Sunday, October 28, 2007

Prayer and Daily Life

(30th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year C; This homily was given 27 & 28 October, 2007, at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; Read Luke 18:9-14, CCC #2725)

How is your prayer life? How is your relationship with God in that daily conversation we call prayer? In the story of this weekend’s gospel, the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, we are given the third in a series of three great parables on prayer that are found in the Gospel of Luke. It says a lot, that Jesus would spend so much time teaching His disciples about prayer.

Prayer has the power to strengthen us and set our lives on fire so that we can boldly proclaim the Gospel. It can mean the difference between a life of faith and vitality or one lived in bland mediocrity.

Our prayer makes a difference in the way we live our lives, and the two of them—prayer and life—are intrinsically bound together. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, one quarter of which is dedicated to Christian prayer, says that “We pray as we live, because we live as we pray” (CCC #2725).

And in this weekend’s gospel we can see that the Pharisee isn’t doing either of those two things very well! On the outside he seems to have it all together. He begins with a prayer of thanksgiving: a good start.

But what he is thankful for is that he is “not like the rest of humanity,” or “like this tax collector.” And although it is true that he may not be “greedy, dishonest, or adulterous,” he is arrogant and self-righteous; and that’s a problem.

And the tragedy here is that the Pharisee misses the very point of why he came to the temple to begin with: to pray to God. He is so preoccupied with himself and how he measures up before the rest of humanity, and this Tax Collector, that he fails to see how he measures up before God.

How different is the prayer of the Tax Collector. He’s not looking around at anyone. In fact, he doesn’t even raise his eyes to heaven, but simply prays, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

And because of his humility, and his recognition of the need for God’s mercy, Jesus tells us he “went home justified,” while the Pharisee did not. That must be our starting point for prayer: a humble recognition of our own sinfulness and the need for God’s mercy.

The Times of London, in the early part of the twentieth century, sponsored an essay contest in which they invited several accomplished authors to respond to the question: “What is wrong with the world?” The enigmatic Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton, who himself had written an entire book on the subject, was asked to participate in the project. With perhaps the shortest essay ever written, in the response to the question “What is wrong with the world?” he won hands down with the following entry:

Dear Sirs,

I am.

G. K. Chesterton

Chesterton was not being cynical or negative. He was simply being honest. He understood that the problem plaguing our world since the fall our first parents is the problem of sin. We are all caught up in that problem. Our starting point in prayer, and in life, must be a humble recognition of that fact.

When we are able to admit our sinfulness, and take accountability for our own sins before God, then we begin to see that the real power in prayer and the power in life come from God and not from us. He is the one who comes to us in the midst of our woundedness, in spite of our sins, giving us reconciliation and peace. He brings us healing and then sends us out as instruments of healing in the world we live in.

I spent six years in seminary formation, preparing for ordination to the priesthood. They were some of the most memorable and cherished years of my life. But they were also very challenging. The seminarian lives a life of intense introspection. Once a year he is required to write a self evaluation, describing his strengths and his weaknesses. The seminary faculty also evaluates him each year, pointing out the same gifts, as well as his failings and shortcomings.

I remember one time, during my first few years of formation, praying in Aquinas Chapel at Providence College. It was a cold winter afternoon. I was alone before the Blessed Sacrament and suddenly felt painfully aware of the many ways I had failed to love God and love neighbor the way Christ calls us to. As I continued to struggle through prayer, I began to see more clearly that I was not alone in that place. There was someone else there with me, who was also wounded, in His hands, and feet, and side. It dawned on me that He was not wounded so that He could thrust his hands in my face and say, “Look what you did!” No, as Isaiah the prophet had written:

He was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
and with his stripes we are healed.
—Isaiah 53:5

In that chapel on that cold December day I wrote, on the inside cover of my Bible, the following words:

O Lord, I would give anything
Not to be wounded.

But You gave up everything
So that You could be.

And so that we
could be healed.

If it is true that “We pray as we live, because we live as we pray” (CCC #2725), we can ask ourselves once again: How is your prayer? How is your Christian life right now? Are we, like the Tax Collector, able to humbly recognize in prayer our own need for the overwhelming mercy and forgiveness of God?

