Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Birth of St. John the Baptist

(Solemnity of the Birth of St. John the Baptist; This homily was given 23-24 June, 2007, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Luke Chapter 1)

Upon my arrival here at Our Lady of Mercy, three years ago, Fr. Lolio told the story about a phone call he received about a month earlier from Monsignor Evans, who at that time was still in Rome. I also was in Rome, completing my exams and preparing for ordination to the priesthood. I had just finished celebrating my birthday and so Monsignor phoned Fr. Lolio to say:

“Congratulations! You are now the proud father of a brand new 34-year-old baby boy!”

It is fitting that on this, my last weekend here at Our Lady of Mercy, we celebrate the birthday of another baby boy: St. John the Baptist.

The celebration of a person’s birthday in the Church’s Liturgical Year is a rare thing. In fact, there are only three such celebrations: The Nativity of Christ (Christmas), the Feast of the Birth of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary on September 8, and today’s Feast: The Solemnity of the Birth of St. John the Baptist.

Keeping company with the Son of God and the Blessed Mother is no small thing! Then again, St. John the Baptist is no ordinary man. Remember it was Christ Himself who said:

Among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist.
—Matthew 11:11

St. Augustine writes about how the Word was coming into the world, and how St. John the Baptist was the Voice announcing that Word. He is the forerunner of the Christ, the one who prepares the entire world for the coming of the Messiah.

If we look at the life and mission of St. John the Baptist, it becomes clear that in many ways he is a very “priestly” figure. To be certain, he was not a priest. John was beheaded long before Christ instituted the priesthood at the Last Supper. Nonetheless, there are a number of aspects about the Baptist’s life that are quite priestly.

St. John’s father, Zechariah, was a priest of the temple. His mother, St. Elizabeth, we hear in the Gospel of St. Luke, was “from the daughters of Aaron” (Luke 1:5). She was a descendant of the priestly family in Israel. And there are three specific aspects about the mission and ministry of St. John the Baptist that I believe every priest should try to emulate. I pray to God that I have been able to do that in these last three years at Our Lady of Mercy.

Firstly, St. John the Baptist is one whose entire life was dedicated to preparing the way of the Lord. His entire vocation was one of clearing the way so that people could be more closely connected to Jesus Christ. The priest, in his life and ministry, is called to do the same.

Pope John Paul II, in his document on priestly formation, talks about how the priest is called to be a bridge connecting others to Christ (Pastores Dabo Vobis, #43). He also warns, however, that the priest may also become—through his own human weakness—an obstacle instead. If that has happened at all in these last three years, I would certainly like to express my apologies at this time. But if I have been able to be that bridge in some small way, connecting you more closely to Jesus Christ and His Church, then I thank and praise God for that grace and opportunity.

I know I have mentioned before that being called to the priesthood is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me. To be able to preach the Gospel and serve the people of God is a tremendous gift in my life, so I am grateful today for the chance to have done that here at Our Lady of Mercy in these past three years.

The second aspect of the ministry and mission of John the Baptist that I would mention today is that he is the one who points out the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29).

In my ministry here at OLM I have tried continually to do just that. In preaching the Gospel, celebrating weddings, baptisms, and even at funerals and moments of tragedy, I have tried to always help the people of God to see Christ in their lives. So many times I have pointed to the cross in our sanctuary and drawn your attention to the Lamb of God, who suffers and dies on the cross to save us from our sins.

But certainly pointing out Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, is a two-way street. It is not the case that I alone have shown you where Christ is in your life; so many of you have shown me where Christ is present and active in my own life. Today I would like to thank you for doing that.

In my very first homily here in June of 2004, I spoke about how I had received already everything necessary for beginning the ministry of priesthood, but that you would be the ones to teach me how to be a good, joyful, and faithful priest. Thank you so much for helping me to do that in these past three years! I am grateful to all of you, and to Fr. Lolio for his help and patience with me in this, my first assignment in the priesthood.

