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!

Although I am an ordained deacon of the Catholic Church, the opinions expressed in this blog are my personal opinions. In offering these personal opinions I am not acting as a representative of the Church or any Church organization.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Homily: Wednesday, 30th Week in Ordinary Time

Readings: Romans 8:26-30; Psalm 13; Luke 13:22-30

Years ago, on a business trip to a remote part of Pennsylvania, I discovered that the only way to get there was to fly in a relatively small 10-seat Cessna. With a full flight and a small plane, weight and balance become a bit of an issue for the pilot.

The last passenger to show up was a very large man, and he had several large, heavy bags. The pilot took one look at him and said, “You can fly, or your bags can fly, but not both. Take your pick.” The pilot simply wouldn’t compromise safety just to make one passenger happy. Furious, the passenger let out a burst of colorful language, stormed off, and neither he nor his bags made the flight.

Whenever I read today’s Gospel passage from Luke, I think of that large, angry man. Yes, we all want to get aboard, we all want to squeeze through the narrow door and be saved, but some of us simply carry far too much baggage.

Of course, maybe it’s not the door. Maybe the door isn’t all that narrow. Maybe the real problem is we are so encumbered with self-generated burdens that it just seems narrow to us. It’s much easier to worry about the narrow door, while ignoring ourselves. Nothing we can do will make the door any wider, but we can sure do something about ourselves.

Look at the question Jesus was asked: “Lord, will only a few people be saved?”

Now Jesus wasn’t about to be drawn into a discussion of numbers or percentages, and so he ignored the question and answered the one He should have been asked: Who will be saved and why? It’s a question Jesus answers again and again in the Gospels: What’s the way to salvation?

The answer’s simple: Jesus is. He is the way, the truth, and the life. He is the door, and whether it’s narrow or wide depends on how we approach it, on how we approach Him.

You see, brothers and sisters, above all Jesus is the Way of the Cross. How did He put it? “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”

For a lot of us this really is the narrowest way, because it demands the denial of self, exactly what the world tells us not to do. It demands complete abandonment; and for this you will be pitied. In fact your very sanity will be questioned. For many it means suffering, something today’s world urges us to avoid at all costs. And it’s also the way that brings good news to the poor, calling us to reach out beyond ourselves, to bring the love of Jesus to others, because He is in others.

We’re given a choice. We can take that path or we can try to walk with Jesus while avoiding his footsteps. That’s what the lukewarm do. They want to look like they’re following Jesus on the way, but they don’t want to be encumbered with that pesky cross. They certainly don’t like the idea of a denial of self and abandonment of all to Jesus. Much better to keep their distance. And the idea of dealing personally with all those poor people? Wouldn’t it be a lot easier if I just wrote a check?

Yes, I suppose the sad truth is that many of us will be left outside, but by our own choice.

The good news? Although His way certainly isn’t the easiest, He’ll never ask us to go where we’re unable to go. He’ll keep calling us, and will continue to do so until the very end. We need only hear and obey.

“Take up my yoke upon you, and learn of me, because I am meek, and humble of heart: And you shall find rest to your souls. For my yoke is sweet and my burden light.”

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Homily: 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Note: As the Church in English-speaking countries prepares for the new translation of the Roman Missal used at Mass, we here in the Diocese of Orlando have been encouraged by our diocesan liturgical office to address these changes in our Sunday homilies. On occasion it can be a bit of a challenge to discuss and explain some of the changes while, at the same time, fulfilling the need of the homilist to bring the scriptural readings to life. I have tried to marry these two demands and trust it hasn't resulting in too awkward a union. The following, then, is the homily I preached earlier this morning.

Readings: Ex 22:20-26; Ps 103; 1 Thes 1:5c-10; Mt 22:33-40

First of all, I’d like you all to know that our celebrant today, Father Gerry Shovelton, was my pastor at my last parish on Cape Cod. Indeed, Father Gerry is largely responsible – well, along with the Holy Spirit and Dear Diane, my wife – for my being ordained a deacon almost 15 years ago. He's also largely responsible for our moving here to The Villages. So…if you have any complaints, you’ll know where to direct them.

Now let’s see how well Dawn, our cantor, has prepared you for what’s coming. How many of you know that, beginning on the First Sunday of Advent, there will be some significant changes to the words you will hear and say at Mass? Show of hands…

Wonderful. It appears the word is getting out. And I hope you’ve all been taking a few minutes to read the bulletin inserts that describe these changes.

It’s important to realize that the Mass itself will not change. Indeed, the basic structure and content of Mass hasn’t changed in 2,000 years. If you read St. Justin Martyr’s description of the Mass as it was offered about 100 years after Jesus’ death, you will find it virtually identical to the Mass we celebrate here today.

No, the changes we will soon experience are primarily linguistic changes, stemming from a more accurate translation of the Roman Missal to ensure the English text used at Mass corresponds to the Church’s official Latin text. The English translation we’ve been using in recent years is quite different from the translations used by other language groups. Spanish, French, Italian, German, Portuguese and other translations follow the official Latin text much more closely. And so, we must prepare for these changes in language. In addition to bulletin inserts, you’ll be hearing a lot about these changes in homilies between now and Advent.

