Monday, August 1, 2011

Memorial of St. Alphonsus Ligouri, bishop and doctor of the Church

(Number 11:4b-15; Matthew 14:2-36)

Parish priests notoriously complain like Moses in the first reading today. They feel oppressed by an unrelenting round of meetings, appointments, responsibilities, and requests. But certainly pastors are not the only people stressed out in society. Often parents are torn between home, school, work, family, and community.

Moses’ appeal to the Lord demonstrates a lively relationship. He shows little reservation about telling God how overburdened he feels. On the brink of despair, he even mentions that death would be preferable to being badgered by so many requests. God will answer Moses’ plea. In part advice is given on how to administer the people more proficiently. Also, God will intervene more directly to aid his worthy friend.

We should confront stress in our lives on varied fronts. We need to prioritize our responsibilities so that we give our best time to what is most important. We need to make sure that we eat intelligently, exercise vigorously, and rest sufficiently. Most importantly, we, like Moses here, should unabashedly appeal to God for assistance.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Memorial of Saint Martha

(Leviticus 23:1.4-11.15-16.27.34b-37; Luke 10:38-42)

It seems capricious of the Church to honor Martha with an obligatory feast while not giving at least similar distinction to her sister Mary. After all, in Luke’s gospel even Jesus recognizes that Mary has acted more wisely than her sister. However, if part of the Church’s strategy in naming saints is the edification of the faithful, we have to search for what Martha has to teach us.

First and most important, Martha shows us not to be shy about approaching Jesus. He is our friend who will help us when we are perplexed, especially when our distress is over how the world is run. Second, Martha provides one of the best examples of the virtue of hospitality in all the gospels. She sacrifices herself to entertain Jesus just as the Benedictines remind us that we should treat every guest as if she or he were Jesus. Finally, in the gospel of John Martha makes the same act of faith in Jesus as Peter does in the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke when she calls him, “the Messiah, the Son of God.”

Martha may not have sat at Jesus’ feet, but she knows his worth. We are wise to contemplate Jesus’ words like Mary and be ready to acknowledge and serve him like Martha.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Thursday of the Seventeenth Week in Ordinary Time

(Exodus 40:16-21.34-38; Matthew 13:47-53)

We might call the significance of the two parables in today’s gospel “a matter of emphasis.” Jesus emphasizes the bad fish and the new teaching. He summarily says the good fish will be put into buckets but explains that corrupt people are like bad fish and will be thrown in fiery furnaces. Jesus more subtly emphasizes his new teaching in the storeroom of wisdom by inverting the expected order of words. Rather than speaking of old before new, he gives priority to his new teaching before the ancient wisdom of the Scriptures.

The new teaching is the kingdom of heaven which now has definitively come through Jesus’ presence. It brings joy, peace, and happiness to those who repent of their sins. The old teaching – the Law and its commandments – has not been suspended but human concern goes beyond keeping its statues. The bad fish are those who never repent, that is, never look at their faults, ask forgiveness, or endeavor to live Jesus’ new righteousness.

Here again Jesus challenges the sensibilities of the modern world. We like to think that we can get away with doing evil. Many have no problem with telling a lie or absenting themselves from Mass on Sundays as long as they help the poor. Jesus is indicating that there is a problem. He would agree with the ancient Greek moralists who said, “First, do no evil.” Likewise, many today have trouble saying, “I’m sorry.” Jesus would want us to do so every time we err. It is part of what he intends when he tells us to repent.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Wednesday of the Seventeenth Week in Ordinary Time

(Exodus 34:29-35; Matthew 13:44-46)

“Do not be afraid,” Pope John Paul II told participants of World Youth Day in 1993, “to break out of comfortable and routine modes of living, in order to take up the challenge of making Christ known in the modern ‘metropolis.'” He meant that the rewards are worth any price paid in letting go of personal desires. It is the same message that Jesus conveys in the gospel today.

