The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today’s readings

The birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary has been celebrated since at least the sixth century. This is not a historical feast, of course, and the date was chosen to correspond to the beginning of the Church year in the Eastern Church. The date of her birth also helped to determine the date of the Immaculate Conception – on December 8, nine months prior to today.

Obviously, we have no accurate date for the birth of Mary – indeed we don’t have accurate dates for the birth of many people in those days.  So the story of her birth and early life is mostly legend.  It is said that Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anne, were infertile, and so they prayed for a child. They receive the promise of a daughter who would be central to the salvation of the world.

Every single birth is a sign of hope in our world, and therefore a cause for great celebration. Even though the world may be in a bad place, and dark from sin, birth brings joy because it is a sign of God’s wanting the world to continue to bring salvation to all people. Mary’s birth stands out prominently among us because of the grace she received from God who chose her to be mother of His Son.

The Byzantine Church Daily Worship proclaims well the joy that we have on this feast of Mary’s birth.  It says: “Today the barren Anna claps her hands for joy, the earth radiates with light, kings sing their happiness, priests enjoy every blessing, the entire universe rejoices, for she who is queen and the Father’s immaculate bride buds forth from the stem of Jesse.”

Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Labor Day

Today’s readings: Genesis 1:25-2:3; Psalm 90; 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12; Matthew 25:14-30

As we celebrate Labor Day today, we all want to hear the words that the Master spoke in today’s Gospel parable: “Well done, good and faithful servant, come share your master’s joy.”  That is, in fact, the goal of all our lives as we journey from this exile to the heaven of our inheritance, and day by day become transformed into saints.  The way that we do that, the Church teaches us, is in our work.  We are taught that work is a sharing in the activity of our Creator God, who gives us the raw materials and the talents required to build up the kingdom of God here on earth.

The Church’s liturgy for the feast of Christ the King gives us the goal of our co-creation with God.  Together with him, we are to build a “kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love, and peace.”  And so, unlike the man who received one talent, we cannot go hiding our talents away hoping that our Lord will ignore our fear and poor self-image. We have to be willing to invest our talents in the work of creation, doubling what we have been given, and bringing it back to the Lord.

The bishops of the United States publish a Labor Day statement each year, and this year, they bring out special concerns for workers.  They write:  “Labor Day this year comes at a time when we face a number of challenging problems, many of which cause us to reflect and ponder on what the future will bring. As complex and challenging as the current economic situation is and the new elements that challenge us all, Americans are still fundamentally an optimistic people. We have an abiding faith in the values that have shaped our nation and an ongoing commitment to work together to address the problems and build on the strengths of who we are.”

This Labor Day certainly finds workers here in the United States and also around the world in a difficult place.  Unemployment is at the highest rate it has been in years, whole industries are failing and traditional ways of doing business are no longer working.  The bishops recognize this and call us to continue to be optimistic people, relying on the many talents we have as a society, and the grace of God.  Indeed on this Labor Day, we should be pausing to reflect on the opportunities God has given us, and our response to those opportunities.  Have we built on what we have been given, or have we buried it away, hoping it will still be there at the end of it all?

The bishops quote Pope Benedict’s new encyclical, Caritas en Veritate to speak of the common good, which is the point of all our labor:  “As we seek to rebuild our economy, produce a better health care system, and improve the immigration system, we are presented with unique opportunities to advance the common good.  Pope Benedict’s new encyclical insists that the ethical dimensions of economic life begin with protecting the life and dignity of all, respect for work and the rights of workers, and a genuine commitment to the common good. As the Holy Father points out: ‘it is a good that is sought not for its own sake, but for the people who belong to the social community and who can only really and effectively pursue their good within it. To desire the common good and strive towards it is a requirement of justice and charity’ (emphasis in the original, #7).”

Every one of us is called upon to use our personal gifts for our good and the good of all people.  The Church teaches that our work is to be an active participation in God’s ongoing work of creation. Our work must build up the world in beauty and splendor, carefully using but protecting the rich gifts of the earth, caring for and loving the poor as God himself loves them, and making the world a better place than we found it. That is the nature of the talents with which we have been entrusted, and we must busy ourselves making good use of them, because we don’t know when our Lord will return in glory to gather everything and everyone back to himself.

Today we are commanded to “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth.” We take up that call anew on this Labor Day, praising God for the goodness of creation and the blessing of our talents, and resolving to use all of that for his greater honor and glory. The Prayer after Communion sums up what we ask for on this day: “By doing the work you have entrusted to us, may we sustain our life on earth and build up your kingdom in faith.” Amen!

Twenty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time [B]

Today’s readings
What Every Catholic Should Know about the Anointing of the Sick

Jesus’ ministry on earth was all about healing.  In today’s gospel, he heals a man who has been deaf and mute with the word of command: “Ephphatha!” – “Be opened!”  And this word – no surprise – is not just about the deaf and mute man.  The reason Mark brings it up is because Ephphatha is what Jesus is about.  He is about healing, and opening up a way for those who have been at odds with God to be back in relationship with him.  So whether the obstacle has been a physical illness or a spiritual one, he commands ephphatha, that the way be opened and the obstacle obliterated, and the illness of the broken one bound up and the way made straight for the person to be in communion with God.