How is Jesus Christ calling us—this week—to look at our wounds, in the light of His wounds, and to be healed? How are we called to then bring the Gospel message of that healing into a world that desperately needs it?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Pray Always Without Becoming Weary

(29th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year C; This homily was given 21 October, 2007, at St. Mark's Church, Cranston, R.I.; Read Luke 18:1-8)

Fr. Michael Najim, our diocesan Vocations Director, was preaching at my parish of St. Mary's this weekend, giving me the opportunity to preach at St. Mark's. Please pray, and when you pray, ask for more vocations to the priesthood and religious life in the Diocese of Providence and throughout the Church.

What are you praying for in your life right now? What are the intentions or petitions that you are bringing before God on a regular basis?

Recently there was an experiment conducted by a major university on the effectiveness of prayer. A number of patients who were seriously ill in hospitals volunteered to be part of the experiment, and they were divided into two groups. Information on the first group was given to various religious organizations to pray for, while the second group was not prayed for at all.

Now none of the patients knew which group they were in. The results of the experiment showed that the patients being prayed for did not survive or recover any better than the ones who were not prayed for. Other studies have yielded different results, but based upon this university study we may be tempted to ask ourselves: “Why bother to pray at all?” All of us have offered prayers that seem to go unanswered. Why keep praying?

Firstly, as people of faith we are called to “pray always without becoming weary” (Luke 18:1), as we hear in this morning’s Gospel. Jesus Christ challenges us to pray. He teaches us by His own example and by the constant attention He gave to prayer that this is the way of life for the Christian. But even with all of that said, and from a purely practical point of view, we can recognize that there are several factors which that university study did not take into account.

For instance, what about the spiritual effects on the patients? Were they drawn any closer to God? Were they being prepared for eternal life? Were they becoming more and more open to the eternal relationship that God is calling all of us to in heaven? No scientific experiment can give us the answers to those questions. And aren’t they the most important questions of all?

Secondly, what about the effects on the people who were doing the praying? Jesus calls us “to pray always without becoming weary,” because when we pray, God changes our own heart, and makes us more and more like Christ. It might seem like a lot to ask—this making us more like Christ—and it can even be painful at times, but He is able to accomplish it, if we’ll let Him, and if we remain steadfast in prayer.

Several years ago, while I was still working for Stop & Shop, I bought a nice new pick-up truck, 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 I discovered—to my great astonishment and discontent—that there was an empty parking space 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.

And being a person of faith, I began to pray. What I prayed for was justice. It was justice bordering on vengeance! And for a few days, to be quite honest, that prayer felt really, really good! But before long that feeling faded, and I could sense that God was asking me for a bit more. I began, little by little, to pray for the grace to forgive, to let go, and eventually even for the gift of faith for whomever it was that had stolen my truck. But it took a while. It didn’t happen overnight.

And that is why Christ challenges us this weekend “to pray always without becoming weary.” When we pray, our prayer does not change God. It is not as if He is in heaven, waiting to be coerced or manipulated into following our own good counsel. And we may not always see the changes that take place in the people around us. But when we “pray always without becoming weary,” we come to realize that our prayer is changing us and making us more and more like Jesus Christ.

And so I ask once again: What are you praying for in your life right now? I am here today in this parish of St. Mark’s because our Vocations Director, Fr. Mike Najim, is speaking in my parish about the need for more vocations to the priesthood. We constantly ask God for more vocations, because we know that He is calling men and women to the priesthood and religious life. Yet it can be so discouraging to pray so often and not see, right away, the results that we hope for.

This month is Respect Life month in our Church. How often have we prayed for an end to abortion and the protection of the unborn? Yet year after year nothing seems to change.

And how many times have you prayed for your own families, your own personal intentions, and felt discouraged or disappointed that things were not working out the way you had hoped? Christ challenges us again this weekend “to pray always without becoming weary,” because prayer works, even when we do not see the results or understand how God is accomplishing His eternal plan for us. Prayer works, and when it works it changes the world we live in. It changes us.

