Saturday, May 22, 2010

Pentecost: Asking for the Gifts We Need

Some time back there was a book called “The Gospel According to Peanuts,” dispensing spiritual wisdom from Charlie Brown.

Today I’d like to talk about the Gospel according to the Wizard of Oz. Of course as I say that I realize that many of the younger members of the congregation never saw that movie; I suppose many of you never heard of Charlie Brown either.

The Wizard of Oz was central to my childhood. The special effects are laughable nowadays, especially compared to the wizardry of Avatar and so on. But it sure captured our imagination as kids—and it has taught me a spiritual lesson or two that I have carried with me.

One lesson is about gifts, gifts that the scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion don’t even know they need. They know things aren’t going well—the scarecrow feels stupid, the Tin Man thinks he has no heart, and the Lion’s afraid of his own shadow. But they don’t know what’s needed to overcome their weaknesses.

The Wizard does know. He knows they have within them everything they need. They only need to activate the gifts they already possess.

I don’t want to sound irreverent by comparing the Holy Spirit to the Wizard! Still, there’s a very fine comparison to be made.

Almost every one of us will acknowledge a weakness, a failure, a shortcoming or a fear. Almost everyone has a deep longing to be more than we are, better than we are—a better Christian, a better parent, a wiser student, a more loving child. We go to confession (or at least we should) to admit our sins and failures to God.

But where do we go for what we need to overcome these sins? Where do we find the strength to grow and to change, to carry on and to draw nearer to God and to one another?

The answer is: we go to the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit knows what we need, and knows how to give it to us. The Holy Spirit is the source of strength for daily Christian living.

So, then, how do we go the Spirit? The cover of this week’s bulletin offers a practical answer from the no-nonsense foundress of the Madonna House Apostolate.

Catherine Doherty’s formula for approaching the Spirit sounds a lot like spring cleaning:

Stand still, and lifting your hearts and hands to God, pray that the mighty word of his Holy Spirit may clear all the cobwebs of fears, selfishness, greed, narrow-heartedness away from the soul: that his tongues of flame may descend to give courage to begin again.

That’s very direct advice from a holy woman who never beat around the bush. Let the Spirit clear away whatever is holding you back, and then receive from the Spirit whatever you need to move forward.

Praying the prayer Catherine Doherty suggests wouldn’t take more than ten minutes of quiet with your bedroom door closed or even right here in church after Mass. Stand still, lift your heart and hands to God, and pray…

And pray practically. Not just “Come, Holy Spirit,” but come to me—come with exactly what I need to start fresh.

Clear away the cobwebs of fear, selfishness and greed. Open my heart wide to receive your gifts.

Having a sense of our spiritual needs—something like the humble admissions of the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion—is the first step. The second is simply asking the Spirit to help us live each day well and to give us what it takes to deal with life’s occasional crises and setbacks. We pray with confidence in God’s living and active presence in us, which allows us to pray properly and fruitfully.

All of this is a central message of Pentecost Sunday and a source of deep hope for every Christian.

When I was young my mother taught me that the easy way was almost always the wrong way. A new product called Mop and Glow which you simply squirted on the kitchen floor couldn’t possibly clean and wax it. Anything that didn’t involve getting down on your knees with a bucket was just a scam.

Mom might have been right about floors—although I think nowadays she probably uses Mop and Glow or something like it!—but her wisdom does not transfer to the spiritual life. The easy way is the right way: let's allow the Spirit do the hard work. That's what Jesus himself wanted—he sent us the Spirit so we wouldn’t struggle unnecessarily. He sent us the Spirit to free us from fear, save us from mistakes, and give us peace. Why should we try to obtain all that by our own efforts?

On this day when we recall the first Pentecost, let us pray and expect a new Pentecost—a Pentecost that is personal, a day to ask the Spirit to dwell in us, and to give us—each and every one of us—exactly what we need on our journey through life, day by day.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Society of St. Vincent de Paul Archdiocesan Assembly

One of the first things I noticed when we moved to BC in 1976 was trees. Big trees.

Of course we had big trees in Ontario, but they were mostly in forests. Here, though, we had big tress in our back yard, and forests all around our North Vancouver house. And in happier economic times, many of my friends made a living working for major forest companies; until recently, forestry was the province’s largest industry.

