Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Loving Father

It was a tense and awkward situation.

Popular Catholic writer and theologian, Scott Hahn, was meeting with a Muslim imam to prepare an interfaith prayer service. In the course of their discussions, Mr. Hahn referred to God as “Father”. This offended the imam who immediately asked him to stop referring to the Lord in such a familiar and intimate way. Mr. Hahn apologized explaining that he did not mean to offend him but that it was typical of Christians to call God “Father” after the example of Jesus.

As their conversation continued, Mr. Hahn found himself, without thinking, referring to God as Father again. Again, the imam asked him to stop and again Mr. Hahn apologized saying that he was not doing it on purpose but that it was second nature for him and for all Christians to refer to God as Father.

Though it was an uncomfortable discussion, it taught him a lesson we often can forget as Christians. Jesus has taught us to call God “our Father”. After the example of our Savior, we understand God not to be a being who is distant and indifferent but a Father who knows us and loves us. For the people of Jesus’ day and for many people still in our day, such an intimate and personal idea of God can be shocking or ridiculous. But it is what we profess as Christians, it is the prayer that is on our lips every day - God is “our Father”.

When Jesus tells us to call God “our Father” in the prayer He teaches the disciples and which we have come to call the “Our Father” or the “Lord’s Prayer”, He has two specific meanings in mind. First, He teaches us that God our Father wants to provide for all our needs and, secondly, that He wants to forgive us.

First, our Heavenly Father wants to provide for all our needs. In the prayer that Jesus left us, we say, “Give us this day our daily bread.” We turn to God and place our needs before Him confident that He will hear and answer us.

In today’s gospel, Jesus uses the example of earthly fathers. What good man would fail to give his son food when he is hungry or comfort his daughter when she has fallen and hurt herself? Just so, we can expect God to provide for us when we are needy or hurting. No matter what difficulties we are facing, our Heavenly Father cares for us enough to give us what we require to get through it.

How do we tap into God’s power to provide for all our needs? Simply by asking, seeking and knocking. If we ask, we will receive, if we seek, we will find, if we knock, it will be opened for us. If our Heavenly Father does not answer us right away, then we must persist in our prayer with confidence.

As we listen to Jesus’ words, it is natural for us to ask, “If God loves us so much, why does He not always answer us right away? Why do we so often have to ask more than once?” There are several reasons. First of all, what we are asking for might not be good for us. Just as we do not give our children everything they ask for because it might hurt them, so God does not grant all our prayers because, though what we ask for may seem good or desirable, it may not be what is best for us. Secondly, God wants to increase our desire for what He wants to give us by making us wait for it. That way, when we do receive it, we will be that much more grateful for it and less likely to take it for granted. Thirdly, God waits before answering our prayers to teach us that He grants our prayers out of His love for us and not because we deserve it. If He were to answer us immediately, we might believe that our prayers work like magic incantations, compelling God to give us what we ask for. Rather, He wants us to understand that what he provides for us comes from His great love rather than because of anything we have done.

By calling God, “Father”, Jesus is teaching us not only that He provides for our needs but that He loves us enough to forgive us. Our sin offends God. By breaking His commandments, we tell our Heavenly Father that we know better than He does what is good for us. We tell Him that we want to live by our own rules, not by His. If God did not love us, He would not care what we do. But, because He knows what is best for us and because He does not want to see us hurt ourselves, He gives us commandments to guide our actions and is hurt when we break them.

Because of this we pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Our Heavenly Father is willing to forgive us when we ask for Him to. Like every other good thing He gives us, we merely need to ask, seek and knock for mercy to be shown us. And, we also need to be willing to forgive those who offend us. If He offers us His mercy and we fail to share it with others, then that forgiveness will be denied us. Even so, we can always go back to Him for a fresh start. As our Holy Father, Pope Francis, said so beautifully in one of his first homilies as Bishop of Rome, “God never tires of forgiving us. It is we who often grow tired of asking for His forgiveness.”

