Sunday, April 29, 2012

Good Shepherd Sunday (Easter 4B)

I've just got back from a meeting on the permanent diaconate on Long Island. On Thursday night, we were bused into New York City to see the memorial at the site of the World Trade Center that honours those who died in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

The memorial is two massive fountains on the exact spots where the twin towers stood. The names of each of the 2,977 who perished have been engraved around the fountains.

[Here is a video I took of one of the fountains. As I prayed the Office of the Dead there,  two texts  helped me find meaning in its design: "Deep is calling on deep, in the roar of waters: your torrents and all your waves swept over me" from Psalm 42, and "death and Sheol will be cast into the fiery lake" from Rev. 20.]

The death of each man, woman and child—one of the 9/11 victims was an unborn child—was an enormous tragedy. But as I read name after name I was struck by this thought: the dead were not only those who were in the towers when the planes crashed into them: 411 of the names were those of emergency workers who entered afterwards.

According to Wikipedia, The New York City Fire Department lost 341 firefighters and 2 paramedics. The New York City Police Department lost 23 officers. The Port Authority Police Department lost 37 officers. Eight emergency medical technicians and paramedics from private emergency medical services units were killed."

The deacon who led our group around the memorial found the name of his young cousin, a New York City policeman. Of course I already knew of the bravery and heroism of many who died, including one priest, but what amazed me about the story of the deacon's cousin was where he was when he died: on the 31st floor.

Think about that for a moment. We've heard a lot about the sinking of the Titanic in the past few weeks, and about the courage of those who went down with the ship to allow others a place on the lifeboats, including three priests.

But a policeman climbing to the 31st floor of that burning building was like someone actually boarding the Titanic to save others.

In the words of this morning's Gospel, it was like someone laying down his life.

In today's Gospel, Jesus presents himself as the Good Shepherd. But it is not a sentimental image of Jesus surrounded by little white lambs; it is a startling icon of his surrender even to death. If there are lambs in the picture, they are stained with blood.

How forcefully the Gospel makes this point: five times Jesus says that he lays down his life—freely, of his own accord. In case we miss his meaning, the Lord prophesizes his Resurrection, when by his own power he is restored to the life he had laid down for his sheep.

I didn't mention the policeman and the other brave first-responders on 9/11 just to get your attention at the beginning of this homily. These heroes speak to us of the place of self-sacrifice in the human drama. They remind us that the self-giving of Jesus is the model of Christian living for all his disciples.

For only a few will this mean the literal choice to die for others. Yet every Christian is called—I might dare to say 'commanded', the word the Gospel uses—to imitate Jesus and lay down our lives for others.

It is true for married people, for parents, for single people, priests, sisters, and brothers. We are all called to obey joyfully what Blessed John Paul called "the Law of the Gift," which he said "presents a summary of the whole truth about man and woman."

A key source of this insight was the Vatican II declaration on the Church in the Modern World, often known by its Latin title Gaudium et spes. The council taught that the human person, "the only creature earth whom God willed for its own sake, can attain its full identity only in sincere self-giving."

Married, single, priest or lay: only in sincere self-giving can we attain our full identity.
Only in laying down our life do we receive it fully.

The easiest way to understand this is in marriage—because most married people know this truth from experience. They know that finding a husband or a wife means losing something of yourself—"me first" must become "me second" (and when children comes along, you might even come dead last).

No matter how independent and footloose a man or woman has been before marriage, their own plans, dreams, and preferences become subordinated to the good of the spouse and children. How they spend their time and money and how they order daily life is no longer a private matter; as the theologian Edward Sri has pointed out. The family becomes the primary reference point for everything.

I once preached a homily at a wedding that warned against the 50/50 rule, where the husband puts 50 per cent into the marriage and the wife 50 per cent. It's a formula for failure, because the "law of the gift" demands 100 per cent from each.

