Sunday, August 30, 2020

What If...?

Homily for the 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time. Gospel of St. Matthew 16:21-27. Theme: What If?

In today’s Gospel Jesus reminds us that the Cross is the center of our Christian faith. It’s kind of unfortunate that in many ways the Cross has become something so familiar to us that it’s symbolism and message has lost much of its full punch-and-power. We enshrine it in our churches, hang it on the walls of our homes, and wear it as jewelry around our necks. But to Matthew and to the first Christians who were the original recipients of his Gospel, the Cross wasn’t any of these things.

To them, the Cross was an instrument of bitter agony, an emblem of public humiliation. The Cross showed them - and can still show us - that the consequences of sin are real. The destruction it did to Jesus’ body on the Cross is what it still does spiritually to every human being it touches. The Cross revealed to them - and it can still reveal to us - what sin did to those who crucified Jesus, corrupting their humanity and replacing it with devilish brutality. The Cross showed them - and it can still show us - what sin does to us, how it distorts our minds, blurs our choices and feeds selfishness within us. 

The Cross is a sober sign of what it takes to be an authentic disciple, a committed follower of Jesus.  Professing Christianity with our lives - and not just with our lips - and living according to the Gospel is a challenge and not something for the unconvinced or half-hearted. While we often joke about sin and even applaud its humor in our entertainment, the Cross is here to call us back to its stark reality and its potentially deadly eternal consequences. Jesus himself reminds us of that at the end of today’s Gospel when he says, “What profit would there be for a person to gain the whole world and forfeit his life in the process?”

Well, all this got me to thinking: what if we treated sin with the same seriousness and precautions that we treat the coronavirus? What if we were as aware of and as fearful of sin as we are of Covid-19? What would it look like to live in a world where we avoided sin with all the mindfulness and gusto that we put into avoiding infection? How would our lives, our relationships and indeed our very world be different? 

It makes perfect sense that we should have this precaution against sin if we wish to preserve the life of our immortal souls and not just focus on our mortal bodies. After all, the coronavirus can only harm us for a temporary time, while the virus of sin can harm us - even kill us spiritually - for all eternity.

This train of thought, of our doing all that we can to rid the world of Covid-19, led me to ponder a few “what if’s” about doing all that we can to minimize the infinitely worse virus of sin in the world. This is, after all, one of the missions of Christianity symbolized by the Cross.

What if…we practiced intentional social distancing from those whose influence on us tends to lead us into temptation and weakens our relationship with Jesus?

What if…we carefully masked our mouths from telling lies, from hurting people’s feelings and from spreading gossip?

What if…we habitually washed our hands clean from the germs of criticism and the grime of grudges that harm and can even kill relationships in our lives?

What if…we faithfully took the preventative spiritual medicine of the Cross daily so that we could crucify our selfishness and follow Jesus with generous hearts?

What if…we embraced an overall spiritually healthy lifestyle which is the best defense against becoming infected by the virus of sin?  A lifestyle that includes daily prayer from the heart, the reading of Scripture, regular Confession, frequent participation in the Eucharist, and concrete acts of mercy?

What if…we did all these things wholeheartedly, every day? Just imagine…what if…?  Deacon David Previtali · What If?

Sunday, August 23, 2020

On This Rock

Homily for the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time. Readings: Isaiah 22:19-23; Gospel of St. Matthew 16:13-20. Theme: On This Rock

If you are someone who follows current Catholic world events these days then you probably know that there are some minor, but very vocal clergy in the Church, who speak out against Pope Francis. Most recently, this has been happening among our neighbors to the north in Sacramento, where a very popular young priest is leading some people against the Holy Father.

It is so very sad that this is happening and it is also so very much against the plan which Jesus made for his Church. The Church was willed by Jesus to be an organized community, a body of believers who are united and guided in their discipleship by a leadership that was meant to shepherd, guide and teach it. And today’s Gospel reading is the classic bible passage upon which the leadership of the pope is based, so let’s take a careful look at what Jesus is telling us.

