Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Having a Heart Like Jesus

I'm in San Diego these days with about 180 priests, giving presentations at their annual convocation. The focus of my talks is "Having a Priestly Heart Like the Heart of Jesus." At dinner last night I had the pleasure of sitting next to Bishop Robert Brom who told me a story that was sparked by something I said in my first talk.

I talked about God's love for us and how each of us, because we are completely unique, have a place in God's Heart that no one else can fill. In our uniqueness we give to God a pleasure that no other human being who ever lived or who is living or who will live can give to God. I used a quote from Blessed John Paul II: "Each person is unique, precious, and unrepeatable."

It was this quote that sparked a memory that Bishop Brom had of Pope John Paul. During the Second Vatican Council, Bishop Brom was studying at the North American College in Rome. He and a number of other seminarians were standing outside the Vatican one day when various bishops and cardinals walked past. One of them was the future Pope John Paul who stopped to greet the seminarians. Bishop Brom's Slavic name caught Bishop Woytila's attention. Years later, on his first "ad limina" visit to meet the Holy Father, Bishop Brom introduced himself at the beginning of their meeting. Pope John Paul remarked how they had already met. Bishop Brom tried to correct him, informing him that he was a new bishop and that this was the first time he was meeting His Holiness. Pope John Paul stopped him and reminded him of that day so many years before when he was a 25 year old seminarian studying in Rome.

Last night Bishop Brom told me that this was a particular gift of Blessed John Paul II. He met people and did not forget them. He truly had a heart like the Heart of Jesus which saw every person as "unique, precious, unrepeatable," and, we might add now, unforgettable.

Friday, September 23, 2011

"Take Courage"

Today's first reading at Mass comes from the Prophet Haggai (2: 1-9). The Israelites have returned from exile and are back in the Promised Land, re-building the Temple in Jerusalem. They compare it to Solomon's Temple and get discouraged. It doesn't come near to the grandeur of that Temple which was built during the height of Israel's power. God addresses their discouragement through the Prophet Haggai.

He says "take courage" three times. He says "do not fear" and he says "work!" These are helpful words for all of us.

First, "do not fear." Fear and anxiety are feelings. The devil loves to use them to agitate us and get us off balance. When we are off balance we are more susceptible to his other suggestions and temptations. So, when we feel fear or discouragement, we must not give in to the feeling. We must reject it.

But we do not live in a vacuum so it's important to replace the feeling of fear with something positive--courage. It's common to think of fear and courage as mutually exclusive; to think that if you have courage then you never feel fear. The opposite is true. A World War I general once said that any soldier who told him he's never been afraid going into battle has either never been in battle or is a liar. The natural feeling to have going into battle is fear, and courage is to not let that feeling determine our action. Courage is a decision. It's an act of the will that rejects fear. It doesn't let the feeling determine the action.

That's where the third word of Haggai comes in: "work!" Having decided to reject fear and be courageous, we act. We put away the fearful thoughts and get to work. We don't worry about the results but we leave those in God's hands.

Padre Pio, whom we honor today, once wrote: "if any thought agitates you, this agitation never comes from God, who gives you peace, being the Spirit of Peace, but from the devil." When we feel fear or discouragement, we need to smell the sulphur behind it. Then we can reject it and "take courage."

The root of that word "courage" is "cor" or "heart." Another way of saying "take courage" is to say "take heart." The best heart we can take is the Heart of Jesus who readily gives his Heart to us in the Eucharist where he is present, body and blood, soul and divinity, including his Sacred Heart. The Eucharist gives us the courage of the Heart of Jesus, a Heart that accepted struggle, suffering, and finally death on the cross, trusting that in this way God the Father would take away the sins of the world and triumph over death.

Take courage! Live in union with the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Martyrs of Korea

Today is the feast day of the Martyrs of Korea, faithful Catholics who died for the faith in the Nineteenth Century and who were canonized in 1984 when Blessed John Paul II visited their native land. I visited there two years before and I couldn't help thinking about that trip today.

