21ST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2017

During the 20 years of my pastorship in the Paterson Diocese, I made regular visits to our homebound parishioners, taking Communion to them and serving them in whatever ways I could. One of the widows on the long list was an elderly woman who lived alone and at whose front door I’d have to wait for several minutes as she methodically and slowly opened three locks and a deadbolt. She was a very sensible, level-headed person, not at all paranoiac. The four security measures were simply necessary to keep her sufficiently safe. That upset me then and still does as I think about it today.

It also bothers me to have to lock my car doors for the night and to endorse checks properly before putting them in my wallet — because we do these things assuming that people are not to be trusted — that we are natural enemies who will take advantage of each other whenever we can. The key, the lock, the deadbolt and the burglar alarm are all signs of what we have become — or, conversely, what we have never become. They are a shame, a disgrace, an embarrassment, a judgment.

Jesus entrusted to Peter and the infant church what he called the “keys to heaven” and with them the power to bind and to absolve. (I believe that “bind” in this context means to command or to impose an obligation with authority.) No notion here of keeping anyone out or of defending the infant church from enemies.

No, what Jesus seems to be doing is placing his spirit in the community, helping the community to judge all things wisely and then to act as Jesus himself would act in the same situation. That is what those keys unlock — the guidance of the Holy Spirit, always available to to those who want to think and and say and do what is right and true and life-giving.

The keys that the church has been given are meant to free its members from ignorance and fear, from crippling conservatism, from suspicion and distrust.

Life-giving is the work of the church. Jesus said, “I have come that you may have life and have to to the full.” To be a member of the church is to share in the power of the keys in one way or another. We are being church when we, in any way, open up to others God’s presence in our midst.

Pope Francis has been given the “master key”, so to speak, to enable him to serve the church throughout the world; but to each of us are also given keys, no two exactly alike, enabling us to be givers of life in the countless circumstances of our daily lives.

As I look out at this very moment, I am awestruck by the power for good that you represent! And I ask you to remain mindful of who and what you are: bearers of the keys to life that Jesus has placed in your hands and in your hearts.

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20TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2017

Some of the answers that Jesus gave to people asking for his help seem unkind, almost cruel; what we just heard is one of them. To understand what was going on between him and the distraught mother, we have to realize that she was a Gentile, therefore looked down upon by the Jews. At first he responds like the Jew that he was, telling her that if she were a faithful Jew he’d honor her request immediately. But since she’s the equivalent of a heathen, for him to help her would be like giving to the dogs the food that should go to the children.

The woman is obviously a bright lady; she doesn’t let Jesus off the hook; she reminds him that the house pets are allowed to eat the food that falls off the family table. Jesus likes that response, and likes her. He grants her request.

Bible experts tell us that in Jesus’ time, that little exchange of clever words would not have sounded insulting at all. It was a common form of conversation — a “thrust & parry” of words and ideas. Jesus was not being uncaring or unkind; he was simply drawing out the conversation in order to make an important point for the woman and us to hold onto.

Remember that she had addressed him as “Lord” and “Son of David” — which means that, even though she wasn’t a Jew, she did have faith in him as a person who seemed to know God well. She expressed faith in him and what he could do for her and her daughter. She’s a believing Gentile — maybe the first he’d ever met. No matter what nation or family or religion she came from, there was undeniable faith in her heart. She may not have recognized God in the temple, but she did see God in the person of Jesus! That had to be a gift of the Holy Spirit.

We Catholics have come from a very rigid tradition in which there was a standard pattern for religious belief and practice for us all. If we traveled to Paris, Peoria or Pakistan, the rules and the rituals would be essentially the same. It was a good feeling to be so united.

But things are different now, as we are fond of saying, and — I would say — much better. We interpret the scriptures differently; many theologies are invited to shed light on the one ancient faith; the creativity and customs of a variety of peoples give uniqueness and individuality to worship. No longer do we regard as enemies to be avoided those who pray or act differently from us. Instead, we recognize them as sisters and brothers in whom the same Spirit of Love and Truth is gently at work.