I noticed something else: forest fires. We had those too in Ontario, but no-one really cared. They were “up North,” a vaguely defined region that seemed well removed from our interest and concern in the big city.

But in Vancouver, forest fires were front-page news, and with good reason. Some of them produced enough smoke to affect air quality in the Lower Mainland, while the cost of a large fire was often enough to have a measurable impact on the provincial economy. I was horrified when I found out that an average fire could cost as much as as much as one million dollars per day to fight. Can you imagine that in 2003, the BC government spent over $700 million fighting forest fires?

However, I quickly learned that there was a silver lining to forest fires, despite their cost in dollars and sometimes, far worse, in human lives.

It turns out that the forest actually depends on fires for its long-term existence. Some species are adapted to regenerate even after all individuals over a large area have been killed by fire. Some even store live seed for years, shedding them only after their cones are opened by heat from a fire.

Other prominent species require ground that has been prepared and opened up by fire for optimum regeneration.

Although sixty per cent of fires are caused by people, and only thirty-five per cent by lightning, before Europeans arrived in the forest, perhaps two to three times as much area burned annually as at present, because there was no way to control the fires started by lightning strikes.

Ecologically, then, fire is neither good nor bad, but simply an environmental necessity for the perpetuation of the forest in its natural state.

By now, you are forgiven for asking: has this fellow come to wrong place? Is he supposed to be downtown talking to a lumberman’s convention, or to forestry students at UBC?

Not at all. Everything I have to say today about the Church and about the Society of St. Vincent de Paul flows from what I have said about forests and fires. Because there is a fire raging in our beloved Church that is as threatening and dramatic as any blaze in the woods—a fire of scandal and of sin, exposed to public view as perhaps never before in history.

And here is the conclusion I have drawn after thinking about the statement I quoted a moment ago, “Ecologically… fire is neither good nor bad, but simply an environmental necessity for the perpetuation of the forest.” Scandal is undoubtedly bad, since it is caused by sin, and sin is by definition bad. But: the painful revelation of sin is neither good nor bad, but simply a necessity for the perpetuation of the Church.

In other words, these difficult days are not in themselves to be rejected or even particularly lamented. The reform demanded by the revelation of decades of criminal behavior by a small number of priests and enabling behavior by their bishops is a necessity for the renewal of the Church.

Tragic as these scandals are, tragic in terms of the abused victims and the wounding of the entire Body of Christ, and terrible as the anti-Catholic sentiments they have encouraged are, they will do for the Church exactly what fires do for the forest. They will burn away dead wood, release energy, and provide seed for new growth.

Like fighting a large fire, renewing the Church will demand toil and sweat under great heat and pressure; there may be casualties, and there certainly will be economic loss.

We may need to smell the smoke of Satan, and to be marred by soot, but the success of our battle against evil in the Church is ultimately guaranteed.

The guarantee is beautifully expressed in an Easter hymn that uses the more familiar image of wheat instead of trees:

Now the green blade rises from the buried grain, Wheat that in the dark earth many years has lain; Love lives again, that with the dead has been: Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

The green blade, like the buried grain, is of course an image of Christ. The hymn makes that clear in its third verse:

Up He sprang at Easter, like the risen grain, He that for three days in the grave had lain; Up from the dead my risen Lord is seen: Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

This regenerative power is not only Christ’s; it belongs also to His Body, the Church. She too springs up green from the depths of sin and scandal, because Jesus calls her, and each of us, not to decay but to life.

The hymn concludes:

When our hearts are saddened, grieving or in pain, By Your touch You call us back to life again; Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been: Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

The touch of the risen Christ calls us back to life from the death we are experiencing. But where do we see this new life? Or—since these are early days still—what can we do to till the soil to cultivate and promote new growth and vitality in the Church?

I suggest to you that there’s only one answer, and a one-word answer at that: Love. Love, both a noun and a verb. Love, the heart of our Society.

It will be love in action that heals the wounds of scandal; love that beats back the hatred of the Church that has spilled out from so many in recent days.

