The Twenty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time – Bread of Life Discourse V: So What?

Today’s readings

“So what?”  That’s perhaps the most important question of the spiritual life.  Maybe it’s even the most important question of life, period.  Because after we have all taken time to absorb the information around us, after we have learned all that we have been taught, we have to decide what, if anything, that information and teaching mean for us as human beings.  What is the impact of this information on our lives? What difference does it make to have come to know this?  How will this experience change my life?  So what?

I mention that because I think today’s Liturgy of the Word gives us a “So what?” moment today.  As you know, these past several weeks, we have been reflecting on the “Bread of Life Discourse” as presented in chapter six of the Gospel of John. It all began five weeks ago with Saint John’s telling of the feeding of the multitudes: how thousands of people were fed with just five loaves of bread and two fish.  It was a great miracle of abundance: indeed, the leftovers were even more food than they started with: twelve baskets intended to feed those who couldn’t make it to the banquet, those who hungered throughout the whole world.

Ever since that, in these last three weeks, Jesus has been unpacking the meaning of that miracle for the crowd.  They wanted more food, but he wanted to feed them in much more important ways, in ways that touched the deepest hungers of their lives, in ways that could lead them to the eternal banquet of the Lord where no one would ever hunger or thirst again.  He made a bold claim: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” (John 6:58) And now, the crowds grapple with that information.

Some of them are offended by the notion that he, the carpenter’s son, the one they have known and whose family they have seen, could ever be anything eternal. How on earth could this common man, this one who is one of them, be the Son of God, the Bread of Life, the answer to all their eternal questions?  Others are disgusted that the answer to these eternal questions involved eating his flesh and drinking his blood.  How horrible that he would even suggest such a cannibalistic approach to eternal life! And in today’s passage, we see the impact of all that: some of them leave and return to their former way of life. Those who walked away weren’t just hangers-on or spectators – they were among his disciples.  And then Jesus asks the Twelve – the Apostles – the question of all questions: “Do you also want to leave?”  He might as well have said to them: “So what?”

And, as usual, it’s Saint Peter who expresses the faith of these twelve men: “Master, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”  For them, at least, the “So what?” moment had led them to recognize something deeper in this miracle of feeding and in the words of this uncommon common man, and that something was the possibility of an eternity, which would never be possible without Jesus.  Of course, they couldn’t have known the full meaning of that statement of faith, or the cost of it, but they would certainly see it all unfold in the death and resurrection of Christ, which would solidify their faith: well, for all but one of them.

For me, the prayer of Saint Peter: “Master to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life” has played a particularly important role.  It’s come up more than once in my journey of faith. I remember in my young adulthood, before I went to seminary, having a crisis in my own faith.  Even though I was always going to Mass, for a time I had also been attending Willow Creek – the big megachurch up in Barrington – with my friends.  The music was nice and the sermons sounded good.  But along the way my pastor, Father Mike O’Keefe of blessed memory, called me in and had a “come to Jesus” with me.  It was irritating at the time, but now I couldn’t be more grateful.  I remember he told me, “Patrick, I know you would never be able to go to the chapel and stand in front of the Tabernacle and say that Jesus wasn’t there.”  I took a while to think about that, and one night when I went to Willow Creek they were having their monthly communion.  They passed around bread and grape juice and I realized that Father Mike was right: Jesus was in the Tabernacle, not there at Willow Creek, and that I would never be able to live without the Sacraments of the Church.  In retrospect, that moment was pivotal in my vocational call. Father Mike’s fatherly pastoring of me and gentle rebuke helped me to see that I couldn’t leave the Catholic Church: “Master to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”

A few years later, when I was in seminary, that prayer became important again.  I started seminary in fall of 2001, and in the spring of that year, the clergy sexual abuse scandals broke open.  Half of my class left seminary that year, and by the end of my time at Mundelein the 23 of us who started together dwindled to just eight of us who graduated.  Plenty of times in those five years, I wondered if I should leave too.  Why would I want to get involved in the priesthood at this moment in our Church’s history – this painful moment?  As I prayed about it over and over, I kept getting the same answer, over and over: “Master to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”

In my last parish, I followed a beloved pastor who was very ill and had passed away a few months before I was asked to go there.  The people there, because of his illness, had coalesced in a way that they carried the burden of the parish duties and really were able to exist without an active pastor. So when I went there, it was more than difficult.  They hadn’t come to know me or my love for them yet – indeed, I hadn’t come to know my love for them yet.  And so I asked the Lord if I could leave my vocation.  His answer, obviously, wasn’t “yes.”  And the prayer that kept coming back to me was: “Master to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”

