The saints, at home with God, find themselves fulfilled.

Tuesday, 11/1/11

When my father turned ninety, and couldn’t get around anymore he asked his priest son, “What is heaven really like?”

The best I could do for my father is to quote St. John and St. Paul. In a letter to early Christians from whom he had been parted St. John had this to say, “We are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed.”

Speaking of each of our heavenly bodies Paul wrote, “It is sown corruptible raised incorruptible. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.”

Going back to St. John, in the prelude to his Gospel he said that the Son of God was the model for everything that is fine in nature. That tells us that everything that delights us: sunsets, loving faces, flowers in bloom, fine music --all of them are faint reflections of God.

The saints, at home with God find their lives completely fulfilling.

Jesus told us not to invite brothers and sisters, but he didn't mean it.

Monday, 10/31/11

Jesus told us not to invite friends, brothers, sisters or relatives or wealthy neighbors when we hold a lunch or dinner. Are we to take him seriously? Are there to be no family get-togethers? No business lunches?

Is networking evil?

I don’t think so. There is an old saying: “A word to the wise is sufficient.” I suppose that means you don’t need to treat intelligent, experienced people like babies. Like, if you say, “Meet me at eight at that place on the right side of the street,” you don’t need to say, “The eight is when the big hand is at twelve and the little at eight; and your right side is the one where you are not wearing a ring.” The old saying means you must expect people to be wise enough not to need things spelled out.

Jesus felt we were wise enough to catch on when he was using hyperbole. I just looked up the definition of hyperbole: “Exaggeration for effect and not meant to be taken literally.”

Jesus used hyperbole a lot. He was using hyperbole when he said, “If your right eye is a cause of scandal for you pluck it out.” In James Hilton’s novel “Knight Without Armor” there was a character nicknamed Popeye. Everyone scorned him for taking Jesus literally, and plucking his eye out after peeking at something he shouldn’t have peeked at.   

It sound blasphemous to say this, but sometimes you have to take the Bible with a grain of salt.

We go along with Vatican authorities because they, as it were, "have taken their seat on the chair of Moses."

Sunday, 10/30/11

In the Gospel we hear Jesus telling people to obey the scribes and Pharisees even though they might not admire the manner of living of those leaders.

“The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you.” 

In the past few centuries our popes have been admirable men, but even if they hadn’t been, we should obey them as vicars of Christ. St. Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher faced a more difficult problem. They had agreed with Martin Luther in seeing some Renaissance popes as disgraceful; but they saw them as sitting on the throne of Peter. Even to save their necks they could not accept Henry VIII as supplanting the pope as head of the Church.

We follow their great example by going along with the popes even in matters where we would do things differently. So, even thought I don’t care for the changes in the wording for our Mass, I will go along with the Holy Father.

We are being told what is being introduced is more traditional, but that is debatable. Let me say something about traditions. On a walk yesterday I saw a father and son decorating their house for a traditional Halloween. The father was hanging white pillow cases from the trees while the boy was spiking images of black cats on the lawn. They put me in mind of an older tradition that had us making visits to the Blessed Sacrament to pray for the poor souls.

French bishops at Vatican II crusaded to make the Mass true to the earlier traditions of Jesus and the Apostles. The French bishops saw the Eucharistic prayers as growing out of the blessing Jesus offered at the Last Supper. One aspect of those early Eucharistic prayers was that while keeping all the parts of Our Lord’s blessing, the celebrants used their own words, following their own language.

Then, barbarians overran Europe in the Fifth and Sixth Centuries; and in doing away with the schools they left the Church without educated priests who could use their own words for the Eucharistic prayers. Pope Gregory the Great in 600 a.d. did the best he could under the circumstances. While including the main parts of Our Lord’s table blessing he wrote a Eucharistic prayer in Latin. That “Roman Canon” was the formula for saying Mass that I learned in becoming a priest in 1952.

During Vatican II when we began saying Mass in English we used words and idioms that sounded right to Americans. That was in line with the traditions of the early church when people and priests were encouraged to use variations with which they were comfortable.

Now, Rome’s modern liturgists are laying down rules for priests and people. They demand that we follow Latin wording, supplanting the traditions of the Apostles with ones originated in Rome. It is something of a power play, but we go along with it because they, as it were, “have taken their seats on the chair of Moses.”

By word and example Jesus told us to be content with a low place in life.

Florida and Georgia are going to have a football game today to decide which gets to brag about being the best. We long to hold up an index finger, shouting, “We’re number one.”

The U.C.L.A. coach Red Sanders in 1950 told his team, “Winning isn’t everything, It’s the only thing.” Vince Lombardi picked it up from Red.

How does that fit in with today’s Gospel where Jesus tells us, “When you are invited, go and take the lowest place.” Like he was saying, “Let them Dogs run all over you.” 

The only thing backing up Jesus in giving that advice is that he lived that way himself.

“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be clung to. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave… . He humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.”

Simon and Jude, as Apostles, belonged to the twelve courses of stone that made up the walls of the heavenly Jerusalem.

