Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Wisdom of Solomon: Sunday 17A

Fifty years ago, John F. Kennedy gave the most-quoted presidential inaugural address since Lincoln. Even those in church today who weren't born in 1961 probably know its most famous line: "Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country."

In today's first reading, God takes the opposite approach. Instead of asking something from Solomon, he asks Solomon, "What can I do for you?"

It's quite a question, isn't it? But it's something of a trick question, since God makes it clear He wasn't expecting to be treated like a genie in a bottle. He's pleased with Solomon's request for wisdom, for the gift of knowing what is good and what is bad.

What's the message for us, here? I don't expect God to appear in a dream tonight and ask what He should give me—it's not really the way He works.

But one thing is very clear, not only from the story of Solomon but from all that the Gospels tell us about God: He wants very much to give us "a wise and discerning mind." Has it ever struck you that four of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit—namely wisdom, understanding, counsel, and knowledge—all have to do with our intellect? All four are related to knowing God and knowing what He wants us to do.

So in Confirmation we've been given the same thing that God gave King Solomon—not so we can rule over Israel, but so we can make good decisions in our lives and help others to do the same.

We can, however, take this gift for granted. We can be like Henry Ford, who said "Exercise is bunk. If you're sick you shouldn't take it, and if you're healthy you don't need it." Even the most robust person needs to maintain good habits to stay healthy; the same is true spiritually—we must both safeguard and strengthen the wisdom God has given us.

So how do we do that? First of all, we live good lives. St. Paul points out in more than one place that sin darkens our understanding (see 2 Thessalonians 2:10-11; Ephesians 4:19-19). Every week or two we read in the paper about some public figure behaving in ways any sensible person would realize were doomed to end in disgrace—but in almost every case, sin (usually lust) had taken away the knowledge of the inevitable consequences.

The second answer, almost as important as the first, is to think about—to fill our minds with—what is true. That's St. Paul's last word as he bids farewell to the Philippians (4:8).

Today I'd like to talk about one of the easiest ways of filling our minds and hearts with the truth—one of the most effective ways of acquiring and developing the wisdom and understanding that God wants us to have and to use.

But before I do, I want to ask you a question. Don't raise your hands (it could be embarrassing)—just answer honestly to yourself.

When's the last time you read a spiritual book? I don't mean a pamphlet or the BC Catholic, or even a good article on the internet. When did you last pick up and read a Christian classic or a modern spiritual writer?

Perhaps some of us will answer: never. Others will recall leafing through a musty old book from childhood.

The fact is: spiritual reading is one of the most pleasant and productive ways to grow in faith—and to grow in holiness. You can, with a little help, find a book that suits where you are on the Christian journey, and that fits your taste as well. Very often the right book leads directly to prayer; often enough it can even be a source of conversion.

Spiritual books come in all shapes and sizes. There are lives of the saints and other holy Christians, journals, autobiographies, letters, sermons, and works of theology—although only some theological works make good spiritual writing.

There are classics suited to just about everyone, and other books that are particularly helpful to those struggling with a particular issue or at a certain stage of life. Modern writers continue to produce excellent books that connect readily with the problems we face today.

I'm always happy to suggest spiritual books to those who call or visit, and the volunteer librarians in our small parish library can help you find something to your liking.

Today, though, and not for the first time, I am recommending a modern and easy-to-read book that will appeal to many. It's called Rediscovering Catholicism by Matthew Kelly, a dynamic young Australian writer and speaker who lives in the U.S.

Rediscovering Catholicism is a remarkable book filled with insights about what our faith means and how to live it. I'm not pretending it is a modern classic, but Matthew Kelly has made it available at such a low cost that there's simply nothing out there we can make available to you so easily.

There are copies on the table to the left of the church doors, and I'm suggesting a donation of $5 per copy. That's less than they cost the parish, so if you're young or poor or simply tight with money, just take one—so long as you'll read it.

Continuing with the summer reading theme, our librarians have put out a selection of spiritual books on a table on your right as you leave. These books may be borrowed, but we ask that you check them out by signing for them with your phone number.

