Christmas Homilies

Friday after Epiphany

Today’s readings
This was for the school children.

How many of you have already taken down your Christmas decorations?  I think probably a lot of people have done that.  Probably if you go to some of the stores, you’ll see Valentine’s day decorations and candy for sale.  In our world, we always want to move on to the next thing right away.  

But our Church is different.  In the Catholic Church, we celebrate things for a while, these big things like Christmas and Epiphany, and later on, Easter.  We celebrate a whole season of these important feasts, because, well, they’re important to us!  At Christmas time, we remember that God loved us so much that he sent his only Son to be born among us so that we could come to know that we are loved, and so that we can learn and follow the Way to heaven.  At Epiphany, the message of Christmas is continued and we celebrate that Christ is the Light of the World, that he came to shed the light of God’s love into every dark corner of our world and our lives.

So that’s important Good News, and we want to celebrate it for a while.  That’s why our decorations are still up: we didn’t forget to take them down!  They’ll stay up and help us to celebrate until this coming Sunday, the official end of the Christmas season for us.  But today, we continue to celebrate the Epiphany, which was last Sunday.

When we celebrate the Epiphany, we usually think about the visit of the Three Kings, which was our Gospel reading last Sunday.  And that’s a part of the Epiphany: it helped us to see that Jesus came to be the King of kings (that’s what the Gold was for), that he came to be our High Priest (that’s what the frankincense was for), and that he came to die for our sins (that’s what the myrrh was for – it was used to anoint the dead for burial).  But today we still celebrate the Epiphany, and we look in the readings for light, especially light that helps us to see Jesus and what he came to do for us.

In our Gospel today, the light shows us that Jesus came to be a healer.  The leper says to him, “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean!”  I think that was two things.  First, it was a prayer: the man desperately wanted to be healed of leprosy so that he could be an active member of the community again.  But it was also a kind of a profession of faith.  Here he is saying that he knows Jesus can do what he wishes to do: if Jesus wishes, he certainly has the power to heal him, to make him clean.  The man says what he believes, and Jesus responds to that belief. 

When we believe, when we trust that God can do what he wants and needs to do in us, then that opens a little door in our hearts and in our lives.  Then Jesus can and will come in, because he wishes to make all of us clean.  We might not need to be healed of leprosy, but we all need to be healed of something.  We all certainly need to be healed of our sins, of the times we have ignored the light of Jesus’ presence among us.  

So maybe in our prayers today, we can say to Jesus, just like the man with leprosy did: “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.”  You can make me clean of my illnesses.  You can make me clean of my sins.  You can take away whatever stands in the way of being friends with you.  Lord, please do that.  Please make me clean.  And then, when we pray that, let’s listen for what Jesus says to us.  I just know he’s going to say the same thing he said to the man with leprosy: “I do will it.  Be made clean.”

Come, Lord Jesus.  Fill us with your light.  Make us clean from the inside out.

Homilies Ordinary Time

Friday of the Thirtieth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Jesus was always on the lookout for people who needed healing.  The ones we hear about in the Gospel stories, like the one we just heard today, were needs for physical healing, sure, but the stories also tell us about the need for spiritual healing.  Sometimes our bodies are sick, but sometimes our souls are sick too.

The man in today’s Gospel reading had what they called dropsy.  I didn’t know what that was, so I looked it up.  Basically, it’s a build-up of fluid in some part of the body, very often a limb like a leg, or even in the foot or ankle, or hand.  Today, we might call that edema, and usually it is caused by some other disease, like congestive heart failure.  Usually people with this condition have trouble moving around or really doing anything in their everyday life, so I’m sure the man in the Gospel story was very happy to be rid of it.

All this happened at a dinner in the home of one of the leading Pharisees.  The Pharisees were a faction of religious leaders at that time.  They were all observing Jesus carefully, and we now know they were doing that so that they might have some reason to discredit him and ignore his teaching, and even to get rid of him.  Eventually, their suspicion of him brought Jesus to the cross.  Maybe we wonder why they were like that: well, it could have been jealousy.  Or maybe they just felt threatened.  Either way, the Pharisees had lost sight of the mission.

