Sunday, November 29, 2015

The First Watch

There are many cliches for it.

Focusing on the big picture. Not missing the forest for the trees. Not sweating the small stuff.

All these sayings are about keeping a healthy perspective on life.

We live in a society suffering under an epidemic of stress. Juggling all the expectations of home, family and work has put us under constant strain. The technology that was supposed to make our lives easier has only complicated it. The abuse of alcohol, overeating and chronic insomnia are only symptoms of this larger problem that we are too busy. With all the activity our lives demand of us, it is easy for us to lose perspective, to forget what really matters and to lose ourselves in the process. 

Jesus' message to us could not be more relevant as we begin the busiest season of the year: "Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap." Jesus is warning us that this world is passing away. Our lives are short, and we have much less time than we think. He wants us to keep things in perspective. It is the eternal life that God is preparing for us that is really important. Any other worry or concern is insignificant in comparison.

What is most pressing on your mind today? What is distracting you from prayer as we gather here? What plans are you making in your head for later in the day or later in the week? Ask yourself honestly, how important is it really? Will you be worrying about the same things next week? Can you even remember what you were anxious about last week or the week before? Is what you are concerned about so important that you should let it distract you from the word of God? Have you let your work, small jobs around the house or other activities take away time you could be spending with your family and loved ones?

Our lives are indeed short. Time passes us by very quickly. While we are busying ourselves with the messy details of life, our children are growing up, we are losing touch with our friends, and we are losing touch with our God. Before we know it, we can look back and ask ourselves, "How did all this happen? How did I lose all this time?" It happened because we allowed ourselves to lose perspective on the things in life that really matter.

Thankfully, God never ceases to call us back to him and remind us that we were created to live with him forever in heaven. From the perch of faith we can examine our actions and how we have used our time and make a renewed commitment to those beliefs, people and activities that are most important. It is never too late to start over and make up for lost time with our loved ones and with our God. 

In today's second reading, Saint Paul gives us a game plan for re-centering our lives on God and his word.

The first thing he tells us is that we should "abound in love for one another and for all." We were each created by God with a heart that can only find fulfillment in loving others. If our activities are not helping us to grow in love then they are useless. If we are too busy to show basic kindnesses to people or to help those in need, then we are wasting our time and wasting our lives. At the end of the day, we will be judged on how we have loved others. Everything else is meaningless. And so the first step to re-focusing our lives on God is to drop from our schedule any activities that keep us from loving others as we should.

The second thing he tells us is that we should be "blameless in holiness." God requires that we love him above all things. We can never be so busy that we do not make time to pray or to attend Mass on the weekend. If we let that happen, we will lose sight of the whole reason for which we exist in the first place. And if we use our busy schedules as an excuse to indulge in sinful behavior, then we are really missing the mark. We have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit in baptism and confirmation to make us holy as God is holy. And so the second step to regaining a meaningful life is to cross off our schedule any activities that are keeping us from attending Mass, from praying regularly and which are leading us to sin. 

The third thing Saint Paul tells us is that we should act so as "to please God."  As we examine all the activities we fill our days with, the question we should always ask is, "Is what I am doing pleasing to God?" We will only have success in life when we are acting in accordance with God's plan for us. If we are doing something which is against God's will, we will face nothing but failure and frustration. On the other hand, when our lives are harmonized with God's word, things work out for us. We find the strength to overcome whatever obstacles we face. Our lives become less hectic and more peaceful. It is not always easy to know what God's plan for our lives is. That is why making time for prayer and to read the Bible is so important. Without it, we can get lost pretty quickly. And so the third step to bringing our lives into harmony with God's will for us is asking ourselves in whatever we do whether or not it is pleasing to God.

Today we begin the four weeks of preparation leading up to the feast of Christmas. The festivities of the coming month will keep us very busy. But if we are not preparing our hearts with as much care as we are preparing our homes and our tables then we are wasting our time. These weeks provide us a precious opportunity to re-center our lives on God by focusing on love, on holiness and on pleasing him in whatever we do. May God strengthen us to cut out of our lives those things that are keeping us from him so that this Christmas will be a time of life-changing grace unlike any we have ever known.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Viva Cristo Re!

