Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Homily for Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God

Homily for the Solemnity
of Mary, Mother of God

January 1, 2020
Gal 4: 4-7
Christian Brothers, Iona College, New Rochelle, N.Y.

“I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ….  For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man” (Nicene Creed).

We celebrate today the Octave Day—the 8th day—of Christmas, which ends our solemn liturgical celebration of the Savior’s birth.  We’ll continue our Christmas season, however, looking toward the feast of the Epiphany on Sunday, and then of the Baptism of the Lord.

Virgin Mary & the Christ Child
Notre Dame Cathedral, Tournai, Belgium
More prominently, we celebrate the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.  In God’s plan, the Savior had to have a human mother; so Mary must be celebrated too when we celebrate the birth of Jesus.

The passages from Galatians and Luke’s Gospel bring Mary into the story in the same way that our profession of faith does.  She’s an essential part of the story of salvation; but essential only in relation to Jesus:  “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman” (Gal 4:4).  “The shepherds went in haste to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger.  When they saw this,” they understood what “had been told them about this child” (Luke 2:16-17).  What the angels had told them, you recall, was, “Today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord” (2:11).  Luke continues:  “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart,” while the shepherds glorified and praised God (2:19-20)—which is to say, she did pretty much the same as the shepherds did:  marveled at God’s ways with humanity.

So our Scriptures and the Creed situate Mary within the story of salvation as both a most essential player and as an awed onlooker like the rest of us.        

Let’s 1st note the sole reason for the birth of Jesus:  “for us men and for our salvation.”  This is the 1st of 2 core statements of the part of the Creed we’re reflecting upon.  In St. Paul’s words, “God sent his Son … to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (4:4-5).  The law he refers to is the Jewish law with all its obligations, regulations, and penalties; it includes the moral law that binds us all.  We needed to be saved from the penalties of the law that our sins have earned.  We needed to be restored to the original condition of creation, wherein we humans stood in God’s image and likeness (Gen 1:27)—his children.

2d, we note that Jesus alone is the Savior.  “For our salvation he came down from heaven.”  According to God’s plan, Mary was necessary.  But she too is a creature and needed to be redeemed.  Mary isn’t a goddess.  We revere her, but we don’t worship her.

Mary’s part in the plan of salvation is motherhood.  She’s the vehicle by which God’s eternal Son receives or takes on our human nature:  “God sent his Son, born of a woman.”  “He was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man”—“man” here being the generic term, homo in Latin, as in homo sapiens.  “Incarnate” bespeaks his flesh taken from her flesh, in a reverse image of our 1st parents; for Adam said of Eve, “She is flesh of my flesh” (Gen 1:23).  The new Adam takes his flesh from the new Eve in order to undo the sin of the 1st Adam and 1st Eve.

Our Savior was and is truly and completely a human being, and our human nature he received from his mother Mary.  Unless he be truly human, he can’t have experienced our plight, and most of all, can’t have suffered for us, been raised from the dead, and elevated as the God-man to the Father’s side in heaven.  Unless he be truly human, our adoption as God’s sons and daughters in the divine Son comes into serious question.

The 2d affirmation of our portion of the Creed is that Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit.  In our age it’s often fashionable to deny or at least to doubt Mary’s virginity.  But the denial of one doctrine of our faith leaves all the others in doubt as well.  Or put another way, if we accept only what we can see, grasp, and understand, what we can explain, measure, or replicate, we’re not really believers.

That Jesus was virginally conceived is clear from the 1st 2 chapters of both St. Luke and St. Matthew, which are otherwise so greatly different in content.  It’s been the constant teaching of the Church since the 2d century.

The Creed and the gospels likewise affirm that the virginal conception and birth of Christ are the work of the Holy Spirit.  This is not, of course, a put-down on human sexuality; Christ made marriage a sacrament.  It is the strongest possible affirmation that redemption is God’s work, not man’s.  As the prolog of John’s gospel teaches, God “gave the power to become children of God to those who believe in [Christ’s] name, who were born not by natural generation, nor by human choice, nor by a man’s decision, but of God” (1:12-13).  Jesus’ conception by the power of the Holy Spirit affirms that God is truly the Father of the complete person of Jesus Christ in both his divine and his human natures—and our birth as God’s children comes by water and the same Spirit (cf. John 3:5).

The reference to the work of the Holy Spirit also echoes Gen 1:2:  “And the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters” just before God began creation.  Now the Spirit comes over Mary, “overshadows” her (Luke 1:35), and begins the new creation in a way as miraculous as the creation of the entire universe.  Christ is indeed a new creation, refounding the human race, reordering history.

So today we honor Mary, the Virgin Mother of God, in order to glorify the God for whom all things are possible (cf. Luke 1:37).  This same God loves us and has redeemed us from our sins thru his only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.  And he has sent upon us the Holy Spirit—the same Spirit who overshadowed Mary—that our sins might be forgiven and we might be adopted as God’s children.  May God be blessed forever, and may we join holy Mary among those praising his name!

Good Christians and Upright Citizens

Good Christians and Upright Citizens

Each year the successor of St. John Bosco as rector major of the Salesians and head of the Salesian Family worldwide designates a theme (strenna in Italian, aguinaldo in Spanish) for the year.  This is a custom that goes back to the early years of Don Bosco's ministry to the young people of Turin.

In recent years the rector major has been announcing the strenna for the year to come in July, usually with a short explanation.  For 2020 the theme is "Good Christians and Upright Citizens," a frequent statement of St. John Bosco regarding the goals of his program of formation for the young.  Fr. Angel Fernandez Artime, rector major, offered this presentation last July:  https://donboscosalesianportal.org/wp-content/uploads/Strenna-2020-outline.pdf

In the contentious years of Italy's revolutionary political unification, Don Bosco also referred to his program as practicing the "politics of the Our Father."  This forms a subtitle for the 2020 Strenna: "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

In recent days he gave a fuller commentary at the generalate of the Salesian Sisters in Rome--which is the annual custom.  We're still waiting for a publication of that fuller commentary.  But a video on the strenna was released on Dec. 27: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iC_-LLGAf4k&feature=youtu.be

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Homily for Feast of the Holy Family

Homily for the Feast
of the Holy Family

Dec. 29, 2013
Matt 2: 13-15, 19-23
St. Theresa, Bronx, N.Y.

