Saturday, April 30, 2011

Neil McCabe Smith, 1929 - 2011

This week I had the painful privilege of celebrating two funeral Masses for my father. One took place in my parish, for he died while visiting BC, and the other in his, before his burial in Ontario. The homilies are similar, but I am posting both.

May he rest in peace.


Friday, April 29, 2011

St. Ann's Parish, Ancaster, Ontario

When Mom and Dad moved back to Ancaster after almost half a century, I was very happy that they both liked the pastor, Father Ray Modeski, and was delighted again when they liked his replacement, Father Dan Miehm, just as much.

(Dad had also always spoken very highly of Father Loftus, who was here in the 1950s, so St. Ann's must attract great pastors!)

I had a very private reason to be pleased that Mom and Dad liked their pastor: it meant there'd be someone to preach when this sad day came, as I knew it must eventually. Because I knew for sure that I wasn't the man for the job—when my Great Aunt Dorothy died at 99, I managed to choke up completely two minutes into the homily.

I figured God was trying to tell me something!

But I guess I figured wrong. I've already preached one homily for Dad and I'm up here this morning trying to do it again.

In Vancouver, I spent a lot of time at the start of Mass preparing the congregation for our family's ability to break the world record for tears. I even quoted a line from Bob Hope: "I come from a family where they cry at baseball games."

The congregation laughed loudly when I said "at the wedding of my niece Jennifer there were more tears than at most funerals." They thought I was joking!

Many of you here this morning don't need to be prepared; you've seen me and the rest of the family in action before. But in fairness to my Dad, I do have to point out that this teary family trait didn't come from him:

A good eight months after her mother died, Mom started to cry at a family dinner when someone mentioned Gram's name. Dad said with some exasperation "Oh, Jane!" His sister, our Aunt Pat, was at the table with us, and she promptly came to Mom's defense. She said "Neil, you cried when Mother died!" ... to which he responded drily, "Once."

Since I take after my mother—who also choked up at Dorothy's funeral and was gracefully rescued by Aunt Denise—I may well falter today, which is why I asked Father Dan to stand in the wings with a copy of my homily and to give me hand when I need it.

But as things turned out in Vancouver, after I carefully explained how the family's tears shouldn't be taken too seriously, everyone, including me, held themselves together wonderfully. Now many of my parishioners think I was making it all up.

It's too early to guess how things will go today for me and the rest of the family. We might behave ourselves as we did in Vancouver, or we may decide that today's our day to fall apart.

Whatever happens, please don't mistake our teary family trait for more than it is. We know that Dad had a great life and a peaceful end, and we really do feel that peace. Our outsides just don't always match our insides!

So bear with me, and my kind understudy Father Dan, as I do my best to share some thoughts with you this morning.

During his ten weeks of illness, Dad was in two hospitals; for much of the time he was at the hospital where Sheila had worked for many years, and it was a real blessing that some of the doctors and nurses who cared for him in the intensive care unit knew Sheila well.

Another blessing was the hospital chaplain, a young Baptist minister from Estonia. (I didn't even know they had Baptists in Estonia, and never did figure out how he made it to Vancouver.) But this gentle man always seemed to be there when we needed him most, and he helped me personally more than once.

He said something to Mom when things got bad, and it's stuck with her and with me. Life is a circle.... with a beginning and an end.

Certainly I feel part of a circle this morning, preaching in this church right next door to the classroom where I started kindergarten!

A priest friend of mine also told me something connected to this idea of the circle of life. When I called to say that Dad had died, he quoted these words from a book he'd been reading: "mourning is a romance in reverse."

I nearly dropped the phone. There's the circle again. And listen to the rest of the quotation: "the meaning of life is connected, inextricably, to the meaning of death; and if you love, you grieve and there are no exceptions - only those who do it well and those who don't." [The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade by Thomas Lynch, page 25.]

For all our weepiness, I think these words describe what Mom and the rest of us are feeling. If you love, you grieve, and there are no exceptions; it's a romance in reverse.

We cry because we are so thankful to Dad for loving us so much and so well; and we cry because we are grateful for having so many years to love him back.

But that's still less than half the story. It's not only about human love. It's not only about married love or the love found in a family.

On the contrary, the circle is completed by God's love. God's love is very much a part of our grateful celebration this morning.

The family chose Scripture readings that connect Dad's life and death with the faith that sustained him and us. We may not be the most pious family I know, but it truly was faith that carried us through a long Lent, to a painful Palm Sunday, and now to an Easter that is hard but hope-filled.

The readings give us more than comfort; they give us strength.

We chose the first reading because it sums up what has kept us going since Dad died: first, our belief that eternal rest is the reward for a life well-lived. All of us are thankful today that he lived his life as a faithful Christian and can rightly expect that his good deeds will be seen by the just Judge.

And if I don't say more than that about Dad, you can blame him: he was very specific in wanting no eulogy, and I don't want to cheat by turning this homily into one.

The first reading also reflects our joy that Dad "died in the Lord"—that he died after receiving the sacraments of the Church, and in the full hope of salvation that they promise.

