Sunday, June 29, 2014

St. Peter and St. Paul

After one of the school Masses, a parent came up and asked me to stop talking about how bad I was at math—she thought I might scare the hardworking students and encourage the lazy ones!

But there’s no getting away from it. I was truly terrible at math, and in my last year of high school I passed only by promising I would never study it again. The course was called “Terminal Math.” Not a cheery name.

I don’t want to make excuses, but part of the problem was that math wasn’t very well taught. In most classes I felt that I was left to sink or swim. I sank.

But not in geometry. There I had a teacher who taught, and I remember one lesson very clearly after forty years.

Mr. Ferlinghetti took a kid’s construction set—plastic girders, with nuts and bolts, and made a square. Then he pressed on the corners and it collapsed.

Then he took one of the girders away and made a triangle. No matter how hard he pressed, it held its shape.

And that is why I can tell you confidently that the triangle is the strongest geometric form. (Not that the knowledge has done me any particular good over the years.)

Today, I would like to make a triangle that will teach us a more important lesson: a triangle with Jesus at the top, with Saints Peter and Paul at the other points.

This triangle can help us understand the Church and how God keeps it strong. It can help us to put up with things—and people—we find difficult in the Church and even in the parish.

That Jesus is key, the high point and even the center—if triangles have centers!—almost goes without saying. He is, of course, the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega, and the head of the Body that is the Church.

But what of Peter and Paul? Why are they so important to the Church, past and present?

Let’s just look at three reasons. First, as we’ll hear in the Preface for today’s Mass, “each in a different way gathered together the one family of Christ.” Peter carried on the mission of Jesus to the Chosen People, while Paul is called the teacher of the Gentiles because he preached the Gospel to the Gentiles, to the non-Jewish cultures of the ancient world.

What a reminder that each of us has a unique call in God’s plan, be it great or small! There can’t be one way of building the kingdom, one path for everyone.

And sometimes our callings may even collide. At the beginning, Peter and Paul seemed to be at cross purposes, and there was tension as a result. But through God’s grace and mutual charity, the apparent conflict was resolved and their two missions continued in peace, side by side.

(Peter’s side of the story is told in Acts 10-11, and Paul’s in Galatians 1-2.)

Peter and Paul are important precisely because they were different—not only in their mission, as I’ve just said, but in their personalities. A second reason to be joyful this morning is the diversity within the Church that these two represent.

I found a wonderful article on the internet that calls St. Peter “the Churchman par excellence” and St. Paul “the quintessential missionary.”

The writer goes on to say that St. Peter represents the institutional side of the Church — the side that sets rules, governs dioceses and attends to the doctrines and norms of the Church—while St. Paul is the prime example of the missionary Church — the Church that goes out and adapts itself to different cultures, proclaiming the Good News.

“Of course, St. Peter also goes out, as today’s first reading about his imprisonment demonstrates. And of course St. Paul also sets rules for the Church,” as we often hear when his letters are the second readings at Sunday Mass.

And judging by their letters, the natural temperaments of the two saints were quite different. Peter’s weakness was foot-in-mouth disease, while Paul’s was a bit of a temper. One thought simply, the other in a more complicated way. Their unique personalities, good points and bad, were both used by God for his purposes.

Whenever we are tempted to a one-sided view of the Church, we have Peter and Paul standing before us. I am sure that Pope Francis wanted to celebrate the diverse gifts in the Church by canonizing St. John Paul and St. John XXIII in the same ceremony. If Francis is ever canonized, perhaps it will be along with Paul VI or Pius XII for the same reason.

Whether we are looking at the Church universal, or Christ the Redeemer Parish, we realize today that “it takes all kinds.” There’s no single model for saints, popes, pastors or parishioners, but rather a marvellous diversity—as St. Paul himself explains with the image of the Body of Christ.

A third and final reason to be joyful this morning is that the faith of Peter and Paul has become a lasting gift from Christ to the Church—and to us today. When Peter says to Jesus “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” he is professing not just his own belief but the word the Father has given him to speak.

Peter’s faith is a gift from God, given as the bedrock on which the Church will first be built and then prevail until the end of time. Jesus makes it perfectly clear in today’s Gospel that the faith of the Church comes not from man but from God.

