Ash Wednesday

Today’s readings

Back when I was in seminary, I was a fire chaplain for one of the local fire departments.  On Wednesdays, we only had one class, and since it was Ash Wednesday and our teacher was a pastor of a parish, he was obviously busy, so we had the whole day free.  I went with my friend Jeff, who was a chaplain with me, to the station to see how things were going and to spend some time doing some ministry there.  When we got there, though, there really wasn’t anyone around.  The receptionist told us they had all gone out on a fire call, and it looked pretty big.

So Jeff and I got the address and headed out to the scene of the fire.  This was the first major fire I ever worked on, and it was pretty big.  A whole four unit apartment building was in flames.  Checking in with the fire chief, he told us that the families were in an apartment building across the street.  We went there and introduced ourselves.

We talked to the families that were there for a while, and then had to get some other information, and during a lull, I asked the woman whose apartment we were trampling with our wet boots if she knew these families before.  She said no, but she wouldn’t have thought of not opening her home to neighbors in trouble.  I noticed she was wearing a sweatshirt with the letters WWJD on it – what would Jesus do? And I thought, well she obviously knew the answer to that question, and was not afraid to live it.

Again, that was Ash Wednesday that year, and it made a big impact on me.  I realized it was so important for me to live those four letters – WWJD – during Lent, and really all year long.  But doing that is a process.  You have to develop new attitudes, new habits – new habits of the soul.  This Lent is all about doing that for us.

We are called to repent, to break our ties with the sinfulness and the entanglements that are keeping us tethered to the world instead of free to live with our God. Our Church offers us three ways to do that during Lent.  First, we can fast.  We can give up snacks, or a favorite food, or eat one less meal perhaps one day a week, or we can give up a favorite television program or activity.  Fasting helps us to be aware of the ways God works to sustain us when we’re lacking something we think we need.  The whole idea of fasting is that we need to come to realize that there is nothing that we hunger for that God can’t provide, and provide better than we could ever find in any other source.

Second, we can pray.  Sure, we’re called to pray all the time, but maybe Lent can be the opportunity to intensify our prayer life, to make it better, to make it more, to draw more life from it.  Maybe we are not people who read Scripture every day, and we can work through one of the books of the Bible during Lent.  Maybe we can learn a new prayer or take on a new devotion.  Maybe we can spend time before the Lord in the Tabernacle or in adoration.  Maybe we can just carve out some quiet time at the end of the day to give thanks for our blessings, and to ask pardon for our failings.  Intensifying our prayer life this Lent can help us to be aware of God’s presence at every moment of our day and in every place we are.

As part of our Lenten practice of prayer here at Saint Mary’s, we are invited to participate in Project Passion, which is a 30 day challenge to give 15 minutes a day to prayer and reflection on a Gospel passage.  We’ll be doing it on our own, praying each day as we are able.  But we will also be doing it together, each of us reflecting on the same 30 passages throughout Lent.  All the resources, including the reading and daily guided meditation podcasts in English, Spanish, and Polish, are available on our website, smip.org, and on the Parish App.

Project Passion Cards are being passed out throughout the day today at all exits of the Church.  We encourage every adult to take a card with them and to take the challenge to give 1% of their day to the Lord in prayer.  There is also a handout with a summary of other Lenten opportunities this year at St. Mary Immaculate.

Finally, we can give alms or do works of charity.  We can visit a soup kitchen or go out to collect groceries for the food pantry.  Maybe we can devote some time to mentoring a child who needs help with their studies, or volunteer to help in our school or religious education program.  Works of charity might be a family project, choosing an activity and doing it together.  When we do works of charity, we can learn to see others as God does, and love them the way God loves them and us.

And none of this, as the Gospel reminds us today, is to be done begrudgingly or half-heartedly.  None of it is to be done with the express purpose of letting the world see how great we are.  It is always to be done with great humility, but also with great joy.  Our acts of fasting, prayer, and charity should be a celebration of who God is in our lives, and a beautiful effort to strengthen our relationship with him.

It is my prayer that this Lent can be a forty day retreat that will bring us all closer to God.  Our collect prayer calls this a “campaign of Christian service.”  Lent is a time to pay more attention to the ways God wants to bless us and respond by giving blessing to others.  May we all hear the voice of the prophet Joel from today’s first reading: “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart!”

Saint Scholastica, Virgin

Today we celebrate the memorial of Saint Scholastica, who is known as the sister of Saint Benedict.  Some traditions speak of them as twins. Pope Saint Gregory the Great tells us that Benedict ruled over both monks and nuns, and it seems as if Saint Scholastica was the prioress of the nuns.

