Thursday, December 29, 2011

Homily at Rise Up

I preached this morning at the opening Mass for Catholic Christian Outreach's annual Christmas conference, attended by more than five hundred young people. Here is the text of the homily.

Pope Benedict seems to have come up with a new phrase—new to me, anyway. In a recent talk, he spoke of "faith fatigue."

He suggested that we suffer from faith fatigue when a number of things get us down: that regular churchgoers are growing older and fewer; that the recruitment of priests is stagnating; and that scepticism and unbelief are growing.

But in the face of those discouraging signs, the Holy Father was very quick to mention that he finds remedies for faith fatigue. He mentions first the Church in Africa, with its "joyful passion for faith."

"None of the faith fatigue that is so prevalent here, none of the oft-encountered sense of having had enough of Christianity, was detectable there, he said.

Not surprisingly, the second remedy that the Pope found for faith fatigue was "the wonderful experience of World Youth Day in Madrid," which he called the "new evangelization put into practice."

In particular, he found five things about World Youth Days that point towards a new, more youthful form of Christianity.

The first thing he mentions is "a new experience of catholicity, of the Church's universality." Pope Benedict sees this when people who have never met one another, know one another, despite different languages and cultures. "Shared faith and a common liturgy … unites us in a vast family. At World Youth Day, we recognize that "it is a wonderful thing to belong to the worldwide Church, to the Catholic Church, that the Lord has given to us."

The second is the generous spirit of service and sacrifice that goes along with the general chaos of a WYD. (Well, the Pope didn't mention the chaos—I added that bit.) He says this readiness to give oneself is ultimately derived from meeting Christ, who gave himself for us.

The third mark of a more youthful faith is adoration, which he calls primarily an act of faith.

The fourth is the Sacrament of Confession, which has more and more become a central part of WYD. This healing sacrament awakens in us the positive force of the Creator, to draw out of our sin, upwards to Him.

Finally, Pope Benedict points to joy. Faith leads to joy, he suggests, since only faith gives me the conviction that it is good that I exist. It is good to be a human being, even in hard times. Faith makes one happy from deep within. That is one of the wonderful experiences of World Youth Days.

I have quoted at great length from the Pope's remarks, which he made in his end-of-the-year meeting with his collaborators at the Vatican. The first reason is that they are proof of the central thing that St. John proclaims in today's first reading: the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.

Despite our stumbles and struggles, despite our own inconsistencies and those of others, the light is shining. As we prayed in the opening prayer, God has dispersed the darkness of this world by the coming of Christ, the Light. Like Simeon in the Temple, we have seen salvation shine—a light that banishes all fear.

My second reason is simply that everything the Pope said about World Youth Day—except his mention of the near-disaster when the storm struck in Madrid—applies to our days together this week. All the optimism Pope Benedict felt at WYD he would feel if he were able to be with us; Rise Up is no less a remedy against faith fatigue.

If you have experienced that already, or know it to be true, let's rejoice together. If you are attending for the first time, then bring your own faith fatigue—your doubts, darkness, and fears—and allow these days to be a lasting and perfect remedy.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Introducing Father de Souza

I had the pleasure tonight of introducing Father Raymond de Souza at a reception in Vancouver to promote his new venture. Here are my brief remarks.

After I accepted the welcome invitation to present Father de Souza to you, the organizers of this evening's reception e-mailed to ask if I would like some biographical information on him. I said only if you want me to talk for more than half an hour! I have at least that much material in my head.

In fact, my only challenge in introducing Father Raymond de Souza tonight is trying to avoid a full length speech: because I am not only a friend, but a fan. 

Having just had the pleasure of hearing him kick off CCO's Rise Up with a very stirring speech, we gather with Father de Souza, principally to recognize the latest of his many contributions to intellectual life in Canada: he has, as you know, taken on the job of Editor-in-Chief of Convivium

This new journal, launched by Cardus, Canada's leading Christian think tank, bears the important subtitle "Faith in our Common Life."

The challenges of inviting Canadians to a thoughtful dialogue on faith would be enough to keep someone busy full-time, but needless to say Convivium shares Father Raymond with one or two of his other activities.

These are principally his work as chaplain of Newman House at Queen's University in Kingston and as pastor at Sacred Heart of Mary Parish on nearby Wolfe Island.

