Prayer Pierces the Heavens

The readings for the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle C continue the theme of prayer.  In the first reading (Sirach 35: 12-14, 16-18) we read: “The one who serves God willingly is heard; his petition reaches the heavens. The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds….”

From time to time I’ve been asked, “What’s the point of praying? If God know everything and even knows what is in our hearts before we put words to our concerns and desires, what’s the point of praying? 

Our world is obsessed with action.  We tend to think of prayer as a last resort.  When practical action appears to be impossible we say, “Well, I guess I’ll just pray.”  “Just!?”  Is prayer a last resort rather than the first?

There is a line attributed to both St. Augustine and to St. Ignatius Loyola.  While the former may have written it, the latter, I’m told by the Jesuit historian Fr. John Padberg, did not.  In fact, St. Ignatius probably reversed the order of the saying.

The saying goes: “Pray as though everything depends on God and work as though everything depends on you.” 

It is good to recognize when we pray that the Holy Spirit is the one who prays within us (see Romans 8: 26-27).  And it is good to work hard.  But the reverse of the saying—“Pray as though everything depended on you and work as though everything depended on God”—makes more sense. 

In other words, we should put time, effort, and energy into our prayer, praying as though it’s up to us but knowing that grace is always a gift.  And we should work in such a way that we leave the results to God rather than thinking that our sheer effort will accomplish things. 

This is where the Gospel (Luke: 18: 9-14) comes in.  The Pharisee congratulates himself on his works and goes away unjustified, while the tax collector prays with humility and is said to go away justified.  The key, as we’ve heard in previous Sundays’ Gospels, is humility.

The word comes from “humus”—dust or earth.  Humility recognizes that I am not God, not in control, and cannot overcome every obstacle by my own effort and hard work. 

Humble or lowly prayer surrenders to God who created us to share in the love of the Trinity and the communion of all saints.  When we pray fervently and persistently, our prayer pierces the heavens and opens a channel for God’s grace and mercy to enter the world.  Like parents who show respect and love to their children, inviting them to work alongside of them though they do not need their help in assembling a toy or cooking a meal, God respects and loves us by including us in the work of caring for creation and the human family. 

Prayer is not so much changing God’s mind as opening ourselves up to Trinitarian Love and allowing God to transform us and work through us to transform the world.  

Pray Always and Don't Give Up!

The readings at Mass today (Twenty-ninth Sunday Ordinary Time Cycle C) challenge us to pray with persistence.  In the Gospel (Luke 18: 1-8) Jesus tells "a parable about the necessity to pray always without becoming weary."  It's about a widow and a judge who refuses to take her case, but finally does because her persistence is wearing him out.  If uncaring people respond to persistence how much more will our caring God? 

But we've all had experiences of praying and not receiving the good things for which we pray--like the health of loved ones.  A few years ago I prayed and prayed for Fr. Will Prospero, S.J. and he died of cancer at the age of 49.  My administrative assistant, Stephanie, died of leukemia at the age of 31.  Last April my good friend Fr. Ray Gawronski, S.J., 65 years old, died one month after he was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. But one of my most painful losses was my sister Judy for whom I prayed fervently for years as she struggled with depression; she died of suicide two days before Christmas in 2003. 

When we pray and nothing happens we ask: "Where are you, God?  Why don't you hear my prayers? Why don't you answer them?" 

The truth is that God hears every prayer and knows what is in our hearts before we even put words to our desires and concerns.  Moreover, God answers every prayer.  Sometimes the answer is the one that Jesus received from his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane--"No." 

"Why?" we ask.  We don't know why God answers some prayers in this way.  It challenges our faith that God is there and loves us. 

Jesus ended his teaching in today's Gospel asking, "But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

What's the point of praying for specific intentions if God knows our desires and concerns even before we articulate them?  God does not want to act alone or apart from us and our cooperation.  God's love always respects our freedom. 

We see that in the First Reading (Exodus 17: 8-13).  God chose to work through Moses and his prayer, symbolized by his upraised hands.  But he grew tired.  He needed others to help him pray. God shows us that when we grow weary in our prayer we have a community of believers to rely upon.  Prayer builds community. 

The Apostleship of Prayer, now also known as the Pope's Worldwide Prayer Network, is a community of millions of people around the world who pray each month for specific and important needs of the world and the Church.  There is power in this prayer, but it requires faith.  It requires persistence even when nothing seems to change or when things only get worse. 

Pope Francis wrote about having the faith that empowers our prayer in his Apostolic Exhortation "The Joy of the Gospel" (#278-9):

"Faith also means believing in God, believing that he truly loves us, that he is alive, that he is mysteriously capable of intervening, that he does not abandon us and that he brings good out of evil by his power and his infinite creativity. … Because we do not always see these seeds growing, we need an interior certainty, a conviction that God is able to act in every situation…. We may be sure that none of our acts of love will be lost, nor any of our acts of sincere concern for others. No single act of love for God will be lost, no generous effort is meaningless, no painful endurance is wasted. All of these encircle our world like a vital force.  It may be that the Lord uses our sacrifices to shower blessings in another part of the world which we will never visit."


Through the daily offering of our lives--every prayer, work, joy, and suffering--we can "pray always and not grow weary."  

Faith, Prayer, and Humility

The first reading from Sunday’s Mass (Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C) is from the Prophet Habakkuk. As you read the words with which it begins, what scene comes to mind? 

“How long, O LORD? I cry for help but you do not listen! I cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not intervene. Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and clamorous discord.”

What comes to my mind is Aleppo, Syria.  If you watch the news or read the paper with any compassion a prayer must well up: “How long, O Lord?  Why?”  We want God to intervene in this hopeless situation of the Syrian civil war. 

But God will not intervene except through us.  God won’t force his plan or his will on humanity. God won’t take human freedom away. 

God wants human cooperation to fulfill his plan.  When Jesus walked this earth his hands were tied by people’s lack of faith.  According to Matthew 13: 58, when Jesus returned to his native town of Nazareth, “he did not work many mighty deeds there because of their lack of faith.” 

The reading from Habakkuk ends with a vision of justice and peace.  Through the prophet God tells us to be patient and to have faith. 

In the Gospel (Luke 17: 5-10), the apostles ask Jesus: “Increase our faith.”  Jesus responds with an image of impossibility—that faith the size of a small seed can uproot a tree and send it into the sea.  Isn’t peace just as or more impossible?  But faith and prayer can do the impossible. God and the human person working together can bring about miracles no less impossible as the displacement of trees. 

