Doing Greater Works as We Climb - 5/15/17

In the Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Cycle A (John 14: 1-12), we see Jesus at the Last Supper getting impatient with his apostles.  He has been with them for several years.  He is giving them his final discourse and they clearly do not know him.  In response to Philip who asks Jesus to show them the Father, Jesus says: “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.  How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?”

Right before this Jesus had declared: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, then you will also know my Father. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Jesus, fully divine, is the truth about who God is.  God is love, a love that is willing to give all for the good of humanity.  Jesus, fully human, is also the truth about what humanity is meant to be.  Jesus is the way to live.  Following Jesus and the trail to heaven that he has blazed, we will come to the eternal life for which we were made.

In his Ascension Day homily in 2013, Pope Francis compared Jesus to a mountain-climbing guide:  “In Christ, true God and true man, our humanity was taken to God. Christ opened the path to us. He is like a roped guide climbing a mountain who, on reaching the summit, pulls us up to him and leads us to God. If we entrust our life to him, if we let ourselves be guided by him, we are certain to be in safe hands, in the hands of our Savior, of our Advocate.” 

Jesus is not only ahead of us on our journey through life, having arrived at life’s goal, he is with us.  He is present in the Eucharist.  He is present in his Body, in our brothers and sisters.

This latter presence is what some of the early Christians missed.  The first reading (Acts 6: 1-7) shows that the early Church wasn’t always the idyllic picture of harmony that is painted in earlier chapters of Acts (see 2: 42-47 and 4: 32-35).  There was racism and division.  The Greek-speaking Christians were being neglected by the Jewish Christians.  In response, a new ministry developed to care for the poor. 

But without a change of heart that leads one to see in every person a brother or sister in Christ, new ministries are not enough.  A deeper vision of unity is required.

The second reading (1 Peter 2: 4-9) provides that.  The Church is a “spiritual house” that has Jesus as its cornerstone.  Members of the Body of Christ are “living stones.”  We are “a holy priesthood,” “a royal priesthood.”  Through baptism we share in the priesthood of Jesus who replaced the old animal and grain sacrifices before him with his one perfect offering of himself on the cross.  This offering is made present every time we celebrate Mass.  There we offer the “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God.”  We offer ourselves with Christ for the salvation of the world.  Then we go forth from Mass to live the “spiritual sacrifices” in our daily lives.  

This is the spirituality of offering that is at the heart of the Apostleship of Prayer.  We begin each day offering ourselves—all our prayers, works, joys, and sufferings; all our thoughts, words, and deeds; every breath and every heartbeat.  This offering of our day to God with Jesus is very important and can work wonders.

Jesus promised this when he said in the Gospel: “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones that these, because I am going to the Father.” 

Really?  Do I believe that we can do greater works than the ones Jesus did during his earthly life?

Three events of the last one hundred years should convince us that our faith-filled prayers can work wonders.  All three are connected with the Blessed Virgin Mary’s appearances at Fatima, Portugal in 1917.

First, there is the story of Jesuit Father Hubert Schiffer about whom I wrote August 6, 2016.  He and several other Jesuits, living near the epicenter of the first atomic bomb, survived and lived for several more decades.  A Defense Department expert could not find any physical reason for their survival.  He concluded that a power greater than that of an atomic bomb protected them from harm.  According to Father Schiffer, “we believe that we survived because we were living the Message of Fatima. We lived and prayed the Rosary daily in that home.”

In 1989 the Berlin Wall came down and I’m convinced that prayer was behind its destruction.  See my blog post of October 3, 2016 for a photo of a section of the wall that can be seen at Fatima.

Lastly, on October 13, 1991, a movie about Fatima was shown on Soviet television.  The movie was repeated on November 7, the anniversary of the Russian Revolution.  On Christmas Day, the flag of the U.S.S.R. at the Kremlin was lowered for the last time.  The Soviet Union broke apart and Communism ended its stranglehold on that part of the world.  Since then, 29,000 churches have been built or reopened, the number of monasteries has grown from 15 to 788, the 500 theological seminaries are full, and the Russian government spends over $100 million a year for the restoration of churches. 

I believe these are miracles wrought by prayer. 

But wars and conflicts continue.  The threat of nuclear war remains and has perhaps intensified.  The Message of Fatima is as essential as ever—prayer and sacrifice for the conversion of sinners.  When he visited Fatima a year after the assassination attempt in St. Peter’s Square, Pope John Paul II said: “In the light of a mother’s love we understand the whole message of the Lady of Fatima. The greatest obstacle to man’s journey towards God is sin, perseverance in sin, and, finally denial of God.  The deliberate blotting out of God from the world of human thought. The detachment from him of the whole of man’s earthly activity. The rejection of God by man.  Can the Mother, who with all the power of her love nurtured in the Holy Spirit, who desires everyone’s salvation, keep silence about what undermines the very basis of their salvation?  No, she cannot.”

Nor can we keep silence.  We pray and we offer our lives, one day at a time, for peace in the world and the salvation of all.

My Role in Divine Mercy - 4/25/17

In the Gospel for Divine Mercy Sunday (John 20: 19-31), Jesus tells the apostles gathered in the upper room: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  What did the Father send Jesus to do?  To take away the sins of the world.  To reconcile humanity to God and with one another.

But Jesus does not only commission them to carry on his work. He empowers them to do so.  He breathes on them and says: “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”  

How are sins retained?  If God’s love and mercy are infinite, how is it that some sins are not forgiven?

In his 1980 encyclical “Rich in Mercy,” Pope St. John Paul II wrote: “Mercy, as a perfection of the infinite God, is also infinite. Also infinite therefore and inexhaustible is the Father’s readiness to receive the prodigal children who return to His home. Infinite are the readiness and power of forgiveness which flow continually from the marvelous value of the sacrifice of the Son.  No human sin can prevail over this power or even limit it (#13).”

There is no limit that any human being can place on God’s mercy.  Except for one.  It’s the limit that arises from human freedom and divine love.  God cannot force his merciful love upon anyone.  He cannot force anyone to love him, for this would not be love but violence.  Thus, John Paul continues: “On the part of man, only a lack of good will can limit it, a lack of readiness to be converted and to repent, in other words persistence in obstinacy, opposing grace and truth, especially in the face of the witness of the cross and resurrection of Christ.”

Reconciliation is a two-way street.  God is always ready to forgive, but his mercy must be received and to receive it one must first recognize the need for mercy, ask for it, and then receive it. God cannot force his love and mercy upon anyone who does not want it.

The Church forgives sins through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  But the Holy Spirit, given to the entire Church, is at work in the lives of each baptized Christian.  We all play an essential role in helping people receive mercy, in softening hard hearts. How?

First, we are to be holy, merciful, and loving.  As children of God, we are to be holy as God, who is Love and Mercy itself, is holy.

On one occasion when Jesus met St. Faustina, he revealed to her the greatest obstacles to holiness.  He said: #1488: “My child, know that the greatest obstacles to holiness are discouragement and an exaggerated anxiety.           These will deprive you of the ability to practice virtue.  All temptations united together ought not disturb your interior peace, not even momentarily (Diary #1488).”

How do discouragement and anxiety prevent us from being virtuous?  When we become discouraged—with ourselves, others, or the world—we give up.  We think things will never get better and so we stop trying to be better.  Change in the world begins with each one of us and discouragement only encourages us to continue moving away from God.  And anxiety leads us to focus on ourselves, our own worries and problems, rather than keeping our focus on God.

