Sunday, July 31, 2016

Elementary Thinking (Sunday 18.C)

Preaching to listeners who range from six to 96 can be a challenge. When I mention Archie Bunker or Mary Tyler Moore in a homily, I get blank stares from half the congregation.

And when Father Paul mentions Pokémon Go or Jabba the Hut he gets a blank stare… from me.

But there’s one figure in the entertainment world that almost everyone recognizes—Sherlock Holmes. Since he first appeared in print in 1887, the famous detective has appeared in 260 movies, 25 TV shows, a musical, a ballet, and 600 radio plays. [These numbers, and many other facts in my homily, come from David Gann’s fascinating article “Mysterious Circumstances
in The New Yorker magazine, reprinted in his book The Devil & Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness & Obsession.]

Less well-known is Sherlock’s creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a British doctor. I was reading about him this week and was quite surprised to find he was born a Catholic—both his parents were Catholic, and he received his education from Jesuit schools and colleges.

After medical school, however, he “renounced Catholicism, vowing, ‘Never will I accept anything which cannot be proved to me.’”

That seems a fairly rugged opinion and a pretty serious knock against our faith. But as I continued reading I was even more surprised to find that by the time he died Arthur Conan Doyle had become “the St. Paul of psychics.” Although he had denied the afterlife, he attended séances at which he “claimed to see not only dead family members but fairies as well.”

The ex-Catholic skeptic became living proof of the old saying ‘if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.’

I’m talking about this now because our readings at Mass today show the sharp contrast between God’s perfect truth and man’s limited reasoning. In the first reading, the Teacher sets the stage. He says that our labour—even when done wisely and well—can be in vain. It can make us anxious and sleepless, not producing the security we that hard work would give us.

In our second reading, St. Paul goes much further than the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes, spelling out the problem: perfect wisdom is not found on earth but in heaven. As Christians, we’re living a new life and striving for a new goal—not contentment on earth, but glory in heaven. Logically enough, St. Paul explains, if we want to know the path to glory we need to set our minds on heavenly things rather than on the vanities of earthly life.

The Apostle spells this our even more clearly in the Letter to the Romans where he writes “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rm 12:2).

Putting the first and second readings together, we see clearly that Christians must think differently about every aspect of their lives, especially their work. The difference is found by seeking God and seeking to know his will and ways.

But it’s not only work and daily life that demands this effort. Temptations of every kind are another earthly reality that can sour all our hard work.

Resisting or overcoming sin takes a patient effort to see things God’s way. Sure, obeying the commandments is a start, but we want to do more. In St. Paul’s words to the Romans, we need to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rm 13:14). Resisting temptation must be our default setting, requiring that we think with Christ and like Christ. We shouldn’t confront temptations unprepared. In Ephesians 6:11, St. Paul say “Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.”

That armour includes “the belt of truth.” We buckle that on by knowing what Scripture says about greed and sexual sin, and by making those teachings a big part of how we view the world and ourselves. No serious Catholic should need to look up Church teaching on these dangerous areas—we should be praying about them all the time, setting our minds “on things that are above,” on the spiritual realities that call us to holiness and happiness.

We not only put on the armour of God: we first strip off the old self and its sinful ways, putting on the new self, which means putting on Christ himself, as St. Paul says. That new self is a new nature renewed in knowledge according to the mind of Christ. In other words, the Christian is to be so identified with Christ that he actually thinks like Christ.

The Gospel today continues the contrast between worldly wisdom and the divine plan. There’s nothing in the parable that suggests the rich man was a terrible person. Maybe he shared some of his great wealth with others. But his perspective was dead wrong. He lived by the old Latin motto “Carpe diem” or “seize the day.”

Jesus tells us that there’s only one day that matters—what Scripture calls the day of the Lord. In his homily on the first Pentecost, St. Peter preaches about “the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day” when “the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood” before “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

That great and glorious day is the ultimate goal of all that we do—all our work, all our daily efforts to know and do what God desires.

How many of us have spent more time and worry planning our finances than we have deepening our knowledge of God through prayer and the study of Scripture? Today’s a good time to think about that question and to ponder the shortness of life.

As Sherlock Holmes would say, that’s elementary.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Young Parishioners at WYD 2016

Exciting and inspiring to see and hear three of our finest talking about World Youth Day 2016 on Salt+Light.  What witnesses they are!

Check out Lily, Alexandra and Jeremy at 13"05 on this link:

Go pilgrims!

Sunday, July 24, 2016

A Second Look at the Our Father (Sunday 17.C)

I have great little app on my phone called The Three Minute Retreat. Every day it offers a simple meditation, Jesuit-style, putting me in the mood for prayer with beautiful photos and, if I feel like it, some music in the background.

Sometimes I make my three minute retreat sitting up in bed; other times I go to their website and pray at my computer.

And other times—too many other times—I tell myself I don’t have three minutes! That’s sad, because it’s amazing how much God does for me in such a short time, every time I give him the chance.