In these last days, with the resurgence of the scandals in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, I’ve found myself praying those words again.  It’s hard to be a priest right now; it’s hard to be Catholic.  If you’ve found yourself wanting to throw in the towel and leave it all behind, I dare say you’re not alone.  If you’re angry and hurt and disappointed and frustrated, then you and I have some common feelings.  But I have to believe in the power and presence of Christ our God in the Eucharist. That in these five weeks, the blessing of the Real Presence: Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity is what keeps me coming back, helps me get out of bed each morning.  In fact, that gift makes me want to be a better priest, a better Catholic, every single day.  Because only Jesus’ Eucharistic presence in the Church has the key to my eternal life. Where else on earth would I ever want to go?

I Believe in Life Everlasting: A Talk on Catholic Beliefs Regarding Eternity Given to the Clarendon Hills Interfaith Dinner

Today at Notre Dame we celebrated the funeral of a dear woman who has been part of our community for many years.  The funeral Liturgy provides a glimpse as to what the Catholic Church teaches about life, death, and eternity.  In particular, the prayer of commendation, which is said just before leaving the church says this:

Into your hands, Father of mercies,
we commend our sister Helen
in the sure and certain hope
that, together with all who have died in Christ,
she will rise with him on the last day. 

Merciful Lord,
turn toward us and listen to our prayers:
open the gates of paradise to your servant
and help us who remain
to comfort one another with assurances of faith,
until we all meet in Christ
and with you and with our sister for ever.

From this beautiful prayer, we can pick up two very important aspects of the Church’s teaching on eternity: first, for the baptized believer who has done her or his best to live the Gospel, a resurrection to life is assured – in “sure and certain hope.”  Second, that resurrection will happen together with all believers, and until then we wait, comforting one another with “assurances of faith” so that one day we can all “meet in Christ.”

So first, the believer has sure and certain hope of resurrection to life.  Many people erroneously believe that because of the Church’s teaching on works, and also the teaching on purgatory, the salvation of the believer is not certain.  But we believe that our salvation has indeed been won by Christ, and believe that those who accept his free offer of grace and friendship are indeed assured of their eternal salvation (CCC 1031).  The need for purification in purgatory is a separate matter; and I’ll ask you to bookmark that for a bit.*

Second, we believe that salvation is something we’re supposed to do together.  Yes, the individual believer has to choose to receive grace and friendship with God, but we live that grace and friendship in communion with the body of the Church, and it’s up to us as believers to encourage one another and bring one another to heaven.  This is such an important concept that the Church, in its instruction on marriage, insists that “authentic married love is caught up into divine love,” in effect, the spouses love one another into heaven (Gaudium et Spes 48.2, cf CCC 1639).  Even vocations to the consecrated religious life (monks, sisters, etc.) are ordered to the salvation of the person within the context of community.  As Saint Benedict wrote in his Rule for monks, “Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to eternal life” (Rule of St. Benedict, 72).  This desire for communal salvation is so great that the Church prays for it at every celebration of the Eucharist.  For example, this selection from Eucharistic Prayer I notes that the whole family of believers comes together to offer the sacrifice:

Therefore, Lord, we pray:
graciously accept this oblation of our service,
that of your whole family;
order our days in your peace,
and command that we be delivered from eternal damnation
and counted among the flock of those you have chosen.

And so we can say that Catholic eternity consists of assured and communal salvation for each believer.  But what does it look like?

At the moment of death, each person receives a particular, individual judgment, which corresponds to whether or not they have accepted God’s free gift of grace and friendship.  We see this biblically in the 16th chapter of the Gospel of Luke in which Jesus relates a parable about Lazarus, a poor man, who is ignored by a rich man every single day of their lives on earth.  When they have both died, Lazarus goes to heaven, while the rich man goes to hell.  The rich man cries out for relief to Father Abraham, who replies: “My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.  Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours” (Luke 16:25-26).  Jesus was giving this analogy to show the choice that we must make: accepting God’s friendship means living a certain way, loving others and reaching out to them in their need.

