The Twelfth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

On March 4th, in 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated as the thirty-second President of the United States, for the first of four terms.  As he began his presidency, the country was in economic crisis, mired as it was in the Great Depression.  There were all kinds of concerns in the country at that time, with the economy going into some frighteningly uncharted waters.  In his Inaugural Address, he addressed those concerns head-on:

“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”  That one phrase – “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” – became the watch phrase of his presidency and has been quoted in many terrifying situations ever since.

Sixty years later, in 1993, for the occasion of his fifteenth anniversary of elevation to the Papacy, Pope Saint John Paul II did a series of interviews with Italian Radio that were collected into the wonderful little book Crossing the Threshold of Hope.  The first interview concerned his acceptance of the papacy in his own life.  His Holiness was asked if he ever hesitated in his acceptance of Jesus Christ and God’s will in his life.  He responded, in part:

“I state right from the outset: ‘Be not afraid!’ This is the same exhortation that resounded at the beginning of my ministry in the See of Saint Peter.  Christ addressed this invitation many times to those He met. The angel said to Mary: ‘Be not afraid!’  (cf. Lk 1:30). The same was said to Joseph: ‘Be not afraid!’ (cf. Mt 1:20). Christ said the same to the apostles, to Peter, in various circumstances, and especially after His Resurrection. He kept telling them: ‘Be not afraid!’ He sensed, in fact, that they were afraid. They were not sure if who they saw was the same Christ they had known. They were afraid when He was arrested; they were even more afraid after his Resurrection.

“The words Christ uttered are repeated by the Church. And with the Church, they are repeated by the Pope. I have done so since the first homily I gave in St. Peter’s Square: ‘Be not afraid!’ These are not words said into a void. They are profoundly rooted in the Gospel. They are simply the words of Christ Himself.”  And these words – the simple three-word phrase – became the watchwords of his papacy: “Be not afraid!”

Both of these courageous men echoed the words of the Gospel that had formed them.  Roosevelt had been formed in an Episcopal boarding school whose headmaster preached the duty of Christians to help the less fortunate.  He had lived through polio.  Saint John Paul as Karol Wojtyla had lived through and beyond the Communist control of his country, buoyed as he was by his Catholic faith.  Both of them heard the same words we have in today’s Gospel, words that inspired and encouraged them, and words that they lived by:

“Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin?
Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge.
Even all the hairs of your head are counted.
So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

So, brothers and sisters, of what or of whom are you afraid?  Is it enemies, or at least broken relationships, like the prophet Jeremiah in our first reading and the mysterious enemies in today’s Gospel reading?  Is it the stain of sin or the finality of death, as Saint Paul related to the Roman Church in today’s second reading?  The truth is, we live in scary times – honestly, people have always lived in scary times.  We could be afraid of an uncertain economy in a state nearly bankrupt.  We could be afraid of violence in cities, terrorism abroad, and various forms of crime.

We could be afraid of an uncertain or serious medical diagnosis in ourselves or a loved one.  We could be afraid about a new chapter of life: children going away to school, family moving away from home, a new job or the ending of a current one.  The truth is, life is uncertain at times, and there’s a lot to be afraid of.

But, if we listen to FDR and JPII, we know that fear is useless.  It doesn’t add a second to our lives – actually, it probably robs us of important moments.  Fear contributes to poor health, and worst of all, fear decimates our spiritual lives.  We are always and forever in need of hearing those important words: do not be afraid.

So, okay, Father Pat, that sounds great, but how exactly do we get to the point of not being afraid?  How do we make that important journey from fear to faith?

Well, I think that, for inspiration, we can look at Jeremiah’s journey in our first reading.  Because Jeremiah wasn’t telling a hypothetical story, he was relating his own experience.  Prophets always and forever are speaking God’s word to people who often don’t want to hear it.  He had been accusing the religious establishment of turning away from trusting God and turning instead toward making alliances with worldly powers.  Not a popular message for the religious establishment and not a popular message for the worldly powers.  So the priest Pashur had Jeremiah arrested and scourged to keep him quiet.

But after his release, Jeremiah didn’t keep silence.  He continued to prophesy that if the nation continued in that way, they would come to doom and destruction and exile.  At that point, even Jeremiah’s friends were waiting for him to fall, and just prior to the reading we have today, Jeremiah famously poured out his lament before God by saying, “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped.”  It’s almost as if he was saying, “This isn’t what I signed up for!”

