Fourth Sunday of Easter: World Day of Prayer for Vocations

Today’s readings

Today’s brief Gospel reading begins with the wonderful line, “My sheep hear my voice.” However, I have two problems with that. First, who wants to be compared to sheep? Sheep are not the brightest of animals, and they must remain in their flock to defend themselves against even the most innocuous of predators. Second, how are the sheep, if that is how we are to be called, to hear the shepherd in this day and age? There are so many things that vie for our attention, that it would be easy to miss the call of the shepherd altogether.

So let’s look at these issues. First, many who raise and nurture sheep would perhaps disagree with my assessment that they aren’t very bright. I have been told that sheep do have the innate ability to hear their master’s voice, which helps them to survive. Add that to the fact that they also innately remain part of the flock, and we can see that sheep seem to know what it takes to survive. And maybe we don’t know that as well as we should. How often do we place a priority on being within earshot of our Master? How willing are we to remain part of the community in good times and in bad? Yet Jesus makes it clear today that this is the only way we can survive, the only way we can come at last to eternal life.

So what will it take to overcome my second objection? What will it take for us sheep to hear our Master’s voice? We who are so nervous about any kind of silence that we cannot enter a room without the television on as at least background noise. Or we who cannot go anywhere without our cell phones and/or iPods implanted firmly in our ears? Or we who cannot bear to enter into prayer without speaking all kinds of words and telling God how we want to live our lives? If even our prayer and worship are cluttered with all kinds of noise, how are we to hear the voice of our Shepherd who longs to gather us in and lead us to the Promise? Yet Jesus makes it clear today that entering into the silence and listening for his voice is the only way we can survive, the only way we can come at last to eternal life.

The real question, though, is this: how are we to hear the Shepherd’s voice if there are no shepherds to make it known? Today is the world day of prayer for vocations. And I want to talk about all vocations today, but in a special way, I want to talk about vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Because it is these vocations, and especially the priesthood, that are called upon to be the voice of Christ in today’s world. This is a special, and difficult challenge, and I know there are young people in this community that are being called to it. We hear in today’s Liturgy of the Word that this task is not always easy because it is not universally accepted, as Paul and Barnabas found out. But it is a task that brings multitudes of every nation, race, people and tongue to the great heavenly worship that is what they have been created for. People today need to hear the voice of the Shepherd, but who will be that voice when I retire? Who will be that voice when there aren’t enough priests in our diocese for every church to have one?

We know that every person has a vocation. Every person is called on by God to do something specific with their life that will bring not only them, but also others around them, to salvation. Parents help to bring their children to salvation by raising them in the faith. Teachers help bring students to salvation by educating them and helping them to develop their God-given talents. Business people bring others to salvation by living lives of integrity and witness to their faith by conducting business fairly and with justice and concern for the needy. The list goes on. Every vocation, every authentic vocation, calls the disciple to do what God created them for, and helps God to bring salvation to the whole world.

Six years ago on this very Sunday, I was struggling with my vocation. I knew that God was calling me to give up my comfortable life and go to seminary to study for the priesthood. But I did not want to go. I was already doing what I wanted to do with my life and thought it was going pretty well. But on some level, I knew that life as a disciple required me to do what God wanted, and not necessarily what I wanted. There was an open house that day at the Diocesan Vocations Office. I wasn’t interested and wasn’t going. And that day, the celebrant preached on vocations and made the point that living as a disciple meant that at some point we have to stop asking the question, “what do I want to do with my life?” and start asking, “what does God want me to do with my life?” And I knew that God wanted me to go to that open house that day, so I did. Four months later, I was in seminary.

What about you? Are you doing what God wants you to do with your life? Maybe your answer won’t require such a radical change as mine did. Maybe it means you renew your commitment to your family, your work, your life as a disciple. But if you’re a young person out there and have only been thinking about what’s going to make you successful and bring in lots of money so you can retire at age 35, maybe God is today asking you to stop thinking only of yourself and put your life’s work at the service of the Gospel. Maybe you’ll be called on to be a teacher, or a police officer, or a health care professional. And maybe, just maybe, God is calling you to enter the priesthood or religious life. On this day of prayer for vocations, I’m just asking you to pray that God would make his plans for your life clear to you, and that you would promise God to do what he asks of you. I can tell you first hand that nothing, absolutely nothing, will make you happier.

