Monday, October 31, 2016

Homily for Solemnity of All Saints

Homily for the Solemnity of
All Saints
Nov. 1, 2016
Rev 7: 2-4, 9-12
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.

“Salvation comes from our God!” (Rev 7: 4).

Have you ever listened to Orson Welles’s famous 1938 Halloween scare, the War of the Worlds, broadcast on the radio as if it were a live news report?  If you’ve heard it, or if you’ve read the original novel, you know that in the story the survival of the human race is threatened by an alien race of Martian invaders.  These invaders spread death everywhere and crush all opposition as they sweep mightily across the countryside.  But they are at last done in, not by the sort of armed resistance that Hollywood likes to put forward, but by an unlikely source of deliverance—some bacterium thriving in the very rot and death they’ve caused.  Humanity, having developed an immunity over thousands of years, is saved by its own germs, against which the aliens are powerless.

The Book of Revelation, that mysterious last book of the Bible, is a little like the War of the Worlds.  It belongs to a biblical literary form called apocalyptic, which has been called biblical science fiction.

When John the Seer wrote down in Revelation the visions he’d seen, the Church was under severe attack from an alien force, the ungodly persecution of the Roman emperor Domitian in the last decade of the 1st century.  The persecution had spread havoc among believers everywhere and left them wondering whether they could survive, wondering whether God could or would do anything for them.

Yes!  From the East—the biblical writers see God’s power, God’s salvation, as coming from the East, from the rising sun, from the source of light—out of the East comes God’s angel with a seal.  This seal marks all the faithful, marks all the redeemed, as God’s people, makes them immune to the final destruction that is about to come upon God’s alien foes.  Salvation is about to come from our God.
The Heavenly Court of Revelation
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Nayarit, Mexico
The number so sealed is 144,000.  This is a biblical symbolic number meaning that the new Israel, the Church, is to be absolutely perfect and complete—none of the redeemed, none of those sealed by God, will be missing.  The new Israel is a great, numberless multitude from every nation of the earth wearing the white robes of innocence, waving the palms of victory, and praising God for his salvation.  (If we wish to take the 144,000 literally, by the way, we run into 2 problems:  the next verse says the multitude is numberless, and a God with power to save only so few of all the billions who have ever lived is not very powerful at all.)

Have no fear, O Christians, John assures his readers, have no fear of the wretched power of Rome or any other persecutors.  You are immune to any real harm.  You are assured of victory.  You are sealed as God’s new Israel.  Even though you should be killed for your faith, as the Lamb was on Calvary, you will triumph in the end, as he did.

Every saint, every true believer, has needed such encouragement in his or her life.  The Church is always under assault—sometimes openly, as in the Middle East, China, and some other places today; sometimes less directly and more subtly, from the alien culture, the alien society in which she lives; a culture that glorifies comfort, permissiveness, the dollar, sex, violence, Dow-Jones, the here and now, getting the other guy before he gets you, the latest fad, Madison Avenue, big time sports, big time entertainment.  Every saint marked with God’s seal needs encouragement and assurance.  This is part of the timelessness of John’s apocalyptic visions.  God always has the power to save.

You are God’s chosen ones, his new Israel, part of that absolutely perfect, complete, numberless multitude.  You were sealed with his stamp of ownership in Baptism and Confirmation.  Today is, in a sense, your feast day too.  It’s the feast not just of the famous saints like Peter and Paul, Francis, the Little Flower, and Mother Teresa—but of the ordinary and unsung Christian heroes, the husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, monks and nuns and little children.  Today the example of millions of Christians who have preceded us is an encouragement to you and me to resist the alien culture about us and trust in God’s power to save.  Salvation comes from our God.  We may be powerless—that's exactly what “poor in spirit” (Matt 5:2) means—but our God is not.  He can be depended upon.  The battle isn't the Church against Domitian or us against today’s pagan society; it's always God against the Evil One.  The saints, the poor in spirit, have never been those who stood by themselves and trusted in their own power to resist and win.  They’ve always been the poor in spirit who've trusted in God, in the God from whom salvation comes.

Take courage, then.  It’s no easier to be a Christian now than in the 1st century.  You’re still in combat against the realm of evil, death, and selfishness.  But the battle, the power, the victory isn't yours; it’s God’s.  If you wear his seal, if you’re allied with him, if you belong to him, you can't lose, O holy people of the Lamb.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

A Pre-election Homily

Homily for the
31st Sunday of Ordinary Time
A Pre-Election Homily
Oct. 30, 2016
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.

“Almighty and merciful God, by your gift your faithful offer you right and praiseworthy service” (Collect).

The “right and praiseworthy service” that the faithful people of Jesus Christ offer to the Father is, 1st of all, the sacred liturgy, our public worship, thru the Mass and the other sacraments.

2d, it’s the service of our daily lives, our living as disciples of Jesus and children of the Father once we leave the sacred liturgy.  Our service continues in what has been called the liturgy of life, in keeping with St. Paul’s exhortation to the Romans:  “I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship” (12:1).

10 days before our elections, we need to consider how our exercise of democracy in this place at this time expresses “right and praiseworthy service” of God.  Apologies to anyone who’s voted early.  I’m sure most of us wish this whole thing would just go away!  But of course, it won’t, and we have to deal with it, not only on Nov. 8 but for the next 4 years, and probably far beyond 4 years because of the consequences that will follow from Nov. 8’s decision.

