Sunday, July 28, 2013

Teach us to pray! (17.C)

There’s a letter to the editor in this morning’s Province from a man who boasts that he’s never said the Our Father. And that’s just fine with me.

Because the popularity of the Our Father as the one prayer everyone knows is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it’s good that even non-churchgoers have a common prayer to say at weddings and funerals.

Of course, as society gets more and more secular, even this won’t last. The other day I heard the story of a boy who challenged his friend "I bet you don't know the Lord's Prayer."

"I bet I do!" the friend replied.
"I bet you a dollar you don't."
"I bet you five dollars I do."
"Okay, let's hear it."
"Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take."
"All right, here's your five dollars. I didn't know you knew it."

In any event, there’s a danger that the prayer everyone knows can become the prayer none of us knows. We say it often, but we don’t always pray it.

And that’s a real problem, if we look closely at the Gospel this morning. The Lord’s Payer isn’t just one among many: it is the prayer Jesus gave the disciples in answer to the question “Lord teach us to pray.” This prayer is clearly of the greatest importance to anyone who takes prayer seriously, who takes Jesus seriously.

St. Augustine says “If you study all the prayers in Holy Scripture, you will find nothing that is not contained in the Lord’s Prayer.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “the prayer that comes to us from Jesus is truly unique: it is ‘of the Lord.’ On the one hand, in the words of this prayer the only Son gives us the words the Father gave him… On the other, as Word incarnate, he knows in his human heart the needs of his human brothers and sisters and reveals them to us: he is the model of our prayer.”

So how do we unlock the riches of the Our Father if we’ve become too familiar with it? How can it be the answer to our own desire to learn how to pray?

St. Ignatius of Loyola gives one very good answer. In his Spiritual Exercises, he suggests finding a quiet place for prayer, and beginning by saying the word “Father.” One then considers that word—pondering it in the heart, thinking it over in the head, for as long as it brings insights and peace.

When God seems to have given us all he has to offer, we move on to the next word or phrase, and stay with that in the same way. But if one word or phrase occupies our full attention, with fruitful thoughts and, we just stay with it the whole time allotted to prayer, feeling no anxiety to move on.

St. Ignatius proposes doing this for a whole hour. For most of us, that requires more time or patience than we have. But easily we could move through the words of Our Father in a week or two, spending ten to fifteen minutes a day.

This is not only a gentle and helpful way to pray: it can also permanently change our understanding of the Lord’s Prayer; we may never say it the same way again after we’ve meditated it once. Jesus can use this method to teach us how to pray, just as he taught his disciples.

More and more I find myself thinking that most problems of faith are really problems with prayer. I’m still thinking it through, but I wonder whether most of us aren’t saying “Lord, teach us to pray,” and whether our parish programs need to include more teaching on prayer.

Keep an eye on the Fall calendar; I think we’ll do something to respond to this need. But in the meantime, try and find the time during these wonderful summer days to pray the Our Father as St. Ignatius has suggested.

The stakes may be higher than you think. Last night Pope Francis told some two million young people “We need a church capable of rediscovering the maternal womb of mercy. Without mercy, we have little chance nowadays of becoming part of a world of ‘wounded’ persons in need of understanding, forgiveness and love.”

For where do we rediscover mercy if not in prayer, if not in the person and the words of the one who taught us to pray “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”?

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Christian Hospitality (16 C)

We have at least three parishioners who know the hospitality industry: a retired hotel manager, a hotel owner, and... me!

The building across the parking lot we call the rectory might just as well be called a small hotel. For many nights, our two guest rooms have been full. While I’m on retreat this week Father Xavier’s superior will be in my room since three of his Pallottine confreres are visiting at once. The day after they leave, we welcome two priests from Ireland.

Earlier in the summer, we’ve welcomed Vancouver priests taking a short break, speakers in the permanent diaconate program, a married priest and his wife, and even a monk on holiday.

With all this activity going on, it’s hard to miss one of the messages in today’s Gospel: hospitality is part of Christian life.

Certainly the story of Martha and Mary teaches us more important lessons, but when you compare it with the first reading it’s obvious that extending a welcome to our visitors is a source of great blessing.

The Letter to the Hebrews alludes to this morning’s first reading when it says “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” There are also three other places in the Old Testament where hospitality was offered to strangers who turned out to be angels (Gen. 19, Judg. 13:2-22, Tob. 12:1-22).

