Tuesday, September 24, 2013

My comments on the Pope Francis interview

PASTORAL LETTERS – September 29, 2013

Last weekend would have been perfect timing for me to preach on the now-famous Sept 19 interview that Pope Francis gave to Jesuit publications around the world and its coverage by the mainstream media. But, I try to always let the readings set the direction for my homily rather than my own agenda. So I wanted to use this weekend’s column to give some brief comments that I hope will be helpful to you. You can read the interview in its entirety at http://www.americamagazine.org/pope-interview

On one hand, the mainstream media has enabled people who are not very well tuned-in to the Church to now be introduced to our Holy Father. Hopefully their interest will be piqued to explore his statements further. But, we, as faithful Catholics, should be tuned-in and should pay attention to coverage from outlets that aim to present the Church faithfully. Toward that end, I highly recommend the newspaper, National Catholic Register (ncregister.com); on T.V., EWTN, the Eternal Word Television Network (ewtn.com); and in magazines, I especially like First Things (firstthings.com).

My comment is that a caricature of Pope Francis has been constructed that does not coincide totally with the full depth of who he is. He is presented as a “pastoral” pope who is more “pastoral” than his predecessors, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Blessed (soon to be Saint!) John Paul II. And often the word “pastoral” is used to mean “more open, less tied to those bothersome teachings on abortion, homosexual acts, and artificial contraception.” But, it is helpful to remember that “pastor” is Latin for “shepherd.” To put it simply, Bl. John Paul II was philosophically rigorous and Benedict XVI was theologically rigorous. Shepherding us in how to think well (what philosophy does) and then what to think about (what theology does) is an exceptionally pastoral and charitable thing to do! Now that we have been recently taught how to think well and what to set our minds too, Pope Francis (himself a rigorous thinker) exhorts the thoughtful Catholic to give a loving expression to our faith and teachings. He wants us to convey the GOOD NEWS of these teachings, not only the “Thou Shalt Not’s”. He wants our evangelization to bring about encounters with the Person of Jesus Christ and to reach out and capture the hearts of all God’s people. Pope Francis wants the content of the Truth to remain the same; after all, he is the servant of the Truth, not Its master. The presentation should change though, wherever it is not showing the loving and merciful face of a mother, our Holy Mother, the Church. I couldn’t agree more.

For a better understanding of particular points of the interview, check out the very good article on ncregister.com, titled, “Pope Francis Grants an Interview and Shakes Up the Church” at http://tinyurl.com/k48ckf9

In Jesus and Mary,

Fr. Hardesty

Homily 25th Sunday Ordinary Time Year C–The Joys of Accounting

I have to admit that I had some difficulty with this weekend’s Gospel reading. I had to look at a couple of Scripture commentaries to really understand the point that Jesus was trying to make. He tells a parable that is unlike his other parables. And he uses language that is unfamiliar to us today, speaking of the “steward,” the “master’s debtors,” “promissory notes,” “making friends with dishonest wealth” – what does that mean?! – “being welcomed into eternal dwellings,” and not serving “both God and mammon.” This all seem disconcerting but we must remember that a parable is simply a rhetorical device that Jesus used to convey a particular teaching (Navarre, Lk 16:1-15). It was meant to use images and phrases that were familiar to his audience. Even though these are unfamiliar to us today, they still convey a teaching that is valuable for us.

A “steward” is a head servant who handled the business affairs of his master’s estate (Ignatius, Lk 16:1). And this particular steward today has wasted his master’s goods. His master calls him to the carpet, tells him that he has gotten wind of his wastefulness and asks him to prepare an accounting of his management, his stewardship of the master’s property, because he is about to lose his job. The steward figures, “Well, if I have a little bit of time to prepare this account, I may as well use this time to set myself up well for life after employment!” So while he still has charge of his master’s property, he uses it to relieve his master’s debtors and win their friendship so that they will welcome him into their homes once he is broke!

