Sunday, June 22, 2008


(12th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on 21 & 22 June, 2008 at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; See Matthew 10:26-33)

His name was John Fisher and he was a witness. He was many things to many people and loved by almost all, but above all else he was a witness. What he witnessed to was his faith in Jesus Christ.

John Fisher bore witness to the God who made him, to the Catholic faith he was ordained—as a priest and eventually a bishop—to proclaim and profess. He witnessed to the teachings of the Catholic faith handed down to us from Christ. And for that witness, under King Henry VIII in sixteenth century England, he died.

That is the ultimate expression of what it means to be a witness. The word in Greek for witness is martus (µαρτυς) and it is where we get the word martyr. To be a martyr is to bear witness with one’s body, one’s earthly existence itself, for faith in Jesus Christ. St. John Fisher did that and for that reason we celebrate his feast day today…but not only his. He shares this feast day with perhaps a better known saint, St. Thomas More.

St. Thomas More was also a witness but unlike St. John Fisher he was a Catholic layman, not a priest; not a bishop. He was a brilliant lawyer and held the highest appointed office in all England: Chancellor.

St. Thomas More loved his family, loved his work and the country of England. He even loved King Henry VIII (no small feat, that). But above all these he loved God. If you have seen the movie A Man for All Seasons, then you will remember the final scene, which is taken directly from the life of St. Thomas More. Immediately before his execution he announces to the crowd gathered there:

I die here the King’s good servant, but God’s first.

That is at the heart of what it means to be a witness: to place God above everyone and everything. Christ this weekend challenges us to be witnesses to Him and the gospel message.

“Fear no one,” He says (Matthew 10:26).

When it comes to being a witness for Jesus Christ we are called to do so without any fear of anyone or anything on earth.

What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light; what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops.
—Matthew 10:27

We are called, every one of us, to be witnesses.

“Everyone who acknowledges me before others,” Jesus assures us, “I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father" (Matthew 10:32). Can you imagine what that would be like? To stand before God in heaven, surrounded by all the saints and angels, and to have Christ point to you and say:

This one, Father. This one was my witness on earth.

But if we deny Him…

Whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father.
—Matthew 10:33

Our message for the gospel this weekend is a sobering one indeed. We are called to be witnesses, to bear witness to Jesus Christ in this world so that we can live forever with Him in the next. How are we called to do that?

I would suggest there are at least three ways we are called to be witnesses. The first is given to us by way of example in the lives of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More. They were witnesses for Christ by defending the teachings of the faith handed down to us by God through the apostles. They died defending that faith. We are called to bear witness to that same faith and defend it when necessary.

What are the teachings of our faith that are in need of being defended in our own time and culture? The number one teaching under fire today and one that every Christian man and woman is bound to defend is the dignity of every human life, from the moment of conception until natural death.

The world we live in does not accept that teaching, as you know. Abortion on demand is the law of the land here in our own country and in many other places around the world. The state says we can decide—each one of us—which unborn child lives or dies. Or we can decide to experiment on life in its tiniest and most vulnerable form: the human embryo.

It is never acceptable to take another human life, or to do embryonic stem-cell research on a living human being, no matter what the possible results or outcome may be. We are called to defend the dignity of all human life and to speak out boldly and clearly for those who cannot speak for themselves.

Life at the end of our earthly journey, our faith teaches, is equally sacred. There are several countries in Europe and one state here in our own country (Oregon) where that teaching is thoroughly rejected. Euthanasia or “mercy killing” is an accepted way of facing death for the elderly and those who make their own decision that life is no longer worth living.

Will we have the courage to stand up and defend the sacredness of human life, from the moment of conception until the moment of natural death, when necessary in our own country or our own state? We will have the chance to do that this election year, when we can speak up and be heard and let our beliefs be made known to those we will choose to represent us. May we be faithful witnesses in that!

Marriage: another key tenet of our faith and a foundational institution given to us by God, which is under attack daily in our nation. That was the issue in sixteenth century England, as well. King Henry VIII had no problem with the Trinity. He believed that Christ was the Son of God, and Mary was the Mother of God. No problems there. It was marriage that he had a problem with.

King Henry VIII said that he was going to decide when marriage begins and when it ends; not the Pope, and not the Church. He would be the head of the Church in his England, and he would tell them what marriage was.

