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.