Sunday, November 28, 2010

No Ordinary People

Homily for the First Sunday of Advent, Year A
Isaiah 2.1-5 Psalm 122 Romans 13.11-14 Matthew 24.37-44

Click here to listen to or download an audio (mp3) version of this homily.

We Christians are pretty ordinary people. We have regular jobs and families, we work hard to make ends meet, we struggle with temptations and failings, but we always try to be the best person we can be. It’s a pretty ordinary existence, not much different from anyone else we might encounter along the way. But, on the other hand, there is something about who we are as Christians that is not ordinary. We are different, or at least we should be.

Take Aurelius, for example. Aurelius was a pretty normal person, by the world’s standards. His mother was a Christian, but his father didn’t really have anything to do with God or church. Aurelius’ mom wanted her children to have the same faith that she did, but it really wasn’t that important to them. Aurelius, himself, didn’t have much time for God. He was busy with school, where he was a good student, and with his friends – and he had a lot of friends. He and his friends liked to have a good time, and they enjoyed what you might call the things of the world. By age 18, Aurelius had fathered a child outside of marriage. He loved the child, but he wasn’t really sure whether he loved the child’s mother. But they moved in together and lived together for many years, although they never got married. Eventually, Aurelius moved to a bigger city where he could get a job that paid more money and came with more prestige. He was living a pretty ordinary life by the world’s standards – it was the kind of life that everyone around him wanted to have – he wasn’t tied down by marriage, but he had the benefits of a regular companion; he had a secure job that gave him the money and power he needed to enjoy life; and with no religious faith, he wasn’t held back by things like prayer, morality, and the prospect of eternity. He was living the good life. Or so he thought.

Over the course of several months, Aurelius started to get restless with his life. He had everything he needed, he was living the way society said we should live, but something wasn’t right. Something was missing. One afternoon, while sitting in a garden reading, he heard a voice say: “Take up and read.” He wasn’t sure if the voice was just inside his head, or maybe from some kids who were playing in the yard next door. But there was a Bible sitting on the table next to him, so he picked it up, opened it to a random page, and starting reading. This is what he read: “Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and lust, not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh” (Romans 13.13-14).

That moment changed his life. Over a period of time, Aurelius learned more about this Jesus and what it meant to become like him. He learned that Christians are ordinary people who are not content to let the world control their lives, but instead they let Christ be in control. He learned that the emptiness in his heart came from the fact that he was making decisions based on what satisfied his own desires – he didn’t really think about anyone else. And he learned that no matter what his past life had been like, Jesus could transform his heart and give him the grace and strength to become a Christian – not just an ordinary human being, but an extraordinary child of God. And that’s exactly what happened.

By the way, this is a real story. Aurelius was born in northern Africa in the middle of the fourth century and after his conversion to Christianity became a bishop and one of the most important theologians the Church has ever known. His last name was Augustinus. We know him better as St. Augustine. Anyone can be a saint. But to do that, we have to change. We can’t be content with the ordinary. We can’t be content with the world as it is. We must “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.” This Advent, may our lives truly be changed.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Thanksgiving Help

Homily for Thanksgiving Day
1 Kings 8.55-61 Ephesians 1.3-14 Matthew 11.25-30

Hopefully, by now, everyone knows what they’re going to be doing today. Whether you’re in charge of the turkey – which might already be in the oven – or simply baking a pumpkin pie; whether you’re playing host for your family or you’re the person everyone agrees doesn’t need to cook anything, because they know from past experience that your efforts at cooking haven’t been that successful. Or you might even have that great blessing of not being responsible for anything other than eating and watching some football. At least, by now, you should have a pretty good idea of what Thanksgiving Day is going to look like. But in case something goes wrong – if the turkey gets burned or the mashed potatoes get runny – if you realize you forgot to buy an essential ingredient or even if the cable TV goes haywire – don’t worry. It’s never been easier to get help and advice. Because, of course, there’s an app for that. Just go to the Food Network app on your smart-phone to fix your culinary disaster. Or check Facebook for updates on how to roast your Butterball Turkey. Or call the 800-number for the Crisco Pie Hotline, or just check their website. But whatever you need this Thanksgiving, it’s just a click away. Solutions for our Thanksgiving problems are right at our fingertips. And with the technology that is all around us, getting that help has never been easier.

But at the end of the day, when the leftovers are in the fridge and everyone has gone home, when we finally realize that, yes, we will be hungry again and we will need to eat tomorrow, when our eyes and fingers are tired of all the technology the world has to offer, when we find life burdensome and we need some real advice and some lasting guidance, there is only one place to turn. Here, in this church, we start our day of thanks in the presence of God. And at the end of the day, each day of our lives, we turn to him again. Because we know that it is God alone who will fill us and guide us and give us rest. When we labor and are burdened, we come to our Lord. When we need direction in our lives, we seek God’s wisdom. When we realize how blessed we are, we give God thanks. There’s not an app for that – and it really isn’t any easier today than it was for our ancestors in the faith – but it is what we do as Christians. We turn to God. We ask for his help. And we give him thanks. It’s that simple.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

New Church Year Resolutions

Homily for Christ the King, Year C
2 Samuel 5.1-3 Psalm 122 Colossians 1.12-20 Luke 23.35-43

Click here to listen to or download an audio (mp3) file of this homily.

