Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

(Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary-Year B;This homily was given 31 May, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Luke 1:39-56)

The scene of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary is one that is often beautifully depicted in Christian art. Yet sometimes, if we are not careful, we can reduce Mary to only a painting, picture or statue. We risk placing her so outside our own experience that she becomes some distant figure not entirely involved in the everyday world around us.

Fortunately, the Feast of the Visitation does not allow us to do that. Far from being statuesque or stationary, Mary in the Gospel for this feast is moving.

St. Luke tells us that she “set out and traveled to the hill country in haste” (Luke 1:39) to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Mary wastes no time manifesting the love of God in the world around her.

The love that Mary carries in her body, and the loved that wells up in her soul, does not allow her to stand still. She goes in haste to assist her cousin in need, and in that act of charity she sets in motion a whole chain of events that perpetuates the love she carries within.

Immediately upon arriving at the house of Zechariah, Mary’s voice sets the heart of St. John the Baptist in motion. Like one captive within the womb of St. Elizabeth, he cannot wait to get out and make Christ known in the world around him.

St. Elizabeth, for her part, cannot keep silent and sings out the praises of the Lord, blessing Mary and the God who works such wonders among His people.

In a very practical way, we can ask ourselves:

What lies dormant in our world today?

Where are the St. John the Baptists and the St. Elizabeths in our lives, waiting for the love of God to set their hearts in motion?

Where is the love of Christ waiting for a place to happen in our lives today.

Let us move in haste, following the example of Our Lady. May the Visitation become more than just a painting, more than just a picture in our lives. Like Mary, might we make the love of Christ real in the world around us.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Problem of Evil

(7th Sunday of Easter-Year B;This homily was given 27 & 28 May, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read John 17:11-19)

For The past several years one of the most popular Broadway shows has been a play called “Wicked”. It’s based upon a novel by Gregory Maguire under the same title. Basically it’s a story about the Wicked Witch of the West, only before we come to know her in “The Wizard of Oz.”

Towards the beginning of that book, the Wicked Witch is away at boarding school, and has a conversation with her roommate Galinda (the one who will later become Glinda, the Good Witch, in “The Wizard of Oz”). They are talking about the reality of evil: Does it exist? Where does it come from?

At one point Galinda makes the observation that, while belief in God has become rather passé (people of Oz at the time could take it or leave it), the reality and the implications of evil are obvious and unavoidable.

In our own culture things are not really all that different. We do not have to be convinced of the reality of evil. We can simply open the morning newspaper or turn on the evening news. Evil exists in the world we live in.

That is the reality Christ is speaking of in the gospel, on the night before He dies, when He prays to the Father for the Apostles and for us. He prays:

Father, I do not ask that you take them out of the world
but that you keep them from the evil one.
—John 17:15

Following Christ does not necessarily remove us from the world and the experience of evil. Jesus, nonetheless, prays for us so that we can live in this world and serve Him, but all the while kept from the evil one. We are called to follow God’s plan, and God’s will, not the evil we see taking place around us.

Essentially, this is the same thing we ask for each time we pray the Our Father. We pray:

“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

But with all that said, and after Jesus’ prayer and our own have been offered, much of what we know about evil remains a mystery. Down through the centuries, in the history of our tradition, some of the saints and theologians of the Church have helped us to shed at least some light on that mystery.

St. Thomas Aquinas says that evil is an absence of the good; it is a lack of some legitimate good which ought to be there. We can think of injustice, when someone’s legitimate rights are taken away or violated. That is an experience of evil. Or when one’s health or life is taken away seemingly without any sense of reason or purpose.

I recently learned that a young man with whom I had studied for the priesthood died this past Wednesday in tragic accident while vacationing with his family. He was 36 years old and had been a priest for only three years. That is what St. Thomas Aquinas means by an absence of the good; it is often how we experience evil in the world we live in.

St. Augustine describes evil in much more personal terms. In addition to an absence of the good, he also calls it “id quod nocet (that which harms).” Think about a time when something or someone harmed you our caused harm in the lives of those around you. That can happen in any number of ways. There are natural disasters or unexplained phenomena that cause damage and harm in the world around us.

Yet very often harm is caused by our own decisions and actions, by our misuse of freedom and the reality of sin. Our sins themselves are id quod nocet, that which harms. When we sin we harm our relationship with God, with one another, and ultimately we cause harm to ourselves.

