Saturday, February 25, 2012

Quenching our Thirst in the Desert (Lent 1B)

People sometimes think I run the show at Christ the Redeemer. Sometimes I even think so myself. But it's not true—I answer to quite a number of bosses in the parish.

Today's homily is proof of that. I wanted to speak about the first and second readings since this week we had a guest speaker at the young men's group who introduced us to the seventeenth-century Jesuit scholar who analyzed the dimensions of Noah's Ark, based on the number of species known in his time, and decided overcrowding wouldn't have been a problem.

Father Athanasius Kircher took the Genesis text so seriously that he even calculated what the daily schedule for the animals must have been.

But at 6:04 last night I got an e-mail from our youth minister, asking me to preach on the Gospel. He did more than that—he told me what he hoped I would say in the homily, so it would fit in with the theme of tonight's youth Mass.

So much for the ark.

Actually, it's pretty easy to make today's Gospel relevant for young people. They all appear to live in a desert—have you noticed how much water they drink? Sometimes I think modern youth are dehydrated; they never seem to go anywhere without a water bottle.

The more I thought about that, the more I realized we all live in the desert, at least some of the time. The sun beats down on all of us, and most of us know what it's like sometimes to feel dry as dust in our spiritual lives.

Young people can lose their way in the desert without landmarks to guide them. Middle-aged people can be wearied by the noonday heat: there are many places in the Scripture that speak of the dangers of night, but Psalm 91 reminds us that the midday sun can also be destructive and make Christians lose heart.

Some find old age a desert, with the landscape around them slowly becoming barren.

Whatever age we are, there are various ways we find ourselves in the desert. Sometimes we are even led there by the Spirit, as Jesus was. We didn't ask for it; we can't explain it; and we don't want to be in a dry and lonely place. But we meet God there, according to his plan for us.

Sometimes we are dumped in the desert by circumstances. We're suffering from the death of a loved one, illness, unemployment or some other worry. When we look around we can't see a flower or a tree, just a lot of prickly cactus bushes.

Temptations, too, can be a desert. One day we're hiking up the spiritual mountain, enjoying the view, and then all of a sudden life is bleak, and we're dying for something to relieve the monotony.

There's one thing these different desert experiences have in common: they all make us thirsty. Dryness creates desire.

But here's the important thing: there's nothing wrong with being thirsty, as long as you have something to drink. Thirst in itself isn't bad; in fact, when you're thirsty, there's nothing better than a cold glass of water. The feeling is good. The water refreshes us.

Of course we can try to quench our thirst with the wrong things. Some drinks will make us thirstier in the long run. But if we drink from the stream of life—if we drink the living water that Jesus promises—our thirst will have done us good.

So there's nothing necessarily wrong about the desert. Just as thirst reminds us how much we depend on water, so the deserts of temptation and trial remind us how much we depend on grace.

We usually think of temptations negatively, and focus on our failures or on how close we come to falling. But there is a positive way to consider temptations: they can also be seen as a test that, if successfully overcome, strengthens the Christian to put up a better fight for the Lord.

During those 40 days in the desert, Jesus showed us what he was made of; when we overcome temptation, we show ourselves—and Jesus too—the strength of our inner core.

I've talked about a number of the ways we can find ourselves in the desert. But sometimes we decide to spend time in the desert. That's what Lent can be: we leave the "city" of our selfishness and retreat to the "desert" of our hearts. We freely chose to step back from rushing around in what we call the "real world" in order to have time and energy for the things that matter most.

All of this presumes we are ready to drink from Christ. It is said "when we drink from the world, we always thirst again, when we drink from Christ, we never thirst again." In a world full of temporary things, we'll find temporary satisfaction. Jesus alone satisfies the longing of the heart, and satisfies it reliably, consistently, and eternally.

But he doesn't give us his living water in plastic bottles. We must meet him personally where he can be found—and the desert is one sure place to find him.


Saturday, February 18, 2012

Formed to Declare His Praise (Sunday 7B)

I was holding my breath and holding back the tears all the way through Father Sarmed's homily last Sunday. But what moved me most was the way he compared Jesus reaching out his hand to heal the leper, and our parish opening its arms to welcome a refugee family.

So today I thought I might pick up where Father Sarmed left off, and say a few things about body language—specifically about how we respond to God with our whole person.

It's an important topic, and particularly important to how we celebrate the sacred liturgy.

One of the parishioners who attended Rise Up, CCO's Christmas conference, told me he was very impressed by the way the young people took part in the liturgies. He said it was the first time he couldn't hear himself think at Mass. At Christ the Redeemer, he explained, the congregation is never louder than his thoughts.

I'd been meaning to talk about the way we participate at Mass in our parish, but that comment told me there was no time to lose.

