Sunday, October 26, 2014

A Radical New Horizon - Homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

So, the past couple of days I’ve been battling a nice little fever-flu-upper-sinus-congestion sort of thing (I’d like to thank my school kiddos for sharing). So, I hope that this makes sense today.

Today is one of those “duh” moments. Jesus tells us to love God and to love our neighbor. “Duh, Jesus.” This lead me to think (in between my medicated stupors): “why does Jesus give us this command?” I mean isn’t this self-evident? Why does He have to make this explicit?

As a I moaned about my fever, I quickly realized the answer.

My tendency is to be self-centered.

I’m not talking about being selfish. I’m talking about how at the center of all my experience is… me. I feel this or I feel that, I’m the one who is going through whatever it is I’m going through. And what’s more, in my mind I have an internal, sometimes hypnotizing monologue which is always analyzing and evaluating and interpreting things through the lens of… me.

So, for example: when I’m driving down the road, I can easily think that people are in my way. Or when I’m waiting in the incredibly slow line in the grocery store and someone is taking their time, I can judge them as inconsiderate because don’t they know that I’m in a hurry? You see how this goes.

What troubles me about my self-centeredness is that it is kind of my “default setting,” something that I tend to without even thinking about it. It takes no effort. It is easy and unconscious. *(This idea is not mine, but the idea of David Foster Wallace, published in a fantastic speech—and later, book—entitled “This Is Water.”)

The problem with my unconscious self-centeredness is that I can easily and unwittingly make my world small. I am limited by whatever is currently on my iPhone or my to-do list. I look down and engage myself in the “me” project and the self-centered world that I have constructed, a world that seeks my own pursuits, my own interests, my own comforts, my own life.

And for the most part, the greater world is fine with that because the world hums merrily along on the unconsciousness of people—selling me a whole list of goods focused on me to make me more “me” than I can possibly imagine me being.

(Hmm, that sounded like the fever talking…)

But it is true: Worship of myself is the easiest thing to do because I am at the center of my world. It is a default setting. It is unconscious.

And it is the most insidious kind of slavery -- because I can never worship me enough or fill me enough and so everybody else becomes an obstacle, a frustratingly maddening obstacle, to me.

Love, on the other hand, involves a kind of consciousness and attentiveness to the fact that there is a whole wild world outside of myself, a huge horizon extending beyond my interior monologue and my daily wants and needs.

The hardest part of life is choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of our default-setting, to become aware of a world outside of ourselves and to begin interpreting our experiences through the lens of others and, ultimately, through the lens of God.

Being conscious of this outside world is a prerequisite for love.

This brings us to Jesus and the Greatest Commandments in today’s Gospel. Self-centered me hears today’s Gospel and thinks, “Great, more moral exhortations. Something more I must do.” But when I hear the Gospel through the lens of God’s perspective, what I realize is that this Commandment is firstly a proclamation of liberation, a power that reveals to us an exciting world beyond ourselves: “love God and your neighbor! it’s an exciting world out there!”

It is important to note that when Jesus quotes this as the Greatest Commandment, he leaves out the previous line—a line which he presumes that we know. What did he leave out? “I am the Lord your God who freed you from slavery.” God wants to free us from the slavery of our small self-centered world and liberate us into a wild, cosmic, beautiful and exciting world where others love you and where God loves you more than you love yourself!

There is something also very peculiar about these Commands: they reveal something to us about God. Paradoxically, while God is at the center of all existence, God is not self-centered. He is creative. He extends Himself. He loves. So much so that He literally enters into our shoes.

So when Jesus calls us to love, to open our horizons and to extend ourselves in creativity to God and to neighbor, what Jesus is doing is inviting us into the very dynamic of God. In other words, we are being invited into the very nature of God and to become like Him (for God is love) and to become aware, for God is aware—so aware that he knows all the hairs on your head.

This is the radical proposition of the greatest commandment: God is not just commanding us to love—God is showing us how to become like Him.

What is wonderful about this is that, as we love God and neighbor, and as the horizon of our world is expanded, we receive the most basic truth of our very own existence: namely, that God loved you into being; that He is at the very center of you, closer to you than you are to yourself.

This leads us not to a Worship of Self, but to right worship: To Worship of God. And, more, it leads to a worship that then attends to others because, having encountered the God within me, I can begin to see that God dwells in others and that He loves them. God is in that car that just cut me off on the highway. God is loving that person who is taking forever in the grocery line.

