Sunday, May 28, 2017

Blessed Joseph Kowalski, Salesian Priest and Martyr

Blessed Joseph Kowalski,

Salesian Priest and Martyr[1]

Memorial, May 29

Joseph Kowalski was born at Siedliska, Poland, a little farming town near Rzeszow, on March 13, 1911, the son of Wojciech and Sofia Borowiec. The family’s faith was deep and practical. He was baptized on March 19, feast of St. Joseph, in the parish church at Lubenia, about 2½ miles from the town, which at that time did not have a church.

Following his parents’ wishes, after finishing his elementary schooling, at age 11 he went to St. John Bosco School at Oswiecim, where stayed five years. In these years he was distinguished by rare piety, diligence, joy, and a spirit of service. Everyone liked him, and he was counted among the better boys. He belonged to the Immaculate Conception Sodality, was president of the mission club, and led religious and cultural activities among his schoolmates. It was hardly strange that there grew in him the desire to follow in the steps of his teachers, who saw in him the signs of the grace of a genuine vocation.

The educational environment and Christian formation of his teen years are suggestive of all the characteristic elements of the Preventive System: a youthful environment, a trusting rapport with his teachers, groups with commitments, the more mature boys taking responsibility, devotion to Mary Help of Christians, frequenting the sacraments.

That in this environment Joseph pursued his own personal journey toward holiness as he “imitated Dominic Savio” is shown, among other ways, in some pages of his “Private Notebooks”: “To die rather than to offend you by the slightest sin”; “O my good Jesus, give me a will that is persevering, firm, strong, so that I can persevere in my holy resolutions and can attain my lofty ideal: the holiness that has been appointed for me. I can and must be a saint.” The same notebooks document his very personal attachment to Jesus Christ, which continued to mature with the years, in particular after his religious profession: “Jesus, I want to be truly faithful and faithfully to serve you.... I dedicate myself totally to you.... Keep me close to you always and faithful to you until death and maintain my oath: ‘To die rather than to offend you by the slightest sin’.... I must be a holy Salesian, as my father Don Bosco was a saint.”

Fr. Kowalski as a young Salesian
As a young student of philosophy in 1930, he had written in blood on a page in his diary, after he had sketched a small cross: “To suffer and to be despised for you, O Lord.... Fully aware, with a decisive will, and ready for all the consequences, I embrace the sweet cross of Christ’s call, and I wish to carry it until the end, until death.” He asked to become a Salesian, and in 1927 he entered the novitiate at Czerwinsk. There followed his years of college and philosophy at Krakow (1928-1931), practical training capped by his perpetual profession (1934), and his theological studies leading to his priestly ordination in 1938.

The provincial, Fr. Adam Cieslar, called him immediately to be his secretary, and he fulfilled that role for the next three years. He is described as a confrere who was notable for an amazing self-mastery and exceptional esteem for each of his brothers: helpful, courteous, always calm, and especially very hardworking. As much as his duties allowed, he put himself to studying languages (Italian, French, German); he read with interest biographies of the Founder and prepared his homilies most carefully. The duties of provincial secretary did not prevent him from carrying out pastoral ministry. He was always available to preach or give conferences, especially among the youngsters, and to hear confessions. Gifted with a keen musical ear and possessing a beautiful voice, he took care of the parish youth choir, adding to the solemnity of the liturgical celebrations.

This zealous priestly activity among the young is exactly what the Nazis had in mind and was the reason why they arrested Fr. Kowalski on May 23, 1941, together with 11 other Salesians. They were jailed temporarily in Krakow’s Montelupich prison. After a month he and the others were moved to the Auschwitz concentration camp (Oswiecim in Polish). Here he saw four of his confreres killed [on June 27, 1941]. They included his director Fr. Joseph Swierc and his confessor Fr. Ignatius Dobiasz. He became prisoner no. 17350 and underwent a year of hard labor and mistreatment in the so-called “hardship corps,” where few survived. His transfer to Dachau was decided, but at the last moment it was halted in circumstances well described by witnesses who were deposed during the process investigating his martyrdom, also reported in the process of beatification of Fr. Maximilian Kolbe. He remained in the “hardship corps” at Auschwitz.

Fr. Kowalski's prison ID
The prison camp became the field of his pastoral ministry. He united his suffering to diligent attention to his comrades, especially to strengthen their hope and sustain their faith. We report some facts to which some testified: “The chiefs of the SK (Strafkompanie, punitive unit), knowing that Kowalski was a priest, harassed him at every step, beat him at every occasion, ordered him to the harshest work.” But he never stopped offering to his comrades all the priestly service possible: “Despite a strict prohibition, he absolved the sins of the dying, strengthened the discouraged, spiritually comforted the poor men who had been sentenced to death, secretly brought around Communion; he managed even to organize Mass in the barracks, led prayer, and helped those who were in need.” “In that death camp where, according to the expression of the commanders, God was absent, he succeeded in bringing God to his fellow prisoners.” His interior and exterior attitude during this entire Calvary was shown in [his last] letter to his parents: “Don’t worry about me; I’m in God’s hands.... I want to assure you that I feel his help at every step. In spite of the present situation, I’m happy and completely at peace; I’m sure that wherever I may be and whatever may happen to me, everything comes from the fatherly Providence of God, who in the most just manner directs the fates of every nation and of all human beings.”

Two facts speak eloquently of his heroic pastoral zeal. The first is the organization of daily prayer in the camp: “When we’d barely come out of our blocks in the morning, we used to assemble, while it was still dark (at 4:30), forming a little group of 5-8 persons, near one of the blocks, in a less visible spot (the discovery of such a gathering might have cost us our lives), to recite a prayer that we repeated after him. The little group grew bit by bit, even though it was very risky.”