Both the parable of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price invite listeners to make sacrifices for the Kingdom of God. They are not to worry that in walking the way of the Lord they will forego sensual pleasure and the company of associates. Like an investment in education, sacrifices for the sake of the Kingdom pay multiple dividends in terms of happiness and friendship.

Yet even we, who are inclined to go to church, sometimes worry. A woman argues that it would be all right to accompany friends to a racy movie. No, we are better to tell our friends that B movies are harmful for them as well as for ourselves. Surely John Paul had situations such as this in mind when he invited the youth a generation ago not to be afraid.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Saints Joachim and Anne, parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary

(Exodus 33:7-11.34:5b-9.28; Matthew 13:36-43)

Grandparents, aware of their responsibility in raising their children’s children, look to the law for assistance. They seek the law’s assurance that they have access to their grandchildren when a divorced parent with custody refuses to cooperate. The reading from Exodus today shows how law enshrines rights and responsibilities with divine approval.

The Mosaic Law is written with Moses facing the Lord. The experience leaves his face aglow – a testimony to the divine status of the commandments that he will take to the people. Humans do not need revelation to say that it is wrong to steal or to commit adultery if they are to live in peace. But by instructing Moses directly, God indicates His special care for the Israelites.

Today we honor Joachim and Anne, the parents of Mary and grandparents of Jesus. Declaring them saints, the Church reminds us of the need for parents and grandparents to instruct us of God’s commands. More than relating what is forbidden, they assure us of God’s love.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Feast of Saint James, apostle

(II Corinthians 4:7-15; Matthew 20:20-28)

In an old television drama the father of a teenage basketball player comes in a room bragging about his son’s performance the night before. “Twenty-seven points,” he shouts, “How about that for my kid?” Nobody seems interested in listening to him, however. His son hogged the ball, and the team lost. In the gospel today the mother of James and John sounds a bit like this proud father as she recommends her sons to Jesus.

Jesus does not chastise the brothers for desiring higher offices. He does not call their ambition a sin or tell them that they should be ashamed. What concerns him is the possibility that the brothers seek the positions to call attention to themselves. Jesus advises the twelve that leaders are not to take advantage of their followers. He puts himself as an example: as he – the Son of Man destined to judge the world – does not seek his own welfare but the good of all, so must they, his disciples, follow suit.

James learned the lesson well. He became the first of Jesus’ twelve apostles to give witness to their master with his life. Today we honor him both by our prayers and, more importantly, by our imitation of his sacrifice that gives glory to Jesus.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Memorial of Saint Mary Magdalene

(Exodus 20:1-17; John 20:1-2.11-18)

In one of the most touching scenes in world literature Hector, the Trojan prince, visits his family before going off to battle. His wife and son implore him to stay with them and not risk death in the vain war. But Hector’s sense of duty compels him forward. In a sense the gospel today showing Mary Magdalene’s clinging to Jesus parallels the ancient Greek drama.

Jesus’ words to Mary, “Stop holding on to me,” indicate both Mary’s affection for the Lord and also her incomplete understanding of the resurrection of Jesus. He has overcome death, but he does not return to his disciples as a permanent, enfleshed companion. Rather he will ascend to his Father so that the Holy Spirit may be sent to institute his followers into God’s family. When Mary recognizes this truth, she dutifully carries out Jesus’ command to proclaim his resurrection.

The Holy Spirit has raised us also in the divine company. Like Mary we love the Lord and long to see him enfleshed. But for now, again like Mary, we are content to proclaim his resurrection by living lives of virtue.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Thursday of the Sixteenth Week in Ordinary Time

(Ex 19:1-2. 9-11.16-20b; Matthew 13:10-17)

Flannery O’Connor is a peculiar Catholic American novelist. She is Catholic because she understands the working of grace according to Thomistic theology. She is peculiar because her characters are typically the most strident of her southern, Protestant neighbors. They are ardently evangelical and, sometimes, grotesquely two-faced. When she was asked why she wrote about such strange characters, she answered that when people are near deaf, you have to shout at them.

