Sunday, June 25, 2006

Amicitia Dei-Friendship with God

(12th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B;This homily was given 24 & 25 June, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Mark 4:35-41)

When you think of heaven, what kind of images usually come to mind? I think the general impression most people have when they think of heaven is of a place of happiness, a place of eternal rest and peace; at the very least the absence of pain.

The Christian faith, however, is much more specific than that when it comes to heaven and eternal life. Certainly we believe in a place of eternal happiness, a place where there will be no more pain, where “every tear will be wiped away” (see Revelation 21:4).

But more than that, heaven for the Christian is above all a relationship. St. Thomas Aquinas defines that relationship as one of friendship: He says heaven is amicitia Dei, friendship with God.

If we think about that for just a minute, it really is quite remarkable. The living God, the God of the Universe, wants to live in friendship with us: in a relationship of love, trust, faithfulness, intimacy. That relationship is one that begins here in this life and continues into eternal life. Friendship with God. That is the call of every baptized Christian.

Our Gospel this weekend gives us the opportunity to reflect on that relationship and to see more clearly Jesus Christ, the one who establishes that friendship with us. It begins, in this morning’s Gospel, with an invitation. St. Mark describes it this way:

On that day, as evening drew on, Jesus said to his disciples:

“Let us cross to the other side.”

Leaving the crowd, they took Jesus with them in the boat just as he was.

—Mark 4:35-36

From the earliest days of Christianity, the Church has often been described as a ship or a boat that carries the souls of the faithful to salvation. The main part of any church building is called the nave; it is the place where the congregation sits. We get that name from the Latin word for boat: navis.

The disciples in the Gospel are invited by Christ to leave the crowd behind and to get into the navis, into the boat with Him.

It is Christ who takes the initiative; He is the one who invites them to accompany Him on that journey “to the other side.” But they are the ones who must make a choice. They can remain on the shore with the crowd or they can get into the boat with Christ. But they cannot do both.

Friendship with God, that relationship we share with Christ, is also God’s initiative. He is the one who calls us into that friendship. But we, too, must make a choice. Like those first disciples, we must choose to remain with the crowd or to get into the boat with Christ.

We can have friendship with God or we can have friendship with this world. But we cannot have both. The New Testament Letter of James speaks of this in the strongest of terms. St. James says:

Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.
—James 4:4

The way God calls us to live is very different from—and often completely opposed to—the crowd mentality we find in the world around us. The teachings of our faith on morality, marriage and the family, the sanctity of every human life, born and unborn, and so many other aspects of life, is radically different from the way the world sees these things. We cannot live in friendship with both worlds at the same time. It is impossible.

God has established the Church as the place where He teaches us “how to live in this passing world with our heart set on the world that will never end” (Preface II of Lent).

The Church is the navis, the ship that God has built to bring us home to heaven. And so, True friendship with God is first and foremost a friendship rooted and grounded in the Church.

But more than that, it is also a friendship that is nurtured in conversation with God, a friendship nurtured in prayer. We see the great need for this ongoing conversation with God in the lives of the disciples this morning.

Their boat is being tossed around in the midst of a violent storm, and all the while Jesus is asleep on a cushion! Suddenly they wake Him and ask: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38).

It is a very good question. Who among us has not asked that same question, when Jesus seems to be asleep in our lives? Haven’t we all experienced times when God seems to be “asleep at the wheel” and we feel very much alone.

But the question isn’t whether or not Jesus cares. Of course He cares for the disciples in that boat. He cares for them infinitely so. The question we need to ask is: What took them so long to finally wake Him up in the first place?!

Jesus is not asleep because He doesn’t want to be bothered by their trials and difficulties. He is asleep because they have not woken Him up and made Him more completely a part of their lives.

The disciples could have woken Him up while the sun was still setting, and He would have gladly shared that moment with them. They could have expressed their concern about the storm clouds way off in the distance; they could have spoken with Him about the winds that seemed to be picking up. But they didn’t do that. This morning we need to ask: Why not?