But perhaps the most perplexing and often painful problem that we face with regard to evil is not the harm that we cause in the world, or the harm caused to us by others. The most challenging obstacle is often the suffering of those who are innocent. How are we to make sense of that?

In Dostoevsky’s great classic, The Brothers Karamazov, one of the main characters named Ivan brings up this very dilemma with his brother who is a monk. He tells him that he can accept his own suffering and the suffering of others if that is what God requires. As he puts it, “if all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony.” But then what does that say for the suffering of the innocent, of children that have done nothing to harm anyone?

Ivan tells his brother that if that is part of the equation, that if God is going to require the innocent to suffer to restore “the eternal harmony,” then when he gets to heaven he will return his ticket for admission! He will not go to a heaven like that.

What Ivan fails to mention is the one thing his brother brings up immediately: it is not our own suffering that returns the universe to “eternal harmony,” and it’s not the suffering of the innocent that accomplishes that either. It is the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that restores harmony and order to the world we live in. That’s where we receive our admission ticket to heaven.

And that is God’s response to the problem of evil. As St. John says in his gospel:

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.
—John 3:16

God’s response to the problem of evil, to all the harm that we see in the world, to all suffering, is the response of love. It is the sacrifice of Christ Himself on the cross, for our forgiveness and our redemption. Now, that is not a response that answers all of our questions about evil and suffering. But it is a response that gives us hope in this life and in the life to come.

We can live in this world, finding consolation in Jesus’ prayer to “keep us from the evil one.” But ultimately, we can now participate in God’s plan to overcome that evil once and for all.

That is the Good News. Our sufferings and our struggles in this world are not meaningless. We can now unite them to the very sufferings of Christ, participating in the life of Christ and becoming a part of that same response of love that has changed, and continues to change, the world we live in.

Might we continue to see, in our lives, a greater participation in the life of Christ, the life He came to share with us; and may we continue to recognize more completely that Christ is our hope and strength, the one who prays for us throughout our time on this earth, and is ultimately our ticket of admission into the eternal life to come.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Ascension of the Lord

(Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord-Year B;This homily was given 24 & 25 May, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Acts 1:1-11, Ephesians 4:1-13, and Mark 16:15-20)

One of my favorite C.S. Lewis quotes is one I have used many times, but it is well worth repeating. He said:

“The men and women who did the most for this world
were those who thought mostly of the world to come.
Aim at heaven, and you will get earth thrown in.
Aim at earth, and you will get neither.”

In many ways it summarizes our way of life as Christians: to be heavenly minded as we continue our lives here on earth. In today’s feast—the Ascension—that way of life is accentuated gloriously in the person of Christ, our Lord.

Jesus, when He comes to take on our humanity, does so much more than we could have ever hoped for. He not only forgives our sins, and redeems our humanity. In the ascension, Christ takes our humanity and glorifies it! The one who came from heaven to earth to become like us, has now returned to heaven and taken our human nature with Him, so that we can become like Him.

That fact alone should inspire us as we continue our earthly journey home to Him. Christ bids us to come follow Him, and we recognize that everything here on this earth matters; everything takes on eternal significance since it effects our relationship with God, with whom we will share all eternity.

But there is a second important reality we come to understand through the ascension, which is essential to our life here on earth. When Jesus ascends to the father, He does not become any less present here on earth. While He has taken His place at the right hand of the Father in heaven, Jesus remains on the earth through His body, the Church.

The same Christ who healed the sick, performed miracles and proclaimed the Good News to the poor continues to make His power and presence felt through the Church. That is the only way we could possibly understand the commission that He gives to the disciples in the Gospel. He says to them, as He prepares to ascend to the Father:

Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned.
—Mark 16:15-16

Now that’s quite a tall order, wouldn’t you say? Essentially, what Christ has commissioned them—and us—to do is invite everyone in the world into a personal relationship with Christ; to baptize all who believe in Him, helping to bring them to eternal life.

Obviously, that is not something that we can set out to accomplish on our own. We do not have the gifts, the talents, or the resources that are necessary to complete a task that lofty . . . but Christ does! Jesus ascends to the Father and then gives us everything we need to accomplish His will. It is a supernatural commission that we have been given, and He gives us supernatural help to complete it.

