Thursday, October 30, 2014

One Thing Is Important

It happens to all of us. We get so wrapped up in the busyness of life that we forget what is most important. It seems that we are always rushing, that there is something else to get done. With all the demands of our daily life, we can overlook the beauty of the world around us and, sad to say, the love of the people who are most important to us. And when we do finally have some time to ourselves, we find ourselves too exhausted to do anything except sit in front of the television. Because we are so anxious to get all our chores done, we too often lose time with the family and friends who give meaning to our lives.

Jesus was very good at keeping focused on the things that matter most. He never gets caught up in the petty squabbles of the religious and political leaders of his day. Rather He moves about with the poor, calls sinners to follow Him and heals the sick. Jesus knew what was important, and He would never allow anyone to steer Him away from serving His Heavenly Father.

Over the past few Sundays, we have listened to how the religious leaders of the day were trying to trick Jesus. They hoped to catch Him saying something either against the Roman authorities or against the Jewish law so that He could be discredited with the people and get in trouble. Such is the case in today’s gospel. The lawyer hopes that He will pick one of the commandments of the law to the exclusion of others. However, Jesus goes back to what is most basic. Every commandment, every teaching of the Scripture, every law and regulation has one point - to teach us how to love. Love of God and love of neighbor is at the heart of religion. When we love, we fulfill the law.

We see this clearly in the life of Jesus. Saint John tells us that it was because God loved the world that He sent His Son. Jesus came for no other reason than to reveal the Father’s love for us. Everything Jesus said and did was motivated by love. He heals the sick to show God’s concern for them. He calls tax collectors and prostitutes to show God’s love for sinners. Even when He puts the religious leaders in their place, He is doing it out of love to show them that there is a better way to know and serve God than by just following rules. And the greatest act of love was His death on the cross. Jesus shed every drop of His blood for us. He did it because He loves us. And all He asks is that we love God and one another in return.

What is going on in our lives that is distracting us from what is most important? What is so urgent that it is keeping us from showing love to those we care about? Can we put our daily activities on hold for a few minutes to listen to a friend or give a hug to our children? Can we put aside our chores for a few minutes to quiet our minds and lift our hearts to God in prayer thanking Him for all that is good and beautiful ? It does not take much effort. But if we do slow down long enough to acknowledge our God and pay attention to our precious loved ones, we will see our stress level diminishing and our interior peace increasing. As we stay focused on what’s most important, the minor details of our day will not seem as pressing. And we can enjoy all the blessings that God in His love lavishes us with.

We can all agree that love is a good and beautiful thing. Each of us would also agree that we could use more of it. But love can also be a scary thing. It demands so much from us. When it comes to religion, it is so much easier to just follow the rules than it is to actually love our neighbor. It is so much easier to sit through Mass than it is to give money to a homeless person or volunteer at a soup kitchen. The same is true with our families. It is so much easier to keep busy cleaning the house than it is to actually sit down and listen to our children. It is so much easier to work overtime than to get home early and surprise our husbands or wives with a night out. But, in the end, it is just such sacrificing that makes our lives worthwhile. We were created to love, and we are never as happy and as fulfilled than when we are putting the needs and interests of others before our own.

Probably the biggest complaint about religion is that there are too many rules. Well, today Jesus tells us that there is only one simple commandment we need to be concerned with. We are to love God above all else and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus showed us the way to love by giving His life on the cross. As He has loved us, we are to love one another by sacrificing ourselves for each other. It means visiting a lonely person, taking time to listen to a neighbor who is hurting or reaching out to a stranger who looks as though he could use a friend. They are small and simple steps but, when done with love, they have the power to change the world.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Love Love Love Love Love Love Love Love

They will know we are Christians by our love.

Christians do not dress differently from others. We do not speak another language or wear our hair differently. We eat the same foods as everyone else. What marks us as Christians is that we strive to love as Jesus loved. Everything we do -  from the simplest act of kindness to the bravest display of heroism - we seek to do with great love in imitation of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Just as importantly, we claim that nothing we do has any value unless it is done with love. Love makes all things pleasing to God. And so, we are meant to stand out from the crowd by our acts of love.

