Thursday, December 29, 2011

Homily at Rise Up

I preached this morning at the opening Mass for Catholic Christian Outreach's annual Christmas conference, attended by more than five hundred young people. Here is the text of the homily.

Pope Benedict seems to have come up with a new phrase—new to me, anyway. In a recent talk, he spoke of "faith fatigue."

He suggested that we suffer from faith fatigue when a number of things get us down: that regular churchgoers are growing older and fewer; that the recruitment of priests is stagnating; and that scepticism and unbelief are growing.

But in the face of those discouraging signs, the Holy Father was very quick to mention that he finds remedies for faith fatigue. He mentions first the Church in Africa, with its "joyful passion for faith."

"None of the faith fatigue that is so prevalent here, none of the oft-encountered sense of having had enough of Christianity, was detectable there, he said.

Not surprisingly, the second remedy that the Pope found for faith fatigue was "the wonderful experience of World Youth Day in Madrid," which he called the "new evangelization put into practice."

In particular, he found five things about World Youth Days that point towards a new, more youthful form of Christianity.

The first thing he mentions is "a new experience of catholicity, of the Church's universality." Pope Benedict sees this when people who have never met one another, know one another, despite different languages and cultures. "Shared faith and a common liturgy … unites us in a vast family. At World Youth Day, we recognize that "it is a wonderful thing to belong to the worldwide Church, to the Catholic Church, that the Lord has given to us."

The second is the generous spirit of service and sacrifice that goes along with the general chaos of a WYD. (Well, the Pope didn't mention the chaos—I added that bit.) He says this readiness to give oneself is ultimately derived from meeting Christ, who gave himself for us.

The third mark of a more youthful faith is adoration, which he calls primarily an act of faith.

The fourth is the Sacrament of Confession, which has more and more become a central part of WYD. This healing sacrament awakens in us the positive force of the Creator, to draw out of our sin, upwards to Him.

Finally, Pope Benedict points to joy. Faith leads to joy, he suggests, since only faith gives me the conviction that it is good that I exist. It is good to be a human being, even in hard times. Faith makes one happy from deep within. That is one of the wonderful experiences of World Youth Days.

I have quoted at great length from the Pope's remarks, which he made in his end-of-the-year meeting with his collaborators at the Vatican. The first reason is that they are proof of the central thing that St. John proclaims in today's first reading: the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.

Despite our stumbles and struggles, despite our own inconsistencies and those of others, the light is shining. As we prayed in the opening prayer, God has dispersed the darkness of this world by the coming of Christ, the Light. Like Simeon in the Temple, we have seen salvation shine—a light that banishes all fear.

My second reason is simply that everything the Pope said about World Youth Day—except his mention of the near-disaster when the storm struck in Madrid—applies to our days together this week. All the optimism Pope Benedict felt at WYD he would feel if he were able to be with us; Rise Up is no less a remedy against faith fatigue.

If you have experienced that already, or know it to be true, let's rejoice together. If you are attending for the first time, then bring your own faith fatigue—your doubts, darkness, and fears—and allow these days to be a lasting and perfect remedy.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Introducing Father de Souza

I had the pleasure tonight of introducing Father Raymond de Souza at a reception in Vancouver to promote his new venture. Here are my brief remarks.

After I accepted the welcome invitation to present Father de Souza to you, the organizers of this evening's reception e-mailed to ask if I would like some biographical information on him. I said only if you want me to talk for more than half an hour! I have at least that much material in my head.

In fact, my only challenge in introducing Father Raymond de Souza tonight is trying to avoid a full length speech: because I am not only a friend, but a fan. 

Having just had the pleasure of hearing him kick off CCO's Rise Up with a very stirring speech, we gather with Father de Souza, principally to recognize the latest of his many contributions to intellectual life in Canada: he has, as you know, taken on the job of Editor-in-Chief of Convivium

This new journal, launched by Cardus, Canada's leading Christian think tank, bears the important subtitle "Faith in our Common Life."

The challenges of inviting Canadians to a thoughtful dialogue on faith would be enough to keep someone busy full-time, but needless to say Convivium shares Father Raymond with one or two of his other activities.

These are principally his work as chaplain of Newman House at Queen's University in Kingston and as pastor at Sacred Heart of Mary Parish on nearby Wolfe Island.

And of course his official biography is very quick to point out his favourite job—chaplain of the Queen's football team! He's held that position for the past seven years, including—please take note—the season when Queen's won the national championship.

Then there is his other journalistic pursuit, as a weekly columnist for the National Post. He began in that role as a seminarian, which led me to conclude he was a late vocation who had worked for decades on a newspaper before turning to the priesthood. To my dismay, I discovered his talent was natural, and that he was some years younger than I.

As a columnist for the Post, Father de Souza has given voice to views that are terribly under-represented in the press and other media, arguing with clarity and conviction on burning issues without becoming a scold or a one-issue writer. In fact, the scope of his columns is one of the things that makes him such a joy to read.

George Weigel, the author of acclaimed biographies of Pope John Paul, described Father de Souza as "Canada's finest Catholic commentator." This is high praise coming from a very serious American intellectual. On the other hand, when Weigel was told about a gathering of Canadian conservatives, he expressed a great deal of surprise that there were enough of them to gather!

Tonight's reception shows there are enough fans of Father de Souza in Vancouver to make a happy gathering, and I am extremely happy to one of them.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Day: The Pope’s Three Wishes

It was Christmas Eve, but Jim, Frank, and Joe were stranded on a desert island. Their food and water were almost gone, and the three friends were beginning to lose heart. 

Suddenly, a bottle floated onto the shore; as soon as they picked it up, a genie popped out. She said, "I have three wishes to grant. Each of you can make one wish come true."

Jim was thrilled. He said, "I wish I were in Bethlehem, singing Christmas carols in Manger Square with my wife and children. Instantly he was gone, his wish granted.

Frank smiled and said, "I wish I were in Rome right now attending Midnight Mass with my dear parents at St. Peter's. Just like that, he disappeared.

The genie then turned to Joe. "And what do you wish for?"

Joe answered, "Bethlehem, Rome, or Vancouver. Gee, I wish I had my buddies back to help me decide..."

I dared to begin my homily by joking about three wishes, because I want to talk today about the three wishes Pope Benedict made just before switching on the lights of the world's largest Christmas tree.

The tree, incidentally, is near the town of Gubbio, where St. Francis started our tradition of the Christmas crib.

Pope Benedict's three wishes are a beautiful lesson in the true Christmas spirit.

He began with the hope that we would lift our eyes towards heaven and not be stuck on earthly things.

"My first wish," he said, "is that our gaze… our minds and our hearts, rest not only on the horizon of this world, on its material things," turn towards God like the soaring Christmas tree.

He said that "God never forgets us, but he also asks that we don't forget him."

The Pope's second wish reminded us that we must rely on the light of Christ. He wished that everyone remember that we "need a light to illumine the path of our lives and to give us hope, especially in this time in which we feel so greatly the weight of difficulties, of problems, [and] of suffering."

"The Child … we contemplate [at] Christmas, in a poor and humble manger, is "the light that overcomes the darkness of our hearts" and gives us "firm and sure hope."

