Sunday, November 12, 2017

Is Your Lamp Lit and Shining Brightly?

From the Catholic Liturgy for the 32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time. Matthew 25:1-13.Theme: Is Your Lamp Lit and Shining Brightly?

As the Church Year draws near to its close and the liturgical calendar comes to its end next Sunday, the Gospels proclaimed in our liturgy during this time of the year draw our attention to the fact that our lives will also draw to a close on this earth. Whether this be due to the Second Coming of Christ or to our own personal deaths, Jesus is warning us of the need to be ready, to be prepared, because we do not know the day nor the hour for either of these events. The one sure thing we do know is that at some time these two things will indeed happen.

Jesus is asking each one of us: are you ready? Are you prepared? And as He typically does when teaching, Jesus uses an experience from the daily life of the people to get his lesson across and in today’s Gospel, He uses the example of the ancient Jewish wedding celebration. It might help us to know that in his time a very important part of the wedding ceremonies was the public procession.

When the wedding day arrived, the groom would go to the bride’s home escorted by his groomsmen. At the home, they would find the bridesmaids waiting for them. These chosen women would escort him to the bride and then all together they would form of joyful noisy procession to the actual wedding feast. To be chosen to be a bridesmaid was a great honor and to fail in this duty was a great public shame.  Jesus is reminding us that it is a great honor to be chosen to live life as a Christian and conversely it is a great shame to fail in this gift and lose the joy of eternal life.

And what about those lamps or torches that the bridesmaids carried?  Well, the women did not want to be shamed in failing to do their duty as bridesmaids, and so as evening came and the groom still had not appeared, they lit their small hand-held clay lamps so he would have a proper welcome and see that they were expecting him. In other words, the lamps were a sign that they were prepared and ready. Ancient Christian writers tell us that the lamps and the oil are symbols for two things we need to enter the heavenly wedding feast: faith in God and love for others. Just as a lamp without oil is useless, so too faith that does express itself in mercy and compassion to others is useless. It has no power to save us, to bring us into the Kingdom of Heaven.

And so, I think that in today’s parable of the kingdom, Jesus is telling us make sure that our lamp, that is, our faith relationship with Him, is fueled by love for our neighbor shown in concrete actions.  Jesus is assuring us that if we live our lives with our lamps burning brightly then we will, indeed, be prepared for death whenever it arrives for us. We will be welcomed into the great wedding feast of heaven where we will rejoice with all the angels and saints. We will not be counted among those standing outside, banging on the door.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Purifying our Love

From the Catholic Liturgy for the 31st Sunday of Ordinary Time, Nov. 5, 2017. Matthew 23:1-12.  Theme: Purifying our Love.  An interesting fact about Jesus in the Gospels is that His words and actions are always encouraging, compassionate and even tender…EXCEPT when he is dealing with the religious leaders, the clergy so to speak, of his day.They used their leadership roles to increase their own prestige, power and position with little to no thought for the good of those they were meant to serve. Their selfish behavior corrupted their vocation to be teachers and spiritual fathers to the people. In other words, their choices in life, did not match what they professed to believe.

But if we look at the bigger picture and are honest with ourselves we will see that this is something we are all guilty of.  All of us fall short of having our behavior perfectly match what we profess as Christians. In other words, we don’t always “walk the talk” or “practice what we preach”.   Sure, we profess our belief in God – and we truly mean it. We declare our love for Him and that it must be expressed in love for others, but so often due to our human weakness caused by the nuisance of original sin, we fail in carrying this out. There always seems to be that annoying tug of selfishness that holds us back from really loving God and others as much as we would like. It smears our best of intentions and smudges our sincere desire to do good.  The Bible and the experience of the saints inform us that this struggle between our intentions and our actions will be with us til death.

I think most of us would readily admit that we’re not perfected in love enough to enter right away into Heaven, where Scripture says only the sinless may reside.  But on the other hand, if we lived our lives in a right relationship with God we know that Hell is not our destiny. So where does that leave us? This would present quite a dilemma to us if our only after-earth choices were Heaven or Hell.  And this is exactly why God, in his great love for us, has given us the reality of purgatory. It is a beautiful expression of his mercy. For over 1,000 years we have set aside the month of November as a special time of year to pray for the faithful departed, but I think that many of us are a bit fuzzy on what we mean by purgatory and exactly why we pray for those who have died. So let’s take a quick look at three things we should know.

