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.