Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

28 July 2014

Just Another, Unintended, Vocations Homily

There was a significant number of young people at my second Mass yesterday morning. It turns out that several of them had attended a parishioner's wedding the day before. Hearing and reading these readings for the third time in less than 24 hours, I set aside my notes and this is what more or less came out. As I continue to reconstruct that homily, the more it is becoming a paraphrase and even something considerably different. Ah, well.

I was happy to see this church full when I arrived at the altar, especially noting the young adults who are here. I can't help but suspect that, somewhere in the assembly, there is at least one vocation to the priesthood or consecrated life.

I often wonder what keeps that from happening: the desire for worldly success, or for grandchildren, or possibly the fear of such a commitment? Here's Solomon at the threshold of ruling over Israel, dumbfounded. "All these people, all this responsibility! How am I going to do this?"

The answer: he's not. Here as always, credit is due to God "whose power at work within us can do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine" (Eph 3:20), if we but ask.

Earlier in Hebrew history, Moses became overwhelmed by the prospect of liberating his people from Egyptian slavery to the point of refusing outright. Later in the saga, he became so fed up with the people's wilderness whining that, eventually, he pleaded for support; and this came in the form of seventy elders.

To accomplish the task at hand, we must rely on the Lord and on others--the two sources of assistance are not incompatible.

"Those he called, he also justified" (Rom 8:30b). God dares not wait for us to become worthy or acceptable in order to entrust us with our life's tasks. Rather, He justifies us--sets us straight--and this is not a "once-and-done" action on God's part. It can't be, only because we so often knock ourselves out of alignment by sin.

The priests I've known from my earliest years did not give me the impression that the priesthood would be an impossible calling for me. That's no insult to them; if anything it's a testament to how effortlessly, though imperfectly, they celebrated the Sacraments, proclaimed the Gospel, and gave people care and direction; and all because of God's power at work in them--and all because of the personal gifts they placed at the service of God and people.

This area traditionally was known for the production of many religious vocations. In bygone days there were many more children in general; that change is worth a homily of its own! But we can't rest on our laurels; we can't base our reputation on yesterday's vocations. Yes, Jesus promised that He'd be with the Church until the end of days; but there needs to be serious, prayerful consideration of this calling right now.

Working persons are the basis for "Social Security"; they are the living guarantee that the nation and her citizens will go on. So, too, we need faithful, passionate Catholics who invest in the Church's physical and spiritual flourishing.

I am in fact convinced that some of you are called to total and immediate service of the Church, in much the same way that a man forsakes all other women for the knowledge and choice of this particular woman. We take inspiration from Our Lord's comparison of the Kingdom to a treasure that is worth the sale of all our possessions. Is it worth it? You bet it is!

20 July 2014

More Like An IV Than A Torrent


            We heard last week how, like a seed planted in the ground, God’s Word has a purpose and accomplishes it, despite the various hindrances we encounter. According to Saint Paul, “all creation groans” in expectation of the full revelation of God’s power: that is to say, man’s personal struggles with knowing and choosing what is good are matched by a sense of incompleteness and even treachery on a global scale.
            My daily ministry has me encountering people in their worst moments of physical pain and spiritual discouragement. The beds of Schuylkill Medical Center, the beds of our nursing homes and many people's homes as well, are fields in which wheat and weeds are found together: human beings, good creations of a good God, are afflicted with various ailments. In their understandable impatience they wish He’d rip out every trace of the ailment, but He doesn’t tend to work that way with that or much else.
            The other day a professed atheist shooed me away, wanting nothing to do with “hocus-pocus” (which, by the way, is a corruption of the words of consecration in Latin, “Hoc est enim Corpus Meum,” “For this is My Body”). He challenged me for any sort of proof beyond this material realm, but at that point I didn’t have the presence of mind or the patience to dialogue with him. It wasn’t the time or place, anyhow.
            While most of my audience shares with me a lifelong identification with Christ and the Church, I want to see where this man is coming from. God seems slow and distant at times; the dispensation of His love resembles an IV more than a torrent. We might consider that slowness and silence to be a grand disappointment. Although our all-powerful God enlists the help of human beings in carrying out His wise, loving plan, many things lie outside of our control—especially the behavior of other human beings who, like us, do not always operate in a wise and loving manner. And then there are the calamities that arise from weather, creatures, and so forth. When it comes to sickness and aging, however, the uncontrollable factor is the deterioration of our mortal frame, and even there with an honest appraisal we find that we may bear some responsibility.
            There is no quick answer to the mystery of evil, whether it’s physical decay or moral injustice. Our Catechism points out that the entirety of the Christian faith is the response to that mystery. Insofar as God has created it, a person or a thing is good. The old saying goes, “God doesn’t make junk.” He created the human person with the ability to appreciate beauty, know truth, and choose good—abilities which are divine in origin. We sin when we fail to exercise those abilities, but God patiently has moved in the redemptive direction by establishing covenants with us, chastising and consoling us by turns. The sending and sacrifice of the Son in human flesh, the bestowal of the Holy Spirit, and the establishment of the Church as the reliable vehicle for salvation: finally these divine gifts demonstrate unending, unconditional love that God commissions us to “go and do likewise” (Lk 10:37), to “pay it forward” as we might say today.

