The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (Bilingual Procession Mass)

This is the homily I preached for our bilingual Mass including the Procession with the Blessed Sacrament. I fear my Spanish was lacking, but I did the best I could…

Quizás el aspecto más distintivo de nuestra devoción católica es nuestra celebración de la Eucaristía. Afirmamos firmemente que no es solo un símbolo. Es el verdadero Cuerpo y Sangre de nuestro Señor. Sabemos que estamos espiritualmente ante la presencia de nuestro Señor cada vez que recibimos la Comunión o ante la Adoración al Santísimo. Aún más, creemos que, en la Eucaristía, nos convertimos en lo que recibimos: nos convertimos en parte del Cuerpo Místico de Cristo, y en ese Cuerpo todos nos convertimos en uno. Nosotros los católicos creemos que la Eucaristía nos hace uno, y por eso es bueno que todos nos unamos para celebrar esta fiesta del Santísimo Cuerpo y la Sangre de Cristo.

Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Catholic worship is our celebration of the Eucharist.  We state very strongly that it’s not just a symbol.  It is the actual Body and Blood of our Lord.  We know that we are spiritually in the presence of our Lord whenever we receive Communion or adore the Blessed Sacrament.  But even more, we believe that, in the Eucharist, we become what we receive: we become part of the Mystical Body of Christ, and in that Body we all become one.  We Catholics believe that the Eucharist makes us one, and because of that, it is good for all of us to come together as oneto celebrate this feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.

I remember when I travelled to Mexico when I was in seminary to learn Spanish.  I have forgotten, unfortunately, a lot of what I learned, but I’ll never forget the first day.  The first day was a Sunday, and we flew into Mexico City, got picked up by the school, and then we were introduced to the families we would be living with.  The people I was going to live with assumed correctly that I wouldn’t have been to Mass yet, so on the way home we went to Mass at the cathedral in Cuernavaca.  So I’m attending Mass with only my high school Spanish, and the little bit of liturgical Spanish I picked up from when we used Spanish in Mass at seminary.  A lot of what I heard, I didn’t understand, but there was one thing I couldn’t miss, and that was the Eucharist.

We may express our unity in many ways in the Mass.  We all sing the same songs.  We all stand or sit together.  We might all join hands at the Lord’s Prayer.  And those are all okay things, but they are not what unites us.  They put us on a somewhat equal footing, but that can happen in all kinds of gatherings.  The one thing that unites us at this gathering, the experience we have here that we don’t have in any other situation, is the Eucharist.  The Eucharist unites us in the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, where all division must necessarily cease.  The Eucharist is the definitive celebration of our unity.

On this feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, we are called to take comfort in the many ways God feeds us. We know that when we pray “give us this day our daily bread,” we will receive all that we need and more, because our God loves us and cares for us. But to really trust in God’s care can sometimes be a bit of a scary moment.

It was certainly scary for the disciples, who asked Jesus to “dismiss the crowds” so that they could go into the surrounding cities and get something to eat. They were afraid for the crowds because they had come to the desert, where there was nothing to eat or drink. They were afraid for the crowds because it would soon be dark and then it would be dangerous to travel into the surrounding cities to find refuge and sustenance. And, if they were to really admit it, they were afraid of the crowds, because all they had to offer them were five loaves of bread and two fish – hardly a meal for Jesus and the Twelve, let alone five thousand.

But Jesus isn’t having any of that. Fear is no match for God’s mercy and care and providence, so instead of dismissing the crowds, he tells the disciples to gather the people in groups of about fifty. Then he takes the disciples’ meager offering, with every intent of supplying whatever it lacked. He blesses their offerings, transforming them from an impoverished snack to a rich, nourishing meal. He breaks the bread, enabling all those present to partake of it, and finally he gives that meal to the crowd, filling their hungering bodies and souls with all that they need and then some. Caught in a deserted place with darkness encroaching and practically nothing to offer in the way of food, Jesus overcomes every obstacle and feeds the crowd with abundance. It’s no wonder they followed him to this out of the way place.

The disciples had to be amazed at this turn of events, and perhaps it was an occasion for them of coming to know Jesus and his ministry in a deeper way. They were fed not just physically by this meal, but they were fed in faith as well. In this miraculous meal, they came to know that their Jesus could be depended on to keep them from danger and to transform the bleakest of moments into the most joyous of all festivals. But even as their faith moved to a deeper level, the challenge of that faith was cranked up a notch as well. “Give them some food yourselves,” Jesus said to them. Having been fed physically and spiritually by their Master, they were now charged with feeding others in the very same way.