You could see how they would have been jealous: here they are working long and hard to take care of the many prescripts of their religion, attending with exacting detail to the commandments of God and the laws that governed their way of life.  But it is Jesus, this upstart, and not them, who is really moving the people and getting things done.  People were being healed – inside and out – and others were being moved to follow him on his way.  That had to make them green with envy.  And, yes, they probably felt threatened.  The way that he was preaching, the religion he was talking about – well, it was all new and seemed to fly in the face of what they had long believed and what they had worked so hard to preserve.  And Jesus was successful while they were not: people were being healed, they hung on his teaching, and followed him wherever he went.

But how had those Pharisees lost the way?  Because what Jesus advocated was really not a different or surprising message: it was all about how God loves his people and that we should love God and others with that same kind of love.  That message was there: buried deep in the laws and rules that they were so familiar with, but somehow for them, the laws and rules became more important than the love.

The Pharisees wanted to preserve their religion and the way of life they had lived for so long.  Jesus wanted to help people to experience God’s love, forgiveness of their sins, and true healing – healing from the inside out.  It’s not that the rules of religion are not important, but the underlying message and the greatness of God cannot be overshadowed by the rules.  That is the argument in today’s Gospel; that is the argument that ultimately brought Jesus to the cross.  He would rather die than live without us; he paid the price that we might be truly healed and might truly live.  Thanks be to God!

Homilies Ordinary Time

The Twenty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

At the core of salvation and the message of the Gospel, Jesus came to forgive sinners and to make things right so that all might go to live in the eternal kingdom.  He came to give new life to sinners and to show them the way to the kingdom.  It’s in that spirit that I think we should dig into the interesting instructions Jesus gives in today’s Gospel reading.

Those of us who have been in, or are in, seminary can tell you that the community of a seminary is somewhat of a cross between a fishbowl and a pressure cooker.  It’s a community unlike most others, because in seminary everyone pretty much knows everyone, and whatever happens, mostly everyone hears about it.  And so when something doesn’t go right, or worse, when someone is wronged, it becomes, well, a whole thing.  It was in that milieux that I first learned the whole concept of fraternal correction; that is, bringing your brother’s faults to him and working through that together.

That’s the kind of thing that’s happening in today’s Gospel.  By the time Matthew’s Gospel was composed, the early Church community was already separate from the Jewish community.  They weren’t subject, then, to the daily expectations of the Jewish community.  And much like my seminary experience, they were in a bit of a fishbowl, because they were a recognizable community surrounded by non-believers.  So Matthew’s Gospel has Jesus teaching the community how they are to be a community.  This part deals with how to diffuse conflicts and right wrongs, and it begins with that idea of fraternal correction.

Step one has the wronged party going to his or her brother or sister and discussing the matter privately.  This respects the privacy of both parties, and respects, and expects, their desire to live in concord with the other and not be simply a troublemaker.  This, I think, is different from how most of us were brought up.  I’m Irish and Italian.  So either we never speak about the problem, force it into repression, and harbor ongoing resentment, or we have a massive blowup and everyone gets emotional shrapnel.  Or sometimes all of the above.  Now, I have a great family, and I’ll say that most of that is a stereotype and isn’t functionally true, but it doesn’t mean I’ve never seen it.  And we could all tell the same story, if we’re honest.  So this idea of actually talking to the party who wronged us and working toward a solution is one that we need to take to heart.

Step two, if the person doesn’t repent, is to get a couple of other people together to talk to her or him.  This, actually, well-reflects the last line of today’s Gospel: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”  When two or three come together, Jesus is there, waiting to make things right, wanting to affect forgiveness, yearning to bring salvation.  That’s why he came.  So that microcosm of the community has the power of Christ to bring resolution to the situation.

Step three, if it gets that far, is to tell the Church.  This is the one that, in my experience as a pastor, we abuse all the time.  Way too often someone gets mad about something, and they go right to the pastor, or the bishop, or whatever.  They’ve skipped steps one and two, the steps that are more satisfying, and, in my experience, more likely to work well.  By the time it gets to the top, however it works out, chances are, no one’s going to be happy with the outcome.  But that is step three, and it’s there if it’s needed.  That reflects the power Jesus gives to the Church in the very next verse, the power to bind and loose: “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven…”

Step four is the most heartbreaking of all.  If the person doesn’t listen to the Church, then treat her or him as an outcast, “as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.”  Gentiles and tax collectors were the collective term for the pariahs of society at that time.  But here’s the catch: Jesus welcomed Gentiles and tax collectors, so what does he really mean?  I think you know: if the person won’t listen to the Church, then I guess the idea is to welcome the person in and let the community of the Church and the presence of Christ soften their hearts and change their attitudes.  How’s that for a challenge for the week ahead?

