Saturday, December 26, 2015

Feast of the Holy Family

My first pastor told me that my shortest homily of the year should be the Sunday after Christmas.

A priest friend said his first pastor told him his shortest homily should be on January 1.

I’m not sure who was right, so I try to preach as briefly as possible on both days!

It’s easy enough to be brief on the feast of the Holy Family. This day has many lessons to teach us, but they are simple and straightforward.

The first lesson comes from the Gospel, which tells us that even the best of families meets both joy and sorrow.

What a good time Mary and Joseph must have had in Jerusalem! They had celebrated Passover with relatives and friends, and their trip home would be much like the drives back from Christmas at my grandmother’s—weary but happy and contented by the festivities.

Then suddenly fear and anxiety interrupt this happy holiday. Even today there is no greater panic than a lost child, but imagine three days of that terror in a society much more dangerous than our own.

When that’s over, Mary and Joseph suffer something most families know very well—a breakdown in communications. What they say to Jesus is perfectly reasonable, but his truthful reply is impossible for them to understand.

St. Luke wants us to know the story does not end with that standoff. He adds quickly that Jesus returned home and obeyed his parents. It’s a happy ending, at least. But the story reminds us that it’s not possible to avoid all conflict in any family.

Expecting a perfect family, free of misunderstanding and pain, is a recipe for bitterness; accepting the realities of family life, and seeking always more to understand than to be understood, is the realistic path that leads to the reasonable level of happiness that is all we can expect in an imperfect world.

A second lesson comes from the first reading, which reminds parents that children are not their own. Hannah surrenders her son Samuel to the Lord because she knows the Lord has given him to her in the first place.

As a general attitude, this is important—because claiming ownership of any human being is asking for trouble. We don’t even own ourselves, as St. Paul taught when he told the Romans that no-one lives for himself and no-one dies for himself because we are the Lord’s (cf. Rm 14:7-8).

So if we don’t own ourselves, we certainly don’t own others, even our children. Parents have enormous rights and duties in regard to their children, but there are firm limits. Hannah offers Samuel to the service of the prophet Eli not only to pay a vow to God, but because she knows her son is called to this—he has, we would say today, a vocation.

Parents can learn from Hannah that God has the first claim to their children, which sometimes means being willing to surrender our plans for them so that they can follow God’s call.

Finally, we learn a great lesson from the second reading when St. John says “We are children of God.” We have all the same Father so we’re all part of two families—the one into which we were born and the family of God.

It’s interesting to see where St. John goes with this. He doesn’t emphasize the prestige or the benefits of being children of God—he goes straight to the place where this morning’s Gospel ends: obedience.

Children have a natural and supernatural duty to obey their parents. This homily might be over the heads of the younger members of the congregation, but they all understand they need to do what their parents tell them to do. So it is with each member of the family of God, since through his Son, Jesus Christ, the Father has clearly taught us what he expects.

We obey God’s commandments for a number of good reasons, but today’s second reading gives the best reason of all: because it pleases him. What a simple a lesson that is! Children also obey their parents for a number of reasons, even fear of punishment, but the best reason is because it brings joy to their mothers and fathers.

Celebrating the Holy Family of Nazareth comes naturally at Christmastime. But today’s feast invites us also to think supernaturally about our own families, praying not for perfect families but for holy ones, created in God’s image and following his laws amidst the joys and sorrows of daily life. 

The image above is purloined from the website of the artist, iconographer and author Michael O'Brien, who has devoted much of his talent and time to promotion of the family. Judging by its title, "The Family - 2," it represents not the Holy Family but a holy family, blessed by the loving hands of Christ.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

What Does Christmas Have To Do With Self-esteem??

Our staff party for St. Anthony’s School started this year with a Christmas quiz.

I was stumped by the very first question: what do Santa’s helpers learn in school? But the grade seven teacher answered right away: the elf-abet.

I figured the schoolchildren would get a laugh from that, so I asked them the question the next morning. I was about to call on their clever teacher when a grade seven girl put up her hand.

She answered: elf-esteem!

You might think that’s an unusual introduction to my Christmas homily, but Father Paul started his by explaining the theology of Star Wars! Actually, I thought it was a brilliant homily until he got to the part about my falling asleep during the movie. I thought he might have skipped that…

Let’s go back to the student’s answer. It’s quite clever, because modern teachers, whether in North Vancouver or at the North Pole, work hard to teach self-esteem. There are all kinds of lesson plans and ideas to help youngsters, and it’s certainly an important goal.

But teaching children they are special, and helping them value themselves and their gifts only goes so far. What happens to the youth or adult who realizes he or she isn’t very special at all?

And what about the person whose pain, physical or mental, makes it almost impossible to affirm the goodness of their existence?

Or even worse, what happens to the person whose self-esteem is shattered by failure, betrayal or sin?