Heaven, then, is a choice that leads to perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity, with the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the angels and saints.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that heaven “is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness” (CCC 1024).  I always tell the children that I teach that God always wants us to be happy.  And if we want to be happy forever, we will always seek God’s will and do what he calls us to do.  That is the life that leads to heaven.

In heaven, we have communion with the angels and saints and all of the Church, but also and especially with God himself.  This communion is almost indescribable, although the Bible speaks of it in images: light, life, the heavenly Jerusalem, paradise.  Saint Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians summed it up: “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9, cf CCC 1027).  It’s hard to describe this communion with God because he is transcendent, and so unless he gives us the grace of a capacity to see him, it doesn’t happen.  We call this grace the “beatific vision” in which we are allowed to see God and share with him the joy of salvation (CCC 1028).

Now, we can’t talk about heaven without at least mentioning the other thing, and that is hell.  Because that’s where the rich man found himself, so because Jesus included it in his teaching, we know that it exists.  But what the Church teaches about hell is that it is in itself a choice.  To get there, one must completely reject God’s free gift of grace and friendship.  This is usually done through the act of unrepentant mortal sin: one knows the right thing to do, and actively chooses not to do it, and acts contrary to the good.  If a person commits a mortal sin, it can be forgiven through grace, but for the one who chooses not to seek forgiveness and chooses not to repent, the only other option is a life devoid of God’s presence.  And that life we call hell (CCC 1033).

But here’s the thing about hell.  We don’t really know if anyone’s there or not, well, except for Satan and his demons.  But since God doesn’t send anyone to hell – one chooses to go there freely – we can’t say for certain that there is anyone there.  The Church teaches that we definitely know that thousands of people are in heaven, because we call them saints.  The process of sainthood involves the recognition of miracles that happen after the saint’s death, indicating that the person is acting from the glory of heaven to affect the good of those on earth.  But the Church has never named anyone who is in hell, because we cannot know if, at the moment of death, an unrepentant sinner may have called out to God for mercy, repenting of her or his sins.  We know that hell exists, and we know that it is possible to go there of one’s own free will, but we don’t know that anyone has chosen that option.  In fact, we hope not.

To sum up Catholic teaching about the nature of heaven and eternity, I’d like to once again choose some words from the Church’s Liturgy.  This time it comes from the prayers for the dead, which can be said at the bedside of a dying person.  For them we pray:

Go forth, Christian soul, from this world
in the name of God the almighty Father,
who created you,
in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God,
who suffered for you,
in the name of the Holy Spirit,
who was poured out upon you.
Go forth, faithful Christian!

May you live in peace this day,
may your home be with God in Zion,
with Mary, the virgin Mother of God,
with Joseph, and all the angels and saints …

May you return to [your Creator]
who formed you from the dust of the earth.
May holy Mary, the angels, and all the saints
come to meet you as you go forth from this life…
May you see your Redeemer face to face.  Amen.

*Purgatory

So I referred to Purgatory earlier, and I said to book mark it.  Let’s come back to it now.  Purgatory is thought of as the final purification, in which the soul is made fit to be caught up into the life of God in heaven.  Now once again, every believer who has accepted God’s grace and friendship is absolutely assured of eternal salvation.  But if they have sins that have left them impure at death, they must be purified to enter the joy of heaven (CCC 1030).  The purification in purgatory is entirely different that the punishment of the damned in hell.  Purgatory is, instead, that “cleansing fire” that Saint Paul speaks of in his first letter to the Corinthians (cf. 1 Cor 3:15, 1 Pet 1:7).  This is why the Church prays for the dead, a practice that comes from the book of Maccabees in which we read: “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Macc 12:46, cf. CCC 1032).

I tell people that Purgatory is really a gift.  It’s that time and experience of our spiritual life in which we are completely made ready for the life of heaven.  It’s kind of stereotypical for a Catholic to say this, but eternity can be likened to a party.  Those who freely accept the invitation freely offered enter in and enjoy the party.  This is heaven.  Those who reject the invitation outright are outside the party, and this is hell.  But imagine going to a party and you know that you’ve done or said something wrong to another person at the party, in particular the host.  You’re not going to be enjoying yourself with the guilt of that indiscretion on your heart.  So you need to do something to fix the relationship so that you can enjoy the party.  That’s what Purgatory is.  You still get to go to the party, but you have to make amends first.

