The Twenty-sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The past two weekends, we have had the first reading come from the book of the prophet Amos.  I love Amos.  He doesn’t mince words, and you can usually tell what he’s getting at right away.  Today, though, I think it’s a little harder to understand what he means.  The line that jumps out at me is the line, “Improvising to the music of the harp, like David, they devise their own accompaniment.”  It almost sounds like a good thing.  David, of course, was known to be a wonderful musician, so it seems like a good thing that they are able to devise their own accompaniments, right?

But listen to that line again: “Improvising to the music of the harp, like David, they devise their own accompaniment.” Again, it almost sounds like a good thing, but it isn’t at all. David could devise his own accompaniment, because he was singing those Psalms with the voice of God. But if everyone in our choir devised their own accompaniment, we’d have a cacophony. So here Amos is making the point that devising their own accompaniment meant that they listened to what they wanted to hear, they sang the song they wanted to sing, without any thought as to what was right.  They did whatever they wanted to do, because it seemed like God was blessing them.  It’s kind of like the expression, “she dances to her own music.” It’s not a compliment at all.

The rich man in today’s Gospel devised his own accompaniment too. He ignored poor Lazarus every single day of his life. He knew Lazarus’s need, and maybe he even thought he’d get around to helping Lazarus one day. Or maybe he thought, “What good can I do, I’m just one person?” Perhaps he thought, “If I give him something to eat, he’ll just be coming around looking for something to eat tomorrow.” He probably came up with all kinds of excuses about why he couldn’t help Lazarus right here and right now. He was devising his own accompaniment.

And we all know the story about the rich man. Someday becomes never. It’s eventually too late: poor Lazarus dies and goes to be with Father Abraham. But in an ironic twist of fate, the rich man also dies, and it seems like right around the same time. But it seems that Lazarus and the rich man end up in different places, doesn’t it? The rich man learns that devising one’s own accompaniment does not help one to sing a hymn of praise to the Lord, and his choice in life becomes his choice in the life to come. If one doesn’t choose to praise God in life, one won’t have that option in the life to come. Devising our own accompaniment comes with drastic consequences.

Even in death, the rich man is devising his own accompaniment.  Even now, he does not see Lazarus as anything more than a messenger to do his own bidding.  “Father Abraham,” he cries out, “have pity on me.  Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.”  When he learns that’s not possible, he tries another tack: “Then I beg you, father, send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.”  He never sees Lazarus as a brother, and that’s why they’re in different places.  That’s why there is that great chasm that Father Abraham talked about between them – the rich man built it himself!  Devising our own accompaniment means that we separate ourselves from the community, we literally excommunicate ourselves.

One of the principles of Catholic social teaching is solidarity with the poor and needy.  This was a topic that the prophets, like Amos, preached about all the time. Solidarity with the poor is the teaching that says we need to be one with our brothers and sisters, and not ignore their presence among us. I became very aware of this as I walked around downtown Chicago one time. I had come with some money to give to the poor. But on the train ride home, I realized that I had just quickly given some of them some money, and never really looked at any of them. They were my brothers and sisters, and I didn’t take the time to look them in the eye. Solidarity calls me – calls all of us – to do just that. We have to step out of that universe that we have set in motion around us and realize that Christ is present in each person God puts in our path, particularly and especially in the person who is in need. We have to step out of our own cacophony where we have devised our own accompaniments and step into the symphony that God has set in motion. 

God knows about this principle of solidarity. Because God holds it so dear, he sent his only Son to take on flesh – our flesh – so that he could live in solidarity with us – all of us who are poor and needy in our sins. He shared in all of our joys and sorrows, and reaffirmed that human life was good. Life was made good at creation and remains good to this day. But if God could take on flesh in solidarity with us, then we must take on the burdens of our brothers and sisters and live in solidarity with them.  We must abandon our own accompaniments and sing the song of our brothers and sisters in need.

