Sunday, April 25, 2004

What Kind of Example Are You Getting? What Kind of Example Are You Giving?

(Third Sunday of Easter (C): This homily was given on April 25, 2004 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Acts 5: 27-32; 40-41.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday of Easter 2004]

What kind of example are you getting?

What kind of example are you giving?

The first question is primarily for the young people; the second is primarily for the adults.

In the early Church, the people of God were given an almost perfect example of faithful living by Peter, James, John and the other apostles. This is clear from today’s first reading, taken from the Book of Acts, chapter 5. Obviously, the events described here are best understood in their proper context. The setting is the city of Jerusalem, after Pentecost. The Holy Spirit had already descended upon these men in the upper room, and since that time they had been preaching about the risen Christ to all who would listen. They had also performed a number of miracles in the Lord’s name, and driven out many demons. This, of course, did not make them very popular with the Jewish religious authorities. Consequently, they were arrested and brought before the high priest, who chastised them and said, “We gave you strict orders . . . to stop teaching in that name [i.e., in the name of Jesus]. Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and want to bring this man’s blood upon us.”

To which Peter and the other apostles gave a clear and uncompromising response: “We must obey God rather than men.”

We must obey God rather than men.

And that’s exactly what they did—until they died. And, lest we forget, most of them died as martyrs.

Young people in the early Church received that kind of bold, that kind of courageous example from Peter and John and their companions. They were blessed!

What are young people in today’s Church receiving?

Well, from our Holy Father, thankfully, they’ve received an example of 25 years of faithfulness and self-sacrifice; one that I would say is on par with the example given by the 12 apostles.

And this is certainly one of the biggest reasons why John Paul II has been so incredibly popular with youth! It’s why he consistently draws millions to his World Youth Days! Young people deeply respect this man, because they sense that he doesn’t just talk the talk, he also walks the walk.

From some priests and religious, today’s youth have also received a good example to emulate. But from others, sad to say, they have not. The scandals of recent years are a tragic reminder of that fact.

In popular culture, it’s obvious that good witnesses to Christ are—at best—few and far between. Some, like Mel Gibson and Charlton Heston, make an effort to take their faith seriously. But for every celebrity in that category, you have 1,001 others who are living a pagan lifestyle and who are proud of it!

In the political world, our young people get messages about Christ and Christianity that are even more confusing. Senator John Kerry, as some of us know, is fast becoming the poster-boy for this problem. Every chance he gets, he proclaims himself a “good Catholic,” and yet he publicly supports almost everything the Church opposes: abortion (including partial-birth abortion), embryonic stem-cell research, homosexual civil unions—and on and on the list goes. And he refuses to tell the Catholics in this country whether or not his present marriage is valid in the eyes of the Church!

The apostles said, “We must obey God rather than men.” Unfortunately, from many politicians, celebrities and members of the clergy, young people today are getting exactly the opposite message.

But, even more tragically, they’re often getting the message that they should obey men rather than God in their own homes, from members of their own families!

When parents, for instance, say to their children, “We’re Catholic,” but then add, “Although we don’t believe everything the Church teaches”—what kind of example is that?

When parents say they’re Catholic, but then put their daughters on birth control or take them for an abortion, what kind of example is that?

When they take their children on vacation, and don’t make the effort to find a Catholic Church on Sunday morning or Saturday evening, what kind of example is that?

When parents say to their children, “We’re Catholic,” but then talk and behave just like their pagan neighbors do (in the St. Pius X parking lot and other such places), what kind of example is that?

While we’re on the subject of personal behavior, I have to share this story. Last week I was out to dinner with some friends from another parish, and a certain person’s name came up in casual conversation. At that point, one of the men at table spoke up and said, “He’s the quarterback. He’s the quarterback on the All-Hate Team.”
I said, “The All-Hate Team? What, in heaven’s name, is that?”

