I once heard two Baptist ministers on TV say that anyone who does not profess Jesus to be his or her Lord and Savior is doomed to everlasting damnation. No exceptions. Innocent ignorance and good intentions notwithstanding, anyone who does not accept Jesus as the one and only Savior is condemned to everlasting torture.

Here we are once again with a Gospel reading that seems to say what we find impossible to accept, something we know to be unreasonable and untrue. You just heard the words attributed to Jesus by the Gospel writer, this time St. John, that whoever does not believe in Jesus as God’s only Son and the Savior of the world has already been condemned. What are we to make of such a statement? Well, I suggest that this is what we do with it:

1. We start with the fact that through the entire first century, the infant church did not have the bible that we have today; there was a word of mouth tradition, the faith being passed on from person to person and generation to generation under the leadership of the apostles and their successors. The church was like a classroom that had a teacher and an eager body of learners – but not yet a textbook. The formation of the Christian faith community came first; the textbook — the bible — was being developed and refined at the same time.

2. We admit that both the Old and the New Testaments contain many vengeful statements, as they are called, that sound hard, even cruel, and we realize that they have to be understood in the context of love. I think no one has expressed that better than the authors of the brilliant little book, Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God. Listen to this quote from page 13: “…we use vengeful punishment language all the time in our homes and families. Such statements are exaggerations (hyperbole) that can be safely used only in a context where everyone understands that they are not to be taken literally…”

Later on the authors say that when Jesus intervened in the about-to-take-place stoning of a woman accused of adultery, he was telling the scribes and Pharisees that they were not to interpret literally those words of Moses which commanded the violent execution of such a sinner.

3. We must read or hear the bible always with common sense! We can be sure that Jesus and the Spirit of God expect that of us. If I tell you that I am blue today, I assume you know that the comment has nothing to do with my skin color, but only with my mood. If you tell me that there were a million people at the dinner last night, I know you mean many, not a thousand thousand. Similar adjustments and accommodations that we make all the time must also be made when we are reading or hearing the ancient scriptures.

With these guidelines in mind, we can be certain that Jesus is not saying what the two ministers interviewed on TV claimed he was saying: that those who don’t know or follow Jesus are on their way to eternal damnation. No, what he was saying is that the first and most basic duty of every human being is to try to find the truth in all things and then to live by it, to look for the light and to walk toward it and then in it. Truth and light will lead us to goodness and love. Jesus is truth and light, and all persons, regardless of their religion, who make goodness and love the essential standards of their lives, walk in the company of Jesus, whether they recognize him or not.

Saints are in every religion – and many are in none! Let us love and respect one another, as Jesus wants us to.



I know very few people who appear to be incapable of rage. Some of them came to my mind as I was preparing this homily early this past week. But most of us, I think, have experienced the frustration of dealing with a person or an incident that just doesn’t yield to rational negotiation. We get “fed up to here”, as the expression has it, with a situation that has become unacceptable. We can, therefore, easily imagine Jesus lashing out, striking in every direction, yelling for all to hear, “Get out of here, all of you! You know as well as I do that this is the house of God, my Father’s house. And you are dishonoring it, using it for your own selfish, sinful gain! Get out of here and stay out!”

We feel Jesus’ righteousness and we cheer him on.

But why did St. John and the other three Gospel writers choose to include this event in their writings about Jesus — especially this early in their manuscripts? (John’s gospel, for example, has 21 chapters, and this incident occurs in only Chapter 2.)

Many reasons have been suggested, but my favorite is that Jesus was saying something about himself and the Jewish religion of his day that was very important to him. What he is saying is that he is not merely trying to purify what already exists in Jewish religion by, for example, driving out from the temple the merchants and their wares; rather, he is declaring that the temple and all its functions and rituals have been replaced by himself! He is the “place” of true worship now! The temple had been built by human labor and through it people sought union with God. But now, God had built the temple — the very person of Jesus — and only by entering him can anyone experience the fullest possible union with the One he called Father.

