Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Finding Jesus is Even Harder Than Finding a Zhu Zhu

Homily for the Feast of the Holy Family, Year C
St. Jude Catholic Church, Indianapolis, IN
1 Samuel 1.20-22, 24-28 Psalm 84 1 John 3.1-2, 21-24 Luke 2.41-52

I didn’t get one for Christmas, and I don’t really want one. But there’s no doubt that the Zhu Zhu pet was this year’s must-have Christmas gift. In case you’ve missed all the craze, the Zhu Zhu pet is an electronic hamster that advertisers claim to have all the things about hamsters that you want without any of the things about hamsters that you don’t want – like the smell, the mess, and the need to continually feed them and clean their cages. These little hamsters move around their habitat on their own, making over 40 different noises depending on what they find and how you touch them. They will even purr for you if you pet their head in the right way. And they’re cheap – only $10 retail. But as usually happens with these must-have toys, the real challenge of the Zhu Zhu pet is that they have been hard to find. Many parents and gift-buyers spent the whole month of December desperately searching for a Zhu Zhu. Stores sold out within minutes after getting new stock of the pets. And sometimes the only way to find one was being willing to pay as much as 6 times the regular price on E-bay or other online stores. The story of this year’s Christmas shopping season could easily be told as the story of looking for these elusive, electronic hamsters that seem able to think on their own. If only we would spend as much time looking for Jesus in our world as we did looking for toy hamsters.

Finding Jesus is not always easy. It’s not there he’s elusive, or hiding, or deliberately trying to avoid us. It’s hard to find Jesus because the distractions of the world and the failings of our human nature get in the way. Even Mary and Joseph had to look for Jesus. They were caught up in the caravan of relatives and neighbors from Nazareth and didn’t even realize that Jesus wasn’t with them. Remember, they were the Holy Family, not the perfect family, and for a few days their regular routine separated them from the center, the heart, of their family. Jesus was doing what he was meant to do, but even his parents had to search to find him in the midst of the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem at the time of the festival. Jesus was not lost; but he had to be found.

And so it is for us. There are so many distractions around us and even in our own hearts that it takes effort to find Jesus. He is here, in this church, whenever we come here to pray. But he is also in our homes, in our relationships, whether they are holy relationships or broken relationships. He is in our schools and workplaces, our parks and malls, our sports arenas and courthouses. He is in our hospitals and nursing homes, our prisons and shelters. He can be found wherever we are. But we must look, we must look beyond the surface of people’s faces and actions, we must look deeper than required conversations about sports and weather, we must look inside the heart and soul of each person we encounter. For Mary and Joseph, the holiest family that ever lived, it took three days to find Jesus in the Temple. For most of us, it will take much longer. But don’t give up. The rewards of finding Jesus in our world today are so much more lasting and meaningful than the simple satisfaction of finding a Zhu Zhu pet hamster.

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Gift for the Christ Child

Homily for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, Year C
What a journey it has been! For Mary and Joseph, their journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, Mary heavy with child, was treacherous and even dangerous. But they were not alone; their journey was guided by God. For the Church, the last four weeks of Advent have been a spiritual journey, working together as a community to open our hearts to welcome the Christ child once more. And for shoppers, the journey of the past several weeks has been a challenge of trying to find the right gift for the right person at the right price, all in the midst of the crowds and the traffic and the hustle and bustle of the season. And now, here we are – the long-awaited day has arrived, we find ourselves in the presence of Christ, our king, and the celebrations begin. In all the journeying of the past weeks, almost everything has focused on us or on our families; but Christmas is not really about us. In the rush of the season, we may wonder: what have we done in these days for the child born in Bethlehem?

The wise may bring their learning, the rich may bring their wealth,
And some may bring their greatness, and some their strength and health:
We too would bring our treasures, to offer to the King;
We have no wealth or learning, what gifts then shall we bring?*

One of the blessings that can be found in the midst of this year’s struggling economy is an expanded understanding of what makes a good gift. The jobs that have been lost, the salaries that have been cut, the retirement plans that have shrunk – while these things can change our plans and force us to make cutbacks in spending, they can also remind us that the best gifts cost little or no money at all. The phone call to a distant relative, the home-cooked dinner for a college student, the visit to a nursing home, the time spent together around the fire. These actions of love mean more than any amount of money can buy. And it is from these free gifts that we can look for one last gift, a gift for the Christ child, a gift we can find even when all the stores are closed.

We’ll bring him hearts that love him, we’ll bring him thankful praise,
And souls forever striving, to follow in his ways:
And these shall be the treasures, we offer to the King,
And these are gifts that ever, our grateful hearts may bring.*

Christmas Day comes only once a year. But each day, we are called to follow Christ, to return to him some small measure of what he has given us. It doesn’t take much, but it does take effort. Without any merit on our part, we have each been created in God’s image and likeness, we have been offered the promise of salvation – that is God’s gift to us. But it takes something else to be a Christian – we must make a return gift to God, the gift of our lives, our love, our time, and our actions. It’s a gift that we are called to give not just on Christmas, but on each day of the year.

We’ll bring the little duties, we have to do each day;
We’ll try our best to please him, at home, at school, at play:
And better are these treasures, to offer to our King
Than richest gifts without them; yet these we all may bring.*

What gift can you give to Christ, today and each day of the year?

*Verses taken from the anonymous 19th Century Christmas Carol “The Wise May Bring Their Learning.”

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Waiting for a Savior

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C
Micah 5.1-4a Psalm 80 Hebrews 10.5-10 Luke 1.39-45

She had been waiting for so long. She had been waiting for a child of her own and had almost given up hope in her old age. But she had also been waiting for a savior, a Messiah, who would bring her and her people hope and salvation. And now, word had come down the road that her kinswoman, Mary, was going to be visiting her. And so she waits for the visit of this dearly-loved woman. For Elizabeth, life had been marked more than anything else by waiting, hoping, praying. And all of a sudden, the time of fulfillment was at hand.

Most of us can identify with Elizabeth, at least with her experience of waiting – it seems like that’s all we do, sometimes. In a world of busyness and frantic work, we wait for times of silence and rest. When money is scarce and jobs are being lost, we wait for better times and the offer of a new job. When loved ones are off at war or at school or at work, we wait for them to come home again. When war and terrorism are all too real, we wait for peace. Most of the time, our waiting is fulfilled, and whatever it is we are hoping for or expecting comes to pass. But not always. There are times when the reliable income source never returns or the child who is gone from us never comes home. And we are faced with a new reality, one that we didn’t plan for and that we don’t really want. And even in this, we wait; we wait for things to get better.

Too often, we look to ourselves or other people to fill the void in our lives or solve the problems that we are facing. But it doesn’t always work. And when we realize that we are helpless to do anything about the situation we find ourselves in, the hopelessness and despair can seem too much to endure. But we are not meant to solve all of our own problems. We are not expected to be the savior of the world. From the day that Mary gave birth to her child, the waiting and the hopelessness of human existence came to an end. The ups and downs of daily living will always be with us, our lives will continue to be marked by both joys and trials; but the fruit of Mary’s womb, the child born in Bethlehem, can and will fulfill all our hopes and desires. If we put our lives in his hands, he will shepherd and guide us with love and compassion. If we abandon our plans, our dreams, our desires to his will, then our lives will be complete and fulfilled. If we can recognize Christ in each movement of our lives, then we will know with Mary and Elizabeth that the waiting of the world has come to an end. And in case we have forgotten or turned away from him, this week is an annual reminder: A Savior has been born for us. We are not in charge of our lives or our relationships or the world – He is, and He will not disappoint us. If only we focus on Him.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Rejoice in God's Blessings to the Church

Homily for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year C
Zephaniah 3.14-18a Isaiah 12 Philippians 4.4-7 Luke 3.10-18

As Father Paul Etienne lay prostrate on the floor of the Cheyenne Civic Center this past Wednesday, a congregation of almost 1,500 people sang the Litany of the Saints, asking the prayers of all the Holy Ones for a man about to be ordained a bishop. When Father Paul rose from the floor, twenty bishops – including Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles, and our own Archbishop Daniel Buechlein – took turns laying their hands on his head. These bishops then prayed together an ancient prayer of consecration. And Father Paul Etienne became Bishop Paul Etienne, Bishop of Cheyenne and a successor of the Apostles.

With all that is going on in the world today, it is refreshing to have good news to share. Even as jobs continue to be lost and families continue to drift apart, even as celebrity scandals dominate headlines and brave men and women die while preserving freedom – there are reasons for us to have hope and even to rejoice. The forty-plus members of this parish who traveled to Cheyenne this week returned to southern Indiana to spread the news that God has blessed his Church. Those of us who witnessed the laying on of hands, the anointing with Sacred Chrism, and the handing on of the mitre, crosier, and bishop’s ring bring back home an experience of the Church universal and a reminder that God continues to provide ministers for his church. Like all Church ministries, the ministry of a bishop is not for himself – it is a ministry for the Church, it is a ministry at the service of the gospel. As best possible, a bishop is called to be all things to all people, in the name of Christ our Lord. Today we rejoice not because one man whom many of us know has become a bishop – we rejoice because God continues to call people to follow and serve him, we rejoice because God continues to shower us all with his grace and blessings, we rejoice because God continues to guide us on this earthly journey with the goal of joining him forever in heaven. This truly is good news, and reason to celebrate – God is with His people!

