Saint John Bosco, priest

Today’s readings

Saint John Bosco was a master catechist who knew the importance of living and teaching and handing on the faith; he was a man who lived his faith with conviction.  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 Bosco 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. His ministry 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 tells the healed demoniac in today’s Gospel, “Go home to your family and announce to them all that the Lord in his pity has done for you.”  We need to hear this command as well; it is up to all of us to help people come to faith in Jesus by our witness of words and actions.  Saint John Bosco was tireless in his devotion to teaching and forming young people. In today’s Eucharist, may we give thanks for the teachers in our lives, and may we also commend the teachers and catechists of today’s young people to the patronage of Saint John Bosco.

The Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time [A]

Today’s readings

We have a pretty late Lent this year.  Ash Wednesday is not until March 9th.  What is really nice about that is that it gives us a little more ordinary time in the winter, which we often don’t get.  Sometimes we rush from Christmas to Ash Wednesday and barely get to breathe.  So in this little Ordinary Time break, we get some nice things in the Scriptures, specifically the study of what the Christian life should be.  Today’s scriptures give us a look at the virtue of humility.

Humility is the virtue that reminds us that God is God and we are not.  That might seem pretty obvious, but I think if we’re honest, we’d all have to admit that we have trouble with humility from time to time.  The deadly sin that is in opposition to humility is pride, and pride is the most common sin, and really the most serious sin.  We might think of all kinds of other sins that seem worse, but pride completely destroys our relationship with God because it convinces us that we don’t need God.  That was the sin of the Israelites building the golden calf in the desert, it was the sin of the Pharisees arguing with Jesus, and it is the sin of all of us, at some level, at some times in our lives.

Pride is pretty easy to recognize when it’s blatant: it is the person boasting of their abilities or their possessions or their accomplishments or status, claiming all the glory for themselves, putting others down in the process, and never even mentioning God.  So we might look at that and say, well, Father Pat, I’m not prideful.  But hold on just a second.  That’s not the only face of pride.  Another face of pride realizes that we are in a sorry state, but doesn’t want to bother God with our problems so we try to figure them out ourselves.  It never works, and so we continue to feel miserable, but we also offend God in the process.  A similar face of pride looks to accomplish something important, maybe even something holy.  But we go about it without immersing it in prayer and forge ahead with our own plans.  Again, we often fail at those times, and we certainly offend God.

The only antidote to pride is the virtue of humility.  It is the prayer that admits that God is God and we are not.  It is the way of living that accepts the difficulties and challenges of life as an opportunity to let God work in us.  It is the state of being that admits that everything we are and everything we have is a gift from God, and spurs us to profound and reverential gratitude for the outpouring of grace that gets us through every day and brings us to deeper relationship with God.

So today we hear the very familiar Beatitudes.  I know that when I was learning about the Beatitudes as a child, they were held up as some kind of Christian answer to the Ten Commandments.  I don’t think that’s particularly valid.  One might say, however, that the Ten Commandments are a basic rule of life and the Beatitudes take us still deeper.

I also remember thinking, when I was learning about the Beatitudes, that these seemed like kind of a weak way to live life. I mean, who can live up to all these things anyway?  And who would want to?  Do you know anyone who would actively seek to be poor, meek or mourning?  And who wants to be a peacemaker?  Those people have more than their share of grief.

I think when we hear the Beatitudes today, we need to hear them a little differently.  We need to hear them as consolation and encouragement on the journey.  Because at some point or another, we will all be called upon to be poor, meek and mourning.  That’s just life.  And the disciple has to be a peacemaker and seek righteousness.  We will have grief in this lifetime – Jesus tells us that in another place.  So what Jesus is saying here, is that those of us undergoing these sorts of trials and still seeking to be righteous people through our sufferings are blessed.  And the Greek word that we translate as “blessed” here is makarios, a word that could also be translated as “happy.”  Happy are those who suffer for the Kingdom.

So does anyone really believe that?  I mean, it’s quite a leap of faith to engage our sufferings and still be sane, let alone happy.  The ability to see these Beatitudes as true blessings seems like too much to ask.  And yet, that’s what we disciples are being asked to do.

I think a good part of the reason why this kind of thinking is hard for us, is that it’s completely countercultural.  Our society wants us to be happy, pain-free and without a concern in the world.  That’s the message we get from commercials that sell us the latest in drugs to combat everything from restless legs to arthritis pain – complete with a horrifying list of side-effects.  That’s the message we get from the self-help books out there and the late-night infomercials promising that we can get rich quick, rid our homes of every kind of stain or vermin, or hear all of the best music that’s ever been recorded, all on compact disks delivered conveniently to your door three times a month until long after you’ve gone to be with the Lord.  That’s the message we get from Oprah and Dr. Phil and their ilk, who encourage us never to be second to anyone and to do everything possible to take care of ourselves.  If this is the kind of message we get every time we turn on a television, or pick up a book or newspaper, who on earth would want to be poor in spirit?  Who would want to be meek?  Who would even think to hunger and thirst for righteousness?

