Monthly Archives: February 2016

Homily for February 28, 2016



It was 1977, my first year preaching on this particular set of readings from the “C” Cycle in the Lectionary.  A jolly and rather outspoken fellow came up to me after Mass and congratulated me on my perhaps-too-long homily.  “Father, you really exemplified the Lord’s parable from the Gospel today.”

I was elated at the apparent praise.  “Really?” I asked, eager to hear more.

“Yes,” he went on, “you not only preached about the fig tree, you actually put it into practice!”

Now a little confused, I asked with more sincerity, “Oh?  How was that?”

“Well, you proved the truth of what the Lord said about the fig tree.  Throw enough manure at ‘em, and maybe they’ll grow!!”  And needless to say, he didn’t say “manure.”  As he walked away, he let out a hearty laugh.  And so did the others who had been standing around listening.  My bubble of elation had been speared by a healthy dose of humility and humor, one of many which the Divine Physician has prescribed for my spiritual well-being over the years.

It becomes easy to take a lot of things for granted about our faith.  The Israelites were always in need of having their faith stirred up, because it was so easy for them to revert to or copy the ways of the pagans who lived all around them.  Whether it was the Israelites in Egypt or in Palestine, or the early Christians mingled throughout the Roman Empire, or the Lord Jesus ever in the cross-hairs of the Pharisees and scribes, those who proclaim and embrace the faith are always unwelcome by many in the societies in which they live.  We dare not fool ourselves, either.  No matter how many of our politicians or would-be leaders end their speeches with solemn invocations of “God bless America,” we need to keep in mind Jesus’ words, “By their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:20).  And there’s a lot of rotten fruit hanging from each of the three branches of government these days.

But it’s unfair to pick on just the government.  Our elected and appointed leaders, by hook or by crook — pardon the expression — come from among US.  As a French philosopher (Joseph-Marie de Maistre, 1753-1821) said, “Every nation gets the government it deserves.”  And that shows that we are ALL in need of Redemption, and of Salvation, the active acceptance of Redemption.  As St. Paul recalls of the Israelites, they were all led by Moses, under the cloud, through the sea, eating and drinking from the same spiritual food and drink.  And yet, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the desert.  I think we can become too complacent in presuming on God’s mercy:  “Well, I’m not all that bad.  I haven’t killed anybody.”  And on and on.  We make excuses for ourselves with far more skill than most of us employ in growing in and exercising our faith.  The Apostle warns us of the real possibility of losing what we have been given.  He wouldn’t warn, nor would Christ, if the possibility were not genuine.  That should give us more than a momentary pause.

In the Gospel, we hear what might be the only example of Jesus commenting on current events.  Some people in Galilee executed and their bodies desecrated by mingling their blood with animal blood.  Some people at Siloam dying in the collapse of a tower.  Typical of us in our own headline tragedies:  “What do you make of it?  What do you think they’re being punished for?  What did they do to deserve this?”  And Jesus offers his comment:  Shape up, repent, or the equivalent and worse will happen to YOU!  And then there’s that fig tree.

We have our Eternal High Priest, Jesus Christ, eternally interceding for us sinners with his Father.  His very Blood pleads for us from the Cross.  Even if we have not borne fruit, and we think God’s patience with us must be exhausted, Christ as the gardener jumps in on our behalf:  “Let me work with it real hard for another year, and let’s see what happens.”  What a friend, what a Savior we have in Jesus our Lord, pleading for you, pleading for me!  But my friends, if you don’t give a fig about that, and you refuse to grow in spite of every benefit and opportunity Christ gives you, the ground of the Kingdom can’t be cluttered with those who don’t care to be there.  You are created in God’s image, and that means having a free will.  And you are free to reject the Redemption he has won for you.  You’re even free to not even ignore it!  But you do so at great risk, because the one thing God will not do is fail to respect your free will.  Even your own self-condemnation would be a sign of his respect for you.  Why frustrate his loving invitation to live with him forever?  (SLOWLY: )  Who else — can offer you THAT?

Homily for February 21, 2016


Most of my dad’s friends were in the Fire Department when I was growing up.  Oh, he had other friends, too, but we didn’t see as much of them, because Dad’s days at home were so irregular.  He rarely had a whole weekend off.  Going to a series of anything was impossible, because if it was on six Thursdays in a row, he could only be there for three of them.  That was the erratic life of a fire fighter in those days, and all of us families of fire fighters knew it and understood it.  It helped form life-long bonds among the fire fighters, and among their family members as well.

