Sunday, April 27, 2014

Two New Saints on Divine Mercy Sunday

Terry Wynne was a parishioner at St. Anthony’s whom we often saw here at the 5 p.m. Mass. Although she was infirm, one of her daughters would faithfully bring her to Mass each Sunday.

She died early on Easter morning. At her funeral yesterday there were four priests concelebrating. Thanking us, her daughter Joan said “Mom would be so pleased to see four priests on the altar, she’d think she’d died and gone to heaven!”

Needless to say, the congregation roared with laughter. The words were a wonderful reminder that heaven’s never far from a Christian’s thoughts, and that faith and hope relieve even the painful loss of loved ones.

In today’s Gospel we meet Jesus Christ who is both wounded and risen—crucified yet glorified. In his homily earlier today, Pope Francis stated that “The wounds of Jesus are a scandal, a stumbling block for faith, yet they are also the test of faith.”

“That is why on the body of the risen Christ the wounds never pass away,” the Pope explained. They remain as “the enduring sign of God’s love for us.”

Our new saints John XXIII and John Paul II “were not afraid to look upon the wounds of Jesus, to touch his torn hands and his pierced side”, Pope Francis said. They were not scandalized by his cross, despite all the sufferings they had seen and experienced.

Although they had lived through the tragic events of the twentieth century, “they were not overwhelmed by them. For them, God was more powerful; faith was more powerful – faith in Jesus Christ the Redeemer of man and the Lord of history; the mercy of God, shown by those five wounds, was more powerful; and more powerful too was the closeness of Mary our Mother.”

“In these two men, who looked upon the wounds of Christ and bore witness to his mercy, there dwelt a living hope and an indescribable and glorious joy.”

These words of Pope Francis make us deeply grateful to God for the witness and teaching of the two new saints. But the two canonizations must also lead us to imitate St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II. Their examples inspire us to live the faith as they did—first with trust in God’s mercy, and second with trust in God’s message.

What a picture of Christian life is painted in our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles! As the Holy Father said in his homily this morning, the earliest community of believers “lived the heart of the Gospel, love and mercy, in simplicity and fraternity.”

Among them were people who surely had lost hope for a time. But the risen Lord restored that hope.

Some of us lose hope for a time—briefly, or even for a season of our lives. There is really only one answer to that, and St. Peter proclaims it in our second reading: By God’s “great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”

On this remarkable day in the history of the Church, I can’t help feeling amazed at the fact that I have met one of her canonized saints. But at the same time, I find myself thinking that it’s not so strange at all—all the time I meet future saints in their lifetimes and celebrate their funerals when they die.

These women and men will never be canonized, but many of them have “lived the heart of the Gospel, love and mercy, in simplicity and fraternity.” Many of them, like St. John and St. John Paul, experienced tragic events in the world and in their lives but “they were not overwhelmed by them. For them, God was more powerful; faith was more powerful – faith in Jesus Christ the Redeemer of man and the Lord of history.”

Together with Pope Francis, we pray that both our new saints may “teach us not to be scandalized by the wounds of Christ and to enter ever more deeply into the mystery of divine mercy.” At the same time, let us also be inspired by the saints among us in our own parish, who strive to live the faith of the early Church in present-day circumstances.

This glorious Sunday of Divine Mercy has a message for us as individual Christians, since we need both to receive mercy and to show it to others. But it also speaks to us as members of the Church, the Body of Christ, which itself has been wounded much in recent years.

Today, let us all rejoice that God is greater than our greatest trial, and that the mercy of God is more powerful than our greatest weakness.

You never know—if we fully live our Easter joy, we might even feel like we’ve died and gone to heaven!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Life After Death: Easter Sunday

A newly-ordained priest posted to a university parish was intimidated by his congregation. So he went back to the seminary to get some advice from one of his old teachers.

“Father,” he said, “It’s impossible to preach to them. I use an example from geology, there’s a science professor looking right at me. If I use an illustration from Roman mythology, a classics professor is ready to pounce on my smallest mistake. And if I use a story from literature, I have to worry about the English prof in the first pew. What shall I do?”

The wise old priest replied, “Don’t be discouraged. Preach the Gospel. They probably don’t know much about that!”

That made me smile, but it wouldn’t be the advice I’d give. A preacher should be grateful to know what his congregation thinks, because knowing your audience is the key to any good speech.

In this regard, I am certainly the luckiest preacher in the Archdiocese. Since Canada’s most prominent opinion pollster is a member of our parish, I sometimes know more about what you think than you know about what I think!

