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.