Thursday, May 29, 2014

A Story As Yet Not Fully Written

I have a trick question for you.

What is the only unfinished book in the Bible?

A couple of hints. First, it is located in the New Testament. Second, one of the readings for today’s feast was taken from it.

The answer is, the Acts of the Apostles.

Saint Luke wrote the Acts of the Apostles to serve as a second volume to his gospel. As the title of the book suggests, it chronicles how the apostles, inspired by the Holy Spirit, continued the saving work of Jesus after He ascended into heaven. Just as Jesus preached the Kingdom of God, so the apostles spread the good news from Jerusalem, to Samaria and eventually even to Rome. Just as Jesus healed those who came to him with diseases and other afflictions, so miraculous healings accompanied the ministry of the apostles. And just as Jesus was put to death, so the apostles and their followers are persecuted and killed with a prayer of forgiveness on their lips in imitation of their master. The Acts of the Apostles is the story of the early Church stepping out in faith to continue the saving works of our Lord Jesus.

However, the reason we can claim that the Acts of the Apostles is an unfinished book is that the story of the Church founded by Jesus to be a light for the nations is still being written. It did not end with the apostles. We who have been baptized and have come to believe in the name of Jesus are writing the next chapter. It is up to us now to preach the Kingdom of God, to heal the sick, to feed the hungry and, if necessary, to suffer ridicule and rejection for the sake of the Savior we have come to love. Jesus left the task to his apostles, they left it to their disciples, and now it has been passed on to us. The pen is in our hand to continue writing the acts of the followers of Christ.

Today we celebrate the feast of the Ascension when, forty days after the Resurrection, Jesus went up to the right hand of the Father in heaven. From His throne in paradise, he continues to watch over, pray for and guide the people whom He has entrusted with His word. Jesus is looking down upon us gathered here today who have believed in Him and are striving to live lives that are pleasing to Him.

We might wonder to ourselves, why did Jesus ascend to heaven? Wouldn’t it have been better if, after His Resurrection, He stayed around to show Himself to others? Then more people would have believed that He had risen from the dead and that He was the Son of God. Why would He leave the apostles after just forty days when He could have still done so much more good on earth?

First of all, we know that Jesus worked many signs and wonders during His life, and still many people refused to believe that He was the Son of God. After the Resurrection, many people saw the empty tomb and still did not believe that He had risen. Even the disciples whom Jesus did appear to continued to fear and have their doubts as Saint Matthew tells us in today’s gospel. There are many who, for whatever reason, simply refuse to believe. Even the sight of the Risen Lord would not convince them.

Secondly, and most importantly, Jesus has left it to us to continue His mission on earth. He has given us His Spirit so that we can do the works He did. He assures us in the gospel of John, “Whoever sees you, sees me; whoever hears you, hears me.” Jesus ascended into heaven to pass on to us the responsibility and mission of witnessing to the truth of His Resurrection. Each one of us has a part to play in the story of salvation which is still being written in our time. As Saint Teresa of Avila wrote so beautifully, “Christ has no body but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world.” Now that Jesus has ascended to the Father, if anyone is to hear the good news and encounter for themselves the love of Jesus it will have to be through us, by our words and by the good and holy lives we lead.

Though the story of salvation is still being written, we know how it will end. In the final chapter Jesus Christ will descend from heaven to reveal Himself to all people and nations as the Son of God and Savior of the World. There will be no denying it. He will finally put an end to sin, suffering and death.  And He will give to us who have believed in Him a share in the heavenly glory of His Kingdom which is our inheritance as children of God. We long for Him to come in His glory and we live with confidence following His commandments knowing that He has already won the victory for us.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Remember Me As One Who Loved

If you were about to leave this Earth, what would you want to say to your family and dear friends gathered around you? What gifts might you want to leave them with to remember you by? What words of wisdom would you want to give your children and grandchildren to help guide them through the rest of their lives?

Jesus had the opportunity to share one final meal with His dearest friends before He died. It was highly emotional for Him because he was aware that in a few short hours he would endure a torturous death. Likewise, His disciples must have known that something big was about to happen and that their lives were soon to be dramatically changed.

As any of us would at such an emotional time, Jesus simply wanted His disciples to know that He loved them. The reason He was born, the reason He would die on the cross, would be to show His love. In those hours before He would be killed, He wanted to remind those closest to Him that, in the end, it was all about love.

The love that Jesus came to show, however, was more than affection or warm feelings. Rather it was a love that was willing to sacrifice itself for others. It was a love willing to endure hardships, difficulties and even death. It was a love that shows itself not in boxes of candy or bouquets of flowers but on the wood of the cross.

Jesus gathered the disciples around Him not only to share His love with them but also to give them a gift. The gift was the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit promised to the disciples at the Last Supper is love itself. One God with the Father and with Jesus the Son, the Holy Spirit would be poured out upon all believers giving us the power to love.