Christ has come to supply every need. In Jesus, nothing is lacking and no one suffers want. All the Lord asks of the five thousand is what he also asks of us each Sunday: to gather as a sacred assembly, to unite in offering worship with Jesus who is our High Priest, to receive Holy Communion, and to go forth to share the remaining abundance of our feast with others who have yet to be fed. After the crowd had eaten the meal, that was the time for them to go out into the surrounding villages and farms – not to find something to eat, but to share with everyone they met the abundance that they had been given. So it is for us. After we are fed in the Eucharist, we must then necessarily go forth in peace, glorifying the Lord by sharing our own abundance with every person we meet.  We too must hear and answer those very challenging words of Jesus: “Give them some food yourselves.”

What we celebrate today is that our God is dependable and that we can rely on him for our needs. Just as he was dependable to feed the vast crowd in that out-of-the-way place, so he too can reach out to us, no matter where we are on the journey, and feed us beyond our wildest imaginings. The challenge to give others something to eat need not be frightening because we know that the source of the food is not our own limited offerings, but the great abundance of God himself. We need not fear any kind of hunger – our own or that of others – because it’s ultimately not about us or what we can offer, but what God can do in and through us.

In our Eucharist today, the quiet time after Communion is our time to gather up the wicker baskets of our abundance, to reflect on what God has given us and done for us and done with us. We who receive the great meal of his own Body and Blood must be resolved to give from those wicker baskets in our day-to-day life, feeding all those people God has given us in our lives. We do all this, gathered as one in the Eucharist, in remembrance of Christ, proclaiming the death of the Lord until he comes again.

Que el Cuerpo y la Sangre de Cristo nos mantengan seguros para la vida eterna.  May the Body and Blood of Christ keep us all safe for eternal life.

The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

Today’s readings

I once read a very interesting story about some of the aftermath of World War II.  During the war, the officers of the Third Reich’s secret service forcefully recruited many 12- and 13-year-old boys into the Junior Gestapo. The harshly treated boys were given only inhumane jobs that they were to perform without rest or complaint. After the war ended, most had lost contact with their families and wandered aimlessly, without food or shelter. As part of an aid program to rebuild postwar Germany, many of these youths were housed in tent cities. There, doctors and nurses worked with them in an attempt to restore their physical, mental and emotional health.

Many of the boys would awaken several times during the night screaming in terror. But one doctor had an idea for handling their fears. After serving the boys a hearty meal, he’d tuck them into bed with a piece of bread in their hands that they were told to save until morning. The boys began to sleep soundly after that because, after so many years of hunger and uncertainty as to their next meal, they finally had the assurance of food for the next day.

On the last day of my dad’s life, I gave him Holy Communion for what would be the last time. He was able to pray with us, and was so grateful to receive the Sacrament of Jesus’ own Body and Blood. We call that last Communion Viaticum which, in Latin, means “bread for the journey.” Like the former Junior Gestapo boys who slept soundly because they knew they had food for the next day, my dad was able to rest in Christ knowing that he would be able to eat at the heavenly banquet table.

On this feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, we are called to take comfort in the many ways God feeds us. We know that when we pray “give us this day our daily bread,” we will receive all that we need and more, because our God loves us and cares for us. But to really trust in God’s care can sometimes be a bit of a scary moment.

It was certainly scary for the disciples, who asked Jesus to “dismiss the crowds” so that they could go into the surrounding cities and get something to eat. They were afraid for the crowds because they had come to the desert, where there was nothing to eat or drink. They were afraid for the crowds because it would soon be dark and then it would be dangerous to travel into the surrounding cities to find refuge and sustenance. And, if they were to really admit it, they were afraid of the crowds, because all they had to offer them were five loaves of bread and two fish – hardly a meal for Jesus and the Twelve, let alone five thousand.

But Jesus isn’t having any of that. Fear is no match for God’s mercy and care and providence, so instead of dismissing the crowds, he tells the disciples to gather the people in groups of about fifty. Then he takes the disciples’ meager offering, with every intent of supplying whatever it lacked. He blesses their offerings, transforming them from an impoverished snack to a rich, nourishing meal. He breaks the bread, enabling all those present to partake of it, and finally he gives that meal to the crowd, filling their hungering bodies and souls with all that they need and then some. Caught in a deserted place with darkness encroaching and practically nothing to offer in the way of food, Jesus overcomes every obstacle and feeds the crowd with abundance. It’s no wonder they followed him to this out of the way place.

The disciples had to be amazed at this turn of events, and perhaps it was an occasion for them of coming to know Jesus and his ministry in a deeper way. They were fed not just physically by this meal, but they were fed in faith as well. In this miraculous meal, they came to know that their Jesus could be depended on to keep them from danger and to transform the bleakest of moments into the most joyous of all festivals. But even as their faith moved to a deeper level, the challenge of that faith was cranked up a notch as well. “Give them some food yourselves,” Jesus said to them. Having been fed physically and spiritually by their Master, they were now charged with feeding others in the very same way.

