Sunday, June 29, 2008

St. Paul in Everyday Life

Homily for the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, Year A
Today, I’d like to introduce you to five people: Priscilla, Timothy, Lydia, Mark, and Jason. Let’s start with Priscilla.

Priscilla is a high school senior who is stuck in holding mode – she has applied to a few different colleges, but she knows that it will really be the scholarships or financial aid that determine where she will end up. And now, she is waiting, with her whole future dependent on acceptance letters and financial packages that will determine where she will spend the next four years of her life. The stress is becoming so unbearable that she can’t concentrate on her studies, or even on enjoying her senior year. But one thing does help; she remembers what St. Paul said in his letter to the Philippians: “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4.6-7) She’s still worried, but she places those worries in God’s hands, and she finds peace.

As they sit at the dinner table, surrounded by family and friends, Timothy and Lydia think back on the last fifty years of marriage; there certainly were good times, but there were struggles, too. What made it last? Each time someone asks them that question, they remember the words they heard on their wedding day, from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, words they have tried to live out each day: “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, it is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests. Love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13.4-5a, 8a)

Lying in a hospital bed, it is the pain that consumes Mark more than anything else – an unbearable pain that not even the strongest medications can take away. Sitting next to the bed, Mark’s wife feels completely helpless – there is nothing she can do for this man she loves so much. It’s not fair for such a good person to be suffering so much. But, by the time they leave the hospital, they remember that our sufferings are joined with the suffering of Christ, that St. Paul said in his Second Letter to the Corinthians: “I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12.7b-10)

As a college student, Jason finds is hard to stay connected to his faith. And especially when you’re a college athlete, like Jason is, faith and church can easily take a back seat. All that talk about God – what does he have to do with my life? How can those church people think that the Bible can speak to me? But, one day, a friend shows Jason something that St. Paul wrote, in his First Letter to the Corinthians: “Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one.” (1 Cor. 9.24-25) And, you know, that sort of makes sense.

Today begins the International Year of St. Paul, a year-long celebration of the 2000th anniversary of St. Paul’s birth. Throughout the world, Christians will be spending this next year getting to know this apostle, missionary, and author better. St. Paul’s letters are some of the most practical writings in the whole Bible. He experienced firsthand weakness, love, anxiety, and disillusionment as he preached the gospel, and he wrote about these things – these very human experiences –to remind us how God meets us in these very emotions. People like Priscilla, Lydia and Timothy, Mark, and Jason, people like you and me, can find in St. Paul’s writings strength and wisdom for our Christian journey. St. Paul is relevant today because he still speaks to us and shows us the way to Christ through our very humanity. St. Paul teaches us what it means to be a Christian. Our hope during this coming year is that we can spend time reading his words and learning about his life so that we, too, can become better Christians. For, as Paul said to the church in Rome, we are “not ashamed of the gospel. It is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” (Romans 1.16).

Sunday, June 22, 2008

2008 State of the Parish

Homily for the Feast of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, June 22, 2008
Today, our parish celebrates our patronal feast day, the Feast of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Most of our liturgical celebrations throughout the year are about the whole church – but today is different; today, we celebrate our parish, this particular local community of 1180 families who live the gospel, celebrate meaningful worship, and call one another to prayer, Christian service, and fellowship in the area surrounding 1752 Scheller Lane. Since this is our parish celebration, it seems a good time to reflect on the past year of ministry at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish and to look forward with anticipation to the future.

It has been almost a year now since the transition in pastoral leadership at OLPH, as the community bid farewell to Fr. Paul after nine very fruitful years of ministry here. Personally, I was humbled and grateful for the gracious reception that I received upon becoming your Administrator last July. My main personal focus during this past year has been to get to know you, our parishioners, and our various ministries and to learn as much as I could about our parish community. To help me do that, 241 parishioners joined me during a course of 23 Fellowship with Father gatherings, and I have had many other opportunities to meet and come to know the people of this parish. Of course, there will always be more people to know, and I look forward to continuing to share life and ministry with the people of our parish for many years to come.

Sacramentally, this past year has seen the parish celebrate 47 infant baptisms, and 8 adults entered the church through the RCIA. Forty young people celebrated their First Communion; 45 high schoolers received the sacrament of Confirmation. Thirteen couples got married here, and 27 people have been buried from our parish. But our parish is much more than numbers and statistics. This past year we offered the devotion of the Stations of the Cross every Friday during Lent, for the first time in over 30 years. The ENVISION parish planning process has now completed the second of three years of implementation, with many positive outcomes. Our school has continued to thrive, both in our Catholic identity and with academic and extra-curricular success. New band and junior high Spanish programs have been added at the school. We instituted a new weekly youth group as part of our overall Youth Ministry program. In Faith Formation, we held a very successful mission with Fr. Brendan Moss of Saint Meinrad Archabbey, as well as a successful event in our National Speaker Series with Dr. Paul Thigpen. Before mass today, you heard a report on the status of our capital campaign, Legacy for Our Mission, and the great progress that has been made possible through this source of funding. Two parish retreats, the Main Event, Lenten Soup and Soul Food, a Bereavement Prayer Breakfast, a day of reflection for liturgical ministers, a youth mission trip, and countless other events – large and small – demonstrate the vitality of our community. Ministry is certainly alive and well here at Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

