Easter Homily 2019 (summary!)

Alleluia, He is Risen!

Today I think of an experience that we probably all have had as a child – what I call the “reassuring glance.” I can remember times as a kid of being nervous about an at bat in baseball, or jumping off the high dive in the pool, or having to speak in public, and then looking over and seeing my mom, dad, a coach, or a friend. In seeing them present, I was given courage to face the situation before me. When we see a child in one of these nervous situations make a reassuring glance like that, we can see their whole mood and expression change. They become more confident. Their fear is overcome and they can deal with the challenge.

For us as Christians, our ultimate source of assurance can be found in the Resurrected Christ. He has conquered death! Death no longer has power over Him, as St Paul says. As Christ drew all of our sufferings and failures to Himself in His death, He now includes all of our victories in His resurrection. This is what transformed the Apostles. As a saint said, if they were afraid to follow Him publicly while He was alive, what makes them rise up courageous and unconquerable after His death? It is their encounter with Jesus in His resurrection. For this reason St Paul can say that he can do all things through Christ who strengthens him.

However, this change didn’t reach its fulfillment in one day. Jesus spent forty days after His resurrection with them before His ascension, strengthening them and letting this reassurance deepen. They spent the next ten days in prayer waiting for the Holy Spirit, and on the fiftieth day – Pentecost – they were ready. No matter how many Easters we have celebrated, we are invited in these next fifty days to return to this meditation on victory! When we face challenges – whether the every-day sort or the types that shake us to the core – let us repeat those words, “Jesus, you are risen. You are victorious. You are with me. I can face this situation in the light of your victory over death.” May we arrive at the end of this Easter season more deeply connected with our Risen Lord. Amen, alleluia!

John Henry Cardinal Newman

I first heard of Cardinal Newman as the namesake of the “Newman Center” that I attended at the University of Illinois (the Catholic student center). It was with great joy that I heard he had been approved for canonization as a saint! In this post I thought I’d give a few reasons as to how he has been a positive influence in my life.

Cardinal Newman was a significant theologian of the 19th century (lived 1801-1890). He was a member of the Oxford Movement within Anglicanism and developed a deep interest in the writings of early Christians. Much of his research can be found in his work, “An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine” (although the word ‘essay’ may be deceiving… my paperback copy is 480 pages!). This study is particularly interesting because he began the research before entering the Catholic Church, and finished it as Catholic. It documents his discovery of the historical roots and unity of the early Church with the Catholic Church today. His writing is full of profound insight into the reasons for belief—which was not an abstract study for him, but a burning personal question. Newman’s writing can be dense at times, but very rewarding!

Second, I find his spirituality compelling and timely. He took as his motto “Cor ad cor loquitur” (heart speaks to heart). As important as study was to him, Newman recognized that what is most powerful is when the Gospel is embodied in a personal witness. In it we can consider the Heart of God speaking to our heart, as well as seeking to let our heart speak to others. My favorite explanation of this phrase comes from a book by Louis Bouyer about St Philip Neri (side note— When Newman entered the Catholic Church he decided to start a community of the Congregation of the Oratory, the religious order founded by Neri. At some point I will write a post on Neri! He is my favorite non-biblical saint). Bouyer writes, “Cardinal Newman’s motto, ‘Cor ad cor loquitur,’ sums up the Philippian ideal; neither speeches nor arguments can awaken a living faith in those whom Christianity has lost its meaning. Only contact with people whose daily lives are dominated by an intense and personal experience of the truths of the Faith can achieve such a result, and it is precisely this result which Philip achieved through his dual life of intimate communion with God and men.” There is a personal touch to his approach to preaching and teaching, and a good reminder that the Faith isn’t just to be studied, but to be lived.

Finally, his legacy keeps popping up in my life. Newman was the rector of a Catholic university and wrote a book called “The Idea of a University,” and his interest in this topic helped him to become the patron of the line of Catholic student centers that I encountered on campus in Champaign-Urbana. This center helped me to make the transition from my high school faith into a more adult faith, and to discern my vocation as a priest (another side note—when I entered seminary, the directors of our diocesan retreat center would begin the retreats with his prayer “Some Definite Service,” it’s worth looking up!). Also, his community and school at the Birmingham Oratory was closely connected with two of my favorite British writers: Hilaire Belloc and JRR Tolkien. Belloc graduated from there as a student himself. Tolkien’s mother appointed a priest of the community as the guardian for him when she was near death, which helped guide him to develop his faith and studies to become the author and professor that he was. Tolkien then sent his children to the school. So, Newman’s influence is all over!

