Sunday, July 29, 2018

Creation too is a multiplication (17.B)

Do some of you remember the first day back to school in September, when you had to stand in front of the class and give a little speech called “How I Spent My Summer Vacation”? Well, today’s homily is one of those little speeches—and in light of the heat, the emphasis is on “little.”

I just got back from a week in majestic Haida Gwaii, the archipelago formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands. Whether on the water or in the woods, I spent a lot of time thinking about what Pope Francis calls “the Gospel of Creation” in his encyclical Laudato Si', “On Care for Our Common Home.”

Today’s Gospel, the multiplication of the loaves and fish, usually leads me to preach on the Eucharist, which is prefigured by this miracle. But it also brings to mind the broader subject of the abundance of all God’s generous gifts.

In his plan for creation, God did not give humanity just what it needed to survive; he gave us what we needed, many times over, if only we would exercise wise stewardship.

St. John Paul said that God has written a precious book, using for characters “the multitude of created things present in the universe”. And the Canadian bishops have reminded us that nature continuously reveals the divine. In 2003, they wrote “From panoramic vistas to the tiniest living form, nature is a constant source of wonder and awe.”

This is hardly new theology. The Scriptures tells us many times that creation shows forth God’s glory, and St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that all the diversity and variety of nature show his goodness, since it could not be represented fittingly by any one creature. (cf. Laudato Si', 85 and 86)

And the Catechism teaches: “God wills the interdependence of creatures. The sun and the moon, the cedar and the little flower, the eagle and the sparrow: the spectacle of their countless diversities and inequalities tells us that no creature is self-sufficient. Creatures exist only in dependence on each other, to complete each other, in the service of each other.” (n. 340)

My holiday made all this easier to understand. 

But is also made me realize what Pope Francis means when he writes about the kind of environmental exploitation that exhausts the resources local communities have relied on and “undo the social structures which, for a long time, shaped cultural identity and their sense of the meaning of life and community.”

The Pope says that the disappearance of a culture can be just as serious, or even more serious, than the disappearance of a species of plant or animal. 

He calls us to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions, which happily seems to be what is happening in Haida Gwaii, where archaeological evidence suggests the Haida people have lived for some 13,000 years.

The abundance of these islands—in timber, fish, wildlife—is truly a Gospel of Creation, a story of God’s abundant provision for his children. But much of its history is also a history of what Pope Francis calls “the sin of indifference.”

And that is a sin we can commit in many ways, whether by the thoughtless exploitation of the gifts of creation, by a lack of gratitude for their abundance, or by taking for granted the Bread of Life, the most generous gift of all.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Another Rescue, A Different Cave (15.B)

For two weeks the world held its breath.

For two weeks we tried to picture twelve boys and a young soccer coach entombed in darkness.

And for two days we marveled at the courage of their rescuers, especially the diver Saman Gunan, who died in the rescue attempt, just 38 years old.

The BBC called this “a remarkable story of friendship, human endurance—and the lengths some people will go to save someone else's child.”

But as we gather for Mass this morning, we recognize that it’s something more. The rescue effort, and the sacrifice of Saman Gunan, should bring to mind another rescue and another sacrifice. We hear about it in our second reading today.

“In Christ,” St. Paul writes, “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished upon us.”

We’ve heard the word “redemption” so many times that perhaps we forget the drama behind it. We have been freed from the darkness of our sins by someone who came to find us and to lead us into the light.

And just as the Thai diver died in the darkness of the cave, so Jesus died in the course of our rescue—and stayed in a cave until our salvation was completed by his Resurrection.

Those twelve boys had families, with whom they will soon be reunited. Their rescuers didn’t take them home with them. But our rescuer, St. Paul says, has adopted us as his own. We emerged into the light as members of God’s own family.

And In his first letter, St. Peter calls us to proclaim the great work of our Saviour, who called us out of darkness into his marvellous light.

I’ve read some on-line comments about the possible negative effects that their ordeal may have on the boys’ psychology. The best antidote to that is gratitude; I hope they will spend the rest of their lives giving thanks for their rescue and their rescuers.

