Sunday, September 30, 2018

NO CHRIST WITHOUT THE CROSS, NO CROSS WITHOUT THE CRUCIFIED (Homily for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Mk 9:38-43, 45, 47-48)

Cutting off hands and feet, gouging out eyes…Jesus uses some rather shocking words in today’s gospel. The Jewish rabbis often used exaggeration as a teaching device in order to drive home an important point. It was precisely that teaching method Jesus was using here. But what point was he in fact trying to make?

Dietrich Bonhoofer, the German Protestant theologian who was murdered by the Nazis in World War II for standing up to Hitler, wrote these lines before his death: 

“When Christ bids you come, he bids you come and die”. 

There is an inevitable dying that comes with following Christ, and a cutting-off of those things that hinder this. Archbishop Fulton Sheen once talked about wanting Christ but not the cross, and Pope John Paul used to talk about the world wanting Christ and being drawn to him, but retreating when it realizes that you can’t have Christ without his cross.
Jesus and his cross are inextricably linked. We must take them both, and not pick one and refuse the other.

The error of Christ without the cross reveals a mistaken view of what the Gospel entails. Too often, it means softening, even lowering the tough demands of Jesus. The pop psychology of the last couple of decades is a clear embodiment of Christ without his cross. Its mantra is: “be good to yourself, love yourself, pamper yourself, you deserve it, you deserve all of it”. It’s the gospel of Oprah and Dr. Phil, not the gospel of Christ.

But is this view completely wrong? Of course not. We should love ourselves and be kind to ourselves. But there’s something missing. Love for ourselves must never neglect the need to challenge ourselves, to be responsible and accountable, to demand that we do what God asks of us.

Detaching Christ from his cross is to buy into the empty promises of quick and easy fixes that we can see in the lives of so many people today. It’s the mentality of the “instant everything”. Forget the painstaking effort, just cut corners, forget commitment and dedication, forget the inevitable challenge that comes with doing something really well. I want it, and I want it now, the easier the better.

To detach Christ from his cross is to take the easy road, the wide road, the road that ultimately leads to nowhere. “The good enough”, says Saint Thomas, “is the enemy of the good”.

But there is also the opposite mistake—that of taking the cross without the crucified. Without Jesus, the cross can deteriorate into a symbol of harshness, of a religion that is too demanding, hard, unforgiving, even unreasonable.

[My old spiritual director, God rest his soul, once told me how, when his mom had become very ill, his religious congregation gave him an option: either to see her before she died, but not attend the funeral, or attend the funeral but not to see her before she died. It was a very painful choice. He told me how he cried and cried on the day of his mother’s funeral, not having been permitted to go back home to his native Belgium. He was a missionary in the Philippines in his late 20’s when she passed away.

Many years later, when his congregation did away with that old rule,  he said he used to ask himself all the time: “What was the point of all that cruelty then? Now we’re allowed to go anywhere! What was the point of not allowing me to be with my family at that most difficult time?”]

To detach the cross from Christ is to become like the Pharisees in Scripture: good men, but harsh, unforgiving, and constantly laying burdens on others which they themselves are unwilling to bear.

Our church, we have to admit, has had episodes of harshness in its history. (Admitting this takes nothing away from our love or commitment to her, in fact it makes us realize how truly holy yet human she truly is.) It’s something we must not forget, so we don’t commit the same mistakes again. To take the cross and neglect the crucified is to forget the very reason why Jesus died on the cross in the first place: to free us from the chains that hinder us from realizing how much God loves us.

In what is perhaps the only major document he issued during his papacy, Albino Luciani, Pope John Paul I, said something very interesting:

God is a Father. The pope said. He demands that we do what is right and be responsible. Like a Father, he is just, rewards goodness and punishes evil. But God is like a Mother as well. He is loving, caring and compassionate. His arms are always open, ready to forgive. 

“When Christ bids us come, he bids us, come and die”. He bids us die to a faith that can be too soft and comfortable, that seeks only ease and convenience. But he also invites us to die to a faith that can be too hard and demanding, that lays burdens too heavy to carry, both on ourselves as well as others. 

“There is no Christ without the cross; there is no cross without the crucified”.


Sunday, September 23, 2018

JESUS IS IN THE EYE OF THE STORM; BUT WE HAVE TO BELIEVE. (Homily for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, St. John Vianney Seminary, Family Weekend, Mark 9:30-37)

On the night the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report came out, I received text message after text message from these young men, these seminarians, your sons. They were texting me about their distress, their anguish, their confusion, their anger and fury, their desire to simply “run away”. To one of them, I replied, “I understand; I want to run away too.” 

Our community: priests and seminarians alike, felt very much distressed in the days that followed, and I felt helpless, not knowing what exactly to say or do. We prayed, supported one another; but the anguish wouldn’t go away.

Then on the 30th of August, my former student, Fr. Phillip Tran is who is Catholic Chaplain at the University of Miami, invited me to give a talk to UM Catholic students about the current crisis in the Church. Feeling this to be a good opportunity for the seminarians to also hear about the situation with their peers in university, I brought all 62 St. John Vianney seminarians along. What we didn’t expect was for there to be almost 150 people in attendance, not just seminarians and university students, but parishioners and guests as well – some from outside Miami even.

The activity was to be a night of prayer and reflection on the current crisis. But after my brief talk, we opened the floor to questions from the audience, and that’s when it all began. I immediately sensed that those who were there weren’t interested in asking questions; no, they wanted to make statements, they wanted to be heard, they wanted us to know how angry and furious and frustrated they were.