Today we celebrate the feast of two Apostles, Simon and Jude. They were cousins of Jesus. The early Church took little interest in them as individuals.

Their importance rested in their being two of the twelve who were the foundation of Christianity much as the twelve sons of Jacob had been the foundation of the Jewish Religion. The similarity of their roles is brought out in Chapter Twenty One of Revelation where the heavenly Jerusalem is seen as having twelve gates, each inscribed with the name of one of the Jewish Patriarchs. It describes the  walls of the heavenly Jerusalem as having twelve courses of great stones, each inscribed with the name of one of the twelve Apostles of Jesus.

Yesterday’s Gospel might have prepared the way for today’s feast with Jesus addressing Jerusalem, saying, “Jerusalem, how many times I yearned to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”

Along with Simon and Jude we are part of that brood gathered by Jesus.

If you are true to your friendship with God he will always be on your side, and nothing will be able to hurt you.

The first reading asks, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

That is comparing a deep friendship with God with an influential friendship you might have with the mayor and the chief of police. Everyone knows it would be insanity to make any move against you. Your influential friends are a guaranty that no one can touch you.

If you have been true to God he will be your influential friend, and no one would dare touch you. Neither anguish, or distress, or persecution or famine, or nakedness, or peril or the sword will separate you from the love of Christ. 

Your influence with God is so great 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 you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  

In Our Lord's parable the broad gate stood for the comfortable way of living. The narrow gate stood for the habit of always taking the right, more difficult way of living.

Wednesday, 10/26/11

Our Lord’s parable about entering through the narrow gate is one of those we often have reason to think of. Let me set the scene for the parable.

Jesus based this parable on old walled cities that each had a massive city gate that also served as a meeting place where the town’s leaders decided all town business. One thing they were in charge of was bolting the town gates when robbers or disease was stalking the countryside. If you happened to be out in your fields when the town gates were slammed shut you had to camp out there, hoping you would be safe.

However, there were a few wise souls who never got caught out. They knew of a narrow gate, hidden by brambles on a rocky hillside behind the town. Over the years the wise souls had made a practice of climbing the rocky hill, of pushing the brambles aside, and of making themselves known and welcomed by the keeper of the narrow gate.

As a parable going in and out by the broad town gate would stand for dieting on junk food, having an addiction to certain soap operas, loving a good cat fest for exchanging juicy gossip. The habit of seeking out the narrow gate would mean getting up in time for Mass, taking a meaningful interest of the needs of others, giving up sweet addictions.  

We are saved by hope. Remember: hope that can see what it hopes for is not hope.

Tuesday, 10/25/11

Today’s readings deal with our hope of an afterlife in heaven. We would like it if God would give us a preview of that coming attraction, but that is not the way it works.

We often hear of the importance of faith, hope, and charity. The bible and the sermons we hear deal extensively with faith and charity. But what of hope?

Hope calls for us to put our trust in God’s promise of a heaven we haven’t seen. That’s it! It is an examination we sit for without a cheat sheet. Listen to what Paul said,

            “In hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope.”

Hope is a flowering tree that grows from a seed. As Jesus says in the Gospel, “A seed that a man took and planted in a garden. When it is fully grown, it become a large bush and the birds of the sky dwell in its branches.

Hope calls for patience.

With our holitic approach we do not see the soul and body at constant warfare.

Monday, 10/24/11

In the first reading St. Paul asks us to live by the spirit, rather than by the flesh. In saying that he was speaking as one raised in the Greek world where the moral tone was set by the Philosophy of the Stoics. While the Jews in their ancient heritage thought of us humans as integrated persons brought to life the way Adam was: by receiving the breath of life from God, the Stoic Philosophy of the Greeks saw us humans as assembled of two warring parts: the flesh and the spirit. As modern Christians we are more comfortable with the holistic approach that calls for having both healthy bodies and healthy minds.

In the middle of today’s reading Paul switches to a different consideration of our spirits. The Greeks were fond of an Old Wife’s Tale that said when a child is conceived he receives something of his father; and even though he grows up without seeing that father, when he first meets him that bit of his father’s spirit that he received at his conception will cause him to recognize his true father, prompting him to call out “Abba, Father!”

By comparing a Christian’s baptism to his spiritual conception Paul says that in a baptized Christian ever afterwards the spirit he received at his conception will enable him to see God as his true father, causing him to call out, “Abba, Father.”

In telling us we must love our neighbor as ourself Jesus might have meant we must love our neighbor as though he or she were ourself.

Sunday, 10/23/11

Jesus said that the greatest commandment was that we  love God with all of our hearts, souls and minds. He didn’t mean there were separate ways of loving with hearts, souls, and minds. That was the Jewish way of saying completely.

He said there was a second commandment like the first: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In saying we must love our neighbor “as ourselves” I always thought that little word “as” meant “as much as.” We are to love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves. But one day in the middle of the week fifty years ago when I had a country parish in Korea it occurred to me that by that little word “as” Jesus really meant we must love our neighbor “as though he were” ourselves.

