Sunday, September 25, 2011

Daily Conversion: Sunday 26.A

The parish welcomed the archdiocese's only deacon at Mass this morning. Rev. Mr. Pablo Santa Maria is in his final year of studies for the priesthood at the Seminary of Christ the King. The congregation responded very warmly to his homily, a call to personal conversion. Deacon Pablo kindly allowed me to put his text on my blog.

Today's parable is not among the best known of the parables of our Lord, however, it presents us with a powerful invitation to conversion...conversion of heart and life, so that we can develop a relationship with Christ and so that we can find life.

In the first reading, the Prophet Ezekiel gives Israel a message from God. He speaks of those who have done right, but then turned to sin. These people will find punishment. Then he speaks of those who did not lead a virtuous life, but have a moment of conversion and turn their lives around. They will find life in abundance.

Christ repeats the same lesson to the priests and Pharisees; he puts this parable to them, a legal case for their opinion. Two sons, one who says no to the father's request and goes and does it, and one who says yes, but does not carry out his father's will. Which one has done the right thing? Who carried out the father's will?

These two sons represent two groups of people: identified with the first son are the sinners, in this case the tax collectors and prostitutes, who repent at the preaching of John the Baptist, and turn their life around. The theme of conversion and forgiveness was an important theme for Matthew (author of today's Gospel) since he had been a tax collector and found forgiveness.

Identified with the second son are the religious authorities of Israel—the Pharisees, the elders and scribes; all who refuse John's message. With this parable our Lord reiterates what we have heard before "...there is cause for great rejoicing in heaven, for one sinner who repents than for one hundred righteous..." This parable reiterates that joy, our Lord's predilection for sinners who repent, who turn their lives around, who find a moment of conversion.

But what is conversion? Some of us have heard the word before: conversion is turning our life around; it's like when we're driving and we make a U-turn when we come to an intersection that is taking us away from our goal.

The saints are wonderful examples of conversion, like St. Ignatius of Loyola or St. Augustine. Both led lives that were not exactly virtuous, both experienced a conversion and left their sinful ways and became great saints, teachers and examples.

Conversion is something we have to come to experience and to life. In our lives there will be a time in which we have to respond to the big questions..."do I want a relationship, a friendship with Christ?", "Am I going to be satisfied with a mediocre spiritual life?", "Am I ready to be holy?" This is where we'll make that U-turn in our lives.

However, conversion is much more than a one-time change. It is an ongoing process. In the Alcoholics Anonymous program, the members say, "today I will not drink". The members of AA have already made the decision to stop drinking, but they have to renew that commitment every day. It's an ongoing attitude that goes on for the rest of their lives.

For us Christians, in our spiritual life, it is much the same; as Pope Benedict has said, the "being a Christian can only take the form of becoming a Christian ever anew". It means saying yes to Christ, to his friendship, to his challenge of becoming a saint, of not letting ourselves be satisfied with mediocrity. [See Joseph Ratzinger, Dogma and Preaching]

St. Josemaría spells this out very clearly. He writes "In our life as Christians, our first conversion--that unique moment which each of us remembers, when we clearly understood what the Lord was asking from us—is certainly very [important], but it is the following conversions, the subsequent saying yes to the Lord, the become a Christian everyday that is going to be increasingly demanding. It's not an easy call; but then again Christianity is not an easy way of life; it is not an invitation to mediocrity, but a challenge to grow in holiness and in love with God." [St. Josemaría, Christ Passing By, n. 57]

Now, we can feel discouraged and even intimidated, but we all experience this challenge in many areas of our life; in all the things that are really worthwhile; in our school work, our careers, our marriages, our relationships. These all demand time and a daily struggle; and it is the same for our relationship with Christ.

