Sunday, September 29, 2013

Sunday Homily: Two Ways to get to Heaven

How do we get to heaven?

And why did the Rich Man go to hell?

Here’s Lazarus, the poor wretch who used to beg for food on the front steps of the rich man's house, dogs licking his sores.  And here’s the rich man, turning his head the other way and stepping over the beggar to get inside and get a drink before supper.

Why did the rich man go to hell?  Because he was rich?  No...there's no sin there.  He went to hell because he failed to love his brother.

Hospitality, love for the stranger and the alien, the poor wretch and the one whom everyone else forgets is the first way to get into the Kingdom of Heaven.

That's what Abraham and Sarah teach us when the three strangers go walking by their tent on a stinking hot day.  They could have ignored this trinity of strangers, but they did not.  They invited them in, bathed their feet, gave them something cool to drink and cared for them.  Why?  Because they knew they were divine messengers?  No.  They invited them in because God would have wanted them to. And because they did, God fulfilled his covenant with this elderly and childless couple, giving them a son, Isaac, the son of laughter in their old age.

The first path to heaven, then, is hospitality, for hospitality's sake.

And the second is like unto it.  Remember the story of the other Lazarus, Jesus's dear friend whom he would later raise from the dead?  There a dinner for Jesus and Lazarus is there along with his sisters Martha and Mary.  Martha understands hospitality.  She's cooking the meal, running around the kitchen, setting the table, seating the guests and breathlessly exhausting herself in order that everyone might be at home.  

But then she looks over at Mary, who, we are told, is sitting at the Lord's feet, listening to him, deep in conversation with Jesus.  The sweaty and exhausted Martha is enraged that she goes right up to Jesus, and in words that could only have come from a friend says to him: tell that sister of mine to help me rather than sitting on her....chair chatting with you all day.

And then Jesus tells us something extraordinary.  He tells us that there is an even more excellent way, a better part than hospitality. The better part which Mary has chosen, is to spend time alone with the Lord, and that better part shall not be taken from her.

So, hospitality, feeding the poor, forgiving and embracing the stranger, welcoming those rejected by everyone else...are indispensable to those who seek to walk the path to the Kingdom of God.  But one thing more is required, to pray, to listen and to dwell with the Lord.

I have a lot of friends who are great social workers, selfless advocates for the poor and the downtrodden.  Indeed, for many years, I used to do spiritual direction with a lot of Catholic Workers and Jesuit volunteers and the like.  And you know what one thing they struggle with more than anything else.  It's not the getting up in the middle of the night to drive someone to detox, or having the patience to put up with all the stresses of working with the's shutting up long enough to pray, and stopping “doing stuff” long enough to sit at the feet of the Lord and listen to him. The Martha in them would keep them going, twenty-four hours a day, like the energizer bunny, running in circles.  But what they need is contemplation, and quiet and peace with the Lord, if it's all ever going to make sense.

I also have friends in monasteries, like the Trappists in Spencer or Gethsemane.  They are wonderful monks, who pray five times a day with an intensity and a joy which is a marvel to behold.  But you know what their struggles are?  Forgiving that monk who gave them a dirty look, or putting up with that guy who entered with them thirty years ago whom they've never been able to stand, or seeking out and caring for the monk who is struggling and alone.
Two paths get us to heaven: hospitality and prayer, Martha and Mary.

And not really two paths at all, but the one path which leads to the cross of Jesus, to the perfect sacrifice of love and devotion, which is our hope, our salvation and the only way to heaven.

The Innocence, Purity, and Trust of a Child

This is my homily for Monday, September 30, 2013, the Feast of Saint Jerome.

The disciples are debating who is the greatest, and so Jesus embraces a little child, and says “Whoever receives this child receives me.”  Jesus equates himself with a child, echoing what he says in another Gospel: “Unless you become like a little child, you shall not enter the Kingdom of God.

Now I was having a problem reflecting on this the other day as I was waiting for a plane in an uncomfortable chair in the Philly airport.  Across from me a three old was providing the entertainment.  He repeatedly waited until his exhausted father would just begin to fall asleep and then scream and jump in his lap.  Then, when he had finished shrieking with malevolent laughter, he grabbed a juice box and squeezed it with such force that its juicy-juice became airborne and soaked the hail of the lady sitting behind him.  Unsatisfied that his performance was being sufficiently appreciated, he broke away and ran screaming down the concourse waving his arms above his head, while his harried father scrambled behind him.

