Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas: The God Who Comes Close

I presided and preached at my Jesuit community’s Christmas celebration today. The readings were from the Mass During the Day: Isaiah 52: 7-10; Hebrews 1: 1-6; John 1: 1-18.

“How beautiful are the feet of him who brings glad tidings, announcing peace, bearing good news.”  So says Isaiah. He goes on: “They shout for joy for they see directly, before their eyes, the Lord….”  We are filled with joy because we don’t see before our eyes “prophets” through whom “God spoke in partial and various ways,” as the second reading says. We see “directly, before our eyes,” because God has been made manifest, “the Word became flesh.”

In his Midnight Mass Homily of 2008, Pope Benedict spoke about our first experience of God being one of distance. God is so far above and beyond us. But then, referring to a medieval theologian by the name of William of St. Thierry, he said: “God became a child. He made himself dependent and weak, in need of our love. Now—this God who has become a child says to us—you can no longer fear me, you can only love me.” 

This is the good news, the Gospel of Joy!

God became lowly in order to raise us up.  God became human in order to make us divine, as our opening prayer said: “O God, … grant we pray, that we may share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”

This is the miracle of the Incarnation: God, “the Word became flesh.”  This is the miracle of Baptism that John writes about in the Gospel.  Through Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection, we have been given the “power to become children of God,” to be “born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God.”  This is the miracle of the Eucharist. The Son of God became flesh in order to give his flesh for the life of the world. He makes that offering present in every celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and he unites his flesh to ours in a “Holy Communion.” 

This is “Evangelii Gaudium,” the Gospel of Joy.  As you know, that’s the title of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation in which I’m told the word “joy” appears in one form or another 110 times.

What is the reason, the source of this joy?

In section #164, speaking about catechesis, Pope Francis writes that on our lips “the first proclamation must ring out over and over.”  What is that proclamation? “Jesus Christ loves you. He gave his life to save you. And now he is living at your side every day to enlighten and free you.” 

In other words, God is close, very close to each of us. This knowledge is “first,” according to Pope Francis, because it is “principal.” It is most important. It is the foundation of our lives. He goes on to say that this proclamation is principal because it is “the one which we must hear again and again in different ways, the one which we must announce one way or another….”

All are called to hold fast to this proclamation and to announce it.  But, quoting from Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation about priests, Pastores Dabo Vobis, Pope Francis writes: “For this reason too, ‘the priest—like every other member of the Church—ought to grow in awareness that he himself is continually in need of being evangelized.’”  We priests need the Gospel of Joy, a deeper awareness that Jesus Christ loves us, gave his life for us, and is now living at our side every day.

As Jesuits we’ve been given a gift that helps us go deeper in this awareness. Through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, we don’t just think about how God has come close to us. We, as it were, “see directly.” Through the imagination and bringing the senses into our prayer, we experience the birth of Jesus. In this way the familiar stories and the high theology of the first chapter of John, do not remain here, in our heads, but enter our hearts where they can transform us. 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Bridegroom of Souls

As far as I can determine, December 21 is the only day of the year when there is a Mass reading from Song of Songs, a title which basically means “The Best Song.” It’s also known as Canticle of Canticles and The Song of Solomon who is thought to have been its author.  This Old Testament book consists of a series of love poems and it’s the only book in the Bible that never mentions God. 

The Mass readings for December 21 offer an option to be used instead of the passage from Song of Songs 2: 8-14 which begins “Hark! My lover—here he comes springing across the mountains, leaping across the hills.”  This passage accompanies Luke 1: 39-45, the story of the Visitation when Mary, bearing the newly conceived Son of God in her womb, went to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth.

Jesus is the “lover” who travels across mountains and hills.  Jesus is God-in-the-flesh who, like any lover, wants to be with his beloved. He wants to be with humanity.  He wants to unite himself to each one of us.

I suspect that a second option is offered for the first Mass reading for December 21 because some people are squeamish when it comes to the love poetry of Song of Songs.  Various Biblical scholars have even described it as a celebration of erotic love which some might judge has no place in sacred writings. Yet erotic love or eros is not by its nature sinful.  It is only sinful when it becomes infected with lust which turns another person into an object to be used for pleasure.  In fact, God, who St. John declares is Love, is the origin of eros. God loves each person with a passionate love that is eros.

Pope Benedict XVI wrote about this in his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) which was issued on Christmas Day, 2005.  Writing about Song of Songs, he said: “According to the interpretation generally held today, the poems contained in this book were originally love-songs, perhaps intended for a Jewish wedding feast and meant to exalt conjugal love.”  He then wrote about eros and another form of love, agape, or self-sacrificing love: “
God loves, and his love may certainly be called eros, yet it is also totally agape.  The Prophets, particularly Hosea and Ezekiel, described God's passion for his people using boldly erotic images.”

In his 2007 Message for Lent, Pope Benedict explained this interplay of eros and agape in God. He wrote: “These biblical texts indicate that eros is part of God's very Heart: the Almighty awaits the ‘yes’ of his creatures as a young bridegroom that of his bride. … Dear brothers and sisters, let us look at Christ pierced on the Cross! He is the unsurpassing revelation of God's love, a love in which eros and agape, far from being opposed, enlighten each other. On the Cross, it is God himself who begs the love of his creature: He is thirsty for the love of every one of us.”

This is the meaning of Christmas. God loves humanity and each individual so much that he sacrifices himself, empties himself, so that we could be one with him forever. Love desires union with the beloved and God sacrificed all in order to be one with us. 

It should be no surprise that the erotic poetry of Song of Songs is in the Bible. While expressing the passion of human romantic love, it also reveals the passionate love of God who has traditionally been called “The Bridegroom of the Soul.”


Friday, December 20, 2013

Advent Hope

We're in the final days of Advent, days of expectation and hope.  Many people, especially children, are hoping to find certain things under the Christmas tree. Such hopes are not very big.  God's hope for us is much bigger and as we prepare for Christmas we want to share that hope.

The world today and life in general offer plenty of opportunities to lose hope.  Pope Francis, following Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, has emphasized the need for hope. Hope is more than "wishful thinking."  We can say, "I hope it won't snow so that our Christmas travel plans won't be affected," but there is nothing we can do to stop the snow. However, if we are a student and say, "I hope I pass the test,"--that's a hope that we can do something about. We can study to make sure our hope is realized!

Hope is active.  It involves effort so that what we are hoping for is attained. 

So, what is God's hope for us and how do we share that hope? God's hope is for loving union with us. God created us to be one with him forever in the kingdom of heaven. This is why God became human, uniting in one person two natures--human and divine. That's the mystery we will be celebrating in a few days.  Because God is Love, he cannot force his hope upon us.  We are free to reject God's hope for us.  Advent and in fact our entire life is a preparation to accept God's hope for us once and for all when God comes to us at the end of our earthly lives. 

In his General Audience of November 27, 2013, Pope Francis said: "If my life has been a journey with the Lord, a journey of trust in his immense mercy, I will be prepared to accept the final moment of my earthly life as the definitive, confident abandonment into his welcoming hands, awaiting the face to face contemplation of his Face. This is the most beautiful thing that can happen to us: to contemplate face to face the marvelous countenance of the Lord, to see Him as he is, beautiful, full of light, full of love, full of tenderness. This is our point of arrival: to see the Lord."

On that first Christmas, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us" (Luke 2: 15).  May we be as eager as they were to see the Lord face to face.  May we have the same hope that God has for us and live in a way that leads to the realization of that deep hope. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Heart of Jesus in the Womb

I like to imagine the moment when Mary told the Archangel Gabriel, “let it be done to me according to your word.” At that moment the Holy Spirit overshadowed her and a new life, the likes of which the world had never seen, was conceived in her womb. Cell by cell the child developed. Within three weeks the first organ appeared. His Heart—human and divine—started beating right under the Immaculate Heart of His Mother. 

At Christmas we imagine the Christ Child, just born and lying in a manger. But what about Advent? Can we imagine the Christ Child in the womb of His Mother Mary?  Can we have a devotion to the Child Jesus at this stage of His life? And couldn’t such a devotion help us reverence human life at all its stages?

George A. Peate thinks so. His book, Unborn Jesus Our Hope, reflects on the first nine months of Jesus’ life
as He lived and grew in Mary’s womb. It’s filled with references by Christians of all times and places and denominations. It includes prayers: a Litany of the Unborn Christ Child and a Litany in Honor of Mary, the First Christian. And it makes a strong connection between Sacred Heart devotion and the Pro-Life Movement. Here’s an excerpt:

“And so we picture the unborn baby Jesus within His mother’s womb, skin almost transparent in these early weeks of human life, and His Heart, not yet hidden by a thicker, more developed skin, but visible, actually throbbing, pulsing with divine love for us! This is the miniature reservoir of that one commodity that could purchase the salvation of the entire human race, the blood of God Himself! This Precious Blood is separate and different from His mother’s. A small delicate vial of heavenly medicine. It is a tiny Heart, but proportionately—compared to the rest of its body, during the first and second months—it measures up to nine times the size of the adult heart. Appropriately, the Heart of Unborn Jesus (and His head) dominated His Body: for the incarnation is about God’s Love for us.”