Forced labor in a Nazi concentration camp
The second happened on June 2, 1942. An order came from the concentration camps high command: 60 priests were to be deported from Auschwitz to Dachau. That was another extermination camp, where 3,000 priests were interned. Fr. Joseph Kowalski was among those selected for the trip. The 60 priests were stuffed into a bathhouse to be disinfected before they left. The scene that unfolded has been narrated under oath by Fr. Conrad Szweda: “We were gathered in the bathhouse, waiting our turn to be disinfected. [SS Gerhard] Palitzsch came in, the most pitiless of the executioners of Auschwitz. He noticed that Fr. Kowalski had something in his hand: ‘What do you have?’ he asked brusquely. And without waiting for an answer, he struck the hand with his whip, and a rosary fell out. ‘Step on it!’ he shouted. Fr. Joseph did not move. He was immediately separated from the group and transferred to the special discipline unit.”

The events of the last day of his life, July 3, 1942, were even more tragic. Every deed and every word of those last 24 hours are clothed with a particularly important meaning. “When our work was done,” one witness tells, “his comrades led Fr. Kowalski to the block; he’d been ill treated by the officers. After his return, I spent the last moments together with him. We realized that after the slaying of our bunk mates (of five, three had already been killed), now our turn was coming. In that situation, Fr. Kowalski was concentrated in prayer. At a certain moment he turned to me and said, ‘Kneel and pray with me for all these men who are killing us.’ We both prayed until the roll-call was done, till late in the evening on the bunk. After a little bit Mitas came to us and called Fr. Kowalski, who rose from the bunk with a tranquil spirit, because he’d prepared for this call and for the death that would follow. He gave me the portion of bread he’d received for supper, saying, ‘You eat it; I won’t need it.’ After these words he went knowingly to his death.

“Before the final act, which would occur early on the morning of July 4, on the 3d a sacred play was enacted, in which was revealed the heroic dignity of a genuine testimony of faith. The commanders had gone mad in their mania for killing. They enjoyed themselves immensely with the cruel spectacles they created. On this day they continued their sadistic morning’s entertainment right through their lunch break. One they would drown in the nearby cesspool, others they would hurl from the high embankment to the bottom of a great canal that was being excavated, full of muddy clay. Any victim who moaned, not yet dead, was shoved into a big barrel that was missing a bottom, which served as a kennel for the dogs. They made them imitate the baying of the dogs and then, pouring some of their soup upon the ground, they compelled the dying men to lick it from the dirt. One of the officers yelled with a raucous laugh: ‘And where’s that Catholic priest? He can bless them for their trip to eternity.’ Meanwhile other tormentors were beating Fr. Kowalski down into the mud for their amusement. Then they led him, hardly resembling a man, to the barrel. Naked, he was dragged out of a muddy pool, holding what was left of his tattered pants and dripping from head to foot with that sticky mix of mud and dung. Driven by blows, he came to the barrel where some lay dying and others dead. The executioners thrashed Fr. Kowalski, mocked him as a priest, and ordered him to climb upon the barrel and impart to the dying ‘according to the Catholic rite, the last blessing for their trip to Paradise.’

“Fr. Kowalski knelt on the barrel, made the Sign of the Cross, and began loudly, as if inspired, to recite slowly the Our Father, Hail Mary, ‘We fly to thy patronage,’ and Hail, Holy Queen. The eternal words of truth contained in the divine strophes of the Lord’s Prayer deeply impressed the prisoners who from day to day, from hour to hour, expected in that place a sudden death, like that of those in the kennel who were leaving this valley of tears, so disfigured that they no longer looked like human beings. Curled up on the grass, not daring to raise our heads lest we expose ourselves to the view of the executioners, we relished Fr. Kowalski’s piercing words like material food that gave us a desired peace. Upon that ground soaked in prisoners’ blood, our tears now flowed and sank in as we assisted at the sublime mystery celebrated by Fr. Kowalski against the backdrop of that macabre scene. Nestled near me on the grass, a young student of Jaslo (Thaddeus Kokosz) whispered into my ear: ‘The world has never before heard a prayer like this. Maybe not even in the catacombs did they pray like that.’”

From a careful reconstruction we learn that he was killed in the night of July 3-4, 1942. He was drowned in the camp sewer. His fellow prisoner Stephen Boratynski, who saw his completely filthy corpse left in front of the block of the so-called “punishment unit,” testified to this under oath.

The decree of Fr. Kowalski’s martyrdom was published on March 26, 1999. He was beatified [with 107 other Polish victims of Nazi persecution] on June 13, 1999, by St. John Paul II [who, as a university student, had known him in the parish of St. Stanislaus Kostka in Krakow’s Debniki neighborhood].

[Salesians can find additional material in the letter "Sanctity and Martyrdom at the Dawn of the Third Millenium" (sic), June 29, 1999, by Fr. Juan Edmundo Vecchi in Acts of the General Council, no. 368, pp. 16-27.]

      [1] The text is from, translated by your humble blogger for the province newsletter of May 25.

Homily for Ascension of the Lord

Homily for the Solemnity
of the Ascension of the Lord
Acts 1: 1-11
May 28, 2016
Matt 28: 16-20
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.

“Wait for the promise of the Father about which you heard me speak” (Acts 1: 4).

