Sunday, June 26, 2005

Room with a View

(This homily was given on Sunday, June 26, 2005, at Holy Family Church in Poland, Ohio. I was in the Diocese of Youngstown, assisting at a wedding for a friend’s daughter, which took place that Saturday. The pastor of Holy Family Church invited me to celebrate the 9:00 a.m. Sunday Mass, on the day which happened to be my one-year anniversary of priesthood.)

I would be remiss this morning if I didn’t start off by thanking you all for the gift of Bishop Tobin, who was your Bishop for the past 9 years. The Diocese of Providence and the Diocese of Youngstown have been playing a cosmic game of chess, it seems, and we’ve just taken your bishop!

In the first reading this morning, we hear the beautiful story of the prophet Elisha, successor to the prophet Elijah (you’ll remember Elijah as the one who was taken up to heaven in a great chariot of fire).

Elisha (whose name sounds like his predecessor’s name just a bit) is a traveling prophet, and a very generous couple is so hospitable as to provide a place for him to stay each time he passes through their town. They prepared “a little room for him on the roof”, with a lamp, a table and a bed. It was an ideal place for him to come and rest, and an ideal expression of kindness and hospitality.

When I just arrived here in the Diocese of Youngstown, this past Friday, I drove in from Pittsburgh International Airport, and got all settled into my hotel room. But I wanted to spend a little time in prayer, so I called the Diocese here and asked for the location of the nearest parish. They gave me the address for your parish, Holy Family Church.

I dropped by to introduce myself, and as I rang the doorbell, I was completely unaware of the fact that you were expecting a new associate pastor any day, and that his name was also Fr. Chris! Now, you can already see where this is going.

“Hello,” I said, as the secretary opened the door. “My name is Fr. Chris Mahar, and I just got into town about an hour ago.”

She was delighted to see me! “Oh, welcome, Father! It is so nice to meet you. Would you like to take a look around?”

What a friendly place, I thought to myself. “No thank you,” I said. “I was just hoping to speak with the pastor about concelebrating Mass here this weekend.”

“Oh, I’m sure that will be no problem at all,” she said. “Why don’t you make yourself comfortable? Your room upstairs is all ready. Are you sure you wouldn’t like to take a look around and get to know the place a bit?”

A room upstairs? Get to know the place a bit? How astounding. This is the most hospitable place on the face of the earth, I thought to myself. Why would Bishop Tobin ever leave this place? Yet I began to get the impression that she had mistaken me for someone else. It was only after a few more moments of confused conversation that we cleared up who I was, and who I was not! But for a moment there, I felt like the prophet Elisha himself, with a nice little room prepared all for me!

Now, unfortunately, it’s not always that easy to follow the Lord. Things don’t always go quite that smoothly, and it often requires a great deal of sacrifice to be a disciple of Christ. This morning we find some of the most challenging teachings of Christ on discipleship and love:

Whoever loves father or mother [son or daughter] more than me, is not worthy of me.

—Matthew 10:37

Now, it sounds like Jesus is asking us to love our parents and our children less than we would want to. Of course, that cannot be the case. Christ would want us to love our parents and those in our families completely, to love them as fully as we possibly could. It’s just that he wants us to understand, when all is said and done, that we need to love God more.

We are currently experiencing a crisis in the American Church which many have referred to as a vocations crisis. Whether it be here in Youngstown, or in my own Diocese of Providence, the numbers are simply not what they used to be. Just yesterday, in Providence, Bishop Tobin ordained our newest priest, Fr. Roman Manchester. We are grateful for every vocation. But if we look around it is evident that we are experiencing a shortage of priests.

There are many factors involved in this shortage. I do not think that there are any easy answers, there are no quick solutions. However, there is something we can look more closely at this morning, and it has to do with this love Jesus talks about in St. Matthew’s Gospel:

Whoever loves son or daughter more than me, is not worthy of me.

One of the particular challenges for vocations today is that many parents and families no longer value a call to the priesthood or religious life as they once did. Wanting the very best for their children, parents will sometimes fail to support a son or daughter who feels called to priesthood or religious life.