It was the summer of 1982, a few months before I was ordained a transitional deacon, and I went to Korea with a Jesuit friend, Fr. Larry Gillick. For the six weeks that we were there I served as his eyes and he served as my mentor in giving retreats around the country. You see, Fr. Gillick has been blind since an accident that took his eyesight when he was only seven.

We spent much of our thirteen hour flight from Seattle to Seoul worrying and fretting. What if the Jesuits who were supposed to meet us there didn't show up? How would we communicate with people and find our way to the Jesuit University of Sogang? What if they wouldn't let Fr. Gillick's big green tape player through Customs? What if we got sick from the food? What if we caught a strange Asian disease? And, one of the scariest thoughts, how were we ever going to manage the Korean toilets which we had heard were holes in concrete slabs and not Western-style "thrones?" It was one thing for me to consider this but it certainly caused more panic in my blind friend.

As we approached Kimpo Airport we finally did what we should have been doing instead of worrying. We prayed. Instead of surrendering to the anxiety, we surrendered to God and asked Him to get us safely through the coming six weeks.

Every night we sat down and wrote about the adventures of the day and God's goodness to us. We ended up calling this Journal "Kam-sa-ham-nida" which means "Thank you." For God answered our prayer as we had hoped and took great care of us.

I couldn't help thinking of our anxiety in contrast to the courage of the Korean Martyrs. We visited their shrine which is located on a high hill overlooking the Han River where many of them were thrown over the cliff to their deaths below. In the shrine was a museum with many of the gruesome instruments of torture that were used to elicit their denial of the faith. Surely some of them, especially those who were mere children, must have been afraid. But their faith and courage prevailed. God took care of them too, though not in a way that added to their time on earth. He took them to Himself in heaven and we are able to celebrate them today.

The fear that Fr. Gillick and I experienced as we flew across the Pacific Ocean seems so foolish now in light of what those Martyrs faced. Yet, we shouldn't compare. We all have fears and anxieties that at the time can seem pretty major. In facing them and not letting them control us the trick is the same one that those Korean Martyrs employed, the same one that we two traveling and fearful Jesuits employed. Prayer.

This is what St. Paul prescribed against anxiety as well:

"Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4: 6-7).

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

St. Patrick's in Tolono

I'm giving a parish mission this week at St. Patrick Church in Tolono, IL. Fr. John Cyr was kind enough to record my Sunday homily and to post it on their web site. They also have a Facebook page with some photos from the mission including this one.

When I travel to different parts of the country for parish missions, I like to spread the message of the Apostleship of Prayer wherever I can. Yesterday morning after visiting a few shut-ins, Fr. Cyr was kind enough to take me to St. John's Newman Center at the University of Illinois where I met some of the staff and left some of our materials. According to a Wikipedia article, this Newman Center is the largest in the United States. They even have a residence hall for 600 students and while we had lunch there I had the opportunity to meet with Msgr. Gregory Ketcham, the director, as well as some of the FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) missionaries who work there. In fact I had a "small world" experience as one of the young FOCUS missionaries turned out to be friends with some good friends of mine, Pat and Fran Coy, a deacon couple from Hill City, South Dakota. Today I'll be helping to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation with students from St. Thomas More High School of Champaign who are on retreat.

After being around the home office in Milwaukee for most of August, it's nice to be on the road again and experiencing how the Lord is at work in different parts of the country.

Monday, September 12, 2011

More on Forgiveness

Confession time: I received a thoughtful comment from "Do Not Be Anxious" who follows this blog and after writing my own comment in reply, I could not figure out how to post it. I've posted comments before but for some reason couldn't do so with this one and didn't have the time to play around with it. So, I decided to create another post responding to the comment.

