Sunday, September 29, 2013

Would the Real Roman Catholics Please Stand Up?

Readings for Sunday, September 29/ 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time:Amos 6:1, 4-7
Psalm 146:7-10
1 Timothy 6:11-16
Luke 16:19-31

How actively are we living our faith?

A couple of weeks ago I went on a little road trip with some friends to Disneyworld. Anyone who has done a road trip before knows how much planning it can take: Where are we going? When are we going? Who is going? How will we get there? How much will it cost? Where will we stay? What will we do? So much to plan beforehand and then when it’s time to go another list of things: Do we have all of our stuff packed? Do we have the directions? Where can we stop to eat? To fill up the tank? To use the restroom? Are we headed the right way on the road? Does the road have tolls? And on and on! There’s a ton of activity going on! It’s not like the airport where we just hop on the moving sidewalk and stand there while it takes you further down the way. It’s active, requiring planning ahead and attentiveness along the way. And if that much planning and action was required just to get to ‘the Most Magical Place on Earth’, how much more planning, attentiveness, and action is required to get to the most magical place of all – Heaven?!

In the Gospel today we hear about an anonymous rich man and a poor man named Lazarus. The rich man had all of his needs filled and much more. And at his door lay a man who would have loved to eat the scraps that fell from the floor of his table. The bad part is that the rich man knew Lazarus and his needs. The Gospel account recalls that fact – that he calls to Abraham and says not ‘send that guy that was in front of my house’ but rather ‘send Lazarus.” He knew him by name and so often walked past him. It wasn’t because of any sins that he committed that he went to hell, but rather it was his failures to do good.

A lot of times we Christians can become complacent and try to reason ourselves into thinking that we’re okay, that we’re good people.  We sit an think ‘well, I haven’t killed anybody, so I’m not that bad of a person’ or ‘I haven’t stolen anything big so it’s not that bad’ and so on. We make ourselves good simply because we don’t do things that we’re not supposed to do anyway. That’s not being good, that’s just being smart! Being good, being holy, is avoiding bad things but also doing good things. After all, when Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was he responded ‘Love God and love your neighbor.’ I don’t know about you, but loving others isn’t something that just happens by itself. It’s an active thing, and sometimes a very difficult thing because it involves putting the other in front of me. We were created to be active people, people of faith alive in the Holy Spirit.

Whether we know it yet or not, the Mass actually tells us just that. Most of us know the Catholic aerobics routine: come in, genuflect, kneel, sit, stand, sit, stand, sit, stand, sit, stand, kneel, stand, kneel, stand, make the loop for Communion, kneel, sit, stand, then process out. The Church doesn’t do all of that just to make sure we keep our legs nice and toned or to make sure we don’t fall asleep in Mass. It’s because our bodies speak something to our soul – what we do with our body, we should be experiencing and praying with in the silence of our hearts. When we stand up it means we are attentive, that we are read to move, to act on whatever it is we receive. So let’s look through the Mass.

We stand first for the entrance process. While it is usually just the servers and ministers who process in, it is meant to be representative of the whole community gathered there coming to the altar of God to offer praise and worship. The community stand because in our hearts we’re recognizing the movement to God that is taking place. Action. We stand again for the Gospel reading as a sign of readiness to take the Gospel into the world. As we mark our forehead, mouth, and heart we are asking the Lord to cleanse our mind, lips, and heart that receiving the Word in fertile soil we can bring it out to bear fruit in the community. Action. Next we stand for the Creed, the summary of our faith. We stand because in professing our faith we also implicitly say that it must be visible, that it must be lived. Jesus’ death changes the way I live my life. His resurrection changes the way I live my life. The Church changes the way I live my life. It is something public to proclaim, not private to be hidden. Action. We stand again at the offertory at the invitation “Pray brethren, that my sacrifice and yours…” because we recognize that in that moment we are offering God the things of our lives upon the altar. All of us know someone (and probably a lot of someones!) in need of prayer – someone who is sick, someone struggling to make ends meet, someone who lost a loved one. It is our place to take them and to bring them before the Lord and give them to Him. And just like the host and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Jesus and give life to us, we can lift up others in prayer and the Spirit can infuse us and them with His presence and to the same. Action. We stand again for the Our Father because the petitions we make also mean we have some skin in the game. One of my seminary professors spoke of how we could pray ‘in me’ through much of the petitions: “thy kingdom come in me, thy will be done in me”. Action. We stand again and process up to receive Communion, walking toward the Lord, preparing our bodies to receive Him and opening our hearts to receive His grace. Action. And then we stand for the conclusion and sending forth, which is when we take the Word we’ve heard, the good news from the homily and prayers, and the grace of the Eucharist and bring it to the world who didn’t have that opportunity.

