Sunday, May 29, 2011

Stewardship - Part 1

It's only fair that I tell you that my homily's a long one today. I'm a bit nervous about that, because I heard the other day about a parishioner who came up to her pastor after Mass and said "Father, your homily today reminded me of the peace and love of God!"

He was thrilled, and replied "No one has ever said anything like that about my preaching before. Tell me why."

"Well," she said, "it reminded me of the peace of God because it passed all understanding and the love of God because it endured forever!"

The fact is, a short sermon on stewardship is pretty near impossible: because stewardship is, quite simply, a way of life. It touches all that we do, inside and outside of Church. Today, we're going to take a look at half a dozen ways that stewardship matters to us as Christian men and women, but that's really just a beginning.

But let's get started with these six stewardship truths.

Number one: we are stewards of the sacraments.

In the first reading St. Philip encounters Christians who had been baptized without receiving the Holy Spirit; they hadn't been fully initiated by the apostles. Today, most adults have been confirmed—but have we allowed the graces we received to bear fruit in our lives?

We speak, in fact, of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which is not a sacrament but rather a conscious decision to allow the power given us in baptism and confirmation to make a profound difference in us. To welcome and use the spiritual gifts we received in baptism and confirmation is the beginning of all stewardship.

The final sacrament of Christian initiation, the Eucharist, calls us in a particular way to stewardship. A true steward values what has been entrusted to his or her care; a true steward guards what is precious.

To eat the Bread of Life thoughtlessly or unworthily is the direct opposite of a steward's response. To receive the Eucharist in a state of unconfessed grave sin is an irresponsible act, sinful in itself. When we receive the Eucharist without preparation or thanksgiving, we don't maximize the blessing God wants to give us in the Body and Blood of His Son.

Stewards know that they are not owners. We are not entitled to receive Holy Communion on our terms, but according to the law of Christ and His Church.

Other sacraments also invite us to stewardship. The sacrament of penance requires we give an accounting to God, the owner and author of life. Requesting the sacrament of the sick in a timely fashion when we are sick or face surgery, and doing the same for our loved ones, is a way of taking care of ourselves spiritually and making sure we have the strength we need to face illness.

Stewards need to be forward-thinking: a good steward always has a prudent eye on the future. So we need to approach the sacrament of holy orders with a spirit of stewardship, working and praying for sufficient priests to meet our needs.

And we don't need to get too spiritual to see the connection between marriage and stewardship: every family knows the need for careful financial planning and so on. But there's much more involved when the couple are Christian stewards, because they know they have a responsibility for each other's salvation, and a very special responsibility for their children.

Children are not the property of their parents; that idea went out with the Middle Ages. But nor are they independent: parents who know that their children belong to God care for them as stewards, as God's agents.

Just this week there were two stories in the paper about what happens when this relationship between parent and child is not understood. One couple in Toronto are raising their child without reference to gender. They will not say whether the child is a boy or a girl—he or she can make that choice whenever he or she is ready.

A second couple are practicing "unschooling," where children learn whatever they want to learn. They are also in Toronto, by the way, which is probably doing a lot to help BC shed its reputation as Canada's most far-out province.

Catholic schools exist because parents and many others believe we have a duty to share truth with the young. They survive because adults make sacrifices to build and run our schools as stewards of the truth and in a relationship of stewardship towards the younger generation.

Our parish religious education program exists to help parents meet the same responsibilities to children who don't go to Catholic schools.

I've spent so long on our stewardship of the seven sacraments that I'm going to have trouble fulfilling my promise to look at six ways of stewardship. But it's important to talk about our role as stewards of the sacraments, because stewardship of the riches flowing from them is the kind of long-term investment any wise person understands. As St. Augustine has written, "no one can be ready for the next life unless he trains himself for it now."

So let's move to number two: we are stewards of our bodies. We hear more and more about people having a right to their bodies. It began, of course, as an argument for abortion, and has now become an argument for assisted suicide. The assumption, of course, is that we own our bodies and can dispose of them as we please.

The fact is, of course, that we didn't create our bodies, and we don't own our bodies. We're stewards precisely because God is the author of life and the Sovereign owner of all creation—which includes us.

