Saturday, August 6, 2016

The Power of Prayer

Is God all-powerful?  When he walked this earth was Jesus God?  Was Jesus all-powerful?  Most Christians would answer “yes” to these questions, and yet we have a scene in the Gospels where Jesus appears to have limited power.

Mark 6: 1-6 tells of Jesus’ return to his hometown of Nazareth where he is rejected.  The neighbors take “offense” at Jesus because he is too familiar to them.  He can’t be a prophet or a wonder-worker.  “Is he not the carpenter?”  As a result, “he was not able to perform any mighty deed there, apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them.  He was amazed at their lack of faith.” 

It seems that Jesus’ power was limited by people’s lack of faith.  This makes sense.  God created humanity so that we—God and us—would work together tending the earth and caring for God’s human family. Being all-powerful, God could have done everything by himself.  But love involves sharing and so God created humanity to share in the work.  Children experience the love of their parents when they are invited to help them in the work that adults do.  They feel special and included.  And so it is with God.

Mary—whom the poet William Wordsworth called “our tainted nature’s solitary boast”—is the model for humanity.  She cooperated completely with God’s grace and became the “Mediatrix of Grace,” the means by which the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity became human.  She was a perfect channel for God’s grace to flow into the world.

Sin and lack of faith block grace’s flow.  Thus Jesus’ powerful love was blocked by his townspeople’s lack of faith.  Conversely, faith-filled prayer and action open channels for God’s powerful grace to enter the world.

When he met with Polish Bishops recently, Pope Francis told them: “We can all have an open heart and think of spending one hour in the parishes, an hour a week, of adoration and prayer. Prayer moves mountains!”  Open hearts, like the Immaculate Heart of Mary, allow the power that created the universe to enter the world. 

The message that Mary gave to three children in Portugal in 1917 was “prayer and penance.”  Mary said that if people prayed, especially a daily Rosary, and offered sacrificial actions like fasting, a greater war than the one that was currently going on could be avoided.  People did not listen and the world endured a second “world war.”

But many people did listen. They prayed and did penance.  In 1989 something happened that those of us who grew up in the 1950’s and ‘60’s never expected.  The Berlin Wall came down. A large portion of it is now on display at Our Lady’s shrine in Fatima.  Then, two years later, the Soviet Union broke up as the Communists lost power. 

But before that, as though to prepare the stage for what many thought was unthinkable—the end of the Soviet Union—prayer wrought another miracle.  On May 13, 1981 Pope John Paul II was shot in St. Peter’s Square.  By all accounts he should have died.  He didn’t and afterwards he attributed his survival to Our Blessed Mother.  He said that while one finger pulled the trigger, another finger guided the bullet millimeters away from certain death.  That bullet now rests in a crown used to honor Our Lady of Fatima.  In the millennial year 2000, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wrote: “That here ‘a mother’s hand’ had deflected the fateful bullet only shows once more that there is no immutable destiny, that faith and prayer are forces which can influence history and that in the end prayer is more powerful than bullets and faith more powerful than armies.”

Perhaps an even greater example of the power of faith-filled prayer is a little known story within a larger event that occurred seventy-one years ago today.  On this day in 1945, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.  Eight blocks from where the bomb went off was the Church of Our Lady’s Assumption. Next door was the rectory where eight Jesuit missionaries resided.  One of them was Fr. Pedro Arrupe who later served as the General of the Jesuits from 1965 to 1983. Another was Fr. Hubert Schiffer who had just finished celebrating Mass and was sitting down to breakfast when the blast occurred. He wrote: “Suddenly, a terrific explosion filled the air with one bursting thunder stroke. An invisible force lifted me from the chair, hurled me through the air, shook me, battered me, whirled me ‘round and round’ like a leaf in a gust of autumn wind.” 

All around there was devastation, but, while damaged, the church and rectory stood and became a makeshift hospital for those who survived the blast. Dr. Stephen Rinehart who worked for the U.S. Department of Defense testified:  

 No way any human could have survived nor should anything have been standing at 1 kilometer.  I think there were a few badly burned survivors at ten to fifteen kilometers (all—except the Jesuits—died within fifteen years of some form of cancer). There are no physical laws to explain why the Jesuits were untouched in the Hiroshima air blast. There is no other actual or test data where a structure such as this was not totally destroyed at this standoff distance by an atomic weapon. All who were at this range from the epicenter should have received enough radiation to be dead within at most a matter of minutes if nothing else happened to them.  There is no known way to design a uranium-235 atomic    bomb, which could leave such a large discrete area intact while destroying everything around it immediately outside the fireball (by shaping the plasma). From a scientific viewpoint, what happened to those Jesuits at Hiroshima still defies all human logic from the laws of physics as understood today (or at any time in the future). It must be concluded that some other (external) force was present whose power and/or capability to transform energy and matter as it relates to humans is beyond current comprehension.       

Fr. Schiffer, who died in 1982, said: “We believe that we survived because we were living the Message of Fatima. We lived and prayed the Rosary daily in that home.” 

The ways of God are mysterious.  The Rosary is not magic.  Somehow God wanted to give a sign of the power of faith-filled prayer and the special protection of Mother Mary, Our Lady of Fatima. 

The question is: do I take faith and prayer seriously?  Events in our lives, in our nation, and in our world test our faith.  It’s easy to get discouraged and give up.  But if prayer can move bullets, bring down the Berlin Wall, and protect eight Jesuits from the atomic bomb, shouldn’t I trust in its power to continue to work wonders?    

Thursday, August 4, 2016

A First Mass Homily

Homily for the First Mass of Fr. Vincent Strand, S.J. 
St. Bruno Parish, Dousman, WI -- June 5, 2016
1 Kings 17: 17-24;  Galatians 1: 11-14a, 15a,c, 16a, 17, 19;  Luke 7: 11-17

Two women.  Both are heart-broken. They have lost their husbands, and now, their own flesh and blood, their sons.