Every moment, therefore, can become an occasion to love—and not just to love one’s neighbor. But to love the God who is there. Every moment can become an occasion to worship.

How are we to live this out on a day-to-day basis? How can we keep from falling back asleep into an unconscious self-centeredness that devolves into a self-Worship that is easily frustrated and inconvenienced by others?

When Jesus gives us the Greatest Commandment, he quotes the Shema. The Shema was the daily life-breath of Israel: they would repeat these words of love several times a day, always bringing them to mind so that they would never lose them from their heart.

They would repeat them as frequently as some of us check our iPhones. And therein is the difference. So often during our day we unconsciously practice a kind of self-worship that closes us in and makes us forget.

Jesus is giving us a plan to stay awake: several times a day, call this to mind. St. Francis de Sales would stop several times a day and say, “Let us recall that we are in the presence of God.”

We are in the presence of God.

Admittedly, to be so conscious of a wild, radical horizon beyond yourself—to be so awake is very tough to do. The self-centered will think this is a task that they have to do by themselves. Echo the worlds of the Psalmist: “I love you, Lord, my strength.”

The Lord is your strength. When you cannot love Him with all of your strength, call upon Him.

Ask the Holy Spirit to come into your heart, and into your mind and you soul, and to fill you with His strength. For this is something that you cannot do on your own.

You will have then begun to break free of that self-centered slavery. This is the Truth that will set you free.

God is here! Ask Him to give you the strength, that you may love!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Thoughts on the Extraordinary Synod

No homily this week (transitional deacon was preaching). But instead....

I am sure that by now you have heard about the Extraordinary Synod that had been going on in Rome during the past two weeks. It concluded today (Sunday) with a Mass to beatify Pope Paul VI, the Pope who had helped the Church during the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council. (Being “beatified” is the level before being “canonized”—that is, being declared a Saint).

At any rate, the Extraordinary Synod—the first one of its kind since 1985 (that one set the foundation for the Catechism of the Catholic Church which would be promulgated seven years later in 1992)—was called by Pope Francis to address the current state of marriage and family and, given whichever media outlet you listen, to change Church practice and, more, her doctrine. When the “halftime report” of this Synod was “put online” for mass consumption, there was at one and the same time jubilation and a lot of hyperventilating—both reactions coming from hearts and minds that believed that the Church would—and indeed, could—change.

There was also that usual modern arrogance that declared that this was the “first time there had been such division in the Church!—and at Her highest levels!” That arrogance, however, was clearly blind to St. Nicholas and the Arian heresy. (St. Nicholas—that candy-cane-toting saint that modern commercialism has painted him out to be—punched Arius in the face for the heresy which Arius was proclaiming and which had deceived over half—half!—of the Church’s bishops). So, when the media reported that winds of doctrinal change were blowing and that bishops and cardinals and even the Pope—that big softy, Pope Francis—were all fighting, I yawned and responded to one member of my flock: “Tell me when Burke punches Kasper in the face, then I might grow concerned.”

As the Extraordinary Synod closes today, and as confusion is seemingly renewed among faithful and unfaithful alike, I have come to the conclusion that I really pity those who listen to the media as the source for where the Church is going. On the one hand, I feel bad for those who got all worked up about whether or not their beloved Church was succumbing to the winds of change. Distracted by all the huffing and puffing (and, admittedly, the incoherence, ignorance, and downright sinfulness of a few leaders of the Church), many of the faithful forgot the words of Jesus Himself: “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” I would have us all hear that again. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” So what Jesus says about His Church and about Marriage will never change—even when heaven and earth do. Strange, thinking that marriage is more permanent. So, to those who were hyperventilating: get a good night sleep tonight.

At the same time, I feel bad for those who are wanting to be in the Church but who hope for her to change her teaching so that they can feel more welcome (read: not have to submit uncomfortable realities to objective judgment). I feel bad for them because, when they follow the media reports, they get all of their hopes worked up, only to have them crushed by reports like those from today that announce, with particular surprise (… still?) that “The Church hasn’t changed.” But there will be another meeting next year, we are reminded, so hold out: there is still another chance and the Church might just change then. This prolongation of a desire that will never be fulfilled is really rather cruel of the media. After all, of the 265 speeches that were given during the Synod, only 2 dealt with same-sex unions. Two. But what did everyone talk about?

