Sunday, January 29, 2017

Jesus' Secret of Happiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 23, 2017

"I Will Make You Fishers of Men and Women"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

On the Streets and in the Cold

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

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

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

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

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

As Pope Francis reminded us in "The Joy of the Gospel" (#279): "No single act of love for God will be lost, no generous effort is meaningless, no painful endurance is wasted.  All of these encircle our world like a vital force."