So as this new week begins, let us be solid in our resolve to be Christians, let us say yes to the Father who asks us to work in his vineyard of our holiness, let us go out there and take concrete steps; I cannot tell you what, but something concrete that will move us toward conversion. And let us do it joyfully, for this conversion will only be real when we can say yes to the Lord with joy in our heart.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Mass Changes: A Great Opportunity

I was wasting time looking at religious "light bulb jokes" on the internet when I should have been working on my homily. You know the ones I mean: "How many Protestants does it take to change a light bulb? Twenty. One to screw in the bulb and nineteen people to form the light bulb committee." Or "How many Amish does it take to change a light bulb? Light bulb? What's a light bulb?"

The usual joke about Catholics is "How many Catholics does it take to change a light bulb? None—we use candles." Another answer was simply "nun."

But the one I liked best was "How many Catholics does it take to change a light bulb? Change? "

True enough—our Church is more resistant to change than most. Catholic doctrine evolves, but only slowly and always in a way that develops rather than alters our belief. And parts of our liturgy go back to the time of Christ, while others are many hundreds of years old.

Everyone knows, however, that some things do change in the Church. When I was a young boy, Mass was entirely in Latin—that's the best example from modern times. Some people loved that change, while others lamented it.

As most of you have heard, we are preparing for another change in the liturgy. We will begin using a new English translation of the Mass in two months, on the first Sunday of Advent.

Why change the translation we have used for more than forty years? Basically, to improve our liturgy on the basis of the insights and experiences gained during those years. The new translation tries to observe the Latin sentence structure wherever possible, and to be more literal—in other words, it pays more careful attention to each word in the text. It uses a more formal and less everyday kind of English, and makes clearer the references to Scripture texts in our liturgical prayers.

There will also be some changes in when we kneel and when we stand, aimed at bringing unity to our participation at Mass.

Will these changes make a difference? That depends much more on us than on the translators. We can change the words we pray with little thought, and it will matter little. Or we can see the new translation as a wonderful opportunity to ask whether we've been getting as much from Mass as we should.

For my part, I see the new wording as an invitation to enter more deeply into the spirit of the liturgy. I want to reflect more on liturgical theology and tradition, and to celebrate Mass more reverently as a result.

Father Xavier and I would like to help everyone in the parish to grab this opportunity for spiritual growth, so for the next six weeks our homilies will be devoted to the Mass. For six weeks there will be a handout from the Archdiocese to help us pray and think about what we do on Sunday. Together, we're going to ask ourselves: is Mass the most important thing we do all week? Is it the very center of our Christian life?

And that's not all. We will have two short courses, five or six weeks each, for those who want to take a good look at what the Mass is, and to learn about the deeper significance of the outward changes. Starting on Thursday, we'll take "A Biblical Walk Through the Mass" with Dr. Edward Sri. This course, presented both Thursday morning and evening so all can attend, can help you see, perhaps for the first time, why we say what we say, and do what we do every Sunday at Mass. The words and gestures will be seen in a new light, giving new life to our experience of the liturgy. It uses excellent video lectures and attractive course materials, and allows for questions and discussions.

When the "Biblical Walk" is over, we'll be offering another short course called "Mystical Body, Mystical Voice: Encountering Christ in the Words of the Mass". It's every bit as good as it sounds. The presenters on the DVD are Father Douglas Martis and Mr. Christopher Carstens, who were a big hit when they spoke in Vancouver at the beginning of the month.

You'll hear much more about the changes in the weeks to come. Today's big question is: will you invest some time this week and this Fall so that the changes aren't just words and gestures? One or both of our lively and interesting courses can lead to a richer and better understanding of what, why, and how we celebrate the Mass each Sunday.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Forgive Us…As We Forgive (24.A)

I bumped into a young parishioner at a CCO event last night. As soon as he'd said hello, he asked "So, do you have a really good homily for tomorrow?"

My first instinct was to reply "Hey, I always have a really good homily," but I resisted that temptation and told him the truth.

"No, not particularly. Why do you ask?"

He said, "Well, it's the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and the readings are all about forgiveness. Should be easy to tie them together."

True enough. Easy to connect our readings with the tragic events in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania ten years ago today. But too easy.

