Faith Formation Closing Mass

Today’s readings

Can you remember the first time you were called a Christian?

It was at Antioch that the disciples of Jesus were first called Christians.  This, of course, is after the death and resurrection of Jesus, after the disciples, including Barnabas, and apparently Paul (known to them as Saul, the name he had before his conversion).  These dedicated men created a community in Antioch and taught them the Gospel and started a church there.  The people around them knew them for teaching about the Christ – Jesus – and it was there that they were first called Christians.

We probably don’t think much about the term “Christian.”  It’s so much a part of our vocabulary, that we know Christians are those of us who believe in Christ and follow his teachings.  Sometimes people wonder whether Catholics are Christians, and the response is, yes, of course.  Our Church was founded by Christ himself, and we dedicate ourselves to living the Gospel he taught us, to living our own lives as disciples, as followers, as people devoted to him.

If I were to ask you, “Who is Jesus?” you might tell me that he is the Son of God, the second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the son of Mary and Joseph, God made man, the One who went about doing good and calling people to repentance, the One who shows us the way to the Father.  These, and many other facts about Jesus, are absolutely right, and we believe them completely.  But a fuller, more important answer requires us to go more deeply and to answer who is Jesus for us?  Do we have a relationship with Jesus, or is he just a concept we have learned?

If all Jesus is is a concept, then, honestly, who cares?  If all Jesus is is a concept, why did so many of those early disciples die for him?  If all Jesus is is a concept, then how did this Church survive for over two thousand years?  Concepts are interesting, maybe, but hardly worth living for and dying for.  A vibrant relationship with a God who loves us enough to be personally present to us, that’s worth living and dying for.  At the end of the day, only that vibrant relationship with Jesus will cause people to say, “She’s a Christian” or “He’s a Christian.”

Ever since Sunday, and including tonight, the Gospel reading at Mass has been reflecting on Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  Our Good Shepherd promises us eternal life, a life so much better than what we now experience, a life of forever grace, where all of our woundedness is bound up and our sins erased and our death redeemed.  All we have to do to get there is to listen to his voice, live his Gospel, and be faithful to our relationship with him.  If we do that, no one can take us out of his hand, no one can separate us from his love.

In these days of pandemic, when we are sheltered in place and socially distant from each other, Jesus offers us a relationship that transcends all that.  He offers us a relationship where virus, disease, sin and death don’t have ultimate power over us.  He offers us a relationship that continues to write our story and draw us closer until we are one with him.  In these days of pandemic, I firmly believe that God is doing something among us: calling us to look at what’s ultimately important and calling us back to oneness in him.  That, really, can be the gift to us in these days.  And who doesn’t need a real gift in these days?!

I honestly hope we never go back to normal – at least not the normal we’ve become used to.  Because that normal had us forgetting about Jesus and distancing ourselves from one another – you know, in different ways than we have now.  That normal had us distancing ourselves from our families in favor of being part of every activity imaginable.  That normal had us eating in the SUV on the way to the next thing rather than sitting down and getting to know each other.  That normal found other things so much more important than our relationships with each other and with our God.  And, friends, that normal isn’t worthy of us.  We deserve so much better, and the great thing is, God wants us to have it.

So when things start getting back to normal – whenever that may be – let’s not forget the really important things we have learned and experienced and loved in these days.  Let’s not forget the really beautiful things that have happened among us.  Let’s not forget our renewed relationships with each other, and the relationship we have with God.  Let’s not forget that we are Christians.

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

Tuesday of the Second Week of Easter

Today’s readings

Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus is a perplexing one, to be sure.  But in the light of Easter, we can see that Jesus was proclaiming that God is doing something new.  Not only that, but God wants us all to be part of that new thing.  Addressing Nicodemus, Jesus said that the old ways of worshipping and living were no longer sufficient, and really no longer needed.  God was looking not just for people’s obedience, but also, mostly, for their hearts.

We see those hearts at work in the early Christian community.  The reading from Acts this morning tells us that the believers cared for one another deeply, and were generous in that care.  “The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common.”  They were even selling their possessions to give to those who were in need.  Nobody felt needy, nobody felt cheated, nobody felt like they were doing more than their share.  People were worshipping not just with their minds, but also with their hearts, and their worshipping didn’t stop when they left the worship place.

So the same has to be true for us, we who have known the Lord for so long.  We have to be willing to give of our hearts, to believe not just when we’re in church, but also when we are out there, living our lives.  That’s especially true now that most of us can’t be in church for worship, but instead have to watch it on Facebook or television.  The pandemic gives us the opportunity, and even the nudge to make our faith the real viral thing.  So we have to trust God to take care of us when we stick our neck out to help someone else.  We have to trust that even when we are doing more than other people are, God will take care of the equity of it all and never be outdone in generosity.  We have to worship not just with our minds but also with our hearts.