Stewardship of our bodies means more than rejecting abortion and suicide, of course. It means caring for our health by positive means like exercise and a proper diet, and striving to overcome addictions and habits like drugs, smoking and excessive drinking that don't show a steward's respect towards the precious gift of life entrusted to us by God.

It means, of course, using the gift of our sexuality as intended by the Creator, which is to say only within marriage and in a way that is open to the transmission of life.

We might even say that paying attention to funeral planning is a final act of stewardship towards the body God has given us. In our secular society, we can't assume that our heirs or executors will arrange a Catholic funeral with the body present for the funeral Mass. That's one of the reasons we will have a funeral information evening here on Wednesday; the details are in the bulletin.

A third form of stewardship is becoming more and more important: we are stewards of creation. In this area, the Christian understanding of stewardship is crucial to a right use of our natural resources.

Just yesterday I saw a bumper sticker that read "Trees are the answer." Instantly I thought, "But what is the question?"

Stewards know that they have a solemn obligation to conserve what's been entrusted to their care. We can neither neglect nor squander what God has provided. Forestry and mining practices of the past are now clearly seen as inconsistent with our duties as stewards of the environment.

At the same time, a wise steward must know the reason for his stewardship. Who would want to manage a vineyard where the grapes were never picked? The world is not our property, but God gave it to us for a purpose—and that purpose is the good of humanity.

The good of humanity requires sound environmental policies and practices, but in recent times there has been some confusion about what comes first—the good of the planet for its own sake, or the human good. Scripture and the Church teach that all that is exists for the good of man, recognizing always that this good is ill-served when the earth is not respected.

We use this earth and its resources humbly when we know ourselves to be stewards rather than owners.

We can pick up some speed now, since numbers four, five and six are a related trio: as you've heard it said many times before, we are stewards of our time, talent and treasure.

What does it mean to be a steward of your time? First and foremost, it means recognizing that every moment comes from God. In the second reading, St. Peter calls us to keep our hearts holy—to be spiritual all the time, not some of the time.

On a very practical level, a steward understands that time is a limited resource. We only have so much of it. We must give God his proper share by planning our week and our day in a responsible way. This means assigning time every day for prayer, making sure we get to Mass each and every Sunday, and doing our level best to arrive on time.

We all have excuses, of course. There was even one persistent latecomer who told the priest "I'm just following the Lord's example. If Christ can rise up early in the morning just one Sunday a year, that's good enough for me!"

Someone said "if you fail to plan, you plan to fail." That's a truth everyone who misses Mass or regularly arrives late should spend some time thinking about. Stewards are planners.

Stewardship of our talents comes straight from the Gospel. We all know the parable of the slaves who were given money to invest—by a happy coincidence, in many translations the currency was called talents—and we know that the Master wanted to see an increase on his investment.

We provide that increase before God when we use our talents for His glory. There are as many ways as there are human gifts. As I was thinking about my homily yesterday afternoon I looked around the church, and I was dazzled by the beauty of the flowers—not only on the altar but in the side chapels. Do you know how our flowers get arranged? By one dedicated and gifted parishioner, who gives a return to God every week.

The efforts to beautify our church would not have been half as successful if I had been in charge. Instead, parishioners who are architects and designers and simply insightful all donated their time and talent to direct the work.

A young parishioner has spent countless hours working on our new website in recent weeks, while countless parishioners serve on the many committees and councils that keep our parish strong.

Not many like to hear about the stewardship of treasure—about financial generosity—and yet it too is inescapably biblical. Priests usually apologize for speaking about money; yet Jesus never apologized. Neither did Paul. There are a remarkable number of places where the New Testament deals with the need to be generous.

The subject of our assets, and the blessings that come when we no longer think like their owners but as their stewards, is so important that I'll devote the entire homily to it next week. So you can't say you weren't warned.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Following the Way All the Way

Every so often I try to offer some very down to earth advice in my homily. So here's some wisdom to remember: don't buy a cheap GPS.

I had a good GPS, but I leant it to Father Xavier, and it soon became clear that he needed it a lot more than I did. So when I was in Oregon last month I picked one up for a mere $99, with no HST.