It's rare nowadays, but marriage has even demanded that some literally lay down their lives. Fifty years ago yesterday, a young doctor in Milan died during childbirth. During her very dangerous pregnancy, she had said "If you must decide between me and the child, do not hesitate: choose the child—I insist on it. Save him".
On the morning of April 28, 1962, the mother died. She was 39 years old. Today the Church venerates her as St. Gianna Beretta Molla.

The law of the gift may be obvious for married people and parents, but what about single people? The law of the gift applies to them too. Many, many years ago my mother told me very simply that unmarried people who do not devote themselves to the good of others will become self-centered and odd. (I think she had a particular neighbour in mind!) We were created in the image and likeness of God, and God gives himself freely; so must everyone. 

If you are not planning to marry, start thinking now about the best way to lay down your life. One common way we've seen this done in our society is when unmarried people dedicate themselves to the good of their nieces and nephews; I know many examples of selfless and generous aunts. We also know unmarried people who become mothers and fathers in their parishes, nurturing the faith of others and strengthening the community.

It should come as no surprise that celibate priests are bound to obey the law of the gift. Configured to the Good Shepherd not only through baptism but also through ordination, we have a very special call to lay down our lives for the flock entrusted to our care. Archbishop Carney used to warn priests against celibacy becoming a comfortable bachelorhood. The law of the gift means that celibacy demands much more of priests than remaining unmarried.

I spend hours wondering and worrying about the shortage of priests, and about how to encourage vocations among the many wonderful young people in the parish. I'm so happy in my own vocation that I think young men should take one look at me and head directly to the seminary!

But it doesn't work that way. Our young men will go to the seminary when they are ready to imitate not me, but the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. They will go to the seminary in response to the call to seek out the lost, and to surrender their personal plans and ambitions into the hands of the Father.

Most of what I have said this morning—not only about priesthood but about every state in life-could seem daunting. Isn't it human nature to hold on to ourselves, not to hand ourselves over?

Of course it is, which is why the "law of the gift" is not a natural law. It's a supernatural law, and we obey it only with God's help

There's a reason why we read the Gospel about the Good Shepherd during the Easter season. Without the fact of Easter, we would know only half the story. To lay down your life is a noble thing, as so many stories from September 11 and throughout history record. But to take it up again? This only makes sense in light of the Resurrection.

Indeed, the law of the gift depends on the Resurrection. We give in the knowledge that we will receive. We lay down our lives, knowing that God will return them to us.

As we think about this today, each one of us might ask how well we are responding to the Father's command to lay down our lives. Do we put family first? Do we help others-especially those outside of Christ's flock—to hear the Shepherd's voice? Do we priests give up personal freedom to be available whenever we are needed? Do single people have a conscious focus outside of their own wants and needs?

None of us is a hired hand. Baptism has called us to be first responders to a world in crisis, in ways both dramatic and ordinary, both in daily life and in the big choices we make.

A note: I had some technical problems posting last week's homily. I'll post it sometime during the week in case anyone is keeping track!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Easter in Action: Easter 2

Our beautiful Easter celebration got off to a rocky start this year.

On Holy Saturday morning I walked into the church to find Amina, the very dedicated parishioner who looks after decorating the sanctuary, looking like a Canuck fan last Friday night.

When I asked what the matter was, she lamented that only one or two of the Easter lilies had opened up.

Somehow she was going to have to make the church look beautiful with only one decent-looking lily; all the others were as tightly closed as a bed of oysters.

But "God works for good in all things." First of all, Amina figured out how to work around her disappointment, and the church looked just wonderful.

Secondly, the lilies chose to open up just in time for Helen Minshull's funeral, making the sanctuary a glorious symbol of the resurrection for all who mourned her.

And finally, the near-miss with the flowers inspired my homily today. The fact that the church looks even more festive today than it did last Sunday makes a very important point: Easter is just the beginning.

A week after Easter, each of us should in one way or another have opened up in the light of Christ; we should be blooming with faith.