Paul’s faith, recorded in the intensely personal letters he wrote to Christian communities and to his closest collaborators, are part of the written Word of God—divinely inspired scriptures that develop the teaching of Jesus under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

All this assures us that our faith, the faith of the Church, rests not on human testimony but on divine revelation. On such a rock we are secure from passing fads, modern errors, and fruitless doubts.

The faith—and faithfulness—of Sts. Peter and Paul also challenge us to depend on God despite our own sinfulness. We’re so familiar with these apostles that we may forget that one was a traitor to Christ and the other a persecutor of Christ. How can we let ourselves be held back by our past failings when God’s grace and power can raise wounded men to the heights of holiness?

The example of Peter and Paul reminds us to let go of our past and trust God for our future.

Most of all, these great pillars of the Church are two points on a triangle that has Christ as its apex. They point us to Christ in our weakness, and remind us that Christ is our strength, just as he was theirs.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Corpus Christi: Let Christ Enter Everywhere

My most memorable celebration of today's great solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ was at the Abbey of Monte Cassino, the day after my ordination as a deacon.  I ineptly performed the deacon's duties under the watchful eye of a well-experienced 14-year old master of ceremonies from the Abbey school.  He was not impressed.

My second-most memorable feast of Corpus Christi was also in Italy, just weeks before I became pastor of Christ the Redeemer parish in 2007. This time I was in the Umbrian hill town of Orvieto, where this feastday is celebrated with a Eucharistic procession that is also a medieval pageant. The bishop carries the Blessed Sacrament through the city accompanied not only by rows of seminarians and clergy, but also by festively-costumed knights and ladies from a bygone era.

There are drums and trumpets and brightly-coloured banners held high as the long procession winds through the town.

But I have to tell you something: though I called it a "memorable" feast, I remember fairly little about these dramatic aspects--I had to look at some pictures to bring back the memories. What comes immediately to mind when I think about the procession is this: when it reached the local prison, it came to a halt and the bishop went in to the jail with the monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament.

The pageantry stopped while the bishop acted on the words of Jesus "I was in prison and you visited me."

That detour through the doors of the jail taught a truth about the Eucharist greater than even the most devout procession through the streets could teach. The Eucharist may be celebrated in church, but it is about life--life in all its dimensions and with all its problems.

We do not adore Jesus from a distance, and he does not meet us from a faraway place. Like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, he embraces us in the Eucharist with passion and affection.

I might even dare to say that the greatest challenge a Catholic faces is to allow the gift of the Eucharist to transform the hidden places in our heart--the "prisons" we don't want the Lord to enter.

If any aspect our lives--worries at work, temptations, problems at home--is closed off from our weekly reception of Holy Communion, we risk spiritual malnutrition. Mass becomes too much like the drums and trumpets heralding the Eucharistic procession in Orvieto.

The first reading today tells us to have high expectations when we receive the Bread of Life. Moses reminds the Israelites that the God who fed them manna also freed them from slavery, led them through the desert and protected them from the poison of snakes and scorpions.

Are we to believe that the manna of the New Covenant--food for our souls--is less powerful than the manna that God sent his people in the desert?  Don't we too live in a desert, thirsting for peace amidst the increasing turmoil of modern life?

And no-one can deny that the snakes and scorpions that threaten us today--the breakdown of social values, the spread of pornography, the rise of persecution of Christians--are as toxic as the poisonous serpents that threatened the Chosen People during the Exodus.

We live the Exodus when we try to escape the captivity of the Egyptians of our day: the political Pharaohs who scorn consciences and morality, the oppressors who demand an amount of work that our bodies and spirits were never meant to produce. And if we hope to make it through the desert alive, we desperately need the manna from heaven that God provides us in the Eucharist.

The Israelites ate manna for forty years in the desert. After a while I imagine it was easy for them to wolf it down without much thought--without recalling that this was God's gift from them, a miraculous food that appeared just when they faced starvation.

We can make the mistake with the bread that comes down from heaven if we fail to reflect on what  we receive and why we receive It.

In our second reading today, Paul asks "is the blessing cup not a sharing in the Bread of Christ? Is the bread we break not a sharing in the Body of Christ?"