Is this the kind of child God calls us to imitate?  Hardly.

But there is something about a child worthy of all imitation.  Three things really:  innocence, purity, and trust.

Innocence.  Is there anything more innocent than a little child? And what is innocence?  Innocence is the absence of guilt.  It is the verdict for which the accused waits with baited breath.  It is the utter amazement of one so good in the face of cruelty.  It is the goodness so tangible that it cleanses you just by being near it.

In the Worcester Art Museum we have a beautiful painting of innocence, based on Isaiah’s vision of the Lion and Lamb, lying together in the peaceable kingdom.  In the lion and the lamb strength and innocence naturally live in peace, and a secret is revealed: innocence is the source of real strength and, as Mahatma Ghandi once wrote: “The greater our innocence, the greater our strength and the swifter our victory.”

The real solution to all life’s problems is in restoring the innocence of a little child.  And what restores lost innocence is contrition, confession and turning away from all that eats my innocence alive.

The second quality of the child is purity. Pure is not, and never has been, the most sought after of titles.  This is because purity is often equated with prudery, and that’s a real shame.  For purity is one of the fastest ways to heaven.

Purity is the absence of vices and the abundance of virtues.  The opposite of purity is filthiness.  I’m either pure or I’m dirty.  

One the day of your Baptism, the priest clothed you in a white garment and said: keep this garment unstained until that day when the Lord will return to judge the living and the dead. Your soul is that white garment.  And all through life you have a choice of keeping that garment clean, abstaining from filth, frequently washing it in the blood of the Lamb, or letting it get dirty, polluting it, and failing to keep it clean.

The real solution to all life’s problems is in restoring the purity of a little child.  And what restores lost purity is contrition, confession and turning away from all that eats my purity alive.

Innocence, purity, and Trust.  No one trusts more completely than a child embraced in his mother’s arms, trusting entirely that he will be take care of.  He trusts that there is someone bigger than he is who loves him with a love and a power beyond his imaginings.  Trust means that I don’t spend much much time worrying, because I know God has it all under control.

As a wise Benedictine once wrote, paraphrasing the Lord: “Come to me all you who labor and are burdened and I will give you rest. Give me those worries, I’ll carry them. Keep your perception clear by letting me be God for you. You don’t need to be God. I’ll be God.” (Mother Maria-Michael Newe, OSB)

So welcome a child, be like a child, like Jesus: In innocence, in purity, and in trust.

Friday, September 27, 2013


Here’s the sketch for the hand-carved gold-leafed door of our new Tabernacle, which is being carved by in the hill town of Ortesei in Northern Italy.  The door will, like the present tabernacle, feature a mother Pelican feeding her young.

This is an ancient symbol for the Holy Eucharist, rooted in the ancient legend which tells the story of how, in time of famine, the mother pelican would pull bits of flesh and blood from her own breast to feed her young.  Thus does the pelican symbolize the Lord Jesus, who gives us his very Body and Blood to eat and drink that we might live forever with him in glory.

This Eucharistic analogy appears for the first time in the Physiologus, a late second century Alexandrian text which contained allegories for animals like the phoenix, the unicorn, and the pelican.  Saint Epiphanius, Saint Basil and Saint Peter of Alexandria all make reference to this work, which was a favorite of medieval artists.

Saint Thomas Aquinas’ great Eucharistic Hymn, Adoro Te Devote also makes reference to the pelican.  Here is Gerard Manley Hopkins’ translation of the sicth verse:

Like what tender tales tell of the Pelican
Bathe me, Jesus Lord, in what thy Bosom ran
Blood that but one drop of has the pow’r to win
All the world forgiveness of its world of sin.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Setting Their Hearts Free

On Wednesday afternoon I was invited to reflect with the Catholic Hospital and Prison Chaplains of the Archdiocese of Boston on the Subject: Setting Their Hearts Free: the Ministry of the Catholic Chaplain.  Here's a copy of that address.

I begin by saying thank you.  Thank you for inviting me, but even more, thank you for the work you do every day, going, as Holy Father Francis would describe it, to the the land of the forgotten...the nursing home, the jail, the intensive care unit, or the isolation cell.  