Most of the fire fighters Dad’s age had been in service during World War II, in one branch of the military or another.  They were part of that “Greatest Generation,” having grown up hard-scrabble fashion during the Depression, off to combat during the war, and then returning home to make a life for themselves and their families.  Their life experiences had made them very inventive, capable, and resourceful.  Get a dozen of them together, telling their stories about growing up and then their war stories, and among them you’d have a dozen guys who could drive just about anything, a couple of carpenters, an electrician, a plumber, a cement man, a bricklayer, a roofer, and half a dozen who quickly caught on to anything they were being taught by the others.  To a young boy who was in constant awe and admiration of them, honestly, I really thought there wasn’t anything they couldn’t do.  If we were out at someone’s cottage and one of them thought you could catch more fish by turning the lake inside out, they’d put their heads together to engineer a sky hook, drop it into the lake, and actually do it.  Or so it seemed to me.  In my eyes, they were heroes.

The effect that had on me was enormous, once I began working with the Department as an Explorer Scout, then as an auxiliary member, and finally as chaplain for these many years.  The fire fighters’ sense of both duty and adventure was infectious.  I found myself in numerous situations which, looking back on it, were very dangerous.  It never occurred to me to NOT be there, because I could look to the right and left of me and see that THEY were there, whether I was or not.  I have always had the utmost confidence that they were and are, in fact, WORTHY of my confidence.

What the heck does all this have to do with the Transfiguration?  Well, Jesus was well aware of his approaching passion and death.  It didn’t even take his divine nature to see what was going on around him.  The chief priests and elders would stop at nothing to make sure “the Messiah” never came.  Keeping the people saying “When the Messiah comes” guaranteed their position and their livelihood.  If the Messiah actually came, they’d be out of a job.  To preserve the status quo, they would pull out all the stops.  Jesus knew the Apostles weren’t going to be able to deal with such an apparent failure.  So he took his three “core” Apostles up the mountain, and the rest is today’s Gospel.  His Transfiguration is to strengthen them for what is to come.  Even if they run away at the word of his crucifixion, the memory of what Peter, James, and John saw on the mountain that day is seared permanently into their minds and hearts.  And they can draw on it later on, in the upper room, or behind locked doors, or out on the lake, or when they behold the risen Lord and begin putting two and two together.  “You’re not just imagining this,” they can tell the others.  “Listen to what happened up on the mountain!  Now it all makes sense!  He really IS who he says he is!”  Because of what they have seen and heard on the mountain BEFORE the crucifixion, they can strengthen the faith of the others AFTER the crucifixion and resurrection.

So, because of what I witnessed and experienced as a young boy, because of the camaraderie and know-how and energy of my dad and his friends and co-workers, I can be strengthened in my own concept of civic duty and my own confidence in the abilities of those who continue to serve as fire fighters today.  I’m not saying they’re perfect.  I’m not saying they don’t make mistakes.  I’m saying I’ll trust their judgment rather than not, because I know them to be right most of the time.  The Apostles came to know that Jesus was right ALL of the time, that what he said is absolutely TRUE, and that complete faith and confidence in him is NEVER misplaced.  AND they make it their mission to tell US all of that.  Will you accept what they have seen and heard as true?  They, and thousands of others right to our own time, have shed their blood and given their lives so YOU can put your complete faith and confidence in Jesus and in his Church, his Bride.  They promise you with their blood and His that you can never go wrong by doing so.  So let go, and let God.  And continue walking with Jesus to YOUR Calvary.  He’s with you through it all, all the way home.

Homily for February 14, 2016


I didn’t have my first puff on a cigarette until I was in seventh grade.  It was out at the Garfield Park ice rink, in weather much like this.  I had gone there to skate, and met up with bunches of my classmates from St. Francis Xavier.  I was surprised to see a good friend of mine smoking.  I could tell he was glad to see me see him smoking.  He kind of showed off and played it cool.  I had seen enough people smoking by then that I could tell he wasn’t inhaling, but he was still playing it cool.  “Try it?” he asked.  “It’s neat when it’s cold like this, it keeps your mouth warm.”  That didn’t sound like a very good reason, and didn’t even sound TRUE, but, yeah, I took a puff.  One puff.  Nothing bad happened.  It just didn’t do a thing for me.  Didn’t make my mouth warm.  Didn’t make me feel cool.  Just made me feel kind of dumb that I was such a pushover for an empty temptation.  I didn’t have another smoke until my junior year of high school, and even then, it was for the same dumb reasons.  Friends.  Peer pressure.  Looking cool.  All REALLY IMPORTANT STUFF!

