Thoughts on a Funeral

I assisted at a funeral today.  The word “assisted” is probably generous in describing what I did.  There were two priests and two deacons in attendance.  One, or even zero, deacons would have been sufficient.  A former deacon director used to speak of us as “liturgical furniture” or “liturgical flower pots”.  That would have been appropriate today.

My most important part of the proceedings was going to lunch.  A funeral lunch is when the clergy get to mingle with the family and friends and share memories of the deceased.  Today’s “guest of honor” was indeed a lovely lady.  Everyone knows it, but I think it brings comfort to most people to hear it from someone in a Roman collar.

I’m an Irish deacon who was sent by the Archbishop to administer a Czech chapel.  The chapel was once a parish but lost that status some years back.  The last pastor stayed on until his retirement so I think the place still felt like a parish until I showed up.  I was about as popular as a cockroach in the goulash.

The lady we buried today (and you’ll notice that I’m dancing all around using her name because I don’t have permission) was the first member of the Czech community who actually welcomed me and made me feel at home.  I’ll never forget her for that.  She was taking a big risk with her fellow Czechs and I really appreciate it.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been on retreat and attended something called “Deacon Day.”  The retreat was very inspirational and educational.  Deacon Day was a day where everyone said nice things about deacons.  It happens every year and is in lieu of any financial recompense.  Both of these things were nice.

But it occurred to me today that the people at the funeral, the people who really matter, couldn’t care less  how much I know, how many retreats I’ve been on, how many books I’ve read, or what the Auxiliary Bishop of Saint Paul/Minneapolis thinks of me and my brother deacons.  They want to know that I care about them.  And that’s a real revelation to me because frankly, it’s easy to get caught up in those other things and forget what’s really important.

In just a few weeks I’ll be leaving this community and returning whence I came because, to be honest, I’m just not physically able to be an administrator anymore.  I need to go back to just being an ordinary deacon, assisting the pastor at mass and with whatever else he wants me to do, including funerals.

I’m going to miss my Czech flock, even the ones who still wish I were a priest and that I wasn’t Irish.  But at ordination, a deacon promises to go wherever his Bishop sends him.  I believe right now the Holy Spirit is telling me to move on.  What happens in the future only He and the Father and the Son know.

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Retreat Postscript

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Yesterday was a travel day as we returned from Gesthemani, KY.  It’s always a transition to come back from retreat life to “real” life.  First of all there’s the time difference.  Gesthemani is in the Eastern time zone, Saint Louis is in the Central time zone.  It will take a while for my body clock to reset.  Second, there’s the “normal” events of life that don’t seem so hectic normally, but after a few days of life at the monastery,  it all seems kind of overwhelming.

I always come back from retreat determined to spend more time in prayer and contemplation.  I did that today, at least so far, but I don’t know what tomorrow will bring with morning mass, a breakfast at Saint John’s to introduce the new deacon, a 7:00 pm meeting, and a party afterwards.  That sounds like a hard day to find time for contemplation and reading.  We’ll see.  At least in my reading this week I learned some short prayers that can be said on the fly, keeping God at the front of my mind all day.

As usual, I came back with an arm-load of books.  All I have to do is find time to read them.  I’m looking forward to my retirement in December.  Maybe then I’ll have more time.

I was asked “what did you learn on retreat?”  Well, as I posted the other day, I learned to be willing to accept other people’s help, allowing them to be Jesus.  I think that’s big.  I also learned some things about contemplation and meditation.  That’s something the Monks are known for and something we should all cultivate.  With so much junk coming at us from all directions, it’s not easy to empty your mind and be open to God.  But it’s something we all have to learn to do.  There’s tremendous freedom in pushing all the stuff away and making room for God.

I believe that our souls have a finite amount of space in them.  The bad stuff can’t get in if we fill ourselves with the Holy Spirit.  But it takes work.  It doesn’t just happen.  Frequent repetition of the simple prayer “God come to my assistance.  Lord make haste to help me.” is one way to push out the negative thoughts.  For those who practice the Liturgy of the Hours, each hour begins with this prayer.  There’s no reason why we can’t repeat this request of God all throughout the day.  Try it.

I have more retreat news, so stay tuned.

I’m going to leave you with an audio clip of the Monks chanting Compline, or Night Prayer.  It’s fairly short and doesn’t vary much from day to day.  You might want to listen to this tonight (and every night) before you go to bed.  It’s very peaceful.

Happy Birthday, America!

This is the homily I gave this weekend.  Enjoy!  And, enjoy your holiday!

