Sunday, April 27, 2008

Is He living in you?

(6th Sunday of Easter-Year A; This homily was given on 26 & 27 April, 2008 at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; See Acts 8:5-17 and John 14:15-21)

I am sure you have noticed that ad campaigns for various products have become very simplified over the years. Slogans like “Got Milk” and “Just Do It” catch our attention and are easy to remember. The ad for Gatorade is one like that. It simply asks the question: “Gatorade. Is it in You?”

The inference is clear: if it’s not in you, then it should be! But whether we drink Gatorade or not, I think we would all agree that we have to be very careful what kind of food or drink we put inside our bodies. Some things are good, and some things are not. What we choose to put inside us can mean all the difference between living a healthy life, or an unhealthy one; it can even make the difference between life and death.

The same is true when it comes to our spiritual lives.

What we allow into our spiritual lives and into our souls can mean all the difference between a healthy, living and growing relationship with God or a very unhealthy one. Our first reading this weekend gives us a glimpse of this very reality.

We hear in the Acts of the Apostles how Philip has taken the City of Samaria by storm. He preached the gospel to them, and the most remarkable things were beginning to happen. We are told that:

With one accord, the crowds paid attention to what was said by Philip when they heard it and saw the signs that he was doing. For unclean spirits, crying out in a loud voice, came out of many possessed people, and many paralyzed or crippled people were cured. There was great joy in that city.
—Acts 8:6-8

Philip preached the gospel with great power. He healed the sick. He cast out unclean spirits. Yet after all these amazing things, we discover that it was not enough! There was still one more thing that was missing.

The apostles in Jerusalem heard what had happened in Samaria, and they sent Peter and John, who prayed for the people, “that they might receive the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:14-17). It wasn’t enough to clear out the unclean spirits. These people were in need of the Holy Spirit. And that’s exactly what they received.

God wants to do so much more than drive away evil and take away the things that harm us; he wants to give us Himself. We can ask the question this weekend: The Holy Spirit: Is He in you?

In the gospel for this weekend, Jesus speaks about this very mystery of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. He gathers together with His disciples on the night before His suffering and death, and it is clear that they are distressed about His imminent departure. He consoles them and insists that He will not abandon them, He will not leave them orphans.

“I will ask the Father,” He says, “and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows him. But you know him, because he remains with you, and will be in you.”
—John 14:16-17

Yes, they already know what it means to have an advocate in God, since Christ has been with them from the beginning. Now, He tells them, the Advocate will not only be with them, He will be “in” them. He is talking to them about the person of the Holy Spirit. God wants to live in us, to share with us His own divine life.

This weekend we are given a great example of that reality in our young people here in this parish. This Saturday morning, twenty six children received Christ in the Sacrament of the Eucharist for the first time. Jesus lives in them now in a whole new way.

Sunday afternoon thirty six young people will receive the Sacrament of Confirmation, strengthening that bond with the Holy Spirit that they received on the day of their baptism. The bishop will stretch out his hands over these young people, calling down the Holy Spirit upon them, just as Saints Peter and John called down the Holy Spirit on the converts in Samaria in the Acts of the Apostles.

The Holy Spirit will be living and moving in their lives like never before, giving them the courage to witness to their faith in Christ in this world and to live fully the gospel and their baptismal call to holiness.

They remind us all this weekend of God’s plan for each and every baptized and confirmed member of the Church. God wants to use each one of us to make His message of mercy and grace known in the world we live in, but that will never happen if there are things in our lives which are opposed to the Holy Sprit. We will never be able to fully surrender our lives to God and be totally open to the work of the Holy Spirit if there are things “in us” that are opposed to the will of God.

What are some of those things?

Anger or hatred. If we are harboring resentment, anger or hatred towards any person or group of persons, and not allowing God to help us with that struggle, then the Holy Spirit will not be able to move us and guide us in the way He wants to. Anger, hatred, and bitterness, are all opposed to the Holy Spirit.

