Friday, July 31, 2009

Amnesty International

Amnesty International is a non-profit organization which does important work keeping human rights issues in the forefront of public consciousness as well as offering support to prisoners of conscience. Unfortunately, they have decided to tarnish their mission by including abortion as one of the fundamental human "rights" they work to promote and defend. I took the opportunity of a fundraising letter I received from them to voice my disapproval.
To whom it may concern,

Thank you for the opportunity to sign a card in support of prisoners of conscience.

Unfortunately, in conscience, I cannot make a monetary contribution to your important work because of your organization's support for abortion.

Your failure to recognize the rights and dignity of the most vulnerable among us - namely, the unborn - undermines in a tragic way the goal you seek to achieve. If a government can revoke or fail to recognize the rights of any one of us, how can we then stop it from violating the dignity of all of us?

I pray that your important work of calling to the world's attention the violation of human rights by governments will continue unabated. Nonetheless, I must protest in the strongest terms possible your exclusion of human persons at their most vulnerable stage of development from among those who deserve protection.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Resting in Christ

In no other time in human history have people been so busy. Our society values keeping active, and so we fill our calendar with work and social events. The number one complaint most people voice is that they don't have enough time or that they are always rushing. We had hoped that technology would help us by making our work easier, but it has actually gotten worse! Because we have cars, computers and cellphones, we are expected to do more and to be ready for action at a moment's notice. All this rushing around has made health problems such as chronic fatigue, stress and anxiety a fact of modern day life.

We all need to take time out from our harried schedules to rest. Just as rest is important for our physical health, it is supremely important for our spiritual health and well-being. We can recognize immediately when our bodies are tired because we lose energy, our muscles ache and we get sleepy. But do we know when our soul is tired? And where do we turn when our soul feels empty and our spirits need a lift?

Among the symptoms of a tired soul are boredom, loneliness, irritability and anxiety. They are just a few signs that we have not been giving our soul the nourishment it needs.

Too often when we feel lonely or anxious, we turn to the TV, to alcohol or to other empty ways of wasting time in hopes that we'll eventually feel better. Though there's nothing wrong with watching TV or drinking alcohol with friends in moderation, these activities can often deplete us and make us feel even emptier than we felt before. This is especially true when we turn to sinful ways of comforting ourselves.

The only way to refuel our spirits and fill our hearts with joy is to turn to Jesus in prayer. Whether it is through meditation, reading the Bible or going to Mass, when we reach out to Jesus we find the rest our souls are longing for. The anxiety or loneliness that cause us so much heartache is very often a cry from within that something is missing in our lives. That missing piece is Jesus and his love.

The good news is that Jesus is never far from us. We don't have to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to find him. Nor do we have to jump through all kinds of hoops to get his attention. Jesus wants us to know him and wants us to love him. Because of this, he is always near to us when we call on him no matter how sinful we think we are or how undeserving we may feel.

Jesus takes delight in revealing the Father to us. The whole purpose of his life was to teach us how deep and how wide God's love for us is. Because Jesus and the Father are one, whoever sees Jesus sees the Father. Whoever hears Jesus hears the Father. And whoever is touched by Jesus is touched by the Father.

And who is this God whom Jesus reveals to us? He is not a God who is eager to condemn us or to scold us. No, the God of Jesus Christ is a God who is meek and humble. He is a God who is close to those who suffer. He is a God who is eager to forgive.

In the gospels, Jesus rejoices that it is the little ones, the dejected and the outcast who gather to hear his words. Because his heart goes out in love to those who suffer and to those who are forgotten, Jesus stretches out his hand in welcome and comfort to all who seek rest in his words and in his presence. He calls out to all those who have lost hope and to all those who are weary from the cares of this world: "Come to me and find your rest."

When Jesus walked the earth, he revealed God's love through the words he spoke and the miracles he performed. In our day, Jesus continues to reveal the love of the Father through the Scriptures and through the Sacraments. When we hear the gospel, we hear Jesus speak. When we are touched by a sacrament - whether it be confession or the Eucharist - we are touched by Jesus himself. Jesus is alive among us giving much needed rest to our souls by revealing God's love and mercy.

