Sunday, June 29, 2008

Saint Peter and Saint Paul

It seems a bit unusual to me, that two of the greatest saints in our church share a feast day. But maybe it is better that way, in that we do not try to set one of the saints against another, but rather rejoice in their cooperation for the good of the kingdom of God.

Saint Peter was chosen by Jesus to be the leader of the Apostles. He called him from a life of a fisherman to become first a disciple and then an Apostle and leader. Simon Peter did not choose himself, although he did say yes to the Lord. Rather, he was called by Jesus and he was given the gift of faith. You are the Christ, the Son of the living God Peter said. It was not Simon Peter’s own intelligence that figured that out. Neither was it his will or wishful thinking that made Jesus to be who He was. Rather Jesus was truly the Son of God, and God the Father revealed this truth to Simon Peter. At the time he said it, Peter did not realize the full meaning of the words the Son of God, but he did not have to know. The same God who revealed him this truth would later give him the Holy Spirit to understand more deeply what it was that he was preaching.

After Saint Peter made his profession of faith with the knowledge given to him by God the Father, Jesus proceeded to name rock and declare His intent to build the Church upon him. We might look at the life of Simon Peter before the descent of the Holy Spirit and not see a rock. We might even say the same thing about him even after this event. But that does not matter. Jesus is the one doing the choosing, God is the one working through History to accomplish His purposes.

In spite of his many weaknesses, the characteristics of Simon Peter that stand out was his love and his trust of the Lord. Peter knew that he did not know everything (remeber he said to Jesus where shall we go, Lord, you have the words of eternal life). He knew that he was not perfect (after the miraculous catch of fish, he said depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man). He knew that he was chosen by Jesus just because that is what Jesus had wanted. Even when Peter had denied even knowing who Jesus was, he did not walk away or despair of the Lord’s mercy. He said rather Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you. Jesus did not take away Peter’s authority, but rather called him to a more profound relationship. The Lord has done similar for us. He has called us, he will give us what we need, and if we fall into sin, and turn to Jesus in trust, the Lord will heal us and call us to a more profound relationship also.

Saint Paul shares today’s feast with Saint Peter. In fact, today we begin a special Pauline year in which the Holy Father Pope Benedict calls us to reflect on the life and teaching of Saint Paul, the man whom the great theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas called simply The Apostle.

Saint Paul was a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin. Because he was born in the city of Tarsus, Paul enjoyed the rights of Roman citizenship (for example he could appeal the emperor if he was charge with a crime). Paul was taught by his father how to be a tent maker, a trade which he practiced throughout his adult life. Paul also was highly educated in the Bible, studying with the leading teachers of his day. He was filled with zeal for the Lord, and originally he persecuted the Church with all his strength. But God chose Paul to bring the Gospel to many people. And although Paul described himself as a super zealous Jew, he became the instrument of conversion for non-Jews, to fulfill the promise of salvation given to all peoples through the prophets. Whenever we look at someone and think that it would be impossible for them to be converted, or impossible that he or she could serve God, we ought to look at Saint Paul. God cannot be thwarted. Rather, the Lord continues to call people according to His will for the spread of the Gospel.

In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, Saint Paul remarked that he was being poured out like a libation. The word libation refers to an common form of sacrifice to a god used in the past. It was the act of pouring wine or oil or other drinkables out on the ground or an altar. Even the Jews practiced libations as a way to honor the Living and True God. We can see in the Passion of Jesus, the pouring out of His blood for the glory of the Father and salvation of the world. We can see in Baptism the pouring out of the Spirit to make us the children of God the Father. And we can see in Pentecost the pouring out of the Spirit and power for the evangelization of the world.

God called each of these two great saints to spread the good news of our salvation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. But Peter and Paul were not called simply to proclaim the death of the Lord until He comes again in glory. They were likewise called to share in it. Peter died by crucifixion and Paul by the sword. By saying he was being poured out like a libation, Saint Paul is identifying himself as a sacrifice for the Lord. It was not sufficient for him to speak, he rather wanted to live the life of Christ within himself, which including living the death of Christ for the glory of God.

