’s love for me. It seems to be true that people’s heads are turned by “baubles, bangles, and beads” (sportscars, Blackberries, and bling – you fill in the blanks). Being terribly vain or really comfortable in this world would seem to put a damper on one’s yearning for heaven. Being of this world, being worldly, seems to be an inoculation or immunization against the things of the world to come, heaven.

But we cannot lose hope! As vain as a child or youth can be, vanity (no matter how old we might be) does not totally exclude the possibility of our loving God taking that heart of ours by surprise with a “Hey, you! Who? Me?” Hence the logic of speaking about: “the jealous love of the Lord of hosts”! I suppose God can touch a person’s heart, speak to a person anywhere, maybe even in a nightclub or at Uncle Scrooge’s accounting desk. When you think about it, more often than not God has sent his angel to people who are to be found most anywhere but between the altar and the sanctuary. Just look at our shepherds! They were almost too humble for religion, you might say. They may not even have been presented in the Temple as children, let alone brought back there for the feast of Passover each year. No, “the jealous love of the Lord of hosts” can take us by surprise, rich and poor alike, most anywhere. Nonetheless, if you live without pretense the odds are better in your favor.

By the same token, I assure you that if you are a regular practicing Catholic, a man, woman or child, who not only goes to Mass every Sunday, but confesses his or her sins regularly, says his or her morning offering, bedtime prayers and grace before meals, that is, if you, as we said before, live in God’s Universe, then your chances are even better. Moreover, I want to share with you an ever stronger longing on my part not only for beautiful liturgy, for sacred worship, but also for maintaining our churches as sacred spaces, as quiet beautiful places of prayer, as room consecrated to God and open for people to come in and visit Him. St. Edith Stein said that what moved her to want to be Catholic was stopping in to look at a Catholic Church (I think it was in downtown Speyer, Germany) on a work day just as a lady coming from the market stopped in to make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament. All the objections of this young woman agnostic and all her sophistication melted away in a moment as she watched this woman set down her groceries and kneel for a moment of quiet prayer. Edith had her sign, all of a sudden, just like the shepherds had in the baby they found in the manger.

            Although they are only excuses, how is it possible for people to withdraw themselves from worshipping at Mass every Sunday except by ignoring or denying that in the Catholic Church they have been granted entrance to the forecourt of heaven? I’m not talking fireworks and pageantry, but an experience tailored to the likes of those humble shepherds: “And here is a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger”. The Mass is not a gilded or otherwise jewel-encrusted affair, it is not a show or a major production, but as the old farmer told his pastor when the priest asked him what he prayed about in church he said: it’s simply that “I look at him and he looks at me”; it is about presence. Israel had a sense of God’s presence as it wandered through the desert for 40 years; Judah had a sense of God’s presence in His holy Temple in Jerusalem. We’ve got the baby! We’ve got the child, the youth, the man: God, Jesus, one like us in all things but sin, present in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar!

            Rejoice, rejoice, and rejoice at Christmas! Be an angel, if you can, to someone else this Christmas and give to him or to her the only sign they need to understand “the jealous love of the Lord of hosts”. Were those shepherds pious souls? Did they pray? I doubt it. Their world certainly would never have had room for something as stiff-necked as atheism, but by the same token, as I mentioned before, I doubt if they could have imagined a visit from the angel of the Lord. I hope and pray this Christmas that everyone in your family circle, your circle of friends, would be open to the angel’s message and open to an encounter with God in the Person of Jesus, born of Mary the Virgin, born for us at Bethlehem and for us given. We pray that people will get back to basics; we pray that a baby can be a sign for somebody today; we pray for the best of all gifts at Christmas for one and all: a humble heart.    

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Zeal for Your House Consumes Me

A very good priest friend objected to my recent stance in favor of a reform of the liturgical reform. I hope I am not putting too much into his words when I say that he was more than skeptical about the benefits to be gained from a return to Divine Worship ad Orientem, priest and people together praying with their eyes and hearts lifted to Christ. He rightly pointed out that priests gave scandal and abused the liturgy back before the Council too. He is an earnest man and a truly good and zealous priest; he would be one of those priests of the older generation who suffer from the estrangement (lack of mutual understanding typical of our day) often found to exist between his contemporaries and a younger generation of priests, many of whom are drawn to the usus antiquior in their search for worship in Spirit and in Truth. Although the two of us disagree on the priority I give to reforming the reform through a return to Divine Worship ad Orientem, both of us agree that shepherding after the mind of Christ is first and foremost, seeking out the lost sheep, binding up wounds, and pasturing the flock entrusted to our care.

The debate is not a new one. If we look to the early Church Fathers we can find any number of impassioned pleas from these great saints for making the care of the poor and neglected Christ in our midst our first priority and not seeking to salve our consciences with memorial gifts to embellish His Altar and the Sacred Liturgy. After setting these priorities, however, the Fathers always go on to urge people and presbyters to do the one without neglecting the other (i.e. the gold chalice, yes, provided that the poor Christ in your midst is fed). What is new, however, and I appeal to the authority of the Holy Father, as well as to others more learned and insightful than me, is the wide-ranging concern shared by many today that we have indeed suffered a loss of the sense of the sacred generally in contemporary worship.

Needless to say, when confronted with this objection to the reformed liturgy as it is often celebrated in the Church today, a priest might experience no small sense of personal disarray. It is indeed a terrible thought that the order of worship given to me by the Church’s highest authority, taught to me in the seminary and (for most priests living today) the mode of worship might be wanting which has made up the better part in years of our lives, has nourished our spiritual life and been the focus of our efforts on behalf of the people. A priest might rightly be thoroughly confounded at the thought that this approach (face-to-face across the altar) might be less than the best or even flawed as a way of worship.

How do you even bring up such a topic? In terms of his leadership, I have unbounded admiration for the gentle hand demonstrated by our Holy Father in dealing with a situation which might confuse some and certainly provoke others to denial. By the same token, I do not doubt in the least that this critique of the liturgical reform, or better, the Holy Father’s challenge to us to find ways to restore the Liturgy to the realm of the sacred is entirely lost on most good priests. What to do?

The objection comes back: but these niceties are lost on the rank and file. Too much attention to the placement of candles and folding of hands can hardly compare with reaching out to youth and bringing them to the knowledge and love of our Lord and Savior. We do one without neglecting the other, as the Fathers have taught us. The point however is that we’re not in the realm of niceties, of things totally lost on our contemporaries. The way the liturgy is celebrated does teach; it is formative. A too informal or colloquial celebration is at counter purposes to our goal: in divine worship we’re seeking admission to the forecourt of heaven, if you will. We cannot “force the door”; it is the Lord Who grants us entrance; it is the Lord Who instituted the Eucharist and gave it to His Church.

Common “wisdom” simplifies the “then” of the Tridentine tradition of worship and the “now” of contemporary liturgy by saying that what has fallen away in our time are the social strictures which kept people back then coming to something they didn’t really get anything out of. In freedom today we need to make liturgy attractive, they would say… I beg to disagree. When the sense of the sacred is lost, all is lost. Entertaining liturgy, creative liturgy, relevant liturgy or however you want to describe an act which accommodates and is embellished with “sound and light”, with bouncy music, mime, dance and lots of hugging at the kiss of peace is unfettered only if that’s how you describe a ship without an anchor; it places itself on the same level as the “competition”, so to speak; it cannot be other than run-of-the-mill. Granted, there is no man or woman of good will and prayer who would not see in these allusions anything other than liturgical abuse.

The ad Orientem discussion however challenges even the best of renewed liturgy. Make no mistake about it, from my experience, there are some truly glorious renewed liturgies, caught up to the Throne and to the Lamb. As I shared my ideas with one young priest, he acknowledged spontaneously: “You know you’re right. How often it seems as thought young priests in particular don’t know what to do with their eyes after the Consecration.” Personally, I’ve sensed for years a real sense of awkwardness myself, that is, a problem with the priest’s focus during the Communion Rite. (When facing the people) where should the priest be looking when he prays the “Libera nos…”? The Sign of Peace opens with a prayer; where should the priest’s gaze be directed at that moment with the Lord Jesus Christ, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, right there before him on the Altar?

