Sunday, February 26, 2017

Providence and Dependence

St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226)

(8th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on February 25, 2017 at St. Eugene Church in Chepachet, R.I. & February 26, 2017 at St. Peter's Church in Warwick R.I.  See Isaiah 49:14-15 and Matthew 6:24-34)

Our readings for this weekend are focused primarily on God’s providence.  What does it mean to say that God will always provide for us?  How is it that God cares for all our needs?  Christ, in the Gospel of St. Matthew, juxtaposes this providence with worry and concern.  He says:

Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear.  Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?
—Matthew 6:25

It is probably safe to say that none of us here today are concerned about those specific things.  We all know where our next meal will come from, and we are all fortunate enough to have clothes to wear.  Not everyone does, so we thank God for what we have received.  But it is also entirely possible that there are other things we worry about.  We wonder what our future will be like, if God will be able to provide for us, and for those we love, in the days ahead.  We all want to be happy, to live a good life and have the relationships and experiences that will bring true contentment.  Will God be able to provide those things?

In our darkest moments, perhaps, we may also ask the most difficult of questions: Where exactly is God in all this?  Is God even in my life at all?  Has God left me all alone?

If you have ever asked those questions before, or maybe are even asking them now, then you are in good company.  Those are the questions that the people of Israel are asking in the first reading, from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah.  They have returned home from having been in exile for decades; taken away from their land, from the Temple, from all that was dear to them, their very way of life.  Where was God when all these things happened?  Perhaps in a moment of desperation, daughter Zion express her anxiety and concern as she struggles to make a new beginning:

"The LORD has forsaken me; my LORD has forgotten me."
—Isaiah 49:14

God’s response is as gentle as it is powerful.  He does not rebuke Israel, or remind them that they were in exile because they had forgotten Him!  He does not remind them of all the countless times He has cared for them, with love beyond all telling.  Instead, with a present love and an everlasting promise, He replies:

Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb?  Even should she forget, I will never forget you.
—Isaiah 49:15

This is providence.  This is God’s care and provision, extended to us in love.  Jesus, in the Gospel this weekend, gives us the key to grasping that promise and holding fast to it.  He instructs us:

Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.
—Matthew 6:33

When we seek first God’s kingdom, eternal life, our relationship with Him here in this world and in the world to come, then our lives are ordered to receive the fullness of what God longs to give us.  Our hearts must be set on Him alone, the God who is our very life, and then we begin to discover, in our dependence upon Him, all that we really and truly need.  

The great Christian author, C.S. Lewis, has a beautiful expression that captures this Gospel passage well.  He says that, if you look at history, the men and women that did the most for this world were the men and women that thought mostly of the world to comeAim at heaven, he said, and you will get earth thrown in with it.  Aim at earth only, and you will get neither.

The ones, of course, that teach us this so very well are the saints.  The saints are the ones who accomplished the most for this world by focusing mostly on the world to come.  They sought first, and vigorously, the Kingdom of God, and they were—of all people—truly happy and fruitful.

One of the most beloved saints in the Catholic Church, and a saint revered in circles well outside the Catholic faith, is St. Francis of Assisi.  Everyone loves St. Francis!  And while most people are familiar with Francis’ humility and profound love for the natural world, many would be surprised by what his biographers describe as "the young man's waywardness... of which, later on, he was so bitterly to reproach himself with having 'lived in sin'" (Omer Englebert, St. Francis of Assisi: A Biography).  One of the earliest accounts of Francis’ life mentions that he “wasted his life up to his twenty-fifth year, surpassing his comrades in foolishness, and drawing them with him into vanity and evil” (Thomas of Celano). Francis was the son of a clothing merchant, Pietro Bernadone, a man of no small means.  Francis spent a lot of money on himself, eating and drinking, and even more money on the people around him (Francis was benevolent and generous even in his selfishness!).  But then, slowly, everything in his life began to change.

One of the first setbacks that Francis encountered came when he was captured and imprisoned in a battle with a nearby city.  The soldier’s life was not for him.  After that period in his life, he also endured a long illness that left him bedridden for weeks at a time.  He was completely dependent upon those around him.  Little by little, the light of God continued to break through into Francis’ life, and he became more and more open to the needs of those around him.  At one point, he was moved to generously give away large amounts of his father’s goods.  That brought things to a head with Pietro Bernadone.  The angry father demanded that Francis restore everything he had given away.  Appealing first to the local authorities, the case was eventually brought before the bishop, and there marked a turning point in Francis’ life.