St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher said: No you won’t! They opposed King Henry VIII because we already have a Head of the Church, Jesus Christ, and He has to told us clearly what marriage is. For that opposition they were executed.

God, right now, is asking for a lot less from you and me. But He is asking us to defend this teaching of our faith and the institution He has given us in the Garden of Eden, a covenant relationship of love between one man and one woman. That is marriage; not two men or two women.

And if you give that witness, if you defend marriage as God has revealed it, you will be criticized! They will say that you are a bigot, or that you do not love people with another lifestyle, or worse: that you hate them.
That is a lie.
But we are called to defend marriage even if we are misrepresented and maligned. We bear witness to the faith by defending it when necessary.

Yet being a witness is more than being defensive. We are also called to live out our faith with great love and great passion, so that others may see what we have and be brought closer to God. I will give you an example: saying grace before meals. Sounds simple enough, right?

Do you pray before meals, thanking God for the food and the people around your table? But do you do that in public, in a restaurant? If you do, I promise you people around you will look. They will notice, and maybe even stare. But one thing they probably will not do is tell you what they are thinking inside. They will not say that they are thinking:

If only I had that kind of faith, maybe I would be able to get through this struggle or trial in my life right now.

If only I had faith like that, maybe I would be more joyful or more at peace in my life.

And that leads us to the third reason why we are called to be witnesses: not for ourselves, or for God, but for them. We are called to be witnesses for the men and women who do not yet believe in Jesus Christ, or the ones who do believe but are not living that faith the way God wants them to. We are called to be witnesses to them, sharing with them the message of the gospel and the overwhelming mercy and forgiveness already shown to us.

Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi, said the reason why the Church exists in the first place is to evangelize. We exist not for ourselves but for the world around us, to proclaim the gospel and to lead other souls to God and eternal life.

Do we have the courage to do that in our lives, and are we willing to ask God to help us to live our faith in that way? If so then, please God, may Christ point to us when our lives here are complete, and say about us:

That one, Father. That one was my witness on earth. Come.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Heart of a Father

(11th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on 14 & 15 June, 2008 at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; See Matthew 9:36-10:4)

I am sure that all of us are familiar with the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus: a heart on fire and burning with love for souls. In the gospel this weekend St. Matthew reveals the Sacred Heart of Christ in a particular and powerful way as the heart of a father.

In a certain sense, the heart of God the Father beats inside the incarnate Son of God. The burning love and desire of the Father finds its beautiful expression in the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ, His Son.

St. Matthew describes how Christ looked out at the multitude of people before Him and was stirred with emotion at what He saw:

At the sight of the crowds, Jesus’ heart was moved with pity for them.
—Matthew 9:36

The word St. Matthew uses is the strongest word for pity in the Greek language. It means, literally, to be effected deep within one's body. When He looked out at the people, their condition moved Him physically as well as spiritually. Why?

Because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd.
—Matthew 9:36

The men God had appointed to lead and guide them in the spiritual life, those commissioned to be spiritual fathers in Israel, had failed. Instead of caring for the flock, they had “fed themselves on their sheep” (Ezekiel 34:1-16). Suddenly Christ responds to that desperate situation but His response is not what we would first expect: He does not react in anger or in bitter frustration. He responds with the heart of a father. His first response, made in love, is prayer.

Jesus prays and He commands the disciples gathered before Him to pray, as well:

Ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.
—Matthew 9:38

Then, with that prayer still on their lips, He sends out the Twelve Apostles. The mystery of prayer often works like that. God inspires and even commands us to pray for something so that He can then give us the very thing we ask for. He says to us:

“Ask me. Ask me for forgiveness. Ask me for mercy. Ask me for grace and strength in your spiritual life. Ask me for the infinite joy of the Holy Spirit.”

And then He proceeds to pour out upon us those very things we have asked for!

“Ask the master of the harvest,” Jesus commands, “to send out laborers for his harvest” (Matthew 9:38). Then He sends out the twelve; ordinary men sent to do the extraordinary work of the gospel.

There is a spiritual principle at work here, however, that is important for us to recognize: Grace builds on nature. God does not work against our nature when it comes to the spiritual life and the building up of the Church. Grace builds on nature. Christ builds on what is already present in each person He chooses and calls. He takes our natural gifts and abilities, as well as our unique characteristics, likes and dislikes, and then He builds upon that with His supernatural gifts.

