Sunday, November 22, 2015

Beauty Will Save the World

(Solemnity of Christ the King-Year B; This homily was given on November 22, 2015 at Paul VI Chapel in Meriden, CT.; See John 18:33-37)

In his first encyclical letter, Lumen Fidei, our Holy Father Pope Francis reflects on a scene from Dostoevsky’s novel, The Idiot.   It is the scene where Prince Myshkin is looking at a famous painting of Christ in the tomb.  The image, painted by Hans Holbein, is a particularly brutal and graphic rendering of the effects of Jesus’ death.  Prince Myshkin, somewhat taken aback, says, “Looking at that painting might cause one to lose his faith.”

Yet Pope Francis, in Lumen Fidei, insists instead that “it is precisely in contemplating Jesus’ death that faith grows stronger and receives a dazzling light” (Lumen Fidei, 16).  The more we consider all that Christ endured, all that He was willing to go through in order to save us from our sins and throw wide open the gates of heaven, the more we grow in faith and in appreciation for that beautiful self-offering of Jesus Christ for us.

Further on in Dostoevsky’s novel, Prince Myshkin begins to feel the effects of his own weakening condition, a debilitating disease that is threatening to consume his life.  But suddenly, even in the midst of his suffering, he glimpses for a moment how beautiful and harmonious the gift of life truly is.   It is an experience that floods his soul with joy, even to the point of ecstasy, and his entire perspective begins to change.  Attributed to Prince Myshkin, then, is the astounding claim: “Beauty will save the world.”

He does not mean that beauty in some general way will save the world, but that beauty has the capacity to open our hearts to something beyond our own often compromised and burdened experience.  Even under the weight of our crosses and even when the darkness seems to surround us, beauty can find a way through and connect us once again with God.

Beauty will save the world.

But the question we are forced to ask ourselves this weekend is: Will it save Paris, France?  Will beauty save the City of Brussels, that is under the same threat in these dark days of terror?  Will beauty save our cities, and the world we live in today, from an even greater threat than fundamentalist Islam: the radical secularization that is threatening to remove God from all semblance of public life?

Rampant in our culture is this sense that faith and God have no place in the world.   If there is any value to faith at all it is only as a private devotion, hardly worth living for and certainly not worth dying for.  Church, faith, God, become an extra, an aside, peripheral in the grand scheme of earthly life.  We definitely should be concerned with the evil of terrorism and the violence that besets our cities, yet secularization has the potential to destroy much more than human life here on earth.  It threatens to remove souls from the presence of God, for all eternity. 

Will beauty save the world?

In the middle of the City of Paris is a small patch of land called the Île de la Cité, the Isle of the City.  On that small island stands what is perhaps the most beautiful and remarkable cathedral in the western world: Notre Dame Cathedral.  There is nothing immediately beautiful, however, the moment one walks into that historic church.   The environment is dim, and the walls are rather bare.  There are some paintings and statues, and some rather plain stained glass windows just above eye-level.  The massive columns that hold up the cathedral are ornamented with leaves and foliage meant to symbolize Eden recaptured.   It is impressive, but not overwhelmingly so. 

Yet once the eyes begin to adjust, the expanse of Notre Dame begins to draw them upward to the vaulted arches and the magnificent cathedral ceiling.  The radiant and brilliant stained glass windows, set impossibly high above the apse, and the great rose windows in the north and south transepts, flood the soul with images of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary, the saints, the angels, the virtues and heaven itself.  The very structure of Notre Dame captivates the soul and ignites within it a deep desire and longing.

The point that the architects of Notre Dame had in mind, of course, is that this world is solid and strong; it is awesome and possesses a beauty all its own.  It is a wonderful and substantial place, but it is simply not enough.  We are made for much, much more than this solid and substantial place.  We are made for heaven, for eternity, and for an everlasting life in the presence of God and the angels and saints.  This is not our home, but there is a place more beautiful than we could possibly imagine, and it awaits us and beckons us even now.

