Monday, September 4, 2017

Sunday Wasn't a "Duty" for Lily!


Last week one of the loveliest young women in our parish came to the 5 o’clock Mass looking like one of those photos you see on the internet labelled “plastic surgery gone horribly wrong.” Her eyes were almost swollen shut and her face was so puffy I did not recognize her.

The day before, she’d been enjoying herself at her family’s cabin on a small island when she found out the hard way that she is allergic to bee stings. A helicopter had to rush her off the island for emergency treatment in hospital.

Yet there she was at the five o’clock Mass. Why?

Why would someone who looked so awful—and who must have felt pretty awful, too—show up for Mass? Certainly she knew there was no Sunday obligation in those circumstances.

Can it have been that she needed the experience of community and fellowship? Liked the music? Wanted instruction from the homily?

These are all very good things, but they can’t adequately explain her sitting in the pew last week.

Only one thing, I suggest, could explain that—her belief in what happens at Mass. Specifically, a deep and personal belief that the Church is fulfilling the command of Jesus to “do this in remembrance of me” and that the same thing is happening as happened at the Last Supper: “Christ truly gives himself for us, and we truly gain a share in him” (Youcat 216).

The duty to attend Mass that we call the Sunday obligation was the farthest thing from the thoughts of that young woman. As Youcat, the Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, “for a genuine Christian, ‘Sunday duty’ is just as inappropriate as ‘kiss duty’ would be for someone who was truly in love.”

I’m telling this story today because in a couple of minutes I will be mandating, on behalf of the Archbishop, our parish’s Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion—the women and men who assist in the distribution of Communion at Mass and who take the Eucharist to the sick and those in care homes.

I will ask them whether they are resolved to administer the Holy Eucharist with the utmost care and reverence. But it seems appropriate that we ask ourselves whether we are resolved to receive the Eucharist with the utmost care and reverence—with devotion, with respect, and with spiritual preparation.

The opening prayer or Collect this morning asks God to deepen our sense of reverence—not because He needs that but because we do. We prayed that by deepening our sense of reverence, God might nurture in us what is good. And surely the greatest of all goods is our relationship with him, the relationship that is nourished each time we receive Jesus in the Eucharist.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Fear Activates Our Faults (20.A)


Father Emmerich Vogt, the Dominican preacher who visited our parish a few years ago often says “Fear is the chief activator of our faults.”

Although some people think St. Teresa of Avila may have said it first, the line also appears in the wise writings of Alcoholics Anonymous. But wherever it comes from, the idea that fear triggers our defects is undoubtedly true.

Of course not all fear is destructive. Right now the world is gripped by fear of terrorism, particularly the kind that’s linked to Islamic extremism. Given the dreadful events in Spain last week, and in many other places in the past few years, it is an understandable and a reasonable fear.

But fear can be unreasonable. We can lash out without thinking, we can label people without cause, and we can overreact in ways contrary to the Gospel. Here in Canada, where we have seen little Islamic extremism and even less terrorism, we can rush to abandon the openness that is one of the most admirable aspects of our country. 

At the very least, we let fear shut down an intelligent conversation about immigration, security, and interfaith relationships. Fear of what—or whom—we don’t know can lead to an unwelcoming attitude to those who are new to the country, or different from ourselves. We can make others feel unwelcome.

Things weren't much different in our Lord's time.  The Jewish people had a deep sense of their uniqueness, while those around them were distrustful and sometimes hostile.

That's the background to the encounter between the Lord and the Canaanite woman.  At first glance, we're a bit puzzled, because Jesus seems, quite frankly, a bit rude.  In fact, the curious dialogue can be explained precisely by Jesus' desire to draw attention to the barrier between Jew and Gentile; he could not pretend the barrier did not exist: it would exist until he reconciled Jew and Gentile on the cross.