Coming before his father, in a public square in Assisi, Francis brought everything he had taken from his father and laid it before him.  Then he took off his own clothes and gave them to Pietro Bernadone, as well.  Standing naked before all gathered in that place, he told him with kindness that he could have his name back, as well.  From now on he belonged to “Our Father who art in heaven.”  

Catholic author G.K. Chesterton, in his biography on St. Francis, points to humiliating moments like this and attributes them to the transformation of that great saint.  He explains that, when we are humiliated, our lives get turned upside down.  We have all had experiences like that before.  Our lives get turned upside down, there is an embarrassing period, perhaps, and then we “right ourselves up” again and move on.  We gain, hopefully, some new insight and it helps us to live better and with more humility.  But with Francis, Chesterton indicates, he was humiliated, and he humbled himself, so intensely and so frequently that he stayed that way!  Can you imagine, St. Francis of Assisi standing on his head!  Chesterton goes on:

“If a man saw the world upside down, with all the trees and towers hanging head downwards as in a pool, one effect would be to emphasize the idea of dependence… He would be thankful to God for not dropping the whole cosmos like a vast crystal to be shattered into falling stars.”

St. Francis saw the entire world, everything and everyone around him, as being totally dependent upon God.  He was completely free to love God and those around him, to Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33).” He sought nothing else, desired nothing else, and for that reason he possessed all things in Christ.  As Chesterton explains:

Perhaps St. Peter saw the world so, when he was crucified head downwards… men have said “Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall not be disappointed.”  It was in a wholly happy and enthusiastic sense that St. Francis said, “Blessed is he who expecteth nothing, for he shall enjoy everything.” It was by this deliberate idea of starting from zero…that he did come to enjoy even earthly things as few people have enjoyed them. 

St. Francis of Assisi was totally dependent upon God, and for that reason he possessed everything that was necessary to make him completely happy and joyful in the Lord.  Do we?

How is God inviting us, this week, to stand on our heads and recognize that everything in this world is completely dependent upon God?  How is God calling us to see that our lives, our families, our prayer, our future, and everything around us, completely depends upon the one who loves us and died for our salvation?  

This week we ask for the grace to “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33),”  to aim at heaven, and to have earth thrown in with it. 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Holiness and The Way of Perfection

St. Teresa Avila (1515-1582)
(7th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on February 18 & 19, 2017 at Holy Apostles Church in Cranston, R.I.  See Matthew 5:38-48)

Our Lord, in the Gospel this weekend, introduces us to the “way of perfection.”  He challenges us to, “Be perfect, just as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).  I think we could all agree that what Christ is asking of us here is a bit . . . well . . . daunting!  In the face of opposition, Jesus instructs us to “offer no resistance to one who is evil” and “When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well” (Matthew 5:39).  Jesus challenges us to love even our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44).  Such a radically different way of life for us as Christians, this “way of perfection” is daunting indeed, perhaps even overwhelming.  

We need only think about the anger and frustration that so many people experience today when it comes to politics and the things we see happening on the evening news each day.  We all know people, in or families or among our friends, that find themselves frequently embroiled in confrontations about the latest political controversies.  Similarly, many of us know what it is like to sit behind the wheel and become a very different person, filled with frustration and anger towards those we share (or refuse to share!) the road with; on the highway, perhaps we travel very far from the “way of perfection.”  And how many of us have been harmed by the words or actions of others, and find it difficult to forgive and to let go?  How, then, are we to reconcile Jesus’ teachings with the way we sometimes experience the challenges of everyday life?

Some would say that Jesus’ teachings this weekend are simply hyperbole, like when Christ says, “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell” (Matthew 5:30).  Obviously, Jesus is not advocating that we literally mutilate our bodies; He is simply emphasizing the essential need for us to break free of sin at any cost so that we can gain eternal life.  While we may wish to consider the call to perfection in a similar vein, the lives of the saints teach us differently.

St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, reflecting on this Gospel passage back in the 1940s and 1950s, insists on a literal interpretation applicable to us all:

Your duty is to sanctify yourself. Yes, even you. Who thinks that this task is only for priests and religious?  To everyone, without exception, our Lord said: 'Be ye perfect, as my heavenly Father is perfect.'
—St. Josemaria Escriva, The Way, #291

At the time, many people even within the Church were critical of such an interpretation of this “way of perfection.”  Surely God could not be calling bankers, lawyers, laborers, doctors, and all the Catholic lay faithful to such a high standard of sanctity?  Yet in 1964, in the Second Vatican Council’s Lumen Gentium, the Church taught precisely that:

The Lord Jesus, the divine Teacher and Model of all perfection, preached holiness of life to each and every one of His disciples of every condition. He Himself stands as the author and consummator of this holiness of life: "Be you therefore perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect."