We are called to be active in a very real sense. There are a thousand and one excuses not to do something for someone at any given moment: we might be afraid, maybe we got burned last time and can’t trust it wont happen again, maybe we’re greedy or self-centered, maybe we think that something else is more important, and many others. But there is one reason why we can and should be active in seeking out and serving the poor and that reason is Jesus Christ. He came to us to bring us life and win for us eternal joy in Heaven with Him. It is for us to choose it. It doesn’t just happen.

So we pray today to receive the grace to recognize the Lazaruses in our lives, the understanding to know how we can best serve them, and the courage to serve them and in serving them to serve Christ Himself.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Kindness and the Poor

Trying to play catch up after being out of the office for a week...thus the Sunday homily on Tuesday...

Readings for Sunday, September 22/ 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time:
Amos 8:4-7
Psalm 112:1-2, 4-8
1 Timothy 2:1-8
Luke 16:1-13

Before coming here to the River Parishes I was at St. George parish in Baton Rouge, which, like our parish, had a school attached to it. In one of the first homilies that I preached to the kids I used an analogy that I thought would be helpful in explaining the main point – doing things as a sign of love. I spoke of how I liked pancakes and my grandmother used to make them for me because she knew how much I liked them. I then tried to explain how we could do things for others to show love and how God even does the same for us throughout our days. I thought it went well, but when I went out on the playground later I quickly began to wonder otherwise as I was greeted by a flock of kids screaming ‘PANCAKES!!!’. And in the following months as I would visit with them, talking in classes and such, inevitably the questions would shift from Jesus to pancakes – ‘What kind of pancake is your favorite? Do you like waffles too? How many can you eat at once?’ and many similar questions. A couple of weeks ago I was hearing confessions at Catholic High School and one young man approached me and asked if I still liked pancakes – two years later! They definitely got that part of the homily but I was never sure if they got the connection with the main point that I was trying to make. And I think that can happy to all of us when we approach the Scriptures or some aspect of our faith. Something in it catches us and we get caught in that one point and can lose the sight of the bigger picture before us.

Today the Lord is inviting us to look at the full picture of caring for the poor.

The first reading speaks of the Lord’s frustration with a people who were neglecting and even taking advantage of the poor by fixing their scales and changing the exchange rates to win profit for themselves and cost the poor what little they had. Instead of lifting up the poor, as the Lord does and desires them to imitate, they oppress them. We in our own day see this happening still with economic differences between individuals in communities, states, and entire nations as the rich seek to increase wealth at the expense of the poor. But as Christians, as Catholics, we are called to lift up the poor in every way that we can because in doing so we are serving Christ. As he says in the Gospels: when we give drink, food, clothing or shelter to the least among us, we do so to Him. We must seek out the poor not just because they are poor, but because they are Christ in the midst of us longing to be helped. When we see the face of the poor, we see the face of Christ.

If you think about it, the poor aren’t just some people here and there. We are all the poor. After all, we were the ones stuck in our sins and in need of a savior to lift us up to new life. We are all the poor in that way. But we can also be poor in other ways. And we are all rich in some ways.

When we think about the poor, most often we are immediately mindful of those in physical, monetary poverty. To these we have a grave obligation to give service because every human being because of their dignity has the right to food, drink, clothing, shelter, education, and reasonable healthcare. The St. Vincent de Paul Society in our community helps individuals in this state each and every day by the store they run and the other ministries in action. We can join with them by serving at the store, supporting them financially, or donating items to help continue their world. We can also help people in physical poverty by supporting other good organization that build up individuals and lift them up. Too, we can support people ourselves without the help of an organization. If we have the means, it is a good and holy thing to help someone in need financially. By not clinging to our goods, we are able to share them generously with those in need and win great merit.

