Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Way to Heaven

(25th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B;This homily was given 24 September, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Mark 9:30-37)

There is a very endearing story about St. John Vianney, patron saint of parish priests. Immediately after his ordination to the priesthood, he was assigned to a small parish in an obscure French village called Ars.

As he made his way, on foot, towards that village, he came to a crossroads and did not know which way to go. There was a little boy there, so the saint asked him,

“Young man, which one of these roads leads to Ars?”

“It’s that way, Father,” he replied.

St. John Vianney then smiled at the boy and said,

“You have shown me the way to Ars. Now, I will show you the way to heaven.”

In our Gospel this morning, Jesus shows the disciples and all of us the way to heaven, and the way to greatness in the Kingdom of God.

He takes a small child—perhaps the same age as the one who showed St. John Vianney the way to Ars—and shows them that this is the way to greatness in the Kingdom of God.

If you want to be great in the Kingdom, then you have to think small! If you want to be exalted to the heights of heaven, then you have to be willing to take a step down in humility. You have to become the least, and the last, and the servant of all. That is how we reach the heights of heaven.

One of the greatest stories ever written about the journey from this earth to the heights of heaven is The Divine Comedy by Italian author Dante Alighieri. It begins on a very somber tone. The narrator, Dante himself, is telling us where he is: not only geographically and physically, but spiritually, as well. He writes:

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost.

He had lost the way; lost his bearings; he was in the dark and all alone. Then suddenly, in those opening lines of the poem, his entire perspective changes. He looks up, and off in the distance he sees the mountain of God shining in the sun. He knows which way he must go, the path he must walk to find that eternal destination for which all of us are created.

Yet he quickly discovers, as he begins to ascend that mountain, that the road to heaven will not be an easy one. Three ferocious beasts block the way: a leopard, a lion, and a ravenous she-wolf.

The leopard, beautiful to behold but very dangerous indeed, represents the sensual pleasures of this life. She remains ever before his face, forcing him back down the path at every turn.

The hungry lion, with his head held high and threatening, represents pride, arrogance and our own self-importance deep within. These are the very things that the disciples encounter on their journey in the Gospel this morning, arguing about who is the greatest; who is the most important; who is the alpha-dog in the pack.

The she-wolf is the embodiment of all those cravings we have for the things of this life only; she is greed, avarice, and the insatiable longing for the things of this world.

There is no getting past these beasts, and Dante must retreat back down the mountain, devastated. Whether he likes it or not, he must humbly take a step down and curtail his ascent to that mountain height.

But just at that moment, the poet Virgil appears; a figure from the ancient world, a person whom Dante knew about and very much respected. He approaches Dante and assures him that he will be a guide to the ascent of that mountain, but that the direction they must go to begin that journey is down!

In fact, they must go all the way down to the depths of hell itself. Virgil takes Dante into the heart of the Inferno, and points out the entire history of sin and all its awful consequences. Dante is forced to witness utter depravity and the hopelessness that reigns in that place; it is enough to make him physically sick.

Yet Virgil, his guide, is relentless as he makes Dante confront the reality of sin, forces him to look it in the face, and take accountability for it. Dante must understand the overwhelming need has for a redeemer and for the mercy and the grace of God.

It is then and only then that Dante begins to move upward to the realm of the Purgatorio, where the souls of the just, those made right with God through faith, are being purified and purged of all selfishness and self love.

Until, finally, a new guide, Beatrice, leads him into the realm of the Paradiso, paradise itself, where he enjoys the beatific vision along with all the saints and the angels of God. It is a beautiful story about a man’s journey to the heights of heaven, even though he had to go through hell—literally—to get there!

Today, where do we find ourselves on our own journey towards God’s Kingdom? Are we experiencing, perhaps, what Dante writes about: darkness, confusion, the right road lost? Or have we begun to see the path God wants us to follow, beckoning in the distance?

