Sunday, August 28, 2005

Cartoon Spirituality

(22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given 28 August, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.)

There is a great piece of spiritual advice offered by St. Paul in this morning’s Second Reading, and it almost reads like a “Dear Abbey” column. To the Church of Rome he writes:

Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.
—Romans 12:2

It’s kind of catchy: Do not conform, but be transformed. It was advice that would have also proved quite helpful to the Romans, living in a world so completely filled with various opinions and ideas. Almost 2,000 years later, it’s still some very good advice for all of us: Do not conform, but be transformed.

There was an article in the New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago, and it had a very interesting quote. I’ll read the quote, and you can try to guess who it is referring to:

“He’s the eternal optimist. He always perseveres, he’s always got a great attitude, he always sees the positive in people.”

Who is that quote referring to? SpongeBob Squarepants. That’s right, old SpongeBob, the eternal optimist. How about that: the most positive quote in the whole magazine and he’s not even a real person! I’ll give you one final quote and you can try to guess who said it:

“If you can’t say something positive about someone,
then you shouldn’t say anything at all.”

Who said that? Mother Theresa? Pope John Paul II? No, it was a little cartoon rabbit named Thumper from the movie Bambi! Now, I don’t want to come across negative. There are many times in my life that I wish I acted more like SpongeBob, or followed the advice of Thumper.

Yet when it comes to the big decisions and the complexities of life, we need more than a cartoon spirituality. We need to do more than simply conform to the latest ideas or opinions. We need to be transformed, as St. Paul would say. Ultimately, we need God.

You may have seen the latest issue of Newsweek, with the word “Spirituality” in capital letters on the cover. The feature article describes a world of spiritually “hungry people, looking for a relationship with God.” I think that’s very accurate. Perhaps more than ever, people are searching.

If you read that article you know that they go on to explain a very American way of going about that search for God. They talked about all the various religions of our time, and put them all on a level playing field. One Boston College scholar summed up the essence of the article. He said: “Rather than being about a god who commands you, it’s about finding a religion that empowers you.”

It sounds like really good advice, and I think many people would agree with it. Unfortunately, that’s the very thing St. Paul warned the Romans about, and the same advice he offers to each of us: Do not conform, but be transformed.

As Christians, we respect the beliefs of all people of good will who are searching for God. We have a Pope who visits synagogues and embraces the Muslim world with a sincere and heartfelt desire for peace.

The Church has always recognized that there are facets of the truth in many of the religions of the world. The Second Vatican Council acknowledged that:

Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do His will [guided by their conscience], those too may achieve eternal salvation.
—Lumen Gentium, # 16

But we do not believe that there are many different ways to God. In fact, we believe that there is only one way to heaven, and one plan for us to get there. In the Gospel this morning Jesus tells the disciples “that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer . . . and be killed and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21). That’s God’s plan for our salvation. And that is the very thing that sets Christianity apart from every other religion in the world.

It has been said that the difference between Christianity and all other religions is a matter of direction. All religions, in some way, are searching for a way to reach up to God. Christianity is the only religion where God, who is above all things, reaches down to us. It’s the only religion where God becomes man, and dwells among us, as St. John puts it in his Gospel.

We truly believe that God, who stands outside of time and is beyond all things, entered time and space and became a man so that He could suffer and die on the cross to save us from our sins. That is the essence of our faith, that God comes to us to redeem us, comes to transform us, and to bring us to Himself to live with Him forever in heaven. But where can we find that in our daily lives? Where can we experience God, who we hunger and thirst for, as that Newsweek article so accurately pointed out?

As it turns out, God has provided a way in which we who hunger and thirst for Him can be satisfied. Before He left this world, He entrusted the gift of the Eucharist to the Church, this most Blessed Sacrament of His body and blood by which he feeds us and sustains us. We come here tired, hungry and thirsting for God, and the God who came to us as a man 2000 years ago, now comes to us anew in this Sacrament of the altar.

May we be renewed in this celebration of the Eucharist, and strengthened to live our faith more completely in this life; not being conformed, but transformed each day by the renewing of our minds, that we may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect (Romans 12:2).

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Keeper of the Spring

(21st Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given 21 August, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.)

