Friday, March 30, 2012

Communities of Prayer

Upon my return from the Dallas area where I just gave a parish mission, I told the Apostleship of Prayer staff that I wanted to move our office there. Now I know the pleasant Spring weather of 70's and 80's will soon enough turn to the 100's of Summer. And I know that the 40 degrees that greeted me when I left the Milwaukee airport will turn to 70's and 80's in the Summer. But my attraction to Dallas is not just the weather.

It was an amazing experience to meet such fervent Catholics. About 300 people came to my parish mission at Mary Immaculate Parish where it's estimated there are 6,000 families. Also, I was blessed to have lunch with Kurt Klement who runs one of the largest high school ministries in the country at St. Ann's parish in Coppell where there are an estimated 8,000 families and where Fr. Phil Hurley, S.J., our director of youth and young adults, will be leading a Hearts on Fire retreat June 22-23.

Another blessing of my trip was to meet Tom Grossman, the director of campus ministry for Mary Immaculate Grade School and the Young Adult Coordinator at the parish. His card has the following Scripture quote from Luke 12: 49: "I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!" Tom is truly on fire with the love of God. Moved by the call of Blessed John Paul II for a new evangelization and for our communities to be "schools of prayer," Tom has helped start a group called "Communities of Prayer." One of their prayer cards caught my eye because it included the Morning Offering. My hope for the Apostleship of Prayer is that we not only unite in praying that daily prayer with the Pope's monthly intentions in mind, but that we truly become "Apostles of Prayer." The Apostles were the friends of Jesus who spent time with him. I think the materials available through Communities of Prayer are ideal for helping us grow in prayer and in our relationship with the Lord. Their "Lectio Divina" booklets can help us make this tried and true method of praying with Scriptures part of our life and the resources available at "Link to Liturgy" are excellent for using the Sunday and weekday Mass readings for prayer.

Once a month Mary Immaculate Parish holds a special Saturday night adoration service followed by entertainment and fellowship. It's called "The Shepherd's Cafe" and I met Yong Oh who is instrumental in organizing it. After Mass and dinner, Fr. Michael Forge, the pastor, and I stopped in for a visit. Throughout the evening the Sacrament of Reconciliation was available and there was a line for it the whole time that I was there.

Throughout the mission people mistook me for Fr. Michael. I guess that's because we part our hair the same way.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

"I Will Draw Everyone to Myself"

I'm giving a parish mission this week at Mary Immaculate Church in Farmers Branch, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. I'm preaching at the 5 English Masses this weekend (there are also 3 Spanish Masses) and then giving mission talks on Monday and Tuesday and helping with a Reconciliation Service on Wednesday. Here's the gist of my homily this weekend.

Jesus said: "And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself." The Gospel of John states that in saying this, Jesus was "indicating the kind of death he would die." Jesus, on the cross, draws all people to himself, to his Sacred Heart. This is the greatest sign of love the world has ever known. In his first encyclical letter, "God is Love," Pope Benedict said that in a world that uses the word "love" for all sorts of things, our definition for love must begin at the pierced side of Jesus on the cross.

The Eucharist is the Sacrament of Love. At every Mass Jesus is lifted up and draws us to himself. He gives himself for us and to us. The Eucharist is the "new covenant" about which Jeremiah wrote in the first reading. It is the covenant and law of love that is not out there, exterior to the human person, but is within us and written on our hearts. It is written there because Jesus unites his Heart with ours in Holy Communion and transforms our hearts so that we are able to love as he loves.

When we look at the love of Jesus revealed through his pierced heart on the cross, we see that love is not so much a feeling as a decision, a choice. It is not so much an interior feeling but action. And it is not automatic.

Our second reading from Chapter 5 of the Letter to the Hebrews shows this. It is a strange passage that requires some reflection to better understand. First, it says that Jesus "offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears." Of course Jesus prayed to the Father throughout his life, but this description makes us immediately think of his prayer in a garden called Gethsemane. There he prayed, "Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me" (Luke 22: 42). Hebrews says that the prayer of Jesus was heard. Every prayer is heard. But sometimes the answer that is given is not the one for which we are praying, just as it was with Jesus. The cup of suffering and death on the cross did not pass. Jesus drank it to its bitter dregs.

Then our second reading goes on to say, "Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him." What?! It sounds as though at some point Jesus was not perfect and then became perfect through his obedience and suffering. How are we to understand this?

Think of the physical muscles of a body. A baby has perfect "baby muscles" but they need to grow and develop in order to become a child's muscles, a teen's muscles, and an adult's muscles. The virtues--like obedience or faith, trust or hope, patience or chastity, or the greatest, love--also need to grow and develop. They could be called "spiritual muscles." Just as the physical muscles of Jesus needed to grow and develop, so too his spiritual muscles. They were always there in perfect form, but they became even stronger as they developed until, in the case of his obedience, it reached its fullest perfection in the Garden of Gethsemane and the next day on the cross.

