Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Body

Readings for Sunday, February 22/ 1st Sunday of Lent:
Genesis 9:8-15
Psalm 25:4-9
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:12-15

Paragraph 1213 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us “Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit (vitae spiritualis ianua), and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: ‘Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water and in the word.’”

Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life.

As we begin this season of Lent, this time of renewal in the Church as a whole and in each of her members, it seems appropriate that the first reading we hear is that of Noah, the ancient symbol of baptism. The section we just heard comes at the end of the great flood, when the Lord made the covenant with Noah. That covenant was of great importance because it was much more than a simple contract, it was the creation of a sacred family bond that brought us into the Divine family. When this happened later with Abraham it was sealed by Abraham cutting an animal in half, laying it on the ground, then walking through it with the torch that represented God. By doing so they were each saying, ‘If I break the covenant, may this be done to me,’ pointing to the slain animal. God has kept faithful to the covenant with us. It is we who over and over again choose to turn away from Him and break the covenant. Yet He takes us back each time and never tires of doing so.  

As we begin this season of Lent, we call to mind those ways where we have broken the covenant relationship with our Father and seek to come back to Him, to be renewed in Him. In his Lenten Message for this year, Pope Francis invited each of us to take a look at one specific reality in the life of the Church and of specific souls and it was this: indifference. Going back to the family analogy, when we welcome a new person into our family, whether by marriage or by birth, we usually have parties to celebrate it. But do we do that each and every time we see that particular person? No. It would get old quick and, frankly, rather expensive. We celebrate the initial arrival but over time we get used to the other and things normalize. But the problem Pope Francis point out is that sometimes this can lead us to become comfortable, complacent, indifferent. We begin to look less at the other person and more to ourselves, then we can quickly become less concerned about the other and become cold-hearted. This is what he is inviting the Church to reflect upon and he provides three specific areas upon which to reflect: the Church, the parish, and the self. And since we begin the Easter season with a renewal of our baptismal vows, I’d like to spend the next couple of weeks looking at these three aspects through the lens of baptism.

The first reflection is indifference toward the Church. The important thing to note is that Pope Francis isn’t thinking about just the hierarchical structure and the legalistic norms of the Church, he’s thinking more along the lines of St. Paul analogy of the Church as the Body of Christ, a body that lives and grows, and, unfortunately in some members, dies. It’s a living body that is intimately connected together, exemplified by St. Paul’s words: “If one member suffers, all suffer together.” The First Letter of St. Peter reminds us that baptism is “not a removal of dirt from the body.” If that’s what we think baptism is, then we’ve missed the boat. Baptism, as the Catechism said, is being made part of the Body of Christ. And it’s not just that we’re being put alongside others, as if what you do doesn’t affect me and vice versa. We are being connected to one another and to every other baptized person who has every existed. We are part of something MUCH greater than we can even imagine and in a way that has eternal consequences. How so? Because when one member suffers, all suffer together. Therefore, as members of the Body of Christ, we have an obligation to help others. Think about it this way. If you’re hammering a nail into the wall and accidentally hit your thumb, what happens? You immediately pull it back and hold it with the other hand. Or when we see football players and other athletes out on the field and they hurt a knee or something, what happens? They immediately, unconsciously, wrap up around it to protect it. This is what it means to be members of the Body of Christ. When some member in the Body hurts, it is for the rest of the Body to respond with prayer and offerings of grace, and sometimes physical aid, in order to bring protection, consolation, and peace. So where is the body hurting?

We can look at the obvious places like the Middle East and Africa, where ISIS and Boko Haram are reaking havoc on Christians, making martyrs daily. We can look farther east, in places like China where the Church is being persecuted not so much by violence as by governments trying to control the Church and tell her what to do rather than look to the Holy Father or their own bishops. And it doesn’t have to be persecution at all. We can look north. I was talking to my dad yesterday morning and he was telling me about the outrageous amounts of snow they’re getting and the temperatures being so low for so long. Then he asked if I had seen that Niagara Falls had frozen over. I shook my head in disbelief but he described it and sure enough, they are! In the cold we can see another part of the Body in need of help. Just as when we experience hurricanes and look sometimes for help from others, the same applies here. We may not always be able to do something about the situation – a smashed thumb just needs time to heal and usually a little ice – but we are invited to respond with some sign of care and concern for the member in need.

