Saint Philip Neri

Today’s readings

Today we celebrate the memorial of Saint Philip Neri, founder of the Congregation of the Oratory, a community of Catholic priests and lay brothers.  At the age of 18, he travelled to live with a wealthy relative to learn, and possibly inherit, the family business.  But soon after arriving, he experienced a mystical vision that he called his Christian conversion, which dramatically changed his life.

Having lost interest in the family business, he travelled to Rome to live for and serve the Lord Jesus Christ and His Church.  He studied for three years at Saint Augustine’s monastery, but then decided not to be ordained.  Instead, he worked for the conversion of souls by stirring up conversations with people, which eventually led them to further studies, prayer, and the enjoyment of music.  He would then encourage them to move beyond these endeavors to serve those in need, especially the sick.In 1548, with the help of his confessor, Philip founded a confraternity for poor laymen to meet for spiritual exercises and service of the poor, the Confraternity of the Most Holy Trinity.

Finally, at the age of 34, Philip’s confessor succeeded in returning to priestly formation and he was ordained a deacon, and finally a priest, in 1551.  Philip went to live with his confessor and other priests at San Girolamo and carried on his mission, mostly through the confessional.  Philip spent hours sitting and listening to people of all ages. Sometimes Philip arranged informal discussions for those who desired to live a better life. He spoke to them about Jesus, the saints and the martyrs.  He had many pilgrims come to visit him; so much so that other priests gathered to help him, and a room was built above the church in San Girolamo for their ministry.  Philip and the priests were soon called the “Oratorians,” because they would ring a bell to call the faithful in their “oratory.”

Today’s first reading from the Apostle Saint James encourages us to pray in suffering, sing praise in times of joy, and call on the priests in our illness, praying for healing and forgiveness of sins.  That certainly rang true in the heart of Saint Philip Neri: prayer and an encounter with our Lord was a primary concern for him.  Today our Liturgy and the saint we are memorializing encourages us to step up our prayer life, and in the words of our Psalmist, may our prayer “rise like incense” before our God: the One who regards our prayers to be as pleasing as the most beautiful music.

Thursday of the Seventh Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s Scriptures extol the virtue of poverty of spirit, which is perhaps one of the more difficult virtues to embrace and nurture.  Saint James illustrates how things of this world, specifically the pursuit of riches, can be not only a powerful distraction from the spiritual life, but can also leave one complicit in serious sin.  In the Gospel, Jesus exhorts us not to let anything – not even the members of our own body – to get in the way.  We are called to be salt in the world; to flavor our interactions with others such that they see the attraction of life in Christ.

But if we’re ever going to accomplish it, we have to be poor in spirit.  We have to get over ourselves and shed whatever takes us off the right path.  If our hands or feet or eyes lead us down the wrong path, we have to humble ourselves and get rid of that obstacle so that we can salt the world.

Possessing the kingdom of heaven is our goal; in fact it’s why we were created.  That’s the ultimate destination on the spiritual journey.  To get there, we can’t be content with the things that get in the way.  We have to pluck out the errant eye, lop off the wayward limb.  We have to give up worldly riches, especially those garnered at the expense of the poor, and go all in for the kingdom of God.

Tuesday of the Seventh Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

In today’s Gospel, we have the disciples arguing among themselves because they find they don’t understand Jesus’ message. And then that degenerates into a further argument about which one of them was the greatest.  They’re doing an awful lot of arguing, and not nearly enough listening.

All of this arguing betrays a real lack of growth in faith among those disciples.  They probably felt like, since they were in Jesus’ inner-circle, they should have all the answers.  And perhaps they should, but to their defense, they hadn’t received the Holy Spirit yet.  In a real sense, they were still in formation, and they shouldn’t have been so afraid to ask Jesus for clarification, rather than start petty arguments.

Jesus’ lesson to them then comes from him putting a little child in their midst.  Receive a child like this in my name, he tells them, and you receive me.  What’s the point of that?  Well, receiving a child in Jesus’ name is an act of service, because a child can do nothing but receive at that point in their life.  So serving others in Jesus’ name, serving those who cannot serve you back, or at least in a way that they can’t return the favor, is what brings us to the Father.

I think the take-away for us is that trying to be smarter than everyone else isn’t what shows that we are faithful people.  Instead of arguing our point, we need to ask God to help us get the point.  And we have to be ready to act on our faith, serving others out of love for God, instead of arguing or debating what Jesus is making plain as day.

Thursday of the Fifth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The women in today’s Liturgy of the Word give us contrasting views of the spiritual life. In our first reading, the women give us the example of what not to do. Solomon, known for his wisdom and dedication to God by building the temple, is soon seduced by the foreign women he had married to abandon God. They entice him to abandon the worship of the one, true God in order to worship and adore their so-called gods.

