Sunday, June 12, 2022

Bless and Keep You

Last week, as I was packing up the rectory, I came across the notes for my first homily here three years ago. Believe it or not, it was for the very feast we celebrate today, the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity. In it, I spoke a little bit about my family, including my youngest nephew, who had just been born a few days before. I spoke about how God reveals his love for us through the family – through our natural families and through our spiritual family, the Church. And I spoke about how it was a great honor and joy for me to have become a part of the spiritual family of Holy Rosary parish.

I still feel that way today, even as I now say farewell to you after just three short years. While I wish I might have stayed for a longer time, I also know that this is what God’s Providence has arranged for our community at this present time. In my years as a priest, I have come to believe that God’s wisdom is often at work in ways deeper than we can know. For example, when I came here three years ago, there were some projects that I left unfinished at my previous parish, and out of pridefulness it was bittersweet for me to leave there with those things undone. But the pastor who followed me has been doing amazing work at accomplishing those things – much better than I could have done – and all in the midst of a pandemic. God truly does know better than us what is best for us.

Today’s Gospel shows how the first disciples learned this. When Jesus tells them that he had to return to the Father, surely they wondered, “Why?”. Couldn’t he just stay with them? Jesus knows, however, that the disciples must be made ready for the mission he will give to them, and that for him to continue to be present to them in the way that he had been wouldn’t actually be what’s best for them. What they need is God’s presence in a new, intensified, and expanded way. What they need is the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Trinity (c. 1650) by Antonio de Pereda y Salgado

The Holy Spirit’s coming is also best for the disciples in another way. He enlightens their minds to show them at last the fullness of who God is – a Trinity of Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All that they will do thereafter will be, in some way or another, a proclamation of this deepest mystery, the Most Blessed Trinity. The words they preached, the signs they performed, even ultimately in the witnesses of their deaths – the disciples will do all of them with the aim of helping others to know and love the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the way that they do.

The same is true here. Just as he did for those first disciples, the Holy Spirit will continue to lead and guide this community. He will be active in your new pastor, Fr. Babu, who is excited to get to know you and to work with you. He will teach you about Jesus in new and profound ways, and with different gifts than I had. The Holy Spirit will also be active in the new deacon of our parish, Deacon Greg Fischer. He doesn’t speak Spanish – not yet, you can help him to learn! – but he knows that he has been ordained for service to our whole parish, and so he is happy to help you in whatever way he can. I hope that he will be able to occasionally help at this Mass, too, so that he can show you by presence if not in word, that he is ready to serve you as well, in the model of Christ the Servant.

And finally, perhaps most importantly of all, I know that the Holy Spirit will continue to be active in and through you. He’s calling you as disciples to continue to proclaim Jesus in the world, just as he did the first disciples. You may preach with different words; you may perform different signs in your daily labors; you may lay down your lives differently than they did – but the love of the Most Holy Trinity who is behind all, who is the foundation of all, is the same. And if you trust in his guidance, in his Providence, the Holy Spirit will lead you into all truth.

Brothers and sisters, it has been an honor to have been a part of this parish family, and I look forward to when God’s Providence will arrange for us to see each other again. In the meantime, let’s pray that we all may remain strengthened by the Holy Spirit and united always in the one family of the Church. May all that we do, as priests and people, be a proclamation of the love of the Most Blessed Trinity, and an offering of love to the same – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

The Divine Guest

Hospitality is a hallmark of the Christian faith. And it always has been – from the Church’s earliest days, when the only place where believers could worship safely was in the homes of wealthy widows, to the modern day, when we challenge ourselves to open our hearts as widely as we open our homes or our wallets to those in need. Whether it’s potlucks or parish mission trips, the motivation is the same: we serve others because in others we encounter Christ. God is truly present in those around us.

But is that all? Is God’s presence only found in others, or is it also within ourselves? It might seem to border on blasphemy to say we can look for the divine within. To be sure, there are plenty of New Age-y ideas along that line that don’t correspond at all with our beliefs. At the same time, it has always been a hallmark of the Christian faith that, in the one who believes, God himself comes to dwell by grace.

Vigil Mass: In today’s Gospel, we hear this very idea, when Jesus references the Holy Spirit whom he will give as a gift to the one who comes to him. We might be familiar with imagining the Holy Spirit as a dove or a flame descending from heaven, but here Jesus uses the image of a spring of living water, welling up in the heart of the one who believes in him; more than a spring, in fact – “rivers of living water” flowing out from within, that nourish and satisfy the spiritual thirst of the believer. Who wouldn’t want that?