When I speak of the scandals I distinguish between three things that have come to light: outrageous faults that no one can or should defend; tragic errors that can and should be understood, however lamentable; and good old anti-Catholicism. When speaking about anti-Catholicism I am very careful to explain that there’s much in the papers that is rightly and accurately reported and truly shameful. But there’s also a resurgence of anti-Catholicism afoot that demands some kind of response.

And that response can only be love.

So strong was anti-Catholicism in the US before the American Civil War, that there was a political party with the curious name of the Know Nothing Party. When the Washington Monument was being built in the early 1850s, Pope Pius IX contributed a block of marble. Know-Nothings stole the Pope's stone as a protest and supposedly threw it into the Potomac. It was not replaced until 1982.

But they weren’t content with such relatively peaceful attacks on Catholics—in an effort to intimidate Catholics not to vote in Kentucky, Know Nothings killed 22, injured many more, and destroyed property. The Louisville riot was one of a series of violent acts perpetrated by Know Nothing sympathizers in 1855.

What began to turn that poisoned tide was love. During the American Civil War, Mercy Sisters from Ireland nursed the wounded on both sides—and unheard act of charity.

Later, the reputation of Catholic hospitals for treating the poor led many to wonder whether the Church could be as evil as they’d been told. The same was true for the inner-city schools that provided an education for children that the public system seemed unable to deliver. Love conquers all is an expression as old as ancient Rome, but truer today than ever.

The Church today is shorn of many of the means she used in earlier times to show love. Our hospitals, fully funded by the government, are inevitably more secular than sacred. Our schools are full of Catholic children and—as recent criticisms have emphasized—are begrudged even the modest help they receive from the government.

The religious men and women whose dedicated service was a beacon that attracted people to the Church are now few and far between, and it’s unlikely they will revive in numbers any time soon. The heroes of the twentieth century—Mother Teresa and John Paul II—have gone to the Lord.

So where will the Church find witnesses to show Christ to the world? Where is the love?

I know you are answering the question as fast as I ask it. Priests will not be in the forefront of the next great outreach. Sisters will not be the ones to reach the world with charity. It will be you, lay people generally and dedicated members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul particularly.

The “Mother Teresas” of the future may be, in fact, mothers. The world will be won back to Christ not by another burning torch but by the shining example of people like you who are prepared to be points of light shining in the darkness.

This is not pious talk. I have seen the future, right here at Christ the Redeemer, and it works. When I was approached about having a parish conference here, I was delighted, but even a veteran like myself couldn’t avoid thinking “What on earth are they going to do?” in our affluent community.

Well, I can now answer that question in every detail.

• Street Meals for Directions Youth Services Centre: bag lunches for homeless youth

• Sisters of the Atonement: assisting the Sisters of the Atonement once each month

• Distributing sandwiches, baked goods, bananas, and coffee and juice from the SSVP sandwich truck

• Emergency Lunch Boxes for the SSVP Thrift Store

• Help for Sancta Maria House

And that’s just the organized apostolate, without mentioning the one on one help they have provided on the North Shore to troubled individuals and families, extending practical help in the spirit of Frederic Ozanam, in the spirit of Christian friendship.

This is the charity that can win over the world.

And let me tell you how it’s different from the world’s charity.

The world is generous in many ways. Every day the paper has stories about galas, and runs, and walks, and raffles, and lotteries, all for good causes—their success testifying to the good will that abounds in society.

However, this charity, sincere though it is, is not sacrificial. It is sacrificial, not social charity that makes people take notice. It is sacrificial charity that testifies to the self-giving love of Christ.

The St. Vincent de Paul Society is a model of self-giving and sacrificial love, not social work or do-goodism. This was Blessed Frederic’s core insight—the apostolate of friendship.

It’s illustrated by an old cartoon most of you have seen: a pig and a chicken are talking about opening a restaurant. The pig asks the chicken what they should call the new venture, and the chicken replies “I was thinking maybe ‘Bacon and Eggs.’

To which the pig replies, “No thanks! I’d be committed but you’d only be involved!”

Friends, members of the society are committed to service of the poor, not only involved.

You will need a lot of help to win back the world’s trust of the Church—help from bishops, priests and other patient lay faithful—but you will be in the vanguard of the Church of the 21st Century as it strives to recover its evangelical purity and reject institutional behaviours that are not consistent with the Good News.

