Monthly Archives: March 2017

Homily for March 26, 2017


A key to understanding what’s going on in today’s Gospel with the man born blind is the first reading from the Old Testament.  God sends Samuel to the house of Jesse, telling him that there he will find the man whom God has chosen as king to replace the unfaithful Saul.  In good faith, Samuel makes human judgments about the appealing features and qualities of each of Jesse’s sons, but God’s voice keeps telling him, “No, not this one. . .  No, not this one, either.”  It seems like they’ve reached the end of the line when Samuel asks Jesse, “Don’t you have any MORE sons?”

“Oh well, yeah, there’s DAVID, but hey, it can’t be HIM, he’s the youngest, he’s just a kid, he’s out looking after the sheep!”  But Samuel orders David to be brought in, and BINGO!  “That’s the one!” God tells Samuel, and they go about anointing him to be the successor to Saul.  Because of the effects of original sin, human eyes don’t instinctively see things the way God sees them.  That takes a lot of faith, and an openness and a willingness to see things in a divine light.  And don’t be thinking that the Pharisees were the only ones or the LAST ones to have trouble with that!

Jesus responds to the Apostles’ question about whose sin has caused the man to be born blind.  We ask questions like that all the time:  “How come bad things happen to good people?  How come God lets innocent children suffer?  What did I do to deserve this?”  And the answer is simply that we do not see clearly enough, with the eyes of the soul, to recognize that God’s glory can be manifest IN and THROUGH suffering and so-called handicaps.  We think that as a society we are so advanced, so sophisticated, that we understand all about everything.  If that’s so, why today are 95% of children in the womb who are identified with Down syndrome put to death in the holocaust of abortion?  When I was a youngster, there were many such children in our midst.  We saw them with their families in stores, at games, on the bus, going off to school, going to work.  As a group, they are loving, affectionate people with personality, varied interests, and lots of insight.  My own brother was a Down syndrome child, but he was stillborn.  Mom and Dad could hardly wait to have a reunion with him in eternity.  But as a society, well — we spend tons of time and money pampering our pets, but why do most people think of a Down syndrome child only as a hardship, or as an interference with the “big plans” for our lives?  Listen to Jesus’ words to the Pharisees:  “You say, ‘WE SEE,’ but your sin remains!”

We each have to ask ourselves, “What are MY blind spots?”  I might have 20/20 vision, and pass every eye exam with the flying colors of an eagle.  That tells me nothing about how I REALLY SEE.  Eyesight is not the same thing as VISION.  Do I see well enough to recognize Christ in the faces and situations of those he enumerates:  the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the imprisoned, the homeless?  Do I see the harm I’m doing by reducing people, male and female, to pornographic images for my own entertainment?  Do I regard any person or group of people as undeserving of my attention or care?  Is there anyone for whom I would even refuse to pray?  If a little examination of conscience like this — think of it as an “I” exam — reveals too many answers that are not God-like, that do not reflect the fact that I am made in the image of my loving and merciful Creator, then I have some work to do.  Let’s face it, we ALL have work to do, until we draw our last breath on this earth.  Jesus urges us to get it taken care of before we enter eternity.

Can you imagine starting off Mass together with a penitential rite in which we really get down to the nitty-gritty?  “I confess to Almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I am often enough a spiritual jackass, and that I need God to dangle a divine carrot in front of me to coax me to improve my vision!”  Maybe with a healthy dose of humility like that, we’d take things like our penitential rite more seriously.  But regardless of the words, we can begin again to see things in the light of Christ, who is the Light of the world.  The Apostle urges us in his letter to the Ephesians to come out and live in the light.  We are called to be public people.  If there’s anything we do or say or even THINK that we wouldn’t want made public, well, there, we have identified our deeds of darkness.  In many of our cases, it will be a lifetime’s work to submit our vision to God and embrace Christ’s light.  But it’s the only way we’re going to come to the perfection of the beatific vision of God himself in the Kingdom he has prepared for us.  “Blessed are the clean of heart,” Jesus says, “for they shall SEE God!”  What a promise!  What a blessing!  What an opening to the dawn of eternal life!  Born in the blindness of original sin, but washed in the saving waters of baptism, you and I have the great privilege of accompanying the people of the world on their earthly journey, and of SEEING them home!

