Sunday, June 16, 2019

A Community of Persons

Homily: The Most Holy Trinity – Cycle C
In my last semester of high school, I started to hang out with a classmate of mine named Bill Schmidtz.  Bill was an eccentric guy.  He had a great sense of humor, but was very intense.  It was either “off” or “on” with him, never in between.  This made him a lot of fun to hang around with because where my own inhibitions might keep me from expressing something as strongly as I might want, Bill would just let it fly!  Through our hanging out, Bill introduced me to one of his friends, Trisha, who proved also to be a lot of fun to hang out with.  Over a series of weeks leading up to our graduation—a couple of months perhaps—we spent a lot of time together: hanging out, joking, and enjoying each other’s company.
On one evening during this time, the three of us were at another acquaintance's house, hanging out.  Bill started talking about how cool he thought it was that the three of us were becoming something of an inseparable trio.  Then, in true Bill fashion, he took it to the next level, saying that we needed a name by which we would identify ourselves.  Of course, Bill had a name picked out.  He said, “We’re like a triangle.  We should call ourselves ‘The Triangle’”.  (As I said, Bill was intense... not the most creative, but intense.)  Being teenagers still and, therefore, still akin to lunging at silly things, I remember Trisha and I both agreeing to the name that night.  As the days and weeks went on, we had a lot of fun as “The Triangle”.
Soon, though, high school graduation came and went.  I would soon leave for Michigan to pursue my degree in engineering, Bill would begin his apprenticeship as a plumber, and Trisha had one more year of high school yet before she would graduate.  I’m guessing that it would surprise no one here if I told them that, as the members of “The Triangle” started down these different paths, this once-unified group of persons quickly dissolved into nothing.  24 years later, I don’t think I’ve run into or spoken with either Bill or Trisha.
So, why this story at the beginning of the homily on Trinity Sunday?  Well, because I think that Bill tapped into something fundamental when he recognized the bond, fragile as it was, that had grown between himself, Trisha, and I.  In calling us the “triangle”, he was recognizing what he thought was a completeness in us, just like a triangle is complete, in itself.  As the three points in the triangle, we had bonds of good will that, for a time, kept us together.  Those bonds proved to be somewhat superficial, however, and so they quickly dissolved once distance made it hard to stay connected.  Nonetheless, in recognizing the “community of persons” that these bonds created, Bill was projecting (somewhat unwittingly, I’m sure) an innate sense that, having been created in God’s image, we are meant to form these kinds of communities of persons: especially ones that are bonded together in deep ways.
Hopefully, at this point, you’re seeing where I’m going with this, because what I’m describing here is a faint reflection of what it is that we celebrate this Sunday: that God, himself, is a community of persons, who nonetheless remains singular in his being.  Just as the three points, bonded together by the lines that connect them, make the triangle; and just as the triangle dissolves into nothing if one of those points or bonds is removed; so God is whole and complete in himself as this community of persons, united in the bonds of their eternal outpouring of love.  If any one of these points is removed, or if the bond of love between them ceases to be, then God is no longer who he has revealed himself to be.  In fact, I’d be so bold to say that he would no longer be God, at all!
Having been created in God’s image and likeness, we are created to be a community of persons, inseparably united by the bonds of love.  This, in fact, is the reason for which we were created: to be one with God in the community of persons that he is in himself.  As little children use play to enter into the lives of the adults around them, acting as parents in make-believe homes and as professionals in make-believe offices, farm fields, and factories—instinctually knowing that they are destined to enter into that world someday—so we human beings know instinctually that we are meant to enter into that perfect community of persons in eternal life and, thus, strive to create that in this world by entering into exclusive unions with one another.  In naming our little trio, Bill was formalizing what we had done instinctually: formed a small community of persons.
Just as a child’s play in the world of adults quickly dissolves when it becomes work or simply uninteresting, so do many of these communities of persons into which we enter dissolve if there isn’t something substantial to hold them together.  “The Triangle” quickly dissolved because our bonds were our mutual enjoyment of each other’s company.  We didn’t know each other very deeply; and so, when distance meant that we could no longer enjoy each other’s company easily (that is, when it became work), we became disinterested and lost contact.
The three Persons of the Holy Trinity, however, are bonded by infinitely perfect bonds: the Father knows the Son infinitely and the Son knows the Father infinitely; and their infinite outpouring of love to each other bursts forth as a third Person, the Holy Spirit (who, himself, is infinitely known and loved by the Father and the Son and who infinitely knows and loves them each in return).  This Holy Spirit bursts forth so that the infinite love of these persons can be known and shared by all.
This last part—that who God is in himself allows that we could know and share in who he is as a community of persons—is our reason to celebrate and give thanks this day.  Every community of persons, even the community of persons that most closely resembles the Holy Trinity—that of the human family—is still, because of our limitedness as human persons, lacking the completeness that God is in himself.  Nonetheless, we instinctually recognize that we are made for that completeness.  If we could never achieve that completeness, however, then our lives would be a total frustration.  But God has made it so that we could enter into that completeness—a completeness that we lost in the Garden of Eden, but then was restored in Jesus Christ—and so, we can rejoice that the hope that we have instinctually of experiencing that completeness will not disappoint, as Saint Paul reminded us in our second reading, and thus worship God here with joy, in spite of whatever difficulties we may be facing in our lives.
Friends, this joy that we celebrate here today because of who God is in himself is the joy that we must take with us as we enter back into this Ordinary Time.  This is because, as missionary disciples of God, we must make this good news known to all: that God, perfect in himself, allows and deeply desires that we, his creatures, could know him and enter into his divine life and, thus, find our fulfillment.  And so, as we give thanks to him today in this Eucharist—itself a taste of this perfect communion with him—let us ask for the grace to make this good news known in our lives and thus make this earth a foreshadowing of the perfect community of persons we will enjoy in eternal life.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – June 15th & 16th, 2019