Pride is just the way we live, culturally speaking.  We are always right, and if we’re not, we certainly have a right to be wrong.  We can accomplish anything we set out to do, and if we fail, it was someone else’s fault.  We don’t need anyone’s help to live our lives, but when we’re in need, it’s because everyone has abandoned us.  We are culturally conditioned to be deeply prideful people, and it is absolutely ruining our spiritual lives.

Jesus is the one who had the most right of anyone to be prideful.  He is God, for heaven’s sake – I mean, he really could do anything he wanted without anyone’s help.  But he chose to abandon that way of thinking so that we could learn how to live more perfect lives.  He abandoned his pride and in humility took on the worst kind of death and the deepest of humiliation.

So what if we started to think the way Jesus does?  What would happen if we suddenly decided it wasn’t all about us?  What would happen if we decided that the utmost priority in life was not merely taking care of ourselves, but instead taking care of others, trusting that in that way, everyone – including ourselves – would be taken care of?  What would happen if we were not completely consumed with ourselves and so did not miss the opportunity to come to know others and grow closer to our Lord?  That would indeed be a day of great rejoicing and gladness, I can assure you that.

And I’m not saying you shouldn’t take care of yourself.  We all need to do that to some extent, and maybe sometimes we don’t do that as well as we should – I’ll even speak for myself on that one.  But when we consume ourselves with ourselves, nothing good can come from it.  Maybe this is a kind of balance that we could spend these weeks leading up to Lent striving to achieve.

Today’s Liturgy of the Word calls us to a kind of humility that remembers that God is God and we are not.  It is the only real antidote to the destructive, deadly sin of pride.  This isn’t some kind of false humility that says we are good for nothing, because God never made anything that was good for nothing.  Instead, it is a humility that reminds us that what is best in us is what God has given us.  As St. Paul says today, “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God.”  If we would remember that everything that we have and everything we are is a gift to us, if we would remember that it is up to us to care for one another, if we would remember that being consumed with ourselves only makes us feel worse than ever, if we would but humble ourselves and let God give us everything that we really need, we would never be in want.  Rejoice and be glad, rejoice and be glad!

Saint Thomas Aquinas, priest and doctor of the Church

Today’s readings

Mass with the school children:

I have a feeling that today’s Gospel reading is one that Saint Thomas Aquinas probably loved.  Saint Thomas was known for the way that he explained the faith: he did it systematically, breaking down complex ideas into smaller parts so that we can understand them.  So then this Gospel reading, in which Jesus is explaining the Kingdom of God – a very complex idea indeed! – probably inspired Saint Thomas in his work.

Saint Thomas was a very smart young man from a very rich and influential family.  When he was only five years old, he was promised to the famous Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino, where he was to study with the monks. 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, which is a different religious order known for living in poverty and preaching to the poor.  His family didn’t like that, so by order of his mother, Thomas was captured by his brother and brought back home, where he was imprisoned in his own house for a year.

He escaped, and once free, he went back to the Dominicans and moved to Paris and Cologne to study. He held was a professor in 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 scholarly writings, which have contributed so much to theology, that is, what the Church knows and believes about God.  Saint Thomas spoke much of wisdom that can be found in Scripture and tradition, and he also strongly taught the wisdom that could be found in the natural order of things, in the world God created, as well as what could be found in reason, just putting on our thinking caps and using the brains God gave us.

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 just felt like all that he wrote – which was a lot! – couldn’t even begin to describe God in all his wonder and glory.  He died March 7, 1274.

Saint Thomas felt that it was vitally important for all of us to learn everything that we could about God and the world he created.  He felt that the biggest enemy to the Church and to the world was ignorance, and he did everything he could to combat that enemy.  So today, on his feast day, this is a good day to think about the great gift that we have here at Notre Dame school.  Here we can come together and learn not just about math and science and reading and culture, but also about God and the Church.  Saint Thomas is the patron of all students, and with his intercession, all of you should make the most of that great gift.  There is no limit to what you can learn by studying and using God’s gift of your intellect and reason, and so maybe today, in honor of Saint Thomas Aquinas, you might say a prayer of thanks to God for your school and your intellect, and maybe even resolve to try a little harder to make better use of those great gifts.

Saint Thomas once said, “Lord, in my zeal for the love of truth, let me not forget the truth about love.”  As we give God thanks today for the gift of our school and our ability to learn, let us also give God thanks for the love that he pours out on us each day.

Saint Francis de Sales

Today’s readings

Saint Francis de Sales was born in the Savoy region of France-Italy in 1567.  His priesthood had him work diligently for the restoration of Catholicism in his homeland, reclaiming it from the clutches of the protestant reformation.  He became bishop of Geneva, and was known for his writings, work and example.  He says that it took him 20 years to conquer his quick temper, but no one ever suspected he had such a problem, because he was known for his good nature and kindness.  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, or the tendency to press “send” on a tersely-written email, St. Francis de Sales is our patron.  Saint Francis is also known to be the patron of the deaf, since he devised a kind of sign language in order to teach the deaf about God.  His beautiful writings have inspired many in their faith and earned him the title of Doctor of the Church.