He answered, “It’s like what they have in football, Fr. Ray. In pro football, as you know, they have the All-Pro Team, and in recent years they’ve added the All-Madden Team. Well, some of my friends and I decided to put together what we refer to as the ‘All Hate Team.’ This is made up of the many people we know who seem to hate everyone else! They never have anything good to say about anybody, and it’s terribly disturbing. Now, please don’t misunderstand: it’s not easy to get on this team, but sad to say we know more than enough individuals who qualify!”

Now, part of me wanted to burst out in hysterics when I heard all this, but another part of me wanted to cry, because I know that many of those on this “team,” are Catholic! Can you imagine what kind of example they’re giving to their children and, in some cases, to their grandchildren?

Let me conclude today with a final word to the young people and a final word to the adults. First of all, to the youth here present: Make sure you read the Bible and become familiar with the lives of the saints. That is so important! Because in doing this, you will become familiar with good Christian role models—good examples of faith—that you can emulate in your lives. And remember to pray every day for your parents and the other adults you know. Ask God to make them faithful, obedient disciples of his Son—and then thank the Lord whenever they act that way and set a good example for you to follow.

And finally, to the adults: Pray for the grace to be like the apostles we heard about in today’s first reading: the grace to be faithful, the grace to obey God rather than men, the grace to be the best examples of faith that you can possibly be. And, as you strive for those goals, please make every effort to stay off the All-Hate team!

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Mercy needed; Mercy provided; Mercy received!

St. Faustina Kowalska

(Second Sunday of Easter (C): This homily was given on April 18, 2004 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read John 20: 19-31.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Second Sunday of Easter 2004]

Today is “Divine Mercy Sunday.” It was instituted by Pope John Paul II on May 5th four years ago.

Most of us are familiar with the origin of the Divine Mercy devotion, but for the few who might not be: Back in 1931, a young Polish nun, Sr. Faustina Kowalska, saw a vision of Jesus with two rays of light coming out of his heart. Jesus told her to have a painting produced replicating the vision, and to have it signed, “Jesus, I trust in you!”

Over the next 7 years, the Lord gave Faustina numerous private revelations concerning his merciful love. These she recorded in a diary, as Jesus had instructed her to do. Fr. George Kosicki—an authority on the Divine Mercy devotion—has said that through these revelations, “Jesus taught the young nun that his mercy is unlimited and available even to the greatest sinners. He revealed special ways for people to respond to his mercy in their lives, and he gave her several promises for those who would trust his mercy and show mercy to others.”

On April 30th four years ago, Faustina was canonized a saint by Pope John Paul II in Rome.

Mercy provided. That, according to Fr. Kosicki, was what Jesus taught St. Faustina in the revelations he gave her from 1931 to 1938. Mercy has been provided! And that’s also what Jesus teaches us in the Gospel text we just heard from John, chapter 20. In this scene, which takes place on Easter Sunday, we’re told that Jesus appeared in his risen body to his apostles and poured out his Spirit upon them.

“But, Fr. Ray, I thought the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost?”

He did. But the first outpouring of the Spirit occurred right at Easter—in the initial encounter the risen Christ had with his newly ordained priests.

Why? Remember, whatever Jesus did, he did for a reason. So, why did he choose to send the Holy Spirit on two separate occasions?

Well here’s my theory: The Spirit was sent at Pentecost (50 days after Easter) to give the disciples the strength they needed to witness to their faith and remain strong in their commitment to Jesus. (Incidentally, teenagers, this is why the Holy Spirit comes to you at Confirmation. It’s not so that you can have a big party with your family and friends! It’s so that you can go out and be strong in your faith and live as Jesus Christ calls you to live!)

We all need this power in our lives—the power to be good witnesses for Christ—because by nature we are weak. We carry the residual effects of original sin within us. The apostles, of course, were no exception to this rule. As we all know, when crunch time came on Holy Thursday and Good Friday, instead of standing firm in their commitment to Christ, they ran away in fear. All of them abandoned our Lord. (Only John came back before Jesus died.) Obviously they desperately needed the grace of Pentecost—the grace they’d receive 50 days after Easter—so that they wouldn’t buckle under that kind of pressure in the future.

