Friday, October 20, and Monday, October 23, 2017

Friday of the Twenty-eighth Week in Ordinary Time

(Romans 4:1-8; Luke 12:1-7)

The French philosopher Albert Camus made a hero out of the rogue mythological king Sisyphus.  In Camus’ story Sisyphus temporarily redeems humanity by putting Death itself in chains.  As a punishment for his deception, the gods assign Sisyphus the task of pushing a boulder up a mountain.  It is an arduous task, but the worst part is that when Sisyphus near the summit, the gods arrange that the boulder falls to the bottom.  Then Sisyphus must repeat the travail. 

Sisyphus’ fate is not unlike the dilemma of humans without Christ.  Try as they might, humans on their own could never be justified before God.  The Law pointed them in the right direction, but proved to be more than any person on his or her own could fulfill.  St. Paul tells us today that justification comes by faith as it did in the case of Abraham.  In the coming days we will hear Paul proclaim Christ’s death and resurrection as the definitive content of faith.  To be justified, Paul will say, we must believe that God raised Jesus from the dead.

The news of justification through faith is too grand for a grim realist like Albert Camus to bear.  Camus thought that the best humans could do is to achieve integrity and, perhaps, an esprit de corps in carrying on the daily struggle of life until death.  But we Christians dare to hope for more because of the testimony of those like Paul.  He encountered the risen Jesus who changed his life and sent him to proclaim the message of eternal life.

Monday of the Twenty-ninth Week in Ordinary Time

(Romans 4:20-25; Luke 12:13-21)

The Church of the early late fifteenth and early sixteenth century suffered from having too much wealth.  The popes acted more like princes than prophets.  Monks and religious hardly gave witness to the poverty of Jesus.  Sometimes, indeed, they had personal servants.  Understanding the incongruity of such comfort with religious profession, saints like Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross began the reform the Carmelite Order.  They might have taken their cues from today’s gospel.

In the passage Jesus refuses to get involved in a family dispute over inheritance.  It is not that he wants to ignore real-life tensions.  Rather, he wants to testify that God, not material resources, brings salvation.  He calls the farmer in the parable a “fool” for not recognizing that the future is more in God’s hands than in his own.

Certainly we are challenged to live our faith in this time of abundance.  Everyday there are more “necessities” to obtain and “upgrades” to purchase.  We must not allow ourselves to be led astray by these ruses.  Rather, let us learn that the best we can do with material superfluity is to share it with the needy.  

Wednesday, October 18, and Thursday, October 19, 2017

Feast of Saint Luke, evangelist

(II Timothy 4:10-17b; Luke 10:1-9)

If the Church were to use only one gospel, many people would want it to be the Gospel According to Luke.  Although not the most profound theologically, Luke’s Gospel shines in ways that touch the human heart deeply.  It gives the most detailed account of Jesus’ birth as well as of Mary, the mother of God.  It also relates the most memorable of Jesus’ parables and shows Jesus constantly in prayer.  This list could go on almost indefinitely.

We call the author of the third gospel “Luke” but cannot be sure who he was or even if “Luke” was really his name.   Several sources from the second century identify him with the Luke who is occasionally mentioned in the Pauline letters as we heard today.  Because at one point in these letters he is described as a “beloved physician,” he is honored by medical professionals as their patron.  He is also said to have painted a portrait of the Virgin Mother which is kept in the Basilica of St. Mary Major Thus, he enjoys the patronage of artists as well.  But it seems more accurate to name his profession as how he describes himself: an historical researcher who puts in good order the events of the life of Christ (see Luke 1:1-3). 

Yet Luke is more than a historian because his narrative, as we see in today’s gospel, announces the “kingdom of God.” Luke found that kingdom personified in Jesus himself who comes to show mercy on all.  Luke is especially careful to show the inclusiveness of this “all” as he is especially solicitous of the poor, women, and almost hopeless sinners. 

Memorial of Saints Jean Brebeuf, Isaac Jogues, priest and martyrs, and companions, martyrs

(Romans 3:21-30; Luke 11:47-54)

A lovely story indicates the sanctity of the North American Martyrs whom we celebrate today.  St. Isaac Jogues was captured by the Iroquois and tortured terribly.  His fingers were cut off, but he was able to escape his captors and eventually returned to France for healing.  While there, he wrote the pope for permission to celebrate the Eucharist since Church law at the time specified that the priest’s hands must be intact to celebrate Mass.  The pope wrote back saying that anyone who sheds his blood for Christ should not be denied the privilege of drinking the blood of Christ. (Another note: at the time only priests at the altar drank from the chalice.)  Isaac then returned to North America where he was captured again and martyred.