To love someone as though he were myself would call for empathy. It would require me to imagine what it would be like to be that other person. Great actors get ready for a role by practicing empathy. They call it “Method Acting.” If an actor were to play the role of an old-time New York cop he’d locate one of them if he still could. He’d walk his beat behind him. He’d drag an imaginary billyclub against an imaginary iron fence. He’d pinch the peaches at the fruit stand, helping himself to one. He’d swing his mid-section from side to side the way the cop in front of was moving. He’d get into the cop’s thoughts: thinking about retiring, imagining the dinner the wife was making.

Let me mention the first reading. It strove to stir the Jews up to practice empathy for aliens. It did this by recalling that they were “once aliens in the land of Egypt.” That has me recalling my great grandparents landing in New York and Boston. They had to keep moving west because on the east coast the help wanted signs all read “Irish need not apply.”

Like I say, it was in the middle of the week in my parish in Korea fifty years ago that it occurred to me Jesus might want me to love my neighbor as though he or she were me. The next Sunday I had an hour and a half of confessions, two Masses, with not a sip of water. I was standing outside church after the second Mass, wanting the folks to go away, but pleased enough when some cute little girls came up to laugh with me. Then, an old woman came, tugging at the sleeve of my vestments .

She said, “Father, look at my bad eye.”

That was the last thing in the world I wanted to do. But then it came to me that maybe Jesus was testing me. I looked at her bad eye. It was like an egg fried hard on both sides.

Forcing myself to identify with her I thought of my own eyes that people said were nice; then I thought she too once had glorious eyes that everyone commented on. Still, I couldn’t do anything for her. I was broke. Some kids ran by, and I shooed them off. She’d fall on her face if they kicked that stick she was propping herself with.

Then, I remembered that the old lady lived in the next valley. With it having rained hard through the night the path on our side of the hill would have become a slippery gulley.

I said, “Granny, with the path over the hill as slippery as it must be, you were a hero making it over to Mass.”

That’s all she wanted. She said, “O Father, you understand.”

Jesus didn't tell us to look on the past, and repent. He asked us to look to the future by turning our thinking around.

Saturday, 10/22/11

Today’s Gospel brings up one of my pet peeves. It quoted Jesus as saying, “If you do not repent you will all perish.” What I don’t like about that is that it misquotes what St. Luke quoted Jesus as saying. Luke used the Greek word meta-noiete. With meta meaning “around,” and noiete meaning “thinking.” Luke, following Mark, quoted Jesus as saying we would perish if we did not turn our thinking around.

That is different from repenting. We turn our thinking around by preparing for a better future. We repent by punishing ourselves for past failings. That’s not what Jesus asked for. He couldn’t see any advantage in our sitting around crying about the past. He wanted us to turn our thinking toward doing better in the future.

We cannot control the evil in us without God's help.

Friday, 10/21/11

In the first reading St. Paul spoke of his moral weakness. If we are honest about it, we must confess to the same weakness.

He said he knew what was the right thing, and he wanted to do it, but time after time he slipped. As he put it: “I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want.” 

Dwelling on his problem, Paul explained, “I take delight in the law of God in my inner self, but I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind.”

He asks, “Who will deliver me?”

Then, knowing the answer, he says, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ Our Lord.”

A situation that arose three centuries after Paul’s time brought this passage in to prominence. Pelagius, a priest from Britain, became an immense hit with rousing sermons about people marshalling their spiritual energies to become saints. Pelagius was like Norman Vincent Peale the Presbyterian minister whose book “The Power of Positive Thinking” outsold the Bible in the 1950’s.

Living far out of the public eye in north Africa, St. Augustine heard about the sermons of Pelagius, and he became alarmed. His own experience had matched that of St. Paul. With St. Paul he was convinced that the drive for sinfulness in each of us was too strong for anyone to deny it on his own. Augustine gave the name Original Sin to that drive toward evil. With Paul he was convinced that it was only by calling on power from Christ that we can keep our sinfulness from wrecking our lives.

Our baptisms are a pledge to die to sin with Jesus, and our lives as baptized Christians are meant to be an endless struggle at living up to that pledge.

Thursday, 10/20/11

In the Gospel Jesus referred to his upcoming death as “a baptism with which I must be baptized.” It was, of course, his death that he was referring to as a baptism.

It might help us to turn that around: to see our baptisms as a form of death. I know you are well aware of what I am about to tell you, but it might be useful for us to think over it again.

In the first century Baptism was conferred only on the Saturday of Holy Week. And it was seen as our way of joining in the death of Jesus. On that day the first Christians thought of Jesus as dead in the tomb, awaiting resurrection. They stood around a pool of water that for them symbolized the tomb of Jesus. They had in mind something Paul said, namely, Our Lord saved us not so much by his physical death, but by his “death to sin.”

They saw taking the plunge into the baptismal pool as a symbolic way of saying they were joining Jesus in his death to sin.

That was long ago, but things haven’t changed all that much. Whatever might be in  our minds at the time of our baptisms, the ritual itself retains its original meaning. It is our pledge to die to sin. We must spend our lives living up to that pledge.    

We have little time left for accomplishing what we most want to do.