Yes, the “halftime report” did insert a couple paragraphs on the matter—disproportionate to what was actually discussed in the meeting rooms—giving an already-antsy press the green-light to publish what might seem plausible. This report, published on the initiative of one who shall remain un-named in my post here, was not only dishonest in its portrayal of what was really going on behind the scenes, but also cruel: by muddying the waters of what was otherwise clear Church teaching, hopes were raised only to be crushed again by a media eager to do so.  

[UPDATE: The St. Louis Post-Dispatch had an article today that criticizes the Church for being too generous with granting annulments (read: what about the dignity of marriage?). Turn the page and the SAME PAPER wrote an Editorial that criticizes the Church for not recognizing divorce! Nice.]

We have seen this before. We saw it in 1968 when zealous, progressive-leaning theologians and media outlets promised that the Church was changing her teaching on contraception. We saw it at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) when a less-tech-savvy press (but still tech-savvy enough to get itself in trouble) created a narrative of what was really going on behind the scenes at the Council. This narrative, easily digested by those who did not know enough about what the Church taught and easily reinforced by equally ignorant progressivism, continues today and has really gone mainstream. It is called “The Spirit of Vatican II.” (Ask anyone who has worked in parish ministry and you’ll find someone who has encountered all kinds of false doctrine, morality, and liturgical worship imposed upon the faithful under the reasoning: “The Spirit of Vatican II”). Indeed, the Roman Catholic Church has still to recover from false narratives surrounding that Council-- not to mention the disaster which is contraception.

It is no surprise, then, that shortly after the “halftime report” of the Synod was made public, a whole host of Cardinals and Bishops began publishing reports and making statements of their own, saying: “hey, that was NOT what we talked about!” Knowing their history, many of the Cardinals and Bishops knew that they had to wrest the Truth from the grasp of the confusing—a history not just simply since Vatican II, but a history that echoes since The Garden. They know that Satan oftentimes does not sell us blatant lies. (He is the “subtle one,” remember?) All he needs to do is sow confusion… plausibility… just enough for us to believe that things have changed and what God has said was Gospel is not really Gospel anymore. It worked in the Garden. It still works today.

So, where do we go from here? I think it would do everyone much good to discuss what are the actual causes for hope when it comes to marriage and family. In other words, what is it about the Church’s teaching on marriage and family that is hopeful? This would require that we know the fundamentals here, which requires that the Church communicate even more clearly what it is that She teaches. Plausibility, after all, exists when things are obscure—or occult. So, given that there is so much mud out there about the matter, I am not surprised by what happened these past two weeks. I see this is as a great opportunity to learn (and, in some cases, re-learn) and delve deeper into the mystery—yes, mystery—of marriage and family and to see what the Church teaches and why what She teaches is amazing and beautiful and True.

However, given our society’s propensity to think that clear expressions of objective teachings are unkind and judgmental, this challenge will require a way of expressing such things with affection and love and beauty. Or, in other words, we must be able to answer the question: why is the Church teaching on marriage and family full of hope—even, and especially, for those who are divorced or same-sex-oriented?

And perhaps this is the first marriage to be considered: that of Love and Truth. Love and Truth cannot be divorced.

Of course, we didn’t really need a Synod to tell us that. Pope Benedict pointed this out five years ago. But methinks that as this Synod was going on, Pope Benedict was in the background, doing more by his hidden prayer than by the public hand-waving of those in the spotlight. And this gives me hope. Prayer is more productive than meetings anyway.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

An Invitation to the Banquet of the Lord - Homily for the 28th Sunday in OT

Earlier this week, I was with one of my brother priests, enjoying dinner with some fellow parishioners, and I hadn’t seen this brother priest for a few months—at least since I’ve been assigned here, anyway—and when we saw each other, we embraced. And then he did something funny: he patted my belly and said, “So, I see that you’re working on becoming a Monsignor.” That’s priest-talk for: “I see that you are being well-fed…”

In my four months here, I have been very blessed to be invited to so many of your homes—it seems that every week I am getting an invitation to come over. And you have all been so very generous. Like St. John Vianney, I would be happy with a potato or a sandwich, but you are setting out feasts like the first reading, feasts full of rich food and choice wines. Steaks and pizza and wine and beer. You are making me fat and happy.

