CORPUS CHRISTI, 2018

A former World War II GI said that, after jumping off the landing craft, he had to skip and hop to avoid the injured who were moaning on the sand; he had to run carefully around the bodies of the dead soldiers that had accumulated in large numbers on the beach at Normandy that fateful June 6, 1944. I was 13 years old at the time, surely not mature enough to realize the significance of the event.

It was the same GI who told of seeing a 19-year-old soldier get the brunt of an exploding shell and being left with a gaping hole in his hip, its white bones fragmented and jagged, protruding through flesh and skin. “Hang in there. You’ll be OK. They’ll send you back to England and then you’ll be shipped home. The war’s over for you.” And the young man answered with boyish innocence and manly courage, “You know, I didn’t intend to get injured.”

And so it is that we treat the body — the body of our fellow human beings, the body of family and nations and the world, the body of Christ. We maim and we kill, physically or emotionally, to keep the stranger, the different one, away — a much quicker solution than the awkward, challenging struggle toward reconciliation. Kill in the trenches, kill in the streets, kill even in the womb. Do away with the person. Leave a body, a body that cannot dialog, cannot assert itself. There’ll be more space then, more time, for us as bodies are removed.

What a tragic perversion of the mind and heart of Jesus! The body is a reflection of society: one body, many parts, many functions. Not one of them should go unhonored; all are necessary, useful, beautiful in the eyes of their creator. Never should one part, one member, scorn another as inferior or unimportant.

I once received a lovely note from a relative of mine, a young woman, very appreciative of the gift of life, ambitious and hard-working. Her work — she surrounded the word with quotation marks — was that of a bicycle tour guide. Her graceful, strong body had traversed hundreds, maybe thousands, of miles on two continents. She wrote to me, “I feel so fortunate to be able to cycle as my job…sharing a wonderful meal with my group in an old castle in Ireland or biking with them through the olive groves of Toscana, Italy”.

The very day I got that happy, thoughtful message I had been reading accounts of the poor in Latin America and the valiant efforts of the volunteers from other countries who had gone to help save their lives and attain a measure of dignity and justice. What a contrast, I thought, among the members of the Body of Christ. Yet, the plain fact is that that body requires both tour guides and missionaries; it includes the vibrantly healthy and the suffering sick, the rich and the poor, militant activists and secluded contemplatives, light skin and dark skin, males and females, heterosexuals and homosexuals, English-speakers and Spanish speakers, and on and on and on…

Jesus could not have made it clearer that he wanted us to honor all these differences and try always to achieve, not exclusion, but inclusion.

Today, Corpus Christi Sunday, we join all who believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharistic bread and wine. But I think that we should not make too much of precisely how he is present in this mysterious sacrament. After all, what is to be gained from our analyzing and theorizing and theologizing when we know that we can never fully understand this pure gift of love? We ought to give ourselves, instead, to the demanding, far more important matter of his presence in the people, how he continues to suffer in them, and hear him calling for our attention, for hands and hearts that can make a difference for the better.

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TRINITY SUNDAY, 2018

Forty-or-so years ago, a Jesuit priest anthropologist published his study of a pygmy tribe in Africa. He had discovered that one of the chief features of their extraordinary way of life was this: The entire village would arise early from sleep every morning; the women would tend to the children, feed the animals, prepare the day’s meals, and perform other domestic chores. The men would repair or continue constructing the thatched-roof dwellings, hunt and fish, maintain their weapons, prepare firewood, and so on. But all of this for a short time — three or four hours at the most — and then everyone, the men, the women and the children, would spend the rest of the day at play.

There were games for the adults and for the children, games that involved whole families, song, conversation and relaxation. But even more interesting than the enviable imbalance that favored recreation was the theological or religious statement this chosen lifestyle was meant to express — the belief of these people that they were never being more faithful creatures of the Great Spirit than when they were playing, carefree and confident, in God’s presence, “at God’s feet”, as they put it.

Isn’t that a beautiful sentiment? “Primitive” we sophisticates call them while we are at the same time challenged by them and ask if it is possible that their philosophy of life and their idea of God are not in some important ways truer and more sensible than our own.

The Old Testament speaks of Wisdom as a person, a part of God and yet outside of God, playing in God’s sight and finding happiness through contact with the very creatures that she — Wisdom — had fashioned in compliance with God’s loving command.

That said, we can see more quickly and clearly that our ancestors in the Judeo-Christian faith understood that in the Mystery called God there were dialog & conversation, listening & responding & community. And they realized that we humans are “made in the image & likeness of God “. And so it is that we cannot be happy and fulfilled without cultivating those same qualities and dynamics in our personal lives. We are designed and we are destined to find our true selves by constant dialog and interaction with each other, filled with grace and charity and forgiveness.