I have this guilty feeling that if prayer’s not long, it’s not good. Yet how would you feel if your spouse or parents or friends refused any loving conversation less than half an hour? As I said in another homily, God does not demand huge blocks of time before he draws close to us.

A perfect example of this is the Lord’s Prayer, which we heard Jesus teach his apostles in this morning’s Gospel. I timed myself saying the Our Father this morning, and it took me 33 seconds, without rushing. Even when I paused at every phrase, the prayer took only twice that time—not even close to the length of the three minute retreat.

That tells me that Jesus wanted to make it easy for us to pray, and to pray properly.

Think about the opening the disciples gave the Lord. They’re eager students, asking to be taught. So what does he do? Does he tell them: ‘well, you’ve seen me spend hours in the hills, you’ve watched me spend the night in prayer to my Father—so do the same?’

No, he teaches them a 30 second prayer. And the only time he ever makes an issue of the length of prayer is in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he asks “can you not watch an hour with me?”

And after giving the disciples the Our Father, Jesus continues his teaching by underling the need to persevere in prayer. How regularly we pray is more important, he seems to suggest, than how long we pray—although, of course, he himself spent long periods of time in prayer, and I don’t want to make light of that.

But everything in today’s Gospel passage points to the power of even the shortest prayer, if prayed often and well, and to the power of the Lord’s Prayer in particular.

It shouldn’t surprise us that the Lord’s Prayer is so important, since it came from Jesus himself. Yet we can become so used to it that our familiarity steals its power and proper impact on our hearts and minds.

Tertullian, a Father of the Church who died around 225, called the Our Father “the short summary of the whole Gospel.” About four centuries the later, the great St. Augustine said it was the source of all other prayers.

So let’s have a second look at this prayer we all know so well, and which many of us say every day.

The version of the prayer we hear this morning from St. Luke’s Gospel is a bit shorter than in St. Matthew. Since that’s the version we usually pray, we’ll examine it.

If we take the prayer apart, we find seven petitions. The first three ask that God be glorified, the last four ask for our physical and spiritual needs. The great Protestant preacher William Barclay reminds us to take careful note of the order of the Lord's Prayer. “Before anything is asked for ourselves, God and his glory, and the reverence due to him, come first. Only when we give God his place will other things take their proper place.”

After calling on the Father by name, we pray that his name be hallowed or holy—that he be properly known and revered in our hearts.

Next we pray that the Kingdom of God may come. Books have been written about the meaning of that, and Jesus teaches often about the kingdom. The Kingdom of God is at the heart of what Jesus preached—to pray for its coming is to pray for the fulfillment of our faith. These few words, “thy Kingdom come” are a bridge between earth and heaven.

The third petition directed to the glory of God doesn’t appear in St. Luke’s account of the Lord’s Prayer, but it certainly jumps out in the version we say: “Thy will be done.” To put it simply, we are praying that the great divine plan unfolds in our lives, in our Church, in our world, and in history. We know what God wills for us and for all creation, and when we pray this we are making a commitment to do our part.

The remaining four petitions cover the whole of life. William Barclay puts it beautifully: they cover present needs, past sins, and future trials.

We start with our most basic need, praying for our daily bread. “This goes back to the old story of the manna in the wilderness (Exodus 16:11-21). Only enough for the needs of the day might be gathered. We are not to worry about the unknown future, but to live a day at a time” with confidence in God’s care.

The fifth petition covers past sin. When we pray we cannot do other than pray for forgiveness, for even the best of us are sinners “standing before the purity of God.” Built in to the petition “Forgive us our trespasses” is a reminder that it’s a meaningless prayer unless we’re ready to forgive those who have sinned against us. Jesus taught that clearly in the parable of the unforgiving servant.

The last two petitions cover future trials. We pray to be shielded from temptation—which is really a prayer for the grace to resist temptation—and to be delivered from all evils.

All that in 33 seconds—66 seconds if you take your time! Perhaps it's time we took this perfect prayer a bit more to heart.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Pilgrims to Poland

To prepare for the blessing of our World Youth Day pilgrims at Mass this morning, I decided to do a bit of research.  I started with the ecumenical councils, the great gatherings of bishops that have guided the Church through history.

The first reference to pilgrims was at the First Lateran Council in 1123. That council excommunicated anyone who tried to rob them. This will probably not protect our young people from pickpockets. The Third Lateran Council, also held in the twelfth century, excommunicates anyone who disturbs pilgrims. That threat probably won't stop someone keeping our pilgrims awake by singing in the streets of Cracow.

Only in our time, at the Second Vatican Council, did my research turn up more inspiring words.

In its decree on the sacred liturgy, Vatican II says that as we worship here "we strive as pilgrims" towards Jerusalem, the heavenly city (SC 8). The decree on the Church says that we follow in the footsteps of Christ "while we are still making our pilgrimage on earth" (LG 7).