In our second reading today, St. Paul tells us to “pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness. Compete well for the faith. Lay hold of eternal life, to which you were called when you made the noble confession in the presence of many witnesses.” We have to be serious about living our faith and proclaiming the Gospel in everything that we do. In solidarity with all of our brothers and sisters, we must sing to God’s own accompaniment and join in the wonderful symphony that is the heavenly worship.

Saint Vincent de Paul, Priest

Mass for the school children.

Saint Vincent de Paul is one of my favorite saints. He knew what it meant to be a priest, and he lived it every day. But he didn’t start out wanting to be like that; he had a conversation experience along the way.

Back in the days when Saint Vincent became a priest, they had a rather easy life and were quite wealthy. This was the expectation he had when he was ordained. That was his goal in some ways until he heard the deathbed confession of a dying servant. That encounter led him to realize the extremely great needs of poor people in France at that time.

That same servant’s Master had been persuaded by his wife to support the creation of a group of missionary priests to serve the poor. The countess asked Father Vincent to lead the group, and although he declined at first, he later returned to do it. That group is now known as the Congregation of the Mission or the Vincentians. They took vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and stability and devoted themselves to serving the poor in smaller towns and villages.

Later, along with Saint Louise de Marillac, he organized the rich women of Paris to collect funds for his missionary projects, founded several hospitals, collected relief funds for the victims of war and ransomed over 1,200 galley slaves from North Africa. Over time, this became a parish-based society for the spiritual and physical relief of the poor and sick. This became the inspiration for the organization now known as the Saint Vincent de Paul Society. You know the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, because we collect clothing for them every year.

Saint Vincent was also very interested in helping with the formation of priests. He wanted the priests to realize the needs of the poor and to know that the idea of becoming rich wasn’t part of priestly life. He converted his attitudes from the cynical and even slothful ambitions of the clergy in those days, and turned instead to follow his true passion, bringing Christ to the needy and the downtrodden.

We too are called to be true servants of our Lord, by looking out for the needs of those who maybe don’t have as many advantages as we do, and by caring for the poor and being true friends of those in need.

Saint Pius of Pietraclina (Padre Pio)

Today’s readings

At the age of 15, Francesco Forgione joined the Capuchins and took the name of Pio. He was ordained in 1910 and was drafted during World War I. After he was discovered to have tuberculosis, he was discharged. In 1917 he was assigned to the friary in San Giovanni Rotondo.

On September 20, 1918, as he was making his thanksgiving after Mass, Padre Pio had a vision of Jesus. When the vision ended, he had the stigmata in his hands, feet and side. Padre Pio rarely left the friary after he received the stigmata, but busloads of people soon began coming to see him. He would hear confessions for as much as ten hours a day; penitents had to take a number so that their confession could be heard. Many of them have said that Padre Pio knew details of their lives that they had never mentioned.

Padre Pio died on September 23, 1968, and was canonized in 2002.

There’s a great little line in the gospel reading today that says, “Take care, then, how you hear.” It almost seems like a throw-away line, but really, I believe, it’s an essential instruction from Jesus. We disciples are to take care how we hear. Not what we hear, although that’s probably part of it, but how we hear.

Do we really hear the Word of the Lord? Does the gospel get into our head and our heart and stir things up? Do the words of Jesus get our blood flowing and our imaginations racing? Does hearing the gospel make us long for a better place, a more peaceful kingdom, a just society? That’s how it worked for Padre Pio, and that’s how it’s supposed to work for all of us disciples.

Psalm 19 says, “your words, Lord, are spirit and life.” We believe that the Word proclaimed is the actual presence of Christ. We are not just hearing words about Jesus, we are hearing Jesus, we are experiencing the presence of God right here, right now, among us. If we open the door of our ears and our hearts, we might just find God doing something amazing in us and through us.

Take care, then, how you hear.

The Twenty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Jesus tells us some things about discipleship today that, quite honestly, I think might make a person think twice about becoming a disciple.  The first two come right at the beginning of the gospel reading: “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.  Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”  And then, right at the end, he says: “Anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.”  He’s pretty clear: if we’re not willing to do these things, then we cannot be his disciples.

