Sunday, February 19, 2017

"Love Your Enemies"

Last Friday I was on Relevant Radio’s “The Inner Life” show with Chuck Neff.  We talked about the Gospel for the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A (Matthew 5: 38-48).  You can listen to the show here, but the following are some of the points I made. 

Jesus continues his “Sermon on the Mount.”  He challenges us to go beyond retributive justice that inflicts on someone who has done us wrong a similar wrong.  He calls us to give to others not what they deserve but what they need.  And what we all need is love—God’s merciful love.  The practical directives of Jesus—“offer no resistance to one who is evil,” “turn the other cheek,” “hand over your cloak,” “go for two miles,”—should, I think, be taken in the same way that we take Jesus’ directives from last week’s Gospel where Jesus said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.”  We do not take those words literally, but we should take them seriously.  In other words, Jesus was saying that it would be better to enter God’s Kingdom of Heaven with one less eye or hand than to end up with eyes and hands intact but alienated from God forever.  We have an obligation to oppose evil people in order to protect the innocent.  We must “go the extra mile” in loving them.

But what does love mean?  The world thinks of it solely in terms of romantic or erotic love.  It sees love primarily as an intense feeling of attraction and pleasure.  But true love—the love Jesus revealed on the cross—is an act of the will.  It means wanting or willing the ultimate good of the other, even one’s enemy or persecutor.  That ultimate good is salvation, heaven.  To love our enemies does not mean we have to like them.  We do not have to work up a feeling of affection for them.  But we must never will the ultimate evil of hell upon them.  Rather, we must pray for the conversion that can lead them to heaven.  In this centenary year of our Blessed Mother Mary’s appearance at Fatima, we follow her call to pray for the conversion of sinners and to do penance for that intention. 

One way to pray for our enemies is to try to understand them.  What leads them to hate or persecute us?  I think a lot of sin in the world is recycled hurt.  There is a saying, “Hurt people, hurt people.”  Where the prophet Jeremiah prayed for God to take vengeance on his enemies, to exercise strict justice by giving them the same suffering that they had heaped upon the prophet, Jesus, on the cross, prays to his Father to have mercy on his persecutors because they really do not know what they are doing.  He takes the hurt behind their violence and allows it to be nailed into his body, rather than recycling it. 

Before he became pope, Benedict XVI said:

Jesus “transforms, from within, the act of violent men against him into an act of giving on behalf of these men—into an act of love. What he teaches in the Sermon on the Mount, he now does: he does not offer violence against violence, as he might have done, but puts an end to violence by transforming it into love. The act of killing, of death, is changed into an act of love; violence is defeated by love.  This is the fundamental transformation upon which all the rest is based. It is the true transformation which the world needs and which alone can redeem the world. Since Christ in an act of love has transformed and defeated violence from within, death itself is transformed: love is stronger than death. It remains forever” (“Eucharist, Communion,Solidarity,” June 2, 2002).

Love has the power to transform.  It is the most powerful force in the world.  In his homily at the conclusion of World Youth Day in 2005, Pope Benedict, speaking about the Last Supper, said: 

“By making the bread into his Body and the wine into his Blood, he anticipates his death, he accepts it in his heart, and he transforms it into an action of love. What on the outside is simply brutal violence - the Crucifixion - from within becomes an act of total self-giving love. This is the substantial transformation which was accomplished at the Last Supper and was destined to set in motion a series of transformations leading ultimately to the transformation of the world when God will be all in all (cf. I Cor 15: 28).

“In their hearts, people always and everywhere have somehow expected a change, a transformation of the world. Here now is the central act of transformation that alone can truly renew the world:  violence is transformed into love, and death into life.

“Since this act transmutes death into love, death as such is already conquered from within, the Resurrection is already present in it. Death is, so to speak, mortally wounded, so that it can no longer have the last word.

“To use an image well known to us today, this is like inducing nuclear fission in the very heart of being - the victory of love over hatred, the victory of love over death. Only this intimate explosion of good conquering evil can then trigger off the series of transformations that little by little will change the world. All other changes remain superficial and cannot save.”

