All posts by dickrento

2ND SUNDAY IN ADVENT 2017

You and I, I’m sure, can count at least one or two persons, maybe more, among our friends and acquaintances, perhaps even within our own families, who know from personal experience what it’s like to be helpless, very close to hopeless, and to wait for someone to save them. They were like persons trapped in the bottom of a well, facing certain death unless someone became aware of their plight and lowered a rope or a ladder to get them out.

Among such persons who have entered my life was a Polish Franciscan priest, whom I have mentioned to you before in other connections. He had been imprisoned by the Nazis for 27 months in the concentration camp at Dachau during World War II.

After those years of cruel incarceration, he was emaciated and literally starving to death. One day, he was clinging to the wire fence at the edge of the camp, staring aimlessly out into the surrounding woods, praying and preparing himself to die, when suddenly a young American soldier stepped out from behind a tree. One arm carried his rifle; the other lifted a finger to his lips signaling for silence, since he knew that he had been seen. My priest friend realized that the hour of liberation had come. The youthful GI, he said, appeared to him like a god, or a savior sent from on high, and his heart and mind were so filled with relief and eager expectation and inexpressible gratitude, that he had to take care lest the emotional excitement kill him!

That whole image, that I have carried with me for 60 years, has helped me to understand the phenomenon of longing in suffering, of expectation and its ultimate fulfillment. I have always associated it with Advent.

The promises we heard again in today’s first reading were made originally to a people who had for generations suffered poverty, homelessness, and political oppression. Generation after generation, they were able to pass on to their children and grandchildren only the same misery. They cried out to the God they still believed in to do for them what they could not do for themselves. And the answer kept coming back, in the words of the prophets, “Rejoice! In this too, God loves you. God is just and merciful. Don’t despair. Live in anticipation of the great day of your salvation, the Day of the Lord.”

Think back, please, to a time in your life when you were virtually without hope, when you were fully aware that you could do nothing to reverse or erase the terrible thing that had befallen you or someone you loved. You remember what you did: you prayed!

And this is what Advent is about. In the end, as we are breathing our last, what will we do, what can we do, but place ourselves in the hands of the One who created us? At that point, we will have no doubt about the limits of our human powers!

Advent is meant to stoke that awareness now so that for the rest of our journey we will daily be more conscious that we are merely creatures — and then live joyfully, peacefully, in good times and in bad, knowing that God is love and that we are created to bask in that love for all eternity!

Amen — so be it!

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1ST SUNDAY IN ADVENT, 2017

In a supermarket recently I was hailed by a former parishioner of mine from decades ago. He was his enthusiastic self, telling me about his wife and children and the troubles associated with raising teenagers. But he said much more about the work he is volunteering to do with other people’s children and with which he is achieving notable success. Every minute or so, he interrupted himself and assured me that the progress he and his associates are making with these troubled children is not in any way to be credited to himself and his associates, but to the presence and action of the Christ whose work they are doing.

I wanted to say that the dedicated contribution of his and his associates’ didn’t count for nothing, etc., but I feared that a long discussion was beginning, one that I very much wanted to avoid — partly because my supper was in the cart I was pushing and I needed to take it home and cook it!

But the man made, and left, a mark on me that I could not easily dismiss. I thought about him and his unquestionable dedication for many days after our chance conversation, especially his strong belief that the Christian work he was doing really was not entirely his own but rather the work of the crucified and risen Jesus. And I thought about the incident several days ago when I settled down to preparing this homily for today’s Mass. So that is where I begin.

There is a huge difference, you realize, between knowing something about a person and actually knowing that person — different from interacting personally with him or her in some concrete way. The evidence I’ve gained from my life as a priest — more than 60 years now — indicates to me unmistakably that many Catholic Christians have never quite experienced a relationship with Jesus that includes awareness of his living presence with them and their on-going conversation with him.

That often makes me feel that I as his ordained representative am speaking about a reality that some, maybe many, of my hearers have never experienced. I hardly know how to address that situation, how to entice people to experiment with it and begin to believe that something wonderful will actually happen.

I’ve mentioned him before, but always he comes to my mind in this connection: Dag Hammarskjold, a Swedish Protestant Christian and one of the principal founders of the United Nations back in the early 1950s. As a young adult myself at that time, I read his celebrated book, Markings, that left me with a memory I still cherish: that before every meeting, every deliberation, every consultation, every problem having to do with the establishment of the worldwide peace-keeping organization that functions to this day, he would retire to a quiet place in or out of his office, put out the Do Not Disturb sign, and enter into conversation with the Jesus Christ he believed to be present and actively involved in the awesome project.