"My final wish," the Pope concluded, "is that each of us contributes something of that light" to others: "our families, our jobs, our neighborhoods, towns and cities."

He prayed that we will be a light for our neighbour, overcoming selfishness, which so often "closes our hearts and leads us to think only of ourselves."

"Any small gesture of goodness," Pope Benedict said, "is like one of the lights of this great tree: together with other lights it illuminates the darkness of the night, even of the darkest night."

In his three wishes, the Holy Father has summed up the message of Christmas: turn to God, walk in the light of Christ, and share that light and love with others.

What impresses me so much about these three thoughts is how realistic they are. Pope Benedict knows how tempted we are to limit our horizons to the things we can see, to our human needs and wants. Perhaps more than anyone else, he knows how deep the darkness can be; the Pope hears daily reports of injustice within nations, savagery between peoples, and infidelity within the Church.

Yet he knows that this is precisely why Christ came to earth. Jesus was born at Bethlehem not to give us an annual feel-good celebration, but to save us from our sins.

This morning each of us is a genie who can grant the Holy Father his three wishes. We can forget, for a moment, who got the better gifts; we can take our minds off how we're going to fit everyone around the table, especially since two of the relatives aren't speaking. Instead, we can lift our hearts to heaven as we take part in this Mass with thanks for the gift of salvation.

We can ponder in our hearts the wonders of the gift of Jesus, just as Mary did beside the manger that first Christmas night. Like the shepherds of Bethlehem, we can glorify and praise God for all we have heard and seen. And we can resolve to be faithful to Sunday Mass in the year ahead so that we're sure to look up to heaven at least once each week.

We can grant Pope Benedict his second wish by letting the true light become our guide. All too often we try to walk by our own light or by the values of the world. This Christmas we can resolve to turn to God more often, and more confidently. Perhaps this will mean looking to the Bible or the Catechism for more practical guidance on our daily journey, or just trying harder to accept God's will in a spirit of prayerful surrender.

Finally, let's grant the Pope's third wish by deciding to be more thoughtful and charitable—not only to the needy, but to our family members, friends and co-workers. We can share with others the good news of Christ's coming. We can do it in words, like the shepherds did, or by even the smallest acts of kindness, as Pope Benedict suggests.

One of the kindest things we can do is sharing our hope and faith with others. In January, our parish will offer the Alpha Course—a lively and interesting introduction to the basics of Christianity. This morning, I invite anyone who is at all interested in the Christian answers to the big questions about life to grab a flyer as you leave.

But even more important, I invite parishioners who want to give the best Christmas present in the world to a friend or co-worker or family member to bring them along to the Alpha course. There are details in the bulletin and we have some flyers as well.

Bethlehem, Rome—or Vancouver. Wherever we are at Christmas, the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour has appeared and the light of Christ shines in our hearts through his Holy Spirit, poured out on us richly so that we might inherit eternal life.

This is cause for true rejoicing in a world where the night can seem very dark in certain places or at certain times. By turning our eyes to the light, by letting the light guide our path, and by sharing it with others, we'll do much more than grant the Holy Father three wishes; we will receive the gift of salvation that Christ was born to bring.

(My homily for Midnight Mass can be found here.)

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Midnight Mass: Let the Light Shine

When I was ten years old, a great darkness came over the land. The lights went out for 25 million people, in an 80,000 square mile area of Eastern Canada and the Northeastern United States. It was the great blackout of November 1965, caused by a massive power failure.

Without warning, hundreds of thousands of people were stuck: stuck in subway and commuter trains, in elevators, at the top of skyscrapers.
In such circumstances, there were the usual grumblings and complaints, to be sure. But, in general, something quite amazing happened: the blackout brought people together! Folks who had taken the same commuter train for years spoke to their neighbors for the first time. People in elevators started to sing to pass the hours. The cold rush hour crowd began to thaw.
Those stuck in their top floor offices began to enjoy the night-time view for the first time, and point out its beauty to their coworkers.
And to everyone's amazement, the crime rate in New York City went down.

The darkness had actually brought people together, given them a chance to slow down and communicate—given them a chance to experience community.

It's a wonderful bit of history. But it makes me ask this question: if the darkness can bring people closer to one another, shouldn't the light—the one, true, light of the world—do the same, only more?
Should the darkness do a better job of forming a community than the Light does?

Isaiah tells us that "the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light." Who are those people?

Isaiah says "those who lived in land of deep darkness: on them light has shined." What is that light?

You know the answer: The light is Jesus, shining in even the darkest places of our world and of our hearts.
And who are those people who walked in darkness? We are those people—God's people.
Is it possible that the failure of a power station can draw people closer to one another than the one, true Light whose coming we celebrate tonight? Can blackouts have more influence on our lives than the birth of the Lord who brings salvation to all?
Let us hope not. Let us pray not. We can decide, this Christmas, at this Mass, to allow the light to change how we relate to one another in our homes, in our workplaces or schools, and most especially in our parish. We are not thrown together like people stuck on the same elevator; we are called together by our baptism, by our faith, by our hope, by our love for God and for one another.
I think it was the atheist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre—or maybe Nietzsche, also an atheist, who said "for me to believe in the Redeemer, those Christians need to look more redeemed."
How do we, as Christians, live in the light—how do we start looking more redeemed, especially as we celebrate Christ's birth.
There are as many answers as there are people in the pews this night. Asking God to heal and forgive our sins, particularly in confession, is the first way that comes to my mind, since the appearance of our Saviour trains us, as St. Paul says, to renounce our sins and live godly lives.
When God forgives our sins, he lifts the yoke from our shoulders, and frees us from the heavy weight that oppresses us. If there is something hanging over your head, or weighing on your soul, let Christmas be the moment when you ask God to set you free.
I heard a story about a priest who was harassed by a man in his parish many years ago. The man started false rumours about him, wrote vicious letters to the bishop and others, and launched petitions to have him removed.

But after several months the man moved away, and began to change his life and draw nearer to God. Eventually, he realized the harm he had done to the innocent priest, and he wrote a long letter apologizing for what he'd done and begging forgiveness for the injustice.
The priest replied by a three word telegram: "Forgiven, forgotten, forever."

Now it might have been that the priest was cheap—telegrams were expensive—but I doubt it. He'd said everything in those three words. God is just as economical with us: forgiven, forgotten, forever, is what God says when we kneel before him in sorrow. This how salvation works: God forgives our debt, just for the asking. The people who walked in darkness have truly seen a great light.

But the second way to celebrate Christmas is to let others see us walking in the light. We need to learn a thing or two from those stuck in the great blackout of '65. Do we reach out to others in fellowship, in friendship, letting down our guard and taking a few risks? Now is the time to let God increase our joy so much that people can't miss it!

