Sunday, May 11, 2014

4th Sunday of Easter, Year A: The Father and the Fold

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This Sunday is the fourth Sunday of the Easter Season, but we also call it “Good Shepherd” Sunday after the image of the Good Shepherd presented in our readings today. Typically we devote this particular Sunday to fervent prayers for Priestly and Religious Vocations and we should certainly do that today. But we also pray for your current shepherds, our Holy Father, Pope Francis, our bishop, Archbishop Kurtz, and the priests and deacons who serve us every day. With the pressures on the Church from the world around us, it is not easy to be a shepherd.

St. Luke tells us in the Acts of the Apostles that St. Peter stood up boldly to the Jews of his day, exhorting them to repent for their cooperation in the crucifixion of Jesus. And in his own letter, Peter described how he often suffered for doing what is good. But, he persevered, he followed the Lord’s example in suffering for the truth with humility and courage. Many people responded well to his courage – three thousand persons in one day were baptized! This great shepherd of the early Church, St. Peter, out of love for the flock made up of Jews and Gentiles, called them to faithfulness. Those who heard his voice responded because they heard in Peter the voice of Jesus Christ. What set Peter apart from other shepherds, from other voices calling for the attention of the people? It was his willingness to truly love the flock. And true love always involves some degree of sacrifice, even suffering.

When a husband cares for his dying wife, this may not always bring the most pleasant feelings, but he does this because he loves her. When a son cares for his ailing father, this brings difficulty and disruption, but he does this because he loves him. When parents sacrifice their own goals, or wants, or needs in order to provide for their children, this can bring difficulties and disappointment, but they do this because they love them. Similarly, we can recognize a true shepherd by his love for his sheep, by what he is willing to endure for them.

True shepherds are those who lead their flock with self-sacrificial love, who boldly preach the truth with love despite the pressures or ridicule. When the wolves come among them, true shepherds do not run away, afraid for their own welfare, neglecting that of his sheep. No, they stay, throwing themselves among them, standing guard and confronting the wolves in order to protect the sheep. This can be a test for anything or anyone trying to shepherd your life. What does that shepherd do when you are in danger, a danger that could envelope the shepherd too?

The account of the good shepherd that we hear from the Gospel, about the shepherd who calls his sheep by name and leads them out to pasture, illustrates God’s great love for us. Jesus, the Good Shepherd walks ahead of us, periodically calling us forward, reassuring us in the chaotic world around us with the gentleness and familiarity of his voice. Jesus said, “the sheep follow the shepherd because they recognize his voice… they will not follow a stranger; they will run away from him, because they do not recognize the voice of strangers… whoever enters through me will be saved…I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” Through all the voices crying out to lead us, can we hear and recognize the voice of Jesus?

Through some time each day in prayer and Scripture reading, by challenging ourselves and each other to remain faithful to the Church, by coming to Mass every Sunday and making a monthly confession, we will be able to hear and follow Jesus’ voice above all others. And when you bring your children to Mass and to confession then you ensure that they too will be able to hear His voice above all others. Politicians, Universities, the Media are all clamoring to shepherd us and our children. Only by consistently hearing the voice of the truth will their hearts and ears be attuned to that voice so that it pierces through all others. And only by experiencing the nourishment within the sheepfold, will their grow to love it rather than resent it.

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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter Vigil, Year A: Captivating Joy and Healing Light

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Welcome! I welcome all of you today, especially friends and family of our parishioners who are visiting this morning. Whether you are a daily Mass-goer or only occasionally go to Mass, you are Welcome here. We have good people here to pray alongside and support you, to answer any questions you may have and to help you build a more regular practice of your faith. I know that some people remember having a priest that they did not feel like they could go directly to with a question or concern or need. They felt like they had to send someone else to speak for them. They didn’t feel like they could knock on the door or call their priest. I am not that kind of priest. I have a formal way of celebrating Mass but that does not mean that my personality is always like that or that I want to be distant from you. You can always come to me directly with anything at all.