He began his final journey with the Sacrament of the Sick on the morning of his heart attack; he continued it with the Sacrament of Penance the morning of his surgery, and concluded it with the Eucharist just hours before he died. While these saving signs were meant to comfort and strengthen him in illness, their ultimate purpose was to lead him safely to heaven, which is what we believe they did.

I should mention that I was naturally terrified of administering what used to be called "the last rites" to my own father; I was quite sure I'd break down. So I arranged for a generous chaplain to visit him at bedtime the night before his open heart surgery.

"Thank you so much, Father," he told the young priest when he arrived, "but my son will look after me when he gets here in the morning!"

And I did, somehow!

I also managed to give Dad Holy Communion one last time (known as Viaticum) on the day he died. I brought along another priest as back-up, but I managed the main prayers myself. Mom and all five children were there, and since it was a Sunday—Palm Sunday, at that—it sort of symbolized my parents' faithfulness to Sunday Mass.

Many people in Vancouver mentioned how blessed our parents are to have five children who all regularly practice the faith together with their families. I explained that there are a number of reasons for that, but none more important than the fact that our family never missed Sunday Mass.

Even on camping trips Mom and Dad planned in advance and knew where we could get to Mass; at Lake Rosseau, we went to church in Uncle Jack's motorboat. That really impressed people out in BC, for a ride in a small boat over choppy waters can be a sacrifice. On the glassy waters of a Muskoka lake it was a pure treat.

In any case, I really am convinced that this commitment to the Sunday obligation was the chief reason we've stayed so close to the Church. It certainly wasn't our outstanding piety at home: when I was in university I brought a priest friend home for dinner one Friday, and when the meal was served, Dad turned to Mom and said "Well, Jane, shall we be hypocrites and ask Father to say grace, or shall we start dinner as usual?"

We did say grace on Sundays, and I have to say that in recent years we manage to do so on weekdays as well, so we've improved a bit.

Let's get back to the readings.... We chose the consoling words of the Twenty-Second Psalm for a number of reasons. One of the reasons is the beautiful picture it paints of the heavenly banquet to which our earthly Eucharist leads. Many a Sunday Mass might have been hot and crowded, but somehow we got the connection to the green pastures and restful waters that God promises.

Another reason we chose that psalm is that it doesn't pretend that the Good Shepherd spares us every struggle and sorrow. Instead, it says He leads us, and walks with us, even in the darkest valleys. There were some dark valleys as we prayed and hoped that Dad would recover. But just before he died, I asked Mom and several of the other kids whether they felt closer to God or farther away after such tough times; they all said "closer," and that's my answer too.

From what I've already said, it should be pretty clear why we chose the second reading, where St. Paul teaches that Christians must not grieve like those who have no hope. I think we were afraid we'd be weeping buckets, and would need St. Paul to shake some sense into us.

But I've already explained that the tears we've shed, and the grief we feel, don't mean a lack of faith or hope. Even with tears, we celebrated Easter this year believing those words of St. Paul: that Jesus died and rose again and that God will bring with Him all who have died in Christ—including our Dad.

The Gospel story that we chose for today is one of my favourites—and it's one of the most tearful passages in all the Bible. But it does more than make us feel better about being so emotional. The tears that Jesus wept for Lazarus show us his human nature; his tears draw us closer to Him; and they give us confidence in his deep compassion and love for us, especially in times of sorrow.

In the end, our own tears don't matter all that much, considering the wonderful promise in the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation: God himself will wipe away every tear from our eyes, "and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away." (21:4)


Easter Monday, April 25, 2011

Christ the Redeemer Parish, West Vancouver

[Introduction Before Mass]

I'd like to begin with a word of welcome to you all, and to introduce specially the priests seated in the sanctuary. We're blessed to have with us the pastors of all four of Dad's children who live here:

Archbishop Michael Miller, my pastor, Father Stanley Galvon, pastor of Sheila and her family, Msgr. Bernard Rossi, pastor of Nancy and her family, and Msgr. Pedro Lopez-Gallo, pastor to Kevin and his family.

Beside the archbishop is our Vicar General, Msgr. Stephen Jensen and Msgr. Mark Hagemoen, Episcopal vicar for pastoral services. Beside me is my good friend and seminary classmate Father Don Larson.

Also in the sanctuary is Deacon Bryan Duggan, soon to the be the newest priest in the Archdiocese of Vancouver, Seminarian Pablo Santa Maria, soon to be the newest deacon in the Archdiocese, and Seminarian Daniel Jodoin, who won't be the newest anything in our Archdiocese, since he belongs to the Archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan in North Alberta.

I am deeply grateful to the Archbishop, to all the priests, and to all of you for being here with us this morning.

But I didn't make you sit down just for introductions.

If I don't say a few words before Mass begins, I'm afraid we're all going to find this funeral harder than it needs to be, and less uplifting than it ought to be.

As you have probably already noticed, I come from a family that has taken public displays of weeping to almost unheard-of levels. At the wedding of my niece Jennifer, there were more tears than at most funerals.

To quote Bob Hope, I come from a family where they cry at baseball games. (I'm sure there's a Canadian version of that line, but I don't want to jinx the Canucks.)