And we are called to do the same. Jesus sends us out to the world, just as he sent the Twelve, to share gratefully with others the Good News of our rescue and our Rescuer.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Grace is Enough for Timid Preachers or Rebellious Hearers (14.B)

At the Masses last week, day after day we heard the prophet Amos denouncing Israel for her sins. Those Old Testament readings prompted me to give a slightly tongue-in-cheek homily on Thursday.

I told the congregation that I knew just how to get moved if I ever got tired of being pastor at Christ the Redeemer (not that it could ever happen!).  I said if I wanted a change, I could make it happen in just three weeks.

The first Sunday I would preach a very tough homily on contraception. On the second I would preach an uncompromising homily on same-sex marriage and the homosexual lifestyle. By the second week I’d probably be run off the property—either by angry Catholics or the human rights police— but if not, I’d preach a third homily about a collection of other Church teachings on private morality or social justice.

That homily made one sincere parishioner ask me “well, why aren’t you preaching those bold homilies?”

I explained that I was exaggerating a bit, and that I do actually speak about tough topics from time to time. But I added that the main reason I don’t give fire and brimstone homilies is simply that I preach in front of a congregation that includes many children. Sometimes I wish we had a Liturgy of the Word for all those under 16, giving priests the freedom to speak plainly and boldly about certain topics.

The first reading today presents the prophetic call of Ezekiel, who doesn’t have the luxury of making any excuses. He isn’t given any choice in the matter. God doesn’t seem concerned about the results of Ezekiel’s preaching. All God wants is for Israel to hear His word. The rest is up to the people, not the prophet.

You and I are in the same boat in the modern world. We’re pretty sure how our friends and neighbours—and even our children—are going to react when God sends us to speak His word to them. But it’s not really our problem: the end result, the free response of others to the Christian message, is God’s concern.

The same thing comes across in today’s Gospel. Jesus is also a prophet, and like many of the Old Testament prophets, he will be rejected and killed. Even the residents of Nazareth, who know him and his family, take offense at him.

The message of these two readings is simple enough. Don’t think you can be an authentic witness to Christ without causing offense. It’s neither possible nor required.

In last week’s I mentioned the Canadian bishops’ statement lamenting the legalization of marijuana.  During the homily a young man whom I know and like gave me a look that could kill straight across the church. And, to his credit, after Mass he told me what he thought.

Now I hasten to add that the interaction hardly made me feel like Ezekiel or Amos or Jesus.  But I still have to say I preferred hearing “great homily Monsignor” to the conversation I had with the young man.

The point is, it doesn’t matter. Watering down or avoiding the truth in order to avoid negative reactions is not what God wants us to do—whether we are pastors, called by ordination to preach, or lay Christians, anointed to the prophetic office through baptism and strengthened for it by confirmation.

When I explained to the parishioner last week that my preaching is restrained by the presence of youngsters, I added a second reason—that Catholics expect the Sunday homily never runs longer than ten minutes. You can’t even warm up in ten minutes if you want to preach a convincing sermon on contraception or other complex moral topics.

But if I’m really honest with myself, a lack of courage does have something to do with it. I’m afraid of the reaction from some, or unwilling to face the rejection that goes with a prophet’s job.

So perhaps we could both work towards more prophetic homilies in the parish. I could learn to be more like St. Paul, content with weaknesses, insults and persecution. And we could all pray for open hearts ready to hear without offense the prophetic message of Jesus.

Whether we’re fearful speakers or rebellious listeners, God’s power and grace are sufficient to overcome our weakness.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

No Upbeat Homily for Canada Day

Canada Day only falls on Sunday once every seven years. That’s an opportunity for an upbeat homily about our beautiful country and our many blessings. But not this year—because we need to take a look at some things that are happening in Canada and what they mean for Christians.

I know you’d rather hear a homily celebrating Canada than criticizing it; so would I. But a friend sent me a quotation this week attributed to Archbishop Fulton Sheen, who was not only America’s best preacher but a 20th century prophet. When I read it, I knew I couldn’t deliver a feel-good sermon today.