Homily for March 19, 2017


You know how frustrating it is when someone is talking to you on their cell phone and there’s a problem with the signal.  You only hear every other word or so, and have to work hard to figure out what’s being said.  Sometimes we have a similar problem with a radio that’s just a hair off the frequency.  Sometimes we have a similar problem with people.  They might be speaking our own language, the words might all be there, but the conversation just doesn’t make sense.  The Samaritans were kind of like that for the Jews.  They worshiped God, they had many similar rituals, and they held to the Torah, or the Mosaic Law.  But they had built their own temple on their own local mountain, rather than going to worship in Jerusalem on Mount Zion.  What’s called syncretism (SINK-reh-tizm) had also crept in — little bits of the old Canaanite religions and borrowings from other pagan rites.  They and the Jews generally despised each other.  Perhaps that’s why Jesus seemed to have a special attraction to them.

If you were in Jerusalem and you wanted to travel back north to Galilee, as Jesus did, it was hard to avoid Samaria.  The main road ran right through it.  It would be like coming back to Grand Rapids from Detroit without going anywhere near Lansing — you can do it, but it won’t be a convenient or direct route.  So that’s how Jesus and the Apostles wind up in Samaria at Jacob’s well in the heat of the day.  The Apostles go into the town to get some food, and they leave the Master alone at the well to rest a bit.  And along comes a woman to draw water.

Several things are odd.  Why is she coming at noon to get her household water?  Maybe because she knows she’ll be alone, and won’t have to put up with the catty remarks of the other village women?  What would prompt catty remarks?  Well, that comes out in the details of her conversation with Jesus.  She’s had five husbands, and isn’t married to the guy she’s with at the moment.  She’s what the townspeople might call a “public sinner,” maybe even a “tramp.”  She’s surprised that Jesus even speaks to her, and that he asks her for a drink.  It violates two rules of conventional behavior:  men don’t speak to strange women, and Jews don’t speak to Samaritans.  Jesus’ simple request goes beyond the usual boundaries, and his conversation with her quickly becomes a teaching moment.  Here’s a soul who is thirsty, longing for fulfillment, for salvation.  Like Samaria itself, she’s been disappointed in love, many times.  She has to avoid her neighbors to have any peace.  Jesus reveals himself to her as the Living Water, the very SOURCE of Life, infinite refreshment in the desert of earthly futility.

John carefully crafts his Gospel to recall Jesus teaching us that he is the Living Water, the Light of the World, and the Source of Eternal Life.  Water, Light, and Life — these are gifts that we received at baptism, but which we often allow to lose their sparkle, to evaporate, to burn out, and to get smothered by the foolish distractions of the world around us.  Today we have refreshed our knowledge of Jesus as the Living Water.  In the Gospels the next two weeks, he will strengthen our knowledge of himself as Light and Life.  For now, let’s keep in mind that we live in a contemporary Samaria — a society in which many people have only foggy and erroneous notions of God, where rudeness and old enmities are commonplace, where broken homes, broken hearts, and multiple marriages and hookups are for so many just a way of life.  How our society THIRSTS, but goes looking in all the wrong places.  Addictions to porn, to drugs, to alcohol, to food, to gambling, to the stock market, all these are symptoms of that profound, exhausting thirst which only Christ, the Living Water, can satisfy.  The world often has too much baggage to hear anything we TELL them about Jesus.  We have to LIVE and treat them in such a way that we leave them thirsting for more — and that MORE is Christ, not us.

Let’s be clever and inventive about how we do the work of evangelization.  It doesn’t have to be anything spectacular.  Jesus just asked a woman for a drink of water.  For us, it might be a kind word to a clerk at the store, a little extra interest in what that uncle that no one pays any attention to has to say, a quick visit and a smile to someone in the nursing home whom we haven’t seen in a while, a few moments engaging children in some questions and answers about all the wonders of the world around them.  Our baptism has made ALL our words and actions at least POTENTIALLY works of mission, to bring the Living Water that is Christ to a dry and parched world.  As Jesus said, “The fields are ripe for the harvest.”  All they need now is a little irrigation.


Homily for March 12, 2017



Back in 2003 to 2005, there was a TV show named Joan of Arcadia.  The plot line was that an ordinary young girl gets visitations from God in various human forms, and gets directions about what to do in various situations that she confronts.  As little TV as I watch, I don’t think I ever saw a whole episode all the way through.  As I recalled, the plot had already been played out rather definitively in Scripture and in the life of Christ.  The theme song really did it for me:  “What if God was one of us?  Just a slob like one of us, Just a stranger on the bus, Trying to make his way home.”  Now, I know I do my share of somewhat harsh criticism of contemporary culture, but I really thought John 3:16 had taken out the “What if,” and said it a whole lot better:  “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son . . .”  But let’s not expect the world to give us the authentic truth about Christ.  In part, that’s what you came here for today!

