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.

22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time

I have recently been advised of a change in my assignment.  I wasn’t really prepared to announce it so soon, but the information has leaked out so I felt like it was prudent to talk about it today.  Have a happy and safe holiday weekend and please pray for the people of Texas and Louisiana….also the folks in the Pacific Northwest who could use some of that water to put out the wildfires.

In spite of what you may have heard from Three Dog Night, Jeremiah was not a bullfrog.  Jeremiah was a prophet who lived around 650 BC and this isn’t one of his best days.  He’s ticked off at the Lord and he tells Him so.  “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped.”  Strong words, especially when they’re directed at the Almighty.  But things aren’t going well for him.

 

He’s accepted the position of prophet, but when he speaks, people make fun of him.  Believe me, that’s no fun. Jeremiah is fed up and says he’ll never speak of the Lord again.  But “it becomes like a fire burning in (his) heart….(He) grows weary holding it in.  (He) cannot endure it. So he continues to speak and he’s persecuted, sent into exile in Egypt, and eventually killed by his own countrymen.

 

700 years later, we find Paul writing a letter to the Romans.  He’s giving them a warning.  “Do not conform yourselves to this age.”  He tells them that if they do conform to the age they won’t be able to discern the will of God.  Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?  The world of the Romans in the years after Jesus death and resurrection isn’t really Christian-friendly.  Paul’s telling them that they must be in the world, but not of the world. The situation that you and I face today as Catholic Christians isn’t all that different from Paul’s world over 2,000 years ago.

 

We Christians have always been kind of a counter-cultural bunch.  Living the words of Christ has never been easy, which is exactly as He told us it would be.

 

“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”  There’s really nothing ambiguous about that.  It’s all right there.  There are no loopholes, no exceptions.  So why doesn’t everyone do what He says.  Remember, in John’s Gospel Jesus tells us that we’re His friends if we do what He tells us.

 

Here’s what we know:

  1. Jesus is the Son of God.
  2. He gave us some very simple rules to live by; basically love one another, keep the 10 Commandments, do unto others as we would have them do unto us, take up our cross and follow Him.
  3. If we do what He says, we’ll go to heaven and, inversely, if we don’t do what He says, we’ll go to hell.
  4. He created a Church and gave the Apostles and their successors the power to speak for Him.  Remember, “whoever hears you hears me”.  He put Peter and his successors in charge of His Church and promised that “the gates of hell” wouldn’t prevail against it.

 

That’s it!  That’s all we really need to know.  Frankly I don’t understand why so many people don’t get it.  Sometimes I feel like Jeremiah.  Preaching the Gospel isn’t always popular.  Some people just don’t want to face facts.  But I can’t not do this!  Like the man said, “I grow weary holding it in.”  I hope you feel the same way.  As we leave here today, let’s remember what Jeremiah, Saint Paul, and Jesus are saying to us.

 

Don’t hold in the fire.  Let it out. Share the good news in spite of the personal consequences.  There are a lot of people who don’t want to hear about Jesus, and they sure don’t want to hear that they might be going to hell. They want to maintain this fantasy that they can do whatever they want and there won’t be any consequences.  But are we doing them a favor by not correcting them?  If you saw someone about to step off the edge of a cliff, wouldn’t you yell “stop”?

 

Don’t conform yourself to this age.  There are powerful forces surrounding us every day that want to push us down the wrong path.  Don’t let them win.  Like they used to say in the ‘60s, “keep the faith, baby”.  Truth doesn’t change.  What was true 2,000 years ago is true today.

 

And, finally, think as God thinks, not as humans think.  Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Him.  He will come back.  There will be a judgment.  He will repay each of us according to our conduct.  That’s a promise from the Son of God Himself.

[pause]

 

Twenty years ago, in 1997, God called me to become a deacon in His Church. I didn’t understand it (still don’t) and I fought it for a while. But God put me in a position where I was able to spend a couple of hours with a deacon who I knew and trusted. He told me to go for it. So, I enrolled in deaconate formation.