“The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream…” (Matt 2: 13).

In today’s short reading from St. Matthew’s Gospel, St. Joseph has 3 dreams in which an “angel of the Lord” appears to him to warn or instruct him about what he needs to do in order to protect Jesus, 1st as an infant some months, even a year, after his birth, then as a child after King Herod’s death, which, as a matter of history, occurred in 4 B.C.
The Flight into Egypt by Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps
Dreams are prominent in the 1st 2 chapters of Matthew’s Gospel.  In ch. 1 Joseph was directed in a dream—by “the angel of the Lord”—to take the Virgin Mary into his home as his wife and to acknowledge her son publicly as his own altho that son was really God’s Son, not his (1:20-21).  In the verse before today’s passage from ch. 2, the wise men were warned in a dream not to return to Herod but to leave Judea by another route because of the king’s malicious intentions (2:12).

Today’s feast of the Holy Family draws our attention to family relationships, to mutual respect and reverence, to care and compassion, to obedience.  These virtues and these relationships are our path to holiness, to the place in our Father’s house that the Collect speaks of:  that by imitating Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, the Holy Family, by “practicing the virtues of family life,” we might “delight one day in eternal rewards in the joy of [God’s] house.”

To attain such joy, to practice such virtues as proper care, mutual respect, and obedience, we need divine guidance in the ups and downs—and sometimes sideways—of daily life.  It’s most unlikely that “the angel of the Lord” will come to us in a dream or vision.  How, then, does God speak to us, whether we’re parents or grandparents, young marrieds or singles, students or adolescents or pre-teens?

God’s word is living and active, the Letter to the Hebrews tells us (4:12).  God speaks to us in his living word, the sacred Scriptures—those we hear in church from week to week, those we’re encouraged to read on our own day by day; not just to hear them read or to read privately or in a study group, but to ponder, reflect upon, and seek connections with our own lives.  In a recent issue of Columbia, the monthly magazine of the Knights of Columbus, one writer tells us that he has learned, “If you have patience and listen, you learn God’s purpose for you.”[1]  Prayer—listening to God and speaking to him—is a vital part, an essential part, of our family lives.

St. Joseph acted to protect his family.  How does a parent today protect his or her family?  Not by fleeing to Egypt—or to a log cabin in the wilderness.  One commentary observes:  “it means teaching [our children] and training them in the ways of God.  If we can protect and teach our children—especially in the early, developmental years (and later in their lives as well)—they will grow in their ability to make decisions based on the truths of the gospel.”[2]

St. Joseph used his common sense.  He paid attention to his instincts:  “when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go back there” (2:22)—with good reason.  Archelaus was the cruelest and most arrogant of Herod’s surviving sons, which even the Romans (no models of gentleness) recognized when they did not grant him the title of king that his father had held, only “ethnarch,” ruler of the nation; and after 10 years of his harsh and incompetent governance, they were compelled to depose him and send him into exile.

According to Matthew, the Holy Family had lived in Bethlehem (cf. 2:11), and that would’ve been St. Joseph’s preferred destination.  But with Archelaus in charge, St. Joseph looked for another place to go.  The last dream directed him to Galilee, and the family settled in Nazareth (2:22-23).

Parents—all family members, in fact—need common sense in their interactions and decisions.  We need to consult our feelings and our experience, our knowledge of the world around us and the people around us, in addition to prayer and careful thought, when we have to make important decisions about our families (or anything else that’s important).

We also see in today’s gospel that St. Joseph was flexible.  While it seems that he’d have preferred to go back to what St. Luke refers to as his ancestral hometown (2:4) and St. Matthew sees as the family’s settled abode (cf. 2:11), viz., Bethlehem, he was ready to do otherwise in the name of prudence, good judgment, and of course obedience to what God wished.  Our happiness and that of our families, likewise, often depends upon a willingness to change our minds, to change our plans in accord with new information or developments, the wishes of others, or a deeper listening to the commands of God.

So does St. Joseph present us with what the Collect calls a “shining example,” in harmony with Mary his wife and Jesus his foster son.  It’s an example that all of us can imitate as we try to live, even now, as members of God’s household yet looking toward a more permanent and more joyful residence in our Father’s eternal home.

     [1] Bill Pauls, “Knight on the Run,” Columbia, November 2019, p. 24.
     [2] Leo Zanchettin, ed., Matthew: A Devotional Commentary (Mahwah: Paulist, 1997), p. 26.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Homily for Christmas

Homily for Christmas
Mass during Day

Dec. 25, 2019
John 1: 1-18
St. Anthony, Bronx, N.Y.

“O God, you wonderfully created the dignity of human nature and still more wonderfully restored it” (Collect).

The 1st chapter of the Book of Genesis speak to us of “the dignity of human nature.”  The Lord God created human beings as the crown of his creation, and as the Psalms say, gave us dominion over all other creatures (8:6-7; cf. Gen 1:28).  God created men and women in his own image (Gen 1:27), somehow mirroring his beauty, goodness, and intelligence, and gifted with an immortal soul. 
The Garden of Eden, by Thomas Cole
The Lord delighted to be a companion of his human creatures; the Book of Proverbs tells us that Divine Wisdom “found delight in the children of men” (8:31).

The opening prayer of the Mass then praises God for restoring the dignity of our human nature.  Foolishly, we destroyed our dignity by sin, shattering the mirror image of God’s beauty, goodness, and intelligence that we were, damning our immortal souls to separation from God’s company.  After their sinful disobedience, “The man and his wife hid themselves from the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (Gen 3:8), fearful of God’s presence.

