Sunday, September 18, 2005

Catechetical Sunday

(25th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given 18 September, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich R.I.)

It’s that time of year when many people call the rectory to ask what day or what time the religious education or CCD classes begin. It’s also the time when many students might ask, “When will CCD end?” That is the question I would like to ask this morning: When does religious education finally come to an end?

You’ve probably figured out the answer already: it doesn’t! We are never through learning about and experiencing our faith. The truths of the Scriptures and the teachings of our Faith have been described as a great pool in which the smallest child can play in, but one in which the brightest of theologians could never touch the bottom.

We can—and should—spend a lifetime swimming in that pool. This Sunday our diocese celebrates “Catechetical Sunday” and it’s a great opportunity for us to check in and ask ourselves if we have learned everything there is to know about our faith, or if perhaps Christ isn’t asking us to go a little deeper into the pool.

A couple of months ago I was in the sacristy after Mass and one of our parishioners handed me the name and address of a woman in a nearby nursing home. They told me that she had some questions about our faith and wanted to talk to a priest.

I didn’t know exactly what to expect, and when I arrived I could see that apparently, she didn’t know what to expect either. When I knocked on her door, she opened it, saw me standing there, and said, “Oh, you must be the priest. This better be good!”

As it turned out she was a baptized Christian in another denomination, but felt that God was calling her to become a Catholic . . . at the age of 82! Maybe that sounds surprising to you, unless you were here for the Easter Vigil last March, when a 76 year-old man was baptized into the Catholic Faith.

As we heard in the Gospel this morning, God is constantly out walking the streets, looking for workers for His vineyard, and he’s asking everyone, regardless of age or faith experience. But where is He asking us to grow more deeply in our faith this year?

We could ask ourselves a few basic, very practical questions:

Firstly, “Do I own I Bible, and if so, when was the last time I read it?” St. Jerome has a challenging but appropriate saying with regards to the Bible. He says, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” Reading the Bible even for a few minutes a day could be totally life-changing. I was 22 years old the first time I ever picked up the Bible and read it. It changed everything. (So be careful; look what happened to me!)

Secondly, we could ask “Do I own a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church?” Nearly every question about the faith you could ever ask is covered somewhere in that book. What better gift could you give to your family than the teachings of our faith?

Finally, we could ask ourselves: “What does the Church here at Our Lady of Mercy have to offer to help me grow in my faith?”

If you’re a student, the answer is the Religious Education program here at the parish. Dozens of faith filled and generous teachers have volunteered this year—as they do every year—to help our young people grow in their faith. I ask you to please keep them in your prayers as we begin classes again this fall.

But if you are an adult, there are many things you can do to grow in your faith. There is a pamphlet rack at the back of the Church that is constantly being updated and stocked to help you learn about different devotions, teachings and the lives of the saints.

We have a Book Club that is about to begin once again in just a few weeks, a great opportunity to come together as Church and discuss your faith with others. As the year continues there will be many more activities like this. Why not pick one of them and check it out?

Finally, as you may have seen in the bulletin, the RCIA program is about to start up again on October 3rd. Every year people attend these weekly classes for many different reasons. Some are preparing to make their sacraments at the Easter Vigil; like that woman I mentioned earlier, they feel that God is calling them to become Catholic. Others are Catholics who have already been baptized and confirmed but simply want to learn more about their Catholic faith.

Whatever our faith experience is, we can be assured that Jesus is walking the streets of East Greenwich this fall, looking for more workers for His vineyard, and calling each of us to grow more deeply in our knowledge of the Kingdom of God. This Catechetical Sunday, why not answer that call by learning more about the faith we profess each week?

Sunday, September 11, 2005

The Poison Tree

(24th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given 11 September, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich R.I.)

The great English poet and mystic William Blake wrote a powerful poem called A Poison Tree. In that poem he describes how he was angry with a friend but was able to express that anger and both of them were soon reconciled.