If we take Jesus just as a nice example to follow, says Pope Francis, then we have missed the point. He wasn’t just a nice teacher. He is our God who invites us to become one with Him, in Him, through Him by receiving and living out the sacrament of Baptism. Jesus was tempted for forty days in the desert for us, for you. What gift are we offer to Him this week to bring consolation to His aching members?

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Most Important Sacrament

Readings for Sunday, February 15/ 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time:
Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46
Psalm 32:1-1, 5, 11
1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1
Mark 1:40-45

One day in seminary our sacramental theology professor simply asked us the question, “Which sacrament is most important?” and off we went each debating the importance of the sacraments and essentially playing a highly theological game of paper-rock-scissors, as each point was able to be trumped by another. In the end the point of the exercise was to recognize that each sacrament of the Church really is ‘the most important sacrament’ in regards to some specific situation or theological truth.

A couple of weeks ago I preached about the priesthood and the weight that it can sometimes carry for those who exercise such a ministry. In practical terms, this often comes out as the community looking to the priest as having the more difficult vocation and ‘taking one for the team’ by not getting married and serving the Church. While this latter view is clearly a poor understanding of the priesthood, it seems to me in many respects that the former assertion is also false. Why so? Because while I may be obliged to a higher level of holiness because of my ordination, at the end of the day I return to a rectory wherein I can leave my stuff where I feel like it, I can wash the dishes or just leave them in the sink, I can squeeze the toothpaste tube wherever I want, etc. In short, priestly life is intense when in the community but in the rectory I am left to myself and able to maintain a life according to my preferences and not be concerned about others’ conflicting with mine. A married person does not have that luxury but necessary interacts with another person – and in a family, multiple people – who challenge some of those preferences and provides the raw material of growing in holiness, namely the opportunity to serve others rather than self.

When I asked several ladies at my previous parish assignment the secret to a good marriage they quickly responded ‘separate sinks, separate closets, and a lot of love’. This gets to that reality that marriage necessarily involves some challenges to the personal space and preferences, but even more, it confirmed what every single one of us knows about relationships: that love must necessarily be present for it to work.

In the scriptures we just heard proclaimed we hear about the life of lepers. To be a leper was bad enough just from the illness itself, but this was intensified by the isolation that accompanied the illness. In the Jewish context, to be a leper made one unclean. To be unclean wasn’t that one was a sinner, so much as they were unable to enter into worship at the Temple. To be unclean was also a restriction in interacting with others because if an ‘unclean person’ touched a ‘clean person’ then they were both unclean. For this reason, and for health reasons with the leprosy, the lepers were made to keep their bodies visible for others to see the illness and stay free from them. Additionally, they had to shout ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ as they walked around so that others might stay clear of them.  And if that weren’t bad enough, they were made to dwell outside the camp away from the community. Imagine the intense isolation that one felt in such  a situation; separated from family, friends, the larger community, and even your God! The human person simply cannot take such isolation. It’s written in our hearts to love and give love to others. Remember the movie Castaway with Tom Hanks. What happens when he finds himself stranded alone on an island? He finds a volleyball, makes a face on it and give it a name all in an attempt to have an ‘other’ with which to interact. That’s why the leper in the gospel responds the way that he does. Some might be shocked that he disobeyed the command of Jesus not to tell anyone but, honestly, I would be shocked if he hadn’t gone to tell everyone. Imagine the joy of being able to go tell everyone what God had done when before he hadn’t even been able to interact with others.