Thursday of the Twentieth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

This morning’s Gospel parable is admittedly a bit of a head scratcher. It almost seems to portray our God in a rather unfavorable light, comparing him to a capricious king who destroys whole cities after being snubbed by some invited guests, and then tosses out a visitor who seems to have come to the banquet poorly dressed. But obviously, that surface-level reading of the parable is inadequate, and the invitation it brings is worth reading deeper.

So, put plainly, the banquet is the Eucharist, given for all. The wedding is the marriage of God with his people, which makes us one with him and opens up the possibility of eternity for those who accept it. Those guests who refused to come were the leaders of the Jewish people, who should have been looking for the feast and have welcomed it with eager longing. But instead they mistreated and murdered the servant-messengers, who were the prophets who announced God’s reign and helped forge the covenant.

So those pulled in off the streets to share in the banquet are everyone else who hears the Word of God and responds to it. The guest thrown out for improper attire are those who accept the invitation of Christ with their lips, but remain clothed in the filthy garments of worldly desire and ambition instead of giving themselves to the marriage completely.

So, if it’s not already obvious, we are among those pulled in off the streets. We have heard the Word of God and know his desire to be one with us. The question is, what kind of garments have we been wearing? Are we clothed in that white garment of pure desire for God that is given us in Holy Baptism, or have we cast that beautiful vesture aside for the filth of the world?

Monday of the Twentieth Week of Ordinary Time 

So the question today is, what is it that holds us back? The rich young man seemed to have it all together: he acknowledged Jesus as the good teacher, so he must have been familiar with what Jesus said and did. He says he kept all the commandments, so he certainly had a religious upbringing and was zealous to follow the law. But, with all that, he still knew that something was lacking. “What do I still lack?” he asks. When Jesus reveals that the next step in following the Gospel involves letting go of his worldly possessions, he finds that to be somewhere he can’t go. He had many possessions, and he wasn’t yet ready to give them up.

So back to my first question. What holds us back? Is it many possessions? Or is it our work, or status, or what the neighbors might think? It could be that we don’t want to get out of our comfort zone and follow Christ according to the way he is calling us. Whatever it is, it involves letting go – giving up what is not God and clinging to him alone. It’s not that Jesus didn’t want the rich young man to have money. He wanted him to have eternal life. And whenever we cling to what is not God, we are in grave danger of giving up eternal life. 

We have to be ready to let go of whatever holds us back from accepting the life that God wants for us. What he has is so much better than whatever it is we’re holding on to. So the question is, will we give up what is holding us back, or will we give up eternal life? We’re going to have to live with the answer to that question for a very, very long time. 

The Easter Vigil in the Holy Night

I have to let you in on a little secret tonight.  Very often, when we preach a homily, the message ends up being for us preachers.  It’s not that we set out to do that; actually if we thought about it I’m pretty sure we would avoid it at all costs.  It’s just that when we pray about our homily, and we write it with the inspiration of the Spirit, after we preach it, we often sit down and say, “Oh.  You were talking to me, weren’t you, God?”

Lent has been like that for me.  Back when I picked the theme that we have been using to guide our reflection during these somber days, “Rediscover Our Need for a Savior,” I thought it was a clever way to hearken back to the book we gave out at Christmas, Rediscover Catholicism.  But as we’ve reflected and preached our way through Lent, I’ve found the message to be quite personal, more so than I would have intended.  I hope that you too have had the opportunity to rediscover a relationship with Christ that maybe wasn’t as fervent as it should be.  Lent is supposed to do that for us.

For me, these Triduum days have been amazing reminders of why I need a Savior.  As we hear the Scriptures and watch the Liturgy unfold, we can’t help but be reminded of the awesome price our Lord paid for each one of us on that Cross.  On Friday, I looked at the cross and remembered it was my sins that put him there.  I remembered that it was my brokenness that he suffered to redeem.  And most of all, I remembered that God loved me enough that not doing it was completely out of the question.  He did that, for me.

We do indeed need a Savior, all of us personally, but also as a society.  All you have to do is turn on the news and everything you hear points to a desperate, urgent need for salvation.  This world would have us accept the darkness and say it’s good enough.  This world would have us live for today, with no thought to an eternity that it really doesn’t acknowledge anyway.  This world would say there is no need for a Savior, because we’re good enough to do what we need to do.  But the world is dead wrong.

We can’t possibly ever make up for our many sins personally and as a society all by ourselves.  We have constantly made choices that take us out of friendship with God and put us on paths that lead nowhere good.  If we’re honest, all of us would admit that.  It takes a Savior who loves us more than we deserve to set things right.

