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.