Sunday, March 30, 2008

Divine Mercy and the Body of Christ

(Divine Mercy Sunday-Year A; This homily was given on 29 & 30 March, 2008 at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; See 1 Peter 1:3-9 and John 20:19-31)

Today throughout the universal Church we celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday. Our feast provides a great opportunity to reflect upon just what we believe about the mercy of God, because we do not believe that God is merciful in some general or abstract way. The mercy of God is quite specific and completely intentional.

We believe that the mercy of God comes to us through the body of Christ.

It is through the crucified and risen body of Jesus Christ that God’s mercy is poured out into this world for the forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life. As St. Peter proclaims in the second reading this week:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great MERCY gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
—1 Peter 1:3

It is through the body of Christ that God reveals His unfathomable mercy. Jesus Christ walks into the room where the disciples are in our gospel this weekend, and addresses them all, saying: "Peace be with you."

Then he does something very intentional and peculiar: He shows them His hands and His side. He shows them His body and the wounds of the crucifixion, and He repeats that same greeting: "Peace be with you." Our peace, our forgiveness, and the very mercy of God come to us through the crucified and risen body of Christ.

But then Christ goes on to do something that is significant for every one of us today: He breathes on them, and tells them to receive the Holy Spirit. He says to them: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:19-21).

Jesus intends to continue this ministry and mission of Divine Mercy through the apostles and disciples gathered together in that place. He determines to maintain that ministry of reconciliation and mercy through His body, the Church.

Certainly it is through the apostles and their successors, the bishops, that this manifestation of God’s mercy will remain. In a particular way, through the Sacraments, especially Baptism, the Eucharist and Reconciliation, God will continue to pour out His mercy in the world we live in.

Yet it is not only through the apostles and their successors that God continues this ministry of mercy in the world. We are all members of His body; we are the Church. God fully intends that all of us be ministers of His mercy. That is the message of Divine Mercy that we celebrate this weekend. It is the message entrusted to St. Faustina Kowalska, a simple and humble nun living in Poland at the turn of the 20th century.

Christ appeared to St. Faustina and called her to be an apostle and “secretary” of His mercy; she was chosen by God to be an ambassador and messenger of the Divine Mercy. That message is not a complicated one. In fact it is quite simple.

The message of Divine Mercy consists of two things:

Trust in God (the words, “Jesus, I trust in you,” are found at the base of the image of Divine Mercy that Christ asked St. Faustina to promote).

Secondly, the message of Divine Mercy is fulfilled through an active and fruitful love for one’s neighbor (deeds of mercy).

Perhaps the greatest example and model for this message of Divine Mercy is found in St. Faustina herself. God entrusted her with much! She experienced countless struggles and, at times, seemingly insurmountable obstacles, yet through it all she trusted in Jesus Christ and in all that He was asking of her.

One Christmas, while still in the seminary, I had the opportunity to visit Krakow, Poland and to see the convent where St. Faustina lived and the Shrine of Divine Mercy dedicated to that beautiful devotion. There was a devout nun there, one of the Our Lady of Mercy Sisters; she was giving a tour of all the significant areas in that convent and church where St. Faustina was so deeply touched by Christ. At one point the sister turned to us and told us specifically of the things that Jesus had asked of St. Faustina:

How he wanted the Divine Mercy Chaplet to be prayed throughout the world.

How He wanted the image of the Divine Mercy venerated everywhere, especially on the Feast of Divine Mercy.

How He wanted the Second Sunday of Easter to be celebrated throughout the entire Church as Divine Mercy Sunday.

Then the sister gently folded her hands, sighed, and said with great sympathy:

“It was too much for her.”

Indeed! That would be too much for anyone! Yet St. Faustina trusted in what Christ was doing in her life. She trusted in the will of God and the promises of God. Now, some seventy five years later, the Divine Mercy chaplet is prayed throughout the world, especially in this week leading up to the Feast of Divine Mercy; the Divine Mercy image is venerated in churches everywhere, and this Second Sunday of Easter is observed in the universal Church as Divine Mercy Sunday.

Jesus, I trust I you! How is Christ challenging us, in our own lives, to trust in His mercy? How are we called to place our trust in His mercy, His grace and His providence, perhaps especially in those areas where it seems like it is “too much” for us? And how are we, then, to move outside of ourselves and reach out to others with that same mercy and compassion we receive from God?