Jesus responds similarly to the question, “Why do you speak to the crowd in parables?” He says, in effect, they paint big, beautiful pictures so common people may appreciate God’s call to reform. On the other hand, they will challenge the sophisticated who find his stories simplistic and his teaching unappreciative of their learning.

In our day the sophisticated tote I-phones and I-pads and have busy schedules that seem to make it difficult to pray regularly and to attend to the needy. They may be like us. We should realize what the parables make obvious: God is our Father who lovingly calls us back to Him through His Son, Jesus the Christ.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Wednesday of the Sixteenth Week in Ordinary Time

(Exodus 16:1-5.9-15; Matthew 13:1-9)

Jesus mentions “rich soil” in the gospel parable. Of what does that consist? Has it anything to do with Catholic education? Empirical research indicates that it might. According to a survey published six years ago Catholics who attended Catholic high schools in the U.S. are more likely to claim a strong allegiance to the Church and a habit of praying regularly.

But this is not to say that one needs to go to Loyola to be a committed Christian. Rich soil may be prepared in numerous ways. Most importantly, it is a matter of encountering Christ in the sacraments. Listening to the Word of God pronounced there pulverizes the rocky earth of egotism. Feeling the touch of Christ in the sacramental signs eviscerates the thorns of greed and lust.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Tuesday of the Sixteenth Week in Ordinary Time

(Exodus 14:21-15:1; Matthew 12:46-30)

“Parish Renewal” was established thirty years or so ago to evangelize people who are already going to church. At one point in the weekend retreat the pastor is to encourage parish unity by saying, “Blood is thicker than water.” “How do we share the same blood?” the parishioners might wonder. The pastor then explains, “We all drink the blood of Christ.”

Jesus emphasizes the unity of his disciples with him in today’s gospel. Even closer than his blood relatives are to him, he implies, are those who accept God as Father. They have assimilated his message and can be counted upon to assist those with acute needs that Jesus especially identifies with.

God has given us one another in the Church as friends who make life enjoyable and relatives to support and help. With Jesus himself they give cause for the highest praise to God.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Monday of the Sixteenth Week in Ordinary Time

(Exodus 14:5-18; Matthew 12:28-32)

Pope Benedict has penned a charming anecdote about his ordination to the priesthood sixty years ago. He writes that when the archbishop laid his hands on his head, a little bird warbled a joyful song on the high altar of the cathedral. The pope warns his readers that Catholics should not be superstitious but, nevertheless, finds it appropriate to interpret the bird’s tweeter as a sign of God’s approval.

In today’s gospel the Pharisees refuse to accept all that Jesus has done as a sign of God’s authorization for his mission. They demand a further sign although do not specify what would suffice. Would they be satisfied with Jesus’ calling down fire from heaven to burn up an offering like Elias performed? Probably not because, as Jesus points, they will not accept even his rising from the dead as indicating God’s approval. The sad fact is that they have already closed their minds and hearts to faith in him.

As Pope Benedict indicates, we must be careful in seeking signs. We should not demand an inexplicable happening as divine testimony for what we are saying or doing. Yet we can and perhaps should see in the good things that happen to us as God’s blessing when we determinedly strive to carry out His will.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Saint Bonaventure, bishop and doctor of the Church

(Exodus 11:1-12:14; Matthew 12:1-8)

Thirteen years ago Blessed John Paul II wrote an apostolic letter entitled, “The Lord’s Day.” In it he tried to awaken Catholics to the glory of reserving one day a week for prayer, family, and leisure. He also challenged the secularizing idea of weekend which stretches a day for giving thanks in beloved company into two days or more of pursuing personal ambitions. The letter is vintage John Paul: intensely human, deeply reflective, and devoutly holy.

