Saturday, October 31, 2009


(All Saints)

The feast of All Saints today and the commemoration of All Souls tomorrow are perfect opportunities to recall to ourselves the catholicity of the Church. We are members of the Catholic Church, practitioners of Catholic Christianity. Catholic is a Greek word that simply means general or universal. The Church is ‘universal’ or ‘general’ in many ways. In one sense the Church is universal because it extends over the whole earth. There’s even a Catholic chapel in Antarctica; it’s dedicated to St. Francis by the way. The moon, it’s already been decided, is part of the diocese of Rome, in case you were thinking of making a visit and were wondering who your bishop might be. The Church is also universal because it extends until the end of time. But most of all, the Church is universal and catholic because it passes beyond the boundaries of time and space to include both heaven and earth.

This teaching on the catholicity of the church comes to us in the classic language of the Church Triumphant, the Church Militant, and the Church Suffering or Expectant. The Church Triumphant is the Church we honor today on All Saints’ Day: those Christians who have completed their journey and enjoy the vision of God in heaven. We who make up the Church on earth are classically called the Church Militant; “militant” in the sense that we are in the midst of the struggle with sin and the work of ushering in the fullness of the Kingdom of God.

Indeed God is so merciful and gentle, that even if we don’t complete this purification of our hearts by the time we finish our pilgrimage of this life, even if we don’t succeed in allowing the grace of God to make us saints by the day we die, God provides a stage of further purification for us after our death. This is the Church Expectant or Suffering, the holy souls in purgatory. These are the dead for whom we are always praying at Mass, that they might arrive at the fullness of God’s presence in heaven and become the saints who pray for us.

So that’s the universal, Catholic Church: the Church on earth, in the midst of the struggle with sin and the work of the kingdom of God, the Church in purgatory made up of those enduring their final purifications for the perfection of the life of heaven, and the saints themselves, those who have completed their journey and enjoy the perfect joy and fulfillment of God’s immediate presence.

The good news for us today is that we enjoy the communion of saints. This ancient doctrine teaches us that the Church in Heaven, the Church on earth, and the church in Purgatory are not spiritually separate. We are all in communion with each other and connected to each other on the spiritual level. This is why I can ask Blessed Mary or St. Joseph or St. Francis to pray for me just as easily as I can ask one of you to pray for me. Our communion also enables us to pray for the holy souls in Purgatory, and even to apply our good intentions to them to speed them on their way to Heaven.

So in the sublime observances of these two wonderfully catholic days, let us honor all the saints, those who are canonized and those whose holiness remains unknown, those who kept the faith safe to be handed on to us, and those whom we knew ourselves. Let us give thanks to God for their constant prayer for us. Tomorrow, let us pray for the holy souls in Purgatory, thanking God for this most merciful expression of his gentleness, that the holy souls may be sped on their way to heaven and become intercessors for us who remain on the pilgrimage of this life.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Can You Drink The Cup That I Drink?

(29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

As soon as we begin to hear the gospel today, we know that something is very wrong. James and John approach the Lord and say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” What? The disciples don’t get to boss around the master, or the learners the teacher! That’s backwards! We’ve all been in those homes where it is the children who are running the family, or God forbid, the cat. The rotten fruits of such disorder are many, and such confusion is the problem of James and John as they try to tell the Lord what to do.

James and John want to sit on Jesus’ right and left when he comes into his glory. Fine; Jesus knows that they will, but he also knows that they do not understand that his glory will be his exaltation on the throne of the Cross. They do not understand what they have surely heard in the Scriptures: Isaiah’s prophecy that the one who accomplishes the will of the LORD will be God’s “suffering servant.”

Jesus asks, “Can you drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” St. John Chrysostom teaches that this cup is Jesus’ destiny as the Suffering Servant, and the baptism is his Passion. The Passion of Christ is a baptism because it accomplishes the purification and renewal of the world. Are James and John ready for the same destiny? Or perhaps closer to home, are we?