You go there because you have read the answers to the final exam in the Gospels and you have had the good sense to seek out the face of the Lord not just in tabernacles or beautiful Churches, though he is assuredly there, but in the imprisoned, the sick and the dying, where you gaze on his face, take his hand and let him heal you.

So what do I have to offer you, good Catholic Chaplains who care for the sick and imprisoned form morning till night, and sometimes in the middle of the night?  What do I, a pastor, now shepherding a new generation of pastors, have to say?  What do I have to say?

;I have chosen to reflect on freedom, as described by the Lord Jesus in a paraphrase of Isaiah, in a sort of mission statement for his Messianic mission:  God, he says, has “anointed me to bring good news to the bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound...”

To set them free: the poor, the prisoner and the sick.  To set them free.

;Free from Time, Free from Suffering, and Free from Getting my Own Way.

;Freedom from time
Its not a coincidence that serving a prison sentence is called “doing time".  And how many patients have you seen struggle with the question of how to “pass the time” while waiting for the next gaggle of technicians and doctors to poke and prod them.

;For the patient and the prisoner time takes on new becomes more tangible, more capable of description.  My sentence might be 18 months and then I know I will get out and return to the real world.  My condition might (by the grace of the insurance company) require three days in the hospital and then two weeks in rehab.  When I was out in the real world, time was measured by the calendar and an appointment book.  But here in this other world, outside forces have imposed their timetables on me and others determine when things end and begin.

Even my daily pattern of existence, once determined by work, by whim or by social obligations, is now regulated by forces I do not fully comprehend.   When I can get out of bed, or go for a walk or have visitors is fully regulated and I can be constantly tempted to think that me, my life and even how I pass time all belong to the hospital, the doctor, the warden and the judge.

Which is why Blessed Pope John Paul II, in his Jubilee letter to prisoners, reminds us that “time belongs to God".  And he suggests that for the prisoner or the patient, there is a unique opportunity to understand this important insight which is often too hard to grasp for those of us imprisoned by the apparent freedom of daily life.

;...those who are in detention,” the Holy Father suggests, “must not live as if their time in prison had been taken from them completely: even time in prison is God's time. As such it needs to be lived to the full; it is a time which needs to be offered to God as a occasion of truth, humility, expiation and even faith. The Jubilee serves to remind us that not only does time belong to God, but that the moments in which we succeed in "restoring" all things in Christ become for us "a time of the Lord's favor".

;I recently turned sixty, and in the same year buried my Father.  Such events have a way of fixing the mind on the passage of time, especially when you work full-time with seminarians, many fresh out of College.  I recently lamented to a friend how I was old enough to be their Father.  “No, James,” he gently chided me, “you are old enough to be their grandfather!

Sickness and lack of liberty focus the mind in a wonderful way as well.  The great seventeenth century Poet John Donne was thrown in prison due to a political dispute.  By the way, his estrangement from his wife brought forth that exquisite expression of despair:  “John Donne/ Anne Donne/ Undone.”

Donne later wrote a series of reflections on suffering, including the brilliant insight that sickness focuses the mind on the use of our time, our priorities and our spiritual condition like almost nothing else.  

Time was created by God and some day will end.  Like all of creation, it is given to us as a gift, to be used for God’s glory and to be filled with never-ending moments of seeking his face, loving in his name and growing closer to his Cross.  Time is our rehearsal space for an eternity of timeless praise of God in union with all the angels and saints.  And whether that time is given to us in prison or a classroom, in an ICU or a cubicle at work, in a home or a deserted space is almost irrelevant.  Time is still God’s gift and when we embrace it as gift, we are set free to be the children of God that we are called to be.

Thus are we freed from the bonds of time and drawn closer to God.

;Freedom from Suffering
And then there is the cross.  The Cross of learning that its malignant, that you are guilty, that your old life is over, at least for a time, and that now you must enter this monastic enclosure called Cardiac Care or the House of Correction.

;Like all Crosses, it demands detachment: a letting go of what has been.  Like all Crosses, it is mounted on a Good Friday as the sky goes black and all seem to have turned against you.  Like all Crosses, it faces a vast darkly empty tomb, across which they plan to roll a great big stone to seal you in.