It’s not our souls alone that were damaged and doomed.  We use that language a lot.  But human beings are a unity of body and soul.  Our wholeness, our salvation, comes when our whole selves are in good health, or in the words of the prayer, are restored to the original dignity that God intended—to immortality, eternal life of both body and soul.

That wholeness, that salvation, is the reason why “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14).

What is a word?  All of us with the precious gift of speech use words to try to communicate something of what we’re thinking, of who we are.  To some extent we succeed in doing so; it’s impossible to do so perfectly.  We all struggle sometimes to find the right words, and all of us suffer sometimes from others’ failure to understand what we try to say.

Today we celebrate God’s perfect communication of himself.  The Word is the Father’s perfect and complete self-expression, his only Son, God from God, of the very same divine and eternal substance as the Father.  That Word who existed from eternity entered the created world as a human being:  the Word became flesh at a given moment in time—during the imperial reign of Augustus Caesar, while Herod was king of Judea; and in a specific place, in Bethlehem of Judah.

That divine Word made flesh, God united to our human nature, made human nature perfect again—restored our human dignity.  The Son of God makes all of us again children of God:  “to those who accepted him he gave power to become children of God … born not by natural generation … but of God” (John 1:12-13).  As the hymn “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” phrases it, God’s Son was “born that man no more may die, born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them 2d birth.”

From the lower church of St. Francis at Assisi
That’s what we celebrate when we celebrate the birth of Jesus of the Virgin Mary.  God’s only Son “humbled himself to share in our humanity,” the prayer says, “that we may share in [his] divinity.”  An exchange, so to speak, has taken place, by which we—thru our sister Mary—give to God something, viz., human nature, and God thru Christ gives us a share of divinity.  In his 1st letter, St. John tells us that the Father’s love bestowed upon us in Christ makes us children of God, and when our God-gifted destiny is fully realized (when we rise from the dead as Jesus did and enter eternal life) “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:1-2).  The fullness of our restored human dignity is to be one with our Lord Jesus, “wonderfully restored,” freed from our sins, freed from death, sin’s penalty, forever happy in God’s company.

So we “sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done wondrous deeds….  The Lord has made his salvation known,” and we “sing joyfully before the King, the Lord” (Ps 98:1, 2, 6).

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Homily for 4th Sunday of Advent

Homily for the
4th Sunday of Advent

Dec. 22, 2019
Rom 1: 1-8
Is 7: 10-14
Matt 1: 18-24
Holy Name of Jesus, New Rochelle, N.Y.

“… to all the beloved of God in Rome, called to be holy” (Rom 1: 7)

God the Father addresses his beloved people in today’s Scriptures.  He addresses King Ahaz thru the prophet Isaiah, the Christians of Rome thru St. Paul, and St. Joseph thru a dream.

Each address is a call, a vocational call, an appeal from God to carry out a responsibility. 
Isaiah meets King Ahaz
(Benn Matthew: https://medium.com/@benn29/)

The prophet has been appealing to Ahaz—whose vocation is to lead the Jewish people in fidelity and righteousness—to take a course of action that will indicate reliance on divine protection rather than political calculations.  Speaking pious but insincere words, the king flat-out refuses to listen.

St. Paul is writing to Jesus’ disciples in Rome, people he’s never met but whose reputation he knows—even without social media, the Roman Empire had good communication networks—and whom he hopes to visit.  He reminds them of the vocation they received thru Baptism—“called to belong to Jesus Christ” (1:6)—and in this letter he’ll speak at length about the gift of God’s grace they’ve received—all of which comes down to sharing in God’s own holiness thru their relationship with God’s Son, and in living as disciples of Jesus day by day.

St. Joseph has been thrown into consternation, confusion, and dismay by his fiancée’s pregnancy.  With regret and mercy, he decides to end their engagement.  (I use our terminology.  Their situation was somewhat different; Joseph and Mary were already legally contracted to each other.)

Then God sends an angel to Joseph in a dream with an explanation and a directive.  That leaves Joseph, like Ahaz, with a choice:  to believe what he’s been told, no matter how preposterous it appears, and then to act on what he’s been told—or not.  Fortunately for Mary, for Jesus, for Joseph himself, and for us, he chooses to believe, to carry out God’s plan for the redemption of the human race.

By acting on God’s word for him, his vocation in God’s plan, Joseph the carpenter becomes holy, becomes Saint Joseph the foster father of Jesus and protector of both Jesus and Mary.

St. Paul reminds the Christians of Rome that they, too, are called to be holy, to be saints.  That call, that vocation, is yours and mine too.  Like those early followers of Jesus, who faced discrimination, open persecution, and the daily temptations of the 7 deadly sins, and like King Ahaz and St. Joseph, you and I have to make daily choices to be faithful or not, to obey God’s will or not, to accept a share in divine holiness or not.

In our family relationships, for example—to forgive or not, to be on speaking terms or not, to share responsibility for ailing parents, to deal with financial matters, we can choose to listen to Jesus calling us to holiness, to make decisions according to what he teaches in the Sermon on the Mount, the parable of the Prodigal Son, and the rest of the Gospel.

In matters of sexual morality—marital fidelity, premarital chastity, the use of contraception or IVF, homosexual behavior, pornography, etc.—we can choose to act like King Ahaz and think our opinion and way of thinking is smarter or more practical than what the Scriptures teach, what the Church of Jesus Christ teaches.

When faced with difficult decisions in our lives—in the family, at work, a vocational choice—we can imitate St. Joseph.  It’s unlikely that God will send us an angel with clear instructions, but he will guide us thru prayer, reading and reflection on the Gospels, and consultation with a spiritual director and other prudent persons if we truly turn to him and ask for divine light.

In the Collect this morning, we beseeched the Lord to pour forth his grace into our hearts and, thru Christ’s passion and death, to lead us to the glory of Christ’s resurrection.  God’s grace is always offered to us to help us figure out what he wants of us at any time in our lives, and to help us have the courage and strength then to act according to what he desires—like the Christians of Rome, like St. Joseph, and of course like the Virgin Mary; and so to “belong to Jesus Christ” and in him to become holy, to attain a share in Christ’s glory.  That’s our vocation.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Homily for December 20

Homily for
December 20, 2019

Luke 1: 26-38
Provincial House, New Rochelle, N.Y.