I must confide that today is a landmark day for me as I received in consignment the central canvas of an altarpiece which will enable me to orient our new chapel here. The other pieces and its frame will be forthcoming in the New Year. Hopefully the Christmas holidays should provide time to write a first draft of my catechesis to be shared with the people who join us for daily Mass. No doubt this catechesis will eventually become a blog posting as well. While the “brick by brick” slogan I have heard repeated by some leaves me cold, I certainly would like to celebrate ad Orientem in a beautiful environment which even my successor might enjoy (as it is or soon will be) for Eucharistic Adoration and hopefully, if he finds my catechesis convincing, also for the celebration ad Orientem of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Pick up the Ball and Run!

Taking a Stance on the increasing Sentiment in favor of a
Reform of the Liturgical Reform

Recently I happened across what I presume was a sports shoe commercial for television but of a very surreal sort built around a rugby theme. In the video the ball comes crashing through the front window of a restaurant and the next thing you know the men from the restaurant in business suits are joining in the game on the streets of the busy city outside. The video resembles as much urban warfare as it does a sport. I know rugby has become a genuine “thing” for boys and young men, replacing for our day and time the quest for the “red badge of courage” once to be gained in a forgotten type of warfare that was far from all-out for the civilian population but oftentimes mortal for the flower of a nation’s youth. In watching the video, the thought came to me that much of what goes on in the area of vernacular liturgy, its planning and celebration is not without parallels to the sport of rugby and its ethos. The incongruity of this thought is as shocking to me as watching the video “rugby” chase over cars, down alleys and onward through a bustling business district of town. The ethos of Divine Worship should be another.

Since the promulgation of Summorum Pontificum the calls for a genuine reform of that liturgical reform which we have netted over the past forty years have become more insistent but likewise more eloquent and credible as proponents clarify their positions and line up behind the Holy Father. The contrast to the at times rugby-like status quo presented by the Pope’s gentle hand and his balanced words, notably during his recent visit to France, has led me to draw my little parallel between what has been touted as a reform according to the mind of the Second Vatican Council but which many times over the years and even yet today rather seems to resemble rugby rules for picking up the ball and running with it, that is, if you dare. The liturgical renewal which many of us have experienced in many parts of the Western World is unfortunately tinged with an inclination on the part of the priest celebrants to protagonism and no small amount of bravado being shown by others (let’s point our fingers at some of the pop choirs, musicians and dancers, leaving aside people with feminist and other agendas who also occasionally attempt to highjack what we were taught was the work of all God’s people).

I do not believe I am alone in having witnessed attempts by individuals or groups to steal center stage or at least run as far as they can with the “ball” without being tackled. Today’s Catholic youth and a goodly number of folk on the brink of or even immersed in middle age have known only this situation where what was cautiously and wisely decreed by Sacrosanctum Concilium has been bowled over by the “cavalry charge” initiated by enthusiasts who saw their chance to take the high ground. The fundamental appreciation which the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council had for the need to set forth the liturgical reforms begun by Pope St. Pius X and Pope Pius XII seems to have been lost in the shuffle or huddle.

The recent announcement of the intention of the Bishop of Tulsa, Oklahoma to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in English but ad Orientem on the First Sunday of Advent and on Christmas is clearly motivated by a commendable desire on the part of the bishop to reestablish the continuity of the reform within the tradition, one of the hallmarks of the reform as intended and decreed by the Second Vatican Council. The publication in an Italian liturgical “blog” recently of a very eloquent page taken from a publication penned in 2001 by our present Holy Father dealing with being Christian in the new millennium has given new urgency to my own sense of obligation to take a stand in this “game”. For some strange reason, not wishing to challenge anyone’s good will, it seems evident that vernacular liturgy as celebrated today is not only too open to abuse, but is seemingly distant from what the Council Fathers intended and what could have been accomplished since then if everyone had held to their words of instruction and direction.

Were we (priests and people) ill-advised by the liturgical experts to stop praying in the same direction and start facing each other across the table? We know now that the nearly absolute banishment of Latin from our musical repertoire was an impoverishment, a form of iconoclasm, not dissimilar to that which whitewashed and stripped once pretty little churches of their countless votive offerings: sometimes leaving behind barren places where formerly one had felt at home with God, the Blessed Virgin and all the Saints. Could we not then also have been ill-advised in accepting something without precedent in our history (remember that the advice came from the same people and who evidently didn’t sufficiently understand the history of divine worship or care enough about what the Council Fathers had prescribed)? The negative consequences of this personalizing of worship (face to face) are patent. They place unreal expectations on the priest celebrant who as often as not instead of leading us in prayer seems obliged to seek engagement or even eye contact with the people before or around him.

Sacrosanctum Concilium N. 23 laid down the following principle among others for renewal: “Finally, there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them, and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing.” Even in the best celebrations of the reformed liturgy today, one would be hard pressed to show any urgency for celebrating across the altar table as “genuinely and certainly” being required for the good of the Church. Organic growth too is hard to plot in what so many people have experienced as rupture.

When N. 33 of the same conciliar decree urges that the sacred liturgy be instructive it does so reminding us that “… the sacred liturgy is principally the worship of the divine majesty…” The above cited page from Cardinal Ratzinger from 2001 rightly emphasizes that it is of the utmost importance that we reacquire respect for the liturgy and once again recognize that it is not open to manipulation; it is not placed at our discretion to be planned and presented as our talents allow. The present Holy Father called in this article for the reestablishment in a clear and organic way of the connections with past history.

I cannot help but think that the multiplication of celebrations according to the usus antiquior since Summorum Pontificum will be of aid in helping us back to the tradition. A full restoration of things as they were before Sacrosanctum Concilium, however, denies the wholesome analysis and the longing of saintly past Popes and an historic ecumenical council. Pope St. Pius X was right to come to the defense of Gregorian Chant and Pope Pius XII gifted us with a renewal of the Sacred Triduum to reflect the sublime mysteries celebrated therein. Both Popes’ interventions brought genuine change to the liturgy in an atmosphere of profound respect for the sacredness of the words and gestures they were modifying. It was undoubtedly the intention of the Second Vatican Council to set forth this same sort of cautious and organic reform. But, as I say, one has the impression that rugby rules were often applied and more than one stalwart decided to pick up the ball and run for it.

The article I read on the decision of the Bishop of Tulsa contains two great quotes from Bishop Slattery: “I hope that this common posture of the Church at prayer will help you to experience the transcendent truth of the Mass in a new and timeless way… “I pray that this restored practice will help us understand that at Mass we participate in the authentic worship which Christ offers to His Father by being ‘obedient unto death’ (Philippians 2:8)”. A modest wish on my part would be that many more chief shepherds would soon be setting a similar example.

The attraction held by the usus antiquior for young people in particular ought to give pause for thought. The explanation for this phenomenon could be as simple as recalling the God experience of the Prophet Elijah on Mount Sinai: he went to the opening of the cave and covered his face with his cloak at the tiny whispering sound of God passing by. God was not to be found in the storm or tempest. Much of what is propagated as youth liturgy today must certainly be judged at odds with Sacrosanctum Concilium N. 34: “The rites should be distinguished by a noble simplicity. They should be short, clear, and free from useless repetitions.” Though my life as a child was much quieter and free of external stimulation than is that of my nieces and nephews, I still found respite even as a preschooler in the big, quiet church of Sunday morning, where if it wasn’t High Mass, the silence might be broken only by an organ prelude, by another subdued organ piece during Communion and by the antiphons sung by a single voice from the choir loft on high. The genius of the past and its attraction for people of today comes from being able to perceive the Mass as gift, as withdrawn from the ambit of my discretion or caprice, as something of God, something sacred. Pope Benedict XVI speaks with urgency of our need to reawaken an interior sense of the sacred.