Now we receive the Body of Christ and are transformed and empowered to be, as Jesus said, “children of your heavenly Father [who] makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.”  To love our enemies as Jesus loved his, means being perfect “just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” 

The Pharisees thought of being perfect as God is perfect in terms of following the Law perfectly.  They thought that once they had done so, they deserved God’s favor.  God owed them.  Their motivation was not love but self-interest.  Perfectionism generally turns people in on themselves. They live in fear and not in love and their relationship with God and with other people ends up suffering. 

Ultimately being perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect is not something we can accomplish by our own will power and efforts.  It requires God’s free gift of grace to which we open ourselves.  That grace is given most powerfully in the Word and the Sacrament which transform us to be children of our heavenly Father, members of the Body of Christ, able to love even our enemies. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The "Faithful Servant and Perfect Friend" of Jesus


While he’s not on the U.S. Church calendar of saints with memorials, obligatory or optional, he is important to me as a Jesuit and director of the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network (Apostleship of Prayer). Today we are celebrating the feast of St. Claude la Colombiere.  He was the Jesuit spiritual director of St. Margaret Mary, the Visitation nun to whom Jesus appeared and revealed his Sacred Heart on fire with love for humanity. 

I’ve always enjoyed the fact that he died and is celebrated on the day after Valentine’s Day. All those Valentine hearts are nice expressions of love but the deepest and truest love the world has ever known is found in another heart—the Heart of Jesus. 

Recently I gave a mission at three clustered parishes in the Brawley, California area—St. Joseph in Westmorland and, in Brawley, St. Margaret Mary and Sacred Heart where there is a statue of the visionary to the left of the sanctuary and a painting in the parish hall.

When Jesus appeared to St. Margaret Mary, he told her that he was going to send his “faithful servant and perfect friend,” Fr. Colombiere to confirm the apparitions and to help her spread devotion to his Sacred Heart.  

When St. Margaret Mary protested that she was “a wretched creature, a poor sinner whose very unworthiness would be capable even of preventing of accomplishment” of his desire, he told her:

“Ah, poor innocent that you are, don’t you know that I make use of the weakest subjects to confound the strong, that it is ordinarily the smallest and the poor in spirit to whom I make my power visible with greater brilliance, so that they will not attribute anything to themselves?”

St. Claude wrote those words down in his spiritual journal.  He continued with these words to St. Margaret Mary in which Jesus refers to St. Claude, designated by “N”:

“It was then that He told me: ‘Turn to my servant N. and tell him from Me to do all he can to establish this devotion and to give this pleasure to My divine heart. Tell him not to be discouraged by the difficulties he will meet with, for they will not be lacking.  But he must learn that he is all-powerful who completely distrusts himself to place his trust in Me alone.’”

May we follow the example of these two saints and place all our trust in the Sacred Heart of Jesus!

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

"Every Life is Sacred"

Last Sunday was Pro-Life Day in Italy.  With that in mind, Pope Francis chose for his February “Urgent Prayer Intention” that the sacredness of human life be recognized.  At the end of his Angelus Address he asked that “we pray for the children who are in danger of the interruption of pregnancy, as well as for persons who are at the end of life — every life is sacred! — so that no one is left alone and that love may defend the meaning of life.” 

From the beginning of his papacy Pope Francis has expressed his concern that all human life—from the womb to a natural death—be protected and honored.  In his first Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” he wrote: 

 “Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us. Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this.”

He went on to link the unborn child’s right to life with all human rights, saying:

 “Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church’s effort to defend their lives, attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative. Yet this defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems.”

In his Encyclical on creation Pope Francis also wrote:

 “Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?”

The theme for Italy’s Pro-Life Day this year was “Pro-Life Women and Men in the Wake of Saint Teresa of Calcutta.”  Mother Teresa frequently said that if the basic right to life of unborn children was not safeguarded, all human rights were at risk.  In her acceptance speech for the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, Mother Teresa connected world peace to ending abortion, saying:

 “And I feel one thing I want to share with you all, the greatest destroyer of peace today is the cry of the innocent unborn child. For if a mother can murder her own child in her womb, what is left for you and for me to kill each other? … I ask His Majesties here before you all who come from different countries, let us all pray that we have the courage to stand by the unborn child, and give the child an opportunity to love and to be loved, and I think with God's grace we will be able to bring peace in the world.” 