We have many names for God and many ways of describing him. We call him God the Almighty and Lord of Hosts. We call him our Creator. We describe him as just and merciful. In imitation of Jesus, we call him Father. But, the truest description of the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ is that he is love. God loves the world and all the people he created. He loves each of us. It is a marvel beyond the capacity of our minds to grasp and our imaginations to perceive. The One who made everything, the One who holds all creation in his hands, the One who guides all of history knows each of us and loves each of us!

Because God is love, when we love one another we are imitating God. Furthermore, since we are created in God's image and likeness, we are most fully ourselves and most fully alive when we love. Through love, we are fulfilling God's will for us. When we love, we are keeping all of God's commandments.

When Jesus is asked in the gospel to single out the greatest commandment of the Law, he replies with a quote from the book of Deuteronomy: "You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with your whole soul and with all your mind". There is nothing new in this commandment. In fact, pious Jews recite it every day in their prayers. What Jesus does do which is new is that he connects this commandment with another commandment from the book of Leviticus, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."  Now, loving God and loving neighbor go hand in hand. We cannot claim to love God and, all the while, despise our neighbor. This theme is repeated in today's first reading from the book of Exodus. God tells the people that if they abuse the foreigner and the poor, he will surely hear their cry. Because God loves and protects them, he expects us to love and protect them as well. In Jesus, there is no separating the worship we bring to the Father from the love we show our brothers and sisters. 

Jesus did something else which is totally new. Not only did he teach us that love of God and love of neighbor go hand in hand, but he gave us the greatest example of love, an example of love which we are to follow. He gave his life to save us. As he told his disciples at the Last Supper, "There is no greater love than to give one's life for a friend."  The love that Jesus teaches us to live is no warm feeling. It is a love which requires us to sacrifice ourselves for others. It is a love which compels us to act. It is the love of Saint Peter Claver who brought comfort to and fought for the release of slaves in the Americas. It is the love of Blessed Damien of Molokai who risked his health to serve lepers in Hawaii. It is the love of Saint Francis of Assisi who left all his possessions behind and the wealth of his father's house to be among the poor. It is the love of Mother Theresa who looked after the dying in the gutters of Calcutta. It is the love of Saint Maximilian Kolbe who, in a Nazi concentration camp, took the place of another man who was sentenced to death. We might not all be called upon to display such heroism. Most of us will show love in less dramatic and less costly ways. Nonetheless, when we love as Jesus loved we will be like him and bring his presence to those we meet.

Mother Angelica in her Little Book of Life Lessons & Everyday Spirituality, puts it this way:

We have the wrong idea of Christianity. We don’t understand that to know Jesus is to want to be like Him. Do you notice that after people reach fifty years of married life they put their pictures in the paper, and they look alike? Love does this. Love makes you like the person you love. If you really loved Jesus, you would look more and more like Him, each day. It isn’t who you are or what you are or how good or bad you are, you have been commissioned by God to reflect one of His attributes. Some of you will reflect the mercy of God by forgiving. Some of you will reflect the silence of God. Some will reflect the sweetness of God. You are to bear fruit for the glory of the Father. By conforming yourselves to God’s Will, you reflect, in a very small way, some of the beauty of God.

Now, imagine what the world would be like if we were all like Jesus. What if we all loved one another and puts the needs of others before our own needs. Imagine if no one went to sleep at night until they were sure that everyone else had something to eat and a warm place to sleep. This is not just an exercise in wishful thinking. It is the commandment of Christ. It is what Jesus expects of us who would call ourselves Christians - that we love one another as he has loved us.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Making Our Voices Heard

Shortly after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Christianity spread throughout all of the Roman Empire. At the time, the Empire was beginning its decline. The pagan culture was full of corruption. Most people lived with little concern for others or  for human life. Because of this, the most popular form of entertainment was to watch people kill each other in gladiator games. And there was no recognition of the rights of the individual. For no reason, the government routinely confiscated people’s goods, put them in jail and even had them killed. The Roman Empire had become a difficult place to live a good and peaceful life, especially for the poor.

But as Christianity became more popular and spread throughout the Empire, all this began to change. The Church first gained followers not only by her preaching of the gospel but also by her service to the poor. Much of the Church’s efforts were focused on bringing food to the hungry and finding shelter for the homeless. Though most pagans were suspicious of Christians, they could not help but admire their love for the destitute. As Christians became more influential and even found themselves in positions of authority in government, they were able to change many of the Empire’s corrupt practices. And, when Christianity was finally made legal in the fourth century, the influence of the Church put an end to such cruel practices as crucifixion, made child sacrifice illegal and strengthened the institution of marriage. Christians through their example of love and by their witness to faith in Jesus Christ were able to take as savage a place as Rome and make it at least somewhat more humane.