Mass of the Day: If we had any questions along this line, today’s first reading removes all doubt. In the account from the Acts of the Apostles, the disciples are gathered together in one place, ten days after the Ascension of Jesus. And then, like a rushing wind, like tongues of fire, the Holy Spirit comes into their midst – and not just into their midst, collectively, but comes to rest upon each of them, *within* them individually. As we are told, it is the power of the Holy Spirit *inside* each of the disciples that enables them to speak in different languages, so that the Gospel message could be proclaimed to all.'

Jean II Restout, Pentecost (1732)

And so, the answer is *YES* – God can be found within us, when by grace, through faith, the presence of the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within us. It’s an amazing idea – a little unsettling even, if you think about it – but also one that should give us great confidence and joy. For as much as we respect the presence of God in others, through service and hospitality, even more so we can draw great strength from the Gift who is also a Divine Person, who aids us, guides us, consoles us, and gives us strength.

How do we receive this Divine Guest? The Church teaches that he comes first in our baptism; the same Spirit who moved over the face of the waters at the dawn of creation moves into us through the washing of water and floods our souls with his redeeming grace. The Spirit comes again in our Confirmation to renew and seal us with the grace of Christ. And he comes to us in other ways, too – by our prayers, by the graces of our vocations – to strengthen us with his sevenfold Gifts: wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord.

Mass of the Day: In just a few moments, these gifts will be given right here in our midst, when four members of our community – who by the grace of their baptism have heard the voice of the Holy Spirit drawing them to seek the fullness of God’s grace here in our community – will be received into the Church and confirmed. In that moment, what happened in that first Pentecost will happen in this one: the Holy Spirit will descend upon them. Though invisible to our eyes, they will bear the Presence of God in a new way within their souls, and so be ready to at last join us in receiving for the first time the Lord’s Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist. It’s with great joy that we welcome them into the fullness of our Catholic faith.

So, the Holy Spirit comes to us – comes *within* us with his gifts. What then are we to do? What does this Divine Guest, who makes his home within us, urge us to do? Exactly what he called those first disciples to do: to be witnesses of Jesus to the world. As Christians, we believe that the world needs Jesus. It needs his love, his peace, his truth; we are given countless reminders of this, all the time. But we also say that, as Christians, we will proclaim Jesus in the world, that we will show the world his love, his peace, his truth – not by our own powers, but by the presence of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us. And we pray that through him, through the Spirit moving in and working through us, the presence of God will be made known – so that others may encounter him, come to believe in him, and through faith receive themselves his redeeming Presence within.

Friends, on this great Day of Pentecost, let’s make space within ourselves anew, to welcome the Divine Guest who comes to us with the grace of Christ to make us his witnesses in the world. Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them – in us – the fire of your love.

Sunday, May 29, 2022

All Shall Be Well

The weather has been gorgeous this weekend, just perfect for late May. It made me think of a poem about spring by Robert Browning. It’s very short, so I thought I’d share it:

The year's at the spring
And day's at the morn;
Morning's at seven;
The hillside's dew-pearled;
The lark's on the wing;
The snail's on the thorn:
God's in His heaven—
All's right with the world!

We all know the feeling Mr. Browning had when he wrote that, even if we haven’t expressed it poetically as he did. When we look out at the beauty of the nature, the splendor of the world around us, we might well be moved to say: “God’s in His heaven – All’s right with the world!”

But is that right? We see shocking, horrific events, like the school shooting in Texas this past week. We endure the sorrows of illness and the passing of loved ones. We struggle under private burdens and crosses, those perhaps unseen or unappreciated by others. We know the weight of our own sinfulness and experience the grief and loss of not always being what God calls us to be. It seems there are lots of things we could point to, and say, “Look here, Mr. Browning – clearly, the world is not all right!”

However, I think he spoke more truly than he knew. For the person of faith, there is a sense in which all is right with the world – namely, because “God’s in His heaven.” Because God reigns on high, we can believe that he sees everything, and so is taking care of everything, and so everything will be alright. It may sound like naivete, especially when have to face those really difficult sufferings and sorrows; but in fact, it is a truth of deep faith. Everything is okay. Yes, the world is not all good, all true, or all beautiful – but God is, and in the end, he will make all things like himself.

In the account from Acts in today’s first reading, the disciples ask Jesus if he is now going to restore the kingdom to Israel. They are ready for Jesus, having died and risen again, to now at last settle all scores, to right every wrong, to show openly his kingship over all the earth. Much to their surprise, perhaps, Jesus instead ascends to heaven – not to ignore their request, but to show them that he’s going to fulfill it in a far greater way than they could have imagined. Ascending to his Father’s right hand, Jesus shows them he is Lord of heaven and earth, the Lord of all time and history, who will return in glory to restore all of creation, with judgment and justice. God is in his heaven, but he will return one day to make all things like himself.