But the physical, monetary poor are not the only poor ones among us. To this group we can also add those who are spiritually poor: those who do not believe in God, those who are struggling in faith, or deprived of a solid spiritual foundation. For them we can offer prayers, we can invite them to Mass, we can share stories of faith, and we can simply be there to help them along their own life’s journey knowing that the Lord is quietly guiding them to himself. God has blessed us with an abundance of riches in our faith and in this community, and we who are rich in His blessings are invited to share them with others that they might know the joy we have.

But the physically and spiritually poor are not all whom we can serve. The reality is that the poor can be found among us in a hundred different ways and more. They are among us in the sick, the elderly, those enduring trials, and those who are simply in need of an act of kindness. There’s a book by Fr. Lawrence Lovasik titled “The Hidden Power of Kindness” and the main premise is that we can do even simple things and have such a powerful impact upon our world if we do them with charity. Where we are able to do big things and help in a tangible way, we should. Where we are able to lift someone up in prayer, with an encouraging word or sign of love, we should. Where we can help even the smallest bit by showing someone kindness and the charity of Jesus Christ that is alive in our hearts, we should. We should do this not because of what we gain from it but because of what we are able to give: an experience of God’s love and compassion for one in need, just as we have received before in many ways ourselves.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Will we go home?

Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son
Readings for Sunday, September 15/ 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time:
Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14
Psalm 51:3-4, 12-13, 17, 19
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-32

