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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Catholic Couple–non-Catholic Wedding

From a reader… QUAERITUR: My son and fiancee are Catholics and considering having a non-priest perform the ceremony in the Outer Banks, NC. We have two family members saying that as Catholics, they can’t attend the wedding because it is outside of the church. Is there some rule that is keeping them from attending the wedding? Once again we…

via ASK FATHER: Wedding of Catholics with a non-priest out in Mother Nature — Fr. Z’s Blog

Here’s a post from Father Z’s blog that should  be read by every Catholic contemplating marriage.  It covers a particular scenario, but the principals apply to all marriages.  For some reason, otherwise reasonable Catholics seem to want to throw their faith out the window when it comes to marriage.

It’s a short post.  Check it out.

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.

Baptism of the Lord

Today we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord by John the Baptist. We’ve heard the story lots of times. John’s baptizing at the river and Jesus gets in line along with everyone else. But, why? He was the Son of God. He came down from heaven and would soon go back. Why did He need to baptized? And why do we commemorate it today?

 

First, the answer is that He didn’t need it. Jesus didn’t need to be baptized, but you and I needed Him to be baptized. Saint Maximus of Turin, one of the Church Fathers, wrote “Christ is baptized, not to be made holy by the water, but to make the water holy.”

 

If you remember your grade school science you know that water evaporates, forms clouds, and returns to earth. The cycle repeats itself over and over. The wind blows the clouds so that the water that evaporates in one place comes down somewhere else. Eventually every drop of water on earth is connected to every other drop. When Jesus made the water of the Jordan holy, he made all water holy.

 

Obviously Jesus thought baptism was very important. In John’s Gospel He said, “Unless a man is reborn in water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” In Matthew’s Gospel he tells the Apostles, “Go, make disciples of all nations, and baptize them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Baptism is our response to Christ.

Jesus died and rose from the dead to defeat death, to save all of us from our sins. But what He does today makes it possible for us individually to be one of his people. Baptism is the beginning of our journey of faith. Jesus’ seemingly unnecessary decision to be baptized by John, someone “not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals”, is actually the beginning of OUR journey of faith.

 

So, why do we celebrate Jesus’ baptism today? Today is officially the end of the Christmas season. Over the last few weeks we’ve celebrated Advent, the time to prepare for Christ’s coming. Then we celebrated His birth on Christmas and the Feast of the Holy Family on the following weekend.

 

On January 1 we celebrated Mary, the Mother of God followed by the feast of the Epiphany last weekend. We end this holy season by remembering the great gift Jesus gave us; the gift of baptism. In it’s own way, this feast is extremely important and it’s appropriate that we celebrate it at the end of the Christmas season.

 

This year there’s a very short time between Christmas and Lent. Ash Wednesday is February 10, just a month away. But it’s a long month. The days are short. The weather’s not so great. It’s easy to get discouraged and to forget the blessings of the season that ends today.   But the feast we celebrate today reminds us that this isn’t the end. It’s the beginning of our life in Christ.

 

Chances are most of us were baptized as infants. Our parents and godparents stood in for us in making our baptismal promises. But those promises, promises we made to God, are just as valid today as they were on our baptismal day.

 

As baptized Christians we reject Satan, all his works, and all his empty promises. That’s what Satan does. He makes us empty promises. “Do this and this will happen.” But we should know by now that his promises aren’t worth the paper they’re not written on. And we, or our parents speaking on our behalf, promise to reject those promises. Sometimes that’s easier said than done. Today, in lieu of the Creed, I’ve asked Father to lead us in renewing these promises.

 

Let’s let today be a reminder that we’re all part of God’s family, His children and brothers and sisters of His Son. We share baptism with Jesus. Water didn’t make Him holy. He made the water holy and by doing that, He made us holy.

 

After Jesus had been baptized heaven opened up and a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my beloved Son and with you I am well pleased.” I don’t know about you, but when I meet God face to face, I hope to hear those same words.