The Ascension of Christ (1912) – St. Stephen's Church, Bilwisheim, France

And until that time, Jesus gives his disciples a mission: he sends them to be his “witnesses” to the world. He wants all “the ends of the earth” to have the chance to know about him and believe in him as they do – so that our lives can, through him, may become more true, good, and beautiful. This is the mission of the Church, of all of us, still today – to give witness to the Good News of Jesus. A witness gives testimony about what is true, and as Jesus’s witnesses, we testify to his truth. By our words, actions, our whole manner of life, we give testimony that, despite the darkness and dysfunction that still hold so much sway in the world around us, Jesus truly reigns in heaven.

Often, the best way to give testimony to the Lord’s truth is by enduring our sorrows with hope, faith, and charity. In a culture where we often don’t know the value of sacrifice, we might be tempted to look upon our sufferings as signs that God has forgotten us, or is angry with us, or isn’t responding to our needs. But the opposite is often true – the Father often permits sufferings to those whom he most loves, because by them he draws us to know the love of Son more fully and to rely completely upon it, and not the things of this world. If we can unite what we suffer to the Lord’s Cross, then not only do we store up our treasure in heaven, rather than on earth, but we can have the confidence to work in building up God’s kingdom while also knowing that he has it all in hand.

So, friends, despite what external appearances might tell us – whether in the world around us, or closer to home – all is right because all will be *made* right, because the Lord Jesus who ascended to heaven will one day return. For the present, we must continue to hope and to have faith, but we can believe that a time known to him, in a way that only he knows, God will put all things right in the end. Or, put another way, to use the words of Jesus himself, as quoted to the mystic Julian of Norwich: in the end, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Ticket to Heaven

The word “apocalyptic” probably conjures up in our minds all kinds of negative images: wars, famines, natural disasters. Sometimes we use the word as a synonym for things that are catastrophic, cataclysmic, world-ending.

Interestingly, though, the Bible shows something different. At the end of time, after the wars and plagues and everything else, something else – something good – will be unveiled as the final reality of all things. Today’s second reading tells us what it is: the New Jerusalem. We hear it described in symbolic terms: golden streets, jeweled walls, twelve pearled gates, and no lamp except the light of the glory of God, coming forth from the Lamb. It is with the unveiling of this glorious city that the Bible ends, with God dwelling in the midst of his chosen People finally, for all time. Far from an apocalypse of doom, the New Jerusalem shows us what heaven will be like.

The Celestial City and the River of Bliss (1841) by John Martin

But how do we reach it? That’s the million-dollar question, because the Bible also says that not everyone will be found worthy to inhabit the New Jerusalem. In fact, the Book of Revelation describes the various trials by which the true members of Israel, the people of God, will be identified and confirmed to be worthy to dwell with God in his city. This notion turns on its head the traditional understanding of what it meant to be part of Israel. In ancient Jewish law, it was very clear who was part of the people of God: only those who had received circumcision, or for women, those who were part of their families. This created something of a problem for the early believers in Jesus, as they began to distinguish their Christian identity from their Jewish roots. Was it necessary to be circumcised in order to be saved? Did one have to be ritually Jewish in order to believe in Jesus and hope to dwell in the New Jerusalem?

The answer that the apostles gave, as we heard in today’s first reading, was “No” – one did not have to follow Jewish ritual laws in order to be a Christian. Instead, the early Church came to believe that the people of God could be distinguished in another way – not with a physical mark but a spiritual one. To be a member of God’s people, they decided, it wasn’t necessary to be circumcised in the body but it *was* necessary to be circumcised in the heart, in the soul. In fact, Saint Paul and others use this language in reference to what God had said he would do in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy: that he would purify their hearts so they would love him, follow his commands, and so live.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of the same thing: love, discipleship, and eternal life are all intertwined. To get to heaven, we must love God, and we show that we love God by following his commands. It’s for this reason that Jesus promises to send help to his disciples – not just help, but a Helper, an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who “will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” This Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Father and the Son, literally dwells within the souls of believers. So – it is by the very presence of God that we are circumcised in the heart, purified and made ready for the heavenly kingdom. In fact, it was because they discerned this divine presence of the Holy Spirit in Gentile believers, non-Jews, that the apostles made the decision that they did: that it was not necessary to be circumcised in order to be a Christian.