Right after Mass, I am driving down to Mount Angel Abbey for my annual retreat. At Mount Angel I am treated like a VIP, and not because the guestmaster thinks I might be an angel in disguise: St. Benedict taught his monks that all guests “are to be welcomed as Christ.” (RB 53:1)

The Rule of St. Benedict contains extensive direction for receiving guests, ensuring that they are both comfortable and honoured. Rather than quoting from today’s Scriptures, St. Benedict goes directly to Our Lord’s words “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

Welcoming guests at the rectory can be a demanding task, particularly on our devoted housekeeper. But she also is motivated by faith and not just a desire to please: on the kitchen wall she has the words of St. Benedict to encourage her.

You, the parishioners, also take part in this ministry of hospitality, since you pay for most of it! (I do bill the Archdiocese when we have guests involved in diaconate events.)

But I’ve highlighted this aspect of the readings today for a different reason: to remind all of us that we should see our summertime entertaining and our visiting friends in light of our faith. It’s not always easy to have company staying: Benjamin Franklin once said that guests are like fish—they start to spoil after three days.

It helps to realize that the cooking and cleaning and planning are not done just for social reasons. Let our guests be received as Christ; let our thoughtfulness and welcome be a means of evangelizing the unchurched or of supporting our brothers and sisters in the household of faith.

Jesus does not call this the better part; but it is a part, and an important one, of Christian living.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Focus on the Family: A Homily to the Regional Gathering of Couples for Christ

Last week, I had the privilege of celebrating the Eucharist at the North American Western conference of Couples for Christ--perhaps the largest group to whom I have ever preached!  The homily follows...

There was a time, not so long ago, when culture was a primary means for handing on the Catholic faith.

Unlike many of those attending this gathering of Couples for Christ, I was not born into a predominantly Catholic culture, but Canada was a Christian nation, for the most part its laws and customs were derived from the Judeo-Christian tradition. At the same time, there was a strong Catholic subculture in society, strengthened in part by the Catholic culture of the province of Qu├ębec.

I am not telling you anything you don't know when I say that the transmission of faith by culture is virtually extinct in this country. Even within Catholic homes and schools, the drumbeat of social consensus, expressed through the news and entertainment media, dominates the hearts and minds of the young.

I will not go so far as to say that the culture of death has triumphed in this nation, but it is certain that nothing resembling a Christian culture helps us transmit the faith today in Canada.

How then are we to pass on the faith, unaided by culture? How do we adapt to a changing reality – we who have been accustomed to the support of social consensus, moral laws, and the presence in our neighborhoods of many lively non-Catholic Christian communities?

Where do we start in a post-Christian culture?

One answer, perhaps the most obvious answer, emerges clearly from our first reading: the family.

In the face of famine, Jacob is taking his family away from the Promised Land and moving to Egypt. Egypt is precisely the anti-culture of the Chosen People, as we will see when we finish reading Genesis and open the Book of Exodus. Jacob—or Israel as he is now called—has established his family in a foreign culture, with values far from those of the God of his people.

How does Jacob respond to God’s invitation to go down to Egypt? Through the family—“the sons of Israel carried their father Jacob, their little ones, and their wives, in the wagons Pharaoh had sent to carry him.”

They entered Egypt, “Jacob and all his offspring with him, his sons, and his sons’ sons with him, his daughters, and his sons’ daughters; all his offspring he brought with him into Egypt.”

That small community kept Israel’s faith alive without help from the society in which it was placed until—as we read in the Book of Exodus—the society turned against it.

How does the plan of God continue to unfold? Not through culture—through the family.

Today’s Gospel reminds us, though, that the family, like culture, is not immune from the effects of sin. Sin has its effects in society, and sin has its effects in the family. God offers no guarantees, and the family can be a place of conflict and division—even a place where faith becomes a cause of division.

I don’t need to keep you from dinner by listing the signs of the decline of Western culture or the signs of weakness in the modern family. They are all too familiar, and they are not unrelated. But even our best efforts cannot transform society immediately; thus we must turn our attention squarely to our families and to the tasks of inoculating our children against the viruses of the culture of death.

When I was young, the basics of Christian morality could be assumed. Now the young must be convinced of virtually every point of even the natural law.

Faithful attendance at Sunday Mass, sending the kids to Catholic schools and the parish youth group were enough to produce, in most families, children who believed and practiced their faith. Today this is a formula for failure.

Now, we must defend our families like shepherds facing down wolves, like convicts in the dock speaking the truth to the powers and principalities.

Now we must, in a word, do more of exactly what you are doing in Couples for Christ.  You do not, in this movement, live a “business as usual” Catholicism. You have risen up in defense of the family, taking seriously the challenges of renewing and restoring the family according to the plan of Christ.