Our readings this weekend are all about mercy and the great love that the Lord has for us, a crazy love, a love that more often than not surprises us with it's generosity and self-gift. This is modeled beautifully in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, sometimes referred to as the Parable of the Merciful Father. This somewhat lengthy Gospel reading is so profound in its teachings that we could spend hours upon hours contemplating the reality of what is held here. Tonight, though, I would like to look for a moment at its connection with the Sacrament of Reconciliation, in a sense preparing the hearts of the Apostles for what was to come later in Christ's ministry.
Those who know their catechism questions well can likely speak of the four essential parts to the Sacrament of Reconciliation or Confession, these being contrition, confession, absolution and penance. Contrition is the sorrow we experience for our sins, confession is the verbal expression we say to the priest, absolution is the forgiveness that God gives through the priest and penance is the good work or prayer that we offer up in reparation - for healing - for the sins committed. These coming together we are assured of our freedom from sin and the joy that comes with being cleansed once more by the Precious Blood of Jesus. Interestingly enough, if you look at the parable today, you see each of these aspects contained therein, illustrating that Confession isn't something we just made up but rather is shaped by the teaching of Jesus Himself.
To begin with, to have need of reconciliation, there must first be a sin that causes separation. We see that sin in the younger son who receives his portion of the inheritance and then spends it all on (the Gospel is always so kind in it's wording) 'a life of dissipation.' The wording the Lord uses is intentional - the son goes away, separates himself from the father, and immerses himself in a sinful lifestyle. That's what sin does, it separates us from our Heavenly Father. Mortal sin cuts us off completely, but even venial sin adds a little block between us in our relationship. And so we begin with the sin. The son, after running out of money, finds himself in a bad spot. He is faced with starvation, longing for the pods on which the pigs fed. We can see this as a sort of penance, because he is suffering on account of his sins and making up for the wounds in the process. We normally do penance after, but as a priest I've taken people's previous sufferings to be penance enough for them in their conversion. And so he does his penance to make right the relationship. In the midst of that he recognizes the need to return home. He experiences sorrow for his sins, contrition, and the need to be reconciled. And so great is the desire to be reconciled with his father that he is willing to accept a lower place in his household, that of a worker instead of a son, in order to be there. We see it in his words he intends to speak to his father upon return: "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers." What a humble admission of fault! This is what we say when we make our act of contrition in the Sacrament - I'm not worthy, Lord; I'm content simply being a worker if it means being in your house. And with this contrition of heart he returns home. He arrives and begins his verbal confession of sins, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you..." but before he can finish his sentence the father cuts in and tells them to get the party ready, slaughter the fattened calf, and call the neighbors over because his son had come home. God does this so often in the Scriptures, cutting people off mid-sentence. We expect God to do so many things, but more often than not He surprises us with the extent of His love, His self-gift to us, and His desire to bring us joy. September 14th is the liturgical feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, honoring the Cross of Christ's victory over sin. What greater sign is there of the absurd love He has for us than that?! And that is the love that embraces the son in this parable. Before he can finish his sentence, the father's love and mercy wraps him up and forgives him of everything. The story even illustrates this further in the description of the father who sees the son far off and running to him, embraces him. The fact that the father was looking out for the son's return says so much, and that he broke what would have been normal protocol of walking calmly as a dignified man, he runs to his son and holds him close to his heart. Absolution.
The truth is that in our sin God is always waiting for us, always looking off into the horizon in a sense, for the day when we experience contrition for our sins and return home. He longs to forgive us. To celebrate with us the gift of true life. How beautiful that the encounter concludes with the powerful words "Then the celebration began." It would have been enough for Jesus to leave the story there and continue with some other teaching. After all, He had already covered the lost sheep brought home, the lost coin being found, and now the lost son returning home. He had made His point sufficiently, it would seem. And yet He continues, picking up the story of the other son, the older brother who comes home to find his younger brother alive and party in full swing. You can sense the anger in his words as upon hearing of the party for his brother he lashes out at his father, "All this time I was with you and never disobeyed you once. And for what!? I never even had the smallest celebration! And yet for my brother who wasted everything you throw a party?!" The words are tangible, you can feel the son separating himself from the father just as the younger one had done before. And there the father steps up and invites him to comes inside and rejoice with them. There it ends, with no resolution, no ending to know what the son chose. This open ended conclusion is there that we might put ourselves into the story. We are that older brother in our own sins, and we are presented with the option: come inside or stay outside.
The simple fact is that all of us are sinners. We shouldn't be surprised at this because we are the direct spiritual descendants of that 'stiff-necked people' spoken of in Exodus today. We, like them, struggle in our sinful flesh. But the Good News - the Gospel of Jesus - is exactly what St. Paul reminds us of in 1 Timothy: Christ came to save sinners. We are not doomed yet, but have opened before us a path with two choice. It's a matter of contrition; are we really sorry for our sins?
If you wanted to simplify things a bit, you could say there are two kinds of sinners: those who know they are sinning and those who don't. St. Paul gives himself as an example of one who didn't realize he was sinning. In persecuting the Church and killing Christians he thought he was doing God's will. He cannot be fully responsible for those actions. But when the day came that he was able to see the error of his ways and the sinful actions he had committed, he was faced with a choice: repent or remain. All of us are faced with that choice when we become aware of a sin that we had not noticed or known was sinful in our lives before. We can either repent of the sin and turn to our merciful Father to receive forgiveness and reconciliation. Or we can remain in our sins and separate ourselves even more from His love. We can go inside the house to the party, or we can remain outside alone. The choice is for us. God is a loving God, a merciful God. There is no sin that He won't forgive. But there are some that He can't forgive. It seems a contradiction but it's not. He is willing to forgive anything we confess. But He cannot forgive our sins if we won't let Him. If we continue to live in our sins, clinging to them rather than Him, then we refuse God's mercy and love.
And so we each must pause and look at our lives to ask the question: am I clinging to any sins? Is there something I am not sorry for doing that God can't forgive? The invitation is there for each of us and remains there throughout our earthly life. He is always waiting for us, looking for us in the horizon to see if we are contrite of heart and longing to be joined with Him more deeply. The invitation has been issued. Are we willing to set aside our sins and experience His love? Are we willing to go home and rejoice with the Father that while we were once lost, we have been found?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

HWP: Prayer at Ground Zero

On this Twelfth Anniversary of the September 11 attacks, we continue to pray for peace, for the healing of our nation and our world, for those who died, for those who were affected then and now, and for all who have worked to help and bring healing. With that in mind, we turn to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI's Prayer at Ground Zero from 2008:

