Saturday, April 25, 2015

Most Rev. Raymond Roussin, SM: A Good Shepherd

For five years, Archbishop Raymond Roussin was our archbishop. But he almost became our fellow parishioner, since he had decided to live in retirement in the rectory here at Christ the Redeemer.

His suite had been painted and his moving-in date was set, but just a few weeks before his arrival he had a significant medical setback and the doctors determined he needed more care than we could provide.

It didn’t surprise me that the archbishop wanted to stay here. He had shown a warm personal interest in the parish while still in office, choosing to celebrate the Easter Vigil with us in 2008, the year he asked his coadjutor, Archbishop Miller, to preside at half of the Holy Week liturgies.

I remember very well that Easter Vigil. It was my first as a pastor, and anything that could go wrong, did. Archbishop Roussin never missed a beat, and was gracious from start to finish.

You might wonder why I’m reminiscing like this if you haven’t yet heard that our archbishop emeritus died on Friday after a long illness. But his death is not the main reason I am speaking about him this morning; it’s his life that makes the late archbishop the perfect starting place for my homily—because today is Good Shepherd Sunday, and Raymond Roussin was a good shepherd.

To be precise, he was a bishop in the image of Jesus the Good Shepherd: a man whose life followed the pattern Jesus presents in the Gospel today.

The Lord tells us several important things about a good shepherd: he knows his flock and they know him; he holds his ground when the flock is threatened; and he seeks out sheep from other sheepfolds, so there can be one flock.

To all of us who belong to the flock of Christ, these are comforting words; to all who lead the flock of Christ they are challenging words.

Yet it’s quite clear that these qualities are not at the center of what Jesus tells us about himself as the Good Shepherd. He tells us the most important thing at the beginning of this passage, in the middle, and at the end. What matters most is that the Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.

In fact, in this short text we hear Jesus speak of laying down his life five times.

Pictures of the Good Shepherd are often sentimental, showing Jesus holding a little lamb in his arms or carrying one on his shoulders. The truth is, there’s nothing sentimental about today’s Gospel, because a better illustration is the cross, on which Jesus lay down his life for the sheep.

Christ is speaking plainly about his passion and death when he says “I lay down my life for the sheep.” The Good Shepherd suffers for his flock.

Suffering was at the heart of Raymond Roussin’s ministry as a bishop, almost without a break. When first named a bishop, he was called upon to close down the small diocese to which he was sent. We never spoke about it, but it cannot have been easy.

From there he went to the Diocese of Victoria. He was hardly settled when its financial crisis exploded, threatening the Church on the Island in many ways. His patient leadership kept things afloat, but all the while there were people publicly accusing him of being the cause of the problems he had only inherited and sought to resolve.

At last an appointment to the Archdiocese of Vancouver, recognition it seemed of his faithful service and a community that faced no major problems. But within a short time, he began to experience symptoms of depression that required him to seek help.

I was part of the discussion of whether or not the archbishop should go public with an illness that still makes many people uncomfortable. As is well known, he decided to keep no secrets from his flock, and in speaking out about his depression he encouraged thousands who had felt their depression meant there was something wrong with their spiritual lives.

After treatment for depression, the Archbishop returned to work, but it was clear his health was not what it should be. Eventually, the Holy Father appointed Archbishop Miller to work alongside Archbishop Roussin, and he succeeded him early in 2009.

If this were the whole story, it would be enough to compare Raymond Roussin not only to the Good Shepherd but to the suffering servant of whom the prophet Isaiah called “a man of suffering, acquainted with grief.”

But, sadly, it was not the whole story. Although details of the diagnosis were never shared, the late archbishop was found to suffer from a neurological illness that incapacitated him in recent years and which, by the end of his life, had taken his power of speech.

How much his sufferings as a bishop contributed to his physical condition will never be known; but the only conclusion I can reach is that this was a man whose life was received by God the Father as an offering for the flock of Christ.

If that were the end of the story, it would be enough to inspire us to be thankful. But, happily, it is not the end of the story. Jesus says clearly that he has the power to lay down his life, and the power to take it up again.

