Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Good Shepherd: Commitment & Sacrifice

(Fourth Sunday of Easter-Year C; This homily was given 28 & 29 April, 2007, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Ezekiel 34 & John 10:1-18)

Today we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday, and that title, of course, is taken from the tenth chapter of St. John’s Gospel. Jesus announces to the people of Israel, and to all of us, “I am the Good Shepherd.”

That title for Christ may be very familiar to us as Christians, but for the people of Israel the image of a shepherd would have been literally charged with meaning. Remember it was Moses who led the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, across the desert, and into the Promised Land. But long before that, he had been a shepherd, “tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro(Exodus 3:1).

King David, the greatest king in the history of Israel, was called by God when he was just a shepherd boy; God called him to be the shepherd and leader of the people. He would later reflect on the tender care and providence of God in his own life, and write “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.

Yet it was the prophets who would eventually connect that image of shepherd not to a single man—Jacob, or Moses, or David—but to all the leaders of the people of Israel. One of the great promises of God in the Old Testament comes to us through the prophet Jeremiah, regarding the shepherds whom God will always provide for His people. God says, “I will give you shepherds after my own heart” (Jeremiah 3:15).

But Ezekiel brings into sharp contrast, around the time of the Babylonian Exile, how those shepherds of Israel, which God had appointed, were bad shepherds. They had not cared for the flock or looked after the people. Instead, they had only looked after themselves. God cries out to them, through the prophet Ezekiel:

You did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick nor bind up the injured. You did not bring back the strayed nor seek the lost…
—Ezekiel 34:4

They had not led the people; as shepherds, they had not fed the people. Instead, they had only fed themselves. With a deep and haunting sense of justice, God says, “I swear I am coming against these shepherds.” No longer will they lead this people. Instead, God says, “I myself will do it!” I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep (Ezekiel 34:11).

I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled and I will strengthen the weak (Ezekiel 34:16).

And then He offers, through the prophet, a promise that would have been breathtaking to the people of Israel: I will appoint one shepherd over them to pasture them, my servant David; he shall pasture them and be their shepherd (Ezekiel 34:23). It was the promise of the Messiah, born of the house of David.

Into this context Jesus Christ comes and announces to the people of Israel: “I am the Good Shepherd.” It was the fulfillment of everything they had hoped for, everything God had promised.

In Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, they saw a man totally committed to the people of Israel, to feeding not Himself but the people with the word of God and the Bread of Life. Thousands came out to hear Him explain the Scriptures and proclaim the kingdom of God. He was totally committed to the people, and gave them His own body and His own blood in the Eucharist.

And in Jesus Christ they saw a shepherd willing to sacrifice Himself for the sheep. In that same tenth chapter of St. John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep(John 10:11).

He was willing to sacrifice His own life on the cross, to suffer and die so that we could be forgiven, and so that He could say what we heard in the gospel this weekend:

I give them eternal life and they shall never perish (John 10:28).

That is the fullness of what Jesus means when He says, “I am the Good Shepherd,” and it is at the heart of what we celebrate today. It is also why the Church throughout the world today observes the 44th World Day of Prayer for Vocations. We believe that the same God who cared for and lovingly guided the Church at its foundation will continue to do so in our own day by providing the vocations to the priesthood and religious life that sustain the Church in every age.

In 1993, Pope John Paul II wrote the foundational Apostolic Exhortation on priestly formation called Pastores Dabo Vobis: I Will Give You Shepherds. He begins that document by quoting God’s great promise from the prophet Jeremiah: “I will give you shepherds after my own heart(Jeremiah 3:15). It is a promise we can count on, and one that gives us tremendous hope. In fact, says Pope John Paul II, the commandments of God depend upon Him answering our prayers for more vocations!

God has commanded the Church to preach the gospel to all nations and to celebrate the Eucharist; to “do this in memory of me.” Those commandments are dependent upon the gift of the priesthood, which God has given, and will continue to give, to the Church (Pastores Dabo Vobis, #1). And in many places throughout the world, the Church is teeming with vocations.

In Africa, parts of Asia and South America, and in countries like Poland, there are so many priests that some are sent here to the United States to lead and guide our churches. In reality, we are experiencing here in our country what has often been called a “vocations crisis.” Why is that?