Like Dante, we, too, must acknowledge that the sensual pleasures of this world, the insatiable greed and avarice that so easily beset us, and our pride and self importance are not the way to true happiness in this world, nor in the world to come.

If we were to walk with Virgil through the Purgatorio, or even through the Inferno, what are the sins he would point out to us today? We must acknowledge those places where our path to God has become obscured.

Because this morning, Christ Himself—not Virgil the poet—comes to us in word and in Sacrament. He comes to each one of us and says:

Show me where you have left the right road that leads to me.

Show me the sins that are in your life, the ones that are keeping you from growing closer to me and perhaps keeping you from my Kingdom.

And most importantly, show me your sorrow for those sins; the true repentance without which there is no forgiveness.

Show me that. Show me the way of humility.

And I will show you the way to heaven, and the way to eternal life.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Scandal of the Cross

(24th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B;This homily was given 17 September, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Mark 8:27-35)

Our Gospel this morning, from St. Mark, reveals what theologians often call the “scandal of the cross.” Long before it was ever a religious symbol, before it was the symbol of the Christian faith, the cross was a symbol of violence, suffering and death.

It was an instrument of torture used by the Romans as a deterrent to any and all opposition to the laws and regulations of the empire. The cross sent out a clear message to the subjects under Roman authority: if you transgress the laws of the state and challenge this empire, then that will be your fate; disgrace, humiliation, suffering and death.

And so it is for good reason that St. Peter comes out so strongly against Christ on this very subject. He wants to dissuade Christ from even considering the possibility that His life could end like that. St. Peter wants to remove the cross far away from the life and experience of Jesus of Nazareth.

Yet St. Peter discovers, very quickly, what we already know to be the truth: that you cannot remove the cross from the life of Christ; nor can you remove the cross from the life of the Christian.

Immediately after rebuking Peter in the strongest of terms—“Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Mark 8:33)—Christ turns to the disciples and says to them the very thing He says to each of us:

Whoever wishes to come after me
must deny himself,
take up his cross,
and follow me.
—Mark 8:34

You cannot remove the cross of Christ from the life and faith of the Christian.

About 20 years ago, in 1986-1987, the “scandal of the cross” and discussion about removing the cross, were front page headlines right here in East Greenwich.

Some of you remember the small traffic island that used to be at the intersection of Cedar Avenue, where it meets Kenyon Avenue and Middle Road. On that traffic island there used to be a wooden cross, a memorial to Dr. Eldridge, the famous “horse and buggy doctor” of East Greenwich.

There were great stories about the late Dr. Eldridge, how he would travel as far as Jamestown to visit patients in need, or how he once delivered three separate babies in a single night before returning to his simple home for a well earned rest.

Now that cross, dedicated in his memory, suddenly became the focal point of an intense debate, and eventually led to a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Jewish Congress against the town of East Greenwich.

Of course, before a resolution was reached, it was discovered one morning that the cross had been removed. It was gone without a trace. A young man—who later turned himself and the cross in—had come by with a chain saw, cut it down, and carried it away in the night.

By now you may be wondering how I know so much about the history of the Wayside Cross of East Greenwich. After all, I have only been at the parish here for two years, and when those events took place I was in high school.

Truth be told, the reason I know so much about those events is because that young man who cut down the Wayside Cross (no, it wasn’t me) sat next to me in homeroom! He was my high school classmate.

If you followed the outcome of those days in the media, then you remember that he had the best of intentions for doing what he did. Far from being a vandal or disturber of the peace, he was trying to put an end to the debate and controversy surrounding the Wayside Cross by removing it. Unfortunately, it did not end the debate; it only prolonged it.

Like St. Peter in the Gospel this morning, and like all of us, he discovered that—even with the best of intentions—you cannot remove the cross, even if you try. It cannot be removed from the Town of East Greenwich, and it cannot be removed from the life and experience of each and every one of us.

The cross is a reality that all of us will experience at one time or another throughout our lives. It may come in many different forms: a physical sickness or disease, spiritual or mental anguish, the death of a loved one, fear and anxiety about the future, sorrow about the events of the past, an addiction, a broken relationship . . . it could be almost anything. But all of us experience the cross in some way.

