Sunday, September 30, 2018

A Week of a Wonders (26B)

How easy it would be for a priest, or any Catholic, to get discouraged these days. Reminders of our failures and their consequences seem to be everywhere, including in this morning’s Gospel, where Jesus speaks terrifying words to those who harm children.

And yet during the past week, I have had one experience after another of God renewing the Church.

It started last Sunday, when young adults gathered to hear one of our parishioners talk about his medical missions in Haiti, Ecuador and Indonesia. Except the message they heard from Dr. Tim Kostamo wasn’t really about his work as an orthopedic surgeon; it was about Christ, about living the faith with humility, and courage and joy.

At the end of the evening, I went to bed feeling like someone from Corinth, or Ephesus or Rome, who’d been listening to St. Paul preach.

On Monday, I went to the Door is Open, the drop-in center on the Downtown Eastside, to be with the members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul as they prepared and served a hotdog supper.

The sheer scale of the event is awesome—it is extremely well-organized—but what thrilled me most was all the familiar faces from Christ the Redeemer visibly joyful in this simple work of charity.

I was a bit surprised to see one of our parishioners there who is known for all her dedication to prison ministry. How could she do this as well? But when I mentioned that to someone, he pointed to one of the other workers he said—that’s the former prisoner she brought along to help.

As I got into my car, I felt that I’d seen a modern version of Jesus feeding the five thousand—although I was assured that there weren’t that many, since some of the guests get their food and head back into the line for a second or even third time.

I had had a lived experience of this morning’s Gospel, where Jesus calls his disciples to give water to the thirsty in his name, even though the beverage on Monday was iced tea.

On Tuesday, I met with our newly-formed parish core team. It’s the result of some planning and discernment we’ve done that’s aims to increase the effectiveness of ministry at CtR by making it less priest-centered and more collaborative. At these weekly meetings, the most common phrase you hear is, “well, maybe not, Monsignor…”

On Wednesday I preached to the school children in the morning and the Parish Religious Education Program students in the afternoon, sharing my enthusiasm for the Canadian Martyrs who inspired me so much when I was their age. Now I'm inspired by their dedicated teachers, the volunteers assistants, and by the parents who sacrifice much for their Christian education.

Thursday I had an important meeting with some very capable people about starting up the fourth group preparing for the permanent diaconate, then a lunch with the man who started the ball rolling by presenting a motion to the Archdiocesan Synod fifteen years ago.

On Friday, I met with Ed and Shawna Zadeiks, a husband and wife deeply committed to sharing the Gospel. We talked about various ways to do this, including Discovery faith studies and the Wild Goose video series. But most of all, we talked about Alpha, which returns to our parish this Thursday evening.

We talked about how Alpha changes lives. But I won’t go on about that, since we will hear from Ed after Communion this morning. I’ll just say that when Ed and Shawna left, I thought to myself “this is how the Church must change and grow.”

And then came Saturday. Vernon Robertson offered his “Seminar of Hope,” a whole day on how to pray for your sons and daughters—and for your friends, other loved ones, spouses and anyone else the Lord has placed in your life.

I’m at a loss to describe the power of Vernon’s preaching. This retired butcher from Safeway made the Scriptures fly off the pages of written words and into the hearts of everyone listening.

Once again, I found myself not only inspired but challenged.  One of the practical things he said has already caused me to make a small but important change, which you may notice at the Prayers of the Faithful today.  We’ve been praying according to an established formula: for the Church, society, those suffering from natural disasters, the sick and the deceased.

Yet we don’t very often pray for the things people actually bring with them to Mass—for children who’ve left the Church, for those anxious about medical tests, for financial worries, for jobs, for knowing God’s will. That’s partly because we use a standard template when preparing the intercessions; we’ll try not to do that anymore.

So there’s my week. And you are asking—what does that have to do with me? It sure didn’t sound like a homily.

Let me explain by asking you something: as you listened to me talk about those seven days, did you hear me mention a priest? No, every single individual who taught me, inspired me, worked with me, and served alongside of me was a lay member of Christ’s faithful.

There were a few lay professionals, but most of the women and men who filled my week with their great example, wisdom or energy were so-called ordinary Catholics, devoted to the mission of the Church in good times and in bad.

Look again at the first reading. Joshua, the executive assistant to Moses, is shocked that Eldad and Medad are prophesying without a license. He wants them stopped. But Moses knows better. He knows that the Lord’s spirit is poured out freely, and that all his people can proclaim his word.

In a different context, in today’s Gospel Jesus also welcomes the ministry of those who aren’t officially part of the team.

