Saturday, January 28, 2006

Voice from Afar

(4th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year; 28 January 2006. I am on vacation this week, but had the chance to write my first homily while being timed in an Internet cafe. Very interesting; I’ll send you the bill!.)

You have probably seen the cartoon series by Gary Larson called "The Far Side." It has that unique ability to capture both the comic and the bizzarre at the same time. One of my favorite Far Side cartoons shows a man sitting down with his children, reading a book. The faces of the children are frozen in terror, as the caption at the bottom explains the reason: Stephen King, reading a bedtime story!

Our first reading this week goes something like that. Moses is relating to the people of Israel their own previous experience at hearing the voice of the Lord back when He made Himself known. He says:

This is what you yourselves asked of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the Assembly. ¨Do not let me hear again the voice of the Lord, my God . . . or I shall die."
-Deuteronomy 18:16-17

They were literally scared to death to hear the voice of God! God’s voice, His power and majesty, is something we should all certainly be afraid of. His righteousness, His sovereignty is overwhelming.

But is not the voice of God also the voice of a father? Even the voices of earthly fathers often bring consolation and comfort to their children. Why should God’s voice be any different?

Which brings us back to Stephen King and his children. While his daughter Naomi was still young, Stephen King realized that she did not share the same interest in his horror fiction that many others did. He decided to write a story just for her, a fairy tale that a little girl would enjoy. He called it, "The Eyes of the Dragon," and naturally it was a best seller.

At first his daughter was a little reluctant. Yet soon she found herself engrossed in the novel that had been written for that very purpose. On his website, Stephen King tells how moved he was the day Naomi finished that book. He tells how she hugged him and said that the only problem she had with the book was that it eventually had to come to an end.

Towards the end of "The Eyes of the Dragon," there is a powerful scene in which Peter, one of the main characters, is finally freed from the tower where he has been a prisoner for so long. He had been framed for the murder of his father, the King. He was the rightful heir to the throne, but no one knew it.

As he is freed there is great chaos in the square, but Peter begins to give orders and commands the people around him, so as to bring order and guide their escape. The people, who do not recognize this young man by his shabby clothing or unkempt appearance, immediately recognize that this is no ordinary voice. This is the voice of a king. They follow that voice instinctively.

In the Gospel this weekend, we hear once again the voice of God. It’s the same voice that the people of Israel heard at Horeb, but this time it has a body to go with it! It is the voice of Christ teaching in the synagogue and the people are no less amazed. That voice is proclaiming the word of God and casting out unclean spirits, freeing those who had been enslaved by evil.

St. Mark relates the reaction of the people, that they were:

So astonished that they started asking each other what it all meant. "Here is a teaching that is new," they said, "and with authority behind it."
-Mark 1:27

We live in a world that longs for that voice and desperately needs the freedom it calls forth. In our own personal lives, we also need to listen to that voice and follow it if we are to be the men and women of the Gospel God is calling us to be. It is the voice of power, the voice of authority, the voice that is calling us to a better life, a higher path.

Are we able to recognize that voice in our world and in our lives today? Christ still speaks to us, through the teaching authority of the Church. How do we receive such authority? Is it something to be feared or avoided, or do we recognize that the one who speaks to us today through His Church is the same one who is teaching in the synagogue and freeing His people in the Gospel.

This week, let us listen to that voice from afar, and come to realize that God´s teaching, His voice, and His presence among us is a lot closer than we could possibly imagine.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

“How can Bill Belichick help us increase vocations?”

(3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B. This weekend we were blessed to have Fr. Michael Najim, Assistant Director of Vocations for the Diocese of Providence, to speak with us about vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Below is a brief summary of his insightful and inspiring message.)

“How can Bill Belichick help us increase vocations?” That was the question Fr. Najim began with. Reflecting on a book he read recently on this phenomenal Patriots Head Coach, Fr. Najim described how Belichick is a man who has vision. He sees the moves that need to be made on the playing field. He sees the potential in players and coaches. He has football vision, and for that reason he has been able to lead the Pats to amazing success in the NFL.