Couples for Christ responds courageously to Blessed John Paul’s call, made in his stirring exhortation on the family in the modern world, to live fully according by the Gospel and the faith of the Church, to form consciences according to Christian values and not according to the standards of public opinion and to make your families a true source of light and a leaven for other families (Familaris Consortio72).

The trip to Egypt was easier for Jacob than the Exodus was for Moses. But both journeys were in response to God’s direction and plan. Let us never give up our efforts to restore and renew society; but let us begin at home—with parents, sons and daughters, and the daughters and sons of our sons and daughters.

Let us not be afraid of this modern Egypt in which we live, because God himself has brought us here, and he will yet bring us where he wants us to go.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Who is MY neighbour? (15.C)

A man was going down Granville Street, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.

After two pious passers-by crossed the street and passed by the man, a tourist came along. When he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him in his car, brought him to a hotel, and took care of him.

The next day, the tourist gave the front desk his credit card and said “take care of him.”

Which of these three, do you think, was a true friend to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?

The answer is obvious—the two wretches who passed him by. At least they didn’t carry him off before the ambulance arrived.

My tongue in cheek version of the Parable of the Good Samaritan reminds us that we need to do some thinking before a 2,000 year old story can teach us how to act. Taken literally, the parable will just confuse us. In Canada the proper thing to do for a victim of crime is to call 911, not to carry him off to the hospital on the back of your donkey, or even in the backseat of your car.

Yet we know that Christ’s message is timeless, just like the command to love our neighbour. Modern social conditions haven’t changed the teaching, just how it is to be applied.

So what is the Lord saying to us today? Who is my neighbour, if not the man attacked and beaten?

Let me tell you a story. For a couple of months I’ve been hearing about something going on Sunday mornings at a nursing home in our parish. Last week I decided to see for myself.

What I saw was a teenager standing in front of a room full of elderly men and women. I knew the young man to be generous and gifted. But he’s a fairly quiet fellow, so I was quite unprepared for what else I saw: an entertainer who charmed his audience like a younger version of Michael Buble. Singing solo, accompanied by his mother on the piano, he had his elderly listeners tapping their toes and singing along to a lively mixture of show tunes and vintage love songs.

Shall I tell you who this young man was? Well, his first name was “Good,” and his last name was “Samaritan.”

In a simple but precise way, he and his mother had answered the question “Who is my neighbour?” They had helped to bandage the wounds of loneliness and the bruises of old age. With an engaging smile, the young performer showed mercy to men and women whom life has stripped of much they once possessed.

There are, of course, countless other Good Samaritans in our parish, including the dedicated members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society; they serve the poor of the inner city in a way that’s not all that different from the Samaritan’s kindness on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. They, too, have found their neighbours and shown them love and care.

But there’s a reason I highlighted the youthful crooner instead of our generous Vincentians, or the members of the Refugee Committee. The parishioners working on the Downtown East Side or caring for the Shaboo family no longer need to ask who their neighbour is. The rest of us, however, still have to come up with our own answer.

And the answer may not be obvious.

Who is my neighbour? To whom must I offer the compassion and mercy that the Samaritan showed to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?

Finding an answer to the question isn’t as tough as it sounds. Consider what Moses says in our first reading: “The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” If the Spirit of God lives in our hearts, and if we allow God’s word to dwell in us in all its richness, the concrete way i which we're called to live the law of love will become clear.

Put another way: if you are serious about loving God, God will soon enough show you whom and how to love. At least he will if you ask.

Often the beaten-up person we’re called to help is someone in our own family. Caring for sick and dying family members resembles closely the selfless ministry of the Good Samaritan.

I’m also struck by that word “mercy” in the Gospel text. It sometimes happens that what a family member or friend needs most is the healing oil of forgiveness.

Sometimes my neighbour will be… my neighbour, literally: an elderly person living alone next door and struggling to cope.

At the same time, we need to notice that the act of charity in the parable does not flow from any sort of relationship. In his encyclical on charity, Deus Caritas Est, Benedict XVI reminds us that at the time of Christ neighbours were countrymen and foreigners who had settled down in Israel: in other words, the local community. A Samaritan wasn’t part of that community, and he doesn’t know the man he helps. The parable certainly doesn’t exclude our actual neighbours, those with whom we share our lives, but it makes the world one big neighbourhood—something our parish understood when it became a neighbour to Iraqi refugees stranded in Syria.

I hear from time to time a bit of grumbling about the many charitable appeals the parish makes at Mass. Yet your generous response to these many needs is both an answer to the question “who is my neighbour,” and a sign that the love of God is strong in the hearts, souls and minds of the members of this Eucharistic community.

