Wednesday, October 29, 2014

"What Can I Give?"

Last week, our parish launched a five-week initiative to promote spiritual growth. We called it "The Covenant of One" because everyone's being asked to offer God each week an hour of prayer, an hour of service, and one hour's wages.

I will post the hand-outs (developed by parishioners) on my blog each week .

One wonderful part of the initiative is a hymn with lyrics written by a parishioner just for the Covenant of One. Each verse develops an aspect of this new approach to stewardship. Our choirs introduced the hymn this week, and for the next month the congregation will sing it each Sunday using cards we're placing in the pews.

Take a look! The tune will be familiar to many as "Tell Out My Soul." (Click on the music for a full view.)

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Covenant of ONE

Today our parish launched a new stewardship initiative, conceived and planned by parishioners. It will unfold over the next four weeks.

Here is the overview--stay tuned for more!

“I will establish my covenant with you…” -  Genesis 6: 18

The fall is here, and families and people are back into the routine of the school and work year.  It’s a time of year when it is important to consider the daily and weekly rhythm of life.  Why not ask yourself two simple questions:

“How can I live my ‘Sunday morning faith’ every day of the week?”

“How can I enrich my spiritual life and go deeper with God?"
Figuring out the answers to these soulful questions requires a sanctified curiosity.  Figuring how to live them out and “practice what we preach” requires a selfless commitment.  In the Bible this special kind of commitment between human beings and God is called a Covenant.

The Bible speaks of covenants between God and Noah (Genesis 9); God and Abraham (Genesis 12); as well as God and the people of Israel through Moses in (Exodus 19).  The gospels remind us that at the Last Supper (Matthew 26) Jesus proclaimed a new covenant in his blood between sinful humanity and the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

A covenant with God is far more than a contract.  It is a prayerful willingness to enter deeper into relationship with the Almighty and to practice the self-giving love of the gospel.  We all want our lives to be meaningful in so many ways—work, family, our relationship with God.  Is there a simple way to do this?

One approach that we can all consider is to make a covenant with God, a covenant that is exercised through the parish but is between you and our loving Creator.  There is a way to do this that will be outlined in more detail over the next four weeks of the fall.  It is called the “Covenant of One.”

The Covenant of One is a very simple and meaningful concept to bring a taste of the eternal into your everyday life.  It means that you make a commitment in three areas of spiritual life every week, to push you forward in embracing God’s work in your life and in our parish.

The Covenant of One asks that you decide to pray for one hour every week, volunteer your time for one hour per week, and give one hour’s wages.

As in all relationships, communication is the foundation to growth and joy.   Do you speak to God in prayer, and can you hear the Holy Spirit guiding you in your daily life?  This can be a real challenge, but there is no more wonderful thing than to walk within the will of God and experience his grace palpably through prayer. 

Do you look back on your week and wonder what you accomplished?  Commit to give just ONE hour every week, dedicated to the work of the eternal, to be the hands and feet of Christ.  Live every day with an “expectation of revelation” and experience the wonder of knowing it is “more blessed to give than receive.” 

We live in an age of incredible luxury and each of us has moments when our conscience asks us whether we really need that new gadget when there is so much need in the world, indeed on our front doorstep.  Are we collecting trinkets or gaining treasures?  One concrete way to share our gifts more is to resolve to give ONE hour of our weekly wages to God’s work.

Hence: we are all invited to make our own “Covenant of One” with Our Lord.  Let us all join together in this endeavor!

ONE hour of prayer each week over and above what you already offer.

ONE hour of time/talent each week to Christ’s work—of your choice.

ONE hour of income each week to God’s work in our church.


Friday, October 10, 2014

Father Benedict: A Man Who Shaped My Life

Most of you know something about Father Benedict Joseph Groeschel, but there is much to know, so I thought I'd begin with some details taken from his official obituary, with  a few additional comments of my own.

Fr. Benedict was a founder of the Community of Franciscan Friars of the Renewal (CFR), a
reforming religious community started in 1987 by eight Capuchin Friars based in New York City.

He had been ordained for the Capuchins, a Franciscan order, and trained as a psychologist at Columbia University. He put his remarkable gifts and multiple skills to work as director of spiritual development for the Archdiocese of New York, director of a retreat house for priests in suburban Larchmont, New York, and taught Pastoral Psychology for many years at St. Joseph’s Seminary.