Jesus starts out by asking his disciples who they say he is. And Simon the Fisherman replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And in return, Jesus says in effect to him, “Well said! Now let me tell you, Simon, who you really are…You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.” From this moment on, the first Christians begin referring to Simon as Peter. The name itself means “rock” and Jesus is doing a play on words here.  The meaning of this verse is that the leadership ministry of the pope, of whom Peter was the first, would be a firm, dependable, rock-solid foundation for our faith in Jesus.

Then Jesus says, “The gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.” The phrase “gates of the netherworld” is biblical language for destruction and death. Jesus is saying that the community of the Church, built on the rock of the papacy, shall not be destroyed or pass away. And when we look at history we see that no other institution in the world still exists that is as ancient as the Catholic Church.  Kingdoms, governments, dynasties and empires have all risen and fallen over time but the Church not only remains but continues to grow. Indeed, the gates of the netherworld have not prevailed.

Finally, Jesus makes a promise to Peter saying, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven…” Now, to really understand this verse properly we need to go back to today’s first reading from the Book of the prophet Isaiah. The office of steward mentioned in that reading was second in command only to the King of Israel. The steward acted in the place of the king in many situations.  He was given the keys to the kingdom by the king as a sign of sharing his authority. And so, we see here that Jesus Christ our King makes Peter – and by extension all of Peter’s successors – steward in governing the Church on earth. The popes are visible shepherds of the Church on earth standing in for the invisible Head and Good Shepherd of the Flock.
So, that’s the back story and biblical explanation of the reason as to why we have a pope. But this Scripture teaching will remain only ink on a page for us if we leave it at that. We need to ask ourselves:  What does it mean for us today?  Why does it matter?

Well, fundamentally, the leadership of the pope is meant to support our relationship with Jesus in two ways: to ignite us and to unite us.

First, the pope is meant to ignite us.  That is, to set us on fire with love for Jesus so that we might live and spread the Gospel in the midst of a world that has grown cold and divided. The pope does not invent truth or make up doctrines. Instead, he faithfully hands on and applies the Gospel of Jesus to the various needs and situations of the times in which he lives. He fans the flames of faith within us so that they burn more intensely. In a world where there are so many voices clamoring for our attention and obedience, we need to be able to hear the voice of Christ. Jesus promised that this would be possible for us by listening to his Steward, the pope.

Second, the pope is meant to unite us.  He is the leader, the shepherd, of a worldwide Church that embraces every nationality and that can be found on every continent on planet Earth. His mission is to keep this diverse group of disciples firmly united as one spiritual family, one Body of Christ. This is why we call him the “Holy Father.” We are not separate individuals, separate parishes, or separate dioceses. We are not in competition with one another. Rather, we are all part of the One Universal Church, which is what the word “catholic” means. And the pope is the Steward of Christ who binds us all together.

Jesus did not change Simon the Fisherman into Peter the Rock for Peter’s sake.  No, he did it for our sakes. He did it for you and he did it for me, so that we could confidently know that truth that sets us free.  In the office and ministry of the pope we have a gift from Jesus to ignite us and unite us in the midst of a world that is full of superficiality and harmful ideologies. The Rock of St. Peter keeps us firmly secured to Christ and to one another no matter what craziness is happening in the world around us.

This is why we pray for our unity with the Pope at every celebration of Holy Mass.  Listen during the Eucharistic Prayer and you will hear it. And how fitting it is that we do this at Mass because the Eucharist is itself the very Source of our being ignited and united. By receiving Jesus truly present in Holy Communion, we have our faith kindled with the fire of his love and we are brought into unity with one another because we all receive of the one undivided Body of Christ.

All this is contained in the awesome gift Jesus gave us on that day at Caesarea Philippi when Simon the Fisherman became Peter the Rock, forever changing the history of planet Earth.Deacon David Previtali · On This Rock

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Expand Your Heart!

The 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time, August 16, 2020.  Readings:  Isaiah 56:1-7; Romans 11:13-32; Gospel of St. Matthew 15: 21-28. Theme: Expand Your Heart!

In pondering the readings for today’s liturgy, it became quite apparent to me that God is calling us call us to expand our hearts.  The readings seem to speak to us about breaking through our sinful and selfish human tendency to be exclusive and judgmental towards others, particularly if they are of a different race or a foreign people other than ourselves. Considering that Isaiah lived 800 years before Christ and Matthew composed his Gospel 2,000 years ago, we see that our human tendency to exclude and condemn has a very ancient and tragic history.

