Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Advent Thoughts

Advent began this year with a beautiful reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah (2: 1-5).  Isaiah presents us with a picture of the world at peace, writing: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.”  

This is a vision that all people of good will share.  It is a hope that the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, came to fulfill.  Jesus is God in the flesh who came to enlighten us with wisdom, to show us the way that leads to peace, and to empower us to follow that way. 

Advent—a word that means “coming”—is our preparation time for the celebration of the fact that the Son of God came to live among us, to share our suffering and death so that we could one day share his risen life. That was his first coming.

But we are reminded this time of year that there will be a second coming.  Jesus will come again to establish his kingdom of peace once and for all.  Sin and death will be destroyed forever. 

Between these two “comings” there are others.  Today Jesus comes to us in the Eucharist. He is the Bread of Life who feeds our hunger for true love.  As the Jewish people longed with deep hunger for the Messiah to come and save them, so we hunger for Christ.  This hunger can help us “stay awake” for Christ’s second coming.  And if that second coming does not occur in our lifetime, then our hunger for Christ can help us “be prepared” for the day that he will come for us when our life on earth will end.

The coming of Jesus in the Eucharist also prepares us for another “coming” between the first and second.  St. Teresa of Kolkata understood this “coming” well.  She once said that when we look at a crucifix we see how much Jesus loved us and when we look at a tabernacle or monstrance we see how much Jesus loves us now.  Time spent in Eucharistic adoration helps us see Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.  Time spent seeing Jesus under the appearance of bread and wine helps us recognize him in the “distressing disguise” of the person in front of us who needs our attention, care, and love.  Jesus comes to us every day in one another.

In his Apostolic Letter for the close of the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis wrote: “We are called to promote a culture of mercy based on the rediscovery of the encounter with others.”  This, he said, “can set in motion a real cultural revolution, beginning with simple gestures capable of reaching body and spirit, people’s very lives.” 

This is the only revolution that will change the world and make Isaiah’s vision of peace attainable.  Political changes will never change the world.  Only a revolution of the heart will bring about true change.  It begins one heart at a time.  It begins with your heart and mine.

Unfortunately Advent is such a busy time that there is a tendency to forget the various “comings” of Jesus—the real meaning of Christmas, the second coming of Jesus at the end of the world or the end of our life, the way Jesus comes to us in the Eucharist, and the way he comes to us in one another, especially those most forgotten or in need.  It’s a good idea to slow down by spending some time in Eucharistic adoration this Advent.  This will help us to be alert to meet Christ when and where he comes to us.  

Monday, November 21, 2016

A New Carmelite Vocation


Today is the Memorial of the Presentation of Mary. According to tradition, Mary, at a very early age, was brought to the Temple and dedicated to God.  Today is also Pro Orantibus (“For Those Who Pray”) Day, also known as the World Day of Cloistered Life. It’s a day when we pray for those who pray for us, those who have dedicated themselves to a life of full-time prayer for the Church and the world. 

It’s also a very special day for the Schumaker family of Boltenville, WI.  Rick Schumaker was a high school classmate of mine and his eldest daughter Mara is entering the Carmelite Monastery of theHoly Name of Jesus in Denmark, WI. 

At a farewell party for her, she gave out a holy card of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. On the back were two quotes:

“I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!” (Luke 12: 49).

“I now realize that we are trying to fight the whole world, to turn the tide of the whole time we live in, to resist everything that seems irresistible” (G. K. Chesterton).

There was also this prayer which she wrote:

O most Beloved Jesus, I beg You to bless my family and friends. May we always meet and be united within Your Heart, which we have pierced and crowned with thorns and yet which still is burning with unquenchable love for each of us.  Give us the strength and love of Your Heart that we may never turn from You.  May we always fight boldly and tirelessly for Your kingdom so that when our earthly battle is complete, we may be united with You where You live and reign forever with the Father and the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 


Friday, November 18, 2016

Tears from the Heart of Jesus

Yesterday I finished leading a retreat for 75 women at the White House 
Jesuit Retreat House on the Mississippi River just south of St. Louis.  Here is my closing homily, based on the readings of the day—Revelation 5: 1-10 and Luke 19: 41-44.

