Friday, July 22, 2016

The Apostle to the Apostles

St. Mary Magdalene is one of my favorite saints and today is her feast day.  In fact, on June 3, 2016, the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Pope Francis raised the level of today's commemoration from an Obligatory Memorial to a Feast.  I was happy, therefore, to preside at Mass this morning with some of my brother Jesuits and to celebrate Mass in honor of St. Mary Magdalene with the Gloria which is required for feasts of this importance.

The first reading (Song of Songs 3: 1-4) is one of the few times that this book of love poetry from the Hebrew Scriptures appears in the readings at Mass.  It captures the intensity of Mary Magdalene's love for Jesus: "I sought him whom my heart loves--I sought him but I did not find him."  Thus she returned to the empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning looking for the body of Jesus.  But he had risen and, after showing himself to her, he sent her to the apostles to tell them the news of his resurrection.  Thus she is known to this day as "the Apostle to the Apostles."

Here's something Pope St. John Paul II said about her on this day during the Jubilee Year 2000:

We are celebrating the feast of St Mary Magdalene and the liturgy today is marked by a kind of movement, a "race" of the heart and the spirit, motivated by the love of Christ. 

Mary Magdalene followed to Calvary the One who had healed her. She was present at Jesus' crucifixion, death and burial. Together with Mary Most Holy and the beloved disciple, she witnessed his last breath and the silent testimony of his pierced side:  she understood that her salvation lay in that death, in that sacrifice. And the Risen One, as today's Gospel recounts, wished to manifest his glorious body first to the one who had wept profusely at his death. To her he "first entrusted ... the joyful news of his resurrection" (Opening Prayer), as if to remind us that the shining glory of his resurrection is revealed precisely to those who look with faith and love on the mystery of the Lord's passion and death.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

A Jesuit Ordination

Last Saturday I participated in the ordination of Jesuit Fr. Vincent Strand.  It was a happy and special time for me because I had been his spiritual director when he was discerning his vocation as a student at Marquette University.  From those days to the present he has been a strong member of the Apostleship of Prayer.  Here's something he wrote when he was a Jesuit novice, In it he wrote about how making a daily offering led to him offering every day of his life as a Jesuit priest:

            "I remember well my first encounter with the Apostleship of Prayer.  I was a freshman at Marquette University and accustomed to attending daily mass in the basement chapel of Gesu Church.  Each day while en route to my pew, I would pass a table filled with popular devotional materials: endless holy cards and novenas, gaudy plastic rosaries, green and brown scapulars, and there too, the AOP leaflets with the Holy Father’s monthly intentions.  Assuming that the AOP was one more dusty devotional practice that perhaps had a place in the 50´s Catholicism of my grandparents, but certainly had no relevance for a third-millennium college student, for months I passed these leaflets without a second thought.  One day, however, perhaps simply out of curiosity, I picked up a leaflet and perused its contents, expecting to find one more antiquated novena to some obscure saint.  I was shocked by what I found.  For here was a list of intentions that was anything but outdated, a list of intentions which reflected my deepest hopes for the world, a list of intentions which was as broad and diverse as the whole of the Church’s mission. 

            "Yet something else in that small leaflet struck me as well, a small prayer that would forever change my spiritual life: the daily Morning Offering.  Father General Peter Hans Kolvenbach once wrote of the Morning Offering: “Experience shows that this act, both simple and profound, changes one's life.”  It did so for me.  As I began daily offering my life to Jesus, the question started to loom: If you give each day to him, why not your whole life?  Soon I was discerning a religious vocation.

