Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Personalistic Norm

(5th Sunday of Lent-Year C; This homily was given on 25 March, 2007 at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; See John 8:1-11)

We are coming up now on the second anniversary of the death of Pope John Paul II, truly one of the greatest persons of our time. While it is true that most of us only knew him in his capacity as our Holy Father—in the time he served as pope—there are a few fortunate souls in the Archdiocese of Krakow in Poland who also knew him once as their simple, humble parish priest (imagine!).

During that time when he was known as Fr. Karol Wojtyla, he spent a lot of his time with young people, especially couples preparing for marriage and young families just beginning their lives together. It is from that experience that he wrote his first book, Love and Responsibility.

Love and Responsibility is basically about human relationships and human sexuality. It speaks to us about how we relate to one another as persons, and the underlying principle of that book is what Wojtyla calls the Personalistic Norm. Basically stated, it says:

The person is the kind of good which does not admit of use and cannot be treated as an object of use and as such the means to an end (Love and Responsibility, pg. 41).

In other words, persons are not objects, and cannot be treated that way. That is how we relate to machines: automobiles, cell phones, and home computers. But we never relate to persons like that. Stated positively, the Personalistic Norm confirms:

The person is the kind of good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love (Love and Responsibility, pg. 41).

It is the basic commandment to love, and a foundational way for us to look at life in Christ. But the Personalistic Norm can be a challenging principle to put into practice.

We can ask ourselves today, when we look at the world around us and especially the people in our lives: What do we see? Objects or people? Our gospel this weekend provides us with a great framework to answer that question.

We begin with the scribes and Pharisees, who drag before Jesus a woman caught “in the very act of committing adultery” (John 8:4). Can you imagine how embarrassing, how humiliating that must have been for her? So how do the scribes and the Pharisees see the world around them? Or, more to the point, how do they look at that woman?

Obviously the do not see her as a person. In fact, they are not even looking for justice, desiring to see things set right. We discover in that gospel that there is only one reason why they drag her before Christ: they are using her to get to Him. They are willing to manipulate her life and expose her for the sole purpose of destroying Him. It was a shameful and pathetic plot.

Thankfully we do not see such things in the United States in 2007; we do not drag people out into the streets as objects to be stoned in public. But do we ever reduce women—men, too, but most especially women—to objects in our culture? We certainly do. In fact, it happens all the time.

Bishop Paul Loverde of the Diocese of Arlington, in a letter written to his diocese in Virginia just a few short months ago, talked about what he called the plague of our culture. He called it the “Plague of pornography.” Pornography is a reality that destroys relationships, it destroys families; it is destroying the fabric of our culture.

In that letter, Bought With A Price, Bishop Loverde writes:

This plague stalks the souls of men, women and children, ravages the bonds of marriage and victimizes the most innocent among us. It obscures and destroys people's ability to see one another as unique and beautiful expressions of God's creation, instead darkening their vision, causing them to view others as objects to be used and manipulated…It is not going away.

As Christians we are called to ask God for His assistance in taking away this plague. We are to seek the grace and healing of God for all the places where our lives and our communities have been affected by the sin of pornography. We can never reduce another man, woman, or child to an object. Again, as Fr. Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) writes: The person is the kind of good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love.

Which brings us, ultimately, to the way that Jesus Christ looks at the world and the people in it. St. John tells us that Christ, after driving away the scribes and Pharisees, bent down again and wrote on the ground with His finger. He was now alone with the woman. But suddenly, he looked up and spoke directly to her, as woman!

St. Augustine has a beautiful way of describing that powerful scene. He says “He who had driven away her adversaries with the tongue of justice, now looked upon her with the eyes of gentleness and compassion” (In Ioannis Evangelium, 33, 6).

That is the way Christ looks at the world around Him. That is the way Christ looks at every single one of us: as persons. No matter what we have done, no matter what sins we have committed, or how far we have fallen from Him, He looks upon us now with the eyes of gentleness and compassion.

Turning those eyes toward the woman, He then addresses her as a person:

“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” (John 8:10).

It is a very affectionate term: woman. We know that because He only uses it a few other times in the gospels, and one of them is when He addresses His own Mother (John 2:4)! Jesus speaks to and relates to this woman caught in the act of adultery in the very same way as He speaks to and relates to His own Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary: as a person!

Woman,” He says to her. She, in turn, responds to Him as a person. And it is finally, in this dialogue of persons, this dialogue of love, that He is able to speak directly to her situation, and challenge her to change her life.

Go, and from now on do not sin anymore (John 8:11).

Christ has spared not only her life, physically, from stoning, but He has also safeguarded and spared her spiritual life by turning her away from sin and turning her back to a true relationship with the living God. It is a tremendous scene for us to meditate on as we approach this final week of Lent before the beginning of Holy Week this coming Sunday.

