Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Family's Love - Homily on the Most Holy Trinity (2015)

Throughout the Church’s liturgical year, we have many wonderful celebrations and feasts. Currently, we are enjoying a little blitz of celebrations one after the other. Last week, it was Pentecost; this week, it is the Holy Trinity; and next week, we celebrate Corpus Christi. It is truly a wonderful and glorious time—and a great opportunity to reflect on these most basic and yet most profound mysteries of our Creed.

The Holy Trinity - 15th Century icon by Rublev
depicting the three angels [prefiguring the Tirnity] who visited Abraham in Genesis 18.
Notice: the iconographer leaves a space in the middle... for you.

At the heart of the Holy Trinity, we see the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each is a person such that there are three and yet we say “I believe in one God.”

I have always wondered: why three persons? Why not just one person?

Imagine just one. There is an alone-ness there and seems to contradict the whole notion of a person. When we speak of a person, we naturally think of relationship; a person who is forever alone would be a sad person, I think.

Most people think of God simply as alone—as simply one person (perhaps an old man with a long beard sitting on top of a mountain). The problem with that is, love doesn’t seem to be integral to that. It is easy to allow that thought (of God being alone) to devolve to where we see God not as a person, but as an impersonal force: nebulous, condescending, and unapproachable.

So, perhaps God is two persons…

Two persons would make more sense. Love could be there. There would be a sharing and a giving and a receiving.

But even this would leave something to be desired. I think of teenage love here. Oftentimes in the infatuations of teenage love, the young man and woman seek out time to be alone with each other. They enjoy each other’s company, but the temptation is for their love to be self-contained—like an island. Their friends start to wonder where they have gone, why they are always together, and what happened to the greater circle of friends.

In much the same way, love—if it is truly love—does not become an island, individualistic even if comprised of two. Love always seeks to go out and to bring in. A truly loving couple will not simply love themselves, but will want to bring friends into this developing “home.” The highest expression will be when the couple gets married and seeks not their own lifestyle as an island, but will want to lavish and bestow this deep love upon another—by having children and by participating in community.

Two is not enough—there must be another, a third.

In the case of the Trinity, the love of the Father and the Son is so perfect, so united, so all-encompassing, so forever and eternal and godly that this love is another person: the Holy Spirit.

Together—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—are one. We can say they are in communion. Or, perhaps to put it more plainly: they are a family. A family whose very life is love.

Please hear me correctly, though. They are not “like” a family; nor are they similar to our families; nor am I saying that they are a family metaphorically. No, the Trinity is The Family from which all of our families are simply an image. They are the communion of which our communities are only shared reflection.

I like thinking of God like this, to pray to Him in such a way that He is not an impersonal force, but is the quintessential reality of what it means to be a person and a community, to be a loving family all at once.

What blows my mind even more is when I consider that I am made in His image and likeness. Do you remember the book of Genesis. In the beginning, before God creates us, it says, “Let us make man in our likeness.” Notice the pronouns there: Let US make man in OUR likeness. That’s the first person plural.

God, even as He was creating us, was beginning to reveal His innermost secret: that He is three in one, a communion, a family.

It is in this image that we are created: in our innermost self, there is not only the longing for communion—we are indeed made for it. Hence God says, “It is not good for man to be alone.”

This communion within us reaches a high point when, in the Sacrament of Holy Marriage, two persons—the man and the woman—while still remaining two persons (each with their own body, mind, heart, soul) become one. This sacrament is a radical share in the very unity of the Trinity: that two should be one and, more, in that union there is the call of a third—such that Marriage is not a clear icon of God until it embraces life, children.

The Holy Spirit, we say, is the Lord, the giver of life!

Modern Icon of the Holy Family

Is your mind blown yet? Well, hold on for more.

God reveals Himself as Triune not simply so that we can be more motivated to join hands and sing “We Are Family.” In reality, God doesn’t simply want us to be in communion with one another. He does, of course, but that’s not enough. He wants us to be in communion with Him.

As St. Peter says, “to make us partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4)—deep and very great mysteries! (See Eph 1:3ff)

In other words, God wants to draw us into His very communion, His very divine life, His… family.

We became members of our human families by birth. But when we were baptized—in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit—we became partakers of God’s innermost life: who He is, His Family.

This is the Father’s whole plan—and notice, we call God Father (there is relationship there, family there). God the Father wants to bring us back to the family and so He sends His Son. Jesus Christ announces and inaugurates the plan. When Jesus ascends, He and the Father send the Holy Spirit who effects the plan and makes it possible: therefore, the Church and Her Sacraments.

The Church and the Sacraments exist not as a community organization that does good charitable work with meetings on Sundays. The Church is the means and the instrument by which the Trinity brings humanity into Its very life—indeed, the Church is the visible manifestation of that.

This is so real and so profound that God Himself—Jesus Christ—in his last words to us (and last words are important!) commands us to “Go therefore and teach… baptizing in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

This isn’t a command to make more Christians per se. When Jesus says, “All power has been given to me” and then He sends us out, what is going on there is that He is giving us the power—the ability to cooperate—in the awesome, tremendous, mind-blowing, and earth-shattering design of His love that seeks not to be content in being Father, Son, and Spirit—but that we—all of us, all the world!—might be brought into the innermost life and love, family and home of God Himself.

There is a profound intimacy here that I cannot began to express nor begin to fathom. It is enough of a depth that will last our eternity to explore.

Do you see, brothers and sisters?

Do you see why there are commands? Every family has traditions and rules that guard it’s home life. Do you see why there are Sacraments? They are not simply something “we do” or simply “rites of passage.” They are powerful encounters with the innermost life of God which in turn changes us. Every Sacrament involves the Trinity. Do you see why there is a Church? And do you see why communion with her is so important?

How pitiable those souls who do not reflect upon any of this—or worse, discard it because they don’t like “organized religion”! Organized religion, they say. A euphemism. They have failed to see The Family.

What is our task, then?

First, to relate to God as Father and as Son and as Holy Spirit. Talk to Him as three in one. Encounter the communion there, the family there. Ask for a deeper entry into this great and wonderful (and mysterious, mystical) life.

Second, let us seek to bring many into this life. Be explicit. Evangelize. Bring people to the Sacraments. This is not simply my job—it is firstly yours.

Third, let us be united in the commandments, in the teaching of the Church, and in the love of God. Let us clearly reflect the union and communion of God! And let this communion also extend itself as love does: in warmth, welcoming, joy, hospitality, fellowship, and celebration!

Our parish church and our homes will only arrive at their true potential and spirit to the extent that we enter more deeply into the profound and loving embrace of the God who is Family in His very essence. For us to be anything but family and seeking communion—well, I don’t even wish to say it!

So, let us pray for this grace. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Holy Trinity, you who have lavished us with your love and brought us through the Sacraments of Holy Church into your very life, we beg you, draw us more deeply into your mystical union; purify us of division and anything that undermines our union with you and our neighbor; strengthen us that we may in love be so bold as to bring many into your family; help us to be affectionate, welcoming, and hospitable. And so, at the end, we may all enjoy you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the great family of all believers united together in love and in praise of you in heaven. Where you live and reign forever and ever. Amen!

Sister Carly Arcella (Daughters of St. Paul) alerted me to his beautiful picture... humanity entering into the Trinity's embrace as seen in Mary (below), Jesus (left), Holy Spirit (top), Father (right). Quoting Blessed James Alberione: 
"Mary, through her divine maternity, becomes part of the Divine Family and thus contracts many and admirable relations with the Blessed Persons of the Divine Trinity. She becomes a mother, sister and spouse of God."  #DoubleFeastDay #Visitation #TrinitySunday #AlberioneQuote #HolyEpic

Sunday, May 24, 2015

"Jesus Is Not Enough" - A (here-extended) Homily on the Vigil of Pentecost (2015)

Recovery of the Vigil

This evening begins the Pentecost Vigil. We are 50 days removed from the great resurrection of Jesus Christ. Fifty days ago, there was another major celebration going on the Church: the Easter Vigil. If you’ve ever been to the Easter Vigil, you will know that not only is it a beautiful celebration, but it is also very, very long. Part of the reason for that is that there are upwards of seven readings and seven responsorial psalms and seven prayers in-between each. The reason for the length is to allow two things to happen: one, meditation upon God’s wondrous plan of bringing us back into union with Him, which we call salvation history; and two, to help us see that what is happening in our midst is the actually continuation of that divine plan. We aren’t simply putting on a play about it but instead we are actually participating in it.