One such miracle was the survival of several Jesuits who were in Hiroshima at ground zero when the first atomic bomb was dropped.  (See my blog post of August 6, 2016.)  Not only did they survive the initial blast but subsequently none of them experienced the effects of radiation.  How was this possible?  Fr. Hubert Schiffer, S.J. said it was because they prayed the rosary and lived the message of Fatima.

If you go to Fatima today you will see the results of another miracle.  There is a large piece of the Berlin Wall on display.  Why?  It tells us that faith-filled prayer brought down that wall and the Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union that it represented.  Faith and prayer can bring down walls and change governments.  It can transform hardened hearts.

But in the second part of the Gospel Jesus tells us that something else needs to accompany faith.  Perhaps it is an essential ingredient of real faith.  Humility.  Humility recognizes one’s true condition.  We are not masters of ourselves but servants of God.  We cannot trust in ourselves but only in God.  Humility is a foundational virtue because all the others—even charity, which St. Paul called the greatest (1 Corinthians 13: 13)—can become a source of pride that ultimately leads us to think that we are all-powerful and in control. 

Jesus shows us the way of humility, “taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2: 7), bending down and washing feet (John 13: 1-16), and offering himself on a cross for our salvation.  His focus is not on himself but on God the Father and God’s other human children.  In the Eucharist he continues to humble himself, making present his life-saving death and resurrection and then giving himself to us under the humble appearances of bread and wine.  In the Eucharist he invites us to sit and dine while he serves us!

The vision of peace is possible but its realization requires faith-filled prayer.  The greatest prayer is the Eucharist where Jesus gives himself to us to transform us.  Here we receive the Body and Blood, soul and divinity, including the Sacred Heart, to tear down the walls that separate us and to transform our hearts.  

St. Francis' Stigmata and the Year of Mercy

On September 17 I offered a spiritual workshop to the Sisters of the Third Order of St.Francis at their motherhouse in Peoria, IL.  While the universal Church remembers the Jesuit St. Robert Bellarmine in the liturgy that day, Franciscans celebrate a feast in remembrance of their holy founder’s receiving the stigmata.  However, there is an interesting connection which Fr. John Hardon, S.J.has noted:

“St. Robert Bellarmine had a great devotion to St. Francis of Assisi, and was especially devoted to honoring Francis' stigmata. Bellarmine urged that there be a special feast in honor of the five stigmata of St. Francis. Bellarmine had an important position in the Vatican and he made sure that the feast was introduced in the Church, despite strong opposition. As Providence arranged, Robert Bellarmine died on the feast of the stigmata of St. Francis, September 17.”

The readings for the Franciscan feast are Galatians 6: 14-18 and Luke 9: 23-26 and the following is the homily that I offered to the Sisters.

As Providence would have it, today, as we reflect on the Jubilee Year of Mercy, we are celebrating a feast in honor of St. Francis of Assisi’s stigmata, a gift that he received in the year 1224. The Year of Mercy and St. Francis’ stigmata go together quite well.  For if mercy is the greatest expression and embodiment of God’s love, and if the Church is the Body of Christ, then we are to embody God’s mercy and show it to the world in a visible way.  The greatest act of mercy is the Passion—the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

In his Message for the 2015 World Mission Day, Pope Francis wrote:  “Mission is a passion for Jesus and at the same time a passion for his people. When we pray before Jesus crucified, we see the depth of his love which gives us dignity and sustains us. At the same time, we realize that the love flowing from Jesus’ pierced heart expands to embrace the People of God and all humanity. We realize once more that he wants to make use of us to draw closer to his beloved people and all those who seek him with a sincere heart.”

Isn’t this what St. Francis did?  He prayed before Jesus crucified and experienced the depth of his love.  He shared Jesus’ passionate love for his people so much that he received the wounds of Jesus into his body. He embodied the Passion, the mercy of God.

On October 4, 1673, several months before Jesus appeared and revealed his Sacred Heart to her, St. Margaret Mary had a vision.  Here is how she described it: “On the feast of St. Francis, our Lord let me see in prayer this great saint, clad in a garment of light and unspeakable brilliance. He had been raised above the other saints to an extraordinarily high degree of glory, because his life was so like that of the suffering Redeemer who is the life of our souls and the love of our hearts. His glory was the reward of his great love for the Passion of our Lord, a love which rendered him worthy of the sacred stigmata and made him one of the great favorites of Jesus’ heart.”

In our first reading, St. Paul wrote that the world had been crucified to him and he to the world.  What does this mean?  I think it means that he shared Christ’s passionate desire for the salvation of the world.  This also describes St. Francis who took up the cross of poverty and labored for the salvation of souls.  He even risked his life in 1219 by going to Egypt to speak with the Sultan about Jesus.  Christian Crusaders were attacking the Sultan’s city and Francis was concerned as well for them because of their immoral life style.  Francis shared Christ’s passionate concern that no one be lost. 

The ultimate meaning of St. Francis’ stigmata is that he shared the desires and concerns of Jesus’ Heart so much that his body revealed the merciful wounds of Christ.  He was so configured to Christ that he embodied the mercy of God in a visible way.  

We too are called to be configured to Christ.  When we share his concern for the world and labor with him for the salvation of all, we embody the mercy of God.

We do so, always, with joy.  St. Francis once said: “It is not right for a servant of God to show a sad or gloomy face to anyone.”  More recently, in “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis said that Christians cannot be “sourpusses.”  The mercy which we embody is joyful.  Being “merciful like the Father,” as the motto for this Extraordinary Jubilee Year tells us, means sharing God’s joy in being merciful.  In the parables of Luke 15, Jesus tells us that there is great joy in heaven when the lost are found, when sinners repent and receive the mercy that God always has in store for them.  May our celebration of this feast and our ongoing Jubilee celebration help us to embody the joyful mercy of God.


World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation

Today is the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation.  In 1989 the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople Dimitrios I initiated this special day of prayer for September 1 because on this day the Orthodox liturgical year begins with a reading and commemoration of God’s creation of the world.  In 2015 Pope Francis asked that the Catholic Church join in this special day of prayer.

In 2007 a proposal was made and accepted at the Third European Ecumenical Assembly to foster a greater awareness of the need to care for creation during a special five week period from September 1 to October 4, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. 

This fits in very well with Pope Francis’ Universal Prayer Intention for the month of September.  We are praying that each person “may contribute to the common good and to the building of a society that places the human person at the center.”  Some may think that by focusing on the care of creation we are making the earth more important than human beings.  That is clearly not the case.