Monday, June 10, 2019

A New Pentecost for a New Evangelization

Homily: Pentecost – Cycle C
As you all remember, this past week Fr. Neterer and I were at our biennial priest convocation down in Brown County State Park.  It was a lovely couple of days to be away with our brother priests.  At the convocation, there is always a speaker that speaks on some theme of priestly life and ministry.  This year, our speaker was Dr. Ralph Martin, an author and professor of theology at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit.
I have to say that Dr. Martin was quite refreshing.  He shared with us his story of how he ended up as an author and seminary professor and I was edified that his path began in relatively normal circumstances.  For example, the Holy Spirit first touched his heart when he participated in a Cursillo weekend.  All of you who are Cursillistas, or who have been through Christ Renews His Parish or even an Antioch retreat, have had very similar experiences to the one that opened Dr. Martin’s heart to the grace of a spiritual awakening.  He spoke very plainly and humbly, and he was a great witness to us.  And, after sharing his witness, he spoke to us about the New Evangelization.
The “New Evangelization”, if you’ve never heard of it before (or, if you have, but don’t understand what it is), is something for which our Popes have been calling for the last 40 years or so.  If you think that it has something to do with going out and finding people who have never heard of Jesus to tell them about Jesus and the saving news of the Gospel, then you will have thought well, but you will have thought wrong.  The New Evangelization is not about evangelizing those who have never heard of Jesus Christ (though that work is still necessary), but rather about evangelizing those who are already in the Church.  Sounds strange, perhaps, but here’s what it means:
Since the Second Vatican Council, it seems, there has been a disconnect between the initiation of men and women to the faith and their evangelization.  In other words, we’ve sacramentalized millions of people (meaning, we’ve given them the sacraments), but we’ve done a poor job of introducing them to the person of Jesus (that is, the person for whom and through whom they have been sacramentalized).  In the past, this didn’t seem to be so big of a problem, since the surrounding culture supported and encouraged men and women to continue the practice of the faith, even if they didn’t always have an understanding of the relationship with God that their practice maintained.  Today, the cultural support for religious practice has disappeared (in fact, it has become hostile to it); and so, those who have been sacramentalized but not evangelized fall away from the faith since they see no underlying reasons to continue to practice it.  The New Evangelization calls us to take up the task of evangelizing the baptized so that the sacramental grace that they have received may become active in their lives and draw them back into the practice of the faith.
Perhaps some of you are thinking to yourselves, “surely it is not I, Father, who hasn’t been evangelized?”  Well, chances are that a number of you sitting here this morning do fall into this category.  If so, don’t worry.  It is not a sin to be sacramentalized and not evangelized, if it happened due to no fault of your own.  And most of the people who fall into this category have already left the practice of the faith, anyway, so they wouldn’t be here (and certainly not at 7:30 in the morning!).  Regardless of whether you’d count yourselves among the evangelized or the merely sacramentalized, there is a message for us here today.  That message is the connection between Pentecost and the New Evangelization.