At this Mass, we turn to our Father bringing our needs before Him and celebrating the love and forgiveness that He has taught us through Jesus Christ. This is an intimate and personal gathering where we meet God not in fear, not in guilt and not in shame but in love, mercy and joy. How blessed we are to know that our Heavenly Father loves us. It is now our duty to share that love and forgiveness with others so that they can join us in this family where God is our Father, Jesus is our brother and the Holy Spirit binds us all in unconditional love.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

God's Plan

The daytime talk show host, Oprah Winfrey, went from poverty as a child to being one of the richest women in the world. She tells the story of how, as a little girl, she would dream about the house she would one day live in. In her mind, she pictured herself in a home with four trees in the front yard. Now, with all the success she has achieved, her mansion in California boasts over one thousand trees in its front yard. Her point in telling the story is that what God has in store for us is so much greater than we could ever hope for or imagine for ourselves.

Though Oprah speaks about God's plan for us in material terms of fame and wealth, her basic point is true. God has a plan for each of us. He has a purpose for our lives which is much more wondrous than anything we could imagine for ourselves. We look at ourselves and our lives in such a limited way that we cannot see our full potential. God, however, knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows what we are capable of, and he fills us with his Spirit to overcome our weakness and to accomplish what we are otherwise incapable of.

The apostles are perfect examples of this power of God at work in believers. Many of them were fishermen. For the most part, they had settled down to an unremarkable, ordinary life with their families. Once they decide to follow Jesus, however, everything changes. They become the companions of the greatest man who ever lived. They witness miraculous signs and healings. After Pentecost, they receive the Holy Spirit and journey out to all the world to preach the good news. Most of them will eventually be killed for their witness to Jesus. They were simple, uneducated men. Yet because they answered Jesus' call, we regard them today as saints and heroes.

God wants the same for us - to take us to places we never could imagine going and to work wonders we never thought possible.

What is the secret to realizing God's plan for us and our lives? Jesus reveals it to us in today's gospel. It is prayer.

When the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, he shows them that prayer is a matter of bringing our needs to our Father in heaven. Like a good father, God wants to make sure we have whatever we need. Like a good father, he cares about us and wants to provide for us. He wants us to turn to him whenever we are in need and to rely on him for our daily bread. Because we are loved by our Father in heaven, Jesus teaches us that we can pray with confidence. If we ask with faith, God will answer our prayers.

However, like a good father, God will not give us everything we ask for. Because we have such a limited view of our lives and our potential, like children we often ask for things we do not really need or things that could be harmful to us. Every parent knows how true this is with their own children. The same is true in our relationship with God. Many times he does not give us what we ask for because it could harm us. Or God may delay in answering our prayer because, for a reason only he can know, the time is not right for us to receive it yet. God cares for us and knows our needs. But he also has a plan for our lives that is often difficult for us to see and understand. We need to approach him with trust, but we also need patience to give him the time he requires to work out his plan in our lives.

That is why Jesus teaches his disciples that they must be persistent in their prayers. We are not to give up just because we do not receive an immediate answer to our petitions. Instead we are to keep bringing our needs to him with confidence that he hears us and trust that he will answer us when the time is right.

Persevering in prayer is vital to our life of faith. It keeps us focused on our Heavenly Father as the source of every good gift. We grow in our reliance on him by lifting our petitions to him daily. We glimpse his love for us in how he provides for our needs in ways we could never hope for or imagine.

Persistence in prayer is also vital for our prayer life because it purifies and disciplines our desires. What I think I need today may seem insignificant tomorrow. With time, we get a better perspective on what is really necessary for our well-being. By bringing our prayers to God daily, we begin to sort out what is truly important and what might be insignificant or even harmful to us.

God loves us with the tenderness of a father. He wants to provide for us. However, because he has a plan for our lives that is beyond anything we could ever imagine, he wants to give us what will make his vision a reality in our lives. That means that he will not always answer our prayers in the way we expect. Or he may delay in answering us. But there can be no doubt that he hears us. He knows our needs better than we do. And he promises to meet those needs in marvelous and surprising ways if we turn to him daily asking, seeking and knocking.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Most Precious Time of the Day

This is the most enduring truth of the spiritual life - whatever we give to God we get back one hundred times. God cannot be outdone in generosity. No matter what we may offer Him, no matter what sacrifices we may make to do His will, He will bless us many times over.