In the first reading from the prophet Isaiah, we see that God himself calls Israel to break out of this exclusiveness and welcome all to join in their praise and worship. He says to through the prophet, “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”  You see, over time the Hebrews had developed the idea that only those who were born among them, born into the Chosen People of Israel, were worthy to worship the one true God, worthy to enter into his consecrated temple-house of prayer.

They had become so arrogant and exclusive in their “choseness”, that they would not even touch anything that had been touched by a Gentile, a non-Jew. They thought this would make them unclean and sinful in God’s sight. A huge segment of them, called Pharisees (which in Hebrew means “separated”) refrained as much as they could from any and all daily contact with Gentiles. And this exclusivity would eventually became so overbearing in their religious culture that they would not even be able to recognize their own God when he came among them in the flesh as Jesus Christ, a humble laborer-turned-preacher from Nazareth. That’s what exclusiveness and a sense of superiority can do: blind us to the truth and to recognizing the very presence of God in our lives and in others.

In our second reading, St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we also find this theme of expanding our hearts and minds. He is reminding the Jews that once they were “nobodies” among the nations of the world and that only by God expanding his heart, so to speak, were they able to become “somebody”, that is, to become the Chosen People. Paul teaches that we, too, must expand our minds and get rid of division and prejudice. He reminds us that all who turn to God in sincere faith, no matter who or what they are, can be brought into fellowship with him and become, as we pray in Eucharistic Prayer III at Mass, “one body, one spirit in Christ.”

I think this message of expanding hearts is brought out most dramatically in the Gospel by Jesus himself.  In today’s story, we find that Christ and his disciples are pestered by a Gentile woman, a pagan Canaanite, and the disciples are begging Jesus to get her off their backs. The typical Jewish attitude, which assuredly resided to some degree in the hearts of Jesus’ apostles at this early stage of their transformation, was that she had two strikes against her. She was a pagan and thus in their minds unpleasing to God. And secondly, she was a woman, who thus had no business speaking publicly and directly to a rabbi such as Jesus.

Even though Jesus informs her that as Messiah his mission is first of all to the people of Israel, she keeps on asking.  She persists and it pays off. Like any devoted and loving mother, she would not take “no” for an answer when it comes to her child in need. In a clever and respectful way, she basically tells Jesus: “Expand your heart, expand your mission for the sake of my daughter!” And you know what? He does!

The Heart of Jesus expands to hear her request and heal her daughter. The Heart of Jesus expands to teach the disciples that all people are welcome to come to Him. The Heart of Jesus doesn’t discriminate due to skin color, or language or place of birth. No, the Heart of Jesus is open to all who seek Him with sincere hearts no matter who they are, where they have come from, or what they have done.

This expanding of hearts and minds is at the very core of the Gospel message, of what it means to live and think and act as a Christian, because we are to love others as God loves them. There is absolutely no room in authentic Christianity for a narrowness of mind and heart that excludes anyone due to their being an outsider, a foreigner, a stranger. There is no room for us disciples to think or act as if Jesus only helps those whom we deem to be proper and fit and worthy.

Through an intimate relationship with Jesus deepened by personal daily prayer and fed with the Holy Eucharist, we can find the light and grace to expand our hearts and our minds. We must refuse to be like the Israelites who closed their temples and their lives to those whom they judged to be sinners. We must refuse to be like the disciples who tried to block access to Jesus by those who they considered unworthy. Instead, we can become more like Jesus and expand our Christian mission of love, mercy, and compassion to all whom encounter, no matter who they or where they come from.   Deacon David Previtali · Expand Your Heart!

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Light A Candle

Homily for the 19h Sunday of Ordinary Time, August 9, 2020. Gospel of St. Matthew 14:22-33. Theme: Light a Candle

Take courage…Do not be afraid!  Did you know that those words of encouragement form the most common phrase found throughout the entire Bible? The God who created us, the God who became one of us, knows what insecurity lays at the deepest recesses our hearts.  We are often like those disciples on the stormy sea, tossed about by the various experiences and circumstances of life, unable to control the wind and the waves that crash all around us.