There is a beautiful story about a vision that St. Faustina received in which Jesus appeared to her holding a ciborium filled with hosts. They were spilling over as He stood before her. She could not grasp the significance of the encounter.

Jesus said to her, “This ciborium and these hosts represent your works of mercy done for the sake of others. Each host represents one soul that you helped along the way to heaven by your prayers, deeds and sacrifices.”

In a moment, we will come forward and receive the Eucharist from a ciborium very much like the one that St. Faustina saw in her vision, held by the Risen Christ. We can ask ourselves today:

If Jesus were to offer me a ciborium at the end of my life, how many hosts would it have in it? How many souls would I have helped on their way to heaven by my prayers, my sacrifices, and my works of mercy?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Baptism: A Matter of Life and Death

(Easter Sunday-Year A; This homily was given on 23 March, 2008 at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; See Acts 10:34-43, Colossians 3:1-4 and John 20:1-9)

Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., in his book Living the Catholic Faith, begins with a story about Niagara Falls (pgs. 11-13). If you have ever been to the Falls, you know how majestic, powerful and awesome the Niagara River is…and how dangerous.

The archbishop goes on to tell the story of what happened about 40 years ago. There was a man who took his young niece and nephew out on a power boat several miles above the Falls. Suddenly, tragically, the engine failed and that boat began to drift down the river. Hundreds of people witnessed it from the shoreline, but they were helpless to stop it.

A few hundred yards before the Falls, the boat overturned after hitting a rock and the children spilled out into the rapids, headed straight for the brink. The young boy caught just the right current and plummeted nearly 165 feet down into the one pool of water where there are no rocks, and he survived! To this day he is the only person to ever to go over Niagara Falls unprotected and live.

But the main focus of the archbishop’s story was not the boy, as remarkable as his survival is. The story, instead, focuses on his sister. She was not so fortunate as her brother, and found herself in a different current. She was closer to the edge, though not close enough to make it to shore, and in the part of the river that spills out, eventually, onto the rocks below. She was rapidly going in exactly that direction, some twenty yards from the brink, when suddenly a man jumped into the water!

Holding onto his friends with one hand, he jumped into the water and caught that little girl with his other hand and held onto her until the people standing by could pull both of them to shore. That is a true story, documented at the museum beneath the Falls where it happened.

Archbishop Chaput goes on to say:

Each of us is that girl. We’re all swept along, beaten up, and paralyzed by a river of sin—our own sins and the world’s sinfulness, flowing down all the way from Adam and Eve. It’s the river we call Original Sin…No matter how hard we may struggle, we can’t do anything about it on our own. We can’t save ourselves. Then a Savior jumps into the current, for no reason other than wanting to rescue us. And He pulls us to safety.
—Living the Catholic Faith, pg. 13

Obviously it is a reference to our baptism. Baptism for us as Christians is not an option. It is not an extra or just some sign or symbol for “spiritual cleanliness.” Baptism, as the archbishop points out, is literally a matter of life and death. Jesus Christ, by our baptism, saves us from spiritual death and separation from God, and He brings us into a new and eternal life.

I mention that this morning, here on Easter Sunday, because right here in this Church last night, five young men and women were saved from death and brought into a new life with God. Five people were baptized here and experienced that powerful sacrament of death and life in Christ.

In a moment, each of us will renew our own baptismal promises, the same as we do every Easter Sunday. Are we aware that this is also a matter of life and death? The prayer introducing those promises says:

Dear friends, through the paschal mystery
we have been buried with Christ in baptism,
so that we may rise with him to a new life.

That is the mystery of Easter and the power of our own baptism: life and death. As St. Paul tells us in our second reading this morning:

You have died. Your life is hidden with Christ in God.
—Colossians 3:3

We have died to our old ways of sin, to our old self, and we now have a new life in God. We are no longer heading for the brink of disaster and death, because we have been saved by someone who loved us, who came to us, and risked everything to bring us back to God.

That truth, the Good News of the Gospel which we celebrate here today, has the power to change and transform the world we live in. And let’s be honest, we live in a world that is in desperate need of a Savior and of being rescued. Many—certainly not all, but very many—aspects of our culture and our world are heading for the brink of disaster. We are morally, spiritually and, in many areas of the world, even economically, bankrupt.