However, right in the middle of today’s reading is an important pivot in his outlook: “BUT the Lord is with me, like a mighty champion…”  Jeremiah is not going to be like the people he’s prophesying against:  he will not turn from trusting the Lord.  In the second half of this reading, he makes a strong act of faith that the Lord will be his champion, which is ultimately true.

Lots of people in today’s society talk about changing your attitude to change your situation.  “Believe and you can achieve” and all that nonsense.  But they’re getting close to the right place.  We do have to change our attitude if we want to move from fear to faith.  But we can’t shift to relying on ourselves or any other worldly power, because if we do we are so likely to fail.  We have to shift our attitude to make Jeremiah’s act of faith, remembering that our Lord has defeated sin and death.  If he could do that, he can shepherd us through our fear.

That doesn’t mean he’s going to wave a magic wand and make all our troubles go away, or even answer our prayers according to our pleasure.  He will answer prayer in his way, in his time, but he will be with us through it all.  Because we are worth more than many sparrows.  Do not be afraid.

The Nativity of Saint John the Baptist

Today’s readings 

Today we celebrate a feast that is a bit unusual for us. When we celebrate a saint’s day, it is usually celebrated on the feast of their death, not their birth. But today we gather to celebrate the birth of a saint, Saint John the Baptist, and the fact that we’re celebrating his birth points to the fact that St. John the Baptist had a very special role to play in the life of Christ. In fact, the only other saint for whom we celebrate a birthday is the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Just as for Jesus, we don’t know the precise day John the Baptist was born. So the feasts of their Nativities – their births – were traditions developed by the early Church. The dates the Church selected are significant. Jesus’ birthday was placed around the time of the winter solstice, some of which was to counteract pagan festivals of the coming of winter. John the Baptist’s birthday was then placed around the time of the summer solstice for similar reasons. But there’s more to it even than that. Saint Augustine reminds us that in the Gospel of John, there is a passage where John the Baptist says of himself and Jesus, “I must decrease, he must increase.” So John’s birthday is placed at the time when the days start to become shorter, and Jesus’ birthday is placed at the time when the days start to become longer. John the Baptist must decrease, Jesus must increase.

Today’s readings have a lot to do with who the prophet is. Saint John the Baptist was the last prophet of the old order, and his mission was to herald the coming of Jesus Christ who is himself the new order. Tradition holds that prophets were created for their mission, that their purpose was laid out while they were yet to be born. Isaiah, one of the great prophets of the old order, tells us of his commissioning in our first reading today. He says, “The LORD called me from birth, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.” The rest of the reading tells us of his mission, a mission of hardship, but one of being compelled to speak the word of God as a sharp-edged sword. His calling began as a call to preach to his own people, but by the end of the reading, it is clear that that commission became a call to preach to every nation on earth.

Isaiah says that he was given his name while in his mother’s womb. The same was true of Saint John the Baptist, whose name was given to Zechariah and Elizabeth by the Angel Gabriel. Names have meaning. Maybe you know what your name means. But far more significant are the names of the prophets we encounter in today’s Liturgy of the Word. Isaiah means “The LORD is salvation,” which pretty much encompassed the meaning of Isaiah’s mission, proclaiming salvation to the Israelites who were oppressed in exile. The name given to the Baptist, John, means “God has shown favor.” And that was in fact the message of his life. He came to pave the way for Jesus Christ, who was the favor of God shown to the whole human race.

Ultimately, the purpose for Saint John the Baptist’s life was summed up in his statement: “I must decrease, He must increase.” And so it must be for us. Sometimes we want to turn the spotlight on ourselves, at least unconsciously, when that is, of course, exactly where it should not be. For John the Baptist, the spotlight was always on Christ, the One whose sandals he was unfit to fasten. Just as the birth of Saint John the Baptist helped his father Zechariah to speak once again, so his life gives voice to our own purpose in the world. Like Saint John the Baptist, we are called to be a people who point to Christ, who herald the Good News, and who live our lives for God. We are called to decrease, while Christ increases in all of us. We are called to be that light to the nations of which Isaiah speaks today, so that God’s salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.

Saint John the Baptist, pray for us.

The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

Today’s readings

In the summer of my first year of seminary, the diocese sent me to Mexico to learn Spanish.  This time next week, I’ll be wishing that worked a lot better than it did!  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 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.

In our second reading today, Saint Paul says, “Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.”  No matter where we live or what language we speak, we are one body in Christ, who gives himself completely to us … all of us.  We try to symbolize that in lots of ways in the liturgy: saying the same prayers, singing the same songs, even holding hands at the Lord’s Prayer.  All of that is nice, but the most important way that we show our unity is when we come to the altar and receive the Most Holy Body and Blood of our Lord, who gave himself so that we may be one in him, and may have the strength to follow him to heaven one day.