 

20th Sunday of Ordinary Time—The Bread of Life

EucharistToday is the third week in a row that we’ve read from the 6th chapter of John’s Gospel. All three Gospels have one thing in common. In each reading John speaks to us about the Bread of Life. Two weeks ago, Jesus tells us, “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” He goes on to say, “My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

Last week we heard, “Amen, amen, I say to you whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. I am the living bread which comes down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

This last statement, which ended last week’s Gospel is repeated today. I guess it must be important. As Catholics, we have the privilege of receiving Jesus’ Flesh and Blood at every mass in the form of the Eucharist. In just a few minutes, we’ll all be allowed to participate in this heavenly meal.

Today we see that the Jews quarreled among themselves about this. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” That’s where they got it wrong. While Jesus is a man, He’s also the Son of God. He goes on to explain how this can be, but they still don’t get it. In fact, they don’t get it even today. They’re not alone. Many of our protestant brothers and sisters don’t get it either. Sadly, there are even Catholics who don’t understand how Jesus could give us his Body and Blood to eat and drink. Polls tell us the fastest growing “religious” group in America is “former Catholics”. I think that’s very sad and very confusing. How can anyone who understands what we’re receiving in the Eucharist ever just walk away? It’s the greatest gift in the history of the world.

Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, allows us to take His very Body and Blood into our sinful bodies. No God was ever so generous! Yet so many of us take this gift for granted and are even willing to leave the Church either to spend our time on earthly things like sleeping in, or golf, or whatever we think is more important.

Or worse, many leave the Catholic Church in favor of some other church where they offer a more entertaining service. High tech audio video, up-tempo music, or a watered-down message can never take the place of Jesus’ real presence.

It’s not always easy to be Catholic. We have rules. We stand for the truth, even when it’s not popular. We take Jesus’ command to take up our crosses seriously. But the reward is so great. Those of us who receive the Eucharist today, both here at Saint John’s and at thousands of Catholic churches around the world, will leave with Jesus’ life within us. Nothing can be better than that!

Some say that Jesus wasn’t speaking literally when He said we have to eat His Flesh and drink His Blood. The Jews argue about it in today’s Gospel. In next week’s Gospel we’ll see that many of His followers left Him because of this teaching.

Let’s look at that for a second. Jesus came to earth because His Father sent Him to build a Church. He would even die a horrible, painful death to achieve His goal. Don’t you think that if He had been speaking figuratively, when He saw followers leaving He would have stopped them? Wouldn’t He have said, “Wait! Don’t go! I didn’t mean you REALLY have to eat my flesh and drink my blood. I was only speaking figuratively. You only have to eat bread and drink wine and pretend that they’re my Body and Blood.”

But He didn’t do that. He let them go and He lets them go still today. The Eucharist is the core teaching of our faith; always has been and always will be. Everything else we do is directed to this one simple truth. We have seven sacraments. Most of them we’ll only receive once in our lives. But the Eucharist, and the sacrament of reconciliation, which goes along with it, are available to us whenever we want them. Every minute of every day there is a mass going on somewhere and if you’re not in a state of mortal sin, you’re welcome to receive Christ’s Body and Blood at any of them.

In the last month, I’ve received the Eucharist in Canada, in Alaska, in Alabama, and on a cruise ship. And, you know what? Every one of those masses was almost exactly the same. Jesus has given us this great gift and made it readily available.

Over the centuries, loyal Catholics have fought and died for the Eucharist. Yet, today, people who call themselves “Catholic” can’t even be bothered to show up once a week. Like I said, many of them even leave the Church, giving up this great gift. But, you know what? If they decide to come back, Jesus welcomes them back with open arms. Go to confession, and it’s like you never left.

Frankly, I don’t understand it. We use the phrase “Sunday obligation”, which I personally hate, to describe our need to attend mass weekly. How can we refer to receiving our Saviour’s Body and Blood as an obligation? If we reflect and pray on these Gospels, wild horses shouldn’t be able to keep us away.