How does that make you feel? Are you willing to literally hate those closest to you for the sake of the Gospel?  Would you take up your cross, knowing what happened to him when he did it, and come after him?  Think of the things that you have that you love: are you willing to renounce them in order to follow Christ?  Today’s Gospel is incredibly challenging, to say the least.  Maybe I should say it’s incredibly unsettling.  We might find ourselves totally willing to be Jesus’ followers, but at what cost?

And that’s the point of the parables he tells.  Who is going to build a building without first calculating how much it would cost to build it to be certain there is adequate funding?  Most of us have probably passed by some commercial buildings that started going up, only to be later abandoned, or that took quite a bit of time to build, possibly because the funding dried up.  So we’re not unfamiliar with the metaphor here.  Or if you were a military leader going into battle, wouldn’t you estimate what the adversary is bringing to the battle to be sure that you can be victorious?  Bringing it down a notch, think of a coach scouting out the other team to see how they play.

In any of these situations, it is absolutely necessary to calculate the cost.  Not to do so would be foolish.  The same is true of discipleship.  There is a cost to discipleship.  Those first disciples, almost without exception, paid for it at the cost of their lives.  Preaching in the name of Jesus was a dangerous thing to do, but they calculated the cost and realized it was worth it, and they did die.  Praise God for their faithfulness to the mission despite the cost; had they not been faithful we might not have the faith.

For us modern disciples, should we choose to follow him, there will be a cost too.  We might not have to pay for it with our lives.  But there will be a cross to bear.  We might have relationships that get in the way.  We might have things that we own that tie us too closely to the world and get in the way of our relationship with Christ. Those will have to go.  That is the cost for us, and today we’re being asked if we are willing to pay it.

So how far do we take this? Do we really have to hate our families? Do we have to sell everything we own? Do we have to take up the cross in such a way that we become doormats for those whose views are different from ours? How much of the cost do we ourselves really need to pay?

We certainly know that Jesus – who loved his mother and father very much – did not mean that we were to alienate ourselves from our families.  But there may be relationships in our lives that are obstacles to the Gospel. Maybe we’d gossip less if we didn’t hang out with people who brought that out of us.  That would certainly help us to be better disciples.  Maybe we’re in friendships or casual relationships that lead us to drink too much, or see the wrong kind of movies, or that draw us away from the healthy relationships we have.  Those relationships have to end if we are to follow Christ more fully. Anything that gets in the way of our relationship with God and our ability to follow him in whatever way he’s called us has to go right now.  Ruthlessly put an end to it now, because otherwise we give up the life to which we are called, the life that is better than even these things that we might enjoy very much.

Today we are being asked to take a stand against abortion.  This is particularly urgent now, especially since our state has enacted laws that support abortion up to the moment of birth.  The way that we protect, or choose not to protect, the most vulnerable among us – the unborn – says a lot about who we are and how we live the Gospel.  We have to be willing to take a stand, no matter the cost, because the cost to our society from the loss of so many souls is just too great.

What can you do?  Our wonderful Reverence for Life Committee is joining with others in our area to observe the 40 Days for Life.  Our parish’s day is October 12th.  We are asking everyone to take one hour to come to the Planned Parenthood facility in Aurora and pray.  Just one hour.  You can make a huge difference and even save a life.  There are blue cards in the pews right now.  We ask that you fill out the top of the card and tear it off, then put it in the collection basket in a few minutes.  One hour and you could save a life.  That’s a great way for us to live the Gospel.

Our Liturgy of the Word today reminds us that following the Gospel on our own terms is not possible. The call to discipleship is one that calls us to step out of our comfort zone, leave behind whatever ties us to the world and separates us from God, and follow our Savior wherever he leads us. So if our only sacrifice for the sake of the Kingdom of God is maybe getting out of bed and coming to Church on Sunday, then Jesus is telling us today that’s not enough.  It is a good start, but we have to reflect with wisdom on those things that are getting in the way, because it’s time we gave them up.

As we present our gifts today, God gives us the gift of wisdom.  How we live our lives this week will be the test of the way we’ve put that gift into action.  And don’t forget to drop the top of the blue card in the collection basket.

