Friday, August 1, 2014

Memorial of Saint Alphonsus Ligouri, bishop and doctor of the Church

(Jeremiah 26:1-9; Matthew 13:54-58)

If a bank robber threatened you with your life to act as his accomplice by driving his get-away car, could you do so without committing a sin?  It’s not an easy question to answer since it seems that you would be giving immediate material cooperation that is generally forbidden.  Moralists are likely divided on the issue which brings us to St. Alphonsus Ligouri whose feast day is today.

Alphonsus lived during a time of great debate among moral theologians. Some, called probablists, held that one could take a position in favor of freedom on a difficult issue – in the above, that it would be permissible to cooperate with the bank robber – if at least one accredited moralist held that position.  Others, named probabilorists, believed that it is always necessary to follow the opinion with the most internal reasons.  St. Alphonsus settled the issue with his typical wisdom.  He wrote that one could take a position of freedom if there are as many internal arguments in its favor as there are in favor of the law.

We live in an age that exalts information.  Especially through the Internet a mountain of facts are at one’s fingertips.  But there is a scarcity of wisdom, the ability to live rightly in any circumstances in which we find ourselves.  People like St. Alphonsus are gifts from God to be heeded and followed.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Memorial of Saint Ignatius Loyola, priest

(Jeremiah 18:1-6; Matthew 13:47-53)

Preachers today often speak of God’s “unconditional love.”  Rightly understood, the statement is on target.  Unlike most humans, God doesn’t reserve His affection for one nation or another, for one race or another, even for one religion or another.  There is something to the special love God has for the poor, but this does not mean that He does not care as well for the rich and the strong.

Yet it seems that some may run too fast with the idea of God’s unconditional love.  They would say that it assures everyone a place in the Kingdom.  They want to claim that nothing anyone does might alienate him or her from eternal life.  A funeral director, who hears plenty of homilies about God’s mercy, said that this was one of the results of Vatican II. 

But, of course, the bishops arrived at no such conclusion fifty years ago nor could they do so today.  It would counter Jesus’ teaching in this mass’s parable of a huge catch of fish some good and some bad.  In the first reading as well, written before a sense of personal salvation took hold in the biblical literature, the Lord declares Himself able to reject a people to whom He has shown great love.

A wise man once said that we cannot know if no one has been condemned but we can pray that no one has been condemned.  We also should pray that people who do evil things turn from their misdeeds.  And while we are at it, let us also pray that we who come to church to listen to pious homilies do not have hidden, darker motives for doing so.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Wednesday of the Seventeenth Week in Ordinary Time

(Jeremiah 15:10.16-21; Matthew 13:44-46)

Ralph Powell was a Dominican priest known for eccentricity.  He used to take two cups of coffee with him to his room every morning.  His brothers in community would joke that the one was meant for him and the other for God.  They did not doubt, however, that the priest had a close relationship with the Lord.  He knew that he was blessed.  Anytime -- on both good and bad days alike – he was asked how he was, he would respond, “Better than I deserve to be.”  It is precisely such a relationship with God that Jesus refers to as the treasure a man discovers in a field and the fine pearl a merchant finds.

When Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like riches or a jewel, he means that knowing God surpasses anything a person has or does.  Jesus’ preaching began with the proclamation, “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand; repent and believe.”  Now he is making the claim that repentance is tantamount to selling everything one has.  It is turning away not just from evil things but from good things as well that might distract us from pursuing a relation with God.

More likely than not, the good things that distract us need to be put in their place rather than discarded.  We work too hard and should relax to pray more.  We enjoy wine, chocolate, and beef, but a day of abstinence each week from these goods would make us more appreciative to the Lord.  He is the one for whom we are to sacrifice everything.

Tuesday, Jul 29, 2014

Memorial of Saint Martha

(Jeremiah 14:17-22; John 11:19-27)

When the father of the boy possessed by a demon exclaims to Jesus, “I do believe; help my unbelief,” he expresses the faith of most every Christian.  Even Martha, a close friend of the Lord, shows a fault line in her belief as in today’s gospel.

Martha makes a declaration of faith as bold as Peter’s in the first three gospels.  She calls Jesus “’…the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.’”  But she fails to realize the meaning of her statement.  When Jesus says that her dead brother will rise, she considers it a reference to the vague end of times.  She does not recognize that the Jesus standing before her is new life itself.  Not understanding the full meaning of her words, Martha will worry about mundane things like the smell of decomposing flesh when Jesus orders her brother’s tomb opened.

