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Homilies Saints

Saints John de Brébeuf and Isaac Jogues, Priests and Martyrs, & Companions, Martyrs

Ministry in a culture that is hostile to the faith seems to be a theme of every age and place.  It takes different forms in different places and times, but there is always some hostility to the faith that needs to be fought.  We certainly see this in our own day, when the mere mention of the Catholic faith can bring out accusations that we are hateful and intolerant, despite our offering the grace of God’s love in Jesus Christ.  The culture was different in the seventeenth century, but the hatred of the faith was still there.

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

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

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

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Angels Homilies

The Holy Guardian Angels

Today’s readings: Exodus 23:20-23 | Psalm 91 | Matthew 18:1-5, Matthew 18:10

This is one of my favorite memorial days of the year.  Today we celebrate the Holy Guardian Angels.  Each one of us has a Guardian Angel assigned to us by God.  That angel prays for us and does their best to guide us and keep us close to Jesus.  Our Guardian Angels are powerful spiritual beings who do everything possible to keep us from harm.  If we would pray often to our Guardian Angels, we would really benefit from their advice and care for us.  Today we celebrate that the angels keep us safe and lead us ultimately to God himself.  The gift of our Guardian Angels is one of the most wonderful gifts we have from God!

I love the feast of the Guardian Angels, because my Guardian Angel was probably the first devotion that I learned. I remember my mother teaching me the prayer. Say it with me if you know it:

Angel of God,
my guardian dear,
To whom God’s love
commits me here,
Ever this day,
be at my side,
To watch and guard,
To rule and guide.

Amen.

The Scriptural reference for today’s feast is summed up in the first line of the first reading. Hear it again:

See, I am sending an angel before you,
to guard you on the way
and bring you to the place I have prepared.

From the earliest days of the Church, there has always been the notion of an angel whose purpose was to guide people, to intercede for them before God, and to present them to God at death. This notion was then developed by the monks of the Church, with the help of St. Benedict, St. Bernard of Clairvaux and others. It is during this monastic period that devotion to the angels took its present form.

It used to be that people would move over on their seats to make room for their Guardian Angel!  As amusing as that may be, the having an angel to guard and guide us is essential to our faith.  The gift of the Guardian Angels is a sign of the love and mercy of God.  Devotion to the Guardian Angels, then, is not just for when we are children.  Adults should also, always feel free to call on their angels for intercession and guidance.  We should continue to rely on that angel right up to death, when we strongly believe that our angel will present us to God.  In the Rite of Christian Burial, there is a beautiful prayer for the person that tells us about that.  It says:

“May the angels lead you into paradise;
may the martyrs come to welcome you
and take you to the holy city,
the new and eternal Jerusalem.”

So our Guardian angel is an important intercessor, and guides us all through our lives.  I think people too often forget about their Guardian Angel, and I hope we can change that.  With all the hard things happening in the world right now, I think we need our Guardian Angels more than ever.  So I encourage you to say that Guardian Angel prayer every morning; I know I do!

May the Guardian Angels always intercede for us.  And, as we hear in today’s Gospel, may our angels always look upon the face of our heavenly Father.

Blessed be God in His angels and in His saints.

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Angels Homilies Saints

Saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, Archangels

Today’s readings

This is the beginning of a rather angelic few days for us Catholics.  Today we celebrate the feast of the archangels, and on Friday we will have the joy of honoring our guardian angels.  We celebrate the way the angels protect and guide us and keep us on the path to Christ.

Many people think that when people die, they become angels.  That’s not actually true.  Angels are a different order of creation from human beings.  There is a continuum of creation from things that are pure body, like a plant or a rock or a lump of dirt, all the way to those who are pure spirit, which would be the angels.  We humans are somewhere in between, being the highest and greatest of the bodies, and the lowest of the spirits.  Everything has its place in creation, and was created the way God intended it.