Wednesday, 10/19/11

In speaking of a master returning when he was not expected, then, asking for an account of a servant’s stewardship, Jesus was really talking about an inevitable day for each of us. That will be the day when death comes. That hour will slam shut the books on what we have accomplished and on the good we meant to do, but didn’t get around to.

If the Lord finds that we have frittered away our days and hours, without accomplishing the good we were capable of, in justice, he will have to punish us.

Parables like today’s Gospel that remind us of the fast approach of our day of reckoning are called memento more stories. We had a good one of them in the news two weeks ago. Steve Job, the founder of Apple Computers told a graduation class that the certainty that he was soon to die was a wonderful thing for him. It spurred him to line up the projects that meant most to him. It had him measuring out his time, getting done the things that meant most to him.

We should not waste the fine memento more today’s Gospel and Steve Job’s example offer us.

Only St. Luke has relayed to us Our Lord's parables about the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.

Tuesday, 10/18/11

Today is the Feast of St. Luke who was the only non-Jew to give us a book of the Bible. Actually, he wrote two books, his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. People who know good writing tell us that Luke was the New Testament’s finest writer. He subtly slips himself into the story in Chapter Sixteen of the Acts of the Apostles. He had been describing the journeying of St. Paul and his companions. In verse 8 he wrote, “They crossed through Mysia and came down to Troas.” Then, picking up the story two verses on he wrote, “We sought passage to Macedonia.”

He stayed with Paul from then on. In Paul’s final days, as a prisoner in Rome, he wrote to Timothy saying, “I have no one here with me but Luke.”

Joining Paul only ten years after the Resurrection, Luke never saw Jesus. For writing his Gospel he had to ask people for stories. He made that clear in the opening verses of his Gospel.

Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I have decided after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence.

His account is special in that he tells us of the women who spent so much time helping Jesus. It is wonderful for the parables of mercy that Our Lord told the people. Like, he alone saved for us the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.

The letters St. Ignatius wrote in 110 a.d. tell us what the Church was like in the generation following the Apostles.

Monday, 10/ 17/11

Those are very fine readings today; but it is the Feast of St. Ignatius of Antioch, and we should show appreciation for his life and death. Ignatius followed St. Peter as bishop of Antioch where our believers were first called “Christians.” As a prominent man in that major city of the Roman Empire, Ignatius was asked to take part in public ceremonies, and that led to a difficulty. As part of the public display, participants were called on to bow to the gods of Rome. It was a formality similar to modern politicians joining in the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag.

Ignatius felt his faith would not allow him to bow to false gods. Now, in Roman law this refusal was an act of treason; but the Roman governor in Antioch hated moving against an honorable old man like Ignatius, so he referred the matter to Emperor Trajan.

After conferring with his court, Trajan announced a policy that would hold for centuries. It stated that Christians should not be ought out and forced to bow to the gods, but if they publicly refuse to make that bow they would need to be treated as being guilty of treason. Meaning, they would be brought to Rome, then fed to the lions. That’s what happened.

Ignatius was entrusted to a platoon of rough soldiers returning to Rome on leave. They had him chained to the masts of one after another of the boats in which they found passage. That gave the Christians in every port to visit with him while the soldiers were busy doing what they did in the ports. When they stopped at the last port short of Rome, Ignatius wrote letters back to the people in six of those ports. Those letters let us see how the church took shape after the death of the Apostles. I liked the advice he gave to pastors. In relation to their bishop they should be like the strings to a harp, making nice music.  

In the letter that Ignatius sent ahead to the Christians in Rome he asked the Christians not to try to save him from the lions. He said he wanted the teeth of the lions to grind him like wheat, making him fit to become part of the host which is Christ.

Today's readings tell us we may support imperfect heads of state.

Sunday, 10/16/ 11

Today’s readings tell us that as citizens we may support non-Christian heads of state. In the first reading Isaiah quoted God as calling the Persian king Cyrus “his anointed.” God grasped Cyrus’s hand, opening doors before him.

Then, in the Gospel Jesus tells us to “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.”

Now, Cyrus and Caesar were a long way from ruling in a Christian manner. Cyrus followed the religion of Zoroaster which, along with honoring the creator, also  honored an evil creator named Ahriman. They felt their allegiance to Ahriman obliged them to do some evil things. Caesar, for his part, ruled an empire that supported itself by enslaving great masses of peoples. He condoned crucifying innocent men.

Months ago we had a similar first reading in which God was quoted as calling the pagan Cyrus “His shepherd.” That day I gave my opinion that the Bible was telling  us to be loyal citizens even with leaders who support things against our religion. One of the people in church that day came back, objecting, saying that our obligation to vote Pro Life should keep us from supporting a leader who did not vote Pro-life.

I believe today’s readings tell us we can, and perhaps should, support such leaders. Pardon me for mentioning party names here, but I can’t avoid it. I am a Democrat, and I am Pro-life as are most of my Democrat friends. Thursday this week fifty Democrats joined Republican Representatives in voting for an amendment that bans the use of government money for abortions.  (President Obama last year issued a presidential order in support of the Hyde Amendment that bans the use of government funds for abortions.)

