Sunday, September 27, 2015

Pope Francis: The Man, The Myth, The Label - Homily for the 26th Sunday in OT

First, I would like to thank everyone who helped our missionary last week. He said this is one of the best parishes he has ever visited. I was like, duh: #CatholicHappyLand  So, thank you for being so generous to him.

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If anyone thought that the Catholic Church was not relevant—well, they got a wake-up call this week! On all the media outlets: wall-to-wall coverage of Pope Francis’ visit—all listening and holding on to every word of the Holy Father.

Anytime a Pope visits a country, it is a time of special blessing and grace. There’s renewal for many cold hearts, a deeper challenge for the already-faithful, and for those who are seeking, there is an invitation to find the Meaning of Life here: right here in the Catholic Church.

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of celebrating the wedding of two of our parishioners. At the rehearsal, I had a chance to speak with several of the guests—who came from many religious or non-religious backgrounds. No matter what their state, the conversation focused on one thing: The Pope.

They were asking questions—good questions—about what the Church teaches; they were commenting about how the Pope was inspirational; about how it was giving them pause. I could tell that they were hearing a quiet whisper in their hearts and minds to come home to the faith.

And perhaps you are one of those people. Perhaps there has been that “something” in your life that is bringing you here. And if that’s you, I want to welcome you in a particular way today. You are right where you are supposed to be!

(I’d like to point out that, during the past two weeks, our RCIA class—that’s the class for those who are looking to learn more about and possibly join the Catholic Church—our RCIA class has ballooned from 16 to 25 people. So, yes, this is a time of special blessing and graces upon this land. Let us give thanks to God!)

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At the same time, I know that the Pope’s words have been a little confusing for the more seasoned Catholics out there. For example: is he advocating socialism? Has he gone all-in on global warming? Does he think that a country should not protect its boarders? And so on.

They key to understanding the Pope, I believe, is his “theology” of encounter. At the root of this theology is the fact that Jesus comes to us not as an idea or a philosophical system, but as a person—and he does so because we are persons. We are not ideas, nor categories or camps. Sure, we might call ourselves Republican or Democrat, black or white, gay or straight, and so on—but, behind the label, behind the “idea,” is a person with a heart, with a life story, with an eternal destiny, with feelings, and so on. The theology of encounter is a way of living wherein we are able to put aside categories and come heart-to-heart to our brothers and sisters, children of the same God our Father. And, because we are children of the same Father, we look for what is good in the other. We look for the person’s heart.

I think this is why the Pope proposed four Americans—people, not simply ideas—for Congress to consider; and not simply that we would embrace every aspect of their lives’ ideologies, but to see that these flawed human beings—flawed sinners, not saints—had hearts and dreams, just like you and me. The theology of encounter challenges us. It challenges us by asking: what is the first criterion by which we encounter a person? Is it by socio-political standing or is it by the fact that they are our brothers and sisters? If our first encounter is a label, we aren’t meeting the person!

When Pope Francis proposed Dorothy Day for our consideration, I could have said and was tempted to say (arrogantly, mind you), “Oh, Pope, you have given us a [here comes the label:]—you have given us a socialist as an example to ponder!”

But consider the person: Dorothy Day loved the Jesus who dwelled in each person. Was she flawed in this? Yes. But so am I. Where she was zealous, I can be cold. How I wish that I could see Jesus in every person with such a zeal that I might be categorized as over-zealous in my wanting of charity for every person!

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Jesus tells us that if our right hand causes us to sin, cut it off. This is odd because it is not the hand that causes us to sin—for it doesn’t have a mind or a heart. It is our heart and mind that cause us—that move our members—to sin. In much the same way, it is not socio-economic and political systems that necessarily cause us to sin—no more than a hand—rather, it is the heart and the mind of the persons behind them.

Jesus is calling for us to cut out from our hearts anything that leads to sin—literally, to say “to hell” with it. The fact that this country is rife with gender wars and racial wars and political wars and so on is because, in our attempt to make sense of the rapidly-changing landscape of our world, we (in our concupiscent frailty) seek to label and categorize—at the expense of the human heart. This is why there is so much labeling and hate and so on. We focus on issues and label people as problems instead of focusing on people and working together on problems.

