The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!


Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Inescapable Power of the Cross

Clipper, in Nichols, looking for chickens in the snow
Growing up as a youngster I lived first in rural Connecticut and then in suburban New York. I was only four years old when we made the move and suppose I was too young to notice much of a change between these two very different environments. Although I have many memories of those earliest years in Nichols, Connecticut, almost all center around our home and family. I can recall quite vividly every room of our house, and in my mind's eye can even picture the view from the window-seat in the living room. I remember well our dog, Clipper, a large German Shepherd who, despite his friendly, engaging nature, had developed one bad habit: a taste for a neighbor's chickens. For my brother and me, the highlight of our day was Dad's return from work. We would wait for him at the foot of our long driveway where he would stop so we could stand on the running board of his Packard sedan. He would then move up the driveway, at about two miles per hour, with the two of us joyously hanging on. I remember, too, our immediate neighbors, Dr. and Mrs. Scalzi, who with their children and their collie, Laddie, lived in a lovely Tudor-style home. And the smells...how can one forget the smells? It's the scents of the past that seem to linger longest in the memory. Even today, whenever I smell a wet dog, my thoughts rush back to a day when I helped my mom catch Clipper who stubbornly refused to come inside during a heavy rainstorm. I can still smell the ripening apples on the trees in our backyard as my brother and I watched Dad standing on his stepladder picking them. And when the wind was right, who could forget the ripe, tangy, homegrown odor of Parker's Dairy Farm next door? We lived in a wonderful place and I've often wondered how my life might have differed had we remained there.

But these and the many other memories of those early years in Connecticut never take me beyond our home and its immediate surroundings. I have no recollection of any other place at that time of my life. I know, for example, that I spent some months at a local nursery school, run I believe by a Mrs. Curtis, but can recall nothing of it. I'm also certain Mom took us on occasion to Beardsley Park in Bridgeport; I have photographs, but no memories. Indeed, my earliest memories of places outside the home are of school and church, later memories from our life in New York. I find this very odd, but I suppose memories, especially those of early childhood, are fickle, capricious things. Who knows? Perhaps, as I enter this last phase of my life, memories of those earliest days will come flooding back and overpower the recall of more recent events, like what I had for breakfast.

In the midst of all these, my earliest recollections, one other memory is remarkably clear. It's the memory of a cross, a crucifix really, over the altar of a church. It's a very early memory, a pre-New York memory, and so this crucifix might well have been in the church we attended in Connecticut. I'm not certain about this since I don't even know the name of that church. It could have been in another church somewhere else. I simply can't be sure. But the image, this visual memory of that cross, is very intense. I can picture it as if it were right here on the wall of this room. Strangely, I can see clearly every aspect of the image. I can see the expression on the face of our Lord, one of victory colored with extreme sadness. I can see the nails, the wounds, the crown of thorns, the rough wood of the cross. And I can actually recall my child-like thoughts as I gazed on this symbol of our faith, wondering why someone would do such a thing to Jesus, the one Mom had told me was my friend.

I think it interesting that the very first symbolic object I can recall is a crucifix, the Cross of Calvary. This is particularly pleasing to me. I'm happy that I was blessed with this early memory, a memory that has never faded. For some, as St. Paul reminds us, the Cross remains a stumbling block, and for others a folly [See 1 Cor 1:18-24]. But for the faithful, it is the overpowering sign of our faith and calls to mind St. Paul's wonderful words to the Christians of Corinth:
"For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified" [1 Cor 2:2].
Sometimes that's exactly the way I feel. When something triggers the early memory of that crucifix I can think of little else. The image fills my thoughts. The Cross exerts power not just over you and me, but over all of creation. St. Paul, of course, recognized full well the tremendous power of the Cross of Christ:
"But may I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" [Gal 6:14].
And I find myself  pitying those who reject the Cross, those who actually despise it; for St. Paul also address them in his unambiguous way:
"For many, as I have often told you and now tell you even in tears, conduct themselves as enemies of the Cross of Christ. Their end is destruction. Their God is their stomach; their glory is in their 'shame.' Their minds are occupied with earthly things" [Phil 3:18-19].
More on the Cross of Christ in my next post; but in the meantime, pray for those who "conduct themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ."

Pax et bonum...

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Homily: Wednesday, 3rd Week of Oridnary Time

Readings: Heb 10:11-18 • Psalm 110 • Mk 4:1-20

There’s an entrance antiphon from a Sunday in ordinary time that always strikes a chord within me when I hear it. It’s taken from Psalm 18:
The Lord became my protector.  He brought me out to a place of freedom; he saved me because he delighted in me.
Sometimes we just say words like these, these official prayers of the Church, without really thinking much about what we’re saying. But here I’m going to ask you to think about them, to pray on them, especially those last few words: “…he saved me because he delighted in me.”

Do you ever think about that? Do you ever ask yourself: “Why did God save me?” Why did He give His very life for you, opening the way for you to enjoy eternal life? And not just for you, but for me and you and every single one of us.