Pope Saint Gregory the Great

Today’s readings

Saint Gregory showed a great deal of promise at a young age.  He had a stellar political career, becoming prefect of Rome before the age of thirty.  After a short time, he resigned his office and dedicated his life to the priesthood. He joined a Benedictine monastery and became abbot, founding several other monasteries during his time there. Eventually he was called to become the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, and he dedicated his papal ministry to reforming the Church, the Liturgy, and its priests.  He is the one for whom Gregorian Chant is named.  He also spent a good deal of time and money ransoming the political prisoners of the Lombards, and helped to stabilize the social climate somewhat during a time of great strife in the medieval world.

Of course, there’s always strife in the world.  Whether we measure that in the secular world, noting the many acts of violence throughout the world, and even in our own cities, or if we measure it in our Church, noting the scandals and sadness that has marred our recent history, a lot of what we deal with on a daily basis needs to be set right.  Reform is always needed, or else good institutions become stagnant, and then corrupt.  We look for the intercession of people like Pope Saint Gregory the Great to lead us back to Christ.

Jesus wishes to make all things new: in today’s Gospel he casts out a demon in order to heal an afflicted soul. Today’s Psalm, which Saint Gregory would have chanted beautifully, calls us to trust in the Lord to become new, so that our world and our Church can be made new:

The LORD is my light and my salvation;
whom should I fear?
The LORD is my life’s refuge;
of whom should I be afraid?

Labor Day

Readings: Genesis 1:26-2:3 | Psalm 90 | 1 Thessalonians 4:1b-2, 9-12 | Matthew 6:31-34

Today, we’ve gathered to celebrate and bless human labor.  Human labor is a cornerstone of our society and our world, dating all the way back to the creation of the world, as today’s first reading shows us.  Indeed, our labor is a participation in the ongoing creation of the world, and is one of the strongest ways that we can be in communion with our Creator God.  We know that, at the completion of the creation of the world and everything in it, God sanctified the whole of it through rest.  That’s an important point that I think we maybe don’t get the way we should.

Today is an opportunity to take a step back and look at our working and our resting.  We know that we don’t get enough rest.  We are sleep deprived, we take working vacations, we very often don’t take all the vacation we’re allotted, and some don’t take a vacation at all.  Even our children are so over-scheduled that they are sleep deprived as they go from one activity to the next, day after day.  And so our lives are out of balance and I think, very often, we don’t do our best work when we’re working.

Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel that this kind of thing is just crazy.  Worrying about work isn’t going to add a single moment to our lifespan.  In fact, it will more likely reduce them.  We are told very clearly: “Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.  Sufficient for a day is its own evil.”  By “evil” here, Jesus doesn’t mean something sinister and dark, but just the daily worries and misfortunes that we deal with all the time.

We are certainly required to work hard and always give the best that we have to our employers or employees.  That’s a matter of justice.  We are also required to provide for our families and maintain a home for our loved ones.  That’s a matter or charity.  Work is sacred and always has been, because, as the Genesis reading today shows us, work was instituted by God who told us to fill the earth and subdue it, having dominion over every living thing.  We work because it is a sharing in what we were created for, the very imitation of God.But there is that matter of balance.  And we do have to step back and realize that God did indeed sanctify the whole of creation by blessing it with that seventh day, with that day of rest.  And so we do our spiritual lives no favors when we ignore the commandment to observe the Sabbath through rest and worship.  So much of our lives is consumed in labor; may we never fail to sanctify that labor by observing rest and worship.