Few people know (priests and bishops included) that there is a similar period of meditation for tonight: instead of just the usual 5pm Mass with the usual first reading, psalm, and second reading, etc, there could be an actual vigil—“vigil” meaning a keeping at the ready over a period of time. In the case of the Pentecost vigil, there would be four readings with four prayers and then, just like the Easter vigil, the Gloria and the New Testament readings. The increase in readings and in prayer and therefore in time would allow us to really enter into prayerful thought not only about the importance of Pentecost (an importance which I truly believe is lost among most Catholics today)—but, not only that, an actual vigil would allow us to enter into the great vigil which Mary Our Mother and the Apostles all together entered into while in the Upper Room during those days between the Ascension and Pentecost. They kept vigil.

(Perhaps next year we will have a 9pm Pentecost vigil…)

Spiritual Struggles

As many of you know, I had a kind of awakening in my faith towards the end of college and, during that awakening, I began to ask a lot of questions. (That’s when you know that you are waking up: you start to ask questions: where am I? what is this place? what does this all mean?) Thankfully, I was also beginning studies at Franciscan University, so I was in the perfect place to ask my questions aloud.

Unlike many people who have questions about the Pope or about any number of the moral issues of the day, my biggest obstacle was the Holy Spirit. When I was in 8th grade, I learned that the Holy Spirit was like a fluffy dove or a mystical “tongue of fire” (whatever that meant) that was just a nice “add-on” to the Catholic faith. The Holy Spirit didn’t really do anything and therefore, I concluded that He wasn’t really that important.

So, you can imagine my surprise when one of my Franciscan professors remarked—in a very passing way, mind you—that the Holy Spirit was essential for salvation. She went so far as to say that Jesus wasn’t enough.

“Woah there, Tonto,” I thought. “Isn’t Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection enough? I mean, the Holy Spirit doesn’t really add anything that I need…”

I began to challenge the professor. She answered. I answered back. Class ended and our conversation spilled out into the hallway… and then down the hallway and into the doorway of her office. I was adamant: I really didn’t need the Holy Spirit.

She ended the conversation with the line from scripture (Mt 12:31) that says that every sin can be forgiven, except for blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. That stopped me in my tracks. Those were Jesus’ words. Suddenly, I wasn’t arguing with my professor; I was arguing with Jesus. Maybe I needed to reconsider my approach.

So, in the next class, the professor taught about the Holy Spirit and elaborated. I still didn’t get it. For three whole classes she spoke about the Holy Spirit. I still didn’t get it.

But I did want to. I loved Jesus. I believed His words. So I wanted to believe this and understand this and embrace this. I was so frustrated that after one of the classes, I began to weep. One of my classmates asked me what was wrong and I gushed out my frustration. Very much moved, she said words that helped me very much: “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)

I began to pray that every day.

“Now We Remain"

Months later, the “secret” was unlocked. The key that helped all the tumblers to correctly fall into alignment was not my misunderstanding of the Holy Spirit, but my misunderstanding the Ascension.

I simply saw the Ascension as Jesus going up into heaven and that was that. Roll credits.

In other words, I saw that Jesus was once present here on earth; He once walked among us…  But at the Ascension, He disappears into heaven and we are simply left to remember Him.

I believed that, yeah, Jesus is here on earth right now—kinda—like spiritually, like in my memory (a la Rose remembering Jack in Titanic), but that was it. Really catchy but theologically bad music (eg “Now We Remain”) reinforced that idea.

But I had it all wrong.

How so? Let’s go back to the Ascension.

The Ascension

If you lived during the time of Jesus and you wanted to touch Him, talk to Him, see Him, have a personal relationship with Him… how would you have gone about it?

You would have had to go to Jerusalem, braved the crowds, and maybe—just maybe—you might catch a glimpse. And if you were lucky, you might touch His clothes (Mt 9:21).

Sure, the inner skeptic in us would find it nice to actually see Him and hear Him. But for all that there would still be no real intimacy. I mean, He had talked about actually eating Him and having Himself literally dwell in us. At that point in time, though, that was not possible. He was there and we would be over here, longing to just touch Him. We were separate.

So, at the Ascension, that state of affairs seems to continue and even increase as Jesus goes “up there” and we are left to remain “down here.” What are we to do? Sure, we might remember Him; we might have a relationship that is simply spiritual; but for all that, things would appear to still be separated—and even more so than before.

That’s not enough for us. Mary Magdalene, for example, clings to Jesus at the resurrection. She wants the full union that Jesus had been promising: dwelling in, living rivers in, life in, you… in me and I… in you. Jesus, I know of no other way to bridge the gap that keeps us separate!

Jesus says to her those odd words: “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father” (Jn 20:17)


He seems to be implying that only after He ascends will we be able to “hold on” to Him. That doesn’t seem to jive with my understanding of the Ascension. Nor does it really fulfill our deepest longings. Mary Magdalene (and us, if we think about it) want more than a spiritual relationship: I want more than to just spiritually hold on. I want union. We want to see, to touch, and to literally hold.

The Power of the Holy Spirit

When Jesus ascends into heaven, yes, He does take away His particular, physical presence from this earth. But this “space,” allows for an elevation of His presence to a higher state which we call “Sacramental.” His presence is going to come in a radically particular and yet simultaneous universal way. As such, Jesus says that His Ascension is the pre-requisite for the sending of the Holy Spirit.

(Ummm, Father Gerber, can you translate that for us?)

Well, instead of us having to go to Jerusalem in order to hear Jesus and to touch Him, the Holy Spirit literally makes it possible for you to hear and touch Jesus right here, right now. And not only right here, right now, but also in St. Louis, in Belleville, in New York, in Rome, in the Philippines…. The Holy Spirit makes it possible for Jesus to be everywhere—and not just “spiritually,” but actually in “body and blood.” Particular AND universal.

So you don’t just spiritually eat Jesus at Holy Mass. You actually eat Him—and not a spiritually rendering of Him, but really actually Him!

This isn’t just a nice “thought” that we are having here. This isn't just a performance that we are putting on here to make us feel good as a community. No! We are actually getting to touch—and scandal! getting to eat—the real deal.

This is why I hate “Now We Remain” or the WWJD braclets: both presuppose that Jesus really isn’t here, that He’s only “kinda” here. “What would Jesus do…” if He were here? No! JESUS IS HERE. And He’s actual and touchable. He's so real you can taste Him!

This is where the gap is bridged, where intimacy is made possible; where His body and blood actually mingles with yours. Literally. That’s intimacy!!!

Just as it was the Holy Spirit who made Jesus incarnate in the womb of Mary, so too it is the Holy Spirit who makes Jesus incarnate—fleshy!—in every tabernacle and in every confessional of the Holy Catholic Church!

Such that when the priest speaks, “I absolve you,” it is not the priest that you simply hear. It is Jesus Himself!

Such that when the priest says, “Take this… this is my body,” it is not the priest that you simply hear. It is Jesus!

Or when the Church speaks definitively on faith and morals, it is not some men in pointy hats that do the teaching. It is Jesus!

Really, actually, Jesus.

And this He promised! “The Spirit,” He says, “will lead you to the Truth, and you will know the Truth…” (cf Jn 8:32; Jn 16:13)

And should you be surprised? After all, Mother Theresa said when we help the poor, it is not just “like” we are helping Jesus, but we ARE helping Jesus. Indeed, when the Church reaches out her arms to the world, it is not simply her arms that are reaching out, it is Jesus who is reaching out! And when the Church is persecuted, Jesus says it is me who is being persecuted (Acts 9:4).

Every single sacrament requires the Holy Spirit. Every single apostolate requires the Holy Spirit. Every little bitty growth in holiness that you aspire to requires the Holy Spirit.

Everything—your salvation included—needs the Holy Spirit! This is why my professor was right in saying that Jesus was not enough. Sure, He is, but He brings Himself through the Holy Spirit to you. You cannot have Jesus without the Spirit.