Because the Spirit of Jesus is within us, we can love as He did. If it were only up to us, given our weak human nature, we could never show the type of self-sacrificing love Jesus showed on the cross. We would only know how to give love to those who love us back. Without Jesus and His Spirit, we could never forgive our enemies, go without food to feed others or give up our lives to witness to our faith. The Spirit of love - the Spirit of Jesus - makes all that possible.

And so, Jesus’ Spirit is His gift to those He loves. It is His gift to us who believe in Him. All these centuries since his death and resurrection, that same Spirit lives, moves and breathes in us through our baptism and through the gift of faith.

Not only does Jesus tell the disciples of His love, not only does He promise them the gift of love itself in the person of the Holy Spirit, He also leaves them with some parting words of wisdom. He tells them, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” The commandments of God instruct us on how we are to live. They guide us in the way that leads to happiness. By following God’s law we avoid whatever could harm us. There is no better advice any of us could give or follow than to do whatever God commands us to.

The love of Jesus revealed in the commandments also teaches us that sin is primarily a refusal to love God and others. Sin deadens love within us. It hardens our hearts and makes us selfish. Jesus did not reveal the commandments to us in order to control us or curtail our freedom. He does not want to take the fun or pleasure out of life. Rather all His commandments free us from selfishness and pride so that we know what it means to truly love God and others from the heart.

The wisdom of Jesus’ commandment of love teaches us something more. Because we have the Spirit of love living and moving within us, it is not enough for us to limit our actions to not hurting others or avoiding sin. If we are to love as Jesus loved, as we are empowered to love in the Spirit, then we must reach out to help others. It is not enough, then, for us not to steal. We must also be willing to go hungry so that others may eat. We must be willing to spend a night in the cold so that another may have our blanket. It is not enough for us not to kill. We must also forgive those who harm us rather than seek revenge. We must stand up for and be ready to defend the innocent whose lives are being taken every minute through abortion, starvation and war. We must be willing to give our lives if necessary to see that justice is done for the poor and weak.

It may sound daunting or even impossible. But to those who are given the Spirit of Christ, all things are possible. That Spirit of God which is the love of the Father and Son casts out all fear, strengthens us for good deeds and makes us understand the right course of action in all things.  

Like any person about to die, Jesus wanted to share His love, give His Spirit as a gift and share the wisdom of His commandment of love. Furthermore, He promised that He would remain with us always. He is among us whenever we gather in His name. He is within us because of His Spirit dwelling in our hearts. And in a most wonderful way, His Body and Blood will be given to us through the miracle of the Eucharist. He promises that nothing can separate us from His love. We cannot see Him with our eyes, yet we believe through faith that He is here. Through our acts of selfless love, we show Him to an unbelieving world. By the mystery of His cross and resurrection, we hold onto the hope that we will one day live with Him forever.

Jesus is here! Let us rejoice!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Do Not Let Your Hearts Be Troubled

Nothing ever seemed to come easily to Father Allen.

During the years that he trained for the priesthood, he struggled with his studies barely passing many of his classes. He hoped that after ordination things would become easier, but they did not. He could not find anything that he was good at. Preaching did not come easily to him. Whether it was visiting the sick in the hospital, working with young people or preparing couples for marriage, he felt as though he were all thumbs. Though he never doubted that he had been called to be a priest, he wondered what God saw in him to think he was worthy of such a lofty vocation.

It all came crashing down on him, however, on the day when he received a call from his bishop that he would be made the pastor of a small rural parish. All the self-doubts about his lack of ability caused a panic attack. The anxiety of years of struggling had worn him down. The thought of shouldering the responsibility of a parish on his own weighed heavily on him. Just at the moment he was about to call the bishop back to tell him that he could not take on the assignment, the words of Jesus in today’s gospel came to his mind: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me.”

It felt as though a storm had passed, the clouds had parted and the sun was finally shining down on him. He was not alone. If Jesus had called him to be a priest, he would be by his side through it all. Rather than rely on his own strength and talents, he would hand everything over to Jesus and let him carry him through.

This new insight made all the difference in Father Allen’s life and ministry. His preaching took on a new vigor as he urged his congregation to give their lives over in trust to their Heavenly Father. Putting aside his self-doubts, he took on challenges he used to avoid because of his fear of failure. Because he was more relaxed, he found it easier to spend time with people. As it turned out, his lack of talents and abilities was not a weakness but a strength because it caused him to rely more and more on Jesus. Not only did it transform him personally, but it renewed the parish he pastored.

As we gather here today, what is troubling your hearts? Are your having difficulties in your homes? Is your sickness or that of a loved one weighing heavily upon you? Are you facing a challenge that you feel you cannot handle? Whatever it may be, listen again to Jesus’ words: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me.”

None of us has to face the burdens of life alone. Jesus is there to carry them along with us. It is simply a matter of turning to Him and asking Him to help. It is simply a matter of saying, “Jesus, I trust you.” Our difficulties will not disappear overnight. We will still shed tears and maybe even lie awake at night wondering how we will overcome the obstacles that stand in our way. However, we will approach our lives with new confidence. Also we will come to understand just how little depends on us, just how little control we really have, and begin to worry less as Jesus starts putting the pieces of the puzzle together for us.