             In the myriad, mystical ways of His Providence, the Lord brings good out of evil, even if we may not perceive it this side of heaven. In faith, hope, and love, with courage, justice, temperance, and fortitude, we persevere.

13 July 2014

Life: It Takes Practice


Why do they say that doctors “practice” medicine? I don’t want them to “practice”; I want them to do the real thing! Then I looked up the word “practice,” and found out that it really means “carrying out”—doing. Whatever the craft is—medicine, parenthood, law, metalworker, priesthood, or whatever—every participant is “practicing” it. Will we ever get it right? When it comes to my “practice” of ministry, I often doubt that I’m doing it right, and certainly suspect that I could be doing it better. I am open to learning, even though I sometimes resist having to practice new skills.

For nearly the past month now, my exercise of priesthood largely has consisted of ministry to the hospitalized and nursing home residents. In the day-to-day, they are my parish. That’s a real departure from the variety of full-time parish life! My “parishioners” are in various levels of physical pain, emotional and spiritual unrest. Many are upset with God, with their family members, with the Diocese, and likely with themselves. When I ask, “What I can do for you,” they unload their sorrow and confusion, even if they cannot express it in words. Whether they are looking for consolation, for a different perspective, or what else, I am not always sure.

The words of Paul’s letter to the Romans speak to this situation, the human situation marred by sin and its effects. In chapter 7, Paul expressed frustration with his own occasional inability to do what he knows to be the right thing. Then, in the famous chapter 8, he concludes that his personal struggle also happens on a global scale. “Creation was made subject to futility…all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now, and not only that, but…we also groan within ourselves.” The physical world erupts in earthquakes and storms, and causes destruction. Our bodies don’t always cooperate with our spirits, and our actions don’t always align with our consciences. The true, the good, and beautiful aren’t always easy to recognize or to choose in this world.

So that’s the story; but thanks be to God, that’s not the whole story! Yes, “the struggle is real,” and we really experience the need for God’s help in every dimension of our lives, if we’re honest about it. But Saint Paul reminds us: “The sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.” Everything about this life will prove insufficient; it always leaves us waiting and wanting for “more”; and that is good.

With every moment of prayer, repentance, and sacrifice, we enter more and more into the salvation won for us in Jesus, which satisfies our human longings yet continuously must be renewed in further prayer, repentance, and sacrifice. Our human groanings, therefore, are the very stimuli that draw us closer to Christ and to His people, especially to those who suffer. By alleviating others in their difficulties, and by experiencing that same care from others, our life stories are incorporated into the Gospel Story, in which Love overcomes fear, anger, and sorrow. Like any worthy art, it takes practice.