The Apostles were doing a lot of discussing among themselves about just who this carpenter from Nazareth, this “stranger on the bus,” really was.  They had seen his miracles.  They had heard his profound teachings, delivered with authority.  They had heard him pronounce forgiveness of sins, something only God could do.  Peter, speaking for himself and the rest, had just professed Jesus to be the “Christ, the Son of the Living God,” without really having a clue about what all that meant.  And in the Transfiguration, Jesus brings Peter, James, and John to a new level of revelation.  Later on, they will have the duty to strengthen the faith of the others by telling them about this experience.  For now, it’s to strengthen THEM for the “scandal” of the Cross, which looms ahead on another mountain.  Jesus tells them to keep the vision to themselves, even though having experienced it won’t keep them from falling asleep on him in the Garden of Olives during his agony — or, except for John, from running away and hiding in fear.

What was the Transfiguration?  We can’t begin to explain it in scientific and physical terms.  Those who prefer to limit their knowledge of Jesus to being a new and improved prophet, a social radical, or a carpenter with aspirations to greatness simply cannot deal with the Transfiguration.  Jesus is always perfectly, completely human and perfectly, completely divine.  He is at once born of Mary in space and time and yet the Eternal Only-Begotten Son of God.  In this wondrous mystery, the divine nature of Jesus Christ shines through his human nature, which usually cloaks the divine.  The Jews believed that no one could actually behold the face of God and live, so in Christ God takes on a human form so we CAN look at him, we CAN see him, and we CAN answer the question, “What if God was one of us?”  It’s already happened, we can tell the writers who worked on Joan of Arcadia.  It’s not a made-for-TV fantasy.

The Transfiguration doesn’t stop there on Mount Tabor any more than the sacrifice of Christ ends on Calvary.  It involves us, just as the crucifixion does.  The divine person and redeeming work of Christ shine through the Church in every age, in spite of the limitations of our human nature.  The Church, the Body of Christ, is not yet in its glorified state; but there are clearly elements of that glory whose brilliance can be detected unless we willfully blind our eyes to it.  The holy ones, the saints, shine like stars in the sky, but not with a self-generated brilliance of their own.  Mary and the great saints of all time will readily acknowledge that they are only reflecting the light of Christ into a world that so badly needs to experience him.

That’s where our OWN call to holiness comes in.  It was in baptism that each of us received that privileged call from God to be a part of this people who is to be his presence in the midst of the human family.  Have you embraced that call?  Do you take it seriously?  Unfortunately, many do not; and that is a loss to them, to the Church, and to the whole world which is longing, hungering for their witness.  Christ’s body was scarred with many wounds, causing the hecklers at the Cross to shout, “If you’re the Son of God, come down off that Cross.”  Christ’s Body, the Church, is likewise scarred by many wounds, the sins of its own members, often causing people to shout, “Hypocrites!  Frauds!  You’re no better than anyone else.”  Just as many could not comprehend how all Christ’s claims of Divine Sonship could be true if he allowed himself to be crucified, many throughout history have not been able to understand how the Church’s claims of divine origin can be true in view of all of our sins.  And they do have a point — but not the final verdict.  “God chooses the weak of this world to confound the strong,” St. Paul tells his Corinthians.  And so it is.  The holiness of the Church is due to Christ, not us.

You and I do not have to save the world.  Jesus, the Messiah, the Anointed One of God, has done that already and for all time.  But his Transfiguration teaches us that we must let him shine through us, in every circumstance, at every moment of our lives.  In that, we are cooperating with his redemptive work.  In no way are we “earning” heaven by our good works.  Rather, we are spreading the KNOWLEDGE and JOY of heaven by making it a reality already here on earth, in thousands of small ways every day.  Don’t deprive those, in whose midst you live and move and have your being, of those gifts.  Your lifetime is your one chance, by the grace of God, to make the difference for all those whose lives you touch.

Can they see the difference?

Homily for March 5, 2017


Food, power, and the fulfillment of all your dreams.  What would you give for that?  If you were hungry, powerless, and had no obvious means to accomplish your mission in life, what would you give for food, power, and the fulfillment of all your dreams?