In today first reading Paul tells how Christ died to save all – Jew and Gentile.  But to be saved one must believe in his death and resurrection.  Jean Brebeuf, Isaac Jogues, and companions not only believed but also demonstrated their faith by risking their lives as missionaries.  Their eloquent testimony with blood has brought many Native Americans to embrace the faith and edifies the character of others.

Today we accept the doctrine of Vatican II that one does not have to explicitly profess faith in Christ for to be saved.  We hold that following one’s conscience can result in salvation.  But we should not fool ourselves into thinking that following one’s conscience is simply a matter of acting consistently with whatever values one claims.  No, one must discern that the God who made us also loves us and that we must follow His lead.  It is a tall order indeed to believe this without first-hand witness to Jesus Christ.

Monday, October 16, and Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Monday of the Twenty-eighth Week in Ordinary Time

(Romans 1:1-7; Luke 11:29-32)

In today’s first reading Paul from the Letter to the Romans calls himself “a slave of Christ.”  He does not mean that Christ forces him to do things against his will, quite the contrary.  Christ has freed him to act according to what his will most deeply desires. He writes further along in the letter of his former sinful condition, “For I do not the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want” (7:15).  Then he reports of being freed through faith in Christ.

The evil that Paul refers to is largely covetousness.  Humans want what does not belong to them.  It may be riches but as often as not it is illicit sexual pleasure.  Certainly one of the most confessed sins today is viewing pornography.  Viewing lascivious images depersonalizes sex and turns eros into individual gratification.

We are wise to turn to Christ when we are tempted by covetousness.  He enlightens the darkness of our hearts so that we can see clearly what is good for us.  He will give us the temperance to control our animal desires.  He will not treat us as slaves, but as younger sisters and brothers whom he wants to flourish in goodness and happiness.

Memorial of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, bishop and martyr

(Romans 1:16-25; Luke 11:37-41)

In the early 1990s an American Dominican priest working among the poor in El Salvador began to receive death threats.  Determining them to be credible, the priest’s superior called him back to the United States.  No doubt, the priest returned with a divided heart.  He would have preferred to stay with his people, but such persistence might have cost his life.  St. Ignatius of Antioch evidently had a different perspective on a similar situation.

From the letters he wrote as he traveled from Antioch to his execution in Rome, we know that Ignatius looked forward to being martyred.  When it seemed that Christians might find a way to have the penalty commuted, Ignatius pleaded with them not to do so.  He evidently wanted to be eaten alive by lions.  It is not sacrilegious to ask whether his outlook may be in part pathological.

But Ignatius also knew the corruption in many pagan hearts.  To this Paul testifies in today’s first reading.  Pagans, Paul writes, abandon their consciences differentiating right from wrong to follow the whims of their hearts represented by idols.  By dying as a martyr, Ignatius witnesses to the truth that God has created us to be just and holy as He is.  He does not tarry in professing his faith because he knows that God will reward him soon.

Thursday, October 12, and Friday, October 13

Thursday of the Twenty-seventh Week in Ordinary Time

(Malachi 3:13-20b; Luke 11:5-13)

Today’s first reading is reminiscent of the so-called “New Atheists.”  These writers not only expressed their disbelief in God but also showed contempt for Him.  One wrote a book entitled, “God Is Not Great.”  Another blamed religion – often defined as “the love of God” -- for most of the wars in history. 

The reading from the prophet Malachi looks at the world from God’s perspective.  It expresses His outrage that people would deny that they have defied God after commending evil-doers and doubting the need to repent of one’s sins.  God then promises justice.  He says that those who fear Him will be duly rewarded while those who flouted His authority will perish.

We must take care not to become too impressed with the arguments of the “New Atheists.”  Generally they can be reduced to the questions people have asked for centuries.  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Why do bad people seem to prosper?  It is good to keep in mind that Jesus, the Son of God, suffered terribly before being raised to glory.  Walking in his way is to often skirt trouble, but completing the journey is to find true happiness.

Friday of the Twenty-seventh Week in Ordinary Time

(Joel 1:13-15.2:1-2; Luke 11:15-26)

A local parish just had its first “Christ Renews His Church” retreat.  The men responded well.  Most who signed up for the event attended, and most who came on Friday night stayed until Sunday.  But the end of the retreat was not the end of the process.  As the retreat was closing, the leaders scheduled a follow-up meeting where the men would share how they felt returning to “the world.”  Such follow-ups are prevalent in popular movements from Cursillos to Marriage Encounters.  Jesus hints at their necessity in today’s gospel.