The earth, creation, is the home of the entire human family. It provides what we need to live.  Protecting the earth is necessary for the health and well-being of the human person.  And this means every human person, for all are made in the image and likeness of God.

This is what is meant by “the common good,”  which refers to the good of all people. The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” #1907 states that “the common good presupposes respect for the person as such.” 

Concern for the common good of every human being counteracts the exaggerated individualism of modern culture.  In his encyclical “Laudato Si” #204 Pope Francis wrote: “When people become self-centered and self-enclosed, their greed increases. The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume.”

Concern for the common home in which we live is an essential part of reverencing human life in all its stages.  Pope Francis clearly stated: “”Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?” (#120). 


On this annual World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation we join billions of Christians and other people of good will in committing ourselves to pray and work for the care of God’s gift, creation—not just one day or five weeks, but always!

The Power of Prayer

Is God all-powerful?  When he walked this earth was Jesus God?  Was Jesus all-powerful?  Most Christians would answer “yes” to these questions, and yet we have a scene in the Gospels where Jesus appears to have limited power.

Mark 6: 1-6 tells of Jesus’ return to his hometown of Nazareth where he is rejected.  The neighbors take “offense” at Jesus because he is too familiar to them.  He can’t be a prophet or a wonder-worker.  “Is he not the carpenter?”  As a result, “he was not able to perform any mighty deed there, apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them.  He was amazed at their lack of faith.” 

It seems that Jesus’ power was limited by people’s lack of faith.  This makes sense.  God created humanity so that we—God and us—would work together tending the earth and caring for God’s human family. Being all-powerful, God could have done everything by himself.  But love involves sharing and so God created humanity to share in the work.  Children experience the love of their parents when they are invited to help them in the work that adults do.  They feel special and included.  And so it is with God.

Mary—whom the poet William Wordsworth called “our tainted nature’s solitary boast”—is the model for humanity.  She cooperated completely with God’s grace and became the “Mediatrix of Grace,” the means by which the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity became human.  She was a perfect channel for God’s grace to flow into the world.

Sin and lack of faith block grace’s flow.  Thus Jesus’ powerful love was blocked by his townspeople’s lack of faith.  Conversely, faith-filled prayer and action open channels for God’s powerful grace to enter the world.

When he met with Polish Bishops recently, Pope Francis told them: “We can all have an open heart and think of spending one hour in the parishes, an hour a week, of adoration and prayer. Prayer moves mountains!”  Open hearts, like the Immaculate Heart of Mary, allow the power that created the universe to enter the world. 

The message that Mary gave to three children in Portugal in 1917 was “prayer and penance.”  Mary said that if people prayed, especially a daily Rosary, and offered sacrificial actions like fasting, a greater war than the one that was currently going on could be avoided.  People did not listen and the world endured a second “world war.”

But many people did listen. They prayed and did penance.  In 1989 something happened that those of us who grew up in the 1950’s and ‘60’s never expected.  The Berlin Wall came down. A large portion of it is now on display at Our Lady’s shrine in Fatima.  Then, two years later, the Soviet Union broke up as the Communists lost power. 

But before that, as though to prepare the stage for what many thought was unthinkable—the end of the Soviet Union—prayer wrought another miracle.  On May 13, 1981 Pope John Paul II was shot in St. Peter’s Square.  By all accounts he should have died.  He didn’t and afterwards he attributed his survival to Our Blessed Mother.  He said that while one finger pulled the trigger, another finger guided the bullet millimeters away from certain death.  That bullet now rests in a crown used to honor Our Lady of Fatima.  In the millennial year 2000, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wrote: “That here ‘a mother’s hand’ had deflected the fateful bullet only shows once more that there is no immutable destiny, that faith and prayer are forces which can influence history and that in the end prayer is more powerful than bullets and faith more powerful than armies.”

Perhaps an even greater example of the power of faith-filled prayer is a little known story within a larger event that occurred seventy-one years ago today.  On this day in 1945, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.  Eight blocks from where the bomb went off was the Church of Our Lady’s Assumption. Next door was the rectory where eight Jesuit missionaries resided.  One of them was Fr. Pedro Arrupe who later served as the General of the Jesuits from 1965 to 1983. Another was Fr. Hubert Schiffer who had just finished celebrating Mass and was sitting down to breakfast when the blast occurred. He wrote: “Suddenly, a terrific explosion filled the air with one bursting thunder stroke. An invisible force lifted me from the chair, hurled me through the air, shook me, battered me, whirled me ‘round and round’ like a leaf in a gust of autumn wind.” 

All around there was devastation, but, while damaged, the church and rectory stood and became a makeshift hospital for those who survived the blast. Dr. Stephen Rinehart who worked for the U.S. Department of Defense testified: 

No way any human could have survived nor should anything have been standing at 1 kilometer.  I think there were a few badly burned survivors at ten to fifteen kilometers (all—except the Jesuits—died within fifteen years of some form of cancer). There are no physical laws to explain why the Jesuits were untouched in the Hiroshima air blast. There is no other actual or test data where a structure such as this was not totally destroyed at this standoff distance by an atomic weapon. All who were at this range from the epicenter should have received enough radiation to be dead within at most a matter of minutes if nothing else happened to them.  There is no known way to design a uranium-235 atomic    bomb, which could leave such a large discrete area intact while destroying everything around it immediately outside the fireball (by shaping the plasma). From a scientific viewpoint, what happened to those Jesuits at Hiroshima still defies all human logic from the laws of physics as understood today (or at any time in the future). It must be concluded that some other (external) force was present whose power and/or capability to transform energy and matter as it relates to humans is beyond current comprehension.

Fr. Schiffer, who died in 1982, said: “We believe that we survived because we were living the Message of Fatima. We lived and prayed the Rosary daily in that home.” 

The ways of God are mysterious.  The Rosary is not magic.  Somehow God wanted to give a sign of the power of faith-filled prayer and the special protection of Mother Mary, Our Lady of Fatima. 

The question is: do I take faith and prayer seriously?  Events in our lives, in our nation, and in our world test our faith.  It’s easy to get discouraged and give up.  But if prayer can move bullets, bring down the Berlin Wall, and protect eight Jesuits from the atomic bomb, shouldn’t I trust in its power to continue to work wonders?    

