Sunday, May 27, 2012

Pentecost: 'Stewardship Sunday'

I’ve just finished our annual priests’ retreat. This year’s retreat master was Father Tom Rosica; as many of you know, he runs our homegrown Catholic television network, Salt+Light. He’s also an expert on the New Testament, so he gave us lots to think about.

As I prepared today’s homily, what first came to mind wasn’t what Father Tom said about the Bible, but something he said about TV. He mentioned that you can’t have too many wide-angle shots when you’re making a program or film: it gets boring. To tell the story you need not only the wide-angle lens, but also an intermediate and a zoom lens.

We can use these three “lenses” to look at Pentecost today. We need to look at the big picture—the panoramic view of the Church, born of the Spirit. We also look at the narrower view—the gifts God gave to the Church so it could do his work. And then we can zoom right in—on ourselves, gathered in this parish church on Pentecost, our Stewardship Sunday.

The Acts of the Apostles is the perfect place to start, not at the beginning of today’s first reading but with a wide angle view of that first Pentecost. Halfway through these eleven verses of Acts the story moves from the Upper Room to a public square in Jerusalem. We might even say it moves from the Church—the apostles and disciples, gathered with Mary as the Holy Spirit descends on them—to the world.

It’s easy to see how the story shifts from the Church to the world: St. Luke, the author of Acts, lists the languages that the crowd is speaking.  He tells us where they come from: this is no local crowd, but a multitude that represents the whole world. It’s the widest of wide-angle shots. The Spirit has not come in order to stay put; God is speaking his Word to everyone.

How does he speak to everyone? Through the Church he has created by his will and power. We see this “big picture” when every member of the multinational crowd hears the mighty works of God proclaimed in his or her own language. That public square offers a panorama of Pentecost and the Church.

We use the intermediate lens as we focus on today’s Gospel reading. Jesus sends the disciples out now that they have received the gift of the Spirit. They are sent by Jesus, just as he was sent by the Father.

And he gives them what they need for this mission. Jesus gives the apostles the power to forgive sins—authority to act in his name—while the first half of our reading from Acts show how Christ kept his promise to send the Spirit to those he loved and called. We see the Church born by God’s own breath, a mighty wind that breathes life into the Church much like the Spirit of God blew over the face of the waters at the creation of the world.

There’s the big picture: a Church as big as the world, called to make disciples of all nations. There’s the intermediate scene: a Church given the same mission as Jesus, a mission of mercy, and the tools to accomplish it.

But let’s move the camera in closer, zooming back to the Upper Room. There we see something remarkable: tongues of flame over the heads of each one present. Not a ball of fire in the middle of the room, but individual flames above them all.

That’s the close-up shot of Pentecost. It’s not only about the birth of the Church and the power granted to her shepherds; it’s about each and every individual Christian, called to mission by baptism and confirmation.

Let’s zoom in on each one here this morning. You’re “in the frame” of any film about Pentecost; and you’re not an extra but a key actor, no matter who you are. As Pope John Paul said in Toronto in 2002, “even a tiny flame lifts the heavy lid of night.”

Fortunately, each of us is part of a much bigger picture. On our retreat, Father Rosica pointed out that the Church is how God chooses to keep promises and dispense blessings. We’re a part of the Church, agents of that agency through which God keeps his promises—to us and to others.

But the fact is that we each have a role to play. There’s an invisible tongue of fire resting on everyone in church this morning; each of us has gifts, and each of us is called.

Pope Benedict put it wonderfully during the vigil at World Youth Day in Sydney: “Let us invoke the Holy Spirit: He is the artisan of God’s works. Let His gifts shape you! Just as the Church travels the same journey with all humanity, so too you are called to exercise the Spirit’s gifts amidst the ups and downs of your daily life. Let your faith mature through your studies, work, sport, music and art. Let it be sustained by the Sacraments… In accepting the power of the Holy Spirit you too can transform your families, communities and nations. Set free the gifts!”

“Set free the gifts!” These words help us to zoom in on ourselves at this precise moment. Because after Mass today each and every one here has a chance to put their gifts to work in the service of the Church.

Our Stewardship Fair, which takes place immediately after each Mass today, is a panorama of the opportunities for service and stewardship in our parish. It has been organized with enormous care so that it will challenge and inspire you.

There are some who may want to skip the walk through the gym. ‘I’m busy enough, I’m doing enough, I can’t manage more.’ Maybe so: but take the walk anyway just to lift your spirits—because the wind of Pentecost, the breath of God, is blowing in our parish, and men and women from many nations are hearing what God has to say.

