Saturday, October 31, 2020

Real Saints, Real Holiness


Catholic Liturgy for the Solemnity of All Saints, Nov. 1, 2020. Gospel of St. Matthew 5:1—12. Theme: Real Saints, Real Holiness 

Today’s gospel of the Beatitudes is one of the most familiar passages in all of the Gospels. Its description of the attitudes that make us “blessed”, which means “favored by God”, has often been called the “blueprint for Christian living”. The Beatitudes show us what thinking and living and loving like Jesus looks like. In other words, they show us what it means to live as a saint. I wonder how many of us know what we mean by the word “saint”?

I often wonder if we really have an accurate grasp of who the saints were as people? Is our understanding of them realistic and reachable? It seems to me that as soon as we officially start calling someone a “Saint” and begin putting a halo of light around their heads, they become out-of-reach. We then tend to put them on a pedestal to be admired from a safe distance. We surround ourselves with saints illustrated in stained-glass windows and set up memorial images of them decked with flowers and flanked with candles. Perhaps in our private devotions we even collect pictures of them on holy cards to be tucked away in our prayer-books and Bibles. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with stained-glass windows, statues and holy cards. But to limit our interaction and devotion to the saints to those ways alone runs the risk of turning them into something safe and comfortable. And if we elevate them above us enough, I think it conveniently excuses us from having to become like them! 
But if you know anything at all about the real lives of the saints, they were the farthest thing from safe and comfortable that you can get! Like Jesus, the saints challenged the complacent and comfortable lives of those who thought of themselves as devout religious people. When you read the testimonies of those who lived with the saints, you discover that life with them was not all sunshine and roses, not at all as pleasant as you might imagine it to be! This is because their burning love for God and neighbor, the seriousness with which they took the Gospels, and their dedication to justice for the poor and needy consumed them. And they expected that these things should consume everyone else who called themselves Christian! 

The Church has made All Saints Day a holy day of obligation because we need this yearly reminder. We need to open our ears and our hearts to truly hear what this solemnity says to us. It’s a reminder that each and every one of us, by virtue of our baptism, are called to become saints. And it is a reminder that this call to sanctity is indeed reachable by any and all of us. Now we might hear this and laugh or shake our heads. We may even be tempted to dismiss it all together as an ideal that cannot be attained. But if we do so, we would be wrong. Very very wrong. 

Because the great truth about the saints, something we seem to so easily forget, is that they were just like us in every way imaginable. And they came from every situation in life as well. There were saints who seemed to be on the right track to Heaven almost from the day they were born. And there were those whose life experience prior to their commitment to Christ was the furthest thing from being good and noble. Among those whom we now honor as our friends and intercessors in Heaven, there are those who were once thieves and murderers, prostitutes and playboys, death-row inmates and lying cheating charlatans. But the grace of God is more powerful that anything and when a heart truly turns to Christ all things can become new again from the inside out! 

You see, the saints were flesh and blood human beings like you and me. They had their strengths and oh yes, they also had their weaknesses. They were sinners and strugglers just like us. At least that was how they began, but that wasn’t their whole story. It wasn’t how they ended up. They struggled toward holiness, sometimes stumbling, sometimes falling, but always getting back up and moving on, resolving to do better, to aim higher, to never give up. They kept their focus on Christ and sought to love God and neighbor as best they could. They trusted in power and presence of the Holy Spirit within them to make up for what they lacked. 

So, let’s not dismiss the saints or our call to holiness as being beyond our experiences of life, beyond our reach. No one is born a saint, but every single one of us, by the grace of God, can indeed become one. And the fastest way to attain this goal, based upon the saints’ life experiences, is to draw close to Jesus truly present among us in the Eucharist, to have the spiritual vision to see Christ and serve him in those who suffer, and to trust that the grace of God can do way more in us that we could ever ask for or imagine!

