Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Divine Struggle to be Human


St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 2: 5-11 contains an early Church hymn about the attitude of Jesus. Paul wanted the people to whom he wrote to have this attitude. It is to be ours as well.  This attitude—vision, way of proceeding, value—is not the attitude of the world. It is not our human inclination.  Our tendency is to want independence, power, and control, in short, to be gods. 

This was the original temptation according to the third chapter of Genesis. Our ancestral parents wondered whether God could really be trusted, whether it wouldn’t be better to be independent and in control, to have the power to determine for themselves good and bad, right and wrong. They chose, in the words of the song made popular by Frank Sinatra, to do it “my way” and not God’s way.

Jesus, on the contrary, shows us God’s way, a way that is very different.  It is the way of surrender, of emptying, of humility, and obedience—all of which looks crazy in the eyes of the world. Jesus emptied himself, became a vulnerable human capable of suffering and dying.

Humility is truth.  Humility means accepting the truth that I am not God, that I am “humus”—of the earth, dust, as we are reminded every Ash Wednesday.  Therefore, in order to be happy and at peace, I must accept the truth rather than deny it or rebel against it. I must accept my nature as a vulnerable creature made of dust who is not ultimately in control.  I will only be happy and fulfilled in so far as I accept the facts and allow God to be God of my life.  Peace and joy will not be found in doing things “my way” but only in doing things “God’s way.”  That’s obedience, an unpopular concept and word today. But it’s the way of Jesus.

What worked for Jesus will work for us. This means embracing my humanity and living in accord with nature, my human nature. Then, like Jesus, I will be raised to a glory beyond what our ancestral parents grasped at.

Theologians and Doctors of the early Church taught that God became human so that humanity could become divine. This truth is quietly repeated at every Mass when a few drops of water are poured into the chalice of wine at the Offertory: “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”

Some years ago I heard of an author who was writing a book with a very provocative title. I don’t know if he ever finished or if it was ever published.  The title was “The Divine Struggle to be Human.”  I’ve always thought of this title in light of the emptying described in Philippians 2 and of our own struggle. We tend to turn the words of the title around and to see life as “The Human Struggle to be Divine.”  We, like our ancestral parents, grasp at power, control, independence, and equality with God. Jesus shows us that the true struggle is to embrace our humanity as he himself did. In doing so, we will be fulfilled. We will come to the union with God and the communion with all God’s children for which we were created. 

And it begins right here on earth, at the Eucharist where we come with empty hands and receive the gift of divinity—the very Body and Blood of the one who humbled himself to become human and who continues to humble himself, giving himself to us under the humble appearance of bread and wine.  We need not grasp. We need only to open our hands and hearts, empty them of everything, and receive. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Total Love


In today’s Gospel (Matthew 22:34-40) a Pharisee, who was also “a scholar of the law,” asked Jesus a question that teachers and rabbis were often asked—“which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  With 613 laws given by Moses, it would be natural to want to prioritize them. 

Jesus responded by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 which commands that God be loved with all one’s heart, soul, and mind.  This was such an important law that to this day the Jewish people write it on a piece of paper and place it in a small receptacle that is attached to the doorpost and is touched upon entering and leaving one’s house.  This is a concrete way of declaring one’s intention to live by that law inside and outside of one’s home.

Recall last Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 22: 15-21). Jesus was confronted by Pharisees and asked whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, the pagan emperor who used those taxes to oppress the Jewish people.  Jesus responded by taking a coin and asking whose image was on it. After being told it was the image of the emperor, Jesus said: “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”  What belongs to God? We do. Every human person is made in the image and likeness of God, is stamped with God’s image, and therefore belongs to God.  St. John wrote that God is love. Made in the image of love, we are made by love and for love.

Love does not ask “What’s the minimum requirement?” A marriage in which one spouse asks the other “What’s the least I need to do to keep you happy?” won’t last very long. Love asks “What more can I do to show you my love? What more can I do to prove my love for you?” The love that the greatest commandment requires is a total love.

But if our love of God is to be total, how can we fulfill the second commandment that Jesus quote—Leviticus 19:18 with its command to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Aren’t these two commandments in conflict?