No wonder temptations of various kinds dog us throughout our lives.  I remember my dad telling me about an old gent from the neighborhood, a man in his 90’s, who used to stop by the fire station down on Grandville Avenue to sit a spell with the guys on a hot summer’s day.  One day, a VERY attractive young woman walked by, perhaps heading to an office job downtown.  The engine crew behaved themselves — no whistles, no cat calls, just a reverent silence as she passed out of earshot.  One of the guys turned to old John, who had his chin leaning on his cane as he looked intently after the young lady.  “Hey, John, how old do you have to be before someone like that stops looking good to you?”  Old John grinned and chuckled as he replied, “Older’n me!”  That brought down the house.

Now, let’s be clear about this:  there’s a big difference between temptation and sin, just as there’s a big difference between temptation and simple admiration.  We often tend to trivialize sin by calling any attraction or temptation that comes along a sin.  Sometimes I’ll be hearing confessions and have a young person say something like, “I didn’t want to go to church most of the time.”  Then I’ll ask, “But did you go, or not?”  “Oh, sure, Father, I went,” they’ll say.  “All the time.”  “WHY did you go?” I ask.  “Well, because I know I should.  It’s important for me to worship God.  And my parents told me I had to.  But I knew that already.”  “So where’s the sin?” I ask.  And, if the young person is really tuned in to where we’re going with this line of questioning, they’ll admit, “My rotten attitude.”

Sound familiar?  They DID what they were supposed to, they just weren’t happy about it.  They DID the right thing, but their heart’s not in it.  Fact is, sometimes THAT’S harder to fix than to get someone who hasn’t been going to church to get back to it.  Fact also is, we often get more hung up concentrating on symptoms than on letting God’s grace help us cure the disease.

Things that look attractive — a pretty girl, a handsome guy, more time in the sack, a double meat whopper with cheese and bacon on a Friday in Lent, slacking off work before quitting time, a drink, a drug — all those things are attractions.  They might or might not be temptations, depending on our subjective responses.  Some people rob banks.  Other people might find a bank bag full of $100 bills in the street and take it right to the police.  And some of THOSE would say, “I never had a thought for keeping it.  It wasn’t mine.”

The temptations Jesus faced were things that for all of us determine how we are going to live our lives, what direction our lives will take — and that’s far more important, really, than the attractions and temptations that assail our senses and minds every day.  “Command that these stones become loaves of bread.”  In other words, get what you want, what you crave, WHEN you want and crave it, no matter what you have to do to get it.  No postponing personal satisfaction.  Use everything at your disposal to serve yourself.  Take care of Good Old Number One, because nobody else will.

“Throw yourself down” from the edge of the roof of the temple.  In other words, wow the crowds with showmanship.  Bowl them over with empty promises.  As long as you can keep yourself at the center of attention, that’s the main thing.  Get ‘em eating out of the palm of your hand.  Give them bread and circuses, don’t worry about substance.  And if all else fails, drama, drama, drama.  They’ll be mesmerized (or anesthetized!), and you can manipulate them to do whatever you want.

“I’ll hand over to you all the kingdoms of the world, if you’ll just bow down and worship me.”  In this temptation, the evil one implies to Jesus, “All the kingdoms of the world.  Isn’t that what you came for?”  And as usual, the father of lies tells a PARTIAL truth, which is often enough to ensnare us foolish sinners in the tangled, woven web.  OF COURSE Jesus came to save the world.  OF COURSE he wants to include everybody.  How is that going to happen in this poor, tired world, with everyone at each other’s throats?  The desire to accomplish what we want to and need to, especially if it’s something good, often becomes a temptation to do so at any cost.  Any ethical or moral cost.  “The ends justify the means,” we often hear, conveniently forgetting that that little proverb in its original form in classical ethics is in the NEGATIVE:  “The ends do NOT justify the means.”  The use of immoral means taints even the noblest of goals.

Jesus perhaps later recalled his conversation with the evil one when he asked his disciples the rhetorical question:  “What profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?”  The soul of Jesus Christ, Son of God, was never in jeopardy because of the influence of his divine will on his human will.  And yet he experienced this temptation because “he became like us in all things but sin.”  The divine Son of God experienced firsthand in the flesh the power of satanic suggestion when the task before us seems beyond our capacities; when the right thing to do seems to be overwhelmed in pointless futility; when, for all the world, it appears like it will take just short of FOREVER to accomplish the good we want to do.  What’s the harm in a little compromise?  Jesus’ answer and our answers to that question are the reason we have confessionals.  It’s also the reason that Jesus is there in the sacrament of penance, to mercifully welcome us when we have allowed ourselves to be duped once again into willfully eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad.



