Sunday, April 20, 2008

Common Conversations

Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A
At 5:30 on a normal Friday morning, there usually is not much excitement going on in our community. But this past Friday morning was not normal. On that particular morning, the magnitude 5.2 earthquake that rumbled through the Midwest at 5:37 am marked that day as unique. Some of us were already awake and moving through our regular morning routine, but a lot of people were still sleeping and were jolted awake by the shaking beds or tornado-like sound, or the rattling shower doors. We’re not used to earthquakes here in Indiana, and even though this particular quake did little damage and made little lasting impression, it did become the talk of the day. Virtually every conversation I had on Friday included talk of the earthquake – were you awake yet? What did you hear? Have you ever felt such a thing? Can you believe, an earthquake in Indiana? Friday’s earthquake quickly become a shared experience for everyone who felt it – it was a common link for all people, friends and strangers – and it was the hot topic of conversation for the rest of the day.

Shared experiences can be a powerful thing – they can bring communities and peoples together who might otherwise not interact with one another. They spark conversation where, otherwise, silence might have dominated. For even a brief time, they can bring unity, camaraderie, and mutual support. Of course, most of us will have forgotten this magnitude 5.2 earthquake after a few days – it certainly was a common experience in the short term, but in the long run will probably not have much of a lasting impact. But most of us can remember the great shared experiences of our lifetimes. We all remember where we were on September 11, 2001. For my generation, the first great shared experience was the Challenger explosion in 1986, for others, it was the assassination of President Kennedy. It’s easy to walk up to a stranger and ask, “Where were you on September 11?” These shared experiences are etched into our memories and provide a common ground with friends and strangers alike.

It is this type of shared experience that Jesus was for his disciples, even if they were not always aware of it. After hearing Jesus tell them that they know the way to where he is going, the disciples were confused. Thomas spoke up: Master, we don’t even know where you are going, how can we know the way? And Jesus told them, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus himself is the way to the Father, the way to eternal life – the only way we can get there is through him. He is the bond – the shared experience, the common link – for all people to touch the divine. If we know him, if we believe in him, if we follow him, then we will have life. The challenge of being Christian is first of all to recognize Jesus as the common ground of our existence and then to share His story, to do all we can to make our experience of Jesus a shared experience, the common link that connects all people with one another and with God.

Long after we have forgotten about this Friday’s earthquake; when memories of President Kennedy or the Challenger Space Shuttle or even September 11 are just stories in a history book, there will still be one common experience that connects all people of all times and places – the personal and communal encounter with Jesus Christ, who is the only way, the complete truth, and the fullness of everlasting life. If only our conversations revolved around him as much as they were consumed by Friday’s earthquake.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Bells for Benedict

It may have confused some people, but at 4:00 pm this afternoon, our church bells started ringing, and they rang at full peal for ten minutes. There was no mass to get ready for, but there was a special event. Along with church bells around the country, our bells rang to announce that Pope Benedict XVI had landed in the United States. Yesterday, I received an e-mail from our Vicar General asking all churches to ring there bells at the time of the Pope's scheduled landing in Washington, DC, to welcome him to our country. Papal visits to the United States are rare, and they are certainly something to celebrate. The Catholic Church is alive and well in this country, and this week, we welcome our chief shepherd on his first Pastoral Visit to this land.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Pastor as Shepherd

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A
The spring is always the season of personnel assignments in the Church. Earlier this week, I received the following letter from Archbishop Daniel:

Dear Father Augenstein:

It has come to my attention that in July you will have completed your one-year assignment as administrator of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish. I am pleased to therefore appoint you pastor effective July 2, 2008 with all the rights, duties, and privileges belonging to this office.

While this appointment is for six years, my responsibilities as Archbishop may require me to ask a person to move or change his pastoral assignment prior to the completion of the six years. I ask your cooperation should this possibility arise.

Please be assured of my prayers that God will continually bless your work for the spiritual and temporal interests of His people at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish and all your good work.

Sincerely yours in Christ,
Most Rev. Daniel M. Buechlein, OSB

Archbishop of Indianapolis

Notice of this appointment also appeared in this week’s Criterion. You may recall that since my arrival at OLPH last July, my official title has been Administrator. When a priest is named to his first parish on his own, it is the custom in our diocese to be named Administrator for the first year, and then after a year of mentoring and transition, to be named Pastor for a set term, renewable for a second term, while in reality there is little visible difference for you as parishioners between the two titles. But, from my perspective, this letter comes at a perfect time. The title Pastor literally means shepherd – and today we celebrate what is often called Good Shepherd Sunday because of the gospel reading we just heard. And so I’d like to reflect briefly on the role of a pastor as a shepherd in a parish.

