Sunday, February 20, 2011

A New Responsibility: Helping Train Deacons

A young priest was named pastor of his first church. He was delighted with his appointment to a fairly large parish, but quite overwhelmed by the amount of work there was waiting for him—in four weeks he did eight funerals and five weddings.

There was simply no time to write Sunday homilies. So he gave the same one all month.

The parish council went to the Archbishop complaining that the new pastor had used the same homily four times in a row. The Archbishop asked what it was about. The council members looked at one another; they scratched their heads, hemmed and hawed—but they really couldn't remember. The Archbishop said, "Let him use it one more time."

After the week I've had, I feel a bit like that young priest, but I'm not going to give last Sunday's homily again. Actually, I'm not going to give a homily at all, because I have some news to share with you instead.

You might say I have "good news and bad news."

The "bad news" is that Archbishop Miller has given me a new job. The good news—for me, very good news—is that he's let me keep my old job! I have a major new responsibility, but with Father Xavier's generous help I will be able to fulfill it while remaining pastor at Christ the Redeemer.

To explain, I'll start by reading a letter that the Archbishop has asked to be read at all Masses throughout the Archdiocese today.

My new appointment is Director of the Permanent Diaconate Program. In other words, I will be helping to train the men who will be ordained as permanent deacons. In addition to whatever teaching I do, and the inevitable meetings, I will be working in the Chancery Office all day every Thursday.

We are blessed to have a very capable and dedicated assistant pastor, whose full-time help will more than compensate for the time I will need to spend away from the parish.

You all know the very old joke about the priest who said "I think there's something wrong with this mike" and heard the congregation reply "And also with you." I don't want to take any chances that my message is in any way unclear, so let me head the rumour mill off at the pass: I am not leaving the parish—except on Thursday mornings—and will continue to serve as pastor.

I'll just be asking for an extra measure of the generous understanding of my other commitments that you have already shown.

I hope that the whole parish community will welcome this news as I do—joking aside, it is very good news, because making a sacrifice to help introduce permanent deacons to the Archdiocese is no small privilege.

And perhaps someday one of those ordained to this ministry will be serving here at Christ the Redeemer.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

God’s Wisdom vs. the World’s (Sunday 6A)

Have you heard the story of the young man who'd just received his plumber's papers and was taken to see Niagara Falls by his parents? He took a long look at the Falls and said "I think I can fix this."

I'd be just as unrealistic if I said I could tap the wisdom that pours from our readings this Sunday. Last night at supper Father Xavier told me, "You won't have any problem finding something to say tomorrow. The hard part will be knowing when to stop."

But let's focus on the up-front message of the first reading from the Book of Sirach. Talk about plain speaking: "If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and they will save you… to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice."

Not a text that most of us would like to tattoo on our arms. Much easier to whine that our moral failures are the fault of someone or something else; that was the whole point of the article we ran on the front of last week's bulletin. The commandments promise us life, but they require us to be accountable and responsible for our own actions.

People in every generation failed at discipleship. Sin has been with us from the start. But as far as I know, we're the first group that's trying to redefine discipleship, trying to shift the burden. We can't admit we failed to meet the challenge Jesus offered. We can't just say, as people used to, "I messed up. I'm sorry."

Instead, we say Christ's teachings are unreasonable or old-fashioned; we shout that the Church is out of step, the Church is unfeeling, the Church is oppressive.

The wisdom of the world has stolen our attention. It's a new gospel that says we don't need to change; Christian teaching does.

St. Paul's words to the Corinthians could have been written yesterday. He's telling us two things: first, that the wisdom of this world is deceptive. In his homily at the 9 o'clock Mass last week, Deacon Bryan Duggan quoted Pope John Paul: the world's wisdom, the Pope said, offers "the illusion of finding life by excluding God, of finding freedom by excluding moral truths and personal responsibility."

The second thing is entirely positive: God's wisdom is a gift of truth that leads to blessings beyond our imagining.

God's wisdom isn't mere common sense: it's a secret and hidden and wholly marvelous wisdom, something no eye has seen, nor ear heard. It's wisdom that opens a path to life with God for those with the spiritual maturity to hear and respond to it.

Deacon Bryan also quoted the stirring challenge that Pope John Paul gave at World Youth Day in Toronto: Christ's message "is an urgent call to choose between life and death, between truth and falsehood… He tells us who we are as Christians, and what we must do to remain in His love."

So far the readings have taught us that the truth is something we are free to choose, that the commandments are something we are able to live, and the consequence of doing this is something greater than even the deepest longing of our hearts.

How do we apply this terrific promise to our lives? How do we set ourselves firmly on the path to life and turn away from the illusions of the world's wisdom?

Today's responsorial psalm contains a pretty good plan. It starts by summing up what we've already said: "They are happy whose life is blameless, who follow God's law." If you think you're going to be miserable taking the way of discipleship, if you think serious Christian living is a formula for unhappiness, you'll have a very hard time of it.

So the first thing is to become convinced. If you're not, it's time to learn more about the life-giving Good News of Jesus Christ. Some do this by deciding to read one of the Gospels cover to cover—which you can do in less than an hour and a half.

Others are learning about the promises of Christ by attending the Alpha Course, studying the Catechism through the Evangelium program, or participating in one of our Bible series.

And the second thing is to pray—even if you're not convinced. The psalm contains at least five very specific prayers. In various translations they are" "O that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes," "Deal bountifully with your servant so that I may live and observe your word," "Open my eyes, so that I may see the wonders of your law," "Teach me the demands of your statutes," "Train me to observe your law."

