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.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Advent: Waking Augustine, and Us

St. Augustine and his mother St. Monica, By Ary Scheffer (1846)

(First Sunday of Advent-Year A; This homily was given 30 November, 2013 at St. Mary's Church, in Carolina, R.I.; See Romans 13:11-14 and Matthew 24:37-44)

One of the most remarkable and well-known conversions in the history of the Christian faith is found in the story of St. Augustine.  As a brilliant young man and accomplished philosopher, Augustine’s intellect brought him farther along than most of the men in his day, and his weakness for the sins of the flesh brought him further from God than he could have possibly imagined. 

In this regard, the sorrow and bitter tears of his mother, St. Monica, are iconic.  She spent entire years of her life weeping for his conversion and crying out to God, and anyone else who would listen, if only someone could convince her son how desperately he needed God.  Monica believed that her son’s willful separation from God and his sinfulness, if unchecked and unchanged until death, would result in the loss of eternal life (one of the great tragedies of our culture is that there are no longer as many Monica’s who weep and lament the possibility of such things, but that is another homily for another time). 

Augustine himself would later concur with the conviction of his mother when, in his autobiography, The Confessions, he expresses in great detail the human drama of being utterly lost and the divine humility that sought him out with breathtaking and undying love.  

At one point in his own story of conversion Augustine relates how, although he had come full circle on an intellectual level with regard to the Christian faith and had begun to surrender his heart to God in earnest, he found himself at an impasse when it came to leaving behind the sensual pleasures that had so captivated him as a young man.  Indeed, earlier he had openly admitted that he was “a slave of lust” (The Confessions, Book VI, 15.25).   Late now, but not too late, he became enamored of the desire to be set free.

Augustine relates how he was held back by vivid memories and the weight of all that he was to leave behind.  He could certainly imagine himself becoming fully immersed in God some time in the future, but he lamented the inability to do so presently.  Overcome by emotion, he burst out of the house in which he was staying and sat down in an adjoining garden.  His face wet with tears, Augustine began to pray to God, “Why not now?  Why do I not put an end to my shameful conduct from this hour forward?”  (The Confessions, Book VIII, 12.28). 

At that very moment he began to hear the sound of a child’s voice from a nearby house.  The voice was playfully singing, “Tolle, legge.  Tolle, legge,” Latin for “Pick it up and read it.  Pick it up and read it.”  He paused and tried to think if he had ever heard of a child’s game that used those words; if there was one, he could not recall it.  All the while that child’s voice continued melodiously: Tolle, legge.  Tolle, legge.

It finally dawned on Augustine that, whatever game the child next door was playing, God was speaking directly to him through that voice: You, Augustine, pick it up and read it!  Picking up the Sacred Scriptures that were beside him, he opened them at random and came to the thirteenth chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans.  It is the very same passage that we have been given this weekend in our Second Reading for the First Sunday of Advent.  “Why not now?,” Augustine had asked.  Suddenly St. Paul answers:

You know the time; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand. 

Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and lust, not in rivalry and jealousy.  But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.

—Romans 13:11-14

From this moment forward St. Augustine would have the strength provided by God to embrace the call of God not only of chastity but also of celibacy for the Kingdom of God.  His mother, St. Monica, had prayed fervently that he would be baptized a Christian and be able to embrace a life of chastity but she never imagined that he would become a priest and finally a bishop.  In a moment of grace St. Augustine had become awake and alive to all that God was calling him to.

This Advent, are we?

“You know the time,” St. Paul urges us on.  “It is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand” (Romans 13:11). 

Advent is about waking up to the presence of God in our lives and being alert to the power of God that transforms us and, through us, transforms the world around us.  Are we awake and alert for that?

Jesus Christ, in our Gospel this weekend, warns us not to be spiritually slothful, like the people in the days of Noah.  They were totally occupied with marriage, eating, drinking, celebrating—all good things, no doubt—but they let themselves be distracted from the unum neccesarium, the one necessary “thing”: God.