And like all Crosses, there are two ways it can be approached: as a captive or a free man.  As a captive, I go to the gallows bound and gagged, never gently into that good night, but fighting for my life.  Alternatively, I choose to received the cross with open arms in imitation of the one who taught me how to mount the tree and accept every cross as a participation in his.  The first is coerced.  The second is the act of a free man and life with meaning.

But its hard to be a free man and to accept the suffering as they drive the nails into your wrist.  Our every instinct is to struggle to get away.  Only faith opens our arms.  Only faith makes us free.

Blessed Theresa of Calcutta, Doctor of fruitful suffering, once reflected: 

;“Today the passion of Christ is being relived in all the lives of those who suffer. To accept that suffering is a gift of God. Suffering is not a punishment. God does not punish. Suffering is a gift.  Though like all gifts, It depends on how we receive it. And that is why we need a pure heart- to see the hand of God, to feel the hand of God, to recognize the gift of God in our suffering. Suffering is not a punishment. Jesus does not punish. Suffering is a sign-a sign that we have come so close to Jesus on the cross, that He can kiss us, show that He is in love with us by giving us an opportunity to share in His passion. In our home for the dying it is so beautiful to see people who are joyful, people who are lovable, people who are at peace, in spite of terrible suffering. Suffering is not a punishment, not a fruit of sin, it is a gift of God. He allows us to share in His suffering and to make up for the sins of the world.” 

Or, as Saint Josemaria Escriva once wrote:

;“If we join our own little things, those insignificant or big difficulties of ours, to the great sufferings of Our Lord, the Victim (He is the only Victim!), their value will increase. They will become a treasure, and then we will take up the Cross of Christ gladly and with style. And then every suffering will soon be overcome: nobody, nothing at all, will be able to take away our peace and our cheerfulness.”

Thus are we freed from the bonds of suffering and drawn closer to God.

;Freedom from Getting My Own Way
No one plans to get sick.  No one aspires to go to prison.  So there is a certain element of surprise in the life of each of your clients.

;And I suppose a bit part of the sorrow experienced by the man in the cell or the woman in intensive care is that this is not what I had planned!  And what makes it even worse if that if this is not what I had planned...what’s next?!  I have lost all control, all ability to steer my life.  My life is no longer my own.

Which is why I suspect that if the Lord had a bit more time to write his sermon on the mount, he would have included the sick and the prisoners.  For like the poor, the broken hearted and those despised for the sake of his Holy Name, the sick and the prisoner have just been rather rudely awakened to the new that they are no longer in control of their life.

;And that is why they are blessed...for unlike you and me, who go about incessantly trying to prove to ourselves that we are  in control, they have been given the great good news that we’re not!

And that, believe it or not, is good news!  For God’s plan is the whole reason we were made, and the sooner we let go of our way and embrace his, the happier we will be!  Now, of course, for those He really loves, God’s way leads to the cross.  When he holds us close to his heart, we are given a full portion of sacrificial suffering to go along with it.  But once we recognize His embrace, even that suffering turns to pure joy.

But we gotta let go first.

I always loved the story told by Somerset Maugham about the janitor at St. Peter's Church in London. It seems that once the vicar found out the old man was illiterate he threw him out on the street.  However, the resourceful fellow took the little bit of money he had saved and bought a tobacco stand, which was so successful that he opened a shop, and then another one and another one, until he had amassed a fortune of several thousand pounds.  One day the man’s banker asked him, "You've done well for an old illiterate, but where would you be if you could read and write?" "Well," he thoughtfully replied, "I'd be janitor of St. Peter's Church in Neville Square."

Think back on your own life.  How many times did you face failure or ignominy or run right smack into a brick wall, convinced that God had made one first class mess of your life...and then it happens...once you’ve let go of all your presuppositions and glorious plans, God shows you the way he had planned...more glorious than anything you could have dreamt up in your wildest dreams.  

And so it is with the person lying on a bed of pain, convinced that God is just toying with them or perversely punishing them for some long forgotten sin.  But then if they accept the cross, open their arms upon it, they suddenly discover there is always meaning in suffering, and hope in  pain.  Good Friday never passes without the Easter morn.

Thus are we freed from the bonds of our brilliant plans and drawn closer to God.

