Sunday, September 03, 2017

Labor Day and Laborem Exercens

St. John Paul II (1920-2005)

(Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on September 3, 2017 at St. Paul Church in Cranston, R.I.; See Romans 12:1-2 and Matthew 16:21-27)

This long-weekend we celebrate Labor Day, the “unofficial” end of summer.  It might seem a bit odd, though, that we honor and give tribute to human labor and work by taking the day off!  Nonetheless, this observation of labor is one that is also deeply Catholic.

In 1981, St. John Paul II wrote his encyclical letter, On Human Work (Laborem Exercens).  It almost became the encyclical that was not, as he was shot and almost killed two days before the encyclical was to be released.  In the conclusion, he writes about how he made the final edits after recovering in the hospital.  The document was finally released on September 14, 1981, on the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross.  In the encyclical, he explains how man and woman participate in God’s work of creation.  Made in the Imago Dei—the image of God—we share in and even develop and advance God’s activity as we continue to work in the world (Laborem Exercens, # 25).  True to the holiday we celebrate this weekend, though, St. John Paul II goes on to explain that we also imitate God when we rest!
God worked for six days when He created the world, and on the seventh day He rested.  It is not the case that God, after finishing the work of creation, was tired; it is not that God became exhausted and felt the need for a holiday.  No, of course not.  He was revealing to us what He intended for humanity.  We are the ones in need of rest.  We experience that great desire to reflect on all that has happened throughout the week and on all that God is doing.  We are the ones that need to unplug and recuperate with family and friends.  Above all, we observe this rest in which we worship God and insure that our lives and our work are totally and completely oriented to Him. Labor Day is a great opportunity for us to enter more deeply into God’s rest, and to make sure the we are prepared to keep Sunday sacred each and every week.

In the final section of the encyclical, St. John Paul II explains something that we all understand very well: that all work is toil.  In the Book of Genesis, immediately after the fall of Adam and Eve, God pronounces His sentence against them:

Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life . . . In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust and to dust you shall return.
—Genesis 3:17-19

Because of Original Sin, all work is toil; it requires effort and is experienced as resistance.  We all feel the weight of this reality.  More than toil and difficulty, St. John Paul II explains how the specter of death is introduced, as well.  We struggle and toil until death.  Yet it is not the will of God to leave us there. 

The great message of the Gospel is that Jesus Christ came into this world and took on our human nature, and even human work and toil, to redeem us.  Jesus Himself was a man of work, a craftsman like Joseph of Nazareth” (Laborem Exercens, #26).  He ultimately gave Himself over completely to the work of redemption, willing to sweat and toil to His death on the cross.  He was buried in the ground and then rose again from the dead.  He poured out the Holy Spirit on the Church and now gives us the grace and privilege of participating in His work of redeeming the world.  Whenever we give ourselves generously to toil and strive in faith, we participate in God’s work of redeeming the world: “Sweat and toil, which work necessarily involves in the present condition of the human race, present the Christian and everyone who is called to follow Christ with the possibility of sharing lovingly in the work that Christ came to do” (Laborem Exercens, #27). 

Certainly, this toil involves the efforts of those who work for a living, professionals, those who possess a specific vocation in the world.  However, it also includes men and women who work hard in the home to build a family; it involves students—in grammar school, those in high school, or those in college striving to earn a degree—all who give themselves generously to the toil and effort that can bring about great fruit.

In the Gospel this weekend, St. Peter clearly shows an aversion to the work of the redemption as Jesus describes it; his reaction to the work of God on Calvary is one of surprise and even disagreement.  He rebukes Christ: “God forbid, Lord!”  Peter cannot grasp the meaning of toil and suffering that will accomplish the salvation of the world.  He even tries to convince Jesus that this cannot be the way.  For his response, Peter receives the strongest of rebukes: “Get behind me, Satan!  You are an obstacle to me.  You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Matthew 16:23).  There is no other way to redemption than the way that God has revealed in the person of Jesus Christ crucified.

