Sunday, July 29, 2012

Feeding More than 5000 (Sunday 17.B)

The London Olympics opened with a pastoral pageant celebrating Britain in song and dance. The filmmaker Danny Boyle had announced his plans to turn the stadium into a copy of a rural village, but the stunning scene was still something of a surprise.

What was no surprise was hearing the notes of “Jerusalem.”  The song, with words by the poet William Blake and music by Sir Hubert Parry, has become an unofficial national anthem in England, and it’s often heard at sporting events.

However obvious a choice, “Jerusalem” is still thought-provoking. Although its opening words:   “And did those feet in ancient time/Walk upon England’s mountains green”  fit perfectly with the lush landscape created in the Olympic Stadium, the next line “And was the holy Lamb of God/On England’s pleasant pastures seen!” draws attention to a Christian heritage increasingly forgotten in modern Britain.

The anthem also perfectly illustrated the contrast between the idealized England of old and its darker side, represented by excesses of the Industrial Revolution:  “And was Jerusalem builded here/Among these dark Satanic Mills?”

The Canadian painter William Kurelek would have heartily approved of the contrasts between the bright and beautiful and the dark and dismal. With deep conviction and glorious talent, he painted a vision of Canada and the world that embraced both.

His paintings of a prairie boy’s life enchanted me with their luminous depictions of a vast Canadian prairie and childhood innocence. In his book A Northern Nativity, Kurelek sets the birth of Jesus in a snowed-in chalet, a fisherman’s hut, a garage, a cow barn; the Holy Family finds refuge in a soup kitchen, a grain barn, and a country school. The Nativity never seemed nearer.

But there was more to the genius of William Kurelek. While he was painting these delightful images, he was painting what one art critic recently called “sermons of wrath for what he considered an ungodly world.” Grim, even terrifying canvasses showed the evils of abortion, nuclear war, and environmental destruction.

He painted as Blake wrote, seeing both the pleasant pastures and the modern equivalents of dark Satanic mills.

Kurelek struggled in his early life with mental illness, finding relief through art, and eventually by the whole-hearted embrace of faith. His profound Catholic faith eventually shaped totally his life and work.

Why so much about this painter today? First, because we are lucky enough to be able to see the largest exhibition of his work ever presented, and the first retrospective in 25 years for the cost of a ferry trip.  The Art Gallery of GreaterVictoria is showing “William Kurelek: The Messenger” until September 3, and it’s well worth the trip.

Second, because someone criticized my homily last week for being too short! With an introduction this long, I won’t have that problem today.

But most of all because many years ago Kurelek connected today’s Gospel to real life for me, and I never get tired of telling how he did it.

He was a parishioner of Corpus Christi Parish in Toronto, the church I attended when staying with my great aunt, and the church that my great grandparents had attended many years before. In 1977, the very year he died, he left it the precious legacy of a mural, about which I have preached many times.

Intended to surround the actual tabernacle, it is a vibrant depiction of a lakeside park and beach a few blocks from the church.  Parishioners are assembled in a long line, as the parish priests, vested for Mass, help Jesus to hand them bread from large baskets.

The faces of the priests were recognizable, even to me. The miracle of the loaves was not something historic for Kurelek; it was immediate and real. He believed we are living that miracle.

You can reach the same conclusion in the chapel of St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon, which I saw just a year or two ago. Kurelek uses a different scene – the background is the Saskatchewan plain rather than Lake Ontario, and Basilian teachers rather than parish priests help Jesus to feed the multitude.

But let's go back to that picture at Corpus Christi parish—a church named, of course, for the Body of Christ, prefigured in the feeding of the 5000. Imagine if Kurelek were at our parish today, and willing to paint our whitewashed walls.  It would be you and you and you and me in the painting. Would this not bring home a central truth of today’s Gospel? Jesus still feeds the hungry 2000 years later, still in such abundance that there is never a question of shortage and want.

But if this miracle is about ordinary human food, there’s something cruel about it. Because millions remain hungry, millions die for lack of what their bodies need. They are not fed today by a miraculous multiplication of loaves and fish. The Christian answer to that, which has to do with our willingness to share what we have, is something for another homily.