I suppose it’s the same with you, but I get so relentlessly busy with things I believe have to be done that I don’t always make enough time to be silent in the inner presence of the Spirit of God. I work as if everything depends on me, almost forgetting that God is our generous and powerful provider, the source of our strength. For 60 years I’ve been visiting the Trappist Monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts, in order to reorient myself. There, observing the prayer life of the monks, I renew my intention to keep my priorities in proper order.

Our world is, really as never before in human history, so full of sound and non-stop activity, that we view God as a crutch for times of crisis, a last resort, when we should instead maintain an awareness of God’s minute-by-minute presence within us, always ready to guide us and always loving us. This is how we can best manage our lives and gradually become all that we were created to be for ourselves, for others, and for God.

Today is the Feast of the Trinity — “three Persons in one God”, we were taught, beginning with our infancy. Jesus would not have known what we were talking about, since the doctrine came into being more than 300 years after his life, death, and resurrection. (You won’t find it in the bible.) It was and remains one of the countless efforts we humans make toward understanding God, an impossible task. But what Trinity means at rock bottom is that in God there are love and relationship and conversation and sharing and all the elements that make up community. And we are made in the image and likeness of God.

And that’s why we pray “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

PENTECOST 2018

God doesn’t deal with us in some magical way from afar; rather, God works from within us and is limited by what we are willing to do. So, if someone who has offended someone else refuses to accept unconditional forgiveness, that person just doesn’t get it! He/she remains unhealed, unhappy, and sick in spirit. God in me can reach you only so far as I make that possible.

However, if we are willing to be generous life-givers to each other, we find that we have far more to offer than merely our own human resources: we recognize that we are also instruments of God’s own power of love and wisdom – love that soothes and heals, wisdom that guides and directs. We are channels of God’s power, which far exceeds our human limitations.

The people of Jesus’ day understood what was behind the description of fire and wind and clouds and angels and supernatural appearances that we just heard in the gospel for today. It all added up to an exciting and colorful way of celebrating unforgettably the fact that we are creatures of God, who lives with and in us always but who will force on us nothing, whether good or bad.

A spiritual person is one who lives his or her life always conscious of that divine presence, constantly trying to yield to its power and direction.

Our traditional devotion to the Holy Spirit and our one-time reception of the sacrament of Confirmation can imply that we Christians have been given by God an exclusive privilege denied to most of the other people of the world. That cannot be so. We are all creatures of the same loving God, whose Spirit acts in all who invite her to. From religion to religion we name that God differently, but, as the Scripture readings for today emphasize, it is the same Spirit in each and all of us.

It has been said that more wars have been fought over religion than over all other causes. We have seen many religious wars in our own lifetime, and we are tracking them daily right now. When will they stop once and for all? Not until we recognize that Pentecost is the Christian name for a phenomenon that is as old as creation itself: God acting everywhere in God’s beloved universe and in everyone who is willing.

Pentecost is regarded as the birthday of the church. In some ways, our church has been a shocking disappointment to us in the last 20 or so years. The crisis is not over yet, we can be sure. What feelings toward the church do we harbor today?

Carlo Carretto, whose works some of you have read, was a mid-20th century spiritual guide and mystic, something of a “diamond in the rough”. More than 50 years ago, he addressed the following message to the church. It is blunt, yet tender. It may well express some of your own sentiments. Listen carefully.

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.

Happy Pentecost to all!

7TH SUNDAY OF EASTER, 2018

It was in the New York Times that I read the story of a Jewish rabbi and a world famous financial investor who had met through their wives and had become friends. The investor was born of a Christian family and sang in the choir of his Protestant church in his youth, although he later on gave up religion.

The rabbi’s wife prevailed upon her husband to ask their friend to invest their life’s savings in stocks and bonds. He made the investment, which in 25 years yielded 25 million dollars.

The reason that the two men were featured in the good-size article was that the rabbi and his wife had recently given one third of their fortune to the theological seminary in which he had prepared for his ministry.

The two men were asked how a friendship between such unlike persons had ever begun and then endured for such a long time. The rabbi answered, “We both felt that the business of life is to be decent to one another and to live with compassion and not indifference,”

It’s hard to think of a statement that comes closer to the sentiments of Jesus.

We’ve just completed the many weeks of Easter and Ascension, when the church put before us a Jesus who was preparing his followers for his physical absence, when they would no longer see him or hear him. He is reminding them of what he had taught. He is encouraging them to stay close to him as he is close to the One that he called Father. And he is cautioning them not to be deceived or won over by the world’s spirit of greed and selfishness and idolatry.