Like He said, “Whoever eats this bread will live forever.” I think that’s worth the effort, don’t you?

17th Sunday of Ordinary Time

So, what to say about today’s Gospel, the familiar story of the loaves and the fishes. If you’ve looked at this week’s bulletin, you may have noticed that this miracle is repeated SIX TIMES in the four Gospels. Obviously it’s important. But eventually you begin to run out of things to say about it.

But there is one character in this story who doesn’t get talked about so much. It’s the little boy who contributes the bread and fish in the first place. Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother points out the boy and the fact that he has five barley loaves and two fish. It’s not much, but it’s all he has. Here’s the thing. The kid could have kept the food for himself. He didn’t have to give up his food, especially since he had to know that such a small amount, while it would have been enough for him, isn’t much to feed such a large crowd. Could he have known what Jesus was going to do?

We know that Jesus knew because the Gospel says so. But there’s no way of knowing what was in the boy’s mind.

We don’t know much about the boy. In fact we don’t know anything about him except that he had come to hear Jesus speak and that he was smart enough to bring lunch. We don’t know if he was alone, or if he came with his parents. Maybe he came with some friends. John doesn’t tell us. All we know for sure is that there were 5,000 adults in the crowd and this kid was the only one who planned ahead. And we know that he was willing to give all he had, little as it might have been, to help feed the others. He couldn’t have known that his small amount of bread and fish would be more than enough to feed everyone.

When we look at this story, we usually focus on the miracle. Jesus fed the multitude with a small amount of food and had enough left over to fill twelve wicker baskets, one for each Apostle. It’s definitely a story worth retelling over and over. Jesus performed a great miracle which, of course, is the precursor of the Eucharist. But it wouldn’t have happened without the generosity of this unnamed boy.

Which brings us to our Eucharistic meal that Father will prepare in just a few minutes. There’s a reason why someone from the congregation brings up the bread and wine. It’s representative of today’s Gospel story. Father will turn YOUR gifts into Christ’s Body and Blood, just as he fed the 5,000 with the young man’s bread and fish.

But, wait! There’s more! At the same time you bring up the gifts of bread and wine, you also bring up your monetary gifts. We can’t celebrate the Eucharist without bread and wine and we can’t celebrate the Eucharist without your gifts of time, talent, and treasure. Like most things in the Church, the offertory is symbolic. You could mail in your contribution. Many people do. Some churches use on-line giving. We’re not there yet, but some day we may be. We get money from other sources, like weddings and dinners, but it’s the offertory procession, you’re bringing the bread, the wine, and your financial gifts that signifies your generosity. It’s a reminder that the word communion comes from the same root as community. Father consecrates your bread and wine and we celebrate a meal together.

Jesus could have sent the Apostles off to the grocery store to get fish and bread. But He didn’t. He allowed an anonymous boy to provide the material for the miracle. In the same way, Father and I could just bring the bread and wine out of the sacristy for Holy Communion and we could ask you to mail us your tithe. But we don’t. Your gift to the Church is returned as Jesus’ gift to you.

So, as the ushers take up the collection today, remember that it’s your gifts that make this meal possible. Without your presence and your gifts there would be no Eucharist. Like the unnamed little boy, you make the meal possible.

Third Sunday of Easter

In the Gospel today Jesus appears to the Apostles. This is one of six recorded appearances following the Crucifixion. It’s from Luke’s Gospel and Jesus appears to the Apostles as they’re hearing the two disciples’ story about meeting Jesus on the road to Ameus. He gives them the familiar greeting, “Peace be with you.” But Luke tells us they were startled and terrified. They thought they were seeing a ghost. He proceeds to ask them for something to eat, hoping to prove that He’s not a ghost, but that it’s really Him.

As you might imagine, even after hearing the two disciples’ story, they don’t know what to believe. In the end they do realize that it’s Him and opens their minds to understand the Scripture.