The first debtor owed 100 “measures” of olive oil, which today is equivalent to 800 gallons. So the steward wrote him a promissory note which the debtor could cash in on the master’s estate and receive half-off on his debt! The second debtor owed 100 “kors” of wheat, which today is equivalent to 1000 bushels of wheat. The steward wrote him a promissory note which he could cash in on the master’s estate and receive 20% off of his debt! (Ignatius, Lk 16:6-7) When he finally came before his master to give his accounting, the master commended the steward for his being so astute and clever. He in effect said, “Well played… you’ve still lost your job! But… well played.

Jesus takes for granted that his audience understands that what the steward did was selfish and unethical (Navarre, Lk 16:1-15). But he still finds the steward’s behavior useful for conveying both an example to follow and a caution to take to heart. In a time of urgency, the steward was well prepared. A few weekends ago, Jesus made this same point about wanting disciples who were well prepared to be his servants when he compared them to a contractor who prepares to build a tower or a king who prepares for battle. The spiritual parallel is that as the steward prepared for life after employment, Christians should take even greater care in preparing for life after death (Ignatius, Lk 16:1-8).

Under pressure, it is amazing what we can accomplish! I can’t tell you how many times in seminary that I started a 5-page paper at 2:30am that was due at 8:30am!! For me, when the train is barreling down the tracks, my mind is a sharp as a steel trap. When the pressure is on, I think clearly, logically, sequentially. You also may be able to call to mind times when you surprised yourself by what you accomplished under pressure. St. Josemaria Escriva, one of my favorite saints, wrote, “When you and I put the same zeal into the affairs of our souls, we will have a living and working faith. And there will be no obstacle that we cannot overcome in our [ministries].” (The Way, 317, in Navarre, Lk 16:1-15)

The steward shows how to expend every effort in making use of our means to prepare for the future. Just as his cleverness won him comfortable living in the “houses” of his master’s debtors, so we are challenged to become friends of the poor by supporting them with our resources so that we will be received into the “eternal dwellings” – the many mansions of our Father’s house in eternal life. (Ignatius, Lk 16:8)

Is not the story of the steward also our story?? We too must realize that the resource we have are not absolutely or only ours – they truly belong to our master. We are his stewards – this is where we get our notion of “stewardship” – we are his head servants entrusted with the care of our Master’s goods and treasures.

The steward’s dilemma is our dilemma! We too will be asked to give an account! We know not when! Do we have his same urgency? Do we prepare for this accounting by urgently giving to the poor, by donating from the treasures entrusted to us? This is a defining question of our salvation! Remember how our Lord characterized the Final Judgment?? Some will be arrayed at his right hand, others at his left. To those on his right he will say, “When I was hungry, you gave me food. When I was thirsty, you gave me drink. When I was naked, you clothed me, etc.” And those on his right will say, “Lord, when did we feed you, give you drink, and clothe you?” He will reply, “Whenever you did these for the least of my brethren – the poor – you did them for me. Come into my Father’s House.” To those on his left he will say, “I was hungry and you gave me no food; thirsty and you gave me no drink; naked and you did not clothe me.” And those on his left will say, “Lord, when did we not feed you, give you drink, and clothe you?” He will reply, “When you did not do these for the least of my brethren – the poor – you did not do them for me. Go away from me, you accursed, where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” This is the challenge placed before each one of us today.

This also shows the aspect of caution from the parable. We must take this challenge seriously. We cannot serve both God and “mammon.” “Mammon” is an Aramaic term for “wealth.” The Pharisees have been listening carefully, critically, to everything Jesus has said. In the very next verse after our Gospel passage, Jesus will call them “lovers of money.” They, like the steward, cared only about themselves and their own wealth, the esteem of others, and the temporal comforts of this world.

Whether we have been entrusted with a little or with a lot, we must serve God with what we have and value Him more than our wealth. We must look to him instead of our wealth for our safety and security. We must be “servants of the Lord,” as the Responsorial Psalm said, not servants of our wealth and ourselves. Otherwise we will be regarded as those in the first reading who despised the Lord and his holy days and cheated the poor (Scott Hahn, salvationhistory.com, Homily Helps, 25th Sunday).

