Sunday, May 3, 2015

Fear of the Lord

The first reading (Acts 9: 26-31) at Mass today (Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B) begins: "When Saul arrived in Jerusalem he tried to join the disciples, but they were afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple."  The early Christians were afraid that what they had heard about Saul's conversion was not true, that Saul was a "plant" who was infiltrating the community in order to eventually persecute it.  It took Barnabas, known as the "son of encouragement," to facilitate Saul's entry into the community.

The reading ends with the Church "at peace. It was being built up and walked in the fear of the Lord, and with the consolation of the Holy Spirit it grew in numbers."

We have here two kinds of fear.  The first is fear of danger, pain, suffering, and death.  The second is a gift of the Holy Spirit that gives peace and consolation.  Clearly this second kind of fear is the opposite of the first.

But what is "fear of the Lord?"

Pope Francis spoke about it in his weekly General Audience of June 11, 2014. He said:

It does not mean being afraid of God: we know well that God is Father, that he loves us and wants our salvation, and he always forgives, always; thus, there is no reason to be scared of him! Fear of the Lord, instead, is the gift of the Holy Spirit through whom we are reminded of how small we are before God and of his love and that our good lies in humble, respectful and trusting self-abandonment into his hands. This is fear of the Lord: abandonment in the goodness of our Father who loves us so much.

When the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in our hearts, he infuses us with consolation and peace, and he leads us to the awareness of how small we are, with that attitude — strongly recommended by Jesus in the Gospel — of one who places his every care and expectation in God and feels enfolded and sustained by his warmth and protection, just as a child with his father! This is what the Holy Spirit does in our hearts: he makes us feel like children in the arms of our father. In this sense, then, we correctly comprehend how fear of the Lord in us takes on the form of docility, gratitude and praise, by filling our hearts with hope. Indeed, we frequently fail to grasp the plan of God, and we realize that we are not capable of assuring ourselves of happiness and eternal life. It is precisely in experiencing our own limitations and our poverty, however, that the Holy Spirit comforts us and lets us perceive that the only important thing is to allow ourselves to be led by Jesus into the Father’s arms.

This is why we need this gift of the Holy Spirit so much. Fear of the Lord allows us to be aware that everything comes from grace and that our true strength lies solely in following the Lord Jesus and in allowing the Father to bestow upon us his goodness and his mercy. To open the heart, so that the goodness and mercy of God may come to us. This is what the Holy Spirit does through the gift of fear of the Lord: he opens hearts. The heart opens so that forgiveness, mercy, goodness and the caress of the Father may come to us, for as children we are infinitely loved.

When we are pervaded by fear of the Lord, then we are led to follow the Lord with humility, docility and obedience. This, however, is not an attitude of resignation, passivity or regret, but one of the wonder and joy of being a child who knows he is served and loved by the Father. Fear of the Lord, therefore, does not make of us Christians who are shy and submissive, but stirs in us courage and strength! It is a gift that makes of us Christians who are convinced, enthusiastic, who aren’t submissive to the Lord out of fear but because we are moved and conquered by his love! To be conquered by the love of God! This is a beautiful thing. To allow ourselves to be conquered by this love of a father, who loves us so, loves us with all his heart.

Pope Francis then went on to say "the holy fear of God sends us a warning: be careful!"  We ought not to fear God but we should have a healthy fear of ourselves and what we are capable of doing that breaks our relationship with God and our brothers and sisters.

We need not fear God who does not send anyone to hell.  Hell--alienation from God and the Communion of Saints--is not something God chooses but something we choose for ourselves. We, not God, do the sending.  The "Catechism of the Catholic Church" states clearly: "This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called 'hell'" (#1033).  We are the ones who do the excluding and sending.

St. John Paul II explained this in one of his General Audiences (July 28, 1999):

God is the infinitely good and merciful Father. But man, called to respond to him freely,  can unfortunately choose to reject his love and forgiveness once and for all, thus separating himself for ever from joyful communion with him. It is precisely this tragic situation that Christian doctrine explains when it speaks of eternal damnation or hell.  It is not a punishment imposed externally by God but a development of premises already set by people in this life. The very dimension of unhappiness which this obscure condition brings can in a certain way be sensed in the light of some of the terrible experiences we have suffered which, as is commonly said, make life “hell”.

“Eternal damnation”, therefore, is not attributed to God's initiative because in his merciful love he can only desire the salvation of the beings he created. In  reality, it is the creature who closes himself to his love. 

The choices we make are life and death choices.  

