Sunday, May 31, 2020

#churchneverstops A Rich Harvest at Pentecost!

I have been pastor of this parish for twelve years, four months and twenty-seven days. During that time we celebrated the parish’s 25th anniversary, my 25th anniversary, and many other important events. But I think that yesterday was the greatest day of all.

At this time of uncertainty and worry, eight men and women stood at this baptismal font to have their sins washed away and to join the household of God. A ninth—for one of our converts was already baptized—received the gift of the Holy Spirit in Confirmation and the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion. A tenth could not be with us and will be baptized later this week.

Two of the newly-baptized brought their children with them to the font, one of them a student at St. Anthony’s School.

Eleven baptisms in the midst of a pandemic.

Most of you know me: am I going to get through this Pentecost homily without choking up?  I broke my record yesterday: I choked up at the first four words—when I addressed the catechumens as “dear brothers and sisters.”

Frankly, we should all choke up. These new Catholics represent the harvest we have worked and prayed for since the parish decided to make evangelization its priority. Until now we have mostly been sowing seeds; now we are seeing the fruit of our labours, just when we need God’s encouragement the most.

Most of the new Catholics came to us from Alpha. All of them took part in the RCIA program under the dedicated guidance of Glen Goh and Nicole Bitelli, with the help of other generous volunteers and their sponsors.

Short of a parking lot full of people hearing us preach to them in their own language, what greater experience of Pentecost could this parish have? The new members of our parish family come from at least three countries, and they are as joyful a group as you could ever want to know. The oldest is 58 and the youngest 17, if you don’t include the two children.

That’s about all I can say without getting too emotional. But please, do two things. First, pray for our new brothers and sisters in Christ. Pray they will know the peace that Jesus promised his disciples. Pray that they will stay strong during the time we cannot be together every Sunday.

And pray in thanksgiving for how God has blessed our parish. We’ve spent literally years reflecting, and planning and training to become a parish of missionary disciples; this visible fruit is a gift from God, not an accomplishment. But it gives us the strength to continue in the direction we have been taking.

That’s not all. The second reading today has a message for the new Catholics, for sure. St. Paul reminds them that it’s because of the Holy Spirit that they can profess their faith in Jesus. They didn’t learn that Jesus is Lord by watching videos at RCIA.  It’s a gift from the Holy Spirit.

But St. Paul also has a very important message for every one of us. Let me boil down what he says: we are not given the Spirit just for our own good.

The Spirit is poured into our hearts to set them on fire with energy—divine energy that moves us to serve others. And not always one-on-one, but in the Body we call the Church.

The ten new Catholics would not have joined our parish without the welcome and formation they received from dedicated parishioners—parishioners who put to work the gifts they received at baptism and confirmation. They put them to work for the common good, they used them to serve.

What a terrible mistake it would be to say “oh those are special folks. I couldn’t teach at RCIA.”

No?  What about the people who cooked and cleaned at Alpha? What about the people who delivered our invitation cards at Easter in 2019? What about the people who will make it possible for us to add more Masses attended by the public?

“There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are varieties of services, but the same Lord.”

"To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good."

Think about how you could serve as we begin to resume parish life. Send me an email and ask what’s needed. Pray and ask God what gifts you have.

It’s too early to make post-pandemic predictions. But I wonder if things will ever be the same for our parish. Will we go back to business as usual? Somehow I don’t think so. Restoring parish life will not take a handful of volunteers but an army. Fortunately, every baptized member of this community has both a commission in that army and the equipment—the gifts of the Holy Spirit—needed for the spiritual battle.

Pentecost was the birthday of the Church—the day the great work of evangelization began in earnest. A work that continues to this very moment, guided by the same Spirit, as we see in this rich harvest that God has granted.

The months of the pandemic have taught us a new way of doing things and—at least for those of us who aren’t young anymore—a whole new set of words. Pandemic itself was a new word, as was social distancing. I had no idea what Zoom was, and didn’t know what “meme” meant.

Now I do. But I still haven’t figured out exactly what a hashtag is. I know what it looks like—it uses what we used to call the pound sign or a number sign on a typewriter.  I just don’t know what it is.

However, I do know one thing. I know that the three words on a hashtag from the Archdiocese sum up my experience of these months of isolation. These three words have helped me move from spiritual desolation to consolation.