The Roman Missal
Such sentiments are succinctly expressed in the prayers of the new Roman Missal in the Masses for the Sick and for those in Prison.  Take a look, for just a moment, at the prayer for those in Prison:

Almighty and merciful God,
to whom alone the secrets of the heart lie open,
who recognize the just and make righteous the guilty,
hear our prayers for your servants held in prison,
and grant that through patience and hope
they may find relief in their affliction
and soon return unhindered to their own.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God, for ever and ever.

“to whom alone the secrets of the heart lie open”  
God alone is omniscient and only he, not the lawyer, not the judge, and sometimes not even the prisoner, know the whole truth.  Only God, just judge and all merciful, knows and loves the heart of every prisoner.

“who recognize the just and make righteous the guilty”
What a curious turn of phrase!  Right after we speak of God as omniscient, in a prayer for the imprisoned, we would think to hear something about guilt.  But no, God is the one who recognizes the innocent, the just man, and “makes righteous the guilty.”  For us, wrapped up in all our needs for vengeance, determining guilt ”beyond a reasonable doubt” is what’s important.  But God is all about redemption.  Desiring not the death of the sinner, but that he might live: his goal is the making righteous of all who are guilty!

“hear our prayers for your servants held in prison”
They are not called prisoners, or captives or the, they’re called famuli tui, your servants.  For that is what they are: members of the household of God, those at the margins whom the Good Shepherd goes out to find, to redeem and to carry home on his shoulders.

“and grant that through patience and hope they may find relief in their affliction and soon return unhindered to their own.”
How do they find redemption?  Through patience and hope.  Through giving over all their sufferings and all their plans to God.  Only then will their affliction, their guilt, their imprisonment and their sorrow be relieved, that their might return unhindered, unchained and freed “to their own,” to those who they love.

And then there is the prayer from the Mass for the Sick:

O God, who willed that our infirmities 
be borne by your Only Begotten Son 
to show the value of human suffering, 
listen in kindness to our prayers
for our brothers and sisters who are sick;
grant that all who are oppressed by pain, 
distress or other afflictions may know that they are chosen
among those proclaimed blessed
and are united to Christ
in his suffering for the salvation of the world.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

“O God, who willed that our infirmities  be borne by your Only Begotten Son to show the value of human suffering”
The prayer begins by immediately tying our sufferings, all human sufferings to the Cross of Christ.  It is here, joined to his perfect sacrifice of praise upon the altar of the Cross that those who suffer find meaning.  For our sufferings are not just ours, but he has chosen to invite the sick to place them upon his shoulders, that he might bear them with his cross, take them down with him into the grave and rise in glory, vanquishing sin and suffering and even death itself.  It is this vision of the Cross which has opened the doors to a Kingdom where there will be no more suffering, crying out or tears, but only perfect joy in God’s presence forever.

listen in kindness to our prayers for our brothers and sisters who are sick; distress or other afflictions”
And so we ask God here and now to listen to our prayers for our brothers and sisters who are now suffering from sickness or pain, distress or other afflictions.  What do we ask for them?  That the pain might be taken away?  That the sickness might abate?  No.  Not in this Prayer.

may know that they are chosen among those proclaimed blessed and are united to Christ” in his suffering for the salvation of the world.
We pray that they “might know that they are chosen” to be among the blessed, united to Christ in his suffering for the salvation of the world.  

Notice that neither of these prayers of the Roman Missal for prisoners or for the sick ask for the easy thing: not for freedom from prison (unlock the doors!) or freedom from sickness (get me the magic pill!) but that the patient and the prisoner might grow closer to Christ and seek the deeper meaning and the opportunity to grow in conformity to him precisely as their present condition affords.  In freedom from all our foolish preconceptions of time and suffering and what we’re convinced God is supposed to be doing for us.

We need the sick.  We need prisoners.

Despite what all those folks say about how good you are to be a chaplain, about how the beatitudes were written about you, going to the hospital, the jail and heaven....despite your training, your expertise and all the background's really not you who are there for the prisoner: it is the prisoner of that bed or that cell who is there for you.

Those of you who have been doing this for a long time know how true that is.  Your salvation is worked out not because you are dispensing an act of charity, but because you have a job which lets you gaze on the face of Christ every day.  Like the cloistered nun before the blessed Sacrament, you see him...and he sees you.