Some Catholics pine for the “good ol’ days” when everything we Catholics did and said was cut & dried and meant to remain forever unchanged. Not so today. As the famous spirituals say, “The Spirit is a-movin’!” And we must pray, as Jesus always did, not to become narrow-minded and short-sighted. And to recognize true faith and goodness in whatever form they appear.

God calls us to build unity in our families, our communities and our world, not by all wearing the same spiritual clothing, but by praising the Spirit of God in every life-giving word and work that comes from anyone, anywhere!

Be at peace! God loves you wildly exactly as you are!!

19TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2017

The symbolism in this Gospel passage leaps out at us. The boat is the church; the persons in it are the members of the church, including you and me; the darkness and the rough waters are the troubles that make life sometimes so hard for us. Jesus is both with the occupants and not with them: he is far away and yet prays for them and then takes action to save them in the crisis that ensues. Their faith in Jesus is still mixed with fear and doubt, not fully confirmed yet.

It’s so clear that the whole story is a description of who and what we are today: a people called into a community of faith, responding to the one who is forming us — and at the same time experiencing fears and doubts and always having to struggle against the inadequacy of our faith.

As Matthew’s Gospel unfolds, it makes several statements of faith in Jesus recognized as the long-awaited Messiah. In this connection, I think first of the words attributed to Peter at the foot of Jesus’ cross: “Truly this was the Son of God!” Matthew is thereby letting us know that, even to persons for whom belief in Jesus would seem to be impossible, the gift of recognition and belief is given, so convincing is the evidence of Jesus’ life, what he taught, and what he did.

We are among those fortunate recipients. Our lives include occasional storms and scary darkness. For example, who can know for sure whether a cancer will disappear or linger and deliver a deadly blow? No one. At such a time, we wait in darkness and fear. The helplessness and hopelessness of the poor, the terror of war-torn countries, the anxieties of the abused and the unloved — how natural, how perfectly understandable that when we human beings are afflicted we respond first in fear and doubt. God then seems as far away as Jesus was from that threatened boat.

I was 7 years old when my 2-year-old sister was apparently dying from whooping cough. My father was called home from his place of business — I can still see his white shirt and Navy blue tie as he clutched me and my 4-year-old brother and said, “Dear God, please make my little daughter well. We love her so much.” He led us in saying the Lord’s Prayer. Never before, and never since, until he himself died, did we ever pray that way at any other time. But I learned from it what it meant to feel helpless and hopeless and to trust in the saving presence of God and the compassionate Jesus.

The response to our prayer cannot always be what we want it to be — or what God wants it to be! But when we are disappointed in that way, God and Jesus provide us with strength and wisdom and new hope to move on to calmer seas and brighter skies.

TRANSFIGURATION, 2017

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A priest in my home diocese was assigned many years ago to the church in which I was pastor. Everyone loved him for his natural goodness, his humility, his generosity. To this day, I respect him highly and think of him as a good and loving priest after the heart of Jesus. When he became a pastor himself many years later, the bishop sent him a young priest assistant. However, that young man was ultra-conservative and from his very first day there was troubled by what he was seeing and hearing in the pastor’s theology and ministry.

At one Sunday Mass, at which my friend was presiding and preaching, the assistant barged into the sanctuary, raised his hands and shouted to the congregation, “Don’t listen to this man! He is not giving you the Gospel of Jesus; he is giving you his own gospel, his own opinions, and you must not accept them!”

Of course, that very week the young priest was removed from the parish, and what has happened to him since I do not know in detail.

But why, you may be thinking right now, am I beginning today’s homily in such a way? The answer is simple: every Monday or Tuesday, as I begin the long and difficult process of writing a meaningful homily for the coming Sunday, if the readings contain something like what we heard just minutes ago (in this case, Jesus lighting up like a neon sign), I agonize over how to speak of it. Aware that different minds in the congregation react very differently, I wonder how I can reach everybody with an interpretation that all can accept.

