Sunday, June 26, 2005

Know Who You Are! Know The Meaning Of Your Baptism! And—Just As Importantly—Know Who Everyone Else Is!

(Thirteenth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on June 26, 2005 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Romans 6: 3-11; Matthew 10: 37-42.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirteenth Sunday 2005]

I thank God that I know a number of good, Catholic medical doctors. One of them sent an e-mail to me several months ago in which he wrote the following:

“One of my elderly dialysis patients chose to stop dialysis and die at home. He came to the ER this morning with a headache and pains. I told the family that we could set up hospice at home with oral pain medication. His grandson wished him to be on a morphine drip to put him in a coma in the hospital. However the patient was awake and coherent. Though a drip was a later option, we needed to make initial attempts at oral medication. I explained that a morphine drip would be akin to euthanasia. The grandson responded, ‘Why can’t you do that? We do it to dogs.’ I shot back, ‘Dogs don’t have immortal souls.’ ‘Who says?’ he retorted. My response: ‘God!’ End of conversation. Perhaps I should have added, ‘Your grandfather is not a dog!’ Where have everyone’s morals gone?”

Later the doctor wrote to me again and added this footnote: “Everyone has been so brainwashed right from the beginning of their lives. It was interesting to see that the 85-year-old sister of this man understood my rationale just fine, while the 25-year-old grandson was basically in favor of euthanasia. An interesting contradistinction.”

Praise God we still have some doctors out there like this man, who deal with their patients based on solid moral principles!

But the footnote to his letter indicates that he’s encountering more and more opposition to those moral principles in his practice—from people like that 25-year-old, who was quite prepared to “do-in” his own grandfather!

Why? Where have everyone’s morals gone? Why is that grandson’s moral perspective becoming the dominant one in our culture right now?

Well there are certainly many reasons for this problem—a problem that the Holy Father has rightly identified as “moral relativism”—but today I want to focus on just one of those reasons (an explicitly spiritual one): Many people have forgotten the meaning of Baptism! They fall very easily into moral relativism because they have forgotten what the first sacrament is all about. The fact is, if you know the true meaning of Baptism—and believe it in your heart—you will never say what that grandson said! You’ll never say it about your grandfather (if you’re still blest to have your grandfather here on earth); you’ll never say it about anyone.

In today’s second reading from Romans 6 St. Paul writes, “Brothers and sisters: Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life. If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.”

Did you ever wonder why your pet dog can’t be baptized? Or your cat? Or any other animal? It’s not only because your pet doesn’t like to take a bath! It’s because your dog or cat—even if he’s very cute—is incapable of being united with Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection! Jesus Christ assumed a human nature when he took flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary. He didn’t assume an animal nature; he assumed a human nature—because human beings are created in the image and likeness of God himself. And what Jesus assumed, he redeemed!

This means that from the moment of conception, a human being possesses a dignity above and beyond anything in the material universe! That’s the truth this doctor was trying to impress upon this 25-year-old man when he reminded him that his grandfather had an immortal soul—a fact which separated grandpa from any and every dog, even the cutest!

Because human beings have the potential to share in the resurrected life of Jesus Christ for all eternity, they deserve respect from the moment of their conception until the moment of their natural death.

You young people are growing up in a culture where this fundamental spiritual truth has been forgotten by some and is being ignored by others.

And we see the consequences of this amnesia and ignorance every day—often on the evening news. Last week, for example, the results of Terry Schiavo’s autopsy were finally released to the public. According to the medical examiner, she had suffered extensive, irreversible brain damage and never would have recovered from her condition. However, there was no indication that her injuries would have killed her. And yet, some people wasted no time in saying, “See, they were right to take away her food and water and let her die.”

Wrong! People do not deserve to have their basic needs met because they’re smart or rich or have some special talent or ability—or even because they’re in good health. They deserve to be fed and hydrated and have their basic needs met because they’re human beings! Period! In today’s Gospel from Matthew 10 Jesus talks about how we should respond to others with charity. He makes the connection there between identity and kindness: giving to a prophet because he is a prophet; giving to a righteous man because he’s righteous, etc.

But before a person is a prophet or a righteous man or a disciple—or anything else—he is a human being created in God’s image and likeness who is capable of eternal life through Jesus Christ. That’s his fundamental identity!

Most of you dipped your right hand into the holy water font as you entered church this morning and blessed yourselves.