Both of our readings contain tears.  John’s vision, in which no one can be found to open the scroll which will reveal God’s plan, leads him to weep.  In the Gospel, Jesus, as he approaches the city of Jerusalem, weeps over it.  He predicts the city’s destruction and cries.  Its future could have been one of peace, but in rejecting Jesus, the people rejected the one who came to show the way to that justice which alone is the basis for peace.

On July 8, 2013, Pope Francis visited an island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea—Lampedusa.  He went there after many men, women, and children had drowned as they tried to get from Libya, North Africa, to Italy.  He asked:

“Has any one of us grieved for the death of these brothers and sisters? Has any one of us wept for these persons who were on the boat? For the young mothers carrying their babies? For these men who were looking for a means of supporting their families? We are a society which has forgotten how to weep, how to experience compassion – ‘suffering with’ others: the globalization of indifference has taken from us the ability to weep!”

If we have hearts like the Heart of Jesus, we will be moved to weep for such suffering and death.  Our prayers will be accompanied by tears. 

We weep but we do not despair.  As John’s vision continues in the first reading, he sees one who is able to open the scroll—the “lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David”—Jesus.  He is the Lamb of God who was slain.  He perfectly fulfilled God’s plan for creation and in doing so became the victor over sin and death.  The vision ends with worship and hope.  Jesus has triumphed.  He has purchased for God those from every tribe and tongue, people and nation.”  He has “made them a kingdom and priests for our God, and they will reign on earth.”

We, the baptized, are now a “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2: 9).  We are royalty not as the world thinks of it but as Jesus does. At the Last Supper he said that the kings of this world “lord it over” their subjects but it must not be so among his followers. “Rather, let the greatest among you be as the youngest, and the leader as the servant” (Luke 22: 25-26). 

We share in Christ’s priesthood by offering prayers and sacrifices.  The Sacred Chrism used to consecrate the walls and altars of new churches and the hands of newly ordained priests and everyone at their baptisms and confirmations—this sacred oil consecrates each of us for the sacred purpose of offering worship to God.  We do that at the Eucharist and in our daily lives. 

Moved, as the Heart of Jesus is, at the suffering in our world, we offer ourselves as He did for its ultimate salvation and peace.  

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Bl. Rupert Mayer, S.J.

November 3 is the feast of St. Martin de Porres but it is also the day when many Catholics remember the Jesuit priest, Blessed Rupert Mayer.  He was born in Germany in 1876 and entered the Society of Jesus in 1900, one year after his ordination.  He served as a chaplain in the German army during World War I and was the first chaplain to be awarded the Iron Cross for bravery.  His service in the military ended when his left leg was shattered in a grenade attack and had to be amputated.

After the war Fr. Mayer went to Munich where he served the poor and started two Sunday Masses for travelers at the main railroad terminal.  When Hitler rose to power Fr. Mayer spoke out against Nazism and in 1937 was ordered by the Gestapo to stop speaking in public.  He continued preaching in church and was arrested three times.  In 1939 he was sent to the Sachsenhausen concentation camp near Berlin.

As the health of the popular sixty-three year old Jesuit war hero began to deteriorate the camp officials, afraid that he would die and be declared a martyr, sent him to a Benedictine monastery.  When World War II ended he returned to Munich and his pastoral work. 

On November 1, 1945, while celebrating Mass and in the middle of his homily about how Christians are called to imitate the saints, Fr. Mayer collapsed and died.  Pope St. John Paul II beatified him in 1983.


Blessed Rupert Mayer is an example of one who lived a daily offering of himself out of love for God and his brothers and sisters.  His favorite prayer has been made into a song by the Catholic Filipino group Bukas Palad.  The lyrics are:



Lord, what You will let it be so 
Where You will there we will go
What is Your will help us to know 

Lord, when You will the time is right
In You there's joy in strife
For Your will I'll give my life

To ease Your burden brings no pain
To forego all for You is gain
As long as I in You remain


REFRAIN:
Because You will it, it is best
Because You will it, we are blest
Till in Your hands our hearts find rest
Till in Your hands our hearts find rest

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Prayer Pierces the Heavens

     
The readings for the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle C continue the theme of prayer.  In the first reading (Sirach 35: 12-14, 16-18) we read: “The one who serves God willingly is heard; his petition reaches the heavens. The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds….”