Today, the tragedy we must consider is for men and women to starve spiritually when this abundant bread from heaven is offered freely.

It would be outrageous if we had a storehouse of food and hungry neighbours. But it’s positively bizarre to have a storehouse of food and be starving ourselves.   The fact is that at every Mass we encounter God's extreme generosity and his desire to feed his people.

But the meal is clearly not like a Depression breadline, with sandwiches handed out as the poor file past. “Make the people sit down,” Jesus tells the disciples. Let them listen to me for a while so that they may look beyond the bread they eat and see the gift I am.

Today begins a series of readings from the Gospel of John that take us to the heart of the Eucharistic mystery.  It’s a privilege we get only every three years, and we must not waste it. For five Sundays in a row we have a special opportunity to deepen our love for Jesus in the Eucharist, to think about what we’re doing at Mass, and to sit down with hearts open to receive what Jesus wishes to give.

If Father Xavier and I, together with an unknown bearded man in robes and sandals, led you down to Ambleside and began to feed you from bottomless baskets, we wouldn’t need William Kurelek to paint us; even our cynical newspapers and television would be taking the pictures of a modern miracle.

But there’s something greater in church this morning. There are countless ways to describe it, but I will close with the succinct words of St. Thomas Aquinas: “O sacred banquet, in which Christ is received, the memory of his Passion is renewed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory to us is given.”

Sunday, July 15, 2012

New Bishop, Old Challenges

A priest friend of mine in Ireland called yesterday to tell me that a priest friend of mine in Edmonton had been named a bishop. Who says the Church isn’t universal!

The news meant that I had bishops on my mind as I started to work on my homily. Of course it’s not much of a jump from the call of the humble prophet Amos to the appointment of bishops, who at least to me seem to get younger all the time. And the sending-out of the apostles in today’s Gospel makes us think of their successors.

Although in some ways the office of a bishop today seems very different than the mission of an Old Testament prophet or the work of the twelve Apostles, in essential ways it remains the same. There are scholarly bishops and simple bishops, quiet and outspoken bishops, friendly and gruff bishops, but all of them have this in common: a call to preach the truth.

In fact, an older bishop once told me the fundamental qualification to be a bishop was a willingness to suffer for the truth.

Amos is a great role model for bishops. Poor Amos is a “bad news” prophet. God does not ask him to make people comfortable but to disturb them with his message. His preaching was “radical,” which is to say he cut to the roots of Israel’s life.  There was nothing superficial about it.

At the same time, Amos did not have his head in the clouds, preaching an impossible dream. One scholar says that “Amos accepted the reality of historical changes” and “had political and international affairs at his finger tips.” Like Amos, a bishop must wisely adapt God’s Word to present circumstances, while preserving it faithfully.

Amos challenged and criticized his community, but he was no mere hothead. He didn’t throw out the baby out with the bath water. Despite his fiery style, he was rooted “in Israel’s traditional institutions and memories.” Even though he denounced those who worshiped insincerely, he respected liturgy and knew its importance. In this, too, he serves as a model of a prophetic bishop. (Carroll Stuhlmueller, "Amos," The Collegeville Bible Commentary, 487-495.)

He paid the price for his uncompromising preaching, much as many bishops have over the centuries and will continue to do in the future. We need to reflect long and hard on Cardinal George’s comment “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.”

Today's Gospel passage may seem less immediately connected to the ministry of bishops today. Yet it, too, is a model for their ministry. The cost of legal judgments, both just and unjust, has left many bishops almost as poor as the Apostles, and they need to imitate the trust the first bishops showed in Providence. 

They must proclaim a message of repentance—no more welcome today than two thousand years ago. And they must cast out demons by their leadership, and by their preaching and teaching—the demons of the modern world that threaten their flock each day.

Let us take our responsibility seriously when we pray for our bishopand all bishopsin the Eucharistic Prayer at Mass. But so that we don’t get too serious, let me end with the story of the prominent archbishop who visited New York for the first time.

When a reporter asked him “will you be visiting any nightclubs in New York” he decided to show his innocent character by replying “Are there any nightclubs in New York?” He realized the power of the media when the next day’s headline read “Archbishop’s first words: Are there any nightclubs in New York?”

