Sunday, October 28, 2018

Being Bartimeus and Jesus

Homily: 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle B
Friends, in our first reading today, the prophet Jeremiah talks about the Israelite exiles returning from their dispersion to Jerusalem—God's holy city.  His message from the Lord contains beautiful language that, for the exiled Israelite, would have been the best news that he/she had heard in a very long time.  Here Jeremiah takes on roles beyond that of prophet: the role of “angel”, or “God’s messenger”, as well as “evangelist”, that is, someone who brings “good news”.  The message is beautiful because it names the anawim, that is, the poor ones, who might not otherwise be included in a large traveling group—the blind, the lame, mothers with children, etc.—and declares that they, too, will be included in this return to Jerusalem.  Still further, the news declares that this will be a triumphant return: in which the roads by which they will return will be smooth—in order to make the travel easier—and that there will be abundant water along the way, so that no one loses strength.  Those Israelites would have heard in this message the contrast to the other great return from exile—the Exodus from Egypt—in which their ancient forefathers traveled over rough roads and were often without water on their journey to the land which God had promised them.  This contrast would have increased their joy at this good news.
As I reflected on this passage, images of the migrant caravan making its way from Honduras, through Mexico, and towards the United States came to mind.  Please allow me to say, up front, that I am not equating this caravan of migrants and the ancient Israelites.  There are obvious differences: the migrants are leaving their homeland, not returning to it, and, as far as I have heard, this isn’t a migration foretold by God.  Nonetheless, there are similarities: those in the caravan are fleeing what, for them, feels like a desperate situation in their homeland; thus, the news of a caravan going to a land in which they have hope for a better future for themselves and their families inspired them to begin the journey.  The images of women with children and other seemingly weak persons taking part in this caravan also resonate with me as I reflect on this passage.  Now, I don’t claim to know what the right thing to do will be when they arrive at our border, but I hope that we will hear their hopes and respond gracefully.
Going back to the scriptures: in the Gospel we see Jesus enacting a fulfillment of this prophecy from Jeremiah.  If you’ve been following along over the past few weeks, Jesus has been on his way to Jerusalem: his final trip to Jerusalem.  Over the past few years, he had been teaching and quite a large group of disciples had begun to follow him.  On this last trip to Jerusalem, going up for the great feast of Passover, this large group of disciples were following him: giving us an image of the exiled Israelites being led back to God’s holy city.  Leaving Jericho (itself a city of symbolism: as it was the city at the lowest point—geographically—on the journey to Jerusalem from which one truly began his/her “ascent” to God in Jerusalem), the blind man Bartimeus calls out to Jesus and asks for “mercy”.  He uses the messianic term—”Son of David”—to address Jesus, thus also indicating that Jesus is doing something bigger than just “going up for the feast”.  Jesus stops, calls the man to him and grants him his desire to see.  Although Jesus dismisses the man to his own way, Bartimeus begins to follow Jesus to Jerusalem: the blind now joining in this “return from exile”.  While this, in itself, is an important connection to make, I think that there is more for us to take away this Sunday.
One image that came to mind while I was reflecting on this Gospel passage was the “running scene” in the film Forrest Gump.  Forrest is in middle age and has accomplished amazing things in his life.  He’s lost his mom and some close friends and in a moment of reflection, he decides to get up and start running.  Although he didn’t intend to go far at first, as he reached each “boundary” (the street, the town, the county, the state), he just decided to keep running.  He ran to the Pacific Ocean and then turned around and ran to the Atlantic Ocean.  Then, he turned around and ran back to the Pacific Ocean: all, by his own account, “for no particular reason”.  Soon the media finds out that this guy is running coast to coast continuously and people start to take interest.  People are intrigued and think that he must be some sort of “spiritual or political guru” to do something so radical and yet to be so quiet about it and so begin to follow him.  They think that he must be going somewhere and want to follow him there.  Ultimately, however, Forrest wasn’t going anywhere: he “just felt like running”.  And so, when he stopped feeling that way, he stopped running and went home: leaving his “followers”, stunned and speechless, in the middle of a desert highway.
I thought of this because of the contrast to Jesus in the Gospel.  There, Jesus is going somewhere: he’s leading people to the fulfillment of the promise; he’s leading people to Jerusalem, where he will be crucified.  Those who are following him, are following him to the cross.  The healing of the blind man Bartimeus shows us that Jesus came “to make all things new”; and his leading people to Jerusalem where he will be crucified shows us that it is through the cross that he will accomplish it.  Still more, the healing of Bartimeus and his subsequent following of Jesus shows us that Jesus desires that no one be left behind: if only they would cry out to him for mercy and respond to him when he calls.  For us who have been called and responded, it is a reminder that Jesus is not leading us to nowhere, but rather from our exile to the “new Jerusalem”: which is eternal life in God’s heavenly kingdom.
My brothers and sisters, one thing we should take from these readings today is this: that we are both Bartimeus and Jesus.  Bartimeus because we all have spiritual (and perhaps physical) blindnesses that only Jesus can heal; and that we have to cry out to him, asking for his mercy.  Jesus because he chooses to work through us so that others might come to experience his mercy, too.  We, therefore, must both cry out to him for his mercy and call out to the blind who are on the side of the road to come to him.  To put it, perhaps, more distinctly: here in the Mass we are Bartimeus; then, at the end of Mass, we are sent out to be Jesus.
Friends, here we are: in exile in this world!  But God knows that he made us to be with him in the eternal holy city that he has prepared for us.  We are following Jesus, who desires to lead all who willingly come to him into that eternal city and his death, resurrection from the dead, and ascension into heaven is our proof that he isn’t leading us to nowhere, but to that place to which, deep within us, we desperately long to return.  Let us, therefore, cry out to him today for his mercy (and for mercy on all those torn by violence in this world!) and receive from him—from this altar—what we most desire: union with him.  Then, armed with this euangelium—this good news—let us go back into the world to proclaim it with our lives.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – October 28th, 2018