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Made BY Love, Made FOR Love


Homily for the 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time, October 25, 2020. Gospel of St. Matthew 22:34-40. Theme: Made By Love, Made For Love 

Every significant world religion has a particular passage taken from their holy books which expresses who they are as a people; a kind of “mission statement” of their community spirit. The mission statement of Judaism, for example, is called the Shema, and it is taken from the Old Testament Book of the Law. It says, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus takes the Shema and adds to it another passage from the Old Testament that says, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” They had never been combined like this before and he makes this new commandment of double-love the mission statement of his disciples. Just as Christianity is the fulfilment of Judaism, so the new Great Commandment of Double Love is the completion of the Shema, bringing love of God to its fulfilment by making it inseparable from love of our neighbor. 

So, that’s all well and good as far as knowing what our mission statement is and where it comes from. But more importantly we need to know WHY it is our primary identification as Christians. And the reason is this: we were - each and every one of us - made BY Love, that is, made by God. And we were - each and every one of us - made to be an image of this divine love. This means that we were - each and every one of us - made BY love and made FOR love. Love, then, is the very reason for our existence. Love is our vocation. It is the very mission of our lives no matter who or what we are. 

Now I think this should make us ask: what exactly is this kind of love? What does it look like? In reply, the teachings of the Church and the experience of the saints, tell us that love looks and acts like Jesus of Nazareth. And to help us better understand this, they place before us the devotion to the Heart of Jesus which we Catholics have cherished for centuries. I am sure you have all seen images of the Sacred Heart, afire with love for God and for us sinners, pierced with the thorns of sorrow for suffering humanity, surmounted by the cross of self-giving without limits. The Sacred Heart is a word-picture of Christian love that should be our model and inspiration as we strive to live out the mission of Christianity. 

To effectively carry out this mission of love, our hearts must also be on fire with love for God and neighbor, our hearts must also be pierced by the thorns of compassion for those who suffer, and our hearts must also be affixed to the cross of self-forgetfulness. This was the way of Jesus, the way of the Gospel. And it must be our way if we truly want to love. But we might say, “this seems impossible for us!” And it is, that is, unless and until we allow the grace of God to transform us by the power of the Holy Spirit. How this transformation happens - and it must keep happening daily - is that the Heart of Jesus, his sentiments and motivation, are spiritually transplanted into each and every one of us so that eventually we can truly say with St. Paul the Apostle, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal. 2:20). 

This spiritual heart transplant is a mystical wonder of Christianity. Through baptism we become so closely united with Jesus, linked to him inseparably by grace, that he re-lives his life, so to speak, through each and every one of us. Not in some New-Age channeling kind of way, but really and truly in a supernatural way. Jesus the Beloved Son of the Father walks and ministers again and again on planet Earth through each and every one of us who are baptized and living in grace. How awesome is that?! 

It is the Holy Spirit who brings all this about. He is the divine surgeon of this operation of grace. And the two instruments he uses for this transformation are the Gospels and the Eucharist. These are the primary ways in which our hearts gradually become supplanted with the Heart of Jesus. For how can we learn to become like Jesus if we do not frequently read and reflect on at least a little bit of the Gospels? And how can we hope to overcome our innate human selfishness if we do go as often as we can to the Eucharist so that the Risen Lord is truly living and loving in us and through us? Through the Gospels and the Eucharist our minds and our hearts are gradually changed, bit by bit, day by day, so that we begin to think with the mind of Jesus and to love with the Heart of Jesus. 

All of this is why the Great Commandment is the mission statement, the very heart and soul of Christianity. This is why the inspired writings of the New Testament and of the great mystics, such as St. John of the Cross, tell us that when we finally come before God at the end of our earthly lives, the only thing that will matter for our judgment is how much and how well we have loved, how much and how well we have become more and more like Jesus.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Give to God What Belongs to God...Even in Politics!


Homily for the 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time, October 18, 2020. Gospel of St. Matthew 22:15-21. Theme: Give to God What Belongs to God…Even in Politics! 

How timely today’s Gospel is for us as we approach Presidential Election Day! I don’t think we could ask for a better Gospel passage to be heard as we prepare to cast our votes for the leadership and direction of our nation! Even the two groups mentioned in today’s Gospel have relevance to our contemporary situation. 