And the thing is, we have that Savior.  Right here and right now.  This is the night.  Not some distant long-past night, but this night is the night, when Christ broke the prison-bars of death and rose triumphant from the underworld!  We keep vigil on this night because our celebration of this Most Holy Vigil brings us into communion with every believer from every time and place and with our Savior as he bursts forth from the underworld.

This night changes everything.  The ancient foe is defeated, the sentence of condemnation has been remitted, even sinful Adam is raised up from death to new life.  As an ancient homilist wrote in today’s Office of Readings, “God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.”  No power of any kind can keep our God’s salvation from coming to fruition.  Christ’s obedience on the Cross, suffering the sentence for our sins, rising from the dead, all of this gives us hope of eternal glory on that great day when we meet our God face to face.

And this is possible for one very simple reason: we have a Savior.  Our Risen Lord is the one who urges us to toss aside our water jugs and receive living water; he urges us to wash away our blindness and see ourselves, our God, and other people the way they really are; he beckons us forth from the graves that have kept us from friendship with God for too long, untying the bandages of our sinful nature.  He gives us the opportunity for eternity, and all we have to do is to allow the fire of his glory to be ignited in our hearts.  All we have to do is acknowledge our need for a Savior, and embrace his cross in order to receive his resurrection.

Because as I sang a while ago, our birth would have been no gain had we not been redeemed.  Who cares if we were born if all there is is this paltry existence?  Why would we want to be born if there is no eternity, no possibility of anything past this life, fraught as it often is with hardship and pain?  But on this night, this very night, that depressing prospect is given a proper burial, that darkness is set ablaze by the new fire, and our cries of anguish and despair give way to shouts of “Alleluia!”

Brothers and sisters, we all need a Savior.  And that Savior is the one morning star who never sets: Jesus Christ our Lord who, coming back from death’s domain, has shed his peaceful light on all humanity, and lives and reigns for ever and ever!  Amen!  Alleluia!

Sixth Day in the Octave of Christmas

Today’s readings

So what did you get for Christmas?  Was it everything you’d hoped for?  Perhaps you, like me, feel that the gifts are nice, but being together with family and friends at Christmas is the real gift.  Today’s first reading is exhorting us to something similar.  While the rest of the world waits in line for hours to get the coveted gift of the year, we have the consolation of knowing that nothing like that is ultimately important, or will ever make us truly happy.  The real gift that we can receive today, and every day, is the gift of Jesus, the Word made flesh, our Savior come to be one with us as Emmanuel.

St. John tells us quite clearly: “Do not love the world or the things of the world.  If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”  Because what we have is so much better than anything the world can give.  The real gift this Christmas, and really every day, is the gift of eternal life.  And we have that gift because Jesus came to earth and chose to be one with us in our human nature.  That’s why the angels sang that night, and why we sing his praise every day of our lives.

Monday of the Twentieth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

So the question today is, what is it that holds us back?  The rich young man seemed to have it all together: he acknowledged Jesus as the good teacher, so he must have been familiar with what Jesus said and did.  He says he kept all the commandments, so he certainly had a religious upbringing and was zealous to follow the law.  But, with all that, he still knew that something was lacking.  “What do I still lack?” he asks.  When Jesus reveals that the next step in following the Gospel involves letting go of his worldly possessions, he finds that to be somewhere he can’t go.  He had many possessions, and he wasn’t yet ready to give them up.

So back to my first question.  What holds us back?  Is it many possessions?  Or is it our work, or power, or what the neighbors might think.  It could be that we don’t want to get out of our comfort zone and follow Christ according to the way he is calling us.  Whatever it is, it involves letting go – giving up what is not God and clinging to him alone.  It’s not that Jesus didn’t want the rich young man to have money.  He wanted him to have eternal life.  And whenever we cling to what is not God, we are in grave danger of giving up eternal life.

We have to be ready to let go of whatever holds us back from accepting the life that God wants for us.  What he has is so much better than whatever it is we’re holding on to.  So the question is, will we give up what is holding us back, or will we give up eternal life?  We’re going to have to live with the answer to that question for a very, very long time.

Thursday of the Thirty-fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Every now and then, in the Liturgy of the Word, we hear words that have directly influenced our prayers in the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  Today is such an occasion.  Just before we receive Holy Communion, I will elevate the host and the chalice and say: “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world.  Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.”  These words are directly influenced by the last line of the first reading this morning.  Here John the Revelator is told to write down specific words:

Blessed are those who have been called
to the wedding feast of the Lamb.

