Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Wedding at Cana: They Have No Wine!

The Wedding at Cana- Paolo Veronese (1528-1588)

(Wednesday of the Novena of La Festa di Maria Santissima 2014; This homily was given on 16 July 2014 at St. Mary Church in Cranston, R.I.; See John 2:1-11)

Have you been to any really good weddings lately?  Chances are you have not, at least according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey.  According to that survey, Rhode Island was third from the bottom in the entire country on the percentage of married couples.  We are the most Catholic state in the nation, per capita, and yet we rank 48 out of the 50 states when it comes to people choosing to marry.  That is not a very encouraging statistic, and while the situation seems somewhat dire, we can come back to that.

For now let us look at our Gospel for tonight’s Novena Mass, The Wedding Feast at Cana.  Now there was a situation that was dire!  This young couple had gathered all their family and friends to celebrate their union together.  They even had Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the first Christian disciples.  Quite a “who’s who” for tying the knot!  But suddenly the entire event is about to take a turn for the worse when the wine starts running low.  Imagine a great Italian wedding when the wine runs out.  Quando il vino é finito, la festa é finita!  When the wine runs out the feast is over! 

Weddings in Palestine at the time of Christ would usually take place over the course of several days; they were a major cultural event.  Without any more wine it would have ended in a disaster, and yet almost no one noticed that impending crisis… except the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Our Blessed Mother, Maria Santissima della Civita, always notices us and intercedes for our needs.  Whatever our circumstances here tonight or whatever the needs are that concern us, Mary sees us; the Blessed Mother brings our needs to Christ.

They have no wine.
—John 2:3

Our Lady brings the needs of that newly married couple to the attention of Jesus and, as we well know, He changes the water into wine.  Christ reveals Himself in this, His first miracle, the first sign announcing that He is the Messiah, the Christ of God.  St. John tells us that here, “his disciples began to believe in him” (John 2:11).  What had started out as a dire situation becomes, with the intercession of Our Lady, a tremendous outpouring of Divine grace. 

But St. John the Evangelist is communicating so much more than even the miraculous power of Christ.  He tells us that the water was originally contained in six stone jars that were used “for Jewish ceremonial washings” (John 2:6).   These ceremonial jars are reminiscent of the old covenant, the way of relating with God established by the Mosaic Law.  Central to that law was the sacrificial dispensation, the offering up of bulls, goats and lambs in atonement for sins and in thanksgiving to the God who saves.  The sacrifices offered up by the priest were central to the way the people related to God.

Jesus Christ comes to establish an entirely New Covenant, written not in the Mosaic Law and in the blood of bulls and lambs but established on the altar of the cross and written in His own blood, shed for love of us.  Christ changes the water into wine, revealing that as wine is so much more substantial than water, even so the New Covenant is the super substantial and eternal covenant in which we have become united to the living God.  Now that is a miracle to behold!

Christ will pour out His love for us from the cross, offering His body and His precious blood for the forgiveness of our sins and to establish an eternal covenant with God.  On the night before He dies He institutes the sacrament of this self-offering in the Eucharist, the bread and wine that becomes the Body and the Blood of Christ.  In all of the Sacraments of the Church, Christ will give new life, new vitality, new hope.  This is the water changed into wine and distributed to the Church down through the centuries! 

But how sad, that in our time and in the culture we live in, there is a turning away from the Sacraments of the Church.  God’s people no longer come as frequently to His feast to partake of the wine that is life in Jesus Christ.
  • Rhode Island is third from the last in percentage of marriages celebrated in the United States.  What a dire situation, that in the most Catholic state in the country the most foundational relationship and union for the transmission of the Gospel is found wanting.
  • Holy Orders finds a parallel to Marriage in this same regard.  This year the Diocese of Providence has not ordained a single man to the priesthood.  Now, to be clear, we have 21 outstanding men studying for the priesthood of Jesus Christ for the Diocese of Providence.  These men, in a few short years, will be doing great priestly ministry in our parishes.  We are doing better than many dioceses and we thank God for each one of these fine men. Yet without a single ordination in the year 2014, the Lord would call our attention to the need for prayer and sacrifice so that those whom God is calling to the priesthood even now will have the grace and the courage to say, “Yes.”
  • The Eucharist.  Fewer Catholics are seeking the Lord in the Sacrament of the Eucharist on Sundays.  Mass attendance is down in many places as the radical secularization of our culture continues to have a profound effect on the religious fervor and priorities of those who consider themselves to be Catholic.
  • The Sacrament of Reconciliation.  Every priest will tell you how remarkably beautiful it is to bring God’s forgiveness to those who seek Him.  Yet every priest could also tell you of how many times he has sat alone in the confessional reading or praying the rosary, waiting for souls to come to God for that forgiveness.  So few practicing Catholics today acknowledge the need even to receive forgiveness for grave sins, so few seek out that absolution, that restoration of new life for the soul. 