As we grow in trust, something else will happen. We will become less focused on ourselves and our problems and more sensitive to the needs of those around us. The gospel reading today is taken from Jesus’ discourse at the Last Supper. Though He is about to be put to death, He is consoling His disciples. Rather than wallowing in fear over the tortures He was about to face, He was concerned with how His apostles were feeling. That is because of His absolute trust that His Heavenly Father would provide for Him.

When we put our lives in God’s hands, we have the same experience. As our burdens seem lighter, we will have the strength to help others carry theirs. As our sorrows seem less painful, we will reach out to console others. As we are less focused on ourselves, we begin to enjoy our lives more and put our problems in perspective. Growing closer to Jesus through a living faith, we experience His peace day in and day out no matter what the circumstances of our life may be.

After we have professed our faith and offered our prayers for the Church and the world, we will bring up the bread and wine which will be consecrated into the Body and Blood of Jesus. This is a good time for us to include with those gifts all the problems that vex us. Placing on the altar our anxieties, illnesses, worries and frustrations, we allow them to be transformed by the saving mercy of God. When we go home, it is an image we can carry with us. Every time we feel overwhelmed or incapable of handling a situation, in our mind we can place it on the altar and ask God to transform it. We will then grow in trust that our Heavenly Father is in control and that He will make all things work out for our good.

Jesus reassures His disciples, “...whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these because I am going to the Father.” If Jesus calls us to do “great works”, it is because He is the one who will be at work in us. If we believe in Him - if we trust Him with every aspect of our lives - than we will experience great things happening. It all begins with trust.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Abandonment to God

Many people have chosen to abandon the comforts and conflicts of society to find a new way of life.

Such a man was Charles de Foucauld.

He was born in Strasbourg, France in 1858. Like many young people enamoured with pleasure and in search of adventure, he came to doubt the existence of God and, finally, to abandon his faith altogether.

As a soldier in the French army, he toured much of Northern Africa. During his travels, he was touched by the simple faith of the desert peoples and began to long for a relationship with the God he had abandoned.

When he returned to France, he began taking spiritual direction from a priest to help him sort out his beliefs. Then, at the age of 28, it all began to make sense to him. He experienced a conversion back to faith in the God of Jesus Christ. Charles realized that, if God did truly exist, then he had no other choice but to make of his life a total offering to the Father. He described his experience in these words: “As soon as I believed in God, I understood that I could not do otherwise than live for him alone.”

That desire to make of his life a total offering to God led him to the Holy Land and then back to North Africa where he finally settled into a solitary life in the deserts of Algeria.

While there he wrote the beautiful but challenging “Prayer of Abandonment”.

Father, I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me, and in all your creatures.
I wish no more than this, O Lord.

Into your hands I commend my soul;
I offer it to you with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord,and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands,
without reserve,and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father.

On December 1, 1916, Brother Charles fulfilled his desire to offer himself totally to God when his hut was surrounded by anti-French rebels who eventually killed him.

Brother Charles de Foucauld’s life and death teach us an important truth. We were created by God for no other purpose than to know, love and serve Him. We will always feel lost and restless until we make of our lives an offering to Him. Not all of us are called to leave everything behind for a solitary life in the desert as Brother Charles was. But we are all called to seek His will in all things and to strive to do what is pleasing to Him in every decision we make.

As baptized believers, we call this duty to offer ourselves to God as a spiritual sacrifice “the priesthood of all believers.” Every baptized person has a share in the eternal priesthood of Christ. Just as Jesus offered Himself up to the Father on the cross, so we are called to offer our very lives to God along with Him. Saint Peter tells us in today’s second reading, “....let yourselves be built up into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices. “ And later, speaking to us as baptized believers he writes, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people all his own....”

When we think of the priesthood we tend first to think of the ordained priesthood - those men set aside to celebrate the Mass and other sacraments. However all baptized persons are called to exercise the priesthood of Jesus.  It is a simple matter of praying, “Lord, I offer you my efforts at work.” or “Lord, I offer up to you this time in traffic.” Making a Daily Offering when we first get out of bed or praying the Prayer of Abandonment are other ways of offering ourselves to the Father. In this way, by making every minute of our lives a gift to God through prayer and loving service to others, we make ourselves holy and sanctify the world around us. We are also meeting our deepest need to surrender ourselves to the love of God as Brother Charles describes so beautifully in his Prayer of Abandonment.

At every Mass, we have a wonderful opportunity to do this in the Offertory procession. The bread and wine that are brought up to the altar to become the Body and Blood of Christ represent us. In that bread and wine, we are offering ourselves up to God in a symbolic way. It is an opportunity for us to ask ourselves what we have to offer God. How have we lived up to His word? How have we failed to serve Him? How can we do better? What in our lives needs to change so that we can unite ourselves more fully to Him?