Analyze the context of the story: Jesus angrily confronts the money-changers. Their business was to take the Gentile money that worshipers brought with them and, for a fee, to exchange it for coins that were acceptable for use at the temple. In attacking this practice, Jesus was abolishing the ban against non-Jews and making it clear that everyone is welcome in the new temple that was himself!

No favorites, no exclusion, no separation — just people making up but one family united in him.

He drives out the cattle and the sheep, the animals that would be sacrificed in the temple worship. Another revolutionary statement not from his mouth but from his mind and his actions: “Animals are no longer necessary at the altar. You can commune with the invisible God with and through me,” he was telling them. His perfectly truthful and loving life would incite hatred and vengeance in evil hearts, and he would soon enough be slaughtered like a lamb — not as a human sacrifice to a presumably offended God, but to satisfy the blood-thirst of those who hated him and wanted him destroyed. His very presence was both a threat and a rebuke to them.

They asked him to justify what he was doing and saying among them — things they had never heard before. Who do you think you are?, they asked. He gave a puzzling answer: “Tear this temple down, and I will rebuild it in three days.” Looking back, we realize that he was referring to his coming death and resurrection. They thought he was a madman, talking that way.

The passage ends disturbingly, not with the “good news” we are accustomed to hearing. Instead we are told that he could not bring himself to trust the people who had come to believe in him. Why? Because he knew what was really in their hearts. Their faith wasn’t deep enough: it was merely amazement at what he was saying and doing — a momentary, fleeting Yes to what he was offering to ease the burden of their shabby lives. It wasn’t the solid commitment, including the possibility of suffering, he was looking for.

There could well be something of them in us, too. We do believe; but in what areas of our lives are we not really sure that Jesus is the way?


Two persons I was once helping to prepare for their wedding and the marriage that would follow were explaining to me the status of their religious life. The young man admitted that he wasn’t much of a church-goer and that he was finding it increasingly difficult to relate to his Catholic faith and remain a practicing member of a parish. He went on to describe a time in his life, not very long ago, he said, when he was experiencing real joy, looking forward to Sunday Mass and Communion and faithfully living up to his obligations as a Catholic. He said, with obvious nostalgia, that God seemed so present to him in those years, implying that he did not know how or why things had changed so much for him and that he missed the warmth and beauty of it all.

It sounded to me that he was talking about the happiest years of his life up to that point.

And then he added, “You know, I think about those days a lot. And, even when I’m not going to church (as I am not now) and am having all kinds of doubts about religion, the memory of those days keeps me going and won’t let me give up.”

I listened with intense interest, as you can well imagine, and tried to confirm his hope by asking, “Do you know what you’ve just described to me and your-wife-to-be? I call it a ‘peak experience’, a crystal clear awareness of an important truth so convincing to you, so totally satisfying, that it remains with you even when you are doubting, as you tell me you are now.”

That’s what the three apostles seem to have had with Jesus in the phenomenon so dramatically described in the gospel passage today: a peak experience. He was the carpenter’s son to them, surprisingly knowledgeable, uncommonly good, but still, the man from Galilee, who showed every human frailty that they did — except evil. And then, either in a powerful moment of grace, as the writers of the gospel put it, or by a gradual accumulation of many revealing signs over their years together, they recognized in him the deepest reality of his being as the one who would be called “Son of God”.

Despite this enlightening epiphany, it would not be long before they would doubt and deny him and betray him out of fear for their own lives. They would heatedly disagree about what he had actually said and what he meant by what he said. But the memory of that new and different vision of him would never leave them, no matter what. They would continue trying to understand him and his message more fully and to join their lives with his. And we have learned through hindsight that they succeeded.

Is it not the same with us? Whatever the reason —emotional, physical, spiritual — we sometimes find ourselves with a less than enthusiastic attitude toward God, the church, faith and worship. It can be a time of dryness for us, a time of doubt and lack of confidence that makes us feel as though we were in a dark and depressing place.

Now is the time for us to acknowledge the possibility that we may be there again in the years ahead. So I suggest that this would be a good time for us to recall those occasions when we were absolutely certain that God was very close to us, that God was in was, loving and caring for us and others dear to us — realizations that no one could ever persuade us to deny.