But I also asked you to pray, on that first weekend in June, one specific prayer for me: that I would become a holy priest. Three years later I am still convinced that it is the single most important prayer you could make for any priest, and I ask you to continue to pray it for me.

Which brings us to the final aspect of the life and ministry of St. John the Baptist: that after preparing the way of the Lord, and pointing out the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, he knew how to get out of the way!

Remember that scene in St. John’s Gospel, when people from all over Judea were flocking to Christ after He was made manifest following His baptism by John in the Jordan. The disciples of St. John the Baptist come to him and complain about this newcomer from Nazareth: “here he is baptizing and everyone is coming to him” (John 3:28). Very beautifully the Baptist reassures them all, while at the same time acknowledging his own true identity and mission. He says of Christ:

He must increase and I must decrease.
—John 3:30

It is my sincere prayer that you will not remember so much me personally, or the words that I have spoken here, as much as Jesus Christ and how He is increasing in your families and in your own personal lives. Thanks for a remarkable and beautiful three years here at OLM!

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Extraordinary Gospel of Mercy

(11th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year C; This homily was given 16-17 June, 2007, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read the Gospel of St. Luke)

We have just finished, in the liturgical life of the Church, a long season of celebration. Throughout the seven weeks of the Easter Season we celebrated the resurrection of Christ, right up until the Feast of Pentecost. These past two weekends we have explored two of the greatest mysteries of our faith: God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit on Trinity Sunday, and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist on the Feast of Corpus Christi.

This weekend, for the first Sunday since last February, we come together to celebrate "Ordinary Time." That designation—Ordinary Time—can be a bit misleading. Certainly there is nothing ordinary about the mysteries we celebrate here. There is nothing ordinary in the Gospel we listen to; nothing ordinary about the body and blood of Christ and the sacramental life that we enter more deeply into each week.

On this Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, St. Luke reminds us of that extraordinary love we find so abundantly in the forgiveness and mercy of God. For these next five months of “Ordinary Time,” we will be hearing from the Gospel of St. Luke. That Gospel, more than all the other three says Pope John Paul II, has earned the title “Gospel of Mercy” (Dives in Misericordia, # 3). Why is that?

St. Luke is careful to include several parables and details of the life of Christ that are not found in the other gospel accounts, all of them focused on the abundant mercy of God.

Only St. Luke gives us Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, that moving story of the young man who comes home ragged and ruined, deserving nothing, only to be welcomed lovingly with open arms by a Father whose love knows no limits.

Only St. Luke includes the parable of the Good Samaritan, that outsider who becomes a true neighbor to the Israelite who had fallen into the hands of robbers, giving generously from his own resources to restore that Israelite to health once again.

And only St. Luke tells us the story of the Good Thief, who dies on the cross beside Christ. Acknowledging the Kingship of Christ and expressing faith in Jesus, despite his own unworthiness, he receives the greatest promise attainable in this life: “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).

In our “Gospel of Mercy” today, St. Luke tells us the story of the sinful woman with the alabaster jar (Luke 7:36-50). It is one of the most visual, sense-heavy gospel accounts we have. You can almost picture yourself there in the house of Simon the Pharisee. You can see that woman kneeling before Christ. You can hear her sobbing and weeping as she wipes His feet with her hair. You can smell the ointment that is in that room.

That powerful scene fits well the image of mercy that John Paul II offers in his encyclical, Rich in Mercy (Dives in Misericordia). He describes how true love, real mercy is effective; it has effects in the world we live in. Those effects are revealed, Pope John Paul II says, in two very specific and concrete ways.