I’ve been reading massive amounts of newsprint—or whatever you call it on your computer—from both the religious press and secular media about this year’s life-and-death issues and the implications for the religious freedom we pray for at every Mass.  Brothers and sisters, it’s not looking pretty for religious believers.

Pope Francis has offered us some remarks worth attending to.  1) Almost everything we do is political because politics has to do with how people live together.  So when we talk about moral issues, we’re necessarily being political.  Along the same line, Abp. Chaput of Philadelphia said in a speech at Notre Dame on 9/15 that we “have a duty to leave the world better than we found it.  One of the ways we do that, however imperfectly, is through politics.”  2) Pope Francis advises all of us to study the issues, to pray, and then to vote our consciences (CNS, 10/2).  3) Related to no. 2, pastors have an obligation to offer guidance to their flocks on how to vote; not for whom to vote, but how; i.e., what issues or concerns should be forming our consciences and guiding our decisions.

Every 4 years for the last 2 decades, the bishops of the U.S. have issued a long statement about 15 or 20 issues that should concern Catholics as they prepare to vote.  The bishops of Illinois this year, mercifully, put out a much shorter message that was published on a half page of the Catholic Post on 9/25.  It’s headed “Seven Key Themes of Catholic Social Teaching.”  The Catholic teaching we’re talking about at election season, sisters and brothers, isn’t dogmatic theology; we’re not talking about the real presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.  Nor is it about Church practices, like celibacy or holy water.  It’s about how we treat one another.  In the words of St. John Paul II, it’s about the fundamental dignity of every human person; or in the words of Pope Francis, it’s about addressing our throwaway society—a society that is not only throwing away or destroying the creation that God has given us but also disposing of inconvenient human beings.

So what are the 7 key issues that our bishops identify?  The life and dignity of the human person; care for God’s creation; family; human rights and responsibilities; care for the poor and vulnerable; dignity of work and rights of workers; and solidarity.

Clearly, no party is in complete agreement with Christian morality on all issues.  Many bishops and commentators in the religious media have been reminding us that the public issues under debate, or that should be under debate, can be sorted into 2 types:  those that are non-negotiable from a moral standpoint, policies that are either moral or immoral all the time; and those that require prudential judgment about what might be the best policy or how best to work toward a given purpose.

Practically speaking, what does that distinction between non-negotiables and debatable policies mean?  Popes JPII, Benedict, and Francis and our bishops have taught consistently that certain specific actions are so offensive to human dignity that they are always wrong, regardless of circumstances.  These actions include (but aren’t limited to) genocide, the abuse of minors, abortion, euthanasia or assisted suicide, embryonic stem cell research, and the deliberate targeting of non-combatants during war.  Further, we are reminded that it is immoral and sinful to support or vote for candidates who advocate those actions, if there are other options for our votes.

There are other issues that are important but require prudence, wisdom, and political care to act upon.  Racism is absolutely a moral evil; but how one goes about shaping a more just society, e.g., one in which blacks or Hispanics have no reason to be afraid of police officers, is up for lots of discussion, and different courses of action might address the evil.

Everyone has a right to food, shelter, clothing, and health care.  But how do you see that everyone has reasonable access to them?  What kind of public assistance is called for?  What is a just wage for workers?  How should we assist refugees?

We have to take care of God’s creation and bequeath a livable world to our children.  But how are we to balance care for the environment with economic stability and employment concerns in our country and in the developing world?

There are no obvious answers to such questions, either politically or morally.  We may in good conscience vote for and work for various policies to try to tackle them.

As you may have noted, our local newspaper refused in its 10/2 editorial to endorse either major candidate:  “Nobody for President.”  Numerous pundits and even some bishops, like Abp. Chaput and our neighbor Bishop Paprocki in Springfield, have called both major candidates for President so seriously flawed that people are wondering whether it would be moral to consider a minor candidate or to sit out the election.  There’s a home about 10 blocks from here where a yard sign urges the passer-by, “Vote Willie Nelson for President.”

Some bishops agree that one may skip the presidential line on the ballot, but one is still obliged to vote for other offices, because public policy that affects all of us is shaped at many levels.  Abp. Chaput said in that 9/15 speech that if good Christians “leave the public square, other people with much worse intentions won’t” leave that square.  Therefore various bishops and commentators urge us to opt for what is often called “the lesser of 2 evils,” for we must necessarily have one or the other; not to choose is to choose.  One commentator has opined that the barbarians are already in charge of our country, and our battle is to try to take back the public arena.  Voting for a 3d-party candidate (if you can find one worthier than the 2 main ones) or writing in the name of someone else entirely is a way of making a statement about what the major parties have offered us, and that’s valid.  If you do some homework, you can find a qualified person whose name you can write in; I don’t suggest Willie Nelson. 