I do not think there are any easy answers to this question, but I would suggest that part of the problem has to do with the lack of value we place in our culture at this time on two of the things so evident in Christ, the Good Shepherd: commitment and sacrifice.

There is a lack of commitment in the culture we live in, and not just in relation to the priesthood. There is a lack of commitment in marriage between a man and a woman, “until death do us part.” There is a lack of commitment in relationships, in business, and in many other areas. Where there is a crisis in commitment, there is bound to be a crisis in vocations.

Secondly, our culture places a very low value on sacrifice. We live in a hedonistic society that places pleasure on a pedestal. It’s me first, and sacrifice second. It should not surprise us in the least that in a country where sacrifice and commitment are not valued enough, neither will there be much regard for vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

With that said, I would like to bring things to a much more personal level. I love being a Catholic priest! I love everything about it. Each day I thank God for the gift and call of the priesthood in my life. There are a thousand things about the priesthood that I love, but today I would like to share with you only two of them (I'll try to cover the other 998 next week!).

The first is commitment. I love being totally committed to Jesus Christ, and His Bride, the Church. I love being committed to teaching at the school next door, to visiting the hospitals and the homes of the people of this parish whenever I am called upon to do that. I love being totally committed to celebrating the Eucharist and proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ here in this place, day in and day out, week after week. I love that commitment. I am not constrained by that in the least. In fact, to be committed to those things gives me tremendous freedom and an indescribable joy!

The second thing I love about the priesthood? Sacrifice. I love the fact that my sacrifice means something to God. I love the fact that my “Yes” to God’s call in my life, and all the challenges that sometimes entails, that means something to God and to the people I serve. I love the fact that my struggles, my difficulties, my sufferings, together with your struggles, your difficulties, and your sufferings, can be united on that altar and joined together with the one sacrifice of Christ, and that means something.

I love the priesthood because that commitment and sacrifice gives meaning and purpose to my life and to the lives of those I am called to serve. And so today we join the Church throughout the world in praying to God for an increase in vocations to the priesthood, for all of the men whom God is calling to make that same commitment and that same sacrifice, which leads in the end to freedom and joy in Christ.

We also pray for all the men and women that God is calling to serve Him in religious life. In a particular way, we pray that God would continue His promise of providing the Church with “shepherds after [His] own heart,” and that He would help us all to place a greater value on commitment and sacrifice in our Church, our families, and in our own personal lives as we continue to listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd and follow Him to eternal life.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Restoration & Mission

(Third Sunday of Easter-Year C; This homily was given 22 April, 2007, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read John 21:1-19)

We celebrate this morning the Third Sunday of Easter, continuing to read the Gospel accounts of the appearances of Christ in the days immediately following the resurrection. The Easter mystery of the resurrection—Jesus Christ risen from the dead—is so central to our faith that the Church takes fifty days just to celebrate and ponder it.

In all the appearances of Christ to His disciples following the resurrection, there are always two things taking place: restoration and mission. Whether it be to Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, or the disciples gathered together in the upper room, Jesus begins by restoring them from the state they are in, often one of brokenness and unbelief. Then He prepares them for mission, to go out and proclaim to the world that He is risen!

Our Gospel this morning—the third time Jesus appears to His disciples, according to St. John—reveals those aspects of restoration and mission in a powerful way in the life of St. Peter.

Ah, proud Peter! Remember it was Peter who had said to the Lord, at the Last Supper, “Though all may have their faith in you shaken, mine will never be” (Matthew 26:33). But then he had stood by the fire, warming himself along with the enemies of Christ, and had proceeded to deny his Lord and God three times. It was a bitter moment that he would never again forget.

However encouraged Peter may have been by the previous two appearances of the resurrected Christ, it is clear in our gospel that he is simply not himself. He is moving not forward in faith to proclaim the resurrection but backwards instead, retreating into what would have been most familiar to him. He says to the other disciples: “I am going fishing.” That is what Peter knew best; it was what he did before he met Jesus. Many of the other disciples were also fishermen. They respond, in turn, “We also will come with you” (John 21:3).

And it is right there, in the midst of all that is familiar, that Jesus Christ reveals Himself to them…yet they do not know that it is Jesus. They encounter that Stranger on the shore, who tells them to cast their net off the right side of the boat. They had been fishing all night and had caught nothing, but they listen to Him anyway.