Long quotations don’t make good homilies, but I’m asking you to listen carefully to these prophetic words:

Humanity in a crisis is generally insensitive to the gravity of the times in which it lives.

Men do not want to believe their own times are wicked, partly because they have no standard outside of themselves by which to measure their times. If there is no fixed concept of justice, how shall men know it is violated?

Only those who live by faith really know what is happening in the world; the great masses without faith are unconscious of the destructive processes going on because they have lost the vision of the heights from which they have fallen.

I don’t think one Canadian in ten thinks we have a problem in this country. And I do think that most of those who recognize the destructive processes at work are people of faith.

But even men and women of faith often fail to understand the heights from which Canadian society has tumbled, because our fall from Christian morality has happened in slow motion—not from one cause but from many.
We could analyze numerous social shifts that are opposed to Gospel values—for that matter, opposed to the values shared by most major religions—but I want to point out three of the most recent.

The first, of course, is euthanasia. Disguised by the Orwellian name “Medical Assistance in Dying,” the legalization of assisted suicide threatens the vulnerable, draws health care workers in to a moral snare, and creates an entirely false idea of compassion. It should not be necessary to remind people at Sunday Mass that assisted suicide can never be the right choice, but our first reading puts it simply: “God does not delight in the death of the living.”

Life is a good in and of itself— God “created all things so that they might exist.” All life is precious; its value is not measured by the so-called “quality of life” or anything of that sort.

We were created for eternity, and it is in eternity that the quality of life will more than compensate for the struggles some people encounter at the end of their life on earth.

Before turning to the second social shift—I should really call these legal shifts—I want to give you another reason for this somber homily on what should be a joyful day. The reason is simply this: law-abiding people, people like us, tend to think that if something’s legal is must be right. Law not only reflects social values, it creates them.

Archbishop Carney once told me that chicken wasn’t subject to meat rationing during the Second World War. As a result, Catholics—who were not allowed to eat meat on Friday—started to eat chicken, since if the government said it wasn’t meat, it must be true.

The second shift is the redefinition of tolerance. Canadians pride themselves on tolerance. American comedians on the late-night shows make jokes about how nice we are. But my dictionary says that to tolerate means “to allow the existence or occurrence of  something, without interference.”

The courts have redefined tolerance in numerous decisions interfering with the freedom of people of faith. The most recent may be the most serious: the Supreme Court of Canada has effectively allowed the legal profession to be closed to graduates of a law school where students must commit to live according to the moral norms that were once universally held by all Christians. In the words of the two dissenting judges, the Court has turned the protective shield of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms into a sword.

And there’s not much doubt which group of Canadians that sword will slash.

The third source of sadness on this Canada Day may surprise you, since it’s hardly as grave as the euthanasia or Trinity Western decisions. But as I told you, I'm focusing on the most recent social shifts, and this one’s also current—the court-ordered legalization of marijuana, now enshrined in law.

Just last week, the Canadian bishops issued a statement reminding Catholics of the harm that will flow from increased marijuana use. They cite the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Psychiatric Association, and the Canadian Paediatric Society as pointing out how “the use of cannabis is linked to addictions, depression, anxiety, psychosis, damage to brain development, and lung problems such as asthma and emphysema.”

Although I didn’t use marijuana, I grew up hearing that it was not addictive. That was a lie or at least a huge mistake in terms of what we know now. The bishops rely on modern science and the modern understanding of addictions when they say marijuana “is an addictive substance that will have disastrous effects” for many people.

There was a time when a Canadian who didn’t break the law would be following God’s law in most matters. Sadly, tragically, that time has passed. Only the Creator’s law can guide us now to the good life, and to the righteousness that leads to life eternal.

It is truer than ever that “Only those who live by faith really know what is happening in the world; the great masses without faith are unconscious of the destructive processes going on because they have lost the vision of the heights from which they have fallen.”

So on this Canada Day, let’s not only pray for the nation, but lift up our eyes to the lofty vision of creation and the human person that is our heritage as Canadians and Christians.