A shepherd has two different kinds of responsibilities for the sheep that are in his care: he has a responsibility to each individual sheep, to make sure that they do not wander off and, if they do, to go and bring them back to the flock; and he also has a responsibility to the flock as a whole, to gather them together and lead them where they need to go to find nourishment and shelter. The Good Shepherd – Jesus Christ – has the same to goals: to care for each individual soul entrusted to him, bringing them back if they wander off; and he also has a responsibility to the entire flock, leading all of us to nourishment and eternal shelter. So, too, the pastor of a parish: the pastor has responsibilities toward each individual member of the parish, caring for each individual soul on the journey toward God; and the pastor also has the responsibility of guiding the entire parish community toward a common goal: the nourishment of the Eucharist and the other sacraments, and the shelter of heaven. Any work that a pastor does in a parish is not done in isolation – he works in communion with the Bishop, who is the shepherd of a whole diocese, and at the call of Jesus Christ, the one true shepherd of all the faithful.

Officially, in the charge given to pastors by the Code of Canon Law, we are to make our primary duty to carry out the offices of teaching, sanctifying, and governing (Canon 519). We are to teach – to proclaim the gospel and preach the good news; we are to sanctify, to celebrate the sacraments, especially Baptism, Eucharist, Reconciliation, and Anointing of the Sick; and we are to govern, to provide leadership and oversight for the many ministries and lay ministers within the parish. Of course, we cannot do this alone. We cannot do anything without the grace of God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but we also cannot truly shepherd a parish without the support and cooperation of the many lay ministers, volunteers, and parishioners who share in the life of the parish. It truly is a humbling privilege to be called to serve as your pastor, and I look forward to many years of teaching, sanctifying, and governing in this parish. But I do so only to lead all of us to Christ, the Good Shepherd and guardian of our souls, and to lead us individually and as a flock to the nourishment of the sacraments and the shelter of eternal life.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Short Journey from D to E

Homily for the Third Sunday of Easter, Year A
Have you ever noticed that some of the saddest and most negative words in the English language begin with the letter D? Words like doubt, disappointment, disillusioned, despair, discouraged, depression, defeat, death. These d-words can so consume our thoughts and bring us down, that it is difficult to see any way out. I imagine that these d-words could sum up how the two disciples in today’s gospel felt as they walked slowly toward Emmaus – downtrodden in their faith, disappointed in their unfulfilled hopes, defeated by the death of the man they thought was God. The Good Friday experience had left them discouraged and disillusioned as they slowly walked along the road.

But on the short journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus – only seven miles – the depression these two disciples were experiencing was completely transformed by the man who came to walk with them. Jesus met them right where they were – in the midst of their doubt, discouragement, and despair – but he did something with those feelings that completely changed their outlook on life. It only took a short walk for these disciples to be transformed. In the midst of their despondency, they were introduced to a whole new set of words, words like excitement, exuberance, and elation. It was only a short journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus, just as it is only a short journey in our alphabet from the letter D to the letter E – from death to eternity, from disappointment to enthusiasm, from despair to exaltation, from doubt to Eucharist, Easter, and Emmaus.

Just about every day, we let our lives be consumed by d-words – just about every day, we can easily fall into depression, despair, or disappointment. When that happens, a stranger often comes to walk beside us, a stranger who meets us in the midst of our doubt or discouragement and reminds us that there is a new reality right in our midst, a new way of looking at the world that remembers both Easter Sunday and Good Friday, both e-words and d-words. Eternity is placed next to death, excitement next to despair, Eucharist next to doubt. This stranger points us to the scriptures, to God’s word, and to the breaking of the bread as ways to be transformed. And there, in those very human things of books and meals, our lives can be changed, from d-words to e-words, from death to eternal life. All on the short walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Happy Feast Day, Internet!