Pride. If we have placed ourselves above the people around us or looked down on others; if we have been so self centered that we have place everyone else beneath us or perhaps even placed God beneath us, then He will never be able to live in us the way He wants to. If we have decided to live our lives the way that we want to, without any regard for God and His commandments, without listening to God or the Church or anyone else, for that matter, that is pride. It is completely opposed to the docility God calls us to in the Holy Spirit.

What are the things in our culture that are clearly opposed to the life of the Holy Spirit in us?

Pornography. Researchers say that millions of Americans are now addicted to internet pornography ( Pornography damages the way we look at each other. It destroys our relationships with each other and can destroy our relationship with God. Have we allowed pornography into our spiritual lives?

Contraception. This is so prevalent in our society, although we hear so little about it with regard to the spiritual life. It is simply taken for granted that couples contracept, Catholic or not. But contraception stifles life in the family and banishes God from one of the most important parts of our lives: the relationship of love between a husband and a wife.

There is even a commercial on TV now that targets young people. It totes that this particular contraceptive will not only prevent pregnancy, but will also eliminate acne. This should concern every one of us. Contraception is opposed to the work of the Holy Spirit in us.

These are just a few of the things that so often squelch the life of the Holy Spirit in us. If these, or any grave or serious sins, are in us, then God wants them out. Why does He want them out? So that He can give us more of Himself! He wants us to be emptied of these unclean spirits so that He can then fill us with His own divine life and help us to live the way He always intended us to.

St. Paul, in his Letter to the Galatians, describes the kind of life we will have when that happens, when we are surrendered to the person of the Holy Spirit. He says that when we live by the Spirit we will bear fruit, and that:

The fruit of the Holy Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.
—Galatians 5:22-23

Are not these the very things we long for in our lives? Joy. Is it in you? Patience. Is it in you? Generosity, faithfulness, self control. Are these things in us? We are called to live in the Spirit, to be led by the Spirit. May our lives this week become more and more completely surrendered to the Holy Spirit, who has been promised and sent into the hearts of all the faithful.

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful,
and enkindle in them the fire of your love.

Send forth your Spirit, and they shall be created
and you shall renew the face of the earth.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Human Nature and the Divine Condition

(5th Sunday of Easter-Year A; This homily was given on 19 & 20 April, 2008 at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; See 1 Peter 2:4-9 and John 14:1-12)

Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip?
—John 14:9

How must Christ have felt when He spoke those words to St. Philip? Was He disappointed? Frustrated? Perhaps He was even exasperated.

St. Philip—and the rest of the apostles—had been with Him from the beginning of His public ministry. They had watched Him heal the sick and raise the dead. They personally witnessed amazing and remarkable events, things that only God could do…and still they did not know completely who He was.

Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip?

St. Augustine says, regarding that awkward exchange, that Jesus reproves Philip “for not recognizing his divine condition through his human nature” (De Trinitate, Book 7). The humanity of Christ got “in the way” for St. Philip. He was not able to see the “divine condition” because he was focused on Jesus’ humanity only. He could not imagine that someone who was human, like himself, could also be the eternal Son of God.

Could that sort of thing ever happen in our own time? Is it possible for us to be so focused on humanity that we lose sight of, or fail to recognize, the “divine condition” in the world? Absolutely, and it happens all the time.

It does not happen that people mistake the divinity of Christ on account of His human nature, like in the gospel this weekend. But it is something that happens all the time with His Bride, the Church.

The Church is also both human and divine. We truly believe and profess weekly that the Church is divinely established; it is founded by Christ. We are the only “organization” in the world that is founded by God. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit dwells in the Church. The Church is a divine institution.

Yet the Church is also human. It is made up of human individuals who are like Christ in so many ways, yet unlike Him in our fallen human nature. He was without sin. We struggle with sin all the time, and that is why our faith teaches us that the Church is “at once holy and always in need of purification” (Lumen Gentium, #8).