Here at Mass we ought to keep Jesus’ challenge in mind—“Can you drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”—when we approach the Lord’s suffering in Holy Communion. We who are devout Catholics have received Holy Communion many more times than we can remember, and so one danger for us is that we might begin to receive casually. It’s a serious thing to dare to receive Our Lord in Holy Communion. Here at Mass we receive his broken Body and his Blood poured out on the Cross. We consent to receive the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus Christ into our bodies. It ought to fill us with a little bit of healthy fear and trembling, because to receive the sacrifice of Christ into our lives and our bodies is to allow God to configure our souls to Christ the Suffering Servant. In our Holy Communion we are asking to drink Jesus’ own cup of suffering, and to be baptized into his Passion and death. Now this is the Passion and death that is the purifying baptism for the world, but that doesn’t make it easy. It is a joyful thing to receive our Lord in Holy Communion, but it is also a grave challenge.

This is how the reversal Jesus teaches at the end of the gospel today makes sense. When we consent to be configured to the sacrifice of Christ, when we become willing to share in the saving work of the Suffering Servant, we effect in our own selves a reversal of the abusive power structures of the world. The rulers of this world like to lord it over those subject to them, but Jesus says it shall not be so among us who are his disciples. “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.” To be great in Christ is to be servant; this is the salvation from abuse of power and oppression that God offers to the world in his Son. Let us reverently approach the Lord in Holy Communion today, and allow ourselves to be shaped into the pattern of God the Servant revealed to us in Jesus Christ, that God may accomplish in us the salvation He gives to the world in his Son.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

But Wait, There's More!

(28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

After our break last week for the feast of St. Francis, we return to our reading in the gospel of St. Mark, and we have a real treasure today in this account of a man who seeks to know from Jesus how he can “inherit eternal life.”

The story is worth breaking down step by step. We first meet the man when he runs up to Jesus and kneels down before him. So right away we see the man in a posture of prayer, kneeling before the Lord, and no different from we ourselves when we come here before the Lord’s sanctuary and kneel before him in the Most Blessed Sacrament. We also note that the man ran. This prayer of his is urgent, and it’s one of the most basic prayers: “Good Teacher, what must I do?” We all know this prayer; I’ll bet that we have all prayed it. For the young who still have to decide what to do with their lives, the prayer has a particularly strong edge, ‘Lord, what should I do? What will be my vocation in this life?’ But the prayer is real for all of us; all the way through life we find ourselves in new situations, in new troubles and joys that push us to prayer, to the seeking of what God means for us to do. This is one of the basic prayers of every human heart: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

The first answer Jesus gives is very plain: “You know the commandments,” he says. The way to salvation is no big secret; it isn’t specialized or arcane knowledge. The commandments are there for us to keep and inherit eternal life. So the man says, “all of these I have observed from my youth.” So what is this man’s problem? If he has kept all of the commandments from his youth, why is running up to the Teacher to ask what he is supposed to do? He seems to have already done what God asks!

Here we arrive at one of the spiritual truths that this gospel passage brings out. Has anyone here ever felt as if she or he wasn’t doing enough for God? You know, not praying enough, not thinking on God enough, not doing enough to live out our faith? I certainly feel that way all the time. I once read something by a retreat director who said that when people go on retreat, the first thing they do is start apologizing for not praying enough, not reflecting adequately on their Christian life, etc. Why do we feel that way? It’s simple: The Love of God is eternal and infinite. Our response to the Love of God, as limited creatures, is never going to live up to God, never going to be adequate to His infinity and eternity.

In fact, the holier we become in this life, the closer we come to the Mystery of God, the more inadequate our own prayer and devotion will feel. That’s why the saints saw themselves as the greatest of sinners. Because they were so close to God, the overwhelming brightness and goodness of God magnified their faults and sins. When people distance themselves from God, they stop caring about their sins. It’s only when we get close to God that we worry about them again.

So, if we ever felt as if our Christian lives or our prayer isn’t what it should be, congratulations! This is a sure sign of some closeness to God! And when we are ready to consent, the Love of God is always ready to invite us into the next step. Notice again one of the little details in the gospel: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him,” and that’s when Jesus invites the man to sell what he has, give to the poor, and to follow him.

When we consent to receive the Love of God, it’s not always ‘warm and fuzzy;’ God’s Love is very challenging! And as we heard, the man found that he wasn’t ready for the next step to which the Love of God invited him. He “went away sad” because of his many possessions. But notice also that it doesn’t say that the man didn’t do it! For all we know he may have regrouped spiritually in prayer, and fulfilled Jesus’ invitation later on. New moments in our spiritual life often seem overwhelming at first, but this is only to teach us to rely upon God’s help as we go forward.

