Tag Archives: St. Paul


We can’t help but wonder about this “thorn in the flesh” that St. Paul claims to have been given and that he asked God time & again to take away from him. Some think it may have been a speech impediment; others suggest it was a distracting relationship with another person. I’ve heard the suggestion that it was an embarrassing illness — or poverty that left him virtually homeless. And so on. I guess that we will never know for sure what it was.

What we do know is this: Paul learned to accept this condition of his life and asked God to turn it into power for good. He came to the revolutionary conclusion that this weakness, this disability, this negative, destructive, maybe embarrassing thing in his life was actually a major blessing in disguise — for himself and for those he served in Jesus’ name.

Why? Because it reduced him — with all his pride and self-determination and resourcefulness — to complete dependence on God. It forced him to his knees, so to speak, in which submission he could finally face his human limitations, his near-nothingness, and admit that ultimately he was powerless. Having done that, he could then become the channel through which the awesome power of God would flow.

It is so important for us also to see this great light that came to Paul, because there is not one of us who does not have some sort of disability, whatever it may be. We can react to it in one of only two ways: 1) We go on fighting it vainly, permitting it and our frantic efforts to sap our strength and distract us from our Christian course of life. Or 2) We accept it as inevitable but recognize that it offers us the opportunity to empty ourselves in an act of abandonment to our Creator, inviting the Spirit of God to use us as an instrument of power for good.

Many years ago I had a priest friend who was afflicted with the disease dystonia, which is a progressive destruction of the central nervous system. He walked with his head at knee level, bumping into walls and doorways to guide his course. His whole body shook constantly with what is called disconesia. Despite all that, his mind was clear and his sense of humor was sharp. On a visit to him one Christmas, I asked what he was most grateful for during that season that he so loved. He answered simply, “Everything!” I took the bait and put a question to him that I had wanted for years to ask: Does that include the disease? His answer: “The disease? Above all! You’ll never know what a powerful tool for good it has been in my life as a priest.”

If Paul thought that his personal cross was given him by God, I must say that I do not agree. I cannot imagine God as giving any sort of suffering to us creatures. The truth is that creation is unfinished and very imperfect; therefore, all kinds of terrible things happen to all forms of life before and after our birth. They just happen – that’s all. They are planned by no one, God included.

In the meantime, we take Paul’s excellent advice and invite God to turn even our weaknesses into power for good.



Readings like the three we just heard require so much background information in order to be understood that they are far better handled in a classroom than in a six- or seven-minute homily on Sunday morning. Take as an example today’s brief excerpt from St. Paul’s long letter to the new Christians in Corinth. Interpreted on its own merits the message seems to be that marriage is an inferior way of life for the really committed Christian. Paul says that to have a husband or wife pulls one away from devotion to God. That’s one of the standard arguments, you know, against a married priesthood: that the priest who is married could not possibly at the same time devote himself adequately to his ordained ministry. I’m among the many who do not subscribe to such thinking.

And how different that line of reasoning is from what an Episcopal priest said to me many years ago. He told me that his wife is so much a part of his personal and professional life that if she were removed from the equation, as he put it, he would not know how to be a priest.

But actually St. Paul was not denigrating marriage; he was only trying to establish an order of priorities in the lives of his fellow followers of Jesus. Remember, as we mentioned last week, that Paul thought that the world was about to end and that this was no time to be concerned about things of this life — no time to be thinking about marrying or starting a business or traveling or whatever. All that should be done now is to prepare as best we can for the triumphant return of the crucified and risen Jesus, which could occur even as soon as tomorrow.

Well, we know that Paul was mistaken about the second coming of Christ; it hasn’t happened yet, 2000 years later. But that doesn’t strip his words of relevant meaning, not if we see in them a more general plea that we take seriously becoming more & more attentive to the voice of God within us.