This Easter, I was particularly pleased to get a copy of a new research study conducted by the prominent sociology professor Reginald Bibby in partnership with Angus Reid. The study showed that some 50% of Canadian adults say that they believe in life after death, about 30% are uncertain, and only 20% rule out the possibility altogether. Those figures are virtually unchanged from 1975, despite a decline in church attendance and Christian faith.

Needless to say, I don’t need an opinion poll to know that most parishioners believe in life after death! We’d have a lot of empty pews if you didn’t. But these statistics can help us understand the central importance of the Easter message and encourage us to share it with others. Because if Easter isn’t about life after death, it’s not about anything at all.

As St. Paul says, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. (1 Cor 13-14)

On this subject, two of our Easter readings are pretty plain. There’s not a whole lot of complicated theology; instead, we get one basic message: Jesus Christ has risen!

In the first reading, Peter tells this to a crowd gathered at the house of Cornelius in Caesarea. God raised Jesus of Nazareth on the third day. He ate and drank with his friends after his resurrection from the dead.

In the Gospel, Mary Magdalene gives us the simplest message of all: “I have seen the Lord.” St. John gives us the details of the empty tomb and of Christ’s meeting with Mary not to stretch out the story but because they remind us that this is no fable. As Archbishop Miller said in yesterday’s paper, “The resurrection is narrated in the Gospels as a fact.”

From this fact flow very real consequences. In his interview, the Archbishop added “Because the resurrection took place, Jesus is alive still in our midst.”

I read this week about a missionary in Japan. Since he didn’t speak Japanese, he asked an English teacher from a junior high school to translate while he preached. It was all going fine until the third week, when he said “And on the third day he rose from the dead.”

The young translator looked up at him and said “They’re never going to believe this!”

And yet we must.

Accepting the resurrection as fact is not, perhaps, as difficult as some opponents of Christianity suggest. A great British judge once said “The resurrection of Jesus Christ rests on the basis of testimony greater and more indisputable than sustains any other fact of ancient history.”

Pope Emeritus Benedict speaks of this in the second volume of his book Jesus of Nazareth. Although it is something entirely new type of event, the resurrection “nevertheless has its origins within history and up to a certain point still belongs there.”

He says, very simply, the “resurrection points beyond history but has left a footprint within history.”*

And what a footprint! One of the greatest testimonies to the literal truth that Jesus died and rose gain comes from the apostles, who did not offer their lives to proclaim the teachings of a dead man—certainly not a dead man who had promised to rise again.

Of course we do not depend on the historical record, much as it supports our faith. The Holy Spirit bears witness in our hearts. An old Christian gentleman once overheard two young men talking about how the resurrection was impossible. When he joined the conversation, they asked him “How can you be so sure that Jesus rose from the dead?”

The elderly man said, “Well, for one thing, I was talking with him this morning.”

In our second reading, Paul tells the Colossians that the resurrection of Jesus means something: it should change how they look at everything, because it has changed them. For those baptized into the death of Christ, nothing remains the same after the resurrection, Paul says, “for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

Better still, “When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”

We start to live these truths at baptism, but we are strengthened and sustained in the Eucharist, which is an intimate part of the Easter mystery. I love St. Thomas Aquinas’ famous antiphon about the Mass: “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.”

That “pledge of future glory” is a promise of the life to come that at least half our fellow Canadians need to hear. For us who already hope and believe in everlasting life, the Eucharist is a comfort to our own mortality and a consolation when our loved ones die. My father died on Palm Sunday, but this year the anniversary of his death was on Holy Thursday, a vivid reminder of the life promised to him in the Eucharist but also of how close the faithful departed are to us at Mass.

The survey about beliefs in life after death turned up a particularly surprising thing: close to 40% of Canadians say they “definitely” or “possibly” will see people again who have died. Some 30% say they don’t know, and only about 30% have actually closed the door on the possibility, including just one in two of those who have “no religion.”

On top of that, very many people believe that those who have died are interacting with us.

We have here a reminder that the message of Easter connects to a deep longing in the human heart—a longing for life after death, and a longing to rejoin those who have died before us.

At the same time, these figures tell us that many people are indeed rejecting belief in an afterlife.

To quote Archbishop Miller again, “Easter itself is about life: the feast of risen life, of new life; the feast of hope and of triumph.”

On this Easter day, we rejoice that this new life begins now. But at the very same time we rejoice that it does not end.

When the Sun asked Archbishop Miller what he believes happens after death, he replied “I believe that death is only a passage to the fullness of life with God.”

This is our Easter faith—a message that conquers fear and eases sorrows. Surely this is a message that many of our family, friends and neighbors are longing to hear. Like Peter and John standing at the empty tomb, they do not yet “understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”

Let us, like Mary Magdalene, tell them that we have seen the Lord; and let us share with them the things we have heard him say.

* Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, p. 275.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Easter Vigil: Easter Has Consequences

We have just listened to readings from Sacred Scripture that spanned the creation of the world, the sacrifice of Abraham, the deliverance of the Jewish people from their slavery in Egypt, and the resurrection of Christ. Along the way we listened to the great promises God makes to his people, and we responded with Psalms of praise and victory.

That Biblical banquet reminds me of the woman who started to attend the RCIA program. After four weeks she sent the coordinator an e-mail: “I’ve been learning far more than I can put into practice. Should I still keep coming?”

So where do we begin tonight? With Adam? With Abraham? Moses?

The obvious place to start is Christ—Christ who has been raised from the dead. But if you’ll let me, I would like to place the spotlight somewhere else at the beginning of this homily. Let’s start with you and me.

In tonight’s Epistle, St. Paul speaks about Jesus and his resurrection. But every second thought is about us. His words from the Letter to the Romans are all about the consequences of Easter for the Christian, for each of us.

Almost every sentence has two related thoughts—one about Christ’s resur­rection, the other about its meaning for the baptized.

He begins with baptism. Paul asks forcefully “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” He seems to think that’s pretty obvious: The union with Christ that baptism brings about means union with Christ in his death.

And what a consequence follows from that union: “just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father,” we too “walk in newness of life.”

Just so we don’t miss this central point, St. Paul repeats it: “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

If the Apostle had stopped there, it would have been enough. We could claim our inheritance tonight and place our hope squarely in the life to come. Our newly-baptized Christians could give themselves a pat on the back and we could call it a night.

But of course St. Paul doesn’t stop there. Dying and rising with Christ is not just about the life to come; it matters right now, because we claim our share in his victory over sin right now. In baptism we share in his risen life and so must consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God.

Only the very old, the very young, or the gravely ill can be satisfied with an Easter message that only refers to the life to come, important though that is. For the rest of us, tempted, troubled and tested in one way or another, freedom from slavery has to mean more than freedom from the fear of death.

I wonder what our catechumens were thinking when they heard St. Paul say “For whoever has died is freed from sin”? I don’t want to discourage you, but baptism doesn’t put an end to sin—if it did, we would not need the sacrament of penance, which our new Christians will soon discover as one of the greatest gifts of Christ and his Church.

What we have been freed from is the power of sin—its power to crush and corrupt. We are sinners, but not slaves to sin. As Father Emmerich said during the Parish Mission, “through the grace of the spiritual life, lived one day at a time, we can learn to overcome our inordinate attachments to perfectionism, to winning, to suffering or getting attention, to having to keep the peace at all costs.”

As free people, “we learn not to do God’s part, but to have faith in his ability to run the universe. We do this by detaching with love and surrendering to his will.”

What’s more, those who “consider themselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” are even free from the fear of failure. Certainly our old self was crucified with Christ so that we might no longer be enslaved to sin—but the one who set us free knows our human condition and his plan provides for the forgiveness of the sins that even free people commit.

I saw on the internet some humorous road signs from rural India. My favourite said “This is a Highway, Not a Runway” and “Driving Faster Can Cause Disaster.” But the most thought-provoking sign was one that said “Road Closed Beyond the Cemetery.”

Easter assures us that the road beyond the grave is not closed. Faith is a highway to life everlasting for those who know the Risen Lord and accept the share he offers in the life he lives.

Jennifer, Kwangmo, and Graeme, you have spent many evenings at RCIA studying the truths of our faith. But the truths revealed to you tonight take you to a new level of understanding. The events in the Bible from creation onward are centered on Christ and take their meaning from Christ. “The primordial mysteries are repeated and fulfilled in Him.” The covenants with Adam, Noah and Abraham are surpassed by Him.

And, as our first reading from Genesis reminded us, Christ’s remarkable recapitulation of the whole of salvation history is not only about repairing the damage done by the fall of our first parents, Adam and Eve. Christ is recreating the whole universe in himself, leading all humanity and the entire cosmos back to God.*

You, too, will share in this wondrous drama by your unity with Christ and your obedience in faith.

You are asking for baptism because you believe in Christ’s promise of eternal life. But he also promises you a better life, here and now—a new heart and a new spirit. In baptism and confirmation he will pour out his Spirit upon you, and in the strength of that Spirit you will be able to do what the Lord commands, as a member of his people and adopted children of a loving Father.

You will stumble from time to time as you walk along this new path. But do not, for a moment, allow yourselves to doubt where it leads: ultimately to heaven, and here and now to peace.

