Wednesday, September 30, 2015


When we picture Jesus, we tend to imagine a gentle, soft-spoken man who loved and cared for everyone. While he was certainly that, he was also a man who was passionate about the truth and unafraid to proclaim it whenever necessary. There are times throughout the gospels when Jesus, because of his love of the truth, can sound severe and even harsh. We can sometimes be shocked when we hear Jesus speaking clearly about the reality of hell or when he tells the religious leaders that they are like "vipers" and "white-washed coffins." However, Jesus was not crucified because he was nice. Much of what he said upset the people of his day. Not only was he loved and followed because of his strong proclamation of the truth, but he was hated as well.

It can be a temptation for us when we read something in the Scriptures which does not sound "nice" to want to ignore it. However, all of Scripture is inspired by God and meant for our education and edification whether it be passages that bring us consolation or words that make us question our choices and our way of life. We have to pay attention to and take very seriously the passages of Scripture that point out our sinful behavior no matter how difficult they may be to hear. Otherwise, we may continue in that behavior and miss out on the graces that God wishes to shower upon us.

Today's readings have some very harsh and pointed words for those who are envious. Jesus rebukes his disciples for trying to stop a man from casting out demons in his name. Instead of being concerned with the people who were suffering because they were possessed, the disciples were trying to control the powers Jesus had given them. They considered themselves "insiders", part of a clique, and were unwilling to share their authority with others, even if it meant freeing someone from the grip of the devil.
In essence, they were envious of the others who were able to perform wonders in Jesus' name.

Envy is one of the seven deadly sins and an offence against the tenth commandment. It is also one of the most unpleasant feelings we can have. When we are envious, we begrudge people the talents, friendships and material possessions they have. Envy is such an offense against God because it can lead to our wishing our even committing harm against others. When we are jealous, we tell God that all the blessings he has given us are not good enough.

No one is immune from envy. It happens among classmates, it can take place between neighbors, and it can be found in businesses. Sad to say, even clergymen can find themselves envying other deacons or priests who are more charismatic or better preachers. When jealousy does find a place in our hearts, it destroys relationships and communities. It is at the root of many crimes such as robbery, fraud and even murder.

In a materialistic culture like our own, envy is widespread and far-reaching. Over this past year, we can see the effects it has had on our economy. As we suffer through the current financial crisis, we have to ask ourselves, how much of it was caused by jealousy? Isn't it true that people over-extended themselves buying homes, cars and other items they couldn't afford because they wanted to impress their friends and neighbors or because they wanted what other people had? In the process, many have lost their homes and their life savings, families have been torn apart and whole neighborhoods have been ruined. When we consider how much havoc envy has wreaked it is easy to understand why Jesus had such harsh words to say about it to his disciples.

The good news is that there is a way out for us who might find ourselves struggling with envy against our family, friends and neighbors. As with any sin, it begins by turning to Jesus and asking forgiveness. In prayer, we can confess to God that we are envious because we do not always appreciate how he has blessed us. We can ask him to give us a real and lasting gratitude for the good things we already enjoy. And we can ask him to give us a true humility so that we do not always have to be the center of attention and do not always have to impress everyone all the time.

If our jealousy has led us to seriously harm others by spreading rumors about them or stealing from them, we should go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation as soon as possible. And, whenever possible, we should try to make things right by restoring whatever we may have damaged or stolen. Another good way of overcoming envy and learning humility is to ask forgiveness of the person we have harmed and confessing to him or her that we were acting out of jealousy. Chances are they already know that, but it will go a long way toward healing the relationship.

The essence of the Christian life is to follow the example of love which Christ set for us. It means loving others as we love ourselves and putting the interests of others before our own. It is the exact opposite of how we act when we are jealous. And so, another important cure for envy is to pray for the well-being of the people we are jealous of. In fact, as difficult as it may sound, we should ask God to bless them with the talents, friendships and material possessions we would like for ourselves. One of the Church's greatest preachers, Saint John Chrysostom put it this way:

"Would you like to see God glorified by you? Then rejoice in your brother's progress and you will immediately give glory to God. Because his servant could conquer envy by rejoicing in the merits of others, God will be praised."

When we do that sincerely by the power that God gives us, we begin to feel the grip of envy loosen on our hearts and on our lives.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

God Of Surprises

Our God is a God of surprises. He can be found in the most unexpected places and circumstances.

No one knows this better than a young woman named Kate.

Since she was young, Kate always felt a close relationship with God. However, in her late 20’s, she found herself working a high-pressure job and planning her wedding. There was just not as much time for prayer and spiritual reading which at one time had been a priority for her. Little by little, she felt herself losing her connection to her Heavenly Father. In fact, the only time she prayed was when the stress from work and wedding planning got to be too much for her. She would simply cry out, “Where are you, God, and why aren’t you helping me?”

One day, while rushing to catch the subway to work, a homeless person stopped her and asked her for change. She just did not have the time to stop and blurted out to him, “Please leave me alone!” Though he was startled, he calmly replied, “That’s okay, ma’am. I’ll still pray for you.”