Some years later, I had the good fortune of hearing the famous Bishop Fulton Sheen say something very similar to that: that he never counseled anyone who sought his guidance without first spending time alone with Jesus and submitting his limited wisdom to the infinite wisdom of the Risen Christ.

We have long said that Advent is about three comings of Jesus: his birth around 2,000 years ago, his anticipated coming when the world ends in the unknowable future, and his coming into the life of every person who invites him with the sincere intention of dialoguing with him and living according to the principles he teaches — mainly living in generous, caring, and forgiving love.

I suggest that we make that last meaning of Advent, its purpose and “program”, so to speak, the meaning of the Advent that begins for us again today.

CHRIST THE KING, 2017

Some recent headlines:

+Robert Mugabe resigns as president of Zimbabwe.
+North Korean President Kim Jong Un flexes his military muscles with nuclear threats to the western world.
+Dictators around the world are tolerated in fear or worshipped in ignorance.
+Democracies falter without the disciplines and restraints that brought them to birth.

Against such a background, the Catholic Church celebrates today the theme of Christ the King. We cannot help but wonder what it can possibly mean to us or to our times. How can we personally relate to a concept that seems so strangely out of place today and that is in such confusing and unappealing company? Is it just a carry-over from another age in which a sort of “Camelot” held the people’s fancy?

The very idea of kingship or queenship, it cannot be denied, carries with it the notion of acquired vast wealth. We know that money and property constitute power and must be used as God uses power: for the good of others, for the building up of God’s world here on earth.

But look who our modern heroes are in virtually every field: they are not all people who live modestly and share their resources with those who do not have even enough of the basic requirements for a decent, human life. They are the entertainers and athletes and actors and industrial tycoons who tantalize us with displays of prodigious wealth, many of whom may be making only token gestures of charity, possibly to ease their consciences and to improve their public image.

If only they realized what powerful instruments they could be in the hands of God!

However we define or understand the mystery of mysteries that we call God, God is the owner of the whole universe because God is its sole creator. And Jesus is Lord, King of the universe in the deepest, purest sense. By word and example, Jesus shows us what being human really means. He shows how we are to manage our lives as good stewards of all that we are and whatever we own, whether that be much or little.

Our eager submission to Christ the King is not servile or demeaning in any way. No humiliating surrender is involved in it. There is no arbitrary restriction of our lives. Quite the opposite: we find our fullest, most authentic selves in union with him. No lasting happiness is possible outside of him. Our eternal future is in him. The disappointments and sufferings of our life make no sense apart from him. And death would be the tragic end of a pointless existence except for him.

It is not a political reality we mark today on this annual Feast of Christ the King. We are making a statement about the ultimate meaning and orientation of our lives, and we are pledging to take at least some small steps toward following him more faithfully.

The familiar star of David, you may not know, is actually a configuration of 12 lines, two for each of its six points. These lines represent the 12 tribes of Israel. For one short, idyllic period in its history, first during the reign of King David, all 12 tribes were united in peace. But then centuries of conflict and disunity were soon the order of the day. The history of the Jews is a longing for such unity and peace once again. Our conviction as Christians is that God has placed Jesus over us all. The signs of greater understanding between Jews and Christians today give us reason to believe, to hope, and to expect that that unity and peace are not far off under the headship of the Jewish Jesus.

33RD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2017

Because Jesus made it such an important priority in his teaching, we often talk about the spirit of poverty. Is that a myth for us fortunate people who want for nothing essential and have so many comforts besides?

But, short of absolute poverty – of giving away everything we own and then living with only what is absolutely necessary for life — what can we and should we do?

For the past 60 years I’ve been going to the Trappist Monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts, sometimes just for a day. I think it’s good for me to expose my mind & heart to the wisdom of men who see the world through the lens of virtually uninterrupted attention to the presence of Jesus.

But my monk-friends’ life of monastic simplicity, of owning absolutely nothing, is not for me; I’m sure of that. My spirit of poverty has to be expressed in other ways. To the rich young man who asked Jesus what he needed to do in order to reach eternal life, Jesus said that his charitable caring for others was enough and then reminded him that there was another option open to him: if he chose to, he could sell everything he owned, give the money to the poor, and follow him in a special way. It was an option, not a requirement; the young man would know somehow after prayer and reflection whether it was for him or not.