"You have multiplied the nation," Isaiah says. How does God multiply his people today? By their witness, their readiness to share the good news. Christmas isn't only for Christians, but for all—we're called to invite others to walk towards the Light, in the Light.
There's a song youngsters sometimes sing that goes "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine." It's not much of a Christmas carol—because the light isn't mine, and it isn't little! It's a great light, a marvelous light, a blazing light: because it is God himself. It is God made visible. It is God made man. For me, certainly, but not for me alone: for the world, the waiting world, the world that is darkened by sin and fear.
The light of Christ doesn't shine like the sun or the moon, far away. It shines in us, through us, when we share with others the gift we have received, the joy that increases in us.
To share Christ's light we have to start by living in it—as St. Paul tells us, we must live lives that are self-controlled, upright and godly. But that's not enough. Some of us need to know more about "this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us" at Christmas.
For those people, in January our parish will offer a basic introduction to Christianity called the Alpha Course. A lively and interesting program, Alpha welcomes anyone who is remotely interested in the Christian answers to the big questions about life.
Some of us, of course, already know the message. For those people, the Alpha course is an ideal opportunity to share it with others—by inviting a friend or co-worker or family member, and tagging along with them. There are details in the bulletin and we have some flyers as well.
Whether it's finding out more about Christ, or sharing what we know with others, Christmas is the time to let the light shine in our hearts—freed from sin, freed from fear, and full of hope.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Sistine Chapel

My last post included a link to the Vatican's wonderful webpage on the Sistine Chapel.  Navigating it, however, is a bit of a challenge. Someone sent me another link to a "birds eye" view that it less difficult to use.  Click here.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Blogging in Italy

As all my faithful readers know, my so-called "blog" is not the real thing--properly speaking, a blog is "usually maintained by an individual with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, or other material such as graphics or video." Mind you, my readers don't do their part, either, since "most good quality blogs are interactive, allowing visitors to leave comments... and it is this interactivity that distinguishes them from other static websites."  (See "Blog," on Wikipedia.)

However, since I'm travelling--and not preaching--I thought I'd "blog" a bit on this interesting week in Italy. I can't download the few photos I've taken, but will link to some websites showing some of the sites I've visited.

Soon after arriving, I met up with my Beda classmate Fr. Jock Dalrymple and we had lunch in central Rome with our mutual dear friend Marina, with whom we've stayed in constant touch over the years. In the evening I caught up with Canadian College housemate Fr, Owen Keenan, who is back in Rome working at the Vatican.

Bright and early on Wednesday, Jock and I headed by train to Urbino, about four hours from Rome. Dominated by the magnificent ducal palace, this jewel of a town was rich in both art and history, and we had two delightful days exploring its steep streets (Jock limping valiantly after badly spraining his ankle the night before he left Scotland).

Among Urbino's charms was a skating rink and an outdoor market celebrating the national holiday of the Immaculate Conception; we also found a restaurant specializing in the cooking of the Marches region, where we ate very well. We celebrated the feast day at a Mass with the bishop in a parish church.

On our way back to Rome, we visited Pesaro, a larger city where we caught the train. In a short time we had breakfast by the Adriatic Sea, visited the Cathedral--where stunning mosaics have been discovered on two levels below the church floor--and briefly explored the town.

Just a few hours after our return, we prayed Vespers (Evening Prayer) in the Sistine Chapel. It was a tremendous experience to have a chance actually to pray in that setting, usually filled with tourists.The small gathering was mostly Vatican officials and some friends.

All for now!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Catholics Come Home

I woke up in Rome bright and early this morning, since I haven't adjusted to the time change, and decided to continue cleaning up my overflowing in-box of e-mail. The first thing I did was watch a YouTube video about the Catholic Church that our retired parish secretary kindly had sent me ages ago.

Can't begin to tell you how impressed I was by the video--a positive statement about the Catholic Church's contribution to society throughout the ages. It was particularly powerful to watch it here in the Eternal City. Naturally, it uses familiar images of St. Peter's Basilica, but it also features a number of scenes from St. Paul's, where I was ordained a deacon.

Watch this inspiring "commercial" by clicking here.

The clip is produced by a group I'd never heard of called Catholics Come Home. Their website tells you more about them. They seem to have been formed by an advertising executive called Tom Peterson, and they must be doing something right since the anti-Catholic media personality Bill Maher found it necessary to attack their ads.

Alongside the "Catholic commercial," Catholics Come Home have produced an unsettling examination of conscience called "The Movie." You can find it on their website by clicking here and go directly to YouTube by clicking here.

Might it be good before Christmas to send a link to the first commercial--the more upbeat one--to family members and friends who are away from the Faith? If we make sure our e-mails are lighthearted they might do some real good.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Isaiah Can Leave You Breathless (Advent 2B)

Would you like to know how much time it takes to write a short homily? About twice as long as it takes to write a long one.

I have to speak briefly this morning since I am on my way to Toronto for the annual meeting of Renewal Ministries. I chair the Canadian board of this Catholic charity, which is devoted to missionary work and evangelization. Many of you are familiar with Ralph Martin and Peter Herbeck, two of the leaders of Renewal Ministries.

From Toronto I'm off to Rome, so next Sunday I will be praying with you from afar.

On my day off last I was visiting some friends, and spied a framed quotation on their wall. It said "Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away."

For some reason, I thought about those words when I read today's first reading from the prophet Isaiah.

Isaiah proclaims the joy of redemption with various voices, but they all ring with victory. The prophet speaks tenderly, comfortingly. Then he shouts. And then the passage ends with the image of the Good Shepherd. His prophecy should take our breath away.

If these words don't leave you a bit breathless—if they don't lift your spirits—then maybe you should read the advertisement in today's bulletin for tickets to Handel's Messiah! Handel used many lines from today's reading in his exquisite work.

Even more important, we should find some time this week to go over the reading—it's always easy to find the Sunday readings on-line if you don't have a missal at home—and ask: is this my experience? Am I comforted by the knowledge of salvation? Does God speak tenderly to my heart?

Because Isaiah's words are a prophecy already fulfilled by the coming of Christ and by His saving work. It's true, He will come again, but His first coming has already leveled the hills of despair and darkness; His first coming revealed the glory of the Lord and banished fear from the hearts of men.

The prophecy is fulfilled in us when we open our hearts to the tenderness and mercy of God. Only in prayer can the Lord comfort us, feeds us, gather us, carry us and lead us.

My friend Vernon Robertson says that prayer begins as a duty, demands discipline, but will eventually lead to delight. So there are three steps to take in prayer: first, taking the duty seriously. If we fail to pray at all, we're really missing the boat. The second is to stick with prayer in a disciplined way, praying even when we don't feel like it. The third is allowing prayer to delight us.

Sometimes God will surprise us with consolation and delight. But most of the time we need to make the uneven ground level by persevering in prayer over a period of time. We need to take texts like this one from Isaiah into a time of prayer so that the full Advent message of hope and comfort penetrates our hearts.

With even a minimum of duty and discipline, prayer in Advent can take your breath away, and prepare you for a fresh experience of God's glory at Christmas.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

At Mass, Actions Can Speak as Loud as Words

Today is Grey Cup Sunday, but in this parish we're not offering prayers for either team. We have to balance our loyalty to the home team with the fact that the grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins of one of the Blue Bombers are all parishioners here at Christ the Redeemer.

I must say that it's a shame the big game is being played on such a wet day. This morning a football fan from out of town asked a young boy outside of BC Place if it ever stopped raining in Vancouver. "I don't know," the lad replied. "I'm only five."

Of course the Grey Cup is not the most important thing happening on November 27, 2011. Today is both the First Sunday of Advent and the day we start to use the new English translation of the Mass.

