Sunday, August 26, 2007

Pilgrimage to Jerusalem

(21st Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year C; This homily was given 25 & 26 August, 2007, at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; read Isaiah 66:18-21 and Luke 13:22-30)

Like it or not, the summer is almost over. School will begin in just a few short days and life will take on a much quicker pace. Hopefully you had the chance this summer to take a nice vacation.

A few weeks ago I announced that Fr. Verdelotti was returning from his summer vacation, and I thanked God for that! I was very much looking forward to taking a few days off myself. That very day I received an email from a close friend who is a Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist. She is part of an order of religious sisters and brothers who have convents and religious houses across the country, and in places like Rome and Jerusalem.

She emailed me about the pilgrimage that some of the sisters in formation were about to take later that week, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Holy land. They had been planning it all year. In the email she said, “Father, I know it is last minute, but we are wondering if there is even a remote chance that you could join us as our priest on this pilgrimage.”

I was shocked. The first thought that crossed my mind was to send this brief reply: “Are you crazy?” How could I possibly go on a trip like that with just a few days’ notice? Instead, I looked at my calendar and saw that I had planned to take a week’s vacation anyway at that same time. I would need to add a few more days to it; when I looked at those days, they were all wide open. That never happens! It was the providence of God, and suddenly I found myself on Pilgrimage with the Franciscan Sisters and Brothers of the Eucharist.

It was the most remarkable and beautiful trip I have ever taken. We went to Bethlehem, where Christ was born. We had Mass in Nazareth, where Christ grew up, and in Galilee where he preached, healed the sick and performed miracles. We celebrated the Eucharist in the place where He instituted that Blessed Sacrament, and on Calvary, where He died. We knelt down and prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, and in the empty tomb where He rose again from the dead. I will never forget what God did in our lives on that pilgrimage.

I mention that today because our readings for this weekend talk about the pilgrimage to Jerusalem that God is planning, a pilgrimage that all of us are invited to. In fact, God intends to bring all the nations of the earth on that pilgrimage to the Holy City of Jerusalem. As He says in our first reading, through the prophet Isaiah:

I come to gather the nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory…They shall bring all your brothers and sisters from all the nations as an offering to the Lord, on horses and in chariots, in carts, upon mules and dromedaries, to Jerusalem, my holy mountain, says the Lord.
—Isaiah 66:18, 20

Isaiah is not saying that God will literally put us on mules and camels and bring us into Jerusalem. He is talking about God’s eternal plan of salvation. At the beginning, after the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, God began immediately to put a plan together to redeem us and save us from sin and death. That plan involved calling together a people, a single nation among all the others, to be holy and set apart for God.

That nation was Israel, whom God brought into the Promised Land and gave the City of Jerusalem, where they built a temple to worship Him alone and follow His commandments. From this nation a Savior was born, Jesus Christ, the Messiah. He came to suffer and die to redeem not only Israel, but so that all the nations of the world might be saved. Jesus Himself, in the Gospel of Luke this morning, puts it this way:

People will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.
—Luke 13:29

That is God’s eternal plan for our salvation; it is the pilgrimage of a lifetime, one that begins right here and will continue for eternal life. Today we can ask ourselves, in light of that journey which God has called us all to participate in:

Are we ready to make that pilgrimage?

Are we willing to make whatever change is necessary, to conform our lives to God’s will and enter that kingdom?

It is not simply automatic.

When the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist invited me to join them on their pilgrimage, I did not simply show up at the airport! I had to check and make sure my passport was in order; I had to go out and purchase some last minute items for the trip; I had to pack my bags; I needed to make a good confession to prepare spiritually for that pilgrimage. The same is true for us as we prepare for the pilgrimage that God is calling us to. We have to get ready!

There is a beautiful story about St. Francis of Assisi, who was asked what he planned to do one day. He replied that he was going to work in his garden. The person said, “What if this was the last day of your life? Then what would you do?” He paused for a minute, thoughtfully, and then replied, “Well, I suppose I would go and work in my garden.” His life was in order. He was already conformed to Christ, and so he was totally free to follow God in the ordinary rhythms of life and ready for whatever each day might bring.

Blessed Pope John XXIII, closer to our own time, was asked the very same question: “What if this was the last day of your life?” Do you know what his reply was? He said, “My bags are packed.” Can you imagine yourself responding that way? What a beautiful way to live.