How do muscles whether physical or spiritual develop and grow? Through the hard work and discipline of exercise. Virtues don't come automatically or out of the blue. They are given to us in seed form and we need to exercise them in order for them to grow and reach perfection. Very often people tell me that they pray for patience and God does not hear nor answer their prayer. They say that they end up facing even more situations where they lose their patience. God is answering their prayer for patience; just not the way they expect. They expect the virtue of patience to come out of the blue in answer to their prayer when the truth is that God answers their prayer by giving them more and more opportunities to exercise patience so that it will grow.

A parish mission is a time to exercise. We will come away this week to reflect on the gifts we have received in the Holy Eucharist and Baptism. We will talk about ways that we can exercise the gifts that are given to us in these Sacraments. Then, as we allow the Lord to draw us to himself when he is lifted up at Mass, and as we receive his Body and Blood, including his Heart, to transform us, we will be better able to live the transformation in our daily lives.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Saint Joseph

This is one of my favorite pictures of St. Joseph. The artist is Christopher Santer and some of his works, including 75 drawings of various saints, can be found at Pacem Studio. I've used this painting on retreats when I talk about the Hidden Life of Jesus and His relationship with St. Joseph. Very often retreatants look at this image and feel deep sadness and pain because they didn't have the warm relationship with their fathers that is depicted here. Their fathers worked hard to support the family but were both physically and emotionally absent from them. Or else they say that the obvious pride on the face of Joseph is just the opposite of what they experienced from their fathers whom they never seemed able to please. In these situations I tell people that they can turn to St. Joseph for healing. He was the foster-father of Jesus and he can be our foster-father as well. We can turn to him and ask him to fill the emptiness left by an absent father and foster the healing of the pain of a difficult childhood.

St. Joseph is certainly one of our most popular saints. We talked about him on Relevant Radio's Inner Life show today and asked people to call in with their stories about how St. Joseph had helped them or their families. There were calls throughout the one hour show and even the following Facebook post that was written before the show:

"Wish I could tune in! My family has claimed St. Joseph as our patron saint ever since we were drawn to him when my husband lost his job a few years ago. St. Joseph helped to ease our anxieties and showed us how to trust in God in all things, just like he was told by the angel to not leave Mary's side after he found out she would have a baby. Sometimes you just have to let go of the reins and put all your trust in God! Not "sometimes." All the time. After we began daily prayers to St. Joseph, it was only a few weeks before the interviews started pouring in, and two months later my husband started his new job! Praise God and thank you St. Joseph for your mighty intercession."

In preparing for the show and celebrating St. Joseph's feast today, I learned that Blessed Pope John XXIII, the same pope who in 1962 inserted the name of St. Joseph into Eucharist Prayer I, the Roman Canon, chose St. Joseph to be the protector of the Second Vatican Council in an apostolic letter he wrote on March 19, 1961.

St. Joseph is known as the "just man" and the "man of faith." I can't help thinking that Pope Benedict, whose baptismal name is "Joseph," will ask his patron saint to play a special role in the upcoming Year of Faith which will begin on October 11, the 50th anniversary of the start of the Second Vatican Council.

I enjoy "word play" and so was interested to see Pope Benedict engage in it in a homily he gave during the Vespers celebration for the feast of St. Joseph when he visited Africa in 2009. He said: "In Joseph, faith is not separated from action. His faith had a decisive effect on his actions. Paradoxically, it was by acting, by carrying out his responsibilities, that he stepped aside and left God free to act, placing no obstacles in his way. Joseph is a 'just man' (Mt 1: 19) because his existence is 'ad-justed' to the word of God."

May St. Joseph help us all "ad-just" to the word of God so that we may become truly just and righteous people!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Humility and Listening

I'm in the middle of a parish mission at St. Susanna's Church in Penn Hills, PA, a suburb of Pittsburgh, a place I've never been. I was able to get together yesterday with a friend of mine whom I hadn't seen in nine years. We had lunch and a quick tour of a beautiful city built on rivers and hills and which I imagine is even more beautiful when the trees are filled with leaves. Spring is more advanced here than in Wisconsin and I saw my first robins of the season yesterday.

The focus of the mission is the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the talks over the four days are: "The True Love Story," "Our Response to God's Love," "Living our Response One Day at a Time," and "Meeting the Merciful Heart of Jesus."

I used a story from Fr. Larry Richards at Mass today. It involves two people chatting when the phone rings. One gets up to answer it and immediately begins talking: "Oh, hello. I'm so glad you called. Say... could you help me out. I've got some health issues that are getting me down and I'm really worried about having to have surgery. And then there are my finances, you know, how with the economy and with gas prices rising, it's really hard to make ends meet. And then there's my son who's been unemployed now for two years and had to move back home and you know how tough that can be having an adult child back home after he's been away, on his own for a while. It's pretty stressful at times. And then my daughter could really use some help getting accepted into the program that she's trying to get into at the university. It's really competitive and her grades haven't been the best but she's a really good person and I think she'd really be able to help people a lot someday. Oh, and then there's my neighbor. Man is he cranky and I just wish he would lighten up a bit and not make such a big deal about where the lot line is and who's supposed to be cutting what grass. So if you could help me out I'd really appreciate it. Thanks and bye for now...."