The liturgy today shows us Easter in action. Although Christ's rising from the dead is still front and center, all three readings show its impact. We see the difference the resurrection made in the lives of the disciples, and we're challenged to ask "What difference is it making in mine?'

In our first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, the members of the early Church community have become radically committed to one another, and to caring for the poor. The Apostles—those same men who wavered during Christ's Passion and who took some convincing after His resurrection—are now preaching "with great power."

And what are they preaching? The resurrection.

In our second reading, we see how faith in Christ brings two things: commitment and confidence. Those who believe obey the commandments: they are committed. And those who believe have a solid hope of victory: they are confident.

The power of faith is so great that commitment and confidence come fairly easily. The commandments "are not burdensome," St. John says. And echoing St. Paul, he calls us conquerors, people who do not fear even when the world is lined up against us.

In the Gospel today, St. John recounts the second appearance of Jesus after the resurrection. Again, we see Easter in action—it's only the evening of that first Easter, and already all kinds of things are changing for the disciples.

For one thing, Jesus brings peace. Twice he says "peace be with you," as if once wasn't enough for his frightened friends. But they take no convincing and rejoice right away—for could there be a greater or surer pledge of peace than the sight of the Risen Lord?

Then things get quite astonishing. The disciples haven't even caught their breath before Jesus puts them to work! Talk about Easter in action—immediately they are sent out on mission, and empowered with the Holy Spirit.

At least we've had a week to think about it.

So here's the big question: have we been thinking about it? Have we been asking what God wants us to do, in light of our faith in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead?

In simpler words, how have we decided to put Easter into action?

Obviously there are all kinds of answers to this question, including the witness we give with our lives. Some of you may have a very personal answer: perhaps you've decided to visit your evil step-sister in Montana, the one who always put you down but who is now old and sick. Perhaps you decided to drop the lawsuit against your ignorant neighbours, the ones who never returned your lawnmower.

But for many of us, the question involves giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. The Father sent Him, and now he sends us; it's a fact of Christian life. We'll be hearing about our call to share the good news of Christ from now to Pentecost and beyond.

How will we do this?

Today's bulletin gives every single one of us concrete opportunities to put Easter into action.

For some, there are opportunities to share your faith. For others, there's an invitation to deepen it "so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God" so that "you may have life in his name."

The number one faith opportunity announced in the bulletin is the next Alpha Course. As you know, we just finished an Alpha Course, and when members of the team proposed starting all over again I thought I was hearing things.

Actually, I was hearing things—I was hearing the voice of the Spirit speaking to parishioners who are now convinced that spreading the Gospel isn't an optional extra for Christians: it's at the very heart of who we are.

So here's a challenge. Will you invite someone to Alpha tomorrow night? That's about as concrete as challenges come. Invite them and bring them. And know why you're doing it: to give your testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, like the first disciples.

Your guest may be a family member who has stopped going to church, or a neighbour who has expressed some interest. It might be a non-Catholic spouse or friend.

If you just can't think of someone, or if someone turns you down, will you consider helping with the cooking and hosting of this next Alpha course? That too is Easter in action, and a testimony of faith.

Alpha is delightful—both the video presentations and the splendid meals were a huge hit—but it's not really a course for active Catholics. It's for those who need to start at the beginning. If you come, bring someone as the price of admission.

Having said that, there may be some folks in church today who really feel a need to return to the basics of Christian faith; you, of course, are most welcome.

For others, the bulletin offers faith formation for almost every age group. There are notices about the Junior Youth Group for elementary school students, and about tonight's "Life Night" for high schoolers. Both these groups are energetic evenings of faith and friendship, with no small amount of fun.

Tonight Life Teen will take a look at the Holy Spirit in the Church; it follows the five o'clock Mass and includes dinner. Any secondary school student is warmly welcome.

Our group for young adult men also includes dinner, and has its next meeting a week from Thursday. Our guest speaker is the Archbishop of Ottawa, the scripture scholar Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, who will be joined for the evening by our own Archbishop Miller.