And we all long to be on that invitation list, don’t we?  If not, we certainly should.  Here we will be brought in and given everything we need: at this banquet no one goes hungry, no one is left out, no one is unimportant.  At this banquet, Christ, the Lamb of God, is united most perfectly to his bride, the Church.  Here, all who have been called to the wedding feast are drawn up into the very life of God and are united with God in all perfection.

This is the goal of all our lives, and we get there by following the example of the saints, and by giving our life over to our Lord, the Lamb of God, who came that we might have eternal life in all its perfection and abundance.  In these last days of the Church year, Holy Mother Church reminds us where we’re going so that, should we have strayed from the path, we might make amends and correct our course.

Because not showing up at the wedding feast of the Lamb has eternal consequences.  And forfeiting eternal happiness with all the blessed ones is absolutely unthinkable.

Twenty-eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time [B]: Time, Talent & Treasure

Today’s readings

I’m speaking at all the Masses this weekend, and I know what you’re thinking: here comes the money talk.  All he ever does is talk about money.  I hope you don’t really feel that way, because we do try to keep all the money talk to a minimum.  We do, however, want to keep you in the loop and so on occasion you’ve had updates from Tim French, the chairman of our Finance, Facilities and Administration Commission, and most recently from Scott Marshall, the President of our Parish Council.  I am grateful to both of them for the work they and their peers have done in keeping us on point financially, and helping to steer our parish in the right direction.  As for me, this is the only time I will be coming to you to talk about money, except for the Diocesan Appeal in the winter.

But I’m not even just talking to you about money today, because quite honestly, I am asking for something a whole lot more valuable.  And that’s in the spirit of today’s Gospel.  Jesus wasn’t as interested in the rich young man’s money as he was in his heart and soul.  And he asked for that in exchange for something much more valuable than anything we or the rich young man possess: eternal life.  That, after all, was what the rich young man wanted, right?  I mean, he asks Jesus at the beginning of the Gospel reading what he has to do to inherit it.  And it’s actually a good question.  I don’t know if it’s because we take salvation for granted or if we can’t really see past the next big thing happening in our crazy lives, but I sometimes think we’re not as zealous about inheriting eternal life as we should be.  So we could all – myself included, by the way – learn a little something from the rich young man’s question.

So today I’m asking you to give up whatever it is that may be holding you back – riches, status, anything – and go all in for the prize of eternal life.  Just like Jesus, I am asking for your hearts and souls, so that you might have the great gift of eternal happiness in the life to come.

So what does that even mean?  What does it look like?  To get there, I want to focus on the three traditional areas of time, talent and treasure.  Treasure we’ve been talking about for a little while now.  Scott gave you an overview of the parish’s position a couple of weeks ago, and the financial report was in the bulletin.  If you missed that, it is also published on our parish website.  The budget this year calls for a 3% increase in operating expenses.  That amount covers anticipated energy and environmental costs, keeping our buildings in good repair, salaries and benefits for all of our parish and school employees, and the expenses of our parish ministries.   Your generosity helps us to reach out to those in need, touch the lives of those who are hurting, and teach the faith to people of all ages.

I am appointing a buildings and grounds committee to work with our Finance, Facilities and Administration Commission.  Their task will be to assess the needs of our parish facilities.  They will help us to plan for repair and replacement of various resources of our campus.  Our goal would be to have a surplus in the budget each year so that we can put money aside for those expenses, something we have not been able to do in recent years.  Another goal would be to finish the basement project in order to provide space for our teens, a good facility for our food pantry, rehearsal space for our choirs, and meeting space for all our ministries.  That is something that was part of the original vision of our new facility, something we have not as yet been able to accomplish, although we have been saving money toward it.

Over the past year, we have replaced air conditioning compressors in the parish offices and in the school gym, have completed a large upgrade on our parish’s computer network and the school’s computer lab; we have repaired and maintained the parking lot with the goal of keeping it intact for at least another decade, and many other smaller projects.  Your generosity and the hard work of staff and parishioners alike have made all this possible.