            "The fact that the Society of Jesus has been entrusted by Christ himself with the responsibility of propagating the devotion to his Heart—a responsibility institutionalized by the AOP—played a significant role in my decision to apply to the Society of Jesus.  During my years of discernment, I thought seriously about a number of options: Married laymen? Dominican? Carmelite? Diocesan priest?  Amidst this sometimes confusing cloud of options, my spiritual director continually asked me: What is your deepest, truest desire?  As I grew more and more aware of God’s great love for me, suddenly my vocation seemed simple: to bring the love of Jesus to the world.  For me, the love of Jesus was symbolized by the love of his Heart.  I felt Christ calling me to share the love of his Heart, to be an apostle of his Heart.  This, it seemed to me, was at the core of what it means to be a Jesuit.  I knew it was to the Society of Jesus that God was calling me.

            "The importance of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the AOP has only grown during my time in the Society.  Intriguingly, I have observed the same phenomenon in the lives of many other young Jesuits.  Perhaps this was most evident for me in the days of sharing which followed the long retreat in my novitiate last year, when a number of men who previously had no formal contact with devotion to the Sacred Heart spoke of the importance of the symbol of Jesus´ Heart for them during the Spiritual Exercises.  Suddenly, they too were convinced of the need to spread this devotion—this message of love—to all the world.    

            "I am convinced that the AOP has an indispensable part to play in the future of the Catholic Church in America.  The innate spirituality of the AOP provides an answer to many trends of the contemporary world.  In an age when young Catholics desire something radical, something heroic, something whole, the spirituality of the Morning Offering requires a complete gift of self.  In a time when the faithful, especially youth, have a growing love of the Eucharist, the AOP offers a spirituality which is intrinsically Eucharistic.  In a Church which has finally come to a clearer understanding of the universal call to holiness, the AOP provides an avenue for the sanctification of one’s life in the midst of the world.  In an age when globalization continues to shrink the world and makes us aware that we are truly neighbors and in solidarity with the whole human family, the AOP places us in a fraternity of prayer with men and women in every corner of the globe, praying for intentions which are universal in scope.  In a world marked by a great yearning for peace and justice, the AOP provides us with intentions focused on the most pressing needs of social justice throughout the world.  In an age of increased secularization which has resulted in a fervor for a new evangelization, the AOP fosters a missionary spirit among its members. 

            "Perhaps these are some of the reasons why there is a renewed interest in the AOP among so many young Jesuits.  But, in truth, I think there is a deeper and simpler reason, a reason which has been articulated time and time again by Jesuit spiritual writers, by countless Father Generals, and recently by men such as Pedro Arrupe and Karl Rahner: devotion to Christ’s Heart is something essential to the Society of Jesus.  Thus as something essential, as long as there are Jesuits, there will be a zeal for spreading the message of love of the Sacred Heart. 

"While for a time it may have appeared to be on the wane, interest in the Sacred Heart among Jesuits is not disappearing.  No, to the contrary, it appears to be growing.  In one of his last and most famous letters to the Society, “Rooted and Grounded in Love,” Pedro Arrupe stated:  “I am convinced that there could be few proofs of the spiritual renewal of the Society so clear as a widespread and vigorous devotion to the Heart of Jesus.”  I pray that this saint’s words were prophetic and that interest in the Sacred Heart among young Jesuits is indicative of a greater spiritual renewal in the Society of Jesus.  For as always, the world is in great need of knowing the love of Christ’s Heart.  May Jesuits always be at the forefront of spreading this love to the whole world."   


Sunday, May 22, 2016

Most Holy Trinity

At the heart of Christianity is a great mystery--the Most Holy Trinity.  It's not a mystery to be solved, but one before which we stand with humble faith.  St. Augustine once said that if we could understand this mystery of God who is one yet three Persons, we would not be talking about God any more.  "Si comprehendis, non deus est."

Throughout history people have tried to help us better appreciate this mystery.  As he catechized the Irish people, St. Patrick showed them a three-leaf shamrock to illustrate that God is both one and three.  But such a physical illustration makes it seem as though God can be divided into parts. Our faith, though, tells us that where one Person of the Trinity is all three are present.  This is known as "circumincession."