“In the past few years, our Catholic vision of the priesthood has been blurred by scandal,” Fr. Najim explained. Many no longer recognize the priesthood for the gift and mystery that it is. He shared that the Holy Spirit is now inviting us to re-focus our Catholic vision, to see the priesthood once again as a gift and mystery.

Fr. Najim described how our beloved Pope John Paul II often reflected on the gift and mystery of the priesthood, especially as “the living and transparent image of Christ the Priest.” The Catholic priest makes Christ present through his ministry: celebrating the Sacraments, proclaiming the Word of God, and by the way he lives. Is this the way that we see the priesthood today?

“If we see the priesthood in this light,” said Fr. Najim, “then we will have a love and respect for the priesthood. We’ll also desire to see more men respond to the Lord’s call to priesthood. Together we are called to build a culture of vocations, but we can’t build this culture unless we have vision.”

In the Gospel for this week, Fr Najim pointed out, Jesus sees Simon and Andrew, He sees James and John. Then He calls them. What did He see? Christ saw their vocations, their potential, the reason He created them. When we see the gift of the priesthood, we also begin to see those who may be good priests. “Do you see?” Fr. Najim asked. He explained how we are the Body of Christ on earth. We are called to have the eyes of Christ, to see what Christ sees.

How are we to respond to such a vision? Fr. Najim challenged us to build a culture of vocations by focusing on the following:

1) Pray. We are called to pray for an increase in vocations, to pray for those who are being called, and for those who have already responded to that call. Prayer is essential.

2) Encourage. We need to offer the support and guidance necessary for those who are trying to answer the Lord’s call in their lives.

3) Identify. Who are the men God is calling to the priesthood? Are we able to see who might be a good priest? Jesus saw Simon and Andrew, James and John. Who do we see?

4) Invite. Many priests today were able to answer God’s call because people in their lives had the courage and care to invite them to discern a call to the priesthood. We need to reach out and ask the people we feel would make a good priest or religious.

Do you feel called to the priesthood or religious life? Do you know of someone God may be calling to this gift and mystery? Please pray for that person and consider asking them to answer that call as a Catholic priest or religious. For more information on the Catholic priesthood and the Diocesan Office of Vocations, check out the website at

May God continue to bless Fr. Najim in his vocations ministry, and may He bless our Diocese and our parish with many more vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Responding to God's Call: Gift & Mystery

(2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B;This homily was given 15 January, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read 1 Samuel 3:3-19, John 1:35-42)

Our readings this morning focus on the call of God, and the response to that call. One of the most frequent questions I am asked as a priest is:

“How did you know that God was calling you to the priesthood?”

To be honest, that is a difficult question to answer. I always share with people that I did not hear a voice or see a vision; but deep within my heart I simply knew that God was calling out to me. What I began to understand more and more clearly, in time, was that He was calling me to be a priest. With that said, there is still a great deal about the call of God that I do not fully understand, even now that I am a priest.

On his 50th anniversary of priesthood, Pope John Paul II wrote an autobiography describing God’s call in his life and his response to that call as a Catholic priest. The name of that book is Gift and Mystery. In the opening pages he describes how those two elements are essential to understanding the vocation of the priesthood: gift and mystery.

As Jesus says to the first apostles, on the night before He died:

You did not choose me but I chose you (John 15:16).

Priesthood is a gift given. The author of the letter to the Hebrews says that no one takes this gift of himself, but “takes it only when called by God” (Hebrews 5:4).

But God’s call and the gift of a vocation is also a mystery. A mystery is something that we do not fully understand, but something that we can still embrace and accept. God is a mystery; why should His call be any different?

One of the things that becomes clear in our readings this morning is that God involves all His people in this gift and mystery. A vocation to the priesthood or the religious life involves everyone in the Church. No one—not even the one being called—stands alone with God. God’s call involves the entire community.

In that first reading God calls out to Samuel, but Samuel doesn’t know how to answer. He doesn’t even realize that it is God who is calling. He thinks it’s Eli! We are told:

At that time Samuel was not familiar with the Lord, because the Lord had not revealed anything to him as yet. —1 Samuel 3:7

He didn’t know; but Eli knew. Although he may have been a little slow on the draw—it took him three tries—Eli is eventually able to figure out what is happening. He recognizes that God is calling Samuel, and as his teacher and mentor, he guides and helps Samuel to answer that call.