The antidote to discouragement and anxiety?  TRUST.  This is the great message that Jesus wanted us to know when he revealed that the greatest divine attribute is mercy.

When we place all our trust in Jesus, in his love and mercy, then we find an inner peace which flows through us into the world.  Jesus told St. Faustina: “When a soul approaches Me with trust, I fill it with such an abundance of graces that it cannot contain them within itself, but radiates them to other souls (Diary #1074).”

We grow in holiness as we grow in union with Jesus, a union that is especially fostered in the Holy Eucharist.  One with Jesus, we see other people as he sees them and we respond as he would respond.  This is why St. Faustina, in words that echo St. Paul (Galatians 2: 20), made the following prayer:  “Most sweet Jesus, set on fire my love for You and transform me into Yourself.  Divinize me that my deeds may be pleasing to You. May this be accomplished by the power of the Holy Communion which I receive daily. Oh, how greatly I desire to be wholly transformed into You, O Lord! (Diary #1288).”

In his homily for the canonization of St. Faustina, the first saint of the new millennium, Pope John Paul II said: “Looking at him, being one with His Heart, we are able to look with new eyes at our brothers and sisters, with an attitude of unselfishness and solidarity, of generosity and forgiveness. All this is mercy! The message of divine mercy is also implicitly a message about the value of every human being. Each person is precious in God’s eyes; Christ gave His life for each one.”

Without exclusion, Jesus, the Son of God, suffered and died for every human person.  He told St. Faustina: “My daughter, write that the greater the misery of a soul, the greater its right to My mercy; urge all souls to trust in the unfathomable abyss of My mercy, because I want to save them all. On the cross, the fountain of My mercy was opened wide by the lance for all souls—no one have I excluded! (Diary #1182).”

When we grow in union with Jesus, we share more and more the desires and concerns of his Merciful and Sacred Heart.  Moved as his Heart is moved by sinful and suffering humanity, we pray and work for the conversion of sinners.  This is the work of reconciliation that the Holy Spirit empowers all the baptized to do. 

Praying for the conversion of sinners gives great joy to the Heart of Jesus.  He said: “Pray for souls that they be not afraid to approach the tribunal of My Mercy. Do not grow weary of praying for sinners (Diary #975).” And, “You always console Me when you pray for sinners. The prayer most pleasing to Me is prayer for the conversion of sinners.  Know, My daughter, that this prayer is always heard and answered (Diary #1397).”

This is so important to Jesus that he sent his own Mother with the same message.  At both Lourdes and Fatima she came asking us to pray and offer sacrifices for the conversion of sinners.

Do you believe that your prayers and sacrifices make a difference?  So often we are like St. Thomas who says he won’t believe unless he sees.  We don’t believe that our prayers and sacrifices, our very lives, make much difference unless we SEE results.  We give up praying because we do not SEE change in others and the world, or even in ourselves.

Jesus told St. Thomas: “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”  Celebrating Divine Mercy as we do, we declare: “Yes, Lord, I believe. I believe my life, with its prayers, works, joys, and sufferings, offered daily to you for the salvation of souls does make a difference.  Jesus, I trust in you!  Jesus, I trust in your Holy Spirit at work in and through me, bringing your mercy into the world.”   

Easter - 4/18/17

The Gospel for Easter Sunday (John 20: 1-9) offers a contrast between Peter and “the other disciple whom Jesus loved,” traditionally identified as John.  Both ran to the tomb of Jesus, peered into it, and saw “the burial cloths there,” but no sign of Jesus.  Or rather, they did not see Jesus but they did see a sign that pointed to his resurrection.  One saw the sign and that was all while the other saw the sign with the eyes of faith and believed that Jesus had risen from the dead.

Peter saw the cloths and believed what Mary of Magdala had told him—“they have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him.”  But why would anyone remove the corpse and leave the burial cloths behind?  Peter saw but did not connect the dots.

John, on the other hand, “saw and believed.”  The cloths pointed to the fact that the dead body of Jesus had not been removed but that Jesus had risen from the dead as he had promised. 

Peter sees from a purely physical perspective, without faith.  John sees with the eyes of faith. 

We too walk by faith and not by sight.  We see signs of the resurrection, but do we believe?  Really believe that Jesus is alive and is present and at work among us and through us? 

Paul wrote that our “life is hidden with Christ in God” (second reading, Colossians 3: 1-4).  Just as Christ, who at this point in the Gospel who has not yet appeared to the apostles in his risen glory, so the full glory of the new life we have in baptism is hidden.  Yet there are signs of this new life already present in us.  What are they?

In the first reading (Acts 10: 34a, 37-43), Peter says that “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power. He went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.”  The Holy Spirit and the power to do good and heal those burdened by evil in our world—these are the signs.

In baptism we were anointed with the Holy Spirit and empowered to continue the work of Jesus.  We do good in our lives and bring healing to those wounded by sin.  In the renewal of our baptismal promises we reject the devil and his works and profess our faith in God and the new life we were given when we were joined to the Body of Christ.  But we need faith to believe, really believe, that we, joined to the Risen Christ, have the power to do good and avoid evil.  We need faith to believe that in the midst of the world’s darkness, the light of Christ shines through us. 

In “The Joy of the Gospel” Pope Francis wrote about faith in Christ’s resurrection:

Christ’s resurrection is not an event of the past; it contains a vital power which has permeated this world. Where all seems to be dead, signs of the resurrection suddenly spring up. Often it seems that God does not exist: all around us we see persistent injustice, evil, indifference and cruelty. But it is also true that in the midst of darkness something new always springs to life and sooner or later produces fruit. However dark things are, goodness always re-emerges and spreads. Each day in our world beauty is born anew, it rises transformed through the storms of history (#276).

Do I really believe this?  How can I believe this when the daily news presents a picture of death rather than new life and beauty?  This is where faith enters.  Faith does not remove the struggle.  It requires surrender—to see the signs of death, like the burial cloths, and to believe that this death is not the end. 

Pope Francis continues:

Faith also means believing in God, believing that he truly loves us, that he is alive, that he is mysteriously capable of intervening, that he does not abandon us and that he brings good out of evil by his power and his infinite creativity.

“Good out of evil!?”  Yes.  We can believe this because God took the worst thing that humanity could do—nailing the Son of God to a cross—and brought about the greatest good—forgiveness of sins and the salvation of the world.  If God can do that, God can do anything.  And so Pope Francis challenges us:

Let us believe the Gospel when it tells us that the kingdom of God is already present in this world and is growing, here and there, and in different ways: like the small seed which grows into a great tree. Christ’s resurrection everywhere calls forth seeds of that new world; even if they are cut back, they grow again, for the resurrection is already secretly woven into the fabric of this history, for Jesus did not rise in vain (#278). 

We do not want to simply see, as Peter did, and hold fast to faithless theories. We want to see and believe as John did.  This faith in the power of Christ’s resurrection at work in the world through me and through you leads us to live the new life we’ve been given.  It empowers us to be light in the darkness, to reject evil and to do good.  In that way we answer the challenge that Pope Francis presents at the end of this particular section of his exhortation:

May we never remain on the sidelines of this march of living hope!

God's Thirst - 3/22/2017

In the story of Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman (John 4: 4-42), Jesus is thirsty and says to the woman who has come to fetch water from a well, “Give me a drink.”  As their conversation progresses it becomes clear that Jesus wants more than a drink of water to quench his physical thirst.  He has a deeper thirst.