When asked to reflect on his own life and ministry as a bishop, Pope John Paul II began not with the day of his appointment or ordination; he began the story of his life as a bishop in the Upper Room in Jerusalem, where Christ celebrated the last supper with his apostles and gave them the responsibility of spreading the good news and celebrating the Eucharist.* From that Upper Room almost two thousand years ago, the apostles went forth to gather other people to their flock. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, they baptized, preached the saving death and resurrection of Christ, and celebrated the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood. As time went on, they chose others to share in their ministry, laying hands on men chosen as their successors. These immediate successors to the apostles continued that chain of succession unbroken, even to this week, when Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver and his brother bishops laid their hands on the head of Bishop Paul Etienne, making him a successor to the apostles. These bishops in turn ordain priests to help in their ministry; they gather consecrated religious and lay people together to labor in God’s flock. And somewhere along the line, the gospel that was preached by the apostles and handed on in their time, and in all the ages past, that same gospel reached your ears and mine, and we too answered Christ’s call to follow him. And so the journey continues. Like John the Baptist, the Holy Spirit calls us to go into the wilderness of a world that does not know God and point the way to Christ, the one who will baptize us with the Holy Spirit, the one who will renew us in love. Whether bishop or parent, priest or friend, married or single – we all share in that call. From the Upper Room in Jerusalem to the Cheyenne Civic Center to this very church to the streets of New Albany, the message of Christ has been handed on from person to person through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is truly good news - the work of Christ and his apostles continues today.

* Pope John Paul II, Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way, Warner Books, 2004.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

From Caesar to Christ

Homily for the Second Sunday of Advent, Year C
Baruch 5.1-9 Psalm 126 Philippians 1.4-6, 8-11 Luke 3.1-6

Today, in the first year of the presidency of Barack Obama, in the land that is arguably the successor to the Roman Empire as the most powerful nation in the world; not many people remember Tiberius Caesar. He is little more than a name in the history books, a subject to be studied by a chosen few academics, and perhaps the subject of a statue or two in the city of Rome. Today, when Benjamin Netanyahu is Prime Minister of the State of Israel for the second time and Mahmoud Abbas is in his fifth year as President of the Palestinian authority, both people governing portions of the land of Judea and Galilee; Pontius Pilate and Herod are remembered by Christians, but not because of what they accomplished as leaders, but because of the role they played in the death of Christ. Today, in the tenth year of the presidency of Bashar al-Assad of Syria, the successor in the land Philip the tetrarch of Ituraea and Trachonitis, Philip is only remembered as the brother of Herod the King. Historians have no record of the life of Lysanias, the tetrarch of Abilene. And in the fifth year of the pontificate of Benedict XVI, the 264th successor of Peter as Bishop of Rome, the religious leaders Annas and Caiaphas are only remembered with contempt by Christians for their role of the death of Christ, and they are little remembered at all by their fellow Jews.

Most of today’s world leaders, like their predecessors of old, will be nothing more than objects of historical inquiry just a couple generations after their deaths. As it will be for most of us. Some people may have buildings or schools named after them, ensuring at least some longevity to their name; most of us will be remembered fondly by those who know us, by family and friends. But in two thousand years? Even the history books and the family stories and the genealogies will be mostly forgotten. The Caesers and the Herods and the US Presidents and the leaders of the world’s nations may leave a certain legacy, but eventually time moves on, other leaders and other civilizations arrive and grow, and the past simply becomes the past.

So what’s the point? Why go through life trying to make a difference in the world or in our families if we’re pretty sure that, not too long in the future, our names will be forgotten? But there is one name whose influence and presence has not diminished in two thousand years; one person whose life story continues to be told in great detail and whose birth and death are marked by billions of people each year. Not even John the Baptist or the apostles or the Virgin Mary have had anywhere near the influence of this one man. But that’s because he is not just a man, he is God himself. Even if they don’t realize it or publicly acknowledge it, all the people rushing around shopping and going to concerts and planning family get-togethers are doing so because of the birth of this one man. The name of Jesus will never fade away, it will never be relegated to history books, because it is a living name. And as long as there are people who take his name and make it their own – as long as there are people who become Christian in name and in action – Jesus Christ will never become an object of the past. A life well lived and remembered is one in which we take on the name of Christ, the only lasting name there is, making it our own and becoming his hands, his feet, his voice, and his presence in the world. Without Christ and his birth and death and resurrection, each of us would be forgotten. But through Christ, in many different ways known to God alone, we will live forever.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Restless Silence

Jeremiah 33.14-16 Psalm 25 1 Thessalonians 3.12-4.2 Luke 21.25-28, 34-36

More than any other season during the church year, the season of Advent knows what the world is really like. Advent knows that our hearts are restless – that the anxieties and stresses of our daily lives make it hard for us to find true peace and joy. Advent acknowledges that our bodies are weak – that we so easily indulge in earthly pleasures because we think these things will make us happy or fulfilled. Advent recognizes that our souls are tired – that the quest for God and love and purpose in life is hard, sometimes too hard to continue. The season of Advent is filled with anxiety and restlessness, the very emotions that so often mark our daily journeys. Whether it’s broken relationships or failed dreams, financial challenges or physical ailments. Life is incomplete – something in us is not quite right – and our hearts are drowsy trying to figure everything out.

But it doesn’t stop there. Just as Advent recognizes the restlessness of our lives, it offers a remedy. This season gives us four weeks to prepare our hearts to welcome once more Christ, the Son of God. Four weeks to walk with John the Baptist and Mary and Elizabeth, who lived not for themselves, but only to point the way to the Messiah. Four weeks to learn once more how to love – not just the people around us, but first and foremost, God himself. Four weeks to take a step back from whatever it is that causes us anxiety and place our lives in the hands of God. If we enter into Advent with open hearts and minds and ears, then the prayers and Scripture and songs and events of these four weeks can transform our lives – they can help us make Christ the focus of all we are and all we do. These four weeks can shed light into the darkest places of our hearts – if only we will let Christ shine and get out of his way.

So how do we do this? How do we open our hearts and journey toward Christmas so that it is not just another holiday but a transforming experience? The first and most important step is silence. More than anything else during these four weeks, we are called to find and embrace silence. In silence, we learn the truth that we do not control our lives. In silence, we can surrender our goals, our dreams, and our desires to the God who made us. In silence, we can hear the voice of the Holy Spirit who gives us hope and guidance. In silence, we come to know ourselves as God knows us, and we see how much we are loved. In silence, we can have an intimate conversation with God, and the anxieties of this world can melt away. That’s what Advent is all about – making a place for God in our hearts. Waiting – watching – in silence, because it is only when we can shut out the noise of this world that we will be able to hear the still, small voice of God who casts away our anxieties and gives us peace.

Friday, November 27, 2009

One Holiday at a Time

Homily for Thanksgiving Day
Isaiah 63.7-9 1 Corinthians 1.3-9 Matthew 7.7-11

Last week, I had a chance to do a little shopping. Everywhere I went, the stores and the malls were decked out for Christmas: trees and wreaths were set up, glittering ribbons and ornaments filled the aisles, and Christmas music was playing over the sound systems. And in most places this had been going on for a few weeks already. But there was one exception. One department store in a mall where everything else was decorated for Christmas stood out. There were no festive trees or wreaths, no garland or holly. Instead, at each entrance to the store, there was a sign. The sign read: “Our halls will not be decked until November 27. Because we think it’s good to celebrate one holiday at a time. From our family to yours, Happy Thanksgiving.”

How easy it is to combine all holidays into one 8-week-long celebration, from the beginning of November until the beginning of January. Certainly there are things that all of these celebrations have in common – they’re built around family and friends, they often involve spending time together at a good meal, they help us celebrate what we have in life. But on the other hand, it is good to keep them separate. What we celebrate today is different than what we celebrate on December 25. On that day, a month from now, we will celebrate the birth of the Son of God, we will remember the shepherds and the magi and the gifts they brought to Jesus, and we will reflect on what we can give back to God. Today’s celebration is similar, but it is different. Today, we are thankful for the concrete blessings of our daily lives. Today, we are thankful for the spiritual and material gifts we have been given by God, family, friends, and country. Today, we are thankful for the opportunity to gather as a community for prayer. Today, we are thankful for the freedoms that we enjoy in this nation. Today, we are thankful for the faith that sustains us day by day. The food, the football games, the family gatherings may be important – but they are all secondary to the primary purpose of this particular holiday – simply to give thanks.

And then, taking one holiday at a time, after today’s celebrations are over, we can take our grateful hearts and prepare them to receive Christ, the Son of God. After we have given thanks for our blessings, we will be in a much better position to celebrate Christmas well, to welcome Christ into our hearts, and to make him known in the world. It all starts with simply being thankful, and that deserves a holiday all to itself.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The End of the World: Fear or Rejoicing?

Homily for the Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Daniel 12.1-3 Psalm 16 Hebrews 10.11-14, 18 Mark 13.24-32

December 21, 2012. On that date, just a little more than three years from now, the Long Count Mayan Calendar ends, according to some scholars. And since the ancient Mayan people have predicted so many world events so well, then these same scholars tell us that something cataclysmic will happen to the world on 12-21-12. There are different opinions of just what will happen. Some say that a meteor will hit the earth, others that there will be a massive solar flare from the sun that will burn our planet. Some look to the earth’s core erupting through volcanoes, others to global warming or a modern-day plague. But whatever it is, things will never be the same – many are even saying that this will be the end of the world. Or so it is in the movie 2012 that was released this weekend. So they say in the dozens of books on the topic at any local bookstore. And so it is on the thousands of websites that are counting down the days to the end of time, offering for sale all kinds of things that may help you survive the great tribulation. On December 21, 2012 – are you ready?