Christ has come to supply every need. In Jesus, nothing is lacking and no one suffers want. All the Lord asks of the five thousand is what he also asks of us each Sunday: to gather as a sacred assembly, to unite in offering worship with Jesus who is our High Priest, to receive Holy Communion, and to go forth to share the remaining abundance of our feast with others who have yet to be fed. After the crowd had eaten the meal, that was the time for them to go out into the surrounding villages and farms – not to find something to eat, but to share with everyone they met the abundance that they had been given. So it is for us. After we are fed in the Eucharist, we must then necessarily go forth in peace, glorifying the Lord by sharing our own abundance with every person we meet.

You might do that by participating in a small faith community or a Bible study, sharing the Scriptures and our own living faith with your brothers and sisters. Maybe you would do that by becoming an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion, and dedicating yourselves to the ministry of distributing the precious gift of the Lord’s own Body and Blood each Sunday, or even volunteering to bring Holy Communion to the sick and homebound.  You could become part of our Adoration ministry, signing up to spend an hour praying in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.  And you could also do that by volunteering with the food pantry.  Or you might do this in a smaller, quieter way: You might just bring a meal to a friend going through a hard time or visit a neighbor who is a shut-in. Jesus is the font of every blessing, and it is up to us to share that blessing with everyone in every way we can. We too must hear and answer those challenging words of Jesus: “Give them some food yourselves.”

What we celebrate today is that our God is dependable and that we can rely on him for our needs. Just as he was dependable to feed the vast crowd in that out-of the-way place, so he too can reach out to us, no matter where we are on the journey, and feed us beyond our wildest imaginings. Just as the Junior Gestapo boys were able to rest easy as they clutched that bread for the next day, so we too can rest easy, depending on our God to give us all that we need to meet the challenges of tomorrow and beyond. The challenge to give others something to eat need not be frightening because we know that the source of the food is not our own limited offerings, but the great abundance of God himself. We need not fear any kind of hunger – our own or that of others – because it’s ultimately not about us or what we can offer, but what God can do in and through us.

In our Eucharist today, the quiet time after Communion is our time to gather up the wicker baskets of our abundance, to reflect on what God has given us and done for us and done with us. We who receive the great meal of his own Body and Blood must be resolved to give from those wicker baskets in our day-to-day life, feeding all those people God has given us in our lives. We do all this in remembrance of Christ, proclaiming the death of the Lord until he comes again.

May the Body and Blood of Christ keep us all safe for eternal life.

The Ascension of the Lord

Today’s readings

For the early Apostles and disciples, today’s feast had to be a kind of “now what?” experience for them. Think about what they’ve been through. Their Lord had been betrayed by one of their friends, he had been through a farce of a trial and put to death in a horrible, ignoble way, they had been hiding in fear thinking they might be next, they had questioned what they were supposed to do without their Lord.  And then they witness the Resurrection: Christ walks among them for a time, appearing to them and making himself known. They had seen redemption of a way of life they almost had abandoned, and now, on this feast of the Ascension, their Lord is leaving them again. In our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, you can almost feel the amazement and desperation they are experiencing as they stare up into the heavens, incredulous that their Lord is gone, again.

So once again, God sends two messengers, two men in white garments, to set them straight. God had sent two men in dazzling garments to the women at the tomb on the day of the Resurrection as well. That time, the men reassured the women that the Lord had not been moved or stolen, but had indeed risen from the dead. This time, the men appear to the Apostles, assuring them that the Lord would return in the same way as he had just departed from their sight. Both times, it was the same kind of messengers, with the same kind of hopeful message. Go forward, don’t worry, God is in control.

I think we need that same message today, after our state legislators passed the so-called Reproductive Health Care Act, which basically takes away all rights from our unborn brothers and sisters.  We can be tempted to all kinds of things: anger, despair, even apathy.  But today’s feast says none of that is helpful.  Our Lord is in control and he has the last word on the sanctity of human life, he always has and always will.  So we have to work to elect legislators who have courage to stand for that, and we have to continue our prayer and advocacy for the unborn, and we have to continue to be there to support mothers who are facing problems during pregnancy.  And then trust that God will take our efforts and make them real solutions.  The Ascension message is important for us to hear in this heart-breaking moment:  Go forward, don’t worry, God is in control.

One of the great themes of Catholic theology is the idea of “already, and not yet.” Basically, that means that we disciples of Christ already have a share in the life of God and the promise of heaven, but we are not yet there. So we who believe in Jesus and live our faith every day have the hope of heaven before us, even if we are not home yet. And this hope isn’t just some “iffy” kind of thing: it’s not “I hope I’ll go to heaven one day.” No, it’s the promise that because of the salvation we have in Christ, we who are faithful will one day live and reign with him. This gives us hope in the midst of the sorrows that we experience in this world.