Now most of us, if we are honest, will admit that we are not St. Francis of Assisi; we are not Blessed John XXIII. We are still striving and trying to conform our lives to God’s will and to follow Christ as closely as we can. That is why Christ, in the gospel this weekend, challenges us to keep at it. He says that we need to strive to find our way into the kingdom God is calling us to:

Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.
—Luke 13:24

Unfortunately, the word He uses, strive, does not translate well into the English language. When we hear that word—strive—we think “Give it your best shot; give it the old college try.” But Jesus is saying something much stronger than that.

The Greek word we find in St. Luke is agonizomai. It is where we get the word agony. Jesus is saying to us: Agonize to enter through the narrow gate. Do everything you can, even if it hurts. For God’s sake, and for your own, get into this kingdom; get on this pilgrimage; go to heaven!

With that said, what are we willing to do to conform our lives to Jesus Christ? In the words of Blessed Pope John XXIII, are our bags packed? Are there things in our bags that we do not need, or would not want God to see?

Are there personal sins that we need to repent from, and things we need to change in our lives? Are there any bad habits, or addictions, or other obstacles that we need God’s grace and strength to overcome?

How about our relationships? Are we living at peace with God and with each other? Is there any un-forgiveness in our lives? Today we ask God for all the grace we will need to make that pilgrimage to Jerusalem. May we truly strive to meet God on that journey that begins here in this life, and continues on forever in eternal life with Him.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Franciscan Brothers and Sisters of the Eucharist-Holy Land Pilgrimage 2007

(This homily was given for the Mass of First Vows of Sister Monica Navalta of the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist. I am currently on pilgrimage with them in the Holy Land. Mass this morning was celebrated at the Church of the Primacy of Peter, located on the Sea of Galilee. It is the very place where Christ asked St. Peter that defining question: “Do you love me?” Read 1 Peter 5:1-4 and John 21:1-19)

Yesterday afternoon, as we were coming by this Church on the boat tour of the Sea of Galilee, Sister Monica spoke to me about why she chose this Church among all the other places she has experienced here in her ministry in the Holy Land; why the Primacy of Peter as the place of First Vows as a Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist? Her answer was simple, and profound: Discipleship.

St. Peter is, in many ways, the quintessential disciple. He is the one to whom Christ says, at the end of the gospel we just listened to: “Follow me” (John 21:19). Yet I think all of us would admit that Peter is a complicated disciple. There is nothing simple about St. Peter. We find him, all throughout the gospels, and in the Acts of the Apostles, on both sides of the spectrum.

St. Peter is the one who often bumbles into situations, flags in faith as he sinks into the water, and even denies our Lord hours after the Last Supper. But Peter alone is the one who has the courage to walk out on the sea. To him alone was it revealed by the Father that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ of God. And Peter alone is given that special place of primacy among the other apostles. As Christ says to the fisherman from Galilee: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church” (Matthew 16:18).

It is fitting that St. Peter, who we find at both of those extremes, offers to us a contrast of discipleship in our first reading. He talks about two different kinds of discipleship: the one of constraint, and discipleship taken up willingly. He says to the presbyters or priests of the Church:

Tend the flock of God in your midst, overseeing not by constraint but willingly, as God would have it…
—1 Peter 5:2-3

Constrained means moved by outside forces, or inward motives that are not from God. St. Peter says we should have nothing to do with that. Discipleship taken up willingly is that which is done in freedom, with an undivided heart. And therein lies the paradox of Christian freedom! For the Christian, freedom IS constraint. To be totally free as a Christian is to be totally constrained to love, to follow Christ, to serve. It is what drives us, the only option.

It pains me to have to do it at a Franciscan gathering, in a Church which is in the custody of the Franciscans, but the great Dominican Theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, offers a beautiful example of this kind of freedom. He says that the people who are most free are the saints in heaven. Unlike us, they are unable to sin, unable to turn away from God in any way. They are “locked in” to the beatific vision, and can only love, only serve, only see what God sees. Bound to truth, bound to love, bound to Christ…that is the true definition of freedom for the Christian.