O God of love, compassion, and healing,
look on us, people of many different faiths and traditions,
who gather today at this site,
the scene of incredible violence and pain.
We ask you in your goodness
to give eternal light and peace
to all who died here—
the heroic first-responders:
our fire fighters, police officers,
emergency service workers, and Port Authority personnel,
along with all the innocent men and women
who were victims of this tragedy
simply because their work or service
brought them here on September 11, 2001.
We ask you, in your compassion
to bring healing to those
who, because of their presence here that day,
suffer from injuries and illness.
Heal, too, the pain of still-grieving families
and all who lost loved ones in this tragedy.
Give them strength to continue their lives with courage and hope.
We are mindful as well
of those who suffered death, injury, and loss
on the same day at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Our hearts are one with theirs
as our prayer embraces their pain and suffering.
God of peace, bring your peace to our violent world:
peace in the hearts of all men and women
and peace among the nations of the earth.
Turn to your way of love
those whose hearts and minds
are consumed with hatred.
God of understanding,
overwhelmed by the magnitude of this tragedy,
we seek your light and guidance
as we confront such terrible events.
Grant that those whose lives were spared
may live so that the lives lost here
may not have been lost in vain.
Comfort and console us,
strengthen us in hope,
and give us the wisdom and courage
to work tirelessly for a world
where true peace and love reign
among nations and in the hearts of all.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Followers and Disciples

Readings for Sunday, September 8/ 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time:
Wisdom 9:13-18
Psalm 90:3-6, 12-17
Philemon 9-10, 12-17
Luke 14:25-33

The Gospel begins tonight with Our Lord being followed by a great crowd. To them He turns and gives the jolting conditions for becoming a disciple. With that announcement He implicitly makes a distinction between followers and disciples; followers being those who know the teachings, see the miracles, and yet fail to submit completely to the Lord’s will and disciples being those who are willing to set their will aside to follow after that of God.

To be a disciple though is a bit intimidating. After all, we heard the expectations just now: willingness to give up all possessions, setting aside family and friends, and picking up a cross to follow the Lord – all of these pointing to the simple fact that disciples must love nothing more than Christ and His will. That’s scary for us because, let’s be honest, we don’t like crosses! And if we’re going to be disciples we have to daily carry our cross. This makes us tend to shy away from discipleship, to try to cut out our own path to Heaven that goes around the crosses that Jesus would ask us to pick up. The truth, though is that if we pick up the cross Christ invites us to pick up, He will be there to help us carry it and make it light. But if we avoid that cross and try to pick out a more pleasing one for ourselves, choosing our will over His, then we only complicate things. Where we think we will come out ahead, 100 out of 100 times we will only make things works and increase the weight of the cross we were asked to carry before.

We hear this call to follow the path of the Lord in our first reading from the Book of Wisdom. The reading, characteristic of the whole book, sounds so poetic and beautiful and yet at the end we miss the meaning it tries to convey. It takes us 2, 3, or 4 time over to catch what is actually being spoken. And what it says today is this: we struggle to understand the things of the world around us, those things within our reach, and how much more to understand the things of God. The latter part is possible, though, with the help of the Holy Spirit and His gift of Wisdom. With the Spirit’s help we can have a straight path to walk, a clear road. That’s what the teachings of the Church are: the clear road for us to walk along to find our eternal reward. When we choose to go against Church teachings, whether knowingly or unknowingly, our pattern quickly moves from straight line to zigzag-circle-squiggly-all over the place lines. Case in point: the people of Israel.

The Jewish people, the nation of Israel, were in slavery in Egypt and spent years crying out for God’s help to free them from their bondage. He heard their cry and came to them to announce that He would bring them to the Promised Land, a land of great wealth and prosperity, and freedom. They trusted a bit and began the journey but soon began to distrust God’s ways. Several times in the Exodus story we hear of God’s plan for the people and how they chose against it out of fear and pride. If you look online, you search and find that from Cairo, Egypt to Jerusalem, Israel – roughly the distance they had to walk – you will find that it is 265 miles. That’s shorter than it is from here (Gramercy) to Houston, which a hardy walk could accomplish in a couple of weeks. And yet because they chose their own will they wandered hungry, thirsty, and homeless in the desert for 40 years. Imagine it taking you forty years to get to Houston from here! And all of that suffering, wandering, and wasted time because they chose their own will.