Jesus wants to be bothered. He wants us to grow in that conversation with Him. Yes, we should go to Him when the major storms come into our lives. By all means we should go to Him then. But we should also seek to grow in friendship and intimacy with Him all throughout our day, and all throughout our lives. Friendship with God is a friendship that is nurtured in prayer.

This morning, as we reflect on this Gospel passage, we can ask ourselves: how is our friendship with God at this time? Is it a friendship rooted and grounded in the Church? Are we in the boat with Christ or do we have one foot in the boat and one foot on the shore? We cannot live in friendship with God and in friendship with the world. Ultimately we must make a choice.

And finally, is our friendship with God being nurtured in that daily conversation with Him? Do we find ourselves conversing with God throughout the day or is Jesus asleep in our lives, asleep in our boat, as we attempt to battle the storms of life alone?

Christ comes to us this morning in word and sacrament, to strengthen our faith and deepen our friendship with Him. Might we find that friendship growing and blossoming into something truly beautiful and life giving in the days ahead, as Christ continues to prepare us—even now—for that eternal life of friendship with God in heaven.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Corpus et Sanguis Christi

(Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ-Year B;This homily was given 18 June, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Exodus 24:3-8, Hebrews 9:11-15 & Mark 14:22-26)

Are you squeamish when it comes to the sight or even the mention of blood? Hopefully not, because blood is one of the main themes of the feast we celebrate this morning. It is in every one of our readings. There is blood in the prayers we offer for this Mass, and before our celebration is through there will be blood in the chalice on the altar.

Today we celebrate the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ. Not just Corpus Christi—the Body of Christ—but Corpus et Sanguis Christi, the Body and the Blood of Christ.

One common thread we find running throughout the Old Testament is that of blood. To shed the blood of another carried the most severe of penalties; and the offering of blood as a sacrifice became a regular part of worship and faith of Israel. For the Jewish people especially, blood was considered to be a sacred sign of life itself (Leviticus 17:11,14; CCC, #2260). We find that powerful sign in the first reading this morning.

God makes a covenant with the people of Israel, the Ten Commandments. The people agree, not once but twice, to follow that covenant, to obey the commandments of God.

And as an outward sign of this covenant between them, Moses pours blood first over the altar (since it was God who initiated that covenant), and then he sprinkles the rest on the people (literally, he pours blood over them), saying: This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you (Exodus 24:8).

Sacrifice and the shedding of blood was a sign that would be repeated over and over again as the people of Israel renewed the covenant God had made with them. They would offer the sacrifice of bulls, of goats, and of lambs, as an outward sign of their fidelity to God.

But why so much sacrifice? Why the shedding of so much blood? It is only with the coming of Jesus Christ that we begin to see that the entire Old Covenant (and all of the sacrifices and shedding of blood that took place for the renewal of that covenant) was really just a preparation for the one sacrifice of Christ and for the shedding of His blood on the cross.
We hear in the second reading this morning:

When Christ came as high priest . . . he entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.
—Hebrews 9:11-12

It is the blood of Christ and His sacrifice that renews us and gives us new life. It is the blood of Christ freely offered on our behalf that obtains for us the forgiveness of sins. As Archbishop Fulton Sheen puts it,

“The higher the life, the more precious the blood. When you come to the life of Christ, who sheds His blood, you get the total remission of sin.”

That is what God was preparing the people of Israel for. That is what He was preparing each of us for: the New Covenant written in the blood of Christ. Today, and at every Mass, we renew that covenant as we hear again the words of Christ from the Gospel, when takes bread and says:

“This is my body”

Then he takes the cup and says:

“This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many.”

We are here today to offer the one eternal sacrifice of Christ to the Father; then here from this altar we will receive the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Do you believe that? Do you ever doubt that the body and blood of Christ are truly made present here in this Church at every Mass? It is not an easy thing to grasp. In fact, without faith, it is impossible.