Indeed He sent the Holy Spirit upon all men that He might move them inwardly to love God with their whole heart and their whole soul, with all their mind and all their strength and that they might love each other as Christ loves them.  The followers of Christ are called by God, not because of their works, but according to His own purpose and grace.
—Lumen Gentium, #40

We have the ability to live and love in ways heretofore unimaginable, because the Holy Spirit is living in us.  God dwells in us, allowing us to cooperate in the life of Jesus Christ and to live this awesome message of the Gospel.  We respond to the life of grace that God freely gives us, and so we have the power to answer this universal call to holiness.  

But how?  

Practically speaking, how are we to walk in the “way of perfection” and live effectively the holiness that God calls us to?  One of the greatest saints to ever answer that question is the 16th century mystic and Doctor of the Church, St. Teresa of Avila.  St. Teresa, precocious at times in her teenage years, entered a Carmelite monastery at the age of twenty.  Within a few short years, she was already experiencing the beginning of what the spiritual writers describe as mystical union with God.  By God’s grace she had already advanced to a level of spiritual maturity that would take other saints decades to arrive at.  But then she began to fall away.

The cloister (or enclosure from the outside world) that the monastery was supposed to represent was far from the reality.  On a regular basis, ordinary townspeople would visit the convents throughout Spain and be entertained by the nuns there.  No one was more popular than St. Teresa.  Her biographers describe her personality as irresistible.   She became immersed in the worldly concerns of those around her, and found herself further and further away from God.  At one point in her autobiography she recalls the saints who, at one time, had been the greatest of sinners (she names St. Augustine and St. Mary Magdalene specifically) and notes how their lives were totally changed once they had met the Lord.  Her own experience was not only different, but even painfully discouraging.  She writes:

There was one thing that left me inconsolable, as I have mentioned, and that was that the Lord called them only once, and they did not turn back and fall again; whereas in my case I had turned back so often that I was worn out from it.
—St. Teresa of Avila, 
The Book of Her Life, Ch. 9, #7

St. Teresa describes this time in her life as “extremely burdensome,” because she began to recognize, each time she desired to draw closer to God in prayer, the many faults and failures that had separated her from Him.  She would even go so far as to say that simply being in the presence of God took courage, since she felt that she had, in many ways, betrayed Him:

Though I continued to associate with the world, I had the courage to practice prayer.  I say courage, for I do not know what would require greater courage among all the things there are in the world than to betray the king and know that He knows it and yet never leave His presence.

Though we are always in the presence of God, it seems to me the manner is different for those who practice prayer, for they are aware that He is looking at them.  With others, it can happen that several days pass without their recalling that God sees them.

—St. Teresa of Avila, 
The Book of Her Life, Ch. 8, #2

This sense, that God is looking at us, seems very negative at first.  But then the most amazing thing began to happen in her life.  She gradually came to understand that, when God was looking at her, day after day in that place, He was not looking at her in condemnation.  He was not looking at Teresa in anger or frustration, as if to say, “I have given you everything and you have squandered it!”  No.   She sensed that, when God looked at her, day in and day out, He was looking at her with great love.  She began to realize that God was gazing at her in love, and this gaze led her into the depths of a relationship that completely changed and transformed her life.  

Eventually, the nuns in the community with St. Teresa asked for her help, that they might love God the way that she did, to possess that same joy and same passionate fervor in prayer.  They had heard all about the autobiography she had written, out of obedience, and how it had been read by kings, bishops and prominent people all throughout Spain.  But they had never even seen it.  They asked her to write a book especially for them, to teach them how to pray and how to love Christ more completely.  She responded to their request, and the book was eventually entitled, The Way of Perfection.  In that book, Teresa focuses on the gift of prayer that had so captivated her, this gaze of love that transforms the soul within:

I am not asking you now that you think about Him or that you draw out a lot of concepts or make long and subtle reflections with your intellect.  I am not asking you to do anything more than look at Him.  For who can keep you from turning the eyes of your soul toward this Lord, even if you do so just for a moment if you can’t do more?  You can look at very ugly things; won’t you be able to look at the most beautiful thing imaginable?  Well now, daughters, your Spouse never takes His eyes off you.
—St. Teresa of Avila, 
The Way of Perfection, Ch. 26, #3

God is constantly gazing at us in love, St. Teresa teaches.  When He does, then we should return that gaze and look back at Him with love.  This is the heart of prayer for her, that we should spend this intimate time in silence with the one that we know loves us, growing ever more deeply in friendship with Him each day (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2709).

