Tag Archives: faith

13TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2018

My mother always assured us that our father prayed. We saw him make the sign of the cross at the table and recite with us the prayer before meals. We knew that he went to Mass on Sunday, almost always alone, since he had his own schedule and would assure us that he would “make the 7 at St. Paul’s.” I was certain that he sat as close as possible to the exit door on the gospel side!

On the other hand, my mother came from a solidly Catholic family, whose father was a seminarian before meeting his future wife Catherine and becoming the parent of ten. So Mother assumed the exclusive and permanent job of being our prayer leader and our faith teacher.

Except once. Just once.

I remember that occasion very vividly. I was 7, Bob was 6, Barbara was 2, and David had not been born yet. The toddler, Barbara, had contracted whooping cough and was in imminent danger of death. It was a hot summer day. Dad was called from the textile plant he managed and quickly came home in a white shirt and dark blue tie, I remember. He looked up at the second floor balcony of our Spanish style home where Mother stood outside Barbara’s room in which the doctor was attending to her. Dad got the signal that his baby’s condition was critical. He put his hands on the shoulders of his two little sons and said, “Let’s kneel and ask God to make her well.” We said the Lord’s Prayer, the three of us — that one time — never to be forgotten. Dad ended it with, “Please, dear God, make my daughter well.”

I suspect that the good doctor is more to be credited than divine intervention, but, whatever the truth may have been, my sister got well soon after and grew up to be happily married and the mother of six.

True stories, like the one I just shared with you, or like the one about the man Jairus and his desperately ill young daughter, bear witness to a truth that most people hold in their heart-of-hearts: that God, despite all appearances and contrary evidence, is actively and lovingly present to the human condition and listens to the prayer of every person, whether spoken or silent.

It’s so important to profess that over & over throughout our lives because it can so easily be ignored or forgotten. Where is God when a bloody war rages? Where is God in the conflicts that tear our families apart? Where is God in the deadly drug scene? Where is God in AIDS or cancer? “I turned to you, Lord, and you did not answer me” is also very common human testimony.

My faith is that God cannot be capricious or partial. God cannot be indifferent or insensitive or uncaring. I believe that God always hears our prayer and that God wants us to recognize that we are always being created, minute by minute, and always being saved from what could destroy us. I am convinced that ultimately prayer is simply recognizing that fact of our lives, that on-going relationship with our creator.

So, how God answers or when God answers we cannot always know and often do not. It is not a score card of wins & losses that maintains our faith; it is, rather, the firm conviction that we live our lives, in good times and in bad, in the Mystery of Mysteries that we call God.

You’ve heard me say this before: a high school classmate of mine lost his 19-year-old daughter in a freak accident in New York City. At her jam-packed funeral, he said, “In this, too, we know that God is good and merciful and asks of us only faith and love.” Of all the homilies and talks I have heard on the topic, those words stand out as the truest and most important of all.

Who would dare limit the power of God, especially in the troubles of ours lives?

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FOR 5TH SUNDAY IN LENT, 2018

After 60 years of writing homilies every week (that’s approximately 3000 to date), I am increasingly wondering if their meaning is really reaching the faithful people for whom they are intended. Composed as the bible was in an age that was almost totally lacking in the most basic scientific knowledge, and having passed through translation after translation, what are we 21st century Christians able to, and supposed to, be getting out of it? What are preachers and teachers expected to be transmitting of “God’s word” from the Scriptures to others?

Consider the Gospel excerpt we just heard: Jesus is said to have said, “…whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.” In order to make sense of the otherwise objectionable word “hates”, I am certain that most sincere hearers automatically say to themselves something like, “He couldn’t have meant ‘hate’ in its ordinary definition; he must have meant that we should care more for the life promised us beyond death than the life we live now and should be willing to give up at times some worldly living if it gets in the way of our path to eternal life — what martyrs do, in other words.”

Adjustments like that wear thin after a while and we have reason to wonder how such puzzling statements can really be what they are proclaimed to be — the “word of God.” If they really are that, could not the infinitely intelligent and loving God speak more plainly for all to understand?

What we’ve got to come to grips with is that the bible is a collection of writings from different cultures at different times in the history of the world and that its authors and its original audiences did not perceive the world and the life of its human inhabitants as we do today. If, by some sort of time warp we could spend just one day with any of them, we’d be amazed at the radical differences between us and them. We would think of them as backward, uninformed, even childish; they would be shocked, scandalized at our apparent Godlessness.