We look at these two saints and say that is nice, weren’t they great, now let’s go get breakfast. Not so fast. God has called us to do the same. Maybe we are not called to be apostles, or bishops, or the pope (Saint Paul was not even called to that). But we are called through our Baptism to proclaim the word of the Lord. We were chosen and given the gift of faith, just like Peter was by the Father to know who Jesus was, just like Paul who stated that he did
did not receive it (the Gospel) from a human being, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ. We were given the faith so that we could share it with others. And sharing the faith is more than just words. It is more than just action. Sharing our faith includes being poured out like a libation- that is, sacrifice our whole self in service to God.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Fear no one

1. Many of you no doubt know that I enjoy bicycling. You may not know that I did not learn how to ride a bike until I was 7 years old. And then, my dad forced me to learn. Up until then, I had refused for fear that I would fall off, and maybe get hurt. So my dad put me on the bike and guided it around the house in the yard. That is really all it took and I have been riding ever since.
2. Fear of falling keeps many people off of their bicycles. And the fear is somewhat rational. Yes, you probably will fall, and you could get hurt. I have fallen off the bike many times. I have flown through the air over my handlebars, I have bounced on the pavement (thank God I wear a helmet). My arms have been covered with tiny scabs called road rash, my shoulders bruised by crashing into trees. I have thought my heart would explode as I suffered up hills. But I have also sped down those same hills at 40 miles an hour. I have raced against the clock to keep my job when my car would not start. I have pressed the pedals so hard that the bike jumped in air as it accelerated.
3. Fear should not keep us from doing the activities that are worthwhile, even if it is a rational fear. Rather, we should judge with worthiness of what we propose, and then proceed prudently. Now bicycling, although a wonderful recreation, is really not that important as activities go. On the other hand, proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ is not merely a worthwhile activity, but it is among the most important that we could possibly do. In fact, we are commanded by Jesus Himself to proclaim the Gospel. He said What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light; what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. It is the serious task of every Christian to busy ourselves with the proclamation of the Truth of God’s love, shown to us in Jesus Christ.
4. The truths of our Faith are not secrets. The reality of the Resurrection of Our Lord is not private revelation. The total self giving love which God calls us to share with one another through respect and charitable actions of mind, body and heart are not meant only for the select few, like priests, or Sunday school teachers. The evangelization of the world is not an option, to be selected from a variety of religious type actions which we might do from time to time. Jesus is very clear- Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father. But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father.
5. Still we are afraid. We fear that others will make fun of us, if we speak up like we should. We might lose our friends or even our jobs. Look at Jeremiah. He spoke God’s word, and yet his own people wanted to kill him.
6. Today, Christianity in general and Catholicism specifically do not get much positive press. And many of the events we fear could indeed come to pass. For example, if a couple accepts many children in their marriage as gifts from God, there will be those who criticize them with unkind words. Even some of their doctors will pressure them to be sterilized- which is a sin. But look at your child: which will last longer- the ugly words that someone says, or the family bond that God Himself has created?
7. Maybe we are afraid to forgive someone who has harmed us. What if they think we are weak and do it again? They might. We cannot control the thoughts of others. But what is really more weak- to hand something over to God and ask for healing, so that it will no longer harm us, or to drag the weight of a past hurt around for the rest of our lives, being controlled by the words or actions of another? At least we know that if we forgive others, God will forgive us. Likewise He will always be just, even if it takes a long time.
8. Of course we could be afraid of generosity with our money. We fear not having enough if we let what we think of as our stuff go and give it to God. Maybe we will not have enough for soft drinks or beer or electronic devices or whatever. But do you know any generous people? Are they happy, or are they in constant fear? All the ones I know are happy. They are not enslaved by things. And God seems to provide for them just when they need it most.
9. Some are just afraid that if they admit that they are Catholic someone will challenge them on something and they will not have an answer. Or they fear the lack of social stature if one does not belong to the most popular church. Or they look to other groups that seem to have so many activities / benefits for the kids or the family that it just seems foolish to stick with the Church. Maybe they will ask something we do not know- after all, we are not God, we might have to keep learning. Maybe we will have a loss of social stature, in this life. Maybe our parish does not have a gym just yet, or whatever else is popular. Maybe members of our parish act badly in public. But we share the Eucharist- the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ our Lord. Do the others? Sadly no. Even if we cannot explain it, and do not know enough to be able to defend it, it remains the truth: Jesus gives us Himself to eat and drink, so that we might have life. What can really top that?
10. What if we were to die on account of our Catholic faith? Would that be such a bad thing? We pray to Saint Jude, and that is what he did. We read from Saint Matthew, and that is what he did. What if we were to live without limits our Catholic faith? That is what the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Francis of Assisi and Padre Pio and the Mother Teresa did.
11. How do we get rid of the fear? There is only one word to describe how to overcome it- Trust. Jesus said Fear is useless, what is needed is trust. In the Gospel, Jesus tries to tell us how valuable we are. The Father knows and cares about even the smallest bird. We are much more valuable than they are: we are the adopted children of God. Our Father will not abandon us. He never has and He never will.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