In our Gospel for this Solemnity of Christ the King, Jesus Christ the King of the Universe is being confronted and interrogated by a man.  How ironic and paradoxical is that?  Jesus Christ stands before Pontius Pilate, who does not recognize Him.  He questions Christ and asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  Jesus’ answer is astounding, even for us who believe in Him and His kingship:

My kingdom does not belong to this world.
—John 18:36

 How remarkable, that Christ the King would say such a thing.  But then He clarifies his answer:

If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.  But as it is, my kingdom is not here.
—John 28:36

The kingdom and the reign of Christ is not an earthly kingdom.  One day it will be, and that is something we pray for incessantly every day:  “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”  We anticipate and even hasten the day when that reign will be fully established on the earth (see 2 Peter 3:12).   But we are reminded daily that this kingdom of Christ is not like the kingdoms of the world.  It is different, and because it does not belong to this world we are called to live our lives completely for that kingdom that will last forever, where we will be eternally united to God.  Everything we do and all that we strive for must be informed by, inspired by and focused on that kingdom.

The great English writer, C.S. Lewis, once said that the men and women who did the most for this world (think of the saints, the great writers, artists and architects, the men and women of God that helped build entire cultures and established hospitals and universities) were the men and women who thought mostly of the world to come.  Aim at heaven, he said, and you will get earth thrown in with it.  Aim only at earth, and you will get neither!

But we are living in a world where fewer and fewer people think mostly about the world to come.  So many people today live their lives as if this were the only world there is, or ever will be.  Their lives are preeminently and, in some cases, entirely, focused on earth, and they stand to lose it all.  What will catch their attention, awaken their desire for heaven and eternal life, and captivate their souls with the one, necessary thing (Luke 10:42) that alone will truly satisfy them?

Beauty will save the world.

This morning, Beauty Himself comes to us here and speaks to us in the Sacred Scriptures.  Beauty Himself will come down from heaven and dwell with us here on this altar.  Beauty will most certainly save the world.  But the question we must ask ourselves this morning is whether or not we will allow Beauty to save us, and to send us out into the world, to be the beautiful face of Jesus Christ, the King.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Crisis of Vocations

The Healing of Bartimaeus

(30th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on October 24, 2015 at Holy Ghost Catholic Church in Providence, R.I. and on October 25 at St. Magaret's Catholic Church in Rumford, R.I.; See Hebrews 5:1-6 and Mark 10:46-52)

Every high priest is taken from among men and made their representative before God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.

. . . No one takes this honor upon himself but only when called by God, just as Aaron was.
—Hebrews 5:1 & 4

These words that we listen to in our second reading this weekend, from the Letter to the Hebrews, refer to the priesthood as the people of Israel knew it in the Old Covenant, under Moses and Aaron.  But those words are equally applicable in reference to the priesthood we are all familiar with in the New Covenant.  One of the reasons why the Church gives us that passage from Sacred Scripture in the liturgy this weekend is because it reveals essential truths about the priesthood of Jesus Christ.

Every Catholic priest is taken from among the people and made their representative before God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.

No one takes this upon himself.  No one.  Only when called by God.

People will often ask me, “How did you know that God was calling you to the priesthood?”  On one level that is a very difficult question to answer; anyone’s personal relationship with God is something that is deeply personal and mysterious.  But on another level it is something that can be explained and put into a rather reasonable response. 

I was in my mid-twenties and had been, for some time, considering the vocation of marriage.  It was a time in my life that I was really beginning to grow in my Catholic faith; I was actively praying for and seeking marriage and family life.   I really desired to know what God wanted for my life.  I was open.  Wide open.  I even considered the possibility of being a missionary.

Suddenly, at around that same time in my life, I felt a powerful and rather fearful/awe-filled sense that God was asking me to do something else.  I felt that He was asking me to be a Catholic priest.  I did not actually hear God speaking to me out loud, nor did I see a vision of God that communicated these things to me.  But I felt the presence of God in my heart drawing me to this one, constant and compelling thought.