Martha and Mary learned this in today’s gospel. By sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to Him, Mary was not shirking her responsibility to help her sister Martha or wasting her time. Rather, as Jesus tells us, she had chosen the “better part”. Time spent with Jesus is never wasted time.

We see this truth exemplified also in Saint Isidore. He was born in Madrid, Spain in the year 1070 AD. Because his parents were poor, he was sent to work on the farm of a wealthy landowner at a young age. Farming is grueling work, demanding long hours of labor. However, young Isidore insisted on going to Mass every day. Many mornings he would show up to the fields late because he had gone to church. His employer would yell at him and his fellow farm hands often made fun of him. But, as it turned out, the land Isidore tended was three times more productive than that of the other workers. On several days, in fact, while Isidore was at Mass, the workers witnessed angels tending his crops and animals. He became an example to the other farmers - and to us as well - that if we tend to our spiritual lives, every other aspect of our lives - our work, our families, even our physical health - will be taken care of as well.

All the great saints of our Church were able to accomplish great things. They built hospitals and schools, evangelized entire countries, wrote great spiritual classics, fed the hungry tirelessly and served the poor despite the cost. If they were to stand before us here today, they would all tell us that the only way they were able to perform so many good works was through the strength they received in their daily prayer. The hours they spent in God’s presence gave them the love, the courage and the endurance they needed to then spend long hours in service of His people. Prayer was not a waste of time for them but was absolutely necessary to make their lives meaningful and productive.

No person has worked harder at serving the poorest of the poor than has Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Perhaps no other woman was able to do more good or inspire more people in the twentieth century than she did. Every day, before going into the streets of Calcutta, she would spend an hour in prayer followed by Mass. This is what she said about prayer: “Every moment of prayer, especially before our Lord in the tabernacle is a positive gain. The time we spend in having our daily audience with God is the most precious part of the whole day.”

When we feel under stress - when our work or studies or the demands of family life overwhelm us - prayer is often the first thing we stop doing. Our anxiety has such a hold on us that we believe we do not have time left over to give to God. Prayer can seem like a waste of our time in such instances. However, the opposite is true. It is when we are feeling pulled in a hundred different directions that we most need prayer to give us focus. It is when the demands of life have us tied up in knots that we need prayer to unwind us. It is when we feel depleted, weak and used up that time in God’s presence can fill us back up again with His gifts of peace and strength.

Time spent with God whether it is in prayer or in volunteering our time to serve others is never wasted time. In fact, it is really the only time that matters. Whatever work we may be involved in today has only a temporary effect. If we cut the grass or trim the hedges, they eventually grow back and we have to cut them again. If we make dinner, we will soon be hungry again and have to make breakfast. If I spend the week preparing my sermon for Sunday, come Monday I will have to start the process all over again for the following Sunday. However, when we pray, the relationship we forge with our Heavenly Father lasts for all eternity.

We may be tempted to think that work is important and prayer is optional. But it is really the other way around. Without prayer to support us, the rest of our lives would be meaningless. We might be able to get a lot of work done, but it will be tedious and joyless. With prayer, however, our efforts take on new meaning, become more productive and we find ourselves living with more focus and less anxiety.

We can learn this for ourselves in our own lives by following Mary’s example and beginning each day by sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to Him. All it takes is spending fifteen to twenty minutes every morning in quiet time reading the Bible or quieting our minds to focus on the presence of God. No matter how chaotic the activity around us is, if we spend time with Jesus every day without fail, we will see our hearts begin to change. We will gain a new perspective on life and experience more peace. It is the easiest thing to do and yet the most rewarding. Furthermore, it does not cost us anything except a little time and what we receive in return ensures it will be the best investment we could ever make.

Here in this place, we have taken time out of our busy schedules to sit in the presence of the Lord and to hear His word. As Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta tells us, this is the most precious part of our week. Nothing we will receive this week, nothing we will accomplish, can be more precious than the Body and Blood of Christ we will share in Holy Communion. God in His great generosity is blessing the time we spend with Him today. If we give Him even more time every day in prayer, we will experience more blessings.

