Sunday, September 29, 2019

An Inconvenient Truth

Homily: 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C
“An Inconvenient Truth” is the title of a 2006 documentary of former United States Vice President Al Gore’s efforts to raise awareness about “global warming” and to promote efforts to help combat it.  The title of the film used Mr. Gore’s own words, who called global warming an “inconvenient truth”.  “Inconvenient” since efforts to combat it demand that we all choose to give up many of our modern conveniences; or, at least, to modify them so as to minimize their “carbon footprint”: a generic term indicating the impact that a certain thing or process has on global warming.
This week there were “Climate Change” summits in both the US and Canada.  “Climate Change” has replaced “Global Warming” as the word that is being used to describe the impact that our modern world is having on our global environment.  It’s a broader term, indicating that excessive “change” (not just “warming”) is something with which we should be concerned and so work to combat it.  The change of term does not change the inconvenience of the truth, however, and so activists continue to work to raise awareness and to promote both large-scale and small-scale change in society so as to combat it.
Unfortunately, in my humble opinion, alarmism has seemingly taken over what ought to be a very valuable discussion: that is, how we all ought to work together to make changes in our own lifestyles that can slow the rate of change and, thus, truly care for our environment.  “Governments must fix this”, is not the answer here; rather, every-day Joes, like you and me, need to make decisions every day about trips we take, products we purchase, and energy we consume if we wish to make a difference.  Take that “mindfulness” to a global scale and, all of a sudden, we could find ourselves feeling much less alarmed about our effects on the environment. ///
Today in our Scripture readings, we are presented with another “inconvenient truth”.  This one is the truth about the responsibility of the rich to the poor.  Perhaps the majority of us here wouldn’t consider ourselves “rich”; and, when considered on the income spectrum of those living in the United States, we’d probably be correct.  When considered on a global spectrum, however, that certainly changes.  Income that would be considered at or below the “poverty level” here in the United States would still place a person well into the upper levels of income in other, less-developed nations.  Regardless, however, even if we don’t consider ourselves “rich”, it is also likely that we are not “poor”, either; and so, we should take heed of the inconvenient truth presented by our Scriptures today.
The parable of the rich man and poor Lazarus is probably quite familiar to us, and so I’d like to spend a little time going through what the prophet Amos is criticizing in the first reading.  I’m not sure we understand the excesses he is describing there and so let’s take a closer look.  Amos’ dire prophecy stems from the habit of indulgence at feasts in which the wealthy regularly engaged.  He speaks of the couches on which they reclined to eat, which were luxuriously appointed with inlaid ivory and whose comfort invited them to spend long hours at meals.  He then speaks of the meat on which they daily dine.  Yet, at the time, a diet of meat was almost unknown.  Animals were peoples’ livelihood.  They were means of transportation or of carrying out work.  They produced wool and milk and other products useful for life.  Only occasionally, then, were they slaughtered for a meal; and, usually, (if not exclusively) in conjunction with some religious sacrifice.  Therefore, that the rich are dining on calves and lambs—the very animals most often used in sacrifice—is another sign of their extravagance.  They anoint themselves with costly fragranced oils and, instead of drinking wine out of cups (something which would promote some level of restraint), they drank it out of bowls (all the better to gulp the wine, instead of sip).  Old Testament prophets aren’t usually given to exaggeration, but even if it were so, in this case, we could still picture the extravagance with which the rich splurge with their wealth.
Like the parable from the Gospel, however, it is not so much the extravagance of the rich that the prophet condemns; rather, it is the indifference paid to their poor brethren that is the core of the prophet’s judgment.  For Amos, and at a time when the tribes of Israel were split between the north and the south, it was the indifference of those who lived in Judah—and Jerusalem, specifically—to the plight of their kinsman of the northern tribes who were suffering from an unraveling of their society, in which poverty was widespread.  It is their indifference that will bring condemnation upon them and they—that is, the wealthy of Judah—who will suffer the disgrace of exile first.  This reversal of fortunes because of the indifference of the rich to the poor is best described in Jesus’ parable when, as the rich man, now suffering torment in the afterlife, asks Abraham to send Lazarus to help ease his suffering and hears this reply: “My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.”  Lazarus was a kinsman to the rich man and his indifference to his kinsman led him to eternal suffering.
This is the “inconvenient truth” that the Scriptures present to us today: that we, who enjoy what is good during our lifetime will be judged for how we treated those who received what was bad in theirs.  Do we treat them as kinsmen—that is, brothers and sisters who have a claim on our compassion and help?  Or do we treat them with indifference: enjoying the good in our lifetime without much concern for the bad that they are receiving?  The Scriptures make it clear that we must treat them as our brothers and sisters if we expect to inherit the eternal life of happiness that Jesus has won for us.
Many of us, of course, do what we can to help the materially poor around us.  And this is good!  This weekend, however, as the Church celebrates the World Day for Migrants and Refugees, I’d like to highlight that this “inconvenient truth” also demands that we remove all indifference to migrants and refugees who seek help from us to have a better life.  Help, first and foremost, to achieve better living conditions in their native place, then, secondly, help to be received with generosity here if they are no longer able to remain there.  To do either, however, we will have to give up some of our own comforts (that’s why the truth is called “inconvenient”), but to do so is to fulfill the will of God, who loves the poor and hears them when they cry out to him in need.
My brothers and sisters, as Saint Paul once wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, man nor woman, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  Therefore, let us renew our commitment to this “inconvenient truth” that is presented to us today and seek to root out all indifference to our less-fortunate brothers and sisters and so help them.  Just as we, who are poor beggars before God, have been welcomed to this banquet of God’s love and mercy, let us show our thanksgiving by opening our lives to those around us who are suffering and, thus, prepare ourselves and those around us for the eternal life of comfort and consolation that God has prepared for us.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – September 28th & 29th, 2019

