Monday, September 27, 2010

We’re All Catechists (Commissioning Sunday)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 17, 2010

Stewardship Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Stewardship is an expression of discipleship,

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

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

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

They are deeply aware of the truth that

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

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

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Sunday Mass: Doing Our Duty (24.C)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Tackling Today’s Readings (23C)

The BC Lions had a great day in Montreal on Friday: they beat the Alouettes 38 to 17. And they needed the win, since their season has been, to put it nicely, less than spectacular.

I'm no armchair quarterback, but there's one thing I know about the Lions' lack of success: it's not for lack of coaching. You can be sure the coaches have come up with all kinds of new plays and countless ideas for getting out of the slump.

But imagine for a moment that I am wrong. Imagine a football coach giving a chalk talk along the lines of the average Sunday homily.

"Okay, boys, listen up. Play better football!"

Or what if he said "All right team. What you need to do is not lose games!"

Isn't that how some homilies come across? We listen to the Sunday readings, and then the priest says "Great stuff. Now let's do it!"

But of course we never do, because much of what the Bible teaches is broad and universal; it applies in every age and in every culture. So it's not always easy to translate that teaching into action in daily life. In fact, we're often happy enough to let the Sunday message sail over our heads; it can be uncomfortable to realize that Jesus is talking to me on Sunday morning.

And so both priests and parishioners interpret the Sunday scriptures in the broadest possible way. The problem is that "Be a better person" or even "Try harder to love" help us to grow about as much as "Be a better player" helps a linebacker or an offensive guard.

I'd like to take this homily in the opposite direction this morning/afternoon. I'm going to show how we can put to work part of the wisdom that's found in today's liturgy of the Word.

The Book of Wisdom asks a question, and then answers it. The question is "who can learn the counsel of the Lord?" Who can know what the Lord wants. Just when you think there's no answer, the writer answers himself with another question: "Who has learned your counsel, unless you have given wisdom and sent your holy spirit from on high?"

In other words, we can know what God wants, but only if He tells us.

Today's Gospel also asks a couple of questions. Which one of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost? Forget about towers: on the North Shore in 2010, we're talking about doing a reno. And we know what kind of person does a major home renovation without an idea of the cost: a billionaire or an idiot.

The Gospel then reaches a startling conclusion. Whoever does not give up all their possessions cannot be my disciple.

What am I supposed to say about that in a homily? My new car isn't yet three weeks old and the Lord wants me to give it up? (Actually, it's six years old, but it's new to me.)

I know what to say: Friends, ask God for the wisdom to understand what Jesus meant, and go home happy. And my car can stay in the garage.

But you know what that is, don't you: it's a prime example of more bad coaching. Because there's no specific challenge—nothing we can do or not do this week, this afternoon. In a word, nothing measurable.

So let me suggest something you can measure. Seeking the counsel of the Lord is more than an attitude; it calls for action. We'll have trouble knowing what Jesus meant by telling us to give up all our possessions if we don't study the Gospels more deeply than we can in a Sunday sermon.

Are you ready for a game plan that takes these things seriously? Because the parish is offering two programs that pretty well guarantee a spiritual touchdown.

The first program is a small group faith study called the Discipleship Series. We hope to run groups at church and in homes, some weekly, some monthly. But first we need people to understand how it works, and the best way to do that is to meet Christopher Ruff, the author of the books the program is based on.

Mr. Ruff is giving a workshop this coming Saturday that will explain how his program combines prayer, reflection, and service of others. It will be held at St. Patrick's parish in Vancouver; all the details are on a sheet at the back.

A second way to receive the wisdom God wants us to have for our daily living is to attend our new adult faith formation course called Evangelium. You've never seen anything like it—it's a 25-week course based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church that uses masterpieces of art in every lesson. The beauty of the program helps us see the beauty of the Faith.

It's really not enough to want to be a better Catholic; we need to know more about the whys and hows of Christian living, and Evangelium offers this in an enjoyable series of evenings.

The Tuesday evening course will be presented by various speakers, including myself and Kyle Neilson, our new RCIA coordinator. We're very fortunate to have Kyle working with us; his "day job" is with the Office of Religious Education downtown, which allows him to assist us in the evening.

The new course allows some of you to fulfill two major commitments at the same time: you can grow in your own faith while sharing it with someone else, since Evangelium—which is the Latin word for Gospel, by the way—will have a team to assist inquirers who may later enter the formal RCIA process with a view to joining the Church. So bring a non-Catholic friend or a non-practicing family member.