Not a bad job.  Because such work with prisoners, the sick and the suffering changes you, it transforms you.  It makes you look like him.

It’s not unlike looking into the face of Blessed Pope John Paul II in those last years of his life. Remember how stooped and broken he was, his hands shaking, his words slurred.  But more powerfully than any sermon he ever preached, more eloquently than any Encyclical he ever promulgated, he reflected in those days the face of Christ in his suffering, his imprisonment and his dying.

He reminded me that this voice you have been listening to will grow weak in not so many years and this mind will grow dim.  These hands will begin to shake and sometime this heart will cease to beat.  In the end, this body will stop working entirely.  And I, who spend most of my waking moments in denial, need to be with sick people and prisoners who remind me “of the essential or higher things.  By their witness, by the liminality of their condition, they show that our mortal life must be redeemed through the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection.

They teach me how to join my sufferings to the cross of Christ.

They teach me what it is like to stand at the foot of the cross, like the great Mother of God.

They teach me that sickness and lack of freedom, a natural part of human life, is just around the corner.

But that with the grace of the children of God, even from time, from suffering, and from my own brilliant plans, I can be free. 

And so can they.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Reflection on the Church and Sickness

On Monday morning I will be giving a short talk to the homebound members of the Knights and Dames of Malta on "the Church and Sickness."  As you know, the Knights of Malta is deeply committed to caring for the sick and proclaiming the Church's Magesterium.  Please keep the Knights and Dames who are no longer able to leave their homes in your prayers, that those who devoted their life to the sick may be comforted in times of trial and suffering.

Just a few weeks after he was elected Pope, our Holy Father Francis canonized his first saints, among them Saint Guadalupe GarcĂ­a Zavala.  To hear her story, you would have thought she was a Dame of Malta!  Her whole life was devoted to caring for those who were sick.

The Holy Father recalled how “Mother Lupita would kneel on the hospital floor, before the sick, before the abandoned, in order to serve them with tenderness and compassion. And this is called touching the flesh of Christ. The poor, the abandoned, the sick and the marginalized are the flesh of Christ.  And Mother Lupita touched the flesh of Christ...”

Some of you to whom I am speaking know sickness.  Christ holds you close to his cross to share in his suffering.  But whether you are caring for the sick or you yourselves are cared for in this time of weakness and suffering, I’d like to reflect for a moment on six simple teachings which come to us from the Lord and form the foundation of the Church’s theology of what it means to be sick.

1. Everyone suffers, but  not like Christians do...
Suffering and illness have always been among the greatest problems that trouble the human spirit.  Christians feel and experience pain as do all other people; yet their faith helps them to grasp more deeply the mystery of suffering and bear their pain with greater courage.  From Christ’s words they know that sickness has meaning and value for their own salvation and for the salvation of the world.  They also know that Christ, who during his life often visited and healed the sick, loves them in their illness.  Joined with Christ and his suffering upon the cross, the sick person is never really alone.

2. Sickness is not usually a punishment for sin
Now there are exceptions to this principle: if I smoke too much and get lung cancer, I shouldn’t be too surprised.  You can think of other examples, as well.  But although it is loosely linked with the human condition, sickness cannot as a general rule be regarded as punishment inflicted on each individual for personal sins (see John 9:3). 

We only have to recall the story of the man born blind in John’s Gospel.  You may remember hearing that Gospel from this past lent. By whose sin was he born blind, Jesus is asked?  Is he blind because of the sin of his parents?  Or because of his own sin?

You remember Jesus’ response: His being born blind was no one’s sin.  But today, his sickness will be used to glorify God.  And then Jesus healed him.
As Knights and Dames of Malta you struggle with the pharisee in people every day.  Why would God make me suffer like this?  If I only went to Church more, or said that Novena, or knew the right words to say, I wouldn’t be sick.  What did I do (or not do) to deserve this? The Church replies, like Jesus: It is not what you have done or not done (for the most part).  Sickness and death are a part of life, a part of the mystery of the love of God.  And as in the case of the man born blind, all we can do is that God will bring good even out of this moment of sickness and pain.

3. The sick person should fight illness
Part of the plan laid out by God’s providence is that we should fight strenuously against all sickness and carefully seek the blessings of good health, so that we may fulfill our role in human society and in the Church.” (Pastoral Care of the Sick and Dying In other words, while sickness can have meaning, God does not expect us to just roll over and die.  