Although we may take comfort in knowing that we are not alone in posing questions of faith, it is important to move beyond this point.  Full faith will make stronger and more attentive to others’ needs.  It will assure that we do what is right in trial and keep us squarely on the road to the fullness of life.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Monday of the Seventeenth Week in Ordinary Time

(Jeremiah 13:1-11; Matthew 13:31-35)

Walking through a shopping mall, both men and women are allured by the lingerie shop.  The window display arouses such interest that all wonder what can be inside.  Of course, the apparel is meant to increase the intensity of desire of a husband for his wife.  In the first reading today the prophet Israel uses such an image to describe the relationship between God and Israel.

The loin cloth described in the passage was to be worn by men to cover their genitals.   In public the loincloth was worn under a tunic, but whether in private or in public it signifies intimacy.  The prophet himself states this meaning: “As close as the loincloth clings to a man’s loins, so had I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, says the Lord.”  The tragedy that Israel abandons God for the fetishes of their neighbors is symbolized by the loincloth being buried and rotting.

God has created humans as sexual beings so that they might relate to one another.  Genital sexuality is reserved for a man and a woman to solidify their union.  It becomes the proper environment for raising children and thus for fulfilling God’s plan for creation.  Quite unfortunately, humans often distort this blueprint by making pleasure the purpose of sexual fulfillment.  Like Jeremiah‘s rotting loincloth, such practice cannot last long.  We look to Jesus, who reinforces the original teaching on sexuality in Genesis, as our advisor in these affairs.

Friday, July 25, 2014

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 gloats, “How about that kid of mine?”  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.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Thursday of the Sixteenth Week in Ordinary Time

(Jeremiah 2:1-3.7-8.12-13; Matthew 13:10-17)

The storyteller is a very popular motif of New Mexican sculpture.  The image is usually an indigenous woman with children clinging to her from every side.  Her mouth is open as she relates a tale of her youth.  Curiously, however, the children are not paying much attention to the storyteller’s words.  Rather they seem more intent on frolicking. In today’s gospel Jesus has similarly just told a large crowd a story that is called a parable.  The people likewise did not heed what he was saying.

The disciples now question Jesus about why he uses parables if the people are not going to catch his meaning.  He answers that the people do not understand his parables not because the stories are inscrutable but because the people themselves do not appreciate who is speaking to them.  From all Jesus has done among them – his multiple healings and expulsions of devils – they should realize that he is the one whom God has sent into the world.  Not believing in him, his parables become no more for them than cartoons of our culture for children to watch on Saturday morning.

Parables are rich in meaning.  Like the deposits of gas and oil beneath the earth’s surface they can be mined again and again for high yields of truth.  But to take full advantage of them we must recognize that their source, Jesus, is not like any other storyteller.  No, he is the Son of God sent to us to reveal the wisdom that yields eternal life.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Wednesday of the Sixteenth Week in Ordinary Time

(Jeremiah 1:1.4-10; Matthew 13:1-9)

The woman was confused about what to say.  Her granddaughter had just confessed that she wanted to move in with her boyfriend.  Then the younger asked her grandmother whether she would disown her if she did such a thing.  Such a scene of conflicting values is reminiscent of the era of the prophet Jeremiah who is featured in the first reading today.

Jeremiah lives in the southern kingdom of Judah in the seventh and sixth centuries before Christ.  The time of his calling as a prophet, which today’s reading reports, is particularly jaded.  Manasseh, the nation’s king, has allowed the presence of Assyrian idols in the Temple area.  Now God commissions the young Jeremiah to speak his truth to the people.  It would be a tough assignment for a seasoned prophet.  It is no wonder then that Jeremiah tries to shy away from the challenge. 

Not only young people are living together outside marriage.  Elders as well, whether to avoid the emotional or the legal entanglements of marriage, are opting for the sinful relationship.  We certainly should not show approval for the practice.  In fact, we should express our concern –with as much prayerful care as prophetic boldness – that the couple is offending our Creator and Redeemer. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Memorial of Saint Mary Magdalene

(Micah 7:14-15.18-20; John 20:1-2.11-18)

When George Harrison sang, “I really want to see you, Lord,” he struck a deep chord within many of us.  We want to see Jesus risen from the dead, verify that our faith is not a pipedream, and know that he is worth the efforts we make to believe.  We are not unlike Mary Magdalene in today’s gospel.

When Mary realizes that it is Jesus she is talking to, she wants to hold onto him.  She is evidently thinking that Jesus, returned to life, will be like he was before – the teacher who lifted his disciples from the trivialities of life to know God’s rich purpose for them.  Jesus must correct her.  The meaning of his resurrection is not a mere physical reunion with his friends, but a spiritual presence to the whole world through his ascension and sending forth of the Spirit.  Then he bestows on Mary the privilege of being the first to announce this message.