The most recent issue of the Catholic Post (10/23) includes an impassioned column[1] pleading with us to reject any candidate or party platform that endorses the killing of the unborn or the sick or human embryos and calls for public funding of abortion.  A homily far stronger than that column (and longer than this homily) was preached in the cathedral of Phoenix 4 weeks ago, and you can find both text and YouTube online.[2]

One party platform and its presidential candidate enthusiastically endorses the anti-life positions decried by that Post column and the Phoenix homily.  That platform and candidate promise to select federal judges of like mind.  The candidate has labeled people who aren’t on her side as “deplorables,” and said candidate’s aides call our Church “a middle ages dictatorship.”  The platform promises no quarter to those who oppose the pagan agenda that it promotes regarding the unborn, homosexuality, and euthanasia; as far as they’re concerned, you and I are religious fanatics; we’re bigots; and in the name of “tolerance” and “non-discrimination,” our freedoms must be limited to private belief and harmless worship but cannot include acting on our consciences if our consciences aren’t in harmony with the prevailing mores of our secular culture—our pagan culture.

To what extent is our religious freedom in jeopardy?  You already know about legal decisions affecting bakers, florists, and photographers compelled to give their unwilling service, and implied approval, to gay weddings; and pharmacists compelled to dispense abortion-inducing drugs.  There have already been attempts to compel all medical students to learn how to perform abortions, and Catholic hospitals to provide them; and those attempts will be accelerated.  There is already immense public pressure—even from Catholic parents—and at least one legal settlement backing up that pressure, for Catholic schools to go along with the pagan agenda regarding marriage and “reproductive rights.”  Here in Illinois, religiously-based crisis pregnancy centers have gone to federal court in defense of their religious freedom and freedom of speech against a state law that requires them to give patients information about abortion services.  If the past performance of the federal courts is any guide, watch out.

Massachusetts has enacted a law that prohibits discrimination against transgender people in public restrooms and locker rooms—as the Obama Administration tried with less success to do nationally a few months ago.  In Massachusetts the law applies also to churches.  And it prohibits the making of statements intended to discriminate or incite others to do so; in other words, it aims to prevent churches and pastors from offering opinions about sexuality that conflict with the government’s opinions.  Which means I’d be in trouble for what I just said.  We haven’t seen the end of this stuff, by any means.

Call them secularists, call them barbarians, or call them pagans—they will not relent, nor will they grant the tolerance they demand for their own viewpoints.

On 9/8 the U.S. Civil Rights Commission issued a long report—306 pages—with one sentence of great concern to religious leaders.  It reads:  “The phrases ‘religious liberty’ and ‘religious freedom’ will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance.”  A lot of religious leaders, including our bishops, have asked President Obama to renounce that one sentence in the report.  But the sentiments in that sentence harmonize with the platform—the political agenda—of one of our major presidential candidates and the party that supports that candidate.

So, sisters and brothers, in these days we owe to the Lord our “right and praiseworthy service” as we discern what direction we want our President, our Congress, and our state legislature to take us in.  There’s a great deal at stake concerning human life and dignity, and our freedom to practice what we believe.  We are accountable before God for our votes.  As Pope Francis has advised, study the issues; pray; and vote your conscience.

May God bless and guide all of us.

     [1] Michelle Rebello, “Let’s do our part in upcoming election.”
     [2] Fr. John Lankeit, rector of Sts. Simon & Jude Cathedral: or

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Homily for 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the

30th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Oct. 29, 1989
Luke 18: 9-14
Holy Cross, Fairfield, Conn.

I'm traveling this weekend, so no formal new homily.  Here's one from the archives.

“Two men went up to the temple to pray; one was a Pharisee, the other a tax collector” (Luke 18: 10).
The Pharisee and the Publican
by Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896)
This parable puzzled me when I was a boy.  How could the prayer of a man who was evidently as conscientious as the Pharisee not be pleasing to God?  It also must have stunned the people who heard it from Jesus.  But it’s not about how many good deeds we perform for God.  It’s about how we are saved.

The Pharisees, in Jesus’ time, were the most conscientious keepers of the Jewish religious laws.  To all outward appearances, they were good men, model citizens and lovers of God and neighbor.

Tax collectors, on the other hand, were scum.  They betrayed their people by collecting taxes for the Romans.  They often extorted fantastic sums in order to line their own pockets.  The Pharisee accurately described them as grasping and crooked (18:11).

So, quite naturally, we expect the Pharisee to pray better than the tax collector; to be more pleasing to God.  But when we hear the parables we always have to expect a surprise ending.  Why the surprise here?

When we pray, the catechism used to tell us, we “lift up our minds and hearts to God to adore him, to thank him for his benefits, to ask his forgive-ness, and to beg of him all the graces we need for soul or body” (Baltimore Catechism No. 2, q. 304).

The Pharisee is reciting his own good deeds, praising himself, and despising his fellow man.  He’s not really thanking God and certainly not asking for either help or forgiveness.  He believes he’s doing just fine by himself, thank you, God.

The tax collector has no such opinion of himself.  His prayer is as simple as can be:  “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”  In fact, St. Luke’s Greek doesn’t really say, “to me, a sinner,” just one of the many; but “to me, the sinner” (18:13), the only one or the greatest of all.  This man knows he needs God’s help, and therefore he can ask for it and can receive it.

“This man went home justified but the other did not” (Luke 18:14).  To be justified means to be made right with God, to be made holy, to be filled with grace, to be saved.  Only a person who knows how much he needs God’s grace can be made holy by God’s forgiveness and healing and love.  That’s why St. Paul could boast of his weaknesses:  that the power of Christ might dwell in him (2 Cor 2:9).