God commands us to keep the Sabbath day holy. We observe the Lord's day as a day of prayer and rest. On Sunday, we are called to take a step back from all the hurrying and all the activity of the week to remember why it is that we are doing all this work in the first place. Is all this activity really bringing us closer to our family and loved ones? Is all this work really making us more secure financially? Or, is all this running around really a way of avoiding our problems and neglecting our other responsibilities? And where have we been turning when our souls need rest?

As we gather in this place today, we prepare ourselves to receive the supreme gift of God's love and mercy - the Body and Blood of Christ. It is the most important way that Jesus feeds our weary soul. When we approach Jesus in the Eucharist today, let us place all our burdens and worries on his shoulders and receive him with love and devotion. He wants nothing more than that we turn to him and find our rest in him alone.

Monday, July 27, 2009


While digging through some old photos I came upon a holy card with a prayer to Saint Antoninus of Florence. In a post from last year (cf. October 18,2008) I wrote that he is a fitting intercessor for these difficult economic times. I wanted to share this prayer with you.





(translated by Doug Sousa)

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Kingdom of Christ

After seeing the miracle Jesus performed, the crowd wanted to make him their king. They probably thought that with Jesus ruling over them all their problems would be solved. Only a man like Jesus who could feed five thousand people with just five loaves of bread and two fishes would be able to put an end to hunger and poverty in Israel. Only a man like Jesus who could cure any illness would be able to banish sickness and suffering from the land. Only a man like Jesus who could get such great numbers of people to follow him could find enough popular support to lead an uprising against the Roman Empire so that Palestine could be free again. This was what they felt they needed from a king. This was the kind of "salvation" they wanted Jesus to bring - an end to everything that made their lives miserable and hard.

But Jesus always rejected the crowd's desire to make him their king. Being an earthly ruler was not the reason the Father sent him to live among us. As Jesus will say in next week's gospel, "You should not be working for perishable food, but for food that remains unto eternal life." Jesus knew that the five thousand people he fed would get hungry again and soon need to find more food. Likewise, all the people he cured of leprosy and other illnesses would eventually get sick again and die. None of those miracles would have lasting effects except as signs of Jesus' power and of faith in those who witnessed them. What Jesus wanted to do for Israel - and for us - was something that no king could give his people; something that would not only have a temporary effect for one nation, but would last forever and be offered to all people of every age. By dying on the cross and rising from the dead, Jesus showed what type of a king he was - a king who could free us from our sins and give us everlasting life with him in heaven where there is no more hunger, no more sickness, no more wars and no more death.

Earthly kings rule over lands and territories by coercion, threatening force against all who would disobey them. Jesus, however, rules over the human heart through love. Jesus is the type of king who gets to the root of what is wrong with each of us and the whole world, namely, sin. He treats the rebellion in our hearts that steers us in the wrong direction - away from his love and mercy and into selfishness. Like the crowd in today's gospel, we prefer the bread to the one who gives the bread. We prefer our possessions to the one who gives us everything we have. We prefer to have total control over our lives rather than submit ourselves with loving trust to the God who created us to fit a certain plan.

But Jesus teaches us what it means to turn away from the sin that is the cause of so much misery in our world; to turn away from the violence which is the cause of so much war and murder; to turn away from the greed which leaves people poor and hungry. Because he is God and lives in each of us, Jesus is the type of king who can make an appeal directly to the human heart to stop hating and to start loving. No king could know all his subjects by name, know all their needs or love them enough to die for each of them. Jesus is just such a king.

Jesus' kingdom will come in its full glory only at the end of the world when all will stand before his throne for judgement. But we do not have to wait until the end of the world or until we get into heaven to know the salvation which Jesus brings. All of us who have turned to Jesus as our Savior and allowed him to be the King of our hearts by making a decision to live as he did already have a taste of what that salvation means. Everyone here has a personal story about what believing in Jesus has done for them. Some people thought they were worthless and good for nothing until they learned how much Jesus loves them. Some people had no meaning in their lives, stuck in jobs they hated, until they believed in Jesus and learned that God has a plan for them. Some people constantly worried about money, about their health or about their future until they learned to place their trust in Jesus who provides for all our needs and who makes all things work for the good. The salvation Jesus won for us by dying on the cross is not something we can only "cash in on" when we get to heaven, but it is something already at work in our lives, changing us from the inside out.