At the same time, this puzzling passage teaches us something about overcoming prejudice and getting along with those of different cultures.  The woman could easily have taken offense at the response Jesus gives her.  His answer was not nearly as offensive then as it sounds now, but it was certainly open to being misunderstood.
But instead of stomping off, the woman persists and engages Jesus in a sort of repartee.  She meets him within the framework of his culture, of his own understanding of his mission.  And the meeting proves very fruitful indeed.

We can find two important lessons in this story.

The first lesson helps us relate to other people: When we’re put off by someone's manner or choice of words, we might well remember the example of the Canaanite woman, and ask ourselves whether we may just need to try a little harder to understand where the person is coming from.  We should avoid judging every encounter by the particular culture in which we've grown up, or by our own personal standards.

The second lesson helps us relate to God:  When God's reply to our prayers seems harsh or puzzling, we may need to imitate the Canaanite woman in her faith and persistence.  Sometimes God’s purposes require that he make a point with us in the same way Jesus had to make a point with the woman.  We may feel he has dismissed us, or not taken our prayer seriously.

We may even wonder whether we are beyond God’s concern, outside of his circle of compassion.

But today’s first reading proclaims God’s “open door” immigration policy.  The “foreigners who join themselves to the Lord”, who love the name of the Lord, he will bring to his holy mountain, he will make “joyful in his house of prayer.”

There are no outsiders in God’s eyes, no strangers.  God excludes no-one from his plan of salvation, except for those who exclude themselves.

Some people feel like outsiders in the Church. Many years ago a non-Catholic friend of my parents, who was married to a Catholic and had attended Mass for years, was talking to a priest, who asked why he’d never joined the Church.  “No-one ever asked,” he said.  Today, God asks; God promises to lead all who come to him up the mountain of his love.

Some people, even within the Church, feel like outsiders with God.  They compare themselves to the holy folk in the next pew, to the people who have it together, to the people who have never stumbled. Today’s second reading tells them that there are no second-class citizens in God’s eyes. He never takes back his gifts. He never revokes our citizenship.

Today’s Gospel, even if it is a bit odd, brings home the point that Jesus came for everyone—insider, outsider, neighbour, stranger, saint, sinner, you name it.  All we need is the confidence of that Canaanite woman.  If we can just ask for scraps, we’ll get an invitation to sit down at the table.

What a difference God’s promise can make to how we see ourselves in relation to Him—and to how we treat others, knowing they too share also in his glorious plan for all humanity.

A note: Part of the homily is taken from notes on the readings that I wrote down in 2008--before I had a blog and so before I bothered to write down sources--so there may be unattributed material here!


Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Sound of Silence (19.A)



Back in 1930, the famous economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that advances in technology would mean we’d all end up working just 15 hours a week. The very same year, evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley predicted the two-day work week. Both men warned that someday we would have so much leisure time, we would be bored out of our minds.

In 1965, a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate predicted we would be working 14 hours a week by the year 2000, with at least seven weeks of vacation time.

Wikipedia points out that the only thing they were right about was the consequences of technology: only it’s meant more work, not less.

And more work has meant less time for ourselves, our families, and for God. Many of us carry our work around with us in our pockets, our smart phones dinging and ringing throughout the evening and early morning.

As a false escape, we turn up the volume, wasting time on the internet, reading less and less, and only rarely doing nothing. We expect a measure of entertainment at Mass, or we say we get nothing out of going to church.

I’m not lecturing you—I’m one of you, caught up in the craziness of overwork as I try to balance two ministries, one in the parish and the other at the Permanent Diaconate Office.

But today the Word of God offers us a way out of this mess. The way out is called silence. Obviously we can’t be silent most of the time, but a little of it goes a long way.

Elijah’s problems make ours look tiny. In the first place, he’s on the run, fleeing from an evil queen who’s out to kill him. In the second place, he’s discouraged and feels like a total failure; he even prays to die before he gets to the point where we meet him this morning.

But the Lord doesn’t let him down. He tells Elijah to stand by. And just as we’d expect—just as Elijah expected—the drama starts. A mighty windstorm. But no sign of God. Then an earthquake. Again, God’s not to be found in it. Even a fire. But the Lord’s not there either.