We are not, after all, very different from those privileged apostles, because no less advantage has been granted to us. In our own ways , we have also “seen” God!


Just before Mass yesterday, I shared with the congregation a letter I had written to Senator Cory Booker and urged them to join me with a personal appeal of their own. Please consider doing the same.

Senator Cory Booker
359 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Senator Booker:

I appeal to you with confidence because I believe in you as a principled man with a compassionate heart.

I write on behalf of the “Dreamers”.

My father was an immigrant to America, who created a successful textile business and raised and educated three sons and a daughter.

Please give the Dreamers a chance to succeed, as we have, in the only country they know and love.

Father Richard G. Rento


How will Lent go for us this year? What will be the result of the journey? What are we willing to put into it? How firmly do we believe that the return will be worthwhile?

As it has for the past 11 centuries or so, Lent began with ashes once again just a few days ago. Ashes smudged on our foreheads in the form of a cross with spoken words like, “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” Or “Repent of your sins and hear the good news of Jesus.” Or some other expression of basic belief in God and in Jesus, God’s Revealer.

That’s probably the most obvious significance of the ashes: that we are not our own creators and that we are destined to die. That sounds pessimistic, but the pessimism is overcome by the optimism of the one giving the ashes and the one receiving them, both of whom know that the power of death is ultimately an illusion because of the Love that is God.

Five or so years ago, after a full day of Lenten ritual, I watched the news on TV. There was a panel of four persons on a major channel, one of whom, I think a Congressperson, had the black cross on his forehead. I don’t recall ever seeing that before or since. I couldn’t help but wonder what his personal faith was: what did he intend by appearing before millions of people so unmistakably marked?

Over the years of my life, I have picked up many insights concerning the meaning of the ashes, and therefore of Lent itself. Two in particular I have held onto. One I got from a female Protestant minister, Rev. Cari Keith, from my home town of Clifton, NJ, a lovely young woman whose theology, I quickly discovered, was very much like mine. She said that the ashes should remind us of the promise that God is always at work in us, breathing new life into what she called our burnt-up, dried out, dead places – our “I wish I hads” and our “I wish I hadn’ts” — the places where we hurt and fear and are just plain worn out.

And then there was the gift of another young woman, who writes regularly for the Catholic press. Jamie Manson is her name. In anticipation of one Lent, she wrote about the ashes, for which, she admitted, she no longer had had any desire. But then, after her “ah-ah” reaction to one particular scene in the movie, The Descendants, she came to see that – and now I will quote her words verbatim – “The symbol of ashes reminds us of our finiteness, and our finiteness reminds us of the urgency of transforming our hearts and minds.”

That’s what Lent is for: to shake us up and urge us to THINK – think about what needs to be changed in what have become unquestioned, taken-for-granted habits of our life. The prayer of Lent could well begin there: “Spirit of God within me, help me to see myself more clearly, more honestly. Help me to confront myself, maybe as others who most love me want to confront me and cannot succeed because I will not hear them. Illuminate the most important, most sacred relationships of my life so that I may see them as they really are and want to remove from them anything that hurts someone I love and who loves me. Give me the courage to risk the pain I may at first be inflicting upon myself and to summon the patience that will take me — take us — to the incomparable joy and peace of reconciliation.”


I wish you a graced and good Lent.


Reason tells us that some of what we read in Scripture simply cannot, in and of itself, be God’s word. Consider some glaring examples –

Exodus 35:2 unequivocally states that anyone who works on the Sabbath day should be put to death.

Leviticus 25:44 clearly endorses the purchasing of slaves, both male and female, from surrounding heathen nations.

Leviticus 11:10 forbids the eating of shellfish, like the shrimp I had this past week, on the grounds that it is an abomination.

In the Gospels we are cautioned that it is better to cut off our hands and pluck out our eyes rather than to sin with these body parts.

We are told that a star came to rest over the place where Jesus was born. The last time I looked, stars were fantastically large masses of gravitationally bound gases burning at millions of degrees Fahrenheit.