In the Gospel we have something very similar. John the Baptist is standing by the River Jordan with two of his own disciples. They are not disciples of Jesus; not yet. Suddenly Jesus walks by, and John utters that famous phrase:
“Behold, the Lamb of God” (John 1:36).

It’s as if John is saying, “There He is. The one I have been teaching you about, the Messiah I have been preparing all of Israel to receive. He is right there!” And at that point those two men—Andrew and his companion—cease to be disciples of John the Baptist and they become Disciples and followers of Christ. They call Jesus, “Rabbi,” (teacher); He is their teacher now.

Jesus invites these first disciples to follow Him; they answer His call, and become the first two Apostles . . . but not without the teaching and guidance of John the Baptist. God’s call, whether it be to an apostle, or simply to a priest or religious, involves other people; it involves the whole community.

In that book I mentioned from Pope John Paul II, Gift and Mystery, he talks about the very beginning of his vocation. Not surprisingly, there were many people who had suggested to him that God might be calling him to the priesthood. From the Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow to the laborers he worked with in the stone quarries during World War II, many people recognized that God was calling this man to something else, something different.

In our own time, are we able to recognize that God still calls men to serve Him as priests, and women and men to serve Him in religious life? I am convinced that God is calling men and women from this parish to serve Him as priests and religious in the Church. But I am also convinced that our culture is not at all set up to help them answer that call.

Let’s face it: it’s hard to answer God’s call today. We suffer from “Samuel Syndrome”. Like that scene from the first reading, God is calling but I believe men and women today are finding it difficult to hear and answer that call.

When I was 20 years old, I worked third shift at Stop & Shop in North Kingstown, just three miles from this Church. At the time I was not at all involved in the Church, and faith was not a very important part of my life. Late at night we would listen to the hard rock station on the loudspeaker, and one night a commercial came across that station, a commercial from the Diocese of Providence about vocations to the priesthood.

I remember laughing out loud, and thinking, “Don’t these people realize who listens to this station at three in the morning? People like me. They would have a better chance getting me to become a priest!”

When I finally realized—years later—that was exactly what God was calling me to, I didn’t know what to do about it. I didn’t talk to my parents, my friends, or the priests of my parish. It was only over a long period of time that the Elis and the John the Baptists began to emerge and helped me to answer this call that was both a gift and mystery in my own life.

I remember the day I finally shared with my parents that I thought 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 blessing in my life, to have such parents. I am a priest today because my parents, my friends, the people of my home parish and people I worked with saw something in me that I did not fully understand.

Who are the men and women that God is calling in this parish? Who are the ones that God has set apart for the work of making the Gospel message known as priests and religious? We need to pray for them daily; but we also need to make an active effort to help them recognize and answer God’s call.

What if your son or daughter, your grandson or granddaughter, stood in your kitchen and said: “I think God is calling me to the priesthood,” or “I think God is calling me to be a religious sister or brother”? What would your response be to that gift and that mystery?

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Follow the Star

(The Solemnity of the Epiphany-Year B;This homily was given 8 January, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Matthew 2:1-12)

This morning we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany. The word “epiphany” means “appearance” or “manifestation.” What we celebrate is that Christ is made manifest not only as the Messiah and King of the Jews, but as the light to all nations, the salvation of all peoples. As we heard in the responsorial Psalm: Lord, every nation on earth will adore You.

Our Gospel this morning is a familiar one: The story of the Magi, the Wise Men. God is “made manifest,” makes Himself known to them by the appearance of a star; they follow that star and come to worship Christ in Bethlehem. Their story is a remarkable journey of faith, and it is a journey that each one of us will encounter in our own way as God is made manifest to us and calls us forth to worship Him.

“We have seen his star in the East” (Matthew 2:2), the Magi announce to King Herod. In the East. The Magi are outsiders, living in a country far from the land of Israel. They were far away from the town of Bethlehem; but not far, it would seem, from God.