Here’s the idea.  None of us is an island; we are not intended to live on our own without interaction with other people.  But in community, there will be the occasional problem with someone else.  How we handle that has to reflect who we are and with whom we are identified, namely our Lord, Jesus Christ.  That same Lord who, again, came to forgive sinners and make things right so that all might find salvation.  All.  All of us find salvation.  Even the person who just cut you off in traffic; even the person that drives you nuts.  All of us.  And so, in our dealing with one another when we have discord, our goal has to be not just the absence of conflict, but instead the salvation of both of us, because that’s what’s ultimately at stake.

Now, another challenge if you’re up for it.  This method of solving conflicts doesn’t apply just to individual conflict, or individual sins and sinners.  It doesn’t just apply in the fishbowl of a seminary or church community.  It has to apply also to societal ills and social sins.  It has ramifications about how we address racial injustice.  It has meaning for dealing with the government official or political candidate whose stance or actions are offensive.  It convicts us when we have, as a society, sinned against the poor and the marginalized.  The salvation of all is of ultimate importance.

“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

Homilies Ordinary Time

Thursday of the Thirteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Amos and Jesus are prophetic voices that we hear in our Scriptures this morning.  Unfortunately, as is often the case with prophets, neither is a welcome voice.  Amos makes it clear that he is not speaking on his own, or even because he wanted to.  If it were up to him, he’d go back to being a simple shepherd and dresser of sycamore trees.  But he knows that the Lord was using him to speak to Amaziah, and he had no intention of backing down. 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus could have cured the paralytic with one touch and without much fanfare.  But that wasn’t what he was there to do.  He was there to preach forgiveness of sins by the way he healed the paralyzed person.  Jesus used that simple situation of healing to be a prophetic voice in the world, saying to everyone present that real healing only comes about through the forgiveness of sins.

I think it’s important to note that being unwilling to accept prophetic witness has its price.  By refusing to hear the word of Amos, Azariah was doomed to destruction.  Not because our God is a capricious, spiteful deity, but because Azariah was unwilling to accept God’s mercy and protection.  On the other hand, the faith of the people who brought the paralytic to Jesus opened that man’s life to God’s healing and mercy.  Prophetic words are often hard, but they also bring healing.

That unnamed paralyzed person could be you or me today, or someone we’ll meet during this day. Who among us is not paralyzed by sin in some way? To whatever extent we are the ones in need of healing, may we all hear the prophetic voice of Jesus saying to us: “Your sins are forgiven. Rise, pick up your stretcher, and go home.”


White Mass for Healthcare Workers

Today’s readings: Lamentations 3:17-26 | Romans 8:18-30 | Mark 16:15-20

One of the most important things I’ve ever learned about the healing ministry of the Church is summed up in one of the lines in our Gospel reading this evening:

“They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

And let’s notice carefully who Jesus says will do these things.  Is it just Jesus himself, or the apostles, or great saints?  Is it only priests or people who do ministry?  No, not at all.  It’s all of us believers.  

These signs will accompany those who believe:
in my name they will drive out demons,
they will speak new languages.
They will pick up serpents with their hands,
and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them.
They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.

This is really the basis for all of the Church’s teaching on healing.  At the core of our belief is that believers have the ability to do great things, not of their own power, but by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Those who believe are so caught up in the life and activity of God that their gifts go out and accomplish God’s purpose in the world.  That is what we celebrate tonight.  That believers in the field of healthcare put their gifts and talents at the service of God’s desire for healing.

Tonight we also call on God’s grace and blessing to healthcare workers, because while their work is never easy, the COVID-19 pandemic only makes things more difficult.  In some ways, healthcare workers are the only faces the sick get to see in these days, because visits from family, friends, even priests is severely limited, if not impossible.  All of us know the value of those visits.  The psychological boost of seeing friendly faces, hearing comforting words, and partaking in prayer and the sacraments does a lot in the healing process, and now those remedies are not that available.  This places a great deal of added strain on those who are working endless shifts and doing their best to be the face of compassion to those in their care.

While the rest of us can never know the burden healthcare workers bear in these days, we can enter into solidarity through prayer and encouragement.  It’s up to all of us to hold up the healers, to be the face of Christ to them, whose hands, words, and hearts Christ is using right now to do his healing work.  Tonight we will offer a blessing to them and entreat our God to keep them well, keep them strong, and help them put an end to this pandemic disease that causes the misery they see daily, once and for all.