We cannot serve both God and mammon, both God and our wealth. We are the stewards in the story but we are also the debtors. All the mammon, all the wealth in the world could not have paid the debt we owe our Master by our sins. So He paid it for us. He “gave himself as a ransom for all,” St. Paul wrote in our second reading. Because he gave to us first, we are enabled and empowered to give in return (ibid).

We can redeem the steward’s story. This is a challenge not only to you, but to me too! I was greatly challenged when this Gospel reminded me that after three months of being here, I am not yet tithing to this parish! So when our bookkeeper comes in on Friday I will rectify that. My challenge to you in return is to notice in the bulletin that I have started included the weekend offering for Holy Trinity and Holy Rosary, as we had done in the past. You’ll notice that Holy Rosary gave about $1200 last weekend while Holy Trinity gave twice that, about $2400. But remember that Holy Trinity is four times their size! I was embarrassed to bring this up, but a priest at the New Pastors Workshop that I went to last week, who was an accountant in his former life, told us that we should be more embarrassed not to bring up something like this! What kind of priest would I be if I was not affirming you, encouraging you, and challenging you to prepare for the accounting that each one of us will have to make? I would have to account for that too!

Again, we can redeem the steward’s story, both of us together, by using well the treasures entrusted to us. By being merciful to the poor, relieving their burdens in a disinterested way. By resting secure in our Father’s House, knowing that we have been trustworthy stewards, able to answer confidently and rightly at our own accounting – a joyful accounting! – an accounting to a Master who, God-willing, will be pleased with us; pleased by our virtue and our love for the poor and for Him.

Homily 24th Sunday Ordinary Time Year C–The Joy of Reunion

Do you remember a time when you lost a child in a department store or an amusement park or a time when you got lost yourself as a child? If you were like me, you were walking along with your siblings until something flashy caught your eye and you thought, “Oooh!” Then you suddenly remember you’re supposed to be with some other people! You look around and when you realize no one is there you get that terrible, horrible feeling in your stomach. You franticly look from one aisle or path to the next and finally, at the end of the store or across the park you spot mom or dad in the distance. The sudden surge of joy, a truly Christian Joy, is the greatest feeling in the world! This feeling explains why Jesus eats with the tax collectors and the sinners.

This is the feeling that God has when sinners repent, the feeling of a Father who has finally found his lost child. And to be sure it is our feeling too, when we are reunited with Him. Our Lord is the Mediator of this Joy. The Pharisees accused him of being a little too friendly with the sinners. But, in order to lead sinners to the Joy of Reconciliation with their Father, he must necessarily spend time among them, dining with them, listening to them, and calling them to Himself.

The Joy of Reunion and Reconciliation is a Joy that the Father feels even for just one child. Furthermore, he rejoices more over one recovered child than he does over having his other children always with Him. This is similar to the experience of a mother who feels much greater joy over finding a lost child than she does over having her other three walking peacefully beside her. It is because of this Joy that He can leave “the 99,” so to speak, and go in search of the one “lost sheep.” It is because of this Joy that He searches like the woman in the Gospel who lost one of her ten coins, each equaling a day’s pay, because each means so much to her.

God’s Mercy does not let Him forget the one that is lost. The woman did not say, “Oh, I will not worry about the one last coin, I still have 9 others.” And the shepherd did not say, “Oh, I will not worry about the one lost sheep, I still have 99 others.” God’s Mercy remembers the Joy of Reunion. As the prophet Ezekiel proclaimed, “’Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked,’ declares the Lord God, ‘and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?’” (Ezekiel 18:23) This Joy and His Mercy causes Him to go out, to pursue us. We so often concern ourselves with finding Him, looking for Him, searching for Him… but we forget that He is the one searching for us. The prophet Ezekiel also proclaimed, “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them” (Ezekiel 34:11-16).