It’s also important to realize that all of us here – not just the priest, or deacon, or server, or reader, or musicians, but every single one of us – is an active participant in the liturgy. We each have a role as we take part in the mystery of this Holy Sacrifice. We are not simply onlookers, like those who stood at the fringes of that Holy Ground of Calvary and watched the crucifixion and death of Our Lord out of mere curiosity.

No, when we participate at Mass we are right there alongside Jesus in His suffering, in the weakness He chose to accept out of love for us. At Mass, at the foot of this altar, we take our own sinfulness to Him on the Cross; for we are a repentant Church, fully aware that His Passion and Death is the great act of redemption, the means of forgiveness God offers a sinful world. It is this act of Divine Love that stirs in us a need to worship, to respond in faith. And Jesus provided us the means to fulfill this need when He instituted the Mass and the priesthood at the Last Supper.

What a marvelous gift, a gift truly beyond understanding, for through it He gives us Himself in the Eucharist. This is no symbol – this bread and wine become Body and Blood – but God Himself, Emmanuel, God with us and in us. As Jesus revealed to those gathered in the synagogue in Capernaum:

“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” [Jn 6:54-56]

Now isn’t this, brothers and sisters, a reason for rejoicing. But, really, how joyful are we? Are you and I as joyful as the Christians of Thessalonica, praised by St. Paul in today’s second reading for their joy, for their enthusiastic missionary spirit?

“…you became imitators of us and of the Lord, receiving the word in great affliction, with joy from the Holy Spirit…a model for all the believers.”  And then Paul added, “…from you the word of the Lord has sounded forth… in every place …” [1 Thes 1:6-8]

This, brothers and sisters, is what God wants from us as well: to sound forth His Word in every place. When we participate at Mass, here in this Holy Place, does God’s Word “sound forth” from us, or do we simply go through the motions? Do we receive God’s gifts of Word, Body and Blood with thankfulness and humility, intent on taking Him to every place, as the Thessalonians did?

One of the oldest and most beautiful prayers of the Mass is a true “sounding forth” prayer, the Gloria, the prayer that follows immediately after the Penitential Rite at the beginning of Mass. It’s a fitting place for such a prayer. Having just expressed repentance for our sinfulness, and our thanksgiving for God’s forgiveness, we then turn to God in praise, overwhelmed by His love, His majesty, His mercy, His gifts, His promise of eternal life.

As Jesus instructed the Pharisees in today’s Gospel passage from Matthew, "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.” [Mt 22:37-38] What better expression of the love we have for God than to pray together, “Glory to God in the highest...”?

The new translation of this ancient prayer is slightly longer because it more closely reflects its Scriptural roots. Listen for a moment as I read it:
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will.

We praise you, we bless you, we adore you, we glorify you, we give you thanks for your great glory, Lord God, heavenly King, O God, almighty Father.

Lord Jesus Christ, Only Begotten Son, Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us; you take away the sins of the world, receive our prayer; you are seated at the right hand of the Father, have mercy on us.

For you alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord, you alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, in the glory of God the Father.
Yes, there are a few additions, a few changes in wording, but nothing we won’t get used to. And the fact that we usually sing the Gloria will make the transition that much easier. And so, let’s all follow St. Paul’s lead, and sound forth with joy and thanksgiving as we sing God’s praises in the Gloria.

Then, just before the Liturgy of the Eucharist, each of us declares aloud our Catholic faith, publicly accepting that which the Church teaches. We do this by reciting the Creed. Two versions of the Creed are now acceptable, the Nicene Creed and the Apostles Creed.

Because our Baptismal Promises are based on the Apostles Creed, the Church encourages its use during the Seasons of Lent and Easter when the focus is on the Sacrament of Baptism. Normally, however, we’ll continue to use the Nicene Creed, a product of the First Council of Nicaea in the year 325, largely in response to the Arian heresy which in essence denied the divinity of Jesus Christ.

And, again, there are a few changes.

We begin with “I believe” rather than “We believe” both because it is an accurate translation of the Latin word, Credo, and to remind us that each one of us is declaring his or her faith as an individual.

We’ll also encounter the word, “consubstantial”, a more theologically correct way of describing the eternal Oneness of Father and Son.

And, finally, the word, “Incarnation” is used to describe the annunciation and birth of our Lord, the act of our God taking on flesh to become one of us out of love for us.

But the most important aspect of all this is the need for each of us to pray here at Mass, not just with our voices, but with our hearts and minds. Indeed, because we haven’t yet memorized them, these changes may actually cause us to think more deeply about what we are praying, leading each of us to a greater understanding of our faith and a deeper love for our God.

And we must not forget that Jesus gave us a second commandment: to”love your neighbor as yourself” [Mt 22:39] We are commanded to do exactly this at the end of Mass when the deacon gives the dismissal. In Latin, this dismissal is “Ite, missa est”, which, at least in one literal translation, can mean, “Go! It is sent.”

