Monday of the Eighth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

There’s an old joke about a man who, while walking through the countryside one day, was distracted and fell over a cliff.  On the way down, he managed – just barely – to grab on to a branch of an overhanging tree.  As he hung there, he quickly realized that he couldn’t hold on forever, and there was no way to climb to safety.  He began to look around to see if anyone was nearby to help him, but he couldn’t see anyone.  So, he began to call out: “Help!  I’ve fallen over the cliff!  Is there anyone up there?!”  Soon, he heard an answer: “This is the Lord God.  I am up here and I will save you, but you have to let go!”  The man thought for a minute and then called out: “Is there anyone else up there?”

 

It is imperative to our Spiritual lives that we learn to let go.  The problem is, though, that letting go is so counterintuitive for us.  We want to hold on to everything, control everything, because when we are in charge we can be sure everything will work out all right.  At least we think so.  The truth is that God is in control, and just like the rich young man in today’s Gospel reading, we have to learn to let go of everything that keeps us from letting God be God in our lives.  So the next time we feel like we’re hanging by a thread and there is no way out, may we hear the Lord’s call and actually let go.  That is the only way that we can achieve faith’s goal, the salvation of our souls.

 

Mass for the Election of a Bishop

Our diocese this weekend is celebrating the Mass for the Election of a Bishop, praying for the prompt appointment of our next bishop.  So I did a brief homily on what a bishop is and does, followed by a talk about (sigh) money.  You get just the first thing here!

As you may know, our diocese has not had a bishop since early December, when Bishop Sartain became the archbishop of Seattle.  Since then, Bishop Siegel, our auxiliary bishop, was named the diocesan administrator.  He can keep the diocese running, but can’t really make any substantive changes.  So at this time, we are waiting for Rome to select a new bishop for us, and today we celebrate a special Mass for the Election of a Bishop, praying that the Holy Spirit would help Pope Benedict find us a man who is holy, and loving to his people and clergy.

 

Bishops were selected in the Church pretty early on, during the time the original Apostles were dying off.  These successors to the Apostles helped to ensure that the faith was handed down to us as the Lord intended it.  They administrate the Sacraments and see to it that the diocese and its parishes live and witness to the Gospel message in the present time.

 

Candidates for the office of Bishop have to be priests.  When there is a vacancy in a diocese such as ours, it can be filled by a man who is already a bishop somewhere else, or by a priest of our diocese or even of another diocese.  Names for these candidates are submitted to Rome through the Papal Nuncio, who in the United States is Archbishop Pietro Sambi.  These candidates are examined very closely, and without their knowing, I might add.  If the person selected is already a bishop, he is installed in the diocese within a short period of time.  If he is a priest, he is ordained or consecrated as a bishop, which automatically installs him as the bishop of the diocese.

 

The diocese of Joliet in Illinois was erected in December of 1948, carved out of the Archdiocese of Chicago, the diocese of Rockford, and the diocese of Peoria.  Since then we have had four bishops.  Bishop Martin McNamara, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, served from the erection of the diocese until his death in 1966.  Bishop Romeo Blanchette, a priest and auxiliary bishop of the diocese of Joliet, served from 1966 until 1979.  Bishop Joseph Imesch, an auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese of Detroit, served from 1979 until his retirement in 2006.  Bishop Peter Sartain, who was bishop of Little Rock, served from 2006 until this past December.

 

And so we continue to wait for word of who our next bishop will be.  We are a rather large diocese, of around 700,000 Catholics spread over seven counties.  Popular opinion suggests that that means we won’t have to wait very long.  Our prayer is that the Holy Spirit would inspire all those involved in the decision so that we have a wonderful bishop who can serve us and help us move our diocese forward in spreading the Gospel to the people of our seven counties.

 

Monday of the Seventh Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

So the disciples are waiting for Jesus to come down the mountain after the Transfiguration.  They have attempted to cure a man’s son from the hold of a demon, but they were apparently unable to do so.  This seems to have led to an argument between them and the scribes.  You can almost feel Jesus’ exasperation.  Both the disciples and the scribes should have been able to do something for the boy, but they couldn’t.  Why?  Because instead of praying, they argued about it.  “This kind can only come out through prayer,” Jesus tells the disciples when they ask why they were ineffective.