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Engage the world and build the kingdom

Homily: 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C
Just about halfway through my time in seminary, when I was in my first year of theology studies, our annual retreat was to be a silent one at a retreat house run by the Ursaline Sisters near Owensboro, Kentucky.  Their house was outside of the city, right next to a farm.  It was early spring and so cool temperatures were still the norm.  Nonetheless, I made it a point to get outside each day and walk.  I was struggling with my vocation at that point and spent a lot of time on that retreat praying about whether or not this was really the vocation to which God was calling me.  Part of the farm was cow pasture and I remember sitting and watching the cows near the end of the day one day and thinking that this stressful life of preparing for a stressful life of ministry was for the birds; and I longed for a more simple life—like one I imagine I could find on a farm—in which my work would be clear and I could put in an honest day of work, every day, and return home to peace and tranquility.
I became somewhat convicted by this idea and so decided to speak about it to my spiritual director for the retreat.  He was one of the monks from Saint Meinrad, Fr. Guerric.  Fr. Guerric is originally from the East Coast (New York or New Jersey, I can’t remember) and his accent shows it.  He also has a great “East Coast” way of telling you what he thinks: which means, straight in your face.  Thus, when I revealed to him that I was becoming more and more convinced that a life of ministry wasn’t my call, but rather a life of simple labor and quiet simplicity, his response was... how should I say it... direct.  “Oh, get over yourself, Dominic! That is not what God has called you to do”, was his response.  He could see right through my over-romantic notion: primarily because it involved giving up on the world; and he knew that a true vocation is never one that leads someone to give up on the world, but rather one that leads someone to give him/herself more fully for the world.  My frustration with dealing with the world, therefore, was no sign that I was wrong about my vocation; but rather a good sign that I was on the right path. (“Spoiler alert”: I think that you all know the rest of this story, because here I am today...)
In our Gospel reading today, Jesus presents a somewhat troubling parable.  There a household steward (today we might call this person a “personal asset manager”) is about to be fired for not doing his job well.  This causes him great consternation, of course, since he realizes that he’s about to lose his livelihood and be out on his rear end.  He knows that manual labor is not for him and so he devises a plan: “I’ll garner favors with my master’s debtors so that one of them will take me in once I’m homeless and so I won’t have to resort to manual labor.”  Two great ironies emerge: 1) the bad steward suddenly shows talent and the ability to work an advantageous deal as soon as his meal ticket is on the line, and 2) the master, who is getting ready to fire him, actually commends him for these “slick moves”.  In both, Jesus seems to be presenting this in such a way as to show this steward in a favorable light.  Our minds kind of automatically rebel against the idea of commending someone who is dishonest, however, so it begs the question: what is the point?
The point, it seems, that Jesus is trying to make to his disciples is that they must learn to be shrewd in their dealings with the world.  Jesus knew that his disciples would be sent out to proclaim this Gospel message in the everyday life of society; and that, if they weren’t shrewd in dealing with the world, then they would be ineffective and, thus, fail in their mission (for even those who are dishonest show themselves to be shrewd in dealing with the world… as the dishonest steward was).  In fact, in the early centuries of the Church, sects called “gnostics” promoted that the goal of life was “mental enlightenment”, after which one no longer really needed to deal with the world: because, through enlightenment, they would be living on a “higher” plane.  Jesus’ teaching squarely contradicts this, however, when he says, “Make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth”, meaning, “Deal shrewdly with this world and its riches”.  In other words, it’s as if Jesus is saying, “I am not calling you to remove yourselves from the world, but rather to go out into it—dealing with it prudently, of course, yet nonetheless dealing with it—so as to bring this message of salvation to all peoples.”
Friends, we have to remember that Christianity is a religion: which means that, in part, it is a way of living in and interacting with the world.  This as opposed to a cult: which typically demands that people separate themselves from the world and from interacting with it.  Because of this, we need to heed Jesus’ words and not try to pull back from the world (like I tried to do during that retreat, ten years ago), but rather to engage the world and deal shrewdly with it.  This is what I feel like the Uniting In Heart 2030 Pastoral Plan does for us: as a diocese, it provides us with a roadmap of how to be more shrewd in how our parishes live in and interact with the world, which will allow us to be more effective in fulfilling our mission to proclaim the Good News of eternal life through Jesus.
My brothers and sisters, Jesus, the Master, is calling us to be good stewards of his household, the Church.  The parable of the dishonest steward is a warning and a challenge: a warning not to get lazy in our stewardship and risk losing our position all together, and a challenge, thus, to deal shrewdly in the world, while we are in it, so as to build up the Church and prepare for our Master’s coming (and for the accounting to which he will call us when he comes).  Uniting In Heart 2030 is a chance for us to renew and strengthen our stewardship of God’s household; and so I hope that you will all join me in committing yourself to doing what will be necessary to see it come to fruition for Christ and his Church.
It is true what Saint Paul said in his letter to Timothy, that “God wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.”  Therefore, strengthened by this Eucharist, let us take up this good work so that more and more men and women can come to know Christ and his salvation; and that we, too, can be well prepared to enter the “eternal dwellings” that Christ, our Savior, has prepared for us.
Given at Saint Mary’s Parish: Lafayette, IN – September 22nd, 2019

