St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, Virgin

“I need nothing but God, and to lose myself in the heart of Jesus.” St. Margaret Mary spoke these as her dying words, while being anointed at the age of 43. Margaret was a simple woman and a Visitation nun. She worked as an assistant in the convent infirmary, but God had other plans for her. After being a nun for just three years, she began to receive revelations in which Christ called her to make his love for all humanity known. His human heart was to become the symbol for this divine and human love for all of us. He called her to frequent Holy Communion, especially on First Fridays, and to spend Thursday evenings in an hour’s meditation on the agony at Gethsemane. This devotion eventually spread to the entire Church under the name of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

I have two Margaret Marys in my own life: my sister and my grandmother on my father’s side. My grandmother was one who was a great model of faith for me. She and I would often sit together and talk about her childhood in Ireland, and all the problems of the world. She was one of my best friends until her death shortly after I graduated from college. She too had a devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus – in fact, I remember seeing the painting of the Sacred Heart on the wall of her living room, prominently displayed, with last year’s palm from Palm Sunday tucked behind it. It’s a huge understatement to say that grandma’s love for Christ and the Church helped encourage my vocation throughout my life.

We all have a place wrapped up in the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and we have St. Margaret Mary to thank for bringing that devotion to the Church. Like St. Margaret Mary, we disciples are also called to make God’s love manifest in the world through his most Sacred Heart. With St. Margaret Mary, we need to say, “I need nothing but God, and to lose myself in the heart of Jesus.

Monday of the Twenty-eighth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I think it’s a pretty common experience for people to look for a sign from God. So many comedies have that premise somewhere in the story line. Don’t we all look for signs from God to make sure we’re doing the right thing?

Well, yes, signs are necessary and helpful events in our spiritual journey.  And Jesus was never stingy about giving signs.  After all, he healed the sick, raised the dead, and fed the multitudes.  Who could have possibly missed the signs and wonders he was providing?  The thing was, the people, especially the religious authorities, were cynical and hard of heart, and they soon forgot the wonders he had done.  So they wanted to see Jesus do things they were pretty sure he couldn’t do; in other words, they were asking for a sign not from an attitude of faith, but an attitude of cynicism.

And Jesus had no intention of playing that game.  These people would get no further sign, at least not until the sign of Jonah.  So what did that mean?  Well, as we remember, Jonah was swallowed up in the belly of a big fish for three days, then disgorged on the shores of Nineveh.  Jesus was foreshadowing that, in the same way, he himself would be swallowed up in the grave for three days, then raised to new life.  These cynical people would just have to wait for that great sign, and even then, they certainly wouldn’t believe.

And so, yes, we can ask for a sign.  We can ask God to help us to know we have discerned the right path.  But we always must ask from the perspective of our faith, being open to whatever God shows us, being open to silence if that’s what he gives us, ready to follow him, sign or no sign, wherever we are led.  God is always there, even in our most difficult quandaries, ready to give us confidence by his presence.

And never forget that we have already received the sign of Jonah, and that sign is incredibly good news for all of us!

The Twenty-eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

If this isn’t a difficult Gospel passage to understand, I don’t think there is one! What are we to make of such a convoluted story? Surely we are not supposed to think that the king is God, are we? I mean, why would Scripture portray God in such a terrible manner? Do we want to believe in a God who would seemingly-arbitrarily destroy a whole city because people wouldn’t come to a banquet, and then throw someone out of the banquet who did come, because he wasn’t appropriately dressed? These are good questions, and when we have so many urgent questions, we know that the Gospel is trying to teach us something. So let’s get at it.

First of all, it’s important to know that this parable isn’t intended to be taken literally, of course. We don’t want to draw a direct analogy here. Don’t read it as saying, “If you don’t behave, God is going to put you to an ugly death, burn your city, and leave you to the place where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” Obviously, Jesus is using hyperbole here – he likes to employ literary devices to get our attention, and that’s exactly what it happening. So even though we shouldn’t draw a direct analogy, we should sit up and take notice – that’s the whole point.

Let’s imagine the story happening in our day. Suppose you were to receive an invitation from the President of the United States to attend the wedding of one of his children. Regardless of how you may feel about the President, you’re probably somewhat unlikely to turn down the invitation. You might have respect for the office, or a curiosity of how opulent an affair this would be, and you’re unlikely to get a better dinner offer. Well that’s how the people in the story should have reacted to the invitation from the king, but they didn’t. Instead they found all sorts of lame excuses, and some of them even went so far as to murder the messengers!