That is the end of the story of the Good Shepherd—the Resurrection. Easter. And that is where the story of the humble and holy and long-suffering Archbishop Roussin must end, too: not with the crosses he bore, but with the hope he treasured and which is now fulfilled.

What would his life and death be without the paschal mystery? A long Good Friday without Easter. But the Lord who called him to lay down his life for the sheep shared with him the power of his own Resurrection.

I hope my words this morning don’t come across as a eulogy. They’re not even adequate for that purpose. This is a homily, not a eulogy. What I’m saying applies to all who suffer and especially to all who suffer greatly.

All of us celebrate Easter, but the Christian who lays down his or her life by the patient endurance of  suffering experiences it in a particular way.

In an article in the current issue of Restoration, the Madonna House newspaper, Father David May offers several features of the love of the Risen Lord that he showed to his disciples and longs to show to us. Three of these things help us understand the power Easter can have in our lives, and the power it certainly had in Archbishop Roussin’s.

The first is that Jesus “walked the length” of his disciples’ sadness. He took no shortcuts on the road to Emmaus. He didn’t interrupt but let them experience and pour out their sorrows. When they’d finished, he “poured into their thirsty hearts the words of truth.”

Having himself “suffered to the end the way of the Cross, Jesus spoke with the knowledge of experience” of both “the meaning of suffering and of its true outcome.”

If we embrace our suffering and allow Christ to raise us with him, we too “can walk with patience and sure hope the length of the road” with others who suffer.

A second feature of the love of the Risen Lord is that “he absorbed bitterness, grief and skepticism with patient understanding.” Here Father May could be describing Archbishop Roussin no less than Jesus; this is exactly what he did many, many times in his ministry as a bishop: more than once I was privileged to witness him absorb the bitterness of others with unflinching patience.

Jesus let Thomas express his doubts and fears, and then answered with the proof of suffering: “Real suffering! Real wounds.” Jesus, of course, was the “man of sorrows,” of whom Isaiah spoke, and understood the grief behind Thomas’ outburst.

Finally, the Risen Lord spoke a word of peace to Thomas and the other disciples huddled in the Upper Room. “Shalom! Peace!” he proclaimed to them, in the face of the near-despair of the doubting apostle.

He spoke that word of peace in response “to every hard question that can be asked, every burden of despair a human being can know, all the disappointment of lost dreams and failed promises that can make life a burden,” Father May eloquently writes.

He spoke that word of peace as a one-word summary of the hope and power that his Resurrection has brought to suffering humanity.

And now, we pray, he speaks it eternally to Raymond Roussin, his beloved brother, his suffering servant, and our good shepherd.

Easter Power in Daily Life (Easter 3.B)

A young mother was driving along Marine Drive with her two children in the car. Although she was doing the speed limit, a woman stressed-out man was tailgating her, right on her bumper for many blocks.

All of a sudden the light turned yellow. She did the right thing, stopping at the crosswalk rather than zipping through the intersection.

The tailgater was furious. He honked his horn, screaming in frustration. He even made a rude gesture I can’t describe here—but it wasn’t exactly the universal sign of peace.

In the middle of his rant, the road-rager heard a tap on the car window and looked up into the face of a very serious West Van police officer. The officer ordered him to get out of the car and arrested him.

He took the man to the police station where he was searched, fingerprinted, photographed, and placed in a holding cell. After a couple of hours the man was escorted back to the booking desk where the arresting officer was waiting with his personal effects.

The policeman said, “Sorry, my mistake. You see, I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, flipping off the woman in front of you, and swearing a blue streak at her.

“So when I noticed the ‘What Would Jesus Do’ bumper sticker, the ‘Choose Life’ license plate holder, and the chrome-plated Christian fish symbol on the trunk… naturally I assumed you had stolen the car.”

Well, it’s not a true story! But we laugh because there’s truth in it that most of us recognize.

And the truth is that we can pretty easily put our faith in one compartment and our daily life in another.