There are, of course, some really good things happening. People seem to be getting quite comfortable with the new translation of mass, and I notice that the gesture of reverence at communion has become quite common and appears to be meaningful to a majority of parishioners. And we are following carefully the new rules for standing sitting and kneeling.

We have a number of strong Korean families in our parish. A few weeks ago I asked two teenagers if they knew why Koreans make such good Catholics. When they didn't know, I suggested they ask their parents. The next week the boys were ready with an answer.

"Because we are so good at bowing?"

Wrong! The correct answer is because the Catholic Church in Korea was deprived of priests for many years, requiring the laity to take on full responsibility for handing on the faith.

But the answer wasn't a bad one. Gestures like bowing and genuflecting express on the outside the spirit of worship that's on the inside. As St. Paul tells us, "at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend" (Phil. 2:10) What's more, our gestures intensify our prayer and express our unity with one another.

These things matter a great deal. In our first reading today, from the prophet Isaiah, God tells us that we are the people he formed for himself so that we might declare his praise. That's why we exist, and it's certainly why we come to Mass—so that we might declare God's praise. And each one of us has a role to play at Mass, whether we're ordained or not ordained. I stand at the altar because of my ministerial priesthood, while you stand before it because of your baptismal priesthood, the common priesthood we all share.

Exercising the priestly office effectively requires knowing what we are doing, and doing it consciously. How would you feel if the priest came up to the altar looking completely distracted, gazed off into space while saying the words of the Mass in a half-hearted way? Well, it's not that different when members of the congregation participate—or don't participate—like that.

Yet "the liturgy is the public worship of the People of God offered to the Father through His Son Jesus Christ in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Our priestly actions"—mine and yours-- "work in tandem to offer the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ to the Father. " So it is necessary that every member of the assembled community carry out his or her respective duties.

In the words of the Second Vatican Council, we are called to "full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations." (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 14).

What does this "full, conscious, and active participation" look like? We talked about our body language—sitting , standing, kneeling, bowing, and striking our breasts—when the changes were introduced. Even more important than liturgical postures and gestures, though, is the way we respond at Mass. It's been almost three months since the changes in the translation of the Mass, so it's time to quit ducking the challenge of saying the right response. Dropping your voice in case you get it wrong isn't helping things along; if you're going to get it wrong, at least let us hear you get it wrong! As Martin Luther said, if you're going to sin, sin boldly.

Speaking of Luther's famous line, a musical friend changed it by just one letter to provide us with some more advice. He wrote "sing, but sing boldly."

Singing boldly is not exactly what we're famous for at Christ the Redeemer. St. Paul tells us today that Jesus was not "yes and no", but always "yes." If the apostle heard us sing, he'd probably put us down as "maybe."

Our excellent choirs cover our tracks very well, but when I look out and see only one in four parishioners' lips moving during the hymns, I am discouraged. The choirs are here partly to encourage us to sing, not to sit back.

It's almost too well-known to repeat, but St. Augustine's famous line "to sing is to pray twice" contains a powerful truth. Singing makes us vulnerable, it takes a bit of effort, and it allows us at least to try to join the angelic choirs?

There are a few—a very few—who can't sing at all. But most of us can, and when we don't we are shirking our responsibilities as members of a worshipping community. I plead guilty to getting a very slow start on the new Mass setting, but when I finally get it down, I intend to sing more, rather than less, as a part of the rediscovery of the solemnity of our Catholic liturgical tradition.

Everything we do at Mass connects to the world beyond the doors of the church. To quote Blessed John Paul, "If our Eucharistic worship is authentic, it must make us grow in awareness of the dignity of each person…. The sense of the Eucharistic Mystery leads us to a love for our neighbor, to a love for every human being" (Dominicae Cenae 6).

It wasn't accidental that we heard Father Sarmed's moving words at Mass. It wasn't just a convenient time for him to describe the suffering of his fellow Iraqi Christians and to ask our support for a refugee family. There is a seamless connection between our parish Eucharist and our parish charity, the charity that we will express in our collection for the Shaboo family later in this Mass.

Finally, I'd like to say a word about a particular kind of body language and our Christian faith: it's called fasting. Particularly at Lent, the Church reminds us that we are body and soul, and invites us to connect our bodies to our prayer by the ancient penitential practices of fast and abstinence from meat. These practices are recommended throughout the 40 days of Lent, but only required on two of them: Ash Wednesday, which is this week, and Good Friday.

On both these days, every Catholic 14 years of age or older must abstain from meat, while those 18 to 60 are too fast—which means to have one full meal only, with two small and simple meals at other mealtimes. It is not a difficult discipline, so could well be followed even by those not strictly obliged. I think the law was written when 60 was old—and as I draw nearer to that mark, I know it is not!

Some of the thoughts  here are taken from two homilies from Bishop Paul Loverde of Arlington, Virginia: "Revering Jesus in the Mass," and "Liturgical Gestures, Postures Foster Unity, Express Reverence." They're well worth reading.