Our world desperately needs to hear the message that God has not deserted us, that He has come to us and jumped into the water to save us from death and disaster.
We are all called to be witnesses of that message, since we are the ones who have experienced it personally.

A tremendous model for us in doing just that is found in our gospel this morning, in the person of St. Peter. Peter comes to the tomb where Christ, who was dead, has been raised to life again. He stands before that empty tomb, and then he does the strangest thing: he goes down into the tomb! Usually it is only the deceased that go down into the tomb, but here Peter enters and, in a certain sense, unites himself to the Risen Christ. To paraphrase St. Paul, Peter dies, and is raised up again, to a life hidden with Christ in God.

That is why we hear him, in our first reading, announcing the Good News and proclaiming to all that he has been called to be a witness to all that Christ has done (Acts 10:39). He announces to all that there is new life in Christ, and that, in His name, we have received the forgiveness of our sins (Acts 10:43).

This Easter, will we have the courage to go into the tomb, and then to stand up with St. Peter and make that same announcement? We who have been brought from death to life, will we be the ones to witness to the power of Christ, and the mercy of Christ, in our baptism, in the forgiveness of sins, and in the salvation of the world?

Friday, March 21, 2008

Cobblestones and Redemptive Suffering

(Good Friday-Year A; This homily was given on 21 March, 2008 at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; See Isaiah 52:13-53:12 and John 18:1-19:42)

The City of Rome is a place literally lined with cobblestones. On any given street or piazza you will find thousands of them. Yet there is one cobblestone in that city that is different from all the others. It is a small red one placed neatly on the right side of St. Peter’s Square. That red cobblestone commemorates the event that took place there on May 13, 1981. It was on that date, in that very spot, that Pope John Paul II was shot and almost killed.

Perhaps you remember that tragic event and the precarious days that followed; how the pope received a tainted blood transfusion that nearly ended his life instead of saving it. It was a long, hard recovery that demanded every ounce of stamina and determination that the Holy Father could muster (and we know he had no short supply of that).

A few years after his recovery, Pope John Paul II met his attacker face to face and forgave him. It was within six weeks of that encounter that he released an apostolic letter entitled, Salvifici Doloris, On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering.

It is by far one of his most personal and spiritual reflections (almost every footnote is a biblical reference on suffering). But it is also one of the most important for all of us, because we all experience suffering. Every one of us has a red cobblestone—or perhaps several of them—in our lives. It may be the death of a loved one; a broken relationship; disappointment or discouragement; an illness; an addiction; sorrow about the past; fear about the future.

And just as universal is the question that we have all asked at one time or another, either out loud or directly to God Himself in prayer:


Why is God allowing this to happen?

Why do I have to shoulder this cross, and not some other?

Why is this happening at this time in my life?

Why suffering?

Today, more than any other day in the year, we reflect on God’s response to that question. To be sure, it is no ordinary response. God does not answer the question in a way that we might want Him to, or in the way that we would expect. But His response is one that changes everything. Good Friday allows us to recognize God’s ultimate response to our suffering in the person of Jesus Christ who suffers for us on the cross.

In the person of Jesus Christ, God takes on our humanity and enters directly into our suffering. He takes on our own afflictions and suffers for our sins. As we hear in our first reading, from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah:

Yet it was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured, while we thought of him as stricken, as one smitten by God and afflicted. But he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins; upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed.
—Isaiah 53:4-5

God’s response to our suffering is the suffering of His own Son, Jesus Christ. That response, says Pope John Paul II in Salvifici Doloris, does two things: it redeems the world and transforms the entire experience and meaning of suffering itself.

In the cross of Christ not only is the redemption accomplished through suffering, but also human suffering itself has been redeemed.
—Salvifici Doloris, #19

Our red cobblestones, difficult and painful though they may be, are not meaningless. They are not without some value. In fact, they have infinite value. We can unite our sufferings to the sufferings of Christ and participate in His work of redeeming the world we live in.