Finally, there's a sheet listing some of my favourite spiritual books. Most of them are easy to order through Amazon or I usually find Amazon has the better stock. If you have trouble ordering on the internet, just call the rectory and we'll get it for you.

Ask yourself today "What can God do for me?" and then go looking for the treasure that's waiting for you, hidden in a book.

Summertime Spiritual Reading: Some Suggestions

Searching For And Maintaining Peace: A Small Treatise On Peace Of Heart, by Father Jacques Philippe has proved a source of strength and consolation for many parishioners since Westminster Abbey began to promote it a few years ago. It's also inexpensive—about $8 if part of a $25 order shipped free. He has also written several other fine small books, though only one—Time for God—seems available on the internet at the moment.

Anything by the late Father Thomas Dubay is well worth reading, but his Deep Conversion: Deep Prayer is particularly wonderful and shorter than his masterwork, Fire Within, which explores the teaching of Sts. Teresa and John of the Cross in the light of the Gospel.

The Protestant writer John Eldredge paints a dramatic picture of the Christian journey in Waking the Dead: The Glory of a Heart Fully Alive. It's a wake-up call to those who are unaware of the perils of that journey, but offers hope and courage to the reader. Written for anyone, it makes frequent reference to modern culture so appeals particularly to younger readers, especially men.

One of the most helpful books I have read about prayer is Ralph Martin's Hungry for God: Practical Help in Personal Prayer, recently revised and reissued. It can kick start prayer in those who don't know where to begin, or encourage a return to prayer in those who need a boost. He has also written a much heavier book (in more than one sense) called The Fulfillment of All Desire. This instant classic lives up to its subtitle, A Guidebook for the Journey to God Based on the Wisdom of the Saints, offering an excellent overview of the spiritual masters we call the Doctors of the Church, in language anyone can follow despite its depth. Although a solid introductory work, The Fulfillment of All Desire turns the reader towards prayer, not just study.

Enter Father Benedict Groeschel's name in the search box on Amazon or Chapters, and you'll find a host of books that will deliver what their titles promise. Particularly helpful to those facing great challenges are the recent Tears of God: Persevering in the Face of Great Sorrow or Catastrophe and his Arise from Darkness: What to Do When Life Doesn't Make Sense.

Not to be forgotten are classics like The Imitation of Christ and the Confessions of St. Augustine, widely available in many different (though not equally good) translations. The Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales, especially in a good translation, is food for thought and prayer. St. Teresa of Avila, despite her lofty reputation, is not hard to read; the Way of Perfection is excellent spiritual reading.

"Do the right spiritual reading, and prayer will look after itself." Abbot Eugene Boylan

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Weed and Wheat: Sunday 16A

I became a fan of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's when I was barely out of my teens. If we canonized Protestants, he'd be my first choice.

Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran theologian who was executed by the Nazis just three weeks before the end of World War II. He'd been part of the plot to assassinate Hitler and active in the German resistance.

It's no wonder he fascinated me when I was young—the exciting title of a recent biography tells it all: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. But as I get older, I get more interested in him as a young man, standing up to the liberalism of German Christianity years before he stood up to the Nazis.

Although he was born into the intellectual establishment—you might say the scholarly elite of pre-war GermanyBonhoeffer understood early on that much of the theology he was taught had little connection with real Christianity. Basic truths of the Gospel, and the person of Jesus himself were routinely robbed of their power and their true meaning.

One reason why Bonhoeffer was able to stand alone was his considerable experience ministering to those who weren't typically pious. He taught a confirmation class in Germany that almost required him to have a bodyguard; in New York he worshiped mainly with African-American congregations; and while serving briefly in Barcelona he wrote that he had to deal with people he'd otherwise never have said a word to: bums, vagabonds, criminals, lion tamers who'd run away from the German circus on its Spanish tour, music hall dancers, and murderers on the run.