Kate was struck to her core by his response. It helped her to realize how selfish she had been. She had allowed the pressures of life to squeeze out what had always been important to her, namely, being attentive to the needy. This man had helped her realize that God had not abandoned her, but she had abandoned God. She had been wondering where God was but it turned out that He had never left her. And she discovered this truth in the most unexpected of places and in the most surprising of ways - on a subway platform from a homeless person.

Today’s scripture readings speak to us of this God of surprises who reveals Himself in the most unexpected of ways.

In the first reading, God takes some of the Spirit which is on Moses and bestows it on seventy elders to assist him in leading the people of Israel through the desert. Though, two of the elders are outside of the meeting place, they too receive the Spirit and begin prophesying. Moses’ closest assistant, Joshua, is offended by what he sees and urges Moses to stop them. But Moses recognizes the work of the Spirit and understands that he cannot control it. He was used to God working in unexpected ways. It was a lesson that his young assistant would also need to learn.

In the gospel, Jesus’ closest friend, John, witnesses some people casting out a demon in Christ’s name. Like Joshua, he is offended by it and urges Jesus to stop them. It must have been an especially stinging event to witness since only a few chapters earlier, the disciples themselves were unable to exorcise a man who had come to them possessed with a demon. Like Moses, Jesus assures His disciples that they should welcome any good works done in His name no matter who does it. The Spirit of God does not follow our rules or limit Himself to our expectations. He is a God of surprises who always does what is unexpected. Soon enough, the disciples would discover how true Jesus’ words are when He is unexpectedly raised from the dead and when they finally receive the fullness of the Spirit themselves empowering them to preach the good news.

If God seems distant to us, if we feel as though we have lost touch with our Heavenly Father, could it be that we are looking in the wrong places? If we are unsure what God expects from us, if the direction of our lives is unclear, could it be that He is working in an unexpected way to bring about our sanctification and salvation? Are we so expecting God to work in a certain way and to reveal Himself in a certain place that we are not open to His surprising us from time to time? And if He is working in mysterious ways, how can we discover it and become aware of it.

The great spiritual master, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, can help us. Unlike many of the Church’s other spiritual masters, Saint Ignatius developed a spirituality for people with busy lives. It is not necessary to quit one’s job and spend hours in prayer to follow the way he proposed. One of his spiritual exercises which is especially helpful is called the examen. Like the examination of conscience, Ignatius has us spend a few minutes in the evening reviewing our day. However, the examen is not just concerned with how we may have sinned. It is also focused on how God revealed Himself to us that day.

We begin by taking a few moments to quiet ourselves down and to thank God for everything that happened during the day, both the good and the bad. Then we ask for the grace to review our day, hour by hour or period by period, looking for the ways that God may have been revealing Himself to us and how we responded. Like Kate in the subway, it might be through a homeless person we encounter. It could be at a moment when we look out a window and are struck by how beautiful the world is. As we remember those moments throughout the day, we thank God for revealing Himself and ask Him to give us the grace to recognize Him the following day. If we have failed, we ask for forgiveness and the grace to do better.

Taking that time at the end of every day will not only help us to see how God has been at work in our past but will prepare us to recognize Him when He does appear to us in so many unexpected and surprising ways. It will also give us confidence that no matter how chaotic our lives may seem, God is in the midst of it with us and we can be assured that He will manifest Himself to us in it and lead us through.

We worship a hidden God who can manifest Himself to us in infinitely various ways. Through prayer, we can learn to recognize Him and can allow ourselves to be surprised by Him. Now He comes to us in the most glorious of ways, through the Body and Blood of His Son. Nourished by the bread from heaven, we can now show the God we have discovered to others so that all the world can be charged by the glory of this God of surprises.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Getting Down

It is called “climbing the ladder.”

In today’s society, we view our lives as climbing a ladder, trying to get ahead. We rise in the ranks by getting better jobs, earning a larger salary and showing off flashier toys than the people below us. Our value lies in how high and how fast we are able to rise. We look down on those below us on the ladder because they are obviously not as smart or as hardworking as we are. If they suffer because they lack the resources we enjoy, we consider it their own fault. As for the people above us, we look on them with envy and spite. We call them names like “fat-cats” or “the one percent”. To get as high as they did, they must have inherited their money or earned it by cheating others. All the while we are trying to get up to where they are.

This idea of climbing the ladder which is so pervasive in our world today may be successful at motivating us to get ahead but it has devastating consequences for society. It teaches us that our worth as individuals can be measured in material possessions. Goodness, integrity and honesty are only valuable if they help us get ahead. It splinters society by creating divisions based on class and income. Finally it gives us an excuse for not reaching down to help those who are less fortunate than ourselves. As we see it, it is their own fault for not getting ahead. Their misfortune is their own problem. We are not responsible for their hardships. We are only responsible for our own successes or failures.

As we see in today’s gospel, even Jesus’ disciples were not immune from jockeying for position in the rank of apostle. Saint Mark tells us that on the way to the town of Capernaum, they were arguing among themselves about which one was the greatest. We are not told exactly what they were saying, but we can imagine that one claimed to have more faith, another probably claimed to know Scripture better and yet another probably claimed to be a closer friend of Jesus. While they would not have been arguing over who made the most money or who had the finest tunic, their mentality was the same as ours. Each was trying to climb the ladder by stepping on the person below.