The “it” of course is the Church – that’s you and me, all of us gathered here as witnesses to this Holy Sacrifice, as recipients of God’s gifts. And we are truly sent. We are sent to do the work of Christ in the world, in the world that you and I encounter in our own lives, to see Jesus Christ in others and to be Jesus Christ to others. We are sent to pray as we believe, and to live as we pray by loving God and neighbor.

Today, then, as we celebrate on this altar Jesus’ eternal act of love for us on the cross, let’s each take a moment to ask God for the courage to be the people he has called us to be, people who return all they have and are to God – people of his Kingdom.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Flannery O'Connor, Bishops, Government and Money

More on Flannery O'Connor. Yesterday, a few hours after I posted links to recordings of a reading and a lecture by Flannery O'Connor, I received an email from a friend asking me for more information about her. He had never heard of O'Connor and wanted to know something before investing in the books I had recommended in the post. So, for him and for others who might be thinking similar thoughts, here are a few additional links I trust will whet your appetite to get to know Flannery and her work.

Her publisher and friend, Robert Giroux, wrote a superb introduction to her collected short stories. You can read his introduction online here and purchase the published collection of 30-plus stories (including Giroux's introduction) here. If you're not familiar with O'Connor and her work, Giroux's comments will provide you with some wonderful insights.

I've also included a link to an audio file (about an hour long) that addresses four twentieth-century writers: Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, Flannery O'Connor, and Dorothy Day. It's an interview with Paul Elie who, a few years ago (2003), wrote a fascinating book about these four writers: The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage. Here's a link to the recorded NPR interview of Paul Elie answering questions on the four authors and his book about them: Paul Elie.

One more link, this one to a recent biography by Brad Gooch: Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor. I don't fully agree with Gooch's emphasis when he addresses the role played by of her faith in her life and work, but despite a few minor disagreements, I truly enjoyed the book. It's well researched and very well written, and I recommend it to all wanting to know more about this remarkable woman.

The Bishops and the Obama Administration. Cardinal Sean O'Malley, Archbishop of Boston, ordained me about 15 years ago when he was Bishop of Fall River. And because I love the man I'm a regular reader of his blog. Last week the cardinal included a post in that blog about a recent decision by the Obama administration that prohibits the US Bishops' Migration and Refugee Services from receiving grant funds to help victims of human trafficking receive food, clothing and medical care. These victims -- men, women and children -- in their desperation have been either fraudulently recruited or overtly kidnapped and placed in slavery-like conditions. And why will the Church no longer receive grants for this work? The US Catholic Bishops, upholding the moral teachings of the Catholic Church, will not refer these victims for abortion, sterilization and other similar anti-life services.

In his blog posting, Cardinal Sean includes an excerpt from the US Bishops' USCCB Media Blog written by Sister Mary Ann Walsh in which she describes the situation and its causes. She refers to the emerging policy of the administration's Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as the "ABC Rule"; that is, the "Anybody But Catholics" rule.

Do you recall the president's promise to guarantee the protection of conscience in such matters? Apparently it's a promise that neither the president nor anyone else in his administration remembers. Of course, this is what happens when the Church cozies up to the government at any level for the sake of sharing in the distribution of public funds. Eventually, government bureaucrats and their political ideologue bosses will try to enforce their will on the Church. This situation with the bishops' Migration and Refugee Services is a typical example.

Last weekend the deacons of the Diocese of Orlando took part in a weekend-long workshop put on by Catholic Relief Services, the US Bishops' international charitable arm. As you might imagine we heard many discouraging statistics about worldwide poverty, hunger and disease, but for me the most depressing statistic was that Catholic Relief Services receives 60% of its funding from federal government grants. CRS does much wonderful work throughout the world, but its dependence on government funding is problematic at best and will not lead to good. Instead of telling us to call our senators and representatives asking for more federal funds, perhaps they should be telling us to encourage our parishioners to give directly to CRS.

It all makes one wonder: Where are our bishops? These Church-sponsored organizations should be fully funded by the Church without the need to accept any public funds, thus frustrating the government's desire to suppress or even distort the Church's moral teaching. To do otherwise is to ignore the Great Commission that Jesus gave His Church [Matthew 28:19-20]. Is our faith as the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church so weak that we have forgotten the power of prayer, that we no longer believe that "with God all things are possible"? As a Church we should be storming heaven with our prayers asking for God's intervention and mercy in the lives of His people who suffer so much. And the bishops should be taking these needs directly to the faithful in the pews, explaining the need and making clear the Gospel mandate to address that need. It's a mandate that applies to all of us as Jesus made abundantly clear [See Matthew 25: 31-46], and it demands a generous response in money, time and service. By ignoring it we place our very souls in jeopardy.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Flannery O'Connor Recordings

Back in February 2009 I provided links to the only two voice recordings of Flannery O'Connor that I am aware of. Some others may exists but I certainly have been unable to find them. Recently, however, it was brought to my attention that these links have gone the way of most links on the worldwide web and are no longer valid. I did a brief search this afternoon and found some new links to the same recordings, which I have included below.