We don't really know where this family trait came from; certainly not from my father. A good eight months after her mother died, Mom started to cry at a family dinner when someone mentioned Grandma's name. Dad said with some exasperation "Oh, Jane!" His sister, my aunt Pat, was with us, and promptly came to Mom's defense by saying "Neil, you cried when Mother died," to which he responded drily, "Once."

I will try to explain more in the homily how our tears do not mean we are as devastated as we may look; Dad had a great life and a peaceful end, and we really do feel that peace. Our outsides just don't match our insides!

So I want to forewarn you about my difficulty in keeping myself together, lest you be unnecessarily uncomfortable.

Please expect me to falter, and to need help getting through this; but don't mistake this family trait for more than it is. My family and I are so grateful that you are here with us, and we ask you to take us as we are.

[Homily proper]

This is the hardest homily I have ever had to preach—and the easiest.

It's hard for the obvious reasons I touched upon at the start of Mass. But at the same time, a priest who can't preach at a funeral the day after Easter should look for another line of work!

To make things easier still—and still more difficult—each of the readings the family has chosen connect my father's illness and death with the faith that has sustained us through Dad's two-month illness, the faith that we profess this Easter Monday morning.

We chose the first reading because it sums up in a very few words what we believe: first, that eternal rest is the reward for a life well-lived. We're thankful that our father lived his life as a faithful Catholic and could rightly expect that his good deeds will be seen by the just Judge.

But this short passage also allows us to rejoice that Dad "died in the Lord"—that he died after receiving the sacraments, and in the full hope of the salvation they promise.

He began his final journey with the anointing of the sick on the morning of his heart attack, continued it with the sacrament of penance the morning of his surgery, and concluded it with the Eucharist just hours before he died. While these saving signs were meant to comfort and strengthen him in illness, their ultimate purpose was to lead him safely to heaven, which is what we believe they did.

The same note of hope recurs in our Psalm, which paints such a wonderful picture of the heavenly banquet to which our earthly Eucharist leads. Many people have commented on what a blessing it is for my parents to have five children who all practice the faith together with their families. While there are a number of reasons for that, if some of the younger couples would like to know my parents' secret, I'll happily share it with you: our family did not miss Sunday Mass. Not rarely, never.

Even on camping trips my Mom and Dad planned in advance and knew where we could get to Mass; at one cottage we rented, we went to Mass by motorboat. I'm really convinced that this commitment to the Sunday obligation was the chief reason we have stayed so close to the Church. It certainly wasn't our outstanding piety at home: I brought a priest friend home for dinner one weeknight when I was in university, and when the meal was served, Dad turned to Mom and said "Well, Jane, shall we be hypocrites and ask Father to say grace, or shall we start dinner as usual?"

We did say grace on Sundays, and I must point out that in recent years we manage to do so on weekdays as well, at least when I'm home!

Another reason we chose Psalm 22 is that it doesn't pretend that the Good Shepherd spares us every struggle and sorrow. Instead, the psalm proclaims that He walks beside us, even in our dark valleys. And certainly there were dark valleys as we prayed and hoped that Dad would recover. But just before he died, I asked Mom and several of my siblings whether they felt closer to God after these tough weeks, or farther away; they all said "closer," and that's my answer too.

From what I said at the beginning of Mass, it should be pretty clear why we chose to read those words in which St. Paul teaches that Christians must not grieve like those who have no hope. Our emotional family may be weeping buckets, but our tears are not for lack of faith or hope. They flow, instead, from an abundance of gratitude. We are thankful to our father for loving us well; and we are grateful for having so many years to love him in return.

My family and I may be shedding more tears than you've ever seen in one place, but on this Easter Monday we fully and firmly believe that Jesus died and rose again and that God will bring with Him Dad and all who have died in Christ.

The Gospel today is from the funeral liturgy, but we also heard it read on the Fifth Sunday of Lent. I preached on the gift of tears at all the Masses that Sunday, hoping to prepare the parish community for the sight of their weeping pastor.

In that homily I mentioned how I wondered as a child why people got so upset when someone died, since Christians believed that they were going to live forever. Didn't tears show a lack of faith?

But when Jesus wept for Lazarus, cried at the sight of Jerusalem, and was torn by anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane he answered that question. Since Jesus had perfect trust in the Father, his emotions can't have been a weakness. They were, on the contrary, part of his human nature.

In fact, those tears help to reveal his human nature to us, and to strengthen our faith in his compassion and love.

And though my family and I weep today, we rejoice in the promise made in the Book of Revelation: God himself "will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away."

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Running not Trudging on Easter Morning

Did anybody here join in the Sun Run last week?

I would ask you to tell us your time, but if it was good you shouldn't be bragging in church, and if it was bad I don't want to embarrass you.

I entered a 10K race once, but I came in well behind a friend who ran with her baby in his stroller. So when reading the story of the first Easter morning, I can identify with St. Peter. He lost the race. This must have been so awkward for the first Pope that St. Luke's version of the story doesn't mention St. John! In Luke's Gospel, Peter was running alone; pretty hard to come in second if you're the only runner.

It doesn't much matter who reached the empty tomb first. What stands out is that Peter and John were running. But why? Why did the two apostles race to the tomb after meeting Mary Magdalene early on that dark morning? If someone had carried off the Lord's body, what were they supposed to do about it?