This is also why the sin of blaspheming against the Holy Spirit is the only sin that cannot be forgiven; it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that sins are forgiven!

This is not some fluffy dove or some nice add-on to our faith. This is essential. We need the Holy Spirit!

Do you want Him? Do you call on Him? Do you have a relationship with Him? Do you have union with Him?

Practical Applications

I tell people that if they want to get more out of scripture, they need to first ask for the Holy Spirit—the same Holy Spirit who inspired the Sacred Scriptures. Without Him, there would be no Scripture and there would be no understanding of it. Likewise, if you want to understand the teaching of Jesus through the Church, then you also need to ask for the Holy Spirit’s help.

I tell people that when they pray, they must invoke the Holy Spirit who helps us to pray as we ought.

I tell people to keep the Commandments because, contrary to popular opinion, the Holy Spirit does not get rid of the Commandments. Indeed, it was by the power of the Holy Spirit that they are written in the fire and cloud of Mt Sinai! If you want to know whether you have the Holy Spirit, look at whether you keep the Commandments (and also compare your lifestyle to that of Gal 5:16-25). If during this summer you decide to simply skip Mass because you are on vacation, you do not have the Holy Spirit!

If you want to get more out of the homily, then ask for the Holy Spirit. I tell people: before you hear a homily, ask for the Holy Spirit to help that priest. And ask for the Holy Spirit for yourself so that you may hear: “Holy Spirit, help me to hear at least one thing that you are trying to tell me today.” Because, really, even if the priest himself is a poor preacher, the Holy Spirit isn’t! And the Holy Spirit WILL say something to you. I cannot tell you how many times I spoke on topic a, b, or c, and someone came to me after Holy Mass thanking me for talking not about a, b, or c, but about some other x or y!

If you want to get more out of Holy Mass, then you have to open yourself up to the Holy Spirit. And you can’t be open to the Holy Spirit if you are asleep or distracted or thinking that nothing really important happens here! You have to be awake and open and ready to receive! You must spur yourself on and wake yourself up and make an act of faith and pray “Come, Holy Spirit!”

Keeping Vigil

I’ll draw this to a close by bringing us back to the beginning. From the Ascension and for nine days, Mary and the Apostles went back to the Upper Room—the same Upper Room where Jesus gave us His flesh and blood in the Eucharist. It was there in that important place of flesh and blood that they prayed and kept vigil for nine days (the first novena). After the nine days of vigil had passed, the Holy Spirit came upon them such that the Church—what we call the Mystical Body of Christ—was made tangible and announced with one voice (the voice of Jesus!) to all the world.

If we did not have the Holy Spirit, we would not be here. The sacraments would simply be performance; the Church simply a social service; and Jesus… He would simply be at a distance, simply watching us… from a distance.

But He is near. Indeed, He is here! “Holy Spirit, I believe! Help my unbelief!”

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

To the Graduates of 2015 - Homily for the Graduation Mass for St. Dominic High School

Good evening. To our graduates and their guests—family members; faculty, staff, and administration of St. Dominic High School; our parish priests, clergy, friends: Welcome. It is a joy to celebrate this wonderful occasion with you all. We are all family tonight.

Before I begin, I would like to thank the graduates who asked me to give tonight’s homily. I was humbled and honored by your request. Please say a prayer for me that I may do well and that the Holy Spirit may accompany my words.

And to the parents, my hearty congratulations to you. This day is just as much about you as it is the graduates. Today is the culmination of what began many years ago as you held your little one in your arms, realizing what unconditional love was and knowing that you had gone past the point of no return. (*looking at graduates*) They were stuck with you! Life and your heart would never be the same. Your sacrifices have been many; may the gratitude of all go with you today and always.

*          *          *

I’ve given a title to tonight’s homily:

The Pitfall of Senioritis: Or, What Motivates Me to Make My Bed

There is a saying among some of the priests at the seminary. It is “Remove the scaffolding and the man will be revealed.” The priests would say this as the men would go home for summer break and leave the rule and rigors of seminary life; the men were totally off on their own to make decisions not based on obligation or because opportunities were served up on a platter for them. No, the men would go home and make decisions based on what they had or had not integrated from their learning (or lack thereof) in the seminary. The scaffolding of the seminary life is removed and we’d see if the man looked more like Christ the Priest… or not.

The same happens to you now. For the vast majority of your life, you have been behind scaffolding, like a building under construction, obedient—or mostly so—to the expectations and obligations given to you. These have dictated your life to this moment. Getting out of bed, to name just one of numerous examples, was grounded not only by your alarm, but also by your mom or dad or the fear of being tardy and someone noticing. Now, few will. Something as mundane as getting up is up to you and your motivations for doing so.

And so Jesus prays. The readings for tonight take us to the night before He dies. On that night, He prays to the Father: “Father, I have consecrated them in the truth…. I have protected them, guarded them…  I pray for them… keep them from the Evil One… I sent them out in to the world…”

Jesus is concerned about you. I’m concerned about you. Your parents are too. It’s not easy “out there.” We know what happens when we are left to our own designs. You know what happens, right? I mean… #Senioritis.

Let’s talk about that for a moment. How did senioritis go? Like crawling over a finish line. Quick poll: how many of you during the past semester at one point or another said: “I’m so done with this”? (Go ahead, raise your hand) … (*this can easily be turned into a “praise God” sign*)

Yes, praise God!

As a past high school teacher, I was always a little intrigued by senioritis: What caused it? Was it simply apathy? burnout? Was it the stress of doing school and college prep? Was it because things like Flannery O’Connor’s use of irony in her short story you studied in AP American Lit just didn’t seem to bear any weight on whether or not you were getting into whatever college and major you were already accepted into?

Senioritis, I have found, is a collection of all of these…  and which ultimately boil down to one thing: what motivates you? What is your intention for doing what you do? What gets you up in the morning?

Senioritis happens because, frankly, we sometimes don’t know. And that’s actually the beauty of the second semester of senior year. During the second semester, all of the “baloney” motivators—and I say “baloney” because I can’t say the actual word (this is a PG rated liturgy)….  During the second semester, all of the “baloney” motivators are stripped away and we are faced with what seems like nothing: just deadlines, busywork, and study that really means nothing to my life.

But it was precisely in that moment that we all had a choice. We didn’t realize we had a choice, but we did. The choice was this: to love the subject you were studying not because you were obliged to, not because of grades, not because of impact on college, but to love it for its own sake. Senioritis is the symptom of a greater illness: namely, that we have yet to learn to love a thing selflessly—for it’s own sake.

I’m going to be honest with you, most people never learn this lesson. There are lots and lots of people in corporate America, politics, medicine, and even higher university education who do what they do not because they are or were motivated by love of the thing itself, but because they were moved there by a lifetime of decisions motivated by fear of negative consequences or other selfish reasons. When they reach their forties or fifties, they have a mid-life crisis: that’s senioritis for older people. (… did you notice? that was nervous laughter.)

They face the same question that you faced this past Spring and which you will again face this Autumn: What gets you out of bed in the morning?

The scaffolding is being removed. What will we see?

The Lord consecrated us in truth and prays for us that we might have a good reason for getting up each morning. He prays the reason might be love….

*          *

When I was in the seminary, there was a brilliant professor there who spoke very high theology and who totally blew our minds. One year, he was reassigned and his parting words of advice were:

“Gentlemen, always make your bed.”

We laughed about this. I mean, of all the things you could leave us with, you say “always make your bed”? How mundane!

I mean, yeah, I grasped the intention: it was orderly, virtuous, contributed to cleanliness, blah blah blah….

But I tried it. …. (And it was invigorating!)

Actually, I noticed something odd about it: when I was stressed out or anxious or depressed, I never made my bed. When I was feeling good, I made my bed. I learned that something like this simple virtuous but mundane action had become a barometer for self-knowledge. And self-knowledge is very important—especially in college! I mean, to know when we aren’t being healthy, to know when we need to close the book and go outside, to know when we just simply need to go to bed….

I wish I knew about this in college. Because, really, making your bed will help you with other things we often struggle with in college.

So, for example, hung-over people never make their beds. Fact.