Now, let me ask you a question. Have you ever seen Jesus? I’m not talking about a picture or a statue, but have you really ever seen Jesus. If so, raise your hands. [Assume here that a few people may raise their hands, but not all.] I’m not talking about seeing His works or seeing Him in another person, I’m actually talking about seeing Him in the flesh.

[pause]

OK, let me ask you another question. Have you ever been to Eucharistic adoration? Doesn’t the Church teach us that Jesus is present in the bread and wine? If you’ve been to Adoration, then you’ve seen Jesus.

In a few minutes you’re going to line up for Holy Communion. Are you coming up here to receive a piece of not very tasty bread, or are you expecting to receive the Body of Christ? If you don’t believe with all your heart and all your soul that Jesus is present in the Eucharist then I have some bad news for you. By definition, you’re not a Catholic. You may be a Christian, but as Catholics we MUST believe that we’re receiving Jesus.

See, this little wafer is unleavened bread. It’s wheat and water. That’s all. I can eat it. I can throw it away. I can drop it on the floor and stomp on it and I haven’t committed a sin. We store them in an unlocked cabinet in the sacristy and we keep our extras in the freezer in the rectory so they don’t get stale. If you want, you can go to Catholic Supply and buy them by the box. 750 of them cost about five bucks.

Then we have the wine. It costs about $60.00 per case of twelve, about $5.00 a bottle, not exactly the good stuff. Again, we keep it in the sacristy. We have cases of the stuff. There is a difference here, and that’s that you can’t go to Catholic Supply and buy a case for yourself. Sacramental wine is a particular kind of wine and our state says only churches can buy it. It’s 12% alcohol, or just 24 proof. Back in the day, and maybe still today, altar servers would get a big kick out of sneaking some from the sacristy. But they didn’t get much of a buzz unless they drank a whole bottle. You wouldn’t win any points with your friends if you served sacramental wine at a dinner party.

But in a few minutes Father will say the words of consecration. This rather tasteless bread and cheap wine will become the Body and Blood of Christ. Now, that’s worth standing in line for. Instead of being stored in the freezer, the left-over Body of Christ is locked in a tabernacle. Through the centuries, Catholics have risked death to protected the consecrated Sacrament from desecration and destruction.

I’ll ask you again, have you ever seen Jesus? [Raise hands]

The Apostles were terrified when they saw Jesus. But once He opened their minds and they understood that it was really Him, their lives were never the same again. Jesus’ appearance was a miracle and the Eucharist is a miracle. Once we understand exactly what it is that we’re taking into our bodies, our lives should never be the same again either. We’re seeing Christ in the Flesh just as surely as the disciples on the road to Ameaus or the Apostles who saw Him six times before He returned to heaven.

If what I’m telling you isn’t true, then we Catholics are pretty silly. Our entire faith revolves around the mass and the reception of the Eucharist. If it’s nothing more than bread and wine, then our faith is a fraud. There’s no reason for us to come to mass. If we want to we can watch mass on television of just skip it altogether.

But as Catholics we don’t do that. You’ve heard me say it before but I hate the phrase “Sunday obligation.” We shouldn’t be coming to mass because we think we have to. We should come because we want to. Jesus makes a personal appearance in this chapel and in every other Catholic church around the world every weekend. Why would anyone want to miss the chance to not just see Him, but to actually take His physical presence into our own bodies? I don’t get it.

And, if you know someone who’s not physically able to come to mass, let us know. Call the rectory and we’ll make sure they receive the Eucharist at home, or in the hospital, or in the nursing home. If they can’t come to Jesus, we’ll take Jesus to them.

I gave this homily on Saturday and Sunday.  The response was, I’m sorry to say, very apathetic.  At both masses nobody raised their hand the first time I asked the question.  And, at both masses there were still people who didn’t raise their hands the second time I asked it.  I find this very sad.  Where have we gone wrong in our teaching on the Eucharist?