I am unhappy that our president describes himself as Pro-choice, but I regard him as an honest man, following his conscience in that. And, in spite of the importance of this one issue, I think we should have other concerns. I vote for protecting the environment, for allowing cities to limit carrying weapons, for not imprisoning immigrants, for not allowing corporations to fund candidates who will vote for their interests. I think our president, when he was a senator, did the right thing in voting against invading Iraq. I highly respect him, and I am pained at the barrage of sneers cast at his name.  

Today is the Feast of Teresa of Avila who, like Mary the sister of Martha, became completely wrapped up in Jesus.

Saturday, 10/15/11

Today is the feast of St. Teresa of Avila. We honor her because like Mary, the sister of Martha, she allowed herself to become completely wrapped up in Jesus.

Teresa, born in 1515 was fifteen when her mother died; and her father, a strict Catholic put her in a convent because she was boy crazy and clothes crazy. She found convent life confining, but a little freer than life with her father.

She tried to practice mental prayer, but in her life story she wrote, “I tried as hard as I could to keep Jesus Christ present within me, but my imagination was dull, with my having no talent for coming up with Theological thoughts.” She forced herself to stay with mental prayer for an hour, but she did a lot of shaking of the hour glass to get the sand to flow through quickly.

But she stuck with her determination for twenty years, and she began having what she called “Spiritual delights.” She began experiencing God’s presence. Our Lady of Victories Church in Rome houses a reclining statue of Teresa with an angel driving an arrow through her heart.

She began politicking to get the Carmelite Order to establish convents free of open socializing. It wasn’t that she was a prude or kill joy. She was just behaving like any of us would when a blaring radio interferes with the serious work we are wrapped up in.

She found a kindred soul in St. John of the Cross. They were mystics, but they weren’t nuts for fancy religious stuff. John didn’t think Teresa’s “spiritual delights" to be important, and he said he wouldn’t walk across the street to see anyone’s  stigma.

Leaven or yeast is a fungus that releases carbin dioxide allowing bread dough to rise. Hypocrisy is like yeast that makes people swell.

In the Gospel Jesus said, “Beware of the leaven that is the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.” In other places Jesus used leaven, as a metaphor for something very fine: for his kingdom.

Leaven, or yeast, is a fungus: something that is living. Only 1% of fungi are yeasts; but there are 1500 known varieties of yeast-fungi. (Korean country people used to raise their own yeast with bags of soggy beans they let hang out in the weather.) As a yeast fungus reproduces asexually releasing carbon dioxide which in bread dough creates empty pockets that swell the dough.

In the case of some, but not all, Pharisees, their pride was like a yeast that puffed them up. In the case of sincere Christians the good example they give hour by hour in their workplaces raises an appreciation for goodness among all with whom they work. That was what Jesus meant when he said, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast which a woman takes and mixes with three measures of flour until the whole mass begins to rise.”

It is that kind of yeast that Phyllis McGinley had in mind when she wrote that St. Jerome “Filled the world with a Christian leaven.”   

When Paul said a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law he meant one needn't keep the half million Jewish regulations. It's enough that he believe and observe ordinary goodness.

Thursday, 10/13/11

The readings today take aim at the impossibly large number of laws the Jewish scribes had placed on peoples’ backs over the centuries.

Let’s just review the way those laws came about. In 450 b.c. Jerusalem had fallen into bad ways: its children were being married to idol worshippers; the walls and roads were in bad repair; crime was rampant.

Jerusalem was at that time part of the Persian Empire where king Artaxerxes sent d a Jewish priest, Ezra, and a Jewish official, Nehemiah to Jerusalem to find a way for getting the city running properly. The suggestion those two came back with was that Jerusalem should take the Law of Moses as its civil law. The justices in Persia okayed that plan, but they made one condition: Jerusalem’s religious leaders would need to enact amendments to the ancient law of Moses to bring it up to date. They came up with three sensible provisions, but they did not stop at that. Through the centuries they piled restriction upon restriction until a person couldn’t take a short walk without the help of a lawyer to keep him from committing an infraction of the countless laws.

In the first reading Paul said, “A person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” He meant it was not necessary for a Jewish person to know and observe the millions of restrictions piled up over the centuries. He didn’t mean that good behavior was not needed. When Luther said a man with faith needed no good works to back it up he was throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The Gospel concludes with the scribes and Pharisees plotting to use their cumbersome body of laws to trap Jesus in a violation.

We should imitate God in showing kindness to all in need.

Wednesday, 10/12/11

Both readings today speak of God’s kindness. Paul, in the first reading, scolds those who judge wrongdoers harshly while excusing themselves for the same kind of wrongdoings. He asks them why they are not as kindly to sinners as God is.

In somewhat the same way, Jesus in the Gospel scolds doctors of the Jewish Law who pour upon the poor more restrictions than they themselves could obey. Our Lord’s concern for the little people should inspire us to be as kind. We should come to the assistance of impoverished people and to foreigners who get caught up in the tangles of the law.

There is hope for people who do their best even though they haven't found God.