There is a story about a very devout and holy priest in the 13th century named Peter of Prague. His greatest struggle as a priest was that he could not believe Christ was truly present in the consecrated host.

He even decided to make a pilgrimage to Rome, asking for the grace of God to help him with his constant doubts about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. On his way to Rome he stopped in the small Italian City of Bolsena, where he celebrated Mass in the Church of St. Christina.

In the middle of that Mass, immediately after he had spoken the words of consecration (This is my body . . . this is the cup of my blood . . .), blood began to seep from the consecrated host and trickled down his hands and onto the altar. Obviously, he was a bit shaken up by that experience. He interrupted the Mass and asked those present what he should do.

Pope Urban IV, the pope at that time, was only one city away, in Orvieto. And so they brought Fr. Peter to that city, where the pope listened to him and began to investigate all that had happened.

One year after that event, Pope Urban IV instituted a feast honoring the Sacred Body and Blood of Christ. He called it Corpus Christi, and it is the feast we are celebrating today.

Miracles happen. We know and believe that as people of faith. Some of us, in our own lifetime, may witness events like the Eucharistic Miracle at Bolsena. I have been there three times myself for the feast of Corpus Christi, and participated in Mass celebrated at that very altar; I have seen the relics: the corporal stained with blood and the marble from the floor that was touched by the blood of Christ. Miracles happen.

But the greatest miracle that has ever happened in the history of the world occurred when God became a man, and suffered and died on the cross to bring us home to heaven. Nothing greater than that has ever happened in this world, and nothing greater ever will happen this side of heaven.

And to make sure we would never forget it, in order to remain with us always, even until the end of the world (Matthew 28:20), He gave us Himself as an everlasting memorial of His suffering and death. He gave us Himself—body and blood, soul and divinity in the Eucharist—so that we might renew this covenant of love He has made with us.

That miracle is about to take place once again on this altar. Let us bring before Him now all our doubts and fears, our joys and hopes, our prayers and intentions, and place them here on this altar; and then let us receive from this altar all that God longs to give to us: nothing less than the sacred body and blood of Christ.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

It's the City that makes the Saints

(Feast of St. Anthony of Padua-Year B;This homily was given 13 June, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Matthew 5:13-16)

The feast of St. Anthony of Padua is unique not only in the saint himself, but in his very name, as well. Usually when a saint is referenced by a city it is because he or she originated from that City. We refer to St. Francis of Assisi and St. Catherine of Siena because they were born and raised in those cities.

Not so with St. Anthony of Padua. St. Anthony was not born in the Italian city of Padua. In fact, he was not born in Italy at all. St. Anthony is from Portugal, and the city of Lisbon. Yet we do not refer to him as St. Anthony of Portugal or St. Anthony of Lisbon.

The reason for that has everything to do with the response of the people of Padua to the Gospel message. St. Anthony, a Franciscan missionary priest, brought the Good News to the people of Padua, and they were wide open to God’s word and the call to repentance.

It is said that, in response to the preaching and ministry of St. Anthony, people who had long been at odds with each other were soon reconciled and lived in peace. Those who owed large sums of money, which they had no intention of repaying, suddenly brought their debts before St. Anthony and acknowledged their need to set things right.

The whole city was transformed. Padua became a city very much like the one described by Christ in the Gospel this morning:

A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.
—Mathew 5:14-16

Today’s feast and the Gospel remind us that it is not the saint that makes the city; it’s the city that makes the saints. It is not St. Francis and St. Claire that give us Assisi. It is Assisi that gives them to us. And it is the City of Padua that gives us St. Anthony for today’s feast.

How is God calling us to be that "city on a mountain?" We are called to respond with a radical love to the remarkable message of grace and forgiveness given to us by God. Who do we need to be reconciled with? How are we called to live more completely for Christ, to pray more fervently, to love more intensely in this city, our town, our parish community?