Jesus’ words in today’s gospel, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.”, are often taken to mean that which should maintain a strict separation between our life of faith and our contribution as citizens. We are often told that we have a right to worship however we please, but we should not let our faith influence whom we vote for or what policies we support. Religion should be private, we are told, and anything that makes reference to God the Creator has no place in public life.

Now, imagine if the early Christians had lived that way. They would have kept to themselves, not helped the poor and not spoken out about corruption in government. Then nothing would have changed. Or imagine if people of faith had adopted that attitude in the face of slavery and civil rights issues. Then people would still be enslaved and denied their rights because of the color of their skin. In every generation, people of faith have risen up, inspired by Jesus’ gospel of love, to fight whatever harms the dignity of any of God’s children.

The same is true for us today. As a society we are faced with many challenges. Human life is coming increasingly under attack. We fail to protect the life of the innocent unborn child, and now many want to enact measures that make it easier for healthcare providers to end the lives of the sick and elderly. The institution of marriage which is the cornerstone of society is constantly being undermined. With the economy continuing to struggle,we look upon the poor and immigrants as problems to be solved rather than as our brothers and sisters whom we must love. Can the followers of Jesus stay silent when there is so much misery all around us? Can we keep our faith in a little box that we only open on Sunday when our neighbors are crying out for justice?

As followers of Jesus, we are called to influence the society around us and to transform it into one that puts people first. There are many ways that we can do this. First of all, we must do it by our example. The early Christians impressed their fellow citizens by their love for one another and by their care for the poor and destitute. We must do the same. However, it is not enough for us to give handouts to the needy. We must also befriend them. Poverty does much harm to people. Not only does it steal their sense of dignity, it also isolates them from society. Because they are ashamed of their circumstances, they withdraw from others and suffer intense loneliness. If we are to meet their deepest needs, we will not only provide them with a meal from time to time, but we will treat them as brothers and sisters, restoring their confidence in themselves, and helping them overcome whatever stands in the way of their living the full life that God intends for them.

The next way we can influence our government and society is by speaking out about the issues that threaten human freedom and dignity. We can do that by educating ourselves about these issues, speaking about them with our friends, writing our elected officials and by voting our conscience. Too often our politics is influenced more by the personality of candidates and  catchy sound bites rather than what is beneficial to the common good. Because of our faith, we can elevate the national debate by keeping the focus on the dignity of human life, the defence of marriage and family life and the needs of the poor.

It is true that our money bears the image of our presidents, kings and rulers. But each of us bears the image of One who is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. Each of us bears the image and likeness of our Creator. And we are called to live His gospel of love and so transform the world around us. As Saint Paul urges us, we are to prove our faith by working in love. Jesus makes it clear that we will be judged by how we have treated the poor among us. Moreover,  our society has lost its way on so many critical issues and desperately needs the witness of Christians. Inspired by the message of love and hope we have discovered in the cross of Christ, we can go forth in the transforming power of the Spirit to make our world one marked by justice and peace.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

What belongs to Caesar? What belongs to God?

The oldest political trick in the book is to get your opponent to talk about anything else except the issues. We have seen this many times over the past year. They bring up something a candidate's pastor once said. They question a candidate's commitment to his or her family. Rumors are started about possible shady business dealings. All this in hopes of getting the opponent to be on the defensive. Then the press will focus on the candidate's weaknesses rather than his or her strengths. Little by little, support for the candidate begins to diminish as he or she is required to talk about everything else except the issues.

This is a tactic which the enemies of Jesus tried often. In one famous episode from the gospel recorded by Matthew, Jesus is asked whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. By asking him whether or not Jews should pay taxes, they hoped to catch him in a trap. If Jesus said they should pay taxes, he would lose support among his followers who opposed the Roman occupation of Israel. If he said they shouldn't pay taxes, then the religious leaders would have cause to report him to the Roman authorities as an insurrectionist. Whichever way Jesus answered, his enemies hoped that he would have to keep explaining himself, digging himself into a deeper hole and losing support among the people. 