No one takes this upon himself . . . Only when called by God.

God called me to the priesthood, and my response to that call is my vocation.   I am a Roman Catholic priest because God called me.

The word “vocation” comes from the Latin word “vocare,” which means, “to call.”  Every vocation in the Church begins with a call from God.    And certainly you have heard, many times over, that there is a vocations crisis in the Church.  As rector of the college seminary here in Providence I would not argue against that at all.  There are many more priests retiring each year than there are men entering the seminary; the number of those completing their service in the Church is greater than the number of those being ordained.  It is definitely a crisis in the true sense of that word.

But I would suggest strongly this weekend that there is not a crisis in vocations to the priesthood only.  Not at all. 

In fact, we know statistically that there are fewer and fewer young men and young women approaching the altar of God for the Sacrament of Matrimony in the Church today.  How disturbing, based upon what we know of the supernatural grace of God present in the life of a married couple receiving this sacrament, the divine assistance to help them in their new life together.   We know that this sacrament, this vocation, this call from God, has the potential to bear tremendous fruit in the lives of that newly married couple and in the lives of those around them.  But more and more couples today are not responding to that call and the grace of that sacrament.

We know, statistically, that fewer women and fewer men are responding to the call of God—vocare—to religious life and consecrated life.  There are not nearly as many religious sisters in the Church as there once was, and even fewer religious brothers.

There is not only a crisis of priestly vocations in the Church.  There is a crisis in vocations, period.

I would even say that there is a crisis within vocations today in the Church, a crisis involving those who have already said, “yes” to God: in the priesthood, in religious life and in marriage.  Why would I say that?  Because many of the Churches that used to be full are now empty!  The vitality and fruitfulness that God calls for within each and every vocation is not taking place. 

People are choosing to stay home on weekends or attend other community events instead of coming here to receive the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist, to be strengthened in their vocation and in their apostolic life (many, I would suggest, are not even aware that they are called to an apostolic life).  There is a vocations crisis within the Church today because outside of the Church there are thousands and thousands of souls who have never heard the message of the Gospel!   There are people all around us, people that we know and love, who so often experience shame, guilt and confusion because they do not truly know God.  So many people get dragged down by sins that wreak havoc in their lives, not knowing that they are infinitely loved by God and that He longs to grant them forgiveness and mercy in Jesus Christ.

We are the ones God has called and commissioned to bring that awesome message to the world around us (see Matthew 28:19-20), with our words and in the way that we live our lives.   Are we listening to that call?

The Gospel of Mark that we listen to this weekend provides a beautiful and poignant example of how God calls us to know Him, and how we are invited to respond to that life-long and life-giving encounter. 

St. Mark tells us that Bartimaeus, a blind man, “sat by the roadside begging” (Mark 10:46).  He was a truly helpless man, unable to see all that he wanted to see and unable to do everything he wanted to do.  He was a man in the dark, and he knew that there was not a man or a woman alive that could ever change that.  Only the Messiah could bring him the healing that he longed for, only the son of David. 

Suddenly Bartimaeus hears that Jesus of Nazareth is passing by; there is a sizable crowd moving towards him, voices and the shuffling of feet.  Bartimaeus, from the depths of a heart filled with faith, begins to cry out, “Jesus, son of David, have pity on me” (Mark 10:47).  They tried to silence him, but his heart had already been stirred by the presence of the living God!  He cries out all the more, “Jesus, son of David, have pity on me” (Mark 10:48).

Every vocation, every call from God, begins with a humble recognition that we are utterly helpless and needy before God.  How helpless?  How needy?  We are so desperate before God and so needy that the Son of God had to suffer and die on the cross to save us.  Now that is desperate!  The mercy and love of God that we hunger and thirst for comes to us from that total self-offering of Jesus Christ who came “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).  Do we want that?  Do we really, really need it?

Every true and fruitful vocation in the Church has to begin with this humble acknowledgment and a cry for the help that only God can give.  “Jesus, son of David, have pity on me” (Mark 10:48).