Jesus has just driven out a demon.  The people wonder how he obtained such power.  He tries to convince them that it comes from God not the devil because the devil would not work against himself.  Then Jesus teaches the people that once cleaned of their impurities they must stay close to the Lord.  He might say that trying to remain in virtue without prayer and penitence is trying to stay clean without soap and water.  As he puts it, the devil can return with evil spirits more pernicious than what possessed the person before.

We do not use the terminology of spirits and demons even of evil today.  But this does not mean that they do not exist.  More sophisticated, we typically call the moral problems people face vices, deviant behaviors, and the like.  In any case, once we emerge from a bout with evil, we are wise to remain close to the Lord so that greater problems do not overwhelm us. 

Tuesday, October 10, and Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Tuesday of the Twenty-seventh Week in Ordinary Time

(Jonah 3:1-10; Luke 10:38-42)

Since no historical records exist of the mass conversion of Nineveh and since the story of Jonah drips with exaggeration, the book is taken as an instruction to later Jews rather than a chronicle of an actual event.  It certainly indicates God’s will that other peoples be saved.  It also warns against prejudice.

Nineveh’s complete repentance is seen in the way both king and people change their hearts.  This sense is punctuated by dressing the animals in sackcloth.  Given that every society has some backsliders, Jews would have marveled to hear how thorough the conversion of their feared neighbors to the northeast was.  These were the same barbarians who had ravaged their ancestors.  Perhaps, the Jews could conclude, they are not as bad as they seemed.

The Book of Jonah is instructive to us as well.  It tells us not to consider any people or any person as beyond saving.  God works wonders. Those whom we may regard as despicable may come to surpass us in rendering true worship to God.

Wednesday of the Twenty-seventh Week in Ordinary Time

(Jonah 4:1-11; Luke 11:1-4)

With Halloween approaching, let’s reflect on what the word means.  We find a form of it in the first petition in the Lord’s Prayer read in today’s liturgy.  The prayer asks God to make “hallowed” His name.  It is a request that God’s name be reverenced or made holy.  The word Halloween is short for all hallows even, the eve of all the holy ones.  We have a sense of this meaning since the next day we celebrate the Feast of All Saints.

When we pray “hallowed be your name,” we express our desire that God’s name be reverenced throughout the world.  We want God to be honored and obeyed that He might have His due glory and we might live in peace with all.  It is then a giant petition even though it sounds simple.

The movement toward a universal recognition of God’s name should begin with us.  We should do more than not take His name in vain.  We should give it honor by testifying to others our gratefulness and continuous need for God.

Friday, October 6, and Monday, October 9, 2017

Friday of the Twenty-sixth Week in Ordinary Time 
(Baruch 1:15-22; Luke 10:13-16) 
In 1863 Abraham Lincoln signed a bill declaring a “day of national humiliation, fasting and prayer.” America was experiencing the blight of civil war and rightly held itself responsible. “We have forgotten God,” the bill declared, and also “we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace.”  Such a public call to repentance would never be made today.  But it is exactly what Jesus expects in today’s gospel. 
Chorazain, Bethsaida, and Capernaum – these are not notoriously bad cities.  There sin is likely a malaise that prevents them from noticing that the Messiah stands in their midst.  Rather than repent, they carry on business as usual.  Jesus declares that they have missed their opportunity, that their train left the station, that they will be left in oblivion. 
Just because our nation may never repent does not mean that individuals or groups should not.  We do offend God and should ask pardon and do penance.  While we are at it, let us go beyond the superficial.  We get angry ourselves and make others angry, but these are hardly the worse of our sins.  More grievously, we lie, lust, and ridicule.  We ignore the needs of others while we forever grasp at what our hearts desire.   