In conclusion, we come here today perhaps frustrated and even angry with so many of the complexities and difficulties of life; maybe we carry in our hearts the heaviness that comes from the words or actions of others who have hurt us, those we find difficult to forgive.  But certainly, we are not here today alone.  Here in this place, Jesus Christ Himself comes to us on this altar, in His body and blood, soul and divinity.  He will be here, gazing at us in love in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist.  He is here, in the tabernacle, like He is every day and every night, looking at us in love.  And whenever we kneel down, in the silence of our own homes, in the early morning or at the end of a long and difficult day, He is there, looking at us and gazing at us in love.

May we take to heart the teachings of St. Teresa of Avila, and simply look back, in love, at Him.  May we answer this universal call to holiness, this awesome invitation to be men and women of prayer; may we gaze back in love at the one that we know loves us, allowing Him to take us by the hand and lead us, each and every day, in the “way of perfection.”

Sunday, February 05, 2017

The Church's Vocation: Light

The Cathedral in Segovia, Spain

By Óscar Ibáñez Fernández (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

(5th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on February 4, 2017 at St. Francis de Sales Church in North Kingstown, R.I. and February 5, 2017 at St. Francis de Sales Church and St. Peter's Church in Warwick, R.I.  See Isaiah 58:7-10 and Matthew 5:13-16)

Our readings for this weekend are focused in a particular way on vocation.  Often the first thing we think about when we hear the word “vocation” is the priesthood.  Frequently we ask our Lord for an increase in vocations to the priesthood.  As rector of our college seminary, I would certainly encourage us all to ask God for more priestly vocations.  But our readings for this weekend are much broader than just the vocation to the priesthood.  The readings for this Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time highlight the universal call to holiness.

The word “vocation” comes from the Latin word, vocare, literally, to call.  God is calling all of us: those who are single and those who are married; He is calling priests and also religious.  Every single one of us are called to be holy, sacred, separate from the world, but for the sake of the world.  That is what Christ is calling us to in the Gospel this weekend.  He proclaims:

“You are the salt of the earth…” (Matthew 5:13).  Salt preserves, it sustains, it gives vitality to that which it seasons.  We are called to be holy so that we might preserve and give vitality to the world around us, seasoning it for the spiritual life that God wishes to bestow upon it.  “You are the light of the world (Matthew 5:14),” Jesus announces.  Light illumines the way; it makes it possible for others to find and discover God in their lives.  We are called to holiness, to be separate from the world, for the sake of preserving and sustaining the culture around us and to help souls find Jesus Christ.

This call, however, is not one that originates with the calling of the first disciples of Christ (what we listened to only two weeks ago in Sunday’s Gospel).  The call to holiness and to be God’s light in this world goes back to the Old Testament, and begins with the calling of Abraham.  God called Abraham in a deeply personal way to follow Him and to obey His word.  He then calls Jacob, whom he names Israel, His chosen one, to whom He makes promises and sustains in the land.  God then calls an entire people, Israel, that He forms as a nation and rescues from slavery in Egypt.  Through Moses He calls them to be holy: “For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall therefore be holy, for I am holy (Leviticus 11:45).”

Certainly, God did not call Israel because they were better or larger than the nations around them; Assyria and Babylonia were far greater than Israel.  God did not call Israel because they were more advanced than the nations and cultures around them; Egypt was much more advanced than Israel.   These were a nomadic people, roaming through the desert and living in tents.  No, God called them because He loved them, and the purpose for their calling is expressed beautifully in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah.  To the people returning from exile, who perhaps considered that they had been forgotten by God, Isaiah announces that it  is not the Lord’s desire to merely sustain them and restore them as a people once again.  No, He will make them His instrument and a servant for the salvation of all:

It is too little, he says, for you to be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and restore the survivors of Israel; I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
—Isaiah 49:6

God called them to be holy so that He could bring the message of salvation to all peoples.  It is through Israel that the Messiah was to be born, the Son of God.  Jesus, the Christ, is born in Bethlehem and He preaches the Good News throughout the land of Israel.  He gives His life on the cross for the salvation of the world, and is buried outside the walls of Jerusalem.  On the third day, He rises from the dead, and sends His apostles out to the ends of the earth to proclaim the message of mercy, forgiveness and new life.  God’s plan worked!  Israel had become that light to the nations, responding to the vocation to which they were called. 

