EASTER SUNDAY 2019

A few years ago, one of my fellow priests in the Diocese of Paterson published a modest collection of one-line reflections on the meaning of Easter. I find them very helpful – and hope that you will value the following sampling also.

Scientist Robert Flatt wrote “The Resurrection gives my life meaning and direction and the opportunity to start over, no matter what my circumstances may be.”

Reverend Martin Luther, a driving force of the Protestant Revolution, left us this beautiful line: “Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime.”

Author Carl Knudsen wrote “The story of Easter is the story of God’s wonderful window of divine surprise.”

St. Augustine, sinner-become-saint, probably awe-struck by his own conversion, wanted us to know that “(Jesus) departed from our sight that we might return to our heart and find him there. For he departed, and behold, he is here.”

Sir Walter Raleigh, of all people, applied Jesus’ resurrection to his own personal destiny and professed his faith by exclaiming, “But from this earth, this grave, this dust, my God shall raise me up, I trust.”

And Ralph Waldo Emerson, an author I suspect many of us would not expect to find among persons making such statements of religious faith, proclaimed, “He takes (us) out of time and makes (us) feel eternity.”

What this list of personal beliefs signifies is a yearning that the whole human race has for permanence, for unending, perfect life beyond death. How could it be, thinkers are asking, that we are created for such a limited, incomplete and ultimately unsatisfying existence on Planet Earth? There must be more, they say, there has to be more!

The debate about whether or not Jesus emerged physically from the tomb will go on for centuries, we can be quite sure. But what seems certain and incontestable is that his earliest followers, including those who had witnessed his horrible crucifixion and death, were convinced beyond doubt that he was alive soon after his burial and was communicating with them and ministering to them and loving them tenderly, generously, just as he had before.

I think there is no better expression of that fact of our Christian origins than the hymn that takes its theme and its title from St. Paul and reminds us that “we walk by faith and not by sight.” Faith is a personal choice: I can choose to believe or not. Faith is acceptance of truth on the word of someone else. I wasn’t there, you weren’t there. What we are celebrating today has been passed down to us for over a hundred generations. But I believe, and you believe, that Jesus of Nazareth has been raised from the dead and lives now with God and with us. I find confirmation and ratification of that faith in my personal relationship with the risen Jesus, as I know you do, too. Then let us rejoice and be glad! Jesus has passed through death and into life eternal, and so will you and I!

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Carlo Carretto

5TH SUNDAY IN LENT, 2019

Several of my priest friends have mentioned to me that they are seeing no decline in the number of participants in their Sunday Masses, despite the present priest sexual abuse scandal that exists from coast to coast. In the five communities that I serve as presider of their liturgies, I have to say the same thing: I don’t detect a drop in attendance at any of them.

As you have, so have I heard of angry reaction to the raging scandal from disillusioned Catholics, a justifiable anger, to be sure. As I type this homily, I have very much in mind that this morning’s news broadcasts included the report that a current poll has discovered that one in three Catholics nationwide is wondering whether to remain as a practicing Catholic or to leave the church because of the rampant sexual scandal. I can’t deny that, of course; but neither can I understand what are the factors that would cause such a difference from place to place. I suppose they are many.

Whatever they may be, I am grateful for the solid faith of the people I’ve been privileged to serve for such a long time. I conclude that they are able to forgive and to continue following the Gospel of Jesus even when it has been delivered to them by such faulty representatives of Christ and the church that bears his name. They are people who are determined to stay with the ship and to help it to survive the current storm.

What I’m about to say next to you I know you have heard from me at least once before. But I won’t apologize for the repetition, because I am convinced that we’ve never needed to hear it as much as we do now. I hope you will agree.

In the mid-1900s a man by the name of Carlo Carretto was a member of the Italian religious order called The Little Brothers of the Gospel. After years of missionary work in Africa, he became a very popular spiritual guide, mystic, and author of many books; I am familiar with only a small part of one of them. In it, he addressed the following message to the church. It is blunt, yet tender. It may well express some of your own sentiments. Listen carefully, please. And may it give you peace and hope.

How much I criticize you, my church, and yet how much I love you! You have made me suffer more than anyone, and yet I owe more to you than to anyone.

I should like to see you destroyed, and yet I need your presence. You have given me much scandal, and yet you alone have made me understand holiness.

Never in this world have I seen anything more compromised, more false, and yet never have I touched anything more pure, more generous or more beautiful.

Countless times I have felt like slamming the door of my soul in your face and yet, every night I have prayed that I might die in your sure arms.

No, I cannot be free of you, for I am one with you, even if not completely you.

Then, too – where would I go? To build another church?