Bringing things a bit closer to home… we’ve been looking for PSR teachings for a couple of months now, asking at each Mass for people to pray about it and consider it. A few weeks ago we began to look at the list of kids and their parents to see if some of the parents might be able to help us. What we found was shocking and saddening. Nearly half of the parents for our youth were unable to be teachers for PSR because they couldn’t meet the requirements; many were unmarried and cohabitating or married outside the Church. They can’t be teachers for our youth, they can’t be godparents for babies of their friends and family members, and according to Church teaching they shouldn’t be receiving Holy Communion. Sin complicates things! If we all chose the straight path then so many problems would simply go away, but our fear and pride often get the best of us and we let ourselves become followers rather than disciples. It’s frustrating because the things we intended to avoid in the beginning, which we thought were so bad, turn out to be as nothing compared to what we have to endure for avoiding them.

In saying all of this I intend in no way to point fingers, make judgments, or push anyone away from the Church, as I know well the feeling of having sand between my toes from walking too often in the desert myself. My point in saying all of this is to say that there is a way out, that God doesn’t want us to endure these sufferings we bring upon ourselves. He came to give us life, but we have to choose to receive it. He wants to give us His grace, but we have to be willing to cooperate with it and allow it to change our hearts and lives. And to help us in that journey He gives to us one of the greatest gifts we could ask for: a heavenly mother, Mary.

Mary, Untier of Knots
There’s a story of a couple in the 1700’s who were having some difficulty in their marriage. The husband went to a priest and for 28 straight days they prayed before an image of Our Lady. At that time and in that region it was common in the wedding ceremony to have the bride and groom’s arms tied together by a cord to symbolize their union in marriage and this cord was often kept in their homes as a reminder. The husband brought this cord for the prayers and at the end of the 28 days the priest stood before the image of Mary and began to untie the cord. It became radiantly white, and perfectly smooth. The man took this as Mary’s intercessory power winning the grace for the renewal of his marriage. This soon became a great devotion to Mary under the title of Undoer of Knots or Untier of Knots. The fact is that our life is like that cord at the beginning. But with each sin we tie a knot. And the more we sin the more knots, and the worse the sin the worse the knot. It is God’s grace alone that can help us to untie all of those knots in our lives, and that can happen in miraculous ways through Mary under this title. As her beloved children she wants nothing more than to help us find peace through the difficulties of this life. No matter the sin, no matter the situation of difficulty that we may be experiencing, Mary is there to help make our lives radiant as well. Let us come before her today with hearts longing to be healed and ask her, ‘Mary, untier of knots, untie the knots of my heart and help me to walk the straight path that leads to salvation. Amen.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Pray and Fast!

As you have hopefully heard, His Holiness Pope Francis has asked all Catholics and all people of good will to join him on Saturday, September 7 for a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria and throughout the world. Being that tomorrow is First Saturday, there are likely more opportunities to make Mass somewhere near you. You could also do an hour of Adoration or some other prayer to unite with our Holy Father. Additionally, he has invited us to fast. Jesus mentions that His disciples were not to fast while He was among them but that when He was taken up they were to fast in expectation of His Glorious Second Coming. Fasting is something we're supposed to do. But let's remember that in addition to fasting from food, we can also fast from other things. The General Papal Intention for the month of September is "That people today, often overwhelmed by noise, may rediscover the value of silence and listen to the voice of God and their brothers and sisters." Maybe tomorrow we could also turn off the computer, tv and phone for a bit and simply spend time as a family. In addition to the prayer with the Lord what a gift it would be to show love to others by acts of kindness, large or small, to unite ourselves with them and with the rest of the world in working for peace. May God hear the prayers we offer and receive the acts we give and pour out generously the gift of His peace in Syria and throughout the whole world!

Check out the Holy Father's official statement HERE.