Here and now, let each one of us decide to let the power of the resurrection make a difference in our lives—to break with sin, or at least to strive to live as free men and women, who know they can rely on a power beyond their natural strength.

Father Emmerich challenged us to conquer our feelings and to respond in a reasonable, responsible and loving way to those who offend us. He was inviting us to live as Jesus lived—which we can do in the new life he won for us through his cross and resurrection.

Although we have taken such a long and fruitful tour through the Bible tonight, I would like to end with two brief texts. The first is from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” (2: 20)

Our Easter faith allow us to say the same thing, every day and in every circumstance.

The second text is from the Letter to the Hebrews, where we read “the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.”

The message we have heard tonight is meant to benefit us—to do us good, to change our lives, and to give us strength. And it will, if we stay united in the faith of the Church—because Easter has consequences.

* See "Recapitulation in Christ," New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd. ed., p. 952

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Devotion and Participation: Holy Thursday

When I was a layman, I would sometimes have to confess that my attention had wandered during Mass. But I was always quick to add “of course not during the homily, Father” so the pastor wouldn’t be tempted to give me a hard penance!

Most of us, priests included, get distracted at Mass. But on this Holy Thursday I asked myself whether there was something more we could do about it than asking forgiveness.

After all, the Sacrifice of the Mass is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (LG 11) and “the sum and summary of our faith” (CCC 1427). As St. Thomas wrote, the Eucharist is our “sacred banquet in which Christ is received, the memory of his Passion is renewed, the soul is filled with grace and a pledge of the life to come is given to us."

So how can our hearts be more engaged when we celebrate the Mass, Christ’s gift of himself for our salvation?

Tonight’s Gospel provides the first answer: by service of others, as Jesus showed at the Last Supper. Speaking of the Eucharist, St. Augustine exclaims “O bond of charity!” True worship makes up more loving, and true love makes us more worshipful.

Jesus could have washed the feet of the apostles—and told us to follow his example—any old time, and got across the importance of loving service. But he did so at the Last Supper to teach the unbreakable link between the Eucharist and humble charity.

It’s easy to think of the good works of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, our Refugee Committee, our busy sandwich-makers and cooks, even our busy knitting brigade as just the generous activities of good people. Of course they are that—but much more: they are a Eucharistic community in action.

Those second collections that seem to come one after another: are they “fundraising” activities? They are—but so much more. There’s a reason they are taken up at Mass: because the money donated to relieve suffering or help the needy or strengthen the faith is Eucharistic charity, presented at the altar together with our gifts of bread and wine.

But I don’t want to focus on that first answer this Holy Thursday. Tonight I offer two other ways we can enter more fully into the Mass and all that it means for us: devotion and participation.

Notice that I started with “devotion.” We talk a lot about participation in the liturgy, but when’s the last time you heard the word devotion? Yet St. Augustine hailed the Eucharist with the words "O sacrament of devotion!”

Devotion is the desire to respond to God with gratitude for his gifts. It’s a readiness to serve him. It’s a fervent movement of the heart—more than a feeling, but not only something intellectual.

It’s a bit hard to define in a phrase, so let’s look at the word “devout.” We know what we mean when we say someone’s devout, don’t we? It’s something outward that reveals something inside. In non-religious usage, we say that someone is devoted to a person or cause. And we know what that means also.

Christians must be devout—devoted to the Eucharist. For one thing, devotion draws us to its power and grace. The Catechism says that “every sincere act of worship or devotion revives the spirit of conversion and repentance within us and contributes to the forgiveness of our sins.” (CCC 1437)

In the liturgy, Christ the great high priest offers himself to the Father on our behalf. But we, as a priestly people, must also have something to offer. St. Leo the Great speaks of “the spotless offerings of devotion” we make on the altars of our hearts. (Sermo 4,1)

Even our ways of acting can increase devotion. Certainly we shouldn’t act pious for show, but devout practices—like making the sign of the cross with deep reverence, genuflecting with real purpose, and staying reverent and silent in church—can help to bring about the attitudes they signify.

And of course devotion is not something that exists only at Mass. What we are devoted to isn’t the liturgical action itself, but the person Jesus. Michael Buble recorded an old love song called “The More I See You.” The song reminds us that it’s not really absence that makes the heart grow fonder, but a deep relationship sustained over time. One of the verses asks “Can you imagine/How much I'll love you/The more I see you/As years go by?”

There are no limits to the love we can experience in our Eucharistic friendship with Jesus, but we need to use every means to deepen it, including daily prayer, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament outside of Mass, and the healing sacrament of penance. There's a reason that we call Benediction and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament “devotions.”

Participation is the final part of the answer I propose to the question “how can our hearts be more engaged when we are at Mass?”

