Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Communion of Saints

The Second Letter to the Thessalonians, which is among the source texts used for the Readings of the Thirty-Second Sunday of Ordinary Time (Cycle C) is something of a problematic biblical text. Although it has traditionally been attributed to Saint Paul, writing with Saint Barnabas and Saint Silvanus/Silas (cf. 2 Thess 1:1), most modern scholars believe that this text (among others) was written several years after Paul’s martyrdom. Whether this letter was written by Paul or by those who had been formed by the Apostle is, however, in many ways irrelevant to the meaning of the text for the Church today. The text itself, which was certainly known to Marcion and Saint Polycarp (in the mid-second century), describes a local community that was experiencing persecution or dangers from heretical (i.e. gnostic) movements and which was at danger of losing its focus on the Faith that Paul and his collaborators had handed over to the community by their preaching and witness (cf. Raymond Brown, S.S., in The Introduction to the NewTestament, 594-596). 

Our situation is somewhat similar to that faced by those for whom 2 Thessalonians was intended, and we are mindful of those Christians throughout the world (e.g. in the Middle East and Southeast Asia) who are suffering for their faith in Jesus, as well as those who are the victims of violence and natural disasters, most recently the victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. We also think of the debates concerning religious liberty here in the United States.
Although it might not be immediately apparent, our union with those who are suffering is at the heart of the Church’s belief in the communion of saints. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church observes, “In the sanctorum communio, ‘None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself’ (Romans 14:7). ‘If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it’ (1 Corinthians 12:26-27)… In this solidarity with all humanity, living or dead, which is founded on the communion of saints, the least of our acts done in charity redounds to the profit of all” (¶953). 

In the passage from the Second Letter to the Thessalonians proclaimed on this Sunday, we are reminded that, while the invitation to discipleship is itself a gift from God, the work of discipleship is ours: “We are confident of you in the Lord that what we instruct you, you are doing and will continue to do” (2 Thess. 3:4). The emphasis here is on action as an expression of belief and this Letter more broadly reminds us that to live our faith now, in the present, is to live for the future. By saying this, I don’t only mean looking towards the eschaton, the time of Christ’s return in glory, but it is living in such a way that those around us might have a future, as well. Environmental stewardship, working for justice, securing the rights of the poor and the marginalized, caring for the mentally ill, and providing comfort and encouragement to the victims of violence and discrimination are only a few examples of how we can put into practice the faith which has been handed on to us and live as the saints we are called to be.

A Prayer for the Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time +
O God, who founded all the commands of your sacred Law
upon love of you and of our neighbor,
grant that, by keeping your precepts,
we may merit to attain eternal life.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)

Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Reflection for Reformation Sunday

Several weeks ago, the pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Master in Los Angeles asked if I would preach at his church's Reformation Sunday service, offering a Catholic perspective on Reformation. Below is the text of the reflection I prepared for that community's celebration which included variations on texts from the Roman Missal (e.g. the Collect for the Mass of Christian Unity, the Renewal of Baptismal Promises) as well as chant settings of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei chanted in Latin.
Sixty-one years after Martin Luther nailed his famed “Ninethy-Five Theses” to the door of Wittenburg Cathedral on the Feast of Saint Wolfgang, the city’s patron, and the eve of All Saints’ Day, a man named Mark Roy was born in Sigmaringen, Germany. As a young man, Mark Roy earned degrees in philosophy, civil law, and canon (or Church) law. Mark Roy felt called to dedicate his life to the service of the Gospel and eventually began serving as a sort of itinerant preacher for the canton of Grisons. With only a Bible, prayer book, and cross, he traveled through the countryside teaching and preaching in the hopes of bringing his listeners closer to Christ and to one another. 

On the 24th of April, 1622, while he was preaching a sermon on Ephesians 4:5, “There is one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism,” someone fired a musket at him… Since he was known to have been a gifted and engaging preacher, I don’t imagine it was because he was talking too long or that he had a bad style. Someone wanted to murder him because of what he was saying. As you might imagine, the people of the town he was visiting invited him to stay with them and seek a safe-haven. Mary Roy refused and continued on his way.  

Later, that same day, he was intercepted by a group of soldiers who were part of the sect of those whom Mark Roy had angered by his preaching. After they demanded he renounce his faith and accept their views, they attacked him with swords. Another person had died in the name of Jesus. 
So, what was it about Mark Roy that made him so offensive to the people of Grisons? Why was he considered dangerous? The simple answer is that he was Catholic. Mark Roy was a Franciscan friar, known by his religious name—Father Fidelis. He had been especially entrusted with a mission to reach out to the people of that part of Switzerland who had become followers of the teachings of Calvin, Zwingli, and Luther. 

Saint Fidelis of Sigmaringen
Saint Fidelis’ death is just one example of countless acts of violence that occurred in the wake of the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, and there was too much violence, too much destruction, too much death because of misguided zeal and religious fanaticism—most of which was little more than thinly veiled political maneuvering. As with many realities of human life, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation were a mix of good and bad ideas, visions, and values being put into action by real people, on both sides, who were shaped by cultural and political views that sometimes had little to do with the Gospel. When we look at everything that has happened within Christian history over the past 500 years, we realize that Paul’s words to the Romans are as true now as they were then: "For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). 