Suddenly their nets are at the point of breaking and all the disciples are amazed at that tremendous catch of fish…except for St. John the Beloved Disciple. He alone is not caught up with the fish because he alone is able to recognize that this has happened once before!

Remember when St. Peter, St. John and many of the disciples had first met Jesus? It was in Peter’s boat. Jesus had come aboard and began to teach the people standing on the shore. Then He turned to Simon Peter and said, “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch” (Luke 5:4). On that occasion, Simon had at first protested: “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets” (Luke 5:5). Then they had caught so many fish that the nets were tearing and Simon Peter was hooked! He, and the other disciples along with him, began to realize just who this Stranger was.

And now, in this morning’s Gospel, St. John remembers that remarkable day. He sees it taking place all over again and he immediately cries out to Peter: It is the Lord (John 21:7). Peter, it’s Him! It is Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, and He is appearing to us again! Suddenly the entire direction of that Gospel changes. St. Peter is no longer going backward and withdrawing. Now he dives right in, literally!

All the disciples go ashore, and no one questions any longer who this Stranger is. They all know that it is the Lord. That is when Jesus invites them to “Come, have breakfast” (John 21:12). He invites them to share in an intimate meal with Him. And suddenly, at that meal, Jesus again does something very familiar, something they all would have recognized. St. John tells us He:

“Took the bread and gave it to them” (John 21:13).

Just as He had done in the miracle of the loaves and the fish. He took the bread and gave it to them, and they, in turn, fed over 5,000 people. Just as He had done on the night before He died, at the Last Supper. He took the bread, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body…” They would never have forgotten how He gave Himself to them on that night, and here He is, doing that very same thing again, restoring those disciples at that meal and preparing them to go forth on the mission of proclaiming the Good News of the resurrection.

And finally, Jesus enters into that beautiful dialogue with St. Peter: “Peter, do you love me?” Three times He asks Peter that question, one for each of the times that Peter had denied Him! Jesus restores St. Peter, and then He sends him out on mission: Tend my sheep. Feed my lambs. Peter, if you love me, then go where I am sending you! Go and serve those whom I have entrusted to you!

This is a very powerful gospel, and a very timely one, as well. The world we live in is in desperate need of being restored. Now, more than ever, are we in need of the restoration and new life that God alone can give.

Our country has just experienced, in this last week, the worse shooting tragedy in our nation’s history. It would be impossible to express the amount of pain and suffering that is pouring out from the community at Virginia Tech. And yet, even in the midst of that, we should not be surprised to find Jesus Christ entering directly into that sorrow and grief. We should not be surprised to see Christ entering into the things most familiar to the families and loved ones of the victims there—friends, family members, communities, churches—and restoring broken hearts, restoring new life and restoring hope. He does it all the time.

The people of Virginia Tech. have not been forgotten by God. And neither have we. We gather here this morning, in what is for us the familiar place. How many times have you listened to the Gospel proclaimed here? Or knelt here in prayer to ask for help for yourself or your family, to give thanks to God, to lift up your heart to Him?

This is the familiar place where God comes to us, and makes Himself known. It is where He enters directly into our lives and says to us what He says to the disciples on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias:

“Come, have breakfast” (John 21:12). Come, and share in this meal together. Come, eat My Body and drink My Blood. Come here to this place, and experience the power of the Eucharist, the power of the resurrection, and be restored…and then go out and share that new life and new hope with a world that is in desperate need of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

2,000 years ago Christ came among His first disciples and He restored them to Himself and then sent them out to set the world on fire. Where is He sending us this week, as we leave this place restored and renewed and ready to proclaim—with our words and actions—that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead?

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Divine Mercy: The Water and The Blood

(Divine Mercy Sunday-Year C; This homily was given 14 & 15 April, 2007, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read John 19:31-37; 20:19-31)

Just two weeks ago, on Passion (Palm) Sunday, we watched the movie The Passion of the Christ next door in the school auditorium. After that movie we had time for questions and answers and someone inquired about the peculiar scene towards the end, when one of the soldier takes his spear and pierces the side of Christ.

That scene, of course, is taken directly from the Gospel of St. John. In Chapter 19 of that Gospel, St. John describes how, before taking Christ down from the cross,
“one soldier thrust his lance into his side, and immediately blood and water flowed out” (John 19:34).