Why did you do that?—Force of habit? Because everyone in front of you did it? Because you had some dirt on your hand? (I hope not!)

That action is supposed to remind you of your Baptism! It’s supposed to remind you of your fundamental identity as a human person redeemed by Jesus Christ. As you make that sign of the cross you should be thinking to yourself thoughts like these: “I am loved with an eternal love. I have been saved by the cross of Jesus Christ. I’ve been washed clean of sin in Baptism, and now I’m called to live a life of holiness, so that I will live forever with the Jesus who redeemed me by his precious blood.”

Blessing yourself with holy water is not supposed to be an empty ritual! It’s supposed to be an act of faith that re-affirms your identity in Christ Jesus.

The message of today’s homily is really very simple: Know who you are! Know the meaning of your Baptism! And—just as importantly—know who everybody else is!

If you do, then you’ll have respect for yourself; you’ll have respect for others; you’ll never become a moral relativist; and the thought of “doing-in” your sick relatives and friends will never even cross your mind.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Wise Words From Master Yoda: ‘The Fear Of Loss Is A Path To The Dark Side.’

(Twelfth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on June 19, 2005 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, RI. Read Jeremiah 20: 10-13; Romans 5: 12-15; Matthew 10: 26-33.)

Master Yoda (top) and Anakin Skywalker

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twelfth Sunday 2005]

“Careful you must be when sensing the future, Anakin. The fear of loss is a path to the dark side.”

So says Master Yoda to Anakin Skywalker in a powerful scene from the latest Star Wars movie, “The Revenge of the Sith.”

For those who may be unfamiliar with the story, Anakin Skywalker is a great pilot and a Jedi knight who fights the forces of evil in the universe--until he begins to have disturbing dreams about his new wife. In his recurring dream, she dies a very painful death. Anakin is convinced that this is a premonition of what might occur in the future; consequently he resolves to do everything in his power to prevent it from happening, even if it means compromising his moral principles and giving himself over to the “dark side” of the so-called “Force”.

Master Yoda tries to warn him that he’s making a big mistake. And in the course of their conversation he says the line I quoted a few moments ago: “Careful you must be when sensing the future, Anakin. The fear of loss is a path to the dark side.”

At this point let me say that we must always be cautious when making parallels between the Star Wars movies and our Catholic Christian faith. I’ve heard people say, for example, that “the Force” in these films is just like the Holy Spirit. Not really. The Force of the Star Wars films is an impersonal power, while the Holy Spirit is a divine personal being. And the Force has a “dark side,” whereas the Holy Spirit is the perfectly holy, perfectly loving God—the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity. To even remotely associate the Holy Spirit with darkness or evil is nothing short of blasphemy.

The Force is actually akin to the “yin and yang” idea of Taoism, which says that the universe consists of 2 opposite energy forces that must be harmonized for health, happiness and peace.

That, of course, is not the Christian conception of reality—which is something we need to be clear about, since this Taoist philosophy is becoming more and more common, and some Christians are mistakenly buying into it.

All that having been said, there are some genuine insights in the Star Wars films that are quite compatible with our Catholic faith, and one of them is found in this very profound statement of Master Yoda: the fear of loss is, without question, a path to the dark side (“dark side” here understood as hell).

This, in fact, is a message that’s contained in today’s Gospel text from Matthew 10. It’s also found in other places in the Scriptures—in Hebrews 2:15, for example, where we’re told that the devil holds people in bondage to himself by “the fear of death”.

Jesus says in this Gospel (and here I quote), “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.”

The kind of fear that Jesus is referring to here is similar to the kind of fear that Master Yoda was talking about. Simply stated, it’s the kind that causes a person to be tempted to do evil.

And you know what? All of us are affected by this fear constantly, although we don’t always recognize it for what it is.

This type of fear, incidentally, isn’t always the fear of being physically annihilated (although it can manifest itself in that form). Most of the time it’s the fear of lesser things: the fear of not achieving something; the fear of not having something; the fear of not being “a somebody” in the eyes of the world. . . .

“I’m afraid that I won’t get into the college I like, so I consistently cheat on tests in school to get better grades.”

“I’m afraid that I won’t have enough money in 20 years when I retire, so I gamble excessively at the casino, and I steal things from work on a regular basis.”

“I’m afraid that my friends won’t accept me if I let them know that I really do believe in Jesus Christ, so I never say anything to them about my religion, and I do all the bad things that they do.”

