Saturday, July 31, 2010

Unanswered Prayer and Acceptance (18.C)

Lately, I’ve been having a lot of car trouble, so people have started telling me car jokes. The best of them was about the minister who went to the local garage. He said “I hope you won’t charge too much to fix my car. I’m just a poor preacher.”

“I know that,” replied the mechanic. “But I’ll give you a discount anyway.”

Whether or not I am a “poor preacher” is a matter of opinion, but one thing’s for sure: last week’s homily hit home for many of you. After the 10 o’clock Mass, one parishioner told her husband he had to come to the 5 to hear the homily—and he’d already been to Mass elsewhere!

I know why the response was so strong. It wasn’t what I said: it was the topic, unanswered prayer.

Lots of time I preach to only half of the congregation. I might be talking about raising children to single people, or about the challenges of the single life to married people. But when I talked about unanswered prayer I was speaking to everyone, since nobody over the age of three hasn’t prayed for something and not got it.

Last week I tried to talk about what prayer is not. To quote another preacher’s sermon that I found on the internet , prayer is not a lottery. It’s not twisting God's arm to make Him do what we want. Prayer is not an automatic guarantee of success.

This week I would like to offer the other side of the story on prayer. If prayer isn’t what we thought it was, then what good is it?

I’d answer this way: Prayer isn’t about getting what we want nearly as much as it’s about wanting what we get.

That’s a mouthful, but you can boil it down to one word: acceptance. As I’ve said before, acceptance is the key to peace in the face of worry, misfortune, and every other form of human suffering and trial.

And this not a new idea. It is the heart of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, which have delivered countless thousands from the bonds of addiction to alcohol and many other things. It is the message of the famous Serenity Prayer, which begins “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…”

But how, you might ask, can I accept the unacceptable? How can I accept the bad hand life has dealt me, the injustices, the sorrows? It’s certainly not easy; I think we’ve all met people who have given up on God when misfortune overwhelmed them.

The answer lies in the providence of God, that “quality of God’s action by which he brings good out of evil, or by which He permits us to do evil so that He may eventually bring good out of it.”

Put another way, “only God is powerful enough to control all things and He seems to prefer to make some things come out right without changing them.”

Those words are from a little booklet called Acceptance: The Key To Serenity and Peace of Mind. It was written fifty years ago by Vincent Collins; over the years I have given away hundred of copies, and preached its simple message a dozen times.

Collins says “The trouble is that most of us think happiness consists in the fulfillment of our wants and desires, or at the very least in freedom from pain and suffering. Actually, it consists in the serenity that comes from conforming our own will to the Will of God. We achieve happiness by forcing ourselves to accept what God wants for us.”

The Serenity Prayer sums this up. In it, we pray “to accept hardships as the pathway to peace; taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as we would have it; trusting that He will make all things right if we surrender to His will.”

Of course we don’t believe that God directly wills evil to happen . He cannot and he does not: “he merely permits it, even while he works the marvel by which [evil] results in good.”

When we find ourselves tempted, as Jesus was, to rebel from our fate, we must pray as he did. We have to avoid the prayer that someone described as “Helping God not to make mistakes.” And we must pray that he will “make all things right” in his way, in his time.

Most of us think that peace consists in the fulfillment of our wants and desires, or at the very least in freedom from pain and suffering. In his suffering and in his resurrection, Jesus showed us that peace comes from uniting our own will to the will of God.

And that is done mainly through prayer.

When things seem desperate, we need to think about what God did for Jesus, and to trust that in his providence he will do the same for us. We must accept what we cannot change, saying “Not my will, but Thine be done.” Not what I want, but what you want, and what you can and will turn to my eternal good.

Then and only then the burden will drop from our shoulders and our souls be filled with the peace that passes all human understanding.

We will find the security and peace promised to us by Christ when we surrender control of our lives to him—not asking him to change everything we’re dealing with, but asking him to change us.

Acceptance is the antidote to the discouragement of unanswered prayer, and the surest path to peace of heart. Because “only God is powerful enough to control all things and He seems to prefer to make some things come out right without changing them.”

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Unanswered Prayer (17.C)

A man dropped by the office in an East Vancouver parish to ask for prayers for Jenny Lee. The pastor agreed, and prayers were offered for Jenny Lee at all the Sunday Masses.

The following week the priest asked whether they should continue to pray for Jenny Lee, but the man said there was no need: Jenny Lee came in first at Hastings Racetrack.