Those words are Church Never Stops.

The Church never stops because the Holy Spirit has come down on the earth. The Church never stops because God’s Spirit is always at work.

And that’s what Christ the Redeemer Parish experienced this Pentecost, in the year of the pandemic, 2020.

Eleven Baptisms! Vigil of Pentecost 2020

Yesterday, the Vigil of Pentecost, I baptized eight adults from our R.C.I.A. program and confirmed a ninth. Two children, a baby and a youngster, joined their parents at the font. A tenth member of the group will be baptized and confirmed thus week. The celebration was the first 'public' liturgy in the church since the pandemic began.  Here is my homily.

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

What a joy it is to call you that!

You probably know—or at least you need to know—that I am famous for getting emotional when I preach.  Gratitude seems to overwhelm me; it’s quite beyond my control.

But in all my years of preaching, I never teared up at the first four words of a homily—until today.  However, when I typed “Dear Brothers and Sisters” on my computer, that’s what happened. I’m afraid it’s a bad sign of what’s to come as I speak to you today and to the whole parish tomorrow.

But it’s a good sign—a very good sign—of what has happened during these months of preparation for your baptism, during these weeks of waiting for baptism, and of what’s about to happen at your baptism. Something worth grateful tears, something truly earthshaking and momentous.

As I planned for our liturgy this afternoon, I thought we might try to use some aspects of the Easter Vigil, when we had all hoped you’d be baptized. I thought I might ask Nick Curalli to hide in the choir loft and to sing the great Easter proclamation, the Exultet, as I began my homily.

That was before I saw the readings the Church provides for the Vigil of Pentecost. Although this liturgy must take second place, it has the same power and glory and beauty as the one we celebrated at Easter.

There’s more than enough drama in the Bible texts we’ve just heard. There’s more than enough to set our hearts on fire with excitement and gratitude.
Look at the first reading [Joel 2:28-32]. The Lord promises to pour out his spirit on all flesh—on all who call on his name. Entire families will receive this gift—sons and daughters and elders. Isn’t this what’s about to happen right here, right now? Two generations of one family are here in church; three generations of another.

And what a time to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit! I don’t think we are yet in the end times—the sun has not yet turned to darkness nor the moon to blood—but we are in a time of crisis and uncertainty. What better time to know that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”?

What better time to know that we can survive anything as long as we are among those whom the Lord calls?

The prophet Joel was sharing God’s promises about 400 years before the birth of Jesus. We are blessed to hear those promises from the Lord’s own mouth. In today’s Gospel, Jesus promises another outpouring—rivers of living water, flowing out of the heart of the one who believes in him.
But before the promise comes a personal invitation: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.”

Dear brothers and sisters, you came to us with your thirst: with your thirst for God, for truth, for love, for community. You came and you drank.

The third Sunday of Lent was the last time we were able to gather in this church. We met for the First Scrutiny of catechumens. It was the first and the last. But in the Gospel for that celebration, you heard the words of Jesus to the Samaritan woman.  Do you remember them?

In case you don’t, I’ll remind you. They connect directly to the Gospel today. Jesus promised the woman at the well that she would never be thirsty again if she would drink of the water he offered her.

The Preface for Mass that Sunday is beautiful. It says that when Jesus “asked the Samaritan woman for water to drink, he had already created the gift of faith within her.”

“And so ardently did he thirst for her faith, that he kindled in her the fire of divine love.”

That’s the story of the woman at the well, and that’s the story of each one of you. Jesus approached you in what might have seemed a casual way—after all, he just asked the woman for a drink of water. But he already knew you, he had already given you the gift of faith.

You responded, and nothing will ever be the same for you.

The sacraments you are about to receive mean you will never again be dry. Sure, you may feel dry or a bit dusty, but the desert will never be your home again. God’s word spells it out beautifully: the first Psalm says you will be like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in due season. The famous 23rd Psalm says God will lead you beside still waters.