As I reflected on Pastor Itto’s invitation to worship with all you here this morning, I realized something: I have never celebrated Reformation Day before. Why would I have? This is not a day that is celebrated by Catholic and Orthodox Christians. In my life and seminary formation, the Reformation was never something that was celebrated—it was actually something that was lamented.

Don’t get me wrong. I recognize that good came from the Reformation: broken and outdated systems were dismantled, programs for educating the clergy and teaching the Faith were strengthened, scandal and abuse within the Church were addressed head-on, the basic elements of the Faith were examined more closely, and the Church began to get back to basics. But, ultimately, the hoped for-reforms of religious leaders like Luther led to schism, to division within the Church. 

But, here I am, a Roman Catholic, with you on “Reformation Sunday.” What can I say? What could I add to your celebration today?
To be honest, I’ve struggled with that question for several weeks. I know that, in a sense, this isn’t just a holiday (like Independence Day or Columbus Day) that celebrates one historical event. Reformation Day is a day to remember that the work of the Church isn’t finished. We are being continually called to renewal and to conversion as individual Christians and as local church communities. But, is this just a call for Protestants? Isn’t that call also extended to Roman Catholics, Eastern-Rite Christians, and the Orthodox? After all, Jesus only established one Body, the Church. However different our ways of engaging the truths of Faith might be, we are, each of us, still a member of the one Body of Christ. 

So, what if today, rather than celebrating Reformation Day, we celebrated a day of prayer for healing and unity within the Church? What could it mean if, instead of celebrating the reality of division, we reached across denominational lines and actively engaged Christians of other perspectives and views, who pray differently than we do? What if we listened to how others interpret the Word of God and didn’t shy away from those whom we perceive as too conservative or too liberal? In my experience, churches try very hard to be people of hospitality for those who are outside of the Church, but we can be anything but hospitable and welcoming to one another. 

I know that this open spirit is part of the reason Pastor Itto invited me to be with you today and I’m genuinely grateful for the chance to be here, to pray for and with you. With all that in mind, I want to echo the words of a recent statement made by Catholic and Lutheran leaders: “What happened in the past cannot be changed, but what is remembered of the past and how it is remembered can, with the passage of time, indeed change.” How do we do that? What does that even mean? 

Obviously, we can’t undo the past. We can’t unwrite histories of scandal, violence, animosity, and abuse. We can, however, begin to look at our histories and present realities through the eyes of faith. While all the good and bad words and deeds of past generations have brought us to this moment, here and now, the past does not have to define who we are and how we move forward. After all, as Oscar Wilde said, “Every saint has a past and ever sinner has a future.” I think this applies to churches, as well. 

This time of year, in other parts of the country, it isn’t unusual to see flocks of Canada geese flying south for their winter’s migration. I imagine most of us here have seen tell-tale V-formation of these birds as they fly along.  

This image inspired a young composer, Adam Guettel, to write: “We sail above the weather / We search the ocean floor. We rival our creation, still yearning for more. But can we fly together—a migratory V? How wonderful if that’s what God could see.” How wonderful, indeed. 

Recently, I learned something about this “Migratory V.” Flying behind the formation is a single goose who glides from left to right, almost if she can’t quite decide where she wants to be. Well, this goose actually watches the others who are flying in formation to see if one of them is having a difficult time keeping pace with the others. If one of her companions begins to lag behind or fall away, this goose-in-the-rear makes her way to the tired goose and flies below them, adjusting air currents to help her companions lift their wings and fly. That part I knew… what I didn’t know was that once this happens, the other geese notice and begin to take turns helping their tired or weak companion moving forward with the rest of the group. 

Now, if you’ve ever been around geese, especially Canada geese, you know they’re dirty, mean, surprisingly territorial, and not very bright… a lot like us, at times. But, they certainly have something to teach us about what we can do if we pay attention to one another and support one another.  

How wonderful if that is what God could see here in the Church of the Master, in the ELCA, in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and in local churches and religious groups throughout the world. How wonderful if God saw Catholics and Lutherans, Episcopalians and Presbyterians, Methodists and Orthodox Christians, the UCC and Baptists, and all the rest of us Christians actively supporting one another, so that we could all move forward together, as one Body—for indeed, that is what we are. The world needs us to stand together to combat injustice and to proclaim the truth of God’s love. There is so much pain and need in the world—we have to be bigger than our theological disputes and historical prejudices. 

In a few moments, in place of the Creed, Pastor Itto and I will lead you in renewing the promises of baptism. These words are based on the Apostle’s Creed and form is taken from the Roman Missal, the official liturgical book of the Roman Catholic Church. As you renew your own commitment to follow Christ, I encourage you to be mindful of those generations of women, men, and children, throughout the world, who have professed this same faith. Because, as Saint Fidelis reminded us in his last sermon, given on the day he died, “There is one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism.”