To begin with, their very concept of God clashes with ours. They saw God as a super human being, male of course, perched somewhere above the clouds and surrounded by angels who serve him. Jesus was God’s son, whom he sent into our evil world precisely to suffer and die for our sins and restore us to God’s paternal love.

Now we know that that is all the product of human imagination. But had we lived in their day, we can be sure that without question or doubt we would have espoused the same ideas.

As all living beings do, we humans grew and learned more and more of the real truth — not completely yet, but significantly, even as we look forward eagerly to what we will in the future come to understand.

As we listen to the Scriptures every Sunday at Mass, it should be with a sincere attitude of honor and gratitude to those millions of people who lived on earth centuries before us and grappled with the Mystery of Mysteries called God. We must not sneer at their immature beliefs; we mustn’t grumble and ask ourselves why we are paying attention to such outmoded piety. We should instead thank those authors for leaving us a record of the primitive faith of their times and thank their hearers for passing on the religious faith that Jesus greatly advanced while commissioning us to develop it further under the guidance of the Spirit of God.

It’s a grand process we are privileged to be participating in.

 

 

3RD SUNDAY IN LENT, 2018

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?

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.

4TH SUNDAY IN LENT, 2017

If you are familiar with my homilies of the past months or of the past several years, there’ll be no surprise in my telling you that I am convinced that the experiences of these biblical persons we hear about in every Sunday Mass were no different from our own with regard to God’s involvement in our human lives.

I do not believe that they heard clear, verbal commands anymore than we do. Their knowledge of God was, just like our own, that of faith and trust in an unseen, unheard God. The main reason we honor and revere them is that, in the most trying situations, they lived by faith in that invisible, inaudible God.

And we can be sure, by the way, that it was exactly the same for Mary and Joseph and the apostles and early disciples — no matter the literary liberties the sacred authors used in their writings. These were persons of very strong faith. They’d hardly be worthy of our admiration and imitation if all they had to do was take verbal directions from mysterious inner voices and follow them step by step. Their greatness, instead, was in their believing when they could not see, could not hear, the divine presence. They managed, somehow, to trust a God who would reach out to them in the most subtle ways, who would be in and around them, but perceived only through the lens of faith, trust, and belief.

Have you ever tried to explain to anyone why you believe in God? And do you know why that’s so hard to do? It’s because we can’t, and we don’t, embrace God; quite the contrary, it is God who embraces us. We can’t comprehend the mystery of God’s presence in our lives. God is with us like the air we breathe so as to remain alive, the atmosphere that sustains us simply by our inhaling it. Maybe that’s why one of the most ancient symbols of God’s presence to humanity is the cloud.

Jesus’ encounter with the blind man, which we heard in today’s gospel excerpt, ends in an almost ominous way. He says to the devious Pharisees: If you were really blind, you’d be blameless; but since you claim that you see, when actually you have made yourselves blind and deaf to the God who lives within you, you live in sin.

If we’re willing to let the lesson sink in and think about it, we recognize at first that it contains a disturbing question, one we may rather not consider. The question is, is it possible that with all our busyness, even our admirable, constructive activity, we remain, at least partly, blind and deaf to the Creative Spirit?

If Lent is making any inroads into our lives, has it at least been a time during which we have tried to achieve an inner stillness in which we have given God the chance to speak to us? Are we becoming more open to the wisdom and insight that can come only as the gift of God? Do we want our love to be deeper, nobler, more beautiful and creative? Do we want to know better what we should be doing?

Not even God can put all that, and more, into a mind and heart that are shut tight.

7TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2017

Several years ago, as I finished a talk to a large group of New Jersey public school principals, a very big man walked up to me, smiled and said gently, “Father, would you accept a bit of advice from a layman?” I said I would, of course. He responded, “We’re not supposed to fight evil with anger and violence. There’s only one way that evil of any kind will be disarmed and converted: we have to smother it with love.”

And then he pressed something hard and angular into the palm of my right hand and said, “Please take this crucifix as a reminder of Jesus and of me. He conquered evil and death only with love, and he told us to do the same.”

At that time, I had been a priest for more than 30 years, and here was this stranger, a layman, as he said, suggesting not so subtly that I had somehow been missing the central doctrine of Jesus’ teaching. He was reflecting back to me that there had been some angry righteousness and vengeance in the talk I had just given about the sexual abuse of children and not enough of unconditional love like that of Jesus.

It turned out that the stranger was actually a famous star of West Coast TV and had no connection with religious broadcasting. The humble crucifix he gave me is only 3-or-so inches high, made of rough wood, and has pasted on it a Byzantine picture of Jesus on his cross. It’s been on my bedroom night table ever since, not as a charm or even a sacramental, but simply as a reminder that the only force that Jesus authorized his followers to use is the force of love as unconditional as we can make it.

