Saturday, September 22, 2018

Equipping the Saints for Ministry: Commissioning our Catechists

I've spoken lately about how the Word of God can hit you over the head, making it impossible to ignore a message. It can be painful.

But sometimes God, like a good teacher, makes sure I'm listening just by repeating himself. That happened last week..

Friday was the feast of St. Matthew, apostle and evangelist. It was no surprise that the first reading at Mass was from the Letter to the Ephesians, where St. Paul writes “The gifts Christ gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ...”

But before the day was out, the scripture readings in the breviary repeated the same text two more times, at which point I began to think the Lord was trying to tell me something. Whether he was or wasn't, the triple dose of Ephesians 4 sure made it easy to preach today, the Sunday when we bless the women and men who teach the faith as catechists in our parish.

“The gifts Christ gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ...” That tells us two key things about our catechists: first, that they are a gift, and second, that they have a purpose.

Usually, when we speak about God's gifts, we're speaking of the graces he gives us. We all know that when God calls someone to a particular work, he grants the grace or gifts they need.

But in the passage we’re discussing, St. Paul is calling people ‘gifts’. Another translation says “he gave some as apostles, some prophets” and so on. Our teachers and evangelists are a gift from God. 

The purpose of their calling also comes from God. It is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ...”

The meaning of that is lost if we think Paul is talking about the saints in heaven, who certainly don't need to be equipped for ministry or anything else, for that matter.

Again, another translation explains things.  In this context, the word “saints” means holy ones—simply the members of the Church. All the baptized need to be prepared for service, for ministry, and every service has the same goal, building up the body of Christ.

But even though every one of us needs to be taught and equipped, there is one group of saints, of holy ones, that needs special attention: our children. Although our catechists serve many adults, particularly through R.C.I.A. and Bible studies, the majority of them labour in the parish religious education program, the liturgy of the word for children program, and in our schools. (We will commission the school teachers at a school Mass during the week.)

These dedicated volunteers welcome our children as they would welcome Christ himself. In today's Gospel, as elsewhere, Jesus shows how much he loves children. He identifies himself with the child whom he takes in his arms and he calls his disciples to treat little ones as they would treat the Lord himself.

(No wonder that on another occasion Jesus says that anyone who harms a child would be better off tied to a rock and dropped into the ocean. Sadly, we have all too many opportunities lately to reflect on those words.)

Delighted as I am to acknowledge our catechists today, I want to speak briefly about two other groups as well. 

The first is evangelists. We’re comfortable finding pastors and teachers on Paul's list of servants of Christ's Church. We know what a pastor does and what a teacher does. 

But evangelists? We don’t expect to find one of those in the next pew. Not so many years ago, all the evangelists were priests, some specially gifted ones like Fulton Sheen. One of the most wonderful blessings that’s come to the Church in recent decades are lay evangelists, men and women who are exactly the people St. Paul is talking about. I hope before long there will be a special blessing to commission evangelists. But today we will include them alongside our catechists as they prepare for the launch of Alpha—our parish’s number one evangelization effort—in less than two weeks.

The second group, of course, is parents. They don't need to be commissioned to the work of preparing their children to serve Christ and his Church. They've already taken their children in their arms, welcoming them as God's gift.

What parents may not have thought about is how their generosity is blessed by Jesus in today's Gospel. We all recall his promises of an eternal reward to anyone who visits prisoners or the sick, or who offer a cup of cold water in his name. Today Jesus extends the promise further, telling parents that they have welcomed not only a child but their Lord. 

Parents should think carefully about that. Jesus says that whoever welcomes a child in his name, welcomes him. That promise is huge. But with the calling comes a responsibility. Welcoming children in the name of Christ—indeed, welcoming children as Christ—takes more than bundling them into your arms.

Among many other sacrifices, it requires prayer. Which is why I am going to conclude with a brief word about this Saturday's Seminar of Hope, subtitled “How to Pray for Your Sons and Daughters.” 

The seminar, which runs from 9:00 to 4:30, is given by a man who is definitely one of those gifts St. Paul has listed for us; specifically, Vernon Robertson is an evangelist. He will reshape any parent or grandparent's understanding of praying for children, whether they are young or old, doing well or faring poorly. He will offer a clear path to embracing even the most troubled son or daughters in the name of Jesus.