Sunday, October 21, 2018

"King of the Hill" through service

Homily: 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Cycle B
          In general, it seems that boys have a pretty competitive nature.  Couple that with a lively imagination and pretty much any situation in which two or more boys find themselves together and somewhat free from close supervision and you can be pretty sure that some sort of competition will emerge.  This is certainly not limited to boyhood, of course.  Rather, it seems to freely continue well into adulthood (men, am I right?).  One of these competitions in which boys always seem to find a way to engage is “king of the hill.”
          Whether it’s a jungle gym, a pile of dirt, or even a pile of trash, just the sight of something that can be climbed and conquered seems to awaken inside of a boy a “primal urge” to overcome it.  If more than one boy is around, the competition goes beyond just trying to conquer the hill and becomes a competition between boys for who can stay on top of the hill.  As soon as one reaches the summit, another seems to come to usurp his claim as king and to claim it as his own.  Mostly, of course, this is harmless competition that is good for boys (and, often, girls) to engage in, though I seem to remember that it often ends with scrapes and bruises (and probably a few tears): all in the name of being crowned “king” among your peers.
          The Apostles James and John have demonstrated for us today the truth that we really don’t grow out of that competitive spirit as we become adults.  While in the Gospels—and particularly the Gospel of Mark—we are often treated with gaffs from their headstrong leader Peter, today we see these two—the sons of Zebedee—sticking their feet into their mouths because they wanted to be crowned “king of the hill.”  In a bold move for the summit, they approach Jesus, ask to be given whatever they ask for, and then proceed to lay claim to what they think are the most prominent positions in Jesus’ kingdom: to be seated at his right and at his left.  In part, they make a beautiful act of faith, for by asking for the places of honor in Christ’s kingdom, they are affirming their belief that he is a king and that his kingdom will soon be realized.  What they revealed, however, is a lack of understanding of what God’s kingdom would look like.
          I imagine Jesus giving them one of those looks—you know, when you raise your eyebrow just a bit so as to say, “Are you really asking that?”—and he responds to them saying, “Do you really know what you are asking for?  Do you realize what it will demand of you?”  James and John, for their part, have already jumped off the cliff and so they realize that if they are going to crash they’re going to do so dramatically and so they respond, “Yes, Lord, we are ready to do it.”  Then Jesus hits them with the reality check and says, “Well, regardless you will face what I am getting ready to face, but those positions that you asked for, those aren’t mine to give, so sorry but I can’t promise them to you.”
          This exchange, of course, left the other ten Apostles upset at James and John (assumedly because they, too, wanted to be “kings of the hill”) and so Jesus seized this moment to take the opportunity to teach them a lesson about what his kingdom would truly look like.  He says that “Leaders of nations use their influence to dominate their people and make their people serve them.  But with you it must be different.  If you wish to have a prominent place among your peers, learn to serve them.  In fact, let the rivalry among you be about who can outdo the other in service.  Let my example be your guide: for I, your king, came to be a servant and to lay down my life for others.”
          We can imagine that these words hit home for the Apostles, especially James and John.  James, we know, became the leader of the Church in Jerusalem and the first among the Apostles to be martyred.  John, of course, we know as the “beloved disciple” of Jesus who took Mary into his home.  Both Apostles left us with inspired writings that demonstrate that what Jesus said that day truly took root in their hearts.