Think for a moment about the kind of Christian person you want to be … maybe you want prayer to be the most important part of your day, or to be a loving and kind person to everyone around you, or to be generous with what you have, sharing with people who are in need. What kind of Christian person do you want to be? What are some goals for your life as a follower of Jesus Christ? Think about that … And now the really important question – how are you doing in becoming that person? I imagine for most of us that the ideal is a far cry from the reality. We have some work to do to become the Christian we are called to be.

Today’s Feast of Christ the King is an ending – it’s the last Sunday of the church year, before beginning again next weekend with the First Sunday of Advent. It’s sort of like a church version of New Year’s Eve, reflecting back on the past year and looking forward with hope to the year to come. And today/tonight we might even take a cue from what many people do at the end of the calendar year – now is a good time to put our life in order, even to make resolutions about how we can spend the coming year becoming better people, better Christians, better human beings. As busy as the next month will be with shopping and decorating, family get-togethers and concerts, baking cookies and going to Christmas parties – as busy as the next month is going to be, we will enjoy it the most and will make it the most fruitful time it can be by taking some time for ourselves, taking some time with God, and really preparing our hearts to welcome Christ at Christmas. This week between Christ the King and the First Sunday of Advent might even be a time to make some resolutions for our spiritual life for the new church year. And St. Paul can help guide us.

In writing to the Colossians, St. Paul reminds us that Jesus Christ should always come first in our lives – he created everything that exists, he gives us life and redemption, he holds everything together in one body. As we begin a new church year, we can look at our lives, even our daily schedule, to see how much we acknowledge the fact that Christ is our King, that our relationship with him comes first in our lives. What is our prayer life like? Is Mass on Sunday or Saturday evening the first priority when we decide what we’re going to do for the weekend? And do we participate in Mass fully and actively? Then, on a different level, we can look at how well our words and actions reflect the life of Christ. Are we generous with what God has given us? Do we avoid gossip and lies and slander? Do we try to bring unity and peace, rather than division and conflict? Are we people of love and kindness and compassion, rather than people of hatred and bitterness? Do we treat each person we meet as if it were Jesus himself? Do we take care of our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit, eating and drinking in moderation with appropriate exercise and physical activity? Do we help lead other people to God?

It sounds sort of like an examination of conscience, and I guess it is. It’s an opportunity to make New Church Year Resolutions. Because Christ is among us – as our Lord and King – but our hearts are not always ready to welcome him, and our lives do not always lead other people to follow him. So think about it. Think about what you can do in the coming days and weeks and months to become the Christian person you want to be – the Christian person God has called you to be – so that at the end of our lives we may be welcomed into the joys of God’s kingdom.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Bishops and Social Networking

There's no homily on here this week because this past weekend we had a parishioner survey at all the Masses during the time of the homily. The survey, conducted by CARA (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University), is an important part of a Pastoral Planning process that we are now going through that will help us identify 3-5 goals for our ministry and parish life in the next few years.

One part of this survey asked parishioners about the effectiveness of various methods of communicating - from word of mouth to the Sunday bulletin to our website to Facebook (it might even be the first Catholic survey to ask specifically about parishioners' use of Facebook!). Our parish leadership is conscious of the changing way people communicate these days, and we want to figure out how we as a parish can best connect with people. Along those lines, the US Catholic Bishops meeting this week in Baltimore heard a report yesterday about social media and its importance in ministry. Below is the full text of the address, given by Bishop Ronald Herzog of Alexandria, Louisiana (thanks to the Whispers in the Loggia blog for posting the text).

Social media: Friend or Foe, Google or Hornswoggle?

Thank you for this time today.

I often hear people, both in my work and in my circle of friends, who dismiss social media as frivolous and shallow. Who can blame them?


Status updates.


The very words used by the practitioners seem to beg for ridicule. Their light-hearted twisting of the language suggests that these are the latest fad in a culture that picks up and drops fads quicker than the time it takes me to figure out my cell phone bill.

I am here today to suggest that you should not allow yourselves to be fooled by its appearance. Social media is proving itself to be a force with which to be reckoned. If not, the church may be facing as great a challenge as that of the Protestant Reformation.

That sounds like more hyperbole, doesn’t it? But the numbers are compelling.