The Prophet Elijah was a boarder at one widow’s home during a time of drought and famine.  God miraculously provided food for the three—the prophet, the widow and her son—but now the son dies.  Elijah feels her pain.  He prays.  And God brings the boy back to life.

Jesus was recognized as “a great prophet,” in the tradition of Elijah.  He feels the widow of Nain’s pain and is moved with pity. Then, with his own power because he is Son of God, he brings the youth back to life.

Commenting on this story, Pope Francis said:

This “compassion” is God’s love for humanity, it is mercy--thus the attitude of God in contact with human misery, with our destitution, our suffering, our anguish. The biblical term “compassion” recalls a mother’s womb. The mother in fact reacts in a way all her own in confronting the pain of her children. It is in this way, according to Scripture, that God loves us. What is the fruit of this love and mercy? It is life! … The mercy of Jesus is not only an emotion; it is a force which gives life that raises man.

The restoration to life of the two sons is beautiful, but temporary. They will die again.  Their being raised to earthly life is a sign of something better. Because Jesus rose from the dead, he has power to give not just a temporary extension of life, but eternal life.  He can raise people from the dead to live forever with him in heaven.  This is part of the Creed which we proclaim together:  “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”

Jesus shares this power to give new and eternal life with the Church, his Body. 

Vincent, Jesus shared this power with you yesterday. Jesus called you and yesterday he empowered you to heal broken hearts and souls.  Pope Francis, in a recent interview book entitled “The Name of God is Mercy,” said that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is not like going to the dry cleaner to get stains removed.  It’s much more, much deeper. It involves healing wounds.  You are now an instrument of this healing and life-giving grace.

St. Paul, as we heard in the Second Reading, experienced the merciful love of God that took him from being a persecutor and zealot to proclaiming the love of God revealed in Jesus.

Pope Francis, at age of seventeen, on September 21, 1953, went to confession and had such a profound experience of God’s merciful love—and the healing and peace that it alone can give—that he chose to become a Jesuit priest.  You have also experienced the profound merciful love of Jesus that has drawn you to this vocation.

In the Novitiate you wrote:

As I grew more and more aware of God’s great love for me, suddenly my vocation seemed simple: to bring the love of Jesus to the world. For me, the love of Jesus was symbolized by the love of his Heart. I felt Christ calling me to share the love of his Heart, to be an apostle of his Heart. This, it seemed to me, was at the core of what it means to be a Jesuit. I knew it was to the Society of Jesus that God was calling me.

The image of the Heart of Christ that you chose for your ordination card is striking.  It’s not pretty, not sentimental. It was etched into a wall in one of the cells in the starvation bunker in Auschwitz. It’s just down the hall from St. Maximilian Kolbe’s cell. 

And on the wall opposite this image is another—
the one that is spoken of in the quote from Pope
Benedict XVI that you chose for the back of your card.  It’s a crucifixion scene—the Cross.

[We know that in the end—as Saint Ignatius of Loyola saw so clearly—the only real “standard” against which all human reality can be measured is the Cross and its message of an unmerited love which triumphs over evil, sin and death, creating new life and unfading joy. The Cross reveals that we find ourselves only by giving our lives away, receiving God’s love as an unmerited gift and working to draw all men and women into the beauty of that love and the light of the truth which alone brings salvation to the world.]

In that place of darkness—symbol of humanity’s inhumanity, of sin, and the hatred and violence it brings, there are images of love—the Cross and the Pierced Heart

You were ordained yesterday to bring the light of Christ’s love into the darkness. You will do this through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. 

You will do this through the prophetic ministry of the Word, speaking words that challenge us to believe in the love of God and to have hope when it is so easy to despair; to, as some have said, comfort the troubled and trouble the comfortable; to speak and write the truth that saves and to do so with love.

But more, you are now able to bring to people the very One who forgives, heals, and gives eternal life.  When you celebrate the Eucharist, Christ makes himself present through you. He makes present his life-giving death on the cross and his resurrection. Through you the bread and wine become the Body and Blood for us to receive and to be transformed. 

Pope Benedict XVI spoke of this in Cologne Germany at World Youth Day 2005. Your brothers were there, but you were not able to go because you had just entered the Novitiate.

Speaking about the Last Supper, Pope Benedict said:

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

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

To use an image well known to us today, this is like inducing nuclear fission in the very heart of being - the victory of love over hatred, the victory of love over death. Only this intimate explosion of good conquering evil can then trigger off the series of transformations that little by little will change the world.

All other changes remain superficial and cannot save. This first fundamental transformation of violence into love, of death into life, brings other changes in its wake. Bread and wine become his Body and Blood.

But it must not stop there; on the contrary, the process of transformation must now gather momentum. The Body and Blood of Christ are given to us so that we ourselves will be transformed in our turn. We are to become the Body of Christ, his own Flesh and Blood.

Through your service at the altar, Vincent, we receive the Bread of Life, the food that transforms us, in Pope Benedict’s words, into “the Body of Christ, his own Flesh and Blood.”  As “the Body of Christ, his own Flesh and Blood,” all of us are now empowered to bring the merciful love of God into our own little corners of the world. The Eucharist, of which you are now a special servant, makes this possible.

We thank God for the call that you received and the grace with which you were able to accept the call. 

St. John Vianney, patron saint of all priests, said:

"The priesthood is the love of the Heart of Jesus.”

This love involves sacrifice, something you’ve obviously learned from the beginning, from the sacrifices that you’ve seen your family make. Thank you for offering yourself to be a priest, a Jesuit, an apostle of the Heart of Jesus.