St. John Bosco, Priest

Today’s readings

St. John Bosco was a master catechist who knew the meaning of Jesus’ question in today’s Gospel: “Is a lamp brought in to be placed under a bushel basket or under a bed, and not to be placed on a lampstand?” He was a priest who was concerned with the whole person of the young people he taught: he wanted them to fill both their minds and their souls.

John was encouraged to enter the priesthood for the specific purpose of teaching young boys and forming them in the faith. He was ordained in 1841. This began with a poor orphan, who John prepared for First Holy Communion. Then he was able to gather a small community and teach them the Catechism. He worked for a time as a chaplain of a hospice for working girls, and later opened an oratory – a kind of school – for boys which had over 150 students. The needs of teaching them also encouraged John to open a publishing house to print the catechetical and educational materials used in the classrooms.

He was known for his preaching, and that helped him to extend his ministry by forming a religious community – the Salesians – to concentrate on education and mission work in 1859. He later formed a group of Salesian Sisters to teach girls. By teaching children self worth through education and job training, John was able to also teach the children of their own worth in the eyes of God.

Jesus says in the Gospel, “For there is nothing hidden except to be made visible; nothing is secret except to come to light. Anyone who has ears to hear ought to hear.” St. John Bosco was tireless in his devotion to teaching this truth to young people. In today’s Eucharist, may our thanksgiving be for the teachers in our lives, but perhaps we can also commend the teachers and catechists of today’s young people to the patronage of St. John Bosco.

St. Thomas Aquinas, Priest and Doctor

Today’s readings

thomasaquinas“But no one can enter a strong man’s house to plunder his property.” Not many have done more to strengthen the house of the Church than St. Thomas Aquinas. I have to admit that reading him in seminary was rather a challenge, because it was often hard to follow his line of reasoning – not because it was disorganized or anything like that, but because his thinking was so high above what I was used to.

At the age of five years old, Thomas was promised to the famous Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino. His parents were hoping that one day he would become the abbot of that community, which was a very prestigious and politically powerful position. He later went to Naples to study, and a few years later abandoned his family’s plans for him and instead joined the Dominicans. By order of his mother, Thomas was captured by his brother and brought back home, where he was kept essentially in house arrest for a year.

Once free, he resumed his stay with the Dominicans and went to Paris and Cologne to study. He held two professorships at Paris, lived at the court of Pope Urban IV, and directed the Dominican schools at Rome and Viterbo. He is very much known for his prolific writings, which have contributed immeasurably to theology and the Church. Thomas spoke much of wisdom revealed in Scripture and tradition, but also strongly taught the wisdom that could be found in the natural order of things, as well as what could be discerned from reason.

His last work was the Summa Theologiae, which he actually never completed. He abruptly stopped writing after celebrating Mass on December 6, 1273. When asked why he stopped writing, he replied, “I cannot go on…. All that I have written seems to me like so much straw compared to what I have seen and what has been revealed to me.” He died March 7, 1274.

Thomas has taught us through his life and writing that the only thing that can cause the house of the Church to crumble is ignorance. We strengthen ourselves and our community by studying the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church, applying reason and revelation to the challenges of our world and our time. “Hence we must say,” Thomas tells us, “that for the knowledge of any truth whatsoever man needs divine help, that the intellect may be moved by God to its act. But he does not need a new light added to his natural light, in order to know the truth in all things, but only in some that surpasses his natural knowledge” (Summa Theologiae, I-II, 109, 1).

Third Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

About fifteen years ago now, my home parish put on a production of the musical Godspell, and somehow I found myself part of the cast. If you’ve ever seen the musical, you know that it is based on the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel that we are reading during this Church year. I remember the first song of the musical was kind of strange to me at the time. It’s called “Tower of Babble” and the lyrics are a hodge-podge of lots of philosophies and philosophers throughout time. I didn’t get, at the time, the significance of the song, but I do now. “Tower of Babble” represents the thoughts about God, over time. It shows how philosophy at its worst has been an attempt to figure out God by going over God’s head, by leaving God out of the picture completely.

The song ends abruptly and goes right into the second song of the musical, “Prepare Ye,” of which the major lyric is “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” The author’s view is that the useless, and in some ways sinful, babbling of the philosophers was once and for all settled by Jesus Christ. If we want to know the meaning of life, if we want to know who God is, we have only to look to Jesus.

That’s what is happening in today’s Liturgy of the Word too. The people in the first reading and in the Gospel have found themselves in darkness. Zebulun and Naphtali have been degraded. They have been punished for their sinfulness, the sin being that they thought they didn’t need God. They thought they could get by on their own cleverness, making alliances with people who believed in strange gods and worshiped idols. So now they find themselves occupied by the people with whom they tried to ally themselves. Today’s first reading tells them that this subjection – well deserved as it may be – is coming to an end. The people who have dwelt in darkness are about to see a great light.