More on Proof

1. “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest” (Matthew 9:37-38). In 1988, I became the Band Director of a little town in Central Texas. The largest single group in the band were the Catholics, only a few of them actually went to Mass or received instruction. I began to see how much that community needed evangelization. There were so many people who hungered for God, but did not know where to turn. Or they turned to the wrong places. There was an abundant harvest, but not enough people who could bring it in.
2. Now the need is even greater. Our diocese has 5 times as many Catholics as it did back in 1988. Many people are so in need of a spiritual father- and not just Catholics. It is our duty to pray for vocations to the priesthood, the diaconate, and the religious life every day of our lives. Of course, we must do more than simply pray about it, although that is most important. We must open our families to hear the call of God to enter into the work. And for those who are young, you must open your ears and hearts to hear and then say yes to God.
3. I know that to hear God’s call and say yes can be scary. Those many years ago, after I realized how much more my students needed a priest than a band director, God started to call me and I did not really want to hear it. Priesthood was not what I intended to do with my life, and I was afraid. I believe fear holds many people back from at least trying out the path of a religious vocation. What people may fear the most is loneliness or not being loved. Back then I knew that fear. I had wanted to get married, but was not very successful in my social life. I became afraid that no one would ever love me. It not just from the point of view of romantic love. I had bounced around from school to school for ten years, not finding my place anywhere. I wondered if I would ever belong. Thanks be to God, I have found my place as a priest. (To be honest, as a priest I have never been lonely).
4. My point in telling this story is that the question "will I be loved" or "do you love me" is really important to each one of us. As human beings we are social creatures. We all have a real need to be loved and accepted unconditionally just because we exist. Many young people hook up with totally inappropriate mates and many other people jump from one relationship to another all because they are seeking an answer to the question of whether or not they are loved. Although we could look at this question in human terms, in my opinion, this question is not merely a human question. It is also a Divine one. That is, we get this question from God Himself.
5. God has created us human beings for Himself. He has given us the freedom to love Him or not to love Him. Other beings, like mountains and rivers, stars and moons, even plants and other animals do not really have the capacity to reject their Creator, and so they do not have the capacity to love their Creator as we do. Although God is an eternal communion of love- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit- because He has made us for love, He wants to know if we love Him as well.
6. And so do you love God? Honestly, I already know what you are likely to say. Everyone who I have asked has said yes. But of course God is not interested in just words any more than we are. The Lord wants actions, He wants proof. And God will test our love.
7. How do we prove our love for God? The first step is to get rid of our sins, that we can do God’s will. And in the course of this battle against evil, our Lord will give us lots of help. For example, He gives us the Sacrament of Confession by which sin and guilt is removed from the penitent. The Lord also gives us consolation in prayer. Consolation in prayer is when we experience contentment and peace in prayer, the feeling that God is listening, maybe even quick answers. In these various manners, the Lord encourages us in our fight against evil.
8. But the time will come when the Lord will remove these consolations. Even though we may have gained victory over most of our sins, He will withdraw many of the blessings which we have become accustomed to receiving. Prayer will become dry, difficult, and confusing. We will wonder what is going on. What is going on is that God is testing us. He wants to know if we love Him, or the blessings which He has given us. To understand, we could ask: do you love the ring on your finger, or the one who gave it to you?
9. If we remain faithful and true through this testing, the Lord will lead us to a deeper knowledge of Him which will seem sort of like we are in a cloud. God will continue to lead us through suffering and loss to a point in which we will not even want to choose sin. In our willingness to lose everything but our Lord, our hearts will be conformed to His love totally. This love is what God wants most of all from us.
10. Saint John said: "In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins" (1 John 4:10). And God’s love is much greater than our own. We should love God because He is perfect in every way and totally deserving of our love. But God loves us even more because as Saint Paul says that Christ died for us when we were totally unworthy.
11. Do you love me? Many of us try to test God’s love. Sometimes we make conditions on whether or not we will believe. God if you love me, you will give me this or that. But the Lord has already proven His love, in the death and resurrection of His Son for our Salvation. And nothing we can do will make God stop loving us. We could reject it, or refuse to love Him back, but we cannot make God stop.
12. Knowing that God loves us so much, what will be our response to His commands? Will we confidently ask for His help in getting more vocations to the priesthood, and even more volunteers for the ministries of the parish? Will we open our ears and hearts to receive His call if His answer is to send us? Will we encourage our children and those around us to serve God first, and themselves second? In the first reading, God showed His desire to make us a kingdom of priests to serve Him and offer ourselves to Him. Could we be even more than that? Will we be a kingdom of lovers of God?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Do you love me? This question crosses the mind of every person, even if we do not give voice to it. Whether we need frequent reassurances that we are indeed loved, or whether we are good at interpreting the signs of of the love of other people, we still want an answer, even from God. God has proved His love for us through His Son Jesus. Even though our sins deserved death, it was Christ who died for us and has risen from the dead. Even though we are unable to give ourselves salvation, the Lord Jesus is saving us even now. How could we doubt God’s love.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