At the beginning of the twentieth century, much of the world was in tumult. Peoples were restless, governments were being overthrown and wars both large and small were being waged.

Mexico was no exception. In 1911, its longtime president was overthrown in a bloody revolution which eventually brought into power Plutarco Elias Calles. A sworn enemy of the Catholic Church, he worked vigorously to erase any trace of the Church and her charitable work from the nation of Mexico. In 1917, a new constitution was drawn up which prohibited the Catholic Church from opening schools, outlawed religious orders, and took basic civil rights away from the clergy including the right to vote or to speak freely on public affairs.

With the new constitution in place, a full blown persecution of the Church was underway resulting in the massacre of thousands of priests, religious women and members of the laity who refused to comply.

One outstanding victim of this persecution was Blessed Miguel Pro. He began his studies for the priesthood as a young man in Mexico. However, because of the persecution of the Church, he was forced to complete them in Belgium. Upon his ordination, he returned to his native country to find his people forced to celebrate Mass in secret with many of their priests either killed or imprisoned. Blessed Miguel Pro worked vigorously to bring the sacraments and preach the gospel to the small group of Catholics who continued to worship and live their faith under these difficult circumstances.

Unfortunately, Father Pro did not manage to evade the authorities for long. He was arrested eventually in November 1927 and charged with the attempted assassination of a former president. Without any trial, he was condemned to execution by firing squad. With the same courage he showed in ministering to God’s people, he stood before his executioners, held his arms out in the form of a cross and shouted “Viva, Cristo Re!”, that is, “Long live Christ, the King!” as the bullets rang out.

This past Friday, November 23, marked the eighty-fifth anniversary of his martyrdom. In 1988, Blessed John Paul II traveled to Mexico for his beatification giving him the title of “blessed”.

Like so many martyrs before him, and so many martyrs since, Blessed Miguel Pro witnessed with the shedding of his blood that Jesus Christ is King. There is no higher authority than Jesus Christ and there is no law higher than God’s law. No authority can force believers to break the commandments or to obey an unjust law. We remain loyal and patriotic citizens of our beloved country but our first allegiance is to Almighty God and the unfailing truth of His commandments. Though worldly powers wield vast wealth and powerful armies, in the end Jesus Christ prevails.

Today reading from John’s gospel contrasts the real power of Jesus with the transitory and illusory power of human authority.

Jesus is standing before Pilate having been accused of everything from blasphemy to plotting to overthrow Caesar. Pilate believes that he has power over Jesus, that he can crucify Him or set Him free. However, Jesus makes it clear to him that he would not have that power unless it had been given to him by God. Though Pilate judges Jesus to be innocent and wants to let Him go free, he is unable to because of his fear of the crowd. He appears to have the power to set Jesus free, but in reality he cannot.

On the other hand, Jesus has the power to set Himself free. At His command, all the angels of heaven could come down and release Him from Pilate’s grasp. Yet He hands Himself over freely to be crucified so that by His death we might be freed from the grasp of sin. As we read in today’s second reading from the book of Revelation, “To Him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by His glory forever and ever.” Jesus uses His power not to dominate others but to set them free.

After the example of Christ our King, we must work not to gain power, wealth and influence for ourselves, all of which are illusory and fading. Rather we must sacrifice ourselves for the needy. We must give to those who cannot repay us. We must speak out tirelessly against the unjust laws that fail to protect the life of the unborn, fail to recognize the dignity of all workers, fail to treat the sick and dying and fail to secure the rights of migrant workers. When we commit ourselves to the powerless, the weak and the marginalized as Blessed Miguel Pro did, then we show ourselves to be citizens not only of our great country but of the Kingdom of Heaven. By doing so, we enrich our homeland and make it a place where all people can enjoy freedom, prosperity and happiness.

The martyrs throughout history have witnessed to one basic fact - that there is a law and authority greater than any man-made law or any human authority. The law and authority of Christ our King, Christ who created the world and holds it in existence, is the measure of when and whether a law is just and when and whether an authority should be obeyed. Jesus is the Truth we are to obey at all times and in all circumstances. His is the dominion, the power and the kingship. Like Blessed Miguel Pro, we must obey God no matter what the cost. In doing so, we lift the world up from slavery to wealth and addiction to power so that we can all live freely and enjoy the beautiful gifts this life has to offer.