Thus the psalmist prays for strength and constancy, for God's blessing on the journey, for open eyes to see God's commands as wonderful, not oppressive, for divine teaching, so he will know what God wants, and for training—insight and understanding make it easier to follow the commandments.

The whole emphasis is on God's action. Sometimes nothing can seem more impossible in our world than to step off the treadmill and choose the path of life. It's almost beyond our ability to tell our boss we won't work on Sunday, or to tell the coach we won't play on Good Friday, or to tell the kids they won't be seeing a particular movie.

But nothing is impossible for God, who will change our perspective, if we ask, give us courage, if we ask, and show us the beauty and simplicity of his plan for our happiness, if we ask.

God did not make it overly difficult for us to obey him and receive his blessings. What would be the point of that? The Book of Deuteronomy argues the point well. "Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away… No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe." (Dt 30:11, 14).

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Light of the World (Sunday 5.A)

We had the pleasure of hearing Deacon Bryan Duggan preach in the parish this weekend. He is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Vancouver, preparing for ordination to the priesthood in June. Deacon Bryan also spoke on Saturday evening at "Summit," an evening of prayer and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament organized by Catholic Christian Outreach. With his kind permission, I publish his homily below:

At the seminary we are encouraged to be involved in teaching catechism classes at local parishes, and one evening I was teaching about sin and the effects of confession. I was trying to be creative, and I was looking for a visual example for my lesson. A friend suggested using a bowl of water in which you put in a few drops of food colouring symbolizing sin, and then pour in some bleach to restore the water to clarity – symbolizing confession. It was a catastrophic failure: no matter how much bleach I poured in the water only turned progressively lighter shades of pink. Not exactly the message I was trying to get across about how our souls are totally purified in confession. The good news is that I think this failure can in fact help us understand today's Gospel.

Light of the world

Jesus is telling us we need to be a light to the world. This is a powerful message that is as often ignored as it is misunderstood. There are two aspects to this image:

The first that this is a light received. The lamp of our soul is ignited by Christ, ignited by the faith we receive and profess in baptism and nourished and sustained by the sacraments and by our life of prayer.

Christ sheds light on every aspect of our lives: He shows us what it means to be human, He answers the deepest questions of human existence, He lays bare to our eyes our own weakness and selfishness that we so often hide from others and from ourselves.

The consequence of this light is that we are presented with a choice. As John Paul II said at WYD '02: "This is an urgent call to choose between life and death, between truth and falsehood… [Christ] tells us who we are as Christians, and what we must do to remain in His love."

We must accept this light, and reject the darkness by which the world deceives so many:

JPII continues: "The greatest deception, and the deepest source of unhappiness, is the illusion of finding life by excluding God, of finding freedom by excluding moral truths and personal responsibility."

The light of Christ necessarily reveals to us our weak human nature and destroys our pride. But the real revelation given us by Christ is our great dignity and worth. Again quoting JPII: "We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father's love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son."

Christ's light is not limited to showing us the sin tarnishing our soul. Most important, Christ shows us that we are abundantly loved by God. That we are precious to Him, and we are capable of and called to love God in response.

This new way of looking at the world and at people, which comes to us from him, leads us more deeply into the mystery of faith, which is not just a collection of theoretical assertions to be accepted and approved by the mind, but an experience to be had, a truth to be lived

The second aspect of this image is that this light is not meant only for us, to remain closed within our own lives. This light is meant to be given to others. The light we have received from Christ certainly transforms us, but we fall short if we keep it to ourselves. If we are satisfied looking after ourselves and our own relationship with Christ than a major aspect of the Christian vocation is missing.

This light is to be shared, like the lamp on a lampstand, or a city on a hill, the light given us by Christ cannot be hidden but should be lifted high so that the world may see.

What, concretely, is the world supposed to see in the Christian?

Certainly they should see virtue and good deeds. Today's Gospel passage follows on the heels of last weeks reading of the Beatitudes, the manifesto of the Christian. Jesus says in today's Gospel that in seeing our good deeds the world should be brought to give glory to God.

But this is no mere external activism of 'doing good.' If being seen to do good things were what it was all about than what would set Christians apart from social workers, nurses or political activists who try to make the world a better place?

Essential to the witness of the Christian is his peace of heart, and his joy. The Christian faces life's challenges with a smile, works hard to serve others, speaks out against injustice but always with kindness, and with love.

Imagine the world we would live in today if every one who called Himself Christian lived this to the full, and let the light of Christ shine in his heart and in the world? The entire continent of Europe is drowning under a tide of secularism, atheism and self-centeredness because current and previous generations of Christians failed to witness to authentic Christian life. Our own society is no different, we Christians bear certain responsibility for the collapse of family life, the culture of death and the idolatry of pleasure and selfishness that is so widespread today.

Perhaps we have not experienced the peace and joy of the light of Christ, or perhaps we have kept it to ourselves rather than face possible ridicule. All too often we have exchanged the light of Christ for the darkness of the world, being Christian in name only, in practice, we are no different from those who do not believe.

I told you at the beginning I found an application for my failed food colouring and bleach example. Imagine your soul as a bowl of pure, fresh water. We have let ourselves become tainted with the values of the world. Instead of rejecting outright the pursuit of money, pleasure and fame we have tried to keep both our Christian title and our attachment to the world. This attachment to the world is powerful enough to affect our whole being, like a drop of food colouring taints the whole bowl. Instead of a fresh bowl of clean water, we are trying to recover by doing goof deeds and dumping bleach to try and cover this over. The result? Our souls are neither filled with the light of Christ, nor completely given over to the world. We're in between, in a kind of light pink state. No body wants to be pink. Be courageous. We need to throw it all out and renew again our commitment to Christ.