Saint Francis was known to work on behalf of the poor, and even to be something of an ascetic himself.  He encouraged devotion in every person, regardless of their walk in life.  He writes: “I say that devotion must be practiced in different ways by the nobleman and by the working man, by the servant and by the prince, by the widow, by the unmarried girl and by the married woman.  But even this distinction is not sufficient; for the practice of devotion must be adapted to the strength, to the occupation and to the duties of each one in particular.”

In a moment we will offer our gifts, and pray for gifts and grace to lead a holy life.  Following the example of Saint Francis de Sales, maybe we can 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 Third Sunday of Ordinary Time [A]

Today’s readings

Close to twenty years ago now, my home parish put on a production of the musical Godspell, and I ended up being 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 many attempts to come to understand God and thus to come to some kind of control over him, 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 seems to be that the useless, and in some ways sinful, babbling of the philosophers was once and for all settled by Jesus Christ.  So if we want to know the meaning of life, if we want to know who God is, we have only to look to Jesus.  And that’s what our recent celebration of Christmas has taught us: Jesus is the human face of the invisible God, come to be one of us, incarnate among us, so that God’s presence could be revealed in the world once and for all and for ever.

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 justly 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 that they haven’t been all that successful at fishing 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 amazingly, these are the men who Jesus calls as apostles.  We aren’t told if these men have knew 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 and the life 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, and corruption in government.  Then there is the rampant disrespect for life through the absolute horror of abortion, which we remember in a special way this week on the thirty-eighth anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion legal.  We also see darkness in euthanasia, lack of access to health care for the poor,  in rampant hunger and homelessness, in 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 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.  Not even the darkness of our world, or the darkness of our own sin.

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, Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, Lectors, RCIA team members, small group leaders or retreat leaders, even those of us called to the priesthood or diaconate – 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.

So the key to overcoming the darkness is to place ourselves in the presence of the Light.  If we have sin, we should confess it and let the Light of mercy overcome the darkness of sin.  We should make a renewed effort to participate faithfully in the celebration of Mass every Sunday, Holy Day, and even weekday if we can.  We should make efforts to renew our prayer lives so that Christ’s light can burst into every moment of our day.  And when we are called to ministry, as we all are in some way, we should respond as immediately and Peter, Andrew, James and John.  We don’t know where all of that will lead us – we never do – but with all that Light in us and around us, we can never fall too far.

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

Tuesday of the Second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

We know how the interactions between Jesus and the Pharisees affected the Pharisees.  They resented everything Jesus said and did, and sought occasion to put him out of the picture.  But I cannot help but think that for Jesus, these occasions had to be rather frustrating.  Here are the most educated of the Jews, the people he came to save, and they just were not getting the point.

Jesus’ point in today’s gospel is that the Sabbath is not the goal in and of itself.  What is important is that God should be glorified in everything that we do, not that we spend time criticizing what others are doing.  The path to holiness consists in tending to our own spiritual house and not in dwelling on what others are doing.  And these religious leaders should have known better, they should have taken better care of their people: perhaps had the Pharisees provided something for the worshippers to eat, those who were hungry would not have had to risk violating the law.

Today’s readings speak to all of us about our true vocation as worshippers. We were made – all of us – to give honor and glory to God. In order to fulfill that vocation, our worship then must be authentic and joyful and a serious priority.  We must get all the details right – not the miniscule details crossing every “t” and dotting every “i” – but the details of taking care of one another, and making our worship mean something in our lives.

We were made to worship God in Spirit and truth.  We can do that by making every moment, every action of our lives, an occasion of worship – because that’s what worship really is.  The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.  May his lordship in our lives lead us to fulfill our vocation as a worshipping people.

Saint Anthony, abbot

Today’s readings

When Saint Anthony – and this is not the Saint Anthony who helps us find lost things – was about eighteen years old, his parents died, and left him to care for his young sister and the family home.  They did not leave him destitute, however, and they were rather well-to-do.  Saint Athanasius writes that one day, as Anthony was praying in church, he was reflecting on how the Apostles had left everything to follow Jesus when he heard this verse from Scripture: “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor – you will have riches in heaven. Then come and follow me.”

So that’s what he did: he went out and gave most of the family property to the local villagers, and sold off all of his other possessions, giving the money to the poor.  He wanted no distractions for his sister and himself in living the Christian life.  The next time he visited church, he heard “Do not be anxious about tomorrow.” At this point, he gave away everything he had left, and put his sister up in the local convent, and went off to dedicate himself to living his call.

Anthony devoted himself to asceticism, living in poverty, reflecting on Scripture, and growing in friendship with Christ.  He was a fearless leader of the Church through the Arian controversy, and spoke out boldly, hoping for martyrdom.  He founded a sort of monastery with scattered cells (as opposed to a great building), forming a fusion of the solitary life with community life.  He is known to be the father of monasticism.  Saint Anthony is said to have died at the ripe old age of 105 in solitude.

In a day when we spend a lot of time and energy on the stuff that we have, and the care of our possessions, Saint Anthony’s life comes as a challenge.  He gave up everything to follow Christ, trusting that God would take care of him.  His left a great mark on human history, and his rule of monasteries has been the basis of many monastic rules ever since.  His challenge to us today is this: what do we need to give up to follow Christ more closely?