But—because of their sins—they needed forgiveness and mercy first!

So Jesus provided those gifts right away—on Easter Sunday—by pouring out his Spirit upon them this first time so that they could forgive sins in his name—including each other’s sins! As St. John tells us in this text, “[Jesus] breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.’”

By the way, have you ever thought of that? The apostles—by the power of Christ and in his name—had the ability to forgive not only the sins of ordinary lay people; they also could forgive each other’s sins!

And I’m sure they did!

I can imagine Peter saying to John something along these lines: “Bless me, John, for I have sinned. I denied our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ three times on Holy Thursday night. I cursed and I swore; I gave in to fear. And I lied to Jesus when I said I’d be willing to die for him. For these and all the sins of my life, I am sorry.”

Obviously, this is why we have the sacrament of Confession. It was Jesus’ idea to give human beings the power to forgive sins in his name, and he bestowed that awesome power on his first priests as soon as he had risen from the dead!

Through Confession—and, even prior to that, through Baptism—Jesus has provided mercy for the world and for everyone in it. (This is the mercy he won for us by his sacrifice on the Cross.)

Thus only one question remains: Will we receive it? Will we receive this beautiful gift of mercy which Jesus has provided for us by the shedding of his blood?

The answer is: It all depends on how humble we are.

Mercy was provided by the humility of Jesus. As St. Paul tells us in Philippians 2, “He [Jesus] was known to be of human estate, and it was thus that he humbled himself, obediently accepting even death, death on a Cross.”

Mercy was provided through humility, and mercy is received only through humility. We receive mercy when we humbly admit our sins and then reach out to Jesus in Baptism (if we haven’t been baptized yet) or in Confession (if we’ve already been baptized).

Humility is the key; it’s the key that unlocks the door to God’s mercy.

Now do you understand why pride has always been considered the worst of the 7 deadly sins?

The prideful person mistakenly convinces himself that he doesn’t need mercy, so he unwittingly cuts himself off from the gift. He rationalizes his sins, by saying, “I’m not so bad”; “I’m better than most people”; “Everybody does what I do”; “I don’t need Confession”; “I can confess to God on my own.”

People, you know, will give a priest 1,001 excuses as to why they don’t go to Confession, but at the root of all these excuses is one reality: pride.

It’s always great, of course, when God’s grace finally breaks through the wall of pride inside a person and brings that individual to repentance. No doubt some of us have had this experience; perhaps others among us still need it.

On that note, I read an interesting article this past week in the National Catholic Register about 4 men. The first was Dan Leach of Rosenberg, Texas, who murdered his ex-girlfriend in January; the second was James Anderson, who robbed a bank in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida two years ago; the third was Turner Lee Bingham, who robbed several stores and homes in Mesa, Arizona; the fourth was Johnny Olsen of Norway, a Neo-Nazi who had bombed two buildings in Oslo in the mid-1990s.

All 4 had a common experience during this past Lent: they went to see Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” and then confessed to their crimes. Amazingly, they turned themselves in to the legal authorities!

In the article I read, psychologist Paul Vitz commented on this phenomenon by saying, “Jesus’ death without guilt enhances a feeling of guilt in others who may feel guilty for what they might have done. It makes their guilt that much larger and therefore they need to confront it and relieve it by confession.”

In humility, these 4 criminals finally admitted that they needed mercy, and by seeing the movie they realized that Jesus’ sacrifice had provided mercy for them and for the world. And so, by turning themselves in, they’ve begun to reach out for that mercy in order that they might receive it.

Mercy needed; mercy provided; mercy received.