We should not dwell long on the desire to see Jesus but prepare ourselves to announce to others the message he gave Mary.  Of course, it may be useless to use words, at least at first, but let us preach with our actions.  Our joy, peace, and charity signal to those who know us that what we believe about Jesus having risen and ascended for our salvation is true.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Monday of the Sixteenth Week in Ordinary Time

(Micah 6:1-4.6-8; Matthew 12:38-42)

Most Christians are aware of the judgment scene toward the end of Matthew’s gospel.  In the story Jesus foretells how he will come at the end of time to judge the peoples of the earth.  In the reading from the prophet Micah today we find an Old Testament counterpart to that memorable scene.

God appears in the trial as both plaintiff and judge.  He has a case against the people of Israel.  Although He has freed them from slavery and given them His Law as their guide, they have been anything but loyal.  They have ignored His commandments and, like young men lusting after whores, have joined themselves to other gods.  Now facing powerful enemies, they come back to God for assistance.  They propose paying their indemnity with sacrifices – animals, oil stocks, or (how could they ever imagine this?) their own children.  But God exacts neither blood nor material.  He only pleads that Israel be just, good, and humble.

As simple as it sounds, the rectitude that God seeks becomes a monumental task in a world with so many diversions.  Fortunately, we have Christ as our model and strength.  Grounding our lives in his teaching and coming to his table for nourishment, we can feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, and visit the sick and imprisoned.  In short, we can prepare ourselves to enter God’s kingdom. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Friday of the Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time

(Isaiah 38:1-6.21-22.7-8; Matthew 12:1-8)

Hezekiah has been a reform-minded king.  He prohibited worship of pagan gods in Judah and tried to reestablish the Temple in Jerusalem as the central cultic place for all Israelites after the fall of the Northern Kingdom.  The first reading today shows the Lord taking to heart the cry of this good leader.

A characteristic of the prophetic message is God’s openness to His people.  He could change His plan if the people turn back to him.  This phenomenon is seen in today’s passage from Isaiah.  The prophet tells Hezekiah to prepare for death, but when the king utters his heart-felt plea that God take into account his faithful service, the Lord changes His mind.  As God’s loyal messenger, Isaiah does not seem chagrined at all to report this turn of events.

We also should look to God for deliverance when all appears lost.  Particularly when it seems that our sins are causing our downfall, we should petition God for mercy.  Of course, God expects our repentance to be sincere and may not grant exactly what we ask.  Nevertheless, we can count on Him for help.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Thursday of the Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time

(Isaiah 26:7-9.12.16-19; Matthew 11:28-30)

The eighty year-old women knelt beside her bed every night.  Rosary in hand, she prayed for her family.  She did not have children of her own; she never married.  But she prayed for her sisters and brother, her nephews and niece, and her grand-nieces and nephew.  Did she pray for herself?  Probably she did since her life was not the happiest.  Her solitariness likely called within her like a broken record, “What’s wrong with you, Mary?  What’s wrong with you?

In today’s gospel Jesus particularly invites those who never married along with widows, the divorced and homosexuals who try to live chastely to share their burden with him.  He will give them support because he too felt loneliness as a trial.  Of course, he never married but that does not seem to have caused him grief.  Rather it was being betrayed by a trusted disciple and denied by another, being condemned by the leaders of his nation and being scorned by the great defenders of justice in his time that made him feel abandoned.  His forlornness is dramatically demonstrated on the cross when he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus also asks us to take upon ourselves his yoke.  He means that we heed his command that we love one another – friend and foe alike.  It seems like a daunting challenge, but it turns out to be the way to happiness, both now and forever.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Wednesday of the Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time

(Isaiah 10:5-7.13b-16; Matthew 11:25-27)

According to a contemporary proverb, when life deals you lemons, you are to make lemonade.  It may sound Pollyannaish, but it might be said that Jesus is up to something similar in today’s gospel.

The tenor of today’s gospel differs so dramatically from yesterday’s that they seem to come from different parts of the New Testament.  Yet they follow one another as surely as calf and cow.  In yesterday’s passage Jesus complained that Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum will not reform despite the fact that he has shown them God’s mighty deeds.  But Jesus refuses to sulk. Rather in today’s verses, that directly follow the lament over the three towns, Jesus thanks God for revealing His glory to the humble.

