Friday, December 24, 2010

Mass at Dawn: Connecting to Christmas

Just give me a second here. I want to check my Facebook page.

Sorry for the interruption. Now as we gather on this Christmas morning… Oh sorry, someone just tweeted me.

Oh all right. Although at least one out of every fourteen people in the world has a Facebook account, I don't. And the only tweets I hear come from the birdbath in the rectory garden. I just wanted to get your attention!

Still, the movie "The Social Network," was definitely my favorite film of 2010. The picture is built around what one film critic calls "a melancholy paradox": a student named Mark Zuckerberg invented the social-networking internet site Facebook that now has more than 500 million members. But Zuckerberg himself "is so egotistical, work-obsessed, and withdrawn that he can't stay close to anyone."

Mark Zuckerberg is a peculiar fellow, if the film is to be believed, but he'll certainly go down in history for connecting people.

Facebook is just the most visible of the slew of modern ways of staying connected that started with e-mail, moved to instant messaging, texting, blogging, and then in the past eight years social networking sites like Friendster, MySpace, and of course Facebook.

Like much else in the modern world, these media are a mixed blessing. They allow families and friends to stay in touch despite great distances, and at little cost. But studies show that social networking has antisocial consequences for many.

One thing's for sure: social networking offers Christians both an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunity is obvious: used wisely, these media allow the Gospel message to be spread in a highly effective way. The Vatican offers a virtual library on its excellent website, while our own Archdiocese not only has a website but a Facebook page and a channel on YouTube for videos. You can even "follow" the Archdiocese on Twitter, the service that sends short updates to cell phones. The BC Catholic has its own website, and a blog called "the Busy Catholic."

And similar sites specifically for young people are hosted by the Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministry.

The Archbishop thinks these media are so important that he's asked us to hand out cards with the archdiocesan website on them as a way of welcoming both visitors and regular parishioners to the Church's on-line presence this Christmas.

Even our own parish got into the act: we put an ad in the North Shore News this week promoting the website, which features the Archbishop of Washington DC talking about Christmas.

But all of these electronic developments—exciting to some, scary to others—are nothing compared to the challenge that faces each one of us this morning. Are we here to "connect" to Christmas?

Are we like Mark Zuckerberg, whose Facebook friends are more virtual than real? Or are we like the shepherds who want a face-to-face encounter with the child Jesus?

And the biggest challenge of all: are we opening our hearts like Mary did, so that God himself can communicate with us?

The Gospel this morning shows us how to connect with Christmas. The shepherds lead us in the way of action: "Let's go!" they say. "Let us go to Bethlehem." It's the road we also must take to meet Jesus—not in a dream world, not in theory, but in the concrete circumstances of our lives. We need to ask ourselves right now "Where should I be heading? Where concretely is Jesus waiting for me?"

The opening prayer for this Mass reminds us that Christmas has consequences: "Father, we are filled with the new light by the coming of your Word among us. May the light of faith shine in our words and actions." For some this means meeting Jesus in what Mother Teresa called "the distressing disguise of the poor." For others it's an invitation to turn away from sin and self-centeredness.

For each of us, connecting with Jesus requires persevering in prayer, like Mary did. We need to ponder the message of this day in the depths of our heart. Can we find ten minutes behind a closed door to let ourselves treasure what we have heard and seen this day?

It's possible, of course, that there's no door you can close today in the middle of your hectic family celebration—there's no real chance at home today for contemplating the mystery of the birth of Christ. We have an answer to that problem: with the bulletin you'll receive a brochure that offers twelve ways of celebrating spiritually during the traditional twelve days of Christmas between now and the Epiphany.

They are delightful suggestions that would help almost anyone deepen and prolong the joy of Christmas. They are simple ideas that will, in the words of our Prayer After Communion, "increase our understanding and our love of the riches revealed" in Christ.

Thinking, serving, celebrating—these are all ways we "connect" to Christmas. Even websites and social media can connect us to the message of good news and salvation, and draw us closer to the kingdom where God reigns. Yet the ultimate connection is with Jesus Himself, and for that there is no substitute for the Mass. At every Mass the Lord fulfills the promise of salvation, pours out His Spirit on us, and communicates Himself to us. He becomes our Friend in a personal and intimate way that no social network can begin to touch.

So let us hasten to Bethlehem every Sunday, to glorify and praise God for all we have heard and seen today.

A blessed and happy Christmas to all, especially to Rob and Mary and family, since he inspired this blog in the first place!

Midnight Mass: Don’t Swap for Trinkets

Christmas arrived early at our house. The entire staff of St. Anthony's School came to dinner at the rectory last week and exchanged Christmas presents.

But the gifts came with a catch: they were almost all tacky. There was a Scotch tape dispenser shaped like a high-heeled shoe, a miniature set of bowling pins shaped like nuns, and similarly bizarre items.

If you were lucky enough to get a gift that wasn't in bad taste, you quickly lost it, since the complicated rules of the game allowed people to swap their present with one that had already been opened by someone else.

And while I was out in the kitchen, the teachers managed to hide the worst gifts all over the rectory. I can't open a cupboard without finding items that make the dollar store look like Birks Jewelers! If you forgot to buy a gift for someone you really don't like, see me after Mass and I'll offer you a wide selection!

But even tacky clouds have a silver lining. The gift exchange got me thinking about tonight's homily.

Because it struck me that in real life we sometimes reverse the rules of the teachers' gift exchange: we swap the most precious gifts for things or experiences that are of little or no value at all.

We give up the best for second-best, or even for the worst of all.

Tonight the light penetrates the darkness, and delight confounds despair. So why do I swap the light for the shadows, or joy for passing pleasures that can only weary and weaken me?

I don't know the answer to that question; it seems to make no sense to turn from the gentle light of Christ towards the harsh glare of the world and its foolish ways. But even if I don't know why we humans tend to prefer the darkness to the dawn, I do know this: the birth of Christ at Bethlehem is the answer to the violence, misunderstandings, addictions, fears, and hopelessness of our world.

Perhaps I should be more direct: this holy night offers each of us lasting freedom from the violence, misunderstandings, addictions, fears, and hopelessness that stop us from being "the best version of ourselves."

Let's be clear on this. Christmas is not kid stuff. St. Paul tells us that God has saved us, redeemed us, and purified us for himself. Christmas is the source of the grace and strength we need to live lives "that are self-controlled, upright and godly."

In modern jargon, Christmas empowers us. The light that shone through the night sky over Bethlehem now shines in our hearts—a light that warms us with the knowledge of God's love, and a light that heals us with the power of his mercy.

This simply can't be reduced to a children's story. Think for a moment of the dramatic rescue of the Chilean miners. After more than two months underground, ingenious human efforts brought the 33 captive miners to safety. No wonder it made headlines around the world.

But imagine the headlines if the rescue tube that brought up the miners had been used instead to deliver a rescuer. What would we have thought if someone had said, okay, I'll use the hole you've drilled to go down and join the men? I'll stay with them underground and help you figure out how to get us up again.

Now that would be a headline. But Christmas is far bigger news—that God came down to earth to share our danger, our isolation, our ills and our pains. And he came with a rescue plan that cannot fail if we're willing to follow it.

This is the "good news of great joy" that the angel announced to the shepherds as they shivered with fear. Good news, they said, for all the people. For you and me, in our unique struggles, worries and sin.

The good news offers a way out. Isn't that what Isaiah proclaimed when he said that the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light?

The good news offers a way out of addiction and despair. Isn't that what Isaiah meant when he said the yoke and rod the oppressor has been broken?

There will be a few moments of quiet time after the homily; I invite you to look into your heart for dark spots that need the light to shine on them. Let light penetrate the darkness, and let delight confound despair.

God invites us tonight to accept the gift he offers us and to reject all the tawdry and tacky substitutes the world proposes.

Certainly, that's a tall order in the middle of the night. So please take home a bulletin—it comes with a pamphlet that suggests ways of celebrating the traditional "twelve days of Christmas," marking each day between now and the Epiphany in a different way.

This holy night deserves our full-hearted response and the brochure can help us make it in concrete ways.