But there is so much more to do, and I ask that each of you discern how you can help us to meet our increased budget needs through your offertory support.  While we all have different resources to draw from and commitments to fulfill, we can each give something in support of our parish family.  We are doing our best to use modern conveniences to assist parishioners in their giving.  We have electronic giving options to help meet the demands presented by the fast pace of our lives.  Details are in our bulletin and in the letter from me which you should have already received, or will receive in the next few days.  You can always give online at givetond.org.

So now I want to ask for something more, and that is your time and talent.  One of the greatest strengths of Notre Dame Parish is the outreach to those in need.  We are blessed with volunteers and staff who minister tirelessly to the hungry, the homeless and those who are struggling with life challenges.  We also have strong programs in our school and religious education programs, youth ministry and Confirmation preparation, and adult education and RCIA programs.  In addition we are always trying to build on our strong worship, improving how we come together to celebrate the Eucharist, and to make our time worshipping our God a top priority.  We also make time to come together at wonderful events like the Oktoberfest, the Dinner Dance, the Italian Dinner and Saint Patrick’s Day Party – just to name a few.

But as many wonderful volunteers as we have to make all of that happen, we could always, always use way more.  Every one of our volunteers who head up our ministries would tell you that they could use more help.  And some of our volunteers are getting up there in age and cannot do what they used to do.  We’ve recently buried good people like Marty Rock and Eileen Thome who served our parish so faithfully for many, many years.  Who is going to take their place?  And so many of our volunteers are pulled in all sorts of directions, some of them taking on what is quite honestly too much.

This is our community; it’s not an auditorium where we come to see a show or a shop where we go to receive a service.  This is a family where everyone needs to take part to make the community vibrant and active.  If you’re not already active in ministry around here, I am asking you to prayerfully discern how God is calling you to serve.  What are your special talents?  What are the activities here that energize you or stir up your passion?  Those are ways that you can serve, and be part of the mission of our parish.

In all honesty, we have not been good about soliciting volunteers in past years.  We are looking for new ways to do that and will roll some things out in the next year.  But in the mean time, there are three ways you can help.  First, you can respond prayerfully to the questions I just asked, and if you discern a talent or passion that you’d like to share, let us know.  If you don’t know who to contact, tell me or Father Steve and we will put you in touch with the right person.  Second, watch the bulletin and our electronic newsletter for volunteer opportunities.  And third, be part of our Second Annual Parish Service Day next Saturday.  I promise that you will find being an active part of the parish rewarding, and even more, I proclaim the promise of eternal life that Jesus wants to offer to the rich young man – and to us – today.

The Church teaches that, in living the Gospel, we are to strive for reasonable happiness in this life, and eternal happiness in the life to come.  That’s what today’s readings teach us.  We pray for wisdom, which puts us on the path to eternal life.  We zealously seek eternal happiness.  We put our lives and our resources at the service of the Gospel.  We contribute our time, talent and treasure to the mission of the Church.   We beg God, with the Psalmist today, to prosper the work of our hands for us!  Prosper the work of our hands!

Committing ourselves to this great endeavor of grace, let us take the Stewardship Prayer Cards from the pew racks, stand, and pray together:

Generous God,

We give you thanks for all you have given us:
our families, our homes, our community,
our parish.

You have walked with us as we grow together in faith;
You speak through us when we teach and witness to the Gospel;
You work in us when we reach out to those in need.

Help us to grow in faith:
May we never be in distress when we are in need;
May we never be indifferent when we have surplus.

Teach us how to be a generous people,
freely pouring out the love you daily give us;
confident that the store of that love has no end
because its source is always You, God.

Renew Your Spirit in us;
help us to be One Body, One Spirit in Christ,
and help us to create the world anew in You.

Through Christ our Lord.

Amen.

The Fifth Sunday of Easter [A]

Today’s readings

I can see by your attendance here today that you were not caught up in the rapture last night.

I bring this up not so much to poke fun at those who mistakenly predict the end of days, but rather to use this occasion to talk about exactly what we Catholics believe about the end times.  I think at some level all of us want to know when the end is coming and what it will look like.  We don’t get a clear roadmap of that, for reasons I’ll discuss later, but we do have some theology around the issue.

Whenever we want to know what we believe about something, the first places we should look are in the scriptures and in the Liturgy.  So I’ll start with the Liturgy, and point out the scriptures along the way.  The Nicene-Constantinople Creed, which we pray each Sunday and Solemnity, includes two statements of belief about the end of time.  The first comes at the end of what we believe about Jesus Christ.  It says:

He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead
and his kingdom will have no end.

