Saturday, December 29, 2018

'A Home Away from Home' for the Eternal Son of God (Holy Family.C)

Last Christmas we gave away hundreds of copies of a book about Christmas by the popular author Scott Hahn. It was called Joy to the World and subtitled “How Christ’s Coming Changed Everything (and Still Does).”

After Christmas, I didn’t hear one single comment—as near as I could tell, nobody read it.  This annoyed me, until I realized that I hadn’t read it!

So last night I spent some time with the book, and I came across a wonderful passage I’d like to read for you. Here’s what Scott Hahn writes:

“Salvation arrives by way of the family—the Holy Family. The household of Jesus, Mary and Joseph became a ‘home away from home’ for the eternal Son of God. It was an outpost of heaven, an image of the Trinity in the world. ‘We may say,’ said St. Francis de Sales, ‘that the Holy Family was a trinity on earth which in a certain way represented the Holy Trinity itself.’...”

“So God took his place in a human family—and invited you and me to find our place as well. He made a home for us in the Church,” which St. Cyprian called “a people made one with the unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

Dr. Hahn continues: “And our own homes, too—our Christian homes—also share in this awesome gift of Christmas.”

And he gives the last word on the subject to Pope Benedict: “God had chosen to reveal himself by being born into a human family and the human family thus became an icon of God! God is the
Trinity, he is a communion of love; so is the family despite all the differences that exist between the Mystery of God and his human creature…” (Angelus address, December 27, 2009)

A modern scripture scholar, two saints, and a Pope—all saying the same thing: that our families, like ourselves, are created in the image and likeness of God.

Such lofty thoughts could be enough of a homily on the Feast of the Holy Family. But they need to be brought down to earth somehow, which is what this morning’s Gospel does.

Because there’s a risk of comparing our families to the Holy Family; almost all of us object “wait a minute, that doesn’t sound like my family”—especially at Christmas, when one end of the dinner table called President Trump the Saviour of America and the other started throwing rolls while chanting “We love Justin!”

We need the story of the boy Jesus in the temple to understand how our families can be icons of the Trinity when they’re not perfect. The Holy Family was the perfect family, but it was definitely not exempt from suffering.

Certainly sin was not the cause of their suffering, but it’s often not the cause of ours either. Illness, mental and physical, misfortune of every kind, and the pain of innocent misunderstanding are part of family life. Does this blur the image of the family as an icon? Not unless you can explain away the terrible anxiety we encounter in this morning’s Gospel.

The family of Nazareth was not always the happy family, any more than our families are.  But it was always the Holy Family, in whatever adversity it faced.

Today God invites us to follow the surest path to both happiness and holiness: obedience to his commands. Faithfully following God’s law does not spare the family suffering and sorrow, but it steers it away from sin, the only ultimate sorrow.

If we live daily life according to God’s plan, revealed to us clearly in his Word and in the teachings of the Church, each of our families—however imperfectly—can become a ‘home away from home’ for the eternal Son of God.

The modern icon of the Holy Family is by Michael O'Brien. Learn more about this remarkable Canadian author and artist here. 

Monday, December 24, 2018

Christmas - a Lifeline and a Love Letter

If you have elderly parents, or are elderly yourself, you’re probably familiar with the alarms worn around the neck or on a bracelet. Someone living alone can summon help at the push of a button.

(I hasten to add that I have no personal experience with this, since my mother certainly does not accept the label ‘elderly’!)

I was taking Communion to one of our seniors the other day, and while I was there a technician came in to fix one of those alarms. As he worked in the other room, the parishioner leaned forward, pointed to the device around her neck, and said “I wouldn’t push this thing to save my life – they come and take you to the hospital!

As I left her apartment, still smiling at her conspiratorial comment, my thoughts turned to Christmas. It struck me that many of us are like that feisty lady. We wear Christianity around our neck, even pay to maintain our subscription, but we wouldn’t rely on it to save our life.

The Scriptures for this holy night challenge us to think again. What’s the point of a lifeline if we don’t use it?

And there’s not much doubt that the Christian story is about a first responder who comes to our side whenever we ask, not to drag us off to somewhere we don’t want to go, but to pick us up off the floor, dress our wounds, and heal our wounded hearts.

The prophecy of Isaiah in our first reading, the words of St. Paul in our second, and the Angel’s message in tonight’s Gospel all confirm that Christmas is not only good news, but the best news.

Isaiah was writing some 2700 years ago, but he was speaking no less to us. If you know nothing of deep darkness, you have my hearty congratulations; but most of us have spent time in that place of gloom whether through failure, rejection, depression, or just the inevitable disappointments of life that can weigh us down.

Look what he promised – light that overpowers the darkest night, exultant joy, justice, righteousness, and most of all, peace. Not as a reward for good behaviour, but as sheer gift, the gift of a child born for us.

St. Paul sums up this marvel in a few words: “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” And he hints at the next chapter in the story, referring to Jesus Christ as he who gave himself for us that he might redeem us and purify us. You’ll have to come back at Easter to celebrate that joy in its fullness.

And finally, the Angel’s proclamation. It is “good news of great joy for all the people” because it fulfills the hope of the ages, again bringing that gift most of us crave most of all: peace. A peace, as St. Paul says elsewhere, that the world cannot give.

How is it possible to reduce the birth of Christ to the background to our celebration of Christmas? Are we looking at the alarm button of faith, of prayer, of hope, as an ornament rather than an invitation to summon precisely the help we need and, if truth be told, want in the depth of our hearts?

If we have turned aside from tonight’s true message, it’s perhaps because we have not heard it proclaimed fully through the Word of God. It reminds me of a story from something that happened when I was a young teenager. One or two of my siblings and I were in my parents’ room watching their TV while my father was organizing his bedroom drawers.