Dr. Martin, echoing the Popes all the way back to John XXIII, said that the New Evangelization demands a new Pentecost.  Just as the first evangelization began when the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples in the Upper Room, so too will the New Evangelization take flight when the Church, on a large scale, calls for the Holy Spirit to descend upon her again.  This has already begun in a smaller scale as Ecclesial Movements like the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, Cursillo (and all its permutations), and the Neo-Catechumenal Way have found a footing in the Church and are evangelizing the baptized: that is, helping men and women—long since baptized—to find and establish a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  We have these movements here in the Midwest—some right here in Lafayette—and so if something is stirring in you right now as you hear about these evangelizing groups, let me know and I’ll be more than happy to connect you to them.  All of these groups rely heavily on calling on the Holy Spirit to enlighten them, to guide them, and to strengthen them in their efforts to evangelize.
Nonetheless, you do not have to be a part of an ecclesial movement to participate in the New Evangelization; our scriptures today show us that.  In our second reading, Paul, writing to the Church in Corinth, says “to each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit”.  Did you hear that?  He said, “to each individual...”  That means that each and every one of you here—if you have been baptized—has been given a manifestation of the Holy Spirit.  And so, there’s no one here (again, if you’ve been baptized) who can say, “Oh, that Holy Spirit stuff is for other folks, not me.”  Each of us has been given a manifestation of the Spirit, “for some benefit”.  If we don’t know what those spiritual gift or gifts might be, then our task is to call on the Holy Spirit to enlighten us to those gifts so that we can begin to manifest them for the benefit of the kingdom of God, which has, at its root, the evangelization of peoples.  If we remember the Gospel parable of the talents, we remember that the master did not look kindly on the one who hid his talent instead of trading with it so as to multiply it.  So, too, it will be with us who have been given a manifestation of the Spirit for some benefit, but then failed to discern that gift and to apply it for the building of the kingdom.
And so, how do we come to know those spiritual gifts?  Well, the simple way is to call on the Holy Spirit regularly!  “Come, Holy Spirit” is a great prayer to the Holy Spirit that anyone can pray.  In our Gospel, today, however, Jesus shows us another way to open ourselves to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  He says: If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always...  The Advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.”  In other words, if we love Jesus and keep his commandments, then Jesus himself will take care of sending the Spirit to us.  I like this method, because it keeps us focused on fostering our own relationship with Christ, which will be essential in any evangelizing work that we are given.  It also reminds us, however, that we cannot expect to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit if we refuse to turn away from our sins: that is, if we fail to keep the commandments of the Lord.  Thus, it is a constant urging to turn away from sin and be cleansed of it (especially in Confession) so as to remove all barriers to the Spirit’s manifestation in us.  Thus prayer, in which we communicate with Jesus daily, and frequent reception of the sacraments, are keys to unlocking the outpouring of the Spirit in us.
Friends, on this holy day—and at the end of this holy season—let us be bold in asking for a New Pentecost so that the work of the New Evangelization might be accomplished through us: the work of bringing our brothers and sisters to (or back to) the practice of the faith through a personal relationship with Jesus.  For it is this work that will make us saints; and it is this work that will usher in the day when Christ will return, in all his glory, to take us home to himself.  Come, Holy Spirit, Come!
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – June 9th, 2019