When we’re caught doing that—by ourselves or others—we feel guilty. But that’s not what I want to talk about this morning. I’d like to talk about how we miss out when we keep faith and life separate: specifically, the great things we miss when we keep Easter in a box, unconnected with the joys and sorrows and challenges of everyday life.

Both this Sunday and last week, the Gospel describes appearances of the risen Lord that underline how real the Resurrection is. Jesus breaks bread. He lets Thomas touch him. And he cooks breakfast.

By such simple actions, the risen Jesus taught his disciples that he is real, and that he wants to be part of their daily life. And what he taught them, he teaches us.

So let’s ask ourselves, right now:  is the risen Lord part of my life? What difference does Easter make to me? Would my daily struggles be any different if Jesus had not risen from the dead on that first Easter day?

Consider these questions:

·       Does Easter strengthen my belief that Jesus is able to heal and help me?

·       Does the Resurrection make me feel more peaceful about growing old? Does it help me face the approach of death with serenity?

·       Does Christ’s victory over death give me hope that sooner or later I will win my fight to overcome some particular sin?

·       Did celebrating Easter give me a fresh sense of how real Christ is in the Eucharist I receive?

·       And—most important of all—is my faith in the Resurrection, renewed at Easter, bringing me closer to Jesus?

These aren’t pious or rhetorical questions. They deserve answers—because Easter makes a difference; it must make a difference.

Think about it: if Easter isn’t the most important thing that ever happened, then Jesus suffered in vain, and—perhaps more astonishing—rose in vain. It’s preposterous that someone could be mercilessly tortured and killed, and then return to life wrapped in glory—and it made no difference!

But of course it made all the difference. This morning’s Gospel tells us that the Resurrection brings peace and joy—because his presence brings peace and joy.

It brings the comfort of his presence—not just Sunday morning in church, but all the time, even at the breakfast table.

If Easter hasn’t any power in your life or in mine, it may be because we’re not meeting the risen Lord in our daily life.

If Easter isn’t helping us deal with our challenges, from everyday fears to the ultimate fear, that of death, then maybe we aren’t connecting the dots. We need to recognize that Easter didn’t just have power: it had purpose.

Jesus doesn’t say “peace be with you” only to a select group who are doing everything right. His resurrection offers peace also to sinners: it both strengthens us against sin, and provides a remedy for sin.

Sometimes we feel defeated by sin. But in our second reading St. John reminds us that we have an advocate who defends us, an advocate who is also an atoning sacrifice. Jesus is like a lawyer who pays the penalty his client owes. He paid that penalty on Good Friday, but on Easter we see proof that God accepted and was pleased with this atonement.

All who struggle with sin, who can hardly imagine how God can keep on loving them, need to know that Christ’s perfect sacrifice is the best source of peace and hope they can ever have.

Easter offers spiritual power to the weak. Hope of life for the dying, hope of mercy for the sinful, hope of peace for the unsettled. But tapping into this source of power and peace requires more than belief in the fact of the Resurrection, crucial though it is.

It calls for relationship. “Come closer,” Jesus seems to say to the disciples. “Look at me; touch me; I’m as real as you are.”

Sure, we can’t look at the Lord and feel his wounds the way the disciples did. But we can get close to him through prayer. Easter is a time for prayer that is up close and personal: we can ask God in conversation, “What does all this mean for me?”

This prayer should be fueled by reading what the Scriptures say about the first Easter. Why not sit quietly at the kitchen table one or two mornings this week, and read the Resurrection stories in all four Gospels?

And ask the Lord to sit with you at the table, and to open your mind through his Holy Spirit so you can better understand the meaning of what you read. He won’t be offended if you eat breakfast while you’re with him.

Because Easter faith and daily duties were never meant to stay in separate compartments of our busy and challenging lives.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Truth and Consequences (Easter 2.B)

Christmas afternoon. The living room is deserted except for a few piles of gifts; the younger kids are downstairs with an Xbox or a Gameboy, and the teenagers have gone back to bed. The excitement’s over, except for Boxing Day madness and the annual suspense over whether or not Father Xavier will lace up his skates for the parish skating party.