"Do Not Be Anxious" wrote: "I subscribed to Touchstone magazine for a year, and the first issue had an article explaining how you could not forgive someone unless he asked for forgiveness --- ala the sacrament of Penance. I wrote a comment that Matthew 5 and 18 call us to reconcile with others, whether we have sinned against them (5) or they against us (18) --- and they have the same obligation. However, in 18 it says that if they do not seek forgiveness, we are to shake the dust from our shoes and move on. But, as I commented, nowhere does it say in the bible that we cannot forgive someone, even if they do not seek forgiveness. I've had many discussions about this, forgiving others even if they do not seek forgiveness. It seems to be an open question in Catholic teachings, never specifically addressed. Perhaps it gets down to a definition of forgiveness: is it a two-person thing, a reconciliation between people which requires both to participate (as confession implies) or is it merely a cleansing of one's feelings?"

My response: I would make a distinction between "forgiveness" and "reconciliation." I think every Christian is called to be ready to forgive. We are called to be like Jesus who prayed for those crucifying him and who therefore weren't seeking his forgiveness. He asked the Father to forgive them. We must have a heart like the Heart of Jesus that is always ready to forgive rather than condemn. When Jesus tells Peter to forgive 77 times--a symbolic number representing "always"--he wasn't asking Peter to do something that he was not ready to do himself.

But, as "Do Not Be Anxious" points out, while we must always be ready to forgive, that forgiveness may not be accepted. And until it is accepted, reconciliation has not happened. I may say to people who have hurt me, "I forgive you," and they, denying that they did anything to me, may reject my offer of forgiveness. I have forgiven but it has not been accepted and reconciliation has not occured. That person who rejects my forgiveness continues to be "bound" by denial and by the sin against me. This could be one way of looking at Matthew 18: 18 "Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven." Our binding is simply allowing the person to hold on to the denial and sin that they have chosen instead of our forgiveness.

If someone does not seek or accept our offer of forgiveness, we can, as "Do Not Be Anxious" points out, follow Matthew 18: 15-17. We can bring others and the Church with us. If they refuse even in the face of this, Jesus says: "treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector." That isn't quite shaking the dust from our feet, an image that is used in other places with regards to the apostles' preaching being rejected by a particular town. I've always found this line ambiguous because while the good Jew of Jesus' time--the Pharisee--would reject the tax collectors as sinners and would view the Gentiles as doomed--Jesus reaches out to them. Are we, in treating them like Gentiles and tax collectors, to continue reaching out to them with love and forgiveness? I think we could say that in doing so we would be following Jesus' example.

But I think there comes a time when, while we might be always ready to forgive, it doesn't help the process of reconciliation to keep confronting people who deny they've done wrong with their sin. Then it's best to pray quietly and constantly for them. This prayer keeps our hearts from becoming resentful.

"Do Not Be Anxious" also wrote: "Perhaps it also comes down to a question of the benefits of forgiveness. Does God benefit by my seeking forgiveness --- He is God, what can he gain? I can understand that I might gain something in a renewed relationship with someone if we reconcile together, but what do I gain if I unilaterally forgive him? Does he gain anything?"

What does God gain from our forgiveness? God desires reconciliation and peace for his children. We are helping to realize God's plan for humanity when we are ready to forgive and praying for it. Our prayers, we have to believe, can play a role in the conversion of the person who has hurt us. If heaven rejoices over one sinner who repents (see Luke 15), it must also be true that God rejoices over his children who have not let resentment take root in their hearts. God rejoices in his children whose hearts have become more like the Heart of his Son. Our desire to forgive, even when it is rejected, gives joy to God. Even if reconciliation does not occur, I gain because I have not allowed my heart to become hardened, and the offending party gains--my prayers and my love, even though they are at that particular time rejected.

"Do Not Be Anxious" ended the comment with: "Much to be thought on, on this thing called forgiveness." So very true. Thank you for the opportunity to continue the reflection.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


These are challenging times and today's Mass readings are challenging. It's the 10th anniversary of what has come to be known simply as "9-11" and the readings are all about forgiveness.