Fortunately, Peter will learn that way intimately and grasp entirely the meaning of the cross and the work of redemption.  He will willingly be crucified himself, albeit upside down on the Vatican hill, acknowledging himself unworthy to die in exactly the same manner as Christ died. 

In conclusion, St. Paul teaches us all this weekend how to follow the way of the cross.  He shows us, in the Second Reading in the Letter to the Romans, how our toil and work can participate in Jesus’ work of redeeming the world.  Very much like Jesus, who chides St. Peter for seeing only the human perspective, St. Paul exhorts us:

Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.
—Romans 12:2

We cannot look at work and toil as an earthly struggle only, one that is separate from our spiritual lives.  The burdens of work and the resistance that we experience are often opportunities for us to participate more fully in Jesus and the work He accomplished on the cross.  St. Paul appeals to us all this weekend, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1). 

As we offer tribute to labor this weekend, and as we prepare to enter into a whole new season with God, may we give ourselves generously and joyfully to the work that God has entrusted to us.  In sharing Christ’s cross here in this world, may we also enter more deeply into that eternal rest that God has prepared for us from all eternity (Hebrews 4:1-13).

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Summer Reading List

(Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on July 15 & July 16, 2017 at St. Paul Church in Cranston, R.I., and July 16, 2017 at Immaculate Conception Church in Cranston, R.I.; See  Matthew 13:1-23 and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2705-2708)

We are still in the beginning of the summer season and perhaps you have had the chance to check out some of the many different summer reading lists that are available online.  From, to the New York Times and Oprah, there are so many lists, and a seemingly infinite number of books to choose from.  

This weekend I would like to suggest the reading list recommended by the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  There really is one, in fact!  The Catechism lists several “titles” that we could consider this summer (see CCC, #2705).  More than simply reading these works, however, the Catechism states that we should meditate on them.  We should bring what we read into prayer and meditation before God, trying to understand what He is saying to us.  Pertinent to our Gospel this weekend, the Catechism explains, “Christians owe it to themselves to develop the desire to meditate regularly, lest they come to resemble the three first kinds of soil in the parable of the sower” (CCC, #2707).

Therefore, before looking at the Catechism’s “reading list,” we could take a few moments to look at what the Church teaches about Christian meditation.  To meditate is to pray in a way that actively seeks God.  It is to cultivate the soil of our hearts, to use an image form the parable of the sower, in a way that allows us to hear Him more clearly.  As the Catechism puts it: “The mind seeks to understand the why and the how of the Christian life, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking” (CCC, #2705).  When we meditate, we consider the deeper questions of the heart: “Why did God create me?  Why am I here?  What is the purpose or meaning of my life?”  More importantly, we examine, “How can I know and respond to what God is asking of me?”

The Catechism goes on to express what every person of prayer knows from experience: “The required attentiveness is difficult to sustain” (CCC, #2705).  Prayer is challenging!  Meditation does not come easily for any one of us.  The greatest of the saints, from the mystics to the scholars, teach us this important truth.  The two necessary requirements, in fact, are time and sacrifice.  We have to be willing to spend quality time alone with God, and we have to be willing to sacrifice even good things in order to grow in Christian prayer (remember Martha and her sister Mary, and that Mary chose “the better part”). 

How much time, though, and how much sacrifice?  Are five minutes at the beginning or the end of each day enough?  One of the excellent teachers of prayer in our own time is the French priest, Fr. Jacques Philippe.  Fr Jacques, in his book “Time for God,” writes that “Five minutes are not enough for God.  Five minutes are what we give someone when we want to get rid of him or her.”  God is not an insurance salesman or pesky telemarketer!  Fr. Jacques suggests that fifteen minutes are the minimum that we should spend each day in prayer with God, and that we should be open to the possibility of an hour or more.  He cautions against being too ambitious in this regard, lest we should become discouraged, but all of us can take fifteen minutes a day to seek God and try to understand what He is saying to us.