The first link is to O'Connor's reading of her well-known short story "A Good Man Is Hard To Find." Here's the link:  A Good Man Is Hard To Find. The recording is almost 40-minutes long and the quality is reasonably good, although if you are not used to a rural Georgia accent, you may struggle at times.

The second link brings you a lecture O'Connor gave at the University of Notre Dame:"Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Literature"

In my opinion, Flannery O'Connor was one of the great American fiction writers of the twentieth century. She died at the far too young age of 39 in 1964 of complications from Lupus. But in those few years she produced some absolutely wonderful literature. If you haven't read her, do so. Here's a link to her collected works, published in a single volume: Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works

Another book I highly recommend is The Habit of Being, a collection of many of her letters. It is a marvelous book, one that I have read and re-read over the years.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Homily: Wednesday, 29th Week in Ordinary Time

Readings: Romans 6:12-18; Psalm 124; Luke 12:39-48

Power’s really a strange commodity, isn’t it? Lord Acton warned us that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And we’ve seen enough evidence of that in the world in recent years.

Jesus certainly knew this as well, and wanted to ensure the Apostles would exercise their power – really His power – and exercise it well once He left them in charge of His Church. Indeed, their job would be less about power and more about service.

Today's Gospel passage from Luke 12 is, then, a telling parable for all who hold leadership positions in the Church, but it applies as well to all of us. After hearing Jesus’ response, I suspect Peter might have regretted asking his question. You know what they say, don’t ask a question if you think you might not like the answer.

Of course, the Apostles were always doing this. Remember when James and John were dreaming of power? And remember what Jesus said to them: ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.’” (Mark 10:42-44). And then added that even He came “not to be served but to serve.” 

This is the remarkable thing about our God. We call him “God Almighty” for good reason since he is the creator and sustainer of all that exists. And yet, Almighty God chose to become powerless in Jesus.

How did St. Paul describe it in his beautiful hymn? “…though he was in the form of God, [He] did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.”

Yes, God is love, and love, at least in worldly terms, is powerless. Indeed, there’s something about God that is better expressed in weakness than in strength. This is one of love’s great paradoxes: although love in itself is powerless, it always empowers those who love. It’s the distinctive blind spot of people who crave power but are unable or unwilling to love. Love always empowers, it never disempowers.

And so Jesus is telling the Apostles and He’s telling us to love, to love as He loves. Through a remarkable act of Love, God gave us life. And through an even more remarkable act of love, through His death on the Cross, He gave us new life. He poured out the Holy Spirit on us and filled us with His power. He gave us each other, our families, the Church, and our mother Mary.

Jesus loved us when we didn't love ourselves. He freed us from the slavery of sin. He’s taken us back again and again. He’s healed us, been perfectly faithful to us, unfailingly given us our daily bread, and delivered us from the evil one. Without Him, without His love, we are truly powerless.

We’ve all been given so much, and the joy and privilege of being a child of God carries with it an awesome responsibility. God expects us to make good use of the gifts and graces He gives to us, and the more He gives, the more He expects. Before the Master returns the temptation is to put off what we know the He expects of us today!

And so today maybe each of us should do something for God, perhaps something we’ve been putting off for a while. We all have something like this. I know I certainly do. Do it today! Don‘t wait for tomorrow.

Cardinal Newman said it best: "God has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. I have my mission -- I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next...therefore I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve him...for God does nothing in vain..."

After all Jesus has done for us, the least we can do is…well, everything.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Photos of Romans

I enjoy taking candid photos of people I encounter while traveling. And for some reason that I haven't fully worked out, I prefer these photos in black and white rather than color. Perhaps with color photos the eye is drawn more to the color than to the actual subject of the photograph. But there might well be other reasons. As I say, I haven't quite worked it out.

Earlier today I uploaded a dozen or so of these photos to my page. They were taken in Rome and and few other cities in Italy. Should you feel the urge, you can view them in a slideshow by clicking here. I've included a few of my favorites below. You can view a larger version of each if you click on the photo.

Tired pilgrim in St. Peter's Square after a papal audience
Roman lovers oblivious to all else in the Borgo district
Four nuns hurrying across an empty Piazza Montecitorio in the early morning
Roman teens chatting and waiting for a bus in central Rome
Pilgrims (Diane on right) resting along Via della Conciliazione near the Vatican
Young boy playing at Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Interesting Times

We certainly live in interesting times and one can only hope, for the sake of our children and grandchildren, that they become a wee bit less interesting in the future. Although, I have to admit, a part of me is pleased that I was born into the world in these times. I can't help but feel somewhat privileged to be able to live in and observe our world as it undergoes such radical change. It certainly doesn't frighten me, simply because I'm a Christian and have unshakeable faith that the Lord of heaven and earth will bring all things to good. It's the when and how of His Providence that remain a mystery.