I grant you that that is very subjective: two persons can hear the voice of God very differently, as is the case right now among good people who are concerned about grave moral issues like abortion and wars in the Middle East and various sexual matters.

But to say the “voice of God” is to speak in metaphor. The Second Vatican Council, over 50 years ago, said that we discover in ourselves a law in our consciences which calls us to love and to do what is good and that we will be judged on how we observed that law. That means that we are to be guided constantly by an inner compass which gets its orientation from the Spirit of God. Each of us is to use that compass so as to deal successfully with the persistent distraction and competition that we encounter along the way.

How many times I have heard distressed parents agonize over a son who is gay or a daughter who is divorced and remarried, for example. I respond first by asking two questions: 1) Is your child a good and loving person? Invariably the answer is Yes. 2) Is it clear that he or she has acted, not thoughtlessly or selfishly, but in good conscience after a long period of consideration? Again, I have rarely heard anything but a resounding Yes.

A moral decision can be costly for the person who makes it when it disappoints those that he or she loves. But, if it comes out of heart and mind and conscience, it is perfectly in accord with the time-honored tradition that we are to be directed ultimately – in the final analysis, as we say — by the Divine Spirit present within us and speaking through a well-formed conscience.

“If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2018

In my 20 years as coordinator of the team ministry in a North Jersey parish, we 11 members (three priests, one deacon, two Sisters, and five lay men and women) would meet twice a month to plan the activities of the parish and to review how things were progressing and learn how we might work together more closely.  Twice a year we would go to a retreat house for an all-day session.  At one of those meetings in the mid-90s we chose as an overriding theme for the coming Lent the slogan, “Let It Begin with Me.”  Our hope was that we and the people we served would accept that invitation and apply it first of all to our actions and attitudes in the pursuit of peace in this troubled world.
One of the priests with whom I shared the rectory in that parish was always quick to offer his assistance when he thought that I was having a difficult or over-crowded day.  When I would thank him for his brotherly thoughtfulness, he’d say jokingly, “Ah, forget it.  I’m just piling up graces.”  He used the expression in jest, of course, but that is the way many people seem to think: that the good we do is like an investment that we can cash in on later!  A matter of quid pro quo.
But what leaps out at us from today’s Scripture readings is the idea of response to God — response that is definite, sincere, and generous.  St. Paul was dead wrong about the world coming to an end not long after the time he wrote the letter of which we heard a small part today.  But his emphasis that we not allow anything to stand in the way of doing what God directs us to do is as valid now as it was then.  God’s will is not found in a book; it is discovered only through prayerful — sometimes painful — interior listening.
The brief story about Jonah in today’s first reading picks up long after his refusal to do God’s bidding; we meet him only after he had finally said yes.
And, in the Gospel, those apostles who dropped everything, including the fishing nets by which they earned their living, and followed Jesus are the same men who later on shamefully deserted him as he moved toward his violent death.
We can feel at home in such company as we recall our own infidelities!  And yet, like those imperfect persons, we also believe in Jesus, whom we recognize as our most direct link to the unseen God.  What should be our response to God?
Our response to God has to be, as was theirs, a radical, lifelong commitment to conversion — a lifelong process that ends only when we die.  We don’t have to continue the destructive behavioral patterns we seem to be stuck with now, or the bad relationships we have with certain other persons, or the negative view of life that has become habitual to us, and so on.
An American professional athlete wrote several years ago that, for him, prayer is just asking what God would have him do.  Not a bad definition, I’d say.
We can’t stop  war and put peace in its place.  But we are responsible for the development of our own individual lives.  God has given us Jesus as the perfect model for human life along with God’s own Spirit, the same Spirit that Jesus recognized and collaborated with throughout his life.
A simple prayer, but much to be recommended, might go like this: “Change me, God, make me what you want me to be.  Give me the wisdom to hear your voice and the courage to follow it.
“Let it begin with me!”