The same is true in another sense for Peter and Andrew and the sons of Zebedee in today’s Gospel. These guys have been fishermen all their lives. Further research in the Gospels would lead us to believe they haven’t been real successful fishermen at that. But the point is that fishing is all they’ve ever known. These are not learned men, nor are they known for their charisma or ability to lead people. But these are the men who Jesus calls as apostles. Presumably these men have not known anything about Jesus, but on seeing him and hearing him and recognizing the Light of the World, they drop everything, turn their backs on the people and work they have always known, and follow Jesus, whose future they could never have imagined.

All of this is good news for us. Because we too dwell in darkness at times, don’t we? We can turn on the news and see reports of men and women dying in war, crime and violence in our communities, corruption in government, and maybe worst of all at this time, sniping between political candidates! Then there is the rampant disrespect for life through abortion, euthanasia, lack of access to health care for the poor, hunger and homelessness, racism and hatred, and so much more. Add to that the darkness in our own lives: illness of a family member or death of a loved one, difficulty in relating to family members, and even our own sinfulness. Sometimes it doesn’t take much imagination to know that our world is a very dark place indeed.

But the Liturgy today speaks to us the truth that into all of this darkness, the Light of Christ has dawned and illumined that darkness in ways that forever change our world and forever change us. The alternate opening prayer for today’s Liturgy speaks of that change:

Almighty Father,

The love you offer

always exceeds the furthest expression of our human longing,

for you are greater than the human heart.

Direct each thought, each effort of our life,

so that the limits of our faults and weaknesses

may not obscure the vision of your glory

or keep us from the peace you have promised.

Grant this through Christ our Lord.

The limits that are part and parcel of our human existence are no match for the light that is God’s glory. This is what we mean by the Epiphany, and we continue to live in the light of the Epiphany in these opening days of Ordinary Time. Now that Jesus Christ has come into the world, nothing on earth can obscure the vision of God’s glory that we see in our Savior.

So for those of us who feel like every day is a struggle of some sort, and who wonder if this life really means anything, the Good news is that Jesus has come to give meaning to our struggles and to walk with us as we go through them. For those of us who are called to ministries for which we might feel unqualified – as catechists, Eucharistic Ministers, Lectors, RCIA team members, small group leaders or retreat leaders – we can look to the Apostles and see that those fishermen were transformed from the darkness of their limited life to the light of what they were able to accomplish in Christ Jesus. Wherever we feel darkness in our lives, the Good News for us is that Christ’s Epiphany – his manifestation into our world and into our lives – has overcome all that.

As the Psalmist sings for us today, the Lord truly is our light and our salvation.

St. Francis de Sales

Today’s readings | Today’s saint

“A spoonful of honey attracts more flies than a barrelful of vinegar.” This quote pretty much sums up the way St. Francis de Sales approached life and ministry. Francis de Sales took seriously the words of Christ, “Learn of me for I am meek and humble of heart.” As he said himself, it took him 20 years to conquer his quick temper, but no one ever suspected he had such a problem, so overflowing with good nature and kindness was his usual manner of acting. His perennial meekness and sunny disposition won for him the title of “Gentleman Saint.”

This is a quality that we all wish more people had, and perhaps we wish we had it as well. For all of us who seek to overcome a quick temper, or overcome the disposition to say something we wish we hadn’t, St. Francis de Sales is our patron. Certainly if Saul sought that quality more in his life, his reign as king might not have ended so tragically. The Scriptures end up portraying him as kind of a pathetic package of jealousy, a person who couldn’t see clearly because he couldn’t see past his own ego. This jealousy put the Lord’s anointed, David, in great peril.

Jealousy and ego can ruin an otherwise graced life. When we are constantly on the lookout for what other people have or what other people are doing, then we often miss the great gifts that God is placing right in front of us. Maybe they aren’t the gifts we wish we had, but they are the gifts we really need, or God would never have sent them our way.

And so in praying for gifts, may we call on God for meekness, and humility, and patience. As St. Francis de Sales tells us: “The person who possesses Christian meekness is affectionate and tender towards everyone: he is disposed to forgive and excuse the frailties of others; the goodness of his heart appears in a sweet affability that influences his words and actions, presents every object to his view in the most charitable and pleasing light.” Who wouldn’t want to look at the world that way?

The Anniversary of Roe v. Wade

Today’s readings

“Not as man sees does God see,
because he sees the appearance
but the LORD looks into the heart.”