Sometimes, however, I think our society at large isolates itself from all that has made these times so interesting. It seems intentionally to distract itself from reality by ignoring the most disruptive events and movement in the world, preferring instead to assume that all must be well so long as "American Idol", "Dancing With the Stars", and "The Amazing Race" continue to be produced and aired weekly. Glued to their TV screens and iPads, they seemingly are unaware of the increasing radicalization of the Islamic world, a movement that could have catastrophic consequences. Arab Spring may well turn quickly into an Islamist Winter. They seem not to understand the severity of the economic problems facing Europe and the US, believing instead that all will be happily resolved and the US Treasury will continue to spit out its never-ending stream of government checks. And they clearly do not realize that the continued moral collapse of Western Civilization will surely bring about a general worldwide collapse. The death of Faith will lead to the decline and ultimate destruction of the culture, which will lead to the end of the civilization. What will then happen to the people?

Of course everyone's not completely blind, although some of those who apparently realize all is not well with the world, are remarkably ignorant as to the causes. For example, the current "occupiers" of Wall Street are perhaps the most clueless bunch of purposeless protestors in the nation's history. They say -- well, some of them say; others have gathered for sex, drugs and fun -- they're there to protest the greed of Wall Street. Good heavens! Greed on Wall Street? Can you imagine that? How interesting that they seem to believe greed exists only in lower Manhattan. What about greed on Main Street? Or greed in the White House or the halls of Congress? Or greed in the university's faculty lounge? Or greed in professional sports, or among artists and entertainers, or even in the college dorm room? I'm afraid greed is a permanent part of the human condition, and will no doubt continue to afflict us right up to the Second Coming. And trust me, no amount of government regulation can overcome human nature.

Indeed, greed has even manifested itself right there among the protestors. After all, one of their key demands is the forgiveness of all their college loans. Sounds a little greedy to me, especially when they're asking folks like me to cover these loans of theirs through my taxes. I seem to recall already paying off my own children's loans some years ago. Now they want me to pay off theirs as well? But, we're told, look at the unemployment rate -- over nine percent. These well educated young people can't get good jobs. The truth is, the unemployment rate for those with college degrees is less than 5%, about where it falls even in good times. It's just that today the new hire might actually have to start at the bottom and work his or her way up.

They're an interesting collection of protestors. Many are apparently neo-Marxists, calling for the overthrow of the free market system, that same economic system that has given them their smart phones, iPads, and iPods, the Internet, and even the remarkable variety of music they listen to constantly. When Steve Jobs' death was announced, the protestors mourned and grieved in a display of remarkable public irony. Are they so clueless that they don't realize that Mr. Jobs was a gazillionaire thanks to a free market that allowed him to develop, manufacture and sell cheaply those products they can't do without?

More disturbing than mere ignorance, or even gross stupidity, are the comments by some protestors claiming, ala 1930, that it's all the fault of the Jews. As one woman said to the TV camera, "It's the Jews on Wall Street. They should all be sent away..." Where exactly did she have in mind? Another Auschwitz perhaps?

Enough about the protestors. I'm just happy I'm not a NY sanitation worker who will have to clean up after these people when they finally run out of free pizza. That's one of the many differences between the "Occupiers" and the Tea Party folks. The latter always cleaned up after themselves and left their venues pristine. Maybe it's a generational thing...ya think?

Being is still good, especially in interesting times.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Homily: Wednesday, 28th Week in Ordinary Time

Readings: Rom 2:1-11; Ps 62; Lk 11:42-46

Some years ago I read a book in which the author described a dream. An angel took her to a church to worship. She saw the organist playing. The organ's keys went up and down, but no music came from the organ. She saw the choir singing. The singers' mouths opened and closed, but no song came from their lips. She saw the congregation praying. Their lips moved, but no voices could be heard.

The woman turned to the angel and said, "Why don't I hear anything!

The angel said, "There's nothing to hear."

Reading today’s Gospel passage from Luke, I thought of this dream and found myself asking: do I, too, sometimes just go through the motions? Do I really accept and exult in God’s real presence here in Community, Word, and Eucharist? How faithfully do I worship my God and Savior not only with my lips but also with my heart and my life?

Or am I like the Pharisees? Oh, they were very religious men -- religious, but not necessarily holy. Religion consumed their lives, and they measured everything they did against it. Quite literally, it meant everything to them. Unfortunately it left little room in their lives for either God or neighbor. Religion for them was a thing they did, an end in itself. What remained was superficial in the strictest sense of the word: all about surfaces.

Jesus affirmed this on another occasion when he said, “If your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  [Mt 5:20]

In their misguided zeal, the Pharisees required unnecessary and burdensome rules that led people away from God rather than to Him.

The missing ingredient was God’s love, the love that we (and they) are called on to share with the world. For God is love, brothers and sisters, and everything He does flows from His love for us.  And God’s Love is sacrificial. Just look at the Cross! It‘s a Love that embraces and lifts the burdens of all who come to Him, all who seek Him. 

Have you ever noticed how, in the absence of love, everything goes wrong? How could it be otherwise? After all, if love is absent, God has been rejected. Do you realize that? All those loveless moments in your life: each represents a rejection of God.

Of course loving one another as God loves us can be difficult indeed. Actually, it’s impossible without God’s grace to help us. Yes, loving as Jesus loves becomes the study and struggle of a lifetime -- and that’s what conversion is all about.