It’s the city that makes the saints. Might our response to the Gospel become the rich seedbed of the saints here in this "city on a mountain," as we respond to Christ’s call to be the light of the world, and the salt of the earth.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

The Family, Image of the Most Holy Trinity

(Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity -Year B;This homily was given 11 June, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Matthew 28:16-20, Romans 8:14-17 and CCC #232-237)

Today we celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, the most central mystery of the Christian faith. At the very heart of that mystery we come to understand two things: who God is, and what God does.

In fact, our faith teaches that we can only know who God is through what He does, through the way He makes Himself known in the world around us (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #237). We often hear it said that “God is love,” but how do we know that? We know because that is how He has revealed Himself to us.

God first creates the universe we live in and then literally loves us into being. St. Augustine says, “God loves each one of us as if there were only one of us to love.” And to show us the extent of that love, God the Son enters into the world He created and sacrifices Himself on the cross to reconcile us to the Father.

Then, as we celebrated last week, at Pentecost, the Father and the Son send the Holy Spirit into the hearts of all who believe and are baptized, making us sons and daughters of God. As we hear in St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans:

You received a Spirit of adoption,
through whom we cry, “Abba, Father!”
—Romans 8:15

That is how we know who the Trinity is, this God who is love; because He has made Himself known in the creative love that brought us into being, and the sacrificial love that made us His own children.

And of all the images that have been used to describe the Holy Trinity—the shamrock used by St. Patrick, and many others—of all those different images, the most appropriate and most beautiful one is the image of the Christian family.

The family is a communion of persons in love, just as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are a communion of persons in love. That same creative love of the Holy Trinity can be seen everywhere in our lives and in our own families. We are here today as the fruit of our parents’ creative love.

And who among us has not experienced that sacrificial love revealed by Christ at the cross? How many times have you made sacrifices for the ones you love? What are those sacrifices our families have made for us time and time again? The family, in its creative love (that brings new life into being) and its sacrificial love, is the very image of the Trinitarian love of God.

But the family today—I think all of us would admit—is under more intense pressure and threatened by more challenges than ever before. There was a headline in the Providence Journal this past week that read: “Vatican Says Family Structure is Under Attack.” No argument there.

The article in the Journal was referring to the new document published by the Pontifical Council for the Family. That document names two very specific attacks that all of us are familiar with.

The first is same sex marriage and same-sex unions. How many times have we seen this issue in the newspaper in the last year (or the last few days)? We hear the same arguments over and over:

That it’s all about equal rights.
But it isn’t.

That those who oppose such unions are motivated by hatred or discrimination.
But we are not.

Or, as one Senator from R.I., a Roman Catholic, said in a statement recently:
“This is a state issue.”

But it is not a state issue. Nor is it a Church issue. Marriage is not a Catholic issue or a Vatican issue. Marriage is a Trinitarian issue. It’s an institution created by God and given to the human family long before the Church or the state ever existed.

As Christ Himself tells us in the Gospel:

From the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and the two shall become one.’
—Mark 10:6

That is Jesus’ response to the marriage “issue.” Marriage comes to us from God Himself, and because of that, neither the Church nor the state has the right to change it in any way. It is a gift from God in which a man and a woman give themselves to each other completely—as man and as woman—and cooperate with God in bringing new life into the world.

The love of a husband and a wife so closely resembles the creative love of the Trinity, in fact, that in 9 months they could be holding that love in their arms! That is the powerful and beautiful reality of the family as God sees it, and as God created it.

And so marriage is the first aspect of the family which is under attack in our culture today. The second aspect mentioned by that recent document is just as serious, yet much more hidden. It talks about the great “lengths people go to avoid having children, including contraception as well as abortion.”

How could these practices not have a destructive impact on the family as the image of the Most Holy Trinity? They go in the complete opposite direction of the creative and life giving love that God reveals to us in Himself. These practices exclude God the Creator from the act of love between persons; or worse, they destroy life before it even has a chance to begin.

The family structure is indeed under attack in the world we live in. So how are we called to respond, as Christians and people of faith, to these tremendous challenges?