I think that most of us middle class American Christians identify with that rich young man. If that is so, we are left with a requirement that has to be met: Jesus expects us to determine what our stewardship pattern should be, asking ourselves questions like these:

Do we ever do without something we’d like to have so that someone else may have something he or she desperately needs?

Are we generous in sharing the use of the things we own?

Do we in general try to make do with our possessions and not keep replacing them just for the sake of novelty?

Do we make sure that a decent portion of our income, no matter what earning category we are in or what our present needs are, goes to those who are in dire need?

Are we willing to share our time with those who need our attention, even if that is inconvenient for us?

Do we practice good ecology in the use of fuel and food and other gifts of the earth, not merely to save money but to make more available to those who have not enough for a basically human life?

And so on…

The power of the middle class, the power of the Christian community, is in doing good together. None of us can eradicate degrading poverty and provide for millions of our fellow humans. What is asked of us, what is expected from us who say we are the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, is to act in harmony with the best efforts of good people everywhere – of whatever religion or nationality. The church will have become fully the Body of Christ on earth when such generous, conscientious sharing is its normal way of life. In the meantime, as we move closer and closer to that goal, each of us who hear the Gospel must act now if we are going to give an acceptable account of our stewardship.

To be a partner with Jesus in providing for others a share in the necessities of life is a work so satisfying and so peace-giving that we will inevitably discover that Jesus calls us, not really to do without, but to gain so much more.

31ST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2017

It’s too bad that the traditional formula that expresses the Trinity does not include femininity. I guess it was a male, patriarchal society that thought it was enough to imagine God as Father, Son, and Spirit. Who knows what future generations will do to modify that basic statement of faith and make it really inclusive?

In the meantime, we can be grateful for such beautiful images as the one from St. Paul we just heard and others similar to it from Jesus — like the one on which he describes himself as a mother hen eagerly enfolding her young under her wings. “Enfolding” is itself a characteristically feminine concept, expressed most fundamentally by the womb itself. I hope that there are fewer people today who can picture God only as an old man with a long-white beard, because breasts and arms are also useful and truthful elements in the ultimately impossible task of imaging the invisible God.

A Franciscan priest friend of mine, a retreat giver, shared with me an old story that continues to amuse and to teach. He said that a pastor was visiting a second grade religion class and was looking over the children’s shoulders to see and to praise their drawings. He asked one little girl, “Who is that you’ve drawn, dear?. The little one answered, “That’s a picture of God.” The priest said softly and kindly, “It’s a lovely picture, but of course you realize that no one really knows what God looks like.” The child answered, “Well, they will now.”

Maybe she was right — but for the wrong reasons. The truth is that we all reveal God to one another. Everything good and true and beautiful seen in any person has to be a reflection of God. Where else, or whom else, could it have ultimately come from?

That’s the kind of religion that we need more of — sensing and responding to the signs of God’s presence we are daily encountering, so often not noticing, not realizing. No one has the right to limit the infinite God to a single definition, when all the religions and cultures of the world cannot begin to contain God, to put God in a box, as we are fond of saying. The very question, “Is God male or female?” should tell us how off the mark our thinking can be, how narrow our perspective.

We are the scripture that many persons are reading! Pope St. John Paul said that people pay more attention to personal witness than they do to formal teaching. I think that’s true. In their own perverse way, some TV idols are are far more influential in the lives of many people than they are to the teachings of the church. Male or female, young or old, we are creatures of God. Like a speck of diamond dust, we show in our visible being the marks of our invisible creator.

30TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2017

It’s helpful to keep in mind that Jesus totally rejected this Jewish religious group called Sadducees. They would not accept his teaching on resurrection after death and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. They were not awaiting the messiah, nor did they accept the entire body of teachings that had been developed by rabbis over the centuries.

Preceding this gospel episode, there is another that involves the Sadducees; it’s the one about the seven brothers who in succession married the same widow. This was an attempt on the part of the Sadducees to make Jesus’ references to life after death seem ridiculous. They asked him to which of the seven brothers would the woman be wife in the life after death. Jesus answered, as you may recall, that there is no marrying in eternity. Marriage, he was saying, is a phenomenon of time, of earth, and that God is powerful beyond our imagination and is God of the living, not of the dead.