Another great theme of Catholic theology is that our God is transcendent, but also immanent. Transcendent means that our God is higher than the heavens, more lofty than our thoughts and dreams, beyond anything we can imagine. Whatever we say about God, like “God is love” or “God is good” – those things only begin to scratch the surface of who God is, because God is transcendent beyond anything our limited words can describe. But our God is also immanent. God is not some far off entity that has brought the world into existence and set the events of our lives in motion and then drops back to observe things from afar. No, our God is one who walks among us and knows our sorrow and our pain and celebrates our joy. Saint Augustine said that God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves. Our God may indeed be mysterious and beyond us, but he is also the one we can reach out and touch. If that weren’t so, the Eucharist would be pretty meaningless.

As you can see, Catholic theology is generally speaking not exclusive. We are not either already sharing in the promise or not yet sharing in it, but we are “already and not yet.” Our God is not either transcendent or immanent, but both transcendent and immanent. These two great theological themes come to a kind of crossroads here on this feast of the Ascension.

Today, as Christ ascends into heaven, our share in the life of God and the promise of heaven is sealed. We have hope of eternal life because our Lord has gone before us to prepare a place for us. If he had not gone, we could never have shared in this life. So, although Jesus has left the apostles yet again, they can rejoice because they know that the promise is coming to fulfillment. We do not possess it yet, because we are not home yet, but we share in it already, because Christ is our promise.

All of this theology can be heady stuff, but what it boils down to is this: because Jesus died, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven, we now have the hope of heaven and of sharing in the very life of God. Even though we do not possess heaven yet, we know that it belongs to all who have faith in Christ and live that faith every day. And even though we do not see Jesus walking among us, he is still absolutely present among us and promises to be with us forever. The preface to the Eucharistic prayer which I will sing in a few minutes makes this very clear; it says:

Mediator between God and man,

judge of the world and Lord of hosts,

he ascended not to distance himself from our lowly state

but that we, his members, might be confident of following

where he, our Head and Founder, has gone before.

Jesus, having explained the Scriptures to his Apostles yet again, tells them “You are witnesses of these things.” And so they don’t have the luxury of just standing there, staring up into the sky for hours, dejected and crushed because the One who had been their hope had disappeared. No, as the Gospel tells us today, they “returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God.” They are witnesses, “clothed with power from on high,” and they must be filled with the hope and joy of the resurrection and ascension of the Lord.

We disciples are witnesses of these things too. We must witness to a world filled with violence and oppression and sadness and no regard for the sanctity of human life, that our God promises life without end for all those who believe in him. And we have that hope already, even though not yet. We must witness to a world languishing in the vapidity of relativism and individualism that it is Jesus Christ, the Lord of All, who is one with us in heaven, and present among us on earth, who fulfills our hopes and longings and will never leave us. We must be witnesses to all these things, living with great joy, continually praising God because Christ’s ascension is our exaltation. We too might hear those men in dazzling white garments speak God’s words of hope to us: go forward, don’t worry, God is in control.

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

The Fourth Sunday of Lent (Cycle C Readings)

Today’s readings

At the heart of it, Lent is about two things.  First, it’s about baptism.  That’s what the participants in our RCIA program are reflecting on these days, and eleven of them are preparing to be baptized at our Easter Vigil Mass this year. And baptism leads us to the second purpose of Lent, which is conversion: forgiveness and reconciliation and grace. Baptism is that sacrament that initially wipes away our sins and gives us grace to be in relationship with Jesus Christ, who leads us to the Father.

Jesus paints a picture of a very forgiving Father in today’s Gospel, so this story is of course perfect for Lent, when we ourselves are being called to return to God.  Now, I don’t know about you, but when I heard this story growing up, I was always kind of grumpy about what was going on.  I guess I’d have to say that I identified myself with the older son, who tried to do the right thing and got what seemed to be the short end of the deal.  Which is in and of itself sinful, to be honest.  But that’s not what the story is about.

We often call this parable the parable of the Prodigal Son, but I don’t think that’s right because I don’t think the story is about the son – either son – at least not primarily about them.  This story is instead about the father, and so I prefer to call this the parable of the Forgiving Father.  That puts the focus where I think Jesus intended it to be: on the father and his relationship with his sons.

So let’s look at what the forgiving father was all about.  First of all, he grants the younger son’s request to receive his inheritance before his father was even dead – which is so presumptuous that it feels hurtful. Kind of like saying, “Hey dad, I wish you were dead, give me my inheritance now, please – I just can’t wait.” But the Father gives him the inheritance immediately and without ill-will.  Secondly, the Father reaches out to the younger son on his return, running out to meet him, and before he can even finish his little prepared speech, lavishes gifts on him and throws a party.