This is not my prescription for restoration and re-evangelization. It is Christ’s own formula, since it was He who said “By this will all know that you are my disciples…”

Notice “as I have loved you.” Sacrificial love, not sentimental love; sacrifice, not social work.

In my Sunday homily last week I used a song from the sixties, “What the World Needs Now is Love Sweet Love,” which continued “It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.” I gave some thought to singing it, since many of my parishioners weren’t born when the song was a hit for Jackie DeShannon and Dionne Warwick. But you’re a slightly more mature group, so I’m not tempted to croon a few bars.

I am tempted, though, to change the lyrics. To change them to “What the Church needs now, is love, sweet love—it’s the only thing that there’s just too little of…”

A Church wounded by her own members, indeed by her own ministers, a Church still finding itself in the modern world of publicly funded education and social services, needs love—love in action, love as healing, love as witness to the Church’s primary purpose.

The Church, in a word, needs you—you, the members of this great Society, inspired by the example of one of Christianity’s great heroes, St. Vincent de Paul. Let’s not forget in these stormy times for the Church that his were stormier still—although reforms were well underway by the time St. Vincent was born in 1580, one biographer could still write “Even in the most degenerate times, when the truths of the Gospel seem almost obliterated among the majority of those who profess it, God fails not to raise to himself faithful ministers to revive charity in the hearts of many.”

Happily, these are not the worst of times, but they are not the best of times either. But certainly God does continue to raise up faithful ministers of charity in His Church to bear witness to the fact that He is love.

May each and every member of our Society, true to the inspiration of Vincent and Frederic, continue to show the world the ever-green beauty of the Church.

Ascension: Promises Made and Fulfilled

I shouldn’t be admitting this in front of the younger parishioners who are still in school, but I was a very lazy student. In high school you could buy books called “Cole’s Notes” that gave summaries of everything we were supposed to read, and I made good use of them.

When I was studying political science at university, I used a wonderful little encyclopedia of political theory to save me the trouble of reading Plato and Aristotle.

It wasn’t so easy to cut corners in the seminary—I think Cole’s Notes was out of business by then, but I’m sure they didn’t cover theology textbooks anyway.

But if I ever need a lazy man’s digest of Christian faith, I know where to find it. Today’s Gospel is the whole story in a nutshell, summarized by Jesus himself.

At this crucial moment, just before he leaves them, Jesus lays it all out for his disciples. Confusion or uncertainty is the last thing he wants as he returns to the Father. He opens their hearts and minds to the past, the present, and the future.

And today, he would like to do the same for each of us. Although we’re not startled by his Ascension as the disciples were, we also need to have the big picture in front of us all the time, and especially in difficult times. It’s so easy to get bogged down in the details, and to miss the immense and glorious plan that comes straight from Christ.

So what does Jesus tell his disciples in this farewell speech?

First, he reminds them that he didn’t come to earth unannounced. He is the fulfillment of the promise God made to Israel. This is not just ancient history, even for us. One writer puts it beautifully: “To promise is one of the key words of the language of love.” (Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 465)

The New Testament has many passages that recognize Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promises in the Old Testament. To quote just one, St. Paul says that in Jesus “every one of God’s promises is a ‘yes’.” (2 Cor 1:20)

This is important to us because we’re the ones who’ve inherited the promises. At Pentecost, St. Peter preached a bold sermon in which he told the crowd “the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away—everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” (Acts 2:38)

We need, especially as Pentecost approaches, to believe that God keeps his promises, including the promise of clothing us with power from on high. I think this was why Jesus chose to look backwards, to the Old Testament scriptures, at the start of this final address. For nothing convinces us that someone will keep their promises than knowing they’ve always kept them in the past.

Jesus then turns to the present. He challenges his friends to reflect on their experiences with him. Don’t take it from me, he seems to say, you’ve seen it with your own eyes! You saw me suffer, and you saw me rise—you are eye-witnesses!

We might not be eye-witnesses to the death and resurrection of Jesus, yet how much have we seen! Each of us has a different set of experiences, but which of us hasn’t seen the power of God at work? Who among us has no story to tell of the forgiveness of sin?