The passage reassures us that we do not have to be rich, schooled, or intelligent to be enlightened by God.  As a matter of fact, the situation indicates the contrary.  When we humbly submit to God in prayer and obedience, He will reveal His truth to us.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Memorial of Saint Bonaventure, bishop and doctor of the Church

(Isaiah 7:1-9; Matthew 11:20-24)

The singer and songwriter John Denver sang a beautiful ballad about his uncle Matthew.  The refrain emphasized that Matthew was raised on joy and found love the only way to live.  The verses told how Matthew lost everything in a tornado – farm, home, and family – everything, that is, except his faith.  The ballad asserted that Matthew’s faith in God was “as solid as a stone.”  It is the kind of faith that Isaiah exhorts in today’s first reading.

The situation appears hopeless for the small kingdom of Judah.  Its neighbors have coalesced their forces against it.  Its people are trembling.  In the midst of the crisis Isaiah admonishes the nation not to lose heart but to keep their faith in God.  In what has become a definition of biblical faith, Isaiah tells the people: “’Unless your faith is firm, you shall not be firm.’” He means to say that their faith comprises their very existence.

Unfortunately some of us count faith as something less than that.  We sometimes see faith as an expendable quality of our lives, helpful mostly for celebrating life’s thresholds: the passages from childhood to adolescence, from living mostly for oneself to sharing one’s means with another, from life itself to death.  But we do not accept its ultimate meaning.  If this is the case with us personally, then we need to repent and accept faith for the claim that Isaiah makes of it.  Without our faith in Christ we will cease to be.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Memorial of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, virgin

(Isaiah 1:10-17; Matthew 10:34-11:1)

Saint Kateri Tekakwitha’s life mirrors today’s gospel.  As a young woman her conversion to Christianity caused resentment and persecution among her relatives and tribespeople. Forced to flee her native village in New York, she was accepted by Native American Christians near Montreal.  There she lived for the remainder of her short life dedicated to holiness and concern for others.

Jesus predicts persecution for those who follow him.  His mention of a sword is not meant to justify Christians using arms to convert others but the sad fact that they might have to suffer martyrdom for his sake.  But they should rejoice at the fact because having suffered for him, they will rise with him to eternal life.  They will not even be a burden to those who should help them but rather represent a blessing for their benefactors. 

Martyrdom of Christians is still an everyday reality in different parts of the world.  We must pray for Christians in Asia and Africa who are called to suffer on behalf of Christ.  We also should not be timid about professing our faith in Christ.  Why not mention to others how he is the reason we always tell the truth and treat everyone with kindness?

Friday, July 11, 2014

Memorial of Saint Benedict, abbot

(Hosea 14:2-10; Matthew 10:16-23)

When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger took the name Pope Benedict XVI, he had more in mind than eliciting the spiritual support of a favorite saint.  Knowing that St. Benedict was instrumental in forming European civilization, the new pope wanted to signal the current leaders of the continent not to abandon Christianity with which their civilization was founded.

St. Benedict was born in Italy in 480.  He studied in Rome but, repulsed by urban life, fled to the country as a hermit.  He was sought out by different bands of monks and eventually founded monasteries and, more importantly, a monastic rule based on prayer, hospitality, and a vibrant blend of study and work.  The monks, called Benedictines, spread the rule throughout Europe and, indeed, the world.  For preserving and developing the learning of antiquity, Benedictine monasticism has been regarded as playing a crucial role in the story of Western Civilization.

Today academic and social forces are rejecting Christianity and the Judeo-Christian ethic. They believe that their societies will obtain greater satisfaction by allowing each person to pursue individual desires.  It is a scary proposition because there are forces ready to dominate a weakened social fabric.  St. Benedict today serves as a symbol of the cultural heritage that the new Europe imprudently wants to leave behind.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Thursday of the Fourteenth Week in Ordinary Time

(Hosea 11:1-4.8e-9; Matthew 10:7-15)

“I have six pence, jolly, jolly six pence
I have six pence to last me all my life.
I have two pence to spend and two pence to lend,
And two pence to send home to my wife, poor wife.”

Many sang such rhymes in their youth perhaps making the best of the days when their earning power was minimal.  Perhaps the apostles sang something like it as they were sent by Jesus to proclaim the Good News.

Jesus tells them that they are not to “take gold or silver or copper” with them.  The last, a copper coin, is what is called today a penny.  Jesus wants the apostles are to preach the goodness of God by their poverty as well as by their words.  Completely dependent on Divine Providence, without even a penny to their name, they will show how the Lord cares for those who trust in Him.