Most of us, parents and children alike, know the feeling.

Even the Church seems quickly to turn our thoughts from Christmas, celebrating several big feasts in the week following December 25.

Easter is different. We focus on the resurrection without a moment’s pause. Today’s Gospel records an appearance of the Risen Lord. So did the Gospel yesterday, and Friday, and Thursday—at every Mass last week we read an Easter story, whether it was on the road to Emmaus, or along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, or behind the locked doors of the Upper Room.

The Risen Lord appears also in next Sunday’s Gospel. That’s the last in this long series, but it doesn’t mean an end to the Easter theme. Two Sundays from now we’ll turn our thoughts back to the earthly ministry of Jesus in order to better understand his continuing presence with us now that he has risen.

I’m not telling you this just to describe the pattern of the readings we’ve heard today and will hear from now until the Ascension. There are three important things we can learn from looking at the readings today, and all of them connect to one central fact: Easter is a continuing experience in our lives.

The first point is that the resurrection has consequences for the Church. In our first reading, the Acts of the Apostles tells us about the unity and charity of the early Church. It tells us that what the first disciples believed had enormous consequences for how they worshipped.

It’s generally true in our parish that those with the greatest commitment to the faith are also those who make the greatest financial sacrifices. But imagine a community where the financial sacrifice was total—no envelopes or tax receipts involved! What strong faith is needed to surrender everything, trusting that the fellowship of believers would look after your needs.

And not just faith in God: by giving up what they owned to the Apostles, those first Christians also had faith in the Church. What they saw in one another allowed them to trust in the goodness of the community.

This short reading from Acts is presented in three paragraphs. The first says the group was “of one heart and soul” and “everything they owned was held in common.” That’s unity.

The third paragraph say “there was not a needy person among them.” Every member of the community was looked after according to need. That’s charity.

But the middle paragraph is the key. It tells us that the Apostles testified “with great power” to the resurrection of Jesus and that “great grace was upon them all.” There you have the source of the unity and the source of the power. It’s a direct consequence of that small community's faith in the resurrection.

The second point is that the resurrection has consequences for our lives. It is historical, for sure, but also something personal which we live each day.

We see this in the second reading today. Our belief in Christ, immeasurably strengthened by his rising from the dead, leads to love of God. And love of God leads to loving what he loves—in other words, to obeying his commandments.

Sometimes we’re like children who whine to their parents “Do I have to?” Or “why do I have to….” In today’s second reading, St. John says that’s the wrong question. Obedience to God is less a matter of what we have to do than something we want to do. We want what he wants because we believe. Our faith’s not just a series of dogmas, but an overall conviction that faith leads to victory—victory over sin and all that oppresses us.

As he rose from the dead, Christ won the greatest of all victories; through faith, each disciple has a share in that triumph—not just at the end of our lives, but each day that we live according to what he taught and commanded.

The third and final thing we can learn from the readings today comes from the Gospel. The resurrection of Jesus is the cornerstone of our faith. Doubting Thomas is convinced by experience. We don’t have the chance to touch the risen body of the Lord, but we do have his testimony and that of countless others. We have not seen, but we have heard; the Scriptures show us his wounded hands and his pierced side.

Seeing is believing, the saying goes, and it’s true enough. But if seeing were the only way to belief, I would wonder whether I really have a brain—certainly I’ve never seen it, and I do doubt it sometimes—or whether Australia exists. But Australians have assured me it does, and I have no reason to doubt them.

On this Divine Mercy Sunday, Jesus says “peace be with you” to each and every one of us. He offers the peace that comes from forgiveness, and the peace that comes from faith.

In his resurrection from the dead, he strengthens our faith with the most absolute of all signs—not only that we might believe, but that, through believing, we might have life in his name and the gift of peace.

The truth about the Lord's resurrection has consequences—for our Church, our lives and our hearts.