Again, the need to be in relationship with others is written in our hearts and the God Who put it there knows that need and created the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony as a way to fulfill it for those called to the vocation. I say vocation because it is indeed a calling from God. Often when we hear ‘vocations’ we think only of priesthood and religious life, but the Church has always held marriage as a sacred vocation and the basic cell of the Church and the world. It is only by holy marriages that the faith is passed from generation to generation, as the family is the place in which faith is first learned, later deepened, and later personalized in the vocations of the youth. This all happens to the extent that the family resembles the Blessed Trinity. You thought the burden was heavy for me simply to try to live up to being Christ Jesus in the midst of a community, but the family is called to image in a similar way the Trinity itself – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – in your complete gift of self and outpouring of love for the other. The family, founded on a holy marriage, is a place in which the world should look and find the face of the Triune God. Married people: do you feel the weight of that?

All of that is the reason the Church calls people to marriage not on the beach, the mountains or the nice plantation home, but at the altar of God. It is recognizing that God joins the couple together and it is God alone who can sustain them. Just as the man in the Gospel was able to enter once more into relationship with the community by the healing of Jesus, so too Jesus works in a miraculous way to unite two souls together in Holy Matrimony and sustains them in His love and grace so as to be that image of love for the world despite the trials, temptations, and sufferings that come with the natural course of life. This weekend we honor those who are celebrating special anniversaries this year in recognition of their fidelity to each other and the Lord, to set them as models for younger couples to look to for encouragement and wisdom, and to honor the God who has held them in His embrace since their wedding day. May the Lord continue to watch over them and all married couples, strengthening their love for each other, blessing them in their families, and training them in holiness so as to spend eternity together beholding the face of our God.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

HWP: Our Lady of Lourdes

Today is the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary under the title of Our Lady of Lourdes. Her appearances to St. Bernadette led to what has become one of the largest pilgrimage sites in the world, where miracles happen by the hundreds daily. Though I haven't been there I've heard of and experienced personally miracles from the little stream that continues to pour forth healing waters. With that in mind, we invoke Our Lady today to pray for healing for ourselves and those we hold in our hearts. And so we pray...

A Prayer to Our Lady of Lourdes for Healing
O ever immaculate Virgin, Mother of mercy, health of the sick, refuge of sinners, comfort of the afflicted, you know my wants, my troubles, my sufferings; deign to cast upon me a look of mercy. By appearing in the Grotto of Lourdes, you were pleased to make it a privileged sanctuary, whence you dispense your favors, and already many sufferers have obtained the cure of their infirmities, both spiritual and corporal. I come, therefore, with the most unbounded confidence, to implore your maternal intercession. Obtain, O loving Mother, the grant of my requests. I will endeavor to imitate your virtues, that I may one day share your glory, and bless you in eternity. Amen.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Stop, Drop, and Roll

Readings for Sunday, February 8/ 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time:
Job 7:1-4, 6-7
Psalm 147:1-6
1 Corinthians 9:16-19, 22-23
Mark 1:29-39

What a joyful first reading we have this week, huh? Beautiful weather outside, our stained glass window back in at the chapel, and then…Job. Thankfully we know the end of the story turn out all for the good, but it still feels so heavy in the moment. In praying with the scriptures this week I was struck by the words those words though: My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle; they come to an end without hope. What struck me wasn’t the hopeless tone but the passing of time. How often have we all heard or said ‘the older you get, the quicker time flies by!’? And isn’t it true? Often it is the case that things happen before we’re even prepared for it and we’re left looking back wondering how it all passed so quickly. Pretty frequently when I’m driving I’ll start thinking about something and before I know it the place I was driving to is a half mile behind me. When I’m driving I can make a u-turn and go back to the spot, but in time we simply have to resolve to be better prepared next time.

One of the times that I almost annually have to make that resolution is in the celebration of the Lent. It seems like every year I only realize it’s Lent after two weeks, start really doing my penances in the third week and then it’s half finished already! Last year I was playing at a golf tournament for the parish school in Paulina and they had food and drinks at the various holes. We pulled up to one hole and I started feasting on the stuff in front of me and looked around to see everyone staring at me rather shocked. One parishioner gently said, “Um, Father, that’s a pulled pork sandwich… and it’s Friday.” I know I’m not the only one either. This is because it’s hard to transition into the season so quickly. For those who remember the liturgy before the Second Vatican Council, you might recall the season of Septuagesima, which was a three week period prior to Ash Wednesday that helped the community to begin to transition into Lent so that folks were actually ready to go when time came around.