Do we let ourselves be found? Do we get used to being away? This would be like a boy getting lost in the department store but then just getting used to the toy aisle, forgetting altogether the siblings he was with and even his parents. Do we hide while we are away, becoming obstinate in our being lost? Are we like the “stiff-necked” people described in the first reading, so-called because they refused the direction of their father Moses, like an ox who refuses the promptings of the plowman? They had been led miraculously out of slavery in Egypt and were brought to the foot of Mt. Sinai on whose peak Moses communicated face-to-face with God, learning His will for His people through the Ten Commandments. But, Moses took too long to come down the mountain and the people forgot all that God had done for them. They rejected God and lost themselves in idol worship, attributing to a golden calf the miracles of God. They would have persisted in this going astray, gotten used to their new god, had Moses not snapped them back to reality.

It is obstinacy that keeps us away or is it fear? Are we afraid of Him finding us? There is nothing to fear in our Heavenly Father finding us. There is only Joy in reunion and reconciliation with Him. Remember that He is more pleased over the grievous sinner sincerely repenting than he is over the minor sinners who repent often! He is definitely more pleased with all of his repentant children than He is with those who think that they have nothing to repent of, no sins to confess.

Moses implored God’s Mercy on the people who had lost themselves in idol worship, he prayed for them, he interceded for them, and God was indeed merciful. Jesus, the New Moses still pleads for God’s People at the Right Hand of the Father. We said in the Penitential Rite, “You were sent to heal the contrite of heart, Lord have mercy. You came to call sinners, Christ have mercy. You are seated at the right hand of the Father to intercede for us, Lord have mercy.” He intercedes for us and He searches for us as he did for the tax collectors and sinners. He looks for you in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Does he find you there? Does he find your children and grandchildren there? Will you help them to feel the Joy of God’s Mercy too? Or will they miss out on this Joy because they have no one to take them? He came into the world to save sinners. He saves us and our families through the sacraments. Will we let Him?

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Homily 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C–Freedom to be Intentional

If we pause for a moment to call to mind the things we prepare so much for, we can be embarrassed to consider how much we prepare for our spiritual lives. Teachers and parents and students put much preparation into the school year; getting supplies, arranging classrooms, organizing schedules. Other things like a new job, or a new house, or a new car require all sorts of planning and research. We do all of this readily and with conviction. Do we even think about preparing to be followers of Christ and active Catholics? Do we even think about those things as requiring preparation? So often, we just coast into who we are, especially so-called, “cradle Catholics.” If you have met recent converts to Catholicism, they are usually always filled with great zeal, and energy, and initiative. But there is no reason that cradle Catholics can’t approach their own Catholic identity with the same newness and zeal.

Like a contractor who sets forth to build a tower and plans very carefully the design, materials and placement; and like a king who plans for battle by surveying his troops and the enemy force; just so, Jesus explains, we must prepare to go about the mission of being his disciples – with intentionality, foresight, and wisdom... otherwise, we cannot be his disciples. This preparation includes examining ourselves regularly to identify the things that keep us from being more active and involved Catholics. What are the obstacles that I or others have placed that I need to overcome? What are the opportunities that I am neglecting? Where have I become complacent in my Catholic identity or taken it for granted?

Another part of this examination is surveying our priorities. When Jesus said that unless we hate our family or even our own life, we cannot be his disciples, he meant that there must be ongoing growth and conversion in order for there to be an “old man,” a “former man” to hate. We must not desire our old way of living and anything that comes before Him, even our family. In my own life, I delayed going to seminary because I was hiding behind my family. A vocation director who I met at a conference once asked me when I was going to enter seminary. I told him that I wasn’t ready because I was renting a house with my brothers at the time and paying most of the rent and bills. His answer snapped me back into reality. He said, “Oh, you’re just enabling them.” He was right, they could have, and did, get along just fine. I was using them as an excuse to not commit myself to following God’s will for my life. Not even our families should ever come before God’s will for us or be an obstacle to Him.

