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."

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Peoria Franciscan Sisters

I am in East Peoria these days, giving a week long retreat to the Sisters of the Third Order of St.
Francis.  On August 21, 1875 a community of 25 Sisters and 4 Postulants left Germany because of the Bismark Laws which restricted religious freedom.  They ended up in Iowa City where a priest whom they had met in Germany helped them get settled.  About a year later six of the Sisters went to Peoria at the request of a local priest who asked them to start a hospital.  The first bishop of Peoria, John Spalding, promised his help to them if they would form a separate congregation. Thus began this particular community of Franciscans with Mother Mary Frances as the first superior.

Mother Mary Frances' last words to her community capture the spirit that is still very much alive among these Sisters: "Dear Sisters, live in meekness and obedience. Nurse the sick with the greatest care and love, then will God's blessing be with you."

Our retreat will end on Wednesday, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes and the annual World Day of
the Sick.  In his message this year, Pope Francis wrote about "the wisdom of the heart."  What is this wisdom?  "It is a way of seeing things infused by the Holy Spirit in the minds and the hearts of those who are sensitive to the sufferings of their brothers and sisters and who can see in them the image of God."  He went on to say, "Time spent with the sick is holy time. It is a way of praising God who conforms us to the image of his Son, who 'came not to be served, and to give his life as a ransom for many' (Mt. 20:28)."

It strikes me that the Sisters are living proof of these words.  The gift the Sisters make of themselves in service of the sick gives praise to God and helps them grow in holiness.  I'm praying that more women will hear the call to join them because they are very stretched as they direct the operations of 9 medical centers throughout Illinois and in the upper peninsula of Michigan.  Please join me in that prayer.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Listening Prayer

Fr. Larry Richards tells a story that I'd like to embellish a bit.  Two guys are visiting and the phone rings. One answers and says:  "Oh ... hello ... am I ever glad that you called. You see I could really use your help. My job isn't going so well right now. My supervisor is always on my case. And one of my kids is failing chemistry and needs good grades this semester for his college application.  I'm really worried about my dad.  He seems to be losing it. He's very confused and my mom is afraid he's got dementia and she doesn't know what to do.  And, well, you know, there's a big game this afternoon and the Packers are 7 1/2 points underdogs.  So I'd really appreciate your help. Thanks. Bye."  The other guy then asks, "Who was that?" "God." "Well, what did God want?"  "Uh ... well ... I don't know."

Isn't that often the case in prayer? It can be pretty one-sided with us doing the talking and never really listening.

A good relationship requires good communication which involves listening.

In the first reading at Mass today (2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B, 1 Samuel 3: 3-10, 19) Samuel hears God speak but isn't listening.  It can happen that sometimes a person hears but doesn't listen because one's mind is a million miles away, focused on one's own agenda or concerns. Samuel hears but doesn't recognize who it is that is calling him because he is "not familiar with the Lord." Finally, on the third time, Eli, his spiritual director, understands that it's God who is calling Samuel and he instructs him to say, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening."  With these words, Samuel tunes in to God. He goes beyond hearing to listening and receiving God's word to him.

We all need to be like Samuel. We need quiet time and space in order to tune in to God, to listen. God speaks to us through the Scriptures.  God also speaks to us through the thoughts that arise in our hearts when we are engaged in good spiritual reading. In Chapter 4 of The Book of Her Life, St. Teresa of Avila wrote that during eighteen years of terrible dryness in prayer, she "never dared to begin prayer without a book," which she called "a partner or a shield by which to sustain the blows of my many thoughts."  "With a book," she writes, "I began to collect them, and my soul was drawn to recollection. And many times just opening the book was enough; at other times I read a little, and at others a great deal, according to the favor the Lord granted me."

Another way that we can listen to God is to prayerfully review our day asking what God was trying to tell us through its people and events. The Bible is the record of God's presence and activity in the lives of individuals and the community. Each of us could write our own record of God's activity in our lives, how God spoke to us through the people we met and challenged or blessed us through the events of the day.

