Monthly Archives: October 2015

Homily for October 25, 2015


I began studying canon law at Catholic University out in Washington, D.C., ‘way back in 1979!  The campus was abuzz with the exciting news of the upcoming visit of Pope John Paul II, who had been elected less than a year earlier.  The Archdiocese of Washington invited all the priests, no matter where we were from, to participate in what was anticipated to be a Mass with a million people on the National Mall, stretching from Capitol Hill west to the Lincoln Memorial.  (They needed help with Communion!)

That Sunday morning dawned and the whole city was in holiday mode.  Buses and subways were jammed.  We waited out in the hot sun for several hours before the Mass started at 4 p.m., but we had interesting seating.  About 3 p.m., bishops and other prelates began entering the Mall through the “checkpoint” right near our chairs.  Sitting among us was a young, rather newly ordained priest from D.C., whom we had already gotten to know as one of the few men to have made it through seminary studies and been ordained while being totally blind.  Father Charlie was of course always accompanied by his beautiful guide dog, and the two of them were a very familiar presence at clergy gatherings in the nation’s capital.

We moved Father Charlie from the third or fourth row back, where he had taken his place, right up to the front row so he could be closer to the action as the excitement was building.  The reaction of most of the bishops and other prelates as they came in and looked down and saw the dog lying there went from puzzled (“How did a dog get in HERE?”) to genuine disdain (“How did THAT get in here?”)  We were chuckling among ourselves, noting the fact that most of them didn’t observe or didn’t seem to have a clue as to what the dog’s purpose was.

Then, all of a sudden, at 3:45, in walked Pope John Paul II, to a growing wave of thunderous cheers from the million or so people as they caught a glimpse of him.  The Pope smiled and waved at us priests, then his eye was immediately caught by Father Charlie and his dog.  The Holy Father went directly over to Charlie and grabbed his hands.  He brought them up to his own face, and let Charlie “see” the Pope with his hands and fingers in a way that none of the rest of us could.  It took Charlie only about five seconds to get his “picture” of the Pope through his sense of touch, but in those five seconds the eyes of all the rest of us were blurring with tears.  “Dear God,” we were saying joyfully to each other, “it took the Pope himself to really recognize what was going on there with Charlie and his dog!  It took the Pope himself to see the truth of the situation.  What a beautiful gesture!!  And all the rest of the bishops came in and were only concerned about protocol.”  And then one of the priests jokingly piped up and said what the rest of us were thinking:  “Shows ya THEY’RE not infallible, doesn’t it?”  We all laughed.  Charlie laughed.  I think his dog laughed.

I think about St. John Paul, and Father Charlie, and his dog whenever we have the story about Jesus and the blind man.  Most of us feel sorry for people who cannot see with their eyes.  Father Charlie could “see” the Pope with his hands and fingers; and yet, how can you “see” something as glorious as a Lake Michigan sunset with hands and fingers?  There are some things that the sense of touch just can’t adequately convey.  Well, now, let’s turn that around.  How can we “see” something as glorious as the Kingdom of Heaven with the eyes of this body?  There’s an infinite number of things that the sense of sight just can’t adequately convey.  Can you imagine the angels and saints saying among themselves, “Poor guys, if they could only see what WE can, they’d understand.  And maybe then they’d make the right choices.”

Well, don’t count on the latter.  Remember Jesus’ warning in the parable about the rich man, and the poor man Lazarus, that if the rich man’s brothers didn’t pay attention to Moses and the prophets, they wouldn’t believe even if someone rose from the dead?  That’s kind of where we’re at.  If we can’t appreciate the beauty and power of God and believe his Word with all the powers of the senses he gives us, we’ve deliberately stifled our vision, whether we see with our eyes or our fingers.  Similarly, we can stifle the vision of our hearts by refusing the vision, the gift of faith, and making up our minds that if we can’t “see” it with our eyes, it doesn’t exist.  And even if we HAVE the gift of faith, how often do we make the wrong choices because we blind ourselves with sin?  How we each need to call out to the Lord with the man in the Gospel, “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!”

And he will!  Our God is so anxious to eternally show us things that “eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it entered into anyone’s heart.”  Whether we “see” with our fingers and hands or with our eyes, the vision that we call faith tells us one thing:  “Child of God, you ain’t seen NOTHIN’ yet!!!”