Sunday, February 12, 2012

Two Catholic Schools, Two Visitors, Two Other Blogs!

No homily from me this Sunday!  Father Sarmed Biloues, who ministers to Iraqi Catholics, will be preaching. He will help our parishioners prepare to receive the Iraqi refugee family that we are sponsoring to Canada. They are presently in some peril even in their refugee camp, since they are in Syria, so we pray they will arrive here soon.

We also have a visiting permanent deacon and his wife, Deacon Roy and Liz Harrington. The Harringtons came up from Seattle to talk with our aspirants and their spouses yesterday, and made a great impression. Deacon Harrington is the director for permanent deacons in the Archdiocese of Seattle. I hope they'll return when there's an opportunity for him to preach.

Instead of my homily this week, I encourage faithful readers to look at two of my favourite blogs. Archbishop Terrence Prendergast has a homily this week about the reasons Jesus sometimes asked for secrecy after he performed a miracle. If you visit his blog, The Journey of a Bishop, you can also see his photos of the skaters on the Rideau Canal.

My other favorite blogger is our youth minster, Jeremy Keong.  He blogs much less faithfully than Archbishop Terry, but when he does post something  it's an event! His current post is a very interesting opinion about people raising their hands when they pray. So check out The Road to Emmaus and let him challenge or inspire you, or both!

To complete this busy Sunday, we have students from our parish school participating as readers and gift-bearers at all Masses; high school students from St. Thomas Aquinas did the same last week, marking our annual Catholic Schools Week. We're proud of our two schools!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Homily at the Funeral of Patricia Douglas

Before sharing some thoughts with you all, I must say a few words to Pat’s family.  The first is a word of sympathy from Archbishop Michael Miller, who asked me to represent him today. Although Pat had long retired from her employment with the Archdiocese by the time Archbishop Miller arrived, he was very grateful for the volunteer service she offered for many years afterwards.

I also would like to convey to the family the condolences of another priest who worked closely with Pat, Msgr. Mark Hagemoen. He had hoped to be with us, but the timing of the funeral made it impossible.

Msgr. Hagemoen wrote "I remember Pat fondly, both in terms of her work at Catholic Family Services, and on the Advisory Council for the Archbishop. She certainly was a dedicated, wise, and generous member of the local church, and someone who helped a great many people in their various personal journeys."

And there is another person I need to mention: Pat's very dear friend, Sister Kathy Dunne, a Cenacle Sister from Louisiana. Sister Kathy called me this morning to say how much she wishes it were possible for her to be here with us. There is no doubt that she is united in prayer with our Eucharist this afternoon.

If you asked me for a single word to describe my friend Pat Douglas, the word would be healer. She joined a healing profession when she became a nurse. She embraced one of nursing's greatest therapeutic challenges when she specialized in psychiatric nursing. She devoted herself to emotional healing in her work as executive director of Catholic Family Services, our church counselling agency.

As a mother to her children, both in childhood and adulthood, she sought to be a healing presence.

In her service on the archdiocesan Advisory Council, she helped to heal those wounded by the Church and, indeed, helped to heal the Church itself.

And in later life, spiritual direction—the work of strengthening and healing wounded hearts—became her great interest. Our last conversation concerned her desire for further studies in this area.

By the way, I recall that conversation very well. Since I feel the effects of middle age rather keenly myself, and Pat was more than a dozen years older than I, when she talked about further studies I said something non-directive and encouraging. Something like "are you nuts?"

Pat was indeed very knowledgeable about the human person, about the human psyche.

But she was a Christian, not a Freudian. She believed that the greatest healer, the source of the deepest and most complete resolution of fear and sorrow, is Christ. To her, the person of Christ and his saving action was the source of the answers to life's crises.

If she were here, Pat would ask us to turn to this source in the face of our sorrow and confusion. A matter of fact woman in many ways, she would ask us bluntly: so what do you believe?

Perhaps we have heard the Christian story too often. (They say familiarity breeds contempt.) Have we, perhaps, lost the ability to apply the saving story of Christ's suffering, death and resurrection to our own circumstances? Every funeral is a chance to enter into this sacred story, which sustained our ancestors even in unspeakable sorrows.

Pat was convinced that it is—or can be—"the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction," as St. Paul says in the first chapter of Second Corinthians. She believed that "as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too."

But how does this happen? How does God comfort us? How does sharing in Christ's sufferings open the door to consolation?

St. Paul begins to answer these questions by telling us that we are children of God (and who is more ready to comfort than a parent?). But he goes a step further, and ties it all in with suffering. He says we are not only children but also heirs of God—and joint heirs with Christ "if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him."