I think we are all in a situation like that today.  We are in the midst of an international social storm, riding out our lives in a boat that is out of our control.  We are being tossed about by fierce winds that first blew out of China causing upsetting waves to crash across the world. And yes, we are powerless over it so fears arise. But we must take courage and realize that we are not helpless, we are not alone in the storm.

That scene of Jesus coming to the disciples on the water during the fourth watch of the night is extremely meaningful to me. But to know why, we first must know what the fourth watch of the night is.  You see, in ancient times nighttime, that is from 6PM to 6AM, was divided into four 3 hour sections.  These were called “watches” because some residents of a village were assigned to remain awake and keep watch for enemies, fire, etc. was the others slept. So, the fourth watch was 3-6AM. It was pitch black on that sea. In a sky covered with clouds and bursting rain you would be lucky to see your hand before your face!

So, it makes you wonder: how in the world were the disciples able to see a man coming to them a distance away, walking on water and think he was a ghost? It seems to me that Jesus was illuminated by his divinity, glowing mystically like a candle in the darkness for all to see. And that image of Jesus, a light in the midst of the storm, gives me direction and hope today. It makes me think of something else that came out of China centuries before the coronavirus. It’ a proverb that says, “It is better the light a candle than to curse the darkness.”

And I find that proverb, which is simply another way of stating Jesus’ teaching to be light for the world, to be extremely important for us to live by in these days. By taking this it to heart and giving it flesh in our lives we can become for others what Jesus was for the disciples in that boat: a beacon of light in the midst of a storm. Or better put, we can allow Jesus to be the light that shines through us bringing hope and positivity in a time of fear and insecurity.

But in order for us to become that light of Jesus giving hope and direction to others, we need to do two things.

First, we need to have a powerful and intimate relationship of trust in Jesus as St. Peter had. He developed this relationship by spending time with Jesus, observing how he treated others, witnessing his power and miracles, becoming convinced of his divine status as the Son of the Living God come to us in the flesh.  We can do this as well through the Eucharist and the Gospels.

We can draw close to Jesus in the Eucharist, receiving him into us through Holy Communion.  When possible we can spend time before his Real presence in the Blessed Sacrament. If we cannot get to the church, then we can still unite ourselves in spirit with that Real Presence because the golden box of the tabernacle and the brick and mortar walls of the church cannot restrain or confine our Risen Lord. His Presence radiates out to the whole world and will find us and encompass us wherever we are. And we can behold his power and miracles and absorb his spirit by frequently reading and reflecting upon the Gospels.

Secondly, we must be intentional about becoming a lit candle in the darkness. Every one of us lives, works and socializes in an environment that needs the light of Christ.  That means that for every single one of us there is some particular specific way in which we each can become a candle shining in the darkness of today’s storm.  What we each need to do is mindfully observe our situation, our environment. See where the darkness is and who is overcome by fear like those disciples in the boat.

Then, we must ask Jesus to show us a specific way in which we can become, among our family, friends and co-workers, that candle which gives light, hope and positivity to others. It’s not just “going to happen” because we think it’s a good idea. We need a plan of action and then we need to mindfully put it into practice. Jesus will, indeed, show us the way if we seek and ask in earnest prayer. He will show each one of us how to take courage, not be afraid and become an instrument of peace and a remedy to the negativity and destruction that looms in our particular little slice of life.

I think it is important to remember that we will not all become the same kind of candle. Our lives and our situations are all so very different. Some of us will be that small birthday cake candle that nevertheless brings great joy; while others will be led to become one of those large fragrant pillar candles that fill a room with their presence. But all of us, each and every one of us, can make a significant difference among those with whom we live, work and socialize if we simply refuse to curse the darkness and choose instead to light a candleDeacon David Previtali · Light A Candle

Saturday, August 1, 2020

The Unstoppable Love of Christ

The 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time, August 2, 2020. Readings: Romans 8:35-39; Gospel of St. Matthew 14:13-21. Theme: The Unstoppable Love of Christ