These are signs of our culture’s radical secularization, a world in which people find themselves bored with the things of God, the very things which should be sustaining them and giving them new life.  They seek it elsewhere, in television and on the internet, in distractions of a thousand different kinds, and yet they find themselves dissatisfied, disappointed and unfulfilled.

They have no wine!

However dire the situation might seem from a faith perspective, we can count on the Blessed Virgin Mary to notice our needs, and in her love for us she brings those needs to Christ.  They have no wine, Jesus!  They have no vitality!  They do not have what they need most of all, because, Jesus, my Son, they do not have you!

Friends in Christ, if we do not find vitality in the Body and the Blood of Christ then we will not find vitality at all!  If we do not find love and new life in the Sacrament of Matrimony then we will not find love and new life at all!  If we do not find satisfaction and hope in the Sacrament of Reconciliation with God then we simply will not find satisfaction and hope at all! 

We need God.  We need Jesus Christ.  We need more wine!  The Blessed Virgin Mary knows what we need, and she calls out to us especially now to turn once again to Jesus Christ so that we can receive it.

If you have ever been to the Louvre in Paris, France then you probably know that one of the most popular pieces in that museum is the Mona Lisa.  Painted in the early Sixteenth Century by Leonardo da Vinci, it is one of the most famous works of art in the world.  It is also one of the smallest.  People that neither know nor care for art in general will flock to that little painting because our culture has told them, “If you go to the Louvre, then you’ve got to see the Mona Lisa.”  They will stand in that enormous room, shoulder-to-shoulder, just to snap a picture of that painting with their smartphone.   

Yet if you are standing in the midst of that crowd of people, looking at the Mona Lisa, and suddenly turn 180° you will find, covering the entire length of the back wall of that room, the largest painting in the Louvre.  It is an enormous Sixteenth Century piece, called "The Wedding at Cana" by Paolo Veronese.  It is breathtaking in size, beauty and in its detailed depiction of that miracle we listened to in our Gospel this evening.  Unfortunately, few people in that museum turn around from the Mona Lisa to look at it.

Our Lady calls out to us today, like she does in every age, to turn around.  She intercedes for us so that we might turn away from the things that distract us and keep us from fulfillment, and turn towards the Sacraments and the source of vitality that comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ.  May we drink deeply of that wine and truly experience that abundant life flowing from the cross on Calvary and leading us headlong into the Kingdom of God. 

Sunday, July 06, 2014

God Comes to Us

Sunrise on the Sea of Galilee

(14th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on 6 July 2014 at St. Timothy Church in Warwick, R.I. and at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Cumberland, R.I.; See Zechariah 9: 9-10 and Matthew 11:25-30)

There is a specific, fundamental dimension of our Christian faith that separates us from nearly all other major world religions.  We see it clearly in our first reading this morning from the Old Testament, and certainly in the Gospel for this weekend, as well.  Negatively speaking, we do not believe that our faith is primarily a search for God or a quest to live as well as possible on this earth in preparation for heaven.  We are not, in fact, striving to make progress in this life as we move towards God, who waits somewhere in heaven to meet us in the end. 

No, what we believe is precisely the opposite.  What we believe instead, and what makes our religion and our faith distinct, is that God comes to us. 

God, who knows that we could never ultimately find Him and make our way to Him by ourselves, instead comes to us in great mercy, with remarkable gentleness and breathtaking humility. God reveals Himself, makes Himself known.  In our deepest need, our loneliest moments and in those many experiences when we are never quite expecting it, God comes near and seeks us out.  He finds us, and begins to guide us home.

