Monday, August 22, 2016

Not Peace, but Division: A Remarkable Homily

I've just returned from my annual visit to Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon.  There are many attractions to this beautiful place, including the Abbey itself, the Alvar Aälto-designed library, and the beautiful surroundings of the Willamette Valley.

This year, an additional joy was seeing a dear friend and gracious mentor presiding with miter and crosier at Mass on the Assumption – Jeremy Driscoll was just elected the 12th Abbot of Mount Angel in March.

We were fortunate to be there for both the solemnity and the preceding Sunday. The homilies at both Masses were sublime, and I was fortunate enough to get a copy of Sunday's, given by Father Pius X Harding, who is both the guestmaster and the Abbey's director of Oblates (of which I am one).

Father Pius's homily is offered below, with his kind permission.  It addresses superbly very difficult questions many of us have about the Gospel text (Luke 12:49-53), while giving excellent advice about the right way to witness in charity to the truth.

“Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” These are very perplexing words from our Blessed Lord. What does he mean? A puzzling contradiction: Jesus is the Prince of Peace! He is our only hope for peace. Why does the Lord speak this way?
Today’s Gospel is rich and varied in its meaning. The Sacred Scriptures urge us to stop thinking in conformity with the world – to challenge our perceptions about what we see and what we are told today in our media driven world.
The peace our Lord brings is one the world cannot easily grasp. Not unlike the disciples themselves, who expected the Messiah to be a worldly king, we too may harbor the desires for a temporal, a practical peace – a world and way of life absent of earthly want or war.
But, what does this have to do with everlasting life? The collect of today's liturgy prays for the "good things which no eye can see," things that "fill our hearts with love" which attain that divine promise that surpasses "every human desire." What is this good of which the collect speaks? What is our ultimate desire?
The peace of Jesus Christ is no mere absence of conflict or want. It is self evident that in today's world, the Word of God "divides three against two, and two against three." But, one might say: God is true. He is goodness itself, and He is all-beautiful. How can this divide? The Gospel challenge to us is to root out from our hearts all that is opposed to the Word of God, and to reject all that is contrary to truth, goodness and beauty.
We believers cannot settle for an apparent worldly peace, which often is nothing more than an attitude of complacency with mere existence. Our calling is higher – as high as Heaven itself. The peace we receive from our Saviour is one that was purchased for us, and at a great price.
No one is saved unto eternal life except through the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of the Father, Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary for just this purpose of restoring us to union with our Father, the Maker of all things.
This is the truth that causes such division in the world: that Jesus is its unique Saviour - there is no other. We live in a society and in an age when many would just rather pretend that all are in agreement. I’m ok, you’re ok – can’t we just get a long. Well, maybe we can just get along, but is that all to which we are called by the Holy Gospel? No, we are called to a "glorious exchange," we hear in today's liturgy. We are destined in the heart of God to communion - a peace with one another made possible by our union with the God who made us and loves us - loves us enough to redeem us and call us by grace to real life - eternal life - true life in Christ Jesus, the only Prince of Peace. There can be no peace where there is no love, and there is no love, were truth does not matter.
Does this mean that we all have to go out on a campaign to stamp out everything contrary to Christ’s truth? Perhaps we do have a campaign before us, but it is a campaign fought not with physical battles or rude argumentation, rather, it is one fought with personal mortification and courageous witness to the God who is Love, giving eloquent testimony through lives of charity, that God gave His life for us. This is a truth worth fighting for.
We are asked today to discern just what kind of zeal resides in our hearts. Our Blessed Lord came to set a fire on the earth – a fire of charity, fanned by the Holy Spirit, a fire He wills should burn within our hearts – a charity that compels us to act.
Jesus expresses this desire in the Holy Gospel when He says: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing.” If the fire of God’s love is not already blazing in our hearts, today is the day to ignite it, and the Holy Eucharist is the Sacrament of just such a fire.
Love for God’s truth, justice and righteousness burns in the Christian heart, and enables us to reject the world's way of acting, with its tolerance of falsehood, offences against life and family, and its denial of the necessity of the individual's personal gift of self to the Creator of all things, visible and invisible.
The Gospel we are to proclaim is the Gospel of truth and life, but its most effective proclamation is in the practice of charity. Lives exemplifying justice and love offer to our world a glimpse of the real peace of which Our Blessed Lord speaks.
The communion antiphon, taken from the Gospel of Saint John, proclaims that central truth which we believers hold so dear: "I am the living bread come down from heaven, says the Lord. Whoever eats this bread will live forever." The bread He offers is His true flesh and the wine He offers is His Blood given up for us, and unless we eat His flesh and drink His Blood we shall not have life within us.
This is the truth we encounter here today. Most of the world rejects the truth of God giving Himself to man sacramentally. Even in our Lord’s time, many of His disciples up and left His company because of this teaching.  “These are hard words, who can accept them?” Will we accept them? Will we live by them? Will we confess this truth to an unbelieving world - yet to a world so very much loved by the God it so often rather flippantly rejects.
The truth of Jesus Christ is worth fighting for – worth putting ourselves in the awkward position of being socially and politically unacceptable according to the world’s accounting of things.
A fire burns within a Christian's heart, an ardent love, which compels us to defend the rights of God in our world. Division is not bad when it is the line between truth and falsity, or when it is the refusal to cooperate in the world’s rebellion against its Creator and Redeemer, or the Spirit of Wisdom, which they send to guide us.
Our Blessed Lord predicted that there would be troubles, even division within families over the gravest of issues, because these are the issues of salvation and eternal life.
Some things, as personal opinions, subjective likes and dislikes, are often not worth fighting for, and it can be a vice to do so, but others things – the things of God – deserve our utmost attention and devotion. Truth is truth in any age. The truth of Jesus Christ is objective and eternal.
We, of course, cannot not force people to believe, nor can we force them to love. Faith, hope and charity are by the gracious invitation of God. The love of Christ, which is given to us most excellently here in the Holy Eucharist, is the source of the wisdom and courage required to live valiant Christian lives in the midst of a world, which can be, in turn violent and indifferent. Both are challenges to the Christian, but we can make Our Lord’s desire come to be, His desire that the fire of His love should sweep the earth, if only we will allow that fire to begin here, to flare up within our hearts today.
– Father Pius X. Harding, OSB
   August 14, 2016