Firstly, we see the mercy of God as it is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ Himself:

"Especially through His lifestyle and through His actions, Jesus revealed that love is present in the world in which we live—an effective love, a love that addresses itself to man and embraces everything that makes up his humanity."
—Dives in Misericordia, #3

In the Letters of St. Paul, God is described as “the Father of mercies(2 Corinthians 1:3) and the “God who is rich in mercy” (Ephesians 2:4). We would have no way of grasping what that means if it were not for Christ. When we look to Christ and see His love, His forgiveness of sinners, His willingness to give His very life for us on the cross, then we come to recognize the effects of God’s mercy.

But the effects of mercy cannot remain there. Mercy is not just an image of the cross or a story that remains on the pages of the Bible. We should also see the effects of God’s mercy in our own lives. Christ “demanded from people that they also should be guided in their lives by love and mercy” (Dives in Misericordia, #3). Having received so great a gift as God’s merciful and forgiving love, we should be able to then see its effects expressed in ways that others around us can recognize and experience.

Which brings us back to our Gospel and the woman with the alabaster jar. No one in that room could have doubted that she had been touched by the merciful love of Christ. Whether they liked it or not (as was the case with Simon, the Pharisee), they could never deny that the mercy of Christ effected that woman. Do we allow ourselves to be so effected by that same mercy?

In these next five months of “Ordinary Time”, how is God calling each of us to celebrate His extraordinary love, His extraordinary mercy in our own lives?

How are we called to first acknowledge and receive the mercy of God? To acknowledge our faults and sins and our own need for God’ mercy, seeking His forgiveness and being open to the way His mercy is lavished upon us through Christ? How are we called especially to receive and celebrate that great mercy by receiving the sacrament of mercy, the Sacrament of Reconciliation?

And finally, where do we ourselves need to express that same mercy in the world we live in? Where are the places that God is calling upon us to break open those alabaster jars and pour out more freely the ointment of mercy in our families, workplaces, and wherever we find ourselves?

Today we ask God for all the oil we can hold in our alabaster jar, and for His help and assistance to break that jar open, and pour it out everywhere in the world we live in.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Corpus Christi: Offering

(Feast of Corpus Christi-Year C; This homily was given 10 June, 2007, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Genesis 14:18-20, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 & Luke 9:11-17)

Why do we pray and ask God for good things when He already knows what we want, or more importantly, exactly what we need?

Why are we encouraged, all throughout the Scriptures and especially in the Book of Psalms, to praise and worship God, although there is nothing we could ever say that would add a single thing to His glory and majesty?

And why does God constantly challenge us, in the Bible and in the person of Jesus Christ, to give generously of ourselves to those around us and in particular to Him, even though we have nothing that He could possibly need?

The answer is rather obvious: when we do those things, we are the ones who benefit. That is why God wants us to pray, worship Him, and give.

When we pray, we are the ones who are sanctified and made more holy. We grow in our relationship and friendship with God.

It is when we praise and adore God that we are most reminded of who we are as children of God, His sons and daughters created to do that very thing.

And it is only when we give of ourselves that we are complete and fulfilled in our own personal lives. One of the most often quoted expressions of the Second Vatican Council is a line that is referred to as the “Law of the Gift.” Simply stated, it says:

Man can only fully discover himself through a sincere gift of himself.
—Gaudium et Spes, #24

We find that “Law of the Gift,” in all the lives of the Saints, and hopefully in our own lives as well. We only become complete, whole and fulfilled in this life when we learn how to offer ourselves freely and generously to God and to those around us.

Today, on this Feast of Corpus Christi, we find that theme of offering in all of our readings and in the Eucharistic Prayer itself.

In St. Luke’s Gospel Jesus performs the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand in that deserted place, but Christ is not doing some magic trick here. He doesn’t just pull that food out of thin air. In fact, He pulls it out of the disciples! They come to Him with the desperate situation of the crowds, and Jesus offers them the solution:

“Give them some food yourselves.”

It was not the solution they were looking for. They quickly complain that “Five loaves and two fish are all we have” (Luke 9:13). Yet Christ is able to take that simple and seemingly insignificant offering and feed the multitudes.