And that’s the way it should be for everyone—not just hardened criminals! Let me make that clear by giving the last word today to St. Faustina. The short paragraph I’m about to read to you is taken from her diary. As you listen to it, please keep in mind how holy this woman was! And yet, she still had a deep awareness of her need for mercy. She is speaking here of her response to a vision she saw of Jesus:

“Today the Lord’s gaze shot through me suddenly, like lightening. At once, I came to know the tiniest specks in my soul, and knowing the depths of my misery, I fell to my knees and begged the Lord’s pardon, and with great trust I immersed myself in His infinite mercy. Such knowledge does not depress me nor keep me away from the Lord, but rather it arouses in my soul greater love and boundless trust. The repentance of my heart is linked to love. These extraordinary flashes from the Lord educate my soul. O sweet rays of God, enlighten me to the most secret depth, for I want to arrive at the greatest possible purity of heart and soul.”

For Sister Faustina, it was mercy needed, mercy provided, mercy received! And that’s why she became a saint! May God give us the grace to follow her humble example—and become saints ourselves.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

The Ongoing Attack on ‘The Priest’

Jesus Christ, the Great High Priest

(Holy Thursday 2004: This homily was given on April 8, 2004 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read John 13: 1-15.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Holy Thursday 2004]

The Priest was attacked.

Not a priest, but rather the Priest. He was attacked.

It happened, of course, on the very first Holy Thursday and Good Friday some 2,000 years ago. But it didn’t end there. The attack continues!

Do you see it? Do you see that the Priest is being attacked in your midst, in contemporary western culture?

Most do not (and, sad to say, that includes most Catholics!).

The original attack, which occurred in the year 33, is what we gather as a Church to commemorate tonight and tomorrow.

We remember how Jesus Christ (who is called our Great High Priest in the Letter to the Hebrews)—we remember how he was betrayed, denied, falsely accused, beaten, spat upon, scourged, crowned with thorns, humiliated, and finally crucified.

As St. John Fisher put it, “Our high priest is Christ Jesus, our sacrifice is his precious body which he immolated on the altar of the cross for the salvation of men.”

This attack on Jesus the Priest, from one perspective, ended the moment he spoke those words, “It is finished,” and gave up his Spirit. But from another perspective—which is equally valid—the attack on him has never stopped!

It’s gone on, unabated, for two solid millennia.

How is this possible, since Jesus rose from the dead on Easter Sunday and ascended into heaven 40 days later?

Well, remember that St. Paul in his letters calls Jesus Christ the “head” of the Church, which is his body!

That’s the key point that should clarify the issue for us. Jesus Christ, because he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven and now sits at the right hand of the Father, can no longer be attacked in his “head,” but he can still be attacked in his body, the Church!

And he is!

Let me give you 3 examples of the phenomenon tonight. These 3 have impressed themselves upon me in recent weeks.

Number 1 is the terrible priest sex abuse scandal.

I’m sure you’ve noticed that since this began in Lent of 2002 there has been a failure—especially in the secular media—to distinguish the condemnation of the sexual abuse committed by certain priests from the condemnation of the priesthood as an institution.

Consequently, in the process of condemning the sins of these clerics (sins which should be condemned!), members of the media and others have gone on to attack the priesthood itself.

A coincidence?

Please, don’t insult my intelligence!

The Holy Father has said, “There is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young.”

To that, we should all say, “Amen.” And, believe me, no one is more pleased about the removal of bad priests than those of us in the priesthood who are being faithful.

But make no mistake about it: the media frenzy surrounding this terrible evil has very little to do with protecting children. Many secular journalists will say it does, but that’s a lie!

If they were really serious about protecting children, then they would investigate what’s going on in other groups as intently and as doggedly as they investigate the goings on in the Catholic Church!

But they don’t.

Two cases in point. Last week there was a gathering in Nashville, Tennessee, of present and former Jehovah’s Witnesses, all of whom claim they were sexually abused by congregation leaders. According to one of the organizers of the event, the number of abuse victims is at least six thousand. Six thousand!

Where is the media outcry about these Jehovah’s Witnesses? Where are ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, and the sanctimonious editors of the New York Times? If the situation involved one Catholic priest, the story would be on the front page of the Times and it would be the lead item on every TV news program! But about the Jehovah’s Witnesses, we have heard almost nothing. The Westerly Sun, incidentally, had the story in its March 28th issue, buried on page 28!