Another obstacle to becoming more prepared and zealous is that we have a hard time imagining ourselves living any other way than we are right now. Again, in my own life, when I was having those initial stirrings of Priesthood, I would have doubts about if God was calling me to be a priest because I was having troubling imagining myself doing the tasks I would see my pastor doing. One Sunday my whole extended family planned to go out to eat after Mass and I was so much looking forward to it – it was going to be a blast! I looked forward to it all through Mass. After Mass as I was walking out of the Church, I looked back and noticed my pastor alone, picking up papers, tidying things, getting the liturgical books together, saying a few words to different people here and there. I thought, “How boring… I don’t wanna do that… I wanna go out to eat!” But, as God drew me closer and closer to the Priesthood, I invested my heart more and more into it so that now, after the last Mass, when everyone is going out to eat, that’s not a source of loss or sorrow for me! My heart is fully invested in this now so that I care so much more about it. I like going around and tidying up everything after Mass now; its sort of meditative for me!

My point is that, while many of you are very active and intentional about your Catholic identity – which has been very inspiring for me – there also many here today, or perhaps among your family and friends, who just coast in their Catholicism because they have trouble imagining what it would be like to live a different way. If you’re not going to confession monthly when you know you could, or you’re not going to daily Mass when you know you could, or you’re not volunteering at the parish when you know you could… you don’t have to start all of this tomorrow! God is pleased to see you approaching Him! All you have to do is challenge yourself to take small steps in this direction and as your heart becomes more and more invested you’ll find it coming more and more naturally to you and part of who you are.

Besides, how well do we really know our current way of life, let alone what God is calling us to?! The first reading captured it perfectly! “And scarce do we guess the things on earth, and what is within our grasp we find with difficulty; but when things are in heaven, who can search them out?! But, like Onesimus in the second reading, freed from slavery, free to be sent to Philemon to be a part of a new family – we too have been freed by Jesus Christ to be members of the active and growing family of God: His Church. We are no longer slaves to our past lives or our current complacency, no matter how uncertain the present or the future may seem. We too can live with a newness and joy and set out to become the full, conscious, and active Catholics that Jesus is calling us to be, filled with the youthfulness of the Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C: Pride, Poverty, and True Humility

During my seminary years, I had what’s called a Pastoral Year. This is a time when a seminarian spends an academic year out of seminary, between the second and third years of Theology, and in a parish in his home diocese. I was at St. Athanasius in Louisville. During that year, I had an experience of both pride and humility that I’ll never forget.

We were coming near to Holy Week and I had been feverishly preparing for the Easter Vigil. Even though the Easter Vigil had been going on like clockwork since long before I got there, I was determined to have everything figured out. Since I was going to serve the Mass, I poured over all the documents and instructions pertaining to the Easter Vigil, and made pages of notes, so that I could know exactly how everything should happen. It was a very prideful attitude for me to have. The pastor there at the time, Fr. Terry Bradshaw, very wisely left me to my devices. He knew before I did that I would learn from this. One should always prepare well for liturgy, but never think himself its master.

When the Easter Vigil finally came, I was a nervous wreck. But, I had a pretty good relationship with the sacristan so I was kidding with her a little bid in order to ease the tension. In the midst of that I said an off-color remark that hurt her feelings and she walked away sad. This was 15 minutes before the Easter Vigil was about to begin. I was crushed. I felt like the scum of the earth. Even after I apologized to her, I still felt terrible.

But it didn’t stop there. I forgot all about the careful preparation I had done, I forgot all about my notes. I was thrown all out of whack. On my way into the Church from the Easter Fire, instead of holding the paschal candle by the base, I held it by the candle itself and the base went crashing down on the tile, making a terrible noise. After that I sulked and moped throughout the entire Mass. After all my prideful preparation, after thinking I could be the master of this liturgy, God allowed me to be humbled in a profound way. He allowed all my preparation to come tumbling down. And of course, everything still went smoothly.