However, Jesus tells them - and us - that nothing could be further from the message of love He came to teach. In fact, He came to take the climbing the ladder mentality and turn it on its head by saying, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” Unlike the corporate world of power and politics, in God’s kingdom we show our status not by trying to get ahead of others but by reaching down to help others get ahead of us. We do not climb the stairway to heaven by asserting our own rights and interests but by promoting the interests of those less fortunate than ourselves. Jesus came to preach a revolutionary message of love that tears down the divisions of class, status and income that society creates and replaces it with unity, solidarity and cooperation.

Saint James picks up on this theme in today’s second reading. The type of jealousy and selfish ambition which drives our idea of climbing the ladder is the cause of endless strife in society and much injustice. But God shows us a better way. It is the way of wisdom which is peaceable and full of mercy. Such wisdom leads to peace. If we want a more just world in which all people have an opportunity to practice their faith and support their families, then it is clear that we have to jump off the ladder, put aside our selfish ambition and begin to serve one another out of love.

Jesus shows us how in the gospel. By taking a child into His arms, He tells us, “If you are going to envy someone, envy this child.” Love comes naturally to children. Everything they have comes from their parents. They look to others to have their needs met. Money, power and prestige mean nothing to them. Jesus makes it clear, that unless we become like children, unless we put aside the drive to get ahead at all costs, we cannot enter His Kingdom.

As followers of Jesus living in a world driven by greed, it can be difficult for us not to get caught up in the mindless pursuit of wealth and possessions. However, we are called to something greater. We are called to store treasure in heaven. So while we participate in the economy by working and investing our money, we must be driven by more than just trying to get ahead. As a witness to our faith, we should be living simpler lives so that we will have more money to give to charities. By volunteering at soup kitchens or at suicide hotlines, we point out to others that we have a responsibility to come to the aid of those who have fallen into misfortune. And if it happens that we lose our job or fall on hard times ourselves, we can rest assured that although we may be looked down upon or ignored by others, we are still valuable members of society and that we will be richly provided for by our Heavenly Father.

As in all things, Jesus shows us the way. Although He was more powerful than any other man who walked the earth, He used His power to help others rather than to gain an advantage for Himself. When He was rejected, He did not resort to vengeance or violence but to forgiveness, offering Himself up to death so that we could live. Our world which is caught up in divisions, strife and violence is so in need of that example, and we must give it by God’s grace by refusing to get ahead at the expense of others and refusing to look down on those who have less than we do. To transform our world, we must become like the child Jesus held in His arms, trusting that our needs will be provided for as we seek to serve others. Then the peace of God’s Kingdom can begin to take hold in our world.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Great In God's Eyes

Who are the people whom the world considers important? Who are the people who show up on the covers of Time, Newsweek and People magazines? They are the women and men with power who make things happen. Or the rich who have luxurious homes and fast cars. They are the "beautiful people" - actors, musicians, politicians - who are attractive and have personalities that get them noticed. These are the people our materialistic culture holds up as "heroes". These are the people our society worships.

But the way we measure importance is far different from the way Jesus measured it. Power, money, looks, charisma - none of that made a person important to him. Instead, Jesus came to serve those who went unnoticed, those who didn't seem to make a difference in society. He came for the sick, the lepers, the poor and all those pushed aside by the world and seen as a drain on its resources. Those were the people he sought out in every city and town he entered. When he preached God's love and concern for every person, he was speaking to them. When he healed, theirs were the bodies he touched. And it was the sinners he chose to eat with, not those who were righteous in their own eyes. Everything Jesus did and said was directed to those who were forgotten, pushed aside, ridiculed and reviled.

And so he taught his followers that the only way that they could be important in God's eyes - the only way that they could get noticed - was to make themselves the slaves of others. If God's loving gaze was always on the poor, then they had to make themselves poor. If it was the sick that God was gathering into his kingdom, then they had to be found among them. The strong would have to make themselves the slaves of the weak, and the rich would have to put themselves at the service of the poor. Jesus taught that his greatest follower would be the one who acted as if everyone else were greater, as if everyone else were holier, as if everyone else were more important.

In today's gospel, Jesus illustrates his point by placing a child in their midst. In doing so, he was stressing that their job was to reach out to those members of society who were the most insignificant. In Jesus' day, children had no legal rights at all and were, therefore, the most vulnerable members of society. Jesus' message was that the greatest of his disciples would be the ones to look after the needs of the most vulnerable, those who otherwise would fall through the cracks.

Why does Jesus insist on this point? Because he believed that every human life had the same value in God's eyes. The poor person's life means as much as the wealthy person's life. The life of the sick is no less valuable than that of the healthy and strong. In God's eyes, the death of an Iraqi soldier is as tragic as the death of an American soldier. A person's power or money cannot make their lives more precious. To God, every human life is worth creating and every human life is worth saving. God never thinks that he has wasted his gift of life on any one of us.