As we pray with Pope Francis this month that all human life be recognized as sacred, we ask for hearts like the Heart of Jesus which saw each person as precious and died for all.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Jesus' Secret of Happiness

What was Jesus’ reaction when he saw the crowds that followed and gathered around him?  According to Matthew 9: 36, “at the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd.”  We have to imagine that Jesus had the same reaction before he preached the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5: 1-12a): “When he saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him.  He began to teach them….”   He teaches them the Beatitudes.  Jesus, whose heart is moved by the sight of the crowds, teaches his followers the secret of true happiness.

Pope Francis called the Beatitudes the “guide for the journey that leads us to the Kingdom of God” (see his daily meditation for June 6, 2016).  They are “the ticket, the guide sheet for our life so as to avoid getting lost and losing ourselves.”  Another translation of the word “blessed,” which introduces each of the Beatitudes, is “happy.”  They are the “guide” and “ticket” to happiness, to the ultimate joy of heaven. 

The Beatitudes are counter-cultural.  The world has a very different plan for happiness and it leads to the opposite, to the loss of self.  The world says you will find yourself and find happiness by making a name for yourself, rather than being “poor in spirit.”  It says your happiness depends upon using other people for sexual pleasure, rather than being “clean of heart.”  It says that if you are meek and merciful, people will step all over you. 

While Pope Francis was reluctant to say that there was a “key” Beatitude, he did emphasize one in particular.  It was “Blessed are the meek.”  He said: “Meekness is a way of being that brings us very close to Jesus.”  Why?  Because after inviting people “who labor and are burdened” to come to him for rest, Jesus said: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart” (Matthew 11: 28-29).  Our hearts are closest to the Sacred Heart of Jesus when they are meek and humble. 

The world thinks of meekness as weakness.  The reality is that meekness comes from great inner strength.  The meek and humble are secure in their identity and do not need to boast or to prove themselves. 

In 1 Corinthians 1: 26-31, St. Paul writes against self-promotion and boasting.  These really come from insecurity.  People who promote themselves in front of others aren’t really sure of themselves and so they have to tell others that they are worthy of admiration and praise. 

Jesus shows us a different approach.  It’s humility.  Humility isn’t self-depredation, putting oneself down.  Sometimes people do this simply to elicit praise from others.  Humility is truthful.  It recognizes the truth that no one is a “self-made” person.  Everything we are and have is the result of God’s goodness to us.  We would be nothing had God not brought us into existence and given us the health and talents that have allowed us to acquire the possessions and relationships we have.  God is the source of our life and gifts.  All praise ought to go to God, not to ourselves.  We can graciously acknowledge compliments but not rely on them for our sense of self-worth.  Deep inside we know that all praise ultimately echoes to God’s glory. 

Focusing on yourself leads to unhappiness.  True humility is not thinking less of yourself (having a negative opinion of yourself, putting yourself down, beating yourself up), but rather, it is thinking of yourself less.  As long as you are the center of your world and attention, you are not humble.  When you put the focus on God and your neighbor, then happiness has breathing space in your life.  The world says happiness is found in “getting.”  The Peace Prayer, attributed to St. Francis, says that “it is in giving that we receive.”

When you focus on yourself your heart fills up with anxiety.  You are either locked into the past, which cannot be changed, or anxious about the future.  You look at the past with regret or sorrow or shame and you develop a negative attitude.  Boasting about present success is like whistling in the dark to distract yourself from the fear that in the future you may not be so successful.  And as you encounter weakness and even failure, your image of yourself plummets.  You feel worthless and unappreciated. 

Jesus reveals the secret of happiness.  He was secure in the knowledge that he was the Beloved Son of God the Father who loved him with an infinite love.  He had nothing to prove and no fear of the Father ever not loving him.  He was secure in his identity and did not depend on what others thought of him.  He had no need to impress people with his possessions or talents.  This gave him great freedom and peace.  It attracted crowds of people who followed him not only because he fed them with a miraculous multiplication of loaves and fish and not only because he healed them.  They wanted to know the secret of his joy and vitality. 