Ever since, this useless device has told me to turn down one-way streets, directed me to drive to Surrey via Horseshoe Bay, and once even brought me back where I started after ten minutes of driving according to the instructions of that unpleasant voice that lives inside a GPS.

Not much point in having an unreliable GPS, is there? If we're not sure of the way, we need to be confident in the directions.

So we can understand the confusion of Thomas and Philip in today's Gospel. They want to know exactly how to get to this place where Jesus is going. And yet they don't need directions at all—because the one they're asking is Himself the way to the Father.

Think how important this is to us. No road map, no guidebook, and no GPS can take the place of having someone beside you in the car who knows the way. It takes away all the worry about getting lost or stranded.

Jesus, of course, helps us further still. He not only shows us the way, He is the Way, "the very incarnation and expression of the Absolute which we human beings seek and for whom we were made" [Glenstall Bible Missal, 301].

In other words, in His own person he guarantees that the journey we are making is the right journey: it's no good having the right directions to the wrong destination. As Christians, we're not only on the right road, we're heading to the right place. His Resurrection is all the evidence we need to confirm our decision to head towards the Father's house.

In the face of Jesus, who appeared on earth, we recognize the loving face of the Father, and we long for the Father's house, where the Risen Lord has prepared a place for us.

No-one has perfect faith, but the sure and certain directions that Jesus offers his followers really should relieve our troubled hearts from much of their distress.

Of course the journey to the Father isn't like a non-stop flight to Toronto or Montreal. We are pilgrims and travelers, and there are stopping places and turning points. The first reading shows the Spirit helping the Church at one important turning point. Traditionally, the seven men on whom the apostles laid hands are identified as the first deacons.

In our local Church we have high hopes that the ministry of permanent deacons will help many to know the Father better, and to reveal to the world the face of Christ His Son.

As you know, Archbishop Miller has asked me to direct the new permanent diaconate program in the archdiocese. It's been a big challenge to meet with many interested men and their wives, and to try and answer their questions.

One of the big questions I get asked is 'why are only men called to the diaconate.' There's not one short and snappy answer, but part of the answer I offer appears in the second reading of today's Mass. The diaconate is a ministry, not an honour. The greatest source of honour and dignity in the Church is not Holy Orders but baptism. It's our baptism that makes us all members of a chosen race and a royal priesthood.

Citizenship in the holy nation of God's own people comes from our rebirth by water and the Spirit.

This came home to me very forcefully yesterday when I officiated at the marriage of Meghan Magee and Chris Chapman, our parish's first youth ministers. In my homily I talked about the recent royal wedding to make the point that Chris and Meghan's was no less royal because of their baptismal dignity.

What I didn't mention was that their wedding was not an act of my priesthood but of theirs. I was only a witness to the sacrament that they celebrated with each other. And even the happiest Christian marriage is a holy sacrifice offered to the Father by virtue of the couple's share in the common priesthood of all believers.

What is true of our newlyweds is, of course, true of all of us. By living our baptism fully—by proclaiming the mighty deeds of God and living lives that reflect our royal dignity—we do the works that Jesus did, in the power he shares with us through His Holy Spirit.

And that, of course, is what it means to follow the Way, the Truth, and the Life, all the way to the Father's house.

Chris & Meghan’s Wedding

Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.

The words belong to Saint Catherine of Siena, but if they sound a bit familiar, it's because you heard them at the start of the homily at the recent marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, better known as Prince William and Kate.

The homilist, Bishop Richard Chartres, continued: "Marriage is intended to be a way in which man and woman help each other to become what God meant each one to be, their deepest and truest selves."

Now let me admit that the royal wedding might seem an odd starting place for a homily at the marriage of a young woman named Meghan Magee!

But between the Queen's recent visit to Ireland and the fact that the streets of Dublin and Cork were empty as thousands of Irish republicans watched the royal wedding on TV, I think I can get away with it.

Because, you see, this afternoon we are celebrating another royal wedding. Even though Chris isn't wearing a bright red uniform, and Meghan won't be a princess when we're finished, they stand before this altar with truly royal dignity.