 

After five years of study I was ordained in 2002, fifteen years ago, still not completely sure I was doing the right thing. But like Jeramaih, I couldn’t not do this. The path was very clear, I was assigned to Saint Bernadette parish, my home parish since 1975. It was a very natural progression but the Gospel is very true when it says “the prophet is not without honor except in his own town.”

 

 

Fortunately I was blessed to have a great pastor who helped me make the transition from lay parishioner to ordained minister. I was very blessed. During that time I was also a pastoral care volunteer at first Saint Joseph Hospital then at Saint Clare. I was also working a full-time secular job until I retired in 2009

 

Then in 2010 things got a little more complicated. The Archbishop called me to a new assignment, Director of Saint John Nepomuk Chapel. I would be the first deacon in Saint Louis to take over a church without a pastor. My retirement didn’t last long.

 

I’d be lying if I said that this wasn’t a boost to my ego. Something new. I’d be a pioneer. No one had ever had this job before. I said I’d give it a try for three years. That was seven years ago.

 

I kept my ties with Saint Bernadette doing weekly communion services and assisting with funerals.

 

Now the pastor at Bernadette is having some serious health issues. He’s very limited in what he can do. It’s especially hard for him to say mass. He needs help. So, I’ve decided to give up this assignment and go back to Saint Bernadette. My health isn’t that great either and frankly I’m ready to go back to just being a regular deacon with no administrative responsibilities.

 

Fortunately there’s another deacon in the Archdiocese who is looking for more to do. Deacon Joe Iovanna will be joining us here at Saint John’s on September 18. He will serve as Assistant Director, learning the job. When his training is complete he will take over as Director, some time before the end of the year.

 

I will gradually transition back to Saint Bernadette during that time. I hope you will welcome Deacon Joe into the community and be patient with both of us as we make this change. I’ve known Joe for a long time and I’m sure you will like him.

 

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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

24th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s Gospel is the famous story of Jesus and the disciples on the way to Cessarea Philippi according to Mark. Jesus asks the disciples “who do people say that I am?” They others give give Him a variety of answers but Peter says “You are the Christ.”

The story goes on that Jesus tells them He must be killed and rise again on the third day. There’s a line here that I love. “Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him.” Good old Peter, he’s my hero. He always manages to say and do the wrong things. Who the heck rebukes Jesus? Peter has just said that Jesus is the Christ, now he has the nerve to rebuke Him? He’s calling the Son of God a liar?

Of course Peter pays for his foolishness, just like he always does. Jesus calls him Satan. “Get behind me!” He says. I imagine that Peter knew he’d made a mistake as soon as the words left his mouth. If he was Homer Simpson he would have said “Doh!” But it was too late. I think we can all relate. How often do we say things and right away we realize we’ve made a mistake. But once the words are out there, the damage has been done.

On the other hand, Jesus tells him that he’s thinking like a man and not God. But, what did Jesus expect? Peter was a man. Jesus was God. It seems reasonable that Peter would think the way he did.

If we look at Matthew’s Gospel we find the almost identical story with one difference. In Matthew’s telling of the story Jesus also calls Peter Satan. He also tells him that he’s thinking like a human being. Everything is almost exactly the same. Almost.

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says to Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.”

Jesus acknowledges the fact that Peter has been blessed with knowledge that he couldn’t have gotten anywhere else. Isn’t the same thing true for us? We can read all the Scripture we want. We can listen to all the learned Christian speakers of this time and all the time before. But the idea that this man, this Jesus of Nazareth, is the Messiah, the Son of God, doesn’t make sense. It’s not logical. Nothing like this ever happened before or since. Peter’s understanding comes from faith, just like our understanding comes from faith.

Jesus has built His Church on the Rock, Peter. He built it on faith. Peter wasn’t a smart man. We see throughout the Gospels that he was always messing up, saying the wrong thing. That gives you and me hope. Because, in the end, after Peter cut off the Centurian’s ear; after he denied he even knew Jesus, not once, but three times, after the resurrection He told Jesus, not once, but three times that he loved Him. And each time Peter told Jesus he loved Him, Jesus told Peter to feed His sheep. In other words, “Lead my Church.”