For our sakes, Jesus made of Himself an offering to the Father on the cross so that our sins could be forgiven and so that we could have the hope of everlasting life. Even now, He is preparing a place for us in heaven and is looking forward to welcoming us there. We were created for no other purpose than to be united with God forever in the glory of our heavenly home. By uniting every aspect of our lives to the suffering of Jesus on the cross and offering it up to the Father together with Him we realize our life’s mission. Our whole life becomes an act of praise and worship, and we become transformed into the image and likeness of Jesus who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

A Home At Last

One evening, while a woman was preparing supper, her 19 year old daughter complained of a headache and went to her room to lie down. When her mother went to the bedroom to tell her daughter that supper was ready, the girl was having a seizure. The mother immediately called 911, and the ambulance came to rush the daughter to the hospital. The young woman was pronounced dead upon her arrival at the emergency room.

The mother was devastated. For years, she kept her daughter's room exactly the way it was when she died. She left all her clothes hanging in the closet and the posters hanging on the wall. She even refused to change the sheets on the bed. Many nights, her husband would come home from work to find the mother with her face down on the bed crying. That bedroom was all she had left of her beloved daughter.

Through her grieving process, today's gospel reading came to be a great source of comfort for this woman. Just as she kept a room for her daughter in her home, Jesus had a place prepared for her daughter in heaven. To know that Jesus was now taking care of her daughter - that Jesus had made a home for her - gave her a sense of peace and calm that helped her come to terms with the tragedy of her daughter's death.

Today's gospel reading is part of the narrative of the Last Supper in the gospel of John. The apostles are jittery. They know something is up. They are getting the sense that Jesus is in danger and that they are in danger. They really have no idea how violently Jesus will be treated later that night and into the next day. Jesus senses their anxiety and seeks to calm their fears. He assures them that, though they will be separated for a while, he will prepare a place for them in His Father's house. They will have their faith tested. They will suffer. Most of them will eventually be killed for being followers of Jesus. But, Jesus Himself will come to bring them to His Father's house. Jesus will always have a place for them.

Many of us know what it is like to have an empty room in our homes or an empty place in our hearts for a loved one who is no longer in our lives. It may be a parent, a spouse or a child we have lost to death. It may be an ex-husband or ex-wife who has abandoned us. It may be an adult child who, for whatever reason, wants nothing to do with us. It may be a brother or sister or friend we haven't spoken to in years. We keep a light burning in our hearts or a room ready in our homes, in hopes that they will return.

Imagine, now, that Jesus has the same place prepared for each one of us. Imagine that Jesus has a light burning in hopes that we will return to Him. Jesus is counting on our spending eternity with Him in His Father's house. Can we even begin to imagine how great God's love is for us that He waits for us with the same passion of a mother who grieves for her daughter, or a lover who prays that his beloved will come back to him?

Jesus has a place prepared for each of us in heaven. But, Jesus has also prepared a place for us in this church, in this parish. This is the place where we encounter God. This is the place where we hear God speak. This is the place where Jesus surrenders His Body and Blood for our nourishment. This is the place - as Saint Peter explains in the second reading -where we are built up like living stones into an edifice of spirit offering spiritual sacrifices. It is here that we face Jesus - the Way, the Truth and the Life.

All of us are gathered here for different reasons. Some of us are here because we really believe that being here makes a difference in our lives, whether we can explain it or not. Some of us are here out of a sense of duty. Some of us are here because we just got the feeling that we should go to church today. Some of us don't know why we are here. But, whether we feel it or not, whether we can explain it or not, each one of us belongs here. Each one of us is meant to be here. Jesus means us to be here. Jesus has prepared this place for us. Jesus has prepared these readings for us. Jesus has prepared this message for us. Jesus has arranged all this so that we would meet Him here today. None of us is here by accident or by coincidence. Jesus has prepared this worship event so that He could bump into us and so that He could find some way of getting Himself into our lives.

Now, we have a decision to make. Do we have room in our hearts for Jesus? Do we have a place prepared in our lives to welcome Him? Do we have a light burning in our hearts waiting for the day that Jesus will visit us? Will today be the day that we stop resisting Jesus' call? Will today be the day that we accept into our hearts Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life?

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Confirmed in the Spirit

There was a young boy whose family would only buy him savings bonds. While his friends were unwrapping toys at Christmas and on their birthdays, he would open envelopes with savings bonds in them. Even as he was getting older and other kids were getting computers and video games, he would get nothing but savings bonds from his parents, grandparents and uncles.

Sometimes he would cry to his parents and complain that he wanted at least once to get something he could play with. But every year it never changed. A birthday or graduation would come by and, sure enough, he got nothing but savings bonds.

Finally, when he turned eighteen years old, he decided to go to the bank and cash in all those savings bonds he had accumulated over the years. He was shocked to learn that, when it was all tallied up, he had over $30,000 coming to him. It now all made sense to him. He realized that while the gifts his friends had received had all been thrown away - they had outgrown the clothes, the video games were obsolete and the bicycles were rusted out - he had over $30,000 in cash! While it was hard to understand and accept his parents’ decision to only give him savings bonds, he could appreciate why they had done it, and he was truly grateful.