It’s not a bad joke, but prayer is actually no laughing matter. In fact, few things bother Christians more than unanswered prayer.

“Why doesn’t God answer my prayers “is probably the hardest question I get asked. And it’s tough to answer, because the Bible suggests that God is just waiting to answer our petitions. That seems very clear in today’s Gospel, when Jesus says “Ask and you shall receive.” It’s one of our Lord’s most consoling promises.

But it’s not very consoling if your prayers aren’t getting answered. You’ve prayed for a year for a new job, and you’re still unemployed. You’ve begged God to heal a loved one, and she’s still sick. You asked that your husband would recover, but he died.

What does God’s Word say in these tough circumstances? Does Jesus mean what he says—does he really care?

These are valid questions, and no-one needs to apologize for asking them. Because, on the surface, it’s very difficult to square “everyone who asks receives” with the evidence all around us. Bad things do happen to good people, to people who pray faithfully; we see it all the time.

To some extent, unanswered prayers are part of the mystery of the Christian life. Not every problem has a neatly packaged solution. As St. Paul says, we see now “indistinctly, as in a mirror”; at present we see partially, and only in the Kingdom will all be made clear. (1 Cor. 13: 12)

To help us understand why we don’t get everything we ask from God, let’s think about a world where he did do everything we ask of him. What would that world be like?

To start with, prayer would be very, very scary! There’s an old saying “Be careful what you pray for; you just might get it.” Imagine if you were sure to get it: you’d be in the driver’s seat. You’d be the one who knows best. In fact, the world would be in the hands of millions of mini-Gods, all of them quite sure of what they, their loved ones, and their communities needed most.

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want that much responsibility when I prayed.

It’s a less important point, but everyone getting everything they asked for raises some logistical issues. What if a parishioner whom I’ve treated badly prays that I get moved to Bella Coola at the same time someone I’ve really helped is praying I stay forever? What if two students pray hard to win the same scholarship?

Or how about this? If today’s Gospel were as simple as it sounds—if Jesus meant to tell us plainly that we’ll always get what we want—faith would be replaced by pure commerce. The Church would be a spiritual Walmart. Place your order, and wait for delivery. There would be no more disciples, just consumers. Who wouldn’t be a so-called Christian if that healed every illness, fixed every flat tire, and warded off death until nobody cared anymore?

Those of you with families know the harm that is done when parents give children everything they want. God our Father knows this, too. Like children, we don't always know what is best for us, and getting everything we want when we want it will do us no good at all.

These are important arguments, but nothing’s more important than the mystery of the Cross. Jesus gave us the perfect example of the ‘unanswered’ prayer. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he asked the Father to take away the cup of his passion. As we know, his suffering and death followed anyway. But we can call Christ’s prayer “unanswered” only if we shut the Bible on Good Friday. On Easter Sunday, the Father answered the prayer of the Son like no prayer has ever been answered, before or since.

The mystery of the Cross helps us understand our own so-called unanswered prayers. What we mean is that they weren’t answered according to our timetable but according to God’s plan, which doesn’t depend on watches or calendars but rather extends into eternity. I shocked an audience once by starting a talk with “God isn’t perfect.” Before they could convict me of heresy, I added “He has no sense of timing.”

The more I think about it, the clearer it becomes. A literal reading of today’s Gospel—or of other similar passages in Scripture—just isn’t possible. After all, for almost two thousand years Christians have been pondering the words of Jesus—words like if you had the faith of mustard seed you could move mountains, ask and you shall receive—without receiving miracles made to order. And yet we’ve continued to pray, and continued to believe.

The only explanation is that we’ve come to understand, in faith, that God answers prayer not according to human thinking but as supreme and sovereign Lord who is all-knowing and all-loving, and capable of bringing very great goods—goods as absolute as our eternal salvation—even from the greatest of sufferings or the greatest of evils.

If God allowed me to ask him one question, I wouldn’t waste it on why he doesn’t always answer prayer the way I think he should. I’d be pretty sure what he’d say: because I’m God, and you’re not.

It’s not the easiest answer to swallow when we’re afraid or sorrowing, but it’s an invitation to faith and trust that comes from a Father who knows what we need most.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Eucharist and Charity (15.C)

There’s an old joke about the man who went to see a lawyer. He knew how expensive lawyers could be, so he asked him straightaway, "Can you tell me how much you charge?"