He’d dumped out the contents of one large drawer onto the bed. The only thing that looked interesting was a bundle of envelopes tied up with a red ribbon.

“Can I look at this?” I asked my father. “Sure,” he said in a distracted way, concentrating on something else.

So one of us kids undid the ribbon and pulled out the contents of the first envelope. We read aloud, “My dearest Jane…” at which point my father turned around, grabbed the bundle and hastily put them away. It was his love letters while courting my mother!

Our Heavenly Father does not object to us reading his love letters. In fact, the Bible is one long love letter from God to his children. And so we’re going to end our time of reflection tonight by listening to the Father speak to us in the words of Scripture, opening our hearts to the love made visible at Bethlehem.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Second Sunday of Advent.C

A belated post of my homily for the second Sunday of Advent. 

A few weeks back, Bishop Mark Hagemoen of Saskatoon was staying with us at the rectory. He arrived fresh from a hike on Mount Harvey, with some absolutely stunning pictures of the view he had enjoyed.

Since the hike was nearby on the North Shore, and the views were really magnificent, I asked him if I’d be able to manage it, if I took it slow.

The athletic bishop paused. He took a breath. He said, kindly, “… no.”

I had to admit that some great adventures are beyond my reach.

And that’s how many of us feel about the heights of the spiritual life. We’re not up for the climb; it’s for the holy folks, the religious types. But we’re not keen on the valleys, either—when we’re low, we lose sight of God and his goodness.

On this second Sunday of Advent, God’s word tells us we can manage, even if we have to take it slow. The prophet Baruch says that “God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low.” To use a modern expression, God Almighty has levelled the playing field so that every one of us can walk safely into the light of his glory.

By the time of John the Baptist, the Romans had established themselves as the greatest road builders of the ancient world. Travel between key points became faster and easier, uniting the Empire—which is why we say “all roads lead to Rome.” 

Jesus came to pave a sure way to the Father, a road on which to travel all the way to heaven. But although the path is sure, we need to walk it; he warns that the road that leads to destruction is broad and many take it.

What could possibly lead someone to take that road, when there’s a road to life that has been made smooth and straight for us?

The prayers at Mass today give us a good answer.  In the opening prayer, the Collect, we pray “Almighty and merciful God, may no earthly undertaking hinder those who set out in haste to meet your Son,” while in the prayer after Communion we pray that God “teach us to judge wisely the things of earth and hold firm to the things of heaven.”

In other words, we get sidetracked by our daily concerns and distractions. The way of the Lord is clear enough, but we take detours of our own choosing. If we take them often enough, we lose the way.

Advent is a time to reorient ourselves. When former President George H.W. Bush's family announced his death last week, they used the code word “CAVU,” an expression used by pilots that stands for “ceiling and visibility unlimited.”

Advent is a time to seek that kind of clarity in our lives—to ascend above the busyness and preoccupations that cloud our vision of the things of heaven.

Today’s readings show us that lifting up our hearts is not a chore but a joy. Baruch speaks tenderly, comfortingly.  His prophecy should clear away fear and doubt, because his words are already fulfilled by the coming of Christ and by His saving work. It’s true, Christ will come again, but His first coming has already leveled the hills of despair and darkness and revealed to us the glory of the Lord.

The prophecy is fulfilled in us when we open our hearts to the tenderness and mercy of God. How do we do that? In hope-filled prayer. It’s in our prayer that the Lord comforts us, feeds us, gathers us, carry us and lead us.

My friend Vernon Robertson says that prayer begins as a duty, demands discipline, but will eventually lead to delight.So there are three steps to take in prayer this Advent: first, taking the duty seriously.

If we fail to pray at all, we’re definitely not on the road that’s been prepared for us. The second is to stick with prayer in a disciplined way, praying even when we don't feel like it—avoiding the detours of distraction. The third is allowing prayer to delight us.

We need to expect more from prayer: often, though not all of the time, God will surprise us with consolation and delight. We need to take texts like this one from Isaiah into a time of prayer so that the full Advent message of hope and comfort penetrates our hearts.

Much of the time, of course, we need to accept that even a smooth road has some bumps, and to persevere in prayer even in the middle of the pre-Christmas rush.

With even a minimum of duty and discipline, prayer in Advent can delight us. More important still, God who began a good work in us at our baptism will bring it to completion in the Kingdom Heaven.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Christ the King: Our Parish Feast Day

Early on a Saturday morning, a middle-aged pastor was on the golf course preparing to tee off. (Since I don’t golf, you know the story’s not about me!) He was playing alone so he was glad when a stranger asked if he could join him for the round.

After they’d finished 18 holes, the stranger said, “I really enjoyed playing with you. Would you like to join me again tomorrow morning?”

The pastor replied, “I’m sorry, I can’t. I work on Sunday mornings.” Puzzled, the stranger asked, “What on earth do you do on Sunday mornings?” To which the pastor replied, “You know, I’ve been asking myself that question for years.”

I can tell you one thing about that pastor’s parish: the parishioners don’t know what they’re doing on Sunday mornings, either. Because we all need to know what we are doing at Mass if this community is truly to be what God wants it to be.

There’s no secret what that is. The Book of Revelation tells us today in language that’s both glorious and perfectly clear: Jesus “made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father.”

There in a dozen words is my identity, your identity, and the identity of this Eucharistic assembly. We are called to be a kingdom of priests. It’s not even something new, because even in the Book of Exodus the Lord tells Moses, “the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation”.