Were there ever times in your life when you felt like the young man in this story? Have you ever wondered why your parents made you go to Mass and religious education when your friends got to stay home? Have you ever wondered why your parents insisted that you receive Confirmation when other kids in your school didn’t have to? Are you wondering why you are here now?

All those feelings are natural.  When we are younger it is hard for us to see the big picture. We hate to be left out when our friends are having fun. We want the freedom that other kids seem to have.

However, today, the day of your Confirmation, you are finally getting your big payout. All those hours you spent at Mass, at religion classes and at rehearsals are finally going to pay off. Today, through the anointing with sacred chrism and the laying on of hands, you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Who is the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is God, the third person of the Blessed Trinity. Together with God the Father and God the Son He created the universe and keeps it in existence. This whole vast and wonderful world from the deepest ocean to the highest mountain, the furthest planet to the brightest star were all created by Him out of nothing. You and I were created by Him.

The Holy Spirit you receive tonight is the same Spirit that gave courage to the great prophets. Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah and John the Baptist worked wonders by the power of the Spirit you will receive tonight. It was by that same Spirit that Jesus was conceived in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And by that Spirit Jesus opened the eyes of the blind and raised the dead. Through the power of that Spirit Jesus Himself rose from the dead after He had been crucified.

That is what you are receiving tonight - the life, the love and the power of God Himself. Through the Spirit of God, nothing will be impossible for you, because nothing is impossible with God. There is no injustice you will face that cannot be overcome by this Spirit. There is no sin or temptation that you will not be able to defeat. And there is no one you will not be able to love or forgive. Nothing will be impossible for you because you will no longer be alone. God Himself will be with you and in you.

When you consider all that, what is so great about being home, watching TV or playing video games.

This night, you will be changed forever. But it isn’t magic. It won’t happen overnight. You will have to learn to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit living within you.You will have to learn to listen for His voice. But with God’s help, step by step, the gifts of the Holy Spirit will be at work in your life in powerful and unmistakable ways.

Now it could be that none of this interests you right now. It could be that you would just as soon leave the gift you will receive tonight unopened. That is understandable. What God calls us to can sometimes scare or overwhelm us. Or sometimes we think we can make it through life without God’s help. But remember this. Although you may decide to ignore the gift, push it aside or hide it, you can never lose it. We may forget that we have been confirmed, but God will never forget. When you need His help - and you will - He will be there for you because He loves you. We can never run away from God any more than we can run away from ourselves.

Today you will be sealed with the Holy Spirit. You will permanently be marked as a daughter or son of God. It is an awesome gift that comes with a great responsibility. When we accept it and put it to good use, we can achieve great things for God and for the world. Welcome this gift, embrace it and let it take root in you. Then watch in wonder at all that God will be able to do in you and for you.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Good Shepherd Lays Down His Life

Imagine being thrown in prison or condemned to death for your religious beliefs.

In a free, democratic society, it sounds impossible. However, in many countries around the world, fellow Christians are languishing in prison for sharing and defending their religious convictions.

Pakistan, like many other Muslim countries, makes it a crime punishable by death to defame the Islamic religion or Mohammad. Many times these anti-blasphemy laws are used to suppress religious minorities such as Christians and keep them from practicing their faith.

One man decided to face this injustice and speak out.

Shahbaz Bhatti  spent much of his life serving the people of Pakistan as an elected official.. His hard work and dedication earned him a seat on the cabinet as Minister for Minority Affairs making him the only Christian to hold such an important post. With the power and prestige of his office, he could have made a comfortable life for himself. However, he decided instead to use his influence to speak out for those imprisoned because of their religious beliefs and against the laws that put them there.

On March 2, 2011 he was shot dead in the capital city of Islamabad by terrorists.

Shahbaz Bhatti knew that by speaking out against the anti-blasphemy laws he would be killed. However, he felt a calling to stand up for his fellow Christians and to not allow fear to keep him silent. As he said in a statement taped before his death: “I believe in Jesus Christ who has given His life for us...and I am ready to die for a cause... I’m living for my community...and I will die to defend their rights.”

Following the example of Jesus and hearing His call, he laid down his life so that others might be free.

In today’s gospel, Jesus describes Himself as the Good Shepherd who came to give life in abundance to us. He calls His sheep, and they hear His voice.

Every one of us is called by Jesus, our Good Shepherd. Each of us is chosen to provide a service uniquely our own, a service no one else can perform. Shahbaz Bhatti  was called to speak up for religious minorities suffering persecution. Most of us, however, will be called to less heroic but no less important service. We are called to raise children, to teach catechism, to witness to our co-workers, to preach the gospel and to perform many other anonymous tasks. All of them, nonetheless, contribute to spreading the Kingdom of God on earth and fulfilling the Church’s mission to proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth.

If being called means being chosen by God for some appointed service, then how do we hear God’s voice and how do we know what He is calling us to do?