Now, with that said, we move on to our Summer Reading List!  The first “book” on the list should not surprise any of us: “The Sacred Scriptures, particularly the Gospels” (CCC, #2705).  So often our thoughts can be filled with doubt when we walk by sight and not by faith.  We may wonder: Has God forgotten me?  Is there a meaning or plan for my life?  Does God really forgive the things I have done?  What will happen to me and those that I love at the end of this life?  

But when we take the time to meditate on the Gospels and the awesome, beautiful life of Jesus Christ, our faith reminds us of the promises of God.  We recall that God so wanted to be among us that He was born into a human family.  Could that same God forget us?  Not a chance!  We meditate on the cross and all that Christ endured, and there is no question about the forgiveness of sins; He died for us and for our salvation.  Jesus Christ rose from the dead and promised eternal life for us and all the baptized, that we would rise with Him.  Spending time meditating on these awesome truths each day will transform our lives and flood our soul with faith.  

Secondly, the Catechism recommends that we “read” the book of sacred iconography.  Perhaps more prevalent in the East than in this area of the world, icons can help us to encounter God in a new and living way.  To pray the rosary before an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or to spend some time meditating before an icon of Christ or one of the saints, allows us to enter more deeply into the life of prayer.  Icons are referred to as “windows to heaven.”  When you look through a window, you can see the person on the other side; but that also implies that the person on the other side of the window can see you!  When we meditate on the mysteries of Christ, or the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or the virtues of the saints, before a sacred icon, the God of heaven gazes into our soul and helps us to grow in our spiritual lives.

Next on our list: spiritual books from the liturgy, from the Fathers of the Church and from the lives of the saints, along with all the great works of spirituality.  There are so many classic works out there.   Think about St. Augustine, who went from a very sinful life to become one of the greatest saints and theologians of all time.  How did that happen?  Read “The Confessions” of St. Augustine and find out!  Explore, “The Interior Castle,” with St. Teresa of Avila for the tour of a lifetime.   Some of the greatest saints in the Church have found the path to sanctity through spiritual reading and meditation: St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.  How about you?

The “great book of creation” also tops the list, as we look upon all the beauty that God created.  We “read” that book when we encounter an early, summer sunrise, or when we visit Narragansett Beach in the cool of the afternoon.  We do not simply gaze at these marvels.  No, we go one step further, and spend some time in meditation, seeking to understand what God is saying to us.  The One who is Beauty itself, in all of these created realities, is already seeking us and drawing us ever more deeply into a life-giving relationship with Himself.  

When we take the time to meditate—at least fifteen minutes each day, seeking God—the Catechism goes on to say that we begin to open up one of the greatest adventure stories of all:

To meditate on what we read helps us to make it our own by confronting it within ourselves.  Here, another book is opened: the book of life.  We pass from thoughts to reality.
—CCC, #2706

We meditate on the humility of Christ and His gentleness towards those around Him, and we become more humble.  We meditate on the patience of Christ on the cross, and His great mercy towards sinners (that would be you and me), and we become more patient, more merciful.  Our thoughts and meditations help to cultivate the soil of our hearts that, in the parable of the sower, bears tremendous fruit.  

As Christ teaches us in this wonderful parable, the sower scatters the seed everywhere: in the places that it will bear fruit and even in the places where the ground is infertile.  God is constantly speaking to us, communicating His love to us, revealing His word to those who are able to hear it.  In one of her reflections on prayer, the great mystic, St. Catherine of Siena, describes God’s word to us as a fountain; that spring is bubbling over with fresh, life-giving water.  In the city where she lived, there was a large fountain in the middle of the busy market square.  During the day, hundreds of people would be walking about that square, contracting business or shouting to one another.  One could see the fountain, but certainly there was no possibility of hearing it.  