Sometimes our prayer of listening is simply being in God's presence with nothing seemingly going on. In the Gospel (John 1: 35-42), Andrew responds to Jesus' question "What are you looking for?" with "Teacher, where are you staying?" He wants to be with Jesus. It is enough simply to be in his presence. Our contemporary culture's emphasis on productivity goes against this attitude of simply being.  Yet, when one truly loves another, words don't matter. It's enough to simply be in the presence of the beloved.  And how powerful it is to be in God's presence!  If the sun radiates with an energy that warms and burns, how much more the Creator of the sun!  It is enough to be in his Eucharistic presence and to receive the rays of his radiating and transforming love.

In his presence, Jesus reveals to us who we are.  When Jesus looked upon Andrew's brother "Simon the son of John," he saw him not only as he was but as he would become. He saw more than his impetuous nature which would declare in a single night that he would love him to the death and then would deny that he even knew him. He saw all of Simon's potential and he named it, telling Simon, "you will be called Cephas" or Peter.  Rock. The Rock on which he would build his Church (Matthew 16: 18).

The Scripture scholar William Barclay tells the story that the great artist Michelangelo was once working on a shapeless piece of marble.  A visitor asked him what he was doing.  He responded, "I am releasing the angel imprisoned in this marble."

Jesus, the Master Artist, looks at us in prayer and sees not only the present reality but also the future. He sees the potential that will be realized through the power of his grace at work in us, shaping and molding us like an artist.

If we persevere, stay close to Jesus, listen to him, and allow him to shape us through our prayer and the activities of our day, he will not, like Michelangelo, release a hidden angel, but a hidden saint. We will become holy as God is holy.  We will become whole, fully human and alive as Jesus was and is. All it takes is to stay close to the Lord and listen to him. He will do the rest.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

St. Francis of Assisi Church

 I am in Springfield, IL, at the Motherhouse of the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis where I am helping direct some seminarians from Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis on their annual retreat.

While the weather has been desperately cold, I've stayed indoors where it is cozy and warm.  The Sisters run a retreat and conference center called Chiara Center.  The hospitality has been great.

One of the beauties of this retreat center is the church which clearly shows we are still in the Christmas Season.

This Nativity set is up yearlong and includes St. Francis who is credited with organizing the first living creche.

The church also includes a shrine of St. Therese of Lisieux which depicts various scenes from her life.

The Sisters ran a Tuberculosis Sanitarium here from 1919 to 1973.

St. Therese died of TB and so it was natural to create this shrine in the church and to ask her help for the patients as well as for the missionaries who left this Motherhouse and journeyed throughout the world.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Mary's Motherhood and Ours

Today is the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God.  There are many feasts that celebrate Mary. We recently celebrated her Immaculate Conception--that she was conceived without sin. In August we celebrate her Assumption--that at the end of her earthly life she was taken body and soul into heaven. Now, on the eighth day after Christmas, we celebrate her motherhood.

She is a mother unlike any other mother. First, she is a virgin mother.  Secondly, she is the mother of a child who is God.  Early theologians marvelled that the Creator of the universe, whom the world could not hold, was held in the womb and in the arms of Mary, a creature.

Early Christians were in awe of this and wondered how this could be. Some went so far as to say that while Mary could rightly be called the Mother of Christ she ought not be called the Mother of God. How can God, who is eternal, who has no beginning or end, have a mother who gives him a beginning in time?  The 5th Century Council of Ephesus declared that because Jesus Christ is truly God and truly man and because Mary gave birth to him, she can truly be called the Mother of God. This is a mystery beyond human comprehension.

The mystery continues. As Mother of Jesus Christ, Mary can also be said to be Mother of the Body of Christ, the Church. She is the Mother of all who are united to Jesus, the Head of the Body.