Christmas, the miracle we celebrate tonight, has an answer to all of these crucial questions.

In our first reading, the prophet Isaiah proclaims a great light. But before he says a word about the light, he speaks about the darkness. The darkness that engulfed ordinary people. Not bad people, but ordinary people, living in a land of deep darkness.

On them light has shone.

Isaiah was writing some eight centuries before the birth of Christ, and his prophetic words applied to his own time. But they apply to us as well, as we can tell from the phrase “from this time onward and forevermore.” His prophecy is a promise we all can claim.

And that promise changes everything about our lives, especially in the dark corners where we can’t see things clearly. The promised light offers the only self-esteem that nothing can take away, because it’s not grounded in what we can do but in who we are.

And who we are has been made known to us, just as “this thing that has taken place” was made known to the shepherds in the fields. We are brothers and sisters of “a Saviour, who is the Christ, the Lord.”

The consequences of this—God becoming one of us—are almost too hard to grasp. Writing in the fourth century, St. Athanasius said “the Son of God became man so that we might become God.”

If his words weren’t repeated in the Catholic Catechism, I couldn’t bring myself to believe them. But I do, and an unavoidable conclusion flows from them. Our self-esteem acquires its highest, its richest, and its most indestructible form on this holy night.

The birth of Christ is not good news just for religious people. As the angels told the shepherds, it is “good news of great joy for all the people.”

Listen to what the shepherds say to one another when the angels leave: “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

Are they convinced? Have they figured it all out? Not likely, given what the shepherds call the event that the angels have announced: “this thing that has taken place.” Many of us also are a bit confused about what it all means, even if we do not doubt what happened.

So let us rush to the stable along with the shepherds. Let us find Mary and Joseph and their child, tonight, and see not a myth or even a mere historical event; with eyes of hope let us see healing for our wounded self-esteem, restoration of the dignity that others have taken away from us or which we have surrendered freely.

Look at the child in the manger and see your brother, your own flesh and blood, God who has brought salvation to you and to all.

Look at the Christ child and see yourself as God wants you to be—“godly” is the word St. Paul uses in our second reading. The grace of God that has appeared in Christ teaches and empowers us “to live lives that are self-controlled, upright and godly.”

Whatever has robbed you of true self-esteem, accept it back as the best Christmas gift of all.

Some of us have found great peace by working with professional counsellors, who can be a real blessing and bring much help to wounded spirits. But we should start with the one who is named Wonderful Counsellor and Prince of Peace. He who breaks the yoke that weighs us down, and shatters the bars that oppress us is the true source of self-esteem.

But our Christmas thoughts must not focus too much on ourselves, important though it is to know how much we are loved by God. Let’s end with a look at the bigger picture. The future of the world depends greatly on our rediscovering our human dignity and worth.

“If man is not made in the image of God, nothing then stands in the way of inhumanity,” the Protestant theologian Francis Schaeffer wrote more than thirty years ago.

He continued “There is no good reason why mankind should be perceived as special. Human life is cheapened. We can see this in many of the major issues being debated in our society today: abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, the increase of child abuse and violence of all kinds, pornography ..., the routine torture of political prisoners in many parts of the world, the crime explosion, and the random violence which surrounds us.” 

It sounds all too familiar today, and Francis Schaeffer’s somber words are not out of place on Christmas night—because they cry out for the rediscovery of the nobility of our human nature.

So whether you’re worried about the world or about yourself, let the light of Christmas truth shine on your problem. Go now to Bethlehem to find the source of your greatest dignity—God made man, that men might become God.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Pathway to Peace (Advent IV.C)

Our Friday morning men’s prayer group celebrated Mass together at 6 a.m. last week. Like other members of the group, I invited some men in the parish to join us.

I was surprised by those who turned down the invitation because they were busy. Not because they didn’t want to be in church so early, but because they already had a work commitment at the crack of dawn.

Think about that. None of these men was a coal miner or a taxi driver or a doctor in the emergency room, but all of them were expected to be on duty shortly after most people wake up.

We can’t just blame their nasty bosses in Toronto. Many of us are living in the eye of a hurricane of busy-ness, whether we’re in business, managing a home, or serving a parish.

Is it any wonder that the Friday morning group chose “peace” as a theme for our Advent Mass?

Peace is a word that rings in our ears. Our hearts long for it, even if we aren’t entirely sure what it is.

In our first reading today, the prophet Micah doesn’t tell us what peace is; he announces who peace is. Writing at a time of political disaster and impending doom, he promises security from the Messiah who will be born in Bethlehem.

But he doesn’t say the Messiah will bring peace; he will be peace.