So Bishop-elect Gregory Bittman has many challenges ahead of him. But God who “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” will provide all he needs, and more.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Michael and Michelle's Wedding

In preaching at this wedding I have the great advantage of knowing both the bride and the groom—Michelle as an active and valued parishioner here, and Michael, though belonging to Holy Cross Parish, as a regular member of our group for young men.

So I know what I’m talking about when I tell you that these readings you’ve just heard reflect beautifully the love and commitment you are gathered to witness today. I know that the Word of God has shaped their decision to marry, and will guide them each day of their married life.

I’m not sure, mind you, that they were quite as scriptural as the woman who fell in love with the man who always sat in the next pew on Sunday. After Mass one Sunday she told him she was going to get married, and when he asked who, she said to look it up in the Second Book of Samuel, chapter 12, verse 7.

When the fellow got home and checked the verse, he found the prophet Nathan's words to King David: “You are the man."

So how do the readings present the plan for marriage that Michelle and Michael are embracing before our eyes? Well, I’m sure I could get a sentimental sigh from most of you if I said “this is a marriage made in heaven.”

But that’s not how I’m going to answer. What I want to say is: “this is a marriage made for heaven.” And that’s a far more important thing.

At the wedding feast in Cana, Jesus changed water into wine. But that was less of a miracle than what he did to marriage: he changed a natural good into a supernatural good. Marriage, part of God’s plan for creation, became part of His plan for salvation.

Dear Michelle and Michael, I don’t think I’m putting words in your mouth when I tell the congregation that you would not be marrying each other unless you were convinced it was a path to heaven.

I’m quite sure that you chose the exquisite love poem from the Song of Songs not only to celebrate your love for each other, but to unite it to the love of the Lord that exalts human love and draws it into the divine. For how can we speak of love that can’t be quenched or drowned, except with a view to eternity?

Even the words of the Psalm, celebrating life in the home, point to the one blessing that has no end.

About six weeks ago I visited Lisieux, the home of St. Therese, sometimes called the Little Flower. I was not as moved as I’d hoped to be. The convent where she lived and died had been modernized, not particularly well, and her shrine didn’t really impress me all that much.

What stood out for me was the tomb of her parents, Louis and Zelie Martin, who were beatified by Pope Benedict in 2008. This couple had many difficulties and sorrows in their married life, and they lived in very difficult times, but they endured everything in one shared conviction: that God alone was their strength, and heaven alone was their goal. 

As an article in the current issue of Columbia magazine stated, “they centered themselves entirely on the promise of heaven.”

Michelle and Michael, I’m not going to suggest you do the same, because I think you’ve already made that decision. You have already heard Mary say to you “Do whatever he tells you.”

 Following her direction, today you are offering your love as water, to be turned into the wine of a covenant with God and one another that will lead you surely to the wedding feast that has no end.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Catholic Candeo!

Here's an important PS to the note at the end of my most recent post:

There is breaking news on Candeo, the on-line program for recovery from pornography and other uncontrolled sexual behavior! There appears to be a Catholic version of the Candeo program, called RECLAIM Sexual Health.

According to RECLAIM's website, it has the support of the Bishop of Green Bay and of two solid priests whom I have met and greatly respect.

This is encouraging news. Having a Catholic group partnering with Candeo should make it easier to connect our faith with this promising program. I haven't had time to check the website out, but I wanted to get the information out without delay.

Why haven't we heard more about this???

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Addiction and Grace (Sunday 14B)

My homily this week sounds like one of those "good news, bad news" jokes.

Except it isn't funny.

The bad news, in one word, is addiction. What does that word bring to your mind? Perhaps a heroine addict injecting himself in an alley off E. Hastings St. Perhaps someone curled up with withdrawal symptoms in a detox center.

Those are certainly faces of addiction. But they are just the most visible. Addiction is a hidden epidemic today. While only a small percentage of addicted people lose their lives, it costs millions the life they are meant to live. For Christians, addiction is an obstacle to the freedom that God wants for us.

 We have learned more than we wanted to know about the psychology and physiology of addiction in the last 25 years. When I entered the seminary, I knew of only two kinds of addictions: alcoholism and drug addiction. Not long before I was ordained, however, I heard about something called sex addiction, and shortly afterwards I heard about gambling addiction.