The Good News, the miracle of the Christian faith, and the one thing that separates us from all other religions, is that God—who is in heaven, far removed the experience of suffering and pain, who is totally self-sufficient and complete in Himself, lacking nothing—suddenly comes to earth in the person of Jesus Christ and takes on our human nature.

Christ enters directly into our suffering and with the obedience of love He embraces the cross . . . and transforms it.

The cross is no longer the instrument of torture, a hollow symbol of violence, suffering and death. Suddenly it becomes the very instrument of our salvation. It is the means through which God forgives our sins, and opens the gates of paradise to invite each of us to eternal life. It is God’s greatest gift to the human race: the gift of Himself on the cross in love for all people.

The cross changes everything. We are no longer alone in our suffering, in the sorrow and pain that often plague us in this world. Christ has drawn near to us in our suffering. He has the power to change us, and the world we live in; it is the power of God flowing from the cross of Christ. And God wants to return that cross, not to a traffic island on Middle Road and Cedar Ave., but to the very places where we live and work each day.

How is God calling us, in a very real and practical way, to make the power of the cross—His mercy, forgiveness and grace—known in the world we live in? Where are those places that God is sending us forth to make His presence known in the world through lives of service, fidelity and faith?

There is a great poem by George MacLeod that speaks to this very need; it hits upon the sad reality that the cross of Christ is so often conspicuously absent, not only from the public square, but from the private and public lives of Christians, as well:

Return the Cross to Golgotha
By: George MacLeod, Focal Point, January-March, 1981

I simply argue that the cross be raised again
at the center of the market place
as well as on the steeple of the church,

I am recovering the claim that
Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral
between two candles:

But on a cross between two thieves;
on a town garbage heap;
at a crossroad of politics so cosmopolitan
that they had to write His title
in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek . . .

And at the kind of place where cynics talk smut,
and thieves curse and soldiers gamble.

Because that is where He died,
and that is what He died about.
And that is where Christ’s men ought to be,
and what Church people ought to be about.

Today we ask God for the grace to return the cross of Christ to the place where it most needs to be: in our workplace, in our schools and homes, at the very heart and center of our lives; not as some roadside display but in lives of discipleship and faithfulness to Christ, so that those with whom we work and live can look at us, and know that we belong to Him.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Fr. John Koroma, Diocese of Makeni in Sierra Leone

This weekend we were joined by Fr. John Koroma, a priest from the Diocese of Makeni, one of three dioceses in the country of Sierra Leone in West Africa.

Below is a brief description of Fr. Koroma's homeland, followed by the homily he gave here at OLM this weekend.


I come from Sierra Leone, a small West African country (a former colony of Great Britain), that has witnessed one of the bloodiest wars in Africa. This senseless war, from hindsight, has left massive scars on the land and its infrastructure; but more so, on the bodies, souls and minds of the already impoverished population due to years of inept and corrupt governance.

The country has a population of about five million. Of this, 10% are Christians (Catholics make 4% of the population) and about 60% are Muslims including my family. The rest are followers of indigenous beliefs.

Pastoral activity in Sierra Leone is manned by both Missionaries and Diocesan clergy. Besides the celebration of the Sacraments, pastoral work consists of building small Christian communities at grass-root levels, the formation of Priests and Religious, the training of Lay leaders and Catechists.

Due to the massive devastation of the country, pastoral agents are also actively involved in the day-to-day programs of human promotion and development. In concrete terms, they are rebuilding institutions and structures destroyed during the decade-long war such as churches, catholic schools, vocational centers and hospitals.

They are also setting up rehabilitation centers for rape victims, orphans, amputees and ex-child combatants and establishing Justice and Peace centers that help to educate the resilient population along the ways of justice, peace and genuine reconciliation. On the whole, the Church in Sierra Leone is helping to restore hope and dignity to a war-ravaged and traumatized people.