But to go there at night, long after all the people had retired to their homes, one could not only see the fountain glistening in the moonlight; one could also hear the water bubbling up from that fountain.  The water could be heard cascading onto the tiles below.  God’s word is very much like that.  We have to be very still and prayerfully quiet, in order to hear it.  “Whoever has ears,” Jesus announces this weekend, “ought to hear” (Matthew 13:9).  

If we listen well, taking time each day to seek God in meditation, we place ourselves near the God who is the source and fulfillment of all our desire.  We allow Him to cultivate the soil of our hearts and make them receptive to His life-giving word and the treasures of the spiritual life.  If we are willing to do that, then we will discover the mystery Christ speaks about in this weekend’s Gospel, that we, too, can bear tremendous fruit for God, “a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold” (Matthew 13:23).

Sunday, July 09, 2017

The Humility of Faith

"The Door of Humility"
The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

(Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on July 9, 2017 at St. Paul Church in Cranston, R.I., and Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church in Woonsocket, R.I.; See  Matthew 11:25-30)

One of the most ancient churches in the Christian world is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  It was built over the place where Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, was born.  That church has been invaded, destroyed, rebuilt and reestablished, over and over again, across the centuries.  It is a testimony to the power of perseverance and to the tenacity of the Christian faith. 
The main entrance to the Church of the Nativity was built as a massive portal, with the arch of the gate reaching some twelve feet high.  Invaders and marauders would sometimes drive horses in through that vast doorway, or drive horse-drawn carriages out of it, loaded with the church’s treasures!  In order to defend against that sacrilege, the entrance was eventually walled up with brick and mortar.   Having sealed off the main portal, a small doorway was chiseled out, standing a mere four feet high and two feet wide.  There is no chance of getting a horse through that entrance!  In order for pilgrims to enter into the place where Jesus Christ was born, they have to literally kneel down and shift their bodies through the doorway.  Fittingly, it is called the “Door of Humility.”

Our readings for this Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, as well as the “collect,” or opening prayer for this morning’s liturgy, are focused on that beautiful virtue of humility.  I would offer three small points (pun intended) for our reflection this weekend.

First and foremost, we discover in the Sacred Scriptures and in this morning’s Mass that God is humble.  God, who created everything we see and everyone gathered in this place; who is so far beyond anything that we could possibly think or imagine; God who is all powerful and who “dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16), chose to be born as a little child in Bethlehem.  The God who created the universe was content to be cradled in the arms of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  

More than that, when that child grew to be a man, He chose to redeem us not by force or by physical strength, but in weakness and humiliation.  Jesus Christ allowed Himself to be handed over to sinful men, to be unjustly treated; to be beaten and spat upon.  He suffered crucifixion before a jeering crowd in order to set us free from the slavery of sin.   As we heard this morning, in the opening prayer for the Mass:

“O God, who in the abasement of your Son, have raised up a fallen world, fill your faithful with holy joy, for on those you have rescued from slavery to sin you bestow eternal gladness.”

God’s humility redeems and renews our fallen humanity.  Following upon this great mystery, we recognize a remarkable reality in the Sacred Scriptures this morning.  It is in that same humility that God calls us into a deep and abiding relationship with Himself.  God does not coerce us into following Him.  He does not make demands or violate our freedom.  With gentleness and humility, He approaches us and asks: 

Are you tired?  Are you worn out?  
Are you lonely and afraid?  
Come to me!

Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. 
—Matthew 11: 28-29

What an amazing and overwhelming invitation!  God wants you and I to share in a relationship of love with Him.  He wants to cooperate with us in a shared life of grace and fruitfulness.  We, for our part, are completely free to receive or reject so wonderful an offer.  

Which brings us to the third and final point for our reflection this morning.  There can be only one true response to so great a gift as this relationship with God: humble faith.