Week after week you and I come to church. We hear the readings and the homily. The message doesn’t change. Jesus was the Son of God. He performed miracles. He told us to love one another. But when it’s all said and done, there is no proof that He was who He said He was. We have to have faith. Like Peter, these truths are revealed to us by Jesus’ heavenly Father.

The Holy Spirit, the Advocate that Jesus left us has to move within us or the Bible is just a nice story book written thousands of years ago. If that Spirit isn’t working within us, then we might as well be reading from the Book of Mother Goose.

Sometimes you have to wonder why Jesus didn’t surround Himself with the best and the brightest. Why did He choose tax collectors and fishermen? Why did He pick the Apostle who seemed the least likely to be a leader to be the head of His Church? It’s simple. He did it to give hope to you and me. If these twelve guys could build a church that would grow into the millions of members, they had to have help. And while we aren’t called to judge anyone, we have to feel pretty good about our own chances when we look at the men Jesus chose.

Through baptism and confirmation, we receive that same Holy Spirit. Every one of us is able to spread the Gospel just as well as Peter and the others did. That’s what we’re called to do every single day. All these saints that we venerate in this beautiful church did it, even though most of them were far from perfect Christians. They inspire us to do the same.

So, when we read the Scriptures, when we look at all these men and women whom the Church has declared to be saints, we’re inspired by the words and deeds of these holy people. But we also realize that we have the same opportunity to share the Gospel as they did. And, when we realize that they had the same faults and failings that we do, we have the hope that we can do what they did. We can use the talents and gifts that God has given us and be examples of faith to others.

When we’re tempted to remain silent, maybe afraid that we’re going to look foolish if we speak up, we need to remember that, even in the beginning of the Church, God chose flawed human beings to deliver His message to other flawed human beings. That’s His plan for humanity. You and I are just as much a part of that plan as Peter, or the other Apostles, or any of these saints.

What an awesome God we have! And what an awesome opportunity we have to tell the world about Him through our words and our actions!

Good Friday

Yesterday morning, I was at the Cathedral Basilica for the annual Chrism mass. It’s the mass where the Archbishop blesses the holy oils for the coming year and it’s the mass where the priests renew their priestly vows. As you can imagine, there are a lot of priests and deacons at the Chrism mass.

Seating at the Cathedral is priests in front, deacons in the back, which is as it should be.  The only problem with the setup is that during the Consecration of the Eucharist, the priests stand while the deacons kneel. All the deacons can see is the backs of chasubles and a lot of bald heads.

As I knelt there yesterday morning, I wondered, as I often do, just what I was doing there. I know a lot of priests and deacons and most of them are good, holy men. The deacon who was sitting next to me is one of the holiest people I know. Then there was me, a sinner of the first order. Why would God choose me to be in this group?

But, you know what? I do belong in that group and here’s why. I don’t and can’t know what’s in someone else’s heart. I believe most of the men sitting around me at the Cathedral yesterday are more holy than I am, but I can’t know for sure. We’ve learned in the past few years that a lot of men we all believed were saints are actually pretty serious sinners. We don’t know. Only God knows.

Could it be that they have the same doubts and fears that I do?

Scripture tells us not to judge others. Is judging someone else to be good just as dangerous as judging them to be bad? Maybe so.

Think about what failures the Apostles were?  Judas sold Jesus out for thirty pieces of silver.  Peter denied he knew Him three times.  The other ten ran off and left Him when He needed them the most.  The only ones who stood by Him were the women.  You don’t have to be perfect to serve Jesus.

If Jesus only called perfect men to be clergy, think how frustrating that would be for everyone else.  They’d think they didn’t have a prayer (prayer, get it?  Jesus does have a sense of humor.) Plus, there wouldn’t be very many priests and deacons. Maybe none.

I think Jesus wants His clergy to let people see that they’re sinners, just like they are.  Judas didn’t have to turn Jesus over to the Jews, but somebody had to fulfill the words of the prophets.  Jesus knew He’d do it, even before he chose him to be an apostle.

Peter didn’t have to deny him three times, but He did, just as He knew he would. He even told him he would do it.  He knew the others would run away.  But he chose them anyway, just like He chose you and me, sinners that we are.