“Therefore, stay awake!  Jesus warns us.  “For you do not know on which day your Lord will come” (Matthew 24:42).

When the Lord came to Bethlehem, and then to Galilee and Jerusalem, so very many people missed Him.  When he comes again, the Sacred Scriptures tell us, many will be spiritually asleep.  When he comes to us this Christmas, will we be awake? 

The Latin word for “coming” is Adventus.  It is where we get the name for this season of preparation for the coming of Christ in just a few short weeks.  I would suggest this weekend three particular tried-and-true ways that we can be more fully awake and alert for Jesus Christ this Advent.  They come to us from the lives of the saints and have stirred the souls of Christians for centuries.  They may already be a part of your daily spiritual regimen, but we can always use a reminder.

Firstly, I would suggest the Morning Offering.  One of the best ways to be awake to God is by giving ourselves to God the moment we wake.  A well-known Morning Offering used by many of the saints begins:

Lord Jesus Christ, I offer You all the prayers, works and sufferings of this day for all the intentions of your most Sacred Heart.

It can be that simple, but also that meaningful, for us and for God.  We are saying to God that all the good we will accomplish—our prayers and works, our gifts and achievements, our virtues and victories—are being offered to Him, in faith, in advance. 

Also, we are saying that all the challenges and crosses we will encounter—our sufferings, our setbacks, the contradictions that we may never have anticipated—are all being offered to Him in faith, as well.   “I am awake for you today, Jesus.  All day.”  What a beautiful way to wake up to God each day!

Secondly, I would suggest that we take a page from St. Augustine’s book, literally!  Tolle, legge!  Take it up and read it!  The prayerful reading of Sacred Scripture has been the staple of the saints from the inception of the Church until now.  Perhaps we could begin with just a minute or two each day, taking up the Bible and slowly letting it shape and form us, speaking to God whatever comes to mind when we spend that time with Him in the Sacred Scriptures.  One passage from the Letter to the Romans was able to transform St. Augustine and make him fully awake and alive in Christ.  Imagine what God’s word will do in our lives this Advent!

Finally, I would recommend the Daily Examen.  Not only at the beginning of the day but at the end of each day we follow the example of the saints who come before God each evening and take two minutes to review the time that has transpired since that Morning Offering.

For one minute, think of those several things for which you are grateful, or of graces that you were most open to, or moments that God touched your life in a significant way.  It might be that friend you encountered at the market or the difficult errand that was accomplished without a hitch; it might be your health or your family or some other grace.

Next, we take a moment to think of those times in which we were not as awake or alert to the presence of God as we could have been.  We think of those sins that have perhaps set us back or moments of weakness where we said or did something for which we are sorry.  We bring our repentant hearts before God, seeking His mercy and forgiveness, which is so totally abundant and resplendent whenever we turn to Him.

These methods and practices of our Christian lives sound so simple and basic but they have the power to profoundly open our hearts to God, making us alive, alert and awake in Jesus Christ.  And that is the point of Advent.  Jesus Christ wants to wake us up and fill us with His life and grace, so that we can then go out and bring His presence to all those we encounter this week. 

There are so many people—perhaps people we meet on a daily basis—who may never walk into the Catholic Church this Advent.  Perhaps they are afraid that they are not truly loved by God or have done something in their lives that could never warrant forgiveness; perhaps they do not believe that there is anything in the Church for them or that their lives are sufficient without God or His Church; perhaps they are so busy and occupied that they cannot imagine something so remarkably awesome and super-substantial as the Eucharist being the greatest experience of their earthly existence.   

Whatever the case may be, you and I may be the most radiant and real experience they will have of the presence of God this Advent.  But that can only happen if we are fully awake and alive in Christ.  May this Advent find us watchful and ready for the coming of Jesus Christ into our lives, and then through us, into the lives of all we encounter this Advent season.