People who do things that they shouldn’t be doing with other people in their beds don’t wake up in the morning and say “Hey, let’s make the bed together,” … because that’s weird … and what are we, married? …. And maybe we should be married before we do things in bed, ‘k?

But there is more to it than that. At some point we all realize that we’re going to die. (SorryNotSorry). But we are. I remember hearing once that going to bed and falling asleep pre-figures death (which is why we should always make an act of contrition before going to bed—we just never know; you might not have a tomorrow!). By the same token, awaking and rising out of bed to a new day pre-figures the resurrection and the dawn of eternal life.

So, when Jesus rose from the dead, the linens in which he was wrapped were neatly folded. These neatly folded linens were proof to the apostles that Jesus had indeed risen—the proof was because linens were expensive and if Jesus had been stolen by robbers, well then the robbers would have stolen them too (and certainly not folded them!).

Making one’s bed, and I know this sounds like a stretch—but making my bed would become a reminder of heaven and of always keeping my face turned toward God in hopefulness, to keep right perspective when I got mired in the muck, to keep priorities straight, and so serve as a reminder: even the smallest virtues can conquer the largest vices—especially when the little things are done for love.

This is ultimately the challenge before you. Everything has been served to you on a platter. Your school has served you religion. Your school has served you the opportunities for making friends. Your school served you the obligations that motivated you to study. Your parents served your personal needs—from feeding you to doing your laundry to picking you up, etc, etc, etc, ad infinitum et ad nauseam. And this was done because we love you. It was done because we know that it is more blessed to give than to receive. And you have received.

But now you will have to intentionally choose to give. Intentionally choose to love.

Friendships—they are going to take work. Keeping up with people back home—you’re going to have to carve out time in your schedule and intentionally choose to love. Religion? Same deal. The challenge of college is that you now have to intentionally choose. And all of the baloney motivators are stripped away.

You will ask yourself “is this worth it?” Is this friendship, this class, this going to Mass at 8pm on a Sunday when I have a final due tomorrow—is this worth it? And you will learn what motivates you. And that might frighten you because you might realize that the only thing that motivates you is the thing that might have motivated you your whole life so far: namely: fear… or, worse, you.

I challenge you, then. I’m not inviting, I’m not humbly requesting. I dare you, I challenge you: love. Give selflessly. Choose to study not because what you get from it, but because learning is beautiful. Choose to go to Mass not because of what you do or don’t get out of it, but because Jesus is lovely and challenging. Choose to make your bed, not because I said so, but because maybe there is something hidden and mysterious in the wild world of small virtues—something worth discovering, something lovely in itself.

Like you. We loved you for you. We gave to you not because of what we could get out of you, but because we loved you and still love you for you. For your own sake.

It says, “I have consecrated you in the truth” which is another way of saying that Jesus has totally given his life for you, the consecration happening by the shedding of his blood.

So too, us: we have consecrated you in everything we have given you….

It is now that you are sent. We will miss you. But you must go. Consecrate the world in love!

Go and do the same!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

“I’m Spiritual, But Not Religious”: A Catholic Priest Responds - Talk given for Crossroads St. Charles (2015)

Good evening. Tonight’s talk is entitled “I’m Spiritual, But Not Religious”: A Catholic Priest Responds. We will be looking to go about 45 minutes.

Why I Chose This Topic

I chose the topic not only because I’ve heard people say this a lot, but also because I think that this saying is the transitional no-man’s land between those who are “religious” and those who are “secular.” What I mean by that is: there is a growing number of people who consider themselves as having a relationship with God yet who, at the same time, do not necessarily identify themselves with a given “organized religion.” They aren’t thoroughly secular, but they are on the way—and I say that they are on their way because the vast majority of the people in this group aren’t coming from secularism and moving to organized religion; rather, they are coming from organized religion and moving to secularism. And because such a move is not only pervasive in our culture (especially among 20- and 30-somethings with whom I am sure you speak often) but also destructive, I thought this would be the best topic to present.

The Art of Responding

When we respond to someone who advances a position contrary to our own, our default position might be to go into defense mode and simply to refute what that person is advancing. I prefer to take another approach. Instead of defending, I put them on the stand and ask them to tell me more about why they believe and what they believe—not to get them defensive, but simply to obtain more information. A good response requires that we are actually responding to the problem and not simply to what we think is the problem. We are doctors examining a patient, hoping to provide a suitable remedy.

So, the first thing I do when someone tells me that they are spiritual but not religious is to ask them what that means. What does it mean to be spiritual in their eyes? And, also, what does it mean to be religious? Their answers to these questions will help us tremendously when we are crafting a response; because, as they talk, we will discover that perhaps not only is their notion of religion askew, but perhaps also their idea of what it means to be spiritual. Eventually, after we have gotten the details of what they believe, we will ask them why they believe it. In other words, what caused them to hold this position? Typically, it was not a thoroughly rationed-out intellectual exercise that brought them to this judged-decision. Rather, it might be that they had a bad experience with religion and judged that experience upon faulty understandings—which when done as a teenager or as a 20-year-old (as is the typical age when such decisions are made), it is often done with a deliberation more akin to reflexes and not so much the ponderings of a wise, spiritual sage.

(Which, actually, is the first response that we can make: the caricature of a wise, spiritual sage, of which a spiritual but not religious person might find some affinity, runs contrary to the very judgments upon which these young are rashly deciding. “Slow down,” the wise sage would say, “and let life and the passing of time allow for a more deliberate and informed appraisal.” After all, saying that one’s faith should be spiritual and not religious is itself a rigid claim that runs contrary to the free-flowing spirituality that such a person often claims to hold.)

Oversight and Obstacles

This first part can be summarized in two words: “oversights” and “obstacles.” A spiritual but not religious person will have intellectual oversights—things that they have overlooked when reasoning to their decision—and emotional/experiential obstacles—things that block them from accepting even the most well-thought-out reasoning. These oversights and obstacles are the things that we are looking for when we are asking our questions—and are the things that we will have to address. So let’s do that. First, the intellectual oversights:

An Initial Intellectual Oversight

A person who holds any faulty position always thinks that what they have “fits”; it “works”; it jives with life and so on.

But we must ask: does it? Does the spiritual but not religious position actually fit with our experience of reality … and with Jesus?

Humans are not “just spiritual” beings. We are also fleshy. So, one must ask: why would God devise a “spirituality” that did not also incorporate the flesh? What is the flesh good for? Why do we have it in the first place? These are important questions. Of course, many people believe that the flesh is bad and of no use, etc, which might be one of the causes of the spiritual/religious divide. Suddenly, we are finding ourselves not talking about religion, but about whether the body is created good and to what purpose it is created! We will come back to that.

For now we can say that, the spiritual-but-religious position does not seem to jive or fit with the natural composition of who we are—namely, soul and body.

There are questions to be had here—questions which should be more easily answered when we are talking with fallen-away Catholics and other Protestants who believe (or once believed) that God took on a body and became flesh. Such questions would include: if the body doesn’t matter and if the body isn’t good, then why did God find it fitting to take one upon Himself? Or, to put it more bluntly: why didn’t God Himself remain… spiritual?

What Religious Really Means: Law

Here, we must take a detour and discuss what religious really means. Typically, people talk about religion in terms of laws and rituals—and often with disdain. I offer a simple analogy as a remedy to this.

If we should look at the human body, we find that it is governed by laws and, yes, even ritual. For example, in the case of laws, we see that there are natural laws that govern the body—whether the respiratory or endocrine or circulatory systems, each is governed by intricate (some might argue meticulous) laws which, admittedly, even the most advanced of scientists and doctors do not yet fully understand.

These bodily laws actually give structure and form to the human body. So, for example, flesh is connected around bone and therefore provides the body its general shape and ability to stand and move; this flesh is given further definition when it is wrapped in skin. The skin helps to not only keep the body in communion with its various parts, but also to provide delineation such that I can say: “This is my body” and, likewise, “That over there is not part of my body.”

This helps us to see that a purely spiritual understanding of religion would be as devastating as having a purely spiritual understanding of the body. If the body was purely spiritual, not only would it no longer be a body, but we wouldn’t know where it began or ended (because spirit, by definition, does not possess anything structural or encasing it that delineates it). A spirit is amorphous and therefore is also (typically) invisible.