So, today we mark the day when He died a painful death on the cross for you and for me.  If we were sinless He wouldn’t have had to do that.  But we aren’t and He did.  In effect He told us that He’d like us to live a sinless life, but He knew that we couldn’t.  So, He let Himself be crucified so that we might be forgiven.

As painful as that was for Him, He knew it would be even more painful to sit back and watch us destroy ourselves.

Without Good Friday, that’s exactly what we’d do.

4th Sunday of Ordinary Time

In today’s Gospel we learn something very important about Jesus. It’s important to all Christians, but especially to us Catholics. He’s teaching in the Synagogue. But the people who’ve gathered to listen to Him will learn that this isn’t just some ordinary teacher, some ordinary Rabbi. Teachers in Jesus’ time, just like today, taught based on someone else’s authority. Father Paul and I don’t just make this stuff up. We rely on someone else’s teachings. We have the Scriptures, we have the words of religious scholars, we have the teaching of the Magisterium of the Church, and we have the Holy Spirit. If Father, or I, or anyone else who assumes the role of teacher stands up here and makes stuff up, you have every right to complain.

If any of us comes up with some new, radical teaching of our own invention, you should get on the phone to the Archbishop and tell him that we’re preaching heresy. Then the Archbishop will call us in and demand to know what’s going on. It won’t be pretty. We may even lose our faculties to preach or worse. We’re not allowed to preach anything that isn’t the truth, as it’s been passed down over the centuries.

In Jesus’ time, Rabbis taught from the Torah. That was the Word of God and that’s what the people wanted, and deserved to hear. But, here’s this Jesus teaching something new. His message was extremely radical for the first century. And, as Mark says, ”the people were astonished at His teaching.” They said, “What is this?”

One man even speaks up and says, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” But to get an idea of what’s going on, we have to look back at Moses’ words in the first reading from the Book of Deuteronomy. “A prophet like me will the Lord, your God, raise up for you from among your own kin; to him you shall listen.” Jesus is that prophet, but the people don’t realize it yet. God promised Moses that He would put His words into His, this new prophet’s mouth. God goes on, “Whoever will not listen to my words which He speaks in my name, I myself will make him answer for it.”

 

Jesus is that new prophet. This man who challenges Jesus is possessed by an unclean spirit. Here’s the evil one, Satan, challenging Jesus in the Synagogue, the very house of God. Jesus rebukes the man and says to the unclean spirit, “Quiet! Come out of him?” And the spirit, with a loud cry, comes out of him.

Naturally, the people are amazed. “They asked one another, “What is this? A new teaching with authority.” Satan has made a huge mistake. His attempt to discredit Jesus backfires and the people understand. Jesus is teaching with authority, not human authority, but with the authority of God the Father. For the first time in history, someone other than God the Father, has the authority to speak on His behalf. Up to this time, every teacher has taught strictly from the Torah. As Mark says, “His fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee.”

 

Today, Christians rely on both the Old Testament word of God, and the New Testament teachings of Jesus Christ. But, why is this more important to Catholics than it is to other Christians? To find the answer we have to turn to Luke’s Gospel where Jesus tell the disciples that whoever hears them, hears Him and whoever rejects them, rejects Him. And whoever rejects Him, rejects the One who sent Him. This is the beginning of the teaching authority of the Church.

This begs the question, “Do we always like what the Church teaches?” Not necessarily. Do we have to believe it? We do unless we want to reject God, and that’s dangerous territory. As faithful Catholics, it’s up to us to learn what the Church teaches and to know the difference between Church doctrine and discipline.

The Eucharist is a perfect example. In a few minutes, Father will take the bread and wine, which will be presented to him by members of the congregation representing all of us. The bread and wine are your gifts to God. Then he’ll turn that bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. That’s God’s gift to you. It’s scriptural and has been taught by the Church since the very beginning. If you don’t believe it, then you’re not a Catholic. It’s a core belief and it’s non-negotiable. In fact, according to Saint Paul, if you partake in communion without believing it is what it is, then you’re guilty of the Body and Blood of Christ.