Too easy because that connection would produce just the kind of homily we all love to hear—a powerful and challenging message… to other people. We could sit back and shake our heads in sorrow that those Muslim extremists harbored such terrible anger. We could decide to forgive terrorists, even to pray for them.

But that's what I call a "long distance" application of the Gospel. None of us live with a terrorist (although one mother of a two-year old told me she wasn't quite sure about that). None of us works with a terrorist, or has one for a neighbor.

The simple message I take from the first reading today, and from what Jesus tells us in the Gospel, is that I must forgive my brother, my sister, my neighbor—and that there's a very good reason why I must: because God has forgiven me.

Does this message really need a good homily? It certainly doesn't need a long one. It's summed up in one line from the Our Father: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

In that one phrase, we invite God to treat our sins against him the same way we treat the sins of others against us.

If that doesn't make you a bit nervous, you're a far more generous and forgiving person than I am. Frankly, I think today's liturgy might offer the scariest words Jesus ever spoke. He flat-out tells us that God will treat us like the angry master of the wicked slave, unless we forgive from the heart.

Does that seem harsh? The first reading explains it logically, in case we missed the point of the parable (which is, let's be honest, pretty difficult to do). "Does anyone harbor anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord? If one has no mercy toward another like oneself, can one then seek pardon for one's own sins?"

Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Frightening… but logical.

The parable of the unjust slave appeals to our common sense and sense of justice; that's why it needs no explanation. But why does Jesus need to teach about forgiveness with such force—why is he so uncompromising here? He was gentler, it seems, with the woman at the well, and with the woman who washed his feet with her tears.

The answer can only be that forgiveness is the only chance most of us get to imitate God. It's the best chance most of us get to follow in the footsteps of Christ. It's the most common way we show that our faith makes a difference in our lives.

St. Paul was martyred; St. Francis kissed the sores of lepers; Mother Teresa cared for the poorest of the poor. We don't have the opportunity to imitate them, even if we could.

But Jesus forgave his enemies. God forgives the most outrageous offenses against his commands. And we can forgive those who hurt, anger, and annoy us. Sometimes it will take a colossal effort, other times a daily surrender of self. But always it will be the proof of authentic faith, faith that makes a difference.

And each act of mercy towards others will slowly move the world closer to peace, closer to harmony, and further away from the hatreds that filled the hearts of angry men that tragic day ten years ago.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

A “Report” to the Parish on WYD

Whatever you do, don't ask me about my "holiday"—at least not if you mean the trip to World Youth Day!

Almost every day in Spain we reminded each other we were on a pilgrimage, not a vacation. Not that we needed a whole lot of reminding—various inconveniences and a constant diet of salami sandwiches were more than enough.

And, of course, sleeping outside with more than a million people was a pilgrimage experience like none other; it could not be confused with a camping holiday, that's for sure—not that you'd ever catch me on a camping holiday anyway.

The spiritual purpose of our trip was obvious at the gatherings for prayer and catechesis that shaped each day of the WYD program and of the Days in the Diocese we spent in Valencia beforehand. In addition to Pope Benedict, our group listened to talks by Cardinal Pell of Sydney, Archbishop Dolan of New York and our own Archbishop Miller.

We also had many opportunities for Eucharistic adoration, and major public events like the Stations of the Cross.

More than once, though, I asked myself "is this really a good idea?" The crowds were so large, and the logistics so daunting, that I did find myself wondering whether it was all worth it, for me as a non-youth, and even for the young parishioners who formed our group.

Happily, I got an answer to my question—in fact, more than one answer.

The first came from Pope Benedict himself. He is well aware that there are some people who ask whether World Youth Day isn't just a kind of rock festival, a churchy Woodstock with the Pope as its main attraction. In an address after WYD in Australia, he admitted that even some Catholic critics say these massive gatherings would be basically the same, with or without faith, that in the end they really don't change anything or have any real effect on life.

Having acknowledged these charges, the Pope proceeded to take them apart. I won't go into detail, but he said that the criticisms don't account for the specific character of the joy seen at World Youth Days, or for their power to build communion. He noted that that they aren't merely events, but journeys that start long before WYD itself begins and continue long after it ends.