They ran to the tomb because Jesus challenged them to. Peter, the apostle who first recognized Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, had the gift of faith. Not perfect faith—the Gospel says he wasn't sure what he'd find when he reached to tomb, since the two apostles did not understand that Jesus must rise from the dead—but faith nonetheless. Faith enough to run to the tomb.

John, the beloved disciple, had hope. Hope that came from knowing the love of Jesus. Love that would not—could not—abandon His friends, or "leave them orphans."

Was the race to the tomb a mere detail, something included in the Gospel to show another of the reasons why weak Peter was chosen to head the early Church? I don't think so, since he's only a runner-up to the spry St. John.

No, I think the racing apostles pose a challenge, a challenge to you and me.

Let's imagine ourselves huddled with the apostles that first Easter morning, still sick with grief. Mary Magdalene arrives with her news. What would be our reaction?

Would we have just a glimmer of hope, and tell her, "well, perhaps I'll just stroll over later in the day and take a quick look"?

Or would we run? Would we have enough faith in what Jesus had said to fly along the path, still uncrowded in the early dawn, panting with exertion, heart pounding with hope in God and His promises?

The truth, of course, is that we don't know. We don't know if, put to that test, we'd be Peters and Johns, or doubting Thomases.

But we do know how we came to church this morning. Did we race here in joy, eager to see and to believe? Or did we stroll in, just to take a quick look?

Maybe some of us didn't even stroll; we trudged! "It's Easter, so I guess we ought to go to church."

There may be reasons why some of us don't feel like celebrating this feast to the full. Perhaps we're feeling loaded down, like runners who've packed on the pounds since last Easter. We may even have turned away from God.

But think about Peter: three days earlier, he had denied Jesus three times. Who could blame him if he'd slunk to the tomb, or crawled to the tomb, or even just stayed put?

Yet he ran. He ran because he understood what an empty tomb could mean to him: that his failures could be forgiven. And that, dear friends in Christ, is what Easter means to us. However much we've failed, however many times we've denied Christ in word and action, our baptism opens the door to new life.

Now some of us aren't in Peter's running shoes. We've stayed more or less faithful, and we don't trudge to church on Easter morning. But have we raced here with the faith, hope and love that the good news of the Resurrection should bring?

In the second reading this morning, St. Paul offers us a spiritual energy drink. Easter is a time to get moving. He says "If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above…" Set your minds on those things—focus on them—"for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God."

What does this mean? Paul himself answered that question in his Letter to the Romans, which we read last night at the Easter Vigil: "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death… so that just as Christ was raised from the dead… so we too might walk in newness of life."

Think of what he is saying here. Since we shared in the death of Christ through our baptism, we will share also in his victory over death.

Easter is, of course, an historic feast; we're celebrating something that actually happened. But it is also a very personal feast: we celebrate something that is happening to each of us.

Through baptism we went in to the tomb with Jesus; through baptism we rise with him. Most of us were baptized as babies, but this is not baby-talk; it's serious adult stuff, and gives us the answer to the deepest and darkest of adult problems.

In a few moments I will invite all the baptized members of this congregation to renew the vows of their baptism. Then I'll run through the church and sprinkle you with the water blessed last night at our Vigil.

This Easter morning let your hearts race with joy and conviction as we celebrate the central truth of our Christian faith: that the Lord has risen, and that "if we have died with Christ, we believe we will also live with him."

Friday, April 22, 2011

"Exsulting" at the Easter Vigil

A priest, a rabbi and an expert on the liturgy were together on a plane. There was an explosion, and it was clear that the plane was going down and they would all be killed.

The priest began to pray the Rosary. The rabbi began devoutly to recite the Torah. And the liturgist began to organize a committee to write new prayers for air crashes.

I tell the joke—a bit fresher than the old one about the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist (you can negotiate with a terrorist) only because I was really shocked when I turned to an expert's book so I could read up on the Exsultet, the glorious Easter Proclamation which we heard so beautifully sung at the beginning of tonight's liturgy.

Believe it or not, the liturgy expert—writing in the 1970s—suggests we scrap the Exsultet and replace it with something easier for modern people to grasp; he even says that we may become somewhat bored while listening to it!

Brothers and sisters, if the Exsultet bored you tonight, even somewhat, I'd be much surprised. For to be bored with this proclamation is, in a certain sense, to be bored with redemption: for the entire hymn is one great prayer of thanksgiving, summing up the history of our salvation.

After the splendid introduction that calls us to rejoice–not alone, but together with the angels, the saints, and all creation—the Exsultet begins at the beginning: with the sin of Adam. We admit that human beings went so wrong that they became captives to sin, needing not merely to be forgiven but to be ransomed. And not merely ransomed by some kind of payment, but with the blood of Christ.

The Vancouver Sun, in a sincere effort to grapple with the doctrine of the atonement while offending no-one, has an editorial this weekend that says "whether we're Christian or not, or religious or not, we can gain inspiration from the meaning of Easter." In other words, we can get a lot from Christ's passion, death and resurrection without believing it to be necessary.