One of the greatest joys for me the last six and a half years here at Notre Dame has been celebrating that with you.  Whether it was daily Mass or Sunday Mass, or a First Communion, a wedding or a funeral, or even Christmas or Easter Mass, all of that has been a great privilege to celebrate with you.

Now over these last years here at Notre Dame, I’ve learned a lot.  And I’ve even learned from Father Venard, and so I want to include a joke at this point in my homily!  The new pastor arrived at his parish, and as he was unpacking and putting things into the desk in his office, he found a note attached to three envelopes in a little bundle.  The envelopes were numbered one to three.  They were from the priest he was replacing and the note said that if ever things got bad and there was a little storm, he should open an envelope, beginning with the first.  He chuckled a bit, and set them aside, and things went so well that he almost forgot about them.  Until there was a controversy.  Things were getting ugly, and he remembered the envelopes and decided to open the first.  It said, very simply, “Blame me, your predecessor.”  So he did.  He blamed the priest before him, and everyone accepted that, and they moved on.  But eventually there was another controversy, and so he decided to open the second envelope.  It said, “Blame the pastoral council.”  So that’s what he did.  He blamed the pastoral council and things blew over and they moved on.  But, after a little while, there was a third controversy, so in desperation, he opened the last of the envelopes.  This note was a little longer than the others, but the first line really got his attention: “Prepare three envelopes.”

I won’t be leaving three envelopes for Father David, but I do want to leave you with three things.  The first is thanks.  I don’t know how I can ever express my gratitude enough.  So many of you have been with me in good times and bad, and have supported me and taught me and worked with me and made me a better priest and a better man in Christ.  I have worked with some of the finest people I’ve ever known on our parish staff, on our parish council, finance council, school board, buildings and grounds and most recently on the capital campaign.  I have enjoyed rolling up my sleeves with you on service day, singing with you at the Christmas Concert, and serving with the many fine people who help me make the Liturgy happen here each week.  You have brought me soup when I was sick, and cookies when I needed joy, and asked about my family and made them feel part of the family here.  Many wise priests have told me that you never forget the first parish where you were a pastor, and I am certain they are right.  I will never forget you, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

The second thing I want to leave you with is an apology.  I know there are days that I haven’t been at my finest for many reasons.  So if you’ve encountered me when I’ve been preoccupied or grumpy or frustrated, if ever I have been less than Christ to you, please know that I am so sorry.

And finally I want to leave you with a gift.  This one is one that maybe you’ve picked up along the way, because I talk about it a lot.  The children know it by heart.  And that gift is that God loves you more than anything.  All of you together, and each of you individually, are loved so much by God that he sent his Son into the world to bring us all home to heaven one day.  He loves us so much that he could not bear to live without us, so he sent his Son to die in our place, and rise up over death so that we could have life.  If that’s the only thing you remember about God, let it be that: that God loves you.  And if the only thing you remember about me is that I told you that, it will be more than enough.

God loves you, and I love you too.  I won’t forget you, you’ll always be in my prayers, and I hope I’ll be in yours.  We will always be one body in Christ.  And because of that, I don’t say goodbye; I just say I love you.  And I look forward to that great day when, as Saint Benedict wrote, we all go together to everlasting life.

Friday of the Tenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

This morning we have to wrestle with the question: is there something in my life that distracts me from living my life as God intended that I need to cut out?  It’s a ruthless image that we find in our Gospel reading: gouge out an eye, cut off a hand – all of that is better than taking the road to hell.  And it really does need to be that ruthless.  Because hell is real and it’s not going to be pleasant.  So we really need to attach ourselves to Jesus who is the way, the truth, and the life.  And whatever gets in the way of that needs to be brutally ejected from our lives.

Yes, that might hurt sometimes.  But, as the cliché goes, whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.  Saint Paul is a good model of that:  he was constantly subjected to torture and imprisonment and death, but he considered that as gain so that he might have Christ.  And in today’s first reading, he testifies that all he endures is manifesting the sufferings of Jesus in his flesh, for the benefit of the Corinthian Church.

So in like manner, we too need to be willing to put to death in us anything that does not lead us to Christ.  The pain of it can be joined to the sufferings of Christ for God’s glory and honor.  It is something that we can offer to our God, as our Psalmist said, as a “sacrifice of praise.”