There are more than 500 million active users on Facebook. If it were a nation, only India and China would have more citizens. The American Red Cross reported that it raised more than $5 million dollars, $10 at a time, through a text messaging service. One out of eight MARRIED couples in the United States say they met through social media. It took 13 years for television to reach 50 million users. After the iPod was introduced, it took only nine months for 1 billion applications to be downloaded.

Pope Benedict XVI calls the world of social media a Digital Continent, with natives, immigrants, and even missionaries. He encourages Catholics, especially our priests, to approach this culture of 140 characters and virtual friendships as a great opportunity for evangelization. We are asked to respect the culture of these Twitterers and Facebookers, and to engage on their terms to bring Christ into their “brave new world.”

The opportunities can be incredible. As I stated previously, the participation in this new form of media is staggering. Media ecologists and other communication experts cite several reasons for the phenomenal growth:
  • a low threshold of investment, both in user knowledge and finances, especially given its reach
  • the opportunity for immediate dialogue and conversation that transcends geographical and other physical barriers
  • and the speed in universal adaption.

Let me give you one example. The USCCB started a community on Facebook last August. There are now 25,000 ‘fans’ associated with that community. Every day, USCCB staff provides at least four items of information to those 25,000 people: the daily Scripture readings, news releases, links to information on our marriage and vocation websites, and other information. Furthermore, if those 25,000 are like the average profile of a Facebook user, they have 130 friends, or contacts, on Facebook. With one click they can share the information they receive from USCCB. If only 10 percent of the USCCB fans share what they receive from USCCB, we are reaching 325,000 people. Multiple times a day. All it costs us is staff time.

And these are not just young people. Almost half of Americans classified as the baby boomers – born between 1947 and 1964 – have a Facebook account. Social media may have started with the younger generation, but it is now a very useful tool to reach Catholics of all ages.

Although social media has been around for less than 10 years, it doesn’t have the makings of a fad. We’re being told that it is causing as fundamental a shift in communication patterns and behavior as the printing press did 500 years ago. And I don’t think I have to remind you of what happened when the Catholic Church was slow to adapt to that new technology. By the time we decided to seriously promote that common folk should read the Bible, the Protestant Reformation was well underway.

Because it is so different from mass media and mass communication, social media is creating a new culture on this Digital Continent. Young people use it as their first point of reference. In other words, they’re not even going to their email to get information. The news, entertainment, their friends – are all coming to them through their mobile devices and through their social networks. The implications of that for a church which is struggling to get those same young people to enter our churches on Sunday are staggering. If the church is not on their mobile device, it doesn’t exist. The Church does not have to change its teachings to reach young people, but we must deliver it to them in a new way.

When the Church does attempt to evangelize the Digital Continent, it has some serious challenges to overcome. Most of us don’t understand the culture.

One of the greatest challenges of this culture to the Catholic Church is its egalitarianism. Anyone can create a blog; everyone’s opinion is valid. And if a question or contradiction is posted, the digital natives expect a response and something resembling a conversation. We can choose not to enter into that cultural mindset, but we do so at great peril to the Church’s credibility and approachability in the minds of the natives, those who are growing up in this new culture. This is a new form of pastoral ministry. It may not be the platform we were seeking, but it is an opportunity of such magnitude that we should consider carefully the consequences of disregarding it.

Secondly, the Church cannot abandon legacy communication outlets while it invests in the new media. Although the baby boomers may be going to Facebook to stay in contact with their grandchildren, they still use newspapers, radio, television and books. Those media have attributes and strengths that social media does not. Not to mention the fact that most financial donors to the Church still rely on these legacy media. So the Church needs to continue investing in those efforts, while also investing in social media.

Finally, if as bishops you acknowledge that social media is not the latest fad, but a paradigm shift, please accept the fact that your staffs – and perhaps you as well – will need training and direction. In the past, the church would often build new parish structures, knowing that people would recognize the church architecture and start showing up. On the Digital Continent, “if you build it, they will come” does not hold true. It takes careful strategizing and planning to make social media an effective and efficient communication tool, not only for your communications department, but for all of the church’s ministries. We digital immigrants need lessons on the digital culture, just as we expect missionaries to learn the cultures of the people they are evangelizing. We have to be enculturated. It’s more than just learning how to create a Facebook account. It’s learning how to think, live and embrace life on the Digital Continent.

This past month the USCCB Communications Department, at the direction of the Communication Committee, conducted a survey of diocesan communication directors which focused on their use of social media and their needs.

An executive summary is available to you on the table outside, and it is posted on the password-protected website for the bishops. The survey showed that your staffs have a strong desire to engage new media – only two percent of the responders say that they personally avoid using social media. But it came across loud and clear that they want help in engaging. They want to be enculturated in this missionary world.

I hope you are relieved to learn that, when asked what they needed to use social media more effectively, they didn’t say more money. They are looking for staff who are trained – or can be trained – in the use of social media, however.