This instruction to Samuel is both a good thing and a bad thing for us, I think. It’s good because it’s nice to know that there is One who does not judge us on what we look like or how we dress or what we do for a living, but rather on what is in our heart. It’s bad, because there is One who looks into our hearts and sees everything.

How easy it can be for us to judge people. We want to quickly put people into categories and then almost write them off. But today’s first reading reminds us that we need to be careful about making judgments because we have not been given the gift of the big picture. Only God can see into people’s hearts, only God knows who people really are and can judge with authenticity.

Today is the anniversary of the tragic Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in our country. Since then, our society has tumbled down the slippery slope of devaluing life and we are seeing the rotten fruits of it all over. War, violence, hatred, lack of concern for the poor and needy, lack of respect for the elderly and terminally ill, all of these things are symptoms of the culture of death that surrounds us. Far from liberating women and giving them choice over the use of their bodies, the legalization of abortion has driven many women to have an abortion simply because they thought that was their only option or because it was more convenient for family or the father.

But the Lord looks into our hearts and knows what’s really there. We cannot claim to be Pro Life if we are in fact only anti-abortion. Our claim to righteousness has to be based on more than never having had the disastrous occasion of having to choose to participate in an abortion, or it’s not really righteousness at all. If we pray to end abortion and then do not attend to our obligation to the poor, or if we choose to support the death penalty, or if we engage in racial bigotry, then we are not in fact Pro Life. Every life, every life, every life is sacred, no matter what we may think of it. Because God sees into the heart. And more important that that, God created that heart.

And I say all this not because I don’t think that abortion is a disaster: it certainly is. I say this because it’s way too easy for us to oppose abortion and then call ourselves Pro Life and then go out and violate life in some other circumstance. We must be very careful of doing that, because God sees into our hearts too.

This year we will have the opportunity and the obligation to vote for a president and other leaders who will govern our country in the years ahead. We will all have to be careful about selecting a candidate who is Pro Life, which for the Church means not just anti-abortion, but also a person who supports life at every stage from conception to natural death. I would go so far as to guarantee you that there is not one candidate out there who fits the bill entirely. All we can do is select the best person, and pray for a continuing change of heart, a continuing conversion in their lives.

And maybe that conversion needs to start in our own life. Because other people will see in us whatever they’re going to notice. But God – God sees into our hearts.

Second Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

This Church year, this year of grace, began last November with the First Sunday of Advent. Since then, we’ve been through Advent and Christmas, Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord. Today is our first “green” Sunday, actually the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time. (The First Sunday of Ordinary Time is actually the Baptism of the Lord). So, on this first Ordinary Time Sunday that we’re celebrating, we have a Gospel reading that sounds suspiciously like the Gospel reading for the Baptism of the Lord. Confusing, isn’t it? Whenever this kind of thing happens, though, we should ask ourselves what it is that the Church is trying to do, what is it that She is trying to teach us with these readings.

And the first place to start, usually, is by looking at the whole Liturgy of the Word today. When we do that, I think, we find a group of readings that speak of beginnings, which, as it turns out, is not a bad way to start out our celebration of Ordinary Time. But before we launch into a look at the readings, let’s talk a bit about Ordinary Time. There’s a tendency, when we hear that phrase, to think of these Sundays as just “ordinary” or “blah” – nothing special. That’s what the term “ordinary” means to us English Speakers. But that’s not what the Church is going for. A better translation would perhaps be “ordered time” a time that is marked out, set aside, and always observed. That means we don’t have permission to skip them, and that we ought to keep them holy. At its core, “Ordinary Time” Sundays are Sundays made sacred because they are connected to the death and resurrection of the Lord. They are ultimately a celebration of the Lord’s Day through and through.

So on this first of the “ordered time” Sundays, we have a look at some beginnings. The first of the beginnings is the commissioning of the servant in our first reading from Isaiah. The servant may actually be Israel, and if so, God seems to be speaking to the nation while they are in Exile. He is calling them back and foretelling that not only will they be God’s servant to bring back and restore and reunite Israel and Jacob, but they will also bring salvation to all the world. This might not have been real good news for them, perhaps, because presumably that would include the very nation that had been oppressing them while they were in Exile. But nonetheless, whenever we receive a gift, it is never just for us, so it wouldn’t do for God’s servant to just restore what’s familiar to them, they must go out to all the world and bring salvation.

The Psalmist follows up on that notion, giving the servant’s response: “Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.” Let’s take a look at what goes on in this Psalm. First, the Psalmist seems to be involved in some sort of difficulty for which he has been waiting on the Lord. The Lord, for his part, has taken notice, stooped toward him and heard his cry. The response of the Psalmist to his deliverance is one of witnessing. He announces the justice of the Lord and does not restrain his lips.