The greatest example of this is the cross. Jesus, the innocent Son of God, the most important person who ever lived, was willing to give his life for each and every one of us. Whenever we are tempted to doubt our own worth or the worth of another person, we must remember that, no matter what we might think about ourselves or others, God thought us precious enough to offer up his Son in sacrifice for us. Jesus was willing to give his life up for ours. How, then, could we ever doubt the inestimable value of each and every human life, no matter how young or how old, how rich or how poor, how weak or how strong?

Jesus calls us who wish to follow him to serve the needs of those society deems unimportant. We must consider the needs of those who normally go unnoticed to be more important than our own because every human being deserves our love and attention.

Who in our lives could be going unnoticed and could use a little love and attention? Do you have a sick relative who would be delighted to get a visit from you? Is there someone at your work who is struggling and could use a helping hand? Is there someone at your school who has trouble making friends and would appreciate it if you sat with him or her in the cafeteria? Is there a poor person asking for hand outs at the light on your way to work whom you could give a dollar to and let know that someone cares for him? Each of us knows such people. They are Jesus approaching us in disguise and asking us if we love him. Even though our society has little use for them, they are God's precious children worth more to him than we can ever know.

What makes a person important in God's eyes? We know that wealth, beautiful homes and powerful positions cannot impress the all-powerful God who created the universe with all its wonders. To impress God it takes a loving heart willing to go out of its way for those who cry out for our help. At the end of time, the world with all its glory will be wiped away. Everything we thought was important will be no more. We will each stand naked before the God who created us, and we will be judged on how we loved the poor people he placed in our lives.  Today can be the day when we confess to God that we have been busy trying to impress the wrong people. And today can be the day when we begin to ask him to open our eyes and our hearts to those in our families, in our places of business, in our schools and in our communities who are truly in need and who, therefore, are truly important and deserving in his eyes.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Standing Out From The Crowd

What does it take to stand out from the crowd?

In sports, it requires long hours of training to become faster and stronger than one’s competition. In business, it means working more efficiently than other companies or providing superior service.

How about in the spiritual life? What does it mean to be more than another face in the crowd and become a disciple of Jesus? What does it take to be a saint?

While all of scripture teaches us what it means to be a true follower of Christ, today’s readings in particular shed light on these important questions.

In the gospel passage we heard proclaimed today, Jesus asks who the crowds say He is. According to His disciples, the people are not quite sure what to make of Jesus. To most of them, He is just another prophet.

Peter, however, stands out from the crowd and even out from the other disciples by proclaiming, “You are the Christ.” By doing so, Peter is saying that Jesus is much more than just another prophet or just another wonder-worker. Instead, he is professing his faith that Jesus is the one sent by God as Messiah, to save Israel and to bring about all the covenant promises of the Kingdom of God. As the drama of Jesus’ death and resurrection unfold, Peter will come to understand that Jesus is indeed the Messiah and the Son of God.

Two thousand years later, we stand out from the crowd as disciples of Christ by our profession of faith that Jesus is Lord. Most people in our society are willing to honor Jesus as a good man and a teacher. Some may acknowledge the courage and love with which He died on the cross. However, there are few who are willing to profess that He is God, the eternal Son of the Father. There are few who are willing to believe that Jesus is the only name given to us by which we are to be saved. If we are to become true disciples of Jesus and future saints, then it is precisely that faith which we must profess and live out.

The governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, tells a poignant story of his conversion from Hinduism to Catholicism. After investigating many religions, he was sitting in a theater watching a short film on the passion and death of Jesus. He was deeply moved by the portrayal and it became clear to him that if Jesus is who He says He is, if He is the Son of God, then there is no other response than to worship and obey Him. From that moment on, He decided that Jesus would be the center of His life.

If today’s gospel teaches us the first step in how to stand out from the crowd, then Saint James in the second reading teaches us what the next step is. It is one thing to say we believe and it is quite something else to act on it. “What good is it...if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” The proof as to whether we truly have faith is if it is making a difference in the way we behave and in the choices we make. If I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, do I then make His word the basis for every decision I make? If He commands me to do something, do I do it? If He commands me not to do something, do I then not do it? Acting on our faith rather than just professing it is what makes us stand out from the crowd.

What does it mean to act on our faith? Saint James tells us that it requires us to serve the needs of the poor and the sick. It means putting aside our own needs to meet the needs of others. It means recognizing Christ in every person we run into. It means not only wishing others well, but seeing to it that they have what they need. Each of us who are called to be saints are called to serve. How we will serve depends on our state in life, our means and the talents we have to offer. Nonetheless, if we are to stand out from the crowd in our life of faith, we must start each day asking Jesus, “How do you want me to serve you today?”

Finally, Jesus offers us the third step in our journey to becoming disciples. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” It is one thing to believe, another thing to act on those beliefs and still another to suffer because of what we believe. Can we hold fast to our beliefs even when others make fun of us for it? Can we keep God’s word, even when it requires sacrificing comforts, security and friendships? Can we accept whatever suffering may come patiently and offer it up for our sanctification and the conversion of sinners?  That type of courage - the willingness to take a hit to do what is right - sets apart the true friend of Jesus.