I know this sounds sad, but I have seen it. I don’t think it is out of any intention to harm the Church or misguide their children; many of these parents want the very best for their children. Out of a misplaced love, they simply fail to recognize that the best for their child might actually be what God wants.

What is needed in the Church now, more than ever, is the same hospitality and welcome for vocations that the prophet Elisha experienced in that first reading. How would you respond if your son or daughter were to say to you this morning: “Mom, Dad, I think God is calling me to the priesthood,” or “I think God is calling me to be a nun”?

I am very fortunate to have supportive and loving parents. I’ll never forget the day I finally shared with them how I felt God was calling me to the priesthood. We were in our kitchen, and my Dad turned to me and said, “We’ve seen this coming for a while now, and we want you to know that, if this is what you think God is calling you to, and this is what He wants, we support you 100%.” What a grace that was, to have such supportive parents! They have continued to be supportive of my vocation every day since.

Now, responding to a call to the priesthood and religious life requires that same love and commitment from the one who is called, as well. We, too, must love God “more than father or mother.” I came here to this diocese to celebrate a wedding, and committing to that responsibility has placed me very far from home. Today I celebrate my first anniversary as a priest. I was ordained just one year ago today. I would love to be home right now, celebrating this day with my Mom and Dad, maybe going out somewhere special for breakfast.

But I truly believe that God has called me to be here with all of you today. Certainly, God cannot be outdone in generosity. I am not with my Mother and Father today, but I celebrate this day with many mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers in Christ, gathered here this morning. I am truly blessed to be a priest here today, and I thank all of you for your hospitality.

My prayer for you this morning is one similar to that of the prophet Elisha in that first reading. He prayed for the couple who were so hospitable to him, that they would have a newborn son by the year’s end. I pray that in the coming year you may have many more sons and daughters here in this parish, many more who will be baptized into the Body of Christ and the family of God.

And I also pray that perhaps one of your sons, or one of your daughters, will say to you: “Mom, Dad, I think God is calling me to the priesthood,” or “I think God is calling me to be a nun.” Let us continue to pray for each other, and for an increase in vocations to the priesthood and religious life, in the days ahead.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Fear Factor

(12th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given 19 June, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.)

One of the most basic emotions, primal in fact, is the emotion of fear. When we are afraid of something or someone, usually it is a negative experience, but fear itself is actually neutral. It can be either healthy or unhealthy. To be afraid of strangers at night might very well be a healthy fear. To be afraid of the people in your own house is not (unless, of course, you live in my house, with Fr. Lolio and Msgr. Evans. I live in fear, and lock my door each night!).

In the Gospel this morning, Jesus identifies no less than three different kinds of fear. The first one is fear of what others may think, say or do in response to our proclamation of the Gospel. Jesus speaks out quite directly regarding this one. He says, “Fear no one.” Do not fear these people at all. No matter what they threaten to do, or what they actually carry out, the Gospel takes priority, even over one’s personal safety.

Thankfully, most of us will not have to discover this reality in the same way as the twelve apostles. All of them, with the exception of St. John, were killed for their faith in Christ and their refusal to deny His Gospel.

Yet we are called to share our faith and the values our faith teaches us, even if it costs us something. We are living in a time when respect for human life and the dignity of the human person are being threatened like never before. Abortion on demand remains a legal right, and even now, laws are being created for the destruction of human life in it’s tiniest of forms . . . in the name of “science,” and in the name of “research.”

Many people, both outside the Church and even some within, say that we should remain silent; stay out of it. Yet the Gospel of Life is one that so desperately needs to be heard in our world today. We cannot be afraid to proclaim it. The value of life is so great that we are called to defend it, despite what others may think, say or do to oppose us. “Fear no one,” Jesus tells us. That’s the first kind of fear.

And from there Jesus moves on to the second kind: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul,” He says. “Rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.That’s something to be afraid of.

There are worse things than the death of the body, and the loss of one’s soul is one of them. The Church prays for the salvation of all people; even the most vicious of sinners has the possibility of becoming a saint because of the mercy of God.

