Monday, November 26, 2012

Sharing His Mission (Christ the King.B)

I have a good friend—we’ll call him Father James—who comes from an old aristocratic family in Britain. So he wasn’t nervous when one of his parishioners invited him to dinner with the Queen.

But perhaps he should have paid a bit more attention to royal protocol, which prescribes that no-one leaves a party before the Queen does. Once Father James had finished his dessert, he politely explained to Her Majesty that he had the early Mass, and said good night.

A few centuries ago, that kind of mistake might have cost a priest his head, or at least given him some time to think it over in a royal dungeon. Nowadays, I am sure Her Majesty takes it in her stride.

Most of us don’t have to worry about meeting the Queen, but all of us must meet the King of the Universe whom we celebrate today.  We will, of course, be face to face with Jesus Christ when He comes in judgment—on this feast day last year we heard the parable of the Shepherd-King separating people on his right and on his left.

But we are also called to meet the Lord here and now. In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us in that those who love him will keep his word, and that the Father and he will make a home with them (Jn 14:23), and in the Book of Revelation he promises “if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Rv 3:20).

Each one of us, therefore, has a personal invitation to a royal audience. Although the King is a judge and surrenders nothing of his might and majesty, he calls us to an intimate encounter with him. That’s more than enough reason to rejoice today; but our King is not satisfied just to dine and dwell with us. He offers to make us royalty.

Here’s what he says, right after promising to live with us:  “To anyone who is victorious I will grant a place beside me on my throne” (Rv 3:21). Think about that: if we persevere in the battle against sin, we will be rewarded with a share in the Kingship of Christ—we will share his throne with him.

I’ve scarcely started my homily, and I want to stop. We could well spend the next ten minutes thinking about the nobility and dignity that Jesus grants to his faithful disciples. But we can’t stop here, because our second reading today contains an equally astonishing offer: we are called not only to share Christ’s throne, but also to share his priesthood.

We are, St. John tells us in the second reading, not only a kingdom but a kingdom of priests. We share not only in Christ’s kingship but also in his priesthood. As St. Peter writes, Christians are “a royal priesthood” called “to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

It all sounds very impressive—but what does this mean to us? What does it mean particularly to lay people, who don’t normally think of themselves as rulers and priests in the Church?

There’s a whole bookful of answers right in my hand. It’s Blessed John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation The Lay Members of Christ’s Faithful People, often known by its Latin title Christifideles Laici. Yesterday we were blessed with a visit to the parish by Abbot John Braganza of Westminster Abbey in Mission, who spent the whole day unpacking this remarkable document for an eager audience.

Father Abbot described the book—written by the Pope after the 1987 synod on the laity—as a real hidden treasure that needs to be much more widely known. (When he mentioned that no-one ever hears about it in church, his listeners nodded in agreement until I pointed out that I had spoken about it three times in the past year! That might help to explain why I am doing so again, but my real reason is that I agree completely with the Abbot: Christifideles Laici deserves more attention than it has received, here or elsewhere.)

If you asked me to describe the subject of this book in one sentence, I’d reply “What baptism calls us to be and to do.”

Blessed John Paul actually began his ministry as Pope by reminding us of the same central truth I’ve just been talking about. In his first homily, he spoke of the fact that everyone, the whole people of God, shares in the threefold mission of Christ—Priest, Prophet-Teacher, and King.

His apostolic exhortation, subtitled “On the Vocation and Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World,” is basically an attempt to spell out concretely what it means to share in this threefold mission.

Here’s an excellent example. What does it mean to share in the kingly mission of Christ? First of all, Blessed John Paul tells us, it means to spread Christ’s kingdom in history. As we begin “Catholics Come Home,” the Archdiocese’s bold effort at evangelization, we stand bravely beside our King as he advances into hostile territory with his message of peace and salvation.

Even more importantly, we exercise our kingship as Christians in the spiritual combat by which we seek to overcome in ourselves the kingdom of sin so that we are worthy to serve such a great Sovereign and our brothers and sisters in whom he is present.