At this altar we will gather to celebrate the everlasting gift of Jesus' love - the bread of life and the cup of eternal salvation. No other healing can cure the root of the sickness that ails us. No military victory could have won for us the freedom from sin that Jesus won for us on the cross. No other miracle than the Body and Blood of Jesus could feed and satisfy the deepest hunger within us for God. What we celebrate every Sunday when we take time off from our work to hear the word of God and to gather around the altar is precisely this - the freedom from sin and the everlasting life which God offers us in our King and Savior, Jesus Christ.

(artist: Gisele Bauche)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Noble Shepherd

This originally appeared in the Wednesday Morning Connection

During my graduate studies, I spent a summer in a town south of Lisbon studying Portuguese. Finding myself with some free time after breakfast one morning, I decided to go for a walk and find a place to pray. As I walked along I happened upon a shepherd watching over about ten sheep in an open pasture. "What better place to pray!" I thought. I settled myself on a patch of dry ground with my back against an olive tree and took in the idyllic scene. All of a sudden the shepherd, cursing at the top of his lungs, threw his staff at one of the little lambs scattering the jittery creatures in all directions and ruining my time of quiet prayer. It served as a stark reminder that, despite our idealized image of them, not all shepherds are good.

This Sunday's gospel is situated directly after the excommunication from the synagogue of the blind man Jesus healed (see the Fourth Sunday of Lent). Jesus no doubt uses the image of the shepherd and the sheep gate as an indictment of the spiritual blindness of the religious authorities of his day. Unfortunately, in our day, the abuses of those in authority both in religious and secular circles are frequent headlines in the media. There are no lack of reminders that shepherds are not always good.

Nonetheless, Jesus' words are as much an invitation as they are a recrimination. If those in authority are to be truly good - whether they be pastor, politician or parent - they must follow the example of Jesus who lays down his life for his sheep, and lays it down willingly. The recent commemoration of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination reminds us that, thankfully, there continues to be those willing to risk their lives to lead the sheep in ways of justice and right. Most of us, however, will be called upon to "lay down our lives" in less heroic fashion through service to others.

Whatever "laying down our lives" will mean in our particular circumstances, it will always require placing our authority at the service of others and learning to recognize the voice of Christ, the Good Shepherd.

Even the best of shepherds know that sheep are only good for their wool, milk and meat. Their destiny is the slaughterhouse. But, those who would shepherd souls must know that the destiny of their flock is an everlasting inheritance. As C.S. Lewis once wrote, none of us has ever met a mere mortal. And, the shepherd who aspires to be good must know that they themselves follow a shepherd who is goodness itself. Ultimately, they lead the sheep to where they themselves have been led. They follow the same voice their sheep hear. And, they share their destiny of everlasting life.


Loving Father,
Help us who would lead your sheep
to first be followers of your Son.
To those of us with authority to speak,
grant the heart of an attentive listener.
May we lay down our lives in both heroic
and mundane ways in service to your sheep
that we may share their heavenly destiny.
We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Shepherd Me, O Lord

A short Italian man, Enrico, worked as a janitor in one of the office buildings in the city of Rome, Italy. To pass the time as he washed windows, painted walls or cleaned out office rooms, he would hum the most beautiful melodies. One of the office workers approached him out of curiosity to ask where he learned to sing such melodious songs. He explained that as a boy he lived in one of the small towns in the hills surrounding Rome. His father owned some sheep and he would help bring them out to pasture. To let the sheep know that someone was close by keeping an eye on them, he and his father would hum the songs. If they ever got distracted and stopped humming, the sheep would get excited, stop eating and begin to panic. Once they began humming the songs again, the sheep would settle down and feel secure. They needed to hear the humming to know that their shepherd was nearby and that they were safe.