In the Gospel reading today Jesus provides us with his own reflection on the Sabbath. Of course, for him it is the very end of the week, not its beginning. As in Orthodox Jewish communities today, the Sabbath in Jesus’ time is rigorously regulated: no cooking, no walking beyond what amounts to a kilometer, no jumping or handclapping. But observance of the Sabbath was not always so strict. Before the Babylonian Exile the people were more relaxed about keeping the Sabbath. From today’s passage it can be said that Jesus prefers the more flexible interpretation.

Do we feel a twinge of guilt when we stop at Wal-Mart on the way home from church or go to the office for a few hours on Sunday evening? It would not necessarily be unhealthy if we did. We cannot say that such actions are inherently sinful. Indeed, Jesus defends similar deviations from the norm in today’s passage. But still we should not let Sunday go by without giving primary consideration to Jesus. He is, after all, “Lord of the Sabbath.”

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Memorial of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, virgin

(Exodus 3:13-30; Matthew 11:28-30)

Many people today are instantly on a first-name basis. Perhaps a few seniors are jarred when telephone-sales reps talk to them as if they played cards together. But the younger generation generally finds such familiarity unexceptional. For this reason there may be some difficulty understanding the concession God is making to Moses in the reading from Exodus. When He reveals His name, “I am who am,” we might think of it as God’s giving out His cellular number. Now Moses and the Israelites can call God for assistance any time, day or night.

God’s granting Moses and the Israelites knowledge of His name indicates the utmost regard He has for them. Throughout the Old Testament He will also assist them, chastise them, instruct them so that they might become worthy of being His special people. Unfortunately, time after time Israel will fail to respond to God’s directives. Eventually, however, a descendant of Israel obediently carries out God’s will. This is Jesus, the son of Mary.

We followers of Jesus have become the New Israel. Especially the holy ones in our midst, like Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha whom we celebrate today, manifest a full-fledged adherence to God’s commands. Their stories give the rest of us examples and their prayers win for us the grace of the Holy Spirit. Now our lives may show as well that God has not revealed His name in vain.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Wednesday of the Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time

(Exodus 3:1-6.9-12; Matthew 11:25-27)

“If you want something done,” an old adage says, “ask a busy man.” If you are a busy person with tasks piling up, what are you to do? You only have to ask God for help, and you will not be disappointed. As God promises to assist Moses in the reading today, He is always ready to aid those who bring their needs to Him.

Moses’ challenge is humongous. Rescuing the people of Israel will not only mean confronting the Egyptians with what will be the demise of their comfortable way of life but also convincing the Israelites to make a long exodus through the desert. Only a fool or a firm, firm believer would not say, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and lead the children out of Egypt?”

Whenever we find ourselves faced with a mountain of challenges, we need to stop and ask God for assistance. Perhaps we have triple exams on a day at school or a full week of appointments, commitments, and deadlines. It is not time to despair but to petition the Lord to see us through to the other side.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Tuesday of the Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time

(Exodus 2:1-15a; Matthew 11:20-24)

Young people need lots of support. They relish compliments from teachers and look for better-than-average paychecks at work. When people grow older and hopefully wiser, however, they no longer look for incentives from others. Rather, a well-developed relationship with the Lord should provide them all the reason necessary for doing what is right. In the reading from Exodus today Moses is challenged to become wise before he grows old as he looks to the Lord for support in his youth.

Although Moses could have renounced his Hebrew heritage, he chooses instead to defend his people. When he sees an Egyptian punishing an Israelite, he slays the aggressor. Although he does not believe that anyone sees what is taking place, he would expect his fellow countrymen to defend him. But, in fact, they are ready to expose his act. His only recourse is to run away and look to God for solace.

Sometimes in doing what is right, we find people indifferent or even hostile to our position. We should not let them stop us. Rather we, like Moses, must recognize that it is the Lord, not other people, whom we are to please.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Memorial of Saint Benedict, abbot

(Exodus 1: 8-14.22; Matthew 10:34-11:1)

A man tells the story of his daughter. When she was a teenager, she became pregnant outside marriage. She wanted to have her baby, but her mother encouraged her to have an abortion. For the elder woman, the girl was too young to take on the responsibilities of motherhood and needed to finish her education. The girl desperately turned to her father who was divorced from his wife. The man believed in his daughter and promised to help her keep her baby. Relieved, the girl said that she had bought a bus ticket to another town in case no one would support her at home. Whether she knows it or not, this girl is following Jesus’ instructions to his Apostles in today’s gospel.