Jesus is speaking rather directly to the Jews, and especially to their leaders. He is saying that they were the first to be invited. But they had all sorts of excuses for not showing up to the banquet. They couldn’t be bothered to turn away from the distractions of their lives to accept the invitation that was theirs by right. Not only that, but along the way, some of them went so far as to murder the prophets who were the messengers of the invitation, so that they wouldn’t have to bear their reproach. There could be no bigger affront to our King than to turn away so completely. Therefore, Jesus says, the invitation goes out to all the world.

So what is this all about for us, then? Well, here’s the message. The marriage that is intended is the marriage of God to the world. He longs for us to become one flesh with him, so that we can inherit the eternity of grace for which we were created. And the banquet is, of course, the Eucharist, which celebrates that marriage and nourishes us to live the Gospel and carry the Cross and make our way to heaven, our true home. That is the feast of rich food and choice wines that we hear of in today’s first reading. That invitation has been put out to all of us, wandering along wherever we might be on our life’s journey, and we have been told that the feast is ready for all of us, bad and good alike. It means that no matter how far we have wandered, if we accept the invitation, we can join the banquet.

But only certain attire is suitable. We can’t be putting on the ugliness of the world: sin and immorality and self-concern. That will only lead to wailing and grinding of teeth. Instead we must clothe ourselves with the wedding garment that is Christ Jesus. None of our own garments are going to get us to heaven, but only the beauty of our Lord Jesus Christ, whose urgent desire is to make us one with our God. It would have been just for our God to leave us off the invitation list entirely, distracted from him as we are. But our God will do no such thing: instead he clothes us in our Lord at our Baptism, gives us feast of rich food and choice wines in the Eucharist, and invites us to become one with him in a wedding covenant that takes us to our eternal home.

And so in preparation for today’s Eucharist, maybe we can take some time in the offering to accept the invitation of our Lord and to put on Christ Jesus so that we might worthily partake of the Banquet.

Monday of the Twenty-seventh Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

What a wonderful instruction for Jesus to give us this morning.  “Go and do likewise.” Jesus is telling us that those who hear the Gospel must also live it, or it is useless.  Those who do not go out and do likewise are like the foolish Galatians in today’s first reading who seem to be abandoning the Gospel and replacing it with all kinds of other rules, including circumcision, that are mere appearances of holiness.  Those of us who would call ourselves disciples of the Lord must do better than that.  We must indeed “go and do likewise.”

We’ve all heard the story of the Good Samaritan umpteen times so it may all too easily go in one ear and out the other.  But we really must hear what Jesus is saying in this parable if we are to get what living the Christian life is all about.  The good person in the story is one that Jesus’ hearers would have expected to be anything but good: the very name “Samaritan” was synonymous with being bad.  So for the Samaritan to come out as the good guy was something that made his hearers stand up and take notice.

Yet it was this person, who was considered to be less-than-good, that knew instinctively the right thing to do.  Compassion for others is part of the natural law, something that every person should possess, Christian or not, and for Christians it is certainly foundational to living the Gospel.  Turning one’s back on those in need is reprehensible and any who do that are not hearing what the Gospel is teaching us.

The Gospel is not merely for our edification; it is for our instruction.  Those of us who would dare to hear it must be willing to go and do likewise.

Respect Life Sunday

Today’s readings

Today is Respect Life Sunday, and so I want to do more of a sermon than a homily. A sermon speaks about an issue, while a homily is based on the readings. Even so, I would like to begin this reflection with these beautiful words from today’s second reading: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” We can be so distracted by things that seem good that really aren’t all that good, things that seem important that are really just sweating the small stuff, and God would have us look instead at what is lovely, gracious, excellent and worthy of praise – in short, God would have us reflect on what he has created and know that this is the greatest gift, the most important thing we could be busied about.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us: “The dignity of man rests above all on the fact that he is called to communion with God. This invitation to converse with God is addressed to man as soon as he comes into being. For if man exists, it is because God has created him through love, and through love continues to hold him in existence. He cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and entrusts himself to his creator.” (CCC, 27; cf. Gaudium et Spes 19.1) Life is the greatest good we have because it is God who created life, every life, from the tiniest embryo to the elderly person in the final stages of life. We reverence life, respect life, reaffirm life, because human life is the best thing there is on this whole big earth, the most magnificent of all God’s wonderful creation.

The basis for the movement to respect life, of course, is the fifth commandment: You shall not kill (Ex 20:13). The Catechism is very specific: “Scripture specifies the prohibition contained in the fifth commandment: ‘Do not slay the innocent and the righteous.’ The deliberate murder of an innocent person is gravely contrary to the dignity of the human being, to the golden rule, and to the holiness of the Creator. The law forbidding it is universally valid: it obliges each and everyone, always and everywhere.” (CCC 2261) And that would seem simple enough, don’t you think? God said not to kill another human being, and so refraining from doing so reverences his gift of life and obeys his commandment.