Sometimes, when we are trying to overcome some problem, the last thing we think to do is pray, when it should absolutely be the first.  The disciples were guilty of it, the scribes were, and we are too sometimes, if we’re honest.  And all of us should know better.  I know that I myself can think of a number of problems I’ve tried to solve all by myself, when it would have been much easier to have God’s help.  We can’t just cut God out of the picture and rely on our own strength; that never works.  We have to turn to the tools we have been given: faith and prayer.  And we can start by saying with the boy’s father: “I do believe, Lord; help my unbelief.”

Saints Cyril and Methodius

Today’s readings

You might have been expecting to celebrate Saint Valentine’s Day today, but we don’t have Saint Valentine’s day on the calendar, unless, of course, it’s a Hallmark calendar!  Instead today we have the feast of two brothers: Saints Cyril and Methodius.  They lived in the ninth century in an area of Greece inhabited by many Slavs, and eventually they became missionaries to the Slavic people.

Cyril was known as Constantine until he became a monk very late in life, and at that time took the name Cyril.  Cyril and his followers invented an alphabet, known as the Cyrillic alphabet, which is used in some form in modern Russian language.  Together with his followers, he translated the Gospels, the psalter, Paul’s letters and the liturgical books into Slavonic, and composed a Slavonic liturgy.

Cyril’s work was not universally accepted.  He faced opposition from German clergy in the area who denounced the Slavonic liturgy and their use of the vernacular language in preaching.  More than once, they went to Rome to answer charges of heresy and were exonerated every time.  While in Rome, Cyril became a monk, and fifty days later, he passed away.

His brother Methodius, however, kept the mission work going for another sixteen years.  He became the papal legate for all the Slavic peoples, was consecrated as a bishop and given an see in what is now the Czech Republic.  When much of their former territory was removed from their jurisdiction, the Bavarian bishops retaliated with a violent storm of accusation against Methodius.  As a result, Emperor Louis the German exiled Methodius for three years, at which time he was freed by Pope John VIII.

Legend has it that Methodius translated the whole Bible into Slavonic in eight months.  He died on Tuesday of Holy Week, surrounded by his disciples, in his cathedral church.

Cyril and Methodius worked long and hard, and in the face of much opposition, to make the faith known.  They made the faith accessible by inventing an alphabet and preaching in the language of the people.  We too are called to make the faith known, meeting people where they are, and explaining it in a way that makes it accessible.  The most honest way to do this is by living the Gospel so that we can be a witness for all to see – being people of integrity in our work, in our families, and in our communities.

The Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time [A]

Today’s readings

I think that if you took a survey, nearly everyone would want to say that they are righteous, that is, that they do the right thing.  But I also think that survey would reveal how amazingly different each person’s definition of righteousness would be.  One person’s idea of righteousness might be that they do what everyone else is doing – how could that be wrong?  Everyone does it.  Another person’s idea of righteousness might be rather selfish: they do what’s best for them, or for their family – they take care of number one.  Still another view of righteousness might be that one picks and chooses a set of rules by which they decide to live their lives, and never deviate from them to one side or the other.  This view, of course, was the view of the Pharisees who had over six hundred such rules by which to abide.

If you’re wondering what’s wrong with any of these, today’s Scriptures have the answer.  Jesus tells us that none of these self-righteous positions is going to cut it: those who follow him have a much more strenuous rule of life, and we call that rule the Gospel.

Do you count yourself among the blessed because you’ve never murdered anyone or participated in an abortion?  Well, that’s a good start, but if you’ve harbored anger against another person, if you have refused to forgive them, if you have marginalized a person because of their race, or their language, or their religion, or their sexual orientation, or because of a physical disability, if you have belittled people by sarcasm or bullying, if you have hated another person in any way at any time, then you’ve murdered them in your heart, you’ve violated the fifth commandment, and that’s not okay.

Do you feel righteous because you’ve never had extramarital relations with another person?  Great, but that’s just a start.  If you have had lustful thoughts about another person, if you have looked at pornography, or fantasized about a relationship with another person; if you have nurtured a relationship that is improper in any way, then you have violated the sixth commandment, and it’s time to turn back.

Do you feel that your word is good as gold because you have never lied under oath?  Again, it’s a good start, but if you’ve told a lie of any kind in any situation, even a white lie in most circumstances, if you have not told the whole truth when the truth was called for, if you have misrepresented the truth in any way or have not lived what you believe and profess, then you have violated the eighth commandment and have been dishonest to some degree.

These are not words of comfort today, are they?  I bring these all out in my preaching today because Jesus makes them urgent.  I do it with a sense of deep humility, because I know that I have failed in some of these things more times than I’d care to admit.