Elijah did not encounter God in these high-energy, loud-volume events. Instead, he recognizes the Lord in the sound of silence.

Don’t get caught up trying to figure out what silence sounds like—the text can also be translated as a whisper. The point is that God chooses to launch this crucial conversation with Elijah in the quiet of his heart, as the prophet listens.

When was the last time you were deliberately silent? When did you last power down your phone, and close the door, or sit alone on a park bench?

I just came back from a five-day retreat; I know that’s not possible for most of you. And it’s hard to find a decent cave in the North Shore. But all of us can listen for the sound of silence in our hearts, finding a place to hide from life’s storms for just five minutes.

Today’s Psalm promises that the Lord will speak, that the Lord will speak a word of peace in our hearts. And he will surely do that if we give him even the slightest chance.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

ALL Things Work for Good (17.A)



There’s been so much going on in the parish—Father Paul leaving, Father Giovanni coming, the delightful visit of Sister Helen—that you probably didn’t notice we’ve been reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans for more than a month. I confess I wasn’t paying attention to that myself.

But this Sunday the second reading jumped right out at me. No surprise there, since it’s my favourite passage in Scripture. I’ll tell you why in a minute or two, but first let’s look back a few weeks, when we heard the Apostle say “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed in us.”

With those words, St. Paul begins one of the most encouraging passages in the entire Bible. He offers three truths to encourage and console the suffering Christian. And since all of us suffer some of the time and some of us suffer much of the time, we need to understand his teaching and how it applies to our lives.

The first ground of encouragement, the one we heard at Mass two weeks ago, is simply that present sufferings aren't worth comparing to the glory that is to come: that is “the great disproportion between the sufferings we endure in this life” and our future reward. Earthly sufferings just don’t compare with heavenly glory. This is a logical conclusion—we think like this all the time when we undergo something painful, whether it’s chemotherapy or surgery or even dieting, because the gain far outweighs the pain.

The second ground of encouragement, which we read last week, is that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness.” We don’t face suffering alone: we have God’s help. We don’t even need to pray by our own power: the Spirit intercedes for us. Even the faith we need to benefit from that first source of encouragement, the hope of heaven, comes more from God than from us.

And today St. Paul presents the third ground of encouragement for those facing trials or sufferings: the fact that all things work together for our good.

Think hard about what he means by “all things.” Not some things, and not only good things. Many things that happen in our lives and in our world are evil things. “It is the marvel of God’s wisdom and grace” that he makes even the worst things work for good.

Not one single thing “works ultimately for evil to the people of God.” The end result of the greatest misfortune is good for those who love God. *

Obviously, the three words “those who love God” are the key that unlocks this wonderful promise. We’ll come back to that later.

I told you this was my favourite passage in the Bible. Let me explain why.

Some years ago I went to the doctor and he asked me a question. “If I could write you one prescription that would lower your blood pressure, help you cope with stress, ward off Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart disease, and many cancers, would you take it?”

“You bet,” I said with real enthusiasm.

“Then exercise every day,” he said.

I never filled the prescription, sad to say.

But I’ve had more success with Romans 8:28, where St. Paul promises even more than the doctor did. This is the verse of Scripture that I've used constantly to make sense of my life and lives of others; it’s the number one truth I use to understand the world and history; and it’s my antidote to discouragement of every sort.

There’s something important in how Paul begins this verse. He says “We know that all things work together for good…” He’s speaking from experience—not just his, but that of the Christians to whom he’s writing.

That God turns everything to the ultimate good of his people is not something to take entirely on faith, something we’ll see proved only in heaven. Like St. Paul, I can stand before you this morning and say we know this. We know from experience God’s plan and power to transform bad things to our ultimate good.

To respect the privacy of people, I can’t tell you detailed stories of individuals and families; and to avoid embarrassment, I won’t tell you detailed stories about me! But you know these stories—the troubled marriages that have been strengthened by misfortunes, the characters that have been built by financial or other hardships, the spiritual growth that’s come in times of illness, and so on. Throughout history, and throughout my ten years in this parish I have seen moral failures transformed into victory and growth by the power of God.