And so, let us pray:

Faithful God,
You sent your son, Jesus,
to be our Good Shepherd.
Through our baptism
you blessed us and called us
to follow Jesus who leads us
on the path of life.
Renew in us the desire to remain faithful
to our commitment to serve you and the Church.
Bless all who dedicate their lives to you
through marriage, the single life, the diaconate,
priesthood, and consecrated life.
Give insight to those
who are discerning their vocation.
Send us to proclaim the Good News
of Jesus, our Good Shepherd,
through the power of the Holy Spirit.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.
Amen.

Third Sunday of Easter

Today’s readings

A little over three weeks ago, we heard of the Twelve, gathered with Jesus in the upper room, celebrating the Passover for the last time together. Jesus tells them that he must suffer and die, and Peter proclaims on behalf of all of them, that they would suffer and die with him if necessary. But, of course, when the rubber meets the road, they all scatter. Peter himself says not once or twice, but three times that he is not only not one of them, but that he has never heard of the man, this man who had been his friend for three years.

Now the crucifixion is history and Jesus has risen from the dead, and the Eleven have no idea what to do. So they go back to their former way of life. They’ve given up, they are dejected and broken and it seems like their last three years have been wasted. So they take up what they knew best: fishing. Only, that doesn’t go so well for them either. They have caught nothing all night long, these men who grew up knowing how to fish and had made their living on it.

To these men who have completely failed at everything now, Jesus comes and helps them reel in a catch large enough to be a vision of the men and women they will gather in for the Lord in the future. They share a meal and are fortified for the mission ahead. They are healed and lifted up and given strength to do what they’ve been created for. Even Peter gets not just one or two chances, but three chances to proclaim his love for his friend, this man he had denied three times just three weeks ago.

To all of us who have messed up in life, all of us wounded disciples who have been confused and dejected and disillusioned and have even denied our Lord, these Eleven show us great promise. Our Jesus is a Lord of second chances. And even third chances. Our God never gives up on us, even if he has to catch us in a net with 152 other fish.

Thursday of the Second Week of Easter

Today’s readings

There’s that old kitschy question, “If you were arrested and accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” As we’ve been hearing in our first reading ever since Easter began, that question is becoming a real source of anxiety for the Apostles. The Acts of the Apostles tells us of a group of Apostles who have been fortified by their experience of the Risen Lord and have finally come to enough of an understanding of the Gospel that they can really preach it with all their heart and soul and strength. The problem with that is that when they preach that way, it attracts the attention of the Jewish authorities, the very people who put Jesus to death. And now they are seeking the opportunity to put the Apostles to death also.

Hearing today’s Gospel, Jesus is speaking early on in his life and ministry. We see that, even early on, Jesus was warning his disciples that testifying to the Truth is going to come with a cost. They may not be believed, but those who do believe will have the great gift of eternal life. He says: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God remains upon him.”

It’s easy enough for me to tell you that we are all expected to preach the Gospel, all of us who have been baptized and saved and redeemed by the blood of our Lord. It’s easy enough for you to enthusiastically take up that call and preach the Gospel in what you say but even more in what you do. But when the rubber meets the road, and there is a cost to it, will we remain faithful? Will we preach the word when it puts us at odds with family members, or threatens our professional standing or prospects for advancement at work? Will we preach the word when it is inconvenient, or when we are tested in our faith? The Apostles came to know that that was exactly what they were called to do, and now it is up to us.

We must be able to say with Peter, “We must obey God rather than men.” We must have the courage to testify to the truth of the Gospel at all times, even when it’s hard, knowing that as the Psalmist tells us today, “The Lord hears the cry of the poor.”

Monday of the Second Week of Easter

Today’s readings

One of the great things about being Catholic, I think, is the celebration of Easter. We do it up right, and keep doing it for fifty days! In fact, just yesterday we completed our celebration of Easter Day, which lasts for eight full days. It certainly makes sense to us that the joy of our salvation should be celebrated with great festivity, and we shouldn’t be so eager to toss the lilies out of the church (even if I am allergic to them)!