The author of the twenty-third psalm which we prayed together after the first reading loved to think of God as a shepherd. God was always close to him providing him with all he needed and comforting him. Because God was always by his side, he felt that nothing could make him afraid. As he writes: "Even though I walk in the dark valley I fear no evil; for you are at my side." Just as the sheep could graze in peace knowing their shepherd was nearby, so the sacred author of this psalm felt that God was so close to him and so protective of him that he could live in peace, confident that all would be well.

So much in life can make us panic. There are so many bills to be paid, but only so much money. There is so much work to be done, but only so much time and energy. The obligations and demands of being a parent, a student or a priest can seem overwhelming and impossible. But within the roar of our daily activities a gently humming can be heard if we slow down long enough to notice it. Our God is always at our side giving us what we need to make it through the day. The Lord is our shepherd; there is nothing we shall want.

Do we face the difficulties of life with the confidence that God is close by? No matter how busy our schedules may be, do we take time aside to pray as Jesus and the apostles tried to do in today's gospel and listen for the voice of our shepherd? Do we trust God to lead us in paths that are right and to provide for our needs and the needs of our family?

Jesus is still among us as our shepherd. Though we can no longer see and touch him, he is very much in control of our lives leading us and protecting us. His Holy Spirit, which we received at our baptism, speaks to our hearts and assures us that he is close by. The Holy Spirit is the voice of God humming within us giving us joy and confidence as we face the challenges of life in the 21st century. We simply need to make the time each day to step out of our routine and listen for that gentle voice in the silence.

Not only does Jesus shepherd us individually through the Holy Spirit, he also leads us as a community of faith through the gift of the priesthood. When the priest baptizes, it is the Good Shepherd, Jesus, bringing another sheep into his flock. Through the ministry of priests, Jesus leads us to a rich pasture by feeding us his very body and blood in the Eucharist. Jesus seeks us out when we are lost and heals our wounds when we approach the priest in the sacrament of Penance. Through the gift of the priesthood, Jesus is really present among us meeting our deepest need for friendship with God.

Pope Benedict XVI has declared this year to be the Year of the Priest. He has set it aside as a special time of prayer for priests and recognition of the central role they play in our life of faith. There is no doubt that each of us has been blessed by the ministry of priests. They most likely have been with us both at our happiest times and at our saddest times. They are among the most gifted and generous men we know. Most importantly, they have given their lives in service of the gospel to bring Jesus to us. They are good shepherds whose life and ministry bring us face to face with the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.

In keeping with the request of the Holy Father, we should make a special effort throughout this year to remember priests in our prayers. Like each of us, they face many difficulties. They often see people at the very worst day of their lives, when they are sick or dying or have suffered a tragedy. They are willing to rush out in the middle of the night to be with a family whose house has caught on fire. They are expected to have words of wisdom and consolation whenever we are confused or anxious. We expect much of our priests, and it can often leave them discouraged and exhausted. It is not only important for us to pray for them at all times but to let them know that we love and appreciate them by saying a kind word to them after Mass or even dropping a thank you note in the mail from time to time. When we do so, we are also honoring the Good Shepherd, Jesus, whose life and ministry is still active among us because of the dedication of these special men.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Faith over Fear

The renowned Catholic spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, was invited by a friend to spend time serving in the missions of Central America. His time there had a profound effect on his life and on his writing. Like many others who traveled there, Fr. Nouwen was moved by how those simple people continually chose faith over fear. Faced with being unable to feed their families and faced with oppressive regimes in which their rights were routinely violated, they conquered their fears through faith and were able to live their lives with joy. The brutal conditions they lived under could not rob them of the opportunity to enjoy all that God had given them. And so, their lives were not marked by what they lacked, but by an awareness that God would provide for them and protect them.