          My brothers and sisters, our task here today is to recognize that we are no different than James and John or any of the other Apostles.  We all harbor this sense of competition in our hearts and we all have fallen into the trap of wanting to be “king of the hill” so as to “lord it over” those around us.  Kids still ask their parents, “Which one of us is your favorite?”  Teenagers still strive to obtain and secure their place of prominence among the “cool kids.”  Adults still seek to connect themselves to people of influence, such as their boss or the mayor or a state or city representative.  And these are not necessarily bad things.  It actually seems to be quite natural to want to be connected to people we admire and who have influence in our lives.  The challenge for us, however, is in how we use those connections.
          My brothers and sisters, in Christ’s kingdom, greatness and power are not measured by the number of people that move according to your will.  In other words, you are not great when you stand on top of the hill and proclaim yourself “king.”  In Christ’s kingdom, rather, the great ones are those who help others reach the heights of that hill: those who help a kid learn math, or an immigrant learn English, or who give a job to a recovering alcoholic or drug addict, or reach out to a neighbor who just lost her husband after 50 years of marriage, or who invites a friend to Mass who hasn’t been for a really long time.  My brothers and sisters, these are the ones who will be greatest in God’s kingdom because they are the ones who have followed the way Christ laid out for us: to serve, not to be served, and to lay down one’s life for others.
          Here in late October, embroiled as we are in this “election season”, the battle to be “king of the hill” is dominating our lives.  Our task—as Christians and if we are able—is to elect those who seek to serve, not to be served, and then to live that example in our own lives.  My brothers and sisters, as we approach this “throne of grace”—on which Christ’s life, laid down for us, is presented to us—we are strengthened to go forth and to lay down our lives for our neighbors.  And so let us give thanks for this great gift; and then let us go forth in service to find our place on the hill of God’s kingdom.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – October 20th & 21st, 2018

Monday, October 15, 2018

Retreat and commentary on religious art

          This past week I was on a silent retreat (Church Law says that each priest must make a retreat annually) and my associate pastor was generous enough to agree to preach all of the Masses this last weekend so that I didn't have to worry about that when I came home.  Thus, I have no homily to post this week.

          My retreat was at the Cardinal Stritch Retreat House on the campus of the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois.  It was a great week.  The retreat house was originally built as a a retreat house for priests of the Archdiocese of Chicago (though now others can make retreats there).  It is well appointed and the chapel was a very prayerful place.  It is a neo-classical style interior and has obviously been minimally touched since it was originally built (renewing carpeting and seating surfaces, but keeping the original design).

Chapel at Cardinal Stritch Retreat House
          I was particularly struck by the statuary and so I wanted to make a comment.  I found the image of Christ, over the tabernacle, to be one of the most "manly" looking Christ images I've seen in a long time (possibly ever!).

Christ image above the tabernacle
The picture I took overemphasizes the "manliness" of his facial features, as the lighting causes shadows to fall on his eye sockets and cheek bones.  Without the lights, you can see that his eyes are blue and are gazing heavenward in a "less-stern" look.  Regardless, here Christ is dressed in regal garments, and his posture exudes strength.  He's in complete control of his emotions.  Compared to most of the overly-expressive images that many more modern images portray, this image shows Christ as strong and in control.  It's an image I want to think about when my life gets out of control!