Today we begin the second phase of our Easter celebration. Having completed the Octave of Easter, we now begin the preparation for the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the first Apostles, and later to each Christian. We have in our Gospel today the emergence of the interesting figure of Nicodemus. He was a Jew, and one of the Pharisees. But he found Jesus and his message compelling, so a few times in John’s Gospel we get to hear from Nicodemus. Even though the rest of the Pharisees flat out rejected Jesus, Nicodemus knew that he couldn’t reject him so quickly. There was something to this Jesus, and he wanted to get to the bottom of it. As far as we know, he never fully, publicly accepted Jesus, but he took many steps on the way.

Today Nicodemus and Jesus speak about being born again, born of the Spirit. This for us is a process of accepting the Gospel in faith, and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit and then living as a people reborn. Although we can point to our Confirmation day, and even the day of our Baptism as days when we received the Holy Spirit, the process of accepting the Gospel in faith and living as a people reborn in the Spirit is one that takes the rest of our lives. What we celebrate with joy today is that we are on that journey. Because of the Resurrection of Our Lord and his gift of the Holy Spirit, we can now live according to the Spirit’s direction in our lives, confident that that Holy Spirit will give us the gifts and courage to do what we are called to do. The Apostles did that in today’s first reading, and now we must do the same.

Second Sunday of Easter

Today’s readings

I’m always curious what brings people to Mass on the Second Sunday of Easter. We had crowds of people here last Sunday, as you know, but things this Sunday are, perhaps a bit unfortunately, back to normal. The Easter duty is done, and most people go back to their normal Sunday routines, whatever they may be. But many of us still gather for worship this morning. What is it that brings us here today?

Maybe our motives are grand ones. We can’t get enough of the Word of God and his Real Presence in the Eucharist. Maybe we need to be together with the community in order for our faith to make sense and our life to be on trace. Maybe we know that our presence in the worshipping community isn’t just about us, but rather about all of us being together, that there would be no community without all of us present. Maybe you came to one of my Masses last Sunday and were struck with awe at the inspiring words I preached!

caravaggiodoubtingthomasBut maybe our motives aren’t quite so lofty. Maybe, at some level, we’re here because of fear. Fear that our lives aren’t going the way we’d like them to. Fear that family problems are not getting resolved. Fear that our jobs are unfulfilling or our relationships are in disarray. Fear that our lives are empty spiritually, and we don’t know where to find our Lord. Fear that missing Mass will lead us to hell. Fear that if we don’t get to Mass our parents will be angry. Fear that if we don’t get out we’ll be lonely. I think if we’re honest, there’s a little fear in all of us, and at some level, that fear leads us here.

And if you find that’s the case for you, you have ten patron saints locked up in that room. They too had a great deal of fear. Fear that they too might be led to the cross by the same people who took Jesus there. There was certainly some reality to that fear, and I think we can all understand it. But I also think it’s significant to realize that the Eleven, all of whom lived closely with Jesus for three years, were not yet able to overcome their fears and pursue the mission of Jesus. Instead, they gather in a locked room, mourning their friend, confused about the empty tomb and stories of his appearances, and fearful for their own lives. We whose lives are filled with fear at times definitely have the Apostles as our kindred spirits.

The truth is that, like the Apostles, it doesn’t matter what has gathered us here. The important thing is that at least we are here. At least in our fear we did not hide away and refuse to be brought into the light. Because there are many who have left us, aren’t there? Many have had enough of church scandals of sexual abuse and financial mismanagement and have decided to take their spiritual business elsewhere. Many have been hurt in all kinds of ways and have not found immediate healing in the Church. Many have been influenced by the allurements of the world and the false comforts of pop psychology and have given up on a religion that makes demands of them. Many have left us, but at least we are here, at least we have gathered, albeit in fear, albeit locked up in our own little rooms, but definitely in the path of our Lord who longs to be among us in our fear and to say, “Peace be with you.”