But of course that isn't really true. If we don't believe in humanity's need for redemption—in our need for redemption—Christ's saving act is pure tragedy. We gather tonight to proclaim that we do need deliverance from the slavery of sin, the deliverance wondrously prefigured in the Old Testament by the Passover Lamb, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the pillar of fire. The redemption of Israel from slavery is completed once and for all by the Lord's own Passover that takes us from darkness to light.

If this makes no sense, then we'll be more than bored by the Exsultet—we'll be confused. Worse, we may be angry. For what kind of a Father gives away his Son to ransom a slave? Why was this necessary? Why did God allow this?

It's a question I'm asked from time to time by good people who have trouble with their faith. And yet, Scott Hahn says, "The heart of the New Testament is the new redemption accomplished by Jesus Christ. … In his own words, Jesus came to offer his life 'as a ransom for many' (Matt 20:28; Mark 10:45)."

"It is primarily the Exodus that shapes the Christian understanding of Christ's redeeming work. Jesus himself plays the role of the Passover Lamb whose sacrifice brings salvation…" [Catholic Bible Dictionary, 759]

It's not easy for modern people to understand this, living as we do in a society so unused to the idea of atonement that murderers are given day parole before the grass is grown over their victims' graves. Perhaps the history of our salvation really is over the heads of people who think that one tearful press conference makes up for any amount of infidelity, dishonesty, or injustice.

Clearly, it's not easy to understand that why the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross was needed to save us; but the answer is not to dumb down the Exsultet, but to strive to understand just how much the Father must have loved us to accept such a perfect offering for our sins. The price of Adam's sin is paid; the Angel of Death has passed over us; the armies lined up against our souls have been drowned.

With even a minimum of understanding of the doctrine of the atonement, we can lift up our voices in the words of the Easter Proclamation on this "most blessed of all nights," this night that shines like day, this night that has the power to dispel all evil, wash guilt away, and restore lost innocence.

These are not abstractions! All the sacraments—baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, and penance included—draw their power from the risen Christ. The Exsultet proclaims that the power of this night "brings mourners joy." These words are anything but abstract to me and to many others who are grieving, since "this is the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death."

Heaven forbid that the Church should take the advice of a liturgist from the seventies and replace the Exsultet with something easier to digest. It is solid food, meant to nourish the heart and soul with faith, hope and love from one year to the next.

While there may indeed be some people here tonight who were bored by the Exsultet—or by my homily on it!—I know who wasn't. I doubt the Easter Proclamation bored our catechumen, Maureen, on the night she will become a Christian, receiving the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. I don't think Jill and her son Kyle, who will enter into full communion with the Catholic Faith by their profession of faith, found nothing to hold on to as the lyrical words rang through the darkened church. And Melissa , who will be confirmed and make her first Holy Communion this holy night, showed no sign of nodding off so early in our celebration.

Were any of you bored, dear catechumen and candidates? I didn't think so. For you have longed for this night, lived for this night, as you reflected and meditated on the gift of salvation that is yours in Christ. I'm sure you find no trouble seeing this night as the "most blessed of all nights, chosen by God to see Christ rising from the dead."

You have already let the words of the Easter Proclamation echo in your hearts: "What good would life have been to us, had Christ not come as our Redeemer? Father, how wonderful your care for us! How boundless your merciful love!"

Maureen, Jill, Kyle and Melissa—tonight I will have the priestly privilege of celebrating saving sacraments with each of you. It's a joy I can hardly describe. But as I thought and prayed about tonight, I kept hearing the words of St. Paul: "I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth." The Apostle is telling us that God is the real source of conversion; but at the same time he is acknowledging that tending the seeds of the Gospel requires more than one gardener.

Father Xavier, our catechists, Kyle, Margherita, Rhonda and Dan, our other RCIA team members, Tim and Rolson, your sponsors Marilyn, Annette, Robert, and Monique have all given generously of their time and gifts to share the faith with you. And the entire parish community has prayed for you and with you, and will continue to do so in the days ahead.

My dear friends, may the Morning Star that rises in your hearts never set; and may the flame of faith burn there forever.

Sharing Others’ Thoughts this Holy Thursday

When Bishop Fulton Sheen received an Emmy award for his television program in the 1950s, he ended his acceptance speech with "And I'd like to thank my writers... Matthew, Mark, Luke and John."

Tonight I also want to thank my "writers." They aren't as impressive as the four Evangelists, but they are a Cardinal and an Archbishop, which isn't a bad team.

First, the Cardinal. Cardinal Albert Vanhoye takes us back to the first Holy Thursday with his commentary on tonight's liturgy (Il Pane Quotidiana della Parola, 149-151).

The Cardinal is a great biblical scholar, but he doesn't tell us to open our Bibles this evening; he invites us to open our hearts.

"Tonight let us relive the Last Supper of the Lord Jesus—let us go into the Upper Room together with the Apostles, ready and prepared to receive the final gifts of the One who loves us: ready to listen to his last words and to observe his final actions."

"Let us fill our eyes and hearts with his presence in our midst."

In John's Gospel we see Jesus humbly at our feet, in the posture and attitude of a slave; in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians we recall the institution of the Eucharist, and then—in accordance with the Lord's wishes—we repeat his actions and say again his words, "This is my Body, this is the cup of my Blood."