Unborn Jesus Our Hope was published by Life Cycle Books in 2006 and is available at the Unborn WordAlliance. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Community that Attracts

The word "advent" comes from the Latin word for "coming." During this season we prepare to remember and to celebrate Christ's first coming in Bethlehem. But Advent is also a time to prepare for Christ's second coming. We believe Jesus Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. I suspect that most if not all of us won't be living on earth when that happens. So our Advent preparation for the second coming of Christ can also be seen in light of his coming for us at the end of our earthly lives.  Advent is a time to focus on our readiness to meet the Lord and to give ourselves to him.

This is counter-cultural. Most people want to focus on the here and now.  They don't want to think about meeting the Lord at the end of their lives or at the end of the world. They view Jesus in the same striking way that he seems to refer to himself in the Gospel today (Matthew 24: 37-44) where he speaks of a thief who comes when least expected.  Perhaps we are all tempted to think of him that way. We're tempted to be possessive, to think of our lives as our own, as belonging to us. But the reality is that we are not our own. We belong to God. Advent is a good time to remember that and to practice surrendering our lives to the Lord so that we'll be ready when he comes for us.

Our first reading (Isaiah 2: 1-5) presents a vision of peace and harmony. We will see similar readings throughout Advent. They capture a universal desire, a longing on the part of every person for a better world, a place where people live at peace with one another. 

The Church is meant to embody that vision right now. Our communities are to incarnate the vision of peace that Isaiah saw. In that way they will attract and draw people to Christ.

This is a major theme in Pope Francis' recently issued Apostolic Exhortation "Evangelii Gaudium"--"The Joy of the Gospel." 

Pope Francis writes: "The joy of the Gospel is for all people: no one can be excluded" (#23).  Deep down, all people desire to dwell, in Isaiah's words, on "the mountain of the Lord's house." And "Christians have the duty to proclaim the Gospel without excluding anyone. Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, they should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to the horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but 'by attraction'" (#14). 

As both individuals and as a community, Christians are "to share their joy," "point to the horizon of beauty" that Isaiah described, and "invite others to a delicious banquet"--the wedding feast of heaven. Our actions, the witness of our lives, speak louder than our words. Our example will attract people who long for the harmony that God promises.

In section #92, Pope Francis writes about the community of the Church as "a mystical fraternity, a contemplative fraternity."  This is because harmony is not something that can achieved on our own. It only comes from union with God. He writes: "It is a fraternal love capable of seeing the sacred grandeur of our neighbor, of finding God in every human being, of tolerating the nuisances of life in common by clinging to the love of God, of opening the heart to divine love and seeking the happiness of others just as their heavenly Father does."  Only a deeper relationship with the Lord will help us to see as God sees: to see "the sacred grandeur of our neighbor" and to "find God in every human being." Such seeing will help us negotiate the inevitable "nuisances of life in common." Such prayer--by which we cling "to the love of God" and open our hearts "to divine love" which empowers us to love as God loves--will help us to embody the harmony of "the mountain of the Lord's house."

Christians' individual acts of love which seek "the happiness of others just as their heavenly Father does" are powerful, but even more powerful is the witness of a loving community. The Church and our parishes are called to that. Pope Francis continues: "Here and now ... the Lord's disciples are called to live as a community which is the salt of the earth and the light of the world (cf. Mt 5: 13-16). We are called to bear witness to a constantly new way of living together in fidelity to the Gospel. Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of community!"

In St. Paul's words from the second reading (Romans 13: 11-14), we are to "put on the Lord Jesus Christ."  Or, as the Sisters of the Visitation say in their motto, "Live Jesus."  We are to live in union with him, to have his mind and heart, his way of thinking. We are to see as he sees and act as he would act.  St. John the Baptist once said "He must increase. I must decrease" (John 3: 30). We must die to ourselves in order to live for Christ. And not only for him, but with him and in union with him. More and more, each day of Advent and each day of our lives, may we be able to say, as St. Paul said "I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me" (Galatians 2: 20).

Practically speaking, this is what our daily offering prayer is designed to do. We offer each day and ourselves to God. We surrender our egos and our bodies. We give to God every thought, word, and deed; every prayer, work, joy, and suffering; every breath and every heart beat. Praying and living this, we will "put on the Lord Jesus Christ" and community will form. The Kingdom of God will break into our world and take root. People will be drawn to Christ through his Church. And each of us will be ready for the final surrender when we will meet the Lord. As the peace prayer attributed to St. Francis goes, "it is in giving that we receive."  Giving all, we will be ready to receive all. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

All Heroes

Last Friday, the Solemnity of All Saints, I presided and preached at the all-school Mass at St. Ignatius Prep in Chicago. 

Our first reading from the Book of Revelation (7:2-4, 9-14) gives us a picture of the saints in heavenly glory. These are the heroes and heroines of our faith. They had the courage to stand up for what is right even when their lives were threatened. The image may make them seem distant from us, but they are in reality very close.

I like another image of the saints that can be found in Hebrews 12: 1-2: "Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith." 

Some years ago I lived at the Jesuit Novitiate on Summit Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota. Every fall the Twin Cities Marathon would race by our house. Actually, the first runners "raced by" but as the hours passed, the stragglers--some barely jogging, many just walking--came chugging along.  People lined up along the street to watch would cheer them on and hand them cups of water and Gatorade.

That's the image we see in Hebrews. We are in the race of life and we are surrounded by the saints who offer us encouragement, who pray for us, who intercede for us. We may be physically separated from them and from other deceased people but we are intimately united to them in a deep, spiritual bond. We are all members of the Body of Christ. Some parts of the Body have died but that doesn't mean they have gone out of existence. Rather, they are now with the Lord, the Head of the Body. You could say that we have friends in high places.

Last Wednesday Pope Francis said: "In this communion--communion means 'common-union'--we are a great family, all of us, where all the components help and support each other. ... All the baptized down here on earth ... and all the blessed who are already in paradise make up one great family."

We are one family because we are all children of God. We are children not just in name but in reality as our second reading (1 John 3:1-3) tells us: "See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called children of God. Yet so we are."  As family we can ask for each other's help. Pope Francis said: "Our faith is in need of the support of others, especially in difficult moments. If we are united, faith becomes strong. Which one of us--everyone, everyone--has not felt insecurities, losses and even doubts in the journey of faith? All of us have experienced this, even myself: it is part of the path of faith, it is part of our life."

So we need to support one another. We need to ask for help from one another and from the saints. But to ask for help, Pope Francis said, requires two things--humility and courage. "It is important to find the courage and the humility to open oneself to others, to ask for help, to ask for a hand."  It takes humility to admit that one is weak and in need of help. It takes courage to ask for that help.

We see both of these virtues--humility and courage--in the Beatitudes which are the basis of holiness, the basis of friendship with God and with one another.

Jesus said "Blessed are the poor in spirit" but the world says "Blessed are the proud, the self-sufficient, the independent who don't have to rely on others."

Jesus said "Blessed are they who mourn," who are able to share in the sufferings and sorrows of others. But the world says "Blessed are those who are untouched by others' sufferings, who are unfazed by sorrow, who are cold and indifferent."

Jesus said "Blessed are the meek" but the world says "Blessed are those who try to get to the top so that they can be above everyone else."

Jesus said "Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness," who support their friends in doing what is right.  The world says "Blessed are those who follow the trends of a culture of death."

Jesus said "Blessed are the merciful," those who forgive one another. The world says "Blessed are those who get even, who hold grudges and resentments against one another so that they won't be vulnerable and get hurt again."

Jesus said "Blessed are the clean of heart," the pure of heart who see one another as beloved children of God. The world says "Blessed are those who see others as objects to be used for pleasure or in order to get ahead."

Jesus said "Blessed are the peacemakers" but the world says "Blessed are those who argue and create conflict, who gossip about others and add to the contentious environment in which we live."

Jesus said "Blessed are they who are persecuted." And you will be if you live according to these Beatitudes. The world will oppose you.

The Beatitudes are difficult to follow, in fact, impossible. On your own, that is. But they are what make heroes, saints.

At St. Ignatius Prep you have a great patron who can help you--St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits. Next week Mr. Santiago Rodriguez, S.J., the youth and young adult director of the Apostleship of Prayer will be here to show you what you can learn from St. Ignatius. You will have an opportunity to participate in sessions that will address the purpose and meaning of life, discernment and tools for making good decisions, how the imagination can be used in prayer, and the "magis" or "more."