Before sending his disciples out to preach the good news of the Kingdom of God, Jesus likewise urged his disciples to choose faith over fear. Though they could expect rejection and persecution for following in the footsteps of their master, they were to go forth with confidence because they were cared for by an Almighty God. The God who created the universe and all its wonders also created them. The God who provided food for the birds, would also sustain them. They were known intimately by God. He even knew the number of hairs on their heads. Jesus assured them that the Father would let no evil befall them. His love and friendship would sustain them and come to be all they desired. They would even come to prefer death rather than offend the most holy God.

How can we overcome our fears like the people of Central America or the disciples of Jesus? By knowing that we are loved by this Almighty God. When we come to realize that this world with all its shortcomings and all its dangers was formed by a God who is goodness itself, then we cease to wring our hands in anxiety. When we realize that our Creator knows us and has destined us to live with him forever in the joy of heaven, then we no longer fear the future. When we realize that his hand guides our every step and that every good thing we have is his gift, then we trust that no harm will come to us. And, if tragedy should visit us, we are confident that this all-powerful God will comfort us, strengthen us and make all things work for our good. In the light of the love of God and in the knowledge of his power at work in our world, fear shrinks away.

The Scriptures also point out another way that we can conquer fear in our lives. Besides a deep trust in the love of God for us, the other remedy for fear is a clear conscience. One example for us is the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 20: 10-13). He lived in a time when some people made a living acting as false prophets. They told those in authority what they wanted to hear rather than the truth. Jeremiah, on the other hand, was not afraid to point out the wickedness and injustices of the rulers of his day. Because of it, he suffered much persecution. But he was confident that God would vindicate him. He preferred to be true to God's word than to please others. So he did not fear because he knew that he had acted with a clear conscience and that he would triumph over his enemies when the truth eventually came out.

When we live in the truth and make good choices, we live with a feeling of confidence. If we have a good reputation and act fairly, we can be assured that we will always be treated fairly ourselves. Jesus promises that there is nothing hidden which will not become known and nothing concealed that will not be revealed (Mt 10: 26-33). And so even if someone were to accuse us of something we haven't done or to spread rumors about us, we can rest assured that before long the truth will be made clear because of the good choices we have made. Our clear conscience frees us from the fear of what others may think or say.

Much of the anxiety of our times comes from a gnawing sense of guilt many feel because of the compromises they've made. They fear being found out and discovered. They fear that if people really knew them and the things they'd done, they would be rejected. They fear that the light will be shone on them and that they'll be exposed for the hypocrites they feel they are. On the other hand, those who make good choices are relieved of this burden and empowered to live with confidence.

Of course, none of us is perfect. We often fail. If we have acted unjustly or injured our neighbor in some way, now is the time for us to make amends and unburden our conscience. The Sacrament of Reconciliation, or confession, is a great place to start. When we bring our sin and weakness into the light of God's love and truth, our shame and anxiety are transformed into the joy of knowing that we are loved even though we are imperfect and even though we fail. God's light is no longer something we need to fear and flee from. We no longer fear being found out or being exposed because we know the depth of God's mercy and his unfailing desire to forgive us. Our conscience becomes clear allowing us to live in the truth of God's love.

Saint John writes in his first letter that perfect love casts out fear. We could also say that perfect faith casts out fear. Faith is the assurance that we are loved and that we have been forgiven. Faith ultimately conquers fear because it finds its security in God himself who is forever faithful and can never fail us. Faith also strengthens us and inspires us to make good choices and live with a clear conscience. God's desire for us is not a life filled with fear, guilt or anxiety. Rather God desires for us an abundant life filled with blessings and joy. Even though our faith does not guarantee that our life will be free of hardship and even tragedy, we can live with confidence that God will provide for our every need. This is what gave confidence to the disciples of Jesus as they went forth to proclaim the good news. This is what gives joy to our brothers and sisters in Central America and throughout the rest of the world. This gift of grace abounds for us too who have believed in Jesus Christ and have committed ourselves to live in his truth.