What does it mean to "fill our eyes and hearts with his presence in our midst"?

Three things come to my mind. The first, of course, is to strive always to have eyes and hearts that are not clouded by sin. We know there was one at the table who was neither ready nor prepared to receive what Jesus wanted to give. Not only tonight but at every Mass we should prepare ourselves to receive the gift of the Eucharist. Sometimes that means an act of sorrow, other times a sacramental confession.

The second way we recognize Jesus present is by what can be called reverence—an attitude of gratitude. Reverence is shown in many ways: arriving on time, how we conduct ourselves in church, the way we receive the Lord in Holy Communion, and so on.

And finally, we fill our eyes and hearts with his presence among us by prayer—prayer before Communion, prayer after Communion, and ideally quiet time before Mass (since quiet time after Mass seems quite impossible in our church, though not tonight, when a total silence will envelop the building after Mass so that those who wish may pray at the altar of repose). Jesus is present at Mass; we know it 'up here' in our heads. But prayer is our way of becoming aware of Him 'right here' in our hearts.

I mentioned a second writer—that's Archbishop Miller, whose wonderful homily at the Chrism Mass last night underscored for me that Holy Thursday is not only about the institution of the Eucharist but about the institution of the priesthood as well.

Archbishop Miller quoted Jesus' words: "No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you" (Jn 15:15).

Being a priest, the Archbishop reminded us, means to be engaged in becoming an ever closer friend of Jesus Christ with the whole of one's existence, of trusting him with every fibre of one's being.

Quoting Pope Benedict—the Archbishop too has some help writing his homilies!—he said "To be a priest pleasing to the heart of God (cf. Jer 3:15), both the mind and the will should be deeply rooted in a living friendship with Christ. ... For this reason, at the root of our pastoral ministry is a personal encounter with the Lord, a knowledge of him that can be acquired only by being firmly rooted in prayer and immersed or soaked in the Word of God. (Benedict XVI, General Audience, 26 May 2010).

"Friendship with Christ, the Archbishop said, "must ground all that we say and do as his priests."

Inspired as I am by these words addressed to priests, the more I thought about them the more I understood that they are meant no less for you than for me. Tonight we are reminded that Christ is our friend—that we are called to a joyful friendship with our Lord.

But that's not all. Archbishop Miller continued by saying that this call to friendship is coupled with the call to service. "Serving" must also be decisive for us: we are servants. And serving means not doing what I propose for myself, not doing what I like best. To be a "servant of Christ and steward of God's mysteries" (cf. 1 Cor 4:1) entails putting on the Lord's yoke (cf. Mt 11:29-30) and bearing one another's burdens (cf. Gal 6:2).

Serving means not being led by my own preferences or my own priorities, but letting myself truly be of service to others. This is what priests promised on the day of their Ordination – but it is also the call each of us received at baptism.

At the end of his homily, the archbishop told us: "Remember that you are held up by the faithful who pray not only with you but for you." These past few days since my father's death have, of course, brought those words home to me in a powerful way.

As we enter together tonight into the Upper Room, I express in a very special way my gratitude for the gift of my twenty-five years of priesthood and for the privilege of sharing it here with you.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Don't Miss Jeremy's Blog!

At one time or another, most have us have exclaimed "I wish I'd said that!" And those of us who write often see others express our own thoughts better than we did or even could have done.

On the one hand, it's a humbling experience. But in the world of grace, it is a great cause for joy--knowing how freely the Spirit has been poured out for the common good.

I've just had one one of these experiences, and I'm certainly both humbled and joyful that our parish's youth minister has expressed so much more forcefully what I tried to say last Sunday about the importance of the Triduum. And I admire his boldness as much as his eloquence; I think that I (and most priests) do tend to pull our punches in the pulpit.

Please read Jeremy's blog post here. It's more than worth your time.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Walking the Distance in Holy Week

Most of us know what it's like to have a fair-weather friend. "You can always depend on them… to depend on you. They make withdrawals from the friendship account, but never any deposits."

Sometimes our fair-weather friends desert us completely if we lose an important job or because we're no longer a celebrity or a sports hero. It's often said that when times get tough you get to know who your friends are. Many of the newspaper stories about the death of the actress Elizabeth Taylor mentioned that she was one of the very few friends who stood by Michael Jackson as he spiraled from being the most popular entertainer in the world to a figure of ridicule.

Today Jesus is surrounded by friends. His entry into Jerusalem is cause for public celebration; crowds flock to welcome him—you might say they give him a parade. But just five days later, the streets are empty and he is left with very few friends indeed, only his most faithful disciples. The general public has turned away.

Waving our palm branches, we too have joined those welcoming Jesus to the holy city. The practical question we can ask ourselves is this: are we going to walk the rest of the way with him?

Will we "watch one hour" with him on Holy Thursday? Will we stand beside the cross on Good Friday? And will we wait outside the tomb on Holy Saturday? Or will we wait until the drama is over, and rejoin him only when he is again triumphant on Easter morning?

These questions aren't abstract or rhetorical questions. They are practical questions that need an answer from each parishioner. What are your plans for the rest of Holy Week?