From time to time I’ve been asked, “What’s the point of praying? If God know everything and even knows what is in our hearts before we put words to our concerns and desires, what’s the point of praying? 

Our world is obsessed with action.  We tend to think of prayer as a last resort.  When practical action appears to be impossible we say, “Well, I guess I’ll just pray.”  “Just!?”  Is prayer a last resort rather than the first?

There is a line attributed to both St. Augustine and to St. Ignatius Loyola.  While the former may have written it, the latter, I’m told by the Jesuit historian Fr. John Padberg, did not.  In fact, St. Ignatius probably reversed the order of the saying.

The saying goes: “Pray as though everything depends on God and work as though everything depends on you.” 

It is good to recognize when we pray that the Holy Spirit is the one who prays within us (see Romans 8: 26-27).  And it is good to work hard.  But the reverse of the saying—“Pray as though everything depended on you and work as though everything depended on God”—makes more sense. 

In other words, we should put time, effort, and energy into our prayer, praying as though it’s up to us but knowing that grace is always a gift.  And we should work in such a way that we leave the results to God rather than thinking that our sheer effort will accomplish things. 

This is where the Gospel (Luke: 18: 9-14) comes in.  The Pharisee congratulates himself on his works and goes away unjustified, while the tax collector prays with humility and is said to go away justified.  The key, as we’ve heard in previous Sundays’ Gospels, is humility.

The word comes from “humus”—dust or earth.  Humility recognizes that I am not God, not in control, and cannot overcome every obstacle by my own effort and hard work. 

Humble or lowly prayer surrenders to God who created us to share in the love of the Trinity and the communion of all saints.  When we pray fervently and persistently, our prayer pierces the heavens and opens a channel for God’s grace and mercy to enter the world.  Like parents who show respect and love to their children, inviting them to work alongside of them though they do not need their help in assembling a toy or cooking a meal, God respects and loves us by including us in the work of caring for creation and the human family. 


Prayer is not so much changing God’s mind as opening ourselves up to Trinitarian Love and allowing God to transform us and work through us to transform the world.  

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Pray Always and Don't Give Up!

The readings at Mass today (Twenty-ninth Sunday Ordinary Time Cycle C) challenge us to pray with persistence.  In the Gospel (Luke 18: 1-8) Jesus tells "a parable about the necessity to pray always without becoming weary."  It's about a widow and a judge who refuses to take her case, but finally does because her persistence is wearing him out.  If uncaring people respond to persistence how much more will our caring God?

But we've all had experiences of praying and not receiving the good things for which we pray--like the health of loved ones.  A few years ago I prayed and prayed for Fr. Will Prospero, S.J. and he died of cancer at the age of 49.  My administrative assistant, Stephanie, died of leukemia at the age of 31.  Last April my good friend Fr. Ray Gawronski, S.J., 65 years old, died one month after he was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. But one of my most painful losses was my sister Judy for whom I prayed fervently for years as she struggled with depression; she died of suicide two days before Christmas in 2003.

When we pray and nothing happens we ask: "Where are you, God?  Why don't you hear my prayers? Why don't you answer them?"

The truth is that God hears every prayer and knows what is in our hearts before we even put words to our desires and concerns.  Moreover, God answers every prayer.  Sometimes the answer is the one that Jesus received from his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane--"No."

"Why?" we ask.  We don't know why God answers some prayers in this way.  It challenges our faith that God is there and loves us.

Jesus ended his teaching in today's Gospel asking, "But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

What's the point of praying for specific intentions if God knows our desires and concerns even before we articulate them?  God does not want to act alone or apart from us and our cooperation.  God's love always respects our freedom.

We see that in the First Reading (Exodus 17: 8-13).  God chose to work through Moses and his prayer, symbolized by his upraised hands.  But he grew tired.  He needed others to help him pray. God shows us that when we grow weary in our prayer we have a community of believers to rely upon.  Prayer builds community.