Yet he wrote to a friend that he was meeting people as they are, far from the masquerade of the so-called "Christian world." Using typically Protestant language, he observed "that it is just these people who are much more under grace than under wrath, and that it is the Christian world which is more under wrath than grace."

In terms more familiar to us, the young pastor had learned the truth of these words of Jesus: "I tell you, tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the kingdom of God before you."

Now what does all this have to do with us? Well, it's a way of reminding ourselves not to jump to conclusions when we read the parable of the wheat and the weeds.

My first reaction to this parable is always "Ah yes. Put up with those thorny weeds in the Church and let God take care of them in his own way." The parable thus is reduced to a means of coping with the people whom I judge don't belong in the harvest of the Lord.

But what if I myself am a weed among the wheat? What if I'm the one whom the Lord is leaving alone until the day comes for the harvest?

There's no reason to assume that weeds will never be transformed into good wheat. The Letter of James says "Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient."

The Lord is patient with us, so we should be patient with one another—in the family, in the parish, in our workplaces and schools. To make this clear, St. James adds "Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged."

It's true that God himself will sort out the weeds from the wheat, the bad from the good. But since in this life we can never be absolutely certain which plant we are, we must imitate his patience—with one another, and with ourselves.

Perhaps I am stretching the point, but I feel sometimes that the field of my own heart contains both wheat and weeds—that virtues and vices coexist, waiting for the purification that may come only in Purgatory.

Maybe that's what the poet Gerald Manley Hopkins was thinking when he wrote "My own heart let me have more pity on; let me live to my sad self hereafter kind."

Last Advent, Pope Benedict spoke of the need to strengthen our interior persistence, the resistance of the soul that keeps us from despair ... and to prepare for Christ's coming with hard-working confidence.

That's the best way to approach this parable—with hard-working confidence in God's mercy and help. As for judging the others alongside of us, we can best remember the old line "There's so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it hardly behooves any of us, to talk about the rest of us."

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Sower and the Seed: Sunday 15A

In the parable of the sower, Jesus tackles one of our greatest hopes and one of our greatest fears.

We hope that our lives will take root in good soil, that we will be fruitful and productive people. And we fear—at least many of us do—becoming shallow, and failing to hang on in the long run.

Is anyone so steady or so sure as to feel there's no risk of falling away, or of a mid-life crisis that makes us prey to the birds that devour the seed of faith?

Many years ago I was at Mass in a convent chapel with a wonderful Sister, still very active at 92 years of age. When the intercessions came, she prayed "Lord, grant us the grace to persevere." At 92, she still lived each day by the grace of God, knowing the race isn't over till it's over.

A fruitful life, a life rooted in the teachings of Christ, isn't something we want only for ourselves; if we have children we both hope and fear for their future; if we have grandchildren it is much the same. Will those youngsters who received their First Holy Communion stay close to the Lord they welcomed so eagerly? Will the gifts of the Holy Spirit at Confirmation lead them to be true disciples amid all the temptations of the world?

A pastor, too, worries about the good seed being snatched from the hearts of his parishioners, young and old. Even the prophet Isaiah [Is 49:4] and St. Paul himself [Phil 2:16] admit to being afraid that their work was all for nothing.

It's not hard to be a little pessimistic when we see so many young people turning aside from their Catholic upbringing—or even when we see in ourselves more weeds and thorns than abundant grain. The scorching sun of work and worry beats down on many of us, leaving us barely enough time or energy for the spiritual life.

And when we do make a little progress in prayer or scripture reading, or just when we've finally managed to make it regularly to Mass, our team makes it into the finals, or an elderly parent needs care, or there's a tough assignment at work. The good seed we'd planted is snatched away.

What's the answer to this timeless predicament, one that seems particularly tough in our times?

We find an answer from Isaiah, the very same prophet who said "I have labored to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing." [Is 49:4, NIV] Because no sooner did he says those words than he added: "Yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward is with my God."

In other words, Isaiah confronts his fear of the future with the virtues of faith and hope.