There are many ways to hear God’s voice. Sometimes in prayer we will feel an urging within us pointing us in a certain direction. Other times, we will feel a restlessness driving us to take some action or promote some cause. At times people in our lives who often know us better than we know ourselves will notice our gifts and talents and invite us to consider a vocation. Many priests and religious began thinking about their vocation when a family member or parishioner said to them, “I think you would make a good priest,” or “ Have you ever considered becoming a sister?”

Each person will receive his or her calling in a different way. However, it is the same Lord who calls us according to His divine plan.

How do I know that it is really God calling me and not my own voice I am hearing?

That is a question that all Christians have struggled with. And there are no easy answers that fit every person.

However, one thing is true. We learn to hear God’s voice with time. If a desire lingers on in our hearts, if we find ourselves thinking about it constantly,  if we find ourselves being reminded of it, then it may be that God is whispering it in our ear. If it is truly the voice of God, we will continue to hear the call in some way until He gets an answer from us.

Finally, every vocation must be tested. Other people have to confirm that the call we have received truly came from God. This is clear in the vocation of marriage. If someone is called by God to be married, then there is someone else out there who is also called by God to marry him or her. Eventually they will meet each other and the call will be confirmed. However, the same is true whether one is called to be a catechist, a politician or a priest. If it is God who is truly speaking to us then others will recognize it. On the other hand, if others do not see it in us, if we try to act on the calling and it does not work out, we know that it came from our own desires and misconceptions and not from God.

Each of us is called by Jesus, the Good Shepherd, to make some contribution to the mission of His Church. Many times we fail to hear His voice because we are afraid. We fear that Jesus may ask something from us that we are not able to give. But we need never fear. Jesus is a good and gentle shepherd. He will not lead us to where we are unable to go, and He will always walk ahead of us. Though following Him always requires sacrifice, it brings with it unimaginable blessings.

Therefore, let us pray for ourselves and for our world that we may have the wisdom to recognize His voice when He calls and the courage to follow wherever He may lead. There is no greater joy than to give our lives for others after the example of our Good Shepherd for He came that we may have life and have it in abundance.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Good Shepherd

When we think of sheep, we tend to think of cute, fluffy four-legged creatures. But sheep are very difficult to take care of. First of all, they are very dumb. They walk around with no idea where they are. It is not uncommon for a sheep to walk right off a cliff because it is not paying attention to where it is going. Also, sheep are slow. The shepherd has to be very patient because the sheep are in no rush to move for him. And, because they are so slow, the shepherd has to keep a sharp eye out. If a wolf were to show up, the sheep would be unable to run away. And, sheep have no fangs or claws to protect themselves. Without the shepherd, the sheep are completely helpless.

Sheep may be dumb, but they are not so dumb that they don't recognize the voice of their shepherd. They know right away when an impostor has taken his place. They get anxious and jittery. They start to scatter when someone other than their trusted shepherd has hopped over the fence to take advantage of them.

Jesus loved the image of the relationship between a shepherd and his sheep to describe His relationship with the people He came to redeem. That's because there are three things a shepherd does that Jesus also does for His people. Those three things are leading the sheep, protecting the sheep and feeding the sheep.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, leads His sheep. As Jesus says in the gospel, the Good Shepherd goes ahead of His sheep. The Good Shepherd charts the way forward for them. Just so, Jesus has shown us the path we must walk. We often talk about how Jesus reveals God to us. But Jesus, being fully human, also teaches us what it means to be truly human. No one, no matter what he or she may have accomplished, has ever lived a life more fully human than Jesus has. So, in Jesus we come to understand that living a meaningful life and living a fully human life means following our Good Shepherd.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, also protects His sheep. He knows how helpless we are without Him. He knows how easily we fall to temptation and how easily we can lose hope. He also knows how many people out there are looking to take advantage of His weak, helpless sheep. Jesus looks with love on us in our helplessness and, if we decide to follow Him, pledges to protect us from everything and everyone who can imperil our souls.

Finally, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, feeds His sheep. He brings them to lush pasture land where they can feast and fill their bellies in peace. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, knows many rich pastures. He feeds us with the banquet of His Word which emboldens our hearts and calms our fears. And He feeds us with His Body and Blood in the Eucharist, giving His very life to us and a taste of the deep intimacy He wishes to share with us. Once we have enjoyed the rich pastures of our shepherd, why would we ever want to return to the barren wastelands of selfishness?

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, leads us, protects us and feeds us. We are familiar with another gospel in which Jesus separates sheep from goats. He says to the sheep, "Come, inherit the kingdom prepared for you." When they ask, "When did we see you hungry and feed you? When did we see you thirsty, and give you drink?, Jesus replies, "Whenever you did it for the least among you, you did it for me." Today, as we reflect on Jesus' word, we might ask: "When did we see you leading us? When did we see you protecting us? When did we see you feeding us?" Jesus, two thousand years after His resurrection, leads us, protects us and feeds us through His Church. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus continues to shepherd His people, the Church. The gift of the Holy Spirit leads us to the Truth we need for our salvation. The Holy Spirit guarantees that the Church will lead us faithfully in the knowledge of God. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus also protects His people. Through the Church, we receive all the graces we need to keep us safe from sin and its corrosive effect in our souls and in our community. Finally, through the Holy Spirit, Jesus continues to feed the Church with His Word and with the sacraments, especially the Sacrament of the Eucharist. 