Many Scripture scholars believe that the Magi were from the land of Persia; the Persians devoted themselves to the study of the stars, and so it was there that God chose to reveal Himself. Seeing this great star appear in the sky they were drawn to it; they left the place where they were and they followed it.

In our own lives, God often makes Himself known in the things that are familiar. He comes to us in the midst of our ordinary lives and reveals Himself in extraordinary ways. We see this all throughout the Scriptures:

Think about Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law as a simple and humble shepherd. God reveals Himself to him in the burning bush and Moses is never the same.

Look at the first Disciples of Christ, standing on the docks in Galilee after a long, hard day of fishing. The Son of God walks right into their lives, right into their businesses, and says, “Come, follow me.”

We see it in the Magi, who were expecting anything but the God of Israel to appear in the Persian sky. But do we really believe that the same God can make Himself known to us?

St. Jose Maria Escrivá, a saint from our own time, canonized only a few short years ago, says that:

Like the Magi we have discovered a star—a light and a guide in the sky of our soul. ‘We have seen his star in the East and have come to worship Him (Matthew 2:2).’ We have had the same experience. We too noticed a light shining in our soul and growing increasingly brighter. It was a desire to live a fully Christian life, a keenness to take God seriously.
—Escrivá, Christ is Passing By, #32

Have we experienced that desire in our lives recently? God often makes Himself known to us in the ordinary desires of our hearts. It is there that He calls us to follow Him, to lead “a fully Christian life.”

It has been said that God loves us just as we are, but that He simply loves us too much to leave us that way! If we are going “to take God seriously,” then we must be willing to follow Him wherever He leads us. The Magi in our Gospel this morning did exactly that.

But a strange thing happened on the way to Bethlehem: at some point in their journey—we do not know when—the Magi lost the star. It was no longer before them and so they were forced to do what men almost never do: they were compelled to stop and to ask for directions!

St. John Chrysostom, the great 4th century preacher, says that:

The star had been hidden from them so that, on finding themselves without their guide, they would have no alternative but to consult the Jews. In this way the birth of Jesus would be known to all.
—Chrysostom, Homily on Matthew, #7

The Magi were learned men of great pride and dignity, but they were willing to humble themselves and ask the people who knew far more than they did about this Messiah whose star they had seen in the East.

In our own time, unfortunately, this humility, this willingness to seek the Lord where He may be found, is sadly lacking. Our culture is one that desires to stand on its own authority, to seek guidance and direction from no one.

People move from star to star, from one religious experience to another: from Christianity to Kabala, from Buddhism to Hedonism, and everywhere else in between. But do they ever really find what they are looking for? W. H. Auden, in his poem “September 1, 1939”, describes it this way:

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day.
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play . . .
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

Maybe sometimes we, too, find ourselves moving from star to star, trying all kinds of things that will make our lives more meaningful, more worthwhile, hoping for something new that will change the direction we are going in. But all the while, what we are really looking for, what we really need is God; as St. Augustine says, “Our hearts are restless, O God, until they rest in You.”

But we will never come to truly know God as deeply as He desires if we are unwilling to humble ourselves and seek Him in the Church that Christ founded. God has given us the Scriptures, His very word to instruct and guide us. He has given us the teachings of our faith, by which we can build our lives on the solid foundation that is Christ. He has poured out His very life for us in the Sacraments—cleansed us from our sins, given us His Body and His Blood to nurture and strengthen us.

These are the things we need to turn to when the star goes out in our lives. We need to have the humility to seek the Lord where He may be found. The Magi were willing to do that. If we want to grow closer to God, we must be willing to do the same.

Matthew tells us that after they consulted the Jews, the Magi set out,

And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star.
—Matthew 2:9-10

We may, for a time, lose sight of God; we may lose that sense of His closeness, feel as if He is not as near to us as He once was. But God never loses sight of us; we are never out of His sight. The star returned and the Magi were overwhelmed with joy! At that point they came to the end of their journey, the goal of all that they had set out for:

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage.
—Matthew 2:11

Literally, they worshipped Him. The word used in the Scriptures means adoration; it is translated into the Latin phrase ad-oratio. It means a mouth to mouth, face to face relationship. The Magi came face to face with the living God.