Sunday, August 21, 2016

A Survivor--Sent (21.C)

Refugees have been a big part of parish life at Christ the Redeemer. Your generosity to them has brought tears to my eyes more than once.

But the Shaboo and Dayekh families weren’t my first experience of refugees, nor the first time I met people persecuted for their Catholic faith. Almost thirty years ago there was a young refugee who sat at the back of St. Patrick’s parish where I was the assistant pastor.

He didn’t speak English, and made no attempt to communicate with me until some years later, when I learned the story I’m sharing with you today. The young man had been a seminarian, where he had been sent to prison twice for teaching catechism by the Communist victors in the Vietnam War.

Burning with the desire for freedom and the practice of his faith, he escaped from the prison, only to be driven back from the sea by a storm. Recaptured, he was abused and beaten.

But he escaped a second time, successfully, and after being rescued by a passing ship landed in a refugee camp in the Philippines. There he went to work organizing children into a sort of Catholic boy scouts, patiently waiting for a new home.

And then—he was in a car accident outside the camp and suffered serious head injuries from which he took a long time to recover.

Finally he came to Canada, where he lived with his nephew and younger brother, who also wanted to be a priest.  Since it seemed financially impossible for both to go to the seminary, the older brother decided to abandon his own hopes and send the younger brother, washing dishes to support them.

On Christmas Eve, the nephew died. For some reason, I find this the saddest part of the story.

But it’s not, ultimately, a sad story. It’s a fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah in today’s first reading. Because the young man wasn’t so much a refugee as a missionary—a survivor sent “to the nations,” “to the coastlands far away” that had not heard of the Lord or seen his glory.

As Isaiah promised to the Jewish people, there would be some exiles whom the Lord would call as his priests. And so it happened here, as dozens of Vietnamese exiles became priests to serve the Church in Canada. Among them were the two brothers, for even the older one managed at last to return to the seminary.

That exile, Joseph Phuong Nguyen, becomes the Bishop of Kamloops on Thursday afternoon.

His story makes me squirm when I read today’s Gospel. In some ways, my life as a Christian has been easy. Like the people to whom Jesus speaks these harsh words, I have had good times as a disciple—I have ate and drank with him, and listened to him teach without a whole lot of personal cost.

And without doubt, I’ve been influenced by the theologians of the past fifty years who’ve tried to flip the words of Jesus around—treating the door to hell as the narrow door, and the path to heaven as broad and easy.

Call it what you will—Christianity lite, cafeteria Catholicism, or universal salvation—it’s an attractive sort of faith. We’re all going to be saved, so let’s not worry too much about it

It’s just that Jesus said the exact opposite.

Jesus tells you and me the same thing that kept the new Bishop of Kamloops afloat on a sea of suffering: unless we pick up our cross and follow Christ, we cannot be his disciples.

If you think Jesus is a bit harsh in today’s Gospel, consider his words in St. Matthew’s version: “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.  For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

Where do we go with that? I’ll conclude with two answers from our readings today.