We respond, first of all, by living out our call to family life and love. That speaks very loudly to the culture we live in. I can tell you that in 2 years in this parish, my life and ministry as a priest has been profoundly influenced and transformed by the families I have know here at Our Lady of Mercy.

Your family, your marriage, your witness to Christ in this world has more of an impact than you could possibly imagine. Please continue to offer that witness.

Secondly, vote. Or, perhaps better put, don’t vote; please do not vote for those politicians—Catholic or otherwise—who do not support the family or that gift of life that God has entrusted us with.

Sadly, they are not interested in God’s plan for the family; nor are they interested in the gift of life in its most fragile of forms. Please vote, instead, for those who will support the family and the gift of human life. And if we do not find candidates who will support this way of life handed down to us by God, then we must pray that God will raise them up here among us, perhaps from this very parish.

Which brings us to the ultimate and most important response of all: the response of prayer. As St. Paul reminds us, we are not engaged in a struggle with flesh and blood, but with spiritual powers, spiritual forces (Ephesians 6:12). We need the supernatural help that only God can give us.

We need prayer; we need to pray the rosary for families. Especially we need to entrust our lives and families to Mary, Queen of Families, that she who guided and cared for Christ so well on earth may continue to guide all of us, her children, on our journey home to heaven.

We pray, today and always:
Mary, Queen of families, pray for us.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Pentecost and the Fruits of the Spirit

(Pentecost Sunday-Year B;This homily was given 4 June, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Acts 2:1-11 and Galatians 5:16-25)

If you read the letters of the Apostle Paul, one of his trademark characteristics is that he often creates lists. Paul makes lists of injuries he has suffered (2 Corinthians 11:23-33) and places he has been (Galatians 1:17-2:1). He lists the various spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4-11, 27-31;13).

Perhaps the best-known lists of St. Paul are the ones we read in his Letter to the Galatians. In that letter St. Paul names the works of the flesh and the fruits of the Spirit. We would be hard pressed to find two ways of life more diverse than these. He says:

The works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, lust, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies and the like.
—Galatians 5:19-21

It is quite a list, to be sure. And St. Paul could not be more clear about the fate of those who follow that way of life. He says:

I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
—Galatians 5:21

In contrast, Paul goes on to list the fruits of the Spirit:

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self control.
—Galatians 5:22-23

This morning we can ask ourselves: which list best describes where we are in the spiritual life? Do we recognize some of the works of the flesh in our own lives? Or do we see, instead, those fruits of the Spirit that all of us long for at the very core of our being.

Today we celebrate the feast of Pentecost, that day when the Holy Spirit first came upon the Church and enabled the disciples to experience those fruits of the Spirit in a radical and remarkable way. The Holy Spirit set their hearts on fire with the love of God, and then sent them out to transform the world they lived in.

The very same men and women who hid behind closed doors, cowering for fear of the Jews, are now enlivened with the Gift of the Holy Spirit and boldly proclaim to the world around them that Jesus Christ is Lord!

They began that day a revolution that changed the world forever. Their witness to Christ, begun in that small city some 2000 years ago, would eventually spread like wildfire across time and space, eventually making its way to even our own towns, our own churches and into our own lives this day.

And what started that fire on that amazing day of Pentecost was not an ideology, or simply a message, or just some new way of life. What began that fire was a person: the Holy Spirit.

He is the one—promised by Christ—that transforms each of us, as well as the world we live in. He is the one responsible for those fruits that St. Paul refers to in that list from Galatians: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self control.

If we want to see our lives, our families and our Church transformed, if we want to see those fruits in our lives and in the world we live in, then we have to first realize that it will only take place when we have invited Him to be a part of our lives and allowed Him to do all that He desires in us.

Today, on the feast of Pentecost, we pray:

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful
and enkindle in them the fire of your love.

Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created.
And you shall renew the face of the earth.

O God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant us in that same Spirit to be truly wise and ever rejoice in His consolation. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.