We find that freedom, in a striking and particular way, in the person of Jesus Christ. What is Jesus’ triumphant moment of freedom? We were there several days ago; we knelt in the very spot. Gethsemane. The Garden of Gethsemane is the place where Christ takes our human will, which he took from us in the Incarnation—a will that, from the Garden of Eden, had gone awry and chosen to disobey God—and He unites that will to the Father’s will. He does not want to die, but He is constrained by love and the desire to obey the Father and set us free from sin, and so He prays, “Not my will, but Thine, be done (Luke 22:42).

Immediately after He makes that prayer, what happens? He is arrested and bound. They tie His hands and drag him off the house of the high priest. He is thrown into the cistern, imprisoned in that place, but undoubtedly the most free man on the face of the earth. The Son of God is not bound by chains, or prison walls, or even by being fastened to the wood of the cross. Jesus Christ is bound by love, and He shows each one of us that this is true freedom; freedom bound by love.

That is the freedom Christ revealed to St. Peter on this very spot, by this very lake. Jesus said to Simon Peter:

When you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.
—John 21:18

Literally, Jesus says that Peter used to “gird” himself, put a belt upon himself. Now, He says, Peter will stretch out his hands and another will gird not his waist but his hands. He will be taken away, against his will, to serve the Church by giving his very life. St. Peter would be bound to the cross, as Christ was, and offer everything in true discipleship. Yet in that St. Peter was more completely free than he ever was when he could “go where he wanted.” Freedom for the Christian is constraint; it is to be bound by love, bound by service, bound to follow Christ and offer everything to Him.

Sister Monica, that is what you are saying “Yes,” to this morning. You are making vows not by constraint, but willingly, as one bound by love. And this morning, in this Church, you will make promises that will become visible in the world around you. Someone else will bind you with the cincture around your waist. Someone else will place a cross around your neck, the ultimate symbol of discipleship and love.

In the weeks, months, and years to come, in the cities where He lived, and taught, and died, Jesus Christ will come to you many times—in the poor, in the lonely, in those who are suffering and sorrowful, in the knock at the door when it is inconvenient, in a thousand different ways, He will come to you—and He will say to you what He said to St. Peter. He will ask you:

Sister Monica, do you love me?... Do you love me?... Do you love me? Then if you do, feed my sheep.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Vigilance and the Divine Thief

(19th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year C; This homily was given 11 & 12 August, 2007, at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; read Wisdom 18:6-9 and Luke 12:35-40)

Our readings for this weekend are about vigilance: what it means to be ready, watchful, prepared for the coming of God into our lives.

The first reading, from the Book of Wisdom, tells the story of the People of Israel on the eve of the Passover. They had been enslaved in the land of Egypt, suffering hardship and oppression while all hope seemed lost.

In a single night God changed all that; he came suddenly and delivered them. He brought them salvation and set them on the road to the Promised Land.

But that same night was devastating for the people of Egypt. The Angel of Death came through that country and claimed the firstborn of the Egyptians. They never saw it coming.

Not so for the nation of Israel. Today’s reading tells us how they were ready:

For in secret the holy children of the good were offering sacrifice and putting into effect with one accord the divine institution.
—Wisdom 18:9

They had listened the instructions God had given to His servant Moses. They had offered the sacrifice of the lamb, sharing that meal that united them as one people. They had sprinkled the blood of the lamb on the doorposts and gathered together with loins girt, staff in hand, sandals on their feet. They were ready. When God began to move in the land of Egypt, they were ready.

In our Gospel today, Jesus tells us, in the same way, to be ready:

Be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks.
—Luke 12:36

And what is Christ calling us to be ready for? His second coming. We believe—in fact, we profess and announce each week in our Creed—that Jesus Christ is coming back again. That may happen in our lifetime; we don’t know.

But we are also ready for that moment when our lives will end, and we will meet Christ face to face. That is also a moment that will come for every one of us. And all of the moments between now and that day, all the many ways that Christ comes into our lives each day. We are called to be vigilant, watchful, ready.

To accent our need to be vigilant, Christ uses a surprising image: that of the thief. He says:

If the master of the house had known the hour when the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of man will come.
—Luke 12:39

Almost always in the Scriptures, and in our own everyday experience, the thief has negative connotations. Oddly, and effectively, Christ uses it here in reference to Himself. His point is that we must be ready at every moment, for we do not know when He will come.

Several years ago, while I was still working for Stop & Shop Supermarket Company, I bought a nice new pick-up truck. It was one of those 4-wheel drive sport models, fully loaded. Each day I could hardly wait to get out of work, to go and drive it. One day I went out to do just that and there was an empty parking spot where my truck used to be!