So, how do we get to the city where God dwells? By allowing God to make his dwelling within us now. It’s the presence of the Holy Spirit that is the true dividing line between those who will and won’t get to share in the heavenly Jerusalem, and Jesus is very clear that that presence comes only to those who share in his life, who participate in his love, and who follow his commands. The Christian religion is often criticized, and Catholicism, particularly, for placing lots of demands on its adherents – for requiring us to believe certain ideas, and abide by certain principles, and perhaps most difficult, *not* to do certain things that we may want to, or which worldly culture tells us is okay. However, these requirements are not arbitrary – there is a purpose for them, and that is to guide us in the truth. To live by God’s commandments, to follow the teachings of our faith – that’s the path to the New Jerusalem, Jesus says. And for those who do so, we have the presence of the Holy Spirit within us to guide us, to console us in difficult moments, and to be in the end, the very ticket to get us into the pearly gates.

Friends, Jesus promises peace to his disciples – to us. Let’s invoke that peace today, in whatever struggle we are facing, in whatever truth of our faith or teaching of our Church might be giving us some difficulty, in whatever area of healing we need. Perhaps that challenge, whatever it is, will be the very thing that will get us one day to the New Jerusalem – if we endure, and stay faithful, and find our peace in the way that the Lord gives it to us, not as the world does. May the presence of the Holy Spirit be renewed within each of us this day, to purify our hearts and guide our steps unto the heavenly kingdom.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

The Big Takeaway

Every preacher has a certain style, and I imagine by now most of you have become accustomed to mine. Typically, I begin a homily with some common starting point: an experience or observation with which we’re all familiar, or occasionally a story or rhetorical question. And then from there I try to make a connection to our readings, to see what lesson or insight is contained therein that God wants us to hear for our lives now. And hopefully, by the end, there is some takeaway for us in the present moment.

This week I didn’t have to work too hard in coming up with a connection, because as soon as I read the words: “I will be with you only a little while longer,” I knew what the Lord wanted me to talk about. Many of you have heard by now, but for those who haven’t, I announced this week that I’ll be leaving our parish next month to begin a new full-time ministry in Little Rock. It is bittersweet for me. On the one hand, I don’t want to leave; I have come to love you all and this community. On the other, this is the life to which I have committed myself and this the test of the promise of obedience that I made to our bishop when I was ordained. So while I am certainly sad to be leaving you, in a real sense, my life and ministry are not my own. They are God’s, and He, through the bishop, guides me where he needs me to go.

But still, that means that I’ll be leaving Holy Rosary, and that brings sadness for me and perhaps in the short term for you too. That’s understandable, but we shouldn’t allow it to keep us from hearing what the Lord wants us to hear in this present moment, and I think he has some important words for us in our Gospel today. With a pastoral change taking place, how fitting it is that we should hear this passage, in which Jesus gives his disciples his final instructions. This is the big takeaway he wants to leave with them, what sums up everything he has taught them, by word and example — this new commandment to love, to love as he has loved them, to love sacrificially as he will show them on the Cross.

This one message sums up our Christian faith, and it is at the heart of everything we do. It is the foundation of everything about our parish: every Mass offered, every homily preached, every Bible study or catechism class held, every community gathering or potluck dinner, every child enrolled in our school. And it should be the foundation of everything about our family lives and individual lives, too: all of our labors, goals, efforts, sorrows, hopes, dreams – the purpose for all of them should be to help us to live out Jesus’s commandment to love others in the way that he loved us. It’s such a simple idea and yet we know living it out is not so simple, which is why we have to work at it, every day, every moment, examining our efforts, looking hard at ourselves to see whether we are really fulfilling it.

Alexander Ivanov, Leaving the Last Supper (c. 1850)

The good news is that Jesus doesn’t just command this of us, and then leave us on our own; he’s at work among us to help us carry it out. He is at work in the priest, who offers prayer and sacrifice to God on our behalf, who communicates the grace of Jesus in the sacraments, and who helps demonstrate his love by means of service. I am grateful to God for how he has allowed me to serve our community these past three years, even as I recognize I have done so imperfectly. But I am excited for you that in mid-June you will have a new shepherd, one who will model the love of Christ in a different way, with his own unique talents and gifts. The new pastor, Fr. Babu Battula, will be coming to our parish from India, and so much like Paul and Barnabas in the first reading, he is coming to us as a missionary, to proclaim the Good News and to help us to live it more faithfully. Fortunately, Fr. Babu also has plenty of experience of serving in Arkansas, and with many of the dynamics that make up our parish, so I feel confident that his wisdom and experience will be a blessing. That’s not to say that there won’t be a time of transition; Fr. Babu will have his own style, his own way of giving homilies and in handling other things. But if you trust in the Lord’s faithfulness, and look for where he is present, I am sure that soon enough you will see his hand at work.