In a brand-new book entitled, Communion and Hope, Pope Francis recently wrote: “The pandemic poses before us fundamental questions about happiness in our lives and about the treasure of our Christian faith. This crisis is a wake-up call that leads to a reflect on where we sink the deepest roots that support all of us in a storm…It asks us if we have forgotten and neglected what is truly important and necessary.  It is for many a painful time of imposed restriction from the Eucharist, but it can also remind us that Christ is present, as he promised, where two or three gather in his name and that he is present in his Word proclaimed and pondered upon.”
His words remind me of today’s second reading wherein St. Paul affirms that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. The pope’s words also remind me of today’s Gospel miracle of the multiplication of the bread, which was a foretelling of Jesus giving us the miracle of the Eucharist. And when we put them all together I think we can come up with the following self-reflection question: Can we honestly say to ourselves that in these challenging days in which we live that we will not let anything separate us from the love of Christ that comes to us in the Eucharist?
First, let’s really understand what St. Paul is saying. He is proclaiming the infallible truth of Scripture that there is nothing outside of us that has the power to block or prevent the love of Christ from encompassing us. No one and nothing except for ourselves, can break this relationship that we have with the God who is Love. The love of God the Father that is brought to us by Christ and poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit can only be refused by us. We can freely choose to walk away from this relationship. We can freely choose to reject God’s invitation to intimacy and life together. But God, on his part, never ever makes this choice towards us.
The flip side of this, of course. is that we can also choose to become more invested in our relationship with Christ. We can do whatever is within our power to deepen our experience of the love of Christ in these days of limited social contact. We can freely choose to spend more time reading and reflecting on the Gospels, because the more we know someone the more we fall in love with them. We can freely choose to devote more time to being with Christ alone in prayer, because lovers always look for opportunities to spend more time together. Those are all excellent ways to work on our relationship with God, but of course, the Real Presence of the Risen Lord Jesus in the Eucharist is the most intimate and personal way of encountering him and his love.
The miracle of the multiplication of bread is a story pointing us to the Eucharist. Just as Jesus fed the crowd and instructed them in that deserted place, so does he also feed and strengthen us in our present social desert by means of our Liturgy. By hearing the Word of God proclaimed and explained to us at Mass, we are like the crowd that was enlightened and encouraged by Jesus teaching them. By receiving the Lord’s Body and Blood in Holy Communion we are like those people who were fed and strengthened with the nourishment they needed to keep on keeping on.
So, I think we need to ask ourselves: are we taking advantage of the opportunities still available to us these days to worship, adore and receive Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament however and whenever possible?  If we truly believe that the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist is the actual flesh and blood of the God of love, and if we cannot bear to be separated from that love, then how could we not choose to come to him? 
In these time of COVID people are cautious about social interaction and that is reasonable and good. But as Pope Francis intimated in the quote I read earlier, we must honestly ask ourselves if while being cautious we are also being sincere. Are we treating the more important and necessary things of life, such as the Eucharist, with the same regard as we treating other things? Do I do my own food shopping? Do I ever go out to enjoy outdoor dining? Do I go to work with others outside of my home? Do I meet up with  friend to exercise or go for a walk? If the answer is yes to any of these things but am not attending the celebration of the Eucharist, then I must re-examine my priorities and remind myself that going to Mass is no more of a health risk - and probably even much less of one - than these other activities.
If I find outdoor Mass to be too large a gathering of people on Sundays (usually at our parish with 60-70 worshippers), then do I consider attending the outdoor Masses on weekday or Saturday mornings, which have far less people (about 15-20)?  Even though the Sunday Mass obligation has been lifted in this time of pandemic, we can go beyond legalism and be present at the Liturgy on another one of these other days so as to still worship and receive the Lord. Even though Eucharistic Adoration it is not as powerful an experience of Christ’s love as is Holy Communion, do I find a way to go to the parish church during its open hours so that I can spend time in personal prayer before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament?
So, you see, not even the pandemic or social restrictions or anything else can separate us from the love of Christ that comes to us up close and personal in the Eucharist.  Only we can choose to let that happen. The famous great miracle-worker saint, Padre Pio, once put it this way: “it is easier for us to exist without the sun that it is for us to live without the Eucharist.”  I think that says it all.

Deacon David Previtali · The Unstoppable Love of Christ