Sunday, July 5, 2009


One of our most primitive human needs is to feel accepted by our peers. From our earliest years we feel the need to measure up to what society expects of us. In fact, psychologists tell us that children fear being rejected and ridiculed by their peers even more than they fear their own death or the death of their parents. Whether we admit it or not, the need to fit in colors many of the choices we make including what clothes we wear, what job we choose and even whom we decide to marry. Society uses our fear of rejection to induce us to accept its rules and values.

On the other hand, we are a people who have come to know Jesus Christ in a personal way. Our lives are guided not by society's values but by the word of God. Alive with the Spirit of God which was given us at our baptism, we reject much of what the culture around us holds up as good and valuable so that we can follow Christ. At the same time, we have to live and work among people who are not yet convinced of the power of God's love and the truth of his word. Because we have one foot in the world and the other foot in the Kingdom of God, there are times when we are confronted with a co-worker who ridicules a teaching of the Church or a friend who questions why we no longer want to gossip.

When we have the opportunity to witness to and defend our faith, do we let our fear of rejection silence us or, in the Spirit, do we stand up for the beliefs we hold dear? It is a question that all Christians who seek to live their faith with integrity must ask themselves. It is a question that all those who have come to accept the word of God have been faced with throughout the centuries. And as always, the Scriptures give us insight and inspiration in dealing with this question in our own lives.

The first reading is taken from the book of the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel lived in a time when the people of Israel were tempted to worship the idols of other nations. They saw the political power and great prosperity of the nations around them and wondered whether by worshiping the gods of those peoples they too could become mighty. It was at that time that the Babylonians invaded Israel, destroyed much of Jerusalem and took thousands of Israelites into exile in what is now Iraq. The people were under great pressure to accept the pagan values of the Babylonian society that surrounded them. But God sent the prophet Ezekiel to speak his word that they should remain faithful to the Lord and to his commandments. God warned Ezekiel that his message would be rejected by many, yet he should continue to proclaim the word with boldness. The confidence of the prophet would come because he understood that it was not his own message he was delivering but God's. Ezekiel understood that it was not him they were rejecting but God himself. Though Ezekiel was killed for preaching God's word, the people did recognize that a prophet had been among them as God said, and his words continue to be proclaimed throughout the world today.

The prophet Ezekiel teaches us to be bold in witnessing to and defending our faith because it comes from God himself. It is not our opinion, but the truth of God which has been passed down through the centuries. And that truth endures forever. Societies and their values come and go, but the truth of the gospel message remains the same. Only historians of the ancient near east could tell us about the gods and values of the Babylonian society which seemed so powerful in Ezekiel's day. They did not last. But we know what Ezekiel taught, and we draw inspiration and courage from it to this day. In the same way, the values of the society around us - the lack of respect for human life, the blind pursuit of wealth and pleasure, the worship of celebrities - will not last. We have been entrusted with something that has stood the test of time - the gospel of Jesus Christ - and we must be bold in proclaiming it and living it even if it means being rejected and ridiculed by our family, friends and neighbors.

If the prophet Ezekiel teaches us to be bold in proclaiming the truths of our faith, Saint Paul teaches us to be humble. No one besides Jesus himself had as much success spreading the good news as Saint Paul did. Yet he knew his share of failure, persecution and suffering because of the gospel. Nonetheless, as we see in the second reading, he accepted the failures along with the successes to make it clear that it was God at work in him.

Most of us would admit that what often keeps us from witnessing to our faith is not just our fear of rejection but our fear of failure. We worry that we do not know enough to counter another person's argument or to convince others about the truths of the faith. But faith is a gift from God. Only God can change the human heart and enlighten the mind to receive it. If God places someone in our lives we must believe that he will use us somehow to plant a seed of faith. When it looks as though we are failing, God very likely is hard at work. We may never know what effect we may have on a person by witnessing to our experience of Jesus. But if we choose faith over fear and speak up with boldness and humility about Jesus to others, God will make something incredible happen.

Jesus faced rejection and ridicule from the people he cared about most, his family and friends. If we want to follow him, we can expect the same. But we are not alone. There is a community of the faithful - the Church - which is always there to support us and welcome us even when the world rejects us. The Church is our real home where we encounter Jesus and celebrate the mysteries of our faith. Until we reach our eternal home in heaven, let us ask the Father to give us the boldness and humility to witness to his word both when it is convenient and when it is difficult so that all people can receive the gift of faith which we hold so dear.