But I could not build one without the same defects,

for they are my defects.

And again, if I were to build another church, it would be my church, not Christ’s church.

No, I am old enough. I know better.

4TH SUNDAY IN LENT, 2019

A man told me a while ago about a Lenten Mass he had been to. He said that in the homily the priest pursued the theme of his hearers’ sinfulness, their unworthiness, and their need to do serious penance, especially during Lent. The priest said nothing about their efforts to lead good lives and to serve others generously; instead, he hammered away at the sins he took for granted they were guilty of.

The man expressed to me his reaction with a kind of “give me a break” attitude. Life is difficult enough, he said, but despite our human faults we generally try to do what’s right and good. It doesn’t help to be told that we are miserable failures and that God is displeased with us.

I know that my reaction would have been much stronger than his: I would have walked out of that church.

I may be somewhat naive, but I’ve been assuming for a long time that that sort of preaching doesn’t exist anymore; but every once in a while, I am reminded that it does.

What do we mean by terms like “salvation” and “redemption”? Saved from what? Redeemed from what? After all, we realize now that we are not a fallen race; we are a developing race. There never was a “Garden of Eden.” We humans were not created in an idyllic state of perfection and placed in that mythical garden. No, the human race has evolved, we now know, from the most primitive life forms. The conservative Pope St. John Paul II confirmed that in one of his many teachings 35-or-so years ago. Death did not enter human history as a result of human sin: countless trillions of living beings had died over billions of years long before we humans first inhabited this earth.

So we must, each and all of us, grapple with the truth that Jesus does not redeem us; he does not restore us to God’s love and friendship, because God’s love is unconditional, was never withdrawn, and can never be lost. God IS love! The absence of God’s love would be the absence of God — and that is absurd.

There were no “first parents”, Adam and Eve, whose sin condemned all of us who came after them and made necessary a rescuer. The death of Jesus is not the price of our supposed ransom; it is simply and awesomely the measure of his love for us and the God that he named Father.

The time has come, I strongly believe, for us to rethink the meaning of Jesus, his life, death and resurrection, and come to see that his unspeakably horrible death was not demanded by God but was, rather, the work of those who had made him their enemy. In other words, while he could have stopped his compassionate teaching and preaching and moved securely into old age and a comfortable death, he chose instead to be faithful to God and to us and to endure the price he knew he would pay.

If we could clear our minds of what we began to learn in our childhood, which was all the church was able to teach at that time, inherited as it was from its unscientific past, and took only the wonderful Gospel story that we heard for the umpteenth time this morning, we would get from Jesus all we need to know about God. Some people have suggested that the story should not have the title “The Prodigal Son”, but instead be called “The Forgiving Father”.

To be aware of that alone, is to have a whole new image of ourselves also: that we are loved by God always, no matter our occasional sins, and that we have nothing to look forward to but inner peace and happiness in this life and the life to come.

THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT, 2019

For more years than I can remember, I have liked the analogy of the tree as a way of looking at our lives. I mean, a tree, every tree, always leans a little bit to one side or another. It is never so perfectly balanced that, if it were cut from its roots it would remain standing in perpetual equilibrium. The weight of the branches on one side or a twist of the trunk gives the tree a direction that remains all its life.

Sometimes strong winds come along and push the tree in another direction, so that if you were to photograph it as that was happening, you wouldn’t have a true picture of the tree at all. Instead, you caught it in a passing time of stress when it was yielding to a strong and possibly deadly force.

But when the woodsman comes to cut it down, that tree can fall in only one direction, the direction in which it had grown and was leaning all its life.

The good news that Jesus brings, the Gospel, includes the assurance that that’s exactly what life is like. Each of us grows in a certain direction — either toward God and other people, in love and sharing and service, or toward self in isolation, idolatry and self-serving. It’s so important that we understand that and feel it deeply. I strongly believe that we will not be judged on a statistical record of good and evil deeds, nor on our spiritual or moral state at any given moment, even the moment of death. Rather, the story of our life — how good or how bad it was — will be known by its basic direction, either toward love and generosity and kindness to others or toward increasing selfishness of one kind or another.

For one whose growth has been fundamentally toward God and others it will be of no concern that there were at times occasional winds of such violence and intensity that they were blown out of their true character and yielded to sin. The powerful winds of passion, pride, fear, weakness, and so on. But no more do such images of the ordinarily good person accurately describe him or her than those photos taken in the windstorm accurately describe the tree under stress. And when death, the woodsman, comes to claim such persons, their lives can fall in only one direction, the direction in which they had been growing all along.