You’re all familiar with sequels.  Countless successful movies have them, sometimes multiple parts like Star Wars; books too, like the Harry Potter series.  Our 1st reading today is the opening lines of St. Luke’s sequel to his Gospel.  If you wanted to, you could call it “The Good News of Jesus Christ, Part II.”  On the other hand, it’s often called “The Gospel of the Holy Spirit” because the Spirit is mentioned so many times in this book (twice in the 11 verses we just read), often as a principal actor driving the apostles’ actions.  Officially, of course, it’s titled “The Acts of the Apostles,” a historical record—in parts an eyewitness account—of what Jesus’ closest followers did and preached in the 1st years after his resurrection from the dead.
The Ascension of Jesus
Benjamin West
These opening verses of Acts give us our traditional image of the ascension of Jesus as well as the number of 40 days during which he appeared to his disciples in his risen body.  The gospels, including St. Luke’s, aren’t so specific about either the length of time or the manner of Jesus’ leaving his disciples.

The fundamental truths are these:  Jesus was truly raised from the dead and is physically alive, immortal, but also transformed so that he can be seen bodily, be touched, be heard, eat; yet also disappear at will, pass thru closed doors, etc.  Jesus in his risen body is now in heaven with his Father, ruling over creation and interceding for the human race—our human ambassador at the divine court, as it were, representing the interests of humanity, especially seeking mercy for us.  And Jesus will return at the end of history to raise from the dead and lead into the glory of heaven all of his disciples and to ratify the damnable choice made by anyone who has refused his mercy and remained in sin.  As our Collect noted, “Where the Head has gone before in glory, the Body [all of his disciples] is called to follow in hope.”

Before we follow our Lord Jesus into heavenly glory, however, we have 2 commissions to carry out, 2 directives that he gave his disciples before he left them.

The 1st is “to wait for the promise of the Father,” i.e., for “baptism with the Holy Spirit” (1:4-5).  To that he adds, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you” (1:8).

The 2d command tells them what they’re to do with that power of the Holy Spirit:  “You will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth” (1:8), a commission confirmed in St. Matthew’s version of the Ascension:  “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, … teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (28:19-20).

When the Lord tells us that he will always remain with us (e.g., Matt 28:20), he isn’t specific about how he’ll be present.  Certainly he’s present sacramentally in the Eucharist.  But the scriptural stress today is on his presence thru the Holy Spirit.

The apostles and the rest of the disciples—some 120 in all, according to Acts 1:15, including Mary, the mother of Jesus (1:14)—had to wait for the Holy Spirit.  It was only when the Spirit came down upon them in wind and fire—as we’ll recall next Sunday, Pentecost—that they received this wondrous baptism the Risen Lord speaks of—and were filled with courage, strength, wisdom, and the other gifts they needed to become, in truth, apostles, men and women sent to spread the Good News of Jesus, sent to be his witnesses.

In one sense, you and I aren’t waiting for the Holy Spirit, my brothers and sisters.  He’s already been given to us in Baptism and, for most of us, in Confirmation.  We have already been given the power of the Holy Spirit.

In another sense, we’re still waiting on the Spirit.  Or perhaps the Spirit is waiting on us.  Have we invoked his sacred power?  Have we called upon him to inspire us, give us wisdom, give us courage, help us play our proper roles as witnesses of Jesus Christ?  If we want his power in our lives, we have to ask him to come upon us, to fill our hearts and our minds, to drive our wills.

Empowered by the Spirit, the apostles began immediately to preach the resurrection of Jesus, the forgiveness of sins, and mankind’s reconciliation with God.  They began on that Pentecost day to convert the world; Acts tells us that after Peter preached that day, “about 3,000 persons were added” to the number of believers (1:41).  The apostles began “in Jerusalem” and then moved on “thruout Judea and Samaria,” and as Acts narrates, into Syria, Cyprus, Asia Minor, Greece, and as far as Rome, and eventually “to the ends of the earth” (1:8).  To study church history is in part to study the steady expansion of Christianity to all 6 inhabited continents.  I’m sure there’s also a Christian presence on the 7th continent, among the scientists and military personnel living in Antarctica.

Jesus Christ came for the redemption of the entire human race, and he sent his Church—empowered his Church, which meant the apostles and all the disciples, and now means us as well—to perpetuate his mission of redemption in every land and in every age.  Today there are about 2.4 billion Christians on this earth.  That sounds like a lot.  Some of course, are Christians only in name, aren’t really believers, and don’t practice what they profess.  E.g., supposedly more than 1,000 families belong to our parish; but on any given Sunday, only 800 individuals come to give thanks to God for their salvation and recharge themselves with the power of the Holy Spirit.

Apart from that little matter, if there are about 7.3 billion people living on the planet, what’s 2.4 billion?[1]  33%.  It’s a considerable shortfall, no?  The mission of Jesus is far from complete, sisters and brothers.  We have a lot more witnessing to do—truly to live our faith on Sundays and weekdays, to know who we are as followers of Jesus, to speak and act constantly, consistently, courageously, humbly as followers of Jesus amid our families and friends and co-workers and anyone with whom we interact.  We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to be witnesses of Jesus in Champaign, thruout Illinois, and to the ends of the earth.  To us too Jesus says, “Go and make disciples”—1st in our own families, and then as opportunity presents itself, especially thru apostolic activity in our parish, e.g., in pro-life action, St. Vincent de Paul, catechetical action, Eucharistic ministry, youth ministry, music ministry.  Not least, pray for missionaries, priests, and other apostolic workers; pray for the conversion of sinners, always conscious that you, too, are a sinner still needing to turn fully to Jesus.  (Me too.)  May the grace and power of the Holy Spirit touch us all and lead us to fullness of life in Jesus Christ!

       [1] Statistics from the 2017 World Almanac, p. 698.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Homily for 6th Sunday of Easter

Homily for the
6th Sunday of Easter
May 24, 1987
1 Pet 3: 15-18
Holy Cross, Fairfield, Conn.

