Monday, September 23, 2013

The Virtuous Christian

          This weekend I was able to preach on one of my favorite topics: virtue.  Virtue is about achieving excellence and overcoming mediocrity, which leads to becoming the best version of yourself (that is, the version of yourself that God made you to be).  Hopefully this will inspire some of you to rededicate yourselves to pursuing virtue, which is what inspired Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati to regularly exclaim, Verso l'alto!


Homily: 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Cycle C
          In the film Oceans 11, a gangster by the name of Danny Ocean rounds up a gang of associates to stage robberies of three major Las Vegas casino's simultaneously during a popular boxing event.  Whether you’ve seen the original 1960 version or the more recent 2001 version, you’ll know that, at the end, we’re all left to feel like Mr. Ocean and his gang of associates are heroes, even though they just succeeded in committing a major crime.  And why is that?  I would argue that, in a sense, we’re acknowledging the virtue that was needed to accomplish such a complicated and daring feat.  Mr. Ocean and his gang needed prudence and wisdom in order to plan the heist for success; and they needed courage and temperance during the heist in order to pull it off.  So I would argue that what we commend at the end of the film is not the robberies themselves (hopefully, we all disapprove of any act against the seventh commandment), but rather the virtues that enabled them to pull it off.
          The problem, however, with this situation is that these virtues were used to do something morally reprehensible.  Therefore, instead of being true virtues, they are rather false virtues.  Virtue comes from the Latin word virtus, which means “power”.  Thus a virtue is a power to do something.  But if God has given us a power, then he intended it to be used for good: that is, for the building up of the common good of mankind.  Therefore, if the power of prudence (which is the power to know the right thing to do in a given situation) is used, for example, to take advantage of an elderly lady and swindle her out of her income, then it is an evil use of a good power.  Thus, while it is still a virtue, in this case it is a false virtue.  The true virtue of prudence would be to use this power to help the elderly woman manage her income so as to ensure that she will always be secure, financially.
          In our Gospel reading today, Luke records another one of Jesus’ parables.  This one, however, ought to strike us as odd.  In most of Jesus’ parables involving a master and a servant, the master commends the servant for doing the right things and punishes the servant when he has failed to live up to expectations.  In this parable, however, although we see the master getting ready to punish his steward for mismanaging his property, we then see the master commending the dishonest acts of the steward who seems to be acting for nobody else’s good but his own.  And Jesus, for his part, seems to give the master credit for doing that!  So what is this all about?
          Well, it seems like Jesus can recognize virtue in unvirtuous behavior just as much as any of us can.  For what Jesus is commending is the steward’s prudence—his shrewdness with his master’s debtors so as to garner favors for himself after he has been removed from his position as a steward.  This, of course, is false prudence, but what Jesus seems to be saying is that even false virtue is better than no virtue at all!  For he says, “make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”  What he seems to be saying here is “Go learn virtue, even if for the time being it’s false virtue, because eventually that dishonest enterprise will fail; but you will have learned virtue and, thus, you will be ready to embrace true virtue, which will lead you to eternal dwellings.”  And why does he say this?  Well, because he saw a complete lack of virtue—false or true—among the “Children of Israel”, whom God had chosen for eternal dwellings.  For he said: “the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”
          So let’s say that we brought this up to the current day.  If Jesus appeared here before us and looked at the current state of our society, what do you think he would say?  Probably we wouldn’t want to think this way, but perhaps he would commend our politicians, because even though for the most part they seem like lousy stewards of the responsibilities given to them, at least they are prudent in their dealings.  To them, perhaps, he would even give commendations, because, even though their virtue is false, they at least are showing virtue!
          What, then, could he say about us?  Do we truly practice what we preach?  You know, virtue is not just the absence of doing something wrong, but rather it is the presence of doing something good.  And so, just the fact that we have not committed any sins is not enough to be a virtuous Christian.  Rather, we must also act out of our convictions—in other words, we must do good—in order to acquire virtue.  Thus, to despise the world completely and to cut ourselves off from it—saying “I’ll just stay at home and say my prayers and come to church every week and that will be enough”—is false piety, that is, false virtue (but, at least it’s virtue!).  Of course, the opposite is also true.  To say “I come to church and say my prayers and so whatever else that I do doesn’t really matter” is not only not true, but it is completely unvirtuous and it reveals a heart that is divided trying to serve both God and mammon.  My brothers and sisters, if the Gospel doesn’t seem to have influence in today’s world it’s not because of any fault in the Gospel; but rather it is because, as Jesus observed, “the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”
          “Ok, Father,” I can already hear you saying, “perhaps I have been lacking in virtue and have allowed myself to become divided trying to serve both God and mammon.  So where do I begin?”  Well, why not start with Saint Paul’s exhortation that we heard in today’s second reading?  He says, “I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority…”  Perhaps instead of complaining about our politicians, what if we prayed for them?  When they seem to be lousy stewards of the responsibility that we’ve entrusted to them, let’s offer up supplications to God on their behalf.  And when they do something truly virtuous, let’s offer up thanksgivings that God’s grace has worked in and through them.  For Jesus says, “The person who is trustworthy in very small matters, is also trustworthy in great ones.”  Thus, if we show prudence in this small matter, then God will reveal to us even greater things that he will entrust to us: positive things that will have an even greater impact on our families, our communities, and on our society as a whole.
          Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said, “Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.”  “Small things done with great love.”  I like this as a definition of true virtue.  My brothers and sisters, any move towards virtue is a good one.  Therefore, let us commit ourselves again today to serving God alone by striving to do all of those little things that make up our days with great love.  In doing so we will make ourselves virtuous, and thus ready, so that when everything else in the world fails we too, like Mother Teresa and all of the Saints who have gone before us, will be “welcomed into eternal dwellings.”