And of course his official biography is very quick to point out his favourite job—chaplain of the Queen's football team! He's held that position for the past seven years, including—please take note—the season when Queen's won the national championship.

Then there is his other journalistic pursuit, as a weekly columnist for the National Post. He began in that role as a seminarian, which led me to conclude he was a late vocation who had worked for decades on a newspaper before turning to the priesthood. To my dismay, I discovered his talent was natural, and that he was some years younger than I.

As a columnist for the Post, Father de Souza has given voice to views that are terribly under-represented in the press and other media, arguing with clarity and conviction on burning issues without becoming a scold or a one-issue writer. In fact, the scope of his columns is one of the things that makes him such a joy to read.

George Weigel, the author of acclaimed biographies of Pope John Paul, described Father de Souza as "Canada's finest Catholic commentator." This is high praise coming from a very serious American intellectual. On the other hand, when Weigel was told about a gathering of Canadian conservatives, he expressed a great deal of surprise that there were enough of them to gather!

Tonight's reception shows there are enough fans of Father de Souza in Vancouver to make a happy gathering, and I am extremely happy to one of them.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Day: The Pope’s Three Wishes

It was Christmas Eve, but Jim, Frank, and Joe were stranded on a desert island. Their food and water were almost gone, and the three friends were beginning to lose heart. 

Suddenly, a bottle floated onto the shore; as soon as they picked it up, a genie popped out. She said, "I have three wishes to grant. Each of you can make one wish come true."

Jim was thrilled. He said, "I wish I were in Bethlehem, singing Christmas carols in Manger Square with my wife and children. Instantly he was gone, his wish granted.

Frank smiled and said, "I wish I were in Rome right now attending Midnight Mass with my dear parents at St. Peter's. Just like that, he disappeared.

The genie then turned to Joe. "And what do you wish for?"

Joe answered, "Bethlehem, Rome, or Vancouver. Gee, I wish I had my buddies back to help me decide..."

I dared to begin my homily by joking about three wishes, because I want to talk today about the three wishes Pope Benedict made just before switching on the lights of the world's largest Christmas tree.

The tree, incidentally, is near the town of Gubbio, where St. Francis started our tradition of the Christmas crib.

Pope Benedict's three wishes are a beautiful lesson in the true Christmas spirit.

He began with the hope that we would lift our eyes towards heaven and not be stuck on earthly things.

"My first wish," he said, "is that our gaze… our minds and our hearts, rest not only on the horizon of this world, on its material things," turn towards God like the soaring Christmas tree.

He said that "God never forgets us, but he also asks that we don't forget him."

The Pope's second wish reminded us that we must rely on the light of Christ. He wished that everyone remember that we "need a light to illumine the path of our lives and to give us hope, especially in this time in which we feel so greatly the weight of difficulties, of problems, [and] of suffering."

"The Child … we contemplate [at] Christmas, in a poor and humble manger, is "the light that overcomes the darkness of our hearts" and gives us "firm and sure hope."

"My final wish," the Pope concluded, "is that each of us contributes something of that light" to others: "our families, our jobs, our neighborhoods, towns and cities."

He prayed that we will be a light for our neighbour, overcoming selfishness, which so often "closes our hearts and leads us to think only of ourselves."

"Any small gesture of goodness," Pope Benedict said, "is like one of the lights of this great tree: together with other lights it illuminates the darkness of the night, even of the darkest night."

In his three wishes, the Holy Father has summed up the message of Christmas: turn to God, walk in the light of Christ, and share that light and love with others.

What impresses me so much about these three thoughts is how realistic they are. Pope Benedict knows how tempted we are to limit our horizons to the things we can see, to our human needs and wants. Perhaps more than anyone else, he knows how deep the darkness can be; the Pope hears daily reports of injustice within nations, savagery between peoples, and infidelity within the Church.

Yet he knows that this is precisely why Christ came to earth. Jesus was born at Bethlehem not to give us an annual feel-good celebration, but to save us from our sins.

This morning each of us is a genie who can grant the Holy Father his three wishes. We can forget, for a moment, who got the better gifts; we can take our minds off how we're going to fit everyone around the table, especially since two of the relatives aren't speaking. Instead, we can lift our hearts to heaven as we take part in this Mass with thanks for the gift of salvation.