Sunday, November 8, 2015


There is nothing more that I can do.

There is nothing more that I can give.

I am at the end of my rope.

The widow in today's reading from the first book of Kings has hit rock bottom. There is a famine in the land, and she has run out of food. She has just enough to make two little biscuits for herself and her son, and then she expects to starve to death. There is no one who can help her. She has run out of options and run out of hope.

Any of us, if we were in her shoes, would have laughed at the prophet Elijah's request to bring him a bit of bread. At worst, we would have scolded him for being insensitive to the dire plight of a widow facing starvation and death. He should have been bringing her food.

But the prophet promises that if she will perform this kindness for him, God will reward her for it. In her extreme need, she does not say to Elijah, "I have done enough, and I have given enough." Rather she gives what little she has, and God blesses her beyond measure. God visited her when she was most abandoned and most alone and worked a miracle to save her. But what opened God's hand was her willingness to literally bet her life on the prophet's promise that God would not forget her act of kindness. Faith in the face of impossible circumstances unleashes God's mighty power in our lives.

Each of us has a place in our lives where we feel powerless. It may be in our personal life, in our family or in our work. We feel that we have done all that we can do. We feel that we have given all that we can give. Nothing has changed. We have seen no improvement despite our best efforts. The situation may have become so dire that we have fallen into depression or bitterness because of it. It may be sucking up so much of our energy that we are unable to find joy and peace in our daily lives. We may feel that we are at the end of our rope with no hope in sight. 

It is when we have hit bottom that God comes to meet us. It is when we have exhausted all our options that God reminds us that he alone is all-powerful and that he will help us if we place it in his hands. A simple act of faith is the first step in turning things around for the better. 

However, there is one catch. Before God starts to turn things around in our life, he may ask us to do something we think we are unable to do. As with the widow in today's reading, he may ask us to give something we think we are unable to give. It is God's way of opening a door for us into a world of new possibilities. Mother Angelica who founded the global Catholic television network, EWTN, often said, "If we are unwilling to do the ridiculous, God will be unable to do the impossible." If we want to see a real change in our lives and in our world, we must be willing to trust God and to do whatever he tells us.

In today's gospel reading, Jesus introduces us to another widow and holds her up as an example of faith and generosity. She is also in extreme need, with little to give except two coins worth mere pennies. It was too little to do anyone any good. Though others put into the treasury much more significant sums of money, it is her contribution that Jesus points out and that we reflect upon two thousand years later. The courage and faith she demonstrated in abandoning what little she had into God's hands has done more to confirm and strengthen the faith of believers over the centuries than millions of dollars in contributions could ever have done. Great faith makes even small contributions yield infinite dividends. 

Most of the time, you and I fail to contribute our time, talents or money not because we are selfish and want to keep them to ourselves, but because we do not think it will do any good. We fear that what little we have to give will make no difference. We see how gifted others are and may feel intimidated. Or we may hold our talents in such low esteem that we think anyone can do the same and so we are not needed. But nothing can be further from the truth. God has placed each of us here for a reason. Each of us is irreplaceable. No one else can do what you or I are able to do. No one else can reach the hearts that you or I  are able to reach. Each of our contributions are needed no matter how small or insignificant they may seem. God sees the heart. If we give of our time, talent and money with humility, love and faith, then God will make it multiply and bear fruit beyond our power to imagine.

God has gathered us here today and prepared a meal for us. It is a wafer of bread which seems very small and insignificant. And yet, it happens to be the very flesh and blood of Jesus, the Savior of the World. It is taken from a jar of flour which has never gone empty and has nourished countless saints and sinners throughout the centuries. God never fails to make it available to us, small though it may seem. As we prepare our hearts and minds to receive this tremendous gift of God's love, let us ask him what it is he wants us to do. Where can we give more? Where can we do more? If we think we do not have it within us to go one more day, let us turn to him to find that strength.  And then God's power will be unleashed in our lives in big and small ways. Doors will open for us, and hearts will be touched. And we will know what it is like to have the joy of the Lord be our strength.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A Crowd Of Witnesses

