Tag Archives: St. Paul

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!

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.”

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!

25th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME 2016

Need I say — but I will — that I have no way of knowing whether or not St. Paul was including parents in that category of “those in authority” whom he asked people to pray for? Maybe he had in mind only social or political authority, at least in this letter he wrote to Timothy. But I don’t think it would be unfair for us to extend the term to mothers and fathers, because they certainly do exercise authority, perhaps the most formative, influential and lasting of all.

Sometimes I discover quite accidentally that people I’ve known for a long time and whom I have thought to be happy and satisfied actually carry the terrible burden of being mother or father of children who are for one reason or another a profound disappointment to them. It may be because these sons and daughters have rejected the Catholic faith in which they were born and raised. It may be that their marriages have failed or that they have married in an unacceptable way. It may also be that they have adopted a style of life that seems contrary to traditional Christian teaching. Whatever the circumstances, it is a very heavy burden that they can neither escape nor deny. They pray quietly, sadly, and they wonder what helpful answer is possible even from God.

And so, we pray for them, that some measure of peace will return to their lives. We pray that they will come to know, first of all, that we love, honor and respect them for their conscientious efforts at being good parents. We hope that they will feel our understanding and compassion for whatever errors they have made in their life-long commitment to marriage and parenthood — especially as we confess to them that our own lives have been far from perfect, too.

We ask the Spirit of God to convince them that we appreciate the odds against them as they tried to be good parents in a world full of unprecedented forces that mock the Christian way of life. We pray also that they not judge too hastily or harshly the conscience and the motives of their disappointing children, who are required to follow that conscience even against the opposition of the church, their parents and all other authorities. The Spirit that presides over their lives is gentle and patient and persevering. The Spirit is the supreme agent of change.

We are not a community of confirmed saints; we are sinners, all of us, struggling to change our ways so as to resemble more the ways of Jesus. The church is at once beautiful as the Body of the living and risen Jesus and also deformed in the weaknesses of its members — including its highest leaders. It has to be a true home, a haven of security, for all. That’s why our great pope, Francis, keeps reminding us that the church is a very wide tent that has room for all who seek it and from which no one is ever to be turned away.

May those who exercise the authority of Christian parenthood not condemn themselves for their apparent failures. May they not envy those who seem to have done better than they have in raising their children. Instead, may they draw life and strength, peace and dignity, from the love of Jesus that comes to them in the love of us all, their brothers and sisters in his church.

5TH SUNDAY IN LENT, 2016

When I was a very young child, I saw a man beat a cat to death with a broomstick, an experience that is permanently etched in my memory.  Whenever this gospel account is proclaimed, that horrific scene comes back to me.  That’s what the adulterous woman was about to undergo, not with a broomstick, but with rocks and stones hurled by righteous, law-abiding men.  Only the intervention of the compassionate Jesus saved her life, as we just heard again.

Jesus had said, “I have come that you may have life, and have it more abundantly.”  He demonstrated that passion frequently throughout his life and ministry.  In the episode put before us today, we see the driving force that always motivated his actions.

I was deeply moved by Larry King’s interview about twenty years ago with the beautiful young widow of the deceased NBC TV journalist, David Bloom.  She is the mother of their three daughters, and she spoke clearly of David’s Catholic faith and her own.  She read one of his last emails from the Middle East to his children, in which he said that, though he missed them terribly and wished that he could always be with them, he was doing what he knew he had to do, especially, as he put it, for Mommy and for them and for Jesus.  His funeral was at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, the sad marking of an untimely death and the celebration of a life lived consciously and deliberately in the company, and in imitation, of Jesus.  In the mind of any Christian hearing that testimony, there could not have been the least doubt that David, who lived in the awareness of Jesus’ presence in his life in this world, now lives with him in the life that lies ahead.