Most of us don’t commit sin because of some really serious reason.  Most of the time it’s as empty and false a promise as, “I’ll give you all this, if you’ll only bow down and worship me.”  True, there ARE people who actually worship Satan, but they’re very few in number.  There are far more of us who get roped into the snares of the evil one by the world and the flesh.  How did THAT happen?  Didn’t God make his creation GOOD?  How did the world and the flesh get corrupted to become major sources of temptation?  Let me let you in on something:  THEY didn’t get corrupted.  WE did, and it was our own darn fault.

Neon lights, alcohol, lottery tickets, tobacco — so many of the things that we identify with “the world” are really quite neutral.  Some of them are even beneficial, if used purposefully in moderation.  Well, what about “the flesh”?  God made us body and soul in his image.  That’s good!  In his likeness.  That’s good!  He made us male and female to express our passionate love for one another for the continuation of the human race so that our children would not only be conceived but FORMED by love.  That’s all good.  He gave us food and drink and the talents to prepare them so that we could not only sustain life with nourishment but be DELIGHTED by it at the same time.  That’s all good!

So when we say that our major temptations all come from the world, the flesh, and the devil, we’d better take note that Satan takes great comfort in having us think that the world and the flesh are bad.  It takes the heat off HIM, in a hellish sort of way.  The bad comes about because with our free wills, WE CHOOSE to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and bad rather than just be aware of its presence.  There’s nothing wrong with knowing that we have the power to make choices that would harm us.  Holiness doesn’t in any way consist of being naïve.  Mary’s question to the archangel Gabriel at the Annunciation, “How can this be, since I do not know man?” certainly shows that she understood the conception of children, and is simply a matter of asking direction in how to accomplish what the angel has told her.  Her holiness lies in her eagerness to be the Lord’s handmaid, not in blinding herself to human realities.  She freely places her will completely at God’s disposal, in contrast to our all too frequent tendency to blind ourselves to the miraculous possibilities of plunging into God’s love — and choosing our own wills instead.

Why is this so important?  Because it is our proper posture before God.  It is the only way to true, genuine, and eternal life.  In the first reading, we heard Moses instructing the people how to pray when they brought their individual offerings to the Lord:  “Having set them before the Lord your God, you shall bow down in his presence.”  Do you want good posture?  Well, bowing down in God’s presence is the most important posture you can assume.  Bow down in his presence.  Not to the world.  Not to the flesh.  Not to the evil one.  Only to the one who created them all, and you, too.  Now wait, did I say that God created the evil one?  Yes, he created that being, that angel who was first called Lucifer, “the light bearer.”  But merely bearing the light was unfortunately not enough.  Bearing the light, this angel became blinded by pride, of its own free will.  How different is its exclamation, “I will not serve!” from Mary’s humble, “I am the handmaid of the Lord.”  It’s all in the posture.  It’s ALL the difference.

“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved,” St. Paul tells us as he quotes the prophet Joel.  The 40 days of Lent invite us to get back to the basics of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, penitential practices designed to clear our muddled thinking and open our hearts to the outpouring of God’s love, mercy, and grace.  Why be stubborn in our sins when the Father wishes only our eternal life?  We have nothing to fear.  And NOTHING to lose.

Homily for February 7, 2016


Last week we heard what we as Christ’s prophetic people can expect to face if we are true to our vocation to teach the world in his name.  We can expect ridicule and rejection.  If by chance some people accept Christ’s word through us, that is not necessarily a sign of success.  It’s great when it happens, but it’s always HIS word, not ours.  Faith is HIS gift, we only witness to it.  Our task is just to present his word and act on it with love.  The Lord himself gives the growth to the seed that is scattered and planted through our prophetic ministry.  And those to whom we witness have the free will to turn us off and turn away at any time, just like we do.

So this week, the Scriptures have a lesson about US.  In the persons of Isaiah the prophet and the apostles Peter and Paul, our patrons, we are reminded of how we are to be if we want to be counted among Jesus’ disciples.  First and foremost, the prophetic disciple must be HUMBLE.  That doesn’t mean being a self-deprecating shrinking violet with low self esteem.  That has NOTHING to do with humility.  Humility is honesty, a true and reasonable assessment of who we are in the sight of God.  If we pretend to be anything else in the sight of men, we are doomed to be called hypocrites.  Oh, we get called hypocrites a lot, anyway; but if we aren’t genuinely humble, our detractors will be right.