If I answered, “That’s not possible,” I would be forced to say nothing — just let it pass without comment as though it had been heard by no one.

So, for all the years that I have been with you, I have tried my best to speak to you in carefully measured words, giving you, each time we have been together, just enough to think about as you try to understand these ancient writings through 21st century eyes and ears.

And that is necessary because with the passage of 3000 years we humans now know that God doesn’t cause rain by sending angels to open the portals that will allow the waters above the earth to irrigate our fields and fill our reservoirs. But that totally unscientific idea — and hundreds of others like it — are part of what you find in the bible.

The writing of the Sacred Scriptures is a never-ending process. It is going on even as we speak. What we call the Word of God is not forever fixed and static; it is a living masterpiece that is carried from generation to generation, century to century, and requires constant updating. Its many languages, so long unspoken, have to be better understood; its understanding of the universe has to be brought up to date; the bits of historical data it contains must be constantly checked and double checked to certify their accuracy.

You and I may not be literary scholars or scientists or trained theologians; but we possess common sense enough to at least suspect that what is passed on as objective truth may indeed at times not be that at all. The message the Scriptures contain is infallible; the literary device that carries it is not.

Now that I have used up every minute allotted for this homily and have said nothing about the Gospel passage for today, but have chosen to speak instead of what underlies it, let me conclude by assuring you, as best I can, that there is profound meaning for each of us in that passage that would render us the poorer if we were to miss it; and it is this: the Transfiguration of Jesus on that mountain top is far more about us than about Jesus. It tells us that we must seek and allow a change in us, not in him, in order that we might recognize him beyond his humanity that was obvious to anyone and to recognize, to see clearly and appreciate, that he is the perfect image of the invisible God and, therefore, that to know him is to know God!

17TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2017

It’s quite obvious that most of the praying done by us Christians is prayer of petition – asking God to grant favors or work miracles or support us in our plans. That’s quite natural: we are always in need of more than we think we can accomplish on our own and so we appeal to God, as pagans appeal to the forces of nature or to their invented gods, or as others resort to lucky charms and superstitious practices. It can’t be wrong to ask God to act on our behalf: the history of the human race’s relationship with God is filled with such requests. Even Jesus left us, his followers, an asking prayer, the “Our Father,” as we call it and which we’ll be saying again together in just a few minutes.

However, while recognizing the legitimate place of petitionary prayer in the life of a Christian, we must emphasize that its most perfect expression is what we find in that beautiful prayer of King Solomon, which we just heard in the excerpt from the Hebrew Book of Kings. Solomon asked but one favor of God, and that was the power to know always what would be the right thing to do in order to serve the people well and to please God. Solomon was overwhelmed by the enormity and the complexity of the kingly office he had inherited from his father, King David, and saw himself as too young, too inexperienced, too lacking in knowledge to rule wisely. And so he begged, not for personal riches or for victory in battle or even for a long and healthy life, but for wisdom and understanding so that he could rule with justice and compassion. To this day he is honored for that remarkable goodness of character.

Have you ever been told by someone that he or she has prayed for you for a long time? I have, often. I remember that, when I reported for my 20-year assignment as pastor at St. Brendan’s in Clifton 39 years ago, among the lovely greetings of welcome I received was that of a woman who told me that she had prayed for me every day of the previous eleven years, ever since the day we first met. I can’t tell you, as I couldn’t tell her way back then, how much that meant to me. Many times since, I’ve wondered how much of the strength and wisdom that job demanded came through the caring prayers of people like her.