1. First of all, the experience of purgatory really exists and it is biblical. The Catholic Church just didn’t make up this teaching. We inherited our firm belief in helping the dead by our prayers from our Jewish roots, as expressed in the Old Testament Book of Maccabees. St. Paul also teaches about the reality of purgatory (though he doesn’t use that word) in his First Letter to the Corinthians.  He tells us that after death we will experience cleansing form our sins as if by fire. This is where we get the idea that purgatory has fire…but of course Paul is using fire as a symbol of purification because we all know that a spiritual soul cannot be affected by physical fire. Yet it proves the point that there is the reality of sin being forgiven or cleansed after death.

2. Second, the purification of purgatory is all about love and relationships, not pain and punishment. Sometime you might encounter books or preachers who talk about purgatory as if it is God’s torture chamber where we experience payback time for all our selfishness. Instead of this frightful image, former Pope Benedict XVI used to frequently refer to a marvelous mystic, St. Catherine of Genoa, when it came to teaching on purgatory. She had spiritual experiences of purgatory said that it is all about love and relationships. St. Catherine said that the suffering of purgatory is real but it is a spiritual emotional kind of suffering which she compared to the pain of loss we feel we have to part from a dearly beloved person in our life. We long to be together with them again and we painfully count and await the days until they return and we are reunited.

3. Lastly, it is important for us to never forget that we here on earth can help the souls who are undergoing their purgatory by prayers and Masses offered for them. They are not out of our lives when we walk away from the cemetery. When it comes to praying for the faithful departed, I find it helpful to remember that my prayers are a way of “being there” for someone in their time of need. You know how it is when a friend is going through a difficult time and there’s nothing you can do except to be there, to support and encourage, to keep them company and cheer them on. That’s what our prayers are like for the holy souls in purgatory. Like St. Catherine said, purgatory is all about relationships and death does not end the relationships we have with people. I can still be there and help them out the only way I can. I did not forget them in life and I will not forget them in death.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Vincentians: Living the Great Commandment

From the Catholic Liturgy for the 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Oct. 29, 2017. Exodus 20_22-26 and Matthew 22:34-40.  Serving God in our Neighbor. In the Book of Exodus, which was our first reading today, we have the solid assurance of Sacred Scripture that God hears the cry of the poor.  The sufferings and struggles of those who seek basic justice and the satisfying of their human needs does not go unnoticed by God. But the question begs to be asked: how does our God meet these needs? The Pierced Risen Heart of Jesus has such compassion on their plight, but how can he do anything about it from the glory of Heaven? Well, I am sure we all know the answer…the privilege and the duty of relieving the suffering of the poor and needy falls to us, his disciples, we who form the Mystical Body of Christ continuing his mission on planet Earth. As one of the saints put it:

Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands through which he relieves suffering.
Yours is the smile through which he brings joy and hope.
You are his body.

The Catholic Church has taken this responsibility and privilege of being Christ to the poor so seriously over the past 2,000 years that we are, and have been for most of our history, the largest charitable organization on the planet. Even in Mid-eastern and Asian countries where we Catholics make up only 1-5% of the population, we carry out 98% of the charitable works.  We can’t help it…that’s just who we are!

Serving Jesus in the poor does not require special talents or education. Neither does it require wealth or social influence. All you need to have is a personal response to the Great Commandment that we heard in today’s Gospel: to show your love for the God whom you CANNOT see, through loving service to your neighbor, whom you CAN see. 

One awesome and beautiful way to put the Great Commandment into practice is the Society of St. Vincent de Paul whose members are known as Vincentians. You are probably familiar with the downtown San Rafael dining room that bears the same name, but you might not know that the dining room is just one visible sign of a much larger presence of Vincentians serving the poor here in Marin. The vast majority of the works of mercy done by Vincentians are done quietly, without fanfare or attention, by ordinary everyday parishioners. 

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is an international Catholic association that is over 180 years old. It was started in Parish in 1833 by Blessed Frederic Ozanam, and came to San Francisco in 1860.   St. Sebastian’s is very blessed to have had a parish Conference of Vincentians who have been continuously serving Jesus-in-the-poor for over 40 years.  There are presently about 10 of your fellow parishioners who are Vincentians, who meet together every month and take turns going out every week in pairs to give direct personal service to the poor.  But they need of more members because sadly, the number of those in true need is expanding, not lessening, especially with the new social category of the under-employed.  Without new members, the poor who live within our parish boundaries run the risk of not having their material and spiritual needs met! 

Our parish has always been extremely generous in supporting the good works of the Society through financial contributions and food donations. Thanks to all of you, we have a well-stocked pantry down in the back of the hall. And I confident that this generosity will continue as the number of the poor continues to grow.  But if some of you have a desire for something more, to make the gift of YOURSELF along with the gift of your prayers, donations and food, then think about joining the Society.  You can be an instrument of charity right here in your own parish and make a difference in someone’s life.