Sunday, May 20, 2018

A Video on Pentecost? Really?

The readings today are extraordinarily rich. The first reading is the dramatic story of the birthday of the Church. The marvel of the first Pentecost is repeated every day, since the Church continues to speak “in the language of every people.”

The Psalm moved us from that historic and continuing miracle to a personal response. We begged the Lord to send the Spirit on the whole world, but also on us as we meditate and rejoice in the Lord.

Then we heard part of St. Paul’s teaching on gifts. In this short passage, the Apostle uses three different Greek words to discuss the Spirit’s gifts. They get a bit lost in translation, but let’s take a look at each.

He uses the word charismata, which you will recognize from the English words charism or charismatic. These are gifts of grace, which Paul connects with the Holy Spirit. The translation here is simply “gifts.”

He uses the word diakonia, which you will recognize from the English words deacon or diaconate. These are gifts of service, which Paul connects with the Lord. Here the translation is “services.”

Thirdly, St. Paul speaks of energemata. Recognize that one? Of course you do—it gives us our word energy. Translated as “activities.” these are gifts of works. St. Paul connects them with God the Father, the first cause of all things.

Gifts of grace, gifts of service, and gifts of works. All from God, and all from baptism.

Happily, in the divine plan not every Christian is given every gift or called to every work. Each has gifts, though, and each has a call.

At first I was not happy when I realized we’d need to show the Project Advance video on this great feast day. We’ve had technical problems and the new video screens were not ready earlier; even now they’re only temporary. But the campaign is well-underway, and we couldn’t keep putting off the video, which this year is particularly good.

However, when I thought about St. Paul’s teaching on gifts of service and gifts of works, I knew it was meant to be. Gifts don’t exist in a vacuum. They need to bear fruit, to accomplish their purpose. And in our parish and Archdiocese it’s Project Advance that makes these gifts make a difference.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Ascension and Our Call

Many years ago I wrote the story of my vocation for the B.C. Catholic. I showed it to my Mom and asked how she liked it.

“It’s very nice, dear,” she replied kindly. “But I notice your father and I aren’t mentioned.”

I never made that mistake again, and certainly won’t make it on Mothers’ Day!  My parents get full credit for laying the foundation for my call to the priesthood.

For teaching me how to be a priest, I give credit to my seminary, the Pontifical Beda College, and to several priests who were wonderful role models for me.

But one thing is sure: I learned how to be a pastor right here. For more than ten years, the parishioners at Christ the Redeemer have been my teachers and role models as I discovered the difference between being a priest and being a pastor.  In the Catholic Church, of course, all pastors are priests—but not all priests are pastors.

I’ll come back to this, but let’s look briefly at the readings.

The scriptures today offer two accounts of the Ascension. In the Gospel, Jesus is taken up to heaven, and the apostles get to work. It’s typical of St. Mark’s concise style.

But in the first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, we get a neat detail—the Apostles gazing up at the sky after the Lord has ascended. And we read the famous line, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” It’s almost comical—as if the angel was a foreman barking at the workers—“what are ya staring at? Get back to work!”

I’ve never had to motivate parishioners who only wanted prayer without action. In fact, it’s the ones who pray who seem to work the hardest.

Before I came, many parishioners had taken part in a program to identify their spiritual gifts, Alpha was launched, and a generous community spirit drove the building of the church and school.

In my years at Christ the Redeemer, these foundations have been strengthened by our emphasis on stewardship and on intentional discipleship.

But the lion’s share of the credit can’t go to any program or concept. Our number one strength is people who truly believe they’ve been called to “proclaim the good news to the whole creation.”  People who don’t think Jesus was talking only to eleven people. Or to priests.

For so long our Catholic missionary culture was about priests, brothers and sisters travelling to foreign lands—and that is an important part of going into all the world to proclaim the good news. But in an age when the majority of our neighbours and co-workers do not believe in Christ, it makes no sense to ignore the mission field next door.

Our parish seems to have a special gift for what St. Paul calls equipping the saints for the work of ministry. Let’s look at this unusual expression. Don’t get confused by the word ‘saints’. All Paul means by saints is holy ones. He’s talking about committed Christians, baptized believers—in other words, all of us. We need to be equipped or made ready if we’re going to proclaim the good news in word and deed.

How do we do this?  First and foremost by inviting people to an active faith and personal friendship with Jesus—what we’ve been calling intentional discipleship. We do this is many ways, particularly by building a worshipping community around the altar.

How can people be sent out as missionaries if the sending community is not strong? We are so blessed to be gathered here as one in hope, in faith, and in baptism. And we bear with one another in love—which is not easy. Family feuds may be great on TV, but they are terrible in church. Our parish has maintained the unity of the Spirit in an exemplary way, avoiding any of the dissension I’ve seen elsewhere.

Even a strong community needs to build up its members.

We do this through the generous service of the countless parishioners who use the gifts God gave them to build up the Body of Christ.

No priest has all the gifts needed to equip his parishioners for the work of ministry, but a parish does. We have prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, to use St. Paul’s list. We have people willing to lead Bible studies and faith studies—one of the prime ways to prepare missionaries for the world.

We have comforters, debaters, cooks, catechists, flower arrangers, youth leaders, musicians, singers, sacristans, servers, greeters, lectors, and a host of others.

Today we should add mothers and fathers to the list, for they have a primary responsibility to train and evangelize their children. Perhaps their ministry is the most crucial of all, and our schools exist to help them build up the Body of Christ in their homes.