(image by Eileen Kennedy)

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Jesus, our Guest of Honor

What would you do if Jesus came to visit you?

Would you welcome him with open arms and invite him into your home? Would you call up your friends and family to come over and meet him? Would you set your table with your finest china and spread a banquet out for him?

Which one of us would not be excited to have Jesus be a guest at our home?

While he would no doubt appreciate all the work we would do to make him feel welcome, there is really only one thing which he desires of us. He wants us to sit with him and listen. More than any good works or pious acts we could perform, he wants above all else our friendship.

It was the lesson he taught Martha in today's gospel. She and her sister Mary were blessed to be friends of Jesus and to have him as a guest in their home on many occasions. In her joy, Martha busied herself preparing a sumptuous meal. Mary, on the other hand, showed her love for Jesus by sitting at his feet and taking in his words of wisdom. Martha wanted to feed Jesus. But, above all, he wanted to feed them with his word. Jesus teaches them - and us - that the "better part" is not keeping ourselves busy but sitting ourselves down to listen to the wisdom of our Master.

In light of today's gospel, it is important for us to ask ourselves what it means to live out our faith. Is it a simple matter of following rules? Is it merely a matter of going to Mass on Sunday and avoiding serious sin? Is religion about the good works we should do? Or is it something more?

Living our faith means primarily having a loving relationship with Jesus. It is the recognition that he loved each of us enough to spread his arms on the cross to grant us the forgiveness of our sins. All the rules and regulations that are part of religion only make sense when we come to understand that Christianity is a matter of having a profound and personal friendship with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Not only does today's gospel shed light on what it means to live our faith. It also teaches us an important lesson about prayer.

If religion were only about following rules and regulations, then prayer would be a simple matter of reciting formulas and acting out rituals. But when we understand our faith to be about building our relationship with Jesus, then prayer becomes a conversation. As we would with any friend, we pour out our hearts to Jesus. We tell him about our hopes and fears, our dreams and our demons. We thank him for loving us and praise him for the beauty of creation. We ask for his strength to fight temptation. We beg for his wisdom so that we can know his will and make choices that are pleasing to him. When we understand that Jesus is our friend, prayer is no longer a chore but a joy. It becomes something we look forward to and make time for just as we would make time to be with any one of our friends.

If prayer is to be a true conversation between Jesus and us, then it is important that we not only talk but listen. There can never be a conversation when only one person is doing all the talking. And when the person we are conversing with is Jesus, then it makes sense that we should be doing a lot less talking and a lot more listening.

Listening is often the most difficult part of any relationship. The same is true of prayer. How can we listen to God when we cannot see him or hear him? How does God speak to us? How do I know that it is God speaking to me and not my imagination? There are no easy answers to any of these questions. In fact, it takes a lifetime of prayer and self-discipline to begin to understand them in any depth. But a good place to start is by reading the Bible and making it part of our prayer time. Whenever we read the Scriptures or hear them proclaimed at Mass, it is God himself who speaks to us. As we study the Bible and familiarize ourselves with it, we train our ear to recognize his voice. We become better able to distinguish when it is God who is speaking to our heart and when it is our own desires speaking to us. Making the Bible a part of our daily prayer life is essential to the growth of our friendship with Jesus.

There is no greater example of the desire Jesus has to have an intimate friendship with us than the Eucharist. At every Mass, we are Jesus' guests. He prepares a meal for us - the gift of his Body and Blood. When we receive communion, he welcomes us into his life, the life he shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit. And we welcome him into our hearts. Just as we would prepare our homes to welcome Jesus if he were to visit, so we should prepare our hearts, because he is about to enter them in a very real way.

If we cherish his presence within us, welcome this divine guest with love and listen to him, then he will surely welcome us when we enter his eternal home in heaven.

(image by Judith Fritchman)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Who is my neighbor?

We are living in a world wherein the gap between the rich and the poor is widening. Very often, alongside luxury and opulence, there are those who live dangerously close to poverty and destitution. Alongside those who wake up wondering which restaurant they’ll go to for dinner later in the day, there are those who wake up wondering how they will feed their children.