Let us walk in the light of the Lord's love revealed at Bethlehem. Whatever our situation, we are loved by Him. Our first and last thought this day should be that.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Pour Out Your Spirit (Advent 3.A)

I had a visit last week with my friend Father Benedict Groeschel, who is the most popular spiritual writer and speaker New York has produced since the days of Fulton J. Sheen. At 78, he has survived a heart attack, a stroke, and being run down by a car. With his cane and grey beard, he looks every inch the wise old man.

When Father Benedict asked how I'd been doing since our last meeting a year ago, I said "I'm doing fine, though I'm not as holy—or as thin—as I'd like to be."

He slowly leaned forward in his chair and replied, "Welcome to the club!"

Few of us, whether saints or sinners, are satisfied with ourselves. We make and break promises to ourselves, we slacken off, we don't feel we're making any progress. It can be disappointing or even frustrating.

Today's first reading can help. Isaiah paints a picture of an arid desert blooming with flowers; then he calls us to forget our spiritual arthritis and to jump with joy. It's a positive and hope-filled vision. But the prophet keeps us guessing—where do we find this strength and energy? What's the source?

I got part of the answer from my friend Heather who was in Palm Desert with her husband while I was shivering back East. She e-mailed me pictures from her holiday: photos of palm trees, swimming pools, and lush and beautiful fairways. It was almost enough to make me want to play golf!

But the background of some of the pictures showed the brown and bare slopes of the San Bernardino mountains—a reminder that every drop of water and every blade of rich green grass came from irrigation. Palm Springs advertises itself with the slogan "Like no place else." The truth is, without massive irrigation, it would literally be "no place."

There's the key to defeating the dryness of our spiritual lives—we need to be watered. My soul is a desert that won't flower unless it's soaked: Soaked by what Isaiah calls the rain of righteousness that pours down from heaven (45:8). His words are used in the entrance antiphon for next Sunday's Mass, the ancient verse Rorate coeli that calls the skies to open so that our Saviour might appear on earth.

It's the exact opposite of self-help. St. James says the farmer needs the early and the late rains to produce his crop. Positive thinking and even hard work will get him nowhere if the rain doesn't fall. So too with us: we need to be watered by God's Spirit if the dry soil of our lives is to be made green and fruitful.

By the way, there's something in this text that youth and the elderly should pay close attention to: St. James says both the early and the late rains are needed—in other words, the fields need water in both the autumn and the spring. We need the outpouring of God's Spirit at every stage of our Christian lives: the very elderly can bloom spiritually with God's help, just as the youngest can produce abundant fruit even at the beginning of their faith journey.

And it's all because God does the work! St. Paul says to the Corinthians: "I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow." (1 Cor. 3:6) We see the same thing in today's Psalm: It is the Lord who keeps faith, it is the Lord who gives food, it is the Lord who sets prisoners free, gives sight to the blind, and who raises up all who are bowed down. Not me, not you, but God.

So why do we try so hard when God wants to take over?

I suspect it's partly because we're impatient. We want results now. We want to lose ten pounds in ten days—at least I want to! We cram for exams, and we look for quick and easy returns on investments. Yet St. James says "Be patient!" Like farming, spiritual growth does demand work; the lazy farmer is a poor famer. Jesus said as much when he told us that as we sow, so shall we reap. But the rain from heaven is absolutely necessary, and neither the farmer nor the Christian can be successful without it.

Balancing patience, expectant faith, and personal discipline is a great challenge… too much for one homily or one Sunday. Let's focus on expectant faith as we pass the half-way mark of Advent: what could better than to ask God to pour out his Spirit as we prepare for Christmas?

Surely we all know that even our very best efforts can't ransom captives or make the desert into a garden. Only God can do it—and He will do it, if we ask. That's what St. Peter promised on the first Pentecost, using the words the Lord had spoken through the prophet Joel: "I shall pour out my Spirit on all humanity" (Acts 2:17).

I'm not suggesting some vague prayer for spiritual progress. We need to ask specifically, individually, and confidently for a fresh outpouring of the Spirit. Do it after Communion today, or before bed tonight. Do it walking in the rain, or on your knees at night. Or get up half an hour early tomorrow and pray at the kitchen table in the dark. Let's all pray this week for the "living water" that Jesus promised the woman at the well; let's pray for a spring of life within that will irrigate our dry hearts and make them green again.

Perhaps you've never prayed such a big prayer before. Maybe it seems too bold or too much for you. Try it anyway, and see what happens.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Taking Care of Business (Advent 1.A)

Lee Kravitz was about my age when he was fired from his important job running an American magazine.

Although he saw it coming, his firing was a huge shock for the workaholic editor. He asked himself the question every unemployed middle-aged man asks: what do I do now?

He tells us how he answered the question in his book "Unfinished Business: One Man's Extraordinary Year of Trying to do the Right Things." Lee Kravitz decided to use his severance pay to spend a whole year doing things he'd always meant to do, but never managed to accomplish—important things that had been set aside in his frantic life.

He looked up a mentally ill aunt he had once loved but come to ignore. He called on an old friend whose daughter had been ambushed in Iraq—and to whom he'd never managed to write a sympathy note.

Kravitz reached out to a friend he'd ignored for thirty years, despite having serious worries about his safety in Pakistan. He got in touch with a professor whose lectures had changed his life, but whom he'd never got around to thanking. He looked up a wonderful friend from university who had become a monk, and he worked to promote healing in his family by finding the truth about an ancient feud.

Notice that none of these things were making amends for wrongdoing—he was simply doing the good that he'd failed to do. He does make amends for a couple of things—a broken promise, an unpaid debt—but basically his year was spent doing the right things he'd always wanted to do.

It was, in other words, more of an Advent journey than a Lenten one. He wasn't doing penance, he was catching up on the things that matter. In Lee Kravitz's own words "We consign most of our most essential business to the bottom of our to-do list because we lack the time and energy to do the things that matter most in our lives well." But when he tackled the things that matter, he found that "great rewards will follow."

If this is true, it is true for believer and non-believer, Christian and non-Christian alike; Kravitz himself is Jewish.

But we Christians have not only special reasons but special seasons for doing the things that matter most. Advent and Lent are not only times of penitential preparation—they're our annual wake-up calls. Our time is now; we strive to live in constant readiness for the Lord's return. Christians don't need a mid-life crisis to make us to act.

All of us have "unfinished business," but there's no reason for it to pile up like a stack of unpaid bills. "You know what time it is," St. Paul tells us: "it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep."

Jesus makes the point even more directly: "Keep awake… for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming."

Spiritual alertness is central to the Christian life. From the time of Jesus to the present day the Church has waited for his return. The manana approach—saying "there's always tomorrow"—will never lead us to the Kingdom. We live what is sometimes called "the sacrament of the present moment," the belief that God wants to be present to us now, in the immediate circumstances of our lives, and not tomorrow, or next week.

One way to live the sacrament of the present moment is to be aware that God is always with us—to stop and acknowledge his presence in and around us. But another is to take care of unfinished business, because Jesus taught us that doing good to his brother and sisters means doing good to him.

Advent is the perfect time for both. The nearness of Christmas translates easily into the nearness of Christ, if we stay clear of the season's excesses. And the nearness of Christ is a constant invitation to do the right things as the perfect preparation for his birth in our hearts.

Our call to action today is fundamental, and comes from the Word of God. But the extraordinary year of Lee Kravitz can at least inspire us to have an extraordinary Advent. We need to grab some paper and a pen before bed tonight, or together after supper, and write down three things we'd be sorry we forgot to do for others if the Lord came tomorrow.

Each of us will have a different list. For some it will be expressing overdue thanks, for others paying overdue debts. But for all of us the list can be a reminder that the only day we really have is today: we know that now is the time.

So let's respond to our Advent wakeup call by taking care of unfinished business… bringing peace to our family, our friends, and ourselves.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Christ the King (Year C)

A few years before he was overthrown in 1952, King Farouk of Egypt said "The whole world is in revolt. Soon there will be only five Kings left—the King of England, the King of Spades, the King of Clubs, the King of Hearts, and the King of Diamonds."