The “Spiritual Exercises” of St. Ignatius are designed to help us grow in the knowledge that we too are beloved sons and daughters of God the Father who loves us with an infinite love, as though each one of us were “the only one,” the sole focus of God’s attention.  Knowing this love, we naturally want to love in return.  As God has given all, we return all.  Thus the “Exercises” culminate in St. Ignatius’ prayer known as the “Suscipe” in which we offer to God all we are and have, our memory and understanding and entire will.  All that we ask is for God’s grace and love.  With these we are rich enough and want nothing more. 

 St. Paul, in his Letter to the Romans 8: 38-39, shows that he understood the Beatitudes, the secret to true happiness.  He wrote: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

Jesus concluded his teaching about what makes for true happiness by saying that even insults and persecution are not cause for sadness.  Knowing God’s deep and intimate love for us frees us from being concerned about the opinions of others and their rejection.  The only opinion that matters is not public opinion or even self-opinion but God’s opinion.  And nothing can change that. Not even sin, for “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5: 8).  

Monday, January 23, 2017

"I Will Make You Fishers of Men and Women"

Last Saturday, in Summerville, SC, I spoke at St. Theresa Church’s first Eucharistic Conference.  Over 200 people from around the area came to this parish which has a 24-7 Eucharistic Adoration chapel.  On Sunday I preached at one of the Masses and the following is what I said:

According to today’s Gospel (Matthew 4: 12-23), Jesus called fishermen to be the first among his twelve apostles.  He called ordinary people, not scholars or rabbis.  He called them in their workplace, not in the synagogue.  Jesus calls us too—ordinary people.  He calls us in the midst of our daily work.

I’m not a fisherman, but I know enough about fishing to know that it’s a perfect occupation for those called to evangelize.  What is it about fishing that can help us share the Gospel with others and reach out to those who have wandered away from the Church?

First, those who fish know that you have to have good timing.  Not every hour is the best time to go fishing.  In the same way, talking to people about our faith—especially to people who have left the Church and the practice of the faith—requires good timing.  Our desires for them to return may lead us to choose the wrong time to approach them.  God’s timing is not ours and so we should first approach God and ask for help in knowing the right time to approach others.

Secondly, and connected to timing, is patience.  Those who fish know that you have to be patient.  Getting impatient won’t bring the fish to you. 

Thirdly, you have to be gentle and quiet.  Yelling at the fish won’t get them into the net or the boat.  Nagging at those whom we want to bring to Christ will only scare them off. 

Lastly, and most importantly, you have to use the right bait.  What’s the bait we use in fishing for souls?  Ourselves.  We are the bait that God uses to attract people to himself.  As Pope Francis often says, joy is what attracts people.  Our goodness, our peace and strength in the midst of adversity and trials—these will lead people to wonder what’s our secret?  How can we, in the midst of troubles, maintain an attitude of serenity and strength, even joy?  People will see our faith—expressed in our worship and our daily lives—and they will want what we have.

This is true for individual Christians and for the Church as a whole. 

But there is one big problem.  The Church is divided.  This is not a new problem.  In our second reading (1 Corinthians 1: 10-13, 17) St. Paul writes about the rivalries and divisions that he found at Corinth.  He challenged the Church there to come together and be united not under one preacher or another but under Jesus Christ. 

The world is in darkness (see the first reading, Isaiah 8: 23—9: 3) and looks for light. It wonders if peace is possible.  It looks at the darkness of divided churches, of parish communities with cliques and divisions, of Christians who are not united but who, at times in history, have even killed one another, and it says: “If the followers of Jesus can’t be united and at peace, how can the world ever be?”

In fact, the Second Vatican Council even said that one of the causes of atheism is Christians.  In “Gaudium et Spes” (The Church in the Modern World), we read: “Believers can have more than a little to do with the rise of atheism. To the extent that they are careless about their instruction in the faith, or present its teaching falsely, or even fail in their religious, moral, or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than to reveal the true nature of God and of religion” (#19). 