“In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God…” (Luke 1: 26).

The 6th month is Elizabeth’s 6th month of pregnancy.  Elizabeth and her pregnancy become for Mary a sign of God’s wondrous power, and an explicit reminder for believers that “nothing is impossible for God” (1:37).

Annunciation window
(St. Ursula's Church, Mt. Vernon, N.Y.)
But not as great a sign as what God does thru Mary herself.

Mary is puzzled—“greatly troubled”—at the angel’s strange greeting (1:29), quite more than the customary shalom, and at being so favored of God (1:30).  She may have been of lower middle class, to be betrothed to a craftsman like Joseph, who isn’t a dirt-poor farmer working someone else’s land, like the vast majority of the people of Palestine.  In fact, if Elizabeth is of a priestly family, “a daughter of Aaron,” as Luke noted when he introduced her along with her husband (1:5), and Mary is her kinswoman (1:36), then it’s likely that Mary, also, is of priestly descent.  Still, there’s nothing to make her think that she’s special before God.

So startled, nevertheless she’s open to God’s word—both Gabriel’s spoken message, and the incarnate Word eager to come to her, and thru her to the world, God’s “all-powerful word from heaven’s royal throne” bounding like a fierce warrior into the doomed land,” in the evocative phrase of the Book of Wisdom (18:15).  More than open, Mary’s submissive, obedient:  “let it be done” (1:38).

Day-to-day life has a way of startling us often, sometimes throwing us into confusion.  We aren’t “full of grace” like Mary (1:28), altho we may be “highly favored,” as some other translations put that phrase.  We are given God’s grace to make our way thru the day’s challenges, to discern and cooperate with his plan for us—be it in community life, our apostolic ministry, or some personal matter.  We may not understand the plan—usually we don’t!—any more than Mary did.  It may run contrary to our expectations or considered judgment, as in a directive from a superior or administrator; or be driven by outside events.  If we no longer call the bell the voice of God, we know that God still speaks thru the events and people in our lives, and not only superiors.

We can ask Mary, then, to help us go with God’s plan, to repeat her fiat, to walk in God’s grace each day, and by our example to teach others to do that.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Fr. Steve Ryan Honored for Pro-Life Work

Fr. Steve Ryan Honored for Pro-Life Work

Story and photo by Fr. Mike Pace, SDB

Fr. Steve Ryan receiving his award from Christopher Bell, 
president, Good Counsel Homes.
(Haverstraw, N.Y. – December 15) – On Saturday, December 14, the Marian Shrine in Haverstraw-Stony Point hosted a Concert for Life, an annual benefit concert in support of the Good Counsel Homes. This network of homes in New York and New Jersey offers young mothers and their newborn children a safe, loving, and nurturing place to live. Fr. Steve Ryan, SDB, was the event’s guest of honor. He was recognized by Rockland County’s various pro-life associations for his tireless zeal in building a culture of life and empowering young people to promote and live the joy of the Gospel.

Fr. Steve is a member of the Haverstraw SDB community (the Marian Shrine, Don Bosco Retreat Center, and Reborn Young Christ) and serves as vice provincial of the New Rochelle Province.

Fr. Walter Genito Celebrates Feastday Mass at Don Bosco Prep

Alumnus Returns to DBP to Celebrate Feastday Mass

Story and photo by Jennifer Passerino

Fr. Walter Genito celebrating Mass at Don Bosco Prep on the feast of the Immaculate Conception with (l to r): Fr. John Blanco, Fr. Jim Heuser, Fr. Derek Van Daniker, and Fr. Lou Konopelski.
(Ramsey, N.J. – December 11) – On Monday, December 9, Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey welcomed back Fr. Walter Genito, an alumnus from the Class of 2011, to celebrate the school Mass for the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Fr. Walter was ordained in May for the archdiocese of New York by Cardinal Timothy Dolan. 

“For Don Bosco, it’s always a blessing when an alumnus returns to visit,” said Fr. Jim Heuser, SDB, director. “But it’s a special blessing when an alumnus returns to visit as a priest and celebrates the Eucharist for our school.”

Fr. Walter’s home parish is Sacred Heart in Suffern, N.Y., where he attended grammar school before coming to Don Bosco Prep. He earned a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts, with a major in philosophy, from Fordham University in New York, and a bachelor’s in theology from the School of Theology and Religious Studies of the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Currently he is completing his licentiate in theology at the Catholic University.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

NYPD's Capture of Grandpa's Killer

NYPD's Capture of Grandpa's Killer

On Saturday I got a note from my cousin Frank asking some family history questions and also noting that he’d found some video clips online reporting the gun battle and capture of Two Gun Crowley, the two-bit gangster who’d murdered our grandfather, Nassau County police officer Fernand "Fred" Hirsch (who was 31 at the time, May 6, 1931).

I already knew the basic story but wasn’t aware of 3 on-line videos.  For one of these, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i5coww6f88A.  See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Crowley  An AP account of his capture is at https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85042243/1931-05-08/ed-1/seq-1/

Obviously, neither Frank nor I ever knew Grandpa Hirsch.  Frank's mother didn't talk about him; it was a painful memory.  My mother, 5 at the time, didn't have much memory of him.  Nana proudly kept a replica of his badge in her wallet for the rest of her long life, another 49 years.

Homily for 3d Sunday of Advent

Homily for the
3d Sunday of Advent

Dec. 15, 2019
Matt 11: 2-11
St. Pius X, Scarsdale, N.Y.

“Jesus said to them in reply, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see …” (Matt 11: 4)

Last week we heard John the Baptist’s preaching of the coming Messiah, coming to cleanse his people with the Holy Spirit and fire, coming to judge and punish evildoers (Matt 3:1-12).

