The Twenty-ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

At the heart of today’s Gospel reading is the question of whether or not we as disciples of Jesus are willing to go where he’s leading us. Much could be said about the posturing of James and John to get the good seats in the kingdom. But their ambition is not the point here. The point, as Jesus illustrates, is that his kingdom is not one of honor and glory. His kingdom is about suffering and redemption, and then honor and glory. To get to the resurrection, you have to go through the cross. And the most honored one is the one who serves everyone else along the way. Let me illustrate with an admittedly somewhat unflattering story about yours truly.

When I was in seminary, there were a number of nice, fancy dinners that would follow important events in the school year. So we would have them after a class received ministries like Lector or Acolyte, or after Mass for a reunion of 25-year or 50-year jubilarians. At each of these dinners, the table would be set up very fancy, and there would be an apron draped over the back of one of the chairs at the table. The idea was, the person sitting in that seat would be expected to put on the apron and serve the others at the table.

When I first got to seminary, when it came time for these dinners, I would rush to get to the refectory so that I didn’t have to sit in that spot and serve the others. I know, not very pastor-like, was it? But one day, I reflected on those last two lines of today’s Gospel: For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. And in that moment, I realized that it was indeed service that I was called to do, and so maybe I could get started by serving my brothers at table.

From that day forward, things changed for me. I would still rush to get over to the refectory as soon as I could, but that was so that I could sit in that seat and serve the others. Not only did I take on the server role, but I actually found joy in it. When you let go of thinking only about yourself, you find that you can actually receive many blessings. The blessings I found were that those dinners were a lot more fun; I had some wonderful conversations not only with the people at my table, but also with the kitchen staff.

Jesus in our Gospel reading today is calling us all to sit in that seat at the table, to put on our aprons, and help serve everyone else. That flies in the face of our entitlement, it tears down the notion of looking out for number one, it means that inconvenience for the sake of others has to become a real option in our daily lives.

Jesus told us that whoever wishes to be great among us must be the servant of all. He washed the feet of his disciples on his last night on this earth; he died on that cross for all of us. We are called to follow his ways if we want to follow him to the kingdom. Let’s none of us be afraid of taking that seat at the table and putting on the apron.

Saturday of the Twenty-eighth Week of Ordinary Time: Make a Difference Day

Today’s Readings

Anything worthwhile costs us something, most especially our faith.  If we are serious about it, if we love God and want to be caught up in his life, we’re going to have to pay for it in some way.  Jesus speaks to that in today’s Gospel.  One of the biggest costs to us, I think, is our comfort zone.  To really live the faith, we have to get out of that comfort and do what God wants of us.  In the Gospel, Jesus was telling his disciples that they would have to give witness to him.  And they understood that that would cost them something – perhaps cost them their lives.

We disciples are also going to have to pay some price for living our faith.  Probably not something as drastic as getting dragged before synagogues, rulers and authorities, but something fairly costly for us.  For us today, perhaps that cost is giving up a Saturday to clean church pews, or trim a neighbor’s hedges, or sing songs at a nursing home.

Today, on our Make a Difference Day, we take our give strong witness to our faith in our work. As we come together to pack meals at Feed My Starving Children, spend time in adoration praying for our community, or clean up our parish grounds, our presence and concern may be the way God is using us to get someone’s attention and see his presence in her or his life.  As Saint Therese of Liseaux used to encourage her sisters, we can make a big difference by doing little things with great love.

Jesus tells us that we will receive gifts of the Holy Spirit that enable us to speak on behalf of our faith. As we engage in whatever we have signed up to do today, that same Spirit may give us gifts that answer prayers we didn’t even know we had in our hearts, and definitely answer the prayers of others. Our work gives witness to who Christ is in our lives; Christ who loves us first and loves us best.  Sharing that love in the work we do today is a powerful way to help others know the presence of Christ in their lives.