Rublev's famous icon of the Trinity, based on Abraham's encounter with three angelic beings (Genesis 18: 1-15), is one of the most beautiful representations of the Trinity, but it can also be misleading as it depicts three individuals.  Western art follows a similar path, showing the Trinity as Jesus with a cross, and the Father as an old, white-haired man, and the Holy Spirit as a dove.

Perhaps St. Ignatius Loyola is more helpful.  He once had a vision of the Holy Trinity as three keys of an organ or a piano being played together and creating one perfect harmony.

We believe that God is one and three because Jesus said so.  We see this especially in John's Gospel. Pope Francis said: "Jesus revealed this mystery to us. He spoke to us of God as the Father; he spoke to us of the Spirit; and he spoke to us of himself as the Son of God."  We believe because Jesus promised to send "the Spirit of truth" who "will guide you to all truth" (John 16: 13). The Spirit continues to teach us through the Scriptures and the Church.

Pope Francis went on to speak of the practical implications of this great mystery.  "Today's solemnity, while making us contemplate the amazing mystery from which we come and toward which we are going, renews for us the mission of living in communion with God and living in communion among ourselves on the model of the divine communion."

In other words, because our origin is from God who made us in the divine image and likeness, we're made by and for love--union with God and the communion of saints.  We are not isolated individuals. No one sins alone, nor is anyone saved alone.  From our ancestral parents to the present, what one person made in God's image does affects the whole.  This is why we all inherit the sin of Adam and Eve.

Pope Francis went on to say:  "The Trinity is the communion of Divine Persons who are one with the others, one for the others, one in the others: this communion is the life of God, the mystery of the love of the living God."

Again, since we are made in the image of God who is a Trinity of Love, we are called to live in communion with others.  As Pope Francis put it: "We are called to live not as one without the others, above or against the others, but one with the others, for the others, and in the others" [emphasis in the original]. We know what it means to live with others and for others, but what can it mean to live "in the others?"  One way of looking at this is through St. Paul's teaching on the Body of Christ. He writes: "God has so constructed the body ... so that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another. If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy" (1 Cor. 12: 24-26).  This is the meaning of compassion.  We live "in" others when we see things through their eyes and experience the pain and joy that they experience.

Pope Francis continues: "This means to accept and witness in harmony the beauty of the Gospel; experiencing love for one another and for all, sharing joy and suffering, learning to ask and grant forgiveness. In a word, we have been entrusted with the task of building church communities which increasingly become families, capable of reflecting the splendor of the Trinity and evangelizing not only with words but with the power of the love of God that lives within us" [emphasis in original].

This is the work of the Holy Spirit which theologians tell us is the love between the Father and the Son.  St. Paul wrote that "the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us" (Rom. 5: 5).

Ultimately the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the mystery of love.  God is, by nature, Love.  Before creation God was a perfect communion of love, but it is the nature of love to share.  God chose to share existence, life, and love with human beings.  Though God was perfectly happy, God wanted, as it were, to have "playmates" (see Proverbs 8: 30-31).  God wanted to share the delight of existence, life, and love with creatures made in the image and likeness of the Trinity.  God created and "found delight in the human race" (Proverbs 8: 31).

All this raises several questions to use as we reflect on our day:

  • How did I reflect the love of the Trinity today?
  • How did I live with, for, and in others today? 
  • How did I give delight to God today? 

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Hope and Joy of Easter

St. Paul wrote to the Colossians (3:1): “If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above….”  In other words, live in the light of Easter.  Live with the hope and joy of Easter.  You have been baptized and given a new life.  Live with the hope and joy that this new life in Christ brings.
Our temptation is to live in darkness and despair.  There is so much “Good Friday” in the world today.  So many tragic deaths. So much abandonment on crosses made, in Pope Francis’ words, by “the globalization of indifference.” 

In his Apostolic Exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis wrote about the serious temptation to “defeatism which turns us into disillusioned pessimists, ‘sourpusses’ (#85).  People who give in to this temptation “think that nothing will change” (#275).  But because of Christ’s resurrection, we have hope. 