In Deus Caritas Est, Pope Emeritus Benedict summed up beautifully the connection between the Mass and caring for others. Our worship, he wrote, “includes the reality both of being loved and of loving others in turn. A Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented.”

You might think I stretched a point by comparing a sing-along at a care home to the Samaritan’s rescue along the roadside of a man beaten half to death. But there’s a detail about the sing-along I didn’t mention, and it completes the story: the young man and his mother, our modern good Samaritans, head over to their audience right after the 9 o’clock Mass.

You can say that’s convenient, but I say it’s no coincidence.

[The illustration above is from the cover of one of the volumes in "The Discipleship Series" by Christopher Ruff. These books offer an approach to Scripture study and faith formation that connects to service. With encouragement from the Archdiocese, our parish used the series in small groups a couple of years ago.]

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Why Seventy? (14C.2013)

“The number of the day” was a regular feature on “Sesame Street,” the educational TV program for children. The host for the segment was the well-named Count von Count.

I was born too late for “Sesame Street,” which is just as well, since my fear of numbers helped me end up as a priest rather than a doctor or anything else that required more than a passing grade in math and science—and I am really very happy being a priest.

But today I’m going to take a “Sesame Street” approach to my homily. Our number of the day is seventy.

Seventy really jumps off the page when you read today’s Gospel. Why seventy?

For starters, the number seven “is significant in almost every culture,” though no-one really knows why. Someone suggested it’s because traditionally there were thought to be seven planets, but seven was significant among peoples who didn’t know that.

In the Bible, though, seven signifies “totality, fullness, completeness.” [John L. McKenzie, SJ, Dictionary of the Bible, “Seven,” p. 794.] There are far too many examples to mention, but we in the Old Testament we recall right away the seventh day on which God rested after creating the world and in the Gospels the number of times Jesus told us to forgive and the seven loaves he multiplied.

Let’s look, though, at seventy. The Book of Genesis states that there are seventy nations in the world and seventy in the family of Jacob. Most important, the Book of Numbers recounts how Moses appointed seventy elders to share his burden.

Luke, therefore, had good reason to tell us there were seventy disciples assigned to go ahead of Jesus and to heal the sick while proclaiming the Kingdom of God. The number tells us three important things.

First, it tells us that this mission is not for a chosen few. Just one chapter earlier, Luke records the sending-out of the Twelve. Jesus gives the Apostles the same mission he later gave the seventy others. It would be easy to say that there was something exclusive about the mission of the Twelve, not so easy when that same mission is almost immediately shared with a much larger group.

Second, it tells us that the mission is for everyone. It’s not enough to say that it isn’t exclusive; we can see it’s actually universal. The seventy disciples stand for all of us. To be a disciple of any sort is to be called to proclaim the Kingdom of God to others and to heal their wounds.

Third, the number seventy reminds us that our mission—given to us by Christ—is a sharing in the mission of the Apostles. While our call is individual, we respond within the Church, united with the successors of the Apostles to whom is given the task of coordinating and overseeing the works of the apostolate. Just as Moses was given the help of seventy elders, so are the bishops assisted—not replaced—by the dedicated collaboration of priests and the lay faithful.

So what do these conclusions mean in our parish?

To answer that question, I started to type the names of everyone in the parish who I knew was taking an especially active share in our mission. And when I was finished with my random list, I numbered it.

What do you think the number was? Sixty-five. Just five short of the magic number.

Are you on that list of those who are preparing the way for Jesus? If you’re not—there are five spaces left!

We need to pray for those who dedicate themselves specially to the work of this parish—catechists, teachers, ministry coordinators, Alpha organizers, RCIA team members, and many others. But equally we need to ask the Lord of the harvest for more labourers—more parishioners willing to share the peace and joy of Christ with others.

Obviously, there are many who live out their baptismal calling without active involvement in parish ministries. For instance, parents of young families often must build the Kingdom at home—it’s no small challenge to say “Peace to this house” when the house is filled with screaming children!

But in some sense, all of us are represented by that number seventy; all of us are part of the great company of disciples whom the Lord has called to share the mission he received from the Father.

It’s not always easy to respond wholeheartedly to the particular assignment Christ has given us. The wolves of social disapproval growl at us. Purses and briefcases heavy with possessions and duties weigh us down. And sometimes our efforts to share the Good News may cost us a friendship or a promotion.

To all this, Jesus simply says: “Know this: the Kingdom of God has come near.”