It’s good for us to recall God’s blessings to us—our good deeds, our spiritual triumphs—as long as we give him the credit and recognize how frail and helpless we are in ourselves.  Just as we did not bestow on our-selves our natural graces—our size and shape, our complexion, hair, eyes, even our talents—but we inherited them as gifts from our ancestors; so our spiritual gifts are God’s graces.

As for our many and repeated failings, at least they keep telling us that we need a savior.  “O God, be merciful to us poor sinners.”  And, thanks be to God, we have our Lord Jesus Christ, the very mercy of God, here in our midst today!
Right to Life Month

By Fr. Steve Ryan, SDB

This post is taken from Fr. Steve's weekly Don Newsletter (October 21).

It’s Pro-Life month. As Catholics we are pro-life. We are clear about our concern to preserve and protect HUMAN RIGHTS FOR ALL: BORN AND UNBORN. Being pro-life is not being insensitive to women. It is being sensitive to innocent babies in the womb and not allowing them to be killed. This month many people throughout the country have been going out to abortion clinics on Saturday mornings to pray. Others are doing the rosary at home. All of us are challenged to speak up. Opportunities arise frequently when the conversation comes up at home or with friends. As you watch television these next two weeks you will hear lots of political advertisements. Many of them mention explicitly whether the candidate wants to fund or de-fund Planned Parenthood. Many of them are explicit about the candidates' desire to work toward expanding or restricting abortion (I’m not just talking about the presidential race here).

So... What to do? What to do to be pro-life? Here’s a list:

  • Pray, pray, pray! Our most important weapon against the evil of abortion is prayer - especially the Rosary.
  • Read, read, read! An effective pro-life advocate must be informed; know the facts and share the truth. Do not hesitate to speak up. With knowledge, you will have the confidence necessary to be a voice for the unborn. Be KIND, LOVING AND PATIENT with those who don’t know the truth.
  • Be prepared to provide resources that will help your friend in a crisis pregnancy. Load phone numbers in your cell phone.
  • Wear the Pro-Life baby feet pin - a conversation starter. The pin represents the actual size of a baby’s feet at 10 weeks. Also share the fact that a baby’s heart starts to beat 18-21 days from conception, even before the mother may know she is pregnant.
  • Attend prayer vigils in front of abortion mills - be a voice for the voiceless!
  • Support your local pregnancy care center. Volunteer at the center or help to raise funds.
  • Spread the truth through Facebook and other social media. Strategically place Pro-Life literature around school and the community.
  • Attend the March for Life or other conferences to be inspired and learn ways to be more effective in teaching the truth about life.
  • Challenge yourself. Be a light to others and help them see that all human life is sacred and deserves to be protected from conception to natural death.
  • Vote your conscience in elections, but don’t wash over this issue as if it's insignificant or unimportant. Babies terminated are not unimportant.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Homily for Mission Sunday

Homily for Mission Sunday
29th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Oct. 16, 2016
2 Tim 3: 14—4: 2
Boy Scouts Troop 9

In most of the U.S., apparently, World Mission Sunday is to be observed on Oct. 23. Not having received that information, I relied upon the Ordo, which identifies Oct. 16 as Mission Sunday, and planned the liturgy accordingly.

“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead …:  proclaim the word” (2 Tim 4: 1).

Those words of St. Paul are addressed to his disciple St. Timothy, whom St. Paul put in charge of the Church at Ephesus.  But once this reading is put into the sacred liturgy, they’re addressed to us as well.  They make a nice connection to World Mission Sunday.

Every year the Church observes this Sunday on which we’re invited to pray for the spread of the Gospel—what Paul today calls “wisdom for salvation thru faith in Christ Jesus” (3:15).  And a special collection is taken up for the support of the Church and missionaries in foreign lands where the Church is very young or almost entirely unknown and can’t support itself.  (Good news:  no collection here!)  E.g., I just read an article about the Church in Mongolia, where there have been Christians for just 25 years, following the fall of Communism around 1990.  There are about 1,200 Catholics among 3,000,000 people.  (We have 3 Salesian houses there doing missionary work in parishes and a vocational-technical school.)

Jesus was the 1st missionary, sent by his Father to bring the Good News of the Father’s love and the forgiveness of our sins.  Then Jesus sent the apostles; mission means “sent.”  The apostles brought the Gospel all over the Roman Empire, from Syria and Palestine to Spain, and St. Thomas even went to India, where to this day in the state of Kerala there are Catholics who trace their faith back to him.  Ever since then, heroic men and women have left their homes to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to foreign lands, to people who haven’t heard of him and of God’s love for us and the forgiveness of our sins.

We think of St. Patrick, who converted the Irish, and St. Francis Xavier, who went to India in the 1540s—a voyage that took at least 6 months and meant he’d never return to Spain—and from India a few years later he went on to Japan, where the descendants of the men and women he converted at Nagasaki preserved the Gospel from 1597 to 1853 amid horrible persecutions and without the assistance of priests because any foreign missionaries were quickly caught and martyred.

Do you know that in the U.S. Capitol, where every state is allowed to erect 2 statues of its great men and women, there are 4 priests?  All were missionaries:  Fr. Jacques Marquette for Wisconsin, Fr. Eusebio Kino for Arizona, St. Junipero Serra for California—he’s considered the founder of California—and St. Damien of Molokai, the priest of the lepers of Hawaii.