Whenever we talk about the Church, we are not just talking about bishops, priests, deacons and nuns. The Church is much bigger than that. When we say "Church", we mean all the people who have been baptized and believe in Jesus. We are talking about students, parents, single persons, young people, old people and babies. Jesus works through each one of us to lead, protect and feed each other. None of us can follow Jesus by ourselves, anymore than a sheep can protect itself or find food on its own. Whether we are aware of it or not, Jesus works through us whenever we reach out to help another person. And it is Jesus we are serving whenever we reach out to those in need. The gift of the Holy Spirit is working in each of us to make Jesus real and active in the world.

In a world so confused about what life is about and how to live, we hear the voice of our shepherd, Jesus, leading us, protecting us and feeding us. We do not scatter or stray because we have found peace and meaning in the fold of the Church. Soon we will leave this place where we have been fed to help Jesus seek out and save those who are lost and to lead them back to the Shepherd of their souls - Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who lays down His life for His sheep so that we can have life and have it in fullness.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Road to Hope

Over the past few years, we have had a sense that things are not well. Since 2001, we have witnessed wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention numerous other small conflicts throughout the world. Our economy has suffered as jobs have been lost and homes have been foreclosed on at a record pace. We are deadlocked over important moral and political issues such as abortion and stem cell research with no common ground to help us discuss these issues civilly. We are living with a sense that things are going in the wrong direction, and we are deeply divided over how to set things right. We do not know where to find hope.

Today's readings announce boldly that hope has its center and meaning in God. In the first reading, Peter on the day of Pentecost proclaims to the people of Jerusalem who witnessed Jesus' death on the cross, that his death was not a humiliating defeat. Rather it was the culmination of God's plan of salvation for all people. Jesus laid down His life willingly out of love for us. But even death could not silence Jesus, for He rose from the dead and continues to live among us giving us the hope of everlasting life. Because Jesus lives, we have hope that we also will live with Him forever through faith. That is our first source of real hope. Death, the greatest enemy we face, has already been vanquished.

Peter continues to speak about hope to us in the second reading. Jesus died to deliver us from a futile way of life. That futile way of life was our sinfulness which trapped us in an existence  centered only on this material world.  The only thing that was real to us was what we could see and feel.  It was a life of false hopes and false promises. When our political leaders and economic policy failed us, we did not know where else to turn. Our baptismal faith has taught us that it is God alone, the just judge, who can forgive our sins and render justice for the poor. Our hope, then, finds its center in this just and merciful God who has acted powerfully in history in the person of Jesus Christ. Our second source of hope, then, is that human sinfulness which has created so much misery in history has been overcome.

Finally, the gospel reading presents us with two people who had lost hope. Faced with Jesus' death on the cross and the dismay over Jesus' empty tomb, they decide to leave the community of faith in Jerusalem and head in another direction. As they walk along, they are so caught up in their confusion and despair that they cannot recognize Jesus. Nonetheless their heart burns as He restores their hope by showing how Scripture taught that his death was necessary for the forgiveness of sins and to complete God's plan of salvation. Once they recognize Him, they return to the community of faith in Jerusalem and find their hopes confirmed. Jesus is truly risen! Our third source of hope, then, is that Jesus is still walking among us calming our fears, confirming our faith and anchoring our hope.

We are a people who desperately need to have our hope restored. If we are looking for economic policy to make everything well or political leaders to give us a perfect social order, then we will be sorely disappointed. Only God can both promise and deliver the hope our hearts are burning to receive - the forgiveness of sins, justice, peace and eternal life.  On earth, we can only have it in a partial way. There will always be threats to our peace and security. There will always be those seeking to pervert justice for their own ends. Only God can establish true justice and lasting peace in a permanent way.

Does this mean that we throw up our hands and give up? By no means! That is the way people with no hope act. Those without faith generally do not see the point in trying to make the world a good place and decide just to live for themselves and their own pleasures. Or they may try to help but get disillusioned because they cannot see their efforts making any difference. But those who believe in God and have their hope centered in Him live differently. We know that we will be judged by God based on our actions. We see God's face in those who suffer. We know that the poor are our brothers and sisters and refuse to abandon them in their need. However we are not deluded into thinking that any person, any government or any policy can turn our world into a perfect paradise. And so, knowing that we will not achieve a perfect world, we do not give up even when we experience setbacks and disappointments. We press on knowing that God's perfect justice and perfect peace are awaiting us. Though there is only so much we can do - only so much difference we can make - we know that our sincere efforts are rewarded by God and so have eternal value. We strive to make real in our world the mercy and justice revealed in the Savior who walks along the way with us.