On the other hand, the Church calls us to fast for an hour before we receive His Body and Blood. If you forgot and ate a donut 59 minutes before communion, are you committing a sin? No, that’s a discipline. It’s something we should do, not something we have to do. It can change and it did change after Vatican II. Remember, you used to have to fast for twelve hours. Under certain circumstances, for example, if you’re a patient in the hospital, you can receive the Eucharist at any time.

Disciplines can change, doctrine can’t. Remember when you couldn’t eat meat on Friday? It wasn’t that long ago.

Recently our former Archbishop, Cardinal Burke, has been in the news for things he’s said that aren’t in agreement with Pope Francis. You may wonder, how can this be? Who are we supposed to believe? If you study what both men have said, they don’t disagree on Church doctrine. The disagree on disciplines. Male alter servers aren’t Church doctrine. If the good Cardinal thinks servers should all be altar boys, that’s his opinion. Again, it’s something that has changed over the years. Given the power of the feminist movement, it’s not likely to change back, but it could. In fact, there are still some dioceses where they don’t allow female servers. But, remember that here in Saint Louis he did allow girl servers when he was Archbishop. Frankly, it’s not that big a deal.

To wrap this up, today’s readings remind us that Jesus has a special kind of authority and He shared that authority with His Apostles and their successors, the Pope and the Bishops. It was unique. It was radical. It was outrageous! It’s no wonder that the Jewish authorities didn’t want Him around. His authority was a challenge to their authority.

Make no mistake, there are people alive today who hate Jesus and His Church. Why? For the same reason. Jesus’ authority, and by extension the authority of His Church, is a challenge to them. If I’m in the business of selling sin, our course I’m going to hate the Church. If the Church challenges my political authority, I’m going to hate the Church. If I represent a religious denomination that doesn’t accept the Church’s teachings, I’m going to hate the Church. If I suddenly decide to divorce Jan and marry another guy, I’m probably going to hate the Church. Any time the Church challenges anyone on anything, there’s going to be a backlash. Remember that there were enough people who hated Jesus that they tortured Him and killed Him.

As Catholic Christians, we have a responsibility to know what the Church teaches, to accept those teachings, and to share those teachings with others.

If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts.

Exaltation of the Holy Cross

 

The world-famous high wire walker stood on the banks of Niagara Falls. A steel cable was strung from one side to the other and a huge crowd had gathered. He said, “Ladies and gentlemen, today I am going to walk this thin cable across these mighty falls. But, in order for me to do it, I must know that you believe I can. Do you believe??”

 

The crowd yelled out, “WE BELIEVE! WE BELIEVE!”

 

So he jumped up on the cable and began to walk. Slowly he proceeded to the other side and when he reached the other side, the crowd went wild. Then he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, now I’m going to perform an even greater feat. I’m going to cross the falls on this thin cable blind-folded. The crowd gasped and he said again, “In order to accomplish this amazing feat, I need to know that you believe I can do it. I draw my strength from your belief in me.” Again the crowd went wild. “WE BELIEVE! WE BELIEVE!” they yelled, even louder than before.

 

With that, the daredevil put on his blind-fold and proceeded to cross the falls again and again the crowd went wild!

 

Then he said, for my third and final act today, I’m going to cross these mighty falls on this thin cable, blind-folded and pushing this wheelbarrow with someone sitting in it. Once again, I must ask, do you believe I can do it?” Again the crowd yelled, “WE BELIEVE! WE BELIEVE!”

 

Then the daredevil said, “I need a volunteer from the crowd to sit in the wheelbarrow.” And they all started walking away. The only sound was the roar of the falls.

 

See, there’s a big difference between saying you believe and actually believing. Saint John tells us in today’s Gospel, possibly one of the most famous of all the scriptural passages, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life.” You might say to me, “Deacon, I believe in Jesus so I’m going to go to heaven when I die.” But hold on. Do you believe like the crowd at Niagra Falls? Do you believe as long as there’s no personal risk? Or are you willing to risk your earthly life to gain eternal life?