There is a tendency, I think, for us to put ourselves into the story, which is not a bad thing to do. But like I mentioned earlier, it’s easy to identify with the hard feelings of the older son sometimes.  But let’s look at these two sons.  First of all, I’ll just say it, it’s not like one was sinful and the other wasn’t – no – they are both sinful.  The younger son’s sin is easy to see.  But the older son, with his underlying resentment and refusal to take part in the joy of his Father, is sinful too.  If we’re honest, that kind of sin is much more common and much more destructive because it’s easy to overlook it or suppress it.  What amazes me is that the Father comes out of the house to see both sons.  That’s significant because a good Jewish father in those days wouldn’t come out to meet anyone – they would come to him.  Probably on their hands and knees, begging for forgiveness.  But the Father meets them where they are and desperately, lovingly, pleads with them to join the feast.

So, both sons are sinful. But remember, this is a parable, and so the characters themselves are significant.  They all symbolize somebody.  We know who the Father symbolizes.  But the sons symbolize people – more specifically groups of people – too.  The younger son was for Jesus symbolic of the non-believer sinners – all those tax collectors and prostitutes and other gentile sinners Jesus was accused of hanging around with.  The older son symbolizes the people who should have known better: the religious leaders – the Pharisees and scribes.  In this parable, Jesus is making the point that the sinners are getting in to the banquet of God’s kingdom before the religious leaders, because the sinners are recognizing their sinfulness, and turning back to the Father, who longs to meet them more than half way.  The religious leaders think they are perfect and beyond all that repenting stuff, so they are missing out.  As I said, that kind of sin is easy to overlook and suppress.

So again, it’s good to put ourselves in the story.  Which son are we, really?  Have we been like the younger son and messed up so badly that we are unworthy of the love of the Father, and deserve to be treated like a common servant?  Or are we like the older son, and do we miss the love and mercy of God in pursuit of trying to look good in everyone else’s eyes? Maybe sometimes we are like one of the sons, and other times we are like the other.  The point is, that we often sin, one way or the other.

But our response has to be like the younger son’s.  We have to be willing to turn back to the Father and be embraced in his mercy and love and forgiveness.  We can’t be like the older son and refuse to be forgiven, insisting on our own righteousness.  The stakes are too high for us to do that: we would be missing out on the banquet of eternal life to which Jesus Christ came to bring us.

For us, this Lent, this might mean that we have to go to confession.  Even if we haven’t been in a long time.  We have confessions at 3pm for the next two Saturdays, next Saturday we also have confessions at 8am.  For the next two Fridays, we have confessions at 6pm, and next Sunday, the 7th, we will have several priests here to hear your confession at 2pm until all are heard.  Please don’t wait until the last minute; we will not have any confessions during Holy Week. Lent is the perfect time to use that wonderful sacrament of forgiveness to turn back to the Father who longs to meet us more than half way with his prodigal love and mercy.  So don’t let anything get in the way of doing it.  If you haven’t been to confession in a very long time, go anyway.  We priests are there to help you make a good confession and we don’t yell at you, don’t embarrass you – we are only there to help you experience God’s mercy.

We are all sinners and the stakes are high.  But the good news is that we have a Forgiving Father, who longs to meet us more than half way.  All we have to do is decide to turn back.

Advent Penance Service

Today’s readings: Isaiah 30:19-21, 23-36| Psalm 27 | Matthew 5:13-16

During this time of year, there’s a lot more darkness than I’m sure most of us would like to see. The daylight fades very fast, and there’s a lot of cold and cloudy days. And so, as joyful as this season is supposed to be, it can be so hard for many people. And then there’s the thought of another year coming to an end: some people look back on the year, and they lament what could have been, or what actually has been. And we could probably do without all the news of war, crime and terrorism here and abroad. So if we feel a little dark right now, we’re not alone.

The struggle between light and darkness is what Advent is all about. The season of Advent recognizes the darkness of the world – the physical darkness, sure, but more than that, the darkness of a world steeped in sin, a world marred by war and terrorism, an economy decimated by greed, peacefulness wounded by hatred, crime and dangers of all sorts. This season of Advent also recognizes the darkness of our own lives – sin that has not been confessed, relationships broken by self-interest, personal growth tabled by laziness and fear.

In Advent, the Church meets all that darkness head-on. We don’t cower in the darkness; neither do we try to cover over the light. Instead we put the lamp on a lampstand and shine the light into every dark corner of our lives and our world. Isaiah prophesies about this Advent of light: “The light of the moon will be like that of the sun, and the light of the sun will be seven times greater [like the light of seven days].” This is a light that changes everything. It doesn’t just expose what’s imperfect and cause shame, instead it burns the light of God’s salvation into everything and everyone it illumines, making all things new.

