Friday, September 20, 2019

Praying for our Leaders...

“First of all,” Saint Paul writes to Saint Timothy, “I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity.”

When is the last time you prayed for President Trump?  Or Speaker Pelosi?  Or Governor Baker?  Or Mayor Perry? Or any of our government leaders?

Not second-guess them, moan or giggle about them, criticize or defend them, surf the cable for sleezy stories about them, but pray for them? Saint Paul admonishes us to pray for them!

Archbishop John Carroll, the first Bishop of these United States, understood the Apostle’s admonition.  But then again, he had to. He was named our first Bishop by Pope Pius VI in 1789, the year after the Constitution went into effect.

The Archbishop was no stranger to this fledgling government, having been asked by the Continental Congress in 1776, along with his cousin Charles (one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence) and a certain Benjamin Franklin to go to Montreal to persuade them to enter the war on behalf of the Colonies.  While their immediate mission failed, it later helped to establish a bond with Catholic France and bore fruit at Yorktown, where the largely Catholic-financed French fleet cut off supplies to British General Cornwallis, and Washington was able to bring the war to an end.  

That was the same year in which Archbishop Carrol distributed a prayer to all the Catholics of these colonies, interceding not only for the Pope and the Bishop, but for the President and the Congress and the Governors of each of the states.  Pray for them, Saint Paul admonished.  And Bishop Carrol was obedient to his command.

His prayer for President Washington is short and beautiful.  It begins by addressing God, the creator of all that is good:

We pray Thee O God of might, wisdom, and justice! Through whom authority is rightly administered, laws are enacted, and judgment decreed, 

He then goes on to ask God to assist “the President of these United States” with his Holy Spirit of counsel and fortitude “that his administration may be conducted in righteousness, and be eminently useful to Thy people over whom he presides” in three ways:

1. by encouraging due respect for virtue and religion;
2. by a faithful execution of the laws in justice and mercy;
3. and by restraining vice and immorality.

by encouraging due respect for virtue and religion; 
We need look no further than President Washington’s Farewell Address to hear of the importance of religion in American pubic life, for [he wrote] “of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports…[an indispensable support, mind you] for whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

Or his successor, John Adams, who wrote to Thomas Jefferson near the end of his life: "I do not know how to prove physically, that we shall meet and know each other in a future state…My reasons for believing it, as I do most undoubtedly, are that I cannot conceive such a being could make such a species as the human, merely to live and die on this earth…thus all would appear, with all of its swelling pomp, a boyish firework."

by a faithful execution of the laws in justice and mercy; 
Notice, he prays, now just for justice, but for mercy. It is a complex Biblical injunction understood well by the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who a short time before he died proclaimed “the rule of law is always second to the law of love.”

and by restraining vice and immorality. 
How does the Present restrain vice and immorality?  First, by his example, which is why they taught me in school to imitate George Washington, caught in the midst of chopping down a cherry tree, but who could not tell a lie. And to be like the young and Honest Abe Lincoln, who whenever he realized he had shortchanged a customer by a few pennies, would close the shop and deliver the correct change—even if the customer lived a day’s ride from the store.

But the President does not restrain vice and immorality only by the way he lives his life, for he enjoys a bully pulpit from which he preaches goodness and morality with inspirational words as well, like:

Words like: 

Ask not, what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country.


The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little. 

Or President Reagan, who, upon taking to TV to console a nation mourning the death of the Challenger astronauts, reminded us that they had merely “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”

Words like that change lives, recall our better angels and remind us who we are as Americans and faithful believers.

So let us heed the call of Saint Paul, that more important than the complaining or campaigning is the prayers we offer for our leaders in these United States:

That they might by encourage respect for virtue and religion;
That they might see to the execution of the laws in justice and mercy;
and that they might restrain vice and immorality.

Then, as our first Bishop wrote said our First President some 229 years ago, we will say of them: “By [their] example and [their] vigilance…By their exalted maxims and unwearied attention to the moral and physical improvement of our country, [they will] have produced the happiest effects.”

Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Suffering of a Father whose Son is Lost

Christ the King Church

I am blessed to be preaching this Novena to Saint Joseph on the day after the traditional feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, in the middle of a month dedicated to the Seven Sorrows of his most beloved spouse.  Which tells us a lot about Saint Joseph.  But I get ahead of myself.

Each night every priest or religious and perhaps many of you, pray Night Prayer, including the Gospel Canticle of Simeon, who with his weary arms holds the baby Jesus and whispers to God: “Now Lord, you can let your servant go in peace, for my own eyes have seen the salvation you have prepared, the light to the nations and the glory of your people Israel.”