It is such a great joy for me to be celebrating with you this Easter Vigil, my first Easter Vigil as a pastor and as the main celebrant. Tonight’s celebration in which four adults, four candidates, will be Received into the Full Communion of the Catholic Church, will be a beautiful experience. After their own special profession of faith, and reception into the Church, they will be immediately confirmed. They will be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit who enhances and completes the graces they received in Baptism when they were younger. Finally, they will receive their first Holy Communion, in which Christ feeds them with his glorified Body and Blood under the appearance of bread and wine. What a miraculous night! In one continuous celebration, will be made members of the Church, soldiers for Christ, and share fully in Holy Communion!

The power of this day reaches all of our hearts wherever and whoever we are… just as it reached the hearts of St. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary at the tomb; and the hearts of St. Peter and St. John, causing them to run to announce the Resurrection to the disciples. Even Catholics who rarely attend Mass, find their way back to this Easter day. Each one of us, from the daily Mass-goer, to the Christmas-and-Easter Catholic, have carried some darkness, some obstacle that Christ today wants to illuminate with his glorious Light. Today, darkness is no more; it yields to and is conquered by, the Risen Son. No matter what it is that keeps us from a deeper, more personal friendship with Christ, today He conquers it with his healing light: whether it be a doubt about our faith, or a lack of zeal or devotion, or a memory of an offense in the past that has kept you away, or the darkness of a tragedy in the family or of frustration with yourself – no matter the darkness, the healing Light of Christ shines on it today.

Have you all ever been to Mammoth Cave in south central Kentucky? I remember going on a field trip there in high school. One of the shticks they do is to lead a group of people into the heart of the cave and then turn out all the lights. Then the tour guide asks the group to put their hands in front of their faces and try to see them. It’s no use, in the heart of that cave, there is no light to get used too. Our eyes will never adjust, he says, not matter how long we sit there. The moment you can start to feel the tension in the cave, the tour guide slowly turns the lights back on much to everyone’s great relief. We got a sense of this earlier, when all of the lights of the Church were off, representing the individual and collective darkness that mankind suffers without the Light of Christ. Soon though the Easter Candle, lit from the Easter fire, showed us the way.

The temptation for each of us, though, is to just get used to the darkness rather than let the Light of Christ illuminate it. We become acclimated to bumping around in the night – it becomes our new normal. And I’m speaking for all of us here today, myself included. We get used to the same bad habit, guilty pleasure, personality quirk, or weakness and we forget that the Light of Christ is much stronger than those things. We forget that the Light of Christ has actually already won. We tend to think of ourselves as downtrodden and hoping for victory, rather than victorious and hoping to maintain the victory

Don’t let the devil rob you of your joy. Again, everyone from the daily Mass-goer to the Christmas-and-Easter Catholic has something holding them back. Today, no matter what it is, let Christ’s Light heal and conquer it. Today is a day of joy and gladness – a joy and gladness that lasts for 50 days, and God-willing well beyond. This is the day when Christ works in our hearts with His grace, getting us more used to him, the Light of the World, than to the darkness and making new, or deepened, faithfulness to Him and to His Church our new normal. Today he leads us and he not only turns on the light, but walks us out of the cave, and he not only keeps the Easter fire burning, but leads us into the Church and into the center of the divine life of the Trinity.

In that great movie, The Mission, Mendoza, a slave hunter on the cusp of conversion, says to the Spanish Jesuit, Fr. Gabriel: “For me there is no redemption, no penance great enough.” Fr. Gabriel replies, “There is. But do you dare to try it?” That is our Lord’s challenge to you and me: Do we dare try to let His Light, His Joy, His Redemption change and transform our lives?

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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Good Friday, Year A: The Passion of the Lord Comforts the Afflicted and Afflicts the Comfortable

As I have examined my own spiritual life and interacted with others at many different parishes throughout the years, one thing most evident to me is that a true concept of sin is quite hard to find. I think we all, myself included, at different times in our lives vacillate between a lack of a sense of sin on one hand and a scrupulosity or shame on the other hand. But, it is when we are not vacillating, when we are not moving from one to the other as we seek with God’s help to find the truth about sin in the middle, then we are really in trouble.