 

American Flag“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

 

This line is from the Declaration of Independence.  We all know it, but do we ever really think about it?  This weekend we celebrate the birthday of our country.  A lot of us will go on picnics, or go to ballgames, or go to the lake.  There will be barbecue, and everything that goes with it, and a lot of beer.  There will be days off work. There’s nothing wrong with that.  Except for the lake and the beer, I plan to do some of these things myself.

 

But what about the meaning of Independence Day?  We’re living in a time when so many people take our freedoms for granted.  The Declaration ends with the words, “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

 

This small group of men was setting about an almost impossible task.  We were going to war with Great Britain, the most powerful military force on the planet.  If we had lost, and without the protection of Almighty God we almost surely would have lost, these men were pledging their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.  They would certainly all have been killed.  Their families would have been killed.  Their property would have taken away.  And, instead of being remembered as American heroes, we’d remember them as British traitors.

 

But they had faith.  Don’t let anyone tell you they didn’t.  God’s name is all over the writings of these men.  

 

Speaking about our Constitution, James Madison wrote, “It is impossible for any honest person not to be astonished (that the Constitution had been created in spite of seemingly insurmountable obstacles).  It is impossible for the religious man not to once again perceive the finger of that Almighty Hand that so frequently and notably extended relief to us during the critical stages of the Revolution.”

 

No reasonable person, religious or not, could believe that this handful of farmers and businessmen could create the greatest form of government in the history of the world on their own.  They were blessed, and we’re blessed by a God who wanted us to be an example to all the world.

 

This handful of men from all parts of the colonies, with diverse backgrounds and religions, were actually able to agree on this thing.  There were no filibusters, no demonstrations, no walkouts.  They just did it.  The Holy Spirit had to be involved.  Today’s politicians can’t even agree on when to go to lunch.

 

Sadly, we’re living in a time when so many people take our freedoms for granted.  People from all over the world are literally dying to come here.  Many of them can’t even comprehend our lifestyle.  We can go wherever we want.  Do whatever we want (within reason) and say just about anything we want.  We may not realize it but that’s not true in a lot of other countries.    Sadly, it’s those freedoms that may be our undoing.

 

In Christian charity, we have welcomed people from all over the world to join us.  Now many of those people are attacking our Christian principles.  We can’t have the Ten Commandments in our courthouses.  We can’t have Nativity scenes on public property.  People who work in retail stores aren’t even supposed to wish us a Merry Christmas.  Where’s it all going to end?

 

As Catholic Christians, we belong to one of the few minorities that can be ridiculed without fear.  People can say whatever they want about us and it’s OK.  

“Catholics are all child molesters.”  “Catholics don’t care about anything but abortion.”  “Catholics worship statues.”  “Catholics are cannibals because they eat the Body of Christ.”  The more ridiculous the anti-Catholic statement is, the more people want to chime in.  And, we let them do it.  Look at how Muslims react to anti-Muslim rhetoric.  

They won’t stand for it and we shouldn’t either.

 

The Fourth of July is called “Independence Day” for a reason and it’s not because we get the day off work.  God has made us free.  God has blessed the United States with the most abundant natural resources in the world.  This place couldn’t have happened any other way.  But now, we’re being told that “one nation under God” is discrimination against atheists.  

 

If I go any further, I’m going to really go off on a rant, so I’ll stop now.  I just want to urge you to take some time this weekend to give thanks to God for making you an American.

 

Our ancestors made a terrifying journey across the Atlantic and up the Mississippi to settle in this neighborhood so they could enjoy the freedoms that they didn’t have in their home country.  When they got here they found prejudice against them from the locals who were former immigrants themselves.  Yet this was still way better than they left behind.  Like our founding fathers, they risked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.

 

While we drink our beer, and eat our barbecue, and watch our ballgames this weekend, let’s not forget the brave men and women who made it possible.

fireworks

 

3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time

3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time                        January 22, 2017

You probably know that our weekly readings, our daily readings too, come in sets. They go together. Part of my job, and Father’s job is to figure out why they go together and offer you our words of wisdom, guided by the Holy Spirit. Sometimes it’s hard, especially if we try to put too many of our own ideas into it. Sometimes it’s easy. Today’s readings are easy.

 

In the Gospel, Matthew refers back to the first reading, from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah tells us, “First the Lord degraded the land of Zebulun
and the land of Naphtali; but in the end he has glorified the seaward road,
the land west of the Jordan, the District of the Gentiles.”

 

In Matthew’s Gospel he tells us that Jesus heard about John’s arrest and “He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, that what had been said through Isaiah the prophet
might be fulfilled”.
Jesus glorified Capernaum just by being there.