Between then and today’s passage, John has baptized Jesus, who then went into the desert to fast, pray, and undergo temptation.  Then John was arrested by King Herod—on account of his preaching God’s truth about marriage (Matt 14:3-4).  So he hasn’t witnessed Jesus’ public ministry, only heard about it in his imprisonment.

What John hears about Jesus doesn’t agree with the expectations he had of the Messiah.  There’s no fire, no harsh condemnation of evildoers.  (Actually, later in his ministry Jesus will have some very harsh words for hypocritical scribes and Pharisees [Matt 23].)  Jesus is, however, doing the work of the Holy Spirit, as John had predicted.  And that’s the answer he sends back to John—the miraculous works he’s doing, works that demonstrate his fulfilling the prophecies of Isaiah, prophecies connected with the deliverance of Israel from captivity, from bondage.

In Jesus’ time, John and many in Israel were expecting a different kind of deliverance, a political one.  Even Jesus’ closest followers, the 12, had such expectations and sought power and influence for themselves thru their closeness to him.  That’s why Jesus says, “Blessed are those who don’t take offense at me” (11:6)—because what he offers to people is healing of body and soul and the good news of God’s love, but not a political revolution, not a restoration in Israel of the power and glory of King David.

As if to refocus the crowds, Jesus asks them about John the Baptist:  why did they go out to the desert to see and hear him?  What did they see in him?  It wasn’t that he preached a popular message, whatever the latest religious or political or social viewpoint was.  He wasn’t a reed blowing and swaying in the wind, like the marsh grasses along the Jordan River’s banks, or a politician who tells you what he thinks after he reads the latest polls about this or that topic.  Nor was John an elegant and polished figure of a man, the sort one finds in royal courts, posh dinner parties, and Hollywood awards presentations.  No.  Jesus affirms what the crowds know:  John was a prophet, a great prophet, and that’s what they went to see and hear.

But even a prophet is nothing, Jesus goes on, unless he belongs to the kingdom of heaven:  “The least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (11:11).

Two observations are in order.  1st, the signs of the kingdom of heaven, the signs that “the one who is to come” (11:3) has indeed come, are signs of compassion, healing, and hope:  “the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them” (11:5).  The kingdom makes present what Isaiah spoke of (35:1-6,10), what the psalmist also acclaimed:  “The Lord God … secures justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry, … protects strangers, sustains the fatherless and the widow” (146:7,9).

This is what the kingdom’s citizens do, what the disciples of Jesus do:  the works of mercy, the works of justice in society, as part of their announcing the Gospel, continuing the good news of Jesus.  Jesus’ message is not alone one of “all will be well in heaven, so just hang in there,” but also one of doing the works of God, the works that Jesus did.  So Christians operate hospitals for healing, orphanages for the abandoned and lost, schools for the poor, soup kitchens for the hungry, relief services for the victims of disasters.  Christians get involved in politics to promote just solutions to the problems of society—of war and peace, of crime and punishment, of migrants and refugees, of economic distress, of marriage and family life, of the human dignity of the unborn, the aged, the disfigured, the handicapped; and much more.  By speaking for the voiceless, the hopeless, the persecuted, we proclaim to them good news, as Jesus did.  We offer a form of deliverance from captivity—of both body and soul.

2d observation:  prophecy.  The prophet doesn’t deliver a message everyone wants to hear, a message that all’s well.  By definition he or she isn’t politically correct.  Think of Dorothy Day; of Martin Luther King Jr.; of Mother Teresa denouncing abortion before an audience that included Pres. Bill Clinton and Hilary.

The prophet speaks out against corruption in government, the mass media, or the Church—like Bishop Malone’s secretary in Buffalo, who exposed abuse cover-up because she wanted to be able to stand before Christ with a clear conscience.  The prophet advocates for refugees and other immigrants.  The prophet opposes an agenda of sexual promiscuity and gender confusion, and proposes instead chastity, fidelity, self-giving, and attention to biological facts.  The prophet opposes white nationalism, anti-Semitism, and any other form of discrimination based on race, gender, age, religious faith, or national origin.

Every citizen of the kingdom of heaven, by virtue of the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation, is called to be a prophet, to believe and to live the teachings of Jesus and try to implement them in society—not to be a reed swaying in the wind of public opinion.  Blessed are those who aren’t offended by the Gospel, who take no offense at the teachings of Jesus and his kingdom.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Homily for Memorial of St. Lucy

Homily for the Memorial
of St. Lucy

Dec. 13, 2019
John 8: 12
Ursulines, New Rochelle, N.Y.

“Those who follow you, Lord, will have the light of life” (Resp. Psalm; cf. John 8:12.

Lucy’s name is related to lux, “light,” which has led to her being invoked against eye afflictions, which in turn has led to the iconography of her holding a pair of eyes on a dish—which can’t be her own, as they’re still in their proper place.

Lucy’s believed to have been martyred at Syracuse in Sicily around 303 during the severe persecution of Diocletian.  According to the legendary story of her life, she was devoted to St. Agatha, an earlier Syracusan martyr, had dedicated her virginity to Christ, was denounced as a Christian by the pagan who wished to marry her (and get her family wealth—what a way to demonstrate your love!)—and was tortured and beheaded.

Devotion to Lucy spread rapidly and led to her being invoked in the Roman Eucharistic Prayer, along with Agatha and other women martyrs, both virgins and wives.

In today’s Collect, we invoke Lucy’s “glorious intercession” to help us “behold things eternal”—to see with our spiritual vision and eventually also our bodily eyes “the light of life.”  In the 1st reading (Is 48:17-19), Isaiah speaks for the Holy One of Israel who teaches his people what is for their good and leads them on the way they should go to reach redemption—to be restored to the Holy Land after their Babylonian exile.  Lucy’s life also shows us what is good, offering us her vision of life in Christ.  She shows us the way we should go, Christ’s way, to “behold things eternal.”