If Jesus is at work in every priest, then he is also at work even more importantly in and through the people – that is, through you. The priest might lead the parish for a few years, but you *are* the parish, and to recognize that fact is to begin to see how Jesus calls you to love as he loved. I know our community here has had a succession of several pastors the last decade or so, and that has its challenges, which you have dealt with in patient and resilient ways. Still, with another change on the horizon, there might be a temptation to pull back or to become dispirited, and I want to encourage you not to give in to that feeling. There are a lot of exciting things on the horizon right now, and even opportunities for growth, and those don’t have to change, even if the pastor will. I’ll be working to help Fr. Babu catch up to speed on where we’re at, but you can do that, too, just as you did for me three years ago. Trust that the Lord is at work through you, and seek to love as he loved, and he will take care of the rest.

Friends, I look forward to these next few weeks with you, and I hope you will remind me as I remind you of what is most important for all of us: to keep loving Jesus, and to keep striving to fulfill his command of loving others – each other, Fr. Babu, everyone we encounter – in the way that Jesus has loved us. Let’s let that be the big takeaway for all of us, not just for this homily, but in all that we do – the Lord’s new commandment to live out newly each day.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Helpers to Holiness

A very happy and blessed Mother’s Day to all of you! I always find it something of a happy coincidence that this secular holiday falls during the joyful Easter season. I’m sure you agree that it wouldn’t be as nice to honor our mothers if we were all in the middle of the penitential practices of Lent. It’s also nice that Mother’s Day falls during May, the month traditionally dedicated to our Blessed Mother. We remember Mary, as well, on this Mother’s Day, honoring her as our heavenly Mother and we commend our earthly mothers to her protection and intercession.

There are some years, like this one, when Mother’s Day falls on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, also known as Good Shepherd Sunday, because of the Gospel we hear always on this day. The Sunday of the Good Shepherd is also always the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, and I’d like to say a little more about that last one. It’s probably less familiar to you than Good Shepherd Sunday, and certainly less so than Mother’s Day, but I think it gives us a good way of connecting the two. We honor our mothers because we are grateful for their example of love and devotion. But motherhood is also a vocation – that is, a calling from God to live out our Christian faith in a particular way. Mothers, and fathers, united together in marriage, commit themselves to mutual service and sacrifice, to each other and to their children. In this way, they become images of Jesus and the love that he has for the Church. And indeed, through their witness and the formation of their family, Christian mothers and fathers help to build up that Church and lead their children to Jesus the Good Shepherd.

Marriage and parenthood is the vocation most familiar to us, but there are others too, and it is to these that the Church especially draws our attention today. Male and female religious dedicate themselves to lives of prayer and service, removing themselves in some way from the rhythms of the world in order to begin living now the life of the kingdom of heaven. Those in other forms of consecrated life, such as secular institutes or consecrated virginity, are active in the world, working jobs, etc., but having personally devoted themselves to lives of prayer, obedience, and celibacy. And there are those of us called to ordained ministry – priests and deacons – who serve the family of the Church as spiritual fathers, teaching and preaching, ministering to those in need, and especially offering sacrifice and prayers to God on behalf of all his people.

All of these vocations are essential and interconnected, and we should speak about them to each other – especially to our children and young people – so that they can discover what God is calling them to. He uses the different vocations as unique instruments aimed at the same purpose – to help us, to help all the world come to know and love his Son, Jesus Christ. As the Lord Jesus tells us in the Gospel today, God the Father has sent him to be our Shepherd, to hear his voice and follow him, as he leads us back to the Father. That is Jesus’s purpose, that is the purpose of the Church, and you might say that is the purpose for any of our lives too – for our identities and our vocations that the Lord calls us to. Spouses and parents form and raise children to know and love God; monks and nuns pray for us and on behalf of the good of all the world; priests and deacons serve the spiritual needs of the faithful and encourage them to live their faith with boldness in the world. All of these have value; none of them are more necessary than any other. And even if our lives don’t fall neatly into one of the traditional vocational callings, God still calls us to play an active role in helping each other to holiness.

This may all sound very serene in theory, but as any mother can tell you, every vocation has its ups and downs, its joys and challenges. In a certain sense, God intends it that way. In calling us to follow Jesus, he asks us to grow in our identity with his Son, our Shepherd. That means, on the one hand, finding purpose, fulfillment, and peace in our vocations, but also accepting that times of sorrow and suffering will come too. After all, Jesus the Good Shepherd is also the Lamb of God who was slain for our sins, and so our Christian lives and vocations will not be immune from sharing in his Cross. We see this most fully in the life of Mary. She who was Mother to our Lord, the Good Shepherd, was also called to share in his Cross – not by undergoing it but by sharing in it spiritually. In that way, her sufferings were joined to those of her Son and so became redemptive. So too, we, if we see our lives through the eyes of faith, we can find meaning in the challenges of our vocations, whether motherhood or whatever else. Our sufferings can be redemptive for us, in that way that they conform us more fully to Jesus himself. In that way, every moment – even the very challenging ones – has an infinite spiritual worth, if we are but willing to see it and accept it for what it is.