Because Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!

Alleluia!

The Twenty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

In my first priestly assignment, at Saint Raphael in Naperville, there was a huge football program for elementary school kids called Saint Raphael Football.  It was not just a team, but a league, and lots of surrounding churches had teams in the league.  You couldn’t live in Naperville and not have heard of Saint Raphael Football. So once in a while, in a social setting, someone would ask me what church I was from, and I’d tell them, Saint Raphael.  And they would say to me, “Oh yes, we go there, our son is in that football league.” I always wanted to tell them, “How nice. By the way, we also celebrate the Eucharist there.”  Maybe I should have.  Today’s gospel reading makes me think I should.

We – as a society – have it all wrong.  Our priorities are all messed up.  I think we’re in real danger, now more than ever, and today’s Liturgy of the Word is a wake-up call for us to get it right.  We live in a society that has not just lost its moral compass, but has actually taken pains to bury it away and never look at it.  Everyone seems to think that something is okay if it works for them in their current circumstance, regardless of how it affects others, regardless of how it affects even them in the long-run.  That’s why you turn on the news and hear about shootings everywhere, and that’s why we have politicians vying with one another to see who can support abortion in the strongest possible sense.  As Saint Theresa of Calcutta once said, “And if we can accept that a mother can kill her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another?”  In many alarming ways, our moral compass has been buried for so long that we hardly know what it looks like anymore.  

So this homily is probably going to come off sounding kind of harsh to some of you, but if I don’t say what I have to say, I’m not doing my job as your priest.  And I know, really I know, most of you get this.  So please indulge me; if this doesn’t apply to you, please pray for someone who needs to hear it, because you know someone who does.

When Jesus is asked whether only a few will be saved, he deflects the question.  His answer indicates that it’s not the number of those who will be saved – that’s not the issue.  The issue is that some people think they will be saved because they call themselves Christian, or religious, or spiritual, or whatever.  It’s kind of like the people I talked to who considered themselves practicing Catholics simply because their children played in a football league that was marginally affiliated with us.

Jesus says that’s not how it works.  We have to strive to enter the narrow gate.  So what does that mean?  For Jesus, entering eternity through the narrow gate means not just calling yourself religious; that would be a pretty wide gate.  It certainly wouldn’t mean saying that you’re basically a good person, since that criterion is pretty subjective, and so widely misunderstood. The narrow gate means actually practicing the faith: taking time for prayer and worship, receiving the Eucharist for strength, living the gospel, reaching out to the needy, showing love to your neighbor.  It means making one’s faith the first priority, loving God first, worshipping first, loving others first.  Because “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

And I’ll be the first to tell you that it’s hard to do that.  Saint Paul says today that we have to strengthen our drooping hands and weak knees; Jesus says that many will attempt to enter that narrow gate but won’t be strong enough to do it.  That narrow gate of love is hard to enter: it takes effort, it takes grace; it takes strength, and we can only get that grace and strength in one place, and that place is the Church.  That’s why Jesus gives us the Church: to strengthen us for eternal life.

That’s not the best news, however, because so many people these days settle for simply calling themselves religious, or being “spiritual” – whatever that means.  They’ll play football on the team, but won’t make an effort to come to Church to receive the strength they need to live this life and to enter eternal life.  It is here, in the Eucharist, freely given by our gracious Lord, that we receive the strength we need to love, the strength necessary to live our faith and be united with our God.  It is here, in the proclamation of the Word, that we find instruction to live as disciples and are more and more conformed into the image of Christ.  But it’s hard to get to Church because Billy has a soccer game, or Sally has a dance recital, or because Mom and Dad just want to sleep in after a really trying week.

But those decisions, friends, have eternal consequences.  So let me be clear: God is more important than soccer, or football, or cheer, or whatever sport you’re playing; God is more important than the dance recital, and as for sleeping in on Sunday, well, as my grandfather used to say, you can sleep when you’re dead.  And it’s not like it’s an either/or proposition: people don’t have to choose between soccer and Mass or dance and Mass or even sleeping and Mass.  Certainly not in our section of the world.  This parish has Mass nine Masses on Saturday evening and all day Sunday, in three languages, all the way from 4pm on Saturday to 6pm on Sunday.  If those don’t work, there are a bunch of parishes within a short driving distance that have other schedules.  There’s probably a church within a few driving minutes of every football or soccer field in the area; I know a lot of families choose to take that option when schedules are hectic.