The Catechism offers three principal criteria for liturgy that glorifies God. The first two are beauty that expresses prayer and the solemn character of the celebration. Responsibility for this lies with priests, servers, sacristans, singers, readers, organists and architects.

But there is a third criterion that depends on each person in the church: “the unanimous participation of the assembly at the designated moments.” Participation is crucial to the purpose of the liturgical words and actions: the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful. (CCC 1157)

One of the ways we participate is by singing. St. Augustine is often quoted as saying “he who sings, prays twice.” Actually, he didn’t say that. What he said was “singing belongs to one who loves.”

More powerfully still, he tells us in his autobiography that singing was part of his conversion:

“How I wept,” he speaks to God in the Confessions, “deeply moved by your hymns, songs, and the voices that echoed through your Church! What emotion I experienced in them! Those sounds flowed into my ears distilling the truth in my heart. A feeling of devotion surged within me, and tears streamed down my face—tears that did me good.” (Confessions IX, 6, 14)

Notice how liturgical music increased his devotion.

Not everyone can sing, but I’d judge in our parish that many who can, don’t. And this might well be explained by a lack of understanding of the benefits of participation—benefits not only to the one who participates but, as Augustine notes, often to the onlooker. Would a visitor being called into the Church find inspiration in how we respond to the parts of the Mass, and in how we join in our songs of faith?

The first reading tonight describes the Passover liturgy of the Chosen People. But it speaks also to us as we celebrate the sacred meal given to us by Christ—for if the liturgy that foreshadows our own is to be celebrated as a festival, how much more must we strive to make the Mass a true celebration of the Paschal lamb?

On Monday night I shared the Seder, the Passover meal, with Jewish friends. Everyone at the table, Jew or Gentile, had a part to play. Everyone was involved. Tonight, and every Mass, should be no different. Let us together offer a thanksgiving sacrifice to the Lord, fulfilling our baptismal vows as a priestly people.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Palm Sunday: The Mission Continues

We’ve just finished a very successful Parish Mission. We heard some startling truths about finding peace by living according to the Gospel, punctuated by frequent exclamations of “outrageous!” from our preacher, Father Emmerich Vogt, OP.

Much of what Father Emmerich said was “outrageous,” but not because he was sometimes politically incorrect! It was outrageous because it challenged so many of our cherished beliefs about ourselves.

He said that it doesn’t matter how we feel—the emotional state we’re in is never wrong—it matters how we act.

He said that it doesn’t matter how people treat us—we’re responsible for our own happiness. And we have no control over people, places or things.

Much of this wisdom comes from the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. But its ultimate source is the Gospel.

By meditating on the Passion of Jesus that we’ve just listened to, you could learn every lesson Father Emmerich taught, and more. As the prophetic first reading shows, our Lord did not return evil for evil, nor did he protest being ill-treated by others. He was a man whose identity was not determined by how others treated him.

Several times the Mission preacher reminded us of the power that lies in true humility—not “doormat-hood” but a genuine self-knowledge and self-possession. This is what Jesus shows, as St. Paul tells us in the second reading, by freely giving himself up to death on the cross. He knows he is God, but he lays that aside in order to save the world.

Christ is a sacrificial offering, but he is not a “victim” in the way the word is currently used to describe someone acted upon against his will.

“An expectation is a premeditated resentment,” Father Emmerich told us. How much better our Lord might have expected from Peter than his denial? How much more from Judas? Yet he calls Judas “friend” when he might have said “traitor.”

Jesus knew that “he who angers you, conquers you.”

Feelings do not determine what we should do. Jesus in the garden feels grieved and agitated. He does his Father’s will anyway.

Jesus is not a doormat. Without a display of anger, he points out the folly of the mob that has come to seize him. He speaks the truth to the high priest and to Pilate, and uses silence as an effective reply to lies.

The passion story also gives us some negative examples of the lessons we learned in the Mission. Pilate is not a free man, though he is the most powerful person in Jerusalem. He fears public opinion, and doubts the existence of objective truth. And Peter is afraid of the opinion of a servant whom he’s never met.

If you missed the Mission, you have another chance to grow in wisdom and peace. Even if Lent passed you by, you have another opportunity to live and learn the Gospel message of freedom. We call it the Triduum—the three days of worship and remembering that begin on Thursday.

This week the Church walks beside Jesus during the three most important days of his time on earth: the day he gave us the priesthood and the Mass, the day he gave himself up for our sins, and the day he rose as the conqueror of death.

I know you will all be here next Sunday, and many will be here on Friday. But there’s a unique richness to attending the three great liturgies of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil on Saturday night.