Monday of the Twenty-seventh Week in Ordinary time 
(Jonah 1:1-2:2.11; Luke 10:25-37) 
A few years ago a leading Catholic university removed the crucifixes from its classrooms.  Having a multi-ethnic student body, the university administration reasoned that the crucifixes might offend students of other religious traditions.  One Muslim student, however, was bothered by the removal.  After all, he asked, what kind of guest would he be if he could not respect the symbols and artifacts of his hosts’ religion?  Eventually, the crucifixes were returned to the classrooms, and their removal, no doubt, was attributed to political correctness. 
The Book of the Prophet Jonah similarly testifies to people from other religions showing greater sensibility to true religion than they of the dominant tradition.  Jonah, the Jew, is disgusted with the Lord for his parallel love of other peoples.  He flees when God commands him to preach in the city of Nineveh, Israel’s captors.  In his flight the sailors on the ship that transports Jonah show more regard for the Lord than he.  They pray to God for help and shudder to think that their act of appeasement may not please God. 
We find Jesus making a similar point in the gospel.  He describes the Samaritan who comes to the aid of the dying stranger as giving God greater praise than the priest and Levite who, most likely for liturgical reason, would not touch him.  Everyone is wise to recognize the Holy Spirit working among different peoples and religions just as surely as it lavishes graces upon her or him. 

Wednesday and Thursday, October 4-5, 2017

Memorial of Saint Francis of Assisi, religious 
One of the reasons that St. Francis of Assisi has been so popular through the centuries is that he is seen as a romantic.  It is said that Francis separated himself from his money-driven father by taking off his fine clothes and giving them back to his appalled father in the public square.  Even more charming is the story of his taming a vicious wolf by appealing to the wolf’s reason: if the wolf would stop ravaging the town, the townspeople would feed it every day.  The difficulty with such stories is that they are not always accurate. 
A recent biography by a hard-nosed but still admiring historian dismisses a large amount of the legend surrounding Francis.  What he finds is a man like the rest of us groping to God through a troubled situation.  But Francis, of course, reached his object without the pains of purgatory.  Perhaps it was devotion to Christ that gave him the critical edge.  Francis loved the Lord because Jesus truly impoverishes himself not just in the incarnation and on the cross but in the Eucharist where he makes himself food for human edification. 
We do well to emulate Francis of Assisi.  We need not go barefoot or eschew swatting flies.  But we should carefully contemplate the mystery that confronts us at Mass.  It is Jesus under the guise of bread and wine who calls us to humble ourselves so that we might strengthen others. 

Thursday of the Twenty-sixth Week in Ordinary Time

 (Nehemiah 8:1-4a.5-6.7b-12; Luke 10:1-12)  
A few years ago the United States was enthralled by a freshly told story of Abraham Lincoln.  Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln astounded the nation by the portrayal of the sixteenth president’s righteousness and integrity, his political acumen and his patriotism.  The movie no doubt invoked many tears as it showed the depth of sacrifice made by the country’s greatest statesman.  A very similar dynamic is at work in the first reading today. 
The scribe-priest Ezra stands up before the people to read Israel’s Law.  He is not reciting a code of rules but the history of the people’s salvation.  He reads of Abraham and Jacob, of Moses and Pharaoh.  But most of all, Ezra tells of God’s care for Israel.  He recounts how God gave Abraham and Sarah a child when the couple had lost hope of descendants.  And how He rescued the Israelites from servitude in Egypt and formed them into a community worthy of His name.  No wonder that the people want to cry! 
Christians can claim the story of the Patriarchs and the Exodus as their own, but we have an even greater love story to contemplate.  We speak of Jesus, God’s own son, who took on human form so that we might know God’s definitive will and be strengthened to do it.  We too weep at the boldness of God’s compassion on us and can never give Him enough thanks. 

Monday and Tuesday, October 2-3,2017

Memorial of the Holy Guardian Angels

(Zechariah 8:1-8; Matthew 18:1-5.10)

An anecdote about St. Thomas Aquinas may help us understand what Jesus is trying to convey in today’s gospel.  Whenever Thomas was to make a presentation, he went to the chapel and prayed.  He said more than a “Hail Mary”; rather, he spent a considerable time asking God’s assistance in his effort.  Here one of the greatest intellects in history petitions God’s help as if he were a little child begging his father to give him a puppy.

Jesus is telling his disciples that being so suppliant is the best way to approach God.  By referring to “angels in heaven” he is saying that God is ready to help His people with their every need.  But, he would add, the people must open themselves to the Father’s love.

This is no easy task today.  We live in a world that prides itself on competence.  Often we don’t want to admit that we need help.  We think that we can do anything worth doing by ourselves.  Never mind that this isn’t true; it is also wasting our energy by ignoring God’s graciousness.  Thomas Aquinas knew better.  As always, we have a lot to learn from him.

