Sunday, January 26, 2020

Sunday of the Word of God: The Bible a "Love Letter"

One Saturday morning many years ago, I was sitting in my parents’ bedroom watching TV while my Dad cleaned out some drawers by dumping them out on the bed. I spied a small bundle of envelopes tied with a red ribbon and said “Hey, what’s this? Can I take a look?”

“Sure,” he said absent-mindedly. But as I grabbed them, he came to his senses and said “Put those down!” They were the love letters my parents had exchanged while courting.

I don’t know where those letters ended up, but if I do come across them when we finish sorting out Mom’s things, I don’t think I’ll read them. Love letters should be read only by those to whom they’re addressed.

But earlier today, as he celebrated Mass on the very first Sunday of the Word of God, Pope Francis described God’s word as a kind of a “love letter” he has written to each of us, to help us understand He is at our side.

Imagine a love letter that was never read by the person to whom it was addressed. There’s nothing sadder than stories of tender letters written to soldiers that didn’t arrive until after they had lost their lives in battle. Or a love letter marked “return to sender” after an unresolved hurt.

Pope Francis has instituted the Sunday of the Word of God for the same reason St. John Paul gave the Church Divine Mercy Sunday—to help us know that God wants to give us “peace of heart, the joy of being forgiven and feeling loved.”

In his homily today, the Pope explains beautifully what the Letter to Hebrews means when it says “the word of God is living and active.” He said the “word consoles and encourages us. At the same time it challenges us, frees us from the bondage of our selfishness and summons us to conversion. Because his word has the power to change our lives and to lead us out of darkness into the light.”

Notice those verbs: Consoles. Encourages. Challenges. Changes. Leads.

I love the sacraments, and I know you do also. But sometimes we forget that God comes to us in great power also through the Bible, the message of salvation.

That verse from the Letter to the Hebrews goes on to describe God’s word as sharper than a two-edged sword. Forget that ancient image: it means the word is as sharp as a scalpel. It means God uses his word like a heart surgeon, entering the most intimate places within us.

The Pope explains this too. He says the word of salvation “enters the complex and obscure places in our lives… God wants to visit the very places we think he will never go.”

But with his typical bluntness, Francis warns that all too often we are the ones who close the door, preferring to keep our confusion, our dark side and our unfaithfulness hidden and locked up inside us, “approaching the Lord with some rote prayers, [cautious] lest his truth stir our hearts.”

The Holy Father uses today’s Gospel to answer three questions about the preaching of Jesus: how, where and to whom.

How? The Lord began simply, with a simple message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

His first message is that God is not far from us. “He has torn down walls and shortened distances.”

“God came to visit us in person, by becoming man… For love, he took on our human nature … because he loves us and desires freely to give us the salvation that, alone and unaided, we cannot hope to attain. He wants to stay with us.”

The second message is an invitation to change. Although Jesus meets us where we are, from the beginning he tells us that’s not where he wants us to stay.

He demands that we repent—“in other words,” the Pope says, ‘Change your life’. Change your life, for a new way of living has begun. The time when you lived for yourself is over; now is the time for living with and for God, with and for others, with and for love.”

And today Jesus speaks those same words to us: “Take heart, I am here with you, allow me to enter and your life will change.”

As for where: “Matthew tells us that Jesus went throughout Galilee, passing “through all of that varied and complex region. In the same way,” the Pope says, “he is not afraid to explore the terrain of our hearts and to enter the roughest and most difficult corners of our lives.”

To whom is rather obvious: Jesus began with fishermen, “using the language they understood. Their lives changed on the spot. He called them where they were and as they were, in order to make them sharers in his mission.”

In our parish, we’ve talked a lot about how we have all been called in baptism and confirmation to share in the mission of Jesus. Today we are reminded that the sacraments are not the only source of our missionary call. The word of God, living and active, continues to invite and to guide us on our discipleship path.

Pope Francis urged that we “make room inside ourselves for the word of God!”  If we do that, “we will discover that God is close to us, that he dispels our darkness and, with great love, leads our lives into deep waters.”

And he ended with simple and practical advice. . “Each day,” he said, “let us read a verse or two of the Bible. Let us begin with the Gospel: let us keep it open on our table, carry it in our pocket or bag, read it on our cell phones, and allow it to inspire us daily.”

In other words, let us find at least a little time to read the love letter God has written to us.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

St. Francis de Sales: What does it mean to be holy?

Seminarian Joseph McDaniel, a member of an active family in our parish, is studying with the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales in the U.S. Since he's spending a term here, I asked him to speak to the parishioners about the order's noble patron on his feast day this week. His short talk was very well received, and with his kind permission I present it here.