But that’s not even the most egregious example of how abuse is being ignored in other places. That distinction is held, sad to say, by the public school system in this country.

Not long ago Hofstra University professor, Charol Shakeshaft, was commissioned by the Bush administration to study this problem. And what was her conclusion? It was this (and here I quote): “The physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests.”

Along these lines, the New York Post concluded a couple of years ago that at least one child is sexually abused by a school employee every day in New York City public schools!

And yet, there is almost nothing about this in the secular media.

That’s because the frenzy about bad priests has not been about protecting young people—it hasn’t even been about “getting priests.”

It’s really been about discrediting “the Priest!” We Christians need to be crystal clear about that.

The philosophy of our Lord’s attackers has been simple: “To discredit the Priest, Jesus Christ, we must first discredit those who share in his priesthood. These bad priests will help us do that. And once we discredit Christ, we can discredit his teaching—especially his teaching on personal, sexual issues. Jesus says ‘No’ to our morality, so Jesus must be eliminated!”

The second example of a contemporary attack on the Priest takes the form of a book: The DaVinci Code.

I finally made the hard decision to read it last week—because I thought I needed to do a little more penance during Lent!

I will describe my reaction to this novel with two words: What rot!

Again, in this instance, the attack is not so much on the Church (although that’s the way it might initially appear)—it’s on Jesus Christ himself. The Church is merely the vehicle for the onslaught.

I could give you a long list of historical and theological errors in this novel which are used to smear the Lord, but I’ll focus on only one—the most heinous of all: the charge that the Church, in effect, “invented” the divinity of Jesus Christ in the 4th century, at the Council of Nicaea.

Has this author, Dan Brown, ever read the Gospel of John, where Jesus himself says, “The Father and I are one”?

Has he ever read the many other Scriptural texts in the New Testament which clearly affirm the divinity of Christ, his equality to God the Father?

Has he ever read the writings of the early Church Fathers, all of whom consistently affirmed the truth that Jesus is God?

Brown would probably respond by saying, “But Father, it’s fiction. It’s only a novel.”

No, Mr. Brown, you don’t write fiction like this about my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! If you want to write a book of fiction, fine—then write about fictional characters! Not about the eternal Son of God, who was born of the Virgin Mary and who died for my sins—and for yours!

I dare say that Mr. Brown would never, ever write a novel of this type about Mohammed, or Moses, or Buddha, or Confucius.

But he did write one of this type—a slanderous and blasphemous one—about Jesus.

The purpose, once again, is clear (at least it’s clear to me): to discredit the Gospel, by discrediting the Priest who taught it, Jesus Christ.

The final contemporary example of the world’s attack on the Priest is found in the controversy surrounding Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ.”

Is it too violent, as so many opponents of the film say it is?

Please! Did they say the same thing about Gibson’s other classic film, “Braveheart”? No way! They gave that movie 5 Academy Awards! And the violence of “Braveheart” dwarfs the violence of the “Passion.”

As for the anti-Semitism charge, since the film follows the 4 Gospels so closely, if you call Mel anti-Semitic you also must call Matthew, Mark, Luke and John anti-Semitic!

But even beyond that, since the primary author of Sacred Scripture is the Holy Spirit, if the 4 evangelists—the 4 Gospel writers—are guilty of hating the Jews, then the obvious and inescapable conclusion is that the Holy Spirit is also an anti-Semite!

That, as ridiculous as it may sound, actually comes closer to the point. I believe that the secularist opponents of this movie know how powerful it is—and this knowledge fuels their opposition. They know the potential of this film to move people to conversion: conversion to Christ and conversion to the Catholic Church.

And that they do not want!

Their true enemy, of course, is not Mel Gibson. Attacking him is nothing more than a diversionary tactic.

Their real enemy—the one they really hate—is Jesus Christ, the Great High Priest. By seeking to discredit Gibson’s film, they are seeking to discredit the Priest who offered the perfect sacrifice for the forgiveness of their sins. Having embraced a perverse notion of love in their own lives, they now attack the greatest expression of true love that the world has ever seen!

