Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Unbounded Reality

Last Sunday in Ordinary Time

22 November 2009

The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Universal King

50th Anniversary of the Cornerstone Laying for the

Church of Our Lady Queen of the Universe, Black Rock, St. Michael, Barbados

In our Opening Prayer today for the Feast of Christ the King we prayed: “Almighty and merciful God, you break the power of evil and make all things new in your Son Jesus Christ, the King of the universe.” That is about as ultimate and absolute a statement as you can get. “Almighty and merciful God, you break the power of evil and make all things new in your Son Jesus Christ, the King of the universe.” It goes far beyond the sorts of concerns which fill your minds or mine most of the time. We do not usually speak or think in such terms. For those of us who have put on Christ in Baptism, however, our day to day and our special celebrations like this golden jubilee have a dimension which reaches beyond our space and time. This is as it should be and the world must know that being loved by God, being His chosen ones takes us beyond simple affection and has implications for the life of the world.

As we choose to speak in ultimate terms and live our lives with reference not only to the here and now of time but to eternity, as well, we do our world a favor, a big favor really. In speaking and living for eternity at home, in particular, you do your children an immeasurable service: you give them a clear witness to the light and hope which this world cannot provide: “Almighty and merciful God, you break the power of evil and make all things new in your Son Jesus Christ, the King of the universe.”

Back when Fr. Ron sent me the initial invitation to come today, he also sent me a copy of your parish goals for the jubilee year. I congratulate you. One of the goals the parish set for itself during your golden jubilee year of commemorating the cornerstone laying of this church and bringing thanks for the many blessings which have come your way as a parish over the course of these 50 years, the last but by far not the least of them, that is number 5, is very significant: To look toward the future as the parish prepares to determine the way forward by designing a vision and mission statements for the parish. An ambitious task: I hope you got the job done?

Planning is important, even if ultimately we cannot really plan our own future. It is sort of like planning based on the odds that we could win the lottery tomorrow (not very realistic to say the least). So it is with our individual lives: our chances are better that illness, sadness or suffering may be our lot, if not tomorrow then at some point anyway before death catches up with us. In any case, what is important is that we live in hope, that we live for the ultimate, that we live for the victory of Christ and the establishment of His Kingship in our individual lives, in our world throughout history, past, present and future, throughout the universe created by Him before time began. What is important in life is that we live and work for the victory of Christ and the establishment of His Kingship.

Let us look at today’s readings for a moment:

The Prophet Daniel: “I gazed into the visions of the night… On him was conferred sovereignty, glory and kingship, and men of all peoples, nations and languages became his servants.”

The Book of the Apocalypse: “Jesus Christ is the faithful witness, the First-born from the dead, the Ruler of the kings of the earth. He loves us and has washed away our sins with his blood…”

St. John’s Gospel: “Mine is not a kingdom of this world… Yes, I am a king. I was born for this, I came into the world for this: to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice.”

Celebrating Mass, the Holy Eucharist, and especially with Scripture Readings like these assigned for today’s solemnity, takes us out of the extraordinary ordinary of anybody’s 50th celebration of whatever and anybody’s plans for whatever you and I can plan not knowing what tomorrow will bring. Sunday Mass is an important weekly course correction to keep us focused on what is ultimately important in human life. It is also the only fitting context for a parish to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

Talking about our everyday life, we might add that daily prayer is essential to keeping us in the real world with its boundless possibilities for those who love God. If our focus in life includes contemplating the ultimate as it touches our every day, then that will put us happily to use words from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, to groaning and longing for the fulfillment in Christ Jesus. Our hearts are set on the world to come, when Christ, Our King, will be all in all. That is not an escape; that is the unbounded reality which reflects our dignity now that God has become man and has lifted us up unto Himself for glory. A prayerful person is a person who is alert and connected. Alert and connected to persons, events and things around him, the prayerful person is the person who is fully alive because his awareness extends beyond the here and now. Do you have to be some sort of a mystic to live this way? Can an ordinary person today live this way? Is such possible in Black Rock? Yes, I think so!

Do I? Can I? Must I live beyond the Bajan or Caribbean equivalent of a hand to mouth, paycheck to paycheck or windfall to windfall existence? And why not? I suppose instead of today’s Gospel it might have been appropriate to read Jesus’ teaching about taking a lesson from the lilies of the field and not worrying about tomorrow, but the Church rather in John’s account of Christ’s Passion faces us squarely with Jesus’ trial before Pilate and that Roman pagan governor’s puzzlement over Jesus’ willingness to suffer for the sake of the truth. What is the message? There are many to be drawn, but I will draw only one which applies to you and to me as we stand before our pagan judge, as we stand before whomever he or they might be and no matter how he or she is called.