The second reading from the beginning of First Corinthians is a little strange in some ways. All we get are the first three verses of Paul’s letter to them, and it seems to just be a simple greeting: From Paul to the Corinthians, grace and peace. But these few verses tell us a bit more than that. They speak to the vision that Paul has of his own vocation, and of his belief in Christ. First, he proclaims himself to be an apostle. This is important, because an apostle is more than just a follower or even a disciple. An apostle is one who is sent with the full authority of the one who sends him. Paul has never met Jesus, at least not in person, but he had an experience that clearly revealed Jesus to him, and sent him forth with a mission. Paul then tells us what he believes about Jesus. He never mentions Jesus without referring to him as the Christ, that is, the Anointed One, the Messiah. Jesus for him was no ordinary person. If that were true, Paul would still be out persecuting the Christians instead of leading them as an Apostle. Jesus is the one the Jews were always hoping for, the one to bring salvation. Jesus is the Christ who sanctifies his people.

And finally we come back to John’s version of the Baptism of the Lord. In this version, from the Gospel of John, we don’t see the actual moment, but hear John the Baptist’s take on it. He stresses that he did not know who Jesus was; he mentions that twice in his account. The way he came to know that Jesus was the Christ was through revelation. He was told ahead of time what signs to look for, and when he sees the Spirit come down upon Jesus like a dove after he comes out of the water, then John knows that Jesus is the one he was told to look for. So finally he becomes the herald of the Lord, the mission he was called to from his mother’s womb. “Behold the Lamb of God,” he says, “who takes away the sins of the world.” Now he sees and testifies that Jesus is the Lamb of God.

So we have three beginnings today. We have the beginning of Israel’s call to be a servant of the Lord, to bring his salvation to the ends of the earth. We have the beginning of Paul’s correspondence to the Church at Corinth, telling them that they are God’s holy people, having been sanctified by Jesus the Christ. And we have the beginning of the recognition of who Jesus is in the Gospels, one anointed by the Spirit at his baptism, one who takes away the sin of the world. It is appropriate that at the beginning of our celebration of ordered time, we would celebrate these three beginnings.

What we need to get about time itself is that it is not pointless. It’s not some meaningless trip through the ages that gets us nowhere. Time is not a waste of time. For the Christian, time is sanctified by God who entered into time with salvation through Jesus Christ. And so today, God blesses our beginnings. What is it that we need to begin these days? Is there a call to something deeper as a disciple that we have been putting off? Is our relationship with God at a turning point, and do we need to get out of our comfort zone to explore that relationship? Are we being called to take our careers in a new direction, becoming people of greater integrity to witness to the Gospel in our workplaces? Are students being called to take their studies more seriously, learning the great wonders that God has placed before them? Are parents being called to bring their families to a holier place this year, remembering that all that they have and all that they experience is a gift? Whatever it is that we need to start right now, God is sanctifying that beginning by reminding us that all of time is holy and that all of time is a gift.

We must make use of this present moment, this sacred space of time, because we can never get it back once it’s passed. It’s not too late to make resolutions, and it’s certainly not too late to start working on the ones we have already made. Today is a day of beginnings, beginnings not just for Israel and Corinth and Jesus, but also beginnings of our own histories, entering into the time with which God is blessing us. Our offering today is an offering of these beginnings, looking at them as gifts of God, and responding “Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.”

Saturday of the First Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

“Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

My question is, “why do you care?” I mean, if these scribes who were Pharisees had really been concerned about the keeping of the Law, strict observance of the Commandments and following their God, they should be deeply concerned about their own progress in these things and not care so much about what other people are doing. We all know why Jesus eats with the tax collectors and sinners. We can’t get caught up in all that nonsense; we’re just happy to be at the meal at all. Or we should be

Religious people are so often tempted to this Pharisaic outlook. Jesus would say in another place: why do we get so upset about the splinter in our brother or sister’s eye that we miss the plank in our own? The ironic thing in today’s Gospel is the ending. The sick are the ones who need the doctor, not those who are well. But that is precisely the point: who among us is well enough not to need the One who is the Doctor of our Souls? Doctors will tell us that the patients who do the best, particularly with serious illness, are those who know their need for healing and cooperate. No one can make us well if we refuse to acknowledge our illnesses.

The next time we’re all tempted to judge someone else, and to question their salvation, perhaps we should pay more attention to what’s going on in us. Are we worthy of being at the banquet? Of course not. But yet here we are, called and graced by our Lord. So why expend a lot of energy trying to edit the guest list? As we come to the table, let us remember that we are all alike in that we are sinners, but we are all one in that we are forgiven and restored and brought to the table and given places of honor. All of us tax collectors and sinners gather around the Table of the Lord and partake of the rich feast that makes us whole.