That is the reality we experience in the Church, and it can also be one of the greatest obstacles for the world around us. To paraphrase St. Augustine, the world around us often fails to recognize the “divine condition” of the Church because it focuses solely on the human dimension.

One obvious example is the Apostolic Visit of Pope Benedict XVI. He has come to our country to strengthen the faith and bring us a message of hope. He has come in the person of Christ to show us the works of God, and so many—in the media especially—have missed that completely.

Days before the arrival of our Holy Father, the Providence Journal announced his coming with this disappointing headline: “Pope’s U.S. Visit will find a faith in disarray”. Not exactly a “Welcome, Holy Father!” is it? If you read the article, you know it became much more negative than even that headline.

Then came Monday. The front page article for that day was one of the most discouraging reports I have read in the Journal (and that is saying a lot). Mind you, this was the very day before the Pope arrived. There was nothing positive in it. It talked only about empty pews, closing churches, and the clergy sexual abuse crisis.

Now let’s be clear: these are real and painful issues that need to be addressed and should be talked about. The clergy sexual abuse crisis especially is something that demands a response.

And the Church has responded.

Pope Benedict XVI has responded nearly every day he has been in this country. He has tried to reach out in some way to those who are hurting and has continually prayed for reconciliation and healing.

Bishop Tobin, in Thursday’s article in the Providence Journal, said “the Catholic Church has done and continues to do as much as any institution in society to try to respond to the terrible events of sexual abuse.”

Yes, there is so much healing that still needs to take place and the Church continues to seek that reconciliation and purification that God has demanded from the beginning. But to make the clergy sexual abuse crisis the focus of the Pope’s visit or to publish article after article, day after day, of the same shameful facts and figures without even trying to communicate the rest of the purpose of Benedict XVI’s visit is to render a tremendous disservice to the mission of reconciliation and hope he has come here to establish.

Besides the media’s misrepresentation of our Church and our Pope, why should this concern us? I would say that all of us are susceptible to the same difficulty that St. Philip encountered in our gospel. With so much negativity, day after day, and a focus solely on the human faults and weaknesses of individual members of the Church and the vast array of challenges we face, are we not in danger of losing sight of the “divine condition,” and the work of the Holy Spirit among us?

This is no small concern, because the Church by her very nature is both human and divine. To see the Church as only a human institution is to live without hope. If the Church is only human, then there is no hope of healing, for anyone. If the Church is only human, then there is no hope of overcoming even the smallest of difficulties, no hope of changing our lives or the world around us. But the Church is not only human, and there is always hope.

That is the message Pope Benedict XVI has brought to our country this week. The theme of his apostolic visit is “Christ, Our Hope!” Speaking to the bishops in Washington, D.C., at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on Wednesday, he spoke of the purpose of his visit: “To strengthen further the bonds of communion that unite us.”

How could one man ever expect to accomplish all that? To bring hope and strengthen the Church in the United States? The answer is at the heart of our faith as Catholics: he’s not just any man. He is the Vicar of Christ on earth and he has come to bring us the message and the hope of Christ Himself. He has done that by doing exactly the opposite of what many in the media have done. Instead of pointing only to the human dimension he has shown us, instead, the “divine condition.”

In his homily at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Saturday morning, the Holy Father spoke about the mystery of the Church, at the same time both human and divine. Following the example of many writers and theologians (he mentioned our own Nathaniel Hawthorne) he used the image of the stained glass windows to illustrate the mystery of the Church.

[The article in the Providence Journal on Sunday morning, the day after I first preached this homily, did cover this very point made by Pope Benedict, using the very same illustration of stained glass windows…Not a moment too soon, thanks be to God.]

Pope Benedict described how beautiful the stained glass windows are inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral. But, he noted, if you look at those windows from the outside, they are “dark, heavy, even dreary.” That is very often the way people view the Church: from the outside, seeing nothing comely or attractive.