We have something altogether priceless in the renewed liturgical calendar and in the bounty of the lectionary with its three year cycle for Sundays and Solemnities. The introduction of the vernacular to worship certainly responded to an almost desperate hunger outside of the Latin world at least, if not universally within the Church. I would like to believe that the Bishop of Tulsa is on to something when he very simply and humbly moves to reestablish a single orientation for prayer in his cathedral this Advent and Christmas. May his attempt succeed to rescue the Mass from those who would beat it down with personal inventions or change the rules of the game to those of aggression! There’s a time and a place for rugby and not all of us are hearty enough to play such a game.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Jubilee Introduction to St. Paul

Fundraising Brunch
for the Companions of the Transfigured Christ
Sunday, 16 November 2008

St. Paul and the Intentions of the Pauline Year

It is a joy for me to be with you this Sunday morning. I greet the Companions of the Transfigured Christ and all who have come for this morning’s brunch in support of the work of these men. I hope the food and the company agree with you. Don’t hesitate to rethink your offering and put a little something extra in the basket this year. Kyle and Mikkel both assure me they haven’t lost any money on the stock market these days so don’t hesitate. Nothing seems to get cheaper and the need is certainly greater, as you well know from home. Be generous!

By way of an introduction to Father John Theodore’s talk I have been asked to tell you a bit about St. Paul and about the intentions of the Pauline Year we in the Catholic Church world-wide are celebrating to observe the bi-millennium (2000 years) of the approximate birthdate of the Apostle to the Gentiles.

From the point of view of volume, St. Paul is the single most important New Testament author after God who inspired all the writings we find in Holy Scripture, Old and New Testament. If you take your New Testament and count the pages, you’ll find that the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles make up about half the pages, St. Paul a third and everyone else the balance. He may not have written a Gospel, but Paul’s letters are basic to how we are to understand and live the Gospel. What have come down to us from the Church as the Pauline Letters (ro-co-co…), what we may refer to as the Pauline Corpus within the New Testament is the Word of God.

In his letter of October 2007, His Eminence Cardinal Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo, the Archpriest of the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, where St. Paul was buried after his beheading nearby (between 66 and 67 A.D.), lists 7 opportunities which this year dedicated to St. Paul should provide.

His Eminence Cardinal Ivan Dias, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples wrote his own letter at about the same time specifically to the bishops which depend upon his office, namely here in our area all of the bishops of the Antilles Episcopal Conference – AEC. He suggested rather concretely a set of 10 “missionary” projects worth considering for the year.

Even if I only took one of the two Cardinals’ lists and briefly outlined the various points, I’d go over my time limit for this introduction. I am confident that I can leave the big talk for today to Father. Besides, one should try and keep it light at brunch time, right? Too much input might not be good for the digestion! Let me focus then on just one idea mentioned by our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI when he announced officially that there would be a special Jubilee Year dedicated to the Apostle Paul, extending from 28 June 2008 until 29 June 2009, and I quote:
“Dear brothers and sisters, as in early times, today too Christ needs apostles ready to sacrifice themselves. He needs witnesses and martyrs like St. Paul. Paul, a former violent persecutor of Christians, when he fell to the ground dazzled by the divine light on the road to Damascus, did not hesitate to change sides to the Crucified One and followed him without second thoughts. He lived and worked for Christ, for him he suffered and died. How timely his example is today!”
In his letter announcing the Pauline Year, Cardinal Dias elaborates on that central point of the Holy Father’s when he speaks about the relevance of the Pauline Year as a source of inspiration for the missionary effort, as a further encouragement for those who in our day and time strive to do what Paul did, that is, carry the good news of Jesus Christ to the people who have not yet heard of him. The Cardinal in his letter speaks about people today, perhaps right here in the Twin Island Republic, who may speak respectfully of Jesus but who “do not see him as the only Savior of the world, as the one who alone is the Way, the Truth and the Life, true God and true man, before whom (and here he quotes St. Paul) “every knee must bend, in the heavens, on the earth and under the earth, and every tongue proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord, for the glory of God the Father” (see Phil 2:10-11).

St. Paul was born approximately 2000 years ago in Tarsus (Ταρσός), a Greek city and a large district, in what today on the map is Mersin Province, on Turkey’s southern coast, 15 km (9 mi) from the city of Mersin and near (40 km) to the city of Adana. In Paul’s time Tarsus was the district capital of Cilicia. Marc Anthony first met Cleopatra in that city. Paul also called Saul was a Jew, evidently from an established family in Tarsus as he had Roman citizenship from birth, hence the privilege of death by beheading i.e. no torture for him. He studied to be a rabbi in Jerusalem under Gamaliel and to support himself as rabbis did then and in many cases do yet today he learned a trade; Paul was a tent maker.

Whether he actually threw stones at the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen, is not clear. He was present and approved of the killing, and himself terrorized the early Christian community until Jesus claimed him on the road to Damascus. Paul never met Jesus before Christ’s suffering and death upon the Cross for our salvation; Paul’s vocation to be an apostle, like one of the Twelve, came to him personally from the Risen Christ.

From the Acts of the Apostles and his own letters we can trace four missionary voyages which St. Paul made during his years of ministry. The last one he made in chains from Jerusalem to Rome. The first three took him through what are modern day Turkey, Cyprus and Greece. He traveled by boat and on foot; he spent time with the people to whom he preached; he chose elders and gave the Church in the eastern Mediterranean its initial structure. Most of his letters were written to the communities he had founded, to clarify points of Catholic teaching, to admonish sinners in their midst, to shake them up if need be, to ask them for contributions to support the hard-pressed community of believers in Jerusalem. The rest of his letters were written to individuals, to elders chosen by him: Timothy and Titus, and to Philemon to whom he was sending back his run-away slave, Onesimus, now baptized and a brother in Christ of his former master.

St. Paul not only traveled and wrote letters; he was beaten with rods, whipped, stoned, left for dead, imprisoned, shipwrecked. He was consumed by his love for Jesus and succeeded (with the help of others, naturally) in winning over a good part of the civilized world of his time for Christ. If we reckon from his conversion, to be placed some time between 34 and 36 A.D. (when he was 25 maybe 27 years of age), and when he was beheaded, at the latest in 67 A.D., then we’re talking about 30 years of active ministry.

Sister in school said to us as children that if the Lord knocked us off our high horse like Paul then He could expect wonders from us just as He did from St. Paul. Sister’s logic was that this was the case because of the Lord’s investment in Paul as His chosen instrument, because of the way He had revealed His hand to Paul: the more the Lord invests the more He can expect.

We children took that to mean that since we hadn’t had such a blinding encounter with Christ as St. Paul did on the road to Damascus, we were off the hook in terms of our duties as apostles for today; we could live a normal Christian life. Where do children get such ideas? For that matter, where did sister get off saying that Paul was given more and hence more was to be expected of him? Maybe she was right, but the Acts of the Apostles Chapter 9:7 says concerning Paul’s encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus: “Meanwhile the men who were traveling with him stood speechless; they heard the voice but could see no one.” Were Paul’s companions any less privileged than he? Perhaps! Maybe Jesus, the Risen One, only wanted one good man. However, it might also be the case that Paul’s companions were not receptive to the grace imparted. God never takes away our freedom, especially when it comes to vocational choices.

Paul’s letters don’t always read so easily. Maybe you know some letter writers that are tougher to follow than others, too, but who nonetheless are well worth reading. Read Paul during this Jubilee Year; read Paul for as long as you have eyes to see. Read him with an open heart and risk an encounter with the Risen Christ in and through the Word of God.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Living Stones

Celebration with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny
of the Birthday of Blessed Anne Marie Javouhey
Sunday, 9 November 2008,

Feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran

Ezekiel 47:1-2.8-9.12
(cf. Ps. 45)
I Cor. 3:9-11.16-17
John 2:13-22

I am most pleased that the sisters doing the liturgy planning for the celebration of Blessed Anne Marie’s Birthday and the feast day of Mother Provincial wholeheartedly embraced the Church’s universal calendar and indicated to me that we would be celebrating the Feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran, the Pope’s Cathedral Church in Rome. I don’t know how many memorable homilies you sisters have been treated to year in and year out for this Provincial celebration, but I’ll do my best in the short time appropriate to a Sunday homily to see what I can do to offer you something at least worthwhile for 2008.