Jesus concludes his short parable today about the fickleness of the world (Matt 11:16-19):  “Wisdom is vindicated by her works.”  If Lucy’s father was involved in promising her in marriage and supporting her persecution, he’s completely lost to history.  Her suitor likewise is lost except as a creep.  Even Diocletian, at one time the most powerful man in the Western world, is remembered only by historians; he’s too obscure even for Jeopardy.  But people everywhere in the world remember Lucy, take her name, and pray for her patronage.  Divine wisdom has vindicated her, and as Christ’s faithful follower she walks in the light of life.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Homily for 2d Sunday of Advent

Homily for the
2d Sunday of Advent

Dec. 8, 2019
Matt 3: 1-12
St. Pius X, Scarsdale, N.Y.

“John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea…” (Matt 3: 1)

The preaching of John the Baptist (Pieter Bruegel the Elder)
With this Sunday’s gospel, we begin a transition from looking toward Christ’s 2d coming at some unknown time in the future—the End Time, the Last Day that figures so prominently in the prophecies of Isaiah—toward Christ’s historical 1st coming.  The End Time isn’t entirely gone from our Scripture readings, however.  The passage from Isaiah this morning (11:1-10) begins, “On that day” and speaks of the coming of the great Judge of the universe and with him an era of universal peace.  The preaching of John the Baptist announces not only the coming of the Lord in the ministry of Jesus but also of “the coming wrath” (3:7), of bad trees “being thrown into the fire” (3:10), of “chaff being burnt with unquenchable fire” (3:12)—of judgment on evildoers, in other words.

John appears out of nowhere, it seems; he emerges in the desert and preaches there.  But he has an audience:  “Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized … as they acknowledged their sins” (3:5-6).  Scholars tell us that at this time in Israel’s history people were feverish with expectation of some kind of divine deliverance from the oppressions of Rome and of their hard daily lives.  Today we may speak of a 1% who make up the crème-de-la-crème of society, but we have a very substantial middle class.  Not so in 1st-century Palestine, or anywhere else in the ancient world.  Below the 1% of the nobility and the rich there may have been another 1% of merchants, artisans, scholars, and priests who constituted a middle class; and then there were the 98% living in wretched poverty, trying to scratch a living out of the soil, and to avoid getting into trouble with landowners, tax collectors, and other authorities.

So if John the Baptist came announcing that the kingdom of heaven was at hand, hopeful people would be eager to hear what he had to say.  He came resembling the prophet Elijah of old, emerging from the desert and dressed as the prophet had dressed.  The prophet Malachi had foretold Elijah’s return before the “great and terrible day of the Lord” (Mal 3:23).  So the Lord’s day seemed to be at hand, with John as Elijah announcing its approach.

Indeed, John does announce its approach with a call to repentance, speaking the same message that Jesus will speak when he begins his public ministry:  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (3:2).  The baptism that John performs is a sign of repentance, of people wishing to be cleansed of their sins.  John promises something better in the future, a baptism “with the Holy Spirit and fire” when a mightier prophet than he will come (3:11).  That reference to the Holy Spirit echoes Isaiah’s prophecy that the spirit of the Lord will rest upon the Messiah, the “shoot that shall sprout from the stump of Jesse” (11:1), and the Spirit will guide the Messiah as just judge and bringer of peace.  By baptizing others with the Spirit, by burning them with cleansing fire, the Messiah, the one mightier than John, will inaugurate the kingdom of heaven.

This is what John promises, what the prophets of old had forecast.  And it’s wonderful news, good news, gospel!  We want to be relieved of the burdens both of our sins and of our daily grind.  We want to be delivered.  We want to be saved.  We want the peace, security, and joy of heaven.

There’s a catch, tho.  John (and after him, Jesus) demands repentance.  Getting dipped in the Jordan means nothing if one doesn’t renounce one’s sins—just as our Christian rituals like adult Baptism and the sacrament of Reconciliation are useless if they’re not signs of sincere conversion.  And John turns on those whose appearance at the Jordan he knows isn’t sincere, “many of the Pharisees and Sadducees,” whom he calls out as a “brood of vipers” (3:7), a bunch of snakes.  His denunciation foreshadows Jesus’ future troubles and eventual condemnation by these same snakes—men interested not in justice, in the struggles of “the land’s afflicted” (Is 11:4) but in their own power, wealth, comfort, and prestige.  John demands that they give evidence of their repentance—evidence in their actions, not in their descent from Abraham (3:8-9).  The just Judge, when he comes, will be strict and severe, “gathering his wheat into his barn and burning the chaff” with hellfire (cf. 3:12).

John’s preaching is addressed to us, sisters and brothers.  In the Collect of today’s Mass, we prayed to the Father that “no earthly undertaking hinder those who set out in haste to meet your Son.”  As we look for the coming of the Lord—coming on Dec. 25, coming at this Eucharistic celebration, coming on the Last Day, coming on the day when he will call us to himself—we need to “acknowledge our sins,” for which we have our daily examination of conscience and a brief moment at the start of Mass, and to seek cleansing thru repentance and sacramental confession—thru the Holy Spirit and fire.

What do we repent of?  St. Paul suggests today that we “think in harmony with one another” (Rom 15:5), which is a little vague.  We might examine ourselves about truthfulness with one another, fair treatment, gossip, patience, consideration and helpfulness.  We might review our relationship with Jesus Christ, e.g., in daily prayer and attention to his teachings about purity of mind and body.  We might consider our use of time—at work, in our family relationships, at our electronic devices.  Those are just some examples; you can find some good examinations of conscience on line, tools to help us repent, to “learn of heavenly wisdom” (Collect), and to get ready for the coming of God’s kingdom in the person of Jesus our Lord.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Homily for Friday, Advent Week 1

Homily for Friday
Week 1 of Advent

Dec. 6, 2019
Is 29: 17-24
Provincial House, New Rochelle

“On that day … the lowly will ever find joy in the Lord, and the poor rejoice in the Holy One of Israel” (Is 29: 19).

A great many of our readings from Isaiah during Advent begin with or include the phrase, “On that day.”  With the prophet we look toward a day when the Lord will intervene and bring salvation to our world.