More information here and a video here.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Homily Shaped by Parishioners' Voices (23 B)

This is the third time in four Sundays that I’ve spoken about the current crisis in the Church. My first two homilies are posted here  and here.

But today I’d like to let some of you speak. Parishioners have reached out to share their thoughts with me—challenging and informed reactions along with heartfelt feelings.

The most powerful reaction is anger. People feel betrayed and they’re not going to suppress their feelings. One parishioner wrote “I think parishioners need to feel empowered to [express their anger] without feeling guilt and disloyalty to the Church.”

Amen to that. In my first homily on this subject, I mentioned that the scriptures clearly show us the wrath of God; and we meet it again today in the words of the prophet Isaiah: “He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense.”

Today’s psalm highlights God’s faithfulness, but it also reminds us that he “executes justice for the oppressed.”

Almost every day since the recent revelations I’ve encountered the mighty justice of God in my reading of psalms and the prophets of the Old Testament. Now consider these terrifying words:

For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgement, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy ‘on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by those who have spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know the one who said, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ 

That’s not from the Old Testament but from the Letter to the Hebrews, in the New Testament, addressed not to ancient Israel but to the Church. (Hebrews 10:26-30)

The final words of the chapter are the most frightening of all: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:31)

As I said in my earlier homily, God is angry too.

Another parishioner said this: “The mercy of God is infinite—but the justice of God is infinite also.” Wise and true words. These scandals are connected to a false notion of God’s mercy.

Ralph Martin, who visited with us in June, traces that notion in his book Will Many Be Saved, in which he points to both scriptures and official Church teaching that tell us getting to heaven is not automatic—in other words that it’s quite possible to end up in hell. The Second Vatican Council reminds us that if members of the Church fail to respond to the special grace of Christ “in thought word and deed, not only will they not be saved, they will be judged more severely.”  (Lumen gentium, 14)

It amazes me that some people were actually scandalized by Dr. Martin’s book, since Jesus himself said “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.” (Matthew 7:13)

Finally, one far thinking parishioner slightly shocked me with this statement: “Let’s not waste a serious crisis.” It’s a phrase wrongly attributed to Sir Winston Churchill, often used to make the point that times of great difficulty are also times of great opportunity. When things go wrong, we can open new areas of discussion and take a harder look at the status quo.

I might not have used that secular phrase myself, but rather a phrase from St. Paul. Romans 8:28 is a text I cling to in difficult times: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” The verse is also translated “God makes all things work together for good,” or “in all things God works for good.”

Even the greatest, ugliest and most sordid evil cannot overpower God and his plan—if we continue to love him and to cooperate with him.

Now let’s be careful and clear here.  God doesn’t cause evil. He doesn’t make evil good. But he doesn’t let evil win. That’s what Paul is saying—please don’t misinterpret his words.

I don’t pretend to know all the good God may draw from the evils that have been exposed, but I can suggest one. It’s something I preached on some years ago, on a smaller scale. I say it again today with even greater conviction. We need to know that we—individual Christians and the Church herself—are part of a cosmic battle between good and evil. We have an Enemy.

This should have been obvious to me long before I was ordained. But it wasn’t. I was a card-carrying member of the Church that St. James describes in our second reading. Let’s call it the Church of the Nicely-Dressed.

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t ask people in dirty clothes to sit on the floor. The fact is, I almost never saw anyone at Mass in dirty clothes. The people who came to church on Sunday were respectable folks, folks like me, following the commandments and going to confession if they slipped up. We certainly weren’t going off to war.

Two fine Protestant Christians helped set me straight.

In his book Waking the Dead, John Eldredge says “We are at war [and] how I’ve missed this for so long is a mystery to me. Maybe I’ve overlooked it; maybe I’ve chosen not to see.”

And he adds, the sooner we come to terms with it, the better hope we have of making it to the life we do want.

In his famous book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis says “One of the things that surprised me when I first read the New Testament seriously was that it talked so much about a Dark Power in the universe—a mighty evil spirit who was held to be the Power behind death and disease, and sin.  Christianity agrees… this universe is at war.”

Do you remember the passage where Jesus said “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full”? Of course you do. But do you know what Jesus said in the first part of the very same sentence: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.”

In other words, the offer is life, but we’re going to have to fight for it.