These are rhetorical questions. St. Paul knows the answers and so do we. Jesus speaks even more plainly t us in the Gospel when he says that his flesh is real food and his blood real drink. Both he and St. Paul are talking about spiritual truths, not poetic images.

We receive the Eucharist because we need to be fed. We are weakened by our journey through the wilderness; the trials of life sap our energy and leave us hungry for peace and hope. Or we find success to be dry, leaving us thirsty for meaning despite worldly success.

And of course we trek through the desert of sin, that place where nothing grows, and we become aware of our need for the living water that brings life.

The Eucharist, if received worthily, will feed our deepest hungers. It can penetrate the darkest corners of our existence. It is true food and real drink, ample provision for the long haul of life. It offers freedom from slavery, an answer to despair, and antidote to the poison of sin.

Here and now, those who receive the Eucharist abide in the Lord, and the Lord abides in them--a presence no less real than what we call the Real Presence in the tabernacle, though of course different. And in the end, of course, the Body and Blood of Christ brings us to eternal life and resurrection on the last day.

Our feast of Corpus Christi today doesn't boast drummers or trumpeters or knights in armour escorting our Lord through the streets. But as we celebrate this sacred banquet in which Christ is received, our spirits should be no less joyful and festive--and equally ready to throw open the prison gates of our hearts to his merciful love.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Baptism on Trinity Sunday

In the seminary we were taught to describe the various rites when we baptized babies. But we weren’t warned about what might happen if older siblings were attending. Not long after ordination, I did as I was told, and carefully explained that I was going to pour water on the baby, then anoint her, and then give her a candle.

The baby’s big sister looked up at me anxiously.

“Why do you have to annoy her—it’s going to make her cry.”

Just about an hour from now, I am going to baptize Avila Marie Ufford. I will do my best not to annoy her!

Three years ago I married her parents, Natalie and Chris. A year and a half ago I baptized their first child Noah. And I have known both sets of grandparents for many years.

So it’s fair to say that Avila might boast of her Catholic roots, if she were old enough.

Yet an hour from now, even such a great family tree will be of secondary importance to this little one.

Something else will matter still more: by water and the Holy Spirit she will receive the gift of new life from God, who is love. She will be welcomed into God’s holy people, called to live as a member of his body. Reborn in baptism, she will be called a child of God.

Pope Benedict XVI speaks about this in a lovely way: “Through baptism each child is inserted into a gathering of friends who never abandon him in life or in death. … This group of friends, this family of God, into which the child is now admitted, will always accompany him, even on days of suffering and in life’s dark nights; it will give him consolation, comfort and light.” (YouCat, p. 116)

YouCat, the Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church spells out the key effects of baptism by saying that it unites us with Christ, incorporates us into his saving death, frees us from the power of Original Sin, and causes us to rise with Christ to a life without end.” (ibid.)

But it adds something that’s crucial: “Since baptism is a covenant with God, the individual must say Yes to it.” YouCat even capitalizes the word Yes.

This means that Chris and Natalie, as they present Avila for baptism, must profess the faith on behalf of their child. But it also means that faith must grow for all of us who are baptized. (CCC 1254)

Baptism is the beginning, not the end; it is a seed of faith from which the entire Christian life springs forth. (ibid.)

And today’s celebration of the Most Holy Trinity gives every one of us a good chance to move forward in faith. This feast celebrates a foundation of faith, what the Catechism calls “the central mystery of Christian faith and life… the mystery of God himself.” (CCC 234)

When was the last time we thought seriously about this mystery—when was the last time we paused in wonder as we made the Sign of the Cross?

Today’s a great day to stop and think about our belief in God as Trinity—one God in three Persons.

First of all, we give thanks that God has revealed himself to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is not a truth we could have figured out for ourselves. Today’s liturgy shows that God revealed himself over time. In the first reading, God gives Moses the Law, revealing himself as merciful, kind and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in love and faithfulness. But not as Trinity.