The Prayer Stone

I finally found it
in the back of a drawer
with paper clips and pencils, 
under a box of erasers
I'd bought long ago
but never used. 
Its polished surface
shone black against my palm.
My hand closed around it, 
felt it's cool smooth artificiality.
I wondered at the 
absurdity of it all.
No primitive sacred stone
was ever polished 
by a rockhound,
sealed in a mesh bag 
with fifty others, 
and sold to church ladies.
Yet it sits on the counter
where it reminds me 
to touch it
a hundred times a day 
and ask the impossible 
of my God, not a stone. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

God and Ears, Noses and Throats

I had two, that's right, two doctors' appointments today. This is very unusual for me, one who rarely visits doctors under the wise assumption that such visits lead only to further visits, more discomfiting tests, and worries that something might actually be wrong with me. I often go years without seeing a doctor, feeling wonderful the entire time. But not long ago I made the mistake of mentioning a few minor afflictions in the presence of Dear Diane. This proved to be the catalyst that began the current reaction, a seemingly never-ending series of consults and referrals that will undoubtedly lead to absolutely nothing. So, when your health insurance costs soar through the roof next year, you'll know who to blame (other than the president).

Today's first appointment was with my internist, a pleasant man near my age, who discussed the results of a recent MRI of my gimpy shoulder. I especially like him because he didn't simply refer me to a orthopedic surgeon who would no doubt meet me at the door of his practice with a scalpel or laser in his hand, a wild look in his eyes, and singing ala Monday Night Football, "Are you ready for some surgery?" No, my good doctor suggested that before agreeing to anything drastic, I might want to spend a few months doing some daily therapeutic exercises which he demonstrated for me in his office. I promised I would and will begin in the morning...too tired tonight.

He also informed me, very gently, that my bad cholesterol is too high and my good cholesterol too low. He then handed me a sheet listing all the foods I should eat and those I should avoid. For some reason bananas are okay but banana cream pie isn't. Go figure. And then he set up another appointment as well as another visit to the lab. Do you see what I mean? It never stops. And yet, he seems reasonably sensible and so I like him.

Unfortunately for me, this doctor has decided to take a new position in a nearby clinic that serves only the uninsured. That's the sort of man he is. I will miss hm and do not relish the idea of trying to find another primary care physician.

Today's second appointment was with a young ear, nose and throat specialist who examined me with the kind of strange instruments ENT doctors use. Finally, after speaking to his nurse in a technical language I could not understand, he informed me that I seemed to be fine, and then promptly declared I needed more tests to be sure. So now I must have a special X-ray of my throat next week, followed by, you guessed it, a follow-up appointment with the ENT doctor.

One appointment with my internist a month ago has now resulted in two lab visits, an MRI, a "special" X-ray, and four additional doctor visits. And I'm actually pretty healthy. Makes you wonder how the really sick people manage to squeeze in a normal life amidst all the medical stuff.

Enough! The really interesting experience occurred while I spent about thirty minutes sitting in the ENT examining room waiting for the doctor to arrive. Waiting patiently as one must, my attention was drawn to a poster taped to the wall next to my chair. It was really quite elaborate, a pictorial poster showing all the major and minor parts of the human ear, nose and throat. It was one of those Superman-like, X-ray vision posters in which you can see beneath the skin's surface and view all the little parts and pieces that you and I really don't want to see.

But it was fascinating, and I spent most of the half-hour looking at the human ear, nose and throat, examining each system, and captivated by the wonder of it all. I came away convinced that such complicated perfection could not come about by chance. These few micro-systems join hundreds of others and form a miraculous interconnected whole that we call the human body. And as I tossed these thoughts about in my even more miraculous brain, I overheard a doctor and nurse speaking in the hallway, discussing the kind of treatment a patient should receive. It was then I realized no chance collection of atoms could ever form out of the chaos of the universe and eventually think such thoughts and communicate them with another chance collection of atoms in a hallway of a building designed and built by yet another chance collection. For me, just that few minutes sitting in a chair in a young doctor's office was enough to convince me that we have a God who has done miraculous things to show us how great is His Love.

Toss that thought around in your miraculous mind the next time you visit the doctor.

God's peace...

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Homily: 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isaiah 25:6-10; Psalm 23; Philippians 4:12-14, 19-20; Matthew 22:1-14

My wife and I just returned from celebrating our youngest son’s wedding on Nantucket Island in Massachusetts. Now, Nantucket is a very casual place, and so many of the wedding guests were dressed in, let’s say, alternative clothing. But unlike the king in today’s Gospel passage, I didn’t even consider banning them from the ceremony. Their style of dress simply didn’t bother me. The important thing was they were my son’s friends.

And so, if you’re like me, I suspect the parable we just heard might leave you feeling just a bit uncomfortable. We can’t help but feel a bit sorry for the poor fellow who got thrown out of the wedding banquet for not wearing the proper clothes. After all, the king had sent out servants to invite anyone who was available to attend the didn't matter who you were or where you came from – “both bad and good” the Gospel says. But when the party begins, the kind of clothes you wear suddenly become a big deal.