One of the purposes for having the Feast of John Lateran in the universal calendar is to offer every local Church an opportunity to celebrate the dedication of its own cathedral, should there not already be an anniversary date on which that dedication is observed. Cathedral or not, we all are invited at least once a year to raise our thoughts, starting from the earthly temple, to the temple of Christ’s Body from which flows the water which brings life and freshness to all it touches. We are called to reflect on what is truly monumental, namely the community of believers who are one in Christ, the true and lasting temple founded by Jesus on the rock which is Peter.

The Lateran Feast indeed reminds us that the Church’s nature is not summed up in the brick and mortar of a building, no matter how lovely and inspiring; today we are invited to call to mind that at the heart of the ecclesial mystery are the living stones… we, the saints, who make up this edifice of the spirit which is the Church of God. The texts which embellish this feast are truly filled with love from beginning to end and leave no doubt as to what we are celebrating. Interestingly enough for you as religious, their language is also spousal in nature and most appropriate for your annual reflection on your identity as Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny, that is to say, in terms of your dignity and place within the Church.

The entrance antiphon assigned for the feast is a great example of the use of this language from matrimony, which is also the language of religious consecration: “I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, like a bride adorned in readiness for her husband.”

Worship spaces should be beautiful like a bride and they should be structured to reflect the inspired word of God and the tradition of the Church. These spaces should connect us to the holy city, the New Jerusalem, and reflect in our day and time the way God is worshipped there. More beautiful still than the building should be the face of the bride which reflects the eternal glory shining forth from the face of the Bridegroom. I remember reading the architect’s explanation of why he built the new abbey church at St. John’s, Collegeville, out of unadorned grey concrete. He said that the beauty and color were to be provided by the people who gathered in that space for worship (the argument didn’t convince me as a child and convinces me even less almost 50 years later, but at least it is true that in worship the accent should be on the worshippers). In that sense too, remembering that from liturgy we move into life and vice versa, religious women can be expected to have beautiful faces. Theirs or yours is not necessarily the freshness of healthy youth or the magic of beauty creams or the art of Hollywood’s best plastic surgeons. What renders you attractive is your happiness as a religious, which is rooted in your faithful adherence to the plan of life which you embraced along with Christ, your Spouse, on the day of your religious profession. Your beauty springs from creative faithfulness to the one Spouse worth chasing after, the Christ.

Not long ago in a conversation with a professional woman here in Port of Spain (this is a woman whose acquaintance I had the honor to make early on in my four years now almost here and with whom I have had occasion now and again to exchange ideas), she told me that recently she had suggested to her two nieces that they look into making a retreat and that it might be a good idea if for their future they seriously considered religious life. She told me that she had said this to them out of her own deep conviction concerning what makes for a happy life. From her own religious schooling and closeness to the sisters she told me she had learned some very important lessons. She finds the life of the convent comparable if not superior to many other life choices. Ideally for her, religious life represents the quintessence of the ordered lifestyle. With right order, she tells me and I agree, comes real dignity. The genuine humility and sense of common purpose she observes among religious women also inspire her to this conviction. She illustrates this point more concretely in her own words with this example: she told me that it fills her with admiration, for example, that today’s mother superior could become tomorrow’s motherhouse gardener, sacristan or portress. She told me straight out that, as far as she is concerned, only a life without pretense can be a truly happy life (I swear to you, I am not making this up. I was pleasantly surprised to hear this coming to me unsolicited from a laywoman).

The bottom line on one side of the big bookmark bi-centenary tribute to Blessed Anne Marie Javouhey, which I received from you last year, says as much as what I have been saying: “Anne Marie had the dispositions of an apostle according to Christ: -availability, -hope and confidence, -prayer, interior spirit, -joy in doing God’s work”. That your blessed foundress had these dispositions was certainly great, but even greater is the fact that she shared them with generations of women who have formed and continue to form a genuine edifice of the Spirit. To the extent that you live the life individually you are a gift to the world and to the extent that you witness to these values as a community, you represent the New Jerusalem, the beautiful bride come down out of heaven, ready for her Spouse. Recognize your dignity, or should I say recognize your beauty?

According to the axiom, united we stand and divided we fall, we are talking about a community effort, which nonetheless comes to be thanks to the virtue of the single members. As a young and perhaps naïve priest I accepted almost at face value the assessment that religious communities of the apostolic life, nursing orders and teaching communities in particular, were no longer getting the big numbers of vocations because they had successfully worked themselves out of a job. As I say, I must have been young and naïve because I hadn’t figured out that one generation replaces another and that having, as in your case, promoted one or more generations of Caribbean women doesn’t mean that you have worked yourself out of a job. The older generations die out and new ones take their place; the girls and women who need to be educated and affirmed in their dignity as children of God will never run out. Your work is never done.
I spent over eight years working for the Apostolic Nuncio in Germany, five in Bonn and over three in Berlin. It was my great privilege in those years to accompany my boss as he, the first papal representative since Eugenio Pacelli who had done so between the two world wars, went about visiting extensively the Catholic communities of eastern Germany. The East is not only the land devastated by Communism but from the time of Martin Luther it was virtually off-bounds for us as Catholics. This is the part of Germany which the Protestant Reformation took and sort of kept. Ancient and beautiful church buildings stand there relatively unchanged (forgive me now for a judgment on my part), unchanged because with the Reformation the vital sort of Catholic life which keeps repainting and changing worship spaces to reflect the life and growth of the Church of living stones died. The only reason there is still a Letna (a special type of Rood Screen) in Halberstadt is because faith life stopped still and died there. By comparison, the cathedrals in the Catholic parts of Germany or to keep to our theme for today John Lateran as a building have known the rigors of war and destruction, but more than that Rome’s cathedral church has always experienced expansion, beautification and remodeling at the hands of the popes at the head of a living community of faithful, regardless of ups and downs, regardless of defections and setbacks over the centuries.

Living stones, sisters, the Church is built of living stones and you are an incredibly important part of that edifice of God in the Spirit. From the Temple flows the water which brings freshness and life to all it touches. You are the light of the world, the city set on the mountain top which cannot be hidden, the lamp which has its proper place on the lamp stand.

Sisters, I’m tempted to go through point by point the words on the jubilee bookmark I mentioned before: “Ann Marie had the dispositions of an apostle according to Christ:
-hope and confidence,
-prayer, interior spirit,
-joy in doing God’s work”.

Let’s just take one so as not to prolong the homily too much and tax your patience: -hope and confidence. Why was Anne Marie beatified? Because of a bonified miracle attesting to her reputation of intercessory power most certainly! But also because of her life of heroic virtue! “Hope and confidence”: did Anne Marie have her hope set on what we today can celebrate as two monumental centuries of service by her daughters? You know the answer to that question without much coaxing. Wouldn’t it be better to say of her that she had her hope set on the New Jerusalem and that she had placed her confidence in her Bridegroom?

There’s no telling where hope and confidence might take you yet today. I can’t help but think of one of your elderly sisters of the other province over in Cayenne who got herself a storefront in the poorest, toughest part of town and started an after school care program for students, inviting the wives of the prominent people of town to come help her children with their school lessons, with their homework. They came and so did countless Brazilian grandmothers and others not strong enough in French to help the children with their lessons but eager to support something which could empower their children’s children and offer them the tools they need to succeed. Is sister building something which will ultimately have a monumental brick and mortar structure of its own? I doubt it very much. But for every child who has experienced love after school and has been helped on the road to language proficiency, reading skills, and all the rest, well no doubt Anne Marie has reason to smile and elbow the Blessed Mother or St. Peter and say: “Behold God’s dwelling place among men! Look at my sister!”

Sisters, happy birthday to your mother foundress and happy feast day to mother provincial! Each of you is a wealth of experience and a litany of thanks. Each of you is a beautiful bride prepared for your Spouse. Don’t become keepers of the stones of the past, no matter how lovely they may be! We don’t know at what hour the Bridegroom will show – be ready and watching with your lamps burning bright!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Law of Love

A Meditation on the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
26 October 2008, Port of Spain

“On these two commandments hang the whole Law, and the Prophets also” (Matt. 22:40).

The primacy of Love of God and Love of Neighbor in the Christian life and the victories won in this regard in the lives of countless saints and very ordinary Christians are a source of pride and encouragement for us as we look out upon the world. Nobody does it better than a faithful servant of Jesus Christ. These heights never cease to challenge and humble us as we strive to live up to this standard in our daily lives. Love is indeed everything; as the story goes, the elderly St. John the Evangelist never ceased speaking about the commandment to love and urging his followers to fulfill it in a perfect way; it was everything for him in his old age. Nothing could be righter when dealing with others on a personal or interpersonal basis.

A whole series of recent events experienced and anecdotes shared, however, lead me to pose a question regarding the duties of leadership above and beyond love. I’ll frame my question to deal with only one issue today, but it certainly has, to my mind, wider-ranging ramifications. Granted that integral or authentic leadership is 90% good example; if I love with all my heart, soul, mind and strength God and love my neighbor as myself, I truly am a beacon not only for some others but for everyone. Nonetheless, as the pilgrim people wanders about there comes a time when tent pegs have to be set for those some others, be they the Church Universal, my diocese, my parish or my worshipping community. Law and order have their place and must have even within the community of believers.

My question: Doesn’t authority and law have its part to play in assuring love’s triumph? (As a convinced canonist, I must answer this question in the affirmative) Taking this matter a step further, in matters of choice where there may be several good options, am I allowed to make public choices where my opting for the better implies commitments which condition the choices of those around me (given my leadership role or the office/authority entrusted to me) and in the case of brick and mortar decisions, by what right can I also condition the choices of those who will come after me by modifying a building?

My issue today is that of the organization of worship and worship space. It has become an issue for me as I look to the good example set by our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI and ask myself about my options for following him. Am I free to start celebrating Mass ad orientem just like that? Can I also make some small but permanent changes in the chapel to enhance the experience and in a sense commit the space for the future to worshipping in this way which the Holy Father and I following his lead find better?

Why has this matter come up in my life with such insistence just now? The discussion is not new. Perhaps because of the stir caused by the reporting on some thoughts shared by Pope Benedict in his forward to the first volume of the German edition of his assembled works by Vatican Radio and translated into English by ZENIT. Let me quote the Holy Father as he is quoted the other day in ZENIT:

"The concept by which the priest and the assembly should look one another in the eye during prayer has been developed only in modern times and is totally foreign to ancient Christianity," the Pontiff wrote. "The priest and the assembly didn't pray facing each other, but directed toward the one Lord.
"Because of this, during prayer, they look in the same direction: Either toward the east, a cosmic symbol of the Lord who is to come, or, where this was not possible, toward an image of Christ in the apse, toward a cross, or simply all together toward the heights, as the Lord did during his priestly prayer the night before his passion."

One commentator on the Pope’s words invites his readers to follow the Holy Father’s good example and underlines what he means by publishing in his article pictures of the Pope celebrating ad orientem in two different configurations: one, as in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome with himself on one side of the altar and the people on all sides looking with him to the Crucifix which is front and center on the altar of St. Peter’s Confession; the other, a picture from the Sistine Chapel at last year’s feast of the Baptism of the Lord, where the whole chapel with the Holy Father lift their eyes to the Crucifix and the wall fresco behind it of Michelangelo’s Final Judgment.

Parish priests generally in these days of priest shortage are alone in the parish. If the building was built after the Council or was extensively renovated, the lonely parish priest can easily take the first option with a prominent Cross and an arrangement of 6 candles straight across the front of the altar. Even the second option is possible if there is enough of a platform on the people side or if the altar of celebration is still temporary and can be moved away to enable celebration on the old high altar.

What do you do when more is required? And what do you do when there are other priests who share your life and don’t necessarily appreciate what you consider to be the better choice? In a parish setting, what happens when you’ve finished your catechesis and the folks in the pews object to your choice of the “better” for them? The primacy of love would certainly urge us not to provoke the situation, since we are not dealing with a clear case of right and wrong, good or bad. But don’t we have to strive to bring out the better or the best from the storehouse as good stewards?

What does it mean when we say that the Holy Father presides over the community of charity? Who has to “set the tent peg” when it comes to worship? I’m not saying that for peace and good order the supreme lawgiver must act today. Maybe wisdom and love demand time to build a consensus. At some point however rubrics must prevail. The Pillar of Cloud led Israel to the Promised Land under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Setting up camp, breaking camp and the movements of God’s Chosen People in the desert were ordered by God and Moses called the shots. Lesser judges helped keep the peace among the people. Maybe Moses’ father-in-law Jethro would advise that this is a clear case for subsidiarity. Part of liturgical renewal in our day would seem to be ruling out the ambiguity of the past few decades and coming to grips with the true nature of divine worship as it was and should be everywhere and always. Good example, certainly, but above all good order!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Unpacking the Mystery

Mass of Thanksgiving
for the 80 Years of Opus Dei
Since its Inception on 2 October 1928
St. Ann’s, 6 October 2008

Genesis 2:4b-9, 15
Ps. 2:7-12
Romans 8:14-17
Luke 5:1-11

Truth to be told we don’t celebrate our good choices in life often enough. That’s why our local celebration here today of the 80 years of Opus Dei is so important. In effect what we are saying by this celebration is that thanks be to God St. Josemaría got it right 80 years ago. He identified a need which existed in his time and which his spiritual sons and daughters continue to address with profit and for our benefit yet today.

What Opus Dei is about and has always been about speaks to the profound significance of our baptismal calling; both on the giving end and on the receiving end it deals directly with what we are about as children of God; it touches everything we say and do, day in and day out, whether at work or at play. The basic intuition of St. Josemaría directs his followers, those actively working for the salvation of souls in the vineyard of Christ, and it serves as a reliable beacon for any Catholic, as a guide for those seeking to walk the straight path through life in conformity with the teaching of the Church.

Opus Dei is classic Catholic. St. Josemaría didn’t really discover anything new. In point of fact, he did that which has always merited Jesus’ praise for the good steward in the Gospel: the good steward brought forth from what he had stored up good things for the Lord’s household. The saintly founder’s teaching is not a novel one; what he did and Opus Dei has continued to do over these 80 years is to help people in all walks of life understand and better live who they are by water and the Holy Spirit.

Let me venture to say that this great saint’s invitation to all of the baptized to seek holiness of life by sanctifying our work, whether it be in the laboratory, in the field, at a desk, in an office, in a classroom, or at home, takes on credibility and becomes a genuine contribution to the life of the Church only in so far as those who follow in the footsteps of St. Josemaría fulfill his mandate to help people become holy where they are in life by offering them the kind of spiritual formation which they need to be equal to the task of making the best of their everyday lives.

Opus Dei’s gift for 80 years now to the Church is that of providing help and direction to regular people in any walk of life, as they seek to build up a genuine relationship with God in the midst of their daily tasks. Opus Dei specializes in helping people live out their baptism where they are in life with a more specific focus and oftentimes more intensity than a parish or a chaplaincy can provide. St. Josemaría’s gift which continues to give through the men and women who make up Opus Dei today is the help which they offer to ordinary people young and old in deepening their personal life of faith and developing a life of prayer which can sustain them in the challenges which are part of any life this side of heaven.

In case you don’t get my drift or need further illustration of the importance of what I am talking about, let me say it again with a slightly different twist. Opus Dei is one great work of catechesis. It seeks to offer the same and more of that which Mother Church seeks to offer her children in terms of guideposts through life.

The first question of the old catechism, which I learned as a child, was: “Why did God make me?” And the answer was: “God made me to know, love and serve Him in this life, so that I may be happy with Him in Heaven.” You might say that it is the one question and answer which says it all. Even so, it is a seemingly simple question and answer which needs lots of unpacking. It’s like the Catechism of the Catholic Church: that beautiful, big book which was given to us by the Church after the Second Vatican Council. It’s so big that its size frightens us away from even picking it up and so we don’t actually ever get down to reading it and thinking it through.

Having said that God made me to know, love and serve Him, I have only just begun. Opus Dei is there to help me, child, youth and aged, doctor, lawyer or Indian chief, to work out the practical and profound aspects of what it means to know, love and serve Him in this life. To say it another way, in our day and time, Opus Dei is there to help us to open up and read, to absorb that big and beautiful catechism, which offers us direction on our pathway through life.

Our readings for today’s Holy Mass are the ones taken from the feast of St. Josemaría. The passage which we just heard, taken from the creation story about the garden the Lord planted in Eden, really touched me in a very special way. As some of you may know, gardening has become my hobby and my obsession here in Port of Spain: any Saturday morning I can I’m out in the garden and sometimes I manage a little work out there in between. Even though sin has rendered work drudgery and even manual labor like hobby gardening can be wearisome, we understand immediately from the inspired Word of God that the care of the garden of Eden and for that matter all such tasks are matters of stewardship. Work of any kind has not only a necessary aspect about it, but by the will of God work, sweat or no sweat, has an inherent dignity. We, human beings, are the crowning work of God’s creation and those to whom He has entrusted a share in His work. Washed and saved in the Blood of the Lamb as we are, our place, our dignity like Adam’s in the garden before his fall, is to be found as we cultivate or care for Eden as Adam did, as we go about our daily work, whether it be manual, domestic or intellectual.

Washed clean of sin in Baptism, as children of God, we share in His sufferings and so we will share in His glory. That which is everyday has been caught up to heaven because of who we are, we who do the work. We work at His command, as Peter and his companions did who from their boat on the shore of Lake Gennesaret heard Him teaching the crowds and then responded to His call to play out their nets again in broad daylight after a fruitless night of doing the same. Simon Peter clearly got the message and fell on his knees, “Leave me Lord; I am a sinful man”. Hard work or no, however, our workplace is also an occasion to point to the Lord and invite others to share in His glory: “Do not be afraid; from now on it is men you will catch,” says the Lord.

When you consider the present crisis in the world of work, I guess you could say that Opus Dei’s contribution to the life of the Church is more urgently needed than ever before. In the world of carpentry or masonry, for example, where has craftsmanship gone? Don’t young people learn trades anymore? Why has the word “homemaker” fallen out of our vocabulary? Why do we refer to yesterday’s “general practitioners” as “primary physicians” and why do these younger doctors frequently try hurriedly to unload you on a specialist almost without touching you or hearing you out?

Professional activity, manual labor, housework, it all can seem rather heartless and unrewarding sometimes; it all may seem like a bitter pill to be swallowed and be done with so that we can get on to entertainment and leisure. My grandparents on both sides of the family certainly didn’t consider subsistence farming to be the be-all and the end-all of life. My Dad’s father always regretted that he was not able to get a job with the railroad. Nonetheless, up until our day a lot of good folk have worked from the cradle until they reached the grave: no retirement and no all-inclusive vacations. Some of them, I would venture to say, many of these men and women were holy and reached heaven working in this way. They sanctified what was drudgery after Adam’s sin in the garden. Sanctifying work is not sprinkling it with holy water or putting a holy picture on your desk. Sanctifying work is working with God as Adam was created to do. Working hand in hand with God is not a natural approach for us sinners; it is a goal to be striven for; it is something we need to learn, something for which we need guidance and direction.

Brothers and sisters of Opus Dei, this is no time for sitting back and congratulating yourselves for a job well done over the last 80 years, the harvest is great and laborers are scarce: you have a world to claim for the Lord.

Friends, benefactors and admirers of Opus Dei, as well as all of you who have in some way benefited from programs of formation, opportunities for confession or other gifts or insights which have come your way from them, reclaiming the earth for God is as easy as identifying His footstep next to yours or His hand next to yours on the desk or workbench.

God made me to know, love and serve Him in this life so as to be happy with Him in the next… There’s a lot there to unpack: a whole, big, beautiful catechism and more full if you will. I need all the help I can get in living out my faith. Thank goodness! Thanks be to God for the gift of St. Josemaría and Opus Dei and for 80 years now! Truth to be told we don’t celebrate our good choices in life often enough. We should celebrate and then roll up our sleeves and get to work.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Triumph of the Holy Cross

“La politique, l’Etat, n’étaient pas une religion mais une réalité profane avec une mission spécifique… et les deux doivent être ouverts l’un pour l’égard de l’autre. Dans ce sens, je dirais aujourd’hui, pour les Français, et pas seulement pour les Français, pour nous chrétiens dans ce monde sécularisé d’aujourd’hui, il est important de vivre avec joie la liberté de notre foi, de vivre la beauté de la foi et de rendre visible dans le monde d’aujourd’hui qu’il est beau d’être croyant, qu’il est beau de connaître Dieu, Dieu avec un visage humain en Jésus-Christ… montrer donc la possibilité d’être un croyant aujourd’hui et même qu’il est nécessaire pour la société d’aujourd’hui qu’il y ait des hommes qui connaissent Dieu et peuvent donc vivre selon les grandes valeurs qu’il nous a données et contribuer à la présence des valeurs qui sont fondamentales pour la construction et pour la survie de nos Etats et de nos sociétés.” (excerpt from the response of Pope Benedict XVI to a journalist’s question about secular France and the Church today)

These words captured from the airplane interview with Pope Benedict XVI on his pilgrimage to France for the 150th Anniversary of Our Lady’s appearances to Bernadette at Lourdes, words about secularity (laicité) and the specific contribution which believers have to make to politics, statesmanship and toward building up society today, no doubt caught “outsiders” off-guard, just like the Holy Father’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, did. They didn’t expect from him words first and foremost about charity. “Outsiders” still haven’t learned: they just don’t expect the Pope to say things like: “il est important de vivre avec joie la liberté de notre foi, de vivre la beauté de la foi et de rendre visible dans le monde d’aujourd’hui qu’il est beau d’être croyant, qu’il est beau de connaître Dieu, Dieu avec un visage humain en Jésus-Christ…”

These words and the Holy Father’s general approach to the Christian life offer me an insight into how we can speak of the Triumph of the Holy Cross, which we have the joy of celebrating as a Sunday Feast this year, thanks to the 2008 calendar and where the 14th of September falls this year.

Regardless of the historical reasons which occasioned this feast: I was taught as a child that this feast commemorated the recovery of the Holy Cross by St. Helena, the mother the the Emperor Constantine; others note this day as a celebration for the dedication of the structure built over Calvary in Jerusalem on the day following the dedication of the Church of the Resurrection built by Constantine; my Daily Roman Missal dates it from a victory of a later Emperor, Heraclius, over the Persians and the recovery from them of the major relic of the True Cross, which they had carried off as booty from Jerusalem.

Leaving the history aside, it is good that we have another date in the calendar (Holy Thursday, for instance, has Corpus Christi) besides Good Friday to glory in the new Tree of Life which through the new Adam brought victory where the tree in the center of the garden brought defeat through the old Adam’s presumption.

“Nos autem gloriari oportet in cruce Domini nostri Jesu Christi, in quo est salus, vita et resurrectio nostra, per quem salvati et liberati sumus.”

It is beautiful to be a believer, it is beautiful to know God, God with a human face in Jesus Christ… if I may so render the Holy Father’s words from the plane last Friday. Bernadette was struck by how pretty and polite this young woman, clothed with the sun, was who appeared to her and prayed with her over the course of those days 150 years ago. It would seem that we have much to learn or learn again about what it means to have been buried with Christ in Baptism so as to live with Christ. It is beautiful to be a believer just so, as it is and not in any contrived sense. In this sense, Jesus’ death on the Cross and celebrating His Sacrifice is probably our best corrective to insure authenticity.