Religious laws, like the laws of the body provide structure, shape, ability, and definition such that one can see, know, and literally walk in it—and, at the same time, see and know when one is not walking in it. Catholics can know when they are not being Catholics—the laws help us to see that. Spiritual-but-not-religious Catholics would have no idea (and that’s the state of many who call themselves Catholic today). Religion for many is formless.

What Religious Really Means: Ritual

So much for laws. Let’s talk about ritual.

As odd as it sounds, the body has ritual. On its own, it has patterns of rising and falling asleep, patterns of hydrating and nourishing and evacuating that happen in the same way day after day after day. The female body knows this most profoundly in her seasons.

So, too, it is consistent to expect religion to have ritual (that is, if it is to be human!). Religious rituals would provide patterns of spiritual rising and falling asleep (if you will), patterns of spiritually hydrating, nourishing, and evacuating that happen in the same way day after day after day. Religious rituals even have seasons.

So, when we speak of religion, we can speak of laws and rituals, but we do so knowing that these are not bad things, but things that we share in our very body. Man is, in his having been made with a body, religious.

The God Who Is Religious

We can say, then, that in the Incarnation, God becomes religious (or, more accurately: He expresses that He is religious)—precisely because in the Incarnation He takes on a human body, the body which is itself religious and which He Himself made.

The union of the religiousness of the body and the religiousness of God comes to a beautiful union when we consider that Jesus not only becomes religious by taking on a body, but that also He practices religion. He is at all the feasts in the Temple; He is not simply praying on His own or away from everyone (even though, yes, He does do this), but He also works within the very laws and rituals of religion such that Jesus Himself says “I have come not to abolish the law… but to fulfill…”—because He knows that abolishing the law would mean to abolish structure, to abolish the visible delineation needed for knowing whether one is in communion, and to abolish the rituals that are a natural part of it all. And so, when Jesus was establishing His religion, he gave it ritual and laws: “He took bread…. and said, ‘Do this….’”; “Go, … and baptize…” Neither of these are simply spiritual. And He gave these not to spirits, but to flesh and blood men, whom He anointed with the Holy Spirit such that we call this religion the “Mystical Body of Christ” which is the Church.

The Importance of Icons

Let us consider another ramification of the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, doesn’t God also unite the spiritual and fleshy realms and therefore require us not only to worship him spiritually but also bodily?

Religion and all of its sensual rituals, it can be argued, are to engage not only the spirit, but also the body. Of all the Christian religions, this is where Catholicism holds its exemplary pride of place. Our religion is very sensual: from the smells and bells to the oils and water and art and music. Our religion engages the body. But all of these are lost when one holds a purely spiritual outlook. Indeed, they are destroyed—and must be destroyed.

Consider the Buddhist. He is a spiritualist. The body and its senses, he says, get in the way of reaching the heights of spirituality. So, there must be an emptying, a discarding of the body and anything that might excite it through sensual stimulation. Really, it must be destroyed.

There is a word we use for this. Iconoclasm.

In a very real way, the spiritual but not religious person is an iconoclast. What does that mean? An iconoclast is someone who destroys images under the false reasoning that images take away from God, get in the way of our coming to Him, or are, even more, prohibited by Him. Images in the Catholic religion are very important and are not seen as replacements for or interferences with God, but are rather seen as the means by which, through our experience of them, God leads us to a greater heights of holiness. Because of the Incarnation, we see the body not as an obstacle, but as a means; as something not to be emptied, but employed and fulfilled. This fact reaches its zenith in the priesthood: that a fleshy person can be used by God as a conduit of grace. The priest is an icon, an image.

We thus remember that God prohibited the golden calf (because it was meant as His replacement), but encouraged looking upon the golden serpent (because it was the physical means by which He was going to raise His people to Him). That icon actually communicated grace!

The notion of images comes to a climax in Jesus who is the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15).

To destroy images and everything sensual and ritualistic would be to destroy the very means by which God had employed to lead us to Him—and thus to the destruction of belief in the very Incarnate God. He would be relegated to merely the spiritual realm which is “out there, somewhere” and which, very quickly, becomes abstract, occult, and ultimately impersonal. Study after study is showing that the casting off of organized religion has devastated belief in a personal God—because persons, after all, long to see, touch, hear, embrace, and love each other.

That was the whole point when, in his first letter, John writes to us about what he has seen and heard and touched and looked upon—the spiritual God made incarnate. In Christ, spirituality and religion became united. And John wrote this so that our joy might be complete. Religion without spirituality becomes sterile and joyless. Spirituality without religion becomes ambiguous and inhumane.

The Rediscovery of Art-Form in Our Religion

In fairness, then, many of those who hold the faulty position have not experienced a sensual religion—a religion that literally “makes sense.” The religious landscape of our nation—whether you are an evangelical or a Catholic—has been ravaged by the iconoclasm of the 20th century. Churches look more like cement sarcophaguses instead of portals to the heavenly realms and the dwelling place of Him who is beautiful. There was among artists and architects, the wrong-headed over-emphasizing of Jesus’ poverty at the expense of His superabundant riches found in His divinity. The poor body was embraced at the expense of the divine and heavenly spirit.

When religion embraced the post-modern, angular, iron-rod, abstract movements in secular art and architecture, the effects were devastating. I do not mean to be offensive, but look at St. Joseph’s in Manchester.  It is hard to have one’s mind lifted up to God at Holy Mass when one is staring at a brick wall. What does the brick wall mean? Am I just another brick in the wall? The brick wall reveals nothing about the Mass; indeed, the brick wall is offensive; distracting and not at all congruent with what is happening in the Church. It is no wonder why a person would become spiritual and not religious. If I was dwelling in a white-washed architecturally uninspiring church, I would rather prefer walking among the more beautiful mountains and communing with my nature god there! (Which is what people did before the Incarnation).

But it must be noted that little, if any, art comes from the evangelical world either. So, as much as it is currently enjoying some resurgence, it is still in trouble. Religious art typically came from the Catholic Church—which makes the Catholic Church’s capitulation to iconoclasm over the past half-century all the more unfortunate. And even when there are beautiful Churches with great art, it is often undermined by the schmaltzy, saccharine, and ultimately unprofessional music provided us. The experience of such music at Holy Mass is like drinking Kool-aid out of a golden chalice. It just doesn’t fit.

Now, I am not giving a pass to fallen-away Catholics who have forgotten the Eucharist as they left. Rather, I am simply saying that it totally makes sense. Why would it matter that Jesus’ flesh and blood are there in the Eucharist when we ourselves do not admit of the beauty and necessity of our own being flesh and blood? What I mean is, since in many of our churches and music which are saccharine, ugly, uninspiring, and which do not thus admit how we are made for beauty—to sense and receive its radiance and form—doesn’t it seem to be a logical conclusion that we do not admit the beauty and importance of God who became body and blood, knowing that we would need and want to receive Him bodily?

I mean, do we demand that religion be done beautifully—not only for the sake of God, but also for the sake of our nature and dignity? Pope Benedict was right when he said: the eclipse of God leads to the eclipse of man.

We are flesh and bone. We are created in the image and likeness of God. The body matters. This is why the spiritual but not religious position, by denying the body, assumes a religion which is inhumane: as inhumane as the iconoclasm mentioned above. It does not seek what is true, good, and beautiful, but is content with the ugly. It is ugly because it has no body; it is formless.

And suddenly we find ourselves back where we started when we began talking about oversights—but now with a different perspective: namely, through the Incarnation, God has exalted the flesh and blood of humanity and raised it up. And so we can answer our first question: why did God create us bodily? The first answer is so that we could love Him and give Him glory through it. The second answer is that it gives us the very form by which then leads us to beauty. Beauty cannot exist in formlessness, but only with organization, structure, body.

Thus, is not enough to worship Him spiritually—formlessly— but bodily as well. Because of this, it is not only fitting but necessary that the body and religion should be expressed as glorious and beautiful. We have seen this in such things as the works of Raphael and Michelangelo.

That religion has not done so in recent times is scandalous. For our part, we will have to do reparation for the iconoclastic decisions of those who came before us. But we must also seek to remedy this by restoring beauty in our liturgy, in our art and architecture, in our music, and in our very lives. In doing so, the spiritual person will hopefully come to see that precisely within the realm of religion does spirituality and humanity attain their highest potential.

