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."

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.