I like the simple example of the Canadian TV and movie star Michael J. Fox, who called himself “a lucky man” because Parkinson’s disease interrupted a life of complete selfishness. The misfortune was, in a sense, his salvation.

Personally, the fact that God works for good in all things helps me face my fears, even of things that are highly unlikely to happen. I am convinced that if I was falsely accused or imprisoned, paralyzed by illness, or facing a premature death God would use these great evils to give me spiritual goods vastly greater than the evils themselves.

Knowing God defeats evil—even our sins—can be a way of knowing God better. What makes his majesty and his sovereignty clearer than his power over even the greatest evil? It’s easier to accept God’s dominion over death when we understand his dominion over sin.

People often ask me about unanswered prayers. That’s based on an understandable and common human assumption, that we know what is best for ourselves and those we love. But when we believe God is always at work for our ultimate good, we may be more inclined to accept that things don’t always work out as we planned—since we know they’ll work out as he plans.

And God works for good not only in the lives of individuals. He works for good—if we let him—even using the sins and failures of society and the Church. For instance, you all know how many Catholics, especially young ones, have left the practice of the faith. The Catholic culture that filled churches has evaporated, creating what looks like a crisis.

But such is God’s power and providence that the crisis is already proving to be an opportunity. Pope emeritus Benedict, while still a cardinal, said “Maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the Church's history, where Christianity will again be characterized more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small, seemingly insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intense struggle against evil and bring good into the world...”

What will happen remains to be seen. But we already know that the collapse of cultural Catholicism has given rise to what we’re calling intentional disciples—men and women who come to church not out of duty or social pressure but because they want to meet Jesus in Word and Sacrament and a community of fellow believers.

Clearly God is at work drawing good from the present situation, distressing as it is—because, of course, there were many blessings to be found in the Christian Catholic culture that’s now all but disappeared in Canada.

God works for good in all things—I rely on those words, and quote them often to myself and others. But they’re not a cure-all or a magic potion. We have to let St. Paul finish his thought: All things work together for good for those who love God. And he says “all things work together,” because the promise operates within the framework of discipleship and of faith; it’s not automatic.

And therefore, it’s one more reason we are striving as a parish community to love God more by knowing Jesus better and following him more closely.

I hope we all leave church this morning feeling stronger than we came in, assured that God rewards us with heavenly glory, that he gives us the help of the Holy Spirit, and that he turns all things to our ultimate good. These three encouraging promises give us practical confidence and consolation in our daily struggles and in every suffering we face in our own lives or in our families.

I'll end with a line I stumbled across on the internet: “Sometimes when things are falling apart, they may actually be falling into place.”
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* My source for this and other thoughts in today's homily is the commentary by Prof. John Murray in The Epistle to the Romans in The New International Commentary on Sacred Scripture, pp. 300-315.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