Living our faith is always going to cost us something and that something could well be status or popularity, or at least the wondering glance from people who aren’t ready to accept the faith.  But the volumes that we speak by living our faith anyway might just lay the groundwork for conversion and become a conduit of grace.  We are told that we don’t have to hammer out all the words we want to say; that the Holy Spirit will give us eloquence that we can only dream of.  And it’s true, if we trust God, if we live our faith when it’s popular or unpopular, we will have the Spirit and the words.  God only knows what can be accomplished in those grace-filled moments!  I pray that you see Christ everywhere as you witness today.

St. Isaac Jogues, St. John de Brébeuf & Companions, Martyrs

St. Isaac and St. John were among eight missionaries who worked among the Huron and Iroquois Indians in the New World in the seventeenth century. They were devoted to their work and were accomplishing many conversions. The conversions, though, were not welcomed by the tribes, and eventually St. Isaac was captured and imprisoned by the Iroquois for months. He was moved from village to village and was tortured and beaten all along the way. Eventually he was able to escape and return to France. But zeal for his mission compelled him to return, and to resume his work among the Indians when a peace treaty was signed in 1646. His belief that the peace treaty would be observed turned out to be false hope, and he was captured by a Mohawk war party and beheaded.

St. John worked among the Iroquois and ministered to them amid a smallpox epidemic. As a scholastic Jesuit, he was able to compose a catechism and write a dictionary in the Huron language, which made possible many conversions. He was eventually captured, tortured and killed by the Iroquois.

St. Isaac, St. John and their companions inspire us to take up the mission: to make Christ known, relying on the treasure of grace he brings us and promises us, and accepting that this world’s glory is not worth our aspirations. This will not be easy, of course, in a culture that largely rejects the promises of heaven in its pursuit of instant gratification. But perhaps the witness of these French Jesuits would help us to bravely witness to the Truth with the same zeal for the mission that they did. Our mission may not be to a culture so different to us as the Indian cultures were to these men, but that mission is none the less vital to the salvation of the world.

Saint Luke, evangelist

Today’s readings

Saint Luke, of course, is best known for contributing two major works to the New Testament: the third Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles.  In these works, we can see the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, along with his proclamation of the kingdom and the many graces he came to pour out on humankind, and also the life of the early Church, the first community as they strove to make the person and teachings of Jesus present to every creature on earth.  Luke traveled with Saint Paul, and along the way interviewed many eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life and recorded them all meticulously.

Luke introduces his Gospel with these words: “Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received.”  The Acts of the Apostles is introduced similarly, and addressed to Theophilus as well.  We don’t know who Theophilus was, but he appears to have been a convert to the Way, and may even have been a powerful person or a rich benefactor.  But what’s interesting is his name: Theophilus, which translates roughly as a “lover of God.”

That makes these wonderful works accessible to all of us, who presumably are also lovers of God. We will be reading from Luke’s Gospel on most of the Sundays of the upcoming Liturgical Year, and I always love this cycle of readings. The third Gospel speaks to me in different ways than the others do, and it includes details, glimpses of Jesus that are particular to Luke alone.

“Your friends make known, O Lord, the glorious splendor of your Kingdom,” the Psalmist says today.  And that is very true of Saint Luke; we have much for which to be grateful to his faith, his preaching, and his meticulous investigation and recording.

The Twenty-seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

If you’ve been to any number of Church weddings, you have probably heard today’s first reading, and part of the Gospel proclaimed.  Obviously we usually leave out the part about divorce, but these readings are quite popular for weddings.  The reason, of course, is that the story is about how man and woman were created for each other.  The totality of the readings we have today, though, are challenging.  We do have that piece about divorce there, and it does present a challenge in these days when so many marriages fail.

Jesus’ point here is that the Christian disciple is called to a level of faithfulness that transcends the difficulties of life.  We can’t just throw in the towel and walk away when things are difficult: marriage vows make demands of people – I say that in every wedding homily I give.  In the very same way, ordination promises make demands of priests.  We have to pray for the grace to be faithful in good times and in bad.  But sometimes it doesn’t work out that way.