Nowhere is this more true than in California’s Orange County. While we may think of it as the land of the rich and the famous, there are many laborers who are struggling to provide for their families’ most basic needs. In the city of Anaheim where monthly rents far exceed the income of many workers, families are often forced to live in motels to avoid homelessness. It is estimated that as many as one thousand families in Anaheim find themselves in this situation. Because these motel rooms do not often have kitchens and because families often do not have money left over for food, many children go hungry at night.

Bruno Serrato wanted to make a difference. He was the son of Italian immigrants who struggled to make his way in America. Starting off as a dishwasher, he eventually started a very successful restaurant in Anaheim. To give back to his community, he donated time and money to the local Boys and Girls Club which served the so-called “motel kids”.

When his mother had come to visit him from Italy, he took her to the Boys and Girls Club where he had been volunteering. She talked to a boy who was eating a bag of potato chips and was shocked to learn that that would be his supper for the evening. She turned to her son and said, “Bruno, you have to do something!” He replied, “I am doing something, Mama. I’m giving money to this Boys and Girls Club and volunteering my time.” She said, “No, you have to feed these children.”

Inspired by the concern of his mother, Bruno started “Catarina’s club” in 2005 to provide hot meals for the motel kids of Anaheim. Every evening he personally prepared as many as seventy meals. However, with the economic downturn, he struggled to keep up. His restaurant business was down, he was receiving fewer donations to the Club and the number of children who needed meals was growing. He could have given up on Catarina’s club but he came to love the people he was feeding. So he decided to refinance his house to keep this good work afloat.

Today, he is feeding as many as two hundred children a night in two different locations. The cable news network, CNN, named him one of their heroes for 2011. Bruno does not see himself that way. Rather, he sees himself simply as someone who sees starving children and tries to feed them. If every restaurant followed his example, there would be no more children going to bed hungry every night.

When we use the word “Good Samaritan”, people like Bruno Serrato come to mind. They are those who refuse to look the other way when faced with human suffering. They open their homes and their wallets to those who are suffering, sometimes at a high personal cost. In doing so, they make a difference in the world and inspire others to do the same.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to be such people. We are to recognize Jesus not only in His word, not only in the Eucharist but in every person we meet. We are to love each person as we love ourselves. Everyone is our neighbor.

In the parable we are reflecting on today, the Good Samaritan leaves the beaten man in the care of the innkeeper giving him two silver coins. In the same way, our Heavenly Father has left the poor and suffering peoples of the world in our care. As the Good Samaritan left the innkeeper enough to take care of the beaten man, so God has given us enough resources to take care of our neighbors. We have plenty of food, water, clothing and shelter for everyone on the planet. The only reason there is still poverty today is that many of us fail to share what we have with others. It is really that simple. If all of us were to give even just our excess money, food or clothing to those in need, there would be no more poverty.

Our most precious commodity in today’s world, however, is not material possessions but our time. The number one reason we do not help others is because we are too busy. Like the priest and the Levite in the gospel, we are in such a rush and so focused on what we need to get done that we do not even notice the suffering of our brothers and sisters around us. Perhaps it is the case that we keep ourselves so busy because we do not want to see all that suffering. All the activity in our lives is a convenient excuse to ignore the hands reached out to us asking for help.

God is calling us to slow down, to stop and to stoop down to help others. We can be afraid to help because the need is so great and our resources so few. We can feel as though we will get swallowed up. But when we heed God’s call to care for our neighbor, we also become filled with a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment. God created us to give of ourselves for others so when we, like Bruno Serrato or like the Good Samaritan, treat our neighbor with love and mercy we are fulfilling the deepest desire of our hearts. We sense the loneliness, depression and anxiety that marks our busy world start to fade away. We feel whole again because we are reconnecting with others.