Seems a bit odd, doesn't it? Well, this parable had long puzzled me, until I read a book by C. S. Lewis called “The Great Divorce.” Lewis’ book is a fascinating story, really an allegory, about our relationship with God and how Original Sin has driven a wedge between humanity and God.

In the book’s opening scene, several people are simply standing around in a large room which turns out to be heaven’s waiting room. Just beyond the other side of the door is the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem. It's the place they’ve always wanted to go to, but now that they’re there, they must accept that God has indeed saved them; that He has forgiven their sins and has a tremendous reward waiting for them.

So, where’s the difficulty? Well, for some of the people waiting in that room, the fact that God has done all this becomes a serious problem for them.

This is how Lewis sets it up: before leaving the room and stepping into heaven, everyone needs to put on "the armor of salvation. But some of them prefer their old, everyday clothes. One of them, actually, is very well dressed, but he's unwilling to remove the jacket of his achievements and accomplishments. Eventually he disappears into the small, dark hole of his egotism.

And then there’s a young man, standing in the corner with a slimy, red lizard perched on his shoulder. You get the sense that it represents some sin of lust. It turns out that this young man hates this creature but at the same time, it’s become so much a part of him that he refuses to knock it off his shoulder so he can put on the new armor.

When an angel approaches offering to kill the ugly thing, the young man resists, saying that if it is killed, he's not sure if he could survive. He hates it but he's not sure he can live without it. Urged on by the angel, trembling and fearful, he finally lets go of the lizard and cries out, "God help me! God help me!"

With that a fierce battle takes place, with the angel fighting the lizard; but then suddenly the reptile is turned into a glorious horse.Here is how the narrator in the story describes it:

What stood before us was the greatest stallion anyone had ever seen, silvery white, but with mane and tail of gold. The young man turned and leaped on the horse. Turning in his seat he waved a farewell, then nudged the stallion with his heels. And they both soar off, like shooting stars, toward the green mountains of heaven.

It’s really a great story. But what it tells us is that the young man finally clothed himself with Christ. Having nothing of his own, not even his past sins to cling to, he put his complete trust in God and traded his garment of shame for the robe of the King.

And isn't this precisely how St. Paul describes the sacrament of baptism? If we are baptized in Christ, says Paul, we must be clothed with Christ.
Parable of the Wedding Garment

You see, today’s parable is really about a choice we all have: whether to be clothed in Christ or to be wrapped up in our own self-love. The king desperately wants to fill the hall for his son’s wedding, and so he invites many guests. Notice that the king’s only request is that his guests be there at the feast. But giving in to their own self-serving motives, they callously – murderously – decline the invitation. Their refusal isn’t simply disobedience to the king; it’s a repulsion of love, symbolized by the wedding.

The king desires our presence at the feast, not for his sake, but for ours. Rejecting him is to be caught up in our own self-love, to be so preoccupied with ourselves that we have no desire to enter into the love of others. Such self-absorption in the presence of a loving God is an affront to Him, to His Son, and to the covenant signified by the wedding. It’s this same self-absorption, this same willfulness, that causes the one guest to obstinately discard his wedding garment.

Of course, in our theology we also understand this parable as a reference to the Eucharist; indeed, every celebration of the Eucharist is the marriage of heaven and earth! Our Eucharistic celebration is both wedding feast and marriage, and continually challenges us. How do we approach this Eucharistic feast, and how do we participate in the marriage that follows?

We are called to support those immersed into the Paschal Mystery through the Sacraments.

We are called to invite others into a new relationship with Christ and his Church.

Finally, we are all called to immerse ourselves into the life and ministry of Christ in the Church.

And Like any good marriage, our life and ministry in the Church should grow and evolve over time.

Most of us here today can recall a time when there really were no lay ministries, either pastoral or liturgical, in the Church. The professional ministries were those of clergy and religious. There were two additional ministries – those of acolyte and lector – ministries that remain in use today but limited to adult males on the path to Holy Orders.

There might not have been lay ministries, but many men and women were involved in a number of apostolates – the Holy Name Society, the Knights of Columbus, different women’s sodalities. And there were many charitable organizations, run largely by laymen and laywomen, and functioning as the Church’s charitable arm. My how things have changed…especially in our liturgical ministries:

Now lay ministers – boys and girls, men and women – serve at the Altar;

Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, who are baptized, confirmed Catholics, give our Lord’s precious Body and Blood to His people;

Readers proclaim God’s Word making Him present to all of us gathered here;

Ministers of Music make a joyful noise unto the Lord, leading us as we lift our hearts and voices;

Sacristans, the unsung ministers who set up and clean up after us clergy;

And those who meet and greet the faithful, who lead them and direct processions, who take up the collections, who simply do whatever they are asked to do.

Yes, some are called to exercise special roles before the Altar of God, but every one of us is expected to be a full, active and conscious participant in the Eucharistic celebration in word, song, gesture and response. And when each of us fulfills his or her unique role in the Eucharist, our Mass becomes a fine “wedding celebration,” a reflection of our union with Jesus Christ. 