In the first reading this weekend we listen to the words of the prophet Zechariah.  Zechariah is writing to the people of Israel just after the Babylonian exile.  Our reading takes place after one of the darkest moments in their nation’s history.  They had flagged in their commitment to the covenant of God; they were no longer faithful to the covenant relationship that God had made with them.  He had sent to them prophet after prophet, urging them to return to fidelity and to faith.  When they refused to listen He allowed them to be carried off captive to the Land of Babylon.

They had lost everything.  The City of Jerusalem was in ruins and the Temple was destroyed.  The Promised Land, where they had forged a new life with God and had made a new beginning, had become nothing more than a memory.  They resided in Babylon for years and many of them had died there.  Finally they are returning home and perhaps wondering how they will find God or even if such a possibility exists for them.  They had failed Him; perhaps they felt as if God would now abandon them forever. 

Suddenly the prophet Zechariah, at the outset of the restoration of the city, announces:

Thus says the Lord: Rejoice heartily, O daughter Zion, shout for joy, O Daughter Jerusalem!  See, your king shall come to you; a just savior is he, meek and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass.
—Zechariah 9:9

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, in their writing of the Gospels, will rightly see a direct connection here with the entrance of Jesus Christ as the Messiah entering the City of Jerusalem just before His passion.  God comes to us.  In our darkest hour and our deepest need, He comes to us.  In great gentleness and deep humility, He comes into our lives and creates a new beginning and a restoration of hope.

Such is the case in the Gospel of St. Matthew this morning.  Jesus finds a people worn, weary and heavily burdened.  Who among us could not identify with that!  He sees a people struggling to practice their faith and overwhelmed with the challenges of life.  He does not wait for them to figure everything out and make their way to Him.  No, He walks directly into their lives—literally God stands in their midst—and beckons:  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.  For my yoke is easy and my burden light.
—Matthew 11: 28-30

God does not have the time for us to figure everything out and make our way to Him.  He comes directly into our lives, with gentleness and humility, and creates a new beginning for us.  He joins Himself to us with great love and teaches us how to walk with Him in this life and journey with Him to eternal life. 

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me . . . A yoke is a farm instrument—in Jesus’ time it was made out of wood—which usually joined together two oxen and allowed them to work in tandem as they plowed a field and worked the land.  Jesus is inviting us to walk with Him, to learn from Him, to discover Him anew in our lives.  He alone can give us rest, meaning and purpose.

This is the great lesson we find in the lives of all the saints.   St. Peter and St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Teresa of Avila, and countless others; they all came to the end of themselves and discovered that without Christ they could do nothing.  Every one of the saints had to declare spiritual bankruptcy before God and acknowledge that they were in desperate need of a savior.  They all took Christ up on His offer, took the Savior seriously and joined themselves to Him.  Will we?

Because we are all—every single one of us—called to be saints.  We are all called to holiness of life and eternal bliss with Christ.  And no matter how far we may feel from Him or how weary we become with the challenges and difficulties of daily life, there is always hope of that reality.  No matter how lost we may feel at any time in our lives, we can count on this: He will find us.  He will come to us.  He will invite us to be joined more intimately to Himself.

Jesus Christ comes to us here, now.  Whenever the Gospel is proclaimed, it is Christ who speaks to us.  Whenever we gather together for the Eucharist, it is Christ who make Himself present in His body and His blood.  He comes to us this morning, in great gentleness and breathtaking humility, in the humblest manner under the auspices of bread and wine that will become our God, present: body and blood, soul and divinity.