Homily for October 18, 2015


Well, there was a great opening line in the first reading!  You come to church, and the first thing you hear from God’s Word is, “The Lord was pleased to crush him in infirmity”!  Now is Isaiah the prophet talking about himself?  Or about the Messiah, the Anointed One, who would come some 700 years later?  Regardless of whom he’s speaking, it’s a pretty dismal way to get anyone to sign on to being part of God’s people, don’t you think?  What kind of God is PLEASED to crush anyone in their infirmity?

If it seems monstrous, think about taking your child to the dentist.  A cavity has to be filled, a tooth has come in crooked and needs to come out because it’s crowding the other teeth, and so on.  Your child, no doubt, is having thoughts similar to Isaiah 53, only about YOU!  What kind of monster would drag a child to the torturers, who will only make things worse by pretending that “this won’t hurt a bit.”  The child imagines that he hears, through his screams, the doctor’s voice saying, “We’ve got to make him stop writhing!  Nurse, give those thumb screws a quarter turn!  And tighten that neck brace!”  And then, “We’ve got to numb the gum so you won’t feel a thing,” as the dentist approaches with an evil smirk, holding a harpoon that would send even Moby Dick to the ocean floor.

Like God, you too are pleased (in a way) to take your child to the dentist.  You know that the momentary pain and discomfort, your child’s and your own, will have a satisfactory result:  better dental and overall health.  Only a real monster would let the child continue on without care, letting teeth rot and fall out.  “I’m 19 years old,” says the young man through a checkerboard grin, “and I’ve never been to a dentist.”  Nor likely ever had a date!  No pain, no gain.  And that’s the way it is with God.  He is pleased to crush his Anointed One in infirmity, because that stark reality of human and divine suffering undertaken for our salvation is the only way we can be “bought back” — REDEEMED — and come home to the eternal Kingdom which God has prepared for us.

What’s true of the Messiah himself is true of all of us, his disciples.  Like James and John the apostles, who approach Jesus in the Gospel with a special request, we might be inclined to mistakenly think that all will go well for us if only we cast our lot with Christ.  “Can you drink the cup from which I shall drink?”  “WE CAN,” they reply enthusiastically, thinking no doubt of feasting at a glorious banquet table in the Messiah’s royal palace.  Oh, there WILL be a great banquet table, and there WILL be a feast; but in order to get THERE and enjoy it, you first have to have your teeth fixed, so there will be the trip to the dentist, or its equivalent.  Indeed, you see, the landscape is littered with the broken spiritual shards of once-faithful Christians who have turned away from Christ out of disappointment.  “I prayed and prayed, and nothing happened!”  “God dealt me a rotten hand in life.”  “Why did God make my parent/child/friend suffer so?”  How could they have ever gazed at a crucifix as a disciple of Christ and NOT thought that they would follow in his steps — to resurrection indeed, but first to Calvary.

There is great wisdom to be gained in the devotion which is represented all the way around the walls of every Catholic church, including our own:  the Way of the Cross, or the Stations of the Cross.  This beautiful prayer is a series of meditations on the sufferings of Christ, most often in prayers composed to ask God’s help in our own sufferings; and comparing us who DESERVE chastisement for our sins to Christ, who in his innocence took all our guilt upon himself, all the way to the cross.  One of the main points of the Stations is that Christ does what he does out of love, and we follow in his steps out of love:  not only making the Stations in church, but making the Stations in our own lives, with all of our various sufferings offered with Christ for the salvation of the world.  We are, after all, a priestly people.  Just how did we expect to do that sacrifice-thing without any discomfort?

So even if our question is, “How can God just stand by while innocent children suffer?’ the answer comes from God himself:  “How can YOU just stand by while my Son, the innocent Lamb, suffers for your sins?  Being his disciple means joining him on the cross, not because I demand it,” says God, “but because it’s the only way you will appreciate how costly your sins are.  Indeed, they can lure you right out of the eternal Kingdom I want to share with you.  So join him, my dear child, in his offering.  Never underestimate the power and value of the Eucharist.  When you hear the words in this Mass, ‘Pray, brethren, that MY sacrifice and YOURS may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father,’ realize that your priest is not only speaking for himself, but is already speaking in my Son’s name, and that you are joining your trials and troubles to the greatest Sacrifice of all, for the salvation of the world.”