I’ve been a teacher more than 20 years and I can tell in the faces and eyes of my students if they believe what I’m saying or not. The folks in the audience that night, were buying nothing of what I was saying, even if what I was telling them were true. No, they were angry; and all they wanted was to be heard.

At one point, a girl began rattling off statistics that she had read from a book – statistics that I knew to be patently false. And I wanted to tell her that. But as she and others spoke, angry, upset, one even shaking as she held the microphone, I looked around and saw your sons, the seminarians, sitting there, bewildered, getting caught up in the storm of emotions that had by now engulfed all of us. We were in the middle of a storm.

It was at that point that I “felt” (I’m pretty sure I just imagined it) a gentle “tap” on my shoulder; and I imagined hearing this voice whisper in my ear: “Let it go. Don’t be afraid. Let them speak. I am here.” 

And so let go I did. I let them speak; one after another they spoke, of heartache, of pain, of their distress and fury, of their feeling of betrayal, all the while these young men, your sons, sat there, the storm swirling about them, as it did all of us.

Strangely enough, as I told them afterwards, from where I stood, there was nothing but calm, tranquility, and peace. We had entered into the eye of the storm. It was a very odd yet remarkable experience. 

[The night did end with all of us singing songs of worship and praying for the Church, for all the victims, for renewal and reform, for greater accountability, and most of all, for healing. And what we all learned was that many Catholics are angry, not because they simply want to be, but precisely because they love the Church.] 

What was even more remarkable though was that when we returned to the seminary late that night, there they were, these seminarians, your sons, a number going into the chapel, kneeling before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. I saw them praying. What was going on in their heads? What was going on in their hearts? I certainly didn’t know.

But what I do know is that in the days that followed, a strange peace and calm came upon the community. The distress subsided, the desire to flee dissipated.

These young men, your sons, stood in the eye of the storm. And as I told them, no other group of seminarians in the entire country, perhaps even the entire world, had stood where we stood. And it changed us; it changed our community. Because in that eye, we encountered the one who alone calms storms. We encountered Jesus.

Our task here at St. John Vianney is to lead these young men into that eye – because in there is tranquility, in there is peace, in there all things rest, in there all is calm; because in there is He who calms all storms, the storms outside us, but most of all, the storms inside us. In there is Jesus telling us: “Do not be afraid.” 

The disciples in today’s Gospel were arguing among themselves. When Jesus asked them what it was all about, they were silent – because they were embarrassed and ashamed of themselves. Why? Because Jesus had just been talking about his suffering and death as a way to fulfill the Father’s will. 

“That’s not possible!” They probably said to themselves. “He is surely going to do something; he is surely going to come up with a way to turn things around, and we will still end up being the victors and conquerors. And when that happens; we shall sit on his left and his right.” And so he says to them, confounding them even more: “The greatest among you shall be the least, the least shall be the greatest.”

They must’ve thought, “What?! This is madness!” How can the greatest be the least and the least the greatest?!” They simply couldn’t understand.

That’s because they calculated; Jesus trusted.

Trust, my dear friends, my dear parents, my dear seminarians, my dear brother priests, trust is the way of Christ. Total and absolute confidence in the Power and Promise of God. Total and absolute surrender and abandonment to His Will and His Will alone.

That is what we are trying to teach your sons, your brothers, your nephews, your cousins, here at St. John Vianney. With that trust and surrender to God’s will, we can move mountains; we can overcome pain and suffering, we can fight evil, we can defend those who suffer, we can protect the young and the innocent, we can, as St. Paul Says, “do all things in Christ who strengthens us.” 

My friends, my dear parents, you are, this weekend, witnesses to a miracle; to something amazing that only God’s grace and providence can do.

Last week, I was told that for the seminary’s plans of expansion to proceed, I needed to procure about $130,000 by the 30th of September, or everything, including the application for accreditation for online degrees with SACS will fall through.

I didn’t know what to do. So I did the only thing I know how to do when faced with something so daunting: I spent time with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and I asked some of your sons to pray like they’ve never prayed before (but I told them never to say anything to anybody).

 I also kept recalling the story of St. John Bosco, the great apostle to the youth, a story I read many times when I was a boy. On the day St. John Bosco died, he had a large debt to the local baker – because he had to feed his boys, and if he had to beg or borrow to do so, he did. If John Bosco could do it, why couldn’t I? If he believed, why couldn’t I? If I had to borrow money to do something that was truly good for the seminary and for these young men, then so be it!

And so I decided to simply work. I spoke to people, I spoke to all of you, I asked for assistance, told of our situation and how things could be permanently turned around for St. John Vianney – so the seminary would be guaranteed a stable and viable future. I told friends we weren't looking for a handout but for a loan, an investment, something we would surely repay because we believed our plans for the seminary would work and we would be able to return whatever they'd lend us.

But then God had other plans. Last night, He answered our prayers. And a kind and generous lady stepped forward once more and became God’s instrument to help St. John Vianney live and thrive for another 60 years and beyond.

[Miracles, you see, do not materialize out of thin air. God uses ordinary things, ordinary means, ordinary people - like ourselves - to make his Presence known, his Promises fulfilled, his Providence experienced. We become, if we only let Him, the very means by which His miracles happen. And that's precisely what took place this weekend. And we are all witnesses to it.]
My dear young seminarians, do not be afraid of the storms that will come your way. Believe. Because if we don’t, what have we to offer people? Believe. Anchor yourselves in Jesus and you will never be afraid. No storm will terrify or move you – because he will always be there, in that eye, standing by your side, telling you:

 “All will be well. Trust. Do not be afraid. I am here."

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)