He comes to us today and invites us to Himself:

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.  For my yoke is easy and my burden light.
—Matthew 11: 28-30 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Ss. Peter and Paul: Called, Strengthened, Sanctified

(Solemnity of Ss. Peter and Paul-Year A; This homily was given 27 June 2014 at St. Joseph Church, West Warwick, R.I. and 28 June 2014 at St. Sebastian Church in Providence, R.I.; See Galatians 1:11-20 and John 21:15-19)

This weekend we celebrate the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, patron saints of the Diocese of Providence and the two great pillars upon which Christ would build His Church.  In the City of Rome, which was consecrated by the blood of Saints Peter and Paul and the first Christian martyrs, there are two magnificent statues, just outside St. Peter’s Basilica: St. Peter, clutching firmly the keys of the kingdom, and St. Paul, holding majestically the sword which symbolizes the instrument of his martyrdom.  These men proclaimed the message of the Gospel with boldness; they stood witness before governors and kings; they were fearless in the face of danger.  In a world as hard as stone these men were a bulwark of strength and a force to be reckoned with.

But Sacred Scripture and the two great Apostles themselves are quick to remind us that this was not always the case.  We know from many passages in the New Testament that Peter the Fisherman was stubborn and proud.  Worse still, he denied the Lord three times. 

The Gospel for the vigil Mass of this solemnity tells us of Jesus’ threefold restoration of that heartbreaking denial: “Peter, do you love me?”  The third time Jesus asks him that question, we are told, Peter was grieved.  He did not yet realize that Jesus was giving him another chance, an opportunity to make amends.  Jesus would teach him, in that moment, that forgiveness, restoration and mercy must be translated into fidelity and fruitful service:

Simon, Son of John, do you love me? . . . Feed my sheep.
—John 21:17

We see the same mystery at work in the Apostle, St. Paul.  He tells us in his own words: “I persecuted the Church beyond measure and tried to destroy it” (Galatians 1:13).  In the Acts of the Apostles we read how he was present at the stoning of St. Stephen.  He held the coats of the men who did it and approved of the killing!  In his letter to St. Timothy he tells us, “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and an arrogant man” (1 Timothy 1:13). 

These men had weaknesses.  They were not perfect.  They were not strangers to failure and the discouragement that come from a life marked by moments of regret.

But God called them. 

Jesus Christ called these men, personally, and consecrated them to Himself.  He strengthened them in that consecration and he made them holy through countless moments of trial, suffering, joy, prayer, and faithful service in His Church.  They were weak men, but God made them strong.  They were not perfect, but God perfected them and made them holy, and they became the great Apostles that we celebrate this weekend.

This is the context I would like to call our attention to as I ask you—plead with you—to pray for priestly vocations in the Diocese of Providence.  We are in need of priestly vocations in our diocese, but not just that God would give us many more men to be ordained to the priesthood.  What we need desperately in these times are men like St. Peter and St. Paul; men who, though weak and imperfect, can be made perfect and become holy through their consecration to Jesus Christ.

For the past three years I have served the Church as the rector of the Seminary of Our Lady of Providence, helping to form men for the priesthood.  Just this week I celebrated my 10th anniversary of priesthood.  The priesthood is the joy and passion of my life.  And so I can speak from experience when I share with you that God does not choose the elite, the strong, the perfect.  God calls the weak, the imperfect, and those who are all too aware of their faults and failings, and then it is His desire, His plan, His daily work to strengthen them in their consecration to Jesus Christ.  God sanctifies those whom He calls—often times through trials, sufferings, humiliations, service, prayer, sacrifice and faith—and He forms them in the heart of Jesus Christ the Great High Priest.  That is what we need to pray for when we plead with the Lord for priestly vocations.

This year is the first time in the Diocese of Providence since 1944 that we will not have any ordinations to the priesthood.   For three years I have been sharing with people in parishes throughout the diocese that we have 26 rooms in the seminary and they are all full.  This year is the first year that I will not be able to say that.  We will have several empty rooms this formation year, several places that remind us of the need to be vigilant in prayer for priestly vocations. 

But not just any men.  Not just 100 men in the next 10 years, or 12 men to enter the seminary next year.  What the Church needs, what the people of God deserve, is men who are aware of their own weaknesses, who are surrendered to the work of God and the building up of the Kingdom of God, who in their consecration to Jesus Christ in the priestly office can be strengthened and made holy as priests of Jesus Christ.

Which leads me to a story of another patron saint, St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests.  In the late 18th century, the nation of France underwent one of the bloodiest revolutions the world had ever seen.  It left in its wake a country devastated and a Church disintegrated and dispersed. 