The Apostleship of Prayer, now also known as the Pope's Worldwide Prayer Network, is a community of millions of people around the world who pray each month for specific and important needs of the world and the Church.  There is power in this prayer, but it requires faith.  It requires persistence even when nothing seems to change or when things only get worse.

Pope Francis wrote about having the faith that empowers our prayer in his Apostolic Exhortation "The Joy of the Gospel" (#278-9):

"Faith also means believing in God, believing that he truly loves us, that he is alive, that he is mysteriously capable of intervening, that he does not abandon us and that he brings good out of evil by his power and his infinite creativity. … Because we do not always see these seeds growing, we need an interior certainty, a conviction that God is able to act in every situation…. We may be sure that none of our acts of love will be lost, nor any of our acts of sincere concern for others. No single act of love for God will be lost, no generous effort is meaningless, no painful endurance is wasted. All of these encircle our world like a vital force.  It may be that the Lord uses our sacrifices to shower blessings in another part of the world which we will never visit."

Through the daily offering of our lives--every prayer, work, joy, and suffering--we can "pray always and not grow weary."  

Monday, October 3, 2016

Faith, Prayer, and Humility

The first reading from Sunday’s Mass (Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C) is from the Prophet Habakkuk. As you read the words with which it begins, what scene comes to mind? 

“How long, O LORD? I cry for help but you do not listen! I cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not intervene. Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and clamorous discord.”

What comes to my mind is Aleppo, Syria.  If you watch the news or read the paper with any compassion a prayer must well up: “How long, O Lord?  Why?”  We want God to intervene in this hopeless situation of the Syrian civil war. 

But God will not intervene except through us.  God won’t force his plan or his will on humanity. God won’t take human freedom away. 

God wants human cooperation to fulfill his plan.  When Jesus walked this earth his hands were tied by people’s lack of faith.  According to Matthew 13: 58, when Jesus returned to his native town of Nazareth, “he did not work many mighty deeds there because of their lack of faith.” 

The reading from Habakkuk ends with a vision of justice and peace.  Through the prophet God tells us to be patient and to have faith. 

In the Gospel (Luke 17: 5-10), the apostles ask Jesus: “Increase our faith.”  Jesus responds with an image of impossibility—that faith the size of a small seed can uproot a tree and send it into the sea.  Isn’t peace just as or more impossible?  But faith and prayer can do the impossible. God and the human person working together can bring about miracles no less impossible as the displacement of trees. 

One such miracle was the survival of several Jesuits who were in Hiroshima at ground zero when the first atomic bomb was dropped.  (See my blog post of August 6, 2016.)  Not only did they survive the initial blast but subsequently none of them experienced the effects of radiation.  How was this possible?  Fr. Hubert Schiffer, S.J. said it was because they prayed the rosary and lived the message of Fatima.

If you go to Fatima today you will see the results of another miracle.  There is a large piece of the Berlin Wall on display.  Why?  It tells us that faith-filled prayer brought down that wall and the Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union that it represented.  Faith and prayer can bring down walls and change governments.  It can transform hardened hearts.

But in the second part of the Gospel Jesus tells us that something else needs to accompany faith.  Perhaps it is an essential ingredient of real faith.  Humility.  Humility recognizes one’s true condition.  We are not masters of ourselves but servants of God.  We cannot trust in ourselves but only in God.  Humility is a foundational virtue because all the others—even charity, which St. Paul called the greatest (1 Corinthians 13: 13)—can become a source of pride that ultimately leads us to think that we are all-powerful and in control. 

Jesus shows us the way of humility, “taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2: 7), bending down and washing feet (John 13: 1-16), and offering himself on a cross for our salvation.  His focus is not on himself but on God the Father and God’s other human children.  In the Eucharist he continues to humble himself, making present his life-saving death and resurrection and then giving himself to us under the humble appearances of bread and wine.  In the Eucharist he invites us to sit and dine while he serves us!


The vision of peace is possible but its realization requires faith-filled prayer.  The greatest prayer is the Eucharist where Jesus gives himself to us to transform us.  Here we receive the Body and Blood, soul and divinity, including the Sacred Heart, to tear down the walls that separate us and to transform our hearts.