Jesus invites us to walk the distance with him this week; the liturgies of the sacred Triduum – the Evening Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday, the Celebration of the Lord's Passion on Good Friday, and the great Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night – are opportunities to show that we are not fair-weather friends but disciples, willing to walk the way of the cross before we enter into the joy of the resurrection.

It's no sin if the next time you show up in church is Easter morning. The liturgies I've just mentioned are not holy days of obligation. But friendship is not, of course, about obligation. Friendship is not primarily about duty, but freely and willingly offered.

Let us consider with great care what we are saying to Jesus if we cannot find the time to share his journey – triumph and tragedy, joy and sorrow. Participating in the rich liturgical life of Christ's Church this week is truly one of the great privileges of our friendship with Him.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Msgr. Forget and Me (Lent 5A)

I became assistant pastor of St. Patrick's Parish in 1986, almost seventy years after the arrival of Monsignor Louis Forget, who was its pastor from 1917 to 1960. By the time I came to the parish, Monsignor Forget had been dead for twenty-two years.

So think hard about this amazing fact: during the eight years I spent at St. Pat's, scarcely a week went by without a mention of his name.

If that doesn't surprise you, consider this: at a general meeting of priests this week, held to discuss our new vocations strategy, the first story told was about Monsignor Forget— dead now forty-seven years.

What was so extraordinary about this man? It wasn't that he was Vancouver's greatest preacher—he had a strong French accent, and was famous for comically mispronouncing words.

He was simply a great pastor—a man who loved his people, and who loved the Church.

But more specifically, when folks talked to me about Monsignor Forget they usually mentioned two things: first, the success he had encouraging young men and women to become priests and Sisters. I don't remember the grand total, but in one 25-year period, nearly 100 parishioners went to various novitiates and seminaries. That's a record I'm afraid I have no chance of breaking, unless four of our young people go to the convent or the seminary every year until I am 81!

The second thing everyone mentioned when they talked about Monsignor Forget was his tears. It took very little to make him cry from the pulpit; he wore his heart on his sleeve, and could weep copiously when preaching on certain topics.

And here's where I might be able to rival Monsignor Forget. I find it very difficult to keep my composure when I am emotional, and it's often very hard for me to say things from the heart—at weddings as much as funerals, and on ordinary days as well.

It's quite a handicap for a priest, and if there was something I could do to overcome it, I would. But it must be something in my genes, since just about everyone in my immediate family has the same problem—there were more tears at my niece's wedding than I've seen at most funerals!

Most of you know that my father is gravely ill. So you can imagine how a family like mine is dealing with this worry: at the moment we're shedding a lot of anxious tears.

Which is why one line from today's powerful and hope-filled Gospel means an awful lot to me: "and Jesus began to weep."

Jesus, crying? Jesus who was about to free Lazarus from the grip of death? Jesus who knew that He would rise again and that His friend would live forever? Why would He weep?

I've thought about it all week, and I believe that the answer is important—if we're to understand how our faith and our emotions interact.

When I was young, I wondered why Christians got upset when someone died, since we believed that they were going to live forever. Didn't tears show a lack of faith?

Later in life, when I tackled something that I was sure God wanted me to do—like going to the seminary—I was surprised that I felt afraid. Didn't that mean I lacked trust?

But look at Jesus: he wept for Lazarus, cried at the sight of Jerusalem, and was torn by anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane. Since Jesus had perfect trust in the Father, these emotions can't have been a shortcoming. They were, on the contrary, part of his human nature.

Far from apologizing for our tears, we should try to understand them. The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality notes that tears are complex, since they're both physical and psychological. It says "tears expose the intimate, profound relationship of body, emotion, mind, and spirit…" [p. 957]

Accordingly, a very ancient tradition in the Church sees tears as a gift, which can have their source in the Holy Spirit; St. Ignatius of Loyola encourages those making the Spiritual Exercises to pray for the gift of tears for their sins or for the sufferings of Christ. Even modern psychotherapy recognizes the healing power of tears.

Such tears, the dictionary of spirituality says, "are a gift and a deeply personal expression of the transforming action of God..." [p. 958]

Our emotions are a part of us that can operate independently of even the strongest faith. The tearful Christian is no less a man or woman of faith, because a deep peace can be preserved in our hearts despite distress closer to the surface.

This is an important lesson if we are to receive the peace that Jesus promised us when He said "Peace I leave with you, My own peace I give to you; a peace that the world cannot give, this is my gift to you. Let not your hearts be troubled or afraid (Jn. 14:27).

As I lived with the dramatic ups-and-downs of my father's condition this week, I was helped a great deal by a little book called Searching for and Maintaining Peace. It pointed out that peace as the world gives it just means that things are going well, that nothing is disturbing us at the moment. This so-called "peace," the author points out, will be extremely fragile and short-lived.

Not so the peace that Christ gives. It is sturdy and cannot be shaken by life's sorrows or storms. We make a big mistake if we confuse our feelings with spiritual facts.

Looking for a way to explain this better, I remembered a hymn that I've always liked: "How Can I Keep From Singing?" The unknown author well understood the difference between emotions and inner peace when he wrote "No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that rock I'm clinging. Since love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?"

Each verse of the hymn contrasts what's going on outside us—"earth's lamentation," "tumult and strife," and a roaring tempest—with the inner peace that comes from faith.