In the light of the salvific mission of Jesus Christ, this is Evangelization at its best:
Working passionately and relentlessly for the integral salvation of the human person, not just for the salvation of his/her soul. By virtue of our baptism, this is the sacred mission we are all called to undertake (wherever we find ourselves) with profound conviction and abiding commitment.

Fr. Bob John Koroma
Instituto degli Oblati di Maria Vergine
Via Casilina 205
00176 Roma

(23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given by Fr. John Koroma on 9 and 10 September, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Isaiah 35:4-7 & Mark 7:31-37)

I would like to start by expressing my profound thanks and gratitude to Fr. Lolio, Fr. Chris, the Religious of the Parish, and to all of you, God’s people, for giving me this grace-filled opportunity to be in your midst in this splendid parish.

I feel blessed to be invited to come and pray with you within the context of the Mass. That I, a West African priest, can come here and feel such a tremendous sense of belonging; the feeling of being part of this parish family is a clear indication of the universality of the Church—this huge family of God that transcends color, race, nationality, and status. What a beautiful gift, to be a part of the Church, this new people of God.

At the heart of the Christian faith is the conviction that the God, who revealed Himself in the person of Jesus Christ, is not an abstract being; a self-knowing and self-loving god who merely contemplates himself; a god who is merely a figment of our imagination. No! The God who manifested Himself in the person of Jesus Christ is a personal, loving, and caring God who heals and saves. This is vividly demonstrated in today’s Gospel, which narrates, in a dramatic fashion, the healing by Jesus of a deaf and dumb man.

When Jesus heals, the purpose is not simply to cure the physiological ailment of the person, to restore his or her physical health and wholeness; it goes beyond that. The primary motive of Jesus’ healing ministry is always to restore the dignity and worth of the person, to integrate him or her back into the life of society.

During the time of Jesus, the sick and the handicapped were often ostracized. People thought that they had been controlled by demonic forces. When Jesus heals them, he integrates the person back into the life of the community.

My dear brothers and sisters, what Isaiah prophesied in the first reading today is what the entire mission of Jesus Christ is meant to bring: a radical transformation, an integral liberation from the shackles of sin in all its tragic manifestations of suffering, pain, division, terror, anguish, hatred, greed, and war.

Like the deaf and dumb man in the Gospel, we all need the healing touch of Jesus. But, first and foremost, we must humbly acknowledge that as humans, each and every one of us is sick. Our ailments might not necessarily be physiological ones; they could be emotional, psychological, spiritual, or moral, like anxiety, resentment, frustration, and guilt.

Just as the people brought the deaf man to Jesus for healing, we also need to reach out in faith and trust in Jesus; we need to allow Him back into our lives with His healing and restorative power. Jesus, who is present among us in this celebration, the doctor par excellence, will certainly do the rest. What a privilege we have as Christians! What a grace! What a treasure! May the Lord bless us all.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Purity: Seeing with the Eyes of Lucy

(22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; I was away at a friend's wedding in Columbus, Ohio this weekend, and was invited to celebrate Mass at a nearby parish where one of my classmates from seminary was assigned. This homily was given 3 September, 2006, at St. Brigid of Kildare, Dublin, Ohio; read Mark 7:1-23)

Who do you think is the most beautiful person in Hollywood? There are entire magazines and television shows completely devoted to answering that question.

Today, I would like to offer a different question: In all of Hollywood, who has the most beautiful soul? Or, put a different way: Who is the purest person in Hollywood? There are no magazines or TV shows dedicated to answering that question!

What if we were to bring that question a little bit closer to home: who is the purest person among your family members and friends? We are not used to thinking along those lines. But if we look at our Gospel this weekend, we can see that the question of purity is at the very heart of the matter.

Jesus and the Scribes and Pharisees are in complete disagreement over the meaning and practice of purity. We discover in that Gospel passage that the Pharisees were practically obsessed with it. They purified their hands before eating. They purified cups, jugs, kettles, and beds. You name it; they purified it.