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Being who we are before God and others

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 with which people are dealing, but one with which they don’t know that they’re dealing.  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 Purdue’s campus completely decked out in crimson and cream IU paraphernalia.  For Purdue students, 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 Purdue students passing them by.  In their anxiety at this apparent threat to their identity as Boilermakers, 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 Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – September 15th, 2019

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Humility that opens ourselves to others

Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati

Homily: 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C
Friends, today’s readings call us to think about and attend to the virtue of humility in our lives.  Why humility?  Well, if there’s one thing that we can learn from the first sin, it’s that we can overestimate our ability to comprehend a given situation and its consequences, leading us to bite off more than we can chew (pun intended) and end up in an embarrassing situation or, worse yet, suffering some severe consequences for our actions, as our first parents did in the Garden of Eden.  “Pride goeth before the fall”, the saying goes, and so our Scriptures today call us to humility.
In our reading from the wisdom writings of Ben Sirach, we hear that humility, far from limiting our influence with others and God’s favor of us, will actually increase them.  And if we think about it, this makes sense.  While we often think that those who are proud and who think highly of themselves tend to win the esteem of others, usually this is limited to those whose accomplishments are exceptional; and so, the esteem that they hold is really about their accomplishments more than it is about who they are as persons.  In everyday living, however—that is, in and among the people with whom we interact everyday—we recognize that it is the unassuming person, the humble person, whom we admire most.  This is the person who puts others before him or herself, who doesn’t brag about accomplishments, but rather about the accomplishments of others, and who is always open to being corrected, in spite of the fact that he/she may be well-learned in a particular topic or skill.
And so, it follows that this person is more favored by God.  The one who doesn’t assume he/she knows best, but rather submits to God and his judgments in all things, receives God’s favor.  Just look at the example of Jesus: who, when he was approached by a man who called him “Good Teacher”, turned and said, “Why do you call me good?  Only God is good...”  Although he was God incarnate in human flesh, he knew that, in his human nature, he must not seek the praise of others, but point always to his Father in heaven.  Thus, Saint Paul says, in his famous Canticle, “...because of this, God highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name above every other name...”  ///  The humble person is esteemed by others and finds favor with God.
Then, in the Gospel, we read how Jesus used a dinner party to teach his disciples this lesson about humility.  While he watched the guests jockey for positions of prominence, he probably noticed that a few of them were positioning themselves higher in rank than they really were, trying to make themselves look better.   Jesus knew what we all know and that is that when you try to exalt yourself, people see right through it and you usually come off worse for it.  But when you accept your place and always try to put others before you, people see that, too, and will usually be generous with you to offer a better place.  If not, you’re no worse for it, since you didn’t risk suffering the consequences of embarrassment (or, possibly, something worse).