Jesus tells us today, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”  That seems pretty harsh.  The Scribes and Pharisees had those six hundred or so laws by which they lived their lives, and some of them were pretty nit-picky if you ask me.  So how can we ever hope to enter the kingdom of heaven?  It just seems like an impossible task, doesn’t it?

But what Jesus is asking of us isn’t to come up with a list of a whole lot more nit-picky rules.  Jesus is asking us to embrace the spirit of the law, and to live it with integrity.  That too is daunting, but the good news about choosing to live that kind of righteousness is that it comes with grace.  It comes with the gift of the Holy Spirit poured out on us to live the Gospel.  We have to pray for that grace every day, and we have to strive to live the rather rigorous righteousness that Jesus calls for in today’s Scripture readings.

As the writer of Sirach in our first reading tells us, this kind of righteousness is a choice that we must make.  He says,

He has set before you fire and water
to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand.
Before man are life and death, good and evil,
whichever he chooses shall be given him.

When we make the wrong choice, or fail to make the right choice, we have sinned.  But we know that our sins are not who we are and are not who we are called to be.  We have the Sacrament of Penance to set us back on the right path and to wash our sins away.  If you haven’t made a confession in a while, now is the time.  Take advantage of the healing grace our Lord longs to pour out on you.  I’m always amazed at how much joy I feel when I have gone to confession.  It’s the only cure for our unrighteous thoughts, words and actions.

Jesus gives us an incredible challenge in today’s Liturgy of the Word.  But he does not leave us without the grace to live it out.  We just have to choose, every day, to live the Gospel.  We have to pray, every day, for the grace to do that with integrity.  And when we fail, we have to receive the Sacrament of Penance so that the grace to do better will be poured out in our lives.  It’s not the easiest way to live our lives, but it is the most blessed.  As the Psalmist says today, “Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord.”

Monday of the Fifth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s readings speak to us about the wonderful, spiritual quality of goodness.  We have the creation story, or at least the beginning of it, in which God is not only creating the world and everything in it, but also finding it to be good.  And I think that we can relate to that in some way, because we find created things good all the time.  Think about a vacation or road trip you’ve taken and found some beautiful countryside.  Maybe you’ve seen mountains, or the vast ocean, or hiked some incredible trails through rich forested countryside.  When you’ve been there, looking at all that wonderful creation, perhaps stood there as the sun was setting or rising, maybe you’ve even said a prayer of thanks to God for creating such wonders and allowing you to see them.  You too see that it is very good.

But there’s even more than that in it for us.  When we behold such wonders, such things that are very good, we can also see in them the One who is Goodness itself.  We see God in his creative genius, imparting some of his own Goodness into our world so that we might find goodness too.  In the mountains, we see God’s strength and might; in the forests, his embrace; in the waters, his refreshing mercy.  Our Good God has painted the world with his Goodness, so that we might desire the Good and come at last to Him.

Goodness is all around us, because God created the world to be good.  Today, we can look around to see the good we might otherwise miss: good in people and good in creation – all of it bringing us back to our God who is Goodness itself.  The psalmist leads us today in the prayer that we are moved to pray when we are in the presence of such Good:

How manifold are your works, O LORD!
In wisdom you have wrought them all—
the earth is full of your creatures;
Bless the LORD, O my soul! Alleluia.

The Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time [A]

Today’s readings

I think today’s Gospel reading has some intriguing images for us.  Salt and light are basic things, but they certainly are things with which we can relate, things we experience on a daily basis.  Salt and light are things that have an effect on everything around them.  Add a little salt to some soup and you bring out the flavor.  Turn on a light and you don’t fall down the stairs.  So if we are salt and light, then we must have an effect on the world around us as well.

I like to cook, and so the reference to seasoning is one that gets my imagination going.  You have to have some salt in food that you’re cooking or the meal will be bland and lifeless.  We’ve all had under-seasoned food, and when we did we probably felt underwhelmed.  We knew there was something missing.  Now I can’t imagine salt losing its saltiness.  In fact, I googled this and there was a science-type person taking this question on and he indicated that salt, in its crystalline form, is pretty stable; it doesn’t lose its flavor.  So Jesus was using, as he often does, hyperbole to get our attention.  Suppose for the moment that salt could lose its saltiness: what would it then be good for?  Nothing, of course.