In the second reading, however, St. Paul closes his letter with what Jesus had revealed to his disciples: the truth of the Holy Trinity. It wasn’t Paul who figured out that the love of God was to be lived in the communion of the Holy Spirit and in the grace of Christ. Jesus had revealed the inner life of God during his earthly ministry, and at his Ascension had commanded his disciples to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

The Gospel today reminds us that this isn’t just highbrow theology. If we’re celebrating the truth about God today, we’re celebrating the fact that God is love. And one of the ways we see this is through the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity.

God isn’t solitary: he is the union in love of three Persons. The inner life of the Father, Son and Spirit is a life of love, love so great that it overflows and embraces each of us.

This love is so great that it moved God to send his only Son to save sinners, to save those who would otherwise perish and be lost.

Today’s Gospel puts the redeeming quality of the love of the Holy Trinity front and center. If we flip ahead to next year, the Gospel for Trinity Sunday recounts Christ’s commission to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” We heard that Gospel two weeks ago on the Ascension, so I’d like to end with a brief look at that command.

Why did Jesus choose this particular formula for baptism? The great theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar says it’s because “the baptized person ought to know to whom he belongs and whose life and example he has to follow. The divine Trinity is not merely an opaque mystery (as it is often portrayed to us), it is the way God wishes to make himself known to the world an especially to us Christians.” (Light of the World, 201)

If you want to know to whom you belong, ponder the Trinity. In this great revelation, we recognize God as our loving Father. In Jesus we recognize God as mercy see God as our merciful Lord. In the Holy Spirit, we welcome God’s own life into our hearts and know God as comforter and guide.

These things are not dry or abstract theology. They are truths that make a difference to daily life. They help us to grow in faith, hope and love through the Spirit who has been poured out upon us and who, marvelously, dwells in our hearts together with the Father and the Son.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Pentecost in the Parish: Responding with Stewardship

The Holy Spirit didn't descend on our parish like tongues of flame, but His fire was sure burning here on Pentecost.  At the 9 a.m. Mass we celebrated the First Holy Communion of two youngsters who had followed our Rite of Christian Initiation of Children program, and I confirmed two of their parents by mandate of the Archbishop.

At 11, we celebrated Christian stewardship as a way of life that makes good use of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. I was quick to agree with a parishioner who had reminded me that the secret to getting volunteers was to ask people personally--but I pointed out that, really, we've already been asked personally in Baptism and Confirmation.

After Mass we honoured the three parishioners--Tim Lack, Shaun Wylde, and Tim Lack--who have been stalwarts of our annual Project Advance fundraising campaign, presenting each of them with a volume of the St. John's Bible inscribed by Archbishop Miller.

Our celebration of Pentecost--and Stewardship Sunday--included a lively Stewardship Fair that showcased the many parish ministries and groups, ranging from our parish school to a colourful demonstration of Tai Chi! The gym was filled with displays, and representatives of each activity were on hand with explanations (and invitations!).

Each of the three Sunday Masses had a different homily, delivered without notes, so instead of posting one as usual, I thought I would share the text from Pope John Paul II quoted at the 11 Mass. I used the new saint's words, delivered right here in Vancouver during the papal visit of 1984,  as a reminder that stewardship is not only about activity; it is also about prayer and simple witness.

I hope that elderly and infirm parishioners recognize themselves in the forefront of stewardship in our parish, contributing their very precious gifts without concern for whatever physical limitations they face.

"The passing of the years brings its frailties. You may be forced to give up activities that you once enjoyed. Your limbs may not seem so pliable as they used to be. Your memory and your eyesight may refuse to give service. And so the world may cease to be familiar – the world of your family, the world around you, the world you once knew. Even the Church, which you have loved for so long, may seem strange to many of you as she goes forward in this period of renewal.

"Yet, despite changes and any weaknesses you may feel, you are of great value to all. Society needs you and so does the Church. You may not be able to do as much as before. But what counts above all is what you are. Old age is the crowning point of earthly life, a time to gather in the harvest you have sown. It is a time to give of yourselves to others as never before.

"Yes, you are needed, and never let anyone tell you are not. The Masses you have attended throughout your life, the devout Communions you have made, the prayers you have offered enable you to bestow rich gifts upon us. We need your experience and your insights. We need the faith which has sustained you and continues to be your light. We need your example of patient waiting and trust. 

"We need to see in you that mature love which is yours, that love which is the fruit of your lives lived in both joys and sorrow. And yes, we need your wisdom for you can offer assurance in times of uncertainty. You can be an incentive to live according to the higher values of the spirit. These values link us with people of all time and they never grow old."

 St.  John Paul  – Address to young, elderly and handicapped people.
Vancouver Stadium, 18 September, 1984

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Going and Coming (Ascension A)

We have a  seminarian working in the parish for the summer.  Although he's older than I am, he has much more energy, so I wasn't surprised that he wasn't home when I headed to bed on Friday night.

But I sure was surprised when I went downstairs at six on Saturday morning to get the paper, and found Larry coming in the door! Doing my best to look stern and fatherly, I said "Young man, you have some explaining to do!"

Larry--rather flustered--said "Oh no!  I'm not coming in, I'm going out."  It seems he was heading downtown for an early errand and had popped back to the house for something he'd forgotten.

The moral of the story isn't just "don't jump to conclusions." It's also that sometimes coming in and going out look much the same. 

And that's a key point as we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord.  It looks like he's going, but it's all about his coming back.

The disciples are staring up in the sky thinking about the Lord's departure. But angelic messengers tell them to shift their gaze--and their thinking--from the past (what they've just seen) to the future (what is still to come).

What they've watched seems to be a loss: Christ is taken from their sight. But what they await is the greatest gain of all: a new intimacy with him that outdoes even the joy of his physical presence and proximity.

I wonder if at the time of the Ascension the Apostles recalled what Jesus said to them at the Last Supper. "It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away the Advocate"--the Holy Spirit--"will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you." (Jn 16:7)

These words change the Lord's departure from something deeply sorrowful into a moment of the greatest hope and joy.  His going is all about his coming again, first through the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and then at the end of the ages.

Let's stop and think what this means. Imagine what it was like to walk and talk with Jesus--"like breathing pure mountain air," one of my seminary professors used to say.  His company had to be better than the best of best friends; his words must have sparkled; his understanding would have made your heart pound with sheer joy.

And after three years of that companionship, he's gone. Left you alone. Can you imagine a greater loss?

And yet, he tells us, it's all gain.  Losing him physically means a whole new life together in his Spirit. Jesus will no longer live beside his friends, but within them, dwelling in their very souls.

The Apostles seemed to have got this message fairly quickly, even if "some doubted." They don't argue with the angels, and they get to work immediately, making disciples and spreading the good news.

But what about us? Does the gift of the Spirit seem a match for the privilege of walking and talking with Christ himself?  I suspect that most of us would trade in our Confirmation for an hour-long conversation with the Lord.

We would, of course, have struck a bad bargain!  And we're only tempted because we haven't fully understood how completely Christ has kept his promise to be with us always.

He has kept his promise in the Eucharist, where the whole Christ--body, blood, soul and divinity--is received in Holy Communion.  This is where he keeps his promise to those who keep his word: "my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them." (Jn 14:23)

He has kept his promise, of course, by sending the Holy Spirit upon the Church at Pentecost, which we will recall next Sunday, but also by the continuous outpouring of that Spirit--an example of which we read about last Sunday, when Peter and John lay their hands on new converts that they too might receive the Holy Spirit.

Jesus has done his part; although he has passed from our sight, he has kept his promise "I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you." (Jn. 18) If we are living like orphans, lacking comfort and consolation, it is our responsibility, not his.

How do we do our part? At our beautiful First Communion celebration yesterday, I offered the children a one-word homily (although, naturally, I talked longer than that).  The word was "listen."

It's probably a good summary of today's homily as well.  What might change in our lives if we listened more--if we return to our pews after receiving Communion and ask the Lord if he has anything to say?

How much better life could be if we developed a greater awareness of Christ dwelling in us through the Spirit, with us always whether we're joyful, afraid, calm or confused?

Christ has kept his promises. All we need to do is come to know him better by allowing his great power to work in us. 

If we are less dynamic or joyful than those Christians who walked and talked with Jesus, it's time to readjust our sights--to stop staring into the sky and start looking into our hearts, where the Lord dwells, where he will speak with us, strengthen us, and encourage us with "the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe."