Sunday, October 28, 2012

Same Question--Different Answers (Sunday 30.B)

Man Alive

The name given to our first-ever Archdiocesan Men’s Conference was Man Alive! Those words come from St. Irenaeus, who said that the glory of God is man fully alive. And it really was a glorious day, with more than a thousand men being called to the fullness of Christian life in the Catholic Church.

The speakers were exceptional, except for one small problem: they talked a lot about football. At one point I leaned over to a like-minded guy beside me and said “Don’t worry: we’ll find someone later who can tell us what a wide receiver is.”

Despite my lack of savvy about football, I do know what it means to drop the ball. And that’s just what I did last Sunday.

At Mass last week I read the short version of the Gospel, as permitted by the Lectionary. It seemed the obvious thing since we were showing a video and had long announcements.

But it was a big mistake. Because the long version threw a touchdown pass all the way from last Sunday to today, and I fumbled it.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus asks the blind man “What do you want me to do for you?” An interesting question—but it becomes twice as interesting when we realize Jesus asked the very same question to James and John in last week’s Gospel, almost word for word.

Same question—different answers. And there’s a lesson for all of us.

James and John are disciples; they’re insiders who have walked and talked with Jesus for many months. Bartimaeus is a total outsider. He didn’t have any connection to Jesus or the apostles, or else he wouldn’t have needed to shout to get their attention.

All three come to Jesus with a request, but what they want and how they ask for it are completely different.

The disciples make a pious request. It’s ambitious, sure, but it’s nice and religious; they might even have thought Jesus would be pleased by what they ask: In your glory, let one of us sit at your right hand and the other at your left.

Bartimaeus’ plea isn’t pious—it’s pressing; it’s personal. I tried to find a nice way of saying it came from his gut, but I couldn’t. Rabbi, let me see again! He’s not strategic, like James and John, he’s desperate. But he’s the one, not the two disciples, who gets his prayer answered.

Every parish has a mixture of disciples and outsiders, of apostles and beggars, of James and Johns, and sons and daughters of Timeus. Some of us pray “Lord, let me get elected to the Parish Council,” while others pray in near-despair “Let me see again.” (Actually, no-one prays to get elected to the Parish Council, but you get my point.)

Christ’s “yes” to Bartimaeus tells us that this blind beggar is our model. For one thing, his words, “Son of David,” tell us to start with what we know. Bartimaeus doesn’t know Jesus as the Messiah, doesn’t know much in fact—so he calls out to him as “Son of David,” because that’s as much as he knows. Jesus doesn’t need us to be theologically precise before we pray to him.

Secondly, the son of Timaeus doesn’t hold back. He’s willing to let people know he needs help. He’s willing to let Jesus know he needs help by shouting out. One of the great obstacles to growth in faith is the fear of what others may think. Go ahead: worry about what others may think—but don’t expect a cure for your blindness.

Bartimaeus is also a spectacular example of an eager reaction to the Lord’s calls. The translation we use says he “sprang up.” That’s unnecessarily fancy language: he jumped up! He leapt to his feet! He got moving.

Note carefully: conventional piety is not the reason for this enthusiasm. Bartimaeus isn’t thinking “Oh boy, here’s my chance for heaven.” What he desires and expects is sight, the possibility of becoming a whole man. He throws off his cloak, he jumps and runs to Jesus in anticipation of the freedom that only sight can give him.

Of course the physical healing is a sign, not the main story. The blind beggar is given the new eyes of faith, and that makes him a new man. He can see the road ahead and walk it alongside Jesus.

The men who attended the conference yesterday had a special chance to throw off the cloaks of fear and doubt and sin and to tell Jesus what they need him to do for them. But today Jesus is asking every one of us “What do you want me to do for you?”

Is there any kind of “blindness” or “lameness” we need healed? Maybe it’s just that our spiritual vision is a bit blurry. What’s our most urgent need—our most desperate desire?

Today, let’s pray for the men who attended Man Alive! But pray too for yourself and for the members of your families and our parish, that we may recognize our blindness, hear Jesus calling, and throw away whatever holds us back from following him on the way.


The Archdiocese is launching an ambitious media campaign called Catholics Come Home, and we have a second collection for that cause today. Today we showed one of the television commercials that will be used. It’s harder-hitting than the one we showed last week, but it will invite some viewers—and maybe some of us —to cry out “Son of David, have mercy on me.”

Sunday, October 7, 2012

"Philip" Weighs In!

In my homily below, I mention "Philip," a young man from the parish who is struggling with belonging to the Church. He read the homily--which I wrote with his permission--and sent me a long and thoughtful response that shows he continues to reflect seriously on the spiritual life.

Somewhat to my surprise, he did not take issue with what I said about faith. Here's part of what he wrote:

"As youth, I think we are sometimes plagued by our influences to see faith as a place of don'ts, and one of the reasons I loved the faith as much as I did was because I saw it as a place of do's. Do ask questions. Do seek guidance. Do see the people around you. Do thank those who give. Do be the one to give. Do something good and never let anyone know."

And he added,  "I agree, faith is morality and marriage, faith is do's and don'ts, faith is everything."

Philip reminded me
that in our final conversation he'd said that one of the reasons he stopped coming to Mass was that  "the gifts offered to me by faith I can find in the people I surround myself with." He still finds this to be true, but told me I should assure the youth in the parish that "if it works one way, it certainly can work in the other."

I respect his sincerity, and am very grateful for his openness and honesty with me, and I can't help but hear the words Jesus spoke to the rich young man: "You are not far from the kingdom of God."