Our Church makes the light present in many ways – indeed, it is the whole purpose of the Church to shine a bright beacon of hope into a dark and lonely world. We do that symbolically with the progressive lighting of the Advent wreath which represents the world becoming lighter and lighter as we approach the birthday of our Savior. But the Church doesn’t leave it simply in the realm of symbol or theory. We are here tonight to take on that darkness and shine the light of Christ into every murky corner of our lives. The Sacrament of Penance reconciles us with those we have wronged, reconciles us with the Church, and reconciles us most importantly with our God. The darkness of broken relationships is completely banished with the Church’s words of absolution. Just like Advent calendars reveal more and more with every door we open, so the Sacrament of Penance brings Christ to fuller view within us whenever we let the light of that sacrament illumine our darkness.

And so that’s why we’re here tonight. We receive the light by being open to it and accepting it, tonight in a sacramental way. Tonight, as we did at our baptism, we reject the darkness of sin and we “look east” as the hymn says, to accept the light of Christ which would dawn in our hearts. Tonight we lay before our God everything that is broken in us, we hold up all of our darkness to be illuminated by the light of God’s healing mercy.

Tonight, our sacrament disperses the gloomy clouds of our sin and disperses the dark shadows of death that lurk within us. The darkness in and around us is no match for the light of Christ. As we approach Christmas, that light is ever nearer. Jesus is, as the Gospel of John tells us, “the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Of Movember, Pink Ribbons, Saint Baldrick’s and Reverence for Life

This post is my bulletin column for this week.

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

 

Some years ago, it was popular to do the “ice bucket challenge” in order to raise funds for ALS, popularly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.  Many of my friends on social media were taking up the challenge, and I knew that, sooner or later, the challenge would fall to me.  So I did my research, and found that the ALS Foundation supports research based on embryonic stem cell research, which is fetal tissue left over from aborted babies.  So I wrote a bulletin column (at my last parish) entitled, “Why I Won’t Ever Take the Ice Bucket Challenge” and instead made a donation to the John Paul II Medical Research Institute (jp2mri.org) which researches cures for diseases, including ALS, using Catholic teaching with regard to Respect for Life.

 

Some years before that, I considered shaving my head for Saint Baldrick’s which researches cures for pediatric cancer.  Doing my research for that charity, I found that they specifically did not support embryonic stem cell research, because the majority of their donors asked them not to.  So our witness, does in fact make a difference.  Before that research, I was leaning toward not shaving my head, but finding it in concert with Catholic teaching, and after receiving a note from one of my young parishioners who had survived cancer, I gladly supported them, and yes, shaved my head!  

 

What we are finding is that we don’t need to abort babies to cure disease.  The fact is, there are other very successful research projects which are finding their success without using embryonic stem cell research.  It is our responsibility as pro-life Catholics to support them so that there will be more of them.  

 

This all came back to me because of the popularity of “Movember,” in which men grow moustaches and collect funds in support of men’s health, specifically testicular and prostate cancer, and suicide prevention.  All laudable causes, but in the case of the cancers, somewhat debatable as well (talk to your doctor).  I couldn’t find any information on their stand on embryonic stem cell research so I decided not to support them.  Instead, I’ll make a donation to the JPII Medical Research Center.  If you’re wanting to get on the moustache bandwagon, you might consider the Nazarite Challenge (nazaritechallenge.com), which focuses on making us all better men (and, they have a women’s track as well).

 

I want you to think about this when you’re invited to give to the Pink Ribbon campaign or the Susan Komen Walk for the Cure, which have questionable records on supporting embryonic stem cell research, and in the case of the Komen Walk, have a relationship with Planned Parenthood.  Both of my parents have suffered from cancer – we all know someone who has – and I support research to end the scourge of that disease.  But the point is, we have to do our research as Catholics.  We absolutely must support research to end disease, but we have to do it with fidelity to our pro-life teachings.  And the really awesome thing is, we can.

 

Yours in Christ and His Blessed Mother,

Father Pat Mulcahy, Pastor

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.

The Twenty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Jesus’ ministry on earth was all about healing.  In today’s gospel, he heals a man who has been deaf and mute with the word of command: “Ephphatha!” – “Be opened!”  I have talked about this kind of thing before.  The healing is not here simply for us to say, “how nice for that deaf and mute man.”  The healing he intends, the command, “Be opened!” is for us too.  Mark brings us this story in his Gospel because Ephphatha is what Jesus is about.  He is about healing, and opening up a way for those who have been at odds with God to be back in relationship with him.  So whether the obstacle has been a physical illness or a spiritual one, he commands ephphatha, that the way be opened and the obstacle obliterated, and the illness of the broken one bound up and the way made straight for the person to be in communion with God.