18th Sunday and St. Ignatius

I celebrated Mass this morning for the Sisters of St. Francis at Clare Hall in St. Francis, WI, a suburb of Milwaukee.  I told them that I couldn’t stay for brunch because my Jesuit community would be celebrating the Solemnity of our founder, St. Ignatius.  I also told them about the connection between St. Francis of Assisi and St. Ignatius Loyola.  Here is more of my homily:

It’s nice to be able to celebrate Mass today with Franciscan Sisters because, as I always like to remind people, there would be no St. Ignatius without St. Francis.  Reading about St. Francis while he was convalescing from a war wound, Ignatius was inspired to leave his worldly aspirations and follow St. Francis’ example of total dedication to Christ. 

St. Ignatius’ “Spiritual Exercises” begin with a meditation called “The First Principle and Foundation.”  In it, he reflects on the meaning and purpose of life.  Humans are created to give praise, reverence, and service to God here on earth and forever in heaven.  We’re created for love.  The things of earth are given in order to help us attain this goal. If they get in the way, then we are to avoid them; if they help us attain the goal for which we are created, then we hold on to them. 

Then, after reflecting on the love of God revealed in Jesus, St. Ignatius concludes the “Exercises” with a reflection on all God’s blessings, including the gift of God’s very self.  Aware of such love, we will naturally want to return love by making a total gift of ourselves.  And here is where Ignatius’ famous “Suscipe” prayer comes in:  “Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. You have given all to me.  To You, O Lord, I return it.  All is Yours.  Give me only Your grace and Your love.  With these I am rich enough and want nothing more.”

Today’s readings (Ecclesiastes 1: 2; 2: 21-23; Psalm 90; Colossians 3: 1-5, 9-11; and Luke 12: 13-21) offer us a way to further reflect on this. 

Ecclesiastes begins with the famous words, “Vanity of vanities. All things are vanity.”  Another way of putting it today would be “Absurdities of absurdities.  All is absurd.”  Why?  The author says that humans, like animals, are born, they live, and then die.  But for humans, life is absurd because all that we work so hard for must be left behind.  No hearse ever had a U-Haul trailer behind it!  Thus it seems best to eat, drink, and be merry now for tomorrow we die.  Or, as the beer commercial says: “You only go around once in life so you gotta grab for all the gusto you can.”  

In the Gospel, Jesus tells the rich man who builds bigger barns to accommodate his wealth that he is a fool.  He will die and all that he worked so hard for will go to another. But what makes him especially foolish is that he thinks this life is the only life.  He has not used the things of this earth to prepare for treasure in heaven.  It’s been said that the only thing we take with us when we die is all that we have given away. 

With this in mind, Paul tells us to “think of what is above, not of what is on earth.”  Thinking about our goal, we will try to use the things of this world to prepare for the world to come.  Our earthly life is fleeting, but the next life is eternal.

This is what the vow of poverty is designed to do.  The vows that consecrated persons take are “eschatological signs” that point beyond this world to the next.  They witness to the entire world that this life is not the only one and so we ought to live in such a way that we are prepared at any given moment for passage to the next life. The vow of poverty witnesses to reality, to what is most important.  All people are called to live in the spirit of poverty.

In the 1980’s I lived and worked at our Jesuit novitiate in St. Paul.  Every year a conflict arose.  Some novices declared that the community was not living poverty because it had a cookie jar.  Of course no one was forced to eat the cookies and it often happened that those who complained about cookies were the first to defend having a cable television.  It’s always good to ask questions about how we can live in the spirit of poverty more faithfully, how we can live a more simple life in which we hold everything in common, like the early Church communities.  But ultimately poverty is something deeper.  It touches upon the human condition.

The truly poor do not have choices. 

Peter Maurin was a French immigrant who died in 1949.  He taught Dorothy Day that she did not have be a communist to work for social justice.  The Catholic Church has a great tradition and great examples to guide us toward justice.  Peter was committed to living in solidarity with the poor.  But it was always a choice and he only truly became poor near the end of his life when he had no choice and lost what was most precious to him.

In his book “Peter Maurin: Prophet in the Twentieth Century,” Marc Ellis wrote:  “Dorothy reflected on Maurin’s life and his poverty, which, in her view, had now become absolute.  Maurin’s mind was no longer keen and Dorothy thought the decline significant. After all, the only thing he had retained in his poverty had been his mind. But the last years had seen the deterioration of the interior senses, the memory and the will. … Incontinent and bedridden, he began his last days separated from the work and the people he loved” (161-2). 

Ultimately each of us is poor.  We are not in control and the day will come when we will have to let go of everything.  We do so with the assurance of faith, that as our lives are emptied of everything we will receive everything and more than we can imagine. 

And so, in the spirit of the poverty that St. Francis and St. Ignatius lived, we say:

“Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. You have given all to me.  To You, O Lord, I return it.  All is Yours.  Give me only Your grace and your love.  With these I am rich enough and want nothing more.”

The Apostle to the Apostles

The Apostle to the Apostles

St. Mary Magdalene is one of my favorite saints and today is her feast day.  In fact, on June 3, 2016, the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Pope Francis raised the level of today's commemoration from an Obligatory Memorial to a Feast.  I was happy, therefore, to preside at Mass this morning with some of my brother Jesuits and to celebrate Mass in honor of St. Mary Magdalene with the Gloria which is required for feasts of this importance. 

Read More

A Jesuit Ordination

Last Saturday I participated in the ordination of Jesuit Fr. Vincent Strand.  It was a happy and special time for me because I had been his spiritual director when he was discerning his vocation as a student at Marquette University.  From those days to the present he has been a strong member of the Apostleship of Prayer.  Here's something he wrote when he was a Jesuit novice, In it he wrote about how making a daily offering led to him offering every day of his life as a Jesuit priest:

            "I remember well my first encounter with the Apostleship of Prayer.  I was a freshman at Marquette University and accustomed to attending daily mass in the basement chapel of Gesu Church.  Each day while en route to my pew, I would pass a table filled with popular devotional materials: endless holy cards and novenas, gaudy plastic rosaries, green and brown scapulars, and there too, the AOP leaflets with the Holy Father’s monthly intentions.  Assuming that the AOP was one more dusty devotional practice that perhaps had a place in the 50´s Catholicism of my grandparents, but certainly had no relevance for a third-millennium college student, for months I passed these leaflets without a second thought.  One day, however, perhaps simply out of curiosity, I picked up a leaflet and perused its contents, expecting to find one more antiquated novena to some obscure saint.  I was shocked by what I found.  For here was a list of intentions that was anything but outdated, a list of intentions which reflected my deepest hopes for the world, a list of intentions which was as broad and diverse as the whole of the Church’s mission. 