Humble faith believes and accepts God’s offer on His terms, not on our own.  We cannot say to God, “I will believe in You and follow Jesus Christ IF You do this, or IF you grant me that.”  Humble faith does not say, “I have most of the important things in my life covered for now, but I would like to keep you here in the background, just in case I need to bring you out for the big stuff.”  

Faith means acknowledging that we do not have all the answers, but that God does.  It means that we are willing to trust in God and in His mercy, knowing that He can—and will—take care of us.   He can—and will—provide us with exactly what we need in all of the challenges we face in daily life.  Pope Francis, in his first Encyclical Letter, Lumen Fidei, The Light of Faith, explains:

Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey. To those who suffer, God does not provide arguments which explain everything; rather, his response is that of an accompanying presence, a history of goodness which touches every story of suffering and opens up a ray of light. In Christ, God himself wishes to share this path with us and to offer us his gaze so that we might see the light within it.
—Lumen Fidei, #57

Placing our faith in Jesus Christ will not make our lives easy, nor will it answer all of the questions, doubts and fears that we face.  Nonetheless, making that commitment to live the Christian life will light the path before us and help us to be radically transformed within.  We can, with the grace of God, discover the freshness of faith and the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).  Who among us would not greatly desire more of those fruits in our lives?

In conclusion, our readings for this weekend remind us that we do not need to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and visit the Church of the Nativity to enter through the Door of Humility.  That door is wide open, and we can enter it right here this morning, as we kneel before our Eucharistic Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.  We come before Him here, and in the quiet places of our daily lives, and seek Him in that humility that He models so beautifully for us.  And when we do, we rediscover the God who wants nothing else from us than to give us His mercy, His love, His grace and His peace.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Corpus Christi: Surprised by Love

(Solemnity of Corpus Christi-Year A; This homily was given on June 17 & 18, 2017 at St. Joseph Church in Pascoag, R.I., and St. Patrick Church in Harrisville, R.I.; See  John 6:51-58)

There is a classic novel written by Evelyn Waugh, called Brideshead Revisited. It takes place during the Second World War in England.  The main character of the book is Charles Ryder, a self-proclaimed agnostic.  He either doesn’t believe in God, or he believes that, if there is a God, we could never know Him anyway.  Brideshead Revisited is about Charles’ encounter with a deeply Catholic family, but one that is even more deeply flawed.  We soon discover there is a multitude of neuroses and much dysfunction in that family!  At times, some of the characters are entrenched in gravely immoral behavior that brings them very far from God.  

Charles’ new friends will prompt him (and the reader) to question the authenticity and value of their Catholic faith.  What, after all, is so great about a faith that seems to have little or no impact on the people that profess it?  But, of course, Charles gradually discovers that the greatness of their Catholic faith is not found in any particular one of them, as much as it is found in the God who loves them.  Brideshead Revisited is a story about God’s mercy, and how He consistently guides them and sustains them with grace and a deep sense of the virtue of hope.
Towards the end of the book, Charles meets up with one of the daughters of the family, Cordelia.  It has been several years, and Cordelia begins to explain how the family had to sell off their large estate, which included its own Blessed Sacrament chapel.  She says to him:
They’ve closed the chapel at Brideshead . . . mummy’s Requiem was the last Mass said there.  After she was buried the priest came in . . .  and blew out the lamp in the sanctuary and left the tabernacle open and empty, as though from now on it was always to be Good Friday.  I suppose none of this makes any sense to you, Charles, poor agnostic.  I stayed there till he was gone, and then, suddenly, there wasn’t any chapel there anymore, just an oddly decorated room.  I can’t tell you what it felt like.

Few things are more desolate for a devout Catholic than an empty tabernacle.  If you have ever been to the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, then you know the Blessed Sacrament is removed and the tabernacle is empty until the end of the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday.  It often takes the absence of someone we truly love to recognize how important they are in our lives.  The real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is no exception.