He talks to her about “living water,” which she mistakes for “running water,” an aqueduct, perhaps, that she thinks Jesus can make in order to provide her with water at home so she won’t have to carry water every day from the well. But the “living water” that Jesus is talking about is the water of Baptism which will give her the Holy Spirit and eternal life.  The deepest desire of Jesus is for her to know him and his love which will open her up to receiving the Spirit who gives true and eternal life. 

In his 2007 Message for Lent, Pope Benedict reflected upon the thirst of Jesus.  He wrote:  “On the cross, it is God Himself who begs the love of His creature: He is thirsty for the love of every one of us. … The response the Lord ardently desires of us is above all that we welcome His love and allow ourselves to be drawn to Him.” 

The Son of God loved us so much that he died to save us.  This love is not conditional.  He did not die for those who deserved or had earned his love.  As St. Paul put it: “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5: 8).  In fact, he even died praying that the Father’s mercy would come upon those who were killing them: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23: 34).  In the words of the contemporary Christian song “To Ever Live Without Me” by Jody McBrayer: “You would rather die than to ever live without me.” 

This is God’s thirst: to give each of us his infinite love and to receive us and our love so that we might be one with him forever.

What?! Me Worry? - 2/28/2017

In the summer of 1969, I and a Jesuit priest and five of my high school classmates embarked on a great adventure.  Every summer Fr. John Eagan, S.J. led a group of six Marquette High Juniors-about-to-become-Seniors on a two-week camping trip around the shores of Lake Superior. 

After a restless night of anticipation, we headed North. Fr. Eagan drove the station wagon. Two students sat next to him in the front and three in the back seat.  One got to lay down in the back of the wagon behind all the equipment.  We came to think of him as the lucky one and we took turns in that spot.  For as soon as we hit the highway, Fr. Eagan pulled out a rosary and invited us to pray.  We rolled our eyes, thinking this wasn’t  looking like it was going to be the fun trip we thought it would be. 

Two weeks later, when it was my turn to have the choice spot in the back where you didn’t have to pray the rosary, I declined and offered to sit up front.  Somehow I had come to enjoy praying the rosary every day as we drove.

I returned from the trip feeling like a new person.  The rosary, the beauty of God’s creation, the sense of community, Mass along the shores of Lake Superior at sunset—all of these worked together to get me past a difficult year.

I’d always done well in school and much of my self-worth was tied to my grades.  But in Junior Year I took Trigonometry and Chemistry and my grades went down.  With my grades went my self-image which also took a beating as I argued with my parents over curfew and the use of the car.  And why is it that just before Homecoming a big zit appears on an adolescent boy’s forehead turning him into a cyclops? 

That summer camping trip helped me turn a corner.  I began Senior Year feeling a lot better about myself.  A seed had been planted.  I thought that perhaps I would enjoy doing for others what Fr. John Eagan had done for me.  Maybe I should become a Jesuit priest like him.

But at seventeen, with my whole life ahead of me, I thought: “There’s plenty of time for that.  I want to see the world first.”  So I went to Dominican College in Racine, Wisconsin. I know: “See the world from Racine!?”  OK.  I wanted to experience more of life before going into the Jesuits. 

Before going off to college, I and a good friend from the previous summer’s camping trip decided, for old time’s sake, to do it again.  We took off, knowing that we would cross paths with Fr. Eagan and a group of six guys from the class behind us.  We camped near them and around the campfire one night we made fun of one of those Juniors.  Bill was an athletic kid, a cross-country runner, but during the day when we came to streams and had to cross by walking on logs, Bill got down and crawled across. 

The trip ended and I went off to college.  In September Fr. Eagan called and asked me to pray for Bill. He’d been diagnosed with a brain tumor.  In November I went to his funeral.  Seeing him laid out in the coffin turned the heat up on my vocation discernment. I decided not to delay doing what deep in my heart I felt called to do.  I visited the Jesuit novitiate, applied, was accepted, and entered the Jesuits after one year of college at the age of nineteen. 

The thought of our mortality—that we do not have forever—gives perspective to life.  Every Ash Wednesday we are reminded that we are dust, that our life on earth is not forever.  We begin Lent asking whether we are on the right track. 

A lot changed for me during those camping trips and what followed.  But one thing hasn’t changed—worry.  On our way back from that first camping trip we gave out awards for the best swimmer, diver, cook, etc.  The award I received was “Worry Wart of 1969.”  Throughout the trip I planned for the worst and asked questions: “What if it’s raining, how can we set up camp and cook? What if it’s dark?  What if we run out of repellent or lotion? What if, what if…?

When I told Fr. Eagan that I was going to apply to the Jesuits he challenged me about the worry.  He said that if I became a Jesuit my path, my future would be a great unknown.  I would have to let go of worry and be flexible.  I couldn’t prepare for every eventuality. 

That has certainly been true.  I entered the Society of Jesus to teach in an urban, Jesuit, college-prep school like the one I’d gone to.  I’ve never done that.  And if I’d known then about what I would face in my forty-five years as a Jesuit, I would have been too afraid to apply.  But I’m glad I did.  I would not have grown or become the person I am today without all those things I would have worried about.

Worry saps our energy and leads to stress that takes a toll on our physical, emotional, and spiritual health.  Worry borrows tomorrow’s possible problems and crams them into today.  As Jesus said, “Sufficient for a day is its own evil” (Matt. 6: 34).

Worry fosters a negative attitude.  We see the world through dark glasses as we prepare for the worst.  Such preparation can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Worry was the “original temptation.”  Prior to the Original Sin, our ancestral parents worried about whether they could really trust God.  Maybe God wasn’t telling them the whole story.  Maybe God wouldn’t be there for them.  Wouldn’t it be better to get control?  There is a saying: “If you worry, why pray? And if you pray, why worry?”  When we worry we try to be in control, to be gods.  So what’s the point of praying if you are trying to be God?  When we pray we put our trust in God and not in ourselves, so there’s no point in worrying and trying to be in control of everything.

Since worry is a temptation, it comes from the devil who wants to get us anxious.  The devil disturbs our peace so that we take our focus off God and put it on ourselves.  When we worry we listen to the devil and not to God.

You might ask: “So Father, why do you still worry?” 

I think worry is inevitable, just as temptation in general is.  Temptations challenge us to exercise.  Virtues are “spiritual muscles” that require nourishment (prayer and the sacraments) and exercise (fighting temptation).  When worry comes my way I know I have a choice.  I can obsess or I can exercise by practicing its opposite—trust or faith.  This is where I find certain slogans from Twelve Step Recover programs helpful: “Let go and let God;” “One day at a time;” “This too shall pass.”  I also use the prayer that Jesus told St. Faustina to put on the image of Divine Mercy.  I take a deep breath and pray “Jesus,” holding this “name above every name” (Phil. 2: 9) in my heart and in my lungs as long as I can.  Then I breathe out my worries with “I trust in you.” 

Ultimately trust involves believing in the words of Isaiah 49: 15: “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you.”  God loves each one of us with a deep maternal love.

St. Teresa of Kolkata once said:  “People say that God will never give you more than you can handle.”  Then she added: “I just wish God didn’t trust me so much.” 