If you have never seen or felt the power of the Gospel at work, you are either very young in the faith or need to jump deeper into its mystery. Repentance and the forgiveness of sins are what keep our community going, what keep our families loving, and what keep our own hearts from despair.

Then, of course, Jesus turns to the future, and to the Promise of all promises, the gift of the Holy Spirit. So important is that gift that he tells the disciples “just stay put until you have been clothed with that Power.”

Although the Spirit has indeed been poured out on all the earth, it is still very good advice. All too often we rush into spiritual challenges half-clothed; we don’t take the time to ask the Spirit’s help and guidance.

Jesus words are crucial for two reasons. The first concerns the gift of the Holy Spirit generally. Many of us have only heard the first part of what Jesus said: we’re more than willing to stay put. We don’t venture out. We need to receive the power that he promised; we need to put on the Spirit with conviction, by a personal act of surrender.

To quote my friend the author and lay evangelist Ralph Martin, each of us as individuals “has to experience today the work of the Spirit as we see it described in the accounts of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles.” (Unpublished manuscript).

The second reason why the words “stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high" are so important is particular rather than general. Each of us faces challenges, opportunities, temptations, and none of us should face them without the power given from on high. How often do we rush into battle without the armour of the Spirit! How often do we say the wrong thing when a ten second prayer for God’s help would have allowed us to say the right thing!

This isn’t pious talk—it’s darn close to being the story of my life.

I once had a book of famous last words. In the humorous category, W.C. Fields won the prize. On his deathbed, a visitor found him reading the Bible. When he asked what he was doing, the comedian replied, “Looking for loopholes, my friend. Looking for loopholes.”

There was no room for jokes when Jesus took leave of his closest friends. And we have the proof that his words had their intended effect. Luke doesn’t say the disciples were left sobbing at his disappearance into the sky; on the contrary, they headed to Jerusalem full of joy.

This goes against common sense, but the wise words of William Barclay make sense of it. He explains the Ascension as both an ending and a beginning.

It was an ending, since “the days when [the disciples’] faith was faith in a flesh and blood person and depended on his flesh and blood presence were over. Now they were linked to someone who was forever independent of space and time.”

“Equally it was a beginning. The disciples did not leave the scene heart-broken; they left it with great joy, because now they knew that they had a Master from whom nothing could separate them anymore.” (Daily Study Bible)

What was true of the disciples is true for us if we take to heart the promise of power, the promise of the gift of the Spirit we will celebrate next week on Pentecost.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

First Holy Communion

Holy Trinity parish had their First Holy Communion two weeks ago. One of our parishioners who was there told me that Father Comey actually sang the boys and girls a song.

Right away, I thought “Wow! Let’s do that at Christ the Redeemer!”

Too bad, though: Father Comey is busy today, so you’re going to have to listen to me talk instead!

But if I’m not up to singing you a song, maybe I can put a song in your heart. You heard it in the Psalm today: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”

Does your Mom or Dad ever give you a hard time about gobbling your dinner? We were terribly fast eaters when I was your age—with four brothers and sisters, we figured the first one to finish was the first one in line for second helpings. Sometimes my mother would say “will you at least slow down long enough to taste your food.”

That’s sort of what the Psalm says to us today. Slow down and get a real taste of what God’s all about.

Yesterday our visiting seminarian Daniel asked “how would you feel if a guest rushed into your house, bolted down dinner, and ran out without talking to you.” You’d figure he didn’t care very much. So we don’t want to do that as guests in God’s house. When we receive Jesus, we need to talk to Him.

We should say a short prayer before we receive Holy Communion and another after we come back to our pew.

Maybe you could turn the Psalm into a prayer before Communion today, and every Sunday: Let me taste and see, Lord, how good you are. I can tell you—that’s one prayer God will always answer.

Daniel also told you that I was too old to remember my own First Holy Communion. Not true! I remember it quite well, although I must admit that I’ve forgotten every word of the homily... just like you will!

But I do remember tasting and seeing that God is good—that’s just a fancy way to say that I experienced God’s love and goodness. I tasted it then, and almost fifty years later, I still meet Jesus with joy when I receive Him in Holy Communion.