The Fathers of the Church, and St. Thomas Aquinas after them, describe how that blood and water represent the sacramental life of the Church. The water is the symbol for the water of baptism, in which we are renewed and given new life in the Holy Spirit. The blood, of course, is the blood of Christ given to us in the Eucharist, the blood of the “new and everlasting covenant” in which we are sustained and nurtured in our Christian faith.

As we heard in the opening prayer for this Mass on the feast of Divine Mercy:

God of mercy, you wash away our sins in WATER, you give us new birth in the Spirit, and redeem us in the BLOOD of Christ. As we celebrate Christ’s resurrection increase our awareness of these blessings, and renew your gift of life within us.

Mel Gibson, in The Passion of the Christ, incorporates that full sacramental significance when he has the soldier standing directly beneath the body of Christ at the moment he pierces Him. That blood and water flow out directly towards the soldier, and in a mystical sense he becomes immersed in the sacramental life flowing from the crucified Christ.

That is a great image for the feast we celebrate today: the Feast of Divine Mercy. It was on February 22, 1931 that Jesus appeared to a simple, humble Polish nun named Sister Faustyna Kowalska. She would later become known as St. Faustyna. He was radiant, dressed all in white, and His right hand was raised in a blessing. With His other hand he indicated His side, where He was pierced by the soldier’s lance, and from that place there emanated two bright rays of light: one red, and the other pale blue. Again, that same significance of the water of baptism and the blood of the Eucharist.

Jesus told her that He wanted that image, and the devotion to His Divine Mercy, venerated throughout the universal Church; a very tall order indeed! Yet today, some 75 years later, that image and this feast are being celebrated in churches throughout the world.

One of the obvious aspects of that Divine Mercy image and the scene from St. John’s Gospel is that the mercy of God comes to us—the forgiveness, the grace, the ineffable love of God—comes to us directly from Christ, but that mercy comes to us through the Church. No one, not even the saints nor the mystics, no one has a direct and exclusive line to God.

We do not baptize ourselves into new life; we receive baptism as the gift of God through the Church. We do not get the Eucharist on EBay, or the Blessed Sacrament through a catalogue. We gather together here, as the People of God, and it is through the sacramental life of the Church, through the grace of Holy Orders, that the Body and Blood of Christ become truly present on this altar and we receive Christ Himself as the Bread of Life.

God has given us a share in His own life in the sacraments—especially in the Eucharist— but that life comes to us through the Church that He established. This can be a very difficult thing for many people to accept in our culture today.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee, in a lecture he gave back in January at the North American College in Rome, summed it up well when he said,
“Folks have trouble with the Church.”

Think of your own conversations with people over the last year. How many times have you encountered those who have no problems with Christ or with the Bible, but who are nonetheless indifferent, or even hostile towards, the Church? Archbishop Dolan continues:

“They want the king without the kingdom, Christ without His Church and for us as Catholics it’s a package deal.”

You cannot have the Head without the Body, or the Groom without the Bride. Christ has forever united Himself to His Bride, the Church. They cannot be separated.

In our gospel today, Jesus appears to the disciples after the resurrection, and He says to them: “Peace be with you”. Of course, they are terrified! They think He is a ghost, so He reassures them by showing them His wounds. He shows them His hands and His side, that they can see it is the same Christ who was crucified for them. And He repeats that same assuring greeting:

Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.

The disciples are being given the very same mission as Christ had in the world. They are given the minsitry of forgiving sins and leading others to salvation and new life in God. Christ breathes on them, giving them the gift of the Holy Spirit, and He says:

Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.

Pope John Paul II calls this moment “one of the most awe-inspiring innovations in the Gospel” (Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, #29). It reveals that intimate link between Christ and His Church. The two cannot be separated.

The question we can ask ourselves on this Divine Mercy Sunday is: Where are we standing when it comes to Christ and His Church? Are we standing—like that soldier in The Passion of the Christ—in the stream of the sacramental life of the Church? Are we standing close enough to become immersed in the mercy of God?

Are we being renewed each day in the waters of baptism? All of us, by nature of our baptism, are called to holiness of life. That call must be answered on a daily basis, as we give ourselves over to Christ in all the aspects of our daily lives. Are we answering that call to holiness we received at baptism?