Homily for February 26 2017


Some of you may have heard that, besides the one for the Venerable Bishop Baraga, a cause for the canonization of someone ELSE who lived on the West Side has been introduced.  Now, don’t look around.  None of you are dead yet!  We’re talking about Father Joseph Walijewski (pron. vah-lee-YEFF-skee), who was born here in Grand Rapids in 1924.  He attended West Catholic and Catholic Central, spent the 1940’s in the seminary, and was ordained for the Diocese of LaCrosse, Wisconsin, in 1950.

Father Joe had a really rough time getting through the seminary.  He had been inspired to a missionary vocation in part by seeing Spencer Tracy playing Father Flanagan in the 1938 movie Boys Town.  Joe was a hard worker, a real blue-collar type of guy, but he had a horrible time with Latin, Greek, and French.  He made it to ordination only with the help of a few faculty members who urged the rest of the seminary professors to recommend him for ordination.  They said, “He might not be the most INTELLIGENT priest, but he will be a HOLY priest.”  Father Joe would have agreed with the first part of that sentence, about intelligence.  He LIVED the second part, about holiness, but would never admit it.

With his bishop’s permission, he became a missionary first in Bolivia, then in Ecuador, then for over 35 years in Peru.  He was known for his zealous work with the poorest of the poor, establishing orphanages and schools and looking after youngsters as though they were his own.  When St. John Paul II visited Peru in 1985, Father Joe was able to speak with him in Polish.  The Pope was so impressed with Father Joe and his work that he left a $50,000 gift to help him build a new orphanage.

We don’t have time to give the details of all of Father Joe’s wonderful work.  One thing especially ties in beautifully with today’s readings.  Throughout his life, whenever someone came to him with problems and difficulties, Fr. Joe was accustomed to say, humorously but truthfully, “Don’t worry, nothing will be all right.”  By that, he meant, “No use sweating it.  Life is full of challenges.  Our plans will get all screwed up, people will back out of their commitments, some of our failures will be due to our own sins and weaknesses.  And as soon as it looks like it’s all falling into place and it’s going to be smooth sailing, something will come along and throw a monkey wrench in the works.”  Think of that.  Go to a priest with problems, and he consoles you by saying, “Don’t worry, NOTHING will be all right”!

But Father Joe was correct.  He had learned through his years of longing to be ordained and in his many struggles with his studies that hard work and disappointment were a part of life.  But God, the One we are, after all, striving to serve, never stops caring for us.  The prophet Isaiah says, even if our own mother forgets her child, God will NEVER forget.  Our failures, our sorrows, our successes, our joys, are all right there in the sight of God.  Our Savior, Jesus Christ, is right there walking the way of the cross with us.  We just have to remember that WE have to be walking it with HIM.  You can almost imagine Jesus himself consoling the women who gasp as he falls again and again on the way to Calvary, “Don’t worry, nothing will be all right.”  And from a strictly human, worldly perspective, as Jesus was headed to crucifixion, he would surely have been right.  And since we know that in one way or another, we can expect that nothing will be all right or go all right, well then, why worry?  Expect the unexpected and the difficult.  You WON’T be disappointed!  That’s life.  And when things DO somehow go right, you can smile, breathe a sigh of relief, and say, “THANK GOD!!!”

The beautiful thing is, after all those years of saying, “Don’t worry, nothing will be all right,” as Father Joe lay dying in 2006, he got a great big smile on his face and said to those around him, “Don’t worry, EVERYTHING will be all right.”  And once again, that was the truth.  As long as we are preparing to enter the Kingdom of God, everything IS all right.  And nothing else matters.  Christ was divinely correct when he said, “Don’t worry about tomorrow. . .  Sufficient for a day is its own evil.”  No matter how much it might FEEL like it at times, God will never leave us to face our trials alone.  And if you’re like the lonely family member who says of another, “Why don’t he write?”  Well, (Hold up the lectionary.) you might want to check out the owner’s manual a little more often.  You’ll see.  Now there’s an idea for Lent:  Get into or BACK INTO the habit of checking out what he’s written.  It’ll help firm up your faith, your courage, your confidence.  And when the time comes, if you’ve been doing your best to serve the Lord and the people he sends your way, everything WILL be all right.