But life isn’t that simple. Life is a deeply complex issue involving a right to life, a quality of life, a reverence for life, and sanctity of life. Jesus himself stirs up the waters of complexity with his own take on the commandment. In Matthew’s Gospel, he tells us: “You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill: and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment.” (Mt 5:21-22)

Our Savior’s instruction on life calls us to make an examination of conscience. We may proclaim ourselves as exemplary witnesses to the sanctity of life because we have never murdered anyone nor participated in an abortion. And those are good starts. But if we let it stop there, then the words of Jesus that I just quoted are our condemnation. The church teaches that true respect for life revolves around faithfulness to the spirit of the fifth commandment. The Catechism tells us, “Every human life, from the moment of conception until death, is sacred because the human person has been willed for its own sake in the image and likeness of the living and holy God.” (CCC 2319)

The issues that present themselves under the heading of respecting life are many. We are called to put aside racism and stereotyping, to reach out to the homeless, to advocate for health care for all people, to put an end – once and for all! – to abortion, capital punishment, war, terrorism and genocide, to recognize that euthanasia is not the same thing as mercy, to promote the strength of family life and the education of all young people, to provide food for those who hunger. We Catholics must accept the totality of the Church’s teaching of respecting life, or we can never hope for a world that is beautiful or grace filled.

We pro-life Catholics are called to go above and beyond what seems comfortable in order to defend life. And so we must all ask ourselves, are there lives that we have not treated as sacred? Have we harbored anger in our hearts against our brothers and sisters? What have we done to fight poverty, hunger and homelessness? Have we insisted that those who govern us treat war as morally repugnant, only to be used in the most severe cases and as a last resort? Have we engaged in stereotypes or harbored thoughts based on racism and prejudice? Have we insisted that legislators ban the production of human fetuses to be used as biological material? Have we been horrified that a nation with our resources still regularly executes its citizens as a way of fighting crime? Have we done everything in our power to be certain that no young woman should ever have to think of abortion as her only choice when she is facing hard times? Have we given adequate care to elder members of our family and our society so that they would not face their final days in loneliness, nor come to an early death for the sake of convenience? Have we avoided scandal so as to prevent others from being led to evil?

Every one of these issues is a life issue, brothers and sisters, and we who would be known to be respecters of life are on for every single one of them, bar none. The Church’s teaching on the right to life is not something that we can approach like we’re in a cafeteria. We must accept and reverence and live the whole of the teaching, or be held liable for every breach of it. If we are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem. On this day of prayer for the sanctity of life, our prayer must perhaps be first for ourselves that we might live the Church’s teaching with absolute integrity in every moment of our lives.

Our God has known us and formed us from our mother’s womb, from that very first moment of conception. Our God will be with us and will sustain us until our dying breath. In life and in death, we belong to the Lord … Every part of our lives belongs to the Lord. Our call is a clear one. We must constantly and consistently bear witness to the sanctity of life at every stage. We must be people who lead the world to a whole new reality, in the presence of the One who has made all things new.

Saint Francis of Assisi

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel reading, in which the seventy-two disciples return from their missionary journey announcing the good news and taking nothing with them for the journey, was one that today’s saint, Saint Francis of Assisi, took to heart. Francis’s life was devoted to poverty of spirit, serving the poor, and proclaiming the Gospel. Saint Francis sought to follow the Gospel as closely as he possibly could, making every effort to live as our Lord lived and even to die as he died.

Saint Francis’s conversion came when he was very young. He had contracted a serious illness, and spent a good deal of time in intense and difficult prayer. In that time of prayer, our Lord called Francis to renounce everything that people who live according to the flesh tend to desire, and to embrace everything that the world tended to shrink from. He did this by embracing an leper, and piled all of his earthly possessions – including the clothes he was wearing – before his father, who had demanded that he give restitution for the gifts he had given to the poor.

Prayer before the cross in the crumbling church of San Damiano led Saint Francis to seek to reform the Church. Our Lord told him to “go out and build up my house, for it is nearly falling down.” Francis saw that our Lord was not merely referring to that church, even though it was nearly in ruins. He saw the ruin of the Church as a whole at a difficult period of history and sought to build it back up by authentically preaching and living the Gospel.

He didn’t seek to found a religious order, but it happened anyway. People were drawn to the way that he lived the faith, and so he wrote a rule of life for his followers which began as a collection of texts from the Gospels. When he was pressed to form the Franciscan order, he did it willingly and did everything he needed to do to create the legal structure the Church required.

During the last years of his life, Saint Francis received the stigmata. During his last hours, he received permission to have his clothing removed so that he could die naked on the earth, as Our Lord died. On his deathbed, he prayed the last addition to his Canticle of the Sun, “Be praised, O Lord, for our sister death.”