The First Reading (Sirach 27: 30 - 28: 7) begins: "Wrath and anger are hateful things." They may be "hateful" but they are common. In the reconciliation room or confessional I hear sins of anger confessed frequently. Yet, is anger really a sin? Jesus got angry. Jesus, the sinless one, the all-holy Son of God, became so angry that he made a whip to drive animals out of the temple and turned over the tables of money-changers, scattering their coins. Anger itself isn't a sin. What we do with it can be. In fact, anger, as we see with Jesus, is the appropriate response to something that is wrong, to an injustice, to evil. We ought to get angry at some of the situations in our world.

Anger becomes sinful when we nurse it into bitterness and resentment, when we allow it to make our hearts hard, cold, and unforgiving. The best definition of resentment that I've heard is this: "Resentment is like taking a bottle of poison, drinking it, and hoping that the other person dies." Resentment really doesn't hurt the person who hurts us. It hurts and poisons us. It leads to alienation from other people and from God.

This is why some other words from Sirach are very important to hear: "Remember your last days, set enmity aside; remember death and decay, and cease from sin!" We don't have forever. Actually, we don't have forever in this world to let go of resentments, but we will have forever in the next life to be poisoned and forever alienated from God. Thus we must let go of resentments and forgive now.

In 1995 the Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed. Today, in the plaza where the building stood, there are 168 concrete chairs representing the people whose lives were snuffed out that day. Timothy McVeigh was apprehended, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. In prison, awaiting his execution, he was visited by a Catholic priest, Fr. Charles Smith, who came to lead him to remorse and reconciliation. McVeigh was a baptized Catholic but had not been practicing the faith. The first visit did not go well. In a Catholic News Service story, Fr. Smith is quoted as saying: "I went to him and he threw his feces on me and called me all types of names and said, 'You can't be a priest because I've never seen a you-know-what as a priest.'" You see, Fr. Smith is African-American. McVeigh, poisoned by his racism and bitterness, rejected Fr. Smith. But Fr. Smith persisted and in time McVeigh sought God's mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. On June 11, 2001, Fr. Smith and Timothy McVeigh walked together down the corridor to the execution room where McVeigh was given a lethal injection.

It was reported that the reaction on the part of some people who had lost family members was: "That was too easy! He should have suffered more!" Having nursed their anger into a bitterness, McVeigh's death was not enough. They wanted his suffering.

Imagine for a moment those people passing from this life to the next and seeing Timothy McVeigh, who had sought mercy from God, forgiven and with the Lord in heaven. It's conceivable that having held on to their resentment for years they would say: "What's he doing here? How could you have forgiven him? You may have forgiven him but I will never forgive him for what he did to my family!" And conceivably they would choose to be separated from God rather than to forgive.

How do we forgive? It isn't easy and it's not once-and-for-all. We don't "forgive and forget" unless we have amnesia. Painful memories do not go away. They come back to haunt us and tempt us. Perhaps this is why in the Gospel (Matthew 18: 21-35) Jesus tells Peter he must forgive 77 times. On any given day the painful memory may return and the temptation to allow it to become a resentment might come back innumerable times. Each time we are challenged to forgive. Forgiveness, like love, is not a feeling but a decision, an act of the will. When the painful memory of how we've been hurt returns, we must forgive and pray for the ones who hurt us. We pray for their conversion and for their ultimate good. We don't want an ongoing resentment to keep us from the Communion of Saints in heaven.

Where do we get the power to forgive? From Jesus. From the Eucharist where Jesus speaks to us and gives his Heart to us so that we might be transformed and empowered to do what he did. At every Mass we remember the death and resurrection of Jesus in a miraculous way that actually makes these saving events present to us right now. The past event--Calvary--is made present and we hear Jesus once again pray: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."

Nine years ago I was working at the Jesuit Retreat House in Lake Elmo, Minnesota. I had just finished talking about the events of September 11, 2001, and a man followed me into a tiny individual conference room. He introduced himself as Vince Fahnlander and said that he was Tom Burnett's college roommate. I couldn't quite remember who Tom Burnett was but I surmised he had some connection with 9-11. Vince explained that Tom was on the plane that crashed into the field in Pennsylvania. After graduation Tom moved to California and got a job with a medical technology firm and Vince stayed in Minnesota. They lost contact with each other.