The Pope’s words are beckoning us to pause for a moment. To strip away the emotionalism and ideology and to ask: who are the people in this hot-button “issue”? Have I allowed for a heart-to-heart encounter with a person here? Can I look beyond the socio-economic and political name-calling and see a person?

The very fact that the Pope is being labeled as a liberal proves my point. How quick our culture is to see socio-economic and political leanings before its sees a man who deeply loves us! He is facing heat from both sides of the political aisle—and perhaps that’s because he’s walking the narrow way.

And, brothers and sisters, let us not be na├»ve: don’t think for a moment that the media isn’t trying to drive an even greater wedge in an already fractured Catholic Church. Don’t fall for the labels, because it only furthers division! We are brothers and sisters of the same Father!

Therefore, if your socio-economic or political leaning—if the hot-button issue that you are holding on to—blinds you and causes you to sin, to label and to not see people, then cut it off! Better for you to go to heaven being called a Catholic—a Catholic!—than being a socio-economic and political ideologue in hell! For what makes hell “hell” is that we are eternally in our own ideas and ultimately isolated from people. In heaven, however, we are a communion of saints, rejoicing in love, encountering love, seeing people and hearts and goodness…

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Let us rejoice in the great graces of this moment in our nation’s history and in our Catholic Church.  Let us encounter the man, this Pope, and his great love for us. And let us ask for the grace that we can be quick to put aside labels and quick, instead, to see the noble dignity of the person! 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

A Missionary Perspective - Thoughts from the 25th Sunday in OT

Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me

This weekend, St. Joseph is welcoming Father Joseph Dube, a missionary priest who comes to us from the northern part of Nigeria—the part that has been overrun by Islam and, sadly, by terrorism. His parish has been burnt down, his rectory has been torched, and now, in order to remain safe, he must travel upwards of 100 miles in order to offer Holy Mass on Sunday—a rugged journey which is further complicated by having to hitch a ride (or borrow a motorcycle—he has no car) and by having to watch his six. (He’s been captured three times by Islamic groups).

So, when I picked up Father Joseph from the airport in my Honda Civic, he sat down and said, “Nice car.” Now, much to my embarrassment, I’ve been thinking about “trading up.” The car is nearing 100,000 miles, it’s starting to need more maintenance, it’s not a quiet interior, and it pulls a little to the right. I forget what a blessing it is to have a car that goes. And to have good roads. And to not have to worry about being captured on my (very short) commute to offer Holy Mass. I mean, when was the last time I had to hitch a ride to travel 100 miles through enemy territory to go to Holy Mass?

After picking Father up from the airport, I brought him to the rectory and I showed him the guest room. I apologized that the room was small. After all, it was smaller than my room. (And isn’t that interesting? We give our guests the smaller spaces in our homes when they visit…). Father laughed: “This isn’t small; thank you for the room!” Later in the weekend, I realized why he laughed at my apology. He showed me before-and-after pictures of his rectory. The “after” was a burned-out mess. The “before” wasn’t all that much better—at least by our standards. I forget what a blessing it is to have a bed, a dresser, carpeting, electricity, and plumbing.

In full disclosure, I wasn’t thrilled to be taking in a missionary this weekend—and even less thrilled that he would have to stay the entire week. “God,” I complained, “I have enough on my docket of things to do; I don’t need to host a missionary.” Missionaries are oftentimes needy: they don’t know people here, they don’t have a car to “help themselves,” they rely on their host priests to feed them, etc, etc, etc. In other words, “God, I don’t have time to take care of a child.”

And then, the Gospel:

 Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me.

That, boys and girls, is what we call humble pie. I was totally humbled. It wasn’t a missionary I was receiving into the rectory this week. Even less was it a child. I was receiving Jesus. Really, truly, Jesus: poor, persecuted, a stranger, in need of shelter, and food, and drink.

            Whatever you did to these least ones, you did unto me.

I was reminded of my time when I lived at St. Patrick’s in Wentzville when I was still a seminarian. The rectory sat at the confluence of two major interstates. Because of that, we saw many itinerant and poor people. Our doorbell was busy. One day, as I sat studying in the kitchen, one of the priests was making lunch and the doorbell rang. This priest could have been upset because it’s lunch and this is an inconvenience and another lunch is going to have to wait for a half-hour and he’s hungry, etc. But, instead, he immediately stopped making his lunch and turned towards the door. And I heard him say under his breath—lovingly—“I am coming, Jesus.”

That’s true vision. That’s where true charity comes from.

Listen to St. James’ question again when he asks:

Where do the wars
and where do the conflicts among you come from? 

Yes, where does our lack of peace come from? He says it comes from our passions—our jealousy, our envy, our seeking to be first, to be Numero Uno. How unhappy we are because we are always looking at the BBD—the bigger, better deal. The new car, the bigger space, the things that “the Jones’” have.

I forget. I forget that everything that I have is from God. The wage I made when I was “out there” as a teacher—it was God’s. He gave me the talent to teach. It was His talent, His money. I mean, why wasn’t I born in Nigeria or with some a lower intelligence? I could have been. But God chose me to be here, with these talents, with these treasures. I am a steward. A servant of these treasures, these mysteries.

“If anyone wishes to be first,
he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” 

It is here that the Gospel hits me: Jesus asks me to be generous to the child, to the missionary, to the stranger and so on—He asks me to be generous to these “little ones” because the reality is: He has been generous to me. I am the little one. Indeed, I am nothing. Jesus welcomed me in. Jesus has fed me day after day after day. Jesus has given me drink and housing and the car and these talents. He has lavished grace upon grace upon me.

This is not a guilt-trip or “feeling bad” because I have these things.

Rather, He has placed me in a position to become one with Him in His inner life of charity. Amen, as I give, I receive a share of what it is to be like God who is so generous. To feel the effects of sacrificial charity—whether the pain of the giving or the joy of seeing another receive—which, in turn, draws me deeper into His very life and deepest mystery of Himself which is Love.

Strange: to lower myself, to become a servant of all, results in exultation and glory—not only in the one who lowers himself, but also for the “little one” who has received the treasure; they too are raised.

Generosity, therefore, builds up. It elevates! It is joyful!

What a contrast to the destructive bitterness of covetousness and envy and jealousy and hoarding!

Lord, save us from the passions that bloat us with stuff! Help us to give, to give and love and to not count the cost. Indeed, that we may see the glory and the joy of charity! Lord, help us to receive you this day and always!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Pope Francis and Abortions and Annulments (oh my!) - Homily for the 24th Sunday in OT

But you, who do you say that I am?

It cuts through all of the rumor and the gossip, doesn’t it? The world has its opinions about who Jesus is, but ultimately, what He cares about is what you think: Who do you say that I am?

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These past two weeks, Pope Francis has made two executive decisions that have really taken the world by storm. There has also been a lot of rumor and gossip about what he’s said. Knowing that you are “out there” having to field questions from friends, colleagues, and family—whether at home, at the water-cooler, or even as you watch your kids play soccer—knowing that there is a lot of conversations going on about Pope Francis’ words, I thought I’d cut through some of the rumor and give you some points that you could then give to others.

First, his decision about abortions and forgiveness…

The media has led everyone to think that the sin of abortion could not be forgiven until now. That’s false. Every sin—EVERY SIN—can be forgiven. And not just during the upcoming Year of Mercy.

What Pope Francis did last week has some history to it. In this country, before Roe v. Wade in 1973, abortions were relatively rare. It was a crime not only in church law, but to some degree in civil law. In the church, the crime received the penalty of excommunication—which also acts as an alert and a reminder to the culture about the gravity of a crime. In “the old days,” the priest could forgive the sin, but the penalty of excommunication would have to be lifted. This would be done by the bishop and with relative ease. And again: excommunication was rare because abortion was rare.

In the 1980s, when the church in the United States saw the ballooning rates of abortions because of Roe v. Wade, most priests were given, in addition to the power to forgive (which they already possessed), the power to lift the excommunication. Such has been the case in St. Louis for a while. This means that everyone who has confessed the sin of abortion here has been forgiven and the excommunication has also been lifted. Thanks be to God.

Now, all areas of the world have not seen quite the proliferation of abortion as we have. But abortion is expanding in the world. Consequently, the Pope thought it expedient to grant the bishop’s power to all priests throughout the world during the Year of Mercy. Here in St. Louis, this power will remain even when the Year of Mercy ends. Again, thanks be to God.

But, also: Lord have mercy. The reason why I have the power to lift excommunication is because abortion in the US is so frequent. Pope Francis’ words remind us that abortion is not just a grave illness in the US, but a growing global plague. The Pope has simply made more doctors— more doctors precisely because the illness is getting worse. So, see in Pope Francis words not only great mercy, but a great call to pray for an end to the greatest of human cancers which is abortion!

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The second executive decision that Pope Francis made concerned annulments.

I could say a lot about annulments, not only because my mom went through the process, but also because I am an advocate here in the Archdiocese—which means that I prepare the cases and help couples through the process (which, I guess, is kind of like a paralegal).

Since I don’t have an hour with you, I will simply say that Pope Francis has streamlined the annulment process. In the past, an annulment case would be judged by one court and then, after that initial decision, the case would be judged by another (appellate) court. The case would be carefully examined by three judges. This double-court, three-judge system existed as a kind of safeguard to protect truth and also to ensure justice. What Pope Francis did this week—and he can do this because we are dealing with processes of law and not doctrine proper—what Pope Francis did was to simplify the process by eliminating the second court and the three judges, thereby making it simply one court with one judge. To my understanding, this could possibly remove 3-5 months of wait time for some cases here in St. Louis. That’s good news.

What is bad about this is that it reveals to us the epidemic of failed marriages. And in epidemics, we often can’t do intricate surgery. We do triage. It appears that’s what we now have.

So, see in the Pope’s words not only a generous and merciful Pope, but also one who is calling for much prayer for the renewal of marriages!

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What can we do about all of this?

I think we need to really take a step back and honestly answer Jesus’ question today: “Who do you say that I am?”

As an advocate that does annulments, I see and read many cases. And the reality is, every couple is answering this question by how much or how little they pray together as a couple. Is Jesus the Lord and Savior of your marriage?

If you say that He is, then He is going to reveal the secret to being married:

Anyone who wishes to come after me must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.

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For my part, not only do I pray and sacrifice for marriages—praying for you daily—but I have also boosted up my marriage preparation program. This is already a long homily, so I’m going to skip ahead and simply say that our marriage program is awesome.

I do think we need to do more to help couples in their early formative years—in those years where it is so easy to become a lost island, alone with many questions with no one to help, with little kids and thinking they have to re-invent the wheel and so on. We—all of us, you and I—need to look for and reach out to our young couples, to carry our cross and step outside our comfort zones by introducing ourselves and having them over for dinner… and simply letting them know that they are not alone and that here—in the very place where they should expect love and community—here is where they will find it!

And you have something to offer them! You who have been married for a few years, you have wisdom. And they need this. Let us get to know one another!

And notice: in the bulletin, you will see wedding banns—announcements of who is getting married in the coming weeks. These are our parishioners who are saying yes to a very important vocation. We need to pray for them! So, cut out this part of the bulletin, and place it on your dinner table or in your prayer book and spiritually adopt these couples. Pray for them when you are at dinner.

You’ll notice that their wedding dates and times are listed. Why? So you can crash their wedding! Really, you can go to their wedding—not the reception, of course—but you can go to their wedding. It’s not a private event. It’s a public deal—a vocation we should all rejoice in. So go, say hello, give a gift, and rediscover the beauty of your marriage again!

Brothers and sisters, if there is a marriage crisis out there, it’s because there is a marriage crisis in here. It isn’t simply because the priest or the Pope isn’t doing enough to save marriages, WE aren’t doing enough to save marriages.

Who do you say that I am?

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For those who have experienced a divorce or been abandoned, my heart goes out to you. I know the pain of divorce and my prayers are with you. The Church is here for you.

For those who are in need of an annulment, now is the time. Let us seek together the mercy of God!

And for those who have been hurt by a priest or the church during a past annulment, let me say on their behalf that I am so, so sorry. I pray that deep wounds may be healed. I pray that we can begin anew.

Together let us all pray for any couple who is too busy to pray and too prideful to say “I’m sorry.” We know all too well the danger they are in! Let us pray for the renewal of marriages and family in our culture. Yes, that Pope Francis has made the annulment process easier should give us all pause: pause to thank God for so much mercy, and pause to pray for all of us who need it. Amen.