He was particular noted for the compassionate and professional help he provided to bishops and priests experiencing personal difficulty.

Alongside these enduring commitments, Fr. Benedict was a renowned writer, preacher, retreat master, and evangelist on Catholic television. But his greatest joy was serving the poor and underprivileged. Founder of St. Francis House and Good Counsel Homes, he served for fourteen years as chaplain at Children’s Village, a residential facility for troubled children.

Always deeply concerned with the welfare of others, he tirelessly provided food, clothing, and assistance to people in need—people he always considered his friends

The night after Father Benedict died, I was called to anoint a women at the emergency room of the local hospital. The patient was conscious and devout, so we had a nice chat, about confession among other things.

During our conversation, the sick woman quoted "the friar from EWTN."  Realizing that she was speaking about Father Benedict, I told her that he had just died. We then talked about her memories of his teaching and his engaging style; it comforted both of us--I in my sadness, she in her illness.

It struck me forcefully that I'd just glimpsed something of the influence of this tireless preacher of the Gospel. Less than 24 hours after his death, and thousands of miles away, Father Benedict's influence lived on.

And live on it will, not least in the books that capture some of his countless words. My own stack, made up of gifts received over more than a quarter century of his kindness, is almost a foot high and would be higher still if my parishioners and friends were better at returning books they borrow!

Of his many books, there's no question which was the author's favourite: I Am With You Always, a study of personal devotion to Jesus Christ among Protestants, Orthodox and Catholic Christians, was Father Benedict's magnum opus, and he was justly proud of it.

My own favourite was Stumbling Block and Stepping Stones. In this 2002 book, Father Groeschel provided spiritual answers to psychological questions, combining his deep knowledge of Christian spirituality with his early training as a psychologist.

But the book that comes first to mind on the day of his funeral is Travelers Along the Way: Men and Women Who Shaped My Life. The obvious reason is that Father Benedict was a man who certainly shaped my life over many years. The other reason is that the table of contents of that book could form the outline for a biography of this remarkable man.

In the 28 chapters of Travelers Along the Way, we meet Mother Teresa, no fewer than three cardinals, and some very distinguished theologians. But we are also introduced to Mr. Graff, an Orthodox Jewish dry cleaner he knew in childhood, and Sister Teresa Maria, who taught young Peter Groeschel--as he then was--in grade school.

Without doubt, Father Benedict was no respecter of persons. He moved easily with the famous and indeed with the rich, on whom he relied to help the poor of New York City, his greatest love. He told me once that I could reach him in California, where he was giving a retreat at The Gallows, which I thought was a terrible name for a retreat house.  I was much relieved to discover that he was actually giving a retreat on the estate of the wine-making Gallo family!

Perhaps because of his health problems, but more likely because of his perspective on life, Father Benedict often spoke of the life to come.  He was very attached to the doctrine of Purgatory, reassuring many of us by his fondness for the place. He often remarked that he'd be quite satisfied to land there when his time came, because everyone in Purgatory knows they will end up in Heaven.

Somehow I don't think he will be given the experience; his sufferings in later life were more than enough to prepare him for an express trip to the Kingdom.

Although Travelers Along the Way was written four years before he died, it looked ahead to his ultimate destination. "Even though many of these fellow travelers have gone home to God long ago," Father Benedict wrote, "their influence persists as I continue my journey along life's way. I look forward to encountering them once again in the life that infinitely transcends this one, the eternal life we have been granted through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the life that is the ultimate goal of all journeys."

I'm confident that Father Benedict's influence on me will persist for the rest of my journey; I am equally confident that he has not only encountered his friends again but that he has now met face to face the one Friend he served so tirelessly and so well as priest, preacher, and shepherd of the poor.

May he rest in peace.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The New Israel Must Bear Fruit (27A)

I call today the "three C" Sunday, because of three words beginning with the letter "c."  The readings are complex.  Their message is crucial.  But we have to make it concrete.

I found three distinct messages in today’s readings, which are closely connected, and I’d like to deal with them one by one.

The first message is: God is never the cause of our failure, because he has done all that is needed to assure our success.