So we’re not only a people ruled by a king, the Lord, but also a royal people called to reign with him (cf. Peter S. Williamson, Revelation, p. 47).

We celebrate Christ’s unique kingship on the Solemnity of Christ the King—both the Responsorial Psalm and the Gospel invite us to be his loyal subjects. But on our parish Feast Day, the readings also point us to the wonderful truth that “we will also reign with him” (cf. 2 Timothy 2:12).

Thus, the kingship of Christ has enormous consequences for each and every Christian, because we have a share in it. Here’s what the Catechism says: “Jesus Christ is the one whom the Father anointed with the Holy Spirit and established as priest, prophet, and king. The whole People of God participates in these three offices of Christ and bears the responsibilities for mission and service that flow from them.” (CCC, 783)

We cannot speak of the kingship of Jesus without speaking of the kingdom. Even to scholars, it’s a mysterious concept and yet Jesus gave the kingdom of God the first place in his preaching. If you open your Bible to the first pages of St. Matthew, you will find that he begins his ministry with the words, “repent, for the kingdom of Heaven has come near.” In Mark, the Lord’s first words are “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near.”

Isn’t it obvious that the Kingdom of God demands our attention? Not just this Sunday but every day. We can’t celebrate Christ the King without celebrating the kingdom of Christ. And we need to celebrate the kingdom of Christ as our inheritance and our destiny. Speaking in some sense to all of us, Jesus promised the apostles at the Last Supper “I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom.”

Many of us speak easily of ‘going to Mass’. How wonderful it would be if we could find a nobler way to describe what we do on Sunday! Although the ministerial priesthood differs essentially from the common priesthood of all the faithful, we all exercise our royal priesthood at Mass. Jesus did not say, “do this in memory of me” only to the ordained priest, but to all of us. We obey his command together.

In the same way, since Jesus also gave us a share in his kingship, we exercise that together. How do we do that? The same way he does: by serving others. As Fr. John Jay Hughes writes, “A religion that is limited to obtaining blessings for ourselves with few consequences in daily life, is not the religion of Jesus Christ.”

Our parish community embraces Christ’s mission with energy and generosity. We serve the poor, prisoners, the young and the old. Our strong commitment to evangelization is nothing less than a commitment to building God’s kingdom on earth.  Dedicated to Christ the Redeemer, our parish offers Christ’s sacrifice for the redemption of all God’s children.

We celebrate all of this today as we gather to worship and honour Our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of the Universe. It’s no accident that this solemn feast ends our liturgical year and points us to the day when he will return at the end of time. As members of a ‘royal nation of priests’ we are called to live amid the darkness of our world in the light of what we heard in the second reading: “Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him.”

Today let’s look at the big picture of Christ the Redeemer Parish. Last night’s Feast Day Fiesta had to be one of the most delightful parish events in our history—and not just because we got to see Father Giovanni dressed like the lead guitarist in a mariachi band. Last evening gathered us together as a family, as friends, and as a community. It surely strengthened the bonds that unite us.

But as we gather for Mass, we go deeper still and ask “what on earth are we doing on Sunday mornings?” We are a family of faith, to be sure. But we’re much more; we’re a kingdom of priests, serving our God and Father as we give him glory in this Eucharist, building his kingdom together as we serve our brothers and sisters in love.

John Dennis Crede Webster, R.I.P.

I had the painful privilege this morning of celebrating the funeral Mass for my brother-in-law Dennis, the husband of my middle sister, Nancy, and father of my niece Kimberly.

The liturgy was attended not only by his sister Jean, her husband David Topham and their three children, but by his three step-siblings who converged from various points on the globe to be with us.

My homily attempted to connect the events of Dennis's life, as narrated in Jean's printed eulogy, to the scripture readings chosen for the funeral.

Here, first, are Jean's words...

As I sit here at three in the morning in the quiet of my home in Victoria, I would like to tell you a little bit about my dear brother, a wonderfully kind and gentle man.

Dennis was born in Nairobi, Kenya on March 27th, 1950 to Dennis and Renee Webster. When Dennis was two years old our father died of cerebral malaria.

Because our mother was not well and unable to look after us we were sent to Wales to live with my grandmother. After our grandmother died in 1956, Dennis and I were brought to Canada by an Aunt and Uncle (Joya and Ouvry Roberts).

Dennis attended three schools, Athlone and St. Georges in Vancouver, and Vernon Prep in Vernon. Dennis found school challenging but as he said to me recently “I just drew on some inner strength and got through it.” During his teenage years Dennis loved swimming and reading, and was endlessly taking things apart and putting them back together again – a skill that served him well once he became a home owner and had to fix appliances, cars and stereo systems.

After leaving school Dennis worked on a number of ranches in the B.C. Interior. However, ranching was not for him so he decided to join the Canadian Army. Again calling on his 'inner strength' he got though Basic Training and spent five years in the army, during which time he spent six months in Jamaica.
In 1974 Dennis left the army and did a number of jobs in Edmonton before returning to Vancouver where he got a job at Commercial Electronics installing stereo equipment – a job he loved because he could indulge two of his passions: stereos and music.

Dennis had always harbored a desire to drive big rig trucks and so during his time at Commercial, having inherited some money, he gave himself driving lessons and succeeded in obtaining a Class 1 License – no mean feat.

While working at Commercial he joined a cycling club where he met his future beloved wife Nancy. They were married on August 27th, 1988. Not only did Dennis gain a wife he also gained a wonderful family who loved and supported him. On January 21st, 1991 Kimberly was born and so now their little family was complete. Dennis told me on numerous occasions that Kimberly was 'the light of his life'.