We could have read tonight from many Gospel passages in which our Lord heals someone of an illness.  And to those who have watched someone die of this illness many times, those readings may have echoed hollow in some ways.  If God can heal a leper in Jesus’ day, why can’t he heal this poor woman gasping for breath in her last days?  If he can make a lame man walk or stop a twelve-year hemorrhage, why can’t this poor man get up out of his bed and be well?  Those are hard questions, and we all grapple with the implications of that all the time: if not for patients, then for loved ones.  Illness and death are completely unfair.  Sometimes the healer does everything possible and still the patient dies.

Those are horrible times, but know this.  Know that God weeps with you.  Because while he allows sickness, disease, war, hunger, poverty, sin, and death, he never wills them.  The consequences of our fallen world take nothing away from God’s love for us, nor does he inflict them on us.  Even in our darkest moments, God walks with us and enables us to do all we can.  On those occasions when all you can do is not enough to make a person well, know that all that you do gives healing in other ways.  In these days especially, your care for them may be the only Jesus they get to see right now.  Our God who never wants anyone to die alone and uncared for is using you in these moments to give comfort and grace.  That’s an amazing privilege.

And the support you receive from many other workers is part of God’s healing work in the world too.  The sick must be fed, and have clean linens and clean rooms.  Broken equipment needs to be fixed.  Facilities need to be adapted so that they can be used in ways they weren’t originally intended for.  This all takes the work of dedicated workers who, like the doctors, nurses and other care givers, are putting themselves at risk in order to take care of those who are sick.  It takes a village to heal the sick and to comfort the dying.  God’s healing grace is active in every person who answers the call to work among the sick.

Today’s readings paint the picture of the situation in which we find ourselves.  Saint Paul writes to the Roman Church in a time of persecution, and he takes note of the sufferings that many of them were enduring.  In all of that, he calls on them to have hope in God.  Hoping is more than just a wish upon a star: hope is a theological virtue that, while never denying what’s going on, knows that the power of God is never limited by suffering.  We may not see the immediate fruits of hope, but then that’s not how hope works: hope never loses confidence that God is in control.  The writer of Lamentations speaks of hope as well, insisting that he has reason to have hope because God’s faithful mercy is renewed each morning.

And so we faithful ones forge on in hope, knowing that COVID-19 is not forever.  Nothing gets to be forever except God’s grace and mercy and love.  And so, while disease is a fearsome thing, we don’t owe it our fear.  If we use that energy instead to hope in God’s goodness, and know that he is at work in us, he can then use us to renew the face of the earth. Even now, the Spirit groans within us, giving voice to our deepest longings, as we wait for our bodies to be redeemed, and our prayers to be answered, and our illnesses to be healed.

And we continue to trust in our Lord who promised that believers would lay hands on the sick and they would recover.  Whether they recover their health, or recover their faith, or recover their relationships, they will recover what God intends them to recover.  That’s not up to us, any of us.  Hoping in God, however, and trusting in the faithfulness that renews us each day, I urge you all to continue to lay hands on the sick, put your gifts at the service of God’s mercy, and trust that he will recover what needs to be recovered.  The Lord always makes good on his promises when we live out of hope.

Because Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!

Homilies Ordinary Time

Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

There is a lot of anguish in the readings today, isn’t there?  Most markedly is the anguish of King David, mourning the death of his son Absalom.  His anguish was most surprising to his army, because they had been fighting Absalom’s thugs who were helping him to overthrow the government of David.  But even though Absalom was seeking his father’s life, Absalom is still his son, and his death is no occasion for joy.

Then there is the anguish of Jairus, the synagogue official, whose daughter was near death when he reached out to Jesus.  It becomes more distressing when, on the way to heal his daughter, they are confronted with the anguish of the hemorrhagic woman, who had been suffering for twelve years, at “the hands of many doctors,” who had apparently done nothing for her but take her money.  Knowing that he had healed someone, he stopped to reach out to her so as to heal her spirit.  All of which becomes even more distressing as they reach Jairus’s daughter, who has just died.

But Jesus is the enemy of death and anguish, so he heals the hemorrhagic woman, he raises the daughter of Jairus with a word of command, and he teaches us the essential truth that faith is essential to healing.  David had faith and poured out his heart to God in our psalm today, and was eventually given peace.  Jairus had faith, and found out that death is not more powerful than God.  The hemorrhagic woman had faith and found that God’s love can bind up the wounds of so many years.