This was at the heart of St. Ignatius. It wasn't enough to do a few things for God. He always wanted to do more. It wasn't enough to give God great glory. He wanted to give God greater glory.

Later this month you will be hearing a lot about President Kennedy.  It's the 50th anniversary of his assassination. In the speech he gave when he was inaugurated, he said "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."  These words inspired a generation to volunteer to help others through the Peace Corps and VISTA. They inspired many to work for civil rights and for peace. 

Today, as we honor the saints, we can hear words similar to those of President Kennedy and ask what we can do to live heroic lives? Ask not what others can do for you; ask what you can do for others. Ask not what your Church can do for you; ask what you can do for your Church.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

"A Heart Stronger than Death"

The greatest love the world has ever know is revealed in the Pierced Heart of Jesus Christ. This love conquered death. This love unites all God's children and keeps them united even when death physically separates them from one another.

It often happens that at the celebration of Holy Mass in my Jesuit community, some of my brothers stumble at the words of the first form of the Penitential Rite: "I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters...."  Some drop the word "sisters" because no women are present. Yet, while they are not physically present, they are with us in an even deeper way.  Our celebration of the Mass includes the living and the dead. The Communion of Saints, those present physically and many others present spiritually, gather to pray and celebrate at every Mass.

Moreover, when we receive our Lord's Body and Blood in Holy Communion, we are one with Him who is one with His entire Body--the Church--living and deceased. We may be separated from some parts of the Body through time and space, but we are united intimately in the Sacred Heart of Jesus who gives Himself to us in the Eucharist.

In the Litany of the Sacred Heart we invoke Jesus as a "Burning Furnace of Charity." Hebrews 12:
29) says that "our God is a consuming fire." Like the burning bush with which God appeared to Moses, the love of God consumes but does not destroy. It purifies us and unites us to God Himself and to all the faithful. Through the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus--Burning Furnace of Charity--we are one with God and each other.

In his General Audience of October 30, 2013, Pope Francis spoke of this union. He called the Trinity the "burning furnace of love" and then said:

"In this communion--communion means 'common-union'--we are a great family, all of us, where the components help and support each other. ... All the baptized down here on earth, the souls in Purgatory and the Blessed who are already in Paradise make up one great family."

We never lose a loved one who has died because this "one great family" exists in the Heart of Jesus--a Burning Furnace of Love that is stronger than death.

Heart of Jesus, Heart of the Most Holy Trinity, keep us one with You and with all our brothers and sisters. Amen.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Humble, Faith-filled Prayer

Today I celebrated Mass at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Newman Center. Here is my homily for this Sunday when we hear the parable about two different kinds of prayer.

We have one more month left in the Year of Faith and today's readings are about faith and prayer.

In the gospel (Luke 18: 9-14) Jesus tells a parable about two men who went to the temple to pray.
Remember: a parable was a story that is intended to shock the listener into deeper reflection. This particular story of Jesus would certainly have shocked his listeners who would have thought that the Pharisee's prayer had been accepted while the tax collector's prayer had been rejected. After all, Pharisees scrupulously observed the Law of God and prayed and fasted and tithed, while tax collectors collaborated with the unjust and hated Roman occupation government and took some of the money they collected.  They were dishonest and known as "public sinners."

Yet Jesus turns it all around. The tax collector leaves the temple "justified" while the Pharisee doesn't. The key to the difference is humility and faith.

The Pharisee has no humility and his faith is in himself. He is so proud of himself that, according to Jesus, his prayer is addressed "to himself." He congratulates himself on his virtuous life. He compares himself to the tax collector whom he  puts him down. In speaking his prayer to himself, he has made himself a god.

The tax collector, on the other hand, has humility and has faith not in himself but in God to whom he addresses his prayer. He knows his need and he turns to God. 

In the second reading (2 Timothy 4: 6-8, 16-18) St. Paul writes to his co-worker Timothy as he approaches his death.  He declares: "I have kept the faith." It is not faith in himself or his own abilities but in God.  We see that in a very clear way in two other letters of Paul.

In Romans 7 Paul writes about his interior conflict: "What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate. ... So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. ... The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want."  Remember: this is Paul writing after his profound conversion when he went from a proud Pharisee to an apostle of Jesus Christ. Then Paul, declaring his helplessness, gives praise to God his savior: "Miserable one that I am! Who will deliver me from this mortal body? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord."

In 2 Corinthians 12 we see once again the humility and faith of St. Paul. Having just written about someone who had been given great revelations, Paul makes it clear that he is talking about himself: "because of the abundance of the revelations ... that I might not become too proud, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from becoming too proud." We don't know what this thorn was. Some speculate it was a particular physical ailment that slowed Paul down in his missionary work and others think it was a particular moral struggle or temptation. At any rate, Paul didn't like it and thought that he would be a much better person and apostle without it. So he prays: "Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me...."  The answer he received was "No." The Lord told Paul: "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness."

"Power is made perfect in weakness!"  Tell that to the front line of the Green Bay Packers! 

But God's ways are not our ways. The Lord is telling Paul that without this weakness, this struggle, he would become too proud and would rely upon himself. He would revert back to the ways of a Pharisee and would end up having faith in himself, praying to himself, and despising everyone else who didn't measure up to his own level of perfection. Paul's struggle brings him to his knees in humble prayer to God.

Our first reading (Sirach 35: 12-14, 16-18) says that "the prayer of the lowly pierces the cloud" and "reaches the heavens."

Sometimes people wonder what is the point of praying, of making petitions to God. Isn't God all-knowing and all-powerful? So what's the point of bringing our needs and desires to God who knows them before we articulate them and who can answer them if he wishes?

Two things actually limit God's power and both are related to the fact that God is Love.

First, God loves us and therefore invites us to collaborate with him. If we don't choose to do so, then we limit God's influence in the world. For example, in the gospels there are stories of how Jesus was unable to perform miracles in certain places because of the lack of faith. Faith-filled prayer opens a way for God's power and grace to enter the world.

But, this loving power and grace can never take away human freedom. That brings us to the second limit to God's power--human freedom. God loves his human children too much to take away their freedom and to force them to love him in return or to do his will. Our prayers for those who have left the practice of the faith or who are wandering in a self-destructive life style cannot force the person for whom we are praying to turn to God and change. They do not take away the person's freedom.

What about praying for good things that both we and the person for whom we are praying desire? Like good health and healing. Sometimes it seems God does not answer those prayers. It seems so but isn't so. God answers every prayer but sometimes the answer that is given is the one St. Paul received when he asked God to take away his weakness. Sometimes it's the answer Jesus received in a garden called Gethsemane when he prayed that the cup of his suffering and death would be removed.

God sees the bigger picture and God's ways are not our human ways. God saved the world through weakness which revealed a power greater than mere human power. Helpless, nailed to a cross, the Son of God revealed the power of divine love which took away the sins of the world and destroyed death.

The celebration of the Eucharist declares our faith in that power. We remember how God saved the world: not through brutal force and violent power, but through a weakness greater than human strength. We celebrate and make present the power of love revealed on a cross. Such a celebration calls forth from us humility and faith. This is our greatest humble and faith-filled prayer.

Monday, October 21, 2013

"Rich in What Matters to God"

I celebrated Mass at the motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Francis in St. Francis, Wisconsin. Most of the Sisters there are retired and many are in wheelchairs.  Here is what I told them in my homily today:

With about one month to go, our Year of Faith is drawing to a close.  Today's first reading (Romans 4: 20-25) presents us with one of the greatest examples of faith--Abraham. He not only believed in God but he trusted in God. He trusted that God loved him, that God would care for him, that God would be true to His promises.  This faith, in St. Paul's words, "empowered" him. It was behind all his decisions and actions.

One aspect of the faith that we share with Abraham is brought out in today's gospel (Luke 12: 13-21) where Jesus says "one's life does not consist in possessions."  This is the belief that empowered St. Francis to strip himself of everything and to offer everything to God.  He did so in order to follow Jesus more closely, imitating the one of whom St. Paul wrote in another letter (Philippians 2: 6-11), "he emptied himself." Jesus became a tiny, weak, and helpless infant, and "he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross." He believed that in this way the world would be saved.

St. Francis emptied himself in order to be filled. He became poor in order to be, in the words of Jesus from today's gospel, "rich in what matters to God." What matters to God? Love. God is love and humans, made in the image and likeness of God, are made to be like God, to love.

But poverty is more than having nothing of one's own, more than following the vow of poverty that consecrated persons take, promising to share everything in common.  Real poverty means not even having a choice. The poorest of the world don't have a choice whether or not to give up possessions. This is the poverty that Jesus also revealed when he was nailed to a cross and was helpless.