Friday, July 3, 2009

More on Saints Peter and Paul

More belated words on the feast of Saints Peter and Paul

A man gave his life over to Christ. Almost immediately, he was filled with a dread that God would call him to be a missionary in Africa. The fear consumed him to the point that it threatened to make him abandon his new found faith. But, in prayer, he felt assured that God would not put him in Africa without first putting Africa in his heart. With time, the man not only stopped fearing that God would send him to Africa, he began desiring to spread God's word there. He did eventually decide to go to Africa as a Christian missionary and was later martyred there. God kept his promise. He first planted the desire in the man's heart and then equipped him to serve in the missions event to the point of giving his life.

Today, we celebrate two of the great missionaries of our faith, Saints Peter and Paul.

Saint Peter was one of the original twelve apostles called by Jesus. Because of his profession of faith in Jesus as the Messiah and Savior of the World, Peter was called by Jesus to be the rock on which he would build his Church. Since that day, a pope has served as the successor to Peter and as the visible sign of the unity of the Church.

Saint Paul, on the other hand, was not one of the original apostles. In fact, in the days following Pentecost, he sought to crush the fledgling Church through an intense persecution which culminated with the stoning of Saint Stephen, the first to give his life for Christ. On the way to the city of Damascus, Saint Paul would be overwhelmed by a vision of the Risen Lord and converted from a persecutor of the Church to one of its most fervent missionaries. Though he wasn't one of the original twelve apostles, we call Saint Paul an apostle, nonetheless, because of his experience of the Risen Lord. He would be the Church's first theologian helping to formulate the basics of the new Christian faith and spreading that faith throughout much of the Greek speaking world.

God gave great success to the missionary work of Saints Peter and Paul. But, like the man in our story, neither of them was ready to spread the word from day one. Rather, each needed to spend time with the Lord before setting out to preach to others. Saint Peter spent three years following Jesus and learning from him up to the time of Jesus' death. Then, Peter sat at Jesus' feet after the resurrection, as we read in today's gospel when Jesus called Peter to tend his lambs. Saint Paul, likewise, spent three years praying and reflecting in the deserts of Arabia before finally meeting with Peter in Jerusalem, as we read in the second reading, and setting out on his missionary journeys around Asia Minor and eventually to Rome.

Like the man in our story, Jesus placed a burning love into the hearts of Saints Peter and Paul which expressed itself in a desire to spread the word of Jesus' death and resurrection. Because Saints Peter and Paul desired nothing else than to be faithful to their master, they would eventually give the ultimate witness to their faith by both being martyred in Rome. Saint Peter would be crucified upside down, and Saint Paul would be beheaded.

Today, in this place, Jesus is asking each of us if we love him. And, if we do love him, will we feed and tend his sheep? And, if we will tend his sheep, are we willing to go where we'd rather not go? Are we willing to follow Jesus to where the poor are? Are we willing to follow Jesus to where the hungry beg for bread? Are we willing to follow Jesus to where the sick are seeking treatment? Are we willing to stretch out our hands to tend Jesus' lambs wherever they may wander?

Jesus understands if we find his questions unsettling or even disturbing. Jesus understands if we hesitate or if we aren't ready to answer. Jesus even understands if our answer to him is "not yet". It very often takes time for us to understand what God wants of us. And, it takes even longer for us to be equipped by God with what we need for the mission. Jesus is a gentle master. He will place within our heart a desire for whatever mission he is calling us to. He will work on us until our fear gives way to love and our love shows itself in service to Jesus' sheep.