We've talked a lot about the change, but soon enough we'll take it for granted and hardly notice. Some might say that's just what we should hope for, but I disagree. To me, the new Missal demands some fresh thinking about the Mass and how we take part in it.

Happily, this first Sunday of Advent is the perfect time to take stock of our spiritual lives, which should be centered on the Eucharist. While a tired young parent or a weary teen might sometimes nod off during the homily, there are many more of us who have become spiritual sleepyheads with our eyes wide open.

We're dozing spiritually if we come to Mass without passion. If we participate without focus. And whenever we pray without enthusiasm.

That can't be what Jesus wanted when He gave us the gift of His Body and Blood. Do you daydream through Mass, at least some of the time? Then listen carefully to just two words from today's Gospel: Keep awake.

Jesus is talking about the Second Coming. But he's also referring to our daily spiritual life; we need to be wakeful and alert, especially at Mass, where the Lord comes to meet us. Otherwise we may be napping as he passes by.

Think of the excellent wake-up call we're getting from the new translation! We've got no choice but to slow down and focus on the words we're saying, since they're no longer that familiar. So why not turn the awkwardness of using printed cards into a new mindfulness of what we're saying?

And words aren't the whole story. Any teacher can tell when a student is keen and alert. They sit up straight. Their body language says "I want to learn." The same is true of all our postures at church. From the Sign of the Cross we make at the beginning, to the genuflection we make as we leave, our body language says whether we're dozing off or diving in.

Posture reveals what's going on inside us, but it also helps shape it. If I pray slumped in an armchair, I won't likely pray as well as I do in a more alert posture.

A lot of what I'm saying today is just common sense. In human relationships, we know the difference between a firm handshake and a limp one. How do you feel when someone looks you straight in the eye and says "I'm very pleased to meet you"? Not the same as when someone mumbles, "Oh, uh, hi" while looking over your shoulder.

When parents tell kids to stand up straight, it's not just so they'll look good to others. It also affects how they feel about themselves.

So it should be clear that how and when we sit, stand, kneel and bow at Mass can make a big difference. The changes in posture today are minor, but they still invite us to think. From today on we'll all bow during the Creed at the words to show our profound faith in the Incarnation. We'll stand at the "Pray brothers and sisters that my sacrifice and yours…". That's a chance to pray with new intensity that the Lord will accept our sacrifice.

Until now, some people have knelt and others have stood at the "Behold the Lamb of God." Having one common practice will speak loudly about our unity in faith and prayer.

A slight bow of the head at Holy Communion will help us to focus on Jesus. This act of reverence before we receive the Body of Christ will strengthen those who haven't been doing it before. And now the whole community will join those who were already bowing.

Anyone who might prefer making another sign of reverence—like kneeling or making the sign of the cross—will now show their oneness with others and obedience to the Church by making the change.

You can tell from what I'm saying that posture is significant in two ways. It's personal—it shows outside what's happening inside. But it's also public—common posture shows unity with one another when we gather for the liturgy; we're one body in Christ.

In today's second reading, St. Paul rejoices in God's gifts to the Christians at Corinth. Later on he has some complaints, but he starts his first letter with thanks to God for the grace and spiritual blessings He has given to the members of the community.

But Paul knows there's always more. The apostle thanks God for what the Corinthians have, but in the same breath he also asks God to continue His work with them.

Christ the Redeemer parish has been celebrating the liturgy well: we've avoided liturgical mistakes, we've taken music seriously; we have well-trained lectors and servers, devoted people who care for the altar and the church, and a warm ministry of greeters and hospitality. But there's always more.

So let's be alert to what God wants to give our parish; let's stay awake and welcome His coming by participating fully at Mass—which, need I add—starts with arriving on time and finding a seat.

Only in heaven will we experience the wedding feast of the Lamb fully. On earth we just catch a glimpse. But God wants that glimpse to bring us closer to His heart Sunday after Sunday; he wants the Mass to nourish our souls, heal our wounds, and prepare us for eternity. He wants, in a word, to meet us here.

The word of God we've heard today ought to awaken us to a fresh encounter with the God who comes. No ear has heard, no eye has seen, all that He offers us in the Mass. There's always more.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Major Announcement on Our Parish Feast Day

What was the best homily Jesus ever preached? I think most priests would say his teaching on the Bread of Life, or his words of farewell to the apostles, both in the Gospel of John.

But I think the Our Lord's best homily might well be his shortest. (Even priests sometimes like a short homily!) We find it in the fourth chapter of Luke's Gospel, and it's just one sentence: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

My homily today won't be as short, and my words won't be a self-fulfilling prophecy like those words of Jesus. But I will begin with them, and try to show you how today's Gospel is being fulfilled in our parish, by our parishioners, at this very moment.

At first glance, the Gospel we've just heard seems far distant from 599 Keith Road in West Vancouver. For one thing, Jesus is talking about the Last Judgment. For another thing, he's talking about the starving, the naked, and prisoners. We have no naked in West Vancouver—it's against local bylaws. And if you're starving, there are all kinds of soup kitchens, just over the bridge.

And don't try building a prison in one of Canada's wealthiest neighborhoods. "Occupy Vancouver" would be kid stuff by comparison to the protests we'd have.

So how can I possibly stand here and tell you that 'today this scripture is being fulfilled in this parish'?

Before I answer that, I'd first better make one important point: this Gospel text isn't being completely fulfilled today—if it were, the Lord would be sitting on His throne before us, and the sheep would be here and the goats there.

But the fact is that the members of our parish community, as subjects of Christ the King, have decided to obey his command to the letter. And so, on our feast day, I am announcing that the parish has signed an agreement with the Government of Canada to sponsor a family of Iraqi refugees.

This decision was taken over many months by the parish pastoral council, with the support and approval of the parish finance council. It was taken with considerable courage, since our current financial situation shows a small deficit, and the commitment we have made is substantial and binding.

By the way, our government takes the sponsor's obligations very seriously. I had to sign a form saying I was not currently detained in a penitentiary, jail, reformatory or prison. It also asked whether I'd been convicted of murder. (I'm not making this up!)

When the possibility of sponsoring a family first came up, the immigration department asked how large a family we'd be willing to sponsor. So I asked the councils for advice. Their answer: as big a family as they could find. As it turned out, we were assigned a family of five: father, mother, a son aged 16, and two daughters aged 10 and 5.

The Shaboo family are Iraqi Christians. As many of you know, Christians in Iraq have been harshly persecuted; when I was in Rome, I attended a funeral Mass for a young priest who had studied there and who had been murdered on the side of the road in Iraq together with three others. (Thanks to my friend Rob's comment below, you can read the story here.)

They are truly naked—exposed to their enemies. Unlike even the poorest of Canada's poor, they desperately need to be taken in; they need to be liberated from the benevolent prison of the refugee camp. They need, in a word, the help of those whom the Just Judge calls "the righteous."

Some of you will simply rejoice that our parish has taken to heart those timeless words "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me." You'll be the first to get involved with our resettlement committee, which will need many generous people to assist the Shaboo family when they arrive sometime in the New Year.

But others might say "who me?" Is belonging to a generous parish enough to get me a spot with the sheep?

To answer this, we must first talk about what a parish is. Is it simply an association of people? In his apostolic exhortation on the vocation and mission of the lay faithful, Blessed John Paul says simply that the parish is where you find the Church—that's Church with a capital "c."