07 July 2014

Better Days

I often encounter people whose identification with the Catholic faith has seen better days. One gentleman recently cast it almost in terms of a kind of phase he went through. "Oh, I did the whole Catholic thing – I was an altar boy, a lector, and all that." Now, I suppose, he has detached the training wheels, is eating grownup food. A woman whose original parish merged six years ago with the others in her town just "let it go" instead of registering with the new parish. Upon further inquiry, "let it go" meant she stopped going to Mass.

As I sit down to continue this post after a few days, I realize anew how much of a cultural and religious commentator I am not. Just a simple parish priest, who now has a hospital and nursing homes as a parish.

But many of my "parishioners" are unaffiliated Catholics, or more properly put, formerly affiliated Catholics. They had to start somewhere! For some their parish was closed; in other cases they relocated and never returned to regular Mass attendance. Still others participated in a parish for several years and then fell away for whatever reason. I have met people in all of these categories, and listened to their stories.

Only through honest, open, and willing dialogue do full stories surface. I would seek and cite them not merely for an argument, but for a better survey of the religious and spiritual landscape. These recent accounts could happen to any pastoral minister at any time. They prompt questions that admit of no swift and satisfactory response.

A. What is it about people that moves them to jettison their religious identification/practice?

B. What is it about people's religious identification/practice that foments their gradual distancing or precipitous rebellion from it?

A: People (among whom I must include myself!): A priest is a "company man," and one may find it hard to believe that he can lose the sense of being, as St. Augustine said, "a Christian among you." I hope that priests would attend Mass weekly, even daily, if they were not celebrants of Mass. Flowing from the faithful and devout offering of Mass, too, is a "devout life" in every sense of the term, with attentiveness to Our Lady and the Saints, to worthy reading and other diversions. I have not been surprised to learn how the good example of individual priests has been a "selling point" for the Catholic faith. Such was my own experience.

Priests need to cultivate a demeanor that draws people to the Lord. So many people I've met were turned off by a priest because of a sour encounter. Isn't everyone "entitled" to a bad day? It would seem that representatives of God are not, for they are always watched for their choice and tone of words, etc. Actually, nobody is "entitled" to a bad day, but we should not be surprised when one happens. Of course, we must distinguish bad days from bad patterns, and note many examples of the latter, which happens when priests get isolated from people and stop engaging in good pursuits such as prayer and exercise.

But people can be stubborn. They can allow one unfortunate moment to foment a lifetime of practical apostasy (i.e. rejecting the faith by default). But what is practical apostasy if not the dissolution of a relationship--which happens in many parish and family situations because of a misunderstanding, silly argument, or other human foible?

B: People's religious identification and practice: If religion has been reduced for one's lifetime to superstition, "hedging your bets," at a point of genuine enlightenment (or at the suggestion of an unsympathetic cynic or evangelical atheist) the tabernacle of cards may collapse. Misinformation abounds. Get thee to a catechism! Fulton Sheen said that what most foes of Catholicism reject is their mistaken notion of Catholicism and not the real deal; except he didn't use the phrase "real deal."

Some religionists of any stripe can get so caught up in their leader of worship (priest, minister, rabbi, imam...) that when he or she departs, they lose their interest. I have written before on people who turn down (for what?) their faith because Msgr. Pierogie-san looked funny at me in 1972, or took out the altar rail, or put in an altar rail, or railed from the altar on leaving Mass early. While there are many cases of genuinely traumatic instances--more than credit is typically afforded--some people need a sense of perspective (and in my hubris, "I'm just the one to give it to 'em!") and others just might be looking for an excuse.

Yet amid the poor examples who have soured people's experience of Catholicism, there are many good ones. I partially attribute my vocation to them. Longing for the parochial equivalent of Greece's Golden Age, however, does no justice to the present leadership--not to neglect the present parish roll who most fully express the unity of the Mystical Body when all parts are functioning to their utmost.

At the hospital I am daily reminded of Pope Francis' now-famous reference to the Church as a field-hospital for the wounded. That "Model of the Church" belongs right up there with those of Avery Dulles. When I enter someone's room, their sacred space for recuperation and reconsideration, I often find someone for whom the Catholic faith is a thing of their past, but in those moments I want to foster another soul for whom the Catholic Faith can become a thing of their present and future.