Today we come before the cross and venerate the instrument that opened for us the way to eternal life. Let us also bring before Him our red cobblestones, laying them at the foot of the cross, knowing that God has given us the strength to carry them, and the grace to unite them to Himself for the salvation of the world.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Journey into Holy Week

(Palm Sunday-Year A; This homily was given on 15 & 16 March, 2008 at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; See Philippians 2:6-11)

One of the most common and powerful ways of telling a story is to situate it in the context of a journey. Think about the best books you have ever read, or perhaps your favorite movies. Often they begin with the main character in one place, but moving on to some final destination. The story relates all the adventures and experiences that happen along the way.

In our second reading this weekend, St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, we hear the greatest story that has ever been told, and the greatest journey that anyone ever took. St. Paul relates the journey of Christ from the heights of heaven, down here to this earth, and His final return again to the Father in eternal glory:

Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
—Philippians 2:6

No, Christ did not hold on to heaven alone, but willingly poured Himself out—He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave (Philippians 2:7)—and came to dwell here among us. That is how Christ was revealed: as a slave and a servant, giving everything He had to meet the greatest temporal and spiritual needs of us all.

St. Paul says that “he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 6:8). That was the price He paid for our forgiveness and our eternal salvation.

“Because of this,” St. Paul continues, “God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every other name” (Philippians 6:9). He who became so lowly and was willing to serve the needs of all is now exalted in eternal splendor at the right hand of His Father in heaven.

This is the journey of our faith, the great mystery of our Savior and our own redemption. It is referred to, in theological terms, as the Paschal Mystery: the mystery of the life, death and resurrection of Christ and His ascension into heaven. That is the mystery we celebrate and experience every time we gather together for the Eucharist.

But never do we focus more intensely and with such fervor on that Paschal Mystery than in this week we enter now on Palm Sunday: Holy Week. It is during Holy Week, and especially the Sacred Triduum—Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday’s Easter Vigil—that we come to see this great journey of Christ revealed in a remarkable and life-changing way.

On Holy Thursday we gather together for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, to commemorate that night when Christ gave us His Body and Blood in the Eucharist for the very first time. We recall that night when He instituted the priesthood, His gift to the Church to continue His self-offering of the Eucharist even until the present time.

And we remember that moment at the Last Supper when He who came from heaven to this earth, in the words of St. Paul, “took the form of a slave,” and got down on His hands and knees, washing the feet of His own disciples. In that act of humility and love He teaches us all what it means to be a disciple and reveals our call to live our lives for others.

On Good Friday we celebrate the Passion of Christ, remembering once again His sacrifice on the cross. It is called “good” because it is the best thing that could have ever happened to us, where God Himself willingly dies for our sins and opens the gates of eternal life.

Finally, we gather together on Holy Saturday night in darkness and silence. The Easter Candle is lit, and then we light our own candles from that Easter light. The Church is soon flooded with light as we celebrate with joy the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Light of the World.

This is our faith. These are the sacred mysteries of our salvation. How is Christ calling each of us to enter more deeply into them this Holy Week? If you have never experienced the Triduum, might this be the year that Christ is asking you to celebrate one, or perhaps all three nights, of these holy Three Days?

As we enter this most holy of all weeks in the year for us as Catholics, may we journey with Christ here on this earth, so that we can continue with Him forever in eternal glory in heaven.

Monday, March 03, 2008

JP II...Part II

Just in case you missed the Mission at St. Mary's:

Our Lady of Grace Parish Mission

The Spiritual Legacy of Pope John Paul II

Johnston, Rhode Island

Monday through Wednesday, March 3-5

Mass begins at 7:00pm each evening

On Monday night, we will look at John Paul II’s teachings on the “Theology of the Body,” how God becomes man and shows us, in His body, the full gift of love when He unites Himself to and marries our humanity. We will see how He has left an undeniable stamp of this desire for unity in the hearts, souls, minds and bodies of every single one of us.

On Tuesday we will look at our late Holy Father’s teachings on the Eucharist. The last Encyclical Letter John Paul II wrote was on the Eucharist. In October, 2004, he introduced the Year of the Eucharist, and he died in the middle of it. One of his last gifts to the Church is found in his teachings on the Eucharist. We’ll look at that on Tuesday.

Finally, on Wednesday night we will look at Pope John Paul II’s “plan” for the third millennium, how we are all called to go out and live the Christian message and bring the Good News of Christ to those around us.