No, they are actually one commandment. When you love someone you share the interests and desires of the one you love. You love what he or she loves. To love God means to love what God loves. And what does God love? You. Me. All humanity. All God’s children.  Loving God totally means loving our neighbor.

Jesus once said that the greatest love was to lay down one’s life for another. Jesus is the proof of God’s love for us. Jesus shared our life and laid down his life on the cross to prove God’s love for us. 

The world’s view of love is actually the opposite of love. The world tends to say that love is a feeling. I love whatever makes me feel good, whatever gives me pleasure. This is the opposite of love which is not about getting but giving.  In his encyclical God is Love Pope Benedict said that our definition for love must begin at the pierced side of Jesus, that opening to a heart that showed the world the deepest and truest love ever known.  True love is total. Ultimately it involves sacrifice.

Have you ever heard of Tom Burnett? He was on United Flight 93 which crashed into a field in Shanksville, PA on September 11, 2001.  In college he had stopped going to church and went searching for God. In time he returned. He worked for a medical technology firm in California and was close enough to home that he would have lunch there. According to his wife Deena, in 1997 he stopped coming home for lunch. Deena thought that Tom, who was accustomed to working 70 hours a week, was simply spending his lunch hour putting in more time at work. Six months before his death, he revealed to her that he was going to the 12:10 Mass at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton church.  In an interview, Deena said: “He told me that he felt God was telling him he was going to do something. Something big. But he didn’t understand what it was.”  He figured that if he went to Mass, God’s will for him would become clear.  Deena went on: “He knew that what he was going to do would impact a lot of people. And he knew one other thing: it had something to do with the White House.”

Imagine Tom Burnett, an ordinary guy. He has no desire to go into politics, much less aspire to be president.  Yet he has this sense that God is calling him to something big and it somehow involves the White House. You can hear him thinking, “What does my life have to do with the White House?”

On September 11, 2001, thousands of feet above the earth, Tom Burnett knew what his life had to do with the White House. He and the others on that plane knew where it was headed. They knew they had to do something, even if it meant sacrificing their lives to prevent a greater tragedy from happening.

Where did Tom get the understanding and courage to do what he did? The Eucharist. There he heard the Word that guided him through life. There he received the Body and Blood of Christ that transformed him into someone who could love God and his neighbor with a total, self-sacrificing love. 

What Tom and the others did was heroic. We may think, “That’s not me. I’m not a hero.” But each of us, in his or her own way, is called to heroic love. It may be parents sacrificing themselves for the good of their children. It may be a spouse dealing with the unemployment and depression of the other. It may be children trying to care for a parent with Alzheimer’s.  Each of us in one way or another is called to love sacrificially. The power to do so comes from the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass where Jesus makes present his life-giving death and resurrection, where he proves once again how loveable each of us is.  

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Greatest Commandment


St. Anthony Mary Claret was a Spaniard who was ordained in 1835. He tried to join the Carthusian
order but was rejected because of poor health. He then entered the Jesuit novitiate but had to leave when his health broke down again.  While these doors closed, God opened another.  He recovered his health sufficiently to become a missionary and the Archbishop of Cuba.  In time he was called back to the royal court of Spain to be the spiritual director for Queen Isabella II. Regarding this apostolate he wrote: “Living at court and being constantly in the palace is a continuous martyrdom for me.  Every day at prayer I have to make acts of resignation to God’s will.  Day and night and always I have to offer up the sacrifice of staying in Madrid.”
He wrote a book entitled The Golden Key to Heaven in which he reflected upon the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits. The following excerpt from a section entitled “Love for Neighbor” is good preparation for this Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 22: 34-40) in which Jesus teaches about the greatest commandment.