Marrying into the families of the foreigners among them was a real problem for the Israelites. God had forbidden them to do so, and when they did this, they were soon led astray and picked up the pagan customs of the world around them. It’s kind of a metaphor for what can go wrong in our spiritual lives. If we keep our eyes on Christ and follow the way he has laid out for us, we can progress in our devotion. But the minute we start looking at other things, we can soon be distracted from the straight and narrow.

On the other hand, we have the wonderful Syrophoenician woman in the Gospel. She knows exactly where to look for salvation and she persists in it. When it seemed that Jesus was not interested in helping her daughter, she persisted because she knew that Christ alone could heal her daughter and expel the demon.

Once again, there’s a deeper message here. I don’t think any of us believes that Jesus wasn’t interested in healing the woman’s daughter. I just think he knew her faith and wanted to give those who were in the house where he was to see that faith. The story gives us, too, the opportunity to assess our own faith in God, not looking to other things or foreign gods to bring us salvation. If these women teach us anything in today’s readings, it’s that we need to be focused on our God alone.

The Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The reality of suffering is something of a mystery for us.  Today we hear it in our first reading: Job, the innocent man, has been the victim of Satan’s testing: he has lost his family and riches, and has been afflicted physically.  His friends have gathered around and given him all the stock answers as to why he is suffering: that he, or his ancestors, must have sinned and offended God, and so God allowed him to suffer in this way.  But Job rejects that thinking, as we all should: it is offensive.  Even if we accept that our sins have been great, this reduces God to a capricious child who throws away his toys when he tires of them.

That’s not Job’s God and it’s not our God either.  And we still have that notion of suffering among us, I’m afraid.  Many people think they are being punished by God because of their sins when they are suffering.  And there is some logic to it: our sins do bring on sadness in this life.  Sin does have consequences, and while these consequences are not God’s will for us, they are a result of our poor choices.  But God does not penalize us in this way by willing our suffering.

In fact, God has such a distaste for our suffering, that he sent his only Son to come and redeem us.  Jesus was one who suffered too, remember: being nailed to the cross, dying for our sins – but even before that, weeping with those who wept for loved ones, lamenting the hardness of heart of the children of Israel, being tempted by the devil in the desert, even understanding the hungry crowd and miraculously providing a meal for them out of five loaves and a couple of fish.  Jesus felt our affliction and suffering personally, and never abandoned anyone engaged in it.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is found healing.  First Peter’s mother-in-law, and then those who came to him at sundown.  In this reading, Jesus is a sign of God’s desire to deal with suffering.  We do not deny the presence of suffering and the tragic in our lives, in fact, we do what we can to overcome it.  But while Jesus deals with suffering and cures illnesses in these stories, he doesn’t eliminate all pain from the world.  In the same way, somehow, we deal with the suffering that presents itself to us, and its causes as we can, and are left with the awesome mystery of what remains.

But the key here is that we care for those who suffer.  Indeed, we are partners with them in their suffering.  This weekend we kick off our annual diocesan Catholic Ministries Annual Appeal which funds the various ministries of the diocese of Joliet.  We at Saint Mary’s depend on these ministries to help us: educating seminarians like Ramon, our new intern; and supporting the efforts of our school and religious education program.  In addition, through the efforts of Catholic Charities, housing is provided for those who are in need, and meals are served to the hungry.  We are blessed that we can come together as a diocese to provide these services, to be “Partners in Caring” for all those in need.

We can’t make all of the suffering in the whole world go away.  But we can do the little things that make others’ suffering a little less, helping them to know the healing presence of Christ, together.

Monday of the Fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

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

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

When we find ourselves in that state of affairs, we have to know that human power is useless to subdue our demons. We have to do the only thing that works, which is to beg Jesus to cast those demons out. I often tell people in Confession that it’s okay to pray for yourself and that God doesn’t expect us to subdue our demons on our own. Jesus is longing to cast out our legion demons, all we have to do is ask. The voice of the psalmist today expresses the prayer of our hearts: “Lord, rise up and save me.”

The Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Heaven knows there are a lot of experts out there, or at least people who claim to be experts.  That’s why blogs and comments posted on news stories and Facebook are so popular: everyone claims to know something about everything.  Or at least it sure seems that way.  Certainly, it should give us pause when we think about the quality of information we get from these sources.  Whether it’s sports news, political news, or even the weather, half the time what we hear is pure conjecture, and not something resembling the truth at all.

This being the case, it should give us all the more pause when people give us their religious knowledge.  So often it starts with words like “I think…” or “In my opinion…” and perhaps ends with “I think that’s what’s right.”  As if our opinion on what’s right is the truth.  But when it comes to faith and morals, it doesn’t matter what we think; our opinions are not truth, and the subjectivity of “what seems right for me” is completely useless.  Faith and morals are about the Truth – Truth with a capital “T”, and there is just one source for that knowledge, and that is our Jesus Christ our Lord and God.