He also drew my attention to two  videos on the saint's life and teaching: St. Francis de Sales: A Biography  and To Be a Christian.

What does it mean to be holy? As a bishop and spiritual director,  St. Francis de Sales was asked this question frequently, by people from all walks of life. In his conversations with them, he noticed that oftentimes our imagined idea of what holiness is about can be far removed from the concrete reality of our lives. 

In the first chapter of his Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis observed, “everyone paints devotion according to his own passions and fancies. A man given to fasting thinks himself very devout if he fasts, although his heart may be filled with hatred…
Another gladly takes a coin out of his purse and gives it to the poor, but he cannot extract kindness from his heart and forgive his enemies.” (IDL Part I, Ch. 1)

In other words, in our picture of holiness, we like to accent those aspects of the Christian life that we happen to already be good at, while ignoring those that challenge us and call us to conversion.

Furthermore, we often project our vision of holiness far into a very much hypothetical future. We preface our idea of holiness with the words, “if” and “when.”

If my classmates, my coworkers, my siblings, my family members weren’t so demanding, challenging, annoying – if they all got their act together – then I could be holy.

When I get to high school, when I get exactly the kind of job I want, the kind of retirement I want, when I no longer have to run around my life putting out other people’s fires (let’s never mind those fires I started myself…) – then I could spend more time with God and be holy.

In response to our excuses, Francis proposes that holiness is not something we wait for, to be attained when all the stars align and when we eventually win the lottery – holiness is to be found right here and right now.

Holiness, which Francis called devotion, has just one, simple criterion, that of charity:  What is the love of God and love of neighbor asking of me right now, in the unique circumstances of my life?

Francis writes, “God commands Christians, the living plants of his Church, to bring forth the fruits of devotion each according to his position and vocation. Devotion must be exercised in different ways by the gentleman, the worker, the servant, the prince, the widow, the young girl and the married woman. Not only is this true, but the practice of devotion must also be adapted to the strength, activities, and duties of each particular person…I ask you, is it fitting for a bishop to want to live a solitary life like a Carthusian [monk]…or for a skilled workman to spend the whole day in church? … No, true devotion does us no harm whatsoever, but instead perfects all things.” (IDL I.3)

In other words, it’s precisely in engaging with the unique, idiosyncratic, aggravating and lovable people and circumstances of our lives that holiness is to be found. In seeing what needs to be done in the here and now, the people that need to be listened to, affirmed, confronted, reconciled with, and doing all of this with love,  not dragging our feet, but as Francis writes, doing so “promptly, actively, diligently” (IDL I.1), offering each of these actions and encounters to God – that’s where and when holiness is to be found.

Having just participated in the Eucharist, which Francis calls the “sun of all spiritual exercises” (IDL II.14), may we ask for God’s grace to perform all of our actions today with him and through love for him, offering to him in advance all the good we shall do and accepting all the difficulty we shall meet, trusting always in the abundance of God’s love. (Spiritual Directory, Article 1)


St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, trans. John K. Ryan (New York: Image, 2003).

The Spiritual Directory of St. Francis de Sales,

Thomas F. Dailey, OSFS. Live Today Well: St. Francis de Sales’s Simple Approach to Holiness (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute, 2015).

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Euthanasia: Dark Prophecies Coming True

I can think of only two really famous twentieth-century monsignors. I’m excluding Fulton Sheen since he went on to be a bishop—and I’m too modest to put myself on the list!

The two famous monsignors were both writers and both were received into the Catholic Church from the Church of England. Both of them were the sons of Anglican archbishops, one who was even the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Monsignor Ronald Knox was a brilliant wit and a classical scholar. His one-man translation of the Bible is a beautiful book and just one literary accomplishment among many.

But it’s Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson whom I want to introduce this morning, for a particular reason.

Unlike the more scholarly Monsignor Knox, Benson was a writer of popular fiction, including some ghost and horror stories. Most of what he wrote is now forgotten—except for one book. That book, which he wrote in 1907, is not a horror story but it was the most frightening book I have ever read.

It took me weeks to read Lord of the World,* because I could only manage a few pages at a time. It’s what’s called a dystopian novel—a novel, like Huxley’s Brave New World twenty-five years later, that presents the opposite of utopia: a society of darkness and oppression.

Lord of the World could be called science fiction, but it’s also a work of prophecy and warning. Both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict have said so.

I’m not writing a book review here—although Pope Francis himself apologized to reporters for giving a commercial for the book during an interview.

I’m talking about Lord of the World because it opens a window into the world of euthanasia.