I Desire Mercy

1. I desire mercy, not sacrifice. If God desired mercy or love instead of sacrifices, why did He require sacrifices as part of covenant with Him? To understand God’s complaint, spoken through the mouth of the prophet Hosea and reiterated by Jesus, we have to understand what sacrifice was really about.
2. First, sacrifice can be understood as a means of getting rid of false gods. In the ancient world, for example in Egypt, many people associated the gods with various animals. Killing these animals and spreading their blood as part of the rituals of religion was therefore a way of putting the false god to death and putting the True God first. The same was true of circumcision and the giving ten percent of their income to God and even taking the Sabbath rest from work. All of these were ways to end worship of the false gods, which included sex, money, possessions, work, and the self.
3. Second, sacrifices were a means to offer something significant to God. When a person or a family sacrificed an animal, it had to be the best animal they had, one with no defects. When they paid their tithe, their ten percent from their crops or produce, it had to be the best 10 percent. When they paid money, it had to be paid first, not paid from what was left over. In this practical manner, they would be putting the true God first.
4. Third, although they did not know it at the time, the sacrifices prefigured the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross. The sacrifices were a symbolic means of connecting with the saving act of Jesus Christ. They were meant to prepare the people’s hearts for the Passion of Christ.
5. Although these sacrifices were supposed to help people commit themselves more closely to God, problems developed. People would offer sacrifices which were insignificant or defective in quality. The prophet Malachi noted that people would offer a blind or lame animal, instead of a healthy one. These substandard sacrifices demonstrated that they did really view God as all that important. The prophet Hosea remarked that some indeed would offer sacrifices, but they did so in an empty or meaningless manner, and would fail to change inside. For example, they would go to synagogue or Temple and say the prayers, but the rest of the week they served money, or sought after pleasure. Or maybe they would close their hearts when strangers moved to town with slightly different customs or language or food, even when they were the same religion and even related to one another.
6. Unfortunately, even with the New Covenant in the blood of Jesus, these sins persist. Oh how often do we think of ourselves first and God sometime later. We consider ourselves good Catholics and yet give God not much time in prayer, or give His Church not much of an offering of the money or other treasures we have received at His hands. Or we praise God one moment and the next use the same lips and tongue to use foul or insulting words. We come to Mass but really serve other gods, which might be ourselves.
7. Everyone in our parish is our brother and sister in the Lord. We have been baptized in the same Holy Water with the same words. We were anointed with the same Holy Spirit. In Communion, we receive the same Body and Blood of the same Jesus Christ. We call on the same God and Father in the midst of the Church. Yet it is a particular sorrow that we do not always treat one another as brothers and sisters in the Lord. People are excluded or looked down upon because they are from a different family, or they are a different color, or they speak a different language or have a different accent, or they have a different size of family, or they just have a different opinion than we do. And so we cut them off.
8. Maybe we do not always realize that we are pushing our brothers and sisters out. I take that back, when we fail to welcome, when we fail to share, when we go through the motions of Christianity and yet remain self-centered, willful, or rude we push ourselves out.
9. But that is not what the Lord wants. Not just that God does not want us to close ourselves off from one another. Yes, Jesus wants us to love one another. But even further than that, the Lord wants to give us mercy. That is the whole point of His sacrifice on the Cross- to save us from a death which we richly deserve and bring us into His kingdom of peace which we cannot earn on our own. Consider the story of Saint Matthew- he was a tax collector who probably cheated people and who had other bad people as his friends. But Jesus called him and even went to his house to eat and meet his people. What grieved Jesus was that the scribes and Pharisees who complained were not there with Him also. Jesus wanted to give Matthew and His friends His mercy. Jesus wanted to give those who complained mercy. Jesus wants to give us His mercy. But the only way we can truly receive it is to give it to someone else.
10. I read yesterday that the right path is to choose sacrifice for ourselves and mercy for others. That is the path Jesus Christ chose. If we do the same, we will be like Him.