As usual, though, Jesus is far more clever than his adversaries. His answer has become one of the most quoted verses from the Bible: "Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar; but give to God what belongs to God."
When we hear Jesus' words, we have to ask ourselves: What exactly belongs to Caesar? What do we owe to our government and to our fellow citizens? We have a responsibility to pay taxes and follow the laws. Being blessed to live in a democracy, we also have a responsibility to vote and to voice our opinion. Along with that, we must study the issues facing our society and form our consciences so that our opinions are based on sound logic and good moral principles. All these elements go into being good and responsible citizens. God expects that of us, especially as he has blessed us with a country which values freedom so highly.

Too often, however, Jesus' words, "give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's", are quoted by adversaries of the Church who try to tell us that religion has no place in political life. They are using that old political tactic of trying to keep us from talking about the issues. When they claim a wall of separation between Church and State, they hope that people of faith won't become involved in the national debate about abortion, homosexual marriage, the death penalty or stem cell research. They tell us that people of faith should keep their opinions to themselves. They dare to say that we have no right to voice our opinion because it is informed and motivated by faith. Sad to say, too often Christians have taken that criticism to heart and left their faith at the door when they entered the voting booth. 

But, it is absolutely un-American to believe that someone has less of a freedom of speech because his or her ideas are informed and motivated by religious faith. As a country, we have fought to guarantee that each person have the freedom to voice their opinions no matter what their source or what their content. Should a person's beliefs and opinions be excluded because that person is a Catholic Christian? Why are the opinions of Catholics any different from the ideas proposed by environmentalists, animal rights supporters or business people? Like every other American, we have a right and a duty to witness to our faith even in the political arena.

And, the fact is that people of faith have always been a part of the political process in our country. In the last century, it was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a man of faith, who led the fight to guarantee civil rights for all people regardless of race. In the nineteenth century, people of faith were among those who stirred the conscience of our nation to recognize the evil of slavery. And, many of the drafters of the constitution and forefathers of the country were informed and motivated by their faith to make America a place of freedom and opportunity. In this century, it is up to us now to take up the cause of justice and to witness to the dignity of every human person no matter how weak or how vulnerable.

As a church, we must never endorse a political candidate or a political party. We can never fall into the trap of partisan politics. But, we do have a right and a duty to speak to the issues facing the society in which we live, work and raise our children. Because of our faith, we have much to offer. We have insights regarding the dignity of the human person, the sacredness of human life, the importance of the family and the role of government in protecting the most vulnerable of our citizens. As Pope John Paul II said so often, as a Church we do not seek to impose our views but to propose them to society, to enrich the debate through the witness of our faith.

Governments come and go. Political leaders come and go. But, God's word endures forever. The Church has survived numerous governments, both good and bad, from the Roman Empire, through the Middle Ages, through Nazism and Communism to the present day. As a community of faith we have a treasury of wisdom built up over those many centuries which we must share with the people of our day and use to strengthen our society. Let us pray that we will have the courage to speak the truth of the gospel even in the public arena and pray also for our leaders that they may be inspired by a vision of justice that will lead us to true peace.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Royal Invitation

It has been several years now when the whole world was caught up in the wedding of England's Prince William to Kate Middleton.  Every detail of the ceremony was reported on the front page of newspapers throughout the world. It was the lead story of every news program. Imagine how honored those who were actually invited to the wedding must have felt. It would be impossible to believe that anyone would have declined to attend because they had something better to do.  No one would have missed what turned out to be one of the great social events of the century.

Those listening to Jesus' parable in today's gospel must have been asking themselves, "Who wouldn't accept an invitation from a king? Why would anyone refuse to go when it is the king himself requesting their presence?" Even if they hated the king, they would have wanted to show respect out of fear that he would hold it against them and punish them. But, the people in the parable not only refuse to show up, they maltreat and even kill the messengers. They act with no respect and no fear of the king's power, and so the king shows them no mercy. 

Who is the king if not God himself? And, who is invited to this great banquet if not all of humanity, all of us? We realize that it is our Creator - the maker of heaven and earth - who calls each of us to friendship with him. God himself honors each of us by inviting us to share in his very life. Such an invitation should fill us with awe and joy. But, so often, we decline to respond and even refuse to show up. For some unfathomable reason throughout all the world, God's invitation to know, love and serve him goes without a response or with an outright rejection.