The other day I read that anthropologists estimate that about 100 billion human beings have lived on earth and about 7 billion of them are alive today. Now that’s a lot of people; but every single one of them is loved by God. That’s right; God delights in each one of us. And because He delights in us, He wants us to share eternal life with Him.

Just think of your own life. Who in your life delights in you? Who loves you deeply? And whom do you love? In whom do you delight? Your spouse, your children, your grandchildren, your closest friends? Consider how such human love manifests itself. Consider how we strive to please the other, the one who loves us, the one we love; how we want to do whatever makes the other happy. Well, multiply that by infinity and you approach God’s love for you.

Yes, He saved you because He delighted in you. And how are we to respond to this love? It’s really pretty simple: He wants us to do His will.

Just consider today’s Gospel passage. You’ve all heard it many times before. But the important point for us is that the sower plants His seed, the Word of God, everywhere. The Lord doesn’t discriminate as he sows that seed. Indeed, He’s downright extravagant, almost reckless as He tosses it about. It falls on the path; it falls on the rocks and stones; it lands amidst the thorns and brambles…but some seeds, perhaps only a few, fall on good, fertile soil and take root.

Jesus is simply asking us, “I have given you my Word. How have you received it?” What kind of soil do you offer? Jesus wants to plant that seed. He wants His Word to take root within you; He wants it to bear fruit. And He wants you to become a sower of seed too. He wants this because He delights in you, because He loves you beyond your imagining.

Again, how do we respond? What must happen in each of our individual lives to make that soil fertile? Do we need to dig up some rocks, uproot some thorns? Is addiction or resentment or hatred or lack of forgiveness polluting our soil? Have we let the world, and the prince of this world, lead us into sinfulness? Do we worry constantly about worldly things, lacking trust in God?

If these or other sins are damaging your soil, making it unreceptive to God’s Word, it’s not the end of the world…at least, net yet. Listen again to those wonderful soul-saving words we heard in our first reading from Hebrews – words taken from the prophet Jeremiah:
“Their sins and their evildoing I will remember no more” [Heb 10:17].
Because God loves us, because He delights in us, He has saved us from our own sinfulness. Just remember, it’s He that does the saving, not us. God gives us the gift of life, and lets us struggle and learn and become stronger, always forgiving us, always leading us. He leads us to Himself, guiding us along the path to perfection, but our perfection is in His hands, not ours. He does the perfecting in our lives, if only we let Him, if only we respond in love to all that God places before us in life.

Let God work within you. And let Him do the work. He wants to do it, because He delights in you.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Most of the news we're exposed to today is, quite simply, good, bad, or ugly -- too little of the first and far too much of the others. Here's a quick survey of some of the news stories I encountered this afternoon. I'll let you decide in which category to place each.
 
Planned Parenthood. According to their own report, Planned Parenthood has set several records. They not only performed a record number of abortions but also received a record amount of taxpayer funds from the federal government. This largest of American abortion mills performed 333,964 abortions in 2011. Among their clients, 92% received abortions, 7% received some form of prenatal care, and less than 1% received adoption referrals. The $542 million Planned Parenthood received in federal grants, contracts and Medicaid reimbursements represents almost half of its annual revenue.

National Religious Freedom Day. Last week President Obama proclaimed January 16 as National Religious Freedom Day. In his proclamation he stated: 
"Because of the protections guaranteed by our Constitution, each of us has the right to practice our faith openly and as we choose. As a free country, our story has been shaped by every language and enriched by every culture...As we observe Religious Freedom Day, let us remember the legacy of faith and independence we have inherited, and let us honor it by forever upholding our right to exercise our beliefs free from prejudice or persecution."
Interesting comments from a president who has taken an active role in suppressing the religious freedom of those who cannot in conscience support the HHS Mandate to pay for "health" services that involve artificial contraceptives, abortifacient drugs, and sterilization.

Nepalese Are Reading Bibles. Nepal, that strange faraway nation in the Himalayas, has been ruled for several years now by a Maoist government that is quite hostile to religion. The nation, though, is over 80% Hindu. Much of the remainder of the population is either Buddhist (about 10%), Muslim (about 5%), or practitioners of an indigenous religion, Kirat (about 4%). Christians make up less than two percent of the population. But this is changing. Since 2006 the number of Christians has tripled. The numbers are still small but they are increasing rather rapidly. Accompanying this growth is a doubling of Bible sales over the past year with many of these Bibles being purchased by non-Christians. As one Protestant minister said, "Many non-Christians have found a real source of hope in the Gospel and the Bible." 


Catholic Schools Must Teach Islam??  As strange as it may sound, this one isn't hard to believe if you've been following the plight of Christians struggling to practice their faith in Islamic nations. The story relates to six Catholic schools in East Java province of Indonesia. It seems the local authorities are threatening to close the schools if they do not teach the Islamic faith and read the Qur'an to Muslim students who attend the schools. Interestingly, no Muslim student or student's family has ever objected on religious grounds to the lack of Islamic teaching in the Catholic schools. It seems to me that Muslim students who want to learn about their faith might be better served by attending a Muslim school rather than a Catholic one. 