It was Nancy who encouraged Dennis to apply to be a bus driver with B.C. Transit. His application being successful, Dennis was to spend the next 27 years as a bus driver for B.C. Transit, a job he loved.

In 2016 Dennis retired from bus driving and he and Nancy moved to their lovely new home in New Westminster. They purchased wonderful new electric bikes and Dennis spent many happy hours exploring new places and visiting many treasured friends.

The last few months for Dennis were difficult and challenging on so many levels but as he said to me the day before he died “I just have to call on that inner strength.” And he did - the courage and strength that he showed to all of us was an inspiration to us all.

He was so greatly loved by so many of us, family and friends and this wonderful, kind, and gentle man will be sorely missed by all of us who knew and loved him.

Go in peace and with my blessing, dear brother.


Before beginning, I’d like to acknowledge Msgr. Rossi’s gracious welcome. He has long been a true pastor to Dennis, Nancy, and Kimberly.  It’s most fitting that we celebrate my brother-in-law’s funeral in his parish church. Dennis was certainly attached to St. Michael’s—he insisted on coming here to Mass even after he and Nancy moved just two blocks away from another parish.

Dennis had a real bond to this community and was proud of his connection to the Knights of Columbus here.

The readings we’ve just heard come from three very different books of the Bible, but together, they tell the spiritual side of the story that Dennis’ sister Jean has beautifully recorded on the final pages of this funeral booklet.

Jean wrote, “The last few months for Dennis were difficult and challenging on so many levels.” Although he did not suffer long in the final stretch of his illness, he suffered much, which is why the first reading, from the Old Testament Book of Lamentations, gives voice to his experience.

There were certainly days when Dennis had no peace and may have felt bowed down with pain. But we can only really understand this in the way the author of Lamentations understood his own struggles.

Kimberly just read us ten verses from this unfamiliar Book of the Bible, traditionally seen as the Prophet Jeremiah’s meditation on the problem of affliction. But there’s something remarkable about those ten verses: the lament is four verses long, while the Prophet’s statement of hope – a dramatic turnaround – is six.

In the midst of pain, Jeremiah takes hold of himself and recognizes that the love of the Lord does not come to an end, and that God remains faithful in even the darkest times.

Nancy and Kimberly and others who spent time with Dennis during his illness know very well that he struggled to remain afloat emotionally and spiritually. I think that’s normal. But ultimately, he confronted the negative reality of his suffering with a positive outlook that inspired me very much.

By the time of our family Thanksgiving dinner, it was becoming obvious that Dennis was losing the battle against leukemia. He asked if he and I could talk so we sat together downstairs while dinner was being prepared. In that conversation, I learned what Dennis was really made of. He did not deny the gravity of his situation, nor give up hope; realistically, he reflected on the blessings of his life, speaking with gratitude for his wife and daughter, and all the good things he had enjoyed.

More recently, when his pain increased, Dennis was less mellow about this situation. But, when he was anointed with the oil of the Sacrament of the Sick, he continued to believe that affliction did not nullify the Good Shepherd’s care for him and God’s desire to lead him to green pastures and living water.

Jean tells how she and her brother were uprooted as youngsters, travelling through three countries before finding a permanent home in Canada. That was not easy for Dennis. The Letter to the Hebrews helps us make sense of his dislocation with the memorable words “here we have no lasting city”.

Here we have no lasting city, precisely because, as St. Paul says in another important text, our homeland is in Heaven (cf. Philippians 3:20). Dennis has not been uprooted this time, but repatriated.

Twice in his life, Dennis spoke to his sister about how he called on inner strength to face his difficulties. It was inner strength that helped him cope with boarding school, and the day before he died he told her he drew on that same strength.

What was the source of that strength? It’s not likely that a lonely boy turned to St. Matthew’s Gospel to find it. And yet God freely provides comfort and rest, whether we ask or not. In the Gospel we’ve read, Jesus thanks the Father for revealing hidden truths even to children. As we read elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel, our Heavenly Father knows what we need before we ask him. (cf. 6:8)

God is the God of peace, the great shepherd of the sheep who helped Dennis to bear his yoke. The inner strength Dennis spoke about reflected his character, refined by hardship, but it came ultimately from a loving Father who watched over him throughout his life’s journey, giving him the grace of a loving wife and a lovely daughter. It came from a Christian life in which he worshiped faithfully and was strengthened by the Sacraments.

That loving Father speaks today to each of us, but particularly to Nancy and Kimberly, among the many others who mourn Dennis’ passing. We are entitled, like Jeremiah, to four verses of pain and sorrow. But let’s be sure to pray six verses of hope and gratitude for all Dennis was and all the blessings he received.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Remembering Sacrifice

The armistice signed on this day one hundred years ago ended a conflict that killed more than sixteen million people.

“Seventy million men took up arms, nine million of them never returned home. More than four times that number had been wounded.

“It was supposed to be ‘the war to end all war.’ Instead, the ‘Great War’ began a cycle of violence that would shape the twentieth century, spawn a cold war that would divide the continent of Europe for half a century, and leave echoes that still reverberate in the twenty-first century,” as historian Joseph V. Micallef writes in Understanding World I: A Concise History.

Christians never welcome or glorify war. The Second Vatican Council states eloquently “Peace on earth, born of love for one’s neighbour, is the sign and the effect of the peace of Christ that flows from God the Father.” (Gaudium et Spes, 78)

However, there is an aspect of the tragedy of war that is closely connected to Christian faith: sacrifice. More specifically, self-sacrifice, which the exotic American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson called the real miracle out of which all others grew.