The point is, we make time for what’s important to us.  And eternal life is the only thing that we have of lasting importance. So we have to build up the strength to get through that narrow gate one day.  We’ve got to worship God with consistency; we have to live the gospel with consistency.

We’re not going to be able to say one day: “We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets and we played football on your team.”  We can’t just call ourselves Catholic; we have to live our faith.  We have to worship and pray; we have to reach out to the needy, stand up for truth and justice, make a real effort to love even when it’s not convenient to love, or even when the person who faces us is not as loveable as we’d like.

All of this requires commitment and effort and real work from all of us. We have to strive to enter through that narrow gate, because we don’t want to ever hear those bone-chilling words from today’s Gospel, “I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, you evildoers!” The good news is we don’t ever have to hear those words: all we have to do is nourish our relationship with Jesus that will give us strength to enter the narrow gate.  After all, the narrow gate is love, and the love of God in Jesus is more than enough to get us through it.

Friday of the Fourteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Our God never promises that the life of faith and discipleship will be an easy one; only that it will be blessed. One thing is certain: that life will certainly entail hardship, even suffering. That’s pretty evident in today’s Gospel reading. Faithful disciples have to worry about being betrayed by even their closest family members.

None of this is a surprise to anyone who has tried to live the faith. Perhaps at times the hardest people to evangelize are the members of one’s own family. I’m sure we all can think of people close to us who have abandoned the faith or practice it rarely. Maybe the ones who receive the Church’s teachings least are those we would hope would get it and be partners with us as we journey to the kingdom. It happens all the time – in your family and in mine.

These are trying times. It is hard to give witness to the Truth when the culture around us wants to make its own truth. And it’s painful to see our brothers and sisters fall for the lie hook, line and sinker. So how do we stand for the Truth when our loved ones tune it out? What do we do when our loved ones reject what we’ve tried to give them to bring them to eternal life?

Our Gospel tells us that what we do is persevere: we continue to live the Truth and witness to our faith. If those close to us tune out our words, then we have to be all the more attentive to our actions, to our lived witness, so that they can see that we live what we preach and believe. We have to depend on God to give us the right words and help us to do the right things so that we won’t be a stumbling block. And then we have to trust in God to work it all out in his time.

None of this is going to be easy, but Jesus tells us that the one who endures to the end will be saved.

The Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Some of us on the Liturgy staff were reflecting in the last couple of weeks that it’s nice to be in Ordinary Time.  The wonderful feast days and solemnities of the year are great, and we love them, but while we take care to celebrate them with festivity, they can take a lot of our energy and leave us with little time to really pray them.  So we look forward to these days of Ordinary Time, and that’s good, because during this time of the year, Holy Mother Church gives us some great tools for living the Christian life of discipleship.  Today’s Gospel is a great example of that.

So Jesus’ ministry is ramping up into full gear. In order to prepare the places he intends to visit, he sends out seventy-two disciples, in pairs, to prepare the way.  They are going to do some of the same things he will do:  curing the sick, healing the broken, and preaching the Kingdom of God, with its call to repentance.  This is the third Luminous Mystery of the Rosary.  They have great success because Jesus prepares them in advance and gives them advice about how to be good disciples.

And we need to pay careful attention to that advice because, as you may have guessed, this story, nice as it is, is not about just those seventy-two.  It is about all of us.  At our baptism, we too have been sent out on mission.  We too are called to bring healing to a broken world, and to proclaim the Kingdom of God.  That Kingdom is here and now, and it is urgent that people come to enter into it. 

We might protest, I think, saying that we’re not ready, not equipped to be evangelizers and preachers and healers. Well, news flash: neither were those seventy-two.  In fact, they came back amazed that they were able to accomplish the mighty deeds they did. And they were able to do those things because Jesus had prepared them in advance.  He gave them several rules for mission, and of them, three really stand out. I think we are supposed to hear and appropriate these things as well.

So the first tool he gives us is the wisdom not to rely on ourselves. Listen to the instructions Jesus gives the seventy-two before they leave: “Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals…” Now that all seems pretty impractical to those of us who have to travel in the twenty-first century, doesn’t it?  We need a wallet or purse to carry what we’d need to pay tolls and buy fuel and pay for what we need on the journey, and certainly we’d need a sack to carry identification as well as just basic things we’d need along the way.  I’m a compulsive over-packer, and I like to have all the details of a journey mapped out pretty precisely before I set out, so this advice gives me agita.  Here’s the point, though: If we were able to foresee every possibility and pack for every possible need, we would certainly not need Jesus, would we?  Jesus is telling the seventy-two, and us as well, to stop worrying and start following.  Rely on Jesus because he is trustworthy.  Experience the joy of letting Jesus worry about the small stuff while he is doing big things in us and through us.