 

What was Isaiah’s prophesy? “Anguish has taken wing, dispelled is darkness: for there is no gloom where but now there was distress.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.”
Jesus was the light.

 

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it. How many times have we sung the song “City of God?”

 

 Awake from your slumber! Arise from your sleep!
A new day is dawning for all those who weep.
The people in darkness have seen a great light.
The Lord of our longing has conquered the night.

Let us build the city of God.
May our tears be turned into dancing.
For the Lord our light and our love has turned the night into day.

A side note, the song was written by Dan Schutte, a member of the Saint Louis Jesuits, right down the street at Saint Louis U. Ironically, Schutte is no longer a Jesuit.

 

Anyway, we’re seeing here that God can turn dark into light; night into day.

 

In between the first reading and the Gospel we have Paul writing to the Corinthians, complaining about the divisions among them. The Corinthians also seem to be living in darkness. “I urge you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.”

 

Is Paul speaking to the Corinthians? Or is he speaking to us? Maybe both. Yesterday we inaugurated a new president and we are definitely a divided country. It’s pretty clear that we’re not heeding Paul’s words. One thing we all need to keep in mind is that Donald Trump is the 45th president of the United States. At most he’ll hold the office for eight years. The REAL leader of our country is hanging up on that cross. He’s the King. He rules everything. Always has…always will. Human leaders serve at His pleasure.

 

God has a plan and we have no idea what it is. All we know is that we’re all part of the plan and it will play itself out according to HIS will, not yours, or mine, or Donald Trump’s. It’s no coincidence that on this inauguration weekend that God tells us, through Saint Paul’s writing, that we must be united in the same purpose.

 

It doesn’t matter if we’re Democrats or Republicans, Christians or Jews, black or white, we must be united in the same mind and the same purpose. The United States is the greatest country in the history of the world, but we’re slipping badly because we’re not listening to God’s word. It’s time that we stopped fighting with one another and worked together for the good of all.

 

“Let us build the city of God.
May our tears be turned into dancing.
For the Lord our light and our love has turned the night into day.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Our Old Testament reading today and our Gospel tell similar stories. Each involves healing. In the first reading, Elijah visits the home of a widow. While he was there, the widow’s son took sick and died. Elijah took the boy to his room and asked God for healing, and the child recovered.

 

In the Gospel, Jesus and His followers came upon a funeral procession. The deceased was the only child of a widow. Jesus took pity on her, touched the coffin, and said, “Young man, I tell you, arise!” And he did.

 

Both of these stories bring home the fact that God has the power to heal. Why He heals some and not others is a great mystery, but He DOES heal. He doesn’t just bring back the dead, like Jesus did with his friend Lazurus, but He also healed the blind, and the deaf, and the leper. He’s God! He can do that!

 

But what is healing? The practical part of us says that when a blind man regains his sight, he’s healed. When a child’s cancer suddenly goes into remission, she’s healed. But that’s a very narrow, short-sighted view of things. Healing is more than just a physical thing.

 

What about the terminal cancer victim who accepts his diagnosis with the determination to live out his last days at peace with God, enjoying the time he has left with family and friends? Is that guy healed? Our faith tells us that he is. Isn’t that person, who we would normally call “sick” actually spiritually healthy. By sharing in Jesus’ suffering, isn’t he drawn closer to God? And if we’re drawn closer to God aren’t we the healthiest people of all?

 

Archbishop Carlson has asked the churches of the Archdiocese to celebrate the Sacrament of the Sick next Sunday. Priests will be anointing the sick at most of our churches, including Saint John Nepomuk. But there may be some confusion about what the sacrament means. Here’s what the Scripture says, in the Book of James, “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the presbyters of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven”

 

The Catechism tells us that “ The sacrament of Anointing of the Sick has as its purpose the conferral of a special grace on the Christian experiencing the difficulties inherent in the condition of grave illness or old age.” (ccc 1527) And, The anointing of the sick conveys several graces and imparts gifts of strengthening in the Holy Spirit against anxiety, discouragement, and temptation, and conveys peace and fortitude (CCC 1520)

 

 

When I was a hospital minister part of my job was to offer anointing to Catholic patients. You’d be surprised how many people, especially older people, would panic and say “absolutely not!” They were confusing the Sacrament of the Sick with what we used to call “last rites”. In their minds, anointing was the last step before death. Sometimes I was able to convince them otherwise, sometimes not. Old habits die hard.

 

Yes, anointing is appropriate for someone on the verge of death. But it’s not a “kiss of death”. It doesn’t mean you’re going to die, at least not right away. As the Catechism says, it confers a special grace. Any time someone becomes seriously ill, he may receive the sacrament. What’s “seriously ill” mean? It usually doesn’t mean the flu, but in some cases it might. I suffer from diabetes. I consider that to be serious and I’ve been anointed every time the condition seems to have gotten worse.