The parish, he writes in this document (known by its Latin title Christifideles Laici), is the "place where the very 'mystery' of the Church is present and at work." It's "not principally a structure, a territory, or a building, but rather, 'the family of God, a fellowship afire with a unifying spirit,' 'a familial and welcoming home.'"

From this it follows that the parish has a mission, and that we can—and must—carry it on together.

Here's what the late Holy Father says on that score: "Church communion, already present and at work in the activities of the individual, finds its specific expression in the lay faithful's working together in groups, that is, in activities done with others in the course of their responsible participation in the life and mission of the Church."

In other words, when we work together on our common mission, the very nature of the Church as communion is more clearly visible.

And we see something else about the Church when the parish works together: without the activity of the lay faithful, the apostolate of their pastors "is generally unable to achieve its full effectiveness," as we read in one of the documents of Vatican II. Without the active participation of parishioners, all the money in the world would not be enough to meet our sponsorship obligations to the Shaboo family, who will need to be welcomed, not just sheltered, clothed and fed.

They'll need help shopping and job-hunting; they'll need baby-sitters and tutors; they'll need movers and handymen. In fact, the one thing they won't need from our parish is priests—like most Iraqi Christians, they belong to the Chaldean rite of the Catholic Church, which has its own priest here.

I truly wanted to follow our Lord's example and give a short homily today. I ended up following Pope John Paul's instead—I don't think he ever gave a short homily. Once I started reflecting on what he had to say in Christifideles Laici, I just didn't know where to stop. He completely connects the dots between our parish sponsoring the Shaboos and the calling we have as individual Christians.

Blessed John Paul writes that "The lay faithful ought to be ever more convinced of the special meaning that their commitment to the apostolate takes on in their parish."

"Ever more convinced." In other words, there's something extra-special about making the parish your base for service of the poor. John Paul quotes Vatican II to make this point: "The parish offers an outstanding example of the apostolate on the community level, inasmuch as it brings together the many human differences found within its boundaries and draws them into the universality of the Church." (Apostolicam Actuositatem, 10)

He continues "The lay faithful should accustom themselves to working in the parish in close union with their priests, bringing to the Church community their own and the world's problems…"

And he concludes: "As far as possible the lay faithful ought to collaborate in every apostolic and missionary undertaking sponsored by [their parish]."

Let me conclude: today's Gospel is being fulfilled in our parish. The King's commands are already obeyed with joy and zeal by the dedicated members of the parish conference of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. And when Faris, Lilyan, Yousif, Rita and Maryam get off the plane, and our parish community greets them as brothers and sisters of the King of Kings, we will be that much closer to hearing those words "come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world."


Saturday, November 12, 2011

‘Permanent Truths’ at Jeremy and Kelly’s Wedding Mass

The late William Barclay, a great scripture scholar, estimated that Jesus produced something like 180 gallons or 818 litres of wine at the wedding feast of Cana. He added that no wedding party on earth could drink that much wine. Well, Professor Barclay was a Scots Presbyterian, and probably never imagined the size of a Prairie wedding!

But the point he makes is beyond dispute. This is no ordinary miracle; it is much, much more than an act of kindness to an embarrassed host. Jesus did something he fully intended to surprise and delight us two thousand years later.

And he intends this sign to surprise and delight us today.

It might seem obvious for Kelly and Jeremy to choose to hear a story about a wedding at their wedding; and if you know Jeremy, it might also be obvious why he liked a story about good wine. But if you know them both, you will recognize their choice as anything but obvious. They have chosen to put the sign of Cana in front of us today as a statement of faith and hope.

Today Jeremy and Kelly invite us to forget their own wedding for a moment, and take a trip back to that small village of Cana.

Lovely things are happening there: we learn that Jesus is no killjoy, that he liked a party, and that he had a delicate concern for people's feelings. He also believed in keeping his mother happy.

(I should mention, by the way, that the words "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me" are not as awkward as they sound to us. In their language, Jesus was speaking to Mary in a perfectly respectful way; he addresses her lovingly as "Woman" even from the Cross.)

But planted right in the midst of this joyful event—and weddings were certainly the high point of social life for the poor and often-oppressed Jews in Palestine—we find permanent truths.

Today, Kelly and Jeremy declare their faith in enduring truths about marriage and, even more importantly, about Christ himself, for it was at Cana that he first showed his glory; it was there, as Professor Barclay says, that his disciples caught a dazzling glimpse of what he was.

Let's look first at what the sign at Cana tells us about marriage. We know from St. Paul that marriage is a sign of the loving union between Christ and his bride the Church. But Cardinal Marc Ouellet takes this a step further: he says that marriage is a sign of the union between the Creator and his creatures.

In his remarkable book Divine Likeness, the Cardinal tells us that the wine at Cana, and the exhilarated apostles who drank it, symbolize the presence of the Holy Spirit. And that presence of the Spirit is connected to the nuptial union between God and humanity.

In other words, Christian marriage both symbolizes and proceeds from the covenant God made with humanity in Christ.

The Cardinal even says that the sign at Cana is a key for reading all Christ's other signs, since it elevates human marriage to a symbol of the eventual fulfillment of all creation in the Kingdom of God.

Jeremy and Kelly, your union today is rooted in what we learn from the Old Testament in the Book of Genesis: that you were created in the image and likeness of God. Your marriage wonderfully participates in his original plan for creation. But it's also rooted in the New Testament truth that Jesus revealed at the wedding feast of Cana: it is a sacrament through which you participate in the spousal love of Christ and the Church.

Before such lofty theological heights make us dizzy, let's head back to the humble home at which the wedding of Cana was celebrated. At Cana Jesus chose to do the first of his many signs. Why? What does that tell us about him?

William Barclay offers a wonderful answer drawn from the words Jesus speaks to Mary: "My hour has not yet come."

All through the Gospels we find Jesus speaking about "his hour." In one place it is the hour of his emergence as the Messiah; most frequently it is the hour of his suffering and death. By speaking of his "hour," Jesus makes it clear that what happened at Cana was much more than a divine act of human kindness: it was part and parcel of the mission he received from his Father.

"All through his life," Professor Barclay writes, "Jesus knew that he had come into this world for a definite purpose. He saw his life not in terms of his wishes, but in terms of God's purpose for himself."

Kelly and Jeremy, I know very well that this is exactly how you see your marriage: in terms of God's plan and purpose for your lives.

You would not see things that way if Jesus had not caused changes in your life that were like water into wine. Along the path of discipleship, you heard him say "follow me to a wedding feast like none other."

And elsewhere in John's Gospel, our Lord says "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."

As missionaries and as Christians, and now as a couple, you have taken him at his word. He has convinced you by the sign of Cana and many other signs that he offers a life like none other, an exhilarating life, a life so abundant that even 818 litres of superb wine can't really begin to represent it.

Today, your family and friends rejoice in the love you have for one another; but we rejoice even more in the love that God has for you, and for each and every one of us.

So I invite you now, in the presence of Jesus and his Mother, before your friends in heaven and your friends on earth, to stand before the altar and enter into this sacred covenant of life and love.

Jeremy and Kelly, both full-time missionaries with Catholic Christian Outreach, also organized a prayer vigil the night before their wedding. My homily at that occasion may be found here.