“It is only from the inside,” said Pope Benedict, “from the experience of faith and ecclesial life, that we see the Church as she truly is: flooded with grace, resplendent in beauty, adorned by the manifold gifts of the Spirit.”

He was clear that even from the inside, the light from those windows can sometimes become darkened and dimmed through routine and the sins and weaknesses of the members of the Church. They can also be dimmed, he said, by the society we live in, so often forgetful of God and resentful of the demands of Christian morality.

But the main point the Pope made to the priests and religious gathered together there—and to every one of us, by extension—was that we are called to experience the majesty and beauty of that light, to be blessed and graced by the powerful work of the Holy Spirit, and then to go out from that experience and reach out to the world around us.

We are not called to look at a world that has rejected the gospel, rejected the Church and rejected Jesus Christ, and simply shake our fist in anger. No, we are called, instead, to love. “We, who live the life of grace within the Church’s communion,” said Pope Benedict, “are called to draw all people into this mystery of light.”

Pope Benedict closed his homily that day very beautifully, by directing us all beyond merely the human dimension of the Church and all the challenges we face, and to look more intently to the divine condition.

“So let us lift our gaze upward! And with great humility and confidence, let us ask the Spirit to enable us each day to grow in the holiness that will make us living stones in the temple which he is even now raising up in the midst of our world.”

God is doing something in the life of the Church and in the world we live in. He is continuing to build up His Church, even now, and is strengthening the mission of evangelization and hope that He has intended all along. We are called to be “living stones” says Pope Benedict, to be a part of that glorious work.

St. Peter, our first Pope, says the same thing in our second reading for this weekend:

Come to him, a living stone, rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
—1 Peter 2:4-5

That is why we gather together each week as people of faith: to offer spiritual sacrifices—to offer our very lives and the sacrifice of Christ in the Eucharist—not only for ourselves, but for the world around us. We are called to live fully the mystery of our faith here, and then to leave this Church and help those around us to see that, yes, the Church is human, but also that it has been touched and blessed at its very foundations with the powerful and everlasting divine condition.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Good Shepherd Sunday-Found!

(4th Sunday of Easter-Year A; This homily was given on 12 & 13 April, 2008 at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; See 1 Peter 2:20-25 and John 10:1-10)

There is a movie that came out late last year, and it’s now available on DVD, called August Rush. It tells the story of a young boy who is bounced from one orphanage to another, never able to find his place in this world. All his life he has had this deep and abiding sense that his parents are out there, perhaps even looking for him, and that if he just reaches out enough, then they will find him.

One of the major themes of the movie is music. This boy has the most remarkable ability to master any instrument he touches: the guitar, the piano, an elaborate church organ. He is even able to lead an orchestra at the age of eleven.

Now, he has no idea that both of his parents are also very accomplished musicians. Still, he believes that if he can play his music for enough people, eventually his parents will hear him and come to take him home.

It doesn’t take long for the people around this young boy to recognize his musical genius. He is a true child prodigy, like a Mozart or a Beethoven. One of the characters in the movie understands that gift all too well, and tells the boy that he can pretty much write his own ticket; the sky is the limit. Whatever he can dream is well within his grasp. He asks him:

“What do you want to be in the whole wide world?”

The boy answers him immediately, with one word:


That is all he wants, all that he desires in the whole world: to be found, to be loved, to be taken home where he belongs.

That desire is something that every one of us holds in common. It is an innate desire, something planted deep within by God Himself: the desire to be found, to be loved, and to be brought home to an eternal life with God. No matter how far we run from Him, that desire will never go away.

What we celebrate on Good Shepherd Sunday is that God has come to us in the person of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd. He has come from heaven to this earth in order to seek us out, to reveal the great mercy and love of God, and to lead us home to eternal life.