 This was a whole new world for me, but I thought it was just a way of excusing people's bad behavior – calling a sin an addiction seemed like a way to avoid responsibility for your actions.

I was wrong, wrong, wrong. The reason I refused to accept that uncontrolled gambling and sexual behavior could be addictions was because I thought all addictions had to have a chemical basis. Well, I was right and wrong at the same time. I still believe that all addictions have some chemical basis; but now I believe you can be addicted to some of the chemicals your own body produces—chemicals connected to the way some people respond to gambling and many people respond to pornography.

 In short, there's a whole lot of brain chemistry behind these modern addictions, which is what makes them such a terrible threat, particularly to the young.

In his book Addiction and Grace, the psychiatrist Gerald May defines addiction as any compulsive, habitual behavior that limits human freedom. He points out that the word "behavior" is very important in this definition, because it indicates that action is essential to addiction. Addiction isn't about attraction to something, it's about attachment to something.

 Dr. May also lists five characteristics of addiction: tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, self-deception, loss of willpower, and distortion of attention. In other words, we always want or need more of the addictive behavior to feel satisfied, we experience stress or backlash when we stop, we let our minds play tricks to rationalize the behavior, we find it very difficult to keep our resolutions to stop it, and the addiction consumes energy that belongs somewhere else.

Add that up and you can easily say: well, I don't have those problems so my problem behavior is not an addiction. Perhaps—but don't discount the power of that third characteristic, self-deception.

 So let me put the bad news as boldly as I can: many more of us have one or more addictions than we care to admit, even to ourselves. Dr. May even claims that "to be alive is to be addicted." I don't agree with that judgment, but I am deeply convinced that the epidemic of addiction, particularly to pornography, is real and dangerous; I also think that there are lots of other behaviors that rob us of the freedom God wants us to have.

 There's the bad news. The good news is that I only quoted half of Gerald May's statement. The whole sentence reads "To be alive is to be addicted, and to be alive and addicted is to stand in need of grace."

Grace is the good news. That's what St. Paul told the Corinthians in today's second reading. God's grace is sufficient—for everyone, addicts included. No thorn in the flesh is more powerful than God.

Even more exciting: it appears that God is particularly generous with His grace when we need it most and deserve it least: "power is made perfect in weakness."

The most successful programs to overcome serious addictions use the Twelve Steps developed by Alcoholics Anonymous in 1939. Those time-tested principles are based on the belief that recovery begins with admitting we are powerless over our addiction—just what St. Paul suggests.

What's more, grace is also at the heart of the Twelve Steps. Those seeking recovery not only admit they are powerless, they also acknowledge that God is powerful—more powerful than any addiction.

This is particularly good news for the Christian, because knowing you are powerless and that God is not happens to be good medicine for the soul, not just the body. The man or woman who is powerless over alcohol, or drugs, or pornography, or promiscuity, or gambling, or overeating stands at the door of an effective spiritual life—a spiritual life that is real and practical, and rooted in the truth about who we are and who God is.

As a practical conclusion, I encourage any parishioner who wants more information on this crucial topic to come and see me or Father Xavier, or to check below for some links. There's a lot to learn about the brain science of addiction, and there are some new and hope-filled resources available in addition to various support groups. Willpower is almost never enough: if you want to be set free, you need advice, support and information.

St. Paul makes the starting point very clear: if you want to be strong, start by admitting you are weak. In God's own time you will discover His grace is enough for you, and that His power can set you free.

Gerald May's book Addiction and Grace is still in print and may be ordered from a booskeller or online at  Chapters/Indigo or Amazon. is a science-based website that seems to be quite compatible with Catholic teaching about human sexuality, though I am guessing that the good folks who run it are probably Mormons. It provides education and support through the internet at a cost of about $50 a month. is the same program broadened to include substance abuse and other problems

Dominican Father Emmerich Vogt offers many resources that connect Christian faith to addiction recovery through the Twelve Step Review website.  His recorded lectures "The Spirituality of the Twelve Steps" and "Detaching with Love" are particularly helpful and can be ordered on-line.