Of course, there is no credible scientific evidence that the world will end on December 21, 2012. And if you know anything about history, the end of the world has been predicted hundreds of times, often giving exact date for earthly destruction – none of which have come true. But for us who are Christian, Jesus is very clear on this issue. He talks openly about the end of time, about a great tribulation, about the earth passing away. It will happen. But when will it happen? In the words of Jesus himself, “of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13.32). No one will know. So what’s with many people’s obsession with predicting the end? Especially for Christians, many of whom seem to have forgotten these very clear words of Jesus?

It seems to me that it’s all about fear. There is a part of most people that is naturally afraid of what we don’t know, of what we can’t predict, especially when it comes to something as scary as the end of the world. We’re quite happy with things the way they are, thank you very much! Even if our lives aren’t perfect, most of us would rather live an imperfect existence than have it taken away from us in the blink of an eye. What exactly we’re afraid of might be different in each of us – some are afraid of losing what they have, some are afraid of the unknown, some are afraid that they have not had enough time to live a good and holy life, some are even afraid to meet God. That fear can easily transform itself into an obsession with trying to figure things out; even if we don’t believe that the world will end in 2012, we can easily become fascinated by the two simple words: what if …

But if we go back to Jesus, just like we always should, then we’ll find that the end of time is not something to fear. Because, when it does happen, the Son of Man will come in the clouds, he will gather all his people to him so that they might live with him forever. The end of time is not the end of existence; it is the beginning of our eternity, an eternity with God, a new heavens and a new earth that will far surpass in greatness everything we have ever known or experienced. It will be a day to rejoice, not a day to be afraid, because God is in charge, and with God there is only goodness, and hope, and love, and peace.

So will the world end in 2012? Jesus Christ is just as likely to return to earth then as he is today or on February 6, 2714. Of that day or hour, no one knows. But he will come, when we least expect it. He will come in glory, he will come in peace, he will come to make all things new. And it will be a day of great rejoicing. Are you ready for that?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

"Life is changed, not ended"

Homily for All Souls Day
Isaiah 25.6-9 Psalm 23 1 Corinthians 15.51-57 Luke 23.44-46, 50, 52-53; 24.1-6a

This past Sunday evening, I had the opportunity to concelebrate at a Memorial Mass at St. Paul’s Hermitage in Beech Grove, on the southeast side of Indianapolis. St. Paul’s is a retirement and health care facility operated by the Sisters of St. Benedict of Our Lady of Grace Monastery. My grandmother is currently a resident there, and other family members have lived there over the years. Following the Mass, everyone was invited to process to the cemetery on the grounds where the Benedictine Sisters from that monastery are buried. As we walked toward the cemetery, my mind was taken back to the last time I processed along the same path, to the day more than eight years ago when we accompanied the casket of my great-aunt, Sister Mary Edwin Wuertz, on the way to her burial. On that summer day in 2001, the procession to the cemetery was accompanied by a tradition of the Benedictine sisters. Along the way, one of the sisters chanted the name of each member of their community who had died and was buried in the cemetery we were walking toward. After each name was chanted, everyone sang the response: “Pray for us.” It was a community litany of the saints, invoking the prayers of the holy Benedictine women who had gone before us into eternal life. As the procession reached the cemetery itself, the name of the sister who had just died was chanted, and we all responded the same way: “Pray for us.” That same ritual accompanies every funeral procession at Our Lady of Grace Monastery.

Today, we do something very similar here in our own parish church. Over the past year, since last year’s All Souls Day, fifteen members of our parish have died and been buried from this community. In a few minutes, we will hear their names read out, and we will respond to each name, “We lift you up.” The names and the words may be different than those used during a procession to the Benedictine sisters’ cemetery. But the idea is the same. And for us gathered here in this church, it’s not just about those whose names are read in our parish litany. Many other family members and friends, both near and far, have died over the past year and in years gone by, and they are remembered as well. On All Souls Day, we remember more than anything else that we are all part of one communion of saints – that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have a connection – a communion – with those who have gone before us in death and await us in eternal life. As we pray in the funeral liturgy, in the moment of death, “life is changed, not ended” (Preface of Christian Burial I). Today is the only day during the church year when we have the option of hearing the account of both the death and resurrection of Christ in a single gospel reading. But, today especially, those two events must go together. Christ’s death has no meaning without his resurrection – his rising to new life destroyed the sting of death and opened for us the gates of heaven. And so it is for us – we cannot contemplate our own death or the death of a loved one without also trusting in the promise of resurrection. Life does not end at the moment of death, it is changed into a new and eternal life, a life that we hope to share one day with those who have gone before us. Today, we pray for these men and women who have passed from this life to the next, and we also ask them to pray for us; that we may be made worthy to share the promise of eternal life.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Stewardship of the Saints

Homily for All Saints Day, Year B
Revelation 7.2-4, 9-14 Psalm 24 1 John 3.1-3 Matthew 5.1-12a

St. Isidore of Madrid and his wife, St. Mary de la Cabeza, were farmers, diligently working the land where they lived as peasants in central Spain. They had one son who died very young, and had no children after him. Each day, before they went to the fields to work, Isidore and Mary would go to Mass at the parish church in their village. Their fellow farmers regularly accused them of neglecting their duties because of the time they spent in church. But this did not stop them; their faith came first, and their time spent in prayer guided everything else they did in their lives.

St. Rene Goupil studied medicine in Paris, France. When he heard that a group of Jesuit missionaries was traveling to the New World to minister among the Native Americans, he offered to accompany them in order to provide any necessary medical care along the way. He worked at a hospital in Quebec, Canada, and accompanied a Jesuit priest, Fr. Isaac Jogues, on his missionary journeys. Rene’s faith and medical skill went together; while ministering among the Hurons, he was once seen making a sign of the cross over a child’s head, a sign some of the Native Americans mistook for some kind of curse. He was captured, tortured, and eventually killed, becoming the first person martyred for the faith in North America.

St. Katharine Drexel was born in Philadelphia. Her father was a multimillionaire and the business partner of J.P. Morgan. Very early in life, Katharine and her two sisters were taught the importance of sharing what you have with others; several times a week, their mother would open up their kitchen to anyone who wanted to come to receive food and cooking supplies. When their father died in 1885, Katharine and her sisters inherited the family fortune, about $15 million dollars; today, the inheritance would be worth about $250 million. Six years later, Katherine began a missionary religious order to operate schools for African American and Native American children. Over a period of 60 years, she used more than $20 million dollars of the interest on her portion of the family fortune to open these schools and provide a Catholic education for children throughout the United States.

The example of these three saints can certainly inspire us. But today’s All Saints Day celebration is not just about them. Today, we remember and recognize all the nameless saints, the holy men and women of every age whose lives mirrored the life of Christ, whether they have officially been canonized by the Church or not. Today we remember St. Isidore the farmer and his wife St. Mary, who took time each day to go to Mass before work; but we also remember the elderly woman from our community who was confined to her home and could not attend Mass regularly but who spent her days praying the rosary and asking God’s blessings on her family, friends, and community. Today we remember St. Rene Goupil who used his skills as a doctor to minister as a missionary among the Hurons; but we also remember the retired teacher from our community who would volunteer his time each week to teach in his parish’s faith formation program. Today we remember St. Katharine Drexel and the gift she made of her inheritance in order to open schools throughout the country; but we also remember the married couple from our community who didn’t make a lot of money but still recognized that everything they had was pure gift and shared their treasure with others as generously as they could.

All Saints Day is about everyday Christians just as much as it is about the larger-than-life Christian witnesses who lived centuries ago. Because we are all called to be saints, we are all called to be holy, to make our lives a living expression of Jesus Christ, the one who came to serve, not to be served. We are all called to live the Beatitudes, to be poor in spirit, clean of heart, meek and merciful. For when we are like Christ, then we pray and hope that we will be made worthy to share the joy of the saints in heaven.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

As Christ was Anointed ...

Homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Jeremiah 31.7-9 Psalm 126 Hebrews 5.1-6 Mark 10.46-52

When you look at the new baptismal font in our church, there are two symbols that stand out right away – the water that fills the font and flows between the upper and lower fonts; and the cross, the shape of the font itself. But there is another symbol that is an important part of design of the font: oil. Oil is an ancient symbol of strength and has been used for thousands of years to anoint people who are set apart for a special purpose or task. Our new font includes a permanent place to keep the three Holy Oils that are used in the sacraments – the Sacred Chrism, the Oil of Catechumens and the Oil of the Infirm. This case for the oils is called an Ambry and stands here the church as a reminder of what these oils are used for and what they symbolize. And the most important of these three oils is the Sacred Chrism.

The Chrism oil is a special mixture of olive oil and perfumes blessed each year during Holy Week by the bishop of each diocese. When a baby or child is baptized, the priest or deacon takes oil – the Sacred Chrism – and puts that oil on the crown of the child’s head. As the oil is placed on the child’s head in baptism, a prayer is said asking that the person just baptized grow to become more like Christ, to share in the ministry of Christ who is priest, prophet and king. Even though the oil goes away, there is a seal – a sacramental, spiritual mark – that is left on a person’s soul at baptism. Once you are baptized, you are always baptized, and you always have the potential to share in the priesthood, prophecy, and kingship of Christ. Several years later in life, when people baptized as infants or children receive the sacrament of Confirmation, or when an adult is baptized or received into the Church, the same Chrism oil is used once again. This time, the oil is placed on the forehead as the bishop or priest says: “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Once again, even when the oil goes away, the seal stays – a person who has been confirmed always has the Holy Spirit living in them, forever. This same Sacred Chrism is also used in the sacrament of Holy Orders. When a priest is ordained, his hands are anointed with the Chrism. And when a bishop is ordained, the Chrism is poured over his head. In about six weeks, our own former pastor Fr. Paul Etienne will have his head anointed with Chrism as he is ordained a bishop and begins his ministry in the Diocese of Cheyenne, Wyoming.