The very goal and end of our lives is to be in that same relationship. God does not want us to love Him from a distance. God did not become man so that we could remain distant from Him; Christ did not die on the cross so that we could worship Him from a distance. He wants us close. Like the Magi, we are called by God to encounter the person of Jesus, to adore him face to face.

Are we ready to do that? Are we willing to draw that close to Christ, to worship Him in a real and intimate way? 2000 years ago, these Wise Men from the East sought Jesus and worshiped Him where He was found; today, some 2000 years later, wise men and women still do.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Mary, Mother of God

(The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God-Year B;This homily was given 1 January, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Galatians 4:4-7 and Mary, Mirror of the Church [Liturgical Press] , Chapter 3, by Fr. Rainero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap.)

You’ve probably heard the expression “loaded question” or “loaded statement,” before, something already completely charged with meaning. The brief passage we just heard from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians is what we could call a “loaded passage.” There is so much going on in those few short lines. St. Paul says:

When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. —Galatians 4:4-5

Pope John Paul II begins his encyclical letter Redemptoris Mater—Mother of the Redeemer—with that very passage from St. Paul precisely because it is so loaded, so filled with meaning. He talks about how God the Father’s loving plan to redeem us is fulfilled in the sending of Christ, His Son (the very thing we celebrated this Christmas) and how we, in Christ, truly become the sons and daughters of God (Redemptoris Mater, #1).

But at the heart of that passage from St. Paul, and at the heart of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical letter, is the person of Mary. She is the one through whom God enters this world. He could have come in any way He desired. How remarkable, that God would choose to come in so simple and humble a way, “born of a woman,” exactly like each one of us.

That is what today’s feast—Mary, the Mother of God— is all about. Mary gives birth to a Son, and everything that pertains to His human nature comes from her. In that sense, she is a mother like any mother here today. But her Son Jesus is unlike any other child; He is a Divine Person, the eternal Son of God. For that reason—because Mary truly gave birth to Christ—she is rightfully called the Mother of God.

But what does it mean to be a mother? In his book Mary, Mirror of the Church, Fr. Rainero Cantalamessa—preacher to the papal household—writes about how the title “mother” is one that affects the very being of a person. To become a mother changes a woman; she is never the same person again. She has become a mother forever.

Cantalamessa points out that whenever Mary’s Motherhood is mentioned in the Scriptures, there are two aspects or events that are always placed together, two things that are considered essential for motherhood: conception (to conceive) and to give birth. As the angel Gabriel said to Mary at the annunciation: “You will conceive in your womb, and bear a son” (Luke 1:21). Those two things.

Part of the very dignity of Mary is that she was constantly conceiving the Lord in her heart, and consistently giving birth to Him in the world we live in. Mary’s motherhood is not just something that "happens" in Bethlehem on Christmas morning. It is something that occurred all throughout her life: always conceiving the Lord by faith, and always responding to that faith by her actions. From the crib where Christ is born to the cross where He dies, Mary is always the Mother bringing forth new life through faith.

As followers of Christ, we are called to do the same. We, too, are called to conceive the Lord in our hearts by faith, and to give Him a place in this world we live in.

Pope Benedict XVI, in his celebration of Vespers on the First Sunday of Advent, said that the Lord is constantly asking to come into this world through us. Even as God entered into Mary’s life and made her the mother of His Son, Pope Benedict says that God “knocks at the door of our hearts [and asks]: “are you willing to give me your flesh, your time, your life?”

In this time of New Year’s resolutions, will we strive to give God a place in our lives and in our world, or will our resolutions—and our faith—remain only conceptions, and nothing more?

This morning we turn to Mary with all our New Year’s resolutions, and with the doors of our hearts wide open to the faith and works that her Son will bring into our lives in this New Year. May she who was the first to give birth to Christ in this world continue to intercede for us this New Year’s Day, and everyday of the year 2006.