The Arab Spring in Egypt has become a dark winter for Christians. Remember all that enthusiastic talk about the glories we could expect from the Arab Spring that was spreading throughout the Middle East and North Africa? Well, it's turning out pretty much as I thought it would. Almost two years ago, not long after Mubarak was overthrown in Egypt, I wrote in this blog that the Muslim Brotherhood would likely assume control of the country and that this would lead only to increased persecution of Egyptian Christians. (See my May 2011 post.) Now we read that the predominantly Coptic Christians village of el-Marashda in Upper Egypt has been repeatedly attacked by hundreds of Islamists who have burned down homes and businesses and tried to destroy the local Coptic church. Such reports of anti-Christian violence and open persecution are increasingly common as Islamist extremists become more emboldened in an Egypt led by a radical government. 

Here's a video highlighting some of the atrocities committed against Christians in Egypt, atrocities committed not only by radical bands of Islamists but also by government forces. You can read the accompanying article here.



The French Protest Same-Sex Marriage. And to think I used to make fun of the French and was even known to accuse them of leading the way to the creation of a modern pagan Europe. Well, the French came out in large numbers -- well over a half-million of them -- to protest their government's proposed acceptance of same-sex marriage and the adoption of children by homosexual couples. God bless them! Here's a video on the protests...


You can read a secular news report on the protests here.

Too many bads, too many uglys. Pray for our world and for our nation.





A Needed Chuckle

Every so often we need a laugh. A friend sent me a link to the below video hoping it would cheer me up after last evening's Patriots' loss to the Ravens. She was right!

The video's in German, but if you understand the first words, you'll know enough to appreciate what's happening. 

A daughter, visiting her father and helping him in his kitchen, asks, "Tell me, Dad, how are you managing with the new iPad we gave you for your birthday?"

Trust me, you'll figure out the rest.


Sunday, January 20, 2013

Ancient Underground Rome

Over the years the city of Rome has been making an increasing number of its unique archaeological sites accessible to visitors. The latest site to be opened includes the underground tunnels beneath the ruins of the Caracalla baths. These tunnels, built in the third century A.D., are remarkably large, about 20 feet high, and extend for well over a mile under the city. (See the photo below.) They were used largely by slaves who moved about beneath the baths maintaining the ovens that heated the water for the baths. You can read more here.


Rome is a city with an almost inexhaustible number of fascinating places to visit. We've made four visits during the past decade and have barely scratched the surface. Now we have another interesting site to take in under the surface. Below is a brief video describing the tunnels...



Saturday, January 19, 2013

My Holiday Reading

The table beside my living room easy chair is always weighed down with, in Dear Diane's words, "an unsightly pile of books." This "pile" consists of the books I'm currently reading and its size allows me to select a book based on my mood or interest at any given time. That's another nice thing about being retired: I am free to read whatever I like. But every year, for some reason, I set aside a few special books to read during the period between Thanksgiving and the new year. I'm not sure why I do this unless it's a holdover from my school days when I read strictly for pleasure during the Christmas vacation.

Because we sometimes travel during this holiday season, or play host to children and grandchildren, I usually limit my holiday reading to only three or four books. But this year, because we were at home most of the time and had guests only for a few days, I expanded my list slightly. I enjoyed every last one of the books I read this year, so it seemed only right that I should include them here.

Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, by Pope Benedict XVI, Image, NY, 2012.

This, the third and final volume of Pope Benedict's study of Jesus' life, is a marvelous little book (132 pages). Reminiscent of Jean Daniélou's 1967 book, The Infancy Narratives (a rather rare book which I also recommend if you can locate a copy), it focuses solely on the gospel stories of Jesus' infancy and childhood and is filled with wonderful insights that I had never before encountered. I especially enjoyed his commentary on Mary's unique role in the Incarnation. For example, during his discussion of the archangel Gabriel's annunciation to Mary, Pope Benedict writes:

I consider it important to focus also on the final sentence of Luke's annunciation narrative: "And the angel departed from her" [Lk 1:38]. The great hour of Mary's encounter with God's messenger -- in which her whole life is changed -- comes to an end, and she remains there alone, with the task that truly surpasses all human capacity. There are no angels standing round her. She must continue along the path that leads through many dark moments -- from Joseph's dismay at her pregnancy to the moment when Jesus is said to be out of his mind [cf. Mk 3:21; Jn 10:20] , right up to the night of the Cross [p. 37].

Later in his commentary on the journey of the wise men from the East, the pope briefly addresses these visitors and their wisdom:

The men of whom Matthew speaks were not just astronomers. They were "wise." They represent the inner dynamic of religion toward self-transcendence, which involves a search for truth, a search for the true God and hence"philosophy" in the original sense of the word. Wisdom, then, serves to purify the message of "science": the rationality of that message doesnot remain at the level of intellectual knowledge, but seeks understanding in its fullness, and so raises reason to its loftiestpossibilities [p. 95].

Although I purposely read this book during the first week of Advent, it is fitting reading for any time of the year. I ended up reading it twice, once rather quickly and the second time much more slowly.

Beginning at Jerusalem: Five Reflections of the History of the Church, by Glenn W. Olsen, Ignatius, San Francisco, 2004.