First, we don’t lose hope—because we do know that God wills us to be saved. Just as he called back Israel’s exiles, he calls us to himself in countless ways. The Church is our ark, protecting us against the waves and even against the pirates who so often attacked the helpless Vietnamese boat people.

Second, we know that all things work for our good, as St. Paul tells the Romans. Whether our sufferings are dramatic and terrible, like those of Joseph Phuong Nguyen, or just everyday troubles, our loving Father uses them to train us for his kingdom. Prosperity and good fortune are poor guides to heaven, but the patient acceptance of suffering can be a straight path.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Elementary Thinking (Sunday 18.C)

Preaching to listeners who range from six to 96 can be a challenge. When I mention Archie Bunker or Mary Tyler Moore in a homily, I get blank stares from half the congregation.

And when Father Paul mentions Pokémon Go or Jabba the Hut he gets a blank stare… from me.

But there’s one figure in the entertainment world that almost everyone recognizes—Sherlock Holmes. Since he first appeared in print in 1887, the famous detective has appeared in 260 movies, 25 TV shows, a musical, a ballet, and 600 radio plays. [These numbers, and many other facts in my homily, come from David Gann’s fascinating article “Mysterious Circumstances
in The New Yorker magazine, reprinted in his book The Devil & Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness & Obsession.]

Less well-known is Sherlock’s creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a British doctor. I was reading about him this week and was quite surprised to find he was born a Catholic—both his parents were Catholic, and he received his education from Jesuit schools and colleges.

After medical school, however, he “renounced Catholicism, vowing, ‘Never will I accept anything which cannot be proved to me.’”

That seems a fairly rugged opinion and a pretty serious knock against our faith. But as I continued reading I was even more surprised to find that by the time he died Arthur Conan Doyle had become “the St. Paul of psychics.” Although he had denied the afterlife, he attended séances at which he “claimed to see not only dead family members but fairies as well.”

The ex-Catholic skeptic became living proof of the old saying ‘if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.’

I’m talking about this now because our readings at Mass today show the sharp contrast between God’s perfect truth and man’s limited reasoning. In the first reading, the Teacher sets the stage. He says that our labour—even when done wisely and well—can be in vain. It can make us anxious and sleepless, not producing the security we that hard work would give us.

In our second reading, St. Paul goes much further than the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes, spelling out the problem: perfect wisdom is not found on earth but in heaven. As Christians, we’re living a new life and striving for a new goal—not contentment on earth, but glory in heaven. Logically enough, St. Paul explains, if we want to know the path to glory we need to set our minds on heavenly things rather than on the vanities of earthly life.

The Apostle spells this our even more clearly in the Letter to the Romans where he writes “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rm 12:2).

Putting the first and second readings together, we see clearly that Christians must think differently about every aspect of their lives, especially their work. The difference is found by seeking God and seeking to know his will and ways.

But it’s not only work and daily life that demands this effort. Temptations of every kind are another earthly reality that can sour all our hard work.

Resisting or overcoming sin takes a patient effort to see things God’s way. Sure, obeying the commandments is a start, but we want to do more. In St. Paul’s words to the Romans, we need to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rm 13:14). Resisting temptation must be our default setting, requiring that we think with Christ and like Christ. We shouldn’t confront temptations unprepared. In Ephesians 6:11, St. Paul say “Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.”

That armour includes “the belt of truth.” We buckle that on by knowing what Scripture says about greed and sexual sin, and by making those teachings a big part of how we view the world and ourselves. No serious Catholic should need to look up Church teaching on these dangerous areas—we should be praying about them all the time, setting our minds “on things that are above,” on the spiritual realities that call us to holiness and happiness.

We not only put on the armour of God: we first strip off the old self and its sinful ways, putting on the new self, which means putting on Christ himself, as St. Paul says. That new self is a new nature renewed in knowledge according to the mind of Christ. In other words, the Christian is to be so identified with Christ that he actually thinks like Christ.

The Gospel today continues the contrast between worldly wisdom and the divine plan. There’s nothing in the parable that suggests the rich man was a terrible person. Maybe he shared some of his great wealth with others. But his perspective was dead wrong. He lived by the old Latin motto “Carpe diem” or “seize the day.”

Jesus tells us that there’s only one day that matters—what Scripture calls the day of the Lord. In his homily on the first Pentecost, St. Peter preaches about “the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day” when “the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood” before “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

That great and glorious day is the ultimate goal of all that we do—all our work, all our daily efforts to know and do what God desires.

How many of us have spent more time and worry planning our finances than we have deepening our knowledge of God through prayer and the study of Scripture? Today’s a good time to think about that question and to ponder the shortness of life.

As Sherlock Holmes would say, that’s elementary.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Young Parishioners at WYD 2016

Exciting and inspiring to see and hear three of our finest talking about World Youth Day 2016 on Salt+Light.  What witnesses they are!