            "Yet something else in that small leaflet struck me as well, a small prayer that would forever change my spiritual life: the daily Morning Offering.  Father General Peter Hans Kolvenbach once wrote of the Morning Offering: “Experience shows that this act, both simple and profound, changes one's life.”  It did so for me.  As I began daily offering my life to Jesus, the question started to loom:If you give each day to him, why not your whole life?  Soon I was discerning a religious vocation.

            "The fact that the Society of Jesus has been entrusted by Christ himself with the responsibility of propagating the devotion to his Heart—a responsibility institutionalized by the AOP—played a significant role in my decision to apply to the Society of Jesus.  During my years of discernment, I thought seriously about a number of options: Married laymen? Dominican? Carmelite? Diocesan priest?  Amidst this sometimes confusing cloud of options, my spiritual director continually asked me: What is your deepest, truest desire?  As I grew more and more aware of God’s great love for me, suddenly my vocation seemed simple: to bring the love of Jesus to the world.  For me, the love of Jesus was symbolized by the love of his Heart.  I felt Christ calling me to share the love of his Heart, to be an apostle of his Heart.  This, it seemed to me, was at the core of what it means to be a Jesuit.  I knew it was to the Society of Jesus that God was calling me.

            "The importance of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the AOP has only grown during my time in the Society.  Intriguingly, I have observed the same phenomenon in the lives of many other young Jesuits.  Perhaps this was most evident for me in the days of sharing which followed the long retreat in my novitiate last year, when a number of men who previously had no formal contact with devotion to the Sacred Heart spoke of the importance of the symbol of Jesus´ Heart for them during the Spiritual Exercises.  Suddenly, they too were convinced of the need to spread this devotion—this message of love—to all the world.    

            "I am convinced that the AOP has an indispensable part to play in the future of the Catholic Church in America.  The innate spirituality of the AOP provides an answer to many trends of the contemporary world.  In an age when young Catholics desire something radical, something heroic, something whole, the spirituality of the Morning Offering requires a complete gift of self.  In a time when the faithful, especially youth, have a growing love of the Eucharist, the AOP offers a spirituality which is intrinsically Eucharistic.  In a Church which has finally come to a clearer understanding of the universal call to holiness, the AOP provides an avenue for the sanctification of one’s life in the midst of the world.  In an age when globalization continues to shrink the world and makes us aware that we are truly neighbors and in solidarity with the whole human family, the AOP places us in a fraternity of prayer with men and women in every corner of the globe, praying for intentions which are universal in scope.  In a world marked by a great yearning for peace and justice, the AOP provides us with intentions focused on the most pressing needs of social justice throughout the world.  In an age of increased secularization which has resulted in a fervor for a new evangelization, the AOP fosters a missionary spirit among its members. 

            "Perhaps these are some of the reasons why there is a renewed interest in the AOP among so many young Jesuits.  But, in truth, I think there is a deeper and simpler reason, a reason which has been articulated time and time again by Jesuit spiritual writers, by countless Father Generals, and recently by men such as Pedro Arrupe and Karl Rahner: devotion to Christ’s Heart is something essential to the Society of Jesus.  Thus as something essential, as long as there are Jesuits, there will be a zeal for spreading the message of love of the Sacred Heart. 

"While for a time it may have appeared to be on the wane, interest in the Sacred Heart among Jesuits is not disappearing.  No, to the contrary, it appears to be growing.  In one of his last and most famous letters to the Society, “Rooted and Grounded in Love,” Pedro Arrupe stated:  “I am convinced that there could be few proofs of the spiritual renewal of the Society so clear as a widespread and vigorous devotion to the Heart of Jesus.”  I pray that this saint’s words were prophetic and that interest in the Sacred Heart among young Jesuits is indicative of a greater spiritual renewal in the Society of Jesus.  For as always, the world is in great need of knowing the love of Christ’s Heart.  May Jesuits always be at the forefront of spreading this love to the whole world."   


Homily for Lent, Third Sunday, Cycle C

Do you ever pray when you read the newspaper?  Or watch the evening news?  In today's Gospel (Luke 13: 1-9) we get the 1st Century equivalent of this.  News spread by word of mouth back then and "some people told Jesus about" two tragic events.  In Galilee, where Jesus was raised, the Roman governor Pilate killed some Jews as they were offering a religious sacrifice.  Their blood "mingled with the blood of their sacrifices."  And in Jerusalem, eighteen people were killed "when the tower at Siloam fell on them."  Reflecting on this, the people sharing these news stories with Jesus wondered what sins these victims must have committed to have warranted such punishment from God.  Jesus tells them that they've got it all wrong.  God doesn't punish in this way.  

I grew up with an image of God that was very negative and I can pinpoint where that image was planted in my consciousness. I was about five and my extended family had gotten together to visit my grandparents.  As the adults were conversing around the large (at least to a boy) dining room table, I was chasing my cousin Ronny. My father told me, "Cut it out," and being the good boy I was, I obeyed him.  But when the adults got busy again with their conversation, I poked Ronny and he poked me and we started fooling around again.  As I chased him I slipped on the rug, fell, and hit my head on the table and started crying.  My father said to me: "See! God punished you!"  In that moment God became a policeman just waiting to catch little boys when they were misbehaving, and the jury and judge who would pass sentence on them, and the executioner--all rolled into one.  

This is not the God Jesus reveals to us. Not the God Jesus teaches us about.  We are not punished for our sins but by our sins.

God's creation has built-in laws.  They give order to creation.  They're not imposed from outside nor are they arbitrary.  God's laws are part of the nature of things.  For example, physical creatures follow the law of gravity. Humans are free to rebel against that law.  Now, we're not talking about flying in an airplane which still follows the laws of physics. We're talking about someone who decides the law of gravity is too restrictive and launches him or herself off a high place in order to fly.  They wouldn't break the law which is still there.  They would break themselves.  That wasn't God punishing them, but God maintaining the order of the universe and allowing them to suffer the consequences of their foolish choice.  

But humans are more than physical beings. We are made in the image and likeness of God.  We are spiritual.  And just as there are physical laws that govern us because we are physical, so there are spiritual laws that govern us as well.  They are part of nature and are for our good and the good order of the universe.  If we choose to rebel against those spiritual laws, we end up hurting our relationship with God. We end up hurting others and ourselves.  That's not God punishing us, but allowing us to experience the natural consequences of our foolish choices.  

Sin hurts.  This is why Jesus, in the Gospel, warns the people to repent lest they perish.  And worse than hurting oneself physically is hurting oneself spiritually, being alienated from God and God's other children, possibly forever. 