This is the challenge that God offers us today - to live like human beings, to stop living like robots who rush from one assignment to another without noticing our brothers and sisters in need. This is the power of the gospel to change the world one heart at a time. It has to begin with you and I deciding to look open the homeless person with compassion, to see the needy as our brothers and sisters and to not deny anyone who needs our help.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Helping Hand

At the end of World War II when the Allied armies defeated the Nazi forces, they began to discover the ugly truth about the holocaust of the Jews. In Poland and Germany, the concentration camps were liberated and the horrors taking place there were revealed to the world. General Eisenhower, the leader of the American forces, insisted that photographs of the piles of skulls, mass graves and gas chambers be taken so that the world could never forget or deny what took place there. He also forced the villagers to tour the camp and see for themselves what had been going on in their own towns.

Even more than 60 years later, it still shocks us that more than eight million of our fellow human beings could be slaughtered and that so many other people looked the other way. More recently we hear of human tragedies in Rwanda, Nigeria, Darfur and Kyrgyzstan and wonder why no one will stop it. The sad fact is that too often those who have the power to provide some relief to a persecuted soul tend to look the other way and choose to ignore the suffering of their fellow human beings.

How have our hearts become so hardened? We have forgotten the lesson which Jesus taught the lawyer in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Every woman and man is my neighbor. I must love and serve everyone I come into contact with no matter their nationality or race. I must even love those who hate me. This radical truth is at the heart of the gospel message. Jesus loved me and died for me even though I am a sinner. I must love and give my life over for my neighbors no matter the cost even if I do not know them and even if they do not thank me.

Thankfully, by the grace of God, there have been people who, like the Good Samaritan, refused to look the other way when their neighbor was suffering. Throughout Europe during the Second World War many people at great personal risk opened their homes to Jews who were fleeing the Nazis. They did not allow their fears to keep them from showing compassion to those in need. Neither did they say that there was nothing they could do. Rather they provided whatever help they could and brought some hope to those in despair.

There is a cost to reaching out and helping others. So often we look the other way when our neighbor is suffering because we are afraid to get involved. We do not want to be the next victims. We excuse ourselves by saying that we have enough troubles without getting mixed up in the problems of our sisters and brothers. To ease our conscience, we might say a prayer for them. But that prayer is of no use if we have the means to pull our neighbor out of the gutter and refuse to do so.

Too often we look the other way because we believe there is nothing we can do. The weight of the world's problems seems too great for any one of us to bear. Sometimes we feel that we are barely capable of keeping up with the demands our families and jobs place upon us. But we are never completely powerless in the face of evil. If we have voices, then we can speak out against injustice. If we have hands, then we can reach them out to those who suffer. There is always something we can say or do when our neighbor is being persecuted or treated unfairly. We need simply to pray for the courage to do so. And once we do speak out, others will be inspired to do the same. We can make a difference, no matter how small, by letting our hearts be moved with compassion for our fellow human beings and by allowing our hands to be opened to them.

All over the world, tragedies take place simply because there is no one to help. In our own country there is crime, poverty and injustice because we would rather cross the street than help our neighbor out of the gutter. If we are to survive as a society, we must learn the truth of Jesus' teaching. All men are my brothers. All women are my sisters. I cannot make a future for myself if my neighbor is lost in despair. I cannot be healed if I do not treat the wounds of my fellow human beings. And I cannot be saved so long as my brothers and sisters wander in darkness. Most importantly, I cannot worship the God I do not see if I refuse to help my fellow human beings whom I do see.

When we were dead in our sins, Jesus died to bring us to life. Though we have rejected him, he never ceases to reach out to us with his grace and mercy. We gather here today, many of us with hearts burdened by grief and pain, to find some comfort in God's love. Can we who find such comfort in God's word now look the other way when our neighbor is suffering? Can we who are nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ now refuse to feed the hungry who come to our door? We will not look the other way because the love of God has now entered our hearts giving us compassion for our neighbor. And the Spirit of God gives us the power to lift him out of the gutter no matter what the cost may be to us personally. Our reward for stepping out in faith to save others will be that our God will reach down to save us at the hour of our death and bring us to that place where there will finally be no more tears and no more suffering.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

What is your excuse?

behind his back, he felt alone and knew he could trust no one. However, he got a surprise when he met his cellmate, Michael. Unlike the other prisoners, he was not callous and cold. Rather, he was friendly, welcoming Russell to the cell and eager to talk with him. At first, Russell was suspicious. Why was he being so nice?