Sickness keeps me from going to Church, from feeding the poor, from preaching the Gospel, and from visiting the others who are sick!  Sickness is not something to be enjoyed, but to struggle against.  Like the prisoner locked in a dungeon, the sick person seeks to break the chains of the illness that confines him and keeps him from getting on with life.

4. The whole Church should fight illness
Which leads us to the next point: the sick person is not alone in this struggle.  
“Doctors and all who are devoted in any way to caring for the sick should consider it their duty to use all the means which in their judgment may help the sick, both physically and spiritually.  In so doing, they are fulfilling the command of Christ to visit the sick, for Christ implied that those who visit the sick should be concerned for the whole person and offer both physical relief and spiritual comfort.” (Pastoral Care of the Sick and Dying)

The fight against illness is a holy struggle, which sanctifies those who undertake this noble work in extraordinary and unexpected ways.  You’ve seen that, time and time again.  Luke was not the last health care worker to become a saint.

5. Sickness is sharing in the Passion of Christ
Sometimes, however, indeed for each one of us the struggle against sickness is in vain.  Sometimes the cancer will not remit, the heart will not get stronger, the disease cannot be cured.  On one day, each one of us (even Knights and Dames of Malta!) will find that we are sicker and sicker and that soon we will die.

So what do we say on that day “that we’ve lost the battle"?  Far from it!  For, as the preface for martyrs tells us, God chooses the weak and makes them strong in Christ.  As Saint Francis reminds us, it is in our weakness that we are strong, in our littleness that we are great, in our powerlessness that we know true power.

“Christ himself, who is without sin, in fulfilling the words of Isaiah took on all the wounds of his passion and shared in all human pain (see Isaiah 53: 4-5).  Christ is still pained and tormented in his members, made like him.  We should always be prepared to fill up what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings for the salvation of the world...”  (Pastoral Care of the Sick and Dying)

6. We need the sick
Which is precisely why the sick have such an indispensable role in the Church.  The sick woman reminds me what is truly important and truly lasting.  Faith, hope, and love are the only things that last!  That’s hard to convince me of when I’m lecturing (I’m in control), or when I’m ministering the sick (I’m in control), or when I’m going to the bank (I’m in control).  

But this voice you have been listening to will grow weak in not so many years and this mind will grow dim.  These hands will begin to shake and sometime this heart will cease to beat.  In the end, this body will stop working entirely.  And I, who spend most of my waking moments in denial, need to be with sick people who remind me “of the essential or higher things.  By their witness the sick show that our mortal life must be redeemed through the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection.” (Pastoral Care of the Sick and Dying)  

Faith, Hope, and Love.  It’s all that really matters.  It’s all that really lasts. There’s not a single member of the Church who does not have a role to play in this great drama.  Not just as a support to family and friends, but (like Jesus) as a friend of the sick.  As one who seeks them out in hospitals and nursing homes.  As one who does not flee from his own fear and doubts, but through the smells, the sights and the fears goes to the sick man and makes him strong, knowing that Christ will judge him on the last day.  

I was sick and you did not visit me.  Be consigned to the everlasting fire.  Rather strong words.  And a rather clear teaching about our responsibility to fight at the side of the sick man in his mortal struggle.

 7. The role of the sick in the Church
The Fathers of the second Vatican Council were clear about the foundational concern of the liturgical reform: the full, conscious and active participation of all the faithful in the Sacred Liturgy. We must find ways to help every Christian to fully, consciously and actively participate in prayer with the sick.  It is their right and duty by reason of their baptism.

But we must also help everyone (starting with ourselves) to appreciate the role which God has given the sick play in our world.  Remember Pope John Paul II.  Stooped and broken, his hands shaking with sometimes slurred words, the Holy Father is giving me the greatest gift I could imagine. 

He was teaching me how to join my sufferings to the cross of Christ.

He was teaching me what it is like to stand at the foot of the cross, like the great Mother of God.

He was teaching me that sickness, a natural part of human life, is just around the corner.

And it’s my job, right now, to get ready.

That’s what the Church teaches about sickness and the human person.

God bless you and thank you for your attention.

