Monday of the Eighteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

What I think the folks in our first reading need to learn – and maybe us too – is that the spiritual life is always about the big picture.  The Israelites in today’s reading have completely rejected the God of their salvation.  God had taken them from abject slavery in Egypt, in which they were oppressed beyond anything we could possibly imagine – let alone endure – and led them through the desert, through the Red Sea (covering the pursuing Egyptians in the process), and into safety.  He is going to give them the Promised Land, but they, thank you very much, would prefer to return to Egypt so that they no longer have to sustain themselves on the bread that they have from the very hand of God himself.  They would rather have meat and garlic and onions, and whatever, than freedom and blessing from God.  What a horrible, selfish people they have become.

And Moses is no better.  He alone has been allowed to go up the mountain to be in the very presence of God.  No one else could get so close to God and live to tell the story.  God has given him the power to do miraculous deeds in order to lead the people.  And yet, when things get tough, he too would prefer death than to be in the presence of God.

And aren’t we just like them sometimes?  It’s easy to have faith when things are going well, and we are healthy, and our family is prospering.  But the minute things come along to test us, whether it is illness, or death of a loved one, or job troubles, or whatever, it’s hard to keep faith.  “Where is God when I need him?” we might ask.  We just don’t often have the spiritual attention spans to see the big picture.  We forget the many blessings God has given us, and ask “Well what has he done for me lately?”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus feeds the crowds until they are satisfied and have baskets of leftovers besides.  God’s blessings to us are manifold, and it is good to meditate on them when times are good, and remember them when times are bad.  God never wills the trials we go through, and he never forgets or abandons us when we are in the midst of those trials.  God feeds us constantly with finest wheat.  That’s the big picture, and we must never lose sight of it.

Tuesday of the Twenty-first Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today we have readings urging us to pay attention. Paul tells the Thessalonians in our first reading today not to freak out if they hear about the second coming of Christ. Rather, they should be in the moment and live as they have been taught and formed in the Gospel that Paul preached to them. They need to pay attention to what is going on in front of them, to be attentive to what the Gospel calls them to do, and trust that if the Lord comes in glory, he will find them doing his will and gather them to himself. No need to scramble around in fear of what is to come.

Jesus today scolds the scribes and Pharisees, as he often does, about paying more attention to the minute bits of the law than they do to really doing God’s will. They are so caught up in the ritual cleansing of bowls and cups that they cannot attend to the purification of their own hearts. And that, Jesus tells them, is a complete disaster. Their blindness will eventually leave them out of salvation’s reach.

And so we too are called today to pay attention. We need to be attentive to the needs of those around us, to reach out to the oppressed and forgotten, to always be mindful of the poor – in short, we are to live the Gospel faithfully. We shouldn’t be caught up in details, nor should we be overly concerned about the Lord’s return. We can’t have our head in the clouds nor in the sand. We must be attentive to what’s in front of us, the opportunity to live the Gospel faithfully.

The Twenty-seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

If you’ve been to any number of Church weddings, you have probably heard today’s first reading, and part of the Gospel proclaimed. Obviously we usually leave out the part about divorce, but these readings are quite popular for weddings. The reason, of course, is that the story is about how man and woman were created for each other. The totality of the readings we have today, though, are challenging. We do have that piece about divorce there, and it does present a challenge in these days when so many marriages fail.

Jesus’ point here is that the Christian disciple is called to a level of faithfulness that transcends the difficulties of life. We can’t just throw in the towel and walk away when things are difficult: marriage vows make demands of people – I say that in every wedding liturgy I do. In the very same way, ordination promises make demands of priests. We have to pray for the grace to be faithful in good times and in bad. But sometimes it doesn’t work out that way.

That being the case, I want to take this opportunity to make some points and dispel some myths about the Church’s teaching on marriage, divorce, remarriage, and annulment. The first myth is that divorce is a sin that excommunicates a person from the Church and does not allow them to participate in the life of the Church or receive the sacraments. But divorce is not a sin in and of itself. It may well, however, be the result of sin, and a consequence of sin. Those who are divorced, however, remain Catholics in good standing and are free to receive the sacraments including the Eucharist, sacramental absolution in the sacrament of Penance, and the Anointing of the Sick. However, they remain married to their partner in the eyes of the Church and are not free to remarry, unless they receive an annulment. Those who remarry without an annulment have taken themselves out of communion with the Church and are not free to receive the sacraments.

The second myth is that an annulment is really just “Catholic Divorce.” However, annulment is recognition by the Church that a valid marriage, for some reason, had never taken place. The diocesan policy document on annulment defines it in this way: “Although not every marriage is a sacrament, every marriage (Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Non-Believer, etc.) is presumed to be a valid marriage. The good of all concerned (spouses, children, in-laws, society, the Church, etc.) demands this presumption. In every presumption, the opposite may be true. If sufficient evidence can be shown that a particular marriage is invalid, the original presumption no longer holds. Therefore, when it can be shown that a particular marriage is not a true marriage, or not a sacrament, or not consummated, then it is possible for the Tribunal to declare that the parties are free to marry in the Catholic Church.” (Declaration of Nullity Proceedings, Diocese of Joliet , p.3) The annulment basically states that a valid marriage never happened in the first place, usually because the parties for some reason were not free to marry. These reasons may include extreme immaturity, a previous and previously undiscovered prior marriage, or entering marriage with no intention of remaining faithful or of having children. Pope Francis recently added some other reasons, including a fictitious marriage to enter into citizenship, a very brief marriage, stubborn persistence in an extramarital affair, and the procurement of an abortion to avoid procreation. In addition, Pope Francis somewhat simplified the process of an annulment in order to decrease the amount of time it takes to proceed.

