The Twenty-Second Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

This month we’ve been seeing a lot of one of my favorite characters in the Gospel, and that is Saint Peter.  Just three weeks ago, the Apostles were out in a boat, and Jesus came to them on the water.  Saint Peter asked our Lord to command him to come to him on the water, and he did, and we all know how that went.  Then last week, Jesus was quizzing the Apostles about who people said that he was.  Peter was the one who spoke up and professed that Jesus was the Christ, the coming Anointed One, and Jesus proclaimed Peter the Rock on which he would build the Church.

And here we are today, just a couple of verses later in Matthew’s Gospel, and Peter steps in it yet again.  Because Peter was still clinging to the old notions of what the Messiah would be, he could not fathom that Jesus would have to suffer and die.  And so Jesus chastises him for thinking not as God does, but as people do.  It’s a mistake we all make time and again in our spiritual lives.

Peter’s faith journey was like that: up one minute, and down the next.  One minute he’s walking on water, the next he’s drowning; one minute he speaks eloquently of his Lord, and the next he’s the voice of temptation.  So maybe it seems like Saint Peter, flawed as he was, was an inappropriate choice to be the pillar of the Church, the first of the Popes.  But our Lord never makes any mistakes.  He chooses who he chooses for a reason, and I think that’s what we have to spend some time looking at today.

If Peter was unqualified for the position to which he was called – and he clearly was – then we have to expect to be unqualified for the roles to which we have been called.  Parents often feel that when they start to raise their first child.  Priests feel that every time they witness something incredible – which is almost all the time.  We are all unqualified, but God sees more in us, he sees our heart, he sees who he created us to be, and he won’t rest until we’ve fulfilled that potential.

If Peter made some mistakes along his journey of faith and discipleship – and he clearly did – then we have to expect to make mistakes in our own faith journey.  One minute we’ll have a glimpse of God and we’ll feel like we could never let him down, then the next minute we’ll fall into sin, maybe a sin we’ve been struggling with for so long, and we’ll feel like God couldn’t love us.  But he loved Peter, and he loves us.  He pulled Saint Peter out of the stormy waves, and he will reach out and pull us out of our own storms of failure, as often as we cry out.

The one thing you can’t fault Saint Peter for is his courage.  Eleven other guys stayed in the boat, but Peter wanted to be where our Lord was: out on the water.  Eleven other guys kept their mouth shut when Jesus asked who they said he was, but Peter did his best to make a profession of faith.  His life wasn’t perfect, his discipleship wasn’t perfect, his faith had a long way to go, but he knew that he couldn’t leave our Lord forever.  Even when he blows it in the hours before Jesus died and denies our Lord three times, he accepts our Lord’s forgiveness and fulfills the role Jesus gave him in last week’s Gospel.

Saint Peter’s story kept evolving, and ours isn’t done yet either.  Our Lord loved Saint Peter and he loves us too.  And that’s all it takes for great things to happen.

Monday of the Twenty-first Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s gospel has Jesus taking the Scribes and Pharisees to task for forgetting what is really holy, and treating things as sacred while ignoring God who is holiness itself.  Apparently, they thought that swearing an oath by the gold of the temple was more binding than an oath simply sworn on the temple itself: but, Jesus asks, isn’t the temple what makes the gold holy?  And they confused swearing an oath by the altar and by the gift on the altar.  They had forgotten that the altar is what makes the gift holy.  But even more than that, they had been so caught up in details, that they forgot that God is holy, and makes anything that can be called holy, holy.

Now, Jesus isn’t saying that people should disobey the first and third commandments, using God’s name as an assurance of an oath.  Swearing by the name of God isn’t to be taken lightly.  But what he is saying is that the Scribes and Pharisees needed to straighten out their flawed notion of holiness.  God is holy; and he alone makes holiness.

So today might be a call for us to take a moral inventory of our own notion of holiness.  What have we been putting before God?  What do we hold sacred?  Do we have idolatry in our life?  Do we sometimes forget that, as we say in the Gloria: “you alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord, you alone are the most high, Jesus Christ…”?