My little book on searching for peace says much the same: "Every Christian must be thoroughly convinced that his spiritual life can in no way be viewed as the quiet unfolding of … life without any problems; rather it must be viewed as the scene of a constant and sometimes painful battle…"

How can we square such a battle with peace of heart? The same way we can square tears with faith: we struggle, even painfully, but "with the absolute certainty the battle is already won, because the Lord is resurrected."

Certainly there are times when we will weep, but always with the hope that comes from knowing Jesus as the Resurrection and the Life.

In this life we may shed many tears, but never forgetting the glorious promise of the Book of Revelation: God himself "will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away."


My friend Father Jeremy Driscoll has written a poetic response to that divine promise, which I paraphrase slightly and make my own—The "former" things are still too much present in me, and their passing away is what's breaking my heart. But I am looking toward the future and writing these words as my own hope, as that in which I trust: every tear wiped away, and death no more.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Man Born Blind (Lent 4.A)

I had a friend in university who was blind. But he had nothing else in common with the man in today's Gospel. Thanks to inventions like Braille, and technological help like tape recorders, Gord was anything but a tragic figure—he got his Ph.D. in psychology, became a university professor, and now gives seminars on a wide variety of topics, including how to coach softball.

That last topic surprised me until I remembered that he always beat me at Ping-Pong!

The man born blind was obviously an intelligent man also, but that was no help to him two thousand years ago. Social attitudes to disabilities were harsh, educational options were nil, and his inability to work condemned him to a life of begging. No wonder Jesus is drawn to show him compassion and to bring him healing.

But even when we look at blindness today in a modern and respectful way, it remains a timeless symbol of our human need for the light of Christ.

Consider the simple fact that no parent can fully protect a blind child from walking into things. Nor can a blind person who wants to be mobile avoid walking into the occasional unseen obstacle. The same risk, with far greater consequences, confronts the spiritually blind. Only by God's grace do we know to dodge the temptations that stand in our way; only with His help can we turn aside from the unexpected and dangerous things that even literally "pop up" on our computers, for instance.

A second hardship for the physically blind is getting lost. It takes hard work to master the routes to familiar places, including the number of steps to climb at every staircase. But getting lost along the way to school or work is nothing compared to losing our way through life because the eyes of our hearts were darkened to God's plan for our lives. We need God's light to know the right path, to choose the right path, and to stay on it through the twists and turns of life.

Another aspect of physical blindness is being unable to perceive all the beauty around us. But when one sense is lost, others develop all the more, and many a blind person has enjoyed fully the glories of nature through the sound the birds and the wind in the trees, and the fresh smells of the forest. Yet blindness of the soul makes us miss much of God's grandeur; darkened hearts can't see the goodness of creation. Such inner blindness keeps them from praising and thanking God for the wonders He has done for us.

Finally, an obvious but important loss suffered by the most visually impaired can be simply the experience of light itself. Light itself, in all its variations, is a rich human experience. The light that accompanies the heat of the sun, the light that reflects off things, is welcome and warm.

Jesus has told us that He is the Light of the world. Do we see by that Light? Do we, in fact, see Jesus? An ancient writer said "If you say, 'show me your God,' I will say to you 'show me what kind of person you are, and I will show you my God. Show me whether the eyes of your mind can see…'"

God, he wrote, is seen by those who have the capacity to see Him, provided that they keep the eyes of their mind open. Everyone has eyes, but some are unable to see the light of the sun. But because the blind cannot see it, it does not follow that the sun does not shine.

Today's Gospel proclaims that Jesus, whom the prophet Malachi called the Sun of Righteousness, is shining on our darkened world. But our eyes need to be opened if we're going to walk by that light, guided and strengthened and grateful.

The healing of the man born blind invites us to be healed spiritually. Our second reading tells us how—by seeking what is pleasing to the Lord, namely by taking a good look at how we're living and comparing it honestly to what we've been taught. In other words, St. Paul says "open your eyes!"

By exposing our sin to the light—by making a good confession of what St. Paul calls the "unfruitful works of darkness"—we regain our spiritual sight, and we start again to walk in the light.

Finally, this fourth Sunday of Lent is a time to pray for fresh insight. You might wonder what the anointing of King David has to do with the other readings. It seems to me that it warns us about our tendency towards human thinking. Jesse never thought to bring the youngest and smallest of his family to Samuel, but that's just who the Lord wanted to lead Israel. For the Lord does not see as human beings do; we look on the outside, but he looks on the inside.

Does it sound difficult or even impossible to see things as God does—to replace our instinctive and often sinful reactions and perspectives with God's way of thinking? St. Paul gives a five-word answer to all who possess the gifts of the Spirit—the gifts our Confirmation class received Friday night at the hands of the Archbishop, the gifts our catechumen and candidates will receive at the great Easter Vigil, the gifts that most of us already have from our Baptism and Confirmation.

Paul's answer, found in his first letter to the Corinthians (2:16b), is this: "we have the mind of Christ."

We have the mind of Christ. We have the spiritual insight we need to make good choices, to persevere in right paths, and to see God's goodness with grateful hearts. Let us open our eyes to the Light of the World!