Thursday of the Tenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings 

Would that we all would be, as St. Paul said, transformed from glory into glory. But the problem is, we get caught up in all the wrong kinds of things. Which is exactly what he was cautioning the Corinthians against, and what Jesus was condemning the Scribes and Pharisees for doing in today’s Gospel. When Moses was read among the Corinthian Church, St. Paul tells them that it was always with a certain veil over it all. And that veil kept the people from understanding the Mosaic Law’s true intent. The same could be said for the Jews in Jesus’ time. The Scribes and Pharisees had the law down to a science. But they always missed the spirit of the law. And of that Spirit, St. Paul says: “Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”

And for those who follow the spirit of the law, there really is true freedom. There is freedom from getting caught up in all the minutiae. There is freedom to really serve God and other people. There is freedom to do what we were created for.

It’s always scary when Jesus starts out saying “you have heard it said that…” because he always follows up with “but what I say to you is this…” What he is doing here, though, is freeing us from the strictness of the law and opening our eyes to the spirit. So in Christ, it’s not enough just not to murder, we must also respect life in every way. We can’t just be content with not murdering or aborting, although that’s certainly a good start, but we must also be sure to tear down any kind of racism, hatred, or stereotyping. We must care for the elderly and sick and never let them be forgotten. We must never be so angry that we write people off and hold grudges. Murdering takes many forms, brothers and sisters, and we must be careful to avoid them all or be held liable for breaking the fifth commandment in spirit.

We should shine the light of God’s spirit on all of our laws and commandments and be certain that we are following them as God intended. As St. Paul said in today’s first reading, “For God who said, Let light shine out of darkness, has shone in our hearts to bring to light the knowledge of the glory of God on the face of Jesus Christ.” May we all be free to follow the spirit of God’s law and be transformed from glory into glory.

Saint Anthony of Padua, Priest and Doctor of the Church

Today’s readings

I think I can always remember my mother, and my grandmothers, praying to St. Anthony anytime something was lost. There’s even the popular little prayer, “Tony, Tony, please come ’round, something’s lost and must be found.” This everyday need to find lost objects has made St. Anthony one of the most popular saints.

But the real story of St. Anthony meshes very well with the challenge of today’s Gospel reading, that we would be salt and light for the earth.  The gospel call to leave everything and follow Christ was the rule of Anthony’s life. Over and over again God called him to something new in his plan. Every time Anthony responded with renewed zeal and self-sacrificing to serve his Lord Jesus more completely. His journey as the servant of God began as a very young man when he decided to join the Augustinians, giving up a future of wealth and power to follow God’s plan for his life. Later, when the bodies of the first Franciscan martyrs went through the Portuguese city where he was stationed, he was again filled with an intense longing to be one of those closest to Jesus himself: those who die for the Good News.

So Anthony entered the Franciscan Order and set out to preach to the Moors – a pretty dangerous thing to do. But an illness prevented him from achieving that goal. He went to Italy and was stationed in a small hermitage where he spent most of his time praying, reading the Scriptures and doing menial tasks.

But that was not the end for Anthony’s dream of following God’s call. Recognized as a great man of prayer and a great Scripture and theology scholar, Anthony became the first friar to teach theology to the other friars. Soon he was called from that post to preach to heretics, to use his profound knowledge of Scripture and theology to convert and reassure those who had been misled.

Through the intercession and example of St. Anthony, may we all find the courage to be salt and light for a world that has in many ways grown bland and dark.  Following our own call to holiness, we can help people find Christ, as Saint Anthony always longed to do.

Monday of the Tenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Sometimes God’s blessings can be challenging.  For example, we might not think that those who are meek and those who mourn are blessed.  And we certainly wouldn’t celebrate the blessings of those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, would we?  It’s even more challenging when we remember that the word “blessed” in Scripture could also be translated as “happy.”  Would we think of those people as happy?  Probably not, but God does.

Paul and Timothy in our first reading write to the people of the Church at Corinth that, when they are afflicted – as they surely were! – it was for the Church’s encouragement and salvation.  Paul knew well that following Christ meant going to the Cross.  He realized that, for him, it probably meant death, but for all of us, it means some kind of mortification, some kind of sacrifice.

So it’s important for us to remember, I think, that while God never promises to make our lives free and easy, he does promise to bless us.  He will bless us with whatever gifts we need to do the work he has called us to do, the work for which he formed us in our mother’s womb.  We may be reasonably happy in this life, but the true happiness must come later.  Our reward, which Jesus promises will be great, will surely be in heaven.