Yet because of the freedom that God has given us, we do not have to accept that mercy. We can choose our own sin over His forgiveness, and reject the reconciliation and the life giving relationship which God offers to us. No one is forced to go to heaven. As C.S. Lewis once said:

There are two kinds of people,
in the end;
those who say to God, “Thy will be done,”
and those to whom God must say,
with great sorrow, Thy will be done.”

The gift of free will is a tremendous blessing and the very thing that makes us most like God. Yet we are responsible for the choices that we make. The real possibility that we could choose to reject the salvation God offers is something we should all be afraid of.

Now there is a third kind of fear that Jesus describes, and without this one, neither of the first two makes any sense. Ultimately, it’s a fear rooted in love.

Jesus describes the love God has for us as the love of a Father. He loves us infinitely, and knows us each by name. Not even a sparrow dies without God’s knowledge, and so how much more are we loved by God. What should our response be to a love like that?

The third kind of fear is what is often called the fear of the Lord. The expression “fear of the Lord” is one that is used in the Scriptures over and over again. It is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, and it is very often misunderstood. Fear of the Lord is not fear as we usually think of it. It is a fear of losing or disappointing one that we love, and who loves us more than we can imagine.

Ultimately, this is the fear that God desires from each of us, not simply a fear of punishment or a fear of hell, but a fear based on love, that makes us want to be more and more pleasing to Him. As we pray in the Act of Contrition:

O my God, I am heartily sorry
for having offended You.
And I detest all my sins,
because of the fear of the loss of heaven
and the fires of hell,
but most of all because they have offended
You, my God, who are all good
and deserving of all my love.

That’s fear of the Lord, a fear rooted in love, and one that inspires us to try to love God as much as He loves us.

As we celebrate this Father’s Day, we give thanks to God who loves each of us with a Father’s love, and has given all Fathers a model and an example of how to live and how to love. We need not be afraid to love as God loves, and to share with others the Good News that Christ has come for the very purpose of bringing us all into that perfect love that overcomes all fear.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Ask the Lord of the Harvest

(11th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given 12 June, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.)

One of the greatest challenges we face in the Church today is what many have referred to as a vocations crisis. Last November, Pope John Paul II alluded to this crisis, saying

No one can deny that the decline in priestly vocations represents a stark challenge for the Church in the United States, and one that cannot be ignored or put off.

On the more local level, you may have noticed in this week’s Providence Visitor that 6 faithful and hardworking priests of our diocese will be retiring this summer. Thankfully we will be celebrating the ordination of one young man to the priesthood in a few weeks, but it is quite clear that the number of priests retiring far exceeds the number of men being ordained.

The numbers can be discouraging. How are we to understand this current vocations crisis that we are in the midst of? What is to be our response to such a tremendous challenge in our Church? There are no easy answers to this situation, but one thing is certain: whatever the solution, it can only be one that is rooted in Christ and His vision for the Church.

In the Gospel this morning, St. Matthew describes a vast crowd of people who are following Jesus, and he says they were “troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd.” The original meaning of those words is so strong that it conveys almost a sense of hopelessness. One commentator says that they are words that describe “someone who is utterly wearied by a journey which seems to know no end” (Barclay).

They were weary, and the religious leaders of their time had done nothing to alleviate their suffering. In fact, they had made it worse. This is the scene which Jesus is watching unfold before Him.

St. Matthew tells us “Jesus’ heart was moved with pity for them.” The word Matthew uses is the strongest word for pity in the Greek language. It means that Jesus was physically affected by what He saw. It made Him sick! And of all the ways He could have responded—anger, frustration, cynicism—instead he simply turns to the disciples and says:

The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.
—Matthew 9:36

And then He calls before Him the twelve apostles and sends them forth. Jesus saw the needs around Him. He was a realist; he understood the situation. His response is to pray to “the master of the harvest” to send out workers to be His instruments in this world. God has a plan to meet the needs of His people, and from the beginning the priesthood has been a part of that plan.

But do we truly believe that the priesthood has any relevance in meeting the needs of the world today? As we look around us and see people who are “troubled and abandoned,” much like Jesus saw in His own day, do we dare to think that the priesthood can offer some alleviation to those who are suffering and in need? Do we believe that the Sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation, and the preaching of the Gospel message are able to bring consolation and strength to those in need?