Consider marking your calendar for next Tuesday, the 14th of September. You don't need to commit, and a second round of Evangelium will run on Monday nights, beginning in the middle of October. The Monday evening course will be directed to parishioners rather than inquirers, and will be offered by a single presenter, Dr. Margherita Oberti.

There you have it: two practical ways to respond to God's Word this morning/afternoon. Two strategies for learning God's ways and receiving his counsel for daily living, things we can actually do, right now, to tackle some of the problems we face in our complicated world.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Mother Teresa’s Feast Day (Missionaries of Charity, Vancouver)

It is a tremendous privilege to be with you this morning to celebrate the feast day of Blessed Teresa during this year when we mark the hundredth anniversary of her birth. Mother left this world thirteen years ago, but her centenary has once again reminded the world of those precious years when she allowed Christ's light to shine so brightly through her.

I am moved to be standing at the altar offering the Mass that recalls her memory in the same convent where I walked and talked with her. More than anything else, this experience reminds me that the saints are not distant figures. While Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul—and perhaps Jean Vanier someday—are modern-day "saints" whom I have met, you and I walk and talk with future saints all the time.

They may never be canonized, but there are people of heroic virtue in every convent, parish, and neighbourhood. Meeting or even knowing someone canonized or beatified should not really be a great surprise to us; on the contrary, that experience should remind us of our own call to holiness, and cause us to rejoice in the holiness we see around us.

When Sister Damascene asked me to be with you today, I was a bit nervous about the homily: what to say on this important day, and what to say about Mother before a congregation that includes a Sister who knew her?

My worry disappeared when Sister sent me the readings for today's Mass.* They barely require a homily, for these beautiful texts preach their message clearly. They relate the life and the legacy of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta in the words of the Word of God.

We can hear the first reading from the Song of Songs on Mother's own lips. It's easy to imagine her kneeling before the Crucified One whom she loved so passionately, making these words her own. Her passion for him was truly as "fierce as the grave;" even the deepest waters of difficulty could not drown her desire for Christ or take away her thirst for Him.

The second reading could be called "Mother's manifesto." We often hear these words of St. Paul read at weddings, and in many cases the bride and groom choose the reading without much thought, loving its poetry and richness. But Blessed Teresa made it her life's work to live three awesome challenges that we find in these verses of Sacred Scripture.

First, she lived the primacy of love—which is another way of saying she put love first. She said that "many people mistake our work for our vocation. Our vocation is the love of Jesus." No acts of charity can replace a heart of charity.

The second challenge of the reading is Paul's call to charity in small things as well as big. History is filled with examples of statesmen and secular prophets who did great things for the humanity while treating their families poorly. True charity begins at home, and must include small things as well as big. This message, so well proclaimed by St. Theresa of the Child Jesus, was central to Mother's life and mission: love for the world without love for those in the room with us is not Christian love. Impatient and unkind love is social work, not Christ-love. Which is why Mother Teresa said more than once that love begins at home, and it is not how much we do... but how much love we put in that action.

It's why she said love begins by taking care of the closest ones—the ones at home.

Finally, and particularly towards the end of her life, Blessed Teresa offered her final earthly service to the Church and the world. By embracing the spiritual and emotional trial of her "dark night," she showed that it is truly possible to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things."

A friend of mine went to Sunday Mass in another city when he was on a trip. I asked him what the homily was like, and he said "Oh, Father retold the parable in his own words, and they weren't nearly as good as Christ's." Sometimes homilists make the mistake of saying the obvious.

I don't want to make that mistake today. The Church gives us a Gospel for Mother's feast that could almost be called her biography. It catalogues her vision, her mission, and her beatitude. We call her "Blessed" Teresa of Calcutta—the beatitudes tell us why. The reward she enjoys in the heaven is directly linked to her living the Sermon on the Mount while on earth.

Dear Sisters, dear friends: it has been easy to see God's Word illustrated and illuminated this morning by the life and death of Mother Teresa. But we're not here only to remember and rejoice; we're not here only to ask her intercession. We celebrate Blessed Teresa's heroic holiness mainly so that we might be urged on by her example. Together with her, we cry to the Beloved: Set me like a seal on your heart. Satisfy my thirst for holiness! Let me live the love that is stronger than death, because it never ends.

*Song of Songs 8:6-7; 1 Cor 13:1-13; Matt 5:1-16.