It is not that Jesus has abortion in mind as he lectures his Apostles. Rather, he foresees that his way of life will bring opposition to his followers just as the Pharisees oppose him. When Jewish-Christians are ejected from synagogues in the late first century, some at least will be opposed by their strict Jewish parents. They will have to choose between Jesus and their families; between the eternal life he offers and the relative peace life of following family customs. It is not a desirable choice, but one whose selection is obvious.

Fortunately, most of us today do not have to choose between family and Christ. More often, the choice must be made between Christ and the desires of our own hearts. Will we follow common sexual impulses or will we refrain from pornography and contraception as the Church, Christ’s body and the keeper of his ways, ordains? Confronting these issues, we realize that Jesus does not bring the perpetual peace of mind that we may desire.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Friday of the Fourteenth Week in Ordinary Time

(Genesis 46:1-7.28-20; Matthew 10:16-23)

A Mexican child will answer the call of a parent by saying, “Mande,” meaning, “Send (me).” The implication is that the child will do whatever he is commanded. We find this willingness to comply in the first reading when Israel responds to the call of the Lord, “Here I am.” In other often quoted biblical texts, Samuel goes to Eli saying, “Here I am. I come to do your will” and of the Virgin Mary answers the angel, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done unto me according to your word.” We should note that Israel did not always acquiesce to God’s will. As a young man, he trusted in his craftiness rather than in the Lord. Through a slow but sure process, however, God taught Israel how to trust in Him.

Willingness to conform to God’s will is one requirement of fathering a great nation. Another, more obvious need is to assure the welfare of one’s family. Israel proves that he has looked after this concern when he travels to Egypt to be reunited with his son Joseph. He has been faithful to the tradition of his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham although he followed them in a unique way.

Jesus shows these two traits of nation-building in an eminent way. He follows his Father’s will to the end, and he sends his Spirit, as indicated in today’s gospel, to protect his disciples. With such care the Church has become a great people that gives God glory throughout the earth.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Thursday of the Fourteenth Week in Ordinary Time

(Genesis 44:18-21.23b-29.45:1-5; Matthew 10:7-15)

The women just completed an adult religious education program. She expressed her confidence about what she had learned by saying, “The next time Jehovah Witnesses came to my door, they should be prepared to sit down and talk for an hour.”

Door-to door canvassing is so associated with Jehovah Witnesses and evangelical sects that it is scarcely considered a Catholic apostolate. Yet Jesus in today’s gospel seems to tell his apostles to do just that. “As you enter a house,” he says, “wish it peace.” But contemporary intuition, in this case at least, is not wrong. Jesus is prescribing a manner for the missionary to find a place of lodging, not a way to evangelize. Although there may be some value in visiting households to spread the “good news,” the “new evangelization” as proclaimed by recent popes more involves intimating the love of God by word and example.

We should recognize the appeal in contemporary ideals of everybody choosing to believe what she or he finds meaningful for himself or herself. Extended a bit, this line of thinking demands universal adherence to laws to protect individuals, but its aim is to safeguard liberty as far as possible. Such principles seem to avoid conflict while not making absolute any doctrine about which general agreement does not exist. However, they also ignore divine revelation which comes especially in Jesus Christ. It would be contradictory to force belief in Christ, but, as the popes suggest, we should not content ourselves merely with allowing each individual to believe whatever he or she likes. Rather, we are to impress upon others the superiority of Catholic Christianity by the quality and tenor of our lives.