And after that joyous canticle, he turned to Mary and told her this baby would be the rise and fall of many, concluding with the words: “and your own heart will be pierced with a sword.”

At that moment, Saint Alphonsus Liguori tells us, the joy which had filled Mary’s heart must have been turned to sorrow, a sorrow which would perdure and a foreshadowing of the Cross on which her Son would offer the perfect sacrifice.

But did you ever notice that of the traditional seven sorrows, the first three were not Mary’s alone.  They were shared by Mary and Joseph. Together, their suffering was a participation in the Cross of their son, just as each of the Crosses God sends to us is a way of our participating in the Cross of Jesus.  “Whenever you suffer,” Mother Theresa once told an old woman, “it is really just Jesus loving you so much that he is holding you closer to his Cross.” “But could I ask him,” the woman responded, “not to hold me quite so close!?”

Joseph and Mary knew that feeling, that Via Dolorosa, that Road of Sorrows leading to the Cross of Jesus, especially on that day they went up to Jerusalem.

Chances are that Mary must have been almost hysterical when she realized that Jesus was not with them as they left the Temple precincts.  And Joseph, the custos, the custodian of the child Jesus must have been beside himself with panic, as he ran from one part of the Temple to the other looking for him; his heart must have ached with the fear he would never see him again.

Like those 800,000 mothers and fathers whose children went missing in the United States last year.  Most of them were found, but imagine what life is like for the 24,000 parents who will never see their children again. 

But like those parents, Mary and Joseph must have carried that big heavy cross of doubt: What if we had watched him more closely?  Why did we let him go off with his friends?  Would this have happened if we had?

But like the parents of every lost child, they were asking foolish questions.  For Mary and Joseph were good parents, just like most of those who lose a child are good parents.  Listen to our beloved Pope emeritus:

"Given our perhaps unduly narrow image of the holy family, we find this surprising. But it illustrates very beautifully that in the holy family, freedom and obedience were combined in a healthy manner. The twelve-year-old was free to spend time with friends and children of his own age, and to remain in their company during the journey. Naturally, his parents expected to see him when evening came"

But despite the lack of culpibility, imagine the suffering of Saint Joseph and the Blessed Virgin as they sought to find their son.  Imagine Saint Joseph as he stares into the crowd with Jesus nowhere to be seem.  It is not unlike the suffering of the father who finds his child has died in the crib, or the parent who stares down the street as no little boy comes home from school.  Imagine the ravaged heart of the father who will never hold that child in his arms again and you will understand why God sent his only Son to seek out the lost, raise the dead child, returning him to his mother’s arms, and lead us to a place where no one will ever be lost again.

But now Jesus was lost, and even when he is found Mary says to him: “Your father and I have sought you with great sorrow.”

Saint Ambrose tries to explain this sorrow as a foreshadowing of the paschal mystery, when he writes: “After three days Jesus is found in the temple, that it might be for a sign, that after three days of victorious suffering, he who was believed to be dead should rise again anti manifest himself to our faith, seated in heaven with divine glory.”

But no amount of theological explication can change the sufferings of Saint Joseph and the Blessed Mother as they sought for their child who was lost.

It is the suffering  of one who loves.  One whose heart aches for the coming of the beloved.  It is the suffering of the prophets, who waited for the coming of the Lord.  The suffering of the disciples waiting in the upper room.  And the suffering of each one of us as we carry our crosses, waiting for the Lord to return and lead us home to heaven.

May God grant us the patience, the perseverance and the hope of Saint Joseph and the Blessed Virgin, as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Unreasonable mercy...

Here's my Homily for the 14th of September on the parable of the Prodigal Son.

You must heard the story.  Probably for the twentieth time.

The youngest son of the two boys, comes to his father demanding his half of the inheritance. In other words, he doesn’t want to wait until the old man dies: he wants the cold hard cash now! 

I know what I’d do if I were that Father...but what happens in Jesus’ story? He gives him a check, no, he gives him cash, and off the kid goes to spend the father’s hard earned money on desperate living.

And when the prodigal son returns, having wasted half of everything the Father ever earned, what does the Father do. He runs out to meet him, throws his arms around him, kisses him and throws a party.

Or recall, if you will, the shepherd who lost a sheep.  What does he do?  He leaves the ninety-nine and goes off in search of the one. If you did that, you wouldn’t be a shepherd for very long, because when you came back what’s to say the ninety-nine would not have wandered off, as well?   But what does the Good Shepherd do in Jesus’ story. He leaves the ninety-nine and goes off in search of even the single sheep who got himself lost.