Don’t settle for less than that yourselves. Take time to experience God when you receive the Eucharist; let Him fill you with joy and happiness. Let Him take away whatever scares you, whatever makes you sad.

Now let me say something briefly to your mother and fathers...

Dear parents, the late Cardinal Cushing liked to tell the story of the little girl who sat on her grandmother’s lap listening to her read the Bible. One day grandma was reading the story of how the world was made from the Book of Genesis. As the amazing account unfolded, she noticed that her granddaughter was unusually quiet.

“Well, what do you think of it, dear?” the grandmother asked.

“Oh I love it,” the youngster replied. “You never know what God is going to do next!”

I tell the story for two reasons. First, to remind us that children’s are capable of deep religious feelings and insights. We must never sell them short by doubting this. I have a non-Catholic friend who cried himself to sleep for weeks after his family stopped taking him to church and Sunday school in grade four.

The second reason is even more important—the Cardinal’s story reminds us that you never know what God is going to do next! He’s a God of surprises, and we have no idea what God is going to do with these wonderful children of yours. He may invite some of them to the heights of holiness, others to lives of dedicated service, still others to become inspirations and models to their peers.

We don’t know. But we do know what comes next in God’s plan for every one of them: to become fully initiated Christians by receiving the sacrament of confirmation five years from now.

Does that seem long? I promise you, it’s not. Five years will fly by. Use every day of it to support them on their journey of faith. Most of all, give these youngsters the opportunity they deserve to meet the Lord at Mass each and every Sunday.

Boys and girls, our seminarian Daniel said something important to you yesterday. At least I think it was important—maybe he was just daring me to sing like Father Comey did, since what Daniel said came straight from the words of an old song.

The song goes like this: He’s got the whole world in his hands...

He’s got the whole world in His hands. That’s what Daniel told you, and it’s true. But there’s something else. Today, for the first time, you’ll hold God in your hands. The Almighty God has made Himself small enough for you to hold; he’s made Himself small enough to fit your heart, without giving up one bit of His power and His majesty.

May God hold you in His hands today, and may you keep Him in your heart forever.

Heavenly Peace (Easter 6.C)

When we celebrated Confirmation a couple of weeks ago, I told a story that also fits in well with Mother's Day. It was about the teenager who would never pick up his things. Clothes, books, everything—he’d just drop them on the floor. His room always looked like a tornado had just passed through.

So his mother decided to take drastic action. She told her son that she considered grown-up enough to pick up after himself. “From now on,” she said, “Every time I pick up something of yours I am going to charge you a quarter.”

At the end of the first week of this experiment, the mother presented the boy with a bill for seven dollars and twenty five cents. The next day she found $8.25 in an envelope in the kitchen.

Noticing the overpayment, she asked about the extra dollar. Her son replied “Oh, that’s a tip. I’m hoping you’ll keep up the good work.”

I heard another story this week about a tornado, a real one that ripped though the outskirts of a prairie town. It tore up two large fields, uprooted trees, and then totally demolished a farm house; by the time the twister moved on, there wasn’t much left of the house but some planks and a big hole in the ground.

When the RCMP got to the farm, an officer heard voices. He looked into the hole and saw an old man holding on for dear life to a piece of timber, his eyes tightly shut.

“Hey down there,” the fireman called, “Are you all right?”

The old man opened his eyes slowly and looked around. “I guess so,” he said as they hauled him out.

“Was there anyone else with you down there?” the policeman asked, “I heard voices.”

The old man replied, “Just me and God, but we were having an urgent conversation.”

Both these stories say something to us about an important topic: spiritual stewardship.

What use do we make of the blessings that God has showered on us in Christ and in His Church? Do we approach with wonder and awe the Easter mysteries we’ve been celebrating all these weeks?

And most importantly, do we praise God for his goodness?

A spiritual steward does all these things: to use Father Dan Mahan’s three magic words, we receive God’s gifts gratefully, responsibly, and generously. While this involves sharing our material blessings, we don’t act that like the cagey teenager—dropping something in the collection so that God will keep up the good work!