Yes, God trusts us.  God allows temptations so that we can grow.  God wants us to grow in the trust that will bring freedom and peace.  Though loving parents are tempted protect their children from all pain and suffering, the world is not free of those.  Painful challenges are part of life.  Some decisions lead to suffering from which children learn important lessons about consequences.  God, loving us like a parent, does not protect us from challenges and consequences.  God trusts us more than we trust ourselves.  Through painful challenges we grow stronger.  Through suffering we learn empathy.

Easier said (or in this case written) than done.  I pray that I remember the words I’ve written the next time I start worrying….

Love Your Enemies - 2/19/2017

Last Friday I was on Relevant Radio’s “The Inner Life” show with Chuck Neff.  We talked about the Gospel for the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A (Matthew 5: 38-48).  You can listen to the show here, but the following are some of the points I made.

Jesus continues his “Sermon on the Mount.”  He challenges us to go beyond retributive justice that inflicts on someone who has done us wrong a similar wrong.  He calls us to give to others not what they deserve but what they need.  And what we all need is love—God’s merciful love.  The practical directives of Jesus—“offer no resistance to one who is evil,” “turn the other cheek,” “hand over your cloak,” “go for two miles,”—should, I think, be taken in the same way that we take Jesus’ directives from last week’s Gospel where Jesus said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.”  We do not take those words literally, but we should take them seriously.  In other words, Jesus was saying that it would be better to enter God’s Kingdom of Heaven with one less eye or hand than to end up with eyes and hands intact but alienated from God forever.  We have an obligation to oppose evil people in order to protect the innocent.  We must “go the extra mile” in loving them.

But what does love mean?  The world thinks of it solely in terms of romantic or erotic love.  It sees love primarily as an intense feeling of attraction and pleasure.  But true love—the love Jesus revealed on the cross—is an act of the will.  It means wanting or willing the ultimate good of the other, even one’s enemy or persecutor.  That ultimate good is salvation, heaven.  To love our enemies does not mean we have to like them.  We do not have to work up a feeling of affection for them.  But we must never will the ultimate evil of hell upon them.  Rather, we must pray for the conversion that can lead them to heaven.  In this centenary year of our Blessed Mother Mary’s appearance at Fatima, we follow her call to pray for the conversion of sinners and to do penance for that intention. 

One way to pray for our enemies is to try to understand them.  What leads them to hate or persecute us?  I think a lot of sin in the world is recycled hurt.  There is a saying, “Hurt people, hurt people.”  Where the prophet Jeremiah prayed for God to take vengeance on his enemies, to exercise strict justice by giving them the same suffering that they had heaped upon the prophet, Jesus, on the cross, prays to his Father to have mercy on his persecutors because they really do not know what they are doing.  He takes the hurt behind their violence and allows it to be nailed into his body, rather than recycling it. 

Before he became pope, Benedict XVI said:

Jesus “transforms, from within, the act of violent men against him into an act of giving on behalf of these men—into an act of love. What he teaches in the Sermon on the Mount, he now does: he does not offer violence against violence, as he might have done, but puts an end to violence by transforming it into love. The act of killing, of death, is changed into an act of love; violence is defeated by love.  This is the fundamental transformation upon which all the rest is based. It is the true transformation which the world needs and which alone can redeem the world. Since Christ in an act of love has transformed and defeated violence from within, death itself is transformed: love is stronger than death. It remains forever” (“Eucharist, Communion, Solidarity,” June 2, 2002).

Love has the power to transform.  It is the most powerful force in the world.  In his homily at the conclusion of World Youth Day in 2005, Pope Benedict, speaking about the Last Supper, said: 

“By making the bread into his Body and the wine into his Blood, he anticipates his death, he accepts it in his heart, and he transforms it into an action of love. What on the outside is simply brutal violence - the Crucifixion - from within becomes an act of total self-giving love. This is the substantial transformation which was accomplished at the Last Supper and was destined to set in motion a series of transformations leading ultimately to the transformation of the world when God will be all in all (cf. I Cor 15: 28).

“In their hearts, people always and everywhere have somehow expected a change, a transformation of the world. Here now is the central act of transformation that alone can truly renew the world:  violence is transformed into love, and death into life.

“Since this act transmutes death into love, death as such is already conquered from within, the Resurrection is already present in it. Death is, so to speak, mortally wounded, so that it can no longer have the last word.

“To use an image well known to us today, this is like inducing nuclear fission in the very heart of being - the victory of love over hatred, the victory of love over death. Only this intimate explosion of good conquering evil can then trigger off the series of transformations that little by little will change the world. All other changes remain superficial and cannot save.” 


Now we receive the Body of Christ and are transformed and empowered to be, as Jesus said, “children of your heavenly Father [who] makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes

"The Faithful Servant and Perfect Friend" of Jesus

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While he’s not on the U.S. Church calendar of saints with memorials, obligatory or optional, he is important to me as a Jesuit and director of the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network (Apostleship of Prayer). Today we are celebrating the feast of St. Claude la Colombiere.  He was the Jesuit spiritual director of St. Margaret Mary, the Visitation nun to whom Jesus appeared and revealed his Sacred Heart on fire with love for humanity. 

I’ve always enjoyed the fact that he died and is celebrated on the day after Valentine’s Day. All those Valentine hearts are nice expressions of love but the deepest and truest love the world has ever known is found in another heart—the Heart of Jesus. 

Recently I gave a mission at three clustered parishes in the Brawley, California area—St. Joseph in Westmorland and, in Brawley, St. Margaret Mary and Sacred Heart where there is a statue of the visionary to the left of the sanctuary and a painting in the parish hall. 

When Jesus appeared to St. Margaret Mary, he told her that he was going to send his “faithful servant and perfect friend,” Fr. Colombiere to confirm the apparitions and to help her spread devotion to his Sacred Heart. 

When St. Margaret Mary protested that she was “a wretched creature, a poor sinner whose very unworthiness would be capable even of preventing of accomplishment” of his desire, he told her:

“Ah, poor innocent that you are, don’t you know that I make use of the weakest subjects to confound the strong, that it is ordinarily the smallest and the poor in spirit to whom I make my power visible with greater brilliance, so that they will not attribute anything to themselves?”

St. Claude wrote those words down in his spiritual journal.  He continued with these words to St. Margaret Mary in which Jesus refers to St. Claude, designated by “N”:

“It was then that He told me: ‘Turn to my servant N. and tell him from Me to do all he can to establish this devotion and to give this pleasure to My divine heart. Tell him not to be discouraged by the difficulties he will meet with, for they will not be lacking.  But he must learn that he is all-powerful who completely distrusts himself to place his trust in Me alone.’”

May we follow the example of these two saints and place all our trust in the Sacred Heart of Jesus!

"All Life is Sacred"

Last Sunday was Pro-Life Day in Italy.  With that in mind, Pope Francis chose for his February “Urgent Prayer Intention” that the sacredness of human life be recognized.  At the end of his Angelus Address he asked that “we pray for the children who are in danger of the interruption of pregnancy, as well as for persons who are at the end of life — every life is sacred! — so that no one is left alone and that love may defend the meaning of life.”  

From the beginning of his papacy Pope Francis has expressed his concern that all human life—from the womb to a natural death—be protected and honored.  In his first Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” he wrote:  

 “Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us. Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this.”

He went on to link the unborn child’s right to life with all human rights, saying: 

 “Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church’s effort to defend their lives, attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative. Yet this defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems.”

In his Encyclical on creation Pope Francis also wrote: 

 “Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?”