Let’s look at three aspects of sacrifice this morning. First, the sacrifice of Christ himself, second the Sacrifice of the Mass, and third the daily sacrifice we make of ourselves. And in our reflections we will keep in mind what’s often called “the supreme sacrifice” made in time of war.

Sacrifice jumps off the page of the Lectionary this Remembrance Day Sunday. Our second reading today, from the Letter to the Hebrews, places sacrifice at the heart of Christ’s mission: “he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.”

The letter is contrasting the annual sacrificial offering made by the Jewish High Priest on the Day of Atonement. Obviously the sacrifice is not perfect, for it is repeated year after year. Christ’s sacrifice, by contrast, is perfect and complete.

For the Jewish readers of the Letter to the Hebrews, the importance of this was obvious. They understand the whole notion of sacrifice in a way that we probably do not. The history of the Chosen People is marked by one sacrifice after another—some that pleased God and some that didn’t. In fact, a sacrifice gone wrong was the cause of Cain murdering his brother Abel.

So the notion of a perfect sacrifice was a precious and wonderful thing, as it should be for us. Since the perfect Priest offers the perfect Victim offered specifically for the sins of all, we can have complete confidence that the sacrifice is effective. A few weeks ago our reading from Hebrews underlined this by saying “Let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, that we may receive mercy and find grace in time of need.”

The second aspect of sacrifice we want to look at this morning is its connection to the Eucharist. In the words of the Catechism, we call it “the Holy Sacrifice, because it makes present the one sacrifice of Christ the Savior and includes the Church's offering. The terms holy sacrifice of the Mass, "sacrifice of praise," spiritual sacrifice, pure and holy sacrifice are also used, since it completes and surpasses all the sacrifices of the Old Covenant.” (CCC 1330)

The Mass is “at the same time, and inseparably, the sacrificial memorial in which the sacrifice of the cross is perpetuated and the sacred banquet of communion with the Lord's body and blood. But the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice is wholly directed toward the intimate union of the faithful with Christ through communion. To receive communion is to receive Christ himself who has offered himself for us.” (CCC 1382)

To attend Mass without an awareness of its sacrificial dimension is simply inadequate.

On the other hand, we can’t think of the Mass as if Christ is sacrificing himself over and over again.  “The Paschal mystery of Christ is celebrated, not repeated. It is the celebrations that are repeated, and in each celebration there is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that makes the unique mystery present. Our liturgy not only recalls the events that saved us but makes them present. (CCC 1104)

Finally, we need to think about the sacrifice we are called to make of ourselves. The first reading this morning is the story of a woman whose humble sacrifice of the little she has is accepted by God. But there’s more than charity in the story: the woman of Zarephath is prepared for the supreme sacrifice when she agrees to share the little food on which her life depended.

Today we learn a dual lesson: the need for daily sacrifice, for love of neighbour, and the willingness to sacrifice all, should the need arise.

Christian living is sacrificial living, because we are called to imitate Christ who gave himself up for us, as St. Paul tells the Ephesians (5:2).

From its earliest days, the Church has honoured and remembered martyrs, men and women who laid down their lives, sacrificially, for the faith. Not all those who die in war are martyrs, but there are many who willingly put themselves in harm’s way for others, in imitation of Christ who said “No-one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (Jn 15:13)

On Remembrance Day, together with all Canadians, we honour and remember the fallen. But as Catholics we go a step further.  We remember and pray for them at Mass today, applying the merits of Christ’s supreme sacrifice to their souls.

I’ll close with a story I have told before. I was walking through the small Commonwealth War Cemetery in Rome, where families were allowed to choose an inscription on the headstone for their loved one who had been killed. Many were touching, like the one that read “Fondly remembered by Mum, Dad, and his little dog Peg.”

But most moving of all was the grave over which was carved the dying words of St. Monica to her son Augustine: “One thing I ask, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord.”

I no longer remember the name of that soldier. But I have prayed for him in the Holy Sacrifice many times since, and will do so again today. 

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Making Disciples: The Rules Changed (31B)

“What did I do wrong?” sad parents ask me and every pastor. “I sent my kids to Catholic schools, brought them to church every Sunday, and now none of them comes to Mass.”

Every priest has talked to these faithful people. Their pain is very deep, matched only by their confusion. What happened?

In his book Divine Renovation, Father James Mallon explains this painful aspect of modern parish life using a simple example.

Imagine that you were playing a game of rugby. (Personally, I can’t imagine that, but stay with me!)  At half-time, without warning, the rugby match becomes a game of soccer. The rules have all changed, but no-one told you. You get penalized, without knowing why.

That’s what happened in our Church and in our families. The rules changed, but nobody told us. Parents raised their children exactly as their own parents had raised them—but with tragically different results.

As you know, I’m less into sports than cooking, so I can offer my own analogy. You can follow your grandmother’s famous cake recipe perfectly, but it will flop completely if you’ve moved to La Paz, or Quito or Bogota. Recipes designed for sea-level baking require significant adjustments to be successful at high altitudes.

We’ve been following our grandmothers’ recipes for raising Catholic kids without noticing that the environment has changed dramatically, and in numerous ways. Father Mallon says that priests share responsibility for this and need to acknowledge our failure to recognize the signs of the times and to sound the alarm.
I don’t need to tell parents how serious this; for years now I have shared their pain. But our first reading today reminds us that forming our young people as disciples of Jesus is the concern of the whole parish and the whole Church.

Moses is preaching to the people of Israel at a time just as crucial as our own—at long last, they are about to be settled in the new land God has given them.

Even the place of his speech is significant. Moses is speaking near Beth-peor, where the Israelites had earlier turned away from the Lord. It was a place that reminded them of their infidelity. On the other hand, Beth-peor is within the borders of the Promised Land, so the setting is also a reminder of God’s fidelity.