But that powerful wind isn’t blowing at random. It’s blowing directly on you, at you. St. Paul couldn’t make it any clearer: “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”

The golf course up the hill offers a social membership: you can join the club, but not play golf. But there are no social members of the Church. We’re all called, and we’re all chosen.

Take the time today to thank God for giving you his Spirit in baptism and confirmation. And as you walk through the gym (or as you simply think about your talents and opportunities, if you’re reading this on the blog) ask God to show you how he’d like you to serve him with the particular gifts of the Spirit he has activated in your life.

Set free your gifts!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Christian Joy: Easter 6B (Mother’s Day)

I avoid telling old jokes. Recycled humour can be tiresome.

Still, sometimes it's tempting to recycle a classic just because it fits so well. And today I couldn't resist.

The newly –ordained Father Mulcahy was giving his first homily on Mother's Day, and he was very anxious about it. The wise old pastor offered him some advice: mix some humour and some suspense, be sure to mention your mother, and you'll have a great sermon.

"How do I do that?" the young priest asked.

"I'll tell you how," said the pastor. "Use this old story and you'll have a guaranteed hit. Begin '"I spent the best years of my life in the arms of another man's wife!"  And when the congregation gasps, you add "She was my mother!"

Sunday morning, a very nervous Father Mulcahy began to preach. He started with, "I spent the best years of my life in the arms of another man's wife."

Right on cue, the congregation gasped. The priest paused dramatically. But just as he did, his mind went blank. So after a few stunned moments he looked up and said, "I just can't remember who she was!"

Even a vintage joke deserves a good laugh this Sunday—because Jesus is offering us joy. And not just any kind of joy—his own joy. He tells the disciples "I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete."

Let's zoom in on these words. St. John places them in the middle of a long farewell speech to the disciples, following the Last Supper. The end is near, and Jesus has a lot to say. He tells the disciples not to let their hearts be troubled, and to have faith in him. He tells them to keep his commandments, and promises them the Holy Spirit. And he presents himself as the true vine, to which the faithful disciple must be attached like a branch.

Those are the things Jesus has said so that his joy may be in us. Through faith, obedience and the gift of the Spirit, we can have joy: not ordinary joy, but something different—something better.

I tend to think of joy as a feeling. Something good happens to me, so I feel joyful. The problem is: something bad happens to me, and the joy is gone. That can't be what Jesus means. Joy that depends on circumstances, joy that vanishes when things go wrong, can't really be what Jesus means; it sure can't be called "complete."

What is Christian joy, then?

The answer is easy to find if we just jump ahead one chapter in John's Gospel, where Jesus again speaks of joy. He makes it easy to distinguish between what we ordinarily call joy and what he means by joy. His joy, Jesus says, is a joy no-one can take from you.

There's the first difference. If I'm walking down the street thinking joyful thoughts on a sunny day, and someone calls me on my cell phone to complain about last Sunday's homily, the joyful feelings vanish before the call is over. But Christian joy does not depend on other people, but on our unity with Christ—on abiding with him in friendship and intimacy.

Jesus also says that our pain and sorrow will turn into joy. That's completely different from human joy; it's a million miles away from pain and sorrow. But the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus are the perfect proof of a joy that comes not from smooth sailing but from the transformation and redemption of suffering.

Christian joy, most certainly, does not depend on good health or good fortune, but on faith that Christ has conquered everything that can truly harm or oppress us. Christians don't find their joy in passing circumstances but in trusting God in all things, at all times. As St. Paul says, "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say 'rejoice'!"

I can almost hear you saying "easier said than done!" Fair enough. I'm the first to admit that living in joy isn't effortless. In fact, it's a project, even a lifetime project. Christian joy comes from a basic attitude by which we are fundamentally attuned to the self-giving of Christ. [See The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality, v. "joy."]

In other words, to have the joy of Jesus, we need the heart of Jesus. We need to think and act as he did.
But don't let that scare you off. The Gospel this morning teaches us two ways to do this, and so to acquire the joy he wants us to have

First, giving leads to receiving. Service brings joy. Are you miserable at the moment? Find a way to love.

Some years ago, my friend Father Benedict Groeschel wrote a book called Arise From Darkness: What to Do When Life Doesn't Make Sense. His final chapter is titled "The Remedy that Always Works." Here's what it says to people who are living in pain and sorrow:

…we find it all too appealing to step back into the cave of self-pity and lick our wounds… but it is absolutely unhelpful and flies in the face of both the example and the words of Christ. …The first step in time of distress is to go back to your duties – to care for those who depend on you… The next step is to respond to the special needs of those who are desperate or in grief themselves [147-149].