Why all this talk of sacrifice and denying oneself? Why all this talk of losing our lives in order to gain them back? Because God has something better planned for us than anything this world can offer. If He asks us to give up our tin, it is so that He can replace it with gold. If He asks us to give up material possessions it is so that He can give us everlasting treasure in Heaven. We walk the narrow path to salvation for one reason - because it is the path that we find Jesus walking. To be by His side, to enjoy His friendship, we are willing to set aside whatever else the world may offer. We want to break from the crowd and stand by Jesus. By believing that He is the only way to the Father, by acting on that belief and by making whatever sacrifices are necessary to follow Him, we can rest assured that He will not only be at our side in this life, but that He will call us to Himself when we enter the gates of His Kingdom.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Exaltation Of The Holy Cross

In his recently released book, Jesus, A Pilgrimage, Fr. James Martin, S.J. tells the story of Doris, a hospital volunteer whom he met while serving as a Jesuit novice in Cambridge, Massachusetts. During a discussion group that was being led by the hospital chaplains, Doris, who was confined to a wheelchair, shared about her experience. Rather than complain about the limitations her condition imposed on her or the difficulties of getting around the city in a wheelchair, she expressed gratitude. Though she had once seen her wheelchair as her cross, she now looked upon it as her resurrection. As Fr. Martin quotes her in his book, “My wheelchair helps me get around....Without it, I wouldn’t be able to do anything. Life would be so dull without it.”

Though she may not have realized it, Doris in her wisdom revealed a deep truth about the mystery of the cross. What appears in our lives as a punishment, a burden or an affliction, carries within it the seeds of new life. When we accept our suffering, bear it patiently and even embrace it, we find new meaning in it. Suffering borne in love transforms us.

The cross is at the center of everything we do as Christians. We begin all our prayers by marking ourselves with the sign of the cross in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. A cross features prominently in every church. All our processions are led by a cross. It is the symbol of everything we believe and everything we are as followers of Christ.

Because the cross is such a part of our life, we can forget that it was originally used as a means of torture by ancient Rome. In fact, it was such a cruel form of punishment that it was reserved for foreigners and the worst of criminals. Often, the Romans would leave the bodies of their victims nailed to the cross for days to strike fear in the people. For the Jews of Jesus' day, the cross was a shameful way to die. There was nothing about it worthy of exaltation.

Jesus, however, has transformed the meaning of the cross. Because he accepted it with all its suffering out of obedience to the Father and love for sinful humanity, the cross went from being a shameful tool of execution to a means of salvation for all the world. When he was preparing his disciples for the violent death he would face, Jesus repeatedly told them that he would lay down his life willingly. Because he was the creator and the Lord of heaven, he could have called on a host of angels to save him. He could have silenced the taunts of the crowd by showing off his tremendous power. But, out of love, he surrendered his life to gain for us the hope of everlasting life.

Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we can look on our own suffering differently. Certainly we want to relieve suffering in ourselves and in others whenever possible. However, there are circumstances in which modern medicine and psychology can only do so much. There are also some burdens such as loneliness, confusion and doubt that we can only bear alone. However, we no longer need to add despair to our burden of sorrow. Like Doris, and like Jesus, we can find the resurrection already shining forth through the cross. For each one of us, the experience of new life through the cross will be unique and personal. Nonetheless, the path of discovery will start with humble acceptance of suffering in faith.

We can find the strength to begin by looking on Jesus’ own cross.
Jesus, raised up from the earth on the wood of the cross, shows us the depth of God's love. He accepted its shame and pain out of love for you and me. No one is left outside of this all-embracing act of salvation. It is never too late to approach the cross to seek healing and forgiveness in our time of need. Because the sacrifice of Jesus is a bottomless treasury of grace and mercy, it can never run out. We can go to the wood of the cross every day and even every hour to find forgiveness again and again and again. We can never use up or exhaust God's infinite mercy.

In the gospel reading, Jesus explains why this is. God so loved the world he created that he could not bear to lose it to sin and death. At the same time, sin is so offensive to his majesty and goodness that it could not go unpunished. And so, God sent his son, Jesus - a man who never sinned - to take upon himself the punishment which we deserved for our disobedience. Now, no matter how we may have offended God in our lives, we may go to him without fear knowing that Jesus has taken upon himself the punishment we deserve.

All this is because God loved us so much. Like all love, it is not ours because we deserved it or because we earned it. It is simply a free gift of God.

Today's gospel reading contains some of the most popular verses in the Bible because it captures the whole mystery of God and his plan of salvation. Very simply, God loves us and wants to forgive us; not because we are nice and not because we deserve it. God loves us and forgives us because he created us and because he is good.

Knowing how much suffering our sins have caused Jesus, how could we not weep with sorrow for our disobedience? Knowing how generous God has been in forgiving us, how could we not shout with joy and gladness? And, knowing how ready God is to shower us with his mercy, how could we not resolve to meet him as frequently as possible in confession and in the Eucharist to access the treasury of grace flowing from the cross of Jesus Christ?

(this article originally appeared in Connect!)

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Ever Deepening Faith

What is faith? What do we mean when we say that we have it?

Having faith means believing in something without any hard evidence. For instance, I do not need faith to know that two plus two equals four because it can be proven to me. However, I do need faith to believe God exists because it cannot be proven. 