Tuesday, 10/11/11

In his letter to the Romans Paul says wrath of God is revealed against those “who suppress the truth, for what can be known about God is evident to them.”

One wonders if that is true. If one grows up in a race of people who worship many gods, is that person on his or her own supposed to figure out that there is only one god? And, is he or she damned for not figuring it out?

That would not seem right. Nor does the Church deem it to be so. Paragraph 16 of the “Dogmatic Constitution of the Church” state the following:

  Those who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ and his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience --- those too may achieve eternal salvation. Nor shall divine providence deny the assistance necessary for salvation to those who, without any fault of theirs, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, and who, not without grace, strive to lead a good life.

Paul wrote that Jesus became Son of God in Power at his ressurection.

Monday, 10/10/11

Let’s look at the first reading. It gives us the opening lines of the letter Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome before he had met any of them. Seeing himself as something very lowly, yet very exalted, he calls himself a slave, then he turns that around, declaring himself to be on a level with the twelve Apostles chosen by Jesus.

Although St. John will later insist that Jesus was one with God from the first moment of his being, Paul had not as yet grasped that fact. So, he says, in the flesh Jesus was descended from David, but he was only declared Son of God at his resurrection.

St. Luke seemed to have had the same uncertainty about Jesus. In Chapter Two of the Acts of the Apostles he tells us that after his death Jesus was lifted to the right hand of God; and it was then that he received the “Promised Holy Spirit.”

When we have trouble getting a clear grasp on what Our Lord was made of, we needn’t be ashamed. It took Paul and Luke time to take it all in.

We cannot let other interests keep us from heaven.

Sunday, 10/9/11 

Today’s Gospel likens heaven to a wedding feast, and Jesus with his parable warns us against being like the people whose busy lives kept them from the feast. The first reading enlarges on that comparison of heaven to a wedding feast. It says the feast will consist of rich foods and choice wines.

If any of you have heard me talk you know how I go on and on about the dozen years I spend as pastor in a Korean county place at the end of their war over there. When I took over my parish in 1954 some U.S. soldiers gave me a jeep to drive. I had it for less than a year when the Korean government took it off me. But in the beginning of 1955 I chauffeured three couples to their wedding banquets. They had been near starving, and the banquet was going to mean more to them than the wedding night. 

I remember one young groom from my backseat going on and on about the foods his village was laying out for them. He used a Korean phrase that stuck in my mind. He said, “Opnungot opsumnida.” Literally: “The delight that isn’t there isn’t there.”

Now, those enticements fall flat with most of us. We take long tortuous walks to walk off the rich foods and choice wines that are making us fat. To make us work for heaven we need something quite different to entice us.  But what would that be?

My father was a busy, happy man through his seventies and eighties. He had two regular bridge games and one all-night poker game each week. But at ninety he couldn’t tell clubs from spades, and he couldn’t get around in his Mercury coupe. So, he asked his priest son, “Tom, what is heaven really like?”

That was thirty-five years ago, but last summer I came on something that supplied a bit of an answer. I went line for line through Dante’s Divine Comedy. As a twelve year old Dante had fallen in love with a nine year old Beatrice Portinari, and she died young. When he was thirty-five, and straying from the path of virtue, he conceived the plot for his Divine Comedy.

He imagined Beatrice from heaven acquiring the service of Virgil, who was Dante’s ideal poet. In twenty-four thousand verses Dante described Virgil leading him through hell and purgatory, leaving it to Beatrice to lead Dante through heaven.

In heaven Beatrice let Dante see that all the gorgeous sunsets and the music that had enchanted him were only faint echoes. They were echoes  of the forms God saw in the Word when he made all things in and through him. Beatrice explained that in one cryptic verse. Here is the English translation of that verse.

                         She began: “Al things among themselves 
                        possess an order, and this order is
                        the form that makes the universe like God.”            

We honor Mary's womaness.

Saturday, 10/8/11

Jewish Law was not respectful of women or child bearing. A woman was considered unclean for forty days after giving birth. So, in that misogynistic setting, it is refreshing that someone in the crowd would declare the womb and breasts that nurtured Jesus to be highly blessed entities.

Birthing is truly the greatest recurrent miracle in our lives. Louise Fields, a St. Paul’s  parishioner worked for thirty years in St. Vincent’s delivery room. I asked her at her retirement if the first time she saw a baby born did it seem she was witnessing a great miracle. Louise said, “Yes, and I thought the same think last week witnessing the last of ten thousand births.”

In viewing a pregnant woman it is hard to believe what is happening within her. There is nothing that brings us so close to God. 

We needn't think of the words of the Hail Mary's while we meditating on the mysteries of the Rosary. They are just our way of hanging on to mother Mary's hand.

Friday, 10/7/11

Today is the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. Let me say something about how saying the Rosary can be an easy and a fine way of spending your time.

The rosary is a simple devotion. You say a Hail Mary on each of the small beads, and an Our Father on each of the big ones; and if you haven’t your own rosary beads, you can say the Hail Mary’s on each of your ten fingers, saying the Our Father’s on your thumbs. That’s what I do all the time.