We can ponder in our hearts the wonders of the gift of Jesus, just as Mary did beside the manger that first Christmas night. Like the shepherds of Bethlehem, we can glorify and praise God for all we have heard and seen. And we can resolve to be faithful to Sunday Mass in the year ahead so that we're sure to look up to heaven at least once each week.

We can grant Pope Benedict his second wish by letting the true light become our guide. All too often we try to walk by our own light or by the values of the world. This Christmas we can resolve to turn to God more often, and more confidently. Perhaps this will mean looking to the Bible or the Catechism for more practical guidance on our daily journey, or just trying harder to accept God's will in a spirit of prayerful surrender.

Finally, let's grant the Pope's third wish by deciding to be more thoughtful and charitable—not only to the needy, but to our family members, friends and co-workers. We can share with others the good news of Christ's coming. We can do it in words, like the shepherds did, or by even the smallest acts of kindness, as Pope Benedict suggests.

One of the kindest things we can do is sharing our hope and faith with others. In January, our parish will offer the Alpha Course—a lively and interesting introduction to the basics of Christianity. This morning, I invite anyone who is at all interested in the Christian answers to the big questions about life to grab a flyer as you leave.

But even more important, I invite parishioners who want to give the best Christmas present in the world to a friend or co-worker or family member to bring them along to the Alpha course. There are details in the bulletin and we have some flyers as well.

Bethlehem, Rome—or Vancouver. Wherever we are at Christmas, the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour has appeared and the light of Christ shines in our hearts through his Holy Spirit, poured out on us richly so that we might inherit eternal life.

This is cause for true rejoicing in a world where the night can seem very dark in certain places or at certain times. By turning our eyes to the light, by letting the light guide our path, and by sharing it with others, we'll do much more than grant the Holy Father three wishes; we will receive the gift of salvation that Christ was born to bring.

(My homily for Midnight Mass can be found here.)

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Midnight Mass: Let the Light Shine

When I was ten years old, a great darkness came over the land. The lights went out for 25 million people, in an 80,000 square mile area of Eastern Canada and the Northeastern United States. It was the great blackout of November 1965, caused by a massive power failure.

Without warning, hundreds of thousands of people were stuck: stuck in subway and commuter trains, in elevators, at the top of skyscrapers.
In such circumstances, there were the usual grumblings and complaints, to be sure. But, in general, something quite amazing happened: the blackout brought people together! Folks who had taken the same commuter train for years spoke to their neighbors for the first time. People in elevators started to sing to pass the hours. The cold rush hour crowd began to thaw.
Those stuck in their top floor offices began to enjoy the night-time view for the first time, and point out its beauty to their coworkers.
And to everyone's amazement, the crime rate in New York City went down.

The darkness had actually brought people together, given them a chance to slow down and communicate—given them a chance to experience community.

It's a wonderful bit of history. But it makes me ask this question: if the darkness can bring people closer to one another, shouldn't the light—the one, true, light of the world—do the same, only more?
Should the darkness do a better job of forming a community than the Light does?

Isaiah tells us that "the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light." Who are those people?

Isaiah says "those who lived in land of deep darkness: on them light has shined." What is that light?

You know the answer: The light is Jesus, shining in even the darkest places of our world and of our hearts.
And who are those people who walked in darkness? We are those people—God's people.
Is it possible that the failure of a power station can draw people closer to one another than the one, true Light whose coming we celebrate tonight? Can blackouts have more influence on our lives than the birth of the Lord who brings salvation to all?
Let us hope not. Let us pray not. We can decide, this Christmas, at this Mass, to allow the light to change how we relate to one another in our homes, in our workplaces or schools, and most especially in our parish. We are not thrown together like people stuck on the same elevator; we are called together by our baptism, by our faith, by our hope, by our love for God and for one another.
I think it was the atheist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre—or maybe Nietzsche, also an atheist, who said "for me to believe in the Redeemer, those Christians need to look more redeemed."
How do we, as Christians, live in the light—how do we start looking more redeemed, especially as we celebrate Christ's birth.
There are as many answers as there are people in the pews this night. Asking God to heal and forgive our sins, particularly in confession, is the first way that comes to my mind, since the appearance of our Saviour trains us, as St. Paul says, to renounce our sins and live godly lives.
When God forgives our sins, he lifts the yoke from our shoulders, and frees us from the heavy weight that oppresses us. If there is something hanging over your head, or weighing on your soul, let Christmas be the moment when you ask God to set you free.
I heard a story about a priest who was harassed by a man in his parish many years ago. The man started false rumours about him, wrote vicious letters to the bishop and others, and launched petitions to have him removed.