I’m sure you get the point – or at least the question. How can we say of these obvious falsehoods, these foolish, even immoral, instructions, that they are the word of God?? But then what does it mean that the Scriptures are inspired?

I am comfortable with this answer to the question: the wisdom of God finds even our human stupidity, our prejudices, our ignorance and lack of understanding useful in communicating fundamental truth to us – which is why we rarely stay on the surface of what we are reading or hearing, but rather dig down, sometimes way down, to encounter the message these words, these ideas – many of them false in themselves – carry for our benefit.

That’s why we can say that whether or not Jesus performed the miraculous cures the Gospel said he did outside the home of Peter’s mother-in-law isn’t important: the real intent of the narrative was to highlight for us the unconditional compassion of Jesus – and to invite us to act similarly in the circumstances of our life. The story, whether factual or fictional or both, is simply the vehicle that brought that overriding point to our attention.

So – the first reading today prescribes a social custom that we find cruel and inhumane: lepers are to live and be treated as total outcasts. We’ve moved beyond that attitude: courageous, compassionate persons among us care for lepers, build institutions to house them, honor them as fully human beings, and work toward their recovery. And that was Jesus’ attitude, as we discovered in the Gospel today.

Now don’t miss the impact of Jesus’ action: both the leper, who asked to be healed, and Jesus, who touched and spoke to him, were breaking the law. But they both knew that the limits that had been set by human authority could not have been endorsed by a merciful God, and so they dared publicly to defy those boundaries and move instead toward the horizon, where the love of God shone brightly and beckoned!

That’s what this clever arrangement of Scripture pieces has to do with today: choosing horizons over boundaries!

Think how many areas of our lives offer such choices. Let me suggest just a few:

Shall we protect the institution (church or state) at all costs, or shall we follow our consciences in the pursuit of what is right and just, allowing the chips to fall where they may?

Shall we, in the present world situation, be restricted by a narrow definition of patriotism and proceed obediently toward war, or shall we exercise our precious American freedom and resist what we believe to be wrong?

Shall we maintain a society of exclusiveness, keeping out those we don’t want in, or shall we, like Jesus, welcome all?

And so on…

It’s true: we do not find God’s word in some of the protective laws of a primitive people such as those who oppressed the innocent victims of leprosy; no, but we do find it by way of contrast with the example of Jesus – and in the change from one mindset to another, from darkness to light, the very change we are invited and empowered to undergo, if we are willing.


Personal statement from Dick Rento

Pope Francis has often spoken of the church as a very wide tent with room for all persons of good conscience and good will. Father James Martin is an American Jesuit priest who has written and spoken about welcoming homosexual persons into full and active membership in the church. A talk was scheduled for February 15 in Readington, NJ, but has been canceled because of angry protests from objectors.

People like me, who have friends and family members who are gay and lesbian, know how hurtful such an attitude can be.

I suggest and request that you keep this matter in your mind and heart as we begin this Sunday liturgy, praying that we may soon become the truly inclusive Christian community that Jesus wanted us to be.


Nine years ago, I received the following letter from an elderly parishioner, now deceased–

“Dear Father:

“Please ask God in your prayers to restore to me full recovery from a stroke I suffered many years ago. I need my left hand badly and have been praying 11 years and 6 months without results. So, if you favor me with your prayers, the Lord may just listen to a man of the cloth (!!). I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve such a penance and punishment from the Lord. If I knew that, I certainly would not do it again.”

Just think how revealing those words are. We learn that this good man believes that the troubles that have befallen him were given him by God. He also tells us that he hasn’t any idea why he has been so punished. He ends with the sad statement that, if only he did know what sins he committed to deserve his penalty, he would never commit them again.

He was a modern day Job, whose identical thinking was presented to us in today’s first reading. The saddest thing is that he is by no means unique among Christian believers. Dozens of times in my life as a priest I have been asked the very same thing: “Father, why is God doing this to me?” Or, “I know I must accept this cross, because it is God’s will for me.” And I have answered time & time again that God had nothing to do with their misfortunes, that God does not fashion our crosses or punish or reward us.

