30th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Every weekend the Church gives us a set of readings; usually one from the Old Testament, one from the New Testament, a Responsorial Psalm and a reading from one of the four Gospels. They’re considered to be a set. They all go together and, in the bigger picture, each week’s readings build on what’s gone before. There are three sets of readings, years A, B, and C. We’re about to finish up year B.

The Church year begins with the First Sunday of Advent, this year on November 29 and the various readings take us through the life of Christ. It’s all very orderly, in fact the majority of the year is called “Ordinary Time” because the weeks follow one another in an orderly fashion and they’re numbered using ordinal numbers, in other words, first, second, and so on.

Father and I aren’t free to choose the readings we want to use. We may have certain favorites, but we can’t just throw them in willy-nilly, whenever we feel like it. The entire three-year cycle of readings, divinely inspired, works together to deliver God’s message, week-after-week, year after year……. assuming we’re paying attention.

With all the readings in the two big books, the Lectionary and the Book of the Gospels, sometimes a single word or two conveys an important message and if we miss those small messages we miss a lot.

Today’s Gospel is a good example. We’re all familiar with the story of Jesus’ healing of the blind man. The blind man calls out for help. Jesus asks him what he wants, a rhetorical question since we know Jesus already knows what the man wants, and the man says, “Master, I want to see.”

Jesus grants the man’s wish. Another miracle performed by the Son of God. But if we just focus on the miracle, we may miss something important. We have to pay close attention to the last two sentences of the story. Jesus says, “’Go your way’ your faith has saved you.’ Immediately he received his sight and followed Him on the way.” See what happened there. Jesus told the man to go his way, but the man chose to follow Jesus.

Jesus didn’t play “Let’s make a deal”. He didn’t say He’d heal the man in exchange for his everlasting gratitude. He didn’t attach any strings to the healing. He healed the man out of unconditional love. Yet the formerly-blind man was so grateful that he chose to follow Jesus instead of going his own way.

In this week’s bulletin, the Stewardship Thought for the Week talks about miracles. It says, “Many people think that miracles don’t happen anymore.  But, if you focus on the positive, not the negative, focus on your blessings instead of your hardships, miracles will seem common. I absolutely believe in miracles and I hope you do too. They happen all the time. Some are big. Some are small. But they happen.

Jesus restoring the blind man’s sight was a miracle. But the fact that the blind man happened to be in the right place at the right time is also a miracle. He could have been sitting on the other side of town and would have never had the chance to approach Jesus. There wasn’t something like the Saint Louis Review that tells us every week where Archbishop Carlson and Bishop Rice are going to be during the next seven days. Jesus just kind of “showed up” just like He does today.

The man WAS blind, so it’s not like he saw Jesus coming! Just the fact that the blind man was in Jesus’ path is a miracle in itself.

I think the lesson for us today isn’t so much about miracles as it is about how we respond to our blessings. Jesus told the man to go HIS way. But the man chose to go JESUS’ way. Every one of us is blessed in countless ways. We have our life. We have our health. We live in the greatest country in the world. Each of these things is a gift from God. We don’t deserve all these blessings but we receive them anyway. Do we respond to these gifts by following Jesus, or do we choose to go our own way?

Obviously we’re all here today, so we are following Jesus for at least one hour per week. The real question is, “What do we do with the other 167 hours per week?” Do we earnestly pray for the wisdom to understand God’s will? Do we mean it when we say, “Thy will be done”?   That IS how Jesus told the Apostles, and us, to pray.

I’m going to close with a prayer. It’s one I’ve used before. It’s by Father Thomas Merton from the book “Thoughts in Solitude”. It reminds us that we’re all blind in our own way, maybe even more blind than the man in the story. If you like the prayer, there are cards like this at the entrances to the chapel. If you think the pray is too long, then maybe the blind man’s prayer is more appropriate for you: “Master, I want to see!”

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in act please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Amen!

28th Sunday of Ordinary Time–God’s Plan

Today Jesus tells the disciples that it’s harder for a rich man to enter heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle—a shocking statement, especially if you happen to be rich like the young man in the story.

I think we would all agree that it’s impossible for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Is Jesus saying that it’s impossible for a rich man to get to heaven? No, I don’t think so. I think what He’s saying is that it’s impossible for a rich man, or a poor man for that matter, to get into heaven on his own. Jesus tells the rich man to sell all his possessions and to FOLLOW JESUS. That’s the answer.

In the first reading, the writer says, “I prayed, and prudence was given me; I pleaded, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.”