The peace that Jesus imparts is not just the absence of war or conflict in our lives. It is instead a real peace, a peace from the inside of us out. A peace that affects our body, mind and spirit. A peace that brings us into communion with one another and most especially with God for whom we were created and redeemed. The peace that the Ten had upon seeing their Risen Lord, the peace that Thomas had just one week later, is the same peace that our Risen Lord offers to all of us fearful disciples who gather together as a refuge against the storms and uncertainties of our own lives. That peace is a peace that invites us to reach out like Thomas did and touch our Lord as we receive his very Body and Blood in all his Divine Mercy.

That peace is not some passive greeting that rests upon us and goes no further. Whenever we are gifted with any blessing, it is never intended only for us. We who have been gifted and healed and transformed by the peace of our Risen Lord are called just like the Eleven to continue to write the story of Jesus so that others may see and believe. We now become the peace of Christ to reach out to a world that appears to be hopelessly un-peaceful. We must extend that peace by reaching out to touch those who are sick, or poor, or lonely, or despairing, or doubtful, or fearful, or grieving, or fallen away. Our own presence in and among our loved ones and in and among the world must be a presence that is rooted in the Risen Lord and steeped in his peace. We must be the ones who help a doubting world to no longer be unbelieving but believe.

We’ve been asked to do that today by reflecting on our own responsibility to continue the work of Christ through the Catholic ministries of our diocese. It would be easy, based on the doubt and fear that we all certainly must have these days as the result of scandal and mismanagement, to turn our back on this request. But doing that only turns our backs on those who come to Catholic Charities for assistance or counseling. Doing that turns our backs on those who turn to our diocese to prepare them for ministry as catechists or youth ministry leaders. Our parish benefits directly from these ministries, and we are called upon to support them.

Our parish also directly benefits from the ministry of the diocesan Vocation office. Your new associate, who looks something like me I’m told, was formed for five years at Mundelein Seminary which cost the diocese in excess of $150,000. I certainly hope he’s worth it! Seriously, I’d never have been able to pursue this vocation as a priest if I had to pay that myself. I am grateful to the people of this diocese for making that possible for me, and every single day I try to give back to this parish in gratitude for what I’ve been given.

We could certainly turn our backs on this request for whatever reason. We could let our fear or apathy or disbelief get in the way. But we who have been given so much through the peace of Christ are called upon to believe and make belief possible for every single person. Your support of the Catholic ministries appeal helps to make that happen.

We have come here today for all kinds of reasons. We may have come here in doubt and fear, but as we approach the Eucharist and receive the very Body and Blood of our Lord who invites us to reach out and touch him in all his brokenness and woundedness, as we go forth to love and serve the Lord this day, may we leave not in doubt and fear but instead in belief and peace.

Peace be with you.

Easter Saturday

Today’s readings

Every year about Easter time, there are news reports of archeological findings that point to the fact that Jesus did not rise from the dead. I personally think those are specifically timed to detract from the solemnity and the joy that Easter brings us. This year was no exception, with the claim that someone found the tomb of Jesus. Then the reaction from Evangelical preachers was that it didn’t matter if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, we’d all still believe anyway. That’s nonsense too.

If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, as St. Paul tells us, our faith is in vain. So the Resurrection is absolutely essential to our belief, and if someone really did find the tomb of Jesus with his bones in it, we’d be heartbroken. But they never have, and they never will. Even this recent so-called discovery has been disproved and exposed for the lie that it is. We still believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

Even if you don’t believe much of the other evidence, we can believe in the Resurrection, I think, because the disciples were willing to give their lives for it. They were slow to believe themselves, as today’s Gospel clearly shows us. But as the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells us, they did eventually believe and were willing to suffer the scorn of the Jews, mistreatment and torture, and for most of them, even a tortuous death. They wouldn’t do that for a lie. The Resurrection of Jesus is a fact that we can base our joy on, and we rejoice in that today, and every day as we celebrate the salvation that comes from our Lord Jesus Christ.