The young women's group is studying the role of women in the Church, and its next meeting is a week from Monday. Once again, all the information you need is in the bulletin, which also talks about stewardship, which is nothing more or less than Easter in action 365 days of the year.

Prayer, of course, is a response to the risen Lord, and the bulletin announces our annual "Forty Hours Devotion," the solemn exposition of the Blessed Sacrament for three full days at the end of the month.

There's more still in the bulletin about letting Easter change how we live—joining the Catholic Women's League is a response in faith, as is taking part in the March for Life next month.

We have an abundance of opportunities to put Easter in action… and a real shortage of excuses for missing out.


Sunday, April 8, 2012

Easter Morning Mass : Let’s Get Serious

Last night I baptized a young couple who are getting married in December. I also baptized the groom from a wedding I performed last summer. So I thought I'd start my Easter homily with a story about courtship.

A young man put his arm around his girl friend. "I adore you," he said. "I love you, I need you, I can't live without you."

She pushed him aside and said "Tommy, I don't want to get serious."

"Who's serious?" he replied.

In our personal relationships we do sometimes use language carelessly. There was another young man who wrote his girlfriend an impassioned love letter.

"Dearest Susan," he wrote. "I would swim the mighty ocean for one glance of your lovely eyes. I would walk through a wall of fire for one touch of your delicate hand. I would cross the deepest river, climb the highest mountain for a single word from your tender lips. With love, your faithful Arnold. P.S. See you Saturday if it doesn't snow."

I'm afraid that we can sometimes be a bit like those half-hearted Romeos when it comes to our relationship with God. We tell God we love him, but when push comes to shove, we don't want to get serious.

Fortunately, God is very, very serious about us. And he knows us very well. He knows we're weak and need constant help to stay focused and committed to our relationship with him. Through his Church, he gives us an annual opportunity to get back to the basics: every year we renew our baptismal promises at Easter, the heart of our faith.

We could, of course, renew our commitment to Christ any old time. But at Easter we do so with particular awareness of what baptism means—how it liberates from darkness, how it leads from death to life. With the Easter Alleluias ringing in our ears, we're not likely to forget that our baptism is a baptism into Christ's death, giving us a share in Christ's resurrection.

Today at Masses throughout the world, Christians will renew their baptismal vows and profess their baptismal faith. We get a chance to answer "I do" to the most important questions we'll ever be asked.

Over the centuries, baptism became routine in many cultures. In some countries, even today, almost everyone is a baptized Catholic. Baptism's just a given.

But it wasn't always so. The first Christians faced the hostility of their fellow Jews. For generations after that they were persecuted cruelly by the Roman emperors. To receive baptism was to accept the real possibility of martyrdom.

Later in history it wasn't baptism that cost men and women their lives or their livelihoods, but baptism in the Catholic Church. Persecution of Catholics was a very real fact of life for centuries in many European countries, and our fellow Catholics are dying as we speak in such places as Sudan and Iraq, and gravely discriminated against in China and elsewhere.

We are not in Sudan or Iraq or even in one of the Arabian states where baptism is a crime. But it takes courage to be baptized even in Canada—not physical courage, perhaps, but moral courage: the courage to be thought odd, out-of-step, old-fashioned.

And, for some, the courage to accept consequences. Many professionals will face increasing pressures in the coming years as law, politics, and medicine become more and more hostile to the serious Christian. The days of the comfortable pew are long gone, and the cost of discipleship is increasing by the day.

Can Christian faith really be worth the cost?

This morning's Gospel gives three answers to the question. First, faith in Christ gives hope to the hopeless.

Peter and John and Mary Magdalene enter the garden dejected and bereaved. They leave convinced, ready to proclaim "I have seen the Lord."

To meet the Lord, as Mary Magdalene did, to see Him risen from the dead, victor over the worst man could do, builds a fire within our hearts that cannot be quenched by hatred, hunger or disease.