Next week we’ll celebrate the feast of the North American martyrs, 8 Jesuit priests and lay helpers who were killed by the Iroquois in what is now New York State and Ontario between 1642 and 1649.  For an idea of what the missionaries in Canada had to go thru in that time, see the movie Blackrobe.  Many of the missionaries risked their lives and some died in the rivers or winter snows; these 8 were canonized because they were martyred in their wilderness missions after awful tortures:  beaten, tomahawked, scalded, their fingers cut off with clam shells, burned, etc.

Not all missionaries are killed, of course.  Mother Teresa went to India from Albania in 1929; she was a schoolteacher until God inspired her to start a brand-new, very different work in the slums of Calcutta, where she brought the love of Jesus to the very least people in society, as you know.

Much closer to home, we have St. Rose Philippine Duchesne.  She left France in 1818 with some other sisters to found a school in St. Louis—the 1st free school west of the Mississippi.  Later she went out to the Indians in western Missouri and Kansas.  She couldn’t learn their language, but she could still show them by signs and affection that God loved them, and she could pray for them.  In fact, the Indians called her “the woman who always prays.”  Her tomb is in St. Charles, near St. Louis.

In the 1880s, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini came with a few sisters to work among the Italian immigrants in New York, and eventually she founded schools, orphanages, and hospitals also in Chicago, Seattle, and elsewhere, including South America.  Although she was terrified of travel by ship—the only way to cross the ocean at that time—she crossed the ocean numerous times because it was necessary for the support of her sisters and her works among the immigrants and orphans.  She became a U.S. citizen in 1909 and died in Chicago in 1917.  In 1946 she became the 1st U.S. citizen made a saint.

We heard St. Paul’s command to Timothy to “proclaim the word.”  The Church puts that command into our ears too, not only into the ears of priests and nuns and brothers.  You who are very young can pray, and should pray, for missionaries and for the people where they minister.  You who are older, besides praying, can contribute financially to mission collections like the one that was taken up at Holy Cross in June or directly to various missionary organizations.

The youngsters can also think about what they might do as a year-long service in a few years, when they’re out of college.  Various religious orders, including the Jesuits and the Salesians, have wonderful volunteer programs for temporary mission service.  E.g., the Salesians send volunteers—most of them 22, 23, 24 years old—to places like Bolivia, Cambodia, and Vietnam; until last year, when civil war broke out, we were sending them to South Sudan.  Here’s a sample of what that experience is like, from a young woman from Cape Girardeau, Mo., who was serving as a nurse in Maridi, South Sudan, 2 years ago (when the country was still at peace): (read and show photos).

So—all of us are called to spread the Gospel, to “proclaim the word,” even now by the way we show Jesus’ love to the people around us; and maybe later by becoming a missionary volunteer for a period of service.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Homily for 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the
28th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Oct. 9, 2016
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.

“May your grace, O Lord, at all times go before us and follow after and make us always determined to carry out good works” (Collect).

2 weekends ago when I was in New York for 2 days of Salesian meetings and our province-wide celebration of this year’s 22 jubilarians—including Fr. Santa and Fr. Bill—after the jubilees Mass and banquet we had free time, and I went for a short hike in Harriman State Park.  Harriman and contiguous Bear Mountain are fantastic parks with more than 52,000 acres of woods, hills, streams, lakes, meadows, and 250 miles of marked and maintained trails—all just an hour away from my old home in New Rochelle and as close as 10-minutes from the Don Bosco Retreat Center.  So over the last 20 years, I spent many days hiking and camping there with confreres, Boy Scouts, or just my guardian angel.

So around 4:30 on Saturday afternoon I set out on a very familiar path, and maybe 10 minutes down the trail I saw a large black dog with its back to me in the brush ahead of me, about 5 feet off the trail.  It’s not at all unusual to meet dogs, on or off leash, in Harriman, so I thought nothing of that.  But I did notice that there were no sounds of voice or footsteps coming from around the bend in the trail, which I thought a little unusual.  On the other hand, when I’m solo I tread pretty lightly and I don’t talk to myself (except when I’ve missed a trail marker).

As I walked closer, the dog didn’t turn around or look up.  Hmmm.  That was strange.  I might have been 30 feet from it, and something—I don’t know what—made me think it a good idea to alert it to my presence lest I surprise it.  So I gave a little whistle.  The large black dog raised its head and turned around, and 2 little black heads popped out of the brush near it.  Surprise!  Those weren’t dogs but the 1st bears I’d ever encountered in those 20 years of hiking hundreds of miles of Harriman and Bear Mt. trails.  Needless to say, I made a strategic retreat—and so did the bears, which was fortunate—all so fast that I couldn’t even get a photo.  Too bad I hadn’t taken a shot while observing the “dog” from 50 feet.

We pray often for God’s grace to “go before us” and to accompany us, e.g., as we hike or travel or undertake some project or start a meeting.  Whenever we SDBs or the FMAs get into a car, even if it’s just a short trip to get groceries, we say a prayer for a safe journey.  I’m sure a lot of us are praying that God’s grace “go before us” as the nation prepares to vote.  It may seem that the psalm verse was never truer that reminds us, “Put no trust in princes, in mortal men in whom there is no help” (146:3)—which isn’t to imply that a certain “mortal woman” should be trusted instead.