"Of course", the lawyer replied, "I charge $500 to answer three questions."

"Don't you think that's an awful lot of money to answer three questions?" the man asked.

"Yes it is", answered the lawyer, "What's your third question?"

Today’s liturgy only asks one question, and the answer is free. “Who is your neighbour?”

But don’t think the answer is easy just because it’s free. You won’t find the answer by a quick read of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Because if you live in Canada, your neighbour is not likely a man beaten up by robbers and left bleeding at the side of the road. Today’s Gospel is not about your obligation to call 911 on your cell phone and wait for the ambulance.

So what is the answer?

Pope Benedict helps us out. In his encyclical letter on Christian Charity, he wrote that when Jesus taught this parable, a “neighbour” was a fellow countryman or at least a foreigner who had settled in the land of Israel; in other words, a member of my community or one of my people.

“This limit,” the Pope says bluntly, “is now abolished. Anyone who needs me, and whom I can help, is my neighbour.”

That’s a pretty clear definition, but it poses a problem. Can such a universal concept of neighbour still be concrete? Pope Benedict says yes. The fact that all humanity is my “neighbour” does not mean the concept has been reduced to something generic or abstract; far from it: our Lord’s teaching “calls for my own practical commitment here and now.”

Each of us is called to a different practical commitment to charity, depending on our individual circumstances. We figure out what it is first by opening our eyes. If your sister-in-law has three small kids and is receiving cancer treatment, look no further for a neighbour in need.

But what if there’s nothing so obvious? Here we need to open not only our eyes but our hearts. The Pope says that “the Christian's program—the program of the Good Samaritan, the program of Jesus—is “a heart which sees.”

“This heart sees where love is needed and acts accordingly.”

I cheated a bit when I began my homily by saying we only needed to answer one question today, because I think most of us will ask “how do I develop a heart that sees”? How do I go beyond the obvious in living the Gospel fully?

Again, we can turn to Benedict XVI for an answer, and a simple one at that. In a talk he gave last month, he said that the Mass both obliges and enables us to meet the needs of our brothers and sisters.

He said that “a Eucharistic celebration that does not lead to meeting people where they live, work and suffer, in order to bring them God's love, does not express the truth it contains.”

Think about that! The Mass we’re celebrating this Sunday morning must lead us to meet people where they live, work and suffer; it must lead us to bring them God's love. Otherwise, our Eucharist “does not express the truth it contains.”

Let me close with a reflection from a fine theologian who clearly has a “heart that sees.”

Father Michael Himes begins with the obvious: the primary point of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that everyone is a neighbour, “including those who are separated by racial, ethnic or religious differences.”

“But if that is the sole point,” he asks, “then why… bother to mention that the first two passersby were a priest and a Levite? If the only point to be made is that everyone is called to be neighbour to everyone else, all that’s needed in the story is two Jews. Why a priest and a Levite?

“Also, why include the detail that the priest and the Levite not only passed the wounded man by, but did so by crossing over to the other side of the road?”

Personally, I always thought this detail was just to make us priests squirm. Not so, says Father Himes in his fascinating explanation of the parable.

He asks “On the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, where would one expect a priest and a Levite to be going or coming from? The temple. And what would they do in the temple? Offer worship to God. And why do they not assist the wounded man? Because he is bloodied, and touching anything bloody would render them unclean, non-kosher, and so incapable of participating in the rites of the temple.

“That is why they carefully cross on the other side—so that no blood will touch them.

“Undoubtedly, the story is about how marvelous it is that an enemy, a Samaritan, would help a Jew—that being a neighbour knows no boundaries. But there is another element we ought not to miss in the parable. … that anyone who thinks that loving your neighbour might interfere with loving God simply does not know what loving God means. One can only love God with one’s whole heart, soul, strength and mind if one also loves the neighbour. That is what the priest and Levite missed.”

It must not be what we miss, as we gather today to worship God in this Eucharist. Let our Sunday celebration give us “hearts that see,” hearts that see where love is needed and then act accordingly.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The New Evangelizers (14C)

I preached a short homily at St. Anthony’s 5 o’clock Mass yesterday, and it seemed to go over extremely well. So what did I do? I turned it into a longer homily overnight!

I should have known better, because this Sunday’s Gospel reminds preachers that sometimes fewer words are better. Look how Jesus boiled down the message for the first missionaries: “The kingdom of God has come near you.”

What, do you suppose, was Our Lord’s reason for giving the first missionaries so few words with which to proclaim the Good News?