The Twenty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

You’ve heard of the deadly sins. They are those sins that can really get at us time and time again in our lives and turn us away from God. They are things like lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. But for each of those deadly sins, there is also a life-giving virtue. Today, our readings focus on humility, which is the life-giving virtue that is the antidote to pride. Of the seven deadly sins, pride is usually considered to be the original and the most serious of the sins. Pride was the sin that caused the angel Lucifer to fall from grace. Pride was the sin that caused our first parents to reach for the forbidden fruit that was beyond them, all in an attempt to know everything God does. A good examination of conscience would probably convince all of us that we suffer from pride from time to time, and sometimes even pervasively, in our own lives. It’s what causes us to compare ourselves to others, to try to solve all our problems in ways that don’t include God, to be angry when everything does not go the way we would have it. Pride is the deadly sin that often-times is the gateway to other sins like judging others, self-righteousness, and sarcasm. Pride, as the saying goes, and as Lucifer found out, doth indeed go before the fall, and when that happens in a person’s life, if it doesn’t break them in a way that convinces them of their need for God, will very often send them into a tailspin of despair. Pride is a particularly ugly thing.

Humility, then, can be the answer to that particularly pernicious sin.  The wisdom writer Sirach, in our first reading, advises us to conduct our affairs with humility: “Humble yourself the more, the greater you are,  and you will find favor with God.”  But when we think about humility, maybe we associate that with a kind of “wimpiness.” When you think about humble people, perhaps you imagine breast-beating, pious souls who allow themselves to be the doormats for the more aggressive and ambitious.  Humble people, we tend to think, don’t buck the system, they just say their prayers, accept whatever life throws at them, and, when they are inflicted with pain and suffering, they just “offer it up.” (Not that offering up our sufferings is a bad thing, mind you.)

But Jesus described himself as “humble of heart,” and I dare say we wouldn’t think of him as such a pushover.  He, of all people, took every occasion to buck the system and chastise the rich and powerful.  He never just let things go or avoided confrontation.  Confrontation was at the core of what he came to do.  But he was indeed humble, humbling himself to become human like the rest of us, when he could easily have clung to his glory as God.  He was strong enough to call us all, in the strongest of terms, to examine our lives and reform our attitudes, but humble enough to die for our sins.

And so it is this humble Jesus who speaks up and challenges his hearers to adopt lives of humility in today’s gospel reading.  One wonders why the “leading Pharisee” even invited Jesus to the banquet.  If we’ve been paying attention to the story so far, we know that the Pharisee had ulterior motives; he was certainly looking to catch Jesus in an embarrassing situation.  But Jesus isn’t playing along with all that.  In fact, one can certainly taste the disgust he has for what he sees going on at the banquet.

In our day, banquets are usually put together with thoughtfulness and with a mind toward making one’s guests feel comfortable.  If you’ve been involved in a wedding, you know that the hosts try to seat people with those of like mind, with people who might have common experiences.  It’s enough to drive a host to distraction, sometimes, because it is such hard work. But in Jesus’ day, the customs were even more rigid.  People were seated in terms of their importance, and at this banquet, Jesus watched people try to assert how important they were by the places they took at table.  This was all an exercise in pride, and it seems that Jesus was repulsed by it.  So he tells them the parable that exhorts them to humble themselves and take the lowest place instead: far better to be asked to come to a more important place than to be sent down to a lower place and face embarrassment.

But there was another aspect of pride taking place here as well.  The “leading Pharisee” had obviously invited people who were important enough to repay the favor some day – with one obvious exception – Jesus was decidedly not in a position to do so, at least not in this life.  So he tells his host a parable also, exhorting him to humble himself and invite not those who are in a position to repay his generosity, but instead he should invite “he poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” – and know that because they cannot repay him, he would be repaid at the banquet of the righteous in heaven.

We don’t know how the guests or the host responded to Jesus’ exhortation to practice humility.  We do, however, know that Jesus modeled it in his own life.  Indeed, he was not asking them to do something he was unwilling to do himself.  When he said, “For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” he was in a way foreshadowing what would happen to him.  Humbling himself to take up our cross – our cross – he would be exalted in the glory of the resurrection.

The good news is that glory can be ours too, if we would humble ourselves and lay down our lives for others.  If we stop treating the people in our lives as stepping-stones to something better, we might reach something better than we can find on our own.  If we humble ourselves to feed the poor and needy, to reach out to the marginalized and forgotten, we might be more open to the grace our Lord has in store for us in the kingdom of heaven.

For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled,
but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.

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