For Moses, that relationship with the Truth was life-giving.  He was close to the Lord.  He had been up the mountain and seen the Lord face-to-face, which no one was thought to be able to do and live.  So when he told the people what the Lord had said, they trusted him.  In today’s first reading, Moses seems to know that that trust would dwindle after his death, and so he foretells that a prophet would come after him one day, a prophet like Moses himself, who would have the Truth in him.  He was foreshadowing our Lord, Jesus, of course.

So Jesus arrives in Capernaum, and you can almost feel the anticipation.  I imagine they had heard about Jesus and the things he said and did, and were probably eager to see what might transpire when he arrived in their town.  In the midst of teaching the people, he encounters a man with an unclean spirit.  And this is what illustrates the conflict.  The scribes were there.  These were the religious leaders of the people.  It was their job to write out and interpret the Scriptures and to be the source of truth for their community.

But they didn’t.  For whatever reason, they had long since abandoned their vocation and focused instead on adherence to the rules and making profit on God’s word.  Thus, they were unable to cast out the spirit from the man, and in fact, they would more likely have cast the man himself out so that he wouldn’t be a disruption.  But in order to see what would happen, they didn’t cast him out; they left him for Jesus to deal with.

And Jesus does deal with him.  Only instead of casting the man out, he does what was more important and cast out the evil spirit.  The man wasn’t the problem; the evil spirit was.  That evil spirit was actually an icon, a photograph, of what was wrong with their religion: they tolerated the evil they could not control, and cared nothing for the people who needed their God.  The people are then astonished that his teaching was able to cleanse them from the evil in their midst.  This was a teaching with authority, and not the so-called teaching of their scribes.

I think this is what we have to catch.  There’s lots of teaching out there, but none of it with authority.  Broken political promises, self-help gurus on television and in books, blogs that claim to know where the world is headed – none of this has authority.  There is only one authority that can cleanse us of the evil amidst us, only one source of Truth and that is our Lord Jesus Christ.  We need to do a little more listening to him than to the other noise that’s out there.  We need to catch the Gospel and not the latest gossip, and then put what we hear into practice.

If we would listen to our Lord’s teaching, it would indeed help us deal to with poverty, crime, violence, drugs, lack of respect for life, and all the many other demons that are out there seeking to ruin us.  And so we have to tune in to the right message.  We have to seek the Truth and turn off all the noise . Perhaps it’s time we made a retreat, or joined a Bible study or a book discussion, all of which we offer here at the parish all the time.  We have to give way more attention to our prayer lives and put God’s love and God’s will first.  If all we’re hearing is the lies, we’ll never get rid of the demons in our midst.  But if we would listen to the Truth, if we would harden not our hearts, we will indeed find ourselves healed, and then our land blessed, and all the world made right.

Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of the Unborn

Today’s readings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday of the Second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

“He is out of his mind.” Well that’s a fine way for relatives to receive a person, especially Jesus. But maybe everyone has relatives with whom they don’t see eye-to-eye. People who, it would seem, should know us best, often misunderstand us.

But the story of Jesus’ life is that his family isn’t necessarily those who are related to him by blood. As he says in another place, his family is those who hear the word of the Lord and act on it. It may seem crazy to some who are related to us when we sacrifice to do the will of God, but maybe they don’t know us for the people we are; the people we have been created to be.

If even Jesus’ relatives thought he was out of his mind, it’s not so hard to see how he may have been understood by the scribes and Pharisees. But Jesus was not out to do things the way they always had been, or to please those who supported the status quo. Jesus was out to change things, and that was destined to look crazy to some people. But that didn’t stop him from living his mission.

Thursday of the Second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today we hear about the amazing power of spiritual friendship, through the lens of the relationship of Jonathan and David.  If it were not for Jonathan, Saul would have murdered David not just in the story we heard today, but many times.  The Lord’s rejection of Saul was driving him to madness, and, as many insecure people do, he was doing everything possible to sabotage the one who was making him look bad.  But Jonathan’s intervention changed things, and David lived to become a great king.

Please note that I’m not just extolling friendship alone here.  Certainly friendship is a good thing, even a gift.  But I said this reading was about the amazing power of spiritual friendship.  Spiritual friendship has its basis in God’s grace, and is a special gift from God.  A spiritual friendship is a kind of companionship in which the companions, in their affection for one another, lead each other to God.  Jonathan and David did that in many ways, and the fruit of that was that Jonathan protected David’s vocation to be king.  Spiritual friends do that – they always bring out the best in each other; they help each other become what God created them to be.

Today, pause and be grateful for those who have been spiritual friends to you.  Think of those who have helped you become who you are; those whose encouragement has brought you closer to God.  May God bless those who have been a blessing to us.