Abbot John had more than four hours to present an outline of the lay calling yesterday. I have to be somewhat briefer this morning. So let me end by speaking of just one of the responsibilities that belong to you by virtue of your baptism and the share it gave you in Christ’s own mission.

Here it is in a nutshell: “The lay faithful are sharers in the priestly mission for which Jesus offered himself on the cross and continues to be offered in the celebration of the Eucharist for the glory of God and the salvation of humanity.”

The exhortation adds a quotation from Vatican II about the connection between the Eucharist and daily work, prayer, service, ordinary married and family life, and even sorrows and hardships.  The council taught that “During the celebration of the Eucharist these sacrifices are most lovingly offered to the Father along with the Lord’s body. Thus as worshippers whose every deed is holy, the lay faithful consecrate the world itself to God.”

Is this how we approach our Sunday Mass? As an opportunity to unite our weekly joys and sorrows to the perfect sacrifice of Christ? For that’s what the Church teaches—that’s what it means for the lay faithful to have a share in the priestly mission of Christ.

Sometimes practice and theory seem very far apart.  We come to Mass in a rush, we are distracted by our kids, and it all seems a long way from the Kingdom. Yet we must keep trying, week by week, to participate in the liturgy in a way that reflects our dignity as baptized persons given a royal, priestly and prophetic mission.

Here’s what Pope John Paul wrote about the parish: “It is necessary that in light of the faith all rediscover the true meaning of the parish, that is, the place where the very ‘mystery’ of the Church is present and at work”—even if at times it seems crowded or chaotic.

“The parish,” he taught, “is not principally a structure, a territory, or a building, but rather ‘the family of God, a fellowship afire with a unifying spirit,’ ‘a welcoming home,’ ‘the community of the faithful.”

He explains why all this theology we’re speaking about today matters so much: “Plainly and simply, the parish is founded on a theological reality because it is a Eucharistic community.”

The meeting room was beautifully decorated yesterday so that we could celebrate our parish feast day together after Mass today.  You could explain that in sociological terms: generous volunteers dedicated to a community of friends. You could distinguish very sharply between what’s going on here inside the church and what will take place afterwards. But you’d be wrong. It’s all about the Eucharist. The Eucharist is what our parish is for, and all the other good things we do flow directly from that.

On our parish feast day, we do well to reflect on the words of Pope Paul VI, who said that the parish has an indispensable mission of great importance: to create the basic community of Christian people; to initiate and gather them for the liturgy; to conserve and renew their faith; to serve as the school for teaching the saving message of Christ, and to put into practice humble charity for our brothers and sisters.

Not one of these good works is carried on at Christ the Redeemer by the priests alone, and many are carried on entirely by the lay members of the parish. But none of them will endure or be truly fruitful if we don’t continue to call each person to “that full, conscious, and active participation” at Mass “which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy.” (Vatican II, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 14)

I hope that I’ve shown, through the Scriptures and papal teaching, that “full, conscious, and active participation” is something deeply spiritual, rooted in the understanding of who we are and what we’re called to as baptized Christians. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore the more obvious signs of participation: singing, our responses at Mass, and our posture in church.

Christ the Redeemer parish welcomed the new Mass translations, and I think we have done a good job of learning the new texts. Soon those cards in the pews will disappear—they’re getting pretty shabby—and we will try to rely more on memory. At the same time, we have a long way to go with singing. Perhaps because of a shortage of hymnals, or for other reasons, only about one in three parishioners seem to open their mouths during the hymns.

(I thought of our own parish when I read an article that described the assembly at the closing Mass of the International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin as sitting quietly, “like anglers waiting for a fish to stir”!)

Our response to the sung parts of the Mass is certainly stronger than our hymn-singing, so we will try to emphasize that in the coming year, with the help of new music sheets.

There has also been a great response to the Church’s invitation for a reverent bow before receiving Holy Communion; it’s a simple gesture, but it can prevent us from going to Communion in an absent-minded way. Our parish is far better than most when it comes to people standing during Mass instead of taking a pew, but the ministers of welcome will begin working a bit harder to remind people that we are a family, and like most families we sit together when we celebrate.