Dr. Olsen, a Professor of History at the University of Utah, has provided the general reader -- that includes folks like me -- with a fascinating study of the Church as it made its way through five key periods of its history: early Christianity; early medieval times; high middle ages; the confusing time from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment; and modern times.

I was particularly impressed by Dr. Olsen's discussion of the early Church and its appreciation of the central doctrines of Christianity, an appreciation sorely lacking among many Christians today. The following excerpt highlights this concern:

Many contemporary assumptions make it very difficult to appreciate the central Christian doctrines of the Trinity, original sin, redemption through the saving act of Christ, baptism, the Eucharist, and the communion of saints. In each case the individualism of a noncontemplative society stands between us and the appropriation of these doctrines. Our society teaches us that the individual is its basic unit, and we have become so used to the assumption that the individual is a kind of ultimate reality, autonomous and atomistic, that we have become psychologically removed from earlier points of view, which always saw the individual as defined by something larger, a family, a tribe, or city, by being born into some form of relationship [p. 35].

The book is filled with similar insights, each encouraging today's Christian to accept and learn from both the wisdom and the errors of those who preceded us. Here, for example, Dr. Olsen expands on this theme by providing us with another insight particularly valuable for today's married couples:

For him [Aristotle] as many ancients, there is a sense in which "you are me", and "I am you." The ancient Christians expressed this in the idea that the married couple must seek each other's salvation, that likely they would find salvation together or not at all [p. 37].

This is something I've stressed in marriage preparation programs over the years. Inevitably when I tell the engaged couple that each is at least partly responsible for the other's salvation, it usually results in looks of mild surprise. And when they question this, I just refer them to Jesus' words in which He stressed particularly that with marriage the two are now one:

But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate [Mk 10:6-9].

If you would normally prefer a visit to the dentist to reading a book on Church history, this book should change your mind. It's well-written and tells an exciting and interesting story. But more importantly the author constantly brings the reality of the past into our present lives, showing us how the Church, although she develops to meet the challenges of history, also retains her essence, the unchanging and essential doctrines revealed through Jesus Christ and the Apostles.

Ancestral Shadows, by Russell Kirk, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2004.

For many, the late Russell Kirk is one of the fathers of the modern American conservative movement. He certainly had a significant impact on my thinking from the moment my father handed me a copy of his book, The Conservative Mind, back in 1961 during my senior year in high school. Kirk simply makes so much sense. As a result my home library is littered with his books. But what a lot of folks -- even many of his most ardent fans -- don't know is that he was also a writer of fiction, but not just any old fiction. No, Russell Kirk wrote ghost stories, and wonderful stories they are, brimming over with moral truths and reminders of the "permanent things" that must be preserved if we are to preserve our humanity.

This anthology includes 19 stories that Kirk wrote and published over his long (but not long enough) career as a man of letters. Kirk, who converted to Catholicism in mid-life, found unique and subtle ways to inject his theological and philosophic ideas into his stories, in which evil is destroyed and good conquers.

Even if you've never liked spooky, supernatural stories, even if you're a died-in-the-wool liberal, you'll still love these stories. Read them...preferably at night.

Toward the Gleam, by T. M. Doran, Ignatius, San Francisco, 2011.

This novel was perfect reading for the holiday season. I can't tell you too much about it without spoiling the heart of the story. Like a good mystery, it's one of those books where half the fun is in deciphering the clues and uncovering the true identity of the characters.

Set in England between the two world wars, the novel tells the story of a professor, a philologist, who finds a beautifully crafted box containing a mysterious manuscript written in an unknown language. This discovery leads him to a lifelong quest to decipher the manuscript and understand its implications, a quest that introduces him to a steady stream of interesting characters. His discovery, however, also attracts the attention of another whose intentions are not quite so benign and may actually threaten the professor and those close to him.

Let me say only that you too will enjoy this novel if, like me, you are a Tolkien and a Chesterton fan. A fun book.

A Soldier of the Great War, by Mark Helprin, Harcourt, New York, 1991.

For some unknown reason I had never read a book by Mark Helprin...until now. I had meant to, but just never got around to it. In fact, I actually checked this book out of a local library on Cape Cod back in the mid-nineties, but work or other seemingly important demands -- the stuff of daily life -- got in the way and I had to return it or pay the fine. After that the book and its author slipped into one of those rarely accessible corners of my mind. And then a few months ago I came across a review of one of Helprin's recent books and was reminded of my earlier failure. So I logged onto Amazon.com and ordered A Soldier of the Great War. Two days later it was in my hands and I began to read.

It's not a short book -- 860 pages -- but I hated for it to end. Indeed, I can think of no greater praise for any novel than the reader's desire for more.

Helprin has written a remarkable story, the story of a life that witnessed and experienced tragedy and joy, cowardice and heroism, brutality and mercy, love and hate, loss and gain. It reveals the life of a man, Alessandro Giuliani, who spent several long and perilous years as an Italian soldier in World War I, that horrific, senseless and prophetic war that gave us the twentieth century and all of its man-made calamities. It's a story told by its hero many years later to a young illiterate worker whom he encounters by chance along the road outside Rome. In the telling the old man comes to terms with his remarkable life and the young man comes to an awakening of what life and love are really all about.