This weekend (May 20-21, 2017) at Holy Cross in Champaign, the deacons preached. Here's a 30-year-old homily from the other Holy Cross in my life.

“Should anyone ask you the reason for this hope of yours, be ever ready to reply, but speak gently and respectfully.  Keep your conscious clear, so that, whenever you are defamed, those who libel your way of life in Christ may be shamed” (1 Pet 3: 15-16).

When Peter wrote this letter to Christians undergoing persecution, he described himself as a “witness to the sufferings of Christ” (5:1).  He had witnessed Jesus’ public ministry, with its daily portion of human problems, with its persecution by the authorities, with its failure to convert many people.  He had witnessed Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution.

More than that, Peter had experienced Christ’s passion in his own life, in his struggle to be courageous, to persevere, and to keep hoping for a share in Christ’s glory yet to be revealed to the faithful (5:1).

Maybe you’ve read Quo Vadis or seen the movie.  If not, maybe you’ve at least heard the story.  It tells how, when Nero’s persecution broke out, Peter was hightailing it out of Rome.  About a mile out of town he met a strangely familiar figure walking toward the city.  He realized it was Jesus.

“Domine, quo vadis?  Lord, where are you going?” the shocked apostle asked his Master.

“If you won’t stay with my people in Rome,” Jesus answered him, “I’m going back in your place, to be crucified again.”

The shamed leader of the Christian faithful turned back and was soon arrested and crucified in the circus of Nero on the side of the Vatican hill.
The church of "Domine, Quo Vadis" on the Appian Way
Whether or not Peter really tried to flee and saw such an apparition, there is a church called the Quo Vadis on the Appian Way.  If you go, you’ll see a paving stone from an old highway in which 2 footprints still show, the marks left by Christ as he spoke to Peter.

As the Italians say, “Si non é vero, é ben trovato.  If it’s not true, it ought to be.”

Peter calls his persecuted readers to understand their sufferings as part in the sufferings of Christ, and thereby to bear powerful, eloquent witness to Christ.  He seems to view these sufferings as a natural consequence of faith, and Jesus, in the gospel, hints at this too (John 14:17).  If we really take up our crosses each day to follow Jesus, we feel the burden.

So Peter advises his readers that their attitude in their daily struggle should find a model in Jesus.  If they respond gently and respectfully to those who wrong them, they will disappoint and shame their persecutors.

Believers in America don’t face open, bloody persecution the way Peter and the 1st Christian generations did.  What we face is far more subtle.

How are Christians attacked today?  The latest outstanding example is the way that large segments of the population have gloated over the moral failures of Jim Bakker and his associates.  First, all TV evangelists came under fire; some of them deserve to be under fire, but to generalize from the failings of a few and paint all of them as greedy and corrupt is a slander.  And after the evangelists, more subtly, the convictions of all Christians are mocked.

Another example:  the media take the political opinions of men like Jerry Falwell or Cardinal O’Connor and use them to put down fundamentalist Christians or Roman Catholics who don’t subscribe to opinions hallowed by the gods of TV and the press.  A more specific example:  In the mid-70s when Cardinal Madeiros vigorously denounced racism, particularly among the South Boston Irish, the media lionized him.  In the 80s, when he vigorously denounced abortion during the campaign season, the media, NOW, the ACLU, and the politicians lambasted him for interfering in politics, civil rights, etc.

Another example:  When was the last time you saw a reasonably accurate, sympathetic portrayal of Catholicism, our beliefs, our priests, ordinary Catholics like you in the movies or on TV?  It certainly wasn’t in the recent episode of Family Ties in which Alex’s friend died; it’s not in MASH’s Fr. Mulcahy; it wasn’t in The Thorn Birds; it’s not in coverage of the Church and conflicts over homosexuality; foster care in NYC, birth control clinics in schools, speakers at church functions, or Fr. Curran and Abp. Hunthausen.

To be fair, the media have given plenty of good treatment to our bishops’ pastorals on peace and on the economy.  Unfortunately, such objectivity seems to depend upon whether the Church’s position squares with what has been called “the liberal agenda.”

Another example:  The US is the only Western nation in which Catholics—or Lutherans, Jews, or evangelical Christians—must pay for 2 school systems, one for everyone and one that respects their religious beliefs.

So we don’t have to be up against the lions in the Coliseum or cutting timber in a Siberian labor camp or hiding from a Salvadoran death squad to be defamed, to have our way of life in Christ libeled, to suffer for the Gospel.
Anti-Catholic riot, Philadelphia, 1844
What course are we to take?  Fortunately things have improved since 1844, when Bp. John Hughes had to threaten to let his angry and nervous Irish flock torch New York if the city fathers couldn’t keep anti-Catholic mobs from burning Catholic churches, as had just happened in Philadelphia.  Instead, we are to “be ever ready to reply” to those who slander religion with a statement of what we believe to be right and true and of our right to do what is right and to speak what is true.

Our speech and our way of living is to be gentle and respectful even as it is forceful and direct.  We must live honestly, almost irreproachably.  As we’ve seen in the PTL case and in some others, any moral flaw, any weakness, gives religion’s enemies plenty of ammunition.  “If it should be God’s will that [we] suffer, it is better to do so for good deeds than for evil ones” (3:17).

How much good we could do if our neighbors could observe us as the pagan Romans observed the 3d-century disciples of Jesus, and exclaim, “Look how these Christians love one another!”

Homily for Wedding of Elise Pontious and Alex Foran

Homily for the Wedding
of Elise Pontious and Alex Foran
May 20, 2017
Tobit 8: 4-8
Ps 145: 8-10, 15, 17-18
Heb 13: 1-6
Matt 7: 21, 24-29
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.