The theme for Italy’s Pro-Life Day this year was “Pro-Life Women and Men in the Wake of Saint Teresa of Calcutta.”  Mother Teresa frequently said that if the basic right to life of unborn children was not safeguarded, all human rights were at risk.  In her acceptance speech for the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, Mother Teresa connected world peace to ending abortion, saying:

 “And I feel one thing I want to share with you all, the greatest destroyer of peace today is the cry of the innocent unborn child. For if a mother can murder her own child in her womb, what is left for you and for me to kill each other? … I ask His Majesties here before you all who come from different countries, let us all pray that we have the courage to stand by the unborn child, and give the child an opportunity to love and to be loved, and I think with God's grace we will be able to bring peace in the world.” 

As we pray with Pope Francis this month that all human life be recognized as sacred, we ask for hearts like the Heart of Jesus which saw each person as precious and died for all.

Jesus' Secret of Happiness

What was Jesus’ reaction when he saw the crowds that followed and gathered around him?  According to Matthew 9: 36, “at the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd.”  We have to imagine that Jesus had the same reaction before he preached the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5: 1-12a): “When he saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him.  He began to teach them….”   He teaches them the Beatitudes.  Jesus, whose heart is moved by the sight of the crowds, teaches his followers the secret of true happiness.

Pope Francis called the Beatitudes the “guide for the journey that leads us to the Kingdom of God” (see his daily meditation for June 6, 2016).  They are “the ticket, the guide sheet for our life so as to avoid getting lost and losing ourselves.”  Another translation of the word “blessed,” which introduces each of the Beatitudes, is “happy.”  They are the “guide” and “ticket” to happiness, to the ultimate joy of heaven. 

The Beatitudes are counter-cultural.  The world has a very different plan for happiness and it leads to the opposite, to the loss of self.  The world says you will find yourself and find happiness by making a name for yourself, rather than being “poor in spirit.”  It says your happiness depends upon using other people for sexual pleasure, rather than being “clean of heart.”  It says that if you are meek and merciful, people will step all over you. 

While Pope Francis was reluctant to say that there was a “key” Beatitude, he did emphasize one in particular.  It was “Blessed are the meek.”  He said: “Meekness is a way of being that brings us very close to Jesus.”  Why?  Because after inviting people “who labor and are burdened” to come to him for rest, Jesus said: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart” (Matthew 11: 28-29).  Our hearts are closest to the Sacred Heart of Jesus when they are meek and humble. 

The world thinks of meekness as weakness.  The reality is that meekness comes from great inner strength.  The meek and humble are secure in their identity and do not need to boast or to prove themselves. 

In 1 Corinthians 1: 26-31, St. Paul writes against self-promotion and boasting.  These really come from insecurity.  People who promote themselves in front of others aren’t really sure of themselves and so they have to tell others that they are worthy of admiration and praise. 

Jesus shows us a different approach.  It’s humility.  Humility isn’t self-depredation, putting oneself down.  Sometimes people do this simply to elicit praise from others.  Humility is truthful.  It recognizes the truth that no one is a “self-made” person.  Everything we are and have is the result of God’s goodness to us.  We would be nothing had God not brought us into existence and given us the health and talents that have allowed us to acquire the possessions and relationships we have.  God is the source of our life and gifts.  All praise ought to go to God, not to ourselves.  We can graciously acknowledge compliments but not rely on them for our sense of self-worth.  Deep inside we know that all praise ultimately echoes to God’s glory. 

Focusing on yourself leads to unhappiness.  True humility is not thinking less of yourself (having a negative opinion of yourself, putting yourself down, beating yourself up), but rather, it is thinking of yourself less.  As long as you are the center of your world and attention, you are not humble.  When you put the focus on God and your neighbor, then happiness has breathing space in your life.  The world says happiness is found in “getting.”  The Peace Prayer, attributed to St. Francis, says that “it is in giving that we receive.”

When you focus on yourself your heart fills up with anxiety.  You are either locked into the past, which cannot be changed, or anxious about the future.  You look at the past with regret or sorrow or shame and you develop a negative attitude.  Boasting about present success is like whistling in the dark to distract yourself from the fear that in the future you may not be so successful.  And as you encounter weakness and even failure, your image of yourself plummets.  You feel worthless and unappreciated. 

Jesus reveals the secret of happiness.  He was secure in the knowledge that he was the Beloved Son of God the Father who loved him with an infinite love.  He had nothing to prove and no fear of the Father ever not loving him.  He was secure in his identity and did not depend on what others thought of him.  He had no need to impress people with his possessions or talents.  This gave him great freedom and peace.  It attracted crowds of people who followed him not only because he fed them with a miraculous multiplication of loaves and fish and not only because he healed them.  They wanted to know the secret of his joy and vitality. 

The “Spiritual Exercises” of St. Ignatius are designed to help us grow in the knowledge that we too are beloved sons and daughters of God the Father who loves us with an infinite love, as though each one of us were “the only one,” the sole focus of God’s attention.  Knowing this love, we naturally want to love in return.  As God has given all, we return all.  Thus the “Exercises” culminate in St. Ignatius’ prayer known as the “Suscipe” in which we offer to God all we are and have, our memory and understanding and entire will.  All that we ask is for God’s grace and love.  With these we are rich enough and want nothing more. 

 St. Paul, in his Letter to the Romans 8: 38-39, shows that he understood the Beatitudes, the secret to true happiness.  He wrote: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

Jesus concluded his teaching about what makes for true happiness by saying that even insults and persecution are not cause for sadness.  Knowing God’s deep and intimate love for us frees us from being concerned about the opinions of others and their rejection.  The only opinion that matters is not public opinion or even self-opinion but God’s opinion.  And nothing can change that. Not even sin, for “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5: 8). 

I Will Make You Fishers of Men and Women

Last Saturday, in Summerville, SC, I spoke at St. Theresa Church’s first Eucharistic Conference.  Over 200 people from around the area came to this parish which has a 24-7 Eucharistic Adoration chapel.  On Sunday I preached at one of the Masses and the following is what I said:

According to today’s Gospel (Matthew 4: 12-23), Jesus called fishermen to be the first among his twelve apostles.  He called ordinary people, not scholars or rabbis.  He called them in their workplace, not in the synagogue.  Jesus calls us too—ordinary people.  He calls us in the midst of our daily work.

I’m not a fisherman, but I know enough about fishing to know that it’s a perfect occupation for those called to evangelize.  What is it about fishing that can help us share the Gospel with others and reach out to those who have wandered away from the Church?

First, those who fish know that you have to have good timing.  Not every hour is the best time to go fishing.  In the same way, talking to people about our faith—especially to people who have left the Church and the practice of the faith—requires good timing.  Our desires for them to return may lead us to choose the wrong time to approach them.  God’s timing is not ours and so we should first approach God and ask for help in knowing the right time to approach others.

Secondly, and connected to timing, is patience.  Those who fish know that you have to be patient.  Getting impatient won’t bring the fish to you. 

Thirdly, you have to be gentle and quiet.  Yelling at the fish won’t get them into the net or the boat.  Nagging at those whom we want to bring to Christ will only scare them off. 

Lastly, and most importantly, you have to use the right bait.  What’s the bait we use in fishing for souls?  Ourselves.  We are the bait that God uses to attract people to himself.  As Pope Francis often says, joy is what attracts people.  Our goodness, our peace and strength in the midst of adversity and trials—these will lead people to wonder what’s our secret?  How can we, in the midst of troubles, maintain an attitude of serenity and strength, even joy?  People will see our faith—expressed in our worship and our daily lives—and they will want what we have.