Whatever our anguish is today, may we bring it to God, trusting as David did: “For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in kindness to all who call upon you.”

Homilies Ordinary Time

Thursday of the First Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

My eldest niece is now in college; I can’t believe how time has flown. But back when she was little, she knew how to wrap Uncle Patrick around her little finger. I remember one time when we were out at the mall, she said something like, “If you want, you can buy me a cookie.” It reminded me of the way the leper approached Jesus in today’s Gospel.  And my niece found out that I did indeed want to buy her a cookie!

You know, the most amazing thing about this miracle isn’t really the miracle itself.  Sure, cleansing someone of leprosy is a big deal.  But for me, the real miracle here surrounds those first three words the leper says to Jesus, “If you wish…”  “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Isn’t it true that we so often wonder about God’s will for our lives?  Especially when we’re going through something tragic, or chronically frustrating, we can wonder how this all fits into God’s plan for us.  If God wishes, he can cleanse us, forgive us, heal us, turn our lives around.

And here the poor leper finds out that healing is indeed God’s will for him.  But not just the kind of healing that wipes out leprosy.  Sure, that’s what everyone saw.  But the real healing happened in that leper’s heart.  He surely wondered if God cared about him at all, and in Jesus’ healing words – “I do will it” – he found out that God cared for him greatly.

Not all of us are going to have this kind of miraculous encounter with God.  But we certainly all ask the question “what does God will for me?” at some point in our lives.  As we come to the Eucharist today, perhaps we all can ask that sort of question.  Reaching out to receive our Lord, may we pray “If you wish, you can feed me.”  “If you wish, you can pour out your blood to wipe away my sins.”  “If you wish, you can strengthen my faith.”  “If you wish you can make me new.”  What does God wish to do in your life?

Christmas Homilies

Friday after Epiphany

Today’s readings

Today, as we continue to celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord, we see another Epiphany, another manifestation of our Lord.  Each of these manifestations tells us a little more about who Jesus is and what he came to do in our world.  Today we see Jesus manifested as healer.

“Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.”  What a wonderful profession of faith!  Here is a man, full of leprosy, who has been in pain and ostracized for perhaps a good portion of his life.  He perhaps has heard about Jesus and was eager to see if he would do what no one has been able to do for him.  No one would even touch a leper, for fear of contracting the disease.  So he has been forced to live with it for all this time.

But Jesus isn’t going to be limited by anything, so he does it: he touches the man and says, “I do will it.”  Healing is the will of our Father, and Jesus came to do the Father’s work.  Responding to the man’s faith, Jesus is able to do in him what no one else could do, or even would do.

But a lot of people have come and gone who would have done the same.  Why is it that everyone is not healed?  Certainly you know of people who have suffered, perhaps you have even suffered yourself, praying and praying all to no avail.  

That’s a hard question, and it’s one that often gets cited by those who reject a life of faith.  But we know in our heart of hearts that there’s all kinds of healing.  And what God intends for us may be far different, perhaps far more important to our salvation, than the healing of a disease.  

In any case, whether the disease goes away or not, the person of faith is always given what God intends for her or him.  And that person never walks through suffering alone, because we know that our Lord suffered greatly on that Cross.  So, joining our sufferings to Christ’s, we have him to help us with our own cross, whatever it may be.  Whether God intends our disease to go away or not, he always wills our salvation, which in the end is the essence of what he came to do. 

Today Christ is manifested as healer.  Healer of our bodies, perhaps.  But healer of our souls to make them fit for heaven, for sure.

Homilies Ordinary Time

The Twenty-eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Our God Heals|Our God Saves

Today’s readings

Today we begin our “Crash Course in Catholicism.”  It’s our hope that through this four-Sunday series of homilies, those who are seeking answers from the Church and those who are wanting to get back to the practice of the faith can find some help in sorting out the obstacles they have been encountering.  For all of us, I think, these four Sundays will give us some important pieces to add to our “faith tool box,” ideas and concepts that will help us when life takes a turn we don’t expect or appreciate, or when people ask us questions we find hard to answer.  As we begin this series, I’d ask you to keep this endeavor in prayer.  And as we begin each of the homilies for these four weeks, I invite you to pray that Jesus would open all of our hearts and minds to accept the faith more fully.