A third myth is that those who are marrying a non-Catholic who had been previously married are automatically free to marry, since the non-Catholic’s marriage did not take place in the Catholic Church. But as I just said, the Church presumes marriages between non-Catholics to be valid, so their previous marriage would have to be annulled by the Catholic Church before a Catholic is free to marry them.

A fourth myth is that the Church always insists that the parties stay together. Today’s readings show that the permanence of the marriage relationship is the intent of God, and the strong preference of the Church. However, we all understand that there are circumstances in which that may not be possible. The Church would never counsel someone to stay together in an abusive. That is completely unacceptable. If you are in an abusive relationship, whether the abuse is physical, verbal, or emotional, you need to seek help and safety. The Church will support you in that decision. If you find yourself in that kind of relationship, whether you are married or not, I want you to see someone on our staff immediately.

Finally, there are some misconceptions about annulment proceedings that I want to clear up. First, if you do receive an annulment, that does not mean your children are illegitimate. The Church sees children as a gift from God, and thus never takes away their status as sons and daughters of God. Second, people think annulments are too expensive. They are not. The cost of an annulment in our diocese is around $700, not the tens of thousands of dollars people had thought was necessary in the past. But, under no circumstances will an annulment be denied if a person cannot meet those expenses. But I always tell people that there are other costs in an annulment, most of which are emotional. An annulment dredges up all sorts of things that may have been suppressed, and that’s never going to be painless. But that kind of pain is part and parcel of any healing, so when you are in the right place for it, if you think your marriage was invalid, you should speak to someone who can help you begin the process. That person is called a field advocate, and here at Notre Dame, there are two of us: Dr. Muir and me. Please feel free to speak with us any time.

What it all comes down to is this: we must all do what we were created for. Relationships and vocations are opportunities to do that, but to be effective, we must choose to be faithful. When life throws stuff at us, as indeed it will, we must choose to be faithful anyway. But if brokenness destroys that grace, we should turn to the Church for reconciliation and mercy.

Monday of the Fourteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I love the words of the Psalmist today: “The Lord is gracious and merciful.”

These are words that are easy for us to pray when things are going well, but maybe not so much when we’re going through rough times.  It seems like the psalmist is going through some very good times, but we have no way of knowing that.  The only key to the great hymn of praise the psalmist is singing is that he is reflecting on the wonder of creation and the mighty deeds God does in the world.  The psalmist sees wonders not just in his own place but everywhere.  He says, “The LORD is good to all and compassionate toward all his works.”  Every part of creation has been blessed by God’s goodness.  Because of this, God is to be praised not just now, but “forever and ever” and by “generation after generation.”

This fits in very nicely with Hosea’s prophecy in our first reading today.  Preaching to the Israelites in exile, he proclaims that God will change the relationship between Israel and the Lord.  That new relationship would be a spousal relationship between God and his people, in which the spouses are partners in the ongoing work of creation.  God will give Israel the ability to be faithful to God, and for His part, God will remember His faithfulness forever.  God’s great mercy and compassion are seen with abundance in the Gospel reading.  Jesus rewards the faithfulness of Jairus and the woman with the hemorrhage with miraculous healings.  Key to all of these wonderful events, in all three readings, is that God who has created us is committed to re-creating us in His love and faithfulness.

So as we approach the Eucharist today and reflect on all the mighty and wonderful things God does in our midst, may we too sing the Psalmist’s song.  May we all praise God’s name forever and ever, and proclaim his might to generation after generation.

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 asses our own faith in God, not looking to other things or foreign gods to bring us salvation.  If these women teach us anything in today’s readings, it’s that we need to be focused on our God alone.

The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph

It’s certainly appropriate that we celebrate the Holy Family today, just a few days after Christmas.  This feast helps to underscore that Jesus came to live among us in a very ordinary way: by taking flesh and becoming one of us, even to being part of a family.  So we look on the manger scenes that still are on display here in church and in our homes, and we see Jesus, Mary and Joseph beginning their lives together.  We still sing Christmas carols that extol the peace of his coming.

As we praise the Holy Family today – and we certainly should – I’m aware that some families who are here today may have just managed to get here on time, or a little after.  Maybe there was the constant argument with the kids about why they have to go to church.  It might have been hard to turn off the television or tear someone away from the latest toy they just got for Christmas.  And so, as they hustle in here to church and sit down, maybe the holiness of the family is the furthest thing from our minds.