But after several months the man moved away, and began to change his life and draw nearer to God. Eventually, he realized the harm he had done to the innocent priest, and he wrote a long letter apologizing for what he'd done and begging forgiveness for the injustice.
The priest replied by a three word telegram: "Forgiven, forgotten, forever."

Now it might have been that the priest was cheap—telegrams were expensive—but I doubt it. He'd said everything in those three words. God is just as economical with us: forgiven, forgotten, forever, is what God says when we kneel before him in sorrow. This how salvation works: God forgives our debt, just for the asking. The people who walked in darkness have truly seen a great light.

But the second way to celebrate Christmas is to let others see us walking in the light. We need to learn a thing or two from those stuck in the great blackout of '65. Do we reach out to others in fellowship, in friendship, letting down our guard and taking a few risks? Now is the time to let God increase our joy so much that people can't miss it!

"You have multiplied the nation," Isaiah says. How does God multiply his people today? By their witness, their readiness to share the good news. Christmas isn't only for Christians, but for all—we're called to invite others to walk towards the Light, in the Light.
There's a song youngsters sometimes sing that goes "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine." It's not much of a Christmas carol—because the light isn't mine, and it isn't little! It's a great light, a marvelous light, a blazing light: because it is God himself. It is God made visible. It is God made man. For me, certainly, but not for me alone: for the world, the waiting world, the world that is darkened by sin and fear.
The light of Christ doesn't shine like the sun or the moon, far away. It shines in us, through us, when we share with others the gift we have received, the joy that increases in us.
To share Christ's light we have to start by living in it—as St. Paul tells us, we must live lives that are self-controlled, upright and godly. But that's not enough. Some of us need to know more about "this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us" at Christmas.
For those people, in January our parish will offer a basic introduction to Christianity called the Alpha Course. A lively and interesting program, Alpha welcomes anyone who is remotely interested in the Christian answers to the big questions about life.
Some of us, of course, already know the message. For those people, the Alpha course is an ideal opportunity to share it with others—by inviting a friend or co-worker or family member, and tagging along with them. There are details in the bulletin and we have some flyers as well.
Whether it's finding out more about Christ, or sharing what we know with others, Christmas is the time to let the light shine in our hearts—freed from sin, freed from fear, and full of hope.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Sistine Chapel

My last post included a link to the Vatican's wonderful webpage on the Sistine Chapel.  Navigating it, however, is a bit of a challenge. Someone sent me another link to a "birds eye" view that it less difficult to use.  Click here.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Blogging in Italy

As all my faithful readers know, my so-called "blog" is not the real thing--properly speaking, a blog is "usually maintained by an individual with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, or other material such as graphics or video." Mind you, my readers don't do their part, either, since "most good quality blogs are interactive, allowing visitors to leave comments... and it is this interactivity that distinguishes them from other static websites."  (See "Blog," on Wikipedia.)

However, since I'm travelling--and not preaching--I thought I'd "blog" a bit on this interesting week in Italy. I can't download the few photos I've taken, but will link to some websites showing some of the sites I've visited.

Soon after arriving, I met up with my Beda classmate Fr. Jock Dalrymple and we had lunch in central Rome with our mutual dear friend Marina, with whom we've stayed in constant touch over the years. In the evening I caught up with Canadian College housemate Fr, Owen Keenan, who is back in Rome working at the Vatican.

Bright and early on Wednesday, Jock and I headed by train to Urbino, about four hours from Rome. Dominated by the magnificent ducal palace, this jewel of a town was rich in both art and history, and we had two delightful days exploring its steep streets (Jock limping valiantly after badly spraining his ankle the night before he left Scotland).

Among Urbino's charms was a skating rink and an outdoor market celebrating the national holiday of the Immaculate Conception; we also found a restaurant specializing in the cooking of the Marches region, where we ate very well. We celebrated the feast day at a Mass with the bishop in a parish church.

