Saturday, April 27, 2013

May a Month for Life (Easter 5C)

I have a question for you. Please answer out loud in one word: “Has Jesus Christ risen from the dead?”

That was the answer I hoped to hear! Thank-you.

And now a second question. No need to answer out loud: “What difference will your ‘yes’ make this week or next month?”

In other words, how does your faith in the Resurrection change things for you? Would the next seven days or the next four weeks be any different if you didn’t believe Jesus had risen from the dead?

The first reading today, from the Acts of the Apostles, tells about the difference Easter made for the early Church. Saints Paul and Barnabas have travelled around the Mediterranean preaching Jesus Christ. But they haven’t just preached about the facts of faith—they’ve talked about the consequences. “They strengthened the souls” of their fellow disciples and “encouraged them to continue in the faith” despite the persecution they faced from both fellow Jews and pagans.

What did they say to strengthen souls and give fresh courage to those under fire? They told them that Jesus had risen. No earthly power could match that.

Today’s second reading also speaks about the difference Easter makes. The Book of Revelation tells persecuted Christians in every age to look beyond their present trials and catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.

As one Bible commentary says, “Revelation addresses serious questions about how Christians are to live in a larger, often hostile, society. … It warns us against the temptation to be silent or look the other way in the presence of evil and injustice.”  [Collegeville Bible Commentary, 1269]

In the passage we read today, the Book of Revelation gives us the courage we need not only to endure injustice but to oppose it. “Revelation is not a book aimed at scaring Christians to do good” but a book to encourage them in the face of evil, because Christ has already won the victory and a new world has begun to take shape. [ibid.]

These two readings offer a simple enough message: the kingdom of God is glorious, but we reach it only through persecution and trials.

But note: “God’s promise to make all things new doesn’t mean preservation from trials, but support in trials,” as Father John Jay Hughes has said. [Proclaiming the Good News: Homilies for the 'C' Cycle, 97]

We enjoyed a few decades during which anti-Catholicism took a bit of a break. Well-established social prejudices seemed at last to be over. Sadly, it turned out to be a mirage. The world doesn’t mind Catholics, as long as they keep their beliefs to themselves; but when they speak out, watch out!

It’s been very exciting to listen to our parishioners talk about their faith journeys at Sunday Mass. As you know, only a priest or deacon can preach the homily, so the fact that Pope John Paul permitted such lay testimonies in connection with the homily suggests how valuable they are.   [See the Instruction "On Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Ministry of Priests," article 3, paragraph 2]  And perhaps they’re good practice for what we need to be doing more often at work, at school, and in our neighbourhoods.

I know that that the parishioners who have spoken take this responsibility very seriously. Last Sunday’s speaker even kept a straight face while describing his younger self as a “pro-life Communist!” There can’t be very many of those out there.

Even though I had to smile at the thought of the young Felipe Grossling as Communist, I was really inspired to know that his belief in the sanctity of life was so strong that it never left him. He had no faith at the time, so his conviction that abortion was wrong was based on reason, not religion.

Even though our Catholic faith helps us understand why life is precious, we need strong arguments that appeal to everyone—if the crimson tide of abortion is ever to be turned back in our society. Telling some folks that abortion is evil, or sinful, or a crime against God is like speaking French to a Russian.

What’s more, not all of us really understand the reasons why we defend life from conception to natural death. We hear the so-called “pro-choice” arguments every day; we might not have heard the pro-life reasons for a long time.

It’s time we faced up to the challenge of speaking the truth to the world.

I came across a story about a convert in Afghanistan who was charged with being a Christian. He was acquitted for lack of evidence. While that must have been a relief to him, it should have been embarrassing as well.

Let’s ask ourselves this morning: Would there be enough evidence to convict me on the charge of being a Christian? One way to find out is to ask when was the last time your faith was the reason you did something you were a bit afraid of doing—or even very afraid of doing.

Most of us are uneasy about standing up for life in a society that is so deeply convinced we’re wrong. But Christians have stood against the world in every age since the death of Jesus.

To do this, we need two things: more courage, and more knowledge.

We can draw courage from the Scriptures we’ve just heard, which clearly promise that God will be with us in the toughest of times.

As for knowledge, our parish is lucky that Felipe Grossling will follow the example of Paul and Barnabas and offer the encouragement and information we need in order to speak charitably and effectively in defense of life.

We’re sponsoring a half-hour talk after both morning Masses next Sunday. Mr. Grossling is no longer a communist, but he is very gifted at explaining how to talk to others about life. You’ll walk out after his short talk more confident and more eager to stand up for the unborn.

May is Pro-Life Month in our parish. We all have a duty as Christians and stewards —according to the time, talent and treasure each of us has—to bear witness to the truth about life. So there’s something next month to challenge every member of the parish from nine to ninety, beginning with the talks next Sunday, which take place right after Mass and include refreshments.