As we look to the future, two primary areas of focus seem to emerge for the coming year: first, we are entering the final year of the implementation phase of the ENVISION parish planning process. One of our goals as a parish during the coming year will be to bring this process to completion while also preparing for the ENVISION-sponsored ministries to become integrated into the ongoing life of the parish. Second, I am asking our parish staff and Pastoral Council to spend the next year looking at our parish structure and organization to make sure we are best serving the needs of the people in our community, always with the goal of leading one another to the Eucharist. There certainly is much that we do well as a parish, but it is always good to do a self-evaluation every once in a while to make sure that we are the best parish we can be. The conversations from this past year’s Fellowship with Father gatherings will be instrumental in this ongoing reflection.

But the true story of our parish is not found in a calendar of events or in a booklet of organizations. The true story of our parish can only be told through personal stories, stories of new life and life lost, stories of conversions and revelations, stories of joys and struggles. And even with all those different stories, there is one story that unites us all: the story of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, crucified and risen, and living among us who are members of his body. The one story that unites us all is told each week as we gather around this table, as we hear God’s word and share a simple meal. If we did nothing else as a parish but celebrate the Eucharist well, then we would be living as Christ taught us. But if we really do celebrate the Eucharist well, then we as a parish will be compelled to become Christ’s body in our community and to spread the good news that Christ has come to save each of us. And when we do that, then we are truly a vibrant community. For it is this Eucharist that tells the true story of our parish.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


Homily for the Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A
Jesus has clearly never been to the United States. At least not in person, while he was on earth. Because if he had been to the United States, at least the United States of today, he would have realized that we do not need shepherds – or, more precisely, we do not want shepherds. We Americans really don’t like to be compared to sheep, either, but that’s a whole different conversation. For now, suffice it to say that we don’t want anything like a shepherd to prod us around. We’re independent – remember that Declaration of Independence? – we thrive on freedom, we want to make our own schedule, to do our own things, without some guy with a wooden staff pushing us in a certain, predetermined direction. We Americans are our own bosses, and we like it that way. Why on earth would we want a shepherd, or an apostle, or a harvest-worker to lead us somewhere we might not want to go to? Clearly, Jesus doesn’t get our situation.

One of the greatest words in any language is used by Matthew at the beginning of today’s gospel. In our translation, it says that Jesus had pity on the people. But the Greek word is much more interesting than “pity.” The original word is splagchnizomai – it’s such a great word, much better than “pity.” Splagchnizomai comes from the Greek word for entrails, the vital inner organs of a person—the stomach, heart, lungs, spleen, liver, and kidneys. To say that Jesus had pity on the people – that he felt splagchnizomai – is really to say that he had a feeling deep in his gut, the deepest of all human emotions, that kind of feeling that is physical as much as intellectual. Jesus felt so deeply connected to these people, and he felt so deeply disturbed by where they were being led, that he had to do something.

Because, you see, the people of Jesus’ time weren’t too different from us Americans. They had a certain level of religious affiliation, but they still wanted to do their own thing, to be their own leaders, to make decisions on their own. As Matthew says, they were “troubled and abandoned,” people who valued independence and freedom but didn’t know what to do with it. Jesus’ reaction, his splagchnizomai, the lurching feeling deep in his gut, compelled him to do something – to call and send disciples who would spread his message of compassion, forgiveness, and healing. These twelve shepherds – the laborers for the harvest – were regular, ordinary people who had an extraordinary message to preach: the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Don’t look at us, they said, but look at Jesus, and in him, you will find both direction and meaning for your lives. Independence and freedom are great, but without meaning, they’re just words on paper. Don’t you want meaning in your life? Jesus’ heart is breaking out of love for you because you can’t find this meaning, his gut is tied up in knots of compassion and pity because he wants to give you the greatest gift imaginable: purpose, in the kingdom of heaven. Go to him, listen to him, receive from him. He is the true shepherd not just because he will push you in a certain direction but because he will die for you. Go to Jesus! His inmost being is aching to give your life purpose. And then, once you have heard about the kingdom of heaven, go back into the world of independence and freedom and bring people along with you. For “Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give.”

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Voice in the Crowd

Homily for the Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
When he was a boy, Joe looked forward to the Sunday mornings when he and his brother would be altar servers at his church. He found himself paying attention to the priest, watching everything he was doing during the mass. Somewhere along the line, Joe started to think that he might want to do the things the priest was doing when he got older. But for Aaron, things were very different. Growing up in a Protestant church, he didn’t really know anything about Catholics or Catholic priests until he was in college, majoring in art. He felt drawn to the Catholic faith, went through the RCIA process and joined the church, and then became a grade school art teacher after graduating from college. He loved art and teaching, and was good at it, but something else was drawing him.