Today’s readings give us the opportunity to discuss two very important concepts: healing and salvation.  These things, honestly, are the whole reason Jesus came to us, the whole reason he left his heavenly throne, took on our flesh, and died on the cross.  These readings are really Good News!

A lot of energy gets expended around the concept of gratitude when this Gospel reading is discussed, and it’s easy to see why that is – just one of the lepers came back and expressed his gratitude.  But I think he also might have been the only one who was really healed.  Here’s why I think that:  For Jesus, the physical ailment wasn’t usually the most important thing he wanted to heal.  Usually, he was looking for interior healing, almost a kind of healing of the person from the inside out.  So yes, the lepers who came to him were in need of physical healing.  “Leprosy” was the name given to all kinds of skin diseases – but only some were really Hansen’s disease, our modern name for leprosy.  The rest were various types of skin eruptions and rashes. When the skin became diseased, people called it leprosy, and the victim suffered exclusion from the community (cf. Lv. 13-14) and became ritually unclean.

So Jesus sends the ten of them off to show themselves to the priests.  When they heard that, it had to be confusing.  The priests are the ones who would have to certify them healed so that they could participate in worship again, but since they hadn’t yet been healed, they had to grumble a bit about being put off to someone else.  Except that on the way they were cleansed (notice carefully that it doesn’t say they were healed).  When that happened, they couldn’t possibly mistake the grace they had been given, but nine of them took it no further than that.  Only just the one returned to give thanks, a sign that he had indeed been healed in body, mind and spirit.

For us then, we need to know that not every healing takes place in the way we would expect, or even in the way we think is best.  God gives us grace according to his purpose and the kind of healing he gives us could well be something we wouldn’t exactly choose.  Perhaps we have found ourselves healed when:

  • A person who loves us tells us a hard truth we need to hear about ourselves.
  • We experience, in a long relationship, opportunities for growth in generosity, forgiveness, patience and humor.
  • Parenting teaches us to give our lives for another in frequent doses of our time, energies, hopes and tears.
  • We suffer a broken relationship, go for counsel and the guidance we receive gives us hope for our future.
  • We seek help for an addiction and the group members offer us wisdom, support and helping hands when we fall and support us “one day at a time.”
  • We suffer the death of a loved one and family and friends are there to grieve with us and eventually there is light at the end of the tunnel.

What is important to get here is that faith is the key to all of this.  Our faith has to have us open to whatever God intends for us.  Our faith has to give us the ability to cry out to God in our need.  Our faith has to make us ready for whatever healing God intends for us.  That’s not easy: that’s why they call it a “leap of faith,” and sometimes it is just that.  Notice the words that Jesus speaks to the Samaritan leper at the end of the reading: “Go your way, your faith has saved you.”  God can do a lot for us, but it is our own act of faith that helps us to see God’s hand in our lives and cooperate with his grace.

I think that’s a good turning point for our second concept, and that is salvation.  Many of us have probably been asked by friends or even strangers who are Evangelical Christians, “Are you saved?” and “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior.”  So let’s be clear about the answers: Are we saved?  Of course the answer is “Yes” — no ifs, ands or buts.  As I said at the beginning of my homily, this was the reason God sent His Son Jesus into the world.  Salvation is the gift won for us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  When we unite our lives to His in Baptism, we are saved.

But what does this even mean?  What are we saved from?  The answer to that is sin and death.  These are the things that separate us, have always separated us, from real happiness with God.  It was the effect of Adam and Eve doing what God told them not to in the beginning, and ever since, it has caused all of us to desire things that are not God, things that, while they seem nice, can never give us real happiness.  This is what causes the human condition by which we so often end up doing the very things we don’t want to do, and because of which we are not able to do the things we want to do.  That is the basic effect of sin, which leads to the breakdown in all kinds of relationships — between fellow human beings, our connection with creation, our relationship with God, and even with ourselves.  Left to our own human devices we can do nothing about these breakdowns of relationships.  That choice in the beginning, which we call original sin, unleashed a torrent of sin and death with us at one side, and God on the other.  There was no way for us to cross it.  But God didn’t create us for death, so in an amazing act of love, he sent his own divine Son, who took on our flesh and paid the price for our sins.  By dying on the cross, that cross became the bridge for us to cross that torrential river of sin and death, and come to our God, to the place he has prepared for us, to the real happiness for which we were created.  That is the essence of our faith.