Nonetheless, for a reason which is even more mysterious, God never tires of extending the invitation to us. As many times as we may refuse him, he turns back to us with another opportunity to fill ourselves with the riches of his banquet. Like the king in the parable, he will have his ballroom filled. One of the great saints of the Church, Saint Alphonsus Liguori, once wrote that God pursues us with intense love and devotion as if we were his god. The greatest example of this is the cross. God did not spare his own Son in his pursuit of us. And so we can be sure that God will not spare anything else to draw us into the life he has prepared for us in heaven.

Not only must we accept God's invitation for ourselves, but we must help God to extend that invitation to others. We are here today because we have said "yes". We have experienced the sumptuous banquet of God's life and love and have come back for seconds. Yet, so many in our world are unaware of the invitation which God has extended to them. They are busy with other concerns which seem more pressing. All the while, they are feeling the emptiness and pangs of a hunger they cannot identify. Their lives lack purpose and meaning, and they don't know what to do about it. We have the answer. We know what it is they are longing for because we have tasted God's goodness. For us not to tell them about the peace and joy we have found at the banquet of God's Word and at the table of the Eucharist would be like refusing food to someone who is starving. We must never fail to speak to everyone we meet about the hope and the peace we have discovered by saying "yes" to God's invitation to friendship with him.

In God's vast and infinite love, he has spread a rich banquet before us. For over two thousand years, saints have found inspiration and sinners forgiveness around this table. As we approach Jesus in the Eucharist, we cannot forget those who have failed to respond or have rejected God's love for some unknown reason. As we pray for ourselves that we never be separated from Christ, we must also pray for those who have yet to respond that they will say "yes" so that this banquet place may be full to honor God's Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

(image by Marisol Sousa)

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Hound of Heaven

Poor Francis Thompson just could not find his way in life.

He was born in 1859 in Lancashire, England. Like his father, he studied to be a doctor but could never keep up with his classwork. After failing the medical examination three times, he decided to give everything up and move to London to be a writer.

However, the big city was not kind to young Francis. Unable to find work, he became homeless and was reduced to selling matches on the street corner. It was also during this time that he became addicted to opium and any money he managed to earn went to supporting his habit. Francis, finding himself in a state of utter destitution, cried out to God for help.

A prostitute noticed him in an alley close to death from starvation. She took him in, fed him and nursed him back to health. Off the streets, he decided to dedicate himself to his dream of writing poetry. After his first poem was published, he entered a monastery for two years to try to break his addiction to drugs. During this time, he wrote some of his most moving poetry and finally found the success he had hoped for.

However, the years on the street had taken their toll on him. He finally died of tuberculosis in 1907 at the age of 48.

Though he had lived a short life, his poems went on to inspire many other writers. His most famous poem is called “The Hound of Heaven”. In it, he describes God as a hound who relentlessly pursues him. No matter how hard he tries to flee from Him, God continues to chase after him. No matter how destitute he became as a drug addict, God never gave up on him. He finally has to stop and ask himself why he was trying so hard to escape from God’s love.

The poem is not easy to read, but it conveys a powerful and beautiful truth about our Heavenly Father. He loves each one of us with a burning passion. He cannot rest until He has found a way to reach us. No matter how hard we try to avoid Him, no matter what other choices in life we may make, He will not give up on us. There is nothing we can do to make Him love us any less or to keep Him from trying to convince us to love Him back.

The many parables that Jesus tells are all concerned with this great love of God for His people. In today’s gospel, He tells the story of a king who sends out invitations to his son’s wedding. Though the guests fail to respond to his invitation, he will not take no for an answer. If the invited guests fail to arrive, he insists on inviting others no matter how lowly they may be. He will have his son’s wedding banquet filled with people no matter the cost.

Like the king in the parable, God has sent an invitation to each of us, and He is waiting for our response.
It may often seem to us that we are the ones who are seeking God, but the opposite is in fact true. God is searching for us. No matter what it is we think we may want in life whether it be happiness or love or meaning, all of it can be found in our Heavenly Father. There is nothing we desire in life that God cannot provide for us. After all, He created us and everything in this wonderful world. If we would only stop and let Him catch up to us, we might just begin to realize it.