On Thursday, May 9, a group from the parish will head over to Victoria for the annual March for Life. A few days later, on Sunday May 12, I hope to see many, many parishioners standing up for the unborn at Lions Gate Hospital from two to three in the afternoon.

On Monday, May 27, the parish hopes to have a good showing at the Focus on Life Gala dinner, which supports women-centered, life-affirming media ads.

And on June 1, Birthright—the fine organization that helps expectant mothers with support of every kind—is holding a walk/run fundraiser.

Information about all of these is in this week’s bulletin. Please check your calendars—and your conscience—and decide what you’re able to do and to support.


Today, I administered the sacrament of confirmation to students from St. Anthony's School and our parish religious education program.

I had a great idea for a confirmation homily that you’d never forget! I thought I would ride up the aisle on my new electric bike! But after a minute or two, I decided that would probably make this my last confirmation homily, since I don’t think Archbishop Miller would give me permission for any more confirmations…Too bad, though: it would have helped you to remember the homily!

Mr. Maledy still remembers a homily at a school Mass when the priest let loose a wind-up flying bird. It gave a great performance as the Holy Spirit before it hit one of the grade sevens in the back of the head!

But let’s go back to my new bike. It’s not exactly new: a very clever friend built it for me from spare parts in his workshop. He’d heard that the West Van hills were scaring me off my bike, and he thought I needed some help.

It’s not exactly an old man’s bike—you still have to pedal. But when the pedaling gets too tough, you touch a lever and the electric motor helps you get to the top.

Confirmation is a bit like that. Christian life takes effort, even after the sacrament you’re about to receive. You still need to follow the rules of the road, keep your eyes open, and make good decisions. But when the going gets rough, when the decisions get hard, the Holy Spirit is there to help you in new ways, with gifts that supply the extra strength you need.

Sometimes you’ll recognize the Holy Spirit at work, other times He will be unnoticeable, working in the background sending you signs through the people and events in your life.

One confirmand was kind enough to share with me the beautiful letter he received from his sponsor. She can’t be here today, and for a very good reason: she is staying at an Abbey in the United States so she can find out whether God wants her to become a nun—to live as a Sister in that monastery.

Although we don’t always recognize the Holy Spirit’s work at the time, she says “I can look back through the last few years and see how Understanding and Right Judgment were really important when I was at college and university, because they helped me discern Christian life and values at a time when I was surrounded by very anti-Christian attitudes.” And “it took a lot of fortitude to leave my job and family for this live-in at the Abbey where I am now!”

At the same time, sometimes others can see the Spirit working in us. The wise sponsor wrote to her young friend that he might be surprised by how many ‘hidden’ Catholics and other Christians he’ll meet in our hostile world—“once they sense Christ’s presence in you through your words and actions.”

Her advice is for all of us: “so always make sure that your actions reflect who you are confirmed to be, because you never know who will be inspired by the Holy Spirit’s movement in your life.”

Because—let’s face it—people who walk the talk are attractive to others. Others will notice if the gifts of the Spirit are really alive in you.

Dear young friends, your parents have given you the gift of a Christian upbringing. You can receive that gift like the bike I kept in the garage, gathering dust. You can use that gift like a used my old bike, and take it for a spin once or twice a year, groaning on the hills and struggling to get across the bridge.

Or you can receive the gifts of the Spirit and use them every day, turning to God especially when you need His strength the most.

This sponsor’s letter closes with a beautiful prayer that quotes from the new translation of the Mass: “May the Holy Spirit come upon you like the dewfall—silent and invisible, but able to constantly flood your life with guidance and love.”

Those gentle words express half of my prayer for you. I hope we’ll hear the words of the second half of my prayer at Communion time, if the choir sings the official anthem of World Youth Day 2008. The refrain to that magnificent hymn is “Receive the Power, from the Holy Spirit! Receive the Power to be a light unto the world!”

Today, God offer you so much: a dewfall and a downpour. A spiritual kickstart, and a divine explosion. Gifts for everyday, and gifts for times of crisis and confusion.

Each and every one of you will receive the same outpouring of the Spirit this morning. How it will shape and change the rest of your lives is up to you.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Our Heavenly Father Looks After His Sheep (Easter 5C)

To mark the Year of Faith, we've invited a number of parishioners to share their testimony at Mass, as allowed by liturgical norms. From time to time I will post their words on the blog alongside of my homily.

Today is sometimes called Good Shepherd Sunday. It’s also the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, so it’s a perfect day for me to make an announcement—and a confession.