Given at All Saints Parish – Logansport, IN: September 21st & 22nd, 2013

Monday, September 16, 2013

Being "different"

          Some of you who have been following this blog for some time might see a re-hashed image in here, but I think it applied to these readings just as well as it did to the readings I first used for it.  Like Pope Francis has been saying, it's time to stop criticizing each other for not conforming to our image of being a "good Christian" and to start living and rejoicing with those who are striving to achieve that status!


Homily: 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Cycle C
          While I was in the seminary, I was blessed to take a couple of courses on pastoral counseling and in those courses we covered a few topics on basic human behavioral psychology.  It was very high-level stuff that gave us some basics about how we’re “wired” psychologically and how we can “re-wire” our brains when our behaviors are affecting us negatively.  One of the concepts that I encountered in these classes really stuck with me because it seemed to me to be one of the fundamental issues that people are dealing with, but one that they don’t know that they’re dealing with.  This concept is called “differentiation”.
          Differentiation, as many scholars define it, is one’s ability to be his or her self in relation to others.  In other words, it is knowing who I am as a distinct person in relation to another person.  I like this notion because it touches on something very human: that is, that we come to know ourselves more fully—that is, in a sense, we become more human—when we recognize our distinctiveness in relation to another person.
          A struggle with differentiation, then, is when our sense of self becomes dependent on others.  In other words, when we find that we need others to act in a certain way in order to feel good about ourselves and to function within a group of others, then we are probably struggling to be (or, rather, to know) who we are in relation to others. Perhaps an example will help illustrate this.
          Most of you know that I’m not originally from Indiana, but what I quickly found out after moving here is that in Indiana you are either for Purdue University and against Indiana University or vice versa (unless of course you’ve reached summit of spiritual enlightenment and thus root for Our Lady’s school, Notre Dame).  Putting that aside, imagine what it would be like if on any given day a small group of people (let’s say ten or so) decided to walk through the campus of IU completely decked out in black and gold Purdue paraphernalia.  For students at IU this demonstration would be tantamount to a hostile invasion.  Perhaps, then, you could imagine the tension that would build as this group walked through campus.  My guess is that it wouldn’t be but a few minutes before this group began to receive hostile and threatening comments from IU students passing them by.  In their anxiety at this apparent threat to their identity as Hoosiers, these students would react by attempting to shame the members of this group for their non-conformity.
          Right at the beginning of this long passage from the Gospel that we heard today, we see an example of this kind of struggle with differentiation.  Almost lost among the images of the parables is the reason why Jesus was telling them in the first place.  It says “Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”  The Pharisees and the scribes were the recognized authorities of the law and the law dictated that one must keep clear of contact with sinners for fear of defiling one’s self and thus making one’s offering to God impure.  “We are good Jews,” they seem to be saying, “and to be a good Jew one must conform strictly to the Law.”  Jesus’ seeming non-conformity to the Law caused them anxiety and they reacted by complaining and criticizing, hoping to shame him into conformity: thus revealing their own struggle with differentiation.