Simply put: Service is a straight path to Christian joy.

And joy, of course, shapes our service: a "principal aim of the Christian life is to serve God and neighbour joyfully" and "every activity and relationship in service of God and neighbour shares in a joyful quality." [The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality, 578]

The second way we have the joy of Jesus is to know the love of the Father as he did. We abide in God's love through prayer and faithful discipleship. In the Christian life, God himself "is the supreme joy and the greatest delight" [ibid.] 

In a word, love brings joy—love of God, and love of neighbour.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Love in Action (Easter 5B)

 We launched Project Advance, our annual archdiocesan (and parish) fundraising campaign on Sunday, so my homily was very brief--we showed this video before Mass, which cut into the time for a homily! Since it is a such a short reflection (Saturday's First Holy Communion homily is below), I thought I might belatedly post the homily from a couple of weeks back.  Technical glitches kept me from doing so then. So the homily for the Third Sunday of Easter is out of sequence.

Sometimes being a Christian seems like hard work. Do this, don’t do that. And whatever you do, make sure to use your envelopes! 

Today’s readings give us a very different picture. Certainly there was hard work involved, but the early Church grew “in the comfort of the Holy Spirit.” Don’t you just love that phrase?

And the Gospel offers an equally consoling word. Abide in me, Jesus says. Stay with me and I’ll stay with you.  At our First Communion celebration yesterday, I used the words that the future Pope Benedict prayed at his own First Communion: “I always want to stay with you,” he told the Lord, “but most of all, you stay with me.”

Jesus answers that prayer for all of us in today’s Gospel.  He says, “Of course. Stay with me and I’ll stay with you. Always.”

But what does it mean to stay with Jesus? St. John puts it simply: “Love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

As disciples of Jesus, we love Jesus and we follow his command to love others. The Church is not what’s sometimes called a “talking shop.” It is a place of concrete commitments.

To deepen our love for Jesus, we spend time with him in prayer each day. We read the Scriptures; we celebrate the sacraments and so on.

Our prayer life, and our personal relationship with the Lord, moves us to act. We boldly tell others about Jesus, as St. Paul did and as many of you are doing by inviting friends and family to the Alpha course. We love one another, as St. John says in the second reading, and this unites with others and with God.

God’s word today calls us to live our Christian lives in truth and action.

Certainly your support for Project Advance is important and valuable: it is love in action, here in the parish and throughout the whole Archdiocese

But all the good we do must be rooted in the true vine of which we are the branches. We have to get to know Jesus to stay connected to him and to really make a difference. To bear good and lasting fruit, we must be people of prayer – offering God the first fruits of our time.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Meeting Jesus on Sunday: Easter 3B

 We launch Project Advance, our annual archdiocesan (and parish) fundraising campaign this Sunday, so my homily will be very brief--we show this video before Mass, which cuts into the time for a homily! So since I'm not posting the Sunday homily this week (Saturday's First Holy Communion homily is below), I thought I might belatedly post my homily from a couple of weeks back.  Technical glitches kept me from doing so then.

Pope Benedict turned 85 on Monday and celebrated his seventh anniversary as Pope on Thursday. Sounds like a busy week!

The Holy Father is no stranger to busyness. Alongside the many duties of his office, he managed to complete two books on Jesus, and he is at work on the third and final volume, which will deal with the childhood of Jesus.

Why, do you think, would someone who speaks to millions be writing these books? Don't the many homilies, speeches, and letters give the Pope more than enough opportunity to teach about Christ?

And why has Pope Benedict written these books unofficially? They are not formal papal teaching, but personal writings that do not demand the assent of the faithful.

A good answer to these questions can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which reminds us that the Creed "says nothing explicitly about the mysteries of Jesus' hidden or public life" [512] and that "Many things about Jesus of interest to human curiosity do not figure in the Gospels. Almost nothing is said about his hidden life at Nazareth, and even a great part of his public life is not recounted." [514]

This does not mean we cannot seek to understand more about Jesus than we read on the pages of the Gospels. What we believe about his Incarnation (that is, about his conception and birth) and the Paschal mystery (his passion, crucifixion, death, burial, descent into hell, resurrection and ascension) does "shed light on the whole of his earthly life."