As simple as that is to do, there is a rule that complicates saying the rosary. That rule tells us that at the same time we are saying the Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s we are supposed to be thinking about the mysteries. That is what they call important things in the life of Mary and Jesus. Like one mystery is about the angel telling Mary she is to be the mother of the Savior, another is about her being taken up to heaven at the end of her life. Then, there is a mystery about Jesus dying on the cross, and another one about him rising from the dead.

Now, I always found that it was nearly impossible to be thinking about things like that at the same time I was saying Hail Mary’s and Our Fathers. But then, I found a way for doing both. And, it isn’t complicated at all. It is very pleasant.

What solved the problem for me was remembering something that used to happen with me when I was four and five. With Christmas coming on, my mother would take me with her to the big department stores. They were like the malls we have now: Orange Park, the Avenues, Regency, but each of the department stores was like  eight stories high. With my mother hanging on to me, we would ride up and down the escalators; or she would squeeze us onto the crowded elevators. The aisles were  crowded too. I had to hang on to my mother’s hand for dear life.

Funny thing, though, while hanging on to her, I wasn’t thinking about her at all. My full attention went to the elves and Santas, to the colorful displays, to the Christmas carols blasted out around us; to the skinny boys, the chubby boys, to the girls in red coats, and the ones in weird hats.

So, now with the rosary, saying the Hail Mary’s, is like holding mother Mary’s hand. I don’t need to think of the words of the Hail Mary’s or Our Father’s I am saying. I just think of the mystery. I think of the angel appearing to Mary, or I think about Jesus in the Garden of Olives the night before he died. He was asking his Father to keep him from dying. I think of the whip landing time after time on his back.  I think of his  Crown of Thorns, thinking  he was  making up for all my bad thoughts. All the time I am hanging onto mother Mary’s hand by saying the Hail Mary’s.

For those who fear God's name there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.

Thursday, 10/6/ 11

We could like the first reading just for its wonderful final sentence, “For you who fear my name there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.” Isn’t that wonderful?

I like the Prophet Malachi for a family reason. I had been thinking that my mother grew up in St. Malachi’s parish, attending primary school there. Now that I think of it, Malachi’s was a downtown parish. My mother’s parish was Columcille’s, but now that I’ve started, let me tell my old story. In 1940 my Uncle Ollie died, and I was a pallbearer along with five cousins, all of us were still in grade school. The church was upstairs over the school, and we had a heck of a time getting Uncle Ollie up and down those stairs.

Here is a bit of Church History. Back in 750 a.d. Pope Gregory commissioned St. Boniface to close down Germany’s Irish monasteries founded by Columcille, turning them into Benedictine monasteries. As you can imagine, the Irish did not go quietly back then.

Now, there has been a distant echo of that shutdown. In 1952 St. Louis got a German archbishop, and he closed down St. Columcille’s, telling all the parishioners from County Kerry that they were transferred to the German parish, St. Boniface’s.

I was newly ordained then, and my mother took me around showing her priest son off to the old Irish people from St. Columcille’s. They all pleaded with me to tell the archbishop that they just couldn’t go over to the German parish.

The Book of Jonah doesn't tell us that Jonah lived in a whale. It tells us that God loves foreigners.

 Wednesday, 10/5/11

The last three days our first readings have been from the Book of the Prophet Jonah. Everybody knows about Jonah. He spent three days in the belly of a whale. Gershwin had a song about him: “O Jonah he lived in a whale. He made his home in that fish’s abdomen. O Jonah he lived in a whale.”

Mention of Jonah makes me think of Father Eamon O’Doherty. Eamon was five years ahead of me in the seminary. He had such a fine voice and quick wit that I came close to idolizing him. After his ordination they sent Eamon to Jerusalem and Rome to get a degree in Scripture studies, but after he came back he wrote an article that turned me against him. He wrote that Jonah couldn’t have lived in a whale. He said the story was a fable. That had me saying, “Those smart alec teachers over there don’t even believe in what the Bible says.”

That whale was very real to me. When I was ten my dad saw where the train yard in St. Louis was playing host to a whale housed in a box car, shipped up from New Orleans. My dad brought my twelve-year-old sister Peg and me down on the streetcar to see the whale. We were able to crawl up into its mouth, but we couldn’t see how Jonah could have got down the narrow gullet.

Over the years as I did more and more reading I was brought to see that the story of Jonah was fiction. It described the city of Nineveh as so wide it took three days to walk across it, but the real Nineveh was just a couple of stone throws across.  

My reading told me that in 400 b.c. when the story of Jonah first appeared, the Jews saw it as so wild that no one took it as real. For any one to take is as fact would have been as mistaken as it would be for people a thousand years from now to take it as a fact that the meek newspaper man Clark Kent could turn into Superman. 

Our Church has a clear teaching about the Bible's 79 books. It says some of them are myths, some fables, some accurate histories. People who insist that the fables have to be factual don’t come to understand what the Bible book is teaching. The Book of Jonah was written in 400 b.c. after the Jewish people had adopted a new moral code that forbade them from entering into marriages with non-Jews. In accepting that new code they went beyond it, coming to look on all non-Jews as people to be hated. The Book of Jonah was written to turn them away from that.