Or what of the farmer in the Gospel of the wheat and the weeds? He sows good seed in his field, but then an enemy comes at night and sows weeds. The weeds grow up, but what does he do? Does he pull up the weeds like we would? No. For love of the wheat, he leaves the weeds alone, and lets them grow until harvest, when he will finally separate the weeds from the wheat.

Such is the mercy of God. Unbounded. Unreasonable. And far beyond our tiny little hearts. The kind of mercy that forgives not seven times, but seventy times seven times. The kind of mercy that looks at the prostitute forced into confession and tells her, just don’t do it again. The kind of mercy that desires not the death of the sinner, but that he repent and live!

That incredible mercy is our consolation and our hope. But it is also our life’s work. Remember what Jesus taught us to pray? “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Wow! Really?

What about the one that really hurt me? The one that lied behind my back? That one that stole from me? That one that turned her back on me?

God is merciful. Infinitely merciful. And its all he asks us to be, in turn.

Beginning with how sinful we are...

How do most meetings start?  They all the start the same way, with the introduction of the participants and the reading of their biography of accomplishments.  So and so will speak to us today and he has accomplished this or that or something else.

Or they start with an introduction of the gathered assembly.  We have accomplished this and we are going to do this and we will need to accomplish this tomorrow.

But how does the Mass start?  Well it starts in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and then the first mention of those of us gathered here is when I invite you to “

What an odd way to begin a meeting.  By admitting your sins.  Everyone else begins a meeting by saying how great they are (and what a pain everyone else is who is not a part of the group.)

But the Lord has told us to remove the log from our own eyes first.  Saint Paul describes himself to Timothy as a once arrogant man.  And we live pout lives humbly and gently, in the model of Our Lord Jesus Christ, servants to all, seeking the last place and begging the mercy of God.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Saint Peter Claver

Just yesterday we heard Saint Paul’s letter to his friend and fellow worker, Philemon, in which he send back Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, catechized, baptized, now to be treated as a brother and not a slave.

Saint Paul saw in Onesimus what his friend Philemon could not…he saw a brother to be loved and not an object to be bought and sold and used.

By happy chance, today is the feast of the great Jesuit Saint Peter Claver, who spent his life in service to the enslaved African peoples in the port of Cartagena, Columbia, where 10,000 slaves arrived each year by boat from Africa. 

Father Claver, we are told, would board the slave ships and would descend directly into the hold, where filth, disease and death were the only companions of the terrified human cargo. As he fed, clothed and nursed the prisoners, he was wont to take off his own cloak and place it over the shoulders of a naked, shivering child. So revered was Father Claver that word began to spread that whoever wore his cloak would enjoy a long, happy and illness-free life.

He famously baptized more than 300,000 slaves, and when he went to visit them after they had been auctioned off to the highest bidder, he would decline the hospitality of their masters and insist on eating and sleeping with the slaves.

All because he recognized in each person, not a slave, but a brother, not a creature, but a human person.

The Church, like every institution, struggled with slavery through the years. Just as enslaved African people built the white house in 1792, as recently as 1838 the Jesuits at Georgetown University sold 272 slaves to pay the College’s debts. All this despite the condemnation of slavery by Popes since the fifteenth century, culminating in Gregory the XVI’s papal bull In supremo apostolatus, published one year later, in which the Holy Father condemned “all believers in Christ, of whatsoever condition [who] unjustly molest Indians, Blacks, or other men of this sort;...or to reduce them to slavery…” All this taking place almost thirty years before the United States of America would outlaw slavery.

It’s a long and ugly history, this buying and selling of human beings, but even today we must ask ourselves how often we use people and love things. And when we do, perhaps we should think back on Saint Paul and Onesimus in prison and Father Claver in the bowels of all those ships.

Divino Niño Novena

This was the second night of our Divino Niño Novena. What a wonderful spirit of prayer and gratitude to God for the gift of his Son! 

 The evening reminded me of Pope Francis' celebration of the Holy Child in the Phillipines a couple years ago, when he reminded is that "The Santo Niño continues to proclaim to us that the light of God’s grace has shone upon a world dwelling in darkness. It brings the Good News of our freedom from slavery, and guides us in the paths of peace, right and justice. The Santo Niño also reminds us of our call to spread the reign of Christ throughout the world.”  

Saturday, September 7, 2019

On Onesimus and Koinonia

I remember being in High School in an English literature class and the assignment was to read one of the forty six books in the Bible for homework. We all gasped. Read a whole book for the next day!

Of course, we were thinking of Moby Dick or To Kill a Mocking Bird. But the books of the Bible are much shorter. The longest of the Gospels is by Saint Luke at 19,482 words, less than a quarter of the size of To Kill a Mockingbird.