In the end, it is He, the Lord Jesus, who is the Bridegroom, and we, the Church, the Bride. He is the perfect spouse, the absolute right partner for us all.  It is He alone who brings us to new and eternal life. It is He who makes of us family, adopted children of our heavenly Father, brothers and sisters to each other in Jesus Christ.

The Lord has readied a feast for us, but we must be ready to accept his invitation.

So, have you been called by Christ?

Yes, definitely.

Have you been invited to the banquet of heaven?

Yes, for God invites everyone.

Does it matter what you wear?

Not if you arrive already clothed with Jesus Christ.

"That I may come to the altar of God, to God, my joy, my delight." - Psalm 43:4

Thoughts on Returning Home

Amari, the Bride
Well, Diane and I are home once again, after another three-week absence. This time we drove to Massachusetts for the wedding of our youngest, Brendan, who married the beautiful Amari on October 1 on Nantucket Island.

We avoided the unfriendly skies and drove, largely because I simply enjoy driving. Not only do we experience the country up close but we also avoid the minor terrors associated with airports and TSA. Driving for me has become a quiet form of protest, one I will be forced to set aside when we take our next overseas trip, unless we discover an affordable way to travel by sea. One hopes that these rather mild public criticisms will not by captured by an NSA supercomputer thus elevating me to a category of traveler routinely subjected to strip searches and cavity inspections.
While in Massachusetts we visited each of our four grown children and their spouses...and our eight absolutely wonderful grandchildren. Since our children live in four different parts of the state, we divided our time among them all, and ended up spending about four days with each family. We enjoyed these brief visits immensely and were pleased that the grandchildren hadn't forgotten us since our previous trip in May. Living here in Florida, nearly 1,500 miles from our grandchildren, generates a fear that the little ones will glance at me as I walk through the front door, turn to their mother and say, "Who's the old guy?" Well, so far so good, although one-year-old Ben took a little while to warm up to us.
Grandchildren: Pedro, Camilla, Carlos, Eduardo, Ezekiel, Phineas, Verionica, Benedito

The wedding of Amari and Brendan was beautiful and the unpredictable Nantucket weather cooperated and gave us a warm, sparkling day, the kind of day one hopes for when visiting New England in the autumn months.

Our four children: Siobhan, Brendan, Erin, Ethan
Later, at the celebratory party after the wedding, I sat in a chair sipping a glass of rather good, but unnamed, Cabernet. I took real pleasure watching our four children enjoying the day as they talked and laughed with each other and caught up on family things.

As parents of grown children we often forget the good that we did as we struggled to raise our children, recalling only the mistakes we made. I've decided to forget those as well because I can no longer do anything about them. About all I can do now is offer quiet advice when it's asked for, pray that their marriages and children will bring them some of the same happiness and joy Diane and I have experienced, and turn everything else over to our merciful, loving God.

Our very 1950s family. That's me on the left.
Happy in the presence of my children, I found my thoughts drifting back to my parents and my only sibling, my brother, Jeff. It's at times like these that I miss them the most. My mother died over 30 years ago, my father died in 2005 at the age of 95, and Jeff died suddenly two years ago at 68. Thinking about them all I suddenly realized, Hey, that leaves only me. I'm now the family patriarch. There's no one else to pick up the patriarchal mantle and offer wise advice based on a lifetime of lessons learned. I suppose being the family patriarch would have far greater meaning if the later generations actually paid any attention to what I said. Yes, it would seem being the patriarch is a distinction that means little more than quite likely being the next male in the family to die. Happy thought.

But that's okay. There's an old Irish blessing: May you live to see your children's children. It would seem the Irish borrowed it from the Jews (Psalm 128:6). And that, too, is okay, since the Irish and the Jews are very much alike in so many ways. If a psalmist hadn't written it, no doubt some Irish poet would have. Anyway, I always thought it a rather strange blessing. After all, don't most people live to see their grandchildren? But then I thought about my own family. My mother's parents died long before I was born, so I knew only two of my grandparents. My paternal grandfather died when I was just five years old and I have only vague memories of visiting him at a VA hospital in Connecticut. He was a veteran of the Spanish-American War and the Boxer Rebellion, and I can still picture him, sitting in a wooden rocker and wearing a plaid bathrobe over his pajamas. He looked so very ill, but as he noticed his two grandsons walking through the doorway, his face brightened into a wide smile. What a perfect memory! It is how I shall always remember him.

My grandmother was really the only grandparent I knew well, and because she lived with us for several years, I have many fond memories of her. She died when I was 15. And so I really knew only one of my grandparents well. I suppose, then, compared to many of my recent ancestors, I am truly blessed.

Earlier this afternoon Diane and I completed a nice 20-minute Skype video call with our elder daughter, Erin, and her five children. Watching the four eldest -- ages four to ten -- crowd together to get into the picture and tell us about their day and what costumes they hope to wear on Halloween was a true joy. Technology can be both curse and blessing, but in this instance it's certainly the latter. One cannot even imagine how our grandchildren will communicate with their grandchildren 50 years from now.

Family is a great consolation and now that I'm an orphan at age 67 I can't imagine what life would be like if I had no children, no grandchildren, no family.