Other Obstacles

Having looked at a few oversights of the position, let us examine a few of the obstacles.

One of the biggest obstacles that a person has is the sinfulness of those affiliated with religion. Here, it is easy to mention the litany of crimes which the clergy and hierarchy have committed against people. What is interesting is that I have heard just as many complaints about the people in the pews: cliques, mean looks, no welcoming the stranger, no visit when in the hospital, children at the school bullying—all of these contribute. Clergy and lay-people alike, therefore, must move towards a restoration of their morality—a restoration as crucial as that of Church art: so that we may be able to radiate more clearly the image of Christ which we are all called to be.

In this light, I know of many who have discarded religion (while remaining spiritual) not only because of the poor treatment at the hands of the people in the pews, but especially from the people at home. I have noticed on many occasions where a very zealous parent who is also very, very active in the Church, have at the same time a child (or several) who has fallen away. Now, there can be many, many reasons for this (including, but not limited to, the pervasive nature of secularism), but I have found that many times the zealous parent does not understand the human, incarnational aspects of the religion which they profess. One of those overlooked incarnational aspects which the parents overlook is themselves.

What I mean by that is: to a child, a parent incarnates religion—the dad images God the Father, the mom images the Church. A parent clearly does not understand this when the dad, for example, disciplines his child with severity and never gives a chance for redemption. As the child sees her father as God the Father, the child begins to think that God is severe and unforgiving. Similarly, if mom is severe and legalistic, the child will think the Church is that way too.

We would call these parents iconoclasts for they have destroyed the images of They whom they image.

But as the child becomes a teenager, she sees that there is a difference between God and her dad. Yet, the teen also possesses a right intuition that, if religion is true, then the religion should have a humanizing and divinizing effect in the dad. In other words, dad should become, through religion, the Father whom God has made him to image. When dad proves himself cruel either by a discipline without a chance of redemption or a discipline that is purely legalistic, the teenager begins to doubt the credibility of religion and whether it contributes to the good.

This usually comes to a head in the Sunday morning arguments about going to Mass. I have seen many parents take a legalistic approach to the faith that says “You will go to Mass and you will like it.” The child responds by saying that she is bored by it and doesn’t get anything out of it. It would be good here for the parent to ask why. After all, the teen’s statement of “I’m bored” is the expression that both the spiritual realities and the religious realities have not been reasonably revealed to her.

(After all, if people really knew what was going on at Mass and if Mass was done properly, then the last thing people would say is “I don’t get anything out of it” or “It’s boring.”)

But, that’s what the teen says and the parent, likely not having delved into these matters or perhaps having failed to integrate them enough to be able to articulate them, simply quiets the teen’s expression of what is actually a perfectly valid and human viewpoint.

The problem is, the teen wasn’t simply expressing boredom or even that she does not see the spiritual and religious realities. She was also expressing a spiritual need.

Quick detour. Our faculties to think, reason, and understand reside in the soul. These are spiritual powers that we have. In order to understand the law—namely, “go to Mass”—the spiritual dimension of us must be employed. When a parent shuts that down, the teen—as a human who is both body and soul—really does feel as though a part of her has been shut down. The teen is right to seek out the spiritual and, not finding it here, will search for it elsewhere—and not in the religion that the parents are pushing.

Responding to such a teen, therefore, must first seek to respond to their spiritual thirst. Because it was their faculty of reason that was squashed as a teen, it is the faculty of reason that is most painful for them to use. Hence, many of their arguments will not be all too logical or reasonable.

So, for example, they do not see that, by rejecting the religion, they themselves have taken just as inhumane approach to the faith as their parents—namely, whereas their parents did not respect the spiritual dimension of their humanity, this teen has neglected the bodily-religious dimension of her humanity. In other words, she has made a law out of spirituality—a law that excludes religion. And that is rigid.

It’s also illogical. No one doubts the need of hospitals because of a bad encounter with a doctor or because there are sick people. Sick people actually reveal the need for a hospital; the bad encounter with the doctor would simply move us to another hospital—but not to doubt hospitals’ necessity. People, however, doubt the need for a Catholic Church because of bad encounters with priests or because of sinners. Sinners, however, simply reveal the need for the Church; the encounter with the bad priest would simply move us to another church—but not to doubt the Church’s necessity.

The Best Response: The Encounter With Christ

It must be said that, precisely because it is the faculty of reason that has been offended in many cases, logic and argumentation do not typically attract these souls back—indeed, it often opens up old wounds. Admittedly, sometimes opening up the wound is necessary to bring healing: so, for example, to admit to the person that the legalistic approach to religion was wrong is a good thing to do. I do believe many parents do need to apologize for not giving their children the logical space to freely reason and to freely choose.

I’m not saying that this means that children shouldn’t be baptized as infants or that they shouldn’t be trained in such a way as to memorize the faith. Nor am I saying that we shouldn’t give apologetical reasons for religion (such as defenses for the hierarchy or the liturgy as might be seen in St. Justin Martyr). Rather, I am simply talking about what Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have both called “the need for an encounter with Christ.” This is the best response.

A spiritual but not religious person will be moved by spirituality—so what if a deeply spiritual person approached them, gained their friendship, and then revealed she was also religious?

There might be disappointment; there might be intrigue; there might be a need to answer some inquisitive questions, such as: can’t I be a good person without religion and its laws and rituals? And if questions like that are posed to us, let us rejoice! Because this means that the person is using their reason that was probably wounded. Which means that we will have to be able to answer even more questions, such as: how does Mass and the Sacraments actually change us? Isn’t the Church simply a good-doing social-work organization?

And this is where we will have to have the response of our life, but also of the Truth. So, to answer the question about the Church, we can say that the point of the Catholic religion and her spirituality and laws isn’t simply to make us nice and good. The point is to make us Christ-like—Jesus Christ who is both spiritual and religious… and divine.

That is probably the most under-taught of our Catholic doctrines—divinization—that we are to literally become partakers in the divine nature (see 2 Peter 1:4). St. Athanasius states it simply: “God became man so that man might become gods.” 

We can then ask the person: does your spirituality simply make you a good person? Or does it make you divine as well? Can your spirituality reveal the divine? Has the divine revealed Himself only in your spirituality?

Our worship, our lives, our articulation, everything—it must all reveal this reality. That’s the best response.

As an aside: I would also encourage you to gather together and meet with your pastors to ask them for more beauty at Mass and in our religion—and less of the saccharine stuff. Most priests who are of pastoring age do not believe that you want more weighty religious stuff. They think you want what is easy and emotional and entertaining and simply “spiritual, less ritual.” Many do not know how to respond to what is needed here: namely, the need to become more religious.

So, that’s my talk and I hope it makes sense. If there is any time remaining, I’ll happily answer any questions. Thank you.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Reflecting Mom and Motherhood - Homily on Mother's Day (2015)

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,
you make me happy when skies are gray
you’ll never know, dear, how much I love you.
Please don’t take my sunshine away.

Remembering Mom

This song is from a dimly lit memory, a memory that is very deep within me—so deep that it is at the core of who I am. I was about four years old and mom was holding me in her rocking chair, hugging me to sleep. This is the first of an ocean of memories that, as I step back and reflect on them and put them into words, fill me with gratitude and with some tears. One of the blessings of priesthood is the task of putting together homilies; doing so forces me to take the time that ordinarily I might not. But, because I do, I grow in a greater appreciation and a greater love for my mother.

I remembered how, when she was looking for work after the divorce, she was thinking of us kids first and how was she going to afford college for us. She took a secretarial job at WashU and has worked behind a desk for many years now, oftentimes without a window to the outside world, simply so that us kids could have a better life.

I remembered how, when I nearly threw it all away—totally ignorant of her sacrifices—she never once complained. Instead, as I was frantically pulling an all-nighter to complete a necessary paper for graduation, she was staying up praying all night for me.

I remembered her joy, her laugh, and her ability to tickle me in just the right spot. every. time.

I remembered with regret the many occasions that I was too busy to spend time with her or too prideful to acknowledge her wisdom or too impatient to simply let her worry about me and nag me and love me and do what mothers do.