Easter Thursday: Mystagogy Mass

Today’s readings

mystagogyWe are a people who are really influenced by hindsight. How many times have you said, “I should have said…” or “If I knew then what I know now…”? It’s easy to have regrets about not being aware of what was happening at the time, but that’s really unproductive. Because as we look backward at our lives and experiences, we can really come to new enlightenment, much like the disciples who walked with Jesus on the way to Emmaus and came to know him in the breaking of the bread. Retelling the story is what gave us the Gospels, and what created the first Christian community, and what continues to sustain us with the Word of God. And it is this experience that we call “Mystagogy.”

Mystagogia is a period of time following one’s receiving the Sacraments of Initiation. We could put a time limit on it, like a year or so, but God doesn’t. I truly believe that Mystagogia has to take place all the rest of our lives. So for Tom, Nick, and Christian, that starts now. Those of us who are “cradle Catholics” have been in Mystagogia all our lives. During that period of time all of us, who are properly called “Mystagogues,” take part in the experience of Mystagogy. Mystagogy is a process of looking back on the mystery. Having been through the Sacraments of Initiation, now is the time to look back on those experiences and to see how God has been active in our lives, probably going back well before having received the Sacraments.

We could say that Mystagogy happens whenever a person receives a sacrament. Every time we receive a Sacrament, we engage in the Mystery of Faith once again. So when a couple gets married, they can look back at the experience after the wedding, and see how wonderful it was for them. Every time we receive the Eucharist or go to Confession, we could look back on that experience and see what gifts God gave us in the celebration. For me, that experience was particularly pronounced this past June when I was ordained a priest, receiving the Sacrament of Holy Orders. For me, that whole ceremony was in some ways a blur. I remember picking up a worship aid on the way in because I wanted to sing the gathering song which was one of my favorite hymns. But I couldn’t even speak let alone sing at that moment. It was only in the days that followed, when I would sniff the cloth that I used to wipe the excess Chrism from my hands, that I would remember the awesome experience of kneeling before the bishop who liberally coated my hands with that Holy Oil. The next day, when I put on the stole, I remembered how completely changed I felt when two of my priest friends helped me to remove the deacon stole I had been wearing, and put the priestly stole on me. And more experiences like that happened in the weeks ahead: saying Mass here at St. Raphael’s for the first time, seeing the pictures that were taken at my Ordination and First Mass, all of these helped me to not only remember the joy of that great day of my life, but also helped me to experience the mystery of the priesthood in important ways.

You will have experiences like that too. Maybe you found it hard to speak or sing at some point last Saturday. Maybe the smell of the Chrism that Fr. Ted liberally poured on you reminded you of the liberal grace that God has given you as he called you to himself as a baptized member of the Church. Every time you’re sprinkled as we did earlier this evening, you may remember the time in the font in the Narthex and find help in living those promises in stronger and deeper ways. Every time you come here to receive the Sacred Body and Blood of our Lord, you may think back to that First Communion and be nourished once again and strengthened for the journey. That’s what Mystagogy is. It’s not just remembering the joy that you experienced last Saturday. For us Catholics, Mystagogy means being taken back completely into those mysteries once again to experience them in new and deeper ways. Every time you are sprinkled, you are not re-baptized, but instead you experience that one baptism once again. Every time the Spirit is invoked in Liturgy, you are not re-Confirmed, but you live in the grace of that one Confirmation once again. And most gloriously, every time you receive the Eucharist, you are not just receiving a symbol of the Lord’s Body and Blood, but you are actually there, on the evening of that Last Supper, taking part in the meal with the disciples and all the saints in heaven and on earth, receiving the incredible riches of the Lord’s very Body and Blood poured out for you on the Cross.

Jesus comes to his disciples in today’s Gospel just after the Resurrection. They still aren’t sure what to make of anything. All they have is the empty tomb and some stories. But on this occasion, Jesus calms them by being present among them as they have gathered and offering them the greeting that can only come from him: “Peace be with you.” Then he gives them three experiences of Mystagogy that I think can help us in this life-long quest to re-immerse ourselves in the Mystery. First, he invites them to look at him and to touch him. For them, this was reassurance that he wasn’t a ghost. But for us, it reminds us that Mystagogy is not just a head and heart experience. It’s not just mystical and intellectual or emotional and spiritual. It’s also flesh and blood. We can see it and touch it and experience it in all of its reality. We experience this kind of Mystagogy when we reach out to receive the Body of Christ or to take hold of the Cup of his Blood. We also experience this kind of Mystagogy when we reach out to embrace a brother or sister who is hurting or to serve someone in need. Every experience of this kind of Mystagogy helps us to touch and to experience our Lord in concrete physical ways.

Second, Jesus eats some cooked fish among them. Again, for the disciples, this reassured them that he was not a ghost, because a ghost would not have been able to eat anything. For us though, it reminds us that Mystagogy is always experienced in community. For Catholics, the life of faith is absolutely never just a “me and Jesus” experience. While a personal relationship with Jesus is important, it pales in comparison to the relationship with Jesus that is experienced with the entire community gathered. We experience this kind of Mystagogy when we gather for worship and share the Eucharist together. We also experience this kind of Mystagogy when we join a group on Service Day to rake leaves or clean houses for those who are not able to take care of these tasks themselves. We experience this kind of Mystagogy when we join a Small Christian Community to break open the Scriptures and continue our faith formation. Every experience of this kind of Mystagogy helps us to find the Lord working among us and see his face in every person he puts in our lives.

Third, Jesus opens the Scriptures to them, recounting the prophecies that said what he would have to go through and what would happen to him. This helped them to know that the whole experience of Jesus hadn’t been a big mistake. For us, though, this kind of Mystagogy helps us to learn more about our faith every single day. We experience this kind of Mystagogy at Mass in the Liturgy of the Word, as we hear the Scriptures proclaimed and the homily preached. We experience this kind of Mystagogy, too, in Bible Study, either alone or with our Small Christian Community. We also experience this kind of Mystagogy when we speak with those who don’t have the same beliefs that we do and help them to understand our Church and our faith a little better. Every experience of this kind of Mystagogy helps us to know Christ better by immersing ourselves in the Scriptures.

At the beginning of your Mystagogia, the Church’s message to you is this: don’t forget. Don’t let the cool spray of water pass into distant memory, or the smell of the Chrism fade. And above all, don’t let the taste of the Body and Blood of our Lord be replaced by tastes for anything the world might offer you. Continue to engage the mystery. Look back, look forward, reflect and listen, see and touch and eat and drink and hear. As this parish community has welcomed you, so enter in and become part of it. Let us help you through your bad times and rejoice with you in the good. Continue to sort through the mystery of how the Lord is calling you and seek the grace to respond. Some days that will be a great joy, and other days it might be real hard to figure out. But either way, continue to engage the Mystery and know that God hasn’t poured out all of his grace on you just yet.

And for those of us who are still living the Mystagogia that began so long ago, hear those same things too. Maybe now God is calling you to recommit your life in new ways of service, or to experience the Mystery in a completely new way. We too must look back, look forward, reflect and listen, see and touch and eat and drink and hear. For us too, the fullness of God’s grace has yet to be revealed and received and we need to be open to that.

On this Easter Day, we can do nothing less than look on the great grace that we all have been given: the gift of new members in our parish family, the gift of sacrament, the gift of grace and the joy of salvation. On this Easter Day, the song that wells up in us must be sung at the top of our voice to our God who is amazing in so many ways, this God who is the rock in our storms and the light in our darkest nights. On this Easter Day and every day, as we experience the joy of God’s amazing love, we cannot keep from singing the great song welling up in our hearts…

“How Can I Keep From Singing”seethemorning
by Chris Tomlin

There is an endless song
Echoes in my soul
I hear the music ring

And though the storms may come
I am holding on
To the rock I cling

How can I keep from singing Your praise
How can I ever say enough
How amazing is Your love
How can I keep from shouting Your name
I know I am loved by the King
And it makes my heart want to sing

I will lift my eyes
In the darkest night
For I know my Savior lives

And I will walk with You
Knowing You’ll see me through
And sing the songs You give

I can sing in the troubled times
Sing when I win
I can sing when I lose my step
And fall down again
I can sing ’cause You pick me up
Sing ’cause You’re there
I can sing ’cause You hear me, Lord
When I call to You in prayer
I can sing with my last breath
Sing for I know
That I’ll sing with the angels
And the saints around the throne