The attempt to abolish religion from public life had failed miserably, and now the people were suffering the consequences.  In the midst of this crisis, a young man named John Vianney felt God calling him to the priesthood.

Despite his reputation for great sanctity, no bishop wanted him.  He was what we would refer to today as “academically challenged,” and when one bishop finally did accept him, he assigned Vianney to a small parish in the obscure village of Ars, where it was hoped that he wouldn’t do too much damage!

St. John Vianney looked around him and saw a weary and worn out people, many of who no longer practiced their faith.  He would often pray: “Lord, I am willing to suffer anything at all, only convert my people.  That is all I ask.” 

Many years went by, and eventually things did begin to change.  It was slow at first, but eventually people began to come back to Church.  Before long, the entire village was converted, and many became convinced that their parish priest was a saint.
At that time the most remarkable thing began to happen.  People from all over France started to make pilgrimages to that small village.  Thousands of people came there to attend Mass and to have their confession heard by this simple and unimpressive priest.  He was known at times to sit in the confessional for 18 hours in a day.  Eighteen hours!  Not only Ars, but all of France was being converted. 

There is a remarkable story that one day the devil himself confronted John Vianney and shouted at him through a possessed person:

Vianney!  If there were three of you in all of France,
my kingdom would be destroyed!

Satan was not all that concerned with the thousands of Catholic priests serving throughout France at that time.  But he was really concerned, even thoroughly frustrated, with this one.

We need priests in the Diocese of Providence, men who perhaps have their own weaknesses and challenges to face, but nonetheless men who in their consecration to Christ can be strengthened and set firm in proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  We do not need dozens of men each year; we do not need a hundred men in the next ten years.  

Maybe we only need three.  Maybe we just need three men, like Peter the Fisherman from Galilee, or Paul the tentmaker from Tarsus, or John Vianney in the little village of Ars.

May God grant the Church, in our lifetime, men of faith, men who love the Church, men of prayer and fidelity to the teachings of Jesus Christ, so that He may strengthen them in their consecration to Him, sanctify them in holiness of life, and send them out to destroy the kingdom of evil and build the Kingdom of God.  

Sunday, February 16, 2014

God and Human Freedom: The Heart of the Matter

(6th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given 15 and 16 February, 2014 at Holy Apostles Church, in Cranston, R.I. and 16 February, 2014 at St. Luke’s Church in Barrington, R.I.; See Book of Sirach 15:15-20, Romans 7:19-25 and Matthew 5:17-37)

The Scriptures for this weekend allow us to reflect more deeply on one of the most awesome, beautiful and powerful gifts we possess as human beings: the gift of freedom.   The saints and theologians teach us that freedom is one of the qualities that make us most like God.  The animals act by instinct, but we live by the decisions that we make, using our God-given freedom in creative choices that imitate God Himself.

It is freedom that makes the possibility of love so terrifying.  I could choose to offer myself in friendship and love to another person who is under no obligation whatsoever to receive or return that love.  Truth be told, many people never reach out to those around them simply because it is such a risk, because it leaves them so vulnerable…But isn’t that also what makes friendship and love so exhilarating, so fulfilling?   When our gift of love is freely received and freely returned, or when we choose to accept the friendship of another person and return it, it bears fruit in joy and new life.  Freedom is that powerful.

More than love, however, our freedom and the decisions that we make in many ways define us.   When we choose the good and make decisions based on God’s loving plan for our lives then we become more and more the men and women God always created us to be.  We become even more free and begin to experience the joy and peace that are the natural fruits of freedom exercised well. 

But the opposite is also true: the more we choose to live contrary to the way God created us, when we choose sin and reject the love that God has offered us, our lives often become more constricted.  Many times we can become imprisoned in our own failures and in the regret that follows from an abuse of freedom that had originally promised much but in the end delivered very little.

This is the mystery of freedom that the Old Testament sage, Ben Sirach, is introducing to us this weekend.  He says:

If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you; if you trust in God, you too shall live; he has set before you fire and water; to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand.  Before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him.
—Sirach 15:15-17

How astonishing, the power that is on display here!  What becomes clear in Sirach’s description, however, is that the power is not found in the fire or in the water.  It is not found in life or in death; the power is not in what is good or in what is evil.  The power revealed here is found in us.   The power to choose good or evil is in us; the power to enter life or inherit death rests deep within the human heart.