“I’m afraid that my boyfriend will leave me, so I say yes to all his sexual advances.”

“I’m afraid that I won’t fulfill my dream of becoming a great professional athlete, so I take steroids.”

Yes, Master Yoda, you were absolutely correct: the fear of loss is most certainly a path to the dark side!

In this regard, it’s fitting that today’s second reading is from Romans 5. There, St. Paul talks about the reality of what we commonly refer to as “original sin”. He says, “Through one man (i.e., Adam) sin entered the world, and through sin, death.” Original sin, as we all know, is removed by baptism. But the inclination to sin (known as concupiscence) always remains within us—which is why we can so easily give into this ungodly kind of fear.

There is, of course, a godly type of fear, which Jesus also speaks of in this Gospel. Basically, that’s the fear of giving in to ungodly fear! After Jesus says, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul,” he immediately adds, “rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna”; in other words, “Be afraid of the one—namely, Satan—who can fill your heart with the kind of fear that will lead you into serious sin and send you to hell.”

In effect, Jesus is telling us in this text to have faith, because faith in God’s care and love is the antidote to the ungodly fear that can lead us to sin and eternal damnation. That makes perfect sense, does it not? If I trust that God loves me just as I am, and that he will provide for my needs and always care for me—if I have that kind of faith in my heart—I won’t give in to the fear of not achieving, or the fear of not having, or the fear of not being “a somebody”.

In today’s first reading we hear the confident words of Jeremiah—a prophet whose life was constantly threatened by his enemies. Here was a man who could easily have given in to ungodly fear many times and compromised his commitment to the Lord. But over and over again he reaffirmed his faith that God would care for him and always provide for his needs—and so he remained strong. As he put it in today’s first reading, “The Lord is with me, like a mighty champion.”

Jeremiah’s godly fear—which was rooted in his strong faith—overcame the ungodly fear that was tempting him to throw in the towel as a prophet and become like all the other sinners in the land of Judah.

May our faith, fortified by the Eucharist we receive at this Mass, help us to overcome those ungodly fears we face today and every day—so that we will stay off the path that leads to the dark side, and on the road that leads to God’s eternal kingdom of light.

The Prophet Jeremiah

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Four Reasons Why Matthew’s Conversion Lasted

(Tenth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on June 5, 2005 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Matthew 9: 9-13.)

Caravaggio's painting, "The Calling of St. Matthew". (Matthew is the one pointing to himself.)

(For the audio version of this homily, click here: Tenth Sunday 2005]

Conversions are a lot like friendships and marriages: some of them last and some of them don’t.

For example, on September 11, 2001—and for several weeks thereafter—churches in this country were packed with worshippers. Remember that? People all over this nation either discovered or rediscovered the importance of God in their lives. It was a time of many sincere, heartfelt religious conversions.

Some of those conversions, no doubt, have lasted; however, many others—sadly—have not. But that’s the way it’s always been! Just look at today’s first reading from the Book of Hosea, chapter 6. There the prophet makes this observation: “In their affliction, people will say: ‘Let us know, let us strive to know the Lord; as certain as the dawn is his coming, and his judgment shines forth like the light of day! He will come to us like the rain, like spring rain that waters the earth.’”

At the time of Hosea, as in our own day, people turned to God in their affliction—in the 9/11’s of their lives. But all too often those conversions didn’t last for very long. That explains the next line of the text. There God speaks, and he says, “What can I do with you, Ephraim? What can I do with you, Judah? Your piety is like a morning cloud, like the dew that early passes away.”

Human nature hasn’t changed much, has it, in the 27 or so centuries since that line was written?

Which brings us to our Gospel reading from Matthew 9, where we hear about the beginning of one conversion that did last—one conversion that did stand the test of time: Matthew’s!

Why? To me, that’s the obvious question: Why did Matthew persevere in following Jesus on the narrow road that leads to eternal life? Why didn’t he fall back into his old sinful habits?

If we know those answers—in other words if we know why Matthew stayed converted for the rest of his life—we will learn some important lessons that we can apply to ourselves. We will come to know at least some of the things we need to do to remain strong in our Catholic faith, in the midst of the pressures we encounter every day to turn away from Christ and his Gospel.

In reflecting on the matter recently, I came to see that there were at least 4 reasons why Matthew remained firm in his commitment to Jesus. I’ll share those 4 with you today.