In each of these sacraments – baptism, confirmation, and holy orders – each time the Sacred Chrism is used, something monumental happens – the person receiving the sacrament is never the same again. The oil itself is just a symbol – something you can see and touch and smell – but it is a symbol of a greater reality. In baptism, you become a child of God – always and forever. In confirmation, you receive the Holy Spirit – always and forever. And when he is ordained a priest or a bishop, a man becomes a priest forever, like Melchizedek, one of the great priest-kings of the Old Testament. We’re all still human – we sin, we make mistakes, we can even choose to turn completely away from God and ignore his presence in our lives – but the seal remains, our very nature as human beings has been marked and claimed by God, whether we are baptized Christians, confirmed Catholics, or ordained priests or bishops. The oil is a symbol of a seal that we receive from God that can never be taken away from us. And now, in a visible way, whenever we look at our new baptismal font and see the water running and the oils illuminated behind the water, it should remind us of who we are – baptized Christians, anointed to be like Jesus Christ and sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit. And there is nothing that can take that sacramental seal away from us.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

2009 Litany of Ministries

Homily for the Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Isaiah 53.10-11 Psalm 33 Hebrews 4.14-16 Mark 10.42-45

A Christian is first of all a person who wants to be like Christ. And one of the main ways we can be like Christ is to serve, to go through our lives making our decisions and spending our time not just for ourselves, but for others. It’s counter-cultural, to be sure; it requires us to step away from the selfishness and individualism that dominate our society. To serve others is to recognize Christ in them and also to recognize Christ in yourself; to live for others while allowing others to live for you. As a parish community, we strive to be a place where that service can happen. On the one side, our staff and our parish leadership work to provide opportunities for those who are in need – in need of education, prayer, comfort in times of grief, food in times of hunger, gospel inspiration in times of despair, social connections in times of loneliness. On the other hand, these same ministries are opportunities for our members to become like Christ in serving others, in being the voice, the hands, the arms, the feet, the heart of Christ to those around them. And there are many ways we help to facilitate this service.

Continuing a parish tradition, today I will read out a litany of the ministries and organization of our parish. As I do so, I invite anyone involved in that ministry either as a leader or as a participant to stand and to remain standing until I ask you to be seated.

We begin with the leadership groups of our parish:
Parish Staff
Pastoral Council
Finance Council

Christian Service Commission
Soup Kitchen
Ministry to the Sick
Health Ministry
Pro-Life Ministry
Catholics in Action
St. Vincent de Paul
Bereavement Team
Funeral Lunches
Resurrection Choir

Faith Formation Commission
Parish Mission
Parish Retreat
Adult Faith Formation
Faith First/Faith Formation for Children
Vacation Bible School
Children’s Liturgy of the Word
RCIA for Children
Baptism Preparation

Family and Parish Life Commission
Family Connections
Welcome Committee
Parish Feast Day/Summer Picnic
Divorce Recovery
Marriage Preparation Sponsor Couples
Prime Timers
Young Adult Ministry
Child Care
Prayer Line
Catholics Returning Home

School Commission
Commission for Education
School Faculty and Staff
Technology Committee
Marketing and Development Committee

Liturgical Commission
Liturgy Committee
Eucharistic Adoration/First Fridays
Altar Servers
Eucharistic Ministers
Art and Environment
Traditional Choir
Contemporary Choir
Youth Choir
Children’s Choir

Stewardship Commission
Called to Serve Stewardship Committee
Tent Event Committee and Volunteers
Building and Grounds
Parish Newsletter
Capital Campaign

Youth Commission
Youth Ministry Commission
Our Lady’s Activity Team
High School Youth Group
Confirmation Preparation
Youth Ministry Volunteers
Youth Ministry Athletic Committee
Youth Ministry Athletic Volunteers

Now that we have seen and heard the opportunities for service in our parish, only one question remains: how is God calling you to be his servant? And remember, it’s not about me; it’s not about you; it’s about God, seeing and serving God in other people.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

It's about God

Homily for the Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Wisdom 7.7-11 Psalm 90 Hebrews 4.12-13 Mark 10.17-30
Note: This weekend, our parish Finance Council Chairperson gave the annual Parish Financial Accountability Report. Because of the addition of this report to each of the weekend Masses, the homily was more brief than usual.

I am convinced that we try to do too much ourselves. Most people’s lives today are the busiest that human beings have ever been. Many of us are consumed with a myriad of different activities and events that fill our days. We have lost the art of rest, we have forgotten the value of slowing down and enjoying life as it comes to us. Instead, we run out to meet it, filling our lives with sports and shopping and festivals and meetings and work and visiting people and music and Facebook and texting and that favorite TV show that we just can’t miss. We do too much. Or, taken from another perspective, we do too much ourselves. We often think that it is our efforts, our commitment, our hard work that will result in happiness, or success, or achievement of some kind – whether for ourselves, our family, or our community. We work ourselves to death in order to provide for our families; we fill our children’s lives with more sports and activities than we can count in order to live through their success; we are always on the lookout for the latest gadget or technology that will show our friends that we are part of the in-crowd. Our lives are defined not only by what we have but by what we do; or what we do. So it was for the rich man who met Jesus on a journey and was so interested in what he could do to inherit eternal life. He kept the commandments, he followed God’s law. But he couldn’t part with his wealth; he couldn’t give up his possessions, those things that defined who he was. For us, it might not be our possessions that keep us from God; but there is always something – our talent, our attachment to friends, our never-ending work ethic, our winning personality. The greatest step that we can take toward eternal life is to acknowledge that nothing we have, nothing we do, nothing we are, will ever get us there. It is impossible for us to save ourselves. Those things that define our earthly lives have no bearing in the life to come. In the end, only one thing matters: God is in control, and for God, all things are possible. The best thing we can do to get closer to God is to seek the wisdom that helps us live detached from our possessions, our goals, our dreams and instead live for God alone. It’s not about me; it’s not about you – it’s about God.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Relieving Aloneness

Homily for the Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Genesis 2.18-24 Psalm 128 Hebrews 2.9-11 Mark 10.2-12

“It is not good for man to be alone.”

The people of Chicago were heartbroken on Friday, while the people of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, celebrated as it was announced that Rio would host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. In explaining their choice of Rio de Janeiro, the International Olympic Committee noted that these games would be the first Olympics to be held in South America. Part of the purpose of the Olympic Games is to bring fellowship, friendship, and sportsmanship together in different parts of the world – to help build a world-wide human community, to foster relationships among people from all parts of the world. It’s all about celebrating our common humanity – what brings us together as one people.

And we seem to do those kinds of things well – the big celebrations, the festivals, the contests that bring people together – from something as grand as the Olympic Games to our own parish Tent Event this weekend. We’re good at providing opportunities for people to come together as community. But not everyone feels part of a community, not everyone feels loved and included. Even with great community events, the world is still filled with loneliness. Loneliness persists when divorce tears a family apart. Loneliness persists when inner turmoil leads to despair. Loneliness persists when an unexpected pregnancy brings more questions than answers. Loneliness persists when a loved one’s life ends in a sudden, unexpected death. Even with so many opportunities to be with other people, the opportunities themselves do not always help. What can we do, where can we turn, when we feel completely and utterly alone?

Some of the time, we turn first to the people who are around us – to family and close friends, to those who are bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. These relationships can help to ease our loneliness – they provide companionship, a listening ear, an understanding heart. But a lot of times, this doesn’t work by itself. Our faith tells us that the only sure way to relieve loneliness is through a personal relationship and encounter with Jesus Christ. God emptied himself of everything that makes him God in order to become a man like us in all things but sin. He came to this earth in order to suffer and die, just like us – he became our brother. Jesus knows what it is like to be alone and abandoned – his disciples left him when he was most in need; he cried from the cross that he even felt abandoned by his heavenly father. Jesus can identify with our loneliness. And he promises never to leave us by ourselves. The one relationship that will never fail is our relationship with Christ. He is always here, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, for all of eternity. Turn to him, trust in him, and you will never feel alone. And then, if we can model all of our human relationships on our relationship with Christ – that is how we will find fulfillment. We are called to develop a marriage, a friendship, a parish, a community that treats everyone around them like Christ. Because, yes, there is loneliness in our world, in our lives, in this church today, in spite of the great community events that bring us together. And even though we know that Jesus Christ is always with us, it often takes a human face, a human voice, a human love to lead us to Christ.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

What did he say? We're supposed to do what?

Homily for the Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Numbers 11.25-29 Psalm 19 James 5.1-6 Mark 9.38-48

If we really took what Jesus says literally, then this church would be filled with people without hands, without feet, without eyes, and with millstones tied around their necks. Because the fact is that we all sin, we sin with our hands, stealing what belongs to others; we sin with our feet, walking away from an unjust situation without doing anything; we sin with our eyes, looking to see how we can use another person for our own pleasure; and we lead other people to sin by the way we live and act. Not one is immune from sin. And yet, we don’t take Jesus at his word, we don’t practice self-mutilation in order to get rid of those parts of our bodies that sin. And thank goodness we don’t. Because it really wouldn’t do any good. If we cut off a hand because it is causing us to sin, then we will very easily find another way to sin. Besides, it’s not really the foot or the hand or the eye that causes us to sin. Sin is a choice, a decision of the mind and the will; our limbs and organs do not act on their own. A hand does not cause us to steal; a deliberate choice of the will causes us to steal, our fallen human nature causes us to steal, our disordered priorities and habits cause us to steal. Self-mutilation is a pointless, ineffective solution to the problem of sin. So why does Jesus suggest it?