In the Gospel (John 15: 1-8) Jesus makes this clear with the image of the vine and the branches.  Through Baptism we are joined to the Vine that is Jesus Christ.  We have life as long as we are united to the Vine.  But we are free to cut ourselves off from the Vine.  We do that through mortal sin.  God never cuts us off but because God loves us and does not force us to remain in him, we have the freedom to cut ourselves off. Doing so, we choose death--separation from God and from the other branches, our brothers and sisters.  

But there is hope.  We can be grafted back on the Vine through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  And our union with the Vine is strengthened with every Holy Communion by which the life force of Jesus' Precious Blood flows through us and keeps us closely united to him.  

Therefore, choose life!  Or, as St. John puts it in the second reading (1 John 3: 18-24): "Let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth."

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

St. Catherine of Siena

It just so happened that on a recent trip to Birmingham, Alabama, I began reading a biography of today's saint, Catherine of Siena. It was written by the Nobel Prize winning author Sigrid Undset. You can read more about this fine book at Ignatius Press.  St. Catherine died on this day in 1380 at the age of thirty-three.  She was an amazing woman who experienced many mystical graces including an exchange of hearts with Jesus and the stigmata which only became visible after her death because Catherine, in her humility, did not want the attention which the visible wounds would have brought her.  She was bold and courageous and did not shrink from writing to and meeting with the pope to tell him that he should leave his residence in Avignon, France and return to his diocese, Rome.

Here are some prayers of hers.  The first two are reflections on the Incarnation--the mystery that in order to save humanity, God became human.  St. Catherine asks why did God go to such lengths.

O great and eternal Trinity, as if intoxicated with love and gone mad over your creature, seeing that since it was separated from you who are life, it could produce only the fruit of death, you provided a remedy for it with the same love with which you had created it, and grafted your divinity on to the dead tree of our humanity. You who are the greatest sweetness deigned to unite yourself to our bitterness; you, who are brightness, with darkness; you, wisdom, with foolishness; you, life, with death; you, who are infinite, with us who are finite. What constrained you to this in order to restore us to life, after your creature had so injured you? Only love--for through this grafting, death is vanquished.

O eternal and infinite Good, O extravagance of love! You need your creature? Yes, it seems to me; because you behave as if you could not live without it, although you are life and all things receive life from you, and without you nothing lives.  You fell in love with your own workmanship and delighted in it as if enraptured with its well-being; it flees you and you go searching for it; it goes away from you and you draw near; you could not have come any nearer than in assuming its very humanity. 

In the following prayer St. Catherine reflects again with wonder at the depths of God's love and in particular the gift of the Eucharist.

O eternal Trinity, O Trinity eternal! O fire and abyss of charity! O enamored of your creature! How could our redemption benefit you? It could not, for you, our God, have no need of us. To whom then comes this benefit? Only to man. O inestimable charity! Even as you, true God and true Man, gave yourself entirely to us, so also you left yourself entirely for us, to be our food, so that during our earthly pilgrimage we would not faint with weariness, but would be strengthened by you, our celestial Bread. O fire of love! Was it not enough for you to have created us to your image and likeness, and to have re-created us in grace through the Blood of your Son, without giving yourself wholly to us as our food, O God, divine Essence? What impelled you to do this? Your charity alone, in the excess of your love.

United to Jesus, loving with his Heart that beat within her, Catherine shared his love for humanity. She offered herself to God with these words:

Lord, you know why I cry out to you with daring confidence; because, when you inspire me with compassion and love, you are constraining me to raise my voice even to your throne. I see lost souls of innumerable sinners, and my heart breaks at the sight, or rather, my heart is enlarged and then, overcome with compassion, I cannot help weeping for their misfortune. I offer you my life, Lord, now and for ever, whenever it shall please you to take it, and I offer it for your glory, humbly beseeching you, by the merits of your passion to cleanse and purify the Church, your Spouse, from every defect; delay no longer!

Catherine also offered her life for the pope and for peace and unity within the Church:

O supreme and ineffable Godhead, I have sinned and am not worthy to pray to you, but you have the power to make me worthy. I have a body which I surrender and offer to you: here is my flesh and here is my blood. If it is your will, crumble my bones and flesh together for your Vicar on earth for whom I beg you to deign to hear me.  Give him a new heart, continually growing in grace, a strong heart to raise the standard of the holy cross in order to make those without faith share like ourselves in the fruits of the passion and of the blood of your only-begotten Son, the spotless Lamb.  

Monday, April 27, 2015

St. Peter Canisius and The Sacred Heart

The liturgical calendar the Jesuit St. Peter Canisius on December 21, the date of his death in 1597, but today the Society of Jesus celebrates his feast day. After he was canonized and declared a doctor of the Church in 1925 his feast was assigned to this date and was so celebrated until the calendar was changed in 1969.  Jesuits continue to honor him on this day because the days right before Christmas focus on the coming celebration of the Nativity and give less attention to the saints.

St. Peter Canisius shows that the Church had a strong devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus before the apparitions to St. Margaret Mary in the 1670's.  St. Mechthilde of Hackeborn, a Benedictine nun who lived in the 1200's, wrote a book of prayers to the Sacred Heart.  St. Peter Canisius made a copy of these prayers, carried them with him wherever he went, and held fast to them on his deathbed.

He is known as the second apostle of Germany (after St. Boniface) and when he was about to set out to begin his mission there he wrote the following prayer:

"My Savior, I seemed to be gazing at the Heart of your Sacred Body with my own eyes. It was as if you opened it to me to drink from it as from a spring, inviting me to draw the waters of salvation from these springs of yours. I was filled with longing that the waters of faith, hope, and charity would flow from your Heart into me. ... Then I dared to touch your beloved Heart and bury my thirst in it; and you promised me a robe woven in three parts to cover my naked soul and help me greatly in my undertaking. These three parts were peace, love, and perseverance. Secure in the protection of this garment, I was confident that I would lack nothing, and that everything would turn out for your glory."

Peace, love, and perseverance: gifts from the Heart of Jesus. They allowed St. Peter to write a popular catechism and to explain the doctrines of the Catholic faith to Protestants and Catholics alike during a time of upheaval in Germany.  May the Church today receive these same gifts from the Sacred Heart of Jesus!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Mary, Mother of the Society of Jesus

On this day in 1541, seven months after Pope Paul III gave official approval to the founding of a new religious order, the Society of Jesus, and two weeks after his election as its first General Superior, St. Ignatius and his first companions celebrated Mass at Mary's altar in St. Paul Outside-the-Walls in Rome. Before receiving Holy Communion, Ignatius held the consecrated host and each of the first Jesuits pronounced his vows. Then they received. April 22 is now celebrated in the Jesuits as the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Society of Jesus.

St. Ignatius had a deep devotion to Mary. She played a critical role in his conversion. One night in mid-August, 1521, she, with the Child Jesus, appeared to him.  He writes about this, using the third person, in his Autobiography:

"One night, while he lay awake, he saw clearly the likeness of Our Lady with the Holy Child Jesus, at the sight of which he received most abundant consolation for a considerable period of time. He felt so great a disgust with his past life, especially his sins of the flesh, that he thought all such images which had formerly occupied his mind were wiped out."

On the eve of the Annunciation in 1522, St. Ignatius made an all-night vigil at the Shrine of the Madonna of Montserrat. He left behind his sword and dagger and offered himself to Mary and her Son as their knight.

I've always considered Mary to be the Mother of my Jesuit vocation. As a high school student I began praying the rosary which became a chain linking me to Mary through various tests and trials.  In the past, Jesuits took "vow names" which never replaced their actual name as happens in other religious orders but which were a simple act of devotion. When I pronounced my first vows in 1973, I took the name "Mary." Since my middle initial is "M" for Michael, this has worked out well and whenever I use that initial I think of these two patrons--Michael the Archangel and Mary, Mother of my vocation and of the Society of Jesus.

Jesuits' devotion to Mary clearly shows up in our present pope who often prays to her and visits the Church of St. Mary Major before and after every trip abroad.

Here are the prayers which I and some of my brother Jesuits used as we celebrated Mass together this morning:

Collect:  "Almighty and everlasting God, you chose the Virgin Mary to be the mother of your eternal Word. Make us strong and faithful servants of that Word in the Society of Jesus, which has consecrated itself to you in the presence of Mary, our mother."

Prayer over the Gifts: "Lord God, you made the Virgin Mary a companion in the sufferings of your Son and in the glory of his resurrection. Turn our eyes toward him whom we have pierced, so that, seeking his kingdom on earth, we may enter eternal life with Mary, our mother."

Prayer after Communion: "You have raised up Mary, O Lord, because she believed in your word. By the grace of her Son, may we, who call her blessed, experience the power of her intercession."

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Annunciation

I celebrated Mass this morning for the 600 students and faculty of St. Anthony's High School in Milwaukee.  I found it a good opportunity to preach about a very special woman and to encourage the young people to see themselves as loved and chosen by God.

The feast of the Annunciation could also be called the feast of the Conception of Jesus, Only nine more shopping months until Christmas!

We honor Mary today because she said "yes" to God.  No Mary, no Jesus.  It's as simple as that.  In order for the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity to become human, a very special woman was called to be his mother.  This is why we honor Mary.  It was God's plan to save the world through her.  Through her the Son of God took flesh, lived our life, suffered and died and rose from the dead. All to save humanity.  This was Mary's glorious destiny--to be the Mother of God.  This is why we use the words of Luke's Gospel every time we pray the "Hail Mary."

When Mary told the angel Gabriel, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word," Jesus was conceived in her womb through the power of the Holy Spirit.  With Mary's "yes" to God, Jesus was conceived and began to develop cell by cell.  Within three weeks the first physical organ of God-in-the-flesh appeared--his heart.

If you think about, every conception of a new life involves God's intervention.  It takes more than a sperm and an egg to create a new human life.  God is present instilling an immortal soul into the new life developing in a mother's womb.  In this way, every human life is special and, because its beginning involves God's intervention, you could say, "miraculous."

St. John Paul II once said that "each person is unique, precious, and unrepeatable."  There never was another you. Among the billions of people today there isn't another you nor will there ever be.  You are precious to God.  You give God a love and a joy that no other human being can give God because of who you are.

Shortly after he was elected, Pope Benedict XVI said: "We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God."  And God didn't just think of you some nine months and a couple hours before you were conceived. Since the thoughts of God are eternal, God had you in mind from all eternity.

Pope Benedict continued: "Each of us is willed."  God wanted you to exist.  Sometimes people tell me, "I'm an accident.  I'm a mistake.  My parents didn't plan on having me. In fact, they were pregnant with me before they got married and the only reason they got married is because they were pregnant with me.  They shouldn't have gotten married because it didn't work out and they were miserable together. I'm not only a mistake, I'm a bad mistake who made life miserable for my parents."  No, no one is a mistake or an accident in God's eyes.  Because God was present instilling an immortal soul, the principle of life for human beings, God willed or intended that person's conception. No matter what the circumstances of one's conception, God was present willing that person into existence.

"Each of us is loved," the pope went on to say.  Our experience of human love is finite, conditional. We put limits on our love and we tend to think of God's love that way.  But God is infinite and loves you as though you were the only person in the world. St. Francis de Sales once used the example of the sun which shines on the individual flowers of a garden.  Shining on one doesn't mean there is less sunshine for the others.  The sun shines on each flower as though it were the only flower in the garden. If that's true for a creature, the sun, then it is even more true for the Creator of the sun, God, who shines with his love on all the human flowers in the world with equal intensity.

And Pope Benedict said, "each of us is necessary."  You are essential to God's plan just the way Mary was.  Ask yourself, "What is God's plan, God's desire for me?  How is God calling me to bring his love come into the world?"

Shortly after his election Pope Francis said, "For God, we are not numbers, we are important, indeed we are the most important thing to him.... We are what is closest to his heart."

You are so important, that God took flesh, as we celebrate today.  Moreover, in order to save you, that flesh was nailed to a cross and died, as we will celebrate on Good Friday.  But that flesh rose never to die again, as we will celebrate on Easter.  It was all made possible by that special woman, Mary.  As we honor her today, let's thank God for our life and make an offering, asking that God's will may be done in our life as well.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Role of Temptation

Every First Sunday of Lent we get a gospel passage about the temptations of Jesus.  Right after his baptism in the Jordan--when, though he didn't need purification himself, he identified himself with sinful humanity--the "Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan" (Mark 1: 12-13).  This happened right before Jesus began his public ministry of teaching and healing.  Does it surprise you that Jesus was tempted?  It shouldn't.  Temptations occur not simply because we're sinners.  They happen to those who are good, as Jesus was perfectly good.  We have an enemy who wants to knock us off the right path of doing God's will, just as he tried with Jesus.

Why does God allow temptations?  There must be something in them that is good for us. What is that?

First, humility.  God does not prevent temptation because it serves the purpose of keeping us humble.  St. Paul comes to mind. In 2 Corinthians 12 Paul writes about "a thorn in the flesh," "an angel of Satan" that afflicted him.  We are not sure exactly what this was, but it could have been a particular temptation, a moral struggle.  That makes sense given how Paul also wrote about his struggle with sin in Romans 7.  At any rate, he didn't like it at all and thought that he would be a much better apostle and person if he were rid of this "thorn."  He prayed for God to take it away.  The answer he received is a common answer to prayer--"No."  The Lord told Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness."  It is as though God told Paul that without this "thorn" he would think he was perfect. He would become puffed up and proud, self-sufficient.  This struggle brought Paul to his knees, leading him to pray and depend on God, not himself.

A second reason is that by battling temptations we exercise and grow in virtues.  A struggle with impatience is an opportunity to exercise patience which can then grow.  Virtues don't take away temptations.  They are spiritual muscles that need to be used and exercised.  Temptations give us the opportunity to do just that.  For every temptation there is an opposite virtue which God is giving us an opportunity to develop.

Thirdly, through temptation we grow in compassion, just as Jesus did.  In Hebrews 4  we hear that "we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin."  In the desert of temptation Jesus grew in the compassion that would later motivate him as he reached out to sinners.  Our temptations can similarly help us to be more compassionate to others in their struggle. "There but for the grace of God go I."

Lastly, temptations can draw us close to Jesus. If we give in to temptation and sin, we move away from Jesus who won't abandon us but will seek us because he is the Good Shepherd who cares about his lost sheep.  But if we struggle and battle temptation, despairing of our own strength and ability and turning to the Lord in our need, shouting, "Lord, save me! I am drowning!" (see Matthew 14: 22-33), he will reach out and grab us and hold us close to himself.  Sharing a struggle brings people closer to one another. Sharing our struggle with Jesus can bring us closer to the one who has also struggled against temptation and won.

Temptation is part of life, part of following Christ.  He shared our life, with all its struggles and temptations, suffering and even death itself.  He's "been there, done that."  While we may feel far from him when we are being tempted, the reality is that we are sharing in something that he himself went through.  He is close to us in temptation and he understands.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Beginning of Lent

I led a day of recollection today for the seminarians at St. Francis de Sales Seminary in Milwaukee. It was a quiet and prayerful day and what follows is a summary of my homily.

In our first reading (Joel 2: 12-18), God tells us to return "with your whole heart" and to "rend your hearts, not your garments."  We are half-hearted.  Our hearts are divided.  We need our hearts to be healed, to be made whole.  We need to open our hearts to God so that the Holy Spirit may pierce and soften these sin-hardened hearts.

What divides our hearts?  What hardens them?  The self-centeredness of sin.

Last week the first readings at Mass were from Genesis, the story of the first temptation and sin.  Our ancestral parents had hearts open to God, but fear and mistrust closed and hardened them. They were tempted to believe the serpent who suggested that God might not be telling them the truth when warning them that the fruit of a certain tree would bring death. They mistrusted God and thought it would be better to be independent, to get control, to be like gods who could determine for themselves what was right and what was wrong, what was good and what was bad.

They ate and the effect was immediate. They felt shame in each other's presence.  They were no longer open to each other but covered themselves. When God came for their daily stroll, they hid.  The man's response shows the self-centeredness that began the hardening of his heart, closing him off from God and the woman. He said: "I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid myself.  Me, me, me.  The world now revolved around him.

Then, when God pointed out that this response clearly indicated he'd eaten of the fruit, the man responded, "It was the woman you put here...."  He blamed his partner and God.  Turned in on himself, the man turned against God and his neighbor.

Sin works the same way in our lives.

Those who work in the Church and offer their lives in service of others are not immune from sinful self-centeredness.  It creeps into our relationship with God and into ministry. In the Gospel (Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-18), Jesus warns against "righteous deeds" which are done to gain others' attention and affirmation.

We need this time of Lent for conversion.  Our divided hearts, which seem to be serving God while all the while serving themselves, need to be made whole and undivided.  We need this time to develop hearts like the Heart of Jesus which he described as "meek and humble."  Humble hearts don't pray and serve in order to receive glory.  They give and serve without seeking a reward because they are motivated by love.

Jesus was so in touch with the infinite love of the Father that he was free to love totally with great freedom, with a whole and undivided heart.  Knowing the love of the Father, he, in the words of our second reading (2 Corinthians 5: 20 - 6: 2) became sin.  Just as he reached into the isolation of the leper in last Sunday's Gospel (Mark 1: 40-45), touched him, and made himself unclean in the process, so Jesus reached into human darkness and took upon himself the sins of the world when he was nailed to a cross.  With his attention focused totally on the God and those whom God sent him to save, Jesus made a total offering of himself.

Now he calls us to renounce the self-centeredness of sin that hardens and closes our hearts. We begin this time of purification and healing by remembering that we are dust. We are not God.  We are not in control.  Nor do we have forever for our hearts to be made more like the Heart of Jesus.  "Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold now is the day of salvation."