With her lawyer husband, Patty Crowley, who died twelve years ago, was a founder of the Christian Family Movement and also a member of the birth control commission appointed by Pope Paul VI. Both of these distinctions, and many others, took place mostly in the 1950s and 60s.

Patty was the mother of four; she was a gentle, loving, caring person, whom Father Andrew Greeley called the most important woman of her time with regard to the involvement of the laity in the life and ministry of the church. She was, by the way, a great cook, constantly preparing and serving good meals for her family, their friends, and strangers as well.

Patty could be quite blunt, without offense or meanness: she wrote back in the 80s that she longed for a church “that is honest about its teachings, that admits its errors and faces the effects of rigidity with openness.”

In preparing this homily, I was reminded of something I had read about her around the time of her dying. The National Catholic Reporter introduced it with this beautiful description of her journey toward death and new life: “As her health declined over the past 10 years, she remained as long as possible an active member of Holy Name Cathedral Parish, reading the scriptures on Sunday and bringing Communion to the homebound; and always she warmly welcomed any visitor who cared to drop in on her, even on a moment’s notice. … (She) provided a blunt, typically pithy summary of the spiritual outlook that guided her life. (Quote) ‘I say the only important thing is Jesus’ message, and the rest of the rules are for the birds. So give food to the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, help the sick and visit those in prison. That’s what I do.’ ” (End of quote)

I think that is so refreshing, especially as coming from a modern saint, a true follower of Jesus, who lived faithfully by his rules, which he said were essentially only two: to love God and to love others as we love ourselves.

Patty Crowley may never be canonized, and I’m not suggesting that she should be. But she certainly was a prophet who, as we might colloquially express it, “cut the mustard” and focused on the essence of real Christian behavior both in what she said and in how she lived.

Of course, rules are necessary and helpful in their proper place and form; Patty would not have denied that, I’m sure. But she was right in insisting that our lives as Christians are not to be characterized primarily by obedience to rules and regulations invented by others for us to observe.

No, our Christian lives are to be defined essentially by relationships that are kind, patient, respectful, non-abusive, life-giving, forgiving, affirming, loving. As Patty expressed it, if those are not the qualities of our relationships, then all the rules that we so scrupulously keep are simply, in her exact words, as you just heard minutes ago, “for the birds.”

“Rejoice always,” St. Paul advises us in today’s second reading. “Never stop praying. Give thanks always…Don’t stifle the spirit. Don’t despise prophecies. Test everything; retain what is good. Avoid any semblance of evil.”

Our friend Father Roger Karban, whom we haven’t quoted for a long time, says, “Not a bad way to live – especially when we’re not exactly certain where our living is taking us.”



Does it happen to you, as it does to me, that, as you look back over your past life, you see that certain encounters, happenings, statements stand out as having had an enduring influence on your own thinking, your values and behavior? As I settled on a theme for this homily and was struggling to compose the introductory words, I experienced just such a recollection, something that I had not consciously thought about in many years.

This is what it was: some 40 years ago, I was being treated by a chiropractor in northern New Jersey, a good Christian man, not a Catholic but a younger than middle age married man with several children. On one of my visits, in a moment of confidence, he told me that his practice was booming; he had so many patients that he could hardly keep up with the demand. (Among them, by the way, were two priest friends of mine, both of whom were absolutely convinced that the man was a healer who, more than anyone else, had helped to make them well enough to resume their recreational athletics.)

But, in that conversation, that my memory has held onto all these years, the chiropractor told me that a few years into his practice he had, as he put it, made a pact with Jesus that he would never turn anyone away who could not afford even the modest price of a treatment. And so, he said, he knew almost nothing about the finances of the practice, which he left completely to his office staff.

At the other end of the pact, he said, was Jesus, who, he was certain, was assuring him, “You take care of the poor that come to you, and I’ll take care of you.” And that’s the way it’s gone ever since, he told me. “I’m a wealthy man,” he said, “although it’s never been my goal to be that.”