Why do we so often hide from God and not open the invitation we have received from him? Could it be that we are just so wrapped up with the concerns of daily life to answer His call? Is His invitation left on the table along with the junk mail and unpaid bills? Or are we afraid that if we  accept His invitation we will have to change? Are we afraid what God might ask of us if we do say yes to Him?

It is natural to be concerned about the cost of following Jesus. It is not easy to live the message He preached and to accept the invitation to live a life of total trust in Him. But we should never forget that there is also a high cost to saying no to that invitation. It means spending our lives chasing things that in the end can never satisfy us. It often means years of  feeling empty inside and wondering what is missing. It often means literally exhausting ourselves to earn success and accumulate possessions that fail to give us the security and status we thought they would. And, in the end, it could mean that we would have lived our whole lives on this planet without fulfilling the purpose for which we were created - to know, love and serve God.

God is seeking each of us out. He sent His Son to make clear to us how much He loves us and how desperately He wants us to love Him in return. We do not have to go looking for God because He is already looking for us. All we have to do is stop and let Him catch us. All we have to do is stop allowing fear to keep us on the run. Then we can accept the invitation to a personal relationship with the God who created us. We can know the joy and peace that our hearts were created to feel. We can stop running and start living.

Monday, October 6, 2014

A Life-Changing Gift

A man was dying. When he sensed that his life on earth was close to its end, he called his oldest son to his bedside. From a bag on the end table, he pulled out a simple wooden box with a carving of a rose on it. He handed it to his son explaining that it had been given to him by his father and that he wanted him now to keep it. He promised his son that, if he took good care of it, the box would change his life. The son wasn't quite sure what his father was talking about, but took the box anyway and brought it home.

In a few weeks, the father died. After the funeral, the son took the box intending to put it on the mantel above the fireplace in his living room. He cleared the pictures off the mantel and placed the box right in the middle. Standing back to look at it, he felt that something wasn't quite right. He noticed that the pictures hanging on the wall really didn't match the box on the mantel. So, he took down all the pictures and rearranged them. Things still didn't seem quite right. So, he decided to rearrange the furniture. He pushed the couch, the love seat and the recliner in different positions around the room until he found an arrangement that matched the box and the pictures on the wall. Looking back on all the work he had done, he thought about his father's words that, if he took good care of the box, it would change his life. He laughed to himself as he thought that, to make room for that little box, he had already changed his whole living room around. He wondered to himself in what other ways that little box which he had come to treasure would change his life.

We have all been given a gift by our God, a gift that will change us if we take good care of it. That gift is the gift of life. Each of us was created by God. Each of us belongs to him. And, God expects each of us to do great things with this gift of life.

Our life is the first gift that God gives us. Everything else God wants to give us depends on it. What good would all the treasures of earth be if we didn't have our life to enjoy it? What good would even faith, hope or love be if we weren't alive to receive them? Before God can give us anything else, he must first give us the gift of life.

That is why, as believers in Christ, we must always work to guarantee a right to life for all people from the time they are conceived until the time of their natural death. We never look at any human being - no matter how sick, no matter how deformed, no matter how needy - as a burden. Rather, we look at each person as a gift, a gift from God. And, if we take care of the most vulnerable among us - if we cherish their lives as a precious gift - it will surely change us for the better. Like the man in the story found out when he put the box in a prominent place in his home, we discover that caring for the lives of the needy will force us to clear away the things which don't really matter, like anxieties about our appearance or our status. It will help us to place the gift of life and the right to life at the center of our families and our society where it belongs.

In today's gospel, the people who are put in charge of the vineyard forget that it doesn't belong to them. They want to keep the vineyard and its produce for themselves. They want to do with it whatever they want without respecting the demands of its true owner. They eventually go so far as to kill the owner's son. They took the gift they were given - the vineyard - and forgot to whom it belonged. Instead of honoring and protecting the gift, they squandered it, and it resulted in their ruin.

Can we see a parallel with today's society? How have we treated the gift of life which has been entrusted to us? How have we taken care of the weak and needy in our society?  Every year on this day - Respect Life Sunday - we ask these hard questions of ourselves and of our country. In an election year, these questions become even more pressing. Once we recognize life as a gift of God and every human life as made in God's own image and likeness, we can no longer fool ourselves that whether the unborn live or die is a personal choice. We can no longer kid ourselves that the lives of the innocent are ours to do with as we please. Otherwise, as a society, we risk the calamity that befell the men in today's gospel.