Faith, however, also means something more. It means trust. It means not only knowing that God exists, but loving him and placing our lives in his hands. 

Because faith is both belief and trust, it can be at work in our lives on two levels.

On the first level, we accept certain truths of Catholic teaching. For instance, we believe that God exists, that we should go to Mass on Sundays or that babies should be baptized. This is a faith of the head, an intellectual faith, dealing mainly with doctrines and catechism. It is a faith of belief which is centered on facts and data.  Most people have at least this level of faith at work in their lives.

However,  there is a deeper level of faith which not only agrees that God exists and that he loves everyone, but believes it so deeply that it changes the way a person thinks, acts and speaks. If the first level of faith is a faith of the head, this second level is a faith of the heart, a faith that drives us to believe with our whole being. People who have been given such faith love everyone because they believe that God loves everyone. They forgive whomever may hurt them because they believe that God forgives all wrongs. This level of faith goes beyond mere belief in God to trust in God.  People who have such a gift of faith are willing to stake their lives on what they believe, not just their intellect or their opinions.

It is this second level of faith that James describes in today's second reading. When he says that faith without works is dead, he means that if our beliefs do not lead us to change the way we live, then our faith has no power to save us. If it is not making a difference in the choices we make, then we really do not have it. We all know this from our personal lives. People may tell us they love us. But we know that our true friends are the ones who stand by us in the bad times as well as the good times. It is the actions of our friends that reveal whether or not they have love for us in their hearts. Just so, it is our actions that reveal whether or not our faith is real.

In today's gospel reading, both levels of faith -faith of the head and faith of the heart - are tested in Peter. When Jesus asks his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?", Peter alone has the right answer: "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." But when Jesus pushes beyond this faith of the head to see if he has a deeper faith of the heart, Peter flunks. Peter could not accept that being the Messiah meant that Jesus would have to suffer. Though in his head he could believe that Jesus was the Son of God, in his heart he was not ready to accept the consequences.

As with Peter, it is suffering oftentimes which tests on what level our faith is operating. It is natural to want to avoid suffering and even more natural to not want to see the people we love suffer. Sometimes, however, suffering is unavoidable. It is at those moments that our faith is tested.  Faith that is merely at the level of the head will not be able to survive the ordeals of disease, divorce or death. It takes a faith of the heart to continue to believe that God loves us no matter what difficulties we or our loved ones face. The good news is that God uses suffering not only to test the faith we already have, but to offer us a deeper faith.  If we can accept difficulties with patience, God can make the faith in our head trickle down into our heart. That way, we can learn to trust that no matter how senseless our suffering may seem, God still loves us and can still make all things work for our good.

Suffering is very often an inevitable part of life. Jesus came not to take our suffering away but to suffer with us and to make our suffering an opportunity to have a deeper faith of the heart. And so Jesus says to all of us who want to follow him: "Pick up your cross and follow me. Pick up your suffering and follow me. Pick up your loneliness and follow me. Pick up your broken marriage and follow me. Pick up your failed business and follow me." These difficulties need not be obstacles in following Jesus, but they are the ways God uses to help us grow in holiness and trust. It is the way God uses to place in our hearts a faith that can really save us.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Healing Power Of A Listening Ear

There is a big difference between hearing and listening.

If you have ever been to a party, asked someone his or her name and then halfway through the conversation forgotten it, then you know the difference. We sometimes tell ourselves that we are just bad with names. But the fact is that we are really bad at listening.

Have you ever driven home from Mass and asked yourself what the readings were about and could not remember? Have your parents ever asked you to do something and as soon as you left the room forgotten what it was? Have you ever bumped into a friend at the store and stopped to talk but are so busy thinking about all the errands you have to run that you are not at all paying attention to the conversation?

Hearing is simply a matter of letting sounds and words ring in our ears. Listening is something entirely different. It requires focus and attention. We not only hear the words but understand their meaning. Not only do we pay attention to what the person is saying but how he or she is feeling, how important the matter at hand is to them and how in need they are of someone who cares. When we truly listen to others, we are telling them that they are important and that what they care about matters.

Listening brings with it much healing. When marriages are in trouble what is often the issue is that the spouses are not listening to each other. How many marriages would be repaired if the husband and wife took the time to sit down and listen to each other? Or have you ever had the experience of feeling overwhelmed, stressed out or depressed but snapping out of it because someone took the time to listen to you? When we take the time to slow down and really pay attention to one another, we can bring real change into our relationships and even our society. As today’s first reading puts it, “Streams will burst forth in the desert, and rivers in the steppe. The burning sands will become pools, and the thirsty ground, springs of water.”

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus opens the ears of a deaf man. And the first sound he hears is the voice of Jesus. Because of this encounter with the Savior, he is opened up to a whole new world of chirping birds, wind rustling through the trees and music. He can also enter more deeply into relationship with others because he can really listen to them in a way that was not possible for him before.

Jesus can do the same for us. We may not need to have our hearing corrected but we do need a more impressive miracle. We need to be given the ability to listen. And the first person we need to be listening to is God.