Friday, November 11, 2011

A Wedding Vigil!

Tomorrow I will witness the marriage of two staff members of Catholic Christian Outreach. Jeremy Rude, a friend for many years, is marrying fellow missionary Kelly Boyko near Edmonton. They chose to prepare themselves—and their friends—by a prayer vigil that included moving testimonies about marriage from CCO co-founder Angele Regnier and its president, Jeff Lockert.

As part of the vigil, we celebrated Evening Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours, during which I preached the following homily at the couple’s request.

Those of you who are not Catholic may find this prayer vigil a bit puzzling. But don’t feel bad—the Catholics are more puzzled than you, since when they hear about a vigil, they think ‘funerals,’ not weddings.
So when I told a witty priest about this evening’s vigil, he asked if the body would be present!

The answer, of course, is yes. Marriage very much involves the body as well as the spirit, so much so that Jeremy and Kelly will walk into the church as two tomorrow, and leave as one flesh. But that’s something we will talk about at the wedding.

Tonight, let’s talk about this unusual vigil. Actually, it wouldn’t seem unusual to the first Christians. Nighttime prayer services were so common in the early Church that we read about them in documents from the first part of the second century.

We’re not sure how vigils caught on—obviously the greatest of them, the Easter Vigil, was connected to the fact of Christ’s rising before morning. But there was also a popular belief that the Second Coming would happen at midnight. (We’re not planning to wait around for that tonight.)

Whatever the reason for their popularity, vigils have gone by the wayside except at Easter. And even the good example of Kelly and Jeremy isn’t likely to bring them back anytime soon.

But that’s too bad, really. Because a vigil expresses three powerful truths about tomorrow’s celebration.
The first is that a wedding—like any sacrament—needs to be surrounded by prayer.

Sure, people who aren’t prayerful get properly married; even a groom who spends half the liturgy worrying about whether his best man forgot the rings can receive the sacrament. But prayer opens the door of the overflowing storehouse of spiritual goods.

Prayer helps the couple receive maximum spiritual benefit from the sacrament of matrimony, and prayer helps their family and friends share more fully in these blessings as well.

St. Charles Borromeo once preached about a priest who complains that a thousand thoughts distract him from God as soon as he comes into church to pray. The great reformer and bishop replies by asking “But what was he doing in the sacristy before he came out for Mass? How did he prepare?"

No-one will ask our happy couple that question. Their hearts and minds will be set on God tomorrow—as shown by their decision to pray with us tonight.

Our thoughts too will rise more easily to God tomorrow, because tonight we have fixed them on the supernatural aspect of this joyful union.

The second great thing about a vigil is that it’s expectant—it’s a time of watching and eager waiting. In former times, all the great liturgical feasts were preceded by a vigil of prayer, even ordinary Sundays. Medieval squires spent the night in prayer before being knighted. A vigil signified the importance of the day to follow… something big was about to happen!

Well, tomorrow is going to be a tremendous day! It’s going to be life-changing, maybe even world-changing. It deserves to be anticipated with eagerness and excitement. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to looking forward to seeing Kelly appear at the door of the church, radiant and lovely. We should be even more eager to see the great work that God will do in her life and in Jeremy’s tomorrow.

Kelly and Jeremy, you are expecting great things from God; that’s just what He wants you to expect, and He will not disappoint your hopes.

Finally, our time of vigil helps us focus on Christ. In his book Life Together, the 20th century martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote “At night Christ was born, a light in darkness; noonday turned to night when Christ suffered and died on the Cross. But in the dawn of Easter morning Christ rose in victory from the grave.”

Bonhoeffer challenges modern Christians to rediscover the spiritual rhythm of night and day. Even though we no longer have any fear or awe of night, we can rediscover the great joy that the early Christians felt every morning at the return of the light. We can learn again something of the praise and adoration we owe to God at the break of each day—for He has preserved our life through the dark night and wakened us to a new day, driving away darkness and sin.

We often say that every Sunday is a “little Easter.” Well, the same can be said of every night and every morning if we begin and end the day in the spirit of this evening’s vigil, watching and waiting. Christ is the Bridegroom who will arrive without warning at the door of the house, who will awaken the bridal party from sleep. But Christ is also the Risen One whom we welcome each morning as we arise from the darkness of night.

We will celebrate many wonders tomorrow, including human love, the love of family and friends, and the sheer joy of this union; but the still-deeper truths we have glimpsed tonight will lead us to the very heart of the matter: As a sacrament of Christ’s love, Kelly and Jeremy’s wedding shares fully in the mystery of his death and rising, calling them from death to life, from darkness to light.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Introducing Father Rosica

Last night I had the pleasure of introducing Father Tom Rosica at the annual Meet the Movement dinner hosted by Catholic Christian Outreach Vancouver. Here's what I said.

When I grow up, I want to be Father Tom Rosica.

I told this to Archbishop Miller the other day, but he said it's already too late. Turns out Father Rosica is four years younger than I am. (We are, however, both celebrating this year our silver jubilees of ordination to the priesthood.)

Among my many reasons for jealous admiration, he speaks well two languages that I speak badly, having received his bachelor's degree in Italian and French literature. He attended two of the world's most distinguished schools of biblical study, and taught Sacred Scripture at three universities here in Canada.

For six years he served as the director of the Newman Centre, the Catholic chaplaincy at the University of Toronto. Perhaps it was there that he became a true apostle to youth, in which role we welcome him specially tonight.

To give you a proper list of our keynote speaker's other accomplishments, I'd have to be, well, the keynote speaker. But it's impossible not to start with his work as the chief executive office for World Youth Day, held in Toronto in 2002. It's no exaggeration to say that there are some people here tonight who trace their strong Catholic faith to that event.

Father Rosica had barely caught his breath after WYD when he took on a challenge no less daunting than running a massive international gathering. He became the CEO of Salt + Light Television in 1993, at the same time serving the Congregation of St. Basil as a formator and, then, as a member of its General Council. As you know, Salt + Light has gone from strength to strength.

He has advised both the Holy See and the Canadian bishops on communications matters; he has even been so brave as to be a consultant to the CBC. In just three weeks, he adds the presidency of Assumption University in Windsor to his other responsibilities.

But even these tremendous contributions to the Church in Canada and around the world pale in comparison to something else: Father Tom is "a man for others." His energies, his talents, his intellect may be focused on getting the job done, but his heart remains devoted to people.

If you'll allow a quick story: When my father was gravely ill, Father Tom offered Mass for him—more than once—at St. Peter's. And when Dad died, he wrote to say he'd prayed for me—and for you, Archbishop Michael—around the exhumed casket of Blessed John Paul II.

There are many other stories, well known to us in CCO, of his almost indescribable support for our movement; he has opened doors for CCO like a very skilled locksmith… or maybe an equally skilled burglar, I'm not quite sure! … CCO owes him an incalculable debt.

Dear friends, join me in welcoming a friend—a man for others, and a man for youth: Father Tom Rosica.

When the applause died down, Father Rosica looked up from the podium and said "I'm not dead yet!"

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Visit of the Dominican Nuns (Sunday 32.A)


While the usually-cloistered Dominican Nuns await the completion of their monastery near Squamish, BC, they are able to visit parishes; this Sunday we welcomed them to our morning Masses.