A Wordless Homily: Sponsoring A Fourth Refugee Family

We welcomed the two Dayekh families, Syrian refugees whom the parish sponsored, to the 11 a.m. Mass today, along with many of our volunteers and donors, and Liz Boppart-Carter from neighboring Capilano Christian Community, our partner in this great effort.
 There were touching tributes to Father Paul after both morning Masses last Sunday as we prepared for his departure.  There were also a few jokes at his expense and even one or two poking fun at me! 
The speakers highlighted Father Paul’s many gifts and listed the splendid things he’s accomplished in just two years.  Even I was impressed.
But I was also a little bit jealous.  It’s been six years since my twenty-fifth ordination anniversary, which was the last time anyone listed my accomplishments.  I thought I should get equal time, just to be fair, so I decided to list my recent accomplishments for you this morning.
My recent accomplishments are… uh… just let me think… there must be something.
How about Alpha?  Nope.  That was a dedicated team of parish volunteers, not me. I just showed up to eat.
Oh—speaking of eatingmonth after month hundreds of people in the Downtown East Side enjoy great breakfasts and lunches at the Door is Open.  Ooops!  It's the parish St. Vincent de Paul Society who do that.
Maybe Project Advance?  The campaign almost reached its goal in record time.  But that’s not me either, it’s you, not to mention our dedicated campaign chair and his volunteers.  I’m really just another donor.
There must be something for which I can claim some credit.  Ah—our refugee sponsorship!  First the Shaboo family from Iraq then the two Dayekh families from Syria.  Surely I can take credit for that?
I wish I could!  But let me tell you—the pride I do take in your generosity beats any sense of personal accomplishment I could feel.  I marvel at the leadership shown by the members of our settlement teams, and at the incredible hard work of the numerous volunteers who have helped these wonderful families find shelter, furniture, educational opportunities, and so much more.
This Canada Day weekend we formally declare the independence of the two Dayekh families, who are now self-supporting.  We rejoice in their courage and hard work.  And although our formal commitment to them has been fulfilled, we remain their friends and, most of all, their brothers and sisters in Christ. [The congregation broke into applause.]
Now, the success of the Dayekhs in establishing themselves in Canada, combined with the excellent stewardship of our team leaders and the generosity of our donors, allows me to make a remarkable announcement to you today.
The parish is now preparing to make a commitment to sponsor a family of nine who fled the genocidal conflict in Rwanda many years ago but have waited ever since for a permanent home. 
Living as refugees in Kenya, the Gatare family—a husband and wife and seven children—have posed a great challenge to our archdiocesan refugee office.  This large family has waited so long to find a sponsor that five of the seven children are now classed as adults—meaning they require individual financial guarantees that are beyond the resources of most parishes.
At the same time time, the refugee office informed me that the Iraqi family we had agreed to sponsor—which was stalled by the government moratorium on non-Syrian refugees—has now found a home in the US.
After we heard that news, together with the new request, our accountant went to work.  She added up the donated funds remaining after our fulfilled commitments to the Shaboo and Dayekh families, plus the $20,000 earmarked from Project Advance during the Year of Mercy.  The total?  Almost exactly the sum required.
There are some formalities to be completed, but I look forward to announcing the signing of the sponsorship agreements and soon thereafter the arrival of Joseph and Agnes Gatare together with their children Simon-Pierre, Zacharie, Sarah, Jean-Paul, Jolie-Josephine, Bella-Louise, and Jordan.
 When the family arrives, we hope that our dear friends the Dayekhs will have the chance to welcome them warmly.
All in all, we have pretty good reasons to celebrate this Canada Day—not to mention a homily without words on the Gospel today. 

Monday, June 26, 2017

Intentional Disciples: Have No Fear!


The always-amazing Father Paul Goo chose to give our parish a gift on the Sunday when we celebrated his farewell.  (He leaves us after two years for studies in spirituality at the Gregorian University in Rome.) 

In his homily yesterday, he presented a clear summary of what it means to be an intentional disciple.  Since forming intentional disciples is currently our parish focus and goal, his words will be echoing well after he's unpacked his bags in the Eternal City.

Read his splendid homily here in his Facebook post.

A parishioner also shared this blog post from her brother in Prince George.  It's also an excellent summary of what intentional discipleship means and of the fine work of Sherry Weddell and the Catherine of Sienna institute.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Life After Alpha: Corpus Christi 2017


Everyone’s heard about the success of our Alpha Course, which ends this Thursday night. The question now is: what next? What comes after Alpha—both for the guests and the hard-working team?

For the team, it’s an easy answer: a well-deserved rest. They’ve been cooking and cleaning and hosting for months.

But after that, we’ll need to offer opportunities for continued growth in Christ and to explore ways of helping people move from curiosity to discipleship.

And, of course, it’s not just about Alpha. Many of us struggle with that big question “how do I develop the relationship with Christ I keep hearing about?”