You may also be happy to hear that they don’t need you to learn how to use Twitter or Facebook. They do need a vision and leadership from you. Is this something that is important to you? Is it a tool that they should be using to reach young people and others who are unchurched? Do you want them to be developing ways to integrate social media into the diocese’s communication and evangelization planning? What about fundraising? How much attention should they be giving social media and how do you want to use it?

Depending upon the skills and experience of your staff, they are also seeking support from you as they work in social media. This could be translated as any or all of the following: your affirmation of their efforts, including allowing discussion/dissension/dialogue on your diocese’s social media; financial resources for training; and the permission or direction to devote a specific number of hours of their work week to social media. That final item could mean a discussion with them about what do they not do to make room for that time in their day.

When the Communication Committee decided to ask for this time on the agenda, we made it clear to the USCCB Communications Department staff that the presentation should include not only why it was important for bishops to take social media seriously, but also what USCCB would provide to help them and their staffs. The survey provided some direction for us in that regard, but not as much as I had hoped. When asked to identify the single most important issue facing them in the area of social media, no clear answer emerged. The two most common answers were the need for more staffing and resources and the need to identify how to most effectively use social media.

When they were given a list of seven possible resources and asked to rate them as being most useful to their diocesan efforts, nearly six out of ten chose all seven resources as useful or very useful.

What we have been able to discern from these responses is that there is a realization that, even though many dioceses may be beginning to use social media, the church’s communication professionals are not devoting the time or expertise that it deserves.

By committing to ongoing analysis and research, continued compilation of best practices and guidelines, and education and training opportunities, the USCCB Communications Department intends to assist their colleagues and to support your ministry as bishops on the Digital Continent. They welcome the challenge and hope that we can one day have all of you as our friends on the USCCB Facebook page.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Talking About Death

Homily for the Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
2 Maccabees 7.1-2, 9-14 Psalm 17 2 Thessalonians 2.16-3.5 Luke 20.27-38

Click here to listen to or download an audio (mp3) version of this homily.

It’s hard to talk about death. Most of us are pretty good about ignoring conversations that get anywhere close to the possibility of talking about death, either our own or another person’s. Even at funeral home visitations, most people talk about the life of the deceased, not their death. Funerals themselves are often called celebrations of life. And, of course, for us Christians, any talk of death must be accompanied by talk of resurrection, the new and eternal life that Christ won for us. We cannot talk about death without talking about resurrection. But, a lot of the time, we talk about resurrection without really talking about death. Because it’s hard to talk about death, for all of us.

Today’s scriptures give us two different approaches to this kind of talk. The Maccabees brothers in the first reading very openly embrace their impending death, because they see their death as a martyrdom, dying for their faith, a witness to the love of God. As one brother said, “We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.” These brothers saw death as a door to resurrection, and they were not afraid to pass through that door. They could talk about death openly because they had courage and hope – courage to face suffering and the unknown moment of dying, and hope that God would be with them through it all, leading them to eternal life. But the Sadducees in the gospel reading, approached things differently. They didn’t believe in the resurrection and tried to trick Jesus into denying it as well. They were so consumed about trying to get Jesus to talk about the details of eternal life that they really ignored even talking about death. Not believing in the resurrection makes it even harder to talk about death. It is hard to talk about death; but it is a reality we will all face, sooner or later, and it is good to be able to have a conversation every once in a while about how we are approaching our own moment of dying.

Now, this isn’t meant to be morbid, or to lead us to always have death on our minds. But as Christians, we can have this conversation informed by Scripture and our faith, so that we can get to the point of having the same courage and hope as the Maccabees brothers. This week we are especially mindful of the 58 men, women, and children who were killed at a Catholic church in Baghdad last Sunday as they were attending Mass. None of these people entered the church that day expecting it to be the day of their death. But we pray that they had courage and hope in the face of death, a courage and hope informed by their faith. Could we say the same for ourselves, here, today?

At the end of today’s gospel, Jesus says that God “is not God of the dead, but of the living.” Our faith tells us that death is a reality, but that it is not permanent; it is a transition. Our faith tells us that we must live each day as if it were our last here on earth, ready for that moment of death at any time. Our faith tells us that our task here on earth is to help other people do the same thing, to come to know the love of God that will give them peace and comfort at the moment of death, because they have hope in the resurrection.

And so the conversation comes around to this question: are you ready to die? Or, to put it another way, are you ready for eternal life? If we recognize what death is, then we can approach it with courage and hope, because we know that it is not the end. And, who knows, we might even be able to talk about death, even our own death, because we know that it is a glorious moment of transition from one way of living to another. And not even death will separate us from the love of God.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

All Saints and All Souls Homilies

Click on the links below to listen to or download audio (mp3) files of two homilies preached this week, for All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2).

All Saints Day Homily - I want to be a saint!

All Souls Day Homily - The Light of Resurrection