Then Michael started to share his Catholic faith with him. Of course, he was in no mood to hear about God and told his new cellmate to leave him alone. So, Michael made a bet with him. He told him that if he could pass a quiz about baptism, then he would leave him alone. Russell agreed, and Michael asked him ten questions out of the catechism. Russell answered each one correctly to his surprise. However, though he won the bet, he found himself fascinated by the challenge and decided he wanted to learn more.

And so, everyday, Russell asked Michael about what he believed as a Catholic. With time, as he learned about the faith, he decided that he too wanted to become Catholic and, after about one year of instruction, he was received into the Catholic Church by the prison chaplain in 1989.

Immediately, Michael’s life changed. He began to look at his prison sentence as an opportunity to reach other prisoners with the message of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ. Along with another prisoner, he founded First Century Christian Ministries with the intent of spreading the Catholic faith to his brother inmates, making sure they were able to attend Mass and receive the sacraments, and providing bibles, catechisms and rosaries to them. In a short period of time with the help of the bishop and some benefactors, they were able to bring their ministry to other prisons and have enjoyed continued success throughout the past twenty years.

Russell Ford’s story teaches us in a powerful way that there is no one who is outside of God’s mercy. No one is such a great sinner that Jesus cannot touch his heart and use him to spread the good news. Also, no one is in such an impossible situation that he or she cannot work for the spread of the gospel. It is difficult to think of worse conditions than those found inside a prison to do God’s work. But Russell Ford teaches us that, with God, all things are possible.

What is our excuse for keeping our faith to ourselves and not sharing it with others? What is keeping us from heeding the call of the master and going into the vineyard as Jesus calls us to?

Do we think we are not worthy, that we are sinners and hypocrites? That is certainly true. But are we worse than Russell Ford who was serving a twenty-five year prison sentence? Are we worse than Saint Paul who persecuted Christians or Saint Peter who denied our Lord? If God can use them, then He can certainly use us. Like them, all we need to do is trust in Him, put our weakness and sinfulness into His hands and step out with courage to live the truth of the gospel. Then the opportunities to witness to His love to others will come.

What other excuse might we have? Do we think that we do not know enough about our faith to share it with others? Again, Russell Ford is a good example for us. He knew very little about the Catholic faith when he first began his ministry to prisoners. However, he realized that what his fellow inmates were most hungry for was not information but love. They had questions about the Catholic Church, but what they were yearning for was a sense that they were cared for by God. That is why Jesus tells His disciples in the gospel not to take anything with them on their journey. They were simply to share with everyone they met the love of God. The same is true for us. We certainly should study our faith and be able to answer those who challenge us. But, at the same time, our primary job is to introduce others to Jesus. Once people realize that they are loved by God, then they become hungry to learn more.

Finally, besides thinking that we are unworthy or that we do not know enough, we might be afraid of being rejected or ridiculed by others for sharing our faith. In fact, Jesus tells us that persecution is a real possibility when he says in the gospel, “I am sending you like lambs among wolves.” Many of our brothers and sisters are not only indifferent to the teaching of Jesus but hostile to it. We cannot always change their minds or hearts. But if we live our faith and share it in a loving way, Jesus can have a chance to break through to them. We must remember that the work of converting our brothers and sisters is not just up to us. It is primarily the work of the Holy Spirit through us. Though we may not be seeing any results, we must trust that God, the master of the harvest, is using us to make a difference.

God is calling each of us out to His vineyard. Through our baptism and the presence of the Holy Spirit within us, He has equipped us to do His work. Each of us will perform it in a different way according to our situation in life and our talents. But we are all sent out without exception. If we accept the challenge with trust and courage we will witness great things.

(image by Marisol Sousa)

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Going into the Field

There have been a lot of changes in the Church over the past fifty years. For some of us, the changes are happening too fast and are hard to accept. For others, the changes aren't happening fast enough. Either way, we are all searching for new and more effective ways to bring the Good News to a world which is also changing rapidly.