That is the significance of those interesting signs that Christ mentions immediately after He gives us this commission:

These signs will accompany those who believe:in my name they will drive out demons,they will speak new languages.They will pick up serpents with their hands,and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them.They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.
—Mark 16:17-18

Jesus is not saying we should go out and pick up rattlesnakes! He does not want us to drink poison and see if we can stomach it. No, He wants us, and the entire world, to understand that this is His work, and He has equipped His Body, the Church, with grace and the supernatural means to carry it out.

As people of faith and followers of Christ, might we take inventory this day and come to realize more completely the gifts that we have been given to spread the gospel message in the world around us. We live in a world desperately in need of that saving and hope-filled message. It is no small task, but the one who calls us to it is able to do more than we could ever ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20).

Today we continue our work here on earth with our hearts and minds always focused on Christ, and we never lose sight of the fact that:

“The men and women who did the most for this world
were those who thought mostly of the world to come.
Aim at heaven, and you will get earth thrown in.
Aim at earth, and you will get neither.”

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Deus Caritas Est

(6th Sunday of Easter-Year B;This homily was given 21 May, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read 1 John 4:7-10 and John 15:9-17)

Deus Caritas Est. God is love. These are the opening words of the first encyclical letter from our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI. As he says in that letter, these words, God is love, “express with remarkable clarity the heart of the Christian faith.” They speak of the very image of God, and of our own destiny as persons made in that image (Deus Caritas Est, #1).

Those words—God is love—are taken directly from our Second Reading this morning, the First Letter from the Apostle, St. John. We know that John was the only apostle not to suffer the fate of martyrdom. He was exiled, instead, to the small island of Patmos.

There is a legend that—while John was of course not able to leave that Island—Christians nonetheless were allowed to come to see him. Week after week, according to that legend, crowds would come to hear him preach the Gospel, and the message he preached, week in and week out, was that message of love.

Finally, one day, someone said to him:
“Why do you always preach about the same thing, the same message of love? You spent years with Jesus Himself. Surely you must have something else to share with us.”

And John’s reply was:
“I have many things to share, but I continue to give that same message because people still have not responded to it.”

We have to wonder, if St. John were alive today, would he still be preaching that same message?

In St. John’s Gospel this morning, we hear the words of Christ given to the Church on the night before He died. He says:
“This I command you: love one another.”

Now, if we are honest, we can admit that the command to love is not always an easy one to follow. We live in a world that is often cold and indifferent. We can all think of people we have encountered in our lives that we find very difficult to love. How are we able to obey this command that Jesus gives us in the Gospel this morning?

The answer, I believe, is found in St. John himself. He says, in that Second Reading:

In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.
—1 John 4:10

That’s the answer:
Not that we have loved God, but that He has loved us.

St. John—who gives us that insight—was a man who experienced the love of God completely. All throughout his Gospel, he never refers to himself by name. Over and over again John refers to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” John was a man loved by God; he never really got over that fact. It was something that never left his mind.

In the very beginning of St. John’s Gospel, in the first chapter, he describes how Andrew and “another disciple” came to know Jesus. The “other disciple,” of course, is John himself. He says that Jesus invited them both to follow Him. John puts it this way:

They went and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day. It was about four in the afternoon.
—John 1:39

Now, that is a very odd description. Who cares that it was four in the afternoon? But it mattered to St. John because, on that day, at four o’clock in the afternoon, everything in his life changed. He was seized by Christ, loved by Love, and nothing was ever the same again.

Think about your own life. If you have children, you can probably remember the very hour that they were born. Or perhaps you remember exactly what time it was when you married the person you fell in love with. That’s what St. John is talking about. He was seized by the love of Christ, and it was four o’clock in the afternoon.

In the encyclical Deus Caritas Est, Benedict XVI describes this very same response we are to have to Jesus’ commandment in the Gospel. He says:

The “commandment” of love is only possible because it is more than a requirement. Love can be commanded because it has first been given.
—DCE, #14

In other words, God can command us to love because, in Christ, He has come right into our very lives and loved us first.

The Holy Father goes on to describe the Bible as the story of God’s love, a story in which Christ comes to us, seeking “to win our hearts”: at the Last Supper, when He gives Himself to us in the Eucharist; at the cross, when He gives Himself over for the forgiveness of our sins; and everywhere else in those first days of the early Church (DCE, #17).

All throughout history, if we look at all the greatest saints in the Church, we see this same Gift of God Himself in love; we see this same response from those whose lives were changed forever by that personal encounter with the God who is love. Their entire lives proclaimed that message: Deus Caritas Est; God is love.