The number one reason why we must enter fully and deeply into the mystery of the Mass is very clear: it’s our call, our duty and our privilege as members of Christ’s royal priesthood. But let’s not forget an important reason for active outward participation: Catholics Come Home.

Here is a scary thought: how you celebrate Mass will soon be as important a means of evangelization in this parish as how I celebrate Mass.  If someone “comes home” to Christ the Redeemer will he or she find people to the left and right who are singing and responding with joy and conviction? Will he or she admire the reverence of those in the pew ahead, and the seriousness of the servers and readers?

Next Sunday begins a new liturgical year.  It’s a perfect time to take stock of how we participate in the liturgy, and to resolve to enter more deeply into the mysteries we celebrate as we worship Christ, our Lord and King.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Christ and His Church Are All About Salvation

My homily this week amounts to little more than a plea to the congregation to take the time to read Cardinal Timothy Dolan's column in this week's edition of his archdiocesan paper, Catholic New York. The ebullient archbishop has hit the ball right out of Yankee Stadium. A very prominent lay evangelist e-mailed me that he could hear the "voice of the Apostles" in this remarkable reflection on the Church and salvation. So rather than share my own thoughts with you, I'm offering you the Cardinal's below. It's a bracing reminder of some very basic truths.

by Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan

We spent a lot of time at the Synod on the New Evangelization in Rome talking about salvation.

On the one hand, I guess this should not shock us, since Jesus came as our Savior, offering us the “good news” of eternal salvation.

However, on the other hand, this is a surprise, because, as some Synod participants have chillingly observed, the Church rarely, if ever, speaks of salvation these days, since most of us today presume it, or don’t think we even need it!

hink about that…why do we need this New Evangelization at all? I suppose because our own faith has grown listless; or because we lost it all together! Why has it grown lax, or been lost? Because we don’t think we need it! We don’t need Jesus or His Church because we don’t need what He has come to give: life everlasting or salvation. “I came that they may have life, and life to the fullest.”

Jesus and his Church are all about salvation, the salvation of souls.

Why in the world would anybody not want the eternal life offered by Jesus and His Church?

Either because we think we can get it on our own—in other words, that we can save ourselves (which is the ancient heresy of “Pelagianism”)—or because it’s so cheap that we think we’re already assured of it, and hardly need any help from Jesus or His Church.

I bring all this up not only because it was a hot topic on the floor of the Synod, but because the month of November invites us to think about eternal salvation.

God wants us all to be saved, so passionately that He sent His only begotten Son to be our savior, sharing with us eternal life, earning our salvation by His death and resurrection.

However, when Jesus was asked if only a few would be saved, he didn’t reassure us that, don’t worry, almost everyone would make it, but rather: “Try your hardest to enter by the narrow door, because, I tell you, many will try to enter and will not succeed.” (Lk. 13:23-24)

On another occasion he made it clear: “Enter by the narrow gate, since the road that leads to destruction is wide and spacious, and many take it; but it is a narrow gate and a hard road that leads to life and only a few find it.” (Mt. 7:13-14)

We know Jesus wasn’t happy about this situation. We knew he wept when he considered the destiny of those who persisted on the wide road. (Lk. 19:41)

He is so eager to show us mercy, but first we need to recognize our need for mercy, and humble ourselves to receive it, asking forgiveness, and dedicating ourselves to following Him in His Church.

So, we need to recover this somber reality, because we act today like everyone automatically and immediately goes right to heaven.

No, we don’t. God our Father forces His salvation on nobody. We can turn Him down. I’m afraid a lot of us do.

To accept His invitation to salvation means…guess what? Accepting Jesus in and through His Church.
Yes, it’s true that Vatican II teaches that it’s possible, under certain conditions, to be saved without hearing the gospel, but it also clearly teaches (Lumen Gentium, 16) that these conditions are not often met, and that “very often” human beings close their hearts to the grace of God, influenced by the culture, its lies, and our own sin.

A couple of months ago, when I was consulting people about this whole concept of the New Evangelization, a shrewd and successful marketing specialist commented, “You got to decide what your product is! You in the Church are supposed to be salesmen! Well, just what are you selling? If people need your ‘product,’ they’ll come!”