Years ago, when I was in grad school, I lived in government-subsidized housing—that is, The Projects. And I lived on thing like Ramen and spaghetti for an entire semester. And before that, when I was just a kid, I remember a time when my dad lost his business and I remember being visited by members of our parish school, bringing us a basket of food and other items to help us in our time of need.

I feel, therefore, that I can echo the words of St. Paul today: “I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need.” I have learned the secret of how to live in both circumstances.

What is the secret?

The answer is found in this parable. Jesus tells us the story of a king who is throwing a wedding feast. This is no simple banquet, but the all-surpassing feast of heaven. The secret is found as we contemplate the feast in light of heaven.

You see, I get busy in life and I forget that there is an end to all of this. I forget why I’m here on this earth and what is really important and that things have eternal consequences. Not only that, when I hear the word, “heaven,” I kind of yawn inside because I picture heaven like a baseball park where I am just happy to get in the last row, and down on the field there is God doing his thing—and, as exciting as being in a ballpark is (especially when the Cardinals are beating the snot out of the Giants)—as exciting as that is, I think: won’t I get bored praising God for all eternity? For. Ev. Er. …?

Part of the secret to being able to live in this crazy life is to see that heaven is more than that—and to actually deduce what fulfillment actually means. One saint put it this way. He said,
“In heaven, [you will have all of your senses—sight, touch, hearing, taste, and smell—and they will be] fully satisfied with their pleasures and drowned in the depth of unspeakable delight.” (St. Robert Southwell)
In other words, your eyes will be totally wowed. Your ears will be full with the most beautiful sounds. CS Lewis, when describing Aslan, the Christ-like lion, says that the lion’s voice comes with a breath that has the most delightful smell that you always remember and never forget.

In heaven, your fingers and toes will tingle with delight. You will be able to eat and drink, and run and jump, and you’ll be able to hug your neighbor and you will know your loved ones and they will know you and you will be able to speak to and see the magnificence of the angels and the glory of the saints who have come before—and Mary! And Jesus! You will see Him face to face—terrible and yet completely and totally lovely. And you’ll know how all of your prayers helped others—really see what you didn’t see before.

All of this fills me with a kind of excitement that is totally giddy and which could only be expressed by becoming a kid again and tumbling and rolling down green hills with yellow wild-flowers. It’s champagne and a world series victory. A first kiss. A warm, yellow morning after a peaceful slumber.

And it is going to be so good that we won’t ever get tired of it.

The secret to living in a world of constant change—of battling through scraping by one moment while having abundance in the next—is to realize that it all comes from the God who is our shepherd, our Father, who provides for us—and, even when we have an empty stomach, He promises that greater, eternal things await for those who love Him. I can do all things in Him who strengthens me—I can live in poverty or I can live in riches, because it is the Lord who is my Shepherd. And so I shall not want.

I see everything as an invitation. When I am poor, it is an invitation to contemplate the lavish feast that awaits and thus to have hope. When I am rich, it is an invitation to contemplate the lavish feast that awaits and to realize that what I have does not compare, so I can give it all away without a tinge of sadness.

It is all invitation. Come to the feast!

That all said, the parable today is the trumpet blast that alerts us to the times that we do not hear the invitation—and which also alerts us to the gravity of dying without being ready for it. This is why the Gospel is so shocking. God is portrayed as a tyrant—a tyrant who throws a banquet, but a tyrant nonetheless.

This should shake us up. I could comment on this but it would scare the hell out of you. And maybe for that reason, I should comment more on this parable. But the rest of October and November will provide us many opportunities to reflect on heaven and hell and what we are really living for.

For now, I will say this: God is not a tyrant. Jesus portrays him as such in order to wake us up out of our sleep-walking notions of God and faith and to rediscover what it is we are doing with our lives and to see when God is inviting us to his feast.

So, can I point you to God next invitation?

It is right here. At this Holy Mass, as we climb Calvary with our Lord and are presented with his life, death, and resurrection. “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will provide for all people a feast of rich food and choice wines”—On THIS mountain! The rich food being his Son’s body, the choice wines being His Blood. The parable is fulfilled not merely at some future moment; heaven is not just some future, distant reality—but here, right now, the heavenly banquet begins. This is what brings life stability; this is what brings us hope!

How will you respond to the invitation? How will your life be different, knowing that right here, at every Mass, the banquet of heaven is being offered to you? Do you want to go to heaven? Then come-- with all your mind, heart, and strength! You have been invited!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Think on These Things (Not Those Things) - Homily for the 27th Sunday in OT

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious…

When you hear these words, what do you think of? Is there something lovely in your life? Can you think of something or someone that is pure, gracious, or honorable?