My message for the parish of Our Lady Queen of the Universe, Black Rock, St. Michael, Barbados is very simply to face with confidence your future, yours personally and that of your parish family and of your Catholic family here in Barbados. As Jesus before Pilate, give to everyone who asks you the reason for your hope in that which goes beyond today and tomorrow! Be sure that your children and grandchildren in particular are reassured to know that you live in God’s presence and place all your trust in Jesus! At funerals we often read from the Book of Job: “I know that my Redeemer lives and that on the last day I myself in my body will see Him…” That is what is essential. Treasure the ultimate and make it a part of your every day!

One of the jobs I had when I was working in the Apostolic Nunciature in Germany before I came here to the region five years ago was to prepare and carry out our house move from “Catholic” Bonn to “Secular” Berlin. When we were moving I also had to hire a new chauffeur for the Nuncio in Berlin. I interviewed seven or eight candidates and came up with three who fit the bill. I can remember discussing the results with someone who advised me not to take the man without religion but to choose one of the two Catholics, not because they were Catholic but because the man without Baptism wouldn’t have the balance or perspective to be able to deal with the tensions of the job. I chose otherwise and chose wrongly because my pagan lost it and quit within his first month of employ. All those smiling and polite people without religion on the Berlin subway are only smiling and polite until you step on their toes… then most of them lose it. What does it mean at Baptism when we sing “You have put on Christ”? It means among other things that your trajectory, your perspective goes with Him beyond the here and now. “You have put on Christ” and your life hidden with Him in God takes on a whole new dimension. Treasure the ultimate and make it a part of your every day!

Endurance training is part of what makes for any all-around athlete. In the world of classical Greece long ago, the Spartans were considered emblematic for that kind of hardening which supposedly made their people great. Things changed when Christ our Light appeared bringing us salvation from the drudgery of life this side of death. The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Universal King would have us know that baptized into Christ there is much more to us than being able to run longer distances, jump higher or hold our breath longer under water. Our dignity and our hope have cosmic dimensions and that’s the truth which is ours in Christ.

Milestones like 50 years are great to celebrate in every way. You are right to reflect together and set goals for your future. But remember and make the vision of Daniel your own: “…I saw, coming on the clouds of heaven, one like a son of man… His sovereignty is an eternal sovereignty which shall never pass away, nor will his empire be destroyed.”

From the Apocalypse again: “This is the truth. Amen. ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’ says the Lord God, who is, who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”

Happy anniversary, Black Rock! Happy future to all who trust firmly in the Lord and His strength! Know your faith! Know your catechism! Teach it to your children! Put your trust in the Lord and not in the things of earth! Cast all your cares on Him, because He cares for you and ultimately, no matter what else might happen, will raise you up on the Last Day. By our faith filled lives let us try and hasten that Day of His Coming.

May Our Lady Queen of the Universe, whom you venerate in a special way in this place, wrap you in her star-cloak and escort you confidently to the throne of the Most High!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

More Ephrem Than Zacchaeus

Whether you are a MAGNIFICAT subscriber or not, you shouldn’t miss the familiar passage from St. Ephrem the Syrian, which that marvelous little prayer book proffers as its meditation for today (pages 248-9):

“Frightening and terrible is the day of your judgment, O our Savior, when secret sins will be revealed. Therefore I tremble, O Lord, and am embraced by terror, for my sins have exceeded all bounds. Be merciful to me according to your compassion, O good and kind-hearted One! I look, O Lord, at my sins and become agitated, seeing their multitude. Alas, how did it happen that such misery has befallen me? My tongue utters marvelous things, but my behavior is shameful and contemptible. Woe is me in that day when secrets will be revealed!... If I go out for a walk, I step out like a righteous man, like a sage. If I see another sinning, I mock and deride him. Alas, my transgressions will likewise be exposed and I will be ashamed! O, better it were for me not to have been born into this world! Then this transient life would not have corrupted me. If I had not seen it, I would have no guilt; I would not have defiled myself with sins and would not have to fear interrogation, the judgment, and torment. As soon as I vow to repent, I return again and fall into the very same sins. The time I spend in sin gladdens me; I even think that I am doing something praiseworthy. Woe is me! Until now I never considered that gehenna awaits me. An evil will leads me into sin, and when I sin I lay the blame on Satan. But woe is me, for I bring about my sins myself. The Evil One does not use force to make me sin; I sin according to my own will. Be kind to me, O you who are kindhearted to the penitent! Forgive me my transgressions according to the magnitude of your goodness. Accept, O Lord, the tears I bring to you, and cleanse me from sin, as you cleansed the harlot. I realize, O Lord, that I have sinned. Spare me according to your compassion.”