 

Any time you’re going to the hospital for surgery, that’s serious. You should be anointed. Any one suffering from the effects of old age should be anointed.

 

The actual anointing is done with oil that was blessed by the Archbishop on Holy Thursday. Each year the old oil is disposed of and replaced with newly blessed oil. Father will anoint the person’s forehead with oil and say, “Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit”. Then he will place oil on the hands and say, “May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up”. To each prayer the sick person responds: “Amen.”

 

Remember just a couple of weeks ago we talked about the Holy Spirit and how He works in our lives. Here we have another example of His amazing power. Father calls on His grace to free us from sin and raise us up.

 

So, to sum up. If you feel the need to have the Spirit enter you through the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, please see me after mass. Next Sunday at

9:30 mass, along with the rest of the Archdiocese, we’ll celebrate this beautiful gift of God.

 

 

6th Sunday of Easter

As Catholics living in the twenty-first century our faith has been much affected by the Second Vatican Council. The Council, which began in 1962, clarified and codified a lot of things. Sadly, as human beings, we all read things into the Council documents that weren’t really there. Also, as human beings, a lot of us were resistant to some of the things that the Council said. Some of us still are.

 

As an adult convert, the modern Catholic Church is the only Church I’ve ever belonged to. Some of the things that the rest of you grew up with are very foreign to me. My mass has always been in English. In my experience, the priest has always faced the congregation. Joining the Church in 1968, all the big changes had already taken place before I ever set foot into a Catholic Church.

 

Because the Church works so slowly, it’s almost fifty years since Vatican II and some Catholics are still resisting some of the so-called “new” things. Ironically, my life has been more affected by one of the Vatican II reforms than most of you. That would be the restoration of the Permanent Diaconate. If not for the Council, I wouldn’t have a clerical vocation, or a job.

 

Church Councils don’t happen very often. Vatican II was the twenty-first Church Council in the 2,000 year history of the Church. Historically Church Councils have been called to deal with controversy and heresy. The very first Council took place in Jerusalem around 50 AD. It was called the Council of Jerusalem and we read about it today in the first reading.

 

The issue with the council was whether you had to be an observant Jew in order to be a Christian. More importantly, at least for the men, was whether you had to be circumcised to follow Christ. Obviously, the Jewish converts were much more agreeable to this than the Gentiles. It was a big deal and threatened the future of the new Church. So, the Apostles agreed to meet and discuss the issue.

 

As we know, the Gentiles won the argument. The only requirement to join the new Church was to abstain from certain foods and from unlawful marriage. “If you keep free of these things, you will be doing what is right. Farewell.” Notice that the Apostles said “It’s the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us…” In 50 AD, and in 2016, our leaders are guided by the Spirit.

 

Here we are, twenty centuries later, and we’re faced once again with the issue of unlawful marriage. It’s funny how things keep coming around. Just this week our Missouri legislature failed to address religious freedom. After all these centuries, marriage is still a contentious issue.

 

Here at Saint John Nepomuk we have a lot of weddings. These are “lawful marriages”, the only kind that the Church recognizes. Thanks to Vatican II, this is an issue for me, just as it is for all Catholic clergy. Don’t get me wrong. If a couple chooses to have a civil union, that’s not my concern. Whether it’s a man and a woman, two men, or two women, the Church doesn’t recognize a civil union as a sacrament. It’s just a contract. And without a sacramental marriage, a couple living together as man and wife are committing a mortal sin.

 

And no matter what the Supreme Court says, no matter what the Missouri legislature says, if you show up at Saint John Nepomuk wanting an unlawful marriage, I won’t do it. You’ll have to go somewhere else. Given the political climate in the United States today, I suppose there’s a good chance that I might be sued or even arrested. Who knows? But, regardless of the consequences, I’ll still refuse. I don’t think the Scriptures could be more plain. It’s right there in today’s first reading. “If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right. Farewell.”

 

Now, some of you may not care what happens to me.   And that’s ok. A lot of better people than me have suffered for their faith. I’d be proud to be in their company. Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.”

 

I will keep Jesus’ word; no matter what. That’s all there is to it. Because of my vocation, I’m in a position where some day I may have to put up or shut up. That’s not a surprise to me. I knew what I was getting in to when I was ordained.

 

But, what about you? Chances are you’ll never be in a position where you have to take such a serious stand. But we’re coming up on an important election. I can’t tell you who to vote for and I wouldn’t expect you to vote for a candidate just because I told you to. In fact, what you do at the polls is between you and God. But I would suggest that you think seriously about the consequences of your decision.