Wedneday, July 6, 2011

Wednesday of the Fourteenth Week of Ordinary Time

(Genesis 41:55-57.42:5-7a.17-24a; Matthew 10:1-7)

Although the greater challenge today is obesity, famine still exists. Africa seems especially susceptible to the problem. It is not so much lack of rain there that causes crops to fail as the deterioration of the environment through excessive grazing. War is another major cause of hunger in Africa. In war farmers are reluctant to plant, and the dislocation of large numbers of people creates huge emergency needs. If the world community could prevent war, it would go a long way in preventing famine.

During the great biblical famine which today’s first reading gives account, some of Israel’s sons take recourse to Egypt which has stored vast reserves of grain. There they unknowingly meet their brother Joseph whom they mistreated in the past. Fortunately for them Joseph’s kind heart inclines him to forgiveness rather than vengeance. He will take care of his family although he mischievously masks from them his identity until his full brother Benjamin is brought to him.

To assure the virtual elimination of famine, peoples and nations must likewise replace vengeance with forgiveness. It is not a one-sided quest, however. Where wrongs have been committed, the guilty party needs to ask forgiveness. Such mutual self-abnegation is achieved only with divine assistance which already has been extended in Christ. But it is not that we expect all peoples to embrace Christianity before world peace can be achieved. Rather we pray that the governments of the world recognize the reality of a human family under God, which Jesus preached, as the basis of international relations.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Tuesday of the Fourteenth Week in Ordinary Time

(Genesis 32:23-33; Matthew 9:32-38)

Homero Aridjis is a Mexican poet and environmentalist. At the age of ten he was almost killed in a shotgun accident. Today he sees that experience as shaping his life. Since that time he has lost interest in hunting and has become passionately concerned with defending the environment. He now sees his own survival connected with that of birds and butterflies. In the reading from Genesis Jacob undergoes a similar life-changing experience.

Jacob has left his father-in-law’s ranch a wealthy man. His own wits, not God, made him rich. When he meets God as he wrestles with the stranger, Jacob is struggling with his conscience, the voice of God, for swindling his brother Esau years before. Jacob prevails; that is, he is not destroyed in the encounter but survives and even extracts a blessing from his opponent. He will no longer be defined by his brother since Jacob means heel catcher because he was born lurching after Esau who came out of his mother’s womb first. From now on he will be called after God Himself since Israel is said to mean you have struggled with God.

We too know what it is like to struggle with God when we ask ourselves questions like, “Did I dwell too long on an impure thought?” or “Would it be wrong to leave work early without permission?” As God does not destroy Jacob, he does not abandon us because of our sins. Rather, He lets us know that we are His sons and daughters whom He forgives and blesses when we honestly take account of our actions.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Monday of the Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time

(Genesis 28:10-22a; Matthew 9:18-26)

As Americans celebrate the Fourth of July, many may find Jacob’s declaration of the place where he slept to be “an abode of God” as characteristic of the United States. Like the Lord’s prediction of Jacob’s descendants, Americans are numerous. Although its extent is easily exaggerated, the United States has been a blessing to Europe during and after World War II and to many developing countries today.

The term “American exceptionalism” has been invented to explain how the United States has reached greatness. Separated from other powers by the vast Atlantic, the country was incubated without the constant threat of war. Equally important, the country did not have a history of feudalism that separated rich from poor as a matter of necessity. Now that slavery and its vestiges have been overcome, it is truly a land of opportunity for everyone. Belief in God and religious freedom has also played a significant part in America’s achievement. The idea of a “Creator” grounds the concept of human rights in the “Declaration of Independence.” More importantly even, Lincoln and other patriots have turned to God as an unerring judge who rewards the nation for its virtue and punishes it for its vice.

However much Americans like to compare its blessings with that of God to Jacob, they should note a critical difference. God’s benediction on Jacob is a solemn oath that He will never retract. Israel, not the country but the people, will endure forever. No such promise has been made to the United States as a country or a people. If the country is to continue to flourish, it must strive to be a blessing for others, to pursue virtue at all costs, and, as much as its freedom of religion will allow, to retain its belief in God.