Second, faith in Christ and in His Word gives us the promise of glory. Peter and John and Mary Magdalene invite us 'to see and to believe'—to understand the Scripture and its promises.

Jesus rose from the dead so that we might have the courage to be baptized into his death and thus share his life. "When Christ who is your life is revealed," St. Paul writes, "then you also will be revealed with him in glory."

Thirdly, faith conquers our deepest fear, the fear of death.

Jesus did not rise from the dead to prove a point; He did not rise from the dead to prove his enemies wrong. He rose that we might share His victory over death. Mary Magdalene arrived weeping inconsolably; she left with her tears wiped away by the Risen Lord.

Easter is about life, about victory, about freedom. Baptism is about life, about victory and about freedom. It is baptism that makes us an Easter people, dead to sin, alive to Jesus.

During Holy Week we celebrated the funeral of John Marshall, a pillar of our parish for many years. It could have been a very sad day, a dark day. But the family members filling the first three pews made it feel like Easter; the women had chose to dress in bright pastel colours, Easter colours; and the men were splendid in military and police dress uniforms.

In fact, almost the only man in the funeral party who wasn't in uniform was a WestJet pilot, who explained he couldn't wear his since he forgot to bring enough snack mix for everyone in church.

That is how people face death when they live in the truth of baptism. Easter for the baptized is not long-ago and far away; it is here, it is now: hope for the hopeless, a promise of glory, and victory over all that oppresses us, especially sin and death.

In a few moments you will have a special opportunity to renew your hope, to claim the promise, and to share in Christ's victory.

Brother and sisters, let's get serious. We have been raised with Christ in baptism. So let us "seek the things that are above, where Christ is"—this Easter day, and every day.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Easter Vigil: Catechumens, Candidates, and Everyone!

Dear Erin, Gina, Jen, Michael, Paolo, and Samantha,

It's going to be a long night! Yet the Missal says that the homily—even if brief—is not to be omitted tonight. I'm sure that rule was made mainly for your sake. You, who are about to be baptized, deserve some words of encouragement as you take the final step into a new life.

For my birthday, my mother took me to see the Wizard of Oz, with live music provided by the Vancouver Symphony. It might seem an unusual present for a man my age, but Mom knew that the annual appearance of the Wizard of Oz on TV was one of the central events of my childhood.

If you've seen this classic film, you know it begins in black and white. Only when Dorothy opens the door to Oz does it change into rich and vibrant colour.

However, we were the last kids on the block to have a colour TV, so we didn't get the benefit of Technicolor for some years. But it was a great movie even in black and white.

The liturgy tonight makes much of the passage from darkness to light. This may leave some of you wondering whether the Church thinks your life was black without baptism. I don't think that's the best way to look at it. Better we should see baptism as opening a door to beauties you have not seen, joys you have not imagined, and peace you have not felt.

The Resurrection of Jesus was almost too much for Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. They were alarmed. They were seized by terror and amazement. They were afraid. Not at all what you'd expect—but there was a reason. On that first Easter morning, there was no Church to help them take it in; there was yet no community of believers to help them sort out what had happened; since they were the first to hear the news, they had to figure out its meaning on their own.

Erin, Gina, Jen, Michael, Paolo, and Samantha, you will never need to be alarmed, or terrified, or afraid at the mighty works of God. We are here to help you take it in, to join you in faith, and to encourage you at every step of your walk as Christians. Amazed you may certainly be, but we are amazed along with you—amazed by God's goodness to you, and amazed by your generous response.

Carolyn, Matthew, Miranda and Suzanne, tonight three of you will enter into full communion with the Catholic Church; all four of you will then complete the sacraments of Christian initiation. Together with our six newly baptized, you will be confirmed and will receive Holy Communion for the first time. But before you celebrate these sacraments, you will recall and renew your own baptism and its central importance in your lives. In our second reading, St. Paul tells us that we are baptized precisely so we can share in His resurrection from the dead. And he spells out what this means: United to the death of Jesus by our baptism, we walk in newness of life.