The Twelve Step Review homepage also offers links to the websites of such 12-step programs as Alcoholics Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and Overeaters Anonymous; almost all have groups meeting in the Vancouver area and can be tracked down through Google or the telephone directory.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

God did not make death (Sunday 13B)

Yesterday I celebrated the funeral of one young woman and the wedding of another. And now today the Church asks me to preach on death—on Canada Day, when there are a dozen happier things I'd rather talk about.

I was even tempted to skip over the first reading and the Gospel, and preach about the second reading. Since St. Paul is asking the community to be more generous to the collection, I wouldn't have minded focusing on that!

But I recalled the words from the Anglican funeral service: "In the midst of life we are in death." Besides, I found I couldn't take my eyes off the words "God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living." I think most of us disagree with that sentence in one with in one way or another, at one time or another.

Haven't you heard people say things like "God must have wanted that child very much to take her so soon"? Don't we more or less blame God when someone we love dies?And even if you see the holes in that argument, haven't you wondered why prayers often don't work when someone is dying?

If that weren't difficult enough for us, Jesus seems to confuse matters by raising the dead—notably the daughter of Jairus in today's Gospel and his friend Lazarus in St. John's Gospel.

Speaking of Lazarus, I think we have to remember that story if we are to properly understand today's miracle. Do you remember what Jesus does before he brings Lazarus back to life?

He cries! Think about it—the Saviour weeps. Those tears of Jesus speak more than any words about his tender love, about the fact that God is not—as some would have it—a distant figure on Mount Olympus, unconcerned with human suffering and death. Let's not look first to theology in order to understand how God loves us: look at the tear-stained face of our Lord.

It always seemed unlikely to me that Jesus wept merely in sorrow over the death of Lazarus and the bereavement of Martha and Mary. After all, he knew he would soon restore the dead man to life. I think he wept for all of us whose lives must be marred by the reality of death, a consequence of original sin.
He wept for all those whose faith is not strong enough to find hope in the midst of death, who fear it to be the final end of existence.

In this Gospel, Jesus shows his compassion and his power by raising a little girl. But look what he does afterwards—he ordered them strictly that no-one should know about it.

Jesus knew what could happen if he became famous as the man who could end every sorrow and cure every ill. Faith would no longer be a relationship of love and obedience; it would be a simple act of self-interest. For who wouldn't want to find the way to solve life's greatest problem: just call Jesus, and our beloved dead will get up and walk.

But that's exactly the point: Jesus did solve life's greatest problem, but he did it by rising from the dead and winning eternal life for us. He conquered death, but he did not make it disappear from the earth.

The writer Tertullian, a Father of the Church, tied all this together back in the fourth century. Tertullian begins with the same fact we're wrestling with this morning: that the age of miracles is over, whether we think of the events of the Old Testament or the raising of the dead in the New. He tackles the question of why our prayers don't seem to work the way they did for Jairus, and for Martha and Mary.

Here's what he said: In ancient times, "prayer was able to rescue from fire and beasts and hunger—even before it received its perfection from Christ. How much greater then is the power of Christian prayer. No longer does prayer bring an angel of comfort to the heart of a fiery furnace, or close up the mouths of lions, or transport to the hungry food from the fields. But it gives the armour of patience to those who suffer, who feel pain, who are distressed.

"Prayer's only art is to call back the souls of the dead from the very journey into death, to give strength to the weak, to heal the sick, to free the innocent from their chains. Prayer cleanses from sin, drives away temptations, stamps out persecutions, comforts the fainthearted, gives new strength to the courageous, calms the waves, lifts up the fallen, sustains those who stand firm."

Seen in this light, Jesus is always at work among those who turn to him—and does something ultimately more powerful than raising a little girl from death. For after all, the daughter of Jairus, like Lazarus too, had one day to face death again. But those whom Jesus saves today are free forever. The tender love of God gives us life that never ends.

When we experience bereavement, it's natural to think God was asleep at the switch. Remember what Martha said when Lazarus died: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."
Jesus is here; and death has lost its stranglehold forever. God takes no delight in death, and is not the author of death.

Perhaps there are more cheerful things to think about this Canada Day, but there is nothing more important.