Check out Lily, Alexandra and Jeremy at 13"05 on this link:

Go pilgrims!

Sunday, July 24, 2016

A Second Look at the Our Father (Sunday 17.C)

I have great little app on my phone called The Three Minute Retreat. Every day it offers a simple meditation, Jesuit-style, putting me in the mood for prayer with beautiful photos and, if I feel like it, some music in the background.

Sometimes I make my three minute retreat sitting up in bed; other times I go to their website and pray at my computer.

And other times—too many other times—I tell myself I don’t have three minutes! That’s sad, because it’s amazing how much God does for me in such a short time, every time I give him the chance.

I have this guilty feeling that if prayer’s not long, it’s not good. Yet how would you feel if your spouse or parents or friends refused any loving conversation less than half an hour? As I said in another homily, God does not demand huge blocks of time before he draws close to us.

A perfect example of this is the Lord’s Prayer, which we heard Jesus teach his apostles in this morning’s Gospel. I timed myself saying the Our Father this morning, and it took me 33 seconds, without rushing. Even when I paused at every phrase, the prayer took only twice that time—not even close to the length of the three minute retreat.

That tells me that Jesus wanted to make it easy for us to pray, and to pray properly.

Think about the opening the disciples gave the Lord. They’re eager students, asking to be taught. So what does he do? Does he tell them: ‘well, you’ve seen me spend hours in the hills, you’ve watched me spend the night in prayer to my Father—so do the same?’

No, he teaches them a 30 second prayer. And the only time he ever makes an issue of the length of prayer is in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he asks “can you not watch an hour with me?”

And after giving the disciples the Our Father, Jesus continues his teaching by underling the need to persevere in prayer. How regularly we pray is more important, he seems to suggest, than how long we pray—although, of course, he himself spent long periods of time in prayer, and I don’t want to make light of that.

But everything in today’s Gospel passage points to the power of even the shortest prayer, if prayed often and well, and to the power of the Lord’s Prayer in particular.

It shouldn’t surprise us that the Lord’s Prayer is so important, since it came from Jesus himself. Yet we can become so used to it that our familiarity steals its power and proper impact on our hearts and minds.

Tertullian, a Father of the Church who died around 225, called the Our Father “the short summary of the whole Gospel.” About four centuries the later, the great St. Augustine said it was the source of all other prayers.

So let’s have a second look at this prayer we all know so well, and which many of us say every day.

The version of the prayer we hear this morning from St. Luke’s Gospel is a bit shorter than in St. Matthew. Since that’s the version we usually pray, we’ll examine it.

If we take the prayer apart, we find seven petitions. The first three ask that God be glorified, the last four ask for our physical and spiritual needs. The great Protestant preacher William Barclay reminds us to take careful note of the order of the Lord's Prayer. “Before anything is asked for ourselves, God and his glory, and the reverence due to him, come first. Only when we give God his place will other things take their proper place.”

After calling on the Father by name, we pray that his name be hallowed or holy—that he be properly known and revered in our hearts.

Next we pray that the Kingdom of God may come. Books have been written about the meaning of that, and Jesus teaches often about the kingdom. The Kingdom of God is at the heart of what Jesus preached—to pray for its coming is to pray for the fulfillment of our faith. These few words, “thy Kingdom come” are a bridge between earth and heaven.

The third petition directed to the glory of God doesn’t appear in St. Luke’s account of the Lord’s Prayer, but it certainly jumps out in the version we say: “Thy will be done.” To put it simply, we are praying that the great divine plan unfolds in our lives, in our Church, in our world, and in history. We know what God wills for us and for all creation, and when we pray this we are making a commitment to do our part.

The remaining four petitions cover the whole of life. William Barclay puts it beautifully: they cover present needs, past sins, and future trials.

We start with our most basic need, praying for our daily bread. “This goes back to the old story of the manna in the wilderness (Exodus 16:11-21). Only enough for the needs of the day might be gathered. We are not to worry about the unknown future, but to live a day at a time” with confidence in God’s care.

The fifth petition covers past sin. When we pray we cannot do other than pray for forgiveness, for even the best of us are sinners “standing before the purity of God.” Built in to the petition “Forgive us our trespasses” is a reminder that it’s a meaningless prayer unless we’re ready to forgive those who have sinned against us. Jesus taught that clearly in the parable of the unforgiving servant.

The last two petitions cover future trials. We pray to be shielded from temptation—which is really a prayer for the grace to resist temptation—and to be delivered from all evils.

All that in 33 seconds—66 seconds if you take your time! Perhaps it's time we took this perfect prayer a bit more to heart.