Composition of Place: Imagine you see Jesus Christ in the company of His Apostles and disciples and saying to them: “Love one another as I have loved you… By this shall all know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another” (John 13: 34, 35). “As long as you did it to one of these…brethren, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25: 40). …

You should know that God is Love itself; God is Charity.  This virtue is the greatest of virtues.  It is greater than faith and hope.  It is like the sun among the stars, like gold among the metals.  It gives life to all the virtues.  Without it no act has value for reaching Heaven—no, not even the most heroic works. …If one truly loves God, that is proof that there is love for neighbor, and the love one has for his neighbor discloses the love one has for God.  He who says he loves God and does not love his neighbor, does not tell the truth, because it is impossible to love one whom we do not see, who is God, if we do not love one whom we can see, namely, our neighbor. …

Charity is an all-extensive virtue which embraces everyone; fellow-countrymen and foreigner, friends and enemies.  It extends to everyone, embraces all, and does good to all.  Therefore people who limit their love to those of their own area or those of their own nation, to those of their own sentiments, or to their friends or relatives, and are not careful to love the rest—such people do not have true charity.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Anniversary of St. Therese's Enrollment

On October 15, 1885 St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face enrolled in the Apostleship of Prayer.  My good friend and supporter, Maureen O'Riordan, who is an expert on St. Therese, her parents Louis and Zellie, and her sister Leonie who entered the Visitation Order, has written about St. Therese's relationship to the Apostleship of Prayer.  You can find her article at her website Saint Therese of Lisieux: A Gateway

I'm convinced that St. Therese's "Little Way" grew out of her familiarity with the offering spirituality of the Apostleship of Prayer. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Not Fair, but Generously Merciful

Today is the last night of a parish mission that I am leading at St. Justin Martyr Church in the St. Louis area. The following is a summary of my homily from last Sunday, the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A.


When I was growing up we played "Hide and Seek."  Everyone is familiar with how that goes. If you are "it" you have to close your eyes while the others all run and hide. Then you seek them and tag them before they can reach "goal" which we pronounced "gool."  If you put your hands over your eyes but then spread your fingers to see where people went to hide you might hear back "No fair peeking." 


Children have an innate sense of fairness. If a teacher plays favorites or treats the girls better than the boys they will complain that the teacher isn't being fair. And vice versa.  Children don't learn fairness, though they often have to be reminded. A victim of unfairness knows immediately that something isn't right.  This sense of fairness seems to be part of one's conscience--an innate sense of right and wrong.


That being said, most of us hear today's Gospel (Matthew 20: 1-16a) with the parable of the workers who labor for various numbers of hours in a vineyard yet get the same pay and we react, "That's not fair!"  That's especially not fair if we consider that perhaps the reason why the workers who were hired at five weren't there at the crack of dawn because they were sleeping in.  Should such laziness be rewarded?


Remember: the parables of Jesus were designed to shock people--his listeners then and all of us now--into thought and action.


What was Jesus trying to teach us with this parable? What did he want us to think and to know?

Our first reading (Isaiah 55: 6-9) gives us a clue. Through the prophet, God, "who is generous in forgiving," tells us "my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways." 


The parable Jesus told was a description of "the kingdom of heaven."  Every human being is created for heaven--for union with God and the communion of saints. But from the beginning we have rejected God's desire and plan.  Yet God persisted.  As the landowner in the parable is "generous" so is God.  To save us from our sins and the alienation and destruction they cause, the Son of God took flesh, suffered, and died.  He took upon himself the penalty of our sins.  Then he rose from the dead and shared the reward of his obedient love with disobedient humanity.


We did not earn it.  He did not deserve it.  This was totally unfair, but it was totally merciful.


This is our faith. It's what we celebrate every time we gather for the Eucharist.


But remember, parables are designed to not only shock us into thought but also into action.  What is the action Jesus hoped to achieve with this story?

That we would be as generous and merciful as our Landowner God is.  That we would desire and then pray and work for the salvation of all.  That we would want everyone in heaven as much as God does.

That's difficult. We all have people that we don't like.  We have enemies and the thought of being with them for eternity in heaven sounds more like hell!

It is difficult and perhaps impossible to be as merciful as God is merciful. Yet we are called to be such and the power to be merciful is a divine power that is given to us in the Eucharist.  There we receive the Heart of Jesus when we receive his Body and Blood.  There our hearts are transformed to be more like the generously merciful Heart of our Savior.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Triumph of Our Crosses

On September 14 we celebrated the Exaltation or Triumph of the Holy Cross.  I gave the following homily to a group at the Sacred Heart Retreat House in Alhambra, CA.

We are celebrating a great mystery today. It's the mystery of how God saved the world from sin and death.