Friends, in his message for today’s World Day of Prayer for Vocations, Pope Francis said this:

"As Christians, we do not only receive a vocation individually; we are also called together. We are like the tiles of a mosaic. Each is lovely in itself, but only when they are put together do they form a picture. ‘Vocation’, then, it is not just about choosing this or that way of life… It is about making God’s dream come true, the great vision of fraternity that Jesus cherished when he prayed to the Father ‘that they may all be one’ (Jn 17:21)."

As we honor for our mothers today, and as we pray those serving or those called to serve in other vocations in the Church, may we recognize how God has given us, in each vocation, in each person, a help toward holiness. May our Blessed Mother Mary help us to live out faithfully the vocation that Jesus the Good Shepherd has called us to, and may we find in it always a way of hearing his voice and following him more faithfully, so that he may lead us to our Father in heaven.

Sunday, May 1, 2022

Let's Try Again

For young children, when they just can’t quite learn a new skill or grasp a difficult concept, it’s likely that sooner or later they’ll hear: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” That famous proverb also works the other way, though, as you know if you’ve ever had to teach young children. The first attempt to teach or explain something often doesn’t go over great, but if you keep working at it – if you keep trying – then usually children begin to catch on.

And not just children, but grown-ups too, as we hear in our Gospel today. For the third time now following his Resurrection, the disciples encounter the Risen Jesus. For so long, in his earthly life, he had been their Teacher and Master, and now, in his Resurrected life, it seems they are slow to catch on to what he wishes to impart to them. He came to them first on Easter Sunday evening, as we heard in last week’s Gospel, wishing them peace and offering them reconciliation. And then he appeared again a week later in the same place, as Thomas, who was present this time, was moved from unbelief to belief. And yet, as we hear today, it seems the disciples still are not quite sure what to make of this new reality of the Resurrection. They have gone back to what is familiar to them – back to their home region of Galilee, back to their prior occupation of fishing.

Isn’t that the way with us sometimes? When we encounter difficulty, when we struggle with some new reality in life, often we tend to revert back to what is safe and familiar. Even worse, sadness, confusion, and loss can often leave us spiritually yearning, and in our desire to be filled, we can turn to those things which occupy us but which don’t really satisfy – like spiritual junk food, if you will. Simon Peter and the other disciples turned to fishing, but maybe we turn to gossip, occupying our attention with the affairs of everyone else; or perhaps to dwelling on our resentments and grudges, brooding about who has slighted us or in what areas we feel wronged; or maybe to overindulging in sensible pleasures, like food or drink; or maybe it’s the internet, social media, hours spent watching nothing good on TV or online. Whether it’s in these things, or even others that are worse, when we seek to fill ourselves up, we will find what Simon Peter and the disciples found trying to fish – that there is nothing there good to eat, and we come away with even greater yearning than we had before.

James Tissot, Christ Appears on the Shore of Lake Tiberias (c. 1890)

Often, however, it is in just these moments that the Lord comes to us anew. Just as he was for the disciples, he is an ever-patient Teacher for us, not giving up on us, but always trying again to help us to see the newness of life that comes only through him. When we have understood again that what is tired and old does not satisfy us, he makes his presence known, often not directly but standing on the shore of our lives, close enough to be perceived but not so near as to be obtrusive. He wants us to seek him, with boldness and urgency, as Simon Peter does, but he also won’t force us to do so. He offers us newness of life, the brightness of the morning that dawns beyond the reach of sin and death, but it must be we who make the choice for him. And we must make that choice again and again, especially when we fall and fail, never losing heart at where we don’t succeed but trying again and again through the love and mercy Jesus continually offers us.

“Do you love me?” That’s the question the Lord asks Simon Peter in the Gospel, and he asks it of us too. He keeps asking it, each day, because each day the love that he gives must be accepted anew, and in the light of his Resurrection it is only in our friendship with him that our lives find their fullness of meaning. May we be attuned to where the Risen Lord is present on the horizon of our lives, standing on the shore – calling to us, patiently teaching us, inviting not to turn back to what is old and tired, but to turn more fully to him, to come and share more deeply in the abundance of his life.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Encountering Mercy

“For the sake of his sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world”.

For the past nine days, those words have been said millions of times, as Catholics throughout the world have prayed the Divine Mercy Novena in preparation for today, Divine Mercy Sunday. Beginning on Good Friday and concluding today, the Chaplet of Divine Mercy has been recited as a way of prayerfully reflecting upon the mysteries of our salvation. The Divine Mercy Chaplet is a private devotion – it’s not an official prayer of the Church. But it does encapsulate well what these Easter days invite us to do: to reflect upon what Jesus experienced – his Passion, Death, and Resurrection – and then in light of that invoke God’s blessing upon ourselves.