In that same decree, the council speaks of "the pilgrim Church" (LG 48) and tells us that "in her motherly love" Mary looks after the brothers and sisters of her son during their pilgrimage through life, with all its dangers and difficulties, "until they are led to their heavenly homeland" (LG 62).

The conciliar decree on the laity calls the lay faithful to devote themselves generously to spreading the kingdom of God "in the pilgrimage of this life," and to shape the secular world with the Christian spirit. (AA 4).

The pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world says that our community "is composed of people united in Christ who are directed by the Holy Spirit in their pilgrimage towards the Father's kingdom" (GS 1). And even though we are on a pilgrimage to the heavenly city, we are called to build a better world on earth (GS 57).

Small wonder, then, that our parish rejoices to see eighteen young adults embark on a pilgrimage--a symbol of the Church's journey towards God and of their own walk of faith.

St. John Paul, whom our World Youth Day travelers will certainly encounter in Poland, called pilgrimages "a work of grace." As we bless our young pilgrims at Mass this morning, we pray that they will not only experience many graces but return safely to share them with us.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Christians are Joyful! (Don't be a 'sourpuss'); 14 C

I'm no expert on papal history, but there's one thing I can tell you for sure:  no Pope has ever used the word "sourpuss"  in an official document. 

Until now. In his letter The Joy of the Gospel, the Holy Father writes about the temptation of  becoming “sourpusses.” 

I was so startled by the word that I checked other translations of the letter. The French and Italian versions just use expressions for dark or gloomy expressions.  But in Spanish, which I assume is the language the Pope used, it says cara de vinagre--vinegar face! For which “sourpuss” seems a perfect translation.

Pope Francis is warning against defeatism, “which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists.” Quoting St. John XXIII, he tells us to ignore “the prophets of doom who are always forecasting disaster.”

We need this papal advice about positive thinking more than ever.  As Pope Francis writes in The Joy of the Gospel, “Nobody can go off to battle unless he is fully convinced of victory beforehand. If we start without confidence, we have already lost half the battle and we bury our talents.”

But how do we maintain a positive attitude in the face of the setbacks the Church has faced in Canada and many other places? How do we deal with our own failures without becoming pessimists?

The one word answer is in the title of the Pope's letter, and in our first reading, Psalm and Gospel at Mass this morning: joy. 

In today's first reading, the prophet Isaiah is preaching to a discouraged community. After fifty years, the Jews have returned to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylon. But when they return to the holy city they've been longing for, it's in ruin. The people are downcast and discouraged.

In the face of their distress, Isaiah tells them to rejoice, not to mourn. He calls them to joy--not because things are all peachy, but because God is still in charge. Raise your eyes above Jerusalem's ruined buildings and streets overgrown with weeds and look to the future. Don't look at Jerusalem as she is, but as she will become by God's providence.

For Christians, the prophet's message goes further. Look to the Jerusalem to come, as St. Paul tells the Galatians in a passage that precedes the one we've just heard. The present Jerusalem, he says, is in slavery. But the Jerusalem above is free, “and she is our mother.” (Gal. 4:25-26) As Paul writes to the Colossians,  “seek the things that are above, where Christ is.”

We can find much joy in longing for heaven, in thinking and praying about the plan God has for our lives both now and forever. In the second reading today, we meet St. Paul at his most peaceful. He seems secure and settled, without fear of failure or persecution. And though he doesn't mention joy here as he does in many other places in his epistles, Paul lets us in on his secret:  “a new creation is everything!”

A new creation, the heavenly Jerusalem, the Kingdom of God--all phrases that need a homily on their own. But the bottom line of Paul's exclamation is that being a Christian has made all the difference to his life.

That difference has brought him great joy, and it should do the same for us. A Christian who finds no joy in life has lost his or her relationship with God or at least lost sight of what the Psalm today calls his tremendous deeds.

Things as basic as the beauty of creation should make us joyful, So too should our gratitude for the many blessings of our lives. On my ordination anniversary last week, I thanked God for the top three: faith, family, and friends.  They're all easy to take for granted sometimes, but I think that faith is the one most often forgotten when we look at the sources of our joy.

The disciples come back from their first mission full of spiritual joy.  Their success in preaching and casting out evil spirits dwarfed whatever  hardships they'd met on their journey. We also need spiritual joy--we need to marvel every week at being called to be members of the Church. Every Mass should have a note of joy, and we should not only be grateful but joyful for the security and healing God offers us in the other sacraments.

Our parishioners who pray Morning Prayer before Mass begin with Psalm 95 every day. That psalm invites us to “ring out our joy to the Lord.” That's certainly what the readings ask us to do today, but lifting up our eyes from earthly worries and focusing on heavenly hope.

I gave Pope Francis the first word in my homily--“sourpusses”--so I'd like to give him the last word. Here's how his letter begins: “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. With Christ joy is constantly born anew.”