What a privilege it is to share in the name and the mission of Christ our High Priest, and to walk with him daily, in the light — and in the shadow — of the Cross!

Homily for October 11, 2015


Wisdom!  Maybe there’s no word, other than “love,” that’s so misunderstood and abused.  We believers know wisdom as the first of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  It’s not necessarily the first to be received, acquired, or appreciated, but it is definitely first in order of importance.  With wisdom, all the other gifts and all of our priorities fall into their proper place.  Without it, it doesn’t matter what other gifts we have, we shall still find ourselves sadly deficient.  Just as with the sacraments, all the others lead to the Eucharist and derive their meaning and power from the Eucharist, so it is with wisdom and the other gifts of the Holy Spirit.

We’re all familiar with the expression “wise guy.”  That, of course, has nothing to do with wisdom, but with sarcasm or a mockingly sharp wit.  A person can be well endowed with a biting sense of humor and still not be wise, especially when the bite leaves emotional teeth marks, either deliberately or inadvertently.

If we confuse wisdom with a kind of perspicácity, a kind of detached overview of the world and its affairs, well, that’s the kind of overview — or overSIGHT — which agnostics attribute to God as they understand him:  cool, uninvolved detachment, bordering on lofty disinterest.  But that’s not OUR God, and that’s not the Holy Spirit’s gift of wisdom.  Our God is incarnational.  When we screw up, he is anxious to help us recover.  He gets right down into our nitty-gritty, even to the extent of plunging into his creation and becoming one of us — “even unto death,” as St. Paul says, “the death of the cross.”  So much for divine detachment!

Wisdom cannot be equated with knowledge.  There are lots of smart people who have sworn off any belief in God as a figment of crippled imaginations.  They know a lot, in terms of facts and figures, but they aren’t willing to let go and have FAITH, without which they can have no really productive imagination at all.  Without faith, all their factual knowledge and problem-solving ability is like rats finally discovering how to get out of the maze — only to discover that there’s nothing else!  They repeat the original sin of thinking that they can create their own paradise, only to discover that it’s eternally elusive without the love of its Creator.  Without faith, what’s the point of everything else?

Wisdom is not the same as understanding, certainly not in the worldly sense.  A politician, for instance, or a tycoon, or a combination of the two, might be cunning, shrewd, calculating, expert at reading others, being able to immediately detect strengths and weaknesses, and knowing how to use them for his or her own purposes.  They understand a lot — too much, even.  But they employ that understanding in a very self-serving way rather than in genuine PUBLIC service.  Even though they see all the connections and are very skilled at bringing others on board with their schemes, all this is ultimately used to create a new universe centered on them and their agenda.

Wisdom is not raw power.  It’s not even INTERESTED in power.  Wisdom is content with truth, and is convinced of Jesus’ words, “The truth will set you free.”  While wisdom can inspire us to be clever in PRESENTING the truth, that is much different than being conniving or compelling.  Wisdom knows that the truth can speak for itself, and that we are only its servants.  “Behold the handmaid, the servant, of the Lord. . .”

Wisdom surely is not the same thing as worldly success or keeping the rules.  The rich young man who comes to Jesus in the Gospel has done well, both materially and spiritually.  He’s a good man, obeying all the rules while becoming well-to-do at the same time.  He’s definitely not a crook.  But he lacks wisdom.  When Jesus shows him the path to genuine life, he can’t tear himself away from the comfort of his stuff.  Wisdom would help him let go and realize that, no matter what our circumstances might be, only ONE thing is necessary.  That’s what our first missionary here in Grand Rapids, Father Frederic Baraga, exemplified.  Leave the stuff behind, and just show others the love of Christ.  Rich or poor, we all have baggage we don’t need.  That’s wisdom.