Listen to our three holy examples make their professions of unworthiness.  Isaiah cries out on receiving his call from God, “Not me, Lord!!  Woe is me!! I’m a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips.”  That is, “My whole culture is blasphemous, and I’m no better than they are.”  And God says, “Relax, I’ll take care of that.”  And he sends his angel to get a burning coal and purge Isaiah’s profanity from his lips.

St. Paul admits later on in First Corinthians, in Chapter 15, “I am the least of the apostles.  Because I persecuted the Church of God, I’m not even worthy to be called an apostle!”  And God says, “Not to worry.  My grace is sufficient for you.”  And Paul humbly acknowledges that it’s by the grace of God himself that he received his call, even though it took him a couple years in the desert on an extended retreat to get his mind around it.

And then there’s Peter.  They’re all out in the boat.  Jesus finishes preaching and says, “Put out into the deep and lower the nets for a catch.”  Okay, here’s a carpenter telling a veteran fisherman how to fish.  I know how well that would go over in the fire station.  Peter is polite, patiently explaining that they, the experts, haven’t caught a thing all night, “Buuuuut,” he says, perhaps through gritted teeth, “if YOU say lower the nets, we’ll lower the nets.”  How accommodating.  How condescending.  And what happens when they DO lower the nets leads Peter to see what a gasbag he can be.  He falls to his knees and humbly confesses, “Leave me, Lord, I am a sinful man.”

We’ve spoken before about what a wonderful play on words this happens to be in Spanish and in Italian.  In Spanish, Peter says, “Yo soy pecador!” “I am a sinner!”  And Jesus replies, “Peter, tu eres PEScador,” “You are a fisherman, a fisher of men.”  With one little added letter, Jesus effortlessly turns Peter from a sinner into a fisher of men, just as he will turn water into wine at Cana.  And note that he does it without denying the truth of Peter’s confession:  “I am a sinner.”  Jesus knows that, and chooses him anyway.

These are beautiful stories about you and me and all of us, the Lord’s disciples.  Christ knows who we are, and will take all the necessary steps to get us prepped and ready for our mission.  All he needs is our humble cooperation.  We don’t have to pretend to be anything that we aren’t.

We need to recognize a simple truth about ourselves and about each other and all our fellow disciples.  We are deeply flawed.  We are sinners.  That’s why Christ came among us to be our Savior.  We could not help ourselves.   Now, we need to remember that and not be surprised when we encounter sin among our fellow disciples.  This is a Jubilee Year of Mercy, and I think Pope Francis is well aware of what he is asking us, and of how difficult mercy can be when we have been personally hurt or disturbed by sin, even and especially within the Church.  It should grieve us when we hear someone say, “I’ll never forgive Father X or Archbishop Y for what they did.”  Yes, of course, the Church is poorer for their bad behavior or their bad decisions, and sometimes the Church has to take the necessary steps to ensure that a particular evil will not reoccur.  But let’s face it:  the Church is also poorer when the talents and gifts of some of its deeply flawed members cannot be used ONLY because of a spirit of vengeance or a refusal to forgive on the part of the rest of us members who have flaws of our own.

I’m not trying to equate one sin with another here.  That’s not the point.  The point is that each of us needs to examine our own conscience to make sure we are breathing the atmosphere of God’s mercy.  It’s the only way we can individually receive healing, by breathing God’s own breath.  And it’s the only way that the Church, and our society, too, can find healing from our many sins.  We are fellow disciples.  We must be sure that those who have been abused and hurt are being helped to recover, that our children are safe, and that no criminal predator is shielded or protected.  But we must also recognize that not one of our sins, not one, is in any way as important as our common prophetic mission.  Mercy is easy — when I haven’t been affected, when the fault is inconsequential, when I happen to like and love the sinner no matter what.  The real test of the quality of our mercy, the measure of whether it’s like God’s own divine mercy, is when I’VE been hurt, when the sin is horrendous, and when the perpetrator appears unrepentant and unreformed.  That’s when we get a taste of how boundless God’s mercy is, and of how lifelong a task it is for us to learn to imitate it.

Don’t get discouraged.  The effort is worth it.