If we are going to be faithful to Jesus’ wish for us, we need all the inspirational help that we can get. Jesus said, “Let your good works shine before others so that, when they see them, they too will give glory to God.” I think that also implies that we need to look for and pay close attention to people who are saying things like —

+This war is immoral. Human lives are more precious than a nation’s treasury.

+This doesn’t belong to me. I cannot keep it. I have no right to it.

+We don’t always have to make business decisions. We must also make decisions from the heart. These workers have families and children.

+ She’s gone home to God. She lives, and we can receive from her some of the peace and happiness she now enjoys in perfect union with our Creator.

+Sex is about love. It’s not for domination or intimidation or barter or selfish pleasure.

+A baby is a human being with inalienable rights whether in the womb or outside it.

+Women are as fully human beings as are men. By God’s design they have every right that men have.

+I won’t buy or wear clothes or shoes or anything else that I suspect was made by the slave labor of children and the oppressed poor in third-world countries.

And so on…

We call ourselves sons and daughters of the Resurrection. That cannot mean that the promise of eternal life and happiness in the world-to-come relieves us of responsibility in this mortal life here on earth or allows us to go the world’s self-serving way. Quite the opposite: it imposes on us the heavy responsibility to know the mind and heart of Jesus and to make him the ultimate and practical standard of everything we say and do.

6TH SUNDAY OF EASTER, 2018

When I began working on today’s homily last week, wondering first of all how this time I should approach the simple topic of Jesus’ central theme — love, I looked back over hundreds of my saved homilies and came across one that I thought would again be appropriate. It was based on something that had happened only the day before the Sunday on which I first preached it.

What happened was that a Sister friend of mine borrowed my car to visit her family in south Jersey. As she was returning on the Parkway, the car’s engine stopped completely. Sister Kathleen coasted off the shoulder of the road, tried without success to start the motor, and then, without success, to flag down someone who would help her. Frustrated and frightened, she got back in the car and simply wept.

On the seventh floor of an apartment building nearby, a young man was watching out his living room window. He quickly left his apartment and went to fetch his own car and drove to where Sister was marooned. He walked up to her open window and said, “What’s the trouble, Ma’am? No one would stop to help you? I figured you went back to your car for a good cry.”

The good man opened her hood, guessed correctly that the problem was a clogged fuel filter and went to a local auto parts store for a new one. When he returned and attempted to install it, he discovered that his wrenches were the wrong size and therefore useless. He said, “I think we can get it running at least for a few miles. So, if you drive slowly on the shoulder, I’ll follow you just in case there’s more trouble.”

And so he did, all the way to my home in Clifton, where I met this person, shook his hand and thanked him. He refused to accept the money I offered him, even for what he had spent. He would not give me his address, wanting nothing in return for his kindness. All he said was, “My mother and six sisters all drive. When they are on the road alone, I have no peace until they’re home. I always hope that if they ever have car trouble someone will help them. So I was glad today to be of help to someone else.”

It is especially interesting and inspiring to know that Sister was not wearing a religious habit and was, therefore, in no way identified as a nun. He wasn’t doing this extraordinarily good deed for a “special” person. Interesting and inspiring also to know that Sister was white and this man was black.

I had the feeling that I had met the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ immortal story. Change a few details and all the essential elements were the same.

There are many kinds of love. I can’t help but think that the kind this gentle man had in his heart was one of the rarest. All these past many years, especially as I have passed that building hundreds and hundreds of times, I recall the incident with fondness and gratitude and hope. I also feel the expectation that in the end love will win out.

I wish I could have told my nameless friend that he would be the Christ figure in my homily way back then and now again. But maybe it’s better that I couldn’t, because the very suggestion of reward or honor seemed to displease him.

“What I command you is this:” Jesus said, “that you love each other as I have loved you.”

5TH SUNDAY OF EASTER, 2018

During the 20 years I was pastor of a north Jersey church, one of our excellent catechists and her husband, both educated, intelligent Catholics, welcomed into their beautiful home about a dozen of our teenagers twice a month for two years. The purpose of these meetings was to teach the children and discuss openly with them matters of faith as they were making their way toward the sacrament of Confirmation.

Naturally, I would inquire regularly how things were going. After the expected reports on both the funny and the insightful things the kids were saying and doing, their mentors more than once told me of their concern that many of their students did not feel that they are loved by God. Their image of God, I was informed, was of a distant, judgmental, overseer who has no personal relationship with them, no intimate involvement in their lives, but who is constantly scrutinizing their behavior from afar and, as they put it, “taking notes” to hold against them.