So little Anna, who is being baptized today, is being introduced into the wisdom and love of God.  We pray that we won’t get in the way of helping her grow in these gifts which are planted in her.  And we pray that we ourselves might know the difference between genuine wisdom and all those false brands of wisdom touted by the world around us.  Just knowing there’s a difference, and acting upon it — well, that means we fear and appreciate God’s judgment more than the world’s.  And as God’s own Word tells us in at least three different places, “The fear of the Lord is the BEGINNING of wisdom.”  Let’s begin again, by standing and being in awe at his presence among us.

Homily for October 4, 2015


Wouldn’t it be something if this were the last time we could hear these particular readings proclaimed aloud in church?  Wouldn’t it be something if some district judge, at the promptings of the executive branch through the Department of Justice, declared that proclaiming these readings constituted “hate speech,” and was a punishable offense?  You can laugh at the thought of it — but what did you laugh at last year, or the year before, or ten years ago, that has in fact now become a constitutional right?

The attacks on marriage with which we are now graphically familiar began many years ago, and not, as you might think, by those who pressed for the government to allow marriage to be defined as something other than between a man and a woman.  It was, in fact, when we allowed marriage to become privatized, when we took it out of the context of the community, when we failed to see that the health of the whole community DEPENDED upon the health of our individual marriage commitments, that marriage became something “just between the two of us,” in which no one else had any interest.

The results of this privatization are all around us.  When marriage becomes a private matter, so then does the family, so do children, so does our sense of responsibility.  Sixty years ago, in the years after World War II, thousands of suburban homes were built to accommodate the returning G.I.’s and their families, the “baby boomers.”  Those homes often were missing a feature that had characterized American homes for decades — a front porch!  People began to socialize in the BACK yard, with people of THEIR choosing whom THEY had invited.

The next generation, the children of the baby boomers, went from the backyard to the basements, and to their play stations, and rarely came outdoors.  The sandlot ball fields are empty, public swimming pools have dwindled in popularity and in number.  As these young people reach maturity, they are riveted to their “social communication” devices rather than to what is going on around them, they are involved in partnerships of convenience, and they live in apartment complexes where they might not know the names or even the faces of those who live a few feet away, behind mutual walls of privacy.

How we have evolved in a few decades from a community-oriented society where people were involved in each other’s lives to a quite solitary existence from which we emerge only by our own choice?  Is it any wonder that one after another, those who mow down their fellow human beings on college campuses or in theaters or other public places are so often characterized as “loners”?  It’s frightening to think that, inadvertently to be sure, we have created a generation of Frankenstein monsters who continue to lash out at a society that has helped to imprison them in a cold, lifeless, unrelational world.  In their worst form, these people appear as mass murderers, anxious to have someone notice them at least in their own suicidal actions.  But in a less violent form, aren’t these also the “metrosexuals,” those whose imitations of actions and relationships which should be meaningful and defining are instead casual, fleeting, and non-committal?  In such a rootless world, what difference does it make whether your partner is male, female, or undecided?  And when even parents and grandparents might be heard to sanction any form of behavior by saying, “Well, who’s to say whom they should love,” don’t expect the teachings of any church to have a profound impact on more than a handful.

The Pharisees brought such a problem to try to trap Jesus.  If he said “No” to divorce, he was technically going against the law of Moses, who had allowed it in exceptional circumstances.  If he said “Yes,” they could denounce him to the Roman authorities as an anarchist, upsetting the established order and family life.  Either way, Jesus was finished, so they thought.

Instead of getting locked into the arguments of the Pharisees of then and now, Jesus takes them back, before the Supreme Court, before the Constitution, before the Mosaic Law, to the BEGINNING OF CREATION, to look at how GOD made it.  God puts the imprint of his own self-giving, creative, divine love onto matrimony.  Man and woman are both necessary to “image” God and to share in the self-sacrificial action of procreation, and their loving union expresses God’s own love within the Trinity as well as God’s covenant, enduring love of his people.

All this is lost upon those who have suffered from the privatization of marriage.  “Who are YOU to tell ME?” is the arrogant question posed by anyone who is disturbed at the thought that marriage might not be infinitely adaptable to any configuration our little pea-pickin’ hearts desire.  Because WE are not so infinitely adaptable.  St. Paul reminds us in First Corinthians that “we are not our own.”  We have been created, we have been redeemed, and yes, we have been sanctified.  We shall be eternally restless until our hearts rest in the One who has created us, whether WE choose to believe in him or not.