The second statement comes at the very end of the Creed, in the part that summarizes our belief about the Church, the sacraments and eternal life:

… and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come.

So the Creed gives us five pieces of information about the end times.  First, Jesus will come again in glory.  In our Gospel today, Jesus tells us: “I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be…”  In his glorious return, Jesus will make manifest his kingdom in heaven and on earth, and all those who have believed in him will be taken to himself.

Second, Jesus will judge the living and the dead.  Recall the scripture about the sheep and the goats, Matthew 25:31-46, in which those who have ministered to Christ made manifest in the poor and lowly of the world will inherit eternal life, and those who have failed to do so inherit eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  We believe that it is our responsibility to live the Gospel and a failure to do so manifests a rejection of Christ that is a choice to live in torment, distanced from God in eternity just as was done in life.

Third, we believe that when Christ returns, his kingdom will be everlasting.  The devil may well appear to hold sway in our own time, and all it takes is a glance at the news to confirm this.  But when Christ returns, all will be made new, as we read in the book of Revelation, chapter 21 (1-4): “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband…”

Fourth, there will be a resurrection of the dead.  We believe that because of the death and resurrection of Christ, death is not the end for us.  Those who die before Christ returns will be raised up to participate in the new, everlasting kingdom.  Saint Paul tells us in his first letter to the Thessalonians (4:13-14), “We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope.  For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”

And finally, we believe in eternal life.  In today’s gospel, Jesus says: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.  If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?”  So we know that heaven is a place where we are to go, once we have been purified by death, and possibly purgatory (but that’s another whole homily!).  Eternal life is a life of joy in heaven forever.

Getting back to the news of the last few days, in which Harold Camping of FamilyRadio.com predicted a rapture and the beginning of the end yesterday at 6pm local time, I would like to say two things.  First, you’ll notice that I didn’t discuss in the five points I just made a belief in the rapture.  That’s because there isn’t such a thing.  Those who believe in a rapture claim that prior to the great tribulations which will precede the end times, those who have believed in Christ will be taken up, leaving everyone else “left behind.”  That belief led to a whole series of popular books in the last decade.  While the tribulations that precede the end were foretold by Jesus, a rapture was not.  It wasn’t until the 1800s that some American fundamentalists really defined and pushed that belief.  The Catholic Church has never acknowledged a rapture, it has never been revealed in Scripture or authentic Tradition, so we can dismiss it.

Second, a lot of people waste a lot of time trying to calculate the end of it all.  Mr. Camping calculated that May 21st would be the end.  I won’t get into how he got there, because I think the failure of it dictates that it not be given much attention, and if you really want to know, there’s a lot on the internet you can find about that.  I will say that he previously predicted that the end would come in 1994, based on the same information, and claimed it didn’t come to pass due to a mathematical error on his part.

What I have to say about this is based on what Jesus tells us in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 24, verse 36: “But of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.”  I think that’s pretty clear: nobody gets that big picture except God the Father, so it’s extremely presumptuous to think we could ever figure it out.  Shame on us if we waste our time trying.

So what do we do with all this?  Should we be prepared for the end of the world?  I would say absolutely yes, and always.  Going back to First Thessalonians (5:2), Saint Paul tells us, “For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief at night.”  Since we don’t know when the end will come, but are positive that there will indeed be an end, we need to be always prepared.  That preparation should be that we continue to nurture our relationship with God by participating regularly in the sacraments, and immersing ourselves in prayer and reading of the sacred scriptures.  It also includes living the Gospel: finding Christ in the poor and needy and extending ourselves to lighten their load.  It means proclaiming the word by the lives that we lead and the words that we speak.  It means bringing everyone we can find with us to the kingdom.

There’s a lot at stake in our Scriptures today.  There is a world that needs to know Jesus so that they too can know the Father and experience the joy of a real home.  There is a world that needs to know the touch of Jesus so that they can be healed and strengthened for life’s journey.  There is a world that needs to hear the Word of Jesus so that they can come to the way, the truth and the life.  It’s on us now, none of us can be passive observers or consumers only.  As St. Peter says today, we “are ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that [we] may announce the praises’ of him who called [us] out of darkness into his wonderful light.”  We are not home yet, but we can get there through our Jesus, our way, our truth, and our life.

As Saint Benedict says, “And may He bring us all together to life everlasting.” (Rule of St. Benedict, 72)