In our Gospel for this weekend, Jesus Christ is calling our attention to the commandments, for sure, and also to the consequences of choosing good or evil.  But what He is most adamant about in this 5th Chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel is the situation of the heart.

You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment…

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

—Matthew 5:21-22; 27-28

Like Sirach before Him, Jesus Christ teaches us clearly that murder and adultery are not things outside of the person, as if they possessed some kind of mystical power to ruin us.  No, murder and adultery begin deep within the human heart.  It is the heart that is sick from original sin, and the choices and decisions for sin that follow us all throughout our lives.  The anger, lust, selfishness, pride, envy; these are the things that corrupt the heart and turn us away from God, from each other and from the eternal life that God desperately longs to give us.  

The heart is broken.   If we are to make any choices at all for love, for life and for God, then it is the heart—above all else—that needs to be healed.

St. Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, mediates on this very mystery and the agonizing struggle to choose what is right and true:

For I do not do the good I want but the evil I do not want is what I do…when I want to do the right, evil lies close at hand.  For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members.  Wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
—Romans 7:19-25

That is St. Paul’s answer, his solution, his saving grace: Jesus Christ!  “Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

We are healed and our hearts are restored by freedom.  We are set free by a decision, a choice...  But not yours, and not mine.  We are healed and made whole by the freedom and the decision of God to send His only begotten Son to save us.  We are chosen by God, even when He knew the world would not accept Him, and even when He understood that His offer of love would be rejected and His body would be nailed to the cross.  He chose to love us anyway, and to offer us the forgiveness and mercy that we so desperately need and the healing that we long for deep within our hearts.

Receiving that love, that mercy, is the one choice above all other choices that begins to transform our souls and sets us free to live our lives entirely for God.  Choosing the mercy of God we begin to grow in the grace and favor of a love that never leaves us, and a God who lives within us, teaching us to make the decisions and choices that will lead to true life and eternal bliss. 

But we must make the conscious and persistent choice to accept and embrace that mercy; we must be willing to admit that we need it.

The late Archbishop Fulton Sheen would often say that sin is not the worst thing in the world.  The worst thing in the world is the denial of sin.  He once received a phone call from a woman whose brother was dying in the hospital.  She described her brother not simply as a bad man, but as an evil man.  He was a very rough character.  Over 20 priests had been in to see him on his deathbed, and he had thrown them all out!  As a last resort, his sister asked Fulton Sheen for help.

Realizing that he would fare no better than the other priests, Sheen stayed only 15 seconds on his first visit, and said nothing.  The next day he came back and stayed for 20 seconds.  Again he said nothing.  After 40 days he was finally staying for up to 15 minutes a visit, and it was then that he finally broke the silence:  “William,” he said, “you are going to die tonight.”

“I know,” was the man’s reply. 

“I am sure you want to make your peace with God,” Sheen said to him. 

“No, I do not.  Get out.”

Realizing that he wasn’t going to get through, Fulton Sheen agreed to leave, but before he did he went over to the man and said to him, “Just one thing.  Promise me that before you die tonight, you will say, ‘Jesus, have mercy’.”  He said, “I will not.  Now get out.”

Later that night, one of the nurses called Fulton Sheen to tell him that the man had died, and she said that he had died well.  “Why would you say that,” he asked.  She said, “Because from the moment you left the room, he began to say, ‘Jesus, have mercy,’ and didn’t stop until the moment he died.”

Jesus Christ invites us today to receive His mercy and forgiveness.  We do not have to wait until we are on our deathbed to recognize that it is time to be reconciled to God.  We do not need to commit the sin of murder or adultery to see that we are desperately in need of the mercy of Jesus Christ. 