Often enough today we forget this instruction from Jesus.  Preachers will set their fees to meet their budgets which include hefty health insurance premiums and retirement accounts.  We must forgive them for doing so as our society expects that we look after these needs.  But we should never abandon the thrust of what Jesus is saying here.  When we bestow a blessing of peace on those we meet, we can be assured that the gracious act will come back to us tenfold.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Wednesday of the Fourteenth Week in Ordinary Time

(Hosea 10:1-3.7-8.12; Matthew 10:1-7)

The Good Earth is an epic story about a Chinese peasant who accumulates a fortune.  Through hard work, shrewdness, and especially the cooperation of his wife, the peasant becomes a rich landowner in the time after the downfall of the Qing dynasty.  Tragically, the peasant takes into his home a local beauty leaving his wife forlorn.  The man’s sons, educated but querulous, eventually plot to take apart the estate their father and mother so diligently put together.  The tale reflects the trajectory of Israel as told by Hosea and other prophets of the Northern Kingdom

In today’s first reading Hosea highlights the glory of the Northern Kingdom.  He calls it a “luxuriant vine” with “abundant…fruit.”  Hosea objective in extolling Israel, however, is to contrast God’s gracious blessing on the nation with the people’s meager response.  Rather than embrace more faithfully the God who has given them the land, they worship him as only one god among others.  The prophet makes no compromises about their destiny.  He predicts the destruction of the kingdom.

The nations of western civilization should take warning.  They too have been blessed by the God whom their ancestors worshipped faithfully.  Now they seem to follow other gods – not graven images but desires for pleasure, power, and wealth.  Some nations like Greek and Spain may be on the verge of collapse.  Others like the United States face great challenges such as the lack of workers to support an aging population.  We pray for the grace of conversion.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Tuesday of the Fourteenth Week in Ordinary Time

(Hosea 8:4-7.11-13; Matthew 9:32-38)

Two years ago William Byron, a Jesuit priest teaching at St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia, and Charles Zech, an economist at Villanova University, reported on their survey of why Catholics in a New Jersey diocese leave the Church.  Unsurprisingly, many people said that they no longer practice the faith because of policies such as not allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion.  The survey uncovered other reasons as well, but high moral standards seem to discourage Catholics as much as anything else.  In the first reading today the prophet Hosea chastises Israel for abandoning the faith of their ancestors for similar reasons.

Hosea was an eighth century B.C. prophet who preached in the Northern Kingdom of Israel with its capital located in Samaria.  It was a time of prosperity, but rather than turning to the God of their ancestors in gratitude, the people were inclined to worship the fetishes of their pagan neighbors.  The pagan deities were much less demanding than God.  Where the Lord insisted that the people control their appetites, paganism could extol licentiousness.

In Jesus the commands of God are brought to fulfillment.  To many they seem harder to obey – not even to look with lust or not even to resist a rebuke!  But this is because we tend to forget that Jesus walks with us to share our burden.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Monday of the Fourteenth Week in Ordinary Time

(Hosea 2:16.17c-18.21-22; Matthew 9:18-26)

The man was diagnosed with cancer.  He duly took the chemotherapy that was prescribed.  With even greater confidence he believed that God would cure him.  Five months later and after no easy struggle, the man’s doctor says that there is no evidence of cancer.  Although the story is but one of millions and not yet completed, it does illustrate the prerequisite faith for healing shown in today’s gospel.

The official astoundingly goes to Jesus after his daughter has died to ask for resuscitation.  He believes that a personal encounter with Jesus will give life back to her.  On the way to his house, Jesus is approached by a woman who has been in the tentacles of hemorrhage for years.  She also places faith in Jesus’ presence.  Neither the official nor the afflicted are disappointed.

Our prayer invokes the presence of Jesus.  We may not feel his presence.  Indeed, we may feel the frustration of trying to send emails when the server is disconnected. But through persistent and patient faith we will experience his life-giving attention. 

Friday, July 4, 2014

Friday of the Thirteenth Week in Ordinary Time

(Amos 8:4-6.9-12; Matthew 9:9-13)

Of all the symbols of freedom and justice in the United States none seems to capture the imagination like the Statute of Liberty.  Standing on an island in New York harbor, the image of a strong and lovely woman with a torch in her hand held high certainly has lifted the hopes of millions of poor immigrants.  They have sought no more than opportunity which the country based on law and animated by civic affection provided.

Today’s gospel shows Jesus in a similar way calling not the wealthy and the righteous but tax collectors and sinners.  He too provides opportunity – his life-giving love – for them to begin anew.  By all means they will have to forfeit their larcenies, but they have already a cogent reason to do so in the fellowship they have with the Lord.

Today we Americans should toast out country.  Only fools would deny its greatness in spawning not just wealth to millions but, more importantly, a spirit of generosity and cooperation.  Of course, we also thank God for His blessings on our forefathers and mothers who first came to this land.  Likewise, we entreat the Lord that the gifts so bounteously bestowed will not be squandered out of selfishness and individualism.