One of the very good changes that has taken place is the increased participation of lay people in the ministry of the Church. Many of us remember a time when anything that went on in a parish was done by a priest or a sister. Today lay people serve as lectors, Eucharistic ministers and catechists. They visit the sick in the hospital, direct retreats and serve on advisory boards in parishes. This increased participation has brought much needed vitality to the mission of the Church.

But there are some dangers in the way we often think about the role of the laity.

Too often we consider it a result of the shortage of priests. We think that if there were more vocations then we would not need lay people to help out. That is absolutely not true. Each of us because of our baptism and confirmation is given the right and the duty to assist the Church in preaching the gospel and in providing help for the needy. Lay people are not just deputies of the pastor but real partners in the mission of Jesus and equally responsible for the life of the parish. As a community of believers we are all working together to make this parish a stronger sign of the presence of the Risen Christ in today's world.

Another danger we run into is thinking that the principal role of lay people is to serve the parish as Eucharistic ministers, lectors and religious education instructors. While these are important ministries, they are not the primary objectives of the baptized in the Church. Rather, the baptized serve the Church primarily by bringing the Good News into their homes, their schools and their places of business. Each of us is called to bring light into the dark places of the world. We are called to be examples of the change that only Jesus can bring to the human heart to those we meet no matter where we meet them. This is the most important vocation of the laity - to bring the Gospel message where priests, deacons and sisters cannot go and to people who would otherwise not come to Church to hear the message of Jesus' love.

In today's gospel, Jesus chooses a group of seventy-two disciples to go out to the surrounding towns. There are three tasks he charges them with: to preach the Good News, to heal the sick and to cast out demons. It must have seemed impossible to those disciples to think that they could ever heal the sick and cast out demons. But they found that they were able to do so in Jesus' name.

Sitting in this church today, it might seem impossible to us that we could preach the gospel, heal the sick and cast out demons. But, like those disciples, we are given the power to do great things in our families, our schools and work places in the power of Jesus' name. Not only can we do it, we must do it.

Let's take a look at how each of these challenges Christ makes of us - to preach the gospel, to heal the sick, and to cast out demons - can be lived out in our daily lives.

First, we are each called to preach the good news of the Kingdom of God. That does not mean that we have to climb up on our desks and preach a sermon or interrupt an office meeting to remind everyone that Jesus loves them. Most of the times it will be our actions not our words that will witness to the presence of the Risen Christ. It will be by sticking up for a classmate who is being picked on or by helping a co-worker who is struggling to get a project done that we will show others that Jesus is alive in our midst. If we strive to live good and holy lives, the people we live, work and study with will take notice and begin to ask us how we came to find such peace and joy. Then the door will be open for us to speak with them about the love of God.

Secondly, we are called to heal the sick. For those who work in the health care industries, this is a calling to heal bodies. But for most of us, the healing we are called to bring is spiritual. It means bringing peace to hearts that are troubled and comfort to those who are sorrowful. It means letting others know that someone cares for them and that they are more valuable than their job title or paycheck. Our work and school environments can be so stressful that we too often overlook the needs of those around us. A simple word or touch on the shoulder can do much to lift another's spirit and lighten one's load.

Thirdly, we are called to expel demons and bind the power of Satan. This is a power we are given in the Spirit that we too often overlook because it sounds too far out. But it is a power we exercise primarily by endeavoring to fight evil with good. By forgiving those who have hurt us, by refusing to participate in gossip, by not seeking revenge against those who talk behind our back, we are breaking the power of the Evil One. Satan feeds on our fear, bitterness and pride and uses them to break up our families, wound our relationships and harden our hearts to the love of God. By refusing to continue the cycle of revenge, we take away his power and expel him from our homes, schools and places of business.

No matter what our state in life - whether we be priests or policemen, sisters or carpenters - the task is the same: to preach the good news, to heal the sick and to cast out the Evil One. Through our baptism and confirmation we are given the power to do all this in Jesus' name. We can do great things in our families, schools and places of work by the Spirit of Christ working within us. Chances are that if we are living a good and holy life, we are already touching the hearts of those we come into contact with. We might just not be aware of it. God has even more in store for us if we will entrust ourselves to him and use the power he has given us to bring light into the dark places of our world.