St. Paul says that it's precisely in suffering that we are most closely connected to Jesus. He is already our fellow human being in his human nature; but we really become "one of the family" by sharing in his suffering.

Still, how does sharing with Jesus as an "heir" address our pain and suffering, except in giving it some extra dignity? Paul again: "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us."

There's the answer: what we inherit with Christ is the kingdom. What we share with him is his resurrection, his glory.

In other words, although there is no answer on earth that fully addresses all our losses, there is an answer in heaven that completely redeems them. Earthly pain, accepted in union with Christ, leads to eternal life. As one old Quaker saying has it, "no cross, no crown."

We have become so secular and immediate in our thinking, even our religious thinking, that we hesitate to look for the answer to life's biggest questions in the life to come. Even priests like to show how the Gospel brings answers and peace here and now (as it does, in many situations). But the big picture is the life to come, and without a lively sense of it we will never experience the full freedom that Christ came to bring.

And the number one freedom He won for us is freedom from the fear of death.
Pat knew all this, and lived all this, in a life that was not untroubled by suffering and pain. Her attraction to the Religious of the Cenacle was obviously connected to their apostolic work of spiritual direction. But I suspect it was rooted also in the foundress of the Cenacle Sisters, St. Therese Couderc, whose life is an outstanding example of free and humble acceptance of misunderstanding, suffering and anguish, through faith in the mystery of Christ.

You know, it isn't possible to speak of these things at every funeral. In some cases the congregation isn't ready to hear them; in some cases the person who died didn't believe them.

But today we mourn someone who did. Someone for whom Christian and Catholic faith opened the door to peace and healing. She would want it to do the same for us.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Called to Proclaim! (Sunday 5B)

Father Robert Barron from Chicago is fast becoming the new Fulton Sheen. Like the famous television preacher of the 1950s and 60s, Father Barron seems to be everywhere at once – on YouTube, on television, and writing books.

His specialty is in the details rather than in his delivery. He mines the Bible for gems—insights we could easily miss.

Father Barron is inspired by Origen of Alexandria, a third-century Father of the Church who compared the Bible to the Eucharist. Origen said that we must treat each word of the Scripture as reverently as we would a particle of the Host. Just as we're careful not to drop even a small piece of the consecrated Host, so we should make sure not a word of the sacred text falls to the ground.

This thought also inspired me as I wrote my homily this week. Unfortunately, it inspired me while I studied next week's readings by mistake. In any case, when I finally got on the right page, I read with special care, pretty much word by word.

When I did, I found one word that jumped off the page in today's Gospel: that word was proclaim. Even with people lined up outside his door, Jesus tells the apostles he needs to "to proclaim the message." Mark uses the verb twice.

The same word dominates our second reading. Paul says "woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel."

Think of the other things Jesus could have been doing: healing and casting out demons, for sure. Think of the other things Paul could have been doing: strengthening Christians, building community, solving problems. Yet both our Lord and St. Paul put proclaiming the Good News at the top of the list.

Today, both Jesus and Paul remind us that we're called to proclaim the Gospel—it's our duty. But Job, in our first reading, adds another motive—people are dying to hear the message. Human beings, Job says "have a hard service on earth." Life's not easy. Job's not the only one facing sleepless nights tormented by worry or by the fear of death. Life is short, and often life is hard.

Christ has the answer to Job's questions, and Christ has the answers to the questions of modern man.

Maybe, just maybe, at one time we could get away with saying that proclaiming the liberating and healing message of Christ was the duty of priests and sisters. There was a time when we seemed to have a good supply of both. But if it were ever true, it's not true now.

St. Paul puts it perfectly: "how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?"

The Apostle asked those questions in his Letter to the Romans, not in a letter to priests. And they're meant for us. How are people today going to believe in a Lord they've never heard of? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?"

The 'someone' is you. You, the fifteen year-old student at STA. You, the middle-aged dentist. You, the young mother of four. You, the assistant manager at Park Royal. You, the retiree, you, the medical student.

I can preach until I am blue in the face without reaching any of the people with whom you study, work or live… because they don't come to church, and unlike Bishop Sheen or Father Barron, I'm not on TV.

And with all due respect to St. Paul, I can't be "all things to all people." I'm not a woman; many of you are, though. I'm not young; but some of you are. I'm not rich, but some of you are; and I'm not elderly (yet!) but some of you are. It's you, the parishioners of Christ the Redeemer parish, who can actually be "all things to all people," and can proclaim the message in an effective way to the people the Lord puts in your path, rich and poor, old and young, male and female.

What does this say to us today? Surely it's a simple message. We need to make sharing the faith a priority in our lives.

The stunning success of our Alpha courses is proof of what I am saying. People came because friends, family members, and acquaintances asked them to come. And they came back because they found a warm welcome.

When so-called ordinary parishioners realize they are entrusted with a commission, great things happen.