 

Little by little we’re losing our religious freedom. If we don’t pay attention one day we may wake up and find that our beliefs are illegal. It’s happening already. Please take this seriously. Most of our ancestors, including the Bohemians who built this church, came to the United States for religious freedom. It would be a shame if all their efforts were in vain.

4th Sunday of Easter–Good Shepherd Sunday

On this 4th Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday, we hear one of the shortest Gospel passages of the whole reading cycle; just five sentences. But, even though it’s short, it says an awful lot. We call it “Good Shepherd Sunday” because Jesus begins by telling us, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”

 

We HEAR Him. He speaks to us. We recognize His voice, just as the sheep recognize the voice of their shepherd. That’s important. Sometimes we Catholics get a bad rap because we don’t read the Bible as much as some of our Christian brothers and sisters. The thing is, we don’t read it as much as we hear it. Every Sunday when we come to mass, we hear three readings, a Psalm, and parts of scripture that are repeated in every celebration of the Eucharist, for instance, the Lord’s Prayer. Every three years we pretty much hear the whole Bible.

 

There’s a reason why Father doesn’t just say the opening prayer and then ask us to sit down and read the readings assigned to that day to ourselves. Jesus wants us to HEAR Him. He wants us to listen to the readings, not just to read them. It’s especially true of the Gospel. The Gospel is Jesus speaking to us and He wants us to hear Him. How do we know? Because He just told us. 4-legged sheep follow their shepherd because they recognize his voice!

 

Over the years I’ve discovered that I almost always get something different from the readings when I hear them read out loud as opposed to just reading them out of the book. The spirit works through the lector, the deacon, or the priest, to give them the gift of inflection. The way the words are said convey a different meaning than the way the words are presented on the page.

 

Here’s something you may have never thought of. The Gospel readings are in the Sacramentary, along with the other readings. But we proclaim the Gospel from a separate book, the Book of the Gospels. The deacon, or some other minister, carries the Gospel into church as part of the opening procession. We give the Book of the Gospels much more respect than paper and ink alone deserve. We’re bringing Jesus’ words into the church.

 

Did you ever wonder why we don’t carry it back out? It’s because you hear His words and you carry them out of church, in your minds and hearts. Again, Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice.”

 

As far as we know, Jesus never wrote down anything. God the Father inspired all scripture, but Jesus wasn’t into writing. He was into speaking. “My sheep hear my voice.” He didn’t say anything about His sheep reading His blog, or following Him on Facebook or Twitter. And He handed His teaching authority on to His bishops at Cesarea Philippi when He said, “Whoever hears you, hears me.”

 

But, here’s our challenge. When Jesus spoke, people listened. There was no television, no radio, and no Internet. His listeners were just that; LISTENERS. Our Gospel readings usually begin, “Jesus said to His disciples….” He didn’t have to say “please turn off your cell phones and other electronic devises.” They hung on every word that He said.

 

Today, there’s just so much competition for our attention. We’re inundated with constant noise. Even the Son of God has a hard time getting through to us. That’s one reason why we need to come to mass. At least for these few minutes each week, we’re away from outside distractions and free to listen to God’s word. For the other 167 hours per week, not so much. Let’s not waste this valuable time.

 

We’re also living in a time when we’re surrounded by false prophets. We may want to listen, but maybe we’re not sure which voice is actually His. During this election season we’re constantly told conflicting things. Do we welcome everyone into our country or do we build a wall? Should we encourage hard work or should we focus on giving people free stuff? I’m sure all these people mean well, but they can’t all be right. We have to discern the truth.

 

In matters of faith, there are a lot of people who claim to be speaking for Jesus. Again, they can’t all be right. How do we decide? For me the answer is simple and I already gave it to you earlier. Jesus told Peter and the Apostles, “Whoever hears you, hears me.” He left us one Church with one teaching authority. Lucky us; it’s the Church we all belong to.

 

What else does He tell us in this short Gospel. He promises us eternal life. He promises us that we shall never perish. “No one can take them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of my Father’s hand.” That’s some serious stuff.

 

You and I can live forever if we follow Jesus. The only person who can take us out of Jesus’ hands is ourselves. We have to follow Him. We have to listen. We can’t just go off on our own. We all know what happens to a sheep when he leaves the flock. The wolf has a nice dinner. Jesus closes by telling us that He and the Father are one.

 

In five short sentences Jesus has given us everything we need to know. Listen to Him, follow Him, and we’ll go to heaven. That’s it. It’s so simple. Yet, it’s so difficult.