Saint James today invites us to take a look at the issue from another angle.  Have we pre-judged people who are not like us when they come to the Church, or to us in any way?  Do we look down on those who don’t dress like us, or don’t speak like us, or don’t act like us?  Do these people have illness that needs to be healed?  Or is it we that have the illness, being unable to see them as Christ does, as brothers and sisters and children of God?  So whatever the illness is today, whether it is ours or someone else’s, Jesus commands it: ephphatha, be opened, that nothing may be an obstacle to the love of God and the healing of Jesus Christ.

Since the readings lead us to a place of healing, I want to take this opportunity to speak of one of the sacraments of healing, namely the Anointing of the Sick.  I want to do that because I think it’s a sacrament that is misunderstood, one that we don’t think of much, until someone is near death, and that’s not what the Anointing of the Sick is all about.  In the days prior to Vatican II, that actually was the understanding of the Sacrament.  It was called Extreme Unction, Latin for “Last Anointing.”  But Vatican II restored the sacrament to a much earlier practice, in which the sacrament was intended for healing, and not just sending the dying person on their way to eternal life.

The impetus for the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick comes from another passage in the letter of Saint James.  It says: “Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint (him) with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up.  If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven.” (James 5:14-15) The sacrament is about healing: physical, sure, but also spiritual.  Having God’s presence in the sacrament with us in our time of illness is of great value – just ask anyone who’s been through it!

So I’d like to identify a few times when it would be appropriate to have the Anointing of the Sick.  The first is before surgery that is either life threatening itself, or is for the healing of some illness or injury.  Very often people will call, and they might come to a daily Mass before their surgery or the weekend before their surgery, and I’ll anoint them after Mass.  This is a wonderful time to receive the sacrament, because they’ve just been to Mass and have received the Eucharist. The combination of those sacraments is a great source of grace and healing.  Here at Saint Mary’s, we also have a monthly celebration of the sacrament at a service, usually the first Sunday of the month (although, because of Labor Day, this month’s takes place today) at 1:30 in the afternoon.

Another time someone might be anointed is if they’ve come to the hospital with a life-threatening illness or injury, perhaps even after an accident.  Or perhaps a patient is hospitalized for an addiction or mental illness.  Very often there’s a priest on call at the hospital who can do that, or if it’s one of the local hospitals here, we will be called to go over.  Being anointed at that time of crisis can be a great source of peace to both the patient and their loved ones.

Another time for the Anointing is when a patient is home bound, or after they’ve come home from having surgery and there is going to be a long time of rehabilitation.  Then a priest might come to the person’s home, anoint them, and then we can arrange for a parishioner to come give them Holy Communion each week.  We have a number of deacons and other parishioners who help us with that ministry, and it keeps the patient connected to the parish and to the Lord during difficult days.  I always like to say, when you’re well, you can come to us, and when you’re sick, we can come to you.

The final time for the Anointing is the one that most people think of, and that is near death. At the time of death, we have what is known as the Last Rites.  The Last Rites are a combination of three sacraments: the sacrament of Penance, the Anointing of the Sick, and Viaticum, which is Latin for “bread for the journey,” one’s last Communion.  If at all possible, it’s good if the patient is well enough to participate in all three sacraments, but very often that’s not the case.  Then we just do what we can of them and entrust them to God’s mercy.

It’s important that we know about the illness so that we can care for the patient.  In today’s society that means a family member or the patient themselves, must call us.  Hospitals can’t do that any more, due to privacy laws.  So it’s very important that we know, and know soon enough that we can respond.  In a large parish like this, it can be hard for us to respond at the spur of the moment because of other things going on, but we do our best to get there as soon as we can.  And if, unfortunately, a patient dies before the priest can get there, there are still prayers we can do.  Sometimes we don’t know that the patient is going so quickly.  I had that happen just the other day, and we still prayed and I was there to spend some time with the family.

The healing work of Christ is what the Church is all about.  Today, Jesus continues to work through the Church to bring healing to all those who need it. He cries out “Ephphatha” that we might all be opened up to his healing work and that every obstacle to relationship with him might be broken down.

The Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time – Bread of Life Discourse IV: Choosing the Table of the Lord

Today’s readings

Today we have set before us two tables.  One is the incredibly rich banquet of wisdom, and the other…  let’s call it the fast food of foolishness, I guess.  What we need to ask ourselves today is, at which table have we been eating, and is that where we want to find our nourishment?

We see in today’s first reading the personification of wisdom.  Wisdom is seen as a female character who has made preparations for a luxurious meal.  Meat has been prepared, and that was a luxury in biblical times.  Wine has been mixed, probably with spices to improve its flavor and make it a bit more potent.  But the invitation has gone out not to the rich and powerful, but the simple and those who lack understanding.  These are the ones who are called to the banquet of wisdom to partake of this incredible meal.  They will feast on the rich meat of understanding and be carried away by the potency of the wine of enlightenment.  But coming to that table requires turning away from foolishness, and it is only by doing so and eating at this table that one can live.