We, too, are called to proclaim that same message; to witness to the God of love with our words and actions in this world. But that will never happen, it will never take place, until we have first been seized by Christ and loved by Him.

God calls us—just as He called St. John, and countless others—to know Him and be loved by Him; to know His forgiveness, His mercy, and His love in the deepest possible way.

Today we ask for that grace to open our hearts more completely to the God who is love, so that we may be faithful in responding to that command of Christ: to love one another, as God has loved us.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Remain in Me

(5th Sunday of Easter-Year B;This homily was given 14 May, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read John 15:1-10)

The image of the vine and the branches in this morning’s Gospel gives us a clear picture of just how radically dependent we are upon Christ for even the most basic necessities of the spiritual life. Like a mantra throughout that passage, Christ repeats those words, “Remain in me; remain on the vine; whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit. Remain.”

This weekend is a timely opportunity to reflect on what it truly means to remain in Jesus. Just yesterday we celebrated the anniversary of the apparitions of Our Lady to three small children in Fatima, Portugal back in 1917. Today, of course, is also Mother’s Day, and the month of May. What better time to reflect on our Mother, Mary, as the perfect model for what it means to truly remain in Christ.

First and foremost, to remain in Christ is to remain in His word. As He says to the disciples in the Gospel this morning:

You are already pruned [made clean] because of the word that I spoke to you (John 15:3).

And then He goes on to encourage them, once again, to remain in that word.

Mary, above all the other disciples, was a woman of the word. From the beginning, at the annunciation, she was attentive to the word of God as it was given to her through the message of the angel. Her willingness to hear that word, her receptivity to the word of salvation, helped her to conceive the Lord in her heart even before she conceived Him physically in her body. All throughout her life she remained open and available to that life giving word of God and the words of her own Son. Mary was a woman of the word.

Are we that receptive to the word of God? As we listen to the gospel proclaimed here each week, are we open and available to what God is saying to us? Do we take time to read the Bible? St. Jerome, in his reflection on the word of God, says that “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” The Scriptures help us to see as God sees, to think as He thinks. Might we be men and women of the word, remaining in Jesus by remaining in His word.

Secondly, Mary was a woman of the Eucharist (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, #53-58). She would have been present at all the first Eucharistic feasts, those first Masses of the early Church. But long before that, she received the body and the blood of Christ when she welcomed Him into her body and gave Him life.

John Paul II says that at the incarnation—when God became man in Christ—at that mystery, Mary “anticipated . . . the Church’s Eucharistic faith” (EE, # 55). He calls her the “first ‘tabernacle’,” the first place in which the body of Christ was reposed. To remain in Jesus and to have life in Him is to remain with Him in the Eucharist.

The Main Chapel at the North American College, where I studied for the priesthood, has a unique floor design. The floor itself is made of white marble, but around the main altar where the Eucharist is celebrated each day, the marble tiles are all dark green and they flow out towards the pews and branch off to either side of that chapel. The significance is found in the very image that Christ shares with us this morning, that of the vine and the branches.

Separated from the vine—the very source of our life—we can do nothing. Separated from Christ in the Eucharist, we are like a branch that withers and is good for nothing, only to be thrown out into the fire. Like Mary, we are called to be people intimately united to Christ in the Eucharist. To remain in Christ is to remain with Him, and He with us, in the Eucharist.

Finally, Mary was a woman of prayer. Time and time again, when she encounters the great mysteries of her son’s life, we are told that Mary “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Luke 2:19; 51). Mary remained in Jesus by keeping the mysteries of His life alive in her heart. She was a woman of great prayer.

Do we keep the mysteries of Christ present in our own lives through prayer? Do we take the time each day to be alone with God, the One who is the very source of our life and strength? To remain in Christ we must remain in prayer, able to recognize that in Him we have everything we need to live fruitful lives as people of faith.

This Mother’s Day, let us continue to look to Mary—woman of the word, woman of the Eucharist, and woman of prayer—as that perfect model of what it means to remain in Christ.