Pope Francis writes: “If we think that things are not going to change, we need to recall that Jesus Christ has triumphed over sin and death and is now almighty. Jesus Christ truly lives” (#275).  This means that “Christ’s resurrection is not an event of the past; it contains a vital power which has permeated this world” (#276).  Because of the resurrection, we have hope and confidence. 

But holding fast to hope requires work.  We have to strengthen the hope that Christ’s resurrection gives, to believe that it “is not an event of the past,” but a force at work in our lives and in the world.  “Faith 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” (#278). 

That is where our faith is challenged: to believe that evil is not the final word and that God can bring “good out of evil.”  Yet this is what we have just celebrated.  God took the worst evil possible—the crucifixion of the Son—and brought out of it the greatest good—our salvation from sin and death.  This is the reason for our hope and joy. 

Timothy Cardinal Dolan of New York has identified four threats to joy. 

The first is self-pity which puts “me” first, at the center.  Joy comes when God is first, others are second, and I am third.  Self-pity inverts that order and leads to unhappiness.

Secondly, joy is threatened by worry which fosters a negative attitude toward the future, feeds pessimism, and again places “me” at the center.

The third threat to joy is the belief that my happiness depends on something outside of myself.  I believe that certain things or people or situations will make me happy whereas, in the words of Jesuit Fr. John Powell’s book, “Happiness is an Inside Job.”  But what about God?  Shouldn’t God be the source of my joy and isn’t God transcendent?  Yes, but through baptism God is also within.  As baptized temples of the Holy Spirit, we find God within the secret chamber of our heart.

Finally, the fourth threat to joy, according to Cardinal Dolan, is complaining which not only saps our joy but spreads negativity to others who often in turn reinforce our own negative attitude.  The antidote?  Gratitude.  Seeing the glass as half full rather than half empty and being grateful for what fills the glass. 

In our case, we are filled with the light, hope, and joy of Christ’s resurrection.  Having spent forty days of Lenten preparation for the celebration of the Easter Triduum, we now have fifty days in which to savor its hope and joy. 

But we must do more than savor the hope and joy of Easter.  We must live it in our daily lives.  We were made new through baptismal waters.  The world was made new by Christ’s resurrection.  As Pope Francis wrote in “The Joy of the Gospel”: “Christ’s resurrection everywhere calls forth seeds of that new world; even if they are cut back, they grow again, for the resurrection is already secretly woven into the fabric of this history, for Jesus did not rise in vain.  May we never remain on the sidelines of this march of living hope!” (#278).


Our lives are a journey to the Kingdom of Heaven where we will live forever.  We will live body and soul sharing in the glory of Jesus Christ, our Risen Savior.  May we not, as Pope Francis said, “remain on the sidelines,” but may we march forward with hope and joy.  

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Christ Trampled Down Death by Death

Both readings at Mass today, Tuesday of the Fifth Week in Lent, offer a paradox.  For Christians with the eyes of faith, paradoxes are not problems to be solved but mysteries to be appreciated.  Today's readings call us to appreciate God's love in a deeper way.

In the First Reading (Numbers 21: 4-9) saraph serpents bring death to the Israelites and Moses is told to "make a saraph and mount it on a pole" so that "whoever looks at it after being bitten will live." The cause of death became the source of healing. A paradox.

This anticipates what we will remember and celebrate next week.  At the Easter Vigil, in the Exultet hymn, we will hear that Adam's sin was "necessary" because it won for us such a great Redeemer. It's a "culpa felix" or "happy fault."  Paul repeats this paradox in 2 Corinthians 5: 21: "For our sake, God made him [Christ] to be sin who did not know sin...."  And, in Galatians 3: 13, he writes: "Christ ransomed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us...."  Jesus suffered and died as a criminal to bring righteousness to sinners.