The moment Bartimaeus begins to cry out, Jesus hears him.  Remarkably, though, the Lord does not Himself go to the blind Bartimaeus.  He does not Himself immediately call that helpless, needy man.  No, he turns to the disciples and says to them, “Call him” (Mark 10:49).  “You,” Jesus is saying, “You, who were content to keep him silent.  You call him!”  One of the reasons for a lack of priestly vocations today is certainly because many people in the Church have failed to identify and encourage the young men God is calling to this fruitful and vital vocation.  Such was not the case in the Gospel this weekend.

The response of Bartimaeus when he hears that Christ is calling him is striking.  St. Mark tells us:

He threw aside his cloak, sprang up, and came to Jesus.
—Mark 10:50

How odd, that “he threw aside his cloak.”  Why did he do that?  The Fathers of the Church tell us that he is casting aside the old self, his old way of understanding things.   He is making a clean break with the past and going to Jesus Christ to receive new life. 

Obviously, when we encounter Christ and receive that call to follow Him, we must get rid of all the sins that keep us from growing in holiness and the fullness of life in Christ.  If there is any unrepentant sin in our lives, obviously it has to go.  If there is an addiction to pornography (rampant in our culture today), to alcohol, drugs, or even to another person; if there is any sinful habit, destructive relationship, anything at all that blocks our vocation in Christ, then it has to be cast aside.

But by all means that cloak does not represent only bad and sinful things.  We are called not just to let go of bad things, but also to sacrifice even good things in order to follow Christ more closely.

St. Jose Maria Escrivá comments on this scene, where Bartimaeus throws aside his cloak and goes to Christ, and says it is represents the sacrifice we are called to make as disciples of Jesus Christ. 

Escrivá describes a time during the Spanish Civil War when he had come upon a battlefield just after a major campaign had been fought.  The entire field was literally covered in army coats that the soldiers had abandoned—thrown aside, like Bartimaeus—as the battle raged on.  There were also water bottles; sacks filled with personal items like pictures or letters from loved ones.  All of these items had been left behind by the victors, those who had won the fight!  They were willing to sacrifice even those good things in order to win the victory that day.  How much more willing should we be to make sacrifices in our lives to be victorious and fruitful in the vocation we receive from Jesus Christ? 

Finally, we can learn a great deal from that dialogue between Jesus and Bartimaeus that begins with our Lord's question:

What do you want me to do for you?
—Mark 10:51

It should seem rather obvious what Bartimeaus wants, but Jesus, nonetheless, wants Bartimaeus to want it, even more.  “Master, I want to see,” (Mark 10:51) he replies.  And as he receives his sight, we are told, he immediately followed Jesus on the way.  He became a disciple of Jesus Christ. 

How often do we enter into that dialogue with God called prayer?  How often do we speak to God from the depths of our hearts and ask him to heal our spiritual blindness, to open our eyes to all the needs around us and to those places where we need to see a change and transformation in our lives and in our world?

Today, we ask God for the grace to recognize how desperately we need Jesus Christ, and how desperately He desires to give His life for the salvation of the world.  We cry out, “Jesus, son of David, have pity on me” knowing that He is already calling out—vocare—to us.  We ask Him to open our eyes to the vocation He is calling us to, or to open our hearts within the vocation that we have already received, that we may truly be faithful and fruitful in making Jesus Christ known and loved in the world we live in.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Jesus Christ and the "Wonderful Exchange"

El Greco  1570

(23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on September 6, 2015 at St. Rocco's Catholic Church in Johnston, R.I.; See Isaiah 35:4-7, James 2:1-5  and Mark 7:31-37)

There is a remarkable and beautiful short story written by Walter Wangerin, Jr., called “The Ragman” [Ragman: And Other Cries of Faith, by Walter Wangerin, Jr., HarperCollins Publishers.  This is an awesome book filled with great stories of life in Christ].  The story begins with a young man walking through the inner city, dragging behind him an old cart filled with all kinds of new clothes.  He makes his way through the streets, calling out in a sonorous voice, “Rags!  New rags for old!  I take your tired rags!  Rags!  He is strong, intelligent and vivacious, leaving the narrator of the story ultimately perplexed as to why a person of such quality would ever reduce himself to being a ragman in the inner city.