On Saturday, these two men, now Father Joe Newton and Father Aaron Jenkins, were ordained to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. The journey that has brought them to this point contained many twists and turns, but for both of them, the goal has always been the same: to follow Christ. The challenge for each of them was figuring out how to listen.

When Jesus called Matthew, the tax collector, the crowds were astonished – it simply did not make sense for a man who seemed to be a Messiah or King to surround himself with sinners, and tax collectors were most definitely at the top of the list of public sinners. But it seems like none of this phased this particular tax collector. When Jesus said, “Follow me,” Matthew just got up and followed him – no questions, no hesitation, no second-guessing. Think about it: Matthew was in the middle of a large crowd, sitting at his desk, counting money – as busy as a person could be – and yet he heard Jesus call him. Something must have been going on inside Matthew to make him ready to answer the call – he must have been listening, even in the midst of his activity, he must have been listening for God.

It’s an understatement to say that we live in a noisy world – most of us can easily identify with Matthew, the tax collector, the business man, constantly surrounded by crowds of people rushing around. Add to the noise of Matthew’s world the constant sound of people talking on cell phones, the rush through the fast-food drive through window, and the honking horns of busy traffic, and the noise can become deafening. Can you imagine being able to hear and comprehend the two, quiet words of Jesus in the midst of all this noise: “Follow me?” That is the real challenge for us: not the listening by itself, but listening in a noisy world. To hear one soft voice in the middle of a crowd, we have to become so familiar with what that voice sounds like that we know it when we hear it. To listen to God in a noisy world, we have to be ready all the time for God to speak to us. That might be the hardest part about being a Christian, because it takes time to get to know God, to recognize his voice in a noisy world, and in our impatience we want to hear God now. For the two priests ordained on Saturday, it took time to hear God’s call to the priesthood. For Matthew, it took a lifetime of collecting taxes before he became an apostle. It takes time to be able to hear the voice of God, but the more we work on it, the greater the reward when we finally do hear a soft, clear voice whisper through the noise, and we suddenly realize that we recognize the one who is saying: “Follow me.” And by that point, we realize that we are already following him.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Why are You Here?

Homily for the Ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A
Why are you here? On this glorious day at the beginning of summer, when school is out and the pools are open, why are you here, sitting on a hard pew, listening to some guy talk about a 2000-year-old book? When vacations are calling and relaxing on the front porch with a glass of iced tea sounds so good, why are you here, going through the motions of standing when everyone else stands and sitting when everyone else sits and kneeling when everyone else kneels? Why are you here? Because of an obligation, out of a sense of duty? Or to get uplifted, to try to find some meaning for your life? Or is it something else that draws you to mass every week, or every few weeks, or every once in a while? I imagine many of us would say that we are here because it is part of what it means to be Catholic – to join together each week to celebrate the Eucharist. We come here to listen to the word of God, to join together as a community, and to be nourished by Christ’s Body and Blood. But there is one danger in gathering together in this church, or any church, a danger that can sometimes be reinforced even by the way our building is set up – with straight rows of pews, all facing a central focal point, the altar. The danger is that we can easily become spectators at this celebration instead of participants. We can easily sit back and look at what is going on, without really taking part. Now, true, being here as a spectator is better than not being here at all. But the challenge of today’s gospel is to move from being a spectator to being a participant in the life of Christ.

Jesus gives us two opposing scenarios today: some people listen to his words but then don’t do anything about it. These are the foolish people who build their houses on sand. Others listen to the word of God and act on it – they are wise and build their houses on a solid foundation. Being a Christian comes with a certain level of spiritual maturity – most of us spend part of our lives just getting to know Christ, listening to his words, trying to understand how to become more like him. But, at some point, we have to move beyond just listening – we have to make the spiritual jump from being a spectator to being a participant, from listening to acting. One person says it this way: Christianity is everything you do after you say, “I believe.” To be a true follower of Jesus Christ means that we act on what we believe, we live out the command to love God and our neighbors, we try our best each day to do the will of God.

And that brings us back to the question: why are you here? What is the purpose of coming to mass each week? Based on today’s gospel, I’d suggest that we should be here first of all to listen to the Word of God, but then to ask for the strength and the wisdom to be able to take that Word and put it into action during the coming week. We’re here not just as spectators, but as participants in the life of Christ. And, really, that is what the Eucharist is all about. When we receive Christ’s Body and Blood in Communion, we receive the grace and the wisdom to know how to mold our actions and our lives so that they resemble Christ. We can’t do that on our own – we can’t be good Christians by ourselves – we need the grace of the Eucharist to help us. We are here because we know that we need God’s help and guidance each day of our lives. We leave from here and go into our daily lives, filled with the Christ's help and guidance. And after a week goes by, we realize that we need it again. To try to live like Christ, we need help, we need the weekly grace of the Eucharist, because we can’t do it alone. And that is why we are here.