In this connection, I must refer once more to the statement of faith made by the murderess, Carla Faye Tucker, who was executed in 1998 by the State of Texas.  After committing an unspeakable crime, she spent more than a decade on death row, where she underwent a total conversion, helping many fellow prisoners to live good lives and to die good deaths.  When she was asked, only days before her execution, what she thought would happen after the lethal injection had been administered, she said that she would fall asleep and that Jesus would take her gently by the hand and lead her to eternal life with him.  I will never forget the angelic look on her stunningly beautiful face as she said that and the peaceful anticipation that she radiated.

What did the adulterous woman see in Jesus?  How did her life proceed after this remarkable encounter?  We don’t know, but we can easily guess.

It seems to me that the Gospel of Jesus teaches that happy life with him is not reserved completely for the future beyond our physical, biological death, but rather is something that we begin living here on earth in the midst of all our nagging troubles and our fleeting joys.  We are invited and empowered to taste that transformed life even while we are still here.  The eternal life we have been taught to look forward to after inevitable death has already begun.  No, we don’t feel or experience it fully; we can’t while we are so immersed in this imperfect existence, where, as St. Paul says elsewhere, we see as through a veil or in a cloudy mirror.  But it is real nonetheless; it is true.  There is continuity from here to eternity.  We are tasting it now.  This earthly life will not be extinguished; it will be transformed to a whole new level of comprehension.  We will see even as we are seen, the scriptures tell us.

And so, we move on with joyful expectation of what lies ahead both in this life and in the next!

HOMILY FOR ALL SAINTS DAY 2015

The tragic murder of my fellow priest of the Paterson Diocese, Father Ed Hines, six years ago this past month occasioned expressions of unconditional love not unlike that of the Amish folk of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, three years prior to that, when they openly and immediately forgave the man who had shot and killed their children.  The Amish community, you will remember, opened its hearts and its doors to the murderer’s widow and children, insisting that they stay with them for as long as they’d find comfort and solace among friends who loved and cared for them.

Father Hines’ murder in Chatham, New Jersey, was similar in that the people of St. Patrick’s Parish, shocked and grief-stricken over the unexplainable slaughter of their beloved pastor, prayed first and foremost for his apparently crazed killer, his wife and their two young children.  If, as an anonymous wise person long ago put it, a saint is someone the light shines through, then we can say truthfully that bursts of light came from Lancaster and from Chatham within our memories.

Sister Joan Chittister, Benedictine nun and popular commentator on the Catholic Church in America today, has reminded us that we are used to violence; we are flooded with reports of it, both foreign and domestic, every hour of every day.  She said, “It was not the violence suffered by the Amish community that surprised people…What really stunned the country about the attack on the small schoolhouse in Pennsylvania was that the Amish community itself simply refused to hate what had hurt them.”

She went on to inform us that an Amish grandfather told his children at the mouth of one little girl’s grave, “Do not think evil of this man.”

The Amish delegation told the family of the murderer, “Do not leave this area.  Stay in your home here.  We forgive him.”

Again, Sr. Joan:  “Never had we seen such a thing.  Here they were, those whom our Christian ancestors called ‘heretics,’ who were modeling Christianity for all the world to see.  The whole lot of them.  The entire community of them.  Thousands of them at one time.”

What we have been privileged to witness in both events are modern stories of genuine sainthood.

This doesn’t mean that they are all perfect, these Amish Christians or the Catholics of St. Patrick’s in Chatham.  It means that, in an aspect of life that Jesus emphasized was most important, they permitted the light of their Godly behavior to shine through for all others to see and to imitate.  They were not looking for glory or recognition or praise; they were simply following the example and the teachings of Jesus without compromise.  That’s what sainthood essentially consists of.

We tend to associate the celebrated sanctity of the saints with a particular deed or characteristic or event.  St. Lawrence for being roasted on a spit.  St. Therese of Lisieux for her humility.  St. Isaac Jogues and his companions for their death by slow torture.  St.Joan of Arc for her military courage in a just cause.  And so on.