This passage is powerful and honest. Nonetheless or perhaps for that very reason I have to challenge MAGNIFICAT’s title for this quote: “How Zacchaeus May Have Prayed”. Although he certainly may have prayed this way in today’s Gospel, being a tax collector and now convert, this great little man did not find himself in the situation St. Ephrem describes, which is more that of a pious man of the cloth all too aware of his human frailty and of the state of denial we often live in. My title would be “More Ephrem than Zacchaeus” and I’d class both men saints by reason of repentance and firm resolve to sin no more.

A meditation on Ephrem’s self-awareness and his focus on the Day of Judgment are more than appropriate as another liturgical year draws rapidly to a close and thought about the last things should hold pride of place.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Follow Me

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

“The woman went and did as Elijah told her and they ate the food, she, himself and her son. The jar of meal was not spent nor the jug of oil emptied, just as the Lord had foretold through Elijah.” (I Kings 17:15-16)

“…’Beware of the scribes who like to walk about in long robes, to be greeted obsequiously in the market squares, to take the front seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets; these are the men who swallow the property of widows, while making a show of lengthy prayers. The more severe will be the sentence they receive.’” (Mark 12:38-39)

Central to this Sunday is Jesus’ commentary to His disciples about the widow’s mite. Most preachers use this Sunday to encourage those who consider themselves among the less fortunate to do what they can. That little is truly precious in God’s eyes.

More industrious pastors will sometimes use this Sunday to urge all their parishioners, especially their well-to-do parishioners, to be heroic in their generosity in proportion to the heroic generosity of the widow Elijah encountered in Sidon or the poor widow of the Gospel.

However, there are a couple verses at the beginning of the Gospel for this Sunday, which should cause one to question, as they seem to touch an entirely different topic. I can’t say as I have ever heard a homily on these readings which was centered on those opening verses condemning the exploitation of poor women by the scribes or applying the condemnation or admonition of Jesus to priests and bishops today.

“…’Beware of the scribes who like to walk about in long robes, to be greeted obsequiously in the market squares, to take the front seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets; these are the men who swallow the property of widows, while making a show of lengthy prayers. The more severe will be the sentence they receive.’” (Mark 12:38-39)

Truth to be told, on an ordinary Sunday such an application really wouldn’t even make a lot of sense, given the fact that the pews are generally filled with the laity. The example of the widow would be an encouragement to them and the admonition to the scribes would be out of place.

The place for citing those first verses and challenging priests would probably be a priests’ retreat. Excuse my inexperience, however, but I cannot remember myself being exhorted at a priests’ retreat to take to heart those first couple verses. Nor do I remember being admonished like this in the seminary. It is almost as if when the last scribe was buried that was the end of possible applications for the first two verses of today’s Gospel. And yet… they are there, they haven’t been edited out. And we say, praise God!

From the scene of the Transfiguration we know that Elijah is Old Testament prophecy personified. The Scriptures are rich in details about this marvelous man. Different from someone like Samson, however, Elijah is sublime even in his frailty. He is the vessel of prophecy, God’s chosen witness, whose face and manner do not detract in the least from his mission. His withdrawal to Sidon, where he brings comfort to a widow and her son while awaiting God’s reprieve for His chosen people and the return of rain to the earth, is as particular as God’s love is and therefore more than revelatory of the nature of God’s love. He most surely brought this widow more than meal and oil in God’s name; he brought her comfort and assurance of God’s kingship in a world which had only taken from her of late.

Elijah foreshadows Christ in numerous ways. His own unmistakable witness to God prepared God’s chosen people to receive the message of God’s love for His people in the glory of the Incarnation and in everything Jesus said and did as He walked among His people.

In this Year of the Priest, we have the benefit not only of the witness of Christ but also that of Elijah in Sidon. We have a double assurance of God’s particular love, inviting our generous response and entrance into that communion which restores lost innocence and opens for us the way to Heaven and perfect joy beyond this veil of tears. The priest, alter Christus, is to reflect Christ by all he says and does. His ability to be Elijah/Christ for the little ones makes or breaks the message.