It seems to me that Jesus is trying to get us to get to the heart of what really causes sin and, on the other hand, what causes us to do good. Sin comes from us, not from God. The goal of a Christian life is to sin less and to become holy. In other words, the goal of a Christian life is to become less human and more like God. Of course, we’ll never get there in this life. But we can make progress. We can train ourselves through prayer, discipline, and hard work to become more and more open to God’s grace working in us. We can learn how to sin less and do more good, with God’s help. As soon as we rely too much on our own hands and eyes and feet to do the work of the gospel, then we will fail. It is only through God’s grace that we can be like Christ, it is not through any part of our fallen humanity.

So don’t cut off your hand or your foot or pluck out your eye – at least not literally. They may be instruments of sin, but they can also be instruments of grace. Instead, cut off your dependence on your humanity, your own effort, to do good. If we rely instead on God, he will use those same parts of our body to see injustice and work to end it, to serve others with our hands, our feet, and our hearts, to cooperate with him in building his kingdom.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Competing with Reality TV

Homily for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Wisdom 2.12, 17-20 Psalm 54 James 3.16-4.3 Mark 9.30-37

Over the past several years, there has been a definite trend in the kind of shows that occupy primetime television: you might call this the era of reality TV. And while there are some exceptions, most of reality TV boils down to one thing: competition. From Survivor to America’s Got Talent, from Dancing with the Stars to Iron Chef, from The Biggest Loser to America’s Next Top Model. We have become obsessed with watching regular, every-day people compete against one another on national television – and it’s even better when we get to vote for who we want to win. And who knows, someday we might be there – singing on American Idol or traveling across the world on The Amazing Race or in the boardroom on The Apprentice. And if we’re not there, in front of the cameras, at least we get to watch – we get to live vicariously through the televised contests of both celebrities and regular Americans. It’s entertainment at its best. And a lot of it is all about competition – deciding who is the greatest.

Some things never change. Even the disciples had that argument. They tried to hide it from Jesus, but he knew what their conversations were about, he knew that they were arguing among themselves over which one of them was the greatest, the favorite, the most likely to succeed. So what’s this all about? Why the obsession with putting ourselves up against one another? It seems that underneath all our comparing and competing is a need to be loved and accepted. Acceptance is so hard to come by that we feel like we need to look a certain way or be accomplished at a certain talent or win some kind of award, or else we’re just mediocre – and who wants to be mediocre? And then, if we can’t find success and acceptance by our own performance, we get so obsessed with watching other people perform that our lives become meaningful based on their success. How many people’s moods will change based on who wins the Governor’s Cup? Once again, it’s all about competition – who is the greatest.

Now this isn’t to say that competition is bad. But the danger of an obsession with competition is that when everyone is so determined to be first, then more often than not, God ends up being last. When we spend all our time either competing or watching other people compete, there is very little room left for God. Which is why Jesus tells the disciples, and us, that we should be like servants and children. If we really want to be great and first, then we must humble ourselves and become the last and the least. Healthy, fun competition is good – it makes us stronger, better people, it calls us to live up to high standards, it makes us determined and passionate. But in the end, the winners and losers are all the same – they are all loved equally by God, they are all given the same opportunities for grace and love, they are all offered the same gift of heaven. Some choose to accept God’s gifts, and others ignore him. It is that choice that divides the world. But in the competition for our souls, there is only one winner – God himself. The rest of us are simply his children, equally loved and equally redeemed by Christ. And I would much rather be a child of God than the next American Idol.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

God vs. Satan

Homily for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Isaiah 50.4c-9a Psalm 116 James 2.14-18 Mark 8.27-35

This weekend, we welcomed two Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary to our parish for a mission appeal. The sisters shared the work of their order in serving the poor and the aged. Because of the mission appeal, this week's homily took an abbreviated form.

In many ways, life is all one big struggle; a struggle between good and evil, between right and wrong, between God and Satan. Whether its on the worldwide stage or within our own country or in the depths of our individual souls, there is a constant struggle in our lives between two diametrically opposed sides. The natural question becomes: who will win? Will good prevail, or will the powers of evil conquer? In our personal lives, its often some of both – sometimes we make positive, loving, moral choices; and other times we succumb to pride, greed, lust, or any number of other temptations that lead us to evil. Even St. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, said things and did things that were both for God and against God, even to the point that today Jesus calls Peter Satan. But in the end, in the big picture, when human history has come to its completion and the world is at an end, who will win? Will the powers of good, the powers of God, prevail against pride and selfishness? Or will humanity have become so sinful and depraved that Satan will be able to claim an eternal victory? From an individual perspective, it sometimes seems like the sides are equally matched. But they’re not. Because the battle between good and evil that takes place in each of our own lives and in human history is a battle waged with imperfect people. But the ultimate battle between good and evil, between God and Satan, is a battle between the one, eternal God, creator of all, and one of God’s creatures who has lost his way. The ultimate battle between good and evil is really no contest at all – there can only be one outcome. Nothing – no one – not even Satan himself – is any match for the grace and goodness of God – the one being who is all-powerful, all-merciful, and all-loving. And so with Jesus we say, “Get behind us, Satan.” In the end, you will never win. You are no match for God almighty.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A Lonely Death

Homily for the Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Isaiah 35.4-7a Psalm 146 James 2.1-5 Mark 7.31-37

About a year and a half ago, I was asked to say some prayers at a funeral home for an elderly woman who had died. As I found out, this woman did not have any immediate family; she had been in a health-care facility for several years and had seemingly lost touch with any family or friends she had once had. And she was poor – not just poor, but destitute. Toward the end of her life, she had no money or possessions of her own and had been declared a ward of the state, with the government paying for the minimal amount of comfort and care during her dying days. Somewhere in her files at the health care facility, there was a mention that this woman was Catholic. So, when she died, the funeral home handling her arrangements called and asked if I would do a brief prayer service at the funeral home before her simple burial in an unmarked plot. I was told that there were some distant relatives they were trying to contact who might be there, plus some of the nurses who had cared for her, and her state appointed guardian – but probably only a few people. In the end, no one showed up for her funeral – it was just me and the funeral director. So I said the prayers, blessed her body, and entrusted her to God’s care – in all respects, a Christian burial. But it was heart wrenching to imagine that anyone’s life could come to this. No family, no relationships, no money. Just a priest and a funeral director saying some prayers.

Hopefully stories like this should make us uncomfortable – how can we as a society, as a church, as individuals let something like this happen? Where is the human dignity, the respect for each person’s life, created in the image of God? But it is all too real and all too common, and too often we ignore the reality of the poor, the lonely, and the abandoned. St. James gives us one scenario in today’s second reading. If two people walk into a church, one visibly wealthy and one visibly poor, we are likely to treat them very differently. It seems that we are often naturally attracted to money or possessions – almost like being drawn to wealth by a magnet. Those who are rich want to be richer, and those who are poor want to be rich. And we think that the way to get there is to surround ourselves with people and things that make us look wealthier than we are. Or at the least, we judge people based on how much money they appear to have. Where is the human dignity in this, the respect for each person’s life, created equally in the image of God?

To be poor does not just mean that you lack material goods. Being poor can also be a lack of basic human rights, a lack of love, a lack of faith, a lack of recognition by the society or the church. The US Bishops have put it very simply: “That so many people are poor in a nation as rich as ours is a social and moral scandal that we cannot ignore” (Economic Justice for All 16). And it’s not only far away, it’s people right here – in this very parish, in this very church today – people who struggle to eat, who struggle to pay their bills, who struggle to live a life worthy of human dignity. The gospel calls us to treat all people with love and respect, but to show a special love, a preferential option, for the poor. Catholic Charities USA has called for a campaign to reduce poverty in the United States by 50 percent by 2020. In the coming months we will talk about specific ways that we as a diocese and as a parish are working to spread hope and love in our communities. But it must all start in our hearts. It must start with an attitude that does not judge people based on appearance or possessions. It must start with a love that treats everyone the same. It must start with a faith that shows no partiality. Then, and only then, can we begin the hard work as individuals, as a church, and as a whole society to make sure that no one dies alone and destitute – with no family, no relationships, no money – with only a priest and a funeral director to send them forth into God’s kingdom. Or worse than that, with no one.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Listening for the Voice of Christ in the Health Care Debate

Homily for the Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Joshua 24.1-2a, 15-17, 18b Psalm 34 Ephesians 5.21-32 John 6.60-69

If you’re anything like me, then your head is starting to hurt and your heart is getting heavy. Not perhaps because of any physical or medical problems, but because of a debate, a debate that has a very real impact on each one of us – the reform of health care in this country. Throughout the summer, but especially over the past few weeks, the health care debate has been heated, argumentative, and passionate – and for good reason, because any change affecting something as basic as health care impacts us all. The challenge – and what has made my head ache and my heart get heavy – has been sorting out fact from fiction, truth from lies, and determining not only what is best for any individual, but what is necessary for the common good. Now, I’m not here today to analyze the bills before Congress or to put before you a church-sponsored health care plan. But what we can do, together, is look at Scripture, look at our tradition, and look at basic human rights to set out some basic ethical principles for health care reform. And it all starts with today’s gospel.