This is why Saint Paul says to Saint Timothy in our second reading today: “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead.  I bear witness to Him so that you may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus.  If we die with him, we shall also live with him in eternal glory.”  We proclaim boldly that there is a remedy for death, and it is Jesus Christ.  We profess that there absolutely is a Savior, and He is Jesus Christ.  

So have you been saved?  Well, absolutely.  But have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?  That’s more of an individual question.  That process began at your baptism, when either you, or your parents and godparents, accepted that sacrament which makes you part of the Body of Christ.  At your Confirmation, you reaffirmed that by accepting the gift of the Holy Spirit, which leads you to salvation.  And every time you receive the Holy Eucharist, you become what you receive, by incorporating the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ into your own being.  

But it’s easy to do those sacramental things and not have them really change us.  So there is that challenge to really accept that sacramental grace and really accept the salvation God offers us in Christ.  Catholicism is an experiential faith, a living relationship with Christ.  A Catholic is not a person who merely accumulates intellectual knowledge about God nor simply fulfills tradition and the letter of the law.  Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have repeatedly emphasized that Catholic Christianity is an encounter with Jesus.  That encounter happens all through our lives as we pray and grow in our faith.  This encounter with Jesus is the subject of our prayer life, and we will talk more about that in next week’s homily.

In the meantime, what answer should you give to the Evangelical who asks you if you have accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?  My suggestion would be very simply: “Yes, I have.  Every day.”

Homilies Ordinary Time

Mass for the Healing of the Church

Readings: Jeremiah 31:31-34 | Psalm 130 | 2 Corinthians 5:17 – 6:2 | Matthew 5:1-12a

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

I think a lot of us could use some comforting in these days.  The news of the grand jury report out of Pennsylvania about clergy sexual abuse over a period of seventy years, and the real possibility of more of that in every other state was pretty awful.  Then add the disheartening news of Archbishop McCarrick’s abuse of seminarians under his care, and possibly a young person earlier, along with the shocking news that men in the hierarchy of the Church knew about it and said nothing as he advanced his career, and it’s understandable how horrible we all feel, how much we mourn.  We clamor for our God to comfort us.

I could mention so many emotions that I have experienced in these days: anger, disgust, shame, fear, sadness, brokenness. But as I mentioned in my bulletin column a couple of weeks ago, none of that compares to what victims of sexual abuse have probably felt in these days.  In some ways, I imagine they feel violated all over again, and that, friends, breaks this pastor’s heart.

The Church should be a safe haven.  The Church should protect young people – it’s the Church’s job to love young people into the glory of heaven.  For heaven’s sake, we should not permit them to be violated and then swept under the carpet, left with nowhere to go and no one to whom to turn.

My pastor’s heart is broken, too, because all of this derails the mission of the Church.  We want to be on fire for Christ and lead every longing heart to our God. But how can we convince a skeptical world to take a chance on a Church that seems to have a real problem with integrity, justice, love, and truth – all those things that we should be beaconing out to a world grown dark in sin and sadness.  How can we be a light for the world when we harbor the darkness of sin and shame?  How can people ever trust us with their souls when they can’t even trust us with their children?

And the thing is, we should be getting it right by now.  We didn’t go far enough when these things started coming to light in the 1980s.  We went much further after the scandals of 2002, but a lot of things got left out.  There was no process to discipline bishops who covered up scandal, or even bishops who were abusers.  Even though our diocese had a publicly available list of priests who were abusers, far too many dioceses did not.  And every time we didn’t go far enough, we gave evil a chance to darken our world.

As your pastor, with a broken heart, I am sorry for the sins the Church has committed – sorry for the abuse that got perpetrated by clergy and covered up by other clergy.  I am sorry if you were abused, and I am sorry for everyone who has felt shame because of what is going on.  I know these are just words, and inadequate ones at that.  But they convey my real feelings, and they are feelings I really want you to know.

Back in my first parish as a priest, I had an initial meeting with a couple preparing for marriage.  She was Catholic and he was from one of the main-line Protestant communities.  As I walked them through the paperwork, I got to the part where the Catholic has to agree to raise the children in the Catholic faith.  I always do that with both parties present, because that’s a decision they need to come to together.  Most often, the couple has talked about that and has accepted it. But this time the groom voiced his objection.  When I asked him to tell me more about that, he told me that he had been abused by a minister at his church.  And though he was obviously scarred from it, he appreciated that his church took it seriously and did everything possible to help him heal.  He wasn’t confident the Catholic Church was ready to do that.