When Vince heard that there was going to be a memorial service for Tom at his home parish in Bloomington, Minnesota, he went. He almost thought that he was at the wrong place because the man whom the priest described didn't sound like the Tom Burnett he knew. Tom had quit practicing the faith in college and the priest described a man who went to Mass every day.

After the service Vince went up to Deena, Tom's widow, introduced himself and asked about what had happened in the intervening years. Deena explained that Tom had always been a hard worker and when he stopped coming home for lunch in 1997, she figured he was putting in extra hours at work. Six months before his death he revealed to her that he had been going to a 12:10 PM Mass every day instead of driving the short distance home for lunch.

In an article that Vince sent me, Deena explained: "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." Feeling God calling him to something, Tom thought that if he prayed more he would find the answer. Deena continued: "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."

Just imagine this average guy, much like you or I, having an intuition that God had a plan for him. That God was calling him to something else. He senses, as he prays, that this call has something to do with the White House and he thinks: "What does my life have to do with the White House?! I have any plans or desires to go into politics!"

On September 11, 2001, thousands of feet above the earth, Tom Burnett knew what his life had to do with the White House. He knew where the plane that had been hijacked was heading and he and others on that plane decided that at all costs they had to prevent a greater tragedy from happening. They acted and the plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.

Where did Tom get the insight and courage to do what he did? I believe it was the Eucharist where every day he experienced a sacrifice that saved the world. There he found the strength that would one day help him to sacrifice himself.

Tom Burnett and the others are called heroes. We may feel that we are not heroes, but each of us is called to love heroically. We do that when we sacrifice ourselves for others--for spouse and for family, for our city and for our country, for our Church. The power to love in a sacrificial way comes from the Eucharist. The power to sacrifice our hurts and resentments, forgiving and praying for our enemies, comes from the Eucharist. In Holy Communion Jesus gives us himself, his Body and Blood, his Pierced Heart. In the Eucharist our hearts become more and more like the Heart of Jesus who did not pray for vengeance on his enemies but for their forgiveness.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Prayer of Jesus and Ours

At the Marquette University Jesuit Community where I live, we all come together once a week to celebrate Mass. This last Tuesday I presided and preached and here's what I said....

A favorite theme of the Gospel of Luke is Jesus at prayer. Today's Gospel (Luke 6: 12-19) begins with one of those scenes: "Jesus departed to the mountain to pray, and he spent the night in prayer to God." What was the prayer of Jesus like?

I imagine much of it was a time of loving communion with the Father in which he experienced himself as the Beloved Son. Knowing the Father as not only his own "Abba" but also the Father of all humanity made in the image and likeness of God, Jesus experienced in his prayer time the reality that other people were his brothers and sisters, beloved children of the Father. And today's Gospel shows us another aspect of Jesus' prayer. In his prayer he reflected on the decisions he faced and discerned the direction he was to take.

When Jesus came down the mountain he chose 12 apostles from his band of followers. Looking at these men it's obvious that this decision was not the result of human ingenuity and wisdom. It was obviously the result of God's direction in his life for God's ways are not human ways.

Just look at the weak and flawed people Jesus chose to be his closest friends and collaborators. Could you really trust Simon Peter to build your Church upon? He blew hot and cold. One day he might tell you that he was willing to face death with you and the next day he would deny that he even knew you. James and John were opportunists and climbers. They were the kind of people who would send their own mother to finagle getting positions of power and glory next to you.

My favorite examples, though, are Matthew and "Simon who was called a Zealot." According to Josephus, the Jewish historian of the time, Zealots were "Assassins." The Romans called them "Stabbers" because they carried small knives with which they would quickly dispatch the occupying soldiers or those who would collaborate with the hated Roman army. They were terrorists. Jesus calls one of them and Matthew, a tax-collector for the Romans, and expects them to live and work together with him. I can just imagine Jesus, in his infinite sense of humor, getting ready to send the apostles out two-by-two and calling Matthew and Simon the Zealot forward to be sent together.