To quote the Catechism again, "All that Jesus did and taught, from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven is to be seen in the light of the mysteries of Christmas and Easter." [512]

In other words, we have all that we need to know Jesus. At the end of his Gospel, St. John tells us that not once but twice. In John 20:30-31, we read "Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name." And in the very last words of his Gospel, John adds "there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written." [John 21:25}.

We have all that we need to know Jesus. But as the Pope's scholarly work reminds us, knowing Jesus isn't as simple as racing through the pages of the four Gospels. To know Jesus demands time and effort.

Who do you know very well? Your spouse, for sure, perhaps a few very close friends. How did you get that knowledge? Surely by spending time with the person, by long conversations, and maybe—in the days before texting—by reading and writing letters.

Very likely, you also listened to what others said about the person. Before you met, you'd heard people say "Susan is a lovely person" or "Jack is a real standup guy."

I spent some time on the internet while I was writing my homily, and I found a blog post written exactly a year ago today that makes this point very neatly: "Getting to know Jesus requires us to be around people who already know him and reading about him."

Today's Gospel shows this beautifully. In the first place, the disciples of Jesus are gathered together for mutual support when they get the glorious news of his appearance on the road to Emmaus. They hear from others about Jesus and then they see Jesus himself!

Christians simply must gather if they are to meet the Lord. Of course he will not stand in front of us as he did that first Easter Sunday; but he will make himself known to us "in the breaking of the bread," in the Eucharist that we celebrate every Sunday.

We must gather if we're to hear the testimony of others. To be strengthened by the experience of others. We come together to share our hopes and joys but—like the disciples—we share our fears and worries and even our doubts.

As the Catechism says, "the Sunday celebration of the Lord's Day and his Eucharist is at the heart of the Church's life." [2177] And that heart beats weekly, not monthly, not occasionally, not only at Christmas and Easter.

A year ago last week, at my Dad's funeral, I mentioned that people often tell me how blessed my parents are to have five children all regularly practicing the faith together with their families. I explained in the homily that there are a number of reasons for that, but none more important than the fact that our family never missed Sunday Mass.

A document from the Canadian bishops' conference reminds us that the Sunday assembly, linked from the beginning to the Resurrection, was "a standard feature not only of the apostolic age, but also of the centuries which followed. Christians would accept martyrdom rather than forsake common Sunday worship: 'We ought to be together,' wrote one early Christian. 'We cannot live without the Lord's meal; it is more important for us than life itself'."

Only by faithful participation in Sunday Mass can we be sure that Jesus will make himself known to us in the breaking of the bread.

Here we should note that "at every Mass the liturgy of the Word of God precedes the liturgy of the Eucharist in the unity of the two 'tables', the table of the Word and the table of the Bread," as Pope John Paul wrote in 2004.

At Mass, we break the bread that is Christ's Body, but we also break open the Word that reveals him and makes him known.

In today's Gospel we see that even Jesus—even the Risen Lord himself—points the disciples to the Bible. I hadn't noticed before how unusual this is. Imagine meeting someone risen from the dead, and he or she started quoting from his biography!

But this is what Jesus does. "He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures."

How important the Scriptures must if we want to know and understand Christ in his mysteries, since the Lord himself took that route—first on the road to Emmaus, and again in this appearance in Jerusalem.

Small wonder that St. Jerome warned that ignorance of Scripture was ignorance of Christ.

If the 85 year-old Pope can find the time to write books about Jesus, we—for all our busyness, amidst all our concerns—should be able to find the time to read about him. The Pope's masterpieces are not light reading, but there are books about Jesus for every age and interest, not to mention the Bible itself, particularly the Gospels.

Our Alpha course, which continues Monday evening at 6:30, and in a shorter version Friday mornings at 9, is popular for many reasons, but mainly because it speaks so directly of Jesus. As I have said many times, Alpha is not a comprehensive course on Christian faith and certainly not on the Catholic Church; but it introduces Jesus, Jesus who stood before the apostles that first Easter day—Jesus who brings peace, calms fear, removes doubt, and makes himself known to those who seek him.

We "are witnesses of these things." Is there someone in your family, office, neighborhood or school with whom you could share this good news?

Friday, May 4, 2012

First Holy Communion

I love meeting with the First Communion and Confirmation classes to answer their questions. I visited with the grade two class at the school just yesterday, and I'll be in to see the PREP class in the next week or two.

 It's a lot of fun for me, and I think you kids enjoy it too—right?