We’re going to have to fight for it because there’s an Enemy with a different agenda. There is something set against us. We are at war.

Before he promised us life, Jesus warned that a thief would try to steal, kill and destroy it. How come we are so shocked when that murderous thief actually steals, kills and destroys?”

I suspect we’ll return to this subject more than once in the months ahead.  But for now, let us not waste this crisis. Let us allow Jesus to heal our deafness and to open our ears to what he really says, not just what we want to hear.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Another Message from Bishop Barron

Hours after my last post, which included a link to a video from Bishop Robert Barron, another one arrived. Again, I haven't had
time to watch it, but I feel I should add this resource to the one I mentioned earlier. Bishop Barron speaks to the painful but very current question Why Remain Catholic? (With So Much Scandal) that I also addressed less directly in my homily last Sunday.

To Whom Can We Go in Time of Scandal?

If you ask when I became a Christian, my answer would be early in May, 1955, when I was baptized.

But ask the same question to any of our Protestant Evangelical brothers and sisters, and their answer will be very different. They probably won’t mention baptism at all. They might say “I made a decision for Christ on my eighteenth birthday” or “I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Saviour ten years ago.

Today’s Gospel, in light of the deepening scandal in the Church, asks us Catholics to consider giving their personal answer to the question “when did you become a Christian?”

But let’s begin with the first reading. It also contains a question.  Joshua is nearing his death, having lead the people into the Promised Land. He knows the temptations they will face, now that they have left behind the foreign gods of their exile.

And so he first asks the leaders and the people of Israel to think about all that God has done for them. In a part of his speech we don’t read today, he reminds them how God delivered them from their slavery in Egypt, and protected them on their long journey.

And then Joshua offers a free choice. Decide today whether you want to serve the gods you worshipped in your exile, or the Lord God.

The people answer without hesitation. Their memory of God’s deeds is still very fresh, and they choose the Lord.

Jesus gives an equally free choice to his disciples in today’s timely Gospel. He knows that some of the crowd following him haven’t believed all along. But now he realizes that some others have found it impossible to believe what he said about himself.  Bread of Life? His flesh real food? Blood real drink?

His words are too much for these disciples. They walk away.

The word “scandal” means obstacle comes from a Greek word meaning a snare or a stumbling block. It was something to trip over. Jesus’ teaching about the Eucharist was something those former followers couldn’t get past.

As they walked away, Jesus turned to the apostles, to the inner circle of his followers.  He didn’t say “oh don’t you go!”  Rather, in all gentleness, he asks them “Do you also wish to go away?”

A dear friend of mine told me that he and his wife talked this week about whether or not they would go to Mass today; indeed, whether or not they could stay Catholic in the face of the snare that has been set by the recent scandals in the Church.

Their answer to each other, at this point anyway, is the answer St. Peter gave to Jesus. “To whom can we go?”

In some ways, God’s mercy has prepared us all for the question “Do you also wish to go away?” For five weeks, Jesus has told us that he is the Bread of Life, that his flesh and blood are real food and real drink.

Sunday after Sunday, the Lord has revealed to us the life-giving power of the Eucharist—food and drink to sustain us on earth, and the Bread of Heaven that endures to eternity.

We have heard everything that the disciples and apostles heard about the great Sacrament we are about to celebrate and receive. Now, or in the days ahead, we will need to listen to Christ ask “Do you also wish to go away?”

Explanations and apologies for the current crisis will not keep anyone—priest or layman—coming to Church. Some will turn back, and no longer walk with us.

But those who remain will, I believe, be those who pray “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

It may be that there will be people who, when asked when did you become a Christian? may even answer, when scandals in the Church required me to make a decision for Christ.

I would like to end with one personal comment. To have a seminarian living in the house during these difficult times has been painful for me.  What do you say to an idealistic young man as he prepares for the priesthood?

As things turned out, what Felix said in his short talk after Mass on Friday were words for us to hear. Referring to the smoke from forest fires that clouded the sky last week, Felix pointed out though it obscured the sun, the sun continued to shine.

Evil in the Church has obscured our vision, but God is still with us, and loving us at this time of pain and sorrow.