Every year, from January 18-25 we have a period of special prayer, fasting, and activities to promote unity among Christians.  We are called to pray and work together to make sure that as individuals and as a whole we “reveal the true nature of God and of religion.” We are called to be a light that reveals God rather than obscures God.  For we must be Christian in deed and not just in name. 

What gives us the power to do this?  The Eucharist.  As the grains of wheat come together to form the host, so we individual Christians are joined together into one in the Body of Christ.  People who spend time in Eucharistic Adoration grow in an awareness of this.  They bring their family and friends, their neighbors and enemies, their parish community, their city, their nation, and the world to Jesus present in the Blessed Sacrament.  They bring their joys and sorrows, their challenges and trials, to Jesus and he gives them peace and strength to carry on. 


The Eucharist is the source of our unity and our peace.  Praise God for such a gift!

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

On the Streets and in the Cold

While it's very mild (59 degrees F) today in Springfield, IL where I am helping with a retreat for seminarians from Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis, the U.S. has experienced some very cold weather recently.  Perhaps not as cold as Russia where the high temperature the other day was minus 18 F; nevertheless, one member of the Pope's Worldwide Prayer Network in Arkansas was not happy as I offered to share Wisconsin's cold with him.  And it's been unseasonably cold in Italy where the temperatures dipped below freezing.

With the cold and how it affects people who are homeless in mind, Pope Francis, in his first urgent monthly prayer intention, asked us to join him in praying for them.  At the end of his Angelus Message on Sunday, January 8, he reminded the world of his monthly prayer intentions and he invited all “to join the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network which spreads, even through social networks, the prayer intentions that I propose every month to the whole Church.”  He said that in this way “we carry on the apostolate of prayer” and foster “communion.”

Then he went on to offer his first urgent intention, saying, “In these days of such great cold I am thinking, and I invite you to think, of all the people living on the streets, hit by the cold and by the indifference of others. Unfortunately, some have not survived. We pray for them and ask the Lord to warm the hearts of others to help them.”

Throughout his service as pope, the Holy Father has confronted "the culture of indifference."  He has challenged all people to open their hearts to suffering humanity everywhere, but especially right in front of us--in our families, in our parishes, and on our streets.

One way that we can keep those who are suffering from the cold in mind and pray for them in a powerful way is to "offer it up."  I thought of this on Sunday when I stopped for gas on my way from Milwaukee to Springfield.  The temperatures were hovering around 20 but the wind made it feel like single digits.  My initial reaction upon leaving the warmth of my car was to complain, but that negative attitude quickly changed when I remembered the Holy Father's urgent intention for this month.  There are some people for whom the cold and wind are not a minor inconvenience or pain but a grave suffering and threat of death.  I allowed my own minor pain to remind me of them and to pray for them.

As Pope Francis reminded us in "The Joy of the Gospel" (#279): "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."


Friday, December 30, 2016

Changes in Pope’s Monthly Intentions

Since the late 1800’s the Pope has given a monthly prayer intention to the world through the Apostleship of Prayer, now known as the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network.  In 1929 he added a second intention for the missions.  Today these are called his “universal” and “evangelization” intentions.  

The process of soliciting suggestions from Vatican Congregations and from members around the world, then proposing them to the Holy Father, then receiving his final versions and translating them from Italian into various languages, then publicizing them via print—is a long process.  That is why the intentions for 2018 will be chosen and translated in early 2017. 

But a significant change has been made. Pope Francis is returning to the practice of one monthly intention; the twelve intentions for 2017, which alternate between evangelization and universal intentions, have already been published. However, given the speed of communication in the digital age, he is adding a second, urgent prayer intention that he will make known during his Angelus Address on the first Sunday of the month.  As soon as we hear what they are we will be publicizing them on our website and other social media. 

Fr. Frederic Fornos, S.J., the international director of the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network, sees this as a way that Pope Francis wants to confront “the culture of indifference” by focusing our prayerful attention on situations that are “more concrete, precise, current, related to actual circumstances.”