If it was to inspire his priests to do the same, he wasn’t very successful! Not long after my ordination I heard the story of a man who slipped out the side door during the homily (not one of mine!). He found another parishioner already sitting on the steps who asked him “Has Father finished yet?”

“Yes,” said the man who’d just escaped, “long ago. But he hasn’t stopped.”

Surely the reason Jesus gave the disciples such a simple script is that he had more confidence in work than in words. He told them to heal and to help; that would give their words meaning and force.

Even though miracles aren’t central today to the Church’s missionary work, not that much has changed since Jesus sent out those seventy missionaries. Works, not words, still make converts, nine times out of ten. The charity, compassion and community of our parish preach the kingdom better than all my homilies. The three members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society who spoke after the Masses last Sunday showed us today’s Gospel in living colour.

If actions spoke louder than words in Jesus’ time, how much more is this true today. In his apostolic letter on evangelization, Pope Paul VI wrote that modern man is fed up with talk, often tired of listening, and even impervious to words. He noted the view of many psychologists and sociologists who say that we have passed beyond a culture of words and now live in a culture of images.*

He added that “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” [
Evangelii nuntiandi, 67]

In the first reading today, the prophet Isaiah paints a picture of Jerusalem as a universal mother, nourishing and nurturing her children, comforting and consoling all who love her. Scripture and tradition treat Jerusalem not only as an image of heaven but of the Church on earth. But how can the Church, wounded and weak as she is, perform this maternal task without the help of Christians who are willing to labour in the fields?

Last Sunday we heard Jesus say “follow me.” Perhaps we said “Okay, Lord—but where and how?” This Sunday we have the answer: wherever and whenever a person of peace invites you in. Wherever and whenever a person welcomes a gentle conversation about faith or the good life.

Jesus says “follow me” to the bedside of the sick, bringing a message of hope. If you are called to bring physical healing, all the better, but bring first the message that illness draws us closer to Christ, not apart from him.

When I was a young boy, a missionary was a brave soul laboring in Asia or Africa, or perhaps the far north. He or she needed courage, and a strong constitution, along with the ability to adapt to another culture and climate. If you lacked one of those essentials—or if you were, say, older than 25 or so—you could forget about it. You weren’t called.

Today we are all called: young and old, rich and poor, strong and weak, brilliant and average. We’re called first by baptism. Every baptized person has a share in the Christ’s mission—the Church’s mission—of proclaiming in work and word that the kingdom of God is near.

But that’s not all. We are also called by the times in which we live. Our call to mission doesn’t come only from the pages of the Bible—we “read” it also in the newspapers, in the “signs of the times.” The Church will recover her credibility at a time of scandal and weakness only if the laity rise up as an army of witnesses.

Again, prophetic words from Pope Paul underline the urgency of this. He wrote that the Church will evangelize the modern world “primarily by her conduct and by her life… in other words, by her living witness of fidelity to the Lord Jesus.” ** It seems obvious to me that the infidelity of some clergy has gravely handicapped the effective witness to the world of priests and religious at the present time. Does this mean the Church is hog-tied, unable to show forth her holiness?

Last Monday the Holy Father announced a new Vatican department to promote what’s called the new evangelization: it will not send missionaries to those few corners of the world that have not heard the Gospel. On the contrary, it will help renew the Christian faith in countries where it has grown cold, where the faith has been eclipsed by secularism.

The missionaries of the new evangelization will not mainly be priests and sisters but lay Christians. They’ll be men and women, young and old, who are convinced that a rich harvest is waiting if only enough workers will live their baptismal commitment fully in the world.

Some will be fulltime missionaries, like the young people of Catholic Christian Outreach. But most will be part-timers, Catholics who are ready to engage others in respectful dialogue, ready to evangelize the workplace, the classroom, the community center, the neighbourhood… even the parish.

They’ll be women and men a lot like you.

*“Modern man is sated by talk; he is obviously often tired of listening and, what is worse, impervious to words. We are also aware that many psychologists and sociologists express the view that modern man has passed beyond the civilization of the word, which is now ineffective and useless, and that today he lives in the civilization of the image.” (
Evangelii nuntiandi, 42)

** “St. Peter expressed this well when he held up the example of a reverent and chaste life that wins over even without a word those who refuse to obey the word. It is therefore primarily by her conduct and by her life that the Church will evangelize the world, in other words, by her living witness of fidelity to the Lord Jesus- the witness of poverty and detachment, of freedom in the face of the powers of this world, in short, the witness of sanctity.” (
Evangelii nuntiandi, 41)

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Father Stanley Galvon: 25 Years of Priesthood

The following is a light-hearted homily preached on the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, the 25th anniversary of the ordination of Father Stanley Galvon.