The other asks: "Who was that?"

"That? Oh, that was God."

"Well, what did He want?"

"Uh, I don't know."

The obvious point of Fr. Richards' story (with which I've taken some liberties in relating) is that much of our prayer can be talking to God and asking for help but never really listening or hearing what God wants.

The readings at Mass today (2 Kings 5: 1-15 and Luke 4: 24-30) show people who have agenda and ideas that get in the way of listening. Naaman's agenda is that the rivers of his own country are much better than the Jordan. He refuses to bathe in the Jordan until his servants convince him to do so. He listens and follows their advice and is healed of his leprosy. Similarly, the people of Jesus' hometown of Nazareth have preconceived ideas about Him and refuse to believe that He is a prophet, much less the messiah. They refuse to listen to Him and Jesus moves on from there.

It takes humility to listen, to let go of our own agenda and ideas. Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less. Humility means taking the focus off oneself and putting it on God and others. God wants us to share what is on our mind and what we need. But we must always be ready to stop talking and start listening to God as He speaks to us in the silence of prayer and through people who, like Naaman's servants, care for us.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Consecration to the Two Hearts

Early this week I commuted between Milwaukee and Kenosha to give a parish mission at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. The theme of the mission was the Sacred Heart and how we encounter the Heart of Jesus at Mass in the Liturgy of the Word and in the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

On Saturday I attended the Men of Christ conference in Milwaukee. Before leading a blessing for fathers to pray over their sons and an individual consecration prayer, I said the following:

After leading the Israelites into the promised land, Joshua said to the people: "Fear the lord and serve him completely and sincerely. ... If it does not please you to serve the Lord, decide today whom you will serve.... As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord" (Joshua 24: 14-15). In 1979 Bob Dylan came out with the song "Gotta Serve Somebody" which won for him the best rock vocal performance by a male in 1980. What he sang is true. Everyone has to serve. The question is whom or what? Which side are you on?

Admiral Jeremiah Denton knew the one he served and the one he served did not let him down. He served the Sacred Heart of Jesus. You can see a video of him that is in the national archives. Just click on "Contents" and scroll down to the last entry under "Scenes from Hell." He was shot down over North Vietnam on July 18, 1965 and wasn't released until February 17, 1973. Of his almost eight years in prison, he spent four of them in solitary confinement. The video shows him being interviewed by a reporter in North Vietnam. All during the interview he blinked his eyes in a way that seemed strange to those who later saw the footage. His blinks were Morse Code and spelled out the word "torture."

How did Admiral Denton survive? Fr. Jim Willig, in his book about his struggle with cancer, "Lessons from the School of Suffering," quoted Admiral Denton :

When I was in prison in Vietnam in solitary confinement, my captor would continually torture me. One day I was tied to a rack. A young soldier was ordered to torture me and break me. During this torture, when I honestly felt I was at my breaking point, a beautiful prayer came instantly to my mind, even though I wasn't praying. The prayer was "Sacred Heart of Jesus, I give my life to you." So, I prayed that prayer over and over again. The more I prayed it, the more I felt I truly was giving my life to the Lord. Then this peace came over me like a warm blanket, and I no longer felt pain--only peace. The soldier torturing me saw this transformation in my face and stopped his torture. He went to his commanding officer and said, "I'm sorry. I can't do this." And they let me go back to my cell. From that day on, I continued to use that prayer of peace, "Sacred Heart of Jesus, I give my life to you."

I talked with Admiral Denton about this and he said that what struck him as unusual is that he had learned prayers to the Sacred Heart as a child and they all used the word "thee," but the prayer that came to his mind out of the blue used the more familiar "you."

Admiral Denton gave his life to the Sacred Heart who did not let him down. Now we will declare whom we will serve. We will give our lives, our love, our all to the Sacred Heart of Jesus who gave His life, His love, His all to us. We will consecrate ourselves to both the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary because these two Hearts beat as one for the salvation of everyone. We want our hearts to beat as one with their Hearts.

Then, I led the 2,500 to 3,000 men who had gathered in the following prayer which Douglas Leonard, the director of operations and development of the Apostleship of Prayer, had written for the occasion.

Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, I consecrate myself to you today in grateful response to your love for me. I offer you my body, soul, mind, and heart. Receive me and send your Holy Spirit to guide me in the way of perfect love.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, you stood under the cross and shared in the sufferings of Jesus and his perfect act of consecration for my salvation and that of the whole world. Jesus gave you to us to be our mother. Pray that my heart, like your Immaculate Heart, may beat as one with the Sacred Heart of your Son.

Jesus and Mary, as I consecrate myself to you two Hearts, I pray for those you have given me-my family, my friends, and all the people in my life. May we be united in the family of the Church and share in the mission of bringing the Gospel to every human being. And lead us all safely home to live forever in the love of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.