Monday, June 3, 2019

Our noble and necessary bodies

Homily: The Ascension of the Lord – Cycle C
          Friends, today we celebrate this great feast of the Ascension: the final, culminating act of our redemption. This is not, of course, the crucial act: that was Jesus’ Passion, Death, and Resurrection.  Rather, it is the culminating act: the ultimate reason for which Jesus took on our human flesh; and that is, to re-unite our humanity to God. This, of course, is a joyful thing. I mean, just think about your humanity for a moment. Think about what happens when you don’t take a shower or a bath for a couple of days. Think about changing diapers on babies or when they spit up on your shoulder. Our humanity—as we experience it in this world, at least—is a messy (and, quite frankly, often gross) thing. Yet the Divine Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, took on our humanity, in all its grossness, suffered all of the worst things that it can experience in this world, and glorified it in his resurrection so that it could be restored to its perfect communion with the Holy Trinity: which is to say, into an existence of perfect and eternal bliss.
          This is something astounding!  And if you aren’t astounded by this, then you should be!  In the early centuries of the Church, Christians argued about the true nature of Jesus’ humanity: Did he truly have a human nature, alongside his divine nature, or did his divine nature simply “reside” in a human body while he walked on earth?  The fact that, after his resurrection, Jesus still had a human body, made of flesh and bone, and that he took that body with him as he ascended into heaven shows us, those early Christians argued, that Jesus’ divine nature was truly united to a human nature; and that this human nature, while always remaining distinct from his divine nature, can never be separated from him.  It’s truly mind-blowing to think about this because, even with all of our scientific achievements, we have no way of conceptualizing how our human bodies can exist outside of space and time.
          Nevertheless, what Jesus proved for us when he ascended in his human body is that our bodies are noble, and that they have a noble purpose.  In fact, I would say that our bodies are truly sacramental, in nature.  If you remember your catechism well, you’ll remember that a sacrament is an “efficacious sign of grace”: it’s something perceivable by our senses that makes imperceivably things happen.  For example, in baptism, the person is washed with water while invoking the Holy Trinity, which effects the grace of the cleansing of the person’s soul from sin (Original Sin and any personal sin) and marking it permanently for God.  In other words, the physical, perceivable washing makes a spiritual, imperceivable washing happen.  Thus, another way to define a sacrament is to say that it is “a visible sign of an invisible reality.”  A sacramental, in this sense, is something that does a “sacrament-like” thing.
          Our human bodies are sacramentals in that they are visible signs of invisible realities.  What is that “invisible reality”?  The presence of a human soul.  Subconsciously we get this, because whenever we see what appears to be a human body without a soul, we know it’s something less than human, a monster, right? (Any “Walking Dead” fans out there? Zombies are monsters because they are human bodies without souls.) Our bodies are more than just signs, however, they are integral parts of who we are as human persons.  This we also understand, fundamentally, because when someone does violence to our bodies, we rightly see it as an attack on the person, who cannot be known except through his/her body.
All this is to remind us today that the restoration of our communion with God could not be accomplished through spiritual means alone: it had to happen with our bodies.  This means that, any restoration that could have been effected without bodily communion would have been incomplete.  Jesus came, however, to restore our communion with God completely: thus, the Incarnation; the Passion, Death, and Resurrection; and, now, yes, the Ascension.  Real communion with God requires our bodies, as well as our soul.
          This message is also why, I think, that the Church has transferred the celebration of this great feast to Sunday.  Technically, 40 days after Easter happened last Thursday, but we celebrate the Ascension on Sunday so that the vast majority of us might be able to celebrate this important feast.  It is the feast of the culmination of our salvation and a reminder that our human bodies have a noble purpose.  The world tells us that our bodies are something to be used and thrown away.  Through Jesus, God reveals that our bodies are valuable and necessary.
          These valuable bodies are not meant to be static, however.  Rather, they are meant to move.  In Luke’s Gospel “movement” is the sign of a disciple: that is, someone responding to grace.  If we think about the parable of the Prodigal Son, we see that the prodigal responds to grace and moves to return to his father, and the older son stands still—he will not move—and refuses his father’s graces.  This is a common theme in Luke’s gospel.  Thus, it feels a little weird when, at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke writes that Jesus told the disciples to “stay and wait”.  This, of course, is only to prepare them for the next big movement that will come with the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost: then they will move—and move big time—to take the Gospel message to the ends of the world.  We, who celebrate this feast, must be ready to move when the Spirit comes to us.
          Friends, Let’s use this time to meditate this week on this great mystery of the Ascension: that through Christ’s body, which has entered the eternal sanctuary in heaven on our behalf, we too will one day ascend bodily into full and perfect communion with God in heaven.  As we do, let us also pray and prepare to use these bodies that we have been given not only to be outward expression of ourselves—the visible signs of our invisible souls—but also to be expressions of God’s love that has been poured into our hearts: in other words, the visible sign of that invisible reality.  In doing so, we will be proclaiming God’s kingdom: the kingdom of heaven to which all men and women are invited and over which rules Christ, our risen Lord and king.  Alleluia!
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – June 1st & 2nd, 2019