 

This is where a lot of us get it wrong. We say, “of course I believe. I go to mass every weekend.” That’s all well and good, but what else do we do? We may never be called on to actually risk martyrdom, but how do we act when someone challenges us? Do we risk embarrassment by defending the Church? Are we willing to do something as simple as making the sign of the cross and saying grace in a restaurant with our friends? Are we willing to call out a friend or family member when we see that they’re doing something sinful? Will we even do something as simple as inviting a friend or family member to come to mass with us?

 

You tell me you believe. PROVE IT! Get in the wheelbarrow. Turn your life over to Jesus, not just for one hour out of 168 each week, but every minute of every day!

 

A lot of us who wear this Roman collar are even more guilty of this phony belief stuff than any of you are. We’ve been called to preach the Gospel but when push comes to shove, we’re afraid to get in your face and ask the hard questions because we don’t want to make you mad. We want everybody to like us. We don’t want to hurt your feelings. And, God forbid, you should stop giving money because of something we said. So, we don’t challenge you. We don’t stand up here and point out your sins or warn you of what might happen. We’re happy with the status quo.

 

But, where would we be if Jesus had been happy with the status quo? If He avoided hurting people’s feelings? I think you know where we’d be. Jesus let Himself be hung on the cross that we exult today, to save us from our sins; to save us from ourselves. But we have to do our part.
I started my sales career selling life insurance more than 40 years ago. Believe me, that’s a tough sell. For one thing, nobody wants to think about their own death. And they definitely aren’t inclined to give up money today for something that’s going to come in the future, especially when they don’t know when that future date is. No young father wants to think that he’s not going to be around to see his kids grow up. He thinks he’ll always be here to provide for his family. It’s just human nature. But the fact is, we’re all going to die sometime. And we have to prepare for that day.

 

Here it is, 2014, and I’m still trying to convince you to prepare for that day that will come. I’m selling eternal life insurance.

 

Here’s the thing. When you and I stand before Jesus for that final judgment, He’s not going to ask us how many friends we had. He’s not going to ask us how much money we made. He’s not even going to ask us how many times we went to mass. He’s going to ask us how many people we helped get into heaven.

 

He’s not going to care how many years we were an altar server, or how many years we sang in the choir. He’s not going to ask me if the people I served liked me or not. All He’s going to look at is how we served Him. Whatever He asks us, He already knows the answer.

 

In the first reading today, the people complained against God and against Moses. He had brought them out of captivity. He had saved them from slavery. What were they saying. They didn’t like the “wretched” food. And the Lord punished them by sending snakes. Then they changed their tune. “Wait a minute, Moses. We’ve sinned by complaining. Take away the snakes and we’ll be good.”

 

Does that sound familiar? How often have we been ungrateful to God? Some of you, not many, but a few, sound just like those Israelites. You know who you are. Things may not always go the way we want them to go. Sometimes we have to look at the big picture. Maybe the food isn’t great, but it’s better than what Pharaoh gave us in Egypt and we’re free! Maybe Saint John’s isn’t a parish anymore, maybe we don’t have a resident priest, maybe you don’t like me, but we’re still open!

 

If we’re going to stay open, maybe we have to do some things differently. Take a look around at all the empty seats. Obviously what we’ve been doing isn’t working. Change is hard. It makes us uncomfortable. But it’s also inevitable. Like any organism, if we don’t grow we die. In 1896 this church, which the people had built with their own hands just 26 years ago was destroyed by a tornado. I’m sure there were people who were angry. I’m sure there were some who cursed God for their misfortune. Some of them probably even blamed the pastor. But the majority of them rolled up their sleeves and rebuilt this church, bigger and better than it was before. Those were the people who got into the wheelbarrow.

 

Today, we’re faced with an even bigger challenge. It’s hard work, but rebuilding a physical church is not nearly as hard as rebuilding a church community. That’s what you and I are called to do. Like the daredevil at the Falls, I’m asking you, “do you believe?” Are you willing to trust God to do what’s best for all of us and to sacrifice your own ego to gain eternal life?

 

Jesus died on the cross but He also asked us to take up OUR crosses and follow Him. Are we willing to get into the wheelbarrow? It’s a question we all have to answer.