I think God allows that to happen to us because pride is one of the biggest obstacles that comes between us and Him. When Jesus was invited to a banquet at the home of one of the leading Pharisees, he knew the room would be filled with people watching carefully his every move, conniving and scheming for a way to trap him. But he went because he loved them too. He did not write them off as being beyond salvation. He took the opportunity to teach them a lesson that he hoped would soften their hearts toward him. He wanted them to see that despite their lofty position in society, the state of their souls was quite low. In that way they were the poorest of the poor.

When he saw them clamoring for the highest positions at table once they had all gathered there, he no doubt had pity on them. In his Sacred Heart reverberated our responsorial psalm today. “The Father of orphans and the defender of widows – is God in his holy dwelling – God gives a home to the forsaken – he leads forth prisoners to prosperity.” In their worldly exaltedness and their spiritual depravity, the Pharisees had orphaned themselves from the Father of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They had spurned Lady Wisdom – she is a widow in relation to them. But God the Son, Jesus Christ, enters the home of the forsaken to offer them a new home in his heart. He leads forth those imprisoned to sin to the prosperity of the freedom of innocence by challenging them to take first the lowest place at the table, rather than presuming that they deserve the highest place. He warns them that if they exalt themselves in the eyes of the world, then they lower themselves in the eyes of God. “My child, conduct your affairs with humility,” Ben Sirach advises his grandson in the first reading, “and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts. Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God.”

You and I must carefully examine how humility and pride characterize our lives. Pride sneaks into our lives quietly but can soon become a roaring lion. We can have a string of successes or favors and then all of a sudden, it’s “all about me.” “Look at how good I did, look at how successful I was!” We’re the first to brag about our successes and we want to be the center of attention. We want more and more, to advance our own position and we forget the needs of those around us, those looking to us for help. Pride is the worst kind of poverty. It stores up worldly praise, treasure, and ambition that fade away like vapor and is empty of the life of God and the spiritual riches that have eternal significance.

But, this is not to say that we should walk around gloomy and sulking – as I did during that Easter Vigil several years ago after feeling so terrible for what I had said. God doesn’t want gloomy Christians either. Being humble does not mean being constantly self-deprecating which is so tiring to one’s family and friends. This is a false humility – a humility that springs from a desire to appear humble rather than springing from a true humbled and contrite heart. We also see this in those who have an almost belligerent rejection of the charity of another or of proper praise when it is due. “No, No, No! That wasn’t nearly as good a homily as it could have been! Well, I got through it! Eh, it was OK… it wasn’t that great” – those kinds of statements often come from a false humility. Another funny example is what you can sometimes witness in a restaurant – the feverish competition to see who will pick up the tab – “Oh, allow me! Oh, no I couldn’t! Oh, but I insist! Oh, no please let me!” and there is this game of hot potato back and forth with the bill and the cash until someone ends up sliding money through the window of the car or hiding it in the other’s pocket! What we often forget is that accepting charity is an act of humility.

Humility is not a gloominess or a stubborn refusal of help or appreciation. It is simply an accurate estimation of one’s standing before God and of one’s situation. To adamantly reject the notion that we need or could use help in a given moment is to have an inaccurate estimation of our sinfulness, weakness, and room for growth. Only after we acknowledge how much help we truly need, will God be able to provide for those needs, to lift us up by the hand, and exalt us in the spiritual life.

This authentic humility brings peace and calmness. It comes naturally. It is attractive, it is gracious, it is welcoming. It is steady and even-keeled. It is joyful because it finds its sustenance through reliance on God who never fails, rather than on itself who often fails. Humility says, “Thank you very much, I appreciate that” when a comment is given. It says, “Well, that’s very generous of you, God bless you” when a friend offers to pick up the check. It carries always on its lips the song of Mary: “the Almighty has done great things for me and Holy is His Name. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty…” and the Glory be, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”