          Jesus, for his part, offers them a well-differentiated response.  Instead of reacting to their criticisms, he gives them parables that help illustrate the reason that he “welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin serve to show that God will go to absurd lengths to ensure that not one of his chosen ones is lost or left behind.  And in the parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus gives the Pharisees and the scribes an even more complete image of the Father as one who is “prodigal” with his forgiveness.  Notice that the father in this parable does not stand defiantly to say, “I have to punish you because you made me look bad as a father” (which would thus reveal a struggle with differentiation).  Rather, he takes no offense at his son’s dissolute past and instead embraces him for having returned and celebrates that “what was lost, has now been found.”  With these parables, Jesus shows his critics that he, indeed, (as Saint Paul wrote to Timothy in today’s second reading) “came into the world to save sinners.”
          Jesus then contrasts this image of the father in the parable by portraying the poorly-differentiated older son.  In doing so, he gives the Pharisees and scribes a mirror in which to look at themselves.  This older son takes offense that the father has received his younger brother back so generously and he struggles to accept this, because his self-image of being a “good son” is tied to his father’s acceptance of his behavior and rejection of behavior like his younger brother’s.  And so, instead of rejoicing that his brother has returned safe and sound, he complains: feeling unrecognized and rejected by his father’s actions.
          It’s no stretch to see that this kind of reactive, undifferentiated response is a significant source of conflict in our own lives today.  Our culture is given over to polarizations and, thus, in many ways even our church communities are divided.  How often do we find ourselves launching into criticisms about what others in the church are saying or doing?  Immediately our defenses shoot up whenever we see someone who purports to be a “good Catholic”, but then acts poorly or contradicts Church teachings outside of Church.   Our responses then move towards an attempt to force them to change and to conform to our image of what a “good Catholic” should act like.  My brothers and sisters, no matter what the situation is, when our anxiety levels start to rise and we begin to become reactive, it’s a sign that we are struggling with differentiation, that is, we are struggling to be who we are in relation to others.
          Just like Jesus could give a well-differentiated response to the Pharisees and the Scribes and thus lead them towards a deeper understanding of who God is and who they were in relation to him, so he can do the same for us.  When we approach God out of our anxiety—whether it be anger, frustration, fear, or doubt—he is always able to receive us and to respond to us in a way that is in no way reactive to how we approached him.  Always capable of being who he is in relation to us, God stands always ready to respond to us in love, a response which then becomes for us like a mirror, showing us who we really are in relation to him—his beloved sons and daughters—and thus enabling us to be who we are in relation to others, which frees us to love them in spite of how their actions might reflect on us.
          My brothers and sisters, Jesus’ ultimate act of differentiation is what we see on the cross and in what we will eat from this altar.  In submitting to indescribable torture and death on the cross and to being made present body, blood, soul and divinity in the form of bread and wine, Jesus acknowledges who he is in relation both to God and to us: the Son of God and the Son of man, the King of All Ages and the child of a peasant girl, the Beloved of the Father and the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world…  Therefore, my brothers and sisters, let us remember today who we are—sons and daughters who have received God’s mercy and brothers and sisters who are called to share God’s mercy with each other—and let us not forget God’s infinite love for us, a love that we experience most perfectly when we approach this altar in unity and peace.

Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – September 14th & 15th, 2013

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Get squish, just like grape...

          Last week I enjoyed another "away" session for the leadership formation program that some priests of my diocese and I are participating in called "Good Leaders, Good Shepherds.  During it, we watched the classic movie "The Karate Kid" and I was inspired by a connection I saw with last Sunday's Gospel.  I'm not sure how well it went over in Spanish, but I think many took something positive from it.  Enjoy!