The work of parents is not only crucial, but difficult in this confused world. One lad gave his mother a note for Mothers’ Day that said “Mom, I just wanted to tell you that Mothers’ Day wouldn’t be possible without me.  I’ll be waiting for my present in the living room. Love, Johnny.”

Whether we’re parents or pastors or any other category of parishioner, it’s not easy to build up the Body of Christ day in, day out.  The task is big. It can seem too big. But look what today’s Gospel says: “the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message.” We’re not working alone!

We’re not alone and we have help. Do you remember the ad for blood donors that said “it’s in you to give?”  In baptism and confirmation we have received the gifts we need bring Christ to the world, according to our particular call.

These truths apply to everyone. St. Paul leaves no wiggle room: “Each of us,” he says, “was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” And each of us is called and commissioned, today, by Christ. So let’s listen to the angels. “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” What are you staring at? You and your parish have work to do!

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Expecting More (Easter 6.B)

Fortunately for the parish, I’m a fairly cautious pastor. The rather wild
banner we produced for Project Advance this year is about as far as I go when it comes to experimenting.

But if I really let myself daydream, there are two experiments I’d like to try. The first would be two-hour long Masses. Masses as long as the average movie. What do you think would happen? You don’t need to think very long—we all know that St. Anthony’s and Holy Trinity would be totally packed.

The second experiment is even less likely, because first I’d have to get elected Pope. I would make attending Mass optional for a month of Sundays. And what do you think would happen then?

The answer to that is not so obvious. I really don’t know what would happen.

These ideas sound crazy to Catholic ears. Yet there are evangelical Protestant churches where attendance is not an obligation and the services run two hours—and they’re full.

Let’s look at our readings today with my two experiments in mind. Because I think the Word of God has something to say about our attitude to Mass and particularly to what we call the Sunday obligation.

The first reading speaks of the gift of the Holy Spirit. It’s clearly not the same as the Sacrament of Confirmation, since the Spirit comes down on these folks before they’re even baptized. Rather, the Spirit is poured out on them as they hear St. Peter preach.

We find two significant things here: first, the Holy Spirit “fell upon” the people; the Spirit was “poured out” on them. Listen to the language: this is a dramatic moment, something of an eruption of grace.

Second, “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.”  God doesn’t even wait for St. Peter to finish. It’s the first time God ever interrupted a homily!

Let’s test our own experience against this story. Have we experienced anything remotely like it? Has we ever felt the Spirit flooding our hearts, falling on us, poured out on us? No need to leap to your feet—I know there are people in church this morning who have had this experience. But I doubt they had it while listening to someone preach!

Okay, maybe it’s the preachers’ fault. But the Acts of the Apostles gives us the rest of Peter’s words—we get only a bit of his sermon today—and it doesn’t sound particularly brilliant. On top of that, we have the fact that the Spirit comes before the sermon is over. It suggests to me that the power is in the message itself, in God’s Word, in the same great truths we hear preached all the time.

Somehow repetition seems to have dulled the power of the Word to open our hearts to the Holy Spirit and to His gifts.

(This is a good time to remind you that Dr. Ralph Martin, a powerful promoter of the Holy Spirit and his gifts, will be giving our parish mission at the end of the month. Here’s what he wrote about the baptism of the Holy Spirit that we encounter today in the first reading: “There is a temptation to build a little shrine around Pentecost and talk about it as a special moment when the Church first began. But Peter is able to tell us NO, NO, NO, don’t do that! This is a permanent reality that the Lord wants to give each new group of Christians. This is something that Jesus wants to do. It wasn’t just for the Apostles.”)

In our second reading we hear three very famous words from St. John: God is love. Love is what connects everything. We love one another, because love is from God. Everyone who loves, knows God.

How does this fit with our personal experience? Does it seem a bit abstract? But the passage has very practical consequences. First, God sent His only Son “so that we might live through him.” That has to mean something, living through Jesus. Certainly enough for another homily.

Then John says that the big thing is not our love for God but God’s love for us. Let’s be honest, that’s not the way most of us usually think. We’re more concerned with doing a good job in showing God we love him than we are in letting him love us.

The second reading also says that “God sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” That has many consequences, eternal ones, but it also points us to the Mass. If we believe that the Sacrifice of the Mass makes present the one sacrifice atoning for our own sins, why do we attend as an obligation rather than a joy?

Which brings us to the Gospel reading, where Jesus offers us joy—his joy, complete joy. Do we get that in church on Sunday?

Every so often we peek through the curtain of obligation and see what Jesus wants us to see.  It happened at First Holy Communion yesterday morning. No-one was there as a duty. No-one was fulfilling and obligation. And the joy wasn’t just about the beautiful children. It was about Jesus. I watched more than one parent holding back tears—tears of joy.

One of the greatest joys that Jesus offers us is friendship with him. Imagine telling a friend you’ll spend one hour visiting, and not a moment more. Or that you’d be fulfilling your obligation to him or her by meeting for lunch on Wednesday.

There’s no danger that I’ll start celebrating two-hour Masses and even less danger that I will be elected Pope. But I think we could start today to rethink some of the attitudes we have to Jesus our friend and to Jesus who is love itself.

What might this involve? In two words, great expectations. Why shouldn’t the Holy Spirit interrupt the homily by falling afresh on those who listen with open ears? If we come to Mass to fulfill an obligation, then we’ll experience the limited rewards of duty. What God wants us to expect is an outpouring of his own Spirit, the joy of knowing the love of God and the God of love.