“The Lord is close to all who call him, who call on him in truth” (Ps 145: 18).

Elise and Alex, you’ve been diligent in calling upon the Lord.  That’s probably a habit, a virtue, that you’ve practiced for as long as you can remember, something you probably learned from your dear parents Melissa and Bill (RIP), Tim and Lisa.  The Church always considers parents the 1st and best educators of their children.

Moms and dads are usually proud beyond measure of their kids, especially on occasions like weddings.  Grandparents also deserve some recognition for the priceless roles they play in loving and guiding not just their own children but also the grandchildren.  You, Elise and Alex, give added reason for parental pride and joy today because you’re beginning your life together by calling upon the Lord.  You recognize the truth that he is the source of our deepest happiness, that the greatest yearnings of our hearts only he can satisfy, that your ultimate goal isn’t a fine home, a comfortable lifestyle, a bunch of talented kids, even a long and healthy life—but eternal life with the One who created all of us to be happy and healthy forever in his home as part of his family.  The only “happily ever after” is the one with God, the Father to whom our Lord Jesus leads us with his sound teachings, the words and example on which you’re pledging to build your life together (Matt 7: 24-28).  Jesus is the sure foundation for contentment and happiness even in this life.
The Wedding at Cana
St. Ursula's Church, Mt. Vernon, N.Y.
In my 39 years (and 1 day) as a priest, mostly in high school and communications ministry, I haven’t witnessed a lot of marriages.  I think you’re the 1st couple who’ve chosen the OT reading from Tobit.  In that reading you join your prayers to the prayer of Tobiah and Sarah, calling upon the Lord to protect you and deliver you from everything that will inevitably test your marriage.  Not for nothing will your exchange of consent—by which you become the celebrants of this sacrament—not for nothing will you promise fidelity “in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health.”  This is not to mention that by around week 3, Alex, you’ll discover that Elise is not a goddess but an imperfect human being like everyone else you know.  (Our parish DRE adds that you must remember:  even if she’s not a goddess, she’s still the boss.)  And Elise, you’ll make the same startling discovery about Alex’s imperfections.

But you’re here to call on the Lord, to celebrate the sacrament that makes our Lord Jesus a partner in your marriage and your family life.  You’re committing yourselves to be Jesus for each other:  Alex, to love, cherish, protect, and help Elise become the saint that God created her to be, as Jesus saved her to be; Elise, to love, cherish, protect, and help Alex become the saint that God created him to be, as Jesus saved him to be.

“The Lord is my helper, and I will not be afraid” was the last verse from your NT reading (Heb 13:6).  The Lord whom you invoke will indeed be with you and help you.  At times you’ll each stand in for the Lord.  Each of you will be the Lord’s agent in regard to your partner by the power of this sacrament.  Be Jesus in your love for your partner.

All of us who witness your commitment to each other and to God join with you, in the words of Tobiah and Sarah, in “calling down [God’s] mercy on” you, that you may live together happily to an old age (Tob 8:8); and going further, that you may live together with our Lord Jesus into eternal happiness.

May God bless you superabundantly all your days!

Monday, May 15, 2017

Homily for 5th Sunday of Easter

Homily for the
5th Sunday of Easter
May 14, 2017
Acts 6: 1-7
John 14: 1-12
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.

“Almighty, ever-living God, constantly accomplish the Paschal Mystery within us…” (Collect).

So we prayed in the Collect, in part, 10 or 15 minutes ago.  We pleaded with God—powerful and full of life—to empower us with the divine life of his Son Jesus.  This life is available to us on account of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection—the paschal mystery, the Easter mystery.  We enter that mystery thru Baptism and all the other sacraments, and we grow in our grasp of the mystery whenever we encounter Jesus in his sacred Word, the holy Scriptures.

Our prayer, however, is that the paschal mystery be “accomplished” in us:  that it be carried out, that it be effective, that it be fulfilled, or as the prayer itself says, that it “bear much fruit.”  Being baptized or confirmed, or receiving the Eucharist, is a part of the divine process, but not the whole process of this accomplishment.  More is required.

More in required even in a temporal sense.  For our prayer is that God accomplish the mystery “constantly.”  It’s ongoing.  It’s lifelong.  It’s not finished until we die, until we come to that home in heaven that Jesus is preparing for us (John 14:2-3).  So be patient, folks, regarding your spiritual growth, and keep progressing with Jesus along the way that he has marked out for us thru his paschal mystery.

Note, too, that we pray for God to accomplish the mystery within us.  It’s not something we can do for ourselves.  The work of our salvation is done by Jesus, acting on us and in us thru his Holy Spirit.  He needs our cooperation, our “yes” to his work, as he needed the Virgin Mary’s “yes” when the angel Gabriel came to her and asked her to become the mother of our Savior (Luke 1:26-38).  But God does all the heavy lifting.

That it’s God’s work is indicated, too, in the next line of the prayer:  “those you were pleased to make new in Holy Baptism.”  Baptism began the work of God in us.  It made us a new creation, recreated us clean and pure in divine grace.  Baptism was our rebirth, which Jesus spoke of to Nicodemus:  we must be reborn of water and the Holy Spirit if we are to enter the Kingdom of God (John 3:5).  But God’s the one who does the work, who makes us new, who pushes us out of the dark womb of our sinfulness into the glorious new life of grace.