But actually, sainthood embraces one’s whole life; it has more to do with attitude and disposition and habitual conscience than with a single act.  Sainthood is living in the conscious presence of the Spirit of God and trying always to conform to the directions of that Spirit.  Sainthood is a lifestyle, a way of living every day.

St. Paul regularly addressed his brothers and sisters in the Christian community as “saints.”  Were he here today, that’s what he would call you and me.  And none of us should say, “Oh, not me!  I’m no saint.  If you knew what I’ve done and said and thought, you’d never call me a saint!”

That response misses the point.  We are not born consciously committed to perfect union with the Creative Spirit; it is a long, hard struggle for virtually all of us to reach such a state of oneness with God.  We sin and stumble and fall countless times along the way to spiritual maturity, and everyone’s timetable is different.

Today, All Saints Day, we gather with fellow Christians all over the world to remember, honor, bless, and thank all those good people – named and unnamed — who lived on this earth before us and have inspired us by living in imitation of Jesus, each in his or her own way, despite the limitations of the same human nature with which we came into existence.  If they were able so to shine, so are we!

HOMILY FOR 5TH SUNDAY OF EASTER, 2015

An old Marlon Brando film came to my mind as I was writing the homily for this 5th Sunday of Easter: “Viva Zapata,” stylized a bit, but solidly based on an historical event.  In it, the president of Mexico, a decent man, is convinced of the rightness of Zapata’s peasant revolutionary cause and pledges to cooperate with him, first by ordering the national army not to resist him and his forces.  So, having assured Zapata that his troops will be left free to move toward their peaceful objective, the president joins him and waits with him in anticipation of success.  But the army general has deceived the president and instead ambushes Zapata’s forces, virtually decimating them.  The well-meaning president is bewildered and unbelieving.  From a distance, he looks woefully at Zapata, silently pleading and hoping that his innocence and sincerity will be recognized.

What triggered this recollection for me was that passage from the Acts of the Apostles we just heard, telling us that Paul was trying to work with the disciples of Jesus in Jerusalem but that they were avoiding him, keeping him out because they knew of his only too-recent persecution of Christians.  They didn’t trust him, did not accept him as a convert-believer.  This had to have been a painful experience for Paul.  I assume that no one knows precisely how long the ostracism lasted before Barnabas interceded and convinced the community that Paul was really of one mind & heart with them in their allegiance to the Risen Jesus.

I think it’s interesting – in a way consoling – that the original Christian community, the infant church, had its own difficulties with the matter of inclusion and exclusion, even though the message and the intent of Jesus had everything to do with unity and peace.  The problem that Paul presented was, of course, his violent actions against the nascent Christian community.  It could be that even among those who accepted his conversion as genuine there were some who could not forgive him, who thought he was unworthy of inclusion, or who simply wanted him to feel pain for those crimes, no matter that he had repented of them.

It’s an old story and still very current.  We have to fight against that same inclination to play God.  We cannot content ourselves with the fact that we regularly go to Mass, keep the rules of the church, don’t murder, cheat or steal, and therefore are Christians.  The truth is that to be Christian is to have the values and the attitudes and the mind & heart of the one we are named after.  He teaches us by word and example that we are to love one another as God loves us.  That’s without any conditions or limitations.  That’s a love that forgives and overlooks and tries hard not to judge, not to bear grudges, not to lay down terms.  For a Christian it simply can’t be “I will love you if, or when…”  It can be only “I will love you… period.”  And the love then takes the form appropriate to the particular situation or relationship at hand.

A missionary to China – I could not recall or find his name – was expelled from that country in the 1940s.  On his long trek home, he came upon a community of Jews in India.  They were being rejected, harassed, ignored, even though they had fled to India from Nazi persecution in Germany.  The missionary loved them and spent every cent of the travel money he had been given on gifts for them.  Virtually penniless at that point, he telegraphed his mission society back home for additional funds.  When he got safely home, his superiors asked him why he had done such a foolish, reckless thing.  “Jews don’t believe in Jesus,” they said.  He answered, “No, that’s true, they don’t.  But I do.”