But — does that mean that we are to love serial murderers, drug pushers and exploiters of the innocent? I know on the one hand what I feel about that, but I remember too that it was a very angry Jesus who turned over the tables of the crooked money-changers in the temple while whipping them with knotted cords. Then again, I am also certain, from all else he said and did, that we must continue trying to meet all conflicts, all personal attacks, all anger and evil intentions that come our way with a love and compassion that alone can ultimately conquer evil and help the evil-doer henceforth to choose what is right and good.

During the days that I was writing this homily, I chanced to speak with a man who had just been to the funeral of a man with whom he had once worked in the same financial corporation. Some years before his death, the deceased person had cleverly stolen from him a substantial amount of money. Once a very close and trusted friend, he never apologized, never admitted his crime. His victim told me that ever since he discovered what had been done to him, he struggled with his Christian obligation to forgive and found it very difficult to do. He said that he became haunted by Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies,” and tried to squeeze out of those words every ounce of meaning they contained.

A while before the death and funeral, it all became much clearer to him and led to a conversion. He was still thinking over how he would go about telling his defrauder that he forgave him, when the man died. My friend went to his funeral as a way of letting him know he was forgiven.

That’s taking Jesus and his teachings seriously. It left my friend in peace, a peace, he said, he could never otherwise have attained.

To all of you who are participating in this Mass, I wish peace, deep and lasting, and also the faith and the courage to do or say what you must in order to achieve it.

FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2017

As anyone who goes to Sunday Mass regularly or as anyone who reads the bible frequently knows, God is consistently said to identify more with the poor than with the rich. I believe that words indicating God’s preferential alliance with the poor over the rich don’t get beyond the ears of most of us.

But consider today’s reading from the prophet Zephaniah: he was talking to the ragtag nation of Israel that was getting more & more weary over their long years of debasing, almost hopeless, poverty. His advice was not that the people rise up against their oppressors but that they live with deliberate humility, uncompromised justice, doing no wrong, never lying or practicing deceit. The result, the prophet said, would be that they would be sheltered by God and once again pasture their flocks in peace and security.

Think also about St. Paul’s reminder to the newly baptized Christians in the city of Corinth, Greece, that we heard about in the second reading just minutes ago. They were inclined to regard themselves as the elite branch of the Christian community, “Big City” celebrities. Paul has the courage to hold a mirror up to them inviting them to acknowledge that most of them were of lowly birth and of low esteem in a sophisticated world.

In the Gospel passage appointed for today’s liturgy, Jesus challenges human wisdom and logic by calling fortunate those people who find themselves impoverished, disenfranchised, victimized.

What are we to make of such statements that at first seem so confusing and unacceptable?

Maybe the message is this: that those who commune with the God within them are actually rich beyond measure. The danger of material riches and power is that they can easily obscure the greater treasure, the presence of the Spirit of God. Wealth can absorb our interest and our time & energy and ultimately limit our personal goals to the merely material. Every day’s tabloid newspapers are filled with the stories of such misguided persons.

On the other hand, the blessing of poverty can be that it moves us to seek the real riches, the ones that last forever and never stop giving joy and peace, because their value goes far beyond the material.

Now, before I say another word about the theme of today’s scripture lessons, I confess again that I am not poor in material ways. I have a modest but beautiful home, a good car, plenty to eat and drink, money in my pocket and savings for the future. It was never my understanding that Jesus expected that we would give up all possessions and live either in hovels or as beggars on the street. I have read what I deemed to be responsible articles supporting the claim that he himself was of the middle class, such as it was in his day. His father was a small business man, a carpenter; his mother was a dedicated home-maker, as far as can be known.

But the word poverty has to be defined thoughtfully because there are many ways to be poor. Poverty doesn’t always mean the absence of material wealth; it can mean rather how we use and manage whatever it is that we own. It means living the spirit of poverty by giving generously to persons whom we recognize to be in dire need. It means not piling up wealth of any kind far, far beyond what we really need — and what we need may certainly include the objects of our artistic desires. Poverty also is expressed in our sharing with others our time, our gifts and talents, our compassionate presence, and — yes — our material wealth.

It is the gift of our Christian faith that makes sense of it all:

Faith — the basis of the friendship we share with countless others in mutual support.

Faith — strength for life’s most painful crises, even drawing new life from them.

Faith — the language of a never-ending conversation and communion with God.

Faith — the flawless compass of our lives.

Blessed are you, Jesus says, whatever your poverty may be. Just think how rich you are!