St. Paul says the same thing about 700 years later, when he tells the Ephesians that Christ Jesus “is our peace.” (Eph. 2:14)

Many people today seek peace through techniques. You can find dozens of books online that promise peace through deep breathing, yoga, or something called mindfulness training. Much of this is rooted in Eastern or New Age methods.

But only Christianity promises peace as a person—Someone on whom we can unload our limitations, our sorrows, our shortcomings, our imperfect spouses and children, our bad health, our fears—all of the ordinary “stuff” which we allow to rob us of our peace.

The security and peace promised to us in Christ comes from surrendering control of our lives to Him—not asking him to change everything we’re dealing with, but asking him to change us.

In our second reading, Jesus himself accepts God’s will, in an act of total surrender to the Father. None of can make such a complete sacrifice of ourselves, but all of us, made holy by Christ’s sacrifice, are also called to surrender ourselves to the will of God.

Doing God’s will can be as simple as bearing with the trials life sends us, uniting them to the supreme sacrifice of Christ through the Mass, through a morning offering, and by accepting them.

What does God’s will mean for you this week? For some, it might be accepting without complaint the arrival of a mother-in-law who likes to say “that’s not really how we stuff a turkey in our family…”

It might be bearing with the loneliness that comes from missing a departed loved one at Christmastime. Maybe we need to resist family social events that will make it all but impossible to come to Mass on Christmas.

For me, it will be finding time to pray during this wild week, trying to find time to write a good homily for Friday while getting to Costco before Thursday.

God’s will is different for each of us, but God’s peace is the same for all of us—Christ, who is our peace. Christ, born in Bethlehem, Christ, coming anew at Christmas.

The famous Serenity Prayer may be just what we need to help us understand how we are to accept God’s will and find the peace that Jesus promises, a peace the world cannot give, even at Christmas.

Let me close with its power-filled words:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
that I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
forever in the next.   Amen.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Our First Permanent Deacons

Last evening, on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Archbishop J. Michael Miller ordained the first permanent deacons for the Archdiocese of Vancouver. It was a great moment for our local Church, but also for me, since I have directed their formation since our permanent diaconate program began.

Here, with his kind permission, is the Archbishop's homily.

What a blessed and historic day this is and at long last! in the life of the Archdiocese of Vancouver: the Ordination of these sixteen men now elected to the Sacred Order of Deacons.  Not only is this the first group of men who will serve our local Church as permanent deacons, it is the largest Ordination ever held in our beautiful Cathedral.  Truly it is a moment of special grace and joy for each one of you, brothers, and for your families, but for all of us as well.  We cannot but repeat the words which marked the dawn of our salvation in Christ when the Angel Gabriel said to the Virgin Mary: Rejoice (Lk 1:28).  Yes, this evening we rejoice and give the Lord thanks and praise for he is doing marvelous things for us (cf. Ps 98:1) by enriching our Archdiocese, as he did the Church of the Apostles, with men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom (Acts 6:3) to share in the ordained ministry. 

Expression of Gratitude

It is also fitting tonight to offer profound thanks to all those who, for over four years, have been intimately involved in accompanying our ordinandi on their journey to Ordination.  Above all, dear brothers, I am thinking of your wives and families, the domestic churches where your vocation to the diaconate first took root for some of you even many years ago, and for others more recently.  Yours is a vocation within a vocation, a new gift and a new responsibility alongside the Sacrament of Marriage.
Often with considerable sacrifice, they have supported your rigorous program of formation.  I wish to acknowledge their invaluable contribution and you know far more than I ever could the extent to which their steady encouragement, sometimes their forbearance, and always their heartfelt prayer have played an indispensable role in sustaining the yes you have each given to the Lords call.  Married permanent deacons derive so much of their spiritual experience and strength from living in their families.

I also wish to express my deepest gratitude to Monsignor Greg Smith.  From the very outset, he was been tireless in putting together a superb, if demanding, formation program for the aspirants and candidates.  He has spent so many hours beyond what could be expected of any program Director that I can only marvel at all that he has accomplished to ensure that the permanent diaconate is established in our Archdiocese in an exemplary fashion.  Working closely with him have been many pastors, priests and Religious, as well as the Advisory Committee, and the administration and faculty of St. Marks College: all of these men and women have been extraordinarily generous in offering their teaching, as well as their wise and discerning counsel, at every step of the formation journey.
And, of course, I wish to thank you, dear elect in the Lord, for imitating in your own lives Marys response to the Lord as recounted in the Gospel for this Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.  Because you are being ordained on this feast, you are by that very fact alone Marys men, Marys deacons.
She had within her heart the faith and generosity to say yes to the call of God: Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word (Lk 1:38).  That fiat didnt make life easy for her.  Her let it be was not only acceptance of a vocation, but also a trustful openness to whatever the future might bring.
Today we thank the good Lord for your yes.  Despite your responsibilities as husbands, fathers and professional men, you are willing to devote yourselves to the service of God for his Church in Vancouver.  You are to be for us living icons of Jesus the Servant, the first Deacon, who came not to be served but to serve (cf. Mk 10:45).  Your ministry, like that of Jesus, is first and foremost the service of God, expressed in the pastoral care of the people to whom you are sent.