After three days they found it, or at least what was left of it. It had been stripped of everything, and “The Club” anti theft device that was on the steering wheel had been placed back into the truck, where the seats would have been. This happened in broad daylight, with the police station right across the street! It caught me completely of guard; I never saw it coming. That is what Jesus is trying to say to us this weekend. Be ready!

But the analogy Christ uses, like all analogies, only goes so far. Usually, with a thief, our guard is up. We want to lock the doors and put the alarm on (or get something a little more effective than “The Club”). But not with this Thief! Jesus is the Divine Thief that we want to have in our lives. We want Him in our homes, in our cars, in our families and workplaces.

When it comes to Jesus, the Divine Thief, we need to unlock the doors, turn off alarms, open all the windows, and even break down walls if necessary. We need to let Him in! How do we do that?

First and foremost, we do it through prayer. We keep vigilant by watching for Christ each and every day in prayer. Do we spend time alone each day with God in silence and in prayer? The more vigilant we are to daily prayer, the more prepared we will be to meet Christ when He comes to us each day in our lives…and at the end of them. We let in the Divine Thief through prayer.

Secondly, we allow Christ to "break in" through lives of repentance. We all have places in our lives where we strive to, as we say each Lent, “turn from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” But if there are any sins that we have left un-confessed or areas of impenitence in our lives, not even the Divine Thief can find His way in.

We need to take down those walls through repentance. If there are serious sins, we need to receive the grace God so willingly gives us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Repentance lets in the Divine Thief and allows Him to carry us ever closer to eternal life.

Finally, we let in the Divine Thief through what we are doing here this morning: opening the door to His presence in our lives in the Eucharist. Our first reading spoke about the people of Israel, who were “offering sacrifice and putting into effect … the divine institution (Wisdom 18:9)”. It was a reference to the Passover Meal.

This Eucharist is the fulfillment of that Passover Meal. It is here that we celebrate the Lamb of God, whose sacrifice on the altar of the cross and whose sprinkled blood won for us the forgiveness of sins and opened up for us the way to Heaven. Here at this Supper, we are most vigilant, most open, most ready to receive our Lord.

As Christ tells us in St. Luke’s Gospel this weekend, regarding those who are ready for His coming:

He will gird himself, have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them.
—Luke 12:37

Christ, the Divine Thief, comes to us here to wait upon us, and to serve us with the Bread of Life, His own Body and His own Blood. Are we ready for that meal? Are we ready for that “divine institution?”

Sunday, August 05, 2007


(18th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year C; This homily was given 4 & 5 August, 2007, at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; read Colossians 3:1-11 and Luke 12:13-21)

Have you ever been diagnosed with the disease or illness called Pleonexia? This may be the first time you even heard of Pleonexia, but by no means is it a rare disease. In fact, it is something that affects almost every single one of us, directly or indirectly. The illness of Pleonexia is something that can destroy individual lives, families, and even countries; it is a plague that has, in the course of human history, wiped out entire cultures!

St. Paul uses the word Pleonexia in our second reading from the Letter to the Colossians. Jesus strongly cautions us against it in the Gospel. He says:

Take care to guard against all pleonexia.
—Luke 12:15

You may have guessed by now, but Pleonexia is the Greek word translated in our Scriptures this weekend as greed or avarice, and it is taken from the word pleon, which means “more.” Basically Pleonexia, or greed, is the desire for more, more, more. It drives us on to desire more money, more possessions, more sex, more power. More. It’s the “more” disease.

Pleonexia has the uncanny ability to root us right here to this earth, and blind us to the things of heaven. It creates a false sense of happiness in a life here without God, and takes our attention from the Kingdom of God that each of us are called to embrace. That is why Christ is so adamant in that Gospel to warn us against it.

Often the topic of money and material possessions can be a bit unnerving, because—more than likely in our country—we all have them! A gospel like the one this weekend can cause us to ask, “Is it a sin to have nice things, or to want nice things? Is it wrong to have a nice car, a nice house, a good bank account or financial portfolio? Is it wrong to want that kind of security for my family?”

Of course not! There is nothing wrong with having possessions. There is nothing wrong with a desire for material things. The problem comes when our possessions begin to possess us. It is when our material goods become material gods that we run into trouble. That is the very thing Jesus is warning us about when He says “Take care to guard against all pleonexia.”