Saint Pius X, Pope

Today’s readings

St. Pius would have been a great organizer of the feast that our Gospel tells us about today. The whole point of the feast is that all are welcome, but some choose not to come, or don’t come worthily. Jesus was speaking pointedly to the Jewish rulers who should have had the place of honor at the banquet. But they all had excuses that kept them away. And so the banquet was made available to all the nations – Gentiles too! – if they would come properly attired, that is, if they would come worthily, with open hearts and longing minds.

St. Pius X was born Joseph Sarto, the second of ten children in a poor Italian family. He became pope at the age of 68, and he too wanted to open the banquet for all those who would come worthily. He encouraged frequent reception of Holy Communion, which was observed sparingly in his day, and especially encouraged children to come to the banquet. During his reign, he famously ended, and subsequently refused to reinstate, state interference in canonical affairs. He had foreseen World War I, but because he died just a few weeks after the war began, he was unable to speak much about it. On his deathbed, however, he said, “This is the last affliction the Lord will visit on me. I would gladly give my life to save my poor children from this ghastly scourge.”

“The feast is ready,” we are told in today’s Gospel. May we all take this occasion to receive the Eucharist worthily and often, reviving our devotion and love for the Eucharist every day. May we all be among those brought in for the feast, and found to be appropriately attired with pure hearts.

Monday of the Twentieth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

A friend of mine told me that a wise old nun once taught him, “Work like everything depends on you, but pray like everything depends on God.”  It’s good advice, because everything, of course, does depend on God, but God expects us to work in cooperation with him, so that his will be done.  But it’s certainly a hard line to walk.  Once we get to working, we almost always get full of ourselves and think everything will fall apart if we don’t take care of it.  I know I find it hard to pack up and go on vacation or take time off unless I know I’ve got everything in order, and then I still worry about what comes up in the meantime.

Today’s readings remind us of the danger of crossing that line and forgetting that God is in charge.  The rich young man in today’s gospel reading discovers that following the rules is only just a good start; to really gain heaven you must be willing to let go of the fading riches of this world.  The people Israel in today’s first reading have grasped on to the uncertain security of alliances with this world’s powers and have let go of their belief in God, and Ezekiel prophecies that would come back to haunt them.  Holding on to the things of this world will never get us anywhere; worrying about what God is doing is unproductive; we will never find ultimate security in alliances with the powers of this world.  To truly gain heaven, we have to let go and hold on to our God, whose riches never fade and whose power is never outmatched.

The Psalmist gives us good advice today.  Do not forget the God who gave you birth.  He is in control; we are not.  God is God, and we are not.

Saturday of the Nineteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

“Return and live!”

This is very good advice from the prophet Ezekiel.  He was preaching to a nation that was steeped in sin, and whose sinfulness was passed on from previous generations.  But unlike the punishments of old, where God punished those who sinned for many generations, Ezekiel proclaimed that God was going to do something new.  He was going to punish only those who did wrong, and bless those who did right.  If the son sinned, it was not the father’s fault, and if the mother sinned, it was not the daughter who would pay the price.

We might call that “personal responsibility,” a notion that doesn’t get as much adherence these days as it ought to.  Now if the son sins, the parents sue the person who punished the son for it.  Nothing is anyone’s fault; no one has to step up and take responsibility for what they’ve done.  Or at least it sure seems that way.

Ezekiel would take us all to task for that philosophy.  Our God is Truth, and we should live that truth every day of our lives.  So if we’ve wandered from that, Ezekiel has the remedy today: “Return and live!”

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today’s readings

Today we gather to celebrate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary body and soul into heaven, to reign with her Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  We believe that our Lord did not want any taint of death to corrupt his Blessed Mother, who was conceived without sin.  What is important for us to see in this feast is that it proclaims, with all joy and great solemnity, that what happened to Mary can absolutely happen for us who believe.  We too have the promise of eternal life in heaven, where death and sin and pain will no longer have power over us.  Because Christ caught his Blessed Mother back up into his life in heaven, we know that we too can be caught up with his life in heaven.  On that great day, death, the last enemy, will be completely destroyed, as St. Paul tells us today.