In the mid 1700s, a Franciscan priest in the Italian city of Siena went to the tabernacle one morning during Mass, only to find it completely empty.  Someone had come in during the night and stolen the Blessed Sacrament!  What they were really after was the golden ciborium, the container that held the Eucharist.  Without understanding what they had done, they stole the Body of Christ along with it.

The people were outraged.  The Archbishop immediately organized public prayers of reparation and the entire city prayed for the return of the Blessed Sacrament.  Two days later they found the consecrated hosts in a church halfway across the city.  They had been dumped into a large poor box, which hadn’t seen much use over the years!  When they finally retrieved them, the hosts were covered with filth, dust and cobwebs.  Obviously they couldn’t consume them; they would have gotten sick.  Instead, they cleaned them off as best they could and put them aside so that they would eventually deteriorate on their own.  Only they never did.

Some fifty years later, they still retained the same freshness.  The archbishop ordered a scientific experiment to be done, and a commission declared that they were perfectly intact and showed no signs of deterioration.  These same hosts are still there in that little church in Siena, just under 300 years later, as fresh as the day they were first consecrated.  A crisp fragrance of newly baked bread is said to accompany the sacred particles.  It is considered the world’s only continuing Eucharistic miracle.

As remarkable as the miracle of Siena is, these hosts are no more, and no less, the same body of Christ that we receive at each Mass.  In a moment we will all experience a Eucharistic miracle, as the bread and wine which we bring before the Lord is transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ.  The Eucharist is an amazing Sacrament, and it has the power to change our lives.  As Christ says to us in the Gospel:
I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.
—John 6:51

Receiving the body of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist, embracing Him in faith and persevering in that Gift, we receive the power of God that sustains us for eternity.  We do not merely receive our Lord and “reserve” Him within us for a decade, or for three hundred years.  Christ, the Living Bread, will give us eternal life.  What an amazing and awesome Gift we have in Christ!

About ten years ago, in his Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was reflecting on his inauguration homily immediately after being elected pope.  He had indicated, at that time, that nothing is more beautiful than to be surprised by God, to encounter Him in love, and then to share that friendship with those who do not yet know Him (see Sacramentum Caritatis, # 84).  So many people in the world around us—people that we know and love—think that God is angry; or they think that God is absent; that He does not care about us, or is indifferent to our daily struggles and challenges.  None of those things are true.  Our friends in the world around us are starving for a real encounter with the living God of mercy!

Pope Benedict went on to say that this great opportunity to share with others our relationship with Christ is profoundly Eucharistic:

The love that we celebrate in the sacrament is not something that we can keep to ourselves.  By its very nature it demands to be shared with all.  What the world needs is God’s love; it needs to encounter Christ and to believe in Him.  The Eucharist is thus the source and summit not only of the Church’s life, but also of her mission: ‘an authentically eucharistic Church is a missionary Church.’
—Sacramentum Caritatis, #84

Has not this been the constant and consistent message of Pope Francis, from the initial days of his papacy?  It is the constant call from God, that the Church should reach out to those well outside her borders, and enable others to encounter God.  Traditionally, the Solemnity of Corpus Christi would fittingly conclude with a procession.  The priest, carrying the Blessed Sacrament in a monstrance and elevating our Lord as he exits the Church, is followed by the entire congregation as they process through the streets of the local city or town.  What an awesome witness for those in their homes or in places of business, to see that Jesus Christ and His Bride, the Church, are present in their midst.

In a certain sense, every Mass concludes with a procession of this kind.  In every celebration of the Eucharist, we are called to be surprised by joy, surprised by love, and to then bring that love, and the presence of God, to those who long to experience it.  

So many people in the world today experience what Cordelia describes in Brideshead Revisited, and what that Franciscan friar experienced in 1730 in Siena: that God is absent from their lives, that there is a void in their souls that simply cannot be filled in any other way.  How are we being called to bring the presence of Christ to a world hungry and thirsty for God?