Now, if I had heard that story from someone else, I’d be suspicious and even doubtful, because it sounded like the magic of the fundamentalist Christianity that I despise – “Send in your generous donation and within 9 days your petition will be miraculously granted…”

But my brain has preserved the memory of the chiropractor’s confession of faith for more than four decades. I know that it frequently sheds its light on the process of my personal decision-making. This makes me think that I saw something in it that was important for me to hang on to and to share with others, as I have just shared it with you.

The important point I see it illustrating is this: our religion should not be allowed to remain merely academic or intellectual or a matter of ritual. It has to be intensely personal, a relationship between the living Jesus Christ and ourselves. Prayer should be a kind of on-going conversation between us and him. A real Christian cultivates an awareness of the presence of the risen Jesus in his or her daily life and communes with him.

In the second reading, St. Paul, who suffered cruel imprisonment, brutal physical torture, and virtually every hardship the human being can experience, ends up by assuring us that God will supply whatever we need through Jesus.

So, unlike the ungrateful, unresponsive invited guests in Jesus’ parable about a king’s wedding reception for his son, we must not ignore the offer of Jesus to take part in our lives in a minute-by-minute working relationship that can only enrich us in every conceivable way.


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!

5th Sunday in Lent, 2017

A famous French bishop of the 17th century wrote, “Human beings are as quick to bury thoughts of death as they are to bury the dead.” I think that’s true. But not so of the Christian churches: they stand out as realists and speak of death without hesitation or embarrassment.

In the gospel passage proclaimed today, we heard a familiar story of death.

In it we hear Jesus calling his friend Lazarus back from death to the same life he had been living since his birth. But later on, so we believe, Jesus himself was called out of death by God to an entirely different and radically superior order of life — a life of total union with God. This “resurrection” of his was really an act of creation by God, which appears to be the reason that our celebration of the Easter Vigil includes excerpts from the creation account in the Book of Genesis.

Are we not to understand that just as God created the universe in a fantastic burst of energy that continues to evolve in our own day, so was Jesus’ resurrection an even more astonishing creation of energy which is immune to death and corruption?

The world thinks of death as the end — and mourns it. Christians believe that death is the new and eternal beginning — and they celebrate it.

What do we suspect happens after death? The imagination of most religious people goes to thoughts of heaven or the beatific vision. Why not instead simply think of God, the mysterious reality that has brought us into existence, that loves us wildly, unconditionally, and welcomes us beyond our inevitable death into new life of perfect union with God?

If you were to ask me what my own personal feelings are toward my coming inevitable death, I would tell you that, on the one hand, I feel sad at having to leave the only life I’ve ever known and all the good people I’ve shared it with. On the other hand, I would tell you I am excited about what I shall discover on the other side of death. I have always been curious about the secrets of the universe — is space limited or infinite? How does light travel so fast? Who — or what — is God? How did human language come into existence? What is it like to live in unconditional, perfect love? What will I be when all the limitations I possess are taken away and I blossom into the full person I was created to be?

St. Paul, whetting our appetites for the life to come, said that what God has prepared for us has never even entered the human imagination!

That said, I’d have to admit that I do have some concern over the manner in which I will die. Not, I hope, as the result of a long and painful illness. Not in the rubble under a bombed building or in a fiery crash. But I’ve never brooded over that because I know I can and must trust that the loving God who has sustained me all these years will also sustain me in the manner of my dying.

Joseph Sittler, a Lutheran pastor, now gone home to God, wrote some years ago, “What life behind death might be, I have no notion. The only life I know is the finite one that I live before dying. Something continues, but what that will be I’m perfectly willing to leave in the hands of the Originator.” (He spelled that word Originator with a capital O.)

Simone Weil, mystic and scholar, wrote, “It is not my business to think about myself. It is my business to think about God. It is for God to think about me.”

And best of all, Jesus: “I am the resurrection and the life.”