We have all heard so many of the gospel stories. But how many of us have taken them to heart? How many of us have changed our lives because of what we have heard proclaimed in the Scripture? How often is our prayer just about rattling off the Our Father without giving much thought to the words such as “thy will be done” or “as we forgive those who trespass against us”? Or how often are we so busy telling God what we need from Him instead of listening to what He requires of us?

Thankfully, God has given us a remedy for our blocked up ears. It is the Bible. When we read the Bible, we become attuned to God’s voice. By taking time every day to open up the Scriptures and truly listen to what it has to teach us, we learn the mind of our Heavenly Father and desire to know Him more and more. As we ask the Holy Spirit to help us understand it, our ears are opened to the marvels of God’s love for us and we become more attentive to His voice calling us to follow Him.

We all need to be listening to one another and in particular, to the cry of the poor. We are too often deaf to the needs of those around us. We cannot hear the groaning of those who do not have enough to feed their families or who are underemployed. Often we cannot hear them because our own concerns are ringing in our ears. Today’s second reading from the letter of James speaks clearly to this. He is speaking to a parish and a community much like our own with a mix of wealthy and poor people. To which are we most attentive? Which are most important in our eyes? How are we listening to the needs of all the members of our community and what are we doing to help meet those needs?

Again, God gives us a remedy for our deafness to the needs of our neighbors. It is the practice of the works of mercy. When we go out of our way to feed the hungry, to instruct the ignorant or to pray for the dead, we become more attuned to the needs of others. Our own needs are put into perspective as we reach out to help those less fortunate than ourselves. We see first hand the pain and burdens that so many of our brothers and sisters deal with daily. We come to treat them as persons created in the image and likeness of God and refuse to look down on them or blame them for their misfortunes. Then we become able to truly listen to them and respond in a way that will really help.

It is often said that God gave us two ears and only one mouth; so we should be listening twice as much as speaking. We are called to pay attention to God’s call to us to live in accordance with His word and also to listen to the groanings of our brothers and sisters in need. We gather here to do just that. As we lift our voices in prayer to our Heavenly Father we hear Him say, “Be strong, fear not!” He will accomplish great things in and through us if we will only take the time to listen and obey.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Sharing the Message

For over 70 years, Alcoholics Anonymous has helped people from all over the world overcome addictions to alcohol, drugs and other destructive behaviors. Through a program comprised of 12 steps, the addicts learn to combat the spiritual sickness at the root of their compulsions by confessing that they are powerless to change their behavior and by giving control of their lives over to a "higher power". As they make their way through the other steps and achieve a certain level of serenity and healing, they learn that it is not enough for them to simply stop drinking or using drugs. If they are to know true and lasting healing, they cannot keep their stories to themselves. Rather, they have to reach out to others with the good news that their addictions can be overcome.  It is part of the healing process itself to help bring others to experience healing in their own lives.

The same is true with those who are healed by Jesus. They are so overcome with joy after their encounter with him that they have to tell everyone about it. It is interesting that throughout the gospel of Mark, Jesus commands people not to tell anyone who he is and what he has done for them. It seems strange to us that Jesus would want to hide his identity, but he needed it to be clear to the people that he would not be a political Messiah who would liberate them from Roman rule, but a suffering servant who would free all people from the tyranny of sin. When he tells the apostles not to tell anyone who he is, they obey him. Even the demons whom he casts out obey him when he tells them to keep quiet. But those whom Jesus heals, though they are warned sternly not to spread the word, cannot help but go around telling everyone they meet about the powerful prophet who restored them to health. For them, telling the story of Jesus' healing power is part of the healing process itself.

Today's gospel is no different. Jesus opens the ears of a deaf man and heals his speech impediment. Throughout his whole life he was unable to hear the sounds all around him. Now the first voice he hears is that of Jesus commanding his ears to be opened. During his life he probably spoke only when necessary because he was ashamed of his speech impediment. Now, with his tongue loosened by Jesus, he cannot help but tell everyone about the miracle that God performed in his life. His first clear words were praise of God for the gift of healing he received in Jesus. How could he now be expected to keep silent about the great work God performed in his life?

Jesus continues to be in our midst exercising his healing powers. Though it is rare, it still happens that people are cured of diseases or physical impairments through the power of prayer. Most often, however, the healings we experience through faith are of an emotional or spiritual nature. Because of our own prayers or those of others, we may find ourselves finally able to forgive someone who has hurt us. Or we may find the strength to let go of a burden of anger which we were carrying for many years. Or we may simply be overcome with a sense of God's infinite mercy and believe that our sins have been forgiving. No matter how we may experience it, each of us here has been touched by Jesus and healed. Now it is up to us to tell others about it so that they too may meet Jesus, the healer. If we want to hold on to the healing we have received, and if we want it to deepen in our lives, we must spread the word.

It could also be that many of us have been waiting for a healing that just has not come yet. Whether the cure we are seeking is for ourselves or someone we love, we have prayed, offered up Masses and asked others to pray for us, but God has not chosen to touch us with his healing power as yet. It could be that, for reasons only he can know, he wants us to bear that suffering so that we can grow to be more like his Son. Or it could be that he wants us first to bear witness to what he has already done for us to others. Many times when we take the opportunity to speak to others about the wonders God has worked in our lives, we look back and see that the healing has already been granted to us. We just have not noticed it. If we are seeking a healing and have tried everything from prayer to counseling to try to get it, could it be that God is asking us to try one more thing - making known to others the good things Jesus has already done for us?