Here in the Eucharist may we make that choice for Him that has the power to heal the brokenness and sorrow that a lifetime of poor decisions and bad choices have left in their wake.  Here, as Jesus Christ offers Himself to us, may we respond in our hearts, “Jesus, have mercy.”  And may we never cease to offer that prayer to Him until our earthly journey is complete. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Order of Love

(Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe; This homily was given 12 December, 2013 at the Chant Mass celebrated at St. Pius V Church in Providence, R.I.; See Luke 1:26-38)

There is a spiritual principle we find all throughout the Old Testament, one that continues also on into the New.  In fact, it is something we see all throughout the history of the Church and especially in the lives of the saints. God often chooses—indeed, He greatly desires to choose—weak persons, those who are truly insignificant in the eyes of the world, and makes them powerful by His strength and capable instruments in His work of redemption. 

When, in the Old Testament, God’s people are oppressed and His name is not honored; when His people suffer violence and are threatened with destruction and ruin; when things look bleak and the road ahead looks dark, God chooses a man.  He chooses a man named David who is weak because he is young and inexperienced; he is insignificant because he does not have what it takes—in himself—to defeat the enemy.  But God chooses this man and pours into his heart courage, vitality and the strength necessary for him to defeat Goliath with nothing more than a rock.  This will become paradigmatic for David who, later as king, will come to discover that submitting himself humbly to the will of God will allow the Lord to work powerfully and with great effect through him.

In the New Testament, God will look over the world and see not one nation but many, hungry and thirsty for the message of salvation; He will recognize not one culture but a multitude of them, in need of forgiveness and redemption; He will anticipate that not only those who speak the Hebrew language, but Greeks and countless others will long to hear the proclamation of the Gospel in their native tongue.  It is then that he will call for Himself a man, a weak man named Saul.

Saul is a weak man for other reasons; he is weak because he is proud and narrow-minded.  He cannot see beyond the confines of his own particular experience nor move beyond the borders of his own limited perception.  But God will call this man, and pour out His grace, forgiveness and mercy into Saul’s heart and then send him out to proclaim that saving message to all the world.  He will send St. Paul out to one nation after another; St. Paul will found church after church and write letter after letter, renewing and evangelizing the world as he knew it.

But when God wants to transform all civilizations of all times; when He wants to break open hearts of stone and reorient the world to love and to life; when He wants to turn all people everywhere, from all times and places, away from selfishness and back to self-giving love, He doesn’t call a man at all.  He calls a woman. 

In the Gospel of St. Luke this evening we hear how God called a woman, “betrothed to a man named Joseph of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary” (Luke 1:27).   God called her who, in the eyes of the world was so weak, so insignificant, and because she was docile and receptive to the word of God He was able to usher in our redemption and bring His Son into the world.

There is a danger in this Gospel, of course, that this is all we will see.  There is a temptation we face to see the Blessed Virgin Mary—she who is without sin, perfect and inviolate—as a museum piece, someone we can marvel at from afar but could never really warm up to or draw very close to.   That would be a tremendous mistake, because God is doing so much more for us than we could have ever hoped for in Mary.  In the Virgin Mary God is revealing to us the order of love and teaching us how we can receive His love completely and then how to offer that love freely to those around us.

St. John Paul II teaches us, in his Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem, “On the Dignity and Vocation of Women,” that there is an “order of love.”  It is not the case that God pours love out into the world like water from a bucket.  There is an order of love, and obviously that order begins within God Himself.

From all eternity the Father is pouring out His love to His Son.   The Son graciously receives this gift, embraces it, and offers that love willingly back to the Father.  This glorious exchange of love is taking place for all eternity.   But the great miracle of God is that He suddenly desires to share this love with you and with me.  He wants us to receive this great outpouring of Divine charity.  As St. Paul will later articulate it:

God’s love has been poured into our hearts
through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
—Romans 5:5

God pours out His love into our hearts and allows us to share in that glorious exchange that is within Himself, but when He does so He begins with a woman.  As we heard in our Gospel this evening:

The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.  Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.
—Luke 1:35

Mary is receptive to God and open to receiving what the Lord is asking of her precisely because she is woman.  St. John Paul II describes beautifully what we see in Mary, and what is fundamentally feminine in the order of love:

When we say that the woman is the one who receives love in order to love in return, this refers not only or above all to the specific spousal relationship of marriage. It means something more universal, based on the very fact of her being a woman within all the interpersonal relationships which, in the most varied ways, shape society and structure the interaction between all persons-men and women.
—Mulieris Dignitatem, #29

In other words, women are receptive and capable of receiving this outpouring of love from God and they, in turn, offer that love to the world around them, teaching women and men how to receive the Holy Spirit and how to offer that love back to God and to those around us.  The Blessed Virgin Mary, St. John Paul II goes on to say, emphasizes this reality “in the fullest and most direct way,” here at the Annunciation when she hears the words: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you” (Luke 1:35).