Where did those young people ever get such notions? Where does anyone get them? I believe the process starts when we who grew up in religious homes were told by well-meaning parents that God won’t love us – in fact, that God will punish us – if we did not behave as we were told to. The lesson got reinforced a little later when we learned that we can commit a sin called mortal, like murder or missing Mass on Sunday (seems ridiculous now, doesn’t it, to place those two side by side?), a sin for which we would be punished in everlasting fire!

And then we find out that certain Catholics are barred from the sacraments of the church because they married again after a failed marriage ended in divorce.

And so on & on & on…

Add to all of that the possibility of a childhood under stern, unaffirming parents, and it is almost inevitable that one’s image of God will be forever malformed accordingly.

But the church was established to spread throughout the world a revelation called the Gospel, the Good News. The Good News it proclaims is both a person and a primary fact of human life. The person, of course, is Jesus, and the fact of life revealed in and through him is that God is pure, unconditional love! While we may be obsessed by or worried about our human weaknesses, God sees in us what God has made – and loves us.

You remember Sister Helen Prejean, author of the book Dead Man Walking. (Susan Sarandon played her in the movie by the same name.) Sister Helen’s ministry was to prisoners on death row and to the families of their victims. I met her once and asked her advice as I was about to fly to Georgia to meet with a man on death row with whom I had been corresponding for years. Among the gems of wisdom she gave me was this: “Tell him over & over that people are far more and better than the worst thing they’ve ever done; and that’s what God sees.”

Yes, we are far more and better than the worst thing we’ve ever done, and that’s what God sees.

We are loved just as we are – and just because we are! That unconditional love has the power to inspire us to achieve as best we can our human potential and to find ever-increasing peace and joy in the process of daily conversion.

How are we supposed to commune with the Creator of this unfathomably immense universe? What language do we use? What concepts do we think with? Jesus solves the conundrum by telling us emphatically that “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” We converse with the mystery we call God through the one who has penetrated the mystery as no one ever has – and, for the time being, that is more than sufficient.

The Easter we continue to celebrate assures us that the lines are open – and never closed.

4TH SUNDAY OF EASTER 2018

Years ago I had a priest friend with a very laid-back sense of humor — hard to know whether he was serious or joking. One day I was introducing him (who rarely wore clerical garb) to some friends of mine, one of whom asked him what his line of work was. With a straight face he answered, “I’m a shepherd.” “Oh, really?” she replied. “That is so interesting! Where, may I ask?” And without missing a beat, Ray said, “In Jersey City.”

At that point I intervened and informed my friends that Ray was a priest and that his work was in the city.

The incident left me with the unforgettable image of a man leading a hundred sheep across Broad Street amidst horns beeping and drivers cursing! I have seen the real thing in both Israel and Ireland, and to a suburbanite like me it was a treat.

However, Jesus was a carpenter, not a shepherd. St. John, alone among the four Gospel writers, has Jesus claiming to be the Good Shepherd. After his death and resurrection, his followers seem to have paid little attention to his real occupation and styled him instead as the Shepherd, not the Good Carpenter. You have to wonder why they and John made that choice.

The carpenter becomes a creator, fashioning things of lasting strength and beauty. I think of it as one of the noblest and most artistic of crafts.

But the work of the shepherd involves something uniquely different: the shepherd has the care of other living creatures. To the extent that he loves them and labors for them, to the extent that he is willing to inconvenience himself — even making personal sacrifices for their benefit — will those dependent creatures be happy and secure. I believe Jesus admired that about shepherds and that John saw those very qualities in him, and therefore called him the Good Shepherd.

This is interesting because as far as we know Jesus never took care of sheep as an owner or as a hired hand, so his talk about shepherding has directly to do not with sheep but with us. He cares for us, he guards us, protects us, feeds and heals us; he binds our wounds and nurses us to spiritual health; he provides the rehabilitating rest that our tired, battered spirits crave.

An elderly friend of my brother died several years ago. For a long time, he and his wife had not been churchgoers, although their Protestant faith was still deep in their hearts. At the wake service, his daughter told me that a week before his death he said he knew that he was dying but that no one should be upset because “I know Jesus will take care of me.” He apparently understood well the concept of the Good Shepherd.

It could not be clearer that what Jesus wants of us is that we cultivate a “shepherdly” attitude toward each other, discerning always how we can enhance each other’s lives, not merely by giving off the top from our abundance and our surplus, but by sacrificing when necessary, doing what at the moment we may not want to do; monitoring our words, that can so easily hurt; refraining from saying what would make the other sad or disturbed; giving when it appears risky; and so forth.

Certainly it would be absurd for us to expect that the whole world will suddenly turn to such altruistic behavior, but you and I can turn more in that direction today and discover again what peace and happiness await the person who, not just in words but in daily action, imitates Jesus, the Good Shepherd.