 The Pharisees were the staunch conservatives of Israel. Their very name means “Separated Ones” and they did not associate with anyone whom they considered outsiders. The Pharisees were a very hardcore by-the-book party within Israel. 

 The Herodians were the polar opposite of the Pharisees. As their name implies, they were supporters of King Herod and thus cooperators with the Roman Occupied Forces. The Herodians were the liberal socially connected party who watered down their religion for the sake of political correctness and power. 

It seems to me that we can see traces of these groups in the political parties and platforms of today. 

• We can see them in those who think themselves so highly educated that they despise others who do not share their “Ivy League” points of view. 
• We can see them among the social elite who ridicule the common person, especially the rural population of our nation, as ignorant and uninformed. 
• We can see them in those who compromise religion for the sake of gaining votes, even if it requires the killing of the unborn and other assaults upon human life. 
• And we can see a reflection of them in those who publicly exile God from having any authoritative presence or influence in political and social life, even being so arrogant as to banish his name from our public assemblies and deleting it from the pledge of allegiance. 

In today’s Gospel Jesus is saying that we have an obligation to both God and the government, but that these commitments must be prioritized according to reality. It is God who gives us life. It is God who keeps us in existence. It is God in whose image each and every human being is made. Jesus points to the image of Caesar on the coin and asks, “Whose image is this?” We could very well point to a human being and ask, “Whose image is this?” And the answer would be: God’s image. Therefore, give to God what belongs to God. In other words, people have priority over profit and therefore our political choices must first of all take God and the good of the human person as their non-negotiable starting points. 

But sadly, the temptation to ignore God and the good of the human person for the sake of the power, prestige and position that comes with political gain is nothing new in our world. That is why Jesus of Nazareth was such a threat to the hopes and plans of the Pharisees and Herodians. And it is why he and his Gospel still seen as a threat to many politicians in our own times. His teachings and his whole life are a proclamation of the priority of God and the human person in every aspect of life, including politics.

• Jesus speaks God’s Word of Truth that exposes lies and reveals the motivation in our hearts. 
• Jesus preaches the way of the Beatitudes and love for one’s enemies which upsets our agendas and turns our priorities upside down. 
• Jesus teaches justice for the poor and protection of the vulnerable calling into question many of our wealth-driven laws and profit-driven principles. 
As Christians, we must exercise our political responsibilities with choices formed by the Word of God, conscious of our dignity as his children, and realizing that “giving to God what is God’s” means that our primary allegiance is to Him. To this end we must ask ourselves: 

 • Have we considered the various candidates and their policies in the light of Christ’s teachings or are we allowing the secular social media to be our teacher in making our moral political decisions? 
 • Do we approach the issues blindly based upon a political party platform or are we guided by the light of faith given to us at baptism, enabling us to choose good and reject evil? 
 • In carrying out our political responsibilities do we have the self-identification that “I am first of all a Christian”? Or do we give what is God’s to Caesar by declaring that “I am first all a Democrat or a Republican or whatever my political affiliation?” 
 • Do we realize that our political actions are an important way by which we fulfill Jesus’ commission to build a civilization of love and life, of justice and peace on planet Earth? 

 Today’s Gospel should be our guiding principle when we go to vote. It reminds us that even in our social life and politics, our commitment is first of all to God, who alone who is the Source of our inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This is why we Americans have as our official national motto: “In God we trust.”  Let’s go forward towards Election Day with God’s Truth in our minds, the common good of human beings in our hearts, and the motto of our nation ringing in our ears.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Invited and Chosen


Homily for the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time, October 11, 2020. Gospel of St. Matthew 22:1-14. Theme: Invited and Chosen 

Today’s Gospel gives us another one of Jesus’ parables. As is common to these moral stories, we cannot get the heart of what Jesus is teaching unless we decipher the symbolism he is using. 