We tend to think of God’s mercy in relation to our sins. For example, at the beginning of each Mass, we call to mind the times we have failed to love God and one another, and we invoke God’s mercy collectively in the form of asking for his forgiveness (and in turn, the forgiveness of one another). It’s true that forgiveness is the principal aspect of mercy, but mercy goes deeper than that, especially when we are talking about the Divine Mercy. The mercy of God isn’t just about pardoning our offenses; it also heals us, and elevates us, and gives us the strength of grace in the places we need it most. We might say that mercy, all-encompassing, is God’s way of meeting our needs in the present moment and drawing us ever closer to himself as our final end.

It is important to recognize that God’s mercy always comes to us through Jesus. We are able to make supplication to God and invoke his mercies because of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of his Son. Through those saving mysteries of our faith, the Risen Jesus becomes the instrument of mercy for us – his humanity, once dead but now resurrected, bridges the gap between God’s divinity and our humanity. In other words, it’s through the Risen Body of Jesus that we are saved.

Today’s Gospel gives us a beautiful depiction of exactly this. It’s the Risen Jesus who comes to the disciples, on the evening of Easter Sunday, not with vengeance or recrimination, but instead to bring them mercy. That mercy surely included forgiveness for the fact that they had abandoned him in his hour of need. But it also is given as something much deeper, as peace – “Peace be with you,” Jesus says to them. In the form of peace, the Divine Mercy of Jesus heals them, and restores the friendship they had with him, and finally raises that relationship to a whole new level, as Jesus calls them to become ministers of his mercy to others. And of course in the part of the Gospel that deals with Thomas, we see how it’s his encounter with the Risen Body of Christ that moves him from doubt to belief. For Thomas, the Lord’s Divine Mercy is something tangible, something living, not just given by but encountered through the Risen Body of Jesus.

Christ and the Doubting Thomas (c. 1480) by Luca Signorelli

All of this is relevant to us because, in every Mass, we encounter the same Risen Jesus that the disciples did in that upper room. Having called upon God’s mercy, as I mentioned earlier, we are then present, mystically, at the Lord’s Passion and Death in the Eucharistic sacrifice. And having received the Lord’s peace, and having exchanged a sign of that peace to each other, we then encounter the Risen Body of Jesus who communicates God’s mercy and peace to us. In the Eucharist, the Lord makes his own Presence the very font of Divine Mercy that heals us, restores us, and raises our friendship with him to new heights.

Friends, perhaps that prayer of the Divine Mercy Chaplet can become the prayer of each of us today: “For the sake of his sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.” Because God desires to give us his mercy by giving us an encounter with his Risen Son, who can heal and restore us in all the ways that we need it. Whether it is in the form of Holy Communion, or whether in some way, we need the grace of the Lord’s Divine Mercy to move us in the way that it moved Thomas and the other disciples, from fear to faith, from doubt to belief. Though we may not see the Lord’s Risen Body in the same way as the disciples did, we can encounter him here just as truly, just as intimately – and blessed are we if we believe that.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

A Love Stronger than Death

On Wednesday of this past week, I went over to our parish school to visit the religion class of our older students. I like to do that every so often as a way of interacting with them a bit more than I do during our weekly school Mass. I answered a few questions that they had left for me in their Questions for Father box; they wanted to know, among other things, what I like to watch on TV, what my favorite song is, and whether I preferred McDonald’s or Taco Bell. You know, the important stuff.

But really, my primary purpose in making a visit to their classroom was to ask them what they knew about Easter and about the events that led up to it that we as a Church have been celebrating for the last three days, a period we call the Sacred Triduum. We talked about how Jesus ate a final meal with his friends, a meal in which he washed their feet as a sign of his love and a commandment for them to follow. We talked about how he was betrayed by one of his friends, and was arrested, tried, and condemned to death. We talked about he took up a Cross, a terrible instrument of torture that he made into a sign of love and salvation. And we talked about how he was crucified on that Cross, died, and was laid in a tomb.

I asked the school kids: “Is that the end of the story?” And of course, they all earnestly replied, “NO!” And they’re right – it wasn't the end of that story. But while we know that, when those events were actually happening, that wasn’t apparent at all. We may experience the sorrow of Good Friday, but we also feel the tinge of joy that Easter Sunday is coming. But that wasn’t the case for Jesus’s disciples. Maybe they had a vague wisp of belief in something more to come – remembering the Lord’s promises, believing in God’s justice, hoping for the possibility to somehow be reconciled with him who many of them had denied and abandoned. But even if there was some glimmer of these things deep in their hearts, mostly there was just pain and confusion and grief and loss.