Are we immersed in the Eucharist? God gives us His own Divine life here in this Blessed Sacrament. The Church calls the Eucharist the “source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium, #11; Ecclesia de Eucharistia, #1). It is the source of our strength, the place where we are renewed, and the summit, the God-ward direction in which we are going. Are we becoming more and more immersed in that mystery of the Eucharist as we continue to follow Christ?

Today, on this Feast of Divine Mercy, we pray in the words taken from the Diary of St. Faustina:

O Blood and Water, which gushed forth from the Heart of Jesus as a fountain of mercy for us, I trust in you! (84)

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Road to Emmaus

Knights of Columbus Mass
Installation of Officers

(Easter Wednesday; This homily was given 11 April, 2007, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Luke 24:13-35)

The readings following Easter Sunday—all of Easter Week—are exciting readings. They are about new beginnings, the resurrection and a new start. We see the risen Christ engaging His apostles and early disciples and we listen to the Acts of the Apostles; we hear about the ones who would begin the proclamation of the resurrection. Easter week does indeed celebrate the very foundations of the Church.

Yet as we look at our gospel this evening, St Luke’s encounter of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, it is clear that those foundations seem rather shaky! The disciples are saddened by the excruciating memory of Good Friday, and downcast about the death of Christ because they “were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). What is worse, they have failed to believe the reports of His resurrection.

They begin to tell this Stranger about “some women from our group” who claimed Christ was alive, but they had been there themselves, and saw no such thing! Jesus upbraids them for being so slow to believe…but then He immediately begins to set in place a rock-solid foundation.

He goes back into the Scriptures, and begins to point out all the places that referred to Him. Later, those disciples will recall how their hearts were burning within them as Jesus spoke to them on the way.

Then comes the great moment of recognition: Jesus takes the bread and breaks it, and suddenly their eyes are opened! It is Him, and He is alive!

These days of Easter week are exciting, indeed. The foundation that Christ builds for these disciples, and this experience of the Risen One in the scriptures and in the Eucharist will be one that supports, nurtures and strengthens the Church for centuries to come.

Every Sunday, even up to our own time, this experience of word and sacrament continues to be the place where our lives take shape and are molded to be more and more like Christ. Tonight, we gather together in this Church to take up anew the St. Joseph’s Council of the Knights of Columbus, asking the Holy Spirit to breathe new life into this council that was begun years ago here in this parish community.

We ask God to guide us—tonight, as well as in the weeks, months, and years to come—as we build on that same foundation of the Scriptures and the Eucharist, that our hearts will burn within us as we hear His word proclaimed and as we are made one with Christ and with each other in the breaking of the bread.

The following newly elected officers of the St. Joseph’s Council Knights of Columbus at Our Lady of Mercy Parish were installed in a ceremony immediately following Holy Mass:

Sean Pauley, Grand Knight
Michael Murray, Deputy Grand Knight
Kevin McDevitt, Chancellor
Joseph Weaver, Financial Secretary
John Carne, Recorder
Michael Gallagher, Treasurer
Gil Bianchi, Advocate
Thomas Mahoney, Lecturer
James Coyle, Warden
Arthur Lisi, Inside Guard
Robert Vespia, Outside Guard
John de Giulio, Trustee
John Morris, Trustee
Richard Ohnmacht, Trustee
Rev. Christopher Mahar, Chaplain

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Quo Vadis?: The Direction of the Resurrection

(Easter Sunday-Year C; This homily was given 8 April, 2007, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read John 20:1-9 and Colossians 3:1-4)

“Domine, quo vadis?” Lord, where are you going?
Those are the words of St. Peter spoken to Christ in a legend regarding the early Church in Rome. According to that legend, St. Peter, discouraged and fearful amidst the persecution of the Church under Emperor Nero, made a decision to flee the city.

As he was leaving, he saw coming toward him the Risen Christ. In his amazement he dropped to his knees and said, “Domine, quo vadis?” Lord, where are you going? Christ responded:

“I am going into the city, to be crucified anew, since you have chosen to abandon my people.”

At that, Peter realized that he had been going in the wrong direction; he turned around, went back into the city of Rome, and was himself crucified for his faith in Christ and his leadership in the Church. [That last part of the story is no legend; it is an historical fact. Peter was literally crucified upside down, not considering himself worthy to die in the exact same way as Christ.]