 • The wedding feast is the Kingdom of Heaven. Throughout the Bible festive abundant banquets are frequently used as symbols for life with God and one another in Heaven. 
The king hosting the event is God the Father. He is extraordinarily wealthy in mercy and grace, finding joy in bestowing gifts on his people. 
The guest of honor, the groom, is the king’s son, Jesus. The New Testament calls Jesus the Bridegroom of the Church, which means us. And it calls the Mass the wedding feast of the Lamb of God. 
The A-list of invited guests are the Chosen People of Israel. They were the first to be called by God to the wedding of his Son. Even though individuals of Israel chose to come to the wedding feast, overall as a people they refused the invitation. 
The B-list are Gentiles, that is, those of us whom the Jews considered sinners, cursed by God and outcasts among his people. We are like those everyday people mentioned in the parable, a mixture of good and bad. 

But you know, what really grabs people’s attention in this parable is the man who gets kicked out of the party for not wearing the wedding garment. He accepted the invitation but did not come properly dressed. That particular detail contains the main moral of the story and it expresses a very important word of caution to us.  But to understand why, we first we need to know that in Jesus’ culture when a king gave a party he not only supplied food, drink and entertainment. As a sign of his wealth and generosity, he also provided each invited guest with a party robe, in this case, a wedding garment. To show up at the party dressed in your own clothes instead of in the gifted garment would be very much like giving the host a social slap in the face! So, what might all this symbolism mean in regard to the teachings of Christ? 

We can interpret and apply this parable as saying that in the generosity of God all people are invited to come to the wedding feast of his Son, which means to live in a relationship with Christ. By faith and through baptism, God gives each invited person the “wedding garment” which is a symbol of his sanctifying grace, a share in his redeeming love. Following this symbolic train of thought, it can be said that we change out of our own clothes and into the robe supplied by the king when we turn away from our sins and selfishness and put on the way of Our Lord Jesus Christ, striving to live and to love as he has taught us and shown us. 

This parable is reminding us that accepting the invitation to the wedding feast means much more than simply showing up in church on Sundays. It warns us against having a complacent attitude based on the idea that since God is good and loving we have nothing to fear about how we think or live. These are examples of a very spiritually dangerous approach to God that is called “cheap grace”. This was a term coined by the courageous German Lutheran minister, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was killed by the Nazis in World War II. 
Cheap grace means that we want God without his commandments; Christ without the cross; Heaven without repentance for sin; Christianity without intentional discipleship. In other words, this cheap grace means that we want a god and a savior and a religion that is fashioned according to our own likes and desires. But the parable warns us that our refusal to wear the wedding garment of Heaven in favor of the cheap grace of our own clothing, will not only get us kicked out of the party but cause us to be cast into the torment of Hell. 

On the other hand, transforming grace, the real kind of grace that costs a great deal, that was purchased by the Blood of Christ on the cross. Real grace means that we accept the invitation, put on the wedding garment, and do our best to keep it clean in God’s sight. It means that we actually change our attitude and our way of living so that it conforms to the Gospel teachings of Christ. Real grace is tough and challenging because it means that we are willing to say “no” to ourselves and “yes” to God. 

The parable ends by reminding us that all called to the wedding feast of Christ, but only the Chosen accept and truly respond to that call. And the thing is that anyone can be among the Chosen simply by putting on the wedding garment given at Baptism and keeping it on. It’s telling us that it is the living out of our baptismal promises to reject sin and live for God that counts, and not simply the fact that we have a baptismal certificate tucked away somewhere in our files.

The invited guest is ejected for not wearing the wedding garment.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

An Experience in Assisi

Homily for the Solemnity of St. Francis of Assisi, Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020. 

Click here for the Audio Version of this Homily

Today I am going to do something I really never do in a homily. I am going to talk about myself. Better put, I am going to share with you a life-changing experience I had about 12 years ago when I was blessed to be able to go to Assisi for a couple days. I think God will forgive me for being a bit self-focused in this reflection since it is, ultimately, in honor of the Saint of Assisi, the patron of our archdiocese whom we are honoring today and who has, for over 800 years, been called the “most Christ-like man to walk upon earth.” 

 I was in Italy to visit my son and was traveling in the company of 4 other family members. We had a free weekend and so we took a vote as to where to spend it. I was the sole dissenting voice against going to Assisi. And I was adamant about not going there! I had absolutely no interest whatsoever for St. Francis or his preserved medieval town of Assisi. I did not want to waste time that could be better spent, in my opinion, seeing the beauty and tasting the deliciousness of my family homeland! Needless to say, the vote was 4 to 1 and I lost! 