In the first reading from Exodus chapter 3, God comes to Moses as fire in a burning bush. God reveals the Divine Name. God is "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob."  God is the God of merciful faithfulness. 

In a recent interview book, "The Name of God is Mercy," Pope Francis says that going to the Sacrament of Reconciliation is not like going to a dry cleaner to get some stains removed.  Sin goes deeper. Sin wounds and the Sacrament is designed to heal the deep wounds, the consequences of sin. 

In the Sacrament we encounter the merciful and sacred Heart of Jesus.  Images of the Sacred Heart portray a heart on fire with love.  The Letter to the Hebrews 12: 29 says that "our God is a consuming fire."  The fire of God's love brings healing to the sinner and destroys or consumes sin.  It is a purifying fire.  

We encounter the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the Eucharist and in all the Sacraments.  Not only does the fiery love of this Heart purify us.  It transforms us so that we in our turn can bring mercy into the world.  One practical way that we can do this is to pray when we read the newspaper or watch the news. Rather than getting negative and angry, we can pray and ask God to be merciful to the people and situations that we see.  Mercy is not only to be received; it's to be shared.  In sharing it we will show ourselves to be faithful and merciful children of the Father and members of the Body of Christ.

The Transfiguration

(C) Ingram publishing / Getty Images

(C) Ingram publishing / Getty Images

On the First Sunday of Lent we see Jesus in the desert battling temptations.  On the Second Sunday of Lent we see him on the mountain basking in the glory of God.  The two Sundays are a paradigm of our life which is a series of ups and downs.

In 2006 I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with forty-six others.  We went to Mt. Tabor, traditionally viewed as the place of Jesus' Transfiguration.  Our tour bus was large and unable to go up the narrow winding road to the top of the mount.  We disembarked and took several of the vans or mini-buses that carried pilgrims to the top.  It was easy to understand how the three apostles who were with Jesus fell asleep after the long climb.  But our journey was easy and so we were wide awake for the beautiful view to the south and for the Mass we celebrated there in one of several churches.  

Jesus often went to a hill or high place to pray.  There seems to be a human instinct that leads us to encounter God in the heights.  The Lakota Sioux went to mountains and high buttes for their vision quests.  It was on Mt. Horeb (traditionally identified with Mt. Sinai) that Moses encountered God in the burning bush and received the covenant commandments.  The prophet Elijah went to this same mountain where he encountered God not in fire or a mighty wind or an earthquake, but in "a tiny whispering sound" (1 Kings 19: 11-12).  

Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, turn up at Jesus' Transfiguration. They speak with Jesus about "his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem" (Luke 9: 31).  Jesus had just been telling his apostles about this "exodus"--that the "Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised" (Luke 9: 22).  He followed this teaching with one about discipleship: "If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Luke 9: 23).  The way to glory is not easy.  

St. Peter wanted to construct tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.  He would like them, and we can assume, himself and the two brothers James and John, to remain on the mountaintop. He would like to hold on to the glory and avoid the struggles that are part of the plains and valleys of life.  But Jesus could not remain there.  He had work to do--the work of our redemption. 

Life is a series of ups and downs, mountaintop experiences and valleys.  We would like to remain on the mountain, but we cannot. We must live in the broken world and share others' burdens and sorrows.  We must deal with our own.  Every so often we may have a mountaintop experience, or as St. Ignatius Loyola called it, consolation.  But it will pass.  When it comes, St. Ignatius says in his Rules for Discernment of Spirits, we should savor the peace and the joy in order to strengthen ourselves for the inevitable valleys of life.  Then, when the valleys or, as he puts it, desolations, come, we will be strong. We will remember that the desolation too will pass.

Jesus' Transfiguration was a taste of glory before the battle.  The consolations God sends us serve a similar role.  They remind us of the joy of heaven that will never end.  

Back to the pilgrimage: after celebrating Mass and touring the various churches and taking one last look at the plain to which we would be returning, we got on the minibuses for the trip down the mount. I suspect the drivers got a perverse pleasure out of scaring pilgrims as they raced around tight corners at breakneck speeds during the descent.  All one could do is trust them and their driving skills.  

That's a final lesson of the Transfiguration: trust.  As Jesus surrendered himself into the loving hands of the Father, trusting that his suffering and death would lead to his glory, so do we followers of Jesus strive to trustingly surrender.  As St. Paul wrote: "Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body..." (Philippians 3: 20-21).  If we let him, Jesus will lead us on an exodus from this world to the mountaintop of heaven where we will share in his glory.

Homily for Third Sunday Ordinary Time Cycle C

In the first reading at Mass today, the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C (Nehemiah 8: 2-10), the scribe/priest Ezra addressed the Israelites after their return from exile.  For hours he read to them the Law, the covenant God had made with them. Their reaction?  Sadness.  Discouragement.  They realize they had not followed the covenant, the mutual love that would bring them peace and happiness.  

But Ezra tells them: “Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength!”  He tells them not to look back or dwell on the past.  Look to the present moment when the people have gathered to express their desire to be faithful to the covenant.  On this present moment, build your future.  Be mindful of God’s faithfulness and have hope.

This hope was eventually fulfilled by Jesus who faithfully lived Israel’s covenant of love.  In the gospel (Luke 4: 14-21), Jesus returns to his home town of Nazareth after being baptized in the Jordan and battling Satan in the desert. Over the years he was accustomed to reading in the synagogue there. Handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus looked for the passage (61: 1-2) where the prophet spoke of his mission.  

After reading these words of hope and joy, Jesus did a shocking thing.  He applied the words to himself. He declared that they were being fulfilled by him.  He is the one of whom Isaiah wrote.  The authority with which he speaks is backed up by the deeds that he will soon perform—physical and spiritual healings that reveal the freedom of which Isaiah spoke.
This gospel takes on greater meaning for us this year.  This is “a year acceptable to the Lord.”  This Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy is a year of favor.  The Church is called to focus, as Ezra did, on the present time in which God will shower his mercy on the world if we but let him.  Now is the time for us to experience God’s mercy in a deeper way and to share that mercy with the world through works of mercy.  

But even more, now is the time for us to witness to mercy by our joy.  More than works, joyful mercy is to be seen in who we are—people of joy in the midst of a world that appears so hopeless.  The loving covenant God made with humanity can be fulfilled because of Jesus who shared our humanity and unites himself to us in one Body, the Church.  As Jesus proclaimed a joyful message during a difficult time in human history—when Israel was occupied by the brutal Romans, when a Jewish puppet king named Herod colluded with the pagan occupiers, and when the Pharisees strove to live the Law perfectly but in a way that separated themselves from the suffering poor and sinners—so we are called to witness to joy and hope.