The collect, of course, refers to our entire lives as Christians, not just to our physical safety or the nation’s political or social direction.  It’s a prayer that God’s grace completely envelope our lives, protecting us from moral harm, leading us to wise and prudent choices, fortifying our determination to follow thru on our Christian resolutions, enabling us to live virtuous lives, pointing out to us the right road to walk on our pilgrim journey toward God’s kingdom.

We need God’s grace to go before us.  The initiative of salvation is always his.  In one of his sermons, St. Augustine writes:

It is not as if a good life of some sort came first, and that thereupon God showed his love and esteem for it from on high, saying:  “Let us come to the aid of these good [people] and assist them quickly because they are living a good life.”  No, our life was displeasing to him; whatever we did by ourselves was displeasing to him; but what he did in us was not displeasing to him.  He will, therefore, condemn what we have done, but he will save what he himself has done in us.[1]

God has taken pity on us in our sinful misery.  We all know that our sins make us miserable.  All too often they make other people miserable too.  But if our conscience has any life in it, we feel bad—guilty, ashamed, depressed, disappointed in ourselves, helpless, grieved that we’ve offended God or another person—when we reflect on some of the things we’ve done, we’ve said, we’ve desired, or we’ve failed to do:  what we confess in the Confiteor when we use the 1st form of the penitential act at Mass.

So we’re grateful that God’s grace prompts us to turn toward him, to be converted, to repent:  we’re grateful that his grace goes before us.  And we pray it continue to do so.

The collect prayed, too, that God’s grace follow us.  If “well begun is half done,” the other half is completing the project.  On some occasions—e.g., the rites of ordination and religious profession—the Church prays, “May God, who has begun the good work in you, bring it to completion,” which is a paraphrase of Phil 1:6.  One ancient prayer of the Church, which is still one of the liturgical collects, prays:  “Direct, we beseech you, O Lord, our actions by your holy inspiration, and further them with your continual help, so that every prayer and work of ours may always begin from you and thru you be likewise ended.”[2]  We pray that God help us carry thru on our good intentions, our good undertakings.  We fear lest our conversion falter; lest we revert to our bad habits, our old sins; lest our good resolutions blow away in a strong gust of wind or sink into some dark corner of our hearts.

The collect could even be read as a plea to God that he pursue us, “follow after” us, when we wander off the path of righteousness, like a shepherd hunting for a lost sheep (Luke 15:4-6) or like Francis Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven”:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;

  I fled Him, down the arches of the years;

I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways

  Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears

I hid from Him, and under running laughter.

                  Up vistaed hopes I sped;

                  And shot, precipitated,

Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,

From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.

                  But with unhurrying chase,

                  And unperturb√®d pace,

                Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,

                  They beat--and a Voice beat

                  More instant than the Feet--

                "All things betray thee, who betrayest Me."

(Those are the 1st 15 of 182 lines of “The Hound of Heaven.”)

The 3d petition of the collect is that the Lord “make us always determined to carry out good works.”  When God’s grace gets us started and keeps pushing us along, it strengthens us to persevere in seeking and doing good despite hardships and challenges.[3]  Sometimes we just lose heart when people criticize us, don’t give us the help we expect, or oppose us outright.  Consider, e.g., what we’ve been up against since 1973 combatting abortion; and it’s discouraging to think that combat’s going to get much more difficult if the presidential polling is accurate.

And sometimes we just get tired.  You come to Mass every week, but you know most self-identified Catholics don’t.  You’d like to sleep in, too, or go on some kind of outing or watch a game or do some shopping.  It can be wearying and hard to be faithful day in and day out, year after year.  And then there are the challenges and stresses of honesty and truthfulness and fidelity and control of our tongues and care about where our eyes wander and patience with our spouses and kids, etc.

So we need God’s power to keep going, “always determined to carry out good works,” i.e., to work along with God, who is the ultimate good-doer but wants our cooperation—wants us to be the lamps shining in the darkness of the world, wants us to be his agents bearing Good News to a world that’s even wearier than we are of its own darkness and hopelessness.

In a short while, our next Mass prayer, the prayer over the gifts, will ask the Father that thru our “acts of devotedness”—our prayers and union with this Eucharistic sacrifice, as well as our union with our Lord Jesus in our daily lives—“that thru these we may pass over to the glory of heaven.”  May it be so!  May God, who has begun the good work in us bring it to completion!

      [1] Sermo 23A; LOH 4:188 (22d Sunday of O.T.).
      [2] Version from Prayer in Salesian Houses (New Rochelle, 1954), alt.
      [3] Cf. Daniel Merz and Marcel Rooney, OSB, Essential Presidential Prayers and Texts: A Roman Missal Study Edition and Workbook (Chicago: LTP, 2011), p. 232.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Homily for Memorial of Blessed Albert Marvelli

Homily for the Memorial of
Blessed Albert Marvelli
Oct. 5, 2016
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.
Blessed Albert Marvelli
"Our going forward in the spiritual life
must be a continual and determined ascent.
“In Blessed Albert you have given us a shining example of lay holiness.  May his intensive life of prayer, his generosity in fulfilling his social and political responsibilities, and his ardent love for the poor serve us as a constant invitation to follow Christ.” (Collect)

Albert Marvelli was born into a large Italian family on Mar. 21, 1918, and grew up in the city of Rimini, a minor port city and major tourist destination on the northern Adriatic coast.  From his family he learned early to care for the less fortunate.