 

 

Vigil of Pentecost

Today is the Vigil of the Feast of Pentecost, the end of the Easter Season.  Tomorrow the Holy Spirit will descend on the Apostles.  Without the Spirit, the Apostles would have just been twelve guys who might not have had the courage to carry out God’s plan.  Believe me, standing up in front of people, preaching the good news of the Gospel isn’t an easy task, especially in the first century, when there was a very real threat of death for preaching this radical new faith.

 

Today is also the day when Archbishop Carlson ordained twenty men to be permanent deacons.  One of several questions he asked the prospective deacons was, “Are you resolved to discharge the office of deacon with humility and love in order to assist the bishop and the priests and to serve the people of Christ?”  The key words here are “humility” and “serve”.  These words remind the deacon, just as tomorrow’s celebration reminds all of us that we must be humble, and that we must serve one another.

 

As followers of Christ it’s easy to fall into the trap of pride.  After all, we’re all chosen people.  We must be pretty special.  But none of us is more special than anyone else.  The only thing that makes any of us different from anyone else is our particular talents, and those talents are given to us by God.  If we ever forget that, then we fall into the sin of pride.

 

Part of my calling is to preach.  Most people are more afraid of public speaking than they are of death.  But my call doesn’t make me special.  It just means that God has put me in a position to expand on the day’s readings.  Trust me, that’s all the Holy Spirit.  I’m just His spokesman, repeating what He wants you to hear.  I’m not afraid to speak because the Spirit is with me.

 

Here’s what the Archbishop said today in his prayer of consecration over the new deacons, “Lord, look with favor on this servant of yours, whom we now dedicate to the office of deacon, to minister at your holy altar.  Deacons have an office, just as priests, religious men and women, and all of you have an office.

 

“Lord, send forth upon him the Holy Spirit, that he may be strengthened by the gift of your sevenfold grace, to carry out faithfully the work of the ministry.”  Before I was ordained, I did some public speaking.  I guess I was ok at it. I got paid for it.  But I wasn’t inspired.  I guess I had some talent, but I didn’t have the gift of the Spirit.

 

The Archbishop uses the words “unassuming authority” and “May he in this life imitate your Son, who came, not to be served, but to serve, and one day reign with Him in heaven.”  All of us, deacons, priests, and lay people, are called to serve, just like Jesus came to serve.

 

We all received the Holy Spirit when we were confirmed.  For most of us that happened a long time ago.  We may not remember what was said.  The bishop’s prayer for us was very similar to the prayer of Ordination, “My dear friends, in baptism God our Father gave the new birth of eternal life to his chosen sons and daughters.”  There’s that word, chosen.

 

Let us pray to our Father that He will pour out the Holy Spirit to strengthen his sons and daughters with his gifts and anoint them to be more like Christ, the Son of God.”

 

“Send your Holy Spirit upon them to be their Helper and Guide.  Give them the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of right judgment and courage, the spirit of knowledge and reverence.  Fill them with the spirit of wonder and awe in your presence.”

 

Judgment, courage, knowledge, reverence wonder and awe.  These are the gifts we receive; the same gifts the Apostles received on that Pentecost so many years ago.  Today we acknowledge those gifts and pray that we never lose them.  Jesus promised that he would never leave us alone; that the Spirit would be with us as our advocate.

 

After mass tomorrow, we’ll take down the Easter decorations.  We’ll put away the white vestments and return to wearing the green of ordinary time.  With a few exceptions we’ll wear the green until November 30, when we’ll put on the purple of Advent.  But in the modern use of the word, there’s no such thing as an ordinary Sunday.  Every Sunday is extraordinary because we have the Eucharist.  It’s another gift that Jesus left us.  With the gifts of the spirit, judgment, courage, knowledge, reverence wonder and awe, we’re called to share our faith.  We’re called to be disciples, and to make disciples.  We’re called to do it with humility, remembering that all we have and all we are are gifts from God.

 

The fact that sometimes we don’t have a priest to celebrate with us is another sign of God’s will for all of us.  Only the priest can consecrate the Eucharist, but we’re all empowered to share it with one another, even when a priest isn’t present.  We can still approach the altar with wonder and awe, knowing that we all have a part in Jesus’ ministry, and that we’re in His Presence.  Any of us can assist in the distribution of Holy Communion.  Any of us can take Communion to the sick.  Any of us can share God’s Good News.  Any of us can be the disciples we’re called to be.