First, the announcement.  We are going to establish a Vocations Committee in our parish. It’s part of Archbishop Miller’s plan to foster what he calls “a culture of vocations” in our local Church. A group of dedicated parishioners will look for ways to encourage our young men and women to think about God’s call to the priesthood and the consecrated life. The committee will also encourage all of us to pray harder for vocations.

Now, the confession.  When it comes to promoting vocations to the priesthood, I’m a bit pushy. There are two reasons for this. The first is that I’ve been so happy as a priest that I can’t help but invite young men in the parish to share that happiness. The second reason is that I’m overworked as a priest and want more help!

But I do get carried away. A young parishioner came for spiritual direction, sat down in my office, and said “Can we talk about something other than the priesthood today?” As it turned out, he became a lay missionary with Catholic Christian Outreach—a reminder that the priesthood and religious life, however crucial, aren’t the only callings in Christ’s sheepfold.

I had another reminder of this some years ago from Felipe Grossling, who is going to share his testimony of faith with us in a few moments. He was obviously deeply committed to the faith, then-unmarried, and I knew he was a popular and effective religion teacher at St. Thomas Aquinas highschool. So I couldn’t wait to pop the question.

“Do you think you might have a vocation to the priesthood?” I asked. He replied without hesitation. “I’ve thought and prayed a lot about that,” he said. “But I think God wants me to be a high school religion teacher.”

His answer teaches us three things. I’ve already mentioned one of them: the Lord’s flock needs all kinds of shepherds alongside priests, Sisters and Brothers. The second is that every young person, whether or not they’re ultimately called to the priesthood or consecrated life, ought to consider the possibility prayerfully and carefully.

And the third point is that we need religion teachers like Felipe Grossling. Which is another way of saying that we need Catholic high schools. We won’t have shepherds unless we have disciples first.

It’s only a happy coincidence that Mr. Grossling was scheduled to speak this Sunday, as we launch our annual Project Advance appeal. But as you listen to his story of faith, you can’t help noticing that he was both a student and a teacher at STA—the school our parish has chosen to help rebuild, through Project Advance 2013.

I’m very pleased to introduce Felipe Grossling:

I am a cradle Catholic, went to Catholic school, but in high school I had fallen into doubts about the faith.  My fear of surrendering to God helped me develop a pattern of lukewarmness finishing off with misunderstanding several Church teachings.

In university I struggled to find an identity in what was evidently an unknown attempt to find God.  I dabbled in almost every philosophical trifle available, and settled in identifying myself as a communist.  And like a good comrade I came to resent religion, especially the Catholic Church.  But my heavenly Father did not desert me – Through my parents, He instilled particular truths that I could never abandon – namely the divinity of Christ and the dignity of all human life from conception to natural end.  This was the epitome of my spiritual life, and it was all my Heavenly Father needed to slowly reel me back into His arms.  All that was needed was a push of the the first domino.

My first domino was Mark; an old friend who was also a lapsed Catholic.  I found out that he had come back to his faith and was regularly attending Mass.  I thought to myself, why?  Since I had extensive experience arguing with Catholics who did not know how to defend their faith, I thought I’d set him straight.  This was not the case.  If you could call this conversation a match of some kind, I got creamed.  Mark simply answered my pointed questions and each answer not only was given in charity, but sounded logical.

St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, tells us that:  “In my weakness I am made strong.”  You see, I am a sore loser and hate being wrong in any debate, (that remains a weakness today, just ask my wife).  So God used my arrogance as a way to begin searching just why I had lost this debate and to figure out where I went wrong.

This opened a door of intellectual investigation of the teachings of the Church and thanks to certain people, in particular two former religion teachers whom I drove bonkers when I was their student, I came to the realization that I needed to come into a full relationship with Christ through his Church.  It took just under a year, but I finally went to my first Confession in over 8 years.  Thus began my return to the heart of the Father.

It is often said that the longest journey is from the head to the heart.  I had intellectually accepted Catholicism but I was still quite immature, judgmental, self-righteous, you name it.  And here is when my Heavenly Father led me to being a high school religion teacher.

Ten years of teaching has let my Heavenly Father show me I cannot be half the teacher I am without Him.  I’ve also learned that love must always to be the impetus of sharing any witness of Christ.  To quote St. Paul:  “If I have faith that can move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.”  I have the privilege of teaching students, God’s children; some who radiate the love of God like a saint, some that are lost, some that are broken into a million pieces, some that are searching, some that don’t need to learn anything from anyone, others that are relishing in their youth, the list goes on.  And in my students, I can see the love of God and little silhouettes of myself – ME, someone who wants to love God, someone who is lost, someone who is broken, someone who is searching, someone who is a know-it-all, someone who is refreshing etc.  And in learning to love His children more and more, I understand myself and God’s love more deeply.