In the first reading (Numbers 21: 4b-9) we heard of a paradox: how a serpent, the source of death, was lifted up and became a source of healing.

This prefigured Jesus who took upon himself sin and death, was lifted up on the cross, and became the source of ultimate healing.  The cross--an instrument of death--became the instrument of life. The sign of failure and utter defeat became the sign of victory.

In the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches there is a beautiful hymn that is sung over and over again at Easter: "Christ trampled down death by death."

Who would have thought it?  Not Satan who was behind the crucifixion and who thought he had won but was defeated.

Now it's our turn.  Jesus told us to pick up our crosses and to follow him.  We are to pick up the daily hardships, sufferings, and frustrations--all those things that call for sacrifice--and unite them to the cross of Jesus. By following him in this way we follow him to victory.

The Bishops at the end of the Second Vatican Council had a series of messages for various groups of people including the poor, the sick, and the suffering. To them they said:

All of you who feel heavily the weight of the cross, you who are poor and abandoned, you who weep, you who are persecuted for justice, you who are ignored, you the unknown victims of suffering, take courage. You are the preferred children of the kingdom of God, the kingdom of hope, happiness and life. You are the brothers of the suffering Christ, and with Him, if you wish, you are saving the world.

This is the Christian science of suffering, the only one which gives peace. Know that you are not alone, separated, abandoned or useless. You have been called by Christ and are His living and transparent image. In His name, the council salutes you lovingly, thanks you, assures you of the friendship and assistance of the Church, and blesses you.

Of course Jesus is the one Savior of the world. He won salvation through his death and resurrection. But not everyone knows of this victory nor has accepted it. Now each one of us plays a role in the ongoing work of salvation.

Christ won the victory. It may not seem like it, but victory is assured. Evil will not win in the end, just as it did not win when Jesus was crucified.  Have hope! You too will triumph with Christ if you join your crosses to his.

Our human tendency is to want to see tangible results, to know that our prayers and sacrifices--all the sufferings we offer up--are making a difference.  Pope Francis addressed this in his Apostolic Exhortation "The Joy of the Gospel" (#278-9) and he offered a word of hope:

Faith also means believing in God, believing that he truly loves us, that he is alive, that he is mysteriously capable of intervening, that he does not abandon us and that he brings good out of evil by his power and his infinite creativity. It means believing that he marches triumphantly in history with those who “are called and chosen and faithful” (Rev 17:14). ...

Because we do not always see these seeds growing, we need an interior certainty, a conviction that God is able to act in every situation, even amid apparent setbacks.... It involves knowing with certitude that all those who entrust themselves to God in love will bear good fruit (cf. Jn 15:5). This fruitfulness is often invisible, elusive and unquantifiable. We can know quite well that our lives will be fruitful, without claiming to know how, or where, or when. We may be sure that none of our acts of love will be lost, nor any of our acts of sincere concern for others. No single act of love for God will be lost, no generous effort is meaningless, no painful endurance is wasted. All of these encircle our world like a vital force. Sometimes it seems that our work is fruitless, but mission is not like a business transaction or investment, or even a humanitarian activity. It is not a show where we count how many people come as a result of our publicity; it is something much deeper, which escapes all measurement. It may be that the Lord uses our sacrifices to shower blessings in another part of the world which we will never visit. The Holy Spirit works as he wills, when he wills and where he wills; we entrust ourselves without pretending to see striking results. We know only that our commitment is necessary. Let us learn to rest in the tenderness of the arms of the Father....


The theme of our retreat this weekend has been the question of Jesus, "Who do you say that I am?" Our answer today is, "You are the winner!"  You are the one who defeated sin and death with a cross. You are the one who now invites each of us to be a winner.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

On the Feast of St. Jeanne Jugan


August 30 was the feast of St. Jeanne Jugan, the foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor. I celebrated Mass at St. Joseph’s Home in Palatine, IL. My homily was based on these special readings: Isaiah 58: 6-11; 1 John 3: 14-18; and Matthew 5: 1-12a.

We are celebrating a great saint today—Jeanne Jugan. Of course she would shudder at those words. She aspired not to be great but to be little.  She once said: “Be little, little, little; if you get big and proud, the congregation will fall.” And another time, “Only the little are pleasing to God.”