That being the case, I want to take this opportunity to make some points and dispel some myths about the Church’s teaching on marriage, divorce, remarriage, and annulment.  I do this because I know it is the source of pain for so many people, perhaps some people among us today.  It’s important that we all understand these teachings so that we can help one another live faithful lives and avoid making judgments about others which are best left to our Lord.

The first myth is that divorce is a sin that excommunicates a person from the Church and does not allow them to participate in the life of the Church or receive the sacraments.  But divorce is not a sin in and of itself.  It may well, however, be the result of sin, and a consequence of sin.  Whatever led to the divorce, on either or both sides, may in fact have been sinful.  Those who are divorced, however, remain Catholics in good standing and are free to receive the sacraments including the Eucharist, sacramental absolution in the sacrament of Penance, and the Anointing of the Sick.  However, they remain married to their partner in the eyes of the Church and are not free to remarry, unless they receive an annulment.  Those who remarry without an annulment have taken themselves out of communion with the Church and then, and only then, are not free to receive the sacraments.

The second myth is that an annulment is really just “Catholic Divorce.”  Annulment is instead recognition by the Church that a valid marriage, for some reason or another, had never taken place.  The diocesan policy document on annulment defines it in this way: “Although not every marriage is a sacrament, every marriage (Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Non-Believer, etc.) is presumed to be a valid marriage.  The good of all concerned (spouses, children, in-laws, society, the Church, etc.) demands this presumption.  In every presumption, the opposite may be true.  If sufficient evidence can be shown that a particular marriage is invalid, the original presumption no longer holds.  Therefore, when it can be shown that a particular marriage is not a true marriage, or not a sacrament, or not consummated, then it is possible for the Tribunal to declare that the parties are free to marry in the Catholic Church.” (Declaration of Nullity Proceedings, Diocese of Joliet , p.3)  The annulment basically states that a valid marriage never happened in the first place, usually because the parties for some reason were not free to marry.  These reasons may include extreme immaturity, a previous and previously undiscovered prior marriage, or entering marriage with no intention of remaining faithful or of having children.  Pope Francis added some other reasons a few years ago, including a fictitious marriage that enabled one of the parties to enter into citizenship, a very brief marriage, stubborn persistence in an extramarital affair, and the procurement of an abortion to avoid procreation.  In addition, Pope Francis somewhat simplified the process of an annulment in order to decrease the amount of time it takes to proceed.

A third myth is that those who are marrying a non-Catholic who had been previously married are automatically free to marry, since the non-Catholic’s marriage did not take place in the Catholic Church.  But as I just said, the Church presumes marriages between non-Catholics to be valid, so their previous marriage would have to be annulled by the Catholic Church before a Catholic is free to marry them.  This is a very often misunderstood principle.

A fourth myth is that the Church always insists that the parties stay together.  Certainly, that is the Church’s preference: today’s readings show that the permanence of the marriage relationship is the intent of God.  However, we all understand that there are circumstances in which that may not be possible.  The Church would never counsel someone to stay together in a relationship that is abusive and puts one of the parties in danger.  That is completely unacceptable. If you are in an abusive relationship, whether the abuse is physical, verbal, or emotional, you need to seek help and safety.  The Church will support you in that decision.  If you find yourself in that kind of relationship, whether you are married or not, I want you to see someone on our staff immediately.

Finally, there are some misconceptions about annulment proceedings that I want to clear up.  First, if you do receive an annulment, that does not mean your children are illegitimate.  The Church sees children as a gift from God, and thus never takes away their status as sons and daughters of God.  Second, people think annulments are too expensive.  They are not.  The cost of an annulment in our diocese is around $700, not the tens of thousands of dollars people had thought was necessary in the past.  But, under no circumstances will an annulment be denied if a person cannot meet those expenses.  Having said that, I always tell people that there are other costs in an annulment, most of which are emotional.  An annulment dredges up all sorts of things that may have been suppressed, and that’s never going to be painless.  But that kind of pain is part and parcel of any healing, so when you are in the right place for it, if you think your marriage was invalid, you should speak to someone who can help you begin the process.  That person is called a field advocate, and here at Saint Mary’s, that would be me, Father John or Father Mike.  Please feel free to speak with us any time.