And if you’d been able to attend the Easter Vigil, you’d have heard sung these words from the prophet Isaiah: “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”

In our second reading [Romans 8:22-27], St. Paul speaks of groaning inwardly while we await adoption as sons and daughters of God.  I think I may have reached the point in the homily when you are groaning inwardly!  Your waiting for this moment of adoption has gone on long enough. Let us now celebrate your baptism, the gateway to life in the Spirit.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Not Orphans--At Any Age (Easter 6.B)

For almost twenty years I’ve been thinking about something I heard at a funeral. The eulogist, the daughter of the deceased woman, looked up at the congregation and asked, “Can I be called an orphan at 62?”

Now I know the answer to her question, since both my parents have died, and I’m in my sixties.

And the answer is no.

The answer is no, and it has nothing to do with the dictionary definition of ‘orphan.’

The reason that I am not an orphan and that you are not an orphan is simple: Jesus made us a promise. We heard it a few moments ago in the Gospel: “I will not leave you orphaned.”

If we are walking around feeling like abandoned infants, it’s because we’re not convinced he keeps his promises. Or perhaps we’re not letting the Lord keep this promise.

There’s even a name for this—the orphan spirit. One Protestant writer calls this “a spirit whose chief joy is to separate children from their Father.”

How and why do we define ourselves as orphans instead of children of God?

I can think of three reasons. The first is that we don’t know we are children of God. We’ve never really listened to what the Word of God says about each of us. We’ve heard the words, perhaps, but never applied them to ourselves personally.

Listen to what St. Paul says in the Letter to the Romans: “… all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.”

At the very beginning of St. John’s Gospel, we hear “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”

In his first letter, St. John leaves us in no doubt about this. He writes: “Beloved, we are God’s children now.”

But even if we know what Scripture clearly says, we may not understand what it means. That’s the second reason for the orphan spirit. We don’t experience the Father’s love.

There’s the second reason we fall back on the orphan spirit in our disappointment. We don’t feel we are children of God. see any evidence that Jesus is keeping his promise. Here we need to zoom out and look at what the Lord says just before “I will not leave you orphans.” That’s the key to knowing what he means by these words.

“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth…” Although Jesus will return to the orphaned disciples when he rises from the dead, he will leave them again when he ascends to Heaven. So he promises his perpetual presence not in bodily form, but through the gift of the Spirit he will send at Pentecost.

Next week, when we celebrate the Ascension, we’ll hear the words of Jesus recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. He orders them not to leave Jerusalem “but to wait there for the promise of the Father”—the Holy Spirit.  “For John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

There are different understandings of what is meant today by baptism in the Holy Spirit, which is particularly emphasized within the Catholic charismatic renewal movement. But all can agree that it is one way the Lord fulfills the promise he makes today and elsewhere in John’s Gospel.

Baptism in the Holy Spirit is not a sacrament but rather a conscious decision to allow the power given us in baptism and confirmation to make a profound difference in us.

Bishop Barron, for instance, says “To be baptized in the Holy Spirit is to be immersed in the ocean of the divine love.”

Whatever the precise meaning of the term, we can conclude that accepting the gift of the Spirit of God as something living and active in our hearts is an antidote to the orphan spirit. When the prophet Isaiah asks “Can a woman forget her nursing child?” the answer comes immediately from the Lord “Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”

The absence of parents makes orphans feel forgotten. But God who dwells in us is never absent. His indwelling presence through the Holy Spirit proves we are never abandoned or forsaken.

The third reason we can feel like orphans is that we don't find a family in the Church or haven't gone looking for one there. Yet we not only have a loving Parent present to us through the Holy Spirit, we have a family as well in Christ's Church.

Of course, as my good friend Father Galvon likes to say, it’s a messy family. Sometimes we embrace the orphan spirit in our disappointment over the shortcomings of Church leaders or our fellow parishioners. We figure no family is better than this family, and we choose to go it alone.

But that’s not God’s plan. Community is opposed to the orphan spirit just as family is. One reason I have not felt orphaned by the recent death of my mother is the presence of my brothers and sisters. They remind me of my parents and provide a continued connection to them.

The more we remind others of the Father's love the more we can help them avoid feeling like orphans. If we’re adopted children of the Father, we should try to look like him.

One father told me that his teenage daughter looks so much like him that she can unlock his iPhone using face recognition! Although obviously they don’t look exactly alike, they’re similar in the attributes that the software uses.

We’d be much less likely to feel alone and abandoned by God if more Christians resembled God in his loving parental concern for all his children.