St. Peter explains it well in our second reading this weekend:

For you had gone astray like sheep, but you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
—1 Peter 2:25

We have been found. Even in the midst of our own sins and our brokenness, Christ the Good Shepherd has come for us. Into a world that is so often forgetful of Him, that has “gone astray” in so many different ways, the Good Shepherd has found us and is leading us even now to eternal life in God.

Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, in his recent encyclical letter, Spe Salvi, writes about this mysterious and hopeful intervention of Christ, the Good Shepherd, and of what it means for our lives here on earth (see Spe Salvi, #6).

Pope Benedict talks about the experience of the early Church. In the first few centuries, when a person died their body would be placed in what is called a sarcophagus. Very much like a coffin, these sarcophagi were often made of stone or marble. They would then chisel various Christian images on the outside of the sarcophagus, to remind themselves that death did not have the final word. Our Christian faith gives us hope for a life beyond this world.

One of the more common images to be found on the sarcophagi from this time period was the image of Christ, the Good Shepherd. The message was clear: that He is able to shepherd us throughout our lives, and even from death into eternal life with God.

Pope Benedict quotes our responsorial psalm this weekend, Psalm 23, to emphasize how Christ truly is the Good Shepherd who can lead us through “the valley of darkness” and “the shadow of death” and into eternal life because He’s been there!

Jesus Christ has Himself experienced the depths of suffering and the deepest darkness, so He can certainly shepherd and guide us through anything in this life, and lead us into the abundant life that God has always intended for us. As He tells us in the gospel this weekend:

I came so that they may have life and have it more abundantly.
—John 10:10

Christ shepherds us and guides us in that abundant life with God in so many different ways, but for us as Catholics, perhaps never more so than in the person of our Holy Father, the Pope. One of the most beloved titles of the Pope is Chief Shepherd of the Flock.

It is no accident that I have quoted two people at the beginning of this homily: St. Peter and Pope Benedict XVI. From the first century, in the person of St. Peter, until our present day, in the person of Pope Benedict XVI, Christ the Good Shepherd has continued to lead and guide the Church into abundant life.

In just a few short days, Pope Benedict XVI will set foot on the soil of our own nation in order to strengthen the faith of the Church in America and to guide us all ever closer to Christ. He comes not to bring his own message and opinion, or his own words, but the message and the words of Christ Himself.

I would offer three practical suggestions on how we can prepare ourselves most completely to receive that message and allow Christ the Good Shepherd to guide us in this Apostolic Visitation this week.

Firstly, pray! Pray for our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI. Pray for his health and his safety. Pray that our nation, our families, and we ourselves as individuals, would be open to what God is saying to us this week through the Chief Shepherd who comes to walk among us here.

Secondly (and I never thought I would ever say this in a homily!): watch TV! Finally, we have something worth watching on television. Perhaps to spend 30 minutes or an hour each day watching the coverage of the Pope’s Apostolic Visitation this week (and focus not so much on the various commentators and what they have to say about Pope Benedict XVI, but try to listen well to the words of Pope Benedict himself, and what He is saying to our nation, our families, and us personally this week).

Finally, I would suggest that we spend at least five or ten minutes a day meditating on the theme of the Apostolic Visitation: “Christ, Our Hope.” What do those words mean to you?

Is Christ our hope because He comes to us in the Sacraments of the Church and strengthens us on our journey of faith?

Is Christ our hope because he walks beside us in the valley of darkness, and never leaves us alone? Is He our hope because He has been through all the darkness that we will ever experience here, and we can count on Him to lead us to eternal life in God?

Is Christ our hope because of the promise of the resurrection, because he will raise us up to eternal life? Because we will see our loved ones once again, those who have “gone before us marked with the sign of faith”?

To spend five or ten minutes a day meditating on why Christ is our hope, and what that means for our lives here on this earth.

Christ, our hope, has come to us. We have been found, we have been loved, and even now He is leading us ever more deeply into an abundant and eternal life with God. May we be open this week to the way that He will do that in amazing and remarkable ways in the Apostolic Visitation of Pope Benedict XVI.