Such poverty comes to us when our bodies and minds diminish, when poor health comes our way, when we don't have the strength to move around as we once did, when our memories fail. It is a poverty we may not choose but if we accept it and make it an offering to God for the salvation of souls, we will be "rich in what matters to God." Our faith that God can take this offering and do great things through it can empower us one day at a time to follow the path of St. Francis who followed the path of Jesus so closely. 

God blesses this faith and this offering. Poor in the eyes of the world which values youth and vitality and good health, you will be "rich in what matters to God." 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

St. Francis and the Sacred Heart

Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus started slowly in the Church. For the first millennium of Christianity there was not an explicit devotion to the Heart of Jesus. Rather, there was a growing devotion to those wounds which St. Thomas the Apostle touched and which led him to declare "My Lord and my God!" 

St. Francis of Assisi had a deep devotion to the wounds of Jesus, so much so that he was given the mystical gift of the stigmata. This happened four days after the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross on September 17, 1224.  More than 450 years later Jesus spoke to the great apostle of the Sacred Heart, St. Margaret Mary.  This was before He revealed His Sacred Heart to her. He told her that she was going to have to face many trials and sufferings but that St. Francis would be her special patron and guide. 

Why did Jesus choose St. Francis for this job?  St. Margaret Mary offers this answer:  "On the feast of St. Francis [1673], our Lord let me see in prayer this great saint, clad in garments of light and unspeakable brilliance. He had been raised above the other saints to an extraordinarily high degree of glory, because his life was so like that of the suffering Redeemer who is the life of our souls and the love of our hearts. His glory was the reward of his great love for the Passion of our Lord, a love which rendered him worthy of the sacred stigmata and made him one of the great favorites of Jesus' heart."

Through devotion to the Passion of Jesus, to His Wounds, and to His Wounded Heart, St. Francis and St. Margaret Mary knew the love of God which is stronger than all sufferings and even death. In a time of uncertainty and change, the love of God revealed in the Heart of His Son is a sure and steady refuge.  Holding fast to that love, to the Heart of Jesus, we need not fear.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Guardian Angels

When I was in grade school the Sisters told us that when we sat down we should leave a little room for our Guardian Angel. Now of course we didn't need to do that. Angels are pure spirits who don't take up any physical space. But I think this was a way of impressing on our young minds that we had such a constant companion.

Many saints had a deep devotion to their Guardian Angels. Blessed Peter Faber, the first Jesuit "recruit" of St. Ignatius Loyola, walked across Europe giving the Spiritual Exercises and as he walked he talked with his Guardian Angel. By the way, it's been reported that Pope Francis hopes to canonize this close friend of St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits. 

St. Pio of Pietrelcina, better known as Padre Pio, talked not only to his own Angel but also to the Guardian Angels of other people. He also sent his Guardian Angel to help others.

But didn't that leave him unprotected? No. In the gospel for the Feast of the Guardian Angels which we celebrate today (Matthew 18: 1-5, 10), Jesus teaches that our "angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father." As pure spirits they are not bound by physical laws. They can be present to both God and to us and anywhere else as well. Just like God who is present everywhere.

If that's so, if God is everywhere, why do we need Angels? Their existence is one more way that God shows his loving care and concern for us. With our own Guardian Angel, we have one more good friend who is both in heaven and here on earth, present at every moment.

The older I get, the more aware I am of my Guardian Angel.  Every so often I am reminded of something I need to do at the very last moment and I can't help thinking it was my Angel who was there reminding me. 

So while you don't have to make room for your Angel when you sit down, it is a good idea to make room in your life for this special friend. Pay attention to your Angel. Make room for your Guardian in your mind and in your heart. You won't be let down. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

St. Therese and Prayers for Conversion

I am in Woodstock, Maryland these days, at St. Alphonsus Rodriguez Church, a Jesuit parish, where I am in the middle of a parish mission. The church here has a statue of the saint whom we honor today--St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face--and a large candle burns in front it. As providence would have it, the readings at Mass this morning (not the readings for her feast but for Tuesday in the 26th Week in Ordinary Time) allowed me to share with the congregation some of the spirit of St. Therese who is the second patron saint of the Apostleship of Prayer.

The first reading from the Prophet Zechariah (8: 20-23) contains a beautiful prophetic word: "Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem. ... [They] shall take hold of every Jew by the edge of his garment and say, 'Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.'" Those words, "God is with us," appear in the first chapter of Matthew where the Son of God made flesh is called "Emmanuel." Jesus is God with us in the flesh. Zechariah's prophetic word was fulfilled when God became human, dwelt on earth, and died and rose in Jerusalem. Of course he continues to dwell with us in the Blessed Sacrament.
In today's gospel, Luke 9: 51-56, Jesus "resolutely determined to go to Jerusalem" where his destiny as the Savior of the world would be fulfilled.  In Jerusalem he will die on a cross to prove God's love for the world. On the cross he will draw all people to himself, to his pierced heart. In Jerusalem he will rise from the dead to blaze a trail for us. 

On the journey to Jerusalem a Samaritan village refuses hospitality to Jesus and his followers. Jews, especially those going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, were hated by the Samaritans who in turn were hated by the Jews as heretics. James and John, true to the nickname that had been given them--Boanerges or Sons of Thunder--ask Jesus if they should "call down fire from heaven to consume" the Samaritans. "Jesus turned and rebuked them."  It is as though Jesus is telling them, "When I get to Jerusalem, I will die for them too. So pray for them. Pray that they may know and accept my love and be converted."

Jesus, as Pope Francis has recently pointed out, died for all, including atheists and our enemies. All. But not all have accepted the love of Jesus. Not all have accepted the salvation Christ won for us on the cross. Many are at risk of being alienated from God forever and it is for these in particular that we should offer our prayers and sacrifices.

That is what St. Therese did a year after she enrolled in the Apostleship of Prayer when she was 12. Here's how she describes it in her autobiography:

"One Sunday, looking at a picture of Our Lord on the Cross, I was struck by the blood flowing from one of the divine hands. I felt a pang of sorrow when thinking this blood was falling to the ground without anyone's hastening to gather it up. I was resolved to remain in spirit at the foot of the Cross and to receive the divine dew. I understood I was to pour it out upon souls. The cry of Jesus on the Cross sounded continually in my heart: 'I thirst!' These words ignited within me an unknown and a very living fire. I wanted to give my Beloved to drink and I felt myself consumed with a thirst for souls."

The first soul whom she targeted for her loving attention, the first soul that she felt Jesus thirsted for the most because he was at great risk of being alienated forever from God, was a murderer named Henri Pranzini. He was bitter and unrepentant, but Therese prayed and offered sacrifices for him. At the very last second, as the blade of the guillotine was about to drop on his neck, he, in Therese's words, "took hold of the crucifix the priest was holding out to him and kissed the sacred wounds three times?" Convinced that her prayers had played a decisive role in his last second act of repentance, Therese called Pranzini "my first child."
With these thoughts in mind, as we celebrate St. Therese, co-patron of missionaries and the Apostleship of Prayer, let us commit ourselves to praying and sacrificing for the conversion of our enemies, the "Samaritans" in our lives, as well as for all those most at risk of choosing eternal separation from God. 

Monday, September 30, 2013


Today's Mass readings (Zechariah 8:1-8 and Luke 9:46-50) are about jealousy.

The Gospel begins with the apostles arguing over which of them is the greatest. They're competing to be #1. In doing so, they compare themselves to one another to see who will come out on top.  After Jesus admonishes them to be more humble and child-like, John shows his possessiveness and jealousy. He doesn't like the fact that someone who is not part of "our company" has been successful in casting out demons in the name of Jesus.

Where does jealousy come from?  From comparison--comparing ourselves to others and ending up jealous of how much better others are.  Better looking, more intelligent, more talented, more blessed.  Sometimes when we compare ourselves with others we end up feeling good about ourselves at their expense, thinking, "well, at least I'm not as bad as so-and-so."  Either way, as a saying goes, "compare and despair."

What is the antidote to jealousy?  Gratitude. We all tend to be "half-empty" people. We see the glass and ourselves as half-empty rather than half-full and we want what others have in order to fill up the emptiness. Gratitude helps us focus on the blessings we have and so that we don't compare ourselves to others: "I am a beloved child of God, my Heavenly Father, who loves me with an infinite love. What more could I want?"

This was Jesus' secret. He knew himself as the Beloved Son of the Father and this freed him to be totally himself. He played no games, put on no facades, and had nothing to prove.  Filled with the knowledge of the Father's love, he was secure in his identity, never compared himself to others, and was never jealous.