Finally, let’s consider how important it is for children to gather around the table with the family. Nothing says “I’m feeling like an orphan” than refusing to take part in big family events. If you’re watching this live stream, you’re already acting like a member of the household of God. But at this difficult time, perhaps you might consider getting a bit closer to the other members of the parish family by joining us for one additional activity this week.

They’re all listed in the bulletin—and if I can leave you with this, the weekly bulletin matters more than ever during these days. Even in this era of YouTube and podcasts, the printed word is important. It’s sad that no one writes letters anymore—my mother kept all the letters I wrote from the seminary, and just the other day, Bishop David Monroe gave me back the ones I’d written him.

I have to say I’d have been quite choked if any of these letters were still unopened in their envelopes!

Please read the bulletin—it’s a letter that can help us wait patiently for the family reunion we hope to celebrate soon.

But in the meantime, let’s take hold of the promise of Christ, refusing to think like orphans and preparing for a fresh experience of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, just two weeks from now.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Faith in Time of Trouble (Easter5.2020)

Today we’re going to touch on some serious subjects.  Worry. Fear. Discouragement, and even depression.

But I’d like to start on a light note, especially since some of my family in chilly Ontario are watching this morning. They’ve already groaned at the internet meme that sums up their week: “My biggest fear is getting a murder hornet stuck in my face mask while shoveling snow on a Saturday in the middle of May.”

Thursday marked the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. But I needed no reminder to get me thinking about that war; I’m not a historian, but I’ve probably thought about it every day since this pandemic began—and particularly about the people of Great Britain and of London especially.

Horrible as the battle with the coronavirus has been, from the beginning I’ve been comparing it to the horrors endured by Londoners. How did they cope? How did they live with the stress, the fear, and the sorrow?

Looking back, we take their courage and endurance for granted. Yet that was far from certain. Many “believed that London would be reduced to rubble within minutes of war being declared.” The raids would cause such terror that millions would go insane. A military planner predicted in the 1920s that “The hospitals will be stormed, traffic will cease, the homeless will shriek for help, the city will be a pandemonium.”

Even now, a book I started yesterday opens with a question I’ve often wondered about. How did Churchill withstand the stress? How did his family and friends? It must be hard enough to be Dr. Bonnie Henry.
I haven’t got far enough in the book to have an answer. But today I’d like to ask how we can best withstand the stress as the Covid-19 crisis continues—for it’s not over, despite last week’s efforts at news about gradual reopening.

Specifically, I want to look for an answer in this morning’s Gospel—in the words of Jesus, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”

Jesus goes even further later on in the same chapter of John’s Gospel: “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

What do these words mean? Are Christians immune from fear? Or as one friend asked me last week, is our faith expected to “insulate” us from trouble?

I think you know part of the answer from your own experience. Does anyone think Christians never feel troubled?  Because if that’s true, I’m no Christian, and neither are many of you. But when we hear Jesus say this, we may think we’re not supposed to be troubled; we’re somehow failing as Christians when we’re in distress.

That can’t be what our Lord means. Our experience tells us that fearful things, like the falling of bombs in the blitz, the danger of invasion, or the threat of infection all produce the emotion of fear. They trouble our hearts whether we want them to or not; whether we’re devout or shaky in our faith.

So don’t expect faith to shelter you from all trouble. If things are getting you down, if worry and fear are troubling you, don’t blame yourself and don’t blame God.  The words Jesus speaks should comfort not criticize us. They’re an invitation rather than an order.

The invitation is clear: turn to your faith in time of trouble. But don’t rely on the faith you have, on the relationship you have. In times of trouble, we need more faith, deeper faith.

Jesus prepares his disciples for suffering by answering their questions. What’s the way? Who is the Father? He reminds them of the miracles they’ve seen. And he challenges them: “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?”

This is a time to question God. Why is this happening? Where are you? But we must let him answer. Ever had the experience of someone pelting you with questions and not allowing you to respond? Even watching a debate or a news conference we know that’s not fair.

Sometimes we’ll find the answer deep in our hearts through quiet prayer. Other times, the answer can be found in the Word of God. I experienced that in a simple way while I was writing this homily. I wanted to be sure that I was completely correct in saying it’s okay for Christians to be troubled. The next thing you know I remembered that later in John’s Gospel Jesus told his disciples they would face trouble and suffering (cf. Jn 16:33). So when he says “do not let your hearts be troubled” he means “do not let trouble take over your heart.”