The truth is that life is full of accidents and human violence and disease in addition to the irrational, often deadly, forces of nature, enough to produce a climate in which all living things, including us human beings, are only too likely to get hurt — not occasionally, but often.

Unfortunately, as our first reading clearly shows, we are still stuck with a long and strong tradition that would have us believe that the Creator is in charge of what happens in this world, when actually there is not a bit of truth in such a belief.

There are reasons why we are so quick to assign to God responsibility for our troubles: to begin with, we get comfort from assuming that there is a rational cause for the terrible things that happen to us, and that the cause is God. That belief enables people of faith to shrug their shoulders, grit their teeth and say that God must have caused or allowed the tragedy for a reason that they cannot comprehend. Something deep inside them tells them that they could not survive in a world of pure chance; someone’s got to be in charge, there must be some sort of intelligent design, otherwise this is an absurd world, and we are all its hapless victims.

The truth is that our strength and consolation come from the presence of the Divine Spirit, the Creator, within us in both good times and bad. We need nothing more than our own personal resources, the support of those who love us, and the unfailing presence of the one and only God Creator, who lives within us every second of our existence.

Good men that they were, Job and my letter writer friend, they did not know that. As a result, their sufferings were needlessly made worse because they viewed them in a false context. We ought to pay close attention and be determined never to fall into the same error.

Last week’s first scripture reading, you may recall, ended with the words, “If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts. We might end this Mass with the silent, simple prayer, “Come, Lord Jesus, and heal our broken hearts.”


Readings like the three we just heard require so much background information in order to be understood that they are far better handled in a classroom than in a six- or seven-minute homily on Sunday morning. Take as an example today’s brief excerpt from St. Paul’s long letter to the new Christians in Corinth. Interpreted on its own merits the message seems to be that marriage is an inferior way of life for the really committed Christian. Paul says that to have a husband or wife pulls one away from devotion to God. That’s one of the standard arguments, you know, against a married priesthood: that the priest who is married could not possibly at the same time devote himself adequately to his ordained ministry. I’m among the many who do not subscribe to such thinking.

And how different that line of reasoning is from what an Episcopal priest said to me many years ago. He told me that his wife is so much a part of his personal and professional life that if she were removed from the equation, as he put it, he would not know how to be a priest.

But actually St. Paul was not denigrating marriage; he was only trying to establish an order of priorities in the lives of his fellow followers of Jesus. Remember, as we mentioned last week, that Paul thought that the world was about to end and that this was no time to be concerned about things of this life — no time to be thinking about marrying or starting a business or traveling or whatever. All that should be done now is to prepare as best we can for the triumphant return of the crucified and risen Jesus, which could occur even as soon as tomorrow.

Well, we know that Paul was mistaken about the second coming of Christ; it hasn’t happened yet, 2000 years later. But that doesn’t strip his words of relevant meaning, not if we see in them a more general plea that we take seriously becoming more & more attentive to the voice of God within us.

I grant you that that is very subjective: two persons can hear the voice of God very differently, as is the case right now among good people who are concerned about grave moral issues like abortion and wars in the Middle East and various sexual matters.

But to say the “voice of God” is to speak in metaphor. The Second Vatican Council, over 50 years ago, said that we discover in ourselves a law in our consciences which calls us to love and to do what is good and that we will be judged on how we observed that law. That means that we are to be guided constantly by an inner compass which gets its orientation from the Spirit of God. Each of us is to use that compass so as to deal successfully with the persistent distraction and competition that we encounter along the way.

How many times I have heard distressed parents agonize over a son who is gay or a daughter who is divorced and remarried, for example. I respond first by asking two questions: 1) Is your child a good and loving person? Invariably the answer is Yes. 2) Is it clear that he or she has acted, not thoughtlessly or selfishly, but in good conscience after a long period of consideration? Again, I have rarely heard anything but a resounding Yes.

A moral decision can be costly for the person who makes it when it disappoints those that he or she loves. But, if it comes out of heart and mind and conscience, it is perfectly in accord with the time-honored tradition that we are to be directed ultimately – in the final analysis, as we say — by the Divine Spirit present within us and speaking through a well-formed conscience.

“If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”