Suffice to say this is a very, very important address. And it is, at least in part, about the religious upbringing of children—and its consequences.

Moses teaches the people that God is not only concerned with them, but with their children and grandchildren as well. Following His commandments and laws has tremendous consequences---bringing long life and prosperity. And one law is more important than any other: “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

It’s not just Moses who tells us that this is the first of all commandments: In today’s Gospel Jesus himself cites this verse when he is asked about the greatest commandment of the law.

And if we read just a little farther in this sixth chapter of Deuteronomy we discover that this is not only God’s most central commandment but also the core of religious instruction. A few verses later, Moses says “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away…”

Parent to child, heart to heart.

The Catholic Church has devoted enormous resources to forming children as disciples. But Father Mallon’s remarkable book points out that we’ve done much, much less to form their parents. Yet it is from the parents’ hearts that God’s words must flow to their children.

Father Mallon says that the Church—and the parish—must change how we minister to adults—and what we expect of them—if we’re to succeed once again in handing on the faith to the young.

We must, in the words of Divine Renovation, “rediscover our [missionary] identity and place the heart of the Lord’s mandate for his Church at the heart of everything we do, so that at the heart of every parish there will be a community of growing, maturing believers who are committed to a lifelong process of disciplined learning, who are discovering their God-given talents, who are prepared to serve and eventually to become apostles.”

What does that mean? More than I can say in one homily.  More than I can say in ten. But as the Parish Pastoral Council and eventually all parish leaders work their way through this amazing book, we will discover how to play by the new rules that confront the Church, seeking the blessings that God promises to each of us, our children, and our children’s children.

Stay tuned—there’s much more to come.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

World Mission Sunday: Rediscovering our Identity!

Yesterday we celebrated the funeral of Mary Bayes, a delightful member of our parish who died suddenly. Mary was very active in community and neighbourhood associations, so despite the fact that it was Election Day a number of local political figures attended the funeral Mass.

Afterwards I chatted with a very pleasant woman who complimented me on the homily and the liturgy as she left the church. But a few minutes later she came back in the door and said “I should have mentioned that my husband is running for council and we would really appreciate your vote.  I’m sorry to approach you like this, but I can tell you he’s a very fine man.”

“Sorry?” I replied. “You wouldn’t be much of a political spouse if you hadn’t. And now your husband has one of my votes.”

And indeed he did—though he lost anyway!

The encounter got me thinking about World Mission Sunday, which we celebrate today, and about mission in general. One Pope after another has told us that the Church is missionary by her very nature, yet few of us have the zeal of that politician’s wife.

The parish staff, the parish council, and the parish finance council are all reading Father James Mallon’s book Divine Renovation. In this remarkable manifesto, Father Mallon argues that many in the Church suffer from spiritual amnesia—we have forgotten what the Church is for.

As anyone who has a family member facing the challenges of Alzheimer’s disease knows all too well, the loss of memory is painful. It leads to confusion and to consequences like leaving a pot on the stove and so on.

It’s the same in the Church. When we forget the true purpose of the Church—making disciples of Jesus—we become confused about why we’re Catholics and what we’re supposed to do.

Father Mallon writes that many in our pews are wearing “invisible suits of armour.” When Christ’s message is preached with full force of—and it isn’t always—it just bounces off.

We will talk more in the weeks and months ahead about the message of Divine Renovation, but on this Mission Sunday I want to quote just one sentence. It boils down the message that we are called to share with our neighbours, our family, our friends, and the farthest corners of the world.

Here’s the key sentence: “We can speak of the truth that we are never alone, that God desires to dwell in us, to consume us, and to have us consume him, but in the end it is possible to simplify the message into one word: Jesus.”

This is the message of our second reading at Mass today, from the Letter to the Hebrews. Jesus himself is the good news of our faith; Jesus makes a difference in our lives; and Jesus understands everything about us.

Who wouldn’t want to know someone who knows and sympathizes with them so completely?

The letter states clearly that Jesus is the Son of God, interceding for us before the throne of the Father.  That alone should inspire confidence. But at the same time, he is fully human—one of us, who has been tempted like us, though without sin.

It’s so easy to dismiss the importance of Christ’s temptations.  After all, he was God; how hard can the testing have been for him?  Yet his temptations were far harder than ours, since “human experience shows that giving in to temptation, even a little, lessens its intensity (even though giving in will lead to further temptations in the long run). Jesus’ temptations were all the more intense precisely because he did not yield to them in the least. [Mary Healy, “Hebrews,” Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, p. 98]

And there’s still more to unpack from the brief description of our great high priest in Hebrews. “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness,” the letter says.

Look at three words in that sentence. “Therefore” relates to what we’ve just been talking about—the fact that Jesus sympathizes with our weakness, and understands our temptations.

And the invitation to “approach” suggests that God is nothing less than approachable.  I took the trouble to look up the word. The dictionary definition is “capable of being approached, accessible; and, specifically, easy to meet or deal with.”

Finally, that word “boldness.” Hebrews says that we know more than enough about Jesus to be fully confident in approaching the throne of grace—not just for mercy, but for all the help we need in every circumstance.

What a positive message for weary, wounded, and wondering folks! What good news to share by every possible means, from inviting people to Alpha to supporting the crucial World Mission Sunday collection.

But if the missionary spirit is really to revive in the Church—if we are to share Jesus with our neighbours and to make disciples of all nations, if we are to share the joy that “we are never alone, that God desires to dwell in us, to consume us, and to have us consume him,” then we must know him ourselves.