Nor do we wait until a tornado’s blowing before we talk to God, heart to heart. We don’t wait until we’re at the bottom of a hole to praise him for the goodness of our lives and to give thanks for His many blessings.

In today’s Gospel Jesus says three things about spiritual stewardship:

If we love him, we will respond to his love responsibly: we will keep his word. We will follow his commandments day in, day out, with the strength and help that the Spirit gives.

If we believe him, we will listen gratefully to the voice of the Holy Spirit. We will humbly allow ourselves to be taught. Archbishop Carney’s father, who finished school in grade six, was said to be a self-taught expert on Shakespeare. But there are no self-taught experts on Christianity; Jesus sent the Spirit to teach us, and we must receive that teaching gratefully.

The Spirit was sent once and for all at Pentecost. But Christian life is a series of Pentecosts as the Spirit continues to pour out God’s truth through all ages. Too many folks make their minds up about Church teaching without giving the Holy Spirit a quiet half hour to present His view of the subject.

Finally, the spiritual steward accepts the gift of peace, and shares it generously with others. In the sixties there was a hit song that went “What the world needs now is love, sweet love; it’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.” (Do you remember that? I actually sang a song at the First Communion Mass yesterday but once was enough.)

Love’s certainly needed, but I think today’s world needs peace even more. Unsettled hearts have a hard time loving and hard time receiving love. It was once said of someone “He doesn’t have ulcers, but he’s a carrier.” We need to be carriers of Christ’s peace to others; after all, Jesus considered peace so important that he made it his farewell gift to those whom he loved.

To paraphrase St. Paul, Jesus has made a large deposit in an account with your name on it. But there’s no interest paid on the account; we’re meant to make frequent withdrawals. What kind of a steward would leave that account untouched?

Jesus tells us to lay up treasure in heaven. But how can we do this if our thoughts never turn to heaven? On the internet I came across a thirty-year old homily by a minister in a small town in Ontario. He said something powerful: “If you are trying to look up and down at the same time you’re in trouble. Turn your eyes towards heaven and get a proper perspective on life.”

None of us is likely to have the glorious vision of heaven that the angel gave to St. John. But in our prayer we can all set our sights on the heavenly Jerusalem—we can feel the security of living even now in a city guarded by the Apostles and lit up by the glory of God.

God’s Word is clear on this. St. Paul tells us “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” (Col 3:2)

That’s a formula for spiritual stewardship. Even more, it’s a formula for peace. The more we realize that “the present form of this world is passing away,” (1 Cor 7:31) the more likely we are to experience Christ’s peace in our hearts.

God doesn’t want to pick up after us; he doesn’t want to pull us out of holes. He wants us to live full and abundant lives rooted in Christ. Sure he’ll rescue those who call for help, but his Plan A is for each of us to live in peace—not without stresses and trials, but always knowing that God’s presence in our hearts is more powerful than anything that frightens or troubles us.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Making All Things New (Easter 5.C)

One of my favourite places on the planet is the Abbey of Monte Cassino, about 130 kilometres south of Rome. It stands on top of the mountain where St. Benedict wrote his rule for monks, and where he died in 547.

Both the architecture and the scenery are breathtaking, but the abbey’s recent history was what really enthralled me on my first visit, in 1982, because the baroque cloisters, the massive stone walls, and the rich marbles of the basilica were no more than thirty years old when I first set foot in the monastery. In 1944 nothing remained of the magnificent structures rebuilt during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Allied bombers reduced the massive monastery and its church to a pile of rubble in a single day because military commanders wrongly believed it was being used by German troops.

Less than forty years later, I could barely accept that just about everything I saw on my first of many trips to Monte Cassino was a modern reconstruction. It seemed almost impossible.

But as I learned more about the history of the Abbey of Monte Cassino, I discovered that the monks were old hands at rebuilding. The Abbey was pillaged and burned in 580, and restored in 718; in 883, the Saracens invaded and sacked the monastery and burnt it down. It was subsequently rebuilt, but then destroyed by an earthquake in 1349.

Are you starting to think that God didn’t really like the monks of Monte Cassino?

Actually, when you consider that the Abbey was only levelled an average of every 400 years or so, it’s not that bad.