I was on retreat this week. One day I was in my room working on a project and was really getting nowhere. I decided to shift gears, take a break and do something else for a while. I took a look at today’s readings. Hmmm. “I prayed and prudence was given me; I pleaded, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.”

So I prayed. I asked God for wisdom then I picked up my pen and finished what I had been working on. It seemed to flow from nowhere. What had been impossible for me was easy for God. And I know this! It’s happens to me all the time. But I usually let my ego get into the way of asking God for help. I think I can do things on my own.

If you and I want to get into heaven, to pass through that needle’s eye, then we have to spend time in quiet prayer. God will tell us what to do if we just listen. He’s told us so over and over in the Scriptures, and I imagine all of you have experienced this in your lives.

We sometimes hear God referred to as a “Higher Power”. I think we can all agree with that, but do we act like we believe it? A friend of mine described it like this. “Higher Power” means that God is up here (hold one hand higher than the other) and we’re down here. But is that how we treat Him? Maybe we treat Him more like an assistant. We make our plan then we ask God to make it happen. (Reverse the hands.) We treat Him like He’s our equal or even our inferior. This is what I want to do. God, make it happen!

Isn’t it better to ask Him to show us His plan and to give us the grace to make it happen? Maybe His plan is better. In fact, there’s no question His plan is better. His plan is ALWAYS better. But we like to think we know more than He does.

Didn’t Jesus tell us to pray to our Father, “THY WILL BE DONE”? We say it all the time then proceed to try to do it our way. Face it. Whether we like it or not, God’s will is the only will that matters.

Last week Father Paul delivered an excellent homily, one of the best I’ve ever heard. He challenged us to avoid talking about one another behind the other person’s back. I sat over there thinking, “Way to go, Father!” “Right on!” “You tell ‘em!”

Then, before I had even left the chapel I caught myself gossiping. It wasn’t twenty minutes later! It’s very simple. I’m a flawed human being. So are you. We’re never going to make ourselves better. We need God’s help. The remarkable thing is that He will give it to us, IF WE ASK. He will make us better.

We have to do an honest evaluation of our faults. Then we have to lay those personality defects before God and ask Him to help us. I am who I am. You are who you are. God made us this way, so He can’t be too disappointed in how we turned out. We can never be afraid to go to Him and say, “Lord, help me to be the best me that I can be.”

 

The rich young man told Jesus that he followed the Ten Commandments. I think most of us do too. But that’s not enough. We need to do more and the power to do more comes from prayer.

Here at Saint John’s we’re surrounded by images of great saints. They’re here to inspire us; to give us something to emulate. But we’re not them! We shouldn’t try to be them. God made each of these saints one time. There’s no need for another. He made each of us for a reason and His wish for us is that we be the best version of ourselves we can possibly be.

That’s what we should pray for. If we humbly ask God to make us the best version of ourselves we can possibly be, then if we shut up and listen to what He tells us, then we have a chance to pass through that eye of the needle.

“I prayed, and prudence was given me; I pleaded, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.”

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!

22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time

22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time

We have an interesting set of readings today. In the first reading Moses tells the people “Hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land which the Lord, the God of your Fathers, is giving you.”

He goes on to tell them that if they observe the laws carefully, they will give evidence of their wisdom and intelligence to the other nations. This was a tall order. The halakhah, or Jewish law, contains 613 individual laws covering every aspect of life; what you do when you wake up in the morning, what you can and can’t eat, what you can and can’t wear, how to groom yourself, how to do business, who you can marry, how to observe the holidays and the Sabbath, and how to treat God, other people, and even animals.

The halakhah was a handbook for Jewish life and Jews were expected to observe it, as Moses tells them today. These laws are still in effect and many, but not all, Jews follow at least some of them. Whether a Jew eating a ham sandwich is destined for eternal damnation is a question that’s open to debate. But probably not, any more than you and I are going to hell for eating that same ham sandwich on a Friday during Lent.

As Christians, we believe in both Testaments, Old and New. Obviously we wouldn’t have an Old Testament reading as part of most masses if we didn’t believe it. But, look at today’s Gospel. Jesus contradicts Moses! He and His disciples didn’t follow Jewish dietary law. They were eating without purifying their hands, among other things that the scribes and Pharisees are more than anxious to point out.

Jesus responds by calling them “hypocrites”.

Jesus was a faithful Jew. He knew the Scriptures and the halakhah, all 613 laws of it. What’s the deal? What happened between Deuteronomy and Mark’s Gospel? What changed?

Maybe I can clear it up a little bit. When we were children we had to follow a lot of rules. We couldn’t cross the street without holding Mom or Dad’s hand. We didn’t have the experience or the maturity to make good decisions to keep from getting hurt or killed.