I never can capture everything about a person in a summary like this, but hopefully that gives a little crash course on Newman. God bless!

Faith and the War Within

St James writes, “Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions that make war within your members?” (James 4:1). He describes something that we all experience – the fact that within ourselves we feel a battle between many different desires and emotions. This can make us feel like we are being pulled apart, and St James lists conquering this as one of the pre-requisites for true peace (both personally and in the world as a whole!). We each have to address this in some way. Should we work against any of these desires, and if so, how? I thought today I’d give some reflections on these questions from a Catholic perspective.

We see our creation as both body and soul as leading to these different sets of desires. We perceive things with our senses, and we are drawn toward the pleasurable and away from the painful. With our minds we also are drawn toward what we perceive to be true, and toward doing what we believe is good (although people use many different standards to make these judgments).

In the beginning of creation, we believe the grace of integrity was given to unite all of these desires toward a unified and true goal, but one of the fruits of sin was to introduce disorder into our heart. From here we are often drawn to seek superficial goods that are in conflict with our true and long-term goals, and we see selfishness work its destruction across the world every day.

The Christian vocation, in contrast, is to be transformed into a living image of God. Rather than a rampaging horde of barbarians (which is what our passions may seem like some times), the mission of the Church is to be more like a horde of images of Christ – people who will live with the love and wisdom of Christ, His patience, and His strength. In the “cloud of witnesses” of the saints we can see ways in which this has been successful, although we also know the great need to re-commit to this mission today.

Our first step in winning the war within as Catholics, then, is to make an act of faith in the power of God. Our biggest obstacle is our self-reliance, which hesitates to rely on the grace of God, and is reluctant to reach out for the help that we need. We want to be perfect in a day without involving others, and are discouraged when this transformation does not take place according to our time-table. It is a grace-fueled cooperation of our will with God’s, not just a passive process that happens automatically. But, moving beyond self-reliance, we are called to face this battle with trust in personal prayer, the Sacraments (especially the Eucharist and Confession), friendship, and perhaps other aids (e.g. counseling, small groups, etc).

This is a path of freedom and healing. It brings us back towards that unity of the initial creation – and what will be restored in the life to come. Many may struggle with the decision to enter into this battle from the point of faith, and instead choose a path that relies on human power and wisdom alone (doubting a chance for anything else). But, the faith that we are invited to is not a “blind” faith with no evidence. I am encouraged on by seeing how this has happened in others, how it is happening now, and how it has happened in my own life. I believe that Christ is alive and that I have encountered Him. May He work in my life and yours, and may we in confidence follow where He leads!

The Fellowship

The first part of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings largely focuses on the gathering together of the “Fellowship of the Ring.” (mild spoilers for this paragraph, if for some reason you are not already familiar with this story!). This is a group of heroes gathered from all the races of Middle Earth (ie humans, hobbits, elves, and dwarves – along with the wizard Gandalf) that unites for the purpose of destroying the dominion that the One Ring holds on the world. I think in that way the Fellowship is an image of the universal Church. The original Greek word for church – ekklesia – in fact means an assembly that has been called together. They set out against their opposition, and even come to a point at which the Fellowship seems to break – although in truth they stay united to their purpose despite no longer being in each other’s company.

The sixth chapter of John’s Gospel describes a breaking among the disciples of Jesus: “many [of] his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him” (Jn 6: 66). The dispute here centered on His words, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (Jn 6: 53). At the end of the chapter, Jesus also speaks of the upcoming betrayal of Judas Iscariot (verses 70-71).

I think these passages give an important warning at the end of the Bread of Life discourse. Jesus is preparing this community/fellowship, and desires it to be a place of transformative encounter with Him (in a particular way in the celebration of the sacrament of His body and blood). However, our response to His invitation maintains its freedom. There is no substitute for a conversion of self, and no external proclamation that is sufficient without an interior correspondence.

At the time of this writing there is unfortunately the scandal of priests and bishops that  have used their positions to abuse (or cover up abuse) of those in their care. They took the external signs of consecration, but without a true internal correspondence. Instead of loving the Church as Christ loves her, they chose to care more about worldly prestige or personal gain. This is deeply saddening and I am so sorry for those affected. I pray for healing for those harmed directly or indirectly by the scandal, and for a true purification of the Church. I pray that I may be a faithful minister of Christ, and always do my part to protect those in the part of the vineyard entrusted to me. I am aware of my weaknesses, and ask for your prayers to fully respond to God’s call.