One of the most newsworthy “events” in the past 5 months has been the passing of the torch from Pope John Paul II to Pope Benedict XVI. From a highly televised papal funeral, to Pope Benedict’s election just a few weeks later, and now with World Youth Day, the papacy is front and center like never before.

But what do we, as Catholics, really believe about the Pope? This morning’s Gospel takes us back to the beginning, when Christ first designated Peter as the head of the Church on earth. Following Peter’s great confession of faith, Jesus declares to him:

You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.

—Matthew 16:18

Now he doesn’t give Peter keys in the literal sense, but that expression is an important one, because it is the basis for what is referred to as succession; Jesus gives to Peter a role that is meant to be passed on, so that after Peter’s death, another will take his place, right up until the end of time.

In our first reading this morning, the prophet Isaiah uses the same expression—that of the passing of the key—to show how the steward Eliakim will succeed the one who has gone before him:

I will place the key of the House of David on Eliakim's shoulder.

—Isaiah 22:22

The authority of the pope, the power of the keys, is a borrowed power; the pope is given an authority that is not his own. This is significant, because we are living in a time where many believe that those in authority can do whatever they want. Nothing could be further from the truth. The pope is, in fact, limited in what he can do, more limited than many would like to think.

There was an article back in 1996, in Ireland’s Sunday Business Post, in which a reporter was questioning some of the more controversial teachings of the Church. He asked one Church official if it might be possible for another pope to come along, with a different opinion than John Paul II, who might then change the Church’s teaching. That Church official said:

There are certain things the pope cannot do if he is to be obedient to the will of God . . . The Church’s teaching office is not like a government which can overturn the decisions of its predecessors.
(From Sunday Business Post, as cited in First Things, April 1996)

Now that was a man who understood the power of the keys. Little did he know that 9 years later he would be holding them! That Church official was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict XVI, and the point he was making is that the primary role of the pope is not to change the teachings of the Church, but to preserve them.

One of the most common misconceptions that many outside, and even inside, the Church have is that the pope can simply look over the teachings of the Church, select the ones he wants to, and change them, like he was selecting items in a cafeteria.

Journalists often bring up challenging issues, such as same-sex marriage, the all male priesthood, abortion and euthanasia, and they ask: When will the Church get with the times, and when will the pope change the Church’s teachings on these issues?

Pope Benedict XVI, along with every other pope right back to St. Peter himself, would answer: never, because the pope cannot change that which is true. On the contrary, his very work and mission is to preserve those truths and pass them on to the people of God.

But are we open to receiving these truths, and to putting them into practice in our lives? A recent poll showed that 74% of Catholics would follow their own conscience rather than anything that the pope would say. One of the titles of the Pope is chief shepherd of the flock. We can ask ourselves, if these people are not listening to the chief shepherd, who are they listening to? If they are not following the shepherd God has given them, than who are they following?

The late Peter Marshall, former chaplain of the United States Senate, used to tell the story of the Keeper of the Spring. The story goes that there once was a quiet old man who lived in the mountains, high above a small Austrian village.

A young town council had hired him to remove the leaves and branches that would often choke the flow of water running into the town below. Before long, the village became a popular vacation spot, where people would come from miles around just to rest in the quiet beauty of that place.

Years passed, and eventually the town council met and one of the members questioned the necessity for this mysterious “Keeper of the Spring”. “Who is he?” he asked. “No one has ever seen him, and for all we know he may be up to no good.” And so they decided to let the old man go.

For several weeks nothing changed; as fall came they noticed that the water was becoming a little discolored. Before long it became much darker, and within a week a slimy film covered the water and there was a foul odor detected all throughout the village.

The council quickly recognized their mistake and immediately hired back the Keeper of the Spring. Within weeks the river began to clear up once again, and that village regained its beauty.

The readings this weekend, and the events that are taking place in the world around us, remind us that we have been given our own Keeper of the Spring, and he has been given to us by Christ Himself.

We could ask ourselves this morning, what would our world look like, or how much more beautiful would things be—in our families, in our government, in the world we live in—if we allowed the power of the keys and the teachings of our faith to fully guide the way we live?