But you can be sure that during the Year of Faith I'll be praying that Philip--and many like him--discover that he can be nearer still by returning to the faith of the Church. I might even ask him to subject his inquiring mind and heart to a Catholics Come Home video or two! 


Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Faith INCLUDES the Plan (Sunday 27.B)


When I was appointed pastor of this parish, a friend told me somewhat sourly that I’d find very few young people here. Turned out he’d left the parish some time before, and he couldn’t have been more wrong. We have many youth and young adults at Christ the Redeemer, and they add a lot to our faith community.

One of those who stood out from the day I arrived was a young man I’ll call Philip. He was actively involved in the parish, reliable, intelligent and serious about the faith. On top of all that, he was a very pleasant and genuine person.

Then all of a sudden he wasn’t around anymore. He’d stopped coming to church.

In a parish this size, I can’t normally chase after the lost sheep, but I felt I needed to know what had happened in Philip’s life; maybe I, or someone else in the parish had offended him—I had no idea. So I asked if he’d come to see me. He was both gracious and respectful and came promptly for a visit. I didn’t beat around the bush.

“Philip, why have you stopped coming to church?”

His answer was simple but it was firm: because of Catholic teaching on homosexuality. He could not reconcile the Church’s teaching on this subject with his personal beliefs about the dignity and rights of individuals.

Note that he didn’t say it was because of how the Church treated some homosexual person he knew, or because he himself was such a person; nothing of the sort. Nor had he lost his faith in Christ. But he was unable to accept this specific teaching, and that prompted him to stop practicing the faith.

It was a sincere position that he had obviously spent some time thinking through.

Few things in the parish have bothered me more than losing Philip’s regular participation. And it bothers me particularly as we kick off the Year of Faith this week.  When Pope Benedict announced the Year in an apostolic letter called “The Door of Faith,”   he wrote that “to enter through that door is to set out on a journey that lasts a lifetime.”

But what interrupted that journey for Philip? I wonder whether it might have been more of a failure on the Church’s part than a failure on his.

Was he taught the faith in a way that emphasized it as a path to a full and abundant life? All too often we learn the faith as a series of moral prohibitions—do’s and don’ts, we often call them. It’s certainly true that faith makes demands and requires us to live in a certain way, but when it comes to Christian teaching on sexuality and marriage, it sometimes seemed like do’s and don’ts were all we got.

The person who changed all that for me was an Oblate priest, Father Joe Hattie. I’d known him some years before, but we bumped into each other in Rome in 1985 or so, when he was studying at the recently-opened John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and the Family.

His studies, under the direction of the Canadian Cardinal Edouard Gagnon, were not about prohibitions but about a vision of the human person—a grand vision, an inspiring vision—that originated at Creation, was described in our first reading today from the first book of the Bible, and then completed by Christ himself in the words we have just heard from the Gospel of Mark.

Since then, I have tried to grow in my understanding of the Creator’s plan for man and woman, and to at least glimpse the truths contained in Pope John Paul’s “theology of the body,” a profound meditation on the human person and human sexuality.

But it’s not easy! Do’s and don’ts can be spelled out in a few minutes; absorbing the complex plan of creation is a work that can take years. Jesus acknowledges how tough it is when he says that Moses allowed the Chosen People the option of divorce because they were just plain unwilling to accept the tough truth of God’s original plan.

Speaking of divorce—while Philip rebelled against Church teaching on same-sex issues, others have had to confront the hard teachings on divorce and remarriage. Here, I’d have to say, I have been more successful in convincing people that the teaching is God’s truth, however difficult it may be to live out.

Some of my favourite parishioners are people who divorced and remarried, or who married a divorced person. They accept, with personal pain, that this teaching isn’t a man-made rule but something that comes from the very words of Christ. Unable for various reasons to live fully in accord with what the Lord taught—and who of us manages that?—they abstain respectfully from the Eucharist and bear witness to the truth about marriage. Others are able, in the words of Blessed John Paul, to “take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence” and thus are able to receive the Eucharist without contradiction.

When I first saw the readings for Mass today, I admit I was disappointed.  At the beginning of the Year of Faith, I wanted to talk about faith, not about marriage or morality. Fortunately, our younger parishioners have taught me a new word—facepalm—so I knew just what to do! I facepalmed myself, because I realized that the Church’s faith includes everything I’m talking about.

The Year of Faith must be a year to celebrate the whole faith: the Blessed Trinity, our redemption in Christ, and the saving power of the Sacraments, for sure, but faith too in Christ and his teaching about marriage and sex, both in the words he spoke, such as those we’ve heard in the Gospel reading today, but also in the Word he speaks through the Church’s unbroken and unshaken Tradition, which has come down to us through the ages.

These teachings are not as central as the truths we profess in the Creed, but they are just as true. They come no less from Christ. They can no more be changed than any other Catholic teaching can be changed; they form part of the rock on which we stand.

Just as important, these tough teachings are life-giving. Eternal life, certainly, but also a better life on earth if we trust fully in the Author of creation even when our human judgement can’t quite figure out how he’s going to work things out.

Let’s pray this year for an increase in faith—for my young friend Philip, for those who struggle with difficult marital situations, and for all of us. Let’s remember throughout the year that as Catholics we place our faith not only in the written Word of God, but equally in “the Holy Spirit, who leads the Church across the centuries as we await the Lord’s glorious return.” (Apostolic Letter Porta Fidei, 1)