Jesus then turns to the host of the dinner—and I love this part—and he instructs him in radical humility.  He says, “when you hold a lunch or dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment.  Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed will you be for their inability to repay you.”  Who of us, right, ever thinks this way?  We all love fellowship with our relatives, friends, and neighbors.  Can it really be that Jesus is telling us never to have them over for dinner?  Well, I think that, since we believe Sacred Scripture to be inspired by the Holy Spirit, we need to take seriously the idea that Jesus may mean this literally (and, of course, that the promise of being repaid at the resurrection is also literally true).  But if we look at it simply as a dichotomy—that is, as either “this” or “that”—then I think we might be thinking too narrowly.
Remember that one of the things that we hold in tension as Christians is the “both/and”.  For example, we believe that Jesus is both God and Man.  We believe that the kingdom of God is both here now and still coming.  And so, when we look at this, while striving to take Jesus for his word, we should look for the “both/and” in the situation.  In other words, is there a way to live his teaching in which we can enjoy the fellowship of close relatives, friends, and neighbors without neglecting the poor, crippled, lame, and blind?  I think that the answer is “yes”, and I’d like to share an example with you to explain why.
Pier Giorgio Frassati was a young man from Turin, Italy, who lived in the early 1900s.  He was the son of an Italian ambassador; and so, needless to say, he came from a prominent family who lived with all of the trappings that a wealthy businessman and ambassador could provide for his family.  Nonetheless, from an early age, Pier Giorgio displayed a great empathy and devotion to the poor.  It was said that once, when he was around 5 years old, a poor mother and her child came to the Frassati home looking for help.  Pier Giorgio noticed that the child didn’t have shoes, so he quickly ran and got a pair of his own shoes to give to the child.  This devotion to the poor continued throughout his adolescence and young adulthood.
Pier Giorgio was a handsome and athletic young man who had a joy-filled personality; and so, he also had many friends and he loved to spend time with them.  Throughout his young life, he sought to balance his devotion to his family, his friends, and to the poor.  The three he saw as equal and so gave himself to them equally (although often imperfectly).  For example, he never left for a trip with his friends (usually a hiking trip in the Italian Alps... he loved climbing!) without first making sure that the poor he knew from the streets of Turin had what they needed.  None but a few of his friends, however—and none of his family—knew of his devoted ministry to the poor.  And so, when he contracted and died from polio in 1925—at just 24 years old—his family and most of his friends were shocked to find throngs of Turin’s poor who came to his funeral to honor this young man who had served them so lovingly.
Pier Giorgio Frassati did not neglect his fellowship with his family, friends, and neighbors during his life.  Yet he nonetheless found a way to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind to the banquets that he had prepared.  And he did so humbly: never bragging about all that he did, but rather always striving to do what he could out of gratitude for all that he had received in his life.  As Catholics, we now know him as Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, who is just one approved miracle away from being canonized a saint: which would indicate that he, indeed, has been repaid for serving all of those who could not repay him.
My brothers and sisters, there are countless other saints who lived the same way—and some folks here in our own community, I’m sure.  And so, let’s look to Blessed Pier Giorgio and the others to be for us an inspiration to seek how God is asking us to make this humility a deeper, lived reality in our lives.  The fact that all of these examples reveal to us is that it is possible for us to live this way; and, thus, that we cannot expect to receive the reward of the righteous if we do not strive to live it.  And so, let us look today—yes, TODAY—for ways to live this humility more deeply so that we might be more conformed to the model of righteous humility: Jesus Christ—whom we worship in this Eucharist and encounter here at this altar.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – September 1st, 2019