We had rules about when we got up and when we went to bed; when to clean our rooms and when to take a bath and brush our teeth. It’s a parent’s job to teach us how to live our lives. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I had more than 613 rules to follow as a kid.

But as we grow and mature, we have fewer rules. We learn to look both ways before we cross the street. We don’t have to hold Mom or Dad’s hand anymore. We learn that if we want to have friends, there are certain rules of hygiene that we have to follow.

Don’t get me wrong. If you leave here today and head up Lafayette Avenue and the light is red, you’d better stop. Not so much because it’s the law, but because there’s liable to be a car coming up Tucker that’s going to cream you if you don’t stop because he has the green light. Traffic laws are there for a reason and we should all follow them to protect ourselves and others.

So, what’s that got to do with today’s readings? The people of Moses’ time were spiritually immature. They needed a lot of rules. But after a few thousand years, God decided that we needed something else. We needed a Savior. He sent us His Son.

Rather than insisting that we wash our hands before meals, Jesus came to offer us something much simpler, and at the same time, much more difficult. He said that nothing that enters us from the outside can defile us. What defiles us is what comes from within. “Evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within.” Get rid of those things and you’ll be pure whether you wash your hands or not.

So, what happened between Deuteronomy and Mark? Jesus happened. He came to form a new covenant. Love God. Love your neighbor. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. What would Jesus do? “Greater love has no man than to lay down His life for his friends.”

Instead of a giant book of laws, we have wall hangings and bumper stickers. It’s all very simple. But in many ways it’s harder than the original Jewish law. Under the old covenant, you could look at the laws and know what you had to do. If you could follow instructions, you could be a loyal and faithful Jew.

You and I have to make decisions. What does “love your neighbor” mean. Does it mean I have to be his best friend? Or does it mean that I just have to tolerate him? When I see a beggar in the street, do I have to give him all my money, or just some of it? Or can I just pass him by, knowing that he’ll probably spend any money I give him on booze or drugs? Is it up to me to make that call? It’s just all so confusing.

But, if we’re going to have freedom, we have to make choices. Sometimes they’re easy choices. Sometimes they’re hard. But the New Covenant gives us free will. We can eat that ham sandwich without a guilty conscience, even though a salad might be a better choice.

Of course, we still have laws. We have those pesky traffic laws. But a speeding ticket isn’t going to send you to hell.

We have Jesus’ words in Sacred Scripture and that’s all we really need. There are thousands of books that have been written trying to tell us how to be good Christians. But one book is all we really need. Hopefully we all have one. It’s called the Bible. A friend of mine calls it B-I-B-L-E; Basic Information Before Leaving Earth.

Also, don’t forget that Moses told the people that they must follow the law to “take possession of the land”. Jesus wasn’t interested in land. He was interested in saving our eternal souls. He gave us a very simple code to follow. “Love God. Love thy neighbor.” That’s it.

He left us with one very important decision to make. Do we want to be Pharisees or do we want to be disciples? It’s up to us.

Closing Churches

Over at Fr. Z’s blog there an excellent post concerning the closing of churches.  It seems that Saint Ann Church in Buffalo was slated for closing.  The building needed $12 million in repairs and the local bishop made the decision to tear it down.  The parishioners appealed the decision to Rome and the Vatican’s response was “Not so fast.  The needed repairs aren’t enough of a reason to close the place.”  Clearly this decision  to overrule the local ordinary will have an impact on all potential church closings.

I find this decision very interesting because my current assignment, Saint John Nepomuk Chapel in Saint Louis, currently celebrating our 160th anniversary, was once on the closing list, but was spared, primarily because of its historical significance.  Saint John’s was founded by Bohemian immigrants in 1854.  It was the first Czech Roman Catholic church in the New World.

Screen shot 2014-02-10 at 4.38.09 PMUrban flight and the building of not one, but two interstate highways in the middle of the neighborhood meant that thousands of Czech immigrants moved out of the area.  Our church, which was once one of the largest in the Archdiocese now has just over 100 registered families.  On a good weekend we may have 100 people attending our two masses.

In 2008, rather than close the church,  Saint John’s was downgraded from a parish to a chapel.  We have no geographical boundaries so our membership comes from all over the Saint Louis area.  The pastor at the time became a chaplain and when he retired the decision was made to put a deacon in charge.  I am the second deacon to hold that position.  One important part of my job is to get priests to celebrate the two weekend masses, a task that seems to be getting more difficult every week.