Threefold Ministry of Deacons
Through consecration by the laying on of hands, a practice that originates with the Apostles, and strengthened by the gift of the Holy Spirit invoked upon them, our deacons will show themselves to be servants of all and helpers of me and the priests of our presbyterate by serving as ministers of the altar, of the word, and of charity and justice.
Ministers of the Altar
As ministers of the altar, they will proclaim the Gospel in the liturgical assembly, prepare the Sacrifice, and distribute the Lords Body and Blood.  They also preside over public prayer, administer Baptism, assist at and bless Marriages, bring Viaticum to the dying, and conduct funeral rites.[1]  They can also officiate at Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, conduct prayer services for the sick and dying, administer sacramentals, and lead popular devotions.
Dear ordinandi: whenever you will have the privilege of ministering at the Eucharist or bringing Holy Communion to those at home do so in such a way that the reverence with which you surround Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament may touch the hearts of your people and deepen their faith and their trust in him.

I hope that, with time, the Churchs rubrics for celebrating the liturgy will become second nature to you, so that when you are engaged in the Churchs sacramental worship, you can truly focus on drawing those you are serving into the mystery of Christs love, there to experience his mercy and healing, there to be nourished and strengthened so that they can all truly be missionary disciples.  Remember to pray before you celebrate and while you celebrate, so that your lives may give God glory after you have celebrated the liturgy.
Ministers of the Word
As sharers in the Churchs mission of evangelization, our deacons will also preach the Word of God at the liturgies, as well as be heralds of this Word by providing, among other things, catechetical instruction, adult faith formation, and preparation for reception of the Sacraments.
Dear brothers: you will be able to evangelize only if you yourselves are constantly being evangelized through your personal encounter and friendship with Jesus; only if you allow Jesus to take ownership of your lives.
And so, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, through your prayer, contemplation and study, cultivate a great reverence and love for Gods Word as authoritatively handed down in the community of the Church.
Minister of Charity

Because the deacons ministry is a visible sign of the Churchs service to the world, they will dedicate themselves generously to the works of charity and justice in the Archdiocese, above all to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.  In doing so, they are continuing the ministry of waiting on tables entrusted to the first seven deacons as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles (cf Acts 6:2).  The social service which they [the first deacons] were meant to provide was absolutely concrete, yet at the same time it was also a spiritual service; theirs was a truly spiritual office which carried out an essential responsibility of the Church, namely a well-ordered love of neighbour. [As Pope Benedict wrote,] With the formation of this group of seven, diaconia the ministry of charity exercised in a communitarian, orderly way became part of the fundamental structure of the Church.[2]
They are to bring the marginalized to the Church and the Church to those on the peripheries of society: the unprotected unborn, the sick, the abused, the dying and bereaved, the deaf and disabled, those with troubled marriages, the homeless, victims of substance abuse, prisoners, refugees, and street people.  Fostering the practice of justice as contained in the Churchs social teaching is a duty entrusted in a special way to diaconal ministry.
Jubilee Year of Mercy

Dear elect: in Gods Providence, you are being ordained on the day when the Holy Father is inaugurating the Jubilee Year of Mercy and is inviting the whole Church to render more clearly her mission to be a witness to mercy . . . [and] to live in the light of the word of the Lord: Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful (cf. Lk 6:36).[3]  In Pope Franciss words, the Churchs primary task . . . is to introduce everyone to the great mystery of Gods mercy by contemplating the face of Christ.[4]
Yours, then, is to be a ministry of mercy: walking with people whose wounds cry for healing; going out to seek the lost and the hopeless; lifting up those who have fallen; helping others to find the path that God is calling them to, the happiness that he intends for each of his children.  May you always have the eyes of faith to recognize the face of Jesus himself in the little ones entrusted to you.
Never let people forget that God forgives all, and God forgives always.[5]  Mercy is the beating heart of the Gospel.[6]

As we continue now with the Rite of Ordination, let us ask the Immaculate Virgin Mary to awaken in all of us but now especially our ordinandi a renewed desire for holiness: that the beauty of worship may transform our lives, that the splendour of truth may shine forth in our words, and that the song of charity may resound in our works.[7]

[1] Roman Pontifical, Rite of Ordination of Several Deacons.

[2] Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 21.

[3] Francis, Homily at Penitential Vigil (13 March 2015).

[4] Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, 25.

[5] Francis, Homily at Penitential Vigil (13 March 2015).

[6] Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, 12.

[7] Cf. Francis, Prayer for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception (8 December 2013).