Best of times/worst of times scenario: I am afraid too many folks today have had the famous vision of St. Hildegard of Bingen, who saw the high priest standing before her in ragged and dirty vestments. Unlike Hildegard, however, today many turn their back on him and walk away. This thought comes to me in the light of a news item I read the other day about an Italian priest, exasperated by the non-attendance at Mass in his parish, who sent out invitations to his own funeral because he said he wanted to see his people one more time before he died. It’s sort of like something St. Francis of Assisi might have done to touch hearts grown cold.

Maybe the reason I haven’t ever heard a preacher admonish using these words from Mark’s Gospel is that scribal hypocrisy, with the proverbial long robes, tassels and long prayers, has not recently been the order of the day. Most priests have had a regular paycheck for over a generation and are more apt to make their appearances clad like somebody’s husband off of page 2 of the L.L. Bean or Eddie Bauer Catalogues. It’s not easy with a diocesan decreed scale of benefits to accuse a man of preying on widows. The modern day scribe’s “sin” no doubt is rather his gentrification. Long robes and obsequious greetings may no longer be in, but a certain institutionalization of shepherding at the cost of the sheep is still the bottom line (read: don’t disturb outside of office hours). We priests too, like the scribe at the top of the social heap, are oblivious to the glory on the face of Christ which should shine through our human weakness. “Zeal for Your House consumes me, O Lord” is not exactly a common watchword among men of the cloth.

Having an eye for the defenseless poor is not as simple as taking your turn at the soup kitchen or endowing a homeless shelter. There are many who have been exhorted to do their part this Sunday, not only for the parish but as men and women in the world for those in need. The least among us with what little they have can always find ways of helping the lesser. The priest/scribe’s calling is somewhat different. It is to pick up and move at the Lord’s behest like Elijah. It is to be Christ’s presence in our world today and to speak that freeing word, which reassures and empowers others.

Why is Mass attendance down of a Sunday? It may be simply that the social pressure of the “good old days” is no longer there. Some would say they no longer find Jesus in church any more. The crowds which came streaming to Christ from Judea, Samaria and Galilee came with various motives and not all of them pure. Lots however hung on His words and sought His face. Elijah, the vessel of prophecy, might just be the coach we need if we’re puzzling over what is lacking in our ministry for the sake of the Gospel as other Christs for our day and time.

Best of times/worst of times scenario? Elijah has been there and so has Jesus. Both withdrew to Sidon and both rewarded the faith and hope they encountered in the poor widow and in the Siro-Phoenician woman. Christ needs our hands to do His work most certainly, but at least for us priest/scribes radiating His glory in His particular love and attention for each and every one, empowering the other is no doubt closer to the mark. The institutional measures certainly have their importance, but herding is not God’s way. Church history has been punctuated with “mega moments”. Slavic renditions on gigantic canvases somewhere in a St. Petersburg museum depicting the baptism of the Rus come to mind. God’s way? On occasion perhaps, but not in the every day! Remember, we owe the account of his discernment of the true theophany on Mount Sinai to the prophet Elijah as well: not in the storm, not in the fire or the earthquake, but God’s presence in the tiny whispering sound, as particular as is God’s love for each of us His children.

“The woman went and did as Elijah told her and they ate the food, she, himself and her son. The jar of meal was not spent nor the jug of oil emptied, just as the Lord had foretold through Elijah.” (I Kings 17:15-16)

Mary said, “Do whatever he tells you”.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Vision Quest

Communion of Saints

“Because the world refused to acknowledge him, therefore it does not acknowledge us… Surely everyone who entertains this hope must purify himself, must try to be as pure as Christ.” (I John 3:1-3)

“This great company of witnesses spurs us on to victory, to share their prize of everlasting glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Preface of Holy Men and Women I)

“Their glory fills us with joy, and their communion with us in your Church gives us inspiration and strength as we hasten on our pilgrimage of faith, eager to meet them.” (Preface of All Saints)

Again this morning I read a newspaper feature story on a good, hardworking, local priest, who when asked the usual, and I think generally well intentioned, question, “Father, if you are so happy why aren’t there more men ‘joining’ the priesthood?” responded with the answer which quickly comes to people’s lips here in the region and perhaps elsewhere, I don’t know, “I suppose they are put off by the clergy abuse scandal up north…”

Oddly enough, I don’t think priests or bishops who respond this way actually believe what they are saying; they invariably add that in any case such predators are the exception to the rule. In other words, their own experience of the priesthood is not tainted; it is of a body of good, generous and hardworking men. So why do they excuse young men from responding to the call by claiming they are put off by the exceptions to the rule? Why don’t they get to the heart of the matter? Why don’t they say that it is a crisis of faith and values generally in the Church today?

Wouldn’t it make more sense to talk about an erosion of our Catholic base, of our Catholic family culture? It would, I suppose, but perhaps one observation is as true as the other. Perhaps it might be even more accurate to say that people don’t commit themselves for life in any sense whether it be to priesthood, religious life or the sacrament a matrimony, because we have lost our saints, or our awareness of them, and pretend to go through life without aspiring to too much of anything. Oh that All Saints Day and its wonderful message might break through the cloud cover!

Other than athletics and modeling, it would be hard to say what young people aspire to anymore these days. That is terribly unfair, I know, but not altogether untrue. Who in our society aspires to something beyond that moment of glory which is as passing as the beauty of the flowers of the field? What is the real tragedy of the so-called “soccer mom” existence? It’s as fleeting as the torn ligament which won’t heal, as tenuous as that tendon which accidently got cut on some broken glass.

If only it were as easy as the one lady who wrote a book on how to raise “geeky” children! In family and outside, straight across the board, I find myself still marveling at a young man now twenty years ago objecting in my presence to a certain group of people’s claims to national sovereignty saying, among other things or to conclude his argument, “… and they don’t even have any saints!” Most folks younger than me and even some older have, by a sad turn of fate, been deprived of their saints. It’s true! Although I couldn’t expect a regular newspaper reporter to understand, it might be better to answer his or her question about “…why there aren’t more men ‘joining’ the priesthood?” by saying that our Catholic society has been deprived of its saints.

If it is your ideal to become a top athlete or a top model or invent an internet scheme which will make you a billionaire before you’re 25, where after you and your beautiful/handsome partner/escort will put the interest you can’t spend fast enough into a foundation for doing something worthwhile, what is enduring? The grass withers and the flower fades. Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth. Too many people will put you off, saying that with no problem you can get together a bunch of folk to clean up a beach or to build houses during a two week vacation, but don’t expect a real and unqualified life commitment like “you are a priest forever in the order of Melchisedek” or “until death do us part”. If we had our saints or had had them as children, we’d be dreaming about all sorts of things which go beyond the expiry date on a liposuction or cartilage repairs. We would be ready to give our neighbor more than our leftovers, because we would know the God Who made us and saved us for His own out of love. The two great commandments would be an integral part of our lives also thanks to the witness of the saints.

The tragedies within the life of the Church and its leadership cannot be accepted indifferently as possible options or other paths. There is a right and a wrong. Even a religious can choose wrongly. This is the only way I can explain a tired, old Sinsinawa Dominican sister who leads girls and women to their abortions. She’s been deprived of her saints and has no idea of what life is about except expediency. “Today we keep the festival of your holy city, the heavenly Jerusalem, our mother. Around your throne the saints, our brothers and sisters, sing your praise for ever.” This sad woman with an Irish family name is all alone in the world and expects nothing beyond her next pay check. Without saints, she is without God in the world; she is without life and hope. We pray for the Lord’s mercy and her change of heart.

Why do people continue to insist on calling things “theologies” with no more than a social matrix? They are not theologies at all. They are the babblings of those tragically orphaned of their saintly examples, tragic figures indeed in some way or another most certainly deprived of the fantasy and imagination which a vibrant exchange with “this great company of witnesses (which) spurs us on to victory…” would have given them.

Some people get nervous about St. Paul’s words to the Colossians and our call, just as St. Paul understood his own ministry, as being also one to suffer and thus to make up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body the Church. We look to our brothers and sisters around the Throne of God and find in them not only an option but the very sense of our being. “Father, if you are so happy why aren’t there more men ‘joining’ the priesthood?” Maybe because it makes no sense to talk about a Church militant, if you are not aware to the depths of your being that the Church also suffers in Purgatory and rejoices in glory before the Throne of God, the Communion of Saints.

“Their glory fills us with joy, and their communion with us in your Church gives us inspiration and strength as we hasten on our pilgrimage of faith, eager to meet them.” (Preface of All Saints)

Let me say it quite simply! We’re not just talking about crowding our lives with illustrative figures or heroes. The object of the exercise is to bind us with them more closely to Christ. The witness of the saints is the verification of the teaching of the Tradition; it is the proper context for explaining the Scriptures. Our companions on the road to Emmaus, who might help light that fire within our hearts and help us to recognize Him in the Breaking of the Bread are those named and un-named whose feast we celebrate today.