Jesus called earthen vessels and enemies to be with him and work with him. Humanly speaking, nothing could have kept them together. Only Jesus could. And that's where our First Reading (Colossians 2: 6-15) comes into play. St. Paul tells the Colossians to focus on Jesus. He calls on them to be "rooted in him and built upon him and established in the faith." Pope Benedict likes to remind us that our faith is not so much in a set of beliefs as it is in a person--Jesus. Only Jesus could have kept those 12 apostles together. Rooted in and built upon Jesus, they could be the 12 pillars of the New Israel, the Church. He was the source of their union of minds and hearts.

The same is true for us and for the entire Church. But how are we rooted in and built upon Jesus? Through prayer. First and foremost, through the Eucharist where we are in a very real way rooted in Christ, joined to Christ and transformed. But secondly, our personal prayer, like the prayer of Jesus on the mountain, roots us in Jesus. In that prayer we, like Jesus, come to know ourselves as beloved sons of Abba. In that prayer we experience others as our true brothers and sisters. In that prayer we come to know the direction God would have us take.

We are called to a deeper relationship than that of followers. We are called to be one with Christ, rooted in him and built upon him. As we grow in this union, our decisions and actions will follow.

Friday, September 2, 2011


Tonight I'll be speaking at the monthly All-Night Vigil in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. The theme is "Humility and Obedience" and the topic I've been given is "Humility."

In Matthew 23: 12 Jesus says: "Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted." This is a paradox that once again shows us God's ways are not ours. Humility leads to exaltation? Becoming low leads to being raised up? This is clearly not the way of the world.

Humility is about truth, about accepting the truth that I am a creature. The root of humility is the Latin word "humus" or earth. I am of the earth. Without God, I am nothing. This is reality.

But we, like our ancestral parents, tend to avoid and deny reality. The Original Sin and in fact every sin is a denial of the fact that we are creatures. As Adam and Eve chose to be "like gods" who choose for themselves what is good and what is bad (Genesis 3: 5), so do we, when we sin, try to do things our way rather than God's way. We grasp, as our first parents did, at equality with God.

The result was immediate: "the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that they were naked" (Genesis 3: 7). They became self-conscious, self-centered. Their focus became "ME - ME - ME." Just count the number of times Adam refers to himself in the short response to God's question "Where are you?" He said: "I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid myself."

The antidote to this self-centeredness is humility. The best definition of humility that I've heard is this: Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less. It's not putting yourself down and beating yourself up but getting yourself out of your self-conscious spotlight.

Jesus, who said "I am meek and humble of heart" (Matthew 11: 29), is the best example of this. He was not self-centered. Philippians 2: 6-9 says that Jesus, "though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness, ... he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him...."

Jesus emptied himself of himself, of any self-consciousness. He was so other-conscious--conscious of both the Father and his brothers and sisters--that there was no internal spotlight focused on himself. What made him so unself-conscious? His relationship with the Father. He was so firm in his identity as the Beloved Son that he had nothing to prove. As a result, people flocked to him and wanted to know the secret of his happiness and peace.

We are called to be like Jesus. Every Lent we enter into a period designed to lead us through a process of conversion in which we die to ourselves in order to live more like Jesus. We begin Lent by getting in touch with reality. Ashes are put on our heads and we are told that we are dust, "humus," earth, nothing really. We are dust that is alive for a while but that will return to dust once again.

But remember where Lent ends--with Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. We are precious dust. To God, we are precious enough to die for, precious enough to be given the very Body and Blood of the Son, precious enough to be raised up as Jesus himself was. In God's eyes we are special, we are important.

Thus there is no need to "grasp at equality with God" like our ancestral parents. There is no need to exalt ourselves. Firm in our identity as Jesus was, we know there is nothing we need to prove, there is no need to exalt ourselves, no need to look good in front of others. We can get the spotlight off ourselves and focus all our attention on our God and our neighbors and in doing so we will find true happiness and peace.