Consider the parable in today’s gospel from the tradition of St. Luke. The fig tree is not producing yet. If it is cut down, its life will have been a waste. Stay the execution, the caretaker pleads. Give us time to cultivate and fertilize. I assure you it will produce.

You and I are the fig tree. Jesus is the caretaker. The digging and fertilizing are God’s mercy. Jesus believes in us. There is time. Do penance, he says. Make your decisions now. Your past record, your persistent weaknesses — none of this matters. Pray. Ask to know what God wants you to do. Restrain those terrible powers you have that can hurt others so deeply, so casually. Do for others without expectation of reward or reciprocation. Do for others even when you are tired or inconvenienced. Live by faith in the Creator of all. You will most certainly produce. You will be alive —forever!

2ND SUNDAY IN LENT, 2019

In the earlier years of my priesthood, I watched my father’s brother, my favorite Uncle John, die slowly and painfully from a cancer that grew in his chest and down his right arm. I never thought of him as a particularly religious man, although I knew that he unfailingly went to Sunday Mass with his devoted wife and that he had great respect for God and for the church and for the ministry that I had decided to make my life’s work. On that last visit to his home, when I commented on the misery he was obviously suffering, he surprised me with the response, “This is nothing compared with what our dear Lord suffered for us on the cross.”

It wasn’t the time or the place to respectfully challenge my uncle’s implied theology about our sins being the cause of Jesus cruel suffering. I let that go unmentioned. Instead, I blessed him and asked him to remember me when he got home with his Divine Maker. I knew from remarks he made that day that he had been for a long time thinking about his relationship with God and about the agreement, the “deal”, so to speak, they had made that something incredibly good and beautiful was going to come from it as long as he remained faithful to the end. And that’s how, in fact, he died.

From the passage we just heard from the Bible’s Book of Genesis, we heard a gory story describing a ritual practiced by our Hebrew ancestors. It involved the cutting in half of three animals and the placing of the halves in such a way that they faced each other bleeding profusely into what became a path of blood. Then, the two men who were entering into an agreement with one another concerning property rights or livestock or whatever walked on that bloody path saying, “If ever I violate the agreement I have just made with my honored friend, may I be slaughtered as these animals have been slaughtered.”

The scriptures tell us that our father in faith, Abraham, while he was still called Abram, made such an agreement by walking that path of blood with God, who was represented in the form of a blazing torch and a smoldering oven, thus sealing the covenant for all time between God and the people represented by Abram. He and his countless descendants would have long and happy life, love and peace, and food and wine, in return for their faith.

A great and durable story, you must admit. How much of it is historical fact is obviously very questionable and probably very little, but the intended meaning of it, as it has been told for the past 2000 years (and now to us again) is perfectly clear. It means that we are embraced by the mystery of God’s everlasting love and that there is nothing we have ever done, or will ever do, that can prevent that love from embracing us.

Many of us have sought psychological treatment for lingering depression, often relating to a diminished self-image, and that is a wise and sensible thing to do, of course. But don’t misunderstand me when I suggest that any person who really believes that she or he is unconditionally loved by her or his God and who lives in that constant awareness, has access to a wellspring of strength and hope and joy that may indeed be a very effective contributor to mental health and wellness.

The mystery that I speak of is infinitely larger than our puny human selves. Like the prodigal son in Jesus’ immortal story, why don’t we enter the banquet our father has prepared for us — not at the moment of our death, but now?

FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT, 2019

An introduction to today’s liturgy: When we were good little Catholic girls and boys, Lent was a time for giving up certain pleasures — like ice cream and candy and movies and so forth. Now that we are adults, it should be different: Lent should be a time for giving up certain behaviors and attitudes that are hurtful to others, perhaps especially to those who are closest to us. A female Protestant minister told me some years ago that the ashes of last Wednesday signify what the season should be: a time for identifying those dried up, burnt out places in our souls that have been in need of new life for a long, long time. ~ RGR

No matter what the details of his long fast actually were, the essential truth is that on the night before his barbaric crucifixion Jesus was so intensely absorbed in conversation with the God he called Father that he was not aware of his body’s need for food and rest.

This should not surprise us. How often have we heard of scientists, musicians, and artists who became so absorbed in what they were pursuing that they forgot to eat? That happened, in a way, to us as kids when our mothers would call us to supper only to be ignored because we were so involved in a backyard basketball game or sled-riding on the snow-covered street.

Jesus’ awareness of God, his communion with God, was something he lived with always and in every situation. I think we can safely assume that he never spoke a word or performed an action of any kind without the decision to do so having come from this on-going dialog with God.

It’s supposed to be the same for all of us. “WWJD” — “What Would Jesus Do?” is a modern slogan that has to move from the bracelet on one’s wrist to the core of one’s heart and conscience.