In the Parable of the Rich Fool, Christ teaches us the difference between wealth and greed, between possessing good things in this life on the one hand, and being consumed by Pleonexia on the other.

The man in that parable has received an abundance of material wealth. St. Luke tells us that his land “produced a bountiful harvest” (Luke 12:16). He had, in fact, too much. He could not fit it all in his barns. There is no indication anywhere from Christ that this is a bad thing. On the contrary, it is a blessing, not a problem.

What he chooses to do what that blessing is the problem. Instead of being grateful for that abundant harvest, instead of being generous with what he has received, the rich fool says to himself—exclusive from God, and separate from those around him:

I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones…and I shall say to myself, “Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for so many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!”
—Luke 12:18-19

Why does he need bigger barns? Because with bigger barns he can fit more things. More, more, more. That is Pleonexia. There will never be enough barns to satisfy his craving for more.

I am sure you have heard of the expanse of military victories Alexander the Great was able to amass in his time as king in Ancient Greece. He won over nation after nation, until all the world was under his rule. One oft quoted line summarizes well the attitude he had to such success:

“When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer.”

That is Pleonexia. When the world we live in is not enough, and still we long for more, that is a clear indication of greed, avarice, pleonexia. It is said that by the end of his life Alexander finally understood the futility of such a thirst for power and possessions. He arranged to be buried with his hand sticking out of the coffin, palm outstretched and empty. He wanted the world to know that no one—not even Alexander—can take it with them!

No one is exempt from Pleonexia. It can affect all of us, even priests! When I first began my priesthood after being ordained, I moved into my first assignment with only one car load of things. Everything I owned fit into that one car.

When I moved last month into the rectory here at St. Mary’s, I still had that same car filled with my possessions…plus a pick-up truck with the rest of them! It was what I had accumulated in three years. By the time I leave St. Mary’s, if I’m not careful, I’ll need an eighteen wheeler! Pleonexia! It can affect us all.

In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the poet Virgil takes Dante on a little tour of the Inferno and shows him the place reserved in hell for the greedy, those guilty of the sin of avarice. Dante is awed by the sheer number of miserable persons in that place.

Suddenly he notices that a very large number of them are tonsured. (In Dante’s time, those who entered the clerical state were tonsured: they shaved the hair on the top of their heads to show that they were clerics.) He questions Virgil, almost surprised to believe that there could be such here in the Inferno. Virgil’s response is sobering:

“Those bare of head were clerics, cardinals, popes, in whom the passion of avarice has wrought excess.”

No one is exempt from the temptation of greed and avarice; none of us are safe from the plague of Pleonexia. Yet the Good News is that there is an antidote for Pleonexia. There is a cure for that illness, and we find it in our second reading from St. Paul. But you’re probably not going to like it! The cure for Pleonexia, according to St. Paul, is death! He says:

Brothers and sisters…You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
—Colossians 3:3

In other words, St. Paul is saying, the old life that you used to live is dead. Your old desires for possessions and the things of this earth are dead. Now you live your life for Jesus Christ. He continues:

Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed (pleonexia) that is idolatry.
—Colossians 3:5

There is a story about an old man on the Alaskan coastline that used to raise wolves. Every week he would bring two of them into a small village nearby, and have them fight against each other. The people in that village would come out and bet on which of the wolves would win.

A little boy in the village noticed that, although there were always different wolves each week, whichever one the old man bet on always won. One day he asked the old man how he knew which one would win. The old man said to him:

“That’s easy. I am the one who takes care of them. Each week I pick out two of them, and one I starve all week long. I give him table scraps, just enough to get by. But the other wolf I feed with three meals a day, until he is healthy and strong. The wolf I feed is the wolf that wins.”

We can ask ourselves this weekend: which wolf are we feeding? Are we feeding the wolf of Pleonexia? The greed and desire for more of the things of this world that will consume us in the end? Are we feeding the things that St. Paul mentions: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed?

Or are we, instead, feeding our spiritual lives and allowing Christ to live in us? Are we being fed by the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ, who feeds us right here from this table in the gift of the Holy Eucharist?

Let us be fed here in this place, and strengthened by Christ, so that we can leave here and witness to Christ in the world that we live in. May those we encounter this week recognize that the strength we have in this world is not from us, but that it is the strength of Christ Jesus, who lives in us.