Was it Plato or Aristotle or some other Greek (I can never keep those sages straight) who said that we do not achieve wisdom until we reach the age of 50? But we pray, and others pray for us, and we ask the Spirit of God within us to guide us in the way of wisdom even before we have attained it sufficiently ourselves. We ask to be able to interpret the events of our life more objectively, freer of personal prejudice. We ask to understand the meaning and eventual purpose of everything we experience. We ask to remain confident, patient, peaceful, especially in times of great personal stress and bewilderment, in times of sorrow and fear and disappointment. Prayers like these are answered always – but we have to trust enough to voice them.

The Gospel passage today is about the Kingdom of God – hidden among and within us, found by persons of faith — the Kingdom about which Jesus said, Seek it first and everything else will be given to you. How do we pray? What do we ask for? The Kingdom of God is recognized wherever there are justice and mercy and kindness and forgiveness and peace and patience and love. Our prayer should always reflect those concerns above all others. Jesus assures us that every particular need of our own complicated lives will be provided if we ask first for wisdom and understanding as the underpinnings of justice and love.

15TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2017

You may recall that last Sunday the homily theme was the optimistic spirit that is rooted in our Christian faith. When I began preparing today’s homily early this past week, my mind was drawn to an extension of the same theme when I read these words in the first scripture reading: “(My word) shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it…it shall not return to me empty…”

We know now that the “word” is a person, Jesus, who lives among us to carry out God’s plan for the reconstruction of our world. We can be certain that the Anointed One – Jesus – will not fail, no matter how dark and hopeless things may appear at times.

Who has never wondered how the world and the human race will end up? Big question – and one that preachers are fond of treating with sweeping pronouncements about either doom or eternal glory.

We all need a frame of reference to make sense of what often appears to be a senseless and self-destructive world; the daily paper and the TV newscasts can be relentlessly depressing. “What’s happening to us?” we ask. Some answer that we are destroying the planet. Others say we are in the process of killing each other off. I have heard the judgment that civilization is actually regressing despite the obvious progress of technology.

But back to that ancient proclamation: my word shall do my will, achieve the appointed end, and not return to me empty.

We heard St. Paul say today that the world will ultimately be freed of its slavery to corruption, that the upheavals of the present time can’t begin to compare with the perfect order that lies ahead, and that the turmoil we are witnessing is in part a kind of labor pains of a new world’s birth.

I think you have to know Jesus pretty well to be able to orient your life around such optimism – or else you have to be a Pollyanna.

But how can it possibly happen, this final victory of life and love? As I see it, today’s Gospel contains the answer. Most of the seed, Jesus tells us, falls on hostile, uncongenial soil and adds nothing of value to the life of the earth. But some seed falls on good ground, not only managing to survive, but multiplying itself in enormous proportions.

And that’s how it will happen – how it is happening now. The word of God doesn’t depend on impressive numbers; it produces numbers. Its goodness takes root and grows constantly in power and effectiveness. That growth is not always immediately obvious; sometimes it seems to have been snuffed out until, like the stubborn blade of grass in a concrete crack, it surfaces again, bearing the new seeds of its own future!

We’re supposed to let that conviction show in our lives by our basic optimism, our open love of life, our attitude toward suffering and setback, our willingness to risk what we have and share what we own, our prayers of praise and gratitude, our belief that the smallest good we do or say or think contributes mightily to the rebirth of the whole human race.

That word in good people of any or of no faith will not return empty to the one he called Father. He will ultimately achieve the purpose for which he lives within and among us. Much seed is germinating in good soil even as we speak.

Look around you! Even better: look within you!

Beach Mass

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We will have our first-of-the-year Beach Mass on Saturday, July 22, 5:30 p.m.

Directions: South on Route 35 through Point Pleasant to the traffic light at Kittiwake Avenue in Lavallette. Turn left, proceed through next traffic light and go one more block to the beach road (Seacrest Drive). Turn right, proceed past 7 beachfront houses to the beach ramp. Mass is at the top of the ramp. Parking can be difficult. Space may be available at Dick Rento’s house, 33 Murray Lane. Bring a beach chair.