          Two images flank the tabernacle on either side: the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph.  And while they are obviously of the same design, the artist managed to portray sublime manliness in Joseph and sublime womanliness in Mary.

Joseph stands with strength, while Mary stands strong, but with obvious motherly tenderness as she gazes upon her Son.  This in spite of the fact that, from the waste down, they are essentially the same statue.  Again, when I look to Joseph and Mary, these are the qualities that I look for in them and to see images that express that elegantly greatly helped me enter more deeply into prayer.  Along with the overall unity of the chapel as a whole, these helped make the chapel a place of deep refuge during this last week.

          I offer these this week simply to invite you all to consider what the art in our sacred spaces is truly doing for our prayer.  Does it reveal the truths about what we believe and about who God is (who Christ is) and about who the saints are?  Or is it simply about making some artistic statement, disconnected from the purpose of the building as a whole?  Too often, I think we get caught in the latter idea.

         And so, here's to good art!  And here's to all those who produce it and preserve it!  Finally, a big thanks to all who made sacrifices so I could be away this past week to find rest and renewal.  May God bless you all!

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Human dignity and the mission of the Church

Homily: 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle B
Friends, when we listen to our Scriptures today we can see that they are inviting us to consider God’s plan for marriage: that, “from the beginning” God made humankind male and female and that marriage—the union of man and woman in an indissoluble bond—is so fundamental to human nature, that it causes persons to break the natural bonds of family to enter into it.  I think that if we look a little more closely, however, we can see that these readings speak to us of something even deeper.
Within this exposition of God’s plan for marriage, we see revealed something of the dignity of humankind.  In our reading from the Book of Genesis we begin by hearing God, having just created man, exclaim “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a suitable partner for him.”  Then God creates the animals of the earth and presents them to the man, none of which prove to be a “suitable partner”.  Saint John Paul II, in his Theology of the Body, explains to us that God, in this story, is not some “bumbling inventor” trying to impress the man and failing before he comes up with the “genius idea” to make one “equal” to him to be his partner.  Rather, God is slowly revealing to the man something very important about himself: that he is not one unique type of animal, otherwise equal to them; but rather he is above them, more like God than the other animals.  This “original solitude”, as Saint John Paul II calls it—man recognizing that he is alone and without a “suitable partner” among the animals—is a sign of that fact.  The “suitable partner”, therefore, is the one who is “bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh”, that is, one who is equal to him: a human person.
This idea is further shown to us in the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews.  There, the author reminds us that Jesus came to live as one of us so that “he might taste death for everyone”: meaning that he would pay the price for our sins so that we might be restored to communion with God, which we lost through the sin of our first parents.  The author reveals that Jesus did this because he is “of the same origin” of those who he saved.  “He who consecrates and those who are being consecrated all have one origin”, he wrote, reflecting what was revealed to us through the creation story of the book of Genesis: that we are not just one type of animal among the others, but that we are above them, more like God than the other animals.