But he was angry with an enemy and chose instead to say nothing. The poem goes on to describe how he nurtured that anger, he savored it and watered it with his tears, and so it began to grow like a fresh young tree (but nonetheless, a poison tree). Eventually it bore a bright new apple, and he describes how his enemy wanted that apple, so when it was dark he came into the garden and stole it.

The last two lines of that poem are quite bitter. Blake writes:

In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

It should come as no surprise that our bitterness, our unforgiveness, almost always ends in death: death of a friendship, death of a relationship, the loss of some part of ourselves. And there is never the satisfaction we longed for. Blake finds his foe stretched out beneath the Poison Tree, but we know that the bitterness and the anger live on; they will not end there.

Unforgiveness doesn’t always have to be as dramatic as William Blake describes it. Sometimes it can take the form of a comment or a reminder of some failure of the past. We accept someone’s apology easy enough, but every so often we remind them of what they have done to us, just so they know that we know the score.

Or maybe we don’t say anything to that person at all. Instead we tell everyone else about what they said to us, or what they did. We want everyone to know that we have been wronged. But does that help us, or make us feel better at all?

Unforgiveness is a tremendous challenge, because sooner or later we will all experience the pain of being let down. Whether it be a friend, our spouse, the people we work with, maybe even someone in the Church—often when we do not expect it, we get burned. How hard it can be to let go. How hard it can be to forgive.

The parable Jesus tells us this morning holds the key to the challenge of forgiveness. He relates that disturbing tale of the unforgiving servant. After having been forgiven for so very much, he finds himself unable to let a fellow servant off for a much smaller amount.

The root of the problem could be described as selective memory loss. He forgets, or chooses to forget, that the king “let him go and forgave him the loan” (Mathew 18:27) he could never have repaid. That’s the problem.

He should have been overwhelmed with joy. He should have gone all throughout the kingdom, saying: “Listen to this. I owed the king everything, and he forgave me.” He should have dwelt on that forgiveness, cherished it. Then he never would have mistreated his fellow servant.

That’s what God wants for us when it comes to forgiveness. It is the opposite of William Blake’s Poison Tree. Instead of dwelling on our hurts, or on those who have harmed us—as real and as painful as that is—we dwell on God, instead. We think about His mercy, His forgiveness. We think about all the times we have hurt others, or God, and remember how quick God is to forgive us, and the price He paid for that forgiveness.

We do not dwell on the wood of the Poison Tree. We remember, instead, the wood of the cross, where God paid the debt we owed and gave us His forgiveness. That is where we find the power to forgive others. It cannot come from us; we would never be able to do it. In the end, forgiveness comes from God.

Just a few years after the Second World War, a woman named Corrie ten Boom began traveling around the world, telling the message of God’s forgiveness. She had spent years in the concentration camp called Ravensbruck, where the rest of her family had died. Her message was that God forgives—even the horrors of the Holocaust—God forgives.

She had just finished that talk in a small Church outside of Munich when she saw a man approaching from the back of the room. Her blood ran cold as she recognized him. He had been one of the SS guards at Ravensbruck, and one of the cruelest. He had no idea who she was.

“A fine message,” he said. “How good it is to know that, as you say, our sins are forgiven by God. You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk. I was a guard there. But since that time, I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from you, as well.”

He held out his hand to her, and at that very moment she thought of her sister, who had died in that place. She says, “I stood there—I whose sins had again and again needed to be forgiven—and could not forgive.”

But she knew the power of forgiveness; she had spoken of it so many times. She knew that forgiveness was above all an act of the will, and that she didn’t need to feel like forgiving someone in order to actually do so. Suddenly she began to pray: Jesus, help me. I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You do the rest.

And as she shook the hand of that former SS guard, she began to feel a love for him that could only come from God. She said later that she had never known God’s love as intensely as she did that day.

Who are the people in our lives that we have been denying forgiveness? Who are the ones that have hurt us or been unkind, the ones that we need to forgive today? God offers to each of us the power of forgiveness, a gift from the cross, which has the power to change our lives. Let us take that fruit from His hands today, and leave the Poison Tree behind.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

The Debt of Love

(23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given 4 September, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich R.I.)

