Saint John Bosco, Priest

Saint John Bosco was a master catechist and 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 was encouraged to enter the priesthood for the specific purpose of teaching young boys and forming them in the faith.  This 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.

Saint John Bosco was tireless in his devotion to teaching this truth to young people.  In today’s Eucharist, may our thanksgiving be for the teachers in our lives, but perhaps we can also commend the teachers and catechists of today’s young people to the patronage of Saint John Bosco.

Monday of the Fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

We could look at today’s Gospel reading as an interesting miracle story of Jesus casting a demon out of a long-possessed man. But I think we should dig a little deeper than that this morning. Because many of us, I think, have to tangle with the unclean spirit from the tombs that infests us from time to time. If you’ve been in that situation, you probably can relate to having chained that spirit down with mighty strong chains, only to have them smashed to pieces. Then that unclean spirit starts crying out once again and injuring us in the process.

For some, that demon is some kind of addiction. Or perhaps it’s a pattern of sin. Maybe it’s an unhealthy relationship. Whatever it is, there is nothing we can do to stop it all on our own. None of us is strong enough to subdue it. It is instructive that, when Jesus asks the demon what his name is, the demon responds in the plural: “we are Legion.” Indeed, legion are the demons that can torment us, legion are the past hurts and resentments, legion are the sins, legion are the broken relationships. 

When we find ourselves in that state of affairs, we have to know that human power is useless to subdue our demons. We have to do the only thing that works, which is to beg Jesus to cast those demons out. I often tell people in Confession that it’s okay to pray for yourself and that God doesn’t expect us to subdue our demons on our own. Jesus is longing to cast out our legion demons, all we have to do is ask. The voice of the psalmist today sums up the peace that can come from this Gospel: “Let your hearts take comfort, all who hope in the Lord.

The Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

We have a pretty late Lent this year.  Ash Wednesday is not until March 1st.  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.  I think 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 perhaps 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, it was even the sin of Lucifer in the first place, 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 friendship 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.

So 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 indigestion 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 lose all the weight you want in just minutes a day.  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 put ourselves first.  If this is the kind of message we get every time we turn on a television, or surf the internet, 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?

Now this is an important point: 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 that consumes our society and us on a daily basis.  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.  Blessed, happy are we; rejoice and be glad!

Saints Timothy and Titus, Bishops

Today’s readings

The sign of a good leader is her or his ability to perpetuate their activity.  A good corporate leader is future-minded, and lays the groundwork for his successor to carry the company forward.  A good parent raises children that can be set free one day to be successful and prudent in life, extending their integrity and love into the next generation.  Paul’s ministry was no different.  He knew he wouldn’t be around forever; indeed his ministry marked him for martyrdom.  And so in today’s saints, Timothy and Titus, he invests in leaders who will take the fledgling churches into the next generation.

During the fifteen years Saint Timothy worked with Saint Paul, he became one of his most faithful and trusted friends. He was sent on difficult missions by Paul—often in the face of great disturbance in local churches which Paul had founded.  Paul installed him as his representative at the Church of Ephesus.  Titus has the distinction of being a close friend and disciple of Paul as well as a fellow missionary.  Titus is seen as a peacemaker and capable administrator. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians affords an insight into the depth of his friendship with Titus, and the great fellowship they had in preaching the gospel.  When Paul was having trouble with the community at Corinth, Titus was the bearer of Paul’s severe letter and was successful in smoothing things out.  The Letter to Titus addresses him as the administrator of the Christian community on the island of Crete, charged with organizing it, correcting abuses, and appointing presbyter-bishops.

In today’s first reading from his second letter to Saint Timothy, Saint Paul shows his mentoring.  He reminds Timothy to “stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.  For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control.”  He urges his protégés to be strong and stand fast for the faith.  At the end of the reading, he also reminds them that they would indeed have to bear their share of hardship for the faith.

Just as Jesus said in today’s Gospel reading, Saints Timothy and Titus were the lamps placed on a lampstand.  They continued to pass on the light of faith that Jesus had given to Saint Paul in the feast we commemorated yesterday.  Through their intercession, and by their testimony in the Scriptures we read, they beckon us to shine that same light in our world.  It is always our turn to “proclaim God’s marvelous deeds to all the nations.”

The Conversion of Saint Paul, Apostle

Today’s readings

If we think that we are the ones who get to determine the direction of our lives, we are dead wrong.