Each of us knows how precious our own lives are. We treasure the lives of our family members, our children and our friends. We strive to make of our lives something worthwhile and beautiful. And, we want to help enrich the lives of those we love and make our world a better place. Like the man in the story, we have embraced the gift of life, and it has changed us. On this day - Respect Life Sunday - let us renew our commitment to life, especially the lives of the most vulnerable members of our society.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

What Would You Give For A Second Chance?

What would you give for a second chance? What would you do to have a fresh start in which all the mistakes of your past were forgotten? What would it mean to you to have your slate wiped clean and be returned to innocence?

That is exactly what God offers us at the beginning of each day. With the rising of the sun, we have a chance to start over again, to learn from the mistakes of our past and make healthy, holy choices. Every minute of every day, we can turn to Him, ask for forgiveness and rely on Him for the strength to do good. When we repent, God forgives the wrong we have done, picks us up, cleans us off and sets us back on our feet. The fresh start we need is as simple as turning to our Heavenly Father with a sincerely sorrowful heart.

That is the promise of today’s readings.

Through the prophet Ezekiel, God teaches us that He does not want the sinner to die but to live. No matter what choices we have made in the past, no matter what sins we have committed, no matter what may have happened to us as a result, we can find forgiveness in our Heavenly Father. As a good and loving Father, He is not eager to punish us but desires to restore our friendship with Him and to give us all we need to live a full and abundant life.

In today’s gospel, Jesus carries the same message forward in the parable about the two sons. One said “no” but changed his mind and went into the vineyard. The other said “yes” but, then, did not obey his father. The meaning is clear. If we have failed in the past, if we have said “no” to God, we can still change our answer. Today we can decide to say “yes” and change the course of our lives. In fact, Jesus explains that even tax collectors and prostitutes - who were considered the greatest of sinners - were entering the Kingdom of God because they believed in Him. The same is true for us.

If you are looking for that fresh start, if you sincerely desire a new beginning, our Heavenly Father is offering it to you today. Simply turn to Him in your heart and let Him know that you are ready to change. Let Him know how tired and fed up you are with the choices you have made and the consequences of your sinfulness. Ask Him to be the center of your life and real change will begin to happen. Today can be the beginning of a whole new life for you.

The next step to take would be going to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. God offers confession to us not as a way for us to relive all the sinful choices of our past but as a means for us to be relieved of them. Jesus gave His apostles and those who would follow them the power to forgive sins in His name precisely for this reason. That is why we have understood the Sacrament of Reconciliation to be a “second baptism.” It cleanses us of our guilt and restores the innocence of our baptism. It also heals the wounds that sin has created within us and strengthens us to make good and holy choices going forward. No matter how firm our resolution to change may be, if we do not turn to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we are bound to fail. We need the strength that is given to us in this beautiful sacrament to make any real and lasting renewal in our lives.

Our “yes” to God cannot only be a one time event. It is something which we have to renew on a daily basis. That way we can make progress not only in avoiding bad choices but in making good and holy ones. It can be as easy as saying to God, “I say ‘yes’ to you today, Lord.” By calling to mind our commitment every day and several times during the day, we are strengthened in our resolve to follow Jesus.

One great spiritual practice that helps us with this is called the “morning offering”. As soon as we wake up in the morning, we offer the day to God, commit ourselves to giving glory to Him and ask for the strength to make holy choices. Any good prayer book should have a morning offering in it or one can be found online. Along with daily prayer, reflection on Scripture and Mass, it is an indispensable way for us to remain firm in saying “yes” to our Heavenly Father.

Finally, it will happen from time to time that we will fall. We can be dragged down by the people around us or our old habits can return. Even the holiest of people can fail. When that happens, God does not want us wallowing in guilt or, even worse, giving up and returning to our old way of life. Instead, we should turn immediately to Him, ask for forgiveness and go to confession as soon as possible. As Pope Francis says continually, “God never tires of forgiving us”. We may feel frustrated that we are confessing the same sins over and over again, but God understands our weakness and willing offers us the chance to begin again.