Another part of the job is to find the money to keep things going.  Our current church building was built in 1897 after a tornado destroyed the previous structure.   Our church is one of the most beautiful in the Archdiocese.  Thankfully our current Archbishop, Robert Carlson, recognizes the value of the older churches (of which Saint Louis has many) and doesn’t seem inclined to close any of them.  The model of deacon as director will, no doubt, be adopted at other churches as the number of priests declines.

Father Z ends his post by saying, ”

“If you want something to happen, you have to work for it and pay for it.

Free exercise of religion isn’t free.  We have bills to pay.  If YOU want something – A, B, C… whatever – and you are unwilling to pitch in and put sweat or money or both into it, you will lose it.”

Ah, there’s the rub.  Many of our members are seniors living on fixed incomes.  Their ability to supply “sweat or money” ain’t what it Saint John Nepomuk Chapelused to be.  It’s a well-known fact, based on Pereto’s principal, that 20% of the people contribute 80% of the work and 80% of the money.  We rely on existing investments and the revenue from weddings and fund raisers to pick up the slack.  But, as we draw down the investment cash we put a limit on the number of years we can survive.    Plus our small pool of workers can only cook so much goulash before they get worn out.  Its also worth noting that some of our best workers have gone on to their reward in the last few years, a trend that will also continue.

So, the obvious answer is to evangelize–get more members.  But there are some big obstacles to overcome.  Ethnic churches seem to be declining everywhere.  In the early 20th century Saint Louis was made up of large ethnic communities with ethnic churches and schools.  A young Czech girl was likely to marry a Czech young man.  Ditto for the Irish, the Germans, the Italians and other ethnic groups.  Following World War II, when young men returned from the service (God bless them!) they began settling in the suburbs.  While they may have continued to attend their “home” church for a while, they sent their kids to neighborhood schools where they met other young people of other nationalities.  Now a Czech girl was likely to marry an Italian boy.  With each new generation their ethnicity was weakened.  Driving all the way downtown to attend a Czech church wasn’t that important to them.

So why not evangelize in the neighborhood?  That seems like a logical solution.  But again, nothing is ever simple.  Our neighborhood, once known as “Bohemian Hill” is now called Soulard.  It’s an urban area that has been rescued from decline and there are a lot of houses that have been renovated and there are also a number of condos.  There are also a lot of bars and restaurants.  When you mention “Soulard” to most Saint Louisans the first thing they think of is Mardi Gras.  Soulard holds the second biggest Mardi Gras celebration in the country.  Frankly the young people who are moving into the area aren’t coming so they can be close to a church, even though there are five Catholic churches in the area.  The church-going Catholic has a lot of choices.  Meanwhile the neighborhood is crowded most weekend nights with partiers.

So, what’s the answer?  I wish I knew.  If the Vatican is discouraging the closing of churches, more city parishes are going to find themselves in the same situation.  I’m hoping that some readers will have experience with successful turnarounds.  If you have, I’d love to hear from you.  What works?  What doesn’t?  How do we use our resources to spread the faith and to save these beautiful churches?  I’m looking forward to hearing from you.

Breaking News!

From the Wall Street Journal:

Amid controversy over “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson’s remarks about gays and blacks to GQ magazine, A+E Networks issued a new statement late Friday afternoon that said after consulting advocacy groups and the Robertson family, the network decided to resume filming the show this spring with the reality star.

How about that!  The network has listened to it’s Christian viewers (and others who love their right to express themselves) and reinstated Phil Robertson.  This is a major victory for those of us who believe in Jesus Christ and are sick and tired of seeing Christian values pushed aside.

But, not to worry, there will be another assault on Christianity from another quarter before long.  Let’s all pray that those of us who were upset about Phil-Gate will continue to stand up for our Lord and Savior, and for anyone who is denied the right to express their religious views.

 

Saint Stephen

Today, December 26, is the feast of Saint Stephen.  Stephen was one of the first deacons (Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 6).  He is the patron saint of Catholic deacons.  He was also the first martyr.

You’re probably familiar with the song, “Good King Wenceslas“.  “Good King Wenceslas  looked down, on the feast of Stephen.”  The song continues on to tell us that the King went out to help a poor man who was gathering firewood on the King’s property.  Instead of running him off, the King went out and helped the man.  That’s one of the reasons he was called “Good King Wenceslas”.  There was another Czech King Wenceslas, but he was anything but good.

It’s good to recall that the writer of the song thought it was important to mention that this happened on Stephen’s feast day.  It’s also important to remember that the story took place on the day after Christmas.

Happy feast of Stephen!