The Church’s “product”—pardon the marketing vocabulary!—is a Person, Jesus, who is our Savior, who offers us eternal life!

The evangelical churches sure know this! The growing, vibrant parts of the Catholic Church in Africa and Asia certainly realize this! That’s why their churches are jammed.

But we here don’t! We shrug, no thanks! Who needs a savior? I don’t. I can save myself, thank you! Nor do I need the Church, the sacraments, or the mercy of Jesus, since I’m automatically assured of heaven. So, leave me alone…

November reminds us of the faithful departed: all the Saints in heaven (November 1); the souls in purgatory awaiting God’s final act of mercy (November 2); and those of us here on earth preparing for eternity.
And eternity is not a “sure thing”! It is a “sure thing” if we admit we need Jesus as our Savior, and live faithfully in His family, the Church.

We ignore the clear, cogent teaching of Jesus and His Church at our everlasting peril: at the moment of our death, we will stand before our eternal Judge, and heaven is not assured. This awesome experience will happen again when He comes again in glory at the end of time, the last judgment.

That’s the message of the Gospel, like it or not. As St. Francis observed, “Sometimes the Gospel makes me smile, but other times it makes me shiver.” That’s driven home this month of November, as we pray for the faithful departed and contemplate our own mortality.

All I know is this: I want to live forever! I want eternal life! I want to be saved! I want to get to heaven! I can’t do it by myself! I need a Savior! God the Father sent me one: his name is Jesus!

How do I meet Jesus? How do I share in His gift of eternal life? In and through the Church!

That’s the message of the Gospel; that’s the New Evangelization; that’s the invitation of November.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Solemnity of All Saints

Msgr. Jack Stewart and I worked together, off and on, for some twenty years. In all that time I never saw him commit a venial sin. Never a sign of impatience, an unkind word, a hint of self-indulgence.

For many of those years, despite his position as the vicar general of the archdiocese, he lived in a simple room at the back of a rather dilapidated rectory, cooking his meals in a well-used crock-pot. He was observably faithful to his prayers, diligent in his priestly duties, and a model of humble service in every way.

But he wasn't most people's idea of a saint--he could be long-winded and his personality was not dynamic, and much of his virtue was concealed from view. Nevertheless, he was holy to the core and in many ways heroic in both everyday life and in facing the challenges of cancer which claimed him at 75.

Remembering Msgr. Stewart on this great feast of All Saints, makes me think of four things. The first is the universal call to holiness--the important fact that every one of us, whether priest or lay, married or single, young or old, is called to live forever in heaven.

The second is that we can reach this goal just by living out the demands that life places before us. "Doing the daily" is an expression used to describe meeting our basic commitments to ourselves, others, and God. No-one needs special challenges to live their baptismal calling: daily duties, performed with charity and effort, form us as saints.

If holiness was a rare achievement, we wouldn't need a feast of All Saints!  We could fit them all on the Church calendar.

The third thing this day reminds us is that the saints weren't perfect. Sometimes their lives give the impression of that, but there's nowhere in our Catholic tradition that says saints never sinned. All I said about Msgr. Stewart was that I never saw him sin--I didn't say he never sinned, and I certainly saw his slow style tempt others to commit a sin or two! If you think that holiness equals perfection, you'll quickly become discouraged and abandon any plans of becoming a saint yourself.

Finally, today we celebrate the friendship of the saints. While we try to be friends of the canonized men and women whom we most admire, very rarely have we met them (although I had the privilege of meeting two recent Blesseds, Pope John Paul and Mother Teresa).  But we've all met the unsung saints on our journey through life, and we can truly feel their closeness and experience our communion with them.

Both the example and the intercession of all the saints are great sources of Christian hope and joy, and we're blessed to have this annual reminder of the place they have in our lives. In the wonderful words of the great English writer Msgr. Ronald Knox, "When you look out on a November evening, and see the sky all studded with stars, think of those innumerable saints in heaven, all ready to help you."