We prayed that, “under [God’s] protective care,” we might “bear much fruit.” 
At the Last Supper Jesus told the apostles that he’s the vine and they’re the branches shooting off the vine; as long as we’re attached to him, we can bear abundant fruit (John 15:4-5).  Elsewhere in the Scriptures, the people of God are called to the Lord’s vineyard, which he cultivates so that it will bear good fruit (Is 5:1-7; Matt 21:33-41; cf. Matt 20:1-16).

What is the fruit that God expects of us?  To ask the question another way, in keeping with the beginning of the Collect, how do our lives show that we’re immersed in Jesus’ paschal mystery?  The reading from the Acts of the Apostles informs us.  The apostles note that the Church has a 2-part program:  to pray and preach the Word of God is one part; to serve the needs of the poor, personified in widows in our passage, is the other part.

So our Christian lives must show the fruit of prayer:  giving praise and thanks to God and interceding on behalf of the world.  When St. Peter instructs us that we must “be built into … a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God thru Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 2:5), prayer of praise and intercession is one of the things he means.  You are a Christian priest; you pray.

Our Christian lives also must show the fruit of sound teaching or public witness to God’s Word.

And our Christian lives must show the fruit of practical charity, social justice—such as works for the poor, the hungry, the homeless, migrants, the sick, the elderly, children in the womb, prisoners, the environment, education, health care, rescuing the victims of trafficking, delivering people from terrorism and other forms of oppression, helping people deal with addictions, etc.  Obviously, no one can do all of that.  In Acts, you might say the work is divided up among various branches of the vine that is Christ.  Make sure you are a fruit-giving branch.  That’s our collective prayer today (“collective” and “collect” are related words!).

Finally, the Collect prays that—always with God’s help—we might “come to the joys of life eternal.”  Jesus is preparing a place for us.  The place is in his Father’s house, his Father’s mansion, where we’re meant to dwell with him (John 14:2-3) and see the Father’s face—see the Father in person (cf. 14:8-9).

Think how excited you’d be to meet some hero of yours in person and get to spend time with him or her.  How many of you went to the Garth Brooks or Tom Petty concert?  It’s different in person than on TV, right?  How many parishioners got excited last Sunday because Lovie Smith came to 10 o’clock Mass (so I was told later—and I was the celebrant!)?  How many of you wanted to go see the Cubs’ world championship trophy when it came to town—a thing, not a person?  I’m excited because next month Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez, a Salesian who’s coordinator of the Pope’s council of 9 cardinals, is going to ordain 4 new SDB priests in N.Y., and I’ll be there either concelebrating or taking photos.  (The cardinal has done ordinations for us several times and visited New Rochelle on other occasions; he’s delightfully friendly and approachable.)

How can we compare any of that with being with God—the God who created us out of love, who is our Father, who so loves us that he sent Jesus to save us (cf. John 3:16), who so ardently desires to have us in his company, part of his family, forever?  We pray for that joy, which the Father wants to give us even more than we want to receive it!

May the paschal mystery be accomplished in each of us!  If we must part physically in a few weeks, may we—as St. Thomas More said on the scaffold—“meet merrily in heaven,” where our health, our virtue, and our joy will be perfect and unending.
Execution of Sir Thomas More (detail), by Antoine Caron

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Homily for Feast of St. Mary Mazzarello

Homily for the Feast of
St. Mary Mazzarello
May 13, 2017
1 Cor 1: 26-31
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.

“Consider your call, brothers and sisters. . . .  God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world…” (1 Cor 1: 26-28).

Those words to St. Paul, chosen particularly for today’s feast of St. Mary Domenica Mazzarello, apply also to the Church’s 2 newest saints.  Earlier this morning at Fatima, Pope Francis canonized Francisco and Jacinta Marto, 2 of the 3 shepherd children to whom our Lady appeared 100 years ago today.
Jacinta Marto, Lucia dos Santos, and Francisco Marto,
the 3 children to whom our Lady appeared at Fatima in 1917.
Francisco was 10 when he died 2 years later, and Jacinta was 9 when she died 3 years later.  And they “bumped off” Dominic Savio as the youngest canonized non-martyrs; Dominic had reached the ripe age of almost 15.

If you’re disappointed that in the Salesian world the feast of St. Mary Domenica Mazzarello pulls rank over the optional memorial of Our Lady of Fatima, take heart from this:

After Don Bosco built a magnificent new church at the Oratory of St. Francis de Sales in the 1860s, dedicated not to the Oratory’s patron saint, Francis, but to Mary, the Help of Christians, he set about building a different kind of monument in honor of our Lady.  He called this monument a “living” one because it was made up of live human beings who were to glorify Mary by doing her work on earth for the salvation of the young, especially girls.  That living monument is the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, better known as the Salesian Sisters.  And St. Mary Domenica was the Daughters’ cofoundress, with Don Bosco.

You may have read the little bio of St. Mary was in our “Crux” insert in last week’s bulletin.  So no need for me to repeat that.

Like Don Bosco, Mary came from a simple, hardworking peasant family—nothing powerful or well-born or noble in either of them, except what came from the power and nobility of God’s grace.  Mary didn’t even learn to read and write until late in life.

But Mary learned to love God and serve her neighbor from her parents and extended family, from the people of her humble parish in her remote village in the hills of Piedmont, and from the spiritual guide to whom she entrusted her soul, the parish’s assistant pastor, Fr. Dominic Pestarino.

That was the 1st key to Mary’s holiness.  2d, she became an apostle.  She and some of the other girls and young women of the village looked after the younger girls while their parents were working in the fields.  They taught them catechism and basic skills like sewing and cooking.  This was the group of young women whom Fr. Pestarino introduced to Don Bosco in 1864 and who, a few years later, became the 1st Daughters of Mary Help of Christians (1872).