Peter, Andrew, James and John were all fishermen. That is what they did. They were good at it, and they enjoyed it. Christ does not short circuit them and reprogram their natural desires. They were fishermen, but Christ now says to them: “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). You used to catch fish, but now you will be catching men and women for the kingdom of God. Grace builds on nature.

The same is true of St. Matthew, the tax collector. He used to use his pen to mark down who paid and who owed him money. He would tally up his riches and look at them in ink and paper. When Christ calls him to be an Apostle and Evangelist, he never lays down that pen. Instead he now uses it to write down the gospel and share the message of salvation and mercy.

Grace builds on nature. It was true in the first century and it remains true today. For nine years I worked for Stop & Shop Supermarket Companies. I worked with hundreds of people and met thousands in the different stores throughout the state. God has built upon that foundation in the work that He has called me to as a parish priest, working with and serving thousands of people in the supernatural ministry of proclaiming the gospel.

The bishops of our country recently published an article on the men from across the United States who will be ordained to the priesthood this year (five of them will be from our own Diocese of Providence! We have much to celebrate here in the local Church). The article listed some of the professions of those men before they entered the seminary: a dean of a major university, a United States Marine officer, a clinical psychologist, and many more. God will use all these gifts and experiences to build on and enhance the supernatural work of His gospel.

But one gift, one necessary requirement for all men called to the priesthood—the sine qua non for each, be he fisherman, psychologist or supermarket employee—is that he have the heart of a father. He must look out and see the people and be moved with compassion and desire to serve as Christ Himself. How desperately priests need your prayers to do that! Pray for your parish priests, and all priests, that they may have the heart of a father. It is obviously much more difficult for us than it was for Christ to have the Father’s heart burning within us. But the heart of a father is essential nonetheless if we would truly be His priests.

Which brings us back to that spiritual principle: Grace builds on nature. On this Father’s Day I can reflect on the fact that what I have known and experienced of spiritual fatherhood has come to me firstly through my own Dad. His example and life in my family is the foundation on which God has built in making me a spiritual father to His people. I thank God for my Dad and pray in thanksgiving for the many things he taught me and for his support on my way to the priesthood.

Our fathers teach us how to love, how to be strong in our families and how to sacrifice for the sake of others. There are no perfect fathers on this side of heaven, and though perhaps sometimes through mistakes and imperfections, all of our fathers give us the solid foundation on which God continues to build as we strive for the kingdom of God.

Together we thank God for them all. May God continue to bless our fathers, as well as the world we live in, through them. And may we respond well to the call of Christ in the Gospel of St. Matthew this weekend, to “ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest” (Matthew 9:38). May God continue to send us men who have the heart of a father, willing to love as Christ loves, for the glory of God and the building up of His Church.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Making It Look Easy

(10th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on 7 & 8 June, 2008 at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; See Matthew 9:9-13)

We have all watched sports on TV at one time or another. Maybe you have been watching the NBA Finals between the Celtics and the Lakers. You probably watched the Red Sox win the World Series this past fall, or the New England Patriots in their remarkable season last year (if you are lucky, you didn’t watch the Super Bowl; I still have nightmares about that game).

Certainly many of us have played sports in high school or maybe we squeeze in a little golf on the weekends. But there is nothing quite like watching the pros on TV: To see Tiger Woods drive a golf ball 375 yards, straight as an arrow, and land it right in the middle of the fairway; or to watch Tom Brady throw 15 straight completions, never once missing his intended receivers.

We watch those players and we think to ourselves:

They really make it look easy! They are so good, it must be like second nature to them. It seems like no effort at all.

But we know that is far from the truth.

The reason they are so good is because they spend hours and hours, day in and day out, faithfully practicing and striving for perfection. They have been given a gift from God, a remarkable talent and ability to be sure, but they have chosen to respond well to that gift. It may look easy to us, but there is a lot going on beneath the surface.

The gospel we listen to this weekend—the Calling of St. Matthew—is something quite like that.

St. Matthew is one of the original Twelve Apostles. He is also a martyr, one who was killed for his faith in Jesus Christ. Matthew is one of the “four evangelists,” one of the four great gospel writers (along with Mark, Luke and John).