So today we celebrate the highest of the highest of the spirits: Saints Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, the archangels.  Each of these angels is specifically mentioned in Scripture.  Michael is mentioned in the book of Revelation, as the protector of the heavens and the defender of the people of God.  Michael fights the spiritual battle that is going on throughout the ages.  He is the patron of police officers, and the pope.  Gabriel is the announcer of good news, and we know him from the story of the Annunciation to Mary of her pregnancy.  Gabriel is the patron of communications workers.  Raphael is mentioned in the book of Tobit, in what is a beautiful story.  His purpose in that story is to protect Tobit on the journey to recover his family’s fortune and to introduce Tobit to Sarah, curing her of the despair she had over her last seven marriages, which all ended in death on the wedding night.  Raphael also cured Tobiah, Tobit’s father, of blindness due to cataracts.  Tobit and Sarah get married and live happily ever after, which is why it’s such a great story.  Raphael is the patron of travelers and healthcare workers.

We know a little bit about all these angels because of today’s feast. But those stories are not finished just yet.  The angels are still working among us, guiding us, healing us, defending us, and bringing us good news.  The angels are probably working through people you know.  They’re even working through you whenever you help someone else.  The truth is, I don’t think we would live very safe and happy lives if it weren’t for the angels among us.  Today we should thank God for Saints Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, and for all the people who cooperate with those angels in all their important work.

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Homilies Saints

Saint Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist

Today’s readings

Saint Matthew’s call to be an Apostle, and a Saint, was highly improbable.  And that’s good news for us, because our own calls are improbable too. Our God does amazing things with the improbable!  Matthew was a tax collector, working for the Roman occupation government.  His task was to exact the tax from each citizen.  Whatever he collected over and above the tax was his to keep.  Now the Romans wouldn’t condone outright extortion, but let’s just say that they weren’t overly scrupulous about what their tax collectors were collecting, as long as they got paid the proper tax.

So Matthew’s reception among the Jews was quite like they might accept any other kind of bad news.  The Pharisees were quick to lump men like Matthew with sinners, and despised them as completely unworthy of God’s salvation. But Jesus had different ideas.

“Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.

Go and learn the meaning of the words,

I desire mercy, not sacrifice.

I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”

So it’s amazing for us to celebrate the call of a man who was anything but worthy. Because he was called, we know that our own calls are authentic, unworthy as we may be. Just as the Matthew spread the Good News by the writing and preaching of the Gospel, so we are called to spread the Good News to everyone by the witness of our lives. Matthew’s call is a day of celebration for all of us sinners, who are nonetheless called to do great things for the Kingdom of God.

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Homilies Saints

Saint Monica

I hope we all know someone in our lives that is a fervent, persistent prayer warrior.  Because we all need people like that who pray for us, especially in bad or trying times.  We very likely have some people like that here in church today.  I know that the persistent prayer warriors in my life are largely responsible for my vocation, and I’m very grateful to them for that.  So for all the prayer warriors out there, today is the memorial of their patron saint, Saint Monica.  Saint Monica was a woman in love with God and the Church, and her family, although the latter was pretty difficult for her.  But her persistent prayer won them for Christ and the Church.

Although she was a Christian, her parents gave her in marriage to a pagan, Patricius, who lived in her hometown of Tagaste in North Africa. Patricius had some redeeming features, but he had a violent temper. Monica also had to bear with a cantankerous mother-in-law who lived in her home. Patricius criticized his wife because of her charity and piety, but always respected her. Monica’s prayers and example finally won her husband and mother-in-law to Christianity. Her husband died in 371, one year after having been baptized.

Monica’s oldest son was Augustine. At the time of his father’s death, Augustine was 17 and a rhetoric student in Carthage. Monica was distressed to learn that her son had accepted the Manichean heresy and was living a rather immoral life. For a while, she refused to let him eat or sleep in her house. Then one night she had a vision that assured her Augustine would return to the faith. From that time on she stayed close to her son, praying and fasting for him. In fact, she often stayed much closer than Augustine probably would have liked!