And that's exactly what we must do: we will persevere in our own struggles, and pray properly for those we love, only with faith and hope in God's promises.

One of those promises comes to us from Isaiah himself, in today's first reading. It's a good deal cheerier than today's Gospel, and the two really need to be read together.

Isaiah's prophecy uses an example we all know. The rain and snow that falls on the earth eventually returns to the skies. Water evaporates and returns to the atmosphere—after it has given life to dry soil. The cycle may be interrupted by flood and drought, but otherwise it is continuous and unfailing.

God's word—that word that the Letter to the Hebrews calls "alive and active, sharper than a double-edged sword"—is also unfailing. The truths taught to our young people, the truths we ourselves have learned from the Christ, never become sterile seeds; they will bear the rich harvest of abundant life if we will cooperate even minimally with God.

The parable of the sower and the seed is a bit scary; between the rocky spoil, the hungry birds, and the choking thorns you might almost think that failure is our default setting. But we know that's wrong: Jesus said clearly "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly." [Jn 10:10]

In the same chapter of St. John's Gospel, Jesus adds "I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand." [Jn 10:28]

Not much room there for pessimism or for too much fear of those birds.

Still, how do we reconcile the clear warning we've heard—and the failures we've seen and experienced—with the promises we're made and the hope we are meant to have?

One answer is given by the Lutheran theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who warned against what he called "cheap grace."

Cheap grace is grace that costs us nothing, that invites no disciplined response, and not even the least sacrifice. It's an utter contradiction, since something won at the price of Christ's blood cannot be cheap.

Even though God has freely poured out his grace on us, we must still treasure and respect it. Though we can't earn it, we can and must respond to it.

What does that response require?

As I did last week, I'd like to offer a "take-out," or as they say in some places, a "take-away" homily. You'll find it on the second of the two cards I printed as souvenirs of my ordination anniversary, which I hope you'll pick up after Mass. The card is headed "Holiness," and it quotes Pope Benedict.

The Holy Father states the essentials of a holy life in very few words—proving, I'd say, that we can live fruitful lives without heroics and that overcoming the rocks and thorns of life isn't too much for any of us.

He lists just three things:

1. Never let a Sunday go by without meeting Christ in the Eucharist.

2. Begin and end each day with at least a brief contact with God in prayer.

3. Follow the Ten Commandments, the "signposts" of Christian life.

Pope Benedict says that "this is the true simplicity and greatness of a life of holiness." Nothing more than Sunday Mass, daily prayer, and making all our decisions according to the law of love.

Small wonder that St. Paul tells us that the word is very near to us—on our lips and in our hearts. [Rm 10:8]

That word will not return empty to God the Sower; it will not leave us hungering for the Bread of Life, but will accomplish all God wants—if we respond to Him in the very simplest of ways.

Here is the text of the card to which I refer in the homily above:

What is the essential?

The essential means never leaving a Sunday without an encounter with the Risen Christ in the Eucharist; this is not an additional burden but is light for the whole week.

It means never beginning and never ending a day without at least a brief contact with God.

And, on the path of our life it means following the “signposts” that God has communicated to us in the Ten Commandments, interpreted with Christ, which are merely the explanation of what love is in specific situations.

It seems to me that this is the true simplicity and greatness of a life of holiness: the encounter with the Risen One on Sunday; contact with God at the beginning and at the end of the day; following, in decisions, the “signposts” that God has communicated to us, which are but forms of charity.

Pope Benedict XVI

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Thanks and More Thanks

The post that follows is a letter to parishioners and others who made my 25th anniversary such a joyful celebration. You can also click on the following links for: 1) my grateful thoughts about all who have supported me in my vocation, and 2) Archbishop Miller's homily at Mass on June 25.

All the attention I received during my anniversary celebrations was put into perspective by what someone said when I exclaimed how beautifully the church was decorated. "Don't worry Monsignor," I was told. "This is all for Jesus; only the party is for you!"

When all is said and done, I think the 'party' was for all of us—because the celebrations, particularly the two jubilee Masses, surely brought many graces to the entire parish, even those who could not be with us. This week I felt the intense spirit of communion that unites our parish, and I saw the dedicated stewardship that makes it strong.

We were united in communion by the presence of Archbishop Miller on Saturday, and reminded of the courage of the apostles by having Bishop Monroe with us on Tuesday. The presence of newly-ordained Father Bryan Duggan and Deacon Pablo Santa Maria reminded us to pray for priests and for more vocations. I am grateful to them and to our devoted altar servers, and to Amina Storch, who arranged the magnificent flowers that graced the church.

After one of the Masses someone exclaimed to me "I am just so glad to be Catholic!" It wasn't an offhand remark. I felt the same way myself, as I took part in such intense and beautiful liturgies. Both Masses were planned and prepared in every detail by Robert Hickson, and the music drew us wonderfully into the sacred mysteries with the talented help of the Curalli family on Saturday, and of Chris Chok, Karen Dy, Michelle Keong and our other talented musicians on Tuesday—aided on both occasions by the beautiful violin of Karen Teufel. I was delighted by the presence of students from St. Anthony's School, who offered a beautiful song at Communion time under the direction of Mr. Peter Abando.

If you weren't at the Saturday Mass, I hope you will take a look at Archbishop Miller's homily—and if you didn't get a copy of the Mass booklet handed out on both Saturday and Tuesday, I hope you'll read my words of thanks from those programs.

The head of the organizing committee for the celebration, Karen Lerner, was efficiency and patience personified! I cannot possibly thank her enough. Her hard-working committee—Maureen Giefing, Mari-Ellen Martin, Nicole Bitelli and Helen Minshull—were also wonderful. Maureen and Arlene Boreham's work decorating the gym with flowers was another visible act of the stewardship of time and talent; less visible was the tireless and thankless work of the wonderful Mary Forristal—ironing 65 tablecloths—and the efforts of Anita Callahan to make sure we obtained enough glasses and cutlery for a large crowd.

Those who attended the dinner on Saturday night were treated to a wonderful meal thanks to the talents of John Carlo Felicella and his capable crew. On both Saturday and Tuesday, generous volunteers worked very hard setting up and cleaning up—they are too many to name.

I am very grateful to the lively MCs—Angela Sargent and Chris and Meghan Chapman—and to those who spoke so beautifully—Rolly Waechter, Barbara Dowding, Sister Josephine Carney, and the representatives of parish groups. I'm not so sure that I'm as grateful to those young people who skewered me so effectively in their clever video, but I certainly admire their comic talents! The same is true for the musical duo of my brother Kevin and nephew Neil!

For their many hours of work on the video presentations I must thank Alex Buhler, Marilyn and Stefanie Elliott, my sister Sheila and particularly Father Xavier, who more importantly has been a brother, a friend, and a help in so many ways. We are richly blessed by his presence in the parish.

The beautiful program cover, and the invitations sent to people outside the parish, came from the talented hands of Jean McCarron.

I'm very grateful to an anonymous donor who provided wine for Saturday's dinner, to Tim Lack who made sure the proceedings were legal, and to Cecilia and Bill Curtis who helped with the bar.

All the members of the parish staff, particularly Robert Ibanez and Lenny Silva, were caught up in the preparations for these celebrations and gave generously of their time, but I have to single out our parish secretary Marilyn, who served as the ringmaster of a three-ring circus while remaining unfailingly patient and kind.

I know there are names missing, but they are known to God, who will—I hope and pray—reward you all for your love for the Church and your kindness to me.

So much time, talent, and treasure can only come from a deep spirit of communion and stewardship—and of love for the priesthood. I can never thank you properly, and I recognize that much of what you do is done for the Lord. But I can at least say that your love is returned, in full measure.

I'd like to repeat and underscore something I wrote in my words of thanksgiving in the programs for Mass:

I thank you, dear parishioners, for your astonishing generosity, acceptance, confidence and love. If I am a good pastor, it is in no small measure because you have taught me how.