In the first place, as Bishop Chartres explained, "in a sense every wedding is a royal wedding with the bride and the groom as king and queen of creation, making a new life together so that life can flow through them into the future."

But Chris and Meghan were royalty long before their wedding day, not from an accident of birth, but from baptism. We know this from the First Letter of St. Peter, who declared the dignity of all believers when he wrote "you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood."

And when you combine the natural nobility of marriage with the supernatural dignity of the baptized, you end up with a reality so awesome that all the glass carriages and pageantry in the world can't add a thing to it.

Alas, the reality is not always recognized. We began this wedding with a greeting from St. Paul—"the grace and peace of God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you." At all too many weddings nowadays, the greeting to the couple might as well be "very pleased to meet you."

Some couples want two readings at the ceremony, to keep it short and allow more time for pictures. Others want three so that there's something to do for the cousin from Chicago who showed up unexpectedly.

But Meghan and Chris, you needed three readings just to share the basic outline of your faith with us.

You chose the shortest and the simplest Gospel reading in the book. It details the Creator's plan for man and woman, already created in His image and likeness. It is a plan that makes you one, even as Jesus and His Father are one.

The full richness of this plan emerges from the other two readings. The first reading, from the prophet Jeremiah, proclaims that your vows are not a contract, but a covenant—a covenant with each other and with God, who has already made a covenant with you.

Unlike Melissa and Joe a few years back, you didn't ask me to talk at your wedding about the complex topic of Pope John Paul's theology of the body—for which I thank you! But I must point out that Jeremiah's words point to a related subject, the law of God written on your hearts—what some call the natural law—and to your desire and willingness to follow all aspects of that law in your married life.

The second reading is a bold response to something Bishop Chartres mentioned in his homily: "We stand looking forward to a century which is full of promise and full of peril." The truth is that every life in every century is full of promise and peril; but you have embraced St. Paul's bold answer to the fears the future brings: nothing in all creation can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Nothing can, and—I believe—nothing will. For Chris and Meghan, you yourselves are really a homily on the readings you have chosen, because the plan for Christian marriage that you have welcomed is obviously part of a bigger plan that you have allowed to shape your lives long before today.

You have not "crammed" for this day; you have worked steadily to be who God meant you to be.

You will not slacken after this day; you will strive daily to be who God means you to be.

And I haven't the slightest doubt: you will set the world on fire.

That fire may burn brightly or glow gently—how your lives warm the world is up to God. But to paraphrase the words of Blessed John Henry Newman that I chose for my ordination card, 25 years ago:

God created you to do Him some definite service.
He has committed some work to you,
which He has not committed to another.

In the Sacrament of Marriage, God now consecrates you for that service, and unites you as you work to build His kingdom in your home and in the world.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Blessed John Paul, Pray for Us!

Instead of a homily on this Sunday when the Church rejoices in the beatification of Pope John Paul II, I made a few changes to an article I'd written for the Vancouver Sun just after his death and turned it into a sermon.

Follow me. These two words are the key to understanding the message of Pope John Paul II, according to his successor, Pope Benedict.

But the words don't belong to our newly-beatified Blessed John Paul. In his funeral homily, Cardinal Ratzinger pointed out that they belong to Jesus, who says "follow me" no less than eighteen times in the gospels.

Pope John Paul wasn't trying to make disciples for himself. For him, "follow me," meant only one thing: follow Christ.

Many modern celebrities cry out "look at me." John Paul proclaimed "look at Him!" Even by means of his personal charisma, the Pope directed our attention to Christ. At World Youth Day in Toronto he told young people to listen for Jesus speaking to them with "his gentle and urgent voice," just like the first disciples.

To even begin to understand the impact and appeal of Blessed John Paul, we must look at Jesus. If that sounds a bit odd or pious, it can only be because we have let Christ grow pale in our minds. Bad preaching or teaching can strip him of his compelling appeal and radical message. Pope John Paul was convinced that his chief task was to reintroduce the world—especially youth—to friendship with the real Jesus, the most attractive personality who ever lived, to the blessings that friendship with him offers and to the demands it makes.