Augustine, followed by his mother, eventually traveled to Rome and then Milan, where he came under the influence of the bishop, Saint Ambrose, who also became Monica’s spiritual director. There Monica became a leader of the devout women in Milan as she had been in Tagaste.

She continued her prayers for Augustine during his years of instruction. On Easter, in the year 387, Saint Ambrose baptized Augustine and several of his friends. Soon after, his party left for Africa. Although no one else was aware of it, Monica knew her life was near the end. She told Augustine, “Son, nothing in this world now affords me delight. I do not know what there is now left for me to do or why I am still here, all my hopes in this world being now fulfilled.” She became ill shortly after and suffered severely for nine days before her death.

Monica was a woman who accomplished much by her persistent prayer. It might be well for us today to ask for a portion of her spirit of prayer that we might accomplish God’s glory in our own time and place.

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Homilies Saints

Saint Bartholomew, Apostle

Today’s readings

Today we celebrate the feast of a Saint Bartholomew the Apostle, who is referred to in the a Gospel reading we just heard, as Nathanael.  Nathanael – or Bartholomew, take your pick – is singled out of the crowd by Jesus. Nathanael is surprised at what Jesus says about him: “Here is a true child of Israel. There is no duplicity in him.” We should recall that Jesus considered it his primary mission to seek out the lost children of Israel, so seeing Nathanael as a “true child of Israel” with “no duplicity in him” means that Jesus considered Nathanael a role model for his people. He was one whose faith reached beyond mere observance of the Law or the Torah, and extended into the realm of living the Gospel. This was what Jesus came to call people to do.

And that call wasn’t just for the people of that time. That’s where we are all led, of course. When it comes down to it, there is nothing more important than living the Gospel, and every one of us is called to do it. If our spiritual life is not our primary concern, then we have no eternity; nothing to look forward to. We can’t accept duplicity in ourselves if we want to go to heaven. But the good news is that our Lord has given us hope of eternal life, and we hear of that by the intercession and example and preaching of the Apostles and especially Saint Bartholomew today.

As the Psalmist sings today, “Your friends make known, O Lord, the glorious splendor of your Kingdom.” Praise God for such faithful witnesses as Bartholomew, who help us to single-mindedly follow the call of the Gospel.

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Homilies Saints

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Abbot and Doctor of the Church

Today’s readings

Learning to follow the path of perfection is the most important goal of the spiritual life.  How do we get our relationship with God right so that we can live with him forever in heaven?  That was certainly the goal of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, whose feast we celebrate today.

In the year 1111, at the age of 20, Bernard left his home to join the monastic community of Citeaux.  His five brothers, two uncles and around 30 of his friends followed him into the monastery.  Within four years, that monastic community, which had been dying, had recovered enough vitality to establish a new house in the nearby valley of Wormwoods, with Bernard as abbot.  The zealous young man was quite demanding, particularly on himself.  A minor health problem, though, taught him to be more patient and understanding.  The valley was soon renamed Clairvaux, the valley of light.

Bernard’s strong support of the Roman See was well known; in fact it was Bernard who intervened in a full-blown schism and settled it in favor of the Roman pontiff against the antipope.  The Holy See then prevailed on Bernard to preach the Second Crusade throughout Europe.  His eloquence was so overwhelming that a great army was assembled and the success of the crusade seemed assured.  The motives of the men and their leaders, however, were not as pure as those of Abbot Bernard, and the project ended as a complete military and moral disaster.  Bernard felt responsible in some way for the degenerative effects of the crusade.  This heavy burden possibly hastened his death, which came on August 20, 1153.

In our Gospel reading today, people are invited to a wedding feast, symbolic of the heavenly banquet. No one comes, with varying responses: some are off to work now, can’t come, others just ignore it, still others murder the messengers. Just like people treated the prophets. Others were invited to the feast, but one was unprepared, refusing to wear a wedding garment. We are those invited to the banquet now. Saint Bernard would have us follow the path of the spiritual life to get there. May we who have his desire for the wedding feast benefit from his intercession.