A Homily for Family Day

Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land!...Never will I forget a thing [you] have done!
(Amos 8: 4,7)

The Bible ascribes those terrible words to Amos, but they sound a lot like Francis, our Holy Father, who has been a tireless advocate for the poor for his entire life; Our Holy Father Francis, who calls poverty “the flesh of the poor Jesus, in that child who is hungry, in the one who is sick, in those unjust social structures...the flesh of Jesus who suffers and in true poverty.” (Pope Francis, Meeting with Students, 7 July 2013)

He’s right, of course.  If God loves anyone best, it is the poor, the least, the littlest and the ones forgotten by everyone else.

God could have chosen a great nation to build massive temples to him, but no, he chose an enslaved race whom the Egyptians treated harshly and afflicted.

He could have chosen the oldest, the brightest or the strongest of the sons of Jesse as King of Israel, but no, he chose the runt of the litter, the shepherd boy David.

As we sing every evening, God chooses the poor, the slave, the blind and the oppressed.  Indeed, as we sang just a few minutes ago, God lifts up the poor and seats them with princes.

But who are the poor?  And what makes them blessed? They are the ones who have had everything unessential taken away from them, stripped and humiliated like Christ upon the cross. They are for us an icon of the face of Jesus, and in loving them we are loving the Lord, as in turning away from them, we turn from his face.

How Blessed are the poor, for they, in their very ordinariness “always have room to take in the mystery,” In the words of Pope Francis, “...for ordinary people the mystery enters through the heart. In the homes of the poor, God always finds a place.” (Pope Francis, Meeting with the Bishops of Brazil, 28 July 2013)

Indeed, this is how your son or your brother has discerned a vocation to the Priesthood.  Because you, and all those who have nurtured him in holiness through the years, have created a home poor enough in the distractions of the world, to let him hear the still, quiet voice of God, whispering in his heart and calling his name.

Every mother or father is called to be poor, called to give up riches in order to enrich their child, called to give up sleep in order to lull the crying baby back to slumber, called to give up selfishness in order to teach them love.

That is the vocation of the Sacrament of Marriage, a vocation to give up the things of this world, in order to nurture the life of a little child, to build through sacrifice “a community of life and love” (Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, no. 48), which becomes “the primary and most excellent seed-bed of vocations to a life of consecration to the Kingdom of God” (Pope John Paul II, Familaris Consortio, no. 53).  For make no mistake about it, while the vocations of these men may mature and blossom in this holy house, their vocations were born in your house.

Which is why I wonder, as I gaze out at you today, whether in this house where we seek to form men worthy to be called “father” whether we take seriously enough the examples provided to them by their own mothers and fathers over these past twenty or thirty years.

For if, God willing, your son someday raises a chalice from this Altar in participation with the perfect sacrifice offered by Christ upon the altar of the cross, it will be because he first learned how to hold a sippy cup at your table, patiently taught not to spill the milk by the ones who fed him and clothed him and protected him as a child.

If, God willing, your son one day preaches the Truth, the word of salvation from this pulpit, a word which will rouse them, console them, and give them hope, it will be, in no small part because of the one who taught him his first words and first gave him the courage to speak the truth.

If someday, God willing, your son blesses on behalf of Christ and his Church with the blessing that only a Priest can give, it will be because of those who first taught him to make the sign of the cross from forehead to breast and from left shoulder to right. 

If he is to offer the prayers of untold thousands, it will be because of the ones who first taught him to kneel and to pray in the words Jesus gave us and the words which were passed on to you by your mothers and fathers so many years ago.

If he will offer sacrifice it will be because you first taught him the meaning of the word by your lives. 

And so on behalf of Christ and his Church I thank you, the families of these good and holy man for spending some hours with us in this holy house where God works miracles in their hearts and calls them to incredible things. Thank you for your example and for your prayers; for what you have done and for what you continue to be.

Pray for us all, that we may be worthy of your example and the faith which you have passed down to us, and pray that God might give us the grace to continue to die to ourselves and to be conformed to Christ Jesus in all our poverty, in all our littleness and with the strength of his saving grace.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Almost...Tabernacle nears completion...

As if to tease us, the marble sculptors sent along photos of the columns which will form part of the throne for the new Tabernacle, now expected for installation in late October.  Remember the new Tabernacle, in the form of Bramante's Tempietto, and is made of onyx and alabaster.