And may God continue to bless all mothers, all who have given us life and love, and most especially those who have taught us what it truly means to remain in Christ and to bear great fruit in Him.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Good Shepherd Sunday: God and the Bride

(4th Sunday of Easter-Year B;This homily was given 7 May, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read John 10:11-18)

This Sunday in the Church universal we celebrate the annual World Day of Prayer for Vocations. The reason we pray and focus our attention on this aspect of the life of the Church is simple: we are in need of religious vocations, and especially vocations to the priesthood. Pope Benedict XVI, in his message for this weekend, put it this way:

The mission of the priest in the Church is irreplaceable. Therefore, even if in some regions there is a scarcity of clergy, it should never be doubted that Christ continues to raise up men who . . . dedicate themselves completely to the celebration of the sacred mysteries, to the preaching of the gospel and to pastoral ministry.

Now, it shouldn’t surprise us that Pope Benedict is interested in vocations, or that this homily is about vocations. But what does come as a surprise, I think, is that thousands of Americans—Catholic and non-Catholic alike—are also interested in vocations to the priesthood.

I am referring, of course, to the “reality TV” series that recently aired on A&E called “God or the Girl.” You may have seen this program that follows four young men over the course of several months, as they must decide whether or not to enter a celibate life as a seminarian or remain in the world where they can date and continue their lives as single Catholic men. Again, as the title of the show suggests, they must make a choice: between either God or the girl.

Now, I have to admit, when I first heard about this show I was more than a bit skeptical. I could picture the cameras rolling as these four young men are being dropped off on an island with Brittany Spears and Paris Hilton! But having talked to people who have seen the show, and after reading much about “God or the Girl,” the overall message that comes through is really quite encouraging. It seems that even in the midst of our secular culture, people are generally interested—and even impressed—with the decision that many young men make to enter the seminary and embrace a call to celibate priesthood.

But with all that said, I still think there is something missing when it comes to that decision: “God or the Girl.” To say that a seminarian or a priest makes a choice not date or not to marry is really only part of the picture. Priesthood, like any vocation, is not a choice against something. It is ultimately a choice for something (or, to be more specific, a choice for someone).

Many times as a priest I am able to meet with young couples who are preparing for the sacrament of marriage. Whenever they talk about their life together, they never say:

“Father, we are so excited about our upcoming wedding, and about celebrating our decision to not see other people.”

No, they never say that! They say:

“I am looking forward to this wedding and my marriage to this person; I want to spend my life and give my love to this man or this woman.”

Marriage is not a choice against bachelorhood or a rejection of the single life. It is a choice for another; a choice for the beloved . . . and so is priesthood.

We need look no further than Jesus Christ, the great High Priest Himself, in the Gospel this morning, to see that love expressed in the most basic and compelling of terms.

Jesus refers to Himself as the Good Shepherd, who “lays down his life for the sheep.” At the very heart of Jesus’ identity and ministry, at the very core of who He is, we find this total gift of self, a gift of His very life for the sheep. Jesus goes to the cross out of love for His Bride, the Church.

In his document on the formation of priests, Pope John Paul II reflects on this very gift of self that Christ makes as the Good Shepherd. He says,

Christ’s gift of himself to his Church, the fruit of his love, is described in terms of that unique gift of self made by the bridegroom to the bride . . .Jesus is the true bridegroom who offers to the Church the wine of salvation (John 2:11).
—Pastores Dabo Vobis, #22.

He goes on to describe how the priest is called to share in that same spousal relationship, to make that same gift of self for love of the Church. So it’s not merely a choice between God or the girl. At its deepest level, the choice to follow Christ in the Catholic priesthood is a decision for God and the Bride, not God or the girl.

Now all of that sounds very theological and abstract. But it’s really not. In fact, in my own life, it is something that is very personal. For several years I struggled with the decision of whether or not to enter the seminary. If only I had waited a little longer, perhaps I, too, could have been on A&E’s reality TV show!

But my biggest challenge was trying to make that decision to give up the possibility of a rewarding married life, with a wife, children and all the things that most young men my age were considering.

The one thing that I could not see at the time, was that God was calling me to love every bit as much as any husband in the Church today, but that He was calling me to love in a very different way; He was calling me to share in that same love that Christ has for His Bride the Church. That reality, that truth, changed things for me. I began to look at the Church, the priesthood, and God’s call in my life in an entirely new way.

That is really what we pray for today, on this World Day of Prayer for Vocations: that all those who God is calling to love completely, and to give themselves fully to Christ in love for His bride the Church, may be able to hear that call and see that love in a whole new light.

Let us join with the Church throughout the world this day, in asking God for an increase in vocations to the priesthood and religious life. And may all those called to serve God as priests and religious today, reflect that love that Christ, the Good Shepherd, has for His Bride, the Church.