We are all called to be the keepers of the spring, and we rejoice this morning that God has chosen from among us a 78 year old man named Benedict to teach and guide us as we do just that.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Do Not Disturb!

(20th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given 14 August, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.)

Some of my favorite childhood memories come from the many summer vacations our family would take, which would often bring us to one hotel or another. It intrigued me that many of the rooms in those hotels had signs outside the door that said: Do not disturb!

And often—in order to pass the time—my brother, my sister and myself would run up and down the halls, and knock on all the doors that had one of those signs!

Now that I am an adult, I have come to a greater appreciation of the meaning of those words: Do not disturb.

No one likes to be disturbed. So it would seem only natural that Jesus is no different. As we look at the Gospel this morning, it’s easy for us to interpret the story of the Canaanite woman in those terms.

In fact, that’s the way the disciples themselves come to understand the situation. This woman, who is not from among the chosen people, comes to Jesus because her daughter is tormented by a demon. The only response she receives from Jesus is silence. So the disciples quickly jump to the next logical conclusion: Do not disturb. They say to Jesus: Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us (Matthew 15:23).

Now we know that Jesus does not grant their request; in fact, he grants the Canaanite woman’s request instead, but only after a long and somewhat awkward conversation where he even refers to her people as dogs! How are we to understand that?

Many scholars say that Jesus is using humor in order to draw out from her a deeper response of faith. That makes sense, because the woman does not seem offended; she continues to banter with Jesus until finally prayer is answered.

Whichever way we look at it, the point of the story is that this woman, who is not from among the chosen people of Israel, displays a faith which far exceeds even that of the disciples, and anticipates the very reason why Christ came in the first place: to save all peoples, all the nations of the earth.

In the first reading this morning, the Lord announces through the prophet Isaiah:

My salvation is about to come, my justice about to be revealed. The foreigners (that’s us) who join themselves to the Lord, ministering to him, loving the name of the Lord, and becoming his servants . . . them I will bring to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer. —Isaiah 56:6-7

Far from being disturbed by the prayer of the Canaanite woman, Jesus is trying to help her to see more clearly that she is not a dog, not an outsider asking for scraps from God’s table. She is herself a child of God, a fulfillment of that promise from Isaiah, and a welcome member of His house.

St. John Chrysostom says that the Canaanite woman represents each of us, the Church gathered out from the Gentiles, the non-Jewish believers who complete God’s plan of salvation. If that is true, then we should do everything we can to imitate this great woman of faith in our own lives.

But what is our response when God doesn’t seem to be listening to our prayers, when we encounter the silence of God? It didn’t stop the Canaanite woman, and it shouldn’t stop us. She received some very ambiguous answers from Jesus that day, but she never gave up, she never stopped reaching out to Jesus. Because of that—because of her faith—her prayer was answered.

Each of us can ask ourselves this morning: Are we moved by the needs we see in the world around us? Are we willing to intercede for the needs of others, to be persistent in our prayer to God even when we encounter opposition?

If we are honest, we can probably admit that all too often there is a sign on the door of our own lives, and that sign reads: Do not disturb! We want things to change in the world around us, but we are often unwilling to be the ones who work for that change. God comes to us today and knocks on our door, reminding us that we have a responsibility to pray for those He has placed in our lives, and to do at least something to work for their well being.

May we be persistent this day in our prayers and actions, knowing that the God who calls us is a God who wants to be disturbed, and that He expects each of us to be disturbed, as well.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Walking on the Water

(19th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given 7 August, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.)

We had one just the other night. There is one in this morning’s Gospel; and, chances are, you’ve seen more than a few in your own life. Storms. We can usually see them coming. But they can happen quite unexpectedly, like in the Gospel we just heard.

Peter and the other disciples are on the sea when suddenly they find themselves in the midst of a storm. Now, it’s important to recognize from the beginning that this would not have surprised Peter. The sea was home to him. He worked on it, made a living off it. But what does come as a surprise is the test of faith he is about to undergo.

Jesus comes out to the disciples, in the very midst of the storm, walking on the sea. Their initial reaction, far from being comforted, is one of complete fear. They think it’s a ghost, and only the words of Christ will comfort them: It is I; do not be afraid (Matthew 14:27).