What inspires me at this time, though, is to meditate on that original plan of Christ for this Fellowship of the Church, and to be a part of its renewal. As ugly as scandal is, I am thankful that what has been brought to light is not continuing its growth in the darkness, where corruption breeds most quickly. May the light of Christ shine and drive out the darkness. I am reminded of the joy of living a life rooted in the presence of Christ, and renewed in my desire to fight against everything that seeks dominion in my life in opposition to it.

Fr Georges Lemaître

If you went to Google’s homepage on July 17th you would have seen the picture of a Catholic priest! Google changes its graphic (“doodle”) from day to day to commemorate various individuals or events, and on the 17th decided to honor the 124th birthday of Fr Georges Lemaître- a Jesuit priest. Why?

In addition to being a priest, Fr Lemaître was a distinguished astronomer. He studied at Cambridge, Harvard, and MIT in the course of his education. He is most famous for proposing what is now called the “Big Bang Theory” of the development of the universe (although that was not his phrase for the theory). I have mentioned this before, but it is interesting that this theory is so often considered the epitome of an atheistic view of creation, when in fact it was proposed by a Catholic priest! Fr Lemaître did not construct it as a specific argument for the Catholic understanding of creation. It flowed from the fruits of his academic study. However, he saw that it was not in conflict with our faith. Although the theory is often described as a theory of creation (especially by those that might see it in opposition to belief in creation by God), it is actually a theory about how pre-existent matter developed into the universe as we know it. It does not require one to deny that the universe has a Creator, order, or purpose.

In my experience so much of the popular opinion of the opposition of faith and science flows from a mistaken understanding of one (or both!) of the elements. As Catholics we see them as two different ways to come to know about the same universe. They can mutually enlighten each other with their own specific emphasis. In Fr Lemaître – along with so many other examples – we can see this process in action.

Visiting the Alamo

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas. I was familiar with it through tv shows and general American culture. Still, the visit there left a surprisingly deep impression on me.

Some might not know that it was originally built as the Catholic Mission of San Antonio, and the main building was designed as the chapel. Because of circumstances it ended up spending the majority of its time as a military/government base, but one of its side rooms was maintained as a functioning chapel for many years. The building is now surrounded by downtown San Antonio, although space has been preserved for a park that maintains the feeling of the original complex. Most of it is set-up like a typical museum, with artifacts, dioramas, talks, and even some historical reenactors (we saw one giving a musket demonstration).

What surprised me, though, was the reverence maintained in the old church itself. The door bore an old metal sign with the inscription, “Be silent, friend. Here heroes died to blaze a trail for other men.” In thinking of all those who have given their lives for others, the words of the Gospel came to mind: “No greater love has one than this, to lay down one’s life for a friend” (John 15:13). Hats were to be removed and no camera/electronic devices were permitted. The space was clean and simple, with a few displays explaining aspects of the building, and a set of plaques listing the names of all of the deceased. It seemed the deaths were recent events, and the weight of loss was palpable.

Of course, from my perspective it was impossible to think of this without recalling that in a small side room the Franciscan priests at the mission had regularly celebrated Mass – the sacrament of the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. “For freedom Christ set us free” (Galatians 5:1). Side-by-side were the temporal struggle and the eternal dimension. It still merits further reflection for me. May I try honor those that have given me the opportunities that I have in this life, and the One that has offered me a freedom beyond that which the world can give.

What is practical atheism?

In earlier posts I have discussed atheism from a theoretical perspective. However, I think the bigger presence of atheism actually exists in what might be called “practical atheism.” In other words, it means that we may profess belief in God in our words, but not show evidence of it in what we do. I sometimes call this the “alien test.” If an alien were to observe our life, what would they list as our priorities? Would they see an impact of faith on a practical level?

Pope Francis addresses this in his Apostolic Exhortation Joy of the Gospel under the name “practical relativism.” He writes, “This practical relativism consists in acting as if God did not exist, making decisions as if the poor did not exist, setting goals as if others did not exist, working as if people who have not received the Gospel did not exist” (paragraph #80).  I think this disconnect is one of the biggest challenges for us personally as believers, and in fact one of the biggest challenges to passing on the faith. I am thankful to God for places where I can see that God’s grace has borne fruit in my life, but also am aware of many other times where I can fall into this attitude!

We admire the transformation that we see flowing from the lives of holy men and women. We want to be part of the good things that are happening in the Church. But, this asks of us a true step of faith to change priorities and habits. It requires discipline and encountering the Cross, but the alternative is slavery to the senses and a life that does not bear fruit. It is a joyful thing to encounter the truth of the Gospel, to let it transform our life, and to bear good fruit. Is there anywhere in our life that we see we might give a counter-witness against the Gospel? What change might we feel called to make?

God bless!