But what about that first reading where God, speaking through the prophet Zechariah, says: "I am intensely jealous for Zion, stirred to jealous wrath for her."  Is God jealous? Yes, though not in the way we humans are. Our jealousy comes out of our half-emptiness, our lack or need. Since God is fullness itself there is no jealousy for someone who has something that he does not have.

So what is the jealousy that God has? It comes from his love. God is a Trinity, a Communion of Persons. God's very nature is Love. God was perfectly happy in himself but it is the nature of love to want to share and so God created a world and creatures who were capable of receiving divine love and returning love. God created us to share in the very life of the Trinity, a Communion of Love.

St. Augustine wrote: "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you." Our hearts are restless with jealousy when we ignore the great gift God has given us, when we seek to fill the emptiness within us with substitutes for God--possessions, pleasure, power, prestige.

God has a "jealous wrath" when we accept those substitutes because he knows how ultimately unsatisfying and hurtful they are. God is angry at sin and its effects in our lives.

We can take St. Augustine's words and make them our prayer today:  "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, for love, for union with you, and for communion with all your children, your saints. Because you love us, all you want is our happiness. You know that we cannot find happiness anywhere else and so you desire--in a way that resembles intense jealousy--that we accept your love alone to fill us so that we might find true happiness. Because you love us, you are happy when we are happy, truly happy. May your love fill my emptiness. As I return love for love, loving you in my neighbor, I am emptied to be constantly filled with a fresh outpouring of your love.  Thank you!"

Sunday, September 29, 2013


Today's Gospel (Luke 16: 19-31) brings up a topic that you don't hear very often--hell. Nowadays it's common to hear: "I don't believe in hell. How could a good and infinitely loving God send anyone to hell?" Yet Jesus tells a parable about a mysterious place in "the netherworld" where there is fire and torment.  What are we to make of this?

The parables of Jesus were meant to be shocking. They were designed to make the listener think and then act. The parable of the rich man and the poor man named Lazarus would have been very shocking to the people of Jesus' time. The common understanding then was that wealth was a sign of God's favor and poverty was a sign that God was not happy with you. Yet in the Beatitudes Jesus said "Blessed are the poor" and he preached about how difficult it was for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of Heaven--as difficult as a camel going through the eye of a needle.  When the apostles heard this they were shocked and asked, "then who can be saved?"  They had the common understanding that wealth was a sign of God's favor. 

Jesus addressed today's parable to the Pharisees, a group that scrupulously followed the Law but did not have mercy in their hearts. Jesus challenges them and us to be merciful to one another as God is.

But if God is all-merciful, how can there be a hell?  The truth is God does not send anyone to hell.  People choose it for themselves. Hell exists because God is all-loving and will never force his love or will on his children.  Love must be free and God has given each of us the freedom to accept or to reject his love.  Rejecting God leads to alienation from God and from all his children. 

Here's how the Catechism of the Catholic Church #1033 puts it: The "state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called 'hell.'" Notice: it's "self-exclusion" not an exclusion on God's part. 

Pope John Paul II further explained this in a General Audience on July 28, 1999.  He said:  "God is the infinitely good and merciful Father. But man, called to respond to him freely, can unfortunately choose to reject his love and forgiveness once and for all, thus separating himself forever from joyful communion with him. It is precisely this tragic situation that Christian doctrine explains when it speaks of eternal damnation or Hell.  It is not a punishment imposed externally by God but a development of premises already set by people in this life. ... 'Eternal damnation,' therefore, is not attributed to God's initiative because in his merciful love he can only desire the salvation of the beings he created."

In other words, God does not send anyone to hell.  People choose it.

Did the rich man in the Gospel choose hell? The "premises" of his earthly life--his attitudes, values, and choices--had consequences that led naturally to this end. We are on earth to learn to breathe the atmosphere of heaven, a state of love and mercy, of care and sharing, of justice and peace. The rich man had not learned his lessons.

Here is a contemporary example. A few years ago the following appeared in a newspaper column:

DEAR ABBEY: I am a middle-aged woman who is Baptist by faith. I believe that when I die I will go to heaven. My problem is, if going to heaven means being reunited with my parents and other family members, then I don't want to go! The idea of spending eternity with them is more than I can stand, but I don't want to go to hell, either. Any thoughts?  --ETERNAL CONFUSED IN MISSISSIPPI

DEAR ETERNALLY CONFUSED: Yes. When you reach the pearly gates, talk this over with St. Peter. Perhaps he would be willing to place you in a different wing than the one your parents and other family members are staying in. And in the meantime, discuss this with your minister.

No.  It doesn't work like this.  There are no separate wings in heaven for our enemies. There is no room in heaven for resentment, hatred, and greed, or any of the other ways in which we treat one another as less than human, less than a child of God, a brother or sister.  "Eternally Confused" is not learning her lessons.  She is not preparing for heaven but, by holding on to those resentments, is setting in motion "premises" that will lead to eternal separation from God and the communion of saints.

The rich man in the Gospel didn't learn to breathe the atmosphere of heaven. Though Lazarus was right outside his door as he "dined sumptuously each day," he did not see him. For the rich man Lazarus was not a person but a non-entity. What mattered more to the rich man was his own pleasure, his own possessions and wealth, himself.  That he had not learned the lesson he needed to learn before he died is shown in how he treats Lazarus in the afterlife. He asks Abraham to have Lazarus dip his finger in cool water and bring it to him to relieve his torment. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers. He does not treat Lazarus like a child of God, a brother, an equal. He treats Lazarus like a slave, ordering him around to serve him and his family circle. 

The message is clear. St. Catherine of Siena once said "All the way to heaven is heaven." We could add, all the way to hell is hell. Our earthly lives are preparation for eternal life with God or without God.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

You are a Temple

Pope Francis has frequently said that God is a God of surprises. We certainly see that in the recent daily Mass readings from the Book of Ezra (1:1-6 yesterday).  Who would have thought that the pagan ruler of Persia Cyrus would allow the exiled Israelites to return to their homeland after seventy years? Not those people who in exile all those years! And who would have thought that God would speak to Cyrus and inspire him to commission those returning exiles to build "the house of God in Jerusalem?"  Even more, who would have thought that the pagan people with whom the Israelites lived during those years of exile would give "them help in every way, with silver, gold, goods and cattle, and with many precious gifts besides...?" Yes, God is full of surprises and can do surprising things in our lives.

In today's first reading from Ezra (6: 7-8, 12, 14-20), God surprises us again by inspiring another pagan king, Darius, successor to Cyrus, to continue his predecessor's policy of rebuilding the temple and even taxing some of his other subjects to provide funds for the project. Finally, the temple is finished and solemnly dedicated for worship. 

I've only seen the dedication of one Catholic church, the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. I'll always remember Archbishop Timothy Dolan ascending a ladder close to
where I was seated to anoint one of the four walls of the new church with sacred chrism. Thus was that space consecrated for a sacred purpose, for worship. Then the altar was anointed with sacred chrism, dedicating it for a sacred purpose. Sacred chrism was also used to anoint my hands when I was ordained thirty years ago, dedicating them for a sacred purpose, for worship. Thus were our heads anointed with sacred chrism at our baptism and confirmation, consecrating us for the sacred purpose of worship.

All of the baptized are sealed with the sacred chrism and consecrated for worship. All of us are temples of God. The Holy Spirit dwells in us and Jesus comes to us in the Eucharist. At the end of Mass we are sent forth: Go! Be the temple that you were consecrated to be! Let others find Christ in you!

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Mystery of the Cross

On Saturday I was on Chambers Island in the middle of Green Bay, not the city but the body of water that forms part of Lake Michigan. I was at Holy Name Retreat House leading a retreat for the Catholic men's group called Esto Vir.  In my homily for the Feast of the Exaltation or Triumph of the Cross I said the following:

Our faith is based on a paradox: the very source of death has become the source of healing and life.  This is the cross.

In the first centuries of Christianity the most common image of Jesus was that of the Good Shepherd. There was a reluctance to show Jesus on the cross. This was too shameful. Yet it is the proof of God's love.

As our gospel today states: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him" (John 3: 16-17).

How did God save the world? Not with physical power. Not with an army of angels that would force people to follow God's will. Not with a destructive flood like the one that wiped out evil at the time of Noah.

God saved the world with weakness. With a helpless baby born in a stable who would grow to suffer and to die. With a flood of blood and water that gushed forth from the Heart of his Son when he was pierced on the cross. With spiritual power, the power of love.

In 2005 at World Youth Day in Cologne in his homily at the closing Mass, Pope Benedict said that at the Last Supper Jesus anticipated what he was going to do on the next day. He accepted it into his Heart. And in doing so, an act of violence was transformed into the greatest act of the love the world has ever known. Death was transformed into life. Bread and wine were transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ. 