But that didn’t come close to satisfying our laziness, as we sought out the very shortest books of the Bible. Some of my more industrious classmates found the Third Letter of John at 219 words, while others found the Second Letter of John at 245 words. But I was close, finding Paul’s letter to Philemon, weighing in at just over 300 words! And all this without the benefit of the internet.

Of course it probably took me an hour to find a short book, and less than a quarter of an hour to read it. And boy, was it confusing!

Saint Paul, you see, happens to be in prison again, and the fellow who has been taking care of him is named Onesimus. I thought that was a rather funny name, as I had never met anyone named Onesimus. But then again, I didn’t know any Philemons either!

Anyways, while Paul has great affection for Onesimus, calling him his adopted son, Onesimus has a really interesting back story. You see the young Onesimus was a slave, back in the city of Colossae (remember Paul’s letter to the Colossians) who sought Paul out in Prison, because his life was now all messed up and he needed some good advice.

Paul, from prison, scrapes the young Onesimus off the ceiling and tells him about Jesus and what life is really all about. He converts the runaway slave to Christianity, and presumably baptizes him, after which Onesimus becomes entirely devoted to the elderly prisoner and takes care of him.

But now, for the rest of the story. For Onesimus, it turns out, was a slave who belonged to one of Paul’s old friends, Philemon, from whom he had stolen something when he ran away and came to Paul for help. Now, Paul tells us, Onesimus is a changed man. And more importantly, he tries to tell Philemon the same thing.

Now picture Philemon, a fairly rich and influential leader back in Philippi. As Paul relates in the opening verses of his letter, Philemon is a man of deep faith, whom Paul regards as a coworker in spreading the Gospel. He is probably a leader in the local Church, whom Paul became well aquatinted with during his missionary journeys. But now he is just a master whose slave ran away from him after stealing. And that’s where it gets interesting.

Paul begins the second chapter of his letter by taking about unity or communion. Little Martin over there received his First Holy Communion last week and in just a few minutes we will all go to Communion. The word for communion in Greek is KOINONIA. It’s a peculiar word, which describes a common union in Christ, the intimate union we receive in Baptism. In being joined with Christ, we become sons and daughter of his heavenly Father and brothers and sisters of all the Baptized. Saint Paul refers to Christ as the “first born of many brothers and sisters,” and repeatedly speaks of our insertion into the life of God, our union with the Blessed Trinity.

The Fathers of the Church spoke of this communion, this koinonia, as well. Just as the Father loves the son with a total paternal love, so the Son loves the Father with perfect filial obedience, each pouring out that love which is God on the other, in an action which is the Holy Spirit, a love so tangible, as my grandmother used to say, that “you could cut it with a knife.” And this communion, this koinonia of love which is the Blessed Trinity, which is God, is what we become one with in Baptism, and which we receive in Holy Communion, one bread, one cup, one Body in Christ.

That means that we are one in Christ, you and I, no matter what happens and no matter where we go. It’s what I will pray for in a few minutes in the Third Eucharistic Prayer:

grant that we, who are nourished
by the Body and Blood of your Son
and filled with his Holy Spirit,
may become one body, one spirit in Christ.

It is the self-same faith which we profess in “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.”

This unity is not born of human affection or political calculation, but of the grace of God working in our lives. We forgive others not because they are necessarily worthy of our forgiveness, but because the grace God demands it and gives us the strength to do it. We lay down our lives for anyone who needs us not because we are such good people, but because the grace of God gives us the power to love others as he first loved us.

Each time we love, then, it is not so much a testament to our goodness, as to Christ’s grace. And it is only because we are one with him, that we can love one another.

Fidelity to that love is, then, fidelity to God, and the failure to love my brother or sister is a failure to love him, which is why Christ tells us that when we love the hungry, the poor, the homeless or the prisoner, we are really loving him.

This is the great mystery of Koinonia and of Holy Communion, that having been made one with Christ, having been loved by him as he hung upon the wood of the Christ in the perfect sacrifice of praise, we can now love one another. Just picture him looking down at us from the altar of the cross and saying, “love one another, as I have loved you.”

So, now back to poor Philemon, having lost his slave and the stuff the wretch stole from him.

That slave, Paul writes to Philemon, is no more. For I am sending the baptized Onesimus back to you, “no longer as a slave [but as] a brother.” He is now your brother in Christ, whom, Paul tells Philemon, you should welcome in the same manner that would welcome me.

For that’s what the love of God does. It turns slaves into brothers, and prisoners into free men. It turns thieves into disciples and strangers into obedient sons.

Which is not quite what I got out of this little book the first time I read it, all 319 words. But it’s something I’ve learned. That we are nothing without the grace of God, and with it, we can love just like him.

“First of all,” Saint Paul writes to Saint Timothy, “I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for every...