Dear friends, we will always need priests and bishops.  Indeed, without them there can be no Catholic Church. We are richly blessed, here and elsewhere, with many good priests and bishops. But I believe that God will renew and revive his Church mainly through those lay faithful on whom he puts his Spirit, so they can do deeds of power in the name of Christ.

My diploma from UBC is gathering dust somewhere, but on it are the Latin words “Tuum Est,” which can be translated “It’s Up to You”—a motto for every Catholic in these trying times.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Equipping the Saints for Ministry: Commissioning our Catechists

I've spoken lately about how the Word of God can hit you over the head, making it impossible to ignore a message. It can be painful.

But sometimes God, like a good teacher, makes sure I'm listening just by repeating himself. That happened last week..

Friday was the feast of St. Matthew, apostle and evangelist. It was no surprise that the first reading at Mass was from the Letter to the Ephesians, where St. Paul writes “The gifts Christ gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ...”

But before the day was out, the scripture readings in the breviary repeated the same text two more times, at which point I began to think the Lord was trying to tell me something. Whether he was or wasn't, the triple dose of Ephesians 4 sure made it easy to preach today, the Sunday when we bless the women and men who teach the faith as catechists in our parish.

“The gifts Christ gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ...” That tells us two key things about our catechists: first, that they are a gift, and second, that they have a purpose.

Usually, when we speak about God's gifts, we're speaking of the graces he gives us. We all know that when God calls someone to a particular work, he grants the grace or gifts they need.

But in the passage we’re discussing, St. Paul is calling people ‘gifts’. Another translation says “he gave some as apostles, some prophets” and so on. Our teachers and evangelists are a gift from God. 

The purpose of their calling also comes from God. It is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ...”

The meaning of that is lost if we think Paul is talking about the saints in heaven, who certainly don't need to be equipped for ministry or anything else, for that matter.

Again, another translation explains things.  In this context, the word “saints” means holy ones—simply the members of the Church. All the baptized need to be prepared for service, for ministry, and every service has the same goal, building up the body of Christ.

But even though every one of us needs to be taught and equipped, there is one group of saints, of holy ones, that needs special attention: our children. Although our catechists serve many adults, particularly through R.C.I.A. and Bible studies, the majority of them labour in the parish religious education program, the liturgy of the word for children program, and in our schools. (We will commission the school teachers at a school Mass during the week.)

These dedicated volunteers welcome our children as they would welcome Christ himself. In today's Gospel, as elsewhere, Jesus shows how much he loves children. He identifies himself with the child whom he takes in his arms and he calls his disciples to treat little ones as they would treat the Lord himself.

(No wonder that on another occasion Jesus says that anyone who harms a child would be better off tied to a rock and dropped into the ocean. Sadly, we have all too many opportunities lately to reflect on those words.)

Delighted as I am to acknowledge our catechists today, I want to speak briefly about two other groups as well. 

The first is evangelists. We’re comfortable finding pastors and teachers on Paul's list of servants of Christ's Church. We know what a pastor does and what a teacher does. 

But evangelists? We don’t expect to find one of those in the next pew. Not so many years ago, all the evangelists were priests, some specially gifted ones like Fulton Sheen. One of the most wonderful blessings that’s come to the Church in recent decades are lay evangelists, men and women who are exactly the people St. Paul is talking about. I hope before long there will be a special blessing to commission evangelists. But today we will include them alongside our catechists as they prepare for the launch of Alpha—our parish’s number one evangelization effort—in less than two weeks.

The second group, of course, is parents. They don't need to be commissioned to the work of preparing their children to serve Christ and his Church. They've already taken their children in their arms, welcoming them as God's gift.

What parents may not have thought about is how their generosity is blessed by Jesus in today's Gospel. We all recall his promises of an eternal reward to anyone who visits prisoners or the sick, or who offer a cup of cold water in his name. Today Jesus extends the promise further, telling parents that they have welcomed not only a child but their Lord. 

Parents should think carefully about that. Jesus says that whoever welcomes a child in his name, welcomes him. That promise is huge. But with the calling comes a responsibility. Welcoming children in the name of Christ—indeed, welcoming children as Christ—takes more than bundling them into your arms.

Among many other sacrifices, it requires prayer. Which is why I am going to conclude with a brief word about this Saturday's Seminar of Hope, subtitled “How to Pray for Your Sons and Daughters.” 

The seminar, which runs from 9:00 to 4:30, is given by a man who is definitely one of those gifts St. Paul has listed for us; specifically, Vernon Robertson is an evangelist. He will reshape any parent or grandparent's understanding of praying for children, whether they are young or old, doing well or faring poorly. He will offer a clear path to embracing even the most troubled son or daughters in the name of Jesus.