Homily: 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time – Cycle C
          Some of you may have seen the film from the 1980’s called “The Karate Kid” (or, perhaps, you saw the 2010 re-make of the film, which had essentially the same story line).  The basic story is about Daniel, an outsider from New Jersey who moves into the upscale Los Angeles suburbs, who overcomes rejection and bullying by training and winning a prestigious karate tournament.  The key to Daniel’s success is an older Japanese man, Mr. Miyagi, who takes Daniel under his wing to train him for the tournament.
          One of the great lines from the film happens on the first day of Daniel’s training.  Mr. Miyagi is about to give Daniel the terms on which he must agree upon in order to be Mr. Miyagi’s “disciple” and he asks Daniel, “Now, ready?”  Daniel replies, “Yeah, I guess so.”  Mr. Miyagi was looking for something a little more committed and so he told him a parable.  He said (and please pardon my attempt to imitate Mr. Miyagi’s Japanese accent), “Walk on road, hm? Walk left side, safe. Walk right side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later, [makes squish gesture] get squish just like grape. Here, karate, same thing. Either you karate do ‘yes’ or karate do ‘no.’ You karate do ‘guess so,’ [makes squish gesture] squish just like grape.”  For Daniel, this was a lesson in the cost of discipleship.  And the lesson was that, if he was going to do this, he had to be “all in.”
          In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus gives his disciples a similar lesson.  Jesus can see that these disciples have potential to be great apostles and evangelizers, but he can also see some hesitation among them.  And so, as the Good Teacher, he knows, therefore, that he must clarify for them the cost of being his disciple.  Thus, he tells them “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” and “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”  These were extremely strong images, because in the culture of the time family was your life and to carry a cross meant you were better off already dead.  But Jesus knew that he had to use strong images if he was going to make his expectations clear.
          Perhaps, however, he could see the shocked faces of his disciples and so he adds a couple of parables to help them understand his reason for using such strong images.  The story of the man who builds a tower and cannot finish it and the story of the king who measures his ability to conquer an opposing army serve to illustrate the same thing that Mr. Miyagi tried to illustrate for Daniel: You had better be “all in” as my disciple, because if you’re not, “[makes squish gesture] squish, just like grape”.
          My brothers and sisters, this is exactly the lesson that the Church is inviting us to learn today by giving us this Gospel reading for Mass.  The Church is reminding us that to be a disciple of Jesus we have to be “all in”.  Does that mean that we must take Jesus’ words literally and hate our fathers, mothers, siblings, spouses and children?  No, of course not!  That would contradict Jesus’ mandate to love everyone, even our enemies.  What it does mean is that we must detach ourselves from everything that we hold dear in this world so as to be ready to turn away from it to follow him.  And why?  Because it’s the right thing to do?  Well, that’s part of it (and I suppose that for some of you here that will strike a positive chord).  More, however, it is because of Jesus’ promise to return to us a hundred fold whatever it was that we had given up in order to follow him.  But first, we have to be “all in”.
          You know, if we take a look at Catholics today, we can find that we all could be classified in one of three categories: all in, all out, or somewhere in between.  If you read the reports (or better yet just look around), you’ll see that a large number of us have made the decision to be “all out”.  Those of us who are here, then, are a mixture of “all ins” and “somewhere in betweens”.  My guess, however, is that the majority of us who are here fall under that latter category.  And I don’t blame us!  It’s hard to live the kind of intense discipleship that Jesus is demanding of us.  The challenge for us, however, is to trust Our Lord, much the way Daniel trusted Mr. Miyagi when he agreed to be “all in” even though he had no idea what it would demand of him.
          My brothers and sisters, Jesus needs us to be “all in” so that through us he can reach out to our friends, neighbors, and family members who have decided to be “all out”.  They have to see that our lives are different because we are disciples of Jesus, and that those differences actually make us happier, if they are going to be drawn back to consider once again Jesus’ promises to those who follow him.  In many ways, this is what we’ve been called to do in this Year of faith: to consider again the Faith and our commitment to it and to rededicate ourselves to being “all in”: to being evangelizers in our words and our actions so that others who have lost the Faith may return to it and be reconciled to God and the Church.  Let us then be true disciples and place all of our trust in the guidance of our master, for he will truly “make our paths straight” so that we can become the apostles and evangelizers that he already knows we can be and so that he can lead us to the eternal joy that we all desire.
Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – September 8th, 2013
The Memorial of the Birth of Mary

Sunday, September 1, 2013

You're invited... a great wedding feast!  It's called the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  Come, see what you've been missing.

You can see Amy's story (which I mention in my homily) here.