As we celebrate the Easter Triduum this year, let’s keep in mind that what we commemorate tonight and tomorrow are not simply events of the past. In the Lord’s body, the Church, Holy Thursday and Good Friday live on!

They are experienced—and they will continue to be experienced—until the end of time.

But in the midst of all this let’s also resolve not to forget the most important truth of all: This Priest conquers! This Great High Priest always emerges victorious in the end!

Yes, he was attacked; yes, he was killed. But three days later he rose from the dead!

And his awesome, everlasting victory is shared by all those who are obedient to him.

O Great High Priest, Jesus Christ, help us to be your faithful disciples always—especially in the midst of the many Holy Thursdays and Good Fridays of this life, so that we will someday share with you an eternal Easter Sunday. Amen.

Sunday, April 04, 2004

How to Have a Successful Holy Week

(Palm Sunday 2001 (C): This homily was given on April 4, 2004 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Philippians 2: 6-11; Luke 22:14- 23:56.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Palm Sunday 2004]

Is it spiritual, or is it just emotional?

There is a difference.

We just heard Luke’s account of the Passion of our Lord. Next year Matthew’s version will be read on Palm Sunday, and the following year we will hear Mark’s account. (John’s Passion narrative, of course, is read every year on Good Friday.)

I think it’s safe to say that many Catholics will hear the story of Jesus’ suffering and death a little differently this year, after seeing Mel Gibson’s new film, “The Passion of the Christ.”

Because of what they saw in the movie theater in recent weeks, a better connection has now been established for them between the printed words of Scripture and the historical events they speak of. Thus it’s easier for these men and women to imagine what actually happened 2,000 years ago.

I’ll bet that many of you who have seen the film had images from the movie pass through your minds as we were reading the text from Luke’s Gospel a few moments ago.

I certainly did.

The emotional effect of this movie is obvious to anyone who sees it: some cry (probably most do); some sit motionless and speechless even after the credits have finished rolling at the end of it all; some walk to their cars in total silence.

And that’s good.

The Passion of the Son of God, the Savior of the world, should affect us deeply on the emotional level, since we were all personally involved in it! Lest we forget, our sins made his sacrifice necessary.

But if that’s where its effect on us stops, then there is a problem!

Which is why I began my homily with the question: Is it spiritual, or is it just emotional?

We contemplate the Passion every Holy Week, not only so that we will be affected emotionally; we contemplate the Passion for a spiritual reason: so that we will be brought to a deeper level of conversion to Christ and his Gospel!

This is why the liturgies and ceremonies of Holy Week are so important: they are opportunities to reflect on the greatest of all love stories—the story of the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ—so that we will be motivated to change our lives for the better!

“Greater love nobody has, than to lay down his life for his friends.”

If we go to Gibson’s movie, or come to Mass on Palm Sunday, or go to a Good Friday service or the Stations of the Cross, and our only thought is, “Oh, wasn’t that awful what they did to Jesus?,” we’ve missed the point! That is to say, if our response is purely on the emotional level, we’ve somehow missed the deeper meaning of the events.

But if we leave saying, “Thank you Lord for loving me that much; thank you for dying for me; help me to love you more. Give me the desire to turn away from my sins, and to go to Confession regularly, and to be faithful to Mass, and to overcome my character flaws, and to love you above all things, and to love my neighbor as myself”—if we leave thinking thoughts like those, then we’re on the right track!

Then the effect within us has been spiritual as well as emotional.

The true success of Mel Gibson’s movie will not be measured by how much money it takes in at the box office (despite what the economists might say). It will be measured by how many conversions it makes, and by how many conversions it deepens.

The success of this Holy Week will be measured for each of us by the same standard.

Let’s resolve, therefore, to make some extra time for the Lord during these next 7 days, and to allow ourselves to be transformed inwardly in the process, so that it will be a very “successful” Holy Week for us all.