The wife of that unsuccessful candidate persuaded me to vote for her husband in two different ways.  I’ve already mentioned that I was impressed by her boldness. But I was equally convinced by her simple testimony: “I know him,” she said, “and I really think he’d make a great member of council.”

There’s a good model for how we’ll all share our faith with others once we rediscover the true purpose of the Church and “the essential identity of all the baptized to be missionary disciples, called to know Jesus and make him known.”

Sunday, October 14, 2018

What can we do? Pray the Rosary... (28B)

I love to tell my father’s favourite story from his boyhood parish, about a conversation he overheard after Sunday Mass. An elderly parishioner known for her strong opinions was telling the pastor how much she’d enjoyed his homily.

“Thank-you, Mrs. O’Sullivan,” he replied, “but to tell the truth I always feel a bit guilty when I don’t preach on the Gospel.”

“Father,” she said, “when you preach on the Gospel I turns off me hearing aid.”

Last Sunday, I did preach on the Gospel although October 7 was the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, the patroness of our archdiocese. But today I have allowed myself to touch only lightly on the readings so that I can speak about the Rosary.

There are three reasons for this. The simplest is that thanks to generous donors—from a parish where I’d served before I came here—there’s now a very beautiful statute of Our Lady enshrined in a lovely grotto in front of the church, a serene place to pray the Rosary when the weather permits.

Another reason is that October has traditionally been the “month of the Rosary,” when this wonderful devotion is promoted.

But the main reason is this—‘pray the Rosary’ is an answer to one of the most common questions any of us asks: What can I do?

What can I do about my children? What can I do about my failing health? What can I do about problems in my marriage? What can I do about world crises? What can I do about the scandals in the Church?

What can I do? There’s no one in church today who doesn’t ask that question, some of the time, and some of us ask it all of the time.

In our first reading today, the author prayed, and received understanding: “I called on God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.”

Back in 2010, Pope Benedict praised and taught Lectio Divina—the prayerful reading of the Word of God, which the second reading reminds us “is living and active.” Certainly this is a form of prayer recommended to all, not just those who’ve studied Scripture.

Recent years have also seen the increasing popularity of methods of prayer associated with Saint Ignatius and the Jesuits.  We’ve had talks on both Lectio Divina and Ignatian prayer here in our parish.

But the fact is that the Rosary remains the most popular and accessible way of praying in our Catholic tradition. The Rosary is making a comeback after a period when it was considered old-fashioned. The late Cardinal Edouard Gagnon told the story of saying his Rosary while he waited in his doctor’s office—this was in the early 1980s—when a fellow patient leaned over to him and said with some excitement “it’s still allowed to pray the Rosary?”

It’s hard to say why the Rosary was eclipsed after Vatican II.  Pope Paul VI, who was canonized today together with the modern martyr St. Oscar Romero, wrote a beautiful document on devotion to Mary that included high praise for the Rosary, but it did not seem to have attracted a great deal of attention.

St. John Paul’s apostolic letter on the Rosary had more impact, in part because it presented the new “luminous” mysteries, the mysteries of light.

In any case, it’s fair to say that the eclipse is over and that a renewed awareness of the Rosary can be seen throughout the Church and certainly in our own parish. A group prays it daily after Mass, while our Friday morning men’s group says the Rosary together at the godly hour of 6 a.m. every week. Young adults are particularly attracted to this prayer, and a number of Rosary groups have sprung up in response.

Already classes from St. Anthony’s School have visited the new grotto to say a decade of the Rosary together.

At the same time, the Rosary is an ideal prayer for the individual, because reflection on the individual mysteries can make it true mental prayer in which deep contemplation takes place. There’s nothing wrong with the Rosary as vocal prayer, but it’s meditation on the mysteries that is most likely to lead to the understanding and wisdom that today’s first reading speaks about.

The Rosary is, of course, a scriptural prayer. Almost all of the 20 mysteries come straight from the Bible; only the Assumption and Coronation are not recounted in Scripture, and even they are richly supported by biblical texts. Within the Rosary are the treasures of the Gospel, fully living and active in the souls of those who pray it devoutly.

I’ve already mentioned how the Rosary is a big part of the common prayer life of our parish. It is also of great value in the family.

From my own experience, I would have to say that the family Rosary is not exactly a profound contemplative prayer—at least not in a family of five.  When we tried to say the Rosary together in October or May, I found it an ideal opportunity to annoy my sister, and sometimes all the children would become infected by that contagious kind of laughter that only gets worse when you try to suppress it.

Still, the effort to pray has results regardless. It tells children that prayer matters, not only to them as individuals but as members of a family.

And it can lead to powerful opportunities to witness to the faith. Before he met my mother, my Dad dated a girl whose father owned a very successful General Motors dealership—so successful, in fact, that the president of GM came to have dinner at their house.

It was a large Catholic family, and all the children gathered around the table with the important guest. When dessert was finished, their father turned to the CEO and said “And now we will pray the Rosary, as we do this after every meal.”

When Dad told me this story, I was deeply impressed and said “that man was an amazing person.”

“Yes,” he said, “but you still wouldn’t want to buy a car from him.”

Nobody’s perfect! And what I like about the Rosary is that there’s no pressure to pray it perfectly.  When I pray with Scripture, or one of the meditations of St. Ignatius, I tend to evaluate my prayer—to ask whether I prayed well or poorly, depending on my level of attention or devotion.

I don’t do that with the Rosary. Fast or slow, focused or distracted, when I have prayed those five Our Fathers, 50 Hail Marys, and five Glory Be to the Fathers, I’m done. I’m happy. I’ve prayed.