Our gospel this morning, St. John’s account of the empty tomb, is about going in the right direction. In fact, we could call it “the direction of the resurrection.”

Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb early in the morning and discovers that the stone has been removed. She is the first one to encounter the evidence of the resurrection, and her immediate reaction is to run. But she does not run into the tomb, in joy and exaltation. Instead she runs away from the tomb and away from the mystery of the resurrection.

Mary, quo vadis? Where are you going? Like St. Peter in that legend, Mary is going in the wrong direction (and not just geographically). She is not running to share the joyful news of the resurrection; she thinks Jesus is still dead. Worse still, she thinks that His body has been stolen! She says to St. Peter and St. John:

They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him.
—John 20:2

They. We don’t know exactly who “they” are, but Mary is convinced that “they” have taken the body of Christ. Was it the Romans? The scribes and Pharisees? One of the concerns of that time period was that grave robbers would come in the night and steal the costly burial clothes, carelessly discarding the body of the deceased. We don't know. Whoever they are, Mary is distraught and brings her concern to the Apostles Peter and John.

And suddenly everything in that gospel changes. Peter and John (followed by Mary) run back in the direction of the resurrection; they make their way back to the tomb, and then discover what Mary, moments before, had missed: the burial clothes are still there but it is Jesus Christ Himself who is gone. No one has broken into that tomb. For the first time in all human history, someone has broken out! He is risen!

That news, that great event, changed the course of human history. It changed the direction this world was going in. Jesus Christ, who suffered and died for us, is risen from the dead. Those who are baptized into Him and follow Him faithfully here on earth are given that same promise of resurrection. That fact should change everything about our lives. It should change the way we live and the direction of our lives on earth. Each of us can ask ourselves this morning: Is that the case? Are we going in the direction of the resurrection? Not everyone is, you know.

St. Paul, in our second reading this morning, tells us that the direction of the resurrection is up. He says:

Brothers and sisters: If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not what is on earth.
—Colossians 3:1-2

Everything that we do here on earth should be done with our sights set on heaven. One of the prayers we prayed at Mass all throughout Lent says “[Lord] you teach us how to live in this passing world with our heart set on the world that will never end” (Preface Lent II). The ultimate destination for our lives is not here on earth. The direction of the resurrection is up.

But we find ourselves pointed in that direction and we remain in that direction not by doing whatever we want to, whatever feels right to us, or by following the popular opinions of the people around us, but by the guidance and teachings of our faith. It is from the Scriptures, from the Sacraments (especially Christ in the Eucharist), and from the teachings of the Church that we discover, and remain in, the direction of the resurrection.

In our culture today, that is far from a reality. So many people, a great many of them Catholic Christians, take their bearings from their own feelings or from the people around them. There was an article in the Religion section of The Providence Journal yesterday morning that discussed the latest phenomenon of the “discovery” of the bones of Jesus. One New Testament scholar, Ben Witherington, summed up quite well the problem we face. He said:

“We live in a Jesus-haunted culture that’s biblically illiterate. Everybody knows who Jesus is. But the actual knowledge about early Christian history and the Bible is very low in the culture and even large segments of the church.”

Doesn’t that explain a lot of what we have seen in the last few years? People are ready to sell Christ down the river and abandon the traditions of their faith because they read about Jesus and Mary Magdalene in some fiction novel, or because National Geographic is doing a special about the “Lost Gospel of Judas.”

We can ask ourselves: Quo vadimus? Where are we going? These people are not the ones we should be listening to when it comes to our eternal salvation! Read the Da Vinci Code if you want. Watch the latest fiction story about the bones of Christ if you choose. But, for God’s sake, and for your own sake, do not base your eternal salvation on them!

We need to look to some very different sources, very different authors when it comes to our eternal life; we need to start reading authors like Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

If we want to know about the life of Christ and His relationship to Mary Magdalene or any of the disciples, we should start there.

If we want to know the secrets of the early Church we should read the Acts of the Apostles.

If we want to know the “historical” Jesus, truly know Him, the person, then we start by growing closer to Him right here in the Eucharist.

This is where we find the direction to live our lives.

The 40 days of Lent are over. Now, for the next 50 days we celebrate the resurrection and our eternal life with Christ. How is He challenging us to focus on the teachings of our faith as we celebrate that mystery?