St. Thomas Aquinas called what happened at the Last Supper the greatest miracle of Jesus. Greater than healing the sick, feeding the 5,000, calming the storm, or raising the dead.

Pope Benedict went on to say that the transformation must not stop there with the bread and wine becoming the Body and Blood of Christ. He said that the change must now gather momentum and transform those who receive the Body and Blood of Christ so that they will transform the world.

Now we are to love as Jesus loved. We are to not only wear a cross but join our lives to it. We are to offer ourselves as Jesus did when he offered himself to the Father for the salvation of the world, something that he makes present every time the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is celebrated. We are, in the words of St. Paul, to offer our bodies, our selves "as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God" (Romans 12: 1)

Pope Francis, in his sermon at the Vigil for Peace in Syria that was celebrated in St. Peter's Square and around the world on September 7, called us to look to the cross so that our world might find peace.  He said:

"When man thinks only of himself, of his own interests and places himself in the center, when he permits himself to be captivated by the idols of dominion and power, when he puts himself in God’s place, then all relationships are broken and everything is ruined; then the door opens to violence, indifference, and conflict. ... We have perfected our weapons, our conscience has fallen asleep, and we have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves. As if it were normal, we continue to sow destruction, pain, death! Violence and war lead only to death, they speak of death! Violence and war are the language of death!

"And at this point I ask myself: Is it possible to walk the path of peace? Can we get out of this spiral of sorrow and death? Can we learn once again to walk and live in the ways of peace? Invoking the help of God, under the maternal gaze of the ... Queen of Peace, I say: Yes, it is possible for everyone! From every corner of the world tonight, I would like to hear us cry out: Yes, it is possible for everyone! Or even better, I would like for each one of us, from the least to the greatest, including those called to govern nations, to respond: Yes, we want it! My Christian faith urges me to look to the Cross. How I wish that all men and women of good will would look to the Cross if only for a moment! There, we can see God’s reply: violence is not answered with violence, death is not answered with the language of death. In the silence of the Cross, the uproar of weapons ceases and the language of reconciliation, forgiveness, dialogue, and peace is spoken."

Monday, September 9, 2013

Our Participation in the Work of Salvation

When I was growing up, if something bad happened and I cried or moped, the Sisters in my grade school would say three words. No, not "get over it," but, "offer it up."  The origin of this practice can be found in the first reading at Mass today (Colossians 1:24-2:3).

St. Paul called himself "a minister in accordance with God's stewardship." He is minister of the Gospel which had been given to him to build up the Church. He was minister of "the mystery of God." What is that mystery?

God is Love. This Love is not so much a noun as a verb, not so much a feeling as action. St. Ignatius wrote that love shows itself better in deeds than in words. It is active. The very nature of God is active love. God has revealed Himself as a Trinity, a Communion of Divine Persons.

This great mystery of the Christian faith--that God is Love, that God is a Trinity of Persons, Three and One--includes humanity.  It is the nature of love to share. God, as it were, goes out of Himself to share existence and life and love with other beings which He has created.  God pours Himself into creation. God loves and in loving desires a return of love that resembles the love between the Father and the Son.  It is to this mystery that Paul has dedicated his life.

Just as the Three Persons of the Trinity are three and one, so God desires union with all creation. God wants to bring all into one. This is the great mystery which Paul writes about elsewhere: "that God may be all in all" (1 Corinthians 15:28).

Our union with God begins at Baptism and is strengthened with each Eucharist.  Through Baptism we are joined to the Body of Christ and in the Eucharist Jesus unites His flesh and blood with ours. This is the mystery Paul writes about in our first reading: "this mystery among the Gentiles; it is Christ in you...."

Now we can understand the meaning of the first verses of today's reading: "I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the affliction of Christ on behalf of his Body, which is the Church...."  Nothing was lacking in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It was sufficient to save the world. But many in the world have not heard this good news and many have rejected it. The world has not accepted the salvation that Christ won for us on the cross.

But we are one with Christ. He is the Head and we are Body. We now play a role in the ongoing salvation of the world, in helping the world to accept the salvation Christ won for us.  The one thing lacking in the sufferings of Christ is our own participation in them. What the Head has done the Body must also do. This doesn't mean we have to go out looking for suffering. It will come our way at one time or another. When it comes we have a choice: to complain and grow bitter or to turn that suffering into a powerful prayer and act of love by uniting it to the cross of Jesus. 

What motivates us to do this, to offer up our suffering? The same thing that motivated St. Paul. In 2 Corinthians 5:14 Paul writes that "the love of Christ impels us." The knowledge of the love of Jesus urges us on; it motivates us to join Him in the work of salvation. One with Jesus, we share His love for those for whom He suffered, died, and rose. 

The love that was within His Heart motivated Jesus to act without delay. In today's Gospel (Luke 6:6-11) there is a story of how Jesus healed a man with a withered hand on the sabbath.  In a similar story, a synagogue official complained: "There are six days when work should be done. Come on those days to be cured, not on the sabbath day" (Luke 13:14). But Jesus can't wait to heal the afflicted. His love urges Him to act sooner rather than later. 

I'm reminded of what Blessed Antonio Rosmini wrote as a young priest in his personal Rules of Conduct: "To never refuse charitable services toward one's neighbor when divine Providence would offer and present them to me." 

I'm reminded as well of the saint whom we honor today, Peter Claver. The love of Christ urged him to not delay in responding to the needs of the African slaves as they arrived at the port of Cartagena in Colombia. Another Jesuit saint, a brother, St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, taught him about prayer and the love of God. This knowledge motivated Peter to become a missionary, but not in a way he imagined. Inspired by the example of another Jesuit who served the slaves, he gave his life for them. He made a vow to be a slave of the African slaves forever. As the slave ships arrived he ventured into their holds to care for the sick saying that they must first be shown the love of God before they were told of it. 

And so too for us. The love of Christ urges us on as well. It motivates us to lose no opportunity that comes our way to offer up our suffering for the spread of the Gospel and the salvation of all. 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

A Link to the Sacred Heart

Have you heard of the new site called “O Most Sacred Heart of Jesus”?  Each First Friday of the month, a day traditionally dedicated to the Sacred Heart, Catholic writers will post something on their blogs about the Sacred Heart and then link them up to that site.  The founders of the site, Ryan and Laura, are from the U.S. and Australia respectively and they will help prime the pump each month with a question. This month’s is: “How did you first learn about the Sacred Heart?”
I’m often asked about my family’s devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  People assume that since I’m now involved in a ministry—the Apostleship of Prayer—that promotes this devotion, the seeds of it must have been planted early on. They weren’t. At least, not in an explicit way.

I grew up in what I would call a traditional Polish-American family, the grandson of immigrants. We did not have a picture of the Sacred Heart in our home, nor did we practice family consecration or enthronement of the Sacred Heart.  But my family’s practice of Catholicism was more, I think, a matter of the heart than the head.  Our weekend family life revolved around going to Mass and every month we went to our church on Saturday for confession. There were crucifixes in the rooms of our home and one in particular fascinated me. It was a cross with the instruments of the Passion—a ladder, a spear, and a pole with a sponge attached—all enclosed in a glass cylinder. In my family we had the custom of taking leave of one another in a religious way.  To those leaving our home we would say, “Go with God.”  The reply was “Stay with God.”

So when I entered the Jesuits in 1971 at the age of 19 I was ready to hear about devotion to the Sacred Heart from a religious order that has been traditionally associated with it. But I didn’t.  Again, the Lord worked in a quiet and hidden way to draw me to His Heart. Making the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius drew me into a more intimate relationship with Jesus. The Exercises helped me to not just use my head to think about Jesus but to use my heart to contemplate the Gospel stories in a way in which I came to know Jesus in a deeper way. 
In time, all of this—my family experience and my prayer life as a Jesuit—led me to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  I was ordained in 1983 on a Friday in June which happened to be the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart.  No accident.  No coincidence.  I’m convinced that the Lord wanted me to be an apostle of His Heart and I was ordained to do so on His feast.  Now, through the Apostleship of Prayer, I’m committed to helping others enter more deeply into the Heart of Jesus where they will experience the depths of His love.  

Monday, September 2, 2013

Some Labor Day Thoughts

The last of St. Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises is called "The Contemplation to Attain the Love of God." One of his "points" is:

"This is to consider how God works and labors for me in all creatures upon the face of the earth, that is, He conducts Himself as one who labors. Thus, in the heavens, in the elements, the plants, the fruits, the cattle, etc. He gives being, conserves them, confers life and sensation, etc. Then I will reflect on myself."

Figuratively speaking, according to Genesis, God worked for six days in creating the world and then rested. Humanity is made in God's image and likeness and so we are made to work and labor with God for the good of creation.  We are stewards of God's creation.  God cares for creation through us. 