And there is more. We are called to share in the Motherhood of Mary.  Once, according to Matthew's Gospel (12: 26-50), when Jesus was busy teaching in a crowded house, Mary and some other close relatives came and asked to see Jesus.  He asked "Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?"  Then he pointed to his disciples and said, "Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother." Whoever listens to the Word, as Mary did, and acts upon it by doing the will of God, is a mother who gives flesh to Jesus, the Word.

Recall that at the Annunciation Mary received the Word of God from the Angel Gabriel. Surrendering to the will of God for her, she conceived the Word in her womb.  Her Immaculate Heart received the Word who became flesh through her.

St. John Paul II, in his encyclical on the Eucharist, called Mary "the Woman of the Eucharist" and said that her "Fiat" or "Yes" to God allowed Jesus to take flesh within her. He said that something analogously happens when we receive the Word-made-flesh, the Body of Christ, in Holy Communion. Our "Amen" is like Mary's "Fiat." The Word takes flesh within us and transforms us. We become what we receive. We become, in Pope Benedict's words at World Youth Day 2005, "the Body of Christ, his own Flesh and Blood."

On this day when we honor the Motherhood of Mary, we also celebrate the World Day of Peace. In a 1974 apostolic exhortation about Mary, Bl. Paul VI wrote about the connection between Mary's Motherhood and Peace: "This celebration ... is meant to commemorate the part played by Mary in this mystery of salvation. ... It is likewise a fitting occasion for renewed adoration of the newborn Prince of Peace, for listening once more to the glad tidings of the angels, and for imploring from God, through the Queen of Peace, the supreme gift of peace. For this reason ... we have instituted the World Day of Peace...."

As Mary gave flesh to Jesus, who is our Peace, so we, members of his Body, give flesh to peace.

Pope Francis' Message for the 2015 World Day of Peace is entitled "No Longer Slaves, But Brothers and Sisters." This comes from St. Paul's Letter to Philemon, a Christian who had a slave named Onesimus who had escaped and, after encountering Paul, was baptized. Paul wrote Philemon asking him to receive Onesimus back not as a slave but as a brother Christian.  With this in mind, Pope Francis wrote about the terrible phenomenon of human trafficking and modern slavery. Though slavery is outlawed throughout the world, tens of millions of people of all ages find themselves victims of various forms of slavery including forced labor, the sex trade and arranged marriages, child soldiers and drug runners, and people held captive by terrorists.

Pope Francis writes: "Today, as in the past, slavery is rooted in a notion of the human person which allows him or her to be treated as an object."  This is a sin against the sanctity of life. Persons, made in the image and likeness of God, are being treated as objects to be used for other people's gain or pleasure.  Such an objectification of the human person is a root cause of conflicts and war.

Pope Francis challenges all of us to view others as sacred, made in the image of God who sent his Son to live and die for them.  We are called to reverence life in a world that sees some human beings as garbage to be disposed of before birth and as burdens to be disposed of when they are no longer productive and become a drain on the economy.  Without such a reverence for the sanctity of human life, there will be no peace.

Peace begins here, in each individual heart, each family, each community.  As we receive the Word of Life, the Prince of Peace, and give flesh to him as members of his Body, we make peace a reality.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

God's Family Planning

The Feast of the Holy Family has an essential lesson for the contemporary world.  In the Gospel of Luke 1: 31-35 we read that Mary conceived her child through the Holy Spirit and “the power of the Most High.”  (See also the angel’s words to Joseph in Matthew 1: 20.) Mary did not need Joseph, her espoused, to conceive Jesus.  But Jesus needed both of them—Mary and Joseph—to be the Holy Family.

On November 17, 2014, at a conference sponsored by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on “The Complementarity Between Man and Woman,” Pope Francis said: “Children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother capable of creating a suitable environment for the child’s growth and emotional development.”