More information here and a video here.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Homily Shaped by Parishioners' Voices (23 B)

This is the third time in four Sundays that I’ve spoken about the current crisis in the Church. My first two homilies are posted here  and here.

But today I’d like to let some of you speak. Parishioners have reached out to share their thoughts with me—challenging and informed reactions along with heartfelt feelings.

The most powerful reaction is anger. People feel betrayed and they’re not going to suppress their feelings. One parishioner wrote “I think parishioners need to feel empowered to [express their anger] without feeling guilt and disloyalty to the Church.”

Amen to that. In my first homily on this subject, I mentioned that the scriptures clearly show us the wrath of God; and we meet it again today in the words of the prophet Isaiah: “He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense.”

Today’s psalm highlights God’s faithfulness, but it also reminds us that he “executes justice for the oppressed.”

Almost every day since the recent revelations I’ve encountered the mighty justice of God in my reading of psalms and the prophets of the Old Testament. Now consider these terrifying words:

For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgement, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy ‘on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by those who have spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know the one who said, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ 

That’s not from the Old Testament but from the Letter to the Hebrews, in the New Testament, addressed not to ancient Israel but to the Church. (Hebrews 10:26-30)

The final words of the chapter are the most frightening of all: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:31)

As I said in my earlier homily, God is angry too.

Another parishioner said this: “The mercy of God is infinite—but the justice of God is infinite also.” Wise and true words. These scandals are connected to a false notion of God’s mercy.

Ralph Martin, who visited with us in June, traces that notion in his book Will Many Be Saved, in which he points to both scriptures and official Church teaching that tell us getting to heaven is not automatic—in other words that it’s quite possible to end up in hell. The Second Vatican Council reminds us that if members of the Church fail to respond to the special grace of Christ “in thought word and deed, not only will they not be saved, they will be judged more severely.”  (Lumen gentium, 14)

It amazes me that some people were actually scandalized by Dr. Martin’s book, since Jesus himself said “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.” (Matthew 7:13)

Finally, one far thinking parishioner slightly shocked me with this statement: “Let’s not waste a serious crisis.” It’s a phrase wrongly attributed to Sir Winston Churchill, often used to make the point that times of great difficulty are also times of great opportunity. When things go wrong, we can open new areas of discussion and take a harder look at the status quo.

I might not have used that secular phrase myself, but rather a phrase from St. Paul. Romans 8:28 is a text I cling to in difficult times: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” The verse is also translated “God makes all things work together for good,” or “in all things God works for good.”

Even the greatest, ugliest and most sordid evil cannot overpower God and his plan—if we continue to love him and to cooperate with him.

Now let’s be careful and clear here.  God doesn’t cause evil. He doesn’t make evil good. But he doesn’t let evil win. That’s what Paul is saying—please don’t misinterpret his words.

I don’t pretend to know all the good God may draw from the evils that have been exposed, but I can suggest one. It’s something I preached on some years ago, on a smaller scale. I say it again today with even greater conviction. We need to know that we—individual Christians and the Church herself—are part of a cosmic battle between good and evil. We have an Enemy.

This should have been obvious to me long before I was ordained. But it wasn’t. I was a card-carrying member of the Church that St. James describes in our second reading. Let’s call it the Church of the Nicely-Dressed.

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t ask people in dirty clothes to sit on the floor. The fact is, I almost never saw anyone at Mass in dirty clothes. The people who came to church on Sunday were respectable folks, folks like me, following the commandments and going to confession if they slipped up. We certainly weren’t going off to war.

Two fine Protestant Christians helped set me straight.

In his book Waking the Dead, John Eldredge says “We are at war [and] how I’ve missed this for so long is a mystery to me. Maybe I’ve overlooked it; maybe I’ve chosen not to see.”

And he adds, the sooner we come to terms with it, the better hope we have of making it to the life we do want.

In his famous book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis says “One of the things that surprised me when I first read the New Testament seriously was that it talked so much about a Dark Power in the universe—a mighty evil spirit who was held to be the Power behind death and disease, and sin.  Christianity agrees… this universe is at war.”

Do you remember the passage where Jesus said “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full”? Of course you do. But do you know what Jesus said in the first part of the very same sentence: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.”

In other words, the offer is life, but we’re going to have to fight for it.

We’re going to have to fight for it because there’s an Enemy with a different agenda. There is something set against us. We are at war.

Before he promised us life, Jesus warned that a thief would try to steal, kill and destroy it. How come we are so shocked when that murderous thief actually steals, kills and destroys?”

I suspect we’ll return to this subject more than once in the months ahead.  But for now, let us not waste this crisis. Let us allow Jesus to heal our deafness and to open our ears to what he really says, not just what we want to hear.