Suddenly the Ragman comes upon a woman sitting on her back porch, hunched over and sobbing.  Her shoulders are shaking as she weeps into her handkerchief.  The Ragman bends near her and says, with great compassion, “Give me your rag…and I’ll give you another.”   She looks up, surprised, not knowing what to say.  The Ragman places a bright, new handkerchief into her hands and takes her wet, worn handkerchief away.  He suddenly places it against his own face, and the narrator is astonished to see the woman’s tears completely dried up, while the ragman begins to weep! 

Without hesitation he moves on, deeper into the city.   Coming upon a woman with a bandaged head, he likewise asks her for her old rag and offers her a beautiful yellow bonnet; with loving concern he carefully removes her bandage and places it on his own head!  But the narrator notices a fresh wound has opened up where the Ragman has fastened his bandage, and a little trickle of blood begins to flow down his head! 

As the story continues, the narrator follows the weeping, bleeding Ragman, breathlessly, through the city.   Eventually, after several similar adventures and even greater ones, he comes to realize that the Ragman is the Christ, the Son of God. 

Jesus Christ is the redeemer who comes to take away the sins of the world and to give us His own divine life.  He takes on our sorrow, our own pain and suffering, and brings it to the cross.  He is willing to suffer and die so that we can gain new and everlasting life in Him!  In all of our readings for this weekend we see that amazing transformation that constitutes our new life in Jesus Christ, what the Father’s of the Church called the “wonderful exchange.”

St. James, in our Second Reading this morning, warns us not to show partiality to the wealthy at the expense of the poor.  When someone enters your assembly, he cautions them, be careful how you treat them!  He asks:

Did not God choose those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him?
—James 2:5

In other words, we were all poor!  We were all impoverished by our sins and God has made us now heirs of His kingdom.  We have become rich in Jesus Christ; our lives should reflect that great mystery, not betray it.

In that beautiful passage from Isaiah, the prophet is describing what will take place when the Messiah comes.  It is a breathtaking transformation that will affect everyone and everything on earth:

Be strong, fear not!  Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you.
—Isaiah 35:4

Then Isaiah goes on to describe how the eyes of the blind will be opened!  The ears of the deaf will be cleared and they will hear once again!  Those who are mute will begin to sing.  Even the created world will be transformed, as dry, arid deserts become pools of water (Isaiah 35:4-7)!

That “wonderful exchange” is something that happens quite literally in our Gospel this weekend.  People bring to Christ the deaf man with a speech impediment, and Jesus does the strangest thing: He sticks His finger in the man’s ear and then puts His own saliva on that person’s tongue!  Yet with that odd, physical encounter the man is healed; his ears are opened and he begins to speak once again.  Why would Jesus Christ, who can heal anyone, in whatever manner he chooses, heal a man with such obvious and even unnerving physical signs?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that Christ, who did that, and consistently reaches out and touches those who are broken and the hurting in the Gospels, continues to touch us in the sacraments in order to heal us (see CCC, #1504).   He has come to take from us our brokenness, our pain and sorrow, and to give us His own divine life.  Every one of us needs to be healed, touched by Christ and made well again.  All of us have failed to recognize Christ in the world around us and in our brothers and sisters each and every day.   We are the reason that He became man and suffered and died on the cross.  What He asks of us is that we open our hearts—Ephphatha!—to receive this great gift.

This morning Jesus Christ comes to us here on this altar, not the Ragman but the Christ.  He comes to give us not a handkerchief or a new bonnet but His own body and blood in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist.  He comes to complete in us and in our community that “wonderful exchange” that has the power to transform our lives and the world around us.  May we truly open our hearts to Him, who continues to touch us in the sacraments of the Church in order to heal us.