I told him about the measures the Church had taken since 2002, and the way that we promote safe environment.  They are measures that truly have made a great deal of difference in the years since.  I wasn’t able to convince him, and the couple never did marry for that and other reasons. But that interaction rekindled all the feelings I had in seminary when the scandals broke and half my class left.

It’s time to do more.  We all have to hold each other accountable for everything – bishops, priests, deacons, faithful.  We all have care for each other’s souls and need to say something when things aren’t right.  We need to pray that our nation’s bishops, when they meet this coming November, will take the concrete steps needed to make the hierarchy of our Church conform to the witness, integrity, and zeal of the Apostles, whose successors they have been ordained to be.  We need to pray that every child and every person in the Church will be treated as Christ himself.  We need to pray that the bright light of Truth would scatter the darkness of sin. We need to pray in these days that our God would write his Law in our hearts, that he would be our God, and that we would be his people.

Because, in the face of this, it’s easy to come to despair.  It’s easy to think this will never change and it’s all just going to come up over and over again.  I want to say two things about that.  First of all, as we heard in yesterday’s Gospel, the Cross is the heart of what it means to be a disciple.  When we are tempted to think it would be easier to walk away from the Church so that we don’t have to feel the pain, we need to say, “Get behind me, Satan.”  Because it’s always the evil one who wants to convince us that life is better without the Cross.  Second, as I said last Monday to our Confirmation students, there is a place we can go when we can’t see a solution to the problem.  Jesus is enough, and more than enough, to fill up our emptiness, to convert our stony hearts, to sanctify the Church and to bring reconciliation and healing to a broken Church and a broken world.

I remember being in seminary in 2002 when so many of my classmates decided to leave.  I certainly wondered why I was still there, and if I should leave too. As I prayed about that, the Bible verse that kept coming to my mind was the response of Saint Peter to our Lord when he asked the disciples if they were going to leave like so many of the others. Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.” That one verse has gotten me through just about every occasion when I felt tempted – tempted by the evil one – to walk away.  And in these days, I think we need to realize how important it is that we are here: tonight, and every day.  Because we certainly could walk away, but the Church is our Mother and she means too much to us.  The Church and its sanctity and holiness are worth fighting for, and we are the warriors that our Lord has chosen to bring holiness to our Church and to our world in this sad hour.  We have to be those who hunger and thirst for righteousness if we ever want to be truly satisfied.

I know I have a lot of nerve asking you to pray hard, to hold us and each other accountable, and to fight for the Church when the Church has let you down.  Why won’t they clean up their mess?  After all, they are the ones who fouled it up.  But the Church isn’t a “they.”  The Church is a “we.”  And if we ever want the Church to be holy and a beacon of light, then we have the be the ones to fight for it.  If we don’t do it, who will?

To all of us who clamor for righteousness, our Lord has made a solemn promise: our reward will be great in heaven.  That promise is worth fighting for, friends. It’s worth purifying our own lives, calling out for real change in the Church, and praying for with every fiber of our being.  Even if others ridicule and persecute us for our faith, we will be rewarded with greatness in the kingdom of heaven.

I borrowed the idea for our gathering tonight from my alma mater,Mundelein Seminary, who recently completed a Novena for the Healing of the Church.  The prayer that they used for that novena is printed in your worship aid.  I’d ask you now to stand and pray it with me:

Loving God, turn your ear to the cries of your sons and daughters who seek healing for Your Church.
We are heartbroken. We are bruised. We are hurting.

In these days we again wrestle with understanding the heinous acts of abuse by those entrusted with shepherding Your flock. Ease our troubled hearts. Mend our broken spirits.
Be “ever present in our distress.”

Merciful Lord, send Your Healing Spirit to our brothers and sisters who have endured pain and abuse physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Comfort their weary spirits. Soothe their pain. Grant them justice. May our eyes be opened to see Your image in these wounded members of Your Church.

Shepherd of Souls, make Your presence known to us that these wrongful acts will be addressed. Inspire our leaders of the Church to seek new and effective paths to keep safe the flock they shepherd.

Give us all courage to act and speak up on behalf of the most vulnerable. Rush the winds of the Spirit to scatter the darkness of sin. Pour forth Your healing Spirit to renew our trust and hope in You, who are our refuge and our strength.
We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.