But there was also love. As this Gospel tells us, the women from Galilee who were his disciples, who had known him and supported him from the beginning of his ministry – they still had love for Jesus. He was dead and buried now, a big stone keeping him in and everyone else out; but no matter, they still loved him. It could only have been love that made them go out to the tomb that morning at daybreak – despite the danger of doing so, despite the terrifying events of the prior days, despite the seemingly definitive ending that is death – they went to show love to the dead body of their friend and Lord. And what did they find there? Not a dead body but an empty tomb, the huge stone rolled away. And they heard in the words of these two angelic men that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

Federico de Madrazo, The Three Marys at the Tomb (1841)

We are familiar with all of this. We know the basic details of the Easter story, at least as well the children of our school do. But what this simple, strange Gospel story invites us to consider is: do we know it as well as those women of Galilee? Has the message of Easter been made *real* for us? On that morning, those women found their love rewarded – matched by a Love from on high. In that light of dawn, those women of Galilee discovered that the heart of God is also full of love, and had done something they could not. Because the Resurrection of Jesus is not something to be only known about, or even only believed, but it’s something that must be loved. The love of the Risen Jesus is stronger than death.

And so, we must look more deeply into our hearts, to see what is in there that has brought us out on this morning. We knew that this Sunday would follow last Friday; we knew that the Easter season follows upon Lent. But the fact that we know what happened does not mean we really have *understood* it. There’s lots of reasons that can bring us to church on Easter morning: a sense of obligation, a family gathering, a fear that we would miss out. But the best reason to come and celebrate this day is because we can say that what is in our hearts is precisely what those women of Galilee had in theirs – love. Can I say that? Can you?

Friends, the Good News is that, no matter our answer, love is the reason we have come here this morning, because love is the reason that God has for us to be here. Just like he brought those women of Galilee to the empty tomb, to see and believe in the depths of his love, so too he has brought you here today. And he who is Love itself, he who once was dead but who now lives forever, he loves you and he wants to give his love to you, and to make you come to believe in him, just as those women did, with a love stronger than death. He invites you to begin anew this morning, to encounter his love not just at Easter, but every day, especially here in the Mass where he becomes truly Present.

As we prepare for this Eucharist, let us pray that this Sacrament might help our love for the Lord to grow each day, until that day when a love stronger than death will bring us to him in the glory of the Resurrection.

Friday, April 15, 2022

The Only Word

We all know what it’s like to be at a loss for words. But sometimes, there simply are no words adequate to the moment. That’s an uncomfortable thing to say as someone who makes his living preaching words to others, but I’ve thought of that more and more in the last several weeks, particularly in light of the war in Ukraine. It struck me in a particular way two weeks ago when I learned of the terrible loss of life in the town of Bucha, where civilians – non-combatants ­– were tortured, brutalized, and killed. I thought “There are no words for this.” For some tragedies, for some evils, there is simply nothing to say.

I imagine that feeling might be with many of us today, right now, having just heard again the Passion of Jesus. Twice in one week now, we have read the account of an innocent man tortured, brutalized, and killed. It’s a tough story to hear, even for a non-believer, but for us who do believe, it’s even harder, because we hear the prophecy of Isaiah and we see it fulfilled in Jesus: “it was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured; he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins.” Jesus, the Son of God, didn’t just die for us – he was killed by us, on account of our sins. When we begin to truly contemplate that, words fail us and we are reduced to silence.

And yet the purpose of today is not to feel deep sorrow, to be weighed down with shame, or even to be reduced to silence, but rather to hear the word that God speaks to us in the Cross. For while words may fail us, while we may not know what to say, God does – and the word he speaks to us is the Incarnate Word, his Son, dying out of love for us. In the Cross of Christ, we see reflected back at us all the ugliness of evil, all the nastiness of human hatred and jealousy, all the helplessness of death, and we see God’s answer to all of it – the love of his Son embracing all of it in order to take it away.

This is the deep mystery of today, the difficult truth that resists understanding. To contemplate that the Son of God died for us, for our sins, is a hard reality to stare in the face. But it’s even harder to understand that somehow that terrible death wasn’t the end of our relationship with God, but the fullest expression of his love, and the deepest sign that he could give that nothing can take that love away. That’s a mystery that truly defies explanation. It’s a truth that we must simply behold, in silence, and believe.

And if we do, we will see how, standing before the love of God revealed to us in the Cross of Christ, it is the only word we truly need. In the face of our sufferings and pains, our trials and tragedies, and above all our own deaths, all other words pass away, but this word remains. God offers this word to us still – he speaks it always – the word of his love, the word of his presence, the Eternal Word made Flesh, who suffered death this day out of love for us.