But Christ is quick to point out their hypocrisy. Purity, he reveals, is not a matter of mere externals, without ever seeking a change within. That would be a Hollywood purity, an external display of beauty. Purity, Christ contends, is a matter of the heart.

In the strongest of terms, Christ shows how much we really need to be purified, from the inside out. He says:

From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.
—Mark 7:21-23

To become pure is an inside job, and it requires that we open our hearts to God. He needs to be the One we let inside; we need to invite God into the depths of our hearts and allow Him to make us pure from the inside out.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure of heart [those who are pure on the inside], for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). In St. Luke’s Gospel, He says, “Whoever does not accept the Kingdom of God like a child will not enter it” (Luke 18:17). If we want to see God and recognize His Kingdom among us, then we need the gift of purity. We need a pure, child-like faith that God alone can give us.

I am sure you have heard of the fiction series called The Chronicles of Narnia. Written by Christian author C. S. Lewis, it is a tremendous tale of love, friendship and sacrifice. One of those books in the series, "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," begins with a little girl named Lucy who enters the magical world of Narnia through a mysterious old wardrobe. The scene in the book is quite compelling as it describes, in great detail, Lucy’s ecstatic and awe-inspired reaction to this new winter wonderland that existed in the back of an old dusty closet.

This past Christmas a new film version of that story was released. While making that movie and filming that particular scene, the producers wondered whether or not the young actress who played Lucy would be able to portray that same awe and wonder as the character in the book. Would she be able to pull it off? Suddenly the director of the film had an idea.

They prepared the entire set, but never once allowed the little girl to see it. Instead, they blindfolded her until they were ready to film. When the lights came on, with the beautiful winter landscapes of Narnia glistening all around them, they took the blindfold off and let the cameras roll.

When you watch that scene in the movie, what you are seeing is a little girl’s actual reaction to the breathtaking land of Narnia. Her face is lit up with the joy and wonder of a child seeing something truly beautiful.

That is what God wants us to see when we look at the world around us. God wants to give us pure hearts to see as He sees. He wants us to look at ourselves and the world around us with the eyes of a child.

Now, if we are honest, we can admit that seeing like that is no easy task. Most of us have seen enough of the world around us to be tainted just a bit. It can be so easy in the world we live in to become cynical, or to be skeptical about the purity that God calls us to.

I was flying into Columbus just this weekend, and the young man seated next to me on the plane began to share with me some of the details of his life. He was a carpenter by trade and was saving up so he and his girlfriend could buy a house as soon as they were married.

As the conversation developed it became more and more personal. He was on his way to see his fiancé. He had moved her into her apartment when she first began graduate studies, and now he was going back there to spend some time alone with her.

I began to say to myself: I don’t think I want to know anymore of this story! I already know where this is going. Surely there is someone else he should be sharing this with! But, thankfully, I did get to hear the rest of the story.

As we approached the airport he said to me, “Father, when my fiancé and I began dating back in college, we realized that many of our friends had experienced broken relationships. We also realized that the brokenness often happened after the relationships turned physical.”

He went on to tell me how his fiancé was Jewish, and he was a Christian, and how their traditions guided them in a different direction than the one their friends had taken. He said to me, “Father, we decided that we would wait until we were married before we brought our relationship to that physical level. Our friends think we’re crazy, but we have never been happier.”

There I sat, on that airplane, thinking: So this was the rest of the story that you didn’t want to hear. If I had stopped listening I never would have heard that beautiful testimony of faith. I never would have seen what God was doing in this young man’s life.

How many people around us—people we meet everyday—have a similar story they could tell? How many of us are being invited by God to experience that kind of purity, and to allow our own faith tradition to guide our lives in that way?

This week we ask God for the gift of purity. We ask Him for the heart of that carpenter, that we might love as God loves; and for the eyes of Lucy, that we might see as God sees. For, as Christ Himself says, “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).