But in our first reading this weekend, the light that is Israel has grown dim . . .

There is every indication in that first reading today that Israel has not been faithful to her vocation to be holy; that she has not cared for those in need, or lived in a way separate from the other nations around her.  Isaiah the prophet challenges Israel to be that holy nation once again, so that they might experience anew the power of God.  He exhorts them to feed the hungry in their midst, and to clothe those who are naked and in need (Isaiah 58:7); to rid themselves of oppression, false accusation and malicious speech (Isaiah 58:9):

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn . . . then light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday.
Isaiah 58:8,10

In our Gospel this weekend, Christ is challenging the Church to that same fidelity and that same holiness to which we have been called.  He proclaims:

You are the salt of the earth.  But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?  It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.  You are the light of the world.  A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.
—Matthew 5:13-14
 Pope Francis, in his first encyclical letter, Lumen Fidei, writes about how the Church has faithfully brought the light of faith, and the truth about the human person, to the world.  He explains:

How many benefits has the gaze of Christian faith brought to the city of men for their common life! Thanks to faith we have come to understand the unique dignity of each person, something which was not clearly seen in antiquity.
—Lumen Fidei, #54

In the ancient world, particular men had a great dignity, but certainly not women.  Those who were free had personal dignity, but not those who were enslaved; they were regarded as mere property.  But once the message of the Gospel is proclaimed, the inestimable value of every human person is made eminently clear: we are worth the value of God’s only begotten Son.  St. Paul will announce boldly that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).  The laws in our nation that govern how we live and how we relate to one another are founded on this vision of human dignity.  How much our culture takes for granted this Gospel truth!

But Pope Francis goes on to explain how God has been systematically removed from our cities and from the public square.  The effects are obvious.  It is not the case today that all persons have equal value and equal dignity in our cities.  The lives of the unborn share no such rights.  They are not protected by our laws and are not valued by society.  We have allowed a culture that has forgotten God to define human dignity, and the unborn are not included in the definition.  We have allowed a society that has forgotten God to redefine marriage and the family, no longer as a covenant of love between one man and one woman.  St. John Paul II cautioned, in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, that man can certainly build a world without God, but that world risks destroying itself.  We are witnessing that destruction—in small ways, and in ways perhaps not so small—all around us.
What is to be our response?  Christ is calling us to be holy, separate from the world, for the sake of the world.  He is calling us to bring His light back into the public square.  Pope Francis, in Lumen Fidei, cites the Letter to the Hebrews, where the biblical author recalls the great fidelity of Abraham, Sarah and the patriarchs.  Hebrews announces, “God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:16).  But then Pope Francis turns that scenario around, asking:

Could it be the case, instead, that we are the ones who are ashamed to call God our God? That we are the ones who fail to confess him as such in our public life, who fail to propose the grandeur of the life in common which he makes possible? Faith illumines life and society. If it possesses a creative light for each new moment of history, it is because it sets every event in relationship to the origin and destiny of all things in the Father.
—Lumen Fidei, #55

In a word, the world we live in needs God!  We are the ones Christ is calling to bring the light of hope, and the message of faith, to a world that desperately needs to experience the love of God.  Will we answer that call?  I would like to conclude with a story that illustrates well our Gospel for this weekend.

Many years ago, a small church was built on one of the highest mountains in Switzerland.  It was quite beautiful and had been constructed with great care by the people of the nearby village.  But for all the details that were accounted for in that church, there was not a single light.  The mountain was too far from the nearest power station, and the cost of electricity would have been far too much.  Yet every Sunday evening, the people who lived on the mountain opposite that church would witness the most amazing thing.  The church bell would ring and people would gradually make their way up the hill.  As soon as they had all entered the church, it would suddenly become filled with light.  The villagers brought lanterns with them as they walked, and once they arrived they would place them on pegs set into the walls.  Having lit every lantern, the church would quickly fill with light.

After the Mass, the villagers would take their lanterns home, and it was then that the people who watched from a distance would see a flood of light coming out of the church, spreading into the night in every direction across the mountainside.

This is the Church that Christ is calling us to be in our Gospel for this weekend.  We are called to gather around this altar and receive Jesus Christ, the Light of the World; we are called to hear the message of the Gospel and let our hearts be set on fire with that love that conquers all things.  Ultimately, though, we are called to leave this place and spread that light and that love everywhere.  May we listen well to the call of Jesus Christ in our Gospel this weekend:

You are the salt of the earth . . . You are the light of the world.  A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.

—Matthew 5:13-14