There have been countless statements trying to help people come to terms with the present crisis; I havent had time to keep up with them, but it’s likely that Bishop Robert Barron has some helpful things to say, so you may want to watch this. (I have not had time to watch it myself, so this is not a blanket endorsement of what he has to say.)

Monday, August 20, 2018

God too is angry...

I began my sermon by reading Archbishop Miller's bold and fatherly letter to us. You can see it here

Dear brothers and sisters,

I really have no idea what to say to you this morning. Each of you will have your own reaction to last week’s horrifying news about the extent of abuse and cover-up in parts of our beloved Catholic Church.

For some, that adjective “beloved” may not even fit any more.

So all I can really do today—I will speak about this tragedy again next week—is tell you about my experience.

The Pennsylvania grand jury report came out while I was in the U.S.  But I was in a monastery, shielded from TV and newspapers, and even from much conversation. As a result, it was the Word of God that shaped my thoughts about these awful revelations.

And what I thought about wasn’t so much my reaction as God’s reaction.

Last week, the monks were already reading each morning from the Prophet Zechariah. He spoke God’s prophetic word to Israel 2500 years ago - but what we heard on Thursday morning could have been written yesterday.

The passage (Zech. 11:4 - 12:8) is God’s judgement on bad shepherds, on those who do not feel for their flock. (Let’s remember that our English word pastor, applied to both bishops and priests, is the Latin word for shepherd.)

Zechariah’s prophecy even contains words we later hear in the Gospel of Matthew “So I took thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the treasure in the house of the Lord.  Could there be a more damning judgment than to associate the unfeeling and uncaring shepherd with the traitor Judas?

The reading was long and painful. It culminates with these words:
 “Woe betide the worthless shepherd who abandons the sheep!
May a sword fall on his arm and on his right eye!
May his arm be all shrivelled,
and his right eye be totally blind.  

Are we angry? Not so angry as God is.

No one listening to Zechariah could possibly have missed the point, but the monastic liturgy carried on relentlessly; a homily from St. Gregory the Great followed the scripture reading.

The homily begins by pointing to the Good Shepherd, who is Christ himself, who lays down his life for his sheep and who feeds them with his body and blood, as we heard in today’s Gospel. But then St. Gregory, who was Pope in times as turbulent as our own, turns to bad shepherds—whom he calls hirelings, the mercenaries who abandon the flock when the wolf approaches.

It was stunning to hear this line: “He flees because he has seen danger and wants to keep silence – because in fact he has hidden himself under a veil of it.”

A veil of silence! More than fourteen centuries ago.

The indictment continues: “… his concern is with mere outward appearance and creature comfort; not for him to fret about his flock, their discomfort and their inward suffering.”

Are we deeply wounded? No more than the good shepherds, the good bishops who, like St. Gregory, who stood their ground against evil regardless of the cost.

Using ancient words to address these revelations may seem out of touch to some. Yet I believe that the Word of God—and especially the Old Testament stories of repeated infidelity—is the best lens through which to view this crisis in the life of the Church and in our lives.

And St. Gregory reminds us that bad shepherds are only part of the story. He says “there is another wolf which every day, without ceasing, tears, not at our bodies, but at our minds. It is the evil spirit. All unbeknownst, he stalks the tail end of the faithful, seeking out dead souls. So likewise the wolf scatters the flock when the devil harries with his temptations the ranks of the faithful.”

We can’t allow the evil one to use scandal to destroy our relationship with Christ, the Good Shepherd.

I was moved by the reaction of one woman after the Protestant superstar pastor Bill Hybels was accused of abusing a woman. After attending church with her 8-year-old son, she said “I never had a personal relationship with any of those pastors, but I have a personal relationship with God.”

Angry and wounded though we are, we must look to our own personal relationship with Jesus, asking right here at Mass for spiritual food, the living bread, that will sustain us in a difficult journey of Church reform and personal renewal.

Let me end on a personal note. Although I was away all week, I’ve already heard from some of you. One phone message touched me deeply, and I’d like to share it with you:

“I’m away on holidays, and I just want to tell you—especially in light of everything that happened in Pennsylvania and everything—that I’m worried about the Church.   I’m going to be coming to you when I get back about how I can help more to get our youth involved.  I’m not disillusioned at all but I’m disappointed in a lot of stuff that happened and I want to be part of the solution. If you could help guide me on how to be a better steward, I really want to be that positive influence.”