The second discipleship tool is to “greet no one along the way.”  That sounds pretty unfriendly, doesn’t it?  We would think he’d want us to greet everyone we can, but that’s not the point here. The point is, along the way, we can easily be derailed from the mission.  Other things can seem to be important, other people can try to get us off track, Satan can make so many other things seem important along the way. The point here is that there is urgency to the mission.  People have to hear that Jesus is Lord and that God loves them now, not later, when it may be too late.  We have to get the show on the road, and the time is now.

The final tool is this: do not move from one house to another, to eat and drink what is set before us.  It’s not that Jesus doesn’t want us to spread the Good News. The discipline Jesus is teaching here is that we have to be focused in our ministry.  Once we have been given the mission, we have to stay with it, and not be blown about like the wind.  Eating and drinking what is set before them meant that if they were given ministry that is difficult, they needed to stay with it, because that’s what was set before them.  We, too, are called to stay with a person or a situation until what God wants to happen happens.  We too have to know that our mission may not be easy, but we have to accept the mission we have.  We are called to accept people and situations as they are and trust God to perfect our efforts.  When it’s time to move on, God will let us know, and we will come to know that time through prayer and discernment.

So we’ve received pretty large task as we come here for worship today.  In just a while, we will be fed on the most excellent Body and Blood of our Lord which will give us strength to tend to the piece of the Kingdom that God has entrusted to us.  We have been instructed with some basic tools for doing the work of God.  If we use these tools and are faithful to the mission, I think we’ll be as overjoyed as were those disciples.  And then, we can rejoice with them that our names are written in heaven.

Thursday of the Third Week of Easter

Today’s readings

I don’t believe in coincidences. Being in the right place at the right time isn’t usually a coincidence. Far more often than we realize, it’s the work of the Holy Spirit. Certainly that is the case in today’s first reading. How else would we explain an angel directing Philip to be on a road at the very same time as the Ethiopian eunuch passed by, reading a passage from the prophet Isaiah that referred to Jesus? Seizing the moment, Philip proclaims Jesus to him in a way that was powerful enough and moving enough that, on seeing some water as they continued on the journey, the eunuch begged to be baptized.

The same is true for those who were fortunate enough to hear Jesus proclaim the Bread of Life discourse that we’ve been reading in our Gospel readings these past days. Having been fed by a few loaves and fishes when they were physically hungry, they now come to find Jesus who longs to fill them up not just physically but also, and more importantly, spiritually. Their hunger put them in the right place at the right time. 

What I think is important for us to get today is that we are always in the right place at the right time, spiritually speaking. Wherever we find ourselves is the place that we are directed by the Holy Spirit to find God. Wherever we are right now is the place where the Holy Spirit wants us to find God and to proclaim God. That might be in the midst of peace, or chaos, or any situation. We never know how God may feed us in those situations. Because we never know when there will be someone like an Ethiopian eunuch there, aching to be filled with Christ’s presence and called to a new life. 

It is no coincidence that we are where we are, when we are. The Spirit always calls on us to find our God and proclaim him as Lord in every moment and every situation. 

Thursday of the Thirty-first Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel calls us to examine our perspective. Jesus asks, “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?” Well, those men he talked to were shepherds, or had shepherds in their family, so they would have responded “nobody would do that!” Why on earth would they risk losing the other ninety-nine sheep to find the lost one?

And as far as the coin goes, why bother staying up all night? It would probably have cost more to light the lamp and search all night than the coin was worth. It would be wiser to wait until she had the morning light and could find it easily.

But here’s the perspective part: God is not like us. Every sheep among us is important, and he will relentlessly pursue us individually until he has us all in the sheepfold. And if we’re lost, he’s going to light a lamp and stay up all night until he has us back. For him, one of us is every bit as important as the other ninety-nine. Even if our own self-image is poor, we are a treasure in God’s eyes.

And that’s all well and good, but we always have to ask ourselves why the Church gives us this reading again in the closing days of the Church year. We hear these kinds of parables typically in the summer months, when the Church wants us to see that God loves us and wants us to be his disciples. But hearing the parables in these days, there’s a little more urgency. Time is running short, and it’s time for the lost ones to be found and gathered up and celebrated. These waning days of the Church year are a foreshadowing of the end of time, and so we need to cooperate with God in making the urgent message of God’s love known in every time and place.