Albert joined the Salesian oratory or youth center in Rimini and soon became a leader in both games—he loved sports—and catechetical activities.  He modeled himself on Dominic Savio (not yet canonized) and the athlete-social activist from Turin Pier Giorgio Frassati (beatified 1990).

He centered his life on the Eucharist, attending Mass daily. From age 15 till his death, he kept a diary.  One entry in it exclaims: “What a new world opens up to me contemplating Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.  Each time I receive Holy Communion, each time Jesus in his divinity and humanity enters me, contacts my soul, it awakens holy ideas in me, a burning and consuming flame, but one that makes me so happy!”

Other entries tell us, “I want my life to be a continuous act of love…, love which is faith, love which is charity, apostolate, sense of duty, the desire to become a saint.”  “The way of perfection is difficult, I know, but with the help of Jesus nothing is impossible.” 

He was also devoted to our Blessed Mother, praying the Rosary every day.

In both the youth center and his parish, he became active in Catholic Action, an organization that united lay people and clergy in charitable, social, political, and religious activity and was particularly strong in Italy in the 20th century.  Before long he was the president of the youth center unit and vice president of the diocesan organization.

Albert studied engineering at the University of Bologna, and in 1942 with degree in hand went to work for FIAT in Turin.  Italy was already in WWII, and he served in the Italian army briefly; he was an apostle among his fellow soldiers, e.g., bringing them to Mass with him.

Following Italy’s surrender in 1943, he returned to Rimini. The city was occupied by the Germans and was suffering heavy Allied bombardment.  He bicycled all over the city, working strenuously to supply the needs of bombed out families for food, clothing, shoes, etc., and assist those wounded in bombing raids.  He was also active in the resistance, particularly by sneaking into the rail yards and releasing from boxcars those who were being transported to concentration camps.

After the city’s liberation, Albert put his engineering skills to work toward rebuilding Rimini and was appointed an administrator for housing, then a city councilor.  He continued his earlier work of feeding and clothing the needy.

After the war, Italian politics was sharply divided between the Communists and the Christian Democrats.  The royal house was voted out in a referendum in 1946, and Italy became a republic.  But there was grave danger that the Communists would win control of the government just as they were doing at that time in Poland and Hungary and would soon do in Czechoslovakia.  (The situation was so dire in the 1948 elections that even seminarians, including our American Salesians in Turin, were sent out to campaign actively for the Christians Democrats.)

Meanwhile, in Rimini Albert Marvelli was urged to stand for office as a Christian Democrat.  He was so popular and respected that one of the Communists said, “I don’t mind if we lose as long as Marvelli becomes mayor.”  It was a terrible tragedy that while bicycling in the dark to a political meeting on Oct. 5, 1946, he was struck by an army truck and died a few hours later.

Quite evidently Albert Marvelli, this son of the Salesian youth center, exemplified what Don Bosco wanted in his pupils:  a good Christian and an upright citizen.  Pope John Paul II—another former Salesian pupil—beatified Albert on Sept. 5, 2004, during a national congress of Catholic Action at Loreto.

Archbishop Angelo Comastri of Loreto said that Albert “left a sign of cleanness, transparency, dignity, correctness, which is a great message for all politicians today. One can be in politics and be a saint, and this is a very great message that comes from the life of Albert Marvelli.”  For us he leaves a message of deep personal piety that nourishes an active concern for all our brothers and sisters, especially those in most need.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Homily for 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the
27th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Oct. 2, 2016
2 Tim 1: 6-8, 13-14
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.

“Beloved:  I remind you, to stir into flame the gift of God that you have thru the imposition of my hands” (2 Tim 1: 6).
Sacrament of Holy Orders: Priesthood
St. Catharine's Church, Spring Lake, N.J.
For the last 3 Sundays, we’ve read from St. Paul’s 1st Letter to Timothy.  Starting today, we hear for 4 Sundays from his 2d Letter to Timothy.  Our 2d reading selected 5 verses from the 1st chapter of that letter.

Those 5 selected verses follow the letter’s typical formal greeting in which the Apostle, in v. 2, addresses Timothy as his “dear child.”  Hence the word Beloved that opens our reading today—which is not actually part of the sacred text but an opener supplied by the compilers of the Lectionary—stands in for “dear child.”  Paul’s addressing Timothy in particular; in fact, the you’s and your’s that follow in the text are in the singular in the original Greek text, its Latin translation, and old English versions like the KJV and the 1582 Rheims NT that many of us grew up with in the ’40s and ’50s.

As we read in the Acts of the Apostles and in various letters of Paul, from his youth Timothy had been a companion and collaborator in Paul’s apostolic travels.  According to tradition, Paul eventually left him in charge of the Church at Ephesus with the responsibility of episkopos, “overseer”—later translated as “bishop.”  (For those who are interested in etymology:  bishop derives from episkopos.)

This passage isn’t in our Sunday liturgy, however, because you and I are bishops or at all likely to become bishops.  But in different degrees and for different purposes, you and I have received the same gift of God that Timothy did from the laying on of Paul’s hands.

The laying on of hands is a powerful liturgical gesture, so powerful that in the rite of priestly ordination it’s done in complete silence by the bishop and then, perhaps with musical accompaniment, done by all the priests who are present.