While we do not have that season in the Ordinary Form calendar, we can still employ the tactic of preparing ahead of time and beginning the transition into Lent. So I want to challenge you to join me in a simple three part activity this week to prepare for Lent. The formula is simple and we all know it from another context: Stop, Drop and Roll.

The first piece we need to do is take some time this week to just stop doing stuff. Carve out a bit of time – 20 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour, whatever – and sit with the Lord. In the Gospel passage we just heard we saw a description of Jesus taking time from the craziness of His ministry to be in union with the Father. Imagine how overwhelming things must have been just on a human level to know that everywhere He went, Jesus was surrounded by people in serious illness looking for Him to a miracle. How town after town probably saw repetitions of the scene today where crowds block the exits of the home where He stayed. And yet He made the time to go away for private time in prayer. So we must follow His lead and stop everything else in attempts to rest with the Father.

In that time of rest, we don’t just sit there twiddling our thumbs. We speak with our Father and seek some understand of how He is inviting us to grow this Lent. Every one of us has something in our life that we could improve about our self; something we could do better, do more, or stop doing. So whatever it is that’s keeping us from becoming better people – drop it. Whatever that thing is that God is inviting us to improve – pray better, serve others more, sin less, grow in a specific virtue, etc. – focus on that particular thing for the whole season of Lent and find ways to make it happen.

Which leads us to the third thing: roll. Once we’ve taken time to rest with the Lord and discerned what it is that we ought to address this Lent, it’s time for the most important piece: we have to actually put it into action; we have to roll it out. A few weeks back we had our clergy formation days and part of it was on eating healthily. They passed out little three-partitioned plates and it had printed on it the food that went there. In the large part covering half the plate it said ‘fruits and vegetables’ and in the other two smaller portion ‘proteins’ and ‘grains’. While I was a bit confused how I would fit my whole steak into a small portion or how I was going to stomach so many greens, it was incredibly helpful to see what it should look like. In stark contrast was my health plan of the past 10 years that was so vague that it usually ended with me at McDonalds or Canes promising ‘tomorrow I’ll eat a salad’ and never following through on that resolution. When we have a desire to do something, it must be a concrete, measurable goal or we’re almost guaranteed not to do it.

I’m going to pray more this Lent.’ Awesome! How long are you going to pray? What are you going to pray? When are you going to pray?

‘I’m going to do some service for others.’ Fantastic! Who are you serving? When are you serving them? How are you going to do so?

‘I’m going to quit this bad habit.’ Great. What are you going to do instead? What are you going to do when tempted? Who is going to help you stay true to the commitment?

Easter is an incredible season, but it is only incredible because it is the fruit of the labor in Lent. Let’s make this Lent special. Live it with the intensity you would if you knew it was your last Lent ever. God has great things in store for us, dear friends. Let us take some time this week and hear the beginning of the plan.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

HWP: Fruitless Efforts

Yesterday was the feast of St. Ansgar (more on him here) who is generally passed over on account of his sharing a feast with the more notable St. Blaise. In reading about him, it actually seems rather appropriate to be so. St. Ansgar had a great desire to be a martyr for the faith and sought this by way of his attempts to evangelize the pagans of Scandinavia. He went on numerous missions and converted a few souls each time but ultimately they lapsed back into their paganism after his departure. His devotion to the poor and sick was a noble example of charity and he lived a life of great holiness, dying of natural causes rather than his desire of martyrdom. St. Ansgar gives us an example of a man who had a desire to do great things, but who often encounter fruitless efforts and had to accept that some things were not the will of God. And so, this week's HWP is one that helps us to align our will with that Divine Will and continue to seek the Lord in all things. Please join me in praying...

O my God, I do not know what will happen today, but it is enough for me to know and to believe that nothing will happen to me that is not permitted by You from all eternity for my greater good. 
I adore Your holy and eternal dispositions. I surrender myself with all my heart to Your fatherly love. I make of everything a loving sacrifice in union with that of my Divine Saviour.