Are you in debt? St. Paul says this morning that we all are, or at least that we should be. He writes to the Church in Rome:

Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another;
for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
—Romans 13:8

All of us, as members of the body of Christ, owe a debt of love to each other, but love sometimes can be a difficult thing. You’ve heard of the expression “tough love”, and that “the truth hurts”. This doesn’t have to be the way, but it very often is when it comes to love.

A few months ago I was saying Mass at one of the nearby nursing homes, and two of the ladies there came by after to thank me. One of them said: “Father, I remember the first time you came here, about a year ago. You looked so young and new then. You look a lot older now.”

As I was recovering from the initial shock of that comment, the other woman said, “Yeah Father, you look like you’ve gained some weight too.” I was thinking, Get me out of here before it gets any worse! That’s tough love!

The readings this week talk about tough love. The prophet Ezekiel, in that first reading, is given instructions on what kind of love the watchman for Israel is supposed to have. He is to proclaim a message that is not his own, and to warn the people of the things that—in the end—could cost them their eternal salvation.

St. Gregory the Great, commenting on this very passage, says that whoever God sends forth as a preacher is a watchman. He points out the obvious fact that “a watchman always stands on a height so that he can see from afar what is coming.

He is called to warn the people of the things that can harm them, and for that reason some of the hardest things that a priest has to say come from right here in this pulpit. The priest can, and should, speak about such difficult issues as vice, immorality, lack of charity, materialism, unforgiveness, and a host of other things—from the pulpit.

But the priest doesn’t live in the pulpit. Like everyone else, he too is called to live the message that he preaches. St. Gregory the Great talks very candidly about how difficult that can be. He says:

“Insofar as I do succeed [in preaching], still I myself do not live my life according to my own preaching. I recognize that I am slothful and negligent . . . So who am I to be a watchman, for I do not stand on the mountain of action but lie down in the valley of weakness.”

Now, keep in mind that this man was the Pope, he was a saint and a doctor of the Church. He’s not talking about hypocrisy, but the exact opposite. It’s an amazing expression of humility, an acknowledgement that the message he preaches is God’s message, and that God alone can give him the grace to preach it, and to live it.

He finishes that reflection on Ezekiel by saying that, nonetheless:

“Because I love [God], I do not spare myself in speaking of Him.”

St. Gregory the Great understood the debt of love. He lived it, he preached it, and he led the Church through one of the darkest periods of human history. He did so, essentially, by teaching the Church how to love.

It is not easy to live out this love in the Church. I heard a great quote the other day. Someone had written, “The greatest thing about the Catholic Church is that it’s like one big family. And the worse thing about the Catholic Church, is that it’s like one big family.”

Christ, who is the head of this family, knew how difficult it would be for us to pay that debt of love we all owe to each other. For that reason, he gives us instructions in the Gospel this morning on what to do when sin gets in the way. He says:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. —Matthew 18:15

It’s the basis for what is called “fraternal correction,” and if you have ever had to do it, or have ever received it, you know that it can be a very difficult thing. But there are guidelines that can help us.

Fr. Rainero Cantalamesa, who is the preacher to the papal household (the watchman of the Pope’s house, you could say) says that the ultimate reason to practice fraternal correction:

is not pride, to show others their errors in order to highlight our superiority. Nor to say: "I told you so. I warned you. Too bad for you." No, the objective is to win over one's brother. That is, to seek the genuine good of the other, so that he can improve and not meet with disagreeable consequences.

In short, the rule for fraternal correction is love. If we do not love the other, then we have no right to offer correction. But if love is present, then we have not only a right, but also an obligation to help our brother or sister to correct their faults before it is too late.

We can ask ourselves this morning: Am I doing everything I can to pay the debt of love that St. Paul talks about, and that Christ calls us to in the Gospel? Do I love the members of the Body of Christ enough to be corrected by them, or to offer correction if that is what God is asking for?

Because Christ calls each of us to be a watchman for his house, and a true brother or sister in the Church, which is the family of God.