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 much what Jesus saw in the Gospel today: people who were troubled and abandoned, and 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. Not only Ars, but all of France was being converted. There is a story that one day the devil himself confronted John Vianney and shouted at him through a possessed person:

Curse you John Vianney! If there were three of you,
I would not be able to set foot in all of France.

That was 150 years ago. Today, in our own country, we thankfully do not face the same challenges that France was up against. Nonetheless, we have our own problems, our culture has more than its share of people who are “troubled and abandoned.” And in the midst of all these challenges, our Church is facing a crisis of vocations.

Might we all more fervently pray to the “Master of the harvest” to send out more laborers. It would be wonderful if we had 30 more vocations to the priesthood in our diocese in the coming year. But if we only had three, it could very well be enough for God to accomplish the work that He desires in our Church, and in the world around us.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

What God Sees

(10th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given 5 June, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.)

The other night I was at a Sports Banquet, a fundraiser for a religious community in Connecticut. Towards the beginning of the evening I noticed a man who was obviously underdressed. It was a black tie event, and this man was wearing a neon red golf shirt. Without being judgmental at all, I felt kind of sorry for the man. There were famous people there, great athletes and sports writers; and here was this poor guy, who looked so very out of place.

When the time came for the keynote address, the Master of Ceremonies introduced Baseball Legend and Hall of Fame Manager Sparky Anderson. And sure enough, up to the podium went that man in the red golf shirt! As calm as could be, he laughed as he told the story about losing all his luggage at the airport. And then he went on to give one of the most beautiful talks on the Catholic faith that I had heard in a long time.

All I had seen earlier that night was an underdressed man in a golf shirt. But there was much more going on that I could not see, so much more to this person than I could have imagined.

This morning Jesus is walking past the customs post, and we are told that as He went by, “He saw a man named Matthew” sitting there. He saw Matthew. But what did Jesus see as he looked at this man who was no doubt despised by nearly all of his peers?

Later on, in Matthew’s house, the Pharisees will look and see only a group of “tax collectors and sinners.” That’s it. But Jesus looks and sees so much more than that. Jesus looks at Matthew and He sees an Apostle. He sees a man who will one day be a saint. He looks Matthew in the eyes and says: “You, follow me!”

What Jesus sees in Matthew, and how Matthew responds ,can say a lot about our own personal relationship with God and how we are to be followers of Christ. When we look at the people around us, what do we see? How about when we look at ourselves? Do we see a person who doesn’t really matter all that much to the world we live in? Someone who is no different from anyone else in the world? Is that what God sees? It’s not what He saw in Matthew, and it’s probably not what He sees when He looks at each one of us.

The artist Michelangelo was one of the most gifted painters of all time, but his true passion was not painting; it was sculpting. If you have ever seen the Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica, you can quickly see why. That image of Mary holding the body of her Son is one of the most moving works of art ever created.

When asked about the method he used in sculpting, Michelangelo would always say that his work was not about creating something new. He truly felt that each block of marble held some magnificent work of great beauty. The work of the artist, he would say, is to set it free from the marble, to remove all the excess material and reveal the incredible beauty that was held captive within.

That magnificent beauty is what God sees in each one of us. It is His intention and desire to reveal that beauty in our lives. That’s why He calls us, as He called St. Matthew, to follow Him. Our work in unveiling that beauty, and becoming all that God sees in us, is the work of a response. We must respond to God and His call in our lives if we are ever to become all that He sees in us.

In his book The Truth of Catholicism, papal biographer and theologian George Weigel refers to this call of God and its response as the drama of every soul. He says that:

Each Christian life, including the lives of the saints, is lived in the gap between the person I am and the person I ought to be.

The reason we hold up the saints as models of what it means to follow Christ is because they never stopped trying to close that gap; they never lost sight of what God saw in them, and they never gave up trying to live up to that call of love.

As we strive to answer the call of God in our own lives this week, may we also see what God sees, and never stop striving to live out the virtues God desires us to grow in. Wherever the customs post is for our own personal lives, Christ is walking by today, and calling out to each of us: “You, follow me!”