Why do children have this right which is under attack today?  Because of the complementarity of the sexes.  St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and now Pope Francis, have all spoken of the importance of recognizing and supporting the unique contribution of women—“the feminine genius.”  In “The Joy of the Gospel” #103, Pope Francis wrote of “the sensitivity, intuition and other distinctive skill sets which they, more than men, tend to possess.”  He went on to write about “the special concern which women show to others” and which can be called a mothering or nurturing instinct. 

Men, in turn, have their own “distinctive skill sets” which, if we look at Pope Francis’ Inaugural Homily, are found in St. Joseph.
 He is a guide and protector.  In the words of Pope Francis, “Joseph is a ‘protector’ because he is able to hear God’s voice and be guided by his will; and for this reason he is all the more sensitive to the persons entrusted to his safekeeping. He can look at things realistically, he is in touch with his surroundings, he can make truly wise decisions.”  Joseph reveals the fatherhood which has God as its origin.  St. Paul, as he begins a prayer for the Ephesians, writes, “I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named…” (3:15). One could say that “the masculine genius” is to reveal to children something of God’s fatherhood.

Sometimes circumstances like death, conception out of wedlock, and the break-up of a marriage lead to single-parent families.  While this does indeed happen, it is not the way God intended families to exist. 

The Second Vatican Council’s document on the Church in the Modern World, “Gaudium et Spes” #52, called the family “the school of deeper humanity.”  It is there where children best learn the lessons of life, of what it means to be human. 

In his homily for this feast last year, Pope Francis talked about the lessons that are learned in families: 

“Today our gaze on the Holy Family lets us also be drawn into the simplicity of the life they led in Nazareth.  It is an example that does our families great good, helping them increasingly to become communities of love and reconciliation, in which tenderness, mutual help, and mutual forgiveness is experienced.  Let us remember the three key words for living in peace and joy in the family: “may I”, “thank you” and “sorry”.  In our family, when we are not intrusive and ask “may I”, in our family when we are not selfish and learn to say “thank you”, and when in a family one realizes he has done something wrong and knows how to say “sorry”, in that family there is peace and joy.  Let us remember these three words.  I would also like to encourage families to become aware of the importance they have in the Church and in society.  The proclamation of the Gospel, in fact, first passes through the family to reach the various spheres of daily life. Let us fervently call upon Mary Most Holy, the Mother of Jesus and our Mother, and St Joseph her spouse.  Let us ask them to enlighten, comfort and guide every family in the world, so that they may fulfil with dignity and peace the mission which God has entrusted to them.”
As our ancestral parents were tempted in the Garden of Eden to redefine themselves as gods who could determine for themselves right and wrong, good and bad, so contemporary society is seeking a power that does not belong to it.  This same demonic temptation to change nature according to one’s own desires appears in the first temptation that Jesus faced in the desert. He was hungry and was tempted to change rocks into bread.  But it is not the nature of a rock to become grain which in turn is baked and becomes food. 

In a similar way, the world wants to change the nature of marriage and family.  According to Pope Francis, this has devastating effects. In his November 17, 2014 address he said: “Marriage and the family are in crisis today. We now live in a culture of the temporary, in which more and more people reject marriage as a public obligation. This revolution of customs and morals has often waved ‘the flag of freedom’, but it has, in reality, brought spiritual and material devastation to countless human beings, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.”

As we reflect of the importance and beauty of family life today, let us pray for families everywhere and for the Synod of Bishops that will meet in October, 2015. 

Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
in you we contemplate
the splendor of true love,
to you we turn with trust.

Holy Family of Nazareth,
grant that our families too
may be places of communion and prayer,
authentic schools of the Gospel
and small domestic Churches.

Holy Family of Nazareth,
may families never again
experience violence, rejection and division:
may all who have been hurt or scandalized
find ready comfort and healing.

Holy Family of Nazareth,
may the approaching Synod of Bishops
make us once more mindful
of the sacredness and inviolability of the family,
and its beauty in God’s plan.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
graciously hear our prayer.