You began a journey at baptism, and it's far from over. But a new and wonderful part of the journey begins tonight with these sacraments. They will help you to walk in newness of life every day from now until you inherit the life that never ends. And the Church will offer you roadmaps that not only help you to stay on the right path but also to avoid the potholes and pitfalls that may appear along the way.

And what about the rest of the congregation? Haven't I something to say to you?

No! Our brothers and sisters Erin, Gina, Jen, Michael, Paolo, Samantha, Carolyn, Matthew, Miranda and Suzanne are your homily. They are living and breathing reminders that Christ has risen and that He has risen in power. The resurrection is not just history—it is victory, victory that these men and women are claiming as their own.

When married couples go to a wedding, they often think about the day of their own marriage; when I attend an ordination to the priesthood, I recall mine.

Most of us were baptized as infants and so can't remember it; but all of us can see in the faces of our new Christians and Catholics the devotion of our First Communion and the zeal we felt at Confirmation. Their public commitment as adult converts should encourage us to renew our baptismal vows as if for the first time.

Tonight, become part of the action. Let what you see and hear during this solemn liturgy move you to a deep and personal response. With all your heart, "give thanks to the Lord for He is good;" celebrate His triumph and renew your own confidence, for we shall not die, but live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.


Friday, April 6, 2012

Why Good Friday is Good Indeed

Last Wednesday, a parishioner sent me an e-mail asking "Why is Good Friday called 'good'?

He'd have had a better chance of winning the lottery than getting a fast answer from me; Holy Week is just too busy.

So imagine my surprise when another parishioner called this morning to say there was a perfectly good reply to the question in today's Vancouver Sun! Pretty close to the last place I'd look for Christian truth.

But the fact is that the Sun hits the nail squarely on the head. After some interesting history about the name Good Friday, which isn't universal—it's called Mourning Day in German, for instance—the editorial says whatever its origin, and despite the solemn rituals marking this day, "Good Friday is, for Christians, good in every sense of the word."

"After all," the editorial says, "Christianity teaches that Christ's death is not a chance event. Rather, His death was preordained—He was sent to Earth to die for our sins and in so doing, He conquered death and redeemed humanity."

If that were all the newspaper had to say, I'd be very pleased. But there's more to the editorial, and it's even better: because it brings the goodness of Good Friday even closer to each of us.

Here's how it continues. "Christ therefore gave meaning to suffering and death: His sorrows were like a seed—a seed from which He was resurrected and from which a spiritually reborn humanity could flower."

Pure poetry, and the editorial writer adds something I didn't know: that "historically, Good Friday was thought to be a good day for planting seeds." Given the weather today, you gardeners may want to take note of that.

My dear friend Sister Josephine Carney likes to say that "memories are seeds of hope." This afternoon, the liturgy helps remember the terrible sufferings of Jesus. But it's not a history lesson: we are invited to find in his passion and death the seeds of our hope, the seeds that will sprout in the soil of our own sufferings.

The mystery we recall today does not belong only to history, but to this very moment. Blessed John Henry Newman wrote "the Atonement of Christ is not a thing at a distance, or like the sun standing above and separated from us… We are surrounded by an atmosphere and are in a medium, through which His warmth and light flow in upon us on every side."

We all know that seeds cannot flower without sun. In some ways, our Good Friday liturgy is somber, even dark. Yet even in this commemoration of the Lord's death, warmth and light flow in upon us. This is why we dare to offer more prayers of petition today than at any other liturgy of the year—ten solemn intercessions for every imaginable need.

Why do we receive the Eucharist on Good Friday, a day when Mass is not offered? I think it is so that we do not lose touch, even for a moment, with the love that surrounds us, the love in which we exist at all times. The Eucharist makes present the incarnate and crucified Lord, and the risen Lord. Today, and every day, let us remember that—in joy and, especially, in sorrow.