This is a book I will read again some day.

I read two other books during this Advent and Christmas season, but it's late and I need my sleep. I will, therefore, simply list them along with a brief comment or two. They, too, are well worth reading.

The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia, by Roger Kimball, St. Augustine's Press, South Bend, 2012.

Roger Kimball, editor and published of one of my favorite journals, The New Criterion, offers us a collection of wonderful essays on Western culture and the threats it faces.

The First Thousand Years, by Robert Louis Wilken, Yale, New Haven, 2012.

In this, another book on Church history, Dr. Wilken introduces us to the revolution that was Christianity during its first 1,000 years. If you've never read Dr.Wilken, this book would certainly be a good place to start.

Off to bed...pax et bonum...

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A Tale of Two Movies

I'll confess at the start: I'm not much of a moviegoer. In any given year I probably go to a movie theater perhaps three or four times. As you might expect Dear Diane is quite the opposite and tries to convince me, usually unsuccessfully, to join her at the movies more often. Every once in a while I succumb. 

Recently, though, as an avid Tolkien fan, I decided I had to see part one of The Hobbit. I had thoroughly enjoyed the three Lord of the Rings films of a few years ago despite their inexplicable changes from Tolkien's trilogy. Why, for example, did the screenwriters decide to have Frodo succeed in his quest when Tolkien allowed him to fail? In the book Gollum and the ring fall to their destruction through what might be described as an act of God. 

And whatever happened to Tom Bombadil, perhaps the most mysterious, surprising and likable character in Tolkien's Middle Earth? I was looking forward to the films' depiction of this rhyming, walking enigma who seemed able to divorce himself from all the evil that surrounded him. All considered, though, the trilogy films were wonderful adaptations of the books.

Happily, Dear Diane agreed to accompany me to see The Hobbit, so we both sat through nearly three hours of amazing special effects, lots of action and suspense, and some fairly good acting. (I'm pretty sure it was only my second 3D movie since I saw Vincent Price's "House of Wax" back in the 1950s.) Once again, as a Tolkien purist I suppose I focused too much on the deviations from Tolkien's book. And I suspect the entire story could be compressed into two films instead of the planned three. But I enjoyed it nevertheless and will no doubt pay to view parts two and three when they're released.

Having sat through The Hobbit with me, Dear Diane asked me to accompany her and some friends to see Les Miserables, another almost three-hour film. I had read the book only once, back in 1961 at the command of my high school English teacher who was always assigning books that had been written originally in languages other than English. As I recall in addition to Hugo's Les Miserables, we read also Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi), and Sigrid Undset's trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter -- all, of course, in translation. I think he threw in some Austen, Dickens, Hawthorne and Melville as well. Some I enjoyed immensely; others not so much. Les Miserables fell into the latter category probably because it seemed far too dark for my optimistic 17-year-old worldview. 

Time caused me to forget much of the plot and most of the characters of Les Miserables. After all, it's been over 50 years since I read the book and I never had my memory refreshed by seeing the musical. And so as I took my seat I approached the film with few preconceptions -- not quite tabula rasa, but close. If anything, my expectations were fairly low.

I will say only that this film is a magnificent production, perhaps the best film I have seen in years. Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway gave us truly remarkable performances. Despite what some critics have said, I thought Russell Crowe played a believable Javert, the policeman whose interior confusion over law, justice and mercy ultimately led to his self-destruction. Les Miserables is a wonderful story of crime, punishment, injustice, love, repentance, mercy, and redemption. If you see one film this year, make this the one.




- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Larry Krupa, R.I.P. -- Funeral Homily

I lost a friend this week. He wasn't really a close friend. He and I didn't hang out together or socialize. In fact our relationship was pretty much limited to our fairly frequent interactions at our parish and occasional phone calls. He was a reader at Mass, an usher, and a minister to the sick. He assisted at our parish's resale shop. He was a faithful member of one of our scripture study groups. And I'm sure he did much more for the parish and community that I didn't know about. But I still considered him a friend. His name was Larry Krupa.

Not long after my assignment to our parish nine years ago, I began to facilitate a weekly scripture study. We actually started two study groups, one in the morning and a second in the evening. Larry and his wife, Peg, were among the first to join the evening session. It didn't take me long to realize that with Larry I had a gem. An intelligent, curious and spiritually mature man, Larry's lived faith and deep humility enabled him to offer many remarkable insights during those weekly sessions. And so, whenever I couldn't be there to facilitate a session, I would call Larry and ask him to fill in for me. He always said yes. What a joy he was.

Some months ago Larry was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and despite a grueling regimen of chemotherapy and the best efforts of his physicians, Larry died this past Sunday. As I arrived for the 3 p.m. Mass that day, I noticed Peg in one of the pews and spent a few moments with her. And then during the Prayers of the Faithful I made a point of including Larry among the intentions. As I later discovered, Larry died during that Mass.