In every age, God has provided us, his sheep, with women and men of faith who witness powerfully to his love. It began with Saints Peter and Paul. The task now falls to each of us. In this place Jesus invites us to a meal and asks each of us if we do indeed love him and will serve him. If we are not ready to answer yet, we must pray that God will place in our heart a desire to serve him and the opportunity to know his will for us. That is a prayer that God will certainly answer. We will be both surprised and delighted by where our "yes" to him will take us.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Feast of Saints Peter and Paul

On May 13, 1981, four shots rang out in Saint Peter's Square. A gunman, Mehmet Ali Agca, had made an assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II as he greeted the crowds gathered there for his weekly audience. The gunman was apprehended immediately after being wrestled to the ground by a nun. As it turned out, he was a Turkish national whom many believe was contracted by the Soviet KGB to silence the Pope who had given a voice to the suffering of people living under communist rule. Despite the seriousness of his injuries, Pope John Paul II survived the attack and credited the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary for both protecting him and restoring him to health. And, in just eight short years following the attack, the countries of Eastern Europe living behind the Iron Curtain including Poland, Yugoslavia, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania, would be liberated from their communist governments almost overnight, and the Soviet Union would crumble under the weight of its corruption and godlessness. Many historians credit Pope John Paul II with helping to bring an end to the communist superpower which had murdered millions and had spread fear throughout the world.

In today's first reading, Peter - the first pope - was under a similar threat. He had been arrested by Herod who planned to execute him after Passover. However, the people of God had been praying incessantly for Peter. An angel of the Lord appeared to him in prison loosening his chains and leading him out past the guards to freedom. Just as all the powers of the Soviet Union were no match for the powerful intercession of the Mother of God on behalf of John Paul II, the power of Herod backed by the force of the Roman guards and legions were no match for the prayers of God's holy people.

In the gospel, Peter professes his faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Jesus rejoices in Peter's bold profession of faith because he recognizes that it wasn't the result of Peter's intelligence or powers of observation, but that it was a gift of insight given him directly by God himself. It was this faith that Jesus used to build his Church. And, Jesus promised that all the powers of hell itself would be no match for the faith that this simple fisherman professed. Peter would find this to be true in his own life up to the time that he was martyred in Rome. Jesus' promise would continue to hold true through the centuries up to the present day as we witnessed with the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II.

We see the same scene played out day after day in our world. The powers of hell strive to silence the good news which we live and proclaim as a Church. In China, Catholics are routinely imprisoned and tortured. In Pakistan, Christian churches are targeted for bombings and other acts of violence. And, in the United States, the followers of Jesus are routinely ridiculed in the media. Yet, the Church has survived every threat whether it be from the Roman Empire or the Soviet Union. Christians have courageously professed and lived their faith whether the persecutions originated with Nero or with Hitler.

How is it that for over two thousand years believers have never failed to pass on the good news of Jesus Christ to a world so hostile to the message and despite powers so opposed to it? It is for the same reason that Herod could not keep Peter chained to a prison wall in Jerusalem. It is for the same reason that an assassin's bullet could not silence the witness of Pope John Paul II. Very simply, God has willed that his Son, Jesus Christ, be proclaimed to all generations as Lord and Savior until the end of the world. No earthly power nor any power in hell will frustrate God's plan to bring salvation to the world he created in love.

Today, we gather in this place to celebrate the feast of Saints Peter and Paul. We celebrate Saint Peter's profession of faith upon which Jesus built his Church. We also celebrate Saint Paul who tirelessly preached the good news of Jesus' death and resurrection. We are here today because of them. And, not just them, but because of millions of believers who throughout the centuries sacrificed their lives to bear witness to Jesus Christ. The Church is still here two thousand years later, and - if Christ does not come in his glory in the meanwhile - the Church will be here two thousand years from now preaching the same gospel that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and the Savior of the World.

In every age, God provides the world with women and men of faith who witness powerfully to his love. It began with Saints Peter and Paul. The task now falls to each of us. In this place, Jesus invites us to a meal and asks each of us, "Who do you say that I am?". Thanks to the witness of Saints Peter and Paul, we already know the answer - Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God! Thanks to the witness of Pope John Paul II, we know that this truth has the power to change the course of history. What's to stop us, then, from leaving this place to proclaim to everyone we meet the joyful message of a God who loves us and has saved us in Jesus Christ?