Without wishing to develop a whole homily or full-blown meditation on this point, I think it sufficient to invite my readers to join me in a day’s meditation on the glory of God shining forth on the face of Christ. The beauty of the Crucified One and the Glory of His Cross (taken as a part for the whole) is mine, is ours. Not physical health, not cosmetics and fashion, but my knowledge of God in Christ is for me and for the world salvation, life and resurrection. “Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Reason for Your Hope

Patron Feast
of the Companions of the Transfigured Christ
Sunday, 3 August 2008


Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
2 Peter 1:16-19
Matthew 17:1-9

“The Companions of the Transfigured Christ”:

ever since I learned the name of your community, I’ve been struggling with that name because of a long-standing presumption or prejudice on my part concerning this great mystery which unfolded on Mount Tabor. I’d like to share with you today my spiritual dilemma and how you have in a sense helped me to work through it and grow in my appreciation of the Mystery of Jesus’ Transfiguration and its importance for our life of faith. I hope these thoughts may be of help to all of you too.

Very simply, it boils down to this: For some reason and for as much of my life as I can remember, whenever I read the Gospel account of the Transfiguration or meditate on that mystery, even in conjunction with the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary, Peter dominates the scene:

“Lord, how good that we are here! With your permission I will erect three booths here, one of you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Luke adds in parenthesis: “(He did not really know what he was saying.)”

What then is unique or special about being a companion of the TRANSFIGURED Christ, as opposed to being a companion of the Risen Christ, the Crucified Christ, the Adolescent Christ or the Infant King? If we focus on Peter’s offer to set up tents and stay on the mountain, it would almost seem as though the Transfiguration would have to be classed as an experience without application in the Christian life, as the one mystery in the life of our Lord and Savior which is not open to a discipleship experience. That, however, cannot be!

But it is not only Peter’s confused reaction to what he saw on Mt. Tabor which causes me to pose the question. We need only look a little further and ask why Jesus said what He did to them as recorded in the closing words of today’s Gospel:

“As they were coming down the mountainside Jesus commanded them, ‘Do not tell anyone of the vision until the Son of Man rises from the dead’.”

What kind of an experience did the first companions of the Transfigured Christ, Peter, James and John, have? We know that Jesus wanted to prepare the inner circle of His Apostles to endure the scandal of the Cross and the glory of the Resurrection, but why did He command their silence? Moving on to our day and to us who live in the glory of Easter, what possible role can this mountaintop experience play in our lives or in the life of any Christian?

The Infancy of Jesus, His Adolescence, His Adulthood, His Passion and Death, His Resurrection and Ascension are all events that have something of the journey about them. We can identify with them to a greater or lesser degree and apply them to our life’s experience. They work as models to be imitated: the Child Jesus within the Holy Family is an easy one. The Adolescent Christ in the midst of the elders in the Temple may not be quite as easy, but really offers all sorts of hope to young people and to the parents and teachers who must deal with youth. All the rest of Jesus’ life-and-teaching is rich in impulses for the lives of Christians great and humble.
The Transfiguration is different. What sort of ground rules does this event provide me for living the Christian life? Where do I begin and where can I go with the Transfigured Christ – He accompanying me and I being His companion? What do I carry with me from this mountaintop experience?

The Second Reading for the Feast is the key to what discipleship with the Transfigured Christ is all about. St. Peter, reflecting on his mountaintop experience, puts it very clearly:

“We ourselves heard this said from heaven while we were in his company on the holy mountain. Besides, we possess the prophetic message as something altogether reliable. Keep your attention closely fixed on it, as you would on a lamp shining in a dark place until the first streaks of dawn appear and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

What did these three chosen men hear said from heaven? “This is my beloved Son on whom my favor rests. Listen to him.”

What are they and we to do? “Keep your attention closely fixed on it, as you would on a lamp shining in a dark place until the first streaks of dawn appear and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

“This is my beloved Son on whom my favor rests. Listen to him.” The Transfiguration and the words of God the Father spoken from heaven as set out by St. Peter in his second letter tell us that the focus of our lives is and must be Jesus, true God and true Man, Son of God and Son of Mary.

Since the glorious day of Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension to the Right Hand of the Father the question or real issue to be faced by any generation of Christians is not and never has been whether we live in the best of all times or the worst of all times. We are not and cannot be concerned with which way the wind is blowing or how the stock market is doing. No matter how dark the night, Christians have always and must always focus on the lamp of truth whose unwavering flame burns within the community of the Catholic Church. We wait in joyful hope for the Dawn from on high which is about to break upon us.

This is the insight; this is the wisdom to be found at the core, I believe, of the intuition which inspired your choice of a name, “The Companions of the Transfigured Christ”. It is not a question of pretending to be latter day Peters, James or Johns – the chosen ones among the elect. Moreover, Jesus admonishes you as He did those chosen ones that your message is not to be that of shouting out, “We’ve been to the mountaintop!” No, it would seem to me that your mission must be your focus as Peter would have it. Through your retreat and prayer apostolate, as well as through your work in the world, you can do no more and nothing better than take your cue from the lamp of truth burning within Christ’s Church, while living in joyful hope for the Lord’s return in glory. In the midst of darkness and confusion you are fixed on the lamp light until the Dawn breaks through.

In you people must discern a witness countering the prevailing distraction and consumerism of Blackberries, clothes and vehicles. While keeping what you saw on the mountaintop secret, you must be ready to respond to all who are drawn by your witness and explain to them when they ask the reason for your hope.

The Fathers of the Church in their commentary and in their preaching on the Mystery of the Transfiguration mention not only the insight gained by the three apostles from this manifestation. They point out that the Transfiguration was also a revelation to Moses and Elijah. On Mt. Tabor Moses and Elijah learned that the longed-for Messiah, the Savior had come. The Transfiguration was as prophecy and promise for Moses and Elijah what the descent among the dead was as reality and accomplishment for Adam and Eve on that first Holy Saturday. Not only did Moses and Elijah come to assure Peter, James and John that Jesus fulfilled the Law and the Prophets, but Jesus had summoned them too to hear those words from His Father in heaven: “This is my beloved Son on whom my favor rests. Listen to him.” The Transfiguration was for the benefit of the living but also for the dead who had in this life fixed their gaze on the lamp of truth foreshadowing the Dawn from on high.

Today is your day for the renewal of vows and promises; you recall the covenant relationship which binds you to each other and to the Father’s beloved Son. When Peter awoke to see the face of Jesus “dazzling as the sun, his clothes as radiant as light”… and when he recognized that Moses and Elijah were attending to Jesus, Peter was carried away by emotion. His emotion was premature. The Father spoke from heaven and all three men fell forward on the ground overcome with fear. Jesus put everything back into perspective and admonished them to silence until the Resurrection. “This is my beloved Son on whom my favor rests. Listen to him.”

In a sense, the Transfiguration is to the life of Jesus what the Creed is to the Christian Life: it’s all right there. Confessing yourselves before the Church and the World as Companions of the Transfigured Christ you are making, by the grace of God, a complete statement, a statement full of hope and expectation. Never doubt that you can do no better, nor offer the world around you any more.

The other day waiting in the Atlanta Airport, I watched a young man as he with more than evident pleasure unpacked some new electronic gadget he had purchased, showing it to his girlfriend. The man had dignity, the man had poise, and he unpacked the thing and showed it to her with absolute coolness and at the same time with unbounded pride radiating from his face and from every bone of his body. I don’t know what the gadget was or even if he had the slightest guarantee that it would work when he got it home and plugged it in, but it would be hard from his body language to imagine a happier man. I don’t know what he said to the young woman as I was out of ear shot, but it didn’t seem as though his lips were moving much at all.
Rooted, grounded in the Mystery of the Transfiguration you are and have much more than that young man had with girlfriend and gadget. The silence Jesus imposed on Peter, James and John on their way down from Mt. Tabor certainly didn’t keep them from radiating wonder, awe, boundless joy, fervor or whatever else positive and life-filling you’d like to name. They had seen and heard it all in a moment and were still in the company of the Father’s beloved Son, born of Mary. Why in the world would you want to say to anyone “I’ve been to the mountaintop” when everyone else is dying either to ask you the reason for the hope you radiate or simply to join you and your experience?