As I said, the book could be called science fiction. One of the most amazing things that appears is air travel. Just four years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight, Benson describes airliners, which he calls volors.

Early in the book, a volor crashes in London.  As you’d expect, medical experts rush to the scene. But not to save life—to end it. Ministers of Euthanasia arrive and begin to finish off the wounded and dying.

That’s not even the most chilling look at euthanasia. Oliver Brand is a senior cabinet minister in the godless Government, and when his wife has his mother is euthanized against her will, screaming for a priest, he is sad but approves.

Later, we see Oliver Brand in great panic when his wife disappears.  In fact, she has checked in to a cozy euthanasia clinic where privacy laws ensure even a cabinet minister cannot find her until she has ended her life.

What’s my point here? Why speak at Mass about a novel instead of today’s Gospel?  Simply this: euthanasia is not just letting other people kill themselves. That’s always been possible. It’s about harnessing the medical and legal apparatus of the state to assist in suicide, as Canada continues to descend the slippery slope.

And when I use the term “slippery slope” in this context, I’m not talking about driving conditions. I first heard of the slippery slope when I was in high school, many years ago. It was in the context of abortion. Many pro-lifers warned that abortion would lead to more and more disrespect of human life. It seemed a bit alarmist. Well, they were right.

The bulletin today follows a message I sent out this week to all of you registered for our Flocknote e-mail and text network. It reminds us that the Government of Canada is conducting an on-line pollabout euthanasia and asking all of us to respond.

Do I think your views on euthanasia really matter to the government? Not really. But I think it matters a great deal if Catholics throw up their hands and step back from the public square. Failing to respond to the on-line questionnaire makes us in a small way part of the problem, part of the moral apathy that allows the state to violate the dignity of human life, especially vulnerable human life.

What’s up for grabs is not “medical assistance in dying,” as it’s called.  We have that already. The issue is moving from suicide to, let’s name it, murder. Because so-called involuntary euthanasia is just that.

The bulletin quotes famous words by Martin Niemoller, a Lutheran pastor in Nazi Germany:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

It doesn’t take much imagination to add “the physically handicapped, the mentally challenged, and the elderly” to that.

So let’s speak out. Let’s answer the questionnaire, after reading the guide to it that the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition has on its website

I hope no-one is annoyed that I didn’t talk about this morning’s beautiful Gospel. What we did, though not in so many words, was reflect on what St. John Paul called “the Gospel of Life.”
Lord of the World is available on in various editions. The Wikipedia entry contains a thorough plot summary. Since the novel is in the public domain, free e-books are available in a variety of formats. The American Catholic publisher Baronius Press sells a nice hardcover, although I think the cover (see above) is unattractive (as perhaps it's meant to be!). 

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Class is ON!

This Sunday morning I am meeting with the nine candidates in our current Permanent Diaconate cohort--exhausted from their first canon law classes on Friday and Saturday (taught by me!).

So the appearance of snow tempts me to give them a break and call of today's formation event.

But class is on--for two reasons.  First off, here in West Vancouver, we have nothing but a dusting of snow, quickly melting. Secondly, I am from Toronto, and still can't get my head around the fear of driving in the white stuff that is so common in BC.

Still, there are areas out in the Fraser Valley where snow is much more plentiful and driving much more difficult. The students who prudently decide to turn back after testing the driving conditions will not get any grief from me. But for those who can make it safely, it's business as usual.

As my late father once rhymed:
"Do I love the beautiful snow?

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Epiphany and Stewardship

We’ve all laughed at the many internet jokes about what would have happened if three wise women had arrived in Bethlehem instead of three wise men. 

They say the wise women would have asked for directions, brought along a casserole, and given practical gifts like diapers instead of gold, frankincense and myrrh. One joke mentions that at least they’d have wrapped the presents.

Let’s take the tired old joke seriously for a moment and ask why the Magi brought the newborn Saviour such curious gifts?

Saints and scholars have thought about the question over many centuries. You’ve heard their rich answers many times: in the first place, these are gifts fit for a king. Gold is an obvious way to pay homage to a ruler. Frankincense, St. Irenaeus wrote in the second century, was used in worship, so it indicated that Jesus was divine. Myrrh was a more complex symbol: it was used for embalming, so it symbolized that the child was born to die.

That rich symbolism gets the three wise men off the hook for being impractical—and by the way, the Gospel never says there were three of them, only that there were three gifts. Almost as if the gifts were more important to the story than the givers.

But today, I want to defend the wise men from another direction, and see if we can learn something practical from them.

I want to ask how the wise men decided on those three gifts. Did they know Jesus was our King, God come to die for us?  Surely not.