The second reading, too, speaks of this choice, but with a tone of warning: be sure to live not as foolish persons but as wise – watch carefully, St. Paul warns, how you live.  He acknowledges that the days in which the Ephesians were living were evil ones, something to which, I think, every generation can relate – no generation ever fails to experience evil in some way at some time.  Certainly we have seen that in the past few weeks with the return of clergy sexual abuse scandals, a sadness and humiliation for all who strive to follow the Gospel in the Catholic Church.  And so, to combat evil, they – and we – are warned to aspire to right conduct.  Certainly, we are unable to fix all the evil in the world on our own, but we can control what goes on in us.  We need to eradicate every source of evil in every aspect of our lives so that evil won’t have a feedbed on which to thrive.

Saint Paul calls us to try to understand the will of God, the project of all our lives.  Don’t live in drunkenness, he warns, whether caused by wine or just by immersing oneself into the foolishness of the world around you.  Instead, we are called to be people of prayer, following God’s will, singing God’s praise, “giving thanks always and for everything.”  The word thanks here is, in Greek, eucharisteo, of course, meaning we are to live as Eucharistic people, aware of God’s blessings, and thankful for the grace we have received.

All of this serves as a fitting prelude to the choice Jesus’ audience is facing in today’s Gospel.  They have been mesmerized by the feeding of the multitudes that we heard about a few weeks ago, as we began our little immersion in the “Bread of Life Discourse” which is the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel.  And they have been hanging in there as Jesus has unpacked the meaning of that event in the time that has followed.  But now, they have to come to terms with all of it.  Many are repulsed, understandably, I think, at the notion of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of another person.  And so now they have to decide if this is something they can live with.  Next week, in the Gospel, we will see how that shakes out.  But ironically, as we now know, this is something they – and we – cannot live without.

As we come to worship today, we have been dining at one of the other of the tables ourselves.  Have we been dining at the table of foolishness?  Have we tried living by mere human wisdom; put our security and trust in material things; relied on temporary and superficial appearances and even put off feeding our spirits to another time?  Have we surfed the web to find wisdom, and gotten bogged down in the nonsense that lurks there?  Have we glued ourselves to television and hung on the words of politicians or other experts whose expertise is questionable at best, or been lost in the banal world of reality TV?  Those of us who are well educated may have thought book learning would give us answers to life’s imponderables.  Perhaps the results have left us still hungry; like trying to fill our stomachs eating lettuce soup.  We may feel some initial satisfaction, but it soon passes and all we can think of is where we can find food.  We have been dining at the wrong table.

And so wisdom calls out to us simple ones to pull up a chair to the right banquet.  Feasting on the richness of wisdom leads us inevitably to the banquet of the Lord.  Will we be repulsed at the idea of eating the flesh and blood of our Lord, or will we set aside the so-called wisdom of the world and embrace the real wisdom of God, which is so far beyond our understanding?  Jesus says to us today that we can become part of God, indeed that is the whole point.  We were created to become part of God’s life, to be caught up in him, and to be part of him.  But the problem is, our dining on the fast food of foolishness, the so-called “wisdom” of this world, has left us sinful and sorrowful, with an emptiness that cannot be filled up in that way.

And so God did the only thing he could do.  If we could not be part of him because of our foolishness, he decided to become part of us.  He sent his son Jesus into our world to walk among us, to live our life, to walk on the earth as we do.  Jesus ultimately gave himself for us, offering his body and blood for our salvation, giving us this great nourishment so that he could become part of us in a similar way to the way all food becomes part of us.  As we dine at the table of the Lord, our God who wanted us to become part of him becomes part of us, and so we are caught up again into his life as we were always supposed to have been.

Jesus fed several thousand people with five loaves and two fish a few weeks ago.  But that was nothing.  It was a mere drop in the bucket compared to what he wants to do now.  Now he wants to give himself so that we can be one with him:

For my flesh is true food,
and my blood is true drink.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
remains in me and I in him.

People who content themselves in eating the food of this world – even if it’s manna from heaven – will still die.  But those – and only those – who eat the bread that is Jesus will live forever.  That’s what Jesus tells us today.  Because it is only by Jesus becoming part of us that we can become part of God, which is the fulfillment of our destiny as creatures of our God.  This is a hard teaching, and we may struggle with it in the same way the crowds struggled with it when Jesus said it.  But this is Truth; this is the wisdom of God; this is the way we get filled up so that we never hunger again.

And so which table will we choose now?  Please God let us follow the Psalmist’s advice: Taste and see the goodness of the Lord!

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