Isaiah speaks of physical healing, and we hear an example of that in today’s gospel (Matt 9:27-31)—just one of many such examples from Jesus’ ministry of mercy.  In Christ we look for total healing, new life, “on that day.”

Two blind men calling on Jesus (by Tissot?)
The prophet also speaks of salvation that comes from the administration of justice—the end of tyrannical government and unjust legal rulings (29:20).  There will be no need for impeachment “on that day.”  All these forms of salvation will be rooted in reverence for God:  “They shall keep my name holy; they shall reverence the Holy One of Jacob and be in awe of the God of Israel” (29:23).  Jesus addresses this concern, too, e.g., when he advises us to render to Caesar what’s his and to God what’s his—which is restriction on Caesar’s unjust claims and a defense of the divine image in every man and woman (Matt 22:15-21).

The coming of “that day” is entirely in God’s hands.  But, like Jesus during his earthly ministry, we can—we are obliged to—foreshadow that day by bringing “the work of [God’s] hands” into our midst (Is 29:23), by helping others, especially the young, to see “the loveliness of the Lord” (Ps 27:4) in every person, in the world around us, and in worship of “the Holy One of Israel” (Is 29:19).

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Homily for Monday, Advent Week 1

Homily for Monday
Week 1 of Advent

Dec. 2, 2019
Is 4: 2-6
Ursulines, New Rochelle, N.Y.

“On that day, the branch of the Lord will be luster and glory” (Is 4: 2).

The opening chapters of Isaiah’s prophecies seem to alternate between condemnation of the crimes of Judah and predictions of divine retribution, and promises of redemption and renewal.  We heard one prediction of Zion’s future glory as our 1st reading yesterday (2:1-5), and today we hear another.

Some commentators see in “the branch of the Lord” a messianic reference to the renewal of the house of David.  Others say not so, for the reference to David isn’t explicit.  Enuf of the rest of the passage seems to speak of a restoration of Israel, perhaps a messianic age, that we may pair it with the passage from Isaiah 2 as an anticipation of the Lord’s glorification of his holy city and of his holy people.  The prophecy also evokes the creation of Israel thru the Exodus, the Lord leading and protecting his people by day and by nite, by fire and by smoking cloud (4:5).

We disciples of Jesus, the new Israel, “await the advent of Christ” (Collect), the royal “branch of the Lord,” the one who “washes away the filth” of our sins, who “blasts searing judgment” (4:4) upon all human beings but shelters and protects his own.

Fr. Paul Grauls, SDB (1935-2019)

Fr. Paul Grauls, SDB (1935-2019)

Fr. Paul Grauls, SDB, died on Saturday morning, November 30, in hospice care at Suncoast Care Center in Palm Harbor, Fla. He was 84 years old and had been a professed Salesian of Don Bosco for 66 years and a priest 8 days short of 57 years.

Fr. Grauls was hospitalized at St. Anthony’s Hospital in St. Petersburg for pneumonia for a few days before transfer to hospice. He received Anointing of the Sick from Fr. Jay Horan, SDB, the night before he died.

Fr. Grauls was born in Etterbeek, a suburb of Brussels, Belgium, on June 27, 1935, the son of Peter and Augusta Van De Schoor Grauls. He was baptized the following day in the parish church.

Paul entered the Salesian seminary at Woluwe, Belgium, in 1947, and was admitted to the novitiate at Groot-Bijgaarden in August 1953. He made his first profession of vows on September 2, 1954, at Groot-Bijgaarden. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1957 to complete his philosophy studies at Don Bosco College Seminary in Newton, N.J., graduating in 1958 with a B.A. He later earned a B.Ed. at St. Joseph University in Moncton, N.B. (1965), an M.A. in history from Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. (1968), an M.A. in guidance from New York University in New York City (1969), and a Ph.D. in education from SUNY Albany (1975).

His Master’s thesis at Seton Hall was entitled The Human Psychology of Charles Fourier: A Phenomenological Approach.

Fr. Paul studied theology at the Salesians’ St. Thomas Aquinas studentate in Oud-Heverlee, Belgium, affiliated with the University of Louvain (1956-1957, 1960-1963), and was ordained at Oud-Heverlee on December 8, 1962.

Fr. Paul (right) with his brother Fr. Fernand, ca. 1962
(photo supplied by Fr. Paul in 2012)
Fr. Paul taught at St. Patrick’s High School in Sherbrooke, Que. (1958-1960), and was prefect of studies there (1963-1965). One of his students, Fr. George Harkins, a Salesian now serving at Seminaire Salésien in Sherbrooke, recalls: “Fr. Paul Grauls taught me Latin in grade 11 at St. Patrick High School … in 1958-59. He was an excellent pedagogue, polite in manner and a big heart for young people. He always made me feel welcome and encouraged me to try the Salesian way of life. I joined and have never looked back. May he rest in peace.”

Fr. Paul was then assigned to Don Bosco Technical High School in Paterson, N.J. (1965-1975), as teacher and guidance counselor. At the same time he did much of the aforementioned academic work. For four years as consultant to the province director of education, he undertook a major study of the New Rochelle Province’s works and its personnel in their demographic contexts (1975-1979), residing for a year at Don Bosco Seminary and three years at the Marian Shrine in Haverstraw, N.Y.

Fr. Paul (right) and Fr. John Cosgrove at Nativity Church in Washington
(courtesy of Nativity Church)
Fr. Paul was assistant pastor at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Harlem, N.Y., from 1979 to 2003, and for another year at St. Joseph’s Church in Harlem. From 2004 until 2014 he was assistant pastor at the Church of the Nativity in Washington, D.C., where he is most fondly remembered by numerous parishioners. He was also vice director of the Salesian community of Washington (2005-2014).
Fr. Paul venerates the relic of St. John Bosco 
at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington in 2010.