We're all hoping that the changes in the translation of the Mass are going to help us worship God reverently and profoundly. Many blessings have come from the liturgical renewal of the past forty years, but we know there are blessings still to come.

And of course, there have been some not-quite-blessed moments during those forty years. Vancouver escaped the worst of them, such as liturgical dance. I once heard the story of a religious Sister who danced the offertory procession in a flowing costume while playing the guitar. The bishop was visiting the parish on the occasion.

As the Sister approached the altar, the bishop whispered to the pastor: "If she asks for your head on a platter, she'll get it!"

I'm sure it's not a true story, and anyway our visitors today aren't that kind of Sister. We have in church with us the Nuns from Queen of Peace Monastery. These Sisters belong to the contemplative branch of the Order of Preachers, better known as the Dominicans.

St. Dominic made the brilliant decision to establish a community of Nuns to pray for the men he would send out as preachers of the Gospel. He knew that contemplation should precede action.

It's a hard concept for busy people in the modern world. "What do these Nuns do?" some people ask. Don't they run anything?

Today's readings tell us about these Sisters' calling. The Book of Wisdom explains that Wisdom is waiting to be found by those who take the trouble to seek her. Some effort is involved—the reading points out that getting up early makes it easier to find Wisdom—but her riches are a free gift.

In her book The Sacred Place of Prayer, Sister Jean Marie Dwyer (who can't be with us this morning) shows that even the great philosopher Aristotle taught that the pursuit of wisdom reached its highest point in contemplation. Aristotle saw contemplation as the fullest realization of our potential and the final purpose of human action.

Although Aristotle did not know the truth of a personal God, he knew that contemplation, rather than action, was the high road to blessedness. *

In today's Gospel, we can see the vocation of consecrated contemplatives represented by the wise bridesmaids. A beautiful Vatican document on the contemplative life says that "the nun is called to converse with the divine Bridegroom, meditating upon his law day and night so as to receive as gift the Wisdom of the Word and to become one with him, under the impulse of the Holy Spirit."

That sounds wonderful, but what does it have to do with us—busy priests, tired parents (and grandparents), hard-working students, all caught up in the whirl of the world?

The quick and easy answer is that we can ask contemplatives to do some of our praying for us. They offer a service of prayer to the Church and for all who ask their help. When I have big problems, Queen of Peace Monastery is my first call.

But that's not really the answer I want to leave with you today. The biggest service the Nuns offer to us is this: they are a reminder that the Bridegroom is coming. Like the wise bridesmaids, they keep their lamps lit and offer us an example of wisdom. By their special relationship to the divine Bridegroom, they keep before us a central fact: "As the Redeemer of the world, Christ is the Bridegroom of the Church. The Eucharist is the Sacrament of our Redemption. It is the Sacrament of the Bridegroom and of the Bride."++

Sunday Mass offers us an experience of community and fellowship; it restores us spiritually and nourishes us intellectually; it provides peace and strength. But we must never forget the height and the depth and the beauty and the richness of the Eucharistic celebration. It is the Sacrament of the Bridegroom and the Bride.

We need to wake up if we have dozed off to the full meaning and power of the Mass. The visit of the Sisters, and the drawing-near of the new translation, should encourage us to pray fervently to God for the wisdom to seek him in the sanctuary, and for the grace to see his strength and glory.

* Jean Marie Dwyer, OP, The Sacred Place of Prayer: The Human Person Created in God's Image, Novalis 2011, pp. 30-31.

+ Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and for Societies of Apostolic Life, Verbi Sponsa, Instruction on the Contemplative Life and on the Enclosure of Nuns (1999) n. 5.

++ John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem (1988), n. 26.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Contemporary Anticlericalism (Sunday 31.A)

Gossip can be good for you—at least that's what a new book says.

I'm not so sure. The author makes a clever case for the benefits of gossip, but if he spent a week in any parish he might change his mind. The fact is that much of the gossip you hear after Mass just isn't true.

I'll never forget the gossip that met me on my arrival here as pastor. On my second or third day someone asked me about the rumour that I was very unhappy to be at Christ the Redeemer; a day later another parishioner said she'd been told I had schemed and plotted to be named to this plum parish!

Parish communities are often hotbeds of gossip, and priests can be the prime target. Sometimes, of course, the gossip is true. We know all too well that priests, all too often, have given people good reason to speak about their faults and failings. What Jesus says doesn't apply just to the scribes and Pharisees, but to priests and other religious leaders as well.

And of course the proud or arrogant behavior that Our Lord describes in the Gospel isn't the worst evil; the first reading speaks of something much worse, the corruption of some priests—which brings upon them damnation and disgrace. But we've talked about that tragedy before. Today I would like to look at how we deal more generally with the flaws of our priests.

It's a tough topic, because we want our priests to practice what they preach. Last week, we heard St. Paul telling the Thessalonians to imitate him—he was that confident oh the example he gave. In today's second reading, he continues the self-portrait. Paul was a gentle and caring pastor, a model of Christian life. Priests should be, too.

But priests are human, and so struggle with human weakness. How do we handle that in a parish community?

Once upon a time, we handled it by never criticizing priests. In some pious homes you'd get away with criticizing your mother before criticizing a priest. This policy certainly helped people to be charitable, but it also helped some priests escape legitimate correction of faults and worse. It's not the answer.

And like most extreme positions, the "hear no evil, speak no evil" had a partner on the pendulum. That partner is called anticlericalism.

It's a word many Canadian Catholics have never heard, and that even fewer understand. Those of you from Europe or Mexico, however, know what anticlericalism is; in many countries, at various times, it was an organized political movement directed towards priests and religious. In some cases, it meant laws that made life more difficult for the clergy; in others it meant active persecution and even death.

An informed Canadian Catholic needs to know enough Church history to realize two things about anticlericalism. The first is that excessive priestly privileges in past centuries, or too much wealth concentrated in the hands of the Church, certainly encouraged the hostility towards the Church's ministers that anticlericalism represents.

There are few things more disturbing than hypocrisy, which is why Jesus uses the examples of the proud religious men of his day. When the clergy become a privileged group in society, resentment is natural.

In the middle ages there were books and poems that might be called anticlerical, because they mocked the clergy. Some of these writings were scandalous, but others expressed legitimate disappointment and disapproval of weak or selfish priests. At the end of the 1300s, Chaucer ridicules some of these in his famous poem The Canterbury Tales, considered a classic of medieval literature.

But the second thing we need to remember is that modern anticlericalism, at its heart, was not primarily an attack on priests. It was an attack on the Church.

The French Revolution, Communism, the Mexican constitution of 1917, the Spanish Civil War—all these and many other political movements had strong anticlerical elements. An Italian friend who just finished reading a history of his native country mentioned to me this week that he'd forgotten how much anticlericalism there was in the movement for Italian Independence.

In these and many other examples, hostility to the clergy was hostility to the Church of Christ, period.

Now why I am emphasizing these historical facts in today's homily? Simply because the ghost of anticlericalism continues to float through the air today. (And speaking of ghosts, you may be sure that most people dressed as priests and nuns at Halloween parties are doing so in a disrespectful way.) Communism is dead, at least in the once-Christian nations of Russia and Eastern Europe, and most of Mexico's anticlerical laws were not enforced in recent decades. But the strategy of attacking priests as a way of attacking the Church is alive and well, and Catholics need to know that.