When I was first ordained, one of the biggest struggles for me was preparing the weekly homily. I would look over the readings each week, pray over them, and feel so inadequate and unprepared to present the fullness of the Gospel message. I complained to a priest friend of mine, who is an excellent preacher, and he said to me:

“You never really have to worry about that. All you have to do is give to God five loaves and two fish, and trust in Him to do the rest.”

He was obviously referring to this very passage we heard from St. Luke, and I think his advice applies to all of our lives, no matter who we are or what we do. We simply give to God what we have, however inadequate we might feel or how insignificant we may think our offering is. We give God what we have, and trust in Him to do something truly beautiful.

In our first reading this morning, from the Book of Genesis, we hear of that mysterious person Melchizedek. Melchizedek appears only once in all the Scriptures, in this brief passage from Genesis, and as “priest of God Most High” (Genesis 14:18) he offers to Abram gifts of bread and wine. Then just as quickly he disappears.

Melchizedek is a mere blip on the radar screen of the Old Testament, and yet he is mentioned specifically in the Responsorial Psalm this morning: “You are a priest forever, in the line of Melchizedek” (Psalm 110:4).

He is given an elaborate description in the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews, and he is mentioned by the Fathers of the Church and by scriptures scholars across the centuries as a pre-figuration for Christ, an archetype for Christ in the Old Testament.

St. Paul, in our Second Reading from the First Letter to the Corinthians, talks about the Last Supper, and how Christ Himself offered bread and wine in a whole new way. He relates how Christ took the bread and said:

“This is my body that is for you . . .” and how He took the cup and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood . . .”
—1 Corinthians 11:23-26

It was the greatest offering that has ever been made, the offering of Jesus Christ Himself, the Son of God, poured out for the life of us all. It is the sacrifice of Himself, offered to them and to us, on the night before He suffered and died, to be celebrated as an everlasting memorial uniting us to Him forever.

Today on this Feast of Corpus Christi, we reflect upon and enter deeply into that offering, which will be made present here at this altar…but it will not be made present without that seemingly insignificant offering on that little table in the center isle this morning. There we have the gifts of bread and wine.

God expects us, like those first disciples at the miracle of the loaves and the fish, to bring something here to this altar. He expects us to offer the bread and wine, but more importantly, to offer ourselves along with Christ here in the Eucharist this morning (Sacrosanctum Concilium, #48). This is the place where our offering is united to the one perfect offering and sacrifice of Christ.

In the Eucharistic Prayer we will hear this morning, the Roman Canon, the word “offering” is used 10 different times. It is like a mantra running throughout that entire Eucharistic Prayer. What are we offering here at this Mass, on this Feast of Corpus Christi?

What are the five loaves and two fish we are bringing to this celebration? Our sufferings, our disappointments, our prayers for loved ones, for guidance, for strength? Our desires for the present, hopes and joys regarding the future. What are we bringing to this altar today, along with that bread and wine?

And what is it that God wants us to receive from this altar? Nothing less than the offering of Jesus Christ Himself, the Corpus Christi, everything we need to sustain us and strengthen us on our journey home to Him.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

R.I. Catholics and the Holy Trinity

(Trinity Sunday-Year C; This homily was given 2 & 3 June, 2007, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Proverbs 8:22-31 & Romans 5:1-5)

Just the other day I was able to talk with our Third Graders next door at the school, to take some time for questions and answers. They asked me a question that almost always seems to come up on those occasions:

“Father, what exactly do you do all day?”

You would think that after three years I would have a clear answer to that question! Actually, each day can be so different that it is not so easy to summarize what an “average” day is like for a priest.

Nonetheless, I was reminded of a conversation that my sister had with one of her friends while I was still a seminarian. Her friend said to her: “You brother is going to be a priest, isn’t he?” After my sister answered in the affirmative, her friend went on to say:

“You know, those guys have it made. They say a couple of Masses on the weekend, and then they do absolutely nothing all week long.”