The great English writer Caryll Houselander describes with mystical beauty this power of receptivity and docility we find in Mary.  Writing on Mary’s consent, she asks the question: 

"What was she asked to consent? 

First of all, to the descent of the Holy Spirit, to surrender her littleness to the Infinite Love, and as a result to become the Mother of Christ.    

It was so tremendous, yet so passive.
She was not asked to do anything herself, but to let something be done to her.”

Caryll Houselander, The Reed of God

Mary did not see fit to take on a mission or place herself in the position of effecting change in the world.  Instead she makes herself available to the living God by her receptivity to all that God is asking.

Fiat voluntas tua, “Let it be done to me,” she responds to the Angel Gabriel.  This is a passive form of the verb, not an active one.  Let it be, let Your word accomplish what You desire.  I am Yours, Your own.  Fiat.

This is the love that God pours into our hearts, and this is the love that redeems the world in which we live, even now.

Pope Benedict XVI, in his Inaugural Homily back in April of 2005, as he received what he would have clearly understood as the most powerful office in the Church, said:

"It is not power, but love that redeems us! This is God’s sign: he himself is love. How often we wish that God would show himself stronger, that he would strike decisively, defeating evil and creating a better world . . . We suffer on account of God’s patience. And yet, we need his patience. God, who became a lamb, tells us that the world is saved by the Crucified One, not by those who crucified him. The world is redeemed by the patience of God. It is destroyed by the impatience of man."

How often do we grow impatient of God and take things into our own hands?  How often do we disregard the order of love and define love by our own actions and not the initiative of God?  This disregard for the love God desires to accomplish in and through us is what destroys relationships, destroys families, destroys so much of the good God wishes to accomplish in our world each day.  The world is redeemed by the patience of God. It is destroyed by the impatience of man.

But God, of course, is relentless in His mercy.  He never tires of calling out to us, teaching us and leading us back toward that order of love that we find so beautifully exemplified in the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Mary, for her part, never ceases to offer that love to God’s people and to help them rediscover it in their lives.

In early December of 1531, she began to teach this on the hill called Tepeyac in Mexico to a peasant farmer named Juan Diego.  You may be well familiar with the story of how she called out to him, appeared to her little “Juanito” and sent him to the local bishop, requesting that a church be built in that very place.  Of course, he did what she asked of him but failed utterly to convince the bishop of anything.  He was weak and insignificant in the eyes of this world, and so he was hardly listened to when he shared his story of the beautiful woman that had appeared to him. 

Mary was not disappointed.  With great patience and unwavering love she simply sent him back once again to request that a church be constructed for her Son.  Again Juan Diego failed.  But he was docile, he was receptive as he was being instructed by Our Lady, and when he returned a third time with the sign of the roses, and the bishop saw the miraculous image of the Blessed Virgin Mary embedded on St. Juan Diego’s tilma, construction began in earnest for that church.  It was accomplished not by the strength, vision or determination of St. Juan Diego, but because he was receptive to the word and message of God, a receptivity he learned from a young Virgin Mother named Mary.

Within seven years of the construction of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, eight million native people were baptized there.  After instruction on the Sacrament of Marriage—God’s plan of love for one woman and one man, given to us in love for the building up of the human family and society—it is said that 1,000 couples celebrated that sacrament in a single day.  Today over five million people travel to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe each year to renew their faith and respond to God’s call to holiness and eternal life. 

Can Mary still teach us what it means to receive the love of God and to offer it to those around us?   Can we still learn what it means to rediscover the order of love in our lives and in our communities?  May we come to embrace that same docility of St. Juan Diego, that same receptivity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and so allow the love of God to be poured out into our hearts and into our world, a world in such desperate need of this order of love and of the God who longs for nothing more than to give it away.