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Homilies Saints

Saint James, Apostle

Today’s readings

“Can you drink the chalice of which I am going to drink?”

What does that even mean for us?  We know what Jesus’ chalice was like: it led him through sorrow, and abandonment, and ultimately to the cross.  If we have ever been in a situation in which we have felt intense grief, or felt abandoned, or had to stand by and watch the death of one that we loved, well then, we know a little bit of what that chalice is going to taste like.

Being a disciple is messy business.  It means that it’s not all the glory, butterflies, and dancing.  It means that our faith sometimes has to move from the mountaintop experiences down into the valleys of despair.  It means that there are times when we will be in situations that are frustrating, infuriating, debilitating, grievous and horrible.  We will have to drink a very bitter chalice indeed.  And Jesus wasn’t just talking to John and James when he said “My chalice you will indeed drink.”  That’s the cup reserved for all of us who would be his disciples.

Very clearly those words of Saint Paul in our first reading today ring true for us:
We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained;
perplexed, but not driven to despair;
persecuted, but not abandoned;
struck down, but not destroyed;
always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body.
For we who live are constantly being given up to death
for the sake of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh.

What is unspoken here but clearly implied is the grace.  Those who abandon their lives to take up the cross, wherever that leads them, will always have at their disposal the grace to live a life that is joyful in the face of affliction, confident in the midst of uncertainty, whole in the midst of destruction.  There is nothing that the world or its evils can throw at us that cannot be ultimately overcome by the grace of God, because God has already conquered the world.  We will still have to live through sadness at times, but that sadness can never conquer and must never overtake the joy we have in Christ.

Like Saint James and his brother John, we are all called to drink from the chalice that Jesus drank. That means that we will always bear the dying of Jesus in our own bodies. We can’t explain why bad things happen to good people, but we can explain how good people handle bad situations well: they handle it well because they know Christ and live in Christ every day of their lives. Sometimes the chalice we will have to drink will be unpleasant, distasteful and full of sorrow. But with God’s grace, our drinking of those cups can be a sacrament of the presence of God in the world.

Everyone who is great among us must be a servant, and whoever wishes to be first among us must be the slave of all. Saint James learned how to do that and still thrive in his mission. May we all be that same kind of sacrament for the world.

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Homilies Saints

Saint Benedict, Abbot, Founder of Western Monasticism

Today’s readings
Rule of Saint Benedict

It is with great fondness that I observe this feast of St. Benedict the abbot, and father of western monasticism.  My own Benedictine roots stem from my college days at Benedictine University in Lisle (which was then called Illinois Benedictine College), and I have a deep fondness for the monks of St. Procopius Abbey, who staffed the college, and in whose monastery I made my Priesthood retreat before I was ordained.  Every now and then I go there for a few days of prayer, which helps me to be ready for whatever ministry is bringing my way.  The motto Saint Benedict chose for his order was “Ora et Labora” – Prayer and Work — and for me it is a constant reminder of the balance we are called to have in life.

A wonderful source of inspiration to me while I was working in the corporate world, and still today, is reading from The Rule of St. Benedict, which is a great reflection on the balance we are called to in life.  It was also one of the most groundbreaking works of spirituality and monastic rule at that time.  It remains a spiritual classic today.  Recently, I read a quote from the rule that spoke of something the abbot of a monastery should bear in mind.  My reflection on it got me to thinking it was also extremely wise counsel for pastors of parishes, and even fathers – and mothers – of families.  It’s from the second chapter of the rule and it goes like this: 

Above all, the abbot should not bear greater solicitude for things that are passing, earthly, and perishable, thereby ignoring or paying little attention to the salvation of the souls entrusted to him. Instead, may he always note that he has undertaken the governance of souls, for which, moreover, an account will have to be rendered. And if perhaps he pleads as an excuse a lack of wealth, then he should remember what is written: ‘First seek the kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things will be added unto you’ (Mt 6:33), and again: ‘Nothing is lacking to those who fear him’ (Ps 34:10).