Jesus must have made a powerful impression on his hearers. Matthew says that he actually succeeded in silencing the Sadducees. The Pharisees, many of whom Jesus related to very well, got together, fearing all the more the growing power of this remarkable person. One of them, a lawyer, framed another catch question: “Of all the commandments that have been handed down to us, which, in your opinion, is the greatest?” The snare embedded in this question was based on the legalistic mindset of the Pharisees, which would make the question impossible to answer. The argumentative debate would go on forever because no one could ever say with certainty which of the hundreds of religious laws is the most important.

But Jesus would not stay on their level of thrust & parry, making a game of the issue, after which there would be winners and losers. He refused to reduce life and relationship to God and neighbor to a collection of laws. He would not exalt the letter of the law above the spirit of true religious obedience. Instead, he put the whole matter on a different plane altogether. He said that the only value any law can have is that it somehow be rooted in love — concern for others, attention to God, the will to serve life, even to sacrifice oneself for another’s well-being. That’s where the concentration must be, he emphasized; that’s the focal point of a genuinely human life, a godly life, he said.

How easy it is to substitute for that simplicity all kinds of laws, many so petty. Unfortunately, children learn very early to act that way by doing what pleases others and gets rewarded. Priests and religious do it by keeping the rules and, as it is said, “staying out of trouble.” Catholics do it by observing the commandments and precepts and regulations — and asking how far they can go before committing sin! The Nazis of World War II did it by murdering 6 million Jews in obedience to their superiors.

 

I was very moved by the appeals we heard a few days ago by two Republican senators, who urged us to put first in our list of required qualifications for our highest leaders, not cleverness and technique, but human decency, honesty, and integrity. I think that, especially today, we need to hear such advice, reminders of how our beloved America was conceived and born — not by saints but by fallible humans like ourselves, but who believed in God and tried to think and act as the Spirit enlightened them. Our Constitution, I believe, is a sacred document, as is any page of the Bible.

29TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2017

It is my strong opinion that persons who try to evaluate their personal lives by adding up the good and the bad they have done and seeing which is the longer column are wasting their time. It doesn’t work that way. The story of our lives cannot be told in terms of comparative quantities of good and evil.

The ultimate meaning and value of any life are found in the simple fact of whether or not a person comes to listen to the Spirit of God within, says Yes, and tries to live henceforth under the direction of that Spirit. For some people, this is a gradual process that begins early on and is never seriously threatened. For some others, it is a stormy adventure that could go either way at any time but ends in a firm and permanent commitment to God.

And for others it can be a last-minute cliffhanger, a resounding Yes in the final moments when all the distractions and selfish choices of the past seem foolish and deceptive and even repulsive. (Mary Magdalene, on the basis of the little we know of her, and the thief on the cross next to Jesus fall into this category.)

But what does it matter when? What matters is that it happen eventually. No one must pronounce judgment on another’s journey to faith. If the Spirit of God is patient, how can we be otherwise?

A holy Trappist monk, a friend of mine and once a colorful Navy man, has told countless audiences that, in retrospect, he sees the sins of his life as among the greatest blessings he has ever received. And then he goes on to explain that without those sins he may never have sought or come to know the mercy of God, may never have understood the failings of others and been able to accept and forgive them.

Please consider these two practical suggestions, which I know can be the beginning of true and lasting peace in your life. One, that you squarely face up to the problem of accepting your life with all its big mistakes, its sinful decisions made in weakness or in passion, its lack of integrity, its “should-have-known-betters” or whatever it may be about your past that most distresses and embarrasses you.

But don’t merely accept in the sense of tolerating; instead, embrace it, approve it. Approve not the sin or the wrongdoing, but the unique path that brought you to this moment of grace — that personal history in which you finally and eagerly heard and loved and obeyed God’s word. That’s what matters; that’s the real story of you.

Even the wrong you did has been turned into an instrument of God’s grace! God has taken the raw material of your sins and, as happened (the ancient Scriptures tell us) at the beginning of time, a new creation has been made from chaos!

To think this way is not only good mental health; it is good spirituality, good religion, because it is possible only for one who has a lively and humble confidence in God’s mercy and love.

My second suggestion is that you experiment with ways to change your prayer from being merely a portion or a department of your life — like Sunday morning in church — to being instead a quality or a characteristic or a habit of your life. Change to an attitude of turning to and listening to that Spirit of God who hovers over your life always, especially when it is in chaos, and who is ready to make it new and bring it to perfection!

“I have come, Jesus said, that you may have life and have it to the full.”