We gather each Sunday as people who know very well the fears, misgivings and disappointments of today's world. But, more importantly, we know the hope which our faith in God holds out to us. We feel God's word burning in our hearts. Moreover we see Jesus in the breaking of the bread as we celebrate and share the gift of His Body and Blood. When the songs of praise have ended and we leave our place of worship, we must go into that world and witness to the hope we have found in God. That hope gathers into one community those who are scattered by fear. It gives new strength to those who have been disillusioned by life's injustices. It gives new meaning to those who have been disappointed by the limited effectiveness of governments and politicians. It calls all of us to recognize Jesus, the world's only hope for perfect justice and lasting peace.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Practicing the Presence of God

Many of the most influential people in the history of the Church were humble souls who simply were seeking to follow the will of God.

Such a man was Nicholas Herman.

He was born around 1605 in Lorraine, France to poor parents. As a young man, he was always enthralled by the beauty of nature. One day, during a walk in the countryside on a winter morning, he looked at a bare tree and reflected on how, without leaves and fruit, it was much like a soul without God. At that moment, he decided to commit his life to serving God.

However, with not enough resources to pursue an education, he decided to enlist in the army. During a battle with Swedish forces, he was wounded. He would limp badly the rest of his life because of the injuries he sustained.

Unable to continue in the army and failing at other jobs he tried, he finally decided to fulfill the commitment he had made to God on that winter day and, in 1640, he joined the Carmelite order in Paris, talking the name Brother Lawrence.

Being a humble man with little formal education, he never was ordained a deacon or priest. Rather he served his community as a lay brother working in the kitchen. It was there amidst the pots and pans that he would develop a method of prayer that would inspire millions of Christians. It came to be called, “the practice of the presence of God.”

His simple method of prayer involved nothing else than keeping in mind throughout the day that he was in the presence of God. He described it as a continuous, unbroken conversation with his heavenly Father. It did not necessarily involve reciting formal prayers or even using words at all. Rather, he kept his mind and heart focused on God throughout the day whether he was in the chapel or the kitchen, whether he was on his knees during Mass or bent over a sink washing dishes.

Keeping in mind that God was always at his side brought a total transformation to Brother Lawrence’s life which became immediately evident to his brother monks. He went from being a sullen man plagued by guilt and lacking self-confidence to a person radiating peace and joy. His fellow monks began asking him what had caused such a change in him, and he shared with them his simple way of prayer. In time, many people from all over would make pilgrimages to the priory to learn from Brother Lawrence how to practice the presence of God. Then, in 1693, his abbot, Joseph de Beaufort, collected his letters and personal interviews and had them published under the title, Spiritual Maxims. It came to influence millions of Christians - Catholics and Protestants alike - and is still available today under the title, The Practice of the Presence of God.

Brother Lawrence, a simple man with little formal education, whose only talent was cooking, was used by God to draw millions of people into a more intimate, spiritual communion with their Heavenly Father.

The success of this method of prayer is rooted in its simplicity. We all can practice it no matter what level of education we have or how advanced we are in the spiritual life. It is a simple matter of keeping in mind that Jesus is always at my side. No matter where I am or what I am doing, the Lord never leaves me. As we grow in our awareness of His presence, we begin to experience a deep sense of peace and joy. As with Brother Lawrence, we are transformed and people begin to notice.

In today’s gospel, two disciples of the Lord come to experience for themselves the truth that Jesus is always with them. Like Thomas whom we heard about last week, these two men were heartbroken. They had traveled to Jerusalem with Jesus believing He would reveal Himself to be the King of Israel. Instead they witnessed His crucifixion and death. Even with news that He may be raised from the dead, they had given up hope and were going home.

On the road, Jesus appears at their side. However, they are unable to recognize Him just as they were unable to recognize the hand of God at work through Jesus’ suffering and death. Jesus is not put off by their despair or by their lack of recognition. Instead He continues to walk with them, explaining the Scriptures and comforting them until their despair is dispelled and they are finally able to recognize Him once again. Now, enlightened by Jesus, they can return to Jerusalem with the other disciples to celebrate together the truth of His resurrection.

Whether we realize it or not, Jesus walks with us every moment of our lives. When times are good, He shares our joy. When times are bad, He carries and strengthens us. No matter what choices we make or where we choose to go, there is no time that Jesus abandons us.

If we can recognize Him walking with us, then our lives will be filled with peace and joy. And it really is as easy as reminding ourselves from moment to moment that Jesus is walking with us.

If that truth still seems too incredible for us to believe, all we have to do is ask Jesus to reveal Himself to us just as He did to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.

There is no secret to the spiritual life. Though it takes discipline and effort, it is not difficult. It is as easy as making friends or falling in love. The only difference is that the friend we fall in love with is Jesus. Let us be aware of His presence in us and among us not only in this holy place but wherever we may go. Then fear, despair and loneliness will be a thing of the past making way for the peace, joy and unfailing hope that only God can give.

(image by Marisol Sousa)