The poet, Maya Angelou, was invited to speak at a conference. To much applause, she stepped onto the stage and approached the podium. Before speaking, however, she looked uncomfortable and started to squirm. She told the audience, "This stage is so crowded. I can barely move. There are people all around me." At first, the audience thought she was crazy because she was alone on the stage. As she continued, they began to grasp her meaning. Though she was physically alone on the stage, the reason she was there in the first place was because of the sacrifices and endeavors of many people who came before her. They were the educators, the preachers, the soldiers, the activists, the writers who all made it possible for her to be who she was and to do what she does. She was paying tribute to all those individuals who crowded the stage of her life and made it possible for her to be there that evening.

It is often said that we stand on the shoulders of giants. Everything about us and our lives comes from those who went ahead of us - our language, our clothing, our careers, our freedom and our faith. It is natural for us to want to acknowledge those soldiers, politicians and benefactors and to build monuments to them. Many of our buildings and boulevards take their names from deceased members of our community. Even as we look around this church today, we see windows, pews and statues dedicated to the memory of parishioners who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith. And none of us can fail to remember our family members and what they have done for us. Our lives are indeed crowded by the sacrifices and endeavors of so many people who went before us, and we owe them a profound debt.

There is one man above all to whom we owe an infinite debt of love and respect. No other man has sacrificed so much for us. This man has not only gone before us but has gone ahead of us to win for us the hope of everlasting life. We speak, of course, of the God-man, Jesus Christ. Other great women and men have left a legacy of political or literary achievement. But, Jesus has left us a legacy of undying hope. With Jesus, death is transformed forever and life along with it. We no longer look on death as an end but as a beginning. We no longer look on death as a defeat for humanity, but as the guarantee of a future of peace.

The first reading from the book of Wisdom explains how faith transforms our view of death. In the ancient world, there was a vague sense of the immortality of the soul. However, pagans did not expect life after death to be any better than life on earth. As they understood it, the dead traveled to a gloomy, hopeless underworld where they wandered aimlessly. It was more like a never-ending death than an everlasting life. Their gods were often selfish and mean-spirited, and so pagans had little hope that an afterlife governed by such gods could be anything but empty and meaningless.

How different the understanding of death we read about in the book of Wisdom (Wis.3:1-9)! The God of Israel is a good and merciful God. Those who have died are in the hands of this God beyond the reach of any torment or suffering. Because God is good, they enjoy a profound peace as they rest with him. So it is with our loved ones who have died and so it will one day be for us who embrace faith in Jesus Christ.

The second reading from the letter to the Romans (Rom.5:5-11) explains just how good and merciful this God is. Out of love for sinful humanity, God sent his only Son to die for us. This Son was pure and sinless.  And yet, to assure for us a place at the table of life, he died for us. He took upon himself the death we deserved for our sins. We rightly celebrate as heroes those who give their lives to save others. Yet, has anyone in history ever died for an enemy? Has anyone ever given his life for someone who hated him? Jesus has done such a thing for us. Now we can approach the Father with hope and confidence because the price of admission has been paid in full for us through the blood of Christ. 

Praying for the dead is an ancient tradition of the Church and one of the spiritual works of mercy. It is done with faith and confidence that, for those who have died, one last great act of mercy attends them before they enter the gates of heaven and are ushered into the presence of God Almighty. One more cleansing in the blood of the Lamb removes each and every stain of guilt and sin so that those who have been washed through the waters of baptism and purified by the fire of the Holy Spirit may take their place among the apostles, martyrs and saints. We pray for the dead not with fear but with confidence and hope. We pray for the dead also with a sense of duty that those who have sacrificed so much for us should be assured of our prayers as they approach the judgment seat of a just God.

This church is crowded today - not so much with physical people but with the memory and presence of those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith. Because of the mystical union of all believers, all of heaven joins us in this celebration. Our relationships and connections to those who have died is changed, not ended. And so, every Eucharist is a remembrance. On this day, we make a special point of commemorating the faithful departed - the members of our family and of our parish along with those souls who have no one to pray for them - so that we can be assured of their prayers also as we make our way to our heavenly inheritance.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Going To See Jesus

Laura was the housekeeper in the rectory of a busy parish with two priests, a school and convent.