As Martin Luther said “You cannot keep birds from flying over your head but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.” This is not a time to deny our troubled thoughts but to counter them with affirmations of faith and trust.

If there’s something really troubling you and you can’t figure out where faith comes in, feel free to send me an email. I’ll try to reply with a verse or two from Scripture that may help.

Finally, a brief note on clinical depression. This is an illness, and has nothing to do with a lack of faith. That was brought home to many when the late Archbishop Raymond Roussin made his depression public. What I have been saying about faith applies to depression, just in a different way. Faith helps to redeem the suffering of mental illness even when it does not reduce it.

Let me conclude with a word about something that’s troubling all of us—the question “when can I come back to Mass? When will I be able to receive the Eucharist again?”

The Archbishop said on Friday that he hopes it may soon be possible to resume public Masses in a restricted fashion. And our Parish Pastoral Council met on Saturday to consider detailed plans to reopen the parish for Mass when this is possible.

Our overriding principle is that safety remains our paramount concern, and we will only resume Masses when we are able to do so safely, carefully respecting the provincial health authority’s directives.

The Council also acknowledged the difficult decisions that Archbishop Miller faces as our chief shepherd and expressed its confidence in his guidance in this challenging time.

We all look forward to the day when we are able again to gather around the Lord’s table and to receive the sacred food that brings peace and joy to troubled hearts. But in the meantime, we ask God to strengthen our faith and to build us up into a spiritual house, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Focus on the Flock: Good Shepherd Sunday

A couple of weeks ago on Divine Mercy Sunday I preached on a complicated and difficult subject: indulgences—important during this time of pandemic.  Despite the complexity of the topic I was very pleased that several people wrote to say it was helpful, and even consoling. 
Nonetheless, I looked forward to preaching today:  Good Shepherd Sunday.  It’s a wonderful day to preach and, quite frankly, not usually difficult. 
Some years I have spoken about Jesus the Good Shepherd.  Jesus, whom St. Peter calls today “the shepherd and guardian of our souls.”
The Lord, our Shepherd – I’ve often talked about that.  But on this day I’ve also talked about what it is to be a pastor, because, of course, that’s just the Latin word for shepherd.
In the book of the Prophet Jeremiah God promises to give his people “shepherds after His own heart”.  And every priest seeks to be a shepherd after the heart of the Good Shepherd.  That’s something else I have spoken about on this Sunday.
And, of course, I have talked about vocations to the priesthood and the consecrated life so that we might recognize the importance of shepherds in the Church.
I’ve done all of these things.  But today, for the first time, something else about Good Shepherd Sunday was unavoidable for me.  Today my thoughts turned completely, immediately, not to the Good Shepherd, not to pastors but to the flock:  I don’t think I’ve ever before thought on this day about the flock.  About the decision, for such it was, of our Lord Jesus to gather his followers into a flock.
He didn’t have to do that.  It could have been one-on-one.  We’ve all of us met people who say “I don’t go to church; I can hike and speak directly to God.”  And so we can, and so we do—but not as a substitute for going to church.
Now there are many reasons to go to church, of course.  Primarily to break the bread, to receive the Eucharist.  But again, why could this not be done in the home, as the Jewish people celebrate their Seder?  As they celebrate their Sabbath service?  In the home.  Why not? 
Because Jesus chose to make of us a flock. Individuals?  Certainly: sheep and lambs.  But gathered in community.
I don’t know why this hasn’t grabbed hold of me before on Good Shepherd Sunday, but I sure know now—because we are the opposite of that verse in the Bible that says “they are like sheep without a shepherd.” We are shepherds without sheep.
The absence of the congregation is a deeply painful thing.  But at the same time today it’s a beautiful thing because it is a reminder today of what a wonderful thing it is to be a community.
To miss you all is to deepen my understanding of the dynamics of the Church as intended by Christ.  We are meant to be together and even this live-streamed Mass is intended to remind us that we are one flock with one Shepherd.
Of course universally.  Of course within that portion of the people of God we call the Archdiocese. But also here in this parish family. 
A flock:  tended by Christ; cared for by Christ; but united with one another in love.