Yesterday sixty or so parish leaders spent the entire day trying to answer these questions, for themselves and for our parish family. We were guided by Kathleen Coolidge from Colorado, where she works with Sherry Weddell, author of the book Forming Intentional Disciples.

After nearly eight hours of prayer and reflection, the group reached two simple conclusions. The first is that our parish must begin asking God to show us how to become intentional disciples and how that can make us a parish of missionaries. We need to pray fervently for a harvest both inside and outside of the parish.

The second conclusion is that we need small group faith studies—groups of five or six where we can share and deepen our faith.

You’ll hear lots more about this as our parish plan for evangelization—funded entirely by Project Advance 2017—moves forward in the months to come.

Today, let’s not focus on the future but on the present. I’d like to ask you a really simple question: why are you at Mass today?

It’s a personal question, and everyone will have a different answer. But I suggest that our answers will relate to one or more of these three things: Behaving, Belonging, or Believing.

Some folks come to Mass for what’s called “fire insurance.” They want to stay clear of hell, so they take seriously the Christian obligation of Sunday worship. They’re behaving.

Others aren’t so worried about the next life. They come to Mass because they feel part of a community. They have ties to the parish, or the school, or the neighborhood, and gathering with others feels right or even necessary to them. In a word, they belong.

Thirdly, many people come to Mass because they believe. Their hearts are convinced of the truth we celebrate in today’s feast—that in the Eucharist they receive the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.

Are you here because you behave, because you belong, or because you believe? Don’t think there’s just one right answer. Our readings on the feast of Corpus Christi cover all three.

In the first reading, Moses reminds the Israelites of the commandments of the Lord. Every school child knows that one of them is to keep the Sabbath day holy. He urges obedience to the law of God, who has shown them his power in so many ways. Moses builds the case for behaving as God commands.

In the second reading, St. Paul says that we are one body, precisely because we share in the one cup and the one loaf that is the Body and Blood of Christ. He is tell Christians in a very powerful way that they belong around the table of the Lord.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus invites us to believe—to believe in something even some in his audience had trouble accepting. It’s not a simple teaching: he says one, he is the living bread; two, that it comes down from heaven; and, three, that those who eat this bread will live forever. For some of his listeners, this was just too much to swallow.

We’ve heard the teaching so often that it’s lost some of its shock value. Don’t forget that in the same conversation there were people who thought Jesus was talking about cannibalism.

This is why we have today’s feast every year—to give us a chance to think about the deepest reasons for gathering at the Lord’s Table every Sunday. We may be here because we want to behave, we may be here because we belong, but surely we want—all of us—to believe, to believe with all our hearts what Jesus says and the Church teaches.

Other than Jesus himself, no one has ever offered a better reason for us to be here than St. Thomas Aquinas. In an antiphon for the first feast of Corpus Christi, almost 800 years ago, he wrote this about the Eucharist: O Sacred Banquet, in which Christ is received, the memory of his Passion is recalled, the soul is filled with grace, and the pledge of future glory is given us.

If you are here to behave, God bless you. We live in a disobedient world, so you’re doing something good and praiseworthy.

If you’re here because you feel you belong, welcome! Our parish will always do its best to be a welcoming and inclusive place, where everyone is treated as family.

But all of us—including behavers and belongers—are called, at our own pace, to become believers who receive the Body and Blood of Christ as the living bread that brings life, now and forever.

And all of us have been called to be here so that we can know how much God loves us. Jesus gave us his Body and Blood because he loves us. We’re here because God loves us.

Our parish has really only two reasons to exist: first, to help us know how much God loves us. Second, to help us tell others how much God loves them.

This Sunday, please join me in praying with thanks to God for the success of Alpha and yesterday’s workshop, with hope for the fruitfulness of what comes next, especially parish faith studies, and with joy on this glorious feast. 


Let’s use words adapted from the American monk and writer Thomas Merton: As we celebrate the Eucharist today, let us feel God’s love so powerfully that we become doors and windows through which that love streams out and pours back into His own house. (cf. Seeds of Contemplation, p. 67).