In his Apostolic Exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis challenged us as Ezra did. He wrote: “One of the more serious temptations which stifles boldness and zeal is a defeatism which turns us into disillusioned pessimists—‘sour-pusses’” (#85).  Various commentators have said that this is probably the first papal document to contain that expression.  But it is an accurate translation of the original Spanish, “con cara de vinagre”—with a face of vinegar.  Our faces are to beam with the joy of knowing that we are forgiven and, like Jesus, are beloved sons and daughters of God the Father who loves us with an infinite love which nothing can take away.  God’s love, like his mercy, is always offered to us.  God never stops loving because God is Love.  We, however, are the ones who reject God’s love or place obstacles to it in our lives.  Realizing this we should not become saddened like the Israelites, but rather turn to God and receive mercy as the sins we bring to him and confess are removed.  

Christians are joined to Christ who gives them the power to move away from sin and toward the freedom of the children of God.  All of us, members of his Body, have an important role to play in the ongoing work of proclaiming and living the Gospel of Joy.  We may be saddened by our failures, weaknesses, and sins.  But Jesus tells us, as Ezra did, “Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength!”

St. Paul, in the second reading (1 Corinthians 12: 12-30), underscores the reason for our joy.  No matter how small, weak, or insignificant we may feel, we are all part of the Body of Christ.  We all have a role to play.  Reading this passage, St. Therese of Lisieux, who enrolled in the Apostleship of Prayer when she was twelve, became discouraged.  She did not see herself, a cloistered Carmelite nun, in Paul’s list of Body parts—apostles, teachers, those who do mighty deeds or have gifts of healing, those who offer assistance or are administrators or speak in a variety of tongues.  Reading the next chapter of Paul’s letter, the great hymn to love that we will have in next week’s Sunday readings, St. Therese found consolation.

She wrote: “And the Apostle explains how all the most PERFECT gifts are nothing without LOVE. That Charity is the EXCELLENT WAY that leads most surely to God.  I finally had rest. Considering the mystical body of the Church, I had not recognized myself in any of the members described by St. Paul, or rather I desired to see myself in them all. Charity gave me the key to my vocation. … I understood that the Church had a Heart and that this Heart was BURNING WITH LOVE. I understood it was Love alone that made the Church’s members act, that if Love ever became extinct, apostles would not preach the Gospel and martyrs would not shed their blood.  I understood that LOVE COMPRISED ALL VOCATIONS, THAT LOVE WAS EVERYTHING, THAT IT EMBRACED ALL TIMES AND PLACES …. IN A WORD, THAT IT WAS ETERNAL!  Then, in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: O Jesus, my Love …. my vocation, at last I have found it…. MY VOCATION IS LOVE!  Yes, I have found my place in the Church and it is You, O my God, who have given me this place; in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I shall be Love. [Emphasis in original]

St. Therese shows us that no one is insignificant nor is any moment of life meaningless.  We are filled with joy because we know that united to the Sacred Heart of Jesus burning with love, we too can be love in the heart of the Church and in the midst of the world.  This love, the love with which Jesus offered himself on the cross for the salvation of all, will enter today’s world through us.  It is the only power capable of overcoming the violence and darkness we see around us.  It is, as Therese wrote, “EVERYTHING” and “ETERNAL.”


The Wedding Feast of Cana

On February 11, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, we celebrate the annual World Day of the Sick.  It’s a day on which we pray in a special way for those who carry the cross of illness and for those who care for them.  Each year the Holy Father writes a message for the occasion and this year he reflected on the Wedding Feast of Cana.

He said that the “wedding feast of Cana is an image of the Church: at the center there is Jesus who in his mercy performs a sign.”  The miracle or sign reveals Jesus’ divine power and anticipates the heavenly wedding feast where union with God will be consummated.

Human beings, made in the image and likeness of God who is a Trinity of Persons, are made by Love itself and for Love. We are created for union with God and the Communion of Saints. This union and communion begin here on earth at the Eucharist where the Son of God unites himself to us.  It is a marriage in which the two, Jesus and each individual, become one flesh. Joined to Jesus, we are also united to one another in the one Body of Christ. 

Jesus made this possible when he took flesh.  Early theologians spoke of the marriage of humanity and divinity—two natures—in the one person—Jesus. The fruit of this marriage is eternal life.  Jesus made a total gift of himself on the cross and he anticipated this gift at the Last Supper when he said “This is my Body given for you. Take and eat.”  It is as though he said: “Make me one with you.  Become one with me.” 

Knowing such love, this total gift of self, the natural response is to want to give a gift in return. The only gift that can come close to Jesus’ gift to us is a total gift of ourselves. The best gift we can give to him is the precious gift of time.  We live in time.  It represents our earthly existence. When we run out of time, that’s the end of our life on earth.  

In the Daily Offering we give God the gift of time, the gift of our lives. Every moment is made a gift, even our recreation and our sleep.  We do those for our health, to take care of God’s gift of life.  We can, as St. Paul put it, “do everything for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10: 31). 

What we offer God may seem small, insignificant.  Not for God.  Jesus invited the apostles to help him and he invites us.  He wants our help no matter how small it seems because in his hands what is small becomes great.  This is a typical pattern for Jesus.  In his hands, five loaves and two fish feed thousands.  Water becomes an abundance of the finest wine. 

In his Message for the 2016 World Day of the Sick, Pope Francis reminds us that our lives are significant to Jesus and that the “toil and sufferings like the water which filled the jars at the wedding feast of Cana,” by being offered to God, can “help God to perform his miracles.” 

Here is the pertinent passage:   “He could have made the wine appear directly in the jars. But he wants to rely upon human cooperation, and so he asks the servants to fill them with water. How wonderful and pleasing to God it is to be servants of others! This more than anything else makes us like Jesus, who ‘did not come to be served but to serve’ (Mark 10: 45). These unnamed people in the Gospel teach us a great deal. Not only do they obey, but they obey generously: they fill the jars to the brim.  … On this World Day of the Sick let us ask Jesus in his mercy, through the intercession of Mary, his Mother and ours, to grant to all of us this same readiness to be serve those in need, and, in particular, our infirm brothers and sisters. At times this service can be tiring and burdensome, yet we are certain that the Lord will surely turn our human efforts into something divine. We too can be hands, arms and hearts which help God to perform his miracles, so often hidden. We too, whether healthy or sick, can offer up our toil and sufferings like the water which filled the jars at the wedding feast of Cana and was turned into the finest wine. … If we can learn to obey the words of Mary, who says: ‘Do whatever he tells you’, Jesus will always change the water of our lives into precious wine.” [Emphasis added]

A New Year's Homily

There is an expression, "What's in a name?"  The answer is, "Plenty!"  A name represents the person.  If someone makes fun of your name, you feel bad because you feel that you are being disrepected. 