I was honored to be asked to preach at his funeral yesterday, and have included my homily here:

_________________


Readings: Job 19:23-27; 1 Jn 3:1-2; Jn 1:1-5

Peg, I join Father Peter, my brother deacons, and the entire St. Vincent de Paul Parish family, in offering you and Larry’s family our sincerest sympathy. And God’s peace also to all of Larry’s friends gathered here today.

Those of us who knew Larry will miss him terribly. His death has left a hole in our hearts. Although we will never forget him, over time the hurt will lessen as we await the day when we meet him again. Yes, today, it’s for ourselves that we grieve; because when it comes to Larry, we’re filled with hope.

Each of us here today knew Larry, but in a sense we each knew a different Larry, one seen through different sets of eyes. But If I had to describe the Larry I knew in just a few words, I’d simply say humble, hopeful, faithful – and especially faithful, in every sense of the word.

One verse in our first reading from the Book of Job brought me back to my last visit with Larry, just a few hours before he returned to the Father. It’s actually the last few words of that passage:

“…my inmost being is consumed with longing.” [Job 19:27]

This was the state of Larry’s being in those last days…filled with hope, “consumed with longing.” Larry was a man who knew his destination, a man with complete trust in the Lord’s mercy, a man who longed to see his God…yes, he was consumed with longing. And typically, his only worldly concern was not for himself. No, it was for Peg. “I hope she’ll be OK without me,” he said. Then he gave one of those subtle smiles of his and added, “I’ll just have to ask the Lord to handle it.” And with that, he knew it would be taken care of. His faith could accept no other outcome.

So he changed the subject and said, “You look tired, Deacon. Are you doing okay?”

There he was, still suffering, knowing that his remaining time on earth could be measured in hours, not days, and he’s asking healthy me how I’m doing.

You see, brothers and sisters, this little incident, a conversation between two men in a room in a hospice…this little incident is what faith is all about. We’re so enamored of the world’s great events, the big important worldly things, that we forget it’s in the everyday meetings of one person with another, it’s in the smallness of life, where hearts are moved and lives are changed.

I’m reminded of St. Therese, the Little Flower, and what is often called her “Little Way” in which the simple daily acts of life become a movement of the heart, a glance toward Heaven, a cry of gratitude and love in times of both trial and joy.

Larry in his humility didn’t know it, but he had taught me much over the years, and he continued teaching right up to the end.

Larry knew that faith must always be shared. Faith must be a reaching outward from our innermost being to others. It must be a living faith, a faith alive in Jesus Christ, not something that we lock up in some interior closet, or display on a shelf like a trophy. No, true faith must be put into practice; it must be lived. And to bring our faith to life, we must first turn away from ourselves and turn to others. That’s where the humility comes in.

My father used to say, “Humility’s a very strange commodity, because once you know you have it, you just lost it.”

Larry didn’t know he had it.

And the rest of us? Well, we struggle with this because we find it so hard to humble ourselves in imitation of Jesus, our God who lowered Himself beyond imagining for our sake. Then we hear the words of our 2nd reading, from the First Letter of John:

“See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God.” [1 Jn 3:1]

…and we realize that we are mere children. Despite all our sophistication, our pride in our human accomplishments, the esteem and recognition of others, despite our loss of innocence, despite it all, we remain in the eyes of God just children. The shock of this recognition can drive us to our knees in humility and faith, as we suddenly realize how deeply God loves us.

The Good News, then, becomes something tangible, something so wondrous we are compelled to proclaim it to others. This is how Larry, despite the pain and the suffering, could look at me with joy after I blessed him that last day.

You see, in its outward expression, faith is never grim, but always joyful. For faith is God’s perfect gift, a gift offered to each one of us, the only gift that truly keeps on giving and, as C. S. Lewis said, leaves us continually surprised by joy. Larry suffered much during those last weeks and months of his earthly life; and yet whenever I met with him he surprised me with his joyful, loving heart.

Faith, you see, must not only be shared, it must also be manifested in love. It compels us to take the Father’s love and share it, to spread it around like seed, letting it fall on every kind of soil.

Larry was my second-in-command at our weekly evening Bible Study, and I was always recommending books for him to read. Some time ago I suggested he check out some of the mystical works of St. John of the Cross. One evening after our Bible Study, he come up to me excited about something he had read, and he quoted the mystic’s words:

“In the evening of life we will be judged on love.”

“I’ve been thinking about these words a lot,” he said, “What do you think?”

Well, I gave him some shallow, off-the-cuff answer and then, thinking the better of it, referred him to the description of the last judgment in Matthew 25. For it’s there we discover that the test of love is to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to make a place in our hearts for the forgotten, the rejected, the abandoned.

We first experience the depth of God's love at baptism, when, as St. Paul tells us, we are plunged into the mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And after this vital first lesson we spend the rest of our lives trying to learn its truth.

Some people, like Larry, are wonderfully quick at picking it up. Most of us, though, are slow learners. Some of us don't fully comprehend the seriousness of the absence of love in our lives. We might not recognize this omission as sinful, and often there’s a hardness to us. Sometimes we believe that being lavish in sharing love with others will cost too much. Sometimes we’re simply afraid to love.