And even though Matthew was a tax collector—tax collectors were despised by their fellow Jews, for they worked in league with the Roman government and often swindled their own people for a living—Christ walks right into that customs post this morning and calls Matthew to follow Him.

Matthew’s response is automatic:

He got up and followed him.
—Matthew 9:9

All that temptation, so much power and money, and he just got up, walked away and became a saint. Matthew makes it look easy! But of course there is a lot more to the story than that.

We know at least three things for a fact that Matthew did, things that we should be striving for on a daily basis; three things that could help each of us to become saints.

[That is the goal of the Christian life, by the way: to be holy men and women of God, to be saints. No matter what our sins, shortcomings or weaknesses may be, and no matter what the world we live in says about how difficult it is to follow the commandments and live according to the teachings of our faith, we are called to be holy. Ask St. Matthew]

Firstly, as we hear in the gospel this weekend, when Christ called Matthew, “He got up” (Matthew 9:9). It is such a short phrase, but it tells us so much. He did not remain in the midst of the temptations and the situation that had separated him from his brothers and sisters and probably God as well. He got up. He got up and got out of the way of sin. Do we?

In our own lives, do we get up and get out of the way of the things that entangle us in sin and separate us from God and each other?

When we are watching TV, and suddenly something comes on the screen that we know we should not be watching, do we get up and get out of the way of sin by switching the channel?

When we are engaged in a conversation with a friend or with a group of people and suddenly the conversation gets dark; when someone’s reputation is being damaged or when the topic turns vulgar; when these things happen do we have the courage and the strength to get up and get out of the way of sin? Do we change the subject or leave the conversation?

It could be any of these things. It could be a bad habit, or a relationship that is taking us further away from God and the teachings of our faith. Like St. Matthew, we have to get up and get out of the way of sin when Jesus Christ calls us.

Secondly, we know that after Matthew “got up,” he immediately “followed [Christ]” (Matthew 9:9). Again, it is a short phrase, but speaks volumes. Matthew walked with Christ. He followed the example and teachings of Jesus Christ.

As Christians we need to do so much more than just avoid evil. Many people avoid evil and stay out of trouble, but they are not good Christians because they simply do what they want to do, or what feels good, or what everyone else is doing. They do not truly follow Christ. Do we?

One of my favorite passages from the Second Vatican Council, and one I have quoted many different times, beautifully describes the life of Christ and outlines well what we should be doing as His followers. It says:

“Man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”
—Gaudium et Spes, #24

By nature, we are creatures who are fulfilled only by giving to others: our families, those around us, and most especially, God Himself. That is what Christ did. He poured Himself out for us all on the cross so that we could be forgiven and have the hope of eternal life. He gave everything to God and to others in complete generosity, thinking lastly of Himself. That is what we are called to do as His followers. That is what St. Matthew began to do the day he left the customs post and never looked back.

Finally, we know not only that Matthew “got up,” and got out of the way of sin, that he “followed [Christ],” but also that he proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ.

St. Matthew paid attention! He paid attention to the way Christ treated him with such compassion and mercy; he paid attention to the way that Christ worked in the lives of others and to the truths that He taught and lived so well. Matthew saw all of this, he observed it and reflected on it, and then he wrote it down! He shared with the people of his culture and the world around him this good news about who God is and all the things He has done. We, some 2000 years later, are still listening to what he has to say.

We may not all be called to proclaim the gospel in the same way as St. Matthew. The great Italian poverello, St. Francis of Assisi, was known to have said that we should “proclaim the gospel always and everywhere, and—when necessary—use words.”

We proclaim the gospel whenever we live our lives vibrantly for Christ. We proclaim the gospel by our Christian witness in the everyday circumstances of life at work, in our homes and friendships. And at times, it is necessary that we use words. We should always be ready to put into words what God is doing in our lives and in the lives of those around us.

Avoiding evil, following Christ by giving generously of ourselves to God and others, and proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. Are we able to devote ourselves to these practices each day, week after week? If so, perhaps some day the people who know us best will look at our lives and say:

That man or that woman really knew what it meant to follow Christ. They really lived the gospel well. And do you know what?

They made it look easy!