Today is a new day filled with possibilities. This can be the day we say “yes” to God and experience all the graces and blessings He has to offer us. No matter how we may have responded in the past, no matter how often we may have said “no” to all that God was offering us, today can be the day all that changes. Today can be the day we say “yes”. And if we do say “yes” not only with our lips but with the choices we make, we can be sure that our lives will never be the same.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Every Sinner Has A Future

English writer and director, Roland Joffe has had an impressive career in the movie industry. Among his successful and critically acclaimed films are “The Mission” and “The Killing Fields.” In 2011,  he added another epic film to his impressive resume entitled “There Be Dragons”. It is based on the life of Saint Josemaria Escriva, a priest who lived during the Spanish Civil War and who founded Opus Dei which helps Catholics live their faith in their everyday lives.

The movie is a testament to God’s grace at work even in the most ordinary of people. Just as powerful as the message of the movie is the slogan used to promote it: “Even saints have a past,” taken from Oscar Wilde’s famous quote, “Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.”

When we look at the history of the Church we see how true it is that some of our greatest saints were often once great sinners. Saint Paul who wrote much of the New Testament was once a persecutor of the early Church and was complicit in the death of the first martyr for Christ, Saint Stephen. Saint Augustine, one of the Church’s first great thinkers, led an immoral life until he came to recognize the love of God. Many other saints as well were  terrible people who were struck by God’s love and mercy and who, through grace, came to a complete change of heart.

It is true that every great sinner can become a great saint. Just as every saint has a past so every sinner has a future. No one is so sinful that he or she cannot find forgiveness through the blood of Christ. Though sin harms us and wounds our soul deeply, it can never totally erase our likeness to God. Nothing we do, no matter how harmful to ourselves or to others, can make God decide to stop loving us. At any point in our lives, we can turn back to Him and be embraced by His forgiving love. This is God’s promise to us through the prophet Ezekiel in today’s first reading: “When the wicked turn away from their wickedness, they shall live.”

This is also the message of Jesus in today’s gospel. As He walked through Galilee preaching the good news of God’s Kingdom, it was not just the righteous who followed Him. It was also the worst of sinners - tax collectors and prostitutes - who left their wicked lives to find new hope in Him. They had been on the margin of society, shunned by others because of their shameful deeds But in Jesus they found a new life. They learned that God would always love and forgive them. They found the joy and peace that comes from God alone.

Now, just as it is true that in Christ sinners can become saints, it is also true that good people can slide back into a life of sin. As Jesus puts it, those who first say “yes” to God can end up not doing His will and disobeying Him. We see all the time how good people can very often make bad choices. We may have seen it in our own lives.

It starts off innocently enough. We may be feeling tired and decide to watch television rather than pray. Or we may be on vacation and decide that it would not hurt us to miss Sunday Mass. Other times we may be feeling stressed and want to treat ourselves to some of the pleasures we had been avoiding. Then, before we know it, we have drifted away from Christ and fallen into sin. Though we have said “yes” many times to our Lord, our actions begin to say “no”.

No matter how good we are, no matter how much progress we have made in our spiritual life, we must always be vigilant against temptation. We must always make time for prayer, go to Mass at least every Sunday and receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation as often as possible. We cannot follow Christ through our own power. We need the strength that comes from God through prayer and the sacraments. We can never just rely on the good deeds of our past. They mean nothing if we are not striving every day to live a good Christian life in imitation of our Master, Jesus.

Our Lord makes this very clear in the gospel. The priests and elders in Jesus’ day were very good people. They desired to live the commandments and to be good examples to the people. However, despite all their good deeds and learning, they could not accept Jesus. Instead of embracing Him as their Messiah, they saw Him as a threat. In so doing, they missed out on the opportunity to know God’s love in a deeper and fuller way. The same can happen to us if we are not striving everyday to live holy lives with the strength God provides.

God is offering us the opportunity to change. He is holding out to us the possibility of a life full of joy, peace and happiness. By following His Son, we can know the purpose of our lives and discover our true selves made in the image and likeness of God.

What are we waiting for? The opportunity to be a great saint is offered to us here and now. Let’s not put it off any longer. None of us know how much time we have left. Why continue to live burdened by sin and anxiety when we can know lasting joy and peace?

Today is the day. God is waiting for our answer. Let us respond “yes” not only with our words but with our actions.