For several weeks, we have been hearing about the Bread of Life in the Sunday gospels – the food and drink that Christ gives us, his very Body and Blood given in the Eucharist. These are hard sayings, the disciples say today. But Jesus points out that everything he has spoken to them is Spirit and life. If we want to live in the Spirit, then we need to listen to the words of Jesus. If we want to have life, and have it to the full, then we need to listen to the words of Jesus. If we want to know the truth, then we need to listen to the words of Jesus. He is the source of everything we have – he is the first and most important advisor we should go to whenever we have questions. And then, as we receive the Eucharist, as Christ’s words become flesh for us, we are given the responsibility of making Christ present in the world – not just here at church, but in our homes, in our schools and businesses, in our hospitals and nursing homes, and even to the halls of Congress. To live as a Eucharistic people, we must first listen to the words of Jesus, words that are Spirit and life, and then we must work to make Christ present through our words and actions.

And so we listen. First and foremost in a discussion on health care reform is the inherent value and dignity of all human life. The words of Christ are clear – all life is precious, it is a gift, and all human life is created in the image and likeness of God, from the moment of conception to a natural death. An ethical health care plan will respect the dignity of human life. Practically, this means that health care reform must not include mandated coverage for abortion, euthanasia, or other medical procedures that fail to uphold the sanctity of human life. Likewise, no health care reform plan should require anyone to pay for or fund the destruction of human life. Taxpayers’ money must not be used to fund abortion.

But a respect for life also calls for a plan that provides health care coverage for all people – health care is not a privilege for the few but a basic human right for all. To uphold the dignity of human life, made in the image of God, we are compelled as a society to provide health care that is comprehensive and affordable and that does not discriminate based on people’s state of health, place of employment, or where they live. Within that plan, there must be a special concern for the poor. Jesus spent more time in his ministry among the poor and the sick than any other group of people. Providing for the health care needs of the poor must be a priority – in fact, the poor should be our first priority. But there’s more. Our basic Christian values also call us to stand up for conscience protection, to maintain a variety of options in the choice and delivery of health care, and to do all this while restraining costs and distributing the cost equitably, while not denying health care to those who cannot afford it. And all of this is grounded in a basic respect for human life – all human life – a life given its very existence by God himself.

Health care is not just another political or public policy issue – it is a matter of basic human rights – and these same principles apply not just to health care, but to our entire common life as human beings. As the debates continue to swirl around us, we are called as followers of Christ to listen to Christ’s voice, first of all – a voice that fills us with Spirit and life. Then, strengthened and nourished by the Eucharist, we can become Christ’s voice in the debate – we can become a voice that speaks up for those who cannot speak for themselves, a voice that puts human life and dignity at the forefront of the discussion, a voice that longs for peace and hope and love, a voice that points to the common good and not just what benefits an individual or a certain interest group, a voice of reason, a voice of conviction. In the cacophony of voices that overwhelm the media, there is only one voice that speaks the truth – we must never forget that. And to whom else could we go? Our Lord Jesus Christ alone has the words of eternal life. Listen to him.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

State of the Parish, Part II: Parish Life and Ministries

Homily for the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
1 Kings 19.4-8 Psalm 34 Ephesians 4.30-5.2 John 6.41-51

For several weeks here in August, the gospel is taken from what is called the “Bread of Life Discourse” of John’s Gospel. During each of these weeks, Jesus reminds us that he is the bread of life and that whoever eats this living bread will live forever. The Eucharist, the living bread and saving cup of Christ, is the most important thing we do as Christians; it is the most important part of our life as a parish. When we gather in this church as a community to celebrate the Eucharist, we become the Body of Christ for the world. And when we go forth from this church each week, we take Christ wherever we will go. But, of course, there is much more that we do as a parish – there are many more ways we live as the Body of Christ in the world. Last week, I shared an update on the facilities and capital construction projects that are coming up here in our parish. This week, in the second and final part of this year’s State of the Parish report, I’d like to give an update on the life and ministries of our parish that help us live out the Eucharist we celebrate.

Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish is currently made up of 1,162 families comprising approximately 3,364 individuals – that’s an increase of about 20 families over the past year. Over the past fiscal year, from July 1, 2008 through June 30, 2009, we celebrated 45 infant baptisms and 6 adults were either baptized or received into the full communion of the church. Forty-six young people celebrated their First Communion; 33 high schoolers received the sacrament of Confirmation. Nine couples got married here, and 17 people were buried from our parish. In looking at trends, our number of baptisms, first communions, and confirmations have remained steady. 2008 was an average year for weddings, but the current calendar year of 2009 has 19 weddings scheduled, the most since 1995. The only major change in statistics this past year was in funerals – we typically average between 25 and 30 funerals each year, so the 17 of this past year was a low number.

Of course, our parish community is much more than statistics. During this past year, we welcomed our first full-time Director of Liturgical Music Ministries who has helped to coordinate and expand our music ministries in the parish. We held the first annual Tent Event last fall, which was an astounding success, bringing over 900 people to an evening of fun and fellowship. In the spring, we launched the new Kingdom Builder’s Tuition Assistance program, which so far has brought new contributions of over $17,500 exclusively for tuition assistance for our school. We observed the Year of St. Paul in a variety of ways, including an ecumenical prayer service and monthly Soup and Soul Food gatherings. Our parish Youth Ministry hosted a 24-hour Food Fast for the entire deanery as well as many other programs. During last fall’s windstorm, our parish staff hosted a Light in the Dark dinner for parishioners and neighbors who were without power for several days. Our Faith Formation and Youth Ministry offices collaborated to host a Sports Life Camp at the beginning of the summer. In the area of Vocations, each week since last September, a family or individual has prayed with our Parish Vocations Cross; 17 young men were identified as possible candidates for the priesthood during a Called by Name program, and we hosted Archbishop Daniel at our parish for a vocations discernment evening. This past year was also the final implementation year for the Envision parish planning process. This three-year process for expanding and improving our parish ministries has especially focused on the areas of Adult Faith Formation, Youth Ministry, Young Adult Ministry, Child Care, and Family Connections. In the coming weeks, we will celebrate the many accomplishments of the Envision process and have a chance to read about the many parish ministries that have seen growth over the past three years. And there certainly has been much growth.

But now is also the time to look forward to the future of our parish life and ministries. This coming year, there is one exciting new ministry program that we will be starting in the area of faith formation. We currently have a variety of faith formation programs available in our parish, for people from preschool through adulthood. Most of these programs have been operating independently, and they have done so well. But beginning this fall, all of our parish faith formation programs will be part of one unified structure called One Church, One Faith. This total parish faith formation program includes Sacramental Preparation for Baptism, Reconciliation, Eucharist and Confirmation; our high school youth group; RCIA, the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults; a variety of adult faith formation programs, including the popular Soup and Soul Food series; and Faith First, our parish faith formation program for preschool through eighth grade. All One Church, One Faith programs will be held on Wednesday evenings – and no other parish activities, meetings, or athletic games or practices are scheduled for Wednesday evenings, so everyone can participate in the faith formation programs. And One Church, One Faith is for everyone – families whose children attend Catholic schools or public schools, young adults, married couples, single people, widows, divorced, young and old, and everywhere in between. Some of these programs will be held every Wednesday night – like Faith First, youth group, and RCIA. Other, large-group programs, will be held once a month. On the second Wednesday of every month, all of our Sacramental Preparation programs will meet – for parents of infants to be baptized, for second-graders and their parents for First Reconciliation and First Communion, and for high school students for Confirmation.

But the highlight of One Church, One Faith takes place on the first Wednesday of each month in what we are calling Week One. Each Week One will begin with a simple supper prepared by group within the parish. We will then divide into groups by age for a discussion or presentation on a common topic – so that elementary students might be in the school cafeteria doing a project, high school youth might be in the youth room with a panel discussion, and adults in Wagner Hall with a guest speaker – all on the same topic, one of the basic beliefs of our faith. At the end of the evening, everyone will gather together in the church for a closing prayer service. Child care will be available for young children, and each Week One program stands alone – you can come one month or every month throughout the school year.

What I find exciting about entire One Church, One Faith program – and especially Week One – is that it really shows what parish life and community is all about. We gather together as members of the Body of Christ – as a whole community – to share fellowship, to pray, and to grow in wisdom and knowledge. Because of the one faith we share, we are part of one Church – and this program helps us to live as members of that one Church. Booklets will be available in the coming weeks that explain the One Church, One Faith program and to give the schedule for the entire year – and I encourage you to make some aspect of our Wednesday night faith formation program a priority in your own lives in the coming year. Because it really is true: our parish is all about community, a community centered on Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life, who calls us to follow him. The more we pray together, the more we learn about our faith, the more we grow in grace through the sacraments – the more and more we will become vessels of the Body of Christ in the world.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

State of the Parish, Part I: Facilities and Capital Campaign Update

Homily for the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Exodus 16.2-4, 12-15 Psalm 78 Ephesians 4.17, 20-24 John 6.24-35

Each year, I like to give an update on the life and ministries of the parish – something of a State of the Parish report. Most of the time, the report falls around the time of our patronal feast day, the Feast of Our Lady of Perpetual Help on June 27. But because of our parish-sponsored pilgrimage this past summer, the State of the Parish report has been left until now. And because there are so many exciting things and major projects going on in our parish, I am going to divide the report into two parts. This week, I’d like to give you an update on the Legacy for our Mission Capital Campaign and our capital projects, and next week I plan to give an update on our parish ministries and organizations. It is important for all of us to know the plan and vision of our parish, how we live as members of the Body of Christ in this particular local community. The community is the heart of our spiritual lives, and it always has been – from the community of Israelites who grumbled and complained to Moses about their lack of food to the crowd gathered around Jesus who wanted to know what they could do to accomplish the works of God. More on how we can build a loving, faithful, and prayerful community will come in next week’s update on our parish ministries. But first, the more practical, tangible update on our parish facilities.