On our way back to Rome, we visited Pesaro, a larger city where we caught the train. In a short time we had breakfast by the Adriatic Sea, visited the Cathedral--where stunning mosaics have been discovered on two levels below the church floor--and briefly explored the town.

Just a few hours after our return, we prayed Vespers (Evening Prayer) in the Sistine Chapel. It was a tremendous experience to have a chance actually to pray in that setting, usually filled with tourists.The small gathering was mostly Vatican officials and some friends.

All for now!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Catholics Come Home

I woke up in Rome bright and early this morning, since I haven't adjusted to the time change, and decided to continue cleaning up my overflowing in-box of e-mail. The first thing I did was watch a YouTube video about the Catholic Church that our retired parish secretary kindly had sent me ages ago.

Can't begin to tell you how impressed I was by the video--a positive statement about the Catholic Church's contribution to society throughout the ages. It was particularly powerful to watch it here in the Eternal City. Naturally, it uses familiar images of St. Peter's Basilica, but it also features a number of scenes from St. Paul's, where I was ordained a deacon.

Watch this inspiring "commercial" by clicking here.

The clip is produced by a group I'd never heard of called Catholics Come Home. Their website tells you more about them. They seem to have been formed by an advertising executive called Tom Peterson, and they must be doing something right since the anti-Catholic media personality Bill Maher found it necessary to attack their ads.

Alongside the "Catholic commercial," Catholics Come Home have produced an unsettling examination of conscience called "The Movie." You can find it on their website by clicking here and go directly to YouTube by clicking here.

Might it be good before Christmas to send a link to the first commercial--the more upbeat one--to family members and friends who are away from the Faith? If we make sure our e-mails are lighthearted they might do some real good.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Isaiah Can Leave You Breathless (Advent 2B)

Would you like to know how much time it takes to write a short homily? About twice as long as it takes to write a long one.

I have to speak briefly this morning since I am on my way to Toronto for the annual meeting of Renewal Ministries. I chair the Canadian board of this Catholic charity, which is devoted to missionary work and evangelization. Many of you are familiar with Ralph Martin and Peter Herbeck, two of the leaders of Renewal Ministries.

From Toronto I'm off to Rome, so next Sunday I will be praying with you from afar.

On my day off last I was visiting some friends, and spied a framed quotation on their wall. It said "Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away."

For some reason, I thought about those words when I read today's first reading from the prophet Isaiah.

Isaiah proclaims the joy of redemption with various voices, but they all ring with victory. The prophet speaks tenderly, comfortingly. Then he shouts. And then the passage ends with the image of the Good Shepherd. His prophecy should take our breath away.

If these words don't leave you a bit breathless—if they don't lift your spirits—then maybe you should read the advertisement in today's bulletin for tickets to Handel's Messiah! Handel used many lines from today's reading in his exquisite work.

Even more important, we should find some time this week to go over the reading—it's always easy to find the Sunday readings on-line if you don't have a missal at home—and ask: is this my experience? Am I comforted by the knowledge of salvation? Does God speak tenderly to my heart?

Because Isaiah's words are a prophecy already fulfilled by the coming of Christ and by His saving work. It's true, He will come again, but His first coming has already leveled the hills of despair and darkness; His first coming revealed the glory of the Lord and banished fear from the hearts of men.

The prophecy is fulfilled in us when we open our hearts to the tenderness and mercy of God. Only in prayer can the Lord comfort us, feeds us, gather us, carry us and lead us.

My friend Vernon Robertson says that prayer begins as a duty, demands discipline, but will eventually lead to delight. So there are three steps to take in prayer: first, taking the duty seriously. If we fail to pray at all, we're really missing the boat. The second is to stick with prayer in a disciplined way, praying even when we don't feel like it. The third is allowing prayer to delight us.

Sometimes God will surprise us with consolation and delight. But most of the time we need to make the uneven ground level by persevering in prayer over a period of time. We need to take texts like this one from Isaiah into a time of prayer so that the full Advent message of hope and comfort penetrates our hearts.

With even a minimum of duty and discipline, prayer in Advent can take your breath away, and prepare you for a fresh experience of God's glory at Christmas.