After Mass every morning, one of the sisters, Sr. Joseph Mary, would go to the rectory to talk to Laura. Since she had long since retired from teaching, she was in no rush to get back to the convent. However, Laura was anxious to get back to her work in the rectory. As Sister talked on and on, she would try to find some polite way to end the conversation so that she would not fall behind in her chores.

One Friday evening, Laura was in the grocery store and noticed Sr. Joseph Mary out of the corner of her eye. With her daughter waiting for her in the car, she did not want to bump into Sister and get caught in a conversation that could last well over a  half an hour. So she did her best to try to avoid her.

However, Sr. Joseph Mary did notice her. As soon as she did, she ran up the aisle to her saying, “Laura, Laura, I’m so glad I saw you! I am going home to my Lord! I am going to see Jesus!”

Puzzled by her words, Laura asked her what she meant. Sister explained that she had been diagnosed with cancer. It was a particularly aggressive kind and it had already spread to several of her organs. The doctor told her that she probably only had weeks to live.

That was the last time Laura saw Sr. Joseph Mary. Within two weeks, she passed away.

Most people when receiving a diagnosis of cancer and a prognosis of only a few weeks to live would panic. They would be angry and ask God why. They would bargain with God assuring Him that they would go to Church more if only He would heal them. They would be overcome with fear at the pain they would be suffering. But not this holy sister. She approached death with total confidence in our Lord. She was even eager to die knowing that she would shortly be resting in the hand of God.

Our Christian faith gives us a new perspective on death. It is not an end, it is a new beginning. Like the seed buried in the ground that becomes a flower or like a caterpillar wrapped in a cocoon that becomes a butterfly, death transforms us from mortal human beings to sons and daughters of God and heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven. Once we have passed through death into heaven, suffering can no longer touch us.

We have this confidence because Jesus died on the cross for us. He accepted death with obedience and love and, in so doing, won for us the hope of everlasting life. Through baptism, we join ourselves to Jesus’ death, we “die with Christ” and so are given the promise of eternal life with Him in heaven. Every day, we die to ourselves by carrying the cross that God has chosen for us. If every day, with the help of God’s grace, we seek to do His will, then we too will approach our own death with acceptance, serenity and even joy.

Sr. Joseph Mary, in accepting the news of her death with such joy, shows us how free she really was. She was free from the fear of pain. Though she knew her illness would cause her much suffering, she was willing to endure it by joining it to the suffering of Christ. Her life had been fully of many close relationships but she was willing to say goodbye to her friends and family to be joined with Jesus in the company of the saints. Her life was totally focused on serving God, so she died with no regrets about what she may have missed out on in life. There were no earthly attachments holding her down, so she could open her arms to welcome the death that would unite her with her Lord forever.

Most people who are faced with the imminence of their death are not as blessed as Sr Joseph Mary. They are still holding onto regrets, resentments and sinful habits. They do not have the freedom to welcome death because they never really lived fully. We should always keep in our prayers those who are dying, that they can do so with peace and courage. We should also pray for their families who are struggling to support them while they cope with their own loss.

We should also keep in our prayers those who have already died and were still burdened with regrets, resentments or selfish attitudes. Jesus made it clear that no one can enter the Kingdom of Heaven with such blemishes on their conscience. However, God grants one more act of mercy for them. He offers them the chance to be purified of those earthly attachments, to be cleansed, so that they can freely embrace all the joys of heaven. We call that act of mercy, Purgatory. It is the state of the soul between physical death and entering the glory of heaven. We assist such souls with our prayers that they can let go of everything that is weighing them down and preventing them from rising up to the place God has prepared for them in Heaven.

Every year on this day, we gather as believers to reflect on the mystery of death and to pray for those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith. It is an act of mercy for us to offer up Masses, sacrifices and prayers for our loved ones who are preparing themselves to enter the glory of Heaven. In particular, we should make an effort to pray for those souls who are forgotten and have no one to pray for them. If we do so, then we can be assured that they will also pray for us. Through their prayers and through the example of holy people like Sr Joseph Mary, we too can come to embrace the reality of death not with anxiety and fear but with peace and joy knowing that we will be united to our Lord and Savior forever.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Saints Of Flesh And Bone

It has been a very ancient custom of the Church to venerate the relics of the saints.