Yes, “in the evening of life we will be judged on love.”

Well, as Larry and I talked and prayed together Saturday afternoon I threw that quote back at him and said, “I think you’ve loved much, Larry. Don’t sweat the judgment.” He just smiled and said, “Yeah, thanks.”

Before I left we talked a bit about heaven. I suggested that our eternal joy will come more from within than without. In other words, it’s not so much our surroundings that will change – although they certainly will – rather it’s we who will be changed.

How did John put it in our first reading?

“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as he is.” [1 Jn 3:2]

Did you catch that revelation, that promise? “…we shall be like Him.” Could we possibly ask for anything more than this?

And so, as we take our leave from Larry today, let’s lift up our hearts, prayerfully confident that his suffering has been replaced with a joy beyond our imagining. Yes, brothers and sisters, the light will shine dispelling the darkness of death, for the darkness has not overcome it. [Jn 1:5]

God love you.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Bill Clinton: Father of the Year?

Boy, it just doesn't get much weirder than this. Former President Bill Clinton who, along with his wife, is an avid supporter of so-called abortion "rights" -- i.e., This wonderful and much admired couple are all in favor of the massive killing of unborn children -- has been named "Father of the Year" by the National Father's Day Committee.

That's right, our former president, who is also an unapologetic serial adulterer, will receive this award at a luncheon in June because of his “profound generosity, leadership and tireless dedication to both his public office and many philanthropic organizations." [Read more here.] It would seem the committee overlooked some of his less than charitable deeds performed in his public office, specifically the one in the White House.

And, yes, I know we should love the sinner and hate the sin. Indeed, I pray for the former president and all our political leaders daily; but loving the sinner doesn't include praising him for his sins. And this is exactly what this committee has done. At some point we must step forward and speak the truth. Awarding him Father of the Year is akin to awarding Bernie Madoff Philanthropist of the Year.

And some doubt the direction in which our nation is headed.

Pray for our country.



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Saturday, January 5, 2013

Homily: January 2

Readings: 1 John 2:22-28; Ps 98; John 1:19-28

Public image, self-image, reality -- very different perceptions, especially today when image seems to count far more than reality -- today, when a person’s standing and reputation depend less on their behavior than on the effectiveness of the spin-doctors in their PR firm.

Indeed, we can even fool ourselves. Remember Marlon Brando’s line from On the Waterfront? “I coulda been a contender!” If only, huh?

Yes, too often the way we hope others see us – that image we project to the world – is pretty far removed from reality. Just like the Pharisees. They wanted to be seen as holy men, as meticulous followers of the law, and so they questioned and probed.

Now, questioning’s a good thing -- if you’re looking for answers. But the Pharisees were sure they already had all the answers. They questioned and probed only to get answers that made them look good. They worked hard to project that law-abiding, holy image by comparing themselves publicly with those they considered less holy, less law-abiding. And John the Baptist fit the bill perfectly. Just as Jesus would later on.
Pharisees and Levites Confront John the Baptist

The Pharisees asked John why he did all that baptizing. Just who do you think you are, John? Some kind of prophet? Elijah, maybe -- come back to earth? Did you arrive in a flaming chariot? Or maybe you think you’re the Messiah. Is that it?

The Levites – the priests of the Temple – were no better, asking John the same questions. Just who are you, anyway? Important people want to know. But like the Pharisees, their words gave them away. “What do you have to say for yourself?” they asked. But they didn’t want answers. They just wanted to bring John down in the eyes of the people; thinking doing so would raise themselves.

You see, brothers and sisters, there’s one big reason the Levites and the Pharisees were unable to understand John and see him for who he was. Quite simply they just couldn’t comprehend John’s humility, a virtue foreign to them. John was different because he wasn’t driven by some desire to project a bogus self-image. He knew exactly who he was.

Back in the 70s the wife of a friend of mine left him and their three children, and went to India to study under some guru she had encountered. She said she had to find herself. I suppose she suffered from what we’d call an “identity crisis”, that modern self-inflicted illness that seems to plague so many folks today.

I’m pretty sure this would have puzzled John, who had no problem identifying himself. With John what you saw was what you got. He didn’t base his understanding of himself on the opinion of others because the opinion of others had no effect on him. He didn’t wish he were different, because he was totally content with the man he was. And so he had no need to project an image; he just showed the world the real John, the only John there was.

In all humility and sincerity John told everyone he was just a voice, a voice pleading with people to prepare the way for the coming of the King, a voice crying out in the spiritual desert of the world, begging all who hear him to repent.

John the Baptist was the bridge between the Old and New Testaments, the last of the Old Testament Prophets. He was the privileged one, who not only pointed the way to the Messiah, but also pointed to the Messiah Himself and announced His mission to the world: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” John saw from a distance what the Messiah came to accomplish: our redemption from slavery to sin and our adoption as sons and daughters of the Father. 