Fr. Paul after celebrating a class Mass for students of Cristo Rey Tampa HS in 2016
(photo by Fr. Dennis Donovan)
Fr. Paul retired in 2014 to St. Philip the Apostle Residence in Tampa, where he did what he could to maintain contact with the students of Cristo Rey Tampa High School on campus. In his latter years in Washington and continuing in Tampa he labored to produce an English version of a graphic-arts (comics) life of St. John Bosco, Don Bosco, Friend of the Young, by his fellow Belgian Jijé (Joseph Gillain), finally completing the project in 2018. Shortly after, his health began to decline and he was admitted to Bon Secours Maria Manor in St. Petersburg for nursing care.

Fr. Paul’s funeral rites were celebrated in both Tampa (Dec. 3-4) and Haverstraw (Dec. 6). Fr. Tim Zak, provincial, presided in Tampa and Fr. Steve Ryan, former director in Tampa, in Haverstraw. He was buried in the Salesian Cemetery in Goshen, N.Y., on Saturday, Dec. 7.

Fr. Ryan posted a magnificent tribute to Fr. Paul in his weekly reflections:

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Homily for 1st Sunday of Advent

Homily for the
1st Sunday of Advent

Dec. 1, 2019
Is 2: 1-5
Rom 13: 11-14
Matt 24: 27-44
Christian Brothers, Iona College, New Rochelle, N.Y.
Assumption, Bronx, N.Y.

(The Saturday evening worship community at Iona College includes more local laity than Christian Brothers.  It isn't, however, the college community of students.)

“In days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills” (Is 2: 1)

Jerusalem (image taken from Meridian magazine)
Given the ancients’ geographical understanding of the construction of the created world, they believed that the higher one climbed, the closer one got to heaven.  So mountaintops were particularly sacred places, like where Moses and Elijah encountered the Lord God.

Isaiah describes Jerusalem as the central high place where God really does make his home on earth, and “in days to come” it shall surpass all other heights and be the pilgrimage destination par excellence.  Isaiah envisions a future when God’s presence in Jerusalem will be evident to “all nations.”  It will draw all humanity there to enjoy God’s blessings.  In the prophet’s time that’s not yet reality.  The fulfillment of God’s plan is still to come.

God yet to come is the promise of our Advent season.  Today’s Scriptures stress a coming in the End Time—for Christians, Christ’s 2d coming, to complete his work of redemption and to pronounce judgment upon all people.  “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man” (Matt 24:37).  “He will come again to judge the living and the dead” is an article of our faith.

The thought of Christ’s coming fills his disciples with hope:  “Our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed” (Rom 13:11).  But both Jesus and St. Paul warn their audiences against godless living, St. Paul particularly against sins of the flesh that turn one’s focus away from Christ.  “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh” (13:14).

We mustn’t misunderstand Paul, of course, as some early heretics did, and the American religious movement known as the Shakers, who denied the holiness of marriage as part of God’s plan—“desires of the flesh” properly, even sacramentally, directed toward the natural end of our male and female sexuality.  Paul, rather, condemns “the works of darkness” (13:12), which he lists here as “orgies and drunkenness, promiscuity and lust, rivalry and jealousy” (13:13).  In other letters he offers other lists.  You note that it’s not an exclusively sexual list.  “The flesh” means all our disordered inclinations, those desires that we summarize as the 7 capital sins:  pride, lust, envy, anger, covetousness, gluttony, and sloth.  Those habits incline us to focus our attention on ourselves, on our own selfishness, rather than on God and neighbor.

When Christ comes in his glory “on the clouds of heaven” (Matt 26:64) for everyone at the end of time, “he shall judge between the nations and impose terms on many peoples,” in Isaiah’s words (2:4).  Everyone will face judgment—nations, leaders, individuals—according to the rightness of their regimes, their attention to the common good of all persons, their care for peace among nations, their rendering of justice in the courts and all public places; and among the citizenry, not only their grateful acknowledgement of God for his gifts but also their care for social justice—matters like food, shelter, health care, education, and employment for all, preservation of the environment; the human dignity of everyone.

That judgment will fall upon each of us individually at the moment of death.  “You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come” (24:44).  Each day we must be ready.  You know that many people have plenty of advance warning that their lives are closing, and some use that knowledge to prepare well for the account they expect to render to the Judge, while others persist in denial, as if they can cheat death by not thinking about it, as if their illness or injury won’t inevitably be fatal.  Many people have no advance warning:  death shows up suddenly by accident, natural disaster, violence, a stroke. 

Neither age nor sex nor race matters.  We’ll all face the Judge on those same matters of peace, justice, human dignity, how we loved or didn’t love God and neighbor.  We’ll also have to answer for our living and speaking truth—which reminds us to avoid gossip.  Responsibility for the truth also requires us to listen to Christ, to the Scriptures, to the Church when they teach us what’s right and wrong, what accords with natural law, what’s consistent with human dignity and what isn’t.  A story in the Catholic press in the last few days concerns a prominent woman in Michigan—a state judge, in fact—who has been in a publicly known civil “marriage” to another woman for several years and is shocked—shocked!—that her pastor won’t allow her to receive Communion, as if her manner of life is just fine.  Likewise, a few weeks ago a bunch of people were shocked (!) that a priest in South Carolina applied diocesan policy and denied Communion to a prominent proponent of abortion named Joe Biden.  Those who actively promote gravely immoral actions like abortion, sexual irresponsibility (including premarital sex and the entire LBGTQ agenda, if I may speak bluntly), euthanasia, hatred of other races, religions, or immigrants—all will have to answer for their lies about human dignity and the scandal they’ve given.

The Advent season is an opportunity for us to examine ourselves and our faithfulness to Jesus.  He offers us a home in the new Jerusalem where peace and prosperity will reign.  But that’s possible only when—quoting Isaiah again—we accept “instruction in his ways and walk in his paths” (Is 2:3).  We must “throw off the works of darkness” (Rom 13:12) in whatever form we find them in our thoughts, words, and actions, and “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (13:14).  Then we shall be like a diligent homeowner who “stayed awake and didn’t let his house be broken into” (Matt 24:43).  We shall be among the Christian faithful who “resolve to run forth to meet Christ with righteous deeds at his coming, so that, gathered at his right hand, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom” (Collect).