Certainly you come up with some tough questions, and I have to work hard to come up with good answers.

But at least it's just us, sitting in the classroom. A few years ago, Pope Benedict did the same thing, only he was sitting in St. Peter's Square in front of tens of thousands of people. Talk about being on the hot seat!

The Holy Father was meeting with children who had received their First Communion during the year, and he let them ask questions just like I did…. Though I suspect he had better answers!

It's no surprise that some of the questions were the very same one you boys and girls ask me—especially the first one. A boy called Andrew asked Dear Pope, what are your memories of your First Communion day?

The Pope—who is a lot older than I am—answered "Of course I remember my First Communion day very well. It was a lovely Sunday in March 1936 [that's 76 years ago!] It was a sunny day [better weather?] … the church looked very beautiful, there was music.... There were so many beautiful things that I remember. There were about 30 of us, boys and girls from my little village …. 

"But at the heart of my joyful and beautiful memories is this one—I understood that Jesus had entered my heart—he had actually visited me. And with Jesus, God himself was with me. And I realized that this is a gift of love that is truly worth more than all the other things that life can give.

 "So on that day I was really filled with great joy, because Jesus came to me and I realized that a new stage in my life was beginning, I was 9 years old, I promised the Lord as best I could: "I always want to stay with you," and I prayed to him, "but most of all, you stay with me."

"So I went on living my life like that; thanks be to God, the Lord has always taken me by the hand and guided me, even in difficult situations.

"Thus, that day of my First Communion was the beginning of a journey made together [with Jesus]. I hope that for all of you too, your First Communion … will be the beginning of a lifelong friendship with Jesus, the beginning of a journey together, because in walking with Jesus we do well and life becomes good."

Another boy said [My teacher] told me that Jesus is present in the Eucharist. But how? I can't see him!

The Pope had a very good answer: "No, we cannot see him, but there are many things that we do not see but they exist and are essential.

 "For example: we do not see an electric current, yet we [know] that it exists; we see this microphone, that it is working, and we see lights. Therefore, we do not see the very deepest things, those that really sustain life and the world, but we can see and feel their effects. This is also true for electricity; we do not see the electric current but we see the light.

 "So it is with the Risen Lord: we do not see him with our eyes but we see that wherever Jesus is, people change, they improve. A greater capacity for peace, for reconciliation, [and so on] is created. Therefore, we do not see the Lord himself but we see the effects of the Lord: so we can understand that Jesus is present. And as I said, it is precisely the invisible things that are the [deepest] and most important. So let us go to meet this invisible but powerful Lord who helps us to live well."

Then a girl called Julia asked Your Holiness, everyone tells us that it is important to go to Mass on Sunday. We would gladly go, but often our parents do not take us because on Sundays they sleep. The parents of a friend of mine work in a store, and we often go to the country to visit our grandparents. Could you say something to them, to make them understand that it is important to go to Mass together on Sundays? 

Pope Benedict replied, "I would think so, of course, with great love and great respect for your parents, because they certainly have a lot to do. However, with a daughter's respect and love, you could say to them: 'Dear Mommy, dear Daddy, it is so important for us all, even for you, to meet Jesus. This encounter enriches us. It is an important element in our lives. Let's find a little time together, we can find an opportunity. Perhaps there is also a possibility where Grandma lives.'

"In brief, I would say, with great love and respect for your parents, I would tell them: 'Please understand that this is not only important for me … it is important for all of us. And it will be the light of Sunday for all our family.'

A boy named Alessandro asked What good does it do for our everyday life to go to Holy Mass and receive Communion?

The Pope answered "It centers life. We live amid so many things. And the people who do not go to church, do not know that it is precisely Jesus they lack. But they feel that something is missing in their lives. If God is absent from my life, if Jesus is absent from my life, a guide, an essential friend is missing, even an important joy for life, the strength to grow … and mature as a human being."

I think the Pope said some wonderful things to those children in Rome, don't you? But at the end of their beautiful meeting he said "I can only find one word [to say]: thank you.

"Thank you for this feast of faith," he said.

"Thank you for this meeting with each other and with Jesus. And thank you, it goes without saying, to all those who made this celebration possible: to the parents, the teachers, the priests, to you all."

Do you think I could say it better? I really can't go wrong by using the Pope's own words.

But I suggest you use them too. Memorize the simple prayer of that 9 year-old boy who grew up to be Pope. Make his words a memory of your First Holy Communion. Pray to Jesus "I always want to stay with you, but most of all, you stay with me."