 Sitting shotgun in a Fiat I glanced out the window as we approached the walls of ancient Assisi. And that’s when it hit me, completely unexpected and totally out of the blue. I was overcome with an interior force compelling me to be silent. If you know me then you know that “silent” is never ever a word anyone uses to describe me! But I could not help it. I could not speak. I did not want to speak. For the next 2 days I hardly spoke to anyone even my own family, who at first thought I was a bit ticked off. But they soon came to realize that this was something so much more than a person not getting his way! They could tell that something had come over me. 

 I spend my time in Assisi walking throughout the town from sunrise to sunset meditating at the various places that were sanctified by St. Francis. And as I did I learned many and various things about this amazing saint. 

 • I went to the site where Francis was born and then to the dungeon where his father imprisoned him 20 years later because he thought his newly-converted son has gone mad. They are both located in the massive house which was their family home. 

 • I stood in the town square before the very spot where Francis and his father had it out with one another in front of the Bishop and citizens of Assisi, culminating in Francis being disowned and causing him to proclaim that God alone would now be his father. 

 • I knelt before the famous San Damiano Crucifix that spoke to Francis, giving him his mission of rebuilding the Church. And I had the gift of being there almost all by myself which is very unusual in the popular pilgrim site of Assisi. 

 • I walked out into the fields on the outskirts of town where Francis and his growing band of companions began to live among lepers and the outcasts; where they began their common life of poverty and simplicity, dressing in the robes with knotted rope belts that would forever become the distinctive sign of a Franciscan. 

 • I hiked the trail from the main streets of Assisi out to the Convent of San Damiano where St. Clare and the first Poor Clare nuns lived. Since it was early in the morning, I was able to spend time alone, kneeling in prayer upon the tiles where the body of St. Francis was brought so that Clare could pay her last respects. It was also the place from where she passed from this life. 

I ended my 2-day walking pilgrimage at the tomb of St. Francs in the great Basilica of Assisi. And it was so appropriate that this is also where my gift of silence ended. But the question that remained to be answered was: What did God want to teach me by this experience? Well, I learned first of all that St. Francis is so much more than a nature lover or a stone statue decorating someone’s garden, which is all he was to me before I arrived at Assisi. 

 I came to understand that Francis was a flesh and blood man and not just some kind of religious super hero from Catholic storybooks. He was exactly like you and me and absolutely no different by nature. He had to fight against his selfish tendencies in order to love God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength. He distrusted himself as the best source of wisdom and turned instead to the Gospels, to Christ, for light and direction. And when he heard the Word of God, he lived it to the best of his ability. He didn’t make excuses allowing him to pick and choose his own style of Christianity. 

 Shortly before he died St. Francis said, “I have been the most unholy of men and if God can work through me, then he can work through anyone.” Francis was not a virtuous or exemplary man before his conversion. But he was totally won over to Christ by the fact that God had become human. And even more deeply moved by the fact that Jesus freely gave up his life for him on the cross. He was head over heels in love with Christ in the Eucharist because through this sacrament he was able to become one with the God who became flesh out of love for us. And that, really, is the message of St. Francis. 

 I did not know it at the time, but God had one more surprise in store for me as a blessing from Assisi. You might know that St. Francis was not a priest, but was a deacon; and it was soon after returning to the States that I was asked to enter formation to eventually be ordained, like St. Francis, a deacon of Jesus Christ. I had gone to Assisi with no interest in St. Francis, but I left there with a devotion to the Poverello (which is his nickname in Italian, it means “Little Poor Man”) that has never decreased. I hope to one day meet him in Heaven and say “thank you!”

A view of approaching old town Assisi

Front entrance to the family home of St. Francis

Chapel of the Miraculous Crucifix of San Damiano

San Damiano Convent, First Home of the Poor Clare Nuns

Basilica of St. Francis with statue of him when he was a knight before his conversion.

Tomb of St. Francis in his Basilica at Assisi