Sunday, October 20, 2013

Fulfill Your Ministry: A Reflection on World Mission Sunday

During this Year of Faith, the theme of the New Evangelization has largely dominated conversations within the Church. I have been especially struck by how often the themes of mission and evangelization are misunderstood or ignored by many groups And, this isn’t necessarily a Catholic phenomenon; many Protestant communions shy away from the work of “evangelism” because of fear that they will be perceived as proselytizing or as having an out-of-check zeal.

Beyond the fact that today (October 20) is World Mission Sunday, Pope Francis spoke about the apostolic nature of the Church in his most recent General Audience this past Wednesday. When  you also consider that these days the liturgical calendar has placed before us several saints who were missionaries and catechists (including Saint Luke the Evangelist, Blesseds Daudi Okelo and JildoIrwa, Saint Isaac Jogues and the other North American Martyrs, Blessed JohnPaul II, Saint John Capistrano, and Saint Anthony Mary Claret), how could we not dedicate some time to reflecting on our call to be missionaries and teachers of the faith?

When we profess the Creed, we express our belief in a Church that is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” The unity and universality of a faith that is based on God’s revelation of God’s self in Jesus are fundamental aspects of the Christian Faith, summarizing the first three “marks” of the Church. When we reflect on the apostolic nature of the Church, we most often think in terms of history, of the Church as founded on the teaching and traditions handed on by the Apostles and Fathers of the Church (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 857). But, how often do we understand our call to be an “apostolic” people as meaning that, like Peter, Paul, and the other Apostles, we, too, are “sent out.” In its decree Apostolicam Actuositatem (On the Apostolate of the Laity), the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council wrote, “The Christian vocation by its nature is also a vocation to the apostolate. No part of the structure of a living body is merely passive but has a share in the functions as well as life of the body: so, too, in the body of Christ, which is the Church, ‘the whole body… in keeping with the proper activity of each part, derives its increase from its own internal development’ (Ephesians 4:16).” Where does this leave us?

It means we have been empowered to help guide and engage our faith communities and to engage our pastors. But, with this privilege comes responsibility—each of us has a specific part to play in the life of the Church and the spread of the Gospel. It’s easy to ignore our individual responsibilities and let the “ministry professionals” do the work of mission and evangelization. For some of us, it might be a fear of saying the wrong thing or even feeling like we don’t know the faith well enough to publicly profess what we believe and who we are as a people of faith. But, we also have to admit, that this takes work and time, two things that can make passivity very appealing.

Another reason that so many of us don’t step forward is because we only want to engage the Church and Christian doctrine and tradition on our own terms. Rather than allowing ourselves to be formed by an active and mutual relationship with the broader Church (both the magisterium and our fellow believers), we opt for what Saint Paul warns of in the Second Letter to Timothy: “For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity, will accumulate teachers and will stop listening to the truth.” What is the antidote to this? “Proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching… be self-possessed in all circumstances; put up with hardship; perform the work of an evangelist; fulfill your ministry” (4:3-4; 2, 5). In all of this, we can look to the saints (including those named above) for inspiration. If we only choose what is comfortable, we’ll never really be the apostles that we are called to be or living out the covenant made in our baptism and sealed in the sacrament of confirmation. We also show a marked disrespect for the experiences of those countless Christians around the world who continue to suffer heroically simply because of their faithful witness to Christ and what has been handed down to them by the Church.
Saint Paul depicted in a 9th century illumination
ascribed to the Benedictine Abbey of St. Gall in Switzerland

In his Message for Mission Sunday, Pope Francis wrote, “Faith is God’s precious gift… Faith, however, needs to be accepted, it needs our personal response, the courage to entrust ourselves to God, to live God’s love and be grateful for infinite mercy… It is a gift that one cannot keep to oneself, but it is to be shared. If we want to keep it only to ourselves, we will become isolated, sterile and sick Christians. The proclamation of the Gospel is part of being disciples of Christ and it is a constant commitment that animates the whole life of the Church.”

There is so much to celebrate about our Faith, most especially its power to transform us and our world. But, all of this demands an openness on our parts and a willingness to be changed by a God who is not made in our image, but who has created us in and for love: “What made you establish humanity in so great a dignity? Certainly the incalculable love by which you have looked on your creature in yourself! You are taken with love of her; for by love indeed you created her, by love you have given her a being capable of tasting your eternal Good” (Saint Catherine of Siena, Dialogues 4, 13).

A Prayer for World Mission Sunday +
O God, you have willed that your Church be the sacrament
of salvation for all the nations,
so that Christ’s saving work may continue to the end of the ages;
stir up, we pray, the hearts of the faithful
and grant that they may feel a more urgent call
to work for the salvation of every creature,
so that from all the peoples of the earth
one family and one people of your own
may arise and increase.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(taken from the “Mass for the Evangelization of Peoples”
in The Roman Missal)

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Dynamic Gratitude

The Gospel of Luke includes a transitional text (8:1-3) that we might be tempted to dismiss because of its simplicity. Saint Luke presents Jesus, the itinerant preacher, travelling from village to village, “proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God.” Traveling with Jesus are the Twelve and a group of women, including Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna, among others. 