Friends, that Jesus, the Son of God, who is God himself, came to save us from sin and eternal death because he is “of the same origin” as us is not news to us (or, at least, it shouldn’t be).  What we sometimes forget, however, is that Jesus did not just come to save us (although that was his primary mission).  Rather, he also came to establish a Church to be the place where humankind would be reminded of this truth that sin has caused him to forget: that we have a particular dignity above the other creatures and that our destiny is not in this world, but in a world yet unknown to us, in which we will come to know God face to face: a dignity not afforded to any of the other animals.
            Ever since Christ’s ascension, the Church has proclaimed this truth that had been forgotten by man.  Today, this continues so that every person might rediscover their original dignity and order their lives in such a way so as to realize the end for which they were made: eternal life with God.  This proclamation happens though an enduring structure that helps ensure that this mission is as widespread as possible.  Our diocese, the Diocese of Lafayette-in-Indiana provides for this mission here in north-central Indiana.  As a parish, we are here because of a diocese (originally, the diocese of Vincennes, then the diocese of Fort Wayne, and now, for the past 74 years, the diocese of Lafayette-in-Indiana).  It is through the diocese that we realize that we are connected to something bigger, something truly universal.
As a parish, we have a responsibility and a capacity to reach many persons with this saving message; but we can’t reach everyone.  Through the diocese, persons who might not otherwise be touched by this saving message, or efficiencies that might not otherwise be realized, are made possible for us.  One perennial example is Catholic ministries at universities in our diocese.  Saint Thomas Aquinas parish on Purdue’s campus, Saint Francis of Assisi parish on Ball State’s Campus, and the Newman Center ministry on Wabash College’s campus are all supported by funds provided by the diocese because, as all of you well know, I’m sure, none of them could survive on contributions provided by students alone.
Further, the diocesan offices help support parishes by providing resources to help each parish accomplish its mission: its various offices helping to provide and support priests for every parish, administrative support (from human resources, to payroll, to IT support, and beyond), and pastoral support: so that parishes with less resources don’t always have to “re-invent the wheel” to provide quality ministry to those whom they serve.
Therefore, we, as Catholics, have a responsibility to our parish and, because of our parish, to the diocese.  The biennial Fruitful Harvest Appeal is our opportunity to directly help the Bishop in his ministries—ministries that we could not provide on our own—and the administration of the diocese as a whole: without which we would not exist as a parish.  It is fundamental that we support Fruitful Harvest so that this mission to bring this radical message of the dignity of each human person, redeemed as they have been in Christ, to all who are in need of hearing it continues (even if we, ourselves, may be in need of hearing it again).
As a sign of our recognition of our responsibility to the Bishop, and of our gratefulness to God that we have this diocese through which we connect with him, we are all invited to offer our pledges here today at Mass to be united to the sacrifice of the Eucharist that will be presented on this altar.  If you received your pledge card in the mail and have already returned it, THANK YOU!  If you brought your pledge card with you today, great.  In a few moments we will collect it from you.  If you forgot your pledge card, but still want to make your pledge with us here today, or if you didn’t receive a pledge card in the mail, but want to be included, please use one of the blank cards in the pew.  We’ll give you a couple of minutes to fill it out before taking up the collection.  When the ushers come forward, please place your cards—sealed in the envelopes—into the baskets.  Please be generous.  In this difficult time for God’s Church, your gifts are sign of faith that the Church is Jesus Christ’s and not man’s and that its mission to proclaim to each person their exalted dignity must continue.
On behalf of Bishop Doherty and his staff, thank you for your generosity.  May God bless each of us as we Walk Together in the Light of Christ.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – October 6th & 7th, 2018