A relic is something connected to the life of a saint. Often it is a piece of their body such as a bone or hair. But it can also be an article of their clothing or a place they lived. In fact, many of the first churches were built over the sites where the saints were martyred or buried. Saint Peter's Basilica, for instance, was built over the site which is believed to be where he was buried. In keeping with this tradition, every altar in every church, including our own, has relics of the saints within it.

For the church of the early centuries, venerating the relics of the saints was a way of recognizing the sacrifices of those who went before them. Those first saints were the ones who faced persecution by the Roman authorities, they were the ones who spent long hours copying the Bible by hand so that it could be made available to the people, and they were the ones who formulated and clarified the beliefs we hold to this day. Their memory deserves to be honored because of the gift of grace that God displayed in their lives and the foundation they laid for our own faith two thousand years later.

However, there was one more very important reason that the early Church displayed and reverenced the bodies of the saints. It was to show the Roman and Greek peoples that the heroes of this new Christian faith were very different from the heroes of pagan mythology. Unlike Hercules, Odysseus and Zeus, the Christian saints were actual people who really lived. Jesus, Mary, the apostles and martyrs were not mythical figures but real flesh and blood who lived in human history. By honoring their remains and building churches at the places they were buried, not only was the memory of their sacrifice kept alive but the people were reminded that these saints were women and men no different than themselves. They had simply been given a powerful gift of grace to answer the call of Jesus in a heroic way.

For us two thousand years later, the memory of the saints is still important. Everything we cherish as Catholic Christians - the Bible, the Mass, our beliefs, our prayers - all have been given to us by God through the saints. We stand on their shoulders and build on the foundation of faith which they laid. They are examples to us of what it means to follow Christ. And they remind us of the great destiny that God has in store for us. Like the saints we are all called to spend eternity in heaven looking upon the face of God in all its splendor. Not only will our loved ones be there, but so will Jesus, the apostles, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the angels. Saint John speaks about this hope of ours very beautifully in today's second reading. Through baptism, we are rightly called "children of God". But in heaven, when we see God face to face, we will be transformed into the likeness of his glory. It will be a wonder beyond our power to imagine and describe. Whatever beauty we experience in this world is only a shadow of the beauty and majesty of the face of God. And so, as Saint John teaches us, we strive to keep ourselves pure from sin as we look forward in hope to the glorious destiny that awaits us.

Also, it is important for us to remember that the saints were human beings made out of flesh and blood who were no different than we are. They became Christians through the same baptism we received. They held the same beliefs we hold today. They received the same Holy Spirit which we received in our Confirmation. Like us, they had weaknesses and knew what it was like to be tempted. If they were different from us, it was because they loved God above everything else and so desired heaven that nothing on earth could tempt them to turn away from the source of their joy. Because of their great love for God, they were able to live the beatitudes which we read in today's gospel. The saints were people like Saint Francis of Assisi who gave up all the comforts of his father's house to become poor in spirit and so inherit the Kingdom of heaven. They were men like Saint Peter Claver who had such a hunger and thirst for righteousness that he chose to work among slaves. They were women like Saint Maria Goretti who so valued her purity of heart that she preferred being stabbed to having her virginity taken away from her. They were countless women and men throughout the centuries who so desired the rewards awaiting them in heaven that they endured insults, persecution and even death. Despite their heroic lives, they were just like us. God holds out to us the same gift of grace and the same rewards of eternal life that motivated the saints to live lives of faith, hope and love.

We are here today because of the saints. But they are not just heroes of the past whose time has come and gone. Rather as they stand before the throne of grace in heaven they continue to pray for us.  We should each take advantage of these powerful intercessors and call upon them whenever we are in need or are facing temptation. If we befriend them and model our lives after them, they will not let us down. If we follow their example and desire the glory of heaven to any pleasure the earth can offer, then we can hold onto the hope of one day meeting them face to face as we look together upon God in all his splendor and majesty.