And so whom do we imitate? Are we like the Levites and Pharisees, always worried about what others think about us? Or are we like John? Do we recognize our true identity, the identity bestowed on us by our Baptism, our identity as children of God and citizens of heaven?

To whom do we point? Do we point only at ourselves? Or do we point others to Christ by our witness and example?

Simple questions, but they demand some pretty hard answers.




Homily: Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God - January 1

Readings: Num 6:22-27; Ps 67; Gal 4:4-7; Lk 2:16-21

Theotokos
1,600 years ago at the Council of Ephesus (431) the Church gave Mary a title: Theotokos, which means God-bearer. In bestowing this title on Mary, the Church confirmed that, as the Mother of Jesus Christ, true God and true man, she is truly the Mother of God. This is the feast we celebrate today: the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.

Her title has its Scriptural roots in the story we all know – the story Luke tells in those early chapters of his Gospel.  We’re all familiar with it. The Annunciation by the archangel Gabriel in Nazareth, and how the young Mary agreed to bear the Son of God, the Savior of the World. Yes, Luke describes Mary’s role vividly and leaves us with words we can never forget: “Let it be done to me according to your word” [Lk 1:38].

And then Mary, filled with the Spirit and carrying the Son of God in her womb, leaves immediately to make the long trek to Judea to visit Elizabeth. By visiting Elizabeth Mary really visits all of us. She carries Jesus to young and old, to the unborn John and to his aging parents. She carries the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world. And she proclaims this wonderful news in her song of praise and thanksgiving, the Magnificat:

“He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation…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” [Lk 1:50, 52-53].

Yes, Mary, the first Christian evangelist, spreads the Good News, telling the world of God’s mercy and justice. And thanks to Luke and the Holy Spirit we receive this Word of God.

The Shepherds of Bethlehem
Because it’s the living Word of God, you and I are truly present there in the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth listening to Mary as she praises God and thanks Him not just for herself, but for all of us. We are there, just as we are present months later in the rolling hills outside of Bethlehem. When the angelic host appear to the shepherds, we are there among them to hear the Good News proclaimed from heaven itself.

Indeed, this is exactly what the angel reveals. Listen to his words, the words you’ve heard so many times:

“Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you Good News of a great joy which will come to all people” [Lk 2:10].

This isn’t a message just for a few shepherds. No, it’s the Good News of Jesus Christ, a message for all people. As Mary proclaimed, all of this happened according to God’s promise “to Abraham and to his descendants forever” [Lk 1:55].

We, brothers and sisters, are these descendants of Abraham, our father in faith; for God promised him that he would be the father of a multitude of nations. It’s a universal promise, a catholic promise. And because we are there with Mary, the shepherds and Abraham, this revelation places a demand on us. Just as the shepherds went on to glorify and praise God for all they had heard and seen, we too are called to do the same.

It’s really not something we should put off; for throughout these first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel, we detect a sense of urgency. When Gabriel reveals that Elizabeth will also bear a son, Luke tells us that Mary set off in haste [Lk 1:39].

Mary and Elizabeth
Our Blessed Mother didn’t delay in carrying out this dual mission of hers. For not only was she the God-bearer, the carrier of the Good News deep within her, but she also carried God’s love to someone in need. Both acts were of such importance that neither could be delayed.

Yes, Mary set off in haste; but she wasn’t the only one. How did Luke describe the shepherds’ response in the passage we just heard?

“The shepherds went in haste to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger” [Lk 2:16].

Moved by what they had seen and what they had heard from the angels, they could do no less. How blessed they must have thought themselves, for they would be the first to set eyes on the Messiah so long awaited by God’s people. Is it any wonder that they left “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them” [Lk 2:20]?

We too have received the Good News, brothers and sisters. We are all called to carry it to others, not in word alone, but in deed as well. Yes, Mary is the God-bearer who brought Our Lord into the world and presented Him as the Father’s gift to all of humanity. The shepherds of Bethlehem received that gift with joy and willingly and openly carried it to others.

What a remarkable gift it is! It’s a gift of love, arising from God’s hope that we will turn from our sinfulness and accept Him into our hearts. It’s a gift of divine forgiveness, of His outrageous mercy, a gift that will trump the power of sin and overcome all hatred, violence, revenge, addiction…It’s a gift of Jesus Christ Himself, a gift we receive in a most special way.

When we receive the Eucharist today, when we receive the Real Presence, the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, you and I also become God-bearers, carriers of this gift. But what will we do with it? Will it change us, as it changed Mary, as it changed the shepherds?

Just as Mary carried Jesus to the world, we are called to carry Him to all the others in our lives. As the shepherds proclaimed the Good News of salvation, we are called to proclaim this message of hope to a world too often sunk in despair.

As we look forward to the beginning of a new year, let’s learn from both Mary and the shepherds, and follow their example. Worshiping here together on the vigil of this feast of Mary, the Mother of God, let’s join her in a prayer for peace: peace in the world; peace in our country; peace in our cities and communities. Pray for peace in our homes; but most importantly, pray for peace in our hearts. Pray that the darkness of sin will be overcome in this world and that the light of love — the way of Mary’s Son — will take hold in our hearts and the hearts of all.