Even more, he overcame death by means of death.  Throughout Easter, Eastern Christians, both Orthodox and Catholic, sing: "Christ is risen from the dead trampling down death by death and to those in the tomb restoring life."

In the Gospel (John 8: 21-30) we find another paradox.  Jesus declares: "When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I AM...."  You would think just the opposite!  How can you see the One whom Jesus refers to by the unpronounceable Divine Name--God--in a crucified criminal?  Only with the eyes of faith.

On the cross we see the greatest act of love the world has ever known.  And, since, according to the First Letter of John (4: 8 and 16), God is Love, God is revealed most clearly on the cross. When Jesus is lifted up on the cross, we are called to believe: here is God, here is Love in the flesh!

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Homily for Lent, Third Sunday, Cycle C

Do you ever pray when you read the newspaper?  Or watch the evening news?  In today's Gospel (Luke 13: 1-9) we get the 1st Century equivalent of this.  News spread by word of mouth back then and "some people told Jesus about" two tragic events.  In Galilee, where Jesus was raised, the Roman governor Pilate killed some Jews as they were offering a religious sacrifice.  Their blood "mingled with the blood of their sacrifices."  And in Jerusalem, eighteen people were killed "when the tower at Siloam fell on them."  Reflecting on this, the people sharing these news stories with Jesus wondered what sins these victims must have committed to have warranted such punishment from God.  Jesus tells them that they've got it all wrong.  God doesn't punish in this way.

I grew up with an image of God that was very negative and I can pinpoint where that image was planted in my consciousness. I was about five and my extended family had gotten together to visit my grandparents.  As the adults were conversing around the large (at least to a boy) dining room table, I was chasing my cousin Ronny. My father told me, "Cut it out," and being the good boy I was, I obeyed him.  But when the adults got busy again with their conversation, I poked Ronny and he poked me and we started fooling around again.  As I chased him I slipped on the rug, fell, and hit my head on the table and started crying.  My father said to me: "See! God punished you!"  In that moment God became a policeman just waiting to catch little boys when they were misbehaving, and the jury and judge who would pass sentence on them, and the executioner--all rolled into one.

This is not the God Jesus reveals to us. Not the God Jesus teaches us about.  We are not punished for our sins but by our sins.

God's creation has built-in laws.  They give order to creation.  They're not imposed from outside nor are they arbitrary.  God's laws are part of the nature of things.  For example, physical creatures follow the law of gravity. Humans are free to rebel against that law.  Now, we're not talking about flying in an airplane which still follows the laws of physics. We're talking about someone who decides the law of gravity is too restrictive and launches him or herself off a high place in order to fly.  They wouldn't break the law which is still there.  They would break themselves.  That wasn't God punishing them, but God maintaining the order of the universe and allowing them to suffer the consequences of their foolish choice.

But humans are more than physical beings. We are made in the image and likeness of God.  We are spiritual.  And just as there are physical laws that govern us because we are physical, so there are spiritual laws that govern us as well.  They are part of nature and are for our good and the good order of the universe.  If we choose to rebel against those spiritual laws, we end up hurting our relationship with God. We end up hurting others and ourselves.  That's not God punishing us, but allowing us to experience the natural consequences of our foolish choices.

Sin hurts.  This is why Jesus, in the Gospel, warns the people to repent lest they perish.  And worse than hurting oneself physically is hurting oneself spiritually, being alienated from God and God's other children, possibly forever.

In the first reading from Exodus chapter 3, God comes to Moses as fire in a burning bush. God reveals the Divine Name. God is "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob."  God is the God of merciful faithfulness.

In a recent interview book, "The Name of God is Mercy," Pope Francis says that going to the Sacrament of Reconciliation is not like going to a dry cleaner to get some stains removed.  Sin goes deeper. Sin wounds and the Sacrament is designed to heal the deep wounds, the consequences of sin.