Saint Francis is well-known for the Canticle of the Sun, and his famous prayer. But he is also credited with composing the song we began with this morning, “All Creatures of our God and King.” His devotion to the Church, to the gospel, to the creatures of the earth, and most especially to our Lord inspires people even today. And his dedication to rebuilding the Church is one that our current pope took on when he chose his papal name. Through the intercession of Saint Francis, may we all find true joy in following our Lord and his call in all things.

Friday of the Twenty-sixth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings (Mass for the school children.)

Today I want to talk to you about one of the most important virtues in the life of a person who follows Jesus. And that virtue is humility. Humility is the antidote to the sin of pride, which is one of the most devastating sins there is. When we commit the sin of pride, what we are doing is saying we don’t need God, and when we don’t need God we put him out of our lives completely and can’t have a relationship with God. When that happens, we are destined for nothing but sadness, which is why humility is so important.

Humility helps us to recognize that God is in control. It helps us to rejoice that God takes care of us in good times and bad, and that he helps us to be the best that we can be in every facet of life.

In our readings today, Job has to be reminded of humility. He’s had some really bad things happen to him in the part of the story that comes before our reading today, and so he takes God to task for it. He lectures God about how God should care more for him, since he has done nothing but love God all his life long. God reminds Job that God sees the big picture, and Job cannot. God reminds Job that God knows how to do his job, and he has never needed Job’s advice on how to do it.

We do the same thing all the time. When we are having hard times, our prayer can sound a lot like telling God how to do his job. “Dear Lord, help Susie to remember that I’m her friend and she should be spending more time with me.” “Please God tell my teacher to give me an A on that test.” We’ve all done it. But we have to remember that God sees the big picture and he knows how everything is going to turn out.

We also have to remember, just as much as Job did, that even though God sees the big picture and everything that’s out there, he also sees us too. Even with everything happening in the world, God still sees us and loves us and cares about us individually. God still wants us to be happy with him forever and wants to love us more than we can ever imagine.

All we have to do is embrace a little humility. When we pray, we should remember that God knows the times and seasons of our lives and that he wants us to be happy. Even when we are going through hard times, as often we will, he will work in our lives to bring us to happiness, if we let him do it in his time. And along the way, he won’t ever leave us. That’s all that we need. Because if God is walking next to us, nothing in heaven or on earth can ever take us away from God and his love for us.

God was with Jesus even when he was dying on the Cross. God showed his love for Jesus by raising him from the dead. And all of that was a foretaste of our own lives. Yes, sometimes we may have to go through our own little crosses, but God won’t abandon us, and he will raise us up. All we have to do is let him, and not try to tell him how to work everything out. He knows how better than we do.

The Holy Guardian Angels

Today’s readings: Exodus 23:20-23; Psalm 91; Matthew 18:1-5, Matthew 18:10

“For God commands the angels to guard you in all your ways.” These are incredibly comforting words that the Psalmist sings to us today. God never allows anything to overshadow us, never misses any event of our lives. Moreover, he commands the angels, his servants, to watch over and guard us in all our ways. Today we celebrate that the angels keep us safe and lead us ultimately to God himself.

I love the feast of the Guardian Angels, because my Guardian Angel was probably the first devotion that I learned. I remember my mother teaching me the prayer. Say it with me if you know it:

Angel of God,
my guardian dear,
To whom God’s love
commits me here,
Ever this day,
be at my side,
To watch and guard,
To rule and guide.

The impetus for today’s feast is summed up in the first line of the first reading. Hear it again:

See, I am sending an angel before you,
to guard you on the way
and bring you to the place I have prepared.

From the earliest days of the Church, there has always been the notion of an angel whose purpose was to guide people, to intercede for them before God, and to present them to God at death. This notion began to be really enunciated by the monastic tradition, with the help of St. Benedict, St. Bernard of Clairvaux and others. It is during this monastic period that devotion to the angels took its present form.

Many of us have probably moved over on our seats to make room for our Guardian Angel. As amusing as that may be, the concept of an angel to guard and guide us is essential to our faith. The gift of the Guardian Angels is a manifestation of the love and mercy of God. Devotion to the Guardian Angels, then, is not just for children. We adults should feel free to call on our angels for intercession and guidance. We should continue to rely on that angel right up to death, when our angel will present us to God. We hear that very prayer in the Rite of Christian Burial:

“May the angels lead you into paradise;
may the martyrs come to welcome you
and take you to the holy city,
the new and eternal Jerusalem.”

May the Guardian Angels always intercede for us. And, as we hear in today’s Gospel, may our angels always look upon the face of our heavenly Father.

Blessed be God in His angels and in His saints.

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