 

Before the Apostles received the Spirit on Pentecost, they were scared; scared to death.  But the Spirit gave them the courage to do what needed to be done.  On this vigil of the Pentecost, our prayer is that the same Spirit will empower all of us to share the Good News of the Gospel.

 

Please stand and renew your baptismal promises.

 

Obama Administration Steps up its War Against the Catholic Church

The latest salvo in the war between the current administration and the Church has been fired.  Priests are being threatened with arrest if they celebrate mass on military bases.  Catholic chaplains have been furloughed due to the current government shut-down.  OK, that’s not OK but it’s understandable.  What is outrageous is the government’s threat to jail Catholic priests who VOLUNTEER to celebrate mass for Catholic troops.

In a story from Fox News, Todd Starnes outlines the current state of affairs.  “At least one chaplain was told that if he engaged in any ministry activity, he would be subjected to disciplinary action.”    Catholic baptisms and weddings have also been banned.

This is a blatant effort on the part of the administration to discriminate against Catholics who have volunteered to serve their country.  I wonder if the same ban is in effect for Muslim clergy?  What do you think?

Please read this op-ed piece by John Schlageter, General Council for the Archdiocese of the Military Services of the United States.

 

40 Myths About the Catholic Church–Bad preaching

“People leave the Catholic Church because the preaching is awful”

OK, I’m going to give partial credit on this one.  Some preaching is awful.  Some priests and deacons either don’t have the right stuff to deliver the message, or they’re not trying hard enough.  I like to think Father Paul and I provide pretty decent homilies at Saint John Nepomuk, (especially Father.  I hope someday to be as good as he is.)  In other churches, maybe not so much.  But, does bad preaching really mean you have to leave the Church?

First of all, are you prepared for mass?  Do you come running in three minutes before mass starts?  Do you arrive early so you can talk to your friends?  Or, do you get to church in time to look over the readings for the day and to pray for insight?  You wouldn’t go to a hockey game without looking at the paper to see the news about your favorite team.  Should you prepare any less for the Holy Sacrifice of the mass?

Let’s say you have done your preparation but the deacon or priest just drones on, not addressing your needs at all.  I offer two alternatives.  First, the homily usually takes from five to ten minutes out of the total forty-five to sixty minute mass.  If the preaching is really that dreadful, tune it out.  Reflect on the readings yourself.  Do your own mental homily.  Again, the homily is just a small percentage of the total mass and the best is yet to come.

Second, most of us live within a few minutes of several Catholic churches.  If you just can’t stand the preaching, go someplace else!  The whole point of going to mass is to praise God, to receive His Body and Blood, and to fortify yourself spiritually for the coming week.  If you’re spending the entire mass being angry at the content and/or delivery of the homily, do yourself a favor and find yourself another parish!  Where you are now isn’t a good fit for you.  There’s a reason why Baskin-Robins has 31 flavors.

I guess there’s a third thing you could do.  Start writing anonymous notes to the deacon or priest.  Tell him what a jerk he is. I can tell you from experience that this won’t work and, by spending mass time engaged in such a negative process, you’ve negated any grace you might receive from attending mass.

Back to the myth.  I think the quality of preaching in the Catholic Church has improved tremendously over the last 45 years that I’ve been a Catholic.  The homiletics courses taught in the seminaries are much better than they were.  Guys are being ordained much better prepared to deliver God’s message.

People who leave the Church usually have two reasons for doing so.  One is the real reason which usually involves them wanting to do something that the Church forbids (like remarrying without the benefit of a declaration of nullity of the first marriage).  The second reason is the one that sounds good.  (Mass is boring.)  If you undertand what’s happening on the altar, you will never be bored.

FYI, there is currently a project underway to develop a video course on the art or preaching using never-before-seen video of Archbishop Fulton Sheen.  I hope they get this project off the ground.  The Archbishop was certainly one of the finest homilists of his time.