For the late Pope, to know Christ was to know how to live and how to love, in good times and bad. It meant being loved, by God himself. Knowing Christ was like breathing the crisp air of the mountains that Karol Wojtyla loved to hike; there was nothing stuffy about it.

And of course John Paul taught without words. He forgave and embraced the man who tried to kill him, he accepted disability with good humour, and he carried on with determination and patience through pain and illness. No-one who saw the broadcast or the photo of him clutching a crucifix as he watched the Way of the Cross on his final Good Friday will ever forget the image.

Right to the moment of his noble and very public death, he was "a living gospel for all to hear," in the words of the preface from the feast of apostles.

These actions were not original: they imitated Christ, who forgave his executioners and who made his death a symbol of ultimate victory, much as the dying Pope did. Again, John Paul's wordless "follow me" meant "follow the one I am following."

I had the privilege to be in Rome for the papal funeral. Nothing in my experience begins to compare, not even the Pope's 1984 visit to Vancouver, in which I also took part. Picture what the streets look like downtown just after Rogers Arena or B.C. Place empties after a game—but then imagine the crowd doesn't stop surging by for four full days.

No-one was prepared for what happened. A young friend, a former seminarian married and living in Ireland, called me shortly after the Pope died asking where I'd recommend he stay in Rome.

"That depends," I said. "Are you coming on business or holiday?"

I really didn't get it! And if that wasn't enough, when he said something about wanting to pay his respects, I thought he meant... to me!

It wasn't long before I finally understood what was going on around me. Everyone I met had a story. A hasty flight from Medicine Hat. A fifteen-hour trip from Sicily by bus and boat—and an immediate return after filing by the Pope's body.

After nine hours in line, one young Italian said simply "how could I not say a last good-bye?"

But the big story was not fondness—it was faith. A senior Vatican bishop told how he'd met a young man the night before who pleaded to be admitted after the doors of St. Peter's had closed. The bishop explained to that it had proved impossible to accommodate everyone. Still the young fellow pleaded.

"I came here for the youth celebration during the Jubilee year 2000," he said. "I was a convinced atheist and I came to mock.

"But in the Pope's presence I was moved to think—and I found my faith."

Touched by the story, the bishop let the man into to St. Peter's through a side door. He knelt beside the Pope's body and sobbed for ten minutes.

Despite the joy we feel at today's beatification—and our hope for his eventual canonization—the lasting contribution of Blessed John Paul to the Church and to the world will not be determined by how well or how often he is remembered. It will be found in the sprouting of the seeds of faith he planted, in hearts young and old. In this sense, his work has not ended but is just beginning.

The good news that he proclaimed—messages of hope, of peace, of love, and of human dignity—did not originate with him and did not die with him. We need to respond to his enduring teachings with the courage and conviction that he himself showed.

There lies the challenge offered to us by the life and death of John Paul II: to admire or to imitate?

The challenge confronts, of course, every Catholic, and other Christians as well.

Will bishops and priests of the third millennium be formed by the example of Pope John Paul, and strive with all their energy to live the Gospel without compromise, preaching as much by what they do as by what they say?

Will each member of the Church attempt to live what we believe, even when the tide's running against us? Will we step out of the "cafeteria line" of individualistic faith, and embrace the uncompromising Catholic teaching that was the hallmark of his pontificate?

Other Christians as well, pressured to conform to the world's ways, can find strength from the example of the new Blessed. Will the legacy of Pope John Paul—whom a Protestant friend of mine called "the best Evangelical I ever knew"—encourage them to maintain unpopular positions that are faithful to the Gospel's more difficult teachings?

Already there are signs that the late Pope's willingness to carry on a humble dialogue with the members of other faiths has borne fruit. The numerous representatives of the Jewish and Moslem communities were impossible to miss in their places of honour at his funeral; will they, too, find the courage to persevere in a difficult task?

Throughout his long pontificate, John Paul II challenged all of us—Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Moslems, Sikhs, and all people of good will—to live our beliefs with greater charity, consistency and courage.

And at its end, without words, he invited all who suffer, who fear or face death, to live our trials with serenity and purpose, as he did.

John Paul II led—by following. And now may he intercede for the Church, the world, and for each one of us.