3d, Mary Domenica reluctantly accepted the office of superior, and she humble and lovingly guided the others as her daughters in their own spiritual growth, their devotion to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, to Mary Help of Christians, and to Don Bosco their father, and to the service of the girls and young women who became their apostolate in Piedmont, then Argentina, and now all over the world—even, all too briefly, at the Newman Center of Champaign.  They are now the largest religious congregation of women in the Church.

What God did in the short life of Mary Mazzarello—she was only 44 when she died—and is doing thru this beautiful living monument to Mary Help of Christians is possible because St. Mary was open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, offered thru her parish priest and Don Bosco, because she became an apostle leading others to Jesus, and because she loved the Eucharist and our Blessed Mother and practiced humility and charity toward her sisters as well as the young.  These are virtues all of us can practice in our own vocations, and so grow in holiness ourselves.
Statues of Mother Mazzarello and Don Bosco
at the Sisters' Generalate in Rome.

Short Biography of St. Mary Mazzarello

A Short Biography

of St. Mary Mazzarello

Cofoundress of the Daughters
of Mary Help of Christians (Salesian Sisters)

Born 1837, Mornese, Italy.  Religious profession Aug. 5, 1872.  Died May 14, 1881, Nizza Monferrato, Italy.  Canonized June 24, 1951.  Feast day May 13.

The Mazzarellos lived in a small town in the hill country on the border of Piedmont, not far from Genoa.  They were hard-working, pious farmers.  The assistant pastor of the town, Fr. Pestarino, guided a group of young women in the spiritual life and a simple apostolate of teaching catechism and sewing to the girls of Mornese.  Mary joined these Daughters of Mary Immaculate.  At the same time she continued her strenuous work in the family’s vineyards and around the house.

When Mary was 23 she suffered a serious bout of typhus that left her permanently weakened.  Spiritually, however, she only drew closer to God.  In 1864 Don Bosco passed through Mornese, and he was impressed by Fr. Pestarino and the little circle of young women around him—particularly Mary Mazzarello.  Over the next several years Mary and several of the other women began to feel that their future lay with the priest from Turin and not merely in their backcountry town.  By 1867 he had provided them with a simple rule of life and was pondering whether he should establish a congregation of women to do for girls what he was doing for boys.

Mary, though simple and unschooled, was the natural leader of the group that had broken with the Daughters of Mary Immaculate and become the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians.  When they finally were ready to commit themselves publicly to God in 1872, they elected Mary their superior, despite her reluctance to assume such a position.  Yet she was admirably equipped for it with her tranquility, wisdom, joy, humor, and love for her sisters and their pupils.

The little group flourished under the leadership of Mary Mazzarello and Don Bosco.  In two years they opened a second house, and by 1877 they were sending missionaries to South America with their Salesian brothers.  The Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, or Salesian Sisters, have grown into the largest congregation of women in the Catholic Church.
St. Mary Domenica Mazzarello (seated, center) with the 1st group of Salesian Sisters
to leave Italy for the foreign missions (Argentina, 1879).

At age 35 Mary began to learn to read and write.  Her few surviving letters to Don Bosco and her sisters are noteworthy for their spiritual content and good sense.  When the harsh climate and inaccessibility of Mornese necessitated the motherhouse’s relocation to Nizza Monferrato, she accepted the move with grace.  On a journey to see some sisters off to the foreign missions, she contracted pleurisy.  Nevertheless she continued her travels in order to visit other sisters in France.  Informed by Don Bosco that she would not recover, she returned to Nizza, where she suffered for several weeks before entering eternal life.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Homily for Memorial Mass for Judith Blaker

Homily for the
Memorial Mass for Judith Blaker
May 9, 2017
John 11: 32-45
Acts 10: 34-43
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.                    

“Jesus, perturbed again, came to the tomb” (John 11: 38).

The raising of Lazarus (Byzantine icon)
1st, in the shortest verse in the Bible, St. John tells us, “Jesus wept” (11:35).  A moment later, he reaffirms how deeply upset Jesus is by the death and burial of his friend Lazarus.  Jesus loves the people who are his friends—people he has freely chosen himself, for he tells us at the Last Supper, “You have not chosen me; I have chosen you” (John 15:16).

Jesus hates death.  He hates whatever is destructive of the well-being of his beloved friends.  In the gospel we heard on Sunday, he said, “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).  In this story of the raising of the Lazarus, he asks Martha and the others present, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” (11:40).  The glory of God is revealed in this episode of Jesus’ ministry when Lazarus comes out of the tomb, and Jesus orders that he be set free—freed symbolically from the burial shroud and its bindings, freed graphically from the grasp of death.

St. Irenaeus, a late-2d-century Father of the Church—the Fathers were the 1st theologians who meditated upon and explained the Scriptures—wrote, “The glory of God is man fully alive.”  What Jesus does for Lazarus is only a partial revelation of God’s glory, a temporary restoration of life.  God’s full glory in human beings is yet to be revealed.

In each of us there already shines some bit of God’s glory.  The seeds of his glory were planted in us at Baptism and were watered or nourished by the Holy Eucharist.  We see those seeds flowering—God’s glory bursting forth—in various virtues.  E.g., in Judy we saw sensitivity to God’s creation, especially his animal creation.  We saw it in her care for the sick and the elderly.  We saw it in her devotion to her husband and daughter and son.  We saw it in her sense of humor.  These were simple but basic virtues.  Each of us reveals God’s glory in a different way as long as we open ourselves to his design for us.

And when we do that, the fullness of God’s life is promised us:  “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”  God raised Jesus on the 3d day, fully revealing the divine glory in someone human like us, and “everyone who believes in him will receive forgiveness of sins thru his name” (Acts 10:40,43).  When we’re set free from our sins, we’re untied, unbound, from the power of death over us, so that God will raise us up to the eternal life of our Lord Jesus.