So let us begin our own experiment of prayer here at St. Mark’s, and not be so concerned about the immediate results. Let us be concerned, instead, with the way God is working in our lives as we pray, and trust that He knows what is best for us and for those we pray for. And one day we will see the results of all our prayers, and understand completely why Christ calls us “to pray always, without becoming weary.”

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Eucharistian- A Thanksgiving Offering to God

(28th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year C; This homily was given 13 & 14 October, 2007, at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; read Luke 17:11-19)

Our gospel for this weekend relates the story of the ten lepers who were healed by Christ, and the one who returned to give thanks and praise to God. It is a beautiful story of healing and transformation. It is also a familiar story.

It is familiar because it is the gospel which is read for every Thanksgiving Day Mass. If you come here to St. Mary’s next month (and I hope you will!) for Thanksgiving Mass, or anywhere in the United States for that matter, this is the gospel you will hear.

But thanksgiving for us as Catholics is more than just a holiday. It is more than just a word or one gospel passage. Thanksgiving is truly at the heart of our faith and the heart of our Church. The Greek word for thanksgiving is eucharistian, and it is where we get the word Eucharist.

Each week as we celebrate the Eucharist we offer thanks and praise to God. We offer to Him, in thanksgiving, the body and blood of His Son, Jesus Christ; we offer to Him ourselves along with that Great Sacrifice. And when we make that thanksgiving offering we ourselves benefit and are filled with the God who becomes the Bread of Life for us. We draw ever closer to our Eucharistic Lord in this mystery that is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium #11, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, #1).

I would suggest that the Thankful Leper in today’s gospel teaches us, in three particular ways, how to do that: How to approach Jesus Christ and receive Him in this great mystery of our faith.

Firstly, he teaches us that when we approach Christ we need to do so in humility. Lepers at the time of Christ were ostracized from the community; they were to announce their presence as “unclean” and required to stand apart from the rest of the people. But that did not stop these ten from crying out to Christ in their need.

St. Luke tells us how they “stood at a distance from [Jesus] and raised their voices” (Luke 17:12-13). It is hard enough for any of us to admit when we need help or when we are struggling in our lives. How much more so for these men, and to do so out loud and in public? It would have required an abundance of humility.

Pope John Paul II, in his Encyclical Letter on the Eucharist, says that we need to have the same humility when we approach Christ in the Blessed Sacrament:

The bread which is broken on our altars . . . is panis angelorum, the bread of angels, which cannot be approached except with the humility of the centurion in the Gospel: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof” (Mt 8:8; Lk 7:6).
—Ecclesia de Eucharistia, #48

Isn’t that what we say at every Mass? “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” We need humility to approach so great a gift as Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.

Secondly, the Thankful Leper teaches us that healing, transformation, and growth in the Christian life is not always automatic. It doesn’t usually happen in an instant. It comes, often times, through an ongoing relationship with Christ.

The lepers, following Christ’s command to show themselves to the priests, discovered with astounding joy that “As they were going, they were cleansed” (Luke 17:14). They were on the way, following in the direction Christ led them to, and in that they received healing. So it is with us.

It is through an ongoing relationship with Jesus Christ that we receive healing, transformation and growth in the Christian life. We come here to Mass to receive not a wafer, or a piece of bread, but a Person, our Lord Jesus Christ. We need to continue to grow in relationship with that Person, and allow Him to heal and transform us “on the way.”

Finally, that Thankful Leper teaches us that, once we have approached Christ in humility and been touched and healed by Him, then we cannot help but fall down before Him, on our knees, in praise, thanksgiving, and adoration.

Realizing he had been healed, [the leper] returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.
—Luke 17: 15-16

Isn’t that why we gather we gather together for Mass in the first place? We are “built” to make a sacrifice to God. We were created in the image and likeness of God, to thank and praise Him for all the good He has done for us. It is the natural thing to do, and when we worship Him we are never more truly ourselves.

How will our imitation of the Thankful Leper in our gospel this weekend change us and the world we live in as we enter this new week? How are we being draw to the virtue of humility, to ongoing conversion and relationship with Christ in the Eucharist, and to grow in praise and thanksgiving in our own spiritual lives?

May God continue to draw us ever closer together in this holy gift of the Eucharist, and together, may He draw us ever closer to Himself.