What it all comes down to is this: we must all do what we were created for.  Relationships and vocations are opportunities to do that, but to be effective, we must choose to be faithful.  And we must choose faithfulness each and every day – maybe even every moment.  When life throws stuff at us, as indeed it will, we must choose to be faithful anyway.  But if brokenness destroys that grace, we should turn to the Church for guidance, reconciliation, and mercy.

Just as man and woman cling to one another and become one flesh, so all of us are called to cling to God and become one with him. The Sacrament of Matrimony foreshadows the relationship that God has with the Church and the world.  We are all called to be caught up in God’s life and live forever with him.

Saturday of the Twenty-sixth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

During the summer before my final year of seminary, I worked as a hospital chaplain, in a program called Clinical Pastoral Education.  Most seminarians are required to do it.  It ended up being a pretty rough summer for me and the other men and women in the student chaplain group: we had a record number of deaths and tragic accidents to deal with, and it was, as you might expect, getting us pretty down.  Then for morning prayer one day, one of my fellow students brought in today’s Gospel, and we reflected especially on the end part of the reading:

“Blessed are the eyes that see what you see.
For I say to you,
many prophets and kings desired to see what you see,
but did not see it,
and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”

The more we explored that reading, the more we became aware that, even in the midst of all of the very real tragedy we were experiencing, we were also experiencing some very real great blessing.  How true that is for all of us in life.  We tend to dwell on the negative things we are seeing, and no one would ever doubt that we all have to see some pretty rotten stuff in our lives, some people it seems more so than others.  But the problem comes when we let go of the blessing that comes too.  We people of faith have to be convinced that God is with us even in, perhaps especially in, our darkest moments, and gives us glimpses of the kingdom of God that perhaps others don’t get to see.  Blessed are our eyes when we get to see them!

Job certainly could have had a hard time seeing the blessings around him. He expressed that in our first readings this past week, but today puts himself right with God.  We could be like him, forgetting the blessings.  But we must also be like him remembering God.  We can see God in the Eucharist, we can see God in the person sitting next to us, we can see God in the graced moments of our day.  Maybe we just need to open our eyes to see God more often, because he is there, longing to bless our eyes with the vision of him.

Saint Thérèse of Liseaux, Virgin and Doctor of the Church

Today, we celebrate the memorial of Saint Thérèse of Liseaux, the Little Flower, who was one who sought to proclaim the Lord in every simple act of her life.  Saint Thérèse had a child-like faith: child-like, that is, in her trusting obedience to God’s will, even in the smallest of matters.  She truly believed that small acts of faith and love would work wondrous miracles for the Kingdom of God.

Thérèse was a very sickly young lady.  A childhood illness left her weak for the rest of her life, and during her last year on earth, she was dying of tuberculosis.  She entered the convent at the age of fifteen, and when she died she was just twenty-four years old.  Yet in that short span of time she wrote much about her faith and encouraged others to embrace a simplicity of life and a dedicated obedience to God’s will.  In 1997, Pope John Paul II named her a Doctor of the Church, one of just three women to have that special title.

Saint Thérèse was not one who sought the limelight.  She did not seek to make a name for herself or become anything other than what God wanted her to be.  In her view, even the most menial tasks in the convent could be transformed into great acts of love.  And her preference for hidden sacrifice did indeed convert souls.  Saint Thérèse is one of the most beloved saints in the Church.  Her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, is read and loved throughout the world.

Saint Thérèse’s rule of life, doing little things with great love, is one that can be such a freeing experience for all of us.  Today, we pray that we too can find joy in the routine and menial parts of our day, doing them with great love for the glory of the Kingdom of God.