This is our prayer today for Judy:  that any and all sins that she committed out of human weakness be forgiven.  It was for that forgiveness, that spiritual healing, that I anointed her twice in the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick in the last months of her life [make aside about the sacrament], so that she might be raised up by Jesus—not on the 3d day but on the Last Day—to live with Jesus and all God’s saints, revealing the glory of God as fully as he designed her to do.

To God be the glory, forever and ever!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Homily for 4th Sunday of Easter

Homily for the
4th Sunday of Easter
May 7, 2017
Acts 2: 1, 4, 36-41
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.                      

“The promise is made to you and to your children and to all those far off, whomever the Lord will call” (Acts 2: 39).

Thruout the Easter season, our 1st readings on both Sundays and weekdays come from the Acts of the Apostles, which tells the stories of the 1st proclamation of the Gospel, i.e., the good news that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead and now shares his divine life with us.

This evening/morning we heard a short piece of the sermon that St. Peter preached on Pentecost day.  He refers in it to God’s call thru Jesus Christ given to Israel and “to all those far off” to be saved by having their sins forgiven.

Today is World Day of Prayer for Vocations, which is observed every year on the 4th Sunday of Easter, when the gospel always focuses on Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  But vocation has a wider meaning than being a priest, deacon, sister, or brother, someone who shepherds God’s flock in the distinct way of a consecrated vocation.  The wider sense of vocation is “a call from God,” and we just heard St. Peter speak of that:  God calls people to salvation.  The 1st call that you and I, every one of us, received is the call to follow Jesus Christ as his disciple.  The promise of salvation thru the cross and resurrection of Jesus and thru the gift of the Holy Spirit is given to all who accept the Word of God, accept Baptism, accept Jesus as their Lord (2:38).

After that general call or vocation to discipleship, God gives every Christian a more particular call.  You probably have heard, at some point, about the vocations of ordained ministry, religious life, marriage, and single life.

Ordained ministry, as you know, includes the offices of deacon, priest, and bishop.  “Ministry” means service.  “Office” means duty or responsibility.  God chooses some men, after the example of Jesus, to carry on Jesus’ mission of preaching the Word of God and of sanctifying their sisters and brothers by leading them in worship and celebrating Christ’s sacraments.  It’s a beautiful, challenging vocation that’s necessary for the life of Christ’s Church.

Religious life, or more broadly speaking, consecrated life, is a special call given to both women and men to live their baptismal vocation in a radical fashion, totally dedicated to God, usually by vows of obedience, chastity, and poverty, usually but not always within a community of peers:  monks, nuns, priests, or brothers, such as Benedictines, Franciscans, Christian Brothers, Sisters of Charity, or Salesians.  But there are also consecrated men and women who live independently in what are known as secular institutes or as consecrated virgins or as hermits.  This isn’t the time to go into detail (and please don’t Google till you’re out of church!).  2 examples of independent consecrated life are St. Catherine of Siena and St. Rose of Lima.
Tomb of St. Catherine of Siena
Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome

Most Christians respond to the vocation of marriage, a vocation also graced as a sacrament.  Marriage is a sign of the permanent, faithful, self-sacrificing love between Jesus and the Church, which is called his bride.  A Christian family is a mini-church, or in the words of Vatican II, a domestic church (LG 11).  Husband and wife respond to God’s call to help each other live as faithful disciples of Jesus, to become saints, and together—if so graced by God—to raise their children also to be faithful friends and followers of Jesus and saints.  This is just as noble a calling from God as a call to ordination or consecrated life, and you know how challenging it is.

Finally, there’s a call to single life.  This is a call that’s undergoing some debate these days.  It implies following Jesus as an individual—not part of a marriage partnership, a religious community, or the brotherhood of diocesan clergy.  Yet no one really follows Jesus alone because Jesus calls all of us into community, into the Church.

Some younger Christians are single because they haven’t discerned yet how God wants them to follow Christ in the more definite vocation of marriage, religious life, or ordained ministry.  They are called to be faithful and virtuous followers of Jesus as singles.  This form of being single isn’t really a vocation, and some young adults—even in their 30s—don’t at all like hearing about the “single vocation” because they see themselves as still searching for the right other person.  They’re single for time being, not as a vocation.

St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross
modeled the single vocation while living in the world
as Edith Stein, philosophy professor
But some Christians never do discern a more particular calling or vocation.  By conscious choice, they dedicate themselves to a career of service to humanity with undivided attention as a doctor or nurse, a civil servant, a teacher, a parish volunteer, etc.  I’m sure you know people even in this parish who are single in this way.  I know a gentleman who’s single and now in his mid- or late 30s, and in the last 15 years has gone about 6 times to different missionary assignments in Africa and Latin America as a temporary volunteer, mostly with the Salesian Lay Missioners.

Still others become single again, not by choice.  They’re widowed or even divorced.  This is a vocational calling too, a really difficult one, altho it could eventually turn out to be temporary thru remarriage, priesthood, or religious life.  People in this “single” situation might remember what St. Peter says in today’s 2d reading:  “If you are patient when you suffer …, this is a grace before God.  For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps” (1 Pet 2:20-21).

In fact, in every Christian vocation there’s suffering because all of us have the basic vocation of following our Lord Jesus.  That’s our 1st, most basic, most important calling.  When we pray today for vocations, we’re praying that each of us who’s not yet decided will come to know what particular way of following Jesus we’re called to, and that each of us will be faithful in living out that particular vocation we’re called to.