And so that’s what the Kingdom of heaven is like. It’s a relentless pursuit and a flurry of activity until we are all back where we belong. Once we are all with God, the joyful celebration can continue, knowing that we are all back where we were always meant to be.

The Twenty-ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

At the heart of today’s Gospel reading is the question of whether or not we as disciples of Jesus are willing to go where he’s leading us. Much could be said about the posturing of James and John to get the good seats in the kingdom. But their ambition is not the point here. The point, as Jesus illustrates, is that his kingdom is not one of honor and glory. His kingdom is about suffering and redemption, and then honor and glory. To get to the resurrection, you have to go through the cross. And the most honored one is the one who serves everyone else along the way. Let me illustrate with an admittedly somewhat unflattering story about yours truly.

When I was in seminary, there were a number of nice, fancy dinners that would follow important events in the school year. So we would have them after a class received ministries like Lector or Acolyte, or after Mass for a reunion of 25-year or 50-year jubilarians. At each of these dinners, the table would be set up very fancy, and there would be an apron draped over the back of one of the chairs at the table. The idea was, the person sitting in that seat would be expected to put on the apron and serve the others at the table.

When I first got to seminary, when it came time for these dinners, I would rush to get to the refectory so that I didn’t have to sit in that spot and serve the others. I know, not very pastor-like, was it? But one day, I reflected on those last two lines of today’s Gospel: For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. And in that moment, I realized that it was indeed service that I was called to do, and so maybe I could get started by serving my brothers at table.

From that day forward, things changed for me. I would still rush to get over to the refectory as soon as I could, but that was so that I could sit in that seat and serve the others. Not only did I take on the server role, but I actually found joy in it. When you let go of thinking only about yourself, you find that you can actually receive many blessings. The blessings I found were that those dinners were a lot more fun; I had some wonderful conversations not only with the people at my table, but also with the kitchen staff.

Jesus in our Gospel reading today is calling us all to sit in that seat at the table, to put on our aprons, and help serve everyone else. That flies in the face of our entitlement, it tears down the notion of looking out for number one, it means that inconvenience for the sake of others has to become a real option in our daily lives.

Jesus told us that whoever wishes to be great among us must be the servant of all. He washed the feet of his disciples on his last night on this earth; he died on that cross for all of us. We are called to follow his ways if we want to follow him to the kingdom. Let’s none of us be afraid of taking that seat at the table and putting on the apron.

Saturday of the Twenty-eighth Week of Ordinary Time: Make a Difference Day

Today’s Readings

Anything worthwhile costs us something, most especially our faith.  If we are serious about it, if we love God and want to be caught up in his life, we’re going to have to pay for it in some way.  Jesus speaks to that in today’s Gospel.  One of the biggest costs to us, I think, is our comfort zone.  To really live the faith, we have to get out of that comfort and do what God wants of us.  In the Gospel, Jesus was telling his disciples that they would have to give witness to him.  And they understood that that would cost them something – perhaps cost them their lives.

We disciples are also going to have to pay some price for living our faith.  Probably not something as drastic as getting dragged before synagogues, rulers and authorities, but something fairly costly for us.  For us today, perhaps that cost is giving up a Saturday to clean church pews, or trim a neighbor’s hedges, or sing songs at a nursing home.

Today, on our Make a Difference Day, we take our give strong witness to our faith in our work. As we come together to pack meals at Feed My Starving Children, spend time in adoration praying for our community, or clean up our parish grounds, our presence and concern may be the way God is using us to get someone’s attention and see his presence in her or his life.  As Saint Therese of Liseaux used to encourage her sisters, we can make a big difference by doing little things with great love.

Jesus tells us that we will receive gifts of the Holy Spirit that enable us to speak on behalf of our faith. As we engage in whatever we have signed up to do today, that same Spirit may give us gifts that answer prayers we didn’t even know we had in our hearts, and definitely answer the prayers of others. Our work gives witness to who Christ is in our lives; Christ who loves us first and loves us best.  Sharing that love in the work we do today is a powerful way to help others know the presence of Christ in their lives.

Living our faith is always going to cost us something and that something could well be status or popularity, or at least the wondering glance from people who aren’t ready to accept the faith.  But the volumes that we speak by living our faith anyway might just lay the groundwork for conversion and become a conduit of grace.  We are told that we don’t have to hammer out all the words we want to say; that the Holy Spirit will give us eloquence that we can only dream of.  And it’s true, if we trust God, if we live our faith when it’s popular or unpopular, we will have the Spirit and the words.  God only knows what can be accomplished in those grace-filled moments!  I pray that you see Christ everywhere as you witness today.

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