That the evangelist includes the names of these women is not an insignificant detail. Along with Mary (the wife of Cleopas), Salome (the mother of James and John), and Martha of Bethany, these women are celebrated as the “Myrrhbearers,” a name that honors the part they played as witnesses of the Lord’s Resurrection. Tradition holds that these were the women who prepared the body of Jesus for burial and who were among the first to announce the Good News on that Easter morning. 

Myrrh, an essential element in preparing a body for burial, is a costly resin. The generosity of these women, whose valuable gift was a sign of their love for the crucified Lord, was also an expression of the gratitude they felt for the One who given them so much. Saint Luke simply relates that they had been “cured of evil spirits and infirmities,” but whatever it was that Jesus did for them, their relationship with him left an indelible mark and changed their lives forever. These women weren’t just benefactors of Jesus’ ministry—they became missionaries in their own right. 

We see the same spirit of gratitude at work in the story of the Ten Lepers (Luke17:11-19). Although all the lepers were cured of their illness, only one returned to say thank you. Although we often focus on the physical healing in the story, the lepers, like the Myrrhbearers, were given something even more precious—they were offered a new identity, a fullness of life that can only come through a relationship with Jesus. What they might have been before did not matter. Jesus had made them new creatures, whole and holy reflections of the God in whose image they were made: “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).   

Cardinal Basil Hume said that “To say ‘thank you’ is very human and very lovely.” We have so much for which we can and should be thankful, most especially for the gift of wholeness and holiness that is made available to us through our engagement of God’s Word, through the sacraments, and the living Tradition of the Church. But we should also recall that true gratitude, the kind shown by the Myrrhbearers and the leper, is dynamic and is best expressed in acts of love and kindness. Because we have been so richly blessed, who are called to a blessing for others.


A prayer for the Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time +
May your grace, O Lord, we pray,
At all times go before us and follow after
And make us always determined
To carry out good works.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from the Roman Missal)


Monday, October 7, 2013

Our Lady of the Rosary: Engaging God's Word

"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God."—Colossians 3:16

Although this admonition from Saint Paul is not among the readings that may be used for Masses in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as I reflected on today’s Memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary, they seemed to reflect Mary’s engagement of God’s Word, both as the Mother of Christ and as a woman of faith.

Recently, Pope Francis reminded us that Mary faced life’s journey with “great realism, humanity, and practicality.” While the Memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary most often invites reflection on Mary’s contemplative spirit (which Blessed John Paul II highlighted in his Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae, in which he introduced the new “LuminousMysteries”), this title of Mary reminds us that she was a woman of active faith, a faith which took her infinitely beyond the boundaries of the small town of Nazareth into the central event of human history—the life, death, and resurrection of the One who was her Son.

Often called “the poor man’s Bible,” the rosary has a rich history that has been explored in any number of books. What we don’t often consider is that this devotion developed over the course of several generations, and the prayer took the form we now recognize only at the end of the sixteenth century. Although we cannot precisely trace the evolution of the rosary itself, the liturgical celebration that is now observed on October 7, formerly called the Feast of the Most Holy Rosary, was introduced in the city of Rome by the Dominican pope Saint Pius V in 1571 as the “Feast of Our Lady of Victory,” to commemorate the Battle of Lepanto. On October 7, 1571, the combined naval forces of a coalition Catholic countries in southern Europe (the “Catholic League”) defeated the main fleet of the Ottoman Empire off the coast of Greece. This battle ended a 33-year long monopoly of the Mediterranean by the aggressive and strongly anti-Christian Turks. A lay organization known as the Confraternity of the Rosary had made it their special task to pray for the victory of the Christian forces. To honor their devotion and the gift of Mary’s intercession, Pope Saint Pius V established the Feast of Our Lady of Victory.

In 1573, to give a more clear focus to the commemoration, Pope Gregory XIII changed the name to the Feast of the Most Holy Rosary. Finally, in 1960, the name of the feast was changed to “Our Lady of the Rosary,” and the celebration as we have it today calls for us to “meditate on the mysteries of Christ, following the example of the Blessed Virgin Mary who was in a special manner associated with the incarnation, passion and glorious resurrection of the Son of God” (from the “historical note” for October 7 in The Divine Office). The history of this memorial, which is among the most colorful of any liturgical celebration in the Church’s cycle of seasons and feasts, demonstrates how the Church both engages the world and how doctrine and devotion can develop over time. In this case, the focus of this celebration has shifted from being a triumphalistic celebration to a very intentional reflection on Mary’s dynamic faith and the mysteries of redemption embodied in the rosary.
Mary’s faith enabled her to take an active role in the working of Providence. Saint Augustine has reminded us that this is Mary’s glory: “Yes, of course, holy Mary did the will of the Father. And therefore it means more for Mary to have been a disciple of Christ than to have been the mother of Christ. It means more for her, an altogether greater blessing, to have been Christ’s disciple than to have been Christ’s mother… She kept truth safe in her mind even better than she kept flesh safe in her womb. Christ is truth, Christ is flesh; Christ as truth was in Mary’s mind, Christ as flesh in Mary’s womb” (from Sermon 72).

Mary stands before us as an icon of discipleship and a model of the Church at prayer. Even as she reflected on all that happened to her, keeping “all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Luke 2:19), she did not stand idly by as a passive observer of all that was going on around her. No, she manifested a faith that constantly took her outside of herself and her own comfort or preference. From the fiat of the Annunciation, to her hasty visit to Elizabeth, to her intercession at the Wedding of Cana, and to being strong enough to stand beneath the cross of her dying Son, she listened to God, reflected, and acted.

How often in our own lives, or in the life of our Church, do we take the role of a mere observer? Do we risk putting into action what we know to be true, taking the risk of listening attentively to what is being asked of us, no matter how unwelcome or inconvenient the call may be? Do we reach out in haste to one who needs us, without counting the cost? And do we engage the world in the spirit of the Gospel, speaking for those who have no voice and who are deprived of what is rightfully theirs?

The Memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary is so much more than just an “idea feast” or remnant of a “safer,” more pious past. This celebration and title of Our Lady remind us that faith must be dynamic, taking us out of ourselves and the comfort and safety of the lives we have created onto a path of grateful, loyal, and self-giving discipleship.

A Prayer of Pope Francis +
Mary, woman of listening, open our ears; grant us to know how to listen to the word of your Son Jesus among the thousands of words of this world; grant that we may listen to the reality in which we live, to every person we encounter, especially those who are poor, in need, in hardship.

Mary, woman of decision, illuminate our mind and our heart, so that we may obey, unhesitating, the word of your Son Jesus; give us the courage to decide, not to let ourselves be dragged along, letting others direct our life.

Mary, woman of action, obtain that our hands and feet move “with haste” toward others, to bring them the charity and love of your Son Jesus, to bring the light of the Gospel to the world, as you did. Amen.

(offered during a rosary service celebrated on May 31, 2013)



Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Sunday at the End of September

The end of September and beginning of October are marked by a series of memorials and commemorations that serve to highlight the catholicity of the Church. From the Bohemian ruler Wenceslaus and the Filipino layman Lawrence Ruiz (a husband and father) and his martyred companions from Japan (on September 28) to the great biblical scholar and Father of the Church Jerome (on September 30), the cloistered missionary-at-heart Thérèse of Liseux (on October 1) and Carthusian founder Bruno (on October 6), to the Indiana foundress Theodora Guerin (on October 3) and the Louisana pastor and missionary Francis Seelos (on October 5) to the beloved Francis of Assisi (October 4), these days (which also include celebrations of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael [September 29] and the Guardian Angels [October 2]) remind us that the possibility for true holiness isn’t limited to one way of life, gender, or historical epoch.

Saint Theodora Guerin (d. 1856)
The Foundress of the Indiana-based
Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods

In the First Letter to Timothy, Saint Paul wrote, “But you, man of God, pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness. Compete well for the faith. Lay hold of eternal life, to which you were called when you made the noble confession in the presence of many witnesses” (6:11-12). Paul was reminding his young coworker that his position within the Church demanded total dedication to God and a faithful witness to Christ. By calling him “man of God,” Paul is also highlighting the fact that Timothy shares the vocation of Moses and the prophets (cf. Deuteronomy 33:1; 1 Samuel 2:27; 1 Kings 12:22 and 13:1; 1 Timothy 1:12-20). Although few of us are bishops like Timothy (cf. 1 Timothy 1:3), each of us shares in the pastoral and prophetic work of the Church. Because of this, Paul’s admonition to Timothy is also addressed to each one of us—we must seek those things that are of God and “compete well for the faith,” that is, persevere in living out our individual, unique vocation of service to God and the Church. Paul, Timothy, and the saints mentioned above, understood that this dedication demands something of us—perhaps not the martyrdom of Wenceslaus and Lawrence Ruiz or a cloistered life like Thérèse—but that it also takes us outside of ourselves, empowering us to live for God and for others. 

Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man offers us an insight into what is required of us. In his encyclical Spes Salvi (“Saved in Hope”), Pope Emeritus Benedict wrote, “Jesus admonishes us through the image of a soul destroyed by arrogance and opulence, who has created an impassable chasm between himself and the poor man; the chasm of being trapped within material pleasures, the chasm of forgetting the other, of incapacity to love, which then becomes a burning and unquenchable thirst” (¶44).  

The saints, who have oriented their lives toward the Other, who have realized the fullness of humanity’s capacity for love, see in the “Lazaruses” of the world friends and brothers/sisters: “Created in the image of the one God and equally endowed with rational souls, all have the same nature and the same origin. Redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ, all are called to participate in the same divine beatitude: all enjoy the same dignity” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1934). But, this call to be with and for others isn’t mandate only for those who have been canonized or beatified—the Communion of Saints includes each of us, me and you, because, after all, “what is the Church if not the gathering of the saints?” (Saint Nicetas of Remesiana).  

Competing “well for the faith”—living our call to be disciples and to manifest the presence of Christ in the world—leaves no room for selfish ambition, apathy, complacency, or indifference to the plight of others (cf. Amos 6:1a, 4-7). This isn’t about political agendas, government budgets, or some radical/liberal ideology—this is about the Gospel which forms the starting point and is the focus of our faith.

Prayer for the Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time +
O God, who manifest your almighty power
above all by pardoning and showing mercy,
bestow, we pray, your grace abundantly upon us
and make those hastening to attain your promises
heirs to the treasures of heaven.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)


Sunday, September 22, 2013

God and Mammon: A Lesson in Stewardship

There is a well-known phrase that is often used as a sort of “proof text” against the vice of greed: “You cannot love both God and money.” At the surface, God and money aren’t incompatible. In fact, Saint Augustine even encouraged people to provide for their eternal happiness by using the goods of the earth (cf. Discourses 359, 10). But the parable of the dishonest steward, from which this quotation is adapted, doesn’t use the word “money” (which does appear in certain popular translations of Scripture). Rather, the word used in the parable is “mammon,” a Phoenician term for economic security and success in business. Reflecting on mammon, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said, “we might say that riches are shown as the idol  to which everything is sacrificed in order to attain one’s own material success; hence, this economic success becomes a person’s true god.”
The Dishonest Steward
from Evangelicae Historiae Imagines (1594)
More than just making an indictment of material wealth, Jesus is speaking out against those who have made financial security an idol that they are willing to serve at any cost. It was about this same tendency to idolize security and success-at-any-cost of which Amos (8:4-6) spoke:
Hear this, you who trample upon the needy
and destroy the poor of the land!
“When will the new moon be over,” you ask,
“that we may sell our grain,
and the sabbath, that we may display the wheat?
We will diminish the ephah,
add to the shekel,
and fix our scales for cheating!
We will buy the lowly for silver,
and the poor for a pair of sandals;
even the refuse of the wheat we will sell!”

There is within certain Christian groups a movement that espouses a theology that is often referred to as the “health and wealth gospel.” Essentially, this theology understands the Bible as a contract between God and humanity. And, in this view, if one has faith in God, God will, in turn, grant security and prosperity to the faithful. Alongside the financial dimensions of this theology is the belief that health is also a benefit of faith, with sickness and poverty being punishment for infidelity. 

One of the fundamental truths about God that movements such as this forget is that God is the God of the poor. Christ came among us for the sake of the poor, the sick, the alienated, and for all sinners. Any theology that presents God as favoring only the wealthy and healthy denies the reality of a God whose love for creation is so dynamic that it was incarnate in Jesus who, as Saint Paul reminds us, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness… he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). 

Christians can never embrace any ideology that is opposed to a spirit of poverty or authentic generosity. The Readings for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time invite us to reflect on how we see ourselves in relation to others—do we see others as a means for our advancement and security, or are we willing to invest in others and put our wealth and resources to the best possible use? In other words, they challenge us to evaluate our stewardship of the gifts that have been entrusted to us by God and by society. The dishonest steward in the Gospel used his power to ensure his own safety and security; by focusing solely on his own welfare, he had offered his integrity and humanity at the altar of Mammon. We are called to more: "Above all, let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God's varied grace" (1 Peter 4:8-10).

A Prayer for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time +
O God, who founded all the commands on your sacred Law
upon love of you and of our neighbor,
grant that, by keeping you precepts,
we may merit to attain eternal life.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)


Sunday, September 8, 2013

Shots Heard 'Round the World

There have been moments in the history of faith, which is at the heart of the human story, in which women, men, and even children, have made decisions about the course or orientation of their lives that have changed history itself. Like that “shot heard ‘round the world” of April 19, 1775, marking the first military action of the American Revolution, certain acts have opened up new pathways and modes of faith that have forever shaped the lives of countless believers through the ages. 


The Calling of Saint Matthew
by Caravaggio

Some of these might seem quite simple, perhaps because we know the stories so well: Mary’s fiat (Luke 1:26-38), Saint Peter and Saint Andrew's decision to get out of their boat to follow the wandering Rabbi (Matthew 4:18-20), and Saint Matthew leaving his tax collecting post (cf. Matthew 9:9-13). Others seem, somehow, far away and remote to us: Saint Lawrence presenting the poor, the Church’s true treasure, to an emperor who would kill him; Saint Patrick’s decision to return to Ireland after escaping slavery; Saint Benedict abandoning his studies to live as a hermit outside of Rome; Saint Francis stripping off his clothes and family ties to stand naked in the square of Assisi; Saint Angela Merici bringing together a group of women in order to teach girls outside of the walls of a cloister; Saint Aloysius Gonzaga renouncing his titles and princely rank in order to become a Jesuit; Saint Vincent de Paul taking the place of a slave on a French galley; or Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton’s decision to enter the Catholic Church, despite society’s objections, and establish a new community of sisters, laying the foundation for Catholic education in America.  
Even contemporary figures, our modern “saints,” if you will, had moments in which they made a decision that marked a moment of conversion: Blessed Teresa of Calcutta asking permission from her religious superiors to begin working with the poor on her own; Dorothy Day’s recognition of the good work being done on behalf of the poor by the Catholic Church and her desire to unite herself to that work; Saint Maximilian Kolbe volunteering to take the place of a husband and father chosen to be executed by the Nazis; Thomas Merton’s decision to attend a Mass at Corpus Christi Church in Manhattan that marked a turning point on his journey to Catholicism and life as a Trappist monk; Martin Luther King’s trip to India in 1959 to learn about non-violent resistance; and Archbishop Oscar Romero’s decision to seek justice for his slain priest-friend and all the poor of El Salvador.  
Dorothy Day prior to her arrest participating
in a demonstration for workers' rights in 1973
in Delano, California. She was 76.

Regardless of when they lived or their title or state of life, these individuals demonstrated a willingness to make the Gospel the primary focus of their lives. And, they have something to say to us todayknowing the cost of discipleship, they willingly took on the burden of Faith and set out on a new way, taking the words of Christ at face value: “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-27).
In these tense days, as people of good will around the world have come together in prayer and hope for peace in Syria and throughout the world, Pope Francis has reminded us that “There is no such thing as low-cost Christianity. Following Jesus means swimming against the tide, renouncing evil and selfishness” (Tweeted on September 6). These days call us to trust in Providence and to focus our attention on the common good and search for peace, asking for the grace of wisdom and discretion: “Who can know God’s counsel or who can conceive what the Lord intends? For the deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans… who ever knew your counsel, except you had given wisdom and sent your holy spirit from on high? And thus were the paths of those on earth made straight” (Wisdom 9:13, 17-18b). 
The Holy Father and the Church’s liturgy this Sunday remind us that, if we are to be true followers of Jesus, we must be willing to accept the responsibility that comes with discipleship, and part of that responsibility is a commitment to peace and justice, a dedication to building God’s Kingdom here and now. And so, we pray, we fast, and we give to the poor. Any one of those acts is good and noble. But, the question before each one of us is, “Where is my heart? To whom, or to what, does it belong?” If we continue to hold back, any words we speak or pray, the acts of penance we perform, and the gifts we share will always fall short and will never be what they might be, unless we act out of love for God and a spirit of gratitude for all that God has done for us.

A Prayer for the Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time +
O God,
by whom we are redeemed and receive adoption,
look graciously upon your beloved sons and daughters,
that those who believe in Christ
may receive true freedom
and an everlasting inheritance.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Martyrs of September

On September 2, the Church commemorates 191 martyrs, commonly known as the "Martyrs of September," who were killed in four prisons in Paris, France, between September 2 and 3, 1792.

The Massacre of the Priests by H. de la Charlerie
Following the promulgation of the 'Civil Constitution on the Clergy' by the National Constituent Assembly (the government of the first stages of the French Revolution) in 1790, any cleric who refused to deny Papal authority and affiliate with the state-sponsored church in France was imprisoned as a traitor. All religious communities were dissolved by the government on August 15, 1792. Later that month, the citizens of Paris heard rumors of a possible invasion of the city by the Duke of Brunswick and of a mass breakout of those in its prisons, where the hundreds of clerics who refused to take the oath of allegiance were being housed alongside common criminals. Enflamed by revolutionary zeal, and unchecked by government authority, mobs massacred more than fourteen hundred men and women in the space of only a few hours. Eyewitnesses reported that the imprisoned bishops, priests, and seminarians were the focus of particular aggression and treated with extraordinary cruelty. Among those killed were Jean-Marie du Lau, archbishop of Arles, Francois de la Rochefoucald, bishop of Beauvais, Ambrose Chevreux, the last Superior General of the Maurist Benedictines, and priests of several dioceses, along with members of the Jesuits, Vincentians, Sulpician Fathers, Eudists, Christian Brothers, and a number of other religious orders.

Honored as martyrs and beatified in 1926, this group of priests, religious, and seminarians, along with Blessed Charles-Regis de la Calmette, a layman, remind us that we, as members of the Church, are each called to defend the Church's freedom from those powers which would deny her freedom to teach, worship, and serve those in need, in the spirit of Christ. Their commitment to the Church and their willingness to offer their lives rather than deny her freedom testifies to their faith: "Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Trial, or distress, or persecution, or hunger, or nakedness, or danger, or the sword? As Scripture says: 'For your sake we are being slain all day long; we are looked upon as sheep to be slaughtered.' Yet in all this we are more than conquerors because of him who has loved us" (Romans 8:35-37).

A Prayer in Honor of the Martyrs of September +
May the sight of the great number 
of your holy Martyrs gladden us, O Lord, 
making our faith stronger 
and bringing us consolation
by the prayers of them all. 
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, 
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
[from the "Common of Several Martyrs" in The Roman Missal]

 [Adapted from my book, From Season to Season: A Book of Saintly Wisdom (Abbey Press Publications, 2012)]

Sunday, September 1, 2013

A Place at the Table: Humility in Equality

The man who would be known to history simply as “Saint Louis” was born in 1214 and became King of France in 1226, when he was only twelve years old. In 1234, he married Margaret of Provence and the couple eventually had eleven children. Known for his spirit of penance and prayer, Louis was mindful of both the temporal and spiritual needs of his family and his people. During his lifetime he was well acquainted with Saint Thomas Aquinas and other learned men of his day, and under his rule France experienced a cultural and spiritual renewal. Louis is also remembered for the construction of La Sainte Chapelle in Paris, which he built to house the relic of the Crown of Thorns. 

In 1248, and again in 1270, Louis joined in the Crusades to the Holy Land. It was during his second Crusade that Louis contracted dysentery, dying at Tunis on August 25, 1270, as he made his way to a battle. His relics were returned France and enshrined at Saint-Denis, where many miracles have been reported. Saint Louis was canonized in 1297 and is honored one of the patron saints of France. 
St. Louis of France serving the poor.
In a letter to his son and successor, Philip, Louis wrote, “If the Lord grant you some prosperity, not only must you humbly thank him but take care not to become worse by boasting or in any other way, make sure, that is, that you do not come into conflict with God or offend him with his own gifts.” Saint Louis understood, and lived, the admonition of Sirach: “Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God. What is too sublime for you, seek not, into things beyond your strength, search not” (3:18, 20). Whether through serving the more than one hundred poor people who ate at the royal palace each day with his own hands, by endowing churches, religious communities, and schools, or through his dedication to his family, Louis understood the true relationship of power and humility: “Those who are in a position to help others will realize they themselves receive help; being able to help others is no mere achievement on their own. This duty is a grace… We recognize that we are not acting on the basis of any superiority or greater personal efficiency, but because the Lord has graciously enabled us to do so” (Pope Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est, 35).  

It is God who governs the world and who grants peace, not us individually or as nations. We must, however, do all we can, with the strength we have, because “the love of Christ urges us on” (2 Corinthians 5:14). The war in Syria, violence in Egypt, human rights violations in Russia and Africa (to name only two places out of so many), and violence in our own cities, towns, and families are all reminders that much work remains to be done in the cause of justice and peace.  

And yet, those things for which we hope are attainable. The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, “You have not approached that which could be touched and a blazing fire and gloomy darkness and storm and a trumpet blast and a voice speaking words such that those who heard begged no message be further addressed to them” (12:18-19). Rather, God has called us, in Christ, to share in the life of the Trinity and to invite others into the life of grace that has been made present to us, in the Holy Spirit. Recognizing all of this as gift, we also understand, like Saint Louis, that true strength  and honor found in humility and true humility is to see the needs of others before our own, because their needs are as real and important as mine or yours. 

At the banquet of the Kingdom of God (cf. Luke 14:1, 7-14), we are all equals—each of us, in our own way is poor, crippled, lame, and blind—and it is only in celebrating our equality before God, that we will discover the foundations of peace and justice that are the hallmarks of God’s Kingdom, present here and now.   


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Dreamers: A Reflection Honoring the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington


Delivered on August 28, 2013
at Westwood Hill Congregation Church, UCC in Los Angeles, CA
On the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington

What does it mean to have a dream?

Why are dreams so important? 

As I was thinking about these questions and what we’re celebrating here today, I also asked myself why today really matters to us at all. Why celebrate this anniversary, when there are so many other things we could doing on this warm Wednesday afternoon?

We’re here, today, remembering not only the Dream of Martin Luther King Jr., but the dreams and hopes and disappointments and passions of those women, men, and children, who have been denied justice and fundamental rights... not only those thousands who participated in the March on Washington fifty years ago, but those of every time and place who have cried out to heaven, begging for justice from God because it was denied them by their fellow human beings: denied because of the color of their skin or the language they spoke, denied because of the faith they professed or the education they lacked, denied because of who they loved, or simply because they wanted something more, because they had dared to dream.  

The lyricist Christopher Adler once wrote that,

“Dreamers have mountains they will climb
There are dreamers who don't believe in time
Only dreamers have worlds where they can fly far away.

Certain dreamers have kingdoms they will build,
Filled with treasures and dragons to be killed
Only dreamers have wings with which to fly far away.

Some people dream of being rich,
While others dream of being tall.
And there are people who don’t dream at all.” 

The people who gathered on the National Mall fifty years ago had dreams—they dreamed of “jobs for all,” “a decent pay,” “voting rights,” “decent housing,” “effective civil rights,” “first class citizenship,” “an end to bias.” These people weren’t dreaming of mountains and dragons. I imagine that there were very few in the crowd who dreamed of being rich.

Their actions that day, the songs they sang, and the prayers on their lips, gave voice to the hopes that were within each of their hearts—that each one of them would simply be given what was owed to them because of who they were as human beings, as children of God. And that was the dream of Dr. King, who was not simply an activist—he was also a man of faith whose dream was as much a prayer as it was a manifesto or call to action. 

What we are doing today is far more than marking the 50th anniversary of the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” more than honoring a significant milestone in the history of the struggle for Civil Rights for African-Americans. Today, we pray for those whose cries for justice and equality remain unheard and unheeded and we recommit ourselves to the work of justice. Fifty years after that historic day, we can’t deny, thank God, that significant steps toward equality and justice for all have been taken: doors have been opened and walls have come tumbling down. But, so much remains to be accomplished. But, as Dr. King once reminded us, “We must accept finite disappointments, but never lose infinite hope.” 

And so, today, “Let Freedom Ring”!  

Recommit yourself to being a person of dialogue, rededicate yourself to work of promoting peace, aspire to make the words of Isaiah and Saint Paul, which we heard proclaimed a reality.  

Be a person of hope. 

Let yourself dream.