God is not finished with us, or with his Church. 

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Creation too is a multiplication (17.B)

Do some of you remember the first day back to school in September, when you had to stand in front of the class and give a little speech called “How I Spent My Summer Vacation”? Well, today’s homily is one of those little speeches—and in light of the heat, the emphasis is on “little.”

I just got back from a week in majestic Haida Gwaii, the archipelago formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands. Whether on the water or in the woods, I spent a lot of time thinking about what Pope Francis calls “the Gospel of Creation” in his encyclical Laudato Si', “On Care for Our Common Home.”

Today’s Gospel, the multiplication of the loaves and fish, usually leads me to preach on the Eucharist, which is prefigured by this miracle. But it also brings to mind the broader subject of the abundance of all God’s generous gifts.

In his plan for creation, God did not give humanity just what it needed to survive; he gave us what we needed, many times over, if only we would exercise wise stewardship.

St. John Paul said that God has written a precious book, using for characters “the multitude of created things present in the universe”. And the Canadian bishops have reminded us that nature continuously reveals the divine. In 2003, they wrote “From panoramic vistas to the tiniest living form, nature is a constant source of wonder and awe.”

This is hardly new theology. The Scriptures tells us many times that creation shows forth God’s glory, and St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that all the diversity and variety of nature show his goodness, since it could not be represented fittingly by any one creature. (cf. Laudato Si', 85 and 86)

And the Catechism teaches: “God wills the interdependence of creatures. The sun and the moon, the cedar and the little flower, the eagle and the sparrow: the spectacle of their countless diversities and inequalities tells us that no creature is self-sufficient. Creatures exist only in dependence on each other, to complete each other, in the service of each other.” (n. 340)

My holiday made all this easier to understand. 

But is also made me realize what Pope Francis means when he writes about the kind of environmental exploitation that exhausts the resources local communities have relied on and “undo the social structures which, for a long time, shaped cultural identity and their sense of the meaning of life and community.”

The Pope says that the disappearance of a culture can be just as serious, or even more serious, than the disappearance of a species of plant or animal. 

He calls us to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions, which happily seems to be what is happening in Haida Gwaii, where archaeological evidence suggests the Haida people have lived for some 13,000 years.

The abundance of these islands—in timber, fish, wildlife—is truly a Gospel of Creation, a story of God’s abundant provision for his children. But much of its history is also a history of what Pope Francis calls “the sin of indifference.”

And that is a sin we can commit in many ways, whether by the thoughtless exploitation of the gifts of creation, by a lack of gratitude for their abundance, or by taking for granted the Bread of Life, the most generous gift of all.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Another Rescue, A Different Cave (15.B)

For two weeks the world held its breath.

For two weeks we tried to picture twelve boys and a young soccer coach entombed in darkness.

And for two days we marveled at the courage of their rescuers, especially the diver Saman Gunan, who died in the rescue attempt, just 38 years old.

The BBC called this “a remarkable story of friendship, human endurance—and the lengths some people will go to save someone else's child.”

But as we gather for Mass this morning, we recognize that it’s something more. The rescue effort, and the sacrifice of Saman Gunan, should bring to mind another rescue and another sacrifice. We hear about it in our second reading today.

“In Christ,” St. Paul writes, “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished upon us.”

We’ve heard the word “redemption” so many times that perhaps we forget the drama behind it. We have been freed from the darkness of our sins by someone who came to find us and to lead us into the light.

And just as the Thai diver died in the darkness of the cave, so Jesus died in the course of our rescue—and stayed in a cave until our salvation was completed by his Resurrection.

Those twelve boys had families, with whom they will soon be reunited. Their rescuers didn’t take them home with them. But our rescuer, St. Paul says, has adopted us as his own. We emerged into the light as members of God’s own family.

And In his first letter, St. Peter calls us to proclaim the great work of our Saviour, who called us out of darkness into his marvellous light.

I’ve read some on-line comments about the possible negative effects that their ordeal may have on the boys’ psychology. The best antidote to that is gratitude; I hope they will spend the rest of their lives giving thanks for their rescue and their rescuers.

And we are called to do the same. Jesus sends us out to the world, just as he sent the Twelve, to share gratefully with others the Good News of our rescue and our Rescuer.