Sometimes it can become difficult to think of such things when life is so busy or when we are surrounded by people or headlines that are mired in the dishonorable and the impure and the unjust. I find that when such things surround me, I have little peace.

But it is peace that the God of Peace offers us today. And it is offered through Paul who exhorts us: “think on these things.”

I started putting this homily together while I was on vacation with my brother in the Rocky Mountains. The things I thought of were the pure white snow and the lovely golden aspen trees. There was, however, one other thought that I had: my Blessed Mother, Mary—the Morning Star and the Mystical Rose—more honorable and pure and lovely and gracious than anyone I know. And as I thought of her, I became more peaceful.

It makes sense, therefore, that in this month of the Holy Rosary, I will find peace in my life if I take time out to think and contemplate upon Mary and the Mysteries of her life with Christ. Being with Mary and letting her bring me to Jesus brings me peace.


There is another reason why Paul tells us to think on the things that are good: because it inspires excellence. When I asked you to think of something that was true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and gracious—did anyone think of themselves? “Honorable?… that’s me. Pure, lovely, gracious?… me, me, … me….”

The reality is that I fall far from being excellent: I have not been true, or honorable, or just, or pure, or lovely, or gracious.

When Paul invites us to contemplate what is good, he knows that the graces that come from doing so helps to purify us of what is impure and dishonorable in us. And as that grace-filled purification works in us, God brings us to a higher excellence. And because of that, we will be more inspired to seek out the excellent.

Just as evil can spiral downward into worse evils, so too excellence can build up and grow and inspire to greater excellence.

To put it another way: once a person eats at a banquet, they will refuse to eat from a dumpster.


But I must mention the dumpster. It’s October and Halloween is around the corner and it’s at this time that all kinds of FreightFests and Horror flicks are being attended by many. To which I say: there are some things that we cannot unwatch, things which, down the line, the devil will use to either tempt us or scare us in the future. How many times I’ve been going about my day when something from my past comes up and I have to re-conquer a particular thought or temptation again. Paul wants to save us from that! I do too.

After all, if God should use the good to inspire the excellent in us, then what should happen when we put the bad into our lives?

“But Father Gerber,” you say, “horror flicks and freight fests—they’re not all that bad.” And you’re right: when someone is used to the dumpster, horror is not all that bad.

My question is: do such things inspire excellence? do they inspire purity? Are they honorable? Do they uphold the dignity of the human person and the beauty of life itself? What do they glorify?

That many think that such things are not so bad bespeaks not that the quality of the horror flick, but how desensitized the person is to what is horr-ible.


We have said that contemplation on the good can inspire in us holy conduct and purify us of those things we have pulled from the dumpster.

If that can be said for us, so too it can be said for the culture. Our culture needs a people of truth, honor, justice, purity, loveliness, and graciousness—and it needs such a people to contemplate. That people must be us. We must help to purify our culture and bring it to the contemplation of what is true, good, and beautiful—and so help it to achieve the excellence to which we know deep down it is called.

So at the end of this month of the Rosary, we have Halloween—the vigil of All Saints Day. I love Halloween. Not for what it is, but for what it could be.

For portions of our culture, Halloween is marked by the gross and the confused: blood and skeletons, trickiness and children dressed as all sorts of things. While “not all that bad,” I ask: what is the excellence of Halloween?

I want to inspire the culture by Halloween, by reclaiming its excellence. Sure, you can have blood and guts and really cool stuff like that, but show the culture how blood and guts can be excellent: when it is the price for heaven paid by our martyrs. Dress up like the saints, wear the blood of martyrs—carry your eyes on a platter, like St. Lucy; walk around with arrows embedded in your torso, like St. Sebastian; hold a barbeque in honor of St. Lawrence. If you want to be really cool, be St. Joseph—who is called the Terror of Demons—or Mary, who crushes the devil with her heel.

And you may have to explain yourself. But do it. You are getting our culture to think on the good—which is what Paul is inviting us to do.

Just don’t be lame, dressing up like the dark stuff that tried to torment the saints. Everyone else can be the Walking Dead, but you must be the gloriously alive. That would be excellent. Because that is what is honorable. That is what is true. And gracious. And lovely.

So, brothers and sisters, I exhort you: think on these things.