Two-and-a-half years ago, our launched our parish portion of the Legacy for Our Mission Capital Campaign. This campaign has been conducted in all 150 parishes of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. After deducting campaign expenses and one year’s worth of the United Catholic Appeal, all contributions to the campaign are split 50/50 between the parish and the Archdiocese. As of June 30, 2009, our parishioners have pledged $1,178,384 for the campaign and we had received $796,767 in cash toward those pledges, or 67% of the total pledged amount. Most pledges were scheduled to be paid over a three-year period, and we have one year left – so we are right on track. Here in our parish, we have had several smaller projects that have been funded by the Capital Campaign. Over the past two years, we have upgraded Wagner Hall, the church basement, and its kitchen; we have purchased new computers for the school and parish office; we have installed a new sound system here in church; the bells in our bell tower have been repaired; and, most recently, the skylights here in church that had been leaking for many years have been replaced. These projects have all been important and needed upgrades to our facilities. Now, however, we are ready to proceed with what has probably been the most anticipated construction project funded by the capital campaign.

In just a few weeks, construction will begin on the installation of a handicapped-accessible restroom on the main level of the church, upgrades to the church narthex or gathering area, and replacement of the interior and exterior doors at the three entrances to the church. Since our church was built in 1966, one of its main downfalls has been the lack of a restroom on this level or easy access to the restrooms in the basement. Right now, the only way to get to the restrooms is to go down the stairs off of the narthex or to use the outside ramp on the west side of the building. Having a restroom on this level is a convenience, certainly, but it is also a matter of hospitality and welcome. The new restroom will be completely handicapped-accessible and will be constructed in the area that is now the cry room. At the same time, we will be adding ventilation ducts to the narthex so that it can be air conditioned, which it is not now, and the doors between the narthex and the main part of the church will be replaced with glass doors. This will allow the entire narthex to be used by parents of young children if they need a place to walk with their child or take them when they are crying. But with these upgrades, people in the narthex will be able to participate more directly in the Mass. We will also be replacing all of the exterior doors at the three main entrances of the church. These doors are original to the building and have been in need of replacement for some time. The doors are not weather tight, so air and rain can come through them easily, and the locking mechanisms on many of the doors are difficult to use. They will be replaced with a similar style of door but ones which will help us save on heating and air-conditioning costs and will be more secure. But there's more.

While the construction in the narthex and at the entrances is being done, we will also be installing our new Baptismal Font here in the sanctuary. You may recall that almost a year ago we received an anonymous donation for the specific purpose on a new baptismal font. Our parishioner Ray Day designed the font, and our architect from Luckett and Farley took Ray’s design and made it build-able. The font will be located here in the sanctuary, in the same place as the current font, and will be in the shape of a cross made out of marble, some of which will come from pieces of the former communion rail. There will be an upper font for the baptism of infants and a lower font that can be used for the baptism of adults. There is also a designated area in the font to hold the Holy Oils that are used in various sacraments. Because of the size and shape of the font, we were going to need to rework some of the steps into the sanctuary and some of the flooring as well. So we decided to take this opportunity to redo the entire sanctuary floor. Some of the steps will be reconfigured, especially here by the ambo, to make walking around the ambo and font safer – you can already see the lines of the new steps marked on the floor. We will also be replacing the carpeting with a hardwood floor that will bring added durability and ease of care to the sanctuary as well as a more polished look to the area. The sanctuary upgrades and new flooring are being paid for by a portion of an estate that the parish received last year. Half of this estate was placed into our school endowment, and the rest was made available for future needs of the parish. Even after this project is completed, we will still have money left from this estate for future needs.

It is important to know that all of these projects are being funded by what we call designated gifts – the restroom, narthex, and doors are being paid for by the capital campaign, which asked for donations for these specific purposes. The baptismal font and sanctuary area are being paid for by a private donation and an estate. We are not using any of our regular operating funds or money from regular weekly collections for these projects – the money we receive on a weekly basis is used for our parish ministries and the regular, ongoing needs of our parish. Also, at a time when our economy is still trying to recover from a recession, we are blessed to be able to put money back into the economy, giving work to many people, including parishioners, whose businesses have been struggling in the recession. At the same time, through your generosity, we are able to award more need-based financial aid to school families this year than we ever have in the past, mainly through the success of the Kingdom Builders Tuition Assistance Program. Our St. Vincent de Paul Society, Soup Kitchens, and other Christian Service ministries continue to be active in reaching out to our community. And our ministries continue to flourish and to bring disciples to Christ. There is much good news to share about our parish ministries – but more on that next week.

In the church narthex and by the music area here at the front of the church, you can see drawings of both the baptismal font and the new restroom. Construction for both of these projects is scheduled to begin in the next few weeks. During the time of construction, we will continue to have our Saturday evening and Sunday morning Masses here in the church, but all Masses during the week and other events scheduled for the church or Wagner Hall during the week will be moved to other locations – a full list of locations will be in the bulletin and on the parish website.

Finally, one announcement that is not related to any of our facilities or capital projects. A few months ago, I announced that Fr. Matthew Joy Choorapanthiyil would be living here at our parish priests’ residence three days a week while he served as part-time chaplain at Providence High School. The rest of the week, Fr. Matthew would be the administrator of three parishes in Perry County, Indiana. Since that announcement was made, we have been blessed to have a new priest move into our Archdiocese from New Hampshire in order to be closer to family. Archbishop Daniel has assigned this new priest to the three parishes in Perry County. So that means that Fr. Matthew has been freed up to be full-time chaplain at Providence High School with residence here at OLPH full time as well. He will be at Providence Monday through Friday each week. On the weekends, he will be helping out with Masses in parts of our deanery where priests have multiple parishes and also with the Indian Catholic community in Louisville. He will also occasionally be available to fill in for Masses here when I am away. Fr. Matthew will be moving in next week, and we look forward to welcoming him to our parish community.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


Homily for the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
2 Kings 4.42-44 Psalm 145 Ephesians 4.1-6 John 6.1-15

I wonder what they did with all the leftovers. They had twelve wicker baskets – probably twelve large baskets – each full of pieces of the bread that started as only five loaves but was enough to feed a multitude. Everyone had plenty to eat – enough to fill them, the gospel says – and Jesus wanted to make sure that nothing was wasted. So he had the disciples gather the leftovers. But then what? What did they do with all the leftovers?

Of course, that’s not really the point. The point of the story in John’s gospel is that Jesus was able to work a miracle, to feed 5,000 men plus women and children with only five loaves and two fish. The point of the story is that Jesus want to feed us, to nourish us – not just physically, but spiritually, too. The point of the story is that God provides for us, not just the bare minimum, but in abundance – if we are really attentive to what God is giving us, we will find that we have more of his love and guidance than we could ever need. This story of the feeding of the multitude prepares us for the Eucharist, the bread and wine that become Christ’s Body and Blood, our regular spiritual nourishment that will never run out. But, still, there were leftovers. It may not be the main point of the story, but it makes you think – what happened to those twelve baskets of bread?

The gospel doesn’t answer that question – it really doesn’t even ask that question. The next thing we know, the disciples are on a boat on the Sea of Galilee, without Jesus, and suddenly Jesus comes walking across the water toward them. The crowd follows them to the other side of the sea, and Jesus spends the next day teaching them not about the bread and fish and physical hunger but about the Bread of Life and spiritual hunger. Perhaps the disciples divided up the leftovers among the crowd for them to take home. Maybe they kept them for themselves, as food for the next part of their own journey. Or maybe the disciples went off and found people who were not part of the crowd on the mountain and gave them the leftovers, maybe the poor or beggars in nearby towns. We don’t know; and it doesn’t really matter. But it should make us think.

What do we do with the abundance God gives us? When we are blessed with more food than we need, do we throw it away, or let it rot, or share it with family members, or take it to a local soup kitchen. When we are blessed with extra time on our hands, what do we do with it? Do we sit in front of the television, watching the latest round of reality TV, or do we exercise to take better care of our bodies or pray to take better care of our souls? When we are blessed with extra money, as hard as that may seem in the midst of a recession, but when we do find extra money in the bank do we spend it right away, or save it for something we’ve always wanted, or do we give part of it away so that people who aren’t as blessed can have a share in our blessings.

The abundance is there, the leftovers are there, if we look hard enough to find them. God has promised to give us everything we need, and to give it in abundance. But that abundance is not for us – it is meant to be shared, and in the sharing we become more like God. What do you do with your leftover blessings?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Theology of Vacation

Homily for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Jeremiah 23.1-6 Psalm 23 Ephesians 2.13-18 Mark 6.30-34

In case you haven’t noticed, our pews are a less crowded these days than they are normally. The collection basket is a little less full. There are often more visitors here with us than usual, while many of our regular parishioners are not. It is summer, which for many people means one thing: vacation time! For about another three weeks or so, we are in the midst of the biggest travel time of the year, when school is out and the sun is shining and the beach – or the lake – or the campground – or the long-distant family – is beckoning. Of course, these summer days are not the only time for vacations, but it is when we notice it the most. And, believe me, vacation is a good thing. So good, in fact, that Jesus himself encourages us to get away.