But it’s the second to last chapter that echoes the Gospel reading today. Jesus calls all of us disciples to stop being afraid to do the right thing and trust God to make things right.  Saint Benedict says it this way: Just as there is an evil zeal of bitterness which separates from God and leads to hell, so there is a good zeal which separates from vices and leads to God and to life everlasting.  This zeal, therefore, the monks should practice with the most fervent love.  Thus they should anticipate one another in honor; most patiently endure one another’s infirmities, whether of body or of character; vie in paying obedience one to another—no one following what he considers useful for himself, but rather what benefits another—; tender the charity of brotherhood chastely; fear God in love; love their Abbot with a sincere and humble charity; prefer nothing whatever to Christ.

Friends, this is advice not just for monks, but for all of us.  When we prefer other things to Christ, when we are afraid to bear witness to the truth, we lose every benefit of relationship with Jesus.  Possessions cannot sustain us; our fears cannot sustain us.  So we have to follow Christ with incredible zeal.  When we follow Christ with this kind of zeal, Benedict says we can look forward to the ultimate reward: And may He bring us all together to life everlasting!

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Homilies Saints

Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles

Today’s readings

Today we celebrate a feast of great importance to our Church.  Saint Peter, the apostle to the Jews, and St. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, come together to show how the Church is truly universal, that is, truly catholic.  There are similarities between the two men.  Simon’s name is changed to Peter after he professes belief in the Lord Jesus, and Saul’s name is changed to Paul after he is converted.  Both men started out as failures as far as living the Christian life goes.  Peter denied his Lord by the fire and swore that he didn’t even know the man who was his friend.  Paul’s early life was taken up with persecuting Christians and participating in their murder.  And both men were given second chances, which they received with great enthusiasm, and lived a life of faith that has given birth to our Church.

In today’s Gospel, Peter and the others are asked “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”  Both Peter and Paul were committed to the truth about who Christ was.  They had too much at stake.  Having both failed on this early on, they knew the danger of falling into the trap.  So for them Jesus could never be just a brother, friend or role model – that was inadequate.  And both of them proclaimed with all of their life straight through to their death that Jesus Christ is Lord.  We too on this day must repent of the mediocrity we sometimes settle for in our relationship with Christ.  He has to be Lord of our lives and we must proclaim him to be that Lord to our dying breath.

Both Peter and Paul kept the faith, as Paul says in today’s second reading.  If they hadn’t, it’s quite possible we would never have had the faith today – although that was certainly not God’s plan.  But because they kept the faith, we have it today, and we must be careful to keep the faith ourselves.  Too many competing voices in our world today would have us bracket faith in favor of reason, or tolerance, or success, or being nice, or whatever.  But we can never allow that, we can never break faith with Saints Peter and Paul, who preserved that faith at considerable personal cost.

Perhaps Saints Peter and Paul can inspire our own apostolic zeal.  In this time of pandemic, our apostolic zeal can be to heal the sick: by wearing a mask, and being careful in hygiene, and keeping social distance, so that we can stop the spread of the disease until a cure can be found.  In this time of social unrest, our apostolic zeal can be to embrace the marginalized: to reflect on any traces of racism in our own lives and root them out, and to stand with our brothers and sisters of color, not just in this moment, but from now on, so that they will never be marginalized again.  Our apostolic zeal is similar to that of Saints Peter and Paul: it comes about because Jesus is Lord, and that truth is forever important.

Then, as we bear witness to the fact that Jesus is Lord of our lives and of all the earth, we can bring a banal world to relevance.  Perhaps in our renewed apostolic zeal we can bring justice to the oppressed, right judgment to the wayward, love to the forgotten and the lonely, and faith to a world that has lost sight of anything worth believing in.  To paraphrase Cardinal Francis George, of blessed memory, the apostolic mission still has a Church, and it’s time for the Church to be released from its chains and burst forth to give witness in the Holy Spirit that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.