So that the next time someone asks us, “Quo vadis?” Where are you going? We can honestly say that, with the grace and help of God, we are going in the direction of the resurrection, and in the way of eternal life with Christ.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Last Supper and the Christian Life

(Holy Thursday-Year C;This homily was given 5 April, 2007, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read John 13:1-15)

Tonight we celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, in a particular way commemorating that night in the Upper Room, at the Last Supper, when Christ gave the Church the greatest gift She could have ever received: the gift of Himself in the Eucharist.

In his last encyclical letter, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, what would be one of his final gifts to the Church, Pope John Paul II says, “The Church draws her life from the Eucharist” (EE, #1). Christ, in the Eucharist, is the source of our strength, literally our life-blood as we live the gospel here on earth.

In order to perpetuate that heavenly gift throughout the centuries, Christ also institutes, on the same night, the sacred priesthood. Without the priesthood, there would be no Eucharist. Without the Eucharist, there would be no priesthood. These two great gifts are bestowed upon us by our Lord as He gathers with His disciples on the night before He died.

Therefore, it is curious that the passage from St. John’s Gospel, which we read from every Holy Thursday, does not mention either the Eucharist or the priesthood! In fact, the Gospel of St. John is the only gospel that does not include an “institution narrative,” the words of Christ instituting the sacrament of the Eucharist:

This is my body, which will be given up for you…

This is the cup of my blood…it will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven…

Nor is there mention of the words instituting the sacrament of Holy Orders: Do this in memory of me.

St. John, the last gospel to be written, assumes that the reader is already familiar with both the Eucharist and the priesthood. In the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel, we find the longest discourse on the Eucharist in the entire Scripture. Over and over again, he relates the words of Jesus, who refers to Himself as “The Bread of life” (John 6: 22-59) and says, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day” (John 6:54).

St. John is quite familiar with the gift of the Eucharist, and with the priesthood, which continues that gift. What he chooses to relate to his readers about the Last Supper, instead, is the washing of the feet; he chooses to speak to us about service.

It is a very moving scene. Jesus gets up from the supper, takes off his outer garments, and begins to wash the dirty feet of His disciples. It is difficult for us to appreciate the reaction His disciples would have had at that moment. Washing feet was the job of the lowest servant, not the Master of the house. St. Peter literally has to be talked into it.

What is so important for us to see is that St. John does not relate this scene as something separate from the Eucharist which has just taken place before it. John is not saying that Jesus gives the Church the Eucharist, and then says, “OK, that’s done. Now, here’s how you wash feet.” No, it all fits together as a piece.

It is Christ who pours Himself out completely in the Eucharist, giving Himself completely, body and blood, soul and divinity, holding nothing back.

But it is the same Christ who now gets down on His hands and knees and pours Himself out completely as He washes the feet of His disciples, showing them that this is what leadership and power is all about in the Church.

And it will be the same Christ who, one day later, will pour Himself out completely, offering Himself on the altar of the cross.

There is no separation, for St. John, between these events. They are all the revelation of Jesus Christ, who holds back nothing but gives Himself entirely for us in love. Pope Benedict XVI, in his most recent Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis (The Sacrament of Charity) begins with the account of the Last Supper, which we just heard from St. John’s Gospel. He recalls how that account began, when St. John says that Christ:

Loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end.
—John 13:1

Our Holy Father mentions how this is an obvious reference to the washing of the feet, but that it also refers to the Eucharist. Christ loved us to the end, to the fullest; He gave us everything He had when He gave us Himself in the Eucharist.

The entire life of Christ was a total gift of Himself, poured out for every one of us. He shows us tonight that there is no separation between the Eucharist, our worship, our time here in this Church, and our daily service of God and neighbor.

It is said that Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta required her nuns to spend one-hour minimum in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament before they ever hit the streets of Calcutta. She was asked why this was so important; why not spend that time, instead, serving the needs of the poor and those who were suffering? Her response was:

“If we cannot recognize Jesus here in the Blessed Sacrament, then we will never recognize Him out there in the street.”

There is a connection between our lives of faith and devotion, our worship of God and sharing in His sacramental life, and the work we are called to do in the world. We can never separate the mystery of the Eucharist from the washing of the feet. Those two aspects of the suffering and risen Christ are all of a piece.