Of course we need to know that intelligently, not blindly. Every attack on a priest is not an attack on the Church. We need to acknowledge that and to lament the terrible harm done by some priests. Yet if we don't recognize how enemies of the Church use the clergy as a proxy to attack the Church we will fail in our duty to defend her.

Recent scandals have prompted the threat of laws attacking the seal of the confessional in Ireland and some U.S. states. Various threats are made to the tax status of churches. Some extremists even argued for the arrest of the Pope when he stepped on British soil.

Again, there is no defense against actual crimes committed by clergy. But when we read the papers, watch TV, and speak with non-Catholic friends we must separate fact from fiction, and genuine reaction from anticlerical opportunism.

In other words, bad priests may have given a stick to those who despise the Church, but it doesn't mean good Catholics should sit around while they beat the Church with it.

Twentieth century Catholics need a mature understanding of this, and to be able to recognize three things:
  1. Serious failings of priests must be reported and addressed by the competent authorities, religious and civil.
  2. Foibles of priests—their everyday faults and shortcomings—we must take in our stride and not confuse with more serious things. As long as priests are chosen from among men and not angels, there will be some who do not practice what they teach or give an example to imitate. Jesus knew this from the start, which is why he warns us so sternly—and why he made sure that the power of the Sacraments did not depend on the holiness of the minister.
  3. The shortcomings of the Church's ministers, whether grave or not, aren't the shortcomings of the Church itself. When they're used as an excuse to attack the Church and her mission, it's likely that old-fashioned anticlericalism is at work once again.
It's good that I close by thanking you for the way you put up with my faults. I depend on your charity. You overlook my impatience and busy-ness, and generously wait for me to return phone calls and answer e-mails, to mention just a few things.

And I plead guilty to one of the specific charges that Jesus makes against the scribes and the Pharisees. I do love the place of honour at banquets, since we get fed first! But if you went to as many banquets as I do, you might forgive that fault...

Saturday, October 22, 2011

No Hands But Ours (Sunday 30.A)

I was praying in the front pew a while back, when out of the corner of my eye I saw that something was wrong with the statue of the Sacred Heart. On closer inspection, I noticed that it was missing one hand.

Some detective work quickly discovered that the hand had come loose and fallen on the floor; it was in pieces in the sacristy.

Fortunately, Father Xavier's many talents include statue restoration, and all was well a day or two later.

But to tell you the truth, I was a bit disappointed that the repair was so quick and easy—because I'd started to think about putting up a sign that said "Let's give Jesus a hand!"

It's not as silly as it sounds. Consider the more serious words of St. Teresa of Avila, who wrote:

Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.

God is all-powerful, and can do all things. Milton recognized this when he wrote "God doth not need/Either man's work or his own gifts." But the fact is God chooses to do much of his work on earth through human instruments.

Today the Church celebrates World Mission Sunday, our annual reminder that spreading the Gospel everywhere is a responsibility of every Christian. Pentecost was the first and last time that the Holy Spirit worked all on his own; since then God has called on men and women of every age to assist in the Spirit's mission to the world.

Today our parish celebrates another Welcome Sunday, when we acknowledge the new members of the congregation. But the real job of welcoming them isn't done from the pulpit. They are made to feel at home by handshakes, smiles, the pouring of coffee and the cutting of cake.

Many years ago, I met a woman who had been baptized the previous Easter at St. Anthony's parish. But when I asked her how she liked the parish, she said "oh, I don't actually go there. I much prefer the Cathedral. Nobody ever speaks to you at the Cathedral!"

Well, there's no accounting for tastes. Still, the fact is that the Church is a communion of persons, and communion among believers is shown by the warmth of welcome. I still mourn the letter I got a year or two after arriving at Christ the Redeemer. It was from a woman who was moving away after three years here, during which, she said, no-one ever spoke to her.

I was tempted to write back and ask if she'd ever spoken to anyone, but that's not really the point. In our second reading, Paul is saying that he and his companions were like living Gospels for the Thessalonians; people imitated them, confident that they were authentic models of Christ's own way of life.

It's often said that you are the only Gospel some people will ever read. We support the Church's world-wide mission of evangelization by prayers and sacrifice, including financial sacrifices. But closer to home we are missionaries at home, school, and work. We are missionaries who speak a language of love, as Jesus commands us in the Gospel we have just heard.

I found a wonderful Methodist website where a Quaker writer listed all the ways the early Church cared for the poor, both within the community and beyond. By the year 250, Christians in Rome were caring for some fifteen hundred needy people; a hundred or so years later, St. John Chrysostom reported that the Church in Constantinople fed 3,000 people every day, regardless of religion.

As you know, you can find just about anything on the web, and you can't take all of it too seriously. But I came across a blog that made me very sad. In a post entitled "Why I am Not a Catholic," a man wrote "Does Roman Catholicism have some of the same behavior as early Christianity. No. Not in the least. There's not even a resemblance."

It's not true, of course, except in his experience. Much of the good that's done in the parish is done quietly, out of respect for the privacy of those who are helped; so where possible we need to show love in action right here in church.

We will not love our neighbour if we do not begin by loving our fellow parishioners—even those who park in front of the rectory garage, or who abandon their cars in the fire lane. (Not at this Mass, of course!) "See how they love one another," was the pagans' reaction to the early Christians as recorded by Tertullian.

In times of persecution, early "Christians also provided for those who lost their jobs because of their faith in Christ. It was assumed, for example, that an actor who became a Christian, and had to give up his profession because of its involvement in pagan mythology, would be cared for by the church. . . "

We may yet have to help those who lose their jobs on account of the faith, but right now we love our neighbour in the parish in numerous ways, some of them as simple as moving over in the pew. The warmth of our greeting at the sign of peace can make a big difference, especially when the person we are greeting is someone we don't know.

Of course Jesus doesn't only tell us to love our neighbour. The first and greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul and mind. From such love flows love of neighbour in all its forms.

Today, as we continue to think about the upcoming changes to the liturgy, I'd like to suggest that participating fully at Mass is a way of fulfilling both the command to love God and the command to love our neighbour at the same time.

Our reverent silence invites others to join us in prayer. Our genuine responses and heartfelt singing make it easier for others—especially visitors—to take part. Have you ever thought of that? I can tell you from a priest's point of view that Mass is richer when the congregation is actively involved. Yesterday I said Mass for the Dominican Nuns—who are coming to visit us in a few weeks, by the way—and I felt truly holy! Only it wasn't me at all; I was flying in their spiritual jet stream.

There's even a missionary aspect to such things as bowing during the Creed and before we receive Holy Communion. These gestures are ways to proclaim publicly what we believe. We shouldn't assume that everyone in the Church is a fellow Catholic. There are a surprising number of folks who come to see what our parish is about, and they are going to read our body language carefully.

Today's a great day to get rid of two false ideas. The first is that someone else will look after proclaiming the Gospel to the whole wide world. The second is that someone else will share the joy of being a Christian with the person next door, in the next office, and beside you in the pew.

So let's lend Christ a hand. He has no hands but ours.