I ask, in His Name and through the merits of His Passion, the grace of patience and perfect submission to You in all my sufferings, so that whatever You permit to happen may be for Your greater glory and my sanctification. Amen.

Monday, February 2, 2015

...pray for us.

Readings for Sunday, February 1/ 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time:
Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 95:1-2, 6-9
1 Corinthians 7:32-35
Mark 1:21-28

What is a Priest?
(by Catherine Doherty)

A priest is a lover of God.
A priest is a lover of men.
A priest is a holy man.

A priest understands all things.
A priest forgives all things.
A priest encompasses all things.

The heart of a priest is pierced, like Christ's, with the lance of love.
The heart of a priest is open, like Christ's, for the whole world to walk through.
The heart of a priest is a vessel of compassion.
The heart of a priest is a chalice of love.
The heart of a priest is the trysting place of human and divine love.

A priest is a man whose goal is to be another Christ; a priest is a man who lives to serve.
A priest is a man who has crucified himself so that he too may be lifted up and draw all things to Christ.
A priest is a man in love with God.
A priest is the gift of God to man and of man to God.
A priest is the symbol of the Word made flesh.
A priest is the naked sword of God's justice.
A priest is the hand of God's mercy.
A priest is the reflection of God's love.

Nothing can be greater in this world than a priest, nothing but God himself.


At Madonna House's Retreat House for Priests
I’ve always been hesitant to preach about the priesthood from the pulpit because I don’t want it to appear that I’m getting up here to blow my own horn and let everyone know how awesome priests are (implicitly highlighting myself in that).  But a couple of weeks back when I was on the March for Life one of my brother priests began his homily talking about priests and it gave me a bit of encouragement. Additionally, I recall the fact that priests are not special in themselves but only because they are in fact priests. In the same manner that a chalice is precious because of what it holds in Mass and a church is sacred because of the worship that takes place within it, in the same manner, a priest is sacred not because of himself but because of what God has worked in his soul.

In recent weeks I’ve experienced a number of things that have made me reflect much more on this question of ‘What is a priest?’ It began with the celebration of Christmas and my first experience of being the pastor of a parish in one of the most important feasts of the year. The ability to be part of so many lives and families was incredible and I can’t thank you all enough for the joy of this first of hopefully many Christmases here. Following that was Msgr. Berggreen’s 50th Anniversary Mass over in New Roads. The Church was full of people representing 50 years of his priestly ministry, barely an empty spot to stand. The following weekend we regrettably celebrated Fr. Clarence Waguespack’s funeral Mass in Pierre Part and there too encountered a church full of people present to give thanks to God for Fr. Waguespacks’ 51 years of priestly ministry. And this Saturday we celebrated the funeral Mass of our own Vicar General, Fr. Than Vu, who, though only 56 years of age, had a profound impact upon many souls. Once again, it was a church full of people with not an extra spot to stand. These events drove home to me the meaning and truth of the words of Catherine Doherty: “The heart of a priest is open, like Christ’s, for the whole world to walk through.”

In our baptism, each of us was anointing with Sacred Chrism Oil and were united to the mission of Jesus as priest, prophet, and king. Each of us is called to serve in a priestly manner by our prayers and sacrifice of self for the good of others. We serve as prophets by speaking the Word of God and teaching other about the faith. And we serve in a kingly manner by guiding others in the path of holiness, particularly those entrusted to our care as children, grandchildren, godchildren, nieces, nephews, etc. Every Christian must carry out these three aspects in some way, but the ordained priest is called to do so in a unique way, a way that is more intimately connected with the mission of Christ by virtue of the priest’s own consecration. He fulfills these obligations not simply as a member of the flock but as a shepherd.

The first reading shows us the prophetic office of the priest. The ancient prophets were understood to be direct mouthpieces of the Lord, which we see indicated by their frequent use of the phrase ‘Thus says the Lord’ and the explicit reference today of “whoever doesn’t listen to my words which he speaks…” [emphasis mine]. The priest, too, is called to be a mouthpiece of the Lord in his preaching, teaching, and guidance of the community, preaching not his own gospel but the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the reason that priests’ preaching has power and authority and that it should be followed: precisely because it is not his personal teaching but the teaching of Jesus. And whoa to me if I do not preach the Gospel, as St. Paul says in his letter, because if you caught that last line of the reading, you know that if a priest preaches his own word instead of the Word of God… he dies. Maybe not physically but certainly spiritually. If I ever start preaching something other than the teaching of Jesus and the Church, you should call the bishop ASAP and let him know he has a dead priest on his hands and you need a new shepherd!