Tuesday of the Twenty-sixth Week in Ordinary Time

(Zechariah 8:21-23; Luke 9:51-56)

No doubt Jerusalem is one of the most visited cities of the world. Christians and Muslims as well as Jews recognize it as a holy place where God has spoken to humans.  The prophecy that Zechariah makes in today’s first reading has evidently been fulfilled.  Inhabitants of many cities want to go up to Jerusalem to seek God’s favor.  But it was not always this way.

The gospel relates an incident in Jesus’ life when Samaritans not only refused to go to Jerusalem but did not want to deal with anyone going there.  Jesus seems more disturbed by his disciples’ intolerance than by the Samaritans’.  He chastises James and John for their desire to violently punish the Samaritans.  They have been with him a good while now and should have known better.

The name Jerusalem actually means in Hebrew “city of peace.” We should look forward not just to visiting but to residing there.  For it is more than a place of prayer; it is a symbol of heaven.   In the sense that we seek eternal peace with Christ at death we want to go up to Jerusalem.  To this end we must remember Jesus’ censure of violence.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, archangels

(Daniel 7:9-10.13-14; John 1:47-51)

An author was comparing a career to a vocation.  He said that one pursues a career to make money or to become famous.  A vocation, he went on, is not something that we choose but what we are called to do.  Then he listed the many ways different people have experienced a vocation.  Some, he said, feel called in reading a book and others in being at a certain place at a certain time.  He mentioned that some sense being called by God, as if God were just one of many ways that things happen.

This is not what we believe.  We say that God is the author of any real call and that He has any number of ways to make his call known.  The word angel is a one way among many to express how God acts.  Pope St. Gregory the Great made this explicit in a famous sermon.  He said that angels are by nature pure spirits.  They become angels only when God calls them to deliver a message on His behalf.

As God’s agents, angels are benign creatures.  We can thank God for their assistance.  Indeed, the purpose of today’s feast is to praise God who helps us in our every need.  We call on God in sickness and He sends one like Raphael, whose name means God’s remedy to heal us.  We call to God in our weakness and He sends Michael, whose name means like God, to protect us against evil.  And in our sinfulness we call to God, and He sends Gabriel, whose name means God’s strength to announce the coming of Jesus, our Savior.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Thursday of the Twenty-fifth Week in Ordinary Time

(Haggai 1:1-8; Luke 9:7-9)

Twenty years ago the Archdiocese of Los Angeles was building its new cathedral with a price tag of $300 million. A group of lay Catholics who worked with the very poor were outraged by the amount and actively protested the construction.  With prophetic boldness they claimed the new cathedral was a needless extravagance.  Confident that the Church was caring sufficiently for the poor in the area, the archbishop proceeded with the building project.

We hear of a similar tug-a-war between spending on social needs and constructing a monument to God in the reading from the prophet Haggai today.  In this case, the prophet also takes the side of construction.  He speaks out what he hears God telling him: concentrating on satisfying human desires has rendered scant benefit to the people.  He emphasizes that now is the time to focus on life’s chief priority – a faithful relationship with God which the Temple promotes.  He might add that other needs such as assistance to the poor will fall in order and be readily met.

Interesting, economists have verified the strategy of spending money on social projects like a Temple in times of recession.  It provides jobs for people which stimulate consumer spending and the creation of wealth.  Building a temple or a church will also remind us to keep our priorities straight.  First we give God His due and then take care of other needs.  God will see that no one is left wanting.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Memorial of Saint Vincent de Paul, priest

(Ezra 9:5-9; Luke 9:1-6)

In a book on character development author David Brooks comments on the essentials of being a good person.  Humility to recognize one’s mistakes is necessary, he says, along with a firm desire to change one’s defective ways.  This process is seen taking shape in today’s first reading from the Book of Ezra.

The book describes the exiled Jews’ return to Jerusalem and their rebuilding the Temple.  In the passage read today Ezra reflects on what went wrong to begin with.  He recognizes his people’s great sins which are known from the words of past prophets.  The people idolized money, neglected the poor, and became proud in their sinfulness.  As the text indicates, they had to be taken down many notches if they were ever going to be God’s people.  The reading claims that the period of chastisement is over.  God has shown the people mercy.  They can start anew on the quest of holiness.

We might see a similar trajectory in the life of St. Vincent de Paul.  After his ordination he was chaplain to the queen of France and recipient of revenues from a small monastery.  Eventually he became aware of the plight of peasants.  He quit his ministries to the upper crust to become a pastor to the poor.  From then on he founded institutions and indeed religious congregations to assist those in need.  He became a saint in both a religious and secular sense.  His life was characterized by virtue and his friendship with God solid.