Did they, like the joke suggests, just lack better gift-giving ideas?

The answer, if we accept the powerful meaning of the gold, frankincense and myrrh, is that they were divinely inspired to bring those treasures. Whether they were men of prayer or not, tradition holds that they were pagan astrologers—people who looked for guidance in the stars, people who sought wisdom beyond their human understanding.

It’s not much of stretch to think that God who guided them by a star may have guided their choice of symbolic offerings, or to say that the prophecies they heard from the priests and scribes at Herod’s court opened their minds to the truth about the child they were seeking,

None of that’s really new to anyone who’s already heard a few homilies on the Epiphany. But I said we can learn something practical from this story, which at first seems long ago and far away.

The lesson, it seems to me, is that there are two aspects to our important decisions. The first is looking at the needs. By this standard, the magi would indeed have brought casseroles and some warm baby clothes.

The second is asking God to guide us.  Of course both ways can work together. Discovering the right thing to do usually begins by figuring out what needs to be done.

Most of my own decisions tend to focus on what needs to be done. Maybe you work the same way. But it can mean missing out on God’s guidance, the guidance he offers to disciples who really want to follow the star that leads us to Christ.

It’s been a few years since we talked about stewardship inthe parish. Lately, we’ve been hearing more about discipleship. But stewardship is discipleship. It means striving to put God first in all things and to follow where he leads.

This celebration of the Lord’s Epiphany is a perfect time to think about stewardship and to ask God to guide our decisions, especially our spiritual decisions, as the New Year begins. The bulletin this Sunday offers a planning tool. It can help us move forward in 2020 on the discipleship path.

Most of you will remember the simple formula for Christian stewardship: time, talent and treasure. The bulletin points to the wise men as models of all three forms of sacrificial giving.

Not only did they offer costly and appropriate treasures—they also gave of their time. One source estimates that their journey took about four months and covered over fifteen hundred kilometers. They used their talents—we assume their ability as astrologers helped them to recognize and follow the guiding star.

No less than at the time of Jesus, following God asks us to offer him our three T’s, treasure, time and talent. Not only because we see needs all around us—although that’s important too—but because by reflection and prayer we’ve come to know what God wants of us.

Let me end with a quick word about these three T’s in the context of our parish family—hoping that every one of you will take a bulletin and use it to discover what God’s asking you to do right now.

Time is the most precious commodity in our hectic modern lives. It’s the gift God wants most from us. He’s not asking for all our time—he knows the demands you have to juggle at home, work or school. But he wants—he needs—some of our time. A planned commitment of time to prayer, service and sharing. There are concrete suggestions inside the bulletin, because as I often say, if we fail to plan, we plan to fail.

Talent is a backbone of any community. We don’t all have the same gifts. But in the parish we have all the gifts needed, as long as everyone shares the natural and supernatural gifts God has blessed them with. Christmas at Christ the Redeemer is an absolute showcase of talents—parishioners used their artistic, musical, hospitable, charitable and liturgical talents in wonderful ways. But imagine if everyone did the same, finding ways to become actively involved in the life of the parish?

Treasure tends to come last on the stewardship list, although we notice that gold was the first gift the Magi offered at Bethlehem. Maybe it comes last since our financial offerings can often be the easiest gift to share—although never doubt that there are many parishioners who make real sacrifices to support the parish and other good works.

But your financial support is a foundation of our efforts to make Christ’s coming known and meaningful—especially to the young and those who have not heard of him. Our efforts at parish renewal simply cannot succeed without your generosity.

This year’s Christmas collection was the largest since I arrived in the parish in 2007. I want to think there’s a reason for that. More and more we are becoming a community of engaged people—parishioners recognize that we are doing great things together. I believe the connection between stewardship and discipleship is becoming clearer: as more and more parishioners share their time and talent, it becomes natural to share generously their treasure as well.

The start of the year is a good time to assess prayerfully the level of your financial support for the parish. Some of us decided years ago on an appropriate Sunday offering, If your financial circumstances have changed, the Lord may be inviting you to increase—or even to decrease—your weekly donation.

Most of you will remember the stewardship challenge offered a few years back by our Covenant of One:  

ONE hour of time spent in prayer each week.

ONE hour of talent each week serving others according to your own gifts.

ONE hour of income each week to God’s work in our church.

The front page of the bulletin connects all this to the great feast we’re celebrating today. It ends with these wonderful words: “Maybe all we need to know about the Magi is that they made themselves available, they followed and they gave. Today, let’s learn from them and maybe we’ll have an epiphany of our own.”