When I was ordained in the summer of 2004, I had a prayer card made depicting The Lamb of God being sacrificed on the altar. It is a scene from the famous Ghent Altarpiece, and is an obvious reference to the sacrament of the Eucharist.

But on the back of that prayer card, I chose a Scripture verse from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans which is very different from that scene…but also very much the same. It reads:

I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.
—Romans 12:1-2

I knew that, as a priest, I would daily be offering the sacrament of the Eucharist on the altar for the sanctification of God’s people, and for my own sanctification. But at the same time, I knew I would be called to offer myself to God, not only at Mass, but all throughout the day, in all things. There can be no separation between our life of worship and our offering at the Mass, and our daily sacrifice of praise and service to God and neighbor. Those two mysteries—in the life of Christ and in our own lives—stand or fall together.

Our challenge this Holy Thursday evening is to pour out our own lives in the same way Christ does; to give ourselves as a gift to God and to those around us. We are called to recognize Christ right here in this Church, and then to leave this place and simply recognize Him everywhere.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Passion Sunday

(Palm Sunday-Year C; This homily was given on 31 March & 1 April, 2007 at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; See Luke 22:14-56)

Today we enter into what is, for us as Catholics, the most important, solemn, and beautiful week of the year: Holy Week. Our celebration begins here with this Palm Sunday Mass, what is traditionally called Passion Sunday.

That word—passion—has two very different meanings. The first and obvious meaning, connected with our feast today, is that of suffering. We speak of the passion of Christ, meaning His suffering and death, and all that He embraced to set us free from sin and death. He truly loved us all the way to the cross.

The second meaning, also rather obvious, is passion as in desire. When we are passionate about someone, we have a tremendous desire to spend time with them, to be close to them.

In the opening words that Christ speaks in our Passion Narrative today from St. Luke, our Lord expresses both meanings of passion as He addresses His disciples. The scene is the Last Supper, and He is just about to share His own body and blood with them for the first time in the Eucharist. Looking upon them with what must have been great love, he says:

I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer (Luke 22:15).

Jesus is saying that He has a tremendous passion to gather with them before He undergoes His passion. It is fitting that Christ speaks of both meanings as we celebrate this Passion Sunday Mass and enter Holy Week. This week is the time when our desire for God meets His own infinite desire for every one of us. It is a time when God wants to stir up within us that passion He wants us to have for His passion. How is He working in our lives at this time to do that?

There are fifty-one weeks in the year that we think about and are immersed in our own suffering, our struggles and difficulties, our crosses. And rightly so. We all have our own crosses to bear, our own particular sufferings that we face each day.

But this week, above all other weeks in the year, is the week that we focus on His cross, His suffering, His passion. How is God drawing us more completely into that mystery this Holy Week? I would suggest three ways in which God is able to accomplish that.

Firstly, when we spend time doing what we just did: reading the passion of Christ in the gospels. Each of the four gospels has an account of Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection. Pick one of them, and spend some time alone with God reading over and praying with those sacred accounts of Christ. The saints have done that since the earliest days of the Church. Why not us this Holy Week? We are all called to be saints.

Secondly, we enter more deeply into the passion of Christ by participating in the Sacred Triduum, those three holiest days of this most special of all weeks: Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil on Saturday Evening.

On Holy Thursday of this week, we gather to celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. We remember that Christ, on the night before He died, gave over His body and poured out His blood in the Eucharist for the life and sustenance of the Church.

On Good Friday we gather as God’s people to remember and celebrate the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, that glorious death which purchased for us salvation and the forgiveness of our sins.

And at the Easter Vigil, we assemble once again as Church, our souls and our sanctuary filled with light, and celebrate with great joy the resurrection of Christ.

Finally, we come to participate in the passion of Christ by recognizing that our own suffering is not something separate and alien to Him. Christ came among us as a man to help shoulder our burdens and take away the curse of sin and death that has afflicted us all. He helps us in our deepest need, but more than that. He also gives us all a share in His own suffering for the redemption of the world.

Whenever we unite ourselves to Him in faith, acknowledging our own crosses and difficulties, but uniting them also to Christ and to His cross, God allows us some share in His work of bringing about new life (see Colossians 1:24, 2 Corinthians 4:8-14).

This is Holy Week, the most solemn and beautiful week of the year. How will God stir into flame that passion for His passion this Palm Sunday, and every day this week?