Well, that is certainly not what I do all day! But today, on this Trinity Sunday, as we celebrate the mystery of God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—we can ask ourselves: What about God? What does He do all day?

Theologians tell us that, for certain, God does one thing from all eternity: He loves. The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father. They love one another totally, completely, truly. Does that sound boring to you? Far from it! The love between the Father and the Son is so powerful, so explosive, so awesome and beautiful, that it is itself another Person: The Holy Spirit.

The Father, Son and Holy Spirit live together, from all eternity, in a communal relationship of total, self-giving love. What does that mean? What does that look like? We would never be able to answer those questions if God had not suddenly chosen to do something completely different, something He had never done.

Our readings for this Trinity Sunday tell us what that “something” is. The Book of Proverbs speaks about how God created the earth; how He delights in that creation and with great love lavishes all that He has upon us. The Wisdom of God says:

I was beside him as his craftsman, and I was his delight day by day, playing before him all the while, playing on the surface of his earth; and I found delight in the human race.
—Proverbs 8:30-31

St. Paul, in our second reading, talks about how God then redeemed us after we had fallen. He talks about Jesus Christ, the Son of God who became man and dwelt among us. It is Jesus Christ who comes to walk through our streets and takes on our burdens, and dies on the cross in our place.

Now we can say with certainty that we know exactly what the love of God looks like. To the question: “What does God do all day?” we need look no further than Jesus Christ.

It is Jesus Christ who comes among His people and proclaims to them the Good News, God’s eternal plan of salvation.

It is Jesus Christ who speaks out boldly for those who are weak and exploited. He is a voice for those who have no voice in this world.

And on every page of the Gospels we find Christ living among ordinary people with extraordinary love.

He even gives His life for us, on the cross and in His body and blood in the Eucharist and in the Sacraments that He institutes in the Church.

Finally, along with the Father, He sends us the Holy Spirit. As St. Paul tells us in the second reading: The love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us (Romans 5:5).

And that is where our lives become intimately connected to this Feast of the Most Holy Trinity. We are not mere spectators or observers of the life of Christ. We do not take Him simply as the most important person in history, and seek to imitate Him.

No, much more than that! Because of the gift of the Holy Spirit—which we celebrated last week at Pentecost—and because of our own baptism, God lives in us. The Holy Spirit lives in us. The power of the Holy Trinity is at work in our lives and in our Church. The very same things we saw in the life of Christ can, and should, be found today in His body, the Church.

I mention that specifically because in this week’s issue of the Rhode Island Catholic—the new name for our old diocesan newspaper—we see all those things taking place in our diocese.

There is an article about the priests in West Warwick and their work of evangelization, reaching out, just like Christ, to those who long for the Good News of God’s plan of salvation.

In several places the voice of the Church speaks out boldly for those who have no voice in this world. Bishop Tobin, in a very clear and distinct manner, speaks out for the unborn and decries the hypocrisy of Catholic politicians who have failed to take a stand against the practice of abortion. On the front page of the Rhode Island Catholic there is an article on Human Trafficking, a huge problem in our state; again, the Church speaking out for the weak and the exploited.

There are many articles about those who—just like Christ—are living among ordinary people with extraordinary love: Kindergarteners, parishioners celebrating their faith, even biker priests!

And finally, there is an article on the four men who were just ordained to the priesthood in our diocese; men who, like Christ, have given their lives for the work of sacrifice and service, and to bring the Gospel and the Body and Blood of Christ to the parishes of our diocese.

This is the power of the Holy Trinity, alive and at work in our diocese. How is God calling each of us to live like that, to become swept up in the power of God and to allow Jesus Christ to live in us, so that when people ask us:

“What do you do all day?”

We can honestly say:

“I am one who is caught up into the very life of the Holy Trinity. God lives in me and I, to the best of my ability, try to love as God loves.”

Because that is what we are called to do all day.
That is what we are called to do everyday.