And then, Peter’s faith is tested; Jesus invites him to come out to Him on the water. It’s a crucial moment for Peter, and he fails. But he learns an important lesson that he will never forget: whenever our faith is tested, whenever we experience the storms of life, we can depend on Christ to come to us, and even though we may fail, He will never fail us.

From time to time we all experience the storms of life. In a certain sense, you could say that our culture is obsessed with them; at least the storms of others. There seems to be no end to the stories in the tabloids about people in the movies or on TV whose lives have fallen apart. It can make us cynical. We can ask ourselves, “Does anyone survive in Hollywood? Is it even possible to be a person of faith there?”

I read an article recently about a woman who was able to: Dolores Hart. Her story is remarkable. At a very young age, while she was still a freshman in college, she was given the opportunity of a lifetime to star in a movie with Elvis Presley. It was the beginning of a whole new life, and yet throughout her time in Hollywood she never lost her Catholic faith.

In that recent interview, she talked about how strong friendships with other people who shared her faith helped her to weather all the storms that have ruined the lives of so many others. She said the Lord had His hand in it from the beginning, helping her to find all the right people and guiding her life and her faith.

Yet the crisis of faith came for Dolores Hart in quite a different way than for most people in Hollywood. One day a friend offered to introduce her to a group of nuns, and her immediate reaction was: “Nuns? No. I don’t want to meet nuns”. Eventually she went anyway, to a monastery called Regina Laudis, in Bethlehem, Connecticut (about 2 hours from here) and she was captivated. The experience was one that seemed to draw her in.

She continued to make movies, continued to grow successful in Hollywood, but she never forgot that experience in the monastery. She eventually began filming another movie about the life of St. Francis of Assisi. She was playing St. Clair, and since the movie was being filmed in Rome, she had the chance to meet Pope John XXIII.

She introduced herself to him and said: “Holy Father, my name is Dolores Hart and I’m playing Clair in the movie we are filming.”

He replied, “You are Clair.”

She thought the Pope had misunderstood her, so she repeated, “No, Holy Father, my name is Dolores and I am playing Clair in the movie.”

The Holy Father smiled and repeated again: “No, you are Clair.”

Before long she began to realize that God was calling her to become a cloistered nun, like St. Claire of Assisi had been.

Her story really is incredible; she left Hollywood and joined that monastery in Connecticut, and she remains there to this day as a cloistered nun. I had the opportunity to meet her just a couple of days ago, after having read about her in that article. It’s a small world that we live in. Each year, as a fundraiser, the monastery puts on a big outdoor theatre production.

Dolores Hart, who is now Mother Dolores and the Prioress of that Benedictine Monastery, was sitting on the front row and I was sitting right behind her. She is a woman who is so filled with joy; she’s radiant. And you would never guess that she is experiencing another storm of life even now.

She has been diagnosed with a debilitating disease that causes her a great amount of physical pain, yet she smiles all the time, she’s so joyful. And you could say that she is facing that storm the same way she faced all the other storms of her life: with a deep and abiding faith in Jesus Christ.

Now, obviously, most of us have never been to Hollywood, we’ve never been in movies with Elvis. And most of us have probably never been to a monastery. But in our own lives we will all face some of the same storms that Mother Dolores faced.

All of us will experience the temptations and struggles that this world so often throws at us. We don’t have to go to Hollywood to encounter these same challenges. We will also face some of the same struggles in our own vocation, whether that be religious life or—for most of us here—marriage or the single life. However we experience the call of God in our lives, it is always a challenge to answer that call. No vocation is easy. We all experience—at one time or another—the storms of life.

But how will we respond to these storms when we experience them? Will we have the same faith and trust that Mother Dolores had, knowing that in the midst of the storm, Jesus is present. Jesus comes to us, walking on the water, walking towards us in the midst of the storm, and He says to us what He said to Mother Dolores and to St. Peter before her: “Do not be afraid. It is I.”

May we walk on the water with Jesus this week, and every day of our lives, knowing that He is always present, always near us. And when we fail, as we sometimes will in the testing of our faith, may we never forget the lesson that St. Peter learned in the Gospel this morning: that even if we fail, Jesus will never fail us. What a comfort and a consolation to know that we are never alone in the trials and the storms of life.