If you read the gospels carefully, you’ll notice that Jesus has a regular pattern of active ministry that is balanced with time spent away from the crowds, time spent either by himself or with his disciples. Most of the time, when Jesus goes away by himself, he goes away to pray, and that prayer, that communion with his heavenly Father, helps to guide his future ministry. But sometimes, the time away is not just for prayer, like in today’s gospel. Jesus tells his disciples, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while” (Mark 6.31). Jesus knew that sometimes, we just need to take time away simply to rest, to relax, to rejuvenate our bodies and spirits, to refresh our minds for the work and ministry that lies ahead. In the example of today’s gospel, this attempt to get away for a while to rest was not very successful, because the crowds followed Jesus, and they actually got to his destination before he did. But the lesson is there – spending time away to rest is a necessary part of the rhythm of life.

And that rhythm is really a balance that Jesus tries to teach us – a balance between active ministry and quiet contemplation, a balance between business and rest, a balance between work and leisure. Our time is valuable, but sometimes the most productive way to spend our time is by not being outwardly productive. Sometimes the best way to spend our time is in rest and relaxation, knowing that this time of rest will then lead us back into the active world and the work that awaits us. For me, my ideal vacation is one where there is no sightseeing, not a lot of travel, and not a packed daily agenda – instead, my ideal vacation is a time of quiet and rest, reading a good book, taking a slow, leisurely hike in the woods, away from civilization. We need that time away to reconnect with ourselves and with God. We need a chance to slowdown, to spend each minute deliberately, not rushing from one thing to the next. We need a place to leave tension and stress behind us. Vacation can be holy, even Jesus went on vacation. But he would be the first to tell us that vacation cannot be an end in itself – it must always lead us back into the active work of our daily lives.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Just Passing Through: Simplicity of Life

Homily for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Amos 7.12-15 Psalm 85 Ephesians 1.3-14 Mark 6.7-13

Several years ago, a young priest from St. Louis was going to graduate school in Washington, DC. At Christmas time and during the summers while he was in school, he would drive back to his home in St. Louis, always stopping at the half-way point in Zanesville, Ohio, to stay in the rectory of one of the local parishes for the night. An elderly priest was pastor of this parish, and he and the young priest developed a friendly relationship over the years. On one of his visits, the young priest noticed how plain and simple the elderly pastor’s room was – he had one room in the rectory, which combined for a bedroom and study, consisting of a single closet, one bookshelf, a desk, a crucifix, a few pictures, a reading chair, and a lamp. The young priest was amazed at how simple it all was, and he asked the elderly pastor about it. He responded, “Well, if I walk down to your room all you’ve got is your suitcase!” “Well sure,” the young priest said, “but, after all, I’m, just passing through.” The response from the pastor: “Aren’t we all?”*

Just passing through. As the Year of St. Paul came to a conclusion, Pope Benedict inaugurated a new year: the Year for Priests. During this coming year, my hope is to occasionally preach about different aspects of the priesthood. On the one hand, these reflections may help us all to understand better what the ordained priesthood is all about. But on the other hand, I think they will also offer some wisdom and inspiration for living the Christian life in general, as members of the priesthood of all the baptized. Because really, the qualities and virtues that mark the priesthood are also qualities and virtues that all Christians should aspire to. And that is especially true for this first reflection on simplicity of life.

It may surprise some people that, as a diocesan priest, I have never taken a vow of poverty. Diocesan priests are those who serve primarily in parishes under the direction of a bishop. We are different from priests in religious orders – like the Franciscans or Benedictines – who do take vows of poverty. Sometimes, priests from religious orders also staff parishes, like the Conventual Franciscans who staff some of our local parishes. Priests in most religious orders do not own anything themselves – even their clothes and their books are the property of the community as a whole, not the individual priest. But diocesan priests are different. Our unique calling is to live in the world, among the people we serve. We do not take a vow of poverty, which means that we can and do own things. We own our clothes, our cars, our books and computers. We have checking and savings accounts and credit cards, like anyone else. We get a regular salary from the parish, with benefits including health insurance and mileage reimbursement – although it is a relatively modest salary, especially when compared to other professionals and even clergy in other denominations. And we pay income tax, like anyone else. When we take vacations, we pay for our own vacations out of our own money. When we want a new car, we buy that car with our own money. The parish we live in does provide housing and meals, but other than that we priests manage a personal budget like anyone else. And we also participate in parish stewardship just like we ask our parishioners to – a full ten percent of my personal income goes back to the parish, and I often give to other charities and religious organizations as well. We’re comfortable, we have everything we need, but we are certainly not wealthy. And money can consume a priest just like anyone else. There is no vow of poverty for us diocesan priests, but there is a promise: it’s called simplicity of life.

When priests are ordained, they promise to unite their lives “more closely every day to Christ the High Priest” (Rite of Ordination of a Priest 124). In other words, priests promise to be like Jesus Christ as much as possible. Priests look to Jesus as their model, the one who was born in a stable, who had no place to lay his head, who did not have a regular home and whose only possession was his tunic. Jesus instructed his disciple to live the same way he did when he sent them out – he told them to take nothing for the journey, no food, no sack, no money – just a tunic, sandals, and a walking stick. Now that is simplicity of life. Jesus recognized that too many possessions can divert our attention away from God. Too luxurious a lifestyle can make us think that material things can bring us happiness. But you don’t have to be rich to let your possessions rule you: being poor in material goods but consumed with a desire for riches is just as dangerous. Simplicity of life reminds us that we must trust in God’s providence to give us everything we need. Simplicity of life helps us to be in solidarity with the poor, locally and around the world. Simplicity of life teaches us that nothing we own will last forever – only God and God’s love is eternal. To be like Christ is to recognize that our possessions do not define us. To be like Christ is to live within our means, not building up debt and relying on credit. To be like Christ is to share what we have with others, to not be overly attached to the money or possessions we do have, whether great or small. To be like Christ is to live as if we are always just passing through. It means different things for different people, and not all of us do it well all the time. But if we want to be like Christ, then simplicity of life must be our goal. And it’s not just for priests; it is an example that all Christians are called to follow.

* As recorded in Timothy M. Dolan, Priests for the Third Millennium, Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Press, 2000, p. 185.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Silent Stone in St. Peter's Square

Homily for the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Ezekiel 2.2-5 Psalm 123 2 Corinthians 12.7-10 Mark 6.1-6

For many years, there was a single red paving stone among the thousands of gray stones in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican. No other markers, no indication that this red stone meant anything – for all anyone knew, it had been a mistake, just one stone of the wrong color that got mixed in accidentally. Today, that red stone is no longer there, but it has been replaced with a slightly larger piece of white marble with a coat of arms and a date inscribed on it: May 13, 1981. No other explanation, and still out of place – just one piece of white marble in a sea of dark gray paving stones. But if you would go to the internet or to history books and would look up the date on the stone, everything would suddenly make sense. Because it was on May 13, 1981, that Pope John Paul II was shot as he was moving through St. Peter’s Square, an assassination attempt that nearly took his life, but which he survived. Pope John Paul himself had the plain red stone placed at the exact spot in the square where he was shot – an almost invisible marker to the rest of the world, but full of meaning for the Holy Father himself. Now, after his death, Pope Benedict has had the red stone replaced with the larger piece of white marble that has Pope John Paul’s coat of arms and the date of the shooting. Still, no indication of why it is there, no explanation of why that spot or that date is important. Just a silent witness, a simple reminder of a dark moment in the history of the papacy.

The great writer Ernest Hemingway once said, “Life breaks all of us, but some of us are strong in the broken places.” Most of us can point to something in our own life story that has tried to break us, to weaken us, to tear us down and make us lose hope. For some, it is the sudden, shocking loss of a loved one to violence, or disease, or suicide. For some, it might be a diagnosis of cancer or a massive heart attack or the effects of a debilitating chronic disease. It might be the day a marriage fell apart or the day a child left to fight in a war or the day an employer told you that your job was being eliminated. Or maybe it’s not one particular thing, but more a general feeling of sorrow or depression or lack of purpose. Somehow, in some way, the circumstances of the world do their best to break us down, to take away the comfort and security and love that we think we know so well. Life breaks all of us, Hemingway said. It’s like the thorn in the flesh that St. Paul speaks of, the weakness that follows him throughout his life.

But both Hemingway and Paul saw something more in the brokenness, in the weakness that we face – they were both convinced that our weakness can make us strong, that our suffering can make us a better person. But how? How can weakness be a good thing? For Paul, the answer was straightforward – when we are broken down, when we are so weak that we can’t do anything on our own, we are forced to rely on God. When the depression or pain or loneliness takes over our lives, when there is no strength left in us, the only place we can find strength is in the love of Christ – and if we open ourselves to that love, then we will discover that God’s grace, God’s presence in our weakness will make us strong. The only way to be “strong in the broken places” is to surrender to God, to let God be our life, to let God be our hope, to let God be our strength.

Remember the stone in St. Peter’s Square: at first a blank red stone and now a white stone with a coat of arms and a date; that single stone speaks volumes in its silent witness. Because we know what happened after that day in 1981; we know that Pope John Paul did not become content in his brokenness but used that experience to become stronger. That single stone in the square marks the spot where the brokenness of one man was turned into strength, where the weakness of a gunshot wound was turned into love and forgiveness. Not by anything that a human being did, but by God himself. And the really good news is that it is not just for that one man who was shot in the Square – God will do the same thing for each of us, he will turn our brokenness into strength.