As a married man, God the Father has revealed that living with me is not a bed of roses for my wife.  A great deal of growth is offered when one vows to spend their entire life in service for the one they love.  In order to be the figure of Christ for my wife, I need Him to transform me.  And this has been one further step in realizing that I can only flourish with my Heavenly Father; the God who has always sought us; as far back as in the book of Genesis.

Young children understand who their parents are because of how they depend on them for everything.  They teach us that we fully find ourselves when we acknowledge how much we need God.  It is why Jesus clearly tells us that we cannot see heaven unless we become children again.

Wherever you may be on your spiritual road, I encourage you to open your eyes to see God.  He is everywhere.  Parents always want what is best for their children and our Father is no different, only more infinite and perfect.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Love the Path to Reconciliation (Easter 3C)

I took a new book on preaching out for a test drive on the fifth Sunday of Lent, when we read the Gospel of the raising of Lazarus as part of the third scrutiny of our catechumens. The book, Four Pages of the Sermon: A Guide to Biblical Preaching by Paul Wilson, suggests that both preparation and content be organized around four “pages,” each addressing a different theological and creative component of the homily.

·      Page one presents the trouble or conflict that takes place in the biblical text itself.   

·      Page two looks at similar conflict—that is to say, sin or brokenness—in our own time, in our world.

·      Page three returns to the Bible to identify where God is at work in or behind the text—in other words, to discover the good news.

·      And page four points to God at work right now, particularly in relation to the situations described in page two, presenting the good news in our world.

This four-fold approach worked like a charm for my homily about the raising of Lazarus, so I thought I’d try it again when preaching to the candidates for the permanent diaconate at their monthly formation weekend.
This morning’s text doesn’t seem nearly as packed with trouble as the Lazarus story, which includes a serious illness, a distress call from Martha and Mary, physical danger to Jesus and the tragedy of a death in the family.

In today’s Gospel, the biggest problem seems to be the fishermen’s bad luck.

But is that really true? Is the lack of a catch really the “trouble” here?  If that were true, the homily wouldn’t need to be four pages long.  The record-breaking catch offers a nice happy ending and there’d not be much left to say.

In fact, this Sunday’s Gospel presents more than enough trouble to fill page one of any homily. If we focus our attention on Peter, we get a ringside seat at one of the most intense and difficult conversations anywhere in the Bible.

For Peter’s sake, I almost wish his dialogue with Jesus had stayed between the two of them. Peter, still soaked, has just had breakfast served by the man he denied and abandoned. His emotions have run the gamut from aggressive defense in the Garden of Olives to cowardly lies in the courtyard to jumping overboard with enthusiasm at the sight of Jesus. He’s elated, ashamed, and exhausted all at the same time.

And this is the moment that Jesus chooses to reconcile Peter to himself. Three times Peter denied Jesus, so three times he will get the chance to acknowledge him. Scripture scholars do interesting things with the different Greek verbs translated here as “love.” But I don’t find that to be central this morning, since I think Peter was probably too emotional to register the finer points of what Jesus was saying.

The meeting hurt Peter.  It had to. So there you have page one: the pain of Peter’s failure, the pain of an honest and intense encounter with the God-man he had failed.

And so we turn, metaphorically speaking, to page two. Where do you find that kind of trouble in your world?

I suspect you find it right where I find it, and right where Peter found it—because his denial is not all that different from mine and yours. We don’t get asked point-blank “aren’t you one of His disciples?” but we answer no to the question often enough. Each time we go along with the crowd—even inside the Church—we reply “I do not know the man.” Each time we surrender to sin, we might as well hear a cock crowing in the distance.

And since Jesus is no less risen and present in our lives than in Peter’s, we too face the awkwardness of meeting him. We too feel soggy and mixed-up when the Lord starts the difficult but necessary conversation we need to have with him.

Writing page three of this homily is easy. The good news jumps off the page. Yes, this meeting hurt like hell! At least it hurt like purgatory. [I can say things like this outside of a parish setting—I told the deacons-to-be not to try than themselves!] But when it was over, Peter’s sin and folly were expunged, his mission was clear, and he knew himself once again to be a follower called by Jesus.

Peter’s reconciliation with Jesus is not cheap.  Jesus doesn’t wave his hand and tell Peter “don’t worry about it.” He gives Peter the chance to be reconciled by love. Love—the ultimate penance and the sure path to redemption. This meeting involves the opposite of what the Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.”

And so it is for us. Page four tells the good news we can all relate from experience: the good news of the tender mercy of God, the God of second- and seventh-chances, the God who meets each of us where we are emotionally and physically, and asks us the only question that really matters “Do you love me?”

When he’s satisfied with our answer, he puts us to work. And that is very good news indeed.