To me, Monte Cassino is like a living homily on our second reading today. It stands more glorious than ever despite its tribulations; it is, in short, a monument in stone to the Lord’s promise to make all things new.

And don’t we need the occasional sign to remind us that God is constantly at work making all things new? Sometimes we feel more like the monks huddled in the Abbey cellar as bombs fell on them than we do like the present-day visitors admiring its graceful structures.

We wonder: Is God really wiping away our tears and fears, or is that just a lot of religious talk?

I’d like to offer two answers. First, yes, it is religious talk—the vision that St. John recounts in today’s second reading is a vision of what will be, not what is. It won’t be fully realized until this earth passes away. In the meantime, we will still experience sorrow and pain.

This is clear partly because John quotes the voice from the throne in the future tense: God will dwell with humans; he will wipe away every tear; death will be no more.

The second part of the answer is, yes, God really is at work—not just in the future, but now. He says—in the present tense, not the future, “See, I am making all things new.”

God is making all things new! His work of restoration and comfort has already begun. Tragedy and trial still afflict us, but much of their power is gone—stripped from them by Christ’s victory on the cross.

If we miss these points, we’ll make two big mistakes. The first is demanding more from God than He actually offers. Faith in him, and faith in miracles, cannot guarantee the answer to every prayer we make, however fervent. If it could, no-one would die before a hundred at least, and our parking lot would have no handicapped spaces since we’d pray away every trouble. Or perhaps it would have no non-handicapped spaces since the average age of our pious congregation would 110!

Until the earthly city meets the heavenly Jerusalem, suffering, death, and sorrow will be part and parcel of human existence.

The second mistake, however, is concluding that nothing’s changed by the death and rising of the Lord. That’s not true. From His throne of victory he is making you new, and me new, and all things new, even now. He is taking our tears and pain and doing something new with them—using them to strengthen and purify us, making sure they are not wasted but absorbed into His glorious passion; sweetening even life’s most bitter moments first by sharing them and helping us bear them, and second by transforming them into ways of knowing Him and knowing ourselves.

In other words, while God’s ultimate answer to the problem of pain and death is heaven, His shorter-term answer is bringing good things from these bad things, even now... if we allow Him to do that.

I’m not saying anything you haven’t heard before, but we need constant reminders of how God is at work in our trials and sorrows. And especially during this Easter season we need to connect that work with faith in the Risen Lord, who is the living proof of God’s power.

The renewal that flows from God’s grace is an every day reality; the miraculous healing of illness, on the other hand, is exceptional, even if it is part of our faith in Him. We need to be more aware of how God is constantly working to shape and change our lives—to turn weaknesses into strengths and trials into triumphs. Too often we tell God exactly what we want him to do, when a better prayer is “Go to work, Lord! Make something new with my pains and problems! Use them for my good and the good of others.” And, of course, take them away if that is what’s best.

In this spirit, we’re going to try something new on First Fridays. The 2:30 Benediction will be followed by a brief healing prayer service that will include the laying on of hands for the sick or simply troubled—and aren’t we all! This is not to be confused with the Sacrament of the Sick, which will not be administered on this occasion, and which remains the priority for those who are seriously ill.

An opportunity for healing prayer and the laying on of hands, in accordance with the Church’s liturgical books, will also be provided at the end of a time of “Praise and Worship” style prayer that will take place on First Fridays at 9 p.m.

We hope that these times of prayer and intercession will help many open their hearts to the Lord’s work in a new way, allowing him to transform our troubles in accordance with His healing will.

I’d like to conclude with an interesting footnote about something I stumbled across while writing this homily. It never occurred to me that the monastery of Monte Cassino that was levelled in 1944 was anything but perfect, or its destruction anything other than tragic. Yet the 1914 Catholic Encyclopedia speaks rather unkindly about its art and architecture. The only possible conclusion is that the rebuilt monastery, paid for with tragic loss of life and heaven knows how much sorrow, is considerably more beautiful than the one it replaced.

The voice that says “I am making all things new” proclaims to us a great mystery. But it is a mystery filled with hope, a mystery that promises light from darkness and joys that follow sorrows. Let us take heart from these words in all our personal struggles, and apply them as well to the Church as the Spirit continues to renew, reshape, and reform her.