This is true for individual Christians and for the Church as a whole. 

But there is one big problem.  The Church is divided.  This is not a new problem.  In our second reading (1 Corinthians 1: 10-13, 17) St. Paul writes about the rivalries and divisions that he found at Corinth.  He challenged the Church there to come together and be united not under one preacher or another but under Jesus Christ. 

The world is in darkness (see the first reading, Isaiah 8: 23—9: 3) and looks for light. It wonders if peace is possible.  It looks at the darkness of divided churches, of parish communities with cliques and divisions, of Christians who are not united but who, at times in history, have even killed one another, and it says: “If the followers of Jesus can’t be united and at peace, how can the world ever be?”

In fact, the Second Vatican Council even said that one of the causes of atheism is Christians.  In “Gaudium et Spes” (The Church in the Modern World), we read: “Believers can have more than a little to do with the rise of atheism. To the extent that they are careless about their instruction in the faith, or present its teaching falsely, or even fail in their religious, moral, or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than to reveal the true nature of God and of religion” (#19). 

Every year, from January 18-25 we have a period of special prayer, fasting, and activities to promote unity among Christians.  We are called to pray and work together to make sure that as individuals and as a whole we “reveal the true nature of God and of religion.” We are called to be a light that reveals God rather than obscures God.  For we must be Christian in deed and not just in name. 

What gives us the power to do this?  The Eucharist.  As the grains of wheat come together to form the host, so we individual Christians are joined together into one in the Body of Christ.  People who spend time in Eucharistic Adoration grow in an awareness of this.  They bring their family and friends, their neighbors and enemies, their parish community, their city, their nation, and the world to Jesus present in the Blessed Sacrament.  They bring their joys and sorrows, their challenges and trials, to Jesus and he gives them peace and strength to carry on. 

The Eucharist is the source of our unity and our peace.  Praise God for such a gift!

 

On the Streets and in the Cold

 

While it's very mild (59 degrees F) today in Springfield, IL where I am helping with a retreat for seminarians from Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis, the U.S. has experienced some very cold weather recently.  Perhaps not as cold as Russia where the high temperature the other day was minus 18 F; nevertheless, one member of the Pope's Worldwide Prayer Network in Arkansas was not happy as I offered to share Wisconsin's cold with him.  And it's been unseasonably cold in Italy where the temperatures dipped below freezing.

With the cold and how it affects people who are homeless in mind, Pope Francis, in his first urgent monthly prayer intention, asked us to join him in praying for them.  At the end of his Angelus Message on Sunday, January 8, he reminded the world of his monthly prayer intentions and he invited all “to join the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network which spreads, even through social networks, the prayer intentions that I propose every month to the whole Church.”  He said that in this way “we carry on the apostolate of prayer” and foster “communion.”

Then he went on to offer his first urgent intention, saying, “In these days of such great cold I am thinking, and I invite you to think, of all the people living on the streets, hit by the cold and by the indifference of others. Unfortunately, some have not survived. We pray for them and ask the Lord to warm the hearts of others to help them.”

Throughout his service as pope, the Holy Father has confronted "the culture of indifference."  He has challenged all people to open their hearts to suffering humanity everywhere, but especially right in front of us--in our families, in our parishes, and on our streets. 

One way that we can keep those who are suffering from the cold in mind and pray for them in a powerful way is to "offer it up."  I thought of this on Sunday when I stopped for gas on my way from Milwaukee to Springfield.  The temperatures were hovering around 20 but the wind made it feel like single digits.  My initial reaction upon leaving the warmth of my car was to complain, but that negative attitude quickly changed when I remembered the Holy Father's urgent intention for this month.  There are some people for whom the cold and wind are not a minor inconvenience or pain but a grave suffering and threat of death.  I allowed my own minor pain to remind me of them and to pray for them. 

As Pope Francis reminded us in "The Joy of the Gospel" (#279): "No single act of love for God will be lost, no generous effort is meaningless, no painful endurance is wasted.  All of these encircle our world like a vital force." 

Changes in Pope's Monthly Intentions

Since the late 1800’s the Pope has given a monthly prayer intention to the world through the Apostleship of Prayer, now known as the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network.  In 1929 he added a second intention for the missions.  Today these are called his “universal” and “evangelization” intentions. 

The process of soliciting suggestions from Vatican Congregations and from members around the world, then proposing them to the Holy Father, then receiving his final versions and translating them from Italian into various languages, then publicizing them via print—is a long process.  That is why the intentions for 2018 will be chosen and translated in early 2017. 

But a significant change has been made. Pope Francis is returning to the practice of one monthly intention; the twelve intentions for 2017, which alternate between evangelization and universal intentions, have already been published. However, given the speed of communication in the digital age, he is adding a second, urgent prayer intention that he will make known during his Angelus Address on the first Sunday of the month.  As soon as we hear what they are we will be publicizing them on our website and other social media. 

Fr. Frederic Fornos, S.J., the international director of the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network, sees this as a way that Pope Francis wants to confront “the culture of indifference” by focusing our prayerful attention on situations that are “more concrete, precise, current, related to actual circumstances.”

St. Joseph

The First Reading (Isaiah 7: 10-14) and the Gospel (Matthew 1: 18-24) for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Cycle A, contrast two figures—King Ahaz and Joseph, the husband of Mary.

Ahaz was King of Judah from 735-715 BC. He resisted God’s direction as it was proposed to him by the prophet Isaiah and chose, instead, to rely on human ingenuity and power.  He did not want a sign from God and so he hypocritically declared “I will not tempt the Lord!”  But God gave him the sign anyway.  It was that God will send “Emmanuel” and will save his people.  Human resources are powerless.  God alone saves.  Therefore, trust God!

Joseph is an example of this.  He trusts God’s guidance and is open to God’s direction even in the most confusing situations.  Joseph is described as “a righteous man.”  He is “Law-abiding” and committed to doing God’s will. 

God gave the Chosen People a Law to help them on their journey through life.  But the Law did not cover every conceivable situation and so the religious leaders and scribes “fine-tuned” the Law with many additional laws to cover every eventuality, to spell things out in black and white in order to avoid any confusion and to help people faithfully follow God’s Law.

But life is not black and white.  There is a lot of gray.

In Joseph’s case, the laws were clear.  Deuteronomy 22: 20-21 states: “if evidence of the girl’s virginity is not found, they shall bring the girl to the entrance of her father’s house and there her townsmen shall stone her to death because she committed a crime against Israel by her unchasteness in her father’s house. Thus shall you purge the evil from your midst.”  Mary, Joseph’s betrothed,  was to be stoned.

But Joseph cannot do this.  His love for her is greater than this law.  In a quandary, he chooses a middle path: he will not allow the full force of the law to be carried out, but will quietly renounce his relationship with her.

Speaking about this in his Angelus Address of December 22, 2013, Pope Francis said:

“The Gospel does not explain what his thoughts were, but it does tell us the essential: he seeks to do the will of God and is ready for the most radical renunciation. Rather than defending himself and asserting his rights, Joseph chooses what for him is an enormous sacrifice. And the Gospel tells us: ‘Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to send her away quietly’ (1:19).

“This brief sentence reveals a true inner drama if we think about the love that Joseph had for Mary! But even in these circumstances, Joseph intends to do the will of God and decides, surely with great sorrow, to send Mary away quietly. We need to meditate on these words in order to understand the great trial that Joseph had to endure in the days preceding Jesus’ birth.”

Then Pope Francis went on to compare Joseph and Abraham:

“It was a trial similar to the sacrifice of Abraham, when God asked him for his son Isaac (Genesis 22): to give up what was most precious, the person most beloved.

“But as in the case of Abraham, the Lord intervenes: he found the faith he was looking for and he opens up a different path, a path of love and of happiness. ‘Joseph,’ he says, ‘do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 1:20).”

Faith in God who is Love, faith in the Law of Love, wins the day.  Joseph, open to the Word of God that came to him through an angel, follows God’s will. 

Some say that Joseph knew the origin of Mary’s child and chose to break off the engagement because he felt himself unworthy to be the foster father of the Son of God.

Either way, true humility means obedience to God’s will even in the midst of confusion and the disruption of one’s own plans.  Pope Francis continued:

“This Gospel passage reveals to us the greatness of St Joseph’s heart and soul. He was following a good plan for his life, but God was reserving another plan for him, a greater mission. Joseph was a man who always listened to the voice of God, he was deeply sensitive to his secret will, he was a man attentive to the messages that came to him from the depths of his heart and from on high. He did not persist in following his own plan for his life, he did not allow bitterness to poison his soul; rather, he was ready to make himself available to the news that, in a such a bewildering way, was being presented to him. And thus, he was a good man.”

Joseph was the perfect man to be the husband of Mary and the foster father of Jesus.  He had the freedom to surrender to God’s will perfectly and to follow the Holy Spirit’s direction in the midst of life’s complexities. 

“Life father, like son.”  Jesus showed similar freedom in following the Law of Love even when it conflicted with the many laws that were designed to offer black and white answers to life’s complex and morally confusing situations.  He was accused of breaking God’s Law by ignoring purification rituals and working miracles of healing on the Sabbath. 

Life is not easy.  It’s filled with competing “goods” that create confusion.  But if we focus on God’s Word, discern the movements of the Holy Spirit, and ultimately trust in God rather than in ourselves and our ability to figure everything out, then, in the words of St. Julian of Norwich, “all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

 

Gaudete Sunday

The Gospel for Gaudete Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent, Cycle A (Matthew 11: 2-11), is curious.  John the Baptist is in prison.  He sends some of his disciples to Jesus to ask him if he is the Messiah.  Jesus tells them to report to John what they have heard and seen: that the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are healed, and even the dead are returned to life.  Moreover, the poor have received the “good news” of God’s love for them. 

Why did John send his disciples to question Jesus?  He baptized Jesus.  He should know who he is.  Perhaps he had doubts or his disciples had doubts about the identity of Jesus.  He wasn’t acting like the promised Messiah was supposed to act.  He didn’t come with military power and glory to liberate Israel from its oppressors. 

Jesus teaches that he is not that kind of Messiah.  Rather, he is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (First Reading, Isaiah 35: 1-6a, 10).  His actions reveal that the Messiah came not to punish and destroy but to forgive and save.  He is a merciful Messiah who brings “divine recompense.”  To “make recompense” is to pay for something.  Jesus is the Divine Messiah who pays for the sins of the world.  On the cross he reconciled humanity to God and to one another by taking upon himself the sins of the world. 

Jesus praises John, calling him the greatest human being of his time.  But then he says “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”  That’s you and I.  Jesus says we are greater than John the Baptist.  How?  Why?

John never saw the greatest act of love the world has ever known—the cross.  He was not baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus.  At the time of the Gospel, he was not joined to the Body of Christ.  Nor did he receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist.  We, however, know about the cross, have been baptized and joined to Christ’s Body, and have received him, Body and Blood, soul and divinity, in the Eucharist. 

As the actions of Jesus provided evidence of his identity, so must ours.   We must show that we are joined to Christ and are members of his Body.  This is where our Second Reading (James 5: 7-10) comes in.  James tells his readers to be patient and to not complain “about one another.”  True Christians are like Christ—patient and merciful with sinners. 

Patience is a virtue.  I like to call virtues “spiritual muscles.”  Just as our physical muscles only grow and develop through nourishment and exercise, so too our spiritual muscles.  Patience does not appear out of the blue.  It grows through exercise.  Every time we find ourselves feeling impatient, we are being given an opportunity to exercise patience.  This thought can be especially helpful during the holiday season which is often filled with stress of one kind or another.  Exercise patience and mercy and they will grow, helping you to be more true to your deepest identity—a Christian in deed and not just in name.

Advent Thoughts

Advent began this year with a beautiful reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah (2: 1-5).  Isaiah presents us with a picture of the world at peace, writing: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.”

This is a vision that all people of good will share.  It is a hope that the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, came to fulfill.  Jesus is God in the flesh who came to enlighten us with wisdom, to show us the way that leads to peace, and to empower us to follow that way. 

Advent—a word that means “coming”—is our preparation time for the celebration of the fact that the Son of God came to live among us, to share our suffering and death so that we could one day share his risen life. That was his first coming.

But we are reminded this time of year that there will be a second coming.  Jesus will come again to establish his kingdom of peace once and for all.  Sin and death will be destroyed forever. 

Between these two “comings” there are others.  Today Jesus comes to us in the Eucharist. He is the Bread of Life who feeds our hunger for true love.  As the Jewish people longed with deep hunger for the Messiah to come and save them, so we hunger for Christ.  This hunger can help us “stay awake” for Christ’s second coming.  And if that second coming does not occur in our lifetime, then our hunger for Christ can help us “be prepared” for the day that he will come for us when our life on earth will end.

The coming of Jesus in the Eucharist also prepares us for another “coming” between the first and second.  St. Teresa of Kolkata understood this “coming” well.  She once said that when we look at a crucifix we see how much Jesus loved us and when we look at a tabernacle or monstrance we see how much Jesus loves us now.  Time spent in Eucharistic adoration helps us see Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.  Time spent seeing Jesus under the appearance of bread and wine helps us recognize him in the “distressing disguise” of the person in front of us who needs our attention, care, and love.  Jesus comes to us every day in one another.

In his Apostolic Letter for the close of the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis wrote: “We are called to promote a culture of mercy based on the rediscovery of the encounter with others.”  This, he said, “can set in motion a real cultural revolution, beginning with simple gestures capable of reaching body and spirit, people’s very lives.” 

This is the only revolution that will change the world and make Isaiah’s vision of peace attainable.  Political changes will never change the world.  Only a revolution of the heart will bring about true change.  It begins one heart at a time.  It begins with your heart and mine.

Unfortunately Advent is such a busy time that there is a tendency to forget the various “comings” of Jesus—the real meaning of Christmas, the second coming of Jesus at the end of the world or the end of our life, the way Jesus comes to us in the Eucharist, and the way he comes to us in one another, especially those most forgotten or in need.  It’s a good idea to slow down by spending some time in Eucharistic adoration this Advent.  This will help us to be alert to meet Christ when and where he comes to us.  

A New Carmelite Vocation

Today is the Memorial of the Presentation of Mary. According to tradition, Mary, at a very early age, was brought to the Temple and dedicated to God.  Today is also Pro Orantibus (“For Those Who Pray”) Day, also known as the World Day of Cloistered Life. It’s a day when we pray for those who pray for us, those who have dedicated themselves to a life of full-time prayer for the Church and the world. 

It’s also a very special day for the Schumaker family of Boltenville, WI.  Rick Schumaker was a high school classmate of mine and his eldest daughter Mara is entering the Carmelite Monastery of the Holy Name of Jesus in Denmark, WI. 

At a farewell party for her, she gave out a holy card of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. On the back were two quotes:

“I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!” (Luke 12: 49).

“I now realize that we are trying to fight the whole world, to turn the tide of the whole time we live in, to resist everything that seems irresistible” (G. K. Chesterton).

There was also this prayer which she wrote:

O most Beloved Jesus, I beg You to bless my family and friends. May we always meet and be united within Your Heart, which we have pierced and crowned with thorns and yet which still is burning with unquenchable love for each of us.  Give us the strength and love of Your Heart that we may never turn from You.  May we always fight boldly and tirelessly for Your kingdom so that when our earthly battle is complete, we may be united with You where You live and reign forever with the Father and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  

Tears from the Heart of Jesus

Yesterday I finished leading a retreat for 75 women at the White House Jesuit Retreat House on the Mississippi River just south of St. Louis.  Here is my closing homily, based on the readings of the day—Revelation 5: 1-10 and Luke 19: 41-44.

Both of our readings contain tears.  John’s vision, in which no one can be found to open the scroll which will reveal God’s plan, leads him to weep.  In the Gospel, Jesus, as he approaches the city of Jerusalem, weeps over it.  He predicts the city’s destruction and cries.  Its future could have been one of peace, but in rejecting Jesus, the people rejected the one who came to show the way to that justice which alone is the basis for peace.

On July 8, 2013, Pope Francis visited an island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea—Lampedusa.  He went there after many men, women, and children had drowned as they tried to get from Libya, North Africa, to Italy.  He asked:

“Has any one of us grieved for the death of these brothers and sisters? Has any one of us wept for these persons who were on the boat? For the young mothers carrying their babies? For these men who were looking for a means of supporting their families? We are a society which has forgotten how to weep, how to experience compassion – ‘suffering with’ others: the globalization of indifference has taken from us the ability to weep!”

If we have hearts like the Heart of Jesus, we will be moved to weep for such suffering and death.  Our prayers will be accompanied by tears.  

We weep but we do not despair.  As John’s vision continues in the first reading, he sees one who is able to open the scroll—the “lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David”—Jesus.  He is the Lamb of God who was slain.  He perfectly fulfilled God’s plan for creation and in doing so became the victor over sin and death.  The vision ends with worship and hope.  Jesus has triumphed.  He has purchased for God those from every tribe and tongue, people and nation.”  He has “made them a kingdom and priests for our God, and they will reign on earth.”

We, the baptized, are now a “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2: 9).  We are royalty not as the world thinks of it but as Jesus does. At the Last Supper he said that the kings of this world “lord it over” their subjects but it must not be so among his followers. “Rather, let the greatest among you be as the youngest, and the leader as the servant” (Luke 22: 25-26).  

We share in Christ’s priesthood by offering prayers and sacrifices.  The Sacred Chrism used to consecrate the walls and altars of new churches and the hands of newly ordained priests and everyone at their baptisms and confirmations—this sacred oil consecrates each of us for the sacred purpose of offering worship to God.  We do that at the Eucharist and in our daily lives.  

Moved, as the Heart of Jesus is, at the suffering in our world, we offer ourselves as He did for its ultimate salvation and peace.  

Bl. Rupert Mayer, S.J.

November 3 is the feast of St. Martin de Porres but it is also the day when many Catholics remember the Jesuit priest, Blessed Rupert Mayer.  He was born in Germany in 1876 and entered the Society of Jesus in 1900, one year after his ordination.  He served as a chaplain in the German army during World War I and was the first chaplain to be awarded the Iron Cross for bravery.  His service in the military ended when his left leg was shattered in a grenade attack and had to be amputated.

After the war Fr. Mayer went to Munich where he served the poor and started two Sunday Masses for travelers at the main railroad terminal.  When Hitler rose to power Fr. Mayer spoke out against Nazism and in 1937 was ordered by the Gestapo to stop speaking in public.  He continued preaching in church and was arrested three times.  In 1939 he was sent to the Sachsenhausen concentation camp near Berlin.

As the health of the popular sixty-three year old Jesuit war hero began to deteriorate the camp officials, afraid that he would die and be declared a martyr, sent him to a Benedictine monastery.  When World War II ended he returned to Munich and his pastoral work.  

On November 1, 1945, while celebrating Mass and in the middle of his homily about how Christians are called to imitate the saints, Fr. Mayer collapsed and died.  Pope St. John Paul II beatified him in 1983.

Blessed Rupert Mayer is an example of one who lived a daily offering of himself out of love for God and his brothers and sisters.  His favorite prayer has been made into a song by the Catholic Filipino group Bukas Palad.  The lyrics are: 

 

 

Lord, what You will let it be so
Where You will there we will go
What is Your will help us to know 

Lord, when You will the time is right
In You there's joy in strife
For Your will I'll give my life

To ease Your burden brings no pain
To forego all for You is gain
As long as I in You remain

REFRAIN:
Because You will it, it is best
Because You will it, we are blest
Till in Your hands our hearts find rest
Till in Your hands our hearts find rest

Prayer Pierces the Heavens

The readings for the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle C continue the theme of prayer.  In the first reading (Sirach 35: 12-14, 16-18) we read: “The one who serves God willingly is heard; his petition reaches the heavens. The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds….”

From time to time I’ve been asked, “What’s the point of praying? If God know everything and even knows what is in our hearts before we put words to our concerns and desires, what’s the point of praying? 

Our world is obsessed with action.  We tend to think of prayer as a last resort.  When practical action appears to be impossible we say, “Well, I guess I’ll just pray.”  “Just!?”  Is prayer a last resort rather than the first?

There is a line attributed to both St. Augustine and to St. Ignatius Loyola.  While the former may have written it, the latter, I’m told by the Jesuit historian Fr. John Padberg, did not.  In fact, St. Ignatius probably reversed the order of the saying.

The saying goes: “Pray as though everything depends on God and work as though everything depends on you.” 

It is good to recognize when we pray that the Holy Spirit is the one who prays within us (see Romans 8: 26-27).  And it is good to work hard.  But the reverse of the saying—“Pray as though everything depended on you and work as though everything depended on God”—makes more sense. 

In other words, we should put time, effort, and energy into our prayer, praying as though it’s up to us but knowing that grace is always a gift.  And we should work in such a way that we leave the results to God rather than thinking that our sheer effort will accomplish things. 

This is where the Gospel (Luke: 18: 9-14) comes in.  The Pharisee congratulates himself on his works and goes away unjustified, while the tax collector prays with humility and is said to go away justified.  The key, as we’ve heard in previous Sundays’ Gospels, is humility.

The word comes from “humus”—dust or earth.  Humility recognizes that I am not God, not in control, and cannot overcome every obstacle by my own effort and hard work. 

Humble or lowly prayer surrenders to God who created us to share in the love of the Trinity and the communion of all saints.  When we pray fervently and persistently, our prayer pierces the heavens and opens a channel for God’s grace and mercy to enter the world.  Like parents who show respect and love to their children, inviting them to work alongside of them though they do not need their help in assembling a toy or cooking a meal, God respects and loves us by including us in the work of caring for creation and the human family. 

Prayer is not so much changing God’s mind as opening ourselves up to Trinitarian Love and allowing God to transform us and work through us to transform the world.