Before we approach this altar to receive the Body of Christ, we will pray: "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed." The Eucharist is the greatest source of healing for our body, mind and spirit. The man in today's gospel was privileged to have Jesus touch his ears and his tongue, but we have the awesome gift of receiving him into our entire body. If we approach him with faith, he will open our ears to hear his word and loosen our tongues to proclaim his praises. If we seek a healing, he knows it and most certainly will want to grant it to us in some form or another. It will then be up to us to spread the word that our God heals and saves.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

I Love Everyday People

There were many types of Jewish religious groups when Jesus preached. There were the Essenes who lived out in the desert and dedicated their lives to studying the word of God. Many scholars believe John the Baptist was one of them. There were also the Sadducees who worked to promote the Law as handed down by Moses in the first five books of the Bible. The Zealots were another group who fought to expel the Romans from the Holy Land and restore rule to the Jews. Judas Iscariot is believed to have been one of them. And, perhaps the most well known group were the Pharisees. They were a group of lay Jews who tried to live every prescription of the Law down to the letter.

While Jesus had something challenging to say to all these groups, it was the Pharisees who most often got His blood boiling. Jesus criticized them for letting attention to the letter of the Law blind them to the needs of the people around them. Because of their discipline and status in the community, they felt free to judge others who did not meet their rigorous standards. They reduced God’s Law to a list of rules to be followed rather than as a way of growing in goodness and mercy. In today’s gospel, Jesus takes them to task for their concern about the ritual washings that are part of Jewish religious practice. He calls them “hypocrites” because they appear to be good and pious on the outside but in their hearts they are full of bitterness and pride.

Just as there were many different types of Jews in Jesus’ day, we can say that there are many different types of Catholics in our own day.

Perhaps everyone has heard of  “cafeteria Catholics”. Such people want to pick and choose what they believe. They like the Church’s teaching on the poor but think her stance on abortion and marriage are outdated. Or, they may defend the Church’s teaching on the dignity of unborn life but  believe that poor people are to blame for their misery and that we have no obligation to help them. Not only do they pick and choose between beliefs but also between religious practices. For instance, many cafeteria Catholics are happy to receive communion every week but never want to go to confession. For cafeteria Catholics, God, the Bible and the Church are not the foremost authorities on what is true but their own personal tastes and preferences. They reduce God and faith to what is comfortable for them and reject anything that might call them to change and grow.

There is another group of Catholics we might call “the ticket punchers.” For them, religion is about meeting all the duties of their faith. They come to Mass every Sunday out of obligation, punching their ticket to say they showed up and then leaving without having any idea what the readings were. They are sure to show up for Ash Wednesday to receive their ashes and for Palm Sunday to get their palms blessed. During the Fridays of Lent they will not touch meat. They are sure to send their children to religious education classes and receive all the sacraments right on schedule. However, their religious practices have no effect on their attitudes or behaviours. They have reduced faith to a list of duties that they have to meet as insurance that they will have all the holes punched on their ticket when they get to heaven. Like the Pharisees, they do all the right things but their heart is never changed.

Finally, there is a group we might call “the religion police.” They follow all the rules and make it their business to ensure that everyone else does too. They are the ones who write to the bishop every time their parish priest does something they don’t like. They do everything right and take notes on who is doing anything wrong. Like hawks, they scan the congregation looking for any excuse to criticize others. Rather than make them more merciful and compassionate, their religious practices make them judgemental and angry. They reduce faith to only keeping the rules.

I’m not trying to point fingers or single anyone out. Much less do I want to judge anyone. However, I think that there is a bit of the cafeteria Catholic, the ticket puncher and the religion police in each of us. What do they all have in common? They reduce faith to something that they can control, whether it is rules that are easy to follow or mere obligations that they can meet without much difficulty. They also keep faith at arm’s length. They never allow faith to challenge or change them. Rather than as a means of growth, faith becomes a way to stroke their egos.

How different is the faith that the Bible teaches and the Church professes! It is a faith that always challenges us to go outside our comfort zone. It is never content with outward shows of belief but demands that we have hearts filled with love and compassion. The faith of the Bible and the Church is never content with just following the rules but requires us to go above and beyond the call of duty to focus on the poor and needy and how we can best serve them. It puts people before practices. Most especially, it does not simply accept society’s standards of right and wrong but looks to the unchanging God and His word for guidance. As Saint James teaches us in today’s second reading: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this - to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

Rules and beliefs are important. They are given to us by God to guide us and teach us His ways. However, their primary purpose is to help us grow in love and compassion. If our practice of the faith is making us more self-centered, more judgmental or if we use it merely to massage our egos, then we have lost our way. Fortunately, God is merciful and is always ready to welcome us back. We need only ask His Holy Spirit to illuminate our minds and to lead us in the right way. Then our faith will bear fruit in good works and in hearts that truly love.