Please consider joining us this Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday night, at 7:00pm each evening, for the Parish Mission. Each night of the mission will be in the context of the Mass, as we draw ever closer to Christ, our Bridegroom, and listen to The Spiritual Legacy of Pope John Paul II.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Miracle Worker

(4th Sunday of Lent-Year A; I did not preach this weekend, so this reflection is taken from an earlier Lenten homily based upon this weekend's readings; See 1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23 and John 9:1-41)

What does the grace of God look like? Would we be able to recognize someone who had received the grace and favor of God?

This weekend’s first reading tells the story of Samuel who is sent to anoint the one chosen by God to lead the people of Israel. It’s no easy task, as we soon find out, because Samuel is unable to recognize exactly which one of Jesse’s sons God has chosen. Finally he encounters David: a simple shepherd boy, an unlikely candidate. “This is the one,” God tells him. “Anoint him”.

Samuel then anoints David with oil so that everyone can see that God has chosen David in a particular way to receive His grace and favor. It was an event that David himself never forgot. Years later, when writing the Psalm which sums up his entire life—our Responsorial Psalm this weekend—David sings to the Lord:

“The Lord is my shepherd...[he] anoints my head with oil, my cup overflows.”

That is what the grace of God looks like. Through the simple things of this world, like oil, God makes Himself known to us. He makes His grace and favor visible.

I am sure that all of us are familiar with the story of Helen Keller. When she was still a young girl, not yet 2 years old, Helen was suddenly struck by an unknown disease that left her without hearing or sight. Before she knew what had happened, Helen found herself locked into a world of darkness and silence. The few words she had learned in her brief life quickly began to fade away. The last one she remembered holding onto was “water”, and soon that was gone, as well.

Many painful years later, someone suggested to Helen’s parents that there might be someone who could help. There was a young woman named Anne Sullivan who, it was said, had a gift of working with the blind and deaf. They called her “The Miracle Worker”, and you may remember the movie that was made under that very title.

She came to Helen and tried to teach her what she called “word associations”. She would give Helen an object and then try to spell out the word by tapping it into her hand, but nothing worked. Everything she tried failed…until one day she poured cold water over Helen’s hands and tapped the word, “water”. Suddenly Helen remembered!

The last word that she had forgotten as a child was the first one she remembered, and with that small miracle Helen had broken through—once again—to the outside world. The connection had been remade, and she learned quickly how to communicate once again. By the end of her life she had talked with kings and queens, and several U.S. Presidents. She lived a life intimately connected to the people around her. And it all began with a handful of water.

As remarkable as this may seem, none of us should be surprised as Catholics, because this is the kind of thing that God does on a daily basis. God constantly uses the common, ordinary things of this world to reconnect His people to the world around them, and ultimately, to Himself.

Jesus, in the gospel this weekend, encounters a man blind from birth. St. John tells us that “he spat on the ground, made clay with the saliva, and smeared the clay on his eyes.” How strange is that? Why would He possibly do such a thing? Jesus is the Son of God. He doesn’t have to make clay to heal someone’s blindness. Yet he chooses to do so in order that this man, and those around him, could see, and feel and experience the healing grace of God.

This saving action of Jesus is at the heart of our faith as Catholics, at the very core of our understanding of the sacraments. God—who could come into our lives any way He wanted to—chooses to come to us in the ordinary things of life.

Like Helen Keller, we were once locked away in a dark world and separated from God, but the connection has been remade through water at our Baptism. Those of us who have received Confirmation had this connection strengthened through the anointing with oil. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, God Himself speaks to us in a human voice, saying, “I absolve you of your sins”. Bread and wine become, for us, the very Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. The sacraments are real. They change us, they transform us, they make us whole again. Through them God uses the natural world to touch us in a supernatural way.

But the sacraments do demand something from us. They demand a response. The sacraments are not magic. They are doorways through which God pours out His grace into our lives, but we have to be willing to open the door. We have to say, “Yes” to God’s invitation to holiness and life in Christ.

When David was anointed we are told, “from that day on, the spirit of the Lord rushed upon [him].” From the day of our own Baptism, the Holy Spirit has rushed upon us, and calls us even now to a deeper response, a deeper commitment to the life that Christ comes to bring us.

How is God challenging us this Lent to respond well to the grace and favor we have received in Christ? When the people in our lives look at us this week, will they be able to see—in a real and tangible way—that we have been touched by the grace of God?