Today is the Feast of St. Isidore of Seville, a 7th Century bishop and Doctor of the Church. These days, Isidore is probably best known and most needed as the Patron Saint of computers and the internet. This may seem a strange designation for someone who died more than 1300 years before the invention of the computer, but if you know anything about the life and legacy of St. Isidore, it makes sense. Born in what is now Spain in 560, Isidore was at first a poor student. After turning all of his learning over to God's guidance, however, he became the best of students and eventually was known as one of the most learned men of the Middle Ages. He eventually became bishop of Seville, but is most remembered because of his writings. Isidore compiled one of the first comprehensive encyclopedias - a compendium of all knowledge about every subject known at the time. In a sense, this encyclopedia was a distant precursor to the Internet, which also proposes to contain all knowledge - fact and opinion - that is available to the human race. It is for this reason that, in 2001, St. Isidore became the leading candidate for a Patron Saint of the Internet.

While this patronage is not an official Vatican declaration, it has been embraced by people around the world who see the need for our computer use and the evolution of the Internet to be placed under God's guidance and the intercession of a Patron Saint. Computer users can ask for St. Isidore's prayers when their computers frustrate them - I have a friend who has a small statue of St. Isidore sitting on top of her computer monitor. But we can also ask for the prayers of St. Isidore to guide the use of the Internet, so that it is used for good - for learning, for communication, for maintaining healthy relationships, and for healthy entertainment - and not to lead us away from God or other people. The Internet can easily isolate its users from interaction with real people, but we pray through St. Isidore that we may learn to embrace this technology as a supplement for relationships and not as a replacement. But in any case, Happy Feast Day, Internet!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Anniversary of a Death

Today is the 3rd Anniversary of the death of Pope John Paul II. Like many people, I have a very clear memory of where I was and how I heard about the death of the only Pope I had known thus far in my life. On Saturday, April 2, 2005, the world knew that Pope John Paul's death was near. St. Peter's Square at the Vatican was filled with Romans and pilgrims from around the world. I was in my first year of priesthood, serving as Associate Pastor of three parishes in Richmond, Indiana. We had masses at two different churches each Saturday afternoon, each preceeded by the Sacrament of Reconciliation. That day, I was scheduled for confessions at 4:30 and mass at 5:30 at St. Andrew Church. The pastor, Fr. Todd Riebe, had confessions at 2:30 and mass at 4:00 at St. Mary Church.

I was sitting in my room at the rectory, with the TV on all afternoon, working on other things while always keeping one ear and one eye on the news. Shortly after 2:30, As the reports began to spread in Rome that the Holy Father had died, and as the reporters were beginning to announce unconfirmed information about his death, the phone rang. It was a reporter from the Palladium-Item, the town newspaper, where they had just received a wire report, along with news agencies around the world, from the Vatican, announcing Pope John Paul's death. The first call the local newspaper made was to the Catholic church in town, to make sure we had heard. I immediately began to put into place the plan that our parish staff had determined for this moment. I called the parish business manager who went to one of our three churches, Holy Family, to begin ringing the toll bell. I then went to St. Mary Church, right next to the rectory, to inform Fr. Todd of Pope John Paul's death - Fr. Todd was hearing confessions at the time. I then set the toll bell to ring at St. Mary and drove to St. Andrew to ring the toll bell there.

I stayed at St. Andrew for the rest of the afternoon as the church gradually filled with people upon hearing the news. As soon as the toll bells began to ring in our town, and throughout the world, many people left their homes and came to the churches to pray. It was quite a moving experience to see the church start to fill with people. I set out a framed picture of Pope John Paul and a candle in the sanctuary and began to prepare for mass. That evening was one of few times as a priest when I completely discarded my prepared homily and instead preached on the life, legacy, and death of Pope John Paul.

Two days later, I left for my annual retreat at Saint Meinrad Archabbey. I was there, on retreat, for the funeral, which was held on Friday morning. After watching the funeral live on television, I joined the monastic community, the seminary, and many others for a memorial mass in the Archabbey Church of Our Lady of Einsiedeln. Then, we began the wait for a conclave and a new pope.

Today, three years later, I celebrated a funeral at my current parish for a 51-year-old man. Surrounded by his family and friends, we celebrated the reality of Easter - the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and a hope for new life that has been given to each of us in the same measure as it had been given to a man named Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II. This evening, I celebrate mass for our faith formation students and families, and we will remember this day as the entrance into glory of a great Christian and shepherd who became a world-wide beacon of peace, understanding, and love.