Mary’s life was a prophecy for us.  Like Mary, we are called to a specific vocation to do God’s work in the world.  We are called to make sacrifices so that God’s work can be accomplished in us and through us.  We can be joyful because God is at work in us.  We are called to humility that lets God’s love for others shine through our lives.  We are called to lives of faith that translate into action on behalf of others, a faith that leads God’s people to salvation.  And one day, we hope to share in the glory that Mary has already received in the kingdom of God.

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

Saint Maximilian Kolbe, Priest and Martyr

Today’s readings

Maximilian Kolbe became a Franciscan novice at the age of 16. Earlier in life he had a vision of the Blessed Virgin offering him two crowns, a white one of purity, and a red one of martyrdom. Maximilian said “I choose both.” The Blessed Virgin smiled and departed from him. Maximilian devoted his life to purity through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin. He founded the Mission of the Immaculata to combat religious indifference, which he saw as the greatest problem in society. By the time the Nazis overran Poland, the mission numbered as many as a million people.

Maximilian was twice arrested by the Nazis and the second time taken to Auschwitz. One day a fellow prisoner escaped, and the commandant decided to put ten men to death, whom he chose by arbitrarily pointing men out as he walked among their ranks. Just after the tenth man was chosen, Maximilian stepped out of the ranks and asked to take the place of one man, who had a wife and children. The commandant asked “what about you?” to which Maximilian replied, “I am a priest.” Because the regime at the time was striving to eliminate all the leaders of the people, Maximilian’s request was granted, and he died in the starvation chamber some three months later.

Saint Maximilian had a strong devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and so it is appropriate that we celebrate his feast on this day, the vigil of Mary’s Assumption.  Through the intercession of Saint Maximilian and our Blessed Mother, may we too combat religious indifference and give our lives in service to others.

Saint Clare, Virgin

Today’s readings

Today we celebrate Saint Clare, who, having refused to marry at 15, was moved by the dynamic preaching of Saint Francis.  He became her lifelong friend and spiritual guide.

So at age 18, she escaped one night from her father’s home, in order to flee the pressure to marry, and was met on the road by friars carrying torches.  They led her to a little chapel called the Portiuncula, where she received a rough woolen habit, exchanged her jeweled belt for a common rope with knots in it, and had her long hair cut by Saint Francis himself.  He placed her in a Benedictine convent, which her father and uncles immediately stormed in rage.  She clung to the altar of the church, threw aside her veil to show her cropped hair and remained adamant.

Sixteen days later her sister Agnes joined her.  Over time, others joined them too.  They lived a simple life of great poverty, austerity and complete seclusion from the world, according to a Rule that Saint Francis gave them as a Second Order, which became known as the Poor Clares.  Francis obliged her under obedience at age 21 to accept the office of abbess, one she exercised until her death.

The nuns went barefoot, slept on the ground, ate no meat and observed almost complete silence.  Later Clare, like Francis, persuaded her sisters to moderate this rigor, saying: “Our bodies are not made of brass.”  The greatest emphasis, of course, was on gospel poverty.  They possessed no property, even in common, subsisting on daily contributions.  When even the pope tried to persuade her to mitigate this practice, she said to him: “I need to be absolved from my sins, but I do not wish to be absolved from the obligation of following Jesus Christ.”

In the Convent of San Damiano in Assisi, Saint Clare served the sick, waited on table, and washed the feet of the begging nuns.  She came from prayer, it was said, with her face so shining it dazzled those about her, much like the vision of the glory of God to which Ezekiel was treated in today’s first reading.

We are all called to the holiness of life that leads us to see God’s glory.  For Saint Clare, that meant breaking away from her family’s expectations of marriage so that she could be wed to Christ.  For us, there will also be some kind of sacrifice involved.  Through the intercession of Saint Clare, please God let us be willing to make the sacrifice so that we can see the glory of God.

The Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Saint Paul asks a very important question in his letter to the Romans: “What will separate us from the love of Christ?”  Then he lists a number of rhetorical examples of what one might think would do that: anguish, distress, persecution, famine, the sword and many others.  Lest we let that little list run right past us, I want to emphasize that all of these things, when the original Roman church heard them, were equivalent to the end of the world.  Saint Paul was asking – rhetorically of course – if Armageddon could separate us from the love of Christ, and the answer is quite emphatically, “NO!”

And the end of days was on the minds of the early Christians.  They were often persecuted, cast out of the community, and even put to death.  So it’s easy to see why Saint Paul would seek to give them comfort.  But what about us?  Does the message ring truth in our ears?  I think it does.  Turn on the news: war in Gaza and Israel, conflict in Russia and the Ukraine, including a plane being shot down that killed almost 300 men, women and children.  Then there’s the border crisis with Mexico, the expulsion of the last Christians from Iraq, rampant crime in the city of Chicago, and so much more.  There’s plenty for us to worry about and that is to say nothing of our own personal crises.  Illness, death of a loved one, relationship issues, job stress or employment uncertainty.  All of these things take a toll on us, and at times, we have to wonder if these are signs of the end times, or if we have actually been separated from God’s love.

The answer is as it was in Saint Paul’s day, absolutely not.  If we want to see the answer underlined, all we have to do is look at today’s Gospel.  Matthew takes note that when Jesus saw the vast crowds who had been following his every word and hanging on every miracle, he was moved with pity for them.  And the word pity here translates a Greek word that means much more than it means for us.  It’s used also in John’s Gospel when Jesus arrives in the town of his friend Lazarus, who has just died, and sees the people’s grief.  In that Gospel, the pity that he has causes him to cry out in anguish, giving voice to an emotion that is something like pity, but also encompassing grief, sadness, pain, and exasperation.  Here, Jesus is moved with pity because of the people’s hunger: not just their physical hunger, but also the spiritual hunger that has been unmet for so very long.

And so he takes five loaves and two fish – practically nothing – and feeds thousands of people, people he created out of practically nothing, but who had become something to him, who always were something to him, and he goes about feeding every kind of hunger they have.

We’re going to go through rough stuff in our lives.  The world may seem like it’s crumbling around us.  And while God may allow the bad things that happen to us as a consequence of the fallenness of our human nature, I think it’s important to note that he never intends us to be unhappy, never wants us to despair of his love.  He might not wave a wand to make all our troubles go away, but he is always going to be with us in good times and bad, giving us grace to get through whatever we have to suffer, growing in his love, and becoming more in the process.

If God had meant anything to separate us from his love, he would have written us off in the Garden of Eden.  But instead, he sent his Only-Begotten Son to walk with us, to feed us beyond anything we could hope for, to pay the price for our many sins, and to give us the invitation to everlasting life.  That’s our God.  And nothing can ever separate us from his love.  Nothing.

Saturday of the Seventeenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

It’s dangerous to be a prophet.  It’s dangerous because nobody wants to really hear the truth.  Both Jeremiah and Saint John the Baptist find that out very clearly in today’s Scripture readings.  Both of them insisted on proclaiming the truth, and both of them ultimately paid for it with their lives, although Jeremiah was protected in today’s first reading.

The thing we need to take with us this morning is that we are all called to be prophets.  We are all called to speak the truth.  And usually that truth won’t be welcome.  But we have to be people of integrity and say what the Lord puts on our hearts.  Maybe it will be received and maybe it won’t, but we will have at least fulfilled the call we received at baptism when we, like our Lord, were anointed as priest, prophet and king.

It may be difficult to speak the truth, but God is faithful.  If we do what he asks us to do, he will walk with us and never leave us alone.  Being prophets is a dangerous business, but as the Psalmist tells us today, “For the LORD hears the poor, and his own who are in bonds he spurns not.”