Regarding the meeting-with-the-devil part of today’s Gospel excerpt, we have to say that fewer and fewer informed Christians take it literally anymore; rather, it is understood as a writer’s way of illustrating something that happened in the mind of Jesus, in his imagination and conscience. One priest theologian has put it this way: “We are right to think that evil must have confronted Jesus, perhaps dismayed and seriously tempted him, even if such testing did not happen as it is narrated in this story.” He goes on to say that, while it was a serpent that represented evil in the ancient Hebrew Bible in the tempting of the mythical Adam and Eve, it is the devil that does the same in the Christian Bible. In both cases it is really evil, human evil, that we are talking about.

Another Catholic author and scripture scholar writes, “(The Gospel words) ‘He saw the kingdoms of the world in a single instant’ indicate that this was a vision, an inner experience of Jesus, a voice from inside him, as all temptations are.”

What was the temptation about, so dramatically presented to us? If we analyze the three approaches the imaginary devil makes to Jesus in the attempt to wear him down and lead him astray, we recognize that they all had to do mainly with the abusive exercise of power employed, not for the good of others and of the world, but only for one’s own selfish, greedy gain.

The purpose of the Gospel is always to incite us to take a more honest look at ourselves and to change where we see we ought to.

A few questions —

Can I honestly say that I regard myself to be the servant of others, or am I inclined to lord it over others because I am older or richer or more successful or better educated or a citizen and not an alien, etc.?

How do I want my country to relate to other countries: to beat them into compliance or instead to help in their own growth and development?

Do I think that military aggression demonstrates trust in the God of all nations; or do I, on the contrary, believe that words and actions of peace and reconciliation and charity align us with the power of God, the ultimate power in the entire universe?

Is the bottom line “Because I say so!” or is it “What do you think?

I wish you enduring peace!

8TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2019

It must be a coincidence, of course, but it happens that the three readings, long since appointed for Mass on this 8th Sunday of the year, have to do with sincerity versus hypocrisy and integrity versus deception — just while we Americans are spending hours glued to our TVs as the hearings regarding corruption in our national government are being held.

I went back through my fat folder of homilies I have given over the past 60 years, found a few that were made for this same Sunday of the liturgical cycle, one of which, about 25 years old, contained a quotation from a lawyer’s letter commenting on the O.J. Simpson case that was going on at the time. He wrote, “This trial is not about finding truth so that justice may be done. It will become a monumental travesty by experts and trial consultants to obfuscate, confuse, bury and deny the truth.”

We can’t help wondering if it has to be that way: a long, drawn out game in which tactical maneuvers, clever plays, and surprise attacks are what it takes to win the case, not a sincere effort by all involved to discover beyond all reasonable doubt the actual truth.

These ancient scriptures that we listen to with quiet respect can appear naive with their insistence on simple honesty; we are tempted to ask if the prophets and Jesus lived in the same world that we inhabit. Did they realize how difficult it is always to tell the unvarnished truth? Is that possible? Is it desirable?

What sort of law school would Jesus supervise, having said “When you mean yes, say yes; when you mean no, say No. All the rest is from the devil.”

I remember being on the checkout line at a supermarket some years ago when a small child — boy or girl, I don’t recall — came back from outside the store and pushed up to the cashier with a dollar bill in hand and said, “My mother said you gave her a dollar more than you should have.” Everyone on that line smiled and remarked how inspiring the unusual incident was. And here I am, a half century later, telling you about it, because there is such tremendous power for good in truth, even in little doses, as in this simple example.

Truth includes more than sincere speech and honest dealings; it has also to do with how we define and present ourselves to others. Many persons have trouble accepting their past with its sins and selfishness and mistakes. They live in denial or in near despair. They haven’t succeeded yet in reaching back and embracing their total history and then giving thanks to God for permitting their circuitous journey to arrive at the present time of grace.

It’s possible to do that at any time as an act of faith. When we call Jesus Savior, it’s not because we think that he prevents our going to eternal punishment after our sinful lives. No, what he saves us from is our capacity to destroy ourselves in any of countless ways. In his first letter to the new believers in Jesus in the City of Corinth, Greece, St. Paul urges them, as we just heard, to think about their good fortune in receiving from the crucified and risen Jesus the greatest imaginable victory — not over a perceived external enemy, but over their own sinfulness.

It’s really happened, he tells them! And all they have to do is to accept the gift, to share it with others, and to live in gratitude and peace.

Truth. No sham, no pretense, no denial. We express our trust in the goodness and power of God by risking to speak the truth in all things, by taking nothing that does not belong to us, and by accepting ourselves as God accepts and wildly loves us just as we are!