So, as we make our Holy Communion today, may each of us run up to Jesus and kneel before him. Let us meet his loving gaze into our eyes and seek from him the next step into the goodness of God for each of us.

Saturday, October 3, 2009


(Solemnity of our our holy father Francis, deacon, founder of the three orders)

It’s almost overwhelming to have this beautiful opportunity to preach of the feast of our holy father Francis. You could make a lifetime hobby out of reading biographies of St. Francis. You could make a whole film festival out of St. Francis movies. Everyone seems to have something to say about him, and a lot of different people come to be attracted to Francis for a lot of different reasons. So where do we begin our reflection today for this memorial of his passing to eternal life, 783 years ago this night?

Well, for all that has been written, filmed, and said about St. Francis, we actually have precious little that he wrote about himself. Within that, we have still less that he wrote about his conversion, and what went on within him to make him into this great saint and founder not only of religious orders, but of a movement, of a family and style of Catholic spirituality that flourishes in the Church down to our own day. So one of the most precious documents in the Franciscan tradition is the Testament that Francis wrote for the friars at the end of his life. It’s a short, dense little document—hardly three or four pages in a modern printed book—but is full of the passion and heroic faith of our holy father. Today I though I would share a little of it with you.

Francis begins his Testament by recounting his conversion: “The Lord gave me, brother Francis, thus to begin to do penance in this way…” Notice that! When St. Francis tells his own story, who is the first character we meet? It’s the Lord! The main character in the story of Francis is not Francis, but God. That says so much. We do not really celebrate today the man Francesco di Bernardone, this spoiled son of a affluent merchant who became—perhaps much to his own surprise—someone celebrated for his sanctity in his own lifetime, but instead we celebrate the willingness of Francis to let the grace of God shine through him into the world. This is what it means, in this context, to “do penance”—simply to turn oneself back to God. It’s not, as people sometimes say in our own time, ‘this is how I found the Lord,’ or ‘I converted,’ but, “The Lord granted me, brother Francis, to begin to do penance in this way.”

This primacy of God’s initiative continues in Francis’s life. A little further on, in one of the most beloved parts of the Testament, Francis writes that when “the Lord gave me some brothers, no one showed me what I had to do, but the Most High Himself revealed to me that I should live according to the pattern of the Holy Gospel.” Here we see the beautiful simplicity of Francis. Did he make up a way of life for himself and his brothers? No. “The Most High Himself revealed to me that I should live according to the pattern of the Holy Gospel.”

So, what is this beginning “to do penance,” and this living “according to the pattern of the Holy Gospel”? We return to the beginning of the Testament: “the Lord granted me, brother Francis to begin to do penance in this way: for when I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers. And the Lord himself led me among them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body.”

The Lord himself effected Francis’s conversion by leading him among the lepers and inspiring him to have mercy on them. The lepers were those in Francis’s time who—because of their terrible suffering and disfiguring disease—were excluded from society. They had to live outside of the protection of the town, vulnerable and despised. By allowing himself to be led among the lepers, Francis reverses the course of his life; he turns, he converts, and begins to do penance. You see, Francis was born into the up-and-coming merchant class, those traders and bankers who were the first developers of the capitalist world we know today. In Francis’s time, this new class of merchants were beginning to have enough power—through their wealth—that they could sometimes challenge the old, hereditary power of the nobility. Indeed, this happened in Assisi when Francis was a younger man. So Francis arrived in this world as part of a group of people who were moving up. By going to the lepers, Francis reversed this process. He went from ‘upwardly mobile’ to ‘downwardly mobile.’

This turn is the core of the Franciscan spirit. The world tells us to become richer and more powerful, and Francis was on his way. But instead he chose to put himself below those who were least in his society. He became a lesser brother, a “friar minor” as he would decide to call the brothers who followed him. For me, this is why Francis and his vision and life continue to speak to us. We live in an increasingly aimless and violent world, and on this Respect Life Sunday we might call to mind some of the terrible crimes that have become normalized in our society because we have traded in the Living God for the cults of power, wealth, security, and convenience. Francis shows us the way out: renounce our idolatry of money and power and “begin to do penance” by making ourselves into the servants of the least.