He wasn't quite right. Although several kings lost their thrones in the second half of the twentieth century, at least one—the King of Spain—got his back.

But modern monarchs bear little resemblance to those who reigned in 1925, the year when Pope Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King. Even if they had already lost most of their political power, kings were given enormous respect and deference. In most countries, they embodied the national spirit, and elaborate systems of protocol set them apart from ordinary citizens.

It is safe to say that no-one in 1925 would have imagined a future King of England producing an engagement ring from a backpack! Scandinavian monarchs doing grocery shopping or Belgian royalty on bicycles would have seemed equally odd. Life in palaces isn't what it used to be.

So what did Pius XI have in mind when he proclaimed this feast 85 years ago?

We don't need to guess, because the Pope answered that question in an encyclical letter (Quas primas).He starts by showing three reasons why Christ is already, and without doubt, our unique and eternal King.

First, because God's people had already acclaimed Christ as their King. He reigned in human hearts, because his mercy and kindness drew all humanity to him. Never has it been known, the Pope wrote, nor will it ever be, that a man was loved so much and so universally as Jesus Christ.

Second, because we read throughout the Scriptures that Christ is King. Pope Pius gives numerous scripture quotations, including some we read on this feast in other years although none from today's Mass. He draws particular attention to the Psalms and the prophets, including the famous text from which Canada gets its national motto: "he shall rule from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth."

And of course he quotes the angel's words to Mary announcing that she should bear a Son: "the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father, and he shall reign in the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end."

The third reason is that Christ is our Redeemer. By purchasing us at the cost of his own blood, Christ has a claim on us even through his sacred humanity. We owe obedience and loyalty to the one who has saved us.

But why did Pius XI feel it was important to give the Church this celebration at that particular time? Two reasons stand out clearly in his letter: because the world needed it and the Church needed it.

In 1925 the seeds of fascism, Nazism, and communism had begun to sprout. Atheistic ideologies rejected any role for God and the Church in human affairs. In his first encyclical after being chosen Pope in 1922, Pius XI had written "With God and Jesus Christ excluded from political life… human society is tottering to its fall, because it has no longer a secure and solid foundation."

In his encyclical instituting today's feast, the Pope wrote "once men recognize, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace and harmony."

The Kingship of Christ also rebukes the abuse of power by the State: it reminds rulers of the last judgment, where Christ, cast out of public life, despised, neglected and ignored, will avenge the insults paid to him and to his faithful ones; "for his kingly dignity demands that the State should take account of the commandments of God and of Christian principles, both in making laws and in administering justice, and also in providing for the young a sound moral education."

The political evils of 1925 are different than those of 2010, but the need for Christ's kingly rule is as great as ever, particularly as we confront the evil of abortion. The present Pope has asked the entire Church to join him this Saturday in a vigil of prayer for the unborn; our local Church will gather at the Cathedral at 7 p.m. If Christ were seated before us on his kingly throne, would he not command rather than invite us to be there? And would we obey?

So the world needs to know that Christ is King. But we who already know that also need this feast. The second reason Pope Pius gave for instituting it was for the good of the faithful. By meditating upon these truths, he wrote, we will gain strength and courage, and be able to form our lives after the true Christian ideal.

To my mind, here are the most stirring words of the entire letter: "If to Christ our Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth; if all men, purchased by his precious blood, are by a new right subjected to his dominion; if this power embraces all men, it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire.

"He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone. He must reign in our bodies and in our members, which should serve as instruments for the interior sanctification of our souls."

Our minds, our wills, our hearts, our bodies. Does Christ rule over them? That's a question all of us might well think about today.

But perhaps it's too big a question for the moment. Let me focus it in light of what I learned at the priests' study week from which I have just returned. When I arrived for the study week, I thought we were going to talk about the new translation of the Mass which will arrive in a year or so. But the real subject was the Mass itself—what it means to celebrate worthily and well these sacred mysteries.

And looking ahead to our parish feast day, I realized that we cannot celebrate the liturgy well if we do not accept Christ as our Redeemer and King.

In recent years, it was fashionable to "take ownership" of the Sunday liturgy. Priests in some places changed things around to suit themselves or their parishioners. Myself, I did all in my power to avoid the famous accusation "But Mass is so boring!" We may have emphasized fellowship before and after Mass at the expense of silence and preparation; we may have come to Mass more like consumers than humble subjects of God's divine majesty.

Even the first translators of the Mass from Latin into English were encouraged to "take ownership" of the liturgical texts. Part of the ancient heritage of the Church got lost in the process, which is why we will have a new missal in a year or eighteen months.

But no changes will make the slightest difference unless we approach the Eucharist each Sunday in the way Pope Pius, and every Pope, has taught: in a spirit of holy joy that shows that we are Christ's subjects as well as his friends. As we prepare for a new missal with major changes in the Mass texts, I hope we can reflect together on how we ought to approach the Mass and how we ought to participate in it: with hearts, minds, wills and bodies all placed in obedient service to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Notice that even our bodies should speak a liturgical language of reverence and submission, whether we're in Church to pray alone or to participate at Mass. Each of us needs to try our best to make sure that in all the gestures we makethe sign of the cross in particularand in every posture we take—kneeling, sitting or standing—we are mindful of the royal presence of Christ.

But our bodies must reflect what is in our minds and wills. And here we face constant temptations to shove Christ off his royal throne, or at least to say "move over, I want a seat." We're educated, we read widely, and we live and work in a post-Christian culture. It's all too easy to claim authority for ourselves at the expense of the obedience we owe as subjects of Christ.

The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Universal King, is the ideal moment to recommit ourselvesas individuals, and as a parish community—to his loyal service: to humble, faithful and reverent participation in the Mass, to generous concern for the least of the brothers and sisters of Jesus, and to obedient acceptance of what his Church teaches and commands in his name.

In the words of Pope Pius XI, let us bear Christ's yoke, not as a burden but with joy, with love, with devotion; that having lived our lives in accordance with the laws of God's kingdom, we may receive abundant good fruit; and, counted good and faithful servants by Christ, may be made sharers with him in eternal happiness and glory in his heavenly kingdom.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Things Come Out Right in the End (33.C)

You've probably heard me talk about Stuart McLean, and his CBC radio program, The Vinyl Café. The characters on the Vinyl Café, Dave and Morley, and their two kids Stephanie and Sam, are almost real to me, and their adventures make me laugh and sometimes cry. For me, they're as Canadian as maple syrup and Tim Hortons.

I've got tickets to see Stuart McLean in a couple of weeks, and I'm getting ready by listening to some Vinyl Café stores on CD. One of them tells how 11 year-old Sam managed to predict a couple of future events. Astonished by what were in fact nothing more than coincidences, Sam tells his best friend Murphy "I think I'm psycho."

(Being a good pal, Murphy's too polite to say "I think you mean psychic.")

In any case, the more Sam convinces himself of his power to predict the future, the more upset he becomes, until finally he goes to a storefront fortune-teller, Madam Nina, and confides his troubles. Madam Nina, who despite her exotic name wears jeans and a baseball cap, treats Sam kindly—most people in Stuart McLean's world treat one another kindly—and tells him not to worry.

"Things come out right in the end," Madam Nina explains.

But even for an eleven-year, at least one as smart as Sam, that answer wasn't enough.

"But what if things don't come out right in the end," Sam presses Madam Nina.

"Then it isn't the end," she replies.

And there, direct from your radio, is a fine homily on today's Gospel, and some pretty good advice besides.

Many of us think that our Christian faith should protect us from misfortune. We can come to see the main purpose of prayer as warding off disease and disaster; we pray that we, and especially our loved ones, will be spared trials and troubles—and even our prayer itself seems to bring out our fears.

Today's Gospel tells us that faith is not a guarantee against tribulations. Did the good people of London not pray during the Blitz? Did the people of Haiti fail to pray before the devastating earthquake? Are they failing to ward off cholera by more prayer?

Jesus predicts wars, earthquakes, and plagues. Even worse, he predicts the persecution and martyrdom of his closest followers. So where, exactly, do we get the idea that "things will come out right in the end"? Certainly not from today's Gospel.

Unless, of course, we believe that this isn't the end. That our personal pains, world-wide conflicts, and even natural disasters are all evils that Christ the Redeemer will overcome for us if we endure in faith and hope.

And of course we don't need to rely on the authority of Madam Nina. St. Paul tells us "If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied."

Of course we're pitiable creatures if Christ has given us hope only for this earthly life—because we know how it ends. None of us escapes death, and to escape grief you must die before anyone you love, which seems a pretty poor solution to the problem. Either Christian hope extends beyond the grave, or it's a hope not worth having.

At this point I have to say that it's natural to worry about earthly things. If there are bombs overhead, or tremors underneath, they activate natural impulses of anxiety and fear. Naturally, you'll worry more about your husband's heart than his soul when he's getting an angiogram.

But the natural needs to be met by the supernatural. When wars break out, when disaster strikes, or when persecution begins, it's the cue for a Christian to take heart—to hear the words of Jesus, to repeat them in hope. "Do not be terrified… By your endurance you will gain your souls."

Dark days, whether they happen today, tomorrow, or at the end of the world, are not signs that God has forgotten us; they are moments to remember that God has forgiven us. They're not exceptions to the rule, Jesus tells us, they are the rule: "these things must take place."

They must take place so that Christ's victory can be revealed—revealed in our lives, and ultimately in His return in glory.

We don't need a storefront psychic to tell us that if things don't come out right in the end, then it's not the end. Christ our King tells us that and more: Not a hair on our heads will perish—for those who revere His name, the sun of righteousness will rise from even the deepest darkness, healing, restoring, and redeeming.


Saturday, November 6, 2010

Remembering the Dead

Every year Remembrance Day reminds me of visiting the British War Cemetery in Rome. The British military has an interesting custom: it allows the families of fallen soldiers to choose a short inscription for their tombstone.

Some of those I saw were rather quaint. One read "Fondly remembered by Mum, Dad, and his little dog Pat."

But one epitaph stopped me in my tracks. The tombstone read "One thing I ask, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord."

These are the dying words of Saint Monica to her two sons, one of whom was the future Saint Augustine. She told her children not to worry about where they buried her; she cared only that they prayed at Mass for her soul.

How wise the parents of that dead soldier! I have now forgotten his name, but for many years I prayed for him, and I will pray for him at Mass today.

For Catholics do not just remember the dead; we pray for the dead.

Prayer for the dead is one of the hallmarks of our faith. From its beginning, the Church has offered prayers for the dead, above all the Mass.

Prayer for the dead is motivated by two key Catholic teachings: first, the resurrection of the dead. If we do not believe that the dead will rise, if we do not have hope in the eternal reward, such prayer has no purpose.

Secondly, we pray for the dead because we believe in purgatory.

Purgatory is the name given to the final purification of those who die in God's friendship, but who are not ready yet to enter the joy of heaven. We believe that there is a process that cleanses those who are already saved, but who haven't quite the holiness needed to meet God.

It's not a bad thing to wake up in Purgatory! Father Benedict Groeschel says he looks forward to it!

He explains why by quoting the fine Anglican writer C.S. Lewis, who puts it this way: Imagine arriving at an important party in shabby clothes, without having brushed your teeth for days. If someone at the door gave you the chance to take some time to clean up and change, would you say "oh, no thanks, I'll go straight in and meet the host"?

But since we are members of the Body of Christ, joined in solidarity with one another, we can help one another during this time of purification. We can pray for the souls in purgatory, and they can pray for us.

More to the point: we must pray for the souls in purgatory; it is a duty we have in charity to all, and in justice to those who have done us good.

Last Tuesday was the day of days for praying for our dead and for all the dead, All Souls Day. Mass on All Souls Day was never a holy day of obligation, but churches were usually full. In fact, when I was a young priest, I used to complain that we packed the church for All Souls and left them half-empty on the glorious feast of All Saints the day before.

Well, we have no such problem at Christ the Redeemer: the church was half-empty both days! Even though I offered three Masses on November 2nd, as the rules permit, fewer than one in five of our parishioners attended in total, if you exclude the children who came to Mass with the school.

What does this say? That you are less devout than the parishioners of the past? I don't think so. That you are more busy?—well, that's for sure.

But after thinking about it for a few days, I think it says one thing most of all: we need to shore up one of the foundations of Catholic culture.

Notice I said culture; it's not about faith. There's probably no-one here who doesn't believe in the resurrection of the dead. Only a few have doubts about Purgatory. But we are no longer helped along by customs and a culture that made it easier to do the right thing in past years.

Good Catholics didn't ask "shall we go to Mass on All Souls." They didn't ask one another "Are you going to Mass on All Souls." For the most part they said "Which Mass?"

Again, it was never commanded by the Church; a rule wasn't necessary. A sense of duty led us to Mass on November 2nd.

If the importance of Catholic culture isn't clear to you, just think about poppies. Is there a law about wearing poppies? Is there a by-law that says we must be silent at 11 a.m. on the eleventh day of the eleventh month?

Of course not. Our shared values and history direct us to act on a certain way on Remembrance Day… just as they used to do for Catholics on All Souls.

It's time to reclaim what we have lost, to rethink the lost decades when we've been trying too hard to be like everyone else—not standing out by heading to the Cathedral on our lunch hour on All Souls or Ash Wednesday, not arranging our social lives to accommodate great feasts or fasts, not doing things together as members of one Body.

The seven brothers who died sooner than violate the Jewish dietary laws against eating pork had faith; they believed in the resurrection. But they were also made strong by culture. They were united in belief with one another, and with their heroic mother—who, I'm sorry to say, gets cut out of the story this morning. In fact, when she was urged by the King to talk her youngest and last son out of his martyrdom, she took the opportunity to encourage him.

It wasn't only faith that kept those eight true to their beliefs when they were put to the test; they were strengthened also by belonging to a culture, a community of shared convictions.

The entire month of November is a month of prayer for our dead. Let us be united in mind and heart with the Church in heaven, the Church on earth, and the Church in Purgatory as we pray together for the faithful departed.

And may that prayer not only bring them closer to heaven, but us closer to them and stronger in our Catholic beliefs, customs, and culture.


Monday, October 25, 2010

Humility: A Visitor’s Homily

    Our parish had the great pleasure this weekend of welcoming a young deacon, Rev. Bryan Duggan, as the guest homilist at all Masses. With Deacon Bryan's kind permission, I post his engaging and inspiring thoughts here.

Throughout these past few years I have learned much about the priesthood, a great deal that I was totally unaware of. One of the biggest surprises is how much eating a priest has to do. Everywhere we go, from weddings to meetings, there's always a big spread. I decided a little while ago that I had to be serious about staying healthy and so I began to go running. Out in Mission the area is still fairly rural and sidewalks are rare, so you do take a bit of a risk when jogging along those beautiful country roads. One day not too long ago I was returning from a good run when I came to a three way stop just down from the Seminary. As I approached, I looked both ways (just like mom taught me) and saw one car approaching, but he looked like he was going to come to a stop in the left lane. So I stepped out into the intersection when he suddenly changed to the right lane and was seconds away from ploughing right into me. I hesitated in shock for a brief moment and then threw myself back and out of his path. He came screeching to a halt several meters past where I'd been standing. As I was picking myself up out of the ditch the guy came running over with a look of sheer terror on his face, and says to me: "I'm a good driver!"

Despite some obvious evidence to the contrary – the fact that he very nearly sent me to the hospital or worse – he claims to be a good driver. This is certainly a bit humorous, and it also sheds some light on a bad habit many of us fall into. We often find ourselves saying 'I'm a good person.' I'm a good person. I don't murder, steal, etc. What we're really saying is there are many worse people out there than me. We're horrified by stories of notorious criminals, like that Canadian Forces colonel, and in some way take comfort that we're nothing like him. This is exactly what Jesus is talking about in today's Gospel.

Imagine yourself for a moment before the judgment seat of God. Your whole life is played back before you, every moment of every day since birth. You and Jesus relive every event you've experienced, every joy and every sorrow, every success and every mistake you've made. Every rude comment, gossip, slander, every small item you've stolen, exam you've cheated on. Also unveiled is every evil thought we've harboured, (not those feelings which we do not will and cannot be held responsible) those thoughts we've lingered over; like holding onto anger and jealousy, or giving free reign to lustful thoughts.

After every action and thought is laid bare before God, how can we respond? It is just me and God. There is no one else to point to to say "look, he's a murderer, he's a really bad person!" How foolish would we sound saying 'I'm a good person!' Not one of us can stand before God and say such a thing. Even the greatest saints, whose sanctity seems so far beyond our own, acknowledged their own sinfulness and weakness.

What is the purpose of this? Are we trying to weigh ourselves down with guilt, to feel like we're no good and worthless because of our sins and weaknesses? This couldn't be further from the truth.

Jesus gives us two examples in today's parable: the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee is quite content with his life, he is saying in prayer I'm a good person. What this sounds like to God is: "I'm doing just fine on my own." He is closed to God's grace because of this attitude. He's like that fellow that was one day tied to a railroad track. He had been living a worldly life for years, not praying or practicing his faith, when he ran into some trouble and found himself tied to the railroad. He struggled for hours to get free but with no success. Finally he cries out to God and says: "I know you haven't heard from me much, but if you get me out of this I'll turn my life around and become a priest." (This is actually the story of how Monsignor Smith became a priest!) Suddenly, just as a train is approaching his bonds are come loose and he throws himself out of the path of the oncoming train. After the train passes he says to God: "never mind, I took care of it myself."

The tax collector however, acknowledges that he is utterly dependent upon God, that he is weak and a sinner, and in this way he opens himself to receive grace and forgiveness from God, and indeed, Jesus tells us, he goes home justified, saved, at rights with God.


The adventure of the spiritual life is in many ways a journey of self-discovery. It's foundation is true self knowledge or humility. It is not a question of getting down on ourselves about our weaknesses, rather we need to know what the problem is in order to fix it. A doctor cannot heal the patient who won't tell him the symptoms. We need to bring our weakness before God, honestly. We must acknowledging our weakness and our need for God. If we cling to this idea that 'I'm ok' 'you're ok' than where does God fit in? We really have no need of Him at all.


This fundamental attitude: "I have sinned, and I am loved by God" radically reshapes our relationship with God. Before any prayer is a good practice to spend a few moments acknowledging God's greatness and our weakness. It is a great and longstanding practice for Christians to kneel at their bedside and make an examination of conscience every day before going to sleep. In doing so we work to pierce any illusions we have about ourselves and see ourselves as we are, standing totally open before God and asking for His mercy and trusting in His love.

This humility, this true self-knowledge, is the foundation of all sincere prayer. Before we pray, before we dare to address God we must first remember how small we are and how great He is: He is God, we are mere men; He is the Creator, we are creatures. We begin this way because this changes the dynamic of prayer. When we pray we're not casually chatting with friends over a beer, nor are we listing of our requests like ordering our drivethru Starbucks on the way to work. When we pray, we are entering into a relationship with the God who created us, redeemed us, and with whom we are to be happy forever.

If we experience dryness in our prayer. If when we try to spend some quiet moments with God we don't seem to be succeeding at all, this is one area we must first examine. How am I approaching God? Am I truly open to His will, to meeting Him as He reveals Himself? Or am I caught up with myself, my work, my family to such a degree that there is no room in my heart for God? St. Augustine wisely said "Man is a beggar before God." We have nothing of any value we bring to this relationship. If we insist on this, we'll crowd God out. We must strip ourselves of everything when we come before God in prayer: leave behind our artificiality, our job, our possessions, and seek God in true humility, ready to receive from Him.

Such prayer is very powerful. As the first reading has it "The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds" and it is heard with joy by the Lord.


We are invited today to seek true humility: in every aspect of our lives but especially in our relationship with God. Humility, true self-knowledge, is not about getting down on ourselves, but rather a healthy dose of reality that gives us perspective in our lives. It is also the necessary foundation for prayer. Tonight, before going to sleep let us kneel at our bedside, and beating our breast cry out to God the beautiful prayer of humility taught us by the lowly tax collector: "have mercy on me, a sinner."

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Hand of God: The Best, the Only (29.C)

The headline of the week was surely on the front page of Thursday's National Post: "I have been with God and I have been with the devil. GOD WON."

The words, of course, belong to Mario Sepulveda, one of the 33 Chilean miners rescued this week—an acknowledged leader the press in Chile called Super Mario.

In an interview, Mr. Sepulveda said "I have been with God and I have been with the devil. They both fought for me. God won. I seized the hand of God, it was the best hand. I always knew God would get me out of there."

That's about as good a homily as has ever been preached about the need to pray always and not lose heart. For almost ten weeks the miners waited six hundred metres below ground; not all of them were religious, but many were, and they prayed together. One dropped to his knees to pray as soon as he stepped out of the rescue capsule.

All in all, the "Miracle Miners" make a better parable than the one Jesus tells us this Sunday. Sure, the rescue was slow, but if we believe Super Mario, he never doubted things would turn out right.

The widow standing before the unjust judge certainly didn't have that confidence. She didn't know how things would turn out—after all, she was pleading for justice from a man who didn't fear God, much less respect anyone. All she knew was that she had no other options. She was a widow, and therefore most likely poor. If she could have hired a lawyer, she would have.

With only one course of action open to her, she took it, with no sure hope of success. But success is what she got.

We don't always realize it, but many times in our lives we only have one option: to pray and not lose heart. We pretend to ourselves that we have other choices, trying desperately to control the uncontrollable, refusing to accept the inevitable, but really we've run out of time, or steam, or rope—pick your metaphor—and turning to anything or anyone else is pointless.

The parable, as I said, isn't as satisfying as the miners' rescue. But Mario Sepulveda got it right: God's hand is the best hand. And God will get us out of the dark and deep prisons where we've become trapped.

Once we seize the hand of God, though, we have to hang on tight. Relaxing our grip when He doesn't bring us to the surface immediately, on our schedule, means we fall back into the depths. Recognizing that he is our only hope, we can't let go when the going gets tough.

The first reading gives us a powerful image of this. Moses lifted his hands to God in prayer, and when he held them high the battle went in Israel's favour. When he let them droop, the enemy got the upper hand.

I always thought the story was about Moses getting physically tired. I wonder now whether he lowered his hands in worry when he saw things were turning against Israel. Or maybe he was simply weary of praying for such a long time. Either way: we see the results of his persevering prayer.

Another Old Testament text that puts some light on today's parable is found in the wisdom book we call either Sirach or Ecclesiasticus. Many years ago, a passage from the second chapter saw me through a personal crisis, and it has helped me many times since: "My child if you aspire to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for an ordeal… and do not be alarmed when disaster comes. Cling to him, and do not leave him, so that you may be honoured at the end of your days." [New Jerusalem Bible]

Jesus doesn't offer answers to prayer on demand. But nor does he compare his heavenly Father to the unjust judge. Father John Jay Hughes says that "the point of the story is the difference between the corrupt judge and God."

But if God doesn't have to be bugged or bought off, why do we need to imitate the persistence of the widow?

Father Hughes has simple answer: "Prayer, like everything to do with God, is ultimately a mystery. One thing, however is certain. Prayer does not change God. Prayer changes us. It opens us up to the action of God in our lives."

This truth came alive in the life of the newest Canadian saint and the first Canadian born man to be canonized. St. André, the humble brother whom Pope Benedict canonized in Rome today, was known as a miracle worker. But the greatest miracles were spiritual, not physical.

Father Tom Rosica of Salt and Life television, has said that Brother André was able to urge people to pray with confidence and perseverance, while remaining open to God's will. That's the message Jesus wants us to take from today's parable.

Father Rosica, a tireless promoter of modern saints, notes that our new saint "admonished people to begin their path to healing through commitments to faith and humility, through confession and a return to the sacraments. He encouraged the sick to seek a doctor's care.

"He saw value in suffering that is joined to the sufferings of Christ. He allowed himself to be fully present to the sadness of others but always retained a joyful nature and good humor. At times, he wept along with his visitors as they recounted their sorrows."

That is what persevering prayer looks like. With hands held high, despite our weariness and fears, uncertainty and doubts, we pray without losing heart, confident that God will grant us what we need, when we need it, and that prayer will open our hearts to his 'what' and his 'when' in due time.

Let's end by drawing a practical lesson from the story of Moses. In the first place, it's a story of intercession: a reminder that we don't just pray for ourselves. We need to pray for our families, our friends, our parish, our country, and the world, without tiring out. In the second place, we noticed that his brother and another Israelite held Moses hands up for him when he could no longer raise them himself.

Intercession for others is part of Christian life; so is the intercession of the saints. Brother André teaches us about both these truths. As he became known as a miracle worker, he insisted, "I am nothing ... only a tool in the hands of Providence, a lowly instrument at the service of St. Joseph." But now in heaven St. André can both point us to Joseph and lift his own hands for us before the throne of God.


Saturday, October 9, 2010

Thanksgiving for our Stewards (28.C)

The sanctuary is decorated in a most unusual way this Sunday. Instead of the beautiful flowers that normally adorn the altar, we have a forest of some pretty scrawny trees.

But these trees are more glorious than the mightiest firs or the most colourful maples, because their thin branches bear the weight of grateful hearts. On these trees hang cards on which the students of St. Anthony's school have written the things for which they are most thankful.

Some of the children have written "family," others "nature," and some "God." One generous youngster put "priests," for which I'm thankful!

The students were expressing something we all feel this Thanksgiving weekend—gratitude to God, from whom all blessings flow.

Our young people have taught us a simple lesson with this display. We should never come to Mass empty-handed; we should always place before the altar something for which we're grateful. Jesus makes this clear when he asks where the missing lepers are. Of course He didn't need their thanks, but he knew they had lost out by not offering praise for their healing.

Our need and duty to give praise and thanks to God for all his gifts is surely the main focus of this and every Sunday. But a different kind of gratitude was on my mind last Sunday and I'd like to tell you about it today.

At the Cathedral on Sunday afternoon, 21 men and women were honoured with medals from the Pope for their service to the Church and the community.

These outstanding people had worked in just about every ministry or apostolic activity you could name, from Catholic education to health care to parish life.

It was an emotional celebration for me. Since I had worked in the central offices of the Archdiocese for nearly twenty years, I know most of the honorees, some of them very well. I knew better than most the extent of their labours, their sacrifices, and their zeal.

And yet one of them—a particularly worthy recipient, a real hero of mine—told me he wondered whether he should have stayed home. He felt uncomfortable with the honour, since he felt there were many others as deserving as he.

I told him "You're missing the point. We're not honouring you for your sake; we're thanking you for our sake!"

In other words, the Church was thanking them because it needed to. A community that can't say thank-you is in deep trouble; every person and every group has a deep need to express gratitude.

I'll go out on a limb and say that people who can't thank people, even Christians who can't thank other Christians, can't really thank God properly. A grateful heart will rejoice not only in God's gifts, but in the goodness of the people who reflect God's goodness to us, day-in and day-out.

We need to thank God, but we also need to thank one another. And I'm going to make that point right now, by thanking you.

There are countless things for which I could personally thank the parishioners of Christ the Redeemer, but this isn't the place for that. I do my best—which is probably not good enough—one on one. Today, though, I would like to thank the stewards among us for making possible this parish, its ministry, its programs, and its school.

Next week we will include with the bulletin the 2009 financial report—much later than promised, for which I do apologize. The report is one of several monuments to the generosity of our parishioners; it shows an increase in revenue despite hard economic times. A second sign of stewardship is this year's Project Advance campaign. We raised over $200,000, a remarkable achievement.

And of course that's not all. The parish community's support for Haiti was nothing short of astonishing, and you've welcomed visiting missionaries with open arms and equally open chequebooks. Just last week Father Joseph Kadavil wrote from India that our parish had allowed him to pay off half his debts.

In two weeks, the members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul collected a thousand dollars for their work with the needy just by standing with their one-of-a-kind poor box at the door of the church.

There's nothing I can say more eloquent than "thank-you" for the sacrifices you make and the generosity you show. It's my privilege and my pleasure as your pastor to thank our committed supporters in the name of the entire parish. And I add my personal appreciation: finances have never been my strongest point, and not having to worry about paying the bills takes a great burden off my shoulders. For many priests, money is a great worry, and I am very grateful that I'm spared that.

But as a pastor, I can't stop there. Following the example of Jesus in today's Gospel, I have to ask "where are the others?" Because not all members of the parish family have responded to the call to stewardship, and for spiritual more than financial reasons it's my duty to mention it.

At the present time, about one-third of registered parishioners use Sunday envelopes or participate in the dedicated giving program. About the same percentage support Project Advance. It's true that some parishioners are generous in the collection plate, but generally those who are serious about stewardship offer their donations by envelopes or dedicated giving and Project Advance.

Among the advantages to this kind of support is an income tax receipt that can reduce your tax burden. Another is that the parish has a record of your contributions and can thank you for them—and don't say you don't want thanks, because we want to thank you!

The dedicated giving program is something we'll talk about in a few weeks, because I'd like to invite more of you to use this convenient way of donating. It helps us budget, saves you trouble, and makes the work of our dedicated collection counters much easier.

I hope we've made it clear in the past that the spiritual benefits of stewardship matter more than the financial help it gives to the parish. The wonderful stewardship homilies of Father Dan Mahan hardly mentioned money at all. But as we are about to publish the financial report for last year, and taking a look at this year's reports, there are a couple of things I have to say about dollars and cents.

The first is that our operating income is slightly less than our expenditures. You'll see a $37,000 surplus in 2009, but that's only because a generous parishioner left us more than $40,000 in her will.

Obviously we are grateful for that bequest. But in your own family budgets, none of you would want to make ends meet with money that Great Aunt Gwendolen left you in her will. An inheritance should go into savings, or towards your mortgage—not to pay the Hydro bill.

We're not in bad shape, I'm glad to say, but getting our operating income to exceed our operating outgo is a goal we want to keep before us as we grow in Christian stewardship. It will be particularly important in 2010, since we received another bequest, a larger one, which will make our finances look rosier than they are.

Speaking of bequests—while they may cloud the financial picture, they are certainly clouds with silver or even golden linings! I would like to encourage those who can to consider what is called "planned giving," various ways of helping the parish with a major gift. The generous bequest we received this year, for instance, was donated to us as a trust during the lifetime of the donor.

There are, as many of you know, plans for the redevelopment of St. Thomas Aquinas School. When work begins, the North Shore parishes will face a great financial challenge and we need to save diligently for that day.

To conclude, I want to thank you once again for the generosity that seems to be a characteristic of this parish. But in thanking you for your stewardship of treasure, I want to mention the stewards who give generously also of their time and talent.

We are very blessed to have a dedicated team that counts the collection every week. It's a major job, and some of them have been doing it for years. Their care and attention is part of the system of excellent financial controls that ensures our parish follows to the letter the recommendations of the diocesan auditor.

Our parish finance council, made up of six parishioners—including a chartered accountant, an architect, an experienced auditor, and retired business executives—provides wisdom and accountability in our financial management.

Finally, the parish bookkeeper is a model of professionalism and efficiency, making the council's job and mine much easier.

I hope you will be pleased when you see the 2009 report next week. If you have any questions, we'll promise to e-mail you answers within a week of hearing from you.

Let me give the last word to the American bishops' pastoral letter on stewardship:

"Stewardship is an expression of discipleship, with the power to change how we understand and live out our lives. Disciples who practice stewardship recognize God as the origin of life, the giver of freedom, the source of all they have and are and will be.

"They are deeply aware of the truth that "The Lord's are the earth and its fullness; the world and those who dwell in it" (Ps 24:1).

"They know themselves to be recipients and caretakers of God's many gifts. They are grateful for what they have received and eager to cultivate their gifts out of love for God and one another."

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Rekindling Time! (27.C)

Almost everything I know about getting a fire going I learned from my Dad, and most of what he knows came from his uncle Jack.

Uncle Jack's advice was "one log won't burn, two logs might burn, three logs will burn."

I've tested that out over the years, mostly in fireplaces rather than campsites, and it's pretty reliable advice. Still, it's not foolproof, and I have more than once got dizzy blowing on a stubborn fire trying to get some action.

Fanning a fire can produce some fairly dramatic results. Not only does it get a stubborn fire blazing, it can also revive a dying fire from embers.

Small wonder that St. Paul tells Timothy to rekindle the gift of God he received when he was ordained. He wants his friend and protégé to be on fire with love and on fire with power. Paul would like to see Timothy's ministry blazing.

Paul's high hopes for Timothy in his priesthood give us an idea of what God wants for every one of us. We too, priests and lay people alike, received a gift through the laying on of hands—at Confirmation. Isn't that what we talk about at Confirmation—the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the gift of the Spirit Himself?

We received "a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline" in Confirmation no less than Timothy received it in Ordination.

So the question today is "do I need to rekindle the gift of God that is within me"? Does the fire of the Holy Spirit still blaze in my heart, or does it need some fanning to burst into flame?

This is not a minor issue, since Jesus says in the Book of Revelation "how I wish you were hot or cold, but because you are lukewarm I am going to spit you out." Strong language for sure. Clearly the Lord wants on-fire disciples, but he'd sooner you froze him out rather than living as a tepid and unenthusiastic Christian.

There are two main obstacles to moving beyond such halfhearted Christianity. The first is not recognizing that you've become lukewarm. If you're perfectly satisfied with a faint glow from your campfire you won't be leaning over it and blowing till your blue in the face.

Jesus picks up on this, too, in another passage from Revelation. It's more than a little scary. He starts by saying to the Church at Ephesus: I know hard you work and how much you put up with. .. I know that you have patience, and have suffered for my name tirelessly.

But he goes on: Nevertheless, I have this complaint to make; you have less love now than you used to. Think where you were before you fell; repent, and do as you used to at first.

We need to constantly monitor our progress as Christians. You've all heard the saying "If you're not growing, you're dying." It's used in all kinds of different ways, but it certainly applies to the spiritual life. If we're standing still, the flame is flickering and the fire is cooling down. And this is not what our Lord wants from us—he said "I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!" [Lk 12:49]

And let's be quite honest: almost all of us need rekindling from time to time. Our Christian lives don't run on a smooth path from cradle to grave. We have spiritual ups and down no less than we have emotional ups and downs, or physical ups and downs. Last night I was reading a book by a monk who wrote that even good monks can spend a lifetime feeling out of their depth, confused, bewildered and even a bit annoyed by the mysterious ways of God!

The second obstacle to rekindled Christian lives is not knowing what we can and should do when our spiritual batteries need to be recharged.

What St. Paul tells Timothy gives us some practical advice on this score. First of all, he says recognize what a great gift you have received: the Spirit of God dwelling in your heart. We are literally homes in which God's Spirit lives, and that's a great starting point if we want our hearts to burn within us.

Second, conquer your fear with the power of God. We don't need to lie awake at night worrying what we're going to say to the bully who mocks our faith in the lunchroom—God has promised not only to honour our suffering but to help us know how best to defend ourselves.

We don't need to feel defeated by our sinful habits when we remember that Confirmation gave us fortitude—the gift of spiritual toughness—and that the Holy Spirit gives us a spirit of self-discipline to help us overcome weakness and weariness.

A third thing St. Paul says is especially important these days: "hold to the standard of sound teaching." In the last homily he gave before his election as Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger said "How many winds of doctrine have we known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking.

"The small boat of the thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves—flung from one extreme to another."

Fanning a fire helps get it blazing, but blustery winds will blow it out. If we want to rekindle faith that's become weak, we need to reconnect to its sources: to the Scriptures and to the Catechism. I have owned a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church almost since the day it appeared in English, yet I am delighted and even dazzled by it almost every week.

Finally, Paul says "guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit." Here are two key points. First, we must treat the faith as something precious that must be guarded; if we have built no firewall around the gift of God we received in Baptism and Confirmation, we must expect the thief to attack. The movies we see, the friends we choose, the way we surf TV channels and the internet—all these help determine whether or not we're going to fizzle out as Christian men and women.

But catch his last few words: "with the help of the Holy Spirit, living in us." We're not on our own, trying by our own effort to rediscover the enthusiasm for the faith we may have felt when we were younger. We don't need to strain to find the deeper level of contact with God that our heart deeply wants. The Spirit helps us—even from within our souls, since He lives in us.

And that's even more sure than Uncle Jack's advice on how to build a fire.

Monday, September 27, 2010

We’re All Catechists (Commissioning Sunday)

While I was in San Diego last week for the meeting of the International Catholic Stewardship Council I met a priest who worked at Disneyland for 25 years before being called to the priesthood.

When I remarked that his former career must have been fascinating, he replied "Yes, it was, but now I've gone from working for the Magic Kingdom to working for the Eternal Kingdom!"

At Mass today we're reminded that we are all called to work for the Eternal Kingdom. This Sunday is "Catechetical Sunday" or "Commissioning Sunday" in our parish, and at the 10 o'clock Mass we will commission some 40 women and men as catechists or catechist assistants—as teachers of faith in our parish community.

And earlier in the month, the staff of our parish school were also commissioned for their ministry of teaching the faith to their students.

Our catechists aren't at work only in the classrooms of our school and parish religious education program. They include those who share the faith in the RCIA program for inquirers, in the RCIC program for children preparing to become Catholics, and in the youth ministry program.

They include those who work with fellow parishioners attending our adult faith formation programs, and with new parents preparing for the baptism of infants.

40 catechists is a large number—and the number is larger still if you add the teachers at the school. And yet they're just tip of the iceberg.

In the first place, Catholic parents are catechists, commissioned by their very vocation to teach and explain the faith to their children. The efforts of our school, PREP program, and youth ministry all depend on parents who support at home what goes on at the parish.

In the second place, every one of us is called to be a catechist to family members, friends, and neighbours. We hear a lot about the duty to evangelize—to share the good news of Christ with those who don't know Him—but not so much about the duty to catechize.

But the fact is: even your Catholic friends may need help understanding the teachings of the Church. They may be at Mass every week, but if their own formation in faith is weak, they'll have questions that you can answer—if you're willing and prepared.

And that's not all. In his homily at the centennial celebration at St. Patrick's parish last night, Archbishop Miller said "all of us... in every parish throughout the Archdiocese know those who have drifted away from the practice of their faith. They are in our families and among our friends and acquaintances ... We meet them in our workplace. They stand next to us in the grocery line and at the bus stop. They are in the car next to us as they pick up children from sports and band rehearsal and as we go about our daily and weekly errands."

The archbishop challenged us all to reach out to these good people. He said our mandate—our commission—is "to witness to others so that they may reawaken to and rediscover the peace and life brought by friendship with Jesus Christ."

"Of course," he said, "you must practice what you preach, but you must also preach what you practice. ... The Holy Spirit is inviting you to speak about your Catholic faith, to have the courageous and sometimes awkward conversation."

One of the reasons we promote our parish adult faith formation programs so strongly is that they get us ready for those courageous conversations. We don't learn more about the faith only for ourselves. For every parishioner who gets a better knowledge of Church teaching from one of our programs, there are probably half a dozen who benefit second-hand.

As the old saying goes, you can't give what you haven't got. Even if your own faith is strong, you need to be ready with reasons for the hope that is within you, as St. Peter said (1 Peter 3:15, NAB).

All this applies with extra force to young Catholics. Next month we are launching a new program called IT2/Life Teen. It will offer high school students plenty of social activity and fun, but with a core of solid Catholic teaching that will equip them not only to live the faith but to share it with others.

I2T/Life Teen expands last year's pilot program for high school students, which we called I2T: Information 2 Transformation, by introducing the well-established Life Teen youth ministry program.

The first event takes place October 17, with something called "Lights Out Dodgeball." I wish I could tell you what that is, but I was afraid to ask! Or afraid they'd ask me to participate!


I'd like to end with a story that shows what powerful teachers we can be to one another.

You all know of the tragic death last month of a young woman in the parish. And many of you know how wonderfully this parish community rallied around her family, and how a number spontaneously gathered in the church for prayer.

But if you weren't at the funeral, you probably don't know that a parishioner volunteered to speak at Mass so that the large crowd, which included many who were not Catholics, would be able to understand what was happening and to enter into the liturgy in the most meaningful way possible.

I won't ask where he got the confidence to stand up and do that—it was surely a matter of grace. But where did a layman get the knowledge he shared?

Part of the answer is the parish RCIA program of some years back. What he shared so powerfully he had first received through study and reflection.

As we commission our dedicated staff and volunteer catechists today, let's think also about the commission we've all received in baptism. And if anyone needs more information or knowledge to share the faith wisely and well, our adult faith formation programs, including the Evangelium course on the basics of our faith, and the Jeff Cavins' Bible Study on the Letter of James, are waiting for you.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Stewardship Notes

Since I'm away and won't be preaching this Sunday, I'm posting the note that I put in the bulletin both to explain my absence and to further encourage awareness of stewardship among the parishioners.

I returned from two weeks away—a retreat, CCO board meeting, and time with my family—to the news that the parish community had raised more than $18,000 for the good work of Father Kadavil with deaf children in India. Such charity is remarkable, and a sign of the spirit of stewardship at Christ the Redeemer.

As you know, stewardship has been a priority for our parish. For several years our parish has been reflecting on the words of St. Peter: "Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received" (1 Peter 10). We've talked a lot about sharing our "time, talent, and treasure" for God's glory and our own spiritual good.

With help from speakers such as Father Daniel Mahan, and the leadership of our own parish stewardship committee, we've tried to understand that stewardship isn't spelled "$tewardship"—it's not focused on money, but on our call to live gratefully, responsibly, and generously. Our parish council has studied the American bishop's pastoral letter Stewardship: A Disciple's Response, and we've made a summary available to all parishioners.

The Archdiocese has strongly supported parishes in their efforts to implement stewardship as a way of life, notably by appointing Mrs. Barbara Dowding as our first archdiocesan Director of Stewardship. Archbishop Miller has shown his own commitment by personally attending conferences of the International Catholic Stewardship Council, and will be present again this week at its annual convention in San Diego.

I'll be in San Diego this week as well, giving a presentation titled "Stewardship and Generation X," in which I will talk—with pride—about how our parish invites young adults to become involved as stewards at Christ the Redeemer, and about your strong support of our ministries to them. It's hard to be away from the community at this busy time, but meetings like this one are where new ideas and a fresh vision take shape. (It was at the ICSC meeting in 2008 that we met Father Mahan and invited him to share his rich insights with the parish.)

Please pray not only for the success of my talk, but even more for the continued growth of the spirit of stewardship at Christ the Redeemer.

Blog visitors unfamiliar with the ideas behind stewardship may find a good summary in these words from the American bishops' pastoral letter:

"Stewardship is an expression of discipleship,

with the power to change how we understand and live out our lives.

Disciples who practice stewardship recognize God as the origin of life,

the giver of freedom, the source of all they have and are and will be.

They are deeply aware of the truth that

"The Lord's are the earth and its fullness; the world and those who dwell in it" (Ps 24:1).

They know themselves to be recipients and caretakers of God's many gifts. They are grateful for what they have received."

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Sunday Mass: Doing Our Duty (24.C)

I must have been fifteen or sixteen, and I wanted something quite badly—probably money. But my Dad had other ideas. His idea was "no."

But even back then I was something of a debater, so l launched in to all the reasons why he should change his mind. I concluded with a list of my good points: I didn't drink, I didn't stay out all night, and I kept my room clean (actually, that last point wasn't true, but it sounded good).

My Dad listened thoughtfully, and said: "You don't drink, you don't stay out all night, and you keep your room clean. And I don't beat your mother."

"What?? What's that got to do with it?" I exclaimed. "Of course you don't beat my mother."

"Precisely," he said. "And I don't expect any credit for it."

His point was that doing what you're supposed to do isn't a great accomplishment. It's what God and others expect of you; it's nothing to boast about.

There are a thousand homilies contained in the parable of the Prodigal Son, but the story I've just told leads me to the one thousand and first. Doesn't the older son want credit for doing his duty? Doesn't he want his father to praise him for nothing more than avoiding the ghastly mistakes of his younger brother?

I hate to pick on the elder son, since he often gets the worst of it in homilies, but his mistake can teach us something. No matter how badly others mess up—in our families, our Church, or the world—we still can't look to be patted on the back for doing what we're called to do.

We live in a time when words like duty and obligation are out of fashion. Yet the Christian life necessarily involves duty, even thankless duty. Jesus himself tells us "when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say 'We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done." (Lk 17:10, NRSV).

St. Paul tells the Corinthians not to give him credit for his missionary service, because that's what he is obliged to do: "Woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!" (1 Cor 9:16). He's just doing what God told him to do, so he looks for thanks from neither God nor men.

We all have duties and obligations. Some come from family life—duties toward spouse, or children, or parents. Others arise from baptism, which is a source not only of rights but of responsibilities as well. Still other duties come from commitments we have made as priests or consecrated persons.

Today, I would like to speak about only one of our many duties as Christians: the obligation to attend Mass each Sunday. It may be only one, but fulfilling the Sunday obligation is the foundation of the practice of the faith (see CCC 2181).

In the simple words of the Catechism, "Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin" (CCC 2182).

But it's a mistake to think that missing Mass is simply breaking a Church rule. We know that keeping the Sabbath day holy is one of the Ten Commandments. The Catechism says "the celebration of Sunday observes the moral commandment inscribed by nature in the human heart"—a command "to render to God an outward, visible, public, and regular worship." Jews, Moslems, and Christians all agree on the need to offer weekly praise to God, even if we do so on different days.

For Catholics, though, Sunday Mass is more than just our weekly worship. The Eucharist "is at the heart of the Church's life" and Sunday is the day on which the mystery of Christ's Resurrection has been celebrated from the earliest times (see CCC 2177).

For the Christian, Sunday is "the first of all days, the first of all feasts, the Lord's Day" (CCC 2174). In his beautiful letter "On Keeping the Lord's Day Holy" [Dies Domini, 1998], Pope John Paul calls Sunday "the weekly Easter," "the day of the new creation," "an image of eternity"—I hope he wasn't talking about long homilies!—"the day of Christ-light," "the day of faith," summing up by calling it simply "an indispensable day."

Despite those rich expressions of the wonder and power of Sunday, the late Pope was realistic, and he writes with insight about the obstacles that make it difficult to participate in the Sunday celebration.

To be honest, I wouldn't have completely understood what he meant before coming to this suburban parish. Now, I can fully appreciate what the Pope was talking about when he said:

"The custom of the 'weekend' has become more widespread, a weekly period of respite, spent perhaps far from home and often involving participation in cultural, political or sporting activities ... This social and cultural phenomenon is by no means without its positive aspects if, while respecting true values, it can contribute to people's development and to the advancement of the life of society as a whole. …

"Unfortunately," the Pope continues "when Sunday loses its fundamental meaning and becomes merely part of a 'weekend', it can happen that people stay locked within a horizon so limited that they can no longer see 'the heavens'. Hence, though ready to celebrate, they are really incapable of doing so."

You sure can't say he doesn't understand the situation families face when soccer games, recitals, ski trips, and meetings all take place on Sunday.

But understanding the situation doesn't mean surrendering to it. The Pope's letter continues with these powerful words:

"The disciples of Christ, however, are asked to avoid any confusion between the celebration of Sunday, which should truly be a way of keeping the Lord's Day holy, and the 'weekend', understood as a time of simple rest and relaxation. This will require a genuine spiritual maturity, which will enable Christians to 'be what they are'… In this way, they will be led to a deeper understanding of Sunday, with the result that, even in difficult situations, they will be able to live it in complete docility to the Holy Spirit."

As a new school year begins, as the holidays end, we are invited to imitate the elder brother in the parable, by doing what we're supposed to do. But we may be surprised to find that doing no more than our duty will lead us to the same loving meeting with the Father that the younger son experienced, despite his sinfulness.