Finally, the Rosary is a wonderful way to pray for the Church, now more than ever. On September 29, the Holy Father invited Catholics around the world to pray the Holy Rosary every day in October, asking Mary and Saint Michael the Archangel to protect the Church from the devil.

Unfortunately, I didn’t notice the Pope’s request until he renewed his invitation last Sunday, so I couldnt promote this earlier.  But we can respond now, and pray a Rosary for the Church each of the remaining days of October.

“What can we do?” about the pain so many are suffering in the Church today, about the pain of victims?  We can pray. We can join ourselves to Christ in the garden, to Mary at the Cross, to the apostles in the Upper Room, and to the joyful disciples on Easter. Our rosaries can be the chain of prayer linking us intimately to those redeeming mysteries of pain, of sorrow, and of hope.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

The Church Must Speak the Whole Truth (27B)

Two kinds of disasters have been in the news lately. The first kind are natural disasters such as the terrible earthquake that threatened the lives and welfare of people in Indonesia.
The second kind are unnatural and closer to home—allegations of abuse and cover-up that just keep sending Catholics reeling, asking ‘what’s next?’
There’s no avoiding the fact that these are difficult and painful days.
The natural disasters will, judging by past experience, have a positive side amidst the terrible human tragedy. Generous people will bring material aid and comfort to the victims, making visible the basic goodness of the world even in the face of suffering.
Moral disasters, however, rarely have an upside. They bring only discouragement and confusion, and when they involve the Church they make it that much more difficult to carry on the saving work of Christ.
The failures of Church leaders lead both believers and non-believers to ask many questions.
Today, I’d like to tackle just one set of questions: Why is the Church so concerned about human sexuality, about the institution of marriage, about what people do in their private lives? 

Why can’t the Church—and its now-suspect celibate clergy—stick to a “religious” message? Why does it need to make an issue of “political” things, things like the provincial sexual orientation and gender identity curriculum, known as SOGI, or same-sex “marriage” and the like?
Aren't we just setting ourselves up for a fall, for the charge of hypocrisy?
I’ve heard these kind of questions often enough, even from loyal Catholics. So today I want to answer them by speaking about the Church’s mission, calling, duty, and obligation to preach a message about human sexuality and its place in securing the good of both individuals and society.
Of course we all know folks who consider themselves Catholic but disagree with various moral teachings of the Church. I’m not really talking to them today. I want to address those Catholics who don’t see why the Church has to preach a message about the plan of God for marriage and the family.
We do a crummy job of getting this message out. There are sincere Catholics who think that the Gospel message is exclusively — in quotation marks — a “religious” message. They don’t recognize that the Good News of Jesus Christ embraces both those truths we tend to think of as religious — forgiveness of sins or the saving sacrifice of the Mass, for example — and truths which are more broadly speaking natural, indeed pre-Christian.
Much of what the Church teaches about God’s plan for man and woman is found in the Book of Genesis, which we heard in today’s first reading and which Jesus quotes in today’s Gospel.  Certainly the New Testament provides an expanded and enriched understanding of the Genesis teaching. But, foundationally, what is true about the human person, what was true at the moment when God brought man and woman into existence, belongs to the deposit of Faith that the Church must preach in season and out of season.
I can’t stress this enough. The Church is called to preach the whole truth. And the Church is called to preach that truth to the entire world.
Many well-intentioned Catholics think that we should keep our nose out of public debates, and preach to our own. Many Catholics do not realize that the Church has a mission to the world. We do not go out to the world and say, “Jesus Christ is Lord; be baptized so you can come to Mass and receive the Eucharist with us.” We say: “Jesus Christ has come to bring life, and to bring it to the full. To you, in every aspect of your being.”
There’s no such thing as a purely “religious” truth.
Things are true or they are not true. And if they are true, if they bring life, then they are part of what the Church proclaims. The American philosopher William James put it neatly when he said “If a thing is true, it makes a difference.  And if it makes no difference, it’s not true.
Both the first reading and the Gospel at Mass today present the divine plan written into our bodies: the creation account of Genesis reveals the distinct order of nature—man and woman we were created. Man and woman. And man and woman were created that they might be one. One flesh in the divine perfect plan of creation.
The Church must proclaim this. We cannot step back from these truths, for fear of mockery in these difficult times, or for fear of losing government funding for schools or hospitals. The truths about the human person, about marriage and the family are Gospel truths. They come to us from Jesus—how many times have I heard people say that the Catholic Church is against divorce and remarriage. This is not a teaching of the Catholic Church but of Jesus himself, as our Gospel passage today makes clear.
The word Gospel means “good news.” Now if our moral teaching is only rules and regulations, it can’t be understood as good news, surely. Yet many Catholics have never heard a word about this kind of good news, and for that we preachers must apologize.
The teaching on divorce, particularly, and the complex area of annulment is worthy of homily all to itself, but I’m not going to give it today. The Church’s teachings on responsible parenthood and artificial contraception are sometimes rejected by people who really haven’t heard them; no-one’s ever told them the reasons that might help them accept freely and joyfully what the Church proposes.
There’s more I’d like to say at this painful moment for the Church if I had the time. It is painful, certainly. But it’s also a reminder that the times in which we live make it increasingly tough to remain a complacent Catholic.  If we doubt that the Church has a message of truth from the Creator, and if out of embarrassment or sheer frustration over human failures in the Church we want to shrink Catholic truth to things around the altar, we will soon, I think, be dissatisfied with the broader, and indeed, true notion of Church.
Let’s not allow that to happen. As a first step, many of us need to know more about what the Church teaches, and why.
And let’s be glad, not sad, that the Church can proclaim a liberating, holistic, helpful, and healing message… even in her human frailty. It's something to be thankful for.