Jesus seems to be insinuating that we, as the salt for the world, could lose our saltiness.  We could become under-seasoned by skipping Mass to attend a sports event or sleep in.  We could become under-seasoned by neglecting our prayer life.  We could become under-seasoned by watching the wrong things on TV or surfing the wrong sites on the internet.  We could become under-seasoned by holding on to relationships that are sinful.  And when that starts to happen, our ability to season our world with the presence of Christ is diminished bit by bit.

When I talk to second-graders about sin, in preparation for their first confession, I often use the image of light and darkness.  Again, I do that because it’s an image they can grasp.  I ask them how many of them are or at least were afraid of the dark.  I think we all are or were to some extent afraid of the dark.  Even now, when you hear a noise in the middle of the night, don’t you find it just a little more frightening because it’s dark?  There is good reason to be afraid of the dark: you could fall or trip over something, some danger or person could be hiding waiting to leap out at you.  I could go on, but I don’t want you calling me in the middle of the night if you can’t sleep!

And so, I ask my second-grade friends, what do you do to make the dark a less scary thing?  And the answer is, of course, that you turn on a light.  The light changes everything: you can see the obstacles over which you might have fallen.  Anything lurking in the dark will now be identified in the light.  Sometimes a quick look around with the lights on will assure you that that noise you heard was just the house settling, or the furnace firing up, or something similarly innocuous.  The light just makes you feel a little safer.

And so we are called to be light too.  We don’t need much time to think about how dark our world can be at times.  We see on television the news about war and crime and terrorism and new diseases and things we shouldn’t be eating.  We hear about children bullying one another and people stalking others on the internet.  A quick moment of reflection reminds us of our own sinfulness; the bad that we have done and the good we have failed to do.  Darkness in our world can be pretty pervasive at times, and it makes the world a rather frightening place.

But we have the light.  We’ve been exposed to the light.  We have come alive in Jesus, the Light of the world.  We just finished celebrating Christmas and Epiphany in which Jesus came to our dark world to be made manifest, to walk among us and lead us on our pilgrim way to heaven.  On Wednesday, if you were one of the five or so people brave enough to forge your way through the blizzard and join Father Raj for Mass at 7:00, you celebrated Candlemas – the Presentation of the Lord, the closing epiphany that propelled the infant Jesus into his ministry in the world.  We have the light, shining in the very dark place that is our world.

As those gifted with the Light of the world, we become people of light.  We become light for the world too.  Jesus insists that our light should shine so brightly that we affect the darkness of our world, completely overcoming that darkness with the Light of Christ.  He insists that we are now that city, set on a hill, that cannot be hidden.  And we know how true that is.

We may know the truth of that in rather negative ways in these past years.  Our Church has been the city set on a hill affected by scandal, first in the United States, then into Europe and other places.  People saw what happened, it was set on a hill and could not be hidden.  We have been ashamed and grieving in the years since.

And that’s what Satan wants for our Church.  He wants to see us set on a hill and ashamed.  He wants us to be seen by the watching world doing nothing, because we have lost our way.  But that’s not what God wants.  He still calls us to be the light for the world.  People do see us, and have to see us doing good in big ways and small ways, so that other people will see the way to God and take delight in the ways we have seasoned the world.

I have a very small example.  I was cooking the other day, and realized I’d forgotten just three things that I needed.  So I went to Jewel at 4:30 on Friday afternoon.  I quickly found what I was looking for and headed to check out.  The lines, of course, were a little long at that time on Friday night.  But the man ahead of me, noticing I had just three items, invited me to go in front of him.  The man in front of him did the same, and soon I was at the head of the line.  I thanked them, and as I headed out to the car, I wondered if I would have done the same thing.  I’d like to think I would have, but I don’t know.  What I did do was to say a prayer for them, which I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have thought to do had they not shown kindness to me.  And heaven only knows the good that prayer may have done for them and those around them.

St. Therese of Liseaux used to talk about doing little things with great love for the glory of God.  She found joy in her “Little Way” and it has inspired so many people ever since.  Our Liturgy today calls us to do little things and big things, all for God’s glory.  It calls us to be salt for a world grown bland with despair and light for a world dwelling in a very dark place.  In our first reading, the prophet Isaiah tells us how to do it:

Share your bread with the hungry,
shelter the oppressed and the homeless;
clothe the naked when you see them,
and do not turn your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn…

If neglecting our prayer life and our integrity causes us to lose our saltiness, if giving in to shame and despair puts out our light, then we can never do what we were created for.  But we have been given salt and light to season and light our world.  We are the city set on the hill for all the watching world to see.  Would that they might see us doing little things and big things, all for the glory of God.