In the Sacrament we encounter the merciful and sacred Heart of Jesus.  Images of the Sacred Heart portray a heart on fire with love.  The Letter to the Hebrews 12: 29 says that "our God is a consuming fire."  The fire of God's love brings healing to the sinner and destroys or consumes sin.  It is a purifying fire.

We encounter the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the Eucharist and in all the Sacraments.  Not only does the fiery love of this Heart purify us.  It transforms us so that we in our turn can bring mercy into the world.  One practical way that we can do this is to pray when we read the newspaper or watch the news. Rather than getting negative and angry, we can pray and ask God to be merciful to the people and situations that we see.  Mercy is not only to be received; it's to be shared.  In sharing it we will show ourselves to be faithful and merciful children of the Father and members of the Body of Christ.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Transfiguration

On the First Sunday of Lent we see Jesus in the desert battling temptations.  On the Second Sunday of Lent we see him on the mountain basking in the glory of God.  The two Sundays are a paradigm of our life which is a series of ups and downs.

In 2006 I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with forty-six others.  We went to Mt. Tabor, traditionally viewed as the place of Jesus' Transfiguration.  Our tour bus was large and unable to go up the narrow winding road to the top of the mount.  We disembarked and took several of the vans or mini-buses that carried pilgrims to the top.  It was easy to understand how the three apostles who were with Jesus fell asleep after the long climb.  But our journey was easy and so we were wide awake for the beautiful view to the south and for the Mass we celebrated there in one of several churches.

Jesus often went to a hill or high place to pray.  There seems to be a human instinct that leads us to encounter God in the heights.  The Lakota Sioux went to mountains and high buttes for their vision quests.  It was on Mt. Horeb (traditionally identified with Mt. Sinai) that Moses encountered God in the burning bush and received the covenant commandments.  The prophet Elijah went to this same mountain where he encountered God not in fire or a mighty wind or an earthquake, but in "a tiny whispering sound" (1 Kings 19: 11-12).

Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, turn up at Jesus' Transfiguration. They speak with Jesus about "his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem" (Luke 9: 31).  Jesus had just been telling his apostles about this "exodus"--that the "Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised" (Luke 9: 22).  He followed this teaching with one about discipleship: "If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Luke 9: 23).  The way to glory is not easy.

St. Peter wanted to construct tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.  He would like them, and we can assume, himself and the two brothers James and John, to remain on the mountaintop. He would like to hold on to the glory and avoid the struggles that are part of the plains and valleys of life.  But Jesus could not remain there.  He had work to do--the work of our redemption.

Life is a series of ups and downs, mountaintop experiences and valleys.  We would like to remain on the mountain, but we cannot. We must live in the broken world and share others' burdens and sorrows.  We must deal with our own.  Every so often we may have a mountaintop experience, or as St. Ignatius Loyola called it, consolation.  But it will pass.  When it comes, St. Ignatius says in his Rules for Discernment of Spirits, we should savor the peace and the joy in order to strengthen ourselves for the inevitable valleys of life.  Then, when the valleys or, as he puts it, desolations, come, we will be strong. We will remember that the desolation too will pass.

Jesus' Transfiguration was a taste of glory before the battle.  The consolations God sends us serve a similar role.  They remind us of the joy of heaven that will never end.

Back to the pilgrimage: after celebrating Mass and touring the various churches and taking one last look at the plain to which we would be returning, we got on the minibuses for the trip down the mount. I suspect the drivers got a perverse pleasure out of scaring pilgrims as they raced around tight corners at breakneck speeds during the descent.  All one could do is trust them and their driving skills.

That's a final lesson of the Transfiguration: trust.  As Jesus surrendered himself into the loving hands of the Father, trusting that his suffering and death would lead to his glory, so do we followers of Jesus strive to trustingly surrender.  As St. Paul wrote: "Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body..." (Philippians 3: 20-21).  If we let him, Jesus will lead us on an exodus from this world to the mountaintop of heaven where we will share in his glory.