So what we know about Saint Scholastica is what we have from Saint Gregory, and his account tells us of a spiritual kinship between she and Benedict that was extremely close.  They would often meet together, but could never do so in their respective cloisters, so each would travel with some of their confreres and meet at a house on the property of the monastery.  On one such occasion, the last of these meetings together, they were speaking as they often did of the glories of God and the promise of heaven.  Perhaps knowing that she would not have this opportunity again, Scholastica begged her brother not to leave but to spend the night in this spiritual conversation.  Benedict did not like the idea of being outside his monastery for the night, and initially refused.  With that, Saint Scholastica laid her head on her hands and asked God to intercede.  Just as she finished her prayer, a very violent storm arose, preventing Benedict’s return to the monastery.  He said: “God forgive you, sister; what have you done?”  She replied, “I asked a favor of you and you refused it.  I asked it of God, and He has granted it.”

Three days later, Saint Scholastica died.  Saint Benedict was alone at the time, and had a vision of his sister’s soul ascending to heaven as a dove.  He announced her death to his brethren and then gave praise for her great happiness.  Just like Saint Scholastica, we are called to spend our days and nights in contemplation of our Lord and discussing his greatness with our brothers and sisters.  We don’t often do that, though, do we?  What a pleasant change that would be from some of the conversations we have!

Saint Scholastica had a very close relationship with her brother, but also a very close relationship with her Lord, who granted her prayer because of her faith.  As Lent approaches next week, this would be a good time to re-examine our relationships, both with our brothers and sisters, but also with our Lord.  What is it that we need to do during Lent that would strengthen these relationships and bring us into fuller communion with Christ?

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.

Saint Agatha, Virgin Martyr

Today’s readings

Historically speaking, we know almost nothing about Saint Agatha other than the fact that she was martyred in Sicily during the persecution of Decius in the third century.  Legend has it that Agatha was arrested as a Christian, tortured and sent to a house of prostitution to be mistreated. She was preserved from being violated, and was later put to death.  When Agatha was arrested, the legend says, she prayed: “Jesus Christ, Lord of all things! You see my heart, you know my desires. Possess all that I am—you alone. I am your sheep; make me worthy to overcome the devil.” And in prison, she said: “Lord, my creator, you have protected me since I was in the cradle. You have taken me from the love of the world and given me patience to suffer. Now receive my spirit.”

The stories of the early virgin martyrs like Saint Agatha do two things.  First, they remind us of the unsurpassed greatness of a relationship with Christ.  If they could believe in Christ when it would have been so much easier—and life-saving—to do so, then how can we turn away from God in the trying moments of our own lives, those trials which pale in comparison to the martyrdom they suffered?  But even those relatively minor sufferings which we may bear can be the source of our salvation.  We should look to the saints like Agatha to intercede for us that we may patiently bear our sufferings and so give honor and glory to God.  Second, these stories always point to Christ.  Even though we could get caught up in honoring a saint who stood fast for the faith to death, still that same saint would have us instead be caught up in honoring Christ, the one who was their hope and salvation.

Saint Agatha’s martyrdom is a participation in the “sprinkled Blood that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel” of which the writer of the letters to the Hebrews writes.  She was joined inseparably to Christ in both her virginity and her martyrdom.  Her example calls us to join ourselves to Christ inseparably as well, in whatever way we may be called upon to do it.  May our prayer in good times and bad always be the same as that of Saint Agatha: “Possess all that I am—you 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.

Saints Timothy and Titus, Bishops

Today’s readings

The sign of a good leader is her or his ability to perpetuate their activity.  A good corporate leader is future-minded, and lays the groundwork for his successor to carry the company forward.  A good parent raises children that can be set free one day to be successful and prudent in life, extending their integrity and love into the next generation.  Paul’s ministry was no different.  He knew he wouldn’t be around forever; indeed his ministry marked him for martyrdom.  And so in today’s saints, Timothy and Titus, he invests in leaders who will take the fledgling churches into the next generation.

During the fifteen years Saint Timothy worked with Saint Paul, he became one of his most faithful and trusted friends. He was sent on difficult missions by Paul—often in the face of great disturbance in local churches which Paul had founded.  Paul installed him as his representative at the Church of Ephesus.  Titus has the distinction of being a close friend and disciple of Paul as well as a fellow missionary.  Titus is seen as a peacemaker and capable administrator. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians affords an insight into the depth of his friendship with Titus, and the great fellowship they had in preaching the gospel.  When Paul was having trouble with the community at Corinth, Titus was the bearer of Paul’s severe letter and was successful in smoothing things out.  The Letter to Titus addresses him as the administrator of the Christian community on the island of Crete, charged with organizing it, correcting abuses, and appointing presbyter-bishops.

In today’s first reading from his second letter to Saint Timothy, Saint Paul shows his mentoring.  He reminds Timothy to “stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.  For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control.”  He urges his protégés to be strong and stand fast for the faith.  At the end of the reading, he also reminds them that they would indeed have to bear their share of hardship for the faith.

Just as Jesus said in today’s Gospel reading, Saints Timothy and Titus, along with Saint Paul, were the ones who scattered the seed trusting in God’s power to bring the Kingdom of God to its fulfillment.  Through their intercession, and by their testimony in the Scriptures we read, they beckon us to be those who tend and nurture the seeds of faith growing around us.  It is always our turn to “proclaim God’s marvelous deeds to all the nations.”

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.