For example, mom is always telling me to be safe. She’s always telling all of us kids when we leave her home, “Be safe.” Some of us kids have, I embarrassingly admit, poked fun of this fact that she is always telling us to be safe. But as I sat and prayed and reflected and put together this homily, I realized a depth in those words. Mom was communicating everything that mom is, every dimension of love within herself that she has for us. Beneath the words, there is an ocean which I will never know the depths of, but which we know is there. I cannot help but know that when mom hugs me and calls me “Sweetie,” that the depth of her love which I both receive and which I do not totally fathom is the place where God is and where He has given mothers what makes them mothers: His very tangible and very real image.

The Woman of Motherhood

There is something of the woman that does bring us to a holy genuflection and the admission that there is something greater than us men here. The woman, able to bear life within herself, carries the immortality of the human soul like a holy tabernacle; the woman, able to feed and nourish her young with her very body, speaks in a unison with Our Lord that few of us have the privilege of sharing when together our moms and our Lord say to us: This is my body, given for you.

The enfleshment of sacrificial, life-giving love: this is at the core of who the woman is. It is why so many women, who long to be married and have kids but who have not yet or who have been told that they will never do so—it is because of love which is at their core that they mourn. To those women and especially those women who carry the cross of infertility: I know this day is painful for you and we are with you in love!

Yes, the self-giving love at the core of motherhood is also why distance between mom and her children is so tough for her. It is why miscarriages or the loss of child for whatever reason is so devastating. It is why, when the nest is empty, mom grieves and hopes not only for a phone call, but that there might be an attempt on our part to enter into the great depth which is the ocean of her love for us which is at the very essence of who she is.

And because mom is at the heart of us, when we see mom suffer or pass on, we mourn her—but we continue to love her. We pray for our mothers who have died. We also pray for healing for those mothers who might not have been very good at carrying the weight of motherhood; we know there have been some who have been hurt by moms. Because we are children of moms, we know that these wounds can be quite deep. May our Lord bring healing to all and a rediscovery of joy in the beauty of motherhood.

The Call of Mother’s Day

Yes, motherhood is beautiful. And I realize that cards, flowers, and words of thanks cannot possibly reach the level of expression necessary to return so great a gift. I am not worthy of such a gift. None of us are.

I realize that it is a gift given to us by God and I recall the words we heard today:

In this is love:
not that we have loved God, but that he loved us

He has given us our mothers as a sign of His love. Therefore, I thank not only mom today, but I also thank God for my mom. It only seems right.

But to mom: I find that the only way to adequately express our love is by imitation. This is what we do when we love something: we become like it, we take on its ways, we live it’s life. Young men become like their dads or perhaps like their priests. Young women become like their moms or their religious sisters. The best way for us to show our love on Mother’s Day is to imitate.

We are also called to uphold everything that leads to the embrace of a mother’s life. That makes sense: if we love mom, we would want others to see that and experience that and uphold it.

So isn’t it interesting—isn’t it odd—that in our culture there is such expression of love and affection for moms today but, in the same breath our culture demands we support the lifestyles, medications, and procedures that take motherhood away?

Only a contraceptive culture that says: I love my mom, but I don’t want to become one.

And we must remember than in abortion, it’s not just children that are aborted, but motherhood as well.

Therefore, I urge our young couples as Pope Francis did: do not cut short motherhood by the use of contraception, sterilization, or by a lifestyle that seeks to be comfortable. (Your mom wasn’t when she had you). Do not make a desert of the great ocean of love that you have within you! Do not condemn your later years to loneliness!

And if you have, then know that Mother Church—a mother who is wise and who is loving—She will welcome you back in a heartbeat. There is no condemnation here, but open arms.

Perhaps you might not like what I just said. Well, I get my truth-telling from my mom.

And truth-be-told, if we should be really honest, if all of us have a deep appreciation for our moms, then we would never willingly deprive a child of having a mom as is done by those who advocate that it’s ok for families to be headed without a mom—for example, to be headed by two men. As awesome as we might think ourselves to be, men cannot replace mom.

Yes, it is because I love my mom that I encourage others to enter into the great grace of becoming one. I cherish motherhood, I protect it, I stand up for it. My integrity doesn’t allow me to say “Happy Mother’s Day” and then support those things that take the motherhood that we claim to celebrate.

A Prayer

Let us ask Mary, whom God Himself chose to be His Mother, to intercede for us, that we might rediscover our moms and the great and wonderful mystery of motherhood.

Mary, you who are our Mother, a mother who loves us and calls us your children, help us to cherish our mothers. Help us to rediscover motherhood. Help us not only to have sentimental niceties about it, but to really cherish it and to remember it and to protect it. Your love for us is so deep and so beautiful. Lead us to a greater appreciation of mom today… and always. Amen.

I’d like to end where I began, with a song. I said that mom sang it to me. Well, it is in me because mom is in me—and so I sing it back to her now.

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,
you make me happy when skies are gray
you’ll never know, dear, how much I love you.
Please don’t take my sunshine away.


If you want to read more, I highly encourage pursuing this article. 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

What I Learned from the Emergency Room this Week - Homily for the 5th Sunday in Easter (2015)

Just Visiting Father

As many of you are aware, Father Holway has been in the hospital for a few days because of abdominal pain. He’s going to be ok and he’s getting better, but he won’t get out of the hospital until sometime tomorrow we hope. The bad thing about his pain is that he hasn’t been able to eat or drink anything since Tuesday; it’s been all IV’s for him. Can you imagine? Fasting for four days straight?

On Friday, I went to visit Father. On my way there, I thought to myself: I should go to the local Five Guys burger joint and pick up a double bacon cheeseburger and fries…. You know, to eat it in front of him.

No, I really didn’t do that.

Ok, I did.

No, in all seriousness, I went and visited Father for an hour or so and we talked without hamburgers and I relayed many of your greetings to him. He thanks you for your prayers and for the many of you who came by and visited on Wednesday. There were so many of you that the nurses put up a sign on his door, something to the effect of “I’m sleeping.”

So, we had a good visit talking about what’s been going on and how he’s doing and all that. And then, after an hour or so, I left and continued the rest of my day.

I visited.

I didn't remain.

Remaining would have looked different. It might have looked like Tuesday night….

Remaining With Father

On Tuesday night, before all of this happened, Father Holway knocked on my door and was doubled over in pain. He told me that he was going to drive himself to the hospital. “No way,” I said, “I’m going to drive you.” This was an emergency after all.

So we got in the car and I did 80 down highway 94. We arrived at the emergency room at around 10pm and Father received an initial check-up. The place was hopping. We would have to wait for the doctor. So, Father and I sat and waited. And waited. And waited. 10pm became 11pm, 11pm became midnight. One of the staff members, a Catholic, saw us priests and gave us a holy card—St. Gianna. It was her holy day. It was like God was saying, "I'm with you." And St. Gianna: "Me too."

Eventually, at about 2am or so, Father was brought into his room and was examined and diagnosed. He would need to stay. I told him I would hang around and… remain. I had remained with him for four hours anyway. But he told me to go—after all, he said, “you have my 6:30am Mass now!”

And, admittedly, I was kind of happy he said for me to go. I was very tired; I knew I needed sleep; I knew Father would be ok. I had remained with him for a time, but now it was time to go and do my thing. I had remained with him, but now I had to go.

So, I did what Jesus was talking about, right?

Remain in Me

Actually, no. Jesus doesn't say remain with me. It’s remain in me.

Remain in me.

What’s the difference?

Remaining “with” someone means that eventually I get to go home and do my own thing. Remaining "in" means that "my own" thing doesn't exist-- because "my own" means something individual to me. Remaining "in" means that I am no mere individual, but in communion with someone.

Let's unpack this.

Remaining “with” someone still keeps me separate from that someone—I’m here and God’s there and Father Holway’s there… And because there is that separation, I don't possess the totally of what it is to BE that someone else. So, for example, with Father Holway, when I remained with him, I felt compassion for him, I felt empathy, but I was not the one needing the morphine. I was with him, but not in him.

That’s the difference. Remaining with someone always keeps us at some kind of distance, however small that might be. Remaining in someone…. well, that’s a whole different story.

And it seems physically impossible. How can someone remain IN someone else?

The best way we can visualize this is in the basic teaching on Holy Marriage: the two become one. The man and woman don’t just remain “with” each other like roommates; they are literally one: body, blood, soul, humanity—united by the power of God such that no one can separate them. And because they are one, because they remain “in” each other, the couple—if they are really doing this—will begin to think like each other, to act like each other, to will what the other person wills. They become one—a communion.

This is the depth of communion that Jesus wants us to have in Him. He doesn’t want us to simply swing by on a Sunday and visit, and then to go home and do our thing, having forgotten about Him. He doesn’t simply want us to think about him in a fleeting moment on any given day and to have a nice feeling because of that and then go out and sin.

No, he wants every. single. aspect. of our lives. united. in. Him.

To be thinking like He thinks, to will what He wills, to love what He loves. In every part of our life.

Not to be just visiting; not to be just with; … but to be IN. In communion.

The Vine, the Branches, ... and the Sap

The best way Jesus can make us understand this is through the image of the vine and the branches. He is the vine, we are the branches.

Vines have sap and nutrients that go through them. Branches can only survive and bear fruit if they receive this sap and its nutrients. If something obstructs the branches from receiving the sap, the branches will die and they won’t bear fruit. In order for the vine to grow, the dead branches would have to be cleared away. Hence, Jesus says,

            [The Father] takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit...

What does all of this mean?

The sap of the vine is grace. The life that comes from the vine (Jesus) and which enters the branches (us) and keeps us alive is grace. Without His grace, we die. And this death is not simply physical in nature, but spiritual. Hear Jesus again when He says:

Anyone who does not remain in me
will be thrown out like a branch and wither;
people will gather them and throw them into a fire
and they will be burned.

What He is talking about there is hell. The branches (us) that are not in union with Him (the vine) and receiving His grace (the sap) are hell-bound.

Do you see how important this is?

Those who cut themselves off from grace—whether by failing to receive the graces offered through the Sacraments, or by cutting themselves off through disbelief or through immorality—those who obstruct the flow of the sap of grace will be spiritually dead.

Would you like to know if you are spiritually dead?

John in our second reading writes to us:

Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them.

Keeping the Commandments—if we do not do this, we do not remain in Jesus; and not remaining in Jesus, we are bound for hell. It’s that simple.

Now, please don’t take Jesus for a superficial judge. Rather, it is precisely because Jesus wants us to avoid this that He is so adamant in telling us. Notice how many times He prays for us to remain in Him. On the night before He dies, for example, He prays that we might be one in Him and in the Church—hence He gives us His very body, blood, soul and divinity that night in the Last Supper, the Eucharist, which is Holy… Communion.

His body and blood entering into us—and to what purpose? So that

whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood will live in me and I in him (Jn 6:56).

And to show how important communion is, He also warns:

unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink His blood, you have no life in you 
(Jn 6:53).


How could we go back to business as usual after that?

Let’s be honest: so many of us, myself included, receive Jesus in Holy Communion, but then go back to business as usual. This is not remaining in Jesus. That’s “just visiting.” And because that’s not remaining, the grace which we receive doesn’t actually bear fruit.

And that’s worthy of hell as Jesus Himself just told us.

And that’s why Paul writes with passion to his flock: 

As God's co-workers we urge you not to receive God's grace in vain (2 Cor 6:1)

So, it’s not enough to simply be here and to come and commune. This has gotta change you. It’s gotta get in you. Change your thoughts, your words, your actions.

What Fruits Are We Bearing?

During this past week, there were a lot of people who were brought by God to receive a greater union and a deeper intimacy with Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Many young children received First Holy Communion; our young adults received Confirmation; we had two marriages yesterday; and the thousands of other people who came up to eat the Body of Jesus and drink His Blood.

But if they are not here today… they are dead.

This is because the commandments are connected to union. So, in the case of Sunday Mass, Jesus is calling His people to union with Him in Holy Communion, but His people have chosen other things to do on His Sabbath. And so they skip. Or they leave early. Or they receive and go off to "more important things."

They are just visiting.

As such, they are not remaining and will therefore wither and die. And if they haven’t yet, it is only by the miraculous grace of Jesus which begs the Father to not take them away, not yet.

Live in me, says the Lord. I give life in you. Remain in me. … It is not enough to simply be with. We must be in.

The way we know that he remains in us
is from the Spirit he gave us.

If we are in Jesus, if we are really remaining in Him, will bear fruit from the Spirit He gave us.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists the fruits of the Spirit. They are:

charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, chastity (CCC 1832)

Are you bringing forth these fruits? Are you modest? Do you have self-control? Are you patient? Are you generous and kind and gentle and joyful?

Without Me, You Can Do Nothing

Look at the news cycle; look at what is going on in our world; what we see are the fruits not of God, but of a life without grace. There is a new walking dead out there, entire communities who are separated from God and His grace; we see it advocated in our courts, in our schools, in our entertainment—shoot, we do it ourselves too. Where is the good fruit?

We know how this ends. We have seen the results of the social experiment of a life without God’s grace, right? So let’s just say it: that social experiment is over! We've seen the fruits of decades without God in the public square. Our world cannot live without grace. Jesus Himself said so!

            Without me, you can do nothing.

Nothing! And if we should do anything, it is because He is helping us by His grace—a grace that we so often take for granted.

Hear that again:

            Without me, you can do nothing.

That doesn’t mean, “without me, you can do some things…” or “without me, you can do B- work.” No, without me, you can do NOTHING.

Perhaps we should pause for a moment and reflect on how much we take for granted here and how much we think that we are the ones who are doing everything…..

Perhaps we should pause and examine how we receive communion, examine whether we are simply visiting or actually remaining in Jesus such that our lives are changing and bearing good fruit.

People who leave Mass early without an emergency, I will be quite frank: you have no union! People who are in a hurry: you have no union! You are the rocky soil, the trodden path, that will bear no fruit! This is why your lives have not changed.

Our world is only getting worse because we are content to just visit, but not to remain in Him. You are trying to do everything without Him. But without Him, you can do nothing!

This is an Emergency 

Brothers and sisters, if your loved ones were to come to you in an emergency, you would take them to the hospital right? And you’d do so because you love them. And because it’s a matter of life and death.

Well, we are dealing with something more than just life and death. We are dealing with heaven or hell here. And we are all, our culture, is in an emergency. People don’t even know it.

It’s high time that we wake up and take this seriously and stop being content with just “making it” here.  It’s high time that we stop turning a blind-eye to our brothers and sisters who aren’t here today, chalking it up to “their decision” and “their life.” Who would ever say such a thing in an emergency?

“Well, he doesn’t want to go to the hospital, I guess I’ll let him die….” That’s insane!

We have to stand up and take charge and not only reach out by weak invitations to our brothers and sisters. We have start pulling them by the arm and bringing them here.

So, if you are coach of a team and you know that there are parents who don’t take their kids to Holy Mass on Sunday, consider it your duty to pull them in. By the arm if you have to. And if they refuse, ask them point-blank:

 “Do you want to go to hell? Do you want to contribute to a God-less world?”

And they may hem and haw and say they have Jesus and that they are “good people.” You have something to say to them. And because you remain in Jesus, it will be His words that will become your words and He will speak through you. And He will remind them through you that  

Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them.

And maybe that’s where we all need to begin examining our lives. Are we really united here? Do we allow the grace of the Eucharist to enter into our every aspect and facet of our lives?

Are we remaining in, or are we just visiting?

Because, as you might now notice: this isn't just about communion with God, it is also about communion with each other. Community, after all, requires communion.

Let us pray.

Let us pray that we might be more united in the communion offered us by the sacraments, the communion offered us by the commandments and the moral life, the communion offered us by the teaching of Jesus through His Catholic Church.

Let us pray for those who have fallen away from the sacramental life. Let us pray for those who have fallen away from the commandments and the doctrines of the Church, doctrines whose Truth is guaranteed by Holy Spirit.

Let us pray also that those who belong to other Christian communities might become one with us in the Catholic Church. Let us ask God to strengthen us to invite them home.

And let us pray that we never take this faith and this grace for granted.


UPDATE: Father Holway has returned from the hospital. Deo gratias!