As most of you know, Father Galvon and I are best friends. But our friendship isn’t a result of similar personalities; in fact, you’d have quite a time finding two priests less alike. We have very different temperaments, outlooks and gifts.

A good example of this happened when we were on a camping trip. During the night, I shook him awake and said “Stan, look up at the sky and tell me what you see.”

He looked up and replied, “I can see millions of stars.”

“What does that tell you?” I asked him.

He thought for a minute and said “Astronomically speaking, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Time wise, it appears to be about a quarter past three. Theologically, it’s evident that the Lord is all powerful and we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, it seems we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. What do the stars above us tell you?”

I replied, “It tells me that someone has stolen our tent.”

The great apostles Peter and Paul were even less alike than Father Galvon and I. The fisherman and the Pharisee had next to nothing in common besides their Jewish faith. One was educated, the other not. One was impetuous, the other a careful planner. One was drawn to his own people, the other to the world beyond.

Peter boldly answered Christ’s call to leadership, and Paul the Spirit’s call to mission. How much the Church owes individually to the man we call the Prince of the Apostles, and to the Apostle of the Gentiles! There are very good reasons why their massive statues flank the great fa├žade of the Vatican basilica, and stand like pillars at the apse of the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls.

For all that, we’re equally in debt to Peter and Paul for the lesson they taught together—a lesson in mutual respect, a lesson about the Church’s needs for people of different temperaments, outlooks and gifts, not to mention the power of the virtues of charity and humility.

The story of this lesson is told, by Paul himself, in the second chapter of the Galatians. Not surprisingly, he tells it from his own perspective—as Churchill said, “history is written by the victors.” But that quotation is really not fair, since the victors in this contest were you and I, since it led to the spread of the Church beyond its Jewish origins.

Paul is a pretty tough debater, and he describes in no uncertain terms how he stood up to Peter on the issue of requiring converts to follow Jewish laws. His account doesn’t include much face-saving for the first Pope. And yet the very man he convicts of error he calls a “pillar” and an “acknowledged leader.” Paul recognizes the divine origin of Paul’s call, just as he does his own.

Peter comes off a bit better in the version of the controversy found in the Acts of the Apostles. Chapter 15 records his stirring speech announcing the decision not to impose Jewish ways on converts. He neither compromises nor apologizes now that the Lord’s will has been made clear, in part by a council of fellow bishops, in part by Paul’s own aggressive arguments.

Having—in quotation marks—“lost” the battle to Paul, Peter graciously gives him the floor, and heartily supports the mission of Paul and Barnabas to Antioch, where they will convey the decision taken at Jerusalem.

How easily this dispute could have gone off the rails, but for the willingness of Peter and Paul to see the Spirit working in each other! How easily the Church could have been split asunder if Paul had not recognized Peter’s legitimate authority or had Peter not discerned the Spirit speaking through Paul!

As we celebrate this great feast and honour these giants of our faith, and as we rejoice in the 25th anniversary of our pastor and friend Father Stanley Galvon, let us pray for the grace to affirm one another in our proper roles in the Church, lay and priestly. Let us celebrate our differences within the unity of the Body of Christ, and give thanks for the marvelous way God has chosen to continue the apostles’ ministry through the ages.

And of course, on this day of Father Galvon’s priestly jubilee, let us not forget to pray for vocations to the priesthood; let us pray that young men in this parish will let his happiness and contentment encourage them to consider the priesthood as not only a way of service but a path to joy.

I don’t know how many of you realize that Fr. Stan’s background included a stint as archdiocesan vocations director. He did his best to apply the recruiting techniques of the Canadian Forces when he was vocations director, but it didn’t always work.

He was standing at the door of the church one Sunday when he saw a young man of about the right age, so he pulled him aside and said “You need to join the Army of the Lord!”

The fellow replied, “I'm already in the Army of the Lord, Father.”

Father Galvon questioned him, “Then how come I don't see you in church very often?”

The young man whispered back, “I'm in the Secret Service.”

God bless you, Father Stan, and may the Church be blessed with many more priests like you.