St. James today invites us to take a look at the issue from another angle.  Have we pre-judged people who are not like us when they come to the Church, or to us in any way?  Do we look down on those who don’t dress like us, or don’t speak like us, or don’t act like us?  Do these people have illness that needs to be healed?  Or is it we that have the illness, being unable to see them as Christ does, as brothers and sisters and children of God?  So whatever the illness is today, whether it is ours or someone else’s, Jesus commands it to be ephphatha that nothing may be an obstacle to the love of God and the healing of Jesus Christ.

Since the readings lead us to a place of healing, I want to take this opportunity to speak of one of the sacraments of healing, namely the Anointing of the Sick.  I want to look at it from two angles, first from a personal witness, then from a more catechetical perspective.  And I do this because the Anointing of the Sick is incredibly misunderstood, even by faithful Catholics.  There are those who do not benefit from the sacrament, because they think it is only for the dying, and there are even those who go without the sacrament because they wait too long and the person dies without benefit of the sacraments.  This is not what the Church intends, of course, and it is an extremely serious error.

So this first part is personal witness, and you’ll forgive me, I hope, if I get a little emotional.  When I was in my second year of seminary my mother and father were both diagnosed with cancer within about a month of each other.  As you can well imagine, this was a very difficult time for our family, but thank God we had the Church to walk with us through their illness.  Both of them received the Anointing of the Sick from their pastor before they had surgery.  I remember that we gathered in the church, just after Sunday Mass, and he beautifully led them through the rite.  It was wonderful for them, of course, but also helpful for us who were grieving their illness with them.  The sacraments are never just for one person; they always involve and even benefit the whole community.

After I was ordained a priest for not quite a year, dad’s illness became more serious.  One Friday, just after the school mass, one of our parish staff members came to me and told me I had to call mom because dad needed to go to the hospital.  He had become rather weak, and unable really to get around without help.  We took him to the emergency room, and in the course of the day’s tests, I anointed him.  I actually also anointed my Uncle Bob, who had come for tests related to his own heart condition, and had stopped in to check on dad before he went to his appointment.  So we all celebrated the sacrament, again, together.

Dad never left the hospital that weekend.  By Saturday night, his condition was deteriorating.  On Sunday, just after I was done with Mass, I headed to the hospital.  On the way, my sister Peggy called to let me know they were moving dad and that I should call when I was closer to the hospital so that I’d know where they were.  When I did that, she told me she would just meet me at the door.  At that point, I was sure that dad was dying or perhaps had even died, so I brought my sick call kit with me.  Both of my sisters met me there and told me he was dying.

So we went to his room, where pretty much all of my family had gathered.  Mom, my sisters and brother-in-law, the kids, dad’s brothers and sister, the in-laws, everyone.  At that time, I gave dad the Last Rites, which we still do have in the Church.  I had given those Last Rites to many people by then, but as you can imagine, this was the hardest time ever.  Dad died early the next morning, totally prepared for the journey, ready to meet the Lord.  We had all prayed with him and were ready to wish him farewell.  It was a difficult, but beautifully prayerful day.

I bring this up because it illustrates three times when a person should be anointed.  First, just before serious surgery related to an illness, as both my parents were before their cancer surgery.  Second, when health seriously deteriorates, even during the same illness, as when we brought dad to the emergency room.  And third, just before death.

The letter of St. James tells us: “Is anyone among you sick?  He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint (him) with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven.”  (James 5:14-15)

The Anointing of the Sick is the official name for what many people think of, erroneously, as the “Last Rites” or may have traditionally called Extreme unction.  The term “Extreme unction” is the Latin for “Last anointing.”  And in the days between the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century and Vatican II, that was the nature of the sacrament: a last anointing to prepare a person for death.

But Vatican II changed that.  Vatican II actually reverted to the more ancient practice of anointing the sick – not just the terminally ill or dying person – which may restore a person to health, aid in their healing and recuperation, or calm their mind and spirit if they are indeed preparing for death.  So the sacrament today is broader than just a last anointing.

But the Last Rites do still exist, and it is important for one to receive them if possible.  Dad did just before he died.  The Last Rites prepare a person for death, when death is immanent.  These rites include sacramental penance, the anointing of the sick, and Viaticum.

Viaticum is one’s last Communion.  In Latin, Viaticum literally means “bread for the journey.”  All Catholics are strongly encouraged to receive Communion when death is immanent, and this is the Church’s way of allowing the dying to be intimately united with the Lord in their last moments.  Just before death, sometimes people are not able to take solid food.  In that case, they receive spiritual communion and retain the graces of the sacrament.  Taken together, the three sacraments prepare us for our eternal life, and help us to be ready to meet our God.