Monday, October 1, 2018

Sin still matters

Homily: 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle B
Friends, as we continue our journey through Ordinary Time—the time in the Liturgical Year in which we focus on growing as missionary disciples—we are reminded of important truths that help keep us on track.  A full six months removed from Lent and Easter—in which we focused on acknowledging our sin and worked towards repentance—this Sunday the Church gives us a reminder that sin still matters, even when it isn’t Lent.
In the second reading today, Saint James issues a stern warning to the rich who have taken unjust advantage of those less fortunate than them.  He lays their sins before them and prophesies that the comforts and excesses that they are enjoying now God has permitted so as to “fatten their hearts” for the coming slaughter.  He is warning them because they have become complacent in their sin and because God will not overlook their injustices on the Day of Judgment.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus is just as deliberate and graphic.  He instructs his disciples to be vigilant against sin.  In fact, another way to describe Jesus’ teaching using some of our more modern parlance would be to say that Jesus instructs his disciples to be intolerant of sin.  God has laid down a law that must be obeyed and to choose against that law is to choose against God himself and will result in eternal separation from God, which will be the cause of eternal suffering; and so Jesus tells his disciples: “Be intolerant of sin!  If your hand causes you to sin, CUT. IT. OFF!  If your eye causes you to sin, PLUCK. IT. OUT!  Failure to do so will condemn you to a place of eternal suffering: much like being in the middle of the unquenchable fire of Gehenna.”
Gehenna, for those of you who may not know, is not just another name for Hell.  Gehenna was an actual place outside the walls of Jerusalem.  It was a valley on the outskirts of the city that had been used for human sacrifice in Old Testament times by the evil rulers of the Israelites who worshiped pagan Gods.  By the time of Christ, the valley had become a huge, outdoor public incinerator, of sorts, in which trash and refuse, including the dead bodies of animals and criminals, were thrown and eventually consumed by a smoldering fire that was constantly kept burning.  Obviously, this was not a pleasant place to be around; and, having seen it, Jesus’ disciples knew that this was not a place that you could imagine yourself living for all eternity.
Thus, the extreme images that Jesus uses to describe how intolerant one should be of sin in his or her life.  Sin is a deadly thing, in spite of the lies that Satan will tell you about it.  (Remember Genesis?  “You certainly won’t die...” the serpent said to Eve.)  Thus, Jesus, and Saint James after him, are adamant that sin be rooted out of our lives down to the very source.  Are they trying to scare us into conforming?  Well, yes.  Elsewhere Jesus will say, “Do not fear the one who can kill the body, but rather the one who has the power to send you into the everlasting fires” (Mt. 10:28).  If our goal in life is to make it to eternal life with God (and it is, by the way), then we should fear ever committing any sin that would keep us from achieving that goal; and, therefore, remove anything from our lives that leads us into sin.
In these past couple of months, some serious wounds have been reopened and we are facing once again the hurt and suffering that tolerated sin causes.  The sins of sexual abuse by anyone, but especially by the clergy of the Church, produce lasting effects that, for the victim of abuse, can make him/her feel as if he/she is already living in Gehenna: a horrible wasteland in which a never-ending fire consumes him/her.  With hindsight we can see that even one instance of this being tolerated is horrible (though we shouldn’t have needed hindsight to see that).  Nonetheless, these bigger sins were tolerated because many, much smaller sins of unchastity (and, in the case of the clergy, unfaithfulness to one’s promise of chastity) were tolerated for many years.  Like a cancer, the toleration of even one of these sins puts the whole body at risk for destruction.
Sad, though, how we wouldn’t hesitate to submit ourselves to treatment to eliminate cancer—treatment that often entails significant suffering and sacrifice—yet we look at sin and tell ourselves “Meh, it’s not that bad... I’ll be fine.”  Friends, just as the Church is in real need of chemotherapy to cleanse Christ’s Body of these cancerous tumors that have threatened to destroy it, so too each of us.  Millions of women have gone through mastectomies in the hope that, by removing this important part of their bodies, the cancer that threatens their lives will be removed completely.  How quickly we respond to doctors who urge us to act so as to prevent pain and suffering in this world (let alone, death), yet we refuse to respond to Jesus, the Divine Physician, who urges us to act so as to prevent eternal pain and suffering (that is, eternal death) in the world to come.
My brothers and sisters, sin still matters.  When we tolerate sin—even small sin—in our lives, we allow a cancer to grow within us—silent and sinister: a cancer that destroys us from the inside.  To root sin out, we must subject ourselves to intense therapy: fasting, prayer, and frequent treatments through the sacraments of Penance and Holy Eucharist; and we must be honest with ourselves about whether relationships and circumstances in our lives are leading us into occasions of sin—that is, occasions for us to act against God and his Divine Law and against our neighbor—and thus we must eliminate them.  Anything short of this leaves us in danger of being cast into the eternal fires of Hell.
I myself have voluntarily taken on a regimen of mortification over these last few months meant to help me root out the sources of sin in my own life and to make reparation for my sins and the sins of my fellow priests and bishops.  I will not prescribe one for all of you, but I do invite each of you to consider what you might voluntarily fast from so as to conquer the root of a pernicious sin in your own life.  By each of us taking responsibility for our own sins and by supporting each other in our efforts (accountability partners are great things!), we’ll begin to see that the larger, systemic sins in our Church and in our society are being rooted out as well.
Let us take courage, then, my brothers and sisters, to take up (or continue) this good work; so that we might discover what our Responsorial Psalm tells us today: that “the precepts of the Lord give joy to the heart”: the eternal joy made possible for us by Jesus’ sacrifice.  The sacrifice that is made present to us here on this altar.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – September 29th & 30th, 2018