Pope Benedict said that at World Youth Days, "friendships are formed which encourage a different way of life and which give it deep support. The purpose of these great Days is, not least, to inspire such friendships and so to create places of living faith in the world, places which are, at the same time, settings of hope and practical charity."

Not a bad answer to the doubts that arose in my mind from time to time. But not the only answer—the youth themselves, both our own small group of committed pilgrims and the thousands who I only passed in the streets, were living proof of the value of the sacrifices made by young people, their families, and generous supporters like the parishioners of Christ the Redeemer.

Good humour despite massive crowds and soaring temperatures, readiness to accept disappointments, and politeness in the face of angry protestors were all a sort of living Gospel to be read on the streets of Madrid.

The silence that fell on the million plus young people adoring the Eucharist at the prayer vigil with the Pope, and the expressions of prayer I saw on their faces at Mass were more than enough to make up for the occasional person who didn't seem to know why he was at Madrid—those were answers to my question as well.

Something did happen at Madrid, and I am still trying to understand it. For one thing, I was reminded of the idealism and the charity of youth—something I and our parish community must both imitate and encourage.

I saw early signs of the renewal of religious life. Young Sisters, Brothers and priests were everywhere, and to my amazement there were a number of Canadians and even Vancouverites among them.

The importance of Eucharistic adoration for the renewal of the Church, and its power to keep youth connected to the Mass, was also impressed on me; I have a growing sense that young people who are led to adore Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament will be young people who resist the pressure to stop attending Mass. I am not sure exactly how, but I think the parish needs to think about ways to respond to this insight.

In his homily at Cuatro Vientos airfield, the Pope spoke with his usual gentleness. But what he said was as rousing and challenging as anything you ever heard from Fulton Sheen or Billy Graham. It was a call to a personal relationship with Christ, within His Church, and a call to share the joys of that friendship with others.

"Dear young people," Pope Benedict said, "today Christ is asking you the same question which he asked the Apostles: 'Who do you say that I am?' Respond to him with generosity and courage, as befits young hearts like your own. Say to him: 'Jesus, I know that you are the Son of God, who have given your life for me. I want to follow you faithfully and to be led by your word. You know me and you love me. I place my trust in you and I put my whole life into your hands. I want you to be the power that strengthens me and the joy which never leaves me'."

"Dear young friends," he continued, "… let me urge you to strengthen this faith which has been handed down to us from the time of the Apostles. Make Christ, the Son of God, the centre of your life. But let me also remind you that following Jesus in faith means walking at his side in the communion of the Church. We cannot follow Jesus on our own. ...

"I ask you, dear friends, to love the Church which brought you to birth in the faith, which helped you to grow in the knowledge of Christ and which led you to discover the beauty of his love. Growing in friendship with Christ necessarily means recognizing the importance of joyful participation in the life of your parishes, communities and movements, as well as the celebration of Sunday Mass, frequent reception of the sacrament of Reconciliation, and the cultivation of personal prayer and meditation on God's word."

Friendship with Jesus will also lead you to bear witness to the faith wherever you are, even when it meets with rejection or indifference. We cannot encounter Christ and not want to make him known to others. So do not keep Christ to yourselves! Share with others the joy of your faith. The world needs the witness of your faith, it surely needs God. I think that the presence here of so many young people, coming from all over the world, is a wonderful proof of the fruitfulness of Christ's command to the Church: 'Go into all the world and proclaim the Gospel to the whole creation' (Mk 16:15)."

The Pope's words were addressed to the young people at Madrid, and around the world, but they are the basic program for each and every Catholic: to make Christ, the Son of God, the centre of our lives; to walk at his side in the fellowship of the Church; to love the Church that brought us to birth in the faith; and to share with others the joy of that faith.

As a parish, we pray that each of our young pilgrims will live deeply and fully this awesome challenge; but you can be sure that our young pilgrims pray the same for each of you.