Homily: 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time – Cycle C
          I remember fondly, back in the day when I was a kid in Joliet, how my brother and my sisters and I always used to fight for the front seat of the car on whatever kind of trip we were taking.  It could have been an out of town excursion up to Gurnee to see my aunt and uncle or just around the corner to the grocery store, but if there was more than one of us going along there was bound to be a battle for the coveted “front seat”.  Sometimes those battles were short and victory was decided quickly when one of us would grasp the advantage of foresight and yell “front seat!” as soon as mom or dad announced the trip.  Other times the battles were drawn out, the “calling” of the front seat happening almost simultaneously, usually resulting in a mad rush to the car door knowing that the unspoken rule was that if there was a tie in calling it, whoever got there first could claim victory.
          Sometimes, however, that victory would be short-lived.  Depending on where we were going, we might pick up my grandma or one of my aunts, thus deposing the victor of his or her throne and relegating him or her to the back (sometimes even to the “way-back” if we were driving the old station wagon with the rearward facing back seat).  If the victory had been hard-won, this move to the back was a disgraceful moment and the other siblings who tasted the bitterness of the loss had no sympathy for the now deposed victor: often forcing him or her to sit on the “hump seat” in the middle and thus serving him or her a healthy serving of “humble pie”.
          (By the way, since kids these days practically have to be driving themselves before they can even approach the front seat of a car, I feel justified in labeling my experience “back in the day”, even though I am still quite young.)
          I don’t think that it is much of a stretch to say that Jesus is teaching a similar lesson today.  In a way he is saying that if you try to take prestige and honor (thus exalting yourself) you will likely fall from it when one who is more deserving arrives.  His lesson is that we should instead learn humility and practice it before we are humiliated for having stepped beyond our station in life.  For my brother and sisters and I, we witnessed this when, after grandma or auntie was dropped off, my mother would choose someone to sit in the front seat for the return home.  Needless to say, it almost never was the one who fought tooth and nail to win the right to sit there in the first place.  Speaking of my experience alone, I remember being happier about having the front seat in those moments than if I had won the position outright.  Thus, practicing humility in this way reminds us of something: that all that we have is gift. ///
          Recently I encountered the story of Amy; a mom probably in her late 30’s or early 40’s who has three children.   She relates how she and her husband, not long after getting married, decided to move from their suburban home to a more rural setting.  The move was a very smooth one and both Amy and her husband found jobs right away making everything seem like it had worked out just fine.  After a couple of years, however, when the economy tanked, both Amy and her husband lost their jobs.  Obviously this was a big blow to the young family.  Amy relates that, while she never lost faith in the statement “God will provide”, she did start to question how exactly he would provide.  “Maybe God’s providence won’t include health insurance or a job or lights next week” she thought to herself.  In that she came to a realization that she said changed her whole perspective: that if all of these things that we claim to be our own in this world—our houses, our jobs, our insurance, even our family members and friends—can be lost or taken away from us, then none of it was ever really ours to begin with; and that, thus, everything must be gift.  Everything. ///
          In the reading from the book of Sirach today, it states “conduct your affairs with humility…” and “…into things beyond your strength, search not.”  For Amy and her family, this meant accepting that the gifts they had been given had been taken away and that to claim somehow that they were entitled to restitution was a false notion.  For Amy this acceptance was a freeing experience; for she knew that she no longer had to scratch and claw to keep what she had, but rather could remain detached from it: receiving it with joy as a gift when it came and letting it go to others whose need appeared to be greater.  And in doing so she learned something about God’s generosity with us.
          In the second half of the Gospel reading, Jesus exhorts the host of the dinner to consider who he invites to his dinner parties.  Instead of inviting his friends and relatives or wealthy benefactors, Jesus tells him to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, because these would never be able to repay his kindness and thus he would find favor in the eyes of God.  In making this statement, Jesus is teaching us God-like generosity.  God gives abundantly to us, even though we have no way to possibly repay him.  Therefore, we must do the same.
          Many families are in the same position as Amy’s family was.  They’ve worked to build a secure home for their families only to find that their jobs had been cut because of the recession.  Our Scriptures today, however, show us how to cope with this kind of loss.  If we can see that all that we had was a gift—i.e. that it wasn’t something that we were necessarily entitled to—then we can give thanks, even though we no longer enjoy the gift.  And if we can see what we still have as a gift, then we can give thanks for it, too; and we will be open to sharing that gift generously with others, especially those who may have no means to repay us.  By doing so, we humble ourselves and thus make ourselves available to be exalted by God’s generosity to us.
          This weekend our nation celebrates our labor by taking a national day of rest.  I’m sure many of you will either host or participate in cookouts or other celebrations.  Perhaps in light of Jesus’ words today we should ask ourselves two questions: “Who have we invited?” and “Who have we left out?”  My brothers and sisters, as God has invited us—who are poor, crippled, lame, and blind—here to this banquet of grace—a banquet that we could never hope to reciprocate—we, too, must invite those who are far from us—those on the margins of society, as Pope Francis calls them—to enjoy the many gifts that have been bestowed upon us: most especially this gift of the Holy Eucharist.  Let us set ourselves to this good work, then, and let us invoke the help of the humble Virgin Mary, who always comes to the aid of her poor children, so that we, too, may know God’s favor now and eternal blessedness in heaven.

Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – August 31st and September 1st, 2013