What you are as “Companions of the Transfigured Christ” may someday soon find its definitive configuration within the constellation of the Church. There you will have a privileged position for gazing upon the lamp of truth and waiting for the Dawn from on high to break upon us. Be of good courage! As the Lord has called you to His mountaintop so He will lead you as He led Peter, James and John. Go in His company, knowing that He is all you need for joy.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

God's Word Achieves Its End

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time
12-13 July 2008
Holy Cross Parish, Hutchinson, Kansas

Isaiah 55:10-11
Romans 8:18-23
Matthew 13:1-23

In a book of early commentaries on the Sunday Gospels including Sermons from the Fathers of the Church, I was looking up this Sunday’s Gospel from Matthew, the Parable of the Sower and the Seed. I learned that in ancient times this Gospel was read on a Sunday during Lent and the Church Fathers used it to preach on temperance or moderation in the use of material goods: a great Lenten theme really. For some reason I hadn’t expected that. It kind of surprised me as I’d never focused in on one particular virtue worth striving for as tied to this parable. For the same reason, I was also caught off guard by the observation from one of the early Church Fathers who makes the point that only a fourth of the seed sown bore fruit, namely that which fell on good soil. The other three fourths were wasted.

As a Midwesterner, I’m convinced that the farmer must have had more good ground than he had paths or rock piles or slews or weedy patches to deal with on his farm. Then again not everywhere in the world is like Kansas. Palestine is certainly different. It’s very rocky and no doubt the amount of good soil was less than it would be around here. Just the same we’ll stay with the figure of the three fourths lost and the one fourth saved. It may not correspond to what makes for good farming but it probably better describes the sorts of human beings the Sower is seeking to touch with his word both back then and now.

We read in the Gospel:
“But the seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold”.

Presuming that I’m good ground, what’s my yield: a hundred, sixty or thirtyfold? It depends on how receptive I am to God’s Word, to the teaching and preaching of the Church. If I’m as hard as a footpath, nothing will sink in and have a chance. Even if I’m shallow ground, rocky soil, there’s not much chance that God’s Word will survive the first real trials in my life. The more thorns and weeds, the distractions of this world, the more material goods I have - all those things which tend to pile up at home and that double locks, security systems and insurance policies are supposed to keep others from walking off with, not to mention worldly anxiety, those useless worries about things we cannot change or which may never happen, the more thorns and weeds that choke the word the less chance it will bear any fruit at all.

There’s a lot to think about in today’s Gospel; it bears a message for each and every one of us.

Isaiah too in the first reading assures us that God’s Word is not what fails; God’s Word always succeeds, he says: “… my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it”. The fact that some people seem to be lost to the faith is not God’s problem or His choice, no, we are the problem because more often than not we opt for things rather than God and His love. Whether or not it may come as a surprise that the early Church Fathers preached on temperance with this Gospel, one cannot deny that three fourths of the problem, three fourths of the reason that people fail to come (as they ought) to know, love and serve God in this life, so as to be happy with Him in the next, often (three fourths of the time even) it does indeed have to do (whether we consider ourselves rich or poor) with having too many things which seem to command most if not all of our attention.

Both my summer reading and my summer conversations this year have been marked by older people’s concern for the younger generation and their lack of knowledge of the faith. For example, here in Hutchinson in Holy Cross parish, despite the census, the telephone directory, local news items about sports and other achievements and the public school honor rolls which tell us there are a certain number of children out there in the parish who haven’t moved away, who were baptized Catholic and made their First Holy Communion and should still be coming to Public School Religion, the actual numbers, the class sizes are getting smaller. From the looks of it, only a few of those who were baptized in those years (ten to eighteen years ago) are coming to learn about their faith and even fewer are receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation. Lots of younger children are torn in their conscience at least for a while after their First Holy Communion because no responsible adult sees to it that they are able to assist at Mass on all Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. A child may ask Mom and Dad once why they aren’t going to Mass of a Sunday and then no more. Failure of parents to come regularly themselves to the Sacrament of Penance and neglect of their children’s need to be encouraged to return time and again to confession are sadly all too common. That tilling and enriching of the soil, which makes it good ground and receptive to the Seed of the Sower, which is the Word of God, isn’t always and everywhere getting done at home it would seem. Often nobody at home seems to bother as they should with lovingly folding a baby’s hands for a prayer before supper or with helping that child make the Sign of the Cross or with kneeling down by the bed to hear a night time prayer of an older brother or sister. With loud music and TV filling households and closing out thought and quiet time, more and more of the seed ground is being turned into hardened footpaths or into those rocky strips ever wider along the fence line. Buy ‘em this and buy ‘em that, never denying yourself a pleasure or a convenience either and suddenly we have thorns and weeds aplenty to choke off all the rest at home which might have shown some promise. Just as when Jesus told the parable or as when the great Fathers of the Church were preaching so it would seem to be in our day as well: only a fourth of the seed comes to fruition... only a fourth.

“… my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it”.

In today’s Gospel Jesus quotes at length from the prophet Isaiah to explain why most folks don’t get the message, don’t receive the Word of God into their hearts, why trying to reach them is for all practical purposes a waste of time; parables are sufficient Jesus said, because they have closed their eyes to seeing and their ears to hearing.

What to do? Each of us should begin at home. We ourselves must take up the challenge and face up to our bad habits and habitual sins. Why won’t they go away? Why do the same wrongs crop up in my life over and over again? Maybe I don’t want them to go away or maybe it’s my dullness, my hardness of heart: eyes shut, ears stopped up such that God’s Word can’t reach my heart. In such a life there’s none of that eager expectation St. Paul describes in today’s second reading addressed to the Romans. Three fourths live without hope it would seem. They give no thought to the real promise that “the world itself will be freed from its slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God”.

The disciples were obviously different. They drew close to Jesus and asked really to be enlightened and Jesus blessed them. Where do we stand and how do we live and approach Jesus?

“(Blest) are your eyes because they see and blest are your ears because they hear. I assure you, many a prophet and many a saint longed to see what you see but did not see it, to hear what you hear but did not hear it”.

What to do? Could a garage sale be the answer? In a material sense just to empty out the closets, attic and basement, I think not. Maybe letting go of all those things without unloading them on others by a deliberate act of our will, by taking a spiritual trip to the “Goodwill store” so to speak might help. Yes and No: the bottom line is that we need to let go of what distracts and dulls our senses. We need to take time, ultimately time for God and what He has to say to us.
But working hard is good; bettering ourselves and giving those whom we love good things and material security is right. What am I trying to say? Can’t we rightly enjoy the fruits of our labor? Most certainly we can and should! That is not the point. The goods of the earth are to be enjoyed, but everything in perspective and everything in its right place! Thus the early Church Fathers and their sermons on temperance, on moderation in the use of material things!

I’ve said something about parents’ duty to cultivate in their children an openness to receive the Word of God, an attentiveness to God Who has something to say to each and every one of us and can make all the difference in our lives. This is something we can and must do for ourselves as well. One of the weekday Masses this week had a great quote from the prophet Hosea about repentance and conversion. The image he used was to invite God’s people to plow up a new field and be ready for God to do the rest. May I suggest that you return rest and reflection to your Sundays and use the Lord’s Day to help you see what’s needed to break up your hardened heart, maybe, or to clear those rocks which leave you with no depth, or to uproot those thorns and weeds which compete for your attention and leave little time or space for encountering the God Who loves you and wishes you well for all eternity.

And if you are a prayerful, thoughtful, even profound person: increase your yield from thirty, to sixty, to a hundred fold! In this last year I received copies of a new instruction to be made available to bishops on how to go about preparing the cases for people in their dioceses from the recent or more distant past who are being proposed for sainthood. What is sainthood? How do you measure it? In two words, an adjective and a noun: a saintly life, a holy life is a life of “heroic virtue”. What does that mean? Find out for yourself! Try doing what the disciples did after Jesus recounted the Parable of the Sower and the Seed. Draw near to Jesus and ask Him to explain Himself. He will.

“… my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it”.