When the lack of the sense of sin becomes concrete and determines our way of life then we have started down a troubling path indeed. Often this isn’t a consciously chosen path, though. It simply happens when a person coasts through each day, one after the next, unaware of the minor sins he commits that often add up to unnoticed serious sins. This person may not go to confession in years but when he does it is very difficult for him to think of specific sins he has committed. An equally troubling path is the scrupulous person. Once scrupulosity becomes a concrete way of life it settles from the soul into the psyche and begins to resemble obsessive compulsive disorder. Minor sins become serious sins and not even God’s mercy in Confession or the Eucharist is enough. Then shame builds, keeping this person from the sacraments entirely.

Thank God for Good Friday. Good Friday is one of the most powerful days for comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. One of the reasons it is “Good,” I think, is because it helps us to apprehend the truth of sin and forgiveness. For one who has lost or is losing a sense of sin in his life, Good Friday is a yearly reminder that it was not only the sins of the Romans and Jews of Jesus’ time that nailed him to the cross, but each one of our sins too. Recently I was reading a spiritual commentary on the liturgical year that vividly described the role our sins had to play in the drama of the passion and death of Jesus. The following excerpt definitely afflicts the comfortable:

“Imagine that divine face: swollen by blows, covered in spittle, torn by thorns, furrowed with blood, here fresh blood, there ugly dried blood. And, since the sacred Lamb had his hands tied, he could not use them to wipe away the blood running into his eyes, and so those two luminaries of heaven were eclipsed and almost blinded… Finally, so disfigured was he that one could not make out who he was; he scarcely seemed human; he had become an altarpiece depicting suffering, painted by those cruel artists, producing this pitiful figure to plead his case before his enemies… Therefore, sins – yours and mine – were the executioners who bound him and lashed him and crowned him with thorns and put him on the cross. So you can see how right it is for you to feel the enormity and malice of yours sins, for it was these which really caused so much suffering” (Navarre Commentary, Jn 19:1-3)

Such a reflection is a reality check isn’t it? The minor sins that we commit each day, that we don’t give much thought too – when seen in that perspective, cause us to take them more seriously and to turn to God more often for his mercy and help. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin,” the Letter to the Hebrews explains. “So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help” (Heb 4:15-16). Receiving this mercy and help frequently in Confession is the best way to avoid one of the most clever tricks that the evil one plays on us: the attitude that sin doesn’t really matter and that I never really ever do anything wrong. A monthly examination of conscience and confession will help us become more astute observers of sins in our lives and give us continual grace to avoid these sins and grow in holiness. This more examined life brings comfort to our Lord’s pierced Heart.

In Christ’s Passion and Death, there is not only gruesome reminders of the gravity of sin but also much comfort for the afflicted. Those who are scrupulous or filled with shame are also corrected. We find St. Peter, the head of the apostles, falling asleep three times rather than praying and later denying him three times. But we also see him express repentance and upon Jesus’ Resurrection, state three times his love – a love that brings him forgiveness and makes him a pillar of the Church. Throughout our lives, “In this adventure of love,” St. Josemaria Escriva writes, “we should not be depressed by our falls, not even by serious falls, if we go to God in the sacrament of Penance contrite and resolved to improve. A Christian is not a neurotic collector of good behavior reports. Jesus Christ our Lord was moved as much by Peter’s repentance after his fall as by John’s innocence and faithfulness. Jesus understands our weakness and draws us to himself on an inclined plane. He wants us to make an effort to climb a little each day” (Navarre, Jn 18:27). Again, Confession is helpful for the scrupulous person too if it can be seen for what it really is – as the way in which Christ’s victory over sin is shared and applied to each one of us. With God’s grace we can be victorious over sin too! Then when victory brings confidence and mercy softens the heart, harshness with oneself can be relieved. Then guilt can be seen as a good thing that motivates one to renewed union with God and the Church rather than as shame that causes isolation and alienation.

The grace of Reconciliation that Christ won for us today helps us settle into the middle, into the truth of sin and forgiveness. We thank God that we have a heavenly mother to help us with this also. After Christ, we should have a deep, personal friendship with his Mother as well. Jesus from the cross gave her to his beloved disciple and so to all of us. When John took her into his own home, he took her into everything that makes up his inner life. “Mary certainly wants us to invoke her, to approach her confidently, to appeal to her as our mother” (Navarre, Jn 19:26-27) – whether we’re feeling lax or harsh – so that she can teach us about her Son and how to take sin seriously while still living a life of joy.