Why? Because this is God’s way. How did God choose to save the world? Not with worldly power and glory. Not with an army of angels that would force people to follow God’s way. God saved the world by becoming little—a little baby.

In his homily at Midnight Mass on Christmas 2008, Pope Benedict said that our first experience of God is one of distance. God seems so far above and beyond us. This transcendent God drew near, bridging the distance by becoming one of us. Pope Benedict went on to say that our experience of God is also one of glory and grandeur which provoke fear in us. So God became a tiny baby in order that we would no longer fear but love, for people love tiny, newborn babies. 

St. Paul wrote that the Son of God became poor in order to make us rich. He emptied himself and became little and in need of love and care. He shared our life with its sorrows and joys, its sufferings, both physical and spiritual when he felt totally abandoned as he hung dying on a cross. He shared in death itself.

The cross looks like a failure, but God’s ways are not ours. The failure of the cross is really a triumph in which the power of love wins over sin and death. 

“Love.” That word is used in so many different ways that it has lost its meaning. We talk about loving our pets and ice cream. We love whatever and whomever makes us feel good, gives us pleasure. It’s all about “me” and how I am feeling.

In our second reading St. John says that love is not about feelings and not about words, but about deeds and action.

This is why “hospitality” is such an important word. Hospitality is love in action.

It begins in hearts—hearts open to others, to all, especially the poor and the sick, the neglected and rejected of what Pope Francis calls our “disposable culture.”  We must open our hearts to them just as the Sacred Heart of Jesus is open to them.

This is what Jeanne Jugan did. Her heart was open to the elderly poor. She felt their need.  She had compassion and suffered for their sufferings.  And she responded. She not only opened her house to them; she gave up her own bed to that first poor blind woman that she carried into her home. 

This spirit of hospitality lives on today in the Little Sisters of the Poor. Their Constitutions state: “Consecrated hospitality is, in the midst of the world, a witness to the mercy of the Father and the compassionate love of the Heart of Jesus.”

Hospitality means opening our hearts, our doors, our wallets.  But ultimately the greatest hospitality is sharing the life of the other. Jeanne Jugan shared in the poverty of the poor, becoming a beggar for the beggars.  Her complete trust in Providence, not having endowments or investment income, continues today as the Little Sisters depend upon the generosity of others.

In his Lenten Message this year, Pope Francis said that Christ did not love us like someone who gives a little out of his or her abundance. He gave all and sacrificed his very self.

So did St. Jeanne Jugan who wanted to be known by her religious name Sister Mary of the Cross. She shared in the sufferings of the Crucified One as did His Mother who stood under the cross and suffered as only a mother could watching her son suffer and die. Mary joined her sufferings to those of Jesus for the salvation of the world. St. Jeanne also offered herself and sacrificed what was most dear to her, her own congregation. It was taken from her when she was relieved of any leadership position and lived a hidden life in the novitiate where the young did not even know who she was.

She was able to do this because she had become little. She had become the last and least. She found her strength and consolation in one place—in Jesus, who assured her that blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure of heart, blessed are the peacemakers, and blessed are those who suffer persecution.

When he canonized her in 2009, Pope Benedict said: “In the Beatitudes Jeanne Jugan found the source of the spirit of hospitality and fraternal love, founded on unlimited trust in Providence, which illuminated her whole life.”

He went on to say: “This evangelical dynamism is continued today across the world in the Congregation of the Little Sisters of the Poor, which she founded and which testifies, after her example, to the mercy of God and the compassionate love of the Heart of Jesus for the lowliest. May St. Jeanne Jugan be for elderly people a living source of hope and for those who generously commit themselves to serving them, a powerful incentive to pursue and develop her work!”

We gather for the Eucharist, a word that means “thanksgiving.” We are grateful for the Sisters who faithfully live the charism of St. Jeanne Jugan. We are grateful for the staff, workers, and volunteers who share in that charism. We are grateful for the benefactors who support the Sisters in following their charism of total trust in God.  But most of all, we are grateful for the residents who give us an opportunity to love and care for Jesus who said “Whatever you do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do for me.”