We can ask ourselves:

How is Christ calling us into that same dialogue of persons, that same dialogue of love with Him at this time in our lives, confronting our sins and turning us back to God?

How is He challenging us to look at ourselves, and each other, not as objects but as persons fully capable of receiving His mercy, His love?

How are we called, in this coming week, to continue that mercy and compassion in the way that we live, and especially in the way that we look at the world around us?

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Laetare Sunday

(4th Sunday of Lent-Year C; This homily was given on 17 & 18 March, 2007 at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; See 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 and Luke 15:1-32)

The Fourth Sunday of Lent is traditionally called Laetare Sunday, a celebration very much like Gaudete Sunday in Advent. For each of those Sundays, we use rose-colored vestments, and both Latin words can be translated, “rejoice.” Both also announce to us that we are drawing ever closer to the feast for which we are preparing (Christmas for Gaudete Sunday, and Easter for Laetare Sunday).

Our entrance antiphon for the Mass this Sunday, in Latin, announces:

Laetare, Ierusalem, et conventum facite, omnes qui diligitis eam.

Rejoice, Jerusalem! Be glad because of her, all you who love her.

We rejoice with Jerusalem, for her redemption is at hand! We do not wait until Easter Sunday to celebrate the mystery of our redemption in Christ. The Church teaches us that every Sunday is a celebration of Easter, whether it is in Advent, Lent or Ordinary Time. Every Sunday celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This Laetare Sunday we are reminded that even in the midst of our desert experience, even in the middle of Lent, we have great reason to celebrate and rejoice: Jesus Christ has come, He has suffered and died for us, and is risen from the dead. Even now we anticipate that joy of Easter.

It is not at all unlike what we find in the natural world. Nature does not wait for a particular day before revealing the signs of spring all around us. Buds start to blossom on the trees and flowers begin to bloom long before the first day of spring hits the calendar.

Even in our sanctuary you may have noticed new signs of life. Our decorating committee decided to keep the sanctuary stark and barren this year as a reminder of the desert experience of Lent. They placed dead branches in clay pots filled with sand on either side of the tabernacle. But if you are sitting close enough, you may be able to see that those dead branches have started to come back to life. That’s a great picture for us of Laetare Sunday; it is like a stream in the desert.

You may have seen the movie The Chronicles of Narnia. If you have children you may have seen it a few dozen times! It is a great story that begins with the Land of Narnia under a terrible curse. Everything is frozen in snow and ice; it is “always winter and never Christmas,” as one of the characters says; a long, cold winter without any hope of spring or summer.

But mid-way through that movie, as Aslan the King draws ever closer to Narnia (Aslan represents Christ in that movie), the curse that has held Narnia in its frozen grip begins, slowly, to let go. The snow and ice begin to melt and the main characters, as they walk through the forest, watch it come to life before their eyes. Trees begin to take on green leafs; flowers blossom and bloom.

It is a beautiful story, but the author of The Chronicles of Narnia never meant for it to be just a children’s story. It is the real story of our own redemption.

The land that we live in is under a curse: the curse of sin. It is a curse that often separates us from each other; it separates and divides families, churches, and communities. It is a curse that separates us from God. The curse of sin makes the world we live in a very cold place indeed. But Jesus Christ is the King who comes to break that curse.

Christ comes from heaven to earth, into this icy world, to suffer and die on the cross and to break the curse of sin and death which has touched us all. He has come to reconcile us to God and to each other. He comes to inaugurate what St. Paul, in our second reading today, calls the Ministry of Reconciliation. He says:

God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the ministry of reconciliation.
—2 Corinthians 5:19

There are two important and essential aspects to that description from St. Paul. We are called, first and foremost, to be reconciled to God. Secondly, we are then entrusted with that same ministry of reconciliation.

Pope John Paul the Great, in his 1984 Apostolic Exhortation, Reconciliation and Penance, says that this Ministry of Reconciliation described by St. Paul sums up the entire mission of the Church: a people who are first reconciled to God, and who then seek to reconcile others to that same God.

In terms of our Gospel parable this weekend, we are called to be—like the Prodigal Son—those who come before God and seek His mercy and forgiveness. But we are also called to be like the Father: always ready to welcome back the Prodigal, and even reaching out to the bitter, angry, older brother. We are constantly being reconciled, and seeking reconciliation for those around us.

That’s the reason we rejoice this Laetare Sunday: because we have received and been given the Ministry of Reconciliation. That’s the reason we can sing for joy in what God has done and in what He is doing in the world around us.

But if there is a lack of joy in our lives this Lent; if there is a lack of joy in the Church; if there is a lack of joy in the world around us; is it possible that we are not as open as we should be to this Ministry of Reconciliation?

One of the obvious themes of Pope John Paul II’s Reconciliation and Penance is the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the Sacrament of Penance. Are we making ourselves available to that source of reconciliation and the mercy, forgiveness, and joy that come as a result of it? When is the last time you made a sacramental confession and allowed God to touch your life and your soul with the Ministry of Reconciliation? When was the last time you were able to reconcile with another person, or help someone else to be reconciled with God?

Steve Brown, founder of Key Life Network, tells the story of two brothers who did everything together. But outside of that they were as different as two people could be. The older brother was tall, good looking, and everyone liked him. The younger brother was short and, to be rather blunt, he was ugly; and worst of all he had a hunched back that you couldn’t help but notice. But he could sing! Wow could he sing! He had the voice of an angel, and people from all over town would come to the church on Sunday, many just to listen to him.

Eventually the two were sent off to a boarding school together, and as you might have guessed, the older brother made many friends, quickly. The younger brother, unfortunately, had a much harder time of it.

One day, as the older brother was passing by the chemistry lab, he heard much laughing and carrying on. He stepped into the room to find out what all the noise was about, when he suddenly froze in fear. A group of students had gathered around his younger brother, and they had pulled his shirt up over his head, exposing his back, and they were mocking him.

The older brother wanted to rush in and defend him, but he was afraid. He thought for a moment that if he did so, they might begin ridiculing him instead, and the thought of that was just too much for him to bear, so he turned quickly and went away.

But not before his brother saw him leaving.

Soon after that, the younger brother decided he could no longer stay at the boarding school so he packed his things and returned back home. But the people of that town never heard him sing again.

It was some 10 years later, and the older brother was half way across the world, just finishing his time in the service. He was sitting out beneath the stars, very much at peace, when he suddenly became convicted by the Holy Spirit for what he had done to his brother so long ago.

At great expense of time and money, he made his way back to the town where they used to live. He found his brother, and to his surprise and wonder the little brother forgave him and welcomed him into his home. They embraced and wept, and talked together until the early hours of the morning so that the older brother could no longer keep his eyes open.

Finally he crawled up onto the couch, and went to sleep . . . only to be awakened in the morning by the most beautiful sound that he had ever heard. It was the voice of his brother, coming from the next room over, and he was singing.

We can ask ourselves this Laetare Sunday: Where do we most need to hear that singing in our lives at this time?

Where do we most need to be reconciled to God and to each other?

There is great news for us in our entrance antiphon: Laetare, Ierusalem! Rejoice, Jerusalem! The Ministry of Reconciliation—God reconciling the world in Christ—has come. In the words of St. Paul: We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:20).

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Our Town, and the Glory of God

(2nd Sunday of Lent-Year C; This homily was given on 3 & 4 March, 2007 at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; See Luke 9:28-36)

Our gospel for this weekend, the Transfiguration, is one of the more remarkable and visual gospels we find in the Lenten season. We can picture that scene as St. Luke describes it to us. Jesus goes to the top of that mountain, taking with Him Peter, James and John. He enters deeply into prayer with the Father, and then suddenly it happens:

His face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah…
—Luke 9:29-30

Imagine what Peter, James and John must have been thinking as those amazing events unfolded on that mountain! But, of course, we don’t have to imagine what they were thinking. St. Luke tells us what was going through their minds: absolutely nothing!

They were not thinking anything, because they “had been overcome by sleep” (Luke 9:32). They were out cold! One of the greatest events in their lives to that point, and they almost miss it entirely! Fortunately they wake up in time to catch the tail end of that great vision. It is Peter who tries to reach out and take hold of it with both hands. He says:

Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.
—Luke 9:33

It is a futile effort to hold on to an experience that has come so quickly, and just as quickly fades away. St. Luke even tells us that Peter is merely grasping, and that “he did not know what he was saying” (Luke 9:33).

This vivid gospel passage provides a great reflection for us on this Second Sunday of Lent. We can ask ourselves this weekend: Are we awake and alert in our spiritual lives, or do we find ourselves, perhaps, asleep like Peter, James, and John? Are we aware of the glory of God in our own midst, our own lives this Lent?

Because the glory of God will not come into our lives in the same way it did for those disciples. We will not see the face of Christ change in appearance, or His clothing turn dazzling white. But we will see His glory…if we are awake, if we are alert…

St. Irenaeus, one of the great Church Fathers, has a beautiful and oft quoted expression regarding the glory of God. He says, “The glory of God is man, fully alive” (Adversus Haereses, Book IV, Ch. 20, #7). What he means by that is that God is glorified when man and woman are fully alive in Christ. Like so many of the early Church Fathers, he talks about that “great exchange,” how the Son of God became the Son of Man so that man and woman could become sons and daughters of God. To have that life of Christ in us means to be fully alive. As Christ Himself tells us, in St. John’s Gospel, “I came so that that they might have life, and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).