The gospel (Luke 2: 16-21) ends with Jesus being circumcised eight days after his birth and being given his name.  It's the Greek version of a common Jewish name, Joshua, which means "God saves."  

Our second reading (Galatians 4: 4-7), says that we are adopted by God.  An adopted child receives a new name that indicates a new relationship.  As children of God we can now call God by a new name as well--"Father" or "Abba."  

In our first reading (Numbers 6: 22-27) God tells Moses to invoke his name upon the Israelites.  Moses does so in a strange way.  He declares: "The Lord bless you and keep you! The Lord let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you! The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace!"  Notice, he doesn't actually use a name; rather he invokes God's action.  God is true to his name. His activity flows from the person this name represents--Love.  For "God is Love," as John wrote in his First Letter.

Jesus lives up to his name, "God saves." He lived, suffered, died, and rose, and in that way saved the world.  Mary lived up to her name, the title under which we honor her today--"Mother of God."  She opened her heart to receive God's Word who then took flesh in her and was born.  

We are called to live up to the name which represents our deepest identity--child of God and Christian.  How?  It begins as it did for Mary who, as the gospel tells us, "kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart."  We open our hearts to the mysteries of God's will and Word and in that way we live as God's Christian children.  The world desperately needs us to do so.

Last night many people around the world celebrated.  In some cases people celebrated as though there would be "no tomorrow" in which to deal with the effects of their overdoing it. In many cases people celebrated, happy that the past year with its tragedies was over, and hopeful that the new year would be different.

Christians, as popes from St. John Paul II to Pope Francis have said, are called to be people of hope.  We are not to give in to cynicism or pessimism or despair. Our hope is active, not passive.  One can passively hope that there will be good weather for travel, but there is nothing one can do to realize that hope.  Students who hope they do well on an exam are called to active hope--to work and study in a way that their hopes will be realized.  I can hope that this new year will be better, that justice and peace will grow in the world, and this hope is not an idle or passive hope.  It's quite active.  As the song goes, "Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me."

Today is the 49th annual World Day of Peace. For the occasion, Pope Francis has written a message entitled, "Overcome Indifference and Win Peace."  He began the message with these words: "God is not indifferent!  God cares about humanity!  God does not abandon us!  [emphasis in the original]  What we have just celebrated shows this.  God so loved humanity that the Son of God took flesh, shared in our humanity with its sufferings and death, and overcame them by his resurrection.  Now we are called to cooperate with God who is not indifferent to the world but cares deeply about each individual person. 

With hearts like Mary, open to the action of the Holy Spirit, we overcome indifference, cynical apathy, and the hopelessness that paralyzes us.  Then we can live up to our name and truly be who we have become through baptism--children of God, Christians.

A Christmas Homily

In front of stores, leading up to Christmas, we see people next to red kettles and ringing bells. In West Bend, WI recently there was a popular miniature horse doing the same.  The money which the Salvation Army raised in this way provides a Christmas celebration for many who cannot afford one.  Thousands receive a special meal at the Wisconsin Center in downtown Milwaukee and thousands who cannot leave home receive a meal delivered to them.  It's a beautiful tradition, but it doesn't compare to what God did.

Quoting from 2 Corinthians 8: 9, Pope Francis said: "He became poor, so that by his poverty, you might become rich."  The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity set aside his power and glory. He emptied himself and became poor.  The Pope said: "God's becoming human is a great mystery."  The reason behind it, he said, is one word--"Love."  It's a love that identifies totally with poor humanity.  He continued: "God did not let our salvation drop down from heaven, like someone who gives alms from their abundance."  God became poor.

In other words, the Son of God left his place not to become a bell-ringer asking for help, nor to become a servant, bringing meals to the hungry.  Rather, he became the one in need--in need of shelter when every door was closed to him, in need of safety when a wicked king wanted to kill him, and his family had to flee, becoming refugees and finding a home in Africa, in Egypt. He became the one in need of humanity's love.

This is what inspired St. Francis of Assisi to become "the Poor One."  It's what inspires all who understand the lengths to which God went to prove his love.

The Prologue of John's Gospel (1: 1-18), which is the Gospel used for Mass on Christmas Day, employs a chiastic structure.  Themes in the first verses are repeated in the second half of the passage.  This technique is designed to draw attention to the central verse or idea.  We often think this climactic verse is verse 14--"The Word became flesh"-- but it isn't.  The center of the chiastic structure of the Prologue is found in verses 12 and 13: "But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man's decision but of God."  

We are the focus here.  We are the reason for Christmas.  You and I are the focus of God's attention and love.  God took flesh, became one of us, and shared in the human condition, so that we could become children of God.  God stooped to our level and shared our poverty so that we could rise to God's level and share in the richness of divinity.  As the Collect Prayer at Christmas Day Mass goes: "O God, who wonderfully created the dignity of human nature and still more wonderfully restored it, grant, we pray, that we may share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity."  

This is only possible through grace. Verse 16 is: "From his fullness we have all received, grace in place of grace...."  The grace of God's covenant with the Chosen People is now superseded by the grace of a new covenant meant for all people.  Emptying himself to become one with humanity, the Divine Son has united himself with every human person.  The Second Vatican Council document "Gaudium et Spes" #22 puts it this way:  "For, by his incarnation, he, the son of God, has in a certain way united himself with each man."  

And so we, the baptized who have been born of God and are truly his children, now try to live and love as Jesus did.  Inspired by his total self-giving love, we strive to empty ourselves of self-interest and to put our attention where God put it--our God's other children, our brothers and sisters.  

We do this when we give them the greatest gift--time.  Without time, we have nothing else.  When we run out of time, we come to the end of our lives on earth.  Time is God's gift to us and we show our gratitude by giving time to God and to our neighbors.  When we pray, we share God's loving concern for friends, relatives, and all people, including our enemies.  In our Daily Offering we pray for their ultimate well-being as we offer ourselves with Jesus who continues to offer himself to the Father in the Eucharistic celebration.   Though our offering may seem poor, it is made rich because it is joined to the perfect offering of Jesus.