The Gospel at Mass today (Luke 4: 16-30) is what many have called Jesus' "Inaugural Address" in which he announces his plan of action as he begins his active ministry after his "hidden life" of work at home and with his foster father Joseph.  But the people who hear him do not have the eyes of faith and so they reject him and his words. They cannot see how God will accomplish the great works promised by the prophet Isaiah through Jesus. 

We are called to have eyes of faith. One of the goals of the Apostleship of Prayer and the Daily Offering is to offer our daily work to God. Such an offering will, with time, help us to see our work with eyes of faith. By offering our work each day and then reflecting upon the daily work that has been offered, our eyes become more sensitive to seeing God at work through us.  In that way, more and more, our daily work will play a hidden or sometimes more explicit role in the work of preparing creation to receive Jesus in his second coming.

The first Mass reading today (1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18) speaks of that second coming when Jesus will raise all people to new life in the Kingdom of God.  Our lives are meant to prepare the world for that day.  Our work plays a role in that preparation. 

In the Our Father we pray "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done."  When we follow God's will by making an offering of our day with its work, we are allowing the Kingdom of God to break into our lives and the lives of those around us.  Little by little Christ reigns in us and over us. As he reigns, God's work is accomplished in us and through us.  May we have the eyes of faith to see and believe this!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

House Sacristan

I live at the Marquette University Jesuit Community with about 50 other Jesuits--administrators, faculty, students from other countries, and people like me who work in other apostolates.  Most of us have "house jobs" in which we serve our brothers in various ways.  My job is "house sacristan." Every week that I am in town I go around the three small chapels on the second through fourth floors of our residence and into the main chapel on the first floor and I make sure everything is in order: that there are enough hosts and wine, that there are clean purificators and corporals, that the candles are OK. I pick up the used altar linens and replace them with clean ones. I wash the linens and then iron them.

While it takes some time, I enjoy the ironing part. It slows me down and is a simple task that is so
different from my apostolic work of preaching, writing, and office work.  Often, while I'm ironing, I think of the second patron saint of the Apostleship of Prayer--St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face.  She too was sacristan for her community at the Carmelite monastery in Lisieux, France. She found great joy in serving her community in this way. This service was a labor of love in which her devotion to the Holy Eucharist grew. I feel privileged to be serving my community in the same way.

St. Therese wrote a poem called "The Sacristans of Carmel."  I'm grateful to Maureen O'Riordan who told me about this poem and the picture of St. Therese and the other sacristans of her community, and whose website is a treasure trove of information about St. Therese and her family.  In the following excerpts from the poem we see not only her deep devotion but also her good grasp of Eucharistic theology. Jesus gives us His Body and Blood in order to transform us. We become what we receive--the Body of Christ.

The Sacristans of Carmel
1 Here below our sweet office
Is to prepare for the altar
The bread and wine of the Sacrifice
Which brings "Heaven" to earth!
2 O supreme mystery, Heaven
Hides in humble bread,
For Heaven is Jesus Himself,
Coming to us each morning.
 4 This world's greatest honors
Cannot compare
To the deep, celestial peace
Which Jesus lets us savor.
 6 But his love has chosen us.
He is our Spouse, our Friend.
We are also hosts
Which Jesus wants to change into Himself.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Our Lady of Czestochowa

One of my favorite images of the Blessed Virgin Mary is Our Lady of Czestochowa. Of course being 100% Polish could be a reason for this, as well as the fact that in August, 2006 I visited the Polish shrine in which this image resides--Jasna Gora or Bright Hill.  There are various stories about the origin of this image.  Some say that it was painted by the gospel-writer St. Luke. It seems to have made its way to Constantinople, the seat of the Eastern Roman Empire.  From there it went to a castle in Belz, now part of Ukraine but in the 1300's part of the Kingdom of Poland. The castle was attacked by Tartars, one of whom shot an arrow through a window and into the room where the image was kept, piercing the throat of the Madonna.

After the attack was repulsed, Duke Wladyslaw of Opole decided to take the image to a safer place--his home in western Poland. The image was carried in solemn procession. Along the way, the group stopped in the town of Czestochowa to spend the night. In the morning the image was placed in a wagon but the horses refused to move. Wladyslaw prayed for guidance and was inspired to have the image remain in a church on a hill in Czestochowa.  This took place on August 26, 1382.

In 1430 a band of Bohemian Hussites, a heretical Christian sect, stormed the monastery in which the image resided and stole various precious items.  But as they fled, horses pulling the wagon which held the image refused to move. One of the robbers threw the image to the ground and in anger slashed it twice.  As he raised his sword a third time, he fell to the ground and died.  The other robbers fled in fear and the image has remained in Czestochowa ever since.

In time artists have tried to "repair" the damage done by the Tartar arrow and Hussite sword, but each time the wounds mysteriously reappeared.  It would seem that our Blessed Mother, wounded by sin, wounded by humanity's rejection of her and her Son, wants the wounds to remain, just as the wounds on her Son's risen body remain--a sign of the terrible effects of sin and a sign of love.

On May 26, 2006 Pope Benedict visited Czestochowa and prayed before the image. He said the following:

"Just as the Apostles together with Mary 'went to the upper room' and there 'with one accord devoted themselves to prayer' (Acts 1:12,14), so we too have come together today at Jasna Góra, which for us at this hour is the 'upper room' where Mary, the Mother of the Lord, is among us.  Today it is she who leads our meditation; she teaches us how to pray.  Mary shows us how to open our minds and our hearts to the power of the Holy Spirit, who comes to us so as to be brought to the whole world. ...

"My dear friends, we need a moment of silence and recollection to place ourselves in her school, so that she may teach us how to live from faith, how to grow in faith, how to remain in contact with the mystery of God in the ordinary, everyday events of our lives.  With feminine tact and with 'the ability to combine penetrating intuition with words of support and encouragement' (John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater 46), Mary sustained the faith of Peter and the Apostles in the Upper Room, and today she sustains my faith and your faith. ...

"When the Apostles, filled with the Holy Spirit, went out to the whole world proclaiming the Gospel, one of them, John, the Apostle of love, took Mary into his home (cf. Jn 19:27). It was precisely because of his profound bond with Jesus and with Mary, that he could so effectively insist on the truth that 'God is love' (1 Jn 4:8,16). These were the words that I placed at the beginning of the first Encyclical of my Pontificate: Deus Caritas Est! This is the most important, most central truth about God. To all for whom it is difficult to believe in God, I say again today: 'God is love'. Dear friends, be witnesses to this truth. You will surely be so if you place yourselves in the school of Mary. Beside her you will experience for yourselves that God is love, and you will transmit this message to the world with the richness and the variety that the Holy Spirit will know how to enkindle."

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Special Role of Seniors

One of the talks I usually give on my retreats is about the perspective that death gives to life. Realizing that we are not going to live on this earth forever should make us use the time we have well. I like to quote from Psalm 90: "Seventy is the sum of our years, or eighty, if we are strong." Then I look out at the retreatants and observe that we have some "strong" people in the group. The psalm goes on: "Teach us to count our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart."

A few weeks ago I had two retreats with "strong" people. They were residents of the Little Sisters of the Poor Residences for the Elderly in Scranton, PA and Totowa, NJ.  In fact one of the residents in Totowa is very "strong." He's the retired archbishop of Newark who is 101 years old. 

I enjoy giving retreats to "seniors," as one person told me I should call older people. They are often forgotten and aren't mobile enough to get out to a retreat house.  Society in general treats them as useless and unproductive. Yet they play a very important role in the life of society and the Church.  They are wisdom figures. A comedian once said: "You don't get to be old by being a fool."  I enjoyed telling those older retreatants that their prayers, joined to their sacrifices and sufferings, play an important role.  And so that they would know this wasn't just my opinion, I shared with them a quote from Pope Benedict XVI.  He said the following when he visited a home for the elderly November 12, 2012:

"I come to you as Bishop of Rome, but also as an old man visiting his peers. ... I would like to tell you with deep conviction: it is beautiful to be old! ... We have received the gift of longevity. Living is beautiful even at our age, despite some 'aches and pains' and a few limitations.

"In the Bible longevity is considered a blessing of God; today this blessing is widespread and must be seen as a gift to appreciate and to make the most of. And yet frequently society, dominated by the logic of efficiency and gain, does not accept it as such: on the contrary it frequently rejects it, viewing the elderly as non-productive or useless.

"When life becomes frail, in the years of old age, it never loses its value and its dignity: each one of us, at any stage of life, is wanted and loved by God, each one is important and necessary.