To have the abundant life is to be fully alive in Christ. To live abundantly in Christ is to allow the power and grace of God to so fill our souls and our lives that the glory of God shines through us. That will happen in our spiritual lives this Lent to the extent that we are able to heed the command of God the Father in our gospel this weekend:

This is my chosen Son; listen to him (Luke 9:35).

It is when we listen to Christ that we are most awake and most alive in God.

It is when we listen to Christ that we live most fully and most abundantly in Him.

It is when we listen to Christ that our lives take on new meaning, new purpose, and the life of joy God calls us to.

I would suggest this weekend that there are three ways God is calling us to listen to Christ this Lent:

Firstly, and obviously, He is calling us to listen to Christ in the Scriptures, to hear Him in the word of God. Each time we come to Mass we listen to that living and life giving word proclaimed, and we listen to Christ. Each time we open the Scriptures in our own life of devotion, we listen to Christ.

When I was in my early twenties, the priest in my home parish spoke one Sunday in Lent about what it means to observe the traditional Lenten practices. He said that it is obvious that we should be willing to make sacrifices, and we often give things up for that reason. But, we should also be willing to do things in our lives for Christ. He suggested works of charity or works of mercy, and reading the Scriptures.

I was intrigued by that. At the time, I was reading about one or two novels a week. I would read anything I could find; but I had never really read the Bible. I started with the New Testament, the Gospel of St. Matthew. Before I went half way through it, I already noticed my life beginning to change. It changed my relationship with my parents; it changed my relationships with the people I worked with. It changed the way I looked at my own life, and the way I looked at my relationship with God.

Within six months I felt that God was calling me to the priesthood. He had probably been calling me for years, but I had never heard Him. Now that I was listening to Christ in the Scriptures, I began to hear God more clearly in all the events of my life. That is what God wants to do in all our lives this Lent. It begins with listening to Christ in the Scriptures.

Secondly, we also listen to Christ in our own personal lives of prayer, spending time alone with God each day. The account of the Transfiguration has long been used as an illustration for our own experience of prayer with God, our time “on the mountain” with Him.

St. Leo the Great says that one of the reasons Christ reveals His glory to the disciples is to strengthen them for all that they will encounter in the days ahead. When they witness Christ arrested, beaten and condemned, when they experience the scandal of the cross, they will remember that day on the mountain and they will have the courage and strength to go on. In fact, they would even have the courage and strength to go to their own deaths for their unwavering faith in Christ.

And so it goes with us. We, too, are called to be strengthened in prayer so that we can follow Christ in our daily lives. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “We pray as we live, because we live as we pray” (CCC #2725). Are we able to listen closely to Christ in the way we pray, and in the way we live, this Lent?

Finally, we are called to listen to Christ in the events, and especially in the people, that God brings into our lives each day. If “the Glory of God is man fully alive,” then we should be able to recognize that glory in the people around us.

Just the other night I went to Trinity Rep. to see the play Our Town. You may have seen that play, or read it in high school. Written by Thornton Wilder, it is the delightful story of the quaint town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire.

The point that Wilder is making is that it doesn’t matter where we are born, or what period of time we live in. All of life matters; all of life is beautiful, and we should be able to recognize the powerful, and even painful, beauty of life right where we are. It could be anywhere, any-town. It could be Our Town, East Greenwich.

There is a haunting scene at the end of that play which takes place in a graveyard. Many of the characters of Our Town have passed on, and are now at rest there. Suddenly Emily, one of the main characters, who has just died, comes to join them. She tries to get acclimated to the place, and at one point asks if they are able to go back and relive some of the more special moments of life. The characters there try to dissuade her; they tell her that it is far too painful. She insists anyway, and returns to the time of her twelfth birthday.

As soon as she enters that moment, she is struck by how delightful every little detail is. She can’t take in everything fast enough. She comes down the stairs of her house and is overwhelmed by how beautiful and young everyone looks. She tries to get their attention but everyone is so busy, so occupied. It becomes more and more frustrating for her, and at one point she calls out to her mother:

“Just look at me one minute as though you really saw me.”

But, of course, her mother is doing all she can to get the family ready for the day. She tries her father, but again, to no avail. Finally she turns to the Stage Manager, in desperation, and says, “I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another.”

She asks to go back, once again, to her grave, saddened by the futility of her visit. As she is leaving she looks back and says, “Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.” And then she turns, again, to the Stage Manager, and says, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?”

The Stage Manager tells her no, that most of them do not…but, some of the saints do, and a few poets.

As we begin this second week of Lent, are we fully aware of all that God is doing right here in Our Town, East Greenwich? Are we alert and awake, listening to Christ in the Scriptures, in prayer, and in the everyday events of life?

If “The glory of God is man, fully alive,” where is God calling us to become more fully alive, more completely aware of Jesus Christ in our lives this Lent?