The Gospel speaks to us clearly of the authority that Jesus had (and still has!); how He cast out demons and they listened, unlike anything they had ever seen before. Jesus’ power was something to behold and that same power was given to His Apostles, His priests. Often times when we hear about power we think about it in a heavy-handed sort of way, but the authority that Christ gives His priests is one of service. The power and authority of Christ was given to the Apostles to work ‘in persona Christi capitis’ (in the person of Christ the head) in order to bring healing to people. In the celebration of the sacraments, a priest always wears a stole - an ancient sign of the authority –  to show that he is acting in the person of Christ and that it is truly Christ Who works. In reconciliation it is Christ who absolves us. In baptism, it is Christ who cleanses us. In the anointing of the sick, it is Christ who anoints us. And when the priest prays the Eucharistic Prayer at Mass, it is Christ who says “This is My Body.” If you think about it, the priest doesn’t really get anything out of his actions of authority other than the ability to serve others and bring them into an encounter with the God of Creation.

Litany of Supplication for my ordination
The priestly piece comes in our second reading from the letter to the Corinthians. There it speaks of the unmarried man and woman being anxious only about the things of the Lord. A married man or woman is necessarily divided between their obligations to family and to the Lord. That’s not a bad thing at all; in fact, it’s the will of God! What parent would spend their day in prayer and neglect the needs of their family for food, medical care, or means for education? But this is the reason for the celibate vocation of the priest, as well as the religious brother or sister.  I’ve often had people express a desire for priests to be able to marry and for many good reasons and not with any ill intentions, but the religious and priest is called to be free of marriage in order to give everything to Christ. When the bishop calls and assigned me here, I didn’t have to worry about my wife’s job or kids’ schooling. I was able simply to pack up and come. When the bishops sends a man for further studies in Rome for a couple of years, he need not be concerned with providing for a family left behind. And in the midst of regular life as a priest, I need not be concerned with providing for a single family as a married man would. Instead, I am called simply to give everything that I have to Jesus Christ and to open my heart to whoever happens to be in front of me in the moment and permit them to walk through my heart and there to find their Lord. My mission and the mission of every priest is simply to be the living presence of the loving Lord Jesus in their own community. Admittedly we fail often in that, but the mission is still entrusted to us the same.

This last word is what brings me to the point of this homily: a plea for prayer. Please pray for me and my brother priests. We need your prayers and without them we will surely be lost. All through my time in seminary I struggled to respond to the call to priestly ministry. It seemed every few weeks my spiritual director had to re-convince me that I was indeed still called. I had a whole host of concerns, but the biggest was the fear of loving others. I was watching one of those home renovation shows on HGTV the other day and the new homeowner walked into a home with carpet right in the front entryway and she remarked “Why would they have carpet here? It’s just going to get dirty when we come in!” And those words about simple carpet could well have applied to my heart. There was a fear that if I let the whole world walk into my heart with no reservation and no limits that it would surely get a bit messy. Every one of us who has ever taken the risk of loving someone else knows that sometimes that risk bites us when the one we love hurts us. I was scared and, honestly, still am at times, to open myself up to that sort of risk. And yet the Lord kept calling me to walk forward and open wide my heart.  That is possible only with the help of prayers and I say the same for my brothers in the ministry. We are men of the Church. We are men for the Church. But we cannot be men without the Church. So I ask you to join me in a brief litany of saints to pray for priests throughout the world.

Good St. Joseph, pray for them.
St. Jean Vianney, pray for them.
St. Alphonsus Liguouri, pray for them.
St. Francis de Sales, pray for them.
St. Ann, pray for them.
St. Vincent de Paul, pray for them.

Mary, mother of priests, pray for them.