In the story Yahweh told Jonah to go warn the people of Nineveh to save them from being damned for their sins. But Jonah, hating foreigners, didn’t want to see them saved. He sailed west to get away from Yahweh, and that had had him ending up in the whale. Still hating it, he went off to Nineveh, shouting, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be destroyed!” He couldn’t wait to see them destroyed; so when they repented, and were saved, he went off to a hillside and pouted about it. He sat under a plant that kept the sun off his baldhead, but then a worm ate the plant; and Jonah got furious about that.

The Lord said, “You are concerned over the death of the silly plant, shouldn’t I have been concerned about the fate of Nineveh’s hundred and twenty-five thousand people, not to mention the lives of their animals?”

The "better part" Mary chose was her decision to be in Our Lord's presence.

Tuesday, 10/4/11

In the Gospel Jesus told Martha that her sister Mary “has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

That “better part” was her letting herself be completely absorbed in Our Lord’s presence.  For years I have subscribed to “Commonweal” a Catholic magazine published by earnest Catholic lay people. In the latest copy, I read an article on Mysticism by Lawrence Cunningham, a longtime Religion professor at Notre Dame.

I hear people talking about mysticism, and I have always been a little against it, as though it was being holy for one's own sake, instead of just thinking of helping those in need. But in his article Lawrence Cunningham straightened me out.

He said mysticism is being absorbed in God’s presence the way Mary was in today’s Gospel.

In Isaiah Chapter Eleven when he enumerated the gifts of the Holy Spirit Isaiah named the six of them like this: Wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, and fear of the Lord. The last one, fear of the Lord, is not really fear. It denotes a constant awareness of God’s  presence that puts us on good behavior.  

In the next verse Isaiah, after thinking back over the six gifts, said “His delight shall be fear of the Lord.” In other words, of all the gifts we might receive from God, the greatest is our awareness of living in his presence. That awareness is what Mary had, and would not give up.

You could turn into the Good Samaitan.

Monday, 10/3/11

Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan to illustrate the rule that tells us to regard all humans as out neighbors. A case these days in which his rule is being questioned deals with recent Alabama laws that has several ways in which aiding aliens is a criminal offence. Our bishops in Alabama are protesting the new laws, even though a judge last week ruled they did not violate the Constitution. It’s sad when the law binds us to be cruel.

I too often have told a story in which I am the hero. Pardon me for telling it again. I was in shorts and T-shirt driving down I-95 on my vacation when south of Daytona I saw a man with a stalled car and U-Haul on the side of the road. Stopping, I heard from him that he had run out of gas; so I took him down to the next exit where he bought a can of gas, then I took him back to is car.

On the way he told me that he had been born in Cuba, but met and married a Cuban girl in Miami. With three children they had moved to Massachusetts for a job in a furniture factory. The year before, though, his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer; and their families in Miami said they would help them if they could make it back down there. Selling most of their furniture they had plane fare for the wife and kids. They had enough too to rent the U-Haul for their other things; and he had started south, trying to make it all the way without needing to pay for a night in a motel. He had tried watching the gas gage, but growing drowsy, he had slipped up.

As he was putting the gas in his car, and as I was leaving, he said to me, “I don’t have to ask who you are.”

“Oh, yeah, I said, who am I?”   

He said, “You are the Good Samaritan.”

We are workers in the Lord's vineyard. We can't be working just for ourselves.

Sunday, 10/2/11

The First Reading and the Gospel today picture the church as a vineyard in which God has hired men to work. In the story those caretakers misused the owner’s trust.  Instead of presenting him with the full vintage, they kept it for themselves, roughing up, even killing, those the owner sent for the grapes.

If you think about it, the parable does not make sense. I mean: why would the owner have hired those vine dressers without first checking on their reputationsy? And, if they were men with good reputations, why would they have risked those reputations by suddenly turning criminal?

Looking for answers to this it might help to consider the special Jewish laws governing vineyards. There was a law that forbade farmers growing different kids of crops on the same land. They saw it as vegetative adultery. In the case of vineyards the Jewish scribes allowed an exception to the rule against vegetative adultery. Since from the year a vineyard was planted four years had to pass before the first vintage could be harvested, the scribes allowed other crops to be grown between the rows of vines in those years. 

Now the people listening to Our Lord’s story might have understood the workmen to have been claiming their right to the adulterous vegetables grown between the vines those first four years. They may have been keeping the new grapes that were not good enough for wine. 

Jesus might have aimed his parable at the Pharisees and chief priests. They were using God’s vineyard, the Jewish Religion, to make themselves rich, while they ignored God’s prophets, and planned to kill his son. He might have meant the parable for church leaders today who cash in on their positions in the church without really giving God his due. 

It isn’t stretching the meaning of his parable as seeing it as telling parents that they are just caretakers of God’s vineyards. If I think of the ten of us sitting down for dinner in the house where I grew up, I can remember my mother and dad leading us in saying grace, letting us know they were trustworthy workers in the vineyard of the Lord.