You, too, brothers and sisters, have been blessed by the imposition of hands, this symbol that invokes the Holy Spirit, that calls down the Spirit upon a person or a thing such as water, oil, bread and wine over which hands are extended.  Besides Holy Orders, the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Reconciliation, and Anointing explicitly involve the laying on of hands or the extension of hands over the one receiving the sacrament, usually invoking the Spirit of God to confer his gifts—forgiveness, healing, strength, or various virtues for living our Christian lives.  At every Eucharist the celebrant—and any concelebrating priests—extends hands over the bread and wine and invokes the Spirit, that those gifts might be transformed—in classical theological language, transubstantiated—by the power of the Spirit to become God’s gift to us, the Body and Blood of our Savior.

According to the NT and the Fathers of the Church, Jesus of Nazareth was mystically anointed—became the Christ, God’s Anointed One—when the Holy Spirit descended upon him.  The gift of the Holy Spirit bestowed so abundantly upon Timothy and us renders us Christ-like.  It gives us a share in Christ’s offices of priest, prophet, and king.  Paul urges Timothy, “Guard this rich trust [the sound words you heard from me] with the help of the Holy Spirit that dwells within us” (1:13-14).

As Christian priests we’re privileged to take part in Christ’s sacrifice:  to come to the Eucharist and worship the Father together with Christ and to partake of his Body and Blood.  As Christian prophets we’re charged to “testify to our Lord” and “bear [our] share of hardship for the Gospel” (1:8), which, in the 1st place, means living both publicly and privately as disciples of Jesus—letting everyone observe by our conduct that we adhere to God’s Law, the Beatitudes, etc.; “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice” (1:7).  In the 2d place, prophecy means spreading the Gospel, e.g., by catechizing our children, teaching them to pray, and responding to inquiries from people.  As Christian kings or rulers, our 1st task is to govern ourselves—not with “a spirit of cowardice but rather [with] power and love and self-control” (1:7); i.e., we strive with the help of the Holy Spirit to rule our own passions, to defeat the Devil’s temptations.  Secondarily, we govern our households according to Christian principles and, as citizens, we bring those principles into public life.  We don’t surrender to our faults or our sins but ask the Spirit’s help to master them—a lifetime’s work, to be sure.  Hence the need for courage and not cowardice.

Paul also exhorts Timothy to “take as your norm the sound words that you heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1:13).  Two norms are at work here.  The 1st is the Word of God, the Gospel that Paul has preached and Timothy has believed; it’s the total doctrine and morality of Christianity.  These are to be the norms of Timothy’s life and teaching, and the norms of every Christian.  We don’t invent our own Gospel, our own doctrine, or our own moral code.  To do so is to invent our own religion, distinct from the religion of Jesus Christ and the Church to which Jesus has entrusted the Gospel.  In the rites of Baptism and the renewal of baptismal promises, after affirming the Creed we’re reminded, “This is our faith.  This is the faith of the Church.”  This is the faith by which we are saved “in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Later in 2 Timothy, Paul warns Timothy that “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 and will be diverted to myths” (4:3)—to false teaching, to misleading ideas, to lies.  Contemporary examples of such falsehood:  a certain Catholic candidate for vice president has predicted that like him (and others) the Church will come around to the “wisdom” of accepting gay “marriage”; the so-called Catholics for Free Choice spread the lie that abortion is a legitimate moral choice; some people hold that it’s un-Christian to teach and practice a priesthood restricted to males.  No, the norm of our Christian faith isn’t public opinion, the opinion of academics, the opinion of the Supreme Court, the opinion of the entertainment industry, contemporary mores, or the worldly wisdom of “if it feels good, do it” or “look out for No. 1.”  The norm of our Christian faith is “the sound words you heard from me,” i.e., from Paul and the other apostles, our apostolic faith—preserved in the Sacred Scriptures and safeguarded by those who have succeeded to the apostolic office, starting with the bishop of Rome, successor of St. Peter and custodian of the teaching of both Peter and Paul.

The 2d norm at work in Paul’s words to Timothy here is Paul himself.  In other places—e.g., in 1 Corinthians (4:16, 11:1), Philippians (3:17), and 1 Thessalonians (1:6)—Paul implores his readers to imitate him.  His own behavior, his own dedication to Jesus Christ and to the Gospel, is a norm.  For us in the 21st century, this is one of the reasons for saints, one of the reasons for canonizations:  to hold up to us authentic, trustworthy models to imitate.  We may be sure that in imitating the virtues and lifestyles of Mother Teresa, St. Edith Stein, St. John Bosco, Sts. Louis and Zelie Martin, St. Dominic Savio, St. Gianna Molla, Blessed John Henry Newman, Blessed Frederick Ozanam, or your own particular patron saint, for example, we put the Gospel into practice and so “guard this rich trust with the help of the Holy Spirit that dwells within us.”  (This is one reason why it’s important to give your children saints’ names.)

A final word, from the 1st verse of today’s reading:  “stir into flame the gift of God that you have thru the imposition of my hands.”  Like starting and keeping a fire going, the gift of God’s Spirit needs to be tended to, to be stirred up—by prayer, by avoiding the occasions of sin, by constant effort and practice to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit, to let the Spirit guide our choices and our actions.