Reason number 1: He had the strength to walk away from what must have been his greatest temptation! Jewish tax collectors in first century Palestine were known to be greedy, materialistic people. They were also looked upon as traitors, since they collected money from their fellow Jews in order to pay off the pagan Romans who were occupying their land. That, of course, was bad enough, but in the process they also stole from their own people, by charging much more than the Romans required them to charge—and then pocketing the difference!

Given all this, I think it’s safe to say that avarice was probably the greatest temptation Matthew faced on a daily basis.

But when Jesus approached him at his customs post one day and said, “Follow me,” Scripture says that he immediately got up and followed! Without any hesitation whatsoever, he walked away from it all—and never went back.

It sounds like magic, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t! There’s an old principle of theology: Grace perfects nature. Grace doesn’t overpower or violate nature, it perfects it.

This means that when Jesus called Matthew, he didn’t magically control his free will! He didn’t turn Matthew into a robot and force him to obey.

He simply offered Matthew the grace of conversion. Matthew, for his part, had to freely accept it (which he did)!

What is your greatest temptation?—Pornography on the internet? Trying to get rich at the casino? The temptation to abuse alcohol or drugs? The temptation to hold grudges or to slander your neighbor?

Today is a day for each of us to think about our greatest temptation—and to reflect on how often we have walked away from it in the past. It’s also a day to ask God for the grace we will need to walk away in the future like Matthew did 2,000 years ago—because our conversions will only last if we consistently foster the habit of walking away.

Reason number 2 as to why Matthew’s conversion persisted is this: He surrounded himself with new friends who supported him in his new way of life. Remember, there’s no such thing as a “Lone Ranger Christian.” People who try to follow Christ on their own normally don’t last very long.

On the day Matthew met Jesus, he began a new relationship with our Lord (that’s obvious). But, lest we forget, he also began friendships on that occasion with 11 other men who had similarly been called to follow Jesus as his apostles. I’m sure he also formed other godly friendships as well—with Mary, our Blessed Mother, and with the many holy women who were also followers of Jesus during his 3 year ministry.

Matthew, in other words, developed a new circle of friends, who kept him on “the straight and narrow” (so to speak).

Reason number 3 as to why Matthew’s conversion lasted is this: He tried to evangelize his old friends, before they could de-evangelize him!

The process of getting “de-evangelized” is something that I’ve seen happen over and over again, especially with teenagers who come back from Steubenville East or a Youth 2000 retreat. These teens have a genuine conversion on the weekend, and then they go back to their old circle of friends. Now there’s nothing wrong with that, in and of itself. The problem is that instead of trying to evangelize these old friends by inviting them to youth group or by connecting them with their new Christian support system, they make the mistake of saying almost nothing to them about their recent experience of God. Consequently, their old friends quickly de-evangelize them, and draw them back into many of their old, sinful habits.

Notice what happens in this Gospel story. Matthew begins to follow Christ, and the first thing he does is to invite Jesus and the other apostles to dinner at his house. But he doesn’t stop there! He goes on to invite all his old tax collector and sinner friends to the dinner as well! It seems that Matthew was determined to evangelize his former associates by bringing them to Jesus, before they could de-evangelize him and lead him back to his old way of life.

When it came to evangelization Matthew took the offensive; and so should we—if we want our conversions to last.

Finally, Matthew’s conversion persisted because he took the Gospel seriously when he heard it! For example, when he heard Jesus say that he had come to call sinners, Matthew believed it! He took the message seriously. He came to the realization that he could change, in spite of his materialistic and dishonest past. Had he not accepted this Gospel truth from Jesus that day, he not only would have failed to persevere in his conversion, he never would have had a conversion experience in the first place! He would have continued to believe that he was hopeless.

For the next 3 years, of course, Matthew had to keep believing the many things he heard Jesus say when he preached, even when those teachings were hard and challenging (as they often were).

We need to do the same, when Jesus teaches us today through his Church. Practically speaking, this means that if you’re a “Cafeteria Catholic,” you shouldn’t expect your conversion to last very long. You may still go to Church after awhile, you may still go through the motions of being a Catholic, but your heart really won’t be with the Lord.

I’ll end my homily today as I began it. . . . Conversions are a lot like friendships and marriages: some of them last and some of them don’t.

St. Matthew, great apostle of Jesus Christ, pray for us today and every day, that our conversions will last unto eternity—as yours did!

Icon of St. Matthew the Apostle