So maybe it’s hard to relate to the Holy Family.  Maybe you’re thinking, “How do I get one of those?”  There are all sorts of families out there: families broken by divorce or separation, families marked by emotional or physical abuse, families fractured by living a great distance apart, families grieving the loss of loved ones or agonizing over the illness of one of the members, families of great means and those touched by poverty, homelessness and hunger, families torn by family secrets, grudges and age-old hurts.  Some are trying to form a family: they want to have children, but are unable.  There are healthy families and hurting families, and every one of them is graced by good and touched by some kind of sadness at some point in their history.

Even the Holy Family, whose feast we celebrate today, was marked with challenges.  An unexpected – and almost inexplicable – pregnancy marked the days before the couple was officially wed; news of the child’s birth touched chords of jealousy and hatred in the hearts of the nation’s leaders and caused the young family to have to flee for their lives and safety.  Even this Holy Family was saddened, in some ways, by an extremely rocky beginning.

The institution of the family is an extremely precarious thing.  We know this.  God knows this.  Yet it was into this flawed but holy structure that the God of all the earth chose to come into our world.  Taking our flesh and joining a human family, Christ came to be Emmanuel, God with us, and to sanctify the whole world by his most merciful coming.

St. Paul exhorts us all to be marked by holiness, part of the family of God. We do this, he tells us, by showing one another “heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.”  Living in a family, living the Christian life, requires sacrifice.  Some days we don’t feel very compassionate, but we are still called to be that way.  We might not feel like showing someone kindness, or patience, or being humble.  But that’s what disciples do.  But the real sticking point is that whole forgiveness thing.  Because all of us are going to fail in compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience at one time or another.  So just as the Lord has forgiven us, so many times and of so many things, so must we forgive one another.  We live our whole lives trying to figure out how to do this.

The Holy Family is the model for us in all of this.  Because I think what we’re supposed to be seeing in the Holy Family today is not some kind of idyllic perfection.  Certainly they attained more perfection than any of us could ever possibly hope for in this life, but that’s not what we’re supposed to be focusing on.  What I think is worth focusing on is that, even though they knew there would be hard times ahead for them, they faithfully lived their lives through it all.  They continued to be a family, Jesus continued to grow and become strong in his human nature, and to be filled with wisdom and the favor of God.  And that, for us, is something worth striving for.  Being perfect might seem unattainable, but being faithful is in our grasp and faithfulness leads us to holiness.

For Jesus, Mary and Joseph, their faithfulness helped them to absorb the challenges of an unplanned pregnancy and the dangers of oppression from the government, and still shed light on the whole world.  For us, faithfulness can help us to get through whatever rough spots life may have in store for us and not break apart.

I am aware, however, that as I speak about faithfulness, that it all can still seem insurmountable.  Why should you be faithful when the hurts inflicted by other members of your family still linger?  That’s a hard one to address, but we’re not told to be faithful just when everyone else is faithful.  Sometimes we are called to make an almost unilateral decision to love and respect the others in our families, and let God worry about the equity of it all.  I know that’s easier to say than to do, but please you have your Church family to support you with prayer and love as you do it.

Every single one of us is called to be holy, brothers and sisters.  And every single one of our families is called to be holy.  That doesn’t mean that we will be perfect.  Some days we will be quite far from it.  But it does mean that we will be faithful in love and respect.  It means that we will unite ourselves to God in prayer and worship.  It means we will love when loving is hard to do.  Mary loved Jesus all the way to the Cross and watched him die.

That holiness will make demands of us. It did for Jesus, Mary and Joseph.  Simeon and Anna were quite clear that sorrow lay in store for them.  But they continued to live their lives, aided by the Spirit of God, and they all grew strong in wisdom and grace.  Those same blessings are intended for us to, all of us who do our best to live according to the Spirit in our own human families, no matter what those families may look like.

Thursday of the Second Week of Lent: Mass for the Pope

Today’s readings

The great sin of the rich man may not have been the sin of neglecting poor Lazarus, although that was certainly bad.  His greatest sin, though, was that he trusted in himself and not in God.  He had everything he needed in life, because he was able to trust in himself to get it.  But he never had a relationship with God.  Now in death, he wants the good things God will provide for those who trust in him, people like Lazarus for example.  But he has already made his choice, and unfortunately now, trusting in himself doesn’t bring him anything good.  Blessed are they, the Psalmist says today, who hope in the Lord.

Today we also celebrate the last day of the pontificate of our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI.  Benedict is a man who truly has trusted in God, and has continued to do so in his last days.  Rather than cling to power in his last days, as his health deteriorates, he has trusted in God to lead the Church and has resigned the pontificate, which has been rather unprecedented in recent centuries.

And so we give thanks today for the leadership of Pope Benedict, for his strength and spirituality and intellect, all of which have allowed him to serve God and the Church with grace as pope, as a cardinal before that, and a theologian.  Like the one of whom Jeremiah speaks in our first reading, Benedict’s life has been fruitful and has given life to the Church.

As we look forward to the election of his successor, we pray that the Spirit will continue to guide the Church in the years ahead.  Blessed are we who hope in the Lord!