In just a few words, Isaiah sums up the entire history of Israel.  The prophet begins by describing God's care and concern for his people, and then he chronicles their infidelity.

And then comes the rhetorical question.  The owner of the vineyard has done everything possible to assure a fruitful vineyard.   Can it be the fault of the owner that the harvest is sour grapes?

The answer, of course, is no. It’s not the owner who’s to blame, and both this reading and the psalm describe what comes next.  The vineyard will be trampled and parched.

This scary theme continues in today’s Gospel reading, where Jesus re-tells Isaiah's story, but with a twist.  The vineyard itself is no longer the focus; the tenants are.  And the sour grapes are replaced by vicious murder.

Clearly, we’re still talking about Israel, but this time her history of infidelity to God's covenant is overshadowed by a foretelling of the crucifixion.  So there’s our second message: The ultimate infidelity is the rejection of God's Son.

On account of this, the vineyard is taken away entirely from the old tenants, and let out to a new people, the Church.

This reading of the parable is very comfortable.  It puts Isaiah, Psalm 80, and the words of Jesus in a nice historical box.  It doesn't come too close to us, even if we do admit some solidarity with our ancestors in faith.  It's all about the past.

But then Jesus goes and disturbs us in our comfortable pews.  The final words of the Gospel today are "Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruit of the kingdom."

I don't want to sound flippant, but we've just been zapped!  Historically, Jesus was speaking to the chief priests and elders who were in his audience, but actually, here and now, he is speaking to you and to me. 

And there’s the third message: We are the new Israel, the people who must produce the fruits of the kingdom.  And if we do not, we’re no better than the vineyard overrun with weeds, we’re no better than those tenants who scorned the landowner and killed his son.

In the face of such a direct hit, we might be tempted to do some spiritual wiggling in order to get back to our comfort zone.  After all, I wouldn't kill anyone; and I certainly would share my produce—if I had a garden.  This is, after all, a parable, and these metaphors can mean what I want them to mean.

The Word of God does not give us that "out."  The New Testament makes it perfectly clear what God expects from his people.  In Matthew's Gospel, John the Baptist tells the crowds "Bear fruit worthy of repentance."  St. James says that peacemakers sow seeds that will bear fruit in holiness.

Look at the long catalogue of the gifts of the Spirit which St. Paul gives in 1 Corinthians chapter 13: Love is always patient and kind; it is never jealous; it is never rude or selfish, always ready to excuse, to trust, to hope—what are these but the fruits of the Spirit-filled life?

What are the beatitudes—mercy, poverty of spirit, humility and so on—if not the fruits which God wants from his vineyard?

We could spend weeks examining ourselves in the light of the harvest of holiness that Scripture describes in every detail.

And what about the weeds which threaten the vineyard of the Church, the scandals we hear about from time to time, the tensions in our families, in our parish, in our lives? How do we pull up the weeds that choke the abundant life God wants us to live?  In other words, how do we face up to weakness—our own and others’— in light of our Scripture this morning?

Today's second reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians suggests three answers:

First, we should recognize that the Lord of the Harvest is never deaf to the cry of his people.  The psalmist today acknowledges the sorry state of God's vineyard, but he doesn't hesitate to say “turn again, O God of hosts”—take another look, don’t give up on this vine you yourself have planted.

In other words, we must pray for the Church and for ourselves. St. Paul calls us to peaceful prayer, to a confidence in God's providence that casts out anxiety and tension.  "Do not worry about anything," he says.  Pray instead.

Second, we must work at it. We must make a conscious effort to grow in the faithful following of Christ.  Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received, St. Paul says, and the God of peace will be with you.  Scandals in the Church are most hurtful to those who themselves know they are part of the problem and not part of the solution.  A calm personal conscience makes it easier to deal with the failures of others, because you know for yourself that Christian living is not as impossible as the media wants us to believe.

Finally, we must find our comfort in Christ.  St. Paul says that God's peace will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

If you feel sometimes that life’s just too much for you, you’re probably right.  But it’s not too much for the Lord, who gives peace to those who ask Him.

So when you get right down to it, today's message isn’t all that complex. But it’s crucial for Christians living in the concrete circumstances that each of us face every day in the vineyard of the Lord.