It is important, as you saw in my own personal witness, that the rites for the sick, when possible, be received with the community present.  Most often this includes the loved ones of the sick person, but might also include parishioners, neighbors, or even health care workers.  The sacraments are always meant to be celebrated in community where possible, and this is a help to both the sick person and to the loved ones.

Indeed, the entire Christian community is involved in the Pastoral Care of the Sick.  We are call called to participate in the healing ministry of Christ. Priests are called upon to celebrate the sacraments with the sick with special care so that they may give the sick hope. Lay people are called upon to visit the sick as a corporal work of mercy, and to encourage the sick to receive the sacraments when the time comes.  Finally, the sick are called upon to receive the anointing of the sick during their illness, and to faithfully join their sufferings to the passion and death of the Lord, for the well-being of the Church.

This next part is very important, so everyone look at me and hear this, please.  It is important that someone from the family notify the Church in the event of illness of a loved one.  Current laws in the U.S. do not allow hospitals to easily share such information, as they did in the past, so your phone call may be the only way the priests know your loved one is ill.  And if we don’t know they are ill, we can’t care for them or pray for them.  The family really has to do this, because due to privacy concerns, we cannot take action (like praying for them at Mass or putting their name on the sick list in the bulletin) based on information from any other person.

Finally, I want to say that we here at St. Petronille are fortunate to have many people ready to bring Communion to the homebound.  However, we don’t know of too many people in that kind of need, so many of them have no one to visit at this time.  But, during the short time I’ve been here, we have had a number of elderly, home-bound people die, so I know that many more are out there.  If you know of a homebound person, please let us know so that we may care for them.

The people who saw what Jesus was doing by healing the sick said, “He has done all things well.  He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”  That ministry is now entrusted to us.  Let us, too, do it well, so that those who are ill in any way may hear the Lord’s command of Ephphatha! and may come at last into the healing presence of our God.

Saturday of the Twenty-second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

So what was at stake here?  Was it the Sabbath?  Not really.

For Jesus, there wasn’t such a thing as a Sabbath breath from healing, and teaching, and bringing people to salvation.  So as he walked along with his disciples, it didn’t bother him that they were “working” by picking heads of grain to eat.  They were hungry.  And Jesus was all about feeding peoples’ hunger, no matter what kind of hunger it was, and no matter what day it was – Sabbath or not.

He would be widely criticized for teaching on the Sabbath, but people were hungry for news of salvation.  He would be called blasphemous for calling God his Father on the Sabbath, but people were hungry for relationship with their God.  He would receive death threats for healing on the Sabbath, but people were hungry for wholeness.

Jesus’ point here is that the Sabbath is never important just for itself.  The Sabbath was an opportunity for people to rest in God, and it was God, not the Law, that could decide how that happened.  The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.

Friday of the Twenty-second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Our first reading tells us an important truth about our faith, and  that is that in Jesus Christ, all things hold together.  I often wonder how those who don’t have faith get through life.  Because life brings us sadness rather often: the death of a loved one, difficult illness, loss of a job, and a whole host of problems.  But we who believe can at least hang on to our faith, knowing that God will make all things right, if not in this life, then certainly in the life to come.  In Christ, all things hold together, and that gives us something to hope for, something to make the horrible things that sometimes happen to us less burdensome.  That is why the disciples couldn’t fast in today’s Gospel – the Lord was with them, and so there was joy.  We too can celebrate the joy of Jesus’ presence in our lives, knowing that even though things might not be perfect today, Christ promises that one day they certainly will be.

Pope St. Gregory the Great

Today’s readings

St. Gregory showed a great deal of promise at a young age.  He had a stellar political career, becoming prefect of Rome before the age of thirty.  After a short time, he resigned his office and dedicated his life to the priesthood.  He joined a Benedictine monastery and became abbot, founding several other monasteries during his time there.  Eventually he was called to become the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, and he dedicated his papal ministry to reforming the Church, the Liturgy, and its priests.  He spent a good deal of time and money ransoming political prisoners of the Lombards, and helped to stabilize the social climate somewhat during a time of great strife in the medieval world.  He always stood ready to renounce his own ambitions to follow Christ, and gave himself to Jesus’ call in today’s Gospel reading, “from now on you will be catching men.”  The medieval world and the Church owe a great deal to Gregory’s faithful ministry, and for this we call him “Gregory the Great.”

Wednesday of the Twenty-second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Healing is a wonderful thing, and it is perhaps the greatest consolation we receive as believers in Christ.  But healing isn’t just for us.  Just as Simon’s mother-in-law got up from her fever, having been healed by the Lord, and began waiting on people, so we too are called to get up and go on.  When we have been healed, whether it is physically or spiritually, we are called to move on and continue to give witness to the Gospel.  We don’t get to rest in the moment, because the moment was never just for us.  Particularly with spiritual healing, those who have been forgiven through the Sacrament of Penance must then get on with their work as disciples.  The evil one would try to convince us that we are not worthy of the mission, but the only one whose opinion counts is Christ, and his intent is that having been forgiven and healed, we need to get back up and begin again in our work as disciples, whatever that work may be.