Look at Saul: educated in all the finest Jewish schools, well-versed in the Law and the Prophets, and zealous for the faith to a fault. He was absolutely the model Jewish man and had credentials that came directly from the high priests. Everyone knew of him, and his fame – or infamy – spread all over the Judean countryside. He had participated in the stoning of St. Stephen, letting the cloaks of the ones stoning him be piled at his feet. He was bringing all the followers of Christ back in chains to be tried and punished for following this new way. He was even on his way to Damascus to collect “the brothers” – the apostles – and put them on trial. The man was greatly feared.

Look at Ananias. He was no fool. He was well-acquainted with Saul’s evil plans and did everything he could to stay out of his path. He obviously wanted to stay out of prison, but more than that, he wanted to keep people like Saul from destroying the community of the followers of Jesus. Ananias was every bit as zealous for the faith as Saul was.

They both knew the direction of their lives and thought they had it all planned out. But they were dead wrong.

God can take the most zealous and stable of us and throw our whole lives into confusion. He sometimes uses great means to get our attention and move us in a new direction. Like a bright light, or a vision. But sometimes he uses quiet words in prayer or the gentle nudging of a friend. Conversion is a life-long process for all of us, and in St. Paul’s and Annanias’s stories, we can see the danger of being too entrenched in what we think is right. The only judge of what is really right for us is God alone, and when we forget that, we might be in for a rude awakening.

The whole purpose of all of our lives, brothers and sisters, is to “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.” The way that we do that is to constantly listen for God’s voice and always be willing to go wherever he leads us.

Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children

Today’s readings

Today we observe the Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children.  This is a day that we cannot take lightly, and it is good that we begin it by celebrating Mass.  We all know the issue: so many children have been legally put to death since the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, millions of them, in fact.  Who knows how much our world is impoverished right now because those people never got to live?

Any confessor worth his salt will tell you how devastating abortion is on people.  Not just on the aborted baby; that goes without saying.  But it absolutely destroys the life of the mother, and very often the father as well.  As Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta has said, “Abortion kills twice. It kills the body of the baby and it kills the conscience of the mother.  Abortion is profoundly anti-women.  Three quarters of its victims are women: Half the babies and all the mothers.”

Abortion is not just one issue among many.  It is an issue of tremendous impact, because it has torn down the morality of our great country.  Listen again to St. Teresa on that issue: “But I feel that the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a war against the child, a direct killing of the innocent child, murder by the mother herself.

“And if we accept that a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another? How do we persuade a woman not to have an abortion? As always, we must persuade her with love and we remind ourselves that love means to be willing to give until it hurts. Jesus gave even His life to love us. So, the mother who is thinking of abortion, should be helped to love, that is, to give until it hurts her plans, or her free time, to respect the life of her child. The father of that child, whoever he is, must also give until it hurts.

“By abortion, the mother does not learn to love, but kills even her own child to solve her problems.

“And, by abortion, the father is told that he does not have to take any responsibility at all for the child he has brought into the world. That father is likely to put other women into the same trouble. So abortion just leads to more abortion.

“Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want. This is why the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion.”

That’s quite an earful.  She delivered that address at the National Prayer Breakfast in 1994, an occasion at which, I’m sure, then-President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary probably wished they were someplace else.  Any place.

Some object that we can’t just have anti-abortion sentiments and call them pro-life.  Their point is well-taken.  Sister Joan Chittister, O.S.B. has said: “I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”

But we can’t take that too far, either.  As Catholics, we don’t believe in either/or morality, it’s most often both/and.  We must pray to end abortion and take action to make sure the poor are taken care of.  Pope Francis would say the very same thing.

Jesus says words of parable in the Gospel reading today: “But no one can enter a strong man’s house to plunder his property unless he first ties up the strong man.”  We are strong men and women, and if we let ourselves get tied up by the enormity and the rhetoric, our house will be plundered.  We won’t get tied up of we pray.  And so today, we must pray to end abortion, we must pray for the healing of mothers and fathers who have had abortions, we must pray for forgiveness for our societal sins that allow abortion to be commonplace, we must pray for all children, especially those in poverty, and we must pray for that one mother who right now is considering abortion because she has no one to turn to in her fear and doesn’t know how she could ever care for a child.

Saint Anthony, Abbot 

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 had left him with an inheritance to take care of this. 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. He 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?