"Dear elderly brothers and sisters, the days sometimes seem long and empty, with difficulties, few engagements and few meetings. Never feel down at heart: you are a wealth for society, even in suffering and sickness. And this phase of life is also a gift for deepening the relationship with God. ... Do not forget that one of the valuable resources you possess is the essential one of prayer: become interceders with God, praying with faith and with constancy. Pray for the Church, and pray for me, for the needs of the world, for the poor, so that there may be no more violence in the world. The prayers of the elderly can protect the world....  The Pope loves you and relies on all of you! May you feel beloved by God and know how to bring a ray of God's love to this society of ours...."

Friday, August 16, 2013

Cor Unum

I'm at my old "stomping grounds," the Jesuit Retreat House in Lake Elmo, Minnesota, located on Lake Demontreville and often referred to by that name. I gave my first retreat here in 1986 and was part of the staff from 2000-2003. Sixty-nine men from around the Twin Cities and as far away as Kansas and California are on retreat with me.

I've given several retreats this summer but have not been able to write about them because I didn't have the necessary computer access. Last week I was at Conception Abbey in the northwest corner of Missouri where I gave a retreat to members of Cor Unum. Though founded in France in 1790, the groups that comprise "Cor Unum" (One Heart), are secular institutes, a relatively new phenomenon in the Church. After Opus Dei, they were the second such canonically recognized group.

The year of their foundation was a difficult time for the Church in France. It was a time of revolution and suppression. The Society of Jesus or Jesuits had already been suppressed but one of their members, Fr. Joseph de Cloriviere, continued to function as a priest and imagined a new form of consecrated life. In a letter dated 1810, he wrote: "I conceived it would be the setting up of a sort of universal Religious Society that would be open to any kind of people, or any age, country or condition, being capable of the evangelical perfection. They would not separate their members from the ordinary faithful people...." This "Society" had shaky beginnings and was re-founded in 1918 by Fr. Daniel Fontaine, another French priest.

Today this group can be found around the world and calls itself "Cor Unum" or "The Family of the Heart of Jesus." A brochure describes them as follows: "The Family of the Heart of Jesus is comprised of three secular institutes (one for clerics, one for celibate laymen, and one for celibate laywomen) and an association of the faithful for married persons and others who wish to belong to the Family without taking vows. The secular institutes are a special structure within the Roman Catholic Church, a form of 'consecrated life,' designed to enable single lay people and diocesan priests to live and work in the secular world while consecrating themselves more fully to the Lord. However, members to do not live in communities (necessarily), and do not wear anything distinctive." The group shares a common spirituality of devotion to the Sacred Heart and of St. Ignatius Loyola. Before its members pronounce their permanent vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, they make the full thirty day Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

On the retreat I gave there were diocesan priests, single lay men and women, and a married couple who had come together from both coasts and places in between. At the end of the retreat, two women pronounced their permanent vows in the Institute of the Heart of Jesus. As always, giving a retreat like this was a blessing for me and another opportunity to learn more about the wonderfully diverse Catholic Church.

Saturday, August 3, 2013


The theme of this month's All-Night Vigil in the Milwaukee Archdiocese was "The Imitation of Christ."  I had the second talk at 11 last night. The topic was from Chapter 27 of Book III of this classic work of Christian spirituality: "Self-love is the greatest hindrance to the highest good."

Isn't "self-love" good? Shouldn't we love ourselves? God loves us with an infinite love and shouldn't we love what God loves? 

Yes, but our whole notion of love is warped. We love what or who makes us feel good, what gives us pleasure. This notion of love is the opposite of true love because it's all about ME. It's all about "getting" rather than "giving."

Behind the original temptation and sin was this self-focus. Our ancestral parents were tempted by the Enemy to stop thinking about God and to focus all their attention on themselves. "Can you really trust God? Wouldn't it be better to have more control of your life? Then you wouldn't have to bother God. You could be more independent, more in charge. Why, you could be gods yourselves and then you wouldn't ever have to fear that God wouldn't be there for you!"

Our parents gave in to that seductive line of reasoning and the consequence was immediate. They became totally self-conscious. They felt shame in each other's presence. They hid from each other, covering themselves, and they hid from God. As the story goes, God came looking for them so that they might take their daily walk during the breezy time of the day. He called out to them. Adam answered: "I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid myself (Genesis: 3:10). In that short response, the man refers to himself five times. The world now revolves around him. He is the center of his universe, of his consciousness. It's as though the great internal spotlight of his thoughts and concerns has turned away from God and his wife and turned entirely in on himself.

This is not "self-love."  His choice led to "self-slavery" and ultimately "self-hate."  Jesus came to save us from this.  Rather than grasping at equality with God the Father, Jesus "emptied himself, ... he humbled himself" (Philippians 2:6-8).

We have an expression for a proud man. We say, "he's full of himself."  Jesus emptied himself to be filled, not with himself and his ego, but with the love of the Father for him and with love for all God's children.  He taught us the secret of happiness which much of the world does not comprehend: in losing ourselves, we find ourselves. Or as the Peace Prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi goes: "it is in giving that we receive." 

This is true love of self and it leads to the highest good, that for which every human person was created: love of God and union with God, and love of neighbor or the communion of saints. Jesus shows us the way. He shows us that in giving all, we receive all. The first words of this chapter from "The Imitation of Christ" are "you must give all for all."

A geography lesson can help us here. The Jordan River flows south from mountains in Syria. It flows into the Sea of Galilee, a body of water filled with life, where Jesus and his apostles fished. The water flows into the north end of the sea and out the other end, continuing its journey south to the Dead Sea where its journey ends. The Dead Sea has no outlet. It receives the water of the Jordan River but does not give it away. Instead, the water sits and stagnates. There is no life there.

Our lives are like that. If we hold on to love and focus all our attention on ourselves, we stagnate and die. If we lose ourselves in the love of God and neighbor, giving without counting the cost, we find life. Only empty hands are able to be filled.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Meek and Humble of Heart

Today's Gospel is one in which Jesus explicitly describes his heart. It's from Matthew 11: 28-30 and goes like this:

Jesus said:
“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am meek and humble of heart;
and you will find rest for yourselves.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”
Meekness and humility are not valued in the world.  Our entertainment and sports-driven world glorify being on top, being #1, not giving way to others. How can the "rest" that Jesus promises to the "meek and humble of heart" be real?  How does being meek and humble lead to peace?

Meekness does not mean being a doormat for everyone in the world to walk upon. Humility does not mean thinking of oneself as the worst or lowest.

One of my favorite meditation books is an updated four-volume series published by Ignatius Press, written by Carmelite Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, entitled Divine Intimacy. In volume 3, writing about the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Fr. Gabriel explains what it means to be meek and humble and how they lead to peace.  Here are some excerpts which I've taken the liberty to paraphrase a bit:

Jesus fulfilled his mission as savior especially through meekness and self-sacrifice. This was the meekness he proposed to his disciples as the condition for interior peace. Too often people lose their peace of heart and consequently disturb the peace of their relationships with others because they let anger agitate them.  Jesus proposes gentleness as a condition for doing good and for winning over our brothers and sisters to God. Violence convinces no one, rather it turns away and hardens hearts; while meekness bends and saves.

Christ, "gentle of heart," does not avoid the fight when the glory of the Father and people's salvation are at stake. He welcomes sinners with infinite kindness, but he openly condemns sin, especially pride, hypocrisy, and hardness of heart. He also uses strong language and forceful actions like that against those who were profaning the temple.

Jesus' meekness is the remedy for our wrath and anger, and for our violence and intolerance. Meekness soothes life's sufferings and disposes us to accept the will of God and to abandon ourselves into his hands in times of tribulation.

Jesus was meek because he was humble: he did not seek to assert himself, nor to be applauded, neither did he pursue his own glory, but desired only the honor and glory of the kingdom of the Father; his one aim was to accomplish the mission entrusted to him in total dedication to the salvation of humanity.  We are not meek, because we are not humble, and even in performing good works, we do not know how to renounce our affirmation of self to its very core. Jesus was essentially humble because he acknowledged and fully lived his dependence on the Father. We are not humble because we are not fully conscious of our total dependence on God; although we may be convinced of it in theory, we are not so convinced in practice, but are always, to a greater or less extent, escaping from the service of God to serve ourselves, our own pride and self-love. 

These thoughts of Fr. Gabriel challenge me to find my identity as Jesus did: to know myself as a beloved son of the Father who loves me with an infinite love.  Knowing this in a deeper way one day and a time, I will be secure and at peace and ultimately untroubled by the ups and downs of the events of daily life.

Fr. Gabriel closed his reflection with a prayer from St. Margaret Mary:

O Jesus, permit me to enter your Heart as I would a school. In this school teach me the science of the saints, the science of pure love. O good Master, I shall listen attentively to your words: "Learn of me for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls."