Sunday, September 28, 2014

Looking in the Mirror (26A)

When I look in the mirror, I see a nice-looking man in his mid-forties.

Then I look at my drivers’ license and it tells me the truth.  And the truth is, I am well into what the golfers call “the back-nine” or jockeys call “the home stretch.”

In other words, I am old enough to take the Bible seriously on the subject of salvation. Ezekiel is warning me in our first reading; St. Paul is encouraging me in the second reading; and Jesus is speaking to me in today’s Gospel.

I want to go to heaven, but I know that’s not automatic—even for and especially for a priest.

In fact, judging by today’s readings, it’s not automatic for any of us.

There was once a man who told his friend “I don’t go to church. It’s full of hypocrites.”

“That’s not a good reason,” his friend replied. “There’s always room for one more.”

In today's parable, Our Lord tells us religious people to beware of hypocrisy.  Beware of talking the walk, yet walking where you want.

It wouldn't be difficult to devote an entire homily to this theme.  Every one of us who professes the Christian faith knows the danger of preaching what we don't practice—if only because we see it in others!

What's more, we can all think of examples of people who profess no faith, or who never darken the door of a church, but whose lives reflect a charity or compassion that few of us manage to achieve.

Lip-service counts for little, even in human affairs.  That's why the first message of the parable is so easy for people to understand.

But there's more here than just a warning against hypocrisy, especially the religious kind. The wise scripture commentator William Barclay says that to understand the parable correctly we need to recognize that it isn't really praising anyone.

Neither of the two sons is the kind of child to bring real joy to the father's heart.  Although the one who actually does something is way better than the other, both miss the mark.

The ideal child would be the one who accepted the Father's directions willingly and then carried them out.

And so it is with the real world.  There are people who preach and profess what they don't practice, sanctimonious people who put piety ahead of virtue.   And then there are the folks who practice but don't profess, people who show goodness while shunning religious observance.

That second class, the "anonymous Christians," as someone called them, are much more pleasing to God than the religious phonies.

But neither of these two groups of people is anything like perfect. Again the important point is that the best people are those in whom the talk and the walk meet and match.  And it’s the best sort of people that we hope to become.

So let's not leave church this morning all resolved to swap our profession of faith in Christ with good deeds.  That heresy leads nowhere.  A sincere and mature faith in Christ fuels good deeds, and makes them better.

Finally, the parable reminds us that how we do a thing does matter.  Sure, to promise to do something and not to do it is worse than not doing it all.  But it's also true that a lack of courtesy and respect can take the shine off even the best of good deeds.  We can spoil a good thing by the way we do it; that’s what happened with the second son despite the fact he obeyed in the end.

We Christians need to learn from both the sons in today's Gospel.  Like the second son, we want to perform rather than just promise.  But at the same time, we want to show God the readiness to obey which the first son expressed in words if not in action.

Either way, Jesus tells us it’s never too late to start doing the Father’s will, expressing with our lives the faith we have on our lips.

His message on this score can be summed up in three words.  You’ll find them on the warning signs posted in every station of the London Underground, and at the door of every subway train: Mind the gap.

Let’s “mind the gap” –be always alert for the empty space between what we say and what we do.

Monday, September 22, 2014


Since I find it hard to say things in 140 words or less, I don't use Twitter very often! But I do have a Twitter account: @MsgrGNS.

For some reason, I tweeted twice today on different subjects.  One was a link to a blog post by Dr. Edward Peters, the American canonist whose arguments I invariably find convincing and clear. He makes some very fundamental observations about the annulment process here. They are timely in late of the recent announcement that Pope Francis has created a small commission to review that subject.

The other was a post from blogger Julia Smucker, who is responding to one from a Jesuit on the subject of praying in response to the increasing evil of the daily news. I think praying directly in the face of evil sounds like a challenge we should take up, painful though it may be.  

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Exaltation of the Cross: Concrete Challenges

I spent last weekend with our candidates for the Permanent Diaconate, so didn't post my Sunday homily for the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.  But during the weekend I heard a model homily on the reading at Evening Prayer I, which was First Corinthians, 1:23-24. So with thanks to Henk Luyten, here it is.

The homily applied the scripture text to real life in a very practical way--one of the hardest things in preaching. Henk challenged us to pick up our cross by very specific actions.
“We preach Christ crucified – a stumbling block to Jews, and an absurdity to Gentiles; but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

This short passage provides us with a rich introduction to tomorrow’s great Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. Saint Paul wrote this letter from Ephesus after a less than positive experience in Athens where he managed to convince only a small number of Greeks about Jesus’ message and resurrection. Now back in Ephesus, a number of individuals from Corinth approached him about growing divisions in the fledgling Christian community and requests for instructions to safeguard the disciples from the vice and sexuality rampant in that city. It all sounds distressingly contemporary, doesn’t it?

The Jews were looking for an earthly messiah, a new King who would re-establish Israel and drive out the Romans. The Greeks were looking for wisdom, knowledge, and worldly answers. In the Cross, most of them saw only the shameful failure of a man put to death on an instrument of torture. And they were being asked to follow this man? Nonsense. 

Paul, in what almost seems like exasperation, turns and points to the Cross of Christ. “This” he says, “is what we preach”.

Those who believed saw in Jesus’ death on the Cross not failure but rather his great unrestrained love for all humankind. They saw God’s great power change that instrument of suffering and death into an instrument of salvation, unity and forgiveness. Through the Cross Jesus broke down the old enmity between man and God and remade us as God’s sons and daughters breaking down the gates which barred us from the Kingdom of Heaven.

And for all those who believe, both those to whom Paul wrote in Corinth and us today, this great gift imposes a great responsibility. Jesus himself makes this is clear when he says “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27), “And he said to all, ‘if any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). But how can we do this?

We can join ourselves to Jesus tonight and let go of one resentment or hatred.

We can resolve to be constantly merciful and forgiving towards one person who has harmed us.

We can commit ourselves to never being a source of disunity at home, at work or in the Church. 

And we can see our challenges and temptations as opportunities to courageously lift the Cross on our shoulders and move confidently with Christ towards the salvation he gained for us. 

In these ways the power and wisdom of God that comes through the Cross will be actively at work in us. Amen.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Eric Lee: A Man of Faith

I preached this morning at the funeral of Eric Lee, the son of an old friend and the brother of Pamela Ho, who joined the board of Catholic Christian Outreach just before I left.

As you can tell from the homily, it was a great privilege. His mother told me “Eric was born with a good heart.” This seems to be no less than the truth.

A visitor to London knew that the magnificent St. Paul’s Cathedral was the work of Sir Christopher Wren, and that its renowned architect was buried there. So he decided to visit the great man’s tomb.

He went from one grand marble monument to another without success. Nor could he find a side chapel with any mention of Wren.

Just as he was about to give up, the man spotted a Latin inscription on the floor.

He saw Christopher Wren’s name followed by these words: Lector, si monumentum requiris circumspice.

“Reader, if you seek his monument, look around.”

Friends, if you seek a monument to the life of Eric Lee, look around you. Look around this church and see a beloved wife, a loving mother, four dear sisters, and numerous family members—all of them grieving, but none of them bereft of hope.

Look around the church and see business associates who remember a man of integrity and charm; and fellow parishioners with stories of his generosity and commitment to the Church.

Look around you and see people who aren’t that interested in what I might have to say this morning—because Eric’s remarkable attitude to illness has already given them the hope they need to deal with the sadness of his premature death.

Eric almost needs no eulogy beyond his own words “Another bonus day!”

But perhaps it can be fruitful to meditate on Eric’s rallying cry. What were the sources of such a positive attitude?

Clearly, it began with his loving family—the family is the first foundation of character and courage, and Eric grew up in the sort of family that promoted both.

Yet it took more than even a brave character to confront his dire prognosis with such confidence—it took faith. And again, his family was the starting point. I have known his wonderful mother for nearly thirty years, so I can attest to her persevering faith.

But the childhood seeds of faith must be watered by adult commitment. Eric believed that the Word of God is the truest guide for the good life, and he lived accordingly. He was led in right paths by the Good Shepherd, whom he followed with confidence.

When he found himself in the darkest valley, he did not fear evil, because he knew that the Lord walked at his side and would not abandon him; certainly he bore a heavy burden in his final months, but it was lightened by the promise of rest that Jesus makes to all who willingly accept the yoke of suffering.

In other words, when Eric Lee’s faith was put to the test, it provided real answers to the most profound and painful questions of any human heart. Can there be good in suffering? Can there be life after death?

At this funeral Mass, we are now challenged by his example. A friend who knew Eric said “With a hundred Erics, you could change the world!”  Which of us, in this congregation of hundreds, will rise to that challenge? 

We are challenged, too, by his faith. If we are people of faith, we must ask ourselves whether we have lived our faith with enough conviction to see us through the dark valley.

If we have no faith, this may be an occasion to ask whether Eric’s life and death inspires us to become seekers again, so that we too might find comfort in the face of life’s greatest mystery, namely “is there a life to come?”

But whether we are people of great faith or none, this morning is a time to give thanks for a life well-lived and, dare we say, well-ended.

This is a moment to rejoice that Eric found rest for his soul, that he was able to persevere to the end. However strong or weak our own belief, we can join Eric in crying out in the words of today’s first reading “We looked to [God], and he saved us!”

And finally, this time of prayer together is an occasion to pray for those who must now accept the pain of Eric’s death. The readings today are certainly intended to bring us the hope of eternal life for Eric, but they also contain God’s promises to those who mourn him.

In his own time, God will wipe away the tears of Melanie and all Eric’s loved ones, and they too will find rest for their souls.

For each of us, every day is a “bonus day.” We are all invited to live the present moment, whether of joy or pain, in the hope of the eternal day when the trumpet will sound and the dead will rise.

And so, “with such thoughts as these” as St. Paul said, let us comfort one another.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Speaking the Truth in Love (23 A)

Let me tell a tale of two parents and a tale of two priests.

Sally & Fred’s daughter got married outside the Church. Hurt and shocked by this, her parents cut her off. She’s no longer invited to family gatherings, not even Christmas dinner.

Paula & Jack’s 16 year old son won't go to Mass. They’re easygoing folks, so they just throw up their hands and say “well, what can we do, he’s got to make up his own mind.”

Father Ferocious is the pastor of St. Peter in Chains. He tells a man in confession that he's a disgrace to his family and the Church.

His seminary classmate, Father Likeable, is known as the no-questions-asked priest; he'll marry anybody and baptize the third child of an unmarried couple without so much as a quiet word in the rectory parlour.

What do all these cases have in common?  They're all wrong!

In different ways, of course, but both these parents and both these priests evade their responsibilities to others.

The harsh parents and the too-tough priest fail in their duty to love.  St. Paul says, in today’s second reading, that love is the fulfilling of the law. The Christian is never freed from that duty, yet Father Ferocious and Sally and Fred have been unloving in dealing with the failures of those in their care.

They were right, Paul says, to take the commandments seriously; but wrong not to take love more seriously still.

But the softies, Father Likeable and Paula & Jack, weren't on target either.  They read St. Paul but they missed Ezekiel, called by his prophetic office to warn sinners from their ways.  Even more important, they missed today's Gospel, which shows how to do that according to Christ's new law of love.

I suspect that their mistake is the more common one today.  Our society extols pluralism and tolerance as its highest values, which makes it easy to turn away from our responsibilities to others.

We don't want to upset anyone.

To a point, that's understandable.  Who likes a busybody?  Who wants to listen to meddlesome neighbour?  

But a new concept of rights takes this to a whole new level. Autonomy has become a prized value. We hear that people have the right “to do their own thing.” Everyone has “the right to choose.”

To a certain point, that's true.  But Jesus tells us in today's Gospel that it's not true in the Church.  The Church thrives on unity; the Church depends on unity.  When a brother or sister sins in a public way, it weakens the community.  Everything possible must be tried to bring them back into communion with the Church, for the Church's prayer depends for its effectiveness on its unity in Christ.

What's more, we have specific responsibilities in the Church, just as Ezekiel had toward the house of Israel.

Bishops and priests have responsibilities towards the whole People of God, husbands and wives towards each other, parents towards their children, teachers towards their students.  We who have these offices or relationships have a duty to promote and protect the salvation of those entrusted to us; to permit someone to perish in sin because we don’t want to make waves is, very simply, a betrayal for which God will call us to account.

The media jumped for joy when Pope Francis said to a reporter “Who am I to judge?” But if you listen to him for more than a sound bite, you find out that he rarely misses an opportunity to say tough things, even very tough things.

And it's not just popes, priests, parents and prophets who have this responsibility.  Every member of the Church shares in a certain duty towards every other member of the Church.  The Gospel places a primary obligation on the first-hand witness of the sin: Jesus says "If your brother or sister sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone."

Clearly, these words are meant for everyone.  It is a very specific guide to correction and reconciliation in the Church.  But how often is it followed?

No more than a half-dozen times in my years of priesthood has someone come to see me privately and kindly taken issue with something I have done or said; yet I have been at Christ the Redeemer for seven years and I would bet my bankbook that you've heard something I have done or said discussed at least that many times!

If today's Gospel were descriptive rather than prescriptive, Jesus would have started with "If your brother or sister sins against you, point out the fault to anyone who will listen!"

I can't stress enough that the "system" Jesus proposes is not an antiquated one.  Don't think of it as something obsolete, like the public confession of sins in the early Church.  I believe it works; speaking the truth in charity fulfills the law of love in concrete circumstances. By and large, such respectful honesty hasn't been tried and found wanting; it's been found difficult and not tried.

But what if the truth that must be spoken is too much for someone to hear? It sure can’t be a good idea to take a friend out for coffee and say “O wicked one, you shall surely die”!

It’s a safe bet that no-one would be so imprudent as to tell our wayward friends “they shall die in their iniquity.” So what is our responsibility towards those who are thoroughly off the rails?

In such cases, we are called to offer them a way out of the mess they’re in. We don’t give them a list of their failures, we offer them a way to success. As God’s watchmen, we shine a light on their path so that they might stop stumbling.

That light, of course, is the good news of Jesus Christ.

There are many ways of introducing people to the person and message of Jesus, beginning with our good example as Christians. But nothing is simpler and less threatening—to us or to others—than an invitation to the Alpha Course.

Alpha presents Christianity as a way of life that is attractive and life-giving. It uses the approach Pope Francis uses and recommends—beginning by telling folks what they’re doing wrong, but by offering them more than they’re now getting out of life.

Alpha is right in line with the title of the Holy Father’s letter “The Joy of the Gospel.”

He writes “The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness."

Can we keep this joy a secret when something as simple as an invitation to dessert and a video might bring it to a friend, an acquaintance or a family member?

The Alpha Course starts up on Tuesday, September 30. It’s time now to think about those you have the opportunity—and maybe the responsibility—to invite.

And of course it’s time to pray. The last verse of today's Gospel exhorts us to common prayer.  Let us take that very seriously too, praying for unity and harmony in the Church, that it might bear better witness to our Saviour even amidst the frailties of her members.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

My Feast Day

My family didn't celebrate our patron saints when we were growing up (just as well, since they "relocated" St. Gregory some time in the sixties), but I was introduced to the custom of celebrating names days at my seminary in Rome. Although I missed out, since the term did not begin by September 3, my feast day, it was normal to put a greeting under the door of a fellow student on the day we celebrated his patron saint.

What's more, my Italian friends and their families marked their "onomastico" with as much festivity as we would celebrate a birthday.

I think that Catholic customs like this are very important and I do my best promote them in the parish. So when I realized that the first Mass of the new school year fell on the memorial of Pope St. Gregory the Great I talked to the students